Like the story of my own life, the story of Rome in the Middle Ages is mostly one of decay and degradation; however, there was a time, for Byzantium, when things actually looked as if they were improving. The Eastern Roman Empire expanded by half. Roman soldiers were killing and looting exotic peoples from many wonderful and exciting places. Did they owe it all to Flavius Belisarius? Perhaps if they tried it again without him, historians would have a better idea…
Belisarius has been referred to as one of the “Last of the Romans”. Apparently, it was a slow process, because the list encompasses Romans from as early as 75 B.C.E and as late as the eighteenth century. Like The Last of the Mohicans, this term doesn’t imply that there are no Romans left; however, it does imply that those giants of history managed to restrain themselves from driving down a crowded sidewalk on a moped or scooter.
Belisarius was born in 505, in the city of Germane, which is hardly relevant. Germane was in what is now Bulgaria. Belisarius was Thracian, Greek or Slavic, depending upon which historian you ask and how much they’ve had to drink. Not much is known about his parents, his early life or his plate-spinning ability. Suffice it to say that Belisarius at least lived long enough to join the army under Justinian I.
Justinian, and his nephew, Justinian, saw great promise in the young man. At the age of twenty-one, he was given leave to form a regiment of heavy cavalry, which I imagine would involve eating a LOT of pie. This small regiment performed a daring raid on the Gepids, who were busy resting on their laurels after defeating the Huns six decades previous. The Gepids were a formidable military opponent, but Belisarius caught them unawares in t-shirts and boxer shorts, very disoriented. This victory was so hilarious that Justinian decided to let Belisarius grow his unit to fifteen hundred soldiers.
To understand what was so special about Belisarius’ troops, one must understand the structure and function of Byzantine heavy cavalry. I suppose you are going to want ME to help with that, eh? Thought so…
Typically, heavy cavalry was well-armored, and relied upon lance or sword to smash through the enemy lines and ruin their day. Belisarius’ heavy cavalry was all that and an order of fries: They added ranged weapons like the composite bow and darts so they could fight at a distance and, if necessary, dislodge apples from the unreachable parts of trees. In creating such a unit, Belisarius was emulating Rome’s most dangerous enemies: The Huns, the Goths and the Romans.
After Justinian died in 527, his successor, Justinian, put Belisarius in charge of the campaign against the Persians, to the east. He proved himself in the Battle of Dara. Outnumbered two to one, and nursing a pregnant goat, Belisarius managed to defeat the Persian army using superior tactics and possibly goat placenta. With his heavy cavalry, he managed to split the enemy’s forces into two parts: One chased the Roman cavalry; the other opted to get outflanked and die.
Unfortunately, Belisarius didn’t tend to win battles with the Persians when he wasn’t vastly outnumbered. Ultimately, the two sides signed the Perpetual Peace agreement, which, to everyone’s relief, lasted long enough for the ink to dry on the paper.
You’d think that Belisarius would’ve been on Justinian’s list of persona non grata (back when everyone spoke Latin, that phrase wasn’t nearly so impressive); however, Rome’s most dangerous enemy reared its head. That enemy was, of course, Rome. Chariot race hooligans were big back in 532, and several had been arrested for murdering members of another fan base. When Justinian refused to pardon the murderers, some of the fans rioted and stormed the prison. Some of the senate, seeing a once in a lifetime chance, supported the riot. Fortunately, Belisarius, with the help of Master of Soldiers Mundus, managed to calm the fans by killing twenty thousand of them. This was an early example of e.s.t. therapy and proved pretty effective. Justinian’s potential replacement was executed and guilty senators were exiled. An eventful week…
Emperor’s pet again, Belisarius was sent to Africa to deal with the Vandals. The Vandals had taken land that Rome had legitimately seized for itself. Not only that, they had deposed a friend of his by the name of Hilderic. I’m not going to lie to you: It was all about the land. Belisarius managed to defeat the Vandals and restore North Africa to its rightful owner: The Eastern Roman Empire. When Belisarius returned to Constantinople, he was given a parade and a laurel and hardy handshake.
But, North Africa was not enough for Justinian; he wanted Italy back. Sure, you can have a Roman empire without Rome, but eventually people would just start calling it “The Empire” and historians would confuse it with Star Wars. Belisarius took Sicily easily. From Sicily, he took Rome and Naples. Sadly, it marked the last time civilized man would inhabit Naples. Even today, in Naples, tourists are pulled directly off their planes, robbed, then eaten.
Justinian wanted to make a deal with the Goths instead of trying to defeat them. His logic was that he’d rather be bordered by a greedy unpredictable enemy than a sullen unpredictable enemy. Belisarius was purveyor of an offer that Justinian assumed the Goths couldn’t refuse. Problem was, the offer was so attractive that no one wanted to touch it with a ten-foot Goth-pole. Instead, the Goths offered to make Belisarius their emperor. Belisarius accepted, then claimed all of their lands in the name of Justinian and arrested those who made the deal with him in the first place.
You’d think that Justinian would have been thrilled with this display of ingenuity and loyalty; however, he was rather bitter over the whole thing. The Goths had never asked HIM to be their emperor. If they HAD, he was sure he would’ve said, “No”, but would’ve been flattered nonetheless. So, he sent Belisarius to Syria, which is where you send someone when they tick you off (ask Dan Rather). He managed to fight the Persians there to a standstill, then negotiated a peace settlement.
By the time Belisarius got back to Italy, everything was falling apart; and, this was before the E.U. Rome had been retaken by the enemy. Belisarius managed to get it back for a while, but Justinian wasn’t throwing enough greenbacks for the general to hold onto it. Justinian finally replaced Belisarius with a eunuch and gave the testicle-free general the supplies he needed to win. Belisarius saw the writing on the wall and retired.
In 559, Belisarius’ retirement came to an end, and not in the normal way like with a funeral and a wake. He was called to repel Slavic forces under Zabergan who were threatening the capital city of Constantinople. Fortunately, Belisarius was outnumbered two-to-one, so he managed to easily drive the enemy back across the Danube, saving the Byzantine Empire.
In gratitude, Belisarius was giving a fine trial and a short imprisonment. Justinian pardoned him pretty quickly and restored him to favor. The charge was corruption and historians believe that the charge was either manufactured, trumped up or right on the money, depending upon what the facts might have been.
There is a legend, largely discounted today, that Justinian had Belisarius blinded and forced him to beg at the main gate of the city. There are a great many paintings depicting the great general, elderly, with a begging bowl, possibly tripping over a footstool somewhere. A few historians still believe the legend and more power to them. To most, it is a parable of how quickly the powerful can screw the competent.
Blind or not, Belisarius died in 565, probably at his manor home, and probably not while clog-dancing. His good friend and bitter enemy, Justinian died in the same month, probably not having shafted as many of his allies as he wanted to…