Select one of the keywords
Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World    by Colin Wells order for
Sailing from Byzantium
by Colin Wells
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2006 (2006)

Read an Excerpt

* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

This is a remarkably concise yet thoroughly engaging book. Straightforward in its thesis, and paradoxically encyclopedic in its scope within its mere 335 pages, Sailing from Byzantium, as noted by the author, is written for the curious general reader rather than the specialist.

The author Colin Wells states that his book 'is a work of popular synthesis with no pretensions to original scholarship,' and his main argument is simple: 'One of the most fascinating things about Byzantium ... was the way it influenced the younger civilizations that grew up around it.' In fact, without Byzantium - an empire that fluctuated dramatically in its size, power, and influence during its relatively brief history - a great deal of our world would now be quite different: the separate cultural worlds of the Italian Renaissance to the west, the medieval Islamic empire to the south, and the Slavic cultures to the north would have been radically altered in their respective developments and successes.

Vibrant and unique, the Byzantine Empire stood as 'the cultural pinnacle' of the world during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, 'leading the world in the arts, sciences and philosophy.' Frequently overlooked by students of Western history, Byzantium was the pivotal successor to the Greek and Roman empires, and in that capacity it became a remarkable, essential medieval bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.

Without Byzantium's intellectual vigor, the majestic works of Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Aeschylus and many others would have remained buried in the ancient past. The works of these canonical geniuses would have simply disappeared without a trace. Instead, Byzantium preserved these important keys to ancient civilization and shared them with the humanists of the Italian Renaissance and the philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam. Moreover, Byzantium's religious legacy was profound. Byzantine missionaries 'converted Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians to Orthodox Christianity, which led to the creation of the Russian Orthodox alphabet and a popular form of Christianity' as well as new architecture 'and one of the world's greatest artistic traditions.' However, 'when the city of Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks and was renamed Constantinople, its citizens scattered throughout Europe, leaving an incalculable cultural loss in their wake.'

Fresh in its insights and crisp in its narrative flow, Sailing from Byzantium is further enriched by several maps, a comparative timeline, and a glossary that helps readers keep track of an elaborate (I could even say, a byzantine) assortment of historical figures. An appendix of endnotes point readers to other sources for some of the author's commentary (although the publisher and the book's editors should have taken more care in correctly cross-referencing and annotating the erroneous page numbers for the notations). Notwithstanding the problems with the endnotes, the book is a comprehensive and fascinating survey. Sailing from Byzantium is highly recommended.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more NonFiction books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews