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Byzantium

Byzantine Theology in Alternate History: Not Such a Serious Matter?

by Pascal Lemaire

Byzantium is not the primary reference that comes to mind when thinking about science-fiction, but its influence can be seen in the works of many authors : Asimov’s oft-mentioned use of the life of Belisarius as a source of inspiration for Foundation and Empire is the best known example. But it is in the alternate history subgenre of science fiction that Byzantium seems, logically, most present : since the 1930’s a number of authors have written novels and short stories hovering between historical fiction and science fiction set in different periods of the Byzantine era.

The choice of the Eastern Roman Empire as setting combined with the genre’s expectations of a degree of verisimilitude mean that authors have had to deal with a number of issues including the strongly religious nature of this culture and in particular its innumerable theological debates of which the fight against Arianism, Monophysitism or iconoclasm are the most famous. Looking at four authors from the 30’s to the first decade of the 21st century allows us to examine how the treatment of such issues evolved in this particular genre.

Lyon Sprague de Camp’s genre defining novel Lest Darkness Fall, first published in 1939, is a well-known alternate history which, while not the first of the genre, did a lot to popularize it in science-fiction circles. 

The main character of the story, a modern archaeologist named Martin Padway, finds himself in Rome in 535, a few months before the reconquest of Italy by Byzantine forces. He soon sets out to prevent the collapse of civilization and the loss of culture and science by averting the so-called Dark Ages.

Inspired by three fundamental texts, namely Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Robert Graves’ 1938 Belisarius, De Camp has his character focus his efforts on political and technological developments but has to confront the cultural realities of this age, including of course religion.

Already in chapter two a tavern features a sign “religious arguments not allowed” over its counter. A bit further in the story, in another tavern, an argument develops on the various heresies of the time with a man complaining about Arians, Monophysites and Nestorians not being persecuted, which in his eye is a persecution to his good “Catholicism” : it isn’t long before the tavern is thrown into chaos and violence.

In this scene the various religious arguments are not completely developed, as characters interrupt each other before anyone can complete the exposé of his position and the main character only looks for escape for he is “no religious man and had no desire to be whittled up in the cause of the single, dual or any other nature of Christ” : there is undoubtedly a comic effect in the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Overall the depiction of religion throughout the novel is mild, but not very sympathetic : the arrival of a priest to attempt healing the main character is not welcome, nor are a Jewish magician’s attempts to cure the illness.

Similarly we later see the main character use a mix of corruption and blackmailing against a bishop after a priest threatens Padway with accusations of sorcery. At other time religion is also used as an excuse not to marry a woman.

Religion is thus if not completely mocked, at least rejected or manipulated : it is shown as a source of strife or the recourse of or against the under-educated and the superstitious. This is of course not surprising given the authors that inspired this work, nor would it be unique.

Next in our study is Robert Silverberg’s time travel novel Up the Line, published in 1969, which takes place largely in medieval Constantinople. An author of Jewish origins with a background in comparative literature, Silverberg does not seem to have had any specific relationship with Byzantium prior to that story, although he had published a number of non-fiction books on archaeology and history, including one on the Crusades in 1965.

In Up the Line, we follow the training and then troubles of an aimless looser called Jud Elliott who becomes quite by chance a time-travelling tour guide. Beside the formal rules of the job, Jud learns, thanks to his jaded elders, how to fully enjoy the periods he travels to, discovering how to chat with emperors, delight in various luxuries and, more importantly, the comfort of many women.

In this story, however, Byzantium is but a background, the reality of the time never impacting the story in any meaningful way. The time-travelling tourists and their guide simply go through the past and do not really interact with it, and even those of them who live in the past interact in such a way that their presence leaves no trace.

The theological debates of the time are almost never mentioned, the iconoclast period being the exception and then not so much for the theological aspect as for the added difficulty it places on the character trying to use a painting to look for a missing tourist at a moment when paintings are seen as icons that need be destroyed.

Likewise there is no exploitation of issues such as the condition of Jews in the past, and the explanations the tour guide provides of the various events his travellers witness rarely covers religious matters.

In fact the tourists are often using religion as a disguise : the suits they wear during the black plague tour are seen as religious garb while they also pass for pilgrims in order to gain better access to the walls of Constantinople during a battle.

This novel is clearly more influenced by the general discourses on sexuality that follows the summer of love than by any attempt at historical authenticity : the main character is a tour guide that shows scenes of the past as one would bring someone to the movies, and indeed this experience of history seems flat and lacking in comparison with Sprague de Camp’s story that follows someone deeply immersed into the past. Even the women of this bygone era, such as Empress Theodora, to whom Jud is “intimately” introduced, are nothing but cardboard figures that disappear once they had served their narrative purpose.

This absence of religion in Silverberg’s novel is also somewhat surprising given that the theme of religion often appeared in his books : do we need to see this absence in a novel set into a deeply religious era visited by characters coming from a seemingly a-religious era as a comment in and of itself ?

While Silverberg’s text is a bit of an apax, isolated in is apparent lack of engagement with religion in a Byzantine context, others texts such as Poul Anderson’s time travel story There Will be Time, published in 1972, are more in line with what one would expect to find.

Set at the time of the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, it features for instance a character saying “From my viewpoint, the Byzantines were as superstitious as a horse”, setting it in a trend which sees the ultra-religious Byzantine culture being used to criticize, more or less openly, established religion.

This is not really surprising given that Anderson was very much influenced by Lest Darkness Fall, going so far as writing in 1956 an “anti-Lest Darkness Fall” in his short story The man who came early.

Our next text brings us to the mid 80’s with seven short stories later assembled under the title Agent of Byzantium, by author Harry Turtledove. The stories take place in a truly uchronic 13th-century world where the prophet of Islam became a Catholic saint instead. In this timeline, religion assumes a more significant role, if only because the point of divergence between our history and the one in this universe is of a largely religious nature. The absence of Islam mean not only that a number of historical and theological developments would not take place, but also that the world’s geopolitics are rather different from our own.

Turtledove, who did a PhD in Byzantine history after reading Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, undertakes a much more in-depth depiction of the world in which his character Basileus Argyros evolves, something we can also see in later novels including the time travel story Household gods or his historical fiction Justinian about Byzantine emperor Justinian II.

Religion is omnipresent in his character’s life as well as in the geopolitical complexity of the world built by the author. The character often thinks of the life of saints, especially his patron St Muamat, and engages in theological debates with other characters, also of other faiths such as a nomadic shaman and Persian spies.

Theological debates also form an integral part of the plot : the recipe for gunpowder is thus linked to the trinity of God and we see the Persians attempt to use theology to create strife in the Empire thanks to the introduction of printing, which is then used against them by Basileus Argyrios to win theological arguments among the general population.

One of the stories deals with iconoclasm and shows how Argyros intervenes in the official reaction against the new heretical doctrine, giving both intellectual input to the theological debate and using new technologies to spread the word of the resolution of the debate and thus turn public opinion against the heretics.

The place of religion in this story is thus very different from the one in Up the Line. Turtledove employs his expert knowledge of the period to deliver a much richer environment and integrate the topic of religion into the heart of the story without using it for jokes or making disparaging comments on it in the way Sprague de Camp did in Lest Darkness Fall.

Last but not least, the 6 stories of Aelric written by Richard Blake (2008-2013), starting with Conspiracies of Rome, take place in the early 7th century, some 40 years after the time of Belisarius and Justinian, and include both science fiction and Lovecraftian elements. The main character is Aelric, a young Angle forced into a religious conversion against his will who then becomes an important part of the Byzantine imperial administration.

Very cynical about religion, the character organizes false miracles to survive until unforeseen events catapult him into the world of high politics of the empire. Atheist if not pagan, interested in Epicurist philosophy and scientific experiments, to Aelric religion is a tool to be used or fought against, or a way to escape the dangers of the laic world : most of the books are described as being his memoirs written from the safety of a monastery in Britain, when the character is an elderly man hunted by his past.

