Count Belisarius Themes
by Robert Graves

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The events of Count Belisarius take place in the sixth century in the Mediterranean region. In the society of that time and place, religion, especially Christianity, was often regarded as a political matter, with not only individual people but whole populations shifting from one religion to another when political or military power shifted from one religious faction to another. Views on morality were also different from modern ones. The historical Empress Theodora was once a prostitute; although some pious Christians would have objected to Emperor Justinian marrying her, most citizens of the Byzantine Empire would have seen nothing extraordinary in her profession. The world of Belisarius' day was one of palace intrigue, shifting alliances, and universal treachery.

In his foreword to Count Belisarius, Graves points out that the armies of Belisarius' time were much different from the armies of Julius Caesar's era: "Belisarius . . . is a Christian commander of mail-clad Household knights, nearly all of barbarian birth, whose individual feats rival those of King Arthur's heroes." Belisarius' soldiers are gallant romantic knights, who protect the empire and its people from foreign enemies. They ride large, heavy horses, fight with lances and swords, and give their allegiance to their military commanders rather than to nation or religion.

The principal themes of Count Belisarius involve ingratitude and nobility. Emperor Justinian is always jealous and suspicious of Belisarius. Although Belisarius serves his emperor faithfully and unselfishly, he is repaid with calumny and cruelty, and eventually the emperor has his eyes pierced "with red-hot needles." In spite of the evil done him, Belisarius remains a faithful subject. His noble conduct wins him the admiration of the public. In him is played out the conflict between virtue and corruption.