Sir Steven Runciman reminisces

June 30 2011

Embedding disabled. Click on the image to go to the interview. It will open in a separate window. Scottish Television, 1992.

1903-2000. Here are his Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian obituaries on a single page.


Family: Scottish ancestry on both sides. Second son of Walter Runciman, a member of Asquith’s cabinet, and grandson of a shipping magnate, Lord Runciman. His mother was the first wife of an MP also to secure a seat in the Commons.

Career: Born in Northumbria, like Trevor-Roper, and had a similar interest in Scotland, minus the interest in Scott. French, Latin, Greek, Russian. Eton. Trinity, Cambridge. 1925: visited China. 1927: fellowhip at Trinity. The Times: “His rooms in Nevile’s Court were famous for their French 1820s grisaille wallpaper, depicting Cupid and Psyche, and his exquisite bric-a-brac. He kept a green parakeet called Benedict, which he use to spank with a pencil for misdemeanours. He was already immensely grand, and loved socialising. As well as books and pictures – including Edward Lear watercolours – he collected anecdotes and people, and the names in his gossip did not so much drop as float diaphanously.” He sounds like a shyer Cambridge equivalent of Harold Acton, whom he presumably came to know, or Sebastian Flyte. 1937 or ’8: came into a fortune on his father’s death and resigned his fellowship.

Early in the war attaché to British legation in Sofia and for a time in Cairo; also Film Censor in Palestine. In 1941 the Germans advanced on Sofia. A bomb, hidden in the embassy luggage, exploded in the Istanbul hotel, the Pera Palace, to which the embassy had been evacuated and killed eight people in the lobby as he was inspecting his room. 1942-45: professor of Byzantine history and art, University of Istanbul. 1945-47: head of British Council in Athens. Then travelled and wrote. Houses in St John’s Wood and Isle of Eigg. Latter had been bought by his father in 1926. Lectured at University of Baghdad. 1951-67: Chairman of Anglo-Hellenic League. 1957: Fellow of British Academy. 1958: knighted. 1960-62: Gifford Lectures, St Andrews. 1960-75: President of British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. 1965: honorary fellow of Trinity. 1966: sold house on Eigg and moved to Dumfriesshire, near Lockerbie, where this interview is filmed. 1977-84: Chairman of National Trust for Greece. 1984: Companion of Honour. Sympathised with the Serbs over Kossovo.

Friends and acquaintances: Eg Noel Annan, HH and Margot Asquith, Cecil Beaton, Clive Bell, Benjamin Britten, Guy Burgess, JB Bury, Cyril Connolly, George Cukor, Peter Maxwell Davies, Serge Diaghilev, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roger Fry, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Osbert Lancaster, TE Lawrence, Sophia Loren, Lady Ottoline Morrell, George Orwell, George Seferis, Lytton Strachey, Stephen Tennant, GM Trevelyan, Rex Warner, Edith Wharton, Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Royal houses: Bahrain, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Greece, Romania, Sarawak, Siam, Spain; Prince Louis of Hesse.

Books, mainly Cambridge University Press:

The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign (1929)

The First Bulgarian Empire (1930)

Byzantine Civilization (1933)

The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (1947)

A History of the Crusades: Volume 1, The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1951)

A History of the Crusades: Volume 2, The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East (1952)

A History of the Crusades: Volume 3, The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (1954)

The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches during the XIth and XIIth Centuries (1955)

The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century (1958)

The White Rajahs (1960)

The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (1965)

The Great Church in Captivity (1968)

The Last Byzantine Renaissance (1970)

The Orthodox Churches and the Secular State (1972)

Byzantine Style and Civilization (1975)

The Byzantine Theocracy (1977)

Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese (1980) (2009 reprint: The Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese; new Foreword by John Freely)

A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs (1991)

Wrote and presented a television film about Byzantium, Bridge to the East, Channel 4, 1987. Produced and directed by Lydia Carras. Readings by Alan Bates.


The Times: “In Runciman’s eyes the Crusaders were not a chivalrous host who captured but failed to keep the Holy Land: they were the final wave of the barbarian invaders who had destroyed the Roman Empire.”

Quoted in The Times: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”

And in The Independent: “A vast fiasco … […] the last and most disastrous of the barbarian invasions.”

In writing about them, he consulted Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian, Slavic and Georgian as well as Latin, Greek and Western vernacular sources.

Runciman’s Cambridge mentor JB Bury had been, in the words of the Guardian, the first British historian to take Byzantium seriously. Toynbee acknowledges him thus in the Study:

J. B. Bury, in A History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene, [footnote: London 1889, Macmillan, 2 vols.] which I found and read in Moberly Library at Winchester, not only revealed to me the existence of the Orthodox Christian Civilization, but showed me the spectacle of one civilization changing into another under the lens of the historian’s magnifying glass. In the autumn of A.D. 1912 I had the happiness of coming to know the great historian personally.

Runciman may have known Philip Toynbee. Arnold Toynbee was perhaps too strait-laced to have been a close friend. He was also older. But in 1929-30 Runciman covered most of Greece on foot, just as Arnold Toynbee had done in 1911-12. Toynbee occupied the new Koraes chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine Language, Literature and History at King’s College, London from 1919 to ’24. Neither thought that Greek history stopped with Alexander.

I wonder whether Toynbee did not regret not being a more conventional historian for a moment or two when he read Runciman. The grand and romantic narrative of A History of the Crusades was the kind of history which had enthralled him in his youth.

He had been a misfit in the Koraes chair. Was Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World in part a making-up for this? It doesn’t have narrative sweep, but it was a serious contribution to Byzantine studies.

