“The Emperors of Byzantium” by Kevin Lygo


Kevin Lygo’s The Emperors of Byzantium is what it says on the tin: an orderly man-by-man (and occasional woman) account of the Eastern Roman emperors, from Constantine I who founded the capital city in his own name, to his namesake who presided over the fall more than 1100 years later. All are there, except the so-called Latin emperors who ruled over Constantinople in the decades after the Fourth Crusade. Contemptuous, Lygo cannot even bring himself to name them.

That’s a lot of material to go through in a single book, especially one in which about a third is given over to photographs. Encyclopedic, the entries are as well: basic biographical summaries with details of birth, family, death, major events, and such details as whether the emperor was the victim or perpetrator of eye-gouging or murder (both of which happened with some frequency), Michael II being a particularly vivid case in point.


Michael’s plot to kill Leo V was discovered the day before Christmas 820. Leo V’s response to his betrayal was to condemn his erstwhile friend to die by being shackled to an ape and thrown into the furnace that heated the imperial baths. As it was Christmas Eve, the wife of Leo V, Theodosia, persuaded her husband to delay his execution until after the religious holiday. That night, Michael managed to rouse his supporters into acting on his behalf. Dressed as church choristers, they entered Hagia Sophia, initially mistaking the patriarch for Leo V, who was wearing a similar fur hat. This mistake gave Leo time to grab a large cross with which to defend himself – but to no avail. First his arm was cut off, and then his head. The conspirators threw his dismembered body into the public latrine before hauling it out to put on display in the Hippodrome. Once freed, Michael had all four of Leo’s sons castrated (one of whom died in the process) and banished them, along with their mother, to the Princes’ Islands.


The emperors’ entries are preceded by epigrams from their biographers, sometimes more or less contemporary but all from within the context of the Empire. Lygos has chosen well: these pithy comments can speak volumes. The entry for late 11th-century Michael VII Doukas is preceded by


Michael is a prodigy of our generation and a most adored character. He is inclined to blush. — Michael Psellos, mid-1070s


Michael was so naive, ignorant and inexperienced, he was deemed fit only to be a bishop. — Michael Attaleiates, c. 1080


Byzantines, furthermore, had a sense of humor. Of 10th-century emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, Lygo writes:


A truly great general but too clumsy a politician to survive for long, the taciturn Nikephoros certainly left the Byzantine lands in a better place and it was somehow fitting that the inscription on his sarcophagus read ‘You conquered all but a woman’.


The Emperors of Byzantium, Kevin Lygo (Thames & Hudson, April 2022)
The Emperors of Byzantium, Kevin Lygo (Thames & Hudson, April 2022)

The two introductions by Robert Preston and Bettany Hughes complain about the omission of Byzantium from most (European) historical narratives, something that was perhaps more true of the 20th century than the 21st. As the world has shrunk, I doubt people with any predilection for history need much persuading to read about Byzantium.

The encyclopedia format, while leaving no one out, has its drawbacks: there is little room for trends or processes that extend beyond a reign—longer periods are demarcated by by “dynasties” rather than themes—and not much in the way of narrative. And taking each ruler individually results in some repetition, where the passage of the throne from one to another is discussed with different emphases.

The Chalice of the Patriarchs, ca 1000
The Chalice of the Patriarchs, ca 1000

But any possible misgivings pale in comparison with the brilliance of the photographic illustrations, something for which publisher Thames & Hudson is renowned. A few good maps are supplemented by page upon page of photos of sculpture, mosaics, paintings, manuscripts, architecture, coins and objets-d’art. Byzantine art can be, for the non-specialist, be something of a millennium-long muddle of icons and reliquaries. But by placing these well-chosen works next to the emperors whose reigns they are associated with, one can trace the development from classical forms to Christian art and works that prefigure later developments, such at the 12-century fresco from the Church of Saint Panteleimon whose “blend of high tragedy, gentle humanity and elements of homespun reality anticipates the art of Giotto and the Italian Early Renaissance.”

The Emperors of Byzantium is as much an overview of Byzantine art—and a very appealing and useful one at that—as it is history.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.