I first saw Constantinople on Monday the 6th July 610. I was twenty at the time. We’d set out from Rome by barge, changed to a ship at Ostia, and then to a larger ship at Naples. We’d stopped for supplies at Palermo and again at Corinth, where the ship had been dragged across the narrow spit of land. I’d fancied a further stop at Athens, but the captain was muttering something about prevailing winds and his “instructions”.
Most likely, I’d said to Martin, he was scared of putting in anywhere north of Corinth. The Slavs were now raiding at so many points that almost nowhere could be counted safe. Every night, after we’d passed Corinth, the sky was lit up by the fires of captured cities.
Once, sailing north along that silent coast, we’d come upon a whole band of Slavs together with their booty and their captives. They’d raised their spears at us and shouted something incomprehensible. We’d tried to shoot at them with our bows, but always without success.
After that, we’d made sure to stand well out from the shore at night, with guards posted on the main deck.
From Euboea, we’d struck out for the East, straight through the Aegean. Every day, the sun had burned down from a sky of darkest blue onto still waters of blue and silver. We’d now entered the main shipping lanes, and were passing trading ships and fishing boats and war galleys. We’d passed little islands, sometimes putting in – some with abandoned temples I saw gleaming white from the distance, and monasteries and fortifications of various kinds. To the bemusement of the crew, I’d scampered about the remnants of more civic and more populous ages, chasing away the queer lizards that darted all over the ruins and filling my head with details of inscriptions and building styles.
On days when we hadn’t landed, I’d swum in the warm salty waters, with Martin’s voice for accompaniment, calling out every so often he might have seen another dolphin. Despite the clear assurance of Aristotle and of the sailors stood beside him, he couldn’t be brought to believe the things weren’t dangerous.
There had been a quickening of the traffic as we passed into the Hellespont, and a fair crowding of it as the channel widened out into the Propontis.
It was now, looking left across the water, that I first saw the great City. Piled onto a high, central hill, its public buildings looked down over the walls with a size and magnificence that came close to topping my wildest dreams. But it was the walls that I let claim my chief attention. These surround the whole City, guarding its land side with a triple fortification that no enemy has ever breached, or can ever breach. The two lengths of wall that front the sea are less elaborate, but still adequately protect.
Even if you aren’t ever let inside, the walls give an idea of how vast is Constantinople. The two sea walls are each about three miles long. The land wall is another three miles or so. Beyond the walls, suburbs – though mostly and long since abandoned – stretch some way into Thrace, and cover the neighbouring shore.
When I first arrived, the whole blunted triangle and its dependencies may have contained a million people. Even today, it must remain the biggest and richest city in the world.
“Behold the ancient city of Constantine” said Martin, sounding glum beside me.
“Come, now” I said, ignoring his mood, “you know much better than that. Just three hundred years ago, this was a dumpy little town without walls called Byzantium. Compared with Rome, it’s a thing of yesterday. It was only when the Great Constantine established the Faith, and then wanted a capital he could fill with churches and with better access to the frontiers, that this place became anything at all.”
Ignoring the challenge to debate, Martin continued leaning on the rail and looked bleakly across the diminishing expanse of water that separated us from the walls. The conversation of flags between ship and shore was ordering us closer in. I supposed it was to keep out of the way of the more important shipping in that crowded channel. Built on the far edge of Europe, the City faces Asia across waters narrow enough to swim, but for the treacherous tides.
“Three hundred years” he said at length, “is long enough to bring every vice and every crime to ripeness. You wait and see.”
There was a sudden shouting behind us. Men were running all over the ship, pulling on ropes. The sails came down, and I heard the dull beat of the drum as the rowers took over from the wind, and we turned left into the Golden Horn – the long, sheltered harbour that washes the north eastern sea walls and makes Constantinople a greater commercial centre even than Alexandria.
