I’ve just finished reading John Julius Norwich’s three-volume history (1 | 2 | 3) of Byzantium. I’ve greatly enjoyed it, and can recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in finding out more about the Byzantine empire. (I understand the single-volume condensed version is less good, by the way; this is a narrative that needs room to breathe.)
I gather Norwich has his critics, particularly among professional historians of Byzantium, but he succeeds triumphantly in his stated aim, not to produce a work of scholarship, but to “tell a good story, as interestingly and as accurately as I can, to the non-specialized reader”. It helps that he is an excellent writer, with a particular knack for driving the narrative forward by skilfully-dropped hints of coming events.
Norwich takes an unashamedly “top-down” view of history, focusing almost exclusively on the kings, patriarchs and generals of Byzantium’s 1,123-year existence. However, he still shows great sensitivity for the human side of the story, in particular in his descriptions of the fate of the women who would suddenly find themselves married off for political reasons to some barbarian king in Russia or France, or the young emperor John Lascaris, blinded on his eleventh birthday on the orders of his co-emperor (and usurper) Michael VIII Palaeologus.
In his third volume, he traces the painful decline of Byzantium in the face of Turkish advances, and the mixture of betrayal and indecision that characterised Europe’s treatment of the eastern empire. He makes you appreciate both the tragedy and the necessity of the final fall of Byzantium, an empire that, in the end, simply lasted too long.
As Norwich writes of the penultimate emperor, John VIII Palaeologus (1425-1448), who devoted his reign (and sacrificed his reputation) to doomed attempts at persuading the West to save the empire:
Yet we must not be too hard on John VIII. He did his best, and worked diligently for what he believed to be right. Besides, the situation that he inherited was almost past hope; in such circumstances, virtually anything that he had attempted would have been doomed to failure.
And perhaps it was just as well. Byzantium, devoured from within, threatened from without, scarcely capable any longer of independent action, reduced now to an almost invisible dot on the map of Europe, needed – more, probably, than any once-great nation has ever needed – the coup de grâce. It had been a long time coming. Now, finally, it was at hand.