#208. CONSTANTINOPLE, NOT ISTANBUL. Great eras of history can be maddeningly vague about beginnings and end times: when did the Middle Ages start, for instance, or end; or the Renaissance? So true is this that the prefatory sentence to John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium sounds almost strange to us: “The Byzantine Empire, from its foundation on Monday 12 May 330 to its conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II on Tuesday 29 May 1453, lasted for a total of 1,123 years and 18 days.” Well, takes care of that. You almost want to check your stopwatch.
This is by way of Norwich explaining that so vast a period of time cannot be covered in a single volume, and leading to his Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Knopf, 1988), The Apogee (1991) and The Decline and Fall (1995.) That last subtitle reminds us that Norwich works not only under the shadow of Gibbon but of the long trail of bad press the Empire has always suffered. He quotes W.E.H. Lecky, who felt that Byzantium “constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed.” As with his history of the Republic of Venice, Norwich demurs, and is plainly writing to moderate the image somewhat, and is anxious to shows its accomplishments as well as its depravities.
Depravities there are in plenty; in fact they are in danger of crowding out the accomplishments. One of the challenges to Norwich is the cycle of events that inevitably shape a monarchical empire: emperors are instated, borders expand and contract, battles weigh against diplomacy, emperors live out their reigns or, just as likely, are deposed or assassinated. One of the favorite methods of barring somebody from the imperial throne of Byzantium was disfigurement, as a physically imperfect Emperor was against the rules. So with my morning reading these last weeks there has been a steady and varied diet of cripplings, severed digits and blindings, as well as a lot of shaved heads and one-way traffic to the monasteries—or convents, as Empresses were no safer than Emperors. Varied, as I said: many the emperor is thrown off a top story or “succumbs to the bowstring;” and then there’s the Emperor Constans, who in 668 gets conked with a soap dish. Natural deaths were not common with this job description.
Being also a theocracy, the other challenge Norwich faces is the catalogue of theological squabbles that seem to have been everyone’s favorite indoor sport. Patriarchs debated, councils and synods were called, decisions were made, only to be disregarded or rejected in short order. The insertion or deletion of the word filioque in the creed could, and almost does, get a volume to itself. This is as close as Norwich comes to bogging down, and even his fascination and patience get rubbed a bit thin, as he rightly recognizes that these unanswerable questions were undoubted fuel for feuds, schisms and wars. He’s not as down on Christianity as Gibbon is thought to be (Gibbon’s stance was more nuanced, I believe, than often thought), but Norwich admits that these hallowed theologies might have been a mixed blessing.
But he manages with remarkable skill and concision to keep the narrative in motion, and as the cycles repeat he manages to individuate them, so that each has a specific cast and movement. He can hit people off with an ingeniously chosen epithet but also, more importantly, he can sustain a scene to give it its best shape and impact. By the end, when Mehmet is at the walls of Constantinople and the end is to happen, it’s enormously powerful: we hear an echo of the great crash people were said to have heard at the fall of Troy. Here again we have, as we do with the great tragedies, those mountain-top views that can only be had with the patient accumulation of time and fact that history can provide, as well as giving us our continuity with the past. Of the final battle, Norwich concludes: “That is why five and a half centuries later, throughout the Greek world, Tuesday is still thought to be the unluckiest day of the week; why the Turkish flag still depicts not a crescent but a waning moon, reminding us that the moon was in its last quarter when Constantinople finally fell; and why, excepting only the great church of St. Sophia itself, it is the Land Walls—broken, battered, but still marching from sea to sea—that stand as the city’s grandest and most tragic monument.” Norwich’s three volumes stand as no poor monuments themselves.
There are maps in Norwich’s volumes, but I was glad to have the assistance of The Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History, by John Haldon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The print edition is not to be had cheaply, but it’s also to be found free online at archive.org/details/Book_1266.