I’d never seen so many ships before. I don’t think I’d imagined so many. Some crowded along the docks that lined an unwalled stretch of the City shore, and that were repeated on the opposite shore. Others stood out from the shores, and little boats darted between them and the shores. On land, I could see vastness after vastness of warehouses of the kind I’d seen in Ostia. But what I’d seen in Ostia were mostly abandoned, crumbling away beneath their vaulted roofs. These were bursting with all the produce of the world – foodstuffs, textiles, spices and drugs and aromatic goods, manufactures of all kinds, works of art. Whatever you name and can be bought and sold, you’ll find in those warehouses.
The captain was shouting orders back to his men and greetings to other ships as we navigated our way slowly and carefully across the harbour. No longer responding, his signalman was intent on the rapid waving of flags on shore. Every time the message was reported, the captain would bark another set of orders. Since they all spoke Syriac to each other, I had no idea what was being said.
We came level with some very big docks. From a few hundred yards out, I could see the swarming crowds on the docks – naked porters fetching and carrying, officials and their secretaries consulting lists, men and women of every condition and colour. I made out a line of slaves all chained together, still wearing the clothes of their northern home, their skins red from the burning sun.
Beyond the docks the land turned upwards. Here, I allowed myself a sight of a jumble of glittering buildings. Some of these looked quite old – at least, they were in the ancient style of the Greeks. The larger buildings were all in the modern Imperial style. I strained to see more of them, but the afternoon sun was in my eyes and it dazzled me. I also couldn’t make out little dark projections at regular points along an inner wall.
Partly to rest my eyes, I looked down into the water. Further back, the oars were breaking it into a white foam. Where I stood at the front of the ship, I could see my own reflection, clear but distorted by the parting of the waters. I had put on my best robe for the occasion – yellow with a dark blue trim that gave me a vaguely official look. Because I still wasn’t up to growing a proper beard, I’d let my hair grow very thick and had bound it with a ribbon into a mass of gold.
I gave myself a little hug as I leaned forward over the rail and looked down at that beautiful reflection. Behind my back, people might well be asking about the exact nature of my citizenship. None could deny that, visually, I was among the most glorious objects they had ever seen. I was like an old statue, with all the paint and gilding still fresh upon it. As ever when I caught an unexpected view of myself, I could feel a stiffy coming on.
Still beside me, dressed in a suitably contrasting grey, a hat to keep the sun off the milk white and freckles of his skin, Martin cleared his throat. It was one of those noises he made when somewhere between moderate concern and paralysing fear..
“We’re putting into the Senatorial Dock” he said flatly.
Certainly, we were going straight past the place where I’d seen all the activity. Still shouting orders I couldn’t understand, the captain was pointing to some other landing place round a bend in the shore.
For the hundredth time that day, Martin reached up to make sure the hat was in place. Hair as red as his doesn’t long survive a thirtieth birthday; and I knew Martin was approaching that faster than he wanted.
“Our things” he added, “will still need to clear customs, but it shouldn’t be so searching as I expected.”
“Well” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral, “let us be grateful for that.”.
Martin had warned me how the Greeks like to check everything in when you land, and even try to levy duties on your personal effects. I hadn’t liked the thought of that. If we could avoid it, I’d not object to a little change of plan.
I looked again to the shore. It was now much closer, and getting closer very fast. The crowds were left behind further down the shore. We were putting into a small landing faced with blue marble and overlooked by buildings of restrained grandeur. Leading up into the main City, there was a wide avenue lined with trees.
Following Martin’s glance to the landing place, I could see a small, though very fat man dressed in a robe with a purple border. Beardless, of indeterminate age, he seemed to be wearing a wig – or perhaps it was a full head of hair dyed black. It was hard to see the details at that distance or in that terrible glare of sunlight. A secretary stood beside him, his face cast down. Behind him, at a respectful distance, stood various retainers, some of them armed.
“That’s not the Permanent Legate, of his people” Martin hissed, his grip tightening on the rail. “It’s a Gloriosus. There’s a really senior official come down to greet you. You only see people of that status come down to greet foreign ambassadors.”
My stomach turned over. The scared speculations I’d pushed out of my mind on that hasty, midnight rush down the Tiber, and had tried to keep out ever since, came crawling back. The shore was getting closer and closer. I felt like a man who falls from a high window and sees the ground rushing towards him. Even if I’d dared ask, would the captain have turned back?
