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
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue