Flavius Belisarius lived in 505-565 AD in Byzantine empire – the successor of Roman empire. He was one of the most successful generals in Mediterranean history. If not the most talented. personally I calculate him amongst greatest military commanders of ancient history. Together with Julius Caesar and Hannibal Barcas. He was the commander of emperor Justinian’s army which conguered nearly every coast around Mediterranean. In his campaigns he experienced some moments which were to be written in history – and never fade again. Belisarius was a genius as a commander an could beat much bigger armies than he had himself. He did not receive always full support of his emperor (Justinian I) and finally was destroyed by him. However he did never abandon his country but always fought for his people. Therefore he was always called “Last of the Romans”.
About origins of Belisarius
It is believed that Belisarius was born in todays south-west Bulgaria – in ancient times Germania. He spoke Latin and could actually have been from Gothic ancestry. He became a Roman soldier as a young man and was serving as bodyguard of Emperor Justin. Belisarius as a bright character was noticed soon by his emperor and he got permission to build an own bodyguard for emperor. Belisarius created now a new type of cavalry with lances, broad sword and composite bow. And this cavalry became the heart of all his armies later on. His cavalry had also a thick armor so they were able to skirmish any opponent – also heavily armed enemies like cataphracts. This way Belisarius took along with him the best features of Roman enemies – Goths and Huns.
Against Sassanid empire
When old emperor died (527AD) his son – Justinian I – took the realm to his lead. He appointed Belisarius to charge Byzantine opponents in east – the Sassanid empire. Now Belisarius proned to be magnificent commander and defeated large Sassanid armies in Dara and kept his position in Callinicum against vast enemy. This helped Byzantine to agree with long lasting peace with Sassanids. Now they were able to take action elsewhere.
However first he had to turn down revolt that aroused in Constantinople among ordinary folk in 532AD. Because of one Circus chariot race citizens came angry and soon whole city was trying to overthrow Justinian away from his thrown. But Belisarius gathered nearby forces and suppressed rebellion in bloodbath in Hippodrom where even 30 000 people is said to be killed.
For gratitude king Justinian named Belisarius as chief commander and sent Belisarius with army to conquer north Africa. A very significant victory was received by Belisarius from Vandal Kingdom. Because Vandals used to raid against Byzantine cities and trade posts, Justinian wanted to defeat them. When usurper Gelimer took the thrown, it was right moment to attack. Belisarius launched a campaign at 533AD against Vandals and won them in first battle rather easily in Ad Decimum near city of Carthage. Belisarius got the victory also by little luck because Gelimer was mourning his brothers death and was not active enough. A second victory at the Battle of Tricamarum on December 15 of the same year took the war in the end. Gelimer surrender early in 534 at Mount Papua in north Africa and Byzantine realm got much bigger and wealthier.
For this victory Belisarius was granted a Roman thriumph in Constantinople which was the last one that ever was given. With this victory Byzantine received lot of spoils that Vandals have earlier been stolen from Roman cities – like raids in Rome. With many special honorary awards Belisarius was also named as a consul in 535 and he was the last persons named for this this office. It is written in Byzantine chronicles that Gelimer said famous word when he was walking in chains on thriumph in Constantinople: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. Actually good words to think and remember now and then! In this moment Byzantine had won nearly all possessions in eastern Mediterranean that Rome used to had. It was time to look more to west.
Gothic wars (535–554 AD)
After getting whole eastern Mediterranean in his control Justinian ordered Belisarius to march in Italy. He wanted to reclaim old Roman soil to his control. So in 535 AD Belisarius took his army into Sicily and started to prepare invasion to southern Italy. Before he accomplish his plan he had to turn down an uprising in northern Africa. After defeating rebels he cam back to Sicily and invaded Italy. Fast he took southern Italy, Naples and finally Rome (December 536 AD). Then he met a significant opponent when Ostrogoths attacked to Rome. However he succeeded to keep Rome and with cunning plan conquered also Ravenna. He was able even capture Ostrogoth king Witiges. After so big success Justinian came suspicious and called Belisarius back to Constantinople. He had also new enemy when Persians had marched over eastern borders. So Justinian ordered once again Belisarius to charge Persian armies.
War against persia
Now Belisarius took his new army and showed hos great commander talents again. He defeated Persians in Nisibis and conquered Sisauranon – a Persian fort. After he sent part of the army to plunder Assyria and show Byzantine power. They did well and got lot of spoils and wealth from Persian empire. In 542 AD Belisarius defended well west bank of Euphrates and denied Persians to enter Byzantine side od border. It meant that Persian king Khusro decided to retreat and peace was received.
In 544 AD Belisarius entered Italy again and found situation changed. Ostrogoths had new king – Totila – who was pressing heavily Roman forts. One by one he conquered northern cities of Italy and finally even Rome. Even though Belisarius succeeded to take Rome again it was evident that they forces were not big enough to match for Ostrogoths. Partly because plague had been consuming Byzantine empire and there was not money enough to recover army to full strength. So the campaign over Italy did not succeed well and Justinian called Belisarius back to home. Later on 5498 AD Narses conquered northern Italy with fresh troops. After this event Belisarius retired from military affairs.
After Italy Belisarius took care of some state matters as an envoy of Justinian. These tasks were dealing with popes and religious matters. Because of some errors he made he built the church of Santa Maria in Trivio (near Trevi fountain), which is actually only monument still left from Belisarius. In 562 AD Belisarius had to take the lead of Byzantine army again when Kutrigur Bulgars threatened Constantinople itself. Facing this threat Justinian called his loyal subject again to defend empire and Belisarius responded his wishes. Very fast he defeated Bulgars and drove them over borders. But there was still sad things to come. In 562 AD Belisarius was charged to trial from corruption. He was found guilty and imprisoned. Modern history believes charge was false and built up by his enemies. However Justinian pardoned his former commander and restored his reputation and rank. Some other enemies of Belisarius claimed that his wife – Antonina – was cheating him all the time. We don’t know if this was true or not but evidently Belisarius loved his wife very strongly. In one case he believed the rumours and abandoned his wife but empress Theodora came to help. She and Antonian succeeded to persuade him not to believe rumours.
Summary of Belisarius
Belisarius died at 565 AD very much same time as his emperor Justinian. These two men increased size of empire even 45% – so nearly doubled it’s size. Once again empire had north Africa, Italy and even parts of southern Spain. Even though there were some difficult moments he never abandoned his country but served it to the end. Therefore he was called also as “the last Roman”. These days modern history believes that Belisarius was an example of so talented commander that he conquered much more land that Byzantine empire could take. The amount of wealth and population was too small to hold those vast lands. Soon after Belisarius Byzantine empire started to shrink again. Belisarius had a house on Rufinianae – the Asiatic side of the Constantinople. It is possible he died there and was probable buried near one of the two churches in the area – maybe beside Saints Peter and Paul church.
Later on (1938) Robert Graves have written a book of Belisarius – “Count Belisarius”. This novel by Robert Graves about the life of the Byzantine general Belisarius (AD 500–565) is one of my favorite. It tells very vividly about life of Belisarius from boy to death.