Thomas Knapp Reviews Conspiracies of Rome

… let’s call this a recommendation. By way of disclosure, I received no payment of any kind for this recommendation, and even turned down an offer of links to pirated e-versions (said offer from the author himself) in favor of buying the books I’m about to recommend. In making the foregoing statement, I’m assuming (safely, I think) that the author’s friendship, which I highly value, has never been conditional on receipt of a positive review or recommendation.

So: I highly recommend Conspiracies of Rome (which I have read) and The Terror of Constantinople (which I am now reading) by Richard Blake. I strongly suspect that said recommendation will extend to The Blood of Alexandria and The Sword of Damascus, which I haven’t yet read but intend to as soon as possible.

Richard Blake is a pseudonym for Sean Gabb, whom you likely know as the public face of the United Kingdom’s Libertarian Alliance. For this reason, I should probably get one likely pre-conception out of the way: These novels are not “libertarian novels.”

To be a little more specific and walk that back just a tiny bit, they are not didactic texts or ideological rants disguised as story of the type often associated with with the idea of “libertarian novels.” They certainly embody values I’ve come to associate with Sean’s non-fiction forays: Love of England and of “western civilization,” an Epicurean sensibility, etc.

But — and this is intended as compliment, not criticism — story comes first, last and always in the Blake novels. If you’re looking for Ayn Rand Does The 7th Century AD, don’t bother. Or at least don’t blame me for pointing you in Blake’s direction. The novels are intellectually rewarding, but they need to be read as novels.

Both the first and second novels are written in first person, past tense: The adventures of one young Aelric, set in the early 7th Century and as recalled by a very elderly Aelric in the late 7th Century. And, as the titles suggest, two background plot points loom large:

•The decline and decay of the Roman Empire; and
•The coalescence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church

Aelric, a dispossessed young English nobleman now employed by the Church, offends a local king and is forced to flee England (in the company of the priest Maximin) to do penance in Rome. That penance turns out to be, in brief, supervising the copying and shipment back to England of important books (the Church’s goal being to Christianize England, Aelric’s being to save knowledge for eventual re-dissemination to Europe to re-kindle its dying intellectual flame).

Were it that simple, we’d still have a fine yarn. But it quickly becomes more complicated, turning into a roaring good murder mystery and political thriller. If I have any complaint at all, it’s that some of the “murder mystery” elements are more appropriate to 19th century “scientific detection” story-telling than to the Dark Ages. But I frankly found those elements to be a pretty good anchor in a strange environment. Gabb … er, Blake … tells me that the later novels stick more to the “political thriller” genre, letting the detective stuff fall by the wayside.

Now, about that environment: To me, the strongest writing point in the Aelric novels is a sense of verisimilitude. I’ve never lived in 7th Century Rome or Constantinople, of course, but Blake brings them to life. That’s no small feat. One of my problems with modern literary and theatrical or film depictions of the first, say, 15 centuries A.D. is that they almost always feel like … well … depictions. The Aelric novels come across as the actual memoirs of a real person, experiencing real events in places that really existed.

Side note: One element of that verisimilitude is historical accuracy. For about the first 50 pages of Conspiracies of Rome, I found myself running to Wikipedia every few minutes to see if I had caught Blake in anachronism or error. No dice. Every time I checked, things checked out. I can’t guarantee perfection on those fronts, but I can say that I quickly got too caught up in the story to keep worrying about such things.

I think you will be similarly captivated by these books, if you allow yourself the pleasure. So do that.


10 responses to “Thomas Knapp Reviews Conspiracies of Rome

  1. “English”, “England” in the 600s?

    However, the 7th century is a very interesting period.

    It starts with a massive contrast between the East and West Roman worlds.

    In 600 the West was in chaos, barbarian Kingdoms, roving bands, collapsed cities and towns, – and on and on. Even the physical size of farm animals was collapsing (not just compared to Roman animals – but smaller even than pre Roman animals), the use of coinage in the West in 600 Britain was actually LESS than it was in pre Roman Britain (things were that bad) and the use of stone and tiles in buildings was becoming a lost art (as was piped water and sewers).

    But in the East (under the Emperor Maurice) the cities were still large – and a large scale economy still existed. There was also still a regular army – not just war bands of savage barbarians. The contrast was vast.

    The story of the early 7th century is how the East collapsed – and came to look like the mess that the West already was.

    For the evidence of collapse (not just political collapse – but economic, civilizational collapse) see “The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation” by Bryan Ward-Perkins (Oxford University Press – 2005).

  2. —–
    “English”, “England” in the 600s?

    Yes. The protagonist of the novels, Aelric, is very specifically drawn as an Angle or Jute from the Kingdom of Kent, which was part of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy — in other words, England.

  3. No – not “in other words, England”.

    There was no England in the 600s.

    However, Kent was indeed the oldest of the Germanic “Kingdoms” in Britain – I did not know that Sean had taken the central character from Kent.

    By the way……it might PERHAPS make sense to talk of “England” from the time of King Offa of Mercia (AD 757-796) as he claimed to be “King of the English”, minted coins and constructed the 120 mile defensive work known as “Offer’s Dyke” (against the “Welsh” as the Germanic tribes called the Britons).

