Saturday, August 24, 2019

"Proceed to Rome and desolate that city." ~ The Sack of Rome by Alaric, August 24, AD 410

Alaric escorts the Christian treasures of Rome to safety at Saint Peter's Basilica
during the Gothic sack of AD 410. [Click to enlarge].

The sack of Rome, the Eternal City, by Alaric and his Goths occurred on this date, August 24, in anno Domini 410. This catastrophic event, caused as much by the inept diplomacy of the Romans as by the intrepidity of Alaric, was a major turning-point in history that shook the Roman Empire to its very core. Indeed, this event was such a profound shock that it inspired Augustine of Hippo to write his greatest and most influential work, The City of God, as a response. Writing later in a work called Retractiones, Augustine records the event and the immediate reaction to it, saying:
Rome, in an invasion of the Goths advancing under their king Alaric, was overthrown by their disastrous attack. The worshipers of false gods and of many gods, to whom we colloquially refer as pagans, tried to blame this on the Christian religion and began to blaspheme the true God with more bitterness and more severity than usual.” (Augustine, Retractiones, Chapter LXIX]
So shattering was this event that few Roman historians of the time seemed to want to record it in their works. Of those who did, such as Olympiodorus of Thebes, only fragmentary and derivative passages have survived antiquity. Even Jordanes, in his 6th century work On the Origin and Deeds of the Goths, passes over Alaric’s exploit in a cursory way without elaboration.

One ancient source that covered the sack in some detail was Hermias Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History. Perhaps drawing on the lost history of Olympiodorus, Sozomen provides the following account of the lead-up to the sack, explaining how the foolish decisions of the emperor Honorius and his court at Ravenna offended Alaric and drove him to lay siege to the magnificent ancient capital, Rome:
The Western Empire fell a prey to disorders, because many tyrants arose. After the death of Stilicho, Alaric, the leader of the Goths, sent an embassy to Honorius to treat of peace; but without avail. He advanced to Rome, and laid siege to it; and by posting a large army of barbarians on the banks of the Tiber, he effectually prevented the transmission of all provisions into the city from Portus. After the siege had lasted some time, and fearful ravages had been made in the city by famine and pestilence, many of the slaves, and most of the barbarians by race within the walls, deserted to Alaric. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 6]
At this time, the first indications of religious strife within the city were made manifest as the pagans among the nobility felt that an appeal to their gods might be effective at warding off the Gothic horde. Sozomen explains:
Click for more info.
Those among the senators who still adhered to pagan superstition, proposed to offer sacrifices in the Capitol and the other temples; and certain Tuscans, who were summoned by the prefect of the city, promised to drive out the barbarians with thunder and lightning; they boasted of having performed a similar exploit at Larnia, a city of Tuscany, which Alaric had passed by for Rome, and had not taken. The event, however, proved that no advantage could be derived from these persons for the city. All persons of good sense were aware that the calamities which this siege entailed upon the Romans were indications of Divine wrath sent to chastise them for their luxury, their debauchery, and their manifold acts of injustice towards each other, as well as towards strangers. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 6]
These “persons of good sense” were no doubt the Christians in the city who feared that Alaric had been sent by God as an avenger for the blasphemies against Christ committed in Rome. Another ecclesiastical historian of the same period, Socrates Scholasticus, records an incident which emphasizes this point:
It is said that as he was advancing towards Rome, a pious monk exhorted him not to delight in the perpetuation of such atrocities, and no longer to rejoice in slaughter and blood. To whom Alaric replied, 'I am not going on in this course of my own will; but there is a something that irresistibly impels me daily, saying, 'Proceed to Rome, and desolate that city.' [Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter 10]
At the behest of Pope Innocent I and the emperor Honorius, both of whom were in Ravenna at the time, Alaric raised the first siege of Rome and hastened to Arminium to open negotiations with high hopes that he would be given an exalted rank and honors. But Honorius and his courtiers, misunderstanding their military situation, offered him only money and provisions and were inflexible on all other points. Alaric soon became frustrated with their dithering. Returning to Rome, he renewed the siege of the city and raised up Attalus, the prefect of the city, as a puppet emperor and rival to Honorius.

