Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin Penguin, HK$330 Judith Herrin's carefully packaged history of Byzantium had an unlikely genesis. Two workmen knocked on the door of her office at King's College London in 2002 to inquire about the precise nature of her job. 'What is Byzantine history?' they asked. Presumably flabbergasted that hard-hatted, heavy-booted artisans should entertain cultural reference points that extended beyond watching Big Brother, Herrin - a respected author and archaeologist - tried to sum up 1,000 years in 10 minutes off the cuff. Nodding sympathetically, the workmen asked why she didn't write about it for them. The result is Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. It's more substantial than the Wikipedia entry of a similar title, but does raise the question of how far history needs to be dumbed down. Trying to shove a millennium into 300 or so pages, and particularly as colourful a period of history as this (90 emperors, 125 patriarchs, countless pitched battles and lesser engagements) inevitably involves cutting a few corners. Herrin occasionally - and annoyingly - drops into the first person, checking the natural flow of the narrative. Whether this is a habit picked up lecturing students, or an attempt to engage the reader, is a moot point; it comes over as vaguely patronising, as if she were constantly attempting to spark the interest of a brace of apprentice plumbers. However, set aside that this book is pitched some way above History for Dummies and there is a terrific amount to enjoy in Byzantium. It examines the empire's role in shaping the modern world and, in particular, its effect as a bulwark against the rapidly expanding forces of Islam. Muslim disruption of ancient trading patterns forced northern Europe to develop its own economic base in the Middle Ages, and Christian Byzantium checked Arab expansion into Asia Minor and the Dardanelles. The map of the world today was originally drawn up by goings-on in and around Constantinople. And what goings-on they were. Herrin complains that newspapers use 'Byzantine' as an insult ('tax regulations of Byzantine complexity'), yet it's precisely such a rich tapestry of events that draws both neophyte and learned scholars. Dividing the book into pithy chapters unfettered by chronology, Herrin highlights the Byzantine aristocracy's preference for using a fork at meals, rather than their bare hands, starting a trend yet to go out of fashion. Magnificent structures such as Hagia Sophia were built. The apocalyptic Crusades swept through the region. Naval vessels employed an early and utterly terrifying version of napalm, known as Greek Fire. And in time of both peace and war, men and women of every nationality flocked to Byzantium, drawn exactly as immigrants are nowadays to metropolises such as London and New York. In 988, Emperor Basil II formed an elite guard comprising Russians, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons who were all prized for their martial qualities. By 1140, there was a distinct German quarter in Constantinople, as well as a community of Catalans from Barcelona who acted as both traders and mercenaries. Such characters, and the times they lived in, rate more than this slimmed-down volume. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, bringing the Byzantine empire to an end and heralding one that, centuries later, was moulded into modern-day Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Herrin concludes, a touch peevishly, that the current popular perception of Byzantium is still at odds with the facts, although attitudes are changing. A bigger book may help her put her case.