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Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World Paperback – July 31, 2007
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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First, Byzantine scholars preserved most of what texts we know today as ancient Greek. They represented a crucial step in the evolution of the Renaissance as they contributed to the development of a secular understanding, a sense of history and philosophy not springing exclusively from Christian faith. As a classics major, this was very interesting to me, but I am not sure if it would interest most readers. This is the stuff of Plato v. Aristotle, mathematics, poetry, and the Greek historians. Interestingly, it was a mystic religious movement - the Hesychasm, which flourished as a reality-denying reaction to the decline of the Empire - that started pushing scholars out, well before the Turks conquered the city.
Second, we learn of the Byzantine roots of the practical scientific and medical texts that were translated by Nestorian Christians in SYria. This fostered a rationalistic branch of Islam, which an Abassid Calif attempted to force onto an unwilling populace, leading directly to the establishment of the conservative, anti-rationalist philosophy that later would underpin Wahabism. Their translations of Aristotle, transmitted via moorish Spain, were the source that the Scholastics first used, as they attempted to logically reconcile every Biblical reference, also a precursor of modern science. But it is also a portrait of Islam during a period where it was at the cutting-edge, an eclectic and dynamic civilization that surpassed anything happening in the West during the dark ages.
Third, over nearly 600 years, Byzantine monks decisively influenced the development of the Slavic world, as it evolved from a loose coalition of pagan tribes into the nations we know today. From Byzantines, they gained their Cyrillic alphabet, the first texts in their then undifferentiated languages, political-administrative organizational ideas, and lastly, their Orthodox (and in some cases Catholic) faith, based on the mystical Hesychasm. Unlike the Arabs and Italians with their intellectual pursuits, this is about the evolution of religious faith and doctrine. As I knew very little about this, it was the most fascinating part of the book. It also gave me a renewed sense of wonder at the sweep of human ambition, how civilizations collide, absorb, and borrow from each other.
This is really great fun, if these things interest you. If not, it will be rough going and perhaps dry.
For example, he said that one of the motivations for the iconoclastic controversy was that it followed a time when icons, particularly of the Virgin Mary were used to lead troops into battle. The icon-blessed troops did not fare well in several battles, so it was felt that the icons were the reason: they were offensive to God (as the Jews and Muslims held).
I felt the handling of the Serbian - Bulgarian influences was particularly enlightening.
Not a hard read -- well written and organized. A fresh [perspective.
Yet despite the significance of the material presented, it's a fun book, a quick read, written in a relaxed and simple style, accessible even to people who couldn't locate Byzantium on the map. (Hint: "Istanbul is Constantinople, now you can't go back to constantinople...")