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Hey, Hollywood: Here Are Some Real Historical Epics to Produce

Not only is truth stranger than fiction, but it is often more dramatic and inspiring as well. This is the thought I had while doing research for my latest book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. From start to finish, virtually every military encounter in this perennial history could be turned into an epic movie -- replete with heroism, betrayal, faith-driven courage, unbridled ambitions, treacheries of all sorts, and, of course, violent warfare. But unlike Hollywood’s major motion pictures -- which are largely if not entirely fictitious -- these events really happened and need little doctoring.

For instance, the conspiracies, adulteries, jealousies, betrayal, and sadistic murder that permeate the following true account would give even Game of Thrones a run for its money. (In an effort not to spoil the suspense of anyone who plans on reading Sword and Scimitar, the identities of the players and other details are intentionally omitted.)

An empress once wed a handsome but not-so-royal general, thereby elevating him to the emperorship. He, a staunch enemy of Islam, decided to put an end to jihadi incursions against the empire -- then at an all-time high -- and set off to engage the Muslims at the head of a massive army made up of Europeans from everywhere. He nearly succeeded, inciting his men with “words of extraordinary violence” and himself fighting savagely, even after being unhorsed. Then treachery struck: a large chunk of his army marched off the battlefield, abandoning him to his fate. They had been bribed by the empress and her new favorites.

As one court historian who personally knew both emperor and empress explained: “The more she tried to dominate him, to treat him, who was really her master, like a lion in a cage, the more he fretted at her restraining influence and glared at the hand that kept him in check. To begin with, he growled inwardly, but as time passed his disgust became obvious to everyone.” This would not do for the empress; and so the same woman who made unmade him.

Amazingly, however, he managed to return to his kingdom, causing his faithless wife to hide in the cellar. But her relentless co-conspirators sent “cruel and harsh men” to ambush the unwanted returnee. They “gouged out his eyes pitilessly and inhumanely,” writes a contemporary. “Carried forth on a cheap beast of burden like a decaying corpse, his eyes gouged out and his face and head swollen and full of worms and stench, he lived on a few days in pain and smelling foully before his death.” According to another account, after he was blinded, the emperor spent his final days “hit[ting] his head against a wall until he died.”