Roger Crowley is the best-selling author of five books of narrative history He has written extensively about the Mediterranean world, maritime history and the voyages of discovery. He has a reputation for producing page-turning books based on detailed research, a sense of place and the use of eyewitness accounts. His work has been described as ‘narrative history at its most gripping’ The Sunday Telegraph, ‘epic, bursting with colour and excitement…prodigiously entertaining’ The Sunday Times, books that ‘left me holding my breath’ Michael Prodger, written ‘with a racy briskness that lifts sea battles and sieges off the page’ The New York Times.
He is the author of a loose trilogy of books on the Mediterranean and its surroundings: Constantinople: The Last Great Siege/1453, Empires of the Sea – a Sunday Times History Book of the Year and a New York Times Bestseller – and City of Fortune on Venice, as well as Conquerors, a break out into the Atlantic and the voyages of discovery. His latest book Accursed Tower about the siege of Acre in 1291 explores the end of the Holy Land crusades. His books have been translated into many languages.
Roger has talked about the history of the Mediterranean to audiences as diverse as Melvin Bragg’s BBC programme In Our Time, the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington, the Hay Festival and the Maritime Museum, appeared on TV programmes such as the recent Netflix series Ottomans Rising, written articles and reviews, and travelled as far as China to give lectures. He studied English at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.
The last few years have seen people across the world being displaced in unprecedented numbers. As the entry to Europe Greece has been all but overwhelmed by the influx of refugees arriving on its shores, but the Greeks themselves have their own deep history of migration and displacement - ...
In March 2018 I made a trip to the ancient Mediterranean port of Acre in Northern Israel – Akka in Arabic, Akko in Hebrew – as part of the research for writing my most recent book, Accursed Tower. I wanted to explore the place where the crusaders made their last stand in the Holy Land against ...
In the spring of 1291, the largest army that Islam had ever assembled during 200 years of crusader warfare was advancing on the city of Acre. Swelled by a vast number of volunteers and fired by the spirit of jihad it had come to finally drive the Franks back into the sea.The city that they ...
What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?My interest in the Mediterranean world goes back a long way. My father was a naval officer who was based there in peace and in war. When I was nine he was stationed on Malta and I went out for holidays. I was entranced by the sights, sounds and smells of this small island and its history, clambering around on the fortifications of Valletta, visiting prehistoric monuments and swimming in warm seas. Before and after university I made trips to Greece, went to live in Istanbul and walked across western Turkey. The Byzantine and Ottoman worlds left a deep impression on me, and the maritime history that bound these empires together.Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?I usually start by reading general histories of something I’m interested in to try to define the centre of a narrative. I also look early on to see how rich the contemporary source material is. I’m an avid reader of bibliographies to get a grasp of what’s available. The ability to read languages is essential to me and I have to spend a fair amount of time learning languages that I can’t actually speak. Although I have occasionally used translators (Arabic) I find I can’t tell what’s useful until I can read it myself, but my rule is to do no archival research – it’s simply too time consuming and demand skills I don’t have. I’m grateful for all those post-graduate students who have mined and collected material from the Venetian archives. Then I set to doing detailed reading and write hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. I aim to write books that have a rich sense of place and so travelling to historic locations in part of the deal. Writing the publisher’s proposal is a crucial first stage. With my first book I mapped out the whole thing, every chapter in detail, and it proved the easiest of my five books to write. In subsequent books I’ve tended to produce more general outlines and on several occasions I’ve ended up throwing away thousands of words. Recently I’ve resolved to going back to first principles and bolting down a very clear idea of the content at the proposal stage.The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?The fall of Constantinople in 1453, about which I’ve written, at the time was the work of the losers. Because of the disparity in narrative traditions between the Christian West and the Islamic world and the power of print in t17th he West from the early modern period on, Europeans have tended to hold the advantage in controlling the narrative, win or lose. Nowadays I think we’re seeing a rebalance, and there’s increasing space for the voice of the losers to be heard, whether it’s the terrible plight of the people of Berlin in 1945 or the rediscovery of slave narratives. Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?It’s hard to pinpoint any one in terms of approach, but regarding the Mediterranean world I’d say John Julius Norwich on Byzantiumand Veniceand Fernand Braudel’s great work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II have inspired me.I can’t claim to any ‘shoulds’ but here’s three varied reads:
Braudel (as above) for interdisciplinary approaches to history: economics, geography, culture, politics and war. A man who can speculate that the Turks could capture Constantinople and the Arabs couldn’t because the Bactrian camel could cope with the harsh Anatolian climate and the Arabian camel couldn’t, makes fascinating connections.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?I would like to meet and accompany the incredibly admirable Alfred Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer, on his voyages by native canoe through the lush tropical world of the Indonesian archipelago in the 1850s. It was here that Wallace saw astonishing species and formulated most clearly the ideas of natural selection. I’d be able to see this process unfolding.Re events – a boy’s own adventure. I’d like to be holed up in the mountains of Crete with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Cretan partisans in 1944 and witness the capture and abduction of the German commander, General Kreipe.If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough about the history curriculum to answer this one, but generally I’d hope for enough history about the world beyond our shores, given what I sense is a narrowing focus on our national story at the moment, and not endless repeats of the Second War. Space for a skill as much as any particular topic would be useful too, viz. the ability to handle evidence in an objective way.If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
There are many different reasons for wanting to write history books. Be clear what yours are.
