My apologies for skipping a post in my usual four day routine (even so, I'm one day late with this one). The Byzantine Empire had most of my attention during the past week and a half. It's a fascinating subject of historical study, one of my favourites. You know, if I had a time machine, Constantinople during the late Middle Ages would probably be my first destination.
It must have been a wondrous sight, "the city of the world's desire", cultured and beautiful. A bustling metropolis set in a spectacular geographic location, with magnificent architecture and virtually impregnable fortifications. Also a centre of scholarship, offering various luxuries that were unheard of in Western Europe - street lighting, sanitation, public gardens, libraries, shops which stayed open even at night. Definitely a place where I would have liked to live. Okay, they had the occasional outbreak of the bubonic plague like everyone else. But you can't travel and be totally safe, right? Especially not with a time machine.
Actually, one of the dates I'd pick for visiting is 1204, when Constantinople was conquered by the Fourth Crusade (that's what a church schism does for you). It was a very tragic event and one of the most barbaric sacks of a city in all of history, but that is why it interests me. There is a certain apocalyptic fascination to it. The crusaders behaved terribly - much worse, it must be said, than the Muslims did when they destroyed the Byzantine Empire for good two and a half centuries later.
The Western knights massacred, looted and raped their way through the city for three days. Orthodox clerics were murdered, nuns were violated, many ancient and priceless works of art stolen or destroyed. The hatred for the Greeks found its most spectacular outlet in the desecration of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom. Reportedly, the conquerors placed a prostitute on the patriarchal throne who sang vulgar songs while they got falling down drunk on wine from the holy vessels. I've always subscribed to the theory that there is a difference between hooliganism and destruction with style. Most of the sacking undoubtedly fell in the former category, but there were creative moments, as the above story attests.
It was still an unimaginable shame, of course. They (fellow Christians, mind you) had just taken the greatest city in the world, and they knew nothing better to do than to smash everything and slaughter everyone. It must be a guy thing. The curious historian in me would love to see the event, but certainly not to revel in it. As a whole, it is too primitive and uncouth to even stimulate my kinky imagination. There are certain elements that are useable once I isolate them and block out the other, decidedly unerotic "bashing in of heads" atrocities. I can think of a female friend or two who would volunteer for the part of the abused nun bent over the altar. Or for the prostitute who sullies the sacred throne.
The Empire, which was already in decline at the time, never recovered. Even though the Greeks managed to recapture Constantinople and held on for a few more generations, they eventually fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Byzantium under the Palaiologoi, the last dynasty of emperors, has an aura of "fading glory" that attracts me immensely. They knew they were doomed, yet they proudly clung to their old traditions and looked down on the "barbarians" who encircled them. And while their political power on the world stage was long gone, there was a final flourishing of art and literature, the "Palaiologian Renaissance".
As obviously different as the two of them were, it all reminds me a bit of another crumbling empire, Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century. I can imagine the same morbid romanticism and nostalgia surrounding it. Like the Habsburg monarchy which provides the stage for several Lupus epics, I think Constantinople circa 1400 would be a fabulous setting for kinky movies. Such a pity that it is impossible to faithfully recreate even with the means the werewolves have at their disposal. But the feverish death throes of the period, the air of gloom and disintegration, combined with the Byzantine fondness for elaborate ceremony and ritual, seems like the perfect backdrop.
The heirs of the Caesars were more refined and well-mannered than the Western Europeans, but no strangers to cruelty. Their history is full of political backstabbing, so much so that we use the adjective "Byzantine" today to describe complex scheming and plotting. Those on the losing side often met a less than pleasant fate. Blinding was an especially popular penalty, practiced on various deposed emperors, but also on captured enemy soldiers. One time after a Bulgarian army had been defeated, all survivors were blinded. The victorious Byzantines left 1 out of every 100 soldiers with one eye so he could lead his comrades back home.
Not my thing at all, I must say, but you can always reimagine the tortures as something that catches your fancy. Flogging certainly isn't out of place in the Middle Ages. The point is that for me, with a little fictionalization, the Byzantine Empire is a fertile source of fantasy. The palace intrigues, the religious controversies, the invasions they had to endure, the remnants of Roman decadence, take your pick.
However, my favourite anecdote deals with mercy, and the main protagonist isn't a Greek, it is one of their enemies. The Byzantines suffered a terrible defeat against the Seljuk Turks in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The place is called Malazgirt today, a small town in eastern Turkey. With hindsight, it was probably the beginning of the end for the empire and the psychological effect of the loss was significant.
The emperor himself, Romanos IV Diogenes, was captured and taken to the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan. The sultan asked: "What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner?" The emperor answered: "Perhaps I would kill you or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople." Alp Arslan retorted: "My punishment is far more severe. I will forgive you and set you free." And so he did. After a peace deal was agreed on, the sultan lavished expensive gifts on Romanos and let him go with a military guard and all the pomp befitting his station.
After his return to Constantinople, the unfortunate emperor was swiftly (and predictably) deposed by his rivals, blinded and exiled to an island. Which goes to show that some acts of "mercy" are indeed the worst kind of punishment. An inventive sadist should remember that.