Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Robert Graves, Count Belisarius and Lawrence of Arabia

In the historical novel, Count Belisarius written in 1938, novelist and poet, Robert Graves, offered the reader a fictional yet authentic account of the life of Belisarius, the brilliant general who restored the influence of the Byzantine Empire in North Africa and Italy during the reign of 6th century Emperor Justinian. Yet from the account of the life of Belisarius emerges a vivid description of character which I contend shows a great resemblance to that of Lawrence of Arabia, whose remarkable achievements had astounded the western world only twenty years earlier. This resemblance, I would argue, was not a coincidence.

When Count Belisarius was first published Graves was confronted with numerous negative reviews. Most criticised the novel for its stiff portrayal of the main character, finding him to be "altogether too noble". Graves, never a lover of critics, reacted strongly. In one of two letters which he wrote to The Sunday Times he claimed that it was "a shocking comment on twentieth century literary taste that when ... a really good man is shown ... it must be said that he does not come to life".  Graves had side-stepped the real issue here, namely the literary criticism of his own penmanship. Instead he shifted ground and accused his critics of lacking taste, even morality, thereby transforming his work into a statement of objective values, because he had shown Belisarius to have been "a really good man". Moreover, his expression - "a really good man" - is of interest. It is surprising to see Graves using a term of such absolute admiration. In none of his previous works can we perceive such panegyrics, with the exception of his biography of Lawrence of Arabia from 1928 - a work that is best described as hagiography. In fact the belief in "good men" is in direct contradiction with the opinion which Graves expressed to his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon: "I do not believe in great men".

                             Robert Graves

Perhaps Graves did not believe in great men and Belisarius is the exception which proves the rule. One might argue that when Graves wrote to Sassoon in 1930 he had not yet realised the extent of Belisarius' greatness and therefore was as yet unaware that a great man had ever existed. Neither of these objections, however, will stand up to closer inspection. Belisarius was not the only exception to the rule, for Graves was already aware of the existence of a great man before he penned his letter to Sassoon. We learn this from a letter he wrote in 1921 in which he described someone with the very words "a great man". The ‘someone’ in question was T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, hero of the Arab Rebellion againt the Turks during World War One. Obviously Graves did not make it a habit of believing in great men but he made two exceptions: Count Belisarius and T.E. Lawrence.

One might claim that Graves described Belisarius as being 'good', not as being 'great'. A close reading of Count Belisarius erases any doubt. Belisarius is portrayed as possessing all the ingredients of greatness; bravery, honour, compassion, intelligence, loyalty. The narrator of the novel, Eugenius - a Christian, ends his narration by saying that those who abide by the pagan customs and believe that virtue is the highest honour will be confronted in their beliefs by the example of Belisarius: "For Count Belisarius had such a simple devotion to virtue". He then adds, ''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 had done before Pontius Pilate". When a Christian compares a person with Christ, surely this counts as awarding him the title 'great man'. Belisarius and Lawrence were singled out for special treatment. Lawrence was 'great' and Belisarius comparable to Christ.  But what of Lawrence? Doesn't he too deserve a comparison with Jesus Christ? Graves obviously thought he did and in a letter to the military historian and biographer of Lawrence (and admirer of Belisarius as well), Basil Liddell Hart, he wrote: "Let us be Plutarchean for once and make a comparison between T.E. and Jesus Christ." In my reading of Graves I can only find two comparisons of historical individuals with Christ – Belisarius and Lawrence of Arabia.

              T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia

Renunciation of the Flesh

Critics found the Belisarius of Graves "too noble". We learn from the novel that as a youth Belisarius had taken an oath "renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil". Unflinching in the face of danger, incorruptible in a world of intrigue, uncontaminated by the temptations of selfish ambition; Graves would no doubt have agreed with Gibbon that Belisarius was "a hero who in the vigour of life disdained the fairest offers of ambition and revenge". This description is equally applicable to Graves’ view of T. E. Lawrence. Graves felt that Lawrence had renounced the world, the flesh and the devil. Lawrence had discarded the army rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and, though one of the heroes of the Great War, sought anonymity by re-enlisting as an aircraftsman in the RAF. This rejection of worldly ambition was impressed on Graves by Lawrence himself who wrote: "when I first went into the RAF... it was the nearest equivalent of going into a monastery in the Middle Ages". Graves denied the possibility that Lawrence was gay and believed that his rejection of the flesh meant that he died a virgin. Finally, Graves admitted that Lawrence was tempted by the devil but in this he was compared to Jesus Christ and, presumably, did not give in to temptation. Graves admitted that Lawrence "could never squarely face the fact of the existence of women". In this Graves felt that Lawrence was similar to Jesus Christ for "both had mothers, and both tried to manage without women (with as little offence to women as possible)."

