Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

Product description (shortened version from Goodreads):

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 for us today.

Herrin focuses each short chapter around a representative theme, event, monument, or historical figure, and examines it within the full sweep of Byzantine history–from the foundation of Constantinople, the magnificent capital city built by Constantine the Great, to its capture by the Ottoman Turks.

My impressions:

Judith Herrin is a British archaeologist and academic of Late Antiquity – Professor Emerita of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London. Sounds very grand and serious right? Still surprise, surprise: she managed to write a very readable book concerning a topic most of people would call ‘dry’ and ‘scholarly’. How did I find her book ? An excellent question of its own.

Some time ago I met, chatted with and then followed a guy on Twitter. He claimed Byzantine history and culture was his hobby – pretty cool you have to admit. Still I was perplexed why he had chosen that period and a long-dead empire; not that he was a Greek or a Turk or, heavens forbid, a Roman (that would mean he’s been long dead but stranger things happen on Twitter ;p). To be honest I had known and befriended male history buffs before but none of them loved Byzantium; usually the Roman Empire, the IIWW or the Middle Ages were the most popular options. When I visited that guy’s blog (he writes using a nickname Alexios Komnenos, imagine that!) I saw the book of Judith Herrin mentioned time and again  – allegedly it sparked off his interest in Byzantium. Intrigued, I decided to read it as well in order to understand the whole mystery a tad better.

I grant it: Ms. Herrin did her utmost to present her area of expertise in such a way so it might be interesting to the widest possible audience. She herself admits that the whole idea came to her after two construction workers had asked her what being a byzantinist meant. To her eternal merit she didn’t write off such a question as an obvious indication of the lack of knowledge and/or education of those two men; I could almost see a lesser woman shouting ‘apes! barbarians! troglodytes!’ and throwing a hissy fit. Ms. Herrin, on the other hand, tried to answer their question and to make the answer understandable. She was rewarded with a splendid book idea. If only more scientists followed such an approach there would be far more students and, overall, educated people.

Byzantium reflects that attitude pretty well. Chapters, sometimes very short, discuss matters both great and small – from everyday life of the Byzantines (who called themselves Romans even if they used the Greek equivalent of that word), their beliefs and entertainment, to the influence of their culture on the entire civilized world. I was especially impressed by the author’s explanation of  that odd Byzantine (and Russian) phenomenon, the woman in power. Why is it that Orthodoxy, such a masculine creed (the monks of Mount Athos would not even allow hens into their vast monastery because hens are females), was able to produce so many feeble male rulers and so many competent female ones? If you ever wondered about it you find the answer in this book.

Any drawbacks? Even if I loved the spirit that position was written in, unfortunately I also managed to find several factual mistakes – it seems the editor, bowled over by the vast knowledge of Ms. Herrin concerning the Byzantine era, which is truly impressive, didn’t think about checking anything else. Well, it is known you cannot be an expert on the entire history.

My first question: does the author really believe that St Peter was crucified in Rome upside down? She presented it in her book as an undisputable fact whereas most scholars say it’s only Christian tradition which started in the 2nd century. There is not a single piece of reliable literary evidence (and no archaeological evidence either) that Peter ever was in Rome. That tale was spread because bishops of Rome wanted to be perceived as St. Peter’s direct successors and, as such, overlords of the whole Christian church. Notably when Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans about AD 57, he greets some fifty people in Rome by name but not Peter whom he knew personally and who would be occupying a major position within the Christian congregation. There is also no mention of Peter in Rome later during Paul’s two-year stay there in Acts 28 either (but I won’t continue that thread, if you are interested Google is your friend).

What’s more? At one point the author wrote:“In the late third century, Emperor Septimius Severus had strengthened its walls (meaning the city of Byzantium), which were always a weak point, and added new monuments. Septimius Severus made improvements to the city at the end of the third century.”

Well, actually even the Wikipedia states that Septimius Severus died in 211 AD…well, maybe his ghost ordered those improvements, who knows…

Another mistake I noticed at the very beginning (page 13 or 14 I suppose):  “the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed in 476, leaving a half-Vandal, half-Roman general, Stilicho, in control of Italy”.

The last Roman Emperor, young Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the “general” Flavius Odoacer. According to some historians (after Anonymous Valesianus) Odoacer ‘took pity on his youth and beauty’ and spared Romulus’s life even if he killed his ambitious father, Orestes. Odoacer was most likely of Scirian descent (an East Germanic tribe). Flavius Stilicho on the other hand was one of the most famous (and controversial) high-ranking Roman generals of late antiquity, who held a virtual regency for the underage emperor Honorius almost a century earlier. Edward Gibbon called him ‘the last of the Roman generals’ but not everybody shares such a positive opinion of him.

Final verdict:

A great historical essay which is a breeze to read – a rare bird indeed! Recommended even if you are not a history buff but don’t take all the facts too literally.

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13 Responses to Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

  1. Excellent review. :).
    Admittedly, I’ve always read over the mistakes you’ve correctly pointed out. I knew they were there, but I always just assumed they were left there to keep the narrative flowing (Much like Tom Holland admits to keeping the gossip in Dynasty, to help the story flow). *shrug*

    • I am a bit of a Nazi when it comes to historical accuracy so if I spot some mistake I never hesitate to say so. The story would be flowing even without that strange St. Peter statement.

  2. Pingback: Review- Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin | Illuminite Caliginosus

  3. Illuminite Caliginosus says:

    Interesting, thought provoking review. I kinda felt like those two construction workers at first. Reblogged on Illuminite Caliginosus.

  4. Carole Rae says:

    Good review! hehehehe using Wikipedia is not the most reliable source. 😉 People of any knowledge-base is allowed to request to edit it.

    But yes, it is hard to know every single thing about a point in time in history. I’m pretty knowledgeable about a few and I still learn something knew all the time!

    • The edits of Wikipedia entries are still supervised but yeah, generally I would be very careful with them. History is indeed a vast area of knowledge.

  5. heidenkind says:

    I think the best scholarly investigations come from what their colleagues might consider “stupid” questions – for example, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? I will have to put this on my tbr since I can always learn more about Byzantium!

    • The fact is that there are no stupid questions. Ok I can make an exception to that rule: I really hate it when somebody is talking like a machine and then, after several seconds, asks ‘what did I say?’ but otherwise the so-called stupid questions are those you cannot or don’t want to answer.

  6. Melfka says:

    Ha, it seems a great book to get to know Byzantium a bit. I know what it is (no surprises there, I guess, anyone who paid any attention in a Polish high school would), but my knowledge ends quite quickly. Good to know there is a good non-fiction book about the topic that doesn’t expect the reader to have the academic knowledge before reading.

    • The biggest asset of that one is its approach. There are no much-hated lists of dates and battles. There is no dry information turning real people living in the past into immobile stone monuments. It is clear for the author the Byzantines have always been friends, not objects.

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