Sicily between Constantinople and Rome I

Theme of Sicily

Gregory then set sail from the city of Constantinople, and he reached the city of Rome on the twenty first day of the month of June, and there he worshipped the tombs of the holy and most praiseworthy Apostles, and visited every holy place in the city.… They [Gregory, his father, and ecclesiastical leaders] went on to a ship and left Rome of the sixteenth of the month of August, and reached Sicily on the tenth of September, landing in the city of Palermo. And the bishop of the city of Palermo welcomed them with great honour, surrounded by his clergy and all the citizens and all the monks and nuns.

Leontios, Vita S. Gregorii Agrigentini

Pilgrims, messengers, administrators, warriors, saints, and immigrants: Sicily’s shores welcomed a wide variety of travelers during the period of Greek dominion. Between Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of the island from the “barbarian” Ostrogoths in 535 CE and the Muslim invasion beginning in 827 CE, the imperial capital at Constantinople was the primary location that sent official travelers—governors, military forces, and envoys bearing news—to the island and received them in reply. It was also the destination of many traveling Sicilian saints and scholars, since the Greek city was the cultural as well as political capital of the Byzantine Empire. But Constantinople was by no means the only location that was closely linked with Sicily through patterns of travel and communication: many individuals, groups, and the goods and institutions they brought with them also arrived in Sicily from other locations of religious, cultural, and political significance throughout the Mediterranean (especially Rome and Jerusalem), thus tying Sicily into larger networks of culture, power, and communication in the early medieval Mediterranean region.

The ports of Byzantine Sicily, indeed, bustled with ships sailing to and from Constantinople, Rome, Egypt, and North Africa. Muslims, Jews, Latins, and Greeks arrived on the island, at some times for peaceful purposes and at other times for war. The patterns of this travel demonstrate two of the fundamental aspects of the position and role of Sicily within the early medieval Mediterranean: Byzantine Sicily was both a center of political and cultural activity within the region and a shifting, unstable frontier between the three major civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. In these ways, the communication networks in which Greek Sicily was involved reflected many of the larger changes taking place within the early medieval Mediterranean. These were centuries in which Muslims, Latin Christians, Greek Christians, and, to an extent that is hard to quantify in this period, Jews interacted, fought, and shared common cultures, even as political and cultural boundaries in the region were beginning to harden.

Indeed, Sicily’s geopolitical significance took on new meaning during the later centuries of the Byzantine period, as Muslim naval activity in the area intensified and Byzantium struggled to maintain its borders. Sicily under Byzantine rule operated both as the far western frontier of the empire (especially after the loss of Greek territory in mainland Italy to the Lombards, emphasized by the 751 fall of the Exarchate of Ravenna) and as a center of official communication between Constantinople and the western Mediterranean—particularly, Latin Rome and the emergent powers of Muslim North Africa and Frankish Europe. As the western bulwark of Byzantine power, Sicily was often the focus of intense military and political activity during these centuries. Constantinople was determined to maintain its hold over the island despite the difficulty of such a project when so many forces, both in the western Mediterranean and at home in Asia Minor, worked contrary to this agenda. Diplomatically, too, the Greeks often used the island as a site of political discussions, a source of envoys, or a resting place for messengers traveling from Constantinople to the European mainland. At the same time, Byzantine-controlled Sicily never fully pulled away from the orbit of Rome—the island featured both papal estates and numerous Latin Christian churches—and thus could act as a sort of meeting ground between the two Christian civilizations, which were growing increasingly apart in both administrative and cultural senses, especially after the mid-eighth century. After the loss of North Africa to the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, Sicily’s importance to Constantinople was further magnified, even as the imperial government struggled to maintain its hold over this distant island in the face of growing Muslim military and naval dominance in the region. Thus, across the centuries from 535 to 827, the island operated both as a type of physical boundary—although an unstable and incomplete one—dividing the three civilizations of the early medieval Mediterranean and as a locus of cross-cultural communication between them. With ships, goods, information, and people moving between the Greek, Latin, and Muslim worlds via Sicily, the island was the site of overlap and conversation among the three civilizations, just as much as—or even more than—it marked a line of separation between them.

Several categories of travel and communication help to illuminate the system that developed in the central Mediterranean during these centuries. The first, and most prevalent, type of travel to and from Sicily during the Byzantine period was that conducted for political, military, or diplomatic reasons. The abundance of governmental travel in the extant sources is partly a result of the preservation of certain types of texts relating to the Byzantine centuries and partly due to the interests of those sources. Latin papal letters and Latin and Greek chronicles reveal diplomatic and military travelers tasked with maintaining or restoring order in the empire’s territories in Italy, negotiating with the popes in Rome, or, settling peace treaties with Muslim North Africa.

A second kind of traveler in the Byzantine Mediterranean world was those people who took to sea in the course of their religious careers, spiritual pilgrimages, and intellectual pursuits. A number of such travelers went to or through Sicily on their journeys to Rome, Jerusalem, or Constantinople, while others were born and raised on the island and traveled toward the intellectual and religious capital at Constantinople in order to advance their careers. Greek hagiographies from Sicily and southern Italy record the lives and deeds of Greek saints from the region, as well as their travels throughout the Mediterranean world. These hagiographical sources are particularly numerous for the ninth and tenth centuries, and they therefore provide instructive anecdotes about individual interactions between Greek monks and Muslim invaders to Sicily, such as monks who sailed on Muslim ships as captives or those who defended their lands against the Muslim raiders by miraculous means. Early medieval Latin pilgrimage accounts, papal letters, and papal biographies also inform us about travelers to Sicily from Europe.

A third type of travel was that which connected Sicily to broader economic networks within the Mediterranean system. Virtually none of the extant sources from this period directly pertain to commerce or the shipments of the grain annona. Because this type of activity is so rarely represented in the surviving source material from the Byzantine era, definitive conclusions are impossible to establish. Interest in Sicily’s contribution to the early medieval Mediterranean economy is persistent, however, particularly because of its historical status as a major source of grain for the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, it is possible to assume that shipments of merchandise hovered just below the surface of the travel for which we do have records: that is, for every sea voyage of a saint, official, or pilgrim, we might presume that an entire shipload of unrecorded mercantile products made the voyage as well. The bulk of the travel that we can trace may not have been explicitly economic, but it may imply economic exchange that would have taken place along similar routes and on the very same ships. Still, Sicily’s economy in the Byzantine period is impossible to fully understand, and we are left with more questions than answers.

After Sicily was politically united to Constantinople in the sixth century—as part of Justinian’s efforts to regain the lost glory of Rome by means of conquest in the western Mediterranean—it initially held the status of a provincia and was governed by a praetor, a civil provincial official in charge of local security, finances, and judicial affairs. However, in the late seventh century, the island was designated a theme—a major military and territorial unit of the empire—after which time it was ruled by a stratēgos, a military general also responsible for financial and judicial administration. Status as a theme raised the importance of Sicily within the empire, and particularly within its western regions. At some point in the eighth century, Constantinople also took direct control of the ecclesiastical administration of Sicily, transferring it from the jurisdiction of Rome to that of the patriarch of Constantinople. Sicily’s status as both a military and an ecclesiastical province necessitated a high level of communication between the island and the empire’s distant capital. Given that most of the imperial holdings in the West would fall away over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, maintaining control of Sicily was of high importance to Constantinople, even when that proved to be difficult, and therefore the patterns of communication between the two locations emphasize the island’s significance in the empire.

Constantinople was an imperial capital that lay at a considerable distance from Sicily—roughly 1,300 nautical miles, depending upon the route taken—meaning that communication between the two places was a serious undertaking that necessitated a long and potentially dangerous journey by sea. Nonetheless, the emperors at Constantinople regularly dispatched administrative officials and military forces to the island—even, sometimes, when the capital was under siege. This type of political communication between Sicily, as the province, and Constantinople, as its imperial capital, took place for a wide variety of reasons—from military actions and the suppression of rebellions to administrative updates, the transmission of important news, and personnel replacements. Armies, naval fleets, governors, and administrators arrived on the island at various times to enforce the political order, restore central rule, or attempt to conquer or recover the island. Sometimes, directed by leaders from the capital, Sicilian governors or military troops were enlisted in movements against other regions—for example, Rome or Byzantine territories in Italy. At other times, Sicily itself was the target of military attacks or forceful attempts at restoring order after attempted rebellions. Through all of these acts of travel and communication, it is evident that Sicily played a key role in the western agenda of the Byzantine Empire. Without the ability to quantify the communications that linked the province and the capital, it is nonetheless possible to clearly see the vital role that Sicily played in the Byzantine conception of its empire and its role in the Mediterranean world system.

Between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, Sicily remained dependent on its political capital for governors, military leaders, and administrators, despite several attempts at revolt against Constantinopolitan authority. Local officials were appointed from Constantinople and often returned there when their service ended. Moreover, whenever a Byzantine Sicilian governor attempted to gain political independence, Constantinople was quick to quash the rebellion. At the same time, Constantinople depended on Sicily and its governors both to maintain the conceptual boundaries between Byzantine and non-Byzantine territories and to push against those supposed borders, as well as to enforce Constantinople’s will in the western Mediterranean. The balance of power between Greek Christian, Latin Christian, and North African Muslim polities in the central Mediterranean was maintained or upset, in large part, by means of communications in and through Sicily.

