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.