The first person narrator of Count Belisarius is the eunuch Eugenius: "I, the author of this Greek work, am a person of little importance, a mere domestic; but I spent nearly my whole life in the service of Antonina, wife to this same Belisarius, and what I write you must credit. Like I, Claudius, Count Belisarius is a vividly realized historical novel in which the past comes fully alive, for Graves expresses historically accurate world views of the people in the eras about which he writes, and he incorporates so many interesting and authentic seeming details of their past lives. We learn, for example, about the rival sects of early Christianity that fought over things like the mortal and or divine nature of Jesus. At the same time, the old pagan gods were still lurking behind the newly dominant Christian religion, and Eugenius is accepts some witchcraft and debunks ersatz "holy" relics.
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But the indignation roused by this portrait of irredeemably weak and corrupt rulers -- the cowardly and unworthy Emperor Justinian and his black-hearted manipulatrix of a wife, the Empress Theodora -- was completely out of proportion for a fictionalized retelling of events that took place over one thousand five hundred years ago.
Perhaps the distance that time or fantasy provide between subject matter and the ability to address such wrongs is what allows me to emotionally engage. Such defense mechanisms are necessary, since most attempts would be Quixotic, at best, and likely delusional which is not to say that volunteerism -- for example -- is the bailiwick of the deluded or naive; the belief that our efforts will significantly address deeply ingrained societal problems is, however, deluded But I digress.
Robert Graves was the absolute master of historical fiction, and perhaps better equipped than any 20th Century writer to create a story that dances with ease among the marble statuary of accepted facts and dates, acknowledging their weight, and placement.
Lesser writers push the figures into patterns and groupings that suit the story they wish to tell, and some have no compunction about knocking over any likeness that gets in their way, removing characters and events from their retelling of history entirely. The rat-like Justinian and the calculating and cruel Theodora were examples of power that consumes everyone and everything around it, a parasitic monstrosity that fed on the dying body of the Empire and gave nothing back.
The Empire existed for the sole purpose of satiating the abominations who ruled without right. Belisarius was a nobleman, but was a very different kind of leader.
Belisarius, a devout Christian and unwaveringly loyal subject accepted all this without a word of complaint. Driven by jealousy, the Emperor then sent him off on a suicide mission in North Africa of no real strategic value, only to discover that a very real threat was surfacing much closer to home. When Belisarius returned, defying the odds, Justinian labeled him a coward who deserted the Empire when it needed him most, then sent him off to fight once more.
When he returned, victorious, it was not as a hero. Justinian once again portrayed himself as the brilliant warrior-pope, while the General was stigmatized by slanderous lies. The death of Justinian did not make life easier for the almost saintly Belisarius, whose thoughts largely remain a mystery, his trusted man-servant narrating the tale instead. When the Empress Theodora, one of the most remarkable and infamous women in history, took control of the empire, she continued to exploit and persecute Belisarius in the same way her husband had.
In a perverse sense, however, it is also admirable. But in the end, this is less a testament to the nobility of belief and loyalty than it is an argument against hereditary succession of power, and of tyranny in general.