Justinian Visited and Revisited

by Pierre-Louis Malosse
translated by Morgon Mills

This French paper first appeared in the French academic journal Anabases (Toulouse), 5 (2007), p. 229-235.
You can read the original French version here.

[Thank you to Pierre-Louis and to Deborah for the opportunity to carry out this translation. I hope it is accurate, and further that it is helpful; the original essay is both. Readers of this English version should note the untranslated contextual differences of fantasy readership in France.]

Late Antiquity and Byzantium are not the most popular destinations among time travelers. Nor are they the setting of any representative works of what in English is called Fantasy: a sub-genre of science fiction developed from Tolkien’s model and approaching the traditional romance. There one prefers Classical Antiquity or the western Middle Ages. It is true that science fiction authors’ culture is “classic,” in the proper sense, and that we seldom study Late Antiquity in class. But two novels recently published in France supply exceptions – unless they are the first heralds of a new vogue, which one might account for by the resurgence of interest enjoyed by these long-neglected periods for some years now in our schools and universities.

But first I would like to call to mind a much older text by Lyon Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall1. Martin Padway, an American student of ancient history, is visiting Mussolini’s Rome when he is suddenly transported to the sixth century AD. He then introduces into Late Antique Italy, among other things, the use of zero, the printing press, shock journalism, gunpowder, and the telescope. Fearing the onset of the titular “darkness,” that is to say the Middle Ages, Padway intervenes in politics: he rescues the Ostrogoth King Thiudahad from assassination by Wittiges and, thanks to his guns, prevents Belisarius’ reconquest of Italy. Having become a privileged counsellor to the Ostrogoth kings, Padway negotiates on equal terms with Justinian. At the end of the novel, he muses with satisfaction that his inventions will survive him, no matter what: “History had, without question, been changed. Darkness would not fall.”

The authors of the afterword rightly note a similarity to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: there is the same humorous journalistic tone, with a taste for comic satire (particularly when depicting capricious women and commercial or political wranglings), in which today’s reader will find an old-fashioned charm. Also shared with Mark Twain is a positivism which pokes fun at superstition (note the descriptions of tavern debates between Orthodoxes, Arians, Nestorians, and Monophysites), and a conviction that with common sense and an entrepreneurial spirit one can get to the bottom of all things. As a result these same authors have an easy time decrying the Americanness of the hero. Yet I believe that de Camp was less naïve than they think him – one must always be wary of taking a comic too much at his word2 – and it was certainly not in total innocence that he chose the title Lest Darkness Fall for a work that opens on a stormy night near the Pantheon in 1938 or 1939. Recount Martin Padway’s travails in a sixth century full of the remnants of a brilliant civilization which he sees falling bit by bit into darkness: are they not a means of compensating for the helplessness felt by a clear-sighted American upon visiting old Europe at the brink of conflict? 3 Besides, the author demonstrates a creditable knowledge, albeit simplified, of Italy’s Ostrogothic history. If his characterizations are not always free from clichés, most of the time they are more nuanced. The decadent Romans are not as decadent as one might expect, the Ostrogoths are rarely barbarians, and Padway recognizes in them both good will and tolerance. It’s far from clear that history books contemporary with the novel were always so equitable in their judgements.

