Greek fire and purple majesty

November 23, 2007

This handsomely produced book is aimed at readers for whom Byzantium is a surprise - surprising that it lasted so long, that without it Europe would have gone Islamic, that it was more creative and dynamic than journalistic use of the word "Byzantine" implies, and more interesting than most books on it make it appear.

Gaining and retaining readers' attention without dumbing down is a formidable challenge, which Judith Herrin approaches by abandoning narrative survey and thematic division for a TV-documentary style that highlights eye-catching features as starting points for wide-ranging, often probing exploration. The 28 chapters in four sections form a chronological sequence from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to its fall in 1453, although individual chapters range far forward and back in time.

The book's first section, "Foundations of Byzantium", includes chapters on Constantinople, Greek Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia, the Ravenna mosaics and Roman law. "The Transition from ancient to medieval" covers the struggle with Islam, icons and iconoclasm, Byzantine learning and literacy, and the conversion of the Slavs thanks to Cyril and Methodius. Next, in "Byzantium becomes a medieval state", we visit the economy, the court, and monasticism via Mount Athos; we meet two outstanding yet paradigmatic Byzantines, the military emperor Basil II and the female historian Anna Komnene, and we are introduced to the famously Byzantine exotica of Greek fire, eunuchs, and the birth of imperial babies in the Purple chamber.

The beginnings of estrangement between Byzantium and the West are broached in a chapter intriguingly titled "Venice and the fork". From consideration of Byzantium's 11th-century crisis and its cosmopolitan society, the final section, "Varieties of Byzantium", moves on to the fragmentation of the empire caused by the impact of the Crusades, notably the notorious fourth, which captured Constantinople in 1204 and established a Latin empire. The Byzantine governments in "exile" that sprang up in Trebizond, Epiros and western Asia Minor, and the fissures that continued to fragment the Byzantine world even after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261, are described in terms of creative vitality.

The picture that emerges is mostly familiar, for all its omissions (eastern provinces and frontiers, nomad neighbours, military culture), which are balanced by additions to the textbook canon through attention to women and a positive spin on the late period. The usual suspects, such as the age of Justinian, the age of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Alexios I, are there, despite not having chapters to themselves.

This book makes Byzantium attractive, but it does not dumb down. It lightly wears a weight of sophisticated, up-to-date learning and conveys the Byzantines' own sophistication through their writings and material culture, which Herrin knows well. There are plenty of other books that students can mine for reliable facts, but few others, if any, lead so easily to the coal face.

Paul Magdalino is professor of Byzantine history, St Andrews University.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Author - Judith Herrin
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 416
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780713999976

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