Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

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Overview

Byzantium. The name evokes grandeur and exoticism--gold, cunning, and complexity. In this unique book, Judith Herrin unveils the riches of a quite different civilization. Avoiding a standard chronological account of the Byzantine Empire's millennium--long history, she identifies the fundamental questions about Byzantium--what it was, and what special significance it holds for us today.

Bringing the latest scholarship to a general audience in accessible prose, Herrin focuses each short chapter around a representative theme, event, monument, or historical figure, and examines it within the full sweep of Byzantine history--from the foundation of Constantinople, the magnificent capital city built by Constantine the Great, to its capture by the Ottoman Turks.

She argues that Byzantium's crucial role as the eastern defender of Christendom against Muslim expansion during the early Middle Ages made Europe--and the modern Western world--possible. Herrin captivates us with her discussions of all facets of Byzantine culture and society. She walks us through the complex ceremonies of the imperial court. She describes the transcendent beauty and power of the church of Hagia Sophia, as well as chariot races, monastic spirituality, diplomacy, and literature. She reveals the fascinating worlds of military usurpers and ascetics, eunuchs and courtesans, and artisans who fashioned the silks, icons, ivories, and mosaics so readily associated with Byzantine art.

An innovative history written by one of our foremost scholars, Byzantium reveals this great civilization's rise to military and cultural supremacy, its spectacular destruction by the Fourth Crusade, and its revival and final conquest in 1453.

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Editorial Reviews

The Daily Telegraph
The big, standard histories contain a wearying succession of emperors, patriarchs, battles, and sieges...At the other end of the scale there are lightweight travelogues, or books that pick out the juiciest moments (such as the final siege of 1453), leaving aside many things that are more important but less conducive to a good story. Judith Herrin has tried to find a middle ground between those two extremes, and has succeeded in a rather original way. Her book is a necklace of short chapters, each on a different topic, strung out in broadly chronological order. Some are devoted to places (Ravenna, Mount Athos and, of course, Constantinople itself); some are about people (Anna Comnena, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the unforgettably named Basil the Bulgar-Slayer); and some are on general subjects, whether large (Greek Orthodoxy, the Byzantine economy, the Crusades) or small ('Greek Fire', and eunuchs).
— Noel Malcolm
The Economist
Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, sets out to show that there are far better reasons to study and admire the civilisation that flourished for more than a millennium before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and whose legacy is still discernible all over south-east Europe and the Levant. She presents Byzantium as a vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan reality which somehow escaped the constraints of its official ideology.
The Scotsman
Others in recent years have made worthy efforts to interest us in the Byzantine achievement, but none has made it live in quite the way that Herrin does. She's been bold in foregrounding themes, concerned more with painting a panoramic picture of Byzantium's 'surprising life' than to establish a chronology—though the narrative's there to give the reader a sense of how it all progressed. Free from portentousness and pretentiousness, she doesn't insist on her subject's importance or relevance: the freshness and enthusiasm of her book is its real point. Not just an important work of scholarship but a delight to read, this study works a minor miracle in raising Byzantium, Lazarus-like, from its dusty grave.
— Michael Kerrigan
The Toronto Star
Byzantium's history is presented chronologically, which helps explain why there's no simple description of its legacy. Herrin's emphasis on the empire's proudest achievement, its culture—separate chapters are devoted to religion, economy, warfare, art and literature—is an armchair delight.
— Brett Popplewell
The Atlantic
[Herrin] takes an innovative approach.... The scope is broad—religion, politics, art, war, gender—and the style lively and personal.
The Edmonton Journal
Herrin has produced an accessible, fascinating book that avoids the pitfalls of writing by scholars for scholars. She doesn't dwell on the spectacular, although Byzantium has plenty of drama, but rather provides a surprisingly deep look into a lost world. Much to the point, as well, is that modern Europe and the rest of the Western world would have been a much different place had it not been for Byzantium and its thousand-year history from the sixth century to the 15th. It's an amazing story, and well told, as Herrin traces a civilization that combined pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman and ancient and medieval influences. This is a terrific read.
— Mark Horton
The Weekly Standard
The information here is both solid and detailed—so much so that even a specialist will frequently encounter previously unknown facts. . . . Byzantium offers a solid introduction to Byzantine history and culture, and the sheer depth of information it contains could repay multiple readings.
— Richard Tada
Digest of Middle East Studies
With this work, Herrin provides an edifying, enjoyable read that will both capture the interest of the lay reader with the exciting aspects of Byzantium that she covers in each chapter and appeal to the student of Byzantine history as an interesting read and a concise look at some subjects that have been revised, and others that could use further revision.
— David Mason
New York Review of Books - G.W. Bowersock
The scope and shape of Herrin's survey of Byzantine history and culture are impressive. She moves from the foundation of Constantinople to its fall before the Turks in a series of twenty-eight short chapters. This allows the curious or impatient reader to sample, according to taste, such delectable topics as Greek fire, eunuchs, icons, and the Towers of Trebizond . . .
Choice - J.W. Nesbitt
The book is comprehensive, but the paragraphs are never dense and the prose retains throughout a lively quality.
The Daily Telegraph - Noel Malcolm
The big, standard histories contain a wearying succession of emperors, patriarchs, battles, and sieges...At the other end of the scale there are lightweight travelogues, or books that pick out the juiciest moments (such as the final siege of 1453), leaving aside many things that are more important but less conducive to a good story. Judith Herrin has tried to find a middle ground between those two extremes, and has succeeded in a rather original way. Her book is a necklace of short chapters, each on a different topic, strung out in broadly chronological order. Some are devoted to places (Ravenna, Mount Athos and, of course, Constantinople itself); some are about people (Anna Comnena, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the unforgettably named Basil the Bulgar-Slayer); and some are on general subjects, whether large (Greek Orthodoxy, the Byzantine economy, the Crusades) or small ('Greek Fire', and eunuchs).
The Scotsman - Michael Kerrigan
Others in recent years have made worthy efforts to interest us in the Byzantine achievement, but none has made it live in quite the way that Herrin does. She's been bold in foregrounding themes, concerned more with painting a panoramic picture of Byzantium's 'surprising life' than to establish a chronology—though the narrative's there to give the reader a sense of how it all progressed. Free from portentousness and pretentiousness, she doesn't insist on her subject's importance or relevance: the freshness and enthusiasm of her book is its real point. Not just an important work of scholarship but a delight to read, this study works a minor miracle in raising Byzantium, Lazarus-like, from its dusty grave.
Christian Science Monitor - M.M. Bennetts
[A] remarkable new history...Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on manifold aspects of Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion. Herrin's scholarship is impeccable, yet she writes like the very best of travel writers. She paints vivid pictures of this prosperous and pious culture whose capital was a fortified city of sunlight glinting off the gilded church domes and spires, surrounded on three sides by the shimmering Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.... From the first page, the author embraces the reader in the love of her subject. She entertains and captivates while throwing open the doors to her formidable treasury of knowledge...
The Toronto Star - Brett Popplewell
Byzantium's history is presented chronologically, which helps explain why there's no simple description of its legacy. Herrin's emphasis on the empire's proudest achievement, its culture—separate chapters are devoted to religion, economy, warfare, art and literature—is an armchair delight.
Austin American-Statesman - Roger Gathman
Herrin's hope is to dispel the aura of decadence that hangs over Byzantium so that we can see the empire for what it was: one of the great, creative civilizations. Herrin's account shows that, indeed, Byzantium can't be explained as a millennial slide downhill, the judgment propounded by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and often repeated since.
Open Democracy Blog - Tom Nairn
Here of course lies the strong contemporary resonance of Herrin's argument. Her lively portrayal of a forgotten civilisation impacts on the revived Muslim awareness and expansion of today.
First Things - Robert Louis Wilken
It is only as one sees Byzantium for itself, and not simply in relation to Islam or Western Europe, that one can begin to appreciate its greatness. And that is what makes Herrin's Byzantium so welcome. All the expected topics are here: the founding of Constantinople, the building of the great church of Agia Sophia, the rule of Justinian and the codification of Roman law, the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, the harsh consequences of the rise of Islam, the place of icons in Byzantine life and the iconoclastic controversy, the conversion of the Slavs and the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic tongue, Mount Athos, the outstanding historian Anna Komnene, the arrival of the Crusaders, the siege of Constantinople. But the book contains much more.
The Edmonton Journal - Mark Horton
Herrin has produced an accessible, fascinating book that avoids the pitfalls of writing by scholars for scholars. She doesn't dwell on the spectacular, although Byzantium has plenty of drama, but rather provides a surprisingly deep look into a lost world. Much to the point, as well, is that modern Europe and the rest of the Western world would have been a much different place had it not been for Byzantium and its thousand-year history from the sixth century to the 15th. It's an amazing story, and well told, as Herrin traces a civilization that combined pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman and ancient and medieval influences. This is a terrific read.
The Weekly Standard - Richard Tada
The information here is both solid and detailed—so much so that even a specialist will frequently encounter previously unknown facts. . . . Byzantium offers a solid introduction to Byzantine history and culture, and the sheer depth of information it contains could repay multiple readings.
Magill Book Reviews - Charles L.P. Silet
In this carefully researched, clearly written, and engaging book author Herrin opens up a neglected part of western history for the general reader.
Worship - Frank C. Senn
Judith Herrin's book provides a fine cultural backdrop to the study of Byzantine liturgy—and a good read for understanding this remarkable society on its own terms.
American Historical Review - Florin Curta
At its best, the text is skillfully written, judiciously crafted, and lively.
Digest of Middle East Studies - David Mason
With this work, Herrin provides an edifying, enjoyable read that will both capture the interest of the lay reader with the exciting aspects of Byzantium that she covers in each chapter and appeal to the student of Byzantine history as an interesting read and a concise look at some subjects that have been revised, and others that could use further revision.
Magill Book Reviews - Charles L. P. Silet
In this carefully researched, clearly written, and engaging book author Herrin opens up a neglected part of western history for the general reader.
From the Publisher

"The scope and shape of Herrin's survey of Byzantine history and culture are impressive. She moves from the foundation of Constantinople to its fall before the Turks in a series of twenty-eight short chapters. This allows the curious or impatient reader to sample, according to taste, such delectable topics as Greek fire, eunuchs, icons, and the Towers of Trebizond . . . "--G.W. Bowersock, New York Review of Books

"Offering a brilliant study of the history of the Byzantine empire, Herrin...draws [an] original portrait of a tradition-based yet dynamic empire that protected Christianity by checking the westward expansion of Islam. Drawing on letters, journals and other primary documents from both political figures and ordinary citizens, Herrin splendidly recreates an empire whose religious art, educational curriculum, tax and legal systems, and coronation rituals preserved the best of the empire's pre-Christian Greek past while at the same time passing along advances to the rest of the world. Herrin's history is hands-down the finest introduction to Byzantium and its continuing significance for world history."--Publishers Weekly

"The book is comprehensive, but the paragraphs are never dense and the prose retains throughout a lively quality."--J.W. Nesbitt, Choice

"The big, standard histories contain a wearying succession of emperors, patriarchs, battles, and sieges...At the other end of the scale there are lightweight travelogues, or books that pick out the juiciest moments (such as the final siege of 1453), leaving aside many things that are more important but less conducive to a good story. Judith Herrin has tried to find a middle ground between those two extremes, and has succeeded in a rather original way. Her book is a necklace of short chapters, each on a different topic, strung out in broadly chronological order. Some are devoted to places (Ravenna, Mount Athos and, of course, Constantinople itself); some are about people (Anna Comnena, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the unforgettably named Basil the Bulgar-Slayer); and some are on general subjects, whether large (Greek Orthodoxy, the Byzantine economy, the Crusades) or small ('Greek Fire', and eunuchs)."--Noel Malcolm, The Daily Telegraph

"Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, sets out to show that there are far better reasons to study and admire the civilisation that flourished for more than a millennium before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and whose legacy is still discernible all over south-east Europe and the Levant. She presents Byzantium as a vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan reality which somehow escaped the constraints of its official ideology."--The Economist

"Others in recent years have made worthy efforts to interest us in the Byzantine achievement, but none has made it live in quite the way that Herrin does. She's been bold in foregrounding themes, concerned more with painting a panoramic picture of Byzantium's 'surprising life' than to establish a chronology--though the narrative's there to give the reader a sense of how it all progressed. Free from portentousness and pretentiousness, she doesn't insist on her subject's importance or relevance: the freshness and enthusiasm of her book is its real point. Not just an important work of scholarship but a delight to read, this study works a minor miracle in raising Byzantium, Lazarus-like, from its dusty grave."--Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

"[A] remarkable new history...Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on manifold aspects of Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion. Herrin's scholarship is impeccable, yet she writes like the very best of travel writers. She paints vivid pictures of this prosperous and pious culture whose capital was a fortified city of sunlight glinting off the gilded church domes and spires, surrounded on three sides by the shimmering Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.... From the first page, the author embraces the reader in the love of her subject. She entertains and captivates while throwing open the doors to her formidable treasury of knowledge..."--M.M. Bennetts, Christian Science Monitor

"Byzantium's history is presented chronologically, which helps explain why there's no simple description of its legacy. Herrin's emphasis on the empire's proudest achievement, its culture--separate chapters are devoted to religion, economy, warfare, art and literature--is an armchair delight."--Brett Popplewell, The Toronto Star

"[Herrin] takes an innovative approach.... The scope is broad--religion, politics, art, war, gender--and the style lively and personal."--The Atlantic

"Byzantium covers a huge period of space, time, and cultural influence, which is now synthesized into bite-sized pieces in Judith Herrin's new book Byzantium. . . . As a non-specialist, I can fully attest to her success in making her book appear friendly and imminently readable. . . . The eye-catching cover is a visual clue to the treasures within this book, which explores the intrigue of the imperial Byzantine court; describes the lavish clothing, administration, food, architecture, and art of Byzantium; reveals a fascinating cast of royals and ascetics; and captures the imagination about this era of the Eastern Roman Empire down to the 15th century, when Byzantium falls to the Ottoman Empire. . . . Herrin seeks to promote the positive and creative aspects of Byzantium and show the reader a Byzantium that is more than derivative of Greek and Roman culture, but rather it¹s own culture. She excels at this. . . ."--E-History.com
"Herrin's hope is to dispel the aura of decadence that hangs over Byzantium so that we can see the empire for what it was: one of the great, creative civilizations. Herrin's account shows that, indeed, Byzantium can't be explained as a millennial slide downhill, the judgment propounded by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and often repeated since."--Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman

"Here of course lies the strong contemporary resonance of Herrin's argument. Her lively portrayal of a forgotten civilisation impacts on the revived Muslim awareness and expansion of today."--Tom Nairn, Open Democracy Blog (reprinted from Australian Journal, Arena)

"It is only as one sees Byzantium for itself, and not simply in relation to Islam or Western Europe, that one can begin to appreciate its greatness. And that is what makes Herrin's Byzantium so welcome. All the expected topics are here: the founding of Constantinople, the building of the great church of Agia Sophia, the rule of Justinian and the codification of Roman law, the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, the harsh consequences of the rise of Islam, the place of icons in Byzantine life and the iconoclastic controversy, the conversion of the Slavs and the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic tongue, Mount Athos, the outstanding historian Anna Komnene, the arrival of the Crusaders, the siege of Constantinople. But the book contains much more."--Robert Louis Wilken, First Things

