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4.1 out of 5 stars
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
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Creates a convincing atmosphere for a visit to this fantastic city, and explains much of the topography
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on 24 December 2013
Having bought this as a Kindle Book I liked it so much I shall buy a hard back to keep for refence
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 November 2009
I had read about Byzantium in other books, mainly about the earlier years. Judith Herring tells the full story, including the long medieval life, which was totally unknown to me. In fact it is not really a history book in the customary way, but rather an introduction to the character, culture and especially the incredible ups and downs, the vitality and resilience of this forgotten part of the Roman Empire. She is apparently in love with Byzantium and she made me share her enthusiasm. A wonderful book about an unknown and underestimated part of our past and culture. I could not stop reading.
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on 14 May 2015
Excellent overview
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11 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2008
I enjoyed reading this book, but as it drew to the end and the death of Constantine XI defending his city I realized what a loss of a civilisation, that it not taught about in our education systems.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2011
I found this book thoroughly enjoyable. Herrin conveys as much of Byzantium as one could hope to find in 300 pages, and she is very sucessful in combining the thematic with the chronological.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Judith Herrin's Byzantium is an engaging read, which is exactly what I want in a popular history book.

She puts it well in her concluding statement when she summarises all the possible reasons why one might naturally be fascinated by the story of Byzantium - as a bulwark against Islam for nascent Western Europe; as the inheritor of Greek and Roman legacies; as the Eastern half of Christendom; or for countless other reasons, ranging from the creation of new alphabets to the roles of eunuchs - concluding that it's not any one of these things, but the combination, what she calls "a rich ecology of traditions and resources", that makes for such a fascinating history.

She does seem to have a bee in her bonnet about the "systematic calumnies" perpetrated against Byzantium by the West, and she pinpoints the root of this as being the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Crusades. I was, personally, unaware of this alleged jaundiced view, but I can quite easily see that she may well be right. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his History of Christianity makes a similar special plea for the re-evaluation of Eastern Christendom, so she's not alone in taking this position.

Byzantium is delightfully pleasurable straightforward reading on the whole (although I think a glossary would be a good addition), structured in easily digested bite-sized thematic chapters. One occasional irritatant was the way the supernatural side of religion, and that means Christianity in the context of this book, was related as if factual. E.g. p.107, 'Leo's vigorous defence, achieved with skilful use of 'Greek Fire', Bulgarian aid and the intercession of the Virgin', or p.103, 'Sometimes the icons exuded a healing liquid that proved a powerful cure; oil that burned in lamps in front of them also had healing powers.'

These two examples seem to treat myth as plain fact. But this approach is not systematic or consistent. The latter of the two above examples is immediately followed by a short section couched in two lights, first as if the supernatural were factual: 'Patriarch Sophronius had personal experience of this... [in relation to some 'miraculous' occurence]' etc. And then, in a more historical/rationalist vein; 'individuals who believed themselves cured...' etc. I must admit I found all this a little odd!

Herrin explicitly states in her intro that she's deliberately emphasising the role of religious belief, and in particular her feel for the historical weight of Christian belief: 'an intensely personal view' (founded in work done on her previous book 'The Formation Of Christendom') in a history where she feels 'secular scholarship and popular appreciation' may be in danger of forgetting or overlooking this.

I see her point, but I think one of the primary roles for the intellectually honest historian is to disentangle the raw data of facts, such as can be established, from the myth and spin woven around them. Sure, faith in icons and the Holy Virgin may have inspired people to actions they otherwise mightn't have pursued. But explicitly saying that is very different from claiming that either the icons really did perform miracles, or that the Virgin did in fact actually intercede!

So although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the first that I've read on what is clearly an enormous and very interesting subject, yet there is a distinct dissonance when religious 'experience' (and by that I mean the supernatural aspects of religious belief) is couched in exactly the same terms as any other historical 'fact'. I was quite struck by how little rational qualification of such 'data' there was, and how late it started putting in its rare appearances. So much so that when, roughly a third of the way through the book, on p.101, she actually qualified a statement ('[supernatural/divine] Visions and conversations were alleged to take place in front of icons.'), I felt like saying 'at last!'

Despite this one issue, however, this is undoubtedly a very well-written, broad ranging, and engagingly informative book. A good brief and eminently readable introduction to a large and complex subject.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2014
interesting
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20 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on 28 September 2007
Philip Pullman - of Dark Materials - has just written to me about Byzantium, the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, saying:

"This most intriguing of empires is depicted so vividly and so clearly - not only by means of the author's arrangement of subject-based chapters, but also because of her deep scholarship and unobtrusive style - that it's the best introduction to Byzantine history I've seen. I can say with absolute certainty that I shall steal from it several times."

Happy declaration of interest: Philip wrote to me because I live with the author. He gave permission for his words to be used. He does not know and hasn't met Judith - yet!
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2014
good quick service. bought the book for someone so no idea if good or bad....good apparently
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