26 books directly related to the Byzantine Empire 📚

All 26 Byzantine Empire books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

Why this book?

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.

Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

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.

The Wars of Justinian

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

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.

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus

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

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.

The Alexiad

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

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. 

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.

The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

By Alexander P. Kazhdan (editor),

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.

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. 

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. 

The Last Great War of Antiquity

By James Howard-Johnston,

Book cover of The Last Great War of Antiquity

Why this book?

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!

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

By Judith Herrin,

Book cover of Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Why this book?

This is the ideal introduction to the thousand-year, Greek-speaking empire of Byzantium that lasted right through the Middle Ages until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. A joy to read, and beautifully illustrated, it brings together the strange contradictions of an empire that was at once intensely Christian and spiritual but also loved power and wealth and invented the arts of diplomacy as we know them today.

Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire

By Andrew Dalby,

Book cover of Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire

Why this book?

Food and drink in the Byzantine Empire is not a well-researched topic, and Andrew Dalby has been a pioneer in bringing to life a lost culinary culture. In remarkable detail, he shows what was eaten at the imperial court, in ordinary homes, and in monasteries, and how it was cooked. Dalby describes the sights and smells of Constantinople and its marketplaces, uses travellers' tales and other original sources to paint a comprehensive picture of the recipes and customs of the empire, and their relationship to health and the seasons, love, and medicine. 

Fortune's Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora

By James Conroyd Martin,

Book cover of Fortune's Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora

Why this book?

Byzantine history has only sporadically inspired historical fiction, although Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian, has had more than a few novels written about her. I’ve read and enjoyed many of them but this book is one of the best. Her dramatic life encompassed the deadly Nike riots, the building of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, and the Justinianic Plague. And did I mention that she was a courtesan prior to marrying Justinian? Martin’s Theodora is a glorious and sympathetic woman, even if flawed. The author tells her story wonderfully through the eyes of a court eunuch!

Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

By Spyros Theocharis, Chrysa Sakel (illustrator), Justina Theochari (translator)

Book cover of Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

Why this book?

I had never looked at or had an interest in graphic novels until I saw this graphic novel about the mother of one of the Byzantine Empire’s most important rulers, Basil II. But if there was ever going to be one I would read, it had to be a Byzantine one! I loved it! The vivid artwork in this book is superb and tells of Theophano’s life from innkeeper’s daughter to wife of not one, but two emperors. If you want to ease into Byzantine historical fiction, this graphic novel is a great places to start. 

The Bear of Byzantium

By S.J.A. Turney,

Book cover of The Bear of Byzantium

Why this book?

Simon Turney’s novel, The Bear of Byzantium, covers a period of time in late 1041 to late 1042 that I wrote about in my own book. This was a real-life Game of Thrones period with stupendous Viking members of the Imperial Varangian Guard such as Harald Hardrada, a dying emperor, a spurned empress, a conniving heir, and a crafty Viking wise-woman foretelling the future. Turney’s battle scenes will have you believing you are there manning the Great Palace’s walls with the Varangians, looking down on the streets of Constantinople seething with rioting mobs ready to execute a hated emperor. 

Strategos - Born in the Borderlands

By Gordon Doherty,

Book cover of Strategos - Born in the Borderlands

Why this book?

Gordon Doherty is a prolific writer of ancient and medieval historical fiction, including this first in a three-book series, Strategos. Strategos was a title for a general in the Byzantine military. This first novel in the series starts the life of Apion, a boy living in Byzantine eastern Anatolia in 1046 as the Seljuk Turks begin their incursions into the empire’s borders. His life is shattered when a Seljuk raid kills the rest of his family, and the boy is taken in by a nearby Seljuk farmer. Apion lives with that farmer and falls in love with his daughter, Maria. A twist of fate leads him away from his home and into the military where he begins his rise in the ranks. The next two books lead our hero inevitably to the betrayals on the battlefield at Manzikert.   

Far Away Bird

By Douglas A. Burton,

Book cover of Far Away Bird

Why this book?

This is a historical novel about the life of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. She was born in the sixth century and worked as a prostitute, but eventually became the most powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire. The book is very introspective and we learn a lot about Theodora's inner world. Even though the world throws the worst at her, she still finds the strength to continue onward and keep a sense of justice and positivity.

Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

By Noel Lenski,

Book cover of Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D.

Why this book?

Dr. Lenski, an accomplished Late Antiquity scholar, provides a comprehensive biography of the emperor Valens and his troubled reign (A.D. 365-378). He surveys his political, military, economic, and religious policies in the eastern Roman world racked by religious divisions and barbarian invasions. Thorough and carefully argued.

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

By Stella Duffy,

Book cover of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

Why this book?

The Empress Theodora is one of the most colourful and notorious figures in eastern Roman (or ‘Byzantine’) history, and in this book, and the sequel The Purple Shroud, Stella Duffy brings her brilliantly to life. After spending her early years in the coarse and brutally competitive demimonde of performers, dancers and prostitutes surrounding the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Theodora scales to the heights of imperial power with tenacity and determination. But she always appears as a figure of her age, immersed in the complex and often bewildering culture and society of the 6th century AD. Duffy uses the travails of Theodora’s life to take us on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean, from the slums and palaces of Constantinople to the desert monasteries of Egypt. It’s an engaging tale of rags to riches, to rags again to riches again, and remains scrupulously close to the few historical sources that survive, while conjuring up the strange world of ‘Byzantium’ in all its dazzling glory.

The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings

By Lars Brownwort,

Book cover of The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings

Why this book?

Lars Brownworth’s The Sea Wolves is a great place to begin your Viking voyage. Like any good Norse raid it is breathtaking and action-packed. It has a wide scope, colouring in all the corners of the Viking world, from the Vinland to Byzantium. It is easy to digest, and as swaggering as it is educational.

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

By Hilary Sumner-Boyd, John Freely,

Book cover of Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

Why this book?

This very personal guide to the former Byzantine and Ottoman capital by two ex-pat college professors was the cicerone that fuelled my generation's love affair with the city. Through its pages, we learned how to explore Istanbul's topography of sea and hills, and how to get lost in its back streets while remaining alert for something remarkable we would otherwise have passed by. Entertaining as much in the bath as out on the street, Strolling is still the most companionable and informative of guides, even though the city it describes has grown exponentially since the book's first publication in 1972.

The Vikings

By Ian Heath, Angus McBride (illustrator),

Book cover of The Vikings

Why this book?

I’m actually recommending the entire run of history books from Osprey Publishing. You’re not a history buff until you have a shelf full of Ospreys. With over 2,300 titles (and counting!) in dozens of series, there’s almost no period they don’t cover, from ancient times until recent events. Each book is profusely illustrated and incredibly detailed, yet a slim read—a quick but worthwhile introduction into their respective topic. They focus on military history, but include plenty of background info, enough to make you an instant authority on your chosen era. For The Last Viking I got an overview with The Vikings, The Varangian Guard 988–1453, and Saxon, Viking and Norman, before my deep dive into the primary Greek, Byzantine, and Scandinavian sources.

The Three-Arched Bridge

By Ismail Kadare, John Hodgson (translator),

Book cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Why this book?

Another parable, another legend, another work of manual labour turned mystical. In this tale of a bridge-building gone wrong, Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare considers the harms and inevitabilities that come from spanning disparate cultures. This book features a human sacrifice at the altar of erection; it feels antique and yet timeless; it explores the boundaries of human endeavor. Notes the narrator, a silenced sceptic, “all great building works resemble crimes.” It is a recognisable concern from Kadare, an exile of Hoxha’s totalitarian regime.

The Vikings: Wolves of War

By Martin Arnold,

Book cover of The Vikings: Wolves of War

Why this book?

Dr Arnold’s book begins with the grisly cenotaph discovered at Repton, which may well be the burial-site of Ívarr the Boneless. His book combines historical, literary and archaeological sources to give a balanced and comprehensive survey of the Vikings, briefly and at an affordable price. The best book to put into a student’s hands.

The Long Ships

By Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer,

Book cover of The Long Ships

Why this book?

Something of a forgotten classic, this used to be the most widely read novel in Sweden. Though not strictly a book about English history, the story describes the impact of the raids of the Northmen on England through the eyes of our protagonist, Red Orm, and details his adventures in Moorish Spain, Ireland, Sweden, and the Byzantine Empire. This is a classic tale of exploration and discovery that also manages to present us with a very believable view of the late 10th-century world, especially that of Anglo-Saxon England during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. If you enjoy high adventure and have any interest in the Vikings and the culture that bore them this is an excellent addition to your library.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

By Rebecca West,

Book cover of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Why this book?

Don't be put off by the sobering dedication to this thick tome ("To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved"): Rebecca West's record of travels through the Balkans between the world wars is an exuberant magnum opus that will immerse you in the (literally) Byzantine history and minute details of a fascinating place and time. If you like your humor bone-dry, she’d often really funny, and you’ll relish the company of her fearsomely powerful mind: her deftness and insight in describing people and places seem almost superhuman.

Though she admits that the book is so long that few people will ever read it, I was so caught up in the force of her writing that I didn't want it to end. I've read one passage about a Bosnian dentist's struggle to outwit her domineering father many times— a strangely heartwarming tale—and I'm always stunned by its clear-eyed tenderness.