Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book Review: The Life of Belisarius

Many of the biographies or historical accounts of an era, event or country today are extreme in length and offer a tsunami of facts. The good ones can tell a good story as well as educate the reader. The Life of Belisarius is a biography of a Roman General written in the 19th century that holds up well. Lord Mahon writes a tale that draws upon classic sources, tackles even the moyths or rumors of the time, and is critical of its subject at certain points. Belisarius is considered one of or the last of the great Roman generals. Lord Mahon does an admirable job of bringing this ancient leader to life.

Most of us in european history classes think of the fall of Rome as when the western roman empire fell, which is not true. The capital moved east to Constantinople, the empire was divided in two and the eastern part of the empire (aka the Byzantium Empire) lasted into the 1400s. There was a movement to the Greek world and east even in the early stages of the Roman empire as the elites spoke Greek, had Greek tutors for their children, and drew upon many Greek influences. To relocate the capital isn't as strange as it sounds when you consider the long journey of the empire. Belisarius is a Roman general despite being of the eastern (Greek) empire. Lord Mahon does an excellent job of setting up the world and the man prior to relating his work. The reader understands that the western empire had been lost for years. The author relates court intrigue, the corruption, the loose grip even the emperor held on the apparatus of control. He sets the stage for Belisarius' victories to look that much more critical and amazing.

Reading the fine details, Belisarius' armies seem far removed from the huge and well trained armies of Julius Caesar and the early empire. It is a bit shocking to hear how poorly Belisarius was equipped to fight. Belisarius earns victories not just through combat on the field of combat, but through alternative thinking, bluff, trickery, and occupies or takes over cities with a 'hearts and minds' mentality. He had a great mind for big picture strategy, and Mahon does a great job educating the reader on this topic. Belisarius retakes Naples by sliding through the aqueduct, yet after the victory wich did cost troops lives, he does not allow his troops to run wild in the city. He was careful to make friends with the citizens and truly target only the Vandals and barbarians in various cities.

A great feature of this book is th einsight into the paranoid and insecure minds of the emperors. Justinian uses Belisarius to secure borders or conquers territories. He used him early on the secure his rule by putting down some rebels in the capital. After retaking North Africa and Italy for the empire, Belisarius denies accepting rule as a western emperor, which he could have, and proves himself a good soldier for his emperor. Despite all of this, Justinian did not trust him and was envious of his victories. Justinian also underfuned Belisarius' campaigns. It is truly amazing the dopey court gossip and intrigue that makes Justinian lose sight of Belisarius' loyalty. Justinian had a long reign, and if his reign is more the norm for post-Augustus emperors, one can see how things went off track for the empire. Justinian, pick something big and stick to it, rewriting laws, military campaigns and religious work are great goals, but you can spread yourself too thin in one area by scattering efforts.

The author is critical of Belisarius in some respects. This was nice to read, as he does not just gush about Belisarius for 200+ pages. Lord Mahon even theorizes that the Roman reconquests of the Vandals hurt that areas ability to fight off the Muslim conquests of later years, yielding the crappy condition North Africa is in today. I wish he had gone into more detail on possible corruption of Belisarius, but maybe the primary document records are light on this subject. Lord Mahon is a bit weird in blaming some bad things on men's wives. Is this true; are the wives really to blame? I doubt it, but if every Roman was married to a Lady MacBeth, it is news to me. This is sexist by today's standards (not of Lord Mahon's), and I wonder what primary sources say of these same women. They probably tell even worse lies. One flaw which I would have loved to see addressed: maps. Insert some better maps with more details or showing movements over time. This would have helped when reading about campaigns.

Life of Belisarius is an excellent read. I enjoyed it, and if someone were looking for a late Roman era biography or history book to read, I would recommend this for a quick read. There are elements that will make the reader laugh as well as think. For younger readers, it is a nice stepping stone into learning more about ancient Rome or Greece. If someone had a teenage or tween boy interested in ancient Roman battle or rule, this might be a good starting point, as there are plenty of details but nothing too scandalous for a young mind. Lord Mahon's Georgian Era audience fits in with a PG rating in the modern era.

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