Richard Fidler 2016. Ghost Empire. Sydney: ABC Books and Harper Collins, 492 pp.
A sweeping history of the eastern stronghold of the Roman world, Constantinople. Rome and the western Roman Empire fell to the Visigoths in 476, but in the east, Constantinople maintained an eastern stronghold of the Empire for another 1,000 years (although Greek, not Latin, was the language of the city). For most of this time Constantinople was by far the most populous and powerful city in Europe, but by 1453 the city and the Empire had dwindled and fell to yet another siege, this time by the Ottoman Turks who gave the modern name Istanbul to the city. Richard Fidler points out that if one of the earlier Arab sieges in 678 or 718 had succeeded (in 718 it very nearly did), undoubtedly all of Europe would have become Islamic. However, Fidler does not ask the other questions implied by his hypothesising: how different would history have been had the 1453 siege also failed (that too was a near thing) and Constantinople remained Christian? Or what if the hypocritical Roman Catholic thugs of the Fourth Crusade had not been diverted from the Holy Land by a cunning Doge of Venice and had not looted and weakened Constantinople 250 years before the Ottoman Turks finished the job? The history we know hangs by such threads - mostly, it seems, the deeds and mistakes of a few strong and weak leaders.
It seems that every one of Constantinople’s many Emperors was at least as ruthlessly cruel to local rivals as they were to external enemies. Constantine I (“Constantine the Great”) ~282-337 AD of course commands the first part of this book. Constantine I was undoubtedly “great” in that he influenced the modern world in many ways (he founded and gave his name to Constantinople; reformed the complex Roman legal system; converted to and championed Christianity; won much new territory through military victories etc.) but his domestic and war crimes were equally extensive. Likewise for many of his successors, notably the first Justinian whose annexing of many new territories was due entirely to the successes of his general Belisarius who won many battles using smaller armies than his opponents. Despite (or because) of that Belisarius’s loyalty was repeatedly tried by the politically incompetent and vindictive Emperor. (Constantines and Justinians were especially numerous through the history of Constantinople and easy for the reader to get mixed up - for example Constantinople’s last Emperor was also a Constantine, Constantine XI.) Despite the patriarchal power structure of Roman rule, several strong women managed to rule Constantinople, either by being powerful and astute enough to simply ignore the law that said Emperors must have a willy, or in consort with their Emperor husband or young son. However it would have been much safer to be a lion-tamer than to be a consort, parent, child, sibling or successful general to an Emperor who routinely assassinated their rivals by inventive and gruesome methods. Often the same methods were subsequently used on them.
I could have done without the gratuitous father-son journey of discovery (Richard’s son joins him on a tour through key sites that is woven through the historical narrative). Throughout much of the book this affectation is only a bit intrusive, until suddenly the reader is exposed to a detailed account of the birth of his son, an indulgence so glaringly out of place that it is like interrupting a book about the formation of galaxies with a short passage about the culinary properties of custard apples. Richard, what were you thinking? What was your editor thinking? Just write a sodding history book next time.
Much more welcome and relevant diversions include “the history of the Romans in five paragraphs” on pp. 21-23 and the brief account of the origins of Islam on pp. 186-190. Indeed the whole volume is full of stuff that one should have known, but didn’t. And thankfully there is a time-line too, and a map of ancient Constantinople (but none of western Europe). Harvard University’s Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations is therefore a useful companion.
Ghost Empire is for the most part a wonderful book, easy to read and enjoy, even by non-obstetricians. Fidler does seem to oversimplify events, but how else to encompass a thousand-year history with tendrils all over Europe and beyond within a single volume? The preface does warn the reader that some records from antiquity are accepted at face value despite being debated by historians or contradicted by other accounts, however the main sources are covered in endnotes and bibliography and are easily consulted. Richard Fidler’s voice through this history is an easy one to engage with, and this must be partly due to his deliberate simplification of the narrative and avoiding the exhaustive consideration of alternative views so loved by academics. And, if my quick perusal of some relevant Wikipedia pages is any indication, there is nothing much here that would be controversial to historians. And there are enough close parallels with contemporary military disasters and war crimes in the Middle East that any reader will conclude that modern leaders have not learned one thing from history. Only the weapons have changed.