The Byzantine Recovery of Africa II

Belisarius and Officers


The end came quickly. John the Armenian pursued Gelimer hotly for five days, but then he was killed accidentally by one of his own men who aimed an arrow at a bird while he was drunk, and struck down his own commander instead. Gelimer found refuge among the Moors who lived on Mt Papua near the western edge of Numidia, probably in the Kroumirie range. Meanwhile, Belisarius advanced as far as Hippo Regius, where Gelimer had deposited his own treasure for safekeeping, and dispatched a force to take Sardinia and Corsica.

Winter was at hand, and Belisarius returned to Carthage, handing over the siege of Mt Papua to a Herul officer named Pharas. Three months passed: terrible months for Gelimer who, like most of the Vandals, had come to love luxury, and now had to endure the austere life of the Moors. Pharas invited him to surrender but Gelimer declined: he asked only that Pharas send him a loaf of bread, a lyre and a sponge. The messenger who brought Pharas Gelimer’s strange request explained: the loaf Gelimer wanted because he had not seen one since the siege of Mt Papua began, the sponge he wanted to wash his eyes, which had become swollen, and the lyre was to accompany the ode which he had composed on his misfortune. Pharas wept for the king and sent him what he wanted, but he did not slacken the siege a whit.

When spring came, Gelimer at last accepted Belisarius’ assurances that he need have no fear for his own safety, and surrendered.

Belisarius was staying in a suburb of Carthage when Gelimer was brought to him, and according to Procopius, the Vandal king laughed uncontrollably. Some thought him mad, but his friends said that his mind was sound; he was laughing merely at the caprice of fortune which had granted him royal birth and great wealth, and then brought him low. Four generations after Gaiseric, the Vandal kingdom had been brought down with astonishing ease.

Justinian must have waited anxiously for news of the victory that he hoped for. By 21 November 533, however, he knew of the capture of Carthage, for on that day he issued the decree which introduced his Institutes, and its third sentence reads:

The barbarian peoples who have passed under our yoke have come to learn of our warlike labours, and witness to them are both Africa and countless other provinces, which by our victories won by Divine Grace, have been restored to Roman rule within our empire.

and in the preamble the titles of Justinian proclaim himself victor not merely over the Alamanni, Goths, Franks, Germans, Antai and Alans, but over the Vandals and the Africans as well. He had grasped the chance to invade Vandal Africa, and his move was vindicated.

Yet the emperor must also have felt a degree of apprehension, for he received a secret message from some officers that Belisarius was plotting to set himself up as an independent king in Africa. He moved with circumspection. He sent back another commander, Solomon, who had reported back to Constantinople after the capture of Carthage, and he let Belisarius know that he might accompany Gelimer and the other Vandal captives to Constantinople, or, if he preferred, he might send them on and remain in Africa himself. But Belisarius had learned about the denunciation. He was anxious to return to the capital, and even though the Moors in Byzacena and Numidia broke out in revolt before he left, he handed over his command to Solomon and set sail.

In Constantinople, the victory was celebrated with a triumph which recalled the traditions of imperial Rome, in particular the triumph of the emperor Vespasian’s son, Titus, over the Jews. The comparison was fitting: the procession of Titus through Rome to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol put on public display the treasures taken in AD 70 from the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, and the Vandal triumph in Constantinople exhibited the same treasure, which Belisarius had found in Carthage. The parade started at Belisarius’ house, but Belisarius processed on foot, not in a chariot, and the culmination of the triumph took place in the Hippodrome: having reached its entrance near the starting gates for the chariot races, the parade made its way down the arena to the imperial box, where Gelimer was stripped of his purple, and both he and Belisarius prostrated themselves before Justinian and Theodora. This was the climax of the triumph and it contrasted sharply with the ancient triumphs which it recalled: where the triumphant general in pagan Rome had laid down his command before Jupiter Optimus Maximus, in the Christian empire, he humbled himself before the emperor and his empress. Gelimer himself snatched a modicum of dignity from defeat: when he reached the Hippodrome and saw the crowds and the imperial pair in their box, he repeated over and over the verse from Ecclesiastes, `Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ His enforced stay on Mt Papua had given him time to adapt the story of his downfall to poetry, and in his defeat, he assumed the persona of a hero from Germanic saga, and accepted his fate with words that suited the occasion.

But Justinian did Gelimer no harm. He was granted an estate in Galatia and allowed to live there with his family. Some 2,000 able-bodied Vandal prisoners were conscripted into five battalions called the Vandali Justiniani and sent to the Persian front. The treasures from the Temple, including the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, were returned to Jerusalem on the advice of a leading member of the Jewish community in Constantinople, and there they remained lodged in various Christian churches until the Persian sack of 618. As for Belisarius, he was honoured with the consulship for the next year, 535, and his inaugural celebration on New Year’s Day was a reprise of his triumph. Justinian had another conquest in mind for him.

