Who was Flavius Belisarius and What Did He Do?

It was said that General Belisarius could conquer land with nothing more than his reputation. Despite a lack of manpower and resources, he presided over the reconquest of much of the western Roman Empire. He was feared and respected in equal measure, yet he was ultimately betrayed by the man closest to him. Here is the story of Flavius Belisarius.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

‘For not by numbers of men, nor by a measure of body, but by the valour of soul is a war to be decided.’ General Belisarius

In the pantheon of the Roman Empire’s greatest military leaders, Flavius Belisarius sits comfortably alongside Julius Caesar and Scipio Africanus, and his legacy has endured for 1,500 years. So much so that it’s said Winston Churchill himself took inspiration and guidance from the military campaigns of Belisarius during the early years of World War II.

While many figures from the ancient world have been largely lost to the passing of time, many of the Belisarius facts we know today have survived as his life was closely chronicled by Procopius, a historian who knew the man personally and accompanied him on many of his campaigns.

Read on to discover the astonishing story of one of the most famous Byzantine generals. Flavius Belisarius.

Flavius Belisarius - The Early Years

Flavius Belisarius (Photo: Bildagentur-online via Getty Images)

Like many sixth century Romans, very little is known of the early life of Belisarius. His background and parentage is unknown, but it’s likely he was born around 500 AD in either modern-day Bulgaria, or what is now northern Greece.

Belisarius joined the army at an early age and became a member of the imperial bodyguard. He quickly impressed his superiors and was rewarded with command of a cavalry regiment. It was the majority of these men who fought alongside him for the next three decades.

However his military career didn’t get off to the best of starts.

The first two battles in which Belisarius is recorded as having held a command role – Thannuris and Mindouos in modern-day Syria and Turkey respectively – ended in defeat, though it is unclear whether Belisarius was in overall command at this stage. What came next however, is considered by many to be the greatest victory of the magister militum Belisarius’ career.

The Battles of Dara and Callinicum

Old engraving depicting map of Constantinopolis (Photo: NSA Digital Archive via Getty Images)

The Battle of Dara in 530 AD was the most famous battle of the Iberian War, pitting Belisarius’ Byzantines against the Sassanids. The Sassanids were said to have outnumbered the Byzantines by two to one, but General Belisarius brilliantly outmanoeuvred his enemy to secure a stunning victory.

However, the following year, Belisarius came across the famous Sassanid commander Azarethes, who had far fewer men but managed to outwit him to victory. The Byzantines suffered heavy losses at Callinicum and Belisarius was ordered back to Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, to face charges of incompetence. Charges for which he was eventually cleared.

Belisarius and The Nika Riots

Emperor Justinian I (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

In 532 AD, allegations against Emperor Justinian I of corruption, the implementation of high taxes and cutbacks to civil services and budgets led to a violent riot in the streets of Constantinople. The emperor called on Flavius Belisarius to quell the revolt. Many thousands died and half the city was destroyed or burned to the ground, yet the revolt was crushed. It was another display of loyalty to the emperor.

General Belisarius - The Warrior Commander

General Belisarius, the Warrior Commander (Photo: Nastasic via Getty Images)

With increasing responsibility and resources at his disposal, the period between 533 AD and 569 AD was probably the pinnacle of General Belisarius’ career; the armies he led during this time were virtually all-conquering.

He commanded victories against the Vandals in North Africa at the battles of Ad Decimum and Tricamarum. This returned North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and much of Sicily to Byzantine control.

Next came the Gothic Wars against the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. General Belisarius took Sicily, Naples and then Rome in 536 AD. A year later he defended Rome despite yet again being outnumbered.

However all was not well at Justinian’s court.

The Dangerous World of Politics

Belisarius refusing the crown (Photo: Photos.com via Getty Images)

Of all the famous Byzantine generals, Flavius Belisarius was the most successful. However, one of his greatest successes led to his downfall.

After reaching Ravenna, the old centre of the Western Roman Empire, the city’s rulers offered Belisarius himself the imperial throne in exchange for their surrender. He initially accepted to avoid further bloodshed, but then refused the title and declared the city under the control of Justinian.

Yet the incident did not sit well with Justinian who was increasingly suspicious of Belisarius and feared betrayal. He knew how popular Belisarius was both with the army, the people of the eastern empire and even with those he had conquered. Belisarius was recalled once again to Constantinople.

Procopius wrote, ‘The Byzantines took delight in watching Belisarius as he came forth from his home each day… For his progress resembled a crowded festival procession, since he was always escorted by a large number of Vandals, Goths, and Moors. Furthermore, he had a fine figure, and was tall and remarkably handsome. But his conduct was so meek, and his manners so affable, that he seemed like a very poor man, and one of no repute.’

In 541 AD, Justinian sent the magister militum Belisarius to fight the Persians in the east. However his main opponents were his own men. They didn’t follow his orders, the army was unruly and ill-disciplined and, it is said, unpaid for years and on the verge of mutiny. Somehow, he was yet again successful.

Belisarius was sent West again to Rome in 544 AD, in an attempt to restore Imperial rule there. However, Justinian refused to back him with horses, men and money. Any sort of effective opposition to the resurgent Ostrogoths was impossible and he spent many years campaigning there to no great avail. He was recalled once more, and lived in semi-retirement.

Yet when the Empire again faced peril, Belisarius was called upon once more. His final battle was against the semi-nomadic Turkic warrior tribes of the Bulgars in 559 AD. Again, he was successful in securing the Byzantine empire’s boundaries.

Flavius Belisarius - The End

Belisarius blind and begging (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

With Belisarius being hailed a hero once more, Justinian had had enough. He concocted charges of corruption against General Belisarius, which likely had no basis in truth, and he was sent to prison in 562 AD. Justinian pardoned him soon after, however the reason why the emperor humiliated his most loyal soldier in the first place is unknown.

Of all the facts about Belisarius that are still known today, the most often-told story is nothing more than a product of mediaeval legend. It said that Justinian had Belisarius blinded and made to beg on the streets dressed in old, rusty armour. There is little known evidence for such a fable, yet it has remained associated with the famous general for centuries.

In fact, Belisarius likely lived out his final years in retirement once more. He died in 565 AD, just a few months before Justinian himself.

Belisarius was considered to be among the ‘Last of the Romans’, a group of men who embodied the values of ancient Rome. Today, history remembers Belisarius as a capable yet humble man, who became one of the world’s great military commanders. Justinian had a dream, Belisarius realised it. When Flavius Belisarius died, the Byzantine Empire was almost 50% bigger than when he joined the army.


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