I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980). Pp. 334. Hardback $17.50.
This book is a bit old, but it's still a very good introduction for Eastern Roman Empire - a.k.a., the Byzantium Empire.
What makes this book a good introduction is that it's not your standard introduction that progresses chronologically through the history of a people. This book has very little information regarding events, names, dates, and such. Instead, Mango seeks to introduce the Byzantine Empire in three different ways: the aspects of Byzantine life, the conceptual world of Byzantium, and the legacy of the empire.
In the part that speaks of the aspects of Byzantine life, Mango writes about the people and language of the empire, which was very interesting. Byzantium was a very diverse empire, and much more than an empire of "Greeks." In this respect he has a lot to say to the Orthodox Churches that exist in America as they try to form an American identity. He also writes about how society and the economy was structured. In this way, one gets a sense of every day life. He also writes about the development and disappearance of cities, monasticism, and education. By the end of this section, one has a good sense of what life in the Empire was like from various different angles.
In the part that speaks about the conceptual world of Byzantium, Mango address the way the Byzantines understood themselves, the world, and the future. He looks at good vs. evil. He also explores how the Byzantines understood the larger world around them, and other peoples. We also learn about how the people of the Byzantine empire understood their past and their future, and what life ideal should be like. This chapter almost felt as if I was reading a book about the theology of the Orthodox Church. Mango draws very heavily on the Church Fathers, and other Patristic sources, as they were the ones that influenced how society understood itself. If anyone is interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, this chapter is must read.
Finally, Mango writes about the legacy of the Empire - what it has for us in the 21st century. Namely, he looks at the literature of the Empire, which can still be read today - and is still largely used by the Orthodox Church. He also looks at the art and architecture of the empire, which is the most visible and accessible aspect of the Byzantines.
In short, I highly recommend this book if one is looking for a good introduction - especially if you want a book that is more than just dates and events.