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in association with, click hereBelisarius: The First Shall Be Last
by Paolo Belzoni

…Belisarius was in high spirits as he rode and retained great hopes that his generation would be the one that revived the flagging fortunes of the empire. Within the last year, a new emperor had ascended the throne – an old soldier from Illyricum named Justin. The crown was offered to him because he was a solid if poorly educated man who could be counted on to maintain order. Hearkening back to the days of Roman glory and nobility, Justin had refused the diadem several times before finally yielding to the entreaties of the senate. He then went through the thoroughly un-Roman custom of being raised on a shield. The elevation of such an individual gave hope to young men across the empire that no matter how common one's birth, even the imperial dignity was not out of reach. And the army was the clearest vehicle for such promotion.

Thus young Belisarius sets out to conquer the world.

“Belisarius: The First Shall Be Last” is a first novel and Book I in a trilogy about the famed Byzantine general who briefly expanded the Roman Empire again. It begins with childhood vignettes and teenage exploits in fighting marauders, until the hero and his friends leave the Thracian town Germania to seek their fortune as soldiers under the emperor Justin, and the story takes off. Belisarius hopes are realized, and soon they all become members of the Imperial household guard.

The eminent historian Procopius was attached to Belisarius as legal secretary when the latter got his first major command, and the author follows the “Histoy of the Wars” closely, and most likely also the highly libelous “Secret History”.

Justinian, Justin’s nephew and heir, more or less rules the empire already. Affairs in the east do not look well, and the search for younger officers is on, who have to swear allegiance to him. Thus Belisarius is sent to fight the Persians, and he advances rapidly in his career. In the novel, there have been portends of this: one from a soothsayer when Belisarius was a two years old (and unbeknownst to him), the other through a holy man in Constantinople. The novel’s subtitle is taken from the former.

Life in Constantinople, at the imperial court, and in the army, is imaginatively handled. The emperor Justin comes off well as crusty – and crafty – old soldier, whereas Justinian is already depicted as under the influence of Theodora, not yet his wife while the old empress is still alive. Intrigues against the court are rampant. Forceful Antonina, Belisarius’ future wife, makes herself heard by her extensive letter-writing while he is in the field.

The Persian wars take up much of the story, and military history buffs will enjoy the depictions of the various campaigns and the battle scenes. The Persians, even when winning, do not come off too well, they are more often than not shown as caricatures.

A religious theme runs through the story, best embodied in Belisarius’ boyhood friend Florentius; the soldiers sing hymns before battle; and a Turin-like shroud makes its appearance at one point.

The novel ends just before the Nika Revolt.

Belisarius and most other major characters in the story are well-developed. On the down side, the prose is often awkward, and irksome modern colloquialisms creep in, such as Justinian saying “How goes it?”. The book cries out for a good, old-fashioned editor.

The book’s intended readership is Adult/Young Adult. The '248 pages' notation below is deceptive: the print font is rather small, so there is plenty to read.

© 2006 Irene B. Hahn

in association with, click hereBelisarius: The First Shall Be Last
by Paolo Belzoni
Trade Paperback, 248 pages
Arx Publishing
1st edition (December 2006)
ISBN: 1889758787
List Price $14.95

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