Belisarius, Book 1: The First Shall Be Last by Paolo A. Belzoni
2006, Arx Publishing, 239 pages, softcover
I have to admit that I had high expectations for this book! I had been looking for something for this time period for more than a year. And, thankfully, my expectations were well met . . . this is a great new resource for those of you “reading your way through history.”
Belisarius was a general under Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. He was renowned as a virtuous and courageous leader who accomplished great victories despite unsupportive and even imprudent superiors. Without him, Justinian’s reign could not have been as long-loved and illustrious.
This novel deals with the early life and military career of Belisarius. It begins with a young Belisarius and his mother successfully surviving a raid by the Huns. He then grows up training as a soldier with his father while obtaining a solid book education as well. He is portrayed as a devout and virtuous young man who has natural leadership skills and keen military understanding.
When he enlists as a soldier, he doesn’t always have an easy time of it, but makes his way through the political intrigue of the times and is well respected by all those who serve with him. They are ready to follow him when he is appointed to one leadership role after another, until finally he is named a general.
What I really like about this telling of the story is that it is not a white-washed version of the times, or of Belisarius. His virtue is portrayed sensibly without making him appear overly perfect. He is an appealing character, one the reader sympathizes with and roots for. He is often put in situations that appear impossible; many obstacles - from incompetent fellow commanders to conspiring politicians - frustrate his purpose. But, while he is not always victorious, he acquits himself well and his honor increases.
The author weaves in a great view of the historical time period in Byzantium: the state of the cities, “the factions,” the movement and assimilation of the barbarians, and the politics of the Empire. The descriptions of the battle scenes are not dry and incomprehensible (as in some military biographies), but very readable and interesting. The author also includes diagrams of several of the battle formations showing how each side was arrayed and ready to engage. This helped tremendously when trying to visualize the battles. A glossary of definitions is also provided. I found this to be essential since the names used to describe the army in this novel are “eastern” instead of Roman and were unfamiliar to me. For example, instead of a Centurion being in charge of 100 soldiers, the title is Hekatontarch.
Serving the cunning Emperor Justinian is not always easy for Belisarius, and there is a lot of foreshadowing that things will not always go well in their relationship, but as this story ends, Belsarius gains an important and decisive victory over the Persians and Justinian is satisfied. I await Book 2 with great anticipation . . . and a little dread if I am right about the foreshadowing.
Recommended for 8th grade and older. (Some of the battle scenes get a little gory, so keep that in mind if you have sensitive readers.)
Reviewed by Margot Davidson (11-2-06)