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The truth? No, but a cracking good read...
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then occupied Rome; when the language of the Empire was Greek, rather than Latin; and when stasis in the Senate had been replaced by the factional politics of the Hippodrome mob.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.