Feb 222012
 

OK, I did not know a thing about the Byzantine empire before I read this book and now not only do I have a sense of what was going on in Byzantium for 1200 years, but I also care.  Bronworth makes a compelling case that Byzantine leaders really conceived of themselves as the continuation of the Roman empire, a civilization most historians describe as vanishing in the mid 300s.  Moreover, Bronworth does a great job of calling out what matters in any particular century:  threatening advances by the Persians, church disputations over the importance of iconography (and the ensuing rise of Iconoclasts, literally “image breakers”), divisions between the Pope in distant Rome and the seat of power in Byzantium (Constantinople), when a King’s love life got in the way of governing, or the architectural and metaphorical significance of the magnificent Hagia Sofia.  There is probably no avoiding keeping track of a long list of Kings and hundreds of  wars necessary to keep an empire afloat for more than a millennium. Brownworth does a great job of moving quickly through the less important ones, but the campaigns and battles do get tedious so it takes more work than some readers will be willing to put in to stick with the empire for another couple of centuries.  A greater emphasis on the lives of ordinary citizens, and a little less focus on royalty, would have interested me more, but I didn’t write the book, I only read it.

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