Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

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  1. In old Istanbul
  2. Byzantium, The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin
  3. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
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The Byzantines looked to the west for help, but that again was a sad story. In the Fourth Crusade, marauding Normans and scheming Venetians, ruthlessly sacked the great city. In Istanbul they are doing a good job, at last, of restoring the great church of the Pantocrator, where emperors of the Comnenos dynasty were buried. The Crusaders sacked the tombs and now there is only a tiny sliver of the original gold left: The Fourth Crusade is one of the landmarks in the rise of western technology. The Byzantines traditionally defended themselves with a combustible called "Greek fire", which burned wooden ships and siege-towers.

The Venetians worked out an antidote, treating leather with chemicals that resisted the flames, and enabled ships to approach the great sea walls on the Golden Horn. The Byzantines, convinced of their superiority, could not work out how their semi-savage enemies could be so skilled in such arts. But Constantinople was almost finished. The empire lingered on for another years, but in the main it had become a football, kicked around by rival Italians.

Venice and the Fork. The Fulcrum of the Crusades. Icons a New Christian Art Form. Iconoclasm and Icon Veneration. A Literate and Articulate Society. Saints Cyril and Methodios Apostles to the Slavs. Imperial Children Born in the Purple. Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara. The Siege of And how clever of the Byzantines emperors to construct a special room in the Great Palace that was lined with porphyry purple marble and perhaps also hung with purple silk; that chamber became the room in which empresses delivered their children, who all bore the epithet 'born in the purple'-- porphrogennetos.

In trying to compress a thousand years of history into pages, Herrin skims over subjects that I would like to have seen treated in more detail. Her essay on the Byzantine economy merely touched on trade routes and stressed the importance of Byzantium's gold standard, but I found myself longing for more insight. Why did the Byzantine emperors devalue their currency after an nearly years of monetary stability?

Why did they allow the Venetians to gain such primacy in trade and naval warfare? And somehow I'm more puzzled than ever about the horrific 4th Crusade and even less enlightened on the hows and whys of the Turkish conquest.

Herrin provides excellent illustrations as well as helpful maps and tables with chronologies and lists of the emperors, but I missed a coherent sense of political and military events. The Surprising Life Of A Medieval Empire would be better as a second or third read on the Byzantine empire, rather than as an introduction.

I enjoyed some of my excursions out to the web more than I did the book, but the book sparked my interest so Herrin gets credit; in particular the Kahn Academy's free online courses in Byzantine art and architecture and New York Metropolitan Museum's thematic essays on Byzantine art deepened my understanding and appreciation.

Athos that looks absolutely wonderful--like time-travel back to the world of the Byzantines: View all 6 comments. Jan 04, Michael rated it liked it Shelves: The story of the Byzantine Empire is a mystery to many who are otherwise knowledgeable about western civilization.

In recognition of that fact, the author undertook this book with the hopes from providing an introduction to the Byzantine phenomenon.

In old Istanbul

The author successfully describes the 1, year Byzantine civilization in pages — no mean feat — by eschewing a standard chronological narrative of events in favor of a series of topical essays, each addressing a different aspect of Byzantine so The story of the Byzantine Empire is a mystery to many who are otherwise knowledgeable about western civilization.

The author successfully describes the 1, year Byzantine civilization in pages — no mean feat — by eschewing a standard chronological narrative of events in favor of a series of topical essays, each addressing a different aspect of Byzantine society. One cannot help but wonder if her frustration is not in fact kindled by her academic colleagues' insufficient appreciation for Byzantine studies.

Kissinger, who famously said, "Academic fights are more brutal than our fights in the real world because the stakes are so low," would undoubtedly recognize an underappreciated specialist crying out for broader recognition. As mentioned above, the author does an admirable job of covering so much time in so little space, and the book is not written as litany of great events, let alone a military history.

Yet a few sentences here and there offering some detail into these matters would have gone a long way. I wanted to know more about the legendary walls of Constantinople, and their final breach after a millennium of impregnability. On all such details, the book is silent.

Byzantium, The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

Instead, the book focuses almost exclusively on the cultural aspects of Byzantine history. The reader will learn more than he ever hoped to know about Byzantine currency and court life. If so, perhaps it has not been underappreciated at all, though I think there is more to be told about what was truly a remarkable and unique civilization.

It turns out that the Pope's error is made manifest by — uh oh — the diversity of Islamic expressions to be found throughout the Mediterranean over the years. When faith is reduced to mere culture, any history of events driven by people of faith can never hope to penetrate to the truth of the matter. And so throughout the book, the complicated and intensely theological tension between east and west is ultimately a cultural struggle and no more. And the Pope's reasoning is refuted by cultural indicators that in fact have little bearing on his actual point.

