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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The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown (1971 2nd edition 1989)

Peter Brown has been a pioneer of the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years.

His works in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which saw it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period than had previously been thought.

Brown helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the recategorising of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, now generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.

The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and a map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.

And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.

Structure

The structure tells the overall story:

Part One: The Late Roman Revolution
I Society
II Religion

Part Two: Divergent Legacies
I The West
II Byzantium
III The New Participants (Islam)

Society Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, most significantly the Persians in the east, the Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced no fewer than 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Roman Empire. The old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, selected from the new men who had risen through the ranks.

Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. During his reign the army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD).

Emblematically, the new-style emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.

The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th century. In this view the new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.

The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople.

The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.

Religion Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. Instead it simmered underground for two centuries before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.

Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – i.e. men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: leaders of the new ways of thinking including Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.

Provincialisation The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics, which show that they were decorated by wall paintings, tapestries and hangings. For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility.

I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the Roman Empire and the way it enabled a tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets and eating off plates produced to the same styles.

The new religious beliefs offered:

  1. a framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy and of the big landowners, the middle class, the ordinary people
  2. continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised at the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping their growing flocks in difficult times

Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.

Angels and demons Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under the aegis of a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians tend to analyse the rise of Christianity in terms of its sophisticated theology and erudite thinkers, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the really distinctive thing about Christianity was the way the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons.

This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.

Monasteries Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the Middle East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.

And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers were also reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.

The turning point

Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters.

It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.

Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and, when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.

The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476.

Brown points out how the growing sense of threat, and then the advent of actual catastrophe, were linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire).

The new fervour of Christian chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities who became increasingly blamed for rejecting Christ’s healing revelation.

The decadent West

The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the increasingly powerful Church hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing, looting or, eventually, settling in.

Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares this huge social transformation with the way the Chinese were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians in the 13th century yet, within a few generations, had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.

According to Brown, the image of Roma aeterna was a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, consciously created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.

Attila the Hun 434-453

Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront and the Romans soon learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to resort to buying other barbarian allies to form alliances against them.

The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain. There were fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, and Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the increasingly reliable and consistent local organiser, the local bishop, steadily grew in importance.

After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead depicting symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became an increasingly beleaguered outpost of learning in the shifting seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan élite, the bishops.

Justinian 527-565

The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, with the masses sacking the city, burning and looting.

The riot appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usage of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.

Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went Justinian’s aggressive military campaigns: first against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to North Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened, Justinian’s army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.

However, events in the East brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then slowly returning home, devastating towns and cities as he went.

In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and ravaged the Roman army. Having denuded the Danube defences, Justinian left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans, penetrating far enough south to threaten Constantinople itself.

So, in the end, Justinian’s conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay.

His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of his campaigns titled The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)

The start of the Middle Ages

The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which was to characterise the Middle Ages.

In the West the secular élite vanished. On the other hand, ‘the Book’ stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued as a relic of a lost age. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably gone.

One aspect of this was that it was a golden age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which they thought ought to have survived, forging the letters which which Paul ought to have written, and Peter should have dictated.

In the East, the figure of Christ rises above the merely human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man.

There is a great turn towards a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the sole focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, the last surviving sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as leaders and representatives of their populations.

In the early 600s the Persian leader Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he even seized a relic of the True Cross.

The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage had been done – the Persian War had devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time, this would make them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.

Islam

Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam and the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East in the mid-7th century.

I was fascinated to read Brown’s account of how the original Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was then co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning.

It is a natural culminating point in the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake, entirely surrounded by first classical and then Christian civilisation. This monumental shift threw increasing emphasis onto the surviving Christian kingdoms in the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts to this day.

Thoughts

Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul and only names Britain once or twice.

Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern, than we tend to think.

A Late Antique chronology

284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.

313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity
325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine
346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius
376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle
378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to –
378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern
379-395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion ie Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire
395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)

410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric
434-453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus
455 Vandals raided Rome
476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right
486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley

507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him
524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic
526 Death of King Theodoric
529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy
529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC
535-553 The Gothic War – Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy

600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)
620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce
622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar
632 Death of Mohammed
635-38 Middle East falls to the Arabs
670-95 North Africa falls to the Arabs


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Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

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The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

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