Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire, ABC Books/HarperCollins, Sydney 2016
I heard journalist and broadcaster Richard Fidler interviewed on ABC Radio a few months ago about his new book, Ghost Empire, and thought at the time “I’d like to read that”. And, lo, just a week and half ago, there it was under the Christmas tree.
I read the final sentence first:
The double-headed eagle, representing the unity of the eastern and western empires, still awaits its resurrection in Constantinople, the capital of a universal empire.
“Yes”, I thought, “this will be good”. And, as it turns out, it was a read I enjoyed, and from which I learnt much, although I do have a few quibbles.
I am not a scholar of Constantinople or Roman history, nor is Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul a place about which I know much. But, I have an Everyman’s awareness of Constantinople as a fabulous and ancient city that about five and a half centuries ago fell, after a great battle, to the Ottomans, and that one consequence of that fall was to force western European adventurers and traders, trying to avoid the new Muslim rulers, to explore the high seas and find their way into the Indian Ocean and maritime Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. In a sense, me being born in Australia five hundred years later was the faintest of insignificant ripples radiating from the great disruptions of that ancient cataclysm. My parents visited Istanbul a few years ago, and brought me back a lovely blue and white Iznik-style bowl, a Turkish cook book and a wealth of stories about a city they found enchanting. But, beyond that, I knew little.
I know more now, thanks to Ghost Empire. Once I started reading, it was hard to put down. That is a tribute to both the intrinsic fascination of Constantinople’s history and to Fidler’s storytelling abilities. The book is structured as a chronology or king list, with successive and noteworthy emperors, empresses and heirs-imperial providing the principal actors and dates around which events are attached and ordered. Interspersed among the historical vignettes are Fidler’s Lonely Planet-like reminiscences of his journey with his teenage son as they explore the relics of the ancient city within the 21st century landscapes of Istanbul. These provide insights into a father-son relationship, but also remind the reader that the millennium of history covered in the book is not fiction but a real time and space that is still present, even if that presence feels more ethereal than actual. As a narrative device, it easily led me across 453 pages with little resistance.
However, despite trying to resist the historian in me, I soon found myself annotating pages and underlining and commenting on passages, thinking about Googling this or that, or checking my old Britannica. I had to surrender. The rest of this review departs from chronology to focus on a few themes to which, as a historian, I was drawn.
History and historiography
Fidler’s distinctions between his own writing and that of a professional historian are a good starting point. He positions himself as “someone who is more of a history enthusiast than a historian” because he chooses to try and place himself in the ‘thought-worlds’ of the city’s medieval women and men who saw cosmic resonances in everything around them. Whereas professional historians, he says, approach fantastic and folk stories with caution because some will be fake, others distorted by prejudices and political necessities, and because they cannot accept supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, Fidler can accept the myths and phantasms of those women and men because they tell us something of their obsessions, anxieties and secret longings. A historian of popular culture will want to interrogate those stories for what they might reveal about shared beliefs and values rather than discard them. Even a fake story was invented for a reason, and why people accepted in it an earlier time as real can tell us much about their ‘thought-world’. Context is everything, and the least reliable context for a story from the past is our contemporary world. Modernist rational dissection is not necessarily the acme of historical analysis, and I think Fidler’s distinction may be a little forced.
Fidler later locates a discussion about the “great long stream of events and people” within a conversation with his son, who is trying to understand what had taken place before his birth. He argues a love of history is not a distraction from present expediency, but is critical to being tethered in our own time and place, to understanding the ‘flow of events’ that have carried us there. Otherwise, he says, we are “condemned to live in an eternal present”, and quotes Churchill on the value of placing oneself in the stream of world events, of history offering “ballast for a restless soul”. Indeed. History offers us the chance to confront the atomising ‘eternal present’ of ennui and the neoliberal marketplace. By placing this discussion within a father-son dialogue, Fidler signposts the value of succession and stewardship to the restless soul. The good historians I know are afflicted by (or is it endowed with?) a restless soul. Perhaps that is why they are drawn to the historian’s vocation.