With Attalus as additional leverage, Alaric tried again to negotiate with Honorius. But while these negotiations were dragging on, a terrible famine struck Rome because the grain supply from Africa had been stopped by officers loyal to Honorius. Attalus proved completely unable to cope with this situation, and was at loggerheads with Alaric over what to do next. As a result, Alaric agreed to strip Attalus of his position in exchange for pledges from Honorius that peace negotiations would continue in earnest.

While talks were still in progress, however, an attack was carried out on Alaric by a rash warlord named Saros, himself Goth in the employ of Honorius. Only supported by 300 men, this attack failed in its intent, but started a chain-reaction with disastrous results. Alaric immediately broke off negotiations and departed with his whole army from the vicinity of Ravenna, heading south. Sozomen picks up the thread:
Alaric retraced his steps, and returned to Rome, and took it by treachery. He permitted each of his followers to seize as much of the wealth of the Romans as he was able, and to plunder all the houses; but from respect towards the Apostle Peter, he commanded that the large and very spacious church erected around his tomb should be an asylum. This was the only cause which prevented the entire demolition of Rome. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 9]
Sozomen then provides an anecdote of a single incident that took place during the sack:
I shall recount a pious action performed by a barbarian, and record the bravery of a Roman lady for the preservation of her chastity. The barbarian and the lady were both Christians, but not of the same heresy, the former being an Arian, and the latter a zealous follower of the Nicene doctrines. A young man of Alaric's soldiers saw this very beautiful woman, and was conquered by her loveliness, and tried to drag her into intercourse; but she drew back, and exerted herself that she might not suffer pollution. He drew his sword, and threatened to slay her; but he was restrained by the passion which he entertained toward her, and merely inflicted a slight wound on her neck. The blood flowed in abundance, and she offered her neck to the sword; for she preferred to die in her chastity than to survive, after having consorted lawfully with a husband, and then to be attempted by another man. When the barbarian repeated his purpose, and followed it with more fearful threats, he accomplished nothing further; struck with wonder at her chastity, he conducted her to the church of Peter the apostle, and gave six pieces of gold for her support to the officers who were guarding the church, and commanded them to keep her for her husband. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 10]
A few other anecdotes from the sack may be gleaned from another Christian source, the History Against the Pagans written a few years after the event by Paulus Orosius. As this obscure work and its relationship to the sack of Rome is not particularly well known, I will provide the substantial passages below without comment.
Alaric appeared before trembling Rome, laid siege, spread confusion, and broke into the City. He first, however, gave orders that all those who had taken refuge in sacred places, especially in the basilicas of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, should be permitted to remain inviolate and unmolested; he allowed his men to devote themselves to plunder as much as they wished, but he gave orders that they should refrain from bloodshed.….

Click for more info.
While the barbarians were roaming through the City, one of the Goths, a powerful man and a Christian, chanced to find in a church building a virgin advanced in years who had dedicated herself to God. When he respectfully asked her for gold and silver, she declared with the firmness of her faith that she had a large amount in her possession and that she would bring it forth at once. She did so. Observing that the barbarian was astonished at the size, weight, and beauty of the riches displayed, even though he did not know the nature of the vessels, the virgin of Christ then said to him: "These are the sacred plate of the Apostle Peter. Presume, if you dare! You will have to answer for the deed. As for me, since I cannot protect them, I dare not keep them."

The barbarian, stirred to religious awe through the fear of God and by the virgin's faith, sent word of the incident to Alaric. He ordered that all the vessels, just as they were, should be brought back immediately to the basilica of the Apostle, and that the virgin also, together with all Christians who might join the procession, should be conducted thither under escort. The building, it is said, was at a considerable distance from the sacred places, with half the city lying between. Consequently the gold and silver vessels were distributed, each to a different person; they were carried high above the head in plain sight, to the wonder of all beholders. The pious procession was guarded by a double line of drawn swords; Romans and barbarians in concert raised a hymn to God in public. In the sacking of the City the trumpet of salvation sounded far and wide and smote the ears of all with its invitation, even those lying in hiding. From every quarter the vessels of Christ mingled with the vessels of Peter, and many pagans even joined the Christians in making profession, though not in true faith. In this way they escaped, but only for a time, that their confusion might afterward be the greater. The more densely the Roman refugees flocked together, the more eagerly their barbarian protectors surrounded them.… [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 39]
This scene is recreated in the 19th century German engraving included at the top of this post. Orosius is also instructive with regard to the aftermath of the siege, which he describes as follows:
The third day after they had entered the City, the barbarians departed of their own accord. They had, it is true, burned a certain number of buildings, but even this fire was not so great as that which had been caused by accident in the seven hundredth year of Rome. Indeed, if I review the conflagration produced during the spectacles of Nero, her own emperor, this later fire, brought on by the anger of the conqueror, will surely bear no comparison with the former, which was kindled by the wantonness of the prince. Nor do I need in a comparison of this sort to mention the Gauls, who, after burning and sacking the City, camped upon her ashes for almost an entire year. Moreover, to remove all doubt that the enemy were permitted to act in this manner in order to chastise the proud, wanton, and blasphemous City, it may be pointed out that her most magnificent sites, which the Goths were unable to set on fire, were destroyed at this time by lightning. [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 39]
Orosius closes his account of the sack with an interesting comment which seems to indicate that he had visited Rome himself in the aftermath of the sack, or had at least spoken with several eyewitnesses:
Although the memory of the event is still fresh, anyone who saw the numbers of the Romans themselves and listened to their talk would think that "nothing had happened," as they themselves admit, unless perhaps he were to notice some charred ruins still remaining. [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 40]
To corroborate the point that the sack did not do permanent, irreparable harm to Rome, Sozomen concludes his account by saying of the citizens of Rome: “Those who were there saved, and they were many, rebuilt the city.” [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 9]

It's worth mentioning that both Sozomen and Orosius wrote in the days before the much more devastating sack of Rome by the Vandals in AD 455. At that point it became clear that the prostration the city had suffered under Alaric was not a singular event—and that much worse might be expected in the future.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Eugenius takes the throne, AD 392 ~ The Really, Truly Last Pagan Emperor of Rome...Maybe

A gold solidus of Eugenius minted at Lyon ca. AD 393.
[Taken from the Dumbarton Oaks collection]
On August 22, AD 392, an unlikely man was raised to the imperial purple of the Western Roman Empire. His name was Eugenius and for most of his career up to that point, he had been an academic serving the Western imperial court. The pagan historian Zosimus, writing in the early 6th century AD, describes Eugenius’s early career and his path to power:
There was in the court a person named Eugenius, a man of learning, who was a professor and teacher of rhetoric. He had been recommended to the notice of Arbogastes by Rictomeris as a person of a kind and obliging disposition, with a desire that he would make him his familiar friend, being one who would be serviceable to him in any circumstances where the assistance of a real friend would be needful. When Rictomeris was departed to the emperor Theodosius, by daily conversation Eugenius became the sincere friend of Arbogastes, who had no secret which he did not confide to him. [Zosimus, Historia Nea, Book IV]
The Arbogastes mentioned above was a powerful Frankish general who became commander of the Western Roman armies in the 380s. As with many of the Romanized barbarians who managed to attain supreme military command, Arbogast was resentful when the Western emperor attempted to issue him a command or restrain his ambitions. In AD 392, Arbogast had a very public quarrel with Valentinian II, the reigning emperor of the West, and the tension between the two soon became untenable. When Valentinian attempted to strip him of his rank, Arbogast tore up the order, threw it at the emperor’s feet, and dared him to do anything about it. He also began to plot a future without Valentinian’s interference. Zosimus continues:
Recollecting Eugenius, therefore, at this juncture, who by his extraordinary learning and the gravity of his conversation seemed well-adapted for the management of an empire, [Arbogastes] communicated to him his designs. But finding him not pleased with the proposals, he attempted to prevail on him by all the arts he could use, and entreated him not to reject what fortune so favorably offered. Having at length persuaded him, he deemed it advisable in the first place to remove Valentinian, and thus to deliver the sole authority to Eugenius. [Zosimus, Historia Nea, Book IV]
Shortly thereafter, Valentinian II was dead. He was found strangled in his chambers. The official verdict was that he had committed suicide, though some accused Arbogast of having solicited the deed of the bedchamber eunuchs. Zosimus, for his part, claims that Arbogast himself had dealt the emperor the mortal wound. Realizing that he could not take the throne himself, Arbogast decided to elevate his friend Eugenius as emperor of the West. The two together seemed like a formidable pair, Arbogast being “brave and skillful” and Eugenius being “learned and virtuous” according to Zosimus.

