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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire [Kindle Edition]

Judith Herrin
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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 iti'1/2s own culture. She excels at this... -- 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 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


For a thousand years an extraordinary empire made possible Europe's transition to the modern world: Byzantium. An audacious and resilient but now little known society, it combined orthodox Christianity with paganism, classical Greek learning with Roman power, to produce a great and creative civilization which for centuries held in check the armies of Islam.

Judith Herrin's concise and compelling book replaces the standard chronological approach of most histories of Byzantium. Instead, each short chapter is focused on a theme, such as a building (the great church of Hagia Sophia), a clash over religion (iconoclasm), sex and power (the role of eunuchs), an outstanding Byzantine individual (the historian Anna Komnene), a symbol of civilization (the fork), a battle for territory (the crusades). In this way she makes accessible and understandable the grand sweeps of Byzantine history, from the founding of its magnificent capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330, to its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 22973 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 390 Seiten
  • ISBN-Quelle für Seitenzahl: 0713999977
  • Verlag: Penguin (3. April 2008)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ASIN: B002RI9IV0
  • Text-to-Speech (Vorlesemodus): Aktiviert
  • X-Ray:
  • Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: 4.0 von 5 Sternen  Alle Rezensionen anzeigen (1 Kundenrezension)
  • Amazon Bestseller-Rang: #133.149 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop (Siehe Top 100 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop)

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4.0 von 5 Sternen A must to understand European history! 17. August 2014
Von Gaby
Format:Kindle Edition|Verifizierter Kauf
Whereas many of us have heard about the basic facts during schooltime, little did I know about what caused and what resulted from it. Though this books deals with historical facts, it includes many anectodes and thus makes easy reading. Highly interesting!
War diese Rezension für Sie hilfreich?
Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.1 von 5 Sternen  37 Rezensionen
73 von 75 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Von Hillpaul - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
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.
49 von 56 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen A readable history of Byzantium 6. April 2008
Von Steven A. Peterson - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
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. 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.

Some nice features: a list of many of the emperors and the dates of their rule (pages 354-356), a chronology of major events (pages 357-361), and fairly well drawn maps (pages 363-373).

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.
72 von 86 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Old-fashioned, clunky, with dismaying lapses 30. August 2008
Von Mike Daplyn - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
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. Such an error (about events in Herrin's own specialist period) would expose her to professional sniggering if committed in a peer-reviewed scholarly work. I submit that when writing for the general reader the duty of scrupulous accuracy lies, if possible, even heavier.
20 von 23 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Not a traditional history of the Byzantine Empire - it's a series of essays on different aspects of the Byzantine Empire 30. März 2008
Von Michael Smith - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
This not a history of the Byzantine Empire - rather it's a series of essays on different aspects of the Byzantine Empire with an overriding defensive attitude about the derogatory way the empire has been portrayed throughout history. The idea, apparently, is to try to present the important facets or characteristics of the empire in such a way that perhaps people who would not be interested in a straight history of the subject might be challenged to read about it, and change the attitude, which still prevails to a large extent, that there wasn't much to admire or even be interested in about the late Roman Empire which was ruled from Constantinople from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Basically, it's a highbrow Complete Idiot's Guide to the Byzantine Empire.
That having been said, I like the strategy and I like the book. By skipping the chronological history of the empire (which at 1100 years takes a while to tell and buries anything really interesting) it picks and chooses aspects of the history, telling you why the empire was important. Whether it was Hagia Sophia, or iconoclasm, or eunuchs, or the siege of 1453, the two dozen or so things that are important are highlighted and given a chance to breathe.
My favorite (largely I think because of the music) history of Byzantium is still John Romer's TV series from about 1998, but this book adds quite a bit to it by providing if less poetic, more persuasive analysis of many issues.
For example, I never really understood before what the driving force behind iconoclasm was - Romer makes it seem just another random bizarre theological dispute - something the Byzantines were always prone to. Its advocates' motives are never really explained, and it's presented largely as the sort of tyrannical invasion on freedom of worship that we can be expected to abhore. Herrin, however, explains that it arose when the empire was sustaining repeated military defeats, and since God obviously would not allow his chosen to be defeated, there had to be some reason behind it - something the Byzantines were doing that they were being punished by God for. The emperor eventually decided that it had to be divine displeasure with the common practice of venerating or "worshiping" idols, which did admittedly have strong roots in pagan practice. From their perspective, iconoclasm made perfect sense as an attempt to get back into God's good graces. Far from a tyrannical whim, it was, from their perspective a responsible, and even a courageous act.
All in all, a good book, and a good addition to my growing library on Byzantium.
11 von 13 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen A Good Survey of the Subject 4. August 2008
Von Diego Banducci - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
Because the Byzantine Empire lasted 1,129 years (from Constantine's founding of Constantinople in 324 AD to Sultan Mehmet II's capture of the city in 1453), the historian writing about the empire faces a daunting task. Write about it in the traditional chronological manner, and space limitations will force a laundry list approach with little meaningful content.

