Byzantine Emperors 324-802

This blog post uses the timeline of Byzantine emperors from Wikipedia and then adds details and comments from John Julius Norwich’s book Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

Constantine I ‘the Great’ (324-337)

Son of the Augustus Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Proclaimed Augustus of the western empire upon the death of his father on 25 July 306, he became sole ruler of the western empire after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In 324, he defeated the eastern Augustus Licinius and re-united the empire under his rule, reigning as sole emperor until his death. Constantine completed the administrative and military reforms begun under Diocletian, who had begun ushering in the Dominate period. Actively interested in Christianity, he played a crucial role in its development and the Christianization of the Roman world, through his convocation of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. He re-founded the city of Byzantium as ‘New Rome’, popularly known as Constantinople.

Constantius II (337 – 361)

Second surviving son of Constantine I, he inherited the eastern third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, becoming sole Roman Emperor from 353, after the overthrow of the western usurper Magnentius. Constantius’ reign saw military activity on all frontiers, and dissension between Arianism, favoured by the emperor, and the Orthodox supporters of the Nicene Creed. In his reign, Constantinople was given equal status to Rome, and the original church of Hagia Sophia was built. Constantius appointed Constantius Gallus and Julian as Caesars, and died on his way to confront Julian, who had risen up against him.

Constans I (337 – 350)

Third surviving son of Constantine I. Caesar since 333, he inherited the central third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, and became sole emperor in the west following the death of Constantine II in 348. Constans was assassinated during the coup of Magnentius.

Julian ‘the Apostate’ (361 – 363)

Grandson of Constantius Chlorus and cousin of Constantius II. Proclaimed by his army in Gaul, Julian became legitimate Emperor upon the death of Constantius. He was killed on campaign against Sassanid Persia having failed to revive pagan religion.

Jovian (363 – 364)

Captain of the guards under Julian, elected by the army upon Julian’s death. Died on journey back to Constantinople.

Valentinian I (364 – 375)

An officer under Julian and Jovian, he was elected by the army upon Jovian’s death. He soon appointed his younger brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Died of cerebral haemorrhage.

Valens I (364 – 378)

A soldier of the Roman army, he was appointed Emperor of the East by his elder brother Valentinian I. Killed at the Battle of Adrianople.

Gratian (378 – 379)

Son of Valentinian I. Emperor of the West, he inherited rule of the East upon the death of Valens and appointed Theodosius I as Emperor of the East. Assassinated on 25 August 383 during the rebellion of Magnus Maximus.

Theodosius I ‘the Great’ (379 – 395)

Aristocrat and military leader, brother-in-law of Gratian who appointed him as emperor of the East. From 392 until his death sole Roman Emperor. Theodosius passed laws banning pagan religious practice, entrenching Christianity as the religion of the empire.

Arcadius (395 – 408)

On the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided between the East Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, and the West Roman Empire. Theodosius’ eldest son Arcadius became emperor in the East while his younger son Honorius became emperor in the West.

Theodosius II (408 – 450)

Only son of Arcadius. Succeeded upon the death of his father. As a minor, the praetorian prefect Anthemius was regent in 408–414. Died in a riding accident.

Marcian (450 – 457)

A soldier and politician, he became emperor after being wed by the Augusta Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, following the latter’s death. Died of gangrene.

Leo I ‘the Thracian’ (457 – 474)

Of Bessian origin, Leo became a low-ranking officer and served as an attendant of the Gothic commander-in-chief of the army, Aspar, who chose him as emperor on Marcian’s death. He was the first emperor to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. His reign was marked by the pacification of the Danube frontier and peace with Persia, which allowed him to intervene in the affairs of the western empire, supporting candidates for the throne and dispatching an expedition to recover Carthage from the Vandals in 468. Initially a puppet of Aspar, Leo began promoting the Isaurians as a counterweight to Aspar’s Goths, marrying his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian leader Tarasicodissa (Zeno). With their support, in 471 Aspar was murdered and Gothic power over the army was broken.

Leo II (January – November 474)

Grandson of Leo I by Leo’s daughter Ariadne and her Isaurian husband, Zeno. He was raised to Caesar on 18 November 473. Leo ascended the throne after the death of his grandfather on 19 January 474. He crowned his father Zeno as co-emperor and effective regent on 10 November 474. He died shortly after, on 10 November 474.

Zeno (474 – 491)

As the leader of Leo I’s Isaurian soldiers, Zeno rose to comes domesticorum, married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne, took the name Zeno, and played a crucial role in the elimination of Aspar and his Goths. He was named co-emperor by his son on 9 February 474, and became sole ruler upon the latter’s death, but had to flee to his native country before Basiliscus in 475, regaining control of the capital in 476. Zeno concluded peace with the Vandals, saw off challenges against him by Illus and Verina, and secured peace in the Balkans by persuading the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great to migrate to Italy. Zeno’s reign also saw the end of the western line of emperors, with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.

Basiliscus (475 – 476)

General and brother-in-law of Leo I, Basiliscus seized power from Zeno but was then deposed by him.

Anastasius I (491 – 518)

He was a palace official when he was chosen as husband and Emperor by the Empress-dowager Ariadne. Anastasius reformed the tax system and the Byzantine coinage and proved a frugal ruler, so that by the end of his reign he left a substantial surplus. His Monophysite sympathies led to widespread opposition, most notably the Revolt of Vitalian and the Acacian Schism. His reign was also marked by the first Bulgar raids into the Balkans and by a war with Persia over the foundation of Dara. He died childless.

Justin I (518 – 527)

Officer and commander of the Excubitors bodyguard under Anastasius I, he was elected by army and people upon the death of Anastasius I. Illiterate, he was much influenced by his nephew Justinian.

Justinian I ‘the Great’ (527 – 565)

Nephew of Justin I, possibly raised to co-emperor on 1 April 527. Succeeded on Justin I’s death. Attempted to restore the western territories of the Empire, reconquering Italy, North Africa and parts of Spain. Also responsible for the corpus juris civilis, or ‘body of civil law’ which is the foundation of law for many modern European nations. For John Julius Norwich Justinian was the last Roman emperor of Byzantium. (See my review of Robert Graves’s novel about his reign, Count Belisarius.)

Justin II (565 – 578)

Nephew of Justinian I, he seized the throne on the latter’s death with support of army and Senate. Became insane, hence in 573–574 under the regency of his wife Sophia, and in 574–578 under the regency of Tiberius Constantine.

Tiberius II Constantine (578 – 582)

Commander of the Excubitors, friend and adoptive son of Justin. Named Caesar and regent in 574. Succeeded on Justin II’s death.

Emperor Maurice (582 – 602)

Became an official and later a general. Married the daughter of Tiberius II and succeeded him upon his death. Named his son Theodosius as co-emperor in 590. Deposed by Phocas and executed on 27 November 602 at Chalcedon.

Phocas (602 – 610)

Subaltern in the Balkan army, he led a rebellion that deposed Maurice but turned out to be spectacularly brutal and cruel. Increasingly unpopular, he was deposed and executed by Heraclius.

