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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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.

Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

9780006482512-uk-300Usually a science fiction and fantasy author, Lawhead goes with a bit of straight historical fiction here.  The fantasy style still fits as we get an action adventure romp around the ninth century with a good dose of mystical Irish Christianity.  The plot is fairly ordinary for this sort of this: inexperienced monk travels, captured by and joins Vikings, then various bits of scheming in the east.  The settings are good though, although the action does tend to skip large distances, we get a reassuringly detailed description of life in an Irish monastery, life on a small Scandinavia homestead, visiting Byzantium, and so on.

The characters and dialogue too are above par for this sort of thing.  Or the main character anyway – there’s a side line throughout of the staunchly Christian hero Aidan struggling with his faith.  This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does add another (moral) dimension to the book above and beyond what other historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell or Tim Severin have done with similar stories.  It kind of cool to have a hero who does actually change in outlook gradually throughout the book.

The ending was a little unsatisfying.  Aidan fighting with his sense of Christianity in the face of suffering and corruption.  It all gets tied up in the last few pages and the epilogue, but we don’t really get to see the new found contentment – it is rather briskly narrated to us.  It’s a shame after all that (slightly depressing) self-reflection to basically just tag on a happy ending in a page of epilogue.  Again the religious element may not be to everyone’s taste (or so it appears on Goodreads), but it does add some extra depth to the character that the book would be a bit flat without.

January in Podcasts

This month I have mostly confined my listening to some old favourites.

Hardcore History

Seemingly Dan Carlin has been looking for a way to up his output from two shows a year.  With Hardcore History shows now verging on six hours in length, it’s easy to see why it takes so long to prepare.  Carlin however wants to communicate with fans more regularly – I guess there’s only so many times you can respond “I’m working on it” on twitter.  Therefore we now have Hardcore History Addendum, in which he plans to carry out interviews or discuss short digressions that don’t find into the long digression that is the main show.

The first two of these are up: the first a comparison of the German armies within World War One and World War Two; the second an interview with Mike Duncan of History of Rome/Revolutions and the author of The Storm Before The Storm.  The first of these is a typically speculative HH topic, initially it sounded like it might get a bit military history focused for my taste but it curved back and largely centred on political influence.  The second is interesting.  Both podcasters are interested in Roman history and American politics and, despite any other differences they may have they, both remain dubious about comparing the US to the late Roman Republic.

History of Byzantium

I was actually a little behind here, as I wasn’t commuting into work for a few months so my listening habits fell away.  Robin Pierson has stopped at the end of Basil II’s reign, so that gave me time to catch up.  It’s a nice part to take as a block – Basil grew up under a series of regent generals, seeing his mother remarried then exiled, and experiences shocking palace coups.  As a young man he re-took the throne, then re-gained his powers and spent the later parts of his life crushing the Bulgarians (or so the propaganda would say).

Pierson is helped on the topic by historian Anthony Kaldellis – with a lengthy interview on his new book Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood and many small segments broken up throughout the narrative.  The interview was very interesting and the book have made it onto my ‘to buy’ list (along with his Byzantine Republic from a previous interview).  Pierson is as level and patient as ever with some exciting but often confused material.

Revolutions

Mike Duncan continues his trek through the world of Revolutions, tackling the challenging world of 1848.  He’s switching between the many areas of interest: the revolution in France, German unity, the fragmented Austrian empire, and Italian independence.  This does mean that I enjoy some episodes more than others (I’m liking the budding class war of France). but Duncan excels at explaining how these are connected and how they are not.

The news from France sparks everything off, but Duncan stresses the difference between the Liberal “political question” of constitutions and who can or cannot vote and the “social question” of inequality and early socialism.  Meanwhile nationalism is raising its head and complicating matters.  I have read books and listening to podcasts on 1848 before – but they only ever focused on parts of it.  Despite the regional differences, the wide overview that Duncan provides really makes the whole thing come together.

 

Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium

Book CoverAs you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.

Continue reading Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium