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.

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jordanreads

English Literature graduate from the University of Manchester. Reviewing the texts I've recently been reading.

2 thoughts on “Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’”

  1. A good crit – or so it seems to me. I haven’t read this book and I doubt if I shall ever have time to do so as the list, and the pile by my table, gets higher and higher each day, but you have given me a very good idea of what the book is about, the pros and cons of its debate, and this is what one wants from criticism.

    Like

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