A silver siliqua of Eugenius. The resemblance of the
numismatic portraits of Eugenius to those of Julian
the Apostate is striking—particularly Eugenius's beard
which was symbolic of the pagan philosophers.
One of Eugenius’s first acts was to replace all of the officers of the Western court with his own men. Many of these new officers, apparently, were pagans. Furthermore, in response to a petition submitted by Symmachus, one of the leading members of the Roman Senate and Prefect of the City of Rome, Eugenius allowed the Altar of Victory to be placed again in the Senate House at Rome. This famous pagan altar had first been removed in AD 356 at the order of Constantius II. Later replaced by Julian the Apostate, the Altar was removed again by Gratian in AD 383.

The leading Christians in Italy were deeply dismayed by this move. In a letter to Eugenius, Saint Ambrose of Milan acknowledges him as emperor, but promises to exercise the same boldness when speaking to him as he did with his predecessors on the throne. He then rebuked Eugenius for delivering favors and money to pagan officers, saying:
[W]hen your Clemency took up the reins of government it was afterwards discovered that favors of this kind had been granted to men, excellent indeed in matters of state but in religion heathens. And it may, perhaps, be said, august Emperor, that you did not make any restitution to temples, but presented gifts to men who had deserved well of you. But you know that we must constantly act in the cause of God, as is often done in the cause of liberty, also not only by priests, but also by those who are in your armies, or are reckoned in the number of those who dwell in the provinces. When you became Emperor envoys requested that you would make restitution to the temples, and you did not do it; others came a second time and you resisted, and afterwards you thought fit that this should be granted to those very persons who made the petition. [Ambrose, Letter LVII]
But was Eugenius truly a pagan emperor? Or was he merely seeking supporters among the pagan Roman nobility by granting them symbolic favors? It seems likely that he was a lukewarm Christian who was willing to seek allies wherever he could find them. Writing about 50 years after the events, the ecclesiastical historian Hermias Sozomen maintains that Eugenius “was by no means sincere in his profession of Christianity.” He then goes on to describe how Eugenius resorted to pagan fortune-tellers to determine what course of action to take. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter 22]

Though Eugenius may have been a nominal Christian himself, it appears that one of his most important supporters, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, was a very public and very outspoken pagan. Despite his religious leanings, Flavian had served as the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, Gaul and Africa under Theodosius. With the rise of Eugenius and Arbogast, Flavian switched his allegiance, possibly seeing an opening for a pagan revival, though some scholars have suggested that his motives were purely political (eg., Michele Salzman's article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies here). Regardless, Flavian seems to have influenced Eugenius to embrace the pagan elements which were still very active in Rome. The ecclesiastical historian Rufinus, writing about a decade after the events, records Flavian’s zeal for the old pagan rites:
But the pagans, who are always reviving their errors with new ones, renewed the sacrifices and bloodied Rome with horrid victims, examined sheep guts and from the divination of entrails proclaimed that victory for Eugenius was assured. Flavian, who was then prefect, engaged in this in a spirit of deep superstition and great fervor, and it was owing to his statements that they assumed that Eugenius’s victory was assured, since he had a great reputation for being wise. [Rufinus: Ecclesiastical History, Book 11.33]
Paulinus of Milan, writing in his Life of Saint Ambrose about twenty years after the events, similarly indicates that Flavian and Arbogast were the primary pagan influences on Eugenius who he portrays as a weak Christian, “forgetful of his faith.” When Eugenius arrived in Milan to prepare for the coming battle against Theodosius, Paulinus records that Ambrose had fled, “avoiding rather the sight of the sacrilegious man.” Furthermore, it seems that the churches of Milan rejected Eugenius's attempt to placate them with gifts, and refused to offer prayers for his success in the coming fight. These snubs were not appreciated—Arbogast and Flavian were particularly offended. Paulinus continues:
Click for more info.
Arbogast, Count at that time, and the Prefect Flavian had promised as they were leaving Milan, that when they should return victorious, they would make a stable in the basilica of the church of Milan and would review the clergy under arms. [Paulinus, Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter VIII]
And so, Arbogast, Eugenius and Flavian marched off to face Theodosius at the Battle of the River Frigidus and there met their fate. Paulinus renders his verdict, saying:
When the wretched men become wickedly credulous of their demons and open their mouths in blasphemy against God, they deprive themselves of hope of victory. Moreover the cause for their disturbance was this: because the gifts of the emperor [Eugenius], who had involved himself in sacrilege, were spurned by the Church nor was the association with the Church in prayer granted him. But the Lord who is wont to protect His Church cast His judgment from heaven and transferred complete victory to the pious emperor Theodosius….Eugenius and his satellites were crushed. [Paulinus, Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter VIII]
Thus ended what may be termed the last serious attempt at a pagan restoration of the Roman Empire. It remains unclear, however, if Eugenius himself was a pagan or if he was merely a nominal Christian adopting a position tolerant of pagan practices in an attempt to rally the pagan Roman nobility to his cause. To me, the latter seems more likely.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Unconquerable Ricimer Dies ~ August 18, AD 472

