In 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.
There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history. The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity. Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods. People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining. Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops. How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?
For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully. In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point. At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book? But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.
Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least). The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well. The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile. It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.
Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps. A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable. This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book: Why include Islamic empires? Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia? Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.
The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”. Why do we need another history of the crusades? What does this one add? I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture. In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.
This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help? Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders? The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.
The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time? Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks. The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.
Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith. He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.
I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view. The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good. Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.
The History of Byzantium podcast by Robin Pierson is another series in the “History of X” mould that follows the style of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome. Even more than that, it is intended as an unofficial follow up to that series which ended at the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It therefore aims to tell the story of the Eastern Roman Empire from where that left off in 476 A.D to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D (though it is currently paused at 620, so there’s still quite some way to go). A continuation to cover this was much requested from Mike Duncan towards the end of his series, not just for the sake of some more episodes but also because Byzantine history can be pretty awesome in its own right, so it was great to see someone step up to fill in that gap. It’s not an easy task either, the culture, politics, religion and challenges of the Empire are obviously different to those of the old unified Roman empire and will change considerably over the next thousand years. Juggling these different aspects and painting a detailed picture of the world they combine in is essential.
Continue reading Post 20: History of Byzantium Podcast
How Venice won and lost a naval empire
This book by Roger Crowley, published in 2011 by Faber and Faber, tells a narrative history of the Venetian overseas empire – so essentially a time span of ~1000 to ~1500 with the changing interactions with the dying Byzantine Empire, the rising Ottomans and the wars with the other Mediterranean trading powers. Crowley is a very good writer of narrative history, particularly in his field of Mediterranean naval warfare circa 1400. This book can in some ways be seen as a natural companion to 2005’s Constantinople: The Last Great Siege and to 2008’s Empires of the Sea. Those charted the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing battle for the remaining christian strongholds in Cyprus and Malta. This book on the other hand is a step backwards in time, giving the run up to those struggles from a Venetian perspective.
Continue reading Venice: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley
Lars Brownworth, along the two podcasts mentioned in my first post, is one of the big figures in history podcasting and now seems an opportune time to mention him, given his recent release of a new book on the Normans. His style is very clear and well written, and his topics are well chosen, but he is perhaps a little simple and introductory. Either way, he’s got a fairly decent body of work on both the Byzantines, the Normans and anything else that comes to mind.
Continue reading Lars Brownworth