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Byzantium: The Apogee [Paperback]

John Julius Norwich
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 1 1993
In "Byzantium: The Early Centuries", John Julius Norwich told the epic tale of the Roman Empire's second capital up to Christmas Day AD 800 - when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as a rival emperor. This second volume of his magnificent history covers the following three centuries. In it he continues his compelling chronicle up to the coronation of the heroic Alexius Comnenus in 1081. The other two volumes in the trilogy, "Byzantium: The Early Centuries" and "Byzantium: The Decline and Fall", are also published in Penguin.

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From Library Journal

"We have now passed the point of no return: I . . . am enjoying myself; and if I can persuade . . . kindred spirits to share my enjoyment I shall be happy . . . ." Thus writes the author, introducing the second volume of a proposed trilogy on Byzantium. Norwich writes with a flair; anecdotal, accurate, witty, and never boring, he covers a 300-year period of history whose intricacies and subplots could render the most hardened insomniac unconscious. Not with Norwich. Beginning with Charlemagne's coronation in 800 A.D. and the resulting split in the Christian world, Norwich traces the return of iconoclasm, political intrigues, military campaigns, atrocities, and alliances, ending with the fateful battle at Nanzikert from which the Empire never recovered. The stage is enormous, and the number of characters are bewildering, but Norwich deftly brings to life the frozen icons of the history books. If the third volume is as enjoyable and exhaustive as the first two, history fans will have the definitive work on the subject. Highly recommended.
- Judith Bradley, Acad . of the Holy Cross Lib., Kensington, Md.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

