I became almost too engaged while researching Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. There are more books I can cite than anyone would really want to hear about. In this case, I’ll try even more to cut to the ones I found best or most useful.
For me the easiest access for the general reader to the 6th century in Byzantium and Italy is Robert Browning’s Justinian and Theodora, a popular history by a very substantial historian. I’d suggest to anyone interested in the period that they start here.
There are a number of general histories. Byzantium is ‘hot’ in historical terms, these days. Browning has one called The Byzantine Empire so does Cyril Mango, a very good book called Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome. (The first one I read.) A History of Byzantine Civilization by Haussig is well-illustrated but not especially stylish. For style, it is easier to turn to John Julius Norwich’s three volume history of Byzantine civilization. Norwich is a populist not an original thinker or researcher, but he’s undeniably skilled at ‘big picture’ history and the vivid anecdote.
Narrowing the focus again, there’s real scholarship in Averil Cameron’s Procopius and the Sixth Century (and once I mention Procopius I really should suggest having a look at his The Secret History which shows, among other things, how nasty historians could be.) Cameron’s The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity covers the period between AD 395-600. There’s nothing breezy here, but it is authoritative.
Staying with the Camerons (once a couple, I understand) I owe a very great debt to Allan Cameron of Columbia University for two books that pretty much engendered the entire Hippodrome aspect of my novels. Porphyrius the Charioteer and Circus Factions are, for me, historical scholarship operating at the highest level, taking the driest of material (such as inscriptions on statue fragments!) and shaping a coherent vision of a vanished world.
Lionel Casson’s Travel in the Ancient World is wonderful and readily accessible. It gave me solid underpinnings for Crispin’s journey. And in this context of travel I’ll mention Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory which isn’t at all about Byzantium, but which introduced me to the Lithuanian bison, the zubir, and sparked a sequence of thoughts on the relationship between city walls and wilderness (and how that changed through history) – one of the themes of the two books.
One of my favourite book discoveries is The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World by Guido Majno and it was reading this that compelled me back towards using medicine as at least an element of the story.
On food I used The Life of Luxury a translation by Wilkins and Hill of Archistratus’s ancient cookbook; Siren Feasts by Andrew Dalby (a bit out of period, because it is essentially about classical Greece); Food in History by Reay Tannahill; and A History of Food by Miguelonne Toussaint-Sammat.
There’s a Byzantine research institute in Washington D.C. called Dumbarton Oaks. They support visiting scholars, have a lovely small collection of artifacts, and host symposia regularly, publishing the papers and also publishing translations of classical texts. People and Power in Byzantium by Alexander Kazhdan is theirs, and so is Byzantium: A World Civilization, edited by Laiou and Maguire. They also have a book of essays called Byzantine Magic, edited again by Harry Maguire, that supplemented some other reading I’d done in curse tablets and other aspects of magic in late antiquity.
Gager’s Curse Tablets and Binding Spells is a wonderful, unsettling source. (“As this lead is cold and useless, so may X be cold…”) Allan Cameron discusses the curse tablets and invocations against charioteers and horses, as well, and even raises the ‘theory’ of the time that successful charioteers had to be sorcerers – since they survived so many curses directed at them! I also liked Valerie Flint’s The Rise of Magic In Early Medieval Europe, especially on the way the church made use of pre-existing sites and traditions to smooth the way for doctrinal acceptance.
On the army I used Dumbarton Oaks’ Three Byzantine Military Treatises and learned a great deal from Byzantium and Its Army: 284-1081 by Warren Treadgold. (Treadgold has recently published a massive history of Byzantium but I haven’t read it yet. There is some suggestion it may become the ‘standard’ general work.)
Another very fine collection of essays is called simply The Byzantines, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo. It is organized into chapters entitled, The Poor, The Army, Teachers, Women, Emperors, with essays by Browning, Mango, Kazhdan, and others among the foremost historians around.
On Persia in Late Antiquity (my Bassania) I learned most from Richard Frye’s The Heritage of Persia and took a visual sense from a lovely book called The Royal Hunter, the catalogue of an art exhibition, by Prudence Oliver Harper. Having said this, the core political and military (and economic) issues between Byzantium and Persia can be found in any of the general political histories mentioned above.
On art and the interplay of art and power and religion there is a great deal to read. Mango has a useful book entitled The Art of the Byzantine Empire which gathers original documents linked by brief, clarifying commentary. He includes wonderful contemporaneous descriptions of Hagia Sophia and many of the seminal texts showing the evolution of Iconoclasm. (I accelerated this development by almost two hundred years in the Mosaic.)
David Talbot-Rice’s Art of the Byzantine Era is probably the most straightforward introduction to Byzantine artwork, but Stephen Runciman (the most famous chronicler of the Crusades) has several books on the subject. His Byzantine Style and Civilization is a nice pairing with Talbot-Rice. Ernst Kitzinger is perhaps the most honoured name in the field, and his Byzantine Art in the Making covers the 3rd to the 7th centuries, though in a manner that may be too formal and detailed for anyone simply looking for an overview. Issues of eastern and western ‘style’ come up here, though, and changes from one generation to another, and that mattered a good deal to me in shaping aspects of the book, given an artist (or artisan) as my protagonist. There’s a gorgeous coffee table-sized book called Hagia Sophia by Rowland Mainstone that lets readers ‘see’ the Great Church more clearly than they can when inside.
On mosaics specifically I learned most from two books. One by L’Orange and Nordhagen is called Mosaics From Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages and the other by Ferdinando Rossi was Mosaics: A Survey of Their History and Techniques. John Gage’s Color and Culture is a wonderful book with some terrific insights into mosaic technique.
There are innumerable books of art history that will show detailed images from the spectacular mosaics in Ravenna and elsewhere.