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Author's Note:

The story recounts the interactions between a girl living on Mars in 2075 and the sassy AI developed by her grandmother. Danielle Gryce, the girl made a drunken promise that she would experience the Byzantine Empire simulation designed by her grandmother. Virginia, an old-school artificial intelligence who exists only as a voice, locked up some of Danielle’s programs to coerce her into abiding by her promise. Through this adventure, Danielle will learn about how Byzantine art and architecture served as vessels through which religion and political messages were expressed. She will also realize how relatable an ancient civilization can be to Martian society.

The Adventures of Danielle

“The Basilica of San Vitale,” Virginia announced.

“That sounds Italian,” Danielle replied. She would know, being a Cyberpunk-Renaissance fashion aficionado herself.

“We are in Italy.”

“I thought this was a Byzantine sim.”

“The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Roman Empire. People there viewed themselves as Romans. Think of how Mars began as an Earth colony but has since prospered into a separate political entity. You can still find Martians who consider themselves Terran, for example.” (Alternate source)

“Huh, interesting,” said Danielle, yawning. Which was telling, since one didn’t have the biological urge to yawn in a simulation.

They soon entered the basilica, and numerous decorated walls surrounded Danielle. They reflected light in a peculiar manner—so peculiar, in fact, that Danielle felt an urge to examine them up-close.

“Activate fairy wings,” said Danielle.

A pair of thin, oval wings sprouted from Danielle’s back. She fluttered towards a wall that caught her fancy.

An ellipsis wrapped in a yellow oval was bouncing beside it, and she tapped it on instinct. Words popped out.

Justinian, Bishop Maximianus, and attendants.

Carole Raddato. The Mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 29 June 2015. Justinian, Bishop Maximianus, and attendants



“Why isn’t it moving?” the girl asked. “Run. Play. Move.”


“It’s a mosaic,” said Virginia.

“Speak English.”

“Accusing others of speaking jargon in an attempt to mask your own ignorance? Good Martian upbringing, I see.”

“S-Shut up! Explain what a mo-zey-ick is!”

“Art created through embedding pieces of stone or glass in cement on various surfaces.”

Danielle frowned. “Sounds like a lot of work for crap quality. Their faces look like the ImagineArt I made when I was 2.”

“I’d like to see you do better with the tools they had then—they used their hands to place pieces; they didn’t have the luxury of realizing art simply by envisioning it.”

“Who are these guys, anyway?” Danielle pointed at the mosaic’s central figure. “This blanket-wearing dude with the flower looks special.”

“That’s Justinian, a central figure of the Byzantine Empire. He led the empire to its first golden age, which had territorial reach and military prowess comparable to the old Roman Empire (Kleiner, pg. 258). He also commissioned a large portion of Byzantine art and architecture. Here, he is depicted as an equal to Bishop Maximianus, the most powerful religious leader at that time.”

Danielle glanced at the Google tab she opened. “Wait, aren’t bishops just high-ranking priests who command other priests? And this Max guy was equal to an emperor? That’s bull.”

“In today’s age, perhaps. Back then, the bishop and emperor were like two parts of a whole, ruling over subjects in unison. Maximianus—”

“I don’t care about the bishop. Tell me more about the emperor.”

“… The mosaic suggests that Justinian’s multitudinous accomplishments earned him the respect of the religious community, military, and, most importantly, God.” (Kleiner, pg. 264)

“Uh-huh. How are archaic Terran religions related to this non-moving mou-zey-ick again?”

“On what basis does the Martian government operate? Put another way, what determines what’s legal and what’s illegal?”

Danielle tilted her head. “What’s… good and what’s bad for Mars, I guess. Why?”

“In ancient Terran civilizations, religion served as the basis from which those judgments were derived. Not only did Justinian unify religion and politics, he also contributed to the Corpus Juris Civilis.”

“The what now?”

“The Corpus Juris Civilis—the codification of Roman law that served as the foundation of the law systems of many Terran European nations.”

“Okay, how does that teach a girl living in 2075 Mars anything relevant?” Danielle folded her arms, her inquisitive expression masking an internal smirk. Martian education saw history as a tool to be used; not revered—learn what you can; discard the superfluous.

“Many people from those European nations immigrated to North America, where they formed their own governments. Elon Musk, the man who spearheaded the way for Mars colonization, received part of his education in Canada and used to be a American citizen. Also, your parents were American.”

“S-So? What are you trying to say?” was all Danielle could manage.

With a magnified voice that resonated throughout the basilica, Virginia replied,


Danielle groaned and made her way to the mosaic on the opposite side of the basilica. The odd bouncing symbol was there again, and she tapped it.

Theodora and attendants

Steven Zucker. Empress Theodora Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna. 28 February 2013. Empress Theodora with attendants shown in Mosaic.

“Who’s this chick? Looks important.”

“Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian.”

“I thought ancient Terrans hated women.” Danielle was sure she’d heard that somewhere. “It looks like she’s portrayed as an equal to Justin here.”

“Discrimination is not hatred,” corrected Virginia. “She was a vital part of Byzantine’s history—she motivated Justinian to fight back against the Nika rioters.”

“So, she got her man to do something? How does that make her important?”

“Long story short, people were upset at the emperor for raising taxes and set a bunch of stuff on fire in 532CE. Justinian and his counselors were considering running away, but Theodora shamed him into fighting. Without her, the Byzantine Empire may not have had its first golden age, which lasted from 527–565CE.”

“Ooooh, she also ended iconoclasm, right?” exclaimed Danielle.

“... No? That was a different empress Theodora born centuries later,” said Virginia (Kleiner, pg. 270). “You just Googled byzantine empire theodora, didn’t you?”

“... Why would you say that?” asked Danielle. An incognito tab disappeared off the side of her heads-up-display.

“You do realize I’m in your system, right? I can see everything you’re doing.”

“Remind me again how you’re not a virus? Goshdarn trojan, I swear…”

Ignoring the muttering Danielle, Virginia asked, “Do you even know what iconoclasm is?”

“Of course I do,” said Danielle. She pulled up Google again. “Iconoclasm is—”

Her tabs crashed.


I’m doing the teaching here.”


Iconoclasm refers to the destruction of religious icons and images by the authorities. People carried those icons around with them at the time.”


“Why have icons or why destroy them?”

Danielle considered this. Asking questions would make her waste more time in this lame sim, but… she wanted to know. “Both, I guess.”

A flash of light blinded Danielle, and she soon found herself floating above an open marketplace. Throngs of simulated humans passed underneath, each dressed in long robes.

“Hey, what are you—!?”

“Answering your question.”

In an instant, numerous small, thin objects flew out of the pockets of many of the humans below and headed straight for Danielle. Instinct called for her to dodge the incoming barrage. She prepared to boost upwards, but even from that direction came three missiles. Finding herself surrounded, Danielle adopted a defensive stance…

… but the attack never came.

Lowering her arms, Danielle found herself surrounded by a circle of symbols, each bouncing almost playfully.

“These …”

Depiction of a man holding objects, an example of an icon

     Kaldari. Saint Arethas. 26 March 2012. Depiction of a man holding a cross, an example of an icon

“… are icons.”

“Did you have to make that seem like an attack?”


Danielle rolled her eyes. “So, why did so many people have these? Are they like the smartphones old people talk about?”

“Not exactly. The Byzantines made use of icons to facilitate worship. Nevertheless, note that they didn’t worship the icons.”

Danielle cocked her head to the side. “Why would you need an icon to worship something, though? Can’t you just, you know, worship without it?”

“You’re wearing a necklace with the symbol of Mars on your virtual avatar.”

Danielle clutched at the symbol, her face contorting with defensiveness and uncertainty.

Symbol of Mars

Ahmadi~commonswiki. Mars Symbol. 30 March 2011.Symbol of Mars, similar to the sign for “male”.

“This is different! This is just a way for me to personally express patriotism and devotion and love for Mars!”

“Would you need that necklace to love Mars?”

“Of course not. What type of stupid question…”

Danielle realized what she had just said.

Smugness seeped into Virginia’s voice as she said, “Same concept.”

“Argh, fine!” Danielle swiped at the holograms. “Why did people want to destroy these things, anyway?”

“Iconoclasm began as a result of Emperor Leo III’s attempts to improve public morality. It lasted on-and-off from 726–843CE,” said Virginia (Kleiner, pg. 281).

“Public… morality? Who would even support that?” (Treadgold, pg. 353).

“Leaders of both the church and state endorsed iconoclasm; there was backlash from the rest of the community, however. The decision may have been based on the 2nd Commandment of the Old—”

“Hold up! How are icons related to guns?”

A cursory check of Danielle’s heads-up-display told Virginia she didn’t Google that piece of information.

“… While it’s amusing that you’re aware of the 2nd Amendment of the United States of America, the 2nd Commandment is one of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. It was interpreted as forbidding the creation and worship of icons—although it specifically referred only to idols of the Christian God.”

“That’s dumb. Who cares what people do with icons?”

“That may have been what the second empress Theodora thought when she abolished iconoclasm in 843CE (Kleiner, pg. 270). She may have felt that, while iconoclasm adhered to the word of the Bible, restricting the ways in which people expressed faith went against the spirit of Christianity.”

