Richard Blake: “Why Byzantium?”
As the author of six novels set in seventh century Byzantium, I’m often asked: Why choose that period? There’s always been strong interest within the historical fiction community in Classical Greece, and in Rome a century either side of the birth of Christ, and the western Dark Ages. With very few exceptions – Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, for example, or Cecelia Holland’s Belt of Gold – Byzantium in any period of its long history is a neglected area. Why, then, did I choose it?
The short answer is that I wanted to be different. I won’t say that there are too many novels set in the other periods mentioned above. There is, even so, a very large number of them. If there is always a market for them, standing out from the crowd requires greater ability than I at first thought I had. And so I began Conspiracies of Rome (2008) I ran at once into difficulties I hadn’t considered, and that could have been shuffled past had I decided on a thriller about the plot to kill Julius Caesar. Solving these difficulties put me through a second education as a writer, and may even have shown that I do possess certain abilities. Before elaborating on this point, however, let me give a longer answer to my question: Why choose Byzantium?
Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.
Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.
Indeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals – and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect. As said, there are few novels set in Constantinople after about the year 600. I am not aware of a single British or American film set there.
I discovered Byzantium when I was fourteen. I was already six years into what has been a lifelong obsession with the ancient world. I had devoured everything I could find and understand about the Greeks between Solon and Alexander the Great, and about the Romans till the murder of Domitian. I was teaching myself Latin, and thinking about Greek. Then, one happy afternoon in my local library, I came across Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I could, and one day will, write an essay about the literary and philosophical debt I owe him. For the moment, it’s enough to say that he led me straight into the so far unexplored history of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. And, though frequently gloomy, what a magnificent history that is. When I studied History at university, I chose every course option that kept me there. Since then, sometimes for years on end, I’ve buried myself in the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire. Hardly surprising that, when I turned to historical fiction, my first and only choice should be Byzantium.
Of course, I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.
Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces – these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey – held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.
One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.
The Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.
This is an inspiring story – as inspiring as the resistance put up by the Greek city states a thousand years before to Darius and Xerxes. Why write yet another series of novels about the Persian or Punic wars, when a lifetime of research had given me all this as my background? You can ask again: Why Byzantium? My answer is: What else but Byzantium?
And so I’ve written six novels set in the seventh century, mostly within the great cities of the Byzantine Empire. The background in each is the wavering but increasingly successful struggle to break free of the Roman heritage. Conspiracies of Rome (2008) is a kind of prelude. It explains how Aelric, the hero of the entire series – young and beautiful and clever, at least two of which things I’m not – is kicked out of Anglo-Saxon England, and comes to Rome to try his luck. At once, he trips head first into the snake pit of Imperial politics, and doesn’t climb out again until the body count runs into dozens. In Terror of Constantinople (2009), he’s tricked into a mission to Constantinople, where we see the old order of things falling apart in a reign of terror. In Blood of Alexandria (2010), he’s come up in the world, and is in Egypt as the Emperor’s legate, sent there to impose a plan of land reform – which is, you can be sure, entirely his idea. Faced with a useless Viceroy, an obstructive landed interest, and an intrigue featuring the first chamber pot of Jesus Christ and the mummy of Alexander the Great, everything goes tits up, and there’s a climax in an underground complex near to the Great Pyramid.
The next two novels in the series are an apparent digression from the overall scheme. In Sword of Damascus (2011), a very aged Aelric is kidnapped from his place of refuge and retirement in the North of England and carted off to the heart of the Islamic Caliphate. Ghosts of Athens (2012) returns us to the immediate aftermath of Aelric’s less than triumphant efforts in Egypt. I did intend this to be a tightly-constructed thriller set in a horribly broken down Athens. It turned instead into a gothic horror novel – quite a good one, I think; a surprise for the reader, even so.
In Curse of Babylon (2013), I return to Imperial high politics, complete with a Persian Great King who is described by one of the reviewers as “possibly the most sadistic fictional bad guy I’ve ever encountered.” Because I don’t think I shall write any more in the series, I made Curse of Babylon the most expansive and spectacular of the whole set. It has kidnaps and daring escapes, blood and sex everywhere, acrobatic fights that owe much to Hollywood at its best, and a gigantic battle at the climax.
