Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw review – portrait of a great mind

An immense biography of a brilliant historian from the golden age of scholarship

An “alarmingly literate child” by the age of eight, the brilliant Byzantinist Steven Runciman discovered his love of history at Eton (which he loathed) during the first world war. At Cambridge (which he loved) he met Cecil Beaton, whose portrait of Runciman with his pet parakeet, Benedict, is on the book’s cover. Later he taught Guy Burgess at Cambridge. The fastidious Runciman observed that Burgess’s personal hygiene left much to be desired: he often had to “send him away to clean his fingernails”. From the 1930s, Runciman began writing the wide-ranging historical studies for which he is renowned, including a monumental trilogy on the Crusades (1951-54) and The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965), which became a bestseller. He was a “playfully elusive figure”, a complex character who could be sparklingly witty yet disliked public speaking and ...