Belisarius, Book 1: The First Shall Be Last
Belisarius was the great general whose leadership of the Byzantine armies of the Emperor Justinian during the 6th century led to the reconquest of North Africa and most of Italy from the Vandals and Ostrogoths. Belzoni’s first volume deals with his youthful exploits and his first campaign against the Persians, culminating in the Battle of Daras (530 AD).
Although it does provide some background on the complex religious and political situation in the empire, the novel focuses upon its hero’s military career. The events described are exciting, but the narrative suffers from stylistic clumsiness. This is unsurprising in a first novel, but unfortunately it invites unflattering comparison with the easy fluency of a more graceful treatment of this story, Count Belisarius (1938) by Robert Graves. Nor does the tone of moral earnestness help, though it probably appeals to the religious leanings of the audience at which the publisher aims. As a result the characters tend to be divided between the strikingly virtuous and those unsavory figures who are marked by pride and ambition, sloth and self-indulgence. The debt to the historian Procopius, who served as Belisarius’s secretary, should have been acknowledged in the Historical Note.