Belisarius: A General for all Seasons, Budgets; all Enemies, domestic and foreign. Part IV

The enlargement of the Roman Empire possessions between the rise to power of Justinian (red, 527) and his and Belisarius’s death (orange, 565). Belisarius contributed immensely to the expansion of the empire.

Belisarius Goes West: The War in Italy Again (544–48)

The historian Procopius felt that when bubonic plague struck the capital at Constantinople, “nearly the entire human race came close to being wiped out.” Soon the emperor fell sick, just as his commanders were concluding the latest round of the ongoing Persian wars with Chosroes through a mixture of bribes and adroit leadership. The generals at the front naturally assumed that the sixty-year-old Justinian would die, like most of the elderly who caught the plague. Therefore they met to discuss a successor, perhaps most logically Belisarius himself, or at least to exercise veto power over any would-be emperor back at Constantinople.

The immediate problem for Belisarius was multifold: Justinian was ill, but not yet fatally so. Although the plague was usually equivalent to a death sentence, it might not necessarily prove true in the case of Justinian, given the careful treatment accorded the emperor. To entertain the offer of a supreme political post—or even a prominent veto in the imperial succession—would raise the old issue of Belisarius’ loyalty in the fashion of the former Gothic request for the general to take over as a new western emperor, or the even earlier rumors from Africa that Belisarius had wanted to set himself up as an independent proconsul at newly acquired Carthage. Too many stories kept circulating that Belisarius sought high political as well as military office.

This was a dangerous game—well aside from the fact that the life of Justinian was still in doubt and the generals were still in the east far from the latest-breaking developments at Constantinople. Should Byzantium’s greatest general support the ascension of the empress Theodora, or a nephew who was Justinian’s closest blood relative, or at least the official “court” order of succession—or allow his fellow generals in the field to float his own name? If Belisarius declined a subsequent offer of the emperorship and stayed loyal, as was his inclination, he still might be in danger, whether from a surviving Justinian who had heard disturbing reports of a seditious general, or from a widowed Theodora, who would resent his lack of support for her wishes, or from any new emperor and his clique, regardless of whether friendly or hostile to Justinian’s supporters.

In the end, Belisarius did not join with the would-be plotters. Yet he still was summoned to Constantinople under a cloud of distrust as the emperor rallied and recovered. A confident Theodora took over the inquisition, and most of the wavering generals suffered the consequences. Belisarius was relieved of command and had his wealth confiscated. He could neither finish the Persian war nor head back west to stabilize the renewed Gothic conflict in Italy. Instead, for more than two years he was persona non grata in Constantinople, ostracized, impoverished, and under constant suspicion. All Belisarius could do was to wait for the emperor to regain his full strength and, with a clearer head, intervene on his behalf—or hope that his wife, Antonia, might win over his apparent archenemy, Theodora.

Meanwhile back in Italy, during the four years of Belisarius’ absence, the Byzantine commanders had flagrantly violated two cardinal rules of the general’s philosophy of command: fair treatment of the locals, and honesty in all matters financial—especially concerning the division of booty and prompt payment of imperial soldiers’ salaries. The results of poor Byzantine leadership were new offensives by a fresh and far more capable Gothic king, Totila. The Goth wisely played on both native Italian dissatisfaction and dissension within Byzantine ranks, posing as a national liberator who would throw off the renewed chains of Roman oppression. At least five Byzantine generals of different factions and ethnicities—Bessas the Goth, Constantinus, John the so-called Glutton, John, the nephew of Vitalius, and Vitalius—in the absence of Belisarius had forfeited much of what Belisarius had won by 540. While the divided command squabbled, plundered the Italians, and stayed safely ensconced in the major cities, the gifted Goth Totila was busy reclaiming much of Byzantine-held Italian countryside from the Po River to Naples.

A sick emperor, court intrigue, a Persian war, the virtual ostracism of Belisarius, and perhaps more than three hundred thousand dead from the plague at Constantinople—all of that ensured neither oversight of nor material support for the incompetent generals in Italy. If Justinian had unwisely and prematurely recalled Belisarius from Italy in spring 540, now, four years later and recovering from the plague, the emperor understood that whatever his own suspicions of the general’s popular magnetism, he badly needed Belisarius to restore Italy.

