The Mosaic of Shadows - By Tom Harper


Two noble historians, a princess and a knight, were indispensable companions in this project. Anna Comnena’s Alexiad and Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades (both published by Penguin) provided the historical core of the story, and there were few days when I did not refer to one or both of them. Both works were as enjoyable as they were rigorous, and in the general chronology of events, particularly the battles in Holy Week, I have followed their leads as closely as possible.

As with Alexios Komnenos and his empire, a wise marriage and supportive family were invaluable in realising my ambitions. My Greek parents-in-law offered hospitality and valuable feedback on the draft manuscript, while my mother was always on call for scriptural or religious references. My sister Iona accompanied me on my inter-continental research trip, and was frequently summoned out of libraries to provide a classical anecdote or Greek translation. As for my wife Marianna, from the moment she provided the original idea she has had an immeasurable influence as fan, critic, proof-reader and muse.

Out of the family fold, Jane Conway-Gordon encouraged this at an early stage, and proved that the Byzantines have nothing to teach her about the shadowy arts of agenting. Oliver Johnson at Century was a generous and convivial editor, as well as doing duty as a relocation consultant. The vast resources of the Bodleian library in Oxford unfailingly turned up the most obscure works which my meandering researches demanded; I could not have written the book without them. Many friends in Oxford and London provided much-needed relief from the work, and in the process probably learned far more about eunuchs than they ever wanted.

For a thousand years after the fall of the West, the empire of Byzantium, centred on the great city of Constantinople, perpetuated the living, unbroken legacy of the Roman empire. It reached the peak of its latter-day power in 1025 under the Emperor Basil II, but a dozen weak and corrupt successors squandered his accomplishments until the very existence of the empire was under threat. In these circumstances, a dynamic, young leader named Alexios Komnenos rose to the imperial throne from a cabal of the powerful military families, and through hard-fought campaigns and cunning diplomacy managed to reassert the strength and glory of Byzantium. But he was not unopposed: Turks, Normans, Bulgarians, Germans and Venetians constantly pressed at his borders, while contenders from within his own and rival families schemed recklessly to usurp his throne. With the Turks in particular advancing ever further into the hinterland of Asia Minor, Alexios was forced to beg the estranged Pope in Rome to provide soldiers to buttress the faltering Byzantine armies. Much to his surprise, and subsequent alarm, he got them: the Pope preached the first crusade, and tens of thousands of western knights mobilised to descend on Byzantium.

The language of Byzantium was Greek, but through all its history its citizens referred to themselves as Romans. Any peoples beyond the empire’s borders were considered barbarians.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?

Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts, and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?

Why are they carrying elegant canes beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

C P Cavafy

tr. Keeley and Sherrard


It was evening when the axe-wielding barbarians arrived at my door. The sun was sinking behind the western ramparts, casting the sky and all below it in copper. In the windless air the canopies and awnings of the queen of cities were still as the myriad towers and domes above them, yet by only inclining an ear you would have met the gentle, sustained notes of the chants which swelled out from the hundred surrounding churches. All day the tide of humanity had run high in the streets, the denizens of Byzantium gathering to mark the feast of Saint Nikolas and to watch the Emperor process through their midst; now that tide was slowly ebbing, slipping back into the arcades and tenements from whence it had come. I sat on my roof and watched them go, sipping a welcome cup of wine after the week of fasting.

Zoe, the younger of my daughters, announced the barbarians. From the corner of my eye I saw her face emerge from the opening at the top of the ladder, concern and puzzlement creasing the smooth skin below her piled ringlets.

‘There are men to see you,’ she said breathlessly, still