“History is taught, I believe, by one thing only- sparking interest. This means telling a good story, of which there are millions, as accurately, but also as amusingly, as you can.” – Lord John Julius Norwich
These were the words of advice I received from one of the great English historians of the past fifty years. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lord Norwich earlier this year and he left me feeling enthused and eager to continue to write stories about history that excite me through my blog. In essence, I also learned that telling a good historical story is about grabbing the attention of the reader. By grabbing the readers attention, you will undoubtedly spark their interest. This brings me to introduce, Roger Crowley, one of the finest narrative historians currently ‘sparking interest’ on topics from Byzantium and the fall of Constantinople to the story of the Venetians and their rise as a great naval power in the Mediterranean. Mr. Roger Crowley took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions I posed to him on subjects dear to both of us.
The revival in the interest in Byzantium seems to have grown due to the patience and determination of historians to present it in a new light. It is no longer seen as the poor relative of Western civilization. The almost forgotten or vanished empire was the centre of many of the most influential events of world history. From the beginnings of Christianity’s legitimacy and the arrival of Islam, to the epic power struggles between rich city states and the clash of empires.
It is of no surprise that Roger Crowley chose to write about Byzantium, more specifically, Constantinople, The Last Great Siege 1453 (2005), as his first book. Like many who travel to modern day Istanbul, one can’t quite help but fall in love with the city. Everywhere you look you are reminded of the past. In plain view among roads, bus stops and street shops you will find ancient ruins, Roman columns, Byzantine churches now Muslim mosques, Valens Aquaduct and the great obelisk of Theodosius The Great to name a few. It was after Crowley had first finished his education at Cambridge University that he found himself in Istanbul in 1973, initially visiting a friend and later teaching English, travelling, reading and generally loitering around that sparked an interest in the city. Years later he would wonder about its final desperate struggle as a Christian city before succumbing to the forces of Islam and becoming Istanbul. It is here that I will open with my questions to Mr. Crowley about the siege and demise of Constantinople, its important as an event and some thoughts on his research and favourite emperors.
Siege of Constantinople 1453 from Bibliothèque nationale mansucript Français 9087 (folio 207 v)
What things did the Byzantines get wrong in their preparation for the siege, a siege that they knew was coming ? Could they have avoided disaster or was it simply inevitable?
“I don’t think they made many mistakes, they simply didn’t have many cards to play. They patched up their walls as best they could, they sought help from Christian Europe well ahead of the siege, they tried to rally the resources of all the people in the city, but the odds were stacked against them – religious divisions made it hard to create a united front and they were desperately short of money and man power. In the circumstances I think they did extraordinarily well. The outcome was, in the long run, inevitable. If they had beaten back the Ottomans in 1453 it was only a matter of time. Byzantium was a dying civilization.”
I can only imagine the vast amount of time and research you put into ‘1453’. What are some of the incidental bits of information you came across that you were amazed to learn?
“I became particularly interested in medieval technology – how cannon were cast, how ships sailed, how siege mines were dug, how gunpowder was milled and cannon balls carved. I was fascinated by the underground war fought beneath the walls of the city and the logistic skills of the Ottomans – the ability to keep their cannon firing for seven weeks was an extraordinary organizational feat. Walking around Istanbul I was again amazed how much of this history you can still touch. You can walk the great Theodosian wall almost from end to end and marvel at this masterpiece of Greco-Roman military engineering; you can see where it’s been degraded by gunfire, touch granite cannon balls and siege guns in the Military museum, see portions of the chain once strung across the Golden Horn, and follow the conquerors through the door of Hagia Sophia into that great domed building. Istanbul still always surprises me.”
Who are your favourite Byzantine Emperors? (Can you elaborate on one?)
“I’m afraid I’m not particularly strong on the biographies of individual Byzantine emperors, but picking out three, I’d choose Constantine the Great – still something of an enigma, it seems to me, Justinian who brought the empire to one of its great peaks – symbolized for me, always, by Hagia Sophia – and its last defender, Constantine XI. During the latter centuries of its life, Byzantium descended into a snake pit of feuding and civil wars. The last Constantine stands out from this as an admirable man, trying against the odds to keep the empire alive, conscious of its thousand year inheritance, prepared to fight to the end against enormous odds.”
The last Great Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI.
Why does that event (The battle of Constantinople) fascinate you as a historian and what have we still to learn from it?
“It’s a moment in history when the world was felt to change although the significance of the city’s fall was more symbolic than actual. A moment when the certainties of Medieval Europe seemed to be disintegrating. It was the final end of the classical world, the collapse of the age of the crusades, the start of a new era in warfare when gunpowder weapons were rendering siege strategies that went back to the bronze age obsolete, a moment when the an Islamic empire fully declared itself a European power. The siege has immense human interest – two extraordinary and evenly matched leaders – it crystalized part of the long contest between Islam and Christianity which has recently come to obsess us. In fact it has all the ingredients for great narrative – extraordinary twists and turns, new inventions, moments of great personal bravery and terrible cruelty; it involves technology, religion, superstition, warfare on land, sea – and underground – it’s an event rich in dimensions and meanings.”
