Review Article by Marian Halcombe
The Blood of Alexandria
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2010, 502pp, hb, £19.99
ISBN: 978 0 340 95116 3
This is, in its form, an historical novel. It is, indeed, the third in a series of six, of which two others have been published, and a fourth has been written and accepted for publication in 2011. The publisher’s synopsis gives a fair account of the plot:
612AD. Egypt, the jewel of the Roman Empire, seethes with unrest, as bread runs short and the Persians plot an invasion. In Alexandria, a city divided between Greeks and Egyptians by language, religion and far too few soldiers, the Mummy of the Great Alexander, dead for nine hundred years, still has the power to calm the mob or inflame it….
Aelric, the young British clerk who has become a senator and the trusted henchman of Emperor Heraclius, has come to Alexandria to send Egypt’s harvest to Constantinople and to force the unwilling viceroy to give its land to the peasants. But the city – with its factions and conspirators – thwarts him at every turn. And when an old enemy from Constantinople arrives, supposedly on a quest for a religious relic that could turn the course of the Persian war, he will have to use all his cunning, his charm and his talent for violence to survive.
Exactly how the plot snakes its way through more than five hundred pages is a matter I do not care to discuss. I will only say that the plot, as is usual in the novels of Richard Blake, is driven by the working out of the interests of the various characters. These characters behave in manners that are entirely credible – if hardly ever creditable. But the conflicts that arise from their being forced together by circumstances produce a narrative that is both complex and unpredictable.
So much for the plot. What interests me most, however, is what makes this different from every other historical novel I have read. It is set in a particular time and place. Several of the characters are people who really existed. If the plot itself is made up, it takes place within a general scheme of things that is based on a sound knowledge of the period. I could take issue with Mr Blake on a few titles and administrative details. But anyone who wants to understand the interlocking and worsening crises that brought about the transition of the Eastern Empire from its Late Roman to its Byzantine phase could do worse than turn to this series of novels. They are no substitute for Gibbon or Ostrogorsky or Runciman or Treadgold. But, rather like Robert Graves on the Principate, or Mary Renault on Classical Athens, Mr Blake provides a series of novels that are a reliable point of entry.
All this being said, this is not a standard historical novel. Its five hundred pages read like a sequence of nightmares from which you are not allowed to wake up screaming. Though set in Egypt, a land of intense light, most of its action takes place at night or in places without natural light. Much action that is set during the day takes place within the vast and terrifying bleakness of the desert. The rest is set in an Alexandria torn apart by blood-soaked rioting.
Because they have come out almost at the same time, this novel will inevitably be compared with the film Agora, which is also set in Alexandria, though several hundred years earlier, and deals with similar themes. However, Mr Blake was unaware of this film until after he had finished correcting his proofs. He wrote the novel during the last three months of 2009, when he was deepening his acquaintance with nineteenth century grand opera. So far as he had one, his model was Verdi’s Aida. This is largely a quiet work about the tension between public and private duties. When it does open out, it does so in a burst of brutal and immensely prolonged spectacle. So it is with Blood of Alexandria.
As a sample of the whole take this from Chapter Twelve. The Narrator has been bullied into going out of the Greek centre of Alexandria through a gate in the wall that seals off the Egyptian quarter. This is a place of shocking filth and poverty. The stated reason for the visit is to consult an alleged magician on the whereabouts of the first chamber pot used by Jesus Christ. The Narrator and his companions have just entered one of the crumbling buildings:
It was almost like stepping into one of those fogs Constantinople has in the autumn. I say ‘almost,’ because it was worse. It was a cloud of steam made dark and oily from the many lamps in the room, and foul beyond any description I can attempt. A beggar’s crotch at two inches would have been more salubrious. I rubbed my eyes and spluttered, and reached again for my pot of scent.
As my eyes adjusted, I could see we were in a large room. An oblong of about twenty by perhaps sixty feet, it had neither opening in its low ceiling nor any windows. It was hard to tell from the carpet of filth, but the floor seemed to be of crumbled brick.
The steam was coming from a low table to my right. Packed tight together, about a dozen men sat round it. Each with his neighbour shared a small bowl of liquid that was kept bubbling by the sort of charcoal burner used in better establishments for keeping depilatories soft. As one sat upright, the other would hunch over the pot and breathe in his share of the steam. The continual up and down motions, and the low chorus of pleasured moans, had a soporific quality even to watch.
I heard the door close behind me. I pulled my eyes away from the table and reached inside my cloak. Macarius gently touched my arm.
‘That will not be needed, My Lord,’ he whispered in Latin. ‘I know the doorman’s cousin. You are in no danger here.’ I relaxed. Once we’d turned left and were moving deeper into the room, I saw another of the druggies. He’d fallen away from his place at the table, and sat on the floor, his back against one of the brick pillars that held up the ceiling. I looked at him. His clothing had gathered around his waist, showing the hard, throbbing erection. What was left of his lower face hung in folds, the saliva glistening on blackened teeth as he groaned from the long, continuous orgasm the drug had finally brought on.
‘A mixture of Carthaginian berries and some of the metallic poisons,’ Priscus said learnedly. ‘Never tried it myself, though – all else aside, I’m told it can produce spontaneous castrations.’
A pity his father had never tried it, I thought. This was the last thing I’d imagined for the evening entertainment. I needed to get Macarius in private to discuss how to get most effectively hold of Leontius. Instead, I was stuck in some low drug den full of wogs and with Priscus for company. (pp.84-85)
This is a world made universally disgusting by its history, and kept disgusting by those born within it. The Imperial Government is ruthless and exploitative. It rules Egypt through a landed nobility that is allowed to wallow in luxury so long as it keeps up the shipments of corn on which Imperial rule elsewhere depends. The common people, whether Greek or Egyptian, are vicious animals kept in line by threats of terrible and arbitrary violence and by the occasional bribe of free bread. Christianity has had no beneficial effect on morality. Its leaders show less interest in following the Precepts of Christ than in arguing at swordpoint over His Nature. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone seeks refuge in mood altering substances or in various shads of superstition that all border on lunacy.
The Empire is facing threats on all its active frontiers, any one of which would take its whole strength to contain. Coming all at the same time, they have brought on a military collapse. The last toehold in Spain has gone. North Africa is going. Italy has been mostly swallowed by the Lombards, and Rome survives only as a semi-independent principality ruled by the Pope. The Balkans as far south as Corinth have been overrun by Slavs. Squat, yellow-faced men on horseback turn up regularly under the walls of Constantinople itself. Worst of all, what began as a border war with the Persians has turned into a disastrous conflict in which control of all the Eastern Provinces has been put in question.
It is against this background of horror and catastrophe that young Aelric has been sent to Egypt. Since the lat novel in the series, Terror of Constantinople, he has become one of the leading members of the Imperial Council in Constantinople. Working with the Greek Patriarch, Sergius, he has come up with a scheme of reform that might save the Empire. The central government is to become less grasping and oppressive. Landed estates throughout the Empire are to be broken up and given to the peasants, who will be armed and trusted to defend their stake in the new order of things. The religious dispute between the Orthodox and the Monophysites is to be settled by a compromise in which neither side need give up its main point, but both must accept a third position that is incompatible with neither side of the dispute.
As a matter of fact, this is the scheme of reform that did ultimately save the Empire. Few readers in the English world study the Byzantine Empire. Those who look beyond the loss of the Western Provinces in the fifth century face an apparent narrative of court intrigue and unlikely heresies within the capital and of lost battles outside. The picture only steadies again in the late eleventh century, when the armies of the First Crusade lit their camp fires outside the walls of Constantinople.
Yet the five hundred years that separate Belisarius from Bohemond were ages first of endurance and then of success. By a process largely confined to the middle fifty years of the seventh century, the Imperial Government scrapped the oppressive apparatus of the Later Empire. Landed estates were broken up. The people were armed. Taxes and regulations were scaled back. Slavery never disappeared, but was mostly confined to the households of the remaining rich. Yet there was no collapse into serfdom. The majority of the Empire’s population were free peasants.
