12 March 2013

Is Byzantium a dirty word?

Tuesday Talk - Guest Post

"Byzantium is one of the missing links in world history between the Renaissance and the worlds of the ancient pagans and the early Christians" is a quote from
Empire Forever a website dedicated to rediscovering the incredible people of  9th Century New Rome:

Please welcome my guest Achilleas Mavrellis

People never react indifferently when I mention the word “Byzantium”. These days, when it doesn't have anything to do with vampires and werewolves it either gets people riled up or intrigued. Let me explain.

One of my personal goals in writing a novel about 9th Century Byzantium, and setting up a YouTube channel on the topic, is to bring to life the people of a forgotten Empire.

They had it all:
  • an inquisition-like religious conflict called Iconoclasm, 
  • vastly different notions of compassion and sexuality to what we may be familiar with today, 
  • turmoil and conflict on all sides even as they strove to maintain and reconcile their ancient classical heritage with Christian values,
  • a deep pride in being Roman, long after the city of Rome fell, even though they had become completely Greek-speaking by the 9th Century.
Perhaps most significantly, the Byzantine Empire was the first medieval sovereign entity in which women not only had occasion to govern, but were recognized as rulers in their own right. That women could rule took until well into the last millennium to re-emerge fully into the consciousness of Western Europe.

I have to confess that I am not really a member of any of the two main Byzantine fan groups.  One camp are passionate about it, in an idealistic sort of way. According to them, Byzantium was a glorious, ordered haven of pious worship, surrounded by dastardly enemies that set upon and destroyed it. If only we could go back then all would be well with the world.

In the other camp are people who know almost nothing about Byzantium. Or what they do know is confused.  They usually hold some vague notion of a schism with the Pope, some idea of complexity and intrigue (for which "Byzantine" is a modern synonym in English), and mostly wrong ideas about how Rome and Byzantium fell (wrong ideas mainly to do with sexual overindulgence and cowardliness).

Certainly what drives those in the first camp is that Byzantium is a prime example of state-driven religion and all the negative aspects that that involves. I will explore this topic further in my blog. Cleary it's no wonder that the subgenre is so small!

So I suppose I'd like to establish a more balanced view.  And it's a view to do with people, not wars, and psychology rather than majesty.

What drives me is that the Eastern Rome is had more than its fair share of hardy people, splendor and magnificence. I want my readers to know that here were ordinary people who lived bravely in difficult but exciting times and who showed great endurance in the face of adversity, sometimes rising to the highest positions in society because they dared.

The Byzantines – or New Romans as they would have called themselves – may have been pious on the surface, sometimes murderous in practice, and obsessed occasionally by religious zeal. (In those days religious zeal was the 'in thing' for lots of different kinds of ethnic groups, as Christianity coalesced out of a vast miasma of subtly different takes on its original message). But they were admirably courageous and boldly human in a way which seems to be lost to us blasé post-moderns.

Do pop over to my website for more background information or the Blog
For a slice of life Byzantine style you might want to follow @ByzEmpress on Twitter: #ImagineByzantium or on my Imagine Byzantium page on FaceBook.

Helen: thank you Achilleas - that was extremely interesting.
If anyone would like to contribute to my Tuesday Talk please e-mail me

Next week: a round up of my Blog Tour - and an article about the cover of Ripples In The Sand

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