Belisarius in the center, pointing; two members of his bucellarii bodyguard stand behind him. The figure on the right appears to be a chieftain or high-status member of his Hun auxillaries; though many of his bucellarii were Huns and this may be one of these.
In his new style of provincial warfare, Belisarius felt he could make up for the chronic shortage of troops through audacity and winning over the local population—anticipating modern notions of counterinsurgency warfare in which an outnumbered invader must enlist local adherents to a shared cause. So-called barbarian forces, as Belisarius knew, were led by magnetic tribal leaders. When these charismatic strongmen were targeted and fell in battle, their armies usually dissipated. The key was not to use his signature heavy cavalry in reckless fashion in unplanned pursuits, but to hit the enemy hard and quickly through focused and concentrated jabs, destroying its morale before it could use greater numbers to outflank and surround the smaller expeditionary Byzantine forces. In contrast, either alienating the locals or in static fashion preparing for a large set battle was a prescription for disaster.
The Mediterranean world was stunned at the fall of Carthage. Belisarius had landed in North Africa in June 533. Less than seven months later, his army had destroyed the century-old Vandal kingdom in Africa, captured the usurper king Gelimer, either killed, enslaved, or recruited into his army most of the Vandal population, established a new Byzantine province that might provide a base for future conquests in the west—and sent waves of terror through the Gothic hierarchy in Italy that it might be next in line in Justinian’s apparent plan to pick off vulnerable provinces of the old Western Roman Empire. Byzantium was supposed to have followed the fate of Rome as a shrinking, corrupt populace gave way before hardier, growing, and more warlike tribes on its borders. Instead, Belisarius had somehow reversed the course of Mediterranean history and found a way for a small force of relatively affluent westerners to mold a successful expeditionary army of invasion against European tribesmen. As the general put it to his men before facing the Vandals, “Not by the number of men, and not by the measure of one’s body, but by the valor of the soul, war is decided.”
Belisarius returned to Constantinople with the entire treasury of the Vandals—reputedly one of the largest hoards in the ancient world, the aggregate stash from some one hundred years of plunder in the western Mediterranean, much of it to be used to pay for the new church of Hagia Sophia. Those Vandals not scattered throughout North Africa were brought back with Belisarius to the capital and forcibly integrated into Justinian’s armies. The Vandal people quite literally had ceased to exist as an identifiable tribe and so disappeared from history.
The stunning achievement energized Justinian, at about the same time as the monumental church of Hagia Sophia was rising and as his historic reorganization and compilation of Roman law—the Pandects or Digest—was at last issued at Constantinople. Anything, it seemed—military, religious, legal—was possible for Justinian and his newly ascendant Rome.
There would be occasional provincial uprisings and tribal revolts in Roman-reoccupied North Africa. The indigenous Moors, as well as what was left of the old Roman landowning elite, would grow to like their new Byzantine overseers no more than they had the Germanic invaders. Yet Byzantine power in North Africa would remain for more than a century—until the Islamic advances of the seventh and eight centuries swept westward from Egypt and incorporated the Maghreb into the growing Muslim caliphate.
Belisarius Goes North: The War in Italy Against the Goths (535–40)
After a year of adulation and a consulship in Constantinople, Belisarius headed again out west for the most important campaign of the emperor’s intention to restore as much of the old Mediterranean empire as his resources would allow. His orders this time were to reclaim Italy and Sicily, and to ensure that the Moors did not overwhelm the newly reclaimed Roman provinces in North Africa.
Unfortunately, Belisarius would have less than half of the forces that had set out for Africa—in part because the emperor was deluded by the easy victory over the Vandals into believing Gothic Italy was equally vulnerable. In part, Justinian was also cautious because of the war closer to home against the Goths in Dalmatia. And in part, the emperor wished to guarantee that no one of his growing stable of generals was given too many resources that might at some future date threaten his power. He was still shaken, after all, from the Nika riots, when he had come within hours of losing both his throne and his life.
The so-called Gothic Wars in the Italian peninsula, in their various phases, were to last for nearly twenty years (534–54). The conflict would ultimately result in the near-complete annexation of Italy under Byzantine rule—and for a brief moment the near-recreation of the old Mediterranean Roman Empire. And yet the fighting would prove so exhausting to both invaded and invader that within little over a decade after the final peace (568), the Lombards would invade an impoverished Italy and undo most of the work of Justinian’s generals there, just as Byzantine North Africa would later fall to the Islamic tribes.
The first phase of the war to restore Ostrogoth Italy to Roman rule would last five years (535–40). As in the Vandal war, the fighting began when Justinian intervened in a dynastic dispute—in this case, the murder of the friendly Gothic queen Amalasuntha—and sent Belisarius with 7,500 troops to remove the usurper Theodahad. Waged under the Byzantine propaganda of freeing long-lost kindred Italians from the “slavery” of the barbarian Goths, the war proved lengthy, complex, and costly.
The campaign again underscored the genius of Belisarius in using extremely small forces to overwhelm the Goths and eventually take control of most of Italy and its seven million or so inhabitants. Until Belisarius’ invasion, the Ostrogoths, like the Vandals, had terrorized Roman society for more than two hundred years since their initial incursions across the Rhine and Danube during the fourth century. The very distance that once had made Constantinople and the eastern empire more secure from the fifth-century barbarian invasions—originating from the northern side of the Rhine and western Danube—unfortunately ensured that it was increasingly difficult to resupply Byzantine troops fighting in far-off Italy.
Throughout the former western provinces there arose a certain mystique around the Goths—namely, that Germanic purity and hardiness had overwhelmed Roman decadence and frailty. Many Italians expected that subsequent Roman attempts to assert authority from distant Constantinople would surely prove no match against an innate Germanic ferocity. But whereas Italians may have been awed by the notion of Gothic invincibility, Belisarius was not. He saw instead traditional “barbarian” weakness of the sort his veterans had dealt with in the east and in Africa: an absence of unified command, reliance on mercurial tribal leaders, spotty logistics, lack of reliable sea power and naval support, and vulnerability to heavy armored Roman cavalry, especially the mounted archers that had proved so advantageous in the eastern wars against the Persians.
Belisarius landed in Sicily late in 535 and quickly won over the island’s population. By December, his paltry Byzantine forces had mopped up the remaining Gothic holdouts on the island without much of a struggle. The terrified Goths at that point might have immediately ceded much of southern Italy to the popular invader. But another Byzantine army in Dalmatia across the Adriatic—under the commanders Mundus and his son Mauricius—was unexpectedly overwhelmed. Both generals perished. As a result, the Goths were given newfound optimism in resisting Belisarius, and were freed from worry of a relief invasion from the north by a second Roman army. Then, just as he prepared to invade Italy, Belisarius got wind of a revolt back in North Africa. He quickly returned to Carthage to put down a mutiny by a renegade Byzantine general, Stotzas. The latter had rallied garrison troops angry over the lack of promised pay, disputes over booty, and religious sympathies for Arianism.
Stotzas had a popular agenda of setting up a rogue Byzantine independent state in North Africa, and he somehow had managed to recruit some nine thousand Moors and Vandal holdouts to his cause. He was hoping to declare himself a king of Africa while Belisarius was bogged down in Italy. Yet with just two thousand loyal troops, Belisarius did not hesitate nor delegate, but on his own initiative landed at Carthage, galvanized friendly troops, saved the city, routed Stotzas, restored the province, and left the mop-up to the emperor’s nephew Germanus. It was a little-remarked-on victory, but once again demonstrative of how the mere name of Belisarius was able to awe local populations and instill loyalty and morale in his own troops—and terror in his enemies. He quickly sailed back to Sicily to resume planning for the invasion of Italy, leaving Africa secure but in wretched shape after nonstop fighting between indigenous Moors, Vandals, and Byzantines.
By late spring 536, Belisarius had landed on the Italian peninsula and taken the southern city of Rhegium. He went quickly northward to the stronghold at Naples and stormed the city after a costly siege, characterized by savagery on both sides. Now the road to Rome was open, and Belisarius lost no time in heading farther north. Meanwhile, a new Byzantine general in Dalmatia, Constantinianus, had retaken the offensive, routed the Goths, and threatened to enter Italy from the north or by sea from the east.
At this point, the usurper Theodahad was murdered. A new, more charismatic strongman, Vittigis, emerged to rally the Goths. Still, most of the native Italian population began to favor Belisarius and the Byzantine promise of a new united empire, perhaps in hopes that well over a half century of Gothic tribalism was coming to an end with a return of Roman rule under an enlightened western, Latin-speaking general, fueled by eastern money. On December 9, 536, Belisarius entered Rome. In just a year he had annexed much of North Africa and retaken Sicily and half of Italy. Byzantine power had advanced from its new bases in the Mediterranean, more than three hundred miles to the north, and caused widespread dissension among the Gothic ranks. All this Belisarius accomplished with an army not much larger than two traditional Roman legions, and largely within the strategic directives and limitations established by a distant and suspicious Justinian. With the Vandal fortune, Belisarius had probably paid for the cost of his operations through booty rather than imperial outlays. For a moment both Constantinople and Rome were again united under one emperor.
Rome may not have been the center of Gothic power. Yet the city was still relatively unchanged physically from its majestic days of Roman imperial power, and it remained home to some six hundred thousand inhabitants of various ethnicities and languages. Today the fifth-century “Fall of Rome” is a catchphrase for the end of days, but we rarely recall that after just sixty years of Gothic rule, the Roman general Belisarius in fact recaptured it from the proverbial barbarians, on the promise of an end to the Arian heresy and a return to a Roman grandeur of the old emperors.
Belisarius quickly moved to secure the surrounding countryside outside Rome and ready the city’s defenses for the expected counterattacks. He was responsible for defending the ancient capital with a minuscule command more akin to the urban police than a national army. Vittigis arrived to besiege the city four months later. From March 537 to March 538, the Byzantines were surrounded by various Gothic armies. The vastly outnumbered Belisarius was in nonstop action. He enrolled the citizenry into his defense forces and restored the old Aurelian ramparts. The Byzantines sent out constant sallies, and on occasion won and lost pitched battles before the city walls. Belisarius—in what would be a recurring scenario—desperately entreated Constantinople to send reinforcements, given that the enemy outside the walls may have numbered at various times over a hundred thousand besiegers. Yet he got no reply. Justinian did not regularly communicate with his generals, much less did he articulate to them any grand strategy of reclaiming the Roman west—either out of distrust or his own confusion over what his ultimate strategic aims actually were.
Finally, as spring 538 approached, the Goth besiegers began to tire, especially as additional Byzantine forces appeared by sea. The result was that the enemy finally gave up and retired in March. After his brilliant defense of Rome, Belisarius then prepared to move farther northward with the new Byzantine reinforcements to complete the conquest of the northern Italian peninsula. But while Justinian had sent troops and more supplies, the emperor had established no clear central command authority in Italy—perhaps by intent rather than laxity.
As soon as Belisarius and rival generals focused on capturing Ravenna to end Gothic rule south of the Po River, disputes broke out as to how best to use limited resources to complete the conquest. Belisarius, the newly arrived eunuch general Narses, and John, the nephew of the general Vitalianus, bickered endlessly. They could not agree to unify Byzantine strength and storm the remaining northern Italian cities, most of which were far better fortified than the southern towns. And the farther northward the Byzantines went, the longer their supply lines grew from the Mediterranean—and the closer they came to the traditional centers of Germanic power and influence. Unity among the various small armies of the Byzantines was needed more than ever—at a time when many commanders wished to hunker down and loot their newfound provinces rather than risk stretching northward in an effort to reestablish a western province for Constantinople. Again, the problem lay back home with an emperor who had never quite decided whether he had the resources to restore in systematic fashion the old Roman Empire or merely would take what territories he could when a favorable occasion arose. Was the west to be part of a New Rome—or merely fragmented buffer states to offer security and loot for Constantinople? The answer seemed to depend on whether Justinian’s armies were stalemated or on the move defeating their enemies.
