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Three Novels of Ancient Rome: Memoirs of Hadrian, Julian, and Count Belisarius

One of the reasons I decided to do a Master’s degree in Ancient History came from my interest in seeing the ruins around Greece and Italy during my travels there. Another reason was my chance reading of Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius, which I picked up in a hostel in France two days before starting the Camino de Santiago and had already finished before starting the walk. Obviously I learned quite a lot about Ancient History doing an advanced degree, but the reading and studying was exclusively of an academic and historical nature. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I enjoy literature as well, for its own sake. When history meets literature it is classified as the genre of historical fiction–a creative reimagining of historical events into a fictional narrative. Recently I had the pleasure of reading several more examples, like I, Claudius, of historical fiction centered on ancient Rome that I had not had time enough or interest in while formerly focusing on pure historical research. They are, in chronological order of their protagonists’ lives, Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar; Julian, by Gore Vidal; and Count Belisarius, by Robert Graves.

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Hadrian is known by most people as the builder of a wall in northern England. In fact, he was arguably the most successful of all Roman emperors, as well as one of the most fascinating, in my opinion. He presided over the Empire for a brief period in which it was at its political and cultural apex, and almost completely at peace at home and abroad. Such a description obviously pays homage to Gibbon’s famous opening of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he claimed that the happiest period in history, until his own time of course, was during the reign of the so-called Five Good Emperors, of whom Hadrian was the third. Hadrian was a deeply committed philhellene who completed the synthesis of Roman and Greek culture. He was the only emperor to visit every part of the Empire, this while it was at its greatest geographical extent. He climbed Mt. Snowdon in northern Wales, crossed the Tigris River, and rode into the deserts of Algeria and Morocco. He was an architect, whose Pantheon, still standing proudly in Rome, used cutting edge dome technology, and whose villa at Tivoli is still evocative today; a poet, whose sole surviving poem is called “Animula vagula blandula” and has generated dozens of different translations (here is the novel’s version, and perhaps my favorite: “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again…Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes”); and a philosopher. We know that he also composed an autobiography, though unfortunately it is lost to us. Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman to be elected to the French Academy, made it her decades long life project to create her own version of this lost autobiography. The result, Memoirs of Hadrian, is a profound masterpiece.

The book takes the form of a letter from the dying Hadrian to his young adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius, who was destined to rule as the last of the aforementioned Five Good Emperors. This format has the wise and experienced Emperor giving advice to his future heir to the throne whilst at the same time recounting his life story. Hadrian came from a noble landowning family with deep roots in colonial Spain, like his predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan (in antiquity known as the so-called “Best Emperor”, which this book disputes–”He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”). Hadrian, a somewhat late bloomer, spent the first forty years of his life in civil and military service to the Empire, where he became known as a highly capable general, manager, and administrator (“Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man.”). The tale of his succession to the throne is gripping and well-told, and then we follow him in his constant travels around the Empire for the rest of his reign and life. His biggest occupation was shoring up the defenses and military capabilities of the Empire, maintaining peace through strength, and increasing general welfare and prosperity and spreading culture as widely as possible. This Hadrian, probably much like the historical one, is a refined and enlightened humanist who can be seen as far ahead of his times. The book portrays with taste and circumspection the tragic event of this emperor’s life, which was the death by drowning in the Nile of his 20-year-old Greek companion Antinoös. Hadrian reacted by building a new city on the site and founding a new cult in his honor which was one of the most widespread and well-attested in Roman antiquity (“Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is not what I seek. Beloved boy, so willful and brooding, your sacrifice will have enriched not my life but my death…Centuries as yet unborn within the dark womb of time would pass by thousands over that tomb without restoring life to him, but likewise without adding to his death, and without changing the fact that he had been.”).

