Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 2

There was amazingly positive feedback to Part 1 of my interview with University of North Dakota alumnus, Vincent O’Reilly, whose first novel, Count No Man Happy, appeared right before Christmas. The novel is largely set in 8th century court of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VI where it weaves together history, romance, and court intrigue to touch the popular imagination in a way that few scholars have ever managed.

Byzantinists ought to support the work of passionate lay-scholars like Vincent, who writes under the name of Paul Kastenellos, and the easiest way to do this is to buy a copy of his book. Compared to the most scholarly publications, Vincent’s book is a bargain at $13.95 (and even cheaper on the Kindle at $4.99).

Corinth First City of Greece

So go to Amazon and get a copy. If you don’t like it, give it to a student who might be just beginning to be interested in Byzantium or give it to your local library. Making “ordinary people” excited about Byzantium is important.


B.C.: As you’ve read more about Byzantium and wrote about it, did your interests changed?

P.K.: I’d say rather that they have deepened. At one time I was interested in Alexius Commenus and easily could be again. In truth though, I’m more fascinated by the culture than by battles and heroes. When I saw the Ravenna mosaics my mouth literally dropped open to realize that they were actual portraits. Before the internet, photographs of them were flat, false colored, and uninteresting. The more I see of modern internet images the more I admire Byzantine art. So much in fact that, hard as it may be for someone not immersed in it to believe, I now prefer Byzantine to western art. The problem is that compared with the west there is little left that is in great condition. I did have the pleasure of observing quite a few good pieces in Greece however: Hosias Loukas, some Thessaloniki churches, and Mistra among others, but most of this stuff was late Byzantine. It seems that neither the Turks nor the Greeks particularly treasure what remains. In their defense, who wants to live in a museum? A church should speak to people today and if that means remodeling, well, sometimes that’s OK.

B.C.: That’s interesting, but I wonder whether there is a growing interest in the pervasion of Byzantine monuments. And this might suggest that Byzantium does resonate with people today, don’t you think? Why is that?

P.K.: I don’t know that it does. It remains alien to everything about modern American culture. It was superstitious, less mechanical and technological than the west in the same period, more concerned with feuding over religious dogma than we are or can even relate to. True, individuals could be extremely charitable but they did not make the headlines and even they were intolerant. It was a totalitarian state. In fact I wonder if the spirit of Byzantium wasn’t more similar to that of India than to ours. If anything, it is the very otherness of Byzantium which fascinates. (Oops, that’s your next question.) Truth is, outside of academic circles, if you say Byzantine to someone in the USA, he may at best recognize the word.

B.C.: Byzantinist definitely need to do more to improve our “brand” recognition. But, getting back to your book, who speaks most directly to me?

P.K.: Definitely Antonina. Her character is not obscured by religious myth as is that of so many Byzantines. As for others, yes indeed there are many interesting people but somehow except for Alexius and Constantine Paleologius, Constantine VI, and Antonina, I’ve never been attracted that much to individuals. The religious figures are a turn off to a modern person with their narrow mindedness, extremism carried to the point of fetishism (not in a good way), and general lack of Christian love. The military history is a sad story of which we know the sad outcome: the rape of Constantinople by “crusaders”, and the triumph of Islam with the destruction of everything that made the spirit of the Eastern Empire what it was.

B.C.: In your book, you attempt to bridge the gap between Byzantium and our era today by imagining Byzantium as a kind of fantasy world imagined by an “aging”, 30something 1950s pin-up model.  Did you do this to try to translate the Byzantine world to 21st century America? It is worth noting that Julia Kristeva in her Byzantine themed novel, Murder in Byzantium, used a similar strategy.

P.K.: You speak of Beth as aging. That is true only in so far as her days as a pinup girl were running low. She is in mid twenties. In spirit she is young and in body and face still beautiful.

If I presented Byzantium as a fantasy world, then I failed at what I was trying to do. Beth is Constantine’s fantasy but only until fully awake in the morning. The problems he faces were very real. I intended to make the characters of Nicephoros, Stauratius, Khardam and others believable, not fantasy. Their frame of reference is very different from ours but their motivation and behavior is not. I probably should have included more superstition and ignorance, as Cervantes did with Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote.” I may have depicted Irene as too single-minded about icons but hardly a character of fantasy. In fact I hoped to make them all more believable than medieval people are often depicted. (For example: the monks in “The Name Of The Rose.”) It bothers me that the middle ages are usually depicted in shades of gray and brown when to simply look at illustrations from that time – east and west – shows a world full of vibrant color. At the same time, I wanted to avoid making the characters think like moderns (like William of Baskerville, again in “The Name Of The Rose”.)

B.C.: The historian in my has to ask a few technical questions as we get to the end of our interview. What primary sources did you use to write your novel?

