Death in Ravenna — Historical Introduction



This gives the historical background to my eighth novel set in the 7th century Byzantine Empire

Historical Introduction

Byzantine Empire c620ad

If I were writing a novel about the murder of Julius Caesar, or Nero’s persecution of the Church, my duty would still be to give my absolute best. The reading public deserves no less, and it contains harsher critics than worked for any newspaper. Even so, writing in these periods would allow me to leave significant parts of the background to the reader’s own historical awareness. There have been so many plays and films and novels and television productions, not to mention popular histories, that the wider issues of place and chronology could be taken for granted.

But I am writing a novel set in the seventh century – after the Roman Empire is often believed to have fallen. We have a continuing Empire, but with a new capital, and altered frontiers, and a solidly-established Christian Faith, and much else that may surprise the habitual reader of novels set in the Early Empire.

I know when I am being patronised, and I resent it. I do not want to patronise, or to be resented. People are increasingly aware that the Roman Empire did not fall in 476 AD. I work hard in my Byzantine novels to integrate background into the plot. At the same time, I do appreciate that some readers would like some kind of historical background to a novel set in an unfamiliar period. If you are not one of these readers, please feel free to ignore next few pages – though I still commend the map given at the end of this novel. Otherwise, here is my attempt at a potted history of the Later Roman Empire.

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.

This novel opens in September 618 AD, and its action takes place in Ravenna and in Pavia, both cities in Northern Italy. As said, Justinian reconquered Italy in the middle of the sixth century, but much of it was lost, after 568 AD, to the Lombards. These were a new and at first a most savage race of barbarians. They were also highly intelligent. Within a generation, they had converted to Christianity, and their higher classes had adopted both Latin and the wider Roman culture. Their ambition was to become the rulers of a Latin and Christian and prosperous Italy, more or less at peace with the Eastern Empire. Their capital was Pavia. Governed by an Exarch, or Imperial Viceroy, the remaining Imperial possessions in Italy had their capital in Ravenna.

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, and is in Ravenna on a spying mission. It goes without saying that he did not exist. Nor did his colleagues, Cosmas, an Egyptian monk, and Synesius, a sinister old man of dubious origin and motives. Nor did Alaric, Rodi’s ultimate superior, who makes no appearance in this novel, but who is the narrator of six other of my Byzantine novels.

Though he may seem one of the more unlikely characters, the Exarch Eleutherius, did exist. I will say no more about him here, as he will be one of the main characters in the next novel in the series, and I want to keep some element of surprise for the reader.

Of the Lombard characters, only Aripert did not exist – though someone like him surely did. I made him up on the spur of the moment, and like him a lot. He would have graced any of the Medici or Borgia courts. He will be one of the dominating characters in the sequel. If I can keep him alive, he may dominate several more.

King Adalward existed. So did General Sundarit. So did the King’s mother.

Because they are so barbarous and alien, I have, in general, limited my use of Lombard names. Aripert is rather easy. But Adalward I mention only once, and I use the least unpronounceable spelling I could find. I have to mention Sundarit many times. Again, though, I use a manageable spelling. I never mention the name of the King’s mother. Though not impossible to pronounce or remember, why inflict Theudelinda on my readers if it can be avoided?

For the seven other novels by Richard Blake set in this period, see the note at the end of this novel.

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