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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BYZANTIUM: THE SURPRISING LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL EMPIRE
Nice to be in such august company when it comes to reviewing a book, especially when I find myself echoing the praise. I'll lay my cards on the table and confess to having studied Byzantine History and have continued a lifelong fascination and love of the subject. Trying to explain what drives that interest as Prof. Herrin found herself trying to do to two working men...
Published on 30 Jan. 2008 by Hillpaul

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139 of 147 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sorry, but it falls short of the mark
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...
Published on 6 Oct. 2008 by E. L. Wisty


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139 of 147 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sorry, but it falls short of the mark, 6 Oct. 2008
By 
E. L. Wisty "World Domination League" (O'er Hill And Dale) - See all my reviews
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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.)
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curate's egg, 11 April 2009
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
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Inspired by the recent exhibition in London, I bought this to gain some deeper knowledge of a civilisation which I know to have been very important. The book brought home to me how influential Byzantium was, and the poignancy of our general ignorance of a "lost" way of life which still influences us to a surprising degree in various ways.

Although it provided some useful insights, this book fell short in the excessive reference to tedious lists of details, and a somewhat wooden style. The frequent repetition resulting from the thematic approach was also irritating - although I could have done with more of it when it came to explaining some of the obscure points of religious belief. The text seemed driven by an academic need to "mention everything" rather than select some key points of interest and difference.
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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BYZANTIUM: THE SURPRISING LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL EMPIRE, 30 Jan. 2008
By 
Hillpaul (West Sussex, GB) - See all my reviews
Nice to be in such august company when it comes to reviewing a book, especially when I find myself echoing the praise. I'll lay my cards on the table and confess to having studied Byzantine History and have continued a lifelong fascination and love of the subject. Trying to explain what drives that interest as Prof. Herrin found herself trying to do to two working men however, has always been difficult to get across to others to whom it is a blank area of knowledge.
I've nothing but praise for the way she has distilled her professional knowledge into one of the more approachable books on the subject that I have read. Not decrying other books which on the whole are written for readers with at least a basic knowledge of the subject, this by and large succeeds in casting light on what is perceived to be an esoteric subject.
The maps, illustrations and tables are an excellent aid for this primer which seeks to explain on their terms what made the Empire tick without spoon feeding you. It makes you, the reader, think.
Arranged thematically, Icons, Monasticism, Economics, Warfare, Eunuchs, the Imperial Court, relations with the West, the Slavs and the Moslems, the place of women in society, its structure covers the Empires chronology. What to the mdern mind are barbarous practices such as castration and mutilation are placed in context . It looks at those puzzling practices of icon worship and explains the intent. Reaction to pressures such as the rise of Islam and relations with the West and its missionary work to the Slavs are explained together as a whole rather than in isolation in a very readable manner.
I would heartily recommend it to the general reader who wishes to know more and part of me likes to think that somewhere that those two working men are sitting somewhere over a pint imagining light glinting off golden mosaics.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very rich but not an entry point to the subject, 19 Jan. 2011
By 
T. S. Burns (Kent UK) - See all my reviews
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Like many reviewers, I came to this book having gradually realised what the history of Byzantium is incredibly significant but equally neglected and little understood.
The authors obvious passion for the subject cannot be doubted and the title is indeed a good one, it does reveal a huge amount of surprising material about this fascinating civilisation.

My only real criticism, if it is even that and not simply an inappropriate choice on my part, is that being thematic, it is not an ideal entry point to the subject. Whilst my history teachers were excellent, the trend of teaching history thematically after about Year 9 (if that, it has been a while) means that my chronoloical understanding of (classical and medieval) history has suffered. It is attempting to remedy this that has taken me to read Tom Hollands outstanding series as well as this book on Byzantium.

If you are new to the subject, I would perhaps suggest starting elsewhere and get a chronological overview and context before diving into the rich depths of this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent survey of Byzantine Empire, 7 Jan. 2014
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is well written for general readers, and is very accessible. Its coverage is wide-ranging. In 29 chapters, it explains many aspects of the empire such as its foundation, the Church, emperors, the court, iconoclasm, economy, the decline (after the disastrous Fourth Crusade), the fall (1453) and the empire's legacy. It depicts a culturally highly-developed and vibrant society.

The descriptions are generally brief due to the lack of space. But, the reader will be able to learn so much about this fascinating empire that lasted as long as 1,123 years. It left so much legacy to the rest of Europe, including Russia: classical Greek learning (which led to Renaissance), written Slavonic language, art and architecture, the system of government, to name but a few.

Yet, the empire's importance is generally overlooked nowadays and its place in the European history undervalued. Not only that, only negative aspects of the empire appear to be emphasized so that the word "Byzantine" has a negative connotation like "inflexible", "complicated" and "underhand". The role the empire played in defending Europe from the hostile forces (in northern Europe, Near East and Asia Minor) after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West for many centuries until 1453 appears to be totally forgotten. The author says "without Byzantium, there would have been no Europe", i.e. Europe as we know today.

