“The hero returned to his house.” Wait—what did Byzantine houses look like?



domus model

Model of a Roman city domus.

Writing historical fiction is like driving in a city you’ve never been to before: you have to keep stopping your progress to find out where you are and check that you’re going in the right direction. And you never know when you’ll get detoured.

I’m making good progress with my next historical fantasy, The Triumph of the Sky. I plan on writing seven major parts. (It’s predecessor, The Bones of the Earth, comprises three parts. I feel like numerology should be a part of fantasy stories.)

Set in the seventh century CE, the action moves from Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to ancient Cappadocia to the Carpathian foothills and deep into ancient Anatolia.

While I have done a lot of historical research before starting to write, as I write I often stumble upon a tiny question that requires hours of research on the Internet as well as in books. These are usually about things we take for granted today, such as “What kind of clothes did people in Constantinople wear?” or “What were their houses like.”

I found some answers pretty quickly, such as “what kind of shoes or boots did Slavic peasants wear?” It turns out there are a lot of Web pages devoted to ancient clothing.

Then there was another that took a little more time. In an early scene in the book, the hero, Javor, returns home after a long journey. But what did wealthy homes look like in Constantinople in 603 CE? It turns out there is quite a lot of interesting information, and even pictures.

Javor in The Triumph of the Sky is a very wealthy man. (To find out how he got his riches, you’ll have to read The Bones of the Earth.) So it makes sense then that he lived in a Roman-style domus, the dominant style for wealthy homes in the Roman Empire. Remember that the term “Byzantine Empire” is a 19th-century invention. The people of the time thought of themselves as Roman, and Latin was the official language of Constantinople at the time—although most people in the city spoke Greek.

A domus was a single-storey structure, looking from the top like two rectangles, open to the sky in the middle. They were often fronted by small shops that opened onto the street. In my imagination, Javor leases those out to vendors of various things: food, household items and so on.

Entering the main door brings you to the atrium, a formal reception hall open to the sky. A basin in the centre collects rainwater, and drains it into a cistern below the house. It’s tiled and decorated with chairs and hangings to show off the owner’s wealth. In a corner was a shrine, and in the seventh century, this would include a Christian icon.

Rooms open on both sides, such as bedrooms. Bedrooms in ancient Roman cities like Constantinople were small, usually just big enough to hold a bed.

The dining room opened off the atrium, too. While in ancient Rome, rich people reclined on couches to eat, according to the research I have done this practice was fading out by the time of my story.

atrium

The atrium of a Roman Domus. The roof was open to the sky, and the basin, called the impluvium, collected rainwater and fed it to the cistern below the house. Source: Realm of History

Continuing through the atrium, the next, roofed room was the tablinum, the owner’s study. From it, the head of the household could view most of the house at once.

At the back of the house is another rectangle, the peristylium. This is a large garden with a peristyle roof—rows of columns that go around the perimeter to hold up the roof, which is open to the sky in the middle, like in the atrium. Rooms opening off the perimeter include the culina or kitchen, bathrooms and store-rooms.

Peristylum garden

While this is a villa, not a city domus, it gives you a good idea of what the peristylum was all about. Image: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Romans spread this style of home across the Empire, including to their second capital, Constantinople. Over the many centuries of the Roman and Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, construction techniques, architecture and technology evolved quite a lot. But at the same time, older elements would continue alongside newer styles.

I hope you have a mental image of the style of house. The next question to answer: did seventh-century Cosmopolites eat meals while lying on a couch, like the wealthy of first-century Rome?

Welcome to the Dark Age



 

As you know, I’ve been working on The Triumph of the Sky, the sequel to my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. And I thought I should familiarize you with this fantastic, yet historical universe so you’re ready to find you way around when the book comes out.

The Byzantine Empire

The setting is the Eastern Roman Empire, which most of us in the West call the “Byzantine Empire.” But to the people who lived in it, it was the Empire of the Romans.

The story of The Triumph of the Sky begins five years after the end of The Bones of the Earth, so that’s 603 CE. The Empire had just been through a particularly tumultuous period, even for the Roman Empire.

I learned in school that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CD, when Odoacer, a Germanic soldier in the Roman Empire, deposed the teenaged last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. A year later, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths killed Odoacer and conquered most of Italy. Other “barbarian” tribes took over Gaul, Iberia, Britain and most of the rest of the Western Roman territories.

