(Flavius Belisarius)


Belisarius was one of the greatest military leaders of the Late Roman Empire, and one of the last to thoroughly exemplify the classic Roman military virtues. He succeeded in reconquering much of the territory that had been lost by the Western Empire during the previous century, and for a time it seemed that the Roman Empire might be re-established under the headship of Constantinople. Because of jealousies within the empire, poor administration of the reconquered provinces, and continued barbarian incursions into imperial territory however, many of his gains were lost within a generation. Belisarius is strongly associated with Emperor Justinian, and in his later career, after both his military genius and loyalty to the emperor had been well established, he suffered much from Justinian's jealousy. Had Justinian supported the greatest general of his age instead of sabotaging and obstructing his progress, the empire may possibly have been saved.

Belisarius, who is thought to be of Slavic origin, began his career in the Roman army as a bodyguard of Justinian. He was ultimately given a command and won his first notable victory at the Battle of Daras, against the Sassanid empire in the Roman Persian Wars. Soon after, he returned to Constantinople and was critical in helping to put down a major rebellion there against Justinian's government. In 533 he volunteered to lead a Byzantine fleet of mercenaries against the Vandal government at Carthage. Africa had been in the hands of the Vandals for 100 years at this time, and previous campaigns against them had failed miserably, so when Belisarius succeeded in destroying the Vandal hold on Africa and bringing the territory back under Roman control, his reputation as the greatest general of his age was firmly established.

Once the Vandal Kingdom of Africa had been conquered, Justinian turned his eyes to Italy, with the idea of reclaiming territory that had been lost with the fall of the Western Empire. Although the Ostrogoths had originally conquered Italy with support from the Eastern Empire, they had governed independently for nearly fifty years. Belisarius took charge of the Byzantine campaign against Vitiges, the Ostrogoth king. He first took Italy, then Rome, and finally the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna. The Goths were so impressed with his leadership they offered to make him king of Italy, but he declined out of loyalty to Justinian. But when in 540, he returned to Constantinople, after a 10 year career of victories that had greatly enhanced the emperor's dominions, he was treated with guarded suspicion instead of gratitude.

A few years later he returned to campaign in Persia, but was called away before accomplishing anything by a new crisis in Italy. The Goth's had rebelled under Totila, the newly appointed King of the Ostrogoths. Instead of supplying Belisarius with the support and troops to put down the rebellion however, he was starved of supplies and resources by Justinian, who was wary of providing the hero will the military means to conquer. The Gothic War in Italy, therefore dragged on for over ten years, and a great deal of the country was laid to waste. Eventually Justinian recalled Belisarius altogether. Another Roman general did finally defeat the Ostrogoths, but only twelve years of Byzantine rule, Italy was invaded by the Lombards and there was no army or resources to resist. In spite of the heroic leadership of Belisarius, the Gothic War proved to be a disaster for Italy, and the Byzantine Empire.

On his return to Constantinople, Belisarius was stripped of his command and lived in retirement for several years until a Bulgarian horde crossed the Danube. One last time Belisarius came to the rescue of his country, although he was, as usual, starved for resources by Justinian. After successfully driving off the Barbarians Belisarius was once again accused of disloyalty, stripped of his command and imprisoned by the ever-suspicious Justinian. He was eventually exonerated, but died a few years later. A legend has it, that Justinian blinded him and Belisarius spent his few remaining years as a beggar, but this story is likely an exaggeration what truly was a disgraceful instance of jealousy and ingratitude.

Key events during the life of Belisarius:

Birth of Belisarius
  Served as a bodyguard of Justinian
Won a critical victory over the Persians at the Battle of Daras.
Put down a rebellion in Constantinople.
Led and expedition against the Vandal kingdom in Africa and captured Carthage
Invaded Sicily
Took Rome and defended it against the a Gothic Army.
Took the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna.
  Offered the Emperorship of the West, by the Ostrogoths, but declined.
Returned to Constantinople.
Campaigned in Persia.
Returned to Italy to recover kingdom lost to the Goths.
  Defends Rome from Gothic attacks.
Recalled from Italy; replaced by Narses
Repelled and invasion of Bulgarian savages from the Balkans.
Accused of a conspiracy against Justinian. Fortune confiscated.
Restored to favor.
Death of Belisarius.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Guardians of Rome  in  A Child's Book of Warriors  by  William Canton
Soul of Justinian  in  A Child's Book of Warriors  by  William Canton
Rise and Fall of Justinian's Empire  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

Image Links

Do not show yourself, he said, 'but harken.'
 in A Child's Book of Warriors

Belisarius besieges Ravenna
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages
Belisarius carrying his son after his eyes were put out by Emperor Justinian
Belisarius carrying his son after his eyes were put out by Emperor Justinian
 in Back Matter
Belisarius receiving alms
Belisarius receiving alms
 in Back Matter

Short Biography
Justinian the Great Ruled Byzantine Empire for 40 years. Well known for legal reforms known as Code of Justinian.
Empress Theodora Born in humble circumstances, she married Justinian the Great and became his trusted advisor.
Antonina Wife of Belisarius and close friend of Empress Theodora.
Narses Roman general who replaced Belisarius' command in Italy.
Vitiges Gothic general who led armies against Rome and was resisted by Belisarius.
Totila Raised to be king of Ostrogoths, after Witiges was captured. Tried to take back Italy from Byzantines.