Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’


There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’.

Has Judith Herrin succeeded? I think that’s up for debate. The book certainly borders on the edge of popular history. Accessibility is compromised by the complex language and a seemingly endless cast of historical figures. The latter point can be excused, however, when you consider that 1100 years of history have been tightly-packed into just over 330-pages (Penguin edition).

In favouring a thematic approach, Herrin eschews the cause-effect model that makes chronological accounts – arguably – easier to digest. The result is a fair amount of overlap between chapters, which forces the reader to re-engage with figures, often emperors, at different points in the text. Despite the above criticism, I think Herrin’s thematic focus also has its benefits; the reader is given a holistic overview of Byzantium, with short chapters on anything from Greek Orthodoxy and eunuchs, to The Crusades and the Imperial Court. As a relative newcomer to Byzantium, I learned ‘a little about a lot’, which is essentially what I was after.

The Byzantinism Stereotype

Where the book is undeniably successful is in challenging a near millennia-old prejudice against Byzantium. In contemporary Britain, ‘Byzantine’ is an adjective associated with excessive bureaucracy and backstabbing behaviour.

Herrin picks out the sacking of Constantinople (1204), during the Fourth Crusade, as a pivotal moment in the development of Western anti-Byzantine sentiment. An attitude that was entrenched by French Enlightenment philosophers:

“Yet the modern stereotype of Byzantium is tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Montesquieu developed these caricatures during the seventeenth century as he tried to explain the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire, and Voltaire gave them greater prominence, adding his own passionate elevation of reason above religion. While the former dismissed ‘the Greek Empire’, as he called it, because of the excessive power of monks, attention to theological dispute and an absence of the recommended separation of ecclesiastical from secular matters, the latter could condemn it utterly as ‘a disgrace for the human mind”. 

In contrast to these views, Herrin shows Byzantium to be a well-oiled and efficient empire, with a centralised system of imperial government in Constantinople. And although high-ranking bishops held political sway and Greek Orthodoxy was ingrained into everyday life, pagan institutions and beliefs also shaped Byzantine identity; the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman, with Constantinople thought of as ‘New Rome’. Byzantine legislation was effectively a continuation of the Roman legal code. And the education system was structured around studying Ancient Greek authors like Plato, Aristotle and Homer.

Europe’s Bulwark

Although the size of the empire shifted over time, enemy forces were a near-constant threat, particularly in Eastern Europe and further West, on the outskirts of Asia Minor. Yet, time-and-time again Byzantium managed to survive incursions and refortify frontiers. Far from ‘cowardly’ or ‘effeminate’, the Byzantines were an effective military force, inheriting their prowess from the Roman army. Mercenaries from across Eurasia – including Vikings and Frankish warriors – strengthened their cause. 

Byzantium’s most telling military contribution was in shielding Western Europe from the expanding Caliphate in the 7thand 8thcenturies. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, the unified tribes of Arabia set about claiming new lands in the name of jihad. They conquered a staggering amount of land, superseding the Sassanid Empire, and taking much of Northern Africa and Spain. 

Yet Byzantium stood firm, checking the marauder’s advance in Asia Minor. Constantinople, with its long and impregnable defensive fortifications, survived two extended sieges (674-8 and 717-18) by the Arabs. Had the gate-keeper of the Dardanelles been breached, the Balkans would quickly have come under Islamic control. 

“By preventing this potential conquest, Byzantium made Europe possible. It allowed western Christian forces, which were divided into smaller units, time to develop their own strengths. One hundred years after the death of prophet Muhammad in 632, Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders from Spain in central France near Poitiers and forced them back over the Pyrenees. The nascent idea of Europe gradually took on a particular form under Charles’ grandson…Charlemagne”. 


I’ve barely touched on it in this post, but theology and theological debate also defined Byzantium over the course of its history. From the Iconoclast Controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries to the eventual Triumph of Orthodoxy and the East-West Schism of 1054. I found Herrin’s commentary on the early development of Eastern Christianity particularly interesting.

To summarise, Byzantium is an impassioned and subjective defence of the once-great empire. Light on narrative, it tackles overarching themes – religion, governance, war – and dispels a host of historical misconceptions.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Karen Maitland, ‘Company of Liars’ Review

I think it’s best to start with the parts of Company of Liars – Karen Maitland’s ‘novel of the plague’ – that I enjoyed. Set in England in 1348, it follows nine uneasy and incompatible strangers who band together and travel northwards in a desperate bid to outrace the Black Death. The novel plods along without any real pace, but the reader is treated to some evocative period settings along the way, including an unfinished chantry chapel, a Hermit’s island in the Fens and a Shepherd’s hut.

