The writing is brilliant. The history is plentiful. The accuracy …. let’s not dwell on that. There aren’t too many factual errors, but this certainly isn’t an account that leans heavily on the latest and most detailed scholarship. This is a book that is entertaining rather than educational.
But what a story he has chosen to tell. The Byzantine Empire was technically simply a continuation of the Roman Empire. But Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople it is very clearly a new narrative. The language is Greek not Latin. The religion is Christian not Pagan. And the focus is now the eastern rather than the western half of the empire. The status of the empire has changed too. It is no longer The Empire, the uncontested ruler of the world. It is now surrounded by enemies who are a serious threat and many are capable of conquering it.
The story is basically that of a state and its tradition’s and their long battle with their opponents. Rome had been a military city whose armies subdued the world. Byzantine inherited some of that DNA, but added trade. The location of Constantinople on the route between East and West created commercial opportunities. But it also made it a well known location that was attractive to all sorts of people including the kind of people who saw portable wealth in abundance and whose main motivation was finding ways of carrying it away. It also created rivals who envied the advantageous position and sought to occupy it. Everyone wanted the plum spot.
The Byzantines protected themselves as well as they could using exceptional economic organisation, advanced military technology and sophisticated diplomacy. Most of the time it was enough – just about enough. External threats were however the source of more or less continual crises. Internal cohesion was less of a problem than was typical for the political regimes of the day. But that was a low bar. Dynastic intrigue, religious controversy and class struggle were all quite capable of shaking the foundations of the empire periodically. But there was an underlying stability. The empire outlasted all its enemies except the last one. There was still a Roman Emperor when the Tudors ruled in England and the Valois in France. The duchy of Muscovy was only decades away from becoming independent and America would be discovered in only 50 years. Printing and golf had been invented.
The Byzantine Empire lasted longer than the classical Roman one and was an important influence on the development of the modern world and particularly of states in eastern Europe. It has been neglected in the past by scholars from the western half of Europe. I think that is a mistake that is now being rectified and there is a lot of interest in many aspects of Byzantine culture. It is a fascinating place for people whose main cultural inheritance comes from the Latin sphere of influence. Byzantium is both familiar and strange. We recognise the figures in the icons, but don’t really understand the framework they have been put into. It is sort of the missing link between eastern and western Christianity. It is also the closest thing reality offers to the ideal of Christendom – a European culture united by a common religion.
But as indicated, the main focus of this book is the story of the long defence of the empire against a continually changing cast of enemies. We meet heroes and villains, scoundrels and saints, victories and increasingly disasters. The big character of the series is the city of Constantinople. At the start of the book it is the seat of a large empire and has been been made to look glorious by some astonishing looting of art treasures from all over the empire. Its walls were considered to be impregnable until the arrival of canons. Its harbour was protected by a huge chain that made seaborne attacks virtually impossible. Its divine nature, Constantine laid it out under the direct instruction of Christ, added supernatural defences. A Turkish army was once repelled by parading an image of the Virgin Mary around the walls.
The construction in the sixth century of Hagia Sophia, the church of the holy wisdom, which still has the power to inspire awe today added to the city’s spiritual credentials and cemented its place as the centre of the Christian church on Earth. The architecture was equal to the assertion of authority over the rest of the church. But the vagaries of history were soon to leave no other centre to compete. Rome split from the church – no doubt the theological arguments were serious and significant. But equally undoubtedly the popes of Rome were happy to be rid of the impression that they were inferior to the patriarch of Constantinople. Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all remained in communion with the church in the capital of the empire. But when Islam swept over their territory they were not in a position to challenge the preeminence of the patriarch in the capital with ready access to the Christian emperor.
The empire might have established its holiness beyond any internal challenger, but the outside world was not going to let it contemplate its soul in peace. It had its ups and downs, but the trend was always downhill. Enemies were defeated. The Huns, the Bulgars, the Avars the Russ and the Normans all made inroads but were ultimately beaten off and left the pages of history. The Persians were the longest lasting and were the Byzantines closest peers. Their empire was overthrown in a spectacular campaign by the emperor Heraclius. But the war weakened both contestants and shortly afterwards Persia was overrun by the Arabs inspired by the new religion of the Prophet. Large chunks of the Byzantine Empire were lost as well. Only the walls of Constantinople itself saved the empire from equivalent extinction.
This wasn’t the only time in Byzantine history that the city had been saved by the the masonry surrounding it. In fact only the Crusaders ever managed to capture it, and they were helped considerably by intrigue in the royal house. They established a Latin dynasty that claimed the territory of the Byzantines, but only controlled the area around the city and Greece. The Byzantines were back within 50 years. They hung on for another 200 years, but were under continual pressure from the Turks. The emperor who claimed to be God’s vicegerent on Earth barely managed to keep control even of the capital city. The army was a shadow of the once mighty legions. There was no navy. The lucrative trade had was controlled by Genoese merchants. (Their descendants are still there.)
Most empires end in some degree of pathos. But the Byzantine Empire at least went out with style. Surrounded by a huge Turkish army armed with a canon capable of blasting holes in the city’s once impregnable walls, the last emperor could have been forgiven for surrendering. But Constantine IX chose to fight to the end. He fought himself and was killed along with most of the outnumbered defenders. Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Hagia Sophia became a mosque. The dream of a Christian empire was over forever.