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on 22 February 2009
Well, I finished the book three days ago ...

It is a good narrative / chronological history of this enigmatic figure Belisarius with an emphasis on analyzing the battles from a strategic / tactical point of view: in short a picture of Belisarius as a general. It gives a good account of the problems the byzantine empire had to face in the east with the persians, in the south with the vandals and in Italy with the goths. The authors interpretation that Justinian didn`t have any "masterplan" about regaining the lost west is also plausible. Justinian more or less just reacted to the opportunities opened due to the internal weakness of his enemies and serving his domestic politics at the same time.

One thing I noticed that the roman arms & armour depicted on the book are a bit "4th centurish" but then again we unfortunately don`t have very clear evidence of the arms and armament of the army of Belisarius at that time. Anyway in my opinion his army could have looked more or less like the armies of his enemies rather than wearing Intercisa / Burgh Castle-type helmets etc. The evidence on arms / armour of the byzantine army of this period is unfortunately sparse.

Anyway a good read, recommended to anyone interested in Belisarius especially as a general and strategist of a late roman / byzantine army.

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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 March 2012
As three other reviewers have noticed, this is a good book on a very interesting man - Belisarius, general of Justinian - but it also has many problems.

1) The first issue, also mentioned by Arch Stanton, is that the author has defined his subject very narrowly. The book is presented as a military biography. It therefore focuses on the campaigns of Belisarius against Persia, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths. However, because of this narrow focus, there is a need to provide a lot of context. This is what the three first chapters (Historical background, the Byzantine Court and the Early Life of Belisarius, the New Roman Army) attempt, and, I believe, largely fail to provide. The chapters are made up of various bits and pieces inspired by more specialized books. This could be fine except for the fact that the author, partly because of space constraints, feels obliged to make sweeping statements that he doesn't back by any evidence or decent explanation. One example is to contrast the Eastern and Western part of the Roman Empire with the latter being portrayed as "less civilized and wealthy". Another is to - implicitly - privilege Peter Heather's thesis (Rome fell because of the Barbarians in general and the Huns in particular) rather than the view that insists on decay and internal problems. A related issue here is that the author consistently presents as factual elements which are educated guesses. A typical example is the size of the units that made up the so-called "New Roman Army" and the the overall size of the army itself. Both issues are rather controversial. You could even dispute to what extent Justinian's armed forces were "Roman". The emphasis had largely shifted to cavalry rather than infantry. The best troops, especially (but not only) in the cavalry, were largely of "barbarian" ("non-Roman" and non-Greek) origins, mostly Germanic or Hunnic. Even a large part of the equipment (swords, bows etc...) had been borrowed from Germanic, Persian or Steppe foes, although, to be fair, Rome had always done this in the past. The chapter on the army's equipment is so condensed that a lot of substance is lost. So, to what extent was the Army still "Roman"? And what does this expression really mean here? Unfortunatly, neither of these two issues are discussed, or even mentioned.

However, the weakest of the three "context" chapters is probably the second one (the Byzantine Court), given the importance it had for Belisarius' career. Although a host of books dealing with imperial power in the late fifth and early sixth century, there is next to nothing on it in the chapter, only a few general considerations about the "civil service" tending to "resist change". There is no explaination as to why this would be so and how this would tie in with Belesarius and the military. Given that Belisarius' career and command owed so much too imperial politics where loyalty to the emperor was more important than success in the field, the Chapter on the Byzantine Court should definitely have been longer.

2) My second BIG issue is that, despite telling an interesting story, the author seems to have trouble making up his mind as to whether Belisarius was a GREAT general or not.

This, of course, is a major problem since it is supposed to be the book's main purpose. In fact, the problem starts on the very first page of the introduction with Ian Hughes stating twice that Belisarius is now relatively "little known" and, further on the same page, that "the period of Justinian and Belisarius remains relatively unknown." Again, these could be seen as examples of rather sweeping statements. However, it could also be somewhat worse than this, given that the bibliography is limited to two pages ONLY. There are dozens of books in print on Justinian's reign and his reign is covered in ANY history of the Late Roman Empire or of the early days of Byzantium. In fact, Justinian (and Theodora) are probably among the few that the general reader is the most likely to have heard about already. It is also surprising to see that so many references are missing from the bibliography which seems to be largely focused on Osprey publications.