Heraclius (610 – 641)

The eldest son of the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder. With his father and uncle launched a revolt against the unpopular Phocas in 609 and deposed him in October 610. Brought the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628 to a successful conclusion but was unable to stop the Muslim conquests; during his rule Muslim armies conquered of Syria (637), Armenia (639) and Egypt (639). In 638 Jerusalem fell after a two-year siege. The loss to the Muslims of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians, proved to be the source of much resentment in Christendom for centuries to come.

Heraclius officially replaced Latin with Greek as the language of administration. This act, for Norwich, makes Heraclius the first fully Greek Byzantine emperor. His military and administrative reforms created the backbone for the Byzantine Empire which helped it last another eight hundred years. He tried to solve the ongoing divisions caused by the monophysitic heresy by promoting a compromise theory, monothelitism, devised by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople, although this only ended up causing more ill-feeling and excommunications. Nonetheless, according to Norwich, his record:

remains a magnificent one. Without his energy, determination and inspired leadership, Constantinople might well have fallen to the Persians – in which case it would almost inevitably have  been engulfed a few years later by the Muslim tide, with consequences for Western Europe that can scarcely be imagined. (Byzantium: The Early Centuries p.310)

Constantine III (February – May 641)

Born 612, eldest son of Heraclius by his first wife Fabia Eudokia. Named co-emperor in 613, he succeeded to the throne with his younger brother Heraklonas following the death of Heraclius. Died of tuberculosis, reputedly poisoned by scheming empress-dowager (i.e. Heraclius’s wife) Martina.

Heraklonas (February to September 641)

Born 626 in to Heraclius’ second wife Martina, named co-emperor in 638. Succeeded to the throne with Constantine III following the death of Heraclius. Sole emperor after the death of Constantine III, under the regency of Martina, but was forced to name Constans II co-emperor by the army. In September both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested: her tongue was cut out and his nose was slit, and they were sent into exile on Rhodes.

Constans II (641 – 668)

Born 630 the son of Constantine III. Raised to co-emperor in summer 641 i.e. aged just 11, after his father’s death, Constans became sole emperor after the forced abdication and exile of his uncle Heraklonas (see above). Baptized Heraclius, he reigned as Constantine, ‘Constans’ was his nickname. Constans’s 27-year reign was overshadowed by constant struggle against the fast-expanding Muslim caliphate. In 642 the seized Alexandria, later razing its defences to the ground and starting a new town at the head of the Nile Delta, which would become Cairo. In 649 the Muslims sacked Cyprus. In 654 they attacked Rhodes. In 655 they thrashed an imperial fleet off the coast of Lycia. In 663 Constans led an army across the Adriatic and into Italy to combat the Lombards. Having taken Rome he stripped it of its last remaining treasures and shipped them back to Constantinople. Then he moved on to Syracuse, which he made his base for the last five years of his reign. He was murdered by a slave while bathing.

Constantine IV (668 – 685)

Eldest of Constans II’s three sons. In 669 there was an army uprising against his rule which he put down and then slit the noses of his two younger brothers to render them unfit to rule (in Byzantine theory the king or basileus had to be free of physical blemishes). From 674 to 678 he held off a sea-based siege of Constantinople, not least by deploying Greek fire, and in doing so – according to John Julius Norwich – ‘saved Western civilisation’.

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – ad America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

Not bad for a man who died of dysentery aged just 33.

Justinian II nicknamed ‘the Slit-nosed’ (685 – 695)

Son of Constantine IV, he was named co-emperor in 681 and became sole emperor upon Constantine IV’s death. He was a stern disciplinarian whose biggest act was to move an estimated quarter of million peasants and villagers from Thrace and northern Greece into Bithynia and the south coast of the Black Sea. He was also a ferocious taxer who made it plain he wanted to tax the aristocracy to extinction so when a military revolt broke out, they and other sections of the population gleefully welcomed Justinian’s overthrow in 695. He was dragged into the Hippodrome where his nose was slit, before being sent into exile at Cherson in Crimea.

The Twenty Years’ Anarchy (695–717)

Leontius (695–698)

A professional soldier from Isauria, Leontius led a military revolt against Justinian II, who was disfigured and sent into exile. In 698 the Muslims conquered Carthage and thus extinguished the entire Roman province of North Africa. Leontius had sent a fleet to defend the city but rather than return in disgrace, the sailors mutinied and elected a new king, the fleet returning to Constantinople and overthrowing Leontius.

Tiberius Apsimar (698–705)

Originally named Apsimar and of German origin, this is the admiral the failed Byzantine fleet elected their leader and king (and hastily gave the Roman-sounding name of Tiberius) and who led them back to the capital to overthrow Leontius. In the seven years of his reign he led military expeditions against the Muslims in Syria and Cilicia. His reign (and life) came to an end when the exiled Justinian II returned.

Justinian II ‘the Slit-nosed’ (705 – 711)

In exile Justinian did a deal with the Bulgar King Tervel to make the latter caesar in exchange for Slav troops. With these troops Justinian returned to Constantinople and seized power. The two usurpers – Leontius and Tiberius – were tracked down, put in chains, dragged round the Hippodrome in front of a jeering crowd, had their noses slit as Justinian had, and then were beheaded. Justinian then went on to inaugurate a reign of terror, torturing and executing his enemies.

In 709, for reasons which remain obscure, he sent an army to Ravenna – theoretically still a Byzantine ‘exarchate’ – round up the town’s dignitaries and packed them off to Constantinople where they were all executed except for the archbishop, who he had blinded, while his army went on the rampage in the captured city.

Then he launched an expedition against the Khazars who had taken Cherson, site of his exile, where a complicated sequence of events led to an exiled general named Bardanes rallying rebellious Byzantine forces and  sailing to take Constantinople, where a grateful populace greeted him. Justinian was captured a few miles outside of town and beheaded. His mother took his son, six-year-old Tiberius, to the sanctuary of a church across the Bosphorus but soldiers followed them there and slaughtered the little boy ‘like a sheep’. The Heraclian line of emperors had ended.

Philippicus Bardanes (711 – 713)

A general of Armenian origin, he led the forces from Cherson which deposed Justinian II, but turned out to be a ‘hopeless hedonist’ (p.347). The Bulgar King Tervel vowed to avenge his friend Justinian and marched his Slav army up to the walls of Constantinople. Philippicus called on the Opsikian Theme (a theme was a geographical and administrative unit of the empire) just across the Marmaris to send troops to help, but they refused and instead nominated a rival basileus. Philippicus was enjoying a siesta in his palace when soldiers broke in, seized him, dragged him to the Hippodrome where his eyes were put out.

Anastasius II (713 – 715)

Originally named Artemios, he was a chief secretary to Philippicus and proclaimed emperor by the soldiers who overthrew Philippicus. Anastasius set about repairing the walls defending Constantinople and, hearing the Muslims were once again on the war path, sent a pre-emptive force of Opsikian troops in a fleet to Rhodes. However the rebellious troops clubbed the head of the expedition to death and then returned to the capital, picking up an inoffensive tax collector named Theodosius along the way. After a six month siege, Constantinople submitted to the rebels and Anastasius, who had fled to Nicaea, was allowed to retire to a monastery in Thessalonica. In 719 he led a revolt against his successor but one, Leo III, but failed, and was executed by Leo.