The result of a distracted and divided command was that Milan was retaken by the Goths, mostly razed, and its Roman citizenry massacred, while the Byzantine relief forces were left squabbling. Finally, Narses, the Armenian eunuch general, was recalled. That move at last left Belisarius with overall nominal command. The final subjugation of northern Italy went ahead with the capture of the Gothic strongholds at Auximum (modern Osimo) and Faesulae (Fiesole).
By May 540, Belisarius—now with loyal subordinate commanders, reinforcements, and control of the Adriatic—at last stormed Ravenna, the Gothic capital, and captured Vittigis. All of Italy south of the Po River was in Roman hands. Then Belisarius himself was recalled to Constantinople, ordered to bring back the captured Gothic king and his Italian treasury—and, most important, to address rumors that he had considered setting himself up as a conquering strongman independent of Constantinople.
Nonetheless, in a mere seven years, Belisarius had conquered western North Africa, Sicily, and most of Italy, almost doubling the geographical extent of the Byzantine Empire—and creating as many new problems as old ones solved. In the endeavor, the treasury at Constantinople was close to being depleted. The conquered lands were largely devastated and hardly able to become immediate productive sources of new taxation. Scarce imperial garrison troops were scattered from Carthage to Ravenna, more than a thousand miles from the capital. The old Vandal treasury waned as Justinian continued with his vast building projects. Indeed, to run this new expanded empire from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, Rome, not a distant Constantinople, as in the past would seem to be the more ideally situated capital. Belisarius himself had incurred jealousy and hatred from his rival generals, many of them increasingly well connected at Constantinople and eager to feed rumors to a paranoid Justinian.
The conquered Goths had predicated much of their surrender on the assurance that the godlike Belisarius, as a sort of sympathetic proconsul, would stay on and guarantee Gothic interests. Yet he apparently either was disingenuous in his negotiations or realized only afterward that he could never honor such a promise. If such a proconsulship under Belisarius might have brought a chance of lasting peace to Italy, it also would have ensured the general’s own demise at the court of Justinian. Meanwhile, Constantinople’s opportunistic eastern enemies had broken the peace to strike on the frontier while Justinian was distracted in the west.
As Belisarius was recalled home in 540, what, in fact, had the Byzantines accomplished in the west? Clearly, Africa and Italy had cost more than these new acquisitions might in the near future earn. To the north of Italy, Franks and Lombards were eager to capitalize on the demonstrable weakness of their traditional rival Goths, who, as they had acculturated to life in Italy, sometimes had proven to be as much a bulwark against the other, fiercer northern Germanic tribes as they had been incorrigible enemies of Roman civilization. Most importantly, a destructive precedent had been ratified in which the more Belisarius won land and power for the emperor, the more Justinian sent out rival generals to undercut his own general’s success. The more he added to the empire, the more costs the strapped empire incurred. If it were to be a choice—and it often was unfortunately seen at Constantinople in just those Manichean terms—between Byzantine conquest and an exalted Belisarius, Justinian usually clipped the wings of his most successful general and accepted the resulting negative effects on his wars.
But all that said, for a brief moment, most of the old Roman Empire—with notable exceptions in Gaul, Britain, and most of Spain—was reunited under a central authority for a last moment in history. The chief remaining rival heresy to Catholicism—Arianism among the Vandals and Goths—was on the wane. A new religious and political unity looked as if it were on the horizon. Belisarius had proven himself able both to defeat and to appeal to Moors, Vandals, and Goths as a fair proconsul rather than a vengeful conqueror, while managing to hold territory with relatively small numbers of troops. Had Justinian in 540 continued to place his trust in the young Belisarius’ abilities, the Byzantines might have institutionalized the lost provinces within their imperial administration and the new unified empire might have endured.