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Besides the narrative itself, which flows nicely due to the constant action of the life of the protagonist, the book’s strength include its poetic and lyrical passages combined with its philosophical introspection that comes from the life of an experienced and wise author channelling a like-minded Emperor. Indeed, choosing just a few representative quotes from so many worthy ones is a difficult task, and I am certain this will earn a rare rereading by me. (“For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.”).

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a quite famous public figure in his day, and especially known as a writer of historical fiction like Burr and Lincoln. Julian, about the life of the eponymous Roman emperor, is considered one of the very best from Vidal’s long career; it is the only book I have read by him so far but I would easily imagine that to be the case. Julian, who earned the later sobriquet “the Apostate” from Christian writers, is the second Roman emperor I personally consider most fascinating, despite his short reign of only four years. Indeed, I did quite a bit of research about his life and times and almost focused my thesis on him. Julian (330-363), was a nephew of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and was destined to be the last heir of that dynasty before dying prematurely at the age of 33 (incidentally also the age of Jesus, Alexander, and me as I am writing this) under dubious circumstances during the retreat from a Persian campaign (the narrative tension at the end of this novel, and the most obviously invented fiction of the novel, involves a conspiracy over the death of the emperor).

Julian and his brother were raised in seclusion in Cappadocia after the sons of Constantine murdered the rest of his family in a paranoid pre-emptive strike against his familial rivals. Julian was very bookish and philosophically oriented; it would not be a stretch to say he was among the most educated and intellectual emperors in Roman history whose only real competitors would be Marcus Aurelius and the aforementioned Hadrian (and perhaps also Claudius, who was an antiquarian and the last known reader of the Etruscan language). Julian was also a deeply religious Christian whose study companions included two future Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil “the Great” of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, as well as another influential Christian writer, Gregory of Nazianzus. Julian also received philosophical training in Athens, where he listened to well-known orators and philosophers like Libanius and Priscus. At some point, Julian secretly renounced Christianity, the new state religion of his family, and adopted Hellenist paganism and sun worship.

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

The novel is written as a series of letters between the two previously mentioned philosophers years after Julian’s death. These letters form the frame story of Julian’s life, which is revealed in the chapters of his secret autobiography owned by Priscus and lent to Libanius with his own notes, to which Libanius adds his own comments. The events of the mid-4th century around which the story turns are interesting on their own account, and the retelling by Vidal makes them even richer and more alive. The characters are fully fleshed, from the false piety of the kin-slaying villain Constantius, Julian’s predecessor, to the fat, obsequious, and powerful eunuch Eusebius who ruled the huge court of the former. Julian is portrayed by the two story-tellers as an overly idealistic hero, whose goal of restoring the old Roman gods was always doomed to fail.

Most of Julian’s reign was spent in the second city of the Eastern empire, Antioch, preparing for a Persian campaign to follow in the footsteps of that always out-of-reach model of ambitious Romans, Alexander the Great. Despite Julian’s short reign, there is probably more extant writing from his own hand than any other emperor, as well as a myriad of other primary sources about his life. This was because of the literary circles Julian moved in no less than the caliber of his enemies, such as the previously mentioned Cappadocian Fathers. Julian wore an apparently ragged beard for most of his adult life, and, uniquely among all Roman emperors, wrote a satire disparaging himself in order to castigate the intolerable citizens of Antioch–Misopogon (Beard Hater). He also wrote a surviving satire on other Roman emperors in the style of Lucian of Samosata’s works and modeled and named after Plato’s Symposium. In this dialogue, Julian portrays a contest in front of the Olympian gods by all the Roman emperors to see who was the best among them. Julian takes this opportunity to make fun of them all, especially his uncle Constantine, and–Spoiler Alert–ultimately names Marcus Aurelius as the winner, but only because he didn’t stoop to the level of the other strivers, or even bother to respond.

