on 22 February 2007
The story of Count Belisarius takes place at a time unfamiliar to most readers - after the Roman Empire moved east to Constantinople; after the Goths swept across Italy and sacked then occupied Rome; when the language of the Empire was Greek, rather than Latin; and when stasis in the Senate had been replaced by the factional politics of the Hippodrome mob.
Count Belisarius was published in 1938, some three years after Graves' more famous fictional accounts of the life and times of the Roman Emperor Claudius: I Claudius, and Claudius The God. These earlier works were based primarily on the scandalous (and salacious) account of the lives of the Emperors Augustus to Nero provided in Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
And so also with Count Belisarius. Taking liberal chunks from the contemporary scandal sheets (mainly Procopius of Caesarea's Secret History), and taking its style from Tacitus' Agricola, Graves' Belisarius is portrayed as a great, noble general thwarted and ultimately betrayed by the jealousy of an Emperor (in this case Justinian, not Domitian). He is a man who holds on to his virtue in a world going bad and rife with corruption.
Count Belisarius is a work of fiction, not of history. But, like the best historical novels, it displays such a depth of knowledge that its readers (unless they are very well read indeed) are certain to be become better informed in the course of their entertainment. This is not to say that it is a classic work of high art. Like Graves' earlier treatment of the Claudian dynasty, Count Belisarius is part soap opera, part gossip column and part hagiography. It is, however, a cracking good read, as well as being very articulate and erudite - an almost unheard of combination of attributes in an historical novel.
For all its obvious virtues, though, Count Belisarius raises questions on its own account, in addition to those of its sources. Those familiar with I Claudius will recognise the uncritical way that Graves has transcribed the formulaic criticism ancient authors often levelled at leaders and Emperors - that they were either dominated or cuckolded by their wives. Graves has softened the harshness of Procopius' judgement of the relationships between Belisarius and Antonia and Justinian and Theodora, but eventually allows it to stand. Like Tacitus' Agricola, Count Belisarius is a tale told in black and white, with the foils to Belisarius' purity and nobility being the most ignoble, disreputable, cowardly and incompetent scoundrels ever to grace literature. Whether these characters pass the test of modern literary subtlety is open to some question.
But I defy you not to enjoy Count Belisarius. Graves may not, in the end, have thought much of his "historical pot boilers", but he is in a minority. This is a excellent, rewarding and enjoyable novel.
on 20 June 2005
I haven't read a book this good for years. It is the type of book that you thought the Twentieth Century incapable of producing. Graves manages to capture the tone and character of an authentic history from the Ancient World. The years of being steeped in the Classics as a scholar has allowed him to maintain this voice from that era so consistently and with a feeling of authenticity. This is, in my opinion, the book's greatest achievement. It could stand alongside Herodotus and Themistocles (in translation at least).
Graves gives an epic and moving portrait of an unique man, his surroundings, his actions and his intimates. This book actually takes us to the Euphrates with Belisarius and his army, to the walls of Rome and to the corrupt and violent world of Constantinople and the Hippodrome: and I don't know how it does so quite so effectively as it is not a book that is overly-descriptive. Like those earlier great works of history, it uses simple, straightforward language to achieve this strong feeling about the setting. It is gripping, enjoyable and, as I said, moving novel.
This old historical novel first published in 1938 has received mixed reviews, depending on reviewers’ perspectives. Contrary to “I, Claudius” from the same author and to which it is frequently compared the narrator is not also the hero. In Count Belisarius, the narrator is a eunuch attached to the service of Antonina, Belisarius’ wife. One consequence is that the book does not have the same kind of direct style to it, and readers who now tend to be used to fast-paced action might that the narrator is somewhat more detached or even that the book is slow going at times.
In a nutshell, Count Belisarius is a book which is less accessible. It may also be less likely to satisfy an audience as broad as “I, Claudius” because of the style that the author quite deliberately adopted. Essentially, Robert Graves has come up with a pastiche of an ancient source, which draws mostly on the works of Procopius (Belisarius’ secretary), but takes at times quite different slants. Accordingly, some reviewers who might have expected to read a historical novel similar to those that are produced nowadays will have been disappointed, annoyed or even bored.
Note that this is however a historical novel in more sense than one. Few if any of the events are invented and there are also few, if any, fictitious characters inserted in the narrative. Some events and presentations of characters are omitted, mentioned in passing or presented in a very biased way to suit the point of view of the narrator. In some cases, the references to a certain character may even include contradictions, with Emperor Anastasius being for instance presented at one point as a good and competent ruler (which he was) and elsewhere as a weak and cowardly old man. This kind of discrepancy, which can also be found for some of the other characters, also appears to be quite deliberate on the author’s part. It mirrors a similar kind of feature that is found in Procopius with both Justinian and Belisarius presented in both favourable and unfavourable light and essentially ambivalent ways in his different works, depending on the points he was trying to make.
Some reviewers have found the characterisation poor, feeble and made up of stereotypes. I can only agree with the latter and this, again, corresponds to what you would expect to find in what is portrayed as a historical source. In each case (in particular for Belisarius, Justinian, Theodora and Antonina), the author has had his narrator focus upon and emphasise a few traits of character. These may have corresponded to reality although we will probably never know for certain in many cases. However, they certainly corresponded to the way in which the narrator perceived them and the way in which Robert Graves wanted his narrator to show them up.