Too many people have this vague idea that in , the Roman Empire poofed out of existence, taking with it all of its people, most of its infrastructure, and the Celts except for a few on the British Isles , and then various Germans moved into the empty buildings, converted to Christianity, and just sat around doing nothing much except wait for the Renaissance to happen. Maybe there's a vague awareness of the Muslim invasion of Iberia and possibly the Crusades, but that's about it.


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In actual fac Too many people have this vague idea that in , the Roman Empire poofed out of existence, taking with it all of its people, most of its infrastructure, and the Celts except for a few on the British Isles , and then various Germans moved into the empty buildings, converted to Christianity, and just sat around doing nothing much except wait for the Renaissance to happen. In actual fact, the Roman Empire had moved its capital from Rome to Byzantium redesigned and renamed Constantinople over a century and a half before, and just continued to exist without interruption even as it lost control of the city that gave it its name.

They'd eventually reconquer Italy and lose it again , and would continue to stick around, as the Roman Empire, for another millennium. Obviously, this book is about this. It describes in impressive detail the transition from the classical Roman Empire to the medieval Christian Byzantium, and the decay of its culture caused by conversion to that pernicious new religion; its rifts with the upstart bishops of Rome, who felt they should really be in charge of this whole Christianity thing; how it provided Europe's most important line of defense against the Islamic Holy War, first of the Arabs and then of the Turks; and its eventual destruction at the hands of traitorous Papists, incessant civil wars, and the Turks in roughly that order.

Despite Western attitudes towards Byzantium both then and now, its influence on the world around it cannot be overstated; everything from the symbolism of royalty to most Christian traditions to the shape of mosques to eating with forks was popularised by them. At the same time, it was a very alien civilisation, with its eunuchs the third gender and its Roman and Greek traditions and its Orthodox Christianity.

Its complete disappearance without a clear successor state despite pretensions of Romania, Moldavia, and even Turkey only adds to the mystique. Not nearly enough people know anything about the second half of the history of the Roman Empire, and the things they think they do know are often half-remembered baseless caricatures by malicious twits like Montesquieu and William Lecky.

This book is a surprisingly excellent introduction that will certainly put to rest a whole host of misconceptions. And though it undoubtedly wasn't the intention, it also illustrates very clearly the destructive effects of religion taken seriously. Nov 12, M. Bennetts rated it it was amazing. This review was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

It is spoken of in fiction and histories as an enigma, a shrouded maze of privileged deception and perfumed deceit, an insular, ossified, jewel-encrusted court, where guile and honeyed treachery reign supreme—a mediaeval Middle Eastern version of the Versailles of Louis XV. But that image, as cinematically enticing as it may be, is one of the most effective examples of disinformation the world has ever seen, a This review was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. But that image, as cinematically enticing as it may be, is one of the most effective examples of disinformation the world has ever seen, as Judith Herrin reveals in her remarkable new history, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire.

By the third century A. The plan was not a success. The emperors fought each other for domination. The western half continued to buckle under the constant pressure of tribal onslaughts. Then in A. Though frequently threatened and over time its land base diminished, still this devoutly Christian Byzantine Empire flourished for nearly another thousand years. Yet rather than treating us to another dry linear history about power struggles at the apex of this vast and varied empire, Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on the manifold aspects of the Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion.

Later, she demonstrates the Byzantine openness of thought as when in the 9th century, they encouraged the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic language which would enable them to communicate with the unruly and ungovernable Slavs; the emperor then supported the translation of the Bible into this newly invented Cyrillic language so that the Slavs could read the Bible in their own tongue and be converted.

Subsequently, the Bible was translated into Russian, and the Russian peoples similarly converted. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular remained controversial and heretical within western Christianity until well past the 15th century.


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  • Herrin also provides an unbiased look at the uneasy relationship between the western Church based in Rome and what became the Eastern Orthodox church. Her country is the distant past. Nonetheless, she paints vivid pictures of this prosperous and pious culture whose capital was a fortified city of sunlight glinting off the gilded church domes and spires, surrounded on three sides by the shimmering Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.

    From the first page of the preface, the author embraces the reader in the love of her subject. She entertains and captivates while throwing open the doors to her formidable treasury of knowledge with such examples of Byzantine artistry, intellect and innovation as their legal separation of church and state, the first encyclopedia, a water-powered organ, their building of the colonies of Venice and Ravenna, relations with such far-flung places as Scandinavia and Iceland, and their introduction of the fork to European dining.

    She shows that far from being ossified, the Byzantines were a highly educated society whose ancient and Christian heritages combined to give them enormous strength and resilience—a people who prized scientific and engineering excellence alongside their classical past, with centers of learning in Alexandria and elsewhere, where Plato and Aristotle as well as early Christian writers formed the core of the curriculum. So technologically advanced were they that scientists are still unable to penetrate the mystery of the water-borne incendiary, Greek fire.