Despite obvious fictional creations that historical fiction narrative requires, Julian is a very well-researched and historically accurate picture of the beginning of the Late Roman Empire. It is also a very entertaining novel in its own right with a certain amount of philosophical perspective that go well beyond commonplace, though not to the high standard of the profound and nuanced Memoirs of Hadrian. (“The rhetoric of hate is often most effective when couched in the idiom of love.” “Nothing human is finally calculable; even to ourselves we are strange.”) Though I have little interest in reading his American-centered historical fiction, I have already added Vidal’s Creation, his other foray into ancient Greek historical fiction, to my list.

First in order of composition but last in order of historical sequence comes Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius. Graves (whose World War I memoirs, Goodbye to All That, I already discussed at length in an earlier essay Goodbye to Christmas Truces) basically invented the genre of ancient Roman historical fiction with his 1934 I, Claudius, followed the following year by the sequel Claudius the God (an entertaining 1976 miniseries starring Derek Jacobi also featured a young and non-baldheaded Patrick Stewart as Sejanus). Count Belisarius (1938) was Graves’ next endeavor which moved the setting fully five centuries ahead to the height of the early Byzantine empire.

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Belisarius was a military commander who rose through the ranks to become the right-hand man of the emperor Justinian. Belisarius was an extremely capable leader and innovator who developed and trained a new hybrid unit of heavy cavalry archers. His character was honorable and virtuous to a fault, and he possessed every quality desired in the best emperors save one: personal ambition. Throughout his amazing career he never failed to follow orders and defer power back to the emperor, Justinian. This came at great cost, as Justinian was portrayed in this novel as a counterpart to the earlier villainous Constantius in Julian: weak, cowardly, venal, jealous, petty, and hypocritical. Justinian’s goal, in the novel, was to earn for himself the appellation “the Great”, and to further this aim he focused on reforming the law code, building great monuments (the magnificent Haghia Sophia stands as one positive testament to his reign), and spreading largesse to churches and monasteries. The great military successes of Belisarius were little regarded by Justinian, who would always recall him to the capital at inopportune times and always failed to send enough resources to ever truly win wars or hold new territory.

The deeds of Belisarius can be reckoned among the greatest of the ancient world along with Alexander, Caesar, and Hannibal. He won every kind of battle under any conditions, and his reputation was such that even the revanchist Persian empire sued for peace immediately when it was reported that he was returning to campaign there. He reclaimed the entire Roman coast of Africa which had been held by the Germanic tribe of Vandals for over a century. Then, in a long a destructive war he reclaimed all of the Italian peninsula from the Germanic Ostrogoths, who fielded a much larger army. Much of the damage to ancient Roman sites in Italy first occurred during these campaigns. Belisarius twice held the city of Rome from a besieging army 10 times larger, but the population dropped to just a few hundred for the next few centuries (after boasting one million residents during the height of the Empire). The novel recounts success after success by Belisarius in the face of adversity not only from enemies but from his own Emperor. There is also much narrative space devoted to the court intrigues between the great Byzantine women Theodora, the empress, and Antonina, Belisarius’ wife, as well as the chariot racing factions which ruled the politics of Constantinople. The novel is very well-written and very entertaining, and draws much of its historical framework from the gossipy account of Procopius, the court historian with an ax to grind, called The Secret History. Belisarius holds the honor of being the last person to receive a Roman triumph (and possibly the only person outside the Imperial family to receive such an honor since the last days of the Roman Republic fully seven centuries earlier).

"Belisarius begging for alms" by Jacques-Louis David

“Belisarius begging for alms” by Jacques-Louis David

The legend has it that Belisarius ended his days as a blind beggar after the unjust vengeance of Justinian for a non-existent treason against the throne. Ironically, the two men died within months of each other in the same year of 565. For a variety of reasons, Belisarius is one of the most compelling figures of late antiquity and Byzantine history, and, as I stated earlier, unequivocally one of the very best military commanders in history. Count Belisarius does justice to such a character, and its narrative force is at least as strong as Vidal’s Julian, though neither are ultimately as well-rounded and thoughtful as Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.


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