So in spring 544, Belisarius, now forty, was once again returned to favor with the imperial court and ordered to Italy. But this time he departed with even less financial backing than in the past. Indeed, the general left not as before with a supreme command, but with the title of comes sacri stabuli (“commander of the royal stable”) and a tiny force. His former secretary, the future historian Procopius, also did not accompany him and perhaps began to change his opinion of his erstwhile hero, given the perennial suspicion that seemed to surround Belisarius. Nonetheless, Belisarius made his way to Italy by land. He was relying in large part on what was left of his own money to hire imperial soldiers on the way westward. The generals in Italy concluded that the newly arriving Belisarius had not regained the emperor’s complete confidence. More likely, they assumed that each of their Byzantine armies was still on its own, and so looked to the other to take risks against the Goths without much hope of help from a plague-ridden Constantinople.

Along with the general Vitalius, Belisarius passed through Thrace and arrived in Dalmatia by May 544. There he headquartered on the Adriatic coast at Salonia. The two generals together had mustered little more than four thousand troops, smaller than a single traditional Roman legion. Nonetheless, Belisarius marched northward up through Croatia to descend into Ravenna in an attempt to keep the Italian cities on the Adriatic from either defecting to, or being besieged by, Totila’s growing Gothic forces. Given that Belisarius had few troops, little imperial money, and no apparent power to unite the disparate Byzantine armies, he could do little more in the ensuing year than to try to keep the local cities around Ravenna free from the Goths.

Then, as Totila prepared to retake Rome, Belisarius sailed eastward back to Dalmatia—hoping to raise more imperial troops and win a direct appeal to Justinian for money and supplies. Finally, he took his small fleet on a circuitous route to reach Rome by sea, in hopes of supplying the city’s defenders from the nearby Roman harbor at Portus. Justinian had still sent no aid, rightly worried about a new war with Persia and the drastic loss of manpower after the recent plague.

Rome fell to Totila in December 546. Byzantine commanders, stationed throughout the Italian peninsula, had squabbled over its defense and were not willing to join Belisarius to save the ancient capital. After destroying much of the municipal walls, Totila then threatened to level the entire imperial city for its past anti-Gothic sympathies. He was dissuaded in part by messages from Belisarius, who was still nearby at Portus and who warned Totila that such nihilism would ensure revenge from both Goths and Byzantines.

Eventually, when Totila headed northward to Ravenna, Belisarius retook Rome. It was lightly defended—indeed, nearly empty, its defenses once more in disrepair. Belisarius’ paltry number of troops was hardly able to man an adequate defense of the wall. Nonetheless, by May 547, Belisarius was inside the ancient capital and repairing the fortifications. This was the third year of his second Italian command, and yet Belisarius was right back where he had started—in a war that had gone on for twelve years after the Byzantines’ once dramatic landing in southern Italy, coming after the brilliant victory over the Vandals in Africa.

The Goths under Totila returned and attempted to retake the city a second time from the Byzantines. Most of the Gothic chieftains were angry that Totila earlier had neither destroyed the city nor made adequate preparations to defend it from Belisarius’ meager forces. This second Gothic siege failed. Totila was forced to head south to confront John, the nephew of Vitalianus, who was liberating Italian cities in Campania. The Byzantine generals may have been infighting and working at cross purposes, and their ranks depleted by plague, but when one found success, another rival often took the initiative. The result was that the war was not quite lost. Instead, the fighting reached an impasse for most of the subsequent two years, 547–48, as neither Goth nor Byzantine could drive the other out of Italy.

Sometime in 548 Belisarius was once more recalled to Constantinople and replaced by the emperor’s nephew Germanus. He arrived home in early 549 after five years of mostly inconsequential fighting. The war would eventually be won by Narses, an imperial insider and gifted general—at least until the invasion of the Lombards of 568 that would in time end the Byzantines’ efforts at reconstituting the old Roman empire in the west. For the next five hundred years, Byzantium would cling to a few coastal enclaves in the south, as Italy was plagued by near-constant war between independent fiefdoms. Why Belisarius was recalled yet a second time from Italy—other than the serial and long-standing suspicions of the emperor Justinian—is not quite known. Our ancient sources offer a variety of possible causes. His well-connected wife, Antonia, had left Italy in 548 to lobby the court for more resources for her husband to finish the Italian campaign. But on the death of her ally, the empress Theodora, and the ascension of the emperor’s favorite nephew, Germanus, Antonia may have sensed a power shift, and so instead lobbied Justinian to bring back her husband. Clearly with the demise of Theodora there was at last some chance that the earlier friendship between the two Latin-speaking northerners, Justinian and Belisarius, might be renewed.

