Life, Military Campaigns, and Achievements of Belisarius, “The Last Roman General”
Flavius Belisarius was a prominent military commander in the Byzantine Empire, most notably under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (Justinian the Great). His challenging military campaigns, loyalty to the emperor and the empire, as well as his intelligence earned him the reputation of being one of the best Roman generals in history. It’s no surprise that many historians describe him as a true embodiment of who a Roman soldier ought to be.
But despite his military achievements and selflessness, it appeared that he also had battles to fight within his inner circle. From his tumultuous relationship with Justinian, his wife Antonia, his eventual fall, and the myth surrounding his fate, here’s the life and major achievements of Byzantium’s greatest general.
The Early Years: Childhood & Becoming a Roman Soldier
Belisarius was born around 500 AD. He grew up in the town of Illyria (located in modern-day Bulgaria) with his parents. Unlike some generals in Roman history, Flavius grew up poor. But his life in poverty did not stop him from becoming one of the best Roman generals of the Byzantine Empire.
Not much is known of his childhood; however, it is said that when he was around sixteen, he joined the army. It wasn’t so unusual for him to become a Roman soldier. Illyria was a province in Thracia, which had served as the hometown of some of the empire’s best warriors. During the reign of Emperor Justin I, he rose through the ranks and became a military commander in charge of over 6,500 men.
Despite his quick rise in military ranks, his actual military career did not have a great start, as he suffered a number of defeats on the battlefield. It appeared that perhaps he had won Justin’s favor because he still maintained his position during the emperor’s reign, and when Justin died, Belisarius was promoted by the next emperor, Justinian I.
Whatever Justinian saw in him worked. Belisarius led his troops to fight against the Sassanid Empire in the east. But his biggest victory in his early career occurred during the Iberian War in 530, when he defeated the Sasanians in the Battle of Dara. What made his feat more impressive was that Belisarius’ troops were outnumbered by 15,000 Sasanians.
The following year, however, he was defeated in the Battle of Callinicum, and the young military commander returned to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to face charges of incompetence. Fortunately, he was cleared of those charges and the emperor continued to maintain fate in him.
The Nika Riots
Beginning around late 531, there was increasing dissent among the people of Constantinople. A significant section of the population of the city had become very unhappy with Justinian’s sweeping reforms. And much of the anger and frustration were aimed at the senior officials the emperor had appointed to implement those reforms, especially John the Cappadocian and Tribonian. Those two men literally became the most hated men in Constantinople at the time. There were loud calls for the removal of those senior officials. Things took a turn for the worse in January 532 when a grievances at a chariot racing event morphed into a riot, with the rioters setting ablaze many buildings, most famous among them the Hagia Sophia.
There were other reasons why the people revolted. There were issues of high unemployment, the issue of Justinian’s low status (he was adopted by Justin I), and high taxes. But what seriously muddied the water for the emperor was when he ordered the execution of chariot racers who had engaged in a fight after the chariot race.
Justinian did indeed try his best to pacify the rioters by agreeing to relieving Eudaemon, John the Cappadocian, and Tribonian off their duties. However, it was simply too little and too late. The rioters refused budging. As the days passed, the number of rioters increased, obviously with some bit of support from senators and businessmen that wanted nothing than to see the back of Justinian.
The leaders of the Nika Riot proceeded to elect a new emperor, a man named Hypatius, the nephew of Emperor Anastasius I, who ruled before Justin I. At first, Justinian had wanted to flee the city and abdicate his throne, but his wife Empress Theodora advised against his decision.
Inspired by the uplifting words of his wife, the emperor called on General Belisarius and other military figures to effectively and decisively crush the revolt using whatever means possible.
The military commander visited the Hippodrome, where the chariot races were held and killed between 30,000-50,000 citizens, effectively ending the riots. As for Hypatius, the pseudo emperor, he was arrested and executed. It’s said that Justinian had wanted to spare Hypatius’s life, but Empress Theodora prevailed upon him to carry out the punishment.
The manner in which Belisarius and his lieutenants crushed the Nika Revolt was anything but decent. It was a bloody end for the people that looked upon Justinian with contempt, and perhaps the city’s most violent riot in history. In a way, one of the things that Belisarius is best remembered for is the manner in which he crushed the Nika Revolt.
