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A Short History of Byzantium (original 1997; edition 1998)

by John Julius Norwich

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Member:israel.david.n
Title:A Short History of Byzantium
Authors:John Julius Norwich
Info:Vintage (1998), Paperback, 496 pages
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A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich (1997)

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This book is a fascinating look at the transition of the known world from the Roman to Byzantine Empire, spanning over 1000 years where murder, intrigue and war are everyday backdrops to life.

We begin with the creation of Constantinople, designated as the new capital of the Roman Empire. This decision would echo down through the centuries, dividing the Empire into East and West along religious and economic lines. Throughout this timeline Norwich provided an account of Byzantine Emperors who inherited the tradition of their Roman counterparts with marriage and the ever-present problems of heirs as a central concern of their lives.

It was interesting to see how people or events decades or even hundreds of years in the past could influence people, places and the decisions in the present.

One issue was that at times the book seemed at times to be overly detailed. This may be because this is a condensed version of an original trilogy. Instead of allowing the reader room to breathe or elaborating on events and their effects, the story just plows on with its unending list of dates and people. This invariably leads to confusion as in numerous families names are passed down through the generations, causing the reader to be unsure as to who did what when.

Ultimately though, the book is the story of the slow and sad decline of the Roman Empire. The transition of the capital gave the empire a new name but instead of expanding on the traditions and imperial ambitions of Rome, land, respect and wealth is slowly lost. Through mismanagement and poor-decision making by incompetent rulers who obtained power through inheritance or usurpation rather than by merit, the Byzantine Empire is only a frail shadow when Constantinople is finally overrun in 1453. ( )
  theduckthief | Dec 22, 2016 |
Having read John Julius Norwich's book "A Short History of Byzantium", I can only express my admiration for him as an author and as an historian. And I have no interest in reading the three volume work of Norwich's from which this "short" history was taken. 382 pages, 88 emperors, 1100 years of complicated history (the term "Byzantine" as a descriptor in our language does not come by accident), the ins and outs of the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Religions, the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium, the Crusades - that is sufficient for my understanding!

But what a read! Norwich is an excellent writer. He interjects his own dry but humorous observations fairly regularly throughouit the book. And his prose can reach the heighths. The final chapter, describing the ultimate fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire (such as it was at the time) to the Muslim Ottomans is worth the price of admission alone. But his ability to deal with the complexity of the interactions of nations, religions, politicians, common pepole and so many other elements in the mix of history at the time, and keep them straight and the reader still engaged is a monumental task that he pulls off I think quite well, by Jove! ( )
  BlaueBlume | Aug 29, 2016 |
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended what the population always identified as the Roman Empire, but has become known as the Byzantine Empire that John Julius Norwich thought had been given a bad reputation in “the West”. In “A Short History of Byzantium” Norwich condensed his three-volume history of the Greek-flavored Roman Empire into a general history for those interested in history but do not have time for lengthy studies.

In covering almost 1200 years of history in about 400 pages, Norwich had to trim to the barebones of Byzantine history with only tidbits of detail that whet the appetite to want to know more for those interested. While frustration as it might be for those who want more than a “general history”, for those looking for just a straight-forward informative history this book is concise and lively written to keep you from falling asleep.

For those wondering if they should read Norwich’s three-volume history of Byzantium then this book will let you know the author’s writing style as well as make you want to purchase the multi-volume series. For those looking only for a concise history of a nearly 1200 year old empire this is a book for you. ( )
  mattries37315 | Jan 26, 2016 |
Joy's review: This is a short history only in relation to the actual length of the Byzantine empire. (from about 200 to 1400ad). Actually pretty interesting most of the time as some pretty crazy things happened from Empress Theodora who was once a whore and became probably their greatest empress to Basil the first who went from stable boy to emperor in 7 years. Also, very dry at times since each person comes and goes so quickly. A very good book to read before going to Turkey. ( )
  konastories | Dec 14, 2015 |
This is an absolutely marvellous work of narrative history, which I was inspired to read after watching the first episode of Simon Sebag Montefiore's recent TV documentary on the history of the three cities of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul. The book is an abridged version of the author's own three volume history of the 1,123 years and 18 days that the Byzantine Empire lasted, from its consecration by Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity, to the final collapse of the moribund empire, reduced to the size of the city of Constantinople itself, at the hands of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in the early hours of Tuesday 29 May 1453, the last Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus being presumed killed in the melee of the final defence. The story covers a rich galaxy of colourful, fascinating, heroic, horrifying and tragic Emperors, Empresses, princes, Patriarchs, generals and others. The Empire was the guardian of the gems of Latin and Greek civilisation during the time of the so called Dark Ages in Western Europe, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and the creator of fabulous art and architecture, much of which was destroyed not only by foreign conquerors, but also by the Byzantines themselves during the period when the iconoclasts held sway. Byzantium was often ruled by people whose actions can seem shockingly cruel to us now (the same goes for any other past civilisation, of course), while at the same time, many of those rulers were great scholars and lovers of philosophy and culture, and generally tolerant of other races. These features combine to shed a fascinating and absorbing light on an Empire which is relatively little known to most readers in Western Europe today, obscured by the preeminence of the western Roman cultural heritage. Finally, the book comes replete with many maps, genealogical tables and lists of Emperors, Popes, Sultans and Despots. A great read, and I am tempted to seek out the full three volume version. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Dec 27, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679772693, Paperback)

The Byzantine Empire, one of its most eminent students reminds us, lasted "for a total of 1,123 years and 18 days," which is an astonishing duration matched by only a few others. Condensing Norwich's three-volume history, this overview captures the splendor and strangeness of Byzantine rule, marked by family intrigues, constant warfare, political and religious strife, and personal ambition--a "somewhat lurid background," as Norwich modestly declares in passing. Norwich is a master of the telling vignette. In one, he writes of imperial guards made up of "Anglo-Saxons who had left their country in disgust after Hastings and had taken service with Byzantium." Facing a Norman enemy in southern Italy, these Anglo-Saxons exacted terrible vengeance until the Normans rallied under the leadership of a fearless woman, one Sichelgaita, and massacred their enemy. Norwich's book abounds in similarly surprising and absorbing episodes.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:37 -0400)

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"At a moment when the splendors of Byzantine art are being rediscovered and celebrated in America, John Julius Norwich has brought together in this remarkable edition the most important and fascinating events of his dazzling trilogy of the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire." "With wit, intelligence and an unerring eye for riveting detail, Lord Norwich tells the dramatic history of Byzantium from its beginnings in AD 330 when Constantine the Great moved the imperial capital from Rome to the site of an old Greek port in Asia Minor called Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, to its rise as the first and most long-lasting Christian empire, to its final heroic days and eventual defeat by the Turks in 1453." "It was a history marked by tremendous change and drama: the adoption of Christianity by the Greco-Roman world; the fall of Rome and its empire; the defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071; the reigns of Constantine, Theodosius the Great, Justinian and Basil II. There were centuries of bloodshed in which the empire struggled for its life; centuries of controversy in which men argued about the nature of Christ and the Church; centuries of scholarship in which ancient culture was kept alive and preserved by scribes; and, most of all, centuries of creativity in which the Byzantine genius brought forth art and architecture inspired by a depth of spirituality unparalleled in any other age. After more than fourteen centuries, the ever-dazzling brilliance of the mosaics of Ravenna and the ethereal splendor of the great church of St. Sophia in Istanbul still have the power to take one's breath away."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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