In addition, there was always the recurrent threat from the east. The court at Constantinople may in a crisis have contemplated sending an experienced general to protect the border with Persia. Or perhaps Justinian thought he either needed a senior adviser at home, given the loss of his confidante Theodora, or wanted Belisarius where he could keep a close eye on him. In any case, Belisarius returned to Constantinople in late spring 549 to rewards, acclaim—and no further imperial service abroad.

With few resources and constant internal dissension, Belisarius had not only managed to delay Totila’s onslaught, but also somehow to recapture Rome. His presence alone had saved Italy for the Byzantines, who would have otherwise been thrown out by 544. But after his departure, the Byzantines’ position again deteriorated, and the dream of a unified Italy under Byzantium’s control was for all practical purposes lost. Gone were the days of his first Italian tenure, when both the Goths and Italians were awed by his well-trained forces, his own personal support from the emperor, and his unbroken record of military success. Neither had any desire to welcome back the Byzantines. It would require a new commitment in resources and manpower—and a new supreme commander—to retake the peninsula.

Once the plague abated somewhat, a recovered Justinian in fact would send more troops under the capable Narses. An elderly eunuch from the court was considered a far safer conqueror of Italy than the most beloved general in the empire at the height of his powers.

“This, too, I can bear—I still am Belisarius” (548–59)

The resilience of Belisarius was legendary, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of his sufferings in his poem “Belisarius.” Now in his midforties, the general was given various honorific titles such as supreme military commander and theater commander for the east. These were positions of neither political nor military power, but each was necessary to assuage public concern over the fate of the most popular and famous Byzantine general. While some have suggested that the emperor once again wanted a recalled Belisarius nearby for advice, it seems more likely that Justinian—enfeebled by age, widowerhood, and disease—wished no repeat of the general’s successful tenure in either the east or west, especially in hopes that his charismatic nephew Germanus might perhaps unite Rome following his death. Wars were either imminent or ongoing in Italy, Spain, and Mesopotamia—logical after a series of imperial and religious controversies and foiled coups. In short, there were simply too many opportunities for a dynamic rival to use against the Byzantine court.

As Narses fought successfully in the west, and other generals were deployed eastward, Belisarius vanished from the historical record for almost a decade—akin to the exile of Themistocles amid the triumphs of his Athenian rivals in the postwar ascendency of fifth-century Athens, or the retirement of General Matthew Ridgway and his subsequent three decades of relative quiet following his salvation of Korea. A widowered Justinian was childless, in his late sixties, and, with the untimely death of Germanus in 550, now without an heir.

Then suddenly in 559, the general, aging and rusty from inaction, reemerges in contemporary sources. Ten years after his recall from Italy, and in the most peculiar circumstances—but in accord with his lifelong military skill and the suspicion that his success always garnered at the Byzantine court—Belisarius took the field for the last time. The plague had passed, but for years after, it had severely reduced Byzantine military manpower and curtailed Constantinople’s availability to field an adequate home guard. The Nika riots had long reminded the emperor of the dangers of cutting the vast Byzantine civil service to pay for defense. Two decades of war in Africa, Italy, Mesopotamia, and Spain had drained the treasury—almost as much as had Justinian’s grand plan to remake Constantinople into the greatest architectural wonder of the ancient world.

The result was that the Byzantine military was a shadow of its former self, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world and spread woefully thin in the east. An aged, lonely emperor had allowed the military to fall below two hundred thousand troops at precisely the time it was asked to protect a vast increase in imperial territory and manpower reserves were at their lowest. The theory of Byzantine defense apparently had been complete reliance on the massive walls of Constantinople—as well as attacking enemies far from home. Few emperors worried about an enemy assault on the capital itself.

But that was precisely what happened in 559, when a detachment of Huns under the chieftain Zabergan split off from its main forces and crossed the Danube. With only seven thousand plunderers, he attempted a lightning-quick strike at Constantinople, convinced that the vast empire, after the plague, was hollow at its core. When the Huns reached the outlying villages near the walls of the city itself, Justinian went into a panic. He belatedly realized that all of his generals and armies were far too distant to recall. In desperation, the emperor called on Belisarius. The white-haired general was well over fifty and had not been in battle for years. The historian Agathias reports that as Belisarius “was putting on his breastplate and helmet, and equipped himself with his entire uniform from his youthful days, the memory of his earlier exploits returned and filled him with zeal.” Yet Belisarius retained only three hundred or so of his veteran guardsmen, mostly deployed in largely ceremonial service and for his own protection. Nonetheless, Belisarius quickly took up the call and made arrangements to save the city—ignoring the irony that the emperor’s best general was at home only because Justinian had foolishly recalled him from the distant Italian front.

