Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

by Judith Herrin

Princeton University Press, 440 pages, $29.95

In Handel’s opera Tamerlano , the principal characters are Tamerlane; the brutal Mongol chieftain Bajazet; an Ottoman Sultan and his daughter Asteria; and Andronico, the Byzantine emperor. Early-modern Europe was fascinated with the defeat of the Turkish sultan by Tamerlane”or Timur, as he is better known today.

Vivaldi, too, wrote an opera, Bajazet , on the same theme, and earlier Christopher Marlowe had written a drama, Tamburlaine . Though the medieval struggles for domination in Anatolia in the century before the fall of Constantinople may seem remote”tales fit for an evening at the opera”they are part of a long history that reverberates in our own time.

Yet in our society, even among the educated, familiarity with the medieval history of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is patchy at best. This was on display after Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg in September 2006. Manuel II Paleologus”the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope”was at the time of the debate from which the notorious quotation was taken a hostage at the court of Sultan Bayezid and forced to fight alongside the Turks against his fellow Byzantines. The morning after Benedict’s speech, I caught a discussion on the radio in which two well-known historians, eager to add their reproach to the obloquy heaped on Manuel, agreed that the emperor was no different from the Crusaders”oblivious to the dolorous history in which the Crusaders two centuries earlier had burned and ravaged Constantinople, the seat of Manuel’s government, during the Fourth Crusade and set up Western Christian rule in the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

In American universities, Byzantine history and culture is a neglected stepchild seldom deemed important enough to require a full-time professor. In part this is a reflection of the conventional narrative of the past, imagined from the perspective of Western Europe and the United States. In part it stems from the deep cultural and linguistic chasm dividing Western and Eastern Christianity, reaching back to late antiquity. And in part it has to do with the caricature of Byzantium created during the Enlightenment by writers such Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon and made more lurid in the course of the nineteenth century.

William Lecky, a Victorian historian, had this to say: “Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet ‘mean’ may be so emphatically applied . . . . The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.”

Though this kind of prejudice has pretty much disappeared”there have been three major exhibitions on the history of Byzantine art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent years”Byzantine history remains a domain for specialists whose work, with the exception of art, seldom touches college students or reaches the general public.

Judith Herrin, a seasoned historian, is acutely aware not only of the neglect of Byzantine history and culture but also of how difficult it is even to explain what the term means. In her new book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire , she tells an amusing story about two workmen in her building at Kings College, London. When they read the sign on her door, “Professor of Byzantine History,” they knocked to ask, “What is Byzantine history?” They thought it had something to do with Turkey. After ten minutes of explanation based on too many assumptions and peppered with abstruse anecdotes, she realized that, after many years of teaching the subject, she was ill-prepared to answer their question. And so she set out to write a book that would provide an overview of Byzantine history and culture for the general reader.

Unlike Western history, which is continuous from the Middle Ages to the present, Byzantine history came to a decisive and definitive end at the fall of Constantinople. The modern Greek nation, a new entity born in the nineteenth century, occupies only a small part of the territory of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium, however, was a civilization that lasted for more than a thousand years and embraced a large part of the Mediterranean world, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Given the challenges it faced over the centuries”most notably the rise, in the seventh century, of Islam, which deprived the empire of much of its wealthiest territory, and the brutal occupation of Constantinople by the Crusaders in the thirteenth century”its longevity as well as its brilliance is remarkable. That it endured for more than a millennium confounds the stereotype that its society was stagnant and unchanging. In truth, medieval Byzantine civilization was enterprising, resilient, and in some ways surprisingly innovative.

It is only as one sees Byzantium for itself, and not simply in relation to Islam or Western Europe, that one can begin to appreciate its greatness. And that is what makes Herrin’s Byzantium so welcome. All the expected topics are here: the founding of Constantinople, the building of the great church of Agia Sophia, the rule of Justinian and the codification of Roman law, the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, the harsh consequences of the rise of Islam, the place of icons in Byzantine life and the iconoclastic controversy, the conversion of the Slavs and the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic tongue, Mount Athos, the outstanding historian Anna Komnene, the arrival of the Crusaders, the siege of Constantinople.

But the book contains much more. Herrin includes an informative chapter on that mysterious and terrifying weapon, “Greek fire.” Allegedly invented by a certain Kallinikos, it was a combination of naptha, from wells in Crimea, mixed with resin. When the mixture was set afire and projected through long tubes, it could burn on water and engulf an enemy ship. The precise formula of naptha to resin was a state secret, and it was strictly forbidden to reveal the technique to outsiders.

Then there is a fascinating account of the place of eunuchs in Byzantine life. The use of eunuchs to serve imperial rulers is not unusual, but Herrin shows that they were particularly well integrated into Byzantine society as a whole. Not only did they play a prominent role in the imperial court, they also rose to positions of high standing in the church, in the army, in civil administration, and in wealthy private families. Though Westerners were first scandalized by their omnipresence in society, “their sweet chanting,” as one Western observer put it on a visit to Constantinople in the twelfth century, “the mingling of the voices, the heavier [male] with the light [eunuchs’], softened the hearts of the Franks. Also they gave the onlookers pleasure by their graceful bearing and gentle clapping of hands and genuflexions.”

Though this is a narrative history, Herrin has more in mind than telling a good story. Her book is a serious effort to give Byzantium a larger place in our historical consciousness. So in her conclusion she highlights some of the accomplishments of Byzantine civilization: an imperial government built on a trained civilian administration and tax system; a legal structure based on Roman law; a curriculum of secular education that preserved classical learning; theological thought, artistic expression, and spiritual traditions that are still alive in the Orthodox churches; and coronation and court rituals that were adopted by other rulers.

While Herrin does not make the point, it is worth remembering that Byzantine civilization owes its durability to one singular geographical fact: The emperor Constantine chose to build his new capital on the site of a small and insignificant city named Byzantium on the European side of the Bosporus. A more natural choice for the new capital would have been one of the great cities of the eastern Roman Empire: Alexandria in Egypt or Antioch in Syria or Caesarea on the coast of Palestine. Had Constantine chosen to locate his capital in one of these, there can be little doubt that the Byzantine Empire would have come to an end in the seventh century, as did the Persian Empire to the east. In the first flush of enthusiasm as they advanced into Syria and Egypt, the Arab armies were unstoppable. The empire was able to survive because its capital was located far to the west.

Without Constantinople, the course of European history would have been wholly different. The city’s extraordinary ability to defend itself, writes Herrin, “was to shield the northwestern world of the Mediterranean during the chaotic but creative period that followed the collapse of the Roman empire in the West. Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.”

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.