While these reforms were being made, the Empire hit back against the Persians and utterly crushed them. A conflict over the Near East that had rumbled on since the second century, and that had, for a moment, threatened the Empire with dissolution, was settled in a five year campaign that destroyed Persia as a credible force. If almost immediately after this victory, it lost Syria and Egypt to the Arabs, the Empire lost nothing else of its core territories. While reconstructing itself internally, and while fighting off wave after wave of barbarian assaults from the north and west, the Empire looked Islam in the face and stopped it dead. We, in the West, celebrate the Battle of Tours in 732, when Charles Martel defeated an Arab invasion of France. But the Arabs here were operating well over a thousand miles from their core territories, and with supply lines to a Spain that had been conquered but not pacified. Already, however, the Empire had confronted the Arabs in all their force and enthusiasm, and had thrown them back from the walls of Constantinople with terrible losses. They drove off the Arabs in 668 and again in 717. They did so with a weapon of mass destruction that we still do not wholly understand – and that is the subject of Mr Blake’s next novel, completed though as yet unpublished – but also with a Greek and Orthodox patriotism that was born in the downsizing of the Roman State. And then, over the next few centuries, the Empire went on the offensive against Islam. With perhaps five per cent of the population ruled over by the Caliphs, the Empire remade itself as the richest and most powerful nation in the known world – as the Terror of Islam and the last citadel of ancient learning and culture.
It is the beginning of this remarkable transformation with which Blood of Alexandria deals. As said, the Narrator lives in a world made universally disgusting. But he knows that, given the right determination, it can be improved. This is, indeed, an explicitly libertarian novel. Themes briefly and incompletely stated in the earlier novels are here brought into sharp focus. As well as an atheist and a man of reason, Aelric is also as near to a classical liberal as his age makes possible – and perhaps more so. He states his full agenda in Chapter Twenty. He has been taken prisoner by an armed resistance group, and is trying to bring about an escape by enraging his chief captor:
‘You are mistaken,’ he repeated, now emphatic. ‘The loyalty of the people to their Pharaoh was always freely given. How else could we have endured in peace and plenty for ten thousand years? How else could we have developed all science and all mathematics that the Greeks then stole from us?,’ I laughed outright. Oh, he could have reached forward and struck me. But that would have broken the mood of triumphant dignity he was trying to impose. And if I was eventually to be done away with in some grotesque way, oiling him up wouldn’t make that any better. But pissing him off might be both enjoyable and useful..
‘Freely given?,’ I sneered. ‘Ten thousand years?,’ I’ll tell you this, my lad – Phocas himself never put up images of himself standing three times the height of his nobles, nor the nobles three times the height of the poor bloody people who worked to make their lives easy. All government, in every time and place, rests on fraud and force – the force of soldiers and officials hired by the rulers, and the fraud of the priests who assure everyone that the force is just. You’ll need to work much harder to convince me you didn’t have ten thousand years of that, before you had a thousand of the same from the Greeks.
‘As for what you dare call science and mathematics, you had nothing beyond the crude ingenuity to build those pyramids and all the other ugly things that haven’t yet fallen down. – and to build them with slave labour. Before the Greeks showed up, you were as ignorant as any other barbarian race of mathematics as an abstract science able to explain all of nature. Your cosmology involves a flat earth with some naked goddess stretching over it as the sky. Your history is of kings ten feet tall and reigning for a hundred years. The glory you speak of is just more of the usual plunder mixed with bloody murder.
‘And – let’s face it, my poor, dear Lucas, you can no more read the picture writing of this literature than I can. All you have to read in the alphabetic writing your people learnt from the Greeks is a mass of third rate polemic against the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. What little they know about your brand of heresy makes you an embarrassment to the Monophysites of Syria. You’ve already acknowledged the debt you owe for alphabetic writing. Well, just accept that you owe the Greeks everything else in your culture that isn’t actually a joke.’ I paused to draw breath. I didn’t bother swivelling my eyes: I could feel Martin’s look of horrified despair. But I was enjoying myself, and I did have a more constructive purpose.
‘It has never, I’m sure,’ I went on, ‘crossed your tiny minds that there is in human affairs, as in the world around us, a natural order in which your kings and their priests – of whatever faith – have no place.’ His mouth was working. But Lucas had no words to throw at me. So I let my own roll straight forward over him.
‘Let us imagine a state of nature,’ I said – ‘that is, a world in which all in at “perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man”.’ I was quoting here verbatim from Epicurus – His Second Letter to Scatodotes of Cyrene. ‘This being given, let us suppose that everyone uses his freedom to supply himself with all his needs. Some he will abstract directly from the earth, which is common to all. Others he will acquire by free exchange with others. Therefore, some will raise crops. Others will take materials from the ground. Others will refine these things into other products. All property in this state of natural freedom will be based on the efforts of the possessor.
