DUMBO AND MIGHTY MOUSE

The PBM Mariner was one of the Navy’s most important patrol bombers in WWII. The Mariner carried out anti-submarine warfare patrols and rescue missions for downed pilots and ship-wreaked sailors, by Jim Tomlinson 

EAST CHINA SEA

APRIL 7, 1945

Their call signs were “Dog Eight” and “Dog Ten.” Lieutenants Dick Simms and Jim Young were the pilots of the two Martin PBM Mariners of VPB-21 that had been shadowing the Japanese task force. Since early morning the big flying boats had flitted in and out of the clouds, radioing position reports, staying just out of range of the antiaircraft guns on the ships below. When the strike planes showed up to hit the task force, the PBMs remained on station as “Dumbos”—search and rescue aircraft—so named from the Walt Disney cartoon featuring a baby flying elephant.

The Mariner was a gull-winged, two-engine flying boat with a crew of seven and an on-station time of fourteen hours. It was both a lethal weapons platform—it could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs and torpedoes and had eight .50-caliber guns—and a sitting duck. Like all flying boats, the lumbering PBM was slow and easy to hit.

In the hierarchy of military aviation, being a Dumbo pilot didn’t carry the same cachet as flying a fighter. Dumbo duty was tedious and often dangerous. When the PBM crew located an air-crewman in the water, they would keep a vigil overhead, dropping a float light or a raft, flying cover until a destroyer or submarine showed up. When necessary, they made an open ocean landing, a high-risk maneuver in heavy seas. After hauling the airman aboard, the Dumbo pilot would coax the flying boat back into the air, slamming through waves and troughs, praying that the hull didn’t split apart.

Dog Eight and Dog Ten were ringside witnesses to the epic sea battle playing out beneath them. Their greatest danger was collision with the strike planes buzzing in and out of clouds and rain showers. They had watched the grand finale—the pulsing fireball that leaped up from the dying Yamato. The cruiser Yahagi was already gone, and so were several of the destroyers. The Mariner crews could see Japanese survivors in the oil-slicked water clinging to pieces of flotsam.

As the strike planes withdrew, a Yorktown Helldiver pilot radioed that he had spotted a yellow life raft—the kind used by American airmen. He didn’t know if anyone was in it or not.

Simms and Young, the Dumbo pilots, went down to take a look. At first they saw only the heads of Japanese sailors. Nearby were three enemy destroyers, still afloat and presumably able to fire their guns. Crewmen inside each Dumbo scanned the water with binoculars.

Then someone spotted it. There was a yellow raft, and a lone figure was in it, waving like crazy. While Dick Simms, flying Dog Eight, made a decoy pass by the nearest destroyer, drawing fire but taking no hits, Young set up for the water landing in Dog Ten.

The sea conditions were on the ragged edge of what the PBM could handle—wave crests 25 feet apart, with a heaving swell. If the PBM smacked directly into a wave, the hull could be crushed or a wing would snap. There would be eight men in the water instead of one.

Young leveled out over the waves, floated for a moment while he looked for the right place between crests, then settled the flying boat into the churning sea. Still in one piece, Dog Ten wallowed through the water toward the tiny figure in the yellow raft.

Bill Delaney had been afraid they were going to leave him. Numb from the frigid water, he kept waving until, to his immense relief, he saw one of the Dumbos turn back and land. Now it was plowing like a great seabird toward him, rising into view on the tops of the swells, disappearing between them. Delaney had broken open a second dye marker. Now the stuff was spread around his raft like fluorescent goo. Nobody could miss it, including the Japanese.

The Dumbo made two passes at the raft. Each time the wind and waves caused the pilot to miss. On the third try, the pilot cut the engines and let the seaplane drift toward the raft. When the PBM had floated to within twenty yards, Delaney took matters into his own hands. He dived off the raft and tried to paddle the rest of the way.

He couldn’t make it. Before he drowned, two Dumbo crewmen managed to snag the floundering pilot with a boat hook and drag him aboard.

Meanwhile, the closest Japanese destroyer was taking a renewed interest in the operation. Plumes of shellfire were working their way toward the Dumbo.

Firing up Dog Ten’s engines, Jim Young swung the Mariner into the wind. Normally, an open-sea takeoff in a heavily loaded Mariner was a close contest between machine and nature. But Dog Ten had just been equipped with a new device called JATO—jet-assisted takeoff. Two pairs of solid-fuel rocket bottles were installed on either side of the aft fuselage.

Young shoved up the throttles and ignited the JATO bottles. Spewing a comet’s tail of fire and smoke, the big seaplane surged through the swells, slamming into each wave, finally skipping off the top of a swell and rocketing into the air.

Bill Delaney was one of the lucky ones. Several parachutes had been observed descending in the battle zone, but only a few airmen had been found alive. Tilley and Mawhinney, the crewmen Delaney had last seen bailing out of his Avenger, were never found.

The warbirds headed back to their carriers. The only ones to miss the party were the airmen from Hancock. Delayed in getting airborne, they hadn’t joined the massed force from Essex, Bunker Hill, Bataan, and Cabot. Heading off on their own, they milled around the East China Sea, never finding the Yamato task force.

The strike group from Intrepid didn’t bother trying to rejoin in a mass formation. The Corsairs, Helldivers, and Avengers segregated themselves into separate flocks, each flying at its best fuel-conserving speed for the long trip home.

Droning southward over the gray ocean, the pilots had time for reflection. By some miracle, Intrepid’s group had made it through the strike without a single loss. And each of them had been a witness to history: they had watched the great battleship Yamato go to her grave.

For Ens. Jim Clifford, Will Rawie’s wingman, there was no chance to savor the moment. Thirty feet away, his skipper was giving him urgent hand signals. Rawie’s radio had failed. He was signaling that he wanted Clifford to lead them back to the carrier.

The twenty-four-year-old ensign’s heart sank. Bombing battleships was one thing; leading a formation back to the ship was another. In the rush to launch for the Yamato mission, Clifford hadn’t paid any attention to the navigational details of the briefing. Hell, he was a wingman, not a leader. Clifford had no idea where the Intrepid was.

Neither, as it turned out, did the other flight leaders. Clifford could hear them on the tactical frequency asking for a heading back to the carrier. Then through the chatter came the voice of someone who sounded like he knew what he was doing. A good heading would be about 165 degrees.

It was good enough for Clifford. Off he went, his commanding officer on his wing, the rest of Intrepid’s Corsairs in trail. Weaving through the clouds, peering down at the vastness of the Pacific, Jim Clifford prayed that the heading would get them close enough to spot the fleet. If not, they were all screwed. They would run out of gas and ditch in the ocean.

Two hours passed. Clifford’s butt hurt. His arms and legs were stiff. There was no sign of the sprawling task force that they had left behind nearly five hours ago. Clifford sweated and prayed while the fuel gauge continued a relentless decline toward zero. He could feel Rawie’s silent gaze from the cockpit thirty feet away.

After what seemed an eternity, he heard something in his headphones—a faint dash-dot signal. It was the ship’s YE homing transmitter. The signal couldn’t be picked up at a range of more than about sixty miles. It was the most glorious sound Jim Clifford had ever heard in his life. Intrepid was dead ahead, ten minutes’ flying time away.

Each of the Corsairs plunked safely back down on Intrepid’s deck. Minutes later, the fatigued but adrenaline-charged pilots were jabbering and gesturing with their hands in the ready room, reliving the dramatic mission. They had been airborne five hours and fifty minutes, longer than most had ever flown in a single sortie. Will Rawie was telling everyone who would listen how his wingman, a lowly ensign, had led them back to the ship with such uncanny skill. It was amazing.

Jim Clifford had the sense to smile and shut up. It was amazing. He wasn’t about to tell them that it was pure blind luck.

While the battle for Yamato was playing out in the East China Sea, the skies around Okinawa were filled with kamikazes. It was the second wave of Admiral Ugaki’s initial kikusui, but on a diminished scale.

Like their brethren of the day before, the tokko warriors of the second wave were drawn to the same targets—the destroyers on the picket stations. And as they had before, the carrier-based CAP fighters pounced on them, splashing five before they could reach the picket ships.

One kamikaze managed to slip through the gunfire and crash into the destroyer Bennett, killing three men and wounding eighteen. Another slammed into the destroyer escort Wesson on her screening station north of Ie Shima.

To the northwest of Okinawa, another handful of kamikazes found Task Force 58’s fast carriers. Only one, an Aichi D4Y Judy dive-bomber, survived the CAP fighter screen and then the antiaircraft fire from the surface. Spotting the great gray shape of the carrier Hancock, the kamikaze swept in on the carrier’s bow at such a low angle that the propeller chewed through the port catapult before the crash. The Judy’s 250-kilogram bomb detached, smashing into the flight deck just aft of the forward mid-deck elevator.

What happened next was becoming a familiar scenario. The bomb punched straight through Hancock’s wooden flight deck, exploding in the forward hangar bay, killing every man in the space. Fueled and armed warplanes in the bay burst into flame and exploded. Topside, the hulk of the shattered dive-bomber caromed down the flight deck and slammed into a pack of nineteen parked airplanes, setting three ablaze and starting an inferno on the windswept deck.

Hancock was engulfed in flames belowdecks and topside. Her skipper, Capt. Robert F. Hickey, ordered a hard turn to starboard in a desperate attempt to slide the burning airplanes over the side. The fires on the hangar bay extinguished all the carrier’s lights and filled the darkened compartments with deadly smoke.

By 1345—a little more than an hour after the attack—Hancock’s crews had the blazing airplanes shoved overboard and the fires extinguished. It was eloquent testimony to how the U.S. Navy’s damage control skills had evolved in the past three years.

The kamikaze strike wasn’t the only indignity that Hancock would endure that day. While the ship’s crew was fighting the blazes, her air group was groping through the clouds over the East China Sea, searching for the Yamato. They never found her. At the end of their fuel, they were forced to jettison their bombs and torpedoes and return to Hancock.

But instead of a ready deck for landing, the airmen were greeted with a gaping hole in the flight deck and an ominous cloud of smoke. They orbited overhead, conserving their last gallons of fuel, praying that the damage control crews could patch the hole.

They did. At 1630, after a down-to-the-wire feat of damage repair, Hancock was bringing her aircraft back aboard.

There was no celebrating aboard Hancock that evening. Smoke and the smell of death wafted through the passageways. Sixty-three crewmen were dead and eighty-two more wounded, mostly from burns.

Hancock was able to continue operations for another day, but the port catapult was demolished and the forward elevator inoperable. The damage could not be repaired on station. Hancock was detached from her task group and sent to Ulithi, then further eastward to Pearl Harbor.

One more carrier was out of the fight. By the time Hancock returned, the battle for Okinawa would be history.

It was a bitter pill for Intrepid’s ambitious air group commander, Johnny Hyland, to miss the historic Yamato strike. That morning when the mission was being hurriedly put together, Hyland was already airborne on a fighter sweep over Tokuno, in the north Ryukyus. By default, group command of the Yamato attack had fallen to Will Rawie.

But the day wasn’t a complete loss for Hyland. While he was covering the Corsairs strafing the Japanese airfield, he glimpsed the silhouette of a low-flying Val dive-bomber headed south. Pouncing like a hawk, Hyland gunned the Val down with a single burst from his .50-calibers, chalking up his second air-to-air victory of the campaign.

The CAG wasn’t the only one in the group to score. Ens. Raymond “Freddie” Lanthier, while strafing a target at Tokuno, spotted an incoming Nakajima Tojo fighter. The Tojo was a fast mover, nearly as capable at climbing and diving as the Corsair. Attacking from below, Lanthier put enough rounds into the Tojo’s engine to send the fighter flaming into the sea.

Another senior officer who missed the Yamato battle was Lt. Cmdr. Wally Clarke, skipper of the VF-10 Grim Reapers. Clarke had led another twelve-plane strike on the airfields in the northern Ryukyus. Despite heavy antiaircraft fire, Clarke’s fighters strafed the field, destroyed eight parked airplanes, and withdrew to the south without losing an airplane—until they were en route home.

Ens. Donald “Mighty Mouse” Croy, killed in a midair collision, April 7, 1945

Clarke’s wingman was one of the Tail End Charlies, a short, youngish-looking ensign named Don Croy, whom the squadron nicknamed “Mighty Mouse.” A few days earlier, Mighty Mouse had had a close call. On a strike over Minami, he’d taken a hit and ditched his Corsair dangerously close to the enemy island. After several hours in his raft, he had been rescued by a daring OS2U floatplane pilot.

Now Croy was flying close formation on Clarke’s wing while the skipper weaved through the towering cumulus that obscured most of the East China Sea. In a moment of inattention, Croy didn’t see Clarke’s Corsair banking into him.

What happened next was never clear. Clarke’s propeller chewed into Croy’s wing. An instant later Mighty Mouse was spinning uncontrollably toward the sea. Clarke’s broken propeller was shaking his airplane so violently he had to shut the engine down. He glided to a water landing 4,000 yards behind a destroyer. Minutes later, the tin can crew was hauling him aboard.

But not his wingman. The destroyer sailors told Clarke they had witnessed the whole thing—the collision, the Corsairs dropping to the ocean—but no one saw a parachute. Mighty Mouse had disappeared without a trace.

Still slumped in his padded chair in Bunker Hill’s flag plot, Mitscher received the reports from the strike groups. When the strike was finished and the last warplanes had landed safely aboard their carriers, the Bald Eagle scribbled a message of congratulations to all the air groups. They had achieved a glorious victory, he wrote. He was proud of them.

Each strike group had brought back rolls of film documenting the attack. As quickly as the film could be processed, prints were being rushed to the flag bridge on Bunker Hill. With his ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, the admiral peered at the still-wet black-and-white images.

It was all there in the photos. Mitscher’s gamble had paid off. The grainy images provided the ultimate proof of the airplane’s dominance not only of the sky but of the sea. The age of the battleship was over. Mitscher should have been reveling in his moment of triumph.

But he wasn’t. The Bald Eagle was not his old self. His face was more haggard than ever, his eyes red-rimmed from the undiagnosed medical event of the night before. Mitscher took one more look at the photos, then rose from his chair. Without comment, he returned to his cabin and went back to bed.

Aboard New Mexico, Adm. Raymond Spruance was also digesting the reports. Although he’d gotten over the disappointment at missing out on a last great sea battle, he wasn’t ready to recall Deyo’s surface force, which was still steaming northward to engage the enemy. Four destroyers from the Japanese task force were still afloat, leaving the remote possibility that there might still be a surface action.

Rear Adm. Mort Deyo, on his flagship Tennessee, was accepting the fact that the damned airedales had again stolen the glory. That night, when the recall order finally came from Spruance, he sent off a jovial note to Mitscher. It was too bad, he wrote, that the surface sailors wouldn’t have “Japanese scrambled eggs for breakfast.”

A battle with the Yamato task force would have been a glorious last hurrah for Deyo and his beloved battlewagons. The next day they would go back to their shore bombardment duties off Okinawa.

For Mitscher’s airedales, the destruction of the Yamato and five of her screening ships had not come without a price. Ten warplanes—four Helldivers, three Avengers, and three Hellcats—had been lost. Four pilots and eight aircrewmen were missing and presumed dead. Several, including eyewitness Bill Delaney, had been snatched from the enemy’s midst by daring Dumbo crews. Still, the losses were minuscule when measured against those of the previous great air-sea battles. Mitscher’s airmen had won a spectacular victory.

Now Spruance could return his attention to the bigger picture. The Yamato encounter was dramatic, satisfying, perhaps even historically significant. But the pragmatic admiral knew the truth: it was a side show. The real battle for Okinawa was just beginning.

Aboard Eldorado, Kelly Turner was in an ebullient mood. A week had passed since the landings on Okinawa, and as far as the Alligator was concerned, things were going exceedingly well. The Yamato and five of her entourage lay at the bottom of the East China Sea. The greatest wave of kamikazes ever seen had been gunned down like coveys of quail. Buckner’s Tenth Army was meeting only sporadic resistance in its march across Okinawa.

Turner couldn’t resist sending a jocular message to his boss, the Pacific Fleet commander in chief. “I may be crazy,” he signaled Nimitz, “but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war, at least in this sector.”

Nimitz wasn’t buying it. From his Guam headquarters, he signaled back, “Delete all after ‘crazy.’ ”

As it turned out, Nimitz’s instincts were correct.

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

Belisarius may be this bearded figure on the right of Emperor Justinian I in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, which celebrates the reconquest of Italy by the Roman army.

Late Roman/early Byzantine bucellarius. Belisarius’ household troopers would likely have looked much like this figure.

Map of the Byzantine-Persian frontier

Date obolum Belisaurio!

“Give an obol to Belisarius!” So a medieval fable spread about the poor beggar who had once almost alone saved the Byzantine Empire and helped ensure that it would endure for another nine hundred years.

