Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

2166088In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office).  I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium.  John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version).  Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.

This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time.  The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams.  The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time.  It is all in there though.  That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.

Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama.  He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics.  This buries it among the rest of the information.  His chronology keeps track of the broader story better.  Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.

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Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 13)

When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire its importance was sensibly felt and its loss sincerely lamented.  The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island, provided on every side with convenient harbours; the temperature of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, alike adapted for the production of corn or of vines; the valuable minerals with which it abounded; its rich pastures covered with innumerable flocks, and its woods free with wild beasts or venomous serpents.  Above all, they regretted the large amount of the revenue of Britain, whilst they confessed that such a province well deserved to become the seat of an independent monarchy.

In this passage, Gibbon seems to get a bit carried away with some of the panegyrics written after the recovery of Britain from the rebellion of Carausius.  He occasionally has a tendency to get a little bit patriotic and play up his home in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative.

It’s a good thing everyone has stopped over-estimating the importance of Britain!

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 8)

This bit just seemed worth noting for when he covers Christianity on detail later.

But there are some remarkable instances, in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet, assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the Divine favour, he condemns with abhorrence as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 6)

There a footnote among the discussion of the Caledonian war of Septimius Severus.

That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman History is… not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange that the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.

Quite.  Almost as if Ossian was made up at a (much) later date.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 2)

As part of my read through The Decline & Fall, here’s a quote that sums up Roman attitudes to religion rather succinctly, but may say even more about the English Enlightenment.

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

 

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Ch. 1)

I’ve been reading through Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline And Fall.  It’s quite a task, and early days yet, but I came across a few lines here and there I liked and wanted to share.  The 18th century historian Gibbon has been long since been superseded by later scholarship, but he is still well worth reading for his snippy style.  I like that he offered well read, but occasionally very opinionated judgements throughout – right from chapter one, as the quote below shows.

After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.

Claudius, Nero and Domitian by the way.

The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

34427005There have been many reasons suggested for the end of the western Roman empire – there’s a famous list of 210 from a German historian that sometimes gets brought up on this (everything from lead in the drinking water and gout to anti-German racism). Here Kyle Harper doesn’t make those kind of sweeping statements, but he does show the impact that environmental factors may have had in the fall of the west and the decline of the east. The ideas can be summed up simply – the expansion of the empire coincided with a period of relatively good climate in the Mediterranean and beyond, before falling into trouble as the climate became harsher. The environmental boost may have led to Rome becoming a more urban and prosperous society than we might have expected given its level of technological development. This in turn placed them in a risky position where infectious disease was concerned.

Firstly, it wasn’t a great place for health in general – Harper shows that the Romans grew to smaller statures than people in the region before or after the empire, never mind elsewhere in more rural societies. It was a rich society, but not necessarily a healthy one. Secondly, it was primed for particular pandemics to strike: the Antonine Plague, a mid-third century plague and finally Justinian’s Plague. The particular diseases and situations led to different impacts – but ultimately the drop in population and the sheer sense of shock for the survivors would be difficult to deal with.

Harper doesn’t rule out the effect of the normal socio-political/great man explanations – in fact he rather skips over the actual fall of the west. He does however point out that these took place in a world defined by the environmental diseases, a world where those people and structures had to be resilient in the face of infectious disease. The idea doesn’t seem that new or complicated (and I don’t know enough of the academic history to say if it is) but Harper explains it well, going into just enough detail on epidemiology and the evidence for historical climate variation.

There are a few flaws with the book, it would really help to have a reasonable knowledge of the later Roman empire – the chronology, the people, the geography. Not too much, but the author doesn’t exactly hang around to explain who Stillicho was. In addition, some attempts in a conclusion to give a warning of our future relationship to the climate don’t read that well. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s not really a conclusion. Finally, the following graph wound me up – a bit too much smoothing on there!

Seriously, it’s a good book – not quite as mind blowing as some reviews might suggest, but meticulously put together, well written (it made me want to read more medicine/biology – and I’ve avoided that since I was 15) and something that will surely be an influential book in the years to come.

Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy De La Bedoyere

220px-timeteam2007I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.  Guy De La Bedoyere (an expert on Roman Britain who often featured on archaeological TV show Time Team) has gathered together as many cases as he can of people in Roman Britain – rich/poor, slave/free, native or not.  There often isn’t much to go on, and that means that De La Bedoyere speculates on who that person may have been – the guesswork is based on a solid foundation, what we know of Roman society and so on.  But even with this, there isn’t much to say in the majority of cases.  This means that we get a paragraph on one figure, then a paragraph on another, then a paragraph on another and it starts to feel like a dense wall of half formed information (welcome to archaeology!).

The author structures the book very loosely in a chronological fashion, but this means that the subject changes constantly.  One case might highlight a social concern, the next economic, the next something more military.  I thought Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp managed to structure a similar idea in a much more readable way.  But Britain fundamentally was out of the way, and was different to the East of the empire, or to Italy, or even to Gaul so De La Bedoyere does have less information to go on.  Themes do emerge – the upper class that was always just passing through temporarily, the freedmen and women, the ethnically diverse population of soldiers.

To end this post on a high – some figures do stick in the mind, even on the slightest of information.  Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion who left a rather snippy note complaining of the insolent wrecking his local town.  The potter of Aldgate/Pulborough who the author repeatedly brings up as an example of notably bad craftsmanship.  All we have is a few fragments of badly made pottery, but that is enough to give a sense of something.  And of course the curse tablets from Bath, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”.