The Belt of Gold

by Cecelia Holland

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Holland's title The Belt of Gold has two meanings. On the one hand, there is the golden belt of office worn by a highly ranked minister of the Byzantine emperor; on the other, there is the belt awarded to the grand champion of the chariot races followed so avidly by the citizens of Constantinople. The two are connected both in the novel's plotline and symbolically, for the story moves back and forth from the fierce life-or-death maneuvers on the racetrack, to the equally deadly machinations of those in power and those seeking to win it. The scene is the greatest city of the medieval world at a unique point in history, when the Empress Irene had assumed rule of the empire in her own name, taking the masculine title of Basileus, and a Frankish warlord far to the west had replied by accepting the title of emperor for himself. As plots and counterplots eddy and swirl, an assortment of people find themselves caught in the currents, including a devoted servant of the empress, a conscientious treasurer, a Frankish warrior on his way back from pilgrimage, an ambassador from the Caliph in Baghdad, a conniving nobleman, and a pair of dueling charioteers. At the very center of the maelstrom is the imposing figure of the Empress Irene.

This novel would be a good first read for someone wanting a fictional introduction to the long, fascinating, and largely neglected story of the Byzantine Empire and the great city that was its capital. The very detailed Dictionary of Biography at the back of my 1966 edition of Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, has scores of names on every page I do not recognize, but does not, so far as I can tell, include the name of a single ruler of Byzantium. That the Roman Empire actually survived a full millennium after losing its Western provinces in what we call "The Fall of Rome," battling on as a Greek-speaking, Christian bastion against the enemies of Christendom, is a crucial fact of world history. In The Belt of Gold, Cecelia Holland brings this lost world vividly to life. (1984, 305 pages)

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Other novels set in the Byzantine Empire:

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938), about the great Byzantine general who served under Justinian and attempted to reconquer the lost territory of the Western Roman Empire. More info

Alchemy of Fire by Gillian Bradshaw (2004), about a former concubine in seventh-century Constantinople guarding a dangerous secret about her daughter's identity. More info

The Lady for Ransom by Alfred Duggan (1953), about an eleventh century Norman mercenary who serves in the Byzantine army. More info

Nonfiction about Byzantine Empresses:

Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by Judith Herrin (2002). More info

Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, A.D. 527-1204 by Lynda Garland (1999). More info

Women of Byzantium by Carolyn L. Connor (2004). More info


Irene, Empress of Byzantium, a biographical sketch by Carrie Eckles

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