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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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
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