The armor and tunics of the bucellarii would have varied wildly after years on campaign and scavenging armor wherever possible; as men replaced broken pieces with armor captured or purchased locally. But his figure represents what Belisarius’ household bucellarii might have looked like in their early years, armed in typical (and uniform) fashion from arsenals in Constantinople.
Once across the Euphrates, the Byzantines oddly put their infantry on the left wing, protected by the river, and massed allied Arab cavalry on the right. Their own cataphracts (heavily armored cavalrymen) were in front of foot soldiers in the center. In the ensuing battle—our sources suggest that Belisarius tried to persuade his troops to hold off attacking—the Byzantines failed to detect a massing of Persian cavalry against their right wing, which soon crumbled, leaving the infantry facing the enemy with the Euphrates at their back. By the time the retreating Byzantines found safety across the river, they had probably suffered the greater casualties and lost any momentum won at Dara. Belisarius learned that in such border fighting, numbers per se did not always determine the outcome as much as tactics, morale, and generalship: Outnumbered Byzantines had won at Dara, and now similarly outnumbered Persians prevailed at Callinicum.
At that point in the seesaw war, the fifty-year-old new emperor Justinian concluded that it was time for diplomacy (and payoffs). He negotiated an “Eternal Peace” with the Persians (it was to last little more than seven years). He paid them eleven thousand pounds of gold, gave up some border territory, and recalled the thirty-year-old Belisarius to Constantinople to prepare for a new campaign far to the west against the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. Justinian was impatient for the calm in the east that was needed for him to turn toward the west. Chosroes himself wanted a truce to begin a radical shake-up in the organization of his Persian military.
Justinian had proved that his re-formed army could hold its own with the Persians even when manpower, geography, and logistics favored the enemy. The emperor had his peace, at the cost of a fixed annual tribute. In the near-constant fighting, Belisarius had learned how to deal with local populations and to use mixed contingents of allies—and to carefully deploy his limited forces against numerically superior opponents only when there was a good chance of success. Given the limited manpower of Byzantine frontier forces, losing an occasional battle was tolerable. Losing an army in the fashion of the old Roman campaigns in the east was not. Meanwhile, on the home front, the new emperor was still consolidating power, and yet finding it almost politically impossible to raise enough taxes for the planned new offensives in the west.
Belisarius Back Home: Riots and Rebellion at Constantinople (532–33)
Belisarius returned to civil unrest at Constantinople. He underwent an audit concerning the defeats in Persarmenia, and especially the losses at the battles of Mindouos and Callinicum. Yet Belisarius was absolved of any guilt—no doubt on the grounds that such setbacks were not fatal to the Byzantine cause on the border and he returned with peace at his rear. His critics were also wary of the young general’s ties with the emperor and sensed that Belisarius was being prepped for future commands. The defeats could be ascribed to the laxity of his co-commanders, or perhaps the excessive zeal of his undisciplined troops, who had fervently urged their general to fight when Belisarius’ instincts advised caution. Still, Belisarius had lost as many battles as he had won. And he had returned home through gold indemnities rather than victory.
His arrival at Constantinople was opportune. Justinian, in his fifth year of rule, had begun an ambitious reform of the civil service and tax system. The naïve emperor had hopes of firing bureaucrats, trimming expenses, and earning more revenue—again with an eye of readying capital for the reclamation of the western provinces. But in reaction, both civil servants and the wealthy, whose bribes traditionally ensured favorable court decisions, began to fight back. It was one thing to lose jobs and pay to ward off imperial bankruptcy, quite another to fund a huge optional war rumored to be planned in the west.
Throughout the summer and fall of 531, dissent most often surfaced through two factions that often acted as little more than armed gangs. The so-called Greens were identified with civil servants, tradesmen, and the commercial interests of the eastern provinces. The establishment party of the nobles and wealthy, with all the pretensions of the Graeco-Roman aristocracy, made up the more influential core of the rival Blues. These two opposing umbrella groups, often known as demes, were odd conglomerations of horse racing fans, political pressure groups, mafialike patronage organizations, and Christian zealots all in one. They drew on popular support for racing in the Hippodrome to find captive audiences for their various political agendas and money-making enterprises.
Now furious about the prospective loss of patronage and increased taxes, the rival Greens and Blues joined in their anger toward Tribunianus, the court lawyer in charge of judicial reform, and John the Cappa-docian, the praetorian prefect who oversaw the new taxation. The ultimate target, however, was the emperor Justinian himself, who was seen as blatantly cutting corners in order to prepare for a needless war in the west.
In reaction, Justinian was forced to take action against the increasing violence of both factions. That further angered the more affluent Blues, whose social network he had often relied on for political support, while alienating for good the Greens, who sorely felt the cutback of state jobs. In a naïve show of bipartisan justice, Justinian had arrested and condemned to death seven ringleaders of both groups. At this point, after the inexperienced emperor had united rival gangs against himself, almost everything he would do proved counterproductive, and soon catastrophic.
By the new year, 532, two of the seven gang leaders had somehow survived the gallows—unfortunately, both a Blue and a Green—and sought sanctuary in a nearby church. Then the two factions joined in their demands that both be spared. Justinian could back down and appear weak; or he could take on the unified mob in the streets and risk outright civil war. When there instead followed only tepid imperial response, Blues and Greens became more emboldened, issuing a series of demands to suspend tax reform and arrest imperial grandees like John the Cappadocian, Tribunianus, and the city prefect Eudaimon. The mob was calling the shots and looking for some puppet to provide legitimacy for their ad hoc takeover.
The more Justinian wavered, the worse the situation got. When the two factions next met for scheduled races in the Hippodrome in January 532, their common slogan was “Nika!” (“Conquer!”). Now in concert, the Greens and Blues began killing government officials, freeing prisoners, burning down churches (including the original Hagia Sophia), and surrounding the imperial residences. Soon the rioters proclaimed the reluctant Hypatius, the elderly nephew of the former emperor Anastatius, the new emperor, with the expectation that the weak figure would front for both parties.
Justinian, besieged in his palace, still attempted to appease the rioters. He tried offering various amnesties, while promising investigations of imperial corruption. For five days, the emperor remained virtually surrounded. In some sort of depression, Justinian contemplated abdication—perhaps in the dazed fashion of a reclusive Josef Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, or the Shah of Iran’s bewilderment in his final days of January 1979 as he lost his kingdom. According to ancient sources, Justinian’s spirits were finally revived by his feisty wife, Theodora. She knew something of the low-life violence of the street and the fickle nature of crowds that respected strength but were emboldened by hesitancy. Theodora declared that she would rather die than cease being empress. Such braggadocio needed not be literally true, only to appear to be so to restore the mettle of her terrified husband. At last Justinian determined to fight back and restore order and obedience. The key was to separate the two factions in the Hippodrome, play one against the other, and make a violent demonstration to the mob of the power and anger of the emperor.
In a last effort to arrest the pretender Hypatius and quell the crowd, Belisarius with a few loyal bodyguards made a fateful decision to stake his emperor’s survival on charging the mass of rioters in the Hippodrome. Fortunately for Justinian, even the outnumbered forces under Belisarius caused immediate panic among the motley insurrectionists. In turn, loyalist forces were encouraged at this belated sign of imperial defiance to join the fray—especially the general Mundus, who commanded some foreign mercenaries.
The court loyalist Narses had earlier begun buying off most of the leaders of the favored Blues, who suddenly began drifting away in small groups and returning home. Soon, when most of the grandees of the Blues were gone, Narses blocked the exits of the huge Hippodrome, leaving mostly Greens trapped inside. The heavily armed forces under Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses advanced. They met little resistance from the unarmed and panicked rebels. The emperor’s troops were free to butcher the remaining rioters and unfortunate bystanders—and butcher them all they did. Thirty thousand were said to have perished in the Hippodrome—perhaps as many as the entire number of enemy Persians killed in the recent war by the imperial army in the east. It would be a trademark of Justinian’s rule that more of his subjects died through plague and riot at home than abroad at the hand of his innumerable enemies.
Soon the bumbling and reluctant interloper Hypatius was arrested and executed. Prominent treasonous senators and nobles were exiled. John the Cappadocian and Tribunianus were reinstated. The immediate result was that Justinian emerged stronger, wiser—and more ruthless. From now on he would listen far more frequently to his wife, Theodora, whose defiance had saved the emperor from his own loss of nerve. With the newfound cost-cutting financial reforms, a relatively quiet eastern border, and growing respect and confidence, Justinian could at last turn to North Africa.
Belisarius initially had been sent only to arrest Hypatius, but on his own initiative he had become the first of the three loyal generals to attack the rioters. That unexpected act in itself probably broke the rebellion. The soldiers’ daring had saved Justinian and guaranteed Belisarius preeminence among Justinian’s generals. Now a master of court politics, the newfound hero married Antonia, a lowborn libertine twenty years his elder with a number of children. She was not only a court insider, but also an intimate of the empress Theodora.
Which of the two women in the lurid history of Procopius appears the more cruel and depraved? It did not matter—Antonia’s savvy and her intimacy with the empress cemented the previous natural affinity of the general and his emperor. In the end, Antonia proved a lifelong political partner with her far younger husband in what the historian Edward Gibbon famously called “a manly friendship.” The young Belisarius may have lost three of four battles on the eastern border. He may have failed to achieve a clear strategic victory over the Persians. But after the Nika riots he had proved absolutely loyal to his emperor—and shrewd about the relationship of military power to popular support. Moreover, as a Latin speaker and native of a more western province, Belisarius was an ideal commander to recapture the old Latin northern coast of Africa, and anything beyond that his emperor might envision.