Foreign languages are incredibly useful if you want to leave our shores in search of history. Learn as many as you can.
Look to write the kind of book that you want to read – you are your own ideal reader.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?I’m thinking about the sixteenth century voyages of discovery that joined up the world, reached out to the old civilizations of China and Japan, and launched the rise of European maritime empires and the half millennium of the dominance of the West. There’s a vast and wonderful, almost daunting, contemporary literature on the subject – a testament to the invention of printing and an age of information explosion – I have a lot to read before I can crystallise this!
A gripping work covering the siege of Constantinople 1453, Roger Crowley’s history of this momentous event was published in 2011. Both a critical and commercial success, it was described as “hugely readable, well-written and informative” by the Daily Telegraph and the author himself as “a trustworthy and wonderfully eloquent guide” by the Sunday Times. The moment many historians identified as when the Medieval period ended, our editor caught up with Roger to discuss the book.Roger, why did you want to write about the siege of Constantinople in 1453?
Depiction of the Siege
‘The city will follow you home,’ wrote the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy of his native Alexandria in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, and for long periods Constantinople has similarly haunted me. In my early twenties I spent a couple of summers in Istanbul. I did a little English teaching that left a lot of time to explore, to wander and absorb the street life of this most evocative of cities. The layers of history lie one on top of another in jumbled and fascinating layers. I particularly liked the great Byzantine city walls – crumbling and slightly sinister with (then) a reputation as a haunt for drinkers and ne’er do wells – they nevertheless had a magnificence. I wanted to write something about this city. After 9/11 I thought there was an opportunity to present the siege to a new audience.Your book used Greek, Italian and Ottoman accounts of the siege. What were the particular challenges of dealing with these sources?I’m not a natural linguist but I’ve battled through various languages with the aid of large dictionaries in pursuit of eyewitness accounts. Some have been translated, others have not, but my frustration was that there are simply not that many of them. The fall of Constantinople was a huge event in late medieval Europe. It is a foundation story for the Turkish people. It still matters intensely to both the Turks and the Greeks, yet in the end we rely on a handful accounts – and most of them from the Christian side. There was no Ottoman tradition of writing autobiographical accounts – their remembrance of the events seems to have been largely preserved orally. I had to read between the lines of Christian sources to try to assess facts about the Ottoman perspective on the events. There are gaps and silences that I would loved to have been able to fill in.You’ve written about modern-day Istanbul and, among other things, brain salads, underwear merchants and the delights of raki. How similar would it have been to the city of the 15th century? Istanbul has mushroomed into a metropolis of fifteen million and more in the past fifty years but all of this has taken place outside the historic city. Because the original city is surrounded by water on two sides and still capped by the old defensive walls on the third it has largely retained its historic structure. The street plan is very ancient. Markets function in the places that they always have. Fish are sold on the quay where they were sold in the fifteen century – and the fifth century. A Grand Bazaar was there when the city fell. You can follow exactly the route that Mehmed the Conqueror took when he entered Constantinople and you can walk through the gateway by which he did so. The distinctive topography - a series of hills cut through with deep valleys - means that the structure of the place is continuous. What of course has changed is the distinctive skyline – spiked now by minarets.Was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the event that signalled the end of the Middle Ages/Medieval period?Like 1492 it’s certainly one of those iconic moments. Contemporaries clearly felt that the world had shifted – it had a 9/11 feel to it – that something new was coming. People across Europe could remember where they were when they heard the news. I would think of it as one of a series of events rather than the event. It did signal a change in warfare – the use of gunpowder weapons at the siege rendered obsolete medieval castles and siege techniques. We are entering a new era of killing. The clash between the Ottomans and its European rivals that followed also ushered in a distinctly post medieval power politics. It was clear, with the rise of the Ottomans and the Habsburg response in the sixteenth century, that the development of centralized empires with more efficient mechanisms of taxation and mobilisation would sweep away small medieval power structures. 