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Six Things I Borrowed Wholesale From History for A Memory Called Empire

You may not know what a Byzantinist is, and that’s okay. We didn’t either before we read A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, the debut novel from Arkady Martine. Turns out Martine is a Byzantinist–an historian of the Byzantine Empire, FYI–and has a Ph.D. in History. Her novel takes historical events borrowed from the annals of the human race, and plays them out in a galactic civilization that’s kind of like House of Cards in space.

Check out some of her inspirations below!

By Arkady Martine

  1. In the year 1044 AD, the Byzantine Empire annexed the small Armenian kingdom of Ani. The empire was able to do this for a lot of reasons – political, historical, military – but the precipitating incident involved the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a man named Petros Getadarj, who was determined to prevent the forced conversion of the Armenians to the Byzantine form of Christianity. He did this by trading the physical sovereignty of Ani to the Byzantine emperor in exchange for promises of spiritual sovereignty. When I started writing this book, my inciting question was: what’s it like to be that guy? To betray your culture’s freedom in order to save your culture? Except, y’know, in space.
  2. The number-noun naming system of Teixcalaan is a direct reference to the naming practices of the Mixtec people of Oaxaca, who, like many Mesoamerican peoples, were named for the day in the 260-day cycle of the year on which they were born: a cycle of thirteen numbers and twenty signs (animals, plants, and natural phenomena).
  3. Extemporaneous and extremely political court poetry contests like the one Mahit attends in the City were a centerpiece of Byzantine political life during the Middle Byzantine Period (approximately 900-1204 CE), and were used in much the same way as I’ve used them: to prove an orator’s intelligence and cultural competence, and also to make political arguments. Sometimes both at once. ‘Fifteen-syllable political verse’ is a direct lift from Byzantine literature.
  4. The acclimation by the legions of some general to emperorship – or the threat thereof – was a constant problem in the late Roman empire and into Byzantium, as imperial legitimacy was so tightly linked to military prowess, success, and the celebration of triumphs. Teixcalaan has similar issues.
  5. Blood sacrifice for luck, promises, and the preservation of society is common in many cultures, but I specifically built Teixcalaanli religion in reference to the practices of the Mexica … and in reference to the idea of summer kings, the king being linked to the land, and whose sacrifice might be the only thing sufficient to redeem that land, which is common in European pre-Christian cultures.
  6. Ixhui dumplings are 100% Turkish/Ottoman manti. They’re my favorite food that I can’t make to save my life, so of course I used them.

2 thoughts on “Six Things I Borrowed Wholesale From History for A Memory Called Empire

  1. I just now found your page
    I have not read Byzantine history since I was an graduate student. Now with all these great apps, I can rediscover a wealth of information!

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