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A Short History of Byzantium

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  1,949 ratings  ·  174 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
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 29th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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Jul 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Hey now, this was one long "short" history. 431 pages of murder, usurption, blinding (lots of blinding), mutilation, and just plain history. I'm exhausted. I also couldn't stop reading.

Being thoroughly confused about the Eastern Roman Empire and wanting to learn more about the great Justinian, I added this volume to my collection with the view that I would just leaf through for a bit and then put it in the queue for a future reading. Wrong! I became enslaved to every new emperor and shook my
Jun 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: european-history
Norwich compresses three volumes into one in his Short History covering the 1100 years and 88 emperors of Byzantium. As you turn the pages, the centuries roll by quickly. It soon becomes hard to remember exactly who did what to whom and when. Although some figures stand out such as Constantine I, Justinian I and Basil II. There is an upside to this compacted presentation. One gets a feel for the sweep of history. It is easier to see what changes and what stays the same over the centuries. Below ...more
Jul 22, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Dec 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is an incredible, epic, history. I knew very little about the Eastern Roman Empire when I decided to read it, and consequently this book was rather like drinking from a firehose. 1100 years of some of the most staggering and implausible history you've ever read condensed into 383 pages, finishing off with a heroic last stand and the legends it inspired.

I don't mean this to be the end of my acquaintance with Byzantium, but it was an electrifying introduction.
I ought to check my home library top shelves more often (or at least dust them from time to time). There, seated appropriately but shyly between From Pagan Rome to Byzantium and Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II was this treasure, bought several years ago in advance of a long trip to Turkey.

But then I was distracted by the more proximate history of the Ottomans. This time around, my interest in Byzantium, as well as its antecedents, neighbors and many descendents,
Jan 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: All; History Buffs; Christians
Recommended to Tyler by: Various Reviews
Shelves: history
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
May 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 1000-1300ca
A Short History of Byzantium
John Julius Norwich
Read it in Hardcover at 431 pages including extensive Index, biblio, Maps, Lists, etc.

This is the third Norwich this year for me. While not a historian by trade he's managed to write some pretty fantastic history in both this and Kingdom of the Sun. A Short History of Byzantium is actually a trimmed up work from a previous publication. The original being a much more detailed account which I had a hard time finding (it was published in three
What a great beginning! First comes a date I can easily remember: the Byzantine Empire was founded by Constantine the Great on Monday, May 11, 330. Then Norwich quotes Alice In Wonderland: "Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop." Very promising indeed!

What a great ending! Norwich is a nonfiction author who can use prose and present his story as effectively as a great novelist. I expected that the end would be depressing (as I observed years ago, everyone dies at
Jun 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jun 12, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: europe, history, asia
Knowing nothing of the Byzantium Empire this must be as good as it gets for a short history. My only complaint was that the authors opinions as to the individuals was a touch too prominent for me and the lack of footnotes is also a small complaint. I suspect I will never read another book that has so many eyes "put out" Brutal!
Czarny Pies
Dec 06, 2014 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: No one. Try Norwich's complete three volume history instead.
Shelves: european-history
This is a truly ghastly book by an historian who has written several outstanding works. I wish now that I had stopped at the introduction in which the author explains that his "Short History" is an abridged version of his trilogy on the history of Byzantium. Abridgments of this sort are typically lifeless as indeed this one is. A bare bones narrative exists but the passages that provided narrative flow and spirit are gone. Norwich's 900 page narrative of the 200 year history of the Normans ...more
Mar 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, 2016-reads
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended what the population always identified as the Roman Empire, but has become known as the Byzantine Empire that John Julius Norwich thought had been given a bad reputation in “the West”. In “A Short History of Byzantium” Norwich condensed his three-volume history of the Greek-flavored Roman Empire into a general history for those interested in history but do not have time for lengthy studies.

In covering almost 1200 years of history in about 400 pages,
Ashley Nef
Feb 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Constantinople fell today 563 years ago. Kind of poetic I finished the story of its 1000 year history today as well (this was totally unplanned). I just love Byzantium - its history is even crazier than Game of Thrones, and the setting is the stuff of dreams: gold mosaics, enamel pieces, rich silks, scintillating jewels, massive defensive walls designed by angels, nigh on mythic emperors and emperesses, and the Hagia Sophia rising above the city skyline above the Bosphorus. Gotta love John ...more
Max Nova
Jul 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Greed? Check. Ambition? Check. Murder? Check. If “Game of Thrones” isn’t quite doing it for you, consider checking out John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium.”

Most of us (in America, at least) have a Byzantium-sized hole in our knowledge of the history of the Middle Ages. Which is a shame, because if ever there was a historical model for walking the line between East and West, it was Byzantium. This book is actually a distillation of a much larger 3 volume set. As such, it does
Tim Martin
_A Short History of Byzantium_ by John Julius Norwich was a well-written and comprehensive overview of largely the political history of the Byzantine Empire. At times the book felt a bit hurried as Emperor after Emperor rushed by, but then that is understandable given several facts. First, Norwich was covering the entire history of Byzantium, its 1,123 year lifespan from its founding as the Roman Empire of the East by Constantine the Great in 330 to its end when Constantine XI died fighting with ...more
Alexis Grenier
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fantastic book. Very informative, well detailed, witty and humourous at times. But most of all, it is incredibly entertaining, never a dull moment. Everything I wanted and much more. Perfect for anyone interested in Byzantium or just history in general.
Rome fell in a.d. 474? Tell that to the Byzantines, who for centuries persisted in being an afterimage of the classical world, evolving through the medieval before their collapse a century after the west had fallen to barbarism. A Short History of Byzantium takes in over a thousand years of history, from Diocletian’s administrative division of the Roman Empire into two halves to the fall of the great city Constantinople to the Turks. There is great difficulty in a hurried survey like this, ...more
Feb 08, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Greg Hoadley
Jul 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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,
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
Surprisingly, a history book one can read from beginning to finish that reads like a novel, while retaining enough factual information to be an evergreen reference book. Not that the one function doesn't intrude upon the other once in a while--there are pages where you will hunger for more details (and isn't this how we determine the next books we want to read?) and other pages where one's eyes begin to glaze over (all those Leo's, Matthew's, Constantine's and Nicholas' ... ARGH!). But a book in ...more
Jul 31, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Feb 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Chris Hall
Nov 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to James by: GoldGato
Shelves: history, non-fiction
A layman's history of Byzantium, it covers over a thousand years in its 360 or so pages if text along with a hundred pages or so of notes, family trees and other graphics. Like most empires, it had endless problems with succession, though no worse than Tang China when looking at average reigning years per emperor. Early on, the chariot teams Blue and Green were politically important, very bizarre! Religion was a complicated matter, the endless Christian intolerance towards any variation from the ...more
Oct 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 01, 2011 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
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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
“The fourth century had been a fateful one indeed for the Roman Empire. It had seen the birth of a new capital, and the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. It ended, however, on a note of bathos: in the West with silence and inertia in the face of the barbarian menace, in the East with a whimper – the only possible description for the reactions of a feckless Emperor as his vicious wife held him up to public ridicule as a fool, an incompetent and a cuckold. The new century, on the other hand, began with a bang. In the early summer of 401, Alaric the Goth invaded Italy.” 0 likes
“for the Byzantine Empire, absolute monarchy though it might be, ran its economy on socialist lines. Private enterprise was rigidly controlled: production, labour, consumption, foreign trade, public welfare, even the movement of population were all in the hands of the State. The consequence was a vast horde of civil servants, imbued by the Emperor with one overriding principle: to curb if not actually to destroy the power of the army.” 0 likes
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