Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 2

Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Augustus is long, thorough and consistently interesting, shedding light not only on the man himself but containing an immense amount of background information on the customs, traditions, laws and so on of the Rome of his time and how he set about reforming and remodelling them so decisively.

It’s impossible to summarise the achievements of the longest-serving and most impressive Roman emperor, Augustus (reigned 31 BC to 14 AD), without ending up repeating long Wikipedia article. Instead, here is an impressionistic list of themes and achievements which emerge from Adrian Goldsworthy’s impressive book.

Peace

Above all everyone wanted peace after decades of chaos, war, disruptions to trade, impressment, deaths and injuries and proscriptions. Once Antony was defeated and had committed suicide (in 30 BC), Goldsworthy repeatedly describes the widespread desire for peace to explain the absence of opposition to let alone rebellion against Augustus (pages 199, 200, 211, 282).

Temple of Janus Germinus

The Janus Geminus (to reflect his twin faces) was a small shrine that held an archaic bronze statue of the god, said to have been dedicated by Numa, Rome’s second king (Plutarch, Life, XX.1-2). Pliny (XXIV.33) relates that its fingers were arranged to indicate the 355 days of the year. Ovid in his Fasti, I.99 says that one hand held a key (as the god of entrances), the other, a staff (to signify his authority and as a guide).

The doors of the Janus Geminus were opened to indicate that Rome was at war and closed during times of peace. Since the time of Numa, the doors were said to have been closed only in 235 BC, after the first Punic war; in 30 BC, after the battle of Actium; and several times during the reign of Augustus (for example, when the Cantabrians were defeated in 25 BC, supposedly ending the Spanish wars (pages 200, 239)

Victories

For Romans peace came through conquest and victory: it was always an imposed peace. Thus, having defeated and eliminated Mark Antony and become ruler of the entire Roman Empire, Augustus still had work to do. Campaigns followed:

  • Egypt was formally annexed to the empire
  • to pacify the north-west of Spain (pages 241 to 245, 254 to 255), final embers stamped out in 19 BC (p.322)
  • Illyria (pages 174 to 178)
  • the Alps, pages 339 to 341 (surprising it took the Romans so long to pacify their own back yard)

Parthia

The Romans never defeated the Parthians. A great achievement was a negotiated settlement with the great Parthian Empire which resulted in the return of the legionary standards lost by Crassus at Carrhae in 53 and then by Antony in 36. This was painted as a great victory. The compliant senate voted Augustus even more honours and a triumph (all of which he rejected). Coins were minted showing the standards, and they are depicted on the breastplate Augustus is wearing in the most famous statue of him, the one found at the suburb of Prima Porta (p.303).

Statue of Augustus wearing a breastplate depicting the return of the legionary standards from the Parthians

Army reorganisation

Augustus reorganised the army, reducing it from 60 or so legions down to 28 (p.247 to 256) making it more professional. Huge scope was opened up for posts for aristocrats and promotions and Octavius made sure to retain control of all appointments and ensure all senior officers were loyal to him.

In 13 BC he carried out more reforms, regularising the period of service for a legionary to 16 years and defining other periods and terms of service. He made auxiliary units more permanent. Many of them were now raised from the provinces, from Gaul, Spain or Thrace and service in them allowed provincial aristocrats the opportunity to acquire citizenship and work their way into the hierarchy of empire (p.349). He laid down regulations for the constructions of camps and forts (p.366).

Building works

Augustus completed Julius Caesar’s forum with its massive temple to Venus Genetrix at one end. Then designed and built his own forum with a massive temple to Mars Ultor, in 2 BC and dedicated to the god Mars in his guise as avenger.

Mausoleum

The huge circular mausoleum Augustus built for himself and his family was one of the first building projects he began after victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. It consisted of several concentric rings of earth and brick, faced with travertine on the exterior, and planted with cypresses on the top tier. It measured 295 feet in diameter and 137 feet in height. He built it for himself but many of his close family were to find resting places there before him, including: Marcus Claudius Marcellus (son of Octavia Minor), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Augustus’s right-hand man and husband of Julia the Elder), Nero Claudius Drusus (son of Livia Drusilla), Octavia Minor (sister of Augustus), Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar (his grandsons).

