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Belisarius may be the bearded figure on Emperor Justinian I's right in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna that celebrates the reconquest of Italy, performed by the Byzantine army under the skillful leadership of Belisarius himself.

Flavius Belisarius (Greek: Βελισάριος, ca. 500[1] – 565) is often described as one of the greatest generals of the Byzantine Empire. He was instrumental to Emperor Justinian I's ambitious project of reconquering much of the Western Roman Empire, which had been lost just under a century previously.

One of the defining features of Belisarius' career was his operating under conditions of little or no support from his emperor Justinian and Byzantium, and nonetheless succeeding through military genius. He is also among a select group of men considered to be the "Last of the Romans".


[edit] Early life and career

Belisarius was probably born in Germane or Germania, a city that once stood on the site of present day Sapareva Banya in south-west Bulgaria. He may have been of Greek or Thracian ancestry.[2] He became a Roman soldier as a young man, serving in the bodyguard of the Emperor Justin I. Following Justin's death in 527, the new Emperor, Justinian I, appointed Belisarius to command the Byzantine army in the east to deal with incursions from the Sassanid Empire. He quickly proved himself an able and effective commander, defeating the larger Sassanid army through superior generalship. In June 530 during the Iberian War, he led the Byzantines to a stunning victory over the Sassanids in the Battle of Dara, followed by a close defeat at the Battle of Callinicum on the Euphrates in 531. This led to the negotiation of an "Endless Peace" with the Persians and heavy tributes for years in exchange for a peace treaty.

In 532, he was the highest ranking military officer in the Imperial capital of Constantinople when the Nika riots (among factions of chariot racing fans) broke out in the city and nearly resulted in the overthrow of Justinian. Belisarius, with the help of the magister militum of Illyria, Mundus, along with the generals Narses and John the Armenian suppressed the rebellion with a bloodbath in the Hippodrome, the gathering place of the rebels, that is said to have claimed the lives of 30,000 people.

[edit] Military campaigns

The enlargement of the Byzantine Empire possessions between the rise to power of Justinian (red, 527) and his death (orange, 565). Belisarius contributed greatly to the expansion of the empire.

[edit] Against the Vandals

For his efforts, Belisarius was rewarded by Justinian with the command of a great land and sea expedition against the Vandal Kingdom, mounted in 533-534. The Byzantines had political, religious, and strategic reasons for mounting such a campaign. The pro-Byzantine Vandal king Hilderic had been deposed and murdered by the usurper Gelimer, giving Justinian a legal pretext for mounting an expedition. Furthermore, the Arian Vandals had periodically persecuted the Nicene Christians within their kingdom, many of whom made their way to Constantinople seeking redress. The Vandals had launched many pirate raids on many Byzantine trade ships, hurting trade in the western areas. Justinian wanted control of the Vandals' territory in North Africa, which was vital for guaranteeing Byzantine access to the western Mediterranean. In the late summer of 533, Belisarius sailed to Africa and landed near the city of Leptis Magna. He ordered his fleet to never lose sight of the army, then marched along the coastal highway toward the Vandal capital of Carthage. He did this to prevent supplies from being cut off, and to avoid a great defeat such as occurred in the first attempt to retake Northern Africa 35 years before.

Ten miles from Carthage, the forces of Gelimer (who had just executed Hilderic) and Belisarius finally met at the Battle of Ad Decimum (September 13, 533). It nearly turned into a defeat for the Byzantines. Gelimer had chosen his position well and had some success against the opposing forces along the main road. The Byzantines, however, seemed dominant on both the right and left sides of the main road to Carthage. However, at the height of the battle, Gelimer became distraught upon learning of the death of his brother in battle. This gave Belisarius a chance to regroup, and he went on to win the battle and capture Carthage. A second victory at the Battle of Tricamarum later in the year (December 15) resulted in Gelimer's surrender early in 534 at Mount Papua, permitting the lost Roman provinces of north Africa to be restored to the empire. For this achievement Belisarius was granted a Roman triumph (the last ever given) when he returned to Constantinople. According to Procopius, if he is to be believed, in the procession were paraded the spoils of the Temple of Jerusalem which had been recovered from the Vandal capital along with Gelimer himself before he was cast into peaceful exile. Medals were stamped in his honor with the inscription Gloria Romanorum, though none seem to have come down to us. Belisarius was also made sole consul in 534, being one of the last individuals ever to hold this office which was, by this time, merely a ceremonial relic of the ancient Roman Republic.

