In 1780, the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David finished one of his most famous artworks, Belisarius Begging for Alms. This imposing oil painting depicts a sad scene: an aged, unkempt, blind beggar dressed in old armor is seated at the base of a colossal Roman monument. A beautiful, concerned woman approaches him and drops a few coins in the veteran’s helmet. Her husband, a young military officer, observes the scene in shock. He has just realized that the beggar is no other than his former commander, the legendary general Belisarius (!) – one of the finest military leaders of antiquity.
But what happened to poor Belisarius? How has the man who led the Roman armies to spectacular victory been brought to such a pitiful state? A fallen hero, forced to beg for the alms, a forsaken general, with only a slab stone bearing his name. And how accurate is the tale? Who was Belisarius — the man behind the myth?
Flavius Belisarius: The Early Years
Flavius Belisarius, the man who would become one of the finest Roman generals, was born around 500 CE in the town of Germania (in modern-day Bulgaria). The area was part of the province of Thracia, known for producing some of the Roman Empire’s best soldiers. Thus, it is not surprising that Belisarius joined the army as a young man and advanced rapidly within the ranks. When Emperor Justin I, also a career soldier, ascended the throne, he took Belisarius as one of his bodyguards. Soon, the young and promising officer was given his own regiment. Elite heavy cavalry, 7000 strong, would become the core of the army that would make Belisarius famous and fight along with him in battle on three continents.
However, Belisarius’ military career had a rough start. Despite the losses suffered by the imperial army during the Iberian war against Sassanid Persia, Belisarius proved his talent as a commander. Thus, when Justin’s nephew (another career soldier) ascended the throne in Constantinople, he gave Belisarius a new opportunity, putting the young general in overall command of all the Roman forces in the East. The emperor’s name was Justinian I, and the choice was right. In the decades that followed, the duo would dramatically reshape the geopolitical image of the Mediterranean, and bring the entire area under the imperial umbrella, one last time.
The Emperor’s Right Hand
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It did not take long for Belisarius to justify the emperor’s trust. In June/July 530, Belisarius led the imperial army to victory against the Persians at the Battle of Dara. Although the Persians outnumbered the Romans by more than 15,000 men, Belisarius’ superior strategy and well-disciplined and trained troops won the day. One of the main factors in Belisarius’ victory were his mail-clad cavalry, experienced in melee and ranged combat, which turned the tide of battle by charging at the enemy lines. However, Belisarius’ defeat at the Battle of Callinicum in 532 ended the war in a stalemate. As a result, Belisarius was relieved of his command and recalled to Constantinople. There, Belisarius would prove his worth to the emperor once again.
While Belisarius was in Constantinople, the city erupted into violence. Angered by Justinian’s reforms and the widespread corruption of government officials, the populace, led by chariot racing fans — the Blues and the Greens — started a revolt known as the Nika Riots. The rioters controlled the streets for several days while the capital was burning in flames. According to the historian Procopius, a terrified Justinian planned to flee the city, risking the loss of his throne. Only at the insistence of his wife, Empress Theodora, did the emperor decide to stay and fight.
Belisarius and Mundus, the commander of the army of Illyricum, were tasked with quelling the revolt. The result was carnage. More than 30, 000 people, mostly unarmed civilians, died at the hands of the soldiers and in the ensuing stampede when a panicked mob tried to escape the Hippodrome. The rebellion was over. Justinian executed the ringleaders and curbed the power of the circus factions, which would have only a ceremonial function from then on.
The Empire Strikes Back
After crushing the revolt, Justinian could focus on rebuilding the capital, starting an ambitious building program that would culminate in a grand cathedral — the Hagia Sophia. However, the emperor also used the opportunity of a dynastic struggle in the Vandal kingdom of North Africa to fulfill his long-awaited goal and restore this wealthy and strategically important region to Roman control. The task to lead the troops was given to none other than the rising star — Flavius Belisarius. In 533, the imperial armada left Constantinople and sailed to Africa.
