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How a Lost Empire Shaped the World

by Colin Wells

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-553-80381-6
Publisher: Delacorte

Comprehensive examination of the formative influence of Byzantine culture and scholarship on Western Europe, the Islamic world and the Slavic nations.

First-time author Wells breaks up the saga of Constantinople (Byzantium to the ancient world) into three sections based on the principle cultures it helped shape from the time of Emperor Justinian’s rule in the sixth century a.d. until the year 1453, when the Turks finally overwhelmed the legendary walled city and made it their capital. Each section overlaps the other two yet contains its own formidable cast of characters, including obscure ecclesiasts, and exhaustive examinations of philosophical nuances particular to its culture. Readers get considerable help in deciphering this relatively esoteric material from the book’s front matter: capsule biographies of key personages; a comparative timeline covering all three regions; and eight historical maps. While the aim is to make available to a general audience what has been a rarified area of scholarship, readers will need incentive to plow through it all. The rewards are incisive perspectives on the all-but-forgotten roots of an elemental ideological clash between Faith and Reason that still resonates today. If Byzantine scholars had not preserved ancient Greek culture, Wells establishes, Western Europe might well never have recovered the pillars of literature, philosophy and science upon which to build the Renaissance. Plutarch, the so-called father of humanism, may not quite have mastered the 56 different noun types and other complexities of ancient Greek, but Florentine scholars of the golden Quattrocentro were all over it a few generations later, the author reminds us. Islamic thinkers came to Byzantium to worship the legacy of Aristotle centuries before Wahabism overcame the quest for knowledge in a declining society. The emerging Slavs, particularly Bulgars and Russians, literally begged for Christian missionaries, thereby assuring Byzantium’s Greek Orthodox religion a place in posterity.

Eye-opening in its vast cache of references.