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on 4 January 2008
As a previous reviewer has observed, this book could be a good place to start your reading on Byzantium, but is also well worth a look if you have already read reasonably widely on the subject. It is not (and makes no pretence to be) dominated by original research, but it is a valuable work insofar as it consolidates an immense reading list (helpfully included at the back of the book) into a relatively brief and readable volume. As such it is more useful to the 'armchair' Byzantium enthusiast than the scholar, but none the worse for that.

The book is thematic rather than chronological, covering the legacy of Byzantium to the Greek, Islamic, and Slavic worlds. Of these the section on the Slavs is the most impressive, and it comes as no surprise that this is the author's main interest. The Islamic section is fascinating if a little brief, and the Greek section, though interesting, suffers from slightly clunky prose in places. Nonetheless all are worth reading, though a reader with an interest in one or two of these areas could happily confine themselves to that section.

Having read Norwich's superb three volume history, I would recommend this book to those who would like to dwell slightly longer on Byzantium's culture (sadly impossible in chronological narrative history). You will not be dissapointed.
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on 5 September 2006
If you feel an unsatisfied curiosity about Byzantium, this book is actually a good place to start, precisely because it works from the outside, focussing on the external outreach whereby Byzantine language, culture, and literature reached Italy (sparking the Renaissance), the Muslim world, and the embryonic Slavic world. Underneath that story, the ebb and flow of Byzantium's fortunes, its dark age, and its periods of renaissant literature and religion are sketched lightly but vividly by Wells. This book offers a painless way to get your feet wet in this subject by placing it in a broader world context. After, you're ready for Cyril Mango's superb thematic intro "Byzantium" followed by the historical surveys of John Julius Norwich (short in one volume or long in two). Then, if you're still on board, you can dive into the deep waters of the great John Meyendorff ("Byzantine Theology" and others). Byzantium has been well studied since the 1950s; this book by Colin Wells will serve as your way in.
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Historical works have a tendency to concentrate on a society itself, not so much on its origins or legacy. Even where we do find such information (and we've had plenty of "What the Romans/Egyptians/Babylonians etc. etc. did for us" type works), one civilization which tends to get left out is Byzantium. Here is one work which begins to fill the gap for the general reader.

The first section considers the legacy of Byzantium to Renaissance Italy and thus to Western civilisation. One mistake I think the author makes in this section is to continue with the idea of a Dark Age (surely one of the greatest misnomers in history in my opinion - Petrarch has much to answer for). He pictures Boethius and Cassiodorus as the last people in the west to know Greek and Greek literature, the end of a Golden Era after which came darkness. The wealth and culture of the Roman empire was very much concentrated in the eastern provinces, and it is surely questionable how many people in the western half ever really had knowledge of Greek - was it always very much the exception rather than the rule, even among scholars and the cultured elite? He also neglects the case of Bede, who (in northern Britain in the 8th century - 200 years after Boethius and Cassiodorus in Ostrogothic Italy) was said to know Greek and Hebrew. Nothing can happen in a vacuum, so where did his knowledge come from?

The second section considers (perhaps this should have been the first section, since it is earlier in chronological order than the cultural bequest to Renaissance Italy) the influence on the Islamic world. This comes as an antidote to the Liberal-Left politically-correct turned-on-its-head view of history currently favoured, where Europeans were all bloodthirsty uncultured savages whilst the Arabs were all free to spend all day dancing, smelling flowers and composing poetry (when not being murdered by those nasty Christians). The truth, as always, is between the two extremes and infinitely more complicated. Nothing happens in a total vacuum. The Islamic world absorbed much culture from its conquered territories (which, as previously mentioned were the wealthiest and most cultured parts of the Byzantine empire), including Greek & Syriac philosophy, science and medicine. Islamic scholars then improved on this and went further, by which time they no longer had need of the originals, and the Byzantine (and Persian) origin of much of this culture was forgotten. In the same way, when Western European scholars later took Islamic science, medicine and philosophy from the likes of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina via Spain and Sicily, they too developed and improved on it, and eventually forgot its origins. No conspiracy, no cover up, no fiendish plot to deny another civilisation its due. Europe just forgot where the knowledge came from, much as Islamic civilisation before that forgot where much of its knowledge came from, much as all civilisations forget their origins. This idea of a Dark Age before which Western Europe was highly cultured, culture which was suddenly revived in the Renaissance, is simply not the case.

The most interesting part of this section is the description of the struggle between the rationalist Abbasid caliph al-Mamun and the fundamentalists who asserted that everything was revealed in the Qur'an and nothing else was necessary. Al-Mamun attempted to impose rationalism on his subjects by force, driving the fundamentalists to an even more extreme position. Al-Mamun lost, and the author sees in this struggle the origins of modern Islamic extremism, an idea which warrants further reading. A similar parallel apparently exists in the late Byzantine empire, where a conflict between the losing rationalists and winning mysticists (in the form of "hesychasm") merely increased the brain-drain of Greek 'humanist' scholars to Renaissance Italy, scuppering the chances of reunion of the Western and Eastern churches and any last remaining possibility of saving Byzantium from the Ottomans before it was too late. (And again, once the Papacy scuppered Galileo, progress in science moved on once again, to the more liberal Protestant north.)

