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Flavius Belisarius (l. 505-565 CE) was born in Illyria (the western part of the Balkan Peninsula) to poor parents and rose to become one of the greatest generals, if not the greatest, of the Byzantine Empire. Belisarius is listed among the notable candidates for the title of 'Last of the Romans' by which is meant the last individual who most perfectly embodies the values of the Roman Empire at its best. He served as commander of the military under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) with whom he had a notoriously difficult relationship.

He first enlisted in the army under the Byzantine emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 CE) and, upon Justin's death, his successor, Justinian I, awarded Belisarius full command of the army. He put down the Nika uprising in Constantinople in 532 CE, the result of resentment against Justinian I, slaughtering between 20-30,000 people. He then commanded Byzantine forces against the Persians, Vandals, Goths, and Bulgars, serving the empire nobly and faithfully until his death.

Early Career & the Nika Revolt

Belisarius' native tongue was Thracian with Latin as his second language. As a teenage recruit in the Byzantine army, he proved himself an able soldier and obviously made an impression on his superiors because he was elevated in rank during the reign of Justin I and soon after commanded the emperor's personal bodyguard. Justin I was so impressed by the young man that he made him an officer and then promoted him to command.

Belisarius was defeated a number of times before he seems to have gotten a better grasp of full-scale engagements & the command of large forces.

Whatever promise Justin I saw in Belisarius, it was not proven by his first engagements. Belisarius was defeated a number of times before he seems to have gotten a better grasp of full-scale engagements and the command of large forces. When Justin I died, in spite of Belisarius' defeats, Justinian I promoted him to command of the eastern forces against the Sassanid Empire, and he won a great victory at the Battle of Dara in 530 CE during the Iberian War. His next engagement, however, the Battle of Callinicum in 531 CE, was not so successful as he was defeated with heavy losses. Belisarius was ordered back to Constantinople to stand charges for his defeat on the grounds of incompetence but was cleared of all charges and resumed his duties.

Justinian I's policies – especially concerning taxation and the methods of tax collection – were extremely unpopular with the people of his capital city of Constantinople and, in 532 CE, this situation exploded in the so-called Nika Riots. The immediate cause of the conflict was the arrest and imprisonment of two athletes from the two rival chariot-racing sports teams the Blues and the Greens. A number of athletes had been arrested for murder after a fight following a race and most had been executed. Justinian I commuted the sentences of the last two from execution to imprisonment when it became clear how unhappy the populace was with his previous choices.

The crowds at the Hippodrome in January 532 CE were no happier with the imprisonment verdict than they had been with execution and, during the races that day, they broke out in a riot chanting “Nika!” (“win”) and stormed Justinian I's palace. The crowd was supported by senators who were also tired of Justinian I's policies and his tendency to ignore them in favor of his prefect John the Cappadocian (served c. 532-541 CE), a corrupt official who was in charge of taxes.

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The mob chose the consul Hypatius as their new emperor, and he encouraged their revolt further, speaking to the crowds now packing the Hippodrome. Justinian I privately gave up without a fight and was going to flee the city with his supporters but was stopped by his wife Theodora (l. 500-548 CE) who strongly advised against this by pointing out that he might save his life by deserting the city but would afterwards find it a life not worth living as there would be no honor or dignity in it.

Justinian I took her counsel and ordered Belisarius to deal with the riot. Belisarius, after gaining entrance to the Hippodrome, crushed the rebellion, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens (modern-day scholars set the number considerably higher). Hypatius was captured and later executed.

North Africa Campaign

The rebellion crushed, Justinian I then sent Belisarius against the Vandals in 533 CE to win back African provinces to the empire and 'liberate' Trinitarian (Nicene) Christians from the perceived tyranny of the Vandals who practiced Arian Christianity. The Vandals had conquered the African provinces of the former Roman Empire under the leadership of their king Gaiseric (r. 428-478 CE). The Arian Christian Vandals, after establishing themselves, systematically persecuted the Nicene Christians who were considered followers of the 'Roman' brand of Christianity.

Whether Justinian I actually ordered the invasion of North Africa to stop these persecutions is still debated as is the question of whether he ordered the invasion at all since some scholars, citing the work of Procopius, point out that the invasion was actually Belisarius' idea. It seems Justinian I's only initial goal was to win back the lucrative ports of Tripolitania which included Oea, Sabratha, and Leptis Magna on the coast. Since these ports and adjacent lands were no longer governed by the empire, they were not generating any income for Justinian I, whose popularity was at an all-time low following the Nika Riots and other setbacks and who needed a great victory (and more money) to restore his prestige.

In 533 CE, Belisarius embarked with 5,000 cavalry, 10,000 infantry, 20,000 sailors on a fleet of 500 warships, and 92 smaller warships rowed by 2,000 slaves. This huge invading force left Constantinople and landed in Sicily to resupply. According to historian J. F. C. Fuller, it was only at this point that a full-scale invasion of North Africa was decided upon by Belisarius once he received intelligence that the Vandal king Gelimer (r. 530-534 CE) had no idea he was coming.

Belisarius landed his forces in North Africa and marched toward Carthage, the capital of the Vandal kingdom. Along the way, he maintained strict discipline among his troops so that none of the populations they passed through were harmed or wronged. His chivalrous conduct toward the people of North Africa won their trust and they provided him with supplies and intelligence. Gelimer, having finally learned that a Byzantine force was descending on his capital, launched a plan whereby he would trap his enemy in the valley of Ad Decium and, in a three-pronged surprise attack, destroy the Byzantines.

Gelimer's plan relied on a precisely coordinated attack led by himself, his brother Ammatus, and his nephew Gibamund. In order for the plan to work, everyone had to move at exactly the right time. As Fuller notes, “because correct timing was the prerequisite of success, in a clockless age it would have been a fluke had the three columns engaged simultaneously” (312). Ammatus struck first before Gelimer and Gibamund were in position and was quickly killed while his forces scattered. Gibamund then charged without waiting for Gelimer and was defeated by the Byzantine cavalry. By the time Gelimer arrived, he found only the bodies of his defeated army and his dead brother. He was so distraught over Ammatus' death that he halted the army in order to bury him with the proper rites. This allowed Belisarius to reach Carthage and take it easily.

Gelimer marched on Carthage but was defeated at the Battle of Tricameron in December 533 CE. Gelimer fled the field in the face of the Byzantine onslaught, and his troops then fell into a panic and broke ranks. Gelimer was later hunted down, captured, and brought back in chains to Constantinople as part of Belisarius' triumph.

Gothic Wars

In 535 CE Belisarius was sent against the Ostrogoths in Italy. The country had been stable and prosperous under the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great (r. 493-526 CE) who provided the Byzantine Empire with revenue but, since his death, had fallen into chaos under the rule of self-seeking and weak monarchs. At the time Justinian I decided to take action, Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha (l. c. 495-535 CE), the reigning queen, had been assassinated by her cousin Theodahad who then assumed the throne.

Belisarius took Sicily first in 535 CE and then Naples and Rome in 536 CE. Theodahad was not up to the task of defending his cities and, further, had proven himself a very poor king in every respect. He was assassinated by Amalasuntha's son-in-law Witigis (also given as Vitiges, r. 536-540 CE) in 536 CE who then organized defense of his realm but did no better than Theodahad. In 540 CE, Belisarius took the city of Ravenna and secured Witigis as prisoner. Justinian I then offered the Goths his terms which, in Belisarius' view, were too generous: they could keep an independent kingdom and, in spite of the trouble they had caused, would only have to surrender half of their treasury to Justinian I. Justinian I seems to have had no intention of honoring this deal and, even if he had, Belisarius considered it needlessly lenient.

The Goths trusted neither Justinian nor his terms but did trust Belisarius who had behaved honorably toward the conquered throughout the war. They answered that they would agree to the terms of surrender if Belisarius endorsed the treaty. Belisarius could not do so, however, as an honorable man and soldier. A faction of the Ostrogoth nobility suggested a way around this impasse by making Belisarius himself their new king.

Belisarius pretended to accept their proposal but, loyal to Justinian I and knowing himself an abler soldier than statesman, went along with all their preparations to crown him at Ravenna and then had the ringleaders of the plot arrested and claimed all of the Ostrogoth Empire, and all of the treasury, in Justinian I's name. Scholar David L. Bongard comments:

A brave and skillful soldier, Belisarius was a talented tactician, bold, wily, and flexible; despite his shabby treatment at the hands of Justinian, he always behaved loyally [even to the point of refusing] the offer of a crown of his own at Ravenna. (Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, 76)

Return to Constantinople & Persian Wars

Back in Constantinople, Belisarius was as popular as ever – far more than Justinian I.

Even though Belisarius had never given Justinian I any cause, the emperor grew suspicious of his loyalty. Belisarius was incredibly popular among his men as well as among those he conquered and so, in Justinian I's mind, there was no reason why his general would not rise up against him. He thought it best to keep Belisarius close at hand where he could be better controlled and so recalled Belisarius to Constantinople and replaced him in Italy with Byzantine officials. This proved a grave error as the officials were corrupt and the people of Italy, especially the Ostrogoths, suffered under their administration.

