M. D. Hudson's Reviews > Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium by Judith Herrin
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Dec 12, 2016

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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 replaced by demotic Greek on the streets. Again and again, as if it might turn up on the test. Years of teaching undergraduates has apparently made Professor Herrin despair of anybody learning anything without beating it into their skull.

Another problem is an utter inability to develop anything approaching drama or even a coherent story. Part of the problem with this might be the book's organization, which rather than following events chronologically, takes on different aspects of Byzantine life: Greek Orthodoxy, the Hagia Sophia, the Court, etc. This approach is fine, but nothing really hangs together, and each individual chapter is more dutiful than exciting. Lost opportunities abound. Let me give an example. In the chapter "Imperial Children, 'Born in the Purple'" we are told about the purple palace room in Constantinople where heirs to the throne were born. It was purple because of its purple stone (porphyry) and purple textiles (from the murex shellfish). I know about porphyry and the murex because these things are repeated a gazillion times. Anyway, the born in the purple chapter dutifully gives examples, including this one, buried in the fourth paragraph:

"The porphyra was also used for other purposes, for instance when Empress Irene ordered the blinding of her son Constantine VI in the chamber in which he had been born." (p. 186)

Now that's interesting! But that's all the information we really get. A chapter on political mutilation would be helpful (see the Wikipedia article), since in Constantinople mutilation was considered less offensive to God since He said "thou shalt not kill" but He never said anything against cutting off noses or poking out eyes.

Herrin also seems a bit supercilious about ancient economics. I am just learning about Byzantine history, but I am kind of obsessed with ancient currency at the moment and here she is on devaluation:

"While we can now appreciate the dangers of devaluation, it is difficult to assess how Byzantine emperors understood and controlled the overall economics of their state. They probably could not gauge the long-term effects of reducing the gold content." (p. 223)

I find this somewhat amusing when modern people scoff and ancient people and their currency devaluation. The gold content of a solidus went down to 10%! What a scandal! And yet 10% gold is still gold. So yet ask yourself, as the TV commercial urges: "what's in your wallet?" Scraps of papers and rectangles of plastic with magnetic strips glued to them. We've only been off the gold standard since 1971 (sort of) and I don't think any government or bourse or Wall Street really understands or controls "the overall economics of their state" and we sure as heck don't "appreciate the dangers of devaluation" as we are now, historically speaking, as utterly devalued as it is possible to be.

Anyway, Herrin gets an A for effort and attitude, but the book is too often a bore despite its fascinating material and its author's expertise.
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Reading Progress

January 1, 2014 – Started Reading
January 1, 2014 – Finished Reading
December 12, 2016 – Shelved

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