Thus in June 533 the young Belisarius was entrusted by Justinian with his third great mission and set sail for Tunisia, with his new wife, Antonia, and his personal secretary, the court insider and soon-to-be historian Procopius. He was probably no more than thirty, but he already had earned a reputation as Constantinople’s fireman, the first military responder to the empire’s inevitable next conflagration.
Belisarius Goes South: The War in Africa Against the Vandals (533–34)
Throughout the fifth century, a succession of Germanic Huns, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths had overrun much of Roman western Europe as they picked off the western and northern provinces of the empire. Yet none of these northern barbarian invasions had proven as terrifying to the residents of an eroding Roman Empire as the onset of the Vandals. With not much more than a hundred thousand tribesmen, swift-moving Vandal forces had savagely swept southward and westward from their homes in modern-day eastern Germany and Poland. After migration west along the Danube in the early fifth century, the Vandals crossed the Rhine, ravaged Gaul, and settled in the Iberian Peninsula before, under their leader Genseric, swarming southward across the Mediterranean into the old Roman provinces of North Africa. If the warm southern Mediterranean was an odd place for such northern European tribes to settle, nonetheless by 439 they had taken Carthage and de facto ended Roman government in much of the old domains of Mauretania, Africa, Numidia, and Cyrenaica—parts of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya that for much of the fourth and the early fifth centuries had been considered immune from the more distant Germanic invasions.
The Vandals—their purported propensity for wanton destruction gave us the later noun “vandalism”—were most infamous for their sack of Rome in 455, and for the failure of any subsequent Roman or indigenous Moorish force for a century to root them out of Africa. Unlike other Germanic and Slavic tribes, the Vandals exiled or murdered most elite Roman landowning citizens. They focused on piracy and raiding rather than expanding agriculture and commerce, and either forcibly converted most Catholics in North Africa to their own heretical Christian sect of Arianism—or killed them. Whether it was true or not, in the Roman mind, the Vandals were far more destructive than the Goths and had shown little inclination to resurrect the veneer of Roman culture under their domain.
In 468 the Vandals had destroyed a large eastern Roman fleet that had attempted to reclaim North Africa. From that time on, they were given their due from Byzantium, which had no desire to lose thousands in another hopeless war against such a murderous tribe. However, by the time of Justinian, after a century of pillage, Vandal kings recognized that their numbers were too small to guarantee their own security in the face of hostile Moorish tribes to the south and the establishment of Gothic kingdoms across the Mediterranean. They had done well enough pillaging and ending centuries of Roman rule, evading both Roman and then Gothic punitive pursuit. But as the booty ran out, the parasitic Vandals had not been able to create anything in its place comparable to the system of Roman wealth creation and governance in Africa that they had drawn upon for a century.
As a result, the Vandal kings began to seek an uneasy peace with Constantinople—on the general promise of a newfound tolerance for Catholics in Africa and agreements to respect Roman order in the eastern Mediterranean. But when the pro-Byzantine Vandal king Hilderic (523–30) was dethroned in a coup, his cousin, the usurper Gelimer, renewed the persecutions. Soon the supporters of the deposed king appealed to Constantinople—at precisely the time Justinian was planning to reclaim at least some of the western provinces, if not in pursuit of his grandiose idea of a restored Roman Empire in the west. The emperor had a good casus belli, relative peace at his rear, a growing treasury, a silenced opposition, and a young, energetic general to conduct an invasion.
Yet the odds of success were still not encouraging. Once the armada entered the Mediterranean from the Aegean, the winds were largely unfavorable for westward sailing. The Byzantine fleet of some five hundred ships would have to land and supply an army among hostile populations more than a thousand miles from Constantinople. Even should Belisarius take back the Vandal capital at Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, he might still have to hold the province against numerically superior indigenous Moorish tribesmen. The Visigoths in Spain and the Ostrogoth kingdom in Italy were at best neutral; yet more often both wished to see Byzantium weakened.
Nevertheless the general set sail in June 533, along with Antonia, Procopius, and a large force of seamen, infantry, and cavalry. The armada numbered perhaps forty-five to fifty thousand, although only twenty thousand were front-line combatants. Belisarius had learned much on the Persian border and during the riots at Constantinople—to show both force and mercy among civilian populations, and not rashly to commit his usually outnumbered and sometimes poorly disciplined multicultural forces to battle in unfavorable circumstances.
