Byzantium: The Surprising Life of Medieval Empire

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of Medieval Empire. Princeton: Princeton

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University Press, 2008.

After the fall of Rome, all of Europe is often said to have entered a ‘dark age.’ Yet the Eastern part of the former Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, flourished, lead by the great capital of Constantinople. Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of Medieval Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) provides an overview of the history of the great empire and its greatest city. She examines why it flourished — and also why it perished. Herrin’s central thesis is that far from the footnote to history, to which it is often reduced, Byzantium civilization played the critical role in preventing the Islamic empire to spread through all of Europe, and thus played a vital part in making the Western World what it is today, for better or for worse.

Herrin is the author of many popular and scholarly works on this era and geographical era. For most of her academic career, Judith Herrin was professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College in London. According to the King College departmental website Professor Herrin retired in 2008 to focus on her writing and to become a Research Fellow at the Department of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies of the college. Her most current area of research is on women in the Byzantine Empire and Byzantium’s role in negotiating relations between Islam and Christendom in the medieval and modern eras. She originally studied history at the Universities of Cambridge and Birmingham. She has also worked and taught in Athens, Paris and Munich, and held the post of Stanley J. Seeger Professor in Byzantine History at Princeton University before returning to England to take the position of second Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s. She is best known for her books that address a wide audience in the United States and the United Kingdom, including the Formation of Christendom (1989) and Women in Purple (2000) (“Professor Judith Herrin,” King’s College, 2009).

Herrin has been honored for her historical scholarship as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and also by the President of the Hellenic Republic of Greece from whom she received a Golden Cross of Honor in 2002 (“Professor Judith Herrin,” King’s College, 2009). She was recently quoted by the Guardian, a popular British newspaper of record comparable to the New York Times in the United States on the subject of prohibitive costs of special museum exhibits. She urged readers instead to go to less publicized, free exhibits: “much Byzantine material can already be seen free…Sometimes it is labeled ‘early Christian’, not Byzantine…the biggest collections are in the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert [Museum]” (Bridge, 2008).

In Byzantium: The Surprising Life of Medieval Empire Herrin, strives to write against a common stereotype of Byzantium. Byzantium has often been associated with something obsolete or bureaucratic. But while Byzantine has become a synonym for something negative and retrograde, it was lead by many paradigm-shifting leaders, not the least of which was Constantine I, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire and the first Christian emperor. Actual Byzantium was diverse and complex and ever-changing, a fusion of cultural and religious identities. Herrin has made it her life’s work to combat the negative and pervasive inaccuracies surrounding the region. To do so, she deploys a panoramic lens. Her work unfolds in a series of twenty-eight short chapters spanning practices, people, places, things, and doctrines. The work is organized topically in a vaguely but not strictly chronological manner. Chapters illuminate great historical issues and mundane aspects of daily life, matters both great and small. Greek Orthodoxy, the Hagia Sophia church, Rome and Roman Law, the protective military technique of ‘Greek fire’ at sea, eunuchs leading armies, icon worship, and the Towers of Trebizond are some of the topics she addresses. Herrin presents things in a fairly straightforward manner, although on some issues, such as that of the Byzantine economy, she is willing to take a controversial stand, such as the fact she does believe Byzantium may have had a currency, even though the archeological record is lacking in evidence.

Her central analytic contention runs against a previous academic assumption that stressed that Islamic expansion, which cut off the northern European economy from trade with the rest of the world, caused European Christendom’s rapid economic and cultural decline, sparking the development of feudalism. According to Herrin, Byzantium provided kind of a safe-house of Christian culture, and the decline was not nearly as precipitous and sharp as historians have lead readers to believe.

Herrin’s technique is engaging even for readers unfamiliar with the period: she uses micro issues to address issues of ‘macro’ importance. One of the most interesting chapters, for example, is on Byzantine iconography. If the lay reader is familiar with any aspect of Byzantium it is likely this artistic practice. She argues that icons cannot be primarily understood as artworks, as they are today, but must be placed in their historical and theological context to be properly interpreted. For example, manufacturing icons was seen as providing worshippers with a direct form of access to God. The artist was a kind of medium, or vehicle of inspiration to the saints or other figures in heaven. This stands in profound contrast to the reverence for the individual artist in Western culture, and its emphasis on religious reproduction of theological figures, rather than the veneration of theological art. This highlights an essential difference between Western and Eastern Christianity that exists even today. In Byzantium, gazing at icons was a religious, not an aesthetic experience, and physical veneration of manmade artworks and was not considered blasphemy — for most of Byzantium, anyway.

However, in a stunning turn of events, the iconoclast movement gained in significance, banning images at one point during Byzantium’s history. After the empire had endured a number of significant military defeats, eventually it was assumed that idol-worship was to blame, and as God had allowed His chosen people to be destroyed when they worshipped idols, such was the case again. This illustrates how religion, art, and politics, were all one in Byzantium, although the Christian advocates of the icons eventually won the day. Herrin believes that viewed from a strict, anthropological perspective, veneration of icons certainly does have strong pagan resonances. Still, in orthodoxy today, iconography remains important, because of this Byzantine Christian practice.

Herrin also brings to of the era, particularly women, which is another of her areas of specialty in her research. Women such as Anna Komnene wrote historical epics, Justinian’s empress Theodora was often even more ferocious than Justin in the face of opposition, and a wealthy woman Juliana Anicia was behind the construction of the famous church the Hagia Sophia even while religious dogma condemned women as evil. One monastery would not even allow female animals within its walls. Yet women supported abbeys of nuns, wrote histories, and helped lead the empire as regents or empresses. She also includes strange and off-beat facts such as Byzantium was the place responsible for the invention of cursive, chapter headings and punctuation.

Byzantium, in other words, was full of contradictions. It was both pagan and Christian, and preserved both traditions within is massive libraries. Its system of justice and rule seems barbaric to modern eyes, but once again Herrin is careful to stress that it must be read in temporal and world context. By the standards of the day, justice seems quite humane, even though it might include, for example, slaves loosing their hands if they were convicted from stealing from their masters. In Western Christianity, these same slaves would be put to death. Additionally, individuals would be granted divorces if they hated each other ‘extremely,’ in contrast to Western Christianity. Likewise, although the veneration of rulers might seem elaborate and even servile, this was in keeping with the Roman tradition.

Byzantium collapsed with the invasion of the Turkish forces in 1453. But the fascination with this period in Herrin lives on — at the beginning of her book she says she wrote her work to explain to ‘common people’ what she does for a living, and also why Byzantium still affects their lives today. At times, her work reads more like an apology, with the historian as an advocate for the civilization’s greatness. However, the readability of the work makes up for Herrin at times sounding intensely partisan, writing in defense of what has shaped her entire scholarly life.

At times, Herrin’s familiarity makes her assume too much on the part of the reader — perhaps someone better-versed with modern orthodox theology would be able to appreciate some of the theological controversies she highlights (many people’s only knowledge of the Byzantium practices she discusses is ‘Jesus Prayer’ which according to Herrin arises from belief practice called Hesychast theology based upon the constant repetition of the same prayer phrase over and over again). But Herrin’s main accomplishment is that she tells a great story and manages to make a defense for Byzantium without seeming anti-Turkish or anti-Islam, a notable achievement the contemporary era which is, equally fraught with religious controversies as Byzantium itself.

Works Cited

Bridge, Mark. “Who said this stuff is priceless? The Times. 23 Aug 2008, p.6.

ProQuest. Document ID: 1543137691 17 Feb. 2009

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of Medieval Empire. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 2008.

Professor Judith Herrin. “King’s College, London. 17 Feb. 2009.