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Customer Review

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A surprisngly good read, 10 Sept. 2009
This review is from: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Hardcover)
Judith Herrin is an academic in medieval history and in particular Byzantine studies. She has participated in exhibitions and radio BBC programmes on the topic. In this book she sets out to describe a medieval civilization that is poorly understood in todays Western society. And at the same time she aims to kill the over use of the word "byzantine" as a sign of excessive and intricately involved administration, or worse still "a devious and unusually surreptitious manner of operation". On both counts she succeeds admirably.
The book is some 336 pages long, but the writing style is light and easy to read and the chapters and content well laid out.
I suppose the key message running throughout the book is that whilst the "western" Roman empire had collapsed by the 5th century, the "eastern" Roman empire continued to expand and flourish through to the 12th century, and survived in one form or another though to the 15th century. The author claims that Byzantium stopped an early Muslim conquest of Rome and of Europe. She makes a very convincing argument for saying that Europe today exists largely thanks to Byzantium (and all they got in return was to be sacked during the 4th Crusade).
The book is structured more or less along a timeline, but with additional interesting chapters on such things as icons, Greek Fire, eunuchs, and Venice and the fork. Throughout the book the author mixes history with a stream of factlets about the power of eunuchs, civil wars, scheming families and the blinding of rivals, powerful women, and religion woven into every aspect of society. And in addition she has a nice turn of phrase with Rome being about "bread and circuses" and Christianity selling "soup and salvation", or painting as the "Bibles of the illiterate", and I particularly liked the idea that history is the line of least resistance through time.
I found the last chapters on the final fall of Byzantium to the Turks a bit confused and rushed, but the author does succeed in describing the ups and downs of a true civilization. Worth reading even for those who don't like history (like me.)
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Location: Somewhere, Europe

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