What happened to the Bulgar Slayer’s novel?

Mar 28 2013

Calling all writers of historical fiction…

The other day I dusted off my copy of Colleen McCullough’s magnificent The First Man in Rome, a novel of historical fiction about Julius Caesar’s rise to power.  That got me thinking- ‘considering that it lasted for a thousand years longer, where’s the historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire?’  Currently there isn’t a lot to choose from.  The best is Harry Turtledove’s (writing under the pseudonym Turteltaub) Justinian, a fictionalized account of Justinian II’s vengeful return to power.  Turtledove, who has a PHD in Byzantine studies, certainly picked an interesting subject- the late 7th century emperor was overthrown, had his nose cut off and was exiled to a distant part of the Black Sea.  Undeterred, he started off the 8th century by having an artificial nose made of gold, escaped his captors, and snuck back into Constantinople through an unguarded Aqueduct to claim the throne again.

Aside from a young adult fiction about Anna Comnena, the only other author currently fighting the good fight is George Leonardos who in 2004 started a series about the final dynasty of Byzantium.  That’s pretty slim pickings.  So let me offer some suggestions to anyone looking for a good story to write down.

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  His nickname was ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’, he made Byzantium the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean, and he won nearly every battle he fought.  And then he fell in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman who betrayed him, and he lost it all.  Modern connection: relatives of his still live in Greece where multiple streets and at least one battleship are named in his honor.

General George Maniaches.  This towering 11th century general was a throwback to the glory days of Byzantium.  He commanded an army which included the legendary Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm and the Viking beserker Harald Hardrada (who would later invade England in 1066 and bring to a close the age of Viking invasions).  The only thing he couldn’t control was his temper- when a rival seduced his wife and then got him fired, he had the man suffocated by smearing dung in his mouth, ears, and eyes; he then routed the imperial army but was killed in a fluke accident before he reached Constantinople.  His death sealed the decline of Byzantine power in Italy.  Modern connection: Sicily has several fortresses and a town named after him.

Praetorian Prefect Anthemius.  This well-connected 3rd century Consul served two playboy emperors but was the real power behind the throne.  Dedicated and hard working, he had to face the terrible Attila the Hun, and probably saved the east by deflecting him toward Rome.  Modern connection: The impressive walls he built (the so-called ‘Theodosian Land Walls’) are the most visible secular reminders of Constantinople at the height of its power, and are rightly regarded as the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built.  Though his ultimate fate is unknown, (sic transit gloria) for his efforts Anthemius has been called the ‘second founder of Constantinople’.

Princess Melissena.  Riches to Rags… to riches?  This mid-9th century princess was unbelievably well-connected, both to the hoi polloi of Byzantium and to foreign rulers like the Han Dynasty of China.  In her time she was the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.  Unfortunately for her, it all came crashing down.  Her grandfather abdicated, her father was castrated, and she was married off to a Viking member of the imperial guard.  She travelled throughout western Europe on her way to her husband’s home, making a big impression especially in the courts of France.  Modern Connection: She is possibly the inspiration for the Starbucks logo (http://bit.ly/db2pPa)

The list could go on for quite some time: Anthemius the architect of the Hagia Sophia, Basil the Macedonian- the ultimate rags to riches story, Empress Theophano- the femme fatale of Nicephorus Phocas, etc.  The beauty of all of these is that they lived during the Byzantine ‘dark age’ which means it would be easy to remain faithful to the source material while having plenty of room to maneuver.  Best of all, the main story arc is already written- all you have to do is provide the details.  Anyone out there brave enough to take up the gauntlet?

14 responses so far

  1. Hello Lars.
    Never heard about story of Melissena before,thanks.I also know of some books dealing with real Byzantium or with its fantasy fictionalized versions.Of those historical for example:Last Viking by Poul Anderson-a trilogy About Hardrada with Georgios maniakes as one of the characters(Byzantium only featured in the first book), and Byzantium by Michael Ennis, which chronicles Harald’s career in the Byzantine Empire.
    And on your final question:I dare to do it in the near future at the form of comics series as historicaly accurate as possible.I Am planning to chronicle all years of Basil II.from his born(with his mother Theophano having main role in the first albums)up to his death.

    Currently I’m only working on preliminary panels and script and also on how my characters will look like,like for example this:
    http://amelianvs.deviantart.com/art/Characters-Concept-327928694?q=gallery%3Aamelianvs%2F42116496&qo=6
    or this:http://amelianvs.deviantart.com/art/Basileios-Porphyrogennetos-aka-the-Bulgar-slayer-339704458

    I’ve always felt that Basil’s life is worthy of some series with many great historical characters easily recognizable around him and in fact I believe the story of his life have everything which make todays shows very successful and popular in great number-violance-intrigues-sex and an epic dimensions.

    best regards 🙂

  2. I read the MCCollough novels as well but Rome land holding by the end of 2nd BCE was greater than Constantinople in its final 100 years or so . I read that only John Zonaras was the only Byzantine historian to write about the Roman Republican Period that much. Procopius and John Lydus were also more familar with Roman history and things during Republican times. Anyway, Justinian and Theodora have been done enough the most historical would be the Harold Lamb novel of the 1950’s Theodora and the drama of the emperor Justinian which uses material from historian J Bury. A fun is the alternative is Sailing to Sartarium were the alternative John of Cappidocia kills the alterantive Justinian Recent heavily historical novel is Justinian the Sleepless one, never ordered the book since you can just go out and buy it but read Chaper one that has Justinian as an infant.

  3. I mean you can’t just go out and buy it at a store.

  4. Anyways, maybe a lot of Byzantine rulers and historical probably are written in Greek or Russian novels. As forAnthemius I can’t think of the playboy emperors, Arcadius, Theodosius the second, Marcian Valentinian the third was a playboy in the west. Theodosius the second was accuse with sex with minor boys.

  5. General George Maniaches. This towering 11th century general was a throwback to the glory days of Byzantium. He commanded an army which included the legendary Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm and the Viking beserker Harald Hardrada (who would later invade England in 1066 and bring to a close the age of Viking invasions). The only thing he couldn’t control was his temper- when a rival seduced his wife and then got him fired, he had the man suffocated by smearing dung in his mouth, ears, and eyes; he then routed the imperial army but was killed in a fluke accident before he reached Constantinople. His death sealed the decline of Byzantine power in Italy. Modern connection: Sicily has several fortresses and a town named after him Sounds like a good novel.

  6. Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. His nickname was ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’, he made Byzantium the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean, and he won nearly every battle he fought. And then he fell in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman who betrayed him, and he lost it all. Modern connection: relatives of his still live in Greece where multiple streets and at least one battleship are named in his honor. Great, relatives sill alive, a good story as well. I read Phocas was kind of a conservative character and very ascetic.

  7. Though it could be deemed Roman, depending on your viewpoint, Gore Vidal wrote the best book I’ve read re a Byzantine emperor: Julian. Robert Graves also wrote a novel titled Belisaurius, though I have not read that one.

  8. Hello Mr. Bronworth,

    I’m from Poland, I’m very interested in Byzantium history and I’ve recently found your podcasts on iTunes. Great work, fluid narrative and enthusiasm which allowed me to travel to these times and see the Roman emperors as they were, living beings, not only biographies in a classbook. So I would like to thank you for this unique experience which is even more interesting since American history podcasts or TV shows are in general, well, slighlty overdramatized and without subtlety. Your work is especially worth attention in this context. I wish you good luck and much more interesting stories to tell!

    Take care!

  9. Thanks Tagmata- high praise indeed.
    -Lars

  10. Would Count Belisarius by Robert Graves count?

  11. And there is Mika Waltari’s novel “Johannes Angelos” aka “The Dark Angel” about the fall of Constantinople.

  12. More than a decade ago I remember reading a novel centered on the life of Theophano(aka Anastasia) the angelically beautiful yet devilishly ambitious daughter of a lowly Spartan innkeeper, who gets picked by the emperor’s son(Romanos I think?) to become his wife and future Augusta(queen). After betraying every man who ever loved her(including Nikephoros Phokas) she is eventually betrayed by the only man she ever truly fell in love with(John Tsimiskes with whom she had conspired to dispose Nikephoros).

    Nikephoros is of course a major character and John also has a prominent role in the novel while baby Basil and his brother are also mentioned in some scenes with their mother if I remember correctly. The siege of Chandax(Crete) features prominently as do some other events of Nikephoros campaigns against the Saracens in the eastern Mediterranean.

    It’s been a very long time since I read it but I remember it being quite interesting and immersive full with muslim bad-guys, atmospheric siege warfare, prisoners of war/slaves, palace guards, court eunuchs, army officers, secret lovers and of course a super-manipulative femme fatale who ends up being a rather sympathetic anti-heroine despite murdering her father-in-law and a couple of her husbands as she does whatever she thinks necessary to keep her children safe. The novel was in Greek however. I don’t think it very likely that an English translation might exist. Nevertheless I’ve also found that there’s an English-language novel revolving around the same events by Frederic Harrison but I haven’t had the chance to read that one.

  13. There are a couple good authors you missed: Gordon Doherty and Achilleas Mavrellis both write Byzantine historical fiction and do it well! Doherty has two series of books on the subject (“Legionary” is late Roman, in the eastern half of the Empire and “Strategos” in pure Byzantine. I highly recommend both. They have both, like you, been recognized by Byzantium Novum for their authorship.

  14. Vincent O'Reilly

    You missed my two novels: Count No Man Happy, A Byzantine Fantasy about the unhappy life and blinding by his mom of Constantine VI, and Antonina, A Byzantine Slut which is actually a fictionalized defense of the much maligned wife of Belisarius. There is also an English translation of Penelope Delta’s In The Heroic Age of Basil II.
    Vincent O’Reilly, aka Paul Kastenellos

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