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Byzantium: A History by John Haldon

Byzantium: A History

by John Haldon

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The Byzantine Empire is one of those entities which always seems to have appeared at the periphery, a bit part actor mentioned in world history courses in its role as a conduit for trade goods from the East. There is a perception that it is an archaic entity destroyed by more dynamic powers - Venice, the Ottomans. Some elements of those perceptions are true, however John Haldon’s excellent book serves to enlighten, and provide a more rounded perspective. Although there were cultural shifts over time, the fact that the empire lasted for over 1,000 years is certainly cause for respect, and many scholars in fact see it as a continuation of the Roman empire which puts its longevity on an even more impressive scale.
I was reminded of Mark Twain’s oft-quoted comment when asked about reports in the press that he had died: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. One could argue that reports of the death of the Roman Empire began early - perhaps the 200s with instability and economic turmoil, more certainly in the 400s with invasion by barbarians, the disastrous defeats to Islam and the Bulgars in the 600s, as seen in this map:

Yet by the reign of Basil II at the cusp of the 1000s “the Byzantine empire appeared to be impregnable: rich, with an efficient bureaucracy, a powerful, tried and experienced army which had been victorious on all fronts with few exceptions, and vastly expanded territories in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia.” Haldon heads up the section on the succeeding era “Political Eclipse, Cultural Inheritance” which describes well the decline of political, military and economic power, whilst at the same time the cultural legacy of the empire was maintained to various extents in the Balkans and of course Russia with the Orthodox church. Even this period of ‘decline’ lasted 500 years.
Haldon really sets the standard for introductory histories with an excellent overview of the Empire, long enough to provide sufficient detail and coverage (192 pages) and clearly written. The first two chapters deal with the political and military history, providing a chronological framework. These chapters were really teasers - although they aren’t brief I was left wanting more. The remainder of the book deals with “The Byzantine World”, a balanced and broad overview of the topology, functioning and transition of the state, social history, the church and culture.
Haldon positions the state clearly in its role as an extractor of surplus from the largely agricultural population. He highlights the changes as power was diffused to and clawed back from the nobility. At times power was successfully clawed back - “the seventh century witnessed a massive re-concentration of power and economic control in the hands of the state.” Ultimately the state dwindled away, however what Haldon calls “the Byzantine symbolic universe” (the cultural inheritance and particularly the religious framework of Orthodoxy) was left behind the ebbing tide of the Empire across Asia Minor and the Balkans.
The decline of the Empire was due to a variety of factors: “The reduced income derived from the appropriation of surplus through tax on a much smaller, and constantly shrinking, territorial base, the fragmentation of territory and political authority and the lack of a serious naval power with which to defend its interests were fundamental.” The military failures which resulted in the loss of territory are only really dealt with in the first two chapters, and probably a bit too briefly considering their significance. Most of the failures are attributed to “treachery and tactical blunders” without much detail. Another significant factor though which Haldon is good on is the failure to appreciate the significance of commerce. Haldon describes how “The Byzantine state … played no role at all in promoting indigenous enterprise, as far as we can see from the sources, whether for political or economic reasons, and viewed commerce as simply another minor source of state income: commercial activity was regarded as – and was, in respect of how the state worked – peripheral to the social values and political system in which it was rooted”. Venice exploited this failure to its own advantage.
On balance this book couldn’t have done much better in providing an overview of the Byzantine Empire and a starting point for further research with the likes of John Julius Norwich’s books. The military defeats leading to the loss of territory are described a little superficially but overall the political, cultural, economic and social history of this important entity are superbly dealt with in a very readable book. ( )
  bevok | Jul 31, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0752434721, Paperback)

John Haldon’s beautifully illustrated book tracks the checkered history of an oriental enigma, a ‘lost empire’ which stood for a 1,000 years against the might of Islam. He retells the story of the cycle of conquest and re-conquest of its lands by Goths, Arabs, Slavs, and Crusaders, and finally its complete destruction by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:33 -0400)

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