Back in Constantinople, Belisarius was as popular as ever – far more than Justinian I. Historian Will Durant cites Procopius in reporting how the people of the city regarded the general:

The Byzantines took delight in watching Belisarius as he came forth from his home each day… For his progress resembled a crowded festival procession, since he was always escorted by a large number of Vandals, Goths, and Moors. Furthermore, he had a fine figure, and was tall and remarkably handsome. But his conduct was so meek, and his manners so affable, that he seemed like a very poor man, and one of no repute. (110)

Belisarius lived a relatively quiet life at this time with his wife Antonia (l. 495 - c. 565 CE), to whom he was devoted even though she was unfaithful to him. Antonia had followed Belisarius on his campaigns and seemed to be a loyal wife and confidante but, according to Procopius, she was actually in the service of the empress Theodora to spy on Belisarius.

He was not home for long, however, before Justinian I sent him to fight the Persians. Belisarius won these wars through his usual careful tactics and the use of deceit. At one point, when he knew he was outnumbered and the Persian general was trying to gain intelligence on the strength of his forces, Belisarius arrived at a meeting with Persian ambassadors with a large contingent of men (6,000 according to Procopius) dressed as if they were a hunting expedition. The impression was that, if a mere hunting party numbered so many, Belisarius' army must vastly outnumber the Persians. Instead of attacking, the Persians retreated and Belisarius was victorious.

Totila's War

While he was off fighting the Persians, the situation in Italy had worsened. The Byzantine officials, whom Justinian had given governorship to, had so misused their powers that a Gothic uprising, led by a charismatic, nationalist Ostrogoth named Totila (birth name Baduila-Badua, r. 541-552 CE), had thrown the region into chaos. Totila was chosen as the Ostrogoth king and proceeded to drive out the Byzantines and claim Italy as his own kingdom.

Totila was a charismatic and effective general while the Byzantine commanders sent against him by Justinian I were more concerned with how they could profit personally from the campaign. Totila defeated them easily and, by 542 CE, had over 20,000 men under his command with his ranks swelling daily. When he defeated a Byzantine army, he offered clemency and many who were taken prisoner switched sides and fought for him.

In 545 CE, Justinian I sent Belisarius back to Italy to deal with Totila and, in December of that year, Totila took the city of Rome. Even though Rome was no longer the seat of power it had been, it still retained symbolic importance for the Byzantines. Totila sent word to Constantinople that he was open to negotiations but Justinian I wrote back that he should deal with Belisarius. Totila, frustrated, wrote Belisarius that, if the Byzantines did not withdraw from Italy and leave him in peace, he would destroy Rome and execute the senators who were his prisoners.

Belisarius responded in a carefully worded letter in which he explained that Totila's demands were impossible because Italy belonged to the Byzantine Empire and Justinian I was not about to surrender it lightly. Belisarius highlighted Totila's reputation as an honorable and merciful general who spared cities and those he had defeated and warned that, if he went ahead with his plan to destroy Rome and execute his prisoners, his good name would forever be tarnished. Rome was a famous city, Belisarius noted, and if Totila left it intact, he would be remembered well; if he destroyed it, he would forever be held in disdain.

Even after all his service to Justinian I, Belisarius was accused of corruption & imprisoned in 562 CE.

Totila agreed in a move which scholar Herwig Wolfram (expressing scholarly consensus) refers to as “the momentous mistake of giving up Rome” (356). He needed all the men under his command to continue the war and so could not leave Rome fortified; he therefore chose to abandon it. Belisarius took the city afterwards, repaired and strengthened the walls, and garrisoned it, in an effort to deny Totila a significant resource in any future negotiations.

Totila continued his successful campaigns, outsmarting even Belisarius, while his army grew – largely with recruits from defeated imperial forces – between 547-548 CE until, in 550 CE, he returned and took Rome back. He then sent emissaries to Constantinople to negotiate a peace but his messengers were denied an audience and then arrested. Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy and replaced him with the general Germanus, second husband of the late Amalasuntha, but Germanus died before he could reach Italy and was replaced by Narses (l. 480-573 CE) who would defeat Totila at the Battle of Taginae in 552 CE, killing him and restoring Italy to the Byzantine Empire.


Back in Constantinople, and despite his poor treatment at Justinian I's hands, Belisarius again accepted the command of troops and crushed the Bulgars when they attempted to invade the Byzantine Empire in 559 CE. He once again ably drove the enemy back across the border and secured the boundaries of the empire. Even after all his service to Justinian I, Belisarius was accused of corruption (generally understood today as trumped-up charges) and imprisoned in 562 CE.

Justinian I pardoned him, however, and restored him to his previous standing and honour at the Byzantine court. A myth later grew up around this event in which Justinian I had Belisarius blinded and the great general became a beggar on the streets of Constantinople. This myth, however, has no basis in fact even though many works of art, such as Jacque-Louis David's painting Belisarius, have depicted it as historical truth. Belisarius died of natural causes in 565 CE, within only a few weeks of Justinian I, at his estate just outside Constantinople. Will Durant expresses the majority opinion of Belisarius' reputation, writing:

No general since Caesar ever won so many victories with such limited resources of men and funds; few ever surpassed him in strategy or tactics, in popularity with his men and mercy to his foes; perhaps it merits note that the greatest generals – Alexander, Caesar, Belisarius, Saladin, Napoleon – found clemency a mighty engine of war. (108)

He is remembered as one of the greatest military commanders in history and, as Durant notes, is regularly compared with the most celebrated generals of all time. Unlike many of them, however, Belisarius valued humility, regularly consulting with his staff before making decisions which would affect them, and consistently adhered to his own code of honor, maintaining his integrity under circumstances which would have corrupted a lesser man.

Belisarius in the east

The first attempt at this (after some inevitable and much needed corrections, thanks for all the advice everyone) went over pretty well but I wasn't satisfied with it and felt it was too dry to be much fun.

Warning: This will be full of gory, brutal, graphic and appalling war violence along with a realistic portrayal of how people would be treated and treat others during those times as well as plenty some pretty harsh language.

An ovenlike breeze drifted over the sandy ground and blew thick dust into the faces of the waiting roman troops. Quintus Pallus cursed with weary venom and adjusted his grip on his Contus.

Here and there frustated soldiers gave went to their feelings in graphic detail until silenced. Quintus smiled sympathetically behind his grimy face-mask but kept his feelings to himself, he felt a steady rage flickering in him at the miserable heat, the incessant breeze, the dust and those never to be sufficiently damned persians but he didn't have the energy to vent properly.

He adjusted his seat and winced as the itch didn't abate, no matter what you did the sand still got lodged in the cracks and crevasses of your clothing and skin and with armour on there wasn't a damn thing you could do about it.

Off to his right he could hear the sound of steel-on-steel and far off screams of horse and man as the General's men at the front clashed with the mail-clad Savarans of Khosrau I.

His horse's ears pricked as the sounds of the battle drew near and Quintus leaned down and patted Typhon's neck, the horse couldn't feel it through layer of bronze scales over his neck but he was sure the stupid beast appreciated the gesture.

He straightened as the Arab cavalry to their front suddenly tightened up, readied their weapons and passed the word that the persian cavalry was approaching. Quintus took a calming breath and checked his gear one last time.

And then he went back to waiting.

It wasn't long, while the arabs fought well they were lightly armed and weren't intended to go up against Khosrau's finest, which was why Belisarius had placed them to guard his left flank.

The persians had taken the bait and crashed through the arab lines, scattering them and charging on in wave of glittering mail as the sun shone down on their gore-smeared weapons and their magnificent stallions.

And before they could pull up and regain their cohesion the trap was sprung and the fifteen hundred Buecallari Belisarius had stationed behind the arabs tightened their reins, readied their weapons, raked back their spurs and charged.

Quintus heard Typhon bugle and saw the brute's ears perk at the chance of battle and then massive animal was running flat out, his ears flat against his armoured head, his nostrils flared and showing crimson and then two walls of steel slammed into each other with a crash like the ending of the world.

Steed and rider alike screamed as they crashed together, horses were thrown back on their haunches or crashed head-over-heels through the enemy lines from the shock of the impact, warm blood sprayed on armour and flesh, mangled entrails slithered from their screaming owner's bellies to fall over the stiffening corpses on the dusty ground and be trampled under the horses hooves. Weapons flashed through the swirling dust as steel-clad soldiers fought like something out myth in a merciless struggle to bring the other down.

The heat and the discomfort were forgotten as Quintus' heart hammered against his chest, he heard the blood roaring in his ears and it blotted out all sound except the piercing notes of the bugle.

He could feel his jaw stretch against his face-mask as he laughed and he could feel Typhon's powerful body shifting under his saddle as the battle-crazed stallion slammed his chest into the body of a persian's horse.