Despite a difficult three-month voyage to Africa—contaminated bread and bad water sickened or killed hundreds on the voyage, and a diversion of part of the fleet to Sicily was necessary to restore supplies—Belisarius landed in early September 533 with his forces intact, about fifty or sixty miles east of the Vandal capital at Carthage. His plan was simple: Belisarius would march his forces methodically westward—no more than about ten miles per day—keeping the fleet in sight to protect his right flank and sending out his feared Hunnish cavalry on his left as he rallied the countryside against the Vandal king.
As Belisarius began to march westward through the coastal towns, he ordered his men to spare the native African villages. Byzantines enlisted both the Moors and what was left of the old Roman landowning classes, in a promised liberation from Vandal savagery and the visions of a more enlightened renewal of the former imperial rule. Belisarius envisioned an insurgent campaign of winning over the countryside, or, as he put it, “This is the moment when moderation brings salvation, while lawlessness leads to death.” As a result he made a relatively uneventful march as “if in his own land.” In some sense, it seemed an absurdity that a Greek-speaking Byzantine army, more than a thousand miles from home, less than a year after near civil insurrection, and with an enemy restless on its eastern borders, would even attempt to overthrow the heretofore dreaded Vandal kingdom—or that anyone in the west would wish to join such an empire in chaos. Yet Belisarius approached Carthage as if he were leading a consular army at the zenith of Roman provincial power.
The shocked Vandals were scrambling under their chieftain Gelimer to put up some sort of resistance with a somewhat smaller force of ten to fifteen thousand, hoping to ambush Belisarius on the last leg of his march. They apparently anticipated that the Byzantine fleet would have to round Cape Bon out of sight of the army, where the coastal road crossed farther inland over hilly terrain to Carthage. Gelimer accordingly split his forces and assumed that once Belisarius descended into a low valley, he could be attacked front and rear from the mountains without hope of supplies or reinforcements from the fleet. Gelimer sent his nephew Giba-mund with two thousand cavalry to hit the slow-moving Byzantines on the flank. Then his brother Ammatas would block the enemy advance. The main body under Gelimer would finally follow Ammatas to finish the pincer movement, surround Belisarius, and destroy his column in familiar territory.
Ten miles outside Carthage, on September 13, 533, at Ad Decimum (“at the tenth milepost”), Belisarius carefully established a secure camp. He then dealt piecemeal with each successive Vandal contingent, careful not to dilute the strength of his main forces. The historian Procopius saw Belisarius’ genius in not deploying all his forces at the sight of each Vandal onslaught—together with the far too complex ambush of Gelimer—as largely responsible for the successive destruction of the various Vandal armies.
It was unwise for the Vandals, as a numerically inferior force, to trisect their strength in hopes of ambushing a larger column. Once the Vandal surprise attacks failed, there was nothing much left to block the steady advance of Belisarius on the capital. By day six of their march, the Byzantines were inside Carthage, repairing the ancient walls and preparing for a final battle against the reconstituted forces of Gelimer. In short, within a week of landing, Belisarius had accomplished what neither a Roman nor a Gothic force had been able to do in over a century—occupy the capital of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. It was an example of blitzkrieg unmatched in the ancient world since the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
Now in Carthage, over the next three months, Belisarius sent emissaries to win over the local Latin-speaking population, the Moorish tribes, and Vandals still loyal to the previous regime of Hilderic. Gelimer, in response, was reinforced by his other brother, Tzazon. The latter had just put down a rebellion in Sardinia and arrived to join the recuperating Vandals. The brothers hoped to retake Carthage from the west. On December 15 they confronted the Byzantines with a much larger force at Tricameron, seventeen miles outside Carthage. Belisarius had lost hundreds of his troops over the prior three months of firming up his occupation of the countryside. Now he was forced to station even more of his men to protect the captured towns from sporadic Vandal raids. So it is likely that some fifteen thousand Vandals under Gelimer at Tricameron may have initially outnumbered the Byzantine mounted force by perhaps five thousand or more.
Belisarius again deployed quickly and did not wait for the muster of his own infantry—cognizant of how the Vandals had fled at Ad Decimum when met with a sudden show of Byzantine nerve. The plan was for the heavy Byzantine cavalry on the wings to veer in and hit the Vandal center, after missile troops and horse archers had softened up the enemy, in hopes of breaking through before the Vandal flanks could surround Belisarius’ smaller force. After at least two heavy Byzantine mounted assaults, Tzazon fell. The Vandal center weakened and once more Gelimer panicked and fled the field. By the time the Byzantine heavy infantry finally arrived, the Vandals were already in full flight.
Over the next three months, Belisarius continued to root out the last vestiges of Vandal resistance in the west. He captured Gelimer and then finally was recalled to Constantinople—both to receive a triumph and to quash rumors that he wanted to set himself up as an independent strongman in a new African province. The emperor appreciated that Belisarius had established a clear pattern of winning generalship and seemed always to find a way to defeat Justinian’s enemies, from the Persian frontier, to the streets of Constantinople, to distant North Africa.