1453 was a wake up call to a new world.The Byzantine Empire has been described as ‘Greek’ and the Ottoman ‘Turk’. Was this an early clash between West and East, between Greece and Turkey?Neither side would have recognised the names Greece and Turkey and recent Ottoman historians such as Marc Baer have made a case for the Ottomans as being European rather than oriental. However the events of 1453 and its aftermath have certainly been co-opted into the narrative of East/West confrontation and it was clear very soon after that ‘The Terrible Turk’ was a widely polarizing figure in the western imagination – and to a certain extent still is. The 1689 siege of Vienna still galvanizes right wing sentiment against Turkey.Much has been made of Constantinople’s fortifications – in particular the Theodosian Walls, but was it inevitable the city would fall to the Ottomans with their superior technology ie gunpowder?Gunpowder weapons rendered the great Theodosian walls of the fifth century – high but thin walls designed to prevent escalade – obsolete. Did cannons make the fall inevitable? It was a closer run thing than one might suppose. I think that the city could have survived the gunpowder onslaught if they had had more men and resources.The Ottomans were led by Sultan Mehmet II – he’s certainly a fascinating character - what sort of man was he?
Mehmet II enters Constantinople
Mehmet was certainly complicated. All Ottoman sultan had issues! They were probably the loneliest people in the empire. As per normal practice, he was taken away from his mother at a young age to learn the art of governing and grew up without much affection. He was not expected to become sultan. He had older brothers, who died or were killed, so the prospects for his own survival were not good. Living in the shadow of the sultanate bred insecurity and a ruthless will. His mother was probably a Slav. He was polylingual, and highly intelligent – fascinated by military science, history and geography. His role model was Alexander the Great and he cast himself as a Muslim Alexander reversing the direction of conquest, intensely ambitious to undertake great deeds, which committed the Ottomans to an unceasing programme of expansive warfare. He was actually fascinated by many aspects of Western culture – not just its war machines. He commissioned very unIslamic paintings of himself by Italian artists. Ottoman critics subsequently claimed he wasn’t a Muslim at all.Did the fall of Constantinople spark the Renaissance, as learned scholars and artists spread throughout the Italian peninsular and the West?It certainly brought quite a number of Greek scholars into Italy – and bringing with them classical texts and the learning of antiquity. To be honest I haven’t been able to pinpoint what the extent of this influence might have been.If you were asked by the publisher for a new edition, is there anything you would change?Various readers over the years have commented that ‘it takes a while to get going’ i.e. the siege is the interesting bit and the rise of the Turks and the deep background is just a little bit too much of a prologue to ‘the action’. I’ve thought about this on and off, but I’ve concluded that I’ve written the book that I wanted to write. There might also be some issues around the acceptable limits of historical recreation that I would now ponder. To my own knowledge no new information or source material has emerged since the book was written.What are you working on at the moment?I’m writing a book about a fifty year period in the sixteenth century when European sea power encircled the world – from Magellan’s voyage to the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. However we now view the age of ‘discovery’ it was a crucial moment in world history – ushering in a new age of globalisation. New-fangled printing presses were churning out millions books – unlike 1453 the source material is almost overwhelming in its richness.Roger Crowley is an acclaimed and bestselling historian and author of Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580 and Accursed Tower: The Crusaders Last Battle for the Holy Land. Constantinople 1453is highly recommended.