Roger Crowley’s remarkable retelling of the final sack of Constantinople leaves the reader completely satisfied. His wealth of knowledge is very evident and his passion for it. Some of those incidental bits of information, I must confess I was not all that aware of, particularly the underground war. The mining operations that took place in an attempt to bring down the Theodosian Wall was extraordinary. For ten days, Saxon silver miners who were conscripted into Mehmet II’s army tried in vain to outmaneuver the Christian defenders behind the wall. In all, 14 tunnels were constructed and all of them destroyed.
The end was inevitable as Crowley points out, but he also gives us a glimpse at what would take shape in the 16th century. The fall of Constantinople was part of a larger conflict between Islam and the West. Vast swaths of Eastern Europe lay under Islamic control, the time had come for the Ottoman Empire to take control of the sea.
The Ottoman fleet led by Barbarossa defeat the Holy League of Charles V at the Battle of Preveza in 1538.
How was the idea for Empire of the Sea (2008) born? You have a family naval background, was that an influence?
“It came partially as a natural continuation of 1453 (though I could equally have followed the Ottomans into continental Europe). I became interested in how the Ottomans – people from the continental steppes – confronted the challenge of the sea and I realised the contests that they fought there, from the siege of Rhodes in 1520, through the siege of Malta to the battle of Lepanto were eye-popping contests. Thanks to the invention of printing, compared to 1453, the sources were extremely rich – I found some fantastic eyewitness source material. And I’ve always been fascinated by the Mediterranean world. I’m interested in its islands, its maritime past and its depth of history – this seemed like a good excuse for some on-the-ground research!”
Mr. Crowley is very much indebted to his father for introducing him to the “middle sea”, in particularly, the Island Of Malta. Like Lord Norwich, whose father introduced him to his greatest passion, Venice, Roger Crowley has the same passion for the Mediterranean and its history. At the age of ten, he and his brother would visit their father on their school holidays on Malta. His father was a captain of a destroyer squadron on Malta, where a British presence was kept up until 1979 and all their military bases were closed. (Roger’s father was a career naval officer and was part of the company that survived the bombing attack and subsequent sinking of The Nestor, an Australian destroyer, on convoy duty to Malta in 1942.)
How coincidental that the Crowley’s would share such a colourful history with Malta. It has been witness to many important battles and periods in the Mediterranean’s history. How poetic is it that Roger Crowley would elect to write about the Siege of Malta. One of the bloodiest and fiercely most fought in history. It was also the marking point in European history that the perception of Ottoman invincibility was overturned.
Is the Siege of Malta for Christians the equivalent to what the Conquest of Constantinople was for Islam?
“It certainly raised Christian morale enormously but I don’t think they were equivalent. The events of 1453 were a prophecy fulfilled for the Islamic world, a resounding victory, a sense for the Ottomans of coming into an inheritance – almost their foundation myth. (It certainly seems that way now in modern Turkey.) Malta was a cheering avoidance of defeat – church bells rang all the way to London – but it didn’t take away the on-going threat that Christian Europe felt in the face of the Ottoman military machine, and which really only subsided with a second heroic defence – that of Vienna in 1683.”
The arrival of the Ottoman Fleet at the siege of Malta.
Having cut his teeth on events in European history of such importance, Roger Crowley tackled the history of one of the great naval empires of the Mediterranean. City of Fortune: How Venice won and lost a naval empire (2011) could possible be considered a loose trilogy in the third book he has written to date on the Mediterranean, however, ultimately it is a history that charts Venice’s humble beginnings, its opportunist rise at the expense of the Byzantines, trade and power, its sea battles with the Genoese and Ottomans and its eventual decline. My interest in the Venetians has always laid in the interwound stories around Byzantine history, therefore, I couldn’t go without posing two questions to Mr. Crowley.
Lord Norwich describes the events leading to and after the Fourth Crusade as ‘The Shameful Glory’ of Venice. Do you think that event corrupted the Venetian or were they already heading down that path obsessed by wealth?
“Sometimes I wonder how culpable the Venetians really were in the events of 1204. Would they have smashed up the city without the presence of the crusading faction? I don’t know. The blame was largely pinned on them but it seems to me impossible to get to the bottom of the matter. Byzantine historians will say that Venice had a pre-planned agenda; Venetian historians hotly dispute this. (Put the two groups together in a room and fights may break out!) The Venetians wrote almost nothing about the event for a long time. Was this guilty silence or just getting on with life? As to what effect it had on the Venetians I think they were already uniquely concerned with money as a means to live – they had no land; no natural resources – trade and its rewards were their unique preoccupation from the very start. In a medieval world based on feudalism and land tenure there’s something disconcertingly modern about them.”
