Byzantium: The Early Centuries

John Julius Norwich, author of this history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the founding of Constantinople in 330 until the coronation in 800 in Rome by the Pope of Charlemagne as rival Emperor of the West, is a jolly entertaining English upper class sort of storyteller. He has all the credentials: son of Duff and Diana Cooper, he went to Eton, then joined the diplomatic corps before retiring at 35 to write history books; he is the father of Artemis Cooper, herself married to the historian Anthony Beevor and currently biographer of the dashing English upper class travel writer and proto-Bond Patrick Leigh Fermor. And it must be said, his stories are pithy and colourful, designed to extract the last ounce of entertainment value from that previous aristocracy, the Roman-cum-Byzantine. He plucks a juicy summary from the sources, eliminates any tedious ingredients, enlivens it with crisp judgments, peppers it with anecdotal footnotes, and moves on. No sins of commission to complain about; though as he admits, he finds people more interesting than trends. The common people carry on, popping up occasionally to rise in support of or against this or that emperor, regent, patriarch, powerbroker. Yah boo hiss hooray they go, and the pantomime continues, within the hippodrome and without, but mostly beyond the heavily guarded end of the passage that connects to the imperial quarters.

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