A voyage on the gong-tormented sea

Jan Morris finds the glitter and glory of Byzantium brought to life in a 'tumultuous' history; Byzantium: the Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich Viking, pounds 25

"O City, city, eye of all cities, cried the chronicler Nicetas Choniates in agony, contemplating the sack of Constantinople in 1204. "Thou has drunk to the dregs the cup of the anger of the Lord". A lament no less heartfelt runs all through this elegy for a civilization, the third and final volume of Lord Norwich's noble history of Byzantium. The book is full of pity and regret, is infused with a kind of worldly tenderness, and ends in a display of tragic glory when at last, on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, the Muslims storm the walls of Constantinople and put an end to it all - an end, in the author's view, to "the most spiritually-oriented temporal state the Christian world has ever known".

Not that the book is a gloomy read. Anyone who has ridden with Norwich through his previous tumultuous volumes will remount with pleasure for this last hack home. The pace is easy as always, and as we pass among the spectacularly varied scenes of war, intrigue, theological debate, marital kerfuffle, sacrifice, revenge, blazing ambition and lordly pride, our guide calms our passions with an infinity of curious asides and grace notes. lt is history of an old-school, gentlemanly kind - no gimmicks, no show-off vocabulary, just a grand story told with true grandeur.

The narrative is unashamedly partisan. Lord Norwich vehemently disagrees with Edmund Gibbon about the nature of Byzantium ("base and despicable"), partly because he considers it a genuinely holy organism, but chiefly perhaps because he so loves its art, its architecture and its learned culture - he believes the Anastasis fresco in the church of St Saviour in Chora in Istanbul to be "perhaps the supreme masterpiece of all Christian art". During the four centuries covered by this volume, the Byzantine Empire was almost incessantly under attack, from fellow-Christians as from infidels; I very soon fell into the author's habit of cheering on the Byzantines. The Muslims don't sound so bad, but the vulgar forces of the Catholic west, with their greedy half-literate princes and their arrogant Popes, storm and squabble down the generations like a pack of street-thugs.

I simplify, of course. The drama of Byzantium's decline is nightmarishly complex, with its constantly shifting cast of Bulgarians, Angevins, Seljuks, Germans, Bogomils, Pechenegs, Catalans, Turks, Sicilians, Mongols and hairy nomads. Norwich simply presents us with the facts, logically, chronologically, together with maps, genealogical tables and an apparently never-flagging zest. He can be forgiven for lifting, now and then, substantial chunks from his previous major histories of Venice and Norman Sicily: the wonder is that he manages to lead us through these historical tangles without ever once, not for a moment, being a bore.

Even the esoteric theological differences which so disastrously divided eastern and western Christianity are explained with clarity and patience: the filoque controversy, for instance, concerned with the question of whether the Holy Ghost proceeded from both the Father and the Son, or from the Father only; or still more obscurely, the matter of the Hesychasts, and whether they could in fact, by techniques of meditation, see for themselves the divine light of the Transfiguration. In less fastidious hands these disputes could be incomprehensible or preposterous. Norwich makes of them interesting matters of politics as of faith.

Mind you, just occasionally the convolutions really are rather comical. I was nagged by a feeling of deja vu when I read the footnote on page 263 warning us that the city of Magnesia mentioned in the text was "not Magnesia ad Sipylum, the modern town of Manisa near Izmir, but Magnesia on the Meander, some thirty kilometres east of Kusadasi: until I remembered a note in one of Beachcomber's columns years ago to the effect that the M'Hoho mentioned in a Colonial Office report was not the M'Hoho near Zumzum, but the M'Hoho near Wodgi.

Lord Norwich will not resent the reference. His tragic story is enlivened everywhere with humour and surprise. Besides the towering figures at the centre of the narrative, the Emperors, the scholars, the theologians, the generals, a host of fascinating lesser characters is sighted along the way. There is Bolkan the Zhupan of Rascia. There is Hunyadi the Voyevod of Transylvania. There is the unfortunate princess Adelaide of Brunswick- Grubenhagen, brought all the way to Constantinople, poor soul, to wed the future Andronicus III, and conclusively dismissed as "a German lady of insufferable tedium". Fifty-eight men called John complicate the index of this book, including nine Emperors, four Popes, three Tsars, five Patriarchs, two Despots, an ex-King of Jerusalem and John the Bastard of Thessaly.

But however amused and intrigued he is himself by this wild profusion, Norwich never loses sight of his great theme. We know from the start that Byzantium is doomed. For 400 years the Byzantines struggle to survive, harassed on all sides by Christians and Muslims alike, sometimes achieving victories, sometimes postponing disasters, but irretrievably weakening down the generations. The spectacle suggests the slow sinking of some mighty and indomitable battleship, fighting to the last, flaming in the dark as her magazines explode, her steering falls and the shells fall like waterspouts all about her.

Cynics might say that nothing so became Byzantium as its fall the 55 days of heroic resistance to the Sultan Mehmet II which ended with the last of the Emperors, Constantine IX, disappearing for ever from the battle as from history. "Byzantine" has become a word more often pejorative than admiring, and the notion of Constantinople as a heroic bulwark of Christian values is generally familiar only to the Greeks - to this day Tuesday is an unlucky day throughout the Hellenic world. Lord Norwich has taken upon himself to straighten the record, and to give the martyrdom of Byzantium its proper place in European history.

What he has done too, for me anyway, is to translate a dream into literary substance. The idea of Byzantium has haunted the western imagination for generations, but for most of us it has been hardly more than a drifting fantasy - a lovely arch or a lyrical mosaic, a dazzle of Klimt, a snatch of Yeats. Norwich's great trilogy has dispersed none of this magic, but has given it humanity too. Mehmet the Conqueror and Khaireddin the Torch of the Faith, the Palaeologi and the Hesychasts, in these pages we recognize them as fallible human beings after all, just like you and me.

Well, a bit like you and me...

Above: the Anastasis fresco in the church of St Saviour in Chora, Istanbul, 'perhaps the supreme masterpiece of all Christian art'

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism