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Flavius Belisarius (505-565) was one of the greatest generals of the Byzantine Empire and one of the greatest generals in history. Belisarius is not particularly well known today but this is due more to a lack of attention to Byzantine history than to his skill and accomplishments, which were matched by few, if any, military commanders.

Early life and career

Belisarius was probably born in Germane or Germania, a location that was probably somewhere at the border of Illyria, Thrace and Macedonia. Some suggest that he was of Romanized Slavic ancestry, on the grounds that his name is somewhat similar to the Slavic "Beli Tsar" ("White Prince"), but most contemporary historians disregard this theory as the word tsar was first used in the 10th century, well after Belisarius' death. Others believe that Belisarius was Armenian.

He became a Byzantine soldier as a young man, serving in the bodyguard of the Emperor Justin I. Following Justin's death in 527, the new Emperor, Justinian I, appointed Belisarius to command the Byzantine army in the east to deal with incursions from Persia. He quickly proved himself an able and effective commander, defeating the much larger Persian army through superior generalship. In June 530 he led the Byzantines to a victory over the Persians in the Battle of Dara, followed by a near defeat (really a mutual escape) at the Battle of Callinicum on the Euphrates in 531. This led to the negotiation of an "Endless Peace" with the Persians.

In 532, he was the ranking military officer in the Imperial capital of Constantinople when the Nika riots (among factions of chariot racing fans) broke out in the city and nearly resulted in the overthrow of Justinian. Belisarius suppressed the rebellion with a bloodbath that is said to have claimed the lives of 30,000 people.

Campaigns against the Vandals

For his efforts, Belisarius was rewarded by Justinian with the command of a great land and sea expedition against the kingdom of the Vandals, mounted in 533-534. The Byzantines had both political and strategic reasons for mounting such a campaign. The pro-Byzantine Vandal king Hilderic had been deposed and murdered by the usurper Gelimer, giving Justinian a legal pretext for mounting an expedition. In any case, Justinian wanted control of the Vandals' territory in North Africa, which was vital for guaranteeing Byzantine access to the western Mediterranean. In the late summer of 533, Belisarius sailed to Africa and landed near the city of Leptis Magna, from which he marched along the coastal highway toward the Vandal capital of Carthage.

Ten miles from Carthage, the forces of Gelimer (who had just executed Hilderic) and Belisarius finally met at the Battle of Ad Decimum (Tenth Milestone; September 13, 533). It nearly turned into a defeat for the Byzantines; Gelimer had chosen his position well and had some success against the opposing forces along the main road. The Byzantines, however, seemed dominant on both the right and left sides of the main road to Carthage. However, at the height of the battle, Gelimer became distraught upon learning of the death of his nephew in battle. This gave Belisarius a chance to regroup, and he went on to win the battle and capture Carthage. A second victory at the Battle of Tricamarum later in the year (December 15) resulted in Gelimer's surrender early in 534 at Mount Papua, permitting the lost provinces of north Africa to be restored to the empire. For this achievement Belisarius was granted a Roman triumph (the last one ever given) when he returned to Constantinople.

Campaigns against the Ostrogoths

Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the Western Roman Empire as he could. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths. Again, he chose well, as Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then crossed into Italy proper, where he captured Naples and Rome in 536. The following year, he successfully defended Rome against the Goths and moved north to take Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540, where the Goth king Witiges was captured. Shortly prior to the taking of Ravenna, the Ostrogoths offered to make Belisarius the western emperor. Belisarius feigned acceptance and entered Ravenna via its sole point of entry, a causeway through the marshes, accompanied by his comitatus (veterans). Once inside the city, Belisarius quickly seized Witiges and then capitalized on the resulting lack of leadership to secure the city. Thereupon, he proclaimed the capture of Ravenna in the name of the Emperor Justinian.

The Goths' offer perhaps raised suspicions in Justinian's mind and Belisarius was recalled to the East to deal with a Persian conquest of Syria, a crucial province of the empire. Belisarius took the field and waged a brief, inconclusive campaign against them in 541-542. He eventually managed to negotiate a truce (aided with the payment of a large sum of money, 5,000 pounds of gold), in which the Persians agreed not to attack Byzantine territory for the next five years.

