Belisarius-Byzantine general during the reign of Justinian

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565) restored the Byzantine Empire to greatness. However, the emperor had help from one of the greatest general by Flavius Belisarius. Belisarius was born in a small town Germana or Germania today’s town Sapareva Banya in southwestern Bulgaria. As a young man he became a soldier and soon after Belisarius served as the bodyguard of Emperor Justin I (518-527). Emperor Justin I allowed Belisarius to form a special bodyguard (known as bucallarii), or rather heavy cavalry which they later became the emperor’s personal guard. They were a multifunctional unit, capable of attacking from the distance within arrows, and it could act as a heavy cavalry. After Justin’s death 527, a new Byzantine Emperor Justinian I set up Belisarius for the Byzantine army commander on the eastern provinces where he fought against the invasions of the Persian Sassanid Empire.

The Byzantine general, Belisarius, first gained notoriety during the Nika revolt in 532. A mob numbering in the thousands revolted against the emperor, Justinian, and nearly destroyed Constantinople. The mob gathered in the Hippodrome and elected a usurper, Hypatius, as their new emperor. Justinian did not take kindly to the action of the mob and sent two of his best generals to put down the revolt. One of the generals was Mundus, an Illyrian who commanded a sizable force of Scandinavian mercenaries. The other general was young, still in his twenties, a Thracian named Belisarius. The generals rallied their troops, and descended upon the hippodrome. Attacking from two directions, Mundus and Belisarius entered the stadium. Within a few minutes, over thirty-thousand rebels lay slain. The next day, Hypatius died the next day, at the bequest of Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora. The months following the revolt, Justinian set about rebuilding the city of Constantinople. Work began on the third incarnation of the Hagia Sophia and when it was complete Justinian entered the church and said, “Solomon I have surpassed thee.” However, Justinian was not content with merely rebuilding the city of Constantinople. Justinian desired to rebuild the empire.

Belisarius and his conquest in Northern Africa and Italy

Justinian knew that he had the man for the job in Belisarius. The general was young, gifted in tactics and strategy, and a natural leader of men. The first territory chosen for reconquest was the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. On Midsummer Day in 533, Belisarius set off for Carthage. The force consisted of around 10,000 infantrymen and a cavalry force of 5,000 men. The traveled in 500 transport ships, accompanied by ninety-two Byzantine warships. The battle for North Africa was over quickly and on September 15, Belisarius entered Carthage with his wife Antonia at his side.

By March, all of the remaining Vandal armies had surrendered and in the summer, Justinian recalled Belisarius to Constantinople. Justinian loved a spectacle and Belisarius marched in a procession to the Hippodrome. With Belisarius at the head of his soldiers, the Vandal King, Gelimer, and his family followed. Later Justinian granted Gelimer an audience and after their conversation, Justinian granted Gelimer an estate in Galatia.

The next task for Belisarius was the conquest of Italy. For years, the Ostrogoth’s had ruled Rome and Justinian wanted the city back in the hands of the Empire. Belisarius set sail for Sicily, conquered the island without much effort, and then laid siege to Naples. The siege lasted three weeks and after defeating the citizens, the army went on a rampage of murder, rape, and pillage. Belisarius then waited for a few months, arranging an invitation from the Pope, to occupy Rome.

Map showing Byzantine Empire marked within red color in period when Justinian become Emperor and orange color marked the expansion of Byzantine Empire after the conquest of Belisarius. Source of map: Wikimedia under license CC BY-SA 2.5

Belisarius marched into Rome on December 9 in the year 536. As the Byzantine army marched in, the Goth garrison peaceably departed. The next two years saw a give and take between the Byzantines and the Goths. Justinian grew jealous of Belisarius and dispatched the eunuch, Narses, with reinforcements and orders to keep an eye on Belisarius. Narses, however did not last long, and after the City of Milan fell to the Goths, Belisarius had Narses recalled to Constantinople. Soon, Belisarius conquered the Goth capital of Ravenna.

The general showed his loyalty to Justinian by refusing an offer the Goths had made. The Goths offered to sign a peace treaty with Belisarius and acknowledge Belisarius as emperor, if he would not sack Ravenna and let them keep their territory north of the Po River. Belisarius refused and gained entry into the city by trickery. Belisarius returned to Constantinople laden with the treasure of the Goths.

Justinian and Theodora Humiliate Belisarius

Justinian’s jealousy increased after every victory of his talented young general. After all, that is how many of the Byzantine and Roman emperors had gained the throne in the past, by using their military victories to woo the public. Belisarius did not enter Constantinople with a triumphant procession, instead he found himself relieved of command and his treasure confiscated under orders of the empress, Theodora. Then the Persians attacked the Syrian city of Antioch and the Persian King destroyed the city and enslaved what remained of the population. Justinian sent Belisarius to the east to battle the Persians. Belisarius decided to attack the Persians in their homeland and marched towards their capital. Next, the unexpected happened. The bubonic plague struck Constantinople and the emperor himself fell ill. Belisarius returned to Constantinople and once again fell into disfavor with Theodora. Theodora had Belisarius thrown in prison and seized his property. As much as a quarter of the population of the Mediterranean area died and the empire was severely crippled. The empire in the west rapidly disintegrated and only the plaque kept the Persians at bay. Once again, the emperor called upon Belisarius to save Italy. Unfortunately only 4,000 thousand troops accompanied Belisarius.

Belisarius reached a stalemate with the Goths; however, he knew that without reinforcement his army had no chance of success. Belisarius became so desperate that he sent his wife Antonia to Constantinople, hoping that her friendship with Theodora could bring help. Alas, when Antonia arrived in Constantinople, she found the city in mourning; Theodora was dead.

Justinian recalled Belisarius to Constantinople. Belisarius received a huge palace and the emperor even erected a bronze statue of the general. Belisarius was humbled and uncomfortable with all the praise; soon he retired into the background.

The Last Battle for General Belisarius

The plaque and constant warfare reduced the size of the Byzantine army, from a high of 500,000 men to only 150,000. Soon the barbarians took advantage of the weakened frontiers and a force of Huns invaded and advanced to within thirty miles of Constantinople. After ten years of retirement, Belisarius returned to active duty. The general scrapped together a ragtag army of guards, veterans, and volunteers and attacked the Huns, sending them all the way back to the frontier. Justinian’s jealousy returned and he relieved Belisarius of command. Belisarius never commanded an army again. Ever the loyal servant he suffered in silence, although he never desired the throne, it would have been his for the taking. Belisarius, undoubtedly the greatest general the Byzantine Empire ever produced, died in his sleep, eight months before Justinian too, passed away.

References:

  • Brownworth, Lars. Lost to the West, The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization. New York, N.Y., Random House, 2009
  • Ostrogorsky, George (1956). History of the Byzantine State. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York, N.Y. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • Glanville Downey, Belisarius: Young general of Byzantium, Dutton, 1960.