Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Honour by Jack Ludlow

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

When we left a young Flavius Belasarius in  the first book of Ludlow's "The Last Roman" series "Vengeance", Flavius had successfully avenged the death of his father and brothers at the hands of a treacherous Roman senator and had been accepted into the household of his father's old comrade Justinus, commander of the excubitors, the emperor's imperial guard in Constantinople.  Book 2, "Honour", picks up three years later in which Flavius, now a young excubitor officer, has been sent to the eastern Persian frontier by Justinus to hone his military skills.

There, Flavius discovers Persian raiders frequently cross into Byzantine territory to plunder Roman settlements then flee back across the border, usually without consequence because Emperor Anastasius has standing orders for the Roman army not to cross the Sassanid border.

Anastasius, flush with gold, has traditionally paid tribute to the Persian King Kavadh to prevent clashes along the Byzantine frontier.  But Kavadh's nobles are a fractious bunch and when they start getting restless and threaten rebellion, Kavadh must initiate raids into Byzantine territory to extort more Roman gold and resupply the Persian coffers from which Kavadh will essentially buy his continued rule.  This cycle of extortion has apparently gone on for some years.

 One day in 518 CE he receives a message from Justinus' nephew recalling him to Constantinople where the Emperor Anastasius lies dying.  Upon arrival, the nephew, Petrus Sabbatius (the future Emperor Justinian), quickly entangles Flavius in a conspiracy to spirit away a cache of gold from a powerful courtier planning to use it to support a new candidate for the imperial throne.  Petrus subsequently uses the gold to buy support for his uncle and when Anastasius finally expires, the excubitors, like the praetorians of old Rome, proclaim Justinus Emperor Justin I.

Flavius convinces Justin and Petrus to let him raise and train a special unit of armored cavalry that are mounted on faster horses, wear lighter armor than the Persian cataphracts and are proficient with a Hunnic compound bow.  This unit will become known as his bucellarii and will be an important component in Belisarius' future victories.

Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the era of Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a Persian cataphract.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Flavius is given his own command at the tender age of only 25 and ordered back to the Persian frontier and assigned a secretary/legal advisor named Procopius.  The rest of the novel closely follows the events described in Procopius' "Wars of Justinian".

Procopius of Caesarea turns out to be the most eminent of sixth century historians although many modern scholars have a tendency to doubt much of what he wrote in his most famous work "Wars of Justinian" because he is also attributed as the author of what has become known as "The Secret History" also known as the Anekdota, a virtual diatribe against Justinian and Theodora with even unflattering criticism of Belisarius, mostly surrounding his relationship with his wife, Antonina, a close friend of Theodora.

Mosaic depicting the Empress Theodora flanked by a chaplain on her right and a court lady believed to be Belisarius' wife Antonina on her left.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Scholar Charles F. Pazdernik thinks Procopius, though, was a classically trained historian who may have  attended the school of Thucydidean studies in sixth-century Gaza.

"...Procopius is our key witness to a period of great transition and upheaval, for which he supplies a continuous historical narrative conditioned by his own distinctive point of view.  Consideration of his allusions to Thucydides leads one to examine Procopius' broader political and cultural allegiances and the lively engagement he demostrates in all of his works with questions about the legitimate uses of power and their role in influencing historical change.  By calling attention to the position of lesser parties implicated in conflict and drawing striking parallels between their plight and comparable situation in Thucydides, Procopius presents himself as a powerful and nuanced critic of Justinian's expansionist policies." - Charles F. Pazdernik, Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field

A bust of Thucydides at the Pushkin Museum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
He points out how Procopius astutely compared the campaigns of Belisarius with those of Brasidas, a classical Spartan general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian War.

"Both Brasidas and Belisarius proclaim a campaign of liberation, undertaken on behalf of the populations whose cooperation they hope to secure, against their opponents, whose rule they characterize as illegitimate and despotic."

He goes on to draw comparisons between the tactics of Belisarius in North Africa against the Vandals and at the siege of Naples during the Ostrogothic War with those employed by Brasida to sway Greek city-states away from Athenian influence.

"In depicting these battles for hearts and minds, however, both Thucydides and Procopius expose the cold calculations of Machtpolitik that lie at the heart of such appeals.  The inhabitants of the invaded territories are persuaded to be liberated, yet their welfare is not the foremost concern of the invader.  The respective fates of the Thracian cities of Mende and Skione at the close of the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 4.120-24, 129-33, 5.18,32) and Naples at the outset of the Ostrogothic War (Wars 5.8-10) demonstrate the ambivalence of both figures.  Nor are the would-be liberators themselves free from entanglements with their respective governments.  In the end the priorities of the rulers at home, and not those of the crusading generals themselves, determine the objectives of the conflict."

We follow Flavius, with Procopius at his side, from his famous victory against the Persians at Dara to North Africa and the conquest of the Vandals then on to Italy.  But with Flavius' victories comes heightened suspicions back in Constantinople. Ludlow does appear to base much of the characters of Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius' wife Antonina on the information included in Procopius' Secret History.

Fragment of a North African mosaic depicting a vandal.  Public domain image.

Although I personally don't doubt the degree of corruption in Justinian's court, I have a problem with the thinly veiled propaganda in The Secret History.  It just sounds too much like the defamatory pieces I have read about Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Nero and Domitian.  The Roman Empire has a long history of patronized historians issuing "biographies" of unpopular emperors rife with sexual innuendos and vile behaviors.  Added to this the fact that this work attributed to Procopius was "discovered" in the Vatican Library almost a thousand years after it was written but not published.  Added to that, this discovery occured some time after the "Great Schism" between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Although The Secret History was not officially published by Niccolò Alamanni until 1623, those who support its authenticity point to its reference in the Suda, a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia.  But I think we cannot dismiss the fact that the Great Schism of 1054 also falls within this time frame.  Both Justinian and Theodora were sainted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It just seems too coincidental to me that a document villifying them is documented at this critical time in church history.

Anyway, at least for fictional purposes, the antics described in The Secret History certainly liven up a narrative.  It also made Belisarius even more admirable reading how honorable he tried to be in his dealings with the enemy and even his emperor only to be rewarded with suspicion and betrayal.

Again, Ludlow has produced a fascinating narrative filled with vibrant characters drawn from meticulous research and real historical events.  I was appalled by a review posted on Amazon by another reviewer accusing Ludlow of sloppy research.  In fact the incidents claimed to be erroneous in the review were incorrect on the part of the reviewer.  The John Vitalian referred to as a subordinate general to Belisarius during the effort to capture Ravenna was the nephew of the Vitalian the reviewer was thinking about who was murdered on the orders of Justinian near the beginning of his reign.  In the Audible version I listened to the Empress Euphemia was clearly the wife of Justin not Justinian.  Who knows, maybe that reviewer based his review on an unpublished rough draft or something.  Also, to criticize Ludlow for similarities to Robert Graves novel, Count Belisarius does not take into account that both authors used Procopius as their definitive ancient source.

I think you will find this series really brings the sixth century and the famous general Belisarius to life and I recommend it highly! 

References:

Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field by
Charles F. Pazdernik, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 130 (2000), pp. 149-187

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