Oh, the humanity! Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the beheadings, pillagings, assassinations, blindings, intrigues, tonsurings, tongue-splittings, nose-slicings, banishments, castrations, buggerings, fornications, tonsurings, infanticides, icon-smashings, and war, war, war, war, WAR. And you get all of that even before the First Crusade is launched.
I didn’t have the time or the stomach for all three volumes of John Julius Norwich’s acclaimed history of Byzantium. I like to hand-pick my Emperors and Empresses (like a fiendish little imperial court conspirator) and buy door-stopping tomes written specifically about those favorites. I have studied a considerable amount of Byzantine history in my day but in light of a few upcoming projects thought that an especially taut “refresher” compendium was in order and, with a click of Amazon Prime, Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium was in bed with me, right next to the cat and directly underneath the icon of Theotokos Hodegetria, who should have blushed at the things leaping from those pages below her mystical gaze, things that were very much part-and-parcel of her past, seeing as she was paraded around the walls of Constantinople often enough in times of crisis. Of course, we do not hold her responsible for any of it.
Rarely do I find myself reluctant to parade around the walls of a history book to the bitter end — particularly when the subject involves so many things of great interest to me — but Norwich’s condensation of Byzantium’s story, while handy and certainly written at-a-clip, made for grim and reluctant reading these past few weeks. Perhaps I was simply in one of my uber-cynical moods, given the pervasive degeneration of human civilization today, as attested … well, as attested anywhere one might care to glance. Perhaps I did not want to be reminded that the Cradle of Christianity was infested with bedbugs and that the Baby was, very nearly, thrown out with the proverbial bath-water. Now that I come to think about it, I conclude that my distaste for Norwich’s account is probably rooted in one discouraging realization: human societies never learn from their mistakes and are doomed to repeat their atrocities century after century after century. Rise and fall and Rise and Fall on loop, if you will.
To be certain, it’s not exactly as if I have been unaware of these realities heretofore. I guess I did not want to be reminded of them in such acute fashion, not this week, not via Norwich’s slightly hypnotic “Let’s have a cigar and a Madeira in the drawing-room and chat about it, shall we?” prose. After the umpteenth Emperor whose name was some derivation of ‘Constantine’ had had his nose shorn off and his tongue ripped out, and after yet another scheming Empress and her screaming daughters had been shaved and shipped to a nunnery on some bleak island, I started to think that there might just be something redemptive about these Kardashian maidens with whom all the world seems smitten.
Then I snapped out of that nonsense, washed my entire brain clean with some Tolkien, and got back to steeling my nerves for the imminent Nebraska-sized asteroid.
Buy Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium because you deserve to feel better about your own beleaguered era or because Downton Abbey has made you go far too soft around the midsection. Buy it because you deserve likewise to know how the West was really won and what’s going to happen next. Pick up a copy of Rowan Blaize while you’re at it. Wizards make everything better … until there’s nothing left to be made better.