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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 25 January 2012
This is a great book for lovers of the Byzantine world. It has an easy style, factual and with ample descriptions which create a living picture of this exotic and almost vanished world. People unfamilar with the Byzantine Empire will soon become involved in its long and complex story!
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on 28 August 2013
A valiant attempt to cover a huge topic in an accessible way. Pretty much achieves what it sets out to do and I would love to read more about this swathe of history I knew nothing about. Just left feeling there were gaps somehow but not sure why.
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on 15 May 2013
I was recommended to read this book before a recent trip to Istanbul. I thoroughly enjoyed it and took it with me to dip into. My travelling companion also found it well written and informative. It added to our enjoyment of this fabulous city.
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on 28 February 2014
Being an Orthodox Christian myself , I was always interested in the history of the place where Orthodoxy originated and this book has it all. It's amazing how so distant past has created our present time and will influence our future.
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on 16 September 2013
This is a fascinating read where the riches and acheivements of Byzantine culutre are relayed by themes e.g.Icon's, Law, Economy, Culture, Hagia Sophia.. An enjoyable and informative volume.
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This is an absolutely excellent series of essays on the premier medieval empire, Byzantium. The writer expertly sketches the history, indicating what is important and what it meant, both in belief and of historical impact. What makes this book demanding and a great pleasure is that she respects the readers' intelligence and never over-simplifies for the sake of brevity; that being said, I would not recommend this to readers who are unfamiliar with the outlines of the history, to which she alludes but doesn't always explain.

While not a historical narrative, the chapter progress more or less chronologically, from its origins in late antiquity, to its fall as a way to presage the Renaissance. Founded at the great trade routes from East to West by the first christian emperor, Byzantium evolved into the first purely autocratic power with the legitimation rituals of traditional Asian kings. It thus served as the model for the monarchies and petty despotisms that were rising to its West. Herrin describes this better than anywhere I have seen this, in wonderful perspective. Byzantium was also the first true christian state, mixing dogmatic monotheistic religion with the functions of government. The way that it evolved and split into sects is clearly delineated by Herrin, the seeds of cultures we can see today.

Herrin also argues that Byzantium was not a mere preserver of classical tradition, but a synthesizer of old systems with the new, that is, Christianity. While I think she over-states her case - there is a genuine decadence to Eastern Rome's obsession with old forms - she makes one of the best cases I know for Byzantium's dynamism and creativity. Personally, I find its art, its attempts at consolidating and preserving (and updating) Roman law rather stilted and derivative, but she convinced me that my view is far too one-sided. In addition, she transmits the sense that Greek culture stayed very much alive in a more continuous and lively way than the Latin tradition did to the West.

Finally, Herrin describes the legacy of Byzantium, both as the last-line defense against the Arabs and then the Turks, but also the impact of the exodus of Greek scholars to the West, providing many of the sources that flowered in the Renaissance. I learned the most about the military history in this section, that the Byzantines had become accustomed to fighting the Persians in large military formations, leaving them vulnerable to Arab cavalry with its mobility and lighter-armed warriors fighting in the spirit of jihad. Once the Turks appeared, the Byzantines had become famously decadent, squandering their energy in civil wars, doctrinal disputes, and preoccupation with Slavic pagans that they converted to Greek Orthodoxy. The fall of Constantinople, in so many ways, signals the end of the Middle Ages, expertly evoked by Herrin in splendid prose.

Warmly recommended for any serious student of history.
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on 10 September 2009
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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on 30 January 2010
This book is an excellent introduction to the (much negelected) field of Late Roman/Byzantine history. Any book attempting to bring this sadly neglected area of history into the wider public consciousness should be applauded.
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on 3 February 2017
The themed rather than linear structure makes this a much more comprehensible read than many other books on Byzantium.
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on 16 June 2014
Very good book, I bought the book for my husband who is very into the history of the Greeks and the Romans
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