A Short History of Byzantium
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A Short History of Byzantium

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  975 ratings  ·  91 reviews
"Norwich is always on the lookout for the small but revealing details. . . . All of this he recounts in a style that consistently entertains."
--The New York Times Book Review

In this magisterial adaptation of his epic three-volume history of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich chronicles the world's longest-lived Christian empire. Beginning with Constantine the Great, who in a...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 29th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end…” Sebald was talking about flying over densely settled areas, but to read the compressed chronicle of a thousand year empire is also to view our species from a great height, and the experience offers just as frightening a vantage. From the heights of historical survey, from the distance of many centuries, the professed, the “higher” motivations and justifications...more
Feb 13, 2009 Tyler rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: All; History Buffs; Christians
Recommended to Tyler by: Various Reviews
This 384-page condensation of the original three-volume history gives readers a complete introduction to the direct descendent of the Roman Empire.

The book relates fascinating incidents about the main people, including an eyebrow-raising commentary on Empress Theodora’s early sex life, salaciously recounted by the contemporary historian Procopius. The book explains the famous differences over Church dogma, which characterize the Byzantines for us today, and which eventually drew even me into the...more
Jul 22, 2012 Tara rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: yikes
Wow they sure did a lot of gouging out of eyes and tongues and noses and throwing people off cliffs! Everyone is all, hey this new emperor will be great I bet we won't have to murder him with poisoned mulberries or whack him with a soap dish or behead him. Then the poor little lamb takes power, has some good ideas, but reverts to insanity as quickly as he can and someone races to get the perennially-useful soapdish and cheerfully start anew. What years of glee! And when they weren't having those...more
norwich is like the batty old art history professor you had in college who seemed more interested in the scandalous stories behind the scenes of each moment in history than the traditional information that fills the usual history texts. he tells the history of byzantium in such a fun and lightning-paced way. its like a circus soap opera riding through history on a speeding roller coaster. its great fun reading about all the intrigue, scandal and destruction throughout the empire, and norwich rev...more
I've had a long fascination with Byzantine history and came into this book expecting a short overview of this enigmatic empire.

How can you compress over a thousand years of history? That too a history that is indelibly linked with almost all of Europe and West Asia for all nearly a millennium. I'll be honest that John Julius Norwich doesn't do a smashing job, but a credible job that'll only be a stepping stone for it's readers to go out and explore the Byzantines.

Norwich isn't a historian, and d...more
Jacob Aitken
This is history writing of the highest order. Lord Norwich's work is truly awe-inspiring. I only regret that I have the condensed version and not the three volume work. Norwich gives a summary of each of the Emperors, their faults, and how they determined the history of Byzantium.

Norwich also dispels a lot of myths about Byzantium. Thanks to Gibbon and illiterate pundits today, most people think Byzantium was simply one long succession of inbred degenerates and sensual despots. Norwhich shatter...more
Chris Hall
If Goodreads rating system went to 10 instead of 5 then I would give this book 9.5. Not because it doesn't deserve 10 but because I'm convinced it cannot be better than the three volumes that this is a condensed version of. The author admits that much has been left out in the production of this single volume and if I knew what I know now then I would have tried to obtain the original three volumes.

Having said that, this is a fantastic book for anyone who has more than a passing interest in Byzan...more
This is a whirlwind tour of more than 1000 years of rich history, thick with world changing events, communication and clashes between civilizations, battles, strategies, ambitions, plots, and the rise and fall of one of the most glorious and least known civilizations: the Byzantine Empire.

John Julius Norwich has an incredible command of the subject, not only of the big events but also the little revealing details. In a few pages he manages to accurately describe the historical events, slowing d...more
Greg Hoadley
I still remember sitting in my high school history class, learning about the Roman Empire. Our history teacher mentioned in passing that in the 5th century, it was only the Western Roman Empire that ended; the Eastern half continued on for over 1,000 years--and oh, by the way, for a time they got back a large portion of what had been the full Roman Empire when it was at its peak. But after that little snippet, my teacher quickly moved on to something else.

Why should that be surprising? Because t...more
This is history the way you always wished it could be but never is. It is a scarcely-believable catalogue of violent deaths (try being pierced at close range by hundreds of arrows until you bleed slowly to death), sexual intrigues (one Empress had specially-trained geese to peck corn from her nether regions), and religious oddities (men who live their whole lives on top of a column, for instance).

