Obsession, from Latin obsessionem — obsidere, to besiege, is a form of insanity caused, according to traditional belief, by the persistent attack of an evil spirit without, this being the opposite of possession, control by an evil spirit from within, both meaning however the usurpation of the individuality and control of the body by a foreign and discarnate entity.
— Lewis Spence, An Encyclopedia of Occultism
Since this is the first essay of the Encyclopedia of Heresies column I’m doing here at Fantastic Metropolis, introductions are certainly warranted. My name is Matthew Rossi, and I’ll be your heresiarch for this ramble through human history, mythology, fiction, occultism and any other odd bit of business we can cram in along the edges of what I hope to be a fun ride in a glass bottomed boat down the rivers Styx and Oceanus, with ports of call in London-on-Thames, Manoa la Dorada, the Desolation Road, Asgard and other fitting destinations for us of the lunatic persuasion. I’ve already made claim to the title heresiarch, and it’s not a bad one: at times I also answer to madman, lunatic, or even worse and most despised, writer, but what I really am is obsessed. I admit to my obsession. Hell, let me be honest here: I admit to multiple obsessions. I’m obsessed with all sorts of strangeness. You could argue that I am ultimately obsessed with strangeness itself and that all my other obsessions are really just smaller manifestations of that original siren song, the call of the crazed and the chthonic, the conspiratorial and the chaotic. I do not feel assaulted by my obsessions, and if they are evil spirits, then they come wearing pleasing enough shapes that, like a certain Dane, I am willing to entertain their proposals. I love all that they show me: the dirty edges of the picture, where the frame meets the canvas and you could swear you see creatures crawling in from the borderland to John Keel’s Goblin Universe. This column will hopefully be a nice set of portolans between destinations in the ultraterrestrial realms where you can meet kings, gods, apes that happen to be both kings and gods, or what have you, these manifold flora and fauna of my happy obsession.
One way that obsession manifests itself is in musing about the Catholic Church, the Roman Empire (including its Byzantine incarnation) and where it all went wrong, not to mention how else it could have done so. Anyway, I find the years between Constantine and Justinian and Theodora some of the more fascinating ones in terms of history, faith, and the final outcome of the Roman sterilization of Jesus’ legacy for its own purposes. Christianity as the theological glue holding together the Empire worked well for the Byzantines (it led to a thousand years reign over the Eastern Empire, after all) but much less so for the Western Empire. Of course, the dissolution of the west was helped along by the Germanic tribes. No one is arguing that. But another problem, to me, was the rivalry between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
What if that problem had been solved?
And those who were free of all this sort of thing, asked each other what would become of the prosperity of the Romans. For some were sure it was already in the hands of the barbarians, and others said the Emperor had hidden it away in his various dwelling places. But only when Justinian, be he man or King of the Devils, shall have departed this life shall they who then happen to survive him discover the truth.
— Procopius, Anekdota
If you’ve read the Anekdota or even heard about it, you know that it’s a fascinating read, filled to the brim with the kind of heated political slander you just don’t get anymore. I mean, sure, Rush Limbaugh can accuse Clinton of having Vince Foster killed in order to deflect the White House travel scandal, and J. H. Hatfield can say that Bush was a major coke fiend whose father bribed or coerced judges into expunging his arrest record, but Procopius actually accuses Justinian of the following:
XVII. How Justinian Killed A Trillion People
That Justinian was not a man, but a demon, as I have said, in human form, one might prove by considering the enormity of the evils he brought upon mankind. For in the monstrousness of his actions the power of a fiend is manifest. Certainly an accurate reckoning of all those whom he destroyed would be impossible, I think, for anyone but God to make. Sooner could one number, I fancy, the sands of the sea than the men this Emperor murdered.
— Procopius, Anekdota
I mean, he accuses the man of being able, and willing, to kill more people than can be counted. Not to mention destroying nations, consulting with an Empress who Procopius describes as the ultimate prostitute (as you might have guessed, the men who pay to have sex with her and the number of atrocities she commits in the book are, of course, without number), using black magic and demons to blight his enemies, murdering or arranging for the murder of senators in order to steal their wealth, deliberately setting the Orthodox Church against the Arians and Montanists and even the Jews in order to distract those who might have seen through his demonic disguise… the list goes on and on and on. He even accuses the General Belisarius (who had served for a time as Procopius’ patron, and who personally destroyed Vandal Africa and invaded Italy, driving the Ostrogoths from Rome and restored Italy to Imperial hands for a time) of being the dupe of his wife, another member of the satanic conspiracy that placed Justinian onto the purple throne. The book is really remarkable, both for the shamelessness of its hyperbole and the hypocrisy of its authorship. Procopius was intimate with the imperial power, he advanced to great positions due to the generosity of Justinian and Belisarius. Without them, he could never have had the success he needed to devote himself to the writing of history at all. It would be like Casper Weinberger writing a book describing how Ronald Reagan sucked the brains out of young babies and Nancy liked to have sex with apes that she first induced demons to possess, or James Carville telling us all about Clinton’s proclivity towards wearing the skin of his mother and sending magical diseases to smite Newt Gingrich. I mean, we’re talking the kind of political rhetoric even Ann Coulter might blush at.
