Book Review: Sailing From Byzantium

Sailing From Byzantium:  How A Lost Empire Shaped The World, by Colin Wells

I don’t know where I became someone who reads a lot of books on Byzantium, but there are a lot of books on that medieval society [1], and I somehow find myself reading a few of them also.  In general, these books seek to demonstrate the importance of the Byzantine Empire to the contemporary Western world in one way or another, and this book certainly fits within that trend.  After all, why would one read about an empire that ended lamentably and definitively in 1453, decades before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, unless the empire had some importance on the way we currently live.  This particular book is a relatively short one and certainly a very well-written one, and it certainly justifies the intents of its author to let the reader know about the importance of the Byzantine influence on surrounding peoples, even if that influence was not always straightforward.  And that lack of straightforwardness is not necessarily a disadvantage, as it allows the author to tell a fascinating story that has some surprising relevance when one examines the question of pietism within different religious traditions.

This book is about 300 pages long and is focused on looking at the influence of the Byzantine empire and its scholarship and knowledge of Greek philosophical thinking on the West, Arabs, and the Slavic world.  The book begins with an introduction to major characters, a concurrent timeline of the four worlds the author is discussing, maps, an introduction, and a prologue that sets up a controversy between philosophical and pietist Byzantines that led to a fatal division of the empire in the 14th century.  After that the author spends five chapters discussing the relationship between Byzantium and the West (I), discussing the parting of the ways (1) between the West and Byzantium in the early Middle Ages, the struggle within the Byzantine Empire between Athens and Jerusalem (2), the early instruction of Greek to the humanist elite of Renaissance Italy (3), how these efforts increased (4), and the importance of Byzantine emigres to the development of the Italian humanist culture of the 15th century (5).  After that the author discusses the relationship between Byzantine culture and the Arab world (II), with three chapters that deal with the efforts of the Arabs to establish a new Byzantium (6), the house of wisdom through translation (7), and the Arabic enlightenment (8).  Finally, the author discusses in eight chapters the relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Slavic World (III), with chapters on the threat of invasion (9), the mission of Cyril and Methodius (10), wars of emulation between the Bulgars and the Byzantines (11), the Serbs and others (12), the rise of Kiev (13), the golden age of Kievan Rus (14), the rise of Moscow (15), and Moscow’s role as the third Rome (16), after which the epilogue discusses the last Byzantine and there is an author’s note, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, and index.

There are several different layers of this author’s particular discussion.  One of them, the surface layer, is to discuss that Byzantine expertise in holding on to the Greek philosophical tradition and its texts allowed these texts to dramatically influence the development of the Italian and Arab Renaissance periods.  Additionally, Byzantine attitudes towards encouraging national churches in the local vernacular languages allowed its influence to spread throughout the Eastern European slavic peoples, dividing them from the influence of Rome with its more imperial use of the Latin language in liturgy.  Beyond this, though, the author is making a subtle but definitely pointed attack on pietism as an approach, viewing it as a weakening force in the loyalty that people felt to beleaguered states like the late Byzantine Empire that were fighting for their survival by privileging a sense of religious purity over engaging in the actions that would be necessary for survival in the face of the hostility of the Turks.  Pietism privileges personal morality over the compromises of the political or geopolitical world, and hence those who hold to a pietistic belief tend to ultimately be hostile to political savvy and the sacrifices that are necessary to get along with others in the sake of building coalitions, which the author views as a major negative, along with the pietistic hostility to philosophy that tends to exist as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Sailing From Byzantium

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Concise History Of Byzantium | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: On The Viability Of Empire | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s