Later in the book, Fidler writes on the Enlightenment historiography of the last few centuries that has built up a narrative of disapproval about the city. Constantinople has been relentlessly slurred as superstitious and depraved; ‘a disgrace’ pronounced Voltaire. This is exemplified by the adjective ‘byzantine’, a cliché now used to label anything pointless, complex and bureaucratic and allegedly a description of Constantinople’s governance. Fidler responds with the obvious question:
if the Romans of Constantinople were so effete, so paralysed by superstition, how did their civilisation endure for so long? How did they inspire so many with their vision of heaven on Earth?
Fidler doesn’t pursue these historiographical questions directly, but they are questions now being asked of the censorious orthodoxies of Enlightenment historiography by many new historians in many fields. Near the end of the book, Fidler returns to this issue, and looks to poetry for, at least, a counterpoint if not an answer. He finds one in the poetry of WB Yeats’ sublime Sailing to Byzantium (1933), and the haunting line “and gather me | Into the artifice of eternity”. That is, not the ‘eternal present’ under which we currently labour but the ‘great long stream’ with all its wildnesses and restlessness’s, and a consciousness “of what is past, or passing, or to come”, as Yeats concluded Sailing. Fidler need not worry about professional historians, for many are seeking similar currents in which to flow.
Renovatio and its emblems
One of the first places Fidler looks for insight into the ‘thought-world’ of the medieval women and men of Constantinople is how they named themselves.
The already 980-years old Byzantium was re-named Nova Roma (New Rome) in 330 when Constantine proclaimed it the new capital of the Roman Empire, but it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city’s inhabitants called themselves Romans, and the Roman Empire continued to live on for a thousand years after 476 when its western provinces had fallen to Germanic invaders. Over the ensuing millennium, the Romans of Constantinople changed from pagans to Christians, from Latin-speakers to Greek, from looking west to east. They called themselves Romaioi, and their realm Romania, as those around them called them by similar names such as Rum. Only in western Europe did a myth persist that the Roman Empire fell in 476. Elsewhere, the glory of Rome, even if over time a little tattered, glowed until 1453.
The thought-world of Romaioi ‘Roman-ness’ had little to do with geography and everything to do with shared ideas and traditions. When that world crashed in 1453 the Empire officially died, although the new Sultan assumed the title Kayser-i-Rûm, or Emperor of the Romans, from his dead Christian predecessor, implying continuity not ending. Fidler argues once you know the stories of that lost empire, you can’t avoid the ghost of old Byzantium “pressing against you at the crumbling land walls … suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia … glimpsed within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian”. More continuities.
The Romaioi never saw any rupture with their ancestral glories in old Rome. Their enduring links and continuities with a Roman past were more meaningful than any differences. They saw not rupture in 330 but renovatio, or restoration, reinvigoration, made new again. Fidler makes this comprehendible with an almost-throw-away line when he says the Romaioi saw their Roman-ness in “much the same way that modern Australians consider themselves westerners while living south of East Asia”. He doesn’t take the thought further, but it has run around and around in my head since. If Australians were to have a concept of their own renovatio, we would have to escape the historiographical West in which Rome died in 476, and in doing so, might rediscover the ‘lost’ historiography of a New Britannia, an Austral-Asia. It seems fantastic but as Constantinople shows, old ghosts pressed, suffused or glimpsed don’t just vanish. Renovatio is always possible. Such imaginings, of course, will only be knowable a thousand years hence. If 1901 was our 330, the flow of time will have many ebbs and flows, many sovereigns good and bad, before our descendants reach their 1453? A Roman epithet for Constantinople was the ‘mirror to heaven’. Such a history is bound to induce dreams of glistering futures.
Contemporary historians of the city resent the term ‘byzantine’ being used to label the arcane and absurdly bureaucratic, seeing in it the slur of centuries of western prejudice. However, some symbols of the Romaioi have escaped Enlightenment slurring. One symbol of Constantinople Fidler only touches lightly is the double-headed eagle. He mentions the map of the empire in the 1020s, equally sprawling across the Balkans and Greece on one side, Asia Minor and the Levant on the other, as a shape roughly resembling a double-headed eagle. Each chapter concludes with a representation of the double headed eagle as a heraldic device. He is perhaps wisely cautious as debate continues around the question of when such an emblem came in to use, and in the world of heraldry attributions of the origin of the double-headed eagle to the symbols of Constantinople’s later dynasties remain contentious.
