The best books to understand the Byzantine empire

Warren Treadgold Author Of A History of the Byzantine State and Society
By Warren Treadgold

The Books I Picked & Why

The Wars of Justinian

By Prokopios, H.B. Dewing

Book cover of The Wars of Justinian

Why this book?

The masterpiece of Byzantium’s greatest historian is a dramatic military narrative by a gifted storyteller who happened to be the private secretary of Byzantium’s greatest general, Belisarius, during the reign of Byzantium’s greatest emperor, Justinian I (527-565). It’s in three parts: The Persian War, in which Belisarius defended Byzantine Syria against the Persians; The Vandal War, in which Belisarius conquered North Africa from the Vandals; and The Gothic War, in which Belisarius conquered most of Italy from the Goths, though the final conquest was the work of another great general, Narses. 

If you don’t have time to read the whole saga, I recommend reading The Vandal War, which is self-contained and particularly exciting. Procopius’ Secret History is more famous because it’s so scandalous, but it’s not as great a history as the Wars.

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Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus

By Michael Psellus, E.R.A. Sewter

Book cover of Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus

Why this book?

This is a combination of a history and a memoir by the finest Byzantine scholar, who was also a leading politician during a time of Byzantine power, prosperity, and ultimately decline in the eleventh century.  Psellus was a talented writer who wrote here about what fascinated him most: Byzantine court politics. An attentive student of human nature and how it could be manipulated, Psellus cultivated emperors, officials, generals, palace servants, and everyone else connected with the court, not just out of ambition to become rich, famous, and powerful, but also because he loved to play the political game and played it well. When he chronicled his times as he’d seen and lived them, he wrote with zest and left a magnificent record of his world.

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The Alexiad

By Anna Komnene, E.R.A. Sewter

Book cover of The Alexiad

Why this book?

Byzantium’s only woman historian, Anna was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118) and the husband of the prominent general and Caesar Nicephorus Bryennius, whom she plotted to make her father’s successor. In disgrace after failing to displace her brother John II, Anna recorded the reign of her father, who had inherited an empire on the verge of collapse and slowly restored it to power and prosperity, dealing with many Western knights of the First Crusade who were ready to fight him instead of the Turks. 

While she sometimes depicts Alexius as more successful and admirable than he probably was, she also shows that he suffered many defeats, had many enemies, and sometimes survived only by luck or guile. Making Alexius appear human and sympathetic as well as clever and capable, she gives a highly detailed and generally reliable account of Alexius’ wars and a unique portrayal of the life and preoccupations of a Byzantine emperor and his family and advisers.

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Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome

By Cyril Mango

Book cover of Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome

Why this book?

The best survey of Byzantine civilization by the best Byzantinist of recent times, this book covers all the main features of Byzantine life, thought, and culture with profound but unobtrusive learning, including many interesting details and covering ethnography, religion, literature, art, and architecture.

Mango’s penetrating analysis often reveals defects of the Byzantines and their empire that other scholars usually overlook, and his overall evaluation of Byzantium is more negative than my own, but his writing is lucid, brilliant, and always worth reading. I particularly recommend this book as an introduction for readers who know little if anything about the Byzantines and their empire.

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The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

By Alexander P. Kazhdan

Book cover of The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

Why this book?

If you want a comprehensive reference work on Byzantium, this is much the best, with short articles on every aspect of Byzantine civilization that you can think of and on many aspects that you wouldn’t have thought of. Kazhdan, who emigrated from Russia to America, was the most learned of recent Byzantinists and was interested in almost everything about his chosen field. Although a great many scholars contributed to this dictionary, Kazhdan’s point of view and profound erudition influenced almost every article. 

Anyone interested in Byzantium (and some readers who hadn’t realized that they would be interested) will spend hours looking through these three volumes and will consider those hours well spent.

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