Sunday, 25 October 2015

Macedonian She-Wolves

Alexander the Great’s death left a massive power vacuum, exacerbated by the fact his heirs were a foetus and a man with the mind of a child. Worse still, their guardians were a large number of bold, intelligent and fiercely competitive men, any one of whom would make a great king in his own right.

These men, the Diadochi [Successors], embarked almost immediately on a massive war, from the coast of modern day Albania to Pakistan to Libya, and all points in between.

But no less vicious were the machinations of the women Alexander left behind, most prominently Roxanne (one of his wives), Olympias (his mother), and Adea (AKA Eurydice, wife of Alexander’s half-brother).

When Alexander died, he was in his early thirties. The most obvious successors were absent (Hephaestion had died a short time earlier, and the greatest general, Craterus, had just been sent west). His half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, was a grown man but had the mind of a small child (it is suspected the jealous and ruthless Olympias had poisoned him to damage his mind, and remove him as a potential rival to Alexander [her son]). The only other credible blood heir would be the child of Roxanne, his wife.

However, Roxanne was only pregnant. There was no guarantee she would give birth to a son rather than a daughter. To make matters worse, she was only the daughter of a Bactrian satrap, and lacked the regal pretensions of Alexander’s other wives (Macedonian kings were permitted multiple wives).

To enhance her position, Roxanne took the brutal step of (along with the regent Perdiccas) having Alexander’s other two wives murdered. One of them, Stateira II, was the daughter of Darius, once ruler of the Persian Empire (and, therefore, of rather better pedigree than Roxanne).

As it happened, she did give birth to a son, whom she named Alexander. He and Philip Arrhidaeus become joint monarchs, although in truth the power lay (for a time…) with the regent, Perdiccas.

Two women, Cynane and her daughter Adea, who also had royal Macedonian blood, travelled east with the plan of marrying Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus. However, Perdiccas (allied to Roxanne) sent his brother Alcetas to remedy the problem by assassinating the two women. Cynane fell, but when the soldiers realised the identities of the women they had been sent to kill and that Adea still lived, their respect for the royal house made them her protectors rather than her killers.

Later, a botched invasion of Egypt led to Perdiccas’ death. After he was killed (by his own troops), Adea, backed by the sentimental support of the army, demanded a share of authority. She seemed to attain it, but only briefly. Antipater, the aged, respected veteran viceroy of Macedon during Alexander’s adventures, arrived on the scene. The army was in vengeful mood and very nearly murdered him, but Antigonus and Seleucus rescued the viceroy. Adea tried to provoke further mutiny, but in the end authority was settled on Antipater, Antigonus and Seleucus.

Antipater, a loyal servant of the Argead dynasty but understandably not well-disposed towards the now powerless Adea, accompanied her back to Macedon. However, he died shortly thereafter, and political turmoil ensued.

Adea made another bid for power, allying with Cassander, the son of Antipater. Against her was Olympias, Polyperchon (the rather feeble successor, as per Antipater’s will, of the viceroy) and Roxanne.

For perhaps the first time in history, two armies, both led by women, approached one another.

However, the same loyalty that had prevented the Macedonian soldiers killing her years ago, now worked against Adea. They couldn’t bring themselves to even fight the mother of the legendary Alexander, and surrendered to Olympias.

Olympias came to power. Adea, wife of Alexander’s half-brother, found her days numbered, and that number was very small. At first, she and her husband were strictly confined, but Olympias was concerned by the sympathy the Macedonians felt towards them. In line with her usual response to a problem, Olympias chose to kill those who might be a threat. She presented Adea with a sword, rope, and poison, to choose her own death. Adea first of all killed her husband, the unknowing, blameless Philip Arrhidaeus, whom Alexander had taken to Asia and protected, and then hanged herself with one of her own garments, shunning the rope Olympias gave her.

By contrast, Roxanne was protected by the violent, volatile and cunning Olympias (because she was the mother of Alexander’s son). However, Olympias’ uncompromising and arrogant manner lost her much support, and she faced perhaps the wiliest of the Diadochi: Cassander. Antipater’s son gradually built up his strength, even as it drained away from the bloodthirsty Olympias.

Eventually, he bottled her up in a port city, and she surrendered herself, Roxanne and Alexander. The surrender included the condition Cassander show her mercy. He did not, and had her killed by the relatives of her many victims.

Defeat to Cassander removed the shield that had protected Roxanne and her son. Cassander kept the young Alexander alive until he reached his mid-teens, at which point he became a threat, and was killed. His mother was also assassinated, and thus ended the Argead line of kings in Macedon.

For more reading on this, I highly recommend James Romm’s Ghost On The Throne, which I reviewed here.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Three Open Windows

Writers without agents, there is good news!

Three major publishers have open windows coming up in the near future. So, if you’ve got a finished novel, prepare to submit. (NB Responses to submissions can often take a bit longer than the publishers intend, largely because they get a huge number of submissions).

Do read the guidelines, especially regarding the submission dates. If you’re submitting grimdark to a publisher after primary school stories, you’re wasting your time and the publishers. If your word count is a tiny bit off, you’ll probably be alright, but if you submit a quarter of a million words to someone after 110,000, they’ll just bin it.

Be aware the odds on success are smaller than a pixie’s tallywhacker. There are many reasons for rejection (beyond the rather obvious lack of quality). A book may not fit the market, or it may not fit the particular publisher. It might be seen as a bit unusual, which can be a positive for some publishers, but others may feel wary that it will struggle to make the necessary sales. Publishing is a business, so don’t take it personally if your book’s rejected.

