Byzantium:  The Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire by Judith Herrin.  Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, New York and London, 2007.  $27.95.  400 pps. 

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.  It is Byzantium. 

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.D., the Roman Empire had grown so large, its distant borders so besieged, that it was decided to split it between two or even four emperors who would govern jointly.  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 324 A.D., Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to build a fortified classical city, a ‘new’ Rome, in Constantinople (modern Istanbul).  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. 

From Constantine’s conversion, Herrin details the transformation of Christianity from persecuted sect to state religion.  She provides a fascinating overview of early Christian ascetism and the organisation and development of the first monasteries, whilst paying special attention to those around Jerusalem, Christianity’s holiest city.  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.)  Herrin also provides an unbiased look at the uneasy relationship between the western Church based in Rome and what became the Eastern Orthodox church.

As her position as Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College, London would suggest, Herrin’s scholarship is impeccable, yet she writes like the very best of travel writers.  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 900 years!

Yet in 1204, in a sustained bout of frenzied savagery, the warring knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked Byzantium.  They desecrated churches, burned the contents of centuries-old libraries, robbed and pillaged, destroyed and slaughtered, leaving “the greatest city in Christendom…full smouldering ruins.” 

To justify this barbaric treatment of their co-religionists and allies, to prove that the Byzantines had ‘deserved’ it, the myth of the treacherous, deceitful Byzantine was invented.  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.        

(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)


2 comments on “Byzantium

  1. Ellie says:

    I’ve had this very book on my shelf for a few months now, waiting for the time to read it. I’m now looking forward to it even more!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I consider this book one of the all-time greats for “I didn’t know that!” moments. Fascinating and engaging from start to finish. (And I studied Byzantine history–a long time ago, that is. But still…Runciman was never this much fun.)

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