Nevertheless, the recovery of Africa was not yet complete; army mutinies and revolts by the native Berbers would plague the new praetorian prefecture of Africa for almost 15 years.

[edit] Against the Ostrogoths

Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the Western Roman Empire as he could. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Belisarius landed in Sicily and took the island for use as a base against Italy, while Mundus recovered Dalmatia. The preparations for the invasion of the Italian mainland were interrupted in Easter 536, when Belisarius sailed to Africa to counter an uprising of the local army. His reputation made the rebels abandon the siege of Carthage, and Belisarius pursued and defeated them at Membresa. Thereupon he returned to Sicily, and then crossed into Italy proper, where he captured Naples and Rome in 536.

The following year, he successfully defended Rome against the Goths and moved north to take Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540, where the Goth king Witiges was captured. Shortly prior to the taking of Ravenna, the Ostrogoths offered to make Belisarius the western emperor. Belisarius feigned acceptance and entered Ravenna via its sole point of entry, a causeway through the marshes, accompanied by his comitatus (veterans). Once inside the city, Belisarius quickly seized Witiges and then capitalized on the resulting lack of leadership to secure the city. Thereupon, he proclaimed the capture of Ravenna in the name of the Emperor Justinian.

The Goths' offer perhaps raised suspicions in Justinian's mind and Belisarius was recalled to the East to deal with a Persian conquest of Syria, a crucial province of the empire. Belisarius took the field and waged a brief, inconclusive campaign against them in 541-542. He eventually managed to negotiate a truce (aided with the payment of a large sum of money, 5,000 pounds of gold), in which the Persians agreed not to attack Byzantine territory for the next five years.

Belisarius returned to Italy in 544, where he found that the situation had changed greatly. In 541 the Ostrogoths had elected Totila as their new leader and had mounted a vigorous campaign against the Byzantines, recapturing all of northern Italy and even driving the Byzantines out of Rome. Belisarius managed to recover Rome briefly but his Italian campaign proved unsuccessful, thanks in no small part to his being starved of supplies and reinforcements by a jealous Justinian. In 548, Justinian relieved him in favor of the eunuch Narses, who, thanks both to military competence and cooperation from the Emperor was able to bring the campaign to a successful conclusion. For his part, Belisarius went into retirement.

In 537, in an incident that troubled him for the rest of his life, Belisarius, an Orthodox Christian, was commanded by the monophysite Empress Theodora to depose the reigning Pope, who had been installed by the Goths. This Pope was the former subdeacon Silverius, the son of Pope Saint Hormisdas, against whom charges of treason were trumped up and pressed by Antonina, Belisarius' wife and Theodora's best friend. Belisarius was to replace him with the Deacon Vigilius, Apocrisarius of Pope John II in Constantinople. Vigilius had been chosen in 531 by Pope Boniface II to be his successor, but this choice was overwhelmingly rejected by the Roman clergy and faithful. Silverius was deposed and exiled to Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor but recalled at the command of the Emperor Justinian, following the complaints of the bishop of Patara. However, Vigilius had already been installed in his place and he and Antonina seem to have encompassed his death by starvation on the island of Palmaria (Ponza), whose patron saint he remains today. At the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553), Belisarius was one of the Emperor's envoys to Pope Vigilius in their tug of war over "The Three Chapters". The Patriarch Eutychius, who presided over this council in the place of Pope Vigilius, was the son of one of Belisarius' generals. Belisarius, for his part, built a small oratory on the site of the present church of Santa Maria in Trivio in Rome as a sign of his repentance. He also built two hospices for pilgrims and a monastery which have since disappeared. Santa Maria in Trivio is around the corner from the Trevi fountain; a 12th century inscription is the only surviving monument of the great general.

[edit] Later life and campaigns

The retirement of Belisarius came to an end in 559, when an army of Slavs and Bulgars under Zabergan crossed the Danube River to invade Byzantine territory for the first time and threatened Constantinople itself. Justinian recalled Belisarius to command the Byzantine army against the Bulgar invasion. In his last campaign, Belisarius defeated the Bulgars and drove them back across the river with a grossly outnumbered defending force at his command.

In 562, Belisarius stood trial in Constantinople on a charge of corruption. The charge was likely trumped-up, and modern research suggests that his former secretary Procopius of Caesarea, may have judged his case.[citation needed] Belisarius was found guilty and imprisoned. However, not long after the conviction, Justinian pardoned him, ordered his release, and restored him to favour at the imperial court.

