What I've been reading: Giant-Sized Bonanza!
The Dark Angel by Mika Waltari (translated by Naomi Walford). 374 pages, 1953, G. P. Putnam's Sons.
The first of the three books is The Dark Angel, which I got in February 2005 at the annual book sale in Phoenix. Yes, it takes me that long to read some of my books. Remember: I have close to 300 that I haven't read yet, so it's going to take me somewhere around 30 years to read them, and that's if I don't buy any more (not bloody likely). So: what's the deal with this?
It's a novel about the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The hero, John Angelos, arrives in the city in December 1452 (the Turks entered the city on 29 May) and this book is his journal of the events up until the fall of the city. Constantinople (not Istanbul!), as many of you know, was the eastern capital of the Roman Empire from 330, when it was founded, and after 476 the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire because it was far more Greek than Roman. As long as Constantinople remained in the hands of the Greeks, there was a Byzantine Empire, even though for the last 150 years of its existence or so the territory it controlled barely reached beyond the city walls. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the Emperor was a much more symbolic figure, but that symbolism was still important - he was the Eastern bulwark against Islam, a link to Rome's glorious past, and the embodiment of a time when Emperor and Pope, theoretically, worked in harmony. Of course, by the middle of the 11th century the Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated each other and the Orthodox Church was on its own, but we're talking about symbolism, not reality.
I've already gotten off-topic! John comes to Constantinople from the camp of the Ottoman Sultan, Mohammed, and throughout the book, most people in the city think he's a spy for the Turks. He tries to convince people that he's not, but rarely succeeds. Constantinople in its death throes is a cauldron of intrigue. The Emperor, Constantine XI, and the Patriarch, Gregorios, have concluded a treaty with Rome that unifies the churches in exchange for help from the West against the Turks. This move is wildly unpopular with the people, who believe that the Turks will simply take over the governance of the city and let the Christians worship as they please. This opposition is led by a monk, Gennadios, whom John knew in the West. Meanwhile, the defense of the city is led by Giovanni Giustiniani, a Genoese who has been promised lands the Emperor no longer holds as payment (something that deters Giustiniani not at all when he learns of it late in the book). The Genoese and Venetians are constantly at odds, which leads to more disasters for the city. John writes of his history in southern France and Italy, his capture at the Battle of Varna in 1444, and his years with Murad II, who tried to take Constantinople but was thwarted, leaving the job to his son (usually spelled Mehmet but spelled Mohammed in the book). John has a secret that's rather fascinating, so I won't spoil it, but he is trying to reconcile his Latin (Western) heritage with his Greek heritage. He tries to see both sides even as his faith pulls him one way. He is convinced that he will defend the city to the death. How he continues to write a diary when he's actively courting death is interesting, but he does survive the Turks' sacking of the city. His fate is ironic and somewhat just.
The main story of the book, beyond all the political intrigue, is John's love for a young woman, Anna Notaras. Anna is the daughter of a Byzantine grand duke, Lukas Notaras, but John doesn't know this for quite some time. He falls instantly in love with Anna and can't understand why she resists him, even though she obviously loves him. Their relationship, while melodramatic, is very well written, and is heightened by the knowledge that the city is going to fall. Anna tries to understand why John won't commit to her, and John tries to make Anna realize why he has to die on the walls without giving away his secret. Lukas Notaras was conspicuous by his belief that the Turks would be better masters than the Emperor, and although there's no evidence either in history or in the book that he was actively conniving against Constantine, Waltari makes it clear that he wasn't going out of his way to make a glorious last stand (most of the people in the book are actual historical figures, by the way). So that aspect of their relationship is there, too. Waltari does a very good job writing their passion but also their intelligent debates about fate and the destruction of the empire. It's a neat trick, and it makes the siege feel more real, because these people are real to us. What's interesting is that Waltari never makes it clear whether John and Anna would love each other without the tension of the siege. Are they so passionate because they know it can't last? It's neat that we're allowed to speculate about it.
This is a very good read. The narrative flies along, and even though we know how the grand story will end, we don't know how the story of John and Anna will end. Not well, of course, because it's the fall of Constantinople, but the way in which it ends is poignant and ironic. It's an old book, but it's probably around in libraries somewhere. You could do a lot worse if you're looking for a nicely-done romance with an adventurous backdrop. And who doesn't love something like that?
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. 239 pages, 2005, Oxford University Press.
In this fascinating book, Ward-Perkins makes the bold assertion that the Germanic invaders actually destroyed the Roman Empire! Why, say you, is this a bold assertion? Isn't that common knowledge? Well, back in the day it was, but in the past 30-40 years, historiography has gotten much more focused on using words like "accommodation" to describe the fifth-century arrival of Germanic tribes, as several historians have claimed that Rome never "fell," but was simply "transformed" into the Western Europe we all know and love. Ward-Perkins is going old-school on us by saying, "Hah!" He claims the Romans wouldn't have viewed it as "transformation," they would have seen it for what it was: a disaster.
