April 2021 Open Book Group – Ghost Empire : A Journey to the Legend the Legendary Constantinople by Richard Fidle

Welcome to Dundi and thank you to Jan for moderating Ghost Empire: A Journey to the Legend the Legendary Constantinople by Richard Fidler.

Richard Fidler is a radio presenter, amateur historian, and member of the Doug Anthony Allstars. Fired by his passion for the rich history of the Byzantine Empire, in 2014, he and his 14-year-old son Joe spent a month together exploring Istanbul.

Istanbul was founded by Emperor Constantine as the new centre of the Christian Roman Empire in 330 AD. Rome had long been in decline, so the power base of the Christian church moved east to Constantinople.  The city was subjected to management and mismanagement by a line of emperors, and one empress, over 1100 years, it was sacked by the Fourth Crusader’s army in 1204, and finally succumbed to Mehmet the Conqueror’s Islamic Ottoman army in 1453.

In Ghost Empire, Fidler ambitiously covers Constantinople‘s first millennium. Its battles, political intrigue, and dynastic family dramas are vividly brought to life. At the same time Fidler navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with Joe.

It was another OBG full house. A quick show of hands proved that the majority of us had no previous knowledge of the Byzantine era. We commented how Eurocentric our schooling of history had been. We were all familiar with the western Roman empire centred in Rome – gladiators, Vesuvius, Et tu, Brute? – but that is where we stopped. We had little idea that, after the fall of Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire and its Emperors continue to thrive in Constantinople. Those who were aware of the history of the eastern Roman Empire noted it was from travelling in later life, rather than from any academic pursuits.

We were horrified, yet engrossed, by Fidler’s descriptions of the violent attacks on Constantinople as its treasures were routinely plundered and its inhabitants eliminated. There was a lot of eye-gouging involved, never mind the indiscriminate slicing off of heads of men, women and children.

We enjoyed reading about the stream of Emperors and their consorts. Of course, it was thumbs up for all the strong, manipulating, Lady Macbeth-like, women who stood beside their husbands. Theodora, a prostitute and actress, married Emperor Justinian with whom she had an equal relationship. He openly sought her advice on matters of state. Her speech during the Nika riots of 527 turned the fleeing Justinian and his troops around. The Empire was saved. In 797, Irene became an Empress In her own right after the death of her husband. However, she did have to kill their son and heir to get such status. We noted that, in general, there was very little family sentiment amongst the Byzantine Royal families.

Fidler pepped the tale with delightful trivia – Justinian rewrote Roman law in the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law today, Theodora invented the fork and so that’s how and why Venice was built in the sea.

Like Fidler and Joe, members of the group, who had travelled to Istanbul, described the stunning mosaics and iconography still found in churches there. The Hagia Sophia, a church for nearly 1000 years before becoming a mosque, has the power to awe all those who enter it, regardless of religious affiliation.

The group was mixed over treatment of the father and son interactions as they explored Istanbul together. Many found them light relief after reading about yet another battle. Others liked the concept but felt it could have been better handled.

Members recounted travelling to Istanbul and seeing the change over the past twenty years as politically it has moved from a secular society to a conservative Islamic one, denoted by women’s dress code.

A review from the SMH notes, slightly patronisingly, that “The narrative is pitched at about the level of an intelligent young adult such as Joe………. It may be entry-level Byzantine history, but it is not unsophisticated history.” Yes, this is not a work of academia in the vein of Gibbon or Norwich, but OBGers are grateful that Fidler “offers something different”. A huge gap in our knowledge of ancient history has been happily filled.

Jan recommends Istanbul by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk as a companion read.


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