By Dionysios Stathakopoulos
I.B. Tauris (2014) p/b 238pp £10.99 (ISBN 9781780761947)
Enthusiasts for Byzantium are pretty well served by a number of excellent introductions to the subject. They are invaluable not only to generalists and beginners, but also to those who want to leave the detail for a moment and take a fresh look at the hideously complicated labyrinth from above.
S. has produced the best one yet, a chronological history which manages to include just about everybody (albeit with inevitable moments of ‘then there was this, then there was that….’) while engaging with economic and social history, broad cultural development, and the changing material and intellectual environments. S. has put these elements together so well that one aspect helps explain and reinforce another: changes in economic circumstances and the demand for corn; schism and foreign policy; religious debate and the general outlook of the court; the rise of Islam and the crusades; and how all this shaped Europe and the Middle East for generations. The impact is still evident: in 2006 Benedict XVI provoked a lively response from Islamic scholars by quoting Manuel II’s (1391-1425) ‘Dialogue with a Persian’ in a speech he gave in Germany. S. has also included new scholarship, questioning things that had long been taken for granted, and looking at the latest evidence from archaeology to help us envision the changing disposition of this huge, long-lived and, in almost every sense, multifarious empire.
The final chapter ‘Aftermath and Afterlife’, considers the reception of Byzantinism through succeeding centuries, via the establishment of the first chair of Byzantine studies at Munich in 1897 to the relatively recent revival of interest in Late Antiquity. Although Gibbon thought that Byzantium could not be taken seriously—‘they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action … not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind’—there’s plenty up for re-examination today which will profit from consideration in the light of Byzantine experience, good or bad.
This brief introduction is a fine piece of work. It is to be strongly recommended to enthusiasts, the curious, and particularly to those who think that Byzantine studies are more trouble than they are worth. At this price, how can you refuse?