The main problem that the author seems to have had, in addition to size constraints, is to make up his mind as to whether Belisarius was a great general or only a good one who had some incredibly lucky streaks but sometimes just "lost it" (and lost the battle). Having carefully read this book, it seems that the author finally goes for greatness although he mostly makes the case for a lucky general with a mixed and uneven record and some serious limitations. Some of these - in particular that he was mainly a cavalry general and does not seem to have been at ease when having to cope with both cavalry AND infantry, unless in a strong defensive position (as was the case at Dara) - would make him anything BUT "Roman". This may partly reflect a decline in the quality of imperial infantry (and of infantry in general) and of its ability to withstand cavalry. This decline has also been mentioned as a factor explaining Narses' troop deployments for his battles in Italy. This issue, however, is not discussed nor mentioned by Hughes.

A careful examination of each of Belisarius' battle shows that the ones that he lost were largely lost by his own fault. However, credit for some of his victories may at least partly be attributed to his subordinates or to sheer luck. Sadly, the book does not really discuss Belisarius' type of generalship, although at least one of the sources mentioned by Hughes does. Was he a balance sheet general, like Caesar for instance? Or a high-risk general who excelled in small action cavalry operations? Was he really the "inspired military leader" and "expert strategist" that another reviewer makes him out to be? I was not entirely convinced and was left with the distinct impression that neither was the author himself...

There are also a few problems in what should be the book and the author's "forte": the descriptions of the various battles. The provision of numerous maps is a nice touch. However, similar and sometimes better descriptions can be found elsewhere (such as that of the battle of Dara, in Haldon's Byzantine Wars). I was also disappointed because I was expecting a comparison between the respective generalships of Belisarius AND Narses and at least some discussion about the respective situations that they were placed in. There was none.

3) Despite all this, the book does have some outstanding qualities
- it is probably the best "short" introduction on Belisarius' and even on Justinian's wars because it is a rather good military history, given all its limits
- it is also very refreshing to read a book which departs from the very conventional view of Belisarius as the equal of Caesar, Hannibal or Alexander. He simply wasn't, and this is what the book clearly shows, regardless of whether the author really intended to make this point
- another strongpoint is that the author has a talent for spotting dubious stories that one source or another tries to make its readers believe. One example of this, although tehre are quite a few in the book, is the "legend" found in Procopius that Belisarius remained with his army (or what was left of it) trapped with his back against the river at Callinicum, valiantly fighting the Persians until dusk. In fact, as Ian Hughes makes clear, Belisarius crossed the river and abandoned his troops. He was also tried, but cleared, as a result of his defeat, largely because he was a "political" general, always loyal (although at some point during the Ostrogothic Wars Justinian would fear - wrongly it seems - that he was not), even if not always successful.
- even if borrowed from other authors, the book also contains some very important insights, such as the view that Justinian took advantage of opportunities as they came up but did not have any "masterplan" layed out in advance to reconquer the whole of the Western Empire
- Another good piece, which could have been more developed if the background piece on imperial power have been enlarged, is the political importance of Antonia, and the fact that Belisarius could do little against her, assuming he wanted to, at least as long as Theodora lived.
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on 8 August 2012
As a first thing don't be put off by the book's small size. The paucity of contemporary sources on Belisarius doesn't allow for hefty tomes if the writer's purpose is history and not speculation. And Hughes' purpose is to make the facts clean about Belisarius' military record and assess his worth as a commander.
The book is well furnished with drawings and maps to allow the reader a quick grasp of the situation.
The chapters are kept well short, allowing the reader to focus on the single events yet never lose sight of the broader picture.
Hughes also introduces up-to-date knowledge, especially when describing the "Roman" army, its enemies and their weapons and equipment.
Differently from other authors, Hughes always keeps an impartial posture: he doesn't set out to demolish Belisarius or exalt his deeds. I won't spoil what his conclusions are.
However there are two problems with this book.
The first is in some chapters, especially those dealing on the relationship between Belisarius and his wife Antonina, Hughes' style becomes convoluted and much harder to follow. It's obvious Hughes would have preferred to do away with analyzing this relationship but, as Antonina's machinations often affected Belisarius' military and public career, he had to do it.
The second is there are some errors in the text which obviously made it past the editing process. The blame here lies probably more with the publisher than with Hughes.
All in all this is an excellent book, highly recommended to all of those even remotely interested in the history of Byzantium.
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on 29 September 2014
The author uses the sparse sources to describe the military career of Belisarius pretty well. I can't say I particularly enjoyed it: too many towns and names in quick succession, detailed descriptions of the armour and weaponry of different armies of the time. It would have been good to hear more about the wider political context, especially at the court of Justinian. Belisarius seems unbelievably trusting of his unfaithful wife, perhaps reflecting the chief source, Procipius. It was interesting that there was a 6th century Italian town called Narnia. Did this inspire C S Lewis?
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on 3 November 2014
A bit heavy going in places but nevertheless very interesting account of Belisarius, a Roman General fighting at the dying stages of the great Roman Empire. What was of more interest to me than the battle descriptions was the narrative around the maneuvering and machinations of the Empire in its death throes.
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on 20 July 2014
Well written and very engaging book on a fascinating subject. Most histories of Rome end with the fall of the Western Empire and forget that the Eastern Empire which became the Byzantine Empire lasted for hundreds of years after this fall. Belisarius is often considered the last great Roman General and in the time of Belisarius the Eastern Empire despite its increasingly Greek character was still recognisably the Eastern Empire of Rome. After the era of Justinian and Belisarius it would assume its own independent identity as Byzantium. Whilst perhaps not a general of the callibre of Alexander, Julius Caesar or Hannibal Belisarius nevertheless deserves his reputation as one of the great generals of antiquity. This book is quite narrow in considering his military career and whilst the book touches on the politics of the Eastern Empire and the complex relationships between Justinian and his empress along with the wife of Belisarius these are tangential to the main story. This does mean that the book lacks a certain depth in some areas. However the engaging style and the authors ability to present complex events in a logical and easy to follow manner make the book a joy to read. Something that may be a surprise to those who have been brought up on the idea of a dark age falling over Europe following the fall of Rome (usually it is not presented as the fall of the West but the fall of Rome) is the sophistication and richness of the Gothic and Vandalic Kingdoms which followed, they were very far from being barbarian hordes devoid of qualities as often considered. The Kindle edition is a bargain and at this price even the annoying typo errors are not enough to prevent 5 stars. Yes, the book could do with more depth but it is a fantastic introduction to a sadly neglected subject and will hopefully inspire readers to discover more about this fascinating era.
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on 12 September 2014
For my taste this book dwells a little bit too much on the minutiae of military equipment and culture. Particularly as the author makes clear that his subjects genius was as much as a politician as a General. However, this is part of the the Pen and Sword series and so I should probably have expected this emphasis. A strength of Pen and Sword books is generally the detail given to the tactics in specific battles and 'Belisarius' excels in this respect, each battle being beautifully illustrated with helpful diagrams and maps.