I suppose there is room for another three or even six. But I’ll not be thinking about that this year, or next year, or perhaps the year after that. My latest novel, The Break (2014) – written under another name – is post-apocalyptic science fiction. This will be followed by a horror novel set in York.
I haven’t bothered with detailed outlines of the six Byzantine novels. What I will say, however, is that I’ve worked very hard not to make any of them into a factual narrative enlivened by a bit of kissing and a few sword fights. I greatly admired Jean Plaidy as a boy, and she taught me as much as I still know about France during the Wars of Religion. But I don’t regard her as a model for writing historical fiction. So far as we can know or reconstruct them, the facts must always be respected. Indeed, I would say that anyone who wants a reliable introduction to the world of seventh century Byzantium could do worse than start with my novels. Even so, these are novels, and they must stand or fall as entertainment. The plots have to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages. The characters have to live and breathe. Their language and actions need to be credible.
Rather than argue that this is what I’ve achieved, let me quote from one of the reviews. According to The Morning Star, I give readers “a near-perfect blend of historical detail and atmosphere with the plot of a conspiracy thriller, vivid characters, high philosophy and vulgar comedy.” Another reviewer has called me “the Ken Russell of historical fiction.” I don’t think this was meant to be a compliment, but I’ll take it as one.
I come now to the difficulty I mentioned in my second paragraph. If you want to write a novel about the plot to kill Caesar, you can leave your readers to supply much of the background. From Shakespeare to Rex Warner and beyond, the reading and the viewing public know roughly what is going on. Everyone likely to buy such a novel knows that Rome had expanded from a city state to an empire, and that its constitution had broken down in the process. Everyone knows that Caesar was ruling as a military dictator, and that this was resented by much of the senatorial aristocracy. Everyone knows who Cicero was, and Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. If you want to write about this, you can largely get on with the plot. You may need to go into a few details about the theoretical legality of Caesar’s power, or the oddities of the Roman electoral system. But much of the job has already been done for you.
You can’t do this with seventh century Byzantium. The reading public can’t be expected to know much at all. You have a continuing Roman Empire after Rome itself has fallen. Paganism is out. Instead, you have a legally established Christian Faith, with ranting clerics whose differing views of the Nature of Christ are turning the Empire into a patchwork of mutually-hostile classes and nationalities. You have a crumbling tax base and an omnipresent threat on the borders with Persia. Later, you have militant Islam. Because readers can’t be expected to know this, you have to tell them.
In Claudius the God, Robert Graves explains the obscure facts of Roman policy in the East with what amounts to a long essay. It’s a good essay. But you can’t do this nowadays. Fashions have changed. Readers are less patient. They want a story to keep moving. You need to integrate your background into the action and dialogue.
I didn’t get this entirely right in Conspiracies of Rome. There’s an authorial explanation at the start of the second section of the novel. This works, but displeased my editor at Hodder & Stoughton. So I worked like a slave on Terror of Constantinople and the other four novels to give my editor exactly what she wanted. In Terror, I allowed myself one explanation of background, but put this into a dialogue between Aelric and a drunken slave who needs to be told about the civil war between Phocas and Heraclius to make sense of a failed murder attempt. In Sword of Damascus, old Aelric is allowed to turn garrulous once or twice when the fourteen year-old English boy he has with him asks questions about the world they’ve entered. On the whole, though, I’m proud of how I eventually got past what seemed an insuperable barrier to writing popular historical fiction set in a fairly unknown period.
It’s easier to show than to describe. But how you do it is a matter of casual asides and revealed assumptions. You pick up what is happening in much the same way as you might from an overheard conversation. To give one example from an alternative history novel I wrote a few years ago, something is described as being “about the same size as a self-charging television battery.” You get the size of the object described from the context. The purpose of the comparison is to tell the reader something more about the technology available. Continue with this throughout the whole course of a novel, and you explain your background without slowing the pace.
But let me give a longer example of how I do this. Here is a passage from Chapter 8 of Curse of Babylon. Aelric is walking through Constantinople in a filthy mood. He’s late for a meeting, and has just had to listen to a couple of hired libellers denouncing him in the street.