The third section, on Byzantine influence in the Slavic world, is somewhat less interesting, but that's because the subject matter is less interesting (to me at least) and not the fault of the author.

This book is really only an introduction and overview of the whole subject, and an impetus for further reading, but a pretty good introduction and overview despite some faults.
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This is a excellent popular history about the impact of Byzantine culture on Renaissance Italy, the Arabs during their Baghdad apogee, and the Slavic world as it was differentiating into nationalities. While it is best to have a good grasp of these four periods of history, in particular Byzantium's, the author offers good skeletal explanations of vast swaths of time.

First, Byzantine scholars preserved most of what texts we know today as ancient Greek. They represented a crucial step in the evolution of the Renaissance as they contributed to the development of a secular understanding, a sense of history and philosophy not springing exclusively from Christian faith. As a classics major, this was very interesting to me, but I am not sure if it would interest most readers. This is the stuff of Plato v. Aristotle, mathematics, poetry, and the Greek historians. Interestingly, it was a mystic religious movement - the Hesychasm, which flourished as a reality-denying reaction to the decline of the Empire - that started pushing scholars out, well before the Turks conquered the city.

Second, we learn of the Byzantine roots of the practical scientific and medical texts that were translated by Nestorian Christians in SYria. This fostered a rationalistic branch of Islam, which an Abassid Calif attempted to force onto an unwilling populace, leading directly to the establishment of the conservative, anti-rationalist philosophy that later would underpin Wahabism. Their translations of Aristotle, transmitted via moorish Spain, were the source that the Scholastics first used, as they attempted to logically reconcile every Biblical reference, also a precursor of modern science. But it is also a portrait of Islam during a period where it was at the cutting-edge, an eclectic and dynamic civilization that surpassed anything happening in the West during the dark ages.

Third, over nearly 600 years, Byzantine monks decisively influenced the development of the Slavic world, as it evolved from a loose coalition of pagan tribes into the nations we know today. From Byzantines, they gained their Cyrillic alphabet, the first texts in their then undifferentiated languages, political-administrative organizational ideas, and lastly, their Orthodox (and in some cases Catholic) faith, based on the mystical Hesychasm. Unlike the Arabs and Italians with their intellectual pursuits, this is about the evolution of religious faith and doctrine. As I knew very little about this, it was the most fascinating part of the book. It also gave me a renewed sense of wonder at the sweep of human ambition, how civilizations collide, absorb, and borrow from each other.

This is really great fun, if these things interest you. If not, it will be rough going and perhaps dry.

Warmly recommended.
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on 23 September 2011
I got this book to try and expand my knowledge of many of the world's most famous empires, and after reading "Constantinople" by Philip Mansel which was related to much of the goings-on in the Ottoman Empire, I wanted to read something on Byzantium to give me a brief overview on the empire, but I got a fair bit more than that.

The book delves into the effect Byzantium had on much of the rest of the world as it began decline in its importance, as the book is divided into 3 sections; one focused on the Slavic world, another on the Muslim world, and the other on the West. But not just did this book give me a decent understanding of the importance of Byzantium but it also has now leant me a large interest in Ancient Greece and its own importance in shaping much of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires too, aswell as its own literary legacy. I found Sailing From Byzantium to be a great place to start with in looking to understand how important the Byzantine empire really was despite how often mentions of Byzantium and its empire seem to mainky have derogatory connotations nowadays, but I can also see myself coming back to this book at a later date to get a much firmer grip on the empire's effect on the rest of the world before it disappeared into oblivion.
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on 26 November 2013
This is a very interesting book about the impact the Byzantine Empire made on Western Europe (mainly Italy), the Islamic World and Eastern Europe and Russia.

The first chapter is about scholars from the empire teaching Italian intellectuals (mainly in Florence) classic Greek language and philosophy (mainly Plato) at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries. The second chapter deals with the impact the empire had on the Islamic world, starting with the Umayyad Dynasty based in Damascus at the time. (Although the "Arabic Enlightenment" once thrived, it was later considered foreign and un-Islamic and eventually died out.) The third chapter is about Byzantine monks' missionary work in, first, the Balkans (Moravia, Bulgaria and Serbia) and then, Russia where Moscow was considered to be "The Third Rome" after the fall of Constantinople.

The topics this book deals with are rather specialized, but the author's writing (which appears to rely on existing work by other specialists) is very clear and concise. I think the first chapter is the best since it shows how the Byzantine scholars' work helped create Renaissance in Italy.
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on 29 February 2012
Being interested in the history of the Byzantine Empire, I purchased from Amazon this book and read it.
On the whole it is well written, with good narrative and the author presents interesting points of view.
Unfortunately, when one spots a blatant error, it puts the whole perspective of the historical content of the book in question. Surely with the slightest research on a present day map, Mr. Colin Wells should have realised that the town of Arta is in Greece, as it should be with its long Greek history, and not in present day Albania. (Page 284 3rd paragraph). When one spots such mistakes, some doubt is cast on the accuracy of the rest of the text.
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