Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Ancient Empire

Byzantium: The Early Centuries
by John Julius Norwich

Persons with a casual interest in Roman history might tend to believe that the Empire collapsed and disappeared sometime in the third or fourth centuries A.D. The reality is that the old Empire got a somewhat new lease on life in 330 A.D., when Constantine (called "the Great") transferred his capitol to the far eastern edge of Europe, transforming an obscure port called Byzantium into Constantinople, the New Rome. In this Eastern Roman Empire, the old Latin system changed over time to be overtaken by the native Greek element, but the people and the Emperor never forgot that they were the true and rightful heir to the empire of Augustus. It was only in 1453, scant decades before the voyage of Columbus, that Byzantium reached the end of a long and tired history, falling to the Turks under Sultan Mehmet II. Gibbon might have seen Byzantium as a failure, but it was a failure that lasted over 1000 years, dwarfing in its magnitude the history of the United States and the countries of modern Europe.

The first volume of a trilogy, Norwich's Byzantium: The Early Centuries approaches the Eastern Empire through a narrative history focusing on the personalities of the early rulers, beginning with Constantine and ending in 802 with the death of the Empress Irene. Compared with some of the more infamous Roman Emperors, most of the Byzantines come across as fairly competent and hard working. One had to be, for in those days Byzantium faced numerous threats - from the "barbarian" tribes of Europe and central Asia as well from the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Towards the end of the volume, another threat arises, this time from the obscure reaches of Arabia - the formidable armies of early Islam.

This isn't to say that Byzantium didn't have its share of bloodthirsty megalomaniacs, from Justinian, who (in addition to recovering large portions of the Western Empire through the agency of his superlative general Belisarius as well as instigating a massive building program in the capital) was responsible for the slaughter of 300,000 citizens in the Hippodrome at the climax of the Nika Riots - to the "pathologically cruel" Phocas, who bequeathed to the Empire a legacy of torture and paranoia.

The frustratingly consistent thread running through this history is the endless theological debates on the nature of Christ that caused so much turmoil and wasted energy. Religious advocacy and repression took up much of the energy of the Emperors, making it so difficult to find points of commonality upon which a truly strong state could be built. Religious schism also made more difficult the forging of strong alliances with Western Europe, an issue which will arise again and again in the coming centuries, culminating in the infamous Fourth Crusade, in which Constantinople was sacked by the princes of the West.

Norwich does not spend much time on social and economic history. Little is said of issues such as the Iconoclast controversy, apart from its impact on the policies of the later Emperors of the period under examination. For this, we look to the magisterial works of George Ostrogorsky and A.A. Vasiliev. Still, for a enjoyable introduction to a fascinating and obscure Empire, this work is recommended.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Borges and Vonnegut

I was compelled to read these short books by a respected reader on a Belgian blog. One is a memory of a author in his twilight, another is a memoir/essay by a writer in his eighties. My literary tastes tend more towards Borges than Vonnegut, but I found both books rewarding in their own way.

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

For a few years in the mid-1960’s, Alberto Manguel was a reader for the blind Jorge Luis Borges in his apartment in Buenos Aires. This slim book is a remembrance of those times, “memories of memories.” As a longtime Borges reader, I found the description of his mode of living interesting, and was pleased to see that he shared a fondness for Durer’s The Knight, Death, and the Devil (his print was in his bedroom – mine hangs in my library). Borges lived and breathed reading – the sort of person who could pick up any printed material and find some meaning in it. The apparent simplicity of his works, most of which were quite short, belies their true complexity. I recall reading an analysis of “The Garden of Forking Paths” and being blown away by the layers of meaning in the story, layers that are not apparent in a casual reading. Borges, like Nabokov, demands that the reader read with sharp attention.

My one complaint is that my paperback edition lacks the photographs of other editions. If I had known, I would have opted for a more expensive edition.

A Man Without A County by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut had, apparently, maintained that he was through with writing. One suspects that the sad state of the world in the Bush era compelled him to speak out on the madness that we have all come to accept, the slow death by torture of the earth. “The good Earth” he writes as an epitaph, “we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” Vonnegut comes perilously close to cranky old man territory, with a fondness for words such as “nowadays” and “damn fool” (as in “damn fool computer). But, hey, as a freethinker and member of Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” he’s entitled. Kurt Vonnegut is a proud humanist, a thoughtful humorist, and a decent soul in a country where such attributes are in short supply.