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Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades

Runciman was a scholar of formidable learning. He was a leading scholar in the history of Byzantium, still a field with which relatively few historians are familiar and to which a short introduction might be useful. Byzantium was the name of the Greek city upon which the Roman emperor Constantine founded his eastern capital, Constantinople. The name Byzantium survived and was often used for the Roman empire in the east, especially after the fall of the western Roman Empire. The Byzantine empire, though officially known as Roman, was essentially Greek in its culture and language; it was also a major centre of Christianity. It covered the Balkans in southern Europe, modern Turkey and the middle east, all of which, especially Turkey, also had a substantial Greek and Christian thread to its culture. By the eleventh century, however, the Byzantines were under pressure from the Turks, spreading westwards from central Asia and bringing Islam with them. In 1071 the Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire, defeating and killing the Byzantine emperor at the Battle of Manzikert. His successor called on western Europe for help to drive the Turks from his empire and that call was the origin of the crusades.

Runciman was unusual in his interest in Byzantium: most historians of the Crusades concentrated on the western Europeans, with some specialising in the Arab side of the story. He then applied his knowledge of the Byzantines to his three-volume history of the crusades which he published in the 1950s. It rapidly became a popular-seller, not least because of Runciman’s dramatic narrative style. His mastery of the detail meant that his narrative was populated by a huge cast of characters, many of whose names will have sounded unfamiliar to his readers, and he revelled in the sort of intricate, complex plots which are often described as ‘Byzantine’.

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