Sunday, July 2, 2017

History Carnival 167


Welcome to the 167th instalment of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of some of the best recent blogging on historical topics.

Once again we have a number of fantastic posts covering a wide range of topics.

Can child labour ever be morally justifiable? Attitudes to child labour and the development of the Foundling Hospital in 18th Century England are explored in this fascinating post by Alice Dolan.

Some 250 years later, welfare provisions in the UK have improved with the National Health Service. George Campbell Gosling provides a very interesting account of the development of retail outlets as a form of fundraising within NHS hospitals.

Continuing with the theme of social welfare, David Schorr examines Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the environment, LaudatoSi'. Mr Schorr draws parallels with the late medieval English Church and the development of the doctrine of equity as a tool to ensure that a moral duty became a legal obligation. The post raises interesting questions about the extent to which religion could be used to impose similar legalistic obligations to ensure better protection for the environment.

Moving on from the environment to air travel, Hels has a very interesting post on the history of the Australian national carrier, Quantas and its origins as a mail and passenger service in 1920 within the Australian territory of Queensland.

We stay in the Southern Hemisphere for Dr Jonathan Fennell's exploration of social class in the New Zealand Army during the Second World War. Dr Fennell examines the question of why the military in New Zealand were more inclined to vote for the Labour Party. This is the first of a series of posts by Dr Fennell addressing this theme.

People often forget that the Second World War was not merely a contest between Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan against the USSR, Britain and America. Arguably the Second World War began in China with the full-scale Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Peter Harmsen examines Chiang Kai-shek and his attempts to bring Soviet Russia into the war against Japan both before and after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Dr Matthew Ford proves a very helpful summary of the debate in the British Army and British Government following the Second World War and the introduction of automatic rifles as the primary infantry weapon. The debate was particularly significant because it led to the adoption of the 7.62mm Self-Loading Rifle which remained in service with the British Army until the mid-1980s.

Hans Metzner has produced a well-researched account of the activities of Sonderkommando Kulmhof in establishing the Chełmno extermination camp. The post provides a number of documents and other resources critical to understanding the activities of the Sonderkommando.

Finally, Katie Fox has explored the UK National Archive and found a fascinating record of a petition to free a convicted sheep rustler who had been sentenced to transportation from the UK. The post includes the drawings prepared by the defendant's friends to prove that he could not have committed the crime.

Thank you to all of this month's contributors for their efforts. All of the blog posts were interesting and well researched. Please continue to check History Carnival for details of August's edition of the History Carnival.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Weapons: Final Thoughts on the V-Weapons

The V-1 and V-2 weapons systems stand out as precursors to their modern day ancestors (the Cruise missile and the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile). Hitler had hoped that the V-weapons would eventually give him a decisive edge in defeating the Western Allies. However innovative the new weapons were, it is important to remember that the majority of the war was fought using conventional weapons.

Tanks, propeller based aircraft and combined arms infantry tactics were all used to great affect during the Second World War. After the entry of the United States into the war, it became clear that Germany was being outproduced by the combined industrial bases of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. Whilst Germany attempted to compensate for this by producing better weapons, its initial advantage in equipment and tactics had been lost. German tactics of blitzkrieg, rapid tank movement and encirclement of enemy forces were copied and used by the Allies. The German Air force was heavily engaged over the Eastern Front and lost its initial advantage in numbers and equipment in Western Europe. As the Allied bombing campaign intensified in 1942-43, the Luftwaffe was unable to retaliate. It was in this context that the German government authorised the mass production of the V-1 and V-2.

However, neither the V-1 nor the V-2 had the potential to change the course of the war. Both weapons could inflict casualties and cause terror. However, neither weapon was sufficiently accurate to allow for the kind of precision bombing required in modern warfare. Given the significant costs incurred in its production, the V-2 was particularly poor value for money.

