on 18 April 2001
Covering a thousand years of history in as many pages is a challenge but this 'Short History...' does a pretty good job of condensing the whole thing into a readable format.
A previous reviewer criticised the author for skimping on detail. But for a reader (like me) who's just interested in getting a flavour of the times, it's perfect. It's rather sensational at points, but more than once I found myself slack-jawed at the goings-on: plots, murders, adultery, intrigue...sometimes it's more like an extended soap opera than a history book.
So it's not for the serious academic then, but as an introduction to the subject it makes for a good read.
on 18 October 2005
For all students of history, this is a great intro to a period that has been largely ignored in English schools, for hundreds of years.
It does seem a little rushed at times, but this is only to be expected from this edited version, and JJN apologises for this in the preface.
I enjoyed this so much, I am now reading the individual volumes. It's highly entertaining and a real page turner - not something one normally says about a history book.
Quite simply one of the best books I have ever read.
"A Short History of Byzantium" is a condensed version of author John Julius Norwich's three volume work. It covers the Byzantine Empire from its founding by Constantine the Great in AD 330 through its final destruction by the Turks in 1453.
I began the book with little knowledge about the Byzantine Empire with which to place what I was reading in context. This may have handicapped me as I proceeded through it. Much of this book consists of a seemingly endless list of Emperors, Empresses and challengers. It contains relatively little about other pieces of the Byzantine puzzle, such as the economy, the arts and other social forces which contributed to the whole picture. I did find interesting the sections dealing with the relationship of Charlemagne to the Empire and the occasional attempts, usually the result of foreign pressure, to heal the breach in Christendom.
Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with this book. I finished it with little more understanding of Byzantium than I had when I started. It may be the nature of the subject itself, but I feel that I need to look elsewhere for a good initiation into the Byzantine World.
on 1 May 2002
JJ Norwich manages to condense over 1,000 years of history into a single volume and does it with style. The book is well-written and keeps the reader's interest from beginning to end. For me, this has certainly whetted my appetite for buying and reading the original 3-volume work and also other books on this amazing period in European and Asian history. It is amazing how much of our culture and knowledge is owed to the Byzantines and until you read about them, how little most of us know.
I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in understanding more about how religion, ambition, greed, courage, vice, weakness and many other factors intertwined to dictate the course of the Empire and indeed most of Europe and Asia Minor over such a long period of time.
on 15 April 2009
This was a very exciting, and pacy, introduction to Byzantine history, from its inception in AD330 by Constantine the Great to Constantinople's capture by the Ottomans in 1453. True, this is not scholarship and only skirts over the surface of Byzantium's long and complex history, but I do not see any problem with that. The author states in the introduction that he makes no claim to scholarship.
What Norwich does provide though is an exciting chronological narrative of Byzantium. To fit over one thousand years of history into one relatively small book is an admirable achievement. As already stated, this book should primarily be used as a primer, or introduction, to Byzantine history, before moving on to more scholarly and in-depth studies. Norwich here provides a basic narrative, with little or no analysis. However, this is compensated by the pacy, friendly style of writing, in which the reader is given an endless list of emperors, patriarchs, battles and sieges (especially of Contantinople). Indeed, the overwhelming impression given is one of Byzantium's constant struggle for survival.
Highlights are the glorious reigns of Justinian, Basil II and Heraclius. I would have have liked more analysis of these interesting characters and their reigns, as well as the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth century.
All in all recommended as a good introduction to Byzantine studies.
on 3 June 2012
This work summarizes the three more detailed tomes on Byzantium by the same author. It is a new work rather than a collection of passages of the previous (more detailed books). I am amazed to see people here giving this 4 stars claiming that it glosses over some details or that it sensationalizes the historical facts in part. I find both observations to be irrelevant; the former because this work is a summary and thus necessarily terse, the latter because the author is passionate about this period in history and can so be excused for expressing disappointment when a virtuous emperor is overthrown or some such.