Theodosius III (715 – 717)

A tax collector unrelated to any royal blood, Theodosius was proclaimed emperor by rebellious Opsikian troops, entering Constantinople in November 715. Two years later Leo the Isaurian, who was governor of a theme on the eastern border, led a revolt of soldiers on Constantinople and, after some negotiations with the Senate and Leo, Theodosius was allowed to abdicate and retire to a monastery in Ephesus.

End of the Twenty Years’ Anarchy

Leo III the Isaurian (717 – 741)

Norwich, in his history of Byantium, calls Leo ‘the saviour of the empire’. He rose through the ranks from very obscure origins (‘a Syrian peasant’) to become a general. Led a rebellion and secured the throne in spring 717. In the autumn a massive Muslim army and fleet besieged Constantinople but Leo had prepared well, the besieging army was decimated during a bitter winter of famine and disease, the survivors massacred by a Bulgarian army which attacked from the north, and then the retreating fleet was destroyed in a storm. Saved again.

Leo’s other big achievement was to inaugurate the movement known as Iconoclasm which set out to destroy all images of the human figure and face and which was to divide the empire and severely exacerbate the divide between the Western and Eastern churches. He had barely begun, by removing just one statue from one church, before he sparked a storm of protests across the city and the Greek East and from the pope in Rome. Despite protests, he pressed on and in 703 issued an imperial decree banning all religious images, demanding they be destroyed. Monks and priests fled east and west carrying their beloved icons and images concealed. The fleet and numerous military garrisons mutinied. There were riots in the major cities.

Some scholars attribute the rise of iconoclasm to the influence of the sternly anti-image Muslims who now controlled most of the former Roman territory in the East. But Norwich points out that the movement actually began as a charter launched by eastern bishops who thought they were challenging the increasingly fetishistic worship of icons in themselves. It had got to the stage where icons stood in as godparents during baptisms.

Constantine V (741 – 775)

The only son of Leo III. Constantine was made co-emperor in 720 and succeeded on his father’s death. He was leading a military expedition against the Muslims when he was attacked by Artabasdos, an old colleague of his father’s who had helped Leo seize the throne from Theodosius.

Artabasdos (741 – 743)

General who had helped Leo II to the throne and been given Leo’s sister’s hand in marriage, thus becoming brother-in-law to Leo and uncle to Constantine V, who he overthrew. For eighteen months he ruled in Constantinople making himself very popular by calling for the restoration of icons, which suddenly reappeared all over the city. Meanwhile Constantine had not been killed, but taken refuge in an eastern garrison filled with icon-supporters (the issue now split every level of Byzantine society) who marched behind him and they defeated Artabasdos in battle in Lydia.

Artabasdos fled to Constantinople which Constantine re-entered at the head of his army, dragged Artabasdos to the Hippodrome where he and his two sons were ritually blinded, their chief supporters executed or subjected to various mutilations. The Patriarch Anastasius was stipped naked, flogged, and paraded round the Hippodrome sitting backwards on a donkey.

Constantine V (741 – 775) part two

Constantine returned to power with renewed virulence against the icon-supporters, not least because they had helped overthrow him. He convened a church council which banned icons. He banned the use of the word ‘saint’ and ‘mother of God’ as blasphemous. He was particularly violent against monasteries, which had been growing in size and power. We have records of entire monasteries being sacked, the head monks having their beards doused in oil and set on fire, libraries burned to the ground. And this not by the Muslims, but by their fellow Christians.

Constantine campaigned continually against the Bulgars who threatened from the north but he was granted relief from the Muslim threat when, in 750, at the Battle of the Greater Zab River, the army of Caliph Marwan II was smashed by that of Abu al-Abbas al-Suffah and the Omayyad dynasty of Damascus came to an end. Power moved to the new Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad, which was to be more interested in the East, in Persia, Afghanistan and Transoxiana than in Europe or Africa.

But in 751 Ravenna was taken by the Lombard king Aistulf and the last Byzantine foothold in north Italy was snuffed out forever. Constantine died of natural causes while on campaign against the Bulgars aged 56.

Leo IV ‘the Khazar’ (775 – 780)

Eldest son of Constantine V, co-emperor since 751, he succeeded upon his father’s death and was much influenced by his powerful, scheming wife Irene. When he died aged just 30, Irene made herself Regent for their son, Constantine VI. Irene was

scheming and duplicitous, consumed by a devouring ambition and an insatiable lust for power, she was to bring dissension and disaster to the Empire for nearly a quarter of a century (p.366)

Constantine VI (780 – 797)

Born in 771 and only child of Leo IV, co-emperor in 776, sole emperor upon Leo’s death in 780, he was for the next ten years under the regency of his mother, Irene of Athens.

Irene was a fierce supporter of icons and overthrew all Constantine V’s legislation, in 787 convening the Second Council of Nicaea which condemned the practice of iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons to Christian practice. This also helped restore relations with the pope in Rome, the Western church having never condemned icons in the first place.

Her icon-support sparked repeated mutinies in the solidly iconoclast army. Anticipating a coup in 790 she placed her son – fast becoming a focal point for iconoclast rebellion – in prison. When she tried to make the entire army swear an oath of allegiance to her personally, it mutinied, freed young Constantine (now 18 years old) and confined Irene to house arrest. Constantine proved weak and indecisive and a poor military leader. The famous Muslim leader Haroun al-Rashid had to be bought off with vast tributes of gold, while Constantine failed in his campaigns against the ever-threatening Bulgars of the North.

Constantine scandalised his church, especially the monks, by divorcing his first wife and marrying a court attendant. This issue, like everything else, became ensnared in theological language and led to splits among the icon-supporters which were exploited by the iconoclasts. In 797 Irene launched a coup against her own son, having him captured, taken to the palace and there ritually blinded. Her own son. He died soon after of his wounds.

Irene (797 – 802)

Although she tried to court popularity by reducing all manner of unpopular taxes, this only had the effect of impoverishing the empire, leaving her unable to repel further incursions by Haroun al-Rashid, alienating the iconoclast army, as well as every conservative who thought there mustn’t be a woman basileus.

In 802, out of the blue, came a marriage proposal from Charles, King of the Franks, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800. Theoretically the pope in Rome was subject to the emperor, the Roman Emperor, resident in Constantinople. But Irene’s reign created a unique conjunction of events. For most churchmen, aristocrats and citizens, a woman couldn’t be basileus. Therefore the Roman throne was vacant. Add in the factor that the popes of Rome had been abused, ignored, sometimes kidnapped and even murdered by various Eastern emperors – and that the East seemed to have been taken over by icon-destroying madness – and was militarily weak, especially against the Muslims – all these are reasons why Pope Leo should turn to by far the strongest military figure in the West, the pious and genuine Christian believer Charles King of the Franks who, in the preceding 30 years, had hugely expanded the territory of his kingdom.

Crowning him emperor in Rome in 800 a) created an entirely new centre of power in the West, resulting in there being two emperors in Christendom b) gave enormous power and influence to Leo (which protected him against powerful enemies who were conniving at his downfall) and – though no-one realised it at the time – to all his successors.

Charles and probably Leo thought that if Charles married Irene it would reunite the two halves of the empire, and hence the marriage proposal. Irene for her part knew how unpopular she had become and looked favourably on it. Imagine if they had go married and Christendom united.

Instead she was overthrown in a palace coup in 802, sent into exile on Lesbos and died a year later. The epoch of one Roman Empire united under one emperor, was over. From now on there would be a Holy Roman Emperor in the West and a Byzantine Emperor in the East.


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Other early medieval reviews

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

City of Gold by Len Deighton (1992)

Part one – Plot summary

Cairo during the war

Because of the chameleon on the book cover I thought this might be another novel set in South America, the setting of MAMista, but in fact this one is set in wartime Cairo – apparently known back then as the ‘city of gold’ – in January 1942, as Rommel and Montgomery push each other’s armies back and forth across North Africa.

The novel opens with Army Special Investigator, Major Albert Cutler accompanying a soldier, Jimmy Ross (accused of killing a superior officer under fire) back to Cairo by train to stand trial. Cutler has a heart attack giving Ross a golden opportunity to swap clothes, identity cards and so on, and arrive in Cairo masquerading as the special investigator. A confident actor, he hands over Cutler’s body to the officer meeting him at the station, Captain Marker, claiming it is Ross’s. From that point onwards Ross-as-Cutler is on tenterhooks, scared that at any moment his impersonation of the investigator will be discovered by the soldiers surrounding him. Captain Marker escorts him to the Army’s main barracks at Bab el-Hadid, where he is assigned rooms, introduced to his staff, and then shown around town by Marker, who is puzzled as to why he seems so nervous.

By this route we enter the lives of a circle of people living in the Cairo at this moment in history. Peggy West, a good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse, who lost her only child to illness and whose husband, Karl, has been away on active service in Iraq for eighteen long months. We see her supervising her sometimes difficult or emotional nurses at the Base Hospital, often overcome by the sight of so many dying and mutilated young men.

Peggy relies on money from the slippery Solomon Marx, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and who we see talking with his partner, Yigal, in a conversation which seems to reveal that they’re working for the Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine. Solomon asks Peggy to keep and eye on Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff, a large, imposing Russian émigré who rents the entire top floor at the Hotel Magnifico. Its Italian owner, Lucio wants him out so she can rent the individual rooms at much greater profit to the hordes of Allied officers swarming into the city and looking for stylish bolt-holes. Everybody gossips that the Prince is Rommel’s spy in the city – it is well known that Rommel is getting verbatim reports of British troop deployments from a well-placed spy. But the Prince rises above it all, continuing to host his stylish parties, one of which Ross is taken to by the only woman on his staff at the barracks, the phenomenally posh Alice Stanhope. Alice’s mother, also living in Cairo, knows absolutely everyone dahling.

Meanwhile, in the Lady Fitzherbert brothel in the notorious El Birkeh district of the city, we see two partners in crime, Sergeants Percy and Smith, not their real names, who have booked a room to share the money from their latest deals. But Smith is getting cold feet: the Army appointed a new auditor at his stores who is bound to find out that he’s been embezzling them on a grand scale. As he whines and wails, Deighton surprises us by having Percy move forward, place his hand over his mouth and stab him through the heart with an oriental dagger. A young Arab serving girl looks on while this happens, then goes to fetch towels and cloth to clear up the mess.

All this takes place in the first 60 or so pages of this 320-page novel to set the scene, the location, the atmosphere, to establish quite a large cast of characters, all with secrets or agendas or plans afoot, which the remaining 250 pages will bring to light and work through. I’ve been to Cairo; the city is fairly well evoked, but the dominant impression from these early pages is Deighton’s humourlessness and the flat, blank, factual, heartless way he describes violence and death.

Stereotypes and clichés

So the plus sides are: large cast of characters, intriguing setting, interesting plot arcs, Deighton’s in-depth knowledge of military history, strategy and hardware, and his taut clipped sentences.

Unfortunately, these strengths are related to a number of weaknesses. Many characters, yes, but too many of them are stereotypes, too many of them are famous for x, or a classic example of y, or a stock type of z.

She recognised it as one of Darymple’s stories. His skill as a storyteller was renowned throughout the clubs and bars of Cairo. (p.51)

Jeannie MacGregor’s grand-father had lived in a castle, and through him Jeannie claimed to be a direct descendant of Rob Roy, the famous Scots outlaw. (p.61)

Sayed was a handsome young man. His light-coloured skin and clear blue eyes were said in Cairo to be the legacy of Circassian concubines, women renowned for their beauty. (p.64)

‘I met an old chum in Shepheard’s bar last week. Toby Wallingford, RNVR, a very good pal. I thrashed him countless times at school; he says he still has the scars.’ (p.68)

‘Cleo’s club. Just about every crook and black-marketeer in Cairo visits this place at some time or other.’ (p.75)

‘They call him Zooly; he’s one of the richest men in this town. If you want a tank, or a virgin, or your enemy murdered, he’ll fix it for you – at a price.’ (p.75)

Short clipped sentences, yes, but this means the characters’ feelings or psychology are generally conveyed with crushing bluntness and obviousness. Deighton proved himself a brilliant popular historian with Blitzkrieg and Fighter. His thumbnail sketches of key figures in those histories, eg the tank commander Guderian or Wing Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris are more interesting and thorough than you might expect in a history. But they are nowhere near subtle or nuanced enough to appear in a novel, the form most concerned with psychological development and insight.

You could say that, as novelists go, Deighton is a very good military historian – a writer who is much more at home with the technical specifications of a Messerchmitt 109E or a brisk explanation of Rommel’s attack formation at El Alamein, than with the foibles of the human heart. Again and again you read sentences that might have come from a Mills & Boon novelette, especially when he’s dealing with his female characters. The issue of Peggy West having lost a young baby, thus making her forlorn, seems like something out of Catherine Cookson.

Had the baby lived, everything might have gone differently. (p.56)

It was a glorious smile, the sort of smile that a woman saves for the man she adores. Was it possible that she could fall in love with a man she’d only just met? The answer was yes. (p.97)

She wondered if this man would ever realise that she was desperately in love with him. Everyone who had seen her with him in the last few days seemed to guess. No matter how hard she tried, Alice could not keep it a secret from anyone except from him. (p.100)

She was beautiful, yet shy. She was eternally reticent, yet she knew so much. What a wicked twist of fate that he’d met her at a time like this. (p.98)

Yes, what a wicked, wicked twist of fate.

The plot(s)

Wallingford’s criminal gang

The 20 or so characters intertwine and interact. We have been introduced several times to a Lieutenant Commander Toby Wallingford, a posh boy who went to the same public school as some of the other officers, namely Captain Darymple. Wallingford gives out to his officer colleagues that he’s part of a hush-hush secret unit, often deployed to the front on high risk missions. Now we learn he is in fact a deserter who has set up a smuggling operation. Key to it is Percy, in fact a German deserter, the man we saw murder Smith in one of the opening scenes. Percy knows the position of various German and Italian arms dumps which were abandoned in the last retreat. Thus he is able to navigate Wallingford’s crew of criminals in lorries through the front line on what Wallingford tells everyone are hush-hush missions, to load up the guns and ammo, and drive them back to Cairo to flog on the black market.

One aspect of Wallingford’s operations is to kindly arrange a loan for his superior, Captain Darymple, who is always in debt. Wallingford drives him to a dingy Arab house, where Darymple signs a loan agreement with the cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman, Mahmoud. Inevitably, within days, Mahmoud is calling for the short term to be repaid with interest, Darymple is begging Wallingford to help him, and Wallingford is kindly offering to intercede if Darymple will just sign a few forms and arrange the transit of some, er, goods. In other words, he co-opts Darymple into becoming an accessory to his black market organisation.

Another and persisting element is the existence of a massive arms dump, packed with Italian Beretta machines guns, at a place in no man’s land between the armies called Al Jaghbub. Wallingford’s plan is simple: to go and collect them and transport them back to Cairo and sell to Solomon. However, various things go wrong. For a start, we are introduced to a gung-ho American journalist, Harry Wechsler, and his Irish fixer, Chips O’Riley, who somehow get wind of the secret, and undertake a perilous drive out into the desert. Turns out British Army investigators are also there, question Wechsler, then order him to push off. The authorities decide to leave the guns where they are but spike them. Aware they’ve been found, but not of the decision to sabotage them, Wallingford tells Percy he’ll go ahead and sell them to Solomon Marx’s Jewish organisation, but they’ll have to collect them themselves.

Sayed el-Shazli

In a separate strand, Peggy West and Alice take an Army lorry and follow Sayed el-Shazli, a young well-connected Egyptian who’s part of the Prince’s circle, out onto the perilous Western road and then off to an out-of-the-way native village. Ross-as-Cutler had ordered Alice to tail him, thinking it would be a safe assignment around Cairo bars. Alice parks the lorry, tells Peggy to guard it, and walks into the village unaccompanied, ignored by the sullen villagers. Suddenly she realises she’s being followed and the Arab man moves closer then speaks to her. The atmosphere becomes sinister, as she is accompanied to the big house of the village where she finds Sayed and a fat, rich old pasha who proceeds to read her fortune as she sips the tea, becomes woozy and then passes out. I thought something bad might happen to her, but it turns out to be simple heatstroke. Sayed’s people look after her, and then return her to Peggy’s care.

King Farouk

On a higher political and diplomatic level, we see through the eyes of nervous Jimmy Ross the political crisis which flares up when the British diplomats (foolishly, in the opinion of the Army) force young King Farouk to change his government. The crisis atmosphere comes about because it seems as if the King will refuse, in which case the British will force him to abdicate. This is all told from the point of view of Ross who appears in the square in front of the palace at night, the whole city in an atmosphere of great tension, the soldiers on duty who Ross talks to uncertain what is going on. Eventually, in the early hours, Farouk concedes, changes government and remains king. The senior officers, brigadiers and the like that Ross talks to, think it’s all the fault of the damn fool diplomats, that the Army has enough on its plate fighting Rommel out West without having to worry about riots and insurrection back in Cairo.

Sayed’s humiliation

Prince Piotr takes his friends (Sayed, Peggy, Alice, Wallingford, Darymple) to one of Cairo’s swankiest restaurants to celebrate his birthday, partly because he knows the tubby 22-year-old King Farouk will be there (nickname: ‘fatty Farouk’) and he’ll be able to show off his acquaintanceship with him. The king grandly enters with his entourage, emphatically countering the rumours surrounding his abdication and the knife-edge political situation of just a few days before. Alice, Peggy and the other bien-pensant liberals are favourably inclined to him. Half way through the evening he sends over an equerry who conveys very polite birthday felicitations to Prince Piotr, compliments to the ladies, and then addresses Zeinab, the beautiful sister of Sayed: the king requests the honour of a dance. A private dance. At his palace. Leaving in fifteen minutes.

Stricken, tense, muttered conversations ensue, in which the Prince explains that neither Sayed nor Zeinab can refuse this ‘honour’; if they do Sayed will wake up dead at the bottom of the Nile. The Western women are outraged, and suddenly not so fond of the good-looking young king who now makes his exit, returning to the palace to prepare himself for his ‘dance’ with Zeinab. And then she goes mournfully, to be accompanied away by an equerry, in reality a glorified pimp for the fornicating king.

This proves an important turning point in one of the numerous plot strands, because Sayed is so embittered by this public and personal humiliation that he reveals to Alice, then Ross, that he is a member of the illegal Free Officers revolutionary organisation, working to overthrow British rule and establish a free monarchy. Not any more. Now he agrees to spy on it for the British. Alice fixes up a meeting with her boss Ross (all the time masquerading as the dead Special Investigator, Bert Cutler, and increasingly feeling relaxed and comfortable in the role) who conducts a fraught conversation which ends with him producing a blank piece of paper. ‘Write their names’, he says, knowing that once Sayed has crossed that Rubicon, and betrayed his colleagues, there will be no going back.

The tense psychology of spying, interrogation, betrayal, the links between individual behaviour and the broader political scene, descriptions of a lorry driven by nervous criminals making its way through a minefield in the Western desert – all of this is powerfully and persuasively done. It’s the softer, social sides of life, cocktail party chatter, and especially anything to do with women, their thoughts as they try on outfits for the party, their feelings and emotions, and especially his descriptions of falling in love or being in love, where Deighton is at his weakest.

The Jewish plotline

Ross/Cutler’s relationship with his boss, an unpredictable brigadier, is reminiscent of the Ipcress novels and the narrator’s insubordinate opinion of his superiors. There is a hilarious scene two-thirds of the way through where Ross has to listen to his boss banging on about the Jews, about the origin of Christianity, and about Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine. But the Jewish thread is compounded a few pages later when Captain Marker reports to Ross that the American journalist, Wechsler, has posted a long detailed piece to US newspapers explaining how the British used Jewish spies in the Levant from as early as 1940, on a promise to help them secure independence / fight the Arabs. Now the British are reneging on that promise, various underground Jewish organisations are finding ways to secure Axis munitions left in dumps in no man’s land.

These revelations put into context the activities of Solomon Marx and his colleague, who we met early on; they are one of these teams securing arms for the Jewish homeland. It explains the activities of Peggy West, who in a low-level way collects a stipend from Marx for spying for him. It puts in context Wallingford’s plan to flog the Italian machine guns at Al Jaghbub to Solomon which, we now realise, will be passed on to the Haganah or other Jewish militias in Palestine. It explains why the brigadier wants to set up a new unit to monitor Religious Subversives, namely whatever Jewish organisations they can locate. It explains why Captain Marker is riveted to discover, after extensive investigation, that Peggy West’s missing husband, Karl, is in fact a Haganah operative, with a long record of criminal convictions and two escapes from captivity. And explains why Marker decides to help Peggy’s long-expressed wish to find her missing husband; if they trail her, and she finds him, they can arrest him.

The Italian guns

Marker informs Ross that there’s been an incident at the Italian arms dump. Some Arabs turned up and insisted they had authorisation to remove them. The brigadier’s men were a bit trigger happy and the incident degenerated into a shootout in which eight Arabs were killed. So we have this information as we watch Solomon and Yigal drive to an appointment with Mahmoud. Wallingford had sub-contracted collecting the arms to Mahmoud, whose men are the ones who’ve been killed. The interview is tense because Mahmoud is convinced Solomon is in league with the British and partly responsible for the deaths, whereas Solomon doesn’t even understand what’s happened. On leaving the house Solomon and Yigal are arrested by British Army cops who Mahmoud has tipped off in revenge.

The Desert War

The scene then shifts for the last forty pages or so to a forward base in the desert. Captain Darymple has managed to arrange a transfer here, back to his old armoured car brigade, and away from Cairo where he learns there is now a contract out on him for non-repayment of Mahmoud’s debt. Here, by coincidence arrives Wallingford, along with Percy and a gang of his criminals. They are planning to go forward to steal more munitions from the desert. At the same time, Ross-as-Cutler arrives to seek help from the commanding officer. And also here is the ubiquitous Harry Wechsler and his gofer, Chips, wanting to see some real action for a change.

All these strands come together when the Germans make their presence felt and threaten to attack. The entire unit is ordered to withdraw, lorries, armoured cars and all. Their commanding officer, nickname Thunder, is just admiring the size and power of Wechsler’s V-8-powered lorry when it runs over a mine, exploding, killing Chips outright, fatally crushing Wechsler behind the engine block, burning and crippling all the passengers. The medic helps out as best he can before the rest of the convoy continues on to their main base.

Here, there are dramatic scenes as the commander in chief, Anderson, lets Wallingford know in no uncertain terms that he knows that Walingford and most of his men are deserters and criminals: they’ll be given guns to fight against the advancing Germans, but no forgiveness or amnesty, and all he can offer them is a decent burial.

The entire Wallingford gang plotline is over in a stroke. As part of this round-up Ross-as-Cutler goes to arrest Percy who he suspects (correctly) of being German. But Percy makes a break for it and runs off, scrambling up the nearest sand dune. Ross chases him, up sand dunes then down into a dry, hard, creviced valley bottom, all the time coming under fire from the German positions which are less than a kilometre away. Finally he rugby tackles him and starts violently beating him. An armoured car arrives, German rifle bullets pinging off it, sent by the commanding officer, and Ross pushes Percy into it and it returns them to the base. Here Ross interrogates Percy and finally cracks the ‘Rommel’s spy’ case which has hung over the whole novel.

The spy isn’t Percy, who is simply the low-level crook and black marketeer we’ve been led to believe. But before he deserted, Percy worked on Rommel’s signals unit, and here he had access to the signals being sent by the spy. So he is able to tell Ross that the information is being sent by an Axis spy within the US embassy in Cairo, the Americans being given privileged access to all British troop movements and strategy. Aha.

In the last page of this section, Ross has himself handcuffed to Percy, as they prepare for the final German assault, and tells him one of the commander’s staff has orders to shoot them both if the compound is over-run (to prevent knowledge that they know about the master spy, from being revealed to the enemy).

Tying up the threads

The setting cuts away to Cairo.

1. Alice is informed that Ross is alive. Just. He and the survivors of the unit were found some days after the Germans attacked and wiped them out. Almost all of them were dead, in fact the patrol thought Ross was dead, with badly burnt legs and exposure. But he was alive, still handcuffed to the dead Percy. She rushes to be by his side, convinced now that she loves him.

2. Ross is recovering in bed when visited by his ever-efficient adjutant in Special Investigations, Ponsonby. Unfortunately, when he was brought in he was so delirious that he gave his true name (Ross) to his rescuers, was tagged as such all the way to the hospital, where questions started to be asked. Ooops. They know he is Corporal Jimmy Ross; they know he was only masquerading as Major Cutler.

But Ponsonby has carried on being loyal to him and, it is implied, the brigadier has turned a blind eye while Ponsonby worked bureaucratic wonders. Ross has been declared dead some months ago, his death certificate associated with Cutler’s corpse from the train. But now ‘Cutler’ has also been declared dead, thus neatly solving the problem from an administrative point of view: for if the truth ever came out, that Ross had managed to fool all those people, including his superior, for so many months, everyone involved would look a complete ass. Better that ‘Cutler’ dies, and dies a hero, in the desert, giving his life fighting the Hun. And to those in the know, making the breakthrough with the Rommel spy case.

Ross will be given a completely new identity and packed off out east somewhere, India, Burma. Ross is briefly miffed that he won’t get any recognition for unmasking Rommel’s spy, but then is grateful to be free. Well, still in the army… Alice arrives full of love. Presumably their romance will blossom…

3. Peggy West arrives at Solomon’s houseboat after dark. She finds him badly wounded, sitting in the dark. He and Yigal were ambushed by Mahmoud’s men. Yigal is dead. A felucca of his people, the Jewish underground, is coming to rescue them. While they wait Peggy tries to clean and bind his wound. Solomon tells her that her husband, Karl, is dead. Maybe he only ever wanted the British passport. In a last gesture Solomon tells Peggy he’s giving her the houseboat. Its name is City of Gold. 

Peggy helps Solomon into the felucca which starts up an outboard and putters away in the dark night. Moments later soldiers arrive led by Captain Marker. He was the officer who met Ross-Cutler all those months earlier on his arrival in Cairo station. During the ‘trouble with Jews’ conversations he had mentioned to Ross that he was himself Jewish. Now we, Peggy and his own soldiers strongly suspect he has timed his ‘arrest’ of Solomon just too late to actually capture him. And, after his men have searched the houseboat and found nothing, he sends them away, and settles down for a drink with Peggy. She is realising she has no husband, no ties, a new property (the houseboat) maybe she can stretch her wings and live a free life for the first time. Marker finds her especially attractive and they flirt. Maybe their story, too, will have a happy ending.

Conclusion

The last 100 pages or so really pick up pace and intensity, Deighton’s clipped style well-suited to situations of men deceiving, double crossing and manipulating each other, to the edginess of combat situations, to moments of violence and physical action – like the lorry blown up by a mine and its grisly aftermath, or Ross’s desperate pursuit of Percy across the sand dunes under enemy fire.

It is the intensity of these closing scenes which stays in the memory and persuades you this was a good thriller, helping you to forget the first two hundred pages of social chit-chat, party conversation and attempts to convey a feminine perspective on emotions and feelings, which are a lot less convincing.

El Alamein

Throughout the book, there has been a continuous chorus of characters speculating about whether and when Rommel will reach Cairo, and the more thoughtful of them predicting that, if he does, the entire Middle East will fall to the Germans, who will then be able to push north and reinforce their forces fighting in Russia and, ultimately, win the war. (Deighton is, of course, no stranger to counter-factual speculation as one of his most successful novels, SS-GB, describes what England would feel like after the Nazis had in fact invaded and conquered us.) The speculation is in part fuelled by rumours that Rommel knows everything the British Army is planning to do before it does it, and therefore to win victory after victory. Therefore, the discovery by Ross that the enemy is getting their information from sources inside the US Embassy is absolutely vital.

Deighton tops and tails the narrative with quotes from a history of codebreaking which confirm that Rommel’s victories were in part based on these intelligence tip-offs – and that they abruptly stopped in the summer of 1942, therefore leaving him, for the first time, blind about British intentions.

A few months after the narrative ends, in October 1942, there took place the decisive battle of the Desert War, and one of the great battles of the entire war – the battle of El Alamein. Deighton has seeded clues about it by having characters refer to stopovers there, for Alamein was just an insignificant train stop in the desert until this historic event made its name famous. It was here that the British decisively beat Rommel and pushed his Afrika Corps into retreat. The very last lines quote Churchill as saying that, before El Alamein we never had a victory; but after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.

