A Boy’s Own Decline and Fall: two views of the late Roman Empire

Two very different men face the turbulance and uncertainty of the late Roman Empire. 


I have, in my eclectic collection, two novels which I first read years ago and which, put together, give a fascinating overview of a period of history which is usually neglected, the latter years of the Roman Empire. This neglect is borne out by the fact that when, knowing little about this period, I consulted my library catalogue to find a general history, the only book they had was the classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon written over 250 years ago. (Fortunately there was an illustrated abridged edition I could cope with.) Gibbon’s vast oeuvre is daunting, but I would recommend it for the language alone. I do not think I have ever read history expressed in such delightfully elegant terms. I could easily imagine Jane Austen whiling away many an hour over it.

But back to our sheep as my French professor used to say. The two novels in question are Julian by Gore Vidal (1962) and Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938). A nephew of Constantine the Great, Julian became Emperor in 361AD. During his two-year reign he earned the appellation ‘The Apostate’ for trying to restore the worship of the ancient gods. Belisarius was born around 500AD and was the most brilliant general of his day. He began the transformation that would turn the classic Roman infantryman into the mounted knight of Medieval times.

Spoiler alert: this study goes into detail about these books, including their endings (but as these are biographical novels about actual historical figures, you know how they must end.)

A statue of the Emperor Julian
Emperor Julian

The Roman Empire these two men knew was very different from the empire inherited soon after the time of Christ by the Claudius we met in Graves’ most well-known historical novels. Although the boundaries of the empire had changed little in the intervening years its character had changed markedly. It was continually at war, not only to maintain those boundaries against the barbarian tribes that were constantly straining and crossing it, but with itself.

A process for succession to the position of emperor was never fixed. It might occur through the incumbent nominating a member of his family, it might be by acclamation by the army or it might be by usurpation. This meant that the emperor always felt threatened by any relative or military leader who might covet his position. And as the empire proved too big and unwieldy to be controlled by one man, several forms of multiple leadership were experimented with. However, the inevitable distrust and jealousy between the leaders often led to civil war.

In Julian’s time, there was one emperor, entitled Augustus, who would give his heirs apparent the title of Caesar together with responsibility for a particular part of the empire. Although this system seems logical it still did not eliminate fear or jealousy. By Berlisarius’ time, the empire had been divided into two, the West and the East, but the western empire had been overrun by Germanic tribes and existed in name only.

The role of emperor had also changed. While Augustus, despite his wealth and power, had always considered himself the first among equals, by Julian’s time, the emperor’s court had taken on all the mystique and pomp of an oriental potentate’s. The emperor was a solemn and distant figure, rarely seen by the people, dressed in splendid purple robes and attended by a train of household eunuchs who protected and controlled him.

The culture of the empire had also changed. Rome had always been on the periphery of the civilised world, but its citizens had held to a strong Roman identity. By Julian’s time, Rome itself had been abandoned by the emperor whose western court was held in Milan, but who resided mostly in Constantinople. The focus of the empire had turned east politically and culturally, and the language and mindset of the elite was now Greek. Latin was retained only as a ceremonial language, and as the rough camp Latin of the army.

Under Julian’s uncle, Constantine the Great, Christianity had become the state religion and the ancient gods had been abandoned. But the saintly early church had since changed into a collection of warring factions, who, forgetting Jesus’ fundamental message of ‘Love one another’, fought constantly over a theological matter that never seemed to bother their founder: What was the nature of Jesus? Was he God or Man, or both and in what proportion? The battle raged in Julian’s time and had still not been resolved in Belisarius’.

Although these two novels make a complementary pair, I was struck by how different the are. Vidal has succeeded in writing in a style that is modern and colloquial, but without being jarringly anachronistic. Julian is structured around three narrators. Mostly it purports to be Julian’s own notes for an autobiography which are interspersed with the annotations by and correspondence between two of his philosophical mentors who hope to edit and publish it. Written in the first person with comments from observers who love him but are not blind to his shortcomings, it gives a well-rounded picture of Julian. As the text stands it is ‘not meant for publication’ and thus not aimed at posterity, so the historical context is not overtly filled out, yet we get a full picture of Julian’s world.

