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This book introduces the reader to the complex history, ethnicity, and identity of the Byzantines.
This volume brings Byzantium – often misconstrued as a vanished successor to the classical world – to the forefront of European history
Deconstructs stereotypes surrounding Byzantium
Beautifully illustrated with photographs and maps
The Byzantines is a good little book that is limited by its format and the author's lack of ambition for the book. As part of a series on different "nationalities", the book must try somehow to take the people of an empire that lasted over a millenium and alternately survived, prospered and declined during many radically different cultural contexts into a comprehensible unit over the course of just 200 relatively breezy and accessible pages. Cameron tries to do this in part by setting up a battle with the reader's assumed presumptions, spending much time disabusing a straw man educated in Western European and North American surveys and standard texts of his prejudices. What is it to be a "Byzantine"? Cameron makes it clear that it is not what "we" expect: devoutly Orthodox, autocratic, and forever backward in comparison to the ancients. He simultaneously does acknowledge the importance of Orthodoxy to the empire, and gives us a small taste of how the faith and its place in Byzantine society change over time. However, Cameron only barely begins to get past what the Byzantines are not to get deeply into what they, at different periods and in different contexts, are. In part because of length limitations, Cameron regularly finds himself wandering back and forth across over 1000 years to have relatively superficial discussions about "Byzantine Art" or "Byzantine Literary Culture". We get only a very brief and summary look at the remarkably different experiences and accomplishments of, for example, Anatolia and Syria during the Muslim conquests, Dalmatia during the years when it was caught between Venice and Constantinople, Justinian's Italian and Andalusian territories, or the growth of the national churchs in Bulgaria and Serbia. Cameroon's analysis of the Byzantines also focuses rather heavily on the Greek language culture, and less on the Syriac, Slavic, Turkic and other strains of the empire and its people, and their influence on the Greek core. It may have been more useful to tackle some of the historical problems through a series of vignettes of discrete periods or people (much in the way Maria Rosa Menocal, for example, tackles a similar problem in her marvelous many-century survey of medieval Andalusia, the The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain). This book is a nifty little introduction for someone who is looking for an introduction, with a number of well-thought out points. It also does a good job of introducing the reader to a wide range of debates about and important texts discussing Byzantine history. However, the book is also a woefully incomplete beginning to a larger project. I am glad I read the Byzantines, and will recommend it happily to others and look for something else, something longer and more focused, by Cameron to read. For example, his book on Procopius, the historian, functionary, and soldier ( Procopius and the Sixth Century), looks mighty interesting.read more
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