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Count Belisarius

Robert Graves


  ROBERT GRAVES was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, son of Alfred Perceval Graves, the Irish writer, and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926 he earned his living by writing, mostly historical novels which include: I, Claudius; Claudius the God; Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth; Count Belisarius; Wife to Mr Milton; Proceed; Sergeant Lamb; The Golden Fleece; They Hanged My Saintly Billy; and The Isles of Unwisdom. He wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929 and it rapidly established itself as a modern classic. The Times Literary Supplement acclaimed it as ‘one of the most candid self-portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted’, as well as being of exceptional value as a war document. His two most discussed non-fiction books are The White Goddess, which presents a new view of the poetic impulse, and The Nazarine Gospel Restored (with Joshua Podro), a re-examination of primitive Christianity. He translated Apuleius, Lucan, and Suetonius for the Penguin Classics series, and compiled the first modern dictionary of Greek Mythology, The Greek Myths. His translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (with Omar Ali-Shah) is also published in Penguin. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961, and made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, in 1971. Robert Graves died on 7 December 1985 in Majorca, his home since 1929. On his death The Times wrote of him, ‘He will be remembered for his achievements as a prose stylist, historical novelist and memorist, but above all as the great paradigm of the dedicated poet, “the greatest love poet in English since Donne”.’

  JOHN JULIUS, second Viscount Norwich, was born in 1929. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H. M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. Among his many publications are The Kingdom in the Sun, A History of Venice, The Architecture of Southern England, Fifty Years of Glyndeboume, a three-part series – Byzantium: The Early Centuries, The Apogee and The Decline and Fall and Venice: A Traveller’s Companion.


  Count Belisarius

  with an Introduction by




  Published by the Penguin Group

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  First published by Cassells 1938

  Published in Penguin Books 1954

  Published in Penguin Classics with an Introduction 2006


  Copyright © Robert Graves, 1938

  Introduction copyright © John Julius Norwich, 2006

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

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  ALL forms of literature are dangerous; but in none is the danger more acute than in historical fiction. The writing of straight history is essentially a matter of reportage, with attempts to explain and interpret where necessary; pure fiction is an exercise of constructive imagination. But the moment an author attempts to combine the two, he finds his way beset with perils and pitfalls. Certainly he can now fill out his historical narrative, giving it a dash of liveliness and colour which it could never otherwise have hoped to attain; but he will need all the novelist’s skill and all the professional historian’s knowledge of the period of which he is writing if he is to persuade the reader how it would have felt to be living in distant days. Conversations will become a particular problem for him. He will have to steer a careful path between modern colloquialism on the one hand – slang, it need hardly be said, is to be avoided at all costs – and any suggestion of gramercies or gadzookeries on the other. Most important of all, he must decide precisely where the line between these two opposing disciplines is to be drawn. How historical is he going to be, or how fictitious? And how is the reader to know where history ends, and fiction begins?

  In most historical novels, this last question at least does not arise. They are, for the most part, costume dramas – modern stories set in the past, with a few stage-coaches and crinolines thrown in. But in an age when every station or airport bookstall is bursting with bodice-rippers, there are perhaps half-a-dozen genuine historical novelists that stand out from the crowd. They do so for two reasons. First, they are superb writers on their own account. Second, it is their characters as well as their settings that are historical. Of the twentieth century, the names that spring immediately to my mind are Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoirs of Hadrian), Maurice Druon – whose dazzling series Les Rois Maudits has been translated under the title of The Poisoned Crown – and of course Mary Renault (The King must Die, The Persian Boy). To many of us, however, one author will always stand out in a class by himself: that man is Robert Graves.

  Graves’s two novels set in the early Roman Empire, I, Claudiu
s and Claudius the God, are deservedly famous: the more so in this country thanks to their admirable presentation some years ago on BBC television. Count Belisarius, on the other hand, has remained comparatively unknown – not because it is in any way inferior (which to my mind it is not) but for the same reason, I suspect, that it has not been dramatized. The average western European reader may have a fairly clear (if not always entirely accurate) picture in his mind of Ancient Rome; but where Byzantium is concerned – about which, in this country at least, there seems always to have been a conspiracy of silence – he has always remained a little vague.

