Flavius Belisarius (Greek: Βελισάριος, ca. 500 – 565) was one of the greatest generals of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. He was instrumental to Emperor Justinian's ambitious project of reconquering much of the Mediterranean territory of the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost less than a century previously.
One of the defining features of Belisarius' career was his success despite the little or no support he received from Justinian. He is also among a select group of men considered to be the "Last of the Romans".
Belisarius was probably born in Germane or Germania, a city that once stood on the site of present day Sapareva Banya in south-west Bulgaria. He may have been of Greek or Thracian ancestry. He became a Roman 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 the Sassanid Empire. He quickly proved himself an able and effective commander, defeating the larger Sassanid army through superior generalship. In June 530, during the Iberian War, he led the Byzantines to a stunning victory over the Sassanids in the Battle of Dara, followed by a close defeat at the Battle of Callinicum on the Euphrates in 531. This led to the negotiation of an "Endless Peace" with the Persians, and Byzantine payment of heavy tributes for years in exchange for a peace treaty.
In 532, he was the highest-ranking military officer in the Imperial capital of Constantinople when the Nika riots broke out in the city (among factions of chariot racing fans) and nearly resulted in the overthrow of Justinian. Belisarius, with the help of the magister militum of Illyria, Mundus, along with the generals Narses and John the Armenian, suppressed the rebellion with a bloodbath in the Hippodrome, the gathering place of the rebels, that is said to have claimed the lives of 30,000 people.
For his efforts, Belisarius was rewarded by Justinian with the command of a great land and sea expedition against the Vandal Kingdom, mounted in 533-534. The Byzantines had political, religious, and strategic reasons for such a campaign. The pro-Byzantine Vandal king Hilderic had been deposed and murdered by the usurper Gelimer, giving Justinian a legal pretext. Furthermore, the Arian Vandals had periodically persecuted the Nicene Christians within their kingdom, many of whom made their way to Constantinople seeking redress. The Vandals had launched many pirate raids on Byzantine trade interests, hurting commerce in the western areas of the Empire. Justinian also wanted control of the Vandal 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. He ordered his fleet not to lose sight of the army, then marched along the coastal highway toward the Vandal capital of Carthage. He did this to prevent supplies from being cut off, and to avoid a great defeat such as occurred in the first attempt to retake northern Africa 35 years before.
Ten miles from Carthage, the forces of Gelimer (who had just executed Hilderic) and Belisarius finally met at the Battle of Ad Decimum on September 13, 533. It nearly turned into a defeat for the Byzantines. Gelimer had chosen his position well and had some success along the main road. The Byzantines, however, seemed dominant on both sides of the main road to Carthage. At the height of the battle, Gelimer became distraught upon learning of the death of his brother 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 in December 15 of the same year resulted in Gelimer's surrender early in 534 at Mount Papua, restoring the lost Roman provinces of north Africa to the empire. For this achievement, Belisarius was granted a Roman triumph (the last ever given) when he returned to Constantinople. According to Procopius, if he is to be believed, in the procession were paraded the spoils of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been recovered from the Vandal capital along with Gelimer himself before he was sent into peaceful exile. Medals were stamped in his honor with the inscription Gloria Romanorum, though none seem to have come down to modern times. Belisarius was also made sole consul in 534, being one of the last individuals ever to hold this office, which was by this time merely a ceremonial relic of the ancient Roman Republic.
Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the Western Roman Empire as he could. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Belisarius landed in Sicily and took the island for use as a base against Italy, while Mundus recovered Dalmatia. The preparations for the invasion of the Italian mainland were interrupted in Easter 536, when Belisarius sailed to Africa to counter an uprising of the local army. His reputation made the rebels abandon the siege of Carthage, and Belisarius pursued and defeated them at Membresa. Thereupon he returned to 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 before 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 deal with the Persian conquest of Syria, a crucial province of the empire. Belisarius took the field and waged a brief, inconclusive campaign 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, due 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, thanks both to military competence and cooperation from the Emperor was able to bring the campaign to a successful conclusion. For his part, Belisarius went into retirement.
