As reviewers of Isaac Asimov’s histories have repeatedly said, this versatile author brings to his telling not only wit and enthusiasm but a sheer genius for organizing and bringing into focus vast sweeps of human history. Each of his previously published books has received wide critical acclaim, and together they have sold over 90,000 copies.
As, as Western readers, may find some surprises in CONSTANTINOPLE: THE FORGOTTEN EMPIRE, for most of us tend to think of the Roman Empire as ending in 476 with the fall of Rome. Not so, says Dr. Asimov. When Paris and London were ramshackle towns, there was a queen city in the East rich in gold, filled with works of art, bursting with gorgeous churches—the admiration of all who saw it.
The city was Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, a city with a history that went back a thousand years before it was called Constantinople. This remnant of the Roman Empire out of its own strength held off the Eastern invaders for a thousand years and was able to pass on to the West both Roman law and Greek learning, art and architecture. It gave the world great abstractions like the notion of absolute monarchy and small conveniences like forks. And what’s more, it provided Eastern Europe with a religion.
In this absorbing book Isaac Asimov sets the record straight about a fascinating period and place in history. It is an astonishingly rich story, told with Isaac Asimov’s verve and clarity.
I think that one reason why I like this book so much is that it comes as close to being about the classical world of Rome and Greece as possible without actually being about classical Greek and Roman history. Asimov, of course, had long since written The Greeks, The Roman Republic, and The Roman Empire to deal with classical history, and The Dark Ages to cover western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire; and here he tackles the fate of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Since my own perception of world history does tend to be shaped by Asimov, I don’t entirely agree with him that the Byzantine Empire is “forgotten” in the west—after all, I remember it (because he wrote a book about it)—but that’s a quibble. (I also took a college course in Byzantine history, which helps.)
This is another strong entry in the Houghton-Mifflin history series, covering a dramatic and exciting subject well. There’s little more to be said.