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

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.


So far, it's a bit shallow, but fun nonetheless. Not as much detail as the dedicated history nerd might want, but still a source of some good info, and a great overview for those of us who are relative ignoramuses about Byzantine history ::points to self::.


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.


fantastic. this book has convinced me that i'm right to be fascinated with byzantium. enjoyable, interesting and very well-written. wells is funny and intelligent in his assessments of byzantium influence on western, islamic and slavic cultures.


"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."


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.


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.


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.)

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.


I think it’s an interesting book that should have been titled “Sailing from Byzantium, How a Lost Empire Shaped the 19th and 20th centuries Briths fancy for Greece.” This book is a difficult read and the fact that (for some unknown the reader reason) the historical timeline is scrambled (if not confused) makes it even more difficult.

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.

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.


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,


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.


Byzantium's cultural legacy, as it affected societies arising in Western European, Islamic, and Slavic/Russian lands. The Byzantine Empire was not brief, and its decline was long and resisted to the end. Much in the way one may fashion a drinking cup from the skull of a favorite enemy, this empire did not simply vanish.Part one shows how the intellectual capital of ancient Greece was preserved by the Byzantines. As their empire weakened they retreated into a mysticism at odds with Greek rationalism. Unwelcome at home, many scholars found a more appreciative clime in nearby Italy. Those cultural refugees, their numbers bolstered by the mass exodus of eggheads precipitated by the fall of Constantinople, helped forge the humanism of the Italian Renaissance. This part relies pretty heavily on biographical detail to substantiate its premise; I wasn't so keen on that.Part two focuses an the bits borrowed by the Islamic societies that contested with, and eventually overwhelmed, Byzantium. The Dome of the Rock captures in architecture the pomp borrowed by an upstart imperialism from an older one. As the Arabs unified under their great God, and fused together into a great people, they needed to dispense with their early disdain for the trappings of wealth and cloak their new-found power in earthly majesty. Later on they would forget the Byzantines and borrow from the Persians, or make their own way.Also in part two is an examination of how Greek rationalism (translated into Arabic from Byzantine sources) co-existed or conflicted with Islamic mysticism. Things came to a head in the 9th century. With the backing of many faylasufs (philosophers), one al-Mamun undertook a rationalist inquisition called the Mihna. One of those imprisoned and tortured during that time was Ahmad ibn Hanbal. During the brief time after his release and before his death he went on to found the Hanbali school of sharia law, the main source of today's Wahabi Islam and the ideological substrate of al-Qaeda. Torturing people is bad, okay?Part three covers the Byzantine-sponsored conversion of the then relatively undeveloped peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia to Orthodox Christianity. As the pagans converted to Christianity the Latin church of Rome competed with the Orthodox church based in Constantinople for the hearts, minds, souls, and, ultimately, the armies of the Slavic world.I have a friend whose heart is full of murder. Something a long time ago killed his soul. He reads histories like these looking for the echoes of an adversary, some malignant outline that he might conjure into reality and punish. Poor fool.

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