I wanted to say something reassuring to Martin. All I did was reach out to him under cover of the rail. He took my hand in his. It was cold and sweaty, but firmer than my own. We stood close together as the ship covered the last hundred or so yards.
“He’ll be expecting our total deference” Martin whispered with a slight nod at the official. “You address him as ‘Your Magnificence’.”
I had a speech rehearsed for the Permanent Legate’s agent. I had a variation ready just in case the Lord Silas should deign to meet us in person. I had nothing prepared for this.
It might be a mistake, I told myself again and again. The Permanent Legate’s people might be waiting at one of the general docks. Perhaps an ambassador’s ship was even now being gone over by those customs men, and there’d be red faces all round.
But I thought it best to assume the traffic control people in the City knew what they were doing. So I put an open smile onto my face and made a gentle bow in the official’s direction. He bowed back, touching his forehead in the Eastern manner.
As the oars swung suddenly upright and we coasted the last few yards into dock, I glanced up again at the inner wall. Those dark projections I hadn’t been able to make out I could now see were iron gibbets. There must have been dozens of these clustered round the Senatorial Dock. Each held a corpse in various stages of decay
The corpses looked sightlessly down at me, twisted in their death agonies, blackened by the sun. Some were naked. Others still had shreds of clothing that scavengers and the shifting winds hadn’t yet torn away. Here and there, though faded, I could make out the purple border of the Senatorial classes.
Martin cleared his throat again, bringing my attention to the open mouth and outstretched arms of the official.
“Executed traitors” he whispered again with a momentary glance at the gibbets. “You should pretend not to notice them.”
As I stepped ashore, the official hurried forward to embrace me.
“Greetings, Alaric of Britain” he called in a voice that might have been a woman’s but for its great power. His flabby, painted jowls shook with the force of his greeting. “I bid you welcome after your journey from the Old Rome to the New. Welcome, Alaric, welcome to the City of Caesar!
“I am Theophanes, and I represent the Master of the Offices himself. In the name of His Glorious Excellency, and in the name of the Great Augustus whose benevolence shines upon us as a second sun, I bid you welcome.
“Yes, young and most beautiful Alaric, I bid you a fond welcome.”
Theophanes must have seen my furtive look beyond him to the jumble of attendants. He continued:
“His Excellency the Permanent Legate is sadly indisposed. Rather than send down a subordinate from the Legation, he took up our offer of an official greeting. It was no less than we could offer for a scholar of such pre-eminent qualities as yourself.”
He paused and put a slight emphasis on the elaboration of the flattery:
“A scholar whose qualities are no stranger to the City – though we were unprepared for such personal beauty to be so artlessly combined with youth and learning.
“Please regard me throughout your stay as entirely at your service.”
His face creased into a smile. He spread his arms as if about to begin a declamation:
“All that you require for your mission – all that you may desire for your convenience – you will look to me to provide.”
He spoke in good Latin, though with an accent that wasn’t quite Greek. I answered in my best Greek, praising the Emperor for his forethought in all matters, and thanking Theophanes for his own eminent goodness of heart.
So there was no mistake. I was indeed the object of this fuss. The Emperor’s most senior Minister had taken an interest. He’d sent one of his own most senior officials to greet me.
As we drew back from our second kiss and were about to begin a new round of mutual flattery, the breeze shifted. The perfume that hung like a suffocating fog round Theophanes gave way to a smell of death from the gibbets above our heads. I resisted the urge to gag at the sudden smell and controlled my features. In a moment, the breeze shifted again, and it was back to the ropes and tarpaulins of the ship.
We moved towards the litters placed for our service, and the armed men lined up into a guard of honour, Behind me, I could hear Martin giving subdued but curt orders for the unloading of our luggage. The customs officials who’d been hovering behind the Theophanes entourage had given up on any hope of going though this and were dispersing.
That ship had been our home for what seemed an age. I never looked back to it.