In 537, in an incident that troubled him for the rest of his life, Belisarius, an Orthodox Christian, was commanded by the monophysite Empress Theodora to depose the reigning Pope, who had been installed by the Goths. This Pope was the former subdeacon Silverius, the son of Pope Hormisdas, against whom charges of treason were trumped up and pressed by Antonina, Belisarius' wife and Theodora's best friend. Belisarius was to replace him with the Deacon Vigilius, Apocrisarius of Pope John II in Constantinople. Vigilius had been chosen in 531 by Pope Boniface II to be his successor, but this choice was overwhelmingly rejected by the Roman clergy and faithful. Silverius was deposed and exiled to Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor but recalled at the command of the Emperor Justinian, following the complaints of the bishop of Patara. However, Vigilius had already been installed in his place and he and Antonina seem to have encompassed his death by starvation on the island of Palmaria (Ponza), whose patron saint he remains today. At the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553), Belisarius was one of the Emperor's envoys to Pope Vigilius in their tug of war over "The Three Chapters". The Patriarch Eutychius, who presided over this council in place of Pope Vigilius, was the son of one of Belisarius' generals. Belisarius, for his part, built a small oratory on the site of the present church of Santa Maria in Trivio in Rome as a sign of his repentance. He also built two hospices for pilgrims and a monastery, which have since disappeared. Santa Maria in Trivio is around the corner from the Trevi fountain; a 12th century inscription is the only surviving monument of the great general.
The retirement of Belisarius came to an end in 559, when an army of Slavs and Bulgars under Zabergan crossed the Danube River to invade Byzantine territory for the first time and threatened Constantinople itself. Justinian recalled Belisarius to command the Byzantine army. In his last campaign, Belisarius defeated the Bulgars and drove them back across the river with a grossly outnumbered force at his command.
In 562, Belisarius stood trial in Constantinople on a charge of corruption. The charge was likely trumped-up, and modern research suggests that his former secretary Procopius of Caesarea, may have judged his case. Belisarius was found guilty and imprisoned. However, not long after, Justinian pardoned him, ordered his release, and restored him to favour at the imperial court.
In the first five chapters of his Secret History, Procopius characterises Belisarius as a cuckold husband, who was emotionally dependent on his debauched wife, Antonina. According to the historian, Antonina cheated on Belisarius with their godson, the young Theodosius. Procopius claims that the love affair was well known in the imperial court and the general was regarded as weak and ridiculous; this view is often considered as biased as Procopius nursed a longstanding hatred of both Belisarius and Antonina. Empress Theodora reportedly helped and saved Antonina when Belisarius tried to charge his wife at last.
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 November of 565. Belisarius owned the estate of Rufinianae on the Asiatic side of the Constantinople suburbs. He may very well have died there and been buried near one of the two churches in the area, probably Saints Peter and Paul.
According to a story that gained popularity during the Middle Ages, Justinian is said to have ordered Belisarius' eyes to be put out, and reduced him to the status of homeless beggar near the Pincian Gate of Rome, condemned to asking passers-by to "give an obolus to Belisarius" (date obolum Belisario), before pardoning him. Most modern scholars believe the story to be apocryphal, though Philip Stanhope, a 19th century British philologist who wrote Life of Belisarius — the only exhaustive biography of the great general — believed the story to be true. Based on a thorough parsing of the available primary sources, Stanhope created a noteworthy argument for the legend's authenticity.
Though the legend remains of dubious provenance, after the publication of Jean-François Marmontel's novel Bélisaire (1767), this account became a popular subject for progressive painters and their patrons in the later 18th century, who saw parallels between the actions of Justinian and the repression imposed by contemporary rulers. For such subtexts, Marmontel's novel received a public censure by Louis Legrand of the Sorbonne, which contemporary divines regarded as model expositions of theological knowledge and clear thinking (Catholic Encyclopedia: "Louis Legrand"). Marmontel and the painters and sculptors (a bust of Belisarius by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Stouf is at the J. Paul Getty Museum) depicted Belisarius as a kind of secular saint, sharing the suffering of the downtrodden poor. The most famous of these paintings, by Jacques-Louis David, combines the themes of charity (the alms giver), injustice (Belisarius), and the radical reversal of power (the soldier who recognises his old commander). Others portray him being helped by the poor after his rejection by the powerful.
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, is an extended attack on Belisarius and Antonina, and on Justinian and Theodora, indicting Belisarius as a love-blind fool and his wife as unfaithful and duplicitous. Other works include:
Imp. Caesar Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus IV,
Flavius Decius Paulinus
|Consul of the Roman Empire
Post consulatum Belisarii (East),
Iterum post consulatum Paulini (West)
I am poor and old and blind;
The sun burns me, and the wind
Blows through the city gate
And covers me with dust
From the wheels of the august
Justinian the Great.
It was for him I chased
The Persians o'er wild and waste,
As General of the East;
Night after night I lay
In their camps of yesterday;
Their forage was my feast.
For him, with sails of red,
And torches at mast-head,
Piloting the great fleet,
I swept the Afric coasts
And scattered the Vandal hosts,
Like dust in a windy street.
