Belisarius: The Last Roman General

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The question of numbers is dealt with as the sources permit and commonsense supports. Hughes shows a healthy skepticism when the numbers become fantastic. He carefully uses the constants of logistics and demographics to establish a measure of reality to the size of armies and magnitude of losses. The failure of the Vandal state and the limited success of the Gothic polity are considered as part of the work of the Reconquests. The result is a comprehensive picture of the protagonists in the wars.

At Callinicum and other unnamed battles on the eastern frontier Belisarius was defeated by the Persians and displayed an inability to effectively control his unruly troops. Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.

Forged from a partnership between a university press and a library, Project MUSE is a trusted part of the academic and scholarly community it serves. Built on the Johns Hopkins University Campus. This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless. Institutional Login. 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. 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.

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! Who was the man behind the myth and what lessons can be derived from his life and military actions?

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When Robert Graves first published Count Belisarius , there was one criticism levied by reviewers that he found especially galling. 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.

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. Before he could advance on Rome, Belisarius first had to take Naples to the south, which he invested in the summer of 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.

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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. 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.

Belisarius: Powerful General of the Byzantine Empire

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.

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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 , 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.

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.

General Belisarius - Byzantine Military Hero

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, , 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. Spanning the river stood the Mulvian Bridge, where, 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. But these barbarian mercenaries proved untrustworthy.

The next morning Belisarius went on a reconnaissance into the area with 1, 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, 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.