Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500–700 by Peter Sarris - review by Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly

Europe’s Growing Pains

Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500–700


Oxford University Press 428pp £35 order from our bookshop

Peter Sarris’s splendid new book is a defiant act of intellectual imperialism. Under the triumphant banner of ‘The Oxford History of Medieval Europe’ it annexes four academic kingdoms: Rome, the early Middle Ages, Byzantium, and early Islam. The achievement is impressive, not least for its remarkable concision: nine chapters across 370 pages weld together sixty-nine separate sections, each elegantly conceived as a brief essay. This structure (dully presented on the contents page in tiresome textbook style: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc) gives Sarris the flexibility to balance the breadth of his treatment with the demands of detail. Indeed, in many ways, this book is a celebration of the essay as a means of rapidly and efficiently presenting information and ideas. There is room for economic analysis (2.5 ‘Continuity and Discontinuity in the Post-Roman Economy’), geo-politics (5.2 ‘The West Eurasian Steppe in the Mid-Sixth Century’), and good, solid narrative (4.3 ‘The Roman Response under Anastasius and Justin’).

The pitfalls of writing a political history of Europe from AD 500 to 700 are all too obvious. Traditional accounts are shaped by a great deal of rising, declining and falling along with a fair share of crisis, struggle, and consolidation. Sarris perhaps follows these conventional contours rather too willingly

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare