Steven Peterson's Reviews > Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium by Judith Herrin
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's review
Jun 18, 2009

it was amazing

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 have existed had it not been shielded and inspired what happened further to the east in Byzantium."

Byzantium originated as the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, while Rome still stood as the center of the Western Empire. Over time, the Western Empire declined and fell. The book considers the evolution and development of Byzantium and the Eastern Empire from its start as a Roman bastion in the fourth century (under the Emperor Constantine, after whom the city Constantinople was named) to its final fall in 1453.

There is much material covered in this volume. It is not organized along a strictly chronological template, although there is some temporal ordering--from its foundations to the medieval era to its final demise. However, in each of these sections, there is coverage of a variety of aspects of the Eastern realm. The Foundations portion considers Greek Orthodoxy, the great churches, such as Hagia Sophia, continuing links with Rome and, after its fall, Italy, and Roman Law.

As we move toward the Medieval era, the author, Judith Herrin, points out the key role of Byzantium in protecting Europe from Islam, by standing as a bastion between Islam and Europe. Also considered is the art and religious artifacts (such as icons) of the Empire. Greek fire, a key part of Byzantium's defenses, is discussed, as are other factors such as the economy, politics, sometime internal instability as intrigues sometimes led to the replacement of one emperor by another.

Finally, the inevitable fall, as Byzantium became more and more compressed, surrounded by a new force--Turks. Finally, in 1453, the Turks with their heavy cannon, breached the walls of Byzantium and its existence as an independent state ended.

There is, of course, so much more detail. The book is solidly written by Herrin (the words don't flow magically, but the language is accessible to most people). Her appraisal of the major role of Byzantium in western history goes into much greater depth than what I am able to mention. Each reader will have to determine how convincing her arguments are, as she strove the answer the two workers.
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