    The claims in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle that King Ethelbert (Aethelbert) of Kent dominated “the English” south of the Humber river in the early 600s are fantasy. He was doing well to have some influence over Essex (next door to Kent) – up in the Midlands he had no authority.

    As for the north….

    In 604 the Angles (although not the folk of Kent – whether they were Jute or whatever) were still pagans – they took Chester in this year (from the Britons) and slaughtered 200 priests.

    Bottom line…..

    One can PERHAPS talk of “England” and “English” in the late 8th century (Offa) one certainly can in the time of King Athelstan (early 10th century – indeed he declared himself “King of Britain”). But not really in the early 600s .

    Although the Venerable Bede uses the term “English” “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (AD 731).

    The cultural evolution of an “English” cultural indemnity, rather than various Germanic tribes (Jutes, Saxons, Angles…..).

  4. The Dark Ages were indeed “dark”.

    Not just the end of a standing regular army and the collapse of literacy, The collapse of the size of farm animals (little resources for winter fodder), the end of a monetary economy (coinage no longer being produced in wide areas), stone and tiles being things of the past in building (the skills lost), even pottery becoming primitive (in wide areas it does not seem to have been produced at all in the 600s).

    When one talks of Anglo Saxon pottery (such as that produced in Ipswich Suffolk) and coins and so on – one is talking of the 700s (8th century) not the 600s (7th century).

    In Kent (the name is Celtic – it means “coast land”) in the early 600s one would have found Germanic tribesmen living in huts – with the post holes stuck (at random) into a layer of ash and ruins (of Roman towns).

    However, that may be exactly what Sean presents – after all I have not read his book.

  5. I hope that Sean takes the opportunity to cover the last visit of a Byzantine Emperor (as ruler) to Rome – AD 663 (Constans II). Although the Pope would have a limited political role – that had been true since the time of the Emperor Justinian (when the Emperor ordered that local bigwigs in Italy, such as the local Bishop, should help choose the local Governor in areas recaptured from the Goths – the Bishops of Rome took full advantage of that legal change, indeed pretended that it went back far before Justinian, which it did not).

    The East Roman or Byzantine (Greek speaking) world really had links with the Britons (not the Anglo Saxon tribes). Both trading links (such Byzantine ships that made it as far as Britain would land in the West of the island, not the East) and cultural (being Christian).

    It should also be remembered that this is the Golden Age of Ireland (especially for Irish monastic life). The Greek language was studied among the Irish monks – it was not studied among the Anglo Saxon tribesmen in the east of Britain in the 600s.

    • Paul,

      The first novel is set toward the end of Phocas’s reign, and the second ends shortly after his overthrow by Heraclius in 610. But you may get your wish, insofar as the narrator is telling the story from a much later time (he mentions early in the second novel that he is 95 years of age, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 685 AD).

      Interesting comment about the Irish there — one of the main characters is Irish and familiar with Constantinople, his father having come to grief there in an argument over proper Greek language.

  6. Thomas.

    You make good points in this.

    If I was still working as a security guard I would buy the novel. But in my present jobs I do not have uninterrupted time (in either job). And dipping in and out of a novel does not work.

    Still perhaps…..

  7. Paul,

    All I can say is that I’m hooked — I’ve read the first two and the third is on the way as of yesterday.

    Vis a vis your point as to when “England” became “England,” I’m not a scholar of the period, but I started paying more attention after you brought it up, and lo and behold Phocas, in the week before his death, refers to it as “England.” So if that’s a mistake, it’s Blake’s and not mine. I also noticed, early in the first novel, a reference to France. I did a tiny bit of digging on that and am under the impression that it was just around this time that the Franks began to call their coalescing territory “Francia.” So I’m guessing that Blake may have just decided it was easier, and acceptable, to refer to the areas by the recognizable modern names that were just barely starting to come into use around the period.

    You also mention that they weren’t studying Greek in England at this point in time. The protagonist, Aelric, seems to have been an exception, and one of his goals on his journeys to Rome and to Constantinople was to improve his Greek and bring the Greek classics back to England to preserve them against loss in the crumbling of civilization on the continent.

  8. Well the author of the books could argue that he is translating already “would you prefer it if I left the conversations in Latin and Greek?” so adding words like “England” is not much a stretch.

    As for Phocos – the noncom who led the mutiny against the Emperor Maurice. Although Maurice was incredibly reckless – he cut military pay by 25%, went back to the old system of supplying uniforms and weapons (rather than paying an allowance to the troops) and ordered the army to winter north of the Danube – and more than once. It is astonishing the man lasted 20 years.

    I have his book on military matters somewhere (in English translation – because I am a barbarian, Sean could read it in the original) – it was the standard Byzantine military manual for several centuries (the Byzantines were a conservative civilisation – but then Rome had been also).

  9. Phocos – gets a bad press.

    In the standard histories all he does is murder people at home and lose battles with the external enemies.

    However. all the standard histories were written in the time his enemies were in charge.

    I wonder if he was religiously tolerant (Maurice basically was as Tiberius II was before him). Religious intolerance was the fatal weakness of the Emperor Heraclius (who was like Justin II and Justinian in this respect).

    We are still paying for the religious intolerance of Heraclius – it divided the Empire and helped the Muslim invaders.