Quintus' Contus punched through a Savaran's armour and buried itself in the man's guts in a spray of bright red blood, the persian threw up his arms and vomited a shower of gore through the lips of his gleaming face-mask before he slumped over and Quintus' Contus snapped.

The splintered shaft still served a purpose and slammed another persian back against the cantle of his ornate saddle. Quintus threw it down, drew his Mace and bought it crashing down on the on persians helmet before he could recover and then he lost all track and the struggle became confused and blurred as he fought feverishly to hold his place in the line and for his life.

Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded?

Reader Bryan asked what I thought of the legend that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian. According to the story, a jealous and fearful Justinian arrested Belisarius after his final victory and had him tried for treason. The loyal general’s eyes were put out, his estates confiscated, and he was forced to wander the streets of Constantinople begging for bread while contemplating the vicissitudes of fortune.

Belisarius did briefly fall out of favor late in Justinian’s reign, but was publicly rehabilitated. The story of his blinding originated in the 12 th century with the monk John Tzetzes who was trying to criticize the political figures of his own day. It made for a good morality tale, and was pressed into service in the 18 th century by Europeans (mostly French) who saw a parallel between the tyranny of Justinian and their own autocratic societies. (see the spectacular painting by Jacques-Louis David and the play ‘Bélisaire’ by Jean-François Marmontel)

Some scholars still argue that the legend does have some basis in fact (Justinian was certainly capable of it), but there are several reasons not to accept it. The Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 mentioned several large statues of Belisarius still standing. Had he been blinded and disgraced these surely would have been torn down. Along the same lines there was also a great cycle of mosaics detailing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius above the gate to the imperial palace. These were made during Justinian’s lifetime and were still in place a thousand years later. Finally, there are the writings of the contemporary historian Procopius. In his ‘Secret History’ he makes no mention of the emperor humiliating his general, despite the fact that he clearly hated Justinian and was trying to blacken his name. He accuses Justinian of being a devil in the shape of a man, of being responsible for the deaths of a trillion people, and of having a head that would routinely disappear- but not of harming Belisarius.

Nevertheless the legend persists- perhaps because its lesson still resonates. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up neatly in his poem about the great general:

Is the gratitude of kings.”

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean M. and Anders Brownworth, Lars Brownworth. Lars Brownworth said: Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded? http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/?p=125 […]

[…] both about the Byzantine Empire. First is Lars Brownworth’s answer to this question – Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded? Justinian (c.482-565) was a Roman Emeror in Constantinople. Belisarius was one of his famous […]

Well, Justinian was usually ruthless only if their was a purpose rather than be ruthless for the sake of it. Actually, there were even two attempts on his life later on, and he pardon the potential killers. And even though he was ruthless to keep power during the Nika Revolt when it first occurred he actually promise to spare the mob but they didn’t listen, and it is stated that Justinian would have pardon Hypatius and Pompeius during the Nika revolt but he didn’t since Theodora thought that since they became involved in the overthrow of Justinian whether it was the mob or not they deserved to die. The idea that Justinian was cruel for cruel sake is from Procopius secret history.

History’s Model General? Reflections on the Life and Times of Belisarius

In 1780, the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David completed one of his finest works. Entitled “Belisarius Begging for Alms,” the oil painting depicts an aging warrior, blinded with a hand outstretched, seated at the base of a colossal Roman monument. His feet are bare, his beard unkempt, and his armor draped in coarse rags, dull in sheen. A slender walking cane rests to his side, propped against a stone slab bearing the name of a famous former general — Belisario, or Belisarius. A beautiful woman, her face etched in concern, drops a few coins into an upturned helmet, and whispers words of consolation. Her husband, a man in the vigor of youth and full military regalia, is in shock, his arms raised and his mouth open. He has just realized that the stricken veteran is his former commander, the legendary Belisarius himself.

Although his name is not as well known as it once was, Belisarius has long been considered one of history’s finest tacticians. Under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the sixth century general reclaimed vast tracts of Western Roman territory, from northern Africa to the Italian peninsula. Frequently outnumbered and leading an eclectic grouping of warriors composed of romaioi (Eastern Romans), foederati (Barbarian allies), and ethnikoi (specialist ethnic troops), the Thracian commander greatly expanded the footprint of the Byzantine empire at a time when many thought that Rome’s ancestral lands had been irredeemably lost. The fact that many of these conquests, as we shall see, only proved fleeting, has, if anything, only burnished his myth, transmogrifying the soldier into something of a crepuscular icon — Western Europe’s last great Roman protector before the advent of the so-called Dark Ages.

For Liddell Hart, Belisarius was also the consummate practitioner of the so-called “indirect approach” and the “master of the art of converting his weakness into strength and the opponent’s strength into a weakness.” T.E. Lawrence, an avid reader of the ancient military classics, considered “the Thracian genius” to be one of “three really first-class Roman generals in history” (the other two being Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar) and encouraged his friend, Robert Graves, to write the novel Count Belisarius. This piece of historically informed fiction retraces Belisarius’s military campaigns and was much admired by Winston Churchill, who is said to have often turned to it for guidance during the fraught early years of World War II.

Who was the man behind the myth? And why do the tales of Belisarius’s life and military exploits continue to resonate, firing the imaginations of great men from David to Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia? What insights can be gleaned, not only from his campaigns, but from the Eastern Roman Empire’s strategic literature more broadly?

Vainest of All Things is the Gratitude of Kings

Before attempting to answer these questions, it is worth examining one of the more captivating aspects of the general’s mythos. Indeed, over the centuries, Belisarius’s life — or the various interpretations of it — has taken on a unique form of symbolism. Through the writings of historians, poets, and novelists, he has progressively morphed into the noble warrior-citizen par excellence, the selfless public servant who waged wars across continents, and through mountain, forest and scorching desert — all in the service of a megalomaniac emperor who, riven by his own insecurities, falsely accused him of treason and had him blinded. Never mind that modern historians consider the legend of his blinding to be apocryphal, and that it is highly unlikely that even a disgraced general ever found himself cast onto the streets of Constantinople begging for food and coin. For many, the legend of the devoted soldier callously betrayed by his fickle political masters remains a powerful one. In a broader sense, it speaks to a timeless yearning for a virtuous military figure, one who — guided by a strong sense of the public good — can rise above and beyond the unseemly scrum of elite politics. One need only think of the reaction many Americans had last month, when watching footage of Secretary Jim Mattis, a former general, urging U.S. troops to remain aloof from their nation’s increasingly rancorous political debates in order to focus on a higher purpose.

Belisarius is thus often presented as a lonely, gruff, and honorable serviceman who prefers the company of his barbarian horsemen to the courtiers of the imperial palace, and the exiguity of a campaign tent to the marbled villas of Constantinople. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn between his moral probity and the seething corruption of Byzantium. These contrasts are rendered all the more stark by a long and unfortunate Western tradition of portraying Byzantium in a negative light, and as a den of inequity, crawling with scheming eunuchs, feckless bureaucrats, and sexually ravenous rulers.

Even Edward Gibbon, whose opinions of the Byzantine Empire and of its citizens were otherwise colored by an orientalist form of disdain, described the Thracian in the following terms:

His lofty stature and majestic countenance fulfilled their expectations of a hero (…) The spectator and historian of his exploits has observed that amidst the perils of war he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment that in deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.

In the late 18th century, the French writer Jean-Francois Marmontel wrote Belisaire, a novel that presented a romanticized rendition of the life of the general, which once again popularized the tale of his fall from grace and into destitution, despite his decades of illustrious service to the empire. The novel was pitched as a not-so-subtle moral parable on the duplicity and ungratefulness of monarchs. It was promptly banned by a peeved Louis XV — a counterproductive and shortsighted move, as it only earned its author even greater renown. A half century later, the English historian Lord Mahon penned a biography of Belisarius that depicted the serial campaigner as the providential figure of Byzantium, and as a shining beacon of morality within an otherwise turgid swamp of political corruption and ineffectualness:

At the beginning of the sixth century of the Christian era, the empire of Constantinople was beset with enemies and sinking to decay…Frequent insurrections wasted the resources of the state, and deprived the government of all energy and enterprise while the armies, turbulent and feeble, had thrown off the restraints of military discipline. It is the purpose of this narrative, to show how the genius of one man averted these dangers, and corrected these defects how the tottering empire was upheld how the successors of Augustus were enabled, for a time, to resume their former ascendancy, and to wrest from the hands of the barbarians their most important possessions.

Lord Mahon’s panegyric fits into a long tradition, hailing back to Plutarch, of viewing biographies as useful means of moral instruction. The didactic biography became a particularly popular genre during the Victorian era, when biographers became fixated on the spiritual edification of their fellow citizens. Classical figures of heroic virtue, such as Belisarius, were eagerly bankrolled into this literary tradition. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the great romantic poet Henry Ladsworth Longfellow also paid tribute to the Byzantine commander’s by now iconic status as a tragic hero in one of his most haunting poems:

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
Am Belisarius!

