"The Lost World of Byzantium" by Jonathan Harris

The Lost World of Byzantium Jonathan Harris

Publication date:
06 Sep 2016
Yale University Press
280 pages: 197 x 127mm
16 pp. b-w
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A fresh, concise, and accessible history of one of the medieval world’s greatest empires

For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire’s extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event.
Harris’s action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies—including those of Islam—Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people.
Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire’s social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris’s study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.

Jonathan Harris is professor of the history of Byzantium at Royal Holloway, University of London. He lives in London.

"Given [it] features eunuchs, barbarians, coups, plots, blindings, betrayals, a ruler captured by his enemies who had his arms and legs cut off, Greek fire, mechanical birds, religious fanatics, shifting alliances, and a very lecherous Empress, it leads to but one conclusion. Now that they have run out of material by George RR Martin, the Game of Thrones producers should read this book."—Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman.

“Harris has succeeded triumphantly in producing a fresh and highly readable account of this extraordinary institution…An acute eye for detail is sustained throughout the book: Harris never fails to find the best story to focus readers’ attention on each chapter’s central subject. More fundamentally the book is beautifully constructed on the back of highly intelligent narrative choices… he triumphantly overcomes the limits of his brief to take the reader  to the heart of what it meant to be Byzantine.”—Peter Heather, BBC History

“Harris presents his case not only with lightness of hand but also surety of foot… The writing is elegant, the facts are carefully controlled and the narrative enlightened by revealing anecdotes and suggestive extracts from the primary sources”—Peter Sarris, Literary Review

“Harris canters through the 11 centuries that followed the refoundation of the city of Byzantium by Constantine in the fourth century until its fall in 1453. He keeps up a swift pace as the fortunes of the empire ebb and flow… a welcome addition to an increasingly crowded field.”—Peter Frankopan, Daily Telegraph

‘For long consigned to the shadows of history, ignored, derided or caricatured, the preserve of academic specialists or Greek nationalists, the thousand-year Byzantine empire is only now belatedly emerging into the light of recognition as a major force in the development of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East. In this lively, learned, enlightening and accessible new study, Jonathan Harris explores and explodes past misconceptions by focusing on ten pivotal figures across ten centuries to demonstrate the protean quality of a civilisation that masked vibrant, often desperate change behind a show of immemorial continuity. Harris’s deft, engaging use of primary evidence allows Byzantium to reveal itself while always directing the reader to what is significant and illuminating, from vivid stories of individual drama to searching analysis of the social and cultural structures of the most lasting political institution of the Christian world.’ - Christopher Tyerman, author of God's War: A New History of the Crusades

'Jonathan Harris has done it again. His timely new history of Byzantium avoids "the usual suspects" and instead offers a fresh take on this fabled but hidden civilisation. Each chapter goes straight to the heart of history, opening a carefully chosen window onto one era in Byzantium’s thousand-year lifespan. Frame by revealing frame, a story unfolds that is as lively and gripping as it is original and insightful. A hugely rewarding read from this generation's most exciting Byzantine historian.' - Colin Wells, author of Sailing From Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World

"Given the glut of introductory books on Byzantium now available there is the danger that another volume could be redundant, but Jonathan Harris’s book is fresh and exciting. He writes with great verve and makes excellent use of case studies and anecdotes, summing things up efficiently and effectively. Harris rightly remarks on how Byzantium is sidelined and that its long survival needs to be appreciated and explained. This book provides a very valuable service."—Shaun Tougher, author of The Reign of Leo VI

“Harris is an efficient writer with an eye for entertaining detail, and as a result, the volume can be read with pleasure by general readers and younger students.”—Choice

“Drawing on a diverse array of sources from numerous disciplines, Harris presents an accessible introduction to the major personalities, important disputes, and defining events of the Byzantine polity. . . . Casual readers as well as specialists will appreciate Harris's insightful and well-informed paean to an intriguing and resilient culture.”—Publishers Weekly

The Lost World of Byzantium is an excellent presentation for the literate general reader who wants to know more about Byzantine history, or for students who would like more story with their history”— Diana Gilliland Wright, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“What about the remarkable society in which this distinctive imaginative world, based on the tension between matter and spirit, had been built up over so many centuries? Those who want to know can turn with confidence to Jonathan Harris’s The Lost World of Byzantium.”—Peter Brown, New York Review of Books