I had the pleasure of interviewing Gordon Doherty, a Scottish writer of historical fiction, about his book Legionary (set in the Migration Age Byzantine Empire) and his latest book Strategos (set in the Medieval Byzantine Empire). In this interview, he talks about his interpretation of Byzantium and why it’s a great setting for historical fiction. Click on the title to read the full interview.
Gordon, you now wrote two books on the Byzantine Empire. Please tells us what fascinates you about this subject and how you got the idea to write about it.
My fascination started with the Roman Empire of the Republic and the Principate, and my early attempts at writing historical fiction were of this period. There is a litany of fine fiction set in these eras and I love many of them. However, from a writing perspective, I found that in many ways, the Roman Empire was almost too perfect. Her legions were seemingly invincible and numerous, and she could call upon a production line of fine generals to swat away the ‘barbarian’ peoples around her borders, or simply absorb them into the empire.
So my curiosity moved along the timeline to the time of the late Western Empire and beyond, when classical Rome was gone. Here, the coffers were dry, the walls and forts were crumbling, the legions were desperate and only equal at best to the ‘barbarians’ who had now come to challenge Rome’s supremacy. And the challenge was a brutal one. The Western Empire fell, leaving the Eastern Empire alone to evolve into the intriguing mix of old Rome and oriental mystery that is Byzantium.
It was these times that held my fascination, especially as a writer when I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the people of late Rome and Byzantium. The constant turmoil and adversity, living with the knowledge of the greatness that was but could never be again, desperately fighting to keep alive the husk that remained as the world changed around them. For me that constant adversity shapes character, and as a writer it has presented to me so many concepts for stories that the more I write and read about Byzantium and later Rome, the more fascinating it becomes and the more ideas I have.
Please tell us what your first book Legionary is about.
Legionary is a tale of young Pavo and a bittersweet twist in his life: freed from slavery in Constantinople, he is sent to serve with the limitanei, the infamous border legions where survival is a transient concept. While Pavo struggles to adapt to this brutal life, the burgeoning Christian faith offers a stepladder to those in Constantinople who would wish to turn the fate of the empire to meet their own hunger for power.
Thus, Pavo’s legion is cast into a treacherous mission to reconquer the long lost Kingdom of Bosporus, thought to have been in the hands of the Goths for the last hundred years. Little do they know a far darker storm awaits them on those foreign shores…
Please tell us what your latest book Strategos is about.
Strategos is set in the borderlands between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Sultanate, in an age when full-scale war is imminent and duplicity and bloodshed are rife.
A Byzantine boy, Apion, is snared in the jaws of the initial stages of the conflict, his life is torn apart and he is left a crippled husk. An old Seljuk farmer takes him under his wing and tries to teach him to live again and to know happiness. But Apion yearns for revenge. Struggling against his darker side that threatens to overcome him, he enlists in the ranks of the Byzantine armies just as the balance tips and war erupts across Anatolia. It is in this conflict he will find his destiny.
Strategos is set in the Middle Ages. Has the Byzantine empire changed significantly between the ancient times of Legionary and the Middle Ages? Do you prefer writing about either of these time periods?
Militarily and socially, much has changed between the two time periods, but, in a strange way, it is the common aspect of both of these periods that really appeals to me: that the empire is teetering on collapse. This tension and foreboding provides an excellent backdrop for fictional narrative.
If I was to write another, entirely new story, it would probably be in another era of ‘end of empire’. For example, I am considering a story set in the aftermath of the Trojan war.
When writing historical fiction, are you inspired by history, or do you think of the story first?
Good question. The answer has changed over the years. I think that initially, when I was first reading the histories of the ancient world, my inspiration started there and the stories evolved from that. As I’ve matured a little as a writer, I have become more interested in the beast of character and I found, especially with Strategos, that it was the conflicts that my characters would face and their reactions to them that compelled me to write the story.
I remember sitting in my writing den thinking over the premise of Strategos and realising that, for the first time, I was trying out different periods of history to see how they would fit with the core character story of the protagonist, Apion.
What resources did you use to research the historical background for your book?
For Strategos, I used many sources and found keeping a list of these references a big job in itself, but three were key and I can cite them without having to think about it:
Warren Treadgold’s Byzantium and its Army 284-1081 was invaluable in giving detail of the imperial armies down to the finest minutiae, despite the constant flux in unit sizes, conventions and ranks. Indeed, that the Byzantine army employed a practice of keeping unit numbers irregular to confuse enemy armies nicely sums up how difficult it is to pinpoint patterns and standards around the time of the story.
John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium: the Apogee gives an equally detailed look at the social history of the ruling classes of the empire around the time of Strategos, with a vivid and enjoyable narrative that often reads like fiction.
Finally, Osprey’s series of military books are ideal for a tired mind; short, packed with eye-catching and evocative illustrations and very focused on specific areas. For example, I gleaned a wealth of information from Dr Timothy Dawson’s Byzantine Infantryman 900-1204 and Ian Heath and Angus McBride’s Byzantine Armies 886-1118.
In your research, what did you think of the information you could find online? Are there any reliable websites on Byzantine history that you could recommend?
The web is packed with information on the subject. One in particular that I found very useful was historum.com. There is a Byzantine forum on there and any questions I posted were answered within a few hours usually, so the content is anything but static, and you can usually stir up a pretty interesting debate with the guys on there. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Do you have a background in Byzantine history, or are you a self-taught specialist on the subject?
I am purely self-taught from a love of reading and poring over texts and illustrations of the time period.
While this has allowed me to absorb copious amounts of information and fuelled my ideas for writing, I am conscious that this alone does not qualify me as an expert, so when writing, I do my best to ‘engage with the experts’.
For example, with Strategos, I made contact with Dr Timothy Dawson (PhD in Classics and Byzantine Studies and author of several Byzantine military books) and Mr Burak Sansal of allaboutturkey.com. Together, their knowledge of Byzantine and Seljuk Anatolia around the time of the Battle of Manzikert really helped to bolster the authenticity of the story.
Are you already planning to write another book, and what is it about if we may ask?
Definitely. The next few years will see me work on parts two and three of the Legionary series, plus part two and the concluding third part of the Strategos trilogy. I’m really excited about delving into these books, but at the same time, I have a bucketload of ideas for new stories so I may splice some new works in between.
Thank you very much for your time. Is there any feedback you would like to give on Ancient History Encyclopedia?
I’d just like to thank AHE for being warm, receptive and welcoming to contributions from history enthusiasts like myself.