More than a millennium after the exile, disgrace, and death of Themistocles, the legendary general Flavius Belisarius in his old age was supposed to have been reduced to a blind tramp, crying for coins in his wretched state to common passersby along the streets of Constantinople. This mythical end of the first man of Constantinople remained a popular morality tale well into the nineteenth century. Romantic painters, poets, and novelists all invoked the sad demise of Belisarius to remind us of the wages of ingratitude and radical changes in fortune, which we are all, without exception, prone to suffer. In Robert Graves’s novel Count Belisarius, the old general is made to cry, “Alms, alms! Spare a copper for Belisarius! Spare a copper for Belisarius who once scattered gold in these streets. Spare a copper for Belisarius, good people of Constantinople! Alms, alms!

But even if a blind and mendicant aged Belisarius is a mythical tradition, the general’s last years were tragic enough. After stopping the Persian encroachment in the east (530–31), he saved his emperor from riot, revolution, and a coup d’état at home (532). Next he recovered most of North Africa from the Vandals (533–34). Then he directed, off and on, the invasion and recovery of southern and central Italy from the Goths (534–48)—only to be summarily recalled to Constantinople by his emperor Justinian. In all these victories, either defeat or stalemate had seemed the most likely outcome. Instead, the old Roman Empire of the Caesars was for a time nearly restored.

Then for the next decade (548–58), while war raged on all the borders of Byzantium, the empire’s greatest general sat mostly idle. Belisarius, for all his laurels, nearly disappears from the historical record, as he was kept close at home by a suspicious and jealous emperor—worried that the popularity of his victories might lead to a rival emperor rising in the newly reconquered west.

As some sort of nominal senior counselor to the court of the increasingly paranoid Justinian, Belisarius was to be kept distant from any chance for more of the sort of conquest that had so enhanced his own reputation—even if that exile might mean an end to the ongoing military recovery of the Western Roman Empire abroad. But then suddenly, the general was brought back out of retirement a final time to save the nearly defenseless capital from a lightning strike of Bulgars under Zabergan in 559. His final mission accomplished, Belisarius was dismissed from imperial service for good. Stripped of honors, the old captain increasingly fell under court suspicion, given his great wealth, his Mediterranean-wide fame, and his appeal among the commoners of Constantinople.

By November 562, even his spouse, the aged court intriguer Antonia—her legendary beauty long since dissipated—could not save her general’s military career. He was in his late fifties. The general had not held a major command abroad in twelve years since being replaced by the eunuch general Narses in Italy. Justinian put the retired and worn-out Belisarius on trial for his life on trumped-up charges of corruption and conspiracy to murder the emperor, whom he had served so faithfully for most of his life. He was imprisoned until found innocent in July 563. Thirty years of military service that had saved both the emperor and his empire counted for almost nothing. His once loyal former secretary and now hostile rival, Procopius, whose histories are our best source of Belisarius at war in the east, North Africa, and in Italy, may have been the court magistrate who oversaw his indictment and trial. In any case, much of the later work of Procopius is hostile to the general whom he once idolized.

While we need not believe ancient accounts that Belisarius had been blinded and sat on display as a beggar, his last acquittal brought little relief. The would-be restorer of Rome’s ancient glory died just two years later, about sixty years old in 565—a few months before the end of his octogenarian emperor, Justinian, who had done so much both to promote and to ruin his career. For nearly the next fifteen hundred years, the strange odyssey of Belisarius would serve as the theme of plays, novels, romances, poems, and paintings. The renown was due in part to his central and exalted place in the early chapters of the historian Procopius, an unbelievable career confirmed elsewhere in other sources. The general’s victories, his serial arrests, and his court ostracisms all made him a larger-than-life character.

At his death, Flavius Belisarius’ imperial Constantinople—nearly wiped out by successive epidemics of bubonic plague, with Bulgars once again nearing the gates of the city, its Christianity torn apart by schisms and heresies, the great dome of the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia just recently restored from sudden collapse due to design flaws, the forty-year reign of its greatest emperor nearing a close—would nonetheless endure another 888 years. Its resilience had been in no small part due to the thirty-year nonstop warring of Belisarius—the last Roman general and the greatest military commander that a millennium-long Byzantium would produce—who in a brief three decades had expanded the size of the eastern empire by 45 percent. Belisarius did not save a theater, or even a war, but rather an entire empire through unending conflict his entire life.

A Civilization in Crisis (A.D. 530)

When the inexperienced, twenty-five-year-old Flavius Belisarius was first ordered eastward to Mesopotamia to preserve Byzantium’s eastern borders from the Persian inroads, there was no assurance that an undermanned and insolvent Constantinople would even survive in the east. Salvation was not to be found in one or two battle victories against a host of enemies, but rather in long, costly wars in which Byzantium slowly reestablished its borders, assured potential aggressors that they would pay dearly for any future invasions, and sought to reclaim rich western provinces long lost to various barbarian tribes but critical to the original concept of Roman imperial defense in the Mediterranean.

Far to the west, “Rome” by the early sixth century had become no more than a myth. The Eternal City had been long before sacked by the Visigoths (410), again by Vandals (455), and, two decades later, was occupied (476) for a half century by the Gothic tribes. Almost all of Italy was reduced to a Gothic kingdom, a thousand miles away from Constantinople in the east, with tribal leaders squabbling over what wealth was left from a millennium of civilization.

Visigoths had long reached and settled in the Iberian Peninsula (475). Vandals—barbarians originally from the area of eastern Germany and modern Poland—were recognized as the unassailable rulers of the former Roman territory of North Africa (474). The Germanic Franks increasingly consolidated their power in and around Gaul (509). For millions from northern Britain to Libya, life was not as it had been just a century before. The Roman army, Roman law, and Roman material culture west of Greece were all vanishing—or at least changing in ways that would be unrecognizable to prior generations. Newcomers from across the Rhine increasingly drew upon the intellectual and material capital of centuries without commensurately replenishing what was consumed.

The emperor Diocletian had for administrative purposes divided the empire in the late third century A.D. In the early fourth century, Constantine the Great had founded the eastern capital of Constantinople on the Bosporus. Since then, Rome in the east had gradually developed a distinct culture of its own. Latin gave way to Greek as the eastern empire’s official language. The future Byzantium relied not so much on the fabled legions for its salvation, but on its superb navy, and later on heavy mounted archers. Constantinople looked more often eastward and southward to Asia and Africa for its commerce and wealth. Unlike the west, the east had somehow survived the fifth-century Germanic barbarian invasions from the north—perhaps given the sparser enemy populations of the northern Balkans and the greater natural obstacles offered by the Black Sea, Hellespont, and Danube.

Just as dangerous as foreign invasions were the multifarious religious schisms and infighting among Christian sects. Heresies and orthodox persecutions weakened resistance in the east to an insurgent Persia—and soon enough Islam. Constantinople would grow to over half a million citizens. Yet the empire’s enormous and costly civil service, and legions of Christian clerics, often came at the expense of an eroding military. The administration of God, the vast public bureaucracy, and the welfare state translated into ever fewer Byzantines engaged in private enterprise, wealth creation, and the defense of the realm—at precisely the time its enemies were growing in power and audacity.

By the time of Belisarius, no more than 150,000 front-line and reserve infantry and cavalry protected a six-hundred-year-old empire in the east that, even shorn of its western provinces, still stretched from Mesopotamia to the Adriatic in the west. If Italian yeomen had created the idea of Rome that had spread to the Tigris and Nile, Greek speakers who never set foot west of Greece kept it alive long after Latin speakers in Italy were overrun by Goths. Byzantine power, shorn of much of its Roman origins, still reached the banks of the Danube and the northern shore of the Black Sea and extended to Egypt in the south. By strategic necessity, some seventy thousand non-Greek-speaking “barbarians” were incorporated into the shrinking military. The empire relied as much on bribes and marriage alliances as on its army to keep the vast borders secure. Rarely has such a large domain been defended by so few against so many enemies.

What ultimately kept the capital, Constantinople, safe were its unmatched fortifications—the greatest investment in labor and capital of the ancient world. And the legendary walls would prove unassailable to besiegers until the sacking of the city by Western Europeans in the Fourth Crusade (1204). Nearly as important was the Hellespont, the long, narrow strait that allowed access from the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean and yet proved a veritable moat across the invasion path of northern European tribes. The well-fortified capital was surrounded by seas on three sides, and its navy was usually able to keep most enemy invaders well clear of the city itself.

For all the problems of the Byzantines, the eastern empire’s shrinking citizen body was still known as “Roman.” To moderns, Justinian’s sixth-century Constantinople may seem corrupt and inefficient, set among a sea of enemies with a declining population, and itself beset by faction and often plague that would come to kill more than a million imperial subjects. But to ancients, life within its borders by any benchmark of security and prosperity of the times was far preferable to the alternatives outside.

The Visions of Justinian

Consequently, even without the reintegration of western Europe and North Africa, Byzantium still controlled sizable territory consisting of much of modern-day Greece, the major islands of the Aegean and southeastern Mediterranean, the southern Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Iraq. Within these borders, classical learning and traditions of Roman law still ensured citizens ample supplies of pottery, glass, building materials, food, and metals. Literacy remained widespread. Thousands of imperial clerks and scholars continued to publish scientific and philosophical treatises that both expanded classical scholarship and gave rise to continually improving agriculture, military science, and construction.

Scholars have sometimes questioned whether Christianity—not just porous borders, Germanic tribes, punitive taxation, endemic corruption, inflation and debt, and constant civil strife—led to the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Had Christian ideas of magnanimity and pacifism replaced classical civic militarism, while hundreds of thousands of otherwise productive soldiers and business people flocked to religious orders? The theory of Christian-caused decline, however, would fail to account for a near-millennium of continued rule in the Christian east well after the fifth century A.D. loss of the Roman west. Instead, in the eyes of Romans at Constantinople, belief in the Christian God had at last given their existence meaning and renewed determination to preserve their culture amid the collapse of Mediterranean Rome. The more the Eastern church was both beleaguered and persisted, the more its unassailable orthodoxy was considered critical to Byzantium’s survival.

For a few visionaries like the future emperor Justinian and his lieutenant the young Belisarius, a tottering Byzantium should be not only saved but at all costs expanded. We do not know the degree to which Justinian from the beginning had systematic plans of restoring the lost western empire, or whether his successes in North Africa and Sicily led opportunistically to more ambitions in Italy in ad hoc fashion. Eastern Romans, in spite of their schisms and heresies, still believed that they had avoided much of the civil strife so destructive in the west. Byzantines had the more defensible borders, and a far more secure capital protected by massive walls and water on three sides, and so they, in time, could reconstitute much of the original domain of Augustus—or so at some point the young emperor Justinian may have begun to dream. That most residents of sixth-century North Africa and Italy might well have preferred to have been ruled by Vandals and Gothic tribes rather than see their lands devastated and depopulated for years in a war brought on by long-forgotten Greek-speaking foreigners was largely irrelevant to Justinian.

Belisarius was to become rich from the spoils of his western conquests. He no doubt enjoyed the laurels of victory and the fame his military prowess ensured. But ultimately what drove him and thousands in the high echelons of Byzantine government and the military for more than thirty years against near impossible odds were both his faith in Christianity and his allegiance to the idea of Roman civilization and the gifts it had bestowed on millions. In other words, the generation of Belisarius fought relentlessly to reclaim the old empire because it believed in the idea of Rome—because it felt the restoration of the old way to be far better for their would-be subjects than the present alternative.

Belisarius under the walls of Rome

Flavius Belisarius the Thracian (505–27)

Little is known of Belisarius’ early life before his entry onto the pages of Procopius’ history. He first appears already a young officer in the imperial guard of the future emperor Justinian headed into Armenia with an army—“young and with first beard.” In a striking mosaic panel in the sixth-century church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (built not long after Belisarius captured the city), Belisarius, in simple civilian dress, appears to the right of his emperor Justinian. He stares out as a thin, dark-bearded young man of about forty, with thick, carefully combed black hair. The mosaic suggests more a scholar than a warrior.

In any case, Belisarius was born in ancient Thrace in what is now western Bulgaria, sometime between A.D. 500 and 505. He was in his early to midtwenties when Justinian became emperor and had previously served the future ruler in his personal guard.12 Although the two would soon be at odds, there was some personal affinity between them that might explain why the young twentysomething officer, with little frontier experience, was sent out with an army to the eastern border to quell a Persian attack on the far reaches of the empire. Given his age, the relatively small size of his forces, and his lack of any experience fighting seasoned Persian troops, it is a wonder that the young Belisarius survived the frontier at all.

Both Justinian and Belisarius married powerful women—Theodora and Antonia respectively. Both wives’ pasts were of supposed ill repute. That fact is often cited as explaining the inordinate influence that the two women held over their husbands, in a fashion atypical even of the lively early Byzantine court. Justinian and Belisarius were also both Thracians by birth. Unlike most Byzantine elites, they were native Latin, rather than Greek, speakers. These affinities also may explain why both would share the notion that the lost distant western provinces and the old capital at Rome were key to Byzantium and could still be brought back inside the empire. But for such a grand notion to become reality, a shaky and nearly insolvent Constantinople would first have to ensure security on its perpetually contested eastern borders with Persia.

Belisarius Goes East: The First War Against the Persians (527–31)

On the eastern borderlands—roughly in parts of modern-day western Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and eastern Turkey—the horsemen of the rival Sassanid Empire of Persia continually pressed the empire. Even in classical times, Caesar’s Rome had been unable to pacify the Arab and Persian east in any permanent manner. Some of Rome’s greatest losses—the deaths or capture of nearly thirty thousand legionaries at Carrhae (53 B.C.) and Mark Antony’s serial defeats in the east (40–33 B.C.)—were at the hands of Parthian and later Persian armies. In general, due to the problems of land transport, scarce water, and great distances from the Mediterranean and Aegean, Romans preferred to work out general agreements with the Persians. These accords left much of the eastern frontier with only vaguely demarcated borders, along a line descending from the southeastern shores of the Black Sea nearly down to the Red Sea.

Court accountants at Constantinople carefully calibrated the relative expenses of appeasement versus military action. They usually concluded that it was cheaper to pay an Iranian monarch to stay eastward than to march out eight hundred miles from Constantinople to stop him with an army. In any case, both Iranians and Byzantines had plenty of other enemies, and so in time they grudgingly acknowledged each other’s civilizations; and they found their arrangements mutually acceptable for decades. But in 527 the Persian monarch Kavadh and the dying Roman emperor Justin dropped the old protocols of understanding. Kavadh claimed Justin had reneged on ceremonially adopting his son Chosroes (Khosrau) to cement a closer alliance. Justin, in turn, had tired of paying the bribe money and thought resistance to Persian demands could for once prove cheaper than the serial gold payouts.

In reaction to the increasing tension, the Persians attacked the pro-Byzantine region of Lazica on the Black Sea. That aggression prompted a retaliatory strike against Persia—if a slow-moving expedition could be so called—by the emperor. War was on. A series of expeditions went eastward, among them a northern corps led by the young, untried Belisarius and his co-commander, Sittas. The historian Procopius at the time explained the unusual promotion of someone so young to high military office by the fact that the hitherto obscure Belisarius was attached to the imperial guard of the general Justinian, nephew to the emperor Justin (518–27) and probable heir to the throne. He had surely not earned command by any prior feat of arms. The young Belisarius found himself in a near-hopeless war, far from home against far more experienced and numerically superior enemies.

At first Belisarius and Sittas, under the general command of Justinian, had mixed success along the frontier in Persarmenia, ravaging enemy territory before losing a pitched battle to the Persians. In just this first year of operations, the inexperienced Belisarius had done well enough to be in position as a commander to take advantage of two unexpected events. First, the other Byzantine generals, Belisarius’ rivals, had fared even more poorly—or perished. Libelairus (the magister utriusque militum, or overall theater commander of infantry and cavalry) lost his nerve on hearing of the Byzantine setback in Persarmenia. He then retreated from an attack in the south at Nisbis, and thereby gave up his command. Then the regional commander in eastern Turkey and Iraq (dux Mesopotamiae), Timostratus, died. For unknown reasons, Sittas, not Belisarius, was probably blamed for the initial failure in Persarmenia. The result was that Belisarius replaced Timostratus and took over overall command of efforts at expanding operations to the south in Mesopotamia

Second, in August 527, the emperor Justin died. Belisarius’ patron, Justinian, at last assumed power. The Byzantines committed far more resources to the Persian war, including a plan to build an extensive system of border forts and defenses to keep the Persians out of Roman territory. Again, Constantinople had neither the resources nor the desire to invade Persia, much less to topple the Sassanids. Instead, its limited aims were occasional hot pursuit across a new fortified line that might achieve some sort of deterrence and so bring an uneasy peace in the east without the costly bribes. The resulting savings would supposedly allow the funding of more important impending operations in the west, where most of the old Roman Empire had been lost.

