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Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
I have long had an interest in Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman history, and I also enjoy vertical histories (those books that cover a narrow subject but in depth). Sailing from Byzantium by Colin Wells is a vertical history that in its three parts attempts to describe the legacy of Byzantine culture. The importance of Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire, lies beyond its territorial acquisitions or military prowess (or the loss of both as the centuries bore on until 1453). Part I focuses on western Europe, primarily Italy, and the role of humanism that led to the Renaissance. As Catholic and Orthodox worked to re-unite, as the Crusades sent large numbers of westerners east, or as the Fourth Crusades captured Constantinople, both east and west interacted ever more frequently. For the west, this meant rediscovering classical Greek texts and Greek itself. Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Florence all felt the influence, which began the process of lifting the Dark Ages from western Europe. Part II, the shortest part, explores the Byzantine influence on the Islamic world, particularly on effects of Aristotle on the development of a rationalistic philosophy epitomized by Averroes in Moorish Spain. Part III returns to Europe but investigates the Slavic and, more importantly, Russian embracing of Orthodoxy, the battles between Catholic and Orthodox for supremacy in various regions, and Orthodoxy's Hesychasm movement on the development of Russian Orthodoxy. Wells does a good job of describing the influences, how the Byzantium influenced the rest of its neighbors, and how Byzantium itself was influenced. Wells remains at a high level, and we only really get glimpses and quick overviews. And that is my main criticism of this book. At only 368 pages, I do not think it went in detail enough, did not take the various alleys and side stories it could have. Perhaps I have now read too much of this history and much of it seemed familiar to me. So my caution is that this is a good introduction, but for those well versed in Byzantium, the Renaissance, and so on, the book may seem light.
Colin Wells gives a delightful history of the Byzantines in a readable account sprinkled with surprising historical tidbits, all on a foundation of rich insight. Though we have largely forgotten the Byzantines, they live among us yet, in our cultural patterns and views of the world. Wells is particularly good at unearthing largely-forgotten movements of peoples and ideas. His sense of the flow of influence between Byzantium and the Italian Renaissance alone is worth the reading time. As I read the book, I was preparing for my first visit to Istanbul. Because of the author's careful review of the Chora (outside the wall) Church in the city, I made that museum my first stop. Breathtaking frescoes and mosaics, certainly of a kind with Giotto's work in Padua, as Wells claims. It does make one wonder at the similarity of work and the near-simultaneous timing of the works. That one afternoon in Chora made the trip satisfying and enriching. The book is written for quick reading, smooth in style, and stimulating to any lover of history and culture.