In the first five chapters of his Secret History, Procopius characterises Belisarius as a cuckold husband, who is emotionally dependent on his debauched wife, Antonina. According to the historian Antonina cheated on Belisarius with their godson, the young Theodosius. Procopius claims that the love affair was well known in the imperial court and the general was regarded as weak and ridiculous; this view is often considered as biased as Procopius nursed a longstanding hatred of both Belisarius and Antonina. Empress Theodora reportedly helped and saved Antonina when Belisarius tried to charge his wife at last.

Fittingly, Belisarius and Justinian, whose sometimes strained partnership increased the size of the empire by 45%, died within a few weeks of one another in November of 565. Belisarius owned the estate of Rufinianae on the Asiatic side of the Constantinople suburbs. He may very well have died there and been buried near one of the two churches in the area, probably Saints Peter and Paul.

[edit] Legend of Belisarius as a blind beggar

Bélisaire, by François André Vincent, 1776. Belisarius, blinded, a beggar, is recognised by one of his former soldiers
Belisarius as a beggar, as depicted in popular legend, in the painting by Jacques-Louis David (1781).
The outcast Belisarius receiving hospitality from a Peasant by Jean-François Pierre Peyron.

According to a story that gained popularity during the Middle Ages, Justinian is said to have ordered Belisarius' eyes to be put out, and reduced him to the status of homeless beggar near the Pincian Gate of Rome, condemned to asking passers-by to "give an obolus to Belisarius" (date obolum Belisario), before pardoning him. Most modern scholars believe the story to be apocryphal, though Philip Stanhope, a 19th century British philologist who wrote Life of Belisarius — the only exhaustive biography of the great general — believed the story to be true. Based on a thorough parsing of the available primary sources, Stanhope created a noteworthy, if not wholly convincing argument for the legend's authenticity.

Though the legend remains of dubious provenance, after the publication of Jean-François Marmontel's novel Bélisaire (1767), this account became a popular subject for progressive painters and their patrons in the later 18th century, who saw parallels between the actions of Justinian and the repression imposed by contemporary rulers. For such subtexts Marmontel's novel received a public censure by Louis Legrand of the Sorbonne, which contemporary divines regarded as model expositions of theological knowledge and clear thinking (Catholic Encyclopedia: "Louis Legrand"). Marmontel and the painters and sculptors (a bust of Belisarius by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Stouf is at the J. Paul Getty Museum) depicted Belisarius as a kind of secular saint, sharing the suffering of the downtrodden poor. The most famous of these paintings, by Jacques-Louis David, combines the themes of charity (the alms giver), injustice (Belisarius), and the radical reversal of power (the soldier who recognises his old commander). Others portray him being helped by the poor after his rejection by the powerful.

[edit] Belisarius in fiction

Belisarius was featured in several works of art before the 20th century. The oldest of them is the historical treatise by his very own secretary, Procopius. The Anecdota, commonly referred to as the Arcana Historia or Secret History, is an extended attack on Belisarius and Antonina, and on Justinian and Theodora, indicting Belisarius as a love-blind fool and his wife as unfaithful and duplicitous. Later works include:

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ The exact date of his birth is unknown. PLRE III, p. 182
  2. ^ The hypothesis that he was of Romanized Slavic ancestry, on the grounds that his name is somewhat similar to the Slavic "Beli Tsar" ("White Prince"), has been rejected by contemporary historians, as the word tsar was first used in the 10th century, well after Belisarius' death. Whether the sar- particle nevertheless derives from "Caesar" (as does "Tsar"), or from the earlier etymological roots (sar is "king"/"prince"/"ruler" in various older Semitic languages) is not attested.
  3. ^ El Otro, El Mismo (1964) in Jorge Luis Borges, Obra Poética p.218

[edit] References

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[edit] External links

Preceded by
Imp. Caesar Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus IV,
Flavius Decius Paulinus
Consul of the Roman Empire
Succeeded by
Post consulatum Belisarii (East),
Iterum post consulatum Paulini (West)
NAME Belisarius
SHORT DESCRIPTION Byzantine general
PLACE OF BIRTH Germane or Germania, present day Sapareva Banya, south-west Bulgaria
PLACE OF DEATH Constantinople (?)

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