A Review and Reaction to the Byzantine era novel “The Usurper” from a Byzantine history fan

Posted by Powee Celdran

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!!

If you do not want any spoilers, please order The Usurper on Amazon.

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The Usurper (2020) by Emanuele Rizzardi; cover photo- Fresco of Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos

Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! For now, I am taking a quick break from my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History fan fiction series as I have just completed chapter XI of it and I’m now on the way to the series’ grand finale, chapter XII. For this quick break, I am doing this short but very special article which will be a review and my own personal reaction to the latest Byzantine era setting novel I have read which is The Usurper (2020) by Emanuele Rizzardi, which if you remember I briefly discussed in my latest alternate history chapter. For those who are not familiar with the book or want to order a copy of it, please check it out on Amazon before you read this article as it will contain some spoilers about the book, but for those who know about it, especially those who have already read it and may have some opinions about it whether positive or negative, please keep in mind that this article will basically express my thoughts about the book.

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The Usurper original version in Italian

First of all, The Usurper (originally L’usurpatore) is the second novel of the Italian novelist and president of Byzantion Cultural Association Emanuele Rizzardi who prior to this wrote L’ultimo Paleologo published in 2018 and just this year published his 3rd novel Lo stendardo di Giove, although “The Usurper” is the first of his books to be translated into English by both Rizzardi and Michael Gardiner, and what I read was the English translation of the original Italian one. Although the book is already a year old, I still chose to order it through Amazon and read it just recently as despite being already well educated about the history of Byzantium, I still want to know more and see different takes on it which would include historical fiction novels such as this one as well as the graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (2020) by Spyros Theocharis in which I also made a similar review and fan reaction article for it earlier on this year. This then would be the second time I would be doing a review and reaction to a Byzantine era novel, and to sum it all up I would say that “The Usurper” is a very interesting read with a total of 23 chapters featuring an exciting and at the same time suspenseful story to tell, although it may have had some dull moments in between the entire story itself was a very interesting one, especially for those who are very familiar with Byzantine history as it discusses a period in Byzantine history not very well-known to those not familiar with the entire history of Byzantium. The novel basically follows the story of Alexios Philantropenos in his own perspective, who is a lesser-known figure in Byzantine history but at the same time a very underrated one who was a young general in the late 13th century related to the ruling Palaiologos Dynasty sent by his uncle the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) to the defense of Asia Minor, once the heartland of the Byzantine Empire that had fallen into anarchy as the threat of the Turks have increased over the years. Alexios sent to take care of the Turkish threat in Asia Minor particularly posed by the powerful warlord Karman Bey of Miletus initially succeeds in doing so, but at the end he comes to realize the harsh reality of the world he is living in which is that of a corrupt and decaying Byzantium, which then later puts Alexios in the position of rebelling against his uncle the emperor and usurping the throne in order to save his dying empire.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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For almost a year now since “The Usurper” was released, I have already been coming across it in posts by the author himself in the Byzantine history Facebook groups I am part of such as Roman and Byzantine History and Byzantine Real History while also seeing an interview of the author about this particular novel in the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History that I also follow, which then made me curious about it.

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However, it was only just 2 months ago when I finally decided to order a copy and read it, and surprisingly it was for me an interesting and in fact even an enjoyable read. As mention earlier, this is the second time I have read and done a review article on a Byzantine era historical fiction novel, the first one being the graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale, which is however a very totally different kind of novel compared to this one I am reviewing now as the former is more of a colorful and lively graphic novel set in a famous and at the same time glorious period in Byzantine history (the 10th century) that basically shows you how life was in that time, while this one “The Usurper” is something I would call a much more serious novel set in a lesser known but still interesting period in Byzantine history (the late 13th century) that does not only show you but immerses you to life in that time, also featuring a time when the Byzantine Empire is in decline with an underrated tragic hero as its lead character which is the general Alexios Philanthropenos. Now for this article, I would basically be giving you reasons on why to buy this novel and what makes it an exciting and engaging one that not only shows you what life was like then but immerses you into the late 13th century Byzantine setting, then I would proceed to giving my own opinions about the novel and my own suggestions if I were to rewrite it. At the same time, I have to say that when writing this article, I did in fact have the honor of interviewing the author Emanuele Rizzardi by messaging him through Instagram, whom I have asked a couple of questions about the novel such as why he chose the late 13th century setting and Alexios Philanthropenos as the lead character, in which these answers will be mentioned here throughout the rest of my article. In addition, I have also done my own artwork of the novel’s lead character Alexios Philanthropenos specifically for this article as being the lead character, Alexios is someone I find very likeable and heroic who deserves much more attention than he actually does, and true enough I think “The Usurper” does a great job in giving justice to Alexios Philanthropenos, who is one of Byzantium’s greatest yet forgotten heroes who could have saved the empire from decaying if he did not meet such a tragic end of being betrayed and blinded.

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Alexios Philanthropenos, artwork by myself (2021)

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Watch the interview of The Usurper featuring its author Emanuele Rizzardi on Eastern Roman History

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

A Byzantine History fan reacts to Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI

My Personal Byzantine Journey (2019-2020)

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Lego Byzantine Epic

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine Emperors (695-1453)

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part II (1000-1461)


 

Reasons why you should buy and read The Usurper

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For those who are already familiar with the history of Byzantium, this novel will not only show you the lesser-known part of Byzantine history in the late 13th century but will immerse you in it as the story is written in a very detailed way especially in describing the locations and people of the time.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded by Michael VIII in 1261

The story mainly takes place in Western Asia Minor in the 1290s wherein 30 years have passed since the Byzantine Empire has been restored after its fall to the 4th Crusade followed by the 57-year period of Latin rule over Constantinople (1204-1261), and even though the empire was restored, imperial rule especially in Asia Minor had already been disintegrating. A lot of this was due Asia Minor being left neglected by imperial authorities who instead focused their attention to Byzantine territories in Greece and the Balkans thus leaving Asia Minor to be threatened by the rise of the expanding Turkish states or Beyliks that have been moving westwards due to the pressure of the Mongols from the east and the decentralization of the Seljuk Turkish Empire that had ruled most of Asia Minor for about 2 centuries. Rather than showing a Byzantium at a time of glory as a world power, this story does a unique thing of showing a Byzantium at an age of decline, which is something I find new and interesting as most historical fiction books with a Byzantine setting would more or less like to talk about an age of glory and imperial power, but in the case of “The Usurper” it does it the other way around showing readers something new which is a much a more vulnerable Byzantium. Since this book talks about a lesser-known time in Byzantine history showing the empire in decline, I would really suggest that this book would be for those who are already familiar with the whole history of Byzantium in order to get to know more information about this period in Byzantine history.

It takes the reader through a journey across Asia Minor in the Byzantine era as most of the story’s setting is in Byzantine Asia Minor or at least what was left of it in the late 13th century with only the beginning and end of it not as it begins in Thessaloniki and ends somewhere outside Constantinople. Using Asia Minor as the story’s primary setting is therefore something I would say is a very unique feature for a Byzantine era historical fiction novel as most books of this genre set in the Byzantine era would usually use the capital Constantinople as its primary setting, but true enough Byzantium was more than just Constantinople but the empire as a whole especially in this period in Byzantine history where there was more happening outside the capital than within it. This novel then does a great job in representing Asia Minor, the heartland of the Byzantine Empire that it barely if not even has a single scene set in the imperial capital featuring the famous landmarks of the imperial palace, Hippodrome, and Hagia Sophia. The story then follows the journey of the general Alexios Philanthropenos from 1293-1295 starting off at his house in Thessaloniki then taking you to Kallipolis (Gallipoli), then across the Dardanelles Strait into Asia Minor first to the decaying city of Dardanelles, the fortress of Paleokastron, and to the ancient city of Nymphaeum which Alexios would use as his base for his entire Asia Minor campaign. From Nymphaeum, the story takes you through Alexios’ battles against the Turkish warlord Karman Bey and his allies in Philadelphia, the Meander Valley, Tralles, Nysa, Priene, Ephesus, and many places in between, then finally to Nicaea where the story’s climax takes place. As the story takes you through Western Asia Minor it does not only tell you about an adventure but describes in detail the landscape, the people and their customs, climate, and the system of Byzantine governance there, and this is what I meant by saying that the story does not only show you Byzantium in this time but immerses you in it.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) together with the Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor, Latin States of Greece, and Balkan kingdoms by 1300, art by TheGreyStallion

The lead character Alexios Philanthropenos is a likeable heroic character with a great character development as when he is introduced where the story opens, he is at first seen as a young and idealistic general who wants to prove his ability as a military commander when he is appointed by his uncle the emperor Andronikos II as the commander or Doux of Asia in 1293, but as the story progresses, he gets a taste of the reality of war and even of power that would have a great impact in the changing of his personality. Alexios Doukas Philanthropenos (1270-1340s) is actually a real historical figure and the story itself is based on his campaigns in which it is written in his own point of view wherein he refers to himself in first person as he narrates the story of his lengthy Asia Minor campaign 30 years later to his son Michael all in one letter. Alexios however despite being a great general and loyal solider to his empire is barely remembered in history and a lot of this had to do with him being betrayed and blinded at the end of his campaigns as a result of him usurping the throne from his uncle although unwillingly.

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Palaiologos Dynasty coat of arms

Alexios too has a background of being from a distinguished military family in Byzantium as his father Michael Tarchaneiotes was a general that served the previous emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) who was the father of the current emperor in the story Andronikos II, and in his father’s side Alexios is related to the ruling Palaiologos Dynasty with his grandmother being a sister of Emperor Michael VIII, while Alexios’ last name of Philanthropenos that he uses comes from his mother’s side. Where the story opens, Alexios is a young man who is relatively new to military life and has in fact never set foot in Asia Minor his whole life, and despite only having taken part in a few campaigns in the Balkans, the young Alexios is already assigned by his uncle the emperor- who even comes to Alexios’ house in Thessaloniki at the dead of a winter night- to lead the campaign to drive away the raiding Turks from Byzantine Asia Minor as the emperor finally comes to realize the severity of the situation there which his father Michael VIII indirectly caused by putting all attention the west. At first, Alexios is only given a few thousand men to assist him in his battles, but after winning one victory after another his army multiplies as more and more people in the war-torn, impoverished, and neglected Asia Minor are inspired to join him believing he will do the job of saving them which their emperor Andronikos II and his father Michael VIII before him had failed to do. In his campaigns against the Turkish Beyliks, Alexios does not only prove to be a capable warrior and inspiring commander but a skilled diplomat as well that he manages to persuade the Turks despite them being seen as the enemy to fight alongside his army using the Turks’ disunity and their tribal rivalries to his advantage, but at the same time also convincing them that they would work better together to later on fight their common enemy which was the larger threat of the Mongols from the east. Though successful in securing Asia Minor and not only containing the Turkish threat but reconquering lost lands, Alexios is soon enough viewed as a threat by the emperor who believes Alexios to be disobeying orders when allying himself with the other Turkish tribes and imposing his own policy of recapturing lands in which both were not part of the emperor’s orders, though at the same time the emperor seems to be threatened as well believing that Alexios’ popularity would soon lead to Alexios taking throne. Alexios on the other hand is conflicted here which makes him a very interesting character as he is torn between loyalty to his uncle the emperor Andronikos II despite his incompetent rule and duty to the empire and its people as a whole to save them from corruption and decay.

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Andronikos II Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1282-1328), uncle of Alexios Philanthropenos

At the end, as the people of Asia Minor grow tired of Andronikos II’s rule, they rally under Alexios whose victories over the Turks and how he used the money looted from the enemy to rebuild the damage of the cities in Asia Minor, thus they proclaim him as their emperor (Basileus) against the reigning Andronikos II. At first Alexios is unwilling to allow himself to be made emperor seeing it as treason to the empire itself but eventually ends up deciding to put his claim on the throne becoming known as the “Iron Basileus” not out of greed but to save the empire itself from letting it destroy itself and return to it to the glory days of old. When deciding he has to usurp the throne for the greater good of the empire, Alexios once finished with his campaigns against the Turks prepares his men to march to Constantinople to overthrow the emperor but unfortunately only makes it to Nicaea where he is betrayed by some of his own troops and is blinded, thus ending his rebellion that could have saved the empire. Now Alexios Philanthropenos seems to be a very obscure choice for a historical figure in Byzantine history to do a complete novel about compared to more famous great figures such as Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), his general Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025), Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), or the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), but when asking the author why his choice was Alexios Philanthropenos and this part in Byzantine history, he says it is because nobody really speaks or writes much about him, yet he still has a great story, while it is also his main interest to speak about people who did great things in the past but have been forgotten because of tragic circumstances that they face, which in Alexios’ case was his rebellion against the emperor that led to his betrayal and blinding. As for the rather more obscure late 13th century setting, the author says he chose it because it is that because no matter how not so well-known this time was, it was a very important transition period in history where the centuries rule of the Byzantines over their heartland Asia Minor comes to an end while the rule of the Turks over Asia Minor would begin, thus soon enough leading to the establishment of the Ottoman Empire that will in 1453 take over Byzantium and later on be the master power of the Mediterranean, Balkans, and the Middle East. As for me, I would definitely say Alexios Philanthropenos is a truly interesting character mostly because of his conflicted personality and his ability not only as a soldier but as a diplomat and politician at a relatively young age and he too would have had so much more potential if only he were not betrayed and blinded.

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general (505-565)

Alexios is then one of the many figures in history who could have done great deeds if only they did not meet their end too soon and similar figures to Alexios in Roman and Byzantine history include the Western Roman Empire’s general Flavius Stilicho (359-408) who could have saved his empire from being destroyed but was unfortunately betrayed and executed, although the great Roman/ Byzantine general of the past Alexios is compared to is Flavius Belisarius of the 6th century that the contemporary Byzantine historian of Alexios’ time which is Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) in fact praises Alexios by calling him the “Belisarius of the Palaiologan era”, and in the book he is in fact also dubbed as a “new Belisarius” referring to Alexios’ deeds in battle and service to the empire. Where the book ends, the story fast-forwards 30 years later and Alexios despite being blinded is still alive, and in real history Alexios 30 years later is in fact called to military service again as he begins to get his sight back.   

It features a variety of colorful characters whether historical or fictional and other than the lead character Alexios Philanthropenos, this includes the likes of Alexios’ military advisor and former soldier Michael the Armenian, the mercenary captain Konstas from Venetian held Crete, the old mercenary captain Theodore and his silent and enigmatic but fearless in battle adopted daughter known as simply as “the bastard”, the Turkish warlord and ally of Alexios Osman who is in fact the mysterious founder of the Ottoman Empire, and the bloodthirsty Turkish warlord Karman Bey who is the story’s main antagonist who Alexios is sent to fight. Other interesting characters in the story includes Alexios’ young wife Theodora who joins him in his campaign, Alexios’ doctor and priest friend Angelos who however sadly met his end too soon being torn to death by wolves, the governor of Nicaea Libadarios, Osman’s son Orhan who would eventually succeed his father as the second Ottoman sultan, the Metropolitan of Philadelphia Theoleptos and the noblewoman Irene Choumnos who push Alexios to usurp the throne, the young boy soldier Philippos from the Cretan mercenary forces, the members of the ruling Palaiologos family, and last but not the least Alexios’ uncle the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos himself who is actually the real antagonist of the story who hides his corrupt and power tripping side with his friendly personality. The story in fact does not only center on the lead character and his thoughts and feelings but also on how the other characters feel about their objective and about each other with the most notable parts being the recurring bad blood between the Turkish warlord Osman and the Cretan mercenary captain Konstas when both are serving under Alexios, and how the old military advisor and the mercenary Theodore were old friends and how they have lost faith in the empire especially in their emperor and how he had neglected their homeland which is Asia Minor which is also how the people of Asia Minor feel especially about how the corruption in their empire and the court in Constantinople while their emperor leaves them alone to defend themselves which eventually triggers them to all rally under Alexios believing he would make the empire a better place for them.

It blends in a good number of fictional elements to a real historical setting while featuring a number of interesting side stories as well which makes this more of an engaging novel instead of just another history book that only stays true to the facts.

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George Pachymeres, Byzantine historian (1242-1310)

At the same time, the novel is very much based on actual events in real history and when asking the author about it, he says that he based the novel on primary sources such as that of the contemporary historian of that era George Pachymeres (1242-1310) who does in fact make an appearance in the novel in its latter part being the one giving word to Alexios that the emperor plans to make Alexios his Caesar which Alexios refuses now coming to believe that he must take over the entire empire itself to save it. In his time, George Pachymeres not only wrote a historical account on Byzantium from 1255-1308 describing the reigns of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) and that of his son and successor Andronikos II’s, but he also wrote about arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, as well as on Aristotelian philosophy, the architecture of Constantinople in his time, a number of poems, and an autobiography. Other than Pachymeres, the author also used Byzantine military manuals by modern authors as his sources, especially for the novel’s very descriptive battle scenes whether taking place in open fields or in besieging cities. For me, one of the most interesting even if almost totally inaccurate part was that of Osman joining forces with Alexios’ troops as they both had common enemies first being Karman Bey and then the Mongols.

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Osman Bey (r. 1299-1324), founder of the future Ottoman Empire, art by Doqida

This part of Osman joining forces with Alexios did in fact surprise me a lot as I had never heard of Osman at one point joining forces with the Byzantines, and when asking the author if this was historically accurate he says that the most correct answer to this is “no” because we know very little of Osman’s story as true enough Osman remains to be a very enigmatic historical figure that sources written about him at his time do not exist, and rather he was only written about years after his death which was in around 1324. However, when asking the author about the Osman part of the story, he also said that the part of Osman helping Alexios could be a possibility as in Alexios’ 1293-1295 campaign in Asia Minor he was in fact helped by many minor Turkish beys which could have been Osman who at this time was true enough only a minor Turkish warlord with a small state along the Byzantine border in Northwest Asia Minor. Whether the part on Osman’s involvement in helping Alexios in his campaigns is factual or not, I still think it was a good choice to put Osman into the story as in this rather obscure time Osman would be one of the most well-known figures despite his origins story being a mystery, as after all Osman after his death would leave behind a great legacy which was that of founding the Ottoman Empire and the unbroken dynasty named after him (Osmanli) that would rule this empire uninterrupted, and this empire of Osman would be the one to be able to conquer Byzantium in 1453 and afterwards become a major world power that would exist up until the 1922 shortly after World War I. On the other hand, Osman’s involvement in Alexios’ campaigns also makes sense as Osman swore loyalty to Alexios as his emperor and not to the reigning emperor Andronikos II, and following Alexios’ blinding in 1295 Osman in the story true enough severed his ties with Byzantium and would eventually become the most immediate threat to the Byzantines when Osman began his empire in 1299, and it was in fact Osman and his forces that crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Bapheus in 1302, which would be the event that would begin the end of Byzantine rule over Asia Minor and the rise of Osman’s Beylik that would soon become an empire.