A typical book demonstrating the use of religion by the author is The Blood of Alexandria, first published in 2010. Sent to Coptic Egypt in order to implement a new land use reform, Aelric is soon thwarted in his attempt by the use of theological arguments against his legislation.

Further on priests and bishops are shown to be duplicitous and to use theology mainly to manipulate the crowds for their own interests of the day while monks are described as either petty, stupid or cunning and aggressive, similar to the monks of the movie “Agora”, which was released a year earlier.

But the author also goes further and actually ridicules religion when another major character turns up in Egypt to look for a most surprising relic with which he hopes to restore the morale of the recently crushed Byzantine army, for the bishop of Jerusalem refuses to lend him fragments of the Holy Cross : General Priscus is looking for, quote : “the first pisspot of Christ” which is deemed a most potent relic, for it was in contact with Christ at a time when his dual nature was not yet perfectly balanced as it was at the time of crucifixion but rather more divine because his human nature had not yet grown…

As Aelric says, such an interpretation would make the Monophysite doctrine mostly correct had Christ died a baby and the Nestorian doctrine mostly correct had Christ died aged older than 33.

This mocking of religion is rather representative of the overall provocative tone of the main character throughout the series and in line with the author’s background as a well-known libertarian.

Each of the texts we studied approach the topic from a different angle that corresponds to a subgenre of alternate history : the so-called “stranded in time” trope, the time-travel story, the canonical alternate history and the secret history. However, the strand of alternate history authors choose to employ does not necessarily influence their depiction of Byzantium. Rather, those stories demonstrate the personalities of their authors and their attitudes to religion.

As Race MoChride recently pointed out, “it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities”.

The index for Lyon Sprague de Camp’s autobiography has no entry for “religion”. Friend with known atheists and sceptics such as Asimov and Heinlein, with whom he spent a lot of time before, during and after the Second World War, and a rationalist looking for facts rather than faith, the attitude seen in Lest Darkness Fall is not really surprising, especially when coupled with the large influence of atheist Robert Grave’s Belissarius on de Camp’s novel.

Silverberg, born and raised in a Jewish environment, had a different kind of engagement with religious matters as shown by his bibliography, and often in rather innovative ways such as in the 1971 short story Good news from the Vatican.

But as already mentioned, the apparent absence of religion from Up the Line might in fact be his manner of critiquing it. The characters initially come from a post-religious or a-religious time period, which is in itself a prophecy on the death of God, but the fact they do not make any comment on Byzantine religiosity, as if there was nothing to see, seems also telling.

Our third author Harry Turtledove is, according to an interview he gave in 1998 to Jeremy Bloom, of the Jewish faith although “not particularly active”. Yet his writings do not usually afford much room to religion, and one could say that Agent of Byzantium is probably one of his novels where the religious content plays a significant role. One may also note that his Byzantine history PhD dissertation was about continuity and change in internal secular affairs in the later Roman Empire.

Yet the deep knowledge of the period acquired during his research meant he was able to use religious elements in ways much more interesting than Sprague de Camp or Richard Blake.

This last author, the only British writer in our list, is in fact Sean Gabb, a British libertarian who published a number of articles on topics such as blasphemy laws (which he most strongly opposed) and expressed strong views on religions in various medias while publishing his fiction under a pseudonym.

It is thus no surprise to see the main character of his novels describe, in a markedly ahistorical way, Orthodox thought as “nonsensical” while defending science and epicurean atomic philosophy. Gabb’s position of radical liberalism, economical as much as philosophical, lead him to defend the right of religious people to express their opinion while also practicing his right to issue forth speeches or texts that may ridicule them or their beliefs.

The tradition to use Byzantium in alternate history is thus an interesting case of a atheism-inspired tradition spanning more than sixty years of science-fiction in the shadows of Robert Graves’ Belissarius and the present paper is only the beginning of an inquiry into its true significance, highlighting the need for further research.

Topics such as the relationship between technology and religion in those stories are probably also a good way to further investigate the subject, especially in relation to other scholarship on religion and science fiction. Another potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry might be a review of alternate history published on the web, in order to determine the extent to which the atheist tradition discussed above pervades fan fiction and self-published literature.

