A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory

Book Review by Ursus

Reviewing a book on the Byzantines can be a chancy affair for any Romanophile who sees them as an afterthought to the Latin West. Nonetheless any Romanophile worth his salt will realize the need to have some passing familiarity with this peculiar culture to fill in the gaps of Western Civilization. From that perspective, any book that offers an honest yet concise treatment of the subject provides a decidedly astute service.

Gregory keenly encapsulates a 1000 years of history and culture into a readable presentation of 380 pages. The perspective revolves around a mostly traditional political and military narrative.

Nonetheless religion and larger cultural trends are not totally ignored. Every few pages there are sidebar discussions that focus in-depth on some interesting personality or phenomenon (e.g. transvestite monks). The narrative is enlivened with the aid of many illustrations and photographs showcasing Byzantine art and architecture. The result is a sweeping panorama of Byzantine society that unfolds as centuries condense into a few dozen pages.

Gregory’s prose is simple and lucid, definitely written for the general reader. He sticks mainly to the facts as we know them and generally refrains from inserting pet theories. Gregory’s book is meant as an overview. Those wanting a more comprehensive treatment will have to avail themselves of the considerable bibliographies of suggested reading. As an overview this work is more than adequate, however.

Gregory begins his account with an overview of the Crisis of the Third Century, and the subsequent reforms of Diocletian and Constantine. The history of the later Eastern Roman Empire in tandem with the West is covered, and then by the reign of Justinian the book comes into its own. It is clear that the Byzantines (as we moderns call them) were direct descendants of the Imperium Romanum and its legal traditions. Yet it is also equally clear that as the generations advanced, the Byzantines morphed into their own distinct cultural and political entity. When this occurs precisely is up to debate, but this reader is not qualified (nor really interested) in advocating a particular stance.

Arguably the most dramatic break with the Roman – at least Pagan Roman – past was on matters religious. The energy with which the Byzantine population poured into violent disputes over minor theological differences and liturgical practices is something that the Romans of Caesar’s day would have found bizarre. Yet to their credit the Byzantines also at times placed their lofty religious ideals into practice. The building of hospitals and orphanages are a few examples of trying to make Christ’s famous compassion socially relevant in this Kingdom of God.

The Byzantines also used their considerable energies to preserve the classical legacy, and uphold potent political and military power that fended off the Islamic advance while Western Europe suffered through its Dark Ages. Truly the rest of Europe owes a debt to the will of these people to survive.

Gregory ends with a meditation on what the Byzantines should mean to us moderns: a kind of “alternative” West that blended many seemingly contradictory influences into a livid whole:

“… I think that significance of Byzantium is not in what it preserved but in what it created … a society that was remarkably religious yet surprisingly secular, almost always at war, but with a clear preference for negotiation and diplomacy, a world that respected learning but where most people were illiterate, eschatological but at the same time remarkably practical. “

The Byzantine soul is clearly something that was profound. It provides a different yet complimentary view to the Latin West from which Westerners can draw their cultural heritage.

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