The Man Behind the Myth

Who was the man behind the myth and what lessons can be derived from his life and military actions? When Robert Graves first published Count Belisarius, there was one criticism levied by reviewers that he found especially galling. The hero of his novel, many thought, was too perfect and “stiffly noble” — almost tediously so. Stung by their critiques, Graves delivered a fiery retort in a letter to The Sunday Times, in which he wrote that it was, “a shocking comment on twentieth-century literary taste that when…a really good man is shown…it must be said that he does not really come to life.”

The truth of the matter is that it is not possible — nor is it advisable — to deliver grand moral judgments on historical figures whose private and inner lives remain cloaked in obscurity. That said, there is little doubt that Belisarius was a supremely gifted general. He may not have won all his battles — during his early career along the Persian front he frequently proved unsuccessful — but his conquests in northern Africa and Italy were nothing short of remarkable. These victories appear even more impressive when examining the various correlations of force in each respective campaign. Indeed, the Thracian was frequently operating at a severe numerical disadvantage, thousands of miles from home, and with severely strained financial and logistical resources. Time and time again, he managed to mitigate these shortcomings through deception (lighting large numbers of campfires, creating noise, or spreading his troops to trick his opponent into thinking he was at the head of a much larger force), bold action (engaging in diversionary counterthrusts or flying sorties during sieges), or by leveraging certain key tactical advantages over his foes. For example, in North Africa, he made excellent use of his highly mobile Roman and Hunnic horse archers against the more heavily armored (and slow-moving) Vandal mounted lancers.

When confronted with a particularly redoubtable foe, he became an expert judge at when to fight, how to fight, and when to walk away and bide his time. This was noted by an anonymous contemporary in a widely read military treatise, and whose ruminations on asymmetric warfare are still worth considering:

If conditions are equal on both sides and the victory could go either way, we should not advance into battle before the enemy have become inferior to us in some respect. This can be brought about if we fall upon them when they may be weary from just having finished a long march or one through rocky and hilly country. We can also fall upon them when they are in disorder, for example, setting up their tents or taking them down. The best time is when the enemy have broken up their units owing to a lack of supplies or some other reason. Then we can attack those detachments one at a time. This is what Belisarius used to do. When the enemy force was so large that he was unable to face up to it, he would destroy the provisions in the area before they appeared. Need for supplies would force the enemy to separate their units from one another and march along in several different groups and then he would defeat each unit by itself. By these methods, large armies have often been defeated by much smaller ones, not to mention by forces equally or nearly as strong.

He also displayed a certain flair for what we would now call special operations, successfully infiltrating a small number of elite solders through a disused aqueduct to break a siege of Naples. Perhaps most importantly, numerous contemporary accounts stress his moral probity and humanity — not only toward the vanquished, but also toward the civilian populations of territories in dispute. Zacharias of Mitylene, a contemporary bishop and historian, thus remarks that “Belisarius was not greedy after bribes, and was a friend to the peasants, and did not allow the army to molest them.” Procopius of Caeserea, Belisarius’s private secretary and our main source of information on his campaigns, describes an incident in North Africa, when his commander severely punished troops caught stealing fruit from local orchards. Clearly, the Byzantine commander was attentive to the need to win “hearts and minds” during his extended overseas operations. Some have suggested that this reputation for fairness and moderation played a role in the capture of several Italian towns during his first campaign against the Ostrogoths. These civilian populations, it is theorized, were more willing to surrender to a man they knew to be humane, especially at a time when protracted sieges often led to extreme brutality against town citizenries.

One should not forget, however, that Belisarius was also a paid sword, loyal to his patron and emperor, a fellow Romanized Thracian. As such, he was not averse to engaging in acts of extreme brutality. In 532, during the Nika riots, when city-wide unrest in Constantinople threatened Justinian’s reign, Belisarius played a leading role in quashing dissent. Positioning his troops at the exits of the main hippodrome, where most of the violent demonstrators had assembled, he proceeded to methodically slaughter the emperor’s foes and, according to one 7th century account, “cut down many rioters until evening.” It is reported that as the sun set over the Bosporus, as many as 30,000 men and women lay dead on the blood-soaked sands of the hippodrome.

Despite his dogged loyalty, Belisarius was often held in suspicion. His successes on the battlefield stirred resentment and anxiety at the imperial court, as well as among his more politically ambitious military subalterns, who did not hesitate on occasion to propagate false rumors or intrigue against him.

All too often, however, his relationship with Justinian has been grossly simplified. The latter was no Nero or Caligula and shared with his general a genuine, if occasionally strained, connection. As mentioned earlier, both were Romanized Thracians in an Empire whose elites had mostly adopted Greek, rather than Latin, as their first language. Both were also of relatively modest provincial stock and chose to marry strong women with more than a whiff of scandal to their names. Justinian shared with Belisarius a certain restlessness and sense of destiny, along with a burning desire for the recovery of Roman civilizational grandeur — albeit in a heavily Christianized form. In addition to erecting some of the most magnificent monuments of Byzantium, such as the Hagia Sophia, his main achievement was the compilation of Justinian’s legal code, a monumental scholarly undertaking. It is to this shrewd and legally-minded emperor, that one attributes the rather splendid adage that, “imperial majesty should not just be decorated with arms, but also with laws.” While Belisarius was accused of being involved in a plot against the emperor and briefly fell into disgrace, it appears that eventually his name was cleared, and that his honors were fully reinstated. The dramatic, but fanciful tale of his blinding was reportedly first concocted a full six centuries after his death, by a notoriously unreliable Byzantine poet.

Byzantium’s Strategic Treasure Trove

If one is willing, however, to look beyond the tragic myth, and sometimes salacious contemporary accounts (Procopius famously wrote a parallel account of Justinian’s reign, the Secret History, which — although wildly entertaining — verges on the pornographically absurd), there is much to be gleaned from the study of Belisarius’s campaigns and almost surgical application of military force.

Some of the most important lessons, no doubt, can be derived from what happened in the immediate aftermath of his conquests. Indeed, although the hyperactive campaigner succeeded in more than doubling the size of the empire, many of these acquisitions proved short-lived. After Belisarius’ first departure to fight on the Persian front, Justinian entrusted Byzantine rule in Italy to a “mini-junta” of five subordinate generals, who did not share Belisarius’s sense of moderation, and did little to endear themselves to the locals. The Italians already felt at a certain cultural remove from their mostly Greek-speaking “liberators” and began to resent Justinian’s tax collectors. Like a brutal winter following a bountiful harvest, Byzantine rule on the peninsula began to wither on the vine. Decades of turbulence and unrest followed, until in 565, a mere three years after Belisarius’s death, the Lombards succeeded in wresting away the bulk of Eastern Roman territory in Italy. Other territories added to the empire during Justinian’s reign also threatened to dissolve. In Spain, the resurgent Visigoths slowly gnawed away at Byzantine territory and, by 616, had swept away most vestiges of Constantinople’s military presence. In North Africa, however, the situation was somewhat less dire, and the Byzantine empire managed to cling onto its holdings for another century and a half.

A full postmortem of the cost and consequences of Belisarius’s campaigns is not feasible here. The question that most historians have since asked themselves is the most obvious one: Was it all worth it? Were Belisarius’s tireless efforts a mere exercise in futility? Did Justinian’s pursuit of civilizational unity and Mediterranean dominance make any sense or was it a fever dream — one that cost too many young men their lives on foreign shores and that siphoned too many precious funds away from the state treasury? Were Belisarius’s horse archers, spearmen, and mounted lancers simply playing a transcontinental game of whack a mole against self-replenishing hordes of angry barbarians?

It seems self-evident (to me, at least) that this is one of those interstitial periods in history that students of grand strategy might consider worthy of closer examination. At a time when the United States is conflicted over the nature of its role in the world, the extent of its strategic perimeter, and the trajectory of certain of its overseas commitments, more forensic analyses of how previous great powers have debated similar issues would no doubt prove useful.

More broadly, the field of Byzantine military history — currently experiencing a veritable golden age — remains astonishingly underexplored by contemporary students of strategy. It is all the more disappointing, considering the exceptionally rich repository of military treatises and texts the Byzantines have bequeathed us, from the Strategikon of Emperor Maurice, allegedly written a mere generation after both Belisarius and Justinian’s deaths, to the manuals on Skirmishing and Campaign Organization and Tactics compiled in the late tenth century. Edward Luttwak’s 2009 book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, was rightly criticized by eminent Byzantinists for its sweeping claims and historical inaccuracies. The so-called “Machiavelli of Maryland” does deserve some measure of credit, however, for his attempts to introduce Byzantium’s long history of strategic thought to a wider audience.