With barbarian hordes, crusading knights, treasures and quests, the whole thing is like Tolkien got...more
Jun 06, 2008 Dirkus added it
Norwich is a true pro. A few years back he published a phenomenal book on the Mediterranean. This book here is a "condensed" version of his massive 3 volume history of Rome's red-headed stepchild. There's much less than one would expect on Byzantium's famed art here, as well as on the life of its ordinary citizens. Instead, the book reads like an 1100 year litany of regicides, fratricides, matricides, infanticides, tyrannicdes, vivicides, prolicides, and even deicdies, and whatever else could ge...more
This is an abridged version, but still rather long, though not for the very long history of this Empire.

This is dynastic history--the story of the kings and queens, their coups and battles. Quite well done and well-written, it certainly gives one a sense of the vigor of this civilization.

That said, I'd like to know more about the economy, ecology, the cultural and daily life of the Empire. Still, I can't fault the author for writing the book he did.
Jim Martin
Norwich admits he's not a Byzantine scholar, but the work does provide a valuable, if somewhat sympathetic to the Byzantine state, introduction to the entire 1,100+ years of the history of that alien, yet crucial civilization. I had previously read the three volume set that this work is condensed from and would recommend that anyone who really wants to go through all the lurid details go there. This will do, I think for most people, especially those who cannot commit to a few weeks of what most...more
This book is shortened from Norwich's three-volume history. Though I majored in history in college, most of my classes, if they mentioned Byzantium at all, just barely touched on the empire. As an Orthodox Christian, I had a further interest and thought it good to delve into this book.

Norwich's writing style is easy to read. Writers of history can have a tendency to be a bit dry, even when describing something exciting. Norwich keeps the writing fresh although he's covering a time-span of well o...more
I thought I left a comment on this and now can not find it.


As I wrote before I first encountered this book in college while looking for something extra to read about the late Roman empire. I enjoyed it as a 20 year old I enjoy it now that I am much older.

It's a wonderful tour of history and it is - rather unexpectedly - hilarious. I kept on saying to myself "this is no way to run an empire," and it wasn't.

I feel that the history of Byzantium is often ignored, there are no movies abo...more
Good compact introduction to a sprawling topic. Norwich is a fairly engaging guide to eleven centuries worth of wars, betrayal, torture, and intrigue. One does get a sense of how "byzantine" became an adjective describing devious, unscrupulous scheming. Norwich is opinionated and judgemental - not always a bad thing - but some of his off-the-cuff jabs at people's sexual preferences etc come across as jarringly dated.

Ultimately, I didn't find the history itself too gripping. Some of it was inher...more
Jeansue Libkind
Not knowing much about the history at that time and place, I opted to read this abridgement of Norwich’s 3-volume series. U.S. education tends to emphasize Byzantine art but not the unfolding of great swatches of history it embodied. Norwich does an excellent job of introducing the conflicting ideas and political forces: I found a lot of European history clicking into place with this broader Eastern perspective. Few souls died in bed, from the aristocracy to the peasants and slaves. The women co...more
John Julius Norwich's [apparently] famous 1200-page "History of Byzantium" trilogy gets condensed to just under 400 pages, in the hopes that by making it accessible - and not force readers to commit to 3 books, instead reading just one and getting the most important info. So yes - the pace is a bit break-neck, but Norwich still manages to explain things satisfactorily, yet never condescendingly.