Norwich combines wonderfully deadpan humor and a keen appreciation for the narrative potential of popular history in this delightful second installment in his projected three-volume study of the Byzantine Empire. Picking up where Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1989) left off--at Pope Leo III's crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome in A.D. 800, a serious threat to the political primacy of Byzantium--the deftly paced account gallops through 300 triumphant and torturous years. At the end, the Empire, lacking a stable dynasty and devastated by rivals east and west, teeters near anarchy. Not that the years in between--marked with court intrigue and debauchery, frequent usurpations, religious disputation, and near-constant warfare--were any picnic. Reveling in the curious personal arrangements and often ruinous quirks of such rulers as Michael the Sot, Norwich exposes the astonishing brutality that flourished amid the intellectual and artistic splendors of the realm. Enemies might be dispatched by poisoning (especially, it was rumored, at court), torture, or crucifixion, although the favored punishments seem to have been blinding by hot irons (a craze that reached its peak with Basil the Bulgar-Slayer's treatment of 15,000 war prisoners) and castration (which disqualified the victim from claiming the throne). In brilliantly colorful prose, enlivened by his gift for droll understatement (Empress Irene, who had her son blinded ``in a particularly barbarous manner,'' is described as ``deeply unpleasant''), Norwich brings a complex subject to vivid life. And, although he disclaims any attempt at rigorous economic and social analysis, the extensive and measured consideration of contemporary records and later scholarly studies makes this an excellent introduction to a daunting field. Not a world in which many would want to live, but, in this superbly enjoyable overview, well worth any reader's visit. (Thirty-two pages of photographs, 16 in color--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Apogee Jan. 19 2002
By A Customer
Byzantine history is a little dry, but then again, history never made any promises to be exciting. This "apex" of the Byzantine empire is surprisingly dull when compared to the apex of other empires, especially, and perhaps ironically, the great Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, its worthwhile if not just because it covers the reign of the unfortunately named Basil the Bulgar-Slayer (Basil II), and the Macedonian dynasty.
The book opens with the revivacation of the Western empire under the Franks, the dwindling power of iconoclasm in its second outbreak, and the looming schism between the papacy and Constantinople. Then, of course, the rise to power of Basil I, the first of many great usurpers, who rose to power by killing the great Regent Bardas and the Emperor Michael III. A cultural high-point is reached under Basil's dynasty, and competent leadership manages to at least overweight bad leadership for a time. The Emperor John I, one of my favorite bloody usurpers, is also dealt with. The book closes with the chaotic period that followed Basil II's death, in which the Emperors and Empresses seemed to replace each other annually, each outdoing the last in mismanagement, and the beginning of the end, with the arrival of a new enemy, the Seljuk Turks, and the defeat at Manzikert.
The book suffers a bit by lack of reliable contemporary sources, and one can feel the author's frustration. Still, there are bright moments, not the least of which is the luckless Liudprand and the eloquent but dangerously conceited Michael Psellus, both of which are quoted liberally for good reason. Lord Norwich isn't a professional scholar, but he's certainly well read on the topic, and writes with great humor and color. Worth reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History made delicously fun. June 10 2002
This is how you write ancient history. Sure many historical details are not known, but many ancient historians wrote about the leaders, and Norwich uses this to his advantage. Byzantium comes alive as the Grecian version of the Roman Empire. All 3 volumes keep you glued to the pages. I almost felt guilty having so much fun reading history -- and that's from the perspective of an advid history enthusiast. Norwich makes you care about his characters, warts and all. And by the end, you find yourself rooting for the survival of Byzantium. Well done sir!
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Glory that saved Europe March 17 2001
This is an essential book to read. It reminds us that it was during the 800-1000 period that the resistance of Byzantium to Islam, and other "barbarians" was a key factor in allowing Western Europe to develop and secure its basis for its future civilization. It is in this book that we see best our debt to Byzantium. It remains that it is in this second book of the trilogy that we start to see some of the flaws of Mr. Norwich methods. His almost exclusive interest in lining up facts starts playing against his narrative. In the first book, some of the motors of history were simpler. In the period here described things get more complex. It would be very helpful for some of us to have a clear description of which were the main trade routes and products traded, the evolution of the human population and repartition, etc... How can one understand all the wars that took place during those centuries? Are we supposed to assume that the Slavs invaders just woke up one day and said "Gee, I guess I will attack Byzantium today". Still, the story is interesting and the books are nicely complemented with illustrations and charts though maps are not as helpful as they should be. With so many wars it would have been good to show maps with a few arrows that pointed the main areas of attack and vulnerability of the diverse countries surrounding Byzantium.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Byzantium: The Apogee is excellent Feb. 4 2001
This book was the first I read of Norwich's trilogy - by accident, of course. I didn't realize it was the second of three books until I started reading it. It is SUCH a fascinating account of an empire that is now gone. I became interested in reading about the history of the Turkish area when I visited Istanbul last summer, and am now very interested in the rich history of that city. The debt owed to Byzantium is more than most of us ever learn about. Byzantium's rich culture retained much ancient learning which served eventually to spur Europe out of the dark ages.
It is impossible to read this book without becoming consumed with curiosity for the other two books of the trilogy. The reader gets a very good look at the inside of the empire, but also is given glimpses of other empires and peoples as they affected or interacted with the direction of Byzantium. Personalities, politics and intrigues; families, buildings and architecture; religion, government, and commerce; geography, weather, and natural disasters; armies, navies and strategy; invasions, skirmishes, disease, torture, destruction, death and birth; all are given in depth treatment by Norwich in order to show the meandering evolution of the Byzantium Empire and its interactions with Europe and the Middle East. The book is richly annotated, which adds greatly to the enjoyment, in my opinion.
The beginning of the book sees religious dogma continuing to widen the schism between the Western and Eastern Empires and the end of the book sees the Byzantium facing its first major loss of land in military defeat to the Turks.
I highly recommend the trilogy to all history buffs.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Epic Tale Continues
John Julius Norwich picks up where he had left off in the first volume of this trilogy (Byzantium: The Early Centuries) and he does so with the same combination of serious... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Daffy Bibliophile
5.0 out of 5 stars History made delicously fun
This is how you write ancient history. Sure many historical details are not known, but many ancient historians wrote about the leaders, and Norwich uses this to his advantage. Read more
Published on June 10 2002 by Michael Confoy
5.0 out of 5 stars The second book of the trilogy
I had a hard time putting this book down. For those who want more than just a cursory review of the history of this important civilization, the trilogy is a must. Read more
Published on Sept. 18 2001
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read
The author is not a professional historian. He does not know how to read the sources critically and is unable to select and reject the secondary literature, but he has a beautiful... Read more
Published on July 14 2001 by rene@centroweb.net
5.0 out of 5 stars Well done Byzantine
Norwich writes with passion and intelligence of a subject that has been near his heart. He lays out the stories and the facts with a style that is never boring or obtuse. Read more
Published on April 10 2000 by Walter Blocher
4.0 out of 5 stars Gibbon made easy
This heading is not meant to deride the achievement of J.J. Norwich. In fact, it is a compliment. He rewrites the last most difficult part of Gibbon's history (of the Greeks, or... Read more
Published on April 2 2000 by Paul Lee
5.0 out of 5 stars As Complex yet Simple as a Christmas Ornament
John Norwich, in developing his three volume study of the history of byzantium, has offered to the modern student of the era a clean, thorough and absorbing read. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2000 by jack schaaf
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely great!
Norwich is a great history writer. With these three books he really opened a door to me of a civilization so important to everything western but that is either unknown or... Read more
Published on Dec 12 1998
4.0 out of 5 stars _The Apogee_ is a true summary of this work
This is amongst the best histories of a great civilization I've yet to read. Concise, with enough amusing anecdotes to give the reader a sense of delving into the material, the... Read more
Published on Nov. 29 1998
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