The Belt of Gold
© 1984 Cecelia Holland
Two Frankish brothers returning home from a pilgrim to Jerusalem become unwittingly involved in a palace coup when they rescue a damsel in distress on the road to Constantinople. When one is murdered in an inn, the other — Hagen the White. whose lord is Charlemagne — vows vengeance. Alone in a Roman empire that never fell, derided as a barbarian, Hagen’s efforts to find his brother’s assailants take him into the Imperial Palace itself, into the service of the Empress Irene. There, navigating the machinations of political conspiracy as well as the vast city of Constantinople, he struggles to sort out the truth while becoming increasingly undone by love for one of the Empress’s servants.
The Belt of Gold is a tale of Byzantine power-plays, interwoven with romance and lots of chariot-racing. The sporting scenes are used to good effect, not just included to show off research but providing a source of intrigue and later, the scene of the novel’s climax. Hagen is a suitable hero, primally powerful, ruggedly simple, and operating from a straightforward moral code. Keep faith with your lord and friends, do good by them, and kill those who try to kill you. He’s the relief in a cast of schemers, who make plans even in bed with one another (and there are a few pillow scenes), though not dumb. He has wiles of his own, but they don’t involve manipulating others. The Belt of Gold is instantly interesting for its setting of the Byzantine empire, whose subjects are a wonder to Hagen and ourselves. They live in Hagen’s world, but they also seem otherworldly; their heads are filled with stories long forgotten by the west, and carry on a tradition since faded away. Hagen’s quest to avenge his brother and the intrigue stirred up by a man planning to seize the throne provide an easy opportunity to escape into this exotic place for a few days. Holland’s research seems to have emphasized the geography of Constantinople and the horseraces, but the main characters in the palace plot did exist, and did attempt a coup. The Empress Irene was a fascinating political character, more vicious in real life than depicted here (for the most part). For the reader looking for a change of scenery — or one deliberately seeking the Byzantines, as was I — this may be just the touch.
- Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a history podcast by Lars Brownworth. I just completed listening to the series, and Irene has her own episode. This is what whetted my appetite, of course, and if I’m still hungry for it after I complete my TBR books, Brownsworth’s Lost to the West, a history of the Byzantines, may make an appearance..
- Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov. Before Brownsworth, the sum of my Byzantine knowledge.
- Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series. Obviously, set in western Rome, but you can’t get away from palace intrigues in a series that climaxes with Caesar.