The saepta

The saepta or ‘sheepfolds’ were the traditional structures on the Campus Martius which hosted elections. Augustus turned them from wooden into permanent stone structures. Year after year the whole area was transformed into a giant monument to his glory (p.357). Agrippa, in effect Augustus’s number two, accumulated a vast fortune and spent it nearly as lavishly as his master on public works. The diribitorium was a public voting hall situated on the Campus Martius in Ancient Rome. Agrippa paid for the building called the Diribitorium, where votes were counted by diribitores (election officials). It was begun by Marcus Agrippa but after his death in 12 BC was finished by Augustus (p.385).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was a part of the complex created by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa on the Campus Martius in 29 to 19 BC, which included three buildings aligned from south to north: the Baths of Agrippa, the Basilica of Neptune, and the Pantheon. It was rebuilt by Hadrian in the 120s AD, it was later adapted to be a Catholic church and so well maintained, thus ending up being the best preserved building we have from ancient Rome.

The provinces

The restoration of peace led to the revival of trade and, wherever he went or had influence, Augustus encouraged local elites to mimic him and build, refurbishing and improving their cities and towns, building theatres, reviving festivals and games. He dangled offers of citizenship or administrative posts as an incentive to provincial leaders (p.292).

Large numbers of people resident in provincial towns and cities won citizenship. The benefits of Roman citizenship came to be seen as valuable, itself an incentive for powerful or aspiring men to keep the peace in order to gain it (p.298). Every town and city in the empire was encouraged to be rebuilt along Roman lines, in a grid system, with roads converging on an open forum (p.343).

Roman roads

One of the most clichéd achievements of the Romans was building roads. Goldsworthy describes the creation of a network of roads across Gaul, linking the new-look Roman towns (p.341). Good, navigable roads which didn’t flood or wash away in winter led to hugely expanded trade and thus prosperity (pages 342 to 343).

Colonies

Colonae is the term the Romans gave to new settlements or towns. They had been building them for centuries, mainly as places to house the large numbers of men continually being demobilised from their armies. Augustus increased the number of colonies or new towns built in newly pacified Spain and Gaul, including the forebears of modern Zaragoza and Merida (p.347). Most Gauls had lived in defendable hilltop settlements. Now they came down off their hills and lived in towns joined by direct, well-maintained roads. Trade thrived. Prosperity (p.348).

Tours

To aid the process Augustus spent more of his rule away from Rome than in it, systematically touring all the provinces. Anecdotes suggest he went out of his way to make himself very accessible to all who had a grievance or issue (p.324). In his absence from Rome he left administration to loyal subordinates such as Agrippa (p.353) and Statilius Taurus. He increased the grain dole (p.224).

The constitution

The restoration of the constitution is a massive and subtle subject as Augustus spent 45 years restoring then tinkering with the constitution to make it appear as if the Republic had been restored while maintaining a firm grip on power. Thus he restored the post of consul and held annual elections for the consulship, as per tradition – except that he made sure that he was always elected one of the consuls.

In 27 BC, Octavian made a show of returning full power to the Roman Senate and relinquishing his control of the Roman provinces and their armies. But he retained control of the ‘grand provincial command’ whose importance Goldsworthy explains in detail (p.381).

The consulships

Augustus held one of the consulships every year from 31 BC to 23 BC, when he entered his eleventh consulship.

The senate

In practical terms Augustus tried to reform the senate, reducing its numbers from the unwieldy 1,000 it had grown to. Augustus tried to separate senators from the equestrian class with which they overlapped and imposed a minimum wealth requirement of 1 million sestercii (p.320).