Count Belisarius on the other hand purports to be a history written by one Eugenius, household eunuch and devoted slave to Belisarius’ wife Antonina. Written in a style that has a strong archaic feel, but without seeming stodgy or affected, it yet comes close to hagiography. Belisarius is portrayed as a warrior saint whose only flaw is a certain earnest gravity. Aimed squarely at posterity, it gives us a broad and detailed panorama of the period and its protagonists.

Yet for all these contrasts, the two eponymous characters have much in common. Both are military men, both are men of honour trying to maintain their integrity against hostile forces, and both hold strong spiritual beliefs. They also live lives made precarious by their inimical relationships with their emperors.

Cover image of Julian by Gore VidalJulian is born into the imperial family. His father is the half brother of Constantine the Great. When Constantine dies, he bequeaths his empire to his three sons, but the arrangement does not last long and in the war that ensues the victor is Constantius, a ruthless man of rather limited intellect. He secures his throne by slaughtering all of his close relatives. Julian and his older brother Gallus only survive because they are children — Julian just six, and Gallus twelve, but sickly and not expected to survive long.

They are kept under close but comfortable house arrest far from Constantinople. While Gallus, a rather arrogant and heartless boy, tends towards the martial arts, Julian prefers his books and is destined for the church. However, even at a young age, Julian questions the integrity of Christianity. How can a man call himself a devout Christian, as does his cousin Constantius, yet put all of his family to death? By the time he reaches his teens, Julian has secretly rejected Christianity and has turned to the ancient Hellenic gods.

While Julian would prefer to devote his life to philosophy, his destiny lies elsewhere. Constantius is unable to have children, a punishment he ascribes to his killing his relatives. His only recourse is to make Gallus and Julian his heirs. However, he is never at ease with this necessity. When Gallus proves to be monstrously ungovernable, Constantius has him executed and Julian’s own life is on the line until Constantius is finally persuaded to appoint him Caesar and send him to command the army in Gaul.

Despite having never studied the arts of war before, Julian applies his considerable intellect to the work and is spectacularly successful in defending the western borders of the empire. However, his very success stokes Constantius’ paranoia. Julian discovers that when your emperor suspects you of coveting his throne, the only way to protect yourself is to do just what he expects and overthrow him. With the support of his devoted army, Julian sets off across Europe to Constantinople, but finds that Constantius died just before his arrival. He enters Constantinople as emperor to popular acclaim.

However, Julian soon loses his popularity as he takes on one of the most powerful forces in the empire, the Christian church. Julian removes its status as the state religion and sets the rival factions against each other. He then sets about re-establishing the old gods, rebuilding and restoring their temples and re-introducing ancient sacrificial and mystical practices. However, Julian tries to achieve too much too quickly. Too much has been lost. Too few practitioners of the old religion remain to re-establish the old ceremonies on the scale he demands. At the same time, despite his intellect, Julian is vulnerable to exploitation by charlatans who take advantage of his genuine spiritual quest. He becomes convinced that he is possessed by the spirit of Alexander the Great and sets out to emulate his conquest of Persia.

Throughout this period, Persia was the great nemesis of the Roman Empire. Just as in Vidal’s own time, there was an uneasy balance between these two great superpowers. Persia could never gather the strength to do more than nibble at the border, while it was protected from Roman invasion by its difficult terrain of desert and broad rivers. Julian’s invasion of Persia starts out well, but eventually falters and turns disastrous. During the long retreat, Julian is wounded in a skirmish under suspicious circumstances and dies. His friends are convinced he was assassinated in a Christian conspiracy.

