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Byzantium surprise

Historian Judith Herrin strips away the veneer of this medieval empire to reveal artistry and innovation.

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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.

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