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The story of Byzantium is a real-life adventure of electrifying ideas, high drama, colorful characters, and inspiring feats of daring. In Sailing from Byzantium, Colin Wells tells of the missionaries, mystics, philosophers, and artists who, against great odds and often at peril of their own lives, spread Greek ideas to the Italians, the Arabs, and the Slavs.
Their heroic efforts inspired the Renaissance, the golden age of Islamic learning, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which led to a new alphabet, new forms of architecture, and one of the world's great artistic traditions.
The story's central reference point is an arcane squabble called the Hesychast controversy. It pitted humanist scholars, led by the brilliant, acerbic intellectual Barlaam, against the powerful monks of Mount Athos, led by the stern Gregory Palamas, who denounced pagan rationalism in favor of Christian mysticism.
Within a few decades, the light of Byzantium would be extinguished by the invading Turks, but not before the humanists found a safe haven for Greek literature. And the debate between rationalism and faith would continue to be engaged by some of history's greatest minds.
Fast-paced, compulsively readable, and filled with fascinating insights, Sailing from Byzantium is one of the great historical dramas, the absorbing story of how civilization's flame was saved and passed on.
"Wells brings vividly to life this history of a long-lost era and its opulent heritage." (Booklist)
"This history is a needed reminder of the debt that three of our major civilizations owe to Byzantium. Highly recommended." (Library Journal)
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Nikoli Gogol on 12-29-07
The Missing Years
Accounts of European History end with the sack of Rome in 410, then have a black hole called the Dark Ages, and then pick up the story with Charlemagne. This account of history is very incomplete and inaccurate.
While Western Europe was in decline, the Byzantine Empire was in existence from the year 330 to 1453 during which time it was the wellspring of science, art, literature, and history. This Empire was in existence longer that Britain’s government, if one dates it from the Battle of Hastings in the 1066. The works of the ancient Greeks and Romans were preserved, copied and transmitted. Byzantium and its enemies referred to it as the uninterrupted Roman Empire until its fall.
The author shows that three empires in turn benefitted from Byzantium’s contributions: Western Europe; the Slavic Countries most notably Russia (the self styled “Third Rome”); and Moslems. Significantly, Byzantine monks invented the Cyrillic alphabet for use by the Slavs and translated the bible into a vernacular in the 9th century. The British did not have a vernacular bible till the 17 century.
The term “Byzantine” has acquired the pejorative meaning similar to the term "Kafkaesque" because of complication in messy dynastic changes, the similarity of names of offspring, and theological disputes in which the Orthodox beliefs of the Byzantines were more in keeping with the Christian canon than Rome’s view on the same topics.
Edward Gibbon, a skeptic, weighed in with his acidic and exaggerated descriptions of the worst that Byzantium had to offer. This is hardly a reason to dismiss the innumerable positive achievements of Byzantium and its effect in enlightening Europe and making the Renaissance possible.
See also Justinian’s Flea and the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, both available on Audible.
30 of 32 people found this review helpful
By Marje on 01-01-10
For dedicated students of the age
A scholarly work that will be primarily of interest to dedicated students of the age, Sailing from Byzantium chronicles the profound influence that the 1000-year old Byzantine Empire had on 1) Europe and the Renaissance, 2) Slavic countries (Russia and the "Third Rome") and 3) the Islamic world. Of particular interest to me were the Byzantine humanists who played a critical role in the transmission of Hellenic thought and classical knowledge to the world. The eminent scholar, Chrysoloras, and other Byzantine humanists carried by hand many of the ancient Greek writings to from Constantinople to early Renaissance Italy and were profoundly influential on the flowering of new thought and the intense creativity of the time.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful