Sunday, October 3, 2010

When History is Unclear

Someone said, "When history is silent, folklore flourishes." I would add, "When history is unclear, imagination has a ball." At least that's the impression I get when I read some historical accounts...

Illustrating children's history books (or providing information to the illustrator) can present some interesting challenges. I mentioned some in an earlier post, when I was working on my book on Augustine. This seems to be particularly true when writing about a character who lived in the first millennium after Christ (or earlier), when history was not written with the purpose of presenting objective facts.
I have spent a couple of days researching two simple scenes - Athanasius, condemned by the Council of Tyre, flees to Constantinople where he hopes to convince the emperor of his innocence.
First, how does he flee? Most sources say that he left secretly by a raft under the cover of night (so Timothy David Barnes, Peter Brown, Since my illustrator asked me for details, I started to think more carefully about it. Did Athanasius really travel by raft from Tyre to Constantinople? By himself? Did he even know how to navigate? How did he get there, following the stars?
OK, maybe the word raft meant something different. Maybe it was a small boat, and he paid someone to take him. Or maybe he took a small boat to reach a larger boat out in the sea.
I asked Dr. Giuseppe Corti, expert on patristics and author of a book on Lucifer of Cagliari, and he pointed out that sailors at that time would not leave during the night. OK then, maybe it was just before dawn. It makes sense. So the illustration will portray just that.
Next, he gets to Constantinople and apparently meets Emperor Constantine outside the city. We read that he had to wait for him because he was away. So we are faced with new questions?Where did the emperor come from? That would determine what he was wearing. Was he in a chariot or riding a horse? And Athanasius? How was their interaction?
In Athanasius and Constantius, by Timothy D. Barnes, we find an account of that meeting originally written by Constantine himself but reported by both Gelasius of Cyzicus and Athanasius, with some small differences. Athanasius tells us that Constantine was riding a horse. Good.
Then both writers go on to describe the exchange. They both mention that Constantine at first didn't talk to Athanasius. It seems that he didn't even recognize him and was surprised to find out that it was him. Gelasius says that Athanasius was "so humbled and cast down that we fell into unutterable pity for him." Athanasius omits that.
Was Gelasius right? Many other accounts (by modern writers) describe Athanasius as boldly approaching the emperor. One writer even says that he grabbed the reins of the emperor's horse to stop him. Was Athanasius bold or humbled? Should the artist show some pity on Constantine's expression or just surprise?
And why didn't Constantine recognize him at first? He had met him at least twice before. My guess is that Athanasius looked quite worn out and dirty after a long journey at sea and probably a long wait outside the city gates (he might have had to wait for a few days).
And about the expression, well, maybe he was pretty humbled and cast down, but also bold (in approaching the emperor and insisting to be heard). After a few hours, we see him threatening him that God will judge between the two of them. So we have a wide range of emotions.
Conclusion: I am leaving all this to the illustrator, confident that he will come up with the right expressions, clothes, and setting, and am moving on to further research for the next illustrations...


  1. We could always just go for something abstract, you know, like something that is supposed to suggest the emotions of the scene. Maybe some triangles, and a toddler's scrawled crayon of a yellow flower. I'm kidding.

  2. Very tempting... I don't think the publisher will go for it.