Book Review: The Culture Of The Byzantine Empire

The Culture Of The Byzantine Empire, by Vic Kovacs

This book is the sort of book that would be popular among those early readers who want or have to learn about the Byzantine empire.  It is always interesting to read what people think is important about the legacy of the past.  The past lives on because of the way that it is seen as relevant for history.  For example, Shakespeare wrote an entire play about King John and didn’t include what we consider the single most important aspect of his reign, namely the signing of the Magna Carta.  Of course, the Magna Carta was not that important to the late 16th and early 17th century in the same way that it was after the English Civil War when it was as crucial justification for limited constitutional monarchy.  And so it is with the Byzantines, for what is relevant to us as contemporary English speakers is not going to be the same as it is to modern Greeks, Turks, or Russians, for example.  While this book would not please many adult readers, it certainly offers as beginning to what will hopefully be a long and successful series of books read on the subject of this fascinating medieval empire.

This book is less than 50 pages and is divided into five short chapters.  The author begins with a chapter that describes and provides a map on the span of history of the Byzantine Empire (1).  After that there is a longer chapter that discusses the city of Constantinople and its importance for trade, architecture, and education as well as social history (2) and a discussion of the importance of Constantinople as the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and the missionaries it sent to educate and convert nearby countries (3).  After that there is a chapter that discusses the way that the Byzantine Empire used mercenaries, struggled for supremacy with Islamic realms for many centuries, and developed very advanced methods of espionage and counter-espionage as a way to aid its own defensive efforts.  Finally, the book ends with a chapter that discusses the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire with the 4th crusade and the loss of territory afterwards (5) as well as a glossary, some suggestions for further reading if the reader wants more information, as well as the usual index.  Although a basic book, this one offers at least some discussion of a wide variety of matters.

What aspect of the Byzantine Empire is most important to discuss?  Different people will bring their own very different perspectives on this subject.  For me, I am fascinated by the empire’s grand strategy and its ability to long survive Muslim attacks and even expand during a period of more than a century to recover imperial territories in Anatolia and the Levant.  I am also interested in the importance of trade and in the demographic weaknesses that eventually doomed the empire once its walls could no longer resist the canons of the Ottomans of the 15th century.  And like many people I am intrigued in how it provided an important role in spreading Western religious and literary culture to the Balkans as well as the Slavic peoples of Western Europe and also in providing a great deal of the intellectual capital that the West needed to develop a good understanding of the heritage of early Christianity and Greek philosophy.  Other people will have their own reasons for wanting to know about the Byzantine Empire, and the importance of the subject will depend on what factors are most important to the particular readers.  Fortunately, this book does a good job at presenting at least a few reasons to care about such long-ago history.

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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