Fighting Emperors of Byzantium by John Carr

Book Review by caldrail

How could anyone resist a book titled like this? It stirs the eight year old boy within you, but make no mistake, the author of this book isn't writing for children. This is full on power politics across hundreds of years in an empire that picked up where the Roman Empire left off.

The story begins with the rise to power of Constantine the Great, the man who invested in the greek dominated city of Byzantium to set up a new Roman capital closer to the heart of the action. As dramatic as it was, that episode is almost a gentle prologue to what follows. Emperors, rivals, usurpers, and no-hopers come and go at a bewildering pace.

All the highs and lows of human behaviour we expect of the more familiar Romans continue in an unrelenting struggle for dominance that only ceased toward the end of the medieval period when the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantine's capital once and for all.

The objective of the author is to show how important warfare was to the existence of a Roman society in a world that was changing around them. The very same process of meeting new demands had assisted the demise of the western empire, yet the Byzantines found the vigour to persist.

John Carr stresses the importance of military action in this struggle, hence the title of the book, yet the machinations of the various characters assume more importance in the text than details of military campaigns. This is not a book about Byzantine warfare. This is a book about those people who ordered their soldiers to go to war, and in many cases, actually led them them into battle. And what characters they were.

The format of Fighting Emperors of Byzantium follows the usual conventions with 259 pages of text to contain such a long historical period. There are no maps or diagrams, and even the photographs in the glossy middle pages seem superfluous. In fact, illustrations are unecessary, because such is the dramatic and enthusiastic style, the story presents its own colour.

John Carr wastes little time on subtleties, the change from Roman to Greek focus, the evolution from ancient to medieval societies, the admirable cultural achievements of the Byzantines. Where he succeeds unquestionably is tracing the progression of power. Above all, he shows that politics was no less sharp-edged than the glory days of the Roman Empire whose imperialism had been based from the beginning on military strength. Yes, there was change - but the game was still the same.

For many of us the Byzantine Empire is a vague and unimportant period of history. They seem to lack some essential quality that attracts us to their tale. Is that simply because it was a mysterious realm far far away? Is it some folk memory of the disdain the Crusaders displayed when they encountered a society they saw as lost in effeminate luxury? Is it because historians of old didn't have the same affinity toward greek culture than the British experience of latin rule?

Whatever the reason, the story alone is as entertaining as Roman history, and with some irony, displays eventually the very same symptoms of failure that the Western Empire had succumbed to a thousand years earlier.

Even though the idea of this book has relevance I cannot help thinking that the author is less concerned with diagnosing the military strengths and weaknesses of the Byzantines than simply having a great time relating an epic fireside story. In the final assessment this book has a value beyond the intended message. John Carr has shone a light into a dusty old cupboard and revealed a treasure chest.

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