A Serial Review

This is the part where I will discuss the relative merits of Shreddies against Frosted Flakes. Or perhaps not. I’ve actually been pre-occupied with two main matters as of late: thesis research and figuring out what I am going to do and where I am going to go for a Ph.D. The thesis research has been going quite well, and I hope to have a draft of decent size complete for the end of summer. All this terminological work on the foederati is rather tedious, but it’s paying off. I am getting to the point where I can argue that a list terms of suspected relevance do not actually provide much information. I also received several large scholarships for my M.A. work, which is encouraging. On the Ph.D front I feel that I’ve made less progress. The UK schools I’m looking at (primarily Oxford and St. Andrews, although Cambridge remains a possibility) tend to want very good thesis proposals. The problem with this is that I want to work on the Byzantine-Islamic relations at the state level in the late seventh to mid-eighth century, and all the recent scholarship on that topic is in German. I do not know any German, and although I’m planning on spending a term at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich next year to finish my thesis, I do not actually start German until the fall. Syriac, French, and some Greek will keep me occupied until then. Anyhow, this ramble was never the point of the post. I intended to do a serial review of what I’ve been reading, in 100 words or less per book. I’ve reviewed a few of these on Amazon, so you can see my thoughts in full there, but here it shall be kept brief.


The History of Michael Attaleiates

Michael Attaleiates, translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis.


Michael Attaleiates’ history is mainly focused on the 1070s, and is presented here for the first time in English with a recent Greek edition on the facing page. It’s a very lively read, and I am coming to have great hopes for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. Essentially, this work chronicles Byzantium’s decline in the 1070s as it fought internal civil wars and did little to ward off the Seljuks. Also includes some material to contrast with the Alexiad on the pre-imperial career of Alexios I Komnenos.


Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for a History of Nikephoros Bryennios

Leonora Neville

heroes and romans

Heroes and Romans is one of my favourite books I’ve read on Byzantium to date, partially because Neville’s insights are constantly revealing, and partially because I could never have the patience to do what she does. The essential crux of the work is that Nikephoros Bryennios Materials for a History has a strong Roman moralizing bent, and that when viewed by the standards of the work certain characters come out quite well despite their eventual defeats (Romanos IV Diogenes, John Doukas, and Nikephoros Bryennios Sr., namely) while others (Alexios I Komnenos) actually appear to be quite bad despite being successful. Neville breathes life into a neglected text, and this fascinating book will likely be read with great profit for a long time to come.


The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072

Ronnie Ellenblum


This one wasn’t so great. From the sheer quantity of information the author collected he’s probably correct, but given the topic outlined it read like a second-rate Ph.D. thesis. His idea is that the decline of the Abbasid state and Byzantium coincided with a period of extreme weather that led to famine and drought in the settled areas and which brought steppe peoples into the civilized world. Constantly interesting but hampered by the lack of the scientific data which is essential in studies such as these, Ellenblum’s book really just seems like a first draft of something that should be monumental and field-changing.


Pierre Gilles’ Constantinople

Pierre Gilles, translated by Patricia Byrd

PG Constantinople

I finally got around to reading Pierre Gilles’ account of his trip to Constantinople in the middle of the 16th century. While it is an impressive work of scholarship on its own, Gilles provides us with information on monuments now buried or destroyed. One has to sift a bit through the book, since so much of it is filled with what the ancient authors whom Gilles had read had to say about various buildings, but it remains an essential text for understanding Byzantium Constantinople. The translation is easy to read and the notes are good.


The Oxford Book of Oxford

Jan Morris


I picked this up on a whim, but it was a lot of fun. It’s just little document snippets relating to Oxford from its foundation up to the Second World War. It’s anecdotal nature means that there is no narrative, and it’s occasionally hard to understand some of the big issues that the university faced over its existence (from my understanding, WWI and women being two of the most important in recent times) but this book is endlessly entertaining, and has some excellent material contained within even if it tends to lean towards the more exciting/scandalous/amusing side of things.


The Armenian Military in the Byzantine Empire

Armen Ayvazyan

armenian military

The best part about this book is that it was short. This mildly nationalistic piece proposes to discuss the Armenian rebellion against Justinian in 538-9 AD as well as explain why the Armenians aren’t mentioned in Maurice’s Strategikon. The latter is argued well, but the former is a meandering mess of invented plausibilities that has the Armenians revolting against the Romans in the name of some nationalistic spirit. Perhaps most interestingly was the point Ayvazyan made about how the Armenians often targeted enemy commanders in their conflicts, a point which seems to stand despite everything else.


The World Beneath Istanbul

Ersin Kalkan


Another disaster of a book. It has a few useful pieces of information on some of the lesser-known or more inaccessable parts of Byzantium hidden under Istanbul, but as a whole it’s badly translated and frequently meanders onto irrelevant or semi-relevant topics, public executions and holy springs apparently being some of the favourites.


Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity

Greg Fisher

between empires

A comprehensive history of the Jafnids and Nasrids (often referred to as the Ghassanids and Lakhmids in older literature and anything by Irfan Shahid) and their interactions with both Rome and Iran. Convincingly argued and always interesting, the parts I got the most out of was the forms that interactions on the Roman frontier took and how similar they were to a few forms of display that we see in early Islam.


The Myth of Nations

Patrick Geary


I actually didn’t like this book despite it being good. Geary spends a great deal of time discussing the representations of foreign peoples in antiquity and then late antiquity, whereas I was hoping more for a point by point refutation of various nationalistic claims. It’s a solid work, if a bit tiresome for a classicist who knows how Herodotos and Tacitus viewed peoples from beyond the borders. While structurally this book is far more complete, I got more from Michael Kulikowski’s (who I was fortunate to have lunch with this past term) one chapter on nationalism and the Goths in Rome’s Gothic Wars.


The Iohannis, or de Bellis Libycis

Corippus, translated by George Shea.


I was so happy to find that there was an English translation of this. The thought of having to go through 200 pages of Latin verse or 200 pages of Latin verse in French translation for what turned out to be a not very fruitful reward had filled me with dread. I have yet to look at the Latin text since this is very low-priority in the hierarchy of thesis research, but Shea’s translation makes for excellent English prose. The text is a Latin poem on the wars against some opportunistic locals after Justinian’s reconquest of Africa.


The Fragmentary Classicising History of the Later Roman Empire I


The cover was too boring to show. The introductory volume to a work containing the fragments and translations of four mostly lost historians from late antiquity. This volume comprised an introduction the authors themselves and a survey of the available fragments. Essential reading for anyone working in the 5-6th centuries, either east or west, and thankfully a quick, easy, and informative read. But if you’re in the field you already know that, unless you’ve been living under a rock since the ’70s.


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