By Jon Mark Holtgrefe
Honors Thesis, Miami University, 2009
Abstract: The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) General Belisarius (c. 505-565) holds the distinction of being the last man to receive a Roman Triumph and during his military career won victories on three continents, while usually fighting at a disadvantage. Our main source of information concerning Belisarius comes from the writings of his legal secretary, Procopius (c.500-c.565), whose Wars of Justinian recounts many of the deeds of Belisarius’ career. It is interesting to note, however, that the image that has become most associated with Belisarius, that of an old man, falsely accused of treason, found guilty, blinded, and made to live as a beggar, appears no where in this work, or in the work of any other contemporary historian. Its first known appearance is in the work of the 12th century Byzantine writer John Tzetzes. Nevertheless, it is this image that various authors and artists in the last 400 years have used to craft stories and images of Belisarius, and it is this image with which modern historians must contend while writing about Belisarius.
This brings up the question of characterization, which is the focus of this thesis. Belisarius is the character which appears most frequently within Procopius’ Wars but there is almost nothing in the way of clear characterization of the man. There is only one passage, of any notable length, which gives the reader a clear characterization of Belisarius. To delve further into Procopius’ characterization of the man one must analyze the actions of Belisarius in order to ascertain them. After the text has been carefully analyzed to determine, as much as is possible, Procopius’ intended characterization of Belisarius, this thesis will turn to analyzing Procopius himself, in order to determine why he might have chosen to characterize Belisarius in that way. Finally this thesis will analyze a number of the literary, artistic, and scholarly characterizations of Belisarius in order to get some sense as to how this characterization has changed over time and in what manner the context of each author’s life changed that characterization.
Thus the purpose of this work is to study the ways in which the context affects characterization. Belisarius therefore serves as an ideal focus for this thesis because the main historical account of his life gives a characterization that is very open to individual interpretation. Not only that, but there is also the fact that so many author’s, seemingly with very different life contexts, have used the same apocryphal story to center their different accounts. Despite the similarity these characterizations have certainly changed throughout history, and will likely continue to do so into the next century, as the context of our lives is ever changing.