A picture paints a thousand words. And so it does with Emperors of Byzantium (EOB), a dramatized historical web comic set during the Byzantine era. I am thrilled to have discovered this website by chance on Reddit. Being a diehard fan of Byzantium, I am grateful for yet another medium by which I can enjoy the stories of my favourite empire.
The talented artist Haefen Hassinger and her dad maintain EOB. According to her dad, Sebastian, Haefen came up with the idea for EOB and roped him in “to help with lettering, setting up the website, and occasionally brainstorming dialogue and story.” According to her website, she engages in many different pursuits from horse riding to video games. Such varied interests will definitely help her ability to create the rich stories which I love.
The aim of EOB is to describe the events of the Byzantine Empire in a light-hearted and humorous manner. From the 52 pages that I have read and reread so far, I think that EOB has succeeded. Read on to find out why this is so.
Good storytelling and artwork
The strengths of EOB lie in its storytelling and artwork to help our imaginations along. Take chapter 4 for example. Constantine was famous for his murder of his son Crispus and his wife Fausta. But the reasons for their executions are uncertain. In pages 41, 42 and 43, EOB does an excellent job of looking at the incident from the people’s point of view. Given the secrecy surrounding the deaths and the stature of Constantine, there must have been lots of gossip involved. The secretive atmosphere that surrounded these ghastly events is captured nicely here.
Another interesting point for me is the building of Constantinople. Constantine made the ancient town of Byzantium the new capital of the Roman Empire. From 324 onwards he began massive building projects to develop the city. Book 5 expertly conveys the haste and grandiose scale of Constantine’s building projects. Page 48 is a nice summary of the important buildings in the city.
Easy understanding of complex events
EOB depicts complex events, like the Crisis of the 3rd Century and Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, in a manner that is easy to understand. Take page 14 for example. In just one page, the reader immediately comprehends the situation after Diocletian’s voluntary abdication. A few panels are all it takes to make the major players and their private quarrels crystal clear
In EOB book 1, chapter 3 regarding Arius and Arianism is my favourite. The Byzantines were famous for their theological subtleties and disputes. This is why I like the condensed version of events regarding Arianism in this chapter. The whole religious controversy and Constantine’s part in it is simplified and easily understood. It was all because of an extra “I.”
I am not a fan of the long drawn out theological disputes in the Byzantine Empire. Normally, I pay more attention to emperors and generals than I do to theologians and bishops. I am not sure how Haefen did it, but I actually revised my opinion of Arius thanks to her. It could be due to the comical way she depicts Arius. Now every time I think of Arianism, I remember Arius’s catchy tune, “Jesus was a dude.” Thanks Haefen!
Another memorable character is Constantine the Great. To be honest, he is not on my favourite list of Byzantine emperors. While I admire his ability to overcome obstacles to achieve his ambitions, I don’t approve of his character or some of his methods. Haefen’s portrayal of Constantine will not change my opinion of him. But at least she softens my dislike of him. Page 34 aptly yet comically shows his naiveté and instability.
Light-heartedness retelling of events
Light-heartedness is the enduring trademark of EOB. I have read of Diocletian and his farming pursuits during his retirement. The history books describe how Diocletian refused to return to power because he loved growing cabbages. But page 17 is a funny take on what may have seemed like madness to those around him.
I particularly enjoyed the panel on page 49 which cheekily addressed Constantine’s claim to be the 13th Apostle. Flanked by pictures of the Apostles behind him, Constantine shamelessly implied that he was one of them. This induced his bishops to develop coughing fits. Constantine’s innocent expression amused me because he believed that he was truly equal to Jesus. In reality, this may have been true given his megalomania which these few panels depicted in a humorous manner.
How Haefen’s comments enhances the appreciation of EOB
As a huge fan of comics, I have always been curious about the work that goes on behind each panel. By posting a little snippet under each page to explain the whys, EOB satisfies this craving of mine. This allows a glimpse into the effort and preparation that goes into each page. Haefen also encourages interaction with her friendly replies. On page 25, she kindly explains how she produces the comics. It is these little things that enhance the value of the end product.
For example, page 23 illustrates the Battle of Milvian Bridge. But there is also a discussion that goes a little deeper into how Maxentius’s defeat came about. Thanks to one reader, Pedant, we have an interesting account of how the collapse of the bridge may have happened. The end result is a longer lasting impression of this battle.
Reflections of the Vizier
Thus far, EOB has stopped at the death of Constantine the Great in 337. But the first book and its five chapters is a good indicator of what we may expect. I personally look forward to what EOB has to offer in the future.
For those of you who appreciate Haefen’s work, Book 1 is out now!
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