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Friday, July 11, 2008


Justinian's greatest general, and one of Byzantium's Great Captains, Belisarius was one of the rare non-imperial Byzantine figures to retain a hold on the Western European imagination.

He *may* be the bearded figure to Justinian's right in the famous Ravenna mosaic at San Vitale Church.

This would be appropriate, because Belisarius would be Justinian's right hand in the campaigns to restore the Western part of the Empire. However, Justinian's paranoid streak perennially hamstrung Belisarius, who nonetheless worked miracles time and again in defeating barbarian armies with grossly inferior numbers, first vanquishing the Vandal kingdom, then defeating the Ostrogoths and liberating Rome herself. Sadly, he lacked the resources to finish off the Ostrogoths, and the latter rallied. The resultant generation of warfare, which finally ended in the Goths' defeat, led to horrific destruction throughout the peninsula. The ravages of war meant that the invading Lombards in the 570s-80s were able to conquer most of northern Italy and finally confine the Byzantines to the Mezzogiorno and Sicily by the middle of the 8th Century.

Justinian's paranoia--probably exacerbated by Belisarius' wife's actual political manuevering while the Emperor was stricken with the plague--finally got the better of him, and Belisarius was removed from office in the middle of the Gothic War. Justinian, paranoid as he was, still knew a talent when he saw one, reattached his right hand when the Bulgars threatened the provinces to the north of Constantinople. Once again, with an inferior force, Belisarius prevailed and routed the barbarians. He would die within a few months of Justinian in 565, a tragedy in many ways, not least that the Empire would need a military genius to address the multiplicity of threats that would hobble it over the next decade.

Interestingly, the West remembered both Belisarius and Justinian's ingratitude in the form of legends about a blind Belisarius being reduced to beggary.

Belisarius also survives in two popular works I've read, the fine and straightforward historical fiction of Count Belisarius by Robert Graves, and the slam-bang science fiction homage of Steve Stirling and David Drake, The General.

The General fictionalizes and transposes the campaigns of Belisarius to the future, on a planet settled by humans after the discovery of interstellar travel and the subsequent collapse of that civilization. The Belisarius figure, Raj Whitehall, a descendant of Texas settlers in a Spanglish speaking Byzantium analogue, is assisted by a very diverse group of loyal lieutenants, a loving wife and one slightly sardonic intelligent computer which survived the collapse. Five books in all, but very fun, and available in two omnibus hardcover editions, Warlord (the first two books)and Conqueror (the concluding three).

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