Book Review: Belisarius: The Last Roman General


by Ian Hughes

Barnesley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2014. Pp. xvi, 272. Illus., maps, plan, appends., biblio., index. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 1473822971

The Last Great Captain of Antiquity

Hughes, who has written widely on the late Roman Army, including Aetius: Attila's Nemesis , gives us an excellent life and times of Flavius Belisarius (c. AD 505 -5 65) , the Emperor Justinian’s great general. Surprisingly overlooked in most discussions of the “Great Captains,” Belisarius performed amazingly well on numerous occasions, and his victories, particularly in Africa and Sicily, but also in the East, stood for centuries.

Hughes rejects the image created by Robert Graves in his novel Count Belisarius, of a virtually undefeated, nearly saintly hero much put upon by his Emperor. We get Belisarius’s defeats as well as his victories.  Hughes sets the man and his campaigns within his times. So where, for example, Graves sees the apparently small armies he was given as signs of imperial parsimony and even jealousy, Hughes discusses the overall manpower problems of the Empire and compares these with the usually greater resources of its foes,  So we get a picture of an empire with many needs and slender resources, and of an Emperor willing to grant his general one of the last consulships ever awarded, and perhaps the last ever triumph. 

This analytical approach, which requires critical evaluations of the original sources, covers competing military systems, weapons, tactics, and leaders, and includes considerable background material, to help explain the “why” of various political and even strategic decisions. Although marred by a lack of footnoting, Belisarius is an excellent work, useful for the serious student of the period, and a valuable introduction to the times for the novice.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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