Make no mistake - if you are interested in an introductory (and compelling) read of the history of the Eastern Roman empire, this is it! Buy it and you will not regret it.
on 9 December 2010
I had toyed with the idea of buying John Julius Norwich's three books on Byzantium and opted for this instead (simply because I figured it would take me too long to read the three books). I therefore really wanted to like this, but I genuinely felt as though so much had been edited out of the original work that it became quite difficult to read. Large chunks of history are whizzed through in a couple of pages and it's quite difficult to come out of it with a good understanding of the events being described.
You can't really blame the author for this. To take three books and condense them into such a short number of pages is an incredibly difficult task. A good effort has been made here - some sections are entirely readable - but overall it just falls a bit short of the mark.
I have read the first of his three books on Byzantium and thoroughly enjoyed it, so my advice would be to just stick with those. This book seems appealing on account of its length, but the merciless editing makes it a bit more of a chore to get through, even if it's a third of the length of his trilogy.
on 21 November 2013
This is a condensed edition of the author's three-volume tome on Byzantium (Byzantine Empire). It is a concise and very readable book on the long political history - spanning over 1,123 years - of the empire. Its rise and fall are chronologically described.
Some maps of Constantinople, the Mediterranean world, etc. as well as family trees of various notable emperors are included. But, on top of these, maps showing the border of the empire at various times would have been very useful since the author frequently mentions its constantly-changing border as a result of military conquests and defeats. For these maps, the reader will have to refer to "The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History" by Colin McEvedy.
Being political history focusing on the rulers (emperors, empresses and their regents) and their policies, the lives of ordinary people or its great art and architecture are not covered. For these, we have to turn to other books.
In summary, this book has opened my eyes to this fascinating, but generally overlooked, empire which passed the ancient Greek cultural legacy to Western Europe and brought religion to Russia and Eastern Europe.
on 24 December 2000
This book is awesome in scope, entailing the 1000 years plus history of Greek Byzantium, the eastern Roman empire in a single volume. The author passes the test with flying colours. Not only that but the story is gripping, this true life account is more fascinating than any TV soap, from the beginning to the highly charged finale - where I was surprised to find out that the European powers had as much to do with the collapse of this great empire as the Turks did. The final Epilogue could have been bigger, but in a way its better that the story is just told. The final image in my mind is of the moving last ceremony held in St. Sophia cathedral, even as they could hear the walls of the city being battered and know it was all over, and of the last emperor Constantin XI, removing his imperial robes and throwing himself into the besieging Turks where the battle was at its thickest, never to be seen again.
on 20 March 2015
"How does one write a history about an Emprire that existed for over 1100 years?", Norwich asks rhetorically in the Introduction. "By beginning at the beginning" he wittily answers his own question. And I agree, in principle, that is how most good history is written, start in the beginning and work your way forward, battle by battle, or period by period.
It's just that with the Byzantines, if you go emperor by emperor as Norwich does, you end up with a very, very big book. Which is why he split it into three volumes. This 'short history' (still 400 very, very fine-printed pages) was meant for people like myself who are put off by 3 volumes of 400 very fine-printed pages each. Rather than re-write, possibly with a different structure, the emperor-by-emperor approach was maintained, and a lot of cutting was done to reduce the number of pages.
I found the product of this cutting exercise rather dry, at times. There are a number of sections that are almost meaningless, where you only get a few emperor's names and the names of whoever murdered him to become the next emperor. This approach of leaving no emperor undescribed does not seem the right one to 'do' 1123 years of history. A better way, in my humble opinion, would be to go in depth on some exciting episodes, and treat the less eventful centuries in bird's flight, so to speak. A nice example of this approach is Roger Crowley's epic 'City of Fortune' about Venice (not quite as long a history as the Byzantines but still 500 years).
Having said this, I do think Norwich did a good job. Much of the book is actually quite exciting, even after all the cutting he had to do - so imagine what a gread read the actual trilogy would be.
Still, my verdict remains that this book is a bit of a mis-fit. The casual reader is better served by something like 'Lost to the West' which does an excellent job of providing a quick and exciting overview, while the real fan of the Byzantines should go for Norwich's trilogy.