Of monks and generals

Byzantine books

Byzantine books: essential reading by David Barchard

If you want to understand how modern Turkey came into being, you have at some point to consider its forerunners, the Ottomans and their predecessors, the Byzantines. Both established great empires – covering roughly the same territories at different dates – and both had a powerful cultural, political and economic influence on the rest of Europe. They are worth attention in their own right.

For those who have the stamina, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, more than two centuries after it was written, still a superb account. Try starting where most readers stop: around AD476 with the fall of the Western Empire. Gibbon sneers at all religions and all faiths, and his account of monk-ridden Byzantines is always unsympathetic. But his grasp of Byzantine history is hard to beat.

Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity, recently reissued in the United States, is a short illustrated history of the Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Moham­med covering similar ground. Brown sees the good as well as the damage that accompanied the rise of the great Monotheistic faiths which re­placed Roman civilisation.

Cyril Mango’s Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome remains a masterly overview of Byzantine society and culture, though Mango, like Gibbon, shows contempt for his subject matter and as a result may do it some injustices. Romilly Jenkins in Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries offers a flowing narrative of high Byzantine history from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, which has the Victorian virtue of combining scholarly accuracy with readability. Each emperor is graded on his success as an administrator – and a lot of fail marks are awarded. Jenkins died in the 1970s and historians today would pay more attention to the social and economic contexts.

Sir Steven Runciman’s books are often the best way to approach a specific period. For the tenth century, for example, try reading his Romanus Lecapenus, an account of one of the most effective Byzantine rulers which sketches a detailed picture of the Byzantine world . Generations have grown up on his three-volume History of the Crusades which inspired some of his readers to become historians themselves. Runciman is also notable for his fairness in giving the Muslims’ and later Turks’ side of the story.

The third and final volume of John Julius Norwich’s History of the Byzantine Empire appeared last year and an abridged single-volume appears in America this year to coincide with the Byzantium exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in the spring. His narrative takes relatively little account of recent academic scholarship and this has earned him some brickbats among university Byzan­tinists but most find his prose spellbinding. The personalities of the emperors are painted in vivid colours with a good deal of gossipy detail.

Most people are interested in the Later Roman Empire and Byzantium because of their art and architecture. Robin Cormack’s Writing in Gold links Byzantine art to its social history and if you are mainly interested in art, this is the book you should read first. Cormack is a lucid and careful writer, though occasionally his tone becomes didactic. But he is more thought-provoking than David Talbot Rice whose books read like museum catalogues. These thorough, illustrated surveys are, however, still formidable. Try Art of the Byzantine Era.

Finally you might consider reading some of the Byzantines themselves. They were not usually lively writers, but two exceptions, both in Penguin translation, are the eleventh-century scholar-politician Michael Psellus and the twelfth-century imperial princess, Anna Comnena. Clever, observant, amusing, untrustworthy – Psellus makes unforgettable reading in the Chronographia, a stunningly vivid picture of court life and politics in the half century before the military collapse at Manzikert. Anna Comnena is a shriller voice, mixing adoration of her father, the Emperor Alexius I – after whom she called her book the Alexiad – with contempt for his successors.

Most of the other literature translated into English is much duller. The central account of Byzantine history from AD 602 to 813 is Theophanes’s Chro­nicle available from the University of Pennsylvanian Press and translated by Harry Turtledove.

For a flavour of the religion, read Three Byzantine Saints translated by Norman Baynes and Elizabeth Dawes. One saint sat for years on a column at what is now Beşiktaş in Istanbul. Another hung himself up in an outdoor cage. The third was a harsh and sinister Patriarch of Alexandria. All three accounts show how religion bound village culture and the imperial court, which would otherwise have been dangerously remote.

The sophistication of Byzantine society and an explanation of why it lasted nearly a thousand years, are found in George T Dennis’s translation of Three Byzantine Military Treatises (Dumbarton Oaks Texts No. 9). Western Europe was incapable of producing anything like this until the sixteenth century.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 11
  • Bright Orange

    Tracing the history of this beautiful fruit is like reading a fairy tale. It spans continents and cultures like no other fruit, from its presumed natural habitat in the foothills of the Himalayas to the scented paradise gardens of the eastern Mediterranean and the orange groves of California.
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  • Vintners of Tokat

    The bunch of Narince grapes Ali Riza Diren is holding in his Anatolian vineyard (illustrated in this vintage issue of Cornucopia) is the raw material of a well kept secret. Tokat’s is an ancient wine, and its production was revived by Ali Riza’s father, to the delight of ambassadors and the approval of a Sotheby’s connoisseur.


  • Churches of the Rock

    High on the central Anatolian plateau, the craggy undulations of Cappadocia’s volcanic landscape conceal a silent world: countless Byzantine sancturies and cathedrals lovingly hollowed from the rock. David Barchard finds two valleys undisturbed since the Dark Ages. Photographs by Sigurd Kranendonk


  • Divan Inspiration

    Amasya, Tokat and Merzifon were once on the trade routes to China, centres of scholarship and commerce. Today they are secluded enclaves of traditional pleasures. John Carswell enjoys a feast of delicate architecture and heady wines. Photographs by Simon Upton


  • House of Great Illusions

    Hidden among the concrete blocks of Teşvikiye is a magnificent mansion riddled with mystery. Masquerading as a Venetian palazzo, Tozan House has disappearing passages, secret stairs and eccentricities it shares with its creator

  • The snowdrop treat

    When Mike Read, the plant conservation officer for Fauna and Flora International (FFI), uncovered a large illegal trade in wild bulbs from Turkey in the 1980s, he and his colleagues were greatly concerned…



  • Aphrodite’s Domain

    The finest school of sculpture in all antiquity was in Aphrodisias. Above the valleys of the Meander in Turkey’s Aegean hinterland, this favourite city of the Emperor Augustus remained largely unknown until the photographer Ara Güler brought it to the attention of the Princeton scholar Kenan T Erim in 1959. Here Ara Güler returns to the city and John Julius Norwich recalls Professor Erim and his first impressions of the sculptures that took his breath away.

  • Lake Shore Drive

    The Mosque of Esrefoğlu in Beyşehır, is one of the most beautiful in Anatolia. Built in 1298, it recalls earlier Central Asian traditions. Wooden columns with carved capitals support the splendid roof.


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Issue 11, 1996 Anatolia Rediscovered
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