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3.5 2
by H. N. Turteltaub

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From one of the nation's leading Byzantine scholars comes a fictional look at the vicious reign of Justinian II, Emperor of the Romans in the seventh century and one of history's most desperate and brutal rulers. "Turteltaub's rich blend of fact and fiction brings the tyrant to life, " says "Publishers Weekly."


From one of the nation's leading Byzantine scholars comes a fictional look at the vicious reign of Justinian II, Emperor of the Romans in the seventh century and one of history's most desperate and brutal rulers. "Turteltaub's rich blend of fact and fiction brings the tyrant to life, " says "Publishers Weekly."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Turteltaub may be "the pen-name of a well-known writer" in Southern California, but his or her main character here needs no such disguise. Justinian II, Emperor of the Roman Empire in the seventh century, ruled the Christian world from Constantinople amid intrigue, treachery, revolt and murder. This vivid historical novel puts the reader by his side as he governs the empire with an iron hand and a bloody sword. Justinian tells this ancient tale of high drama and action through a journal, read now by a monk long after Justinian's death and interspersed with comments from his longtime companion and bodyguard, Myakes. When Justinian assumes the throne at age 16, his empire is imperiled by barbarians on all frontiers and by threats of rebellion within. Byzantine (literally) conspiracies and rivalries, and treason among his friends and enemies, especially his own family, test his youthful ability. When he fails to heed the warnings of his few true friends, he is overthrown, mutilated by having his nose cut off and exiled across the Black Sea. Ten years later, clever alliances and good luck put him back on the throne, and his thirst for revenge is all-consuming. Turteltaub's rich blend of fact and fiction brings the tyrant to life as a man obsessed with imperial power, which he achieved through brutality and bloodshed. (Aug.)
Library Journal
While not as well known as his namesake, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, Justinian II certainly bears investigating. Treacherous, vicious, driven, and self-serving, Justinian took the throne in 685 at the age of 15. Overthrown in 695, he was cruelly mutilated and exiled across the Black Sea, where he languished for years with his bodyguard Myakes as his only companion. Although the bulk of the story is told from Justinian's point of view, the more interesting bits are found in the asides by Myakes, who, after the death of his emperor, was blinded and sent to a monastery. In spite of lengthy and tedious descriptions of military campaigns and an underpopulated cast of characters, the reader is drawn into a Byzantine world where the glory of God and the glory of earthly power are two sides of a glittering gold coin. Turteltaub is the pseudonym of sf author Harry Turtledove. Recommended for larger fiction collections. [For a new sf book by Turtledove, see The Great War, reviewed in the SF & Fantasy column below.--Ed.]--Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libs., AK

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By H. N. Turteltaub, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 1998 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8125-4527-2



I am Justinian, Emperor of the Romans. Oh, they stole the throne from me once. They mutilated me. They shipped me off into exile. They thought—fools!—they were done with me. But I came back, and they have paid. How they have paid! And they will go on paying, too, so long as one of them is left alive. The Empire is mine, and I shall keep it.

I was born to rule. I could not have been more than four years old when my father, the fourth Constantine and the fourth generation of the dynasty of Herakleios to rule the Roman Empire, sat me on his knee and said, "Do you know, son, why we named you Justinian?"

"No, Papa," I answered. Up till that moment, I had never imagined my name had been given for a reason. It was just what people called me.

"I will tell you, then," he said. You could hardly see his lips move when he talked, so luxuriant were his beard and mustachios. They say his father, Constans, was hairier yet. I do not know. God never granted that I see my grandfather. Rebels on the western island of Sicily murdered him the year before I was born.

My father resumed: "Do you know who the first Justinian was?"

I shook my head. I had never heard of anyone but me with the name. Now I was jealous, for I thought I had it all to myself.

"He was an Emperor, too," my father told me. "He was a great conqueror and a great lawgiver. If you can be like him when the time comes for you to take the throne, you will make the family proud. That is why we gave you the name: to give you a mark to aim at."

If I said I knew then what he meant, I would be lying. But I already knew there had been a great many Emperors of the Romans, so I asked, "When did this other Justinian live?"

My father muttered under his breath and counted on his fingers. At last, he said, "The first Justinian died forty-five years before your great-great-grandfather won the throne for our line from Phokas the monster, the usurper."

"Good. People will remember me instead," I said, "for he has been dead a very, very long time." I tell this without embarrassment; as I said, I had but four years.

Then my father's mouth opened so wide, I could see not just his lips but his teeth and tongue and the back of his throat as well. He laughed loud enough to make two servants come running in to find out what had happened. He waved them away. When they had gone, he said, "That is not such a long time, son, not as we Romans reckon it. The first Emperor, Augustus, was six hundred years dead when Herakleios beat Phokas: more than six hundred fifty years now."