In his memoir “Inside the Third Reich”, Albert Speer commented that he supported the V-2 programme. However, with the benefit of hindsight he realised that the use of the the V-2 rocket as a means of retaliating against the Allies was “absurd”:

The fleet of enemy bombers in 1944 were dropping an average of three thousand tons of bombs a day over a span of several months. And Hitler wanted to retaliate with thirty rockets that would have carried twenty-four tons of explosives to England daily. That would have been the equivalent to the bomb load of only twelve Flying Fortresses.”

The only means by which the V-2 could have become a truly decisive weapon would have been through delivering a more powerful warhead. Whilst Germany did attempt to develop the atomic bomb, many of the top nuclear physicists and scientists had fled from Europe in the late 1930s and were subsequently recruited into the Manhattan Project.

Early on in the war, both the Allies and the Germans had recognized the potential of nuclear technology as a war winning weapon. However, despite this recognition only the Americans ultimately invested the necessary resources to build 'the bomb'. Whilst the American government invested significant resources and built facilities to develop the technology, the German government instead invested much of its resources in developing what it believed would be the decisive war winning weapon – the V-2 rocket. In contrast to the British and Americans, who combined and concentrated their intellectual and industrial resources to build the atomic bomb, in Germany several different projects co-existed and competed for limited resources and funding.

It is also worth taking into consideration that even with the world's most pre-eminent scientists, 150,000 workers and the full industrial might of the United States, the Allies were only able to complete the atomic bomb after the war in Europe had ended.

Whilst Germany did attempt to develop and research the atomic bomb, it was the rocket program which received the support of the military and powerful patrons such as Albert Speer. Consequently, towards the end of the war Germany was able to put into production the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket, weapons which Hitler believed would be critical in demoralizing and defeating the Allies.

If D-Day had been defeated, the Germans would have had time to stockpile and launch considerable numbers of V-1s and V-2s, all which could have caused significant damage to London. However, it is unlikely that a further 'blitz' could have changed the outcome of the war. The German bombing campaign against Britain in 1940 failed to break morale. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany caused significant damage to both industry and to civilians. However, that too failed to break civilian morale.

Whilst there is little doubt that the four V-weapons systems were unique and innovative, ultimately they failed to have any impact on the outcome of the Second World War. Of the four weapons, the V-2 has probably had the greatest long-term impact. Its legacy was both the ICBM and space travel. The V-2 rocket continued to be studied and developed after the Second World War. The V-2 project's technical director, Wernher von Braun, surrendered to the Americans in 1945. Von Braun and his team were then transported to America where they spent 15 years developing the Jupiter medium ICBM rocket. Von Braun was eventually recruited by NASA and assisted in designing the Saturn V rocket which formed the basis of the Apollo programme during the 1960s.

rockets rocket ship space shuttle smoke launch sky

Monday, March 13, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Weapons: The V-4 Rheinbote

The fourth V-weapon was a rocket missile known as the Rheinbote (“Rhine Messenger). Unlike the V-2 rocket, the V-4 used powdered, rather than liquid fuel. It stood at 11 metres and weighed 1,715 kg. 

Like the V-2, the V-4 was designed to deliver a warhead over a long distance. This was achieved through a four stage system. The V-4 had a range of 220 km and could reach speeds almost six times the speed of sound. However, unlike the V-2, the V-4 was not a guided missile and was less technologically sophisticated. The V-4 was fired at an angle using a ramp based system.

Approximately 200 V-4 rockets were launched against Antwerp from December 24 1944 until February 1945. However, none of the missiles hit the city. The designers had assumed that the rocket would only only have a range of 165km. In fact the V-4 reached 220km and overshot Antwerp by some distance. All work on the missile was stopped on 6 February 1945. The only casualties of the V-4 occurred during a test fire when a prototype V-4 landed on a German farm, damaging a building and killing and injuring a number of chickens, cows and a dog.



