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Angeliki A. Laiou

Steven Runciman: A man who never grew tired

[Translated by John Leatham]
From the New Griffon, A Gennadius Library Publication, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Editor: Haris A. Kalligas, Director, Gennadius Library. Athens 2002.

OUTSTANDING PERSONS such as Steven Runciman are rare indeed. Even more rarely do such persons become historians. Finally, it is rarely that they win the affection and respect not only of specialists in their field but of the wider public, particularly in a foreign land. In Greece Steven Runciman was a much beloved figure and to many people the name Runciman spells Byzantium. This is significant in our country, for Byzantium is not accepted by every Greek as an important period in the history of Hellenism, nor does history any longer have the prestige it once did or retain the instructive role attributed to it in the past. But Steven Runciman pulled down the many barriers.

His personality, his full and unconventional life made him an individual who impressed one on first meeting him and roused the interest of anyone talking with him. I recall him on one occasion I shall never forget. We happened to be together visiting a University somewhere close to the geographical centre of the United States. The students attending our lectures were all undergraduates, intelligent youngsters but with scant knowledge of Byzantium. Runciman held them spellbound. I remember them squatting on the floor around his chair and hanging on his every word, fascinated by the stories he was telling them about Byzantium, about the Balkans, about history. It is very difficult to hold the attention of such an audience when speaking of such topics.

The obituaries published in both Greek and English newspapers after Steven Runciman's death referred to, among other matters, his aristocratic descent and the familiarity he enjoyed with not only the royal families of European states but also with the last emperor of China, with whom he once played a piano duet. They spoke of his close connections with all members of the English upper class -both social and academic— and his friendship with eminent figures such as John M. Keynes and Guy Burgess. They wrote also about his travels and the almost unbelievable coincidence, if it was a coincidence, of finding himself in various countries just when they were living through perilous and therefore significant times: in China in 1924 when the country was embroiled in a civil war; in Sofia in 1940 where he ended up after extensive travels that took him from London via Cape Town and Cairo to Bulgaria, where he remained till the Germans arrived in March 1941. Thence he went to Constantinople where he taught Byzantine History and Art from 1942 to 1945 and where he was suspected of being a British agent. Director of the British Council in Athens from 1945 to 1947, he was a member of that influential triumvirate of Runciman himself, Osbert Lancaster (serving in the British embassy) and Patrick Leigh Fermor (of the British Institute). He had stories to tell about each of these incidents in a life rich in adventure, stories that entranced his listeners. But this is not the reason why I have referred to that period of his life. The reason is that his life and his scholarship were bound up with each other in a striking and creative harmony. He was interested in everything to do with humanity, from the products of creative art to the outcome of human relationships, from the ideas and values of the mind to everyday existence. He lived his life as a historian and the history he wrote was lively and written always with a profound interest in the age and the individuals who created it. Another great medievalist of the twentieth century, Henri Pirenne, said: "J'aime l’histoire parce que j'aime la vie". I believe Steven Runciman might have said just that of himself. He was a man who never grew tired of his life. It was that vivacity that coloured his conversation, his lectures and his writing. In an interesting interview he once gave to the New Yorker he said of himself that he had always loved history and people and had always tried to understand the outstanding histories of the past.

Steven Runciman was one of the last great historians of the narrative school of history. For him history was the narration of the important events, the important institutions and the lives of important persons that changed human fortunes, for he strove for a deeper understanding of humanity. The themes he chose were vast: the history of the Orthodox Church under Ottoman occupation, Byzantine civilization, the history of the Crusades from the capture of Jerusalem by Omar in 638 to the fall of Acre in 1291. These were undoubtedly decisive times in the history of Eastern Europe and the Near East. He treated his subjects with the intention of writing history in as accurate a manner as possible. He read all the sources, being the first in the case of Crusades to turn to every available source: Byzantine, Western European, Arabic, Armenian, and Syrian. He himself said that the historian must not lose himself in detail or be limited by it. Runciman's major works are those in which the narrative of events is detailed, but the historian never gets lost in the detail; his task and duty is to compile and to recognize in particular events the wider and complex picture, its roots in the past and its significance for the future.