A more intimate symbol lies in the humble table fork. Fidler recounts the story of the Byzantine Princess Theophanu who was married in Rome to the Frankish Prince Otto the Younger in 972. The princess brought from Constantinople the controversial practice of daily bathing and, even more amazingly, the use of a two-pronged fork. These luxurious practices were initially controversial but became accepted, especially for the fork once pasta was introduced to Italy in the eleventh century and it became the chosen implement for its eating. As Fidler remarks, “whenever you pick up pasta with a fork, you enact, in a very small way, a symbolic union of Rome with Constantinople and a reunion of the western and eastern empire”. As with the eagle-like map, and ongoing debates about the heraldic origins of the double-headed eagle, eating with a fork gives us a little entrée into the Romaioi thought-world that bypasses Enlightenment prejudices.
Insiders and outsiders
Fidler enumerates 99 emperors. A palindromic number, but there were also 3 empresses-regnant between 330 and 1453, and all were spread across 13 dynasties and 3 non-dynasts. There was also a 57-year period of eight usurper Latin emperors and one Latin female regent. This imperial diversity was possible because monarchy in Constantinople could be hereditary, but heritability was not essential. Most of the dynasties produced four or five emperors, although the Macedonian dynasty managed 16, and the Palaeologos dynasty 12. Nevertheless, through various marriages all the dynasties were or became related and the last emperor Constantine XI could trace a lineage back over 1000 years to Constantine I. They were all truly porphyrogenitus, or ‘born to the purple’ as the Romaioi would have said, a legitimating lineage more significant in a thousand-year history than a single dynasty.
All the imperial officer holders would have appreciated the value of Fidler’s observation that Constantine I saw how an emperor’s authority could be greatly magnified by a plausible claim to a divine mandate, and all presented themselves, no matter how they had come to the crown, as regents of God on earth. Their claims to the legitimating devices of lineage and divinity, however, did not prevent some truly brutal and atrocious reigns of terror leading Fidler to conclude there are “moments in history when psychopathic leaders gain the upper hand, and the normal human sanctions against killing disappear.” Such leaders have tended to be produced within the societies they later vampirise, and can be contrasted with the Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguards of the emperor. The Varanagians were mainly Vikings from northern Europe attracted by good pay and the lure of the great city. Emperors appreciated their service because, as foreigners, they were not aligned with any factions in dynastic and palace politics, and were “ultimately more trustworthy than local soldiers”. As with so much on Constantinople’s history, intuition is turned upside down when a home-grown emperor can be the most vindictive of barbarians and transient foreigners the most trustworthy of protectors. In the age of rising nationalisms and divisions we live in, it is timely to reflect upon this aspect of the Romaioi thought-world.
Spirituality and Melancholy
Understanding religion is one key into that thought-world, in both a theological sense and in a political or ‘Christianist’ sense. Fidler remarks that visitors to the city from the west could find nothing with which to compare it. Its emperors, archbishops and architects were consciously trying to build a ‘mirror to heaven’. They were reaching for theosis, or union with the divine, achieving an ecstatic oneness with the Holy Spirit, in which the city’s magnificence was an expression of their moral virtue. This longing for theosis reached a sort of perfection in the Hagia Sophia built between 532-537. New Rome was the heart of the divine empire on Earth. When the city was besieged in 1453 it was to the Hagia Sophia that its citizens fled, barricading themselves in, desperately believing prophecies of the End of Days telling that the demonic hordes would be stopped just short of the great cathedral by an angel who would smite them with a blazing sword. Their hopes were in vain, and after the looting, raping, killing and enslaving, the conquering Mehmed had his Imam proclaim the Muslim creed from the pulpit. After 916 years, the great church became one shard among many in the smashed mirror to heaven.
