Belisarius (Greek: Φλάβιος Βελισάριος, c.
505 – 565) was a general of the Byzantine Empire. He was
instrumental to Emperor Justinian's ambitious project of reconquering
much of the
Mediterranean territory of the former Western Roman
Empire, which had been lost less than a century previously.
One of the defining features of Belisarius's career was his success
despite varying levels of support from Justinian. His name is
frequently given as one of the so-called "Last of the Romans".
Belisarius is considered a military genius, he demolished the
Ostrogothic army in
Italy twice with 7500 men and then 4000 men.
Belisarius was instrumental in the recovery of North Africa, also
Belisarius beat back the Persians from invading and ransacking the
Empire. Belisarius’s military genius is often considered to rival
Napoleon or Hannibal.
1 Early life and career
2 Military campaigns
2.1 Against the Vandals
2.2 Against the Ostrogoths
2.3 Deposition of Pope Silverius
2.4 Later life and campaigns
4 Legend as a blind beggar
5 In art and popular culture
Belisarius as a character
6 See also
8.1 Primary sources
8.2 Secondary sources
9 External links
Early life and career
Map of the Byzantine-Persian frontier
Belisarius was probably born in Germane or Germania, a fortified town
of which some archaeological remains still exist, on the site of
Sapareva Banya in south-west Bulgaria, within the borders
Thrace and Paeonia, or in Germen, a town in
Thrace near Adrianople,
in present-day Greece. Born into an Illyrian or
Thracian family that spoke Latin as a mother tongue and became a
Roman soldier as a young man, serving in the bodyguard of Emperor
He came to the attention of Justin and his nephew, Justinian, as a
promising and innovative officer. He was given permission by the
emperor to form a bodyguard regiment (bucellarii), of heavy cavalry,
which he later expanded into a personal household regiment, 1,500
strong. Belisarius's bucellarii were the nucleus around which all the
armies he would later command were organized. Armed with a lance,
(possibly Hunnish style) composite bow, and spatha (sword), they were
fully armoured to the standard of heavy cavalry of the day. A
multi-purpose unit, the bucellarii were capable of skirmishing at a
distance with bow, like the Huns; or could act as heavy shock cavalry,
charging an enemy with lance and sword. In essence, they combined the
best and most dangerous aspects of both of Rome's greatest enemies,
the Huns and the Goths.
Following Justin's death in 527, the new emperor,
Belisarius to command the Roman army in the east to deal
with incursions from the Sassanid Empire. He quickly proved himself an
able and effective commander, defeating the larger Sassanid army
through superior generalship. In June/July 530, during the Iberian
War, he led the Romans to a stunning victory over the Sassanids in the
Battle of Dara, followed by a tactical defeat at the Battle of
Callinicum on the
Euphrates in 531—this was perhaps a strategic
victory in that the Persians retreated to their own borders. This led
to the negotiation of an "Eternal Peace" with the Persians, and Roman
payment of heavy tributes for years in exchange for peace with Persia,
freeing resources for redeployment elsewhere.
In 532, he was the highest-ranking military officer in the Imperial
Constantinople when the
Nika riots broke out in the city
(among factions of chariot racing fans) and nearly resulted in the
overthrow of Justinian.
Belisarius sought the help of Mundus, the
magister militum of the Illyricum, Narses, a eunuch and general, and
his friend John the Armenian. Together, they suppressed the rebellion
turning the rebels who had gathered in the Hippodrome against each
other, bribing one group to depart in peace and massacring the
remainder, by some accounts killing as many as 30,000 people.
Against the Vandals
Main article: Vandalic War
Map of the Vandalic War
For his efforts,
Belisarius was rewarded by
Justinian with the command
of a land and sea expedition against the Vandal Kingdom, mounted in
533–534. The Romans had political, religious and strategic reasons
for such a campaign. The pro-Roman Vandal king
Hilderic had been
deposed and murdered by the usurper Gelimer, giving
Justinian a legal
pretext. The Arian Vandals had periodically persecuted the Nicene
Christians within their kingdom, many of whom made their way to
Constantinople seeking redress. The Vandals had launched many pirate
raids on Roman trade interests, hurting commerce in the western areas
of the Empire.
Justinian also wanted control of the Vandal territory
in north Africa, which was one of the wealthiest provinces and the
breadbasket of the
Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire and was now vital for
guaranteeing Roman access to the western Mediterranean.
In the late summer of 533,
Belisarius sailed to
Africa and landed near
Caput Vada (near Chebba on the coast of Tunisia). He ordered his fleet
not to lose sight of the army, then marched along the coastal highway
toward the Vandal capital of Carthage. He did this to prevent supplies
from being cut off and to avoid a great defeat such as occurred during
the attempt by
Basiliscus to retake northern
Africa 65 years before,
which had ended in the Roman disaster at the Battle of Cap Bon in 468.
Gelimer had planned to ambush and encircle the Romans along with a
force under his brother Ammatas and 2,000 men under his nephew
Gibamund. The three attacks were not properly synchronized however, so
that Ammatas and Gibamund's forces were defeated before the forces of
Gelimer (who had just executed Hilderic) met
Belisarius ten miles from
Carthage at the
Battle of Ad Decimum
Battle of Ad Decimum on September 13, 533. Despite his
bold plan, Gelimer's forces were outnumbered and surpised and
disorganised for the positioning of Belisarius' main force, leading to
Gelimer and the remains of his army off the field.
With this victory,
Belisarius soon took Carthage. A second victory at
Battle of Tricamarum on December 15 resulted in Gelimer's
surrender early in 534 at Mount Papua, restoring the lost Roman
provinces of north
Africa to the empire. For this achievement,
Belisarius was granted a triumph (the last ever given) when he
returned to Constantinople. According to Procopius, the spoils of the
Temple of Jerusalem, including many objects looted from
Rome 80 years
earlier, were paraded in the procession along with
before he was sent into peaceful exile. Medals were stamped in honor
Belisarius with the inscription Gloria Romanorum, though none seem
to have survived to modern times.
Belisarius was also made sole Consul
in 535, being one of the last persons to hold this office, which
originated in the ancient Roman Republic. The recovery of
incomplete, however: army mutinies and revolts by the native Berbers
plagued the new praetorian prefecture of
Africa for almost 15 years.
Against the Ostrogoths
Main article: Gothic War (535–554)
Map of the operations of the first five years of the war, showing the
Roman conquest of
Italy under Belisarius
Justinian resolved to restore as much of the
Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire as
he could. In 535, he commissioned
Belisarius to attack the Ostrogothic
Kingdom in Italy.
Belisarius landed in Sicily and took the island in
order to use it as a base against Italy, while Mundus recovered
Dalmatia. The preparations for the invasion of the Italian mainland
were interrupted in Easter 536, when
Belisarius sailed to
counter an uprising of the local army. His reputation made the rebels
abandon the siege of Carthage, and
Belisarius pursued and defeated
them at Membresa. Thereupon he returned to Sicily, and then crossed
into mainland Italy, where he captured Naples in November and
In 537–538 he defended
Rome against the Goths and moved north to
take the Ostrogoth capital of
Ravenna in 540, where the Goth king
Witiges was captured. Shortly before the taking of Ravenna, the
Ostrogoths had offered to make
Belisarius the western emperor.
Belisarius feigned acceptance and entered
Ravenna via its sole point
of entry, a causeway through the marshes, accompanied by a comitatus
of bucellarii, his personal household regiment. Soon afterwards, he
proclaimed the capture of
Ravenna in the name of the Emperor
Justinian. The Goths' offer raised suspicions in Justinian's mind and
Belisarius was recalled. He returned home with the Gothic treasure,
king and warriors.
Belisarius was recalled in part to deal with the Persian conquest of
Syria, a crucial province of the empire, where he repulsed renewed
attacks. He defeated the Persian army under Nabades at Nisibis but
could not take the city because it was fortified and well defended by
the Persians. He captured Sisauranon, a small Persian fort to the
Belisarius sent Harith with 1,200 Roman troops under John
the Glutton and Traianus to plunder Assyria. The expedition penetrated
far into Persian territory and gathered much plunder. In the campaign
of 542, Belisarius's presence just to the west of the Euphrates
Khosrow I from advancing further and the king decided to
Belisarius was acclaimed throughout the East for his success
in repelling the Persians.
Belisarius returned to
Italy in 544, where he found that the situation
had changed greatly. In 541 the Ostrogoths had elected
Totila as their
new leader and had mounted a vigorous campaign against the Romans,
recapturing all of northern
Italy and even driving the Romans out of
Belisarius managed to recover
Rome briefly but his Italian
campaign proved unsuccessful, partly because of limited supplies and
reinforcements from an empire which had been weakend by the plague of
541–542, but according to Procopius,
Justinian denied him supplies
because he was jealous of his success. In 548-9,
him. In 551, after economic recovery (from the effects of the plague)
Narses led a large army to bring the campaign to a
Belisarius retired from military affairs. At
the Second Ecumenical Council of
one of the Emperor's envoys to
Pope Vigilius in their controversy over
The Three Chapters. The Patriarch Eutychius, who presided over this
council in place of Pope Vigilius, was the son of one of Belisarius's
Deposition of Pope Silverius
During the Siege of
Rome an incident occurred for which the general
would be long condemned: Belisarius, a Byzantine Rite Christian, was
commanded by the monophysite Christian Empress Theodora to depose the
reigning Pope, who had been installed by the Goths. This Pope was the
former subdeacon Silverius, the son of Pope Hormisdas.
to replace him with the Deacon Vigilius,
Apocrisarius of Pope John II
in Constantinople. Vigilius had in fact been chosen in 531 by Pope
Boniface II to be his successor, but this choice was strongly
criticised by the Roman clergy and Boniface eventually reversed his
In 537, at the height of the siege, Silverius was accused of
conspiring with the Gothic King and several Roman senators to secretly
open the gates of the city.
Belisarius had him stripped of his
vestments and exiled to Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor. Following the
advocacy of his innocence by the bishop of Patara he was ordered to
Italy at the command of the Emperor
Justinian and, if
cleared by investigation, reinstated. However, Vigilius had already
been installed in his place and Silverius was intercepted before he
Rome and exiled once more, this time on the island of
Palmarola (Ponza), where by one account he is said to have starved to
death, others say he left for Constantinople. However that may be, he
remains the patron saint of
Belisarius, for his part, built a small oratory on the site of the
present church of
Santa Maria in Trivio
Santa Maria in Trivio in
Rome as a sign of his
repentance. He also built two hospices for pilgrims and a monastery,
which have since disappeared.
Later life and campaigns
The enlargement of the
Roman Empire possessions between the rise to
Justinian (red, 527) and his and Belisarius's death (orange,
Belisarius contributed immensely to the expansion of the empire.
The retirement of
Belisarius came to an end in 559, when an army of
Bulgars under Khan
Zabergan crossed the
Danube River to
invade Roman territory for the first time and threatened
Belisarius to command the Roman
army. In his last campaign,
Belisarius defeated the
Kutrigurs at the
battle of Melantias and drove them back across the river with the
greatly outnumbered force under his command.
Belisarius stood trial in
Constantinople on a charge of
corruption. The charge is presumed to be trumped-up and modern
research suggests that his former secretary
Procopius of Caesarea may
have judged his case.
Belisarius was found guilty and
imprisoned but not long after,
Justinian pardoned him, ordered his
release, and restored him to favour at the imperial court.
In the first five chapters of his Secret History, Procopius
Belisarius as a cuckold husband, who was emotionally
dependent on his debauched wife, Antonina. According to the historian,
Antonina cheated on
Belisarius with their adopted son, the young
Procopius claims that the love affair was well known in
the imperial court and the general was regarded as weak and
ridiculous; this view is often considered biased, as
a longstanding hatred of
Belisarius and Antonina. Empress Theodora
reportedly helped and saved Antonina when
Belisarius tried to charge
his wife at last.