There are reviews on Amazon that criticize poor proofreading because of a few minor errors on historical events. I think they miss the point; the author was inspired to write the book for general readers when she was asked by a couple of workmen at her college what Byzantium history was about. Although ideally everything in the book should be accurate, I think it is thoroughly recommendable as an introductory book for general readers. Those who want to learn the empire's political history in much more detail can turn to other specialist books by historians such as John Julius Norwich.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 'Queen of the Queen of Cities' - Niketas Choniatesd, 2 Oct. 2012
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This book focuses on the history of the Byzantine Empire from its Roman origins to its fall to the Turks in the Fifteenth century. As this is a period I am interested in but regrettably know little about this book seemed a great place to start. The book is full of tables, genealogies and maps showing the Empire at various stages, which I found to be immensely helpful whilst reading.

One of the main highlights was the clear and concise outline of the Iconoclasm movement in the Byzantine Empire and the countermovement of the iconophiles, this was one of the best chapters in the book and I found the critical analysis of these two different movements to be very illuminating. I left the book feeling like I understood the different theological stances much better. One of the points the book makes is how the Byzantine Empire played a massive role in the flourishing of medieval Europe over the centuries as it provided a bulwark against the rise of Islam and insulated the growth of Europe in to a strictly Christian world. It is interesting to consider what could have been without the separating influence of the Byzantine Empire on the Christian and Islamic medieval worlds. The effect of the Crusades on the Empire are discussed in the book, which is enlightening especially when considering how the Fourth Crusade undermined the fundamental identity of Constantinople as the greatest city in Christendom. The deterioration of ideals from the First Crusade, which was successful in taking the city of Jerusalem, to the Fourth, which ending in the sack of a Christian city I found engrossing. A chapter I really enjoyed was Imperial Children: Born in the Purple. The discussion of the importances of being born in the purple for princes and princesses, and how it could raise their value on the marriage market was something I hadn't heard of before. The chapter concerning the life and work of Anna Komnene was another high point and as a result I plan to read her chronicle. One thing more thing I liked was that the book was full of lots of little titbits and tales about the Byzantium such as Marina the woman monk accused of fathering a child, which I found interesting.

However there were bits that I don't warm to in the book. As stated by other reviewers the book does contain quite a few mistakes, which is a major flaw. Sometimes I felt the book assumed that the reader had prior knowledge of personalities and names, which I didn't always have. It was not always explained what had happened clearly, meaning I was constantly trying to work out who or what was being referenced. There were links made between different events, different people and different times that left me quite confused at points. However on for the most part if a major event was referenced in one chapter of the book but explained or considered in another chapter, this was highlighted which improved my overall understanding.

I enjoyed it for the most part and left feeling like I had learned something about the empire. I would recommend this book as a reasonably good starting point for learning about the Byzantine Empire.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I expected something better, 5 Feb. 2009
By 
Mr. Stephen J. F. Maxfield "oeconomos" (Shrewsbury, UK) - See all my reviews
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The idea behind this book is excellent - a readable account of the Byzantine Empire which could be put into any hand with confidence. And, indeed, there is an enormous amount in this book that is useful and fascinating. Unfortunately it is peppered with errors of fact. For instance the Transfiguration took place on Mt Tabor, not in the Garden of Gethsemane; Egg tempora is made with egg yoke, not with egg white...
For a professor of Byzantine history it is also very conservative in its scholarship. The muslim account of the life of Mohammed is accepted without question, which is nowadays extraordinary as there are Byzantine, accunts which predate the muslim accounts by more than 100 years. It is also very odd to discuss Byzantine iconoclasm without mentioning all the contemporary mosaics and artwork in Rome.
So, sadly this is not a book that one can place in an ordinary hand as so much of it is simply wrong.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An informative and interesting book. Who needs fiction?!, 17 July 2013
By 
Varian Beauregard (Le Jardin d'Angleterre) - See all my reviews
There are several negative reviews here, criticising certain errors that have crept into this book. This may be a problem for those that are concerned with specific details of emperors and dates, but that is not what I came to this book for. As a general reader with very limited previous knowledge of Byzantium, I found this book extremely readable and well written and thoroughly engrossing. My concern was to learn about the culture and major themes and events in Byzantium. For this purpose, I thought the book was excellent. It is written in small thematic chapters that reinforce major themes whilst exploring a myriad of topics. It also includes a lot of fascinating tit-bits of information.

My interest in Byzantium was first piqued by watching Diarmaid MacCulloch's "A History of Christianity". I realised that most people have a distorted view of this period of history because the story of Byzantium is usually glossed over and ignored, especially in schools. This book goes a long way to correct that.

Finally, I feel I have learnt enough from this book, that I don't need to progress to the longer work from John Julius Norwich. Instead, I have ordered "The Formation of Christendom", also by Judith Herrin.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars poorly written, 5 May 2014
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This review is from: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Kindle Edition)
Difficult to believe that the text is written by a Professor Emerita. The narrative is confused and completely devoid of insight. The style is clumsy to the point of embarrassment.One can glean some facts, but the reading is not enjoyable.Does not compare with John Julius Norwich's classic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The best history of Byzantium, 18 Nov. 2013
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Judith Herrin manages to bring this complex history of the last 1000 years of the Eastern Roman Empire to life whilst avoiding the potentially boring lists of emperors battles and dates. At last I can actually understand why Constantinople is so symbolically important to modern Greece and how that city stalled the advances of non Christian cultures and allowed modern Europe to become established. I also now know something of the true horror of the 2nd crusade and can make my own judgements on the ethics of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in their opposition to the Muslim faith.

The importance of what became known as Byzantium to Western culture is immense, yet the historical study is almost completely neglected in the English speaking world. I can wholeheartedly recommend this book.
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