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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,404 ratings  ·  146 reviews
Byzantium. The name evokes grandeur and exoticism--gold, cunning, and complexity. In this unique book, Judith Herrin unveils the riches of a quite different civilization. Avoiding a standard chronological account of the Byzantine Empire's millennium--long history, she identifies the fundamental questions about Byzantium--what it was, and what special significance it holds ...more
Hardcover, 391 pages
Published February 3rd 2008 by Princeton University Press (first published September 6th 2006)
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This book deals with the history of the Byzantine Empire. The author, rather than adopting a traditional chronological approach, uses a more thematic approach: she looks at various aspects of Byzantine culture including religion, education, government and the influences that Byzantium had on other cultures. Although it is not organized along a strictly chronological template, there is some temporal ordering.

The recurring theme and overriding thesis of this book is that there has been, from the

I'm lucky enough to have actually visited the great Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia.

In the vast light-filled space you feel the impossible weight of the building and yet the domes rise up suspended miraculously--as if from the heavens.

So I'm predisposed to appreciate the Byzantines and Judith Herrin had no need to convince me of their importance. There were plenty of fascinating tidbits in Herrin's book. I loved the thematic chapters and the vivid picture she painted of this venerable civil
Koen Crolla
May 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Too many people have this vague idea that in 476, the Roman Empire poofed out of existence, taking with it all of its people, most of its infrastructure, and the Celts (except for a few on the British Isles), and then various Germans moved into the empty buildings, converted to Christianity, and just sat around doing nothing much except wait for the Renaissance to happen. Maybe there's a vague awareness of the Muslim invasion of Iberia and possibly the Crusades, but that's about it.
In actual fac
Jan 04, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The story of the Byzantine Empire is a mystery to many who are otherwise knowledgeable about western civilization. In recognition of that fact, the author undertook this book with the hopes from providing an introduction to the Byzantine phenomenon. The author successfully describes the 1,100 year Byzantine civilization in 300 pages – no mean feat – by eschewing a standard chronological narrative of events in favor of a series of topical essays, each addressing a different aspect of Byzantine so ...more
M.M. Bennetts
Nov 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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, a
M. D.  Hudson
This book has several virtues. It's author is an expert (professor of Byzantine history at University of London). She obviously loves her subject. She is eager to explain rather than show off. She is methodical.

Nevertheless this is one of the most awkward popular history books I have ever read. It reads like a collection of lecture notes for a Byzantine history class for freshmen. Repetitions abound. For instance, we are told a multitude of times that the "Attic" Greek spoken at court was being
This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. Sometimes this results somewhat in insulting the general reader’s intelligence, and yet at other times she gets deep into minutiae rather than covering the stuff that might really interest people — like the role of mutilation (instead of assassination) in political takeovers. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly. And yes, that’s a very ...more
Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
I'm going to keep this short... this is a good read.

OK, I'll say a bit more.

Some histories can be very dry and actually painful, and this is particularly true of the history of Byzantium. In many ways, Byzantium, although familiar because it is a continuation of the Roman Empire and had quite an impact on us via the Renaissance, is quite an alien entity. It hovers over there, on the fringes of Europe, almost in Asia. It has had a number of names (that alone would make one quite suspicious). It i
I really wanted to like this book. One thousand years is a long span of time to fit into one book. I think what I didn't like was the formatting of the chapters into subject matters instead of chronological time lines. I had to keep an outline of events so I could fit the history together cohesively (at least for me!) The author had interesting stories to tell; however, I felt like a butterfly flitting around the flower of Byzantium.
Nicholas Whyte
Sep 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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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 a
Steven Peterson
Jun 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On page xiii, the author notes that a couple workers in hard hats, after having seen from her office door that she taught Byzantine history, wondered what Byzantine history was. She tried in a few minutes to explain, and they followed up by asking "why she didn't. . .write about it for them?" And, indeed, she decided to write this volume for a broader audience. Her goal in this book (Page xiv): ". . .I want you to understand how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not ha ...more
Stephen Hayes
Sep 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Stephen by: Terry Cowan
Several years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to choose three papers out of several on offer, and one of them was Medieval History. I asked the professor what it covered. "Diplomatic and political history of England, France and Germany," he told me. I lost interest, and enrolled for courses on other places and periods.

The syllabus illustrates the prejudice among Western historians, from the Renai
Elizabeth S
Good qualities: Great maps, very helpful plates/pictures with consistent references to them in the text, and obviously a very knowledgeable author who loves her work. Lots of fascinating stories were told, and some mentioned. Just reading this book opens the reader's eyes to a whole section of history that is worth knowing.

Things that were difficult for me: I think I just didn't have enough background on the medieval times anywhere to fully appreciate the topological discussion of the 1000+ year
Alex Sarll
Inspired by some puzzled builders, a specialist attempts to write an introduction to Byzantium, and also put paid to what she considers myths about it (encapsulated in the derogatory term 'byzantine' for bureaucracy &c). And she's clearly tried her best, but in places the over-fluency of an expert confuses - not helped by a slipshod editing job (there's gaps and unclear sentences which really should have been spotted and corrected). On top of which, she never quite convinced me that Byzantiu ...more
Pablo Rossello
Nov 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recently-read
Highly-entertaining introduction to the Byzantine Empire, that seeks to re-establish Byzantium's importance as a political and historical link that connected Classical Antiquity with modern Europe (and hence enabled the emergence of the latter).

