Count Belisarius, Page 2Robert Graves
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. Justinian lives again – though we may frequently wish to throttle him – and Theodora, and the odious John the Cappadocian, and Narses, the octogenarian Armenian eunuch whose generalship proves second only to that of Belisarius himself. The battles – and the strategies that dictated their course – are wonderfully described; and there is a memorable account of Belisarius’s defence of Rome against the Ostrogoths in 537, with his wife at his right hand. But this is a domestic drama as much as a military one: among other pages that stick in the memory are those describing Antonina’s passion for their adopted son Theodosius and its extraordinary consequences. Thus, chapter by chapter, Graves – in the words of the novel’s huge admirer Winston Churchill – ‘rolls back the time-curtain’ and recreates the Byzantine world as no author has ever done before.
The book was published in early April 1938, in a first edition of twenty thousand copies. It sold well and was for the most part enthusiastically reviewed, the principal criticism being that the author had made Belisarius himself a little too perfect. Graves responded indignantly to the Sunday Times, denying that he had falsified history; It was, he wrote, ‘a shocking comment on twentieth-century literary taste that when… a really good man is shown… it must be said that he does not really come to life.’ In fact, the critics had a point. Belisarius must have had his occasional outburst of cruelty – if not, he was the only Byzantine general in history who could make such a claim. Similarly, he must sometimes have answered back when Justinian was at his most offensive. (We must certainly hope he did.) In giving us instances of such moments, Graves would have been doing his hero no disservice: the chevalier sans peur may be all very well, if somewhat lacking in imagination; the chevalier sans reproche, one suspects, must all too often have been a very boring man indeed.
However that may be, in Count Belisarius you will not find a boring sentence. Winston Churchill told Graves that he could not put it down; nor, I am delighted to confess, could I. And so, dear reader, the time has come for you to turn the page and begin: ‘When he was seven years old, Belisarius… ‘
John Julius Norwich
MOST people find it difficult to make a logical connexion in their minds between the characters of the straightforward Classical age and those of the romantic age of medieval legend. King Arthur, for example, seems to belong to a far more antique epoch than Julius Caesar; yet his Christianity dates him some centuries later.
How these two ages overlapped will be seen in this story of Count Belisarius. Here is a Roman general whose victories are not less Roman, nor his strategical principles less classical, than Julius Caesar’s. Yet the army has by now changed almost beyond recognition, the old infantry legion having at last disappeared, and Belisarius (one of the last Romans to be awarded the dignity of the Consulship and the last to be awarded a triumph) is a Christian commander of mail-clad House-hold knights, nearly all of barbarian birth, whose individual feats rival those of King Arthur’s heroes. In his time occur characteristically Romantic situations. For example, caitiff rogues lead away captive maidens to dolorous castles in the hills (during the Moorish raids on Roman Africa), and his knights chivalrously prick out to the rescue with banners and lances.
The miraculous element in the story of King Arthur is partly primitive saga and folk-tale, partly monkish mysticism of a far later date. But in Belisarius’s case the chief authority for his private life and campaigns was not any Hunnish or Gothic member of his Household – who would doubtless have made a rambling epic of it, for the monks to embroider in succeeding centuries – but his educated Syrian-Greek secretary, Procopius of Caesarea. Procopius was on the whole a Classically well-informed, judicious writer, as was also Agathias, who supplies the final military chapter; so there has been no romantic distortion here, as in King Arthur’s case. The historical King Arthur seems to have been a petty British King, a commander of allied cavalry, whom the Romans left to his fate when their regular infantry were withdrawn from the garrison towns of Britain at the beginning of the fifth century. If a Procopius had been his chronicler, the ogres and fairy ships and magicians and questing beasts would not have figured in the story except perhaps as a digressive account of contemporary British legend. Instead we should have a lucid chapter or two of late Roman military history – Arthur’s gallant attempt to preserve a remnant of Christian civilization in the West country against the pressure of heathen invasion. And Arthur’s horse would have been a big-boned cavalry charger, not a fairy steed flying him wildly off towards the Christian millennium.
Belisarius was born in the last year of the disastrous fifth century (King Arthur’s century), in which the Anglo-Saxons had over-run Southern Britain; the Visigoths, Spain; the Vandals, Africa; the Franks, Gaul; the Ostrogoths, Italy. He died in 565, five years before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.
Wherever surviving records are meagre I have been obliged to fill in the gaps of the story with fiction, but have usually had an historical equivalent in mind; so that if exactly this or that did not happen, something similar probably did. The Belisarius-Antonina-Theodosius love-triangle, however fictional it may seem, has been adopted with very little editing from the Secret History. Nor is the account here given of sixth-century ecclesiastical and Hippodrome politics exaggerated. The only invented character is Belisarius’s uncle Modestus, a familiar type of the tinsel-age Roman man of letters. The two Italo-Gothic documents quoted in the text are genuine.
The distances are given in Roman miles, practically equivalent to English miles. Place-names are modernized wherever this tends to make them more recognizable.
The maps are by Richard Cribb. I have to thank Laura Riding for the great help she has given me in problems of language and narrative.
THE BOYHOOD OF BELISARIUS
WHEN he was seven years old, Belisarius was told by his widowed mother that it was now time for him to leave her for a while, and her retainers of the household and estate at Thracian Tchermen, and go to school at Adrianople, a city some miles away, where he would be under the guardianship of her brother, the Distinguished Modestus. She bound him by an oath on the Holy Scriptures – she was a Christian of the Orthodox faith – that he would fulfil the baptismal oath sworn on his behalf by his god-parents, both of whom were recently dead. Belisarius took this oath, renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil.
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. Let me then first quote an opinion of my mistress Antonina on the subject of this oath sworn at Tchermen: she held that it was most injudicious to bind little children by spiritual oaths of such a sort, particularly before they have even attended school or had the least experience of the world of men and women and clerics. It was no less against Nature, she said, than if one subjected a child to some bodily handicap: for example, that he should always carry about with him, wherever he went, a small log of wood; or that he should never turn his head in the socket of his shoulders, but either bend the whole body around or move his eyes, perhaps, independently of the head. These would be great inconveniences, admittedly, but not nearly so great as those attendant on a solemn oath, to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, taken by a young nobleman destined for the service of His Sacred Majesty the Emperor of the Eastern Romans, who rules at Constantinople. For either, on the boy’s reaching adolescence, temptations come on him and the oath is broken, and his heart is filled with remorse – in which case he loses confidence in his own moral fortitude; or else the oath is broken in the same way but no remorse is felt, because world, flesh, and devil appear delightful things – in which case he loses all sense o
f the solemn nature of an oath.
Yet Belisarius was so exceptional a child and grew to be so exceptional a man that no difficulties whatsoever put in his way could have greatly troubled him. To take the absurd instance that my mistress used: he would easily have accommodated his body to the rule of never turning his head on his shoulders and would have made this habit seem nobility, not stiffness. Or he would have carried about his perpetual log of wood and made this seem the most convenient and necessary object in the world – a weapon, a stool, a pillow – so that he even might have set a City fashion in handsomely carved and inlaid logs of wood. And certainly this fashion would be no sillier or more superstitious than many current today among the young dandies of the rival factions at the Hippodrome, and many more that have come in and gone out again in this wearisome century: fashions in beards, cloaks, oaths, toys, scents, games of chance, carnal postures, terms of endearment, aphrodisiacs, religious argument and opinion, reliquaries, daggers, comfits.
Belisarius, at all events, took this dangerous oath with the same innocence of purpose as when once young Theseus of Athens swore before his widowed mother to avenge his father’s death on the monstrous Minotaur of the Cretan Labyrinth, who ate human flesh.
Whether or not he was true to the oath you shall judge after reading this story. But let me assure you, if you are perhaps Christians of the monkish sort who read this, that Belisarius was not at all of your habit of mind, and cared little for dogma; and that when he became master of a large household he forbade all ecclesiastical disputation within the walls of his house, as being unprofitable to the soul and destroying the family peace. This was my mistress Antonina’s decision first of all, but he agreed with her after a time and made it his, and subjected even bishops and abbots, if they happened to be his guests, to the same discipline.
So this was the first of the three oaths he swore; and the second was to his Emperor – to the old Emperor Anastasius, in whose reign he was born, and subsequently to the two successors of Anastasius; and the third oath was to my mistress Antonina as his wife. These remarks will serve as preface to the work which follows, which I am writing in extreme old age at Constantinople in the year of our Lord 571; which is the thirteen hundred and sixth year from the foundation of the City of Rome.
Belisarius was born in the year of our Lord 500, and his mother regarded this as ominous. For the Devil was, she believed, allowed dominion on this earth for a thousand years, and at the close of this time mankind would finally be redeemed: therefore the year of her only son’s birth came, as she said, in the very centre of the long black night dividing the first day of glory from the second. But I, Eugenius the Eunuch, confess that I regard such opinions as superstitious and altogether unworthy of sensible persons; nor did my dear mistress Antonina think otherwise in these matters.
This young Belisarius dutifully said good-bye to his mother and the household retainers, who (taking the slaves with the free and counting in children and old people) numbered some two hundred souls; and mounting his fine white pony rode towards Adrianople. There accompanied him John, the bailiff’s son, an Armenian boy of his own age who had played the part of Belisarius’s lieutenant in the small private army he enrolled from children living on the estate; and Palaeologus, a Greek tutor who had already taught him the rudiments of reading and writing and ciphering; and two Thracian slaves. Palaeologus was unarmed, but the slaves carried swords, and Belisarius and Armenian John had light bows suitable to their strength with a few good arrows. These boys were already very handy with their bows, both on foot and when mounted; as might be expected. For the Armenians are a sturdy race and Belisarius was of Slavonic stock – as his name Beli Tsar, meaning the White Prince, indicates; the heathen Slavs, who live beyond the River Danube, are notable archers and horsemen. His father’s family had been settled at Tchermen for a hundred years, and was wholly Romanized and had been raised to the second of the three ranks of nobility.
This journey from Tchermen was by the fields, not by the main road from Constantinople to Adrianople, which passes near this village. Several times Belisarius and John, with their tutor’s permission, rode off the track in pursuit of game; and Belisarius was fortunate enough to shoot a hare, which provided a meal for them that night at the inn where they proposed to lodge. It was only a small inn, not much frequented, and the old landlady was in deep distress: her husband had recently been killed by the fall of an elm-branch while tending his vines, and their man-slave had thereupon run off, stealing the only horse in the stables, and might be anywhere by now. She had only a young girl slave left, who inexpertly tended the animals and vines while she herself worked in the house. The travellers perceived that at this inn they must provide their own food and do their own cooking. Of their two slaves, one was a porter, a strong, brave man without knowledge or adaptability, and the other was a youngster, Andreas, who had been trained as a bath-attendant; neither of them could dress a hare. Palaeologus sent the porter off to gather firewood and draw water, and set Andreas at scouring the greasy inn-table with sand. He himself skinned and jointed the hare, which presently was simmering in a pot with bay-leaves and cabbage and barley and a little salt. Armenian John stirred the pot with a horn spoon.
Belisarius said: ‘I have a packet of black peppercorns from Ceylon, which my mother is sending by me as a present for my Uncle Modestus. I like this Indian pepper. It stings the mouth. It will not detract much from the gift if I grind a few peppercorns in the little hand-mill that goes with it, to flavour our hare-soup.’
He opened his saddle-bag and took out the packet of peppercorns and the hand-mill and began grinding. Being only a child, he ground too much for a meal for five persons; until Palaeologus, observing him, exclaimed: ‘Child, that is enough pepper for a Cyclops!’ Then, while the hare was stewing, Palaeologus told them the tale, which they had not heard previously, of Ulysses in the Cyclops’ cave and how he charred a stake in the fire and, making the Cyclops drunk, thrust out his one eye with the flaming point. The boys and the slaves listened laughing; for Palaeologus, quoting the play of Euripides, was very droll in his imitation of the stricken Cyclops. Then they set the table for three – the slaves would eat apart afterwards – and poured wine into the cups from a smoky earthenware wine-jar that they found in a cupboard. The slave Andreas cut slices of bread for them with his hunting-knife.
At last the meal was practically ready, the hare only wanting a few more minutes to be cooked. Palaeologus had added to the pot two or three spoonfuls of wine and a pinch or two of pepper and a small sprig of rosemary and a little sour sorrel which the old woman fetched from the back-garden. Every now and then they tasted the soup with the horn spoon. Four tallow candles had just been lighted, which it was Andreas’s duty to snuff when the wick grew cauliflowered. But at this happy moment a great noise was heard at the door and in burst six truculent armed men, Asiatic Greeks by their speech, and disturbed everything.
With them they had a decently dressed, mild-featured young man, bound hand and foot so that he could not walk. He seemed a well-to-do artisan or tradesman. The leader, a very burly fellow, carried this prisoner on one shoulder like a sack of grain and flung him into the corner by the fire – I suppose because this was the place farthest from the door, if he should try to escape. The man was plainly desperate and in full expectation of being murdered. His name, it proved later, was Simeon, a burgess of that district. It had fallen to him by lot to go on behalf of his fellow-burgesses to a great land-owner named John of Cappadocia, begging him to pay the land tax due from him, or at least a part of it – an obligation which this rich young man had long evaded. Now, the district was called upon to pay so many pounds of gold annually to the Imperial Treasury, and the lands of John of Cappadocia were assessed at a rate which was less than their value indeed, but which amounted to one-third of the total tax of the whole district. The burgesses, because of bad harvests and a recent plundering raid by the Bulgarian Huns and being assessed greatly above the value of their hol
dings – they had been presented by the Government with worthless strips of country, all marsh and stone, yet valued as good farm-land – were so deeply in debt as to be nearly ruined unless John of Cappadocia consented to pay his share. But he always refused. He had a retinue of armed men, mostly his own Cappadocians, as these six fellows all were, who insulted and beat the representatives of the burgesses when they came to his castle to sue for payment.
In my story there are likely to be many Johns besides these Armenian and Cappadocian Johns, John being the name that foreigners commonly take when baptized into the Christian faith (calling themselves either after John the Baptist or John the Evangelist), or that Christian masters give their slaves. It is also frequent among the Jews, with whom it originated. So we shall distinguish these Johns either by their country of origin or, if that happens to be insufficient, by their customary nick-names: John the Bastard, John the Epicure, and Bloody John among the rest. But there is only one Belisarius in my story, and he as unusual as his name.
It appeared, then, from the boasts of the Cappadocians and the complaints of this wretched Simeon, that he had gone boldly with an armed body of constabulary to the castle of Cappadocian John, intending to overawe him into paying at least a reasonable part of his debt, but had been set upon with swords and clubs by the armed guard at the gate-house. The constabulary had deserted Simeon at once, so that he was captured. Then Cappodocian John himself, who was spending the autumn on his estate for the hunting and fowling, had come swaggering out and asked the sergeant of the guard who this fellow might be. They made a low obeisance to John, who exacted from them the sort of respect a patriarch or the governor of a Diocese is usually given, and answered: ‘A sort of strange tax-gatherer, if it please your worship.’ Cappadocian John cried: ‘Give him a sort of strange end, so that no tax-gathered may trouble me again on my Thracian estates.’ Then six of them, led by the Sergeant, bound Simeon hand and foot and put him across a horse and rode off with him at once, hoping to please their master by their alacrity.