This is a review of all three volumes (The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall) of John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium. Some spoilers are unavoidable, but I’ve tried to review the books without giving away more than is necessary. As a result it’s slightly more concise than comprehensive.
Byzantium, also known as Constantinople, was an old Greek city that was adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as the capital of the Eastern Empire. No especial knowledge of Roman or Greek history is necessary to enjoy Norwich’s work, which is replete with handy footnotes and details of concepts that need a bit of explanation (the unexpected and bizarre Byzantine love of religious quibbling being a prime example).
The history spans over a thousand years, more than 80 emperors and numerous dynasties. As with Rome, there is staggering variation between the emperors, with some fantastically intelligent and heroic, some tyrannical psychopaths or feeble weaklings and most somewhere in between.
It was impossible for me not to feel drawn emotionally into the fate of Byzantium. The book, although intelligently written, is not a slog and can be read quickly. Norwich superbly portrays the triumphs and catastrophes that the city and its people are subjected to over the centuries.
An unexpected pleasure was to read of the powers that fell and grew up around the Eastern Empire, such as the Bulgars and the Serbs. Venice and Genoa, the rival seafaring powers that feature prominently in the final book, are even better examples of this.
Despite its importance and longevity, Byzantium is not nearly as well known as Rome. Reading about the city, a strange mixture of East and West, Greek and Latin, was fascinating and surprising. For example, the emperor’s wife actually had real power, and the emperor himself was considered the Equal of the Apostles.
I think there’s an abbreviated, single volume version of the trilogy available. My firm advice would be to avoid it and instead buy the three volumes. The history is fascinating, the writing excellent and the tragedy captivating. Almost the only flaw with the history is that it has to end and it would be a grave mistake to miss out by purchasing a shorter single volume.