The number was too big to mean anything to me. I had learned to count to twenty, using my fingers and the toes that peeked out of my sandals under the hem of my tunic to help me along. I did not know what it meant to be a Roman, to live with the memories of all those years cloaked around me.

* * *

The next spring, the Arabs came to Constantinople. When I was a boy, I knew old men who said that, when they were young, no one at the Queen of Cities paid the Arabs any mind or had even heard of them. How the Roman Empire wishes that were true today!

Herakleios, my great-great-grandfather, beat back the Persians after years of desperate war and restored to Jerusalem the piece of the True Cross the Magians and fire worshipers had carried away when they conquered the holy city.

God rested on the seventh day. Herakles, I suppose, rested after his twelve labors. Herakleios's labors were greater by far than those of the pagan Greek, but did God who had Himself rested allow my forefather any rest? He did not.

Forth from the desert, from the abomination of the desolation, the Arabs swarmed like locusts. They had always been there, I suppose: tent dwellers, nomads, lizard-eating savages. But in Herakleios's time the heresy preached by their false prophet Mouamet made them all brothers and sent them out a-conquering.

And Herakleios, who had celebrated the return of the holy and life-giving wood to Jerusalem, now had to take it up once more and bring it to Constantinople. For the Roman Empire was weak after decades of war with Persia, and had not the strength to withstand the onslaught of new invaders. Palestine and its holy city were lost, and Syria, and Egypt with Alexandria beside it.

(And if we Romans were weak, the Persians were weaker still, and had fallen into civil strife after their war against us failed. The Arabs conquered them one and all, and they have remained under the rule of the followers of the false prophet until the present. They would have done better to leave us alone.)

The great Herakleios's son, Herakleios Constantine—my great-grandfather—ruled but a few months. He suffered from a sickness of the lungs, poor soul. May God have judged him kindly.

When he died, he left behind a young son, my grandfather Constans. But the great Herakleios's second wife, Martina, sought to raise her son Heraklonas, the half-brother of Herakleios Constantine, to the throne in Constans's place. She and Heraklonas got what usurpers deserve: her tongue was cut out, his nose was cut off, and they were sent into exile on Rhodes.

They stole my throne. They cut off my nose. They exiled me. They treated me as if I, fifth in the line of the great Herakleios, had no proper claim to the throne. How I treated them I shall tell in due course.

To return to my grandfather: in his reign, we Romans fought back against the Arabs in every way we could. We sent out a fleet to reclaim Alexandria by Egypt from them, though it remained in Roman hands only a year before the deniers of Christ took it back, and it has stayed in their possession ever since.

From Egypt, the Arabs swept west toward Carthage and the lands surrounding it, lands the Romans had regained from the Vandals during the reign of the Justinian for whom I was named. That was one of the reasons Constans went to Sicily, where he met his death: he used the island as a base from which to assail the Arabs in their movement against Carthage. And while my grandfather lived, Carthage stayed in Roman hands. How it was lost, again, will be told in its own place.

Even before this time, the Arabs, curse them, had done a thing the Persians never did in all their centuries of war against us Romans. They took to the sea, endangering the Roman Empire in that new fashion. Like all the line of Herakleios, Constans my grandfather was a man who believed in going straight at the foe. He assembled the Roman fleet, and met that of the Arabs off the coast of Lykia, the southwestern region of Anatolia.

Before the two fleets joined battle, my grandfather dreamt he was in Thessalonike. He told this to a man who knew how to interpret dreams, asking what it meant. And the man's face grew long, and he said, "I wish you had not dreamt this dream."

As I have said, I never met Constans, but I can imagine the fearsome glare he must have given the fellow. "Why?" he would have growled.

The man who could interpret dreams had courage, for he answered with what he saw: "Your being in Thessalonike signifies, 'Give victory to someone else,' for that is the meaning of the words thes allô nikê. You would do far better, Emperor, not to engage the enemy tomorrow."

My grandfather went out and fought the sea battle anyhow. He—


Christ and all the saints, Brother Elpidios, that's Herakleios and those who sprang from him, right there in a sentence. They weren't always right, but they were always sure. So Justinian could see that in his grandfather, could he? Too bad he never could see it in himself.

Go on, go on, I pray you. I did say I'd break in from time to time. Go on.


—fought the sea battle, and was defeated. Indeed, he was almost killed. The Arabs boarded the imperial flagship. One brave soul there stripped the robe from his back and pretended to be him, while another helped him get across a narrow stretch of sea stained red with Roman blood to a dromon not under such fierce attack. Both those heroes died, but Constans came back safe to Constantinople.

