Belisarius in the center, pointing; two members of his bucellarii bodyguard stand behind him. The figure on the right appears to be a chieftain of his Hun auxiliaries; though many of his bucellarii were Huns and this may be one of these.
The most prominent of Justinian’s generals, and the one best known to modern readers, was Belsarius. He was born in present-day western Bulgaria, and as a young man became one of the bucellarii (guardsmen) of Justinian. Justinian was not yet emperor, and Belsarius was one of a number of able young men whom he was gathering around him. How he came to Justinian’s notice is unknown. However, probably about the time that Justinian married Theodora, Belsarius met and fell deeply in love with Antonina, an older woman who, like Theodora, came from the world of the theater. The two women were friends of long standing, and possibly Theodora used her influence to see to it that the career of the young Belsarius moved forward quickly. At any rate, when war with Persia was renewed in 525, he was assigned to the eastern front, and in 527, while he was still in his mid-twenties, he was appointed duke (commander of the military forces) of Mesopotamia. Two years later, he was given overall command of the Byzantine forces in the east, and in 530, he defeated a more numerous Persian army outside the fortress city of Dara on the eastern frontier. It was the first Byzantine victory over the Persians in over a hundred years, and it gave Belsarius an instant reputation.
He was not so lucky the following year. In 531, he was defeated by the Persians at Callinicum on the Euphrates River, and an official report of the battle faulted Belsarius’ leadership. We have two accounts of what happened, one in the Persian War of Prokopios, who was Belsarius’ assessor (legal adviser), that places the blame for the defeat on the insubordination of the Byzantine troops, as well as the unreliability of Byzantium’s Arab allies, and the other in the chronicle of John Malalas, which probably reflects the official report and contradicts Prokopios on a number of key points. In particular, Malalas claims that the Arab allies fought courageously. Belsarius was recalled to Constantinople, and his career might have stalled if not for the Nika riot the next year.
In early January 532, the Constantinople mob nearly drove Justinian and Theodora into exile. At one point, Justinian lost his nerve and was on the point of fleeing Constantinople, and it was the empress who rallied their forces for a last effort. But what saved the day for Justinian and Theodora was the presence of two loyal generals: Belsarius, who had his own guard of battle-hardened troops from the Persian front, and Moundos, a Gepid officer who headed a detachment of Herulians, a barbarian tribe that was settled in the empire. They led their troops against the mob that was packed into the Hippodrome acclaiming Hypatios, the nephew of Emperor Anastasius, as Justinian’s successor. The riot ended in a bloodbath, and Belsarius’ reward was the command of an expedition the following year against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa.
Belsarius defeated the Vandals in two pitched battles, and their king, Gelimer, surrendered in late March 534. At this point, some of Belsarius’ generals sent a secret warning to Justinian that Belsarius planned to revolt and make himself an independent ruler in Africa. Justinian reacted by offering Belsarius the choice of returning to Constantinople or remaining in Africa. Belsarius was aware of Justinian’s suspicions, and chose to demonstrate his loyalty by returning, even though the Berbers were already in revolt. In Constantinople, he was granted the extraordinary honor of a triumph, and a new general took over command in Africa.
Justinian was already planning an attack against the Ostrogoths in Italy, and in 535 he dispatched Belsarius to Sicily, though with a force that numbered only half of that which he had led against the Vandals in Africa. Yet the conquest of Sicily went smoothly; only in Palermo did the Ostrogoths put up a fight. The next year he invaded Italy. The Ostrogothic king, Theodahad, was no warrior, and Belsarius encountered no resistance except at Naples, which withstood a siege. Theodahad made no effort to relieve Naples, and when it fell, the Ostrogoths in disgust dethroned and killed him, replacing him with Witigis, who had a reputation as a good soldier. Nevertheless, Witigis’ first move was a tactical error. In northern Italy, the Franks were threatening to invade, and Witigis judged them a greater threat than the Byzantines. He exacted an oath of allegiance from Pope Silverius, and then, leaving Rome with a small force to defend it, he marched north to deal with the Franks. But when Belsarius reached Rome, the Romans opened the city gates for him on the advice of the pope, who, in spite of his oath, felt no loyalty to the Goths, who were Arian heretics.