Ward-Perkins makes a good case, first by going back over the written records that caused people to believe in a Fall of Rome in the first place. He points out the Battle of Adrianople in 378, at which the Goths destroyed the eastern Roman army and killed the Emperor, Valens. He mentions the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric the Goth, an event so traumatizing St. Augustine wrote a billion-page book about it. (Okay, City of God isn't a billion pages long. It just feels that way.) He brings up the deposition of the last Emperor, Romanus Augustulus, in 476, paving the way for the Ostrogothic domination of Italy. All of these events are well known. So why have historians argued for years that Gibbon was wrong and we shouldn't speak of a "fall" of the Roman Empire?
Ward-Perkins claims it's for a few different reasons. First, many historians of "Late Antiquity" - meaning the period, roughly, between Constantine (AD 300) and Charlemagne (AD 800) - are English, German, and French, or American, which means English. Therefore, they want to portray their "tribes" - the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, and other Germanic groups - as positively as possible. Second, the stench of political correctness permeates historiography - how dare it! It's no longer fashionable to speak of "civilized" versus "uncivilized" people, so all groups become equally civilized. Anyone watching an English football match knows that's bogus, but that's the way it is! Ward-Perkins points out that it's only because we have allowed the term "uncivilized" to become pejorative that people object to it, but the fact is, some groups are civilized and others not. That doesn't make the civilized groups better. The Germanic tribes were uncivilized, but nobody wants to make that argument anymore. Third, the focus of historiography when Rome broke up shifts abruptly from political history to religious history. No one, not even Ward-Perkins, can argue that the Fall of Rome coincided nicely with the Rise of the Church. Historians can therefore argue that the destruction of Roman infrastructure mattered little because the Roman Catholic Church stepped into the breach. Yes, he admits, the Church did ease the transition slightly, but the Church was such an elite organization that it didn't do much for the common people. St. Augustine might not have suffered too much materially from Rome's sack, and he could afford to write billion-page laments about how everyone should now focus on the Heavenly City. As always tends to happen in disasters, the elite come off relatively unscathed. And as they write the history, it's easy to take a less extreme view of the Germanic invasions. Hey, they all eventually converted to Catholicism, right? Everything must have been groovy!
For the first part of the book, Ward-Perkins focuses on the actual events, but then he shifts to the archaeological record, which is where his case is probably strongest. Past writers have relied mostly on written records, which are of course biased. Ward-Perkins looks at the production of goods, the way houses were built, and the minting of coins, all decent ways to measure a society's prosperity. In the fifth century and afterward, all these indicators declined significantly, and Ward-Perkins uses this to help prove his thesis. Rome was a specialized society, much like the modern world, and he traces the complex web of manufacturing that tied the empire together that fell apart when the political structure disintegrated. When the specialists and their markets disappeared, it affected the common people much more than the political problems. Ward-Perkins also shows that the East, which has been commonly assumed to have managed to escape the ravages of the invasions, also went through a "dark age" in the late sixth and early seventh century, something most historians have ignored. The collapse was empire-wide, not simply confined to the West. Ward-Perkins also looks at settlement patterns and postulates that not only were the houses less elaborate, but the population went down as well. He admits its only speculation, but he makes a strong argument.
Ward-Perkins also does something we rarely see, and that's look at literacy in the Roman and post-Roman periods. It's another thing he admits is very difficult to measure, but he looks at casual graffiti in the Roman world, from places such as Pompeii, and the lack of it after the invaders arrived. He also uses the written evidence, as various religious writers have pointed out the lack of literacy among the rulers of the new countries, a situation that would have been unthinkable in the Roman period, when even middle-class people could read and write.
Ward-Perkins does look at both the pluses and minuses of the invasions, and he does acknowledge that historians who claim that Rome brought in Germanic tribes and incorporated them into their society aren't all wrong. In the end, he softens his thesis a bit by pointing out that the invaders did help revitalize a sagging empire somewhat. It's only a small concession, as he sticks to his main point for the most part. His evidence remains fairly persuasive, even when he can't make as strong an argument as he wants.
The fall of Rome will probably remain a contentious issue, based on the bias of the historian. Ward-Perkins makes a fine case for returning to the "classic" view of the destruction of the empire, but I have no doubt that historians have already challenged it.
Sailing From Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World by Colin Wells. 335 pages, 2006, Delacorte Press/Bantam Dell/Random House.
