gay fiction, historical fiction, plot twist, unreliable narrator
Constantinople 1024: few people can remember a time before Basil II. The emperor has ruled for nearly fifty years, has never married and has no children. He scorns the opulent vestments that go with his rank and delegates his ceremonial duties to his indolent brother. He is more feared than loved and is merciless and vindictive to his enemies. No one dares to challenge his power, for he leads his armies to war in person, rather than leaving it to his generals. He has no counsellors, takes no advice and knows everything that goes on in his empire. That at least is what they say in the streets. But this is a world where nothing is ever quite as it seems.
Jonathan Harris teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of London. His previous books include The Lost World of Byzantium (2015), Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium (2nd ed. 2017) and Introduction to Byzantium (602-1453) (2020). Theosis (2023) is his first novel.
In the deepest recesses of the Great Palace, there are three round-arched stone windows that look out on the blue line of the Bosporus and the first fields of Asia beyond. No one admires the view, though, for the room that they give light to is kept locked. In the winter months, it is left shuttered and unheated. In spring, the shutters are taken down and the dust removed but then it is sealed up again. It can stay like that for decades. Only when the doctors pronounce that the empress is three months pregnant are the doors thrown open and an army of menials descends. Every inch is meticulously swept and the domed ceiling and the upper walls are repainted with several coats of a mauve that makes a pleasing contrast with the porphyry facing on the lower level. A bed, couch, bath, brazier and all the other necessary furnishings are carried in and, when everything is ready, fresh flowers are brought in daily to be strewn on the floor. When the labour pains begin, the empress is carried the short distance down the corridor and laid on the bed. That way, when it is all over, the child can be said to have been born in the purple. It was in that room that I came into the world.
My grandfather, Emperor Constantine VII, the fourth emperor of the Macedonian dynasty, was still on the throne then. My parents were his son Romanos and his daughter-in-law, Theophano. A few weeks after my birth, I was christened in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which stands on the other side of the square called the Augousteion from the Great Palace. One of my godparents was the celebrated Nikephoros Phokas, who at that time held the office of domestic of the east, and commanded our armies against the Saracens. It was in November the following year that my grandfather died and my father succeed him as emperor. It has become the custom in our house to crown the heir to the throne in his father’s lifetime to remove any doubts as to the line of succession. So one spring morning, when I was not even two years old, I was paraded across the Augousteion to Hagia Sophia where the patriarch Polyeuktos placed a tiny, gilded crown on my head.
I cannot remember any of those events, of course. My earliest memory is probably of my nurse, Pita, holding me on her lap. I looked up at her face and then at our surroundings, what seemed to me to be an enormous room, lit by windows set high up in one of the four walls. This was the nursery in the Kainourgion which is tucked away in a secluded spot in the inner part of the Great Palace complex, known as the Boukoleon. It had been built by my ancestor Basil I as a residence for himself and his numerous children. At the entrance, there is a wide hall on whose walls Basil, his wife and those same children are immortalised in mosaic. On the floor is a giant mosaic peacock surrounded by four eagles who always looked to me as if they were about to pounce on the gaudy bird and tear it to pieces. The upper floors are accessed by three marble spiral staircases set into the walls, one at either side of the entrance hall and one in the middle. I have often pondered on the thinking behind that layout. Perhaps it was to provide alternative exits in case of a fire. The nursery is on the third and final storey, with adjoining bedchambers. My brother came into the world two years later and I do not recall that event either. When he later joined me in the nursery, though, he was an object of fascination to me because his tiny fingers were smaller replicas of my own. The birth of my sister Anna, I do remember. It was a cold day, in March as I now know, and the underfloor heating was keeping the nursery warm. Pita and the midwife brought in a bundle of wrappings, and pulled them aside for us to see a face. She looked like a frog: little bulging eyes tightly shut and pouting lips that were blowing tiny bubbles.
Of my father and mother, I have few memories from that time. They did not reside in the Kainourgion but in another part of the Boukoleon and we had nothing that might be described as a family life. I dimly remember sitting with them in the gallery of Hagia Sophia while the liturgy went on below and walking with them through a long dark passage to suddenly emerge into bright sunshine in the royal box at the Hippodrome. That must have been, I think, when my godfather, Nikephoros Phokas, returned from the conquest of Crete in the summer of 961. I am told that I was with my parents a few months after that at the funeral of my paternal grandmother, Helena, in the church of the Holy Apostles but that occasion I cannot recall independently. Likewise I cannot remember Constantine going through the same ceremony of coronation as I had the following spring, but I certainly did later ask Pita why he needed to be crowned too. It seemed like a debasement of the currency.
Format : paperback
Page Count : 320