Books: Byzantium | The Apogee | John Julius Norwich

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"He was not concerned with the social graces, not interested even in personal happiness... he cared only for the greatness and prosperity of his Empire. No wonder that in his hands it reached its apogee." (Norwich)

This is volume II of III of the history of the Byzantine Empire. This volume, unlike the first one, covers a relatively short period of time: from the year 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Western Empire to Easter Day 1081, when Alexius Comnenus takes the reins of Byzantium.

The Empire in this period defends and expands its frontiers against a series of kingdoms, tribes, and other empires in every direction. North Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East. The Russians make their debut as a force from the northeast, descending from the Black Sea to the bosphorus, but leaving without attacking Constantinople. Also in the northeast, the insatiable Pechenegs, of whom emperor Michael VII wrote that “it is… to our advantage to keep the peace with the Pecheneg nation…”, to give them whatever they ask for and in good grace. Then there are Bulgars, Slavs, Saracens, Avars, Normans, Lombards, many others and, of course, Turks.

Volume II continues the glorious voyage of the first book, it’s a trip of wonderment, amazement, and learning. It is very much centered on the personas of Emperors and senior officers, and not much on social or economical tides that affected and shaped the empire. This is just an observation, and not a criticism like the one barked by W. E. Lecky’s in History of European Morals (1869):

“The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.”

Hard to understand how the word “monotonous” can survive in the previous sentence!

Apogee, and beginning of the end

Byzantium and its empire reached its zenith with the reign of Basil II. After three decades of war, he annihilates the Bulgars and extends the dominion of the Empire from Iberia (eastern shore of the Black Sea) to the Adriatic. The Byzantine army was the finest fighting machine of the civilized world. He also instituted the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the army comprised of mercenaries from the Varangian Sea (nowadays known as the Baltic Sea), they were to become the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Sadly, despite all his achievements, Basil II made the mistake of never having a wife or woman, and therefore he did not leave a son to rule the Empire. This was a fatal mistake, and the very day after Basil’s death, the decline began.

A succession of grotesque characters ruled Constantinople for the next 50 years and, on August 26, 1071, Manzikert happened. 

In one day, the Empire lost three quarters of Asia Minor, Emperor Romanus IV was captured, and the Seljuk Turks began the multi-century avalanche that ended on 29 May 1453 when Mehmet II entered Constantinople and closed behind him the door of the Middle Ages.

Manzikert is most upsetting when one learns that the Turks had no intention to fight the Empire, “whose existence had always been accepted by the rulers of Islam… the idea of annihilating Byzantium would have struck the Seljuk Sultans as completely unrealistic, even ridiculous.” (Norwich). Their eyes instead were set on the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. However, due to the incompetence of Byzantium's rulers and their diplomatic and military blunders, the Turks were left with no choice but to target the Empire.

Manzikert sent a thundering message to the world: Byzantine army, finest fighting machine no more.

Ten years after this harrowing defeat, the Empire saw the rise of general Alexius Comnenus to the throne. A ruler that would restore the name and reputation of Byzantium among nations, and prepare Constantinople to “play its part in the great drama that was to begin to unfold even before the end of that turbulent century: the Crusades." 

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Byzantium Folio Society Edition