A fanciful later European engraving of Ricimer. Though he
ruled from behind the throne of the Western Empire for
16 years, his likeness was never preserved.
On August 18, in anno Domini 472, the powerful generalissimo of the Western Roman Empire, Ricimer, passed from this life.

A barbarian of noble birth, half Visigothic and half Suevian, Ricimer first appears in history as a soldier in the Western Roman army under the command of Flavius Aetius. It is in this capacity that he became allied with Majorian, another follower of Aetius. Both men, it seems, participated in the campaigns of Aetius against the Franks, though Majorian later had a falling out with the great commander prior to his famous victory over Attila.

After the assassination of Aetius and Valentinian III in AD 454-5 and the subsequent sack of Rome by the Vandals, Ricimer and Majorian would rise to power together, overthrowing the weak emperor, Avitus. The following brief passage may be found in the Fragmentary History of Priscus:
“Now that they were free from their fear of the Goths, both Majorian and Ricimer openly revolted. Avitus, disquieted partly by the domestic turmoil, partly by the Vandalic wars, retreated from Rome and held fast to the road to Gaul. Majorian and Ricimer attacked him on the road and forced him to flee to a sacred precinct, where he abdicated his rule and removed his imperial attire. No sooner had Majorian’s men lifted the siege than Avitus’s life ended in starvation, after eight months on the throne. Others say that he was strangled.” [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 133]
Avitus was the first in a line of emperors who would be dominated and undone by the efforts of Ricimer who soon became invested as Magister Militum, attaining supreme military power in the West. He was not, however, able to take the throne himself due to his clear non-Roman lineage. His Roman colleague Majorian was made emperor in AD 457, but after four years of rule, he was deposed by Ricimer, who viewed him as a threat to his power, and later beheaded. Ricimer then put the more pliable Libius Severus on the throne to serve as a puppet. When Severus died of natural causes four years later (though Cassiodorus claims that Ricimer had him poisoned), Ricimer took full control of the Western Empire during a two-year interregnum.

At the height of his power, Ricimer was called “the unconquerable” by the late Roman poet Sidonius Apollinaris and it was said that he never once lost a battle. Sidonius says further:
“If the Norican is restraining the Ostrogoth, it is that Ricimer is feared. If Gaul ties down the armed might of the Rhine, it is he that inspires dread. And because the Vandal foe plundered me [Italy] while the Alan, his kinsman, swept off what remained, this man took vengeance by the force of his own arms.” [Anderson, Sidonius: Poems and Letters, Volume 1, p. 41]
At this point, the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I intervened, naming Anthemius, a general in Illyricum, as Western Emperor. Ricimer accepted this and soon after married Alypia, the daughter of Anthemius, to solidify his position. Not willing to depend on his powerful new son-in-law as his sole military support, Anthemius appointed his Illyrian colleague Marcellinus to command his army as counter-balance to Ricimer. But if Anthemius thought that Ricimer would meekly surrender his authority in the West, he was sorely mistaken.

