Thursday, 30 July 2009

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

From biography to history, this time to John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I one day intend to read all three volumes of his work on Byzantium, but this abridged version is still an excellent history of this most fascinating empire.


My introduction to Byzantium was through studying East European and Slavonic history many moons ago. Later on I found myself making a serious attempt at writing a historical novel set in 10th century Constantinople, (serious to the point that I did an unfinished first draft of 80,000 words before giving up), which involved a fair degree of research. This book was part of that background reading.

There were over eighty rulers of the empire between the founding of the city during the reign of Constantine I in the 4th century and its fall to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. Some of them were great, some of them not so. Among the latter ranks is the Emperor Alexander, a previous co-emperor who was in fully in charge for just over a year: 912-913.

Norwich’s glorious description of Alexander explains the book’s inclusion in this blog. He describes his demise as ‘worn out... by dissipation’ which I interpret as that notorious combination of wine, women and song:

The only good thing that can be said about the reign of the Emperor Alexander is that it was short. Worn out at forty-one by dissipation, he was to occupy the throne for a little under thirteen months. His normal behaviour could be compared only to that of Michael the Sot at his worst: there were the same senseless cruelties, the same drunken roisterings, the same acts of wanton sacrilege. On one occasion he became convinced that the bronze boar in the Hippodrome was his other self, and had it provided with new teeth and genitals in an attempt to remedy the extraordinary wear and tear that he had inflicted on his own.

It is the use of the word ‘extraordinary’ in the above passage that makes me shudder...

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