Book Review 2007 #38: Sailing to Byzantium

Nonfiction this time, Colin Wells’ Sailing to Byzantium takes one of my favorite civilizations and tells the stories of how it influenced the civilizations around them, The Slavic World including Russia, Western Europe, and the Islamic World


Instead of focusing on the history, Wells focuses on a more artistic and cultural perspective. Byzantium, the heir to Rome, lasted until 1453. Although often unjustly ignored in history classes as a transmitter of ideas and culture, to the environs around it, Wells’ book attempts to rectify that deficiency.
He’s only somewhat successful. Wells’ layout of the book is divided into region. He explains the history of Byzantium’s influence on the West, and then switches to a much shorter section on Islam, and then, finally, the Slavic world. What this means is that, in a historical timeline perspective, Wells is forced to go through the timeline from scratch, twice. Often, he has to recapitulate events he has already discussed in a previous section.
Within those three sections, though, for the most part, Wells poses a good and clear narrative of how Byzantium interacted with the bordering culture. He does sometimes get bogged down in minutae, but the complexity (and indeed the word byzantine comes from the eponymous empire) is well described. However, the thesis fails somewhat with the Islamic section, the weakest and shortest section of the book. While I don’t deny that there was some influence on Islam by Byzantium, I think Wells makes much more of it than it actually was, making a larger mountain out of a molehill.
Too, Wells is clearly an expert in literature and not a historian. For example, to write that the Mongols “inexplicably” withdrew from Hungary and Poland in 1242 is just plain sloppy. Batu withdrew because of the death of the Great Khan and the need to elect a new one. Simple as that. His lack of training as a historian also tells in his bibliography. While he has many fine works listed, he completes misses the epitome of popular histories of Byzantium–John Julius Norwich. His complete absence from being mentioned in the text or bibliography is frankly baffling.
Overall, while the book has its strengths, it should not by any means be your first book on Byzantium. Reading it as a cultural history works well only if you have already had a sound grounding in the political and social history of Byzantium. Reading it without that context is going to be more frustrating than enlightening.