Byzantium: The Surprising Life Of A Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin
Undoubtedly, there are some areas where this book definitely shows a skew towards aspects of social history and contemporary morality that I would prefer was not the case, but all the same this is still a worthwhile and accessible one-volume book about an empire that deserves a lot more attention. There are many books on Byzantium, it must be admitted, and they are written to a wide and diverse set of audiences. This book is not about the generals and the emperors, it has no interests in talking about the grand strategy of the empire as a whole over its history, but for the most part this book is content to be about aspects of social history. The author explores feminist themes and defends the classical inheritance of Greek culture, even its matters of sexuality, that survived into the Byzantine period and that shaped the view that less refined Western Europeans had about it. And indeed, this book appears to be a celebration of that refinement, including the moral decadence, of the Byzantine Empire that serves as a useful reminder of the cultural sophistication and moral complexity of the contemporary age as well, showing that we are somewhat Byzantine ourselves in our cultural approach.
This book of more than 300 pages is divided into four parts and nearly 30 chapters. Te book begins with a list of illustrations and maps and an introduction that expresses the author’s ambition to have written a different history of Byzantium. After that the first part of the book explores the foundations of Byzantium, including the city of Constantinople itself (1,2), the East Roman Empire (3), Greek orthodoxy (4, 5, 6), and Roman law (7). The second part of the book then looks at the transition from ancient to modern history that took place in the conflict against Islam (8), the problem of icons and iconoclasm (9, 10), literacy (11), and evangelism through translation (12). The third part of the book focuses on Byzantium as a medieval state through a look at Greek fire (13), the Byzantine economy (14), eunuchs as a supposed third gender (15), the imperial court (16), imperial children (17), Mt. Athos (18), Venice and the fork (19), the legacy of Basil II (20), the crisis of the 11th century (21), feminism and Anna Komnene (22), and Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society (23). The last part of the book then reflects on varieties of Byzantium as it fell, with chapters on the crusades (24), the successors to Byantium after 1204 (25), rebellion and patronage in late Byzantine society (26), the threat of submission to either the Pope or the Ottomans (27), and the siege of 1453 (28), with a conclusion about the greatness and legacy of the empire along with suggestions for further reading, a list of emperors named in the text, a chronology, maps, acknowledgements, and index.
The history of the Byzantine Empire is sufficiently complex that it provides rich insight for all kinds of different perspectives and every age. How does a society wrestle with the need for continuity and legitimacy? How does one seek to learn from other cultures without being swallowed up by them? How can one use diplomacy to gain information while also preserving the ability to defend oneself and not have to submit to others? How does one wrestle with the desire to create beautiful art and the mistrust of icons, with the conflict between the various aspects of cultural influence that one has inherited from Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem? How can the limitations of elites and their interests be handled in such a way that provides for the well-being of society as a whole? How does technology and culture serve a complex state with a diverse population? All of these questions are ones that the author explores, some more successfully than others, and all of them provide plenty of food for thought even where the author stumbles, as in her discussion on eunuchs and her praise to the tolerance of translators of Greek odes to pederasty.