Book Review by Marian Halcombe
The Terror of Constantinople
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2009, 421pp, £19.99 (hb)
For anyone who enjoyed Richard Blake’s first novel, Conspiracies of Rome, this is that very rare treat – a sequel that is better. Though the plot is considerably more elaborate, the narrative flow is smoother. There is a larger cast of characters, and a greater variety of places. The novel is also considerably longer.
The Novel Plot
The action of this novel takes place in Rome during the late spring of 610AD and in Constantinople during the summer and autumn of the same year. Aelric, an Englishman of somewhat dubious character, is in Rome to enrich and enjoy himself, and to continue his self-chosen project of transmitting as much ancient learning as he can rescue from the crumbling centre of ancient civilisation to what he considers the safer haven of the English monasteries and schools. He is tricked into a mission to Constantinople by the Dispensator, who is effective head of the Roman Catholic Church, the purpose of which is to obtain a formal grant from the Emperor to the Pope of the title of Universal Bishop. This is needed if the Church is to enforce its claim to actual leadership of the other churches in the post-imperial West.
Once in Constantinople, he finds himself privileged but also trapped – trapped in a diplomatic game played far above his head. Why has the Pope’s official representative in the City withdrawn himself in protest at his arrival? Why are the heads of the Imperial Government so keen to give him what he wants and send him on his way? Why are the supporters of the rebel Heraclius trying to murder him? Or are they trying to protect him? Why are the Church authorities in Rome using every means at their command to keep him in Constantinople?
As said, the plot is elaborate, but every one of these questions – plus many others – is answered before a most satisfactory end. And on our way to that end, we proceed through drug abuse, flagellation, depilation, disputes over the nature of Christ, a barbarian raid, chariot races, public executions, and a civil war fought out in the streets of Constantinople.
The Singularity of Period
One of the singularities of Mr Blake’s historical fiction is his choice of period. I cannot think of anyone else presently writing who deals with the early seventh century. Yet while this makes him almost unique, it can also present difficulties to any reader who has not read Gibbon or studied Byzantine history. Set a novel in Greece between the death of Pisistratus and the death of Alexander, or in Rome between the dictatorship of Sulla and the death of Nero, and most readers will already know the background of events and actors and their general significance. There are popular histories and films and television serials. There is an immense body of pre-existing fictional literature – Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Mika Waltari, Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, and many, many others.
Mr Blake’s choice of period deprives him of these benefits. In the early seventh century, Rome had fallen and was become a crumbling, depopulated slum. But, its capital transferred to Constantinople, the Roman Empire continued unbroken. The men of this Empire could look back on over a thousand years of cultural continuity. There had been few losses of ancient literature. Ancient learning was kept up almost as well as in earlier periods. Political forms and general assumptions of life had developed as naturally from those of classical antiquity as England in 1910 was a natural development from the England of 1710.
Yet all this had been joined by Christianity. This was not by then a new or revolutionary faith. It had been established nearly three centuries earlier. It was fully integrated into the life of the Empire.
What we have, then, is a world in which there is an Emperor, but also a Pope; in which there are Senators, but also Bishops; where men memorise Homer and struggle to write like Thucydides, but also confess their sins and are ready to kill over matters of Church doctrine and religious authority. Looking back, we can see that the world of antiquity was coming to an end, and that another, from which our own takes its intellectual and institutional origin, was beginning. But for the men of the time, there was no perceived distinction between classical and mediaeval elements in their civilisation. They were elements in what had for many centuries appeared to be a stable equilibrium.
The Imperial Politics of 610
These are the generalities of the world in which Mr Blake sets his novels. Let us now proceed to the specifics that underlie this novel.
610 may be taken as the single most important year in the transition of the Eastern Empire from a continuation of the Roman State to the Byzantine State. In 602, there had been the first unconstitutional seizure of power since before the establishment of Christianity as the official faith of the Empire. When he executed Maurice and his family, Phocas was breaking chains of continuity that reached back to Diocletian in 284.
