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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire


Byzantium made Europe possible - Books - Byzantium made Europe possible

It lasted 1,000 years and was the bulwark against Islam, but the eastern empire's decline was confirmed under the red swords of fellow Christians, the crusaders

March 23, 2008 Brett Popplewell


Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

by Judith Herrin

Princeton, 392 pages, $29.95


Judith Herrin was at a loss to answer the two workmen who asked, upon reading a plaque on her door, "What is Byzantine history?"

As a result of that 2002 encounter, the King's College professor began writing an intriguing historical look at the widely unknown empire. Now she has finished, and the result is a polished and succinct account of a kingdom that filled the void between the collapse of Rome and the European Renaissance.

Presenting Byzantium with all its strengths and defects, Herrin explains how western Europe could not have existed had it not been shielded by Byzantium. As she puts it, "Byzantium made Europe possible." If ever there was a kingdom that lasted a thousand years, this was it.

At a time when the Roman Empire stretched from Scotland to Iran, the city of Constantinople was born out of necessity on a peninsula located at the crux of Europe and Asia. Founded in 324 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Constantinople was to be the capital of Rome's Eastern Empire. But Rome would not survive, defeated by the barbarian hordes. The Eastern Romans Byzantines as they have come to be known carried on the torch of their Latin predecessors until the Ottoman siege of 1453.

During the dark ages in Europe, when the Papacy struggled to convert the masses and when warring chieftains sacked and pillaged town and country across the former Roman Empire, Byzantine culture thrived with its unique outlook on art, Christianity, war and diplomacy.

As the eastern-most empire of Christendom, it was Byzantium that, while still reeling from a prolonged conflict with Persia for control of the Middle East, first confronted Islam. The Byzantines rallied around their Christian icons and miraculously survived the first wave of Islamic expansion.

Legend tells of the Virgin Mary coming to the defence of the great city and its 12-metre walls. But Herrin records the equally mystical secret to Constantinople's survival Greek Fire.

Every state has its secrets. Greek Fire was Byzantium's and modern historians still aren't sure what it was. Herrin guesses: "crude oil acquired from the Crimea, mixed with resin, but the precise proportions and the hydraulic mechanism for projecting it are still rather unclear."

Whatever its composition, the Byzantines unleashed their Greek Fire on enemy ships and besiegers, enflaming both in the hot liquid death propelled through tubes.

From the 7th century onward, Herrin describes Byzantium as "the Bulwark against Islam" the sacrificial lamb that fought a losing battle against the armies of the Prophet. Centuries of war against the Arabs left the empire weak, but Constantinople's impenetrable walls managed to keep Islam out, allowing the rest of Europe to war within itself and evolve as it did.

Then came the Crusades. At first, the city served as a rallying point from which the crusaders marched on Jerusalem and the holy lands. But then came the great schism between the Orthodoxy and the Papacy, after the Patriarch of Constantinople refused to recognize the primacy of the Pope in Rome.

Constantinople first fell not to Islam but to Christian crusaders in 1204. The knights of the cross sacked the city, departing with its relics and riches, leaving the Byzantines with an isolated imperial capital but no more empire.

With the sun setting on Byzantium, Herrin describes in dramatic fashion the final siege that heralded the end of Constantinople and the rise of Istanbul. In her colourful yet to-the-point depiction of May 1453, the former empire's defeat is written as if recorded by a war correspondent.

Much of Byzantium survives today. Though Istanbul is a modern city of 12 million people, the ancient walls of Constantinople and the church of Hagia Sofia built by Emperor Justinian in 537 haunt and add charm still.

The Patriarch of Constantinople remains the head of the Orthodox Church. Ancient Byzantine monasteries still stand across eastern Europe and Asia Minor perhaps most notably on Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the 10 commandments.

Great mosaics etched in the Byzantine style can be found in cathedrals around the world, while relics lifted from Constantinople during the crusaders' siege of 1204 remain scattered across much of Europe.

Herrin makes it clear that the Byzantines were a people driven by God, excommunicated from the rest of the Christian world and besieged by Islam, whose leaders employed eunuchs and waxed philosophical on the meaning of the Trinity while the cannon balls of enemies pounded at the gates.

Byzantium's history is presented chronologically, which helps explain why there's no simple description of its legacy. Herrin's emphasis on the empire's proudest achievement, its culture separate chapters are devoted to religion, economy, warfare, art and literature is an armchair delight.

Star reporter Brett Popplewell studied history at the London School of Economics and has traveled through what was once the Byzantine Empire.

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