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7 Byzantium books to read after seeing new double Getty exhibits

Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958
Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958 Courtesy Byzantine & Christian Museum, Athens.

A short list of books on Byzantium from Off-Ramp contributor Marc Haefele to accompany his review of the Getty Center and Villa's first simultaneous show: Heaven and Earth.

Original history by Byzantine writers:

  • The Alexiad” by Anna Komnena (sometimes Comnena): Princess Anna’s own story of the reign of her emperor father in the 11th Century during the arrival of the crusaders. She’s such a colorful figure that she appears in some of the novels listed below.
  • The Secret History" by Procopius: The original tell-all dish on Constantinople’s famous couple, the Imperial Justinian and Theodora. Her naked stage performances with her trained geese still titillate.

  • 14 Byzantine Rulers” by Michael Psellus: Anecdotal, engrossing, informative, wide-ranging.

Four great novels about the Byzantine Empire:

  • Count Belisarius” by Robert Graves: Also the author of “I, Claudius,” this 1938 novel is about Belisarius, the greatest  general the Byzantines ever had, who nearly saved the entire Roman Empire. One of Graves’ very best books.
  • Belt of Gold” by Cecelia HollandA 1984 effort by one of America’s top writers of historical fiction. Set in the 800s era of the Empress Irene. Wonderful painterly  detail of daily life in Constantinople and plenty of action, including the best chariot race since "Ben Hur.”
  • “Count Robert of Paris” by Sir Walter Scott: One of Scott’s very last books (1831), and just a bit ragged.  But if he loses his grip, he never loses his touch.  Vastly complicated plot involving Hereward, a British refugee from the Norman Conquest, seeking his fortune in the Byzantine palace guard during the First Crusade. There is also an orangutang.

  • "Helena" by Evelyn Waugh: Better known for “Brideshead Revisited,” Waugh wrote this novel, which he considered his best, in 1950. Set in the dawn of Byzantium in the 4th Century as Constantine establishes his new Eastern Empire, it’s told through the eyes of the emperor’s British mother, who takes it upon herself to find the Cross of Christ. A very moving, and often very funny, book.

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, is at the Getty Villa through August 25. Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Illumination at the Cultural Crossroads, is at the Getty Center through June 22.

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