Yet neither Justin nor his successor, Justinian, had yet quite conceded that the protection of the old eastern border with Persia—given the loss of resources from the Roman west—was beyond the power of their meager forces. The fact was that the grand strategy of the new young emperor Justinian—the notion of waging an eastern war to allow a subsequent, far more ambitious conflict to begin against the Vandals in the west—was courting disaster. The burden of two-front operations, from Gibraltar to the Euphrates, would plague all subsequent operations over the next twenty years. As Napoleon learned in 1812, and the Germans discovered in 1944, distant dormant fronts to the rear have a habit of awakening at inopportune moments to plague a bogged-down invader with multifarious battles.

Still, young Belisarius almost immediately proved worthy of his selection through two characteristics that would elevate his leadership above his contemporaries. First, he was calm in battle, and he knew instinctively the relationship between tactics and strategy and thus avoided wasting the limited resources of the empire in needless head-on confrontations that would lead to no long-term advantage. Second, Belisarius was skilled in counterinsurgency, in winning the hearts and minds of local populations by not plundering or destroying villages and infra-structure—an advantage in the dirty wars fought in the vast no-man’s-land between Persia and Byzantium. Such restraint was rare among gold-hungry Byzantine commanders in the east. The result was that, even after initial defeats, Belisarius never lost an army or had hostile populations turn on his rear.

At Mindouos, the Byzantines under a joint command were repulsed when they rashly advanced and got entangled in concealed Persian trenches. The other commanders, Bouzes and Coutzes especially, were faulted for the defeat, while Belisarius managed to retreat with most of the cavalry intact. In subsequent efforts to fortify Mindouos, Belisarius was again defeated. He was forced to withdraw to the fort at Dara. Yet he was rewarded with promotion and immediately began retraining an army in expectation of a renewed Persian offensive. The Byzantines had lost a series of battles, but their forces had forfeited little territory and were still largely intact. Progress continued on their fortifying lines. And now a battle-tested Belisarius enjoyed authority over rival commanders.

Then at Dara in 530, along with his co-commander Hermogenes, Belisarius marshaled some twenty-five thousand troops against Persian forces at least twice that size. He was determined to decide matters through pitched battle. He had learned much from his previous defeats; this time, the commanders ordered their troops to construct elaborate trenches in front of their formations. They positioned infantry provocatively to the front and center, ahead of the cavalry on the wings—but reinforced at its rear with additional concealed horsemen. Belisarius figured that the enemy would be impeded by the trenches and confused by foot soldiers deployed so brazenly at his front. Perhaps the Persians would then slough off from his strong center to attack the wings instead. That way, as the enemy advanced and began to spread out, Byzantine cavalry, and hidden reinforcements behind the infantry, could swarm the enemy on its flanks.

After an initial two days of skirmishing and futile negotiations, the battle began in earnest on the third day. The Persians added another ten thousand reinforcements. Belisarius had removed a cavalry contingent from his left wing and positioned it farther to the rear, hidden behind a small hill. When the Persians attacked on the right, they were surprised on both sides by the secondary mounted forces of the Byzantines. Over on the opposite side, the backpedaling infantry and cavalry on the Byzantine left held long enough for their mounted reserves to similarly hit the Persians on the flank.

Some five thousand elite mounted Persians were killed in just a few hours. In response, the less reliable Persian infantry in the center threw down their arms and retreated. Altogether, more than eight thousand Persian horse and foot soldiers were lost. A Byzantine expeditionary force—for the first time in memory—had defeated a massive Persian army in the east, and one nearly double its own size. The dramatic win at Dara gave the Byzantines a respite until the next spring, 531, when on Easter Day they met the Persians again to the south on the northern bank of the Euphrates River. Unfortunately, the lessons from Dara were not fully digested. Buoyed by the success at their prior victory, Belisarius’ co-commanders believed that they no longer needed fixed positions, impediments and trenches, or the use of deception to defeat the Persians. Now, after Dara, they fooled themselves into thinking that the Byzantines were innately superior and could fight much more mobile Persian forces on almost any terrain and at any time they wished.

The result was disaster at the ensuing battle at Callinicum, fought on the banks of the Euphrates on April 19, 531, in what is now northern Iraq. With five thousand Ghassinid Arab cavalry and twenty thousand imperial troops, Belisarius recrossed the Euphrates and for once had a temporary numerical advantage over a Persian army of about fifteen to twenty thousand. But the enemy was mostly mounted and mobile, and the Byzantines were recklessly intent on pursuing the enemy.

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

The armor and tunics of the bucellarii would have varied wildly after years on campaign and scavenging armor wherever possible; as men replaced broken pieces with armor captured or purchased locally. But his figure represents what Belisarius’ household bucellarii might have looked like in their early years, armed in typical (and uniform) fashion from arsenals in Constantinople.

Once across the Euphrates, the Byzantines oddly put their infantry on the left wing, protected by the river, and massed allied Arab cavalry on the right. Their own cataphracts (heavily armored cavalrymen) were in front of foot soldiers in the center. In the ensuing battle—our sources suggest that Belisarius tried to persuade his troops to hold off attacking—the Byzantines failed to detect a massing of Persian cavalry against their right wing, which soon crumbled, leaving the infantry facing the enemy with the Euphrates at their back. By the time the retreating Byzantines found safety across the river, they had probably suffered the greater casualties and lost any momentum won at Dara. Belisarius learned that in such border fighting, numbers per se did not always determine the outcome as much as tactics, morale, and generalship: Outnumbered Byzantines had won at Dara, and now similarly outnumbered Persians prevailed at Callinicum.

At that point in the seesaw war, the fifty-year-old new emperor Justinian concluded that it was time for diplomacy (and payoffs). He negotiated an “Eternal Peace” with the Persians (it was to last little more than seven years). He paid them eleven thousand pounds of gold, gave up some border territory, and recalled the thirty-year-old Belisarius to Constantinople to prepare for a new campaign far to the west against the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. Justinian was impatient for the calm in the east that was needed for him to turn toward the west. Chosroes himself wanted a truce to begin a radical shake-up in the organization of his Persian military.

Justinian had proved that his re-formed army could hold its own with the Persians even when manpower, geography, and logistics favored the enemy. The emperor had his peace, at the cost of a fixed annual tribute. In the near-constant fighting, Belisarius had learned how to deal with local populations and to use mixed contingents of allies—and to carefully deploy his limited forces against numerically superior opponents only when there was a good chance of success. Given the limited manpower of Byzantine frontier forces, losing an occasional battle was tolerable. Losing an army in the fashion of the old Roman campaigns in the east was not. Meanwhile, on the home front, the new emperor was still consolidating power, and yet finding it almost politically impossible to raise enough taxes for the planned new offensives in the west.

Belisarius Back Home: Riots and Rebellion at Constantinople (532–33)

Belisarius returned to civil unrest at Constantinople. He underwent an audit concerning the defeats in Persarmenia, and especially the losses at the battles of Mindouos and Callinicum. Yet Belisarius was absolved of any guilt—no doubt on the grounds that such setbacks were not fatal to the Byzantine cause on the border and he returned with peace at his rear. His critics were also wary of the young general’s ties with the emperor and sensed that Belisarius was being prepped for future commands. The defeats could be ascribed to the laxity of his co-commanders, or perhaps the excessive zeal of his undisciplined troops, who had fervently urged their general to fight when Belisarius’ instincts advised caution. Still, Belisarius had lost as many battles as he had won. And he had returned home through gold indemnities rather than victory.

His arrival at Constantinople was opportune. Justinian, in his fifth year of rule, had begun an ambitious reform of the civil service and tax system. The naïve emperor had hopes of firing bureaucrats, trimming expenses, and earning more revenue—again with an eye of readying capital for the reclamation of the western provinces. But in reaction, both civil servants and the wealthy, whose bribes traditionally ensured favorable court decisions, began to fight back. It was one thing to lose jobs and pay to ward off imperial bankruptcy, quite another to fund a huge optional war rumored to be planned in the west.

Throughout the summer and fall of 531, dissent most often surfaced through two factions that often acted as little more than armed gangs. The so-called Greens were identified with civil servants, tradesmen, and the commercial interests of the eastern provinces. The establishment party of the nobles and wealthy, with all the pretensions of the Graeco-Roman aristocracy, made up the more influential core of the rival Blues. These two opposing umbrella groups, often known as demes, were odd conglomerations of horse racing fans, political pressure groups, mafialike patronage organizations, and Christian zealots all in one. They drew on popular support for racing in the Hippodrome to find captive audiences for their various political agendas and money-making enterprises.

Now furious about the prospective loss of patronage and increased taxes, the rival Greens and Blues joined in their anger toward Tribunianus, the court lawyer in charge of judicial reform, and John the Cappa-docian, the praetorian prefect who oversaw the new taxation. The ultimate target, however, was the emperor Justinian himself, who was seen as blatantly cutting corners in order to prepare for a needless war in the west.

In reaction, Justinian was forced to take action against the increasing violence of both factions. That further angered the more affluent Blues, whose social network he had often relied on for political support, while alienating for good the Greens, who sorely felt the cutback of state jobs. In a naïve show of bipartisan justice, Justinian had arrested and condemned to death seven ringleaders of both groups. At this point, after the inexperienced emperor had united rival gangs against himself, almost everything he would do proved counterproductive, and soon catastrophic.

By the new year, 532, two of the seven gang leaders had somehow survived the gallows—unfortunately, both a Blue and a Green—and sought sanctuary in a nearby church. Then the two factions joined in their demands that both be spared. Justinian could back down and appear weak; or he could take on the unified mob in the streets and risk outright civil war. When there instead followed only tepid imperial response, Blues and Greens became more emboldened, issuing a series of demands to suspend tax reform and arrest imperial grandees like John the Cappadocian, Tribunianus, and the city prefect Eudaimon. The mob was calling the shots and looking for some puppet to provide legitimacy for their ad hoc takeover.

The more Justinian wavered, the worse the situation got. When the two factions next met for scheduled races in the Hippodrome in January 532, their common slogan was “Nika!” (“Conquer!”). Now in concert, the Greens and Blues began killing government officials, freeing prisoners, burning down churches (including the original Hagia Sophia), and surrounding the imperial residences. Soon the rioters proclaimed the reluctant Hypatius, the elderly nephew of the former emperor Anastatius, the new emperor, with the expectation that the weak figure would front for both parties.

Justinian, besieged in his palace, still attempted to appease the rioters. He tried offering various amnesties, while promising investigations of imperial corruption. For five days, the emperor remained virtually surrounded. In some sort of depression, Justinian contemplated abdication—perhaps in the dazed fashion of a reclusive Josef Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, or the Shah of Iran’s bewilderment in his final days of January 1979 as he lost his kingdom. According to ancient sources, Justinian’s spirits were finally revived by his feisty wife, Theodora. She knew something of the low-life violence of the street and the fickle nature of crowds that respected strength but were emboldened by hesitancy. Theodora declared that she would rather die than cease being empress. Such braggadocio needed not be literally true, only to appear to be so to restore the mettle of her terrified husband. At last Justinian determined to fight back and restore order and obedience. The key was to separate the two factions in the Hippodrome, play one against the other, and make a violent demonstration to the mob of the power and anger of the emperor.

In a last effort to arrest the pretender Hypatius and quell the crowd, Belisarius with a few loyal bodyguards made a fateful decision to stake his emperor’s survival on charging the mass of rioters in the Hippodrome. Fortunately for Justinian, even the outnumbered forces under Belisarius caused immediate panic among the motley insurrectionists. In turn, loyalist forces were encouraged at this belated sign of imperial defiance to join the fray—especially the general Mundus, who commanded some foreign mercenaries.

The court loyalist Narses had earlier begun buying off most of the leaders of the favored Blues, who suddenly began drifting away in small groups and returning home. Soon, when most of the grandees of the Blues were gone, Narses blocked the exits of the huge Hippodrome, leaving mostly Greens trapped inside. The heavily armed forces under Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses advanced. They met little resistance from the unarmed and panicked rebels. The emperor’s troops were free to butcher the remaining rioters and unfortunate bystanders—and butcher them all they did. Thirty thousand were said to have perished in the Hippodrome—perhaps as many as the entire number of enemy Persians killed in the recent war by the imperial army in the east. It would be a trademark of Justinian’s rule that more of his subjects died through plague and riot at home than abroad at the hand of his innumerable enemies.

Soon the bumbling and reluctant interloper Hypatius was arrested and executed. Prominent treasonous senators and nobles were exiled. John the Cappadocian and Tribunianus were reinstated. The immediate result was that Justinian emerged stronger, wiser—and more ruthless. From now on he would listen far more frequently to his wife, Theodora, whose defiance had saved the emperor from his own loss of nerve. With the newfound cost-cutting financial reforms, a relatively quiet eastern border, and growing respect and confidence, Justinian could at last turn to North Africa.

Belisarius initially had been sent only to arrest Hypatius, but on his own initiative he had become the first of the three loyal generals to attack the rioters. That unexpected act in itself probably broke the rebellion. The soldiers’ daring had saved Justinian and guaranteed Belisarius preeminence among Justinian’s generals. Now a master of court politics, the newfound hero married Antonia, a lowborn libertine twenty years his elder with a number of children. She was not only a court insider, but also an intimate of the empress Theodora.

Which of the two women in the lurid history of Procopius appears the more cruel and depraved? It did not matter—Antonia’s savvy and her intimacy with the empress cemented the previous natural affinity of the general and his emperor. In the end, Antonia proved a lifelong political partner with her far younger husband in what the historian Edward Gibbon famously called “a manly friendship.” The young Belisarius may have lost three of four battles on the eastern border. He may have failed to achieve a clear strategic victory over the Persians. But after the Nika riots he had proved absolutely loyal to his emperor—and shrewd about the relationship of military power to popular support. Moreover, as a Latin speaker and native of a more western province, Belisarius was an ideal commander to recapture the old Latin northern coast of Africa, and anything beyond that his emperor might envision.

Thus in June 533 the young Belisarius was entrusted by Justinian with his third great mission and set sail for Tunisia, with his new wife, Antonia, and his personal secretary, the court insider and soon-to-be historian Procopius. He was probably no more than thirty, but he already had earned a reputation as Constantinople’s fireman, the first military responder to the empire’s inevitable next conflagration.

Belisarius Goes South: The War in Africa Against the Vandals (533–34)

Throughout the fifth century, a succession of Germanic Huns, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths had overrun much of Roman western Europe as they picked off the western and northern provinces of the empire. Yet none of these northern barbarian invasions had proven as terrifying to the residents of an eroding Roman Empire as the onset of the Vandals. With not much more than a hundred thousand tribesmen, swift-moving Vandal forces had savagely swept southward and westward from their homes in modern-day eastern Germany and Poland. After migration west along the Danube in the early fifth century, the Vandals crossed the Rhine, ravaged Gaul, and settled in the Iberian Peninsula before, under their leader Genseric, swarming southward across the Mediterranean into the old Roman provinces of North Africa. If the warm southern Mediterranean was an odd place for such northern European tribes to settle, nonetheless by 439 they had taken Carthage and de facto ended Roman government in much of the old domains of Mauretania, Africa, Numidia, and Cyrenaica—parts of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya that for much of the fourth and the early fifth centuries had been considered immune from the more distant Germanic invasions.

The Vandals—their purported propensity for wanton destruction gave us the later noun “vandalism”—were most infamous for their sack of Rome in 455, and for the failure of any subsequent Roman or indigenous Moorish force for a century to root them out of Africa. Unlike other Germanic and Slavic tribes, the Vandals exiled or murdered most elite Roman landowning citizens. They focused on piracy and raiding rather than expanding agriculture and commerce, and either forcibly converted most Catholics in North Africa to their own heretical Christian sect of Arianism—or killed them. Whether it was true or not, in the Roman mind, the Vandals were far more destructive than the Goths and had shown little inclination to resurrect the veneer of Roman culture under their domain.

In 468 the Vandals had destroyed a large eastern Roman fleet that had attempted to reclaim North Africa. From that time on, they were given their due from Byzantium, which had no desire to lose thousands in another hopeless war against such a murderous tribe. However, by the time of Justinian, after a century of pillage, Vandal kings recognized that their numbers were too small to guarantee their own security in the face of hostile Moorish tribes to the south and the establishment of Gothic kingdoms across the Mediterranean. They had done well enough pillaging and ending centuries of Roman rule, evading both Roman and then Gothic punitive pursuit. But as the booty ran out, the parasitic Vandals had not been able to create anything in its place comparable to the system of Roman wealth creation and governance in Africa that they had drawn upon for a century.