"Herrin has produced an accessible, fascinating book that avoids the pitfalls of writing by scholars for scholars. She doesn't dwell on the spectacular, although Byzantium has plenty of drama, but rather provides a surprisingly deep look into a lost world. Much to the point, as well, is that modern Europe and the rest of the Western world would have been a much different place had it not been for Byzantium and its thousand-year history from the sixth century to the 15th. It's an amazing story, and well told, as Herrin traces a civilization that combined pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman and ancient and medieval influences. This is a terrific read."--Mark Horton, The Edmonton Journal

"The information here is both solid and detailed--so much so that even a specialist will frequently encounter previously unknown facts. . . . Byzantium offers a solid introduction to Byzantine history and culture, and the sheer depth of information it contains could repay multiple readings."--Richard Tada, The Weekly Standard

"In this carefully researched, clearly written, and engaging book author Herrin opens up a neglected part of western history for the general reader."--Charles L. P. Silet, Magill Book Reviews

"Judith Herrin's book provides a fine cultural backdrop to the study of Byzantine liturgy--and a good read for understanding this remarkable society on its own terms."--Frank C. Senn, Worship

"At its best, the text is skillfully written, judiciously crafted, and lively."--Florin Curta, American Historical Review

"With this work, Herrin provides an edifying, enjoyable read that will both capture the interest of the lay reader with the exciting aspects of Byzantium that she covers in each chapter and appeal to the student of Byzantine history as an interesting read and a concise look at some subjects that have been revised, and others that could use further revision."--David Mason, Digest of Middle East Studies

E-History.com
Byzantium covers a huge period of space, time, and cultural influence, which is now synthesized into bite-sized pieces in Judith Herrin's new book Byzantium. . . . As a non-specialist, I can fully attest to her success in making her book appear friendly and imminently readable. . . . The eye-catching cover is a visual clue to the treasures within this book, which explores the intrigue of the imperial Byzantine court; describes the lavish clothing, administration, food, architecture, and art of Byzantium; reveals a fascinating cast of royals and ascetics; and captures the imagination about this era of the Eastern Roman Empire down to the 15th century, when Byzantium falls to the Ottoman Empire. . . . Herrin seeks to promote the positive and creative aspects of Byzantium and show the reader a Byzantium that is more than derivative of Greek and Roman culture, but rather its own culture. She excels at this. . . .
New York Review of Books
The scope and shape of Herrin's survey of Byzantine history and culture are impressive. She moves from the foundation of Constantinople to its fall before the Turks in a series of twenty-eight short chapters. This allows the curious or impatient reader to sample, according to taste, such delectable topics as Greek fire, eunuchs, icons, and the Towers of Trebizond . . .
— G.W. Bowersock
Choice
The book is comprehensive, but the paragraphs are never dense and the prose retains throughout a lively quality.
— J.W. Nesbitt
Christian Science Monitor
[A] remarkable new history...Herrin takes a fresh approach and focuses on manifold aspects of Byzantine culture, civilization, and religion. Herrin's scholarship is impeccable, yet she writes like the very best of travel writers. She paints vivid pictures of this prosperous and pious culture whose capital was a fortified city of sunlight glinting off the gilded church domes and spires, surrounded on three sides by the shimmering Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.... From the first page, the author embraces the reader in the love of her subject. She entertains and captivates while throwing open the doors to her formidable treasury of knowledge...
— M.M. Bennetts
Austin American-Statesman
Herrin's hope is to dispel the aura of decadence that hangs over Byzantium so that we can see the empire for what it was: one of the great, creative civilizations. Herrin's account shows that, indeed, Byzantium can't be explained as a millennial slide downhill, the judgment propounded by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and often repeated since.
— Roger Gathman
Open Democracy Blog
Here of course lies the strong contemporary resonance of Herrin's argument. Her lively portrayal of a forgotten civilisation impacts on the revived Muslim awareness and expansion of today.
— Tom Nairn
First Things
It is only as one sees Byzantium for itself, and not simply in relation to Islam or Western Europe, that one can begin to appreciate its greatness. And that is what makes Herrin's Byzantium so welcome. All the expected topics are here: the founding of Constantinople, the building of the great church of Agia Sophia, the rule of Justinian and the codification of Roman law, the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, the harsh consequences of the rise of Islam, the place of icons in Byzantine life and the iconoclastic controversy, the conversion of the Slavs and the creation of an alphabet for the Slavic tongue, Mount Athos, the outstanding historian Anna Komnene, the arrival of the Crusaders, the siege of Constantinople. But the book contains much more.
— Robert Louis Wilken
Magill Book Reviews
In this carefully researched, clearly written, and engaging book author Herrin opens up a neglected part of western history for the general reader.
— Charles L. P. Silet
Worship
Judith Herrin's book provides a fine cultural backdrop to the study of Byzantine liturgy—and a good read for understanding this remarkable society on its own terms.
— Frank C. Senn
American Historical Review
At its best, the text is skillfully written, judiciously crafted, and lively.
— Florin Curta
Publishers Weekly

