BYZANTIUM: THE DECLINE AND FALL John Julius Norwich, Viking $425 THIS book is the final volume in John Julius Norwich's epic Byzantine trilogy. His two earlier volumes Byzantium: The Early Centuries and Byzantium: The Apogee were much praised and this final book is bound to be similarly received. It marks the completion of a historical work of great importance, being the first comprehensive account by a Western historian of an empire that history has largely ignored. The author states modestly that this is not a work of scholarship. The reader will decide otherwise. The fact that the Byzantine empire was - at its height - vast geographically and survived for an exceptionally long time (1,123 years) makes it all the more surprising that historians have previously paid so little attention to it. The empire of Byzantium, or more correctly the Roman Empire of the East, was founded by the Emperor Constantine the Great, who gave his name to Constantinople, on Monday May 11, 330 AD. It reached the height of its power in the 11th century under Basil II - Bulgaroctonus the 'Bulgar-Slayer' - and then started its long and painful decline with the capture of the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes by the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert near Lake Van in 1071. That defeat was the turning point in the empire's fortunes. More than 77,000 kilometres of Asia Minor were lost and Turkoman tribes occupied Anatolia, thus depriving the empire of the manpower it needed to fight its enemies. With insufficient men in its armies, Constantinople could not resist the Fourth Crusade or match the rise in the power of the Ottoman Turkish empire. The Byzantine empire did not, however, collapse overnight; rather it bled to death by stages over the next 200 years. There were moments of incredible heroism and interludes of inspired leadership, as under the great Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259-1282). Western Europe's view of the Byzantine empire has been much coloured by Edward Gibbon's opinion that it constituted 'without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed'. It is fitting that Lord Norwich, a writer who is frequently referred to as a 20th-century Gibbon or Macaulay, should now set the record straight. He calls Gibbon's view 'grotesque'. The Byzantines were not the savages that Gibbon labelled them. Their upper and middle classes were highly literate and most of their emperors were scholars. In truth it was their enemies who more often than not lacked learning. The leaders of the Crusades name themselves noblemen 'but could hardly write their own names'. And, as the author rightly reminds us, we all owe the Byzantines our gratitude for their preservation of ancient Greek and Latin culture through Western Europe's long Dark Ages. Gibbon and Macaulay also never took account of the greatness of Byzantine Christian art and its powerful influence on European art and architecture, both lay and ecclesiastical. Constantinople's St Sophia and St Saviour churches, as well as the cathedral of Cefalu in Sicily, are examples of some of the greatest religious artistic expression the world has known. Byzantine artists and mosaic-makers were told 'to represent the spirit of God', a task they accomplished brilliantly throughout the religious sites of the Christian east. Lord Byron correctly believed that Byzantium's greatness resulted from what he termed the 'Triple Fusion': that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an Oriental, mystical soul. The characters of all the emperors and empresses can, says Lord Norwich 'be seen as a subtly different combination of the three elements'. The most unpredictable of the Byzantines' adversaries were their fellow Christians, the Crusaders. From a rabble of a few dozen Norman pilgrims based in southern Italy in the early 11th century, the Crusaders grew into a vast army of mercenaries who received land rather than cash in payment and were soon hired by Lombard leaders to help fight Byzantium. In 1053 at Civitate in Apulia, an outnumbered Norman army routed a huge Papal army led by Pope Leo X in person. The Norman military bandwagon had begun. Robert Guiscard 'the crafty' became Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Within years Byzantine influence had been removed from the area and by 1075 the Normans had totally replaced Saracen and Byzantine power in Italy south of the Garigliano river. The Emperor Michael VII, seeking safety for his empire through a Norman alliance, suggested a marriage of his son Constantine to the most beautiful of Guiscard's daughters. Guiscard, of course, leapt at the chance to have his daughter become the Byzantine Empress and when the plan fell apart with the removal of Michael VII, Guiscard launched an attack on Byzantium in jilted fury. The Byzantines were never short of enemies. In the west they had unreliable fellow-Christian neighbours always ready to betray them, in the east a continually hostile Muslim enemy, while to the north were the ever-dangerous barbarian hordes. As well as the First Crusade (1091-1108), Emperor Alexius Comnenus faced the prospect of hundreds of thousands of European soldiers crossing his lands on the way to Jerusalem, a city also claimed by the Byzantines. The Crusaders claimed food and water and much else besides. It was only a matter of time before Byzantines and Crusaders became deadly foes. The Second Crusade (1143-1149) was a yet more dangerous rabble than its predecessor. It was largely made up of fugitives from justice seeking absolution for their sins. Emperor Manuel Comnenus rightly feared that the Crusaders' German and French armies would develop ambitions on Constantinople. He lavished entertainment on his 'guests', overwhelmed them with gifts and sent them on their way. But to no avail. The crusader fleet of King Roger of Sicily, commanded by George of Antioch, separately attacked the Byzantines. The Crusaders were like wolves around a wounded animal. The Fourth Crusade (1198-1205), led by the Doge of Venice with 480 ships, bought Constantinople's darkest hour yet. The Crusaders forgot their vows only to fight the infidel, turning on their fellow Christians. They adopted a new aim, to unite Christendom, and on that pretext attacked Constantinople. The Emperor Alexius III Angelus fled. The year was 1203. The empire never recovered and was mortally wounded. It staggered on until that fateful day in 1453 when the Turkish armies of Sultan Mehmet II finally overthrew the empire of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. John Julius Norwich's account of the decline and fall of the Byzantines is enthralling. Each volume stands alone and need not be read in order, but having read this final volume the reader will be sorely tempted to lay hands on copies of volumes one and two.