Byzantium: The Early Centuries

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1989) is a popular history book written by English historian John Julius Norwich, published by Viking.


In the book, Norwich covers the period 286-802 AD, from the establishment of the Tetrarchy by Diocletian and the beginning of the Dominate in the Roman Empire to the coronation of Charlemagne and the deposition of the Empress Irene of Athens. Norwich progresses through the demise of the tetrarchic system and the rise of Constantine the Great as sole emperor, the foundation of Constantinople at the site of ancient Byzantium and the declaration of Christianity as state religion and the failure of Julian the Apostate's pagan reaction. Norwich then describes the period when the empire was split into two entities, one in the west and one in the east, which became known as the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Norwich narrates the fall of the western empire and the era of Justinian I, the wars with the Persians under Heraclius, the beginning of the Muslim conquests and the eastern empire's fight for survival in the 7th century. The reaction to Byzantine Iconoclasm and the fall of the Isaurian dynasty lead to the ascension of Irene of Athens, and in turn to the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as emperor in Christmas 800 in Rome by the Pope. Norwich chooses this event, which marks the end of the Byzantines' sole claim to imperial status and the unquestioned acceptance by the West of the emperor at Constantinople as sole head of all Christendom, as the decisive moment which defines the end of the early Byzantine period.


"The reader is conveyed in comfort, as it were in a very superior hovercraft, which glides smoothly over all the unevennes of the ground, to the regular, melodious sound of the author's prose." (Sunday Times)[1]

"He is brilliant... He writes like the most cultivated modern diplomat, attached by a freak of time to the Byzantine court, with intimate knowledge, tactful judgement and a consciousness of the surviving monuments." (The Independent)[2]

The book received a lukewarm review from The New York Times. Norwich's writing was described as "plummy" and the historical detail he brings to the period is praised, but the reviewer thought at times the narrative was distant and the descriptions overly ornate.[3] The book became a New York Times bestseller.[4]


  1. ^ Quoted on cover of Penguin edition, 1990
  2. ^ Quoted on cover of Penguin edition, 1990
  3. ^ Bowersock, G.W. "When Istanbul was Constantinople". The New York Times (April 16, 1989). Retrieved March 20, 2011
  4. ^ "New York Times Bestsellers: April 23, 1989" The New York Times (April 23, 1989) Retrieved March 20, 2011