When Witigis learned that Rome had been captured, he returned quickly and besieged the city for over a year before abandoning it when news reached him that one of Belsarius’ generals was threatening his capital of Ravenna. The siege of Rome displayed Belsarius’ talents at their best, for he had only 5,000 troops to defend the city against a vastly superior Gothic army. This was the first of three sieges that Rome would endure during the war against the Ostrogoths, and the damage that the city suffered was immense. The Ostrogothic War ushered in the Dark Ages in Italy.
Ravenna fell in 540, and Belsarius returned to a cool welcome in Constantinople. Justinian had wanted to cut his losses, and would have made peace with the Goths, allowing them to keep Ravenna and a small kingdom in northern Italy, but Belsarius was determined to capture Ravenna. To persuade the Goths to surrender it, he tricked them into believing that he intended to rebel against Justinian. Once they realized they had been deceived, they chose an abler king than Witigis. Prokopios calls him Totila, though on his coins, his name is Baduila. The war in Italy was renewed.
The year 540 was a disastrous one: a raid by Huns and Slavs devastated Greece and reached the great walls of Constantinople, while in the east the shah of Persia renewed the war, capturing and destroying Antioch. Belsarius was dispatched to the eastern front in 541 and again in 542, to organize the defense. In the summer of 542, Justinian fell ill with bubonic plague, and after he recovered, two of Belsarius’ officers accused him and his second in command of making treasonous remarks about the succession while Justinian’s life hung in the balance. The report reached Empress Theodora’s ears, and she acted swiftly to nip any sedition in the bud. Belsarius was recalled, his property was confiscated, and he lived in fear of assassination. However, in 544 he was restored to the emperor’s good graces thanks to Theodora, who owed Antonina a favor. Much of his property was restored and he was again sent to Italy, most of which Totila had by now reconquered. But his forces were inadequate, and Justinian and Theodora seem still to have suspected his loyalty, for he was not allowed to take his bucellarii with him and he was seriously hampered without this crack military unit on whose loyalty he could count. More over, Totila was no Witigis; he was a first-rate leader. However, the defense of the eastern frontier, including the eastern approaches of the Black Sea, were more important than Italy in the grand strategy of the empire, and even if Justinian had trusted Belsarius implicitly, he might have decided that the best strategy for the empire was to let Belsarius fight a holding action in Italy while he devoted his scarce military resources to other sectors.
In 548, it was clear that Belsarius could make no headway in Italy with the forces that he had available, and he sent his wife, Antonina, back to Constantinople to beg Theodora to use her influence to get him more troops. But Antonina reached Constantinople to find that Theodora had died and, realizing that there was now no prospect of reinforcements for her husband, she asked Justinian to recall him. Justinian complied, and Belsarius returned to Constantinople. He commanded no more expeditions, but he remained a respected citizen. He had become immensely rich as a result of his campaigns. Belsarius’ success at acquiring wealth for himself aroused the suspicions even of Justinian and Theodora, who were willing to tolerate a certain amount of corruption but suspected that Belsarius had helped himself to booty that should rightfully have gone into the imperial treasury.
He had one last victory. In 559, the Kutrigur Huns plundered Thrace and threatened Constantinople. Justinian had no forces to check them, and in this desperate situation, he turned to Belsarius to organize the defense. Belsarius mustered a scratch force of dispossessed peasants with a core of 300 veterans, and routed the Huns. But Justinian recalled him before he could follow up his victory by harassing the Huns on their retreat, allegedly because he was jealous of his old general.
Three years later, Belsarius was put under house arrest after being accused of involvement in a conspiracy against Justinian. In 563, he was cleared of the charges and restored to his dignities. He died in March 565, only a few months before the emperor. His fame lasted long after his death, and a legend arose that in his old age, he was blinded and reduced to begging on the streets of Constantinople. This legend first appears in the twelfth century, and it was further developed by an anonymous poet of the late fourteenth century, who composed a romantic tale of Belsarius, the pitiable victim of envy, who was blinded by the emperor he had served faithfully and left to beg on the streets of Constantinople. The story has no basis, though the theme of envy that brought ruin to Belsarius’ career is already evident in the work of Prokopios, to whom we owe most of our information about the great general.