When Leo and Anthemius put together a vast armada to destroy the Vandal menace in north Africa in AD 468, Ricimer joined the cause, but under the nominal command of Marcellinus. The great campaign, which emptied the coffers of both the Eastern and Western empires, ended up a complete disaster for the Romans, but a boon for the scheming Ricimer. The Roman fleet was destroyed and the army captured by the Vandals. Both halves of the empire found themselves devoid of troops and bankrupt as a result of the catastrophic defeat. Ricimer, however, had remained on the sidelines, losing none of his soldiers, and many blamed him for not fully supporting the effort and secretly wanting it to fail. Further enhancing Ricimer's position, Marcellinus was later assassinated in Sicily, and some suspected a conspiracy hatched by Ricimer had been responsible for his rival's death.

Following this debacle, Ricimer decided that he’d had enough of Anthemius. Priscus explains what happened next:
Click for more info.
Ricimer began a conflict between himself and the Western emperor Anthemius, and moreover, although he was betrothed to Anthemius’s daughter Alypia, he instigated a civil war in the city [of Rome] that lasted for five months. The magistrates and the people fought for Anthemius, the mass of domestic barbarians for Ricimer. Also present was Odoacer, a man of the Skirian race….

Anthemius lived in the palace, but Ricimer barricaded the locations near the Tiber and plagued those inside with hunger. During an engagement fought by the two sides, much of Anthemius’s party fell. Ricimer deceitfully concluded a treaty with the remaining men and then introduced Olybrius as emperor. For five months altogether, a civil war controlled Rome until Anthemius’s supporters surrendered to the barbarians and left the emperor naked. Anthemius joined the crowd of beggars and placed himself under the protection of the martyr Chrysogonos. There he was beheaded by Gondoubandos, Ricimer’s brother [actually, his nephew], after a reign of five years, three months, and eighteen days.

Ricimer thought Anthemius worthy of a royal burial, while he introduced Olybrius into the royal court. Within thirty days after Olybrius succeeded to the Roman throne in the way described, Ricimer lost his life by vomiting most of his blood. Then Olybrius died of edema. [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 170]
Following Ricimer’s death in AD 472, the expiring Western Empire passed through the hands of several weak emperors and warlords until the above-mentioned Odoacer was able to consolidate his power, shrug off attempts of the East to assert authority, and rule in his own right as a barbarian King over Italy.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Lustinian ~ A review of H. N. Turtletaub's novel, Justinian

This is a review I wrote over a decade ago. I am posting it here now because I have had reason to refer to it a few times over the past several weeks in response to people asking if this book is any good. I guess there are so few enjoyable novels set in Byzantium that those who are fans of the history eventually stumble across whatever is out there. 

Click for more info.
There's nothing I love better than reading a good novel about Byzantium--The Rome That Did Not Fall, in the words of Gerard Friell. And given Harry "Turtletaub's" reputation as a writer, I thought that this one would be tailor-made for me. I wanted so much to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, I didn't. The reasons for this are several. First, I couldn't find a single sympathetic character in the entire book. Justinian II is presented as a loathsome monomaniac. His faithful companion Myakes, whose conversations with a monk named Elpidios punctuate the narrative, is a lackey who excuses the emperor's excesses and in general plays the part of a lecherous old man. The aforementioned Elpidios is presented as a hypocrite. The lesser characters are all similarly presented with nary a good or honorable motive among any of them. This lack of virtuous characters is a hallmark of much modern fiction and I'd like to say here and now that I *hate* it. Such works are every bit as obnoxious as the saccharine tales of heroism and good hygiene that used to dominate the genre of historical fiction. As Aristotle said, we should aim for the golden mean, but as doing this can prove difficult, we should err on the side of the lesser vice. In Justinian, Turtletaub has chosen to err on the side of the greater.

That said, Turtletaub (or Turtledove, if we drop the pretense) certainly knows his history. Having translated the Chronicle of Theophanes, a Greek primary source which provides much of what we know about the 7th and 8th century in Byzantium, Turtledove's academic qualifications are not to be despised. However, having read his translation of Theophanes, I have a good idea of how he 'enhanced' the Justinian story for modern readers, and to me, that says a lot about what the author thinks of his potential readers and his misanthropic view of mankind in general. It's not a pretty picture.

Perhaps the most dismaying thing about this book is that it is completely unsuited for young readers. I love reading historical fiction with my kids, and there's precious little on Byzantium available for this purpose. But the copious graphic sex scenes, underage sex scenes, rape scenes, etc. in Justinian make the book completely anathema from this perspective. Indeed, I felt at times that someone had pasted some passages from "Penthouse Letters" into the book.