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Fictional works mentioned :
Anderson, Poul, The Man who came early, 1956
Anderson, Poul, There will be time, 1972
Blake, Richard, Conspiracies of Rome, 2008
Blake, Richard, Terrors of Constantinople, 2009
Blake, Richard, The Blood of Alexandria, 2010
Blake, Richard, The Sword of Damascus, 2011
Blake, Richard, The Ghosts of Athens, 2012
Blake, Richard, The Curse of Babylon, 2013
Grave, Robert, Belisarius, 1938
Silverberg, Robert, Up The Line, 1969
Silverberg, Robert, Good News from the Vatican, 1971
Sprague de Camp, Lyon, Lest Darkness Fall, 1939
Turtledove, Harry, Agent of Byzantium, 1994
Turtledove, Harry, Justinian, 1998
Turtledove, Harry, Household Gods, 1999

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Bio:

With formal training in both Ancient History and ICT, and a job in the later domain, Pascal Lemaire studies how the ancient world meets modern literature, especially in the SF and Fantasy genres, with a secondary interest in how literature plays with History, especially in uchronia and techno-thrillers. https://independent.academia.edu/PascalLemaire

The End of History, the Beginning of Hers

A lost tale reconstructed from the Byzantine chronicle of 1453

by Ádám Gerencsér

A portent of imminent defeat hung heavily in the air. This day of reckoning had been put off for generations by the forefathers of the city’s current inhabitants, in turn by diplomacy, by cunning or deceit, at times by feigned fealty and tributes, but always with an increasing sense of humiliation. The impoverished inheritors of Christendom’s Eastern capital had fought a forlorn struggle to stem the tide of their decline, as their empire aged and wilted in the shade cast by its young and powerful neighbour, the harbinger of a new prophet promising conquest and mastery over ever more chatteled infidels.

Tomorrow, the harvest. What Crusaders had sown two and a half centuries ago, the sword, nay, the scythe of Islam would finally reap. With each passing lifetime, fortresses fell, land was laid waste, fiefdoms splintered, dynasties fought over dwindling mementos of past glory. For each mistrusted ally, two loyal enemies were made and the people of the soil were crippled by soldiering and levies of taxation. The territory crumbled and contracted like a tightening noose, until nothing but a claim to titular figments stretched beyond the ramparts. Owned, perhaps, but not governed. Even Constantinopolis was a ghost of its former self, with more stones than menfolk, more bastions than arms to man them. And for the past two moons a resolute foe on all sides, wearing down what remained, preparing for the morrow’s final assault. The Occident had sent blessings but no ships to their rescue.

But now the city was awake with chants of hope and consolation. The emperor Constantine, eleventh to carry the Name, had summoned the Patriarchs, the generals of the army, the admirals of the fleet, the magistrates of the districts, the priests, monks, merchants and mendicants. And the women, huddling their children, too soft to fight, too scared to sleep, sensing despair on pale adult faces. Processions with all the paraphernalia of devotion. In the church of Holy Wisdom, Romans and Greeks saying mass together at last, clinging to prayer for reassurance. And what prayer! Supplications of a mindfulness only produced on mortality’s verge.

“I had looked into the future and did not like what I saw. I besieged Him for His permission to intervene. And now I take form.”

*****

On the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia, obscured by the scented smoke from a forest of candles, a mosaic on the right apse appeared to move. The slight alteration of form at first remained subtle and was perhaps dismissed as a mirage by the devoted who witnessed it privately. The archangel seemed to slowly spread her wings and firm her grip on the golden staff. She gently drew towards herself the orb in her left palm, which intimated familiar outlines: a walled city perched on the tip of a peninsula, folded into a narrow, lengthy bight and nestled by a great waterway.

The ceremony was interrupted by a breath of collective awe as tiny cubes of cut stone began to rain down from the arch of the apse. The winged messenger literally stepped out of the masonry and crashed to the ground, indenting the tiled floor with her knees. The impact echoed through the vaulted dome like the recoil of Ottoman siege batteries. Then silence.