Offering a brilliant study of the history of the Byzantine empire, Herrin-whose groundbreaking The Formation of Christendomchallenged traditional views on the development of Christianity-draws a similarly original portrait of a tradition-based yet dynamic empire that protected Christianity by checking the westward expansion of Islam. Herrin progresses in lively fashion, chronicling the 1,000-year history of Byzantium from its rise in A.D. 306 to its demise at the hands of the Ottomans. Along the way, Herrin, a professor at King's College, London, introduces an astonishing cast of characters, such as the empire's first leader, Constantine I; religious leaders such as Patriarch Photios; and Anna Komnene, the great 12th-century historian whose Odyssey-like epic, the Alexiad, celebrated the 37-year reign of her father, Alexios I. Drawing on letters, journals and other primary documents from both political figures and ordinary citizens, Herrin splendidly recreates an empire whose religious art, educational curriculum, tax and legal systems, and coronation rituals preserved the best of the empire's pre-Christian Greek past while at the same time passing along advances to the rest of the world. Herrin's history is hands-down the finest introduction to Byzantium and its continuing significance for world history. 8 color illus.; 16 b&w illus.; maps. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691143699
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/8/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Sales rank: 503,153
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Herrin is professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London. She is the author of "Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium" and "The Formation of Christendom" (both Princeton).

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Maps xii
Introduction: A Different History of Byzantium xiii

Part I: Foundations of Byzantium
Chapter 1: The City of Constantine 3
Chapter 2: Constantinople, the Largest City in Christendom 12
Chapter 3: The East Roman Empire 22
Chapter 4: Greek Orthodoxy 33
Chapter 5: The Church of Hagia Sophia 50
Chapter 6: The Ravenna Mosaics 61
Chapter 7: Roman Law 70

Part II: The Transition from Ancient to Medieval
Chapter 8: The Bulwark Against Islam 83
Chapter 9: Icons, a New Christian Art Form 98
Chapter 10: Iconoclasm and Icon Veneration 105
Chapter 11: A Literate and Articulate Society 119
Chapter 12: Saints Cyril and Methodios,'Apostles to the Slavs’ 131

Part: III: Byzantium Becomes a Medieval State
Chapter 13: Greek Fire 141
Chapter 14: The Byzantine Economy 148
Chapter 15: Eunuchs 160
Chapter 16: The Imperial Court 170
Chapter 17: Imperial Children,"Born in the Purple" 185
Chapter 18: Mount Athos 192
Chapter 19: Venice and the Fork 203
Chapter 20: Basil II,"The Bulgar-Slayer" 212
Chapter 21: Eleventh-Century Crisis 220
Chapter 22: Anna Komnene 232
Chapter 23: A Cosmopolitan Society 242

Part IV: Varieties of Byzantium
Chapter 24: The Fulcrum of the Crusades 255
Chapter 25: The Towers of Trebizond, Arta, Nicaea and Thessalonike 266
Chapter 26: Rebels and Patrons 281
Chapter 27: "Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara" 299
Chapter 28: The Siege of 1453 310
Conclusion: The Greatness and Legacy of Byzantium 321

Further Reading 339
List of Emperors Named in the Text 354
Chronology 357
Maps 363
Acknowledgements 375
Index 377

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