The presentation of the various characters and of their intentions is essentially where the historical fiction comes in. Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, Count Belisarius, and all of the other characters are seen through the eyes of the narrator. Their actions are interpreted according to his biases and reflect, in some case, his limited information and his suspicions.
A case in point is that of Justinian’s lukewarm support of Belisarius during his overseas campaigns, even during the war against the Vandals, and his readiness to listen to – and believe – any gossip that would hint at Belisarius angling for the imperial throne. This is something that all Emperors, starting with Augustus and including Byzantine Emperors throughout the Middle Ages, had to watch out for, especially if they were not themselves one of the “Emperor-soldiers” who could accrue fame and military glory through their own military campaigns.
Interestingly, whether one believes that Justinian genuinely withheld support from his general largely depends upon one’s perception and perspective. For instance, the size of Belisarius’ expeditionary force to Africa was not huge (some 15000 fighting men) but the whole expedition, when non-combatants, rowers, marines and sailors are included was more than double that number. The cost of the expedition was certainly huge and it should be remembered that a previous – and this time really huge – expedition against the Vandals in AD 468 had ended in disaster and almost bankrupted the Eastern Roman Empire. When seen from the Emperor’s point of view, he may therefore have been hedging his bets. He needed a victorious foreign campaign that could portray him as the “restorer” of the Roman Empire and give him some legitimacy that would wash the stain of the Nika massacre. He was ready to trust his ex-bodyguard and henchman with its command. However, this was not to jeopardise the Empire’s finances, its eastern frontier or the Emperor’s personal security. In other words, the African War, from Justinian’s perspective this time, can be seen as a calculated gamble which, thanks to a somewhat lucky Belisarius, paid off very handsomely for both of them.
A similar point can be made for Belisarius’ long war against the Ostrogoths during which Justinian has been accused of not sufficiently supporting his general by sending too few reinforcements and letting the soldiers’ pay fall in arrears. He has also been accused of undermining his command by sending contingents under officers who chose not to obey Belisarius, with these included a force commanded by Narses (Justinian’s chamberlain and another trusted henchman of his) himself at one point.
The validity of the first point – deliberately providing insufficient resources to support the campaign – is very difficult to prove and seems very unlikely. In particular, it assumes that Justinian could have helped more, chose not do and deliberately furnished the strict minimum out of pettiness, jealousy or even fear that Belisarius would become a rival and be tempted to claim the imperial throne. This may have been the view of Belisarius’ immediate entourage and it is this view which is expressed by Procopius and which has made it to posterity. A more balanced view would lead to consider how much support Justinian could afford to provide without jeopardising other frontiers or further damaging the Empire’s finance, especially after the Great Plague had broken out. In addition, Justinian clearly had no interest in letting Belisarius fail since this would clearly backfire and affect his own reputation just as much. The second point, whether Justinian deliberately divided up command in Italy, is quite possible. It might also be that a number of high ranking officers (Narses being one, but not the only, example) refused to obey Belisarius’ orders without needing any encouragement from Justinian. This kind of behaviour might have been driven by jealousies. It could also originate from officers who had not explicitly been placed under his orders to begin with.
One final point to show that this is a book about perceptions and that there is much more to it than meets the eye. The complaining and portraying of Belisarius as an ultra-loyal, noble “victim”, ill-treated by his imperial master could also be seen as an exaggeration and perhaps even as a ploy and an excuse. Belisarius was not always successful. There were setbacks and defeats and some of his victories, especially in Africa, had as much to do with the enemy’s blunders than with his smart moves. Contrary to the image of the loyal, honest and talented no-nonsense soldier that this book seeks to promote, Belisarius was also a courtier and may not have been above a bit of spin himself to “explain away” his own failures. This is where you read Eugenes (the narrator in the book) explaining that Belisarius’ defeat against the Persians and at the gates of Rome happened because his troops forced him into a battle he did not want and then let him down in the middle of the battle and ran. If all this, which is derived from Procopius and may be even true, sounds like a piece of “scapegoating”, do not be too surprised!
I could go on, and on, and on explaining how the author has chosen to portray Justinian, Theodora, Antonina, Belisarius himself, and others in an effort to reflect how a servant loyal to his own mistress would have perceived them, but by now readers of this review will have got the gist of the argument. This is a rather complex book that can be read on several levels, with the paraphrasing of Procopius’ works being only the most superficial of them. Again, the contents are so rich and Robert Graves has reflected but also manipulated Procopius in multiple ways that I found this book quite fascinating. There is much more to it than meets the eye, even if, to fully appreciate this, you may need to know something about the reign of Justinian. A good starting point, or perhaps a book to read alongside this one, is The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power (Roman Imperial Biographies) by J. Evans.
on 5 January 2013
This is one of my favourite novels - just as good as the more celebrated Claudius books. The story is astounding (and, largely, true). The writing is engaging and lively. The scenes horrific, comic, profoundly moving, by turns. As history it may be contentious, but as literature it is wonderful. Perhaps Antonia and Theodora (and Justinian) are treated a little unfairly, but Graves takes it all from Procopius, who was, after all, an eye witness ...