Flavius Belisarius (c505-65)

Figure 1.--This painting like a similsr one by David depicts The great Byzantine General, Belasarius, begging. This work was painted by Francois-Andre Vincent. It is illustrates the enduring legend that Belasarius was blinded on the orders of Justinian, and reduced to begging. The Roman soldier is shown giving alms, as he recognises his former general. A youth needed to guide the blinded Belsarius is again present, but not identified. Belsarius was indeeded illserved by the suspicious Justinian. Scholars can, however, find no supporting evidence that Belasarius was infact blinded or reduced to begging.

Critical to Emperor Justinian I's effort to revive the grandeur of the old Roman Empire was Flavius Belisarius (c505-65). He was Jystinian's and the Byzantine Empire's greatest military commznder. Justinian never, however, trusted him or fully supported him. He led Justinian's Imperial armies throughout the Mediterranean world. He fought a series of foreign enemies: the Persian (Sāsānian) Empire, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, and the barbarian tribes (Slavs and Huns) driving south through the Balkans toward Constantinople. As Justinian's most important general, he is essentially the last great Roman military commander. An enduring legend developed that Belasarius was blinded on the orders of Justinian, the emperor he so faithfully served. and reduced to begging. Belsarius was indeeded illserved by the suspicious Justinian. Scholars can, however, find no supporting evidence that Belasarius was infact blinded or reduced to begging.


Very little is known of Belisarius' origins or early life. He reportedly came from Illyria, the same area of the western Balkans where Justinian's family originated. Some may be of Slavoic origins, although there is no real evidence.


Early Career

Belisarius is first noted as a member of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard. It was there that he came to Justinian's attention. Justinian after the death of his uncle, Justin I, became emperor (527). Justinian received his first command at about age 25 years. From that point on his career is well documented. [Procopius]

Mesopotamia (530-32)

Belisarius began his illustrious military campaign in the east--Mesopotamia. This had been a region contested by the Romans and Persians for centuries. He confronted the Sāsānian Persian Empire at the peak of its power. Justuinian gave command of his army to the untested Belisarius. who won a stunning victory at Dara (530). The Imperial forces were defeated at Sura (Callinicum) (531). Even so, Belisarius was widely seen as the hero ofthe campaign, enabling Justinian to neotiate a peace with the Sāsānids (532). This freed up the Imperial army for a campaign in the west.

Nika Insurrection (532)

Before this, Justinian and Constaninople was rocked by the Nika Insurrection (January 532). Justinian almost fled the capital, but the Emperess Theodra is believed to have covinced him to stay. Belisarius Commanded the Imperial troops that ended the threat to Justinian's rule by massacring the rioters.


Belisarius married the widowed Antonina. She was a dear friend to the empress Theodora. The Emperess had enormous influence with Justinian. This influence at court proved to be very important to Belisarius over time. Antonina was one of the two passions of Belsarius' life. Antonia was important politically, but it was not a political msrriage. All available evidence suggests thst she completely captivated him. He was, howver, away from Constyantinople for extended periods. Her behaviot has been described as both reckless and immoral. And he learned of much of this behavior. It would thu understandably bring him both embarrassment and humiliation.

Campaigns Against the Germanic Tribes

Justinian was determined as Emperor to reserect the glories of the Roman Empire which mean seizing territory of the Western Empire overun by various Germanic tribes. And Justinian chose Belisarius to begin the military campaign intendended to do just this. Belisarius would not be Justinian's only general to commnd the Imperial Armny, but he would be by far the most omportyant.

The Vandals: North Africa (533)

The Eastern Empire retained control of Egypt, but all of the rest of North Africa was conquered by the Vandals and became a Vandal kingdom. Justinian gave Belisarius command of a relatively small force to seize control of the Vandal kingdom (533). The Vandals wihout an important fleet were totally unaware of Justinian's plans and were totally unprepared. Belisarius landed in Tunisia, the heart of the kingdom with its capital in Carthage. (This was the Roman city built on the site of the original Carthage, destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Punic Wars.) Belisarius achieved a stunning victory. He shattered Vandal armies in two decisive battles in only a few months. He returned to Constaninople a conquering hero and was granted granted a triumphal recption in the best traditions of the Roman Empire..

