Book Review: Byzantium: The Bridge From Antiquity To The Middle Ages

Byzantium:  The Bridge From Antiquity To The Middle Ages, by Michael Angold

This is a pleasant book, and one that strives to deal with one of the more interesting aspects of the Byzantine legacy and that was the way that its long survival allowed for culture to spread from the ancient world to the Western world that had fared much worse in the collapse of the Roman world of late antiquity.  Cultural continuity in the face of societal problems depends often on the survival of enough literate people who are able to read and write and at least preserve learned culture from one generation to the next, and there are few areas where this was the place in Europe and the Western world as a whole in the period after the rise of the barbarian successor kingdoms to Rome, even though some of those kingdoms deliberately sought to imitate Rome for its prestige value as well.  This work shows how this was done and how various periods of periodic revival helped to spread more and more of the culture of antiquity into Europe from not only the Byzantine world but also the Muslim world, which in its own way also sought to recapture the spirit of antiquity for its own cultural benefit.

This book is a short one at just over 150 pages, and it could have included quite a bit more content than it does.  The author begins with a list of illustrations, notes for travelers, and maps, and then discusses the importance of the city of Constantine in the survival of the Byzantine Empire for so long (1).  After that comes a look at Byzantium (2) and the parting of the ways between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire over the course of centuries of divergent change between the eastern and western parts of the former Roman Empire (3).  This leads to a discussion of the forging of Islamic culture in the aftermath of the Arab conquests of much of the Middle East and Persia (4) as well as the issue of Byzantine iconoclasm as a response to the fierce monotheism of Islam that had been so successful in sweeping over such a large area of the former Roman world (5).  After that the author discusses the troubled relationship between Byzantium and the West (6) and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the course of centuries of conflict within the Byzantine world as well as between it and its neighbors (7).  Finally, the book ends with a discussion of Norman Sicily and its cultural blend (8) as well as a glossary, bibliography, and index.

What credit does Byzantium deserve as a bridge.  If one takes it as a given that Byzantium, whether directly or indirectly, passed on a great deal of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome to us that we still enjoy to this day, and I think that a reasonable conclusion, how much credit belongs to the Byzantines themselves?  This is a matter that has been hard for contemporaries to address, given the fact that the Byzantine Empire has seldom been given a great deal of credit for what it has passed along to others.  It is thanks to the Byzantine text that the reformers of the early modern period were able to give the vernacular languages of Western Europe a sound biblical text of the New Testament to work from that went behind the vulgate to the Greek writings that had been faithfully copied for centuries–a matter that this book, intriguingly enough, does not discuss.  Similarly, the Byzantines are responsible for passing along to the West the use of utensils, something which makes us eat in a more cultured fashion, and also a matter that this book does not discuss.  It is my opinion, at least, that this book could make a far greater case for the role of Byzantium as a bridge to the modern world in ways that we care about greatly, although the author’s focus on coins and architecture is by no means a bad one.

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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