“Byzantium: The Decline and Fall”

John Julius Norwich

I do like this bit from the epilogue, as Norwich sums up the various rulers the empire had over its 1,100-odd years of existence:

Of those eight-eighty [emperors], a few – Constantine himself, Justinian, Heraclius, the two basils, Alexius Comnenus – possessed true greatness; a few – Phocas, Michael III, Zoe and the Angeli – were contemptible; the vast majority were brave, upright, God-fearing, unimaginative men who did their best, with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Just the word “unimaginative” in there really got to me. What a painful legacy to leave!

It is, though, pretty fitting. A lot of the events of this book boil down to “and then something else went wrong, which would’ve been quite manageable if the Emperor had been slightly better at being Emperor.” Though, admittedly, there’s also a whole lot of them where the “would’ve been quite manageable” leads instead to “if the Who’s Who of Constantinople could’ve taken a break for one month from squabbling with each other in order to keep the Empire from slowly dissolving.” So much of the decline of the Byzantine Empire feels like a testament to selfishness. The Emperor is off trying to consolidate the recapture of some of the critical agricultural heartland of the empire? Sure, that’s probably important and all, but it also means he’s distracted, and now’s your chance to stab him in the back!

I think I’ll place this book at second place of the trilogy; the first was just overwhelming, the second did a better job at storytelling, and the third did an even better job at telling the story… but by this point in history, it was a really depressing story. That said, if you want to read about the slow decline of the Byzantine Empire, this is a pretty solid way to do so, and you’re welcome to give it a try.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.

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