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The best books on Byzantium

recommended by Judith Herrin

Byzantium by Judith Herrin

by Judith Herrin


Byzantine scholar Judith Herrin, professor emerita at King's College London, selects five books to help us understand the place of Byzantium in world civilisation.

Byzantium by Judith Herrin

by Judith Herrin

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The first book on your list, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Michael Psellus, is an autobiographical history. What made you choose this work?

I decided that it was very important to have a book by a Byzantine, because you get a much stronger sense of the culture and the atmosphere of Byzantium by reading what an individual who lived then wrote. Byzantium, the ancient Greek city, established by colonising Greeks from Megara in 667 BC and named after king Byzantas, later, renamed as Constantinople, became the center of the Byzantine Empire, a Greek-speaking Roman Empire of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The city became Istanbul in 1930, the capital of modern Turkey. This book by Michael Psellus is so fascinating that if you only read one book about Byzantium, by a Byzantine, that would be the one I’d choose.

Would you say that Psellus is typically Byzantine?

He’s a product of the 11th century when things were changing very drastically and rapidly and, in a way, frighteningly. His reaction to these changes is very specific, but at the same time he expresses them in a very delightful fashion, which I find eminently readable. He’s quite different from previous writers of Byzantium in that he inserts himself into the narrative all the time. Psellus is a terrible egotist; he can’t stop talking about all his great achievements. He is constantly referring to his own prowess and brilliance, but you can see from the jobs that he had and the way that he hung on to power and influence that he was very clever and the court continued to need his skills.

What, generally, was the Byzantine culture that Psellus represents?

Byzantium carries this very heavy inheritance from the immediate contact with Ancient Greek culture and the intellectual achievements of fifth century BC Athens. You can see how deeply rooted the pagan culture is, although overlaid with Roman, Christian and, of course, medieval influences which continue to enrich this mixture, right through the centuries. Clearly this culture changes all the time. One of the problems with studying Byzantium is that it went on for so long, over a millennium, and people think it was one static thing, but, in fact, it was changing and transforming itself every decade.

Your next book is Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. How does this book enrich our understanding of Byzantium?

This is an extraordinary book. It was commissioned by an art history publisher, Thames and Hudson, and was to be an illustrated history of the area that Peter Brown was exploring in the 60s and 70s. Really, Late Antiquity wasn’t much of a concept before that book came out. In very few words he managed to sketch out a whole new geography which taught us that you can’t think about the rise of Christianity without looking at the fate of the old established religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism; and that the rule of the Roman Empire had to be brought into the context of Persia, the Barbarian north and followers of Islam. That there was a much wider canvas on which to study the period of the third to the sixth centuries A.D. He really put the late Roman period into perspective in a completely new way.

This concept of Late Antiquity is quite different from the old Decline and Fall approach of Gibbon.

Instead of this notion of decline and being a shadow of its previous self, the Roman world of Late Antiquity took on a much more enriched, colourful and culturally wealthy existence. Peter Brown showed very significantly that by looking at the broader world one could see that Roman ideas, in their Christian forms, were spreading all over the Empire and way beyond, as in the case of the Nestorian Christians, who made their way through Persia to China.

Did Peter Brown’s work come on the back of J B Bury’s A History of the Eastern Roman Empire, another of your favourites?

I’m sure it did, but I think Bury really belongs in the classic tradition. I have selected that work because he wrote beautifully. Bury’s analysis of original sources is a lesson to all of us in how to read carefully and with sympathy but looking constantly for the gaps or the silences in the sources which indicate some aspect which we can’t quite understand, and which Bury was able to make sense of in a way that is important. He produced this wonderful narrative and Peter Brown certainly has the same capacity to entice the reader along through all sorts of complicated developments by writing so well and so convincingly that you don’t want to put it down. Bury was in a class of his own. One of his most talented students was Steven Runciman. I would certainly have included Runciman’s History of the Crusades if there had been room for more books because that’s a very determined style, a style that is designed to interest and excite the reader. There’s nothing boring about Runciman or Bury. We need to cling to this tradition of stylistic excitement and clarity which frequently gets pushed aside by very detailed analysis of too much of the specifics.

Could you tell me about your next choice, Hagarism?

Hagarism is the most exciting book I read as a young graduate. It made sense of the rise of Islam. Cook and Crone, the authors, looked long and hard at what non-Arabic sources tell us about the rise of Islam, and about this new prophet Mohammed. I got to know the authors and realised how seriously they undertook this delicate job. Islam is a living faith and there are people who interpret the written sources in Arabic, about the rise of Islam, in very particular ways. It was very difficult to find a way to make sense of the rise of Islam through non-Islamic sources which didn’t offend all these specialists. Many of them were offended. There’s no way you can be an outsider to a living tradition like Islam today and not upset certain Muslim believers and thinkers who have got their own historical analyses and different views. Cook and Crone shed much light on how Mohammed united the Arab tribes and of course how Byzantium was so fundamentally changed by the rise of Islam. We are talking about an extraordinary 40-year conquest by the end of which almost two-thirds of the Empire had been lost. That was an extraordinary thing for a centralised government to have to come to terms with.

Your fifth book is Strolling through Istanbul. What sets this book apart from other guides to Istanbul?

It is a wonderfully evocative guidebook that is a great pleasure to read. When I first went to Istanbul, in the 60s, it was newly produced and was the fullest and most complete guidebook – I was astonished by the detail. The authors had walked around and made sense of the city in a way that was very thrilling. I strolled through these different parts of Istanbul with my copy of their book which was a joy to read. It is still a great introduction to the many layers of the city: it starts from the top layer, which is the contemporary world, and goes deeper and deeper into the past.

Has there been much historical or cultural cleansing of the city’s memories and monuments?

Yes. There was a good deal of destruction in the 20s and then there was another rather more restricted wave in the 50s when Greek merchants were more or less driven out of the bazaar. Those two 20th century events were very damaging to the non-Turkish communities. But today there are many more Greeks visiting Istanbul and the new détente between Turkey and Armenia, which we have seen just recently, is a positive development towards a greater degree of openness, toleration and support for the minorities. Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city and this cosmopolitanism, which is very Byzantine, enlivens everything. Istanbul is going to be cultural capital of Europe in 2010, and the Turks are determined to make this an appreciation of their very long culture. Byzantium will certainly get a good platform. I hope the Greek and other communities will also feel that their presence has been acknowledged as well. Istanbul has a wonderfully mixed and complex society and this should be something to cherish rather than ignore or try and remove.

December 16, 2009

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Judith Herrin

Judith Herrin

Professor Judith Herrin is Emeritus Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London. She is also a winner of the Heineken Prize for History 2016.