Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World

ISBN: 0553803816
ISBN 13: 9780553803815
By: Colin Wells

Check Price Now


Ancient History Byzantium Currently Reading History Medieval Medieval History Non Fiction Nonfiction To Read Turkey

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

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.


I have long had an interest in Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman history, and I also enjoy vertical histories (those books that cover a narrow subject but in depth). Sailing from Byzantium by Colin Wells is a vertical history that in its three parts attempts to describe the legacy of Byzantine culture. The importance of Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire, lies beyond its territorial acquisitions or military prowess (or the loss of both as the centuries bore on until 1453). Part I focuses on western Europe, primarily Italy, and the role of humanism that led to the Renaissance. As Catholic and Orthodox worked to re-unite, as the Crusades sent large numbers of westerners east, or as the Fourth Crusades captured Constantinople, both east and west interacted ever more frequently. For the west, this meant rediscovering classical Greek texts and Greek itself. Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Florence all felt the influence, which began the process of lifting the Dark Ages from western Europe.Part II, the shortest part, explores the Byzantine influence on the Islamic world, particularly on effects of Aristotle on the development of a rationalistic philosophy epitomized by Averroes in Moorish Spain. Part III returns to Europe but investigates the Slavic and, more importantly, Russian embracing of Orthodoxy, the battles between Catholic and Orthodox for supremacy in various regions, and Orthodoxy's Hesychasm movement on the development of Russian Orthodoxy.Wells does a good job of describing the influences, how the Byzantium influenced the rest of its neighbors, and how Byzantium itself was influenced. Wells remains at a high level, and we only really get glimpses and quick overviews. And that is my main criticism of this book. At only 368 pages, I do not think it went in detail enough, did not take the various alleys and side stories it could have. Perhaps I have now read too much of this history and much of it seemed familiar to me. So my caution is that this is a good introduction, but for those well versed in Byzantium, the Renaissance, and so on, the book may seem light.


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.)


A Simply terrific telling, for the general reader, of the story of the preservation and ultimate dissemination of the store of ancient greek learning and philosophy kept by the byzantine greeks in constantinople until its fall in 1453. The book follows 3 main threads: The influence of Byzantium on the Muslim, Slavic and Western worlds. Well written, and informative, even for folks without a background in medeivel history.


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.


Wells takes a very interesting premise, slaps on an interesting title, and then fails to deliver the goods. Minutae and exceptionally obscure individuals scattered throughout the Byzantium's history dominate the book, and Wells in my opinion never gets to the meat of what his title promises. The Sack of Constantinople by knights of the Fourth Crusade gets PART of a paragraph, the final fall of Constantinople at the hands of Mehmet II in 1453 only gets tangentially mentioned in paragraphs about other stuff. Constantine, Theodosius, Diocletian: hardly mentioned.Maybe what Wells was trying to do was explain how the obscure individuals highlighted and expounded upon in his book did more for Byzantine influence than the emperors or the "moves and shakers" and the cataclysmic events we all know about; maybe he wanted to express how important it was that little-mentioned people or long-forgotten events really had more influence on the emergence of Byzantine culture as the characteristic that shaped the world even as her direct influence waned. But he does not make his case. EPIC FAIL.

Michael Scott

Sailing from Byzantium is a history book about Byzantium. Unlike many previous books on the topic, this focuses on the way Byzantine ideas---of commerce, of science, of culture---influenced the Christian, Islamic, and Slavic worlds. Colin Wells shows an excellent ability to summarize historical sources and existing scholarship, and succeeds at creating a readable narration from a Byzantine setting. I particularly liked the (speculative) analysis where, albeit not being too novel (by the author's own admission), the author shows depth of thought and conciseness without losing readability. At points, however, this focus on readability turns into colloquialism, where kings and queens are almost compared to hiphop stars. The part about the cultural influence of Byzantium on the emerging Slavic world is particularly compelling: for over 1,000 years, Constantinople has been the heart of an Orthodox world that it helped being created and it shaped remotely, all while trying to suppress violent invasions from both Christianity and the Muslim world. Overall, an excellent read on the topic of Byzantium (Istanbul) and its influence on the creation of the modern world.


This book gives us a small insight of how the thousand year Byzantine Empire influenced Western Europe, Islam and the Slavs. In its three chapters covering the influence of the three neighbouring civilizations mentioned above, the author explains in a simply way how the Byzantines studied and teached the ancient Greek classics and translated them so that after the fall of Constantinople the legacy continued. Therefore we had the Italian renaissance, the rise of Islam and the formation of the Slavic states and the birth of Russia.


This is a fascinating, but at times difficult (or downright boring) book. While it does a great work presenting the influence and its routes from Byzantium to its neighbors, there are several parts where the book is just names after names, travels after travels where I found my mind wondering off.Still, a unique subject and a unique book.


This book traces the Byzantine Empire's influence on Western society, Islamic society, and Eastern Orthodox society. It is well written, although clearly intended for a popular, as opposed to a scholarly, audience. I found the sections on the Islamic world and the Eastern Orthodox world particularly interesting, since I'm less familiar with that history than I am with the Western history. However, I was disappointed that Wells didn't make the case that Byzantium continues to influence our world. He seems to think Byzantium's influence disappeared within a few generations, but he never really explains why.


This book was far better than I was expecting. I thought it was going to be a lightweight summary of Byzantine culture for people who have barely heard about Byzantium, but it turned out to be quite a bit deeper. The second act dealing with the Italian Renaissance was especially well done.


After taking way too much time to finish this, I can happily say it is completed. Non-fiction at its core, Sailing from Byzantium lives up to its title – it is indeed a deep dive into how the defunct empire shaped the world around it and for generations beyond. If you are reading this for pleasure and aren’t a history major (or a Byzantine fanatic), you are going to be sorely let down. It’s a slog to get through and it’s often better to forget about the specific names and instead grasp the overall look of the landscape before you. If you can get over those things, and that it nearly reads like a textbook, you’ll be fine.Well written and well put together, this book encompasses the entirety of the empire and then some. Due to the superb writing, you can see the tendrils of the Byzantines slowly creep out and have their effects on nearly all of Europe. Its power was enough to hit Renaissance Italy, Islam, and many of the Slavic lands – and this book encompasses all of them.By the end of the book, I found that I had learned a great deal about Byzantium, though I don’t think I would pick this one up again.

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.


I began this book and quickly got lost in the vague references and poorly constructed historical time line. I'm not impressed. This book seems more like an extremely long college essay. I would prefer the author to put the story of Byzantium in context. To say the least, this book is lacking in finer details. I would like to also note I could not complete this book, I am not a fan of the writing itself.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *