Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World

ISBN: 0553803816
ISBN 13: 9780553803815
By: Colin Wells

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About this book

A gripping intellectual adventure story, Sailing from Byzantium sweeps you from the deserts of Arabia to the dark forests of northern Russia, from the colorful towns of Renaissance Italy to the final moments of a millennial city under siege.... Byzantium: the successor of Greece and Rome, this magnificent empire bridged the ancient and modern worlds for more than a thousand years. Without Byzantium, the works of Homer and Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aeschylus, would never have survived. Yet very few of us have any idea of the enormous debt we owe them. The story of Byzantium is a real-life adventure of electrifying ideas, high drama, colorful characters, and inspiring feats of daring. In Sailing from Byzantium, Colin Wells tells of the missionaries, mystics, philosophers, and artists who against great odds and often at peril of their own lives spread Greek ideas to the Italians, the Arabs, and the Slavs. Their heroic efforts inspired the Renaissance, the golden age of Islamic learning, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which came complete with a new alphabet, architecture, and one of the world's greatest artistic traditions. The story's central reference point is an arcane squabble called the Hesychast controversy that pitted humanist scholars led by the brilliant, acerbic intellectual Barlaam against the powerful monks of Mount Athos led by the stern Gregory Palamas, who denounced "pagan" rationalism in favor of Christian mysticism. Within a few decades, the light of Byzantium would be extinguished forever by the invading Turks, but not before the humanists found a safe haven for Greek literature. The controversy of rationalism versus faith would continue to be argued by some of history's greatest minds. Fast-paced, compulsively readable, and filled with fascinating insights, Sailing from Byzantium is one of the great historical dramas-the gripping story of how the flame of civilization was saved and passed on.

Reader's Thoughts

James Murphy

I hadn't known Byzantium was so important. Wells's book relates how, in the centuries following the end of the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the surviving portion in the east, continued to influence the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as well as Russia and the Balkans. By preserving Greek culture and transporting it to those areas, Byzantium made possible the philosophic, religious, and artistic movements behind the Renaissance, the era of Arabic science and learning, and the rise of Russian Orthodoxy. Despite pressures from neighboring peoples, Byzantium was able to remain intact during the dark years following Rome's demise and was able to preserve the twin values of Greek culture and Christianity which were responsible for its own flowering and to pass them along, thereby exporting science and learning to the Arabic world and Christianity to the north. It's not so much a history of Byzantium as it is the story of how it was the fertile seed ground for the ideas and values of the ancient Aegean and how it used its influence to sow them in the surrounding regions, to finally come to us.The book isn't a big one. I suspect the story's huge and much more complex than Wells's account, but his clear demarcations of the benchmarks of the region's cultural history and influence make for comprehension while laying the foundation for broader reading.


Really looking forward to this as part 2 of my self-made curriculum on Central Asia - past to present.(Part 1 is 'In Search of Zarathustra' by Daniel Kriwaczek)~~~~~~~~~~~This book was quite dense with very valuable information. It focuses on personalities and the movements they represented, rather than institutions, which I found hard to follow over the several months reading on and off.That said, its three parts almost stand alone showing the Byzantine influence on the Western, Islamic and the Slavic worlds.


Byzantium bridged between the Western culture and civilization and the Eastern culture and civilization. Byzantium, also known (particularly to themselves) as the Eastern roman Empire lasted for about 1,00 years (more than the Roman Republic and Roman Empire combined). This book does an excellent job of describing the contributions of the Byzantium Empire in a number of areas - that of preserving the knowledge from the ancient Greek culture and passing that on to the West after the renaissance. But more gernerally, Byzantium had very strong influences on the development of Western, Slavic, and Islamic culture. The cyrillic alphabet came from Byzantium's St Cyril's efforts to create a written language for Bulgarians and the rest of the Slavic world (which before him had no written language). Definately an interesting and well researched book, and written accessibly,

Patrick Santana

I found Wells' storytelling to be fascinating. Even without knowing all the minutiae about the scholars and intellectuals he describes, the way he weaves his story of Byzantium's contributions is compelling. I am a decent student of history, but I learned a lot about things i didn't know in the course of reading "Sailing". A great read if you're any kind of fan of Classical civilization, the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance.