Like the V-1, V-2 and V-3, the V-4 was not a war winner. The modest size of the missile warhead did not justify the two tonnes of steel which was used for each V-4. The V-4 is therefore another example of a Nazi terror weapon which was deployed in insufficient numbers with technology which was too primitive to allow it be used effectively on the battlefield.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Weapons: The V-3

In my last post I looked at the role played by the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket. This time I will be considering the less well-known V-3 weapons system and examining its role in the later stages of the Second World War.

Unlike the V-1, V-2 (and as we shall see in another post), the V-4, the V-3 was a more traditional weapon. The V-3 was an artillery piece designed to enable German forces in Calais to bombard central London with explosive shells. The intention appears to have been to re-create a modern version of the famous 'Paris gun' which had enabled German forces to shell Paris during the German offensives of 1918.

In essence, the V-3 was a piece of artillery with an extended barrel of 150 yards. Each shell fired received additional velocity from smaller explosions as it passed along the barrel, thus giving the V-3 an extended range. It was was code-named“Hochdruckpumpe” (High Pressure Pump). However, it was also know as the “Tausenfubler” (Millipede) or “Fleibiges Lieschen” (Busy Lizzie).


The V-3 was housed in a large complex outside of Calais with storerooms, magazines and a power-plant. There were crew rooms for staff of 1,000 linked by a network of underground tunnels and rails. Construction of the site began in August 1943 with a workforce of approximately 5,000 working underground. The V-3 itself consisted of 50 separate barrels (five 150-mm calibre barrels housed in ten battery shafts). Each barrel was buried into the ground at an angle to a depth of 120 metres. The intention was that each barrel would fire a shell every 12 minutes. If the weapon had become operational, it would have been an effective psychological weapon of terror. There were no defences to artillery shelling.

However, the V-3 never went into action against London. The V-3 site was bombed by the Allies in July 1944. At the end of August 1944 the base was overrun by Allied forces before it could become operational. A modified version of the V-3 was eventually brought into action during the Ardennes offensive of December 1944. Two of the gun barrels were brought up to the front and set up in bunkers. The weapon was eventually brought into use after 30 December 1944. The barrels were shorted to 50 metres and were fired at Luxembourg City. In total both barrels combined fired 183 projectiles before they were discontinued.

As the war drew to a close in 1945 the V-3 had had a negligible impact on ground operations. Like the V-1 and V-2, the V-3 was too inaccurate to be an effective weapon of war.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Weapons: The German 'V' Weapons

This is the first in a new series of posts looking at the development and implementation of Germany’s secret weapons programmes. As part of this series I will be looking at the V1 and V2 weapon systems. In later posts I will look at the less well known V3 and V4 projects. In addition, there will be posts which assess the role played by Germany’s development of the jet fighter. Finally to conclude the series I will address the German atomic bomb project and its relationship to Germany’s other secret weapons programmes.

The V-1 was a flying bomb developed by the German air force as a means of penetrating enemy airspace in circumstances where the Luftwaffe no longer had air superiority. It resembled a mid-wing monoplane and was powered by a pulse-jet engine using petrol and compressed air. The V-1 carried a relatively modest explosive payload of under a ton. Once launched the V-1 could reach speeds of approximately 375 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 130 miles.

It was launched using a catapult ramp system. Once the rocket had reached its preset distance, the elevators in the wings would deflect, the engine would cut out and the rocket would dive. However, the V-1 was not an accurate weapon. It is estimated that 80% of V-1s landed within 8 miles of their targets. Furthermore two-thirds of the V-1s launched crashed before hitting their target. The V-1 was vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire or being shot down by enemy fighters. The Royal Air Force devised a manoeuvre of flying alongside a V-1 and then flicking a wing tip under the fins of the rocket. This would cause the V-1 to fly off course and crash. The first V-1s were launched against London on June 12-13, 1944. In total 22,400 V-1s were launched at targets in South-East England and Belgium.

