Ask anyone to name a famous Roman. I suspect Juilus Caesar will be the common answer, with the colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty not far behind. But these are all names from a short period of history. The astonishing longevity of the Romans and their Byzantine successors isn't always appreciated. We so easily forget that the Roman world survived for two thousand years in total. One character, Justinian, has been nicknamed 'The Last Roman' for his attempt to reunite the fractured empire of his day. His story is little known to the public, and even that overshadows the story of the man who fought for Justinian and led his armies to victory. This then is the tale of Belisarius, 'The Last Roman General'.
Now I find it difficult to trust a biography. Not because of historical accuracy, but because a biography is more than a catalogue of events in a person's life. It must also portray their character. How accurate can a biography be? All too often, notable people project a public face and leave much hidden behind a mask. Worst still, a biographer might wish to portray his subject's character in a certain manner, either to satisfy his own desires, or perhaps to make the work more acceptable to general public opinion and thus more marketable.
Therefore what I look for in a biography is an objective study of the subject, one that details the events of his career, one that places the subject's life in context, one that not only describes his mask but as much of the hidden individual behind it as possible. By the closing pages, I want to feel that I've gotten to know someone.
Ian Hughes makes an attempt to describe a man whose career is almost obscure. Indeed, the back cover tells me this is the first full study of Belisarius for over a hundred years. That's no understatement. Right from the very start this book throws you into the deep end with a lesson on Byzantine history. There's no getting away from it - this is a very informative book. Diagrams, maps, and illustrations are plentiful, almost making this a sourcebook on the period alone. You get detailed appraisals of the major armies involved in the campaigns which adequately stress the changing organisations, weapons, and troop types as the classic legions become a thing of the past.
Somewhere in this book is a study of Belisarius himself. Now I say that with some circumspection. The book concentrates on historical events and in doing so, it satisfies my criteria for objectivity admirably. The entire problem with Belisarius is that he has always been overshadowed by Justinian's career. We seem to be left with very few insights to the real man behind the military general. What we do get paints a very enigmatic picture and you can't help but feel that there's an atypical quality to him that needs further highlighting. Perhaps it's not surprising then that we read more of a military assessment than any understanding of the man himself.
Although Ian Hughes fails to meet one of my criteria for a good biography, that of getting to know his subject as a person, I have to concede that it might be impossible to do that. Nonetheless, I like this book. It teaches me about Justinian's campaigns in better detail than I've read elsewhere, it exposes court intrigue and the relationships of leading personalities. Best of all, it teaches me about Belisarius and what he achieved. It brings this man out of obscurity and once again into the spotlight. That, after all, was the entire point of writing this account.
Ask me to name a famous Roman? Now I can also name a forgotten one!
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