I once wrote jokingly here that there are only three plots, and they are Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Belisarius, because those are the ones everyone keeps on reusing.
There is a conference in Uppsala in Sweden the weekend before the Helsinki Worldcon called “Reception Histories of the Future” which is about the use of Byzantium in science fiction. The moment I heard of it, I immediately started thinking about our obsessive reuse of the story of Belisarius. (I’m going. Lots of other writers are going. If you’re heading to Helsinki, it’s on your way, and you should come too!)
It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. Robert Graves wrote a historical novel about him in 1938, Count Belisarius, and there’s Gillian Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987), but not much else. Whereas in genre, we’ve had the story of Belisarius retold by Guy Gavriel Kay, David Drake (twice) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and used by L. Sprague de Camp, John M. Ford, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg, and Isaac Asimov. So what is it about this bit of history that makes everyone from Asimov to Yarbro use it? And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF?
First, let’s briefly review the story. First Rome was a huge unstoppable powerful indivisible empire. Then Rome divided into East and West, with the Eastern capital at Constantinople. Then the Western half fell to barbarians, while the Eastern half limped on for another millennium before falling to the Ottoman conqueror Mehmed II in 1453. We call the eastern half Byzantium, but they went right on calling themselves the Roman Empire, right up to the last minute. But long before that, in the sixth century, at the exact same time as the historical Arthur (if there was an Arthur) was trying to save something from the shreds of Roman civilization in Britain, Justinian (482-565) became emperor in Constantinople and tried to reunite the Roman Empire. He put his uncle on the throne, then followed him. He married an actress, the daughter of an animal trainer, some say a prostitute, called Theodora. He has a loyal general called Belisarius. He built the great church of Hagia Sophia. He withstood a giant city riot in the hippodrome, the great chariot-racing stadium, by having Belisarius’s soldiers massacre a huge number of people. He wrote a law code that remained the standard law code everywhere in Europe until Napoleon. And Belisarius reconquered really quite large chunks of the Roman Empire for him, including Rome itself. At the height of his success he was recalled to Rome and fired because Justinian was jealous. Belisarius had a huge army and could have taken the throne for himself, which was typical of both the Roman and the Byzantine empires, but he was loyal and let Justinian fire him. This is all happening at a time of Christian schism and squabbling about heresy between different sects.
So first let’s have a survey of books using Belisarius, and then my thoughts about why this story has been used so much, considering that it’s an obscure bit of Byzantine history.
The earliest use of Belisarius in SF that I’m aware of is L. Sprague de Camp’s 1939 time travel story Lest Darkness Fall. De Camp’s hero gets sent back from 1939 Rome to Rome in the sixth century, where he meddles happily with history. He props up the barbarian Gothic kingdom with heliographs and inside information, and when Justinian fires Belisarius he hires him. There’s a modern reprint of the novel with additions by other writers, who go to all kinds of interesting places with it.
When Asimov wrote the Foundation Trilogy between 1942 and 1950, he was modelling it directly on the fall of Rome and then the Renaissance. His Belisarius, who briefly reconquers Trantor for the ungrateful Emperor, is transparently named Bel Riose.
Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line (1969) is a time travel romp, in which time travellers are visiting the period as tourists, and a tour guide gets tangled up with his ancestors in Constantinople. The Nika Riots are one of the things they visit, and also the inauguration of Hagia Sophia. These are just a tiny part of the book, which is mostly focused later in Byzantine history.
Jerry Pournelle’s The Mercenary (1977) is not actually a Belisarius retelling. It’s part of the Falkenberg series, which is about a collapsing space empire. There’s no one to one mapping, and I wouldn’t count it, except that it uses the Nika riots. Kay also refers to them, as do Drake and Stirling, but they’re in the past of the stories those books are telling. Pournelle sets it up so that a massacre in a stadium is the only way to save civilization, and the Belisarius parallel just can’t be avoided. I remember reading this for the first time and thinking really?
It’s just part of the background, but in to John M. Ford’s World Fantasy Award winning The Dragon Waiting, (1983) Belisarius won—Justinian and Theodora become vampires, and are still alive and the Roman empire was reunited.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s A Flame in Byzantium (1987) uses this period as background for a baroque vampire story set in a supposedly real Rome and Constantinople at this time, with Belisarius, Antonina, Justinian and Theodora appearing as characters.
None of these books do anything much with the religious schism issue—well, de Camp makes it a running joke, but that’s all really.
David Drake and S.M. Stirling have done a multi-volume retelling of Belisarius on another planet, with riding dogs, called The General series (1991-2003). I think I’ve read five volumes of this, I read up to the end of the story of Raj Whitehall, our Belisarius figure. (It’s hard to tell because they’ve been issued in multiple volumes with different titles.) This series just reruns Belisarius, in the future, with different tech. They’re odd books, because they’re great but also awful. First the good—they do very well with the schisms, by having a future religion of fallen man and his lost computer destiny, complete with relics of bits of motherboard etc. Some people worship the Spirit of Man in the Stars, and others Spirit of This World. Raj is genuinely in touch with an old AI, which is a whole lot like hearing spirit voices. Also, they map the whole historical situation onto another planet very well, and the characters of Justinian and Theodora and Raj’s wife Suzette is a very good use of Belisarius’s wife Antonina. I like Constantinople being called East Residence and the Rome equivalent Old Residence. And they’re fun stories, and you want to know how they come out, and they keep flirting the idea of Raj being fired and not quite doing it.