The German rocket programme began as a joint venture in 1935 between the German Army and Luftwaffe. The collaboration between the two services led to the creation of the Peenemunde secret weapons centre on the Baltic coast in May 1937. In early 1939 the Luftwaffe and the army ended their joint programme for rocket research. Consequently, it was the Luftwaffe that developed the V-1 whereas the German Army was responsible for the A-4 rocket (which was later later designated the V-2). The first successful launch of a V-2 rocket took place on 3 October 1942. However, it was not brought into production until January 1944.

The V-2 was a 13-ton liquid fuel rocket which could reach speeds of 3,600 mph. It was 46 feet high and was launched from an upright position. The incredible speed of the V-2 made it impossible for RAF fighters to intercept it in the air. It could also reach a maximum height of 100,000 feet. However, like the V-1, the V-2 rocket technology was still in its infancy and results were inconsistent. Whilst there were no defences to the V-2 rocket, many of the them failed to reach their targets. In total only 3,200 V-2s were fired at targets in Britain and Belgium (primarily civilian targets in London and Antwerp. Whilst the attacks were terrifying for the civilian population, the number of rockets fired were insufficient to have had any impact on changing the course of the war. The total explosive payload of all of the V-2 rockets fired at Britain in 1944-45 combined was less than that of a single large-scale bombing raid against Germany by the RAF during that period.

Furthermore the resources required to construct the V-2 rockets were enormous. At the beginning of 1944 large-scale production of the rockets involved a work-force of 200,000 as well as 1,000 tons of aluminium a month (enough to build 2,000 FW 190 fighters).



The V1 and V2 were a foretaste of the future of modern warfare. The V1 flying bombs alone caused 24,000 casualties in England and an even greater number of casualties in Belgium. However, ultimately both the V-1 and V-2 programmes were failures. Neither the V-1 nor the V-2 were produced in significant enough numbers to have any affect on the outcome of the war. Furthermore whilst the technology was advanced for the time, the guidance systems on both weapons were too primitive too allow for accurate targeting and consistency. Both weapons systems were primarily weapons of terror which cost over 5 million marks and took up resources which could have been used to produce more conventional (and reliable) weapons which were desperately needed by the Germany military in 1944-45.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Military History and Warfare: The First Crusade: the Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

Image resultThe past few years has seen a flurry of new books on the Crusades and to a lesser extent, Byzantium. Peter Frankopan's book, 'The First Crusade: the call from the east' challenges existing and long established views on Byzantine history in order to uncover the origins of the First Crusade. 
The traditional historical narrative of the First Crusade is not entirely dissimilar to that set out in Frankopan's book. Historians of the First Crusade view the Battle of Manzikert (1071) as a critical date in the origins of the First Crusade. The failure of the Byzantines to defeat the Turkish sultan Alp Arslan became the prelude to a decade of political instability in Constantinople and a steady piecemeal Turkish invasion of the Anatolian peninsula. The subsequent loss of Asia Minor to the Turks led the Emperor Alexios I to send a delegation to the Pope in order to request military assistance in the form of Western mercenaries. 

Frankopan's book differs from traditional accounts of the origins of the Crusade by focusing on the Byzantine perspective and the personal involvement of Alexios both in the build-up and the execution of the Crusade. Critical to Frankopan's analysis is his re-assessment of Anna Komnene's famous history of her father's reign, 'The Alexiad'. Anna Komnene's history is in many ways better described as a hagiography of her father. Anna Komnene presents the Empire as being on the verge of destruction prior to Alexios' ascension to the throne. The Alexiad's pervasive influence as one of the few surviving historical works from the period has distorted our understanding of the true position of the Empire in the years leading up to the First Crusade. As a result of Anna's influence, the generally accepted view amongst historians has been that Alexios inherited an Empire in which Asia Minor had been almost entirely lost. Frankopan successfully demonstrates that at the time of Alexios' coup in 1081, the Eastern frontier of the Empire had been largely stabilised. A subsequent truce with the Turks and an alliance with a Turkish ruler enabled significant portions of territory to be recovered in the period between 1081 up until the late 1080s. Frankopan draws attention to the references made within the Alexiad to troops being gathered from places in Asia Minor in order to defend the Western provinces. Clearly, there were places within the Eastern portions of the Empire that were holding out and stable enough to allow troops to be withdrawn to defend other provinces.

