Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

by Judith Herrin

Hardcover, 2008



Call number




Princeton University Press (2008), Hardcover, 440 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
"Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire" is a highly readable thematic history of the Byzantine empire which de-emphasizes the usual murder and betrayal stories around the emperors. The author presents the cultural and religious achievements of Byzantium of continuing and preserving the Roman civilization (in Greek clothes and language). The book's subtitle actually runs counter to its message: Instead of being a "medieval empire", Byzantium emerged from the Arab, Turkish and Bulgarian challenge as a medieval kingdom. Having been sacked by the Crusaders and Venice, it soldiered on for a few centuries more before it vanished into the pages of history.… (more)
LibraryThing member generalising
I was very impressed by this. With the exception of a few chapters at the beginning and end, it's not a strict history of events; rather, it's a selection of chapters on a range of different topics, arranged in a rough chronological order. The topics are fairly widely chosen - six successive chapters, for example, talk about Greek fire, the medieval Byzantine economy, the status of eunuchs, the Imperial court, dynastic succession and the idea of porphyrogenitos, and Mount Athos. A useful result of this approach was that the book lent itself to intermittent reading - you could pick it up whilst cooking dinner or going to bed, run through a section and put it down without worrying about losing track of the overall thread.

The history it discusses, well. It's remarkable. I knew very little about Byzantine history; "this vague thing in the East that hung on a long time" was about the sum of it. In many ways, that's the strength of a book like this; the breadth and depth of what it covers, gives a real feel for what the empire was, its significance and its - well, its liveliness. There's a comment at the end about Byzantium always being thought of as this passive, decaying, rump of a state, and I think that's quite true; this very successfully challenges it. It's also a bit of a shock to the standard way of thinking about the period between about 400 and 1400; it's easy to fall into a trap of assuming that the piece of European history we know best is representative of the whole thing to some degree or another, and this really does confront you with the fact that that just doesn't work. So, thought-provoking, at least for someone like me whose pre-Renaissance history is vague at best.

One quibble would be that the last section - covering the sack of Byzantium in 1204 through to the fall to the Ottomans in 1453 - seemed a bit rushed, but I think this might be a reflection of my wanting to read more on the period rather than a systemic flaw.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
I do not wish to cast aspersions upon your historical knowledge, but I have to concede that I have a few, never mind grey areas, positive black spots - areas in which my ignorance is even more overwhelming than usual. The time betwixt the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, was a large gap. This book has filled it admirably. Were one to be a scholar, there is, undoubtedly, much more to be taken from this work than I did but, this illustrates the fact that it is written in style that is open to the Don and the dunce.

Byzantium started out as the West Wing of the Roman Empire but then, split off into a semi autonomous empire. It acted as a buffer between Western Christianity and the new, all conquering Muslim faith; not just physically, but also as a repository of Western civilisation, at a time when the West was letting its standards slip, somewhat.

The book traces Byzantium from its earliest days until it finally succumbed to Eastern military force (a situation helped by an attack from the Crusaders sent to help protect this Christian outpost!) Judith Herrin gives a biography of the main characters, historical background and a final review of the significance of Byzantium in a succinct style filling a mere 336 pages. I particularly like the way in which Herrin is willing to report the views of the time, without comment. I am thinking specifically of the sieges where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was 'seen' on the battlements at their darkest hour. We might be wiser than to believe such things nowadays (please notice that word 'Might') but, it gives an insight into the mind of the Byzantines at this juncture.

The book is lavishly illustrated with examples of Byzantine art and gives an excellent introduction to this crucial historical empire.
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LibraryThing member cyafer
Histories tend to focus on the "men in funny hats", or the kings, emperors, popes and generals that direct civilization. I don't subscribe to this theory. Men in funny hats are influential in history's course, but no more than the culture and societies from which they spring.

So it was with great relish that I read Herrin's book which focused primarily on the culture of Byzantium and not the tedious listing of emperor after emperor. It was rich, colorful, and even I, a hardcore Byzantinist, learned quite a bit from what is ostensibly a book for "Byzantine newbies".

I have a couple of reservations, however. Her method of documenting the "forgotten empire" was different: each topic was given its own chapter and the topic was explored in its entirety from Constantine's time to 1453. This is interesting, but confusing. She drops names in an early chapter, but doesn't discuss them in detail until later, or she talks about a person and then name drops them later and expects the reader to remember every detail. In addition, the chapters are so comprehensive that names and dates and facts whiz past your head. Finally, I was served well by this book because I have a mental timeline of Byzantine history, but someone who is not familiar with at least the basics of its rise and fall might struggle a bit.