‘Men may gather together to appoint judges for those disputes that cannot be resolved by good will or by individual force of arms. They may further appoint generals for the defence of the whole community. But they’ll never voluntarily establish the system described in the Greek histories of your country or shown on your monuments.’ Well, that wasn’t direct quotation from the Great Man, though it was fair summary. I could have gone on to my own belief about the limitless improvement that might result from free exchange and the steady use of reason to understand the world about us. But it didn’t serve my purpose – this being more attack than exposition.
‘Don’t waste more of your hot air on how all this is for the people of Egypt,’ I said, my voice rising to a shrill scorn that could be noted if not followed by his men. ‘If that poor bugger you tore apart on the boat is any guide, I know exactly what you think about the people. I’ve heard that your sort refer to Greek rule as a cup of abominations. That may be a fair description. Perhaps they haven’t followed through in their actions the ideas they gave the world. But, let’s be honest, you don’t want to dash that cup to the ground. What you really want is to transfer it from Greek hands to your own with as little spillage along the way as can be managed.’ (pp.141-43)
All else aside, it is this that makes the novel remarkable. For many years now, the arts in England have been dominated by the left. In varied though consistent form, nearly all fiction that touches on politics has done so to preach doctrines of submission to a big government ruling class. Mr Blake would never wish to compare himself to Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that a mainstream British publisher has brought out a novel that openly proclaims a belief in rationality and progress and human freedom.
At the same time, however, the novel is not didactic. The various libertarian utterances are integral to the plot. And Aelric hardly shines. If better than the other main characters – not hard, bearing in mind who they are – he is himself less than reputable. Part of what drives the plot forward is his desperation to keep his own financial speculations secret. Though he justifies these in terms that a Victorian economist might have approved, everyone else might assume that he had played a leading role in pushing up the price of bread beyond the reach of the poor. He also knows that, if he preaches doctrines utterly subversive of the established order, he is, at the same time, a leading servant of the world’s greatest and most absolute despot.
In a sense, he is much like all those other well-intentioned rulers of an ancien regime that tries to liberalise itself. Or perhaps he is like one of the English liberals who tried to reshape India in the early nineteenth century, and who, ignorant of Indian ways, helped bring on the Mutiny. As the head of the Monophysite sect in Egypt says to him in Chapter Thirty One:
‘You have been in Alexandria just over four months,’ he reopened once we were alone. ‘You were sent here from Constantinople, without any of our language and without any understanding of our ways. You came to impose a new settlement on the land that has much to commend it in the abstract, and that I can hope will, on the Last Day, set off what I believe to be considerable derelictions elsewhere in your attitude to the Faith. But it is a settlement not suited to the ways of our land.
‘I know you have little time for His Imperial Highness the Viceroy. But Nicetas has been here far longer than your have. He may not have the words to tell you all that he knows – he may not be aware of all that he does in fact know. But I assure you that Nicetas has a sounder understanding of Egypt and its ways than is present in your tidy, philosophical mind.’ (p.218)
Aelric is in a hurry to impose his new settlement on Egypt. Even though checked by the generally useless Viceroy, his efforts do much to produce an explosion that reduces much of Alexandria to stinking rubble, and that is only stopped from going further by official atrocities that horrify him.
The world of this novel is a disgusting place. The novel proceeds from one act of nastiness to another. Mr Blake even tells me that he felt unwell for the rest of the afternoon after writing Chapters Thirty Seven and Thirty Eight, which are set in a torture chamber. I will not quote from these, but they describe the sort of things that all governments do when they find it convenient.
One further point. Aelric spends the whole novel proclaiming to all about him and to himself his eminently eighteenth century opinion about the natural and predictable causes of all phenomena. Even so, he is surrounded on all sides with evidences to the contrary. Who, for example, is the brutal and all-powerful Mistress? What connection might she have with his survival in extreme old age from a dipping in the River Tyne, and much earlier from what should have been a fatal encounter with the Alexandrian Mob? Is she perhaps on holiday from the Caves of Kor, where she awaits the return of her long dead Kallicrates?
But I have said enough. To conclude, this is a very good novel. Buy it if you want a good read. And buy it if you have any interest in making Mr Blake as rich as J.K. Rowling!