Historians of the Byzantine Empire have long recognised Anna Komnene's role as an apologist for the way in which her father came to power (through a military coup). Frankopan argues that Alexios was himself partially implicated in the collapse of Byzantine Asian Minor prior to the First Crusade. It is clear from all of the sources of the First Crusade that Asia Minor had been completed occupied by the Turks at the time of the Crusade. However, if as the traditional version of events states, Asia Minor had fallen before Alexios took power, why then did he wait fourteen years before requesting urgent assistance? 

Frankopan argues that immediately after coming to power Alexios' most important crisis was the Norman invasion of the the Empire's western provinces in 1081 led by Robert Guiscard. Alexios' truce with the Turks and alliance with a powerful Turkish magnate allowed him to spend several years dealing with the Normans. According to Frankopan, Alexios' Turkish ally Sulyaman ibn Qutalmish acted as his agent and began to reoccupy former Byzantine towns and strongholds taken by the Turks. This alliance was built upon the personal relationship between Alexios and Sulyaman. Crucially, Alexios made Sulyaman governor of the strategically critical city of Nicea. The close proximity of Nicea to Constantinople served both a buffer against an attack on the capital and a forwarding base for future campaigns in Asia Minor. Rather than entrust the governorship of Nicea to a Byzantine magnate (who might potentially use the city as a power base from which to seize the throne), Alexios appointed Sulyaman. 

When the Byzantine governor of Antioch converted to Islam and declared himself independent of Constantinople, it was Sulyaman who recaptured the city on behalf of Alexios. Unfortunately, Sulyaman died in 1085 and the city was again taken by the Turks. Worse still, the Turkish noble Sulyaman had appointed in Nicea refused to co-operate with Alexios and began to seize territory recovered by Sulyaman for the Empire. 

The situation was again brought under control briefly in the late 1080s when Alexios negotiated an alliance with the Sultan of Baghdad, Malik-Shah. Malik-Shah was equally concerned about the destabilising influences of the seizure of territory by local rulers on the peripheries of the Islamic world. Unfortunately Malik-Shah died in 1092 creating a power vacuum in the Islamic world. The Turks again began to seize Byzantine land so that by 1094/5 Asia Minor had been entirely lost. This, argues Frankopan, was the trigger for Alexios requesting military assistance from Western Europe and the immediate cause of the First Crusade. Anna Komnene masks her father's involvement in the loss of Asia Minor to the Turks. Contrary to the established view of Asia Minor being lost before Alexios became Emperor, the collapse in those provinces was partly a result of Alexios' failed policies. 

The remainder of the “The First Crusade: the call from the east” examines the First Crusade itself as well as the early sources that chronicled the events leading to the capture of Jerusalem.

Early twelfth century Western sources such as the Gesta Francorum (translated as the Deeds of the Franks) and later twelfth century sources like William of Tyre helped to reinforce the accusation that Emperor Alexios had failed to assist the Crusade and even actively tried to hinder it. Part of the reason why the role of Alexios in instigating the First Crusade is less well known even today is because of the souring of relations between Alexios and the Crusaders which took place during the campaign.

The key charge leveled against by many of the early medieval Western writers is that Alexios broke his oath to the leaders of the Crusade. Frankopan carefully examines the relationship between Alexios and the Crusade leaders and the legal framework which underpinned the agreements reached in Constantinople.