Surrounded for over a millennium by a kaleidoscopic set of regional competitors, the Eastern Roman Empire proved remarkably adept at adapting its military instrument to different adversaries and geographical theaters. Although surviving military treatises differ in accordance with their areas of focus, the professions of their writers, and their periods of origin, they also share striking thematic commonalities. Much attention is lavished in each document on scouting, intelligence gathering, and on dealing in a subtle, discriminate fashion with a variety of foreign foes. The tenth century De Administrando Imperio, for instance, opens with a commentary from the emperor Constantine VII on how it is necessary for rulers to make a thorough examination, or what we might today call a “net assessment” of the Eastern Roman state’s regional competitors, in order to better comprehend “the difference between each of these nations, and how either to treat with them and conciliate them, or to make war upon and oppose them.”

There is a refreshingly prudential quality to Byzantine military thinking, with a focus on husbanding one’s resources and avoiding crippling force-on-force confrontations. Byzantine strategists display a keen understanding of the psychology of battle, with texts such as the Strategikon warning against the creation of enemies that, driven by desperation, have nothing left to lose,

When the enemy is surrounded, it is well to leave a gap in our lines to give them an opportunity to flee, in case they judge that flight is better than remaining and taking their chances in battle.

Byzantine authors’ discussion of how to manage foreign relations is equally sophisticated. Consider, for example, this passage from the Anonymous Treatment of Strategy (from the Justinian era) on how to deal with foreign envoys, and on the importance of tailoring one’s diplomacy to the power of one’s interlocutor:

Envoys are sent by us and to us. Those who are sent to us should be received honorably and generously, for everyone holds envoys in esteem. Their attendants, however, should be kept under surveillance to keep them from obtaining any information by asking questions of our people. If the envoys come from a very distant country, and others dwell between them and us, then we may show them anything we like in our country. We can act in like manner, even if their country is located next to ours but is much weaker. But if they are greatly superior to us, either in the size of their army or its courage, then we should not draw their attention to our wealth or the beauty of our women, but point out the number of our men, the polish of our weapons, and the height of our walls.

Espionage and disinformation are leitmotifs of Byzantine military treatises. In fact, it is difficult to think of other ancient texts where such features of geopolitical competition feature quite as prominently. (One exception might be the Arthashastra, the monumental Indian text on strategy and statecraft written in the early years of the Mauryan Empire. ) Skirmishing, which provides guidance on how to “shadow” and attrite enemy Muslim forces in the rugged Taurus Mountains, is a sophisticated, premodern discussion on special warfare and operations. Indeed, modern special operations operators would find some of the themes explored in this volume and in Campaign Organization and Tactics jarringly familiar. The Byzantines’ delineation of the various roles of their covert operators, for example, is undertaken with an almost exquisite level of granularity, with clear and detailed distinctions made between scouts trained for strategic reconnaissance, trapezitai or hussars that conduct direct action missions behind enemy lines, and spies (often merchants) that relay a steady stream of information back to Constantinople.

A Broader Reading of History in Security Studies

Some great warriors are more than the sum of their military actions. Throughout the millennium-old history of Byzantium, the legend of Belisarius has succeeded in capturing the imaginations of generations of storytellers, while hundreds of his successors have been largely forgotten, sinking back into the mists of time. Over the centuries, the Thracian commander has embodied different things for different people. A symbol of military virtue for some, an argument in favor of enlightened praetorianism for others, Belisiarius has also been portrayed as the master of the “indirect approach,” — a special operations commander in chainmail — with a preternatural aptitude for light footprint, overseas operations.

A discussion of his life provides first and foremost a precious window into a strategic tradition that has been overlooked for far too long. As the medievalist Dan Jones recently noted when discussing the role of “fake news” in the fall of the Templars, we should spend less time discussing whether history is “relevant,” and more time focusing on whether it is “resonant.” The past few years have borne witness to a surge of interest in the strategic canon of the Western Roman and Hellenistic worlds. The recent debates surrounding the interpretation of Thucydides provide a stimulating example of this intellectual reignition. One can only hope, however, that this reawakened curiosity will also begin to extend beyond our most immediate cultural shores, and drift eastward across the Aegean, toward that civilization — both so alien and yet so familiar — that is Byzantium. Provided one is willing to look, there is much there that is relevant — and maybe even also resonant — for today’s strategic thinkers.

Iskander Rehman is a Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Prior to joining the Pell Center, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman

The Battle That Made His Reputation

The Persians first hit the Byzantine left wing hard and forced it back, but the Huns rode to the rescue and the Heruls emerged from behind their hillock and assailed the Persian attackers from the rear. Then Peroz threw in his elite Immortals against the Byzantine right wing, but Belisarius moved some of his own guardsmen to strengthen it and, once again, the Huns rode to the rescue. The Persians were forced back in disorder, and their retreat became a rout. Their casualties were heavy. The Battle of Dara was the first victory over the Persians on the eastern frontier in over a century. Outnumbered, Belisarius had prevailed the battle made his reputation.

The next year, he nearly lost it. The Persians, accompanied by their Arab allies from the Lakmid tribe, made a thrust across Syria toward Antioch. Belisarius countered and pursued them back as far as the Euphrates River. Belisarius, always cautious, would have let them cross the river and return home, but his troops taunted him with cowardice and, against his better judgment, Belisarius invited a battle. He drew his battle line at right angles to the river. Faithful Procopius, who wrote a report of what happened that exculpated Belisarius, tells that what defeated the Byzantines was the collapse of their right wing when their own Arab allies—led by the sheikh of the Ghassanid tribe al-Harith—turned and fled. Belisarius himself dismounted and fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops, thus stemming the rout. But it seems the official report told a much less flattering story, and Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople.

Best Belisarius Talent Trees

The next thing we are going to talk about is the best talent builds to pick for Belisarius. Before we talk about each talent build, I want to point out that Belisarius is a commander that will benefit the best if he specializes with pure cavalry only. Since he comes with cavalry and mobility focus which makes sense to use cavalry only for Belisarius. Although, you can do budget siege with cavalry for towing the resources from spots and enemy players to your city. Below is a list of best Belisarius talent builds:

Peacekeeping Talent Build

This talent build is one of the best choices for Belisarius hands-down. It gives the epic commander improved damage towards barbarians and neutral units on top of Irresistible which gives additional damage bonus. Any player who is looking to farm barbarians quickly for experience and resources will like this talent build.

Plus, you get 15 packs of resources for every defeated barbarian. Which is a nice perk that goes on the top of looted items from your victorious battles and serves as supplemental resources to offset the cost to heal your troops back to fighting stance. Speed of rage is also improved and the majority of points are invested in improving the overall damage under Belisarius’ leadership.

PvP Talent Build

If you prefer to play Belisarius in PvP battles like Arenas or Expedition, then this is the best talent build for a PvP Belisarius. Basically, the majority of the points goes into improving cavalry’s health, attack, defense and march speed. Which helps Belisarius deliver a strong fighting army that’s capable of wrecking enemy forces easily.

The march speed is also improved that serves as a counterweight against potential enemy movement debuff, in some cases to deal increased damage towards slowed enemies. Belisarius stops these with this talent build which makes him especially important in PvP battles and in Expedition depending on the type of commanders you are fighting.

Blitzkrieg Talent Build

If you ever find yourself needing some additional support, the Blitzkrieg talent build focuses on mobility. Which means Belisarius gains a massive march speed bonus in addition to his passive skills. This talent build alone gives roughly +40% march speed bonus with capabilities to further increase it by another

Which brings the total march speed bonus to 60% and his passive skill will take it even further. Blitzkrieg Belisarius is great for rushing ahead to provide support or to reach critical structures like alliance flags and alliance fortresses.

Belisarius and his conquest in Northern Africa and Italy

Justinian knew that he had the man for the job in Belisarius. The general was young, gifted in tactics and strategy, and a natural leader of men. The first territory chosen for reconquest was the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. On Midsummer Day in 533, Belisarius set off for Carthage. The force consisted of around 10,000 infantrymen and a cavalry force of 5,000 men. The traveled in 500 transport ships, accompanied by ninety-two Byzantine warships. The battle for North Africa was over quickly and on September 15, Belisarius entered Carthage with his wife Antonia at his side.

By March, all of the remaining Vandal armies had surrendered and in the summer, Justinian recalled Belisarius to Constantinople. Justinian loved a spectacle and Belisarius marched in a procession to the Hippodrome. With Belisarius at the head of his soldiers, the Vandal King, Gelimer, and his family followed. Later Justinian granted Gelimer an audience and after their conversation, Justinian granted Gelimer an estate in Galatia.

The next task for Belisarius was the conquest of Italy. For years, the Ostrogoth’s had ruled Rome and Justinian wanted the city back in the hands of the Empire. Belisarius set sail for Sicily, conquered the island without much effort, and then laid siege to Naples. The siege lasted three weeks and after defeating the citizens, the army went on a rampage of murder, rape, and pillage. Belisarius then waited for a few months, arranging an invitation from the Pope, to occupy Rome.