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Flag of the Empire of Nicaea under the Laskaris Dynasty (Byzantine Empire in exile, 1204-1261)

Now when talking about the interesting side stories of the novel, this include stories like how Michael VIII Palaiologos established his dynasty in 1261 when blinding the legitimate ruler which was the boy emperor John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261) who ruled the exiled Byzantine Empire at Nicaea, and in the story’s setting even more than 30 years after, this incident would still be remembered especially by the people of Asia Minor who had overall still preferred the former Laskaris Dynasty over the current Palaiologos one, and the one major twist in the story is that Alexios himself is in fact related to the previous Laskaris Dynasty which made the people proclaim him as emperor believing he is the legitimate one while the current emperor Andronikos II is the actual usurper being the son of the man who usurped the throne from John IV Laskaris who was in fact still in fact alive in this story’s setting although unfit to rule due to being blinded. Another side story in the novel that recurs a lot is that of the emperor’s brother Constantine Palaiologos who just a few years before the story’s setting had been removed from command for simply disobeying the orders of his brother the emperor which is the same fate Alexios would face.

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Map of the expansion of the Ottomans in Northwest Asia Minor under Osman (1281-1324)

War scenes are very descriptive that it makes this story not only one of adventure but of the harsh reality of war, and this is also one of the reasons why the novel not only shows you but immerses you into the Byzantine world at that time.

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Army of the Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor, late 13th and early 14th centuries

First of all, the battle scenes which the novel features a lot of is written in a very detailed manner describing the smallest things that happen from swords clashing with shields to very graphic scenes of blood and guts spilling out as well as the differences battle tactics used by the Byzantines and Turks whereas as the Byzantines and their mercenaries fight more as heavy infantry with heavy weapons such as long spears and large swords while wearing heavy armor whereas the Turks fight more as light infantry and cavalry using shorter spears and bows. It also describes siege warfare and more advanced methods of it in detail such as the part where Alexios and his army infiltrated the city of Priene in Asia Minor by sneaking through its aqueduct to get to their main target Karman Bey who would be killed off here, which I would say is one of the most memorable parts of the novel together with the part when Alexios’ men successfully besiege Nysa prior to this by blocking off the river to cut off the population’s water supply. Though it may contain a lot of action sequences especially battle scenes, it would not be overall the usual war adventure type of story as with the story progressing, the more and more it would seem like a war drama with all the deaths, intrigues, and the trauma caused by war especially in a long one like the one featured in the story. As a true war drama, the book does in fact contain a lot of graphic violence, and some notable scenes that contain this kind of graphic violence and disturbing elements would be the battle between Alexios and his allies against Karman Bey and his allies wherein Karman Bey no matter how fearsome he is known to be breaks down in tears when his son is gruesomely beheaded in battle by Alexios’ men which causes Karman’s forces to be defeated as he flees. Another example of war’s harsh reality here is that in wars especially in the Middle Ages, the winning side does whatever they want and some scenes of that show this includes the very graphic part when Karman Bey brutally hung the corpses of the people of Nysa outside the city’s walls including women and children to send a message to his enemies that this would happen if they messed with him, while another disturbing one would be when Alexios’ forces had captured so many of Karman’s men to the point that a Turkish slave would be even cheaper to buy than a sheep. Other than these scenes, to put it short the novel’s war sequences show more than just fighting but the suffering all this fighting has brought to the people in the lands these battles were fought in and how soldiers like Alexios and the other characters were affected by it with the loss of loved ones and PTSD caused by it that makes people make such big decisions, in the story’s case it would be rebelling against the current emperor when they have already faced enough of his incompetent rule. On the other hand, the novel too shows that war in is not only a matter of fighting and giving or following orders but has a lot to do with both logistics and what could be called human resource management which is the case of Alexios who not only has to be a strong, brilliant, and inspiring general but a good manager that has to keep his troops in line especially since in the story he is in command of a multiethnic army consisting of Byzantines (Romans) and Turks that are not always in good terms with each other, while at the same time it also shows that a lot of funds and supplies are needed to fight wars. By showing this harsh reality as a result of war, it makes the novel a much more realistic one for readers in showing what life was like back then.

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Byzantine army under the Palaiologos Dynasty, 13th and 14th centuries

It is not a plain black and white story as when reading “The Usurper” you would come to realize that there is in fact no good guys and no bad guys in the story as it clearly shows the reality of war where no one is neither good nor bad. This then is not the kind of story where the Byzantines being the heroes are immediately seen as the good guys while the Turks being the enemy would automatically be seen as the villains, instead it shows more conflict with both bad and good in each side of the war, which then adds a lot more complexity into the story therefore making it a more fascinating read.

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Meme of Alexios Philanthropenos

The story’s lead character Alexios Philanthropenos no matter how much of an honorable man he is also has a conflicted personality which is mostly being that he makes his emotions get the best of him such as in the scene where he had the corrupt governor of Philadelphia Anastasios who allowed his city to fall to the Turks and escaped like a coward exposed in public being tied to a flagpole without knowing that the people would beat him to death. At the same time, the story also shows that the Turks even if they are Byzantium’s enemies are not entirely bloodthirsty savages as seen in the case of Osman who even if a Turk was as much as an honorable man the way Alexios was, while the main Turkish antagonist Karman Bey no matter how fearsome is portrayed also with a soft human side which was seen when he broke down into tears after his son was decapitated in battle. As for the Byzantines in this story, you can immediately tell that they are not at all the good guys despite being the protagonists, and even though Alexios may already come out as the virtuous and heroic Byzantine, most of the Byzantines who this story is on the side of are portrayed as corrupt, scheming, and petty such as the governors of Asia Minor and the emperor Andronikos II himself who is in fact the story’s secret villain as he is the one Alexios decides to strike against at the end despite failing. Here I would really think that Andronikos II is true enough the secret villain who just basically at first hides his true self which is that of a corrupt tyrant emperor, basically how the people of Asia Minor saw him in the story, while Alexios too had seen his uncle the same way the people of Asia Minor did except that Alexios at first wanted to show he was loyal to his uncle the emperor.

It tries to be authentic to the era basically in the sense that despite it being set in the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine characters in the story such as Alexios, Theodore, Michael, and the emperor Andronikos II are not referred to as “Byzantines” but as “Romans”, thus showing the continuity of the Roman Empire of the past to the medieval era Byzantine Empire. The word “Byzantine” referring to the Byzantine Empire was true enough only coined in the 16th century after the fall of Byzantium which was in 1453 as in the Byzantine era, the Byzantine people did in fact still call themselves “Romans” despite no longer speaking Latin and having a very Greek cultural identity which was ever more evident especially from the 13th century onwards as a result of the 57-year dissolution of Byzantium by the 4th Crusade (1204-1261) which the exiled Byzantines in this time period rebuilt themselves as by rediscovering their Ancient Greek roots. The dialogue of the characters too mostly remains authentic to the Middle Ages as modern terms are hardly spoken by the story’s characters, while the word “Byzantine” is in fact never at all mentioned, thus making it truly authentic to the era it is set in.

For books that generally discuss Byzantium and its history, it is quite an innovation mostly because of its war-adventure-drama which is not so much common in Byzantine books whether written in modern times or back then in the Byzantine era. This kind of action epics like this book was not so much a common genre of literature back then in the Byzantine era wherein only a few books written back then in the Byzantine era have this kind of action-packed genre such as The Alexiad by Anna Komnene written in the 12th century and the epic poem Digenes Akritas. At this day, from what I know of there are not that much detailed war epic novels set in the Byzantine era, therefore making this one a unique Byzantine era novel. Most people would usually remember Byzantium either for endless religious debates and schisms or epic battles with thousands of Cataphract cavalry soldiers or large sized Varangians Guards clashing at enemy armies also numbering in the thousands or ships with superpowered weapons like Greek Fire. This book then truly shows that the Byzantines were not only either obsessed with religious debates or had massive battles but did in fact fight smaller scale battles no longer with large professional armies but with a mixed force of both professional troops, local Greek and foreign mercenaries, and even foreign allies which would then be the main difference of warfare in the late Byzantine era. Another unique feature of this book is that not only does it talk about battles and warfare in the late Byzantine era which is rarely talked about, but more so that it talks about it in a first-person perspective which makes the happenings in the story seem even more real.   

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Map of Asia Minor and Greece at the end of the 13th century

Its ending has a very surprising element but at the same time is still a climactic one. Now for those who know the history of the late Byzantine Empire, you would definitely come across the story of Alexios Philanthropenos and discover that no matter how successful he was in his campaigns, he still met a tragic end of being betrayed and blinded. When reading the book however, you will get to see Alexios in a different angle as you will definitely be invested in his character as well as in the other characters in the story, which then makes the climax a shocking one especially when finding out who the traitor was that would stop Alexios’ uprising against the emperor. When Alexios and his army arrive in Nicaea on their way to Constantinople in chapter 22, it is here when Alexios’ rebellion is suddenly crushed not by forces sent by the emperor but by his own men, and the traitor here happens to be the Cretan mercenary captain Konstas who has his men surround Alexios with their weapons, and true enough when reading this part, I was shocked. However, when looking back at the rest of the story, you can already tell that Konstas may possibly turn traitor as ever since Osman had been introduced in chapter 5 Konstas had already expressed his disliking of Alexios allying with Osman and towards the end Konstas also does not approve of Alexios rising up against his uncle while everyone else does, as true enough Konstas where the story begins was not recruited by Alexios to his army but a mercenary from Venetian held Crete despite being a Byzantine Greek hired by the emperor to be under Alexios’ command, and Konstas on the other hand also had some noble blood as his family was once from the Byzantine nobility of Crete before the Venetians took over in 1204 during the 4th Crusade, and having this noble Greek blood then made Konstas have a strong disgust towards the Turks.

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Blinding in the Byzantine Empire

It is then Konstas who orders that Alexios be blinded after Konstas’ men defeat Alexios in a small skirmish at the governor’s palace in Nicaea, and here Alexios is blinded by Philippos the young boy in Konstas’ army who however happens to only partially blind Alexios by burning his eyes with a burnt knife coated in pig fat as Philippos true enough admired Alexios. The part of Alexios’ blinding however would later turn out to be confusing as when reading what he has been saying, it still seems like he was still able to see even if he has been blinded. When asking the author about the part of Alexios’ blinding if he was actually blinded or just “fake blinded”, he says that there is not really much information about how Alexios was blinded but what is known is that those who were close to the emperor like Alexios were just lightly blinded which was how Alexios was blinded here, thus the author made Alexios’ blinding be just a partial blinding due to the fact that in real history, Alexios 30 years later when being called out of retirement to once again deal with the Turkish raiders in the Meander Valley and later against the Latins in Lesbos had gotten his eyesight back. True enough, the incompetent emperor Andronikos II too would end up being overthrown by his grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos in 1328, and Alexios back back in military service would serve the new emperor who would turn out to be a much stronger one than his grandfather. The last chapter then also mentions for the first and only time in the entire story where Alexios is not present and this is when Konstas returns to Alexios’ men outside Nicaea making up a lie that Alexios was ambushed and killed by Osman’s Turks as a way to turn Alexios’ Greek soldiers against Osman and his Turks basically for Konstas to have his revenge against Osman while Osman was in fact present with them. Konstas’ mistake is however realized by his men when Michael the advisor questions Alexios’ death as Alexios’ body was not returned, then Philippos later comes in telling the whole truth about Alexios’ blinding which angers Konstas who is then suddenly killed by Philippos right when Konstas tries to escape by his horse, and following Konstas’ death all the survivors go their own ways with Michael shortly afterwards dying, Philippos never to be heard from again, and Osman returning to ruling his tribe now knowing the ways of Byzantines which would give him an advantage years later when he declares war on Byzantium as with his ally Alexios gone, he no longer had any loyalty to Byzantium.

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Basileus Andronikos II Palaiologos

Alexios following his blinding faces the wrath of the emperor who is disappointed with how Alexios disobeyed orders when he was believed to be loyal but Alexios in return warns the emperor that because he was blinded and removed from command, Byzantine rule over Asia Minor would sooner or later be lost and therefore being the emperor Andronikos II’s fault, though rather than being executed Alexios is given the merciful option by Andronikos II to be returned back to his house in Thessaloniki where the whole story began. This kind of scenario here of a general being Alexios having popular support and usurping the throne from an incompetent emperor therefore shows that Byzantium even as late as the last years of the 13th century still retains some of its republican traditions from the Roman Republic, the predecessor of Byzantium’s predecessor which was the Roman Empire, meaning that the spirit of Rome still did in fact live on as Byzantium true enough did not have such a law wherein an emperor had divine rights.

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Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire

 

Suggestions and Conclusion        

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Overall, I would say that “The Usurper” by Emanuele Rizzardi is surprisingly a well-made historical novel that is actually quite engaging and does a great job especially in getting into the mind of a long dead person which is Alexios Philanthropenos, however there are still some things I would want to change in the narrative if I were to rewrite it.

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Byzantine art recreated- Chrysobull of Andronikos II (left) presenting the document to Christ (right), art by myself

Basically, the one thing that I would really change if I were to rewrite it would be to give more of a role to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos rather than just portraying him as the man who sends Alexios on a mission and at the end just out of nowhere turns out to be the secret villain. Andronikos II is after all the person on the cover of the book making it quite ironic that his part in this story is actually quite minimal, therefore I would suggest that in order to make the story have more angles to it, rather than just showing the side of Alexios along his thoughts and feelings about the situation his empire is in, it is also fair to show how his counterpart the emperor also feels about the situation in Asia Minor as well showing how incompetent the emperor is in ruling by surrounding himself with intellectuals and constructing impressive churches for only him to see which would further establish the emperor’s character and his corrupt court that the story keeps mentioning of. At the same time, I have also noticed that there are no scenes in the entire novel set in the imperial capital Constantinople itself, thus if I were to rewrite it, I would include scenes taking place in Constantinople describing the imperial palace and the Hagia Sophia simultaneously with Alexios on his campaigns against the Turks in Asia Minor. I would also suggest that it would be better if there were scenes in Constantinople as a way to show some contrast between the cosmopolitan capital and the war-torn countryside in Asia Minor, while also to show how much Byzantium had drastically changed with Constantinople once being a thriving metropolis shrinking down to a shadow of its former self due to the damage inflicted on it when it was sacked by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and during the 57 years of Latin occupation that followed it. The other thing I would add if I were to rewrite the story would be to add more details about Alexios’ life such as inserting a few flashback scenes here and there that take you back to Alexios’ childhood to further establish his character as the story as the story only goes as far as just mentioning Alexios’ father the general Michael Tarchaneiotes dying from malaria thus failing to achieve his objective of conquering the city of Tralles in Asia Minor which Alexios manages to succeed in doing thus finishing off what his late father failed to do, therefore if I were to rewrite it I would also want to discuss some more about Alexios’ father Michael as a way to also further establish the character of Alexios and his life when growing up. Lastly, I would also want to add more visuals to the book such as a section at the center with plates depicting maps, costumes, soldiers, and weapons of this period in Byzantine history in order to make it much more engaging, but at least the book does in fact start off with a detailed map of Byzantine Greece and Asia Minor at the story’s setting as a way to guide you through the places mentioned in the book. Other than that, this is more or less all the suggestions I have for the novel and when it comes to omitting things, I would say that the novel did not really have anything that I would find unnecessary that I would think should be omitted.

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Map of the Asia Minor locations in The Usurper
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Constantinople in the Byzantine era artwork, artist unknown

          

And now I have come to the end of this article reviewing “The Usurper”, and to sum it all up I would say that the entire novel itself was actually a good one, however I strongly suggest that it is something to be read by readers who are more informed about the history of Byzantium, otherwise for those who are not familiar with Byzantine history it may just seem like a usual medieval era war-adventure-drama. What really makes “The Usurper” unique I would say is that it uses a Byzantine era setting for this said genre which is something not very common, therefore making it a unique innovation, and not only that since this book also does a great job in getting into the mind of a long dead Byzantine general thus finally giving justice to this unknown Byzantine hero that deserves more praise which is Alexios Philanthropenos who could have in fact saved Byzantine Asia Minor from the Turkish raids if only he were not betrayed and blinded. Now if Alexios did manage to succeed in his rebellion and did take the throne from his uncle Andronikos II, then perhaps history itself would be different as possibly with Alexios as Emperor Alexios VI then Byzantine Asia Minor would be much more defended unlike how it was under Andronikos II, and also due to Alexios’ alliance with Osman and his tribe- at least only in this story- then possibly the Byzantines and Osman’s Turks would never be in conflict with each other, thus they would even be much stronger if united especially against a more powerful enemy such as the Mongols. Of course, all this I’m saying about what could happen if Alexios did take throne is all speculation but even though Alexios did not achieve his objective to revive the old glory of Byzantium, the corrupt and incompetent rule of Andronikos II did eventually come to an end when his grandson overthrew him in 1328, and the reign of the new emperor Andronikos III (1328-1341) was in fact a better time for the Byzantines in their last years, although it would be the last time Byzantium would be a strong power as after his sudden death in 1341 it would be forever downhill for the Byzantines until the fall of their empire in 1453. On the other hand, I would also say that “The Usurper” does have some potential to be either a movie or a series, although when reading I could not really visualize on how it could be a movie or series and who to cast for the roles, thus I did not do any fan casting for the story’s characters in this article, but if it were to soon enough become a movie or series then it would be really great.

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Lo Stendardo di Giove (2021) by Emanuele Rizzardi

Before finishing off, I would like to say it once again that I truly thought of the book as a very interesting and engaging one especially for someone like me who is a Byzantine history enthusiast, and when already translated into English I would definitely want to read Emanuele Rizzardi’s 3rd novel Lo Stendardo di Giove as it is true enough set in one of my favorite historical settings which is that of the late Roman Empire and early Byzantine era. Now I would like to thank the author Emanuele Rizzardi for answering a few questions I have asked him about the novel itself which was very helpful for this article while I would like to congratulate him too for a job well-done in showing an unknown side of Byzantine history, and once more I highly recommend this book especially to those who are very interested in Byzantine history and want to know more about lesser-known periods like this. Up next for this site, my long-running Byzantine Alternate History series will finally reach its final chapter set in the 15th century which is perhaps going to feature the most epic story so far in my 12-part series, so stay tuned for what comes next on my site and thank you all for reading this!     

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