As a result, the Vandal kings began to seek an uneasy peace with Constantinople—on the general promise of a newfound tolerance for Catholics in Africa and agreements to respect Roman order in the eastern Mediterranean. But when the pro-Byzantine Vandal king Hilderic (523–30) was dethroned in a coup, his cousin, the usurper Gelimer, renewed the persecutions. Soon the supporters of the deposed king appealed to Constantinople—at precisely the time Justinian was planning to reclaim at least some of the western provinces, if not in pursuit of his grandiose idea of a restored Roman Empire in the west. The emperor had a good casus belli, relative peace at his rear, a growing treasury, a silenced opposition, and a young, energetic general to conduct an invasion.

Yet the odds of success were still not encouraging. Once the armada entered the Mediterranean from the Aegean, the winds were largely unfavorable for westward sailing. The Byzantine fleet of some five hundred ships would have to land and supply an army among hostile populations more than a thousand miles from Constantinople. Even should Belisarius take back the Vandal capital at Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, he might still have to hold the province against numerically superior indigenous Moorish tribesmen. The Visigoths in Spain and the Ostrogoth kingdom in Italy were at best neutral; yet more often both wished to see Byzantium weakened.

Nevertheless the general set sail in June 533, along with Antonia, Procopius, and a large force of seamen, infantry, and cavalry. The armada numbered perhaps forty-five to fifty thousand, although only twenty thousand were front-line combatants. Belisarius had learned much on the Persian border and during the riots at Constantinople—to show both force and mercy among civilian populations, and not rashly to commit his usually outnumbered and sometimes poorly disciplined multicultural forces to battle in unfavorable circumstances.

Despite a difficult three-month voyage to Africa—contaminated bread and bad water sickened or killed hundreds on the voyage, and a diversion of part of the fleet to Sicily was necessary to restore supplies—Belisarius landed in early September 533 with his forces intact, about fifty or sixty miles east of the Vandal capital at Carthage. His plan was simple: Belisarius would march his forces methodically westward—no more than about ten miles per day—keeping the fleet in sight to protect his right flank and sending out his feared Hunnish cavalry on his left as he rallied the countryside against the Vandal king.

As Belisarius began to march westward through the coastal towns, he ordered his men to spare the native African villages. Byzantines enlisted both the Moors and what was left of the old Roman landowning classes, in a promised liberation from Vandal savagery and the visions of a more enlightened renewal of the former imperial rule. Belisarius envisioned an insurgent campaign of winning over the countryside, or, as he put it, “This is the moment when moderation brings salvation, while lawlessness leads to death.” As a result he made a relatively uneventful march as “if in his own land.” In some sense, it seemed an absurdity that a Greek-speaking Byzantine army, more than a thousand miles from home, less than a year after near civil insurrection, and with an enemy restless on its eastern borders, would even attempt to overthrow the heretofore dreaded Vandal kingdom—or that anyone in the west would wish to join such an empire in chaos. Yet Belisarius approached Carthage as if he were leading a consular army at the zenith of Roman provincial power.

The shocked Vandals were scrambling under their chieftain Gelimer to put up some sort of resistance with a somewhat smaller force of ten to fifteen thousand, hoping to ambush Belisarius on the last leg of his march. They apparently anticipated that the Byzantine fleet would have to round Cape Bon out of sight of the army, where the coastal road crossed farther inland over hilly terrain to Carthage. Gelimer accordingly split his forces and assumed that once Belisarius descended into a low valley, he could be attacked front and rear from the mountains without hope of supplies or reinforcements from the fleet. Gelimer sent his nephew Giba-mund with two thousand cavalry to hit the slow-moving Byzantines on the flank. Then his brother Ammatas would block the enemy advance. The main body under Gelimer would finally follow Ammatas to finish the pincer movement, surround Belisarius, and destroy his column in familiar territory.

Ten miles outside Carthage, on September 13, 533, at Ad Decimum (“at the tenth milepost”), Belisarius carefully established a secure camp. He then dealt piecemeal with each successive Vandal contingent, careful not to dilute the strength of his main forces. The historian Procopius saw Belisarius’ genius in not deploying all his forces at the sight of each Vandal onslaught—together with the far too complex ambush of Gelimer—as largely responsible for the successive destruction of the various Vandal armies.

It was unwise for the Vandals, as a numerically inferior force, to trisect their strength in hopes of ambushing a larger column. Once the Vandal surprise attacks failed, there was nothing much left to block the steady advance of Belisarius on the capital. By day six of their march, the Byzantines were inside Carthage, repairing the ancient walls and preparing for a final battle against the reconstituted forces of Gelimer. In short, within a week of landing, Belisarius had accomplished what neither a Roman nor a Gothic force had been able to do in over a century—occupy the capital of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. It was an example of blitzkrieg unmatched in the ancient world since the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Now in Carthage, over the next three months, Belisarius sent emissaries to win over the local Latin-speaking population, the Moorish tribes, and Vandals still loyal to the previous regime of Hilderic. Gelimer, in response, was reinforced by his other brother, Tzazon. The latter had just put down a rebellion in Sardinia and arrived to join the recuperating Vandals. The brothers hoped to retake Carthage from the west. On December 15 they confronted the Byzantines with a much larger force at Tricameron, seventeen miles outside Carthage. Belisarius had lost hundreds of his troops over the prior three months of firming up his occupation of the countryside. Now he was forced to station even more of his men to protect the captured towns from sporadic Vandal raids. So it is likely that some fifteen thousand Vandals under Gelimer at Tricameron may have initially outnumbered the Byzantine mounted force by perhaps five thousand or more.

Belisarius again deployed quickly and did not wait for the muster of his own infantry—cognizant of how the Vandals had fled at Ad Decimum when met with a sudden show of Byzantine nerve. The plan was for the heavy Byzantine cavalry on the wings to veer in and hit the Vandal center, after missile troops and horse archers had softened up the enemy, in hopes of breaking through before the Vandal flanks could surround Belisarius’ smaller force. After at least two heavy Byzantine mounted assaults, Tzazon fell. The Vandal center weakened and once more Gelimer panicked and fled the field. By the time the Byzantine heavy infantry finally arrived, the Vandals were already in full flight.

Over the next three months, Belisarius continued to root out the last vestiges of Vandal resistance in the west. He captured Gelimer and then finally was recalled to Constantinople—both to receive a triumph and to quash rumors that he wanted to set himself up as an independent strongman in a new African province. The emperor appreciated that Belisarius had established a clear pattern of winning generalship and seemed always to find a way to defeat Justinian’s enemies, from the Persian frontier, to the streets of Constantinople, to distant North Africa.

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

Belisarius in the center, pointing; two members of his bucellarii bodyguard stand behind him. The figure on the right appears to be a chieftain or high-status member of his Hun auxillaries; though many of his bucellarii were Huns and this may be one of these.

In his new style of provincial warfare, Belisarius felt he could make up for the chronic shortage of troops through audacity and winning over the local population—anticipating modern notions of counterinsurgency warfare in which an outnumbered invader must enlist local adherents to a shared cause. So-called barbarian forces, as Belisarius knew, were led by magnetic tribal leaders. When these charismatic strongmen were targeted and fell in battle, their armies usually dissipated. The key was not to use his signature heavy cavalry in reckless fashion in unplanned pursuits, but to hit the enemy hard and quickly through focused and concentrated jabs, destroying its morale before it could use greater numbers to outflank and surround the smaller expeditionary Byzantine forces. In contrast, either alienating the locals or in static fashion preparing for a large set battle was a prescription for disaster.

The Mediterranean world was stunned at the fall of Carthage. Belisarius had landed in North Africa in June 533. Less than seven months later, his army had destroyed the century-old Vandal kingdom in Africa, captured the usurper king Gelimer, either killed, enslaved, or recruited into his army most of the Vandal population, established a new Byzantine province that might provide a base for future conquests in the west—and sent waves of terror through the Gothic hierarchy in Italy that it might be next in line in Justinian’s apparent plan to pick off vulnerable provinces of the old Western Roman Empire. Byzantium was supposed to have followed the fate of Rome as a shrinking, corrupt populace gave way before hardier, growing, and more warlike tribes on its borders. Instead, Belisarius had somehow reversed the course of Mediterranean history and found a way for a small force of relatively affluent westerners to mold a successful expeditionary army of invasion against European tribesmen. As the general put it to his men before facing the Vandals, “Not by the number of men, and not by the measure of one’s body, but by the valor of the soul, war is decided.”

Belisarius returned to Constantinople with the entire treasury of the Vandals—reputedly one of the largest hoards in the ancient world, the aggregate stash from some one hundred years of plunder in the western Mediterranean, much of it to be used to pay for the new church of Hagia Sophia. Those Vandals not scattered throughout North Africa were brought back with Belisarius to the capital and forcibly integrated into Justinian’s armies. The Vandal people quite literally had ceased to exist as an identifiable tribe and so disappeared from history.

The stunning achievement energized Justinian, at about the same time as the monumental church of Hagia Sophia was rising and as his historic reorganization and compilation of Roman law—the Pandects or Digest—was at last issued at Constantinople. Anything, it seemed—military, religious, legal—was possible for Justinian and his newly ascendant Rome.

There would be occasional provincial uprisings and tribal revolts in Roman-reoccupied North Africa. The indigenous Moors, as well as what was left of the old Roman landowning elite, would grow to like their new Byzantine overseers no more than they had the Germanic invaders. Yet Byzantine power in North Africa would remain for more than a century—until the Islamic advances of the seventh and eight centuries swept westward from Egypt and incorporated the Maghreb into the growing Muslim caliphate.

Belisarius Goes North: The War in Italy Against the Goths (535–40)

After a year of adulation and a consulship in Constantinople, Belisarius headed again out west for the most important campaign of the emperor’s intention to restore as much of the old Mediterranean empire as his resources would allow. His orders this time were to reclaim Italy and Sicily, and to ensure that the Moors did not overwhelm the newly reclaimed Roman provinces in North Africa.

Unfortunately, Belisarius would have less than half of the forces that had set out for Africa—in part because the emperor was deluded by the easy victory over the Vandals into believing Gothic Italy was equally vulnerable. In part, Justinian was also cautious because of the war closer to home against the Goths in Dalmatia. And in part, the emperor wished to guarantee that no one of his growing stable of generals was given too many resources that might at some future date threaten his power. He was still shaken, after all, from the Nika riots, when he had come within hours of losing both his throne and his life.

The so-called Gothic Wars in the Italian peninsula, in their various phases, were to last for nearly twenty years (534–54). The conflict would ultimately result in the near-complete annexation of Italy under Byzantine rule—and for a brief moment the near-recreation of the old Mediterranean Roman Empire. And yet the fighting would prove so exhausting to both invaded and invader that within little over a decade after the final peace (568), the Lombards would invade an impoverished Italy and undo most of the work of Justinian’s generals there, just as Byzantine North Africa would later fall to the Islamic tribes.

The first phase of the war to restore Ostrogoth Italy to Roman rule would last five years (535–40). As in the Vandal war, the fighting began when Justinian intervened in a dynastic dispute—in this case, the murder of the friendly Gothic queen Amalasuntha—and sent Belisarius with 7,500 troops to remove the usurper Theodahad. Waged under the Byzantine propaganda of freeing long-lost kindred Italians from the “slavery” of the barbarian Goths, the war proved lengthy, complex, and costly.

The campaign again underscored the genius of Belisarius in using extremely small forces to overwhelm the Goths and eventually take control of most of Italy and its seven million or so inhabitants. Until Belisarius’ invasion, the Ostrogoths, like the Vandals, had terrorized Roman society for more than two hundred years since their initial incursions across the Rhine and Danube during the fourth century. The very distance that once had made Constantinople and the eastern empire more secure from the fifth-century barbarian invasions—originating from the northern side of the Rhine and western Danube—unfortunately ensured that it was increasingly difficult to resupply Byzantine troops fighting in far-off Italy.

Throughout the former western provinces there arose a certain mystique around the Goths—namely, that Germanic purity and hardiness had overwhelmed Roman decadence and frailty. Many Italians expected that subsequent Roman attempts to assert authority from distant Constantinople would surely prove no match against an innate Germanic ferocity. But whereas Italians may have been awed by the notion of Gothic invincibility, Belisarius was not. He saw instead traditional “barbarian” weakness of the sort his veterans had dealt with in the east and in Africa: an absence of unified command, reliance on mercurial tribal leaders, spotty logistics, lack of reliable sea power and naval support, and vulnerability to heavy armored Roman cavalry, especially the mounted archers that had proved so advantageous in the eastern wars against the Persians.

Belisarius landed in Sicily late in 535 and quickly won over the island’s population. By December, his paltry Byzantine forces had mopped up the remaining Gothic holdouts on the island without much of a struggle. The terrified Goths at that point might have immediately ceded much of southern Italy to the popular invader. But another Byzantine army in Dalmatia across the Adriatic—under the commanders Mundus and his son Mauricius—was unexpectedly overwhelmed. Both generals perished. As a result, the Goths were given newfound optimism in resisting Belisarius, and were freed from worry of a relief invasion from the north by a second Roman army. Then, just as he prepared to invade Italy, Belisarius got wind of a revolt back in North Africa. He quickly returned to Carthage to put down a mutiny by a renegade Byzantine general, Stotzas. The latter had rallied garrison troops angry over the lack of promised pay, disputes over booty, and religious sympathies for Arianism.

Stotzas had a popular agenda of setting up a rogue Byzantine independent state in North Africa, and he somehow had managed to recruit some nine thousand Moors and Vandal holdouts to his cause. He was hoping to declare himself a king of Africa while Belisarius was bogged down in Italy. Yet with just two thousand loyal troops, Belisarius did not hesitate nor delegate, but on his own initiative landed at Carthage, galvanized friendly troops, saved the city, routed Stotzas, restored the province, and left the mop-up to the emperor’s nephew Germanus. It was a little-remarked-on victory, but once again demonstrative of how the mere name of Belisarius was able to awe local populations and instill loyalty and morale in his own troops—and terror in his enemies. He quickly sailed back to Sicily to resume planning for the invasion of Italy, leaving Africa secure but in wretched shape after nonstop fighting between indigenous Moors, Vandals, and Byzantines.

By late spring 536, Belisarius had landed on the Italian peninsula and taken the southern city of Rhegium. He went quickly northward to the stronghold at Naples and stormed the city after a costly siege, characterized by savagery on both sides. Now the road to Rome was open, and Belisarius lost no time in heading farther north. Meanwhile, a new Byzantine general in Dalmatia, Constantinianus, had retaken the offensive, routed the Goths, and threatened to enter Italy from the north or by sea from the east.

At this point, the usurper Theodahad was murdered. A new, more charismatic strongman, Vittigis, emerged to rally the Goths. Still, most of the native Italian population began to favor Belisarius and the Byzantine promise of a new united empire, perhaps in hopes that well over a half century of Gothic tribalism was coming to an end with a return of Roman rule under an enlightened western, Latin-speaking general, fueled by eastern money. On December 9, 536, Belisarius entered Rome. In just a year he had annexed much of North Africa and retaken Sicily and half of Italy. Byzantine power had advanced from its new bases in the Mediterranean, more than three hundred miles to the north, and caused widespread dissension among the Gothic ranks. All this Belisarius accomplished with an army not much larger than two traditional Roman legions, and largely within the strategic directives and limitations established by a distant and suspicious Justinian. With the Vandal fortune, Belisarius had probably paid for the cost of his operations through booty rather than imperial outlays. For a moment both Constantinople and Rome were again united under one emperor.

Rome may not have been the center of Gothic power. Yet the city was still relatively unchanged physically from its majestic days of Roman imperial power, and it remained home to some six hundred thousand inhabitants of various ethnicities and languages. Today the fifth-century “Fall of Rome” is a catchphrase for the end of days, but we rarely recall that after just sixty years of Gothic rule, the Roman general Belisarius in fact recaptured it from the proverbial barbarians, on the promise of an end to the Arian heresy and a return to a Roman grandeur of the old emperors.

Belisarius quickly moved to secure the surrounding countryside outside Rome and ready the city’s defenses for the expected counterattacks. He was responsible for defending the ancient capital with a minuscule command more akin to the urban police than a national army. Vittigis arrived to besiege the city four months later. From March 537 to March 538, the Byzantines were surrounded by various Gothic armies. The vastly outnumbered Belisarius was in nonstop action. He enrolled the citizenry into his defense forces and restored the old Aurelian ramparts. The Byzantines sent out constant sallies, and on occasion won and lost pitched battles before the city walls. Belisarius—in what would be a recurring scenario—desperately entreated Constantinople to send reinforcements, given that the enemy outside the walls may have numbered at various times over a hundred thousand besiegers. Yet he got no reply. Justinian did not regularly communicate with his generals, much less did he articulate to them any grand strategy of reclaiming the Roman west—either out of distrust or his own confusion over what his ultimate strategic aims actually were.

Finally, as spring 538 approached, the Goth besiegers began to tire, especially as additional Byzantine forces appeared by sea. The result was that the enemy finally gave up and retired in March. After his brilliant defense of Rome, Belisarius then prepared to move farther northward with the new Byzantine reinforcements to complete the conquest of the northern Italian peninsula. But while Justinian had sent troops and more supplies, the emperor had established no clear central command authority in Italy—perhaps by intent rather than laxity.

As soon as Belisarius and rival generals focused on capturing Ravenna to end Gothic rule south of the Po River, disputes broke out as to how best to use limited resources to complete the conquest. Belisarius, the newly arrived eunuch general Narses, and John, the nephew of the general Vitalianus, bickered endlessly. They could not agree to unify Byzantine strength and storm the remaining northern Italian cities, most of which were far better fortified than the southern towns. And the farther northward the Byzantines went, the longer their supply lines grew from the Mediterranean—and the closer they came to the traditional centers of Germanic power and influence. Unity among the various small armies of the Byzantines was needed more than ever—at a time when many commanders wished to hunker down and loot their newfound provinces rather than risk stretching northward in an effort to reestablish a western province for Constantinople. Again, the problem lay back home with an emperor who had never quite decided whether he had the resources to restore in systematic fashion the old Roman Empire or merely would take what territories he could when a favorable occasion arose. Was the west to be part of a New Rome—or merely fragmented buffer states to offer security and loot for Constantinople? The answer seemed to depend on whether Justinian’s armies were stalemated or on the move defeating their enemies.

The result of a distracted and divided command was that Milan was retaken by the Goths, mostly razed, and its Roman citizenry massacred, while the Byzantine relief forces were left squabbling. Finally, Narses, the Armenian eunuch general, was recalled. That move at last left Belisarius with overall nominal command. The final subjugation of northern Italy went ahead with the capture of the Gothic strongholds at Auximum (modern Osimo) and Faesulae (Fiesole).

By May 540, Belisarius—now with loyal subordinate commanders, reinforcements, and control of the Adriatic—at last stormed Ravenna, the Gothic capital, and captured Vittigis. All of Italy south of the Po River was in Roman hands. Then Belisarius himself was recalled to Constantinople, ordered to bring back the captured Gothic king and his Italian treasury—and, most important, to address rumors that he had considered setting himself up as a conquering strongman independent of Constantinople.

Nonetheless, in a mere seven years, Belisarius had conquered western North Africa, Sicily, and most of Italy, almost doubling the geographical extent of the Byzantine Empire—and creating as many new problems as old ones solved. In the endeavor, the treasury at Constantinople was close to being depleted. The conquered lands were largely devastated and hardly able to become immediate productive sources of new taxation. Scarce imperial garrison troops were scattered from Carthage to Ravenna, more than a thousand miles from the capital. The old Vandal treasury waned as Justinian continued with his vast building projects. Indeed, to run this new expanded empire from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, Rome, not a distant Constantinople, as in the past would seem to be the more ideally situated capital. Belisarius himself had incurred jealousy and hatred from his rival generals, many of them increasingly well connected at Constantinople and eager to feed rumors to a paranoid Justinian.

The conquered Goths had predicated much of their surrender on the assurance that the godlike Belisarius, as a sort of sympathetic proconsul, would stay on and guarantee Gothic interests. Yet he apparently either was disingenuous in his negotiations or realized only afterward that he could never honor such a promise. If such a proconsulship under Belisarius might have brought a chance of lasting peace to Italy, it also would have ensured the general’s own demise at the court of Justinian. Meanwhile, Constantinople’s opportunistic eastern enemies had broken the peace to strike on the frontier while Justinian was distracted in the west.

As Belisarius was recalled home in 540, what, in fact, had the Byzantines accomplished in the west? Clearly, Africa and Italy had cost more than these new acquisitions might in the near future earn. To the north of Italy, Franks and Lombards were eager to capitalize on the demonstrable weakness of their traditional rival Goths, who, as they had acculturated to life in Italy, sometimes had proven to be as much a bulwark against the other, fiercer northern Germanic tribes as they had been incorrigible enemies of Roman civilization. Most importantly, a destructive precedent had been ratified in which the more Belisarius won land and power for the emperor, the more Justinian sent out rival generals to undercut his own general’s success. The more he added to the empire, the more costs the strapped empire incurred. If it were to be a choice—and it often was unfortunately seen at Constantinople in just those Manichean terms—between Byzantine conquest and an exalted Belisarius, Justinian usually clipped the wings of his most successful general and accepted the resulting negative effects on his wars.

But all that said, for a brief moment, most of the old Roman Empire—with notable exceptions in Gaul, Britain, and most of Spain—was reunited under a central authority for a last moment in history. The chief remaining rival heresy to Catholicism—Arianism among the Vandals and Goths—was on the wane. A new religious and political unity looked as if it were on the horizon. Belisarius had proven himself able both to defeat and to appeal to Moors, Vandals, and Goths as a fair proconsul rather than a vengeful conqueror, while managing to hold territory with relatively small numbers of troops. Had Justinian in 540 continued to place his trust in the young Belisarius’ abilities, the Byzantines might have institutionalized the lost provinces within their imperial administration and the new unified empire might have endured.

Unlike Belisarius’ return home after the destruction of the Vandal kingdom in Africa, when he arrived at Constantinople with the defeated Vittigis in tow, Belisarius was given no more public triumphs, despite unmatched victories in Italy. Byzantium’s greatest general was still only thirty-six. He had been at war nearly nonstop for Justinian for the last fourteen years. Belisarius was a popular icon and already achieving mythic status among the populace at Constantinople—as famous for his military exploits as he was for his legendary character and personal habits. In an age of gratuitous cruelty and barbarism, Belisarius was noted, by the standards of his times, for his clemency, honesty, and lenient treatment of the conquered. Such mythmaking spread in the streets of Constantinople attesting to Belisarius the saintly conqueror, who personally attended his wounded, replaced the lost equipment of his soldiers at his own expense, and treated as sacrosanct the property of the residents whose land he marched through and fought on. His martial excellence had ensured everything from the funding to finish off Hagia Sophia to the recapture of Rome.

Whether or not Belisarius’ legendary avoidance of alcohol, womanizing, and bribery likewise was true, it mattered little. The people seemed to have accepted all his virtues as gospel. When their general came home from the furthest borders of the empire, he brought peace, greater power—and plenty of plunder. But by 540 Justinian had two problems: a new outbreak of war to the east with the Persians, and a mature general more beloved and powerful than the emperor himself. The solution to both was to send Belisarius to the east to save yet another seemingly lost war.

Belisarius Goes East Again: War Again Against the Persians (540–41)

The “Eternal Peace” between the Byzantines and Persia in fact lasted just seven years. The uneasy truce was broken when the Persian king Chosroes once more crossed the Euphrates and began storming Byzantine-held cities on his way to Antioch on the Mediterranean. He had rightly assumed that the past six-year-long drain on Constantinople from warring in the west was an opportunity for some easy plundering of Byzantine territory that might earn even more lucrative bribes from Justinian to keep his eastern frontier quiet. More important, the Persians, in general, considered that they had been fooled into signing an armistice that freed up the Byzantines to profit in Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Newly acquired western treasure and manpower, Chosroes feared, might be redirected by Justinian toward the old conflict in the east.

The Persian invasion once more reminded Constantinople of the dilemma that Byzantium and its generals faced in their quest to restore much of the ancient Roman Empire. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, Byzantium usually had two strategic defense choices. One, it had only enough strength to muster in a single theater to conduct a truly decisive war. Thus the successive acquisitions in Africa and Italy only invited Persian opportunism on the eastern border once Byzantine resources were focused elsewhere. In contrast, the second alternative of defending all of Byzantium’s borders at once, without offensive operations designed at destroying permanently any one threat, also meant that its growing number of belligerents was never really defeated. Therefore, enemies usually were manipulated into uneasy armistices through bribery, dynastic marriages, and occasional regional fighting—all biding their time until they sensed a general weakness at the core.

After storming or forcing the surrender of the Byzantine-controlled cities on both sides of the Euphrates—Apamea, Beroea, Chalcis, Edessa, Hieropolis, and Sura—Chosroes finally accepted Justinian’s offers of money to return to Persia. But on his long way back home from the rich and historic city of Antioch, which he had stormed and pillaged, Chosroes decided to grab in addition the key Byzantine border citadel at Dara. Once there, he broke off his siege only after receiving another thousand pounds of silver. The more the Persians threatened Byzantine cities, the more money they received to desist—and the hungrier they were for the next easy payoff.

Justinian saw that bribes, supplied both from his own treasury and new plunder from the west, were only stopgap solutions, and that he needed to send out Belisarius to restore the border—almost a decade and a half after he went east on his first command. Justinian this way might kill two birds with one stone: removing a popular rival to the emperor at home while ensuring inspired military leadership abroad. Arriving from Lebanon, Belisarius reached Dara in June 540. There he prepared to enter Persian territory to teach Chosroes a belated lesson. Unfortunately, Belisarius quickly learned that Byzantine commanders far to the north on the eastern shores of the Black Sea had so maltreated local populations that Chosroes, while in Greek-held Lazica, had presented himself as a Persian liberator of indigenous peoples from supposed Byzantine oppression. There was again a sense in the east that spiraling Byzantine taxation fueled operations far to the west rather than being invested in security closer to home.

Yet whereas the Persians sensed Byzantine division and uncertainty, Belisarius saw an opportunity: While Chosroes was in the north picking off Byzantine border towns, the Persian southern flank was for a moment poorly guarded. After an inconsequential battle outside the stronghold of Nisibis and a failed siege, Belisarius pressed further onward, down the southern bank of the Tigris to Sauranon. The Persian garrison there surrendered. And Belisarius now sent a raiding party across the Tigris to plunder formerly untouched Persian territory. In just a few months, once beleaguered Byzantine forces had now, if only symbolically, entered the territory of the Persian aggressor. But as the year ended, Belisarius retreated back across the border before Chosroes returned from the north. Lurid rumors had also reached the general that Antonia, newly arrived at the front from Constantinople, had conducted an open affair with their adopted son, Theodosius, in Belisarius’ absence.

To top it off, a new and deadly type of bubonic plague was sweeping through the empire’s eastern provinces and fell especially hard upon the army. The malady, brought on by the bacillus-carrying rat flea, would do more than any enemy to weaken the power of Byzantium at just the time its wealth and power were taxed as never before by Justinian’s apparent vision of a new united Rome. Indeed, perhaps a million Byzantine subjects would eventually fall to the disease, paralyzing military operations in the fashion that the great Athenian plague of 430–429 B.C. had essentially ended the Athenian dream of winning the Archidamian War against Sparta.

Justinian’s reign was to be marked forever by a dividing line not of its own making: expansion before the outbreak of the plague, and then desperate consolidation and occasional retrenchment after hundreds of thousands had taken sick and died. In some sense, the efforts of Belisarius in realizing Justinian’s plans simply ended when the plague struck. Disease succeeded in curbing Byzantine power where Persians, Vandals, and Goths had failed.

Belisarius returned to Constantinople to criticism that his successful Persian invasion had been prematurely terminated due to his own personal crises, and that his absence would only encourage another enemy attack. Few acknowledged that the Persians, after two years of warring, were at least sometimes on the defensive, much less that the plague-stricken empire no longer had adequate resources simultaneously to restore the old western Roman provinces and keep Persia on its side of the eastern border.

In the spring of the third year of the war, 542, Chosroes once again crossed the Euphrates with his largest army yet, then headed to the northwest through modern Syria. A weary Belisarius again set out from Constantinople and occupied Europum to block his advance. He then entertained some Persian ambassadors, selected his largest and most fit soldiers to stage ostentatious marches, and in general convinced the visiting officials that they were in mortal danger of having their king cut off and surrounded deep in Byzantine territory by his own near-superhuman troops. After further negotiations and some hit-and-run fighting, Chosroes withdrew and the three-year renewed Persian war ended quietly without much loss of Byzantine territory.

Belisarius was widely praised in his third major eastern campaign for chasing the Persians out without committing to a major battle or incurring much loss—especially at a time when the plague was killing Byzantine men far more than were Persian soldiers. He finally departed for Constantinople at year’s end, despite news that thousands were dying each week in the plague-infected capital.

In his two-year war, Belisarius had chased the Persians out of Byzantine lands. He had killed more of the enemy than he had lost, while conserving imperial resources for yet another flare-up in the west. Belisarius’ trademark tactics had proven successful throughout the empire. He was the sole Byzantine general, who, by quick advances and deliberate fighting on favorable terrain, could defeat or outsmart all sorts of numerically superior enemies. His outreach to local populations ensured indigenous support anywhere he campaigned and meant that he could push back the enemy at little cost while neither exceeding nor failing to meet his emperor’s goals.

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

Aces High I

Georges Guynemer, the frail, almost sickly pilot who had risen like a meteor to become France’s ace of aces with fifty-four victories, was dead.

Those who had seen him on that last day, a hazy September morning in 1917, recalled that he had seemed particularly nervous, pacing up and down anxiously while his mechanics prepared his aircraft for flight. He had been scheduled to fly a patrol with three other pilots, but two were late in arriving and so Guynemer, impatient as ever for combat, had decided to fly with only one companion, Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz. They had taken off together for an airstrip near Dunkirk in their SPAD S. VIIs, on whose sides was painted the white marabou insignia of Escadrille SPA 3 – L’Escadrille des Cigognes.

Less than two hours later, Bozon-Verduraz returned alone. There had been a dogfight, and he had lost sight of Guynemer. His combat report told the terse story:

‘Pilot: Bozon-Verduraz. Take-off time: 08.35. Time of landing: 10.25. Maximum altitude: 5,900 metres.

‘At 09.25, together with Captain Guynemer, attacked an enemy two-seater over the lines at Poelcapelle. Made one pass and fired thirty rounds. Captain Guynemer continued to pursue the enemy as I was obliged to break off to avoid eight single-seaters, which were preparing to attack me. I did not see Captain Guynemer again. At 10.20, attacked a two-seater at 5,900 over Poperinghe. Fired ten rounds at point-blank range, then gun jammed. Pursued the enemy, but was unable to clear the stoppage and returned to base.’

The hours went by. Guynemer was long overdue. Commandant Brocard, commanding officer of the Cigognes, spent all morning on the telephone, searching for news; there was none. Then, in the afternoon, there came a message from an infantry unit to say that a French aircraft had been seen diving into the German lines, although as yet there was no confirmation that it was Guynemer’s.

The first hint of Guynemer’s fate came three days later, when a German newspaper carried the report that Guynemer had been shot down by a German named Captain Wissemann, but it was to be another month before the news was officially confirmed. In response to a note sent via the Spanish Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin issued the following statement:

‘Captain Guynemer fell in the course of an air flight at 10.00 am on 11 September last, close to Cemetery of Honour No II to the south of Poelcapelle. A medical examination revealed that the index finger of the left hand had been shot away, and that the cause of death was a bullet in the head.’

Some time later on that September morning, the British artillery laid down a heavy barrage on the area where Guynemer was said to have fallen. After the brief examination by a German patrol soon after the crash, the pilot’s body had been left in the wreckage. After the barrage, a second patrol was sent out to bring in the remains, but they found no trace of either pilot or aircraft on the smoking, shell-cratered ground. Both had been completely obliterated.

A week or so after the death of Georges Guynemer, Captain Wissemann, who claimed to have shot him down, wrote home to his family: ‘Don’t worry about me. Never again will I meet an adversary who is half as dangerous as Guynemer.’ Only nineteen days after writing those words, Wissemann was himself shot down and killed by a man who was destined to emerge from the holocaust of the First World War as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot. His name was René Fonck.

Fonck, who had scored his early victories over the terrible battleground of the Somme in 1916 and who had joined the Cigognes in April of the following year, soon began to establish his position among the ranks of France’s leading aces. In October 1917, in the course of thirteen and a half hours’ flying time, he destroyed ten enemy aircraft using fairly simple tactics. He would fly high, so that he was almost always above his opponents; then, choosing his moment carefully, he would use his height and speed advantage to gain surprise. His aim was excellent, and a single firing pass on the dive was usually enough to send down his enemy.

By the end of 1917 Fonck’s score stood at nineteen enemy aircraft destroyed, putting him in equal third place with two more talented pilots, Captains Albert Deullin and Georges Madon. In second place was Captain Alfred Heurtaux, with twenty-one, and leading the field was Lieutenant Charles Nungesser, the senior surviving French pilot with thirty victories.

The British, too, had lost their ace of aces in the bitter air fighting of 1917. Early in the year, the score of Captain Albert Ball DSO, MC, the rising star of No 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, had been running neck and neck with that of Georges Guynemer, and the newspapers had been quick to seize on the friendly rivalry that had been growing between the two. At the beginning of May 1917 Ball had actually passed Guynemer’s total, and there had been much speculation about whether he would catch up with the leading German fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, who at that time had fifty-two kills to his credit.

