Friday, December 29, 2006

Better Than In Byzantium

I'm currently reading through a three volume history by Lord John Julius Norwich. For enjoyable reading, it has plenty of everything one could want in history: wars, riots, intrigues, treachery, betrayals, palace coups, greed, debauchery, strange turns of events, strange peoples, unexplained mysteries, religious tumults, murders, mayhem, tortures, mutilations, parricides, fratricides, suicides, and regicides.

The history of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration? Hum, No.

Actually, it's Lord Norwich's Byzantium. I just finished the first volume, "The Early Centuries", and have started the second, "The Apogee". I am at the point where Basil the Macedonian, in a plot to grab the imperial Byzantine throne, has finished murdering his buddy and friend, the last dynast of the Amorians, Michael III (aka "The Sot"). Actually, Basil wasn't Macedonian but instead an Armenian; he had only lived in Macedonia for a short time, and he spoke Greek with a heavy Armenian accent.

Confusing? Well, let me put it this way: when reading Byzantine history, one has to pay very close attention.

So far my only complaints about Lord Norwich's history are: firstly, his contempt for Xnty is barely disguised — although he is, for some reason, more laudatory of Islam — and secondly, he simply makes no serious effort to help his reader fully understand the reasons behind some of the religious controversies in the eastern church, controversies which were so important in Byzantine history. Like a good Modernist, he simply throws up his hands and says it's all quite "impossible" to understand. Furthermore, there were a couple of spots where I thought he was getting things simply flat-out wrong. For example, he mistakenly labeled the Paulicians a Xtian sect, when in fact they were just another recrudescence of Gnosticism, an altogether different thing, which back in the Middle Ages would pop up in various times and places, decked out in different styles and flavors. Gnosticism is still around even today and has never really gone away — just check around the local big-chain bookstores to see what I mean. Academe and writers of cheesy novels especially love Gnosticism. However, understanding the distinction between Gnosticism and Xnty was just too subtle for Lord Norwich apparently. But other than that, I found his Byzantium to be well written and very engrossing.

[addendum] I finished the second volume, but I am going to take a short break before tackling Lord Norwich's third book in the series, "The Decline and Fall". One can overdose on this stuff. I do have something to say to those in the Catholic and Orthodox churches who still are hankering for a return to the old Constantinian amalgamation of church and state: sorry, but no, thank you. Byzantium was where that old arrangement existed in spades, and besides corrupting the church, it never really worked right.