Norwich combines wonderfully deadpan humor and a keen appreciation for the narrative potential of popular history in this delightful second installment in his projected three-volume study of the Byzantine Empire. Picking up where Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1989) left off--at Pope Leo III's crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome in A.D. 800, a serious threat to the political primacy of Byzantium--the deftly paced account gallops through 300 triumphant and torturous years. At the end, the Empire, lacking a stable dynasty and devastated by rivals east and west, teeters near anarchy. Not that the years in between--marked with court intrigue and debauchery, frequent usurpations, religious disputation, and near-constant warfare--were any picnic. Reveling in the curious personal arrangements and often ruinous quirks of such rulers as Michael the Sot, Norwich exposes the astonishing brutality that flourished amid the intellectual and artistic splendors of the realm. Enemies might be dispatched by poisoning (especially, it was rumored, at court), torture, or crucifixion, although the favored punishments seem to have been blinding by hot irons (a craze that reached its peak with Basil the Bulgar-Slayer's treatment of 15,000 war prisoners) and castration (which disqualified the victim from claiming the throne). In brilliantly colorful prose, enlivened by his gift for droll understatement (Empress Irene, who had her son blinded ""in a particularly barbarous manner,"" is described as ""deeply unpleasant""), Norwich brings a complex subject to vivid life. And, although he disclaims any attempt at rigorous economic and social analysis, the extensive and measured consideration of contemporary records and later scholarly studies makes this an excellent introduction to a daunting field. Not a world in which many would want to live, but, in this superbly enjoyable overview, well worth any reader's visit.