Ball and No 56 Squadron had skirmished with von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 on several occasions, but Ball had never made contact with von Richthofen personally. Then, in May 1917, the British learned that von Richthofen had gone home on leave and that his unit had been taken over by his brother, Lothar; it seemed an ideal opportunity to bring Jagdstaffel 11 to combat and, in the absence of its normal talented commander, inflict some losses on it.

In the evening of 7 May 1917, therefore, two Royal Flying Corps squadrons – one of them No 56 – set out to mount an offensive patrol over Jagdstaffel 11’s airfield at Douai. One of 56’s pilots, Cecil Lewis, described the scene:

‘The May evening is heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscapes, solid-looking as snow mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines . . . Steadily the body of scouts rises higher and higher, threading its way between the cloud precipices. Sometimes, below, the streets of a village, the corner of a wood, a few dark figures moving, glides into view like a slide into a lantern and is then hidden again . . .

‘A red light curls up from the leader’s cockpit and falls away. Action! He alters direction slightly, and the patrol, shifting throttle and rudder, keep close like a pack of hounds on the scent. He has seen, and they see soon, six scouts three thousand feet below. Black crosses! It seems interminable till the eleven come within diving distance. The pilots nurse their engines, hard-minded and set, test their guns and watch their indicators. At last the leader sways sideways, as a signal that each should take his man, and suddenly drops . . .’

As the fight was joined it suddenly began to rain, cutting down the visibility. The section leaders of No 56 Squadron tried hard to hold their men together, but in the confusion of the dogfight the squadron became badly dislocated. Some of the SE5s ran for home, others headed for a pre-arranged rendezvous over Arras. There, Albert Ball joined up with another flight commander named Crowe and the two continued their patrol, joined by a lone Spad. Near Loos, Ball suddenly fired a couple of Very lights and dived on a red-and-yellow Fokker Triplane, following it into a cloud.

It was the last time that Ball was seen alive. Of the eleven SE5s that had set out, in fact, only five returned to base.

On the German airfield at Douai, the Germans were celebrating. Not only had Lothar von Richthofen returned safely to base in a damaged aircraft, but he claimed that he had shot down Albert Ball. The claim was incorrect, and to this day controversy still surrounds Ball’s death. He was either shot down by a German machine-gun mounted on a church steeple, or became disorientated in low cloud and went out of control. The Germans buried him near Lille, and dropped a message to that effect over No 56’s aerodrome. A month later, it was announced that Ball had been awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross. His score of enemy aircraft destroyed at the time of his death was forty-three. Like Guynemer, he was just twenty-two years old.

It was the action of No 56 Squadron which, later in 1917, brought about the death of the second top-scoring German pilot after Manfred von Richthofen. He was Lieutenant Werner Voss of Jagdstaffel 10, who by the time he went on leave early in September 1917 had achieved forty-seven victories.

Within a couple of hours of his return to duty on 23 September, Voss took off in his Fokker Triplane and went looking for another victim. The triplane had first made its appearance over the front early in September and, in the hands of experienced pilots such as Voss and Richthofen, was a formidable opponent. Nevertheless, it was not invincible; Lieutenant Kurt Wolff, the leader of Jagdstaffel 11 and an ace with thirty-three victories, had been shot down and killed in one on 5 September by Flight Sub-Lieutenant N. MacGregor of No 10 (Naval) Squadron, flying a Sopwith Camel.

Voss’s victim on this first sortie of 23 September was a de Havilland DH4, which he caught and shot down as it was heading towards the British lines. On his way back to base he experienced some engine trouble, so he turned his usual aircraft over to the mechanics and got another machine ready for the next sortie. It was similar to his own in every respect apart from the colour scheme, which was silver-blue with a red nose.

At 6.00 pm, despite poor visibility, Voss took off in company with two Albatros Scouts, which then formed the main equipment of Jagdstaffel 11. Over the front line they saw an air battle in progress between a variety of British and German aircraft, including the SE5s of No 60 Squadron. Voss immediately manoeuvred into position to attack one of these, which was flown by Lieutenant H. A. Hamersley and which had become isolated from the others.

Twenty minutes earlier, six SE5s of ‘B’ Flight, No 56 Squadron, had taken off from their airfield at Estrée Blanche to carry out an offensive patrol. The flight was led by Captain James B. McCudden, who was accompanied by Lieutenants G. H. Bowman, A. P. F. Rhys-Davids, K. Muspratt, R. Maybery and R. T. C. Hoidge. Almost as soon as the SEs arrived over the front, McCudden spotted an enemy two-seater and attacked it, sending it down in flames. Re-forming his flight immediately, he then climbed hard to intercept a formation of six Albatros Scouts, slipping along just under the cloud base.

At that moment, McCudden sighted Hamersley’s lone SE fleeing for its life, with Voss in hot pursuit. Abandoning the Albatros formation, he went after the triplane in a diving turn, followed by Arthur Rhys-Davids. The pair closed in rapidly on the German, one on either side, and began to open fire in short bursts. Voss, with four more SEs coming down fast to join the other two, took the only course of action open to him: he decided to turn and fight, doubtlessly hoping that the Fokker’s manoeuvrability would enable him to hold his own until reinforcements arrived. He stood the Fokker on its wingtip and pulled round in a steep turn to face his attackers, firing as he came.

McCudden, taken completely by surprise, took the first burst through his SE’s wing and broke away sharply. At that moment, a red-nosed Albatros DV arrived and joined the battle. Its pilot, almost as skilful as Voss himself, took on the task of protecting Voss’s tail, and with his assistance the German ace abandoned his purely defensive tactics and got in some damaging shots at the SEs that were trying to out-turn him. For ten minutes the six SEs and the two German machines gyrated around the sky, the Germans looking out all the while for the expected help that would enable them to escape. It never came, and the outcome was inevitable. The combat report of Lieutenant Rhys-Davids describes the last frantic minutes of the fight:

‘The red-nosed Albatros and the triplane fought magnificently. I got in several bursts at the triplane without apparent effect, and twice placed a new drum on my Lewis gun. Eventually I got east of and slightly above the triplane and made for it, getting in a whole Lewis drum and a corresponding number of rounds from my Vickers. He made an attempt to turn in and we were so close that I was certain that we would collide. He passed my starboard wing by inches and went down. I zoomed, and saw him next with his engine apparently out, gliding east. I dived again and got one shot out of my Vickers. I reloaded, keeping in the dive, and got in another good burst, the triplane effecting a slight starboard turn, still going down. I had now overshot him, zoomed, but never saw him again.’

McCudden, having broken off the fight for the moment to change an ammunition drum, saw the triplane’s last moments. It seemed to stagger for a brief period, flying erratically; then it went into a steep dive, streaming smoke, and exploded on impact with the ground. A few moments later it was joined by the red-nosed Albatros, destroyed by the other SEs.

Later, James McCudden wrote of Voss: ‘His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.’ But perhaps the feelings of the British pilots were best summed up by young Rhys-Davids himself, the man who had ended the career of the ‘Hussar of Krefeld’, as Voss was nicknamed. As his colleagues gathered round to congratulate him, he shook his head sadly and murmured, as he set his glass aside: ‘Oh, if only I could have brought him down alive!’

Such were the young men who, in that year of 1917, brought new skills and tactics to the embryo science of air warfare, and often paid the price of experimentation with their lives. Early in 1917, the problem of making good the severe losses suffered by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the previous year had seemed almost insurmountable; in an effort to fill the gap, the War Office had ordered regimental commanders to appeal for volunteers for transfer to the flying service. Hundreds came forward, and at the same time the first Commonwealth volunteers also began to arrive. They were led by the Canadians, who, by special arrangement with the United States, had done most of their flying training in Texas and already possessed a high degree of skill.

The steady influx of these new personnel during the first weeks of 1917 did much to raise the morale of the RFC as it strove to gather its forces to meet the demands that would be imposed upon it by the coming spring offensives. These demands were dictated, first and foremost, by the continual need for effective air reconnaissance and artillery observation. Since the slow two-seat observation aircraft had to be protected, this requirement in turn gave rise to the development of offensive fighter tactics, designed to gain air superiority over an area of considerable depth behind the enemy lines and secure the observation machines, as far as possible, from interference by hostile aircraft. Also in 1917 came the growing realization that the aircraft was a highly effective weapon for harassing enemy troops and communications, and with it the development of bombing and ground-attack concepts.

The first Allied offensive of 1917 involved a major French attack on the Aisne while the British pinned down a large part of the enemy forces in the north, the main objective in their sector being the capture of Vimy Ridge. The offensive began on 17 March and ended on 4 April. The First and Third British Armies were supported by twenty-five RFC squadrons, about half of them equipped with single-seat fighters. During this battle a new British combat aircraft, the Bristol F2A Fighter, made its operational debut. Fifty F2As were built; powered by a 190 hp Rolls-Royce Falcon engine giving it a top speed of around 115 mph and armed with a centrally-mounted synchronized Vickers gun and a single Lewis mounted in the rear cockpit, the first examples arrived in France with No 48 Squadron towards the end of March.

The squadron had only six Bristols in operation at the time of its arrival at its new base, Bellevue, and they were rushed into action before their pilots had time to get used to them or to develop proper tactics with them. At first they were flown like previous two-seaters, orientated around the observer’s gun as the primary weapon, and losses were heavy. During their first patrol on 5 April, six Bristols led by No 48 Squadron’s CO, Major W. Leefe Robinson VC (who had earlier distinguished himself by shooting down the German Shütte-Lanz airship SL11 at Cuffley on 2 September 1916) encountered five Albatros DIIs led by Manfred von Richthofen. The British pilots adopted the standard two-seater tactic of turning their backs on the enemy to allow their observers to bring their guns to bear. It was a serious mistake, and four of the six – including Leefe Robinson, who spent the rest of the war in a prison camp – were shot down.

Later, in an interview with a Berlin newspaper, Richthofen was openly contemptuous of the British machine, with the result that many German pilots came to regard the Bristol Fighter as easy game – with fatal consequences to themselves. When flown offensively, in the same way as a single-seat fighter, it proved to be a superb weapon and went on to log a formidable record of success in action. Several hundred Bristol Fighters were ordered in 1917, these being the F2B version with a 220 hp Falcon II or 275 hp Falcon III engine, wider-span tailplanes, modified lower wing centre sections and an improved view from the front cockpit. The F2B eventually served with six RFC squadrons – Nos 11, 20, 22, 48, 62, and 88 – on the Western Front, as well as with No 67 (Australian) Squadron in Palestine, No 139 Squadron in Italy and in the United Kingdom with Nos 33, 36, 76 and 141 Squadrons on home defence duties. The pilot who perhaps did most to vindicate the Bristol Fighter was a Canadian, Lieutenant Andrew McKeever, who destroyed thirty enemy aircraft while flying F2Bs, his various observers shooting down eleven more.

Another new type to enter RFC service in the spring of 1917 was the SE5 single-seat fighter, which was delivered to No 56 Squadron in March. Powered by a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza engine, the aircraft had a maximum speed of 120 mph. Armament comprised a synchronized Vickers gun firing through the propeller and a drum-fed Lewis mounted over the wing centre section. Although less manoeuvrable than either the French-built Nieuports or Spads, the SE5 was faster and had an excellent rate of climb, enabling it to hold its own in combat with the latest German fighter types. The SE5s of No 56 Squadron flew their first operational patrol on 22 April 1917.

The original SE5 was followed into service, in June 1917, by the SE5a, with a 200 hp Hispano-Suiza engine. The type was first issued to Nos 56, 40 and 60 Squadrons, and by the end of the year had been delivered to Nos 24, 41, 68 and 84. Deliveries were slowed by an acute shortage of engines, but the pilots of the units that did receive the SE5a were full of praise for the aircraft’s fine flying qualities, physical strength and performance. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, in most respects, the SE5a was the Spitfire of the First World War.

It certainly had none of the vicious tendencies of the Sopwith Camel – although in fairness, once the Camel had been thoroughly mastered it was a superb fighting machine, and in fact it was to be credited with the destruction of more enemy aircraft than any other Allied type before the conflict ended. Early production Camels were powered either by the 130 hp Clerget 9B or the 150 hp Bentley BR1 rotary engine, but subsequent aircraft were fitted with either the Clerget or the 110 hp Le Rhone 9J. Armament comprised twin Vickers guns mounted in front of the cockpit, and four 20-lb Cooper bombs could be carried under the fuselage for ground attack. The first unit to receive Camels was No 4 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, followed by No 70 Squadron RFC, both in July 1917.

Delivery of the SE5 and the Camel came too late to prevent heavy RFC losses, which continued to mount steadily during the spring of 1917. There were three main reasons for the growing casualty rate. First, the RFC was still critically deficient in adequate combat aircraft; secondly, the prevailing westerly wind – which tended to carry the mêlée of air combat deep into enemy territory – was in the Germans’ favour; and thirdly, the RFC insisted on maintaining an offensive policy throughout, no matter what the cost. Faced with superior enemy aircraft, it inevitably suffered an increase in losses because of this. By April 1917 new pilots were being sent to the front with as little as seventeen and a half hours’ flying experience, which precipitated a vicious circle: the more inexperienced the British pilots, the higher the success rate of the German fighter squadrons. By the middle of ‘Bloody April’ 1917 the average life expectancy of an RFC pilot in France had dropped to two months.

During the first week of April 1917 the RFC lost seventy-five aircraft in action, mostly victims of an emerging band of tough, resolute German air fighters nurtured in the traditions of Germany’s first air aces and fighter tacticians, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. At their head was Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, and other German pilots were potentially just as dangerous to the Allies: men like Bruno Loerzer, the leader of Jagdstaffel 26, who destroyed ten British aircraft during the Battle of Arras and who was to end the war with forty-five victories. More than two decades later, the highly experienced Loerzer would command Luftflotte II during the Battle of Britain. Then there was Werner Voss, the brilliant Jewish ace (what would his fate have been, one wonders, had he survived the war to experience the Nazi regime?); Erich Loewenhardt, who had forty victories in the spring of 1917 and who later went on to score sixteen more; Karl Allmenroeder and Karl Schaefer, with thirty victories each; Kurt Wolff, with twenty-seven at the time of the Battle of Arras; Otto Bernert with twenty-six; and many others who were to be numbered among the German Flying Corps’ fifty top-scorers before the end of the war.

Aces High II

In accordance with the German policy of concentrating their best pilots into single crack units, most of the above-named men served with von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11. A Jagdstaffel, abbreviated to Jasta, usually consisted of twelve or fourteen aircraft, although later this was increased to twenty-one. In June 1917 Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11 were merged into a single Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) under Richthofen’s command. Although patrols were still flown at Jasta strength, Richthofen could, in response to an increase in Allied air activity, concentrate a large number of fighter aircraft in any particular sector of the front. Moreover, the Jagdgeschwader was highly mobile and could be switched quickly from one part of the front to another in support of ground operations.

The principal German fighter aircraft in the spring of 1917 was the Albatros DIII, which had first been issued to Jasta 11 in January of that year. Powered by a Mercedes DIII engine, it had a maximum speed of 108 mph and carried an armament of twin synchronized 7.92 Spandau machine-guns. By April 1917 all thirty-seven Jastas at the front were equipped with either the DIII or the earlier Albatros DII.

However, the most widely used of all the Albatros fighters was the DV, which made its appearance in mid-1917. It was not a great improvement over the excellent DIII, but it was produced in large numbers, over 1,500 serving with the Jastas on the Western Front alone.

Later in the year, starting in August, some Jastas also began to receive the Pfalz DIII, which like the Albatros was powered by a Mercedes engine and featured twin Spandau machine-guns. However, even at its peak the Pfalz fully equipped only about a dozen units, and for some reason German pilots seem to have been prejudiced against it; this attitude is hard to understand, because the Pfalz was a sturdy machine, capable of absorbing a great deal of battle damage, and it could be dived harder and faster than the Albatros.

The other new German fighter type introduced in 1917 was the Fokker DrI Triplane. Its design was inspired by the Sopwith Triplane, an excellent and highly manoeuvrable fighter which served with Nos 1, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 Squadrons of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on the Western Front during most of 1917. The Fokker Triplane was never used in very large numbers, but it registered astonishing successes in the hands of leading German aces such as von Richthofen and Voss.

To counter the threat posed by the Jagdgeschwader in the summer of 1917, the RFC was forced to adopt a similar policy of concentrating its best fighter squadrons and pilots in opposition to von Richthofen wherever his squadrons appeared. These elite RFC units were the cradle of the leading British fighter aces. No 56 Squadron, for example, in addition to Albert Ball, numbered among its ranks such famous fighter pilots as Captain James McCudden, Lieutenant Rhys-Davids, Captain Brunwin-Hales with twenty-seven victories and Captain Henry Burden with twenty-two; then there was Captain W. A. (Billy) Bishop of No 60 Squadron (and later of No 85), a Canadian who was to survive the war as the second-ranking RFC fighter ace with seventy-two victories, being narrowly beaten to the top by Major Mick Mannock, who had a score of at least seventy-four. Mannock flew with No 40 Squadron, as did two other leading fighter aces: Captain G. E. H. McElroy, a Canadian with a score of forty-six, and Major Roderic Dallas, a New Zealander, with thirty-nine.