Lord Norwich describes the fourth crusades attack on Constantinople in 1204 as “The Shameful Glory”.
I often wonder whose struggle was more epic, the Venetians verse the Ottomans or Byzantium verses the Ottomans? Do you have a view on that?
“A hard one! In its longevity I think the battle for Constantinople probably wins out – certainly if you extend the contest to include the sense in which the Ottomans were the conscious inheritors of a deep Islamic tradition. The desire to take this city for Islam lasted almost 800 years – the first Arab siege took place in the seventh century and its ‘martyrs’ were an inspiration for the Ottomans during the final siege in 1453, after five previous attempts.”
As interested as I am in history, I am also interested in the person that is usually found on the back cover or the dust jacket of the books I read. Often the reader will skim to the back to see what the author looks like, who they are and how they managed to tackle the big questions or issues in their books. The opportunity had presented itself for me to ask Mr. Crowley some of those question history enthusiast like myself would want to know.
On your blog site I read that you describe yourself as a narrative historian. It begs me to ask who are your literary ‘heroes’ and how have they shaped the way you view and write about history?
“I am not a historian my training. My academic background is in English literature so I come to history with a particular interest in the shaping power of language. Style matters a lot to me. Almost all my ‘heroes’ are from literature rather than history – a particular school of British twentieth century travel writing, which is now probably starting to look a little romantic has been hugely important to me – in both style and in wanting to bring a sense of place to the history I write. People like Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris, Lawrence Durrell. I’m also a keen reader of world poetry – mostly in translation. The Greeks, George Seferis and Constantine Cavafy, I particularly like. I’m a creature of a deeply word curious culture.”
Many historians are privy to books, documents and other material that a general reader would never come across. As a historian how do you go about researching for a topic or subject?
“To begin with I do a huge amount of background reading. I study bibliographies very carefully to discover a large web of source material. I seem to have to learn to read a new language for each new book – which is not a great business model as it takes lots of time – but it’s essential to read in the core language that relates to the history. I’m not a natural linguist and I never pretend to do original archival research – I don’t have the skills or the time. My rule is that I have to use contemporary sources as much as possible but that all these sources have to be printed, although the books may be very old. A lot of this material has helpfully been digitized. I use a number of academic libraries and I’m a big fan of an academic catalogue called COPAC, that virtually identifies the whereabouts (or not) of any book I might be looking for. Early in a project I create a framework of events. I produce a large number of detailed timelines to get the structure of the history. And I look hard for eyewitness accounts – these are central to my interest in history: to hear human voices speaking to us about the past. Their accounts may be biased or untrustworthy, but even these tell us a great deal about people viewed events of the time.”
Do you have to be careful with material that you include or exclude? (The reason why I ask is because with the advent online communities, everyone has all of a sudden become an ‘expert’! There are some groups out there who go to lengths to point out that although (our) civilization is built on Greco-Roman foundations, a large part of it is presented through Christian eye and that this part is both superstitious and fraudulent. Do you agree? I myself would be terribly disappointed if history was written on half truths or guess work.
“I’m generally pretty cautious about counter-factual/conspiracy theory views of the past – there are masses of these floating around on the internet – and about nationalist (and religious) agendas about the meaning of historical events. I try to cast a critical, sceptical eye on contemporary sources – all medieval armies routinely seem to contain 100, 000 men. The difficulty comes when you have lots of sources from one side and almost none from the other. (This especially applies with Christian/ Islamic contests as there was little tradition of Muslim personal writing for a very long time.) Try as hard as we might it’s really difficult to completely free oneself from cultural bias but my aim is always to try to get a balanced view and to let both sides ‘speak’.”
Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners.
Finally, can you indulge the reader on anything you are working at the moment ?
“I’m writing a book about the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean –the contest with Islam for control of the sea and the spice trade after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497.The Portuguese exploration of the world has been rather forgotten, I think – apart from by the Portuguese! It’s been overshadowed by what we might call the rise and rise of the profile of Columbus as the discoverer of the Americas. In many ways the Portuguese story was just as extraordinary – and as terrible – they matched the conquistadors in South America for brutality. This small Atlantic country with a tiny population but unequalled ocean sailing skills really were the first to link the world together –the first globalizers, the first to reach China and Japan, the first people to cross-pollinate cultures, peoples, foods and languages across the world.
A huge thank you to Mr. Roger Crowley for his patience, time and contribution. You can visit or contact him via his website rogercrowley.co.uk or you can also read the many wonderful articles found on his blog page at rogercrowley.blogspot.co.uk.
Photo credits: All images are in the public domain. The header image is courtesy of Roger Crowley. He is featured here on the far right amongst friends at Mt. Athos, the spiritual home of Byzantium.