Regardless, it's still a fantastic book with a great focus and one that will certainly go towards helping those willing to pick it up with understanding the world's "forgotten empire".
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Wonderful. Throws light into an oft neglected corner of Western history. Herrin's method of focusing on a single topic of Byzantine life and expanding out works well. Her approach is superior to the usual list of dynastic changes and lifeless list of imperial names. A good place to start for anyone interested in the topic. Make sure to read her introduction. One off note: She tries too hard to rehabilitate Byzantium's historical image.… (more)
LibraryThing member moncrieff
An excellent history, with well explained themes.
LibraryThing member vzakuta
Great, very readable introductory survey on history, religion, philosophy and economics of the great Byzantine empire from its inception in 330 AD to the Turkish conquest in 1453. This book contains the latest research on Byzantium. The writing style is well polished and the books flows very well. The author spends a little too much time on defending Byzantium against scholars who look down on it as an ineffective and bureaucratic empire. However, her interest in Byzantium is so infectious that the reader can hardly walk away without wanting to learn much more. Also, great list of suggested reading for further study.… (more)
LibraryThing member ncarman31
“Byzantium” is a beautiful book with a golden mosaic cover and a wealth of photographic plates of Byzantine mosaics, churches, and illuminations (black and white and colour).

Rather than a dry recitation of the history of Byzantium Herrin chooses to focus on interesting aspects of Byzantine History, for example the Empire’s Roman and pagan heritage, the Hagia Sophia, and the eunuchs at the Imperial Court.

She succeeds very well in creating a bigger picture of Byzantine history, society, and culture in the mind of the reader. I should stress that this book is written for a general audience and not exclusively for academics.

If you (like me) have a hole in your general knowledge where the Byzantine Empire ought to be, then I thoroughly recommend this book. Indeed who could resist finding out more about the history of a culture that boasted somebody called Basil the Bulgar-Slayer?
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LibraryThing member Gantois
Byzantium (Constantinopel, Istanbul) and the Byzantine Empire have an impressive history which is however a bit forgotten. Before reading this book I thought Byzantium and its empire (5th - 15th century) was only a shadow of the Roman Empire. I was wrong. Authour Judith Herrin explains why in this fascinating book. She reconstructs the surprising life of a medieval empire which played a crucial role in the world history. It was also a continuation of the western Roman empire after Rome fell to the 'barbarians'. That is also why the Byzantine emperors considered themselves as Romans. Judith Herrin knows how to make forgotten history alive and kicking. She also makes clear that our eurocentric view of medieval history and Byzantium needs a serious correction. I can recommend this book to everyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
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.
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LibraryThing member karenpossingham
An excelllent and surprisingly easy to read description of a fascinating 1000 year empire. Unlike many other histories of this subject, it is written as a series of chronological themes - most interesting.
LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
My knowledge of all things Byzantium was embarrassingly meagre prior to reading "Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire". I knew of the great military generals Belisaurus and Narses ("The Hammer of the Goths"), and the plague that nearly wiped out the Empire but I'm now happy to state that I know a lot, lot more about the Byzantines.

Some of that "lot more" I know about Byzantium contains a lot of references to the differences between Byzantine and Roman religious practices. This was interesting at first but started to tax my patience as Herrin dove into the intricacies of ecumenical council and iconoclasm. Similarly, Herrin's decision to write on topics rather than chronologically led to some confusion, particularly over the names of Emperors and Patriarchs (there's only so many Constantine's one can keep track of). On the plus size, Herrin introduced me to Emperor Basil "The Bulgar Slayer". If nothing else, the Byzantines could sure coin a good nickname.
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
A competent and readable history of the Byzantine empire. It updates earlier histories, such as the eloquent trilogy of John Julius Norwich, incorporating a more skeptical eye and covering a broader range of topics, albeit in a much briefer work. For example, Herrin argues that the gruesome punishment of Bulgar prisoners captured after the battle Kleidion is most likely a myth, and she does a better job than Norwich untangling the various rulers of the Palaiologan dynasty.

The work is organized in four chronological sections, but the chapters within each section often move across chronology to look at topics such as rise of icons as a Christian art form, the linguistic inventions of Saints Cyril and Methodios, the monasteries on Mount Athos, the writings and life of Anna Komnene, and the cosmopolitan nature of the Byzantine Empire. This approach gives a sense of Byzantium as a civilization and stresses its continuity across a 1100-year history.

Much has been made by some reviewers of a slip of the pen that makes Stilicho the successor of Romulus Augustulus in 476 (it was Odoacer). This is clearly an oversight of both author and editor, but it in no way detracts from the scholarship of the rest of the book.
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LibraryThing member BrianFannin
Very good indeed. Byzantium remains elusive, but this one brought the place a bit more into focus.
LibraryThing member SChant
Quite interesting but a bit too much christianity - pages and pages about who's allowed to say what in prayers, which churches have which icons, who's destroyed what books etc. I know that most of the written sources from the time must have been from christian monks but it coould have done with more about the lives of ordinary Byzantines.… (more)


Original publication date


Physical description

440 p.; 9.3 inches


0691131511 / 9780691131511
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