The last book of this trifecta is Sailing From Byzantium, in which Colin Wells makes the case that the Byzantines were instrumental in creating Europe's Renaissance, influencing the Arabs, and midwifing the birth of Eastern Christianity. Wells breaks the book up into those three sections, so that he begins chronologically almost at the end of the Empire, in the fourteenth century, when scholars from Florence and Venice began to yearn for the knowledge that the Greeks had in their libraries. He then goes back in time to the seventh and eighth centuries, before Muslim culture ossified and the Arabs were willing to learn from the older culture, and then he finally turns his attention to the Balkans and Russia, which is where Byzantium probably had its biggest influence. It's a nice, quick, readable book, and Wells doesn't come up with anything terribly controversial, but he does a good job putting each sphere in its context and showing how they shaded into each other. He has written the book to rehabilitate the Byzantine Empire for an audience that might not know much about it or even care. Shame on you people who don't care about the Byzantines!
Wells begins with the Renaissance, and he tracks how a new fourteenth-century philosophy in Constantinople, the Hesychast movement, led not only to Byzantine humanists seeking new students in the West, but also solidified the Orthodox Church's status in the East with the Slavs. Wells goes over the Hesychast controversy quite well, but essentially it boils down to a conflict between the rationalism of the Byzantine humanists, many of whom were monks themselves, and the mysticism of many other monks. The Hesychasts believed in meditation to create a spiritual union with God, and they were angrily opposed to the humanists' use of pagan philosophy to inform their Christian thought. There was a political element, too, as the humanists saw no problem with compromising the Orthodox Church's independence in exchange for military help from the West, while the Hesychasts believed it would be better to be ruled by the Turks rather than give in to the Pope. So the humanists turned increasingly to the Florentines and Venetians, who had been a presence in Constantinople as traders for centuries. As the Byzantines lost more and more territory to the Turks, humanists began making diplomatic missions to the West to gain support from the Pope and Catholic rulers, and they mixed with writers and thinkers in Italy such as Boccaccio and Petrarch. In the fifteenth century, the high point of the Italian Renaissance, several more Byzantine scholars taught Greek to the Westerners so that they could read the works of the classical writers. Again, there's nothing controversial about Wells' theory, and it's just interesting to see how many connections there were between the dying empire and the reborn West.
The relationship between Byzantium and Islam is a bit more complex, because the Muslims were bent on destroying the empire. Early on, however, the Arabs modeled their architecture and their literature after the Byzantines. The early caliphs admired the way the Byzantines had created their culture, and for a people who came out of the desert, the splendor of Constantinople was impressive. The Arabs quickly conquered several people who had Christian roots - notably Nestorians in Syria, who began translating Greek works into Syriac and Arabic. The Arabs sought out Greek texts on medicine and mathematics, which became the foundation for Muslim science and the so-called "Arabic Enlightenment," typified by philosophers like Avicenna. It couldn't last, of course, and the Abbasid Caliphs began to react against the Greek rational influence seeping into Islam. Just like the Hesychasts, Muslim zealots attacked the scientific schools because they were distracting people from the religious schools. In the thirteenth century the Mongols shattered the Muslim world and Arabic Islam went into decline. Despite a brief flourishing of culture under the Ottomans, the torch had been passed to the West.
Wells' last section deals with the Byzantine missionaries and their work in the Balkans with the Slavs and later with the Russians. The Slavs came into the Balkans in the sixth century, and by the ninth century Bulgaria, under their khan Krum, was a major threat. By the middle of the century, both the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople realized their was a huge group of people just ripe for the Christianizing. The Patriarch, Photius, was a deeply religious man and a well-learned scholar of ancient Greek literature, and he chose two monks who would become legends: Cyril and Methodius. Cyril is best known for creating a language for the Slavs, Old Church Slavonic (ironically, the "Cyrillic" alphabet which is named for him has little to do with him). He and Methodius failed in their mission, for the most part, but the foundation they laid helped future monks bring the Slavs into the Orthodox fold. Interestingly enough, the Bulgars and later Slavs like the Serbs were able to retain their independence from the Patriarch of Constantinople even as they adopted the Eastern form of Christianity. This led to the creation of the Byzantine Commonwealth, perhaps the enduring legacy of the Empire. In the tenth century, the Byzantines were able to convert the Russians, first in Kiev and then later in Moscow, and the Hesychast controversy, which damaged Byzantium's relationship with the West, appealed to the Russians and helped that bond. Later, Moscow took the lead as the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church and claimed the title of the "Third Rome." The Greek literary tradition would live on in the new church.
As I've mentioned, Wells doesn't write anything terribly controversial. He doesn't make any bold claims about the influence of the Byzantines, just condenses it into one source, as most books will discuss one of the three but not all three areas. It's interesting because of the links he makes between the eras, which is why this is better than just a survey. Byzantium's relationship with the West influences its dealings with the Slavs, just as its problems with the Bulgarians in the ninth and tenth centuries influences its relationship with the Muslims. Wells does a good job making the connections between all three arenas without confusing us.
So those are three books I've read recently, all connected a bit. If you're interested in this period of history, these books are all very worthwhile. Of course, it's been a while since I've finished them, so I'm almost done another book! Look for that soon!