Book Review: A Concise History Of Byzantium

A Concise History Of Byzantium, by Warren Treadgold

This book was a pleasant surprise.  In general, I like reading about Byzantine history and if there are not as many books about the subject as I would prefer, those I happen to find are generally solid [1].  What this book does, though, is manage to find in a very concise form a middle ground between narrative histories that focus on the personalities of the rulers of the Byzantine empire or those who were close to them like Patriarchs and so on and social histories that focus on the economic, intellectual, and demographic trends of the Byzantine Empire over the course of a millennium and that demonstrate the basic strength or weakness of the empire at various periods.  The author himself explicitly comments upon his aim to make narrative history worthwhile to fans of social history and make social history worthwhile to fans of narrative history and as someone who is a fan of both I found this book to be a very enjoyable read both for its narrative as well as for its discussion about the underlying social factors that were beneath that narrative.  If you too have a fondness for the Byzantine Empire as well as narrative and social history, this book has a lot to offer.

This book is about 250 pages long and it is divided into eight chapters that are generally chronologically organized.  Most of the chapters begin with a narrative portion and then contain a discussion of society and culture during the particular time period of the chapter as a way of providing a consistent approach with the entirety of Byzantine history.  The book begins with a list if maps and tables, a list of figures, a preface, and an introduction that discusses the problem of decline and the Roman background (1).  After that the author discusses the formation of Byzantium in the period between Diocletian and the weak emperors that followed Constantine’s dynasty (2).  After that the author deals with the period of reconquest and crisis that included Justinian’s efforts and the plague that doomed them (3).  This leads to a look at the catastrophe and its containment that took place in the seventh and eighth centuries (4) as well as the period of recovery that followed until the end of the Macedonian dynasty (5).  This leads to a look at the wealth and weakness of the Byzantine Emperor that lasted from the disaster at Mankizert and the disaster of the Fourth Crusade (6).  The author then discusses the restoration and fall of the empire (7) as well as a conclusion that looks at the problem of measurement as well as the legacy of the empire (8) as well as a bibliography, list of emperors, and an index.

One of the points that the author makes that is worth dwelling on is the fact that for a long time, in fact until the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire had surprising strength and viability even though it had dramatic swings in its power from positions of power to times of crisis.  Many of the crises that most dramatically harmed the empire were the result of internal divisions among a corrupt elite, but even if leadership was not always present to a high degree and even if the Byzantine world showed a frequent and alarming tendency towards schism even to its closing days as an independent state, there was underlying strength in the Byzantine state among its people and culture that is worth appreciating even if it was not always led to the greatest degree possible.  Even in the darkest days of the Byzantine empire during the seventh and eighth centuries the Byzantines were able to preserve at least something the classical heritage they inherited and then built upon it and spread it when times got better after centuries of gradual recovery which only slowly showed itself in larger military power.  The author’s blend of narrative and social history does a good job at demonstrating the importance of having a larger view of Byzantine history.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/12/02/book-review-the-culture-of-the-byzantine-empire/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/18/book-review-the-grand-strategy-of-the-byzantine-empire/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/18/book-review-the-palgrave-atlas-of-byzantine-history/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/08/31/book-review-sailing-from-byzantium/

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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