Hellbent on avoiding infected villages, the characters stick to the road and are almost constantly on the move. As such, the plague is more of a peripheral presence – none of the party are infected – and its effects are best highlighted by empty homes ominously decorated with black crosses. More pressing is the need to find food, shelter and suitable passage (poor weather has decimated crops, burst river banks and offset the mental health-related benefits of camping outside). Doom and gloom are everywhere, and the stark realities of medieval travel, particularly in the colder months, are captured well.

Blurring the boundary between the real and supernatural is a common trope in fiction set in the Middle Ages. This stems, in part, from the medieval world-view – belief in ghosts, angels, devils etc. Throughout Company of Liars events that at first seem ‘magical’ are, in time, shown to be quite the opposite. Rational thought and reason repeatedly triumph over mysticism. That is, until the final 50-pages. During the novel, the group are followed on their travels by a lone wolf who howls every few nights. It transpires that one of the party – Zophiel – used to be a priest in Lincoln, but after being accused of a grave transgression he is forced to flee, and steals holy relics from the church in retaliation. He claims the wolf is actually a ‘bishop’s wolf’ – a kind of hitman who has been sent to carefully recapture the stolen goods and murder him at the bishop’s command. Yet in the closing chapters *spoiler* we find out that Narigorm – a youthful, although sinister girl, who interprets runes – is responsible for conjuring the noises. The sudden occultist revelation feels forced and upsets the novel’s entire ideological framework. Rather than shock, it actually confuses the reader.

Aside from characters spouting painfully anachronistic views, clunky writing and a repetitive middle section, the narrator, a relic-seller named Camelot, encourages little sympathy. Published in 2008, I can’t help thinking this is the kind of entry-level medieval escapism that would have sold well in the wake of the Global Recession. And despite my criticism, something impelled me to plough on for 550-pages and reach the rather odd conclusion. Perhaps I was inspired by the stoic efforts of the characters.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.


Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde, ‘Cricket 2.0’ Review


Cricket 2.0 is a book that’s got the cricket community talking in the last year. Wisden, the sport’s bible-like handbook, awarded it their book of the year in 2020, and it also scooped up prizes from The Telegraph and The Cricketer. It’s been on my list for a few months, so I was excited to receive it for Christmas. 

Front cover of the book Cricket 2.0

Although I’m clearly generalising, cricket writing as a genre is somewhat repetitive and inelastic. What little cricket literature that makes it into major high-street booksellers often falls into a few rigid categories; former and current players releasing heavily ghost-written autobiographies is one, commentaries on iconic Test tours is another. Sentimental memoirs by authors with a conservative outlook on the game – ‘purists’ – also spring to mind. 

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde – two youthful, enthusiastic cricket writers – tear up the rulebook in Cricket 2.0, bringing fresh impetus to the genre. Their analytical and holistic approach to cricket’s newest format – T20 – is highly absorbing, relying less on elaborate narrative and more calculated study. Another reason why the text has such a ‘revolutionary’ feel is that, as the co-authors point out, barely any literature exists on the subject of T20.  

The book contains 16 essays (‘Survival of the Fittest’ and ‘Up is Down’ are memorable standouts) that act both as individual units and part of a larger, cohesive whole. As such, at times they do overlap, and there are a few instances of repetition (the editing is suspect). There’s also a prologue and an epilogue which makes 31 predictions for the future of T20. The prospect of a T20 World Cup being played in the US during the 2020s, cricket in the Olympics and ‘super-fast’ bowlers are some of the more interesting forecasts. 

As specified in the prologue, the book is designed with both the hardcore fan and curious beginner in mind. The writing is digestible and unfussy – on occasion, simplistic to the point where the cricket connoisseur might become impatient. Yet, these instances of the co-authors tending to beginners are offset altogether by passages of rare insight. 

Data, data, data

Interest in sports data and the work of analysts is a relatively recent phenomenon in cricket. This stands in contrast to traditional American sports – baseball, basketball and American Football – where a data-driven approach is viewed as the best way to understand and appreciate each sport. Sure, cricket has always been concerned with averages and strike rates, but until recently few had delved deeper into the illuminating world of data. Wigmore and Wilde are firm converts when it comes to the power of analytics – and it is an analytical approach that defines their work. 

