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.
Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together. It actually works, both books have a certain focus. And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.
Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene. For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian. For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century. Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god. This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society. While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.
The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues. The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s. One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople. After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history. Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre. Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.
As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making. Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s. Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds. This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation. Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.
Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect. I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic. It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire. His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure. Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?
This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian. Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third. Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor. The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture. It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.
David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine. A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time. He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta, As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant. It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.
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