The Ostergoths: Italy (535-40)

North Africa was only the beginning of Justinian's imperial plan. The real prize was Italy-- the birth place of the Roman Empire. Italy at the time was an Ostergoth (Eastern Goths) kingdom. soon after the conquest of North Africa, Justinian began his plan to drive the Ostergoths out of Italy (535). Again Belisarius received the assignment. He first took Sicily, meeting relatively limited opposition (535). He then crossed to the mainland and began a drive north. The sacked Naples and enbtered Rome in triumph (536), a stunning accomplishmnent. His vicyories were in part the result of internal discension among the Ostergotths. The Ostergoths proved, however, to be a more determoned enmy than the Vandals. A new king, Witigis, managed to united the Ostergoths and drove on Roime. He besieged Belisarius and the Imprial forces in Rome (537–38). Belisarius defied the Odtergothic forces and they were eventully forced to lift the seige and retire north. Belisarius experienced some problems with subordinates which impeded his drive further north. Belisarius finally captured Ravenna (540). The Ostergoths finlly offered to surrender, but to Belsarius, not Justinian. There surrendered was conditiononed on the stipultion that bthat Belisarius would rule as their emperor. Justinian was a suspious man, probably a not unatural trait for a Roman/Byzantine emperor. A popular military hero was a threat. More than one em,peror was replaced by a military commander. And of coursem the Osrergoths may have had this in mind when they made the offer. Belisarius for his part accepted the Ostergoths’ surrender, but refused th title. capitulation and then refused the title. But as it turned out this pleased no one. The Ostergoths felt betrayed and Justinian's suspions remained aroused. Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy and he found himself in disgrace. This might have been the end of his military career had the Sāsānians not struckn in the East.

Mesopotamia (541)

Peace in the East with the Persians did not last. Khosrau I despite receiving a golden tribute, invaded Syria. The resumption of the Roman-Persian Wars came at a time whem the Imperial forces were largely deployed in Italy. And the defeats suffered in Syria convinced Justinian against his political instincts to recall Belisarius. Belisarius in Syria managed some successes, but did not have the forces needed to decisevly defeat the Sāsānids. Some of his soldiers proved rebelious. Justiaian recalled hom to Rome with accusations of disloyalty. He might well have been tried an executed, but the Emperess Theodora intervened, swayed by her findship with Belisarius' wife Antonina. He was thus allowed to retire to his estates.

The Ostergoths: Italy (544-48)

The Ostergoths despite their surrender, continued the war in Italy. The military commanders Justinian assigned to replace Belsarious proved unable to supress the Ostergoth threat or rule the area conquered by Belsarius. Justinian thus ordered him back to Italy to savec thecdeteriorating situaton (544). Justinian continued to be suspious and refused to adequately support him with either men or needed supplies and financing. A rival without victories was less of a threat. Belisarius conducted perations along the coast for several years. He even ed insecurely around the Italian coasts where he could be supported by the fleet for the next few years, even briefly retook Rome. Effectively fightingting the Ostergoths was, however, impossible with the support provided by the Emperor. Theodora died (548). This effectively ended his support at court. Justinian recalled him from Italy. The Italian wars were finally completed by other Imperial generals. The Armenin eunuch Narses received the vneeded support from Justinian.

Retirement (548)

Belsarfius returned to Constantinople (548). Justinian permitted him to retain his wealth and household bodyguard. Marauding Hun tribes threatened Constaninople (559). Justinisn again recalled Belisarius to a military command. Imperial forces were deployed in the Empire's far flug possessions. Only a rather limited force was availavle to defend the capital. Belsarius recruited men to add to his personal boy guard. He managed in the emergency to bluff the Huns, disuading them from an attack on Constantinople. He then resumed a peaceful retirement. He was subsequently accused of ploting against the Emperor (562). This seems unlikely. If Belsarious remained loyal to the Emperor when he commanded a large army, as offered a throne, and was enormously popular in Constninople, in seenms unlikely he would move ahainst Justinian when he commanded only a small personal bodyguard. Most historians bdlieve he was probably innocent. Hewas, however, disgraved by Justinian. He was partially restored to favour (563). Justinian left him lone until he died only a few months before the Emperor he had served so long and faithfully (565). Overtime lgend has taken over the Belsarius story. And accounts are told that Justinian had him blinded and reduced to poverty aznd begging. There is no azctual evidence of this.


Procopius. Historia arcana (Secret History). We know a great deal about Belisarius' militry exploits because of Procopius, an early historian whose works survived. Procopius was a member of the General's personal staff for the first 15 years of his far-flung campaigns, including some of the most important. He observed the general’s activities personally and was privy to his private thoughts.


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Created: 11:58 PM 9/8/2011
Last updated: 11:58 PM 9/8/2011