Take the chapter ‘Spin Kings’, which makes a convincing case for there being three separate eras of spin bowling within the 18-years of professional T20. The first era (2003-07) was led by wily finger spinners who generally bowled slow and stump-to-stump, forcing batsmen to generate all the power when facing their deliveries. Throwback County Cricket names like Gareth Breese and Jeremy Snape are quintessential examples. The game’s evolution has led to the dominance of mystery spinners – who generally bowl flatter and quicker, with a repertoire of deliveries in their locker – in the current era. Not only that, but the role of spinners has been redefined over time. They bowled 6% of deliveries in the Powerplay during 2006 and 25% in 2018, a process instigated by mavericks like the West Indian leg-spinner, Samuel Badree. 

‘Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose’ is another engaging case study on two Indian Premier League (IPL) teams with contrasting fortunes. Using data, the co-authors highlight that Chennai has exploited their home advantage (by stacking their line-up with spinners on receptive pitches), given players specific roles and mastered the art of the IPL auction. All of which has contributed to their success. In contrast, RCB is prone to changes in their line-up and approach the auction poorly, splurging on elite overseas batsman and neglecting the acquisition of star bowlers (that great bowlers not batsmen, on balance, win more T20 Games is one of the book’s proverbial truths). 

The IPL’s Enduring Influence

Although T20 is Cricket 2.0’s overriding focus, the IPL is the leading sub-theme. The co-authors do an excellent job of explaining how India’s domestic, franchise competition has shaken-up cricket’s power dynamics. And it all boils down to a matter of economics. 

The launch of the IPL in 2008 saw broadcasters bid enormous sums – the likes of which cricket has never seen before – for broadcasting rights to televise games. India’s large and cricket-mad population would show an immediate interest in the competition – an enduring fascination that has kept the price of broadcasting rights on the up (Star India paid $1.97 billion to show live fixtures from 2018-2022). 

For the first time ever, cricket players could match the wages of footballers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 6-8-week period – a staggering rise in earning potential. For many, a domestic tournament now promised more financial reward than playing for one’s country. Given that England’s home Test summer clashed with the start of the IPL, elite players now faced a decision: sacrifice playing Test cricket – the pinnacle in the eyes of traditionalists – and join the IPL, or turn down potentially the biggest pay cheque of their lives. As Wilde and Wigmore highlight, a desire to play franchise cricket was the ‘beginning of the end’ for Kevin Pietersen’s relationship with the English Cricket Board (ECB). He was signed to RCB for £1.15 million in the 2009 auction.

The IPL has had other far-reaching implications, such as providing India and it’s cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with newfound financial clout and superiority on cricket’s global stage, usurping England and the ECB. There have been a number of spin-off franchise leagues (BBL, PSL, BPL etc) where players stand to benefit from similarly fruitful contracts. But fundamentally, the IPL prompted world cricket to invest in T20 as a format. Certain nations – like the West Indies – began to specialise in the shortest format, targeting and achieving T20 World Cup victories. And now T20 receives undoubtedly more attention than ODI and Test cricket: a role-reversal of the climate in 2003. 

A democratising force?

Cricket, a sport traditionally regarded as elitist and hierarchical, has encountered the full liberalising force of T20 in the last twenty-or-so-years. One result has been that Nepalese and Afghani players, like Sandeep Lamichhane and Rashid Khan, now ply their trade across global T20 leagues, competing against star players from Test-playing nations. This would not have been possible without the inception of professional T20, Wigmore and Wilde explain. 

As a format, T20 values uniqueness and unorthodoxy in a way that Test cricket, fixated on ‘proper’ techniques, does not. Players from associate nations are often under-coached and self-taught, using whatever resources are available to them. Rashid Khan, the leading men’s T20 bowler, practiced using a tape-ball on a cement-based floor (he now finds it easier using an actual cricket ball). Within this environment, he developed an unusual bowling technique and an elaborate array of deliveries that are integral to his recent success. Should he have grown up in say, Australia, traditional coaching and better resources may have inhibited his progress. 

Thanks to T20, cricket is at the onset of a great revolution: of finally becoming a game open to all the talents, regardless of the nationality on their passport.

Undoubtedly the best and most insightful cricket book I’ve read. Cricket 2.0 is all-encompassing in its scope, with chapters on leading lights of the game (Narine McCullum, Gayle, de Villiers), the T20 economy, tactics, doping and match-fixing, and more. I should also mention that the writing is interspersed with interviews from leading analysts, players, cricket writers, broadcasters, coaches and franchise owners – offering the reader a valuable window into the minds of the sport’s most reputed thinkers. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review

Although I briefly reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my ‘November Reading: Recap’ post, it’s such a beautifully constructed and evocative novel, and definitely merits a closer look. The first time I stumbled across it was in my teen years; I distinctly remember being engrossed with it then, and the outcome was no different the second … Continue reading Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review