The Devil’s Treasure – Historical Introduction

The Devil’s Treasure
by Richard Blake

Historical Introduction

This is the tenth in my series of Byzantine novels. If you have read the others – or have read Gibbon – you might as well skip this Historical Introduction. You will know what is happening. Also, what I am saying now is largely a repetition of what I said at the start of the other books. The map appended may come in useful, but the text can be ignored.

If this is not the case, I do suggest that some kind of explanation is in order. I am writing fiction set in what, for many British and American readers, is an unfamiliar period. It is the early seventh century – after the Roman Empire is often believed to have fallen. In Northern and Western Europe, we are deep into the middle ages. In England, we are already past the age of Arthur and Merlin. Turning, though, to the Eastern and Central Mediterranean, classical antiquity has ended, and not ended. We have a continuing Empire, but with a new capital, and altered frontiers. Its rulers call themselves Romans, but their language is Greek, not Latin. Education remains based on the pagan classics, but almost everyone has been a Christian for three hundred years.

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. Here, then, is my attempt at a potted history of the Later Roman Empire.

The Background

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 easier 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.

The Devil’s Treasure

This novel opens in March 619 AD, and its action takes place in Ravenna and in and about Pavia. Italy is now divided between the Empire and the Lombards, while the Papacy sits largely on the fence.

When the Lombards first entered Italy, they were a most savage race of barbarians. They were also highly intelligent. It is now fifty years later, and they have converted to Christianity. Their higher classes have adopted both Latin and the wider Roman culture. Their ambition is to become the rulers of a Latin and Christian and prosperous Italy, more or less at peace with the Eastern Empire. Their capital is Pavia, a city in Northern Italy.

Governed by an Exarch, or Imperial Viceroy, the remaining Imperial possessions in Italy have their capital in Ravenna, another city in the North. Because of the great distance from Constantinople, and the Emperor’s preoccupation with the Persian War, the Exarch is effectively his own man. He can rule and make war or peace as he pleases.

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 Intelligence Bureau, or the Imperial secret service. In Death in Ravenna, he arrives in Italy on a mission to find dirt on the Exarch. In Crown of Empire, he finds himself serving the Exarch, who has now declared himself Emperor of Italy. In this novel, he is ordered by his superiors in Constantinople to continue serving the usurper. It goes without saying that Rodi did not exist.

Though he may seem one of the more unlikely characters, the Exarch Eleutherius, did exist. The general impression of Byzantine eunuchs is that they were effeminate creatures, good for organising ceremonies, or slandering or poisoning anyone who got in their way. Some were like that. Others were not. Eleutherius was a seasoned general and administrator. He was sent out to Ravenna to put down a revolt. He did that with notable efficiency, and stabilised relations with the Lombards. In this novel, he is a slippery character, but has unbounded ambitions that only begin with declaring himself Emperor.

Aripert, the Lombard prince, did not exist. I made him up on the spur of the moment for Death in Ravenna, and intended him to be a one-use-only character. I then found that I liked him a lot. He dominates this novel. He will probably dominate the next one too.

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None of the other characters existed – Cosmas, an Egyptian monk, and Synesius, an old man of dubious origin and motives, and Simeon the Jew, his equally dubious subordinate, and Lucas and Peregrinus, the two chief villains, who may or may not be creatures of the supernatural. Nor did Alaric, Rodi’s ultimate superior, who makes no appearance in this novel, but is the narrator and adornment of six other of my Byzantine novels.

Since I have written this much, I might as well add something about my sources. My main source in English is Thomas Hodgkin’s magisterial Italy and Her Invaders (1880-99). My main Latin sources are the Liber Pontificalis and the Historia Langobardorum of Paul the Deacon. This last is a delightful read. If there were nothing else, it alone would show how quickly, once they had stopped tattooing their faces and smearing butter in their hair, the Lombards picked up and carried the torch of Italian civilisation. “The Book” is one of the main inanimate actors in my novel. This is a parody of Paul the Deacon, and supposedly one of his sources. Otherwise, I borrow and twist incidents from his history.

Paul, by the way, is largely silent about the period in which my novel is set. He gives the reign of King Adalwald just three sentences in Chapter 41 of Book IV, which allows me endless scope for making my facts up as I go along!

I hope you like, or have liked, this novel. If so, please consider posting a review to Amazon. And, if you wish to contact me for any reason, you can reach me on

Richard Blake
Deal, August 2017

© 2017, richardblake.

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