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Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World Hardcover – July 25, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this deft synthesis of scholarship, classicist Wells shows how the Byzantines exerted a profound influence on all neighboring civilizations. Concrete examples still exist that testify to that influence—such as Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy—but this book focuses on the more ineffable products of culture that traveled from the Bosporus, influencing Western, Islamic and Slavic cultures. The story of Renaissance Europe's embrace of pagan learning is familiar, but Wells tells of a fascinating intellectual circuit that begins with the transmission of Greek learning to the newly powerful Arabs and leads to Averroës's commentary on Aristotle, Aquinas's use of this commentary and finally to the Byzantine Cydones's translation of Aquinas in the 14th century. By then, the dominant Orthodox movement of Hesychasm deemed pagan learning incompatible with Christian faith, forcing many humanists to the Catholic West. Wells devotes much space to the Hesychasts and blames them for this betrayal of Greek heritage and for weakening the empire before its final collapse in 1453, but duly credits them with shaping the Russian Orthodox Church and positioning Moscow as the Third Rome. This volume, which contains a useful glossary of historical figures, detailed maps and a time line, is a superb survey of Byzantium's many cultural bequests. (July 25)
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From Booklist

Wells begins his detailed book with a list of the major characters--51 of them, including humanists, monks, emperors, patriarchs of Constantinople, philosophers, historians, classicists, and prophets. The Byzantine Empire began in the early fourth century with the foundation of a new Christian capital, Constantinople, on the site of the old Greek city of Byzantium. It ended when the Ottoman Turks captured that city in 1453, making it the capital of their Islamic empire, which in territorial aspirations and imperial style essentially replaced the old Byzantine Greek Empire. Wells points out that more recent historical research has revealed a story of lasting achievement and vigorous expansion. He divides the book into three parts: "Byzantium and the West," discussing the Byzantine legacy to Western civilization; "Byzantium and the Islamic World," describing the rise of the Arab Islamic Empire on former Byzantine lands in the Middle East; and "Byzantium and the Slavic World," exploring the religious side of the Byzantine legacy. Wells brings vividly to life this history of a long-lost era and its opulent heritage. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press (July 25, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553803816
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553803815
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #807,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

110 of 114 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Chakwin on November 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The previous reviewers have more or less agreed that this is an information-dense book, fitting a tremendous amount of knowledge into a compact narrative. I agree. I write only to add that the story it tells, in clear and elegant prose, is one that is almost unknown to the average educated American. The Roman Empire survived for over 1,000 years after the fall of Rome itself. The eastern portion of the Empire, governed from Constantinople, survived institutional weakness, the Persians, the Huns, the Goths, the Slavs, religious wars, almost a thousand years of attack from Islam, and the devastating impact of the Fourth Crusade that effectively destroyed the Empire as a major power, leaving only a shell of a state that weakened and diminished until the Turks finally captured the underpopulated and bravely but hopelessly defended city in 1453.

In a sense, the Eastern Empire was a buffer for the West. Without it, invasions from the east would likely have been more frequent and more consequential and the tide of Islam could well have entered Europe from the east as well as from the south.

The political narrative of the Empire is one full of tragedy and missed opportunities. The inability of the structure of its government to provide for peaceful, orderly succession (a common problem with several types of governments, including monarchies) and the amount of power held by the noble families meant that there was a great deal of political instability inherent in the Byzantine political system. This was increased by the importance of religion to the Byzantine civilization and the consequent destabilizing power of doctrinal wrangles (something almost inevitable with an orthodoctic religion).
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Jesse Steven Hargrave on November 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Who actually saved Western Civilization? Authors have recently brought forth many claimants: the Irish, Islamic Spain, the Jews, homosexuals. One well-known author has written a semi-serious book titled "How the Plumber Saved Civilization". In "Sailing from Byzantium", Colin Wells makes a learned and convincing argument that the scholars of the Byzantine Empire deserve the true credit.

The subtitle "How a Lost Empire Shaped the World" may be an audacious one, but it gives the reader a good idea of just how comprehensive this small-format book intends to be. Most histories of Byzantium focus on either the military dynamics which slowly strangled the empire until only Constantinople remained and then itself fell to the Ottomans, or on the religious schism with the papacy that has not yet been closed. Wells treats those subjects well with fresh insights. But military and the religious divide play supporting roles to his true focus: the scholarly life of Byzantium and how it was spread to Italy, to Islam, to the Balkan nations and cultures, and, most vitally, to the emergent Russian power.

The author divides the book into three parts. In the first he covers both the preservation by Byzantine scholars of the fundamental works of Greek civilization and then the wave of humanist teachers that brought this learning to early Renaissance Italy. In his second section, Wells treats what was actually an earlier but not so permanent development: how the Arabs absorbed Byzantine learning as they conquered and settled in what had been Byzantine territory.

In Part III, the asserted civilizing power of religion takes a more dominant role as the author treats the interactions with the various Slavic migrations. His claim in the Introduction is that "the Byzantines turned the ...
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Oswald Sobrino on September 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
For many of us in the West, Byzantium is an exotic mystery. Colin Wells opens up this mystery by outlining the crucial role of Byzantium in transmitting ancient Greek culture to three civilizations: the West, the Slavic East, and Islam. There is much in this history that is of relevance today as we reflect on the different roles played by these three civilizations that were shaped by Byzantium. Yes, the myriad of unfamiliar names and places are at times overwhelming; but Wells provides a list of major characters in his history to help the reader, along with a chronology and plenty of maps. For me and I suspect many others, this book opens up a previously neglected but crucial part of our history.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Loring D. Wirbel on September 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Make no mistake about it, Colin Wells is an interesting and engaging writer. The compact size of "Sailing" tells the reader right away that this is not going to be any Runciman-style multi-volume history of Constantinople, but a set of historical impressions of what the empire meant for other cultures. Still, let's compare it to Roger Crowley's "1453," which focused on the story of Constantinople's fall while giving a sense of its past. Crowley mixed linear story-telling with flashbacks in a very effective way. Wells bounces around with different foci, providing the briefest glimpse of iconoclast debates while diving deeply into hesychast squabbles of the 14th century - interesting, to be sure, but are the travels of humanists to the west worth as much detail as Wells wants to give it? In the end, I have the same problem with this as with many examples of "post-modern history" - very good vignettes, flashes of genius, but not a constant flow to give us a sense of Byzantium, even within the cultural confines Wells has set.
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