Belisarius and Justinian, whose partnership had increased the size of
the empire by 45 percent, died within a few months of each other in
Belisarius owned the estate of Rufinianae on the Asiatic side of
Constantinople suburbs. He may have died there and been buried
near one of the two churches in the area, perhaps Saints Peter and
Legend as a blind beggar
François-André Vincent (1776). Belisarius, blinded, a
beggar, is recognised by one of his former soldiers
Belisarius Begging for Alms, as depicted in popular legend, in the
Jacques-Louis David (1781)
Belisarius receiving hospitality from a Peasant by
Jean-François Pierre Peyron
Jean-François Pierre Peyron (1779)
According to a story that gained popularity during the Middle Ages,
Justinian is said to have ordered Belisarius's eyes to be put out, and
reduced him to the status of homeless beggar near the Pincian Gate of
Rome, condemned to asking passers-by to "give an obolus to Belisarius"
(date obolum Belisario), before pardoning him. Most modern scholars
believe the story to be apocryphal, though Philip Stanhope, a
19th-century British philologist who wrote Life of Belisarius—the
only exhaustive biography of the great general—believed the story to
be true based on his review of the available primary sources.
After the publication of Jean-François Marmontel's novel Bélisaire
(1767), this account became a popular subject for progressive painters
and their patrons in the later 18th century, who saw parallels between
the actions of
Justinian and the repression imposed by contemporary
rulers. For such subtexts, Marmontel's novel received a public censure
by Louis Legrand of the Sorbonne, which contemporary theologians
regarded as a model exposition of theological knowledge and clear
thinking. Marmontel and the painters and sculptors depicted
Belisarius as a kind of secular saint, sharing the suffering of the
downtrodden poor, for example the bust of
Belisarius by the French
sculptor Jean-Baptiste Stouf. The most famous of these paintings, by
Jacques-Louis David, combines the themes of charity (the alms giver),
injustice (Belisarius), and the radical reversal of power (the soldier
who recognises his old commander). Others portray him being helped by
the poor after his rejection by the powerful.
In art and popular culture
Belisarius was featured in several works of art before the 20th
century. The oldest of them is the historical treatise by his
secretary, Procopius. The Anecdota, commonly referred to as the Arcana
Historia or Secret History, is an extended attack on
Antonina, and on
Justinian and Theodora, indicting
Belisarius as a
love-blind fool and his wife as unfaithful and duplicitous. Other
Belisarius as a character
Belasarius: a play by
Jakob Bidermann (1607)
The life and history of Belisarius, who conquer'd
Africa and Italy,
with an account of his disgrace, the ingratitude of the Romans, and a
parallel between him and a modern hero: a drama by John Oldmixon
Belasarius: a drama by William Philips (1724)
Bélisaire: a novel by
Jean-François Marmontel (1767)
Belisarius: A Tragedy: by
Margaretta Faugères (1795). Though she
wrote it as a play, Faugères "intended [this work] for the closet,"
i.e., to be read and not performed. Her preface voices complaints
about "maledictions" and long-winded rhetoric in popular tragic drama,
which she says tend to bore and even outrage a reader, and announces
her intent to "substitute concise narrative and plain sense." The
drama's plot and character development are secondary to moral
conflicts, mainly between vengeance and mercy/pity, respectively
associated with pride and humility.
Beliar: 18th-century poem by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque.
Kampf um Rom: an historical novel by
Felix Dahn (1867)
Belisarius, 19th-century poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Count Belisarius: a novel by
Robert Graves (1938); Ostensibly written
from the viewpoint of the eunuch Eugenius, servant to Belisarius's
wife, but actually based on Procopius's history, the book portrays
Belisarius as a solitary honorable man in a corrupt world, and paints
a vivid picture of not only his startling military feats but also the
colorful characters and events of his day, such as the savage
Hippodrome politics of the
Constantinople chariot races, which
regularly escalated to open street battles between fans of opposing
factions, and the intrigues of the emperor
Justinian and the empress
Lest Darkness Fall: an alternative history novel by L. Sprague de Camp
Belisarius appears first as the Roman opponent of the time
Martin Padway who tries to spread modern science and
inventions in Gothic Italy. Eventually
Belisarius becomes a general in
Padway's army and secures
Italy for him.