This places Jimmy Ross’s behaviour in impersonating a Special Investigator so thoroughly that he begins to solve his cases, and in particular his heroic chasing of the German deserter Percy across desert dunes under enemy fire, and, back at the base, his beating out of Percy the truth about the sources of Rommel’s intelligence – in a completely new light. In case it wasn’t obvious, Deighton is implying that Ross played a decisive role in winning the war. It is an example of Deighton’s super-dry humour that this entire novel makes a stroppy criminal corporal from Glasgow turn out to be a figure of world historical importance.


Part Two – First and third person narrators

If my summary of City of Gold seems a bit chaotic, if it’s hard to grasp who the lead characters are, I think this is a strategy or effect which Deighton deliberately seeks. In all his third-person novels characters are killed off almost on a whim because most of those novels, especially the ones about war (Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse, SSGB) seek to depict the horrifying arbitrariness of accidents, pain and death.

In most of Deighton’s fiction – rather like in ‘real life’ – you are deliberately kept guessing which characters are ‘important’ and which ones are going to die horribly grisly deaths. As in ‘real life’, there’s a large cast and wildly unpredictable things happen ie the heart attack in the first chapter of City of Gold or Wechsler, who I was just getting to like, being killed in the blown-up lorry. In his 3rd-person narratives, it is as if Deighton is trying to teach his readers a lesson about how bloody awful life is.

This is one of the things which makes the first-person narratives so different from the third-person ones. In the third-person narratives, the narrator is rather formal and anything can happen, horrible unpredictable things can happen at any moment. It is a tense experience reading them, and often upsetting.

By contrast, the first-person narratives eg the Ipcress novels, the first-person Bernard Samson narratives or a novel like Violent Ward, feel warmer and funnier for several reasons, but a main one is because you are on the solid ground of knowing that at least the narrator himself is not going to be blown up in a lorry, cut down in a jungle ambush, vapourised by ack ack fire, or any of the numerous other fates awaiting characters in the 3rd-person texts.

Deighton is happier in the first-person narratives, and so is the reader.

City of Gold Dramatis personae

THE BRITISH ARMY

Major Albert Cutler – Army Special Investigator, recruited from Glasgow police force, accompanying Corporal Jimmy Ross in handcuffs back to Cairo for trial for assaulting an officer under fire, when he has a heart attack and dies.

Corporal Jimmy Ross, also from Scotland, is travelling in custody of Major Cutler until the latter has a heart attack, whereupon Jimmy gets the keys to the handcuffs, frees himself and swaps clothes and identity cards with Cutler. When the train arrives in Cairo Ross confidently adopts Cutler’s identity, handing over the body to Captain Marker and being escorted to his new offices in the huge Bab el-Hadid barracks. He was hoping he could do a runner and disappear into the Cairo crowds but now finds himself trapped in his new identity. But after a nervous few days he discovers that everyone accords an Army Special Investigator lots of respect, he discovers he likes ordering around other officers, having a slavish assistant (Sergeant Ponsonby) and very much likes the only woman on his staff, the stunning Alice Stanhope. He finds excuses to be near her, and gives in to her requests to actually do something instead of hanging round looking decorative. Thus he lets her follow Sayed, the personable, western-educated young Egyptian who is part of their social circle, a simple request which becomes complicated when she finds herself driving out to an isolated village and then surrounded by threatening armed men… In the event it is Sayed’s home village and she is perfectly safe. Through various encounters, at work and at the various cocktails parties described in the first half of the novel, we watch her and
Ross fall in love. As the months go by he begins to use his powers to seriously track down Rommel’s spy who everyone is talking about. This eventually leads him to the Western Desert where he tracks down Percy, the German deserter who is part of Major Wallingford’s criminal gang, and beats the truth out of him, before himself being badly wounded in a German attack on the Allied base. Badly burned and half dead, Ross is recovered after the battle is over, and brought back to hospital in Cairo.

Sergeant Ponsonby – ever efficient adjutant, always ready with his disgusting tea made with cloying evaporated milk, always ready with the correct file and always shifting responsibility for dodgy tasks, missions and reports onto other units so as to keep his boss squeaky clean. He carries on being super efficient even after, right at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ross has been impersonating Cutler all along. Ponsonby manages all the paperwork so that Ross can remain free (although in the Army), assume a new identity, and start a new career out East.

The brigadier – Ross-Cutler’s superior at the Bab el-Hadid barracks. He is eccentric and unpredictable – as demonstrated in a long and very funny scene in the last third of the novel, when he prattles on about Jewish conspiracies and links it somehow to the founding of Christianity by that rascal, St Paul.

Captain Lionel Marker – Ross’s number one, the upright, punctilious officer who meets Ross at Cairo station and is taken in by him from the start, who escorts him around Cairo, introducing him to its criminal and ethnic communities, as well as to the polite society of various bars and hotels and into the elite social circle gather round Prince Piotr. When the issue of Jewish spies securing arms for the Jewish forces in Occupied Palestine rears its head, Marker points out to his boss, Ross, that he, Marker, is Jewish. This doesn’t bother Ross one way or the other, but it may explain the slight undercurrent when Marker, early on in the novel, is tasked with searching Solomon Marx’s houseboat, along with all the other houseboats moored along the Nile, for guns or other smuggled goods. At the very end of the novel, he definitely arrives to carry out another search of The City of Gold just after Solomon has left. Moreover, we know that Peggy West was married to a Jew and considers herself part Jewish. This may or may not explain the mild flirtation that Marker feels relaxed enough to begin with Peggy right at the end of the novel.

Captain Robin Darymple (page 50) – dashing public school chap who knew Wallingford at school and finds himself blackmailed, via his gambling debts, into getting involved in Wallingford’s shady schemes.

Lieutenant Commander Wallingford RNVR (page 76) Public school chap who happens to have deserted his unit and uses his public school connections (with, among others, Darymple) to maintain the fiction that he is commander of a hush-hush secret unit tasked with carrying our daring raids out behind enemy lines. Giving himself a naval rank was a smart move, since naval records are stored in Alexandria and difficult for Cairo Army intelligence to access. Wallingford is actually running a black market racket with a bunch of other deserters and Sergeant Percy, masquerading as a South African, in fact a deserter from the German Army.

Mogg and Powell, two deserters who are part of Wallingford’s gang.

Sergeant Percy is a German deserter. His unit was completely decimated in an Allied advance and so he walked East into our arms but managed to escape capture, dressing in British Army gear, pretending to be a South African and finding his way into ‘Major’ Wallingford’s criminal gang of black marketeers. He becomes an invaluable source for the location of various ammo dumps which he leads Wallingford’s gang to in the desert, which they can load up, drive back to Cairo and sell. Nonetheless, he has an uneasy relationship with Wallingford, having announced that it will soon be time for him to leave the gang, and I spent some time wondering whether this would lead to a fight, shootout or brutal stabbing, as in the early brothel scene. Instead, the entire Wallingford storyline comes to an abrupt end when they are revealed for the crooks they are in a British forward base which is then attacked by the Germans. We hear nothing more of Wallingford and can assume, as Ponsonby says in the hospital much later, that he like everyone else in the base was killed. But not before Ross, who is also there, chases Percy, captures him and beats the truth out of him about Rommel’s spy being a senior official in the US Embassy in Cairo. When the rescuing troops reach the destroyed base they find the badly injured and unconscious Ross still handcuffed to Percy, who is dead.