Besides all the "history" being skimmed over (with 383 pages for about 1200 years of Byzantine Empire,...more
My daughter took one look at this 400-page book and said, "This is a short history?" I guess it's all relative, because on the cover it says "based on the great three-volume work." Somehow John Julius Norwich took his massive piece of scholastic synthesis and pared it down to this one manageable volume. I wanted to learn more about the Eastern Roman Empire, but I didn't't want to read three exhaustive volumes. One unfortunate side-effect of moving so quickly through Byzantium's 1100 year history...more
Diogo Almeida
The main problem with "A Short History of Byzantium" is that it is short. To condense 1.100 years of history and 88 emperors in less than 400 pages is an Herculean task. Norwich, however, manages splendidly well. Even though, in some passages, the text does read like a litany of murders and depravities - as mentioned by other commentators -, the author does his utmost to "make the point" regarding this or that period. At the end of every chapter, for example, there is a brief analysis of the rol...more
Non amo in particolare la divulgazione storica, e quando mi sono ritrovata in mano questo libro quasi per caso non ho potuto fare a meno di leggere prefazione e introduzione in cui l'autore si prefiggeva di restituire all'impero Bizantino il giusto riconoscimento che una certa storiografia gli aveva tolto. Perciò l'ho iniziato con curiosità, attratta dalla prosa fluente, da un buon incipit e dalla grande capacità narrativa. Ne sono stata completamente catturata, pur nel susseguirsi rapido degli...more
As you probably know, this edition is condensed from three earlier volumes and it shows. This book gallops along at a right old pace as it fits in over 1100 years of history into a mere 400 pages. This means that the years go by in a blur of names, especially emperors, popes & patriarchs, places (the maps are good), campaigns and intrigue. That's not to say it is a difficult read, far from it, as Norwich's chatty style is very readable but for me there was just an overload of information. Th...more
A Short History of Byzantium surveys more than a thousand years of history, admirably outlining the life of the long-overlooked eastern Christian empire. Norwich clearly has a passion and admiration for this scrappy heir to the Roman Empire, and his narrative is anything but dry (the salacious gossip that he passes on about the Empress Theodora is quite titillating). Indeed, by the end, many readers may find themselves lamenting the sad decline and tragic end of the Byzantines as well as incredu...more
Ugh. I learned a lot of emperors' names and results of campaigns, and I guess I wanted that. Sometimes you need a basic general history, but there's almost no social or economic history in here at all and no explanation.

Norwich makes a lot of anachronistic moral commentary, such as one emperor being "shamelessly bisexual," some theological dogma being a triumph of "West over East, clarity over mysticism," and three or four emperors having saved Western civilization from barbarism or "the Islamic...more
Aug 01, 2011 Brian added it
This one was a bit of a slog. Don't get me wrong, Norwich's writing style is very light and not remotely academic, but there's a sameness to both subject and treatment that lulls one into an occasional sense of confusion. The real trouble is that there's little emphasis on which events or people may be more relevant than others. Norwich skips from one battle or imperial intrigue to the next without ever drawing a breath. Further, there's the lack of much context about other contemporary empires....more
Alex Nelson
This was an ambitious book trying to condense ~2400 pages into ~300.

I don't think it worked. Instead, it read more like an awkward hodge-podge of superficial biographies. The main moral I got from it, consequently, was "Never become a Byzantine emperor."

The writing is good, for the most part, but it's just attempts to be too comprehensive in too little space. So it felt superficial, despite the author's hardest endeavor not to.

It's good as a review, if you know the material. But as an introducti...more
The book doesn't provide much information about socio-economic conditions which existed in Byzantine. It is more of a narration of the succession struggle in the Byzantine empire. This is a condensed version of a three volume book. This book as a result is packed with dates, wars and the kings their contenders and their relatives involved in them. The is packed with so much information that it becomes overwhelming at times. The narration becomes dry as it seems the same story is being told with...more
A book that does a rather amazing job of taking the 1000+ years of history of the Eastern Roman Empire and making it into a 300 page book that still mentions all the major events and even some of the minor ones as well without feeling like a summary. I was fully engaged in the book the entire time.
Howard White
A brilliant short history of the Byzantine Empire--the Greek, Christian remnant of the Roman Empire centered on Constantinople (Istanbul)--from its beginnings in the third and fourth centuries CE to its end at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Great introduction for the lay reader with fascinating accounts of the various christological controversies that rent the late antique and early medieval worlds, as well as vivid portraits of emperors, generals, eunuchs, empresses and courtiers who m...more
Whew! This is a bit of a slog, because it is primarily a government history (not a social, ethnic or cultural history), and putting 1100 or so years of the Byzantine Empire into 400 pages means that most of the book is about who killed whom to succeed to Emperor. However, both the early years (starting with the great Constantine I) and the later years, starting with the First Crusade, become much more interesting with the interactions of the Roman Christians, the Byzantine Christians, and the Is...more
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Norwich is the only child of the Conservative politician and diplomat Duff Cooper and of Lady Diana Cooper, a celebrated beauty and society figure. Through his father, he is descended from King William IV and his mistress Dorothea Jordan.

He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, Canada (as a wartime evacuee), at Eton College, and at the University of Strasbourg. He served in the Royal Navy...more
More about John Julius Norwich...
Byzantium: The Early Centuries Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy A History of Venice Byzantium: The Apogee Byzantium: The Decline and Fall

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