Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
Eugenius, the character who narrates the novel, asserts that "Count Belisarius had . . . a simple devotion to virtue, from which he never declined." Some critics complain that Belisarius' unwavering integrity makes him an unrealistic and one-dimensional character. A well-rounded character, according to this view, would have more flaws...
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Eugenius, the character who narrates the novel, asserts that "Count Belisarius had . . . a simple devotion to virtue, from which he never declined." Some critics complain that Belisarius' unwavering integrity makes him an unrealistic and one-dimensional character. A well-rounded character, according to this view, would have more flaws than does Belisarius. Graves was contemptuous of this criticism and asserted that Belisarius is "a really good man" and that those critics who disliked the characterization of Belisarius were merely unwilling to accept the idea that someone could be genuinely good.
Belisarius may be seen as a reflection of Claudius in I, Claudius (1934). In the Claudius novels, virtuous people are either murdered or forced into treacherous intrigues. Claudius himself survives by hiding his virtues, such as his intelligence and love of liberty. On the other hand, Belisarius' virtues are obvious and open. He is a good Christian who honors his pledges and serves both his emperor and his fellow citizens. His honorable conduct is rewarded with cruelty. Thus, Belisarius is emblematic of the ideal Christian. As Eugenius puts it, "Those of you for whom the Gospel story carries historical weight may perhaps say that Belisarius behaved at his trial before Justinian very much as his Master [Christ] had done before Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea — when unjustly accused of the very same crime, namely treason against the Empire; and that he suffered no less patiently." Belisarius' role as a Christ-figure would seem to confirm complaints about his unrealistic treatment; it is hard to make a symbol seem anything but remote and unhuman.
Even so, Belisarius' religious beliefs provide motivation for his conduct. For instance, he would not engage in the sort of deceptions that save Claudius in I, Claudius because they would be deceitful and therefore against his concepts of good Christian behavior. In addition, Belisarius does have flaws. He is a proud man, whose upright demeanor invites hostility from those who would prefer he showed some humility. Furthermore, he too often puts his honor ahead of the well-being of his wife Antonina. Overall, Belisarius is a man who tries to be a good Christian, a good military man, and a good subject of the Byzantine Empire, and the novel is largely about his efforts to remain a good man in an amoral world that is filled with temptations and treachery.
Justinian is portrayed as cruel and selfish. The household slave of Antonina, Eugenius, may reasonably be expected to praise Belisarius and to condemn Justinian. Of the Emperor, he reports this story: "They say that Justinian's end was both noisome and weird; and that as he finally gave up the ghost, squeaking with terror, the voice of the Father of Lies rang through the Palace rooms, in sinister parody of the Scriptures: 'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'" Even so, Eugenius declares that Justinian "was very zealous for the Christian faith" but had only learned how to deal with evildoers, not virtuous people like Belisarius. Justinian is thus tormented by suspicion as well as envy of Belisarius' straightforward virtue.