Constantinople, not Istanbul

I’ve just finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. Brilliant, marvelously written book about a part of the world that for reasons unknown goes un-taught in most history classes. Norwich’s writing style is breezy and clear, but does not fall into the “history lite” trap of many popular historians. He has a wonderful way with metaphors and descriptions, as when he introduces us to the wife of Emperor Leo VI:
…an ill-favoured girl of asphyxiating piety…
Amusing historical anecdotes are plentiful as well:
Some time towards the end of his reign, old Anastasius–so the legend goes–was consumed with curiosity to know which of his three nephews would succeed him. Superstitious as always, he invited all three to dinner, and had three couches prepared on which they could afterwards take their rest. Under one pillow he slipped a piece of parchment, on which he had inscribed the word REGNUM: whichever nephew chose that particular couch would, he believed, assume the throne. Alas, two of the young men, whose mutual affection seems to have gone somewhat beyond family feeling, chose to share the same couch; the marked one remained unrumpled.
The whole story is bound up with the histories of Islam, Turkey, Persia, Bulgaria, Italy (including Venice, the Papal States and Genoa), France and the Crusades. The book is a condensation of Norwich’s earlier trilogy on the same subject, so it moves extremely quickly. More than a millenium of fascinating history is tightly packed into 382 pages: from the founding of the empire by Constantine the Great in 330, to Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453. The book is full of wars, dynasties, great palaces, conspiracies, religious madness, regicides, massacres, and political intrigues of, well, Byzantine complexity. But astoundingly, Norwich always manages to keep things clear for the reader.A model of what a history book should be, and right up there with Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror on my list of all-time favorites. Buy it.

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