Unlike Belisarius’ return home after the destruction of the Vandal kingdom in Africa, when he arrived at Constantinople with the defeated Vittigis in tow, Belisarius was given no more public triumphs, despite unmatched victories in Italy. Byzantium’s greatest general was still only thirty-six. He had been at war nearly nonstop for Justinian for the last fourteen years. Belisarius was a popular icon and already achieving mythic status among the populace at Constantinople—as famous for his military exploits as he was for his legendary character and personal habits. In an age of gratuitous cruelty and barbarism, Belisarius was noted, by the standards of his times, for his clemency, honesty, and lenient treatment of the conquered. Such mythmaking spread in the streets of Constantinople attesting to Belisarius the saintly conqueror, who personally attended his wounded, replaced the lost equipment of his soldiers at his own expense, and treated as sacrosanct the property of the residents whose land he marched through and fought on. His martial excellence had ensured everything from the funding to finish off Hagia Sophia to the recapture of Rome.
Whether or not Belisarius’ legendary avoidance of alcohol, womanizing, and bribery likewise was true, it mattered little. The people seemed to have accepted all his virtues as gospel. When their general came home from the furthest borders of the empire, he brought peace, greater power—and plenty of plunder. But by 540 Justinian had two problems: a new outbreak of war to the east with the Persians, and a mature general more beloved and powerful than the emperor himself. The solution to both was to send Belisarius to the east to save yet another seemingly lost war.
Belisarius Goes East Again: War Again Against the Persians (540–41)
The “Eternal Peace” between the Byzantines and Persia in fact lasted just seven years. The uneasy truce was broken when the Persian king Chosroes once more crossed the Euphrates and began storming Byzantine-held cities on his way to Antioch on the Mediterranean. He had rightly assumed that the past six-year-long drain on Constantinople from warring in the west was an opportunity for some easy plundering of Byzantine territory that might earn even more lucrative bribes from Justinian to keep his eastern frontier quiet. More important, the Persians, in general, considered that they had been fooled into signing an armistice that freed up the Byzantines to profit in Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Newly acquired western treasure and manpower, Chosroes feared, might be redirected by Justinian toward the old conflict in the east.
The Persian invasion once more reminded Constantinople of the dilemma that Byzantium and its generals faced in their quest to restore much of the ancient Roman Empire. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, Byzantium usually had two strategic defense choices. One, it had only enough strength to muster in a single theater to conduct a truly decisive war. Thus the successive acquisitions in Africa and Italy only invited Persian opportunism on the eastern border once Byzantine resources were focused elsewhere. In contrast, the second alternative of defending all of Byzantium’s borders at once, without offensive operations designed at destroying permanently any one threat, also meant that its growing number of belligerents was never really defeated. Therefore, enemies usually were manipulated into uneasy armistices through bribery, dynastic marriages, and occasional regional fighting—all biding their time until they sensed a general weakness at the core.
After storming or forcing the surrender of the Byzantine-controlled cities on both sides of the Euphrates—Apamea, Beroea, Chalcis, Edessa, Hieropolis, and Sura—Chosroes finally accepted Justinian’s offers of money to return to Persia. But on his long way back home from the rich and historic city of Antioch, which he had stormed and pillaged, Chosroes decided to grab in addition the key Byzantine border citadel at Dara. Once there, he broke off his siege only after receiving another thousand pounds of silver. The more the Persians threatened Byzantine cities, the more money they received to desist—and the hungrier they were for the next easy payoff.
Justinian saw that bribes, supplied both from his own treasury and new plunder from the west, were only stopgap solutions, and that he needed to send out Belisarius to restore the border—almost a decade and a half after he went east on his first command. Justinian this way might kill two birds with one stone: removing a popular rival to the emperor at home while ensuring inspired military leadership abroad. Arriving from Lebanon, Belisarius reached Dara in June 540. There he prepared to enter Persian territory to teach Chosroes a belated lesson. Unfortunately, Belisarius quickly learned that Byzantine commanders far to the north on the eastern shores of the Black Sea had so maltreated local populations that Chosroes, while in Greek-held Lazica, had presented himself as a Persian liberator of indigenous peoples from supposed Byzantine oppression. There was again a sense in the east that spiraling Byzantine taxation fueled operations far to the west rather than being invested in security closer to home.
