John Julius Norwich completes his trilogy of the Byzantine Empire with “Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.” As usual, he spins a fascinating yarn. However this book is ultimately a tragic account of the empire’s inevitable decline. But even though the empire stumbled from disaster to disaster, it did not go without a good fight. During these long years, there were even a few moments of revival. At the final siege of Constantinople, Byzantium made its last stand against overwhelming odds before disappearing from the world forever.
Norwich is in his element when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean. He lectures regularly and presents various historical documentaries on the region. Furthermore, he is also the author of “A History of Venice” and “Mount Athos.” As such, he has a wealth of experience about the region which he kindly shares with us in the last book of his trilogy.
In “Byzantium: The Decline and Fall,” Norwich covers a period of three hundred years. He begins with the ascension of Alexius and ends with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The abundance of material for this period allows Norwich to display his fine eye for detail and selection. The result is a memorable account of the empire’s final days. In this book, Norwich achieves his twin aims of detail and excitement.
How Alexius Comnenus struggled to save the Byzantine Empire
The story opens with the impact of Manzikert and the disastrous consequences that followed due to the weakness of the Byzantine emperors. The empire faced attacks on all sides. Worsening matters its army revolted as well. But in the midst of these difficulties, one shining beacon of light stood out; Alexius Comnenus. Norwich devotes considerable time and effort into giving a moving account of Alexius’s rise and rule. The reason is soon clear for this man struggled against overwhelming odds to defend and rebuild the empire, while undoing the damage wrought by Manzikert.
How the Crusades impacted the Byzantine Empire
The Crusades played a large part in shaping the Byzantine Empire and Norwich gives it due attention. He patiently covers the causes, the challenges and the aftermath of the Crusades on the empire. So vivid is his coverage of the Fourth Crusade that it is painful to read. The sack of Constantinople and the establishment of the Latin Empire caused grave damage to Byzantium’s morale, unity, economy and military might. Thankfully, Michael VIII Palaeologus recovered Constantinople during his reign. But despite his efforts the empire was never to recover its former strength and glory.
Factors that contributed to the decline of the Byzantine Empire
The last two hundred years of Byzantine history is the hardest to read. Disaster followed disaster. The Catalan mercenaries devastated Byzantine territories. Then, the Byzantines engaged in civil wars instead of staying united against their enemies. As a result there was no one to check the growing power of the Ottomans. Too weak to defend his empire, the Byzantine emperor became a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan. Furthering his humiliation, he was forced to travel abroad to seek help from the Western powers against the Ottoman threat.
The fall of Constantinople
During the final siege of Constantinople, the Byzantines had one last moment of glory. Under the leadership of Constantine XI, they put up a heroic last stand against the overwhelming Ottoman forces. They might have succeeded in repelling the Ottomans, but God abandoned them at the crucial moment. Although the empire fell, it fell with its pride and honour intact instead of surrendering ignobly.
Consequences of the fall of the Byzantine Empire
Norwich sums up the end of the Byzantine Empire and the consequences for Europe. With the empire finally destroyed, there was nothing to stop the Ottomans from expanding into Europe. The West would face their retribution for their short-sighted greed and pettiness. They would learn to appreciate the importance of the Byzantine Empire the hard way. I fully agree with Norwich’s closing arguments against the obscurity to which the West has consigned this magnificent empire to.
Insightful anecdotes reveal the struggles of the Byzantine Empire
As usual, the carefully chosen anecdotes give greater insight into the events that shaped the Byzantine Empire. In her fascinating account, Anna Comnena paints a formidable portrait of the Amazon Sichelgaita, wife of the adventurer Robert Guiscard. Anna relates how Sichelgaita rallied her fleeing men to win the battle for the Normans against the Byzantines.
Another anecdote involves the siege of Constantinople. The Ottoman Sultan Bayezid had just issued an ultimatum to emperor John VII. Despite his desperate circumstances, John VII replied defiantly and refused to surrender the city. Luckily for the Byzantines, Tamerlane’s victory over Bayezid saved them from temporary destruction.
How you will benefit from reading “Byzantium: The Decline and Fall”
This book is a fitting conclusion to Norwich’s trilogy on the Byzantine Empire. Firstly, you will experience important events like the Crusades and the Fall of Constantinople for yourself. Secondly, you will learn about the contributing factors of the Byzantine Empire’s decline. Lastly, the anecdotes provide deeper insights into this chaotic period which you will enjoy. I have reread this book thrice largely because I admired the Byzantines for their struggle against the odds.
Experience the last centuries and struggles of Byzantium for yourself. Click on the link below to purchase this book now.