The sixth-century Roman Empire is a dangerous place, threatened on all frontiers by invaders. But soon the attacking armies of Vandals, Goths and Persians grow to fear and respect the name of one man, Belisarius: horseman, archer, swordsman and military commander of genius. As Belisarius triumphs in battles from the East to North Africa, his success causes him to become regarded with increasing jealousy and suspicion. In his palace in Constantinople, the Emperor Justinian, dominated by his wife Theodora, plots the great general’s downfall. Written in the form of a biography by Belisarius’ manservant, this epic historical novel portrays him as a lone man of honour in a corrupt world. Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) was an English poet and novelist, scholar, translator and writer of antiquity, specialising in Classical Greece and Rome. During his long life he produced more than 140 works. Graves's translations and innovative analysis and interpretations of the Greek myths, the memoir of his early life, Good-bye to all That, and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess, have never been out of print. Graves earned his living by writing popular historical novels, including I, Claudius (for which he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), King Jesus, The Golden Fleece and Count Belisarius. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961 and made an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, in 1971.
“Among the most generous, self-willed, unseemly and brilliant writers of our century” (New York Times) “And so Count Belisarius continues, with one dazzling set-piece after another, effortlessly carrying us back over fifteen hundred years, bringing back to life a whole company of men and women before our eyes… Winston Churchill told Graves that he could not put it down; nor, I am delighted to confess, could I” (John Julius Norwich, historian)
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I love the story of Belisarius. Did Robert Graves abuse history in writing this? I certainly hope so. By the end, however, I didn't really care if Belisarius was as good as Graves made him out to be, if the narrator, Eugenius, (Belisarius' wife Antonia's manservant ) is unreliable, or if Antonia slept with one man or many after marrying this 'Last Great Roman'. Graves bends this story into his own parable about power, corruption, honor and ingenuity. Other generals and the emperor Justinian serve as counter-examples of Belisaurius and also reflect the time he lived. The book wasn't perfect, but it was a great book about a near perfect man.
'Count Belisarius' does make me want to dig deeper into Procopius' History of the Wars of Justinian and The Secret History. I think the brilliance of writers like Robert Graves and Hilary Mantel is there ability (through historical fiction) to capture something MORE than history. Much of Belisarius' life is lost. What is known is known through histories that were written with their own agenda and perspective. Graves novel gives us room to imagine a world that may not be accurate, but is an idealized version of what we WANT to believe we are capable. With the void of the past containing almost an infinite number of possibilities, it is reasonable to want to find pure motives and heroics in those figures of the past. Procopius can keep his cuckolded history, I'll take Grave's virtuous fiction any day.
Can you resist a novel by Robert Graves, the author of I, Claudius (1934), about Belisarius (500-565 AD), arguably the greatest general in history, a man who used his intelligence, courage, creativity, and leadership to preserve and expand the troubled Byzantine Empire in campaigns against the Persians in the East, the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Italy, and the Bulgarian Huns right around Constantinople, a man who (according to Edward Gibbon but not Graves) loved his wife too much, a man who reacted with either superhuman or sub-human patience to the increasingly hateful treatment of his Emperor Justinian?
The first person narrator of Count Belisarius (1938) 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." Eugenius is writing this biography "in extreme old age at Constantinople in the year of our Lord 571." He is a witty, sympathetic, and usually but not always reliable narrator.
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. He also explains things like why there are so many Johns in the world and how it felt to be a eunuch and about the entertainment of the hippodrome, divided between green and blue charioteer factions whose rivalries spilled into every sphere of public and private life and threatened the very Empire. As Eugenius ranges from Belisarius' boyhood through his 65th year, each chapter has at least one great set piece, among them the clever rescue of a tax collector from a band of thugs, a feast hosted by a pompous and nostalgic Roman, and the comical hunt for a killer whale. And of course, pacifist though he is, Eugenius, who served his mistress as she accompanied Belisarius on most of his campaigns, recounts suspenseful ambushes, sieges, ruses, rescues, full-scale battles, and so on, each one set in a different martial, political, and social context, including practical information like training, discipline, morale, transport, supply, communication, and luck.
Belisarius seems to have been both a consummate general and a good man. His great innovation was in training up a new cavalry that combined the heavy shock lancers of the Goths with the light skirmishing archers of the Huns. Interestingly, the more military success he achieved, the more suspicious and jealous his Emperor Justinian became. Theirs was an intriguing relationship! Justinian would send Belisarius out to do something impossible without anywhere near enough troops or money, tell him to succeed, sabotage him with inferior and disobedient generals or with corrupt suppliers, hope for him to fail, refuse to appropriately acknowledge his unexpected success, suspect of him of disloyalty in proportion to that success, recall him to Constantinople to chastise him before he could solidify the Empire's hold on the newly re-acquired territory, blame him for any subsequent problems stemming from his premature withdrawal, and so on. Eugenius acknowledges the difficulty in understanding Belisarius' extraordinary patience and submission, conjecturing that he may have pitied Justinian for not knowing how to live like a Christian, and that he lived his life by a strict belief in obedience, a key to military success, while Justinian lived without knowing what to make of a truly good person, living as he did among sinful people. Despite Belisarius coming off as a virtuous hero, Eugenius admits that his amazing military successes led to destruction, poverty, suffering, and death in North Africa and Italy, partly because of his submission to the increasingly insecure, impractical, and greedy Justinian. Perhaps Belisarius' greatest flaw was not, as Gibbon puts it, uxoriousness, but rather his constant loyalty to a bad emperor.
Another great relationship in the novel is between Belisarius and his wife Antonina. They first met as teenagers when he was an innocent aristocrat, and she was a charioteer entertainer (i.e., a gymnast-dancer-prostitute). Years later she would join him on his campaigns, exchanging bawdy jests with the soldiers, managing catapults, and generally being a solid and yet often refreshingly independent support for the general. While Gibbon morbidly revels in Antonina's amoral, scheming, and manipulative nature, (eagerly relying on Procopius' Secret History, which, according to Eugenius, is a vindictive mix of twisted truths and lies), Graves follows his own inclination, though Eugenius does wax coy a few times when touching fraught matters like Antonina's relationship with Belisarius and their adopted son Theodisius.
The reader Laurence Kennedy is a perfect Eugenius, sounding like an educated, refined, and humane (British) man, with just the right slight hint of effeminacy without camping it up. And all of his other characters sound spot on, from his devious, eunuch chamberlain-general Narses (recalling a cross-dressing Elmer Fudd) to his increasingly snide and abhorrent Justinian. And he renders the Empress Theodora and her bosom buddy Antonina suitably shrewd, funny, and formidable.
Anyone interested in the Byzantine Empire, Robert Graves, military history, and literary historical fiction peopled with compelling, complex, and believable characters should find much pleasure in Count Belisarius.