A Pleasant Overview: A Review of Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire by Isaac Asimov.
Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire by Isaac Asimov, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1970. 293 pages.
This book charts the life of the Eastern Roman Empire, now known to us as the Byzantine, from the time of Diocletian and Constantine through to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453 and, in a brief epilogue, beyond.
Each chapter begins with a line drawing, each section with a smaller drawing, about the size of a stamp, and maps of the Mediterranean and surrounds show the fluctuating fortunes of the empire, or at least of its geographical extent.
This is a most excellent introductory history. Asimov writes with sympathy and clarity, and a thoughtful awareness of how history is written by the victors and rarely without an axe to grind. Thus we get sections like:
If Iconoclasm had won out in the end, there is no question but that Leo III — saviour of Christianity, smasher of the Arabs, reorganiser of the empire, mild-hearted reformer of the law — would have gone down in history as one if its greatest and most enlightened rulers. But because Iconoclasm did not, in the end, succeed, he remained at the mercy of chroniclers who were, for the most part, monks and who considered him a devilish heretic. As a result, his great name is unfairly obscured in history.
This is why this is such a great introductory history — it would help put the reader on guard against other, less empathic writers, who are less inclined to distrust the histories of the time.
Similarly, Asimov is well known as a story-teller, and I think this helps him put himself into the position of key figures. For example, the great Heraclius, who saved the empire from the Persians, is often castigated for his lack of resolve in facing the rise of Islam; and yet Asimov points out he was 60 and had been at war all his life and he and the army were simply exhausted. Asimov is able to see these figures as humans in their time, and this brings us closer to them as people, even if they only get a few paragraphs to themselves. We can have more sympathy for their failings, even as we shake our heads at their foolishness.
The author relates the goings on of the church, the tension with Rome and within the empire, the enduring problems of Monophysitism, the Filioque, Monothelitism, Arianism, Iconoclasm and God knows what. In the end the refrain repeated by so many of the easterners when their emperor sought help from the west against the Turks — “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre” (there are many similar versions), becomes one of the saner statements in the whole story. Asimov conveys it all in a straightforward way, pointing out the cost to the empire of these controversies but seeing them from both sides. The ‘odious’ (if I recall my Norwich) Michael Psellus is possibly dealt with too generously, but that is more evidence of the humanism of the author; figures are judged (when the author does judge, as in the last sentence of the quote above) on the quality of their service to the greater cause, not on their religious beliefs, which Asimov the atheist is wise enough to see were in most cases perfectly reasonable for the time, and (I suspect) as all equally (in)valid.
Through it all, the single greatest weakness of the Byzantine — and the Roman — state becomes clear; the succession. So much energy is wasted in civil war, so many apparently ruthless figures ascend to the throne only to prove inadequate to the task.
Nice work, Isaac.