Du Malone writes: In the early ’80s, inspired by a newspaper essay in the Guardian by Bruce Chatwin, I read Road to Oxiana — Robert Byron’s account of a journey made, in the 1930s, in south-western Asia.
It became one of my favourite books.
So when in the late ’80s I discovered that, to my surprise, Byron’s Byzantine Achievement had been reissued, I bought a copy.
On several occasions, between then and now, I made a start on reading it, but somehow never got very far. But at last — COVID lock-down proving good for cracking through unread books on my shelf — I’ve read it cover to cover.
Unfortunately, I found the book a disappointment. Byron attempts to blend history with what is perhaps best described as theory, cultural and aesthetic.
I don’t think he had, at least at the time of writing the book, sufficient profundity. An online dictionary provides me with two definitions of ‘jejune’: (1) ‘naive, simplistic, and superficial’; and (2) ‘(of ideas or writings) dry and uninteresting’. In this book there’s more than a touch of both kinds.
As a narrative historian Byron is, by comparison with, say, John Julius Norwich — whose Byzantium I read last summer — well, there is no comparison.
Byron does, however, communicate his main point, namely the extraordinary duration and stability of Byzantium: “For 1123 years the Empire in the East is portrayed unchanging as a national and political organism. Its 888 effective rulers, who, with the exception of the four following the Latin Conquest, were resident in Constantinople, succeeded one another without intermission.”
Some of the theoretical writing — particularly in the opening chapters and also in the chapter called ‘Culture’ is unconvincing — in fact, dull and at times obscure. Byron is hampered further by hints of a zero-sum mentality — to win appreciation of Byzantine, it wasn’t necessary to trash post-Reformation Catholicism (“a bastard aberration”).
And he isn’t helped either, at times, by his syntax: “Though, from the first, the free exercise of Reason to discover for each individual an interpretation of destiny and duty has been suspect in the eyes of the Church; though the flesh of Hypaia, Neoplatonist of the fifth century, had been scraped from her bones in the streets of Alexandria; though the philosophical schools of Athens had been closed by Justinian in 531, and the University of Constantinople by the iconoclasts two hundred years later; yet always there had existed those who, though not so drastic as the fourth-century Emperor Julian the Apostate in his contempt for the Christian intellect, despite the civil virtues thereby engendered, retained the belief that not only religion, but material phenomena in addition, provided channels of communication with the Affinity of man’s perpetual seeking” isn’t a great sentence.
Byron is at his best, and most insightful, when directly interacting with artefacts, especially buildings.
There is, however, one passage that helps to capture my attraction to the Black Sea region:
‘Through Antioch and Alexandria…through Salonica, Trebizond and Cherson, the streams of commerce flowed. From Hungary, Germany and Central Europe; from the Adriatic by road from Durazzo, from Kiev and the early Russian states, down the Dnieper and the Don, to the Black Sea; and from Samarcand, Bokhara, and the Caspian; from Persia, India and China; from Ceylon, from Abyssinia and the heart of Africa up the Red Sea; from every degree of the compass came the caravans and fleets, to pour their dues into the imperial customs, and dump their goods in the clearing-house of Constantinople, the ‘middleman’ of the three continents.‘ (p. 133)