There is way too much detailed combat where the outcome is predictable (yes, I can skim, but I don’t like skimming) and much worse, it reads as casually and painfully racist against Islam, in a way that you can’t get around, and there’s no excuse for it, it doesn’t even really make sense in the context of the books. (And in the real historical period, Mohammed hadn’t really got going yet.) I’m prepared to believe humanity could be reduced to, in the image the books frequently use, cannibals chipping arrowheads out of old window-glass, but not that an Islamic civilization could never get back the tech to reach for the stars. In real history, Islam was preserving the scientific texts of antiquity in translation. And why would a future Islamic culture be like one specific medieval one? Have they no imagination? So these books are unquestionably problematic, but all the same a very good close retelling of Belisarius, with guns and riding dogs.
David Drake and Eric Flint’s Belisarius series (1998-2006, I have only read the first two volumes) use this history in a weird way. They have divine revelation inform Belisarius that the empire is going to be invaded from India, who had gunpowder. Now it’s possible, I mean Alexander did it in the other direction, but I found the way it was done in these books astonishingly unconvincing. I am a really easy sell for this kind of thing, and I’d been looking forward to reading these books, but they kept failing me on the level of plausibility. They’re also not really relevant to my argument here, because they’re not using the story of Belisarius—they’re using the characters in a different story. Though I suppose that in itself testifies to the popularity of Belisarius.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s two book Sarantium series (1998-2000) is a retelling of the story of Belisarius in a fantasy world. This is a world where everything and everyone is directly equivalent to the real historical world, Ravenna is Varena, Sarantium is Byzantium, Leontes is Belisarius etc. But he plays with the history and the fantasy to draw in iconoclasm, which isn’t one of the schisms from this actual period but which is comprehensible to modern readers and works brilliantly with the story. He also, of course, closes things up and changes the end. It’s strikingly clever as well as beautifully written. I’ve talked to people who know nothing about the history and weren’t even aware it had a parallel and enjoyed it, but if you really know the history it’s even better. Kay finds a way of reuniting the empire through Queen Guzel, in real history the gothic princess Amalasuntha. If you’re going to seek out one Belisarius retelling, this is definitely the best one.
So, what’s the appeal?
The first thing is that it’s a time when history could have changed, a pivot point, and a very clear one. If the Roman empire could have been reunited, well, everything would have been different! De Camp does that, and Ford, and… surprisingly few other people. Kay does, but he doesn’t explore forward of the change at all. Usually if you have a period perceived as a hinge for alternate history, like WWII or the US Civil War, it’s all that gets done with it. Not this.
The second thing is the richness of the sources. There are whole swathes of history where we don’t have any historians. We know things about them because we have archaeology, and inscriptions, and account books and letters and random surviving things, but we do not have contemporary history written as history or memoir by people who were there. For the age of Justinian, we have a history, the work of Procopius. Better, we have two, and both of them are the work of Procopius. We have his official history, with wars, facts, glory, and we have his secret history where he stabs everyone in the back. (Kay neatly makes his analog a player in the plot) The double vision of Procopius allows us to have a perspective on the period and the people, motivations, sex, scandals, and helps bring this obscure corner of an empire many people have forgotten to life. I think this really helps.
The last thing is the one I think is the real reason that this is appealing to us in particular: preventing empires from falling, preserving civilization from dark ages is something that appeals very specifically to science fiction readers. I probably don’t need to do more than mention A Canticle for Leibowitz in this context. I think this need began largely around WWII, when the science fiction reading and writing fans of the thirties, believers in science and progress and the World of Tomorrow started to see the real threat to all of human civilization that could lie ahead.
De Camp and Asimov were writing before the nuclear threat that motivated Miller, but the amount of sheer destruction of culture in Europe and Japan in WWII can’t be comprehended. It’s not just Hitler’s Baedeker raids on Britain, or the bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the flattening of Monte Cassino. There’s a museum in Berlin that has a black and white photo of a Botticelli that used to be there. The objects excavated at Troy disappeared and have never re-emerged. The idea that Western civilization itself could fall was suddenly possible and terrifying, and with it the need to preserve it—not so much (for our writers) the art as the science and technology and the attitude that made them possible. I think this was there (and visible in De Camp and Asimov certainly) even before the threat of nuclear destruction brought up the fear of losing the whole world and the whole of humanity. Then once the nuclear threat was there it reinforced.
Retelling Belisarius in all these different ways, changing history, changing the end, letting Belisarius win, let people play with stories of staving off the collapse of civilization through a historical analog. Yarbro has Belisarius lose as he did historically, but most of the others have him pull it off one way or another. And historically Byzantium did endure and preserve Greek and Latin texts to be rediscovered in the Renaissance, though many scientific texts were translated into Arabic and preserved through Islamic culture.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Necessity. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here from time to time. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.