P.K.: There isn’t much in the way of original sources about Constantine. All in all, the sources for eighth century Byzantium are thin compared with the centuries before and after. I relied almost entirely on Theophanes Confessor filling in details from my general understanding of the period acquired over the years. I used the Mango and Scott translation only learning of Turtledove’s late in my work. As for secondary sources I would have made more use of Henry Maguire’s “Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204” had I known of the book when I was writing the basic text. As it is I only used it to confirm and correct some details. One may ask why I was so unaware of available texts? The internet was in its infancy when I wrote the basic text and I did not have ready access to an academic library… And after all, the book is a novel. I try to remain accurate to the history and the mentality of the age, at least in so far as one can when writing for a twentieth century audience. Specifically I tried not to be inaccurate. For example I’d have liked to use the imperial thrones that famously rose into the air, but on checking I discovered that they were not installed until a little after Constantine’s time. I give a bit more detail of where I have deviated from the historical record in the Afterword of the text and in the notes which follow.

My upcoming novel about Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, has an opposite problem. There is too much information and too many conflicting interpretation of events, motivation, et c. Every historian seems to have his own. Everyone admits that Procopius was probably right about most details but is untrustworthy otherwise. It would be nice to have someone else’s opinion of Bloody John, for example, or know why so many allegedly black-hearted men were restored to positions of honor by Justinian. If, for example, Bessas was as venal as Procopius pictures him, why was he later given command against the Persians. Procopius chastises Belisarius for not defending his stepson, Photius, when Theodora incarcerated him but he is careful to keep his time-line vague. As I read it, Photius was arrested while Belisarius was in disgrace and suffering from clinical depression. Anyone who has endured such depression or lived with someone who is suffering from it knows that it is just not possible for him to even rise from his bed. There is an unfocused despair that does not respond to reason and cannot be fought. Besides, had Belisarius attempted to intervene directly while under Theodora’s wrath he would have made things worse for Photius. Yet most historians just repeat Procopius’ slander. Some of Procopius’ accusations have been challenged but rarely has his opinion of Antonia been. I have tried to see the events of Belisarius and Antonina’s lives through her eyes. Historians have not helped. For your information: this next book will have none of the fantasy and depravity of ”Count No Man Happy.” It will be straight historical fiction but almost entirely historically accurate. (I say almost because I could not resist making Procopius a eunuch although there is no evidence that he was one – but then, there is no evidence that he wasn’t. Consider it long overdue payback.)

B.C.: What secondary authors help you to understand the fragmentary and confusing record of Byzantium?

P.K.: For fact checking and specifics there is nothing like Wikipedia. I could spend weeks in a library doing what I now do in a few minutes on the net. There is a popular belief that it is inaccurate – but so are books; and it is far more likely that mistakes will be corrected there than when repeated in books. (Not a mistake, but have you ever noticed how much J B Bury is quoted almost word for word by other authors without direct citation? Do they ever check him?)

As for secondary sources for “Antonina,” Lord Mahon is far more readable than Procopius even if not very critical; and nothing can compare with the delight of Thomas Hodgkin’s “Italy And Her Invaders.”

Yet one can question conventional replication of interpretation. I see the battle of Daras in Belisarius’ first Persian War as essentially a hammer of Roman archers hitting an anvil of Roman infantry with the Persian cavalry caught between them. Why else did Belisarius remain dismounted with the infantry. In my opinion cavalry did not win Daras, the disdained infantry did.

B.C.: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one last question. What could scholars do better to engage a wider audience for the study of Byzantium?

P.K.: A tough question. I have walked the walls of Constantinople and offered a prayer where the last emperor fell in battle. One problem is that neither Greece nor Turkey emphasize their medieval history. Curiously, I have the impression that in recent years Moslem Turkey has done a bit more than Christian Greece which seems preoccupied with its ancient history. I get the impression from the Greeks I’ve met that they hardly study it in school. My wife and I were alone at Mistra because it is far from the tourist route. Of course, the same to a lesser degree was true of Ravenna in Italy. In Ravenna we saw a group of Japanese art students but few western tourists.

If more scholars were willing to mix with non-academics, they could start at home. If UND (for example) offered a guided tour of Ravenna, Cappadochia, Constantinople, and Mistras, perhaps together with a gullet boat trip down the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean; and if the cost were kept minimal, some of us who are not wealthy enough to be attracted to the usual university tours of the Greek Islands might be tempted. You could be the guide and have the group include alumni of other universities. Such a tour could be the basis of a TV documentary. Such a tour would be unique and one hell of a lot more special than Rhodes again.

We do need more quality fiction about the empire. As noted above what little I’ve seen is poor academically (excepting Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.) Surely historians can team up with the many frustrated writers in English departments to work on this problem. A best seller might even be made into a movie.

More art exhibits. The Metropolitan made a great start which should be followed up on. But what I think is most important is to energize students at the high school level. You, as a Byzantinist, could offer to present illustrated lectures in your area. You might even use the Illustrated Guide on my website as a starting point.

Sorry that I’ve rambled a lot, not always staying on point. But then, I never was good at answering test questions.

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