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Belisarius, The Last Roman

Belisarius, The Last Roman

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Throughout history, the term “the last Roman” has been used to describe various figures who embodied the spirit or held positions of significance in the fading embers of the Roman Empire. From the Western Roman Empire’s final emperor, Julius Nepos, who died in 480, to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who valiantly fell defending Constantinople in 1453, these individuals marked the end of eras and the transition of power in a world once dominated by Rome.

The stories of these figures, such as Romulus Augustulus, the last reigning Western Roman Emperor deposed in 476, and Gildas, a Romano-British clergyman and saint from the early 6th century, intertwine to form a narrative of resilience, decline, and legacy. They were the bearers of the Roman identity in times of change, influencing the course of history and leaving a lasting impact on the cultural and political landscapes of their eras.

But one man, more than all the others, earned the moniker ‘the last Roman’, and that man is Flavius Belisarius.

The Emperor’s Right Hand

Known for his extraordinary military acumen and unwavering loyalty to Emperor Justinian I, Belisarius’s role as the emperor’s right hand was pivotal in the restoration of the Roman Empire’s former glory.

Belisarius first came into prominence during the Nika Riots in 532, a tumultuous event that threatened the very reign of Justinian himself. With a combination of strategic foresight and raw courage, Belisarius was able to quell the uprising, saving not only the emperor’s throne but also the future of the Byzantine Empire.

This decisive action marked him as not just a military figure but as a protector of the state and its ruler. The trust between Justinian and Belisarius was further cemented, positioning the latter as the emperor’s most reliable and capable commander.

Following the Nika Riots, Belisarius was tasked with leading military campaigns against the empire’s most formidable adversaries: the Vandals in North Africa and later, the Ostrogoths in Italy. Despite facing often insurmountable odds, Belisarius’s campaigns were marked by victories that few could have predicted.

Rome Reconquered

In the early summer of 536, Belisarius initiated his Italian campaign, swiftly taking Rhegium and advancing northward. After a three-week siege, his forces breached Neapolis (now Naples) in November, with the city falling to a sack by the predominantly barbarian Roman army.

The fall of Neapolis led to Rome offering no resistance to Belisarius, who entered the city without opposition in December.

The Byzantine army’s swift progression caught the Goths off guard, leading to the deposition of Theodahad in favor of Vitiges after Neapolis’s capture. The ensuing siege of Rome by Vitiges, from March 537 to March 538, marked the first of three significant sieges in the Gothic War, featuring various skirmishes and battles until Byzantine reinforcements tipped the scales, forcing the Goths to lift the siege.

Belisarius stationed his army around the Ostrogothic capital of Ravenna in late 539. During the siege, Belisarius was approached by Gothic leaders, including Vitiges, who proposed making him ruler of the “western empire.”

Pretending to agree, Belisarius made his way into Ravenna through the only accessible route, a narrow causeway cutting through the marshes, escorted by his elite guard unit, the bucellarii. In anticipation of the city’s surrender, he also arranged for a shipment of grain to be delivered.

Shortly after securing the city, he declared its capture under the authority of Emperor Justinian. The Gothic proposition, however, stirred doubts within Justinian, leading to Belisarius’s recall. Belisarius was ordered back to Constantinople, taking with him the Gothic treasures, their king, and key warriors.

Later campaigns

Belisarius’s military career did not end against the Ostrogoths in Italy. He also played a significant role in the Byzantine Empire’s conflicts with Persia, a longtime adversary.

His early campaigns in the East demonstrated his strategic finesse and ability to win under challenging circumstances. One notable victory was at the Battle of Dara, where despite not holding overall command initially, his tactical decisions led to a significant Byzantine victory.

However, Belisarius’s success in Persian territory was not consistent. At the Battle of Callinicum, his failure to effectively utilize the terrain and create a cohesive battle plan resulted in a crushing defeat. Despite these mixed results, his engagement with the Persians was critical in maintaining the tenuous balance of power between the two empires.

Return to Italy

After his campaigns against the Persians, Belisarius was recalled to Italy to counter new threats from the Ostrogoths, who had regrouped and regained strength.

