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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007)

by Judith Herrin

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8402722,242 (3.8)14
Explores the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire, including important figures who shaped its history and the role it played in protecting Christianity from Islam's expansion across western Europe.
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
  TorontoOratorySPN | Sep 1, 2022 |
A flawed effort, within a noble campaign to explain that Byzantium probably can't be summed up by an incense-bearing eunuch paying off manly masculine men from [wherever the author is from] until finally the whole mess collapsed because of its inherent weakness and, let's be honest, lack of manly masculine men. Byzantium is just the Roman Empire lasting until the fifteenth century. The next time some American neo-conservative complains that such-and-such an event in the USA is redolent of such-and-such an event in Rome just before the empire fell in the fifth century, throw this book at their head. A noble, noble cause.

That said, and for all the strengths of the book--nice detail, wide range--it's a little infuriating that Herrin spends so much time talking about things that happened to her when she was a tourist in some part of what used to be the Byzantine empire. It feels like someone (agent? editor? Herrin herself?) decided that this book needed 'livening up.' Herrin, for better and worse, is not William Dalrymple. That's not to say Herrin shouldn't have written this book, only that it could easily have been much better. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Considering that Byzantine history lasts for a thousand years, I think it was really smart to not try to tell a chronological story but to explore different aspects of Byzantine culture in individual chapters. If you're looking for a narrative history, this isn't it, but if you want a good overview of Byzantine culture and its influence on the world, this book is excellent. ( )
  the_lirazel | Apr 6, 2020 |
Informative and beautifully written, with maps and photographs. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |

Gibbon very unfairly neglects the Byzantine Empire, and Judith Herrin here argues for its rehabilitation as a vibrant civilisation in its own right, until it was dealt a deadly blow by Western Christianity in 1204 (and yet still survived another quarter of a millennium). She avoids doing a straight historical narrative, instead concentrating on different aspects of Byzantine politics and culture, arranged roughly in chronological order; there is an early chapter on the Hagia Sofia, a late chapter on Trebizond and the other post-1204 splinters. I felt that the risks of this approach did not quite pay off - there ends up being some repetition between chapters, and the whole thing seemed a bit unmoored from a firm timeline. Of course the risk of going the other way is that you would get too much into the dynastic politics of the people at the top, to the neglect of the rest.

Speaking of the people at the top, I had not appreciated that several women ruled the Byzantine Empire in their own right, or that two of them responsible for ending the two spells of iconoclasm. And having complained about the weak connection to the passage of time, I must say that I was very satisfied with the book’s treatment of the shifting geography of the Byzantine empire, particularly the account of how the Ravenna mosaics came to be in Ravenna. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors will be enlightened by this book, which may be better absorbed chapter by (short) chapter, rather than reading through in a few sittings. ( )
  nwhyte | Sep 23, 2018 |
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Judith Herrinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Colaço, AntonioCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One afternoon in 2002, two workmen knocked on my office door in King's College, London. They were doing repairs to the old buildings and had often passed my door with its notice: 'Professor of Byzantine History'. Together they decided to stop by and ask me, 'What is Byzantine history?' They thought it had something to do with Turkey.
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Explores the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire, including important figures who shaped its history and the role it played in protecting Christianity from Islam's expansion across western Europe.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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