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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire Paperback – September 28, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0691143699 ISBN-10: 0691143692 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691143692
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691143699
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #363,368 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Offering a brilliant study of the history of the Byzantine empire, Herrin—whose groundbreaking The Formation of Christendom challenged traditional views on the development of Christianity—draws a similarly original portrait of a tradition-based yet dynamic empire that protected Christianity by checking the westward expansion of Islam. Herrin progresses in lively fashion, chronicling the 1,000-year history of Byzantium from its rise in A.D. 306 to its demise at the hands of the Ottomans. Along the way, Herrin, a professor at King's College, London, introduces an astonishing cast of characters, such as the empire's first leader, Constantine I; religious leaders such as Patriarch Photios; and Anna Komnene, the great 12th-century historian whose Odyssey-like epic, the Alexiad, celebrated the 37-year reign of her father, Alexios I. Drawing on letters, journals and other primary documents from both political figures and ordinary citizens, Herrin splendidly recreates an empire whose religious art, educational curriculum, tax and legal systems, and coronation rituals preserved the best of the empire's pre-Christian Greek past while at the same time passing along advances to the rest of the world. Herrin's history is hands-down the finest introduction to Byzantium and its continuing significance for world history. 8 color illus.; 16 b&w illus.; maps. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"The scope and shape of Herrin's survey of Byzantine history and culture are impressive. She moves from the foundation of Constantinople to its fall before the Turks in a series of twenty-eight short chapters. This allows the curious or impatient reader to sample, according to taste, such delectable topics as Greek fire, eunuchs, icons, and the Towers of Trebizond . . . "--G.W. Bowersock, New York Review of Books

"Offering a brilliant study of the history of the Byzantine empire, Herrin...draws [an] original portrait of a tradition-based yet dynamic empire that protected Christianity by checking the westward expansion of Islam. Drawing on letters, journals and other primary documents from both political figures and ordinary citizens, Herrin splendidly recreates an empire whose religious art, educational curriculum, tax and legal systems, and coronation rituals preserved the best of the empire's pre-Christian Greek past while at the same time passing along advances to the rest of the world. Herrin's history is hands-down the finest introduction to Byzantium and its continuing significance for world history."--Publishers Weekly

"The book is comprehensive, but the paragraphs are never dense and the prose retains throughout a lively quality."--J.W. Nesbitt, Choice

"The big, standard histories contain a wearying succession of emperors, patriarchs, battles, and sieges...At the other end of the scale there are lightweight travelogues, or books that pick out the juiciest moments (such as the final siege of 1453), leaving aside many things that are more important but less conducive to a good story. Judith Herrin has tried to find a middle ground between those two extremes, and has succeeded in a rather original way. Her book is a necklace of short chapters, each on a different topic, strung out in broadly chronological order. Some are devoted to places (Ravenna, Mount Athos and, of course, Constantinople itself); some are about people (Anna Comnena, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the unforgettably named Basil the Bulgar-Slayer); and some are on general subjects, whether large (Greek Orthodoxy, the Byzantine economy, the Crusades) or small ('Greek Fire', and eunuchs)."--Noel Malcolm, The Daily Telegraph

"Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, sets out to show that there are far better reasons to study and admire the civilisation that flourished for more than a millennium before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and whose legacy is still discernible all over south-east Europe and the Levant. She presents Byzantium as a vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan reality which somehow escaped the constraints of its official ideology."--The Economist

"Others in recent years have made worthy efforts to interest us in the Byzantine achievement, but none has made it live in quite the way that Herrin does. She's been bold in foregrounding themes, concerned more with painting a panoramic picture of Byzantium's 'surprising life' than to establish a chronology--though the narrative's there to give the reader a sense of how it all progressed. Free from portentousness and pretentiousness, she doesn't insist on her subject's importance or relevance: the freshness and enthusiasm of her book is its real point. Not just an important work of scholarship but a delight to read, this study works a minor miracle in raising Byzantium, Lazarus-like, from its dusty grave."--Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

"[A] remarkable new history...Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on manifold aspects of Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion. Herrin's scholarship is impeccable, yet she writes like the very best of travel writers. 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, 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..."--M.M. Bennetts, Christian Science Monitor

"Byzantium's history is presented chronologically, which helps explain why there's no simple description of its legacy. Herrin's emphasis on the empire's proudest achievement, its culture--separate chapters are devoted to religion, economy, warfare, art and literature--is an armchair delight."--Brett Popplewell, The Toronto Star

"[Herrin] takes an innovative approach.... The scope is broad--religion, politics, art, war, gender--and the style lively and personal."--The Atlantic

"Byzantium covers a huge period of space, time, and cultural influence, which is now synthesized into bite-sized pieces in Judith Herrin's new book Byzantium. . . . As a non-specialist, I can fully attest to her success in making her book appear friendly and imminently readable. . . . The eye-catching cover is a visual clue to the treasures within this book, which explores the intrigue of the imperial Byzantine court; describes the lavish clothing, administration, food, architecture, and art of Byzantium; reveals a fascinating cast of royals and ascetics; and captures the imagination about this era of the Eastern Roman Empire down to the 15th century, when Byzantium falls to the Ottoman Empire. . . . Herrin seeks to promote the positive and creative aspects of Byzantium and show the reader a Byzantium that is more than derivative of Greek and Roman culture, but rather it¹s own culture. She excels at this. . . ."--E-History.com

"Herrin's hope is to dispel the aura of decadence that hangs over Byzantium so that we can see the empire for what it was: one of the great, creative civilizations. Herrin's account shows that, indeed, Byzantium can't be explained as a millennial slide downhill, the judgment propounded by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and often repeated since."--Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman

"Here of course lies the strong contemporary resonance of Herrin's argument. Her lively portrayal of a forgotten civilisation impacts on the revived Muslim awareness and expansion of today."--Tom Nairn, Open Democracy Blog (reprinted from Australian Journal, Arena)

"It is only as one sees Byzantium for itself, and not simply in relation to Islam or Western Europe, that one can begin to appreciate its greatness. And that is what makes Herrin's Byzantium so welcome. All the expected topics are here: the founding of Constantinople, the building of the great church of Agia Sophia, the rule of Justinian and the codification of Roman law, the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, the harsh consequences of the rise of Islam, the place of icons in Byzantine life and the iconoclastic controversy, the conversion of the Slavs and the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic tongue, Mount Athos, the outstanding historian Anna Komnene, the arrival of the Crusaders, the siege of Constantinople. But the book contains much more."--Robert Louis Wilken, First Things

"Herrin has produced an accessible, fascinating book that avoids the pitfalls of writing by scholars for scholars. She doesn't dwell on the spectacular, although Byzantium has plenty of drama, but rather provides a surprisingly deep look into a lost world. Much to the point, as well, is that modern Europe and the rest of the Western world would have been a much different place had it not been for Byzantium and its thousand-year history from the sixth century to the 15th. It's an amazing story, and well told, as Herrin traces a civilization that combined pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman and ancient and medieval influences. This is a terrific read."--Mark Horton, The Edmonton Journal

"The information here is both solid and detailed--so much so that even a specialist will frequently encounter previously unknown facts. . . . Byzantium offers a solid introduction to Byzantine history and culture, and the sheer depth of information it contains could repay multiple readings."--Richard Tada, The Weekly Standard

"In this carefully researched, clearly written, and engaging book author Herrin opens up a neglected part of western history for the general reader."--Charles L. P. Silet, Magill Book Reviews

"Judith Herrin's book provides a fine cultural backdrop to the study of Byzantine liturgy--and a good read for understanding this remarkable society on its own terms."--Frank C. Senn, Worship

"At its best, the text is skillfully written, judiciously crafted, and lively."--Florin Curta, American Historical Review

"With this work, Herrin provides an edifying, enjoyable read that will both capture the interest of the lay reader with the exciting aspects of Byzantium that she covers in each chapter and appeal to the student of Byzantine history as an interesting read and a concise look at some subjects that have been revised, and others that could use further revision."--David Mason, Digest of Middle East Studies

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Customer Reviews

This book was exceptionally easy to read, well-organized and straightforward.
john m zolidis
I find it shocking that such a mistake is to be found in a book by an excellent scholar such as Herrin.
Michael Popolino
It seemed a little unfocused to me and bounced around without much organization.
Kentucky Kurio

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Hillpaul on January 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I'll lay my cards on the table and confess to having studied Byzantine History and have continued a lifelong fascination and love of the subject. Trying to explain what drives that interest as Prof. Herrin found herself trying to do to two working men however, has always been difficult to get across to others to whom it is a blank area of knowledge.
I've nothing but praise for the way she has distilled her professional knowledge into one of the more approachable books on the subject that I have read. Not decrying other books which on the whole are written for readers with at least a basic knowledge of the subject, this by and large succeeds in casting light on what is perceived to be an esoteric subject.
The maps, illustrations and tables are an excellent aid for this primer which seeks to explain on their terms what made the Empire tick without spoon feeding you. It makes you, the reader, think.
Arranged thematically, Icons, Monasticism, Economics, Warfare, Eunuchs, the Imperial Court, relations with the West, the Slavs and the Moslems, the place of women in society, its structure covers the Empires chronology. What to the modern mind are barbarous practices such as castration and mutilation are placed in context . It looks at those puzzling practices of icon worship and explains the intent. Reaction to pressures such as the rise of Islam and relations with the West and its missionary work to the Slavs are explained together as a whole rather than in isolation in a very readable manner.
I would heartily recommend it to the general reader who wishes to know more and part of me likes to think that somewhere that those two working men are sitting somewhere over a pint imagining light glinting off golden mosaics.
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49 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Steven A. Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 (pace Gibbon). 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.
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72 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Mike Daplyn on August 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book may, as its newspaper reviews suggest, fill a need for a general reader's overview of Byzantium, but it doesn't do it very well. I doubt the "two men in hard hats", whose curiosity (Herrin says) originally motivated her to write it, would be much stimulated or enlightened by the instant descent into theology (full of Greek terms regarding the nature of God) and architecture (equally full of narthices and pendentives). Theology and architecture (especially the former) are vital for understanding Byzantine history, but the general reader (this one, at least) would be better served by insights into why they were so important to the Byzantines, rather than plunging into the technical detail. Herrin, in short, fails to stand back from from her academic framework (which I suspect is a rather old fashioned one anyway) and give us the big picture in coherent terms. The book gets better as it goes on, and from time to time one is able to get some feeling for how Byzantium operated and how its people lived, but it's a gold-panning task.

Also, given Herrin's academic eminence, I was deeply disappointed to find elementary errors of chronology and fact in the first few pages (as I've remarked in another review, it shakes the confidence when a person with a mere general reader's knowledge finds simple errors in a specialist's work). For example: "... the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed in 476, leaving a half-Vandal, half-Roman general, Stilicho, in control of Italy" (p.13). Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor in the west, was indeed deposed in 476, but by Odoacer the Goth (even that magnificently bad film `The Last Legion' managed to get that bit right). Stilicho the Vandal had been murdered by his nominal master the emperor Honorius two generations earlier, in 408.
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