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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
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on 7 January 2014
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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on 27 August 2013
A fantastic introductory work aimed at those who aren't familiar with a Christian empire which lasted for 1100 years or so. Ms. Herrin 'samples' various aspects and ephemera surrounding the Byzantine peoples and culture and serves them up against the larger backdrop of medieval history. Edit ; for best comparative usage, read a good source compendium from the 'other side' -- that of the Iranian house of Sasan, Eastern Rome's classical rival. The two great Empires together shaped modern history more than is given credit for.

A fascinating read, all in all. Loved it.
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on 24 August 2017
Takes you all over the place and back again.
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on 25 July 2017
I bought this for my husband. He really enjoyed it and says that it it really well written.
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on 13 September 2017
brilliant read, informative and straight forward!
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on 30 August 2015
As excellent and insightful as this book is, I would actively discourage anybody who is new to the history of the Byzantines, from reading this.

It assumes prior knowledge, and its frequent (often bewildering) shifts from area to area (women in Byzantine society one minute, eunuchs the next) can test even the most seasoned reader of Byzantine history.

That being said, for those in the know, this is a treasure trove of Byzantium history, often providing little known insights and areas for further reading.
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on 2 October 2012
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 6 October 2008
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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on 5 May 2014
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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on 2 April 2014
I came to this book because I was ashamed at how little I knew about the Byzantine empire. I'd read fairly extensively about Roman history from Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius, but the decline of the Western empire from then on left me a little cold, I suppose it was the glory of Rome that was the appeal. Perhaps surprisingly, reading Hugh Kennedy's 'The Great Arab Conquests' sparked my interest in Byzantium. This is a marvelous telling of the rise of another empire (the Caliphate) and the death blow to what was left of the Roman empire. However, what struck me (in my naivety) was just how strong the eastern Roman empire had remained even beyond the 7th century. To me Byzantium had been that sad little nub of a state that fell to the fourth crusade and never really recovered (not much glory there). I now realize how wrong I was, but despite of rather than because of Judith Herrin. I read 'Byzantium' from cover to cover immediately having finished 'The Great Arab Conquest' and having finished felt I knew a lot more about things that interested me very little and very little about the Byzantine side of the history described by Kennedy, which was my main reason for buying Judith Herrin's book. The book reads like a set of excellent lecture notes that would be suitable for light revision if you were an undergraduate studying Byzantine history at University, adding context to existing knowledge which frankly I didn't have. I have since read The Oxford History of Byzantium which comes much closer to what I wanted. As an easier read I would recommend John Julius Norwich's 'Short History of Byzantium'.

I read the preface to 'Byzantium' before buying it and although it was a little patronizing it had given me great hope for the book. Dr Herrin tells us about silly little builders who didn't even know what Byzantium was. She gave the impression that her mission was to tell the ignorant what they needed to know. I would classify myself in the ignorant group and I'm not afraid of being patronized, so I shelled out the money for, what I hoped, would be an education. I learnt a lot about how the people of Constantinople ate, drank, got entertainment and generally viewed the world. I even got titillating stories about eunuchs and forks. However, when it got to descriptions of what the Byzantines did, their conquests, religion and politics - it seems to me that Dr Herrin was so bored by this banality (that everyone must surely know) that she raced through it and skipped the details.

If you want social history and come with an existing knowledge of the events that shaped the Greek world between the 5th and 15th century this could be the book for you. If you want some clearly laid down facts and commentary about this important period then this is probably not your best buy.
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