Archive for the 'George Maniakes' Category

What happened to the Bulgar Slayer’s novel?

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?

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Who was George Maniaces?

Maniaces attacking the Arabs at Telouch

Like Athena bursting full grown from the brow of Zeus, George Maniaces- a giant ‘nearly ten feet tall with a voice like thunder’- first appears in the year 1030, aged 33.

Virtually nothing is known about his youth, but he was a wealthy land-owner in what is today modern Turkey, and was therefore probably educated in Constantinople.  By 1030 he had risen to the rank of strategos or military governor of Telouch, a town just to the north of Aleppo.  This was a relatively unimportant position since the province was the smallest on the Upper Euphrates, but it was a point of entry for Muslims raiding from Syria.  In 1030 the Emperor Romanus III tried to put a stop to the raids, but was defeated near Telouch.  The victorious Muslims claimed to have captured the Emperor and ordered Maniaces to surrender the city.  He pretended to agree, sending them a generous portion of food and wine as a sign of his good intentions.  But this was merely a ruse.  He waited till the Muslims had indulged themselves, and then attacked when they were sleeping off the effects of the wine.  All of the loot lost in the previous battle was recovered along with a sizable amount of Arab treasure (280 supply camels were captured).  The ears and noses of the enemy dead were cut off and Maniaces immediately rode to the imperial camp where- in a brilliant PR move- he dumped the grisly trophies out in front of Romanus III.

He was promoted on the spot (as the new strategos of all the cities of the Euphrates), and began a grand offensive against the Muslim emirates of Syria.  He quickly displayed the gifts which would make him famous.  The major city of Edessa (modern Urfa) was attacked, and when it put up a stiff resistance, Maniaces bribed its governor into surrendering.  A relieving  Muslim army failed to evict him and three years later Maniaces was still able to send its annual tax of 50 pounds of gold to Romanus III.

While Maniaces was busy in the east, Italy was slipping out of the empire’s control.  Sicilian Arabs invaded Calabria in 1032 and by 1037 managed to kill the imperial governor of Italy.  Romanus III’s successor Michael IV ordered Maniaces to stabilize the situation and drive the Muslims from Sicily.  Maniaces brought a formidable mercenary army which included the Viking hero Harald Hardrada and the Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm (whose brothers Guiscard and Roger would later conquer the island and found the Norman Kingdom of Sicily).  He captured both Messina and Syracuse and was on the verge of restoring Sicily to Byzantium, but the temperamental aspects of his genius asserted themselves.  He managed to offend most of his Lombard and Norman mercenaries by skimping on their share of the loot, and -far more seriously- he publicly humiliated his admiral who happened to be the brother-in-law of the most powerful member of the imperial court.  In 1041 he was recalled on the charge of treason, but was saved by the death of the Emperor and the fact that all the gains in Sicily evaporated without him.

Unfortunately for Maniaces, he had powerful enemies.  Though he was quickly sent back to Italy- and promoted to catepan (governor) of all Italy- the imperial court was now against him.  This was mostly due an old rival- Romanus Sclerus- who owned several estates touching Maniaces’ property in Anatolia. There was no love lost between the two men (they had physically assaulted each other during a squabble over land) and Romanus was determined to undercut the general at every opportunity.  While Maniaces was away, Romanus seduced his wife and then ransacked his house, making no attempt to conceal his actions.  He then moved to the capital where he used his influence (his sister was the emperor’s mistress) to turn the court against Maniaces.  The tactic worked.  The emperor relieved Maniaces of command, and- in a move of stunning stupidity- chose Romanus Sclerus as the messenger to inform Maniaces of the development.

Any gleeful excitement Sclerus had at his triumph was short-lived.  Maniaces reacted to the demand to turn over his forces by sealing Romanus’ eyes, ears, nose, and mouth shut with dung and then slowly torturing him to death.  He then declared himself emperor and marched on Constantinople.  In 1043 he reached Thessaloniki where he easily defeated the terrified imperial forces.  Unfortunately for his adherents, however, the victory was a pyrrhic one.  During the fighting he was struck with a chance blow and killed.  With him died Byzantium’s ablest general and one of its most enigmatic figures- along with any chance for the empire to hold on to Italy.

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Did a descendant of Bardas Sclerus bring down Maniakes?

Listener Shane asks if Romanus Sclerus- the man who brought down George Maniakes- was related to the Bardas Sclerus who tried to seize the throne from Basil II.

Romanus was indeed the great-grandson of the general Bardas.  The Sclerus family was an old aristocratic one that claimed dynastic ties to Basil I, and was constantly trying to inch closer to the throne.  The real ambitious one in the family- and arguably the most successful- was Romanus’ sister Maria.  She fell in love with Constantine Monomachus, an up and coming nobleman who was on a very short list to marry the reigning empress Zoë.  When Constantine was outmaneuvered and banished to the island of Lesbos, Maria followed, trusting that fate would offer them a second chance at the throne.  Seven years later the political winds had changed and Zoë summoned Constantine to the capital to become her husband.  At their very first meeting together, Constantine brazenly demanded that the empress should bring Maria to Constantinople- and give her suitable titles as well.  Zoë, now 64 and interested only in the trappings of power, philosophically agreed.  Maria was brought to the capital with great pomp and installed into the imperial palace next to Constantine.  Now, if Zoë wanted to see her husband, she had to go through the awkward process of clearing it with Maria first.

It was at this point- with nary an objection from the compliant empress- that the two lovers realized they could get away with virtually anything.  Why should Maria be content with the designation of ‘official mistress’?  She was after all a member of an old and dignified family.  Constantine drew up a document officially giving her the title ‘Augusta’, Zoë obligingly signed it, and the entire Senate was called in to ratify it.  There were now three empresses (Zoë’s sister was also an empress) and a total of four heads of state.  Oddly enough, Zoë doesn’t appear to have minded the bizarre arrangement.  As long as she had access to the treasury Constantine could do as he liked.

The imperial ménage a trios may have been ok with the court, but it nearly got Constantine lynched.  The population of Constantinople was scandalized and tried to rush the emperor as he was mounting his horse at the imperial gates.  Screaming that they didn’t want Maria for empress- only a pure Macedonian- they overpowered the guards, and would have killed Constantine if not for the sudden appearance of Zoë gesticulating wildly from a balcony.  From then on Constantine only appeared in public with Zoë safely at his side- and Maria following a distance behind.  He probably still intended to somehow make her the senior empress, and given enough time perhaps he could have, but she died suddenly in 1045.  A decade later Constantine expired as well, and in a final posthumous slap at Zoë, chose to have himself interred next to his beloved Maria.  The old rebel Bardas Sclerus would have been pleased.

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