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Flavius Belisarius (505-565) was probably the greatest general of the Byzantine Empire. He is not very 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 traditions suggest that he was of Romanized Slavic ancestry, on the grounds that his name is similar to the Slav "Beli Tsar" ("White Prince"), but most historians regard this as dubious. It has been hypothesized that his name may be related to that of the Celtic goddess Belisama.
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 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, with the help of the magister militum of Illyria, Mundus, suppressed the rebellion in a bloodbath that is said to have claimed the lives of 20,000 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 Lepcis 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 devastating defeat for the Byzantines; Gelimer had chosen his position well and had great success against the opposing forces along the main road. However, when on the verge of victory, he 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 Ticameron later in the year (December 15) resulted in Gelimer's surrender early in 534 at Mt. Papua, permitting the lost Roman 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. The Goths offered to make Belisarius the western emperor, but he refused.
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, 5000 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 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,  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 favor at the imperial court.
Fittingly, Belisarius and Justinian, whose sometimes strained partnership doubled the size of the empire, died within a few weeks of one another in 565.
The myth of Belisarius as a blind beggar
According to a story that seems to have developed 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 condemned to asking passers-by to "Give an obolus to Belisarius", before pardoning him. This account became a popular subject for painters in the 18th century, who saw parallels between the supposed actions of Justinian and the repression imposed by contemporary rulers. Belisarius was depicted 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.
Most modern scholars believe the story to be apocryphal.
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 Procopius, Belisarius and Narses. 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 (and based on the actual history thereby), 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).
Belisarius appears in the famous alternate history story Lest Darkness Fall (1939) by L. Sprague de Camp. There he was first the Byzantine opponent of the time traveler Martin Padway who tried to spread modern science and inventions in Gothic Italy. Eventually Belisarius became general in Padway's army and secured Italy for him.
Belisarius is also the main character of the Belisarius series of science fiction novels by Eric Flint and David Drake, an alternate history exploring what might have happened if Belisarius (and a rival) were granted knowledge of future events and technologies.
In the General series of military science fiction novels by S.M. Stirling and David Drake, the plot draws much from the life and campaigns of Belisarius; the main character, Raj Whitehall, sets out to reunite the planet of Bellevue after the fall of galactic civilization.
Isaac Asimov, who was very familiar with Roman history, seems to have loosely based the character and name of General Bel Riose, "The Last Great General" of the late Galactic Empire in the Foundation Series, on Belisarius.
- 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, ASIN: B0007BS4EG
- Glanville Downey , Belisarius,: Young general of Byzantium, Dutton, 1960, ASIN: B0007E6OGS
- Percy Stickney Grant , The search of Belisarius;: A Byzantine legend, Brentano's, 1907, ASIN: B0006AF7MA
- 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 Stanhope , The life of Belisarius, J. Murray, 1829, ASIN: B0006AH8R2
- Robert Graves, Count Belisarius: AND "Lawrence of the Arabs", Carcanet Press 2004, ISBN 1857546458
- Procopius, Procopius, Belisarius and Narses, Academic Fellowship, 1964, ASIN: B0007HVYH4
- Procopious, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, online at Gutenberg Project
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