He was enabled to do this by a set of problems that had strained and broken the old methods of government and diplomacy. The source of these problems was the collapse of population that had been caused by the great epidemics of the 540s. This had reduced the number of taxpayers and potential soldiers. It had also destabilised the Egyptian and Syrian provinces by destroying the Greek-speaking ruling classes in the cities that had kept a Greek and then Roman domination here for a thousand years. The Monophysite heresy was important in itself. It was also an emblem of national differences and of a growing rejection by the subject peoples of the old order.
Phocas had proved unable to deal with these problems, and had made them significantly worse. He had given the Persians – the other great power of the age – an excuse to invade the Empire as guarantors of the old order. This placed an additional strain on Imperial resources, which were already fully committed to defending the Danubian provinces from barbarian attack. Even had Phocas been more competent, these problems would have resulted in crisis. As it was, Phocas found himself on the losing side in two wars on different fronts. His response was to impose a terror on the Empire – to maintain his rule and to extract more taxes.
In 609, the Governor (Exarch) of Africa had revolted and sent his son, Heraclius, to replace Phocas.
This is the historical background. The novel makes use of this by pretending what is likely – that Phocas had not formally and irrevocably sold the title of Universal Bishop to the Pope, and that this was practically necessary for the diplomacy of the Church. Given that the Roman Church was the richest single institution in the Empire, and the most independent of effective control by the State, and given that it could have damaged Phocas in the West by excommunicating him, this sets up a struggle between Church and State. The former wants its Patent of Universality, the latter an excommunication and a large gift of cash.
The novel makes further pretences that I cannot describe without giving away its conclusion. But a cynical – and not wholly improbable – deal has been made that drives the plot smoothly forward.
The Techniques of the Novel
In his first novel, Mr Blake caused much scandal by his use of language and references to things that, common enough in everyday life, are usually avoided in what is intended to be popular fiction. In this sequel, his desire to cause scandal, though not suppressed, is brought under firm control. This allows us more clearly to see how the novel is constructed.
It works by taking a group of characters with certain interests and certain assumptions about the world, and to see how they behave to each other in specific circumstances. As one might expect, these circumstances are as logically connected as a geometric sequence. Mr Blake clearly believes that, regardless of time and place, people are driven by the desire for security or esteem or power. All that can ever vary is the form in which these things are conceived and the degree of restraint with which they are pursued. People in the early seventh century were not fundamentally different from anyone else. Therefore, they should never appear as quaint. Their motivations should never seem unreasonable. On the other hand, they lacked many assumptions and beliefs that moderns take for granted.
I am not sure if these are criticisms, but there are two points that I find striking about this novel. The first is that every character is more or less a rogue. They sometimes act kindly – and once or twice with astonishing generosity. But there is no one who could really be described as the sort of man you would wish your daughter to bring home for dinner. The second is that the narrator, Aelric, is not the most interesting of these characters. The eunuch Theophanes is the obvious star. He is followed by the half-sinister, half-incompetent Priscus. Then, while he seldom makes a direct appearance, there is the Emperor – who is a mix of Gilbert’s Mikado and Josef Stalin.
What makes the narrator unusual is that he is essentially a liberal of the 18th century Enlightenment. He cannot escape many of the most basic assumptions of his age, but is an atheist and an individualist. He is naturally sceptical of an order that is systematically corrupt and oppressive. At the same time, he is committed to ensuring his own position within that order. This makes him keen to cover his origins as an outsider and liable to resent any attention to his origins. Though aware that something is wrong, he shares in the corruption and casual brutality of the age.
There is, of course, much of the 18th century in the background as portrayed in the novel. Constantinople is very like ancien régime Paris, and there are echoes of the 17th and 18th century in the manners of address adopted by the main characters. This is a necessary anachronism. We do not know very much about everyday life in ancient and early mediaeval times. But what little we know is sufficiently like our own early modern period to make it legitimate to project back assumptions and speech patterns of which we do know a lot.