The Arabs might have moved against the Queen of Cities then, but they fell into civil strife. In the fourth year of my father's reign, though, the deniers of Christ readied a great expedition, and in the spring of his fifth year they came.

We Romans had not been idle. My father, learning of the Arabs' preparations, ordered our shipwrights to work straight through the winter, building and refurbishing the vessels upon which, along with the great walls of Constantinople, our safety depended. On learning the foe's fleet had set out from Kilikia, where it had wintered, and was bound for the imperial city, he and his brothers—the two junior Emperors, Herakleios and Tiberius (my uncles, in other words)—decided to hearten the workmen and sailors at the Proklianesian harbor, and they took me with them.

When I think back on it, I am astonished by how much I remember of the day: the sights, the sounds, most of all the smells of fresh-cut wood and rope and pitch. Perhaps I should not be surprised. Till then, I had spent most of my time with my mother, the Empress Anastasia, and with the women of the palace. Now I was decked out in miniature robes of deep crimson—for I was a prince myself—and borne along in a sedan chair right behind those my father and my uncles rode. I kept peeking out through the curtains to see as much of the city as I could.

The Proklianesian harbor lies on the southern side of Constantinople, just east of the harbor of Theodosios, the largest of the city's anchorages. It is not a harbor for merchantmen or fishing boats: war galleys lie there.

I had never seen dromons before. They were long and lean, some with one bank of oars, some with two. The bronze rams they carried at the bow were green and pitted from the sea; some had gray or purple-red patches of barnacles growing on them. The dromons carried wooden towers amidships, from which archers could shoot down at the decks of enemy vessels. Each had sockets for masts before and behind the tower, but the masts were not in place now.

I had never seen or heard such men as those who worked on the dromons and would presently sail them either. The sun had burnt them near as black as Ethiopians are said to be, and sun and wind and spray carved harsh lines in their faces. Some of them wore wool or linen tunics that did not reach their knees, others just a cloth wrapped around their loins, commonly with a sheathed knife on the right side.

When they saw me, they smiled and pointed and called to me. I remember how white their teeth were against beards and dark faces. I also remember how much trouble I had understanding their Greek. Compared to what I heard in the palaces, it was clipped and quick, hardly seeming the same language at all.

My father and uncles had no trouble with it. In fact, when they talked with the sailors, they dropped into it themselves. I had never heard them speak like that before. Now, of course, I too talk like an educated man among clerics and accountants, and like a sailor among sailors.

A party of workmen came up the docks, past me, my father, and my uncles. Some of them were carrying bronze tubes, not sea-green like the dromons' rams but bright and shiny, the color of a freshly minted forty-follis coin. Others bore contraptions of hide and wood. After a moment, I recognized them as bellows, oversized cousins to the ones the cooks in the kitchens used to make their fires burn hotter. I pointed to them. "What are those for? Will the sailors blow on the sails with them to make the ships go faster?"

My father, my uncles, and everyone else who heard me laughed. I knew then I was wrong. That made me angry. I stamped my foot and screamed as if I were being made a eunuch.

My uncle Tiberius turned to Herakleios and murmured, "Constantine should clout him when he acts like that." Herakleios nodded. My father did not notice the byplay. Even though I was screaming, I did. I screamed even louder, just to annoy my uncles the more.

My uncle called to a swarthy, hawk-faced man who walked along behind the workers with the tubes and the bellows: "Attend us, Kallinikos!"

The swarthy man approached and bowed very low, first to my father, then to each of my uncles in turn, and last of all to me. I was surprised enough to quiet down. "How may I serve you, Emperor?" Kallinikos asked. He was an educated man; I could tell that at once. Yet his Greek had a guttural undertone I had not heard before. Since the Arabs burst out of the desert, Syrian accents have grown scarce in Constantinople.

"Tell the prince Justinian," my father said, pointing to me, "why these men are fitting our ships with the devices you have invented."

"Of course, Emperor." Kallinikos bowed first to my father and then to me. He did not bow again to my uncles. I liked that. To me, he said, "Prince, these tubes will project out across the water and onto any ship that comes close to one of ours a liquid fire that will cling and burn it up."

"How is it made?" I asked.

Kallinikos started to answer, then hesitated, looking to my father, who said, "We should not speak of that here on the docks, where so many men can listen. The making of this liquid fire is a secret, and we do not want the Arabs to learn how it is done. Do you understand?"

He spoke gravely. I nodded. As he had intended, he had taught me a lesson: that secrecy could matter not only to a boy but to an Emperor. I have remembered.

My father went on, "Kallinikos here, being a good Christian man"—he made the sign of the cross, as did my uncles, as did I, as did Kallinikos himself—"came here to the Queen of Cities from Heliopolis with his invention, not wanting it to fall into the hands of the followers of the false prophet." All at once he looked quite grim. "And soon we shall see just how much use it is to us, too."

* * *

Two years before, the Arabs had captured Smyrna, on the western coast of Anatolia, and Kyzikos, which lies under Mount Dindymos across the Propontis from Constantinople, to serve as bases for their assault on the Queen of Cities. When full spring brought good weather and reduced the chance of storms on the narrow sea between Kyzikos and Constantinople, the deniers of Christ sailed up and laid siege to our God-guarded imperial capital.

With my father and my uncles, I watched from the seawall as their fleet drew near. I had never seen so many ships in all my short life; they seemed to cover all the water of the Propontis. I pointed out to them. "See how the oars move back and forth like a centipede's legs," I said. I had smashed a couple of centipedes in the past few days; good weather brought them out, as it did the Arabs.

"They're like centipedes in another way, too," my father answered: "If they bite us, we will die."

Out ahead of their fleet rowed dromons much like ours, save only that they lacked wooden towers amidships. Faint over the water, I heard for the first time the chant their oarsmen and soldiers repeated endlessly: "Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!"

"What does that mean?" I asked my father.

"'God is great,'" he answered absently. He was paying more heed to those oncoming warships than to me.

Our own dromons put out from the Proklianesian harbor and the harbor of Theodosios to meet them. A great cry rose from the men and women watching on the seawall: "God with us! Christ with us! The Virgin with us!" They drowned out the chant of the Arabs. The patriarch John held up a holy icon of the Mother of God, one made by divine hands, not those of men.


And now this Leo, the one who's been ruling us these past fourteen years, he calls icons graven images, and says we should smash all of them? You ask me, only a man with the mind of a Jew or a Saracen would say such stupid things. No doubt you reckon me a foolish old man, Brother Elpidios, but I doubt you'll argue with me there.

Come to that, Justinian and I met this Leo before he was so much of a much. I wonder what my master will have to say of him. I know, Brother: each thing in its own place. Read on.


The sea breeze played with the patriarch's robes—gorgeous with cloth of gold and pearls and jewels—and fluffed out his great white beard.

After my encounter with Kallinikos, I looked for our dromons to breathe out fire like dragons and send all the ships of the misbelieving Arabs to the bottom at once. That did not happen, of course. Life is more difficult than it looks to little boys.

The Arabs' dromons sprinted toward ours, their oars churning the water to a frothy wake. Behind them, the other ships of the deniers of Christ made for the Thracian coast south and west of Constantinople.

Some Roman war galleys broke through the screen the followers of the false prophet tried to set between them and the transports carrying Arab soldiers. My father, my uncles, I, John the patriarch—everyone on the seawall—screamed in delight when a dromon rammed a fat merchantman right amidships. The dromon backed oars after striking. The hole it punched in the other ship's side must have been huge; you could watch the merchantman wallow and start to sink. Heads bobbed in the water: sailors and soldiers, trying to swim for their lives. The archers aboard our dromons must have had fine sport with them, and sent many souls on to eternal torment.

But my father's exultation did not last. "It is not enough," he said. "They will gain the shore, in spite of all we can do."


Excerpted from Justinian by H. N. Turteltaub, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 1998 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

H. N. Turteltaub is the pseudonym of a well-known novelist who is also an accomplished historian of the ancient world.

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Justinian 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story explores the metamorphosis of Emperor Justinian II from loveable, eager child, through passionate adolescent, thence immediately to spiteful tyrant. It paints a vivid portrait of the court life of Constantinople, as well as the hardships of exile in the eastern hinterlands. Justinian is portrayed as a colorful character of unwavering determination and incredible self-absorption. This book maintains a nice pace despite its bulk of historical detail.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nicely done historical, but the protagonist was such an unpleasant sort that it was hard to care about him or his times. Turtletaub's literary approach was actually quite sophisticated and, well, literate. But the adventures of this unpleasant Byzantine tyrant were nothing to get excited about -- unless you like cruelty & sadistic, mindless vengeance, which seems to have been Justinian's forte. I for one was left rather cold and had to force myself to finish the tale. Frankly, I'd have liked to see and hear a bit more about the Khazars who seem to have been a much more interesting group of fellows, especially as they went on to have a very significant influence upon the area -- and the world (if certain scholars are to be believed). This Justinian fellow, on the other hand, was just a minor annoyance on the Byzantine body-politic, having left nothing but a record of his unprecedented dual reign and the viciousness which characterized his mind-set. -- S. W. Mirsky