Count Belisarius – Robert Graves

I just finished this book – its my”work walkabout” entry.  It’s a fictionalized .retelling of the life of Belisarius, the great Byzantine general under the Emperor Justinian.  The story of Belisarius is pretty famous – he was sent with absurdly small forces to retake North Africa and Italy back from the barbarians, and actually did so.  He got little thanks for it, and was often treated with suspicion and ingratitude by the Emperor.

I suppose that’s why the story has lasted – soldiers can identify with the loyal general being screwed over by venal politicians.

The book is pretty good, but not really a match for his more famous I, Claudius, and Claudius the God.  In those the protagonist is the author, the despised historian who accidentally gets made emperor.

I think one reason for the difference is that the protagonist can’t be Belisarius, as he is too noble. He instead chose to invent a servant/slave and have him tell the story. The problem is that this character is undeveloped, he just describes the action. Yet somehow this servant seems to be hanging around every battle and action of the wars.

A better choice might have been Antonia, Belisarius’ wife.  The narrator seems a lot more distant and uninvolved than Claudius was.

The literary sources for Belisarius are a lot weaker than that for Augustus and his successors, and that’s another reason the book suffers. It’s virtually a reframing of Procopius’ Gothic Wars and Secret History.

The book is worth reading if you haven’t heard about some of the amazing things that went on in his life – both stunning victories and frustrating defeat caused by bickering generals and short-sighted leaders. And if you like him, Belisarius is undergoing something of a comeback in recent years – he’s become a major player in alternate history science fiction for decades.

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