Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Vengeance by Jack Ludlow

A history resource article by  © 2015

Before Belisarius became the famous general that recaptured much of the western Roman Empire for the emperor Justinian, he was a youth on the cusp of manhood in Durostorum (now called Silistra in Bulgaria), an outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire on the southern shore of the Danube River.  There, according to the novel, he was trained in the arts of war and honor under the watchful eye of his father, Decimus, a senior centurion commanding the local imperial cohort, and his three older brothers.

Historical note - Although Belisarius was born and raised in this area, little is known of his parentage or family.  Some scholars claim Belisarius was born of peasant stock.  But in his 1829 biography, "The Life of Belisarius", Earl Philip Henry Stanhope disagrees:

"Some modern historians deny Belisarius the advantage of liberal studies, and place his birth amongst the peasants of his province.  Yet from two passages in Procopius, which have not hitherto been observed, it may be concluded that he was of noble blood, and inherited a patrimonial fortune.  He is mentioned as possessing an estate near Constantinople in the year before the African expedition, when, having but very lately been appointed to any high or lucrative station, he could hardly have derived from it the means of purchase.  Nor could he have acquired this property by marriage, since his wife's first husband had died poor.  Besides the Greek word used by Procopius is almost always applied exclusively to that property which descends by hereditary right." - Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, The Life of Belisarius

Stanhope further points out that Procopius quotes a letter between Pharas, a Herulian prince to King Gelimer of the Vandals and Alans saying "should you consider it disgraceful to be a subject of Justinian with Belisarius and myself?  Though we also, like you, are of noble birth, we glory in obeying so magnanimous a sovereign." - Procopius, Vandal. lib.ii.c.6

Late Roman helmet, called the Deurne helmet,
covered in expensive silver-gilt sheathing
and inscribed to a cavalryman of the equites
stablesiani.  Image courtesy of  Rob Koopman,
Wikimedia Commons.  cc by-sa 2.0
Although Belisarius was taught the importance of honor in his noble household, it was no longer an attribute deemed essential by a corrupt senator, Senuthius Vicinus, who controls most of the land around Durostorum and commands the local militia. When Decimus discovers the extent of the senator's crimes and requests a formal imperial investigation, the senator connives with the Huns to put an end to Belisarius' meddlings.  The resulting treachery wipes out all of the Belisarius men except for 15-year-old Flavius who must flee to escape a horrific death on the cross planned by the senator and his henchman, the local Monophysite bishop.

Followers of Monophysitism held that Jesus Christ had only a single nature which was either purely divine or a synthesis of divine and human. Chalcedonian followers, including the Belisarius family and many others in Thrace and Illyricum, believed that Christ had two distinct natures, one divine and one human.  Unfortunately for the Chalcedonians, the reigning emperor Anastasius I (who reigned from 491 - 518 CE), decreed formal support for the Monophysite position after riots of the populace in Constantinople in 512 CE.  Although this may seem like a minor issue of interpretation to us, it caused a major schism in the developing Christianity of the early 6th century and resulted in a rebellion led by Flavius Vitalianus, a native of Moesia of possibly mixed Roman and barbarian descent, who had become a senior commander in Thrace, probably comes foederatorum.

Flavius' father had kept his family's religious position to himself, under the circumstances, like many other senior officials of the empire, including his old comrade-in-arms, Justinus, who now served as the commander of the emperor's bodyguard at the palace in the capital city.  It is Justinus who had been communicating with Decimus about the criminal activities of Senuthius, so Flavius decides he must somehow make his way to Constantinople and convince Justinus to help him avenge his family.

After a hair-raising escape across the Danube and capture by the barbarian Sklaveni tribe, Flavius finally meets up with Vitalian's army marching on Constantinople.  Despite his age, Flavius' military skills bring him to the attention of his superior officers and he soon finds himself a decanus - the leader of a contubernium, a squad of eight legionaries living in the same tent.

A figure thought to be Belisarius from the mosaic in the
Church of  San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.
Vitalian's army, numbering some 50,000-60,000 men, was composed of both untrained peasants and disaffected imperial troops from the provinces of Thrace, Moesia II and Scythia Minor who were outraged that Anastatius and his very unpopular magister militum per Thracias, Hypatius (Anastasius' nephew) had refused to supply the foederati with "annonae" - rations and provisions.

How 5th-6th century CE emperors got away with not provisioning their troops is a mystery to me but it happened frequently in the collapsing Western Empire and must have not been considered disastrous in the Eastern Empire at this time either.  I recently took an online course through FutureLearn entitled "Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier" and learned that often troops in Britain towards the end of the occupation there were not paid for months at a time.  (Augustus must have been churning in his grave!) Although troops were fed, I wondered what happened to their "unofficial" families that lived outside the fort if no money for support was forthcoming.  Anway, back to our story.

The formidable walls of Constantinople depicted in a 14th century CE mural in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons CC by-sa 3.0.
When the army arrives at Constantinople, the soldiers are dismayed by the city's formidable walls as Vitalian has no siege equipment.  But, Anastasius, fearful of a restive populace within the city, offers to negotiate.  Vitalian demands the restoration of the Chalcedonian orthodoxy and settlement of the Thracian army's grievances.  Anastasius offers to restore Chalcedonian bishops to their parishes and to settle the army's grievances. As proof of his sincerity the emperor provides lavish gifts to Vitalian's officers.

But all is not as it seems and young Belisarius soon becomes entangled in an imperial web of intrigue orchestrated by Justinus' shrewd and calculating nephew, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, who would become known to history as Justinianus Augustus - Justinian I.

Ludlow has once more done a masterful job of bringing this tumultuous period of Roman history to life.  He crafts an honorable but conflicted hero in Belisarius, a respectable though illiterate commander in Justinus and a suitably conniving and ambitious future emperor in Petrus.  Although Vitalian is mostly in the background, Ludlow carefully structures his story around the real events of Vitalian's rebellion and provides enough background on the religious controversy to make the causes of the rebellion understandable without allowing theology to dominate the storyline, no mean accomplishment during this period of Byzantine politics.

I'm very much looking forward to continuing this trilogy with "The Last Roman: Honour".

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