Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

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Reviews, recommendations, books to avoid. What have you been reading?

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby Sprocket » April 6th, 2016, 8:39 am

At last! I've been reading it for ages - not just because of its length, but also because I read other books at the same time, and had a break of a week or two between volumes (of which there are six in my Everyman edition). Constantinople falls to the Ottomans (Ottomen?) in the antepenultimate chapter; the last two chapters briefly cover Rome and the territory of the former Western Empire from the 9th Century to the fall of Constantinople. For a very scholarly work, it is surprisingly readable, but I don't think I'm likely to re-read it.
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby GregB » April 8th, 2016, 7:21 am

Gibbon was notoriously critical of the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire), as he was of Christianity, but later scholarship has restored its sullied reputation, not least as a bastion against invasions from, first, the Persians, and later the Arabs, which would otherwise have overwhelmed Europe. The later empire became progressively weakened until its complete collapse with the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman (a corruption of Osmanli, from Osman, the founder of the dynasty ruling the Turkic ethnic group which settled in Asia Minor) armies in 1453, to which Steve alludes. There are many modern books on the subject* which set the tarnished record straight, but even when Gibbon was misguided in his judgements, his superb English prose style is a pleasure to read in and for itself.

[* eg. Type in 'Byzantium' or 'Byzantine Empire' in the search bar in the Amazon.uk books section.]
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby Sprocket » April 8th, 2016, 8:19 am

Indeed. By the time Constantinople fell, there wasn't much left of the empire - just Constantinople itself, the southern part of the Peloponnese, and some scattered islands in the Aegean, so it couldn't have lasted much longer anyway.
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby Sprocket » April 20th, 2016, 10:32 am

I'm now following it up with 'Constantinople: the Last great Siege, 1453', by Roger Crowley, about the final collapse, and the events leading up to it.
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby GregB » April 20th, 2016, 1:15 pm

I haven't read that one though I have, in various other history publications, read quite a lot about the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, one of the great tragedies of Christian civilisation as represented by the doomed Byzantine Empire having survived a thousand years of onslaughts by its enemies.

I'm sure it will be a great read, having read glowing reviews of Crowley's other books about the 16th century sea battles between Islam and Christian Europe and the rise and fall of Venice. Let us know your opinion later.
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby Sprocket » April 20th, 2016, 9:47 pm

It's gripping stuff. Constantinople was probably the most impregnable city in the world, which is why it survived so long. One decisive factor was probably the invention of guns. No city was completely impregnable to cannon.
You said earlier "Gibbon was notoriously critical of the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire), as he was of Christianity, but later scholarship has restored its sullied reputation...". Crowley does suggest that Byzantium deserved its reputation for cunning and duplicity. One emperor, on his deathbed, advised his successor that, if the Ottomans started getting aggressive, he should open negotiations with the West towards a reunification of the church, and protract them as long as possible. The Turks, fearing having to take on the whole of a reunified Christendom, would back off, and he could then break off the negotiations. There are other examples.
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby GregB » April 21st, 2016, 11:15 am

Ah yes, that would probably be either the emperor Manuel II or John VIII, both of the Palaiologos* dynasty. I wouldn't exactly call their manoeuvring cunning or duplicity; after all, they were fighting desperately for the preservation of an empire which had shrunk drastically and was under threat from the inexorably advancing Ottomans. Given that the empire's resources, economic and military, had dwindled and become so limited by the early 15th century, it's hardly surprising that help was sought from the western branch of Christendom in the name of defending Christian Europe from Islam, even to the extent of proposing a union of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, divided since the Great Schism of 1054. I think this showed an astuteness on the part of the emperors when survival was all important.

[* Which gave a pseudonym, with a slightly different spelling, to our Catholic-turned-Orthodox fellow member, now regrettably absent from the board.]
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby GregB » April 27th, 2016, 7:02 am

Continuing with the theme of Constantinople, I'm now reading a book (still on the first chapter) I've had around for some time now, 'Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453 to 1924' by the English historian Philip Mansel. It takes up the story from the conquest of the city in 1453 by the Ottomans under the Sultan Mehmed II (who was only 23 years old at the time) and continues, with the focus on the city under the Osmanli dynasty, which reigned until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Further down the line, I'll read a recent book by American historian of the Middle East and the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 'The Ottoman Endgame', a detailed history of the empire from the Young Turks' revolution of 1908 through to the last days of the empire and Kemal Ataturk's assumption of power in 1924 and the establishment of the modern Turkish state.

Here's a fascinating photograph of the last sultan, Mehmed VI, leaving for exile in 1922:
http://www.ottomanempire1453.com/wp-con ... deddin.jpg
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Re: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - FINISHED!

Postby Sprocket » April 27th, 2016, 7:19 am

I've now finished the book. It gives a very detailed, day-by-day account; even hour-by-hour at the height of the siege. The contemporary sources are apparently unusually numerous and detailod, though, as he says, not all are reliable. Mehmet was not a very good Muslim - he drank alcohol - and Crowley says that he was more interested in extending Ottoman power than in extending Islam. The behaviour of the conquerors towards the conquered after they finally broke into the city was pretty barbaric-sounding, though probably no worse than usual for the 15th Century, but Mehmet deserves some credit for rebuilding the City, and turning it from a dilapidated, partly-depopulated slum, which it had been previously, into a flourishing, thriving city, and allowing a remarkable degree of freedom of worship for the period. Constantine comes out of it well - he was urged by his advisers more than once during the siege to flee, but refused, staying until the end and fighting alongside his soldiers. His final fate is unknown, but he was almost certainly killed.
Crowley also questions the usually-quoted etymology of "Istanbul" from the Greek "eis ten polin", "to the city" - he suggests that it may be a corruption of "Constantinople" itself. It could be both - "eis ten polin", altered under the influence of "Constantinople".
Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Sir John Harington (1561-1620)
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