Byzantines were highly superstitious and used all sorts of magical and religious practices to guard against dangers and untimely deaths. In fact, their religious and spiritual imaginations were so rich, it almost seems unnecessarily complicated to add the dimension of an epic battle among the undead fighting for good and evil.
It’s always odd and interesting to see what surfaces with new internet searches about Byzantine culture and studies. I give you Zombies of Byzantium by Sean Munger, a new fictional horror book set in the eighth century of the Byzantine Empire as the Saracen armies attack Constantinople. The battle escalates to good zombies lead by a young monk fighting against bad zombies. The young monk, Stephen Diabetenos, happens to be an icon painter.
I can’t give a full review of the book because I haven’t read it and I’m not likely to buy or borrow the book any time soon. I can say that I appreciate Munger’s use of the horror genre and the “zombie trend” to bring fresh readers to Byzantine history. We don’t get many pop culture references to Byzantium unlike, say, the Vikings, who are almost constantly on the History Channel or in the funny pages. At best, we get comparisons to fantasy literature like Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.
And even though I am (unfortunately) more repulsed than intrigued by the zombie concept, I am happy to have a book like this open up this period in history to more people. We can use this book to talk about the history and social issues at hand. I’d like to embrace the curiosity of this book’s readers and engage them with further reading and conversation. Truth be told, I usually find actual history more interesting and complicated than fantasy and fiction. Ideally, books like this will motivate other readers to dig into scholarly publications and read our debates and analysis of historical events.
Among the inaccuracies and over-simplifications, I’d like to point to what I’ve read of Munger’s claim that he has “never once encountered the concept of fear and horror” in Byzantine history outside of a religious context. I think what he is trying to say is that because Byzantines attributed their experiences of fearful and scary things to religious and spiritual sources, those experiences weren’t actually dangerous. Their highly spiritual perspective somehow diminishes the quality and potential danger of their fears. They were too naive and too pious for their own good and therefore weren’t able to really perceive and then express the horrors of the violent raids and invasions by Saracens and other enemies.
And I think Munger’s claim also has an undercurrent of a false comparison with our own society’s current perspective on religious experience. I think he is implying that because our society claims that religious beliefs and practices are not relevant to life outside of the church, either because church people are too focused on trivial and immaterial concerns or because religion is only a personal and private thing, the same holds true for Orthodox Christians in the eight century. Wrong. We can’t transpose the same social values back into history. Yea, so I’m not on the same page with that one.
Similarly, I’d like to encourage readers to unpack the label “Saracen.” Who were these invaders and why were these Muslims from the Arabian peninsula invading Constantinople? We know that in the seventh and eight centuries a wave of Muslim Arabs conquered the Holy Land (western Palestine) and traveled north into Asia Minor which was held by Byzantium, and west through North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. They conquered Spain and most of the islands in the Mediterranean. Most accounts of their military might exaggerate bloodshed and lurid details. In reality, they were much more tolerant of local beliefs and customs than Christians were at that time. In addition, the Saracens were wealthy and used their gold to buy European goods which benefited the Franks’ economy. In 717, Constantinople was held under a year-long siege by Maslama (son of And al-Malik) with with Sulaymān’s navy. In turn, the Greeks used their tactics of Greek Fire and famine, and were aided with an attack from the Bulgarians on the Saracen invaders. The Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his Isaurian dynasty successfully resisted the Arabs and maintained the eastern border with the caliphate. Interestingly, Ravenna, however, was lost to the Lombards, not the Saracens and it was the Franks who posed the stronger threat to Byzantine authority in the Mediterranean.
As a premise for writing thrilling historical fiction, Constantinople in the eight century is a rich context. But please don’t claim that they were too religious or naive or pious to perceive and express horror. They may not use the same tropes and genres that we are familiar with from other contexts. But medieval Byzantium had just as violent an imagination as the rest of medieval society. From reading the stories of the bloody deaths of Christian martyrs to depicting gory scenes of battles in their books (including liturgical books), fear and horror were ever-present in the minds of many, many Byzantines.