General Flavius Belisarius
The Greatest General in the Byzantine Empireby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Flavius Belisarius was one of the greatest generals of all time, and certainly of the Byzantine Empire. He fought numerous wars, and had many victories. He suffered the vagaries of fate under a distrustful Emperor, and he is the subject of a number of myths and embellishments.
No one knows for sure where Belisarius was born, but many experts believe he was born in Germania, an area near Macedonia and Illyria1 (Yugoslavia)2 He was born in 505 AD. As with many people of that age, little is known about Belisarius' childhood. He appears to have been fully Romanized, but his name also seems to mean White Prince in Slavic. He entered the Byzantine military when he was a young man, and before too long he had become the bodyguard of Emperor Justin I.1 When Justin died in 527, and his nephew, and adopted heir,3 Justinian took the throne as Justinian I, Belisarius was given command of troops and sent to fight the Persians.2 Thus began a long career of leading troops in battle.
As a general for Justinian, the famous Emperor of the Byzantine Empire who had the Code of Justinian compiled, and was a supporter of Christianity, but often at odds with the Pope, Belisarius was defending the last bastion of the Roman Empire. He also was one of the main players in Justinian's effort to regain as much of the western part of the Empire as possible. Belisarius' first assignment was to fight the Persians. He baffled them with his strange troop placements and attitude toward territory, and won several victories, eventually negotiating a peace treaty with the Persians. This peace treaty was called "The Endless Peace."2
After dealing with the Persians, Belisarius was in Constantinople when there was an uprising and fighting between chariot racing fans. Justinian I was almost thrown from power, but Belisarius ruthlessly put down the rebellion. Some 20,000 people probably died in the fighting.2 Justinian I took his survival I the uprising as a sign of his divine right to rule,3 and began to expand the Empire.
Belisarius was put in charge of the army being sent to fight the Vandals. The pro-Byzantine king of the Vandals had been murdered, and Belisarius was to ensure that Carthage would not become a threat to Byzantine shipping in the western Mediterranean.1 If Belisarius could control the Vandal's land for Justinian, it would make the Emperor very happy, and even more wealthy, and the African land of the old Roman Empire would again be rejoined to the Byzantine Empire.
Belisarius nearly lost the first battle of the campaign. The Battle of Ad Decimum, or the Battle of the Tenth Milestone, occurred on September 13, 533 AD along the stretch of road near the post which indicated the tenth mile Carthage.4 Gelimer, the Vandal who was causing all the trouble, was outnumbered by Belisarius' troops. Belisarius had 17,000 men and Gelimer had 11,000 men. Gelimer chose his position well, and ordered his brother to attempt to stop the Roman progression, and his nephew to attempt a flanking maneuver, while he led the main body of his army around to cut off any Roman retreat. Gelimer's soldiers did very well, and were winning, but his brother failed to get his troops in position in time, and was killed, as was Gelimer's nephew. When Gelimer learned of their deaths, he failed to press his advantage, and instead buried his brother. Belisarius made good use of the respite, and regrouped his army. He was then able to defeat Gelimer. Belisarius then occupied Carthage without killing any of the citizens nor looting the city. After one more battle, the Vandal kingdom was destroyed, and the African part of the Roman Empire was regained, with the Roman Citizens in Carthage unharmed.
Justinian was very happy with this turn of events, as it seemed to confirm his divine right to rule, and encouraged him to restore as much of the Roman Empire as he could. The next thing he did was send Belisarius to Italy to fight the Ostrogoths and reclaim Rome itself for the Byzantine Empire. Belisarius did just that. By 540 he had Rome, Naples, Milan, and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna. But then things began to go wrong for Belisarius. The Emperor offered the Ostrogoths a deal. Belisarius thought the deal was way too generous, and while he presented it to the Ostrogoths, he refused to endorse it. Justinian wanted to take half of the Ostrogoth's treasure and would leave them with an independent kingdom in Italy. The Ostrogoths trusted Belisarius because he had been so well behaved in his conquest of Italy, but they distrusted Justinian. When Belisarius refused to endorse the deal, they became sure that Justinian had some trick up his sleeve, and they refused to agree unless Belisarius did endorse it, which he would not do. Doubtless, Justinian was getting upset. Some of the clever Ostrogoths realized that since their current king had been defeated by Belisarius, they needed a new king. They chose Belisarius. Belisarius was loyal to the Emperor, but he pretended to agree to take the crown. He arrived to be crowned, and promptly arrested the perpetrators and made a complete conquest of Italy. Justinian's plan went out the window, and Justinian was very angry. He stopped trusting Belisarius. Not only had Belisarius not endorsed the Emperor's deal, he had appeared to take a crown, and he had removed the independent buffer zone the Emperor had wanted between Constantinople and the Franks. The Persians were attacking the Empire again to the east, and having two fronts did not appeal to the Emperor.2
Belisarius returned to Constantinople, and was sent immediately to fight the Persians. This time he was not so successful, but managed to fight the Persians to a stand still, and negotiated a peace treaty that was intended to last five years. He returned to Italy, but found that much of it had been lost back to the Ostrogoths, including Rome. Belisarius managed to regain Rome, but only to lose it again. He was hampered by Justinian's distrust of him. Justinian refused to send supplies to Belisarius, and so Belisarius could not keep his army on the offensive. In 548 Belisarius was replaced by another capable general, Narses, and Belisarius retired.2
In 559 the Bulgars crossed the Danube River and attacked the Byzantine Empire. Justinian brought Belisarius back to lead the fight against these attackers. Despite Constaninople being threatened, he was able to drive the Bulgars back across the river. His success does not seem to have helped him too much, since a few years later he was charged with charges of corruption, possibly a trumped up charge. He was found guilty and sent to prison. Justinian then chose to pardon and release him. Perhaps public opinion had some influence in the matter. After all, this man had just recently saved Constantinople.1
Belisarius died a few years later in 565. Apparently he died within weeks of Emperor Justinian I, the man he had worked with to bring the Byzantine Empire to the height of its glory. Belisarius is often overlooked as a military general. Not because he didn't win his battles, but simply through a lack of interest in the time in which he lived. Belisarius was the general who allowed Justinian I to reunite much of the Roman Empire, spread his Code of Justinian, and his support for Christianity.
1. Belisarius. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belisarius
2. Belisarius. http://belisarius.biography.ms/
3. Mass, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (excerpt) http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521520711&ss=exc
4. Battle of the Tenth Milestone http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Battle-of-the-Tenth-Milestone