Saturday, September 19, 2009

Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire

Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire
© Isaac Asimov 1970
289 pages

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The history of the eastern Roman empire, ruled from Constantinople, has long been a weak point in my own historical literacy. When I spotted a book on its history by Isaac Asimov in my library's catalog, I was delighted at the prospect of introducing myself to both Byzantine history and Isaac Asimov's history work. Unfortunately I won't be able to read more of it -- these books, like most of his work, are out of print and the only copies on Amazon are held by opportunists who offer them only at obscene prices.

The old city of Byzantium's history as told in section one's six chapters became the history of the Roman empire when the Emperor Constantine decided to rebuild it in his own image, creating a "New Rome" out of a city on the straits between southeastern Europe and Asia minor. It gained more importance under the reign of Diocletian, when he divided the old Roman empire into four administrative areas headed by two emperors -- one in the west, and one in the east at "New Rome which is called Constantine's City", or Constantinople.

Although the western empire eventually transformed into the European feudal world and officially died in 474, the empire in the east continued long after -- for nearly a thousand years, before finally being done in by the rising Ottoman Turks. In my own experience, histories of the Roman empire have referred to the eastern empire in a very passive way, as if it were only the echo of the west's once-ringing bell. Although Asimov is only able to give the empire a summative treatment, its history still emerges as fascinating and unique, deserving of more attention. There are many interesting characters and stories here -- like the emperor who saw his empire nearly destroyed by the Parthians, who triumphed over them and restored his dominion only to see it eviscerated again by Islam's armies before his death -- and Asimov makes me think of issues I've never before pondered. I never for once have given any thought to how the crowning of Charlemagne as "Holy Roman Emperor" by the western pope might be received by emperor in the west, who arguably has a better claim to being holy, Roman, and imperial. It also raises more questions, as answers often do: while I found out how Christianity spread to Russia (and why it is more East Orthodox than Roman Catholic), I then wondered what it replaced in Russia.

For all the story's interest, it is not a story with a happy ending. Although the Byzantine empire at its height resembles the Roman empire at its height (with much less influence in Europe), over the course of a thousand years it is weakened by constant political intrigue from within (monks seemed to have held a great deal of political power and ambition for more) and the constant attack of enemies from without. "Barbarians" in the Balkans seem to be an ever present problem, the western polities view the old Empire with scorn and hatred (demonstrated by their vicious sack of the city in 1204), and Asia provides a merry list of rivals starting with the Parthians and culminating with the Turks -- who destroy the withered remains of the state in a move that is more redundant than dramatic. Asimov's epilogue comments that while the western empire left an imposter "ghost" of sorts in the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantines left their own imposter-ghost in the form of the Russian empire, who married one of the last Byzantine princesses and assumed the title tsar, from caesar.

This was a very readable introduction to Byzantine history. I recommend it, but good luck finding it.

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks

1 comment:

  1. Reading the book right now, got it at the local library.

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