But Lawrence's puritanism bears an equal resemblance to that of Belisarius in the novel of Graves. Graves quotes the citizens of Constantinople as saying: "He (Belisarius) is a sort of monster. No man ever saw him drunk; he dresses as simply as his station allows; so far from being lecherous, he has not so much as cast a longing eye on a single one of his captured women”. Unlike Lawrence, Belisarius did partake in the pleasures of the flesh; at least we may suppose so, for even Graves could not hide the fact that Belisarius married an ex-courtesan called Antonina. Interestingly, Graves portrayed the marriage as having been based on equality and comradeship. Antonina is more than a wife to Belisarius; she is his friend and companion, an astute defender of his political interests and a capable fellow military commander. In Graves' eyes, the private life of Belisarius, like that of Lawrence, was a-sexual. Also, the fact that Belisarius was married ought not to entice us to conclude that he could do what Lawrence could not do, namely, "face the fact of the existence of women". When Belisarius discovered that his wife had been having an affair with his own adopted son Theodosius, his initial reaction was one of consternation; "he wished to kill Theodosius ... he wished to kill ... Antonina ... he wished to kil1 himself”. Instead he drew the comforting conclusion that she had been seduced against her own will by some evil magic. In other words, he denied the existence of Antonina's sexual urge. Eventually he permits himself to be convinced that the whole affair was pure fabrication.

Clearly, in a matter as queasy as female sexuality the Belisarius of Graves, like the real Lawrence, prized ignorance.

A Soldier's Honour

In 1929 Graves wrote to Edward Marsh that Lawrence was: "legendary for his honour" and in the same year wrote in his autobiographical Good-Bye to All That: "It was a point of honour to him (Lawrence) not to make any money out of the revolt". Years later Graves, in a short essay, claimed that honour is the most important ingredient in a man's morality. Revealingly, the title of that essay was A Soldier's Honour. Belisarius was a soldier and, clearly, an honourable one. Lawrence was honourable, but was he a real soldier? The opinion of Graves leaves no room for doubt: "He (Lawrence) was, merely, to me, a fellow-soldier.” That Graves should consider honour as being associated with soldiers ought not to surprise us. His Good-Bye to All That has been called an anti-war book. Graves was not a pacifist and his autobiography was an attack on the stupidity of the 1914-1918 war only. He had suffered the harrowing experience of seeing how normal young men could be transformed into killers:

                                        "How furiously against your will
                                         You kill and kill again, and kill:
                                         All thought of peace behind you cast"
                                         Country at War

He had discovered new depths to the meaning of "Death the Leveller":

                                       "Yet in his death this cut-throat wild
                                        Groaned 'Mother! Mother!' like a child,
                                        While that poor innocent in man's clothes
                                        Died cursing God with brutal oaths."
                                        The Leveller

However, these experiences did not bring about total rejection of war. British comedian Spike Milligan though a good friend of Graves, admitted that they disagreed about one thing: war. He remarked that Graves had "a macho regard for war - he seemed to have a certain liking for it, if only poetic." This despite the fact that Graves had written to Milligan that war was becoming more and more repulsive "with napalm, Saigon-syphilis, Rest and Recreation brothels, lies, defoliation, massacre of children." It is not war that Graves objected to, only the destructiveness, even vulgarity, of modern warfare. Indeed he claimed that war was a "natural human function", but no less a person than T.E. Lawrence had convinced him that warfare had ceased to be human when the English introduced the use of 'artillery' and defeated the French at Crecy in 1346. Hence, "Military genius has now come to be a contradiction in terms.” Graves, then, had a romantic view of war. Sometime in the distant past war had been an honourable practice. Furthermore, in that lost era military genius was still possible. The idealization of Belisarius that we find in Count Belisarius is consistent with this point of view. Here is a general of the pre-Crecy past, when it was still possible to be a genuine hero. No napalm, but surely Graves would have had to admit that even in this distant age children were massacred and women prostituted. In the opening chapters of Count Belisarius Graves does comment that the inevitable degeneration of warfare had already commenced in the early centuries after Christ. He introduces the fictitious person Modestus, a character whose "strained rhetorical talk full of puns and recondite allusions" make him anything but modest. For Modestus, like Lawrence and Graves, one particular battle represented a historical calamity and an end to civilized warfare. Modestus' Crecy was the battle of Adrianople when the brave Roman legionnaires were slaughtered due to the cowardice of the cavalry: "Our allied cavalry betrayed us. That was all. The legions fought to the death.” Modern innovation on the battlefield had destroyed the invincibility of the honourable Roman foot-soldier. It was Belisarius who restored influence to the Eastern Roman Empire. Here was a character who, though a soldier, was first and foremost a "really good man". Far from the age of trench-warfare and despite the disaster of Adrianople he had turned the tide of warfare's degeneration and reinvested the word 'honour' with meaning. Furthermore, here is a gentleman-general who admits: "Nobody with the smallest claim to common sense enjoys fighting, even when fighting is necessary; and the general who begins hostilities has a grave responsibility not only to the men under his command but also to his whole nation".