Take this as an example from Curse of Babylon:
But all that could wait. Lucas was waiting outside the walls, and with evidence that might let me save still more of the taxpayers’ money on salaries and pensions. I prepared to hurry down into Imperial Square.
‘Might Your Honour be a gambling man?’ someone asked in the wheedling tone of the poor. I paid no attention and looked up at the sky – not a cloud in sight, but the gathering shift to a northern wind would soon justify my blue woollen cloak. ‘Go on, Sir – I can see it’s your lucky day!’ I looked round at someone with the thin and wiry build of the working lower classes. He looked under the brim of my hat and laughed. ‘For you, Sir, I’ll lay special odds,’ he said. ‘You drop any coin you like in that bowl down there.’ I didn’t follow his pointed finger. I’d already seen the disused fountain thirty feet below in Imperial Square. He put his face into a snarling grin. ‘Even a gold coin you can drop, Sir. The ten foot of green slime don’t count for nothing with my boy. He’ll jump right off this wall beside you, and get it out for you.’
I was about to tell him to bugger off and die, when I looked at the naked boy who’d come out from behind a column. I felt a sudden stirring of lust. Like all the City’s lower class, he was a touch undersized and there was a slight lack of harmony in the proportion of his legs to his body. For all this, his tanned skin was rather fetching. Give him a bath and…
Oh dear! He’d no sooner got me thinking of how much to offer, when he swept the hair from his eyes and parted very full lips to show two rows of rotten teeth. The front ones were entirely gone. The others were blackened stumps. Such a shame! Such a waste! So little beauty there was already in this world – and why did so much of that have to be spoiled? I could have thrashed the boy’s owner for not making him clean every day with a chewing stick. I wrinkled my nose and stood up.
His owner hadn’t noticed. ‘Oh, Sir, Sir!’ he cried, getting directly in my way and waving his arms to stop me. ‘Sir, the deal is this. You throw in a coin. If the boy gets it out, you pay me five times your coin. If he can’t find it, I pay you five times. If he breaks his neck or drowns, I pay you ten times.’ He laughed and pointed at the boy again. I didn’t look, but wondered if I might make an exception. Bad teeth are bad teeth – but the rest of him was pushing towards excellent.
But I shook my head. I could fuck anything I wanted later in the day. Until then, duty was calling me again. Trying not to show I was running away, I hurried down the steps.
I think this does the job. It sounds natural. The incident isn’t a diversion from the plot: the boy comes in handy later on. It also tells a lot about the social background – sexual assumptions, the condition of slaves, modes of tooth cleaning, a general air of decadence – and it does so without beating the reader over the head.
This quote being given, I should take the chance to continue discussing it. First the language. In these novels, I don’t face the same problems as I might with a novel set in England or America before about 1900. Because the pretence here is that Aelric is writing his memoirs in Greek, I can give a translation into reasonably idiomatic English – reasonably idiomatic, that is, because a faint Augustanism creates a sense of distance. No one has complained about the faint echoes of Gibbon or Congreve. But there have been complaints about the swearing. One of the American reviewers even says that the books should be R-rated for all the rude words in them. My answer is that this is how people have always spoken. Though heroic and often noble, Aelric is a cynical opportunist. He is always eager to think the worst of people, and to write about them in matching terms.
The reviewer also complained about the extreme and graphic violence. If I never trouble the reader with graphic descriptions of the sexual act – like most other people, I’m useless at writing porn, and there’s tons of it nowadays on the Internet to suit every taste – my novels are drenched in violence. Another American reviewer said that the torture chamber passages in Blood of Alexandria made him feel unwell for several days. My answer again is that this is how it was, and still is. No government has ever lasted without at least the threat of the executioner and the torture chamber. I see no point in hiding the disgusting means by which power is generally got and maintained.
This has turned out to be a somewhat longer advertisement for my novels than I intended, or was asked, to write. So I’ll conclude by saying that, if you like the sound of them, please consider buying my novels. I think they’re rather good. More to the point, so do the reviewers. You should probably begin at the beginning with Conspiracies of Rome, though Sword of Damascus is my own favourite.
All else aside, they make ideal presents for those hard-to-please loved ones.