Byline: Blake Gopnik
The Met explores the war between Byzantium and Islam.
In the year a.d. 630, things were looking pretty good for the Roman Empire, considering that its "fall" was supposed to have happened in 476. Emperor Heraclius had just pushed the Persians back out of the empire's breadbasket in the Middle East, so Roman power again covered close to the whole Mediterranean. (The city of Rome may have fallen in the fifth century, but the Roman Empire kept going for another millennium in the Greek-speaking lands east and south, ruled from Constantinople.) One imperial silversmith crafted a gorgeous set of plates telling the story of David and Goliath, in thinly veiled homage to his emperor's own feats. The subject is biblical, made in the Christian culture we now call Byzantine, but its styling harks back to classical Rome: David looks straight out of a sword-and-sandals movie. Those plates now belong to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and star in its great new show called Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. As that title suggests, just when our silversmith was feeling so optimistic, a new Muslim power was forming on the Arabian Peninsula. After Muhammad's death in 632, his followers erupted across all the Middle East and North Africa, pushing the Byzantine Romans right back.
The Met exhibition surveys this great clash--and discovers that the contact bore …