Feudal society within medieval Western Europe was structured around the control and distribution of land. Both knights and peasants submitted and gave homage to an overlord in exchange for protection. Alexios would have been aware of Western customs from the significant number of Westerns who had taken service within the Byzantine Empire. He personally met with and provided for the comfort of the most important Crusad leaders. Part of Alexios' strategy was was to ensure that the armies of the Crusade would be channeled productively and towards re-establishing Byzantine control within Asian Minor. The Crusade leaders swore an oath to Alexios to protect his interests and restore former imperial territory captured during the Crusade. In return, Alexios promised to supply and assist the Crusaders in their campaign. This arrangement seems to have been successful for at least the first year of the Crusade. Towns and cities captured by the Crusaders were handed over to Byzantine forces and the Empire was able to re-establish control over the coastal provinces of Asia Minor.

Whilst the Crusaders encountered many obstacles on the way to Jerusalem, the most critical period of the Crusade was that of the siege of Antioch. Byzantine-Crusader relations were tested to the extreme both during and immediately after the siege. The Crusading army spent almost a year camped outside of Antioch unable to take the city. Supplies became increasingly scarce and the the Crusaders were threatened by relief force sent against them from Mosul. The Western sources accuse Alexios of refusing to both provide the supplies which he had promised and also failing to send assistance to relieve the beleaguered Crusaders.

However, Frankopan argues that almost up until the very last phases of the expedition, the Byzantine Empire provided the Crusaders with regular supplies which were delivered from Byzantine Cyprus. Frankopan also challenges the accusation that Alexios' representative, Tatikios simply abandoned the expedition at Antioch. In reality Tatikios went to request further aid and supplies from the Emperor which were duly delivered. Alexios' subsequent refusal to join the expedition and take possession of Antioch is explained by the political realities facing Alexios. At the time of the First Crusade, it was simply too risky for Alexios to concentrate on one campaign and potentially risk an invasion in another part of the Empire or even a coup against him in Constantinople.

If Alexios more or less upheld his end of the bargain in supplying the Crusaders, why then was his role masked or even vilified in the subsequent accounts of the Crusade? Frankopan argues that part of the answer can be found in the subsequent conflict between Bohemond (a Norman of South Italian) and Alexios. It was Bohemond who eventually took control of Antioch and refused to surrender it to Alexios. In order to justify his own seizure of the city he and his supporters tried to portray Alexios as both duplicitous and an enemy of Western Christendom. Bohemond used the great fame and popularity he had gained through his role in the Crusade to raise an army in Europe in 1104 -7 for the purposes of invading Byzantium. Since this was an attack on a Christian nation, Bohemond's propagandists spread stories of alleged Byzantine betrayals during the Crusade. It did not help that Alexios had signed a truce with the Turkish sultan Kilidj Arslan immediately after the First Crusade. This truce was politically expedient and enabled Alexios to consolidate and rebuild within the reconquered territory. Nonetheless, the treaty with the Turks gave ammunition to Alexios' enemies in the West, many who would have been unaware of the complexities politics on the frontiers between Christendom and Islam. In the aftermath of the failure of the Second Crusade, similar allegations of treachery were used against Alexios' grandson Manuel Komnenos. Manuel, like his grandfather became a scapegoat for the problems which beset the Second Crusade.

“The First Crusade: the call from the east” is well-written and persuasive. There have been many histories examining the First Crusade, but this is perhaps the first one to focus and cast light on the central importance of the Byzantine role in both instigating and facilitating the campaign. Frankopan's reassessment of the sources restores the Emperor Alexios Komnenos role in history as a leading figure central to the story First Crusade.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

The Byzantine Empire has always struggled to find a place within the Western historical narrative. Having meticulously set out the fall of the Western Roman Empire in his first three volumes of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, Edward Gibbon almost reluctantly began his final three volumes by describing the history of the Eastern Roman Empire as a “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”. This prejudice can be found even today in modern usage. The word “Byzantine” denotes something which is unnecessarily complex and to be avoided. This long standing negative view of Byzantium is perhaps a residual remnant of the often less than favourable medieval sources such as Fulcher of Chartres which subsequently infiltrated Western historiography.