Map showing Byzantine Empire marked within red color in period when Justinian become Emperor and orange color marked the expansion of Byzantine Empire after the conquest of Belisarius. Source of map: Wikimedia under license CC BY-SA 2.5

Belisarius marched into Rome on December 9 in the year 536. As the Byzantine army marched in, the Goth garrison peaceably departed. The next two years saw a give and take between the Byzantines and the Goths. Justinian grew jealous of Belisarius and dispatched the eunuch, Narses, with reinforcements and orders to keep an eye on Belisarius. Narses, however did not last long, and after the City of Milan fell to the Goths, Belisarius had Narses recalled to Constantinople. Soon, Belisarius conquered the Goth capital of Ravenna.

The general showed his loyalty to Justinian by refusing an offer the Goths had made. The Goths offered to sign a peace treaty with Belisarius and acknowledge Belisarius as emperor, if he would not sack Ravenna and let them keep their territory north of the Po River. Belisarius refused and gained entry into the city by trickery. Belisarius returned to Constantinople laden with the treasure of the Goths.

Justinian and Theodora Humiliate Belisarius

Justinian’s jealousy increased after every victory of his talented young general. After all, that is how many of the Byzantine and Roman emperors had gained the throne in the past, by using their military victories to woo the public. Belisarius did not enter Constantinople with a triumphant procession, instead he found himself relieved of command and his treasure confiscated under orders of the empress, Theodora. Then the Persians attacked the Syrian city of Antioch and the Persian King destroyed the city and enslaved what remained of the population. Justinian sent Belisarius to the east to battle the Persians. Belisarius decided to attack the Persians in their homeland and marched towards their capital. Next, the unexpected happened. The bubonic plague struck Constantinople and the emperor himself fell ill. Belisarius returned to Constantinople and once again fell into disfavor with Theodora. Theodora had Belisarius thrown in prison and seized his property. As much as a quarter of the population of the Mediterranean area died and the empire was severely crippled. The empire in the west rapidly disintegrated and only the plaque kept the Persians at bay. Once again, the emperor called upon Belisarius to save Italy. Unfortunately only 4,000 thousand troops accompanied Belisarius.

Belisarius reached a stalemate with the Goths however, he knew that without reinforcement his army had no chance of success. Belisarius became so desperate that he sent his wife Antonia to Constantinople, hoping that her friendship with Theodora could bring help. Alas, when Antonia arrived in Constantinople, she found the city in mourning Theodora was dead.

Justinian recalled Belisarius to Constantinople. Belisarius received a huge palace and the emperor even erected a bronze statue of the general. Belisarius was humbled and uncomfortable with all the praise soon he retired into the background.

The Last Battle for General Belisarius

The plaque and constant warfare reduced the size of the Byzantine army, from a high of 500,000 men to only 150,000. Soon the barbarians took advantage of the weakened frontiers and a force of Huns invaded and advanced to within thirty miles of Constantinople. After ten years of retirement, Belisarius returned to active duty. The general scrapped together a ragtag army of guards, veterans, and volunteers and attacked the Huns, sending them all the way back to the frontier. Justinian’s jealousy returned and he relieved Belisarius of command. Belisarius never commanded an army again. Ever the loyal servant he suffered in silence, although he never desired the throne, it would have been his for the taking. Belisarius, undoubtedly the greatest general the Byzantine Empire ever produced, died in his sleep, eight months before Justinian too, passed away.

Belisarius - History

"Vigilius. ascended the papal chair ( 538 A.D.) under the military protection of Belisarius." History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 327

Historical records reveal the papacy began its reign in 538 AD upon Emperor Justinian's decree, and under the military protection of Belisarius. And the Bible says the beast will rule for EXACTLY 1260 years before receiving a mortal wound. Now it's just a matter of simple mathematics. It is also a grand method by which to see the Lord glorified. If the prophecy is correct, 1260 years after 538 AD the Beast must receive a mortal wound. If you add 1260 years to the beginning year for the Roman Catholic church, 538 AD, you will arrive in the year 1798 AD. So, according to the Bible we are told the first reign of the Beast will last till the year 1798 . So, did it end in 1798, and how? First understand, according to the prophecy, we learn that, "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity : he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword . " Revelation 13:10.

The prophecy is telling us that the beast would be destroyed with the sword (sword = military) at the end of its reign of exactly 1260 years. Did this happen to Papal Rome in 1798. YES IT DID! On February 10th Napoleon Bonaparte in that EXACT year 1798 A.D. sent his General Louis Alexandre Berthier, with his army into Rome, Italy. It is recorded. "In 1798 General Berthier made his entrance into Rome, abolished the papal government, and established a secular one." - Encyclopedia Britannica 1941 edition

That's Exactly 42 prophetic months, or 1260 years , or a time, and times, and dividing a time after the Papacy began its powerful reign that the Pope "shall go into captivity" by the military! By the way, shortly after his captivity the Pope did in fact die , in exile.

Gothic War: Byzantine Count Belisarius Retakes Rome

On December 9, 536 AD, Byzantine Count Belisarius entered Rome through the Asinarian Gate at the head of 5,000 troops. At the same time, 4,000 Ostrogoths left the city through the Flaminian Gate and headed north to Ravenna, the capital of their Italian kingdom. For the first time since 476, when the Germanic king, Odoacer, had deposed the last Western Roman emperor and crowned himself ‘King of the Romans,’ the city of Rome was once more part of the Roman empire–albeit an empire whose capital had shifted east to Constantinople.

Belisarius had taken the city back as part of Emperor Justinian’s grand plan to recover the western provinces from their barbarian rulers. The plan was ambitious, but it was meant to be carried out with an almost ridiculously small expeditionary force. The 5,000 soldiers that General Belisarius led included Hunnish and Moorish auxiliaries, and they were expected to defend circuit walls 12 miles in diameter against an enemy who would soon be back–and who would outnumber them at least 10-to-1.

The Roman empire had been permanently divided by Theodoric the Great in the 5th century, making official what had been in the offing for 100 years since Constantine the Great had established his capital of Constantinople on the Golden Horn, where he was closer to the troubled frontier along the Danube River. The capital of the west had been moved to Milan and then to Ravenna, which, being surrounded by swamps, was easier to defend and also closer to the eastern empire. In effect, the Roman empire had been split into two states. Only the eastern half was to survive as a political entity, for another 1,000 years, but in a form quite different from that in the west. The Eastern Romans, or Byzantines, spoke Greek and were Orthodox Christians, but they rightly saw themselves as the direct political descendants of the Western Roman state. By 536, Justinian had ruled for 18 years and regarded himself as the successor of Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and Constantine. As such, he meant to retake the west.

The Rome that Belisarius entered reflected the general decline of the western empire. Though still the largest city in the west, its population had shrunk, people drove cattle through the forums, and buildings destroyed by the Visigoths and Vandals in the last century had not been repaired.

The armies sent by the emperor Justinian against the Persians, Vandals, Franks and Goths differed radically from the Roman armies of centuries past. The army with which Rome had conquered Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was made up of heavy infantrymen who cast javelins and then rushed in to fight with pilum, sword and shield. They were supported on the flanks by small numbers of cavalrymen recruited from provincials more adept with the horse than the typical Roman. Centuries of warfare against mounted enemies such as the Goths, Huns and Persians, however, had changed the makeup of the Roman army. By the 6th century ad, the army consisted primarily of a cavalry force of armored lancers, or cabalarii, wearing body armor and capable of handling a bow from horseback. Garrison duties and defensive positions were held by two types of infantry: lightly armed archers and heavily armed soldiers in mail jackets who fought with sword, ax and spear.

Organizationally, the Roman army had not been divided into legions for a century. Now it was divided into squadrons called banda, a Greek word taken from German and formerly used to designate German allied troops. While many of the soldiers in the Byzantine army were subjects of the empire whether they were Greeks, Thracians, Armenians or Isaurians, many others were mercenaries who swore allegiance only to their commander. This practice was a holdover from hiring entire companies of barbarians, called foederati, to serve under a chief, a measure adopted by the Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. This tactic had spread so that by the 6th century, native generals had small private armies. Belisarius himself had a regiment of 7,000 of these household troops. Because such soldiers had their commander’s interests at heart, a successful general could become a potential threat to the government’s stability or even a contender for the throne.

A contemporary description of a late-Roman cavalryman was given by Procopius of Caesarea, Belisarius’ personal secretary, who accompanied him on his campaigns and was present during the siege of Rome: ‘[Our] archers are mounted on horses, which they manage with admirable skill their head and shoulders are protected by a casque or buckler they wear greaves of iron on their legs and their bodies are guarded by a coat of mail. On their right side hangs a quiver, a sword on their left, and their hand is accustomed to wield a lance or javelin in closer combat. Their bows are strong and weighty they shoot in every possible direction, advancing, retreating, to the front, to the rear, or to either flank and as they are taught to draw the bowstring not to the breast, but to the right ear, firm indeed must be the armor that can resist the rapid violence of their shaft.’

The successors of the old legions were highly organized, and their generals were well-trained in both tactics and strategy. The typical Byzantine general adapted his actions to meet his foes–whether Goth, Persian or, later, Arab–such as using horse archers against lancers, or lancers against horse archers where they could be trapped and ridden down. In that respect, at least, the new Romans resembled the earlier legionaries who fought according to plan and understood their enemy before engaging.