These must have been months of high hopes and anticipations. Justinian had moved to organize his new conquest even before word reached him of Gelimer’s surrender. By a rescript dated to April, 534, he created an African prefecture with an accompanying bureaucracy. The capital was to be Carthage and the first prefect was the patrician Archelaos, who was already in Africa as paymaster of the army. But by New Year’s Day, Solomon had returned as praetorian prefect and commander of the army, and thereafter the military and civil jurisdictions in Africa were never separated. It was a symptom of the future.

Justinian’s rescripts of April, 534 show that he intended to reoccupy all of Roman Africa as it had existed before the Vandal conquest, but much of the area was still controlled by the Berbers. Most of them had come to terms after the fall of Carthage, and some had given hostages. But their wise women had predicted that the Berber conquerer would be a beardless Roman general, which foreshadowed the coming of Solomon who was a eunuch. Belisarius’ staff had full beards, and the Berbers concluded that their conquest was not yet fated. The Libyan landowners had reason for apprehension too, for under the Vandals the tax-collection system had fallen apart, and with the new regime, the imperial tax assessors arrived to restore it. Solomon faced a crisis. The Berbers were plundering Byzacium freely and a detachment of cavalry had already been wiped out.

Solomon advanced into Byzacium, made contact with the Berber camp on the south-east fringe of the Tunisian Dorsal and there fought a pitched battle which was a complete victory. But no sooner had he returned to Carthage for the winter than word came that the Berbers were again plundering Byzacium. Next spring, Solomon brought them to battle on the lower peak of an unidentified mountain called Bourgaon, defeated them again, and captured so many women and children that a Berber slave boy could be purchased for the price of a sheep. Except for the sheikh of the Frexes, Antalas, and his clan, who were still loyal allies, the Berbers left Byzacium and retreated south to the Aures massif on the Sahara rim, a forbidding range to one approaching it from the north, where bare mountain peaks alternated with cultivable valleys. There the sheikh Iaudas had his base from which he raided the plains south of Constantine. In the summer of 535, a small Byzantine garrison gave him a trouncing as he returned from a razzia, and he retreated into the Jebel Aures where Solomon tried to run him down. But he accomplished little in 535. He distrusted his guides, and prudently withdrew to winter in Carthage, and prepare for a campaign next spring.

However, the plan went awry. On Easter Day (March 23), 536, a mutiny broke out in the army. Solomon’s troops were a multicultural group that included at least 1,000 Arians. Justinian’s initial impulse had been tolerant: his rescripts of 534 had allowed the Arian priests to retain their posts, but by the next year, the urging of the Catholic bishops had hardened his attitude. Church property still in Arian hands was to be returned forthwith. Non-Catholics, soldiers not excepted, were denied the right to religious services, and barred from public office. Quite naturally, when the Vandal priests complained, the Arian troops lent a sympathetic ear. In addition, some soldiers had married Vandal heiresses, and were anxious to retain their wives’ estates. Justinian’s regulation that allowed the descendants of landowners evicted by the Vandals to reclaim their lands affected them directly. Then too, there was the problem that was becoming increasingly prevalent: army pay was in arrears.

But what sparked the mutiny was the denial of the sacraments to the Arians at Easter. Solomon, all unsuspecting, would have been murdered at the Easter service if his assassins had not lost their nerve, but five days later the army gathered in the hippodrome, chose as leader Theodore of Cappadocia, one of Solomons officers whom they believed was at odds with Solomon, and then turned to looting and rioting. But Theodore was not disloyal, and with his connivance, Solomon escaped to Sicily to join Belisarius, who had just conquered the island.

The rebels, meanwhile, withdrew from Carthage and chose a more committed leader, Stotzas, who moved to reoccupy Carthage, and the city was on the point of surrender when Belisarius appeared, with 100 of his bucellarii. Of the city garrison, only 2,000 were reliable, but with these Belisarius moved to the attack. At Membrasa on the road to Numidia, he brought the mutineers to battle with the sirocco blowing in their faces, and sent them off down the road in flight. But Belisarius’ own army in Sicily was mutinous, and he could not stay. Meanwhile, the troops in Numidia made common cause with the rebels and killed their officers.

In the crisis, Justinian turned to his cousin Germanus, no favourite of Theodora’s, but at this juncture, Justinian needed a commander of prestige and ability. Germanus arrived to find that only a third of the army, the portion garrisoning Carthage and other African cities, remained loyal. Stotzas outnumbered his forces by more than two to one. So Germanus’ first move was to win back as many mutineers as he could, with pay and promises, and he succeeded well enough that Stotzas decided to attempt a battle in the hope that Germanus’ men would refuse to fight their old comrades-in-arms. But Germanus’ troops did not waver, and Stotzas retreated again to Numidia, pursued by Germanus. He brought his quarry to battle at a site called Cellas Vatari (mod. Fedj es-Siouda?). It was a furious struggle, but it ended with the rout of the mutineers. The Berbers, who up to this point had watched the action as neutral onlookers, joined in pursuing the mutineers and pillaging their camp.

Germanus returned to Carthage to face another plot led by one of the bodyguards of Theodore of Cappadocia. But Germanus was warned in time. The conspirators were killed or captured in the hippodrome where they had gathered, and the leader of the mutiny was crucified close by the walls of Carthage. For nearly two years Africa remained calm.