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Tue 05 Oct 2004

Byzantium

Category : Commentary/Byzantium.txt

I've come to the last page of A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. I must confess that I bought this book for its cover and hadn't expected to enjoy it quite so much. It's got nothing to do with Macs, business or technology, but it's a good book to start with if you're interested in delving further into the history of the Balkans and Turkey.

From the book's last paragraphs, which summarises its theme -

"The Roman Empire of the East was founded by Constantine the Great on Monday, 11 May 330; it came to an end on Tuesday, 29 May 1453. During those one thousand, one hundred and twentry-three years and eighteen days, eighty-eight men and women occupied the imperial throne. Of those eighty-eight, a few - Constantine himself, Justinian, Heraclius - possessed true greatness; a few were contemptible; the vast majority were brave, upright, God-fearing men who did their best, with greater or lesser degrees of success ..."

"One of the first and most brilliant of twentieth-century Philhellenes, Robert Byron, maintained that the greatness of Byzantium lay in what he described as 'the Triple Fusion': that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul ... The Byzantines were human like the rest of us ... What they do not deserve is the obscurity to which for centuries we have condemned them. Their follies were many, as were their sins; but much should surely be forgiven for the beauty they left behind them and the heroism with which they and their last brave Emperor met their end, in one of those glorious epics of world history that has passed into legend and is remembered with equal pride by victors and vanquished alike."

"That is why five and a half centuries later, throughout the Greek world, Tuesday is still believed 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."

Justinian and his Empress Theodora were probably the model for Guy Gavriel Kay's richly colourful Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana, in his excellent re-creation of fifth century Byzantium, "Sailing to Sarantium" (The Sarantine Mosaic - Parts 1 and 2).

Guy Gavriel Kay's books are usually found among the Fantasy and Science Fiction section, but he's miles ahead of William Gibson, in terms of readability, believeability and, most of all, ideas. My favourite of the lot remains the first Kay book that I've ever read, Tigana, which I found by chance in a second-hand book store (no, not Jean Tigana of France and Tigana-Platini-Giresse-Fernandez fame). Others that I believe will give people a good read include The Songs of Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Posted at 12:57PM UTC | permalink


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