On that note, always be as civil as possible. If a publisher says no to your book but thinks your writing is proficient and your manner delightful, they may ask you to send them other things you write in the future. If you pester the publisher and whine like a spoilt brat when, along with 99.6% of other submitters, you get a swift rejection, you may get a black mark next to your name. Your character can help you gain or lose traction, as well as your writing.

Anyway, it wasn’t my wibbling that got you to read this post, but the three open windows. Here are the links, and best of luck [don’t forget to sacrifice a goat to Apollo]:

Angry Robot:


Gollancz (unusually these days, it’s physical submissions only):


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Basil II’s Odd Childhood

Basil II, as mentioned in the previous post, was a bit of a hard case. But it’s quite surprising that he actually reached adulthood at all.

It’s not historically unusual for a trusted general/grand vizier/uncle of an emperor to seize power. What is unusual is for that to happen and the legal emperor to be not only allowed to live, but retain their (theoretical) position. And it’s double unusual with a side-helping of surprise when this happens twice to the same emperor, who ends up becoming a huge success himself.

The White Death of the Saracens is not the sort of nickname you earn by being a pansy, and Nicephorus II Phocas, Emperor of Byzantium, deserved it. The trajectory of Islamic military history is an upward curve from its founding to the siege of Vienna, but there were occasional blips (and a few serious ruptures) along that thousand year journey.

Romanus II died suddenly in his mid-20s, leaving a power vacuum (although both his children had been crowned co-emperors, they were five and three at the time). Proclaimed by the army as emperor, Nicephorus Phocas marched into Byzantium and became ruler of the Eastern Empire in fact as well as name, aided by his talented nephew (and fellow general) John Tzimisces.

He enjoyed significant success in the East, as might be expected from his nickname, and took the late Romanus’ widow, Theophano, as his lover. However, after a few years another man took Theophano into his bed: John Tzimisces.

Tzimisces had helped Nicephorus to the throne, but had, some time later, been deprived of military command. It proved a fatal decision for the Emperor. Conspiring with Theophano, Tzimisces and others entered the palace late at night. Finding the Emperor’s bed empty, he panicked, only to discover Nicephorus was sleeping on the floor.

Tzimisces kicked him to death, all the while berating his uncle’s ingratitude for the assistance given when he had sought to become emperor.

And then there was the question of Basil and his younger brother Constantine. Bizarrely, they survived a second usurpation of imperial power. They lost neither their lives nor their nominal status, although, being far off adulthood, they had no practical power. It is worth noting that Basil and Constantine were nephews of Tzimisces (and therefore also related to Nicephorus), but also that such a relationship has often failed to stop regicide.

On the battlefield, Tzimisces continued the policy of his predecessor (knocking the stuffing out of the Saracens), and enjoyed similar success. He also died suddenly, possibly due to poisoning. Upon his death, Basil II, just about old enough to become emperor in truth, took on the reins of power. Although he also fought in the East, it was his campaigns in Europe which earnt him his nickname: the Bulgar-Slayer.


Monday, 12 October 2015

The Battle of Kleidion

It’s not a household name but perhaps it should be (along with Arausio, Manzikert and so on).

The Battle of Kleidion was the climax of a decades long struggle between not only the Eastern Roman Empire and the Bulgars, but a personal war between Emperor Basil II and Tsar Samuel of the Bulgarian Empire.

Unfortunately, Fawlty Towers’ success means that Basil tends to be seen as a silly name, but Basil II was perhaps the single most capable emperor the Eastern Empire ever produced, up there with Alexius and John Comnenus (and, of the Western, Aurelian and Trajan).

After a prolonged period of being emperor in name only*, he finally took the reins in his late teens. His first campaign, some years later, against the Bulgars ended in disaster and almost cost Basil his life at the hands of Samuel. After this events drove him to focus his attention elsewhere before, as a more mature and capable man, returning to the Bulgars.

Although, at this period of history, the Byzantines had been enjoying success against the Saracens in the east, in the west, the Bulgars, under Samuel, had been building themselves into quite the powerhouse.

Basil II, the last of three great warlike emperors in a row, put a stop to this. Contrary to the stereotype (often but not always deserved) of a Byzantine emperor being a remote, palace-dwelling creature, he led from the front, and usually lived there too. The devotion of his army was ferocious, partly because he adopted the orphans of men who fell in battle and with whom he shared a father-son relationship, and he created the elite Varangian Guard (think Praetorian Guard, but composed of loyal Scandinavians rather than treacherous Romans).

Led by their great emperor, the Eastern Roman Empire started taking the Bulgars to task, and the pivotal moment of the war was reached at Kleidion. The Bulgars were defending a pass in significant numbers (hard to be precise, unfortunately), and initially repulsed the Byzantine assault. When Basil II sent men around to take the Bulgars from the rear, the battle was won, and Samuel himself almost captured. The Bulgar army dissolved into a rout, so it was not merely victory, but a crushing victory.

A huge number of men were killed in the rout, and 10,000 were captured. And its because of those 10,000 that Kleidion is best known. Basil, hereafter known as the Bulgar-Slayer, had them divided into groups of 100. Of those, one man was blinded in one eye, and the other 99 blinded in both eyes. The one-eyed man then acted as shepherd for his 99 companions, and the 10,000 were sent back to Samuel.

The Tsar, by this time old, ill, and suffering not only knocks on the battlefield but politically, reportedly saw the ruined remnants of his army and experienced a fatal heart attack.

The victory ultimately led to the Eastern Empire’s borders extending all the way to the Danube, for the first time in centuries. But it’s not the territorial advantage or the battle itself that made the battle live on, but the cruel fate meted out to the thousands of prisoners.

It also cemented Basil II’s reputation as a brutally successful man, whose uncompromising ruthlessness made the Eastern Empire stronger than it had been for hundreds of years.


*I may well write another piece on this, as it’s a rather interesting period.