Book Review: The Palgrave Atlas Of Byzantine History

The Palgrave Atlas Of Byzantine History, by John F. Haldon

This book is a nearly textbook example of the sort of historical atlas that is most worthwhile. Both full of maps, as well as full of useful explanatory text to put those maps into a context, the atlas also manages to tell a story about the transformation of the Byzantine Empire over time, from the Late Roman period of seeking to recover the whole Empire to the periods of initial crisis, renewal, and finally its critical losses of Anatolia to the Turks and its long, slow, fall after the conquest of Constantinople in 2014 due to a shortage of logistical and demographic strength. The book is also highly praiseworthy because of its modesty about its shortcomings. The author comments repeatedly that the knowledge we have of the precise borders is lacking because the treaty language between the Byzantine Empire and its neighbors was often vague, and the author comments that the size and scale of the map generally prohibits very exact lines as well. On top of this, the use of deliberate depopulation and clearing of land to deny it to raiders and nomads was regularly practiced in the Danube River basin, among other places, which makes a precise border often false in the sense of not conforming to the actual practice, which the author is honest enough to discuss as well. Such honesty as well as such broad and detailed maps, within the limitations, makes this a particularly worthwhile book to read for those who are interested in a historical atlas of the Byzantine Empire in a variety of contexts.

In terms of its contents, the book contains about a dozen chapters dealing with subjects like: general maps, the early period (4th to 7th century AD), the historical development from Rome to Byzantium, cities and provinces, the church, the middle period (7th to 11th century AD), the rise of the Medieval East Roman world, economy and administration and defense, Church and monastic organization, the empire in its international context, the later period (11th to 15th century AD), apogee and collapse, economy and administration, frontiers and neighbors, and church and monastery in the later Byzantine world. After the main portion of the book, a helpful chronology as well as a list of rulers of the Byzantine Empire and various other neighbors is helpfully included. The book not only succeeds at what are fairly ordinary matters such as showing the political and military history of the Byzantine Empire through maps, which it does well, but also shows trade routes, maps of religious and cultural matters, including the spread of various heresies in the early Byzantine period and the organization of monasteries in the later Byzantine world, and a comparison of city sizes in the mid-Byzantine period when the classical polis became the Byzantine fortified town, minus its civic freedom and public culture and a great deal of its space. As a result, the reader of this short book, only about 170 pages in length, is well equipped to be able to think seriously about Byzantine history and the skill of the empire’s rulers in managing a difficult strategic situation for so long.

This book is full of intriguing insight, and makes for a very suitable textbook to go along with a course on Medieval or Byzantine History, if a university is offering courses on such matters. For example, the maps showing trade routes demonstrate that even in the period of Middle Byzantine recovery the economy of the empire rested largely on the shipping of primary goods, and that the debasement of the imperial currency was at a crisis level even before Mankizert, even if the empire still appeared militarily strong on the outside despite its growing financial weakness. Likewise, the discussion of the role of religion demonstrates that from the beginning the tension between the Orthodox Church and the best interests of the empire meant that religious heresies threatened imperial security and that the late Byzantine Orthodox church both made it difficult for the empire to defend itself or obtain help in defending itself and that it was able to transition into caring for the Greek and other Christian populations after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 because it had already been separated from the sort of realpolitik that would have helped the empire endure. Additionally, the author relates periods of imperial strength and weakness to larger cultural and demographic trends, which adds a layer of environmental analysis to the historical picture, giving yet more depth and areas for inquiry for the curious student of Byzantine history. Overall, this is a short book, but a superb historical atlas.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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