But unlike our own age, where such books would probably sell a lot of copies and open up expensive lawsuits (and would those be some wild depositions or what?), the penalty for writing such a book was probably death. The imperial power was total, or as close to it as could be imagined at that time, and Procopius knew it. The books he wrote for publication during his lifetime were either obliquely critical of the imperial policy or downright lickspittle with their praise of the Emperor, of Belisarius, and of the Empire itself. It’s possible that anger over a period of stagnation in his career combined with jealousy over the beauty and intelligence of the Empress Theodora and Belisarius’ wife Antonina. (Byzantine women, while not truly liberated, could achieve a lot of power and success… several ruled as sole Empress, and Theodora was certainly skilled and every bit Justinian’s equal.) However, that leaves Procopius merely a jealous, pedantic twit, and the sheer brilliance of his vitriol suggests another possibility. What if Justinian, Theodora and Antonina were involved in black magic and devil worship… and Procopius knew this because he was their spy in Belisarius’ ranks and a member of the cabal? The Anekdota transforms from a mere libel filled with impossible charges to a safeguard against betrayal, the ultimate letter left in case of death. For in a theocratic state like Byzantium, there was no way in hell even a strong ruler could survive a libel this heinous.
One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian’s head vanished, while the rest of his body began to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood white and trembling, wondering that his eyes were liars. But presently he saw the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.
— Procopius, Anekdota
I quote this book in part just because it’s so damn weird that I don’t think I can do it justice, but also because while such lines may seem more like tidbits from the Weekly World News to us, the Byzantines would have taken them seriously. This was an elaborate culture of faith, betrayal, intrigue and superstition. Anything that could be used as a weapon would be. So Justinian would be unlikely to betray a man who could unleash all the barely constrained forces of the Empire, especially while planning to re-conquer all the lost territory of the west from the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alemani and the like. And in point of fact, if not for the constant tension between his own subjects, the defense of the east from Persians and Huns, and his distrust of Belisarius (after all, in an Empire ruled by one man, relying too much on a charismatic and able General was asking to be assassinated, especially in the pressure cooker of Byzantine politics) he may have done more than achieve a temporary resurgence. However, let us assume for a moment that Procopius was in on a conspiracy. Could it have been unmasked? What would Belisarius have done, had he found out that he was being used by a cabal of Satanists?
When the army of Narses drove the Goths out of Rome for the last time, Pope Vigilius was not present to preside over the services of thanksgiving. He was still in Constantinople, ever more inextricably enmeshed in the dispute over the Three Chapters. The hostility aroused by his Judicatum had compelled him to revoke the offending document in 550; and though in August of that year he had secretly sworn to Justinian a written oath that he would continue to use all of his influence on his behalf, his efforts to regain the control — and more difficult still, the respect — of the Western Churches had inevitably led him further and further away from the Emperor’s own position.
— John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries affiliate link
Perhaps Vigilius’ real problem was that he was beginning to see that he was not dealing with a Christian Emperor at all, but rather a bloodthirsty black magician who had the Patriarch thoroughly cowed and who was looting the Churches and estates of the East. Now, being the pragmatic sort, Vigilius would have sought allies to oppose the man, as he did in 550 by summoning all the Bishops he could get his hands on to refute one of Justinian’s edicts, following that up with a round of excommunications. However, perhaps because he saw Belisarius as a member of Justinian’s group (or perhaps because he knew damn well that Procopius was a member) he did not seek the general’s aid.