The aspect of the book that appealed most to me was the revisionist element. Lord Mahon's seminal work on this subject painted Belisarius as a genius and near saint. We all like to read about heroes and so this explains part of the lasting appeal of the work. If we cannot get a hero we like a villain or even a failure. In producing his book it would have been very easy for Hughes to react against Mahon and paint Belisarius in dark colours. Instead Hughes avoided the easy routes of hagiography or synography, instead presenting us with very good general, but not one of the greatest. A good man but far from a saint.
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on 21 October 2014
I was particularly interested in descriptions of Belisarius' character: he was certainly canny. He looked after his men and in turn expected them to treat citizens of towns under attack fairly, to get the citizens on his side. He knew that an invading army cannot hold a nation under subjugation indefinitely - like the early Romans in England who encouraged people to become Roman citizens and share in the better life that was on apparently offer.

Belisarius used opportunities. Ian Hughes does justice to the strategy of taking advantage of opportunities as they arrive: as Hughes says, probably there was no master plan. The ding-dong of events across the Mediterranean areas can be explained not only by military might but also by the weaknesses of others. Opportunity was what counted. So, when Byzantium faced a strong Persia there was no war.

'Make the best of things' might be sufficient for the sensible Belisarius.
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on 11 April 2014
Very unusual subject matter and one that has been delivered well with a clever descriptive of internal and external Middle Eastern politics. Quite frankly, I had never appreciated what Belisarius has accomplished and this story has delivered a proper memorial to a Constantinople Christian general who delivered no matter what his personal costs. Excellent story but I would have enjoyed it even more with proper maps and diagrams that were better legible in e-book format.
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on 29 March 2015
I liked the wider perspective concerning the arms, forces and organisation. The narrative history was perhaps a bit difficult to follow at times particularly in the Italian Wars. I found the style of the writing a little turgid at times.
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