This is the Introduction to Richard Blake's latest historical novel. Even if you decide not to buy the novel, you may find this brief history of the Later Roman Empire useful.
Crown of Empire
by Richard Blake
Crown of Empire is set in the early seventh century – after the Roman Empire is often believed to have fallen. In Northern and Western Europe, we are deep into the middle ages. In England, we are already past the age of Arthur and Merlin. Turning, though, to the eastern and central Mediterranean, classical antiquity has ended, and not ended. We have a continuing Empire, but with a new capital, and altered frontiers. Its rulers call themselves Romans, but their language is Greek, not Latin. Education remains based on the pagan classics, but almost everyone has been a Christian for three hundred years.
In 395 AD, following a century of experiment, the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western administrative zones, with joint Emperors in Rome and in Constantinople. The purpose was to let each Emperor deal with the pressure on his own critical frontiers – the barbarians along the Rhine and Danube frontiers in the West, and the Persians along the Euphrates and desert frontiers in the East.
In theory, each Emperor was equal. In practice, the Eastern Emperor, ruling from Constantinople, was soon the senior partner. During the next two hundred years, becoming increasingly Greek in language in culture, the Eastern Empire flourished, and Constantinople became one of the largest and most opulent cities in the world.
The Western Empire went into immediate and rapid decline. In 406 AD, barbarians crossed the Rhine in large numbers, and broke into Italy. In 410 AD, they sacked Rome. By then, the Western Capital had been moved to Ravenna, a city in North Eastern Italy, impregnable behind marshes, and within easier reach of the frontiers – and within easy reach of Constantinople.
During the next seventy years, the Barbarians took France and Spain and North Africa from the Empire. Britain remained in the Empire, but its people were told to look to their own defence. In 476 AD, the last Western Emperor was deposed. By 500 AD, the whole of the Western Empire had been replaced by a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms.
After 527 AD, the Emperor Justinian began to reach out from Constantinople to reconquer the lost Western provinces. He recovered North Africa and Italy and part of Spain. However, the effort was exhausting. After his death in 568, the Empire lost much of Italy to the Lombard barbarians, and Rome itself fell under papal domination. Slavic and Avar barbarians crossed the Danube and conquered and burned all the way to Athens and the walls of Constantinople. After 602, the Persians began a war of destruction against the Empire. Though they ultimately lost, they did briefly take Egypt and Syria.
Crown of Empire
This novel opens in December 618 AD, and its action takes place in the Alps, in Ravenna and in Rome. Italy is now divided between the Empire and the Lombards, while the Papacy sits largely on the fence.
When the Lombards first entered Italy, they were a most savage race of barbarians. They were also highly intelligent. It is now fifty years later, and they have converted to Christianity. Their higher classes have adopted both Latin and the wider Roman culture. Their ambition is to become the rulers of a Latin and Christian and prosperous Italy, more or less at peace with the Eastern Empire. Their capital is Pavia, a city in Northern Italy.
Governed by an Exarch, or Imperial Viceroy, the remaining Imperial possessions in Italy have their capital in Ravenna, another city in the North. Because of the great distance from Constantinople, and the virtual end of communication in the winter months, the Exarch is effectively his own man. He can rule and make war or peace as he pleases.
I turn to the characters. The protagonist, Roderic of Aquileia – usually known as Rodi – is a young barbarian who made his first appearance in my earlier novel, Game of Empires. He is an agent in the Imperial secret service. In Death in Ravenna, he arrives in Italy on a mission to find dirt on the Exarch. In this novel, he finds himself serving the Exarch, who has now declared himself Emperor of Italy. It goes without saying that he did not exist.
Though he may seem one of the more unlikely characters, the Exarch Eleutherius, did exist. The general impression of Byzantine eunuchs is that they were effeminate creatures, good for organising ceremonies, or slandering or poisoning anyone who got in their way. Some were like that. Others were not. Eleutherius was a seasoned general and administrator. He was sent out to Ravenna to put down a revolt. He did that with notable efficiency, and stabilised relations with the Lombards. In this novel, he is a slippery character, but has unbounded ambitions that only begin with declaring himself Emperor.
Aripert, the Lombard prince, did not exist. I made him up on the spur of the moment for Death in Ravenna, and intended him to be a one-use-only character. I then found that I liked him a lot. He dominates this novel. He will probably dominate the next one too.
None of the other characters existed – Cosmas, an Egyptian monk, and Synesius, a sinister old man of dubious origin and motives, and Julian of Pella, the chief villain. Nor did Alaric, Rodi’s ultimate superior, who makes no appearance in this novel, but is the narrator and adornment of six other of my Byzantine novels.
For my other novels set in this period, see the note at the end of this novel.