The parallels with Lawrence are clear. In his own words Lawrence of Arabia’s mission was "to restore a lost influence", not to the ancient Romans but to the modern Arabs. He may have been "merely a fellow soldier" but more important, he was "a great man" and an honourable one. His description of a good general bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Belisarius; "Never fighting an unnecessary battle and never asking more of his troops than he is ready to give himself”. Finally, though Crecy may have been the beginning of the end, for a brief moment the forward march of history had been brought to a halt by Lawrence's war. For someone like Graves who had experienced the blood and mud of the trenches during The Great War, Lawrence’s Arabian adventures must have seemed an anachronism, a faint revival of the glorious past, an echo of a time when heroes could be made.

There was one military disadvantage that both Belisarius and Lawrence managed to turn to their own advantage. Both had armies that were far outnumbered by the armies of their adversaries. Belisarius however, realised that preponderance in numbers might cause an acute difficulty and Graves puts these fictional words in his mouth: "There are few generals capable of controlling forty thousand men in battle.” Did the historica1 Belisarius say this? We do not know. But the very real Lawrence of Arabia did say: "The worst thing for a good general is to have superior numbers.”

           The home of Robert Graves on Majorca, Spain, where he wrote Count Belisarius


One of Modestus' companions remarks to the old man: "Modestus, my generous host, you live in a world long dead, shut in that book-cupboard yonder. You have no conception of the nature of modern fighting. In every age there are improvements.” Indeed there are, and Graves was aware of the so called 'improvements' of his own time. It is clear that Graves, like Lawrence, preferred an age gone by, the world captured between book covers: an age before the advent of modem war. Lawrence, in Graves' eyes, had temporarily brought this age out of history and back to life. And Graves himself revived the memory of the past heroic era in Count Belisarius.

The military historian Basil Liddell Hart was also aware of the similarities between Belisarius and Lawrence. He regarded Lawrence as being the successor of Belisarius and Alexander the Great. For Lawrence himself the parallels were self evident. As a youth he had made partial translations of Procopius, historian and secretary of Belisarius. Similarly, he had studied Belisarius' military tactics. In the 1930s Lawrence had written Graves a letter comparing himself, indirectly, with Belisarius. Already during the 1920s Graves had compared Lawrence in a poetry anthology with Alexander the Great. Lawrence's reaction has been preserved: "Send me another poem whenever you remember Belisarius".  Graves never wrote that poem. Instead, three years after Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident, he wrote Count Belisarius.

              Robert Graves: photograph from (Fundació Robert Graves)


  1. I am impressed with your homework regarding Graves' knowledge of T.E. Lawrence and his connection with Belisarius. It seems that B.H. Liddell-Hart was also influenced, as in his book Strategy he considers both men to be the greatest commaders in history.

    I wonder then, if the admiration that Lawrence had for Belisarius was more in keeping with Lawrence's character; and with the need to carry out the campaign in Arabia in 1917 along the strategy line that Belisarius used against the Goths, of small forces versus larger, coupled with overmanaging by the higher command...

    I am a great student of Belisarius, and I do believe that the American Marine Corps, especially, utilizes his tactics.

    Thanks again for a wonderful essay.

    Robert Moses

  2. This post made me subscribe. I bought Count Belisarius at a yard sale in '77. I had read I, Claudius, and Graves poetry ( as it appeared in the Atlantic) Funny, when I picked up the book, the person selling, asked me why I picked it up. I said I had had five years of Latin, and I loved Ceaser, Vercingetorix, etc. and I, Claudius. Then she asked me to follow her, and pulled out a black coat, with embroidery, and asked me to try it on. It fit perfectly. She said, "It is yours" Why, I asked. She said (I am laughing as I type this, but it is true} She said, "I think you are Alexander the Great, reborn." I tried not to roll my eyes, as I had a roommate involved with some paranormal research at UVA. Anyway, she insisted I take the coat. Years later wherever I wore that coat peoples jaws would drop, and they would say it was drop dead beautiful. Or, around D.C. people would ask if I was Mrs. X's daughter. I would say no. They would say, well that was her coat. Unforgettable. It is a Balenciaga. And yes, I feel great in it.

  3. What a great story Nadine. I think I first got into Graves sometime around 1977 as well, or maybe a little later, but certainly around that time. But I don't have an Alexander the Great coat. Thanks for your comment.