01 February 2006

A world to go to - In the time of Byzantium

About: Belisarius Series written by David Drake and Eric Flint.

Mankind advances, reaches the stars and achieves them... then splinters amongst itself into different types and kinds until only two are left... One seeks to impose its will upon the past and chooses a place and time when the ideas of individual capability were first being realized, during the reign of Justinian I in the Eastern Roman Empire centered on Byzantium. Those that seek to preserve humanity and all that makes it special must respond or see mankind enslaved and that candle of human specialness snuffed out. And so comes change to Our Earth, forever change as each representative seeks its path to achieve its ends. Order to the far East and India, where the caste system is very suited to its mentality. The other, a shard, finds its way to a holy man... and thence to the one man capable of understanding change, accepting it, adapting to it, and overcoming it. And so the Aide to mankind passes to a man not known for his religion, not known for his piousness, not known for his seeking the limelight. A man who respects duty and has always done so, but who is so capable that even Justinian does not fully trust him. To one man that can change the course of history for good or ill. A man overlooked by most today, but who won back an the lands of an Empire, if only the Emperor had the capability to keep it. And so footnoted with the failure of his superior, and nearly forgotten today. A man who thought obliquely.

When I was asked at a conference: "Who was the most capable general of all time?" It was not directed at me, but was a group answer affair, where each answered for themselves. I was nearly last and so heard the litany of greatness:

1) Alexander the Great - Of course, the dream of Empire beyond mere empire, but no skills to back up the victories.

2) Napoleon - Extremely capable with the tools available, yet overlooked that an expended army *is* an expended army and its skill and morale are difficult to raise anew.

3) Julius Caesar - A name passed down as Kaiser and Czar and many others, extremely capable and founded what would be the Roman Empire.

Then things get muddled with Grant and Lee and Sherman, Patton and Rommel and Eisenhower and Macarthur, then a litany of head scratching and new names....Genghis Khan , Atilla the Hun, Tamerlane, Suleiman, Saladin... and then the names begin run out... Nimitz and Halsey... Montgomery... Wellington (of course!)... King Gustavus Adolfos (oooo! great choice and perhaps even better than Caesar and Napoleon, if only... *sigh*) and then the eyes of the others turn upon me... and I speak one word... a name... a word that all opponents learned to fear in his day:


Count Flavius Belisarius to be exact, and the puzzled looks begin. Even, much to my surprise, the few military folks in the room... ones who had been to War Colleges and specialized studies of warfare. The name we are never taught, so we may forget it in its absence. A man who took an army so low in morale, the question was if they would even stand and fight, not win or lose, and outnumbered two to one against a seasoned and veteran Persian force, it was a death sentence. For any general, save Belisarius. At Dara the Persians were defeated by this lowly force, this poor force, this force they outnumbered greatly. Their expected booty became defeat, and the pride of Persia learned humility before the heart of the new army they faced. And the heart had a name:


And so an alternate universe begins, with the future attempting to snuff out freedom and liberty and fight and give it absolute order and control. To do so they must only fight some poor barbarian general given ranks in the Roman Empire, so unimportant he is not even a footnote in the future. What can one mere man do against the future?

The future gave help both ways, and in one set of memories a mere spark of a name and that of hope exists. A man barely remembered, a comparative barbarian to the high future, but a man of his times and fully capable of changing to the unexpected. A man who approached problems 'slantwise', who may have been the genesis of the idea of 'meeting oneself coming around the corner' as he was capable and thought so far ahead, and a man who understood the meaning of duty and honor and of preserving the importance of life, even when other lives must be ended to do so.


David Drake and Eric Flint ask of the past... how would it adapt if given the full knowledge of its future from that day forward, and that this future had seen fit to enslave the idea of freedom in mankind so that *it* would not even be spoken of so that it may not be known. From this start comes the immersion into the politics of Empires (and 'Byzantine' only begins to describe it), the attempts at new technology and ideas, and the beginning of the solidification of Christianity as Axum and Rome join together to fight for their lives. To do this Belisarius must scout the enemy, try things that have never been tried before, find a way to save the Empire from treachery, start Reforming the Christian sects, employ his wife and her contacts and friends and build a new army, even as the General himself scouts out with the old. Meanwhile armies of hundreds of thousands march and consolidate the Indian sub-continent, then march towards Persia and spread intrigue and deadly plots.

Some historians might throw a fit at some of the liberties taken, but then not all was recorded and authors are allowed to conjecture on what is *reasonable*. History is more than dates and places and generals and empires and republics and battles and treaties... history is the PEOPLE who did those things and WHY they did them. We lose sight of that in our world, and those that venture to let us see the past in a different way are either ignored or scoffed at, in general. And when a genre like this suddenly becomes popular through some minor piece of mass media, it becomes inundated with more of the popular and less of the thoughtful works. So when Alternate History hit the fan, it exploded everywhere... briefly. But the works that started before that and continued through it remain true to a vision of people living in their world doing their best to adapt to change.

And when you read of the fictional exploits and compare them to the real works of one man, you realize that for the liberties taken, there is a completeness to who that man was. Then you begin to ask the question: "Why does no school teach of this man, this time, this critical juncture of thought?" Perhaps it was because he was a General, and military history (via Marx) 'only reflect the greater changes in their societies'. Can't talk about a General anymore or not easily... and one in history... DWEM! (Dead, White, European Male) No matter the fact he was probably Slavic and rose to the highest military rank in the Roman Empire, and had a wife from Egypt. And the Roman Empire of Byzantium was one of the first multi-ethnic, workable arrangements for mankind. Go to a "Liberal" school and I am sure that outside of a few SF fans and history buffs (alternate and otherwise) you will not hear a single word breathed about Belisarius and Byzantium and multi-ethnic culture of that era. And even the old line 'liberal' courses, seem to have tossed much of that into the dustbin of their classes, so that we may forget it today.

My advice is to look for An Oblique Approach if history suits your fancy and you would like to see how the past can be brought to life and gently warped and twisted. But always remember that there is one General that was feared in his life, who was able to defeat or turn back armies that outnumbered him (and with Justinian not giving him enough troops, this was always the case). A man who thought slantwise and sidewise in shapes ill-defined and put weasels to shame as he could coax them from their skin. A man of honor, courage and duty that only sought 'to serve and protect'.


Remember and honor the man as he was... and as he could have been.

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