STEVEN RUNCIMAN was the leading British specialist in the history of the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades.
He had a romantic love of the Middle Ages since early childhood. For Runciman, history was above all a story, "the only form of learning that is entirely about human beings" (animals, vegetables and minerals were firmly excluded). He wrote in the preface to his celebrated three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951-54): "I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events that have swayed the destinies of men."
Although he had followed Crusader routes across Turkey and Syria, he admitted that he had never found new archival material of value, indeed that he was "not very good at reading manuscripts": he concentrated on style instead, modelling himself, for simplicity and picturesqueness, on Beatrix Potter. He typed surrounded by his sources, "muttering because I want to get the sound right. I think a book isn't well written unless it can be read aloud."
He succeeded in interesting members of the general reading public, as well as other historians, in such distant realms as the Despotate of the Morea and the Principality of Antioch, in the genealogies of the feudal families of Outremer and the intrigues which led to the massacres of Frenchmen in the Sicilian Vespers. Gore Vidal wrote: "To read an historian like Sir Steven Runciman is to be reminded that history is a literary art quite equal to that of the novel."
Runciman claimed to have made more money for his publishers, Cambridge University Press (which also publishes the Bible), than any author except God.
James Cochran Stevenson Runciman came from a world of power and wealth. His father, Walter Runciman (later first Viscount Runciman of Doxford), was President of the Board of Trade in the Asquith cabinet; his parents were the first married couple to be MPs at the same time. He went to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was photographed by Cecil Beaton. Beaton later wrote: "When I photographed Steven Runciman wearing his thick black hair in a fringe, with a budgerigar [in fact a parakeet called Benedict] poised on his ringed finger, looking obliquely into the camera in the manner of the Italian primitives, I knew I had not lived in vain."
At Cambridge, Runciman was the first and only pupil of the celebrated Byzantine historian J.B. Bury, whom he described as "not at all welcoming". G.M. Trevelyan advised him that, if he wanted to write, he should leave Cambridge. In 1929-30 he covered most of Greece on foot.
A bachelor and a younger son with a private income ("There's a lot to be said for being a younger son"), by the age of 30 Runciman had published three learned and original books: The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign (1929), The First Bulgarian Empire (1930) and Byzantine Civilisation (1933).
His work was helped by his love of languages: he knew Bulgarian, Russian and Turkish as well as Greek, Latin and French. He preferred Greek to Latin since he considered it "a much more flexible language", and the Byzantines to be more civilised than the Western Europeans.
Runciman was also a historian of religion. Himself fascinated by Greek Orthodox doctrine and mysticism, which he considered humbler and wiser than Western theology, he wrote books on medieval manicheism, the schism between the Latin and Greek churches and the Greek church under the Ottoman sultans (in which he pointed out "if absolute power corrupts, so too does absolute impotence"). Although he was a specialist in the Greek and Latin East, he was no bigot. He called the Crusades "a vast fiasco . . . one of the last and most disastrous of the Barbarian invasions", and lamented the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Few historians have enjoyed such an …