READING GUIDE FOR
THE JOHN THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN HISTORICAL MYSTERY SERIES

BACKGROUND

Everyone knows about the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian hordes. However, while the western portion of the empire passed from Roman control in 476 AD, the eastern part -- often referred to as the Byzantine Empire -- survived for nearly another millennium, until its capital of Constantinople was overrun by the Turks in l453.

The John the Lord Chamberlain mystery series unfolds during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), on the cusp of the classical and medieval worlds. John lives at a time when paganism had all but lost its battle with Christianity but the glory of Rome was still much more than just a dim memory. In his attempts to restore the empire, Justinian not only successfully reconquered both Africa and Italy but also codified Roman law and rebuilt Constantinople so as to rival in the magnificence of its architecture ancient Rome itself. Yet the city's centerpiece was not a pagan temple but a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia.

John, who serves as Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, is called upon to solve some of the mysterious deaths which were not uncommon in this turbulent time of competing viewpoints.

JOHN'S BIOGRAPHY

John the Lord Chamberlain is a tall, lean Greek, born around 495 AD. As a young man he attended Plato's Academy outside Athens but grew restless and left to become a mercenary. He fought in Bretania, where he developed a fear of deep water after seeing a colleague drown in a swollen stream. He also lived for a time in Alexandria and traveled with a troupe which recreated the ancient Cretan art of bull-leaping for Roman audiences. While seeking to buy silks for his lover in a border region of the empire, he strayed into enemy territory, was captured by Persians, emasculated and sold into slavery.

Purchased to serve at the Great Palace in Constantinople, the story of how he regained his freedom and rose to become Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian I is told in Four For A Boy. As Lord Chamberlain, John's official role is as chief attendant to the emperor. As part of his duties John oversees much of the palace administration and supervises court ceremonies. However, his real power lies in his close working relationship with Justinian, who depends upon his advice and, from time to time, his ability as an investigator. Unfortunately, John has attracted the enmity of Empress Theodora.

A man of simple tastes, John lives in a sparsely furnished house on the palace grounds. Although wealthy, he refuses to employ slaves or the customary bodyguard. He is fluent in four languages (cursing in Coptic) but is not quick to share confidences in any of them. He has, however, been known to share his thoughts with the girl depicted in the mosaic on the wall of his study.

John is sometimes aided in his investigations by Felix, the Captain of the Excubitors (palace guards), his younger friend Anatolius (who leaves his position as Justinian's secretary to practice law) and an elderly servant, Peter. John, like Felix and Anatolius, is a practicing Mithran and has attained the rank of Runner of the Sun. Like them, however, he must keep his beliefs secret since Mithraism is a proscribed religion.

John is a man of contradictions -- a pagan serving a Christian emperor, a man of principle in a society whose corrupt institutions do not offer justice, someone who has been terribly wounded but has not descended into ruthlessness although he has been known to lapse into fits of anger and near madness, perhaps a result of urges he usually controls.

SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

(l) John suffered castration as a young man. In what way has this affected his emotional and mental attitudes? How do you think you would react to this type of traumatic event? To what extent do the things that happen to us dictate "who we are" and to what extent can we decide "who we are" despite the things that happen to us?

(2) John was captured, mutilated and sold into slavery but has survived to become a man of great power. Yet he has not attempted to hunt down and punish those who wronged him. Why do you think he hasn't taken revenge? Should he? Would you?

(3) People sometimes assume that a eunuch must not be a "real" man and so would be unable to protect the people he loves or do "manly" things. What are your thoughts on this assumption? Can we in fact accomplish things that seem impossible when the need arises? Has this ever happened to you?

(4) Many things taken for granted in John's time - families selling their children into prostitution or slavery, for example - are morally repugnant to us. Yet these things are still going on l,500 years later. Do you think the world is becoming a better place? Will such conditions always be part of it? Does our society take for granted things that will appear morally wrong to people in the future? What do you think they would consider to belong to this classification?

(5) John does not always approve of aspects of his society. His views are sometimes more in line with modern day thinking. Is this realistic? How much does the society in which we live shape our views of what is right and wrong?

(6) Several characters in the books are practicing Mithrans living in a Christian court whose emperor has proscribed pagan religions. They must therefore follow their religion in secret. What parallels do you see with religious oppression today? Is it possible, like John and his friends, to follow individual beliefs and principles in a world that often seems to hold contrary views?

(7) As Lord Chamberlain, John is immensely wealthy but he prefers plain food and a sparsely furnished house. What does this tell you about him? Is wealth necessarily the measure of a person? What would you do if you were suddenly as rich as John?

(8) Empress Theodora is a very strong woman whose power is exceeded only by that wielded by her husband, Justinian. Some scholars believe her influence on her husband was so great that she was actually co-emperor. Today we see a few women serving as heads of state. Has the role of powerful women changed? Can you think of any women today who are like Theodora? Who would you choose to play her in a movie?

(9) Justinian exercised absolute power over the life and death of everyone in his empire. If you were the emperor what sort of civil and legal reforms would you order carried out immediately? If you could only order one reform, what would it be, and why?

(l0) Were you surprised to learn that the Roman Empire had continued for 1,000 years after its "fall"? Why do you think so little popular attention has been paid to its later history while there have been many books and movies about its earlier times?

NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS

We'll be updating this list from time to time, so feel free to drop by now and then. Meantime, thank you for your interest in John's adventures. We hope you'll jot a line if you have any comments or questions!

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