Lars Brownworth deserves recognition for being able to condense over a thousand years of history into a highly entertaining and enjoyable book that expertly enlightens the reader of the role the Byzantine Empire played in preserving knowledge and transferring it to Europe.
The Byzantine Empire was the link between Antiquity and the Renaissance, as well as being the link between the East and the West. Of the numerous stories that are told in this book, there is one that I always remember and think about whenever life is just getting to me. This is the story of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus and the Bulgarian Khan Simeon. The Simeon was raiding and pillaging villages right outside Constantinople, and clearly something needed to be done. But Romanus would much rather solve the problem with diplomacy than with war, and he set up a meeting with Simeon to take place directly outside the walls of Constantinople.
Simeon came dressed in his finest armor with his soldiers bearing golden shields. While Romanus, “By contrast, came on foot, dressed simply and clutching a relic, every inch seeing to say that the glory of the Roman Empire was splendid enough attire to put his opponent’s garish display to shame.
Addressing Simeon, he spoke with a subtle dignity: “I have heard you are a pious man and a true Christian, but I see deeds which do not match those words. For it is the nature of the pious man and a Christian to embrace peace and love since God is love… Mankind is awaiting death and resurrection and judgment… Today you are alive, but tomorrow you will be dissolved into dust… What reason will you give to God for the unjust slaughters? If you do these things for love of wealth I will sate you excessively in your desire. Embrace peace, so that you may live an untroubled life.” Simeon took the bribe from Romanus and returned to Bulgaria, within a year his armies were defeated and he died a broken man.
I am not religious and I do not believe in any gods, but I do believe in Peace.
I have to thank Dan Jones for getting me addicted to reading history books. Before, I was wasting my time reading fiction, we all know fiction is only for women and children. Season Two of Game of Thrones had ended, I wasn’t reading anything, my roommate gave me his copy of the first Game of Thrones book, I just couldn’t get excited about reading something I had just watched. Then I found this phenomenal book, that was literally described by The Wall Street Journal as a “real-life Game of Thrones.”
It only took a couple pages, but I knew I was only going to be reading history books from now on. I would recommend this book to everyone, especially Game of Thrones fans who want to understand where George R.R. Martin steals his material from. Dan Jones is an excellent writer who makes the pages of this book come to life while still providing detailed explanations to what is happening.
My favorite part of the book was the murder of Thomas Beckett, The Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop and King Henry II were not getting along, Beckett had to flee to France for a couple years but eventually returned to England and gave somewhat of an apology. But Damn! I did not think a King had the cajones to send four men with axes to Canterbury Cathedral to murder the Archbishop. I thought King Henry was only going to make the archbishop an offer he couldn’t refuse. Didn’t King Henry have any advisors to tell him that maybe murdering an archbishop in a cathedral four days after Christmas was a bad idea.
This is only one of the many exciting stories in this book, I cannot stress enough that this should be added to your reading list. Unlike Game of Thrones, the last two chapters/seasons of this book aren’t terrible, and it immediately makes you want to go buy Dan Jones’ book on The War of the Roses.
Often as a reader I get caught up with the exciting narrative of events of an Empire’s rulers without understanding the daily lives of its citizens.
Amira K. Bennison brings to light what it was like to live in the Abbasid Empire. She presents an almost cultural history of the Abbasid Empire’s Golden Age by describing the lives of the rich and poor, those who live in cities versus those living in the countryside. In addition, the author goes into detail about architecture, city-planning, trade, manufacturing, education, and the role of women in society.
One of the more interesting sections I found was about the religious life of the empire, not just for Muslims but also for various Christian sects, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Abbasids ruled over millions of people, it would have been impossible to have a homogenous society and therefore allowed Churches and Synagogues to have a degree of independence in overseeing their own affairs. Even if you are not completely familiar with the Abbasid Empire, I would still recommend that you read the book. Bennison does a good job at the beginning of the book by introducing the history of the Abbasids, which gives the reader a good foundation for understanding the brilliant culture that inspired the famous story “The Thousand and One Nights.”
The Abbasid Empire stretched from Eastern Iran across Iraq and Syria and throughout North Africa between the 8th and 13th centuries CE. One of the most important functions the Abbasids had on history was translation of an enormous amount of classical material, both Persian and Greek, into Arabic. This allowed intellectual scholars to preserve classical knowledge and expand on it, especially in natural sciences, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy.
Bennison believes that this obsession with translation came from a thirst of knowledge that could be both, “a top-down initiative promoted by the Abbasid caliphs or a more amorphous bottom-up process triggered by the specific social and cultural environment.” Regardless of who started this translation phenomenon, the entire world needs to be grateful to the scholars of this Golden Age for protecting, expanding, and passing on knowledge.
Amira K. Bennison finishes the book in the most perfect way possible, “All those who insist upon the irreconcilable division between the “West” and “Islam” would do well to step down from their soapboxes to read a little history.”
This is an incredibly impressive book based on how much information Robin Lane Fox is able to process and then present in an enjoyable read that isn’t overwhelming.
Everyone has heard of Julius Caesar; he was the dude who invented the salad right? Caesar is only one of the many fascinating stories in Ancient Greece and Rome that are just waiting for you to be discovered. What could be more legendary than descendants of Alexander the Great’s former Generals, The Seleucids and The Ptolemies, fighting each other with elephants? I found that the author did a great job weaving together a cohesive narrative of life in antiquity.
Reading the Classics like Tacitus and Suetonius are always fun, but it is beneficial to read a modern author who is the benefit of seeing how things turned out for Rome. While I was reading this book, I could not help myself trying to compare and contrast the many ways their world and our modern world are so similar. It is easy to see, in a technological sense, how much the world has progressed; but at the same time some things really do not change.
An interesting source that the author draws upon is G.E.M. de Sainte Croix who argues, “The Roman political system facilitated a most intense and ultimately destructive economic exploitation of the great mass of the people, whether slave or free, and it made radical reform impossible. The result was that the propertied class, the men of real wealth, who had deliberately created the system for their own benefit, drained the life-blood from their world.” Reading this it is easy to substitute the word Roman for American and the argument is still as valid today as it was two thousand years ago.
When the wealth in a society is concentrated heavily in the hands of the upper class, it leaves little for the vast majority of people to compete over. Resources need to be distributed equally, or else, as you will read in this book, civilization collapses.