Narrative history, such as Herodotus and Thucydides wrote, was not fashionable in international historiography for several decades after the Second World War. Other schools of history -the school of Annales, the economics school with its short-lived deviation to econometrics, the structuralist school, and the migratory school- were much more fashionable. It is only quite recently that historians have reverted to narrative history, which is slowly again attracting interest -though with what result we have yet to see. Steven Runciman was aware of contemporary trends, but remained faithful to the kind of history he held to be most effective.

Sound narrative history has to meet certain preconditions apart from those I have already referred to, for instance, a profound knowledge of the sources of events. It calls for the gift of narrative writing and elegant language. There have been several great historians in the tradition of English historiography who have written pleasing, refined and scholarly English. It was unfortunate, in the case of Byzantium and the knowledge Anglo-Saxons had of it, that Edward Gibbon, who entertained a deep abhorrence of Byzantium, was a great stylist who treated the English language as virtually a musical instrument. In consequence his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” became a classic, was read by almost every English-speaking scholar and established a negative view of the Byzantine Empire. Because it is written in such a striking language it is still a view, though a completely outdated one, that attracts some people. By a happy chance Steven Runciman was himself an author who wrote in a lively and fluent style. Runciman belongs to the school of historians which considers history to be not only a science but an art and employs language with dexterity and grace. I have dubbed him anti-Gibbon because he has left us some unforgettable texts which, with the confident flourish of a talented writer, depict images in the reader's mind wholly different to those of Gibbon. The History of the Crusades is a masterpiece of narrative writing, the equal of the finest texts in the English language. Runciman acknowledged the importance of good writing and said that once he had finished a text he would read it half-aloud to assure himself that the rhythm of the language was right and the sentences flowed. Perhaps it would be mischievous of me to add here that one of the reasons narrative history has gone into a decline is simply that historians of wide learning and with a profound knowledge of important literary works are now fewer.

While Runciman wrote with a fluency that make his books a pleasure to read, he was at the same time a Byzantine historian who loved and respected the theme of his scholarly occupations. It is regrettable that the Anglo-Saxon school of Byzantinologists includes serious scholars of distinction and persuasiveness who loathed Byzantium, either because they saw it as obscurantist or because they thought of its religion as a negative phenomenon or because Byzantium was not ancient Greece or, contrarily, the Ottoman Empire. Rather than add here the transgressions of "liberal" historiography, I would mention in passing the fact that in contemporary Greece a deep-seated negative view of Byzantium is held, not by specialists but by a considerable segment of the educated public.

Runciman on the other hand had a very clear understanding of Byzantium. He considered the Byzantines to be the most civilized and enlightened of medieval peoples; in my opinion he was right. He was also one of the few non-Greek historians who saw in Byzantium the medieval age of Hellenism, just as he saw the continuity of Hellenism under Ottoman occupation. This was his great contribution to Byzantine historiography. From the Western European standpoint he was an irreproachable historian, for he was not a Greek and he could not be accused of having a Greek bias. He was moreover a historian with a profound knowledge of the sources and wrote about Byzantium both lovingly and respectfully in an alluring style. His books are reprinted to be read with pleasure by students, specialists and the public. His is an important contribution that has withstood the passing of the years.

I have not dwelt on Steven Runciman's major work, A History of the Crusades. I have repeatedly spoken about it, and thought I should focus this short appreciation elsewhere. But this inspired work cannot be wholly passed over, for it is a work which for the first time presented the Crusades as a cosmo-historic confrontation and the clash of three worlds, those of Byzantium, Islam and Western Europe. Runciman understood the significance of the Crusades as an international movement that led to the destruction of the outstanding medieval civilization, the civilization of the Christians of the East who, as he notes, were its main victims. He is one of the few Western European scholars of the Crusades, who has clearly and categorically condemned the movement. He condemned the Crusades as "nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost". I was interested to see that the obituary published by The Times of London found in these words, which bring the History of the Crusades to a close, a kind of self-inflicted punishment, a self-flagellation of the West. This demonstrates that the historian's verdict on the Crusades has struck a chord and continues to disturb the Western conscience.

Runciman said that when he first came to Greece Byzantium was a neglected age. His work as well as his presence, his friendship with so many scholars, writers and historians, the persuasive nature of his conversation, his enthusiasm for Byzantium played an important part in the shaping of a more serious interest in that superb age of history both in Greece and in Western Europe and North America.

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