A tale of three cities, Bethany Hughes

Bethany Hughes is the British equivalent to Lorent Deutsch. She may have studied enough history to style herself a historian but what she writes says more about her than about her subject matter. She does have a great literary writing style. 

When reading this book I found myself stopping quite a few times and sighing in exasperation. A few examples (compiled as I read) why:

– she claims that the protests after the aborted coup in 2016 when people were waving (red) Turkish flags turned the city red (fair enough) and that this red mark was visible from space. Until someone shows me a satellite photo of that day with Istanbul reddish, my reply will be « Yeah, right »;

– she claims that Istanbul is the oldest political entity in the world, dating back 8,000 years. Now 8,000 years as a political entity is a very long time. I think Athens can only claim half that length. And her justification for this is that the oldest human remains found in Istanbul date from 8,000 years. I’m sorry, this doesn’t make Istanbul the longest political entity. It may make it the place with the longest uninterrupted human settlement, but a settlement isn’t a political entity;

– on Constantine’s adoption of Christianity with a dose of sun worshipping she says « and that’s how sabbath became Sunday ». Nice little sentence. Yes Sunday comes from sun. In English. English which is a Germanic language. Constantine spoke Greek and Latin. In Latin languages (French, Italian, Spanish), the name for Sunday comes from « lord » (dominus). So with the conversion of Constantine, sabbath became « the day of the Lord », not the day of the Sun;

– her insistence that pagan traditions were misogynistic and that Christianity offered a better life to women. Yes (Greek and Roman) pagan traditions were misogynistic, no debate there (well with graduations, i’d rather have been a Spartan woman than an Athenian one) but to imply that Christianity was better is a lie. The attraction of Christianity for women was the promise of a better after life (a concept lacking in most pagan traditions), because their daily life sure didn’t improve much. Of course 3 chapters after saying that Christianity is good for women she acknowledges that their life were still fairly miserable except if they were high born or rich. This just gives the feeling of a book written as she goes along with no proof reading for consistency;

– her insistence on telling the reader that she travelled to the places she talks about and when. Being a historical tourist doesn’t make you a better historian. Spending days in an office with hundreds of first hand accounts in Greek and Latin does. Checking the bibliography it seems she doesn’t read Latin or Greek but instead relies on old translations (from the early 20th century or the 60s/70s). I would have thought reading Latin and Greek (not to mention Arab…) being a minimum requirement when writing about Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul;

– the way she makes false parallels with the present such as saying that Justinian’s system for registering refugees was better than the current one in place in Istanbul for the Syrian refugees. I doubt that Justinian had to deal with millions of refugees so let’s not compare (which is not saying that the current system is good, but this comparison is simply stupid, wrong and helps no one)

– her statement that after Whitby, Christianity in Britain became less eastern. Whitby was a synod opposing Roman Christianity to Celtic Christianity. Yes, maybe Celtic Christianity was closer to Eastern beliefs than Roman one, but it is quite a stretch to make Whitby an east/west discussion, or to talk about eastern Christianity having any real influence in Britain. Come to think of it, the whole chapter about Constantinople and Britain is preposterous. From a tiny link (the tin trade) she makes a chapter to explain that Constantinople influence could be felt in Britain. I can’t decide if it’s a way to enlarge her subject matter – Constantinople – or the cliché British arrogance about being the centre of the world. If memory serves, Charlemagne had real ties to Constantinople. So if you want to talk about 8th century Europe and Constantinople, you talk about him, not about the tin trade from Tintagel!

– her disparaging comment that « Viking rehabilitation does not deserve to be absolute ». Historians do not advance any Vikings rehabilitation. They give a more nuanced picture of what the Vikings were, insisting that western ecclesiastical sources only give their side of the story and that the Vikings should be seen not just as the bloody raiders that they undoubtedly were but also as a traders and as a civilisation complete with its poetry, religion and way of life. She does seem to have an issue with any civilisation that does not fit her beloved monotheist Islamo-Christian world. The sentence « the young girls they [the Vikings] offered as human sacrifice to the gods were gang-raped by Viking nobility before they died. It is hard to imagine the horror. » is a disgusting twitching of historical facts. Women servants were offered up in sacrifices to the gods when their master died. They were put to death and put on the ‘coffin’ ship with him. I have read accounts of the nobility (the warriors of the dead lord) having sex with these servants before they were killed, as a sort of offering to their lord. Calling it gang rape is tabloid speak. Yes it would be called gang rape now, but it was to all purpose a (cruel) sacrificial/religious act. But no decent historian would use that sort of description. This is not to say vikings were not raping and killing on raids, but mixing up that violence with religious acts is just historically wrong. She also doesn’t use the term gang rape to describe the systematic sexual assaults perpetrated by the Crusaders and later the Turks when they took the city. It seems only pagans « gang rape ». War rape is apparently not an « horror ». Neither is the making of eunuchs in huge numbers. Instead she goes at length to describe as « the third sex » and develop the ideas that eunuchs were perceived as angels. Sex slavery is also presented career prospect. Of course it was in a way, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. In that again I get the feeling that monotheist violence is alright but pagan ritualised one isn’t. 

– « Montesquieu, Choderlos de Laclos and Racine had written excitable harem narratives ». I don’t know which ones she speaks of for Laclos and Racine but I guess she means Montesquieu’s lettres persanes. You know that satirical work which is about denouncing the French court and the politics of the country while pretending to be speaking as someone from another country? Of course there is a harem in it, but as Cyrano would say « c’est un peu court ». The Persan letters are so much more than an excitable harem narrative!!

– the way she deals with the Armenian genocide: it’s unclear, badly written and she does her best not to take any position, simply mentioning some theories and saying that anyway Ottomans were tried for war crime and that the estimate of 600,000 to 1 million dead is available in Ottoman archives. It’s a convoluted way to avoid using the « g- word ». And i can’t decide if it’s cowardice, lack of university knowledge on crimes against humanity or just supporting the official Turkish government line. 
For someone who claims to write about the history of Istanbul she spends little time on the Byzantine time, being more at ease with Christian Constantinople. Overall she seems happier to talk about monotheist culture than pagan ones (even if Julian the ‘apostate’ and Hypatia do get a decent mention). That’s fine but then don’t pretend you write about « three cities ». 

Her treatment of the role of Byzantium during the Peloponnese war is so quick that even though I have read Thucydides I had troubles understanding what she was saying.  

Also her insistence on calling Herodotus « the father of history » is grating. Yes he’s called like that but no point saying it every time you mention him. And if you want a father of modern history, Thucydides is your man. Herodotus was better on travellers’ stories than fact based history. But maybe that’s revealing as her book is more in his vein than in Thucydides’s.
So it’s a well written book. But it’s a story, not history.