Sailing From Byzantium by Colin Wells

Book Review by Tobias

One cannot avoid the fact that Rome's shadow has been cast over the ages, spreading knowledge, wisdom, technology etc over centuries and through many peoples of the world, to have a resounding influence on today's world. How has this influence survived so long, when it is a commonly held thought that Rome ended in the 5th century A.D., and that this "fall" was the end to any Roman influence in the world? The answer is that Rome did not fall – it merely changed location. The small ancient Greek colony of Byzantium was chosen as the site of Nova Roma – Constantinople. It is this side of history, that of the "Byzantine" Romans, that has so often been overlooked. It is not generally known how much the modern world owes to this civilisation, which has until recently, been known as more of a historical footnote than a major influence on the world.

Interest in Byzantium has, however, been piqued in the last century and onwards. It is here, the new desire for information on the Byzantines, that Colin Wells' "Sailing from Byzantium – How a lost Empire shaped the world" steps in to help fill the vacuum in our history around the Byzantines and their role in history.

"Sailing from Byzantium – How a lost empire shaped the world", is a title that indicates the depth of the work in this book. The initial parts of the book provide the reader with the details of the major characters - who feature not only in the book, but in history – which are significant in conjunction with the Byzantines and their effect on the world through the ages. Along with a detailed timeline of the events in the book, the reader is supplied with a series of maps, so as to give an idea on the extent and context of the Byzantine world and its neighbours. All of this information, pregnant with detail, has been supplied before the immense story of the Byzantines has even begun – providing the reader with a pleasant feeling of anticipation of what lies ahead. The context of Byzantium established – we launch into the annals of the Byzantines.

The history itself is split into three parts; juxtaposing Byzantium with the civilisations it would effect and shape. Part I focuses on Byzantium and the West; referring to Byzantine relations and influence with the city states of Italy which would later be the bright lights of learning in the Renaissance. The reader gains significant insight into the fall of the Western Roman Empire, later Byzantine control of the west and lasting Byzantine influence and remnants in the west, such as great works of art, architecture etc. As is said in the book, "Travel to Italy…you'll find that Byzantium is never more than a stone's throw away."

Part II focuses on what would appear to be two diametrically opposed civilisations; that of the Byzantines and the Islamic World. We are presented with a detailed picture of Muhammad's journeys, the rise of the then new religion of Islam and it's steady rise to prominence, the sudden outward expansion of Islam and the inevitable clashes with the Byzantines and the west, it's height of power under it's greatest rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and the "golden age of Islamic Learning" attained through their exposure to and translation of Greek texts, which would shape the world of Islam for years to come.

Part III shows the effect of Byzantium on the rising Slavic world. The reader learns of the sudden appearance of warlike peoples on the Byzantine doorstep and the urgent missions to convert these peoples to Christianity. We relive the dominance of Symeon the Great of Bulgaria, the greater dominance of a series of Byzantine soldier-Emperors, and the amazing conversion of the rising power of the Rus (starting with Kiev) to Christianity, ultimately shaping the Russian peoples. The book shows how these people were educated in Byzantine knowledge, culture, language and architecture. The audience can see clearly how Russia today was shaped by Byzantium. This part ends in an epilogue concerning "The Last Byzantine"; an amazing and moving story.

With all these mammoth parts read, the audience comes away with a staggering experience; one unfamiliar with the profound effect of the Byzantines via these different peoples will now have a more clear picture on exactly how much of the world was shaped by the Byzantines. One who knows of this influence will no doubt have learnt something new, regardless.

"Sailing from Byzantium – How a lost empire shaped the world" is a tremendous anthology of how the remains of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known influenced the shape of the world. Colin Wells has provided a fascinating historical story, featuring famous and infamous personas, great military and religious campaigns and courageous accounts of the many missionaries and other learned people who extended the retained and built-up knowledge of the Romans and Greeks to the Western peoples in Italy, the Arabic peoples in the middle east and the Slavic peoples to the far north of Byzantium.

We can thank Byzantium for the great Renaissance that followed medieval times, the enlightenment of learning for the Islamic peoples and quite a large amount of modern Russia's culture, architecture and history. This book is fit to take its place in the upper echelons of literature; a marvellous read for anyone interested in the history of civilisation, Byzantium or the world. Colin Wells has put together a masterpiece entailing the journey of knowledge through the medium of Byzantium.

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