Holland, Cecelia. The Belt of Gold.

NY: Knopf, 1984.

In my considered opinion, Holland (who is almost exactly the same age as me) is one of the two or three overall best historical novelists of my generation. Her work has spanned an immense range of geography over a considerable number of centuries, from the builders of Stonehenge and Attila’s Hunnish hordes to medieval Ireland and the California Gold Rush. Some of them are better than others, of course, but all of them are at least quite good.

Her narrative style is simple and straightforward, her characters describing events as they occur (and battles as they unfold) with not a lot of philosophizing. And they speak colloquial English in such a way that the reader is subverted into subliminally believing he’s hearing 11th century French, or whatever. The focus of this book is the Empress Irene, a member of the merely provincial aristocracy who ruled Constantinople for a few years at the end of the 8th century — a contemporary of the newly crowned Charlemagne, whom some would have liked to see her marry in order to re-unify the old Roman empire. Irene was a consummate politician who acted as Regent for her son after the death of her husband, Leo IV, who had supported the Iconoclasts to the great detriment of Constantinople, and which Irene brought to an end. When her son began to reinstate the destruction of icons, Irene had him blinded (since an “imperfect” man could not rule) and replaced him on the throne. And she called herself basileus, which means “emperor,” not “empress.” That much is history. Into this social and religious maelstrom comes young Hagen, a minor Frankish nobleman, on a pilgrimage with his brother to the Holy Land (as an alternative to being hanged back home). The two young men are approaching the Great City when they unintentionally become involved in a political plot involving a list of conspirators stolen by a young woman in the employ of Irene, and the brother is killed. Hagen swears revenge (if he can find out who’s responsible), but when he arrives in the City he’s drawn into the orbit not only of the girl but of Irene herself, who finds herself fascinated by the barbarian. He’s intelligent and courageous and loves a fight, but also is capable of tenderness — not at all what either of the two women expected. But there’s another plot, too — the rivalry between the two greatest drivers in the races at the Hippodrome, for the races (the champion of which holds the golden belt) are the only thing other than the intricacies of religious doctrine that can really arouse the passions of the Byzantines. But there’s a third plot — the desire of John Cerulis to be emperor. In fact, he regards the throne as his right, since the notion of a woman running the empire is blasphemous. That list of names, in fact, was his. And there’s yet another plot, involving an ascetic holy man from the desert who wants to spread the iconoclasm again, but who is co-opted by the increasingly pathological John Cerulis. (Actually, there are several more minor plotlines, but that’s enough to be going on with.) Over it all is Irene, pulling the strings, and all the threads will come together in the end. And very few of the major players will escape whole. The author does a creditable job depicting the essentials of the Byzantine world for the reader, though the narrative may be a bit talky for some tastes and the characters lack subtlety. As I said, some of Holland’s books are better than others, and I would put this one right in the middle of the pack. But it’s definitely worth reading.

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Published in: on 5 December 2010 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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