Yale University Press, August 15th 2015, 280 Pages
For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire’s extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event.
Harris’s action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies—including those of Islam—Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people.
Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire’s social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris’s study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.
This book proved to be a good scholarly introduction to Byzantine History. It did will in questioning some popular (Western) perceptions of the period and region, such as the notion that Byzantine Emperors were ‘untrammelled despots’ who could do what they wanted. Rather the very same people and institutions who gave him his power- most notably the church, could place limits upon it.
Furthermore, it is argued, the Byzantine Empire was not an unmitigated failure- rather it left behind a strong cultural legacy, in which many areas and peoples of Europe were Christianized (including Russia), preserved precious works from the classical age. Ultimately, it is concluded, that the ‘real strength’ of the Byzantines was to create a long-lasting society which was able adapt to circumstances as well as incorporate disparate peoples.
That said, as another reviewer pointed out that aspects of the book may not appeal people of Greek and Greek Orthodox background today, who tend to be the group most interested in the Byzantines (for obvious reasons). I did feel there was an element of modern judgement, especially applied to the early period of the study, and even some failure to question popular myths, for instance the political circumstances that may have resulted in the death of the famous scholar Hypatia. I don’t believe this was all about religion at all.
Yet later on, we are told that the Turks, and especially the Ottomans, supposedly the oldest and most implacable enemies of Byzantium were not really religiously motivated (yet supposedly those who killed Hypatia, and attacked pagans in the sixth and seventh century usually were). This apparent dichotomy- to consider the political or pragmatic reasoning that may have motivated the actions of one group, but fail to do so for another, is something which some readers may find troubling.
Overall, although this was an interesting work, I would not read it alone. I have another couple of books on the Byzantines, and would consider reading them to get the bigger picture. Readers may wish to be warned, it very much represents the traditional ‘top down’ approach to history, focusing on leaders and battles. So do not be deceived by the title- it is not a social history of the Byzantine world.
I received an E-book version of this title free from the Publisher via Netgalley for the purposes of review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.