Belisarius

(c. 500-c. 565)
   Leading general and loyal supporter of Justinian for more than forty years, Belisarius fought numerous campaigns against the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Goths in Italy. Completely loyal to Justinian throughout his life, despite the suspicions held by the emperor that sent Belisarius into disgrace, the general helped save Justinian during the Nika Revolt and was critical to Justinian's efforts to reconquer Italy and other sections of the Western Empire that were governed at that time by barbarian kings. His successes, however, sometimes worsened Justinian's fears about his powerful and popular general. Indeed, the respect contemporaries felt for Belisarius is best illustrated in the pages of the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, the general's military secretary. Best known for his scandalous accounts of Justinian and Theodora, Procopius portrayed Belisarius in the least unfavorable light in the Secret History and in some ways made Belisarius the great hero of The History of the Wars.
   Born in a village in modern western Bulgaria in circa 500, perhaps as late as 505, Belisarius was a Romanized Thracian, with possible Gothic ancestry, of modest, but not peasant, circumstances. He entered the military as an officer, and his talents and dazzling personality must have quickly come to the attention of Justinian, then Master of Soldiers, who appointed him to his staff. In the mid-520s, Belisarius, still in his early or mid-twenties, was given a military command against Rome's great eastern rival, Persia. His early command met with little success, but in 529, Justinian, now emperor, appointed Belisarius Master of Soldiers with a command over the eastern frontier. Further campaigns in the east met with little success, but Belisarius demonstrated great personal courage and saved an important imperial city from conquest by the Persians. Recognizing his value, Justinian had Belisarius marry Antonina, an old friend of Justinian's wife Theodora. His greatest early accomplishment, however, was the part he played in the Nika Revolt in 532. Belisarius remained loyal to the emperor during this moment of great crisis. He volunteered to lead a garrison to capture the rival emperor, Hypatius, an enterprise that failed because he met some imperial bodyguards. Despite this setback, Belisarius played a part in the final suppression of the revolt and commanded a group of Germanic mercenary soldiers who massacred the rebels in the capital of Constantinople. Belisarius's demonstration of loyalty and military ability revealed his full worth to the emperor.
   His presence in Constantinople in 532 was a lucky accident; Justinian had recalled him from the east to give him charge of the forces to be sent against the Vandals of North Africa. The Vandals, previously thought to be a potential ally in Justinian's efforts to recover Italy, were to be the first step in a grand scheme of conquest. In 533 Belisarius invaded the Vandal kingdom and quickly smashed it. In two great battles, Belisarius and his well-trained imperial armies and cohort of Hunnish auxiliaries overwhelmed their Vandal opponents. At the second battle, Belisarius displayed his abilities for strategy and tactics. By forcing battle he managed to retake the initiative, and his assault forced the Vandals from the field, their camp, and the pages of history. Indeed, the Vandals as a people disappeared after their defeat by Belisarius, and imperial authority was restored in North Africa. His achievement was so highly regarded in Constantinople that he was awarded a triumph - the ancient Roman ceremonial parade accorded to victorious generals - through the capital's streets.
   Belisarius provided further service for Justinian's great plan to reconquer the Western Empire, leading imperial armies, although sometimes with inadequate support, into Italy. In the early 530s the Gothic kingdom of the late Theodoric the Great was rent by conflict between his daughter Amalaswintha and much of the Gothic nobility over the management of her regency of her son Athalaric and of relations with Constantinople. Amalaswintha had much support from Justinian, and her murder, accomplished according to Procopius with the complicity of Theodora, provided the emperor with the justification he needed to invade Italy.
   In 535, in the midst of the turmoil among the Goths of Italy, Justinian ordered Belisarius to invade. His opening campaigns in Sicily and southern Italy were surprisingly easy, as Roman militias welcomed the imperial armies and Gothic commanders were eager to negotiate. Belisarius reached Rome by the end of 536; in the following year he faced stiffer resistance, from the new Gothic king, Witigis, who had begun to rally the Goths in 536. Witigis laid siege to Rome in 537 and 538, and despite great hardship and starvation Belisarius was able to hold the city. His troops were able to kill many of the besiegers, and their spirits were revived by reinforcements, which allowed Belisarius to take the offensive against Witigis in 538. By 540, after his efforts to attract support from the Franks and Lombards failed, Witigis was forced to submit to Belisarius, who had surrounded and besieged his rival at Ravenna. There is also the suggestion that Belisarius was offered royal and imperial titles at this point by the Goths and his own soldiers, a possibility supported by Justinian's cool reception of his victorious commander. Nonetheless, Belisarius returned to Constantinople after successfully establishing the imperial presence once again.
   The Gothic Wars, however, did not end in 540, even if Belisarius decreed that they had. Another new Gothic king, Totila, took the offensive against Justinian, and his successes forced the emperor to recall his loyal general. From 544 to 548, Belisarius was once again leading Roman armies, with only limited support from Constantinople, against the enemy Goths in Italy. Despite Justinian's limited support of his general, Belisarius managed some success against Totila and even took Rome back from the Gothic king and managed to tilt the struggle back in Constantinople's favor. Achieving some few victories, Belisarius left Italy in late 548 with the conquest incomplete, leaving it to Narses the Eunuch to ultimately complete the task.
   Belisarius had one final moment of glory in the service of Justinian and the empire. In 559 an army of Huns invaded from the north and came within thirty miles of Constantinople. Justinian called on Belisarius to save the city, and, with only a small army, he did just that. Persuading the Huns that his army was much larger than it was, Belisarius convinced them to depart. After that victory Belisarius resumed his retirement, only to fall into disgrace again in 562 for alleged involvement in a plot against Justinian. He was restored to favor the following year and died two years later, after a long career in defense of the empire, still loyal to an emperor who did not always appreciate him.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora, rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. Vol. 2. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publisher, 1996.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.
 ♦ Procopius. The History of the Wars; Secret History, 4 vols. Trans. H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914-1924.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
 ♦ --- . The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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