Belisarius returned to Italy in 544, where he found that the situation had changed greatly. In 541 the Ostrogoths had elected Totila as their new leader and had mounted a vigorous campaign against the Byzantines, recapturing all of northern Italy and even driving the Byzantines out of Rome. Belisarius managed to recover Rome briefly but his Italian campaign proved unsuccessful, thanks in no small part to his being starved of supplies and reinforcements by a jealous Justinian. In 548, Justinian relieved him in favor of the eunuch Narses, who was able to bring the campaign to a successful conclusion. For his part, Belisarius went into retirement.

His later life and campaigns

The retirement of Belisarius came to an end in 559, when an army of Slavs and Bulgars crossed the Danube River to invade Byzantine territory for the first time and threatened Constantinople itself. Justinian recalled Belisarius to command the Byzantine army against the Bulgar invasion. In his last, successful, campaign, Belisarius defeated the Bulgars and drove them back across the river.

In 562, Belisarius stood trial in Constantinople on a charge of corruption. The charge was likely trumped-up, and modern research suggests that his bitter enemy, his former secretary Procopius of Caesarea, the author of the Secret History, [1] may have judged his case. Belisarius was found guilty and imprisoned. However, not long after the conviction, Justinian pardoned him, ordered his release, and restored him to favour at the imperial court.

Fittingly, Belisarius and Justinian, whose sometimes strained partnership increased the size of the empire by 45%, died within a few weeks of one another in 565.

Belisarius in fiction

Belisarius was featured in several works of art before the 20th century. The oldest of them is the historical treatise by his very own secretary, Procopius, the Anecdota, commonly referred to as the Arcana Historia or Secret History, it is an extended attack on Belisarius and Antonia, indicting him as a love-blind fool and his wife as unfaithful and duplicitous. Later works include the 17th century poem by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, Beliar, the John Oldmixon drama The life and history of Belisarius, who conquer'd Africa and Italy, with an account of his disgrace, the ingratitude of the Romans, and a parallel between him and a modern hero, the 18th century drama by William Philips Belasarius (1724), the novel Belisarius by John Downman (1742), the novel Bélisaire by Jean-François Marmontel (1767), and the 19th century opera, Belisario, by Gaetano Donizetti.

The life of Belisarius was the subject of the historical novel Count Belisarius (1938) by noted classical scholar Robert Graves. This book, ostensibly written from the viewpoint of the eunuch Eugenius, servant to Belisarius' wife (but actually based on the history by Belisarius' former secretary Procopius), portrays Belisarius as a solitary honorable man in a corrupt world, and paints a vivid picture of not only his startling military feats but also the colorful characters and events of his day (such as the savage Hippodrome politics of the Constantinople chariot races, which regularly escalated to open street battles between fans of opposing factions, or the intrigue between the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora).

The only full biography remains The Life of Belisarius (1829) by Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl of Stanhope.

External links


  • R. Boss, R. Chapman, P. Garriock, Justinian's War: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West, Montvert Publications, 1993, ISBN 1874101019
  • Teddy Brunius, The letter of Belisarius, Ekdosis Ellēnikēs Etaireias Aisthētikēs, 1971.
  • Glanville Downey, Belisarius,: Young general of Byzantium, Dutton, 1960.
  • Percy Stickney Grant, The search of Belisarius;: A Byzantine legend, Brentano's, 1907.
  • Edward Gibbon has much to say on Belisarius in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 41 online.
  • Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, The Life of Belisarius, J. Murray, 1829. Reprinted 2005 Westholme Publishing [2]
  • Robert Graves, Count Belisarius: AND "Lawrence of the Arabs", Carcanet Press 2004, ISBN 1857546458
  • Procopius, Procopius, Belisarius and Narses, Academic Fellowship, 1964.
  • Procopious, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, online at Gutenberg Project