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review 2017-04-27 23:57
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 3 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III (Modern Library) - Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.


The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire.  Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius.  While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.


The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople.  Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well.  Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453.  This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.


This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire.  Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome.  And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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review 2017-03-08 02:33
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 - D.J. Boorstin,Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon,John B. Bury

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.


The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years.  Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers.  In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.


The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away.  The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness.  Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.


This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium.  Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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review 2016-01-27 02:49
A Short History of Byzantium
A Short History of Byzantium - John Julius Norwich

Concise But Well-Written History


The fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended what the population always identified as the Roman Empire, but has become known as the Byzantine Empire that John Julius Norwich thought had been given a bad reputation in “the West”.  In “A Short History of Byzantium” Norwich condensed his three-volume history of the Greek-flavored Roman Empire into a general history for those interested in history but do not have time for lengthy studies.


In covering almost 1200 years of history in about 400 pages, Norwich had to trim to the barebones of Byzantine history with only tidbits of detail that whet the appetite to want to know more for those interested.  While frustration as it might be for those who want more than a “general history”, for those looking for just a straight-forward informative history this book is concise and lively written to keep you from falling asleep.


For those wondering if they should read Norwich’s three-volume history of Byzantium then this book will let you know the author’s writing style as well as make you want to purchase the multi-volume series.  For those looking only for a concise history of a nearly 1200 year old empire this is a book for you.

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review 2016-01-06 21:14
The Land of the Blind by Barbara Nadel
Land of the Blind - Barbara Nadel

Last night I finished reading The Land of the Blind by Barbara Nadel. It's part of a series about a Turkish cop, Ikmen, and his colleagues. I find this series both brilliant and fascinating. It's an opportunity for me to travel without leaving my house.

This particular book starts with a Greek archaeologist being found dead, presumed murdered, inside an ancient Byzantine building. She has recently given birth but the baby is missing.

Soon Ikmen is lead to an old Greek house with an old woman, her likewise old Turkish servant and a younger man who is supposedly her formerly lost son returned after forty years from abroad.

At the same time, a motley crew of gays, lesbians, trans people, Muslims against Capitalism and an assortment of others, have gathered in a park in Istanbul to protect it from developers. For a while it becomes almost like a carnival, but then the police gathers - and that's not the educated Istanbul police, but what are referred to as young men coming from 'some nameless hole' on the Turkish/Anatolian mainland. Barely literate, they are loyal to the Islamic regime and are looking forward to clearing out the progressives.

Unfortunately for Ikmen he has a trans cousin and a son in the park and his new sergeant has a sister who as a nurse finds it hard to leave people at the protest, as long as they need her.

Many fascinating characters come to life in this book, and a number of old mysteries are dug up.

This is a well written, fascinating book which makes it clear that the author knows Turkey extremely well and has the ability to make it come alive for the reader. I'd definitely recommend it to someone who enjoys a good mystery with many historical facts.

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review 2014-09-12 00:50
Review of Byzantine Sacred Art by Constantine Cavarnos
Byzantine Sacred Art: Selected Writings of the Contemporary Greek Icon Painter Fotis Kontoglous on the Sacred Arts According to the Traditio - Phōtēs Kontoglou,Constantine Cavarnos

Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Art: Selected Writings of the Contemporary     Greek Icon Painter Fotis Kontoglous on the Sacred Arts according to the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Compiled, Translated from the Greek, and Edited with a Preface, Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations, 2nd Edition, Revised and Considerably Enlarged (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1992). Pp. 171.


This book starts with an introduction by Cavarnos, and then it presents a series of essays by Photios Kontoglou (note, some editions present his name as Fotis Kontoglous), who is a famous Greek artist of Orthodox iconography. Kontoglou is such a big name in this field because he played a large part in reviving traditional Cretan-style iconography around the world. For this reason alone, one should stop to pay attention to what he has to say about Byzantine art. However, with that having been said, in some respects I completely disagree with his conclusions.


For Kontoglou, Orthodox iconography – what he calls Byzantine art – is the pinnacle of all art. It is the pinnacle because he believes the very essence of iconography is different than other forms of art (Renaissance, Impressionism, etc.). For him, the essence of an icon participates in the mystery of Christ and salvation. It isn’t an imitation of the natural world, but rather a revelation of and participation in a spiritual reality.


One also gets the sense that Kontoglou has been criticized for his stance on Byzantine art. According to him, many have criticized his art – and Byzantine art – as being primitive in form, unnaturalistic, and slavish copies. He labors at length arguing that Byzantine art is none of these observations precisely because this art is working on a completely different “level” than secular art – in short, it’s not about the artist’s skill, or how well a piece of art represents nature, or how a piece of art makes a profound statement.


My critique of his argument falls on the level of semiotics. I believe he has confused the 'sign' for the 'object' it should represent. His argument is largely based on the *style* of the icon. He believes that *how* one represents Christ and the saints (the artistic style) is an indication of its inner essence. This would be like saying that the letters T-R-E-E can only represent that large thing with a trunk, limbs, and leaves if they are written in New Times Roman, but if you write those letters in Arial, for example, you no longer are talking about the same thing. This, of course, doesn’t hold up. I would argue that what matters for iconography is the composition of the figures so that it continues to illustrate a precise theological point. In short, I’m saying as long as the letters are T-R-E-E, the style, or font, doesn’t matter. What matters is that it still points to the same object (or theological idea).


One could further illustrate this point by pointing to an image I’ve seen of a pagan god – I believe he had antlers coming from his head. The catch is, however, that this pagan god was painted in the Byzantine style. Just because it adheres to the traditional style of iconography, does not mean that it points to an Orthodox theological truth.


My second objection to this work is the use of “Byzantine.” Because this is also the word used for the Eastern Roman Empire, I’m hesitant to tie religious painting to a fallen empire because worshipers around the world are still praying before these works of art. In short I see “Byzantine” as a political word, and I wish he would have stressed the connection of this art with the Orthodox Church. My preference would have been to simply call this art, “iconography.” Also, by using the word “Byzantine,” he’s able to stress a particular style over other styles (for example, what’s called Russian mannerism – the style of Andrei Rublev). Where does Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, etc. iconography fit into his thesis?


The third objection to this work is that most of his essays are simply an exercise of name-dropping. For example, the chapters on Mt. Athos, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and the various chapters about the icons of different feasts, are simply catalogs of where particular icons exist, who painted them, and what they look like. There’s very little explanation – theological or otherwise – that draws the reader deeper into the “mystery,” as he might say. I would ask, to what do these particular icons point? What is their meaning?


One discussion that I thought was worthwhile was the discussion about the Greeks under the Ottomans. Here he makes a connection between icons of suffering (the crucifixion, extreme humility, poor Lazarus, etc.) and the suffering of the people under their political suppressors. This is an interesting idea, and I would like to see it fleshed out a bit.


In short, if you’re really into iconography, you may want to check this book out. However, if you’re new to iconography and you’re looking for an introduction that really explains the theology of icons, how to understand them, and how they are used by the Orthodox Church, you may want to look elsewhere.

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