Belisarius’s expeditionary force was relatively small. He commanded around 15, 000 troops, half of them cavalry. Realizing the potential of the young commander, Justinian gave Belisarius sole command and the freedom to act in any way he saw fit. Belisarius landed in Africa unopposed and quickly moved towards Carthage, the capital of the Vandal Kingdom. Aware that most of the region’s inhabitants harbored sympathy towards the Roman Empire (or were themselves Romans), Belisarius ordered his soldiers not to harm the locals. This chivalrous conduct of the imperial troops increased Belisarius’ popularity among the people of North Africa, who provided valuable intelligence and supplies.
The Vandals, led by their king Gelimer tried to intercept the enemy before reaching Carthage but were defeated in the Battle of Ad Decimum. This left the road to the Vandal capital open, and Belisarius rode into the city unopposed. Finally, in December, Belisarius dealt the final blow to the Vandals at Tricamarum.
Gelimer managed to flee the battlefield, however, deprived of troops, the last Vandal king surrendered the following year. Belisarius achieved spectacular success. The Vandal kingdom was no more. A century after its loss, North Africa was once again under imperial control. As a reward, Justinian awarded Belisarius with a triumph, the first such honor given to someone not a part of the imperial family since the time of Emperor Augustus. Justinian also made Belisarius a consul for the year 535, another honor usually reserved for the emperor.
By now, Belisarius was one of the most influential men in the Empire, second only to the emperor. He was undoubtedly the most capable military commander and the only choice for the next step in the emperor’s grand plan. After her cousin Theodahad, deposed the queen of Ostrogoth Italy, Amalasuntha (a Roman ally), Justinian saw his chance. In 535, Belisarius landed in Sicily. The force at his disposal, 8,000 strong, was smaller than Belisarius’s command in Africa. Yet, the general did the impossible. In December 536, his troops entered Rome, scoring a huge moral victory. After half a century, the city on the Tiber was once again part of the Empire.
Belisarius’s small but well-trained force and superior strategic and tactical skills had proven to be a powerful combination in Italy. For instance, the cunning general conquered well-fortified Rome by using deception. He arrayed the bulk of his army in front of the Aurelian walls, attracting the defenders’ attention. Meanwhile, he covertly sent a small company into the city via an aqueduct. Once inside, the soldiers quickly overcame the defenders and opened the city gates. Like in Africa, Belisarius’ chivalrous conduct was rewarded with the help of the locals, harboring pro-Roman sympathies.
Despite Belisarius’ successes, the Ostrogoths continued their resistance. After deposing his predecessor, Theodahad, the new Ostrogoth king Vitiges exploited the imperial army’s manpower issues and besieged Rome. From March 537 to February 538, Belisarius and his soldiers defended the city from much larger forces. The campaign was in danger of turning into a stalemate, with both sides unable to score a decisive victory.
From Triumph to Disgrace
To break the siege and continue the campaign, Belisarius needed reinforcements. In early 538, Constantinople answered the plea and sent a relief force, led by the eunuch Narses. The imperial army in Italy now numbered 20,000 troops. However, the divided high command and the bickering between the commanders led to several setbacks. After the Goths captured and razed Mediolanum, Justinian recalled Narses and made Belisarius the sole commander of all the Roman forces in Italy again. Finally, in 540, Belisarius reached his goal — Ravenna — the old capital of the Western Roman Empire, now the center of the Ostrogoth Kingdom. Little did he know that his greatest triumph would soon lead to his fall.
Procopius, who acted as Belisarius’ personal secretary, tells us that the Gothic aristocracy offered the throne to the general in exchange for a peaceful surrender. Belisarius feigned acceptance and entered Ravenna, only to declare the city and all of Italy the rightful domain of Emperor Justinian. Belisarius remained loyal to the throne, but the Gothic offer and the general’s incredible popularity among his men and the people (including those he conquered) worried the emperor. After all, Roman history was full of successful generals who exploited their popularity in order to take the throne. Instead of a triumph, Belisarius was promptly recalled to Constantinople and swiftly dispatched to the eastern front, where hostilities with Persia had flared up again.
