Authors: John Julius Norwich
Tags: #History, #Non Fiction
In Byzantium: The Early Centuries John Julius Norwich told the epic tale of the Roman Empire's second capital up to Christmas Day AD 800 – when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as a rival emperor. This second volume of his magnificent history covers the following three centuries. In it he continues his compelling chronicle up to the coronation of the heroic Alexius Comnenus in 1081.
JOHN JULIUS NORWICH
BYZANTIUM: THE APOGEE
Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lone, London W8 5TZ, England Penguin Books USA Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wsirau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published by Viking 1991 Published in Penguin Books 1993
Copyright John Julius Norwich, 1991 All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic
Except in die United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
There is little to be said by way of introduction to this book, whose purpose is simply to continue the story which I began three years ago with its predecessor. In
Byzantium: The Early Centuries
I tried first to set the scene for Constantine the Great's tremendous decision to establish a new capital for the Roman Empire on the banks of the Bosphorus, and then to trace the fortunes of Constantine and his successors up to that memorable Christmas Day of
800 when Pope Leo III invested Charlemagne with the imperial crown and the title of Emperor of the Romans, thus - in effect if not in theory - calling into question the supposed unity of Christendom and giving Europe two Emperors instead of one.
The present volume covers a shorter period than the first: rather less than three centuries as opposed to rather more than five. This is partly because, as always throughout history, there is an acceleration in the march of events: ever greater numbers of characters make their appearance on the scene and the whole canvas of the Eastern Mediterranean becomes, in consequence, increasingly crowded. The principal reason, however, lies in the fact that the contemporary authorities for this second period are a good deal more informative. For the first centuries of the Byzantine era the surviving records are - as I pointed out in my earlier introduction - quite pitifully thin, and, moreover, as likely as not to contradict each other. As to their entertainment value, only Procopius affords any real enjoyment — although he, it must be said, makes up for a lot. Now, as the pace increases and the story builds up its own momentum, the chroniclers begin to proliferate and to enliven their accounts more and more frequently with portraits, descriptions and anecdotes. There are still isolated periods - the early eleventh century is a case in point - for which our sources are infuriatingly inadequate; but such periods are henceforth the exception rather than the rule. For the rest, thanks to such writers as Liudprand of Cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably more colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages than we can of any other court in Europe. I have seized upon these writers with gratitude, and have quoted them, both directly and indirectly, with liberal - some may think too liberal - abandon; and if this has resulted in a reduction of the time spanned by the pages that follow, I can only say that it has seemed to me a price worth paying.
It has enabled me, too, to end this second volume, as I ended the first, with one of the most important events in all Byzantine history. But whereas the accession of Charlemagne, traumatic as it was, proved a good deal less prejudicial to the Empire of the East than was generally believed at the time, the battle of Manzikert was an unmitigated catastrophe, the full significance of which was revealed with the gradual realization that the Empire had effectively lost, in the space of a few nightmare hours, three-quarters of Asia Minor - the territory on which it most relied and the most valuable that it possessed. And that loss, as it turned out, was only the beginning: once the Turks had overrun part of the Anatolian heartland it would be only a question of time before they occupied it all. The Balkan peninsula would follow; and then, finally, Constantinople itself. The Oriental conquerors were not inclined to hurry; the whole process would take them the best part of four centuries. But there can be no question that the advance that ended on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, when Sultan Mehmet II touched his turban to the floor of St Sophia in prayer and thanksgiving, had its origin on the distant field of Manzikert, 382 years before.
In the decade immediately following that most shattering and shameful defeat, while more and more of Asia Minor was engulfed in the Seljuk tide and the governments of Michael VII and Nicephorus III watched in helpless paralysis while the Empire descended further and further into anarchy, few intelligent Byzantines could have doubted that its days were numbered. But then, as happens so often in Byzantine history - for was not Constantinople known to enjoy divine protection? — came last-minute salvation. After a dozen near-grotesque occupants of the throne in little more than half a century, the figure of Alexius Comnenus takes on positively heroic proportions. The present book, of which the last page records his coronation on Easter Sunday 1081, thus ends on a note of hope; the story of how that hope was realized, however, must await the third volume - which will, I trust, bring the long story to a close.
It remains only for me to add my usual
that although I have done everything I can do to make it as accurate as the existing sources permit, this book, like its predecessor, makes no claim to academic rigour. I knew little about Byzantium when I began writing about it, and shall doubtless have forgotten a good deal of what I have written soon after I come to the close. If I tend to give economic considerations less than their due, this is because I am not an economist and a three-volume work is quite long enough already. Similarly, if I concentrate on the personalities of Emperors and Empresses rather than on sociological developments, I can only plead that I prefer people to trends. Similarly, I have made no great efforts at consistency where the spelling of proper names is concerned. I have usually preferred the Latin version of the name, merely because it will probably be more familiar to English readers. On the other hand, where the Greek has seemed more suitable I have not hesitated to use it.
Those who wish* to sink their teeth into something more challenging need look no further than the Bibliography, where they will find the titles of many books of formidable scholarship; this one is not for them. From the outset my only object has been to provide the interested non-specialist with the sort of bird's-eye view of Byzantine history that I myself wanted when I first fell under the spell of the Eastern Mediterranean. The measure of my success must remain an open question: even in this relatively modest undertaking there is still the best part of four centuries to go. But we have now comfortably passed the point of no return; I, at least, am enjoying myself; and if I can persuade other kindred spirits to share my enjoyment I shall be happy indeed.
John Julius Norwich
London, Christmas 1990
Even were we birds, we could not hope to escape.
The Emperor Nicephorus I, just before his death
When, on Christmas Day,
800, Pope Leo III lowered the imperial crown on to the head of Charles, son of Pepin the Frank, and prostrated himself before him as Emperor of Rome, the Empire of Byzantium had been in existence for 470 years. Founded in 330 by Constantine the Great, in the city to which he had officially given the name of New Rome but which we know as Constantinople, it had had to fight hard for its survival: in the West against the barbarian tribes — Goths and Huns, Vandals and Avars; in the East against the Persians and, all too soon after the destruction of the Sassanid Empire, the still more formidable menace of Islam. Over the centuries it had lost much. The Saracens had snatched away Palestine and Syria, North Africa and Egypt; much of Italy, reconquered by Justinian, had been forfeited to the Lombards, who in their turn had voluntarily surrendered it to the Pope. To past losses were added present anxieties: the- Caliph Harun al-Rashid was exerting ever greater pressure on the Anatolian frontier; nearer home, in the Balkans, the Bulgars posed a continual threat; while the Empire itself was still torn asunder by the violent controversy which, after three-quarters of a century, still showed no signs of solution: was it, or was it not, a sin to venerate icons and holy images of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin and the Saints?
This question had come to the fore as early as 726, when the Emperor Leo III,
'the Isaurian', had ordered the destruction of the great golden icon of Christ which stood above the bronze doors of the Chalke, the
1 Not, of course, to be confused with the Pope of the same name, who was to succeed to the throne of St Peter some seventy years later.
main entrance to the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. Four years later he had issued a more general edict, directed against all images throughout the Empire; and the iconoclasm that he had set in train was pursued with still greater fanaticism by his son, Constantine V. Only after Constantine's death in 775 did the pendulum swing back in favour of the iconodules - the worshippers, or at least the venerators, of images -thanks to the machinations of his deeply unpleasant daughter-in-law, the Empress Irene.