Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sailing from Byzantium

Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World
© 2005 Colin Wells
368 pages           

       Isaac Asimov referred to Byzantium as a forgotten empire, lost and dismissed to the western mind as a decayed remnant of a once-great power. But Byzantium had a greatness of its own that inspired civilizations around it, even its enemies. Sailing from Byzantium  examines the literary, political, scientific, and other influences the Eastern empire had on the western Renaissance,  Eastern Europe, and even the nascent Islamic civilization.  Though somewhat impaired by being name-dense and not giving sketch of the Byzantines in brief, Sailing  does deliver a sense of the eastern empire as an inspirational fount during the long millennium that followed its western antecedent's demise.  The three civilizations drinking from its waters took different elements of the Empire home with them, with some sharing; to the Italians, Byzantium was the temple of Greek civilization, its scholars the teachers of the first medieval humanists, including by extension Erasmus.  Islam cut its imperial teeth when it seized some of the East's richest provinces, and  Byzantine notions about politics, law, and the aesthetics of royalty became incorporated into the Islamic civilization as it came of age. This lessened somewhat after the conquest of Persia, pursued after Constantinople proved too tough to crack.  The Russians, too, were initially rivals of their southern neighbors, making their introduction with a good old-fashioned Black Sea raid;   having common enemies and rivals, however, pushed the two together, and  as the tribe of Russians matured into a state of their own, their religion was that of Byzantium's. Later, once Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, Russia would even claim to be the inheritors of the Empire; just as it moved from Rome to Constantinople, so it now had moved to the third Rome, Moscow.  The marriage of a Russian potentate to a Byzantine princess even attempted to give such a claim practical validation. In examining the Byzantine influence on these three powers in turn, Wells not only demonstrates the richness of its culture, but pries open worlds probably mysterious to western readers,  connecting exotic history with some slightly more familiar. It's quite fascinating, though readers would be better served reading an overview of Byzantine history before launching in. 

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