Thursday, 3 February 2011

Book Review: Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich

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.



  1. This series gets rave reviews on Amazon too. All three volumes are available in paperback for £26.45. My interest sparked I have ordered my copy.

  2. I hope you like them as much as I did.

    Only problem now is that I'm at a bit of a loose end on the reading front, and have almost no space at all left for new books.

  3. "... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides"
    (History of European Morals, Lecky, 1869)

    As Norwich says Byzantine history is not so much monotonous as entertaining. I am chomping my way through the trilogy and loving every minute of it. His style is light and entertaining but packed full of the history in an generally easily absorbable manner.

    My only criticism is that there is not enough detail and keeping track of all the characters and their relationships is sometimes hard work (I have started to draw my own family trees). However, given the epic sweep of history he covers, volume 1 alone explains 500 years worth, such complaint is somewhat unfair.

    The trilogy is a great read, and an excellent primer of the history of Byzantium.

    Thanks, Thaddeus, for putting me on to this.

    P.S. No space left for new books? I know how you feel. About 18 months ago my wife put her foot down and insisted I got rid of some of my collection. We have book shelves in every room apart from the family bathroom (because of the steam); all were full. In fact we had books on top of books. So with considerable pain and anguish I had a clear out.

    I was ruthless. Books, mainly fiction titles, some of them old friends I had had since I was a teenager, went to the charity shop. It hurt.

    Eighteen months later I am back where I started. All the shelves are full and I have books lying sideways on top and, in my study, on top again and a couple of loose piles.

    I don't know what the answer is. I can't buy a bigger house just to provide space for my books, can I?

  4. Yes, that can be an issue. One of the most difficult bits is when the rather unoriginal Constantine dies and leaves the empire to his sons: Constans, Constantine and Constantius.

    I've already gotten rid of quite a few books, including probably 50 or so sci-fi titles (all my Dr Who books and almost all the Star Wars/Trek ones as well). I do have a box with some books that need to be inspected and possibly chucked.

    At some point I will get a Kindle, which will help in some regards. I won't go without real books entirely, however.

    On Byzantium: no problem, I hope She Who Must Be Obeyed has ceased beating you for your silent reading of the aforementioned history.