Introductory works on Byzantium

In the past week, I’ve been asked almost half a dozen times to recommend some general books on Byzantium, and amazingly enough, it has not all been by the same person having to ask me repeatedly. Given that I’ve been making similar recommendations, I figured I’d put together a post highlighting some good and important books in the field. I’ve generally tried to put together a list of books that is fairly readable. For example, I would say John Haldon’s Byzantium in the Seventh Century is probably the single most important book on understanding how East Rome became Byzantium and consequently what Byzantium was, but it’s also 450+ pages of dense scholarship. This is also not complete by any standards of the imagination. I have not read Warren Treadgold’s general survey, nor have I read Timothy Gregory’s. The late period (1204-1453) is also not covered here at all. I have little experience with the scholarship of that period and other than having read a number of books on the fall of Constantinople, cannot speak with any authority for the preceding two centuries.

George Ostrogorsky’s book may be old, but it is still a solid introduction and provides a standard historical narrative sweep of Byzantine history. One of my favourite features of the book is that at the beginning of each chapter, Ostrogorsky devotes a small section to the discussion of the sources. While most of the editions he is referring to are out of date (and many which were not in English when the book was written now are) the short discussion remains important because far too many general works do not give adequate space to the sources they use. The biggest problem with this book is its age. In many areas of historical interpretation, scholarship has moved on. It is also a book primarily concerned with military and political developments, so do not expect a more balanced treatment of other subjects which are now in vogue in academia, such as peasants or women.

Mark Whittow’s book is an invaluable survey of Byzantine history from the end of the Roman order in the east until the apex of the Macedonian dynasty in 1025. While much of this book is also a political narrative, Whittow devotes ample space to a number of themes, such as the survival of Byzantium in the face of the Arab conquests and Byzantium’s steppe neighbours. The book is heavily focused on archaeological data, and this provides an important corrective to some popular accounts which try to make Byzantium somewhat grander, richer, and more powerful than it really was. That said, this can be a rather dense survey, and I do think Whittow takes his archaeological evidence too far at times, but as a whole this is one of the best surveys of Byzantine history. While I think Peter Sarris’ new and more focused Empires of Faith does a better job on the seventh century, I’m hesitant to recommend a book that’s fairly expensive and extremely dense which covers such a short time period as a general introduction.

Chronologically following up Whittow’s Making of Byzantium is Michael Angold’s The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204. It covers the period from the death of Basil the Bulgar-slayer in 1025 to the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, tracing the politics behind the last years of the Macedonian dynasty, the chaos towards the end of the century, and the establishment of the Komnenoi. This book may not be that large, but it is very dense. The scholarship is very good, and although it labels itself as a political history Angold engages more broadly with the period discussing topics such as intellectual trends. The downside of this book is that it is out of print, and thus rather expensive to acquire a copy. It is also not light reading, although I found it to be extremely engaging.

Okay, so Byzantium specifically gets only about fifty pages of the 550+ in this volume, but they are a very good fifty pages. Chris Wickham did a spectacular job in tracing out the entire political history of the Mediterranean from 400-1000 A.D. in extremely well-researched and readable prose. While the enormous quantity of material being covered necessitates density and selectivity, Wickham does a fantastic job of representing Byzantium in its wider early Mediaeval context. His stuff on Byzantium is particularly good. He’s married to Leslie Brubaker, a noted Byzantinist, and he’s a member of All Souls College. Oxford may be an exclusive club, but there’s an even more exclusive club inside the exclusive club, and that’s All Souls.

Another book that requires an apology: I haven’t actually read it, but the author told me it’s good! And that’s enough for peer review, right? Dr. Brubaker assured me that it is a summary of her and John Haldon’s Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. While I would love to recommend that book, it is rather difficult put a 1000-page academic tome down under the general section. I really do believe that so long as this slim volume doesn’t go too heavy on the pictures (as the first 400 pages of big book did not) it should be able to summarize the arguments made within quite nicely, and thus provide a solid history of one of Byzantium’s most important periods.

Jonathan Harris is one of the scholars with the rare gift of being able to produce good and engaging popular history while not neglecting the established scholarship. Of the three of his books that fit into that category, I had to choose one for this list and the choice is Constantinople. The premise behind this work is to see what Constantinople would have been like in the year 1200. Harris chose this year because it was before the crusader sack, is late enough to have most of the major Byzantine monuments constructed, and comes at the end of the Komnenian building program. While Harris surveys the city and talks about its monuments, he does an extremely good job of placing them in their context, narrating lively stories about them, and most important of all, his Constantinople is a living, breathing city. As a result, one may come away have learned more about Byzantine society and civilization from the series of vignettes presented by Harris than about the monuments of the city, and this is why I strongly recommend this volume.

Averil Cameron’s The Byzantines in Wiley-Blackwell’s Peoples of Europe series isan important entry alongside other European peoples like the Franks, the Goths, and the Mongols(?). The advantages of Cameron’s book are twofold. First, she is an extremely renowned scholar in the field, and although she’s not part of All Souls at Oxford, she was the Warden of Keble College and she’s a dame, which is the lady side of knighthood. Second, this book is not primarily a general political narrative history. Instead, Cameron focuses on a wide variety of cultural topics and instead of addressing Byzantine history as a narrative, she addresses Byzantium as an active, robust, and changing civilization. Those familiar with the field may wonder why I have not put Cyril Mango’s Byzantium: Empire of New Rome on my list here, and the reason is precisely because of Cameron’s book. She does what he does (although not always with as great precision) just as well, but her book is much more up to date.

A dense introduction loaded in maps written by one of the most esteemed scholars in the field today. This book concerns itself with matters of politics, religion, and the economy for a rather well balanced history in less than 200 pages which is loaded in maps. Not exactly light reading, but the headings are short so you can pick and choose what you want to read about.

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5 Responses to Introductory works on Byzantium

  1. Curt Emanuel says:

    Interesting post. I thought about buying a copy of Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era at Kalamazoo and even with the conference discount I didn’t pull the trigger. I have read Treadgold and this will seem strange for a book 60 years more recent but beyond referencing newer material I didn’t find it an improvement over Ostrogorsky or Vasiliev. Gonna have to check out Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm.

  2. Lucas says:

    ‘Iconoclast Era’ is good, but I think you’ll get the main points from ‘Inventing’ for much less time and money invested. Large parts of ‘Iconoclast Era’ are also very similar to what Haldon said in ‘Seventh Century’ as well.

  3. Lucas says:

    Having now read ‘Inventing Iconoclasm’ I can recommend it to you, Curt. It summarizes the first half of Haldon and Brubaker’s big book quite nicely, and is clearly aimed at an undergraduate audience. This does mean that you can read the entire book in an afternoon and get a good sense of their arguments (even if the evidence presented in this book alone is not wholly convincing.)

  4. Pingback: Byzantine Empire - Your Thoughts - Page 15 - Historum - History Forums

  5. Pingback: Recommended Byzantine books? - Historum - History Forums

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