One critical difference between ancient Rome and Justinian’s Constantinople, however, was in regard to discipline. The mercenaries and foreign auxiliaries were as highly trained as the Roman infantry of old but were more prone to disobedience. Since the most important part of the army was the cavalry, however, which naturally operated more loosely than infantry and depended more upon individual initiative, that vice was not as significant as it would have been to infantry fighting in close formation.

The equipment of the new Roman army had changed with a view to meeting the challenges of war with barbarians who had themselves changed over the centuries. The Roman legion had adopted chain mail and the gallic helmet from the Celts and the gladius, or short sword, so deadly in close combat, from the Iberians and Ibero-Celts whom they had fought in the Punic Wars.

For Belisarius’ small army, the struggle for Rome required tactics that involved horsemen striking swiftly from walled cities much as the knights of a later age would do. The campaign would amount to a series of sieges against and sorties from fortified places rather than being fought in the field as early Roman wars had been.

The man Justinian chose to lead the expedition, Count Belisarius, was about 30 years old and fresh from a stunning victory over the Vandals in North Africa. Coming from a Thracian family, Belisarius had served in the corps of bodyguards of Emperor Justin, Justinian’s uncle and predecessor, before distinguishing himself as a general.

Before he could advance on Rome, Belisarius first had to take Naples to the south, which he invested in the summer of 536. After failing to persuade the populace to submit peacefully, he subjected the city to a month-long siege. Naples was so stubbornly defended that Belisarius began to despair of taking the place–until a curious foot soldier discovered that a destroyed aqueduct could be used as a tunnel past the city walls. Soldiers made their way along the aqueduct into the heart of the city, climbed down by means of an overhanging olive tree, made their way quietly through the streets to a tower in the wall and, after surprising and killing its defenders, held the position while their comrades roped together their scaling ladders–which their carpenters had made too short–and ascended the wall.

Fighting continued all morning, the fiercest opposition allegedly coming from Naples’ Jewish population, who expected to face persecution under an intolerant Christian regime. In consequence, when resistance broke down, the angry Isaurian troops swept through the city slaughtering civilians. Belisarius had hoped to avoid such a massacre, but it did help him to avoid further bloodshed for some time thereafter. As word of Naples’ fate spread, several other Italian towns opened their gates to the Byzantines, and Pope Silverius sent word to Belisarius that he would be welcomed in Rome.

Belisarius’ unexpected progress alarmed the Ostrogoths, most of whom blamed it on the vacillating leadership of their king, Theodatus, a corpulent Goth who had become Romanized and more interested in riches and comfort than in defending his realm. Sensing trouble, Theodatus tried to flee but was attacked and killed by his own people on the road to Ravenna, after which the Ostrogoths elected a warrior named Vittigis as their new king.

Vittigis fully realized the Byzantine threat but pulled his troops north to first settle a dispute with the neighboring Franks before dealing with the invader. In doing so he left the Gothic garrison of Rome to its fate. The Ostrogoths had treated the Romans fairly well, but the populace was unwilling to risk incurring the wrath of the imperial soldiers by resisting them as Naples had done. When it became clear to the garrison that the Roman populace would open the gates to the Byzantines, the Goths prepared to abandon the city. Only their commander, Leuderis, felt honor-bound not to leave his post and awaited Belisarius. Upon securing the city, Belisarius sent Leuderis to Constantinople with the keys to the city gates.

Criticized for allowing the city to fall into Byzantine hands without a fight, Vittigis pointed out that Rome had never before successfully withstood a siege. Recent history had borne him out. Alaric and his Visigoths had first taken the city in 410, and the shock of that conquest caused Augustine of Hippo to write The City of God as a consolation to Christians everywhere, suggesting that whatever might happen to Rome, the kingdom of heaven, at least, was inviolate. Alaric’s feat was repeated by the Vandals in 455.

Furthermore, while Byzantine descriptions of Vittigis’ army as numbering 150,000 are undoubtedly exaggerated, he could sustain a siege force of some 50,000 men at a time against Belisarius’ 5,000 soldiers, 2,000 of whom the imperial general had had to leave to garrison other towns he had taken on the way to Rome. He had hardly enough soldiers to man the walls. If Rome had fallen easily to Belisarius, Vittigis was confident that he would retake it with even greater ease.

The Romans themselves shared Vittigis’ view and became dismayed when they realized that the Byzantines meant to withstand a siege. Thus Belisarius faced not only a Gothic military threat but also tepid support from the Romans themselves, who in adversity might turn against him. He quickly wrote to Justinian requesting reinforcements.

Vittigis, by contrast, had no problem marshaling his forces, which soon began to move south from Ravenna, ready to lay siege to Rome for a year, if necessary. Belisarius did not wait for their arrival before preparing to defend the city. There were more gates than he could hope to guard successfully, and there was always the danger that the townsmen might open the gates to the Goths as they had done for him, so he walled up several of the gates.

Rome was too large for the Goths to encircle. Instead, upon arriving at Rome on March 2, 537, they established a series of six camps facing several of the main gates. The camps were located across from those parts of the city to the east of the Tiber River. The Tiber formed part of Rome’s western defenses, and a wall ran down to the water. Spanning the river stood the Mulvian Bridge, where, 140 years before, the armies of the contending emperors Constantine and Maxentius had fought, and after which the winner Constantine had established Christianity as the state religion. Belisarius saw something more than historical significance in the bridge. Because of the topography, he reckoned that the Goths would need at least an additional 20 days to build another bridge to move their troops across the river. Without a camp there, the city would not be completely ringed by the Goths. Belisarius also wanted a clear avenue of entry for the reinforcements he had requested.

Accordingly, he fortified the Mulvian Bridge with a tower and set a small garrison of mercenaries to defend it. Belisarius must have thought that a small force positioned in a fortification could hold off a large number indefinitely, especially since they could be reinforced by nearby troops and the Goths could attack only from the narrow front of the bridge’s roadway. But these barbarian mercenaries proved untrustworthy. Shortly after Vittigis’ huge force arrived, the garrison force became terrified and deserted to the enemy, handing over control of the fortified bridge. The next morning Belisarius went on a reconnaissance into the area with 1,000 horsemen, completely unaware that he no longer held the bridge. A large body of Gothic cavalry surprised him and engaged him at close quarters. The deserters from the bridge recognized the general mounted on a white-faced bay and exhorted everyone to attack him with a view to ending the campaign on the spot. But Belisarius, fighting sword in hand, and his men engaged the Goths in a bloody fight in which they killed 1,000. The Goths broke and fled to their camp, pursued by the Byzantines. Reinforced there, the Goths compelled Belisarius to conduct a fighting retreat back to the city, where, to his anger, he found the gates closed to him. In fact, Belisarius was already falsely rumored to be dead and the Romans, failing to recognize him in the dark, feared the Goths would follow the fugitives into the city and take the town if they opened the gates.

As Belisarius and his men gathered beneath the walls, an ever greater number of Goths converged on them to finish the fight. At that point, the general conceived a plan both simple and daring–he ordered a charge. The Goths, surprised and supposing that he was being reinforced by fresh troops coming from another gate, withdrew. Instead of pursuing them, Belisarius turned back to the city and was finally admitted. Despite hours of close combat, the general had not been touched by a single weapon.

Belisarius realized that Rome would soon be completely surrounded and there would be no easy path for reinforcements. He was right the Goths established a seventh camp in the Vatican Field and prepared for an assault. Meanwhile, Belisarius had flanges built onto the left sides of the battlements to shield the defenders, installed catapults on the city walls and ordered a ditch, or fosse, dug beneath the walls. He also drafted townsmen into brigades to defend the walls and interspersed them among his own soldiers to enforce discipline. He thus spread his thin forces farther and involved the Romans in the defense of their own city. He had a chain drawn across the Tiber to prevent the Goths from entering on boats and fortified the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian. The tomb, a fortress known today as the Castel’ Sant’Angelo, jutted out a bit from the city walls at that time to form an unintended bastion.

It took the Goths 18 days to prepare their attack. They constructed four siege towers to the height of the city walls, each of which contained a battering ram. The Goths also prepared fascines to toss into the fosse to allow the towers to be drawn over the ditch and to the wall by oxen. Other soldiers stood by with scaling ladders to strike at other places along the walls.

On March 21 the Goths began to bring the siege towers forward while the defenders watched in alarm. Belisarius, however, remained cheerful as he surveyed the attacker, then took up his bow and killed a Gothic officer at a great distance. His men hailed him, and he repeated the remarkable feat. Belisarius then commanded the men to shoot–not at the men, but at the oxen pulling the siege towers. The animals died in a hail of arrows, and the towers came to a halt without reaching the walls.

