Byzantium: The Surpising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin

Second paragraph of third chapter:

While Latin was used throughout the West, Greek remained the lingua franca of all the eastern regions. Until the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire employed both ancient languages. Administrators sent from the West to the eastern half of the empire were often issued with wordbooks giving the Greek equivalent of Latin words and explaining local terminology. Translation from Greek to Latin was largely the work of Christian scholars who wanted to make the Scriptures and theological writings available to westerners. Much less Latin literature was rendered into Greek. Most of Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Horace, for instance, remained unknown to monoglot Greek speakers. Most well-educated men, however, were bilingual. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-92 or later), a native of Antioch who identified himself as a Greek and a soldier, wrote a history of his times in Latin which documents the campaigns of Emperor Julian. He also brilliantly evoked the beauty of ancient sites, such as the temple of Sarapis in Alexandria, levelled by Christians in 391, or the Forum of Trajan in Rome.

Gibbon very unfairly neglects the Byzantine Empire, and Judith Herrin here argues for its rehabilitation as a vibrant civilisation in its own right, until it was dealt a deadly blow by Western Christianity in 1204 (and yet still survived another quarter of a millennium). She avoids doing a straight historical narrative, instead concentrating on different aspects of Byzantine politics and culture, arranged roughly in chronological order; there is an early chapter on the Hagia Sofia, a late chapter on Trebizond and the other post-1204 splinters. I felt that the risks of this approach did not quite pay off – there ends up being some repetition between chapters, and the whole thing seemed a bit unmoored from a firm timeline. Of course the risk of going the other way is that you would get too much into the dynastic politics of the people at the top, to the neglect of the rest.

Speaking of the people at the top, I had not appreciated that several women ruled the Byzantine Empire in their own right, or that two of them responsible for ending the two spells of iconoclasm. And having complained about the weak connection to the passage of time, I must say that I was very satisfied with the book’s treatment of the shifting geography of the Byzantine empire, particularly the account of how the Ravenna mosaics came to be in Ravenna. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors will be enlightened by this book, which may be better absorbed chapter by (short) chapter, rather than reading through in a few sittings. You can get it here.

This was both the top unread book on my shelves by a woman, and the top unread non-fiction book. Next in those piles are The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells, and Who I Am, by Pete Townsend.