Belisarius: Powerful General of the Byzantine Empire
Flavius Belisarius was a Byzantine general who lived during the 6th century AD. He is often regarded as one of the greatest generals of the Byzantine Empire. Additionally, he is one of the candidates for the title ‘Last of the Romans’, i.e. the last individual who embodied the best values of the Roman Empire. The story of Belisarius can perhaps be divided into three parts – his humble beginnings, his rise to power, and his fall from grace.
Young Belisarius’ Humble Beginnings
Belisarius is said to have been born in the region of Illyria (the western part of the Balkan Peninsula) to poor parents. The historian Edward Gibbon, in his work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that Belisarius “Was born, and perhaps educated, among the Thracian peasants.”
Mosaic showing a scene from daily life, The Great Palace of Constantinople (6th Century) (Wikimedia Commons)
Due to his later success in reclaiming the African provinces for the Byzantine Empire, Gibbon dubbed Belisarius as the “Africanus of new Rome” - a reference to the great generals of the Roman Republic, Scipio Africanus the Elder and his adopted grandson, Scipio Africanus the Younger, both of whom were involved in campaigns against the Carthaginians in North Africa.
Unlike these two Romans, however, Gibbon emphasizes Belisarius’ humble origins by writing that he did not have “any of those advantages which had formed the virtues of the elder and younger Scipio; a noble origin, liberal studies, and the emulation of a free state.”
As a youth, Belisarius became a soldier and served as a bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor Justin I. Although he was likely to have served his emperor with valor, he was probably not an outstanding figure. According to Gibbon, “The silence of a loquacious secretary may be admitted, to prove that the youth of Belisarius could not afford any subject of praise.” Upon the death of Justin I in 527 AD, Belisarius entered into the service of the new emperor, Justinian I. It was from this point that Belisarius’ fortunes changed, and he began his rise to power.
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Belisarius Rises to Power
Belisarius’ first opportunity to prove his worth came when he was appointed by Justinian in 527 AD to command the army in the east to deal with incursions from the Byzantine Empire’s great rival, the Sassanians. Through superior generalship, Belisarius was able to defeat the larger Sassanian army in 530 AD at the Battle of Dara.
Although the Battle of Callinicum in 531 AD ended in a Pyrrhic victory for the Sassanians over Belisarius, it allowed the ‘Eternal Peace’ agreement to be signed between the two powers in the following year. As a result, there was a period of relative peace between the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires that lasted until 540 AD.
A man believed to be Belisarius depicted in a mosaic beside Justinian, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (Wikimedia Commons)
With the arrival of peace, Belisarius was relieved of his command of the army on the eastern frontier, and recalled to the capital, Constantinople. Although the defeat at Callinicum dimmed his reputation a little, the opportunity for Belisarius to redeem himself came in 532 AD. It was during this year that the Nika riots, which nearly overthrew Justinian, broke out. As the highest-ranking military officer in the city at that time, Belisarius was responsible for suppressing the riots, and is said to have slaughtered between 20 and 30 thousand people.
As a reward, in 533 AD, Belisarius was sent to reclaim the African provinces from the Vandal Kingdom, which he succeeded within a year. When he returned to Constantinople, he was given a Roman triumph. It is said that this was the last ever Roman triumph that was given. Justinian’s next target was the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, and Belisarius was given command of the army in 535 AD. Despite Ravenna, the capital of the Ostrogoths, being captured in 540 AD, the war dragged on until 554 AD.
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All was not well for Belisarius, as his popularity amongst both his soldiers and his defeated enemies raised the suspicion of Justinian, and he was recalled to Constantinople after the capture of Ravenna. Belisarius was sent to the east to deal with the Sassanians again, but was back in Italy in 545 AD to quell an uprising by the Ostrogoths.
Wood cutting of Belisarius refusing the Goths’ offer for the crown of Italy (1830) (Wikimedia Commons)
Belisarius was not so successful in this campaign, and was relieved of his command in 548/9 AD. Belisarius’ last military campaign was in 559 AD, when the Bulgars attempted to invade the Byzantine Empire.
Belisarius Falls from Grace
In 562 AD, Belisarius fell from grace, was accused of corruption, and sent to prison. He was, however, later pardoned by Justinian, and was restored to his previous honor and standing in the Byzantine court.
A myth that was popular in the Middle Ages stated that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian, and became a beggar prior to his pardon by the emperor. Despite the lack of credibility, this account was immensely popular, and even found its way into an 18th century novel, Bélisaire.
As a result, the blind Belisarius became a popular subject amongst painters of that period who saw a parallel between the action of Justinian and that of contemporary rulers. These pieces of art include ‘Belisarius’ in the J. Paul Getty Museum and ‘Belisarius receiving Hospitality from a Peasant’ in London’s National Gallery.
Belisarius Asking For Alms (1781) (Jacques-Louis David) (Wikimedia Commons)
Featured image: Bélisaire, depicting Belisarius as a blind beggar. (1776) (François-André Vincent) (Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon, E., 1776-89. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/index.htm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. Belisarius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/225120/baron-francois-pascal-simon-gerard-belisarius-french-1797/
The National Gallery, 2015. Belisarius receiving Hospitality from a Peasant. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jean-francois-pierre-peyron-belisarius-receiving-hospitality-from-a-peasant