Byzantium for Dummies

Review of Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008)

In the introduction to Byzantium, Herrin relates a story of two builders coming to her office after passing it daily to ask her what exactly Byzantium was or is. The ensuing conversation, and her realization that most people have little--if any--knowledge of Byzantium, inspired her to write this general history.

Byzantium holds an interesting place in history, as the continuation of the Roman Empire from the reign of Constantine, who moved the capital to Constantinople, the heart of Byzantium, but also as a Greek speaking and heavily Greek influenced culture. It was in constant dialogue with Western Europe, but ruled over the eastern half of the Mediterranean, at varying times, from Greece to Egypt and extending over Persia. Eventually, it fell to the Ottoman Empire. Byzantium fulfills some of our ideas about the Medieval period, with political and religious influence closely tied together, a huge court and bureaucracy lorded over by a hereditary monarch, but also draws on an ancient and pagan identity. Thus 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.

Herrin should be applauded for this goal alone, for trying to bring something so broad as Byzantium into a general forum, and for her desire to write a political, cultural, religious, and economic history spanning a thousand years in a volume that will not intimidate a reader with its size or style.

In fact, as a non-specialist, I can fully attest to her success in making her book appear friendly and imminently readable. And it is very readable. I found myself flying through the pages, feeling very accomplished as I finished each short chapter. This division also helps in another way; namely that by dividing up the book into small cohesive units, one doesn't need to read the book in order, or all at one time. Herrin repeats pertinent contextual information in the smaller chapters to allow for ease of understanding, and then also cross references other chapters of interest.

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 sets about her goal by dividing her history into four large sections (Foundations of Byzantium, The Transition from Ancient to Medieval, Byzantium Becomes a Medieval State, and Varieties of Byzantium) and then into shorter chapters with a more narrow focus. The best bits in the opening quarter are where she reminisces about her own burgeoning interest in Byzantium and describes her first forays into the material world of Byzantium, like her description of the "thrill of arriving at Byzanitum by sea" and how "this is a strangely exciting moment. It was how I first causght sight of it when I was a student and the experience remains." (50) These descriptions breathe life into what otherwise can feel like a hurried survey lecture.

Herrin's greatest weakness in the first section on the foundations of Byzantium is her desire to quickly set the stage for the play about to follow, but the superficiality makes the context feel a bit stilted, and, to continue the theater metaphor, her staging appears to be one of those modern ones where police tape marks Juliet's balcony, and the reader is expected to be able to flesh out her minimalism on their own. The catch, of course, being that the whole point of her book is to address those who do not know enough about Byzantium to extrapolate a complete immersion from a spare description. But perhaps that is my own desire to grasp at her experience, which appears so moving, in comparison to the rushed sketch of the imperial court, relationship with Old Rome, rise of Christianity, and legal context.

However, once Herrin leaves the background narrative, she seems more at home jumping from topic to topic, discussing eunuchs and empresses, monks and money. The second and third sections pick up speed, and I found myself quite engrossed in several of the chapters on art (an obvious favorite topic of Herrin's) and the controversy surrounding the role of icons in Byzantium. When Herrin focuses on storytelling, she is quite engrossing, but there are still name-heavy political narratives that drag a bit. The third section, which is the longest, is really the star of this show. Every single one of these chapters is interesting, and it's a pity some readers will never make it this far into the book to appreciate Herrin's vivid descriptions of Byzantine royalty and warfare. She uses primary sources well and in an accessible way, placing original voices in a well-developed context.

Whereas the first section was markedly different from what followed, the second and third parts are fairly similar, and the fourth and last section focuses on the alienation of Byzantium from both Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades. Herrin's passion for her subject matter comes to the fore in this section, because she sees this period as one that profoundly shapes Western views of Byzantium incorrectly, and seeks to even the score. This makes for an interesting summary of interactions between the Turks, Christian Europe, and Orthodox Byzantium. Her desire to change the way the general public perceives and thinks about Byzantium does not come across as overly revisionist, or even really radical.

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 it's own culture. She excels at this, as noted above, in her descriptions and joy in Byzantine achievement, but this celebration of Byzantium is weighed down by political narrative, a tedious opening, and unfortunately closes on a low note as well. While the Conclusion does much to tie up loose ends, it also inexplicably includes a number of pages relating to Pope Benedict XVI's use of Byzantium as a foil for some hitherto unknown and unexplained grievance.

Overall, I found the topical chapters to be interesting, readable, and enjoyable, but some judicious editing would not have been amiss.