The best Byzantine Empire books

11 authors have picked their favorite books about the Byzantine Empire and why they recommend each book.

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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon,

Book cover of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This is the first great study of the Roman world. Although over 200 years old, it is still influential in the way we look at Rome. It is also one of the great monuments of English prose. Although we may no longer agree with many of his conclusions, it is a joy to read and helps us understand the basis of the Roman world.


Who am I?

I have spent 50 years studying, teaching, and writing about Roman history, participating in and leading many archaeological expeditions to the Roman world, particularly in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Levant. I have written a dozen books on the ancient world, including the best-selling Cleopatra: A Biography. Ancient Rome is both my expertise and passion.


I wrote...

Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World

By Duane W. Roller,

Book cover of Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World

What is my book about?

What is commonly called the kingdom of Pontos flourished for over two hundred years in the coastal regions of the Black Sea. At its peak in the early first century BC, it included much of the southern, eastern, and northern littoral, becoming one of the most important Hellenistic dynasties not founded by a successor of Alexander the Great. It also posed one of the greatest challenges to Roman imperial expansion in the east. Not until 63 BC, after many violent clashes, was Rome able to subjugate the kingdom and its last charismatic ruler Mithridates VI. This book provides the first general history of this important kingdom from its mythic origins in Greek literature (e.g., Jason and the Golden Fleece) to its entanglements with the late Roman Republic. 

Ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction

This is an outstanding short introduction to Greek history – with a really neat gimmick. Instead of writing a standard kind of history, Cartledge picks on the eleven most prominent cities of ancient Greece and writes up their story in about ten or twelve pages. But the chapters are also organized chronologically, so that the first two cities, Cnossos and Mycenae, illustrate Greek prehistory. Then we move on to the Archaic Period (four places, including Sparta), then the Classical Period (three, including Athens), and then the Hellenistic period (one: Alexandria, the greatest city in the world before Rome). He ends with a leap into late antiquity and the eastern Roman empire with Byzantium. I’m always on the lookout for books that can turn people on to Greek history, get them to share my (and Cartledge’s) passion: this one does it brilliantly.


Who am I?

I’m a British scholar – a former university lecturer, many moons ago – now living in rural southern Greece. In fact, I have Greek as well as UK citizenship, which really pleases me because I’ve loved Greece and things Greek since boyhood. I started to learn ancient Greek at the age of ten! I’ve written over fifty books, mostly on ancient Greek history and philosophy, including many volumes of translations from ancient Greek. But I’ve also written children’s fiction in the form of gamebooks, a biography, a book on hypnosis, a retelling of the Greek myths (with my wife Kathryn) ... I’ll stop there!


I wrote...

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

By Robin Waterfield,

Book cover of Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

I had two main objectives in writing the book. In recent decades, there has been a great deal of movement in the various disciplines that fuel such a book – history, archaeology, art history, and so on – and it was time to catch the general reading public up with ancient Greece’s new look. So my book is, firstly, an accessible and up-to-date history of ancient Greece from about 750 BCE to 30 BCE. But, secondly, I raised the question: seeing that the Greeks recognized themselves as kin, as all Greeks together, why were they so often at war with one another? Why did it take them so long to achieve any degree of unity, and what factors brought it about? I’ve written the book as a chronological history, and the issues relating to these questions are a kind of golden thread throughout the book. 

The Wars of Justinian

By Prokopios, H.B. Dewing (translator),

Book cover of The Wars of Justinian

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.


Who am I?

I first became interested in Byzantium in high school, when I read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I’ve been interested in Byzantine subjects ever since. I’ve traveled to almost every country that was once part of the Byzantine Empire, all around the Mediterranean seaboard. I’ve written ten books and many articles on Byzantine politics, Byzantine scholarship, Byzantine literature, the Byzantine economy, the Byzantine army, Byzantine religion, and Byzantine art (with my wife, a Byzantine art historian). It’s such an enormous field, spanning thirteen centuries, three continents, and Greek, Roman, Christian, and many other cultures, that there’s always something new, surprising, and marvelous to discover.


I wrote...

A History of the Byzantine State and Society

By Warren Treadgold,

Book cover of A History of the Byzantine State and Society

What is my book about?

The most recent comprehensive history of Byzantium, A History of the Byzantine State and Society begins with A.D. 285 when the Roman Empire was divided into separate Eastern (Byzantine) and Western parts and ends with 1461 when the last Byzantine outposts fell to the Turks. Byzantium has yet to be matched in maintaining a single state for so long over a wide area inhabited by diverse peoples, and even today its influence remains strong in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I treat political and social developments as a single story, told partly in detailed narrative and partly in essays that clarify longer-term developments.

I planned this book to be the standard history of Byzantium not just for students and scholars but for all readers.

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers

By Michael Psellus, E.R.A. Sewter (translator),

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

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…


Who am I?

I first came across Byzantium when I read Robert Graves' Count Belisarius and studied as much of its history as I could while at King's College London. Later I taught English in Turkey and was able to visit the Byzantine sites of Istanbul, Iznik, and Cappadocia. I now teach medieval and Byzantine history at Royal Holloway, University of London. For those living outside eastern Europe and Russia, Byzantium may appear to be rather remote and exotic: that is part of its appeal! But just because it is strange and different does not mean that we should not try to understand it on its own terms. That is what I have tried to do in my books and teaching.


I wrote...

Byzantium and the Crusades

By Jonathan Harris,

Book cover of Byzantium and the Crusades

What is my book about?

In the early eleventh century CE, Byzantium was a great military and economic power and its capital city of Constantinople was famed for its size and wealth. But in the decades that followed it faltered and, by 1081, it had lost half of its territory to the Turks. There was a threat from the west too. Although the First Crusade was launched in 1095 to help the Byzantines against the Turks, in 1204 the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople and Byzantium was partitioned.

My book focuses on Byzantine relations with the crusades and argues that the disaster of 1204 came about partly as a result of policies pursued by the Byzantines themselves and partly because crusade leaders had come to see Byzantium as a source of money and supplies to bolster the effort to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands.

The Alexiad

By Anna Komnene, E.R.A. Sewter (translator),

Book cover of The Alexiad

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…


Who am I?

I first came across Byzantium when I read Robert Graves' Count Belisarius and studied as much of its history as I could while at King's College London. Later I taught English in Turkey and was able to visit the Byzantine sites of Istanbul, Iznik, and Cappadocia. I now teach medieval and Byzantine history at Royal Holloway, University of London. For those living outside eastern Europe and Russia, Byzantium may appear to be rather remote and exotic: that is part of its appeal! But just because it is strange and different does not mean that we should not try to understand it on its own terms. That is what I have tried to do in my books and teaching.


I wrote...

Byzantium and the Crusades

By Jonathan Harris,

Book cover of Byzantium and the Crusades

What is my book about?

In the early eleventh century CE, Byzantium was a great military and economic power and its capital city of Constantinople was famed for its size and wealth. But in the decades that followed it faltered and, by 1081, it had lost half of its territory to the Turks. There was a threat from the west too. Although the First Crusade was launched in 1095 to help the Byzantines against the Turks, in 1204 the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople and Byzantium was partitioned.

My book focuses on Byzantine relations with the crusades and argues that the disaster of 1204 came about partly as a result of policies pursued by the Byzantines themselves and partly because crusade leaders had come to see Byzantium as a source of money and supplies to bolster the effort to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands.

Byzantium

By Cyril Mango,

Book cover of Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome

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.


Who am I?

I first became interested in Byzantium in high school, when I read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I’ve been interested in Byzantine subjects ever since. I’ve traveled to almost every country that was once part of the Byzantine Empire, all around the Mediterranean seaboard. I’ve written ten books and many articles on Byzantine politics, Byzantine scholarship, Byzantine literature, the Byzantine economy, the Byzantine army, Byzantine religion, and Byzantine art (with my wife, a Byzantine art historian). It’s such an enormous field, spanning thirteen centuries, three continents, and Greek, Roman, Christian, and many other cultures, that there’s always something new, surprising, and marvelous to discover.


I wrote...

A History of the Byzantine State and Society

By Warren Treadgold,

Book cover of A History of the Byzantine State and Society

What is my book about?

The most recent comprehensive history of Byzantium, A History of the Byzantine State and Society begins with A.D. 285 when the Roman Empire was divided into separate Eastern (Byzantine) and Western parts and ends with 1461 when the last Byzantine outposts fell to the Turks. Byzantium has yet to be matched in maintaining a single state for so long over a wide area inhabited by diverse peoples, and even today its influence remains strong in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I treat political and social developments as a single story, told partly in detailed narrative and partly in essays that clarify longer-term developments.

I planned this book to be the standard history of Byzantium not just for students and scholars but for all readers.

The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

By Alexander P. Kazhdan (editor),

Book cover of The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

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.


Who am I?

I first became interested in Byzantium in high school, when I read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I’ve been interested in Byzantine subjects ever since. I’ve traveled to almost every country that was once part of the Byzantine Empire, all around the Mediterranean seaboard. I’ve written ten books and many articles on Byzantine politics, Byzantine scholarship, Byzantine literature, the Byzantine economy, the Byzantine army, Byzantine religion, and Byzantine art (with my wife, a Byzantine art historian). It’s such an enormous field, spanning thirteen centuries, three continents, and Greek, Roman, Christian, and many other cultures, that there’s always something new, surprising, and marvelous to discover.


I wrote...

A History of the Byzantine State and Society

By Warren Treadgold,

Book cover of A History of the Byzantine State and Society

What is my book about?

The most recent comprehensive history of Byzantium, A History of the Byzantine State and Society begins with A.D. 285 when the Roman Empire was divided into separate Eastern (Byzantine) and Western parts and ends with 1461 when the last Byzantine outposts fell to the Turks. Byzantium has yet to be matched in maintaining a single state for so long over a wide area inhabited by diverse peoples, and even today its influence remains strong in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I treat political and social developments as a single story, told partly in detailed narrative and partly in essays that clarify longer-term developments.

I planned this book to be the standard history of Byzantium not just for students and scholars but for all readers.

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

By Catherine Holmes,

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

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. 


Who am I?

I first came across Byzantium when I read Robert Graves' Count Belisarius and studied as much of its history as I could while at King's College London. Later I taught English in Turkey and was able to visit the Byzantine sites of Istanbul, Iznik, and Cappadocia. I now teach medieval and Byzantine history at Royal Holloway, University of London. For those living outside eastern Europe and Russia, Byzantium may appear to be rather remote and exotic: that is part of its appeal! But just because it is strange and different does not mean that we should not try to understand it on its own terms. That is what I have tried to do in my books and teaching.


I wrote...

Byzantium and the Crusades

By Jonathan Harris,

Book cover of Byzantium and the Crusades

What is my book about?

In the early eleventh century CE, Byzantium was a great military and economic power and its capital city of Constantinople was famed for its size and wealth. But in the decades that followed it faltered and, by 1081, it had lost half of its territory to the Turks. There was a threat from the west too. Although the First Crusade was launched in 1095 to help the Byzantines against the Turks, in 1204 the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople and Byzantium was partitioned.

My book focuses on Byzantine relations with the crusades and argues that the disaster of 1204 came about partly as a result of policies pursued by the Byzantines themselves and partly because crusade leaders had come to see Byzantium as a source of money and supplies to bolster the effort to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands.

Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood

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

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…


Who am I?

I first came across Byzantium when I read Robert Graves' Count Belisarius and studied as much of its history as I could while at King's College London. Later I taught English in Turkey and was able to visit the Byzantine sites of Istanbul, Iznik, and Cappadocia. I now teach medieval and Byzantine history at Royal Holloway, University of London. For those living outside eastern Europe and Russia, Byzantium may appear to be rather remote and exotic: that is part of its appeal! But just because it is strange and different does not mean that we should not try to understand it on its own terms. That is what I have tried to do in my books and teaching.


I wrote...

Byzantium and the Crusades

By Jonathan Harris,

Book cover of Byzantium and the Crusades

What is my book about?

In the early eleventh century CE, Byzantium was a great military and economic power and its capital city of Constantinople was famed for its size and wealth. But in the decades that followed it faltered and, by 1081, it had lost half of its territory to the Turks. There was a threat from the west too. Although the First Crusade was launched in 1095 to help the Byzantines against the Turks, in 1204 the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople and Byzantium was partitioned.

My book focuses on Byzantine relations with the crusades and argues that the disaster of 1204 came about partly as a result of policies pursued by the Byzantines themselves and partly because crusade leaders had come to see Byzantium as a source of money and supplies to bolster the effort to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands.

The Last Great War of Antiquity

By James Howard-Johnston,

Book cover of The Last Great War of Antiquity

This book is, to me, the Platonic Ideal of scholarly military history. Howard-Johnston examines a somewhat obscure but vastly important war between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire that lasted from 602 to 628 and left both empires vulnerable to the new Islamic power that was about to emerge in Arabia. His narrative is lively, his knowledge of the sources is unmatched, his interpretations masterful, and he exposes the inner workings of the book regularly in philosophical comments on the job of the military historian, causation in history, and the problems of source interpretation. That it took him longer to write than the war itself lasted is also one of my favorite pieces of historian-author trivia!


Who am I?

I fell in love with medieval military history in high school, and have been studying and writing about it as an undergraduate at Harvard, as a graduate student at Oxford, and as a professor of history ever since, eventually bringing the comparative methods and urge to generalize of a world historian to the task. I’ve written ten books and numerous articles. Good history gives me the thrill of time travel without the risk of the bubonic plague, and it has spawned related interests in sword and sorcery fantasy lit and wargaming, alongside my interests in painting, cartooning, and cooking the food of my native New Orleans. My motto: Have fun!


I wrote...

War and Conflict in the Middle Ages: A Global Perspective.

By Stephen Morillo,

Book cover of War and Conflict in the Middle Ages: A Global Perspective.

What is my book about?

This book offers the first global history of armed conflict between 400 and 1500 (or 1800?), an age shaped by climate change and pandemics at both ends. Examining armed conflict at all levels, and ranging from China and the Central Asian steppes to western Europe and beyond, it explores the technological, social, and cultural determinants of warfare and the tools and tactics used by warriors on land and at sea.

Armed conflict played a central role in the making of the medieval world, and medieval people used war and conflict to create, expand, and defend their communities and identities. Broad in its scope and rich in detail, this is a go-to guide for students and aficionados of military history, medieval history, and global history.

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