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

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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,


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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