Sorry to rain on the parade of encomiasts queueing up to praise this book. Let me begin by saying that I really, really want to like this book. I am a Late Roman/Byzantine history enthusiast and have read no end of books on the subject over the last couple of decades. Any book attempting to bring this sadly neglected area of history into the wider public consciousness, as Herrin is trying to do with this account, is to be applauded. However for me this falls way short of the gold standard of popular history writing due to problems ranging from numerous annoyances through to inaccurate impressions given through to complete howlers.
To mention just a few from the first 30-odd pages:
- The last Western emperor was NOT replaced by "half-Vandal, half-Roman Stilicho" in 476, but in fact by the Scirian Odovacer. Stilicho, the power behind the throne during the minority of the Western emperor Honorius, was murdered in 408. This unbelievable howler from a professional historian is compounded by the fact that she again mentions "half-Vandal, half-Roman Stilicho", this time in the correct context, just a couple of pages later. A switched-on proof reader even without the historical knowledge should query discrepancies like this, and I would have thought that numerous people in academia would cast their eye over it before publication. It's presumably not been corrected either from the hardback to this paperback edition.
- After incorrectly saying that no Germanic language had a written form in the late 4th century (in fact Gothic
did so), a few pages later she does correctly mention that "Ulfila" (sic - it should actually be "Wulfila" in Gothic form or "Ulfilas" in Latin form) translated the bible into Gothic.
- Alaric was not "persuaded to move west" - apart from the fact that the empire had absolutely no bargaining chips to persuade Alaric to do anything whatsoever (the senseless murder of the aforementioned Stilicho two years earlier put paid to that), Alaric died while still in Italy in 410 after a failed attempt to cross the sea to Africa and before he could leave by the northern land route. It can't even possibly refer to the later Alaric II as he was already firmly ensconced in the West in a kingdom encompassing southwest France and northeast Spain.
- The phrasing used seems to imply that Julian
attacked the Sassanian empire before becoming emperor (could hardly be so, since he died in the attempt). And despite the regular outbreaks of war between Rome and the Sassanian empire, Julian did not really have any kind of unfinished business to deal with in that regard. His disastrous expedition east was frankly nothing less than a war of aggression.
And so on. In general the book suffers from regular bouts of amnesia as though the author has forgotten what she wrote a couple of pages previously and has to write it again. It has the feel of a draft copy which hasn't been reviewed or revised. It's a real shame because outside of these kind of issues, Herrin does demonstrate that she has the ability to write a readable and entertaining book of popular history. She is also able to provide some real insights. For example, the more I read about mediaeval history, the more it seems to me that there is some kind of real tripartite cultural/philosophical division of the former Roman Empire between Western-Latin-Catholic, Eastern-Greek-Orthodox and Southern-Arabic-Muslim; Herrin mentions the same idea.
It would be nice if Herrin will be able to produce a revised edition of this book in future, and I hope she continues to pen popular history books albeit a bit more polised than this one.
So what would I recommend instead? For a peerless 'popular' account of Byzantium look at the John Julius Norwich trilogy Byzantium: The Early Centuries v. 1
, Byzantium: The Apogee v. 2
, and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall v. 3
. There is also a one volume abridgement of this, A Short History of Byzantium
which I have not personally read but is undoubtedly of the same standard as the full version. For a discussion of the cultural legacy to wider European and Islamic civilisation, see Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World
. (And for an excellent popular treatment of Ottoman Constantinople, get Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924