History of the Byzantine Empire: 324-1453 by Alexander A. Vasiliev

Book Review by Tobias

The Byzantine Empire; a state which can said to have been in continuous existence from 324 A.D. to 1453 A.D. During this time, its fortunes have waxed and waned; it has celebrated great triumphs and suffered the basest defeats, defeated the strongest powers of the time and been overrun mere years later.

To the historian, a subject of intense interest then, a history of which could only be brought together in the most illustrious of ways, through strenuous research and meticulous compilation.

The first Volume of A.A. Vasiliev’s “History of the Byzantine Empire” has been achieved thus. This History was originally published in Russia, and accordingly in Russian. It was first released in 1917, without the footnotes that make it such a complete study in the revised version. Vasiliev continued to update and revise his history, publishing versions in French, Spanish, Turkish and English, until the revised issue being now reviewed was released in 1952. Since then, the history has not been changed, except (according to the publisher of the book) for the correction of typographical errors.

Spanning the history of the Byzantine Empire from 324 A.D. to the beginnings of the Empire’s period of decline after the Battle of Manzikert and the rise of the Comneneid Dynasty, this first volume painstakingly and efficiently accounts for the many events of the Byzantine history; from religious issues to biographies of Emperors, from political and social developments to literature, learning, education and arts.

The book is begun with an actual introduction by Mr Vasiliev himself, accounting for the evolution of his history. The history begins with the study of Byzantium, eruditely summarizing the study of Byzantium in Western scholarship. It continues to include the study of the Byzantines in Russia in the modern day. Russia indeed can be said to have gained much of its culture from the Byzantines, which makes it rather appropriate that Russian study accounts should be included. Vasiliev goes on to comprise many other sources which he himself has referred to or that he recommends to those interested in the history of Byzantium should research.

The history itself begins with Constantine and Christianity; going to include the changes of religion in the Byzantine Empire and the beginning troubles with the Church and Papacy in Rome. His and Diocletian’s reforms are succinctly recorded, and an extremely detailed line of Emperors and the Byzantine society up until the sixth century follow. The amazing depth of knowledge can already be grasped at its overwhelming size, and these are only the first two comprehensive chapters!

The first Volume continues to deeply consider the amazing history of this longevous Empire; through the time of Justin and his amazing successor, Justinian I and their immediate successors, to the “Heraclian Epoch”, the “Iconoclastic Epoch” and the “Macedonian Epoch”, all of which are separate chapters, deeply detailed, referenced and analysed.

Footnotes adorn each page, providing a further wealth of detail. Throughout the volume, the political, social and religious developments are considered, the notable Emperors discussed and the literature and arts canvassed, providing a magnificently comprehensive picture of the Byzantine era. A light read it is not; it takes dedication and resolve to continue to read; but once the reader has immersed him or herself in this rich history, they will never wish to stop, and as a book for references or random information on the Byzantines, it has few equals.

In conclusion; this revised first volume of “The History of the Byzantine Empire” is an extremely comprehensive and erudite read. Vasiliev has created a volume that is virtually impossible to surpass for sheer detail and interest. For those who have an interest in the Byzantine history, this book should be a bible, as I myself have read few books that could equal this one in the provision of information. Truly, a masterpiece of in-depth history and culture; to be read and admired by all whose interest leads them down the path of the amazing Byzantines.

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