Thursday 13 February 2020

#HistoricalFiction author, Douglas A. Burton, is sharing the inspiration behind his fabulous book — Far Away Bird @douglasaburton

Author Inspiration:
 The Byzantines
By Douglas A. Burton

For 25 years, I’ve read about the Byzantine Empire. Now that I’m writing this blog, I realize that very few people have ever asked me why, and how I became so passionately intrigued by the Byzantines. Only a few of my closest friends and family members know about my unusual side passion. Even they don’t ask “why” anymore. Reading about Byzantium was just something I did on my own, in private, while leaving little trace evidence in my regular life. It’s a niche fascination that rarely found its way into regular conversations. Whenever I do end up mentioning something about the Byzantine Empire, or that the capital was Constantinople, the most common response I get (and I’m not kidding) is a pause and then a cheery rendition of Istanbul Not Constantinople. So now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople, and we all get that.
But how did this particular time and place in the world come to capture my imagination so entirely? Like many things for me, the culprit was a book.
I can actually tell you the exact day my fascination with the Byzantine Empire began. It was on March 10th, 1993. I know this because the library card is still inside the book cover to this day. The book was a non-fiction work called Constantinople: Birth of an Empire by Harold Lamb, and it was published way back in 1957. During my 1993 study hall, though, I just needed a book to pass the time because I surely wasn’t going to do my Algebra homework. So, I flipped through the pages, and the musty scent of old paper really set the tone. There were some black & white pictures on a few pages depicting a mosque-like building of some kind, various mosaics, and stone reliefs. I turned back to the first page and started reading:

The author opens with:
This is the story of a city built by survivors. As often happens in a great disaster, these survivors were not one people ethnically, but a fusion of many peoples. They gathered together to defend not so much their lives and property as their way of life. In so doing, they displayed a certain perversity; they refused to surrender their city. They kept on refusing for nearly a thousand years. History has named them the Byzantines
So, wait a minute, I thought. This sounds nothing like the Roman Empire I learned about in any schoolroom. The Romans were of one people ethnically, you know…the Romans? So, this account baffled me. The Roman Empire was a civilization built by brute conquerors, not desperate survivors.
The author goes on:
They were alone in their survival. In the West, a long twilight fell on the Roman Empire during the centuries between A.D. 200 and 450. It ended in the darkness of the first Middle Age. In the East, however, the inhabitants of this city learned the hard lessons of disaster, and they managed to hold back the night.
Images of invincible Roman legionnaires, of architectural splendor, and ancient decadence all seemed at odds with the rather morbid tone the book struck. What the hell was this guy talking about? I flipped to a map in the index and got a better idea. The Roman Empire had been split in two at some point, a west and an east empire. I remembered hearing something about the split but then also realized that I never heard about what happened to that eastern portion of the empire. It was like the weird old uncle you meet at a family reunion and never hear from again.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

So, apparently, the Roman Empire we all study in school is the green part, the western part, the European part with its iconic boot of Italy kicking Sicily, and with the familiar shapes of France, Spain, and England facing the Atlantic Ocean. But there’s that whole red side, the less European side, the more Middle-Eastern side, which clearly includes Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and some of Libya. Even today, that red side includes a rare fusion of diverse cultures that actually encompasses three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The author then launches into a spellbinding account of the late Roman Empire—not in its glory—but in the spasms of a violent death throe. He painted a picture of an absolute catastrophe. I still get goosebumps remembering the tale.
Civilization had failed in totality.
Rome was sacked. Pillaging went on uncontested and tiny villages were left to fend for themselves. Barbarians migrated freely through the once secure interior of the empire. Imperial highways fell into disrepair. Stray cows milled about in the ruins of monuments, where nature crept back to reclaim the space. Roman soldiers deserted and joined the enemy. Noble families sailed out to escape their doom, only to be captured and sold into slavery. My seventeen-year-old self beheld a disaster on a scale so great that my imagination filled with epic oil painting-like scenes. And the story kept getting worse.

