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The Emperor and His General

Updated on January 23, 2012
A painting of the legend General Belisarius wearing Roman armour.
A painting of the legend General Belisarius wearing Roman armour.

More on Flavius Belisarius

The Emperor and I

A profile of one of history's most brilliant tacticians using information in the book "Justinian's Flea" by William Rosen

During the reign of Justinian I, the Byzantine Empire went through a golden age of territorial expansion and accomplishment that ensured its existence for years to come. Prior to Justinian, the Byzantine Empire had not reached its full sense of potential and it lacked a determined leader to bring the empire into its prime. However, Justinian could never have succeeded on his own without help from equally motivated and competent individuals. One such individual, a Thracian by the name of Belisarius, became one of the most brilliant generals to ever grace the Byzantine Empire and through his tactical prowess and military victories came Justinian’s success.

Upon ascension to the throne, one of Justinian’s primary goals was to restore imperial authority to the lost provinces of the Western Empire. But Justinian needed to defend the empire before he could expand it. In 530 A.D., Persian troops were massing on the border and it was the young Belisarius who was tasked with defending the fortified town of Dara against an attack (Rosen 80). The army that Belisarius had at his disposal was not made up of Roman legionnaires, but a mixture of barbarians and mercenaries. His legal secretary, Procopius, went so far as to describe the makeshift army as “the beast of men and utterly abandoned rascals” (Rosen 81-82). Despite being outnumbered by two to one, the victory that Belisarius won for his emperor was but a small preview of things to come (Rosen 85). Had Belisarius lost this battle, Persian incursions into Byzantine territory would have become an endemic and disrupted Justinian’s plans for military campaigns elsewhere, not to mention having to deal with an unhappy domestic population.

Ironically, civil unrest was the next task that Belisarius assisted Justinian with during the Nika Revolt in 532 A.D. After Justinian refused to fully pardon two criminals regarding an incident that had taken place after the Hippodrome games, the crowd began to riot (Shockro). The terror of the mob rampaging through the streets brought Justinian to consider fleeing the city and going into exile. If this had happened, Justinian’s “reign would have been a short and undistinguished one” as opposed to the long and successful one that it turned out to be (Bennett 60). While it was Theodora who convinced him to stay, it was Belisarius’ plan to attack the mob in the Hippodrome swiftly and efficiently using a pincer maneuver to break their ranks (Rosen 97). The plan worked to perfection and the casualty rate among the rioters was devastating enough to send a clear message to those who would oppose the throne. For Justinian, his reign as emperor stood upon the edge of a knife, and thanks to Belisarius, he did not fall.

While Belisarius’ role in the above events had an enormous impact on the Byzantine Empire, it was his military victories abroad that led to Justinian’s success domestically. The North African campaign summed up all of Belisarius’ tactical brilliance and strategy, specifically with the blitzkrieg strategy he used to capture the Vandal capital, Carthage, in just four weeks after landing on the continent. Additionally, he knew that the key to Justinian’s success in governing the province was to ensure that the Byzantines had the support of the local population and so Belisarius made sure that his men remained discipline at all times. Belisarius’ attack into North Africa was an impressive accomplishment that culminated with the defeat of a Vandal force estimated to be “between three and ten times” the size of his own. The trust that Justinian placed in Belisarius’ ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds and come out on top with a victory demonstrates how much the emperor relied upon his best general for his own success.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of Belisarius contributing to Justinian’s plans for a stronger Byzantine Empire was the reconquest of Italy. From the onset, Justinian had made it clear that he wanted to reclaim parts of the old Western Empire, in particular, Rome itself. The obstacle in the way of this goal was a barbarian tribe known as the Ostrogoths and led by King Theodahad (and later, after being deposed, Vitigis). Belisarius was given a force to command that was even smaller than the one he had in North Africa, but as always, he made the best with what was given and did not disappoint. After he took the cities of Palermo and Syracuse with ease, the rest of Sicily was restored to imperial authority. The Goths continually tried to hinder Belisarius’ advance into Italy, but through his dogged persistence, demonstrated at the siege of Naples and his defense of Rome, came praise from Justinian. “We have good hopes that God will grant us to restore our authority over the remaining countries which the ancient Romans possessed…[but were]lost by subsequent neglect” (Rosen 150). Belisarius was not entirely on his own in Italy and had help from another famed general, Narses, whose stay campaign in Italy ended shorter than expected as he was recalled to Constantinople. Though Narses had some impressive victories, it was Belisarius who consistently won battles despite being ‘outnumbered and outgunned’ as the expression goes. In 539, Justinian offered a peace treaty with the defeated Goths that would grant them everything north of the Po River. Belisarius was “moved to vexation” at the proposal of a peace treaty that did not include unconditional surrender for the Goths, but he waited before showing it to them and sure enough, the Gothic negotiators requested surrender only if Belisarius agreed to be their king (Rosen 159). This agreement effectively ended the fighting (for several years until an Ostrogoth rebellion occurred after Belisarius was recalled) and ensured that Justinian was triumphant in his goal of reconquest for the most famed territory of the old Western Empire.

While it is important to remember that many factors played a part in the success of a leader who was described as “the last Roman emperor who deserves to be called great”, Belisarius deserves the most credit out of them all. His intelligence, loyalty and strategy were unmatched, even by his rival Narses, and this was shown through the battles that he won, not for himself, but for his emperor and friend, Justinian. Without this indispensable weapon in his pocket, Justinian would never have been able succeed in accomplishing as much as he did in the near twenty year reign which brought the Byzantine Empire to its full potential.


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