But the Eastern half of the Empire continued for another thousand years. In the sixth century, its capital Constantinople, on the narrow straits that separate Europe and Asia, was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. With walls six metres thick and 12 metres high, sea walls and the natural protection of the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn on two other sides, it was considered unconquerable. Indeed, it would fend off all attacks for another 600 years.

An ancient drawing of Constantinople, facing roughly west, showing how the city was roughly triangular shape with water on two sides. On the right, northern side is the Golden Horn, a huge harbour. A heavy chain stretched across it at night or when the city was under threat, which would prevent ships from entering.

The walls of Constantinople: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 600 stretched from the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea, all along the southern Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic Ocean, and included Egypt, and as far north as the Danube River. Emperor Maurice, who ruled from 582 to 602, reconquered parts of Italy that had been lost to the Ostrogoths and Lombards.

The Roman Empire in 600 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 602, troops revolted against Maurice. Their leader, Phocas, butchered Maurice’s family in front of him, then killed the Emperor and took the throne.

Possibly a bust of Emperor Phocas

Phocas was especially brutal, even for a Roman Emperor. He used mass torture to rule, and became the object of many plots and intrigues. Eventually, he was deposed and killed by the next emperor, Heraclius.

During Phocas’ rein, though the Sassanid Persians attacked in the east, taking Syria and Mesopotamia, raiding Anatolia and even at one point setting up a military camp within sight of Constantinople. On the north, Avars and Slavs, or Sklaveni, were conquering deep into imperial territory.

This is the political and military situation that surround Javor and the other characters of Triumph.

The people of Constantinople

The people of Constantinople were cosmopolitan, with a great range of ethnicities represented at every social stratum—even the Emperor. About 30 percent were literate, far ahead of western Europe and the rest of the world at the time. There were renowned schools and universities in many of Rome’s cities.

The key to Constantinople’s wealth was trade. It was located at a crossroads: where the land route between Europe and Asia crossed the major sea trade route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As a result, it had several huge markets, great ports and incredible numbers of people moving in and out all the time. Wealth brought about great demand in the city for art and other luxury goods.

The Christian Church dominated social life in Constantinople. The Emperor was the head of both the Church and the Empire, although the bishop, called the Patriarch, wielded a great deal of power.

Leo VI Prostrating before Christ, Mosaic c.900 CE, Hagia Sophia / Creative Commons

Byzantine Mosaic with Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus – Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child.

Even though the Church dominated social and moral life, there were still many slaves in the Roman Empire. At that time, most of them were prisoners of war, and their children. But another source was poor parents who sold their children into slavery to pay their debts and feed the rest of their children.

Politics: Blues versus Greens

The people of the city generally divided into two groups: the Blues and the Greens. This originated as racing teams in the Hippodrome, and like today’s sports fans, they could be fanatical. There were times after races when one team would massacre thousands of members of the other. The rivalry between the two sides reached a peak in the Nike riots in 532. I’ll go into that in more depth in a future blog. But the Blue-Green divide went far beyond the horse races: neighbourhoods could be Blue or Green, and there were social and religious divisions between them, too.

In short, the early 7th century in Constantinople was a complex time — arguably as complex as our own, in its way, with political intrigues, wars on more than one front, social divisions, and contradictions between religion, society, politics and money.

Till next time … keep your paddles in the water.

 

Howling wolves: A Hallowe’en treat from The Bones of the Earth



thedrawinghands: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

In honour of Hallowe’en that’s coming faster than a headless horseman, I thought I’d present another spooky excerpt from my scariest book so far, The Bones of the Earth.

The setting: eastern Europe in the sixth century, the darkest of the Dark Age. It’s nighttime, three days past the summer solstice and three nights past the full moon. The main character, Javor (pronounced “Yay-vor,” by the way; it means maple) is in his village’s holody, or wooden stockade at the top of a small hill.

Wolves howling brought Javor back to the night. The moon and stars were quickly covered by swirling black clouds. Clouds never move that fast, he thought

The villagers stopped talking; mothers held their children closer. The wind blew dust around the holody.

Javor stood and looked over the stockade—even the trees in the forest seemed to have come closer.

e72b9-bonescoverfinalforwebIf you want to find out what’s past the stockade, you can get a longer sample from the Work we’ve done menu at the top of the page. To get the book blurb, click the image on the right. And if you really want to know the story, get the full book from Amazon, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Smashwords or iBooks.