Read More: Greatest Byzantine Rulers and their Achievements
Most Famous Military Campaigns
Unfazed by the misfortunes that plagued his early military career, Belisarius managed to redeem himself with a victory at the Battle of Dara and later the quelling of the Nika Riots. Those victories were enough for Justinian to send him on more military campaigns, and those were the ones that helped him cement his name as one of the greatest commanders in Byzantium.
Below are some of the most famous military campaigns of Flavius Belisarius:
The North African Vandals
A year after the Nika Riots, Justinian sent Belisarius to North Africa to fight against the Germanic Vandals. There were many reasons why the emperor sent his military. Firstly, he was on a mission to rebuild the empire following the disastrous riots. Secondly, he wanted to take full advantage of the power jostling that had erupted among the Vandals to reclaim North Africa as part of the empire. Thirdly, the Vandals were oppressing the Nicene Christians, refused to produce coins depicting the Roman emperor, and had replaced the Roman elites with the Germanic nobles.
The Vandal Kingdom had been under the rule of Hilderic, and during that time, it maintained healthy diplomatic relations with Byzantium. But when Hilderic was overthrown by his cousin Gelimer, Justinian decided to fight against the Vandals to save his friend and, of course, reclaim lost territories.
Belisarius and his men set sail for the Vandal Kingdom. He had about 16,000 men with him, and they first arrived in the town of Caput Vada, near Carthage, which was the capital city of the kingdom. Carthage had been captured by Rome hundreds of years prior; and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, many of its citizens were either Romans or supporters of the Roman Empire. Because of this fact, the army commander refused to inflict any harm on them.
When some of his officers took fruits from locals without asking their permission, Belisarius had them killed and used the situation to teach the rest of his men how to interact with the locals. This strategy helped him, as the people trusted him and supplied his troops with resources and most importantly, useful information. He ordered his troops to build fortifications, placed guards at strategic positions, and positioned a fleet of lightships to prevent an inland or naval attack from the enemy.
The war lasted for nearly a year, and it was Justinian’s first attempt at reclaiming some of the Western Rome’s lost territories. Gelimer and Belisarius clashed in September 533 at the Battle of Ad Decimum. After a hard-fought battle, the Byzantine general emerged the victor; however, he failed in his mission to rescue Hilderic.
After Belisarius’ victory in 533, it’s said that there was still some bit of fighting spirit left in Gelimer. The Vandal simply refused to give up. As a result, Belisarius and Gelimer faced off against each other in December of that year in the Battle of Tricamarum. Once again, Belisarius was the victor, defeating Gelimer and seizing power from the Vandals.
The victorious Byzantine general returned to Constantinople to a hero’s welcome the following year. Accompanying him were many prisoners of war, including Gelimer, as well as a significant amount of treasure. The general was then appointed consul, a position that was usually bestowed on emperors.
The Gothic War (535-554)
Belisarius’ victory catapulted him to fame. He was the emperor’s right-hand man and the best military commander throughout the empire. So, when Justinian decided to invade the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, Belisarius was undoubtedly the first choice.
Just like what had happened in Vandal Kingdom, Justinian took advantage of the political instability that prevailed in the enemy’s camp and mounted a siege. Amalasuntha, the Queen of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, had been overthrown by her cousin, Theodahad. Amalasuntha was an ally of Justinian, and the emperor expected the military campaign to be as successful as the one in North Africa.
Belisarius arrived in Sicily in December 535 with 8,000 army officers and established a base there. The general’s plan was to force Theodahad to abdicate his throne and then seize the kingdom without having to rely heavily on military might. It appeared to have worked initially, but he later came under fierce resistance. Belisarius fought back and arrived in Syracuse shortly before the new year. However, his plans to invade Rome were halted when he was forced to return to North Africa to subdue a rebel group from seizing Carthage. He was successful and returned to Italy.
Though he had significantly less troops than in Africa, he managed to capture Naples and Rome in 536. It also helped that Theodahad was an incompetent ruler. Eventually, Amalasuntha’s son-in-law, Vitiges, killed him. But just like Theodahad, Vitiges was also not an impressive ruler. Belisarius imprisoned the new king and claimed Ravenna.
With the Goths under Byzantine control, Justinian presented them with terms. The Goths would be allowed to maintain a sovereign kingdom provided they forfeited half their wealth to the emperor. Whether Justinian had planned to keep or not keep his end of the deal, Belisarius found the terms too easy and simple.