  Why this should be remains a mystery. Byzantium was after all only the same old Roman Empire, continuing more or less as it always had after Constantine the Great had transferred its capital to his new city of Constantinople (the old Greek colony of Byzantium) in 330 AD. True, because it was now centred in the Greek-speaking world it gradually over the centuries abandoned Latin and became more and more Greek, both in language and in spirit. To its citizens, however, it remained the Roman Empire – and they remained Romans – until the eventual capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Here then is a great nation, which even after the change of scene endured for over eleven centuries – a period of time comfortably longer than that which separates us from the Norman Conquest – for several of which it was the richest, most powerful and certainly the most colourful on earth; why, in our schools, is it so unaccountably ignored?

  Count Belisarius is set in one of the most astonishing periods of all Byzantine history: the age of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century AD. Justinian, for all his many and grievous faults, was the first truly great Emperor since Constantine himself. Thanks largely to his general, Belisarius, he regained Italy and parts of Spain from the Goths; he achieved the complete recodification of Roman law; and he left behind him a number of superb buildings, two of which still survive. The earlier of these, the little church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, is the most exquisite in Constantinople; the later, the Great Church of St Sophia less than a mile away, ranks among the supreme architectural monuments of the world. Justinian also happens to be the only Byzantine Emperor of whom a true portrait has come down to us: the two great mosaics in his church of S. Vitale in Ravenna, featuring himself and his Empress Theodora with their respective retinues, were created in their lifetimes and are probably reasonable likenesses. They are certainly not idealized.

  A further word or two must be said about Theodora – and not just for the important role she plays in Graves’s novel. Her father had been a bear-keeper in the Hippodrome, her mother some kind of circus performer – probably an acrobat. She herself by her early adulthood had become Constantinople’s most notorious courtesan and theatrical performer – though we may doubt whether, even in her most abandoned moments, she altogether deserved her description by the contemporary historian Procopius:

  … The wench had not an ounce of modesty, nor did any man see her embarrassed; on the contrary, she unhesitatingly complied with the most shameless demands… and she would throw off her clothes and expose to all comers those parts, both in front and behind, which should rightly remain hidden from men’s eyes.

  He continues at some length in the same vein; readers wishing to pursue this line of study need only turn to his gloriously scurrilous Secret History.

  Such stories may be true or false; in any case, Justinian recognized quality when he saw it. Surmounting all obstacles, he married Theodora on 4 April 527, and four months later the pair found themselves sole and supreme rulers of the Byzantine Empire. The plural is important: Theodora was no Empress Consort. At her husband’s insistence she was to reign at his side, taking major decisions and acting on them in his name. Her future appearances on the public stage, in short, were to be very different from those of the past.

  So much for Justinian and Theodora; what do we know of the hero of this story, Belisarius himself? Edward Gibbon, normally all too ready with his darts, is for once disarmed:

  His lofty stature and majestic countenance fulfilled their expectations of a hero… The sick and wounded were relieved with medicines and money, and still more efficaciously by the healing visits and smiles of their commander… In the licence of a military life, none could boast that they had seen him intoxicated with wine; the most beautiful captives of Gothic or Vandal race were offered to his embraces, but he turned aside from their charms, and the husband of Antonina was never suspected of violating the laws of conjugal fidelity… The spectator and historian of his exploits has observed that amidst the perils of war he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.

  A Romanized Thracian like his master, this paragon was while still in his twenties one of the Empire’s leading generals at the time of the riots of January 532 (so brilliantly described in Chapter IX). His military gifts were unquestioned: his personal courage had been proved again and again, and he was a natural leader of men. He had but one liability: his wife, whom he had married soon after his return from Mesopotamia in 531. Antonina’s background was not unlike that of the Empress, whose closest friend she became. The relationship was valuable to them both: Theodora knew that she could always control Belisarius through his wife, while Antonina could rely on the Empress to protect her from the consequences of her endless adulteries. At least twelve years older than her husband – Procopius says twenty-two – she already had several children, in or out of wedlock. Unlike Theodora, she had made no attempt to reform her character after her prestigious marriage, and in the years to follow was to cause her husband much embarrassment and not a little anguish; but he continued to love her and – perhaps as much to keep an eye on her as for any other reason – took her with him on nearly all his campaigns.

  All this is clear enough – even if we occasionally have to read between the lines – in the pages that follow; and indeed as we turn those pages we are struck again and again by how closely the author sticks to the facts as we know them. The Carthaginian expedition in 533, Belisarius’s Triumph in the following year, the campaign in Sicily, the double-crossing of King Vitiges to win Ravenna – all these in fact occurred; so too, did his accusation and disgrace at the hands of Theodora, and his pardon by – and partial reconciliation with – the Emperor. We also recognize all too well the constant leitmotif of Justinian’s jealous hatred of the man who showed himself, again and again, the most loyal of all his subjects.

  But adherence to historical fact as far as we know it – for early medieval sources are always inadequate, while even those that we have are seldom if ever entirely reliable – is only the beginning of Graves’s achievement, and indeed the easiest part of it. Where he truly excels is in his recreation of the atmosphere of sixth-century Byzantium, and even – to a most remarkable degree – in his ability to enter the minds of its people. For a perfect example, we have to look no further than the first three paragraphs. There, first of all, is the all-pervading Christian faith – of which no true Byzantine, however serious his transgressions, was ever for a moment unmindful. There are also references to the nature and importance of oaths, the education of children, the emptiness of fashion and ‘the world of men, women and clerics’ – these last being men of such huge power and prestige in the Empire that they might indeed have been considered a third sex. Equally telling is the scene which immediately follows of the drunken Cappadocians in the inn, discussing – as was the way in Byzantium – not politics or women but the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity. This passion for theological speculation was one of the characteristics of the Byzantines by which visitors to Constantinople were immediately struck. Already at the end of the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa had wonderingly written:

  If you ask a man for change, he will give you a piece of philosophy concerning the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you enquire the pr
ice of a loaf, he replies: ‘The Father is greater and the Son inferior’; or if you ask whether the bath is ready, the answer that you receive is that the Son was made out of nothing.

  By Justinian’s day the habit had spread even to the charioteers in the Hippodrome. Of the two leading teams, the Blues – favoured by the Emperor and Empress – maintained that Christ had two Natures, the Human and the Divine; a view hotly disputed by the Greens, who allowed him only one.

  The second chapter of Count Belisarius in particular – begun on the author’s forty-second birthday – always strikes me as a tour de force. Here we have a description of a banquet given by a rich and somewhat pompous nobleman – during which, incidentally, Belisarius and Antonina fall in love. We are given every detail of the decoration, the clothes, the conversation, the food and drink, and the entertainment – this last provided by Antonina, at that time still a dancing girl from the theatre at Constantinople, who sings ravishingly to her lute and performs several extremely lascivious dances. The narrative is a perfect blend of scholarship and imagination, its effect rather like that produced by a brilliant portrait of an unknown sitter; the face is unfamiliar, but the individuality so strong that one instinctively recognizes a perfect likeness.

  And what of the eunuch Eugenius, that devoted slave of Antonina, by whom the entire story is told? He is the only major figure in the book for whom there is no historical authority; but he is none the less real for that. He was first introduced – only when the work was well under way – at the suggestion of Graves’s mistress (and for the previous eleven years his inspiration) Laura Riding, and he must have proved a godsend. He lends distance to the view, allowing us to stand – with him – aside from the action and to enjoy his commentary. More important still, he adds enormously to the verisimilitude. Imagine if we had only a straightforward, third-person narrative – it would have read like history – or if Graves had permitted himself direct speech, like a novel. Thanks to Eugenius, we feel we are reading neither: here instead is a chronicle, related by an eye-witness of the events described.