At the village of Chettus, he organized a citizen defense force, spearheaded by his own three hundred veterans, and rustics eager to save their farms. The motley home guard beat back with heavy losses Zabergan and two thousand of his raiders. Constantinople was spared. The Huns withdrew toward the Danube. Belisarius’ vastly outnumbered forces had once more bailed out his aged emperor through the tactical brilliance and personal magnetism of their commander. But the contrast between Justinian’s panic and Belisarius’ fortitude only furthered their final estrangement.

Following his repulse of Zabergan, Belisarius was given little credit for his eleventh-hour heroics, and he was not allowed to pursue and finish off the enemy for good. Again, the elderly Justinian feared that to do so would swell grassroots calls for Belisarius to succeed him. The historian Agathias once again cites “envy and jealousy.” But it got even worse than that. In 562, members of Belisarius’ circle were accused of formally plotting against Justinian. By the end of the year, their captain was himself charged with treason, put under house arrest, his office and finances taken away—the third time that the emperor’s jealousy had brought Belisarius into mortal danger.

It took another six months to establish either that the general was innocent of conspiracy, or that it was too dangerous to convict such a popular hero. At last Justinian restored his general’s rank and privileges, but Belisarius was snubbed by the royal court. He would die within two years, in 565. Stories that he was blinded by the emperor and shamed by being forced to beg outside the Lausus Palace near the Hippodrome in Constantinople were probably mythical embellishments of his real enough humiliation. The end of Belisarius came just eight months before the emperor Justinian himself would pass away. Belisarius’ widow, Antonia, eventually retired to a convent in her eighties—without anyone left to intrigue against or for.

What had the old savior general accomplished in his some three decades of incessant fighting on behalf of Justinian’s vision of a new united Rome? And had it all been worth it?

“The Name of Belisarius Can Never Die” (530–65)

Most of Belisarius’ victories were to be overturned within a century. The Lombards invaded Northern Italy in 568, and only small regions in the south were saved by Constantinople. The Visigoths in Spain—a theater that Belisarius never campaigned in—rebounded. By 631, they had expelled the Byzantine outposts from the Iberian Peninsula. Most of Egypt and much of North Africa fell to Islamic armies by 711—at least in part because of the general impoverishment brought on by the destruction of the Roman and subsequent Vandal empires. Almost immediately after their successes, the Muslims then moved into Visigothic Spain.

Yet Byzantium itself—eventually to be surrounded on nearly all sides by Muslim enemies, and in growing rivalry with western Roman Catholicism—was to survive until 1453, nine hundred years after the death of Belisarius. The extension of Byzantine power under Justinian and Belisarius in some sense provided a critical buffer: When Islam spread from the Middle East, at least initially, it pressed at the periphery of the Byzantine Empire rather than at its core in Constantinople and northern Asia Minor.

The outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 540s that may have caused the deaths of a quarter or more of the empire’s urban populations rendered Byzantium too weak to consolidate the victories of Belisarius in the west. It is one of the great “what ifs” of history whether Constantinople might have re-created a sustainable Mediterranean-wide empire without the epidemic.

Along with the conquered provinces in North Africa, Byzantine conquests in Spain, Italy, and Sicily could have restored Roman prosperity and revenue, reunited populations, and offered successful resistance to the Lombards. Never had such an opportunity been thrown away as when Justinian pulled his support from Belisarius in the early 540s. The sixth century was supposedly a time when charismatic autocratic tribal leaders like Gelimer, Vittigis, and Totila overshadowed faceless incompetent Byzantine court insiders. In contrast, Belisarius himself was a magnetic throwback to an earlier age of Roman republican saviors—but unlike his adversaries, loyal to his civilian superiors. One of the great wonders of Roman history in the east is the remarkable fealty of Belisarius to his emperor, for all the rumors to the contrary. The history of decline in the west was often attributable to renegade generals marching on Rome—a fact perhaps well appreciated by Belisarius, who came and left home only when ordered by his emperor.

