The best books on Byzantium: From superpower to downfall (1000-1204)

Jonathan Harris Author Of Byzantium and the Crusades
By Jonathan Harris

The Books I Picked & Why

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus

By E.R.A. Sewter, Michael Psellus

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

Why this book?

I love this book because it is the personal memoirs of a Byzantine statesman, Michael Psellus (c.1022-c.1080), who lived through the dramatic reversal of fortune of the mid-eleventh century. He tells the story through the lives of the emperors and empresses who ruled during his lifetime. To appreciate Psellus’ work, it is better to skip the first two biographies which are largely based on hearsay, and to start with the account of Romanos III (1028-1034). As the author himself says ‘I both saw Romanos and on one occasion actually talked to him.’

As Psellus rose through the ranks of the palace bureaucracy, he became the secretary and close adviser to one emperor after another. He describes events as he himself witnessed them, recording conversations and anecdotes, often illuminating the personal qualities and failings of the imperial incumbents. The work tails off at the end as Psellus reaches the time of the emperor who was still on the throne at the time of writing when candour would have been very unwise. Even so, with its extraordinary series of balanced character sketches, this is a unique work that deserves to be much better known.

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Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025)

By Catherine Holmes

Book cover of Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025)

Why this book?

Basil II, who ruled as emperor from 976 to 1025, is an enigma. On the face of it, his reign was a great success which saw the Byzantine borders extended further than they had been for centuries. Yet no one at the time seems to have celebrated that success and we only know about his reign from accounts written a long time afterward by people who were either too young to remember his reign, like Michael Psellus, or who were not even born. It is this enigma that Holmes grapples with by analysing our most detailed source for Basil’s reign: the historian John Skylitzes who was writing around 1100. Her subtle uncovering of the cultural values that underlie the text reveal Basil not so much as a great conqueror but as a shrewd politician who knew exactly how to get what he wanted as much by persuasion as by force. 

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantine, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade

By Anthony Kaldellis

Book cover of Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantine, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade

Why this book?

Both readable and minutely researched, this book analyses the reasons behind Byzantium’s sudden collapse in the mid-eleventh century. Kaldellis offers a refreshing alternative to the prevalent narrative of the achievements of Basil II being squandered by the feeble emperors who came after him. Instead, stress is laid on the problems to which the expanded borders gave rise after 1025 and the very reasonable steps taken by Basil’s successors to deal with them. He even comes to the rescue of the much-maligned Constantine IX (1042-1055), an emperor whom Psellus presents as affable and likable but a completely incompetent ruler.

Kaldellis points out how Constantine secured the frontier in Northern Syria through his treaty with the Fatimid caliph of Egypt and how his administrative reforms would have seemed sensible at the time. He drives home the lesson that it is never satisfactory to single out a few individuals to blame for a far-reaching global shift. 

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The Alexiad

By Anna Komnene, E.R.A. Sewter

Book cover of The Alexiad

Why this book?

Anna Komnene (1083-c.1148) takes up the story where Michael Psellus left off. Like him, she was writing from inside the court: she was the daughter of Alexios I who reigned from 1081 to 1118. She gives a laudatory account of her father’s reign during which the tide of disaster was turned back and Byzantium began to recover some of the ground that it had lost. Some of the most memorable passages in The Alexiad are those that describe the passage of the First Crusade through Byzantium in 1096-7. Komnene takes a rather ambivalent tone in describing the hordes of bellicose warriors who had arrived from the west.

On the one hand, they were fellow Christians who had come to fight the common enemy, the Muslim Turks. On the other hand, might they not also constitute a threat, since they could be well tempted by the riches of Constantinople? That ambivalence lay at the heart of Byzantine relations with the crusades. 

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The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople

By Jonathan Phillips

Book cover of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople

Why this book?

This book vividly describes what happened when the fears of Anna Komnene and other Byzantines were finally realised and a crusading expedition ended up attacking and capturing Constantinople. Phillips’ interest is in crusading rather than in Byzantium so the focus of the book is on the actions and motivations of the crusaders. He points out that they had no plan originally to go to Constantinople: their aim was to sail to Egypt from where they would recover Jerusalem for Christendom. Only when they ran short of supplies and money did they accept the invitation of a Byzantine prince to divert to Constantinople and help him to restore his father to the throne. And they only attacked the city when the prince failed to pay them what he had promised! Nevertheless, by their actions they brought about the ruin not just of a state but of an entire culture.

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