Belisarius series: six books by Eric Flint and David Drake
Science Fiction/Alternative History.
The character "Bel Riose" in
Foundation and Empire by
Isaac Asimov is
A Flame in Byzantium: an historical horror fiction novel by Chelsea
Quinn Yarbro (1987)
Belisario: tragedia lirica by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvatore
Cammarano after Luigi Marchionni's adaptation of Eduard von Schenl's
Belisarius (1820), scenography by Francesco Bagnara, premiered during
the Stagione di Carnevale, 4 February 1836, Venezia, Teatro La Fenice.
Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold: comic book miniseries
Alisa Kwitney with art by Kent Williams, Michael Zulli,
Scott Hampton, and
Rebecca Guay (1997).
Belisarius briefly appears as
a jealous husband, imprisoning his wife in their quarters due to
rumors of her affairs, instead of fighting in Italy.
This article appears to contain trivial, minor, or unrelated
references to popular culture. Please reorganize this content to
explain the subject's impact on popular culture rather than simply
listing appearances; add references to reliable sources if possible.
Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2018)
Age of Empires
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings: A video game by Ensemble Studios
Belisarius is a "Hero" that can only be accessed in the map
editor. He has the appearance of a Cataphract, the Byzantine unique
unit. The second official expansion pack for the game, Age of Empires
II: The Forgotten (2013), added a few campaigns in which
featured as a player controllable unit.
Age of Empires: Castle Siege: A video game by Microsoft Studios
Belisarius is a "Hero" associated with the Byzantines
civilization, with a special ability to undermine walls.
Civilization IV: A video game by
Take-Two Interactive (2005).
Belisarius is a "Great Person"; specifically, one of many "Great
Generals" that arise through gameplay via warfare with other
civilizations (excluding barbarians).
Civilization V: Belisarius, like in Civilization IV, appears as a
Total War: Attila: A video game by The Creative Assembly. The player
can command the army of
Belisarius at the Battle of Ad Decimum. He is
also featured as the main protagonist in "The Last Roman" Campaign
Pack where the player can take the role of Belisarius, tasked with
reclaiming the former territory of the Western Empire. The campaign
ends either with the player successfully recovering territory for the
Eastern Roman Empire, or alternatively with Belisarius's forces
declaring independence from the Eastern
Roman Empire and resurrecting
the Western Roman Empire.
He is in a tutorial level of Empire Earth.
Belisarius was portrayed by
Lang Jeffries in the 1968 German movie
Kampf um Rom, directed by Robert Siodmak.
Byzantine Empire portal
^ Mass, Michael (June 2013). "Las guerras de Justiniano en Occidente y
la idea de restauración". Desperta Ferro (in Spanish). 18: 6–10.
^ The exact date of his birth is unknown. PLRE III, p. 182
^ Robert Graves,
Count Belisarius and Procopius’s Wars, 1938
^ Treadgold, Warren T. (1997). A history of the Byzantine state and
society. Stanford University Press. p. 246.
ISBN 978-0-8047-2630-6. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
^ Barker, John W. (1966).
Justinian and the later Roman Empire.
University of Wisconsin Press. p. 75.
ISBN 978-0-299-03944-8. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
^ History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to
the death of
Justinian volume 2, by J. B. Bury p.56
^ The Age of Faith: The Story of Civilization by Will Durant, Chapter
^ Count Marcellinus and His Chronicle by Brian Croke, p.75
^ Tucker, Spencer C. (2010). Battles that changed history : an
encyclopedia of world conflict (1st ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.:
ABC-CLIO. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-59884-429-0.
^ Evans, James Allan (2003-10-01). The Empress Theodora: Partner of
Justinian. University of Texas Press. p. 52.