The Goths also appeared not to trust Justinian’s offer. Instead, they trusted Belisarius’ word because of how he had conducted himself during the invasion. In response, they told Justinian that they would only agree to the terms as long as Belisarius sanctioned the treaty. The general couldn’t allow himself to do so due to his honor. But the Goths were insistent and suggested making him their new ruler.
The army commander pretended to accept their offer out of his loyalty to Justinian. He went along with their plan and then made sure those who had suggested he be made king were arrested. Now, all of the Ostrogothic Kingdom belonged to Justinian and Byzantium.
Belisarius’ Relationship with Justinian I
Perhaps this was the first time that cracks had begun to show in Belisarius and Justinian’s relationship. Even though the former had been nothing but loyal, Justinian had grown wary of him and saw his loyalty as fake or perhaps temporary.
According to the renowned Byzantine historian Procopius, the emperor became increasingly paranoid. If he was, it’s likely that he was afraid of Belisarius’ rising power since it was uncommon for army generals to lead coups and depose emperors.
Therefore, Justinian decided to bring Belisarius back to Constantinople in order to keep an eye on him. The emperor then sent Byzantine officials to continue work in Italy. But he shouldn’t have done so because those officials were corrupt and their actions made life in the Gothic Kingdom unbearably difficult.
Regardless of Justinian’s subtle machinations against Belisarius, the general remained quite a revered figure; and his return to Constantinople made him more popular to the point where he was likely more well-known than Justinian. So, the emperor sent him off to another military campaign; this time to Persia. The army commander’s time in Persia was extremely tough as he had to deal with many issues, including opposition from some his troops.
Eventually he left for Italy in 545 after the war had ended in a stalemate and both sides had signed a fifty-year treaty. But he was in for a surprise. Italy was in shambles under the leadership of the Byzantine officials. The officials mismanagement coupled with the outbreak of the bubonic plague (i.e. a the plague of Justinian) brought disaster on the once powerful kingdom. It’s estimated that the plague, which was later named after the emperor, caused the deaths of about a fifth of the population in the capital.
The Goths decided to take advantage of the economic and social misfortunes that had gripped the empire. Led by their new king, Totila, the Goths reclaimed northern Italy from the Byzantine Empire.
The Rise of Totila & Belisarius’ Fall
Totila was a skilled military general and competent politician. When he became leader, he managed to reclaim almost all of the Goths’ lost territories. Belisarius found himself unable to deal effectively with Totila because many of his men had switched their allegiances. It appeared the general was in a losing battle to gain control of the army and maintain order.
With Rome back in the hands of the Goths, Totila arrested the Byzantine officials and sent word to Justinian that he was willing to negotiate new terms. However, the emperor refused to deal directly with Totila and told the new king to handle all negotiations with Belisarius. So, Totila did just that albeit very disgruntled.
Belisarius responded to the Gothic king in a letter, stating his rejection of Totila’s demands. The general reiterated that Byzantium owned Italy. He also warned Totila to be mindful of his own reputation, saying that it would be tarnished if he laid a finger on any Byzantine official. He also asked Totila how he would have liked to be remembered, whether as the one who preserved the city or the one who destroyed it.
Belisarius’ words were powerful enough to sway the new Gothic king. He chose to leave Rome with his men, paving the way for Belisarius to recapture the city and fortify it to prevent any future invasions. However, Totila did not give up; and in 550, he invaded and recaptured Rome yet again. He sent messengers to Constantinople to meet with Justinian but they were imprisoned.
In response, Justinian pulled Belisarius out of Rome. In Belisarius’ place, the emperor sent a military general named Germanus. Not only was Germanus a distinguished general of Justinian, he was also a cousin of the emperor who was widely tipped to inherit the Byzantine throne. According to Jordanes, a 6th-century Eastern Roman historian, Germanus also married into the Gothic Amal royal line through his second wife Matasuntha, who was the daughter of Queen Amalasuintha of Ostrogothic Kingdom.
On his way to Rome, Germanus died, leaving the emperor to send another military man, General Narses, to handle the situation in Rome. Ultimately, Narses defeated Totila at the Battle of Taginae. With Totila dead, Italy was once again under Byzantine control.
Later Years: Retirement, Defeating the Bulgars, & Arrest
Upon his return to Constantinople, Belisarius and Justinian’s relationship soured even further. He retired in 559, but when there was a threat of a Bulgar invasion, Justinian called on him to fight against them.
