Of that Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed . . . There has been no other enduring civilisation so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness ... Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous . . . Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots . . . The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.
This somewhat startling diatribe is taken from W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals, published in 1869; and although to modern ears it is perhaps not quite so effective as the author meant it to be - his last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining - the fact remains that, for the past 200 years and more, what used to be known as the Later Roman Empire has had an atrocious press. The long campaign of denigration seems to have been given its initial impetus in the eighteenth century by Edward Gibbon who, like all classically educated Englishmen and Englishwomen of his day, saw Byzantium as the betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome; and it continued until well into the present century. After the First World War, under the influence of Robert Byron, David Talbot-Rice, Steven Runciman and their friends and followers, the pendulum began to swing; but it was only after the Second - when the ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant made Byzantine monuments at last generally accessible - that the Empire came into its own again and was at last recognized, in its own very different way, as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilizations which had gone before.
The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. The old attitudes died hard. During my five years at one of England's oldest and finest public schools, Byzantium seems to have been the victim of a conspiracy of silence. I cannot honestly remember its being mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it in even general terms until I went to Oxford. Many people, I suspect, feel similarly vague today; and it is for them, above all, that this book has been written.
It does not tell the whole story. The Byzantine Empire, from its foundation by Constantine the Great on Monday n May 330 to its conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II on Tuesday 29 May 1453, lasted for a total of 1,123 years and 18 days; and, as I soon discovered when writing a history of Venice a few years ago, that sort of span simply cannot be dealt with in one volume of manageable size. One or two historians have tried it, but the results never seem to me entirely satisfactory: either the reader is presented with so sketchy and disconnected an account that he loses his way, or else he is greeted by a remorseless fusillade of facts that sends him running for cover. I have preferred a more leisurely approach, and have consequently limited this first volume to what amounts, very roughly, to the first 500 years. The two opening chapters form a prologue, being concerned essentially with the early years of Constantine and his rise to power - a story that seems to me not just fascinating in itself, but also indispensable if we are to understand what follows; only in Chapter 3 do we come to the inauguration of Constantinople as the New Rome, the point at which the Roman Empire - though it never cast off its old title - can properly be called the Byzantine. The volume ends 470 years later with the coronation of Charlemagne as Roman Emperor of the West on Christmas Day, 800 -one of the most convenient dates in all history - and the appearance, for the first time, of a rival to the old imperial throne on the Bosphorus. A sequel will carry the saga on to the Crusades; and a third volume will bring it to its heroic - and almost unbearably tragic - end.
What, you may ask, ever induced me to take on so formidable an assignment? In fact the idea originated not with me at all but with my friend Bob Gottlieb, some time before he left my American publishers to edit the New Yorker, and though I remember feeling a little daunted by the magnitude of the task he suggested, I do not think there was any real hesitation. For over a quarter of a century already I had been captivated by the Byzantine world - ever since my first visit to Greece in 1954 and, in the following year, my posting to the British Embassy,
Belgrade; and three years subsequently spent in Beirut - when that enchanting city was still one of the happiest places in the world to live in - had only deepened my affection for the Eastern Mediterranean and all that it stood for. It was no coincidence, when I finally left the Foreign Service in1964 to try to earn my living by my pen, that I turned for my first book - written jointly with Reresby Sitwell - to the one place which, more than any other, still breathes the very spirit of Byzantium: Mount Athos.
My most recent preoccupation has been with Venice, first a province and later an offshoot of the Empire, where St Mark's - designed, incidentally, on the model of Constantine's Church of the Holy Apostles -and the Cathedral of Torcello both contain Byzantine mosaics worthy, to rank with those of Constantinople itself. And yet how astonishingly different the two cities are to write about! Throughout her history Venice, protected from terra firma by the still, shallow waters of the lagoon, radiated security; until her very end she was inviolate, and she knew it. Constantinople, on the other hand, lived under almost perpetual threat of attack. Siege followed siege; again and again the city was saved only by the heroism of the Emperor and his subjects. The inhabitants, too, could scarcely have been more dissimilar. The Venetians were cynics: hard-faced, commercially-minded men of the world. The Byzantines were mystics, for whom Christ, his Mother and the Saints were as real as members of their own families. Finally and most important of all, Venice was governed by faceless committees - elected groups of black-robed men, working in secret, their composition constantly changing, taking their decisions collectively, avoiding all individual prominence. Byzantium was an autocracy, ruled by an Emperor half-way to heaven, Equal to the Apostles, God's Vice-Gerent on Earth, who held the life of every one of his subjects in the hollow of his hand. Some of these Emperors were heroes, others were monsters; but they were never, never dull.
For that reason alone, this book has been a constant pleasure to write; but it is also, in its modest way, a tribute. Our civilization has never adequately acknowledged the debt it owes to the Empire of the East. Were it not for that great oriental bastion of Christendom, what chance would Europe have had against the armies of the King of Persia in the seventh century, or those of the Caliph of Baghdad in the eighth? What language would we be speaking today, and what god would we worship? In the cultural field, too, our indebtedness is great. After the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Emperor in Rome, the light of learning was almost extinguished in western Europe, apart from a few fitful monastic flickers; it was on the banks of the Bosphorus that it continued to blaze, and that the old classical heritage was preserved. Much of what we know of antiquity - especially of Greek and Latin literature and of Roman law - would have been lost for ever but for the scholars and scribes and copyists of Constantinople.
These tremendous services, however, have long since been taken for granted and forgotten. In our own day there remains to us only one continual reminder of the genius of the Byzantines: the splendour of their art. Never in the history of Christianity - or, one is tempted to add, of any other of the world's religions - has any school of artists contrived to infuse so deep a degree of spirituality into its work. Byzantine theologians used to insist that religious painters and mosaicists should seek to reflect the image of God. It was no small demand; but in the churches and monasteries of the Empire we see it, again and again, triumphantly accomplished.
Finally let me emphasize that this book makes no claim to academic scholarship. No professional Byzantinist perusing its pages will find anything that he does not know already - except, very likely, the occasional statement and opinion with which he will disagree. So be it. For periods as remote as that with which we are dealing the surviving records are often pitifully thin, and on those occasions when we have two chroniclers covering the same ground we are as likely as not to find them contradicting one another. The luckless historian can only weigh the probabilities and tell his story as best he can.
Nevertheless, though the backwaters of the river are sometimes murky, the main stream flows clear enough; and along that stream I have tried to steer as straight - and as accurate - a course as I can. There is still a long way to go before we reach the sea; but the journey will be, I trust, its own reward.
John Julius Norwich London, December 1987
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
W. B. Yeats
'Sailing to Byzantium'