Whilst never quite managing to break into the popular history circuit, interest in Byzantium has seen something of revival in recent years. A brave attempt at a narrative history was recently made in Lars Brownworth's “Lost to the West”. This was supported by an a series of podcasts detailing the lives of key Emperors over the 1100 years or so of the Empire's existence. The last few years have also seen the publication of several outstanding histories focusing on specific aspects of the Roman Empire's successor. Judith Herrin's “Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire” and Jonathan Harris' “The End of Byzantium” are both excellent.

Robert Graves' most famous historical fiction is arguably his accounts of life in the early Roman Empire in “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the god”. However, it is less well known that Graves was also fascinated by Byzantium. In 1938 he published “Count Belisarius”, a piece of historical fiction that helps to bridge the later Roman Empire of antiquity with its medieval successor.

It is interesting to consider why this book is less well known in comparison to “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the god”. The subject matter is perhaps the obvious place to begin. Belisarius (500AD - 565AD) was an officer in the Emperor Justinian's army. Under Belisarius' leadership Justinian's armies reconquered large portions of the former Western Roman Empire, including North Africa, Italy and parts of Spain. Justinian's reign would later be described as a golden age for the Byzantine Empire. In addition to the reconquest of the Western Empire, Justinian instituted a widespread civic monument and building programme, culminating in the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The period described by Graves in the book was one of great change for the Empire. Western Europe had already entered the 'dark ages' and the Eastern Roman Empire was changing its identity from an Empire culturally rooted in pagan classical Greece and Italy to a Christian medieval state. The real Belisarius was rapidly promoted from the Guards regiments of Constantinople to commander of the various expeditionary forces that were sent to defend the Empire's borders. There is little doubt that Belisarius was a general of the first rank. Graves describes and follows Belisarius' career from across the deserts of the Middle East, to the recapturing of Rome from the Goths.

Robert Graves had a clear understanding of the chronology of Justinian's reign. Each chapter is a set piece which charts Belisarius' career, victories and hardships. Juxtaposed to the military campaigns are the domestic and political intrigues of Constantinople which resulted in Belisarius' repeated dismissal and recall from service.

In addition to the epic story, “Count Belisarius” features villains as interesting, if less subtle than Livia in “I, Claudius”. Robert Graves seems to have relied in part on Procopius' “Secret History” (a sort of scandal sheet account of Justinian's reign). Justinian is portrayed as having few virtues and his vices of jealousy and envy are a constant source of misfortune to Belisarius. The Empress Theodora consistently plots to undermine the loyal and faithful Belisarius. Belisarius has the twin burdens of having to fight against both the Empire's external enemies as well as face the constant jealousies and insecurities of the Imperial couple.

The central difference between the protagonists in “I, Claudius” and “Count Belisarius” is that Claudius succeeds because his flaws are obvious and he appears to be a threat to no-one. Belisarius is however, for all intents and purpose, almost perfect. The story of Belisarius must therefore be told by a household slave as a third party. Consequently unlike the first person 'warts and all' telling of “I Claudius”, it is difficult to say whether the reader ever reaches the core of Belisarius as a character. “Count Belisarius” is almost a hagiography in its account of Belisarius triumphs. Despite suffering injustices and ingratitudes, Belisarius retains his nobility and virtue. However, in comparison to Claudius, Belisarius comes across as a much duller character. If Belisarius does have doubts about his master Justinian, he refuses to voice them or act upon them.

Robert Graves justified his portrayal of Belisarius and responded to criticism by attacking the cynicism of twentieth century literary taste for questioning the realism of the character. In Graves' defence, the source material for that period is limited but does nonetheless seem to indicate that Belisarius was a career soldier with few ambitions beyond doing his duty and carrying out the increasingly difficult task of reconquering Gothic Italy with the limited forces that were sent to him. Graves' meticulous attention to detail successfully recreates the Byzantine world and the key events of Justinian's reign and Belisarius' career. Anyone fascinated by the later Roman Empire should read this book.