ISBN 978-0-292-70270-7. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
^ This is the number given by Procopius, Wars (Internet Medieval
^ The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars AD 363-628 by
Geoffrey Greatrex,Samuel N. C. Lieu, p. 108-110
^ Catholic Encyclopedia: "Louis Legrand"
Belisarius and Narses, Academic Fellowship, 1964.
Procopius, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, online at
"Belisarius" Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 27 Apr 2009
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Belisarius". Encyclopædia
Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
R. Boss, R. Chapman, P. Garriock, Justinian's War: Belisarius, Narses
and the Reconquest of the West, Montvert Publications, 1993,
Henning Börm, Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung.
Überlegungen zum Verhältnis zwischen Kaiser und Militär im späten
Römischen Reich. In: Chiron 43 (2013), pages 63–91.
Glanville Downey, Belisarius: Young general of Byzantium, Dutton, 1960
Edward Gibbon has much to say on
Belisarius in The History of the
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 41 online.
Lillington-Martin, Christopher 2006–2013:
2006, "Pilot Field-Walking Survey near Ambar & Dara, SE Turkey",
British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara:Travel Grant Report,
Bulletin of British Byzantine Studies, 32 (2006), pages 40–45;
2007, "Archaeological and Ancient Literary Evidence for a Battle near
Dara Gap, Turkey, AD 530: Topography, Texts and Trenches" in: BAR
–S1717, 2007 The Late Roman Army in the Near East from Diocletian to
the Arab Conquest Proceedings of a colloquium held at Potenza,
Acerenza and Matera,
Italy edited by Ariel S. Lewin and Pietrina
Pellegrini, p 299–311;
2008, "Roman tactics defeat Persian pride" in Ancient Warfare edited
by Jasper Oorthuys, Vol. II, Issue 1 (February 2008), pages 36–40;
Belisarius and the Goths" in: Journal of the Oxford
University History Society,(2009) Odd Alliances edited by Heather
Ellis and Graciela Iglesias Rogers. ISSN 1742-917X, pages 1–
2010, "Source for a handbook:Reflections of the Wars in the
Strategikon and archaeology" in: Ancient Warfare edited by Jasper
Oorthuys, Vol. IV, Issue 3 (June 2010), pages 33–37;
2011, "Secret Histories",
2012, "Hard and Soft Power on the Eastern Frontier: a Roman Fortlet
between Dara and Nisibis, Mesopotamia,Turkey, Prokopios' Mindouos?"
in: The Byzantinist, edited by Douglas Whalin, Issue 2 (2012),
2013a, "La defensa de Roma por Belisario" in: Justiniano I el Grande
(Desperta Ferro) edited by Alberto Pérez Rubio, 18 (July 2013), pages
40–45, ISSN 2171-9276;
Procopius on the struggle for Dara and Rome" in: War and
Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Late Antique
Archaeology 8.1–8.2 2010–11) by Sarantis A. and Christie N.
(2010–11) edd. (Brill, Leiden 2013), pages 599–630,
Martindale, John R., ed. (1992). The Prosopography of the Later Roman
Empire: Volume III, AD 527–641. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press. pp. 181–224. ISBN 0-521-20160-8.
Lord Mahon, The Life of Belisarius, 1848. Reprinted 2006 (unabridged
with editorial comments) Evolution Publishing, ISBN 1-889758-67-1
Lord Mahon, The Life of Belisarius, J. Murray, 1829. With a new
critical introduction and further reading by Jon Coulston. Westholme
Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-59416-019-8
Ancient Warfare magazine, Vol. IV, Issue 3 (Jun/Jul, 2010), was
devoted to "Justinian's fireman:
Belisarius and the Byzantine empire",
with articles by Sidney Dean, Duncan B. Campbell, Ian Hughes, Ross
Cowan, Raffaele D'Amato, and Christopher Lillington-Martin.
Hanson, Victor Davis. The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders
Saved Wars That Were Lost. Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-6081-9163-5 online edition
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
History of the Wars
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Secret History
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Belisarius.
Military History magazine article
Imp. Caesar Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus IV,
Flavius Decius Paulinus
Consul of the Roman Empire
Title next held by
John the Cappadocian
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