He struggled with the problem that quite a few scions of the great houses didn’t even want to sit in the senate but were quite happy with their wealthy lives as equites (p.353). In 9 BC Augustus had another go at reform, determining that the senate would meet on fixed dates, ensuring they didn’t overlap with court cases and other obligations, and requiring all senators to attend, anyone absent being fined. But bribery and corruption persisted. In the consul elections of 8 BC, all the candidates including the winners bribed voters on such a heroic scale that Augustus insisted in future all candidates must pay a deposit which they would forfeit on conviction of bribery (p.383).

His tinkering with various rules and initiatives to get just what he wanted, and the continual stymying of his reforms by a corrupt ruling class, remind me of Oliver Cromwell’s forlorn attempts to get just the right kind of House of Commons, free but also high-minded and responsible.

Titles

He began with the name Gaius Octavius, son of Caius Octavius. When Julius Caesar’s will was read in March 44 he immediately took his adoptive father’s name to become Gaius Julius Caesar, with or without the legacy name Octavianus. From 38 BC at the latest, Octavian officially dropped all of his names except Caesar and began using the victory title imperator (‘commander’) in place of the traditional Roman forename, so Imperator Caesar. In 27 BC the Senate granted him the additional name ‘Augustus’, making Imperator Caesar Augustus.

Awards

Previous Romans were awarded days of thanksgiving when they secured a victory. Augustus’s were off the scale. He was awarded a staggering 51 thanksgivings, adding up to a total of 590 days (p.357).

The month of August

Julius Caesar had reformed the Roman month which had, until then, consisted of ten months (hence the way in our English months September, October, November and December, the first syllable indicates the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months, respectively). Because the old calendar only contained 355 days it quickly went out of sync with the seasons and required the addition of an extra, or intercalary, month every so often. Caesar consulted astronomers and devised a new calendar of 365 days, adding a few days to each month and inventing an entirely new month, modestly named after himself, which gives us the English ‘July’ (French ‘Juillet’, Spanish ‘Julio’). His reforms came into force on 1 January 45 BC.

Augustus followed in his adoptive father’s footsteps and received yet another honour from the Senate, the renaming of a month in his name. Some wanted him to have September, the month he was born in. But Augustus chose the sixth month or Sextilis, when he had first been elected consul and won many of his victories. So in 8 BC the month was renamed August and remained so in European calendars including English.

Religion

Augustus embarked on a policy of rebuilding or beautifying temples and reviving, restoring and encouraging the practice of traditional rituals, not only in Rome but throughout Italy and the provinces.

Games and festivals

For example, he created the rather factitious ludi saecularii, supposedly to celebrate the return of what the Romans called ‘the Great Year’ (p.330).

Poets

Augustus prided himself on his association with only the greatest writers. During his rule flourished the three greatest Roman poets:

  • Publius Vergilius Maro, known in the English-speaking world as Virgil (70 to 19 BC)
  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known in the English-speaking world as Horace (65 to 8 BC)
  • Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō, a generation younger, known as Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD)

Goldsworthy devotes a significant passage to describing Virgil and then summarising the themes and importance of his great poem, The Aeneid. This is an epic poem telling the story of the flight of Prince Aeneas from Troy after it had been captured by the Greeks at the climax of the Trojan War. It describes his extended dalliance with Dido Queen of Carthage, before piety and duty forces him to abandon her and sail on to Italy, where he is caught up in a series of brutal conflicts with various tribes before conquering them all to establish Alba Longa, the settlement near what would, centuries later, become Rome and to which Roman antiquarians attributed the origin of their city and race (pages 307 to 317).

Breeding

Augustus became concerned about the disastrous impact the civil wars and the proscriptions had than on aristocratic and knightly families, with many lines going extinct. Therefore he passed the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus to encourage the upper classes to reproduce, granting benefits to fathers of three or more children and penalising the unmarried or childless (p.325).

Succession

This is the issue which Mary Beard identifies as the single biggest political problem for the emperors: who was to succeed? (See my summary of her discussion of the various options.)

What the reader of this book notices is that the first hundred pages describe the traditional republican constitutional forms of consuls and tribunes and so on; the middle 200 describe how Augustus attempted to keep the façade of all these elections and structures, while continuing to hold all the reins of power; how he vehemently denied in the 20s that he was grooming any of his close family to ‘succeed’ because he was not a monarch.

