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From This To That…

September 4, 2009

For the past week or so, I’ve been rethinking a long-form Belisarius novel built around the theme of squandered potential. If anything, I think this is the key takeaway from the life of the Byzantine general, by all accounts an honest, pious, incorruptible man, and the greatest military mind of late antiquity.

Belisarius accomplished some truly staggering feats in his service to the Emperor Justinian, and he did so with style and compassion. He stands virtually alone in the ancient and medieval worlds as a general who insisted his soldiers behave honorably toward the civilian population. You may recall Rumsfeld famously predicting the Iraqis would greet U.S. forces with flowers back in 2003. Well, in Africa in 533 A.D., that’s precisely what happened. And again in Italy in 536. He was held in such esteem that his Gothic enemies offered to make him their king in 540, an offer he exploited to capture Ravenna and complete the conquest of Italy in as peaceful a manner as possible.

Belisarius was truly a remarkable man, and yet he was hobbled almost his entire career by pettiness and intrigue back in Constantinople. He was denied men and material, recalled at the height of his triumphs, but before he could win the peace. He had his rank stripped twice, and the second time had his household troops disbanded and auctioned off to eager bidders. Late in life, when he managed to turn back a Hunnic invasion with a hastily assembled force that couldn’t properly be called an army, he received no commendations. His loyalty was repaid with suspicion and disgrace, and as a result, Africa smoldered for years, beset by revolts, while the war in Italy – which should have ended in 540 – dragged on for another 14 years, and left Italy so broken that there was nothing to stop the Lombards from invading in 568.

One can imagine Belisarius looking back on his life and recognizing this squandered potential. He might even have asked himself what might have been had he – and more importantly Justinian – been better men than they were. Had they not let themselves be swamped by intrigues and the pettiness of others. That, I think, would be the main thrust of the story, the realization that the baser sides of human nature can wreck even the best of intentions and the loftiest of ambitions (no bearing on our present day…heh).

I’ve been trying to dig a story out of Belisarius’ career that pivots around that theme, and along the way, it seems the question – what might have been? – has pushed me in another, complementary direction.

What if I explored what might have been?

Let me explain.

In 542, Belisarius was once again in the east, campaigning against the Persians. It was a cautious campaign. Plague (yes, the plague) was sweeping through the Empire, and both sides were at pains to keep it from catching and spreading through their armies. Belisarius managed to coerce the Persian army out of imperial territory when word arrived from Constantinople – Justinian had contracted the plague.

Figuring he was in all likelihood dead already, the eastern generals met and decided they would not endorse any successor named in Constantinople in their absence.

As it happened, Justinian miraculously survived, and as he recovered, the Empress Theodora took action. She viewed the generals’ decision as a personal affront, and used it as a pretext to fling one into prison and strip the other – Belisarius – of his rank as supreme commander of the eastern armies. Though he was later restored to favor and send to salvage the situation in Italy, Belisarius’ career never recovered. The distrust lingered, and his urgent requests for more men were ignored. He struggled on for five years, hopelessly outmatched by the larger Gothic forces, and when he was finally recalled in 548 (upon Theodora’s death), he had little to show for his efforts. It would take another six years and a massive dedication of manpower to finally bring the war to a close.

But what if Justinian had died of the plague?

In all likelihood, the eastern generals would have proclaimed Belisarius emperor. Meanwhile, in Constantinople, Theodora would have certainly remarried (perhaps to Justinian’s nephew Germanus) and had her husband named emperor.

And, just like that, you’d have civil war and the makings of a really great alternate history.

As of now, I’m still plugging away at the actual, historical Belisarius, but I have to admit the alternate history version is knocking around in the back of my head.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2009 8:23 am

    I’m almost done with the second book in the “Ring of Fire” Series – and I have to say, I love good alternate history books (even if it is alternate future history). It is a lot of fun to explore all the “what if’s”. That being said have you also considered the flashback approach? I wonder if it my be easier to cover more of Belisarius and his many great stories if you were to tell them almost as flashbacks and he, at the end of his life, is thinking back contemplating his life and decisions or even telling his tales to others…….Just a thought. Whatever direction you go in – I can’t wait to live vicareously (sp?) through you progress!!!!

  2. Kay permalink
    September 5, 2009 3:31 pm

    Does alternative history work if not that many people are aware of the real story?

  3. Matt permalink*
    September 5, 2009 8:15 pm

    I’m hesitant to use the flashback approach because the “Titanic” narrative (i.e. old person telling a story) is WAY overused in historical fiction. It’s up there with the “story of a famous person as told through the eyes of some anonymous slave/scribe/priest/what-have-you”. Sometimes, you even see them combined.

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