According to Morton, Runciman reviewed Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World in the New Statesman on May 11 1973 and Toynbee reviewed Runciman’s The Eastern Schism in The Observer on October 9 1955. She does not mention reviews of A History of the Crusades, but he did review it, again in The Observer: Vol I on April 29 1951, Vol II on April 2 1952, Vol III on October 31 1954.

The Study cites The First Bulgarian Empire, Vol I of A History of the Crusades and a learned article. Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World cites The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign, Byzantine Civilization and The Medieval Manichee. The Greeks and Their Heritages cites The First Bulgarian Empire, Vol I of A History of the Crusades, The Great Church in Captivity and The Last Byzantine Renaissance.

Hugh Lloyd Jones, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, reviewing Toynbee’s posthumous The Greeks and Their Heritages in 1982, finds things to admire in his handling of the Byzantine period, but decides that “he shows no awareness of the immense cultural superiority of the Byzantines to the Crusaders which Sir Steven Runciman has so clearly described”.

But the tone of Toynbee’s writing in all his books, his insistence on the eastern Mediterranean as the centre of things, his attitude to Islam, indicate sympathy with Runciman’s view. He calls the Crusaders barbarians in his reviews of Runciman. If in The Greeks and Their Heritages he dwells too little on the nature of Byzantine cultural superiority, is it because he is relatively weak on Byzantine church matters, including art? In the Study, he defines the Crusaders’ barbarism in 1204 by their attitude to classical bronzes.

When these thirteenth-century Western French and Venetian barbarians broke into “the City”, they found it adorned with masterpieces of the classical Hellenic sculptors; and any fifteenth-century Italian pope or despot would have gone and sold all that he had if he had ever been offered the chance of buying a single one of these treasures; yet these Humanists’ thirteenth-century forebears, who held the whole priceless collection in their grasp, could think of no better way of turning Hellenic bronzes to account than to break them up and melt the base metal down for coinage into petty cash.

“Nor,” Lloyd Jones continues, “does he seem conscious that the last age of Byzantium, between the reconquest of Constantinople from the Franks in 1261 and its capture by the Turks in 1453, was in many respects an age of great cultural vitality.”

Then why does he write (citing Runciman and Haussig), on page 113?:

The East Roman Empire’s last phase, which ran from 1261 to 1453 [the Palaeologian age], was politically and economically catastrophic but was artistically creative. […] The arts […] throve on the Empire’s decline […].

Lloyd Jones: “Toynbee says nothing about the conduct of his admired Turks in Cyprus since 1974.”

Lloyd Jones may not have known that Toynbee had had a debilitating stroke on August 3 1974, unless the obituary in Proceedings of the British Academy, which he cites, gives that information (The Greeks and Their Heritages has no omniscient “editor” and his biography had not yet been published), but Toynbee tells us that he is finishing his work in “1974”. And Lloyd Jones must have known that the Turks had landed in Cyprus on July 20. When is all this commentary on Turkish behaviour since 1974 supposed to have taken place?

According to the Telegraph, Runciman’s mother was the first woman to gain a First in History at Cambridge, at what would become Girton College, at a time when women could sit the exams, but not be awarded degrees. According to McNeill, Toynbee’s mother, who studied at what would become Newnham College, and another woman, had been the only history Firsts in Cambridge in their entire year. It is unlikely that Runciman’s mother was older than Toynbee’s. Was she simply the first, in later years, to be awarded the degree?


Peter Maxwell Davies dedicated 
Eight Songs for a Mad King, one of the grittiest pieces of the ’60s musical avant-garde, to Runciman.

Runciman had acquired a miniature organ which had belonged to George III and with which he had tried to teach birds to sing. In 1966 he demonstrated it to PMD. PMD: “The songs are to be understood as the King’s monologue while listening to his birds perform, and incorporate some sentences actually spoken by George III. The quotations, and a description of most of the incidents to which reference is made, can be found in the chapters on George III in The Court at Windsor by Christopher Hibbert.” The rest of the text is by Randolph Stow.


Telegraph: “He saw much of the world before it subscribed to a uniform culture.”

Runciman: “It’s always dangerous to return to countries unless you’re used to seeing them get nastier and nastier. Athens, which was an enchanting town in the 1920s, is not really a very nice town now. I mustn’t say anything against it because they gave me its gold medal last year.”

Toynbee on modern Greece.

Bertrand Russell on the world becoming ugly.


The similarities (and a few differences) between Runciman and Leigh Fermor are obvious. Runciman met the younger man in Bulgaria in 1934. “After an early falling out over PLF’s nocturnal excesses in Athens after the war, when Runciman was British Council representative and PLF was Deputy Director of the British Institute, they became lifelong friends.” (Note in Charlotte Mosley, editor, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, 2008.)

Sir Patrick Cormack MP on Runciman, quoted in The Independent in 2000: “Only three months ago [aged 97] he was still at the table in the club dining room, composing mischievous limericks about current personalities.”

Patrick Reade on Leigh Fermor in The Independent, June 14 2011: “On 1 June this year, 10 days before his death [at 96], he gave a small lunch party in the cool, stone-arched loggia of his home in Messenia and in the course of conversation we discussed our favourite 16th century pieces of poetry; he declaimed Sir Thomas Wyatt’s entire poem ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’.”


Interview in the same series with Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus and The Greengage Summer.

Another, with Fitzroy MacLean.


Portrait by Stephen Conroy, 1990, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The Greeks and Their Heritages, OUP, 1981, posthumous

3 Responses to “Sir Steven Runciman reminisces”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A culture that could build Chartres was not entirely barbarian either. We need to get this in perspective.

  2. […] who began to take Byzantium seriously in England was JB Bury (1861-1927) – whose only real pupil, Steven Runciman, died in 2000, but to whom Toynbee owed a debt. Toynbee would have had no excuse not to read […]

  3. […] Buy here. I quote a review by Hugh Lloyd-Jones here and here. […]

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