Glyn Longden

Rating: 6/10. The author's intended purpose was to write a book which was accessible to the general reader. The problem is that the history of the Byzantine Empire is full of obscure religious and philosophical issues which, did, in fact, have an important role to play in its history. You wonder how an Empire, which seemed so incapable if defending itself and constantly refused to make important security decisions actually lasted for a thousand years. The three main issues in the book are Byzantium's relationships with the West, the Islamic world, and the Slavic speaking countries. I did learn a lot from reading Wells' book and it does make we want to read and learn more about Byzantium. I don't really think I would recommend this book for the 'general' reader though. P.S: for those of you who are map readers there are some excellent maps in this book.


There were many fine facts in this book. Many names. Many dates. The author clearly traces the influence of Byzantine thought and politics upon various figures. I should be much more knowledgeable and in awe of the auther. But I found it very difficult to absorb all of the Nicephoruses and Kantakuzinoses. Reading it as an audiobook probably didn't help.


An interesting little book about the influence of the Byzantine empire on Western Europe, Islam, and the Slavs. Each is addressed chronologically in its own section. I found the sections of the book about Islam and the Slavs very compelling. Each section, however, suffers from an annoying characterstic: devolution into a flood of names of obscure historical personalities by its conclusion. But other than that, a great book.(And on a personal note, this book did a great job of depicting the beginnings of Eastern Slavic states, dispelling a number of "facts" that I've heard numerous times about the Kyiv Rus.)


I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I appreciated how it was divided into three sections: Byzantium's influence on the West, on the Islamic world, and the Slavic world. I also loved how the themes of Athens and Jerusalem were traced throughout.

Karen E.

Disappointing. Will I ever find a book about the Byzantine Empire that is readable, scholarly, and thesis driven? This certainly isn't it.


This wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it's not a bad book. The topic is how the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) preserved Greek and Roman knowledge (philosophy, science, math) while Western Europe suffered the dark ages. The author discusses the re-dissemination of this knowledge in three directions: Western Europe, Persia and Arabia, and Slavs and Russians.Therefore, there is very little about the Byzantine Empire itself, with most of the "story" concentrating in Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice, Baghdad, Damascus, Bulgaria, Kiev and Moscow.By dividing the book into the three sections, the historical timeline is repeated three times, and I think the correlation of events across those three geographical regions gets blurred in the process.

Joe Minten

This is an excellent text for those who are trying to connect history's dots. For the casually interested reader it still has much appeal. One can get a good sense of the tremendous influence Byzantium had on almost all of today's civilization. As a casual reader, I found it difficult to keep track of all the players. There are many, many people with difficult names. It was hard to keep them all organized.

David Berry

I enjoyed this book but would have liked it much more if it did not claim to do something it doesn't. It was fascinating to learn how Plato's dialogues wound their way to Florence through immigrant and exiled Byzantine scholars. And it was equally fascinating to learn how the Umayyad scholars preserved Greek philosophy even after the Byzantines banned or suppressed it. This is a tale of scholars, and a good one, but it is not really a chronicle of the Byzantine Empire's historical influence. It never does more than touch on politics or social matters. The last section, on the Russia, is perhaps the most true to the promise of the title. Legend has it that a trip to the Hagia Sophia turned Russia's princes to Orthodox Christianity. Undoubtedly, Byzantium gave Russia and Eastern Europe its alphabet and church traditions. I left feeling that Byzantium's most important direct historical influence was in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Glenn Robinson

Learned a great deal of the Byzantines, and the Orthodox Church, both Greek, Russian and then Catholic churches. Many new notables, philosophers, scientists, military leaders and rulers of a wide part of the world from 500-1550 and how they all tie in to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.

Mel Vincent

This book emphasizes the unanimous fact that this forgotten and less noticed empire shaped the world in terms of influence and culture. without Constantinople the domes of the Islamic mosques would not have come to be ( the Blue Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and many Omayyad and Turkish Mosques) and without the resurrection of ancient Greek works many sciences would not have come to be and those sciences would not have been enhanced by the Muslims if Constantinople did not provide the works. I learned that this empire and city withstood more than a millennium and still made an impact in the world.


"As the author admits, this is a work of popular systhesis, not a scholarly tome. However, there is much interesting--and to me--new information. The insights on the cultural impact of the Byzantines on the Italian Renaissamce, Islamic learning, and Russian society is noteworthy."

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