What if he had? By 550 Theodora was dead, but her jealousy of Belisarius’ ability and suspicions of his motives had made the man’s life extremely difficult, despite his destruction of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa and the conquest of Carthage which settled upon him the same sort of heroic halo that had once been held by Scipio Africanus during the Punic Wars. It has been said that her efforts against Belisarius may well have cut the Eastern Empire’s chances of taking and holding all the territory of the former Empire very, very short: an unfettered by scandal Belisarius, with funding for his expeditions and a free hand in running them, could well have crushed the Huns and Persians and completed the conquests in the West. It was not until he lost the backing of the imperial coffers that he lost battles. After 550, when Justinian resumed his relations with the general, his streak had been broken, his faith blunted, and if we are to believe Procopius, his spirit nearly killed by black magic and his wife’s infidelities.
If Pope Vigilius had taken the time to talk to Belisarius when the man came to call on him to apologize for the Emperor’s behavior (Justinian, typical to his nature, had ordered the man arrested when he excommunicated the Patriarch) instead of dismissing him, what would have happened? Imagine that the Pontiff and the General had compared their dissatisfactions towards the behavior of the Emperor (even in real history, as opposed to Procopius’ magnificently venomous version, Justinian had injured them both and was often found taking into his own hands tactical prerogatives that he could not truly understand, being weeks behind the lines, and he often acted as a one-man Ecumenical Council, abrogating the Pope’s decrees and usurping his powers) and if we assume that Procopius was a spy for the Emperor’s cabal, helping to maintain a web of spirit-sapping magic around Belisarius, we can also assume that the Pope would have the means to remove it. (After all, once you accept the idea that the Emperor is a demon, you establish the possibility that there are angels…)
Indeed, Belisarius’ name (a Greek corruption of the Slavonic words for “Bright Prince”) suggests that the man was a perfect candidate for the role, if only he had been awakened. After all, not even his harshest critics can argue that his early career was anything but a study in brilliance under pressure and tactical genius, that his character was not noble and honest (Gibbon waxes poetic over the man, but then again, so he does for almost anything) and that, had he not come under the twin misfortunes of Theodora’s disdain and his own wife’s profligacy with money and her affections, he could well have done what he almost did anyway and restored the Empire. Now, imagine his eyes opened to the treachery practiced on him by his own secretary, his wife, and his supposed friend and Emperor.
Soon, the armies of Byzantium return to Constantinople, their master following a new agenda. Since Justinian had already sent the Patriarch west to prostrate himself before Vigilius, none could argue where the true spiritual power in the Empire currently lasted. Imagine Justinian’s surprise when the Master of the Palace Guard and General of the West comes before him not in supplication… but with the sword. It would not have taken Belisarius long, honestly… he had more or less the entire armed forces of the Empire totally under his command, and the last thing Justinian would have suspected was his faithful hound, who had endured ostracism and exile and accusations without flinching and returned without hesitation to his side, of plotting. Indeed, marching into the palace and killing Justinian blatantly in the name of God would probably be the one plan no Byzantine would have expected. As such, Belisarius plants himself upon the throne, sends for the Patriarch, and indicates to him that the demon is dead, and a new day is dawning. A day where East and West will have but one emperor, and but one Church Father.
Imagine an Empire led by a revitalized Belisarius, instead of a cabal of demons and their compatriots. The Justinian persecutions of the Arians and Montanists and Jews stop, because while Vigilius might well want to continue them, Belisarius will not tolerate anything that reminds him of his former master and his treachery. The senatorial class is converted into a true advisory body. Anything that smacks of black magic is eradicated. It starts off so well, this theocratic empire that drives all traces of the Goths and Alemani and Vandals from the boundaries of the Empire. But would it stay that way? Belisarius, like most men, is only mortal… and he suffers from the zeal of the convert, having been roused to a terrible purpose. If Justinian was thought of as a warlike Emperor whose main failing was that he failed to follow up on victories, such is not a problem Belisarius suffers. He revives the ancient Roman custom of bringing outsiders into the social fabric through citizenship, and ties it into a religious proselytization unlike anything seen in our history, a Christianity that believes in allowing other faiths to exist under its umbrella but which also believes in spreading itself through violent conquest. Belisarius’ empire will allow you to believe what you want, as long as you tithe anyway. Worship how you choose, but pay us for the privilege. As bad as this might seem to us, it would be a massive improvement to the anti-Jewish ghetto in Constantinople, to the persecutions throughout the empire of Jews and Samaritans and Arians and Montanists. Byzantine genius for duplicity and diplomacy is turned against the barbarians, while amongst the Kingdom of Christ, such practices are considered abhorrent.
