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Richard Fidler blends the historical and contemporary in his new book, Ghost Empire

A 14-year-old boy could do worse than have a history buff for a father, especially one anxious to mark his son's transition from boyhood.

Broadcaster Richard Fidler was beset with confusion when his son Joe turned 14. It seemed an important age, but one that carried no official marker – not in our culture, anyway.

"He's a lovely kid, and I thought, there's no coming-of-age ritual for 14-year-olds amongst Anglo-Irish Australians," he says.

"We don't have a bar mitzvah, we don't take them into the desert and circumcise them… I wanted to do something with him that suited both our temperaments."

Luckily, Joe was an inquisitive kid, one who willingly indulged his father's long-time passion for history. Fidler studied history at the Australian National University in the 1980s, and has continued to read it all his life. In fact, it was during his years touring as part of the comedy trio the Doug Anthony Allstars in the 1980s and 90s that Fidler read most.

"I was always in a tour van or on a plane, and reading, reading, reading," he says.

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"It was almost like my second degree, in a way, all the reading I did. A lot of that life is just sitting around in transit doing things and you just read and read, and this was the time before we had screens to distract us."

Cut to the modern day, and young Joe is a willing beneficiary of all this efficient knowledge-gathering.

"[Joe] had this lovely willingness to understand where his life fits into the great, vast stream of events, how he ended up in the present day, and I had that too when I was a kid," Fidler says.

"I always wanted to know, how did I get here? What came before me, why is the world like it is, what's the great stream of events that my tiny life is part of? And he is just the same."

It was on one of their regular long walks, during which Joe would pick his father's brain for historical facts, that Fidler realised there was a gap in his knowledge when it came to Roman history, especially Byzantium and the eastern Roman empire.

"Like a lot of people, it's kind of a great, big missing spot in my knowledge of history, and it has been overlooked," he says.

"[I] went into the history of the eastern Roman Empire and followed it all the way through to the proper fall of the Roman Empire, which happened in 1453 in modern-day Istanbul, when the city of Constantinople as it then was fell to the guns of this vast Turkish army. It's a 1100-year history and I wanted to go and see it for myself."

So, to mark Joe's segue from child to real-deal adolescent in 2014, the two embarked on a journey to Rome and Istanbul, "to see the beginnings and ends of the Roman Empire". 

And what a trip it was; Fidler turned the journey of discovery into a book, Ghost Empire, an interweaving of the fascinating tales from the Byzantine Empire and a modern-day father's relationship with his son. In many ways, the narrative resembles one of the long-form radio interviews that have made Fidler's name in the radio world. Conversations has, in its 11-year run, featured interviews with both the famous and non-famous – all with a story to tell that Fidler teases out live over a one-hour slot.

"A large part of my show is I sort of let stories come in and inhabit that hour of radio, and I suppose that is what I've tried to do here, is let the stories come up to the surface of Constantinople and then put them down on the page," he says.

And, fuelled by Fidler's natural enthusiasm, the book almost wrote itself; all the things they'd learned from books and podcasts were suddenly made real, in a city filled with remnants of a forgotten empire. It's a period of history Fidler says is misunderstood by the average, intelligent history enthusiast – the period from the early 4th century AD, when Constantine the Great revived the city after the fall of Rome.

"This empire keeps rolling along, and it's been forgotten, and intelligent people don't know about it because they're not taught about it, it doesn't fit on the scheme of things," he says.

"We grow up with this idea that civilisation begins in Mesopotamia, and then it keeps going west, it goes from there to Egypt and then it goes from there to ancient Greece and then to ancient Rome, and then in Middle Ages and the renaissance. It goes to France and Germany and Italy, then it keeps going west to the British Empire and then United States and it ends up in California where it dies, essentially. That's the story of western civilisation. But it's completely wrong!"

We all learn about the so-called Dark Ages, he says, but the traditional historical trajectory focuses only on western Europe.

"This is the story I wanted to tell Joe, because… Constantinople was the most beautiful and greatest city in the world at one point. A thousand years ago, it was this giant metropolis, the biggest city in Europe, at a time when London and Paris were these little outposts with 10,000 people," he says.

"It was so beautiful as a city, so beautiful people from Venice or Russia would go there and they would write accounts of it, they literally couldn't believe their eyes….They see the white marble walls, the spires, the golden domes, the gigantic buildings, the beautiful sea air, the sparkling water, and they're just dazzled."

Fidler and Joe were, like everyone before them, just as dazzled, but it was the crumbling walls and bricked up marble gates that fascinated them. In the book, Fidler evokes the clash of civilisations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity and the knock-on effects throughout civilisation when Constantinople fell and became Istanbul. But he tells them in the context of sharing his discoveries with his son – a poignant chapter of family life.

Ghost Empire, by Richard Fidler, is published by ABC Books. Fidler will be speaking about the book at ANU on July 29. Visit anu.edu.au/events for more information.