It supports, with its very great weight and power, Herrin’s thesis, that Byzantium boasted “a rich ecology of traditions and resources” – it didn’t just passively preserve ancient traditions, as Gibbon claimed, just waiting for the West to be ready to receive them again, but rather creatively and constructively engaged with and developed them:

It bequeathed to the world an imperial system of government built upon a trained, civilian, administration and tax system; a legal structure based on Roman law; a unique curriculum of secular education that preserved much of pagan, classical learning; orthodox theology, artistic expression and spiritual traditions enshrined in the Green church; and coronation and court rituals that had many imitators.”

And when the doomed Constantine XI in 1453 made his final desperate call to the last remnant of the empire, its capital, to resist the Ottoman Turks, he called out in Greek to his people to prove themselves true Romans – to emphasising the continuity of 1,323 years of Constantinople’s history, and much further back. But long before that, Herrin argues, Byzantium’s ability to withstand, albeit eventually in much reduced form, the shock of the Arab onslaught as the tribes burst out of Arabia, in the eighth century that protected a then ill-prepared West, which would otherwise have been overwhelmed.

But this is a book that bears its theses lightly – mostly it is just a fine collection of yarns about a great and complex civilisation over more than a millennium. And you meet a great many interesting women along the way, among them:

Olympias, a wealthy heiress who supported a nunnery in Constantinople late in the 4th century, which remained in existence for more than two centuries, possibly longer, and in the early 7th century the abbess Sergia wrote an account of the miraculous recovery of its relics. Amalasuntha, daughter of the Ostrogoth and late western Roman ruler Theoderic, who on his death in 526 became regent for her 10-year-old son, Athalaric. Olga, widow of the Rus (Russian) leader Igor, who in the mid 10th century made a visit to Constantinople with an entourage of merchants, interpreters and a Christian priest. She left converted, having taken the historic name of Helena, from the wife of Constantine VII’s. This is seen as the start of the conversion of the Rus. (The Byzantines, unlike Islam, and until the Reformation, encouraged the use of the vernacular in worship.) Maria Argyropoulaina, who introduced in the fork to the west, despite initial claims that they were pretentious. She had been married to Giovanni, son of Pietro II (doge 991-1008) after Venice helped Byzantium thwart an Arab siege at Bari. Sadly, although after they were married in Constantinople in 1004, returned to Venice to much acclamation and had a son, all three then perished in an epidemic. Kale Pakourianos, widow of a Georgian military commander for Byzantium, who supported the Georgian monastery of Viron on Mount Athos. And of course there’s the celebrated historian Anna Komnene, who has a whole chapter to herself, as a writer of a work that Herrin considers “bold, novel and surprising”. Herrin adds: “No other medieval woman, East or West, had the vision, confidence and the capacity to realize an equally ambitious project”.

Also attractive is the frequent humanism (by medieval standards at least) of the Byzantine judiciary, as Herrin charts it. The West looked on it horror at the mutilation punishments inflicted by its courts, and on deposed emperors and such-like, but the West would have put all of these people to death – so arguably blinding or removal of a hand was a preferable fate.