Saturday, 5 January 2002

Michael Angold: Byzantium: The Bridge From Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2001)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001
Review number: 1026

While Angold, as Professor of Byzantine History at Edinburgh University, clearly knows the subject, his popular style book about the Eastern Roman Empire neither matches its subtitle nor the description on the inside cover. While in the west the discontinuity provided by the barbarian conquests is at least an explanation of the change from a classical to a medieval culture (and even there the picture is really much more complex), the political continuity at Constantinople presents a fascinating study - how did things change, what resisted or promoted change, and how different was life in the Byzantine Empire from that in western Europe?

What we have here is a competent, fairly easy to follow history of the Byzantine Empire from the time of Constantine the Great to the resolution of the Iconoclast controversy, a period of about six centuries, with an epilogue describing Norman Sicily (as a cultural melange of Western, Byzantine and Islamic influences). It is almost entirely political and cultural, and is an old fashioned narrative history. As such, it throws virtually no light on the relationship between classical and medieval that its title suggests is the theme of the book; nor does it cover the end of the Empire as the inside front cover suggests. My feeling is that the history of the economic relationship between east and west, particularly changes in trade routes in the Mediterranean, would say more about the change between the two periods, while a sociological study of the eastern and western cultures would help illuminated just what medieval means in the Byzantine context. To do this for a general readership would be quite a feat, but I feel that Angold has missed his opportunity.

No comments: