Sunday, November 20, 2011
My study of the Byzantine Empire, set in motion about five years ago by my study of the Vikings, flared up again this weekend as I read Harold Lamb's biography of the Emperor Justinian and his Empress, Theodora and also Lamb's history of early Constantinople. Can't recommend both of these books enough. Lamb brings the same energy to his biographies and histories as he does to his historical fiction making for fast paced reading and easy comprehension of what other writers might have presented as dry facts and dates. In fact, one Lamb fan of my acquaintance went so far as to say he preferred Lamb's non fiction to his fiction. I won't go that far, but I can see what he meant.
Anyway, reading these books inspired me to re-watch the four part documentary Byzantium: The Lost Empire, which I own on DVD. Watching it post-Lamb was very interesting, especially seeing as how most of Lamb's information was still in line with current thinking on the Byzantine Empire. (Lamb's books were written in the 1950s.)
And that set me to re-reading sections of some of my history books. See how these things get started? So this morning I was thinking over breakfast that I would offer a guide to anyone who might like to begin studying the Byzantine empire. Just something to give you a working knowledge of the history of the second part of the Roman Empire and the influence that Byzantium exerted over history.
A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich.
This is the cut-down version of Norwich's three-volume history of Byzantium. The best and most concise history I've found, covering the major events and the careers of the important rulers and citizens. Coming in at just over 400 pages, it includes a useful glossary, maps, and lists of Emperors and Sultans. If you read only one history of Byzantium, go with this one.
Sailing From Byzantium by Colin Wells
An excellent book for putting the Byzantine empire into historical context. in fact it's sub-titled, How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. Due for a re-read soon.
Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Michael Psellus
My most well thumbed history book. Psellus served under two Byzantine rulers and was alive during the rules of others. This first hand account, though definitely biased, as are all first hand accounts, is still utterly fascinating.
Byzantium: The Lost Empire
I'm going to recommend that the person newly interested in the Byzantines watch this video before he or she reads anything. It will give them a good grounding in the subject and make the reading easier to follow. Then watch it again after you've read a bunch of stuff to help cement your knowledge. This approach helped me a lot. Available on DVD, but I think someone uploaded it to Youtube recently.
Nova: The Vikings
The section about the Varangian Guard has some useful and fascinating information about the later part of the Empire when Norsemen served as bodyguards and mercenaries to the rulers of Byzantium.
There you go. Pretty painless, eh? If that whets your appetite, I'll recommend the two Harold Lamb books mentioned above and Daily Life in The Byzantine Empire by Marcus Rautman, plus I'll throw in some fiction. Try Poul Anderson's The Golden Horn, which is about Viking King Harald the Ruthless and his time in Constantinople, and The Sheen on the Silk, a suspense/mystery by Anne Perry set in medieval Constantinople.
See you in Byzantium.