Matters of Style
There is no doubt that Richard Blake is an accomplished writer. There is something memorable on every page. The tone moves back and forth between black humour, parody, high camp, and driving narrative. I could fill up a very long review by quoting sentences and whole paragraphs that made me sit up or just burst out laughing. But let me give two extended instances of the Blake style. The first is an abusive epigram – and parody of Catullus – chanted by the crowd at a chariot race. The second is a passage from very close to the end of the novel.
Ye Nymphs lament, Ye Cupids too,
And every man of feelings true
And decent. For, such her meanness,
Fate has robbed Paul of his penis—
His penis that he loved so well;
His penis that could often swell
From one to maybe two or more
Full inches, if not quite to four.
It never felt the warm embrace
Of any vulva, nor in place
The firm grasp—by law denied us—
Of a playful young cinaedus.
But his left hand as well it knew
As a foot its favourite shoe.
And limp now, nor more to present,
There will it rest, all passion spent.
Ah Savage Fate—cruel to devour
His solace of a silent hour—
Behold the product of thy power:
Tucked in bed, lies Paul unsleeping,
Ever red his eyes from weeping.
Though still hardly into the eastern sky, the sun had risen with almost summer heat as we set out upon the Golden Horn.
“That one, over there” I said to the boatmen, pointing at the largest of the ships that rode at anchor in the narrow bay.
I emptied a whole vial of perfume onto a sleeve and raised it to my nose as the oars began turning over the filth that lurked just beneath the sparkling water. It was a small boat, and common sense told me I should sit. But dignity was more important than common sense. I steadied myself against each gentle pitch of the boat and remained standing.
I’d thrown off my dark cloak, and was showing to the whole world the dazzling white and purple-fringed robe of a Senator. That, plus my golden hair, and the general dignity and assurance of my pose, must have fixed every eye on those anchored ships.
I couldn’t tell. If the sun shone full on me, it was also in my eyes, and I could see damn all of what might be happening ahead of me.
“Who goes there?” a voice cried from the flagship as we came within hailing distance.
I waited until we were close enough for me not to have to strain my voice with shouting.
“I am” I called back at the second hailing, “the Senator Alaric, formerly Acting Permanent Legate of His Holiness the Roman Patriarch, and lately Count of the Palace Guard.”
There was a long silence. We came alongside the flagship, and skirted round the banks of oars to the wide stern. I remained standing, my head held proudly up for anyone to see who was inclined to look.
A face peered over the stern of the flagship.
“What do you want?” it asked uncertainly.
“I have come to pay my respects to the Emperor” I said mildly.
The face retreated. There was a subdued conversation about seven foot above me. Then, instead of the rope ladder I’d expected, there was a clumsy squeaking, and a whole wooden staircase swung over, its lowest step just above the waterline.
I stepped across onto the staircase.
“Wait here” I muttered to Baruch. “Do exactly as I say.” He looked at me, suddenly doubtful. His free hand tightened on the leather satchel that contained the promissory notes made out to bearer.
As I came on deck, it was like stepping into one of the grander mosaics you see in the Great Church. In full dress, all in proper place before me, stood what looked like the whole of the new Imperial Court. Here were the generals, the priests and Bishops, the scholars, the Ministers, and all the other leading men of the New Order of Things. They stood, grave and silent, glorious in their robes of many colours. I had no idea what they had been about before I showed up, but they were as fine a reception as anyone short of an Emperor himself might have wanted.
As said, this is a long novel. But I would not wish it a dozen words shorter. It puts you as surely into the streets and council chambers of Constantinople as if you had yourself been there. Like the best science fiction, it creates a world both different from yet oddly similar to our own.
Again as said, this will not at all disappoint those readers who already know Mr Blake from his Conspiracies of Rome. And those who have enjoyed both novels will surely be cheered to know that a third is already near completion. This, I am reliably informed, will be set in Alexandria a few years after the end of The Terror of Constantinople, and involves crocodiles and pyramids and very odd goings on under the burning sands of Egypt.
Note to Readers:
To buy The Terror of Constantinople (released 5th February 2009):
To buy Conspiracies of Rome (Released in paperback on the 8th January 2009):