Byzantium Surprise

Article excerpt

It is spoken of in fiction and histories as an enigma, a shrouded maze of privileged deception and perfumed deceit, an ossified, jewel- encrusted court, where guile and honeyed treachery reign - a medieval Middle Eastern version of the Versailles of Louis XV. It is Byzantium. But that image, as cinematically enticing as it may be, is one of the most effective examples of disinformation the world has ever seen, as Judith Herrin reveals in her remarkable new history, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.

By the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire had grown so large and its distant borders so besieged, that it was decided that at least two and possibly even four emperors should cogovern. The plan was not a success. The emperors fought one another for domination. Meanwhile, the western half continued to buckle under the constant pressure of tribal onslaughts. Then in AD 324, Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to build a fortified classical city, a "new" Rome, in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Though it was frequently threatened and over time its land base diminished, still this devoutly Christian Byzantine Empire flourished for nearly another thousand years.

Yet rather than offering us another dry linear history about dynastic power struggles, Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on manifold aspects of Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion.

From Constantine's conversion, Herrin details the transformation of Christianity from persecuted sect to state religion. She provides a fascinating overview of early Christian asceticism and the organization and development of the first monasteries, while paying special attention to those around Jerusalem, Christianity's holiest city. Later, she demonstrates the Byzantine openness of thought as in the 9th century when they encouraged the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic language which would enable them to communicate with the unruly and ungovernable Slavs. The emperor then supported the translation of the Bible into this newly invented Cyrillic language so that the Slavs could read the Bible in their own tongue and be converted. Subsequently, the Bible was translated into Russian, and the Russian peoples similarly converted. (The translation of the Bible into the vernacular remained controversial and heretical within Western Christianity until well past the 15th century. …