Why Byzantine fiction?

Tales of Byzantium by Eileen Stephenson

Tales of Byzantium by Eileen Stephenson

Some years ago I picked up a book by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio – “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness”. It opens with the striking story of a man who experienced an unusual brain injury that eliminated his ability to experience emotions. What this meant was even more startling – without emotion he was no longer able to remember what happened to him. Within seconds of seeing someone, eating something, or doing anything, he had absolutely no recollection of the event. In short, what this means is that our emotions have to be engaged to create memories.

This insight of Professor Damasio’s goes a long way to explaining the complaint of generations of students studying history books – it’s just long lists of names and dates, it’s boring. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, many historians have sacrificed exhilarating true stories on the altar of dry historical accuracy and lost potential readers. For myself, a bookish introvert from infancy, my youthful discovery of historical fiction meant that when I read history books I connected the static names and dates to the stories of exciting historical events and people. Did I mention history was a favorite subject?

Many times and places have been brought to life in fiction by engaging our emotions in the recounting of events. How many of us understand the Roman empire’s beginnings from reading Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius”, or the Napoleonic wars from Bernard Cornwell, or the Plantagenets from Sharon Kay Penman’s novels? The world’s library shelves are virtually groaning under the weight of novels about poor Ann Boleyn and the other Tudors. And yet a scant few stories [my own “Alexiad” in Tales of Byzantium, being one of them] have been written about Anna Comnena, a Byzantine princess who would have been alive during Eleanor of Aquitaine’s short visit to Constantinople when her first husband, Louis VII of France, was part of the Second Crusade.

For centuries, most western European historians and writers have treated the Byzantines with disdain, as though they were all sneaky and conniving. Those were not the people I came to know. My goal in writing fiction about them is to bring these fascinating people to life.

I want people to learn through the emotional impact of fiction of Byzantine lives and loves, struggles and triumphs. So when we read the usual brief reference in a history book to Constantinople being the medieval gateway to the east, our mind’s eye can instead see Constantine standing on a windy promontory above the Bosphoros and renaming the city after himself; the horrific and bloody Nika riots of Justinian I; Heraclius’s valiant leadership against invaders when suffering from mental illness; Alexios I Comnenus bringing the empire back from the brink of destruction; and of his daughter, the great historian, Anna Comnena. A thousand years’ worth of great stories ready for telling.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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