The French title of Robert Silverberg’s novel, Les temps parallèles4, is quite inappropriate: the idea of parallel universes is what allows many authors of time-travel narratives to escape the difficulties of temporal paradox5. And yet there is no question of parallel universes in this novel, which is built of contradictions in a play upon this very paradox. The author imagines that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a means of travel to the past has been discovered. This invention is soon exploited for the sake of tourism: a corps of “Time Couriers” is formed to escort those who wish to visit vanished civilizations or to attend the great events of History – all for a fee, of course. The novel tells the story of one of these guides, Judson Elliott. A student of Byzantine history, he is recruited by the “Time Service.” After a theoretical education and an internship in nineteenth and twentieth-century Louisiana, he moves on to Istanbul to specialize in the Byzantine world. Under the supervision of an established guide named Metaxas, Judson learns how to visit the Nika riots, by successive jumps of a few hours, in order to arrive precisely at the critical juncture. Metaxas allows him, as a bonus, to join the innumerable young men recruited to spend a night with Theodora: a disappointing experience, as Theodora, though an expert, makes love mechanically and without passion. In his turn, Judson leads tourist groups from 400 to 537 AD so as to show them over several days the history of the first Hagia Sophia, then its reconstruction under Theodosius II, and finally the erection of the Sanctuary desired by Justinian. He enables them to hear the true words spoken by the Emperor on this occasion, which are a far cry from the famous “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” He then brings them to the arrival of the Crusades or to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks and the entry of Mahomet II into the Hagia Sophia. Judson must remedy a number of imprudences committed by those who accompany him, including an Ohio teacher who aims to offer her ample bosom to Bohemond of Hauteville in the moment he enters the conquered city, and a pedophile stockbroker who escapes into time to assuage his desires. Outside his working hours, Judson relaxes with his friend Metaxas, who has built a pleasant villa in the reign of Alexius Comnenus; there he converses with a German professor who plunders Byzantine libraries (Alexandria is too heavily surveilled by the Time Patrol) and brings back “the Nausicaa and Triptolemus of Sophocles, and of Euripides the Andromeda, the Peliades, the Phaethon, and the Oedipus,” thus realizing the dream of all Hellenists. It is Metaxas, too, who upon learning of Judson’s Greek origins on his mother’s side, encourages him to investigate his ancestry. Judson thereby discovers that he is the descendant of a branch of the Ducas family, and falls hopelessly in love with Pulcheria, his own “multi-great grandmother” – a very sensual, mutual love. Unfortunately, this love interferes with his professional duties and he falls into an imbroglio of temporal paradoxes which see him multiplied into many versions of himself.

A similitude exists between this novel and de Camp’s: same American point of view, same satirical cast. But Silverberg’s satire is far more critical of his compatriots, and very pessimistic. The tourists are ignorant junkies for sensation, and ultimately preoccupied with themselves. The world of the Time Couriers is hardly better, as they interest themselves in little but illicit trade and sexual adventure6. The hero, after his first lover’s quarrels with Byzantine history (I, Judson Daniel Elliott III, stood bareheaded under the Byzantine sky, here in A.D. 408, while the Emperor of Byzantium, robes aswish, walked past me! […] I was overwhelmed, and by Arcadius! What if this had been Justinian? Constantine? Alexius?”), is soon contaminated by this world, and melts into it having forgotten his initial interests. It must be said that this novel, in part because of this darkness, is not the most appealing work of its author’s many works7. Although clearly Silverberg harbours a personal interest in Byzantine history and its documentation, it is a touristy Byzantium that he presents: a series of postcards in which we see petty characters against a backdrop of monuments and famous events, in brief the equivalent of an adventure novel set in exotic lands, the only difference being that spatial exoticism has become temporal exoticism.

It is far otherwise in the two volumes of Anglophone Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, titled respectively Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors8. There is no time-travel, and in the first place, there is no question of Byzantium. The publishers classify the novel as fantasy, but apart from one limited episode, it has none of the tell-tale qualities (magic, fabulous creatures, chivalry). In fact, it more closely resembles a historical fiction, but a utopic (in the proper sense) and a uchronic historical fiction, as it takes place at a time and in places that are imaginary. It is not even on Earth as we know it – but the only indication of this are the two moons in the sky9. Nevertheless, the setting is clearly Italy and the Byzantine Empire of the sixth century; Sarantium is Byzantium, a dreamed and revisited Byzantium. The plot is complex, as one can expect from a work of 1300 pages (in the edition “J’ai lu”), with many characters and many narrative points of view, so that it is difficult to summarize, and if one attempted an exact report, it would quickly become tedious. I will give, therefore, but a quick overview.

The first volume follows the mosaicist Caius Crispus, known as Crispin, who at the invitation of Emperor Valerius II leaves his native Batiara, then governed by a barbarous, conquering people known as the Antae10, and arrives in famed Sarantium. The journey is long and takes Crispin through a wild country where he encounters primeval supernatural forces11, but ultimately he attains his destination, accompanied by what narratology would call “helpers”: a good-natured soldier, a barbarian, and a young woman he has saved from prostitution†. In Sarantium, Crispin works to decorate the dome of the Emperor’s new “Sanctuary of Jad’s Holy Wisdom.” He discovers the world of the Hippodrome factions and the chariot races that command the passion of an entire people. Implicated despite himself in court intrigue, he is seduced by the personality and exceptional intelligence of the Emperor and Empress – especially the latter, Alixana, who bears no resemblance to the Theodora of Silverberg (and of Procopius). The second volume sets aside the protagonist of the first to explore the destinies of several other characters: a doctor of the eastern Bassanid empire, which is ever in conflict with Sarantium, a star charioteer, Alixana, and the Emperor himself, threatened by a dark conspiracy. We do not truly meet Crispin again until the end of the novel, when he returns to his home country. The work ends with an ingenious surprise of which it suffices to say – to avoid spoiling it – that it inserts into history art, not only of Sarantium, but of our own world.

One comes to realize that this novel is of a whole other magnitude than the others, and has a great richness. The characters are not simple pasteboards, and the author demonstrates undeniable literary and moral (not to say philosophical) ambitions. However, for an article to be featured in Anabases, I should rather discuss Guy Gavriel Kay’s treatment of the Byzantine material. The debt to the real sixth-century Byzantium is not at all disguised. In the acknowledgements to the first volume, the author defines his text as “essentially a fantasy upon themes of Byzantium.” He cites several of the works he relied upon, in particular those of Alan Cameron on the Hippodrome and various writings on the aesthetics and history of Byzantium, and mentions numerous discussions with scholars on Internet mailing lists dedicated to Late Antiquity and Byzantium12. A good number of real places and people are easily recognizable, under the new names – often transparent – that have been given to them. It is therefore not necessary to give a complete list, but I shall cite at least a few examples: Rhodias is Rome, Varena Ravenna, Trakesia Thrace, Gisele of the Antae is Amalasuntha (but with a happier fate), the old Emperor Apius Anastasius, Valerius I Justin, Valerius II Justinian, Leontes Belisarius and his wife Styliane the famous Antonina of the Secret History, Pertennius of Eubulus Procopius of Caesarea himself, unflatteringly depicted. GGK accuses him outright of having murdered Justinian’s memory13. One recognizes without pause the Nika riots, the rivalries (recalling de Camp’s subject) of the Goths in Italy after the death of Theodoric, here called Hildric, and Justinian’s intent to reconquer this country. To further commend the text’s fidelity to its model, the two accounts of Hippodrome races are especially evocative: even the reader least interested in the track or in sports in general will be captivated by the way the author brings the chariot-racing to life, and come to understand what a race in Constantinople was, and why it filled the people with such passion. Similarly, the depiction of faction life and of all those surrounding the charioteers, cooks, cheiromancers, factionarii, dancers, and poets is very successful, without ever seeming prepared from a file, as is often the case with historical novels. If GGK does not completely avoid anachronism in his scenes and dialogues14 (but can one speak of anachronism in a novel set in no time?), the lapses are nevertheless quite limited and more of nuance than of fact, which is after all no less than the law of the novel genre, since a novel that strictly respects the authenticity of point of view hardly resembles what we call a novel today, and would be in doubt of finding an audience in our age. In truth, the author exercised utmost care in nearly all respects to give his characters the knowledge and the conceits of the time, and in particular the superstitions appropriate to them, as opposed to the established ideas of our own15.