Meanwhile, some Goths had broken into the vivarium, an enclosure on the eastern side of the city made by joining two low walls at a right angle against the exterior of the city wall. Romans had penned wild animals there before sending them to the amphitheater for combats with gladiators, but the sport had long been outlawed, and the walls were crumbling. At the same time the Goths launched an assault on Hadrian’s tomb. The Byzantine soldiers placed there were in extreme peril because the rectangular shape of the monument’s base jutted out from the city wall and allowed the Goths to get somewhat behind the defenders. The defenders shot back at the attackers until they ran out of arrows. Then, in desperation, they broke up the statues at the tomb into chunks of rock and tossed them upon the Goths. By doing so, they managed to hold their position.

Meanwhile, Belisarius sent troops out of the city to enter the gate of the vivarium and attack the Goths there from the rear. In hard fighting the Byzantines drove them out. Sallies from various city gates then drove off the Goths in disorder and resulted in their siege engines’ being burned to the ground. The Goths admitted to losing 30,000 dead, with an equal number wounded.

After that, the city and its besiegers settled down to a war of waiting. This was interrupted by occasional sorties by Byzantine cavalry, which involved essentially the same tactical feat: A troop of horsemen would leave the city by one of the gates, provoking a number of Goths to attack them. The Byzantine horse archers would then shoot their assailants from a distance with their powerful bows. When the Goths retreated in the face of that missile onslaught, the Byzantines would charge the unprotected Gothic infantry with their lances. While the Goths had both armored lancers and foot archers, they never combined the two methods of fighting into a single system as the Byzantines had done, and so the Byzantines’ strategem routinely succeeded.

The cumulative successes of those forays had an unwonted effect upon the Roman populace. Dreaming no doubt of their earlier glory, they wished to join the Byzantine soldiers in a grand attack against the Goths. Belisarius explicitly opposed the idea, because the citizens had neither the training nor fighting experience and did not even have enough armor. Still the Romans insisted, and he reluctantly agreed.

The sortie, as Belisarius had feared, was a fiasco. Sallying from a number of gates, the regular Byzantine cavalry acquitted itself well and successfully engaged the Goths. The townsmen-cum-foot-soldiers fought as spearmen and were arranged in a phalanx outside of the Flaminian Gate to the north of the city. They were held in reserve until Belisarius was content that they could engage the enemy with the least amount of danger to themselves. They then marched forward against the demoralized Goths and drove them from the Field of Nero into the surrounding hills. At that point, however, the Romans, being mostly an undisciplined rabble, broke ranks and began to loot a Gothic camp, only to be attacked by Goths who could see they were in disarray. The Roman foot soldiers were driven back in flight to the walls of Rome, only to find the populace, again fearful of the pursuing Goths, refusing to open the gates. The Byzantine cavalry intervened and extricated them. Any gain that might have come from the fight was lost.

As the siege dragged on, the Goths destroyed the aqueducts that powered the flour mills. Belisarius countered that by setting the mills in boats on the Tiber within the city walls and suspending the mill wheels in the flowing water. Knowing there would be a shortage of food, he dismissed from the city all those he thought unnecessary to its defense.

The siege settled into a more complete blockade when the Goths took the port of Rome a few miles from the city itself, where the Tiber flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That impeded Belisarius’ already limited efforts to bring food and supplies into the city. As hunger set in, the populace at first pressed for a decisive battle to resolve the siege but later vacillated when Belisarius assured the people that reinforcements were on the way. None arrived, however, despite his request to Emperor Justinian. Belisarius knew the people were fickle, so he changed the locks on the city gates and rotated the watches over them so the Goths could not strike up friendships–and deals–with the guards. At night, Belisarius’ Moorish auxiliaries, accompanied by dogs, patrolled the trench outside the walls. The wisdom of his prudence was proved when a letter was intercepted from Pope Silverius to Vittigis, offering to betray the city. Belisarius had Silverius clothed as a monk and shipped east into exile while a new pope was elected.

The Goths made overtures for peace, and Belisarius agreed to a truce to allow the Goths to send representatives to Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. In the meantime a small number of reinforcements𔃁,000 Isaurian infantry and 800 Thracian cavalry–finally reached Rome along with supplies that came up the Tiber during the truce.

At that point the struggle took another turn as Belisarius decided to go on the offensive. He instructed one of his subordinate officers, John, who bore the Latin nickname Sanguinarius, or ‘Bloody,’ to move north into Tuscany. He told John to observe the truce but to raid whenever he found the Goths had violated it–which, as he had expected, they did. Bloody John led a troop of 2,000 horsemen and encountered little resistance because most of the male Goths of military age were involved in the siege of Rome. Thus he swept across the north in accordance with Belisarius’ orders not to engage enemy troops of any size or to try to take any fortified places. After an encouraging number of successes, however, he advanced against the Gothic capital of Ravenna.

When news of John’s raid reached Vittigis at Rome, he decided to make a last effort to take the city, starting with an unsuccessful attempt to slip soldiers into Rome through an aqueduct as Belisarius had done at Naples, only to be foiled by an attentive guard. He then tried to use agents in the city to intoxicate the guards at the Asinarian Gate, but one of them betrayed the plan to Belisarius. A final assault with scaling ladders at the Pincian Gate also failed.

At that point, the siege of Rome ended not with a bang but with a whimper. By early 538, the Goths had plundered farms throughout the surrounding countryside and were suffering from hunger and plague. On March 12, Vittigis and his dispirited men burned their camps and withdrew toward Ravenna. Belisarius made a last sally and attacked an enemy band crossing the Mulvian Bridge. The Byzantines killed a few of the enemy soldiers but the retreating Goths’ greatest loss came as many of them panicked and fell from the bridge.

For a year and nine days, a small Byzantine army had held Rome against disproportionate numerical odds. It was a remarkable victory for Belisarius, but its significance was limited. Vittigis drove Bloody John’s small force into Rimini, but Belisarius, joined by another Byzantine army commanded by the Armenian eunuch general Narses, compelled the Goths to withdraw to their capital of Ravenna. In late 539, the Goths offered to support Belisarius as emperor of the west, which he pretended to accept until Ravenna surrendered–at which point he sent Vittigis to Constantinople as a prisoner. Justinian learned of the Goths’ offer, and although Belisarius had not accepted it, he began to doubt the general’s loyalty. In 541, he recalled Belisarius to Constantintople–at which point the Ostrogoths, under the leadership of Ildibad and, after his death, Vittigis’ nephew Totila, retook most of what the Byzantines had gained. In 544, Justinian sent Belisarius–again with an inadequate force of 4,000 troops–back to Italy, where Totila took Rome in the following year, only to lose it to Belisarius soon afterward. Belisarius successfully withstood a second siege by Totila in 546, but in 549 the jealous Justinian recalled him to Constantinople once more.

The Gothic War dragged on for years, during which Italy subsequently was ravaged by another campaign against the Franks, who invaded from the north to take advantage of the weakened Ostrogoths. In the end, the effort was just too great for Byzantine resources, even though they had destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. To defeat the enemy was one thing, to hold the territory quite another. Over time Byzantine control persisted in southern Italy and in Sicily. Other Byzantine enclaves in the west were Sardinia, Corsica and southern Spain, and the Frankish kingdom of Gaul nominally recognized Justinian as its overlord. Whatever the long-term effects of the campaign, however, the defense of Rome remains an amazing feat and an example of what a small, determined and organized force can do against overwhelming odds.

This article was written by Erik Hildinger and originally published in the October 1999 issue of Military History.

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Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded?

Reader Bryan asked what I thought of the legend that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian. According to the story, a jealous and fearful Justinian arrested Belisarius after his final victory and had him tried for treason. The loyal general’s eyes were put out, his estates confiscated, and he was forced to wander the streets of Constantinople begging for bread while contemplating the vicissitudes of fortune.

Belisarius did briefly fall out of favor late in Justinian’s reign, but was publicly rehabilitated. The story of his blinding originated in the 12 th century with the monk John Tzetzes who was trying to criticize the political figures of his own day. It made for a good morality tale, and was pressed into service in the 18 th century by Europeans (mostly French) who saw a parallel between the tyranny of Justinian and their own autocratic societies. (see the spectacular painting by Jacques-Louis David and the play ‘Bélisaire’ by Jean-François Marmontel)

Some scholars still argue that the legend does have some basis in fact (Justinian was certainly capable of it), but there are several reasons not to accept it. The Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 mentioned several large statues of Belisarius still standing. Had he been blinded and disgraced these surely would have been torn down. Along the same lines there was also a great cycle of mosaics detailing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius above the gate to the imperial palace. These were made during Justinian’s lifetime and were still in place a thousand years later. Finally, there are the writings of the contemporary historian Procopius. In his ‘Secret History’ he makes no mention of the emperor humiliating his general, despite the fact that he clearly hated Justinian and was trying to blacken his name. He accuses Justinian of being a devil in the shape of a man, of being responsible for the deaths of a trillion people, and of having a head that would routinely disappear- but not of harming Belisarius.

Nevertheless the legend persists- perhaps because its lesson still resonates. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up neatly in his poem about the great general: