Flavius Belisarius ( _el. Βελισάριος) (505(?) – 565) was one of the greatest
generals of the Byzantine Empireand one of the most acclaimed generals in history. 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.
Although comparatively less well-known than other famed military leaders such as
Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Greator Napoleon Bonaparte, his skills and accomplishments are matched by very few other military commanders in history.
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".
Early life and career
Belisarius was probably born in "Germane" or "Germania", a city that once stood on the site of present day
Sapareva Banyain south-west Bulgaria. He may have been of Greek or Thracian ancestry. [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.] 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 Callinicumon the Euphratesin 531. This led to the negotiation of an "Endless Peace" with the Persians and heavy tributesfor years in exchange for a peace treaty.
In 532, he was the highest ranking military officer in the Imperial capital of
Constantinoplewhen the Nika riots(among factions of chariot racingfans) 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 Narsesand John the Armeniansuppressed 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.
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 Hilderichad 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 Africaand 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 Tricamarumlater 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 Jerusalemwhich 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 consulin 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.
Against the Ostrogoths
Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the
Western Roman Empireas he could. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths. Again, he chose well, as Belisarius quickly captured Sicilyand then crossed into Italyproper, where he captured Naplesand Romein 536.
The following year, he successfully defended Rome against the Goths and moved north to take Mediolanum (
Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravennain 540, where the Goth king Witigeswas 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
Totilaas their new leader and had mounted a vigorous campaign against the Byzantines, recapturing all of northern Italyand 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
monophysiteEmpress 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.
Later life and campaigns
The retirement of Belisarius came to an end in 559, when an army of
Slavsand Bulgarsunder Zabergancrossed the Danube Riverto 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
Procopiusof Caesarea, may have judged his case.Fact|date=March 2008 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.
Legend of Belisarius as a blind beggar
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 beggarnear the Pincian Gate of Rome, condemned to asking passers-by to "give an obolusto Belisarius" ("date obolum Belisario"), before pardoning him. Most modern scholars believe the story to be apocryphal, though Philip Stanhope, a 19th century British philologistwho 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 Legrandof 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 Stoufis 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 almsgiver), 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.
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:
* "Belisarius", 19th century poem by
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow;
* "Beliar", 18th century poem by
Friedrich de la Motte Fouque;
* "The life and history of Belisarius, who conquer'd Africa and Italy, with an account of his disgrace, the ingratitude of the Romans, and a parallel between him and a modern hero", drama by
* "Belasarius", 1607 play by
* "Belasarius", 1724 drama by
* "Belisarius", 1742 novel by
* "Bélisaire", 1767 novel by
Belisario", 19th century opera, by Gaetano Donizetti.
* "Belisarius: The First Shall Be Last" 2006 novel by
The life of Belisarius was the subject of the historical novel "
Count Belisarius" (1938) by Robert Graves. Ostensibly written from the viewpoint of the eunuch Eugenius, servant to Belisarius' wife (but actually based on Procopius's history), the book portrays Belisarius as a solitary honorable man in a corrupt world, and paints a vivid picture of not only his startling military feats but also the colorful characters and events of his day, such as the savage Hippodrome politics of the Constantinople chariot races, which regularly escalated to open street battles between fans of opposing factions, and the intrigue between the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora.
Belisarius also appears in the 1876 historical novel "Ein Kampf um Rom" by
Belisarius appears in the alternate history novel "
Lest Darkness Fall" (1939) by L. Sprague de Camp. There he was first the Byzantine opponent of the time traveler Martin Padwaywho tried to spread modern scienceand inventions in Gothic Italy. Eventually Belisarius became general in Padway's army and secured Italy for him.
Belisarius is also the main character of the
Belisarius seriesin a series of six science fictionnovels by Eric Flintand David Drake, an alternate history exploring what might have happened if Belisarius (and a rival) were granted knowledge of future events and technologies. The first four books of this series are available as free ebooks from the Baen Free Library.
Jorge Luis Borgesalso mentioned the legend of Belisario as a blind beggar in some of his poetic works, for example,"A quien ya no es joven," the first verse of which reads: "Ya puedes ver el tragico escenario y cada cosa en lugar debido; la espada y la ceniza para Dido y la moneda para Belisario.". [El Otro, El Mismo (1964) in Jorge Luis Borges, Obra Poética p.218 ]
* In "
the General series" of military science fictionnovels by S.M. Stirlingand David Drake, the plot draws much from the life and campaigns of Belisarius; the main character, Raj Whitehall, sets out to reunite the planet of Bellevue after the fall of galactic civilization.
Isaac Asimov, who was very familiar with Roman history, seems to have loosely based the character and name of General Bel Rioseon Belisarius. Bel Riose is "The Last Great General" of the first Galactic Empire in the Foundation Series, a saga loosely based on the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire.
Herman Melvilleplayfully assigns the moniker "my Belisarius" to the Samoan Islander first encountered aboard the abandoned vessel "Parki," in his 1849 novel Mardi.
