Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireByzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated with Byzantium for years, ever since I found a copy of Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World on the shelf at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, years ago. Wells’ book was in the tone of most popular work on Byzantium, balancing the empire’s relative obscurity in history with its neglected importance. Since then I’ve read 1453, Roger Crowley’s account of the final siege of Constantinople that reads like the story of the Alamo times a thousand, as well as several other recent popular works on the city itself or the empire or their role in the Crusades. After that it was time to dive into the older, classic works by Steven Runciman and John Julian Norwich. Eventually all this reading inspired some fiction, a historical fantasy called “The Gunsmith of Byzantium,” which I’ve been shopping around for years, so far to no avail.

Byzantium represents both continuity and transition, something at once central to the heritage and transmission of classical learning but also largely peripheral to Western histories. It is the enduring Eastern half of the Roman Empire, lasting for well over a thousand years, from Emperor Constantine’s transferal of the imperial capital to the city on the banks of the Bosphorus to its ultimate conquest by Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire is not a straightforward history or a narrative on this huge topic. You won’t find the same dramatic scope as you would, for instance, in Crowley’s book or in Norwich’s sweeping chronological treatments. Rather, Herrin offers a synthetic survey, roughly chronological, distilling the various threads of Byzantine history and culture and drawing them into the light for a wide audience. Throughout the work, the author’s obvious enthusiasm and expertise in the subject vies with a small amount of tediousness as Herrin works to balance being thorough and comprehensive with being straightforward and engaging.

You’ll find out, for instance, both about the practices of taxation in Asia Minor as well as the epic poetry composed along this frontier, the splendor of the imperial court and the role and history of eunuchs within it. Herrin offers surveys of theological disputations that divided the empire, the role of women in propping up emperors and supporting the arts, the role of language and literature, the changing political fortunes of the empire, and the impact of the Crusades. The vast scope of issues she needs to discuss and angles to explore to be comprehensive is necessary for a complete treatment of an empire that endured for over a thousand years, but it makes the overall narrative structure slim. Throughout though, Herrin does a good job drawing connections with contemporary issues and the enduring legacy of Byzantium.

For the casual student of Byzantium, Herrin’s treatment doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s a good overview of Byzantine life and culture by a recognized scholar in the field. For someone who has heard of Byzantium though and is looking for a good place to start (and wants something a bit more synthetic and less sensational then Crowley’s 1453), Herrin provides an ideal entrance to this largely neglected world.

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