Thursday, September 20, 2018

Welcome to King's Landing

“A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” is a somewhat curious book containing small snippets of information on all things Byzantine. The sources are varied, ranging from historical chronicles to lives of prominent Byzantine saints. There are chapters on sex, food, criminality, war, spirituality, ethnic prejudice and (surprise) eunuchs. The facts (or factoids?) are presented with very little context. You need some background knowledge on the Byzantine Empire and the Middle Ages to really appreciate this material.

Some of the anecdotes are entertaining but most, alas, are not. I never had a particularly high opinion on the Byzantines (OK, they painted good icons) and my appreciation sank even lower after reading this. Cruel and unusual punishment, constant wars, rank superstition, brothels in every corner (this in a supposedly Christian empire), child marriage, dirt, excrement, disgusting food, the bubonic plague…if you ever wondered where George R R Martin got the idea to King's Landing in “Game of Thrones”, yes, you guessed it, of course it's Constantinople.

On the more entertaining side, a few things stand out. There is the super-weird story of Saint Christopher the Dog-Head, a member of the famed race of cynocephali. When he converted to Christianity, God gave him the ability to speak, but didn't change his outward appearance, said to have shocked the evil emperor Decius. Apparently, this bizarre tale was taken seriously by many in Byzantium. Further, I noticed that the Byzantines actually believed that the Virgin Mary was a supernatural warrior who led their troops in battle (I'm beginning to understand why they turned the Parthenon into a Marian shrine) and that she sometimes killed sinners in their sleep. The Theotokos did some unexpected gigs!

The word “Lesbian” was coined by a Byzantine, and one of the first European tales about Gypsies depict them as thieves. Swedes were known in the Empire already during the 6th century, and apparently had quite the reputation. The Swedish tribe of Heruls (or Heruli) was said to practice bestiality with donkeys, murder their old kinfolk by throwing them on pyres, and force their widows to hang themselves. Still, I suppose they were good at killing enemies, since the Byzantines recruited them as mercenaries! (I wonder what George Martin could have done with *this* material.)

Not sure how to rate this strange volume, compiled by based scholar Anthony Kaldellis (I noticed he uses the Greek names of the Byzantine emperors throughout, rather than the more customary English ones), but in the end I give it three-and-a-half stars.

Welcome to King's Landing.

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