In fact, the formation of large, concentrated fighter groups had been pioneered by the French during the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, when the Cachy Group (so-called after its operational base near Amiens) came into existence under the command of Captain Brocard of N3 Cigognes. (To avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that the French squadrons bore the initial letter of the aircraft type they were flying; the Cigognes were using Nieuports at the time, and later, when they converted to SPADs, their designation was changed to SPA 3.) The Cachy Group comprised N3, with Guynemer as its leading pilot, and Captain Féquant’s N65, which included Charles Nungesser.

At the end of 1916 the French Aéronautique Militaire possessed three Groupes de Combat: GC 11 under Commandant Le Révérend, GC 12 under Commandant Brocard, and GC 13 under Commandant Féquant. Eleven more would be formed before the end of hostilities. Each Groupe comprised four Escadrilles, each with fifteen aircraft and fifteen pilots. The Groupes de Combat came under the orders of the French army commanders and, like their Royal Flying Corps counterparts, had the task of establishing air superiority and protecting observation aircraft. In 1917, mixed units of fighters and bombers were employed in carrying out offensive operations.

The aircraft on which most of the French aces cut their teeth was the Nieuport 11C–1 Bébé, which entered service in the summer of 1915 and which was also used in some numbers by the RFC and RNAS. It was this little aircraft which helped to redress the balance of power following the appearance over the Western Front of the Fokker E.III Monoplane, with its synchronized machine-gun firing through the propeller. The Bébé was followed into service, in May 1916, by the Nieuport 17C–1, which equipped Escadrilles N3, N38, N55, N57, N65 and N103. It also served with eight RNAS and five RFC squadrons.

In the autumn of 1916 many Escadrilles began to re-equip with a new fighter type, the SPAD VII (the initial letters stand for Société Pour l’Aviation et ses Derivées). Although less manoeuvrable than the Nieuport types, the SPAD VII was a strong, stable gun platform with a top speed of 119 mph and an excellent rate of climb. The SPAD VII was also used by the RFC and RNAS, and filled a crucial gap at a time when many units were still equipped with ageing and vulnerable aircraft.

In May 1917, however, the French Escadrilles de Chasse began to standardize on a new type, the SPAD XIII. Like its predecessor, it was an excellent gun platform and was also extremely strong, although it was tricky to fly at low speeds. Powered by a Hispano-Suiza 8Ba engine and armed with two forward-firing Vickers guns, it had a maximum speed of nearly 140 mph – quite exceptional for that time – and could climb to 22,000 feet. The SPAD XIII subsequently equipped more than eighty Escadrilles.

Such, in broad outline, was the state of air power on both sides of the front – discounting bomber and observation types for the moment – when the British opened a new offensive in Flanders in June 1917, the main effort taking place in the Messines sector. The attack was supported by eighteen RFC squadrons with a total of 300 aircraft, about one-third of them single-seat fighters. On the first day of the offensive, 7 June, Captain W. A. Bishop of No 60 Squadron was awarded the Victoria Cross for destroying four out of seven enemy aircraft in a daring single-handed attack on an airfield near Cambrai. He was flying a Nieuport 17.

By the end of the month the RFC’s reserves were sadly depleted. The situation was further aggravated by the withdrawal on 21 June of two of its best fighter squadrons, Nos 56 and 66, for home defence. This also helped to delay the re-equipment of RFC units in France with new aircraft, notably the Sopwith Camel.

For the RFC crews, stretched to their utmost during July, it was some consolation to know that von Richthofen was out of action for a time. On 6 July, forty fighters of the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader had attacked six FE2ds of No 20 Squadron, escorted by four Sopwith Triplanes of No 10 Squadron RNAS; two FEs were shot down, but an observer in another – 2nd Lieutenant A. E. Woodbridge – got in a good burst at Richthofen’s red Albatros and sent it down to make a forced landing. Richthofen was wounded in the head.

The days before the third battle of Ypres, which opened on 31 July, were marked by intense air activity on both sides. At this time the combined strength of the RFC, RNAS, l’Aéronautique Militaire and the small Belgian Air Corps on the Western Front was 852 aircraft, of which 360 were fighters; the German strength was 600 machines, of which 200 were fighters.

To bolster the Allied fighter strength in Flanders, two French Escadrilles – including the Cigognes – were sent to Dunkirk from the Lorraine sector. Charles Nungesser, having experienced engine trouble, was flying alone a few hours behind the rest when he was suddenly attacked by a British aircraft near Arras and took fifteen bullets through his Nieuport. Convinced that the attacking aircraft was a captured one, flown by a German crew, he engaged it and shot it down, landing nearby to inspect the wreck. The pilot was dead, and Nungesser, finding some identity documents on the body, discovered to his dismay that the man who had tried to kill him was in fact an RFC pilot – a very inexperienced one, as a subsequent enquiry established.

The air offensive that preceded the battle opened on 11 July, and on the first day fourteen German aircraft were destroyed for the loss of nine British. A few days later von Richthofen was back in action, his head still in bandages, and a series of massive dogfights took place between his Jagdgeschwader and Allied fighter formations. On the twenty-sixth, no fewer than ninety-four single-seat fighters fought one another at altitudes varying between 5,000 and 7,000 feet over Polygon Wood, and the following evening thirty Albatros fighters attacked eight FE2ds over the same area. It was a trap; no sooner had the German fighters come down to intercept than they were attacked by fifty-nine SE5s and Sopwith Triplanes. Nine enemy aircraft were destroyed for the loss of one SE5.

The Cigognes had seldom encountered pilots of the calibre of those who made up the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader in the skies of Lorraine, where they had helped to defend the embattled fortress of Verdun, and they found Flanders a tough battleground. Georges Madon had an incredible escape when, flying a new SPAD XIII with which the Escadrille was equipping, he collided with an enemy two-seater. With his upper wing torn completely away, he spun out of control through a terrifying 10,000 feet. Literally at the last moment his aircraft miraculously righted itself before crash-landing in the Allied lines, breaking itself into pièces. His only injury was a broken finger.

Another ace, Lieutenant Albert Deullin, was not so lucky. During a fight with an enemy monoplane, he took two bullets in the region of his kidneys and crash-landed, gravely wounded. He survived to fly and fight again in 1918. Alfred Heurtaux, attacking a two-seater near Ypres, was hit in the thigh. Fainting through loss of blood, he went into a spin and recovered just in time to right his aircraft. He spotted a field dead ahead and went down to land on it; it turned out to be an RFC aerodrome, and the British whisked him off to hospital. Among the other French pilots, Lieutenant Chaput crashed and was injured, while the ace of aces, Guynemer, was wounded and hospitalized. Nungesser, Fonck and Jean Navarre fought on, but it was an increasingly grim business.

One day in July, Nungesser made a lone diving attack on six German scouts over Houthulst Forest. He made a single pass, shooting down two of them and then using his superior speed to get away. The others made off eastwards under the command of a young pilot who, after flying two-seater reconnaissance missions with a unit known as Abteilung 5, had recently transferred to single-seaters with Jasta 27. His name was Hermann Goering.

When the ground offensive began on 31 July much of the Allied effort was switched to attacks on enemy airfields and infantry columns with light bombs as well as machine-guns. For the first time in the war, large-scale ground attack operations were carried out by the fighter units, with devastating effect on the closely packed enemy troops and supply columns. However, it was dangerous work, and casualties from ground fire were heavy. Moreover, the terrain was by no means in the favour of any pilot who had to make a forced landing. ‘In front of us,’ wrote René Fonck, ‘there was nothing but miles and miles of spongy ground, where water crept stealthily into the tiniest hole. The whole area was a vast quagmire that could swallow up an object as big as a tank without trace.’

By September 1917, the Allied fighter squadrons in Flanders had succeeded, for the time being, in establishing a measure of air superiority. On 25 September, the RFC’s fighter squadrons claimed nineteen victories for the loss of only one British aircraft. No 56 Squadron, which had returned to France in July after a brief stay in England, continued to be in the forefront of the battle; by the end of September its score of enemy aircraft destroyed had risen to 200. This figure was matched, on 9 October, by No 1 Squadron, now equipped with Sopwith Camels.

Then, just as the Allies were starting to gain the upper hand in the air, there came a new and alarming development that was to have an enormous bearing on the conduct of the entire war. In November 1917 the revolutionary Bolshevik regime in Russia signed an armistice with the Germans. This meant that the hundreds of thousands of German troops, together with large numbers of guns and aircraft, which had been tied down in the war with Tsarist Russia could now be released for service on the Western Front. There was every possibility that the Germans would attempt a final massive offensive designed to smash the Allied armies once and for all in the early part of 1918, before American forces began to arrive on the Continent in large numbers.

In the last weeks of 1917, with substantial enemy troop movements from east to west already apparent, air reconnaissance became of paramount importance to the Allies. The observation squadrons embarked on an intense period of flying, and suffered heavy losses in the process. One such was No 10 Squadron which, equipped with Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8s, was based at Abeele, in Belgium; its tasks were corps reconnaissance, line patrol and night bombing, all of which it carried out successfully but unspectacularly during this period. During the night of 30/31 October, for example, this squadron dropped thirty-nine 20-lb Cooper bombs on enemy communications at Henin Lietard and Billy Montigny; the next day, in co-operation with a daylight attack by the 46th Infantry Division, the F.K.8s dropped three 112-lb high explosive, sixty-three 20-lb high explosive and twenty 40-lb phosphorus bombs in the front and on the flanks of the enemy positions. To round off the attack, the pilots and observers also fired 1,200 rounds into enemy communications trenches.

Designed by Frederick Koolhoven, the F.K.8 – known as the ‘Big Ack’ by its crews – equipped Nos 2, 8, 10, 35 and 82 Squadrons on the Western Front in late 1917. Its 160 hp Beardmore engine gave it a top speed of around 90 mph and it carried an armament of one synchronized Vickers gun, operated by the pilot, and a Lewis gun in the rear cockpit. Although heavy on the controls, especially the ailerons and elevators, it was well built and robust, could absorb a lot of battle damage and was well liked by its crews. Major K. D. P. Murray, No 10 Squadron’s commanding officer, said of it:

‘The big A-W was slow, but my pilots liked it for the particular job they had to do, and never regarded themselves as “cold meat”. Owing to the nature of their work, they were rarely in a position to attack, but when attacked, as they were frequently enough, they gave a good enough account of themselves.’

One of No 10 Squadron’s crews who definitely gave a good account of themselves were Captain John Pattern and Lieutenant Leycester, who took off together on a photo-reconnaissance sortie on 29 November 1917. Pattern himself, shortly before his death (he was then in his nineties), told the story to the author:

‘I was due to go home on leave the following day, and when you had been warned for leave you weren’t supposed to fly. But after several days of fog and rain the weather had finally cleared and there were reports of large enemy troop movements south of Passchendaele, so as the Squadron’s most experienced pilot I was detailed to go out and get the photographs that were urgently needed. It wasn’t that I was a particularly good pilot; it was just that most of the others were dead. On average, a crew doing our sort of job, flying straight and level over the enemy lines, could expect to last three weeks before being shot down. Some of us, myself included, were lucky; I had been shot down only a week before, and had walked out of the wreck with only a few scratches. That was one of the good points about the big A-W: it was so strongly built that crews could often walk away from the most horrendous crashes.’

On that November morning, Pattern and Leycester – it was their seventh mission together – took off from Abeele and climbed to 5,000 feet, heading towards Ypres and the front line. Unknown to them, some thirty miles away another pilot was also taking off from an airfield near Lille. He was Lieutenant Erwin Boehme, a Staffel commander in the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader.

This was a big day in Boehme’s life. In a few hours’ time he was due to receive Germany’s highest award for gallantry – the Ordre Pour le Mérite or ‘Blue Max’ as it was nicknamed – from the hands of the Kaiser himself. The medal was Boehme’s reward for shooting down twenty-four British and French aircraft, but to him its significance was much greater. It would help to remove a burden of guilt he had carried for a year now, since October 1916.

Together with his Staffel commander, Oswald Boelcke – the most famous German air ace of that time – he had been involved in a dogfight with some British aircraft. Boehme had made a slight error of judgement. His wingtip had touched Boelcke’s and the ace’s aircraft had gone down, breaking up as it fell. Boelcke had been killed instantly. Desolate, Boehme had gone to his tent on landing and taken out his revolver, intent on committing suicide, but had been prevented by von Richthofen. Now, in November 1917, Boehme commanded Boelcke’s old unit, Jagdstaffel 2.

Boehme headed for the front line, accompanied by five more Albatros Scouts, intent on claiming one more victim before he received his decoration. That victim should have been John Pattern, whose F.K.8 was crossing the front line just north of Westhoek. Pattern takes up the story:

‘About a quarter of a mile on the enemy side of the lines, I turned south-east and Leycester started to work his cameras. The anti-aircraft fire, which had been intense, had not stopped, but I didn’t take much notice. I should have known better; it was a sure sign that enemy fighters were in the vicinity. Suddenly, I heard the clatter of Leycester’s machine-gun above the roar of the engine. I looked round to see what he was shooting at, and nearly had a heart attack. Slanting down from above, getting nicely into position thirty yards behind my tail, was an Albatros.

‘I immediately heaved the old A-W round in a split-arse turn, tighter I think than I had ever turned before. I felt a flash of panic as I lost sight of the Hun, but Leycester must have been able to see him all right as he kept on firing. My sudden turn had done the trick. The Albatros overshot and suddenly appeared right in front of me. Because of the relative motion of our two aircraft, he seemed to hang motionless, suspended in mid-air. I could see the pilot’s face as he looked back at me.

‘I sent a two-second burst of Vickers fire into him. His aircraft seemed to flutter, then slid out of sight below my starboard wing. I was pretty certain that I had hit his petrol tank. Behind me, Leycester was still blazing away. He was using tracer, and it may have been one of his bullets that ignited the petrol pouring from the Hun’s ruptured tank. When I caught sight of the Albatros again, it was burning like a torch and side-slipping towards the ground, trailing a streamer of smoke. For an instant I saw the German pilot, looking down over the side of the cockpit. Then the smoke and flames enveloped him.

‘I pushed the A-W’s nose down and headed flat out for home, aware that the other Hun scouts were coming down fast after me. They would probably have got me, too, if some friendly fighters had not come along just in time and driven them away. To say that I was relieved would be the understatement of the century.

‘In due course I learned the name of the man I had shot down, but I didn’t take much notice at the time. It was not until fifty years later that I came across the full story of Erwin Boehme’s career in some book or other. My first reaction was that if I had known who he was at the time he attacked me, I would have shoved the A-W’s nose down and landed in the nearest available field. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have. Who knows?

‘All I do know is how lucky Leycester and I were, on that day over Flanders.’

King Baldwin III and the Heroic Age

Baldwin III was one of the key Christian leaders who were involved in the Second Crusade, although one of its first acts was a failure in front of the walls of Damascus.

Of all the kings of Jerusalem Baldwin III is the one we know best. Contemporary historians were awed by the young king who seemed to have no vices, to be at once intelligent, deeply religious, and gentle to all people. Moreover, he possessed the gift of command. He was born at exactly the right time, for his kingdom was in danger of dissolution, and only by superb ability and great gifts of mind could it be maintained. Even so, before he died he may have known that the end was in sight.

William of Tyre, who described him minutely, remembered that in his youth he was an inveterate gambler and that throughout his life he was astonishingly frank, abruptly rebuking high officers of state in public rather than in private, making enemies unnecessarily. These were dangerous elements in his character, and they were to have dangerous consequences.

One of his major gambles took place in 1152, when he quarreled violently with his mother, who had held the regency for seven years which was past the time when Baldwin should, by law, be the single sovereign. Baldwin at twenty-two performed all the military offices demanded of him, presided over the court, and acted in public as though he possessed the real power. Yet he remained under the tutelage of his formidable mother. It was an absurd situation, and the king at long last decided to assert himself.

Queen Melisende was at that time under the influence of a certain Manasses of Hierges, a clever nobleman from the region of Liege, whom she had appointed Constable of the kingdom. Manasses was rich, powerful, and insolent, determined to retain his privileged place at all costs.

