Audiobook Review: The World Of Byzantium

The World Of Byzantium, by Professor Kennet W. Harl

Having never done any of the Great Courses collection before, I picked up this particular collection, which contains 24 lectures of 30 minutes apiece, from the library.  The appeal of the Great Courses collection is that it offers serious university level education from world class professors for free to those who are able to listen to audiobooks.  It’s a good appeal, and this book certainly delivers the goods by providing lectures that are about a quarter length on a subject of serious personal interest, namely Byzantine history [1].  The professor for this course is from Tulane University and happens to be well-regarded and highly decorated, and he comes off as being a person of a great sense of humor as well as serious passion about the somewhat obscure religious, political/military, and cultural history of the Byzantine empire.

The contents of this audiobook are far more wide-ranging than is the case for most examinations of Byzantine history, and a large part of that has to do with the author’s background in the Classics as opposed to the more usual political or military history one.  The course takes a mostly chronological approach to Byzantine history, beginning in the period of imperial crisis and reform in the third century.  After this there is an examination of the life and career of Constantine, state and society under the Dominate, imperial Rome and its dealings with barbarians, the rise of Christianity, the Imperial church and Nicene era Christian dogma, the supposed friends of God in ascetics and monks, the fall of the Western empire, the age of Justinian, the reconquest of the West, the elusive search religious unity in the Byzantine world, and the birth of Christian aesthetics and letters that closes out the first half of the course.  The second half of the course covers the career of the emperor Heraclius, Byzantium as a Christian citadel during the next three centuries, life in the Byzantine dark ages, the Iconoclastic controversy, the recovery of the empire during the Macedonian dynasty, the imperial zenith under Basil II, the imperial collapse over the next 50 years, Alexius I and the first crusade, the Commenian emperors and their dealings with Crusaders, Imperial Exile and Restoration after the fourth crusade, Byzantine letters & aesthetics, and a last melancholy chapter on the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Byzantine history is a melancholy subject, perhaps one reason why I like to read about it, given my own native melancholy, largely because it is an empire that ended in a glorious but ultimately futile defense after having such a long and noble history and surviving despite numerous disasters and reverses.  This particular class, despite the fact that its view of religious history is predicated on the praise of Hellenistic Christianity rather than biblical Christianity, is particularly strong on focusing on the distinctive elements of Byzantine culture, on pointing out the need for better archeology of the Byzantine era, something I have seen myself in my travels in Turkey, and on bringing the attention of the person taking to the class to the vital role of the Byzantine Empire in transmitting the classical heritage to the West, something that is generally neglected by many.  Although the course is ultimately a sad one, the instructor does a solid job at praising and pointing out the surprising resilience of the empire and its many recoveries from what seemed like hopeless positions, only to fail at last due to changing technology and disastrous demographics and logistics.  Byzantium deserved a better fate given its long and noble life, but at least we can respect its history.

[1] See, for example:


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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