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A Short History of Byzantium (J.J. Norwich) - 2

2003-07-04 2 min read Books marco

I finally finished the History of Byzantium and feel compelled to add a few comments to the previous ones.
Nothing changed in my assessment of the author’s capabilities: the final chapters are as intriguing as the initial ones, and at no time was the infinite list of names confusing. Norwich succeeds in making all the parties involved come to their own life, personalizing each appearance of any of them and thus making it possible to discern the infinite list of Constantines, Michaels, Johns, etc.
While the first part of the book described an empire, the last part of it described a desperate culture trying to survive. The once powerful emperors of Byzanz find themselves required to send embassies to the rulers of the West, who will ignore them repeatedly, for centuries. The sadness of the situation is incredible, and the sympathy of the author for this lost cause is touching.Of course, from a neutral perspective the demise of the Byzantine empire just meant the ascension of the Ottoman one, which ultimately proved to be the real successor to Rome, reaching power and size that the Byzantines were able to held only for short periods of time. Neither can be forgotten that every peaceful moment of the empire’s history was spent on fairly stupid intrigues, succession rules and theological disputes. Where the West had a Pope that commanded unity, the East was very happy with being disunited.
The history of Byzantium is somehow the typical history of an empire in the middle: at times it can grow extremely rich and powerful because you have to pass through it, but in the end the pressure from all sides eventually will destroy it. Happened to Poland, happened to the Habsburg empire, will happen in the future.
And yet, as much as I rationally knew there was no chance for the empire to survive, the final fate of the little despotate that once was so great moves me profoundly. Reading how the last emperor, Constantine XI, worked on the defence of the city, how the last mass was read in St. Sophia, to be interrupted by the invader pillaging and murdering – that all fills me with an infinite sadness, not mitigated by knowing that the Byzantines would have behaved the same, to enemies and to themselves, too.
The final days of anything are sad. The final days of an empire that lasted over one thousand yeats to die a slow, hemorrhagic death… Well, there are no words to express historic sorrow.