Yet whereas the Persians sensed Byzantine division and uncertainty, Belisarius saw an opportunity: While Chosroes was in the north picking off Byzantine border towns, the Persian southern flank was for a moment poorly guarded. After an inconsequential battle outside the stronghold of Nisibis and a failed siege, Belisarius pressed further onward, down the southern bank of the Tigris to Sauranon. The Persian garrison there surrendered. And Belisarius now sent a raiding party across the Tigris to plunder formerly untouched Persian territory. In just a few months, once beleaguered Byzantine forces had now, if only symbolically, entered the territory of the Persian aggressor. But as the year ended, Belisarius retreated back across the border before Chosroes returned from the north. Lurid rumors had also reached the general that Antonia, newly arrived at the front from Constantinople, had conducted an open affair with their adopted son, Theodosius, in Belisarius’ absence.
To top it off, a new and deadly type of bubonic plague was sweeping through the empire’s eastern provinces and fell especially hard upon the army. The malady, brought on by the bacillus-carrying rat flea, would do more than any enemy to weaken the power of Byzantium at just the time its wealth and power were taxed as never before by Justinian’s apparent vision of a new united Rome. Indeed, perhaps a million Byzantine subjects would eventually fall to the disease, paralyzing military operations in the fashion that the great Athenian plague of 430–429 B.C. had essentially ended the Athenian dream of winning the Archidamian War against Sparta.
Justinian’s reign was to be marked forever by a dividing line not of its own making: expansion before the outbreak of the plague, and then desperate consolidation and occasional retrenchment after hundreds of thousands had taken sick and died. In some sense, the efforts of Belisarius in realizing Justinian’s plans simply ended when the plague struck. Disease succeeded in curbing Byzantine power where Persians, Vandals, and Goths had failed.
Belisarius returned to Constantinople to criticism that his successful Persian invasion had been prematurely terminated due to his own personal crises, and that his absence would only encourage another enemy attack. Few acknowledged that the Persians, after two years of warring, were at least sometimes on the defensive, much less that the plague-stricken empire no longer had adequate resources simultaneously to restore the old western Roman provinces and keep Persia on its side of the eastern border.
In the spring of the third year of the war, 542, Chosroes once again crossed the Euphrates with his largest army yet, then headed to the northwest through modern Syria. A weary Belisarius again set out from Constantinople and occupied Europum to block his advance. He then entertained some Persian ambassadors, selected his largest and most fit soldiers to stage ostentatious marches, and in general convinced the visiting officials that they were in mortal danger of having their king cut off and surrounded deep in Byzantine territory by his own near-superhuman troops. After further negotiations and some hit-and-run fighting, Chosroes withdrew and the three-year renewed Persian war ended quietly without much loss of Byzantine territory.
Belisarius was widely praised in his third major eastern campaign for chasing the Persians out without committing to a major battle or incurring much loss—especially at a time when the plague was killing Byzantine men far more than were Persian soldiers. He finally departed for Constantinople at year’s end, despite news that thousands were dying each week in the plague-infected capital.
In his two-year war, Belisarius had chased the Persians out of Byzantine lands. He had killed more of the enemy than he had lost, while conserving imperial resources for yet another flare-up in the west. Belisarius’ trademark tactics had proven successful throughout the empire. He was the sole Byzantine general, who, by quick advances and deliberate fighting on favorable terrain, could defeat or outsmart all sorts of numerically superior enemies. His outreach to local populations ensured indigenous support anywhere he campaigned and meant that he could push back the enemy at little cost while neither exceeding nor failing to meet his emperor’s goals.