Friday, July 22, 2022

Review: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book because of Herrin's Ravenna book which I read in the spring. She is a gifted historian, but I already knew that because of some of her earlier scholarly works which I've read over the years. This is an excellent survey of the important elements of Byzantine history.

The structure is, like the Ravenna book, a bit episodic, in the sense that Dr. Herrin doesn't focus on a connected narrative, but in giving a sense of the times. That is a common approach I'm finding in more popular history books, especially for the Middle Ages. The aim here is to convince the reader that there is something intrinsically valuable about Byzantine history, which has been obscured over the centuries. For that, that's preaching to the choir, but I've been interested in the Byzantines for three or four decades, so that goes without saying. There is the standard defensiveness about the Renaissance and Enlightenment dismissal of the Middle Ages (the term itself is dismissive) as superstitious and of limited historical value, which being a Byzantinist only increases because of the Orientalist dismissal on top of the standard medievalist dismissal. Herrin is making a case that we need to pay attention to Byzantium.

This is a good survey of the important aspects of the Byzantine Empire and its legacy to the West. I do wonder sometimes how long we have to keep measure ourselves against the theoretical ideal of the West and fitting into its development. But that is probably the subject of another book.

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