She only spoke for a moment, words uttered in the Language, her voice intent and clear.

“Many of you will die tomorrow. Repent and He shall accept you into heaven. But if you live, then stand your ground and I will deliver you victory.”

Holy water still pearling on his regal armour, crying the tears of a lifetime’s uncertain faith thus vindicated, the Basileos was first to kneel before her and embrace her feet in the relief of surrender. The prelates and the congregation gazed on, numb with catharsis. Yet the angel enfolded Constantine in her arms, pulled him up and kissed his temple.

“I saw that you would die with honour, so you shall live. In His name you still rule.”

*****

They beheld her soaring on the parapet of the Mesoteichion, at the moment when ladders went up against the whole length of the wall from the Propontis to the Golden Horn and the serried ranks of warriors assailed the breaches lacerated by Turkish bombards. She ascended with wings outstretched, then plunged into the mass of bodies, helmets, pikes and lances.

“Forgive me.”

She struck with elemental force, the impact scattering a cloud of flesh and material. Battalions of men were knocked over and cast afield, or left lying shattered, semi-conscious of blood seeping from torn eardrums. A blur of blade-like feathers tore through confused lines of janissaries, spahis and topchis, leaving concentric circles of devastation in their wake.

Once the damage was sufficient to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, and the angel was confident that the resolve of the defenders was thus steeled, she shot forward across the Horn. The Sultan’s golden-red tent commanded the height of Galata hill, from whence Mehmed could observe the entire field of battle, then the city and behind it, the sea. Proper form required that he be seated, on a portable throne, or a white horse, but now he stood erect, bitterly fixated on a spectacle of the impossible. Allah had never shown himself to his worshippers and yet was saving that whore, Byzantium.

The apparition knew the power of words and left courtiers and guards unharmed as she landed with the softness of benevolent judgment. A tall seraphine shadow against the midday sun, she threw the remnant of a horse-tailed banner at the Sultan’s feet and gently laid a hand on his throat.

“You will leave Rumelia and never cross the Bosporus again.”

With the realisation of his life spared, his campaign lost and his creed made nought, the ruler whispered acquiescence. The angel released her grip and gave him a second glance before taking to the air.

“Convert. Spread the faith. You could still be of use.”

*****

After the dead had been buried, and the probing dusk was lit up by torches – not to scorch, but to illuminate – the Emperor and his Patriarchs ascended to the roof loggia of the monastic library where the messenger landed to rest. Approaching her with the shy, impassioned love of freshly adopted orphans, Constantine dispensed with thanks and addressed what mattered to them most. Was this miracle a fleeting sign? Would she disappear by the morning? Would the city have to fight another day, left to rely once again on desperate human efforts for its survival?

Yet wings folded, legs crossed and brows serene, the visitor seemed comfortable.

“I will stay, if needs be, until a hundred generations grow old.”

Over the city, death-bound yesterday, now preserved and born anew, the angel’s gaze caressed a starlit, virgin horizon of infinite potential.

“Don’t fear. Hell has no power but over the mind. It softens the virtuous and flatters the vicious. Its might relies on the meekness of good men. I will make you strong.”

As the incantations of triumphant oratories rose to the balcony of the monastery, her thoughts drifted from the present. She envisioned the building of armies and fleets, foundries and siege engines, the sending of emissaries to the realms of Christendom, a personal apparition at the Papal Council, the founding of new schools, academies and hospitals, hastening the advance of civilisation for the ennoblement of a race fashioned to her liking. A succession of souls living disciplined lives of faith and valour. A world of glorious victories, then lawful peace and pious order. And glancing further into her immortal future, she saw limitless promise: a pilgrim armada of obedient starships ploughing the depths of space, forever expanding her regency. An empire uniting all under heaven.

Leaning intently over sprawling maps of Europe, the Holy Land and the Silk Road under the insurgent light of her own Morning Star, she could not help but utter in exultation: “My kingdom come. My will be done.”

~