But the preconception of setting the story in a parallel world permits Kay, apart from avoiding accusations of anachronism, to shrug off the collar of history16. Thus he can conflate centuries: while Valerius reigns in Sarantium (in the sixth century), in the Bassanid desert a middle-aged merchant leaves his caravan one night to go off alone into the sands, and meets a vision that will change the world. One recognizes in this Ashar ibn Ashar the prophet of Islam. In the same vein, Valerius’s successor imposes a harsh iconoclasm and shatters the mosaics of the Sanctuary of Jad’s Holy Wisdom. Taken one step further are the transpositions, the most telling of which is that of religion. The Sarantine Empire recognizes one god, Jad, who is worshipped in temples run by clergy, with a Patriarch in Sarantium and another isolated in the old western capital of Rhodias. But there is also a heresy, favoured by the Antae of Batiara and a number of Sarantines, including the Empress Alixana herself: beside Jad stands his son Heladikos, who is revered for his fall into the sea, undertaken to deliver humankind. Heladikians worship him alongside his father, and use as their symbol a dolphin – very nearly a fish. GGK has wryly inverted the outcome of the Arian controversy. Elsewhere, the author modifies characters or invents them out of whole cloth. His Valerius is a mix of the real Justinian and of an idealized Justinian very different from the historical figure: with his physical appearance, intelligence, and energy, he makes a model Emperor whose first thought is for the good of his Empire, and who is curiously tolerant (he does not persecute the Heladikians, except reluctantly and for political reasons), and exceedingly humane. Valerius’s fate is also completely different. For her part, Gisele does not perish, unlike Amalasuntha, but escapes to Sarantium, where she ultimately weds Leontes/Belisarius and becomes Empress. Styliane retains Procopius’s Antonina’s perversity, political ambition, and brimming sexuality, but she is no longer of humble birth: doubtless GGK had no need of a replica of Theodora (as she is in the Secret History) and considered it better to depict, as a contrast to the dancer rising to the throne, the heiress of a noble family and long-time enemy of the Imperial couple.

Paradoxically, the Sarantine Mosaic, which is unfaithful to history and deliberately inverts and reconstructs historical matter, evokes the Late Antique and Eastern Mediaeval world much more exactly than the novels of de Camp and Silverberg, which endeavour to respect history’s givens. Its false Byzantium is more real than the “real” Byzantium of the time-travellers, in short an example of the “true lying” advocated by Louis Aragon. By way of conclusion, it is certainly worth citing a passage to provide a sense of Guy Gavriel Kay’s style, especially as compared with the narrative supplied by Procopius17. This is Theodora/Alixana’s famous speech, by which she brings courage to the Emperor in the very moment when he considers fleeing Byzantium/Sarantium to escape the Nika/Victory Riots. A senator, Plautus Bonosus, remembers the scene as it unfolded before him:

“No man spoke. The one woman in the room did.

“‘I would sooner die clothed in porphyry in this palace,’ the Empress Alixana said quietly, ‘than of old age in any place of exile on earth.’ She had been standing by the eastern window while the men debated, gazing out at the burning city beyond the gardens and the palaces. Now she turned and looked only at Valerius. ‘All Jad’s children are born to die. The vestments of Empire are seemly for a shroud, my lord. Are they not?’

“Bonosus remembered watching Faustinus’s face go white. Gesius opening his mouth, and then closing it, looking old suddenly, wrinkles deep in pale parchment flesh18. And he remembered something else he thought he would never lose in his life: the Emperor, from near his throne, smiling suddenly at the small, exquisite woman by the window.

“Among many other things, Plautus Bonosus had realized, with a queer kind of pain, that he had never in all his days looked at another man or woman in that way, or received a gaze remotely like the one that the dancer who had become their Empress bestowed upon Valerius in return.19”

Pierre-Louis Malosse
Université Paul Valéry


1De peur que les ténèbres, translated into French by Christian Meistermann, published in 1972 by Marabout, and reprinted by Belles Lettres in 1999 (“Le cabinet noir” series, number 28), with an afterword by Hélène et Pierre-Jean Oswald containing a brief note on the author and his novel. Here we learn that the work first appeared in 1939 in the SF review Unknown, and in bookstores in 1949.