It is a long way from the Hagia Sophia to the suburban Anglican churches of Adelaide. Fidler recounts growing up a doubting congregant of such a local church, recalling he was never able to reconcile the God of love and forgiveness of the New Testament with the angry, mercurial creator of the Old. That too has been my experience, perhaps magnified in a Sydney dominated by a form of masculinist, Christianist, evangelical Anglicanism that I find quiet alien to the warm and loving church of my childhood in country Western Australia. My grandmother played the organ, my grandfather was a warden. Embedded in a wall was a little piece of Roman brick, recycled from a pagan temple into the wall of the ancient Kentish church of St Pancras built in 601, just 64 years after the great Hagia Sophia. As a boy, I loved to touch that relic, imagining some time-travel along the ‘great long stream’ with the medieval Augustine missionising among the pagan English. In 601 the Great Schism between Orthodox and Catholic was still 400 years’ away, and I can now imagine that red brick witnessing the same Christian services and rituals in Anglo-Saxon Kent as in the glorious Hagia Sophia, and even in some unseen continuity now in that curious little Anglo-Catholic styled Church of England in rural Western Australia. Generations of my mother’s family have been congregants, and I was baptised there in a font just a metre from that brick. The church is dedicated to St Catherine, traditionally martyred c305 by Constantine I’s defeated predecessor the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. After his victory Constantine converted to Christianity and the ‘great long stream’ took a new turn. I have only made these connections after reading Ghost Empire. The ‘great long stream’ seems to have its billabongs. Perhaps all these little Anglican churches, often now empty or declining, but preserved like jewels among the commonplace and still promising sanctuary and light, are also tiny shards of that smashed mirror?
Fidler ponders the meaning of the Greek word melancholia as father and son ramble beside the ruins of the city’s Theodosian Walls. He decides that a Turkish word hüzün better explains his emotions. Hüzün refers to a communal feeling that arises from living in a city crowded with the monuments and signs of a glorious past, a hazy sadness, a conviction of living in a monochrome era in a place built in a larger more colourful age. I think it’s a word that needs to be adopted into Australian English (perhaps into the language of all settler societies?). Do we not also live among the monuments of ancient Indigenous civilizations, in landscapes always traced with signs of a spiritual past just beyond our comprehension, ghosts sometimes beheld from the corner of the eye but then melting away before focusing? It is more than individual melancholy; it is shared and it has a sense of genius loci or spirit of place. This is the first time I’ve learnt a word that comes close to symbolising that deep emotion I cannot shake. Ever. Fidler’s son finds, in a ruined tower of the fabled Golden Gate, a mattress and some empty beer cans. He includes a hazy monochrome picture of the abandoned space, contemporary junk counterpoised with ancient stone walls. It exudes melancholia and hüzün all at once, all osis but no theos. I had to turn the page.
The artifice of eternity
In turning the page I come to my few quibbles. Several times I have mentioned a point Fidler did not pursue. They aren’t critical to long story he tells, but I would have liked to read his unfolding thinking a little further. But perhaps the two issues I would have liked to read more about relate to the shameful Fourth Crusade, and the fate of Romaioi of the city after its fall.
The sacking and plundering of the city in 1204, not by Muslim invaders but by the armies of the Christian West under the benighted leadership of a grasping Doge of Venice, is described by Fidler as “one of the worst crimes of the late Middle Ages”. At its heart lay pure greed and vindictiveness. The Crusaders carried away from the city the vast loot that had accumulated during 800 years, leaving the Romaioi humiliated and under Latin occupation. Much of the stolen property appeared later in the treasuries and palaces of Catholic Europe. At the end of this chapter, Fidler concludes “Once you know this of Venice [the chief recipient], you can never see St Mark’s in quite the same way. It looks less like a work of holy inspiration and more like a magpie’s nest of plunder, a monument to a shameless act of theft.” The grasping Doge was later interred in the occupied Hagia Sophia, a sort of seal on its faux-Catholic conversion, and there is schadenfreude to be derived from reading later, as the Sultan’s Janissaries were looting the great church in 1453, that they opened his sarcophagus and three his bones to the dogs in the streets. But, my quibble? In a time when the repatriation of cultural material is contested and debated in museums around the world, when magpie’s heirs privilege the sciences of material conservation over the depth of Indigenous attachments and longings, I would have liked to be challenged a little more: are there arguments over whether the Venetian’s loot such as the Quadriga (an equine statuary) should be returned to Istanbul, a city that may no longer he populated by heirs of the Crusader’s victims? Would repatriation be justice for past crimes, or a denial of a shameful history? No easy answers, but then Constantinople’s history is full of difficult answers.