An empire that would be soon to have rivals. Mohammed was born in 570. What form would Islam take in the face of a united and strong Byzantium, with an overriding Christian ethos? Would it assume a more martial stance earlier in its development? The spread of Islam is one of the most rapid and surprising eruptions of power onto the world stage in history, and I have a very hard time imagining the years following the final Prophet’s birth without it. If Islam could not be spread into the Byzantine Empire by the sword, would it infiltrate it by preaching? Would the military direction of Islam go further east faster, descending into India, converting the nomadic tribesmen of the Mongolian Steppe? Would China, instead of embracing Buddhism, become an Islamic Nation with its own take on the message of the Prophet? Would the Magyars and Khazars and Khazaks submit, not to any man, but to Allah?
Hard to say. But in my mind’s eye I see the armies of the Bright Principality doing battle with the Horsemen of the Prophet. The giant Byzantine General Carolus Magnus, of Frankish descent, leads his cohorts into battle underneath the Cross, while the Seljuk, the Hindi, and the Chinese unite under the world empire of Islam. It would be glorious, and terrible. By the 12th Century, each side would find most of their conflict in the vast Asian steppe between Moscow and Beijing, on the seas as each attempted to spread to Africa, and yet I see both as strangely capable of sophisticated diplomacy. The Islamic World-Empire would have long since learned from thinkers like Mencius and Confucius and been informed by the cultures of India, while Byzantium would have had to learn to absorb and utilize different cultures. Each tolerates other faiths as long as their main creed is supreme. In a world where direct conflict would prove destructive and pointless, where the Mediterranean is again a Latin Lake and Islam rules the Indian Ocean, you can almost imagine an uneasy peace replacing generations of war.
But I dream. It would probably be a savage war lasting hundreds of years, till one fell or both were too exhausted to continue and uneasy peaces were exchanged. Each side would have access to ancient texts we have lost, the writings of Apollonius of Tyana, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, Hypatia’s Dialogues, Archimedes’ studies of siege warfare, Hero of Alexandria… their war machines would race forward, each powered by the petroleum fields in the contested middle east. First lumbering, belching carriages… then sophisticated iron and bronze juggernauts, metal whales seeking metal sharks under the sea and metal birds and insects in the skies… perhaps even suits of laminated armor (an eastern secret the Empire of Islam would gain by its expansion) powered by sophisticated internal combustion engines against huge, thick iron walkers powered by a discovery made by a Camberensian Latin born in the British Province, a kind of energy one can tap from purified earth elements similar to the primordial matter so long speculated by alchemists. Battlesuits and mecha warring across the taiga and in the Holy Land before the Renaissance happened in our paltry timeline.
Of course, all of this assumes that the name Belisarius, which as I said means Bright Prince, doesn’t have a Luciferian aspect. After all, Procopius doesn’t leave his old patron out when it comes time to dish out the charges of Satanism and debauchery. While depicting Belisarius as a dupe or an innocent caught in a sinister conspiracy has a certain appeal, what if the man was, in fact, a bringer of light in the most sinister way possible? He could well have been in North Africa seeking out the lost knowledge of the Dogon peoples or even various Manichaean sects like the one that St. Augustine of Hippo was once a member of, and his trip west might well have been a quest for power on his own… perhaps Pope Vigilius was wiser than our secular age gives him credit for: perhaps one misstep and a bright light hiding many shadows would have descended over the Vatican. After all, it’s interesting that Theodora, Justinian’s co-ruler and a loather of Belisarius, died in time for the man to be sent west. However, we can do more than make an angel or a devil of our fair General of the East. And, being that I am an admitted lunatic with a fondness for a famous king, why not drag in our old friend the Pendragon?
Imagine it: The time is the Sixth Century after Christ. The place is the former province of the now-crumbling Western Empire known as Dacia. Two of the grandest armies ever assembled face each other along the banks of the River Danube. One bears a great Roman Standard, with the Chi-Rho of Christ above the Imperial Double-Eagle symbol, while the other carries an old Cymry Battle-Flag of a Red Dragon below a great red and white Cross. While one army wears the armor of the Roman Infantry, the other is a riot of plaids gathered into great cloaks and kilts, assembled by enormous silver brooches… yet beneath such garb lies mail that is quite familiar to the other side. The horses of the armies snort and stamp the ground, and each side dreads the order to charge across the muddy banks of the river.
Then, from each side, a man rides forth to meet the other. Watching on the Western bank is an older man with a strange cast to his skin and a shock of white hair, while on the Eastern bank a man and a woman of Imperial bearing await the news, their hands locked, their manner grim. They have all traveled far to meet in the heart of what was once the Roman Empire.