What Judith Herrin (a professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College, London) has elected to do instead is to break the subject down into 28 topics under 4 general subject headings and then deal with each topic chronologically:

1. The City of Constantine
2. Constantinople, the Largest City in Christendom
3. The East Roman Empire
4. Greek Orthodoxy
5. The Church of Hagia Sophia
6. The Ravenna Mosaics
7. Roman Law

8. The Bulwark Against Islam
9. Icons, a New Christian Art Form
10. Iconclasm and Icon Veneration
11. A Literate and Articulate Society
12. Saints Cyril and Methodios, `Apostles to the Slavs'

13. Greek Fire
14. The Byzantine Economy
15. Eunuchs
16. The Imperial Court
17. Imperial Children, `Born in the Purple'
18. Mount Athos
19. Venice and the Fork
20. Basil II, `The Bulgar-Slayer'
21. Eleventh Century Crisis
22. Anna Komene
23. A Cosmopolitan Society

24. The Fulcrum of the Crusades
25. The Towers of Trebizond, Arta, Nicaea and Thessalonike
26. Rebels and Patrons
27. `Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara'
28. The Siege of 1453
Conclusion: The Greatness and Legacy of Byzantium

The core of the book consists of 333 pages, which means that each topic is limited to an average of 12 pages. As a result, the writing is information-dense, slowing the reader's progress. Additionally, the author's writing style is academic (i.e., somewhat tedious), although the shortness of the chapters makes reading the book manageable.

There are 41 photographs of varying quality, many in black and white. They appear to have been chosen haphazardly. NOTE: A good source of high quality reproductions of Eastern Orthodox religious icons is Holy Image, Hallowed Ground (Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum).

As the above discussion suggests, this is a book that will primarily interest an academic reader. Those interested in a more comfortable approach may wish to consider Kenneth Harl's excellent course for the Teaching Company
Great Courses World of Byzantium Parts 1 and 2 (365 and 366) (Teaching Company)

UPDATE [04-06-2011]: Ms. Herrin wrote an essay, "The Glories of Byzantium," which appeared in the Saturday/Sunday March 12-13, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal, in which she recommended some recent books on Byzantium:

1. Re the military reasons for Byzantium's long survival, Warfare, State And Society In The Byzantine World 565-1204 (Warfare and History)

2. Same, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

3. Re Byzantium's historical significance, Empires and Barbarians and After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405

4. Re the end of the Empire: The End of Byzantium

She pays the traditional academic obeisance to Sir Steven Runciman's books, describing them as "well-researched and elegantly phrased books." Well researched, definitely. But elegantly phrased? I think not; they suffer from the same stylistic problems that plague the work of Ms. Herrin and other academics.

Somewhat surprisingly, or perhaps not so since he is a competitor, she fails to mention John Julius Norwich's eminently readable three volume history Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Byzantium (II): The Apogee, and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. For those not up to that amount of reading, there is a shorter version "A Short History of Byzantium." Both the research and the writing are superb.

An upscale cruise line, Voyages to Antiquity, retained Norwich to provide historical background for its catalogs and to lead a trip or two a year. The catalogs are masterpieces in and of themselves.
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the five pillars of Islam (the confession of faith, daily prayer, pilgrimage, fasting in the month of Ramadan and giving alms), &quote;
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The iconoclast battles also draw attention to a fascinating contrast between male support for iconoclasm and female opposition, embodied &quote;
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method of calculating the date of Easter (to be celebrated on the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox). &quote;
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