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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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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then occupied Rome; when the language of the Empire was Greek, rather than Latin; and when stasis in the Senate had been replaced by the factional politics of the Hippodrome mob.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.
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on 24 October 2001
It is several years since I read this book, but it still lingers in my memory. Robert Graves uses all his skill as a novellist to bring alive the Belisarius, the Byzantium general who briefly revived the fortunes of the Eastern empire. What is particularly memorable about the book is the way Graves makes Belisarius so sympathetic, that you come to empathise strongly with him. I wept over Belisarius's tragic end. One of only two books that has ever affected me like that. Powerful stuff, and far superior to your average historical novel.
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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.
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If you're unfamiliar with 6th century Byzantium, this may well be a good read; however if like me you've read lots of Byzantine history and then come to this it just feels too much like reading some of those history books once again, but with omissions and a failure to give a real impression of the import and grandeur of the events of the age. The history books are more exciting than this.

This might be forgivable if we had any real sort of characterisation and dialogue and the focus was on the personalities and really bringing those historical characters to life. Graves was consciously trying to some extent emulate a writing style of the age (as memoirs of a slave of the wife of Belisarius) rather than a 'contemporary' novel, but what he has delivered feels like neither one thing nor the other and a bit of a mishmash. Paraphrasing Procopius whilst trying to throw in a little bit of dialogue as well doesn't succeed. May as well just read Procopius.

So, for example, Graves cops out of dealing with the intense theological arguments which were integral to the politics and very mindset of the age - this was a real disappointment; the Nika riots in which chariot racing politics spilled over into a popular uprising against the emperor Justinian - an unheard of event - is dealt with too quickly and feels like a scuffle at a football match; likewise the plague hitting Constantinople is treated summarily and coldly - no Thucydidean description of the effects to be found here.

So to recap, go ahead if you're new to Byzantine history. Otherwise, it may disappoint, as it did me, feeling that it offers nothing new.
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VINE VOICEon 13 August 2013
You have to accept that this book was written in a different age for a different audience. It reads like a history lesson rather than a draatic historical novel, BUT the story is so jaw-dropping that it carries over the rather dry delivery. Don't look for panting bosoms, manly posturing or bloody battle injuries here. It is told from the perspective of Belisarius's wife's slave - so deliberately a bystander. It does however allow for a perspective on the controversial aspects of the tale - Christianity and its role in society, the background in prostitution of both that wife and that of the Emperor, etc, etc. Treat it as a pleasant education.
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on 15 August 2012
I, Claudius is one of my favourite books of all time, and All Quiet needs no introduction either. Count Belisarius isn't in the same league, but still a worthwhile read. It feels a little laboured at times, as though Graves' heart wasn't quite in it. If only he'd written more prose...
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on 3 February 2014
Truly a masterful piece. Both surgical in its precision and yet able to move one to tears and rage against its characters. What I started to read as a work of historical fiction gave the impression that it was witnessed in person by the author.
This truly sets the standard for would be authors in this genre.
My only complaint is against the digital format. For I only found the maps at the end upon completing the book. Very very annoying.
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on 7 September 2013
This is a neglected classic almost as good as I Claudius. Not as well known because we have been much more exposed culturally to Roman history and the early Caesars. After reading this I got hold of Judith Herrin's Byzantium to gen up on this neglected but important aspect of history.
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on 25 August 1999
In this Novel Graves Brings Alive Count Belisarius, Showing his motivations and thinking as told from the perspective of a household eunoch. It's a Splendid Tale of the Death throes of a civilization and one man (and His Wife) who tried to hold back the Tide of darkness that swept over the Roman world. Really does rank along side I,Claudius as a great novel.
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on 3 June 2013
I am new to Byzantine history but not to the codes of Justinian, having had to translate various of them in the course of studying Roman Law. Latin had become much simpler by then.
This is an entertaining novel. How accurate the history is I will not venture to assess,although the hero must have been a pretty handy general.
Belisarius is presented as an outstandingly decent and talented man amongst a bunch who would have done credit to those surrounding Hitler.
Belisarius' relationship with Justinian is the most interesting study. When simplified it amounts to Justinian's ego resenting the success of his best general and doing as much harm to him as was possible without destroying him outright. Who knows what the truth was, but Graves's hypothesis is very plausible. The trumped up trial for treason has echoes in that of Ann Boleyn many centuries later.
It is ironic that people so keen on an altruistic religion-Christianity- should be so selfish and hypocritical. But nothing changes.
I feel better informed about Byzantine history, and certainly the Goths and Vandals come out of things well.
Graves has a crisp,factual style and I admit I couldn't put the book down.
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