    Moreover, the governmental and economic structures were so sound that their gold standard was maintained without debasement for nearly years! Yet in , in a sustained bout of frenzied savagery, the warring knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked Byzantium. Wonderfully, now, at last, in Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire , Professor Herrin brings us the thrilling and powerful rebuttal, and beautifully redresses the balance. Dec 12, M. Hudson rated it liked it.

    This book has several virtues. It's author is an expert professor of Byzantine history at University of London. She obviously loves her subject. She is eager to explain rather than show off. Nevertheless this is one of the most awkward popular history books I have ever read.

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    It reads like a collection of lecture notes for a Byzantine history class for freshmen. For instance, we are told a multitude of times that the "Attic" Greek spoken at court was being This book has several virtues. For instance, we are told a multitude of times that the "Attic" Greek spoken at court was being replaced by demotic Greek on the streets. Again and again, as if it might turn up on the test.


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    Years of teaching undergraduates has apparently made Professor Herrin despair of anybody learning anything without beating it into their skull. Another problem is an utter inability to develop anything approaching drama or even a coherent story. Part of the problem with this might be the book's organization, which rather than following events chronologically, takes on different aspects of Byzantine life: Greek Orthodoxy, the Hagia Sophia, the Court, etc. This approach is fine, but nothing really hangs together, and each individual chapter is more dutiful than exciting.

    Let me give an example. In the chapter "Imperial Children, 'Born in the Purple'" we are told about the purple palace room in Constantinople where heirs to the throne were born. It was purple because of its purple stone porphyry and purple textiles from the murex shellfish. I know about porphyry and the murex because these things are repeated a gazillion times.

    Anyway, the born in the purple chapter dutifully gives examples, including this one, buried in the fourth paragraph: But that's all the information we really get. A chapter on political mutilation would be helpful see the Wikipedia article , since in Constantinople mutilation was considered less offensive to God since He said "thou shalt not kill" but He never said anything against cutting off noses or poking out eyes. Herrin also seems a bit supercilious about ancient economics. I am just learning about Byzantine history, but I am kind of obsessed with ancient currency at the moment and here she is on devaluation: They probably could not gauge the long-term effects of reducing the gold content.

    So yet ask yourself, as the TV commercial urges: We've only been off the gold standard since sort of and I don't think any government or bourse or Wall Street really understands or controls "the overall economics of their state" and we sure as heck don't "appreciate the dangers of devaluation" as we are now, historically speaking, as utterly devalued as it is possible to be.

    Anyway, Herrin gets an A for effort and attitude, but the book is too often a bore despite its fascinating material and its author's expertise. Apr 22, Nikki rated it liked it Shelves: This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly.

    Byzantium is a fascinating empire, and we do owe more to it than we often believe. Rome dominates our thoughts, both in religion and in history — especially in Britain, of course, since we were ruled by Romans and then our entire state religion is based on a reaction to Roman Catholicism. But Byzantium has much to teach us about the European past as well. Herrin definitely has a bias toward Constantinople and their way of worshipping and… just about everything.

    At times, an apparent hostility to Roman Catholicism breaks through, which is rather odd from a scholar and yet, might have made the book more interesting if it were a bit more apparent — you have to choose which way to go, and make it clear. Interesting read, but does get a bit bogged down in details and repetitive. Reviewed for The Bibliophibian. Jun 30, Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk rated it really liked it Shelves: I'm going to keep this short OK, I'll say a bit more. Some histories can be very dry and actually painful, and this is particularly true of the history of Byzantium.

    In many ways, Byzantium, although familiar because it is a continuation of the Roman Empire and had quite an impact on us via the Renaissance, is quite an alien entity. It hovers over there, on the fringes of Europe, almost in Asia. It has had a number of names that alone would make one quite suspicious. It i I'm going to keep this short It is linked to Orthodoxy which is to the east, again alien, not European in the sense that didn't Europe end at the Iron Curtain?

    If you have read any of those dry histories then all that really sticks with you are those weird names such as "Comneni", "Murzuphlus" and my favourite "Palaiologos", the "Great Schism", "iconoclasm" and, of course "the fall of Constantinople". Judith Herrin makes this history interesting. Don't be fooled by how apparently long it took me to read the book, this is a book you can dip into, read in short chapters, leave alone and come back to.

    This is a GOOD read.

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    Each chapter is a stand-alone topic, informative yet not dry. The book as a whole is full of fascinating facts I loved the bit about the Western European condemnation of the Byzantine princess who used a fork - for the very first time! View all 4 comments. Nov 16, Kathy rated it liked it. I really wanted to like this book. One thousand years is a long span of time to fit into one book.

    I think what I didn't like was the formatting of the chapters into subject matters instead of chronological time lines. I had to keep an outline of events so I could fit the history together cohesively at least for me! The author had interesting stories to tell; however, I felt like a butterfly flitting around the flower of Byzantium.