For him I won again
The Ausonian realm and reign,
Rome and Parthenope;
And all the land was mine
From the summits of Apennine
To the shores of either sea.
For him, in my feeble age,
I dared the battle's rage,
To save Byzantium's state,
When the tents of Zabergan,
Like snow-drifts overran
The road to the Golden Gate.
And for this, for this, behold!
Infirm and blind and old,
With gray, uncovered head,
Beneath the very arch
Of my triumphal march,
I stand and beg my bread!
Methinks I still can hear,
Sounding distinct and near,
The Vandal monarch's cry,
As, captive and disgraced,
With majestic step he paced,--
"All, all is Vanity!"
Ah! vainest of all things
Is the gratitude of kings;
The plaudits of the crowd
Are but the clatter of feet
At midnight in the street,
Hollow and restless and loud.
But the bitterest disgrace
Is to see forever the face
Of the Monk of Ephesus!
The unconquerable will
This, too, can bear;--I still
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|
BELISARIUS (c. 505-565), one of the most famous generals of the later Roman empire, was born about A.D. 505, in "Germania," a district on the borders of Thrace and Macedonia. His name is supposed to be Slavonic. As a youth he served in the bodyguard ofJustinian, who appointed him commander of the Eastern army. He won a signal victory over the Persians in 53 0, and successfully conducted a campaign against them, until forced, by the rashness of his soldiers, to join battle and suffer defeat in the following year. Recalled to Constantinople, he married Antonina, a clever, intriguing woman, and a favourite of the empress Theodora. During the sedition of the "green" and "blue" parties of the circus (known as the Nika sedition, 532) he did Justinian good service, effectually crushing the rebels who had proclaimed Hypatius emperor. In 533 the command of the expedition against the Vandal kingdom in Africa, a perilous office, which the rest of the imperial generals shunned, was conferred on Belisarius. With 15,000 mercenaries, whom he had to train into Roman discipline, he took Carthage, defeated Gelimer the Vandal king, and carried him captive, in 534, to grace the first triumph witnessed in Constantinople. In reward for these services Belisarius was invested with the consular dignity, and medals were struck in his honour. At this time the Ostrogothic kingdom, founded in Italy by Theodoric the Great, was shaken by internal dissensions, of which Justinian resolved to avail himself. Accordingly, Belisarius invaded Sicily; and, after storming Naples and defending Rome for a year against almost the entire strength of the Goths in Italy, he concluded the war by the capture of Ravenna, and with it of the Gothic king Vitiges. So conspicuous were Belisarius's heroism and military skill that the Ostrogoths offered to acknowledge him emperor of the West. But his loyalty did not waver; he rejected the proposal and returned to Constantinople in 540. Next year he was sent to check the Persian king Chosroes (Anushirvan); but, thwarted by the turbulence of his troops, he achieved no decisive result. On his return to Constantinople he lived under a cloud for some time, but was pardoned through the influence of Antonina with the empress. The Goths having meanwhile reconquered Italy, Belisarius was despatched with utterly inadequate forces to oppose them. Nevertheless, during five campaigns he held his enemies at bay, until he was removed from the command, and the conclusion of the war was entrusted to the eunuch Narses. Belisarius remained at Constantinople in tranquil retirement until 559, when an incursion of Bulgarian savages spread a panic through the metropolis, and men's eyes were once more turned towards the neglected veteran, who placed himself at the head of a mixed multitude of peasants and soldiers, and repelled the barbarians with his wonted courage and adroitness. But this, like his former victories, stimulated Justinian's envy. The saviour of his country was coldly received and left unrewarded by his suspicious sovereign. Shortly afterwards Belisarius was accused of complicity in a conspiracy against the emperor (562); his fortune was confiscated, and he was confined as a prisoner in his palace. He was liberated and restored to favour in 563, and died in 565.
The fiction of Belisarius wandering as a blind beggar through the streets of Constantinople, which has been adopted by Marmontel in his Belisaire, and by various painters and poets, is first heard of in the 10th century. Gibbon justly calls Beli- sarius the Africanus of New Rome. He was merciful as a conqueror, stern as a disciplinarian, enterprising and wary as a general; while his courage, loyalty and forbearance seem to have been almost unsullied. He was the idol of his soldiers, a good tactician, but not a great strategist.
- Procopius, De Bellis and Historia Arcana (best edition by J. Haury, 1905, 1907); see Gibbon, Decline and Fall (ed. Bury, vol. 4); T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders (vol. 4); J. B. Bury, Later Roman Empire, vol. i.; Diehl, Justinien (Paris, 1901).
(J. B. B.)