The author narrates the history of the Eastern Roman Empire through small chapters, each of which concentrate on events/issues/battles of a relevant period. This avoids a straightorward, lineal chronological account, and allows instead a highly-detailed
Dana Stabenow
A hard slog of a read, a narrative drained of personality. Maybe it's impossible to render a thousand years of imperial history down to a human scale.

But then I remember Mark Kurlansky's Cod, the vital, absorbing history of a fish in 220 pages. With recipes.
List of Illustrations
List of Maps
Introduction: A Different History of Byzantium

--Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Further Reading
List of Emperors Named in the Text
Oct 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book answered a lot of questions I had about the thousand year era of the Byzantine Empire. It taught me about the split between the Latin and Orthodox churches, the crusades, why Christianity was introduced to Russia, and eunuchs.
Nov 25, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historians
Recommended to ☯Emily by: Goodreads, History Club
Shelves: history
I was eager to learn about this period of history that has been ignored by historians in the West. The author's goal was to write about this period in readable prose. She focused each chapter on a particular theme, event or historical figure, hoping to reveal this great civilization to a general reader. Herrin was not quite successful. Although some chapters were fascinating, many were not. So many names of rulers or famous people were mentioned, it was hard to remember any facts. The same perso ...more
Mrs. Herrin has written a good readable book about the Byzantine Empire. In three parts she leads the reader from the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great to the demise of the city in 1453, when Mehmet II conquered the city.

The book isn't really written as time line of facts, although the three parts have a kind of chronological order. The chapters are focussing on themes, for instance the position of the women, the educational system and the way Byzantium functioned economically
John Turlockton
I think the author fails in her attempt to write an easy to read introduction to the Byzantine Empire. It does vaguely go from the past to the present, but instead of dealing with each aspect of the empire, e.g. politics, society, economy, etc, it just picks a topic in vaguely chronological order, talks about it in very little detail and then moves on, leaving us very little wiser than when we started the chapter. The topics she picks are also bizarre for someone claiming to be writing a book to ...more
Jul 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, lear
Peter Ellwood
Aug 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How can this not be more widely known? How can an empire have existed - positively thrived - for more than a thousand years, without our acknowledging how very important it was? Simply amazing to contemplate.

One sentence from this excellent book stands out for me, in banner headlines, above all the rest: without Byzantium, there would have been no Europe. Simple as that. No Europe. You can love it or hate it, but there really isn't much debate in my mind that Europe represents the pinnacle of h
Hall's Bookshop
Jul 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: james
I should stress this is a re-read. As a Byzantinist, there is a chance I'm over-egging this book, but if it results in one or two more converts then that's well-worth it.

Many introductions to Byzantium have been written over the last century, but none come close to Judith Herrin's achievement. Although it may be a little dense for those who do not regularly read history, there can be no doubt that she expertly blends the art of story-telling with scholarly rigour, resulting in an engaging intro
Dec 18, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
For someone as Western Euro-ethnic as I am, living in Israel, the Byzantine ruins we find here and the Byzantine time period has remained a mystery to me until now. Herrin does an excellent job of explaining the historical and georgraphic significance as well as the religiosity, culture and philosophy of Byzantium to even someone as confused and unknowledgable as I was, without shirking from serious scholarship. I feel a much greater appreciation for the period and the culture having read the bo ...more
Jul 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-global
If ever there was a good case against our calling something obscure and labyrinthine 'byzantine' then this is it. Herrin claims in her introduction that part of the incentive to write this was a discussion in her with two builders who wondered why academics never write for them (like her, I'm a little hurt by the suggestion but recognise the point): she has succeeded – this is a fantastic insight into a huge state based in medieval Constantinople. For anyone who visits south-east or central Euro ...more
Oct 20, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is an excellent history of Byzantium. Instead of focussing on dates, reigns and important events, Herrin uses a more thematic approach to the epic history of the Byzantine empire. She looks at various aspects of Byzantine culture including religion, education, government and the influences that Byzantium had on other cultures. If you are interested in finding out why the Byzantine empire is important this is a great book to read.
Oct 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting introductory account of the incredibly complicated history of the Byzantine Empire. This book is well-written and clear. The author succeeds in convincing me that today's western world owes a great deal to Byzantium which was the continuation of the Roman Empire. Her book also demonstrates how enmeshed the Byzantine Empire was with much of the rest of the continents of Asia and Europe; globalism is nothing new!
Lauren Albert
Oct 04, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-world
I didn't find this quite as lucid as other reviewers have said, but it was an interesting read and the short chapters are digestible (so to speak). Herrin does convey the tensions between East and West and how they sometimes related to Islam--for instance, there was a feeling of betrayal on the part of the West regarding Byzantium's willingness to treat with Muslim countries.
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great, detailed and easy to read. (except few chapters)
Its mostly about the cultural side of Byzantium, but there's also parts speaking about various wars, military leaders and other importan stuff such is religion to which the big part is also devoted.
After reading Lost to the West as a sort of introduction, this book provided a lot more knowledge on the Byzantine administration, religion and culture in general.
Author defends the theory how Byzantium was a Bulwark shielding the west from variou
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Judith Herrin studied history at the Universities of Cambridge and Birmingham, receiving her doctorate from the latter; she has also worked in Athens, Paris and Munich, and held the post of Stanley J. Seeger Professor in Byzantine History, Princeton University before taking up her appointment as the second Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's. Upon her retirement in 2008 she b ...more
“In this sense, Byzantine culture embodies the French historian Fernand Braudel's notion of the longue durée, the long term: that which survives the vicissitudes of changing governments, newfangled fashions or technological improvements, an ongoing inheritance that can both imprison and inspire.” 2 likes
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