“Huh. That’s nice of her, I guess. Didn’t expect an empress to care that much about religion.”

“Religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in the Byzantine Empire, as we saw earlier with Justianian. The Hagia Sophia is the epitome of that idea.”

“Can you show me?”

“Is that interest I sense?”

Danielle narrowed her eyes. “It’s curiosity.”

A flash of light blinded Danielle for several seconds. When she opened her eyes …

The Hagia Sophia

David Spender. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 27 July 2009.The Hagia Sophia, a combination of basilica and dome

“We’re in Constantinople. Modern day Turkey.” After a pause. “The Terran country; not the bird.”

“Oh. I knew that,” lied Danielle. “How does that thing combine religion and politics, anyway? It just looks like a bunch of buildings and towers squashed together.”

“Remember the Nika riots I was talking about earlier?”

“Yeah. Something about burning stuff.”

“Rioters razed the Hagia Sophia to the ground during the riots. Justinian, the emperor depicted in the first mosaic, commissioned the rebuilding of the structure in 537CE. However, the changes were so drastic that the Hagia Sophia you see now looked nothing like the original.”

“You mentioned the Hagia Sophia linking religion and politics?” 

“Yep. You see that piece up there?”

A green outline appeared around the massive dome that served as part of the Hagia Sophia’s ceiling.

“Yeah,” said Danielle. “Design seems different than the rest.”

“That’s because the dome was inspired by the Roman Pantheon; the rest was based on the Temple of Solomon. The Pantheon was the ultimate Roman architectural marvel, and its inclusion in the Hagia Sophia represented Justinian’s power. The Temple of Solomon was known as the first temple, and its inclusion represented Justinian’s piety.”

“Oh, so it’s like how my Cyberpunk-Renaissance outfits represent a bunch of different things!”

“… A little more complex than that, but sure,” winced Virginia. At least Danielle seemed interested now. “As for the interior…”

Another flash of light, but Danielle was prepared for it this time.

Interior of the Hagia Sophia, showcasing its iconic dome and pendentives

Filip Knežić.  Hagia Sophia dome, Istanbul, Turkey. 30 December 2012. Interior of the Hagia Sophia. Interior of the Hagia Sophia. Pictured are several pendentives, which is a form of  architectural design that helps the dome balance above the columns. Furthermore, central to the picture is the Hagia Sophia’s iconic dome, which has been emblazoned with Islamic calligraphy. Note that the calligraphy was put in place several hundred years after the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia and was not part of the initial design. They were only put in place when the building became a mosque.

“Okay, this looks way better from the inside,” said Danielle.

Danielle flew up towards the dome. Touching the intricate designs on the underside of the dome, she whispered, “It’d take at least 6 Grandmaster Worldbuilders to create all this.”

“2 Terrans designed this.”


Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. They were among the greatest mathematicians, architects, and physicists at the time. Unlike simulation worldbuilders, they were restrained by the laws of physics. It was by virtue of their innovative design that this building didn’t just collapse in on itself.”



“… Darn.”

There was a brief period of silence in which Danielle explored the Hagia Sophia. Her fingers swept across every surface imaginable, traversing the details of the decorated dome, painted pendentives, and carved columns.


“Right, we’re done,” said Virginia.

“Huh? That's it?”

“Not even close. However, I’ve unlocked your programs and—”

“Show me more,” said Danielle. She was angry-pouting.

“I thought you hated Terran history simulations.”

“You changed that. Take responsibility.”

“Ahahaha.” It was the first time Danielle had heard Virginia laugh. “Sure.”

A flash of light enveloped Danielle.



Alburn, Cary. R. (1959). Corpus Juris Civilis: A Historical Romance. American Bar Association Journal, 45(6), 562–642.

Brooks, Sarah. (2001). Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Brooks, Sarah. (2001). The Byzantine State under Justinian I. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Byzantine Iconoclasm. (August 5, 2017). Byzantine Conference.

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.) Bishop.

Feminae: Mediaval Women and Gender Index(n.d.). Icon of the triumph of orthodoxy (n.d.). Elon Musk.  

Georgiadis, Stephanie. (March 23, 2012). Hagia Sophia (2010). Byzantine Empire.  

J.M. Hussey. (1986). The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, 11. 

Kleiner, Fred. (2016). Gardner’s Art through the Ages. (n.d.) Mosaic.

Neville, Leonora. (2018). The rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire. (Ted-Ed)

PBS. (February 25, 2015). Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery [Video file].

The First Temple (n.d.). - Solomon’s Temple.

The Nika riot. (n.d.). 

Treadgold, Warren. (1997). A History of The Byzantine State and Society

Vadnal, Jane. (1997). University of Pittsburgh. Glossary of Medieval Art and Architecture