Baldwin set about his assumption of real power in two stages. First, he had himself crowned secretly in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the presence of only a handful of his knights, thus preventing his mother from being crowned with him. Secondly, the king decided on war. Manasses was closely besieged in his castle at Mirabel near Jaffa. He was captured, brought into the king’s presence, and spared on condition that he leave the kingdom and never return. Queen Melisende fortified Jerusalem against the king’s army and barricaded herself in the citadel, appealing to the people, the nobles, and the clergy for their assistance in her righteous war against her son. The people and the nobles had grown weary of her; the clergy were deeply indebted to her. After a few days of token resistance, she surrendered and was allowed to leave for Nablus on condition that she, too, never return to Jerusalem. Baldwin had been perfectly prepared to take the citadel by force; he had mounted siege engines and hurled rocks against the walls, and, if necessary, would have killed his mother. This was a gamble that had to be taken to save the kingdom.

In Antioch, the Princess Constance still ruled, headstrong, improvident, pleasure-loving, and without any skill in government. A new Prince of Antioch had to be found for her, and Baldwin presented her with a list of three noblemen who possessed the requisite qualities of courage and resourcefulness. She wanted none of them. In her own good time she would choose a husband suitable to her needs. She found such a husband in Reynald of Châtillon, the feckless younger son of the count of Gien, who had accompanied Louis VII during the Second Crusade. Reynald was young, handsome, possessed of great courage, and to all outward appearances he would have made an excellent Prince of Antioch. Constance was in love with him and appears to have married him secretly even before securing the permission of the king, who was her suzerain. Baldwin appears to have permitted the marriage reluctantly. He had hoped she would marry someone closer to her own rank.

Reynald of Châtillon was one of those men who rise from obscure origins and somehow change the course of history. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the fall of the kingdom. He endangered everything and everyone who came near him and seemed oblivious to the damage he caused. He could be counted upon to do improbable, absurd, and terrible things with a kind of casual grace, never realizing the cost.

He proved very early that he could be extremely vicious. As Prince of Antioch he regarded himself as the sole ruler whose judgments must never be questioned. The Patriarch Aimery of Limoges sometimes did question them in private, and unhappily these private conversations were reported to the prince. Reynald had the patriarch stripped and scourged till the blood came, then had him placed on the roof of the citadel and smeared all over with honey so that flies settled all over him while the sun burned him. The patriarch was in ill-health but remarkably resilient. Somehow he survived the punishment. News of Reynald’s act of revenge reached Baldwin III in Jerusalem. The king was outraged and at once sent two of his councillors posthaste to Antioch with orders that Aimery should be released from captivity and permitted to resume his patriarchal functions. Reynald obeyed. Aimery left Antioch, and it was many years before he returned.

Reynald was the prince of the second most important city in the Holy Land. Left to itself. Antioch could have added to its great wealth and stability. Reynald, however, possessed the instincts of a bandit chieftain. The Byzantines were warring against the Armenians in Cilicia; Reynald joined the Byzantines, hoping to add Cilicia to his princedom. When it became clear that the Byzantines regarded Cilicia as their own, he turned against them and sent an expedition to Cyprus, which belonged to Byzantium. The expedition was well organized and had one purpose: to obtain booty. The Cypriot army quickly collapsed; monasteries and nunneries were seized; nuns were raped; costly vestments, gold and silver vessels, and jewels were heaped up and carted away to the waiting ships. The raiders remained on the island for only a few days, but the damage was incalculable. Manuel Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, then busy in Europe, quietly decided to take revenge upon an insolent and treacherous prince.

Meantime, Nur ed-Din continued to attempt to forge a united Muslim army against the Christians. Like his father, Zengi, he could be cruel and implacable; unlike him, he possessed a deeply contemplative temperament. He lived like an ascetic, fasted, and sometimes found himself in a state of religious exaltation. He was a man who lived on many levels: administrator, warrior, mystic. His mysticism was perhaps given strength by his chronic ill-health, while his intense religious feeling gave strength to the holy war he conducted against the Christians.

Baldwin III had a profound understanding of his most implacable enemy. His spies gave him accurate reports, and he sometimes took advantage of the periods when Nur ed-Din was bedridden. In theory the prince of Antioch was charged with defending the northeast, while the king defended Samaria, Judaea, and the Negev. In fact Baldwin III was in overall command of Christian territory in the Holy Land.

From the beginning of his reign Baldwin III meant to conquer Ascalon, which was heavily defended by the Egyptians because it was their northernmost outpost along the Palestinian coast. The people of Ascalon were all trained in arms. High walls, barbicans, and towers protected thecity on the landward side, and it was not easily approachable by sea because there were low shelving sands, the winds whipped up high waves, and there was no proper harbor. Nevertheless supplies could be brought into the city on small boats.

Baldwin proceeded with great care and intelligence. The navy of the kingdom patrolled the sea approaches; the royal fleet was under the command of Gerard of Sidon, and consisted of fifteen ships. Other ships were bought, stripped of their masts, and disassembled: from the wooden strakes they made siege engines and moving towers, covered with hides to prevent them from catching fire. On January 25, 1153, the king with his entire army, together with the grand masters of the Hospital and the Temple, the archbishops of Tyre, Caesarea, and Nazareth, and the patriarch holding high the True Cross, appeared outside the walls of Ascalon. With this formidable army it was hoped that Ascalon would yield within a month.

It took much longer, for the people of Ascalon were far better prepared than the Christians had expected. They could not be starved out, they had plentiful supplies of fresh water, and no surprise night attacks were possible because they had ingeniously lit up the walls with oil-lamps which were shielded against the wind by glass containers. But more important than anything was the fact that the defenders were in high spirits and believed their walls were impregnable. They had excellent sources of information, and they knew that the army outside their gates were outnumbered two to one by their own army. One day an Egyptian fleet of seventy vessels appeared, and the small Christian fleet made no effort to attack them. The Egyptians landed supplies and provisions, and Ascalon was stronger than ever.

After two months, Baldwin III realized to his dismay that he had not even made a dent in the walls of Ascalon. That Easter, the influx of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land was much larger than usual. The king ordered that the pilgrims and sailors must all assist in the siege of Ascalon; they would be paid from the royal treasury. All ships coming to the Holy Land must join the fleet of Gerard of Sidon. In this way, the army and the fleet increased in numbers. But three more months passed before there was any significant change.

One day toward the end of July, the defenders crept out of the city and set fire to the great wooden tower which topped the walls of Ascalon. But as the Christians watched in amazement, the wind changed and the flames began licking the walls. The Christians decided that if the walls could be burned by fires the enemy set, how much more would they burn if set by them. They heaped faggots and cord wood and wood from the surrounding orchards in the space between the burnt-out tower and the wall, poured pitch and oil on them, and then set fire to them. About dawn, as they had hoped and expected, part of the wall fell with a thunderous roar that awakened the army.

Through this breach in the wall some forty Templar knights rushed into the city, some of them standing guard to prevent any other Christians from entering. In their madness, a handful of Templars believed they could conquer the entire city. At first, the people of Ascalon took fright; then they formed ranks, and it was a simple matter to round up these proud Templars and butcher them. That night, they mended the breach in the wall with huge balks of timber from their own ships, while the bodies of the dead Templars were dangled over the walls in the full sight of the Christian army; the bodies were left there for the birds to peck at.

Ascalon seemed to be lost. A vast despair seized the Christians, who debated whether it was worth their while to continue battering a city that seemed impregnable. The army of Ascalon, thinking the Crusaders would reel back, made sorties on the third day after the Templars were hung on the walls. The Crusaders counterattacked with fury and desperation, as though all their pent-up strength and all their frustration were released in the counterattack. From their walls, the people of Ascalon, who had been so sure of themselves, so certain of ultimate victory, witnessed a massacre. The attack was so devastating that there was scarcely anyone in the city who was not bereaved. The elders of Ascalon asked for a truce to give them time to bury their dead. Having counted the dead, they sent envoys to sue for peace. Baldwin III, sitting in council, agreed that if they left the city within three days, they could take their movable belongings with them: what he required was total evacuation. On the third day they poured out of the city in the thousands, while the king’s standard flew from the highest tower. He gave them guides as far as al-Arish. Beyond this town, a Turkish chieftain promised to lead them into Egypt. They followed him willingly and lived to regret it, for once the king’s guides had returned to Ascalon, the chieftain attacked them and despoiled them of their possessions. When we last see them they are wandering helplessly in the desert.

The lordship of Ascalon was given to the king’s younger brother Amaury, Count of Jaffa. Since Gaza had already been captured by Baldwin III, the entire coast of Syria and Palestine was in the possession of the Crusaders. Ascalon was a kingpin, and its capture spread alarm and terror in the camps of the Muslims.

The capture of Ascalon, however, was offset by the loss of Damascus to the Christians’ most deadly enemy, Nur ed-Din. For many months, Nur ed-Din had been at work attempting to undermine the authority of the reigning sultan. He saw Damascus as the launching ground of an expedition that would sweep the Crusaders out of Syria. The logic of his argument appealed to the Damascenes, who were disturbed by the fall of Ascalon; and when Nur ed-Din entered Damascus, he was greeted like a conqueror who was also a friend. There were no exactions; and everything went on as before except that there was no longer any sultan. Nur ed-Din appointed one of his most trusted generals to be governor of the city.

In May 1157, Nur ed-Din attacked the Crusader castle at Banyas in the Upper Galilee. The castle occupied an important position at the foot of Mount Hermon. Nur ed-Din twice captured it, and was twice repulsed. So much blood was spilt in and around the castle, that it became a symbol of the intransigence on both sides. There were sudden surprise attacks carried out faultlessly by the king’s army, and there were equally sudden surprise attacks by Nur ed-Din’s army.

The massive skirmishes for Banyas showed that the Crusaders and the Muslims were evenly balanced. The logic of the situation demanded a truce. Instead they went on fighting. One small advantage was given to Baldwin III. Nur ed-Din fell ill. It was not an advantage that could be relied upon, however, for Nur ed-Din was perfectly capable of directing battles from his sickbed. On the frontiers of Antioch and in the Galilee, there were continual raids and excursions, but no real advantages were gained. The war in the Holy Land seemed to have reached a stalemate.

Baldwin, searching for new allies, had long contemplated an alliance with Byzantium. From the beginning of the Crusades, such an alliance had been discussed and for various reasons abandoned. The Emperor Manuel Comnenus was known to have a high opinion of Baldwin III and the worst possible opinion of the present prince of Antioch. It would be necessary to tread cautiously, in the Greek manner, but it was also necessary to break the stalemate. Baldwin III sent an embassy to Constantinople, asking for the hand of a Byzantine princess. Discussions went on for many weeks; at last a suitable princess was found in the person of Theodora, the daughter of Isaac Comnenus, who was Manuel’s elder brother. Thirteen years old, radiantly beautiful, very tall, with thick fair hair, she possessed a natural elegance of manner. Her dowry, her bridal outfit, her wedding gown, her ropes of pearls, the coffers full of jewelry, tapestries and silken stuffs, carpets and gold vessels, were worth a fortune.

Thus equipped, and accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and the envoys of the king of Jerusalem, she reached Tyre in September 1158. In great state she traveled to Jerusalem, where she was married to the twenty-seven-year-old Baldwin, who delighted in his bride and is said to have remained faithful to her as long as he lived.

That same autumn, the emperor set out from Constantinople at the head of an immense army, and about the beginning of December he marched into Cilicia, which the Armenians called Lesser Armenia. The emperor regarded Cilicia as a province of his empire and he was determined to take possession of it. The Armenian Prince Thoros had seized Cilicia and his army commanded strongly fortified castles. The emperor’s army approached so quietly that Thoros, who was staying at Tarsus, barely had time to flee to the neighboring mountains. Reynald, Prince of Antioch, realized that he had nowhere to go. The emperor was determined to punish him for his savagery in Cyprus, and he knew that the only way to escape punishment was by making a public and humiliating submission. He therefore hurried to the emperor’s camp at Mamistra in Cilicia, where he appeared, barefoot, wearing a woolen tunic cut short at the elbows, with a rope around his neck, and a sword with the point resting on his breast and the hilt turned outward in his hand. The emperor took the sword by the hilt, whereupon Reynald flung himself violently to the ground, where he lay prostrate for a long time. The emperor was pleased by this self-indulgent theatrical display because he believed in the sincerity of the prince’s submission. He did not know that Reynald submitted to no authority except his own.

Baldwin III arrived in Mamistra a few days later with a large retinue. The emperor gave the king the kiss of peace. They spent ten days together. Among the subjects they discussed was the Armenian Prince Thoros, who was brave and had fought many battles against the Turks. The king acted as mediator; Thoros was permitted to retain Cilicia after swearing fealty to the emperor, who saw himself in those days as the kindly, all-forgiving father of an empire so powerful that he could afford to be kindly and all-forgiving.

The king returned to Antioch, while the emperor spent Easter in Cilicia. In April 1159, the emperor descended upon Antioch accompanied by his army, wearing the imperial jeweled cap with pendants and an embroidered robe so weighted with jewels he could hardly move. Trumpets blared; drums boomed; flags waved; and all the dignitaries of Antioch came out to meet the emperor, riding stiffly on horseback, with Reynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, walking by his side and holding the bridle in token of complete submission. Behind the emperor rode the king of Jerusalem and his brother Amaury. The day of the emperor’s triumphal entry into Antioch was one of intense celebration and festivity, with gifts showered on the people and everyone vying for the honor of being able to set eyes on the man who possessed such vast power and an empire so ancient that it seemed to be a permanent fixture on earth. All favor and honor flowed from the emperor. During those days he was lord of Antioch, suzerain of the king of Jerusalem and all the Christian principalities of the Holy Land.

The emperor enjoyed the baths of Antioch, which were among the most luxurious of their time; he also enjoyed hunting. One day, when he was hunting with King Baldwin, there was an accident. The king’s horse, racing over rough ground covered with low-growing shrubs, stumbled and threw Baldwin headlong to the ground. His arm was broken; suddenly the emperor hurried up, knelt beside him, and began to tend the broken arm like a doctor. The emperor prided himself on his knowledge of medicine and he liked to put his knowledge to use.

These hunting parties, processions, feasts, and visits to the bathhouses emphasized the bonds between Byzantium and the Holy Land. It was felt that the eight days spent by the emperor in Antioch implied the promise of immediate military assistance. Yet it was not so. He had not the least intention of throwing his army against the Turks; he had come to demonstrate the imperial power of Byzantium to Christian and Turk alike. He made the motions of beginning an advance on Aleppo, leading the combined forces of Antioch, Jerusalem, and the Byzantine empire, and then halted abruptly. Through envoys, he arranged a truce with Nur ed-Din, who promised an exchange of prisoners, and then, hearing of a plot against him in Constantinople, he began the homeward march across Asia Minor.

That he had shown himself without engaging in battle was entirely in the Byzantine character. The Byzantines were skilled diplomats, masters of many ruses, and they knew that a show of force was sometimes more effective than force itself. The emperor’s tactic offered little consolation to the king of Jerusalem and the prince of Antioch.

BALDWIN III DRAGGED TO PRISON BY THE TURKS

The wild and daring Reynald decided to take matters in his own hands and march at the head of a column into the territory of Nur ed-Din’s brother in the Marash region. Someone told him that there were immense herds of sheep and goats, many Christians, and almost no Turks. This was true, but his progress had been watched and reported to Aleppo. Their lightly armed cavalry was sent against him. The Turks found him in camp, laden with booty. He could have abandoned the treasure, fled, and saved himself. Instead he elected to fight, and he had the bad luck to be captured. Slung on the back of a camel, he was carried off to a dungeon in Aleppo where he spent the next sixteen years of his life. They did not kill him only because they believed he might prove useful in future bargaining. Neither the king nor the emperor made any effort to ransom him, knowing perhaps that the ransom would be so large that they could not afford to pay it. The king became regent of Antioch, and little more was heard of Constance, Reynald’s wife.

The chessboard was being swept clean. Queen Melisende died of a lingering illness; the king was inconsolable. A few months later the king fell ill while on a journey through Tripoli, and died, possibly poisoned by a doctor sent by the count of Tripoli to attend him. His body was borne to Jerusalem with the appropriate pomp and ceremony, to be buried beside the other kings of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His subjects stood beside the road in silence; and Muslims came down from the hills to wail and lament his passing. For eight days the cortege made its way to Jerusalem amid sighs and lamentations. It was reported that Nur ed-Din was advised by his captains to attack the kingdom during these prolonged ceremonies. William of Tyre tells us that Nur ed-Din refused, saying, “We should pity them, for they have lost such a prince as the world no longer possesses.” It is possible that he said these words; it is also possible that it was he who paid to have the king poisoned.

With Baldwin Ill’s death in January 1162, the heroic age of the Crusades came to an end. He became a legend. In him, there had been combined a youthful gentleness and a youthful cruelty, reasoned audacity, a kingly beauty. He was soldier and statesman, student and philosopher, and William of Tyre was only exaggerating a little when he wrote, “There is no record in any history, nor does any man now living recall, that such deep and poignant sorrow was ever felt over the death of any other prince of our own or other nations.”