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on 14 August 2009
If you can still find it, the best edition of Browning's beautifully readable and now classic account of the Roman Empire's last burst of ruthless brilliance before the Islamic revolution, is the oldest: 1971, hardcover, published in the US by Praeger, and in the UK by Wiedenfield & Nicholson (also by Littlehampton), with 272 pages, dozens of color plates and black & white photographs on almost every page. Be careful though. There's another, inferior 1971 ed., published by Thames & Hudson, which has only 189 pp. The economy edition was re-issued as the "Revised ed." in 1987 (Thames & Hudson, London & NY), in paperback. No color plates and fewer illustrations overall. Caveat emptor!
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Robert Browning (1914-1997) was Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck College, London, from 1965 until he retired in 1981. His book "Justinian and Theodora" is a classic biography about the life and times of the Emperor Justinian, who lived ca. 482-565, and the Empress Theodora, who lived ca. 500-548.

This review is based on the original version of the book, published by Praeger in 1971, which has 272 pages and comes with some wonderful colour illustrations, including some of the famous mosaics from Ravenna:

* The mosaic which shows Justinian and his court (pp. 206-207)

* The mosaic which shows Theodora and her court (pp. 166-167)

For more information about this topic see Ravenna: Art and History (1991, revised version 2008), Ravenna in Late Antiquity (HC 2010, PB 2014), and Eternal Ravenna: From the Etruscans to the Venetians (2013).

The main text is divided into ten chapters which follow a (more or less) chronological line, from the death of Anastasius in 518 to the death of Justinian in 565 (and beyond).

The book begins with a list of maps and plans; a preface; sources of illustrations; a table of dates; and an introduction. At the end of the book there are notes on sources; a brief bibliography; two genealogical tables; and an index.

Browning covers the macro-history; he presents the essential domestic problems as well as the foreign policy of the Byzantine Empire. He also covers the micro-history; he presents the main characters: the emperor and the empress, Belisarius and Antonina, as well as John the Cappadocian, Narses, and Tribonian.

The book has a good structure, and the text is easy to read. It is written by an expert who knows his topic very well. But even for an expert something can go wrong. I have to mention a few things which bother me:

** On page 19 Browning says Constantine ruled from 307. But this emperor ruled from 306, as stated in the index. The mistake is repeated on page 22.

** On page 23 we are told Theodosius ruled from 378. But this emperor ruled from 379. The mistake is repeated in the caption on page 56 and in the index.

** On page 25 Browning says: "Britain was the first [province] to be abandoned, in about 440." But this event took place in 410.

** On the same page we are told: "The Vandals ... crossed from Spain to Africa in 435." But this event took place in 429, as stated on page 128.

** On page 26 Browning says Theodoric, king of the Goths, died in 562. But this king died in 526, as stated on pp. 46 and 145, in the table of dates and the index. It looks like a most unfortunate misprint.

** On page 64 the circus factions - the Blues and the Greens - are defined in this way: "The Blues tended to represent suburban landowners and rentiers and to be firmly Chalcedonian [i.e. orthodox] and a trifle conservative. The Greens drew support from the traders and artisans, many of whom were of Syrian origin, and were inclined to make concessions to Monophysitism and present more radical demands."

This definition is doubtful. Alan Cameron, an expert on the circus factions, has written: "It has been claimed, for instance, that there were social and religious differences between the factions. The Blues were upper, the Greens lower class. The Blues orthodox, the Greens Monophysite. There is not a scrap of evidence for such hypotheses - and much against."

, 1973, reprinted 1999, page 238.]

** On page 69 Browning says Justinian and Theodora were married in 525 "in the great church of Santa Sophia built by Constantine two centuries earlier."

The first church built on this site, consecrated by Constantius II in 360, was destroyed during riots in 404. Justinian and Theodora were married in the second church built on this site, consecrated by Theodosius II in 415. It had nothing to do with Constantine or his son Constantius II. The same mistake appears on pp. 84 and 117.

** On page 128 we are told the church of Hagia Sophia was re-consecrated in 563. But this event took place in 562, as stated on page 236 (and in the table of dates).

** The Persian king Kavadh and his son Chosroes (also spelled Khosrow) are mentioned several times. On page 52 Chosroes is described as "his favourite third son" (which is true). But on page 92 he is described as "his fourth and favourite son" (which is not true).

** The church of San Vitale is mentioned several times. A caption on page 112 and the table of dates say it was completed in 547. But according to text and caption on pp. 210-211 it was completed in 546. What is correct? We do not know. Modern scholars say 547 or 548.

** The famous speech which Theodora made during the Nika Revolt of 532 is quoted on page 112. The last sentence is rendered in this way: "As for me, I like the old saying, that the purple is the noblest shroud." But this translation does not convey Theodora's message very well. A better translation is: "As for myself, I like the old saying, that royalty is a good burial shroud."

** The illustration on page 146 shows the mausoleum of Theodoric. But in the index this monument is listed as the "Mausoleum of Theodora."

** The illustration on pp. 154-155 shows the palace of Theodoric (a detail of a mosaic in S. Apollinare Nuovo). But in the index this item is listed as the "Palace of Theodora."

These flaws are unfortunate, but they do not disturb the meaning and the message of the book. "Justinian and Theodora" is an interesting account about the Byzantine Empire in the age of Justinian, because it covers the important issues and brings to life the main characters of this period.
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