Lieutenant Andy Anderson (page 54) A blunt-spoken Yorkshireman who’s risen from sergeant in 12 months of hard fighting, and now commands the unit out in the desert where the novel reaches its climax: where Harry Wechsler and his gofer Chips, Jimmy Ross, and Wallingford and his black market team, all find themselves as the Germans launch an attack.

THE WOMEN

Alice Stanhope (page 46) Phenomenally posh and very attractive daughter of the woman who knows everyone, who has got her a job in the British Army investigations department, where she comes under Ross-Cutler’s authority, on the condition she doesn’t actually do any dangerous work, preferably no work at all. She chafes at these restrictions and so Ross, who is badly smitten by her beauty and grace, first makes her his personal assistant, then gives in and gives her some elementary trailing to do. A lot later, at the end of the novel, she is in agonies waiting to find out what happened to the forward unit she knows Ross was off to visit and whether he’s still alive. As soon as she knows he is, she runs off to visit him, in what promises to blossom into a wartime romance.

Peggy West (page 30) A good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse. She married a Jewish man, Karl, in the 1930s and came to Egypt looking for adventure. Karl was despatched to Iraq on a five-year contract protecting oil wells, and she hasn’t seen for 18 months. We meet her as she collects a small stipend from Solomon al-Masri, which the latter claims comes from Karl. Deighton spends a lot of time describing her background, her parents’ hopes for her, the difficulties in her married life, but she doesn’t come alive for me as a character. She becomes a sort of chaperone figure to Alice Stanhope through the middle of the book. Near the end she visits the City of Gold houseboat to find Solomon Marx badly wounded in a shootout with Mahmoud’s men. She helps him leave, during which he hands over ownership of the houseboat to her, so that she greets Captain Marker, who arrives to search the houseboat, as its new owner, with a heady sense of freedom and the strong hint that they might be about to become an item.

Karl West – A Jew who marries Peggy and then disappears off to Iraq, allegedly on a five year oil contract. Solomon al-Masri claims to receive money from Karl which he forwards to Peggy but Peggy wonders if it’s just a way of getting her to spy for Solomon. Near the end of the novel, Captain Marker’s investigations show him that Karl is in fact a crook with a long criminal record, some of it connected to the Haganah and Stern Gangs in Palestine. He also discovers that Karl is dead.

Jeannie MacGregor (page 61) One of the nurses under Peggy West’s command.

THE JEWS

Solomon al-Masri, real name Solomon Marx (page 30) Lives on a houseboat on the Nile, which he has named The City of Gold. He and his partner, Yigal, are working for Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine, sourcing information about the British, the Germans, the Arabs, where they can, and arranging the purchase and shipment of arms to the Jewish militias in Palestine. Wallingford, the black marketeer, over various scenes, tries to arrange the sale of Italian machine guns from an arms dump in the desert to Solomon. When Wallingford refuses to deliver them in person (knowing the British Army have seized them) Solomon in good faith commissions Mahmoud and his men to do it. But they are shot and eight killed by the Brits, making Mahmoud think it was a trap. Which explains why, when Solomon and Yizgal motor over to Mahmoud’s house, tucked away down Cairo’s narrow medieval streets, they are greeted very coldly and emerge from a puzzling meeting to be arrested by the British police who have been tipped off by Mahmoud. At the end of the novel Peggy West finds Mahmoud slumped in his unlit houseboat, late at night, having been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by Mahmoud’s men. A felucca of his people arrive and unload the badly wounded man who, in parting gesture, gifts Peggy the houseboat and reveals what she’s suspected – her husband is long dead. She is a free woman.

Yigal Arad (page 40) Palestinian born Jew and Solomon’s partner in their mission to get information and guns for their Jewish masters in Palestine.

THE ARABS

Mahmoud is a cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman. We seem him in league with Major’ Wallingford, lending Datymple money solely to snare him in Wallingford’s schemes. We also learn that Solomon sub-contracted collecting the Italian Beretta machine guns from the oasis to Mahmoud for an appreciable sum. What Solomon didn’t realise is that the British Army had already found and claimed the cache. Therefore when Mahmoud’s men arrive to collect it they find themselves stopped, questioned and then fired upon by the Brits. Eight men die. Which explains why he greets Solomon and Yigal very coldly when they go to exchange payment, why he tips off the British police to arrest them both and then, at the end of the novel, is responsible for an assassination attempt on Solomon.

Sayed el-Shazli (page 64) Personable young westernised Egyptian who lives in the same hotel as Prince Piotr and so has become part of his social circle. He’s a student at the American University and an Egyptian Army reserve officer, but also active in a secret organisation of Egyptian Army officers who are planning to overthrow British rule and establish King Farouk on the throne of an independent Egypt. But after the King arrogantly commands his sister to attend him at his palace for a royal rogering, the bitterly humiliated Sayed agrees to become a spy on his independence organisation for the British.

Zeinab el-Shazli (page 64) Stunningly beautiful sister of Sayed. Her main function is to be propositioned by King Farouk’s staff in a stylish nightclub and, since she can’t refuse, going off with them, much to the anger of the white ladies present.

King Farouk Nicknamed ‘Fatty Farouk’, The 22-year-old king chafes at British rule over his country, nominally a free independent nation. But meanwhile he has time and money to live a sumptuous lifestyle and, as the Zeinab storyline shows, commandeer women for his pleasure.

THE ÉMIGRÉS

Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff (page 65) Large, tall, imposing Russian émigré who rents a whole floor at the Hotel Magnifico. He was abroad when his father died and he inherited vast estates, and when the Revolution broke out and he lost them all. He claims a general’s rank on doubtful grounds, lives magnificently and is widely – and incorrectly – thought to be Rommel’s spy in the city.

Lucia Magnifico (page 50) Daughter of Signor Mario Magnifico who founded the hotel of the same name in Cairo, where Prince Piotr now occupies an entire floor.

Harry Wechsler – Gung-ho American journalist, not particularly friendly to the Brits, pointing out that the US is now funding their war effort while the Brits are managing to lose everywhere. He is shrewd enough to figure out there’s some kind of scam surrounding arms dumps in the desert, and writes a long op-ed piece which gets published in American newspapers, explaining how the Brits gratefully used Jewish intelligence resources in Palestine and the wider Middle East at the start of the war, and promised help with the creation of a Jewish homeland. Now the Brits are trying to wriggle out of their promises, with the result that the Jewish organisations are engaged in securing arms from any source possible, preparing for the upcoming war with the Arabs, and this includes using agents like Solomon to secure abandoned weaponry. He’s following up on this story at a forward unit in the desert which comes under German attack. Leading a convoy of armoured cars and lorries, at the wheel of his own V 8-powered lorry, Wechsler runs over a German mine. Chips is killed instantly and Wechsler loses his legs and is impaled by various bits of the engine. He survives long enough to experience unbearable pain, before being given an overdose of morphine by the unit’s unqualified medical officer.

Chips O’Riley – Irish soldier, journalist who’s found a niche as a fixer and gofer and attaches himself to Wechsler. Has some witty repartee before being killed instantly in the lorry blown up by a mine.


Credit

City of Gold published by Pluriform Publishing in 1992. All page references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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