Not many human civilisations, or their seats of power, last thousands of years. Byzantium is one of them. This major place of power and cultural influence has had three instantiations: Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. In this book, historian Bettany Hughes ( describes the bitter clashes of civilisation that have occurred where Europe meets Asia — the Persian wars of antiquity, the triumphs and schisms of state Christianity, the Crusades and the Ottoman collapse after the First World War. She also shows what brings the world together in Istanbul.

Hughes writes how as early as the third century the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, established the Milion monument, the milestone from which all distances in the empire would come to be measured. Today the Milion is a ‘meagre lump’ between busy tramlines but under Constantine and his successors it became a centre point for civilisation. Many of the tales from this spot are grisly. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 — by Christians against Christians in the Fourth Crusade to recapture Jerusalem — contains fire, rape, robbery and impalings whose legacy has never died. For Hughes the crusaders’ first populist leader, Peter the Hermit, ‘represents a kind of ideological meddling that would serve few in the East — Christian, Turk or Muslim — well’.


Hughes’ more hopeful stories come from the city’s formidable trade in ideas, arts and goods, only briefly interrupted by catastrophe. Some of these are visible now only thanks to ‘borers, earth-shifters and sump-pumps’ which work during the construction of the bridges and tunnels of modern Istanbul. Coins, pots and inscriptions rise from the Bosphorus and far beyond.


Traders of the triple-named city travelled far. In the Tintagel headland on the north coast of Cornwall, excavators have uncovered imports of pottery from Constantinople, luxury goods traded probably for tin. From the East Hughes gives an account of the silk trade, the city smell of boiling 12,000 cannibalistic snails for the hem of a single purple robe spun from the boiled faeces of worms.


Security came from a distance too. Emperors at Constantinople, like those at Rome, needed an elite corps of guards, ideally foreign, so as to have the least connection to domestic rivals. The Varangian Guard was formed at the end of the 10th century, principally of young Vikings whose ‘400 years’ worth of rape and looting’ had evolved into ‘gap-years with attitude’ in defence of Byzantium. A future king of Norway made the trip but so too, it seems, did at least one Englishman, fleeing the Norman conquest, memorialised as INGVAR in a rare surviving inscription.


The author is keen to observe the best that has come from her subject: the Emperor Justinian’s tolerance of refugees (compared favourably with that of Istanbul today), Theodora’s reforms of women’s property rights, new ideas, new powers and new doctrines, all the movements of men and women (especially women) that have passed through and thrived in the city. Bettany Hughes has been researching and writing this rich portrait of one of the world’s most multi-faceted cities for over a decade. The result is a compelling biography not to be missed.


Enquire at your local library. Check if this important history book is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at


Begin a lifetime of fascination and reading about this city with A Short History of Byzantium (1997) by John Julius Norwich. (


Follow with The Oxford History of Byzantium (2002) edited by Cyril Mango (


A brief overview and leads to further reading found here



832 pages in W&N

First published 2017

ISBN  978-0297868484


Bettany Hughes



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