* Belisarius briefly appears in the three-part Destiny comic book miniseries "Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold", authored by
Alisa Kwitneywith art by Kent Williams, Michael Zulli, Scott Hampton, and Rebecca Guay, a spin-off of the popular Neil GaimanSandman series. In the story he appears as a jealous husband, imprisoning his wife in their quarters due to rumors of her affairs instead of fighting in Italy.
LucasArts Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb:During his quest to find the tomb of the first emperor of China, Indiana Joneslearns that the Nazis have discovered Belisarius' "sunken temple" beneath a mosque in Constantinople.
Bethesda Softworks:Belisarius can be found in the Cloud Ruler Temple in this game as an NPC. Although not central to the game, his presence is clearly a nod to the General, especially since he appears to be wearing a stylised version of stereotypical 'Roman' armor.
* "Belisarius" is an Neo-terran front warship attacking a convoy of refugees in the PC game
Freespace 2. It is destroyed in a one sided batte with the GTVA Psamtek after refusing to surrender to an obviously superior force.
* R. Boss, R. Chapman, P. Garriock, "Justinian's War: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West", Montvert Publications, 1993, ISBN 1-874101-01-9.
Teddy Brunius, "The letter of Belisarius", Ekdosis Ellēnikēs Etaireias Aisthētikēs, 1971.
Glanville Downey, "Belisarius,: Young general of Byzantium", Dutton, 1960.
Percy Stickney Grant, "The search of Belisarius;: A Byzantine legend", Brentano's, 1907.
Edward Gibbonhas much to say on Belisarius in " The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", [http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/volume2/chap41.htm Chapter 41 online] .
* Lord Mahon
Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, "The Life of Belisarius", 1848. Reprinted 2006 (unabridged with editorial comments) Evolution Publishing, ISBN 1-889758-67-1. [http://www.evolpub.com/CRE/CREseries.html]
* Lord Mahon
Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, "The Life of Belisarius", J. Murray, 1829. (1848 Second Edition, published without changes from the original edition.) With a new critical introduction and further reading by Jon Coulston. 2005 Westholme Publishing, ISBN 1-59416-019-8 [http://www.westholmepublishing.com/id35.html]
Procopius, "Belisarius and Narses", Academic Fellowship, 1964.
* Procopius, "The Secret History of the Court of Justinian", [http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/2/9/1/12916/12916-8.txt online at Gutenberg Project] .
Fiction(Joseph Lessard) "The hero of Byzantium: Based on the life of General Belisarius" , 2005.
Paolo Belzoni, "Belisarius: The First Shall be Last", 2006. Arx Publishing, ISBN 1-889758-78-7. [http://www.arxpub.com/literary/Belisarius.html]
Robert von Ranke Graves, "Count Belisarius: AND "Lawrence of the Arabs", Carcanet Press 2004, ISBN 1-85754-645-8.
* [http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/prm/blbelisariusa.htm "Military History" magazine article]
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Byzantine general
DATE OF BIRTH=505 CE
PLACE OF BIRTH="Germane" or "Germania", present day
Sapareva Banya, south-west Bulgaria
DATE OF DEATH=565
PLACE OF DEATH=Constantinople (?)
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BELISARIUS — Iustiniani Imperatoris Dux, Graecus; Persas sub Mithridate Rege in Oriente vicit, Vandalos in Africa, ductô in triumpho Gilismere, sicque Africam a 170. an. ab Imperio revulsam, ei iterum adiunxit. Gotthos in Italia, captô Vitige Rege eôque cum… … Hofmann J. Lexicon universale
Belisarius — bezeichnet Belisar, einen oströmischen General und Feldherr Belisarius (Gattung), eine Gattung der Skorpione Diese Seite ist eine Begriffsklärung zur Unterscheidung mehrerer mit demselben Wort bezeichneter Begriffe … Deutsch Wikipedia
Belisarius — [bel΄ə ser′ē əs] A.D. 505? 565; Byzantine general under Justinian I … English World dictionary
Belisarius — (c. 500 c. 565) Leading general and loyal supporter of Justinian for more than forty years, Belisarius fought numerous campaigns against the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Goths in Italy. Completely loyal to Justinian throughout his… … Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe
Belisarius — /bel euh sair ee euhs/, n. A.D. 505? 565, general of the Eastern Roman Empire. * * * born с 505, Germania, Illyria? died March 565 Byzantine general. While serving in the bodyguard of Emperor Justinian I, he was appointed (с 525) to command in… … Universalium
Belisarius — biographical name circa 505 565 Byzantine general … New Collegiate Dictionary
Belisarius — Bel•i•sar•i•us [[t]ˌbɛl əˈsɛər i əs[/t]] n. anh big a.d. 505? 565, Byzantine general … From formal English to slang
Belisarius — /bɛləˈsɛərɪəs/ (say beluh sairrears) noun AD 505?–565, general of the Eastern Roman Empire … Australian English dictionary
Belisarius — noun Byzantine general under Justinian I; he recovered former Roman territories in northern Africa and fought against the Persians • Instance Hypernyms: ↑general, ↑full general * * * /bel euh sair ee euhs/, n. A.D. 505? 565, general of the… … Useful english dictionary
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