But how, during the last 100 pages or so, the issue of Augustus’s family becomes more and more pressing, with the narrative focussing more and more on the marriages of his extended family and the health or otherwise of his various stepsons and nephews and so on.

In his endeavours to ensure a smooth transition of power Augustus was ill-fated and the labyrinthine complexities of his extended family and the bad luck and/or conspiracies among them are amply recorded in Robert Graves’s best-selling novels I, Claudius and Claudius the god.

Livia

Goldsworthy devotes extended passages to profiling Augustus’s wife, Livia (e.g. pages 377 to 379). She was his third wife. There was a whiff of scandal about their marriage, because she had first been married to Tiberius Claudius Nero around 43 BC, and they had had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus. Octavian saw her, liked her, and compelled her to divorce Nero and marry him in 38 BC.

When the Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus, Livia automatically became Augusta, prototype of all future empresses. Just as Augustus used propaganda tools to depict himself as the ideal Roman male and ruler, Livia was portrayed as the ideal Roman matron.

Rumour surrounded her machinations to get her eldest son Tiberius into position as heir to Augustus, and it’s these rumours Robert Graves used as the central theme of I Claudius. Tiberius was fast-tracked through military education and the old cursus honorem (p.336). Through Tiberius she was grandmother of the emperor Claudius, great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and the great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

She liked dwarves and freaks (p.378).

Heirs

Augustus’s ultra-reliable number two, Agrippa, was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia (p.321). A dynasty was taking shape (p.322).

It is a small indicator of the shift in emphasis that the last ever old-style triumph was awarded to the Younger Balbus in 19 BC. Thereafter, triumphs were only awarded to members of the imperial family (p.305). Something similar happened a few years later when, in 12 BC Augustus had himself appointed head priest or pontifex maximus. No civilian was ever to hold this post again. From now till the fall of Rome in 410 AD this title and post was only held by the emperor (p.350).

Augustus arrogated unprecedented powers and privileges to himself (p.356) but there were never any indications he planned to nominate a sole heir (p.359). He appears to have expected to be succeeded by a college of colleagues, all with advanced power but who would work collaboratively. In other words, he gave no indication of realising that what would happen would be rule by a series of single individuals, kings in all but name (p.360).

Thoughts

Augustus is an awesome figure. Rarely can one man have had such an impact on an entire civilisation.

Reading the book is overwhelming because of the extraordinarily hectic nature of the times Gaius Octavianus lived through and mastered, and then the dizzying list of his achievements.

But it left me with one dominating thought: The book is like a doorway between two eras. For the first hundred pages we are solidly in the world of the Roman Republic, with its complex constitution, its squabbling senate, its fiercely competitive elections to the consulship and the tribunate and the jostling for power of a host of larger-than-life characters including Crassus, Caesar, Pompey, Cicero and so on.

But in the last 100 pages (380 to 480) we are in a completely different world, one of peace and stability, where elections continue but are essentially hollow, where no public figures at all come anywhere close to the wielding the power and significance of Augustus, and where, increasingly, the only people of interest are the members of his own family: Livia, Drusus, Tiberius, Julia and so on.

By around page 390 all his old friends have died off – Agrippa, Maecenas, Virgil and Horace – the old generation has departed, and the narrative becomes evermore focused on the palace intrigues and manoeuvring over who will replace the princeps when he finally dies. These are now the palace intrigues of an emperor in all but name, completely unlike anything which existed under the Republic.

So reading the book gives a slightly vertiginous, Alice-through-the-looking-glass feel, of transitioning the reader, without you quite realising it, without you being aware precisely when it happens, from one world to another, completely different one.

I wonder if people at the time were aware that they were living through such a fundamental transition, or whether it’s just the effect of reading a modern account which, by its nature, tends to focus on what changed and maybe neglects the vast continuities which most people probably experienced in their day-to-day lives.

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor is a thorough, solid, continually interesting and, in the end, rather mind-bending read.


Credit

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy was published in 2014 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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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