Reviewed by David Maclaine
Count Belisarius, which followed Robert Graves' successful I Claudius novels on the early Roman Empire, tells a fascinating tale of the age shortly after the fabled "Fall of Rome" when it seemed possible that the surviving Eastern Empire might win back the old heartland, including Rome itself. It was a fleeting hope, but the novel's title character was a general of such amazing inventiveness that for a few years the dream seemed very real indeed. The tale is a tragic one. At the end of a long war Italy was ruined and the empire that fought to regain it had squandered treasure and irreplaceable manpower in the attempt. More moving still is the mounting torment of Belisarius' relationship with the emperor Justinian, a personal tragedy that culminates in scenes of rending heartbreak.
This is historical fiction of the sort that leans heavily toward the "historical" side of the art, drawn fairly directly from the works of Procopius, Belisarius' secretary, who wrote one great history recording the general's astonishing feats, and another full of spiteful gossip. Graves mines both, with keen judgment. His narrator is a devoted servant of Belisarius' wife Antonina, who in her younger years shared an unsavory profession with a friend who became the empress Theodora. Their portraits are skillfully drawn, but on the whole this is a novel of action rather than character, restrained enough in style to pass for pure history. There is a lot of it to recount, with wars on the Persian frontier, on the sands of North African, and up and down the Italian peninsula filling many pages, not to mention one of the most devastating plagues in human history. Count Belisarius also finds time for some incredible snapshots of an age when fierce street fights broke out between factions of chariot fans taking sides over the precise nature of Christ's divinity. Most of all, it is the story of a brave and brilliant warrior, loyal to a ruler of contemptible character. (1938, 564 pages)More about Count Belisarius at Powell's Books or Amazon.com