Cover image of Count Belisarius by Robert GravesBelisarius is born into a patrician family. His mother, a devout Christian, inculcates in him a simple religious devotion he never loses. Even as a schoolboy he shows himself to be a leader of men and as a teenager becomes a cavalry officer. Of Slavic background himself, Belisarius is open to all the influences available to him in a multicultural empire. He adapts all he learns about military skills and technology to the training and equipping of his own household cavalry which over the years proves to be almost invincible. A brilliant leader and tactician, Belisarius becomes the empire’s most gifted general and spends his life in constant military campaigns in North Africa, Persia and Italy, winning the last back from the Gothic invaders.

However, the emperor at the time, Justinian, is as limited and paranoid as Constantius. The narrator Eugenius believes Justinian is so evil that he is possessed by the Devil himself, despite his Christian professions. Justinian cannot believe that Belisarius is his devoted servant and has no interest in taking his throne. Belisarius never does learn the lesson Julian did, and steadfastly refuses the crown despite several times being in a position to usurp it. Belisarius is only protected from Justinian’s jealousy by the empress Theodora who is a childhood friend of his beloved wife Antonina. After her death he is cruelly destroyed by Justinian and dies the death of a Christian martyr.

These novels are designed to be enjoyed by men. If you are looking for romance, look elsewhere. Neither hero has much time for women, Julian taking a vow of celibacy after a very limited experience and Belisarius being strictly faithful to his wife. These are books of action and ideas.

And there is action aplenty, especially in Count Belisarius, where there is one battle after another and another and another. Julian fortunately skips all the battles, except the most important ones, with a cheeky expedient. Every time he gets to one in his narrative, Julian just leaves a note for his secretary to insert the relevant passage from his military memoir.

Julian as a character is both profound and naïve. He is an intellectual in pursuit of knowledge and philosophy yet at the same time retains a certain innocence and sense of wonder. His spiritual journey is triggered by a mystical experience in which he feels touched by Helios, the sun god himself, and it is this divine union that he is seeking. Yet he becomes waylaid by the superstitious trappings of the old religion and allows himself to be exploited and deceived. The reader is left with the impression that if Julian had not been disillusioned with Christianity, he would have made a renowned Christian mystic.

Unfortunately, the reader does not get to know Belisarius at all well. The narrator’s admiration comes between them. Belisarius remains something of a Byzantine icon — perfect, serene and distant. In his forward, Graves compares Belisarius to King Arthur. They were both romantic heroes, he says, fighting the same battle, the only difference being that Belisarius’ story was not handed down as a fairy tale but written by his Greek-educated secretary. Yet Graves does make something of a fairy-tale hero of Belisarius, in that he is perfect in all things, his only errors being as a result of his exalted virtues. Although by the end the reader feels sad for him, it is difficult to empathise with him.

Both novels explore similar sub-themes — the nature of power, and the integrity of the early church.

Byzantine mosaic of the Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian

In both books, the hero’s nemesis is not the barbarian horde he is constantly at war with, but his own emperor. Both our heroes are honourable men who do not crave power, but their emperors constantly project onto them their own craving and are unable to see past their own failings. Both Constantius and Justinian try to protect themselves by destroying their rival. Their fear and jealously bring them close to insanity.

Julian manages to fight back. Constantius has not earned his loyalty. Belisarius maintains his loyalty to Justinian, however undeserved it is. He refuses to fight back and is destroyed.

Both authors show the Christianity of this period in a very poor light. The rivalry between the various theological camps is played out as merciless violence in Julian and near farce in Count Belisarius. Both protagonists are maintained by their religious faith, but not by the beliefs of the world around him. Julian rejects Christianity altogether, but his spiritual quest ends in self-delusion. Belisarius retains his beliefs by divorcing himself from the surrounding controversy. In the end he dies physically destroyed but morally triumphant.

Reading both these books does need something of a commitment. Julian, with its more human approach to its protagonist, is a much more satisfying read. I would only recommend Count Belisarius to readers who are interested in matters military.


©Pauline Montagna 2007


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