Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Triumph

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

The final chapters of Flavius Belisarius' life are the focus of Jack Ludlow's third and final installment in his series "The Last Roman" subtitled "Triumph".  In the second book, "The Last Roman: Honour", Flavius fights a vicious battle on two fronts as he struggles to retake the Italian peninsula for his emperor, Justinian I, while the empress Theodora, consumed with jealousy and paranoia, tries to thwart his success, both clandestinely and overtly.  Flavius, undermanned, poorly supplied and saddled with ambitious disloyal subordinates,  ends up having to resort to subterfuge to capture the Goth capital of Ravenna.  He receives an offer of the crown of the Western Roman Empire and allows the Goths to believe he is willing to accept it to obtain their surrender.  But this ruse does not go unnoticed by the treacherous Theodora and, although Flavius publicly refuses the crown that would have made him equal in rank to Justinian,  he is abruptly recalled to the imperial court in Constantinople to explain himself.

As book three opens, Flavius returns to Constantinople with the Goth treasure for the imperial coffers.  But, the imperial sycophants, fearful of the ruthless Theodora, whisper of his imminent downfall as his requests for an audience are ignored day after day.

"Not even the government officials could approach the Empress without expending much time and effort. They were treated like servants and kept waiting in a small, stuffy room for an endless time. After many days, some of them might at last be summoned, but going into her presence in great fear, they very quickly departed. They simply showed their respect by laying face down and touching the instep of each of her feet with their lips; there was no opportunity to speak or to make any request unless she told them to do so. The government officials had sunk into a slavish condition, and she was their slave-instructor." - Procopius, Anecdota

Proskynesis depicted on a Byzantine-era ivory plaque.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the streets of Constantinople, however, Flavius is openly revered and can walk among the people without a single bodyguard.  This infuriates the empress Theodora even more, since she remembers how she and Justinian nearly met a grisly fate at the hands of the mob during the Nika riots early in Justinian's reign.

Finally, Flavius is confronted by a publicly hostile Justinian. But after what appears to be a great show of imperial displeasure, Flavius is asked to attend Justinian in his private chambers.  There, Justinian's royal posturing dissolves into nervous pacing as Flavius is briefed on serious Sassanid incursions that are eating away at the eastern frontier.  Flavius realizes Justinian, who refuses to publicly cross his vicious empress, was putting on a show for her benefit, but actually needs Flavius' help and has not forgotten their friendship.

As we saw in book two, Justinian, like many of his predecessors, maintained the empire's long standing policy of averting outright war with the Sassanids by the payment of subsidies.

The Sassanian Empire was founded by Ardashir I in 224 CE, after the fall of the Parthian Empire and the defeat of the last Arsacid king, Artabanus V.   Just six years later, Ardashir's son, Shapur I begins a centuries-long cycle of Persian incursions and Roman retaliation when he raids deep into Roman territory in 230 CE.  Territory ebbs and flows between the two superpowers until Shapur finally engineers a highly advantageous peace treaty with the Roman emperor Philip the Arab in 244 CE, securing the immediate payment of 500,000 silver denarii and further annual payments.

Ghal'eh Dokhtar (or "The Maiden's Castle") in present-day Fars, Firuzabad, Iran, built by Ardashir in 209, before he was finally able to defeat the Parthian empire.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Sassanid king comes to rely upon these subsidies to pay Persian nobles to ensure their loyalty and keep him in power.  This arrangement does not last, however, when Shapur's forces, attempting to exploit past successes, advance into Asia Minor in 260 CE and suffer a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Romans led by Marcus Claudius Ballista and their Palmyrene ally Odaenathus.  (For an exciting series about this period, check out Harry Sidebottom's "Warrior of Rome" series of novels beginning with "Fire In the East".)

But maintaining troops is expensive and eventually Rome again resorts to paying subsidies sporadically to avoid the monumental cost of engaging in a full scale war with the Sassanids.  This continues for the next 270 years.  During that time, frontier skirmishes are used as a way for Sassanid kings to periodically extort more Roman gold whenever Persian nobles once more become contentious.

During one of these restless periods, a very young Flavius Belisarius faces the armies of Kavadh I, defeating them at the famous battle of Dara in 530 CE (detailed in book two).  But ten years have passed now, and as they say, glory is fleeting.   Justinian now expects Flavius to face the forces of Kavadh's son Khosrow I, but without adequate supplies, money or Flavius' fiercely loyal bucellarii, his personally trained armored cavalry.

Gilt-Silver plate depicting King Khosrow I hunting.  Sassanid 6th century CE.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, Theodora, not to be outwitted, sends Flavius' duplicitous wife, Antonina, Theodora's creature, east as well to keep tabs on Flavius.  Then the so-called Justinian's plague sweeps the empire.  Among the victims is the emperor himself so the troops turn to Rome's most respected general for leadership.

Ludlow's taut narrative keeps the reader immersed in the unending court intrigues and the military challenges Flavius faces as he doggedly attempts to remain loyal to an emperor that has allowed court politics to blind his once formidable administrative acumen.  Knowing that Theodora died of breast cancer at the relatively young age of 48, twenty years before Flavius and Justinian, I hoped that Flavius could at last put aside his loveless marriage originally engineered by Theodora, and enjoy at least some modicum of peace.  But, like toxic waste, Theodora's legacy of suspicion and paranoia lingers between Justinian and Flavius, a fate I felt Flavius did not deserve.  At least Justinian did not blind Flavius, as a popular medieval legend maintains, although the emperor periodically seizes Flavius' estates and allows him to be prosecuted on trumped up charges of corruption.

I realized as I finished this novel that the title did not refer to a military triumph, as I had originally assumed, but to Flavius Belisarius' triumph of maintaining his honor despite numerous imperial and personal betrayals throughout his tumultuous life. For this seemingly impossible achievement alone, I felt the Belisarius of Ludlow's novel truly earned his moniker as "The Last Roman."

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