The Chaos of War
In the East, Belisarius’ primary opponent was not the Sassanid army but his own commanders, who rarely followed his strategies. Once again, the war ended in a stalemate, with a “fifty-year” peace signed in 545. By then, Belisarius was back in Italy, where the situation had rapidly deteriorated. The imperial army, poorly paid and fed up with the corrupt government, was on the verge of mutiny. Many soldiers changed sides. Belisarius brought only limited reinforcements as the plague ravaged the entire Empire. The Goths, led by the new king Totila, exploited the situation and reconquered northern Italy, arriving at the gates of Rome.
Undermanned and weakened by plague and poor morale, Belisarius’s meager troops could hardly organize an efficient defense, let alone defeat the enemy. Following a disappointing campaign, Justinian recalled his general two years later. Finally, in 551, Justinian dispatched around 30, 000 troops led by Narses to finish the business in Italy. A year later, Narses defeated Totila in the Battle of Taginae, bringing the war to an end. The Ostrogoth Kingdom was no more, and Italy was entirely under imperial control. However, the price of victory was high. The protracted war, plague, and depopulation ruined the once prosperous region. Rome, once the center of the Empire, was now a ruined town. One could only wonder what would happen if Belisarius was allowed to remain in Italy after peacefully taking Ravenna ten years earlier.
Belisarius’ Last Battle
At the end of 559, Belisarius retired. Yet, when an army of Kutrigur Bulgars crossed the Danube and approached Constantinople, Justinian again called upon his loyal general. With the bulk of the imperial forces engaged elsewhere, Belisarius was given less than 2,000 men, including 300 heavily armed veterans of the Italian campaign. His meager force faced more than 7,000 Huns. Yet, once again, Belisarius employed his brilliant tactical mind, leading the barbarians into an ambush. Following his brilliant victory, the 60-year-old general was hailed as a hero on the streets of Constantinople.
Despite all his achievements and unwavering loyalty to the emperor, in 562, Belisarius was accused of corruption (on trumped-up charges), found guilty, and imprisoned. This sudden reversal of fortunes inspired the medieval legend of Justinian ordering his general to be blinded and to beg on the streets of the capital until he earned enough money to be pardoned. The sad story inspired many artists (including Jacques-Louis David) to immortalize the tragic fate of the once celebrated general.
However, while attractive, this tale is no more than a legend, as Justinian soon intervened and pardoned his general. Belisarius died of natural causes in 565 CE (within only a few weeks of Justinian I), not as a blind beggar but at his estate, just outside Constantinople.
General Flavius Belisarius’ Legacy
Following the end of the Gothic war and the reconquest of Italy, imperial artisans decorated the church of San Vitale in Ravenna with magnificent mosaics. However, one mosaic attracts the eye, depicting Justinian and his entourage. The bearded figure on the emperor’s left is none other than his faithful general.
Belisarius’ relationship with Justinian has often been oversimplified. The latter was not paranoid like Emperor Caligula but shared a genuine albeit strained connection with his general. Like Belisarius, Justinian also came from Thrace. He was of humble background and joined the military before climbing to the top. Both men married strong women, disliked by many for their ambitions. In addition, both shared a dream, the burning desire for the recovery of the Roman West. Justinian realized that dream, and Belisarius was the one who made it possible.
Belisarius embarked on one of the most magnificent campaigns in the history of the Roman Empire, dismantling the Vandal Kingdom and bringing Rome back under the imperial umbrella. Having limited troops at his disposal, he won victory after victory, often against a much stronger opponent.
Equally important was Belisarius’ chivalrous conduct to those whom he vanquished and the local populations affected by the chaos of war. However, Belisarius’ military mind was of little use in the treacherous world of politics and led to the general’s fall from grace. Belisarius’ battlefield triumphs stirred resentment and anxiety at the imperial court, as well as among his more politically ambitious officers, who used every opportunity to propagate rumors against a man unprepared for court intrigues.
Nevertheless, Flavius Belisarius remained loyal to his emperor and his Empire until the very end. He was truly, “The Last Roman General”.