Any final assessment of Belisarius’ military genius—aside from the Jekyll/Hyde portrait offered by the historian Procopius—rests on four key considerations. First, his forces were almost always outnumbered, often polygot and multicultural, and in many cases mercenary. He usually was sent out to conquer entire provinces with armies smaller than twenty thousand men—and after the plague with even fewer forces. The great distances at which he operated from Constantinople, and the frequency with which he was forced to transport his armies by sea, almost always ensured that his armies were outnumbered by the enemy and plagued by logistics. Only a diplomat could have united such disparate contingents and found strength rather than sedition within such diversity. Despite stereotypes of mercenary disorder, in almost all of Belisarius’ campaigns his own troops proved the most disciplined among friend and foe alike.

Second, Belisarius almost never fought with unquestioned political support. He served as either a rival to Justinian’s other favorite generals or under direct suspicion of the emperor himself. Almost every campaign required two paradoxical considerations: defeat might mean death or political exile, but victory could bring even a worse fate, through trial and execution on suspicion of imperial ambition.

Third, nearly all his wars involved counterinsurgency. Success hinged on his own ability to convince native Arabs, Africans, Germanic peoples, and Italians that they had more to gain from Byzantine rule and prosperity than under the tribalism of their own ethnic leaders—not an easy task when so many of Justinian’s lieutenants saw provincial assignments as a mechanism solely for personal enrichment. In general, the task before Belisarius was to persuade neutral populations at peace in the east, Italy, and North Africa to join his own Byzantine forces—on the basis of some vague ancient notion of Roman commonality. Nostalgia about Rome was one thing, but in reality, invading Byzantine generals often ensured nonstop ravaging, random killing, and depredation for locals caught between warring armies. Belisarius’ insight was that by offering security and humane treatment to indigenous populations, they became force multipliers in the struggles of Byzantium.

Fourth, Belisarius operated in a vast landscape of diverse weather, topography, and culture in which what brought victory in one area would not necessarily do so in another. His success from Mesopotamia to Carthage, from the River Po to the edge of the Sahara, came from flexibility of strategy and tactics while keeping his core military assumptions unchanged. That meant winning over the hearts and minds of the populace, maintaining high army morale by keeping soldiers well paid and fed, and assuring the court at Constantinople that defeat was his own while victory was the emperor’s alone.

As general, Belisarius stressed the importance of interaction between officers and the rank and file. The duty of the commanders of Byzantium was to find the proper strategy of attack that fit their own meager resources, the particular distant landscape, and the size of the mostly superior enemy forces. Foresight was the key; as he reminded his outnumbered and green troops at the beginning of his second campaign against the Persians, “War tends to go well through good planning more than anything else.”

How, then, did Belisarius establish a blueprint for Byzantine defensive strategy for nearly a millennium? His greatest achievement was establishing a strategy similar to what B. H. Liddell Hart once called “tactical defense,” or the ability to conquer territory without confronting the enemy solely through serial Western-style head-to-head slugfests. Rather, in Persia, Africa, and Italy, whether in sieges, raids, or decisive battles, Belisarius so positioned his forces that the enemy was almost always more likely to lose men than was his own army, whether it won or lost the engagement at hand. In Belisarius’ view, the survival of the army, not particular victories on any given day, would win a campaign and prove critical to the security of the empire.

Not only did allied provincials—Arabs, Armenians, Goths, Herulians, Huns, Moors, Vandals—provide critical manpower, but they brought needed diverse weapons and tactics, especially mounted archers, to the Byzantine military’s inventory of forces. When Belisarius came west, neither the Vandals nor the Goths were prepared to deal with his mobile archers, who became force multipliers of Byzantium’s chronically small armies. While Belisarius was charged with making offensive war—in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy—he often fought conservatively. That is, after acquiring a city or a base of operations, he began to win over the population and invest it with responsibility for its own defense against the inevitable counterassault.

In nearly all his greatest victories, Belisarius was able to craft some sort of stratagem that mitigated his enemies’ numerical advantages. For example, in Sicily he took Palermo by putting archers high on the masts of his ships to shoot down and panic the Gothic garrison. His troops captured a nearly invincible Naples by burrowing along the course of a long-abandoned aqueduct and taking the city from the inside. His defense of Rome against the besieging army of the Goth Vittigis involved not just brilliant tactics, but became a veritable “catalog of sixth-century military machinery.” Whether it was prepping the battlefield at Dara with trenches or increasing the percentages of heavily armored horse archers in his army, Belisarius constantly sought to adopt, improvise, and invent to make up for what he lacked in manpower.