His return marked a crucial phase in the Gothic War, reflecting Justinian’s trust in his abilities to secure Byzantine interests in the West. Belisarius faced numerous challenges, including limited resources and a lack of support from some quarters of the Byzantine military and administrative apparatus.

His second campaign in Italy was not as successful as his first, and while he managed to prevent the complete destruction of Rome he still made several mistakes, such as marching his army straight into an ambush.

This disappointing campaign ultimately led to him being relieved of command of his army and ordered once again to return to Constantinople. It is then that Belisarius retired from the military – but this would not be his last battle.

Last Battle

Belisarius’s military career culminated in his defence of Constantinople against a Slavic invasion in 559. Coming out of retirement, his forces were pitiful – consisting of 300 veterans and an estimated 1000 armed civilians. Facing him was a force of 7000 hunts.

Belisarius made a strategic encampment near the Huns, enlisting local civilians to construct a defensive trench and lighting numerous torches to create the illusion of a larger force. Anticipating the route of the Hunnic forces, he cleverly deployed 100 seasoned soldiers on each flank and another contingent to directly confront the invaders. This setup in the confined space meant the Huns could neither use their numerical superiority to their advantage nor effectively unleash their archery skills.

Facing an assault by 2,000 Hun warriors, Belisarius initiated a counter-charge with his 100 front-line veterans, while the civilians created an uproar in support, disorienting the attackers.

This maneuver forced the Huns into such close quarters that they were rendered incapable of using their bows. Caught in a chaotic retreat, the Huns were so harried by Belisarius’s relentless pursuit that they abandoned their famed Parthian shot, a tactic of shooting arrows while retreating.

This decisive victory sent the Huns fleeing back across the Danube, leaving Belisarius to return to Constantinople, where he was celebrated once more as a hero.

This victory not only saved the Byzantine capital but also reinstated Belisarius’s status as a formidable military leader. Despite his advanced age and the political intrigues that had occasionally marred his career, his success in what would be his last battle was a testament to his enduring tactical brilliance and commitment to the Byzantine Empire.

This episode also highlighted the continuous threats faced by Constantinople, emphasizing the strategic importance of Belisarius’s military campaigns in preserving the empire’s stability and security.

Political Scandal

In the year 562, the celebrated general Belisarius found himself in the midst of a legal storm in Constantinople, facing allegations of being involved in a plot against Emperor Justinian.

The city’s prefect, a figure known as Prokopius—who might have been the very Procopius of Caesarea once serving as Belisarius’s secretary—oversaw the trial.

Despite his illustrious military career, Belisarius was convicted and faced incarceration. However, his fall from grace was short-lived; Emperor Justinian soon extended mercy, issuing a pardon that led to Belisarius’s release.

In a reversal of fortune, he was welcomed back into the imperial fold, debunking the myth that he was condemned to a life of blindness.

The Blinding of Belisarius

The tale of Belisarius as a blind beggar standing in the streets of Constantinople has captured the imagination of historians and the public alike for centuries. Despite its vivid portrayal in art and literature, the historical accuracy of this narrative is subject to significant debate.

Evidence suggests that the story, as poignant as it is, may be more myth than fact. Historians like Edward Gibbon have scrutinized the sources of this tale, finding them to lack the credibility of contemporary accounts. Notably, the narrative is absent from the writings of Agathias and Menander Protector, both of whom were closer to the events in time.

The earliest sources that suggest the blinding of Belisarius seem to stem from much later periods, casting doubt on their reliability. Critics, including Gibbon, argue that these accounts were likely colored by the political and social climates of their times, far detached from the actual circumstances of the general’s life.

Michael Psellos, a Byzantine scholar, has been credited with the invention of the blinding story, yet this attribution lacks solid evidence, further muddying the waters around the authenticity of this legend.

While the factual basis of Belisarius’s blinding remains under scrutiny, the legend has undeniably left a mark on cultural depictions of the general. The image of Belisarius as a blind beggar, wronged by the very empire he once served loyally, serves as a powerful narrative about loyalty, betrayal, and the ephemeral nature of power.

It’s a striking illustration of how the mightiest can fall, a theme that resonates with many beyond the specifics of historical accuracy.

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