Because the majority of the Byzantine troops were engaged in other battles, he was given only about 2,000 men. Regardless, he and his men were able to stand against an army of 7,000 Huns. With a numerical disadvantage, Belisarius relied heavily on strategy rather than manpower. He is praised for defeating the Bulgars in an ambush. What is even more interesting is the fact that he was sixty years old at the time. For his gallantry, he received a hero’s welcome upon his return.
But that wasn’t enough for Justinian. Even though Belisarius had been loyal to him throughout his career, he accused the military commander of corruption and had him arrested in 562. Justinian later had a change of mind and pardoned his most reliable general.
When did Belisarius die?
Belisarius would live a free man until March 565 when he died of natural causes.
Belisarius was married to a woman named Antonia who he had been faithful although she hadn’t been. Together they adopted a son called Theodosius, who Procopius claimed Antonia had had an affair with. She did show some loyalty by escorting her husband on some of his military campaigns, however, Procopius believed that she was paid by Justinian’s wife Theodora to spy on her husband.
The Myth Surrounding Flavius Belisarius
Even though it’s been established that Belisarius had died of natural causes, a myth later sprung up concerning the “Last Roman General’s” fate. According to the myth, Justinian ordered for Belisarius’ eyes to be gouged out, and the once celebrated commander had to spend the rest of his life living as a blind beggar who roamed the streets of Constantinople.
There’s no proof that this event actually occurred, and the only reason why it spread was because of a painting by the French artist Jacque-Louis David called “Belisarius Begging for Alms” in 1780. The painting showed the blind commander begging while dressed in his old military gear.
Other Notable Achievements of Belisarius
Belisarius left an impressive legacy following his death. He was remembered as Byzantium’s greatest army general, the one who reclaimed a large bulk of lost the Western Roman territories.
He was also responsible for ending the Nika Riots in his early career, which showed his efficiency as a military officer after a string of defeats. Belisarius went on to later defeat other powerful kingdoms in some of the toughest military campaigns. With his occasionally outnumbered troops, he brought down the Vandals and Ostrogothic Kingdoms, and drove away the Sasanians and Bulgars.
Belisarius’ reputation as an honorable man and commander also preceded him. He was kind to many of the locals in the kingdoms he invaded and he preferred to use his wiles and strategy during campaigns instead of resorting to chaos.
However, no matter how loyal he had been, the world of politics during that time had no place for people like him. In the end, while he had garnered adoration from sections of the public, his achievements had also brought about anger and envy within the imperial court.
Regardless of the challenges, Belisarius remained loyal to his Emperor, even at the cost of his life, reputation, and freedom. It’s no surprise that he is regarded as the “Last Roman General.”
“The Last Roman General” in Popular Culture
Best remembered as the Byzantine general who heroically secured victory over the Vandals in North Africa in AD 533–534, Belisarius has since appeared or has been referenced in popular culture. Here are some examples:
Depictions of Belisarius in Art
In the late 1700s, a French artist called Jean-Baptiste Stouf created the “Bust of Belisarius”, which showed the famed commander as a blind beggar. The design of the bust gives him the appearance of that of a saint or a philosopher.
In the late 1650s, the Italian painter Salvator Rosa painted “Belisarius.” In 1904, the painting was sold to Renishaw Hall, England.
Drama & Literature
Belisarius’ story was retold in stage productions during the 17th and 18th centuries. Jesuit priest and playwright of Austrian origins Jakob Bidermann wrote “Belasarius” in 1607. John Oldmixon and WIlliam Philips also wrote about the Byzantine general in the 1700s.
He has also appeared in several literary works, including American playwright Margaretta Faugeres’ “Belisarius: A Tragedy” and English historical novelist Robert Graves’ “Count Belisarius.”
In 2020, William Havelock wrote “The Last Dying Light” recounting Belisarius’ early military career. The first of a series titled “The Last of the Romans”, the book sheds light on the courage, loyalty and tenacity of the Byzantine general.
Film & Game
Canadian-American actor Lang Jeffries played Belisarius in the “Kampf um Rom”, a German movie that premiered in 1968.
In video games, Belisarius has appeared in “Total War: Attila” and “Rise of Kingdoms.” He is also referenced in the game “Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb.” HIs likeness was also used in the creation of the character Archmagos Belisarius Cawl in “Warhammer 40,000.”