Sunday, March 30, 2008

Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
by Judith Herrin
$19.77 in the Hansisgreat Store
ISBN: 978-0-691-13151-1
This is an extraordinary new book on a fascinating and little understood part of history: the Byzantine Empire.
In the fifth century, Europe experienced the fall of the Roman Empire. The western empire collapsed into hundreds of tiny, independent countries and entered the system of feudalism which characterized the Middle Ages. The eastern empire, however, stayed together in one big piece, called the Later Roman or Byzantine Empire.
Among other things, the Byzantines were essential to the spread of Christianity. Indeed, their capital city of Constantinople was filled with the most lavish cathedrals, centuries before western Europeans abandoned paganism. Construction on Hagia Sophia (pictured) was completed almost 1000 years before Columbus discovered America. It remains a breathtaking masterpiece of medieval architecture.
Their eastern border was shared with the Persian Empire, and great portions of their territory were soon invaded by the mighty nations of Islam. Without this first line of defense, Christendom probably would not have survived the Middle Ages into modern times.
Some of the leaders are really magnificent. Their first emperor, Constantine the Great, is most famous for his conversion to Christianity. His reasons for doing so may surprise you.
Others were not so lovable or revered. Consider the emperor Phocas (602 - 610), whose fondness for torture would cast a sinister shadow over the next several centuries.
The Empire endured from 330 - 1453, so obviously there's too much information to explain here with any degree of competence. Suffice it to say that Byzantium is one of the great stories of the Middle Ages, and it seems to represent a giant dark patch in most peoples' knowledge of history.
It's a very exciting story: loaded with war, intrigue, disaster, and redemption. You'll se people at their worst and at their absolute best. Dr. Herrin does an amazing job of condensing an overwhelming amount of material into one short, easy to read volume.
Truth is often stranger than fiction. Here's some non-fiction that reads like Star Wars, yet informs like the lengthiest, driest textbook. An A+ from me!

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