Flavius Belisarius was a prominent military commander of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I. Considered one of the last significant military figures in the Roman tradition, Belisarius’ growth had been phenomenal, starting as a royal bodyguard to advancing to military command. Mentioned frequently among the "Last of the Romans," Belisarius was a military genius whose military campaigns were mostly successful. He played an important role in re-conquering most of the former Western Roman Empire’s Mediterranean territory in Justinian's wars of re-conquest of the lost empire. Belisarius led the royal army in conquering the ‘Vandal Kingdom’ of North Africa during the ‘Vandalic War’ and much of Italy during the ‘Gothic War.’ He fought against the Sāsānian Empire (Persia) and won a significant battle at ‘Dara’ but faced defeat at Callinicum. His military tactics during the Siege of Ariminum led him to repulse a Persian invasion by deceiving their commander by approaching with several forces from different angles and lighting extra camp fires, making the opponents believe that a large force was approaching them. The siege was lifted sans any fight. He also drove away the nomadic Huns following their invasion of Melantias.
Childhood & Early Life
Flavius Belisarius was born in c. 500 in a Thracian family either in Germane or Germania, in modern-day Sapareva Banya in Bulgaria; or in Germen, in Thrace close to Adrianople, in modern-day Greece. His mother tongue was Thracian and his second language was Latin.
He was probably sixteen when he became a Roman soldier and served Emperor Justin I. He was also inducted in the guard of magister militum Praesentalis and Justinian I, the adoptive son of Justin and the future emperor.
Justin allowed him to form a bodyguard regiment after Belisarius’ skill as an innovative officer was noticed by Justin and Justinian. Thereafter Belisarius developed elite heavy cavalry. These guards became the core of all his troops organised later.
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Initial War Efforts
Belisarius initially fought in several battles that resulted in Byzantine defeats. In many of the early ones, he possibly served as a junior partner to some other high level commanders.
After Justin died in 527 and Justinian succeeded the throne, Belisarius led the Romans to a victory over the ‘Sasanian Empire’ over the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from 526 to 532. He fought in the Battle of Thannuris (528), the Battle of Mindouos, which probably saw him leading the army single-handedly for the first time; the Battle of Dara (530), where he led and secured a Byzantine victory; and the Battle of Callinicum (531) where he faced defeat by the Persian and the Lakhmid forces despite heavy numerical superiority.
The Iberian War ended after the death of the Shah, Kavad I, when the new shah, Khosrow, and Justinian signed a peace treaty. Belisarius probably fled from the Battle of Callinicum before its conclusion. Called back to Constantinople, Belisarius was charged with incompetence and held responsible for the defeats at Thannuris and Callinicum. The charges were, however, later cleared following an investigation.
Belisarius along with another general Mundus and a eunuch Narses, played an instrumental role in ending the Nika riots, a week-long riot that took place in Constantine in 532 AD against Justinian. It is considered as the most violent riot in the history of the city in which almost half of the city was burned and property damaged, apart from killings of tens of thousands of people.
The Vandalic War
Roman North Africa was occupied by the Germanic Vandals during the early 5th century. They then went on to establish an independent kingdom there under Genseric or Gaiseric. By the time Genseric’s grandson Hilderic became king of the Vandals and Alans, relations between the Vandals and the surviving Eastern Roman Empire normalized to some extent. According to Procopius, a prominent late antique Byzantine Greek scholar who accompanied Belisarius in Justinian's wars, Hilderic was "a very particular friend and guest-friend of Justinian.”
After Hilderic was deposed and imprisoned by his first cousin Gelimer, who became the ruler on June 15, 530, Justinian declared war on the Vandals, ostensibly to restore Hilderic. In 532, after securing his eastern frontier with Sassanid Persia, Justinian started to prepare for an expedition against the Vandals under Belisarius. Belisarius was in command of the expeditionary force sent in June 533 against the Vandal Kingdom. It reached Africa in early September.
The conflict (from June 533 to March 534) between the Byzantine Empire and the Vandalic Kingdom of Carthage was the first war of Justinian in his effort to re-conquest the lost Western Roman Empire. It witnessed the ‘Battle of Ad Decimum’ (September 13, 533) with Gelimer and Belisarius commanding respective sides, which resulted in a decisive Byzantine victory. While Gelimer fled, Belisarius entered Carthage the following day and savoured the feast prepared for Gelimer in the latter’s palace. However Belisarius could not save Hilderic, as he was killed earlier on Gelimer’s order.