Thomas Cole’s ‘The Course of Empire’ series: Wikipedia

Various people made radical attempts at survival in remote pockets…and failed. Desperate Roman emperors passed equally desperate policies in hopes of staving off the ruin of the empire…and failed. Finally, the black shadow of the Dark Ages truly descended upon a world that had actually lost the ability to function or even exist. I was amazed at such a thorough regression of a flagship human civilization.
But in the East, on the side of the world we rarely talked about in class, I suddenly discovered that half of the Roman Empire survived. That “red section” had a history of its own, and it deviated quite a bit from the Roman Empire I understood.
The eastern empire was a second, bizarre Roman Empire, divorced from Europe, which didn’t even include the ancestral capital of Rome. The citizens spoke mostly Greek, not Latin. They were Christian, not pagan. They were the former conquered provinces, not the founding homeland. And from the ashes of the fallen western empire, I discovered that this eastern Frankenstein remnant of the Roman Empire would come to be known as the Byzantine Empire. These people and their empire would come to dominate the Medieval Era as the superpower of the world, exploding in culture, influence, and art.
They had little in common with the Dark Age and barbarism occurring in Europe. Moreover, the Byzantine Empire would go on ‘surviving’ for over a thousand years, making it one of the longest-lived civilizations ever.
In one quick stroke, my study hall that day shattered everything I thought I knew about the Roman Empire, of Western civilization. My belief that history represented steady upward progress fell short. I never considered that we could regress to decisively.
I was so enchanted by the world I found in those ages that I pretended to lose the library book rather than return it. I paid the $18 lost fee and proceeded to horde this book my whole life.
In these pages, I met a beautiful cast of historical figures I’d otherwise never heard of, heroes and heroines who called themselves Roman but wore Asian or Russian-looking gowns and gaudy bejeweled crowns. I discovered a Byzantine general, named Belisarius. He was Justinian’s prime general and is considered a military genius. He’s considered one of the top military minds in all human history. See for yourself. Google ‘top 100 generals of all time. Or, click HERE!
Again, to my shock, I learned something that I never heard about in school. Remember that colorful map above, half-green and half-red? Well, Belisarius manages to reconquer the entire green section, single-handedly reuniting the Roman Empire for a generation. Impossible to believe! The civilized world fought back against the barbaric dark age.
I also read about a peasant named Petrus, who left his pig-farming village in modern Macedonia to go on to become arguably the greatest Byzantine Emperor in history. He takes on the name of his adopted father and becomes Justinian.
And then there’s his wife, Empress Theodora, whom history has never been more uncomfortable acknowledging. She had been a lowly prostitute, well known for her infamy in the seedy entertainment districts of Constantinople. She was essentially a medieval stripper and sex performer, who goes on to become a powerful intellectual contributor to Byzantine law and culture. Theodora’s undeniable influence on a sweeping legal overhaul may indeed represent the first official laws designed specifically for the betterment of women, and directed by a woman.

Mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

So, that one book opened me up to all of these aspects. This wasn’t the Dark Ages of Europe. This was a golden age of Byzantium. Sometimes, learning about Byzantine history feels like I’m unearthing a deep historical secret ala The Da Vinci Code or the lost city of Atlantis. And this is made all the more maddening that nearly no one knows much about it.
Here’s a fun little test. Name a major movie, television show, or novel that has the Byzantine Empire as a setting. No, really, name one.
I mean, we have movies set in ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Rome, Medieval Japan, Medieval China, South America, the Mayan Empire, Antarctica, Middle-Earth, Mars, and Tatooine. And yet, I bet you cannot come up with a single relevant story set in the Byzantine Empire. Seriously. Why?
Most of our perception of the Byzantines is found indirectly with our fascination with the eastern European mystique. We see it in stories like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which takes place in Romanian Transylvania and has an occultic Byzantine feel, or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We see the Hagia Sophia in movies like From Russia with Love, The International¸ or Tom Hank’s Inferno. And most recently, Millennials walked on the streets of 16th Century Constantinople in the critically acclaimed video game, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. But these are just scant traces of Byzantium in our culture.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992 film): Wikipedia.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations: Wikipedia.

And yet history is incomplete without the Byzantines. For example, I was always told that Western Europe just kind of ‘woke up’ from the Dark Ages. But that’s simply not true. The Italian Renaissance began as the last generation of Byzantines made their way into Europe to escape subjugation. They brought with them their Greek culture, their literacy, legalism, and ideas. It’s well documented that the Renaissance has an unmistakable flair for Greek revivalism and that’s because of the Greek-speaking Byzantines. Within the next few decades, the Protestant Reformation would begin against the Catholic Church, to whom the Orthodox Byzantines had always been a rival.

The School of Athens: Wikipedia

Secondly, the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. This closed the trade routes from Europe to Asia. Did you know that the fall of the Byzantine Empire is the exact event that sent desperate European explorers across the Atlantic to find the New World? This obviously led to the Western discovery of America in 1492, a mere 39 years after the Byzantine Empire finally disappeared. Talk about shock waves. These are rapid geopolitical developments that literally set the stage for the modern world.

Sea routes searching for an alternative route to Asia.

Thirdly, Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican are considered the center of Christendom. But this is a relatively modern development. While Rome has always been central to the Christain world, Constantinople had Christianity’s greatest church, the Hagia Sophia. The great church still exists today but has since been converted into a mosque and museum in modern-day Istanbul. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. And wow! It’s pretty spectacular for a building built 1,500 years ago. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica went into rapid motion and was completed in 1506. The timing makes perfect sense if you understand the role the Byzantine Empire played in the drama.
Scholars mostly agree that the Medieval Era spanned the one-thousand years between 500-1,500 C.E. The Byzantines emerged when Rome fell in 476 C.E., and it ended when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. I mean, the Byzantine lifespan is the Middle Ages. Therefore, the Byzantine Empire literally bridges a misunderstood gap in time between you and me today, and our world’s most ancient societies. 

Flags of the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, and the Soviet Union

Geographically, the Byzantine Empire merged into the Islamic Ottoman Empire, while culturally, it migrated northeast and into the Russian Empire, and geopolitically, the Byzantines became the Hapsburg Empire (which still used the Roman ‘double-eagle’ on its flag). The Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires vanished in 1918, after World War 1. The Russian Empire, however, became the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. came to occupy what we call ‘Eastern Europe,’ which clearly matches up with many of the former Byzantine states. Therefore, the mysterious lands of the Byzantines didn’t truly open up to the West again until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. Amazingly, this is right around the time I checked out that library book.
So, why don’t we know more about the Byzantine Empire? I’ve never gotten a good answer to this question. I’m a 43-year old man still caught up in the thrill of a book I found when I was 17. I feel like an explorer who discovered a bizarro world, a kind of doppelganger to Western civilization as exotic and fantastic as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Hopefully, we can finally take a look at the lost civilization that set the table for our modern age.

Far Away Bird
By Douglas A. Burton

Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople's red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.

Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women's rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world's greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history.

Theodora seems impossible--yet her transcendence teaches us that society can't tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes.

And her name was Theodora.

The Coffee Pot Book Club


Highly Recommended

Read the full review HERE!

The Historical Fiction Book of the Year


The Early Medieval Period 

Gold Medal

Debut Novel Book of the Year 2019

Silver Medal

Pick up your copy of 

Far Away Bird

Douglas A. Burton

Douglas Alan Burton is a speaker, author, and expert storyteller whose work depicts heroic figures and their deeper connection to the human experience. Doug blogs about heroes, heroines, and villains in pop culture with some unexpected and refreshing perspective. He grew up in what he describes as “the heroic boyhood culture of late Generation X” that has gone mainstream around the world. He also shares strategies with fellow writers for writing compelling heroic characters in fiction.

Douglas recently began outlining a breakthrough storytelling model that reveals a fascinating “heroine-centric” model for story structure he calls The Heroine’s Labyrinth. He believes a powerful new archetype is emerging for women in fiction. His forthcoming novel, Far Away Bird, which centers on the early life of Byzantine Empress Theodora, won the 2019 Manuscript Content for Historical Fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas.

Connect with Douglas: Website • Blog • Twitter.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx