Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of time,
Why are not all the Gods at thy command,
And heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine Daughters sing when thou art sad,
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face,
And Venus’ Swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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