In the end, what are we to make of these victories over a rogue’s gallery of brilliant ruthless foes—Chosroes the Persian, the Vandal Gelimer, Vittigis and Totila the Goths, and Zabergan the Hun—from well beyond the corners of the Mediterranean world? Belisarius usually lost small and won big. The victories at Dara, Ad Decimum, and Tricameron proved decisive; his losses at Tanurin, Callinicum, and at Rome neither ruined his army nor lost his war.

A thirty-year career (529–59) saw the Last of the Romans fighting to save the beleaguered eastern empire in Mesopotamia against the Persians, only to return home to rescue his emperor Justinian from the Nika riots in the Hippodrome. Then he left for North Africa and in months destroyed the century-long Vandal Empire whose ravages had so dominated the last thoughts of Saint Augustine. After that he sailed for Sicily, and for a time reclaimed the idea of a Roman Italy from the Mediterranean to the Po—only to go eastward again to meet the Persians, and then back again to a collapsing Italy, and then back to Constantinople to internal exile, trials, and humiliation, only while in forced retirement to save the city from a raid of Huns—and earn a final rebuke.

Remember the backdrop of Belisarius’ frenetic campaigning. Byzantine power was collapsing. Chaos spread throughout the moribund Western Empire. A raging bubonic plague killed three hundred thousand in Constantinople and perhaps a million in the empire at large. A terrible earthquake collapsed the dome of Hagia Sophia. The onetime court supporter of Belisarius, the historian Procopius, turned on the general and would go on to smear him in his Secret History, as the emperor Justinian and his often lethal wife, Theodora, alternately rewarded, recalled, punished, ruined, incarcerated, and reprieved the old general. And throughout, Belisarius’ conniving older wife, Antonia, a court intimate of Theodora, both tried to protect her spouse and at other times seemed as much against him as for him.

The historian Procopius best summed up Belisarius’ qualities that had led to victory in Libya and Italy: “In the dangers of war, he was constant without taking undue risks, while daring with cool calculation—both ready to strike quickly his enemies and yet cautious as well, depending on the needs of each particular situation. In these desperate conditions, he revealed a spirit that was full of confidence and not susceptible to panic. While during more favorable circumstances, Belisarius proved neither vain nor prone to softness. Moreover, no man ever saw Belisarius drunk.” In the ancient assessment, Belisarius won because, like a Pericles, he understood that he had to encourage his rank and file when depressed and calm down the army when it was frenzied and overconfident in victory.

It has long been a habit to deprecate the achievement of Byzantium. “Byzantine,” after all, became an English adjective meaning “overly complex to the point of being unworkable.” Yet the classical roots of Western civilization survived in the eastern empire, while they were almost lost in the western. By the time of Constantinople’s collapse in the fifteenth century, the west was resurgent and had been enriched by a continuous rediscovery of its classical heritage, often only through the agency of the stewards of Byzantium.

Rome—as the legendary catastrophes of Crassus and Antony attest—rarely enjoyed success on its far eastern frontier, where by contrast an outnumbered Belisarius kept the empire’s border safe. Of course, Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon ranged as widely as did Belisarius over the Mediterranean world and the east, but all three did so as authoritarian heads of state—both as general and emperor. Belisarius trekked across the ancient world as a general in service to his emperor and the Byzantine state. Prior great captains of antiquity fought for power, riches, land, and glory; Belisarius fought to reclaim old land that had once been Roman. We can argue over the moral nature of Belisarius’ Byzantium—as we can over the nineteenth-century British Empire for which captains like Wellington crisscrossed Europe and India—but the quest of Belisarius was not for new colonies or new conquered peoples, but for the return of what others had taken. Justinian’s dream of reconstituting a Mediterranean empire, reuniting Rome and Byzantium, was finally in vain. But that effort yielded a military blueprint for preserving Roman rule in the east for another millennium—thanks largely to his savior general, Flavius Belisarius.

That Belisarius fell afoul of his superiors may be a testament to, not a contradiction of, his achievement. Edward Gibbon, no romantic and no admirer of Byzantium, perhaps best summed up the character of Belisarius that explains much of his military success and lasting legacy: “The spectator and historian of his exploits has observed that amidst the perils of war he was daring without rashness, that in the deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.”

Field of Glory II: Age of Belisarius

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