2We can cite among others this phrase of de Camp’s in summarizing Martin Padway’s fate: “Never again would he know the pleasures of the American Journal of Archaeology, of Mickey Mouse, of flush toilets, of speaking the simple, rich, sensitive English Language…”

3A number of the details of de Camp’s contemporary Rome lead one to believe that he really visited the city, and perhaps the idea for his novel came to him upon beholding the Pantheon, so well conserved, as if it had travelled in time from Antiquity to the present.

4Published in the United States in 1969 under the title Up the Line. Translated into French by Henri-Luc Planchat for éditions du Bélial in 2004, and reprinted in 2006 in the Livre de Poche Science-fiction, number 7282.

5The chief of these paradoxes can be presented thusly, as did Barjavel in his Voyageur imprudent: a man goes back in time and kills his father before he could ever sire a child. Therefore, our time-traveller never existed. But if he never existed, then he couldn’t have gone back in time to kill his father. Therefore, he does exist, and he did kill his father… etc. In this case, the theory of parallel universes postulates that after the father’s murder, a new universe is created, in which the time traveller never existed. But his original universe carries on parallel to the new one. We can also consider that he never truly went to the past, but to the past of another universe, where the father was killed and, for example, the Germans won the Second World War (the subject of a remarkable novel by Philip K. Dick), without ever affecting the original universe.

6We learn along the way that Byzantine women were not as prudish as we once thought them. The whole novel has a strictly masculine point of view, and most of the female characters are reduced to the most simple terms, that is to say, to their sex appeal.

7Doubtless this explains the 35-year delay between the American publication and the French translation. Silverberg wrote more than a hundred science fiction novels and short stories.

8 The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium, 1998; and Lord of Emperors, 2000. élisabeth Vonarburg’s French translation was published in 2001 by Buchet/Chastel, Pierre Zech, and reprinted in 2005 in the series “J’ai lu.”
† Translator’s note: A “helper” character is one of two classes of “auxiliant,” the French adjuvant, in the well-known (in France) narratological theory of A.J. Greimas, a French-Lithuanian linguist and semiotician. The other class, of course, is the “opponent” character.

9The author furthermore supplies a map of nowhere, but in it one can recognize the silhouette – very deformed – of the eastern Mediterranean, from Italy, shortened and widened, to the shores of Palestine, with Asia Minor’s prominence cut off and Crete rotated a quarter-turn.

10Our universe also knew the Antae or Antes, recorded by Jordanes and Procopius (in his Gothic Wars): these were the first known Slavic peoples. But they did not push as far as the Mediterranean.

11This is the episode of fantasy proper that I noted earlier on.

12The author specifies again that he has taken his title from Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the epigraph is taken from the Chronicle of the Journey of Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, to Constantinople.

13And this point of view is brought to its final consequence, as one discovers upon reading the novel.

14As in the confrontation scene in the tunnel, or in the conduct of women, which is closer to what prevails in our era than to the customs of Late Antiquity.

15This is the case for the small value accorded human life,

16This other planet and its other history has already hosted a novel, entitled The Lions of Al-Rassan (which will, it seems, soon be adapted by Hollywood). This work, less successful in my opinion than the Sarantine Mosaic, is set in Spain during the Reconquest, around the life of Rodrigo de Vivar.

17Bell. pers., I, 24, 37-41.

18Faustinus et Gesius are the Master of Offices and the Chancellor, respectively. The latter seems to have been inspired by the eunuch Narses.

19Sailing to Sarantium, translated by élisabeth Vonarburg as Le chemin de Sarance. Pages 314-315 in the edition “J’ai lu.”

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