Turtletaub also treats religious figures shabbily, invariably making them either liars, weirdos, hypocrites, weaklings, or stooges--as if religion is always the mark of the scoundrel. And, of course, the supreme villain, Justinian himself, is presented as something of a religious fanatic, believing that God guides and approves his every wicked action. Here again Turltetaub hews closely to the modern secular conventional wisdom that becomes increasingly trite with each passing day.

So in short, unless you are looking for a depressing read that will leave you feeling like you need a shower and a visit to the confessional after you read it, I'd look elsewhere for an enjoyable novel about Byzantium.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Guest Post ~ "Old Days"

Tooner's Schooners of South Philadelphia, late 1940s.
Anthony "Speed" Schiavo is top row, third from left.
Presenting a retrospective guest post from Anthony P. Schiavo, Sr., written over a decade ago when he was about 75. Anthony, or "Speed" as he was known in South Philadelphia, passed away earlier this week after a full life at the ripe old age of 87.

I look out the window and watch them play in our circle, “the boys” as my wife calls them. When not in school, neighborhood boys regularly play baseball with a hollow bat and wiffle ball or ball hockey on inline skates with hockey sticks, goals, and goalies with pads and masks. It's a small field so I park our car in our driveway to give them room to play. My wife would prefer I park in the street, away from bird droppings and debris from monstrous Christmas trees, planted yearly by our house's original owner. But she's a good neighbor and I'm ... well they don't know it and I don't look it, but I'm one of the boys.

Once, a very long time ago, I played with my friends in our 'ballpark'. We were luckier than these boys, we had 'Abbotts', a dairy maintenance yard at the end of my street in South Philly, bigger and less traveled than the circle they play on. And though my sons on visits ridiculed its size as the place I've told them held epic athletic contests, we were extremely lucky to have it. The best part was that there were few Abbotts vehicles in the yard on weekdays and none on weekends. The place was ours except for occasional visitors who parked there. Even that was hardly ever a problem since cars then were parked unlocked in neutral, there was no 'park'. We simply pushed them into empty parking space out of our way. Cars left unlocked, empty parking space, in South Philly? Yes, it was very long ago.

We played 'halfball' with a broomstick and halves of 'pimple' balls, 'miniature ball' in a ten by ten yard chalked baseball field (ball slapped underhand must hit in the field), and two-hand touch football with a real football or a rolled up and tied newspaper. We played often and long, sometimes into the darkness, as long as we had a critical mass of players, as few as two for halfball and even football. My friend Yogi and I sometimes played football one on one, where we had to pass to ourselves. I was quicker but he was smart and made it hard for me to get started. And he was bigger and muscle counted when the ball was in the air. Yogi is gone now but writing this brings him back clearly, facing me, blocking my way to the goal.

Abbotts was also an informal casino with gambling from pennies to big money. On a concrete platform along a wall with a protective overhang, we played penny ante poker, old men (seventies and eighties) played hilarious pinochle for change with angry outbursts and blatant cheating, and in the center of the yard, returned WWII veterans played dice for enough money to attract hustlers from distant places. They had a lookout for cop cars but with big games, nobody ran, the organizer, who took cuts from big pots, went over and explained the gathering to the cops who always left satisfied.

But my favorite memories of Abbotts were the football games we played against the veterans. Barely past our mid teens, we were no match physically for them and to make matters worse, hitting these guys like we hit each other was unthinkable – they were heroes to us. They slaughtered us but we always looked forward to another game hoping they wouldn't tire of the ease of it. Finally we lured them into a schoolyard to play where speed trumped size and we beat them. Sadly some never played again – it was the end of their youth.

Anthony P. Schiavo, Sr.
I'm not going to try to persuade the boys outside that I'm one of them, me playing in their games is too grotesque to imagine – especially after my spectacular flop on the first pass I had them throw me. But if I could get a message through the age communication barrier, it would be this: enjoy playing but also take it all in, the games, the plays, and especially the faces, not to tell others, they won't care, but to recall how good it was, when they are old men watching new boys play.

Even to his final days, "Speed" felt he was one of the boys, always up for a game of frisbee with his grandkids.