That brings we to my other quibble. What did happen to the Romaioi once the city had fallen? Fidler provides some descriptions of what happened to them after the Sultan’s armies broke through the city’s defences on 29 May 1453. For six months the metropolis was largely silent and deserted, its people murdered, exiled or transported into slavery. Then the city was repopulated with Muslims and Christians from the Sultan’s domains. A census 25 years later recorded a (new?) population of 80,000. Somehow, the reckoning is just too neat and tidy. I see from the bibliography at least 12 references that may relate this information in some way, all authoritative, so why am I left in doubt? For so long our narratives of Aboriginal Australia were of a dying race, ever diminishing, soon to be gone forever. And yet, today, the population is growing and there is a cultural renaissance. The ‘dying pillow’ was a convenient and guilt-relieving story and, because of that, widely accepted and believed. Now, we know it was never true. Could the same be said of Constantinople’s Romaioi? Fidler acknowledges the continuing presence of a small community of Orthodox Rum in the city today, in the vicinity of the old Imperial palace. He states the Greek population was 130,000 before World War One, but has declined to just 3,000 today, and father and son eat in a Greek café. It doesn’t take much reading around to find many stories of the expulsion of Greeks and ‘Romans’ from the city right up to at least 1955. I wonder how many of the Rum avoided leaving the city by conversion to Islam? I have no idea, and sense an untold story (untold, at least, in Australia) lingers here, waiting for its scribe.
Moving away from such ‘quibbles’ (if they is what they are), I want to conclude by returning to Fidler’s original distinction between the professional historian and the history enthusiast. Emotion, art, poetry and history are very old companions, and the concept of history as a ‘great long stream’ upon which we are all sailing into futures unknown provides Ghost Empire with a cohesion that can span a thousand years. Enlightenment ideas of scientific progress may, in time, been seen as a short-term deviation from the great long stream. Linear progressive narratives have served the West well for two or three centuries, but compared with the two-and-a-half millennia history of just one city, where the storylines flow at times in peace and others in tempest, where ideas of theosis, porphyrogenitus, melancholia and hüzün have a provocative and imaginative capacity that can outlive any a single human life, a dynasty, a millennium, linear progress seems wanting.
Fidler draws his long story to a close with an observation that, to the Byzantines, “an innovation was a paltry thing, an embarrassment, like a cheap modern extension to a grand old house … the enemy of the eternal, the perfect.” He implies that aversion offers an insight in the Romaioi thought-world that explains the fall in 1453, unable to defeat the Sultan’s modern new cannon, but I’m not so sure. Fidler nominated the greatest imperial Byzantines as Constantine I (The Great, r 324-337), Justinian (and Theodora, r 527-565) and Heraclius (r 610-641). They were all innovators, but in the Romaioi thought-world their innovations were perceived as continuities, as part of the eternal stream. Perhaps Constantine XI (r 1449-1453) could be added to the trio. He refused to surrender to Mehmet, and almost defeated the siege until, on the cusp of victory, he and his armies were undone by that most material and human of actions, carelessness. A hidden door in the city walls, the Gate of the Wooden Circus or kerkoporta, was left unbarred after a raid. The Ottoman attackers found the weakness, and for the want of a wooden bar, the city was lost and the great long stream took another turn. Constantine XI met the attackers on the walls and was killed in battle. But his ghost has never died, kept alive among Romaioi exiles in a story of being turned by an angel, at his moment of death, into marble and sealed in a tomb beneath the Golden Gate, waiting the call to return and restore the lost city. Fidler says that such legends comfort people grieving over a lost golden age. But, could the legend also be read as the ultimate theosis, eternity artificed through the innovative power of imagination?
I’m not sure what a historian of Constantinople would say, but I think Ghost Empire is a fabulous book. I had fun reading it, and learnt a lot. Buy it, read it, surrender to your senses.
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 pages 449-450, and Chapter 11 generally
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 for some pointers see WC Wentworth’s poem ‘Australasia’ (1823), Sir Keith Hancock’s concept of ‘Austral-Britons’ in his history Australia (1933/1960) or Humphrey McQueen’s New Britannia (1971). The seeker will find more.
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 see for example David F Phillips, The Double Eagle, Flag Heritage Foundation, Newbury Massachusetts 2014
 Otto was a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Charlemagne
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 for a genealogical table, see ‘Byzantine Emperors Family Tree’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Emperors_Family_Tree, accessed 5 January 2017
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