Gelimer later gathered force to face Belisarius’ troops in the ‘Battle of Tricamarum’ on December 15, 533. It also resulted in a Byzantines victory and eliminated the Vandal power forever, concluding Justinian’s re-conquest of North Africa. Following the triumph, praetorian prefecture of Africa was established while Belisarius returned to Constantinople taking along the royal treasure of the Vandals and the captive Gelimer. Belisarius was then made a consul.
Justinian’s next move in recovering the provinces of former Western Roman Empire saw him commissioning Belisarius to attack the ‘Ostrogothic Kingdom’ of Italy in 535, which resulted in the ‘Gothic War’ (535–554).
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In the late 535, Belisarius successfully carried out the ‘Siege of Panormus’ and forced the ‘Ostrogoths’ to surrender. This completed the conquest of Sicily and on December 31, 535, the last day of his consulship, Belisarius entered Syracuse.
Before advancing further in Italy, in Easter 536, Belisarius had to return to Africa to suppress a mutiny that broke under rebel leader Stotzas. As soon as the news of his arrival spread, the rebels lifted the ‘Siege of Carthage.’ In the ‘battle of the River Bagradas,’ the rebel forces under Stotzas panicked and fled when Belisarius launched an attack with a rather small force. After suppressing the rebels, Belisarius returned to Italy.
Upon his return to Italy, Belisarius successfully took over Naples in November 536 and Rome in December. He was successful in defending Rome from March 537 to March 538. He succeeded in the ensuing ‘Siege of Ariminum’ (538), ‘Siege of Urviventus’ (538), ‘Siege of Urbinus’ (538), ‘Siege of Auximus’ (539), and ‘Siege of Ravenna’ (539–540). During the ‘Siege of Ariminum’ when the news of the siege spread, several Gothic garrisons started surrendering and Ravenna was captured when Belisarius was offered the throne of the “western empire” by the Gothic nobles, including the new king of the Ostrogoths, Witigis. Belisarius faked acceptance. Such offer, however, made Justinian suspicious who recalled Belisarius. The latter returned taking along the Gothic treasure, king and warriors.
Belisarius participated in the ‘Lazic War’ (541-562), fought between the Byzantines and the Sasanian Empire for the control of Lazica. During the war, which resulted in a Persian victory, Belisarius successfully campaigned against the Persians in 541–542, making them surrender following a surprise attack near Nisibis.
Belisarius had to return to Italy in 544 after Totila, a skilled military and political leader, became the new King of the ‘Ostrogoths’ in 541 and by 543 recovered nearly all the Italian territories captured by the Byzantines in 540. Not getting adequate men and supplies from Justinian, Belisarius found it difficult to effectively confront Totila. Although Belisarius once succeeded in defeating Totila, he remained inactive while several cities, including Perugia, were captured by the Goths. Belisarius fell ill and refrained from taking any further action. He requested recall and in 548–9, he was relieved by Justinian. He retired from military service in 551.
In 553, during the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, he remained one of the envoys of Justinian to Pope Vigilius in their Three-Chapter Controversy.
Belisarius was recalled from retirement by Justinian in 559 after the armies of Kutrigurs, commanded by Zabergan, crossed the frozen Danube during the winter of 558 and invaded Moesia, thereby threatening Constantinople. Belisarius led a force of just 300 veterans along with some locally raised levies, to defeat and drive away the Kutrigurs from the Theodosian Walls. It marked as his last battle.
Belisarius was tried for corruption in 562 and found guilty. He was imprisoned for sometime before Justinian pardoned and released him. He was later restored at the royal court.
Family & Personal Life
Belisarius married Antonina, who had great influence over him. Procopius, in the first five chapters of his Secret History, presents Belisarius as a cuckold husband dominated by his wife. Procopius claimed that Antonina had love affair with the couple’s adopted son, ‘Theodosius.’ According to Italian historian Paolo Cesaretti, Antonina was a controversial figure and "right arm" of Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian, in exercising power.
Belisarius, who significantly contributed in the expansion of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, died in c. March 565, probably in an estate he owned in Rufinianae, Chalcedon. His remains were interred possibly near the Saints Peter and Paul church in Constantinople.