A Talk with John, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian

Empress Theodora

The year is 548 and Empress Theodora is dead, the victim of cancer. Or so everyone in Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, believes. Everyone, that is, except Emperor Justinian, who orders John, his Lord Chamberlain, to find the murderer or suffer the consequences. There is no sign of foul play, but many of the aristocrats at the imperial court had good reason to want Theodora dead . . .

Susanne Alleyn: What year is it now for you, sir, and where are you located?

John, Lord Chamberlain: It’s 548. To be precise, it is July 2. I’m sitting in the study of my house on the grounds of the Great Palace in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. I had hoped to get to your communication sooner but my current investigation hasn’t left me time. In fact I’ve just now returned from a visit to the dungeons.

So though it’s late, I’ve lit a lamp and turned my attention to your queries. I’ve spent most of my time the past few days trying to answer questions Justinian has posed and yours are considerably less vexing.

I must live in Constantinople because, as one of the emperor’s closest advisors, I’m constantly on call. Emergencies don’t keep schedules. I would much prefer living on a farm in my native Greece.

It was Fortuna that brought me to this city, and she made me a slave and put me in chains to do so. I’ve manged to advance myself and throw off my literal chains, but figuratively, my official post binds me here, as surely as those poor wretches are confined to the cells I just left.

SA: What do you love most about the time and place in which you live? What do you like least? What particular aspect of your world—if any—would you change, if you could?

John: I can’t say I love either the time or the place. This time, like all others, is filled with horrors, both natural and manmade. How can one love living through plagues and earthquakes and endless wars in Persia and Italy and Africa? Not to mention street crimes and court intrigue. We might love the history that is past, that has become in our imaginations the Golden Age of Athens or the height of the Roman Republic, but the time we must live through is merely to be endured.

And I can say the same of this place. I must endure it until I can leave. As to what I like least or would change, perhaps I may be permitted to pass on those questions for, as we all know, walls have ears and long tongues, especially for what appears to be, or could be made to appear to be, treasonous talk.

SA: Well, what aspects of your world do you think would seem most alien to those of us who live in the 21st century?

John: The emperor’s right of absolute control over every life in the empire. Not only does he have temporal power over everyone, but he is also head of the church.

SA: Where and when were you born, Lord Chamberlain, and how did the events of the first 20 to 30 years of your life influence you?

John: I am Greek, born in 495. I attended Plato’s Academy just outside Athens but I ran off to become a mercenary. As a youngster I preferred action to philosophy. Not long afterwards I met my Cornelia, who travelled with a troupe re-creating the ancient Cretan art of bull-leaping. In a way it was because of her that I ended up where I am, and who I am. I wanted to buy some fine silks for her and accidentally wandered into Persian territory where I was captured and enslaved and later sold back into the empire. But that was all long ago, when I was in my early twenties. I eventually gained my freedom and set my boots on the ladder to the high office I currently hold. Although my hold at the moment feels rather precarious, given Justinian’s insistence that I find a murderer who doesn’t seem to exist.

SA: So how is law and order maintained in sixth-century Constantinople?

John: Here in the capital we have an urban watch under the command of the City Prefect. The excubitors, that is the imperial guard, can also lend assistance outside the palace if necessary. Law and order here means preventing riots like the Nika Riot back in 532, during which the mob nearly burned down the city.

Laws against common crime are hard to enforce and individuals are more or less on their own. Wealthy men don’t venture into the streets without personal bodyguards; everyone else carries a blade. Well, it is true I refuse to have a bodyguard, to the distress of my friends, but I would feel uncomfortable with companions always at my heels. I do carry a dagger and from my days as a mercenary I know how to use it.

As for investigations, sometimes a physician can guess at what sort of poison might have been used, but solving crimes is mostly a matter of tracking down scraps of information and then putting the pieces together. The mosaic on the wall of my study was assembled the same way.

SA: Does the thought of assisting the authorities to send a guilty person to execution, particularly a lingering, gruesome death, affect your personal feelings about investigating a crime?

John: My problem more often than not has been that the authorities cannot or will not mete out appropriate justice. I prefer not to think that I have had to personally administer justice, but rather that I have brought murderers face to face with the fate they deserved.

As to method of execution, a clean death is to be desired. The blade between the ribs is a better way to die than many which the authorities would employ.

SA: Is there someone, particularly an infuriating or downright evil someone who turns up in your life a lot, whom you’d like to murder if you could?

John: Until very recently, yes. But now moot, as well as being much too dangerous to answer.

SA: Are the mysteries you solve generally tied to contemporary historical events?

John: They are naturally tied to the society I live in, but not necessarily to world-shaking events that will be remembered by history. As it happens, though, practically everyone I’ve had to question during my current investigation is highly placed and might well be remembered: General Belisarius and his wife Antonina, the generals Artabanes and Germanus, the Patriarch of Constantinope, the pope, among others.

SA: My goodness—that’s most impressive. Tell us about this investigation.

John: Empress Theodora died last week after a long illness. Justinian is convinced she was murdered. So I’m trying to find a murderer who may not exist, or who might be too well connected for me to bring to justice. All those people I just mentioned had motives. And if I fail . . . well . . . I may end on that farm in Greece I was talking about, or more likely in those dungeons I’ve just come from.

And now I hope you’ll excuse me. I have been trying to speak with the captain of the excubitors but he seems to be making himself scarce. I suspect I will be able to find him at home in the small hours of the night. I would be happy to write more but I fear Emperor Justinian is growing impatient.


The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999’s well-received One For Sorrow, the first full-length novel about their protagonist. Nine For The Devil is the ninth entry in this award-winning series.

Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear around the middle and end of each month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.

Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets) and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in paper and eBook. Her next novel, The Executioner’s Heir, about Charles Sanson, the hereditary executioner of Paris, will appear in 2013.

About Susanne Alleyn

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