The two horsemen reach the middle ford of the Danube, which is behaving itself, as if it knows that history is melting, thawing, and resolving itself anew at this nexus of time and potential. The easterner is short, stocky but powerfully built, born to ride a horse and wage war, dark of hair and skin. The western man is tall, reddish-blond of hair and beard, with an enormous sword on his hip and an ease of command that seems somehow instinctive. They face each other, brown eyes locked on blue.
And then they smile. The General of Constantinople, Belisarius the Great, quite possibly the greatest general who ever lived, reaches out a hand and clasps the forearm of the Dux Britannium, Arthur, King of Britain.
“Welcome to the empire of your ancestor Constantine, Emperor Arthur of the West.”
No, it never happened. It may not have been possible, since no one can prove that there ever was an Arthur. But if you think a little thing like historical fact is going to slow me down, well, we both know better, don’t we?
As Justinian would discover when he attempted to re-conquer the west and restore the Roman Empire, he simply didn’t have the power to do so while holding off the Parthians to his east and dealing with the Vandals and Ostermanli in North Africa. In the history we know, his wife died, costing him the support he’d come to depend upon (Theodora was brave, intelligent, loyal and determined… it’s quite possible that Justinian and Theodora were the first true equals to rule a nation as man and wife, and without her he was less effective by half.) and forcing him to overextend his reach until his death brought a period of weakness to the Empire.
But according to the Historiae Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon, who was the son of Constans, a descendant Constantine himself. This makes Arthur a natural rival for the empire of the east… or, in the eyes of Justinian and Theodora, two of the greatest diplomats in history, a natural ally in a campaign to conquer the west. With a descendant of Constantine on both Imperial Thrones, who is to say what would happen? Justinian and Arthur were, in effect, distant cousins.
Imagine; instead of having to fight in three arenas at once, the Byzantine army under Belisarius (who was unanimously considered even to this day as one of the greatest generals who ever lived) could expand in the east, throwing back the Parthians and reclaiming North Africa from the Germanic tribes. Meanwhile, with the support of his brother monarch in the east, Arthur has no logistical difficulties (Byzantium owned the Mediterranean) and can easily conquer the Ostrogothic pretender on the throne of Rome. Such adventures for the Briton Army were common in history, but the difference is that Arthur, working with Theodora and Justinian, could well accomplish what no Briton had since Constantine himself, and together crush the Germans. The year 550 could well be a new ad urbe condita for Rome, as the two emperors split the city between them, each preferring to rule from his own city and appointing governors to meet in Rome… Belisarius and Merlin, perhaps?
From here, who knows? Would Arthur take a Byzantine wife to seal the deal rather than marry Guinevere, leaving her free to follow her heart? With the Empire re-established, the riots that endangered Constantinople and probably contributed to Theodora’s early death would not happen, and the Imperial Marriage in the East would prosper, leading perhaps to a large dynasty. Would that dynasty intermarry with the Western Imperial Line, combining the two descendant lines of Constantine in one? A strong, Christian, unified Roman Empire would be much less likely to suffer the losses of any of its territory to Islam, but at the same time the Roman tradition of religious tolerance might well allow Islam to grow and spread as it did Christianity itself… would the old pattern reassert itself, or would the two faiths learn to co-exist in a world where the Crusades would never happen?
It is not hard to see the Pendragon and the Double Eagle, ruling over a whole new world. But then again, as we’ve learned, I am obsessed with King Arthur. None of this, of course, addresses the magical side of things… what if the demons of Procopius’ Anekdota made common cause with the black fae who supported Morgana Le Fay? What of the Grail in a world where the Arthurian line rules from Britain to Palestine? It’s easy to imagine Arthur getting his hand on the infamous Spear of Destiny… would the Spear and the Sword cause his descendants to reach out into Asia, forestalling the coming Mongol Invasion by expanding along the conquests of Alexander the Great, the figure known even today by the people of those realms as Sikander Dulkarzein, Alexander the Two-Horned One. Would the Arthurian Empire make war on India or merely make contact with it? What effect on the world would a powerful military in Europe, able to resist the Magyars and Vikings, have on the admixture of cultures we saw in our own history? It’s possible that the Arthurian lands would actually hinder the development of Europe by preventing new ideas and new laws from being introduced.
Still, I somehow like the idea. The Justinian-Arthurian line of Emperors has the potential to eclipse the Julio-Claudians, the Antonines… and bring about a Renaissance ten centuries early. In my head, I can see the glittering gold dragon standard held high over the seven hills of Rome, a Rome with its great monuments intact, symbol of a new world. A world built from solid myth. I don’t think even the fae could dislike that.
Copyright © 2004 by Matthew Rossi.