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  • Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
  • Adam M. Schor
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. By Judith Herrin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. 440 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

For many reasons, scholars of Byzantium have struggled to explain their interests to the general public. Traditional Western civilization courses often denigrated the Byzantines. Contemporary surveys tend to bypass this empire with no obvious modern heir. Hellenic cultural centers encourage some interest, as do Orthodox churches. But typically students entering my survey course know only a Byzantine stereotype (luxury, duplicity, and inscrutable governance). Twentieth-century historians wrote several narratives for general readers. Unfortunately, some of these surveys reinforced dismissive attitudes instead of replacing them. [End Page 320]

And yet Byzantium is too central to premodern world history to be so quickly dismissed. Constantinople stood at the heart of the medieval Mediterranean, channeling its economic and cultural exchanges and reshaping its communal identities. Judith Herrin's new book is one of several recent efforts to enrich public perceptions of Byzantium (including museum exhibitions, essay collections, and additional surveys). Her Byzantium provides a well-written introduction to this society and an explanation for why it has been treated so shabbily.

Herrin's book is organized accessibly. Each chapter focuses on a captivating theme, situated according to a rough chronology. The first part, "Foundations of Byzantium," explores the social and cultural elements that arose before the death of Justinian I (d. 565). Chapters 1 and 2 explore the creation of the "City of Constantine" and its persistence as the largest city in Christendom. Chapter 3 surveys Roman imperial customs and institutions (especially symbols of power). Chapter 4 turns to the imperial Christian church, the role of clergymen and monks, and the development of Greek orthodoxy. Chapters 5 and 6 use two Justinian-era architectural projects, the Church of Hagia Sophia and the Ravenna mosaics, to explore several issues (from artistic techniques to the political goals of court patronage). Chapter 7 outlines the role of Roman law (in the form of Justinian's Corpus iuris civilis) within Byzantine society, and eventually across medieval Christendom. In each case, Herrin takes an early element of Byzantine culture or society and highlights its ongoing medieval influence.

The second part of Herrin's book turns from ancient continuities to early medieval transformations. Chapter 8 highlights the Byzantine state as a "bulwark" that limited the territorial reach of the early Islamic caliphate. Chapters 9 and 10 explore the origins of icons—that characteristic Byzantine art form—and the significance of the confrontations between iconophiles and iconoclasts. Chapter 11 stresses the Byzantines' preservation of a full, "pagan" form of elite Greek education. This tradition, she claims, fostered an unusually literate and articulate medieval society, epitomized by Patriarch Photios (ninth century). Chapter 12 surveys the Byzantine missions to Slavic communities, especially the efforts of Constantine-Cyril and Methodios (also ninth century). Each of these chapters focuses on an experience or feature of early medieval Byzantine society that set it apart from neighboring communities.

In the third part Herrin surveys medieval Byzantine society in a looser fashion. Some chapters deal with general topics, from military life and technology (chap. 13), to Mount Athos and its variegated monasticism (chap. 18). Special attention is given to the imperial court (chaps. 15–17), particularly practices (such as palace rituals and [End Page 321] the employment of eunuchs) that reinforced dynastic authority. Other chapters focus on symbolic personages, such as Emperor Basil II (who encapsulates the advancement and limitations of imperial power, chap. 20) and the historian Anna Komnene (who exemplifies the learning and influence of imperial Byzantine women, chap. 22). Despite the variety of topics, Herrin always returns to the "cosmopolitan" nature of Byzantium, constantly interacting with Islamic society and seeding cultural trends (via Venice and various "purple" brides) across the Christian West.

In the fourth part, on late Byzantine society, Herrin reaches the core of her argument. Most surveys of this period sought to explain the decline of Byzantium. Herrin concentrates on its unlikely survival. Chapter 24 examines the Crusades, from early Byzantine involvements to the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204. This "fourth crusade" Herrin presents as...


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