The very fact that Constantinople appointed, monitored, and replaced Sicily’s governors necessitated the establishment of a fluid communications system between Constantinople and Syracuse. Administrative travel and the movements of Greek officials to the island and back created the sea route between Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean, a route which was then utilized for broader communications between province and capital. That Constantinople closely watched over the island’s affairs is quite clear. For example, the letters of Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604, pope from 590), many of which refer to the administration, agriculture, and churches of Sicily, mention several times that a praetor had been replaced by Constantinople for his poor performance or misdeeds. During Gregory’s pontificate, in fact, Sicily was ruled by four different praetors: Justin (590–592), who was replaced by Libertinus (593–598), then Leontius (598–600), and Alexander (600–?). In order for Constantinople to know about poor leadership in Sicily, there had to have been relatively regular communication between the two locales providing regular updates on provincial administration. Ships, messengers, overseers, and replacement officials—both seen in the sources and surmised from other evidence—must have arrived regularly at Sicily’s ports and been dispatched from there on the voyage to Constantinople; this traffic was likely even more regular than our sources can reveal. Regular but unremarkable communications between province and center—tax collection, appointment of lower-ranking officials, and the sending of regular administrative news—necessitated frequent travel to and from Sicily’s ports, but those acts might not have been deemed worthy of inclusion in the written records that survive. And yet, the arrival and dispatch of news about the events in Sicily or Constantinople demonstrate that a significant pattern of communication existed between the two places. Once established, these lines of regular ship traffic and communication could then be used for other purposes, such as mercantile, spiritual, and other types of journeys.

One of the most politically significant acts of travel between Constantinople and Sicily was the transfer of the imperial capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in 663 by Emperor Constans II (630–668, emperor from 641). His journey from Constantinople to the island was not taken via the direct sea route but was mediated through both Byzantine and Latin territories in mainland Italy, in reverse of many important diplomatic or military journeys between East and West that included a stop in Sicily: most often, we see political travelers from Constantinople stopping in Sicily before then traveling north into Italy. This move of the imperial administration to Sicily took place after Constans unsuccessfully attempted to defend Byzantine Italy from the Lombard invaders and then visited Rome. He abandoned the military endeavor in Italy, retreated to Sicily, and set up his imperial residence in the provincial capital of Syracuse. During his time in Sicily, Constans fortified the island’s navy and defensive structure and reformed the imperial mint at Syracuse. His administrative and military concerns were thus clearly focused on Sicily itself, both as an important province within the empire and as an outpost of Byzantine power in the Mediterranean.

While the island served as the seat of the entire imperial government, Sicily’s importance within the Byzantine Empire reached a high point, but this was an isolated episode of such imperial attention. Constans’s imperial rule from Syracuse was cut short by his assassination in 668 CE and a subsequent attempted rebellion. The emperor was murdered in the baths of Daphne in Syracuse by one of his servants, named Andrew son of Troilos, after which an Armenian named Mizizos was proclaimed emperor in Syracuse. Imperial agents quickly arrived from Constantinople, executed the rebel, and restored order to the island. The chronicler Theophanes attributed Constans’s murder to his unpopularity in Constantinople due to his rough handling of his opponents in the theological debate over the nature of Christ; he had several adversaries, including his brother Theodore, the Roman pontiff Martin (whom he had exiled), and the prominent spiritual leader Maximus the Confessor, but it is not clear who exactly was behind the emperor’s death. On the other hand, the Latin life of Pope Vitalian in the Liber Pontificalis claims that Constans’s death resulted from his tyrannical rule over the Sicilian population, suggesting that local governance rather than imperial politics was to blame for the failure of this experiment in having a western capital for the empire.

Also unclear is Constans’s motivation for abandoning the historical capital of Constantinople in favor of a distant island in the West. A complex combination of political and military needs may have prompted Constans’s temporary westward move of the imperial court: that is, this may have been an attempt to reconfigure the empire with its capital closer to the “heart” of the Mediterranean (and closer to Rome) in response to contemporary events. The mid-seventh century saw the beginning of large-scale Muslim invasions of Byzantine territory, and Constans’s activities in Sicily had the (temporary) effect of strengthening the island’s resistance to the Muslim onslaught. Very early in his reign—prior to the relocation to Syracuse—Constans had had to contend with the loss of Alexandria (abandoned by the Byzantine garrison in 642) and Arab movement west into Byzantine North Africa. Constans’s empire also faced Muslim assaults in Anatolia and Armenia and the first Muslim naval strikes into the Mediterranean. He responded to the attacks of Arab ships on eastern Mediterranean islands by initiating diplomatic contact with Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (governor of Syria from 640, caliph, 660/661–680), but warfare within the Mediterranean continued.

Constans’s transfer to the western capital, therefore, may have been part of an effort to fortify the position of Sicily in the Mediterranean against the Muslim naval threat, shoring up Constantinople’s western provincial outpost and thus, by extension, protecting Constantinople itself. It is also possible that the move may have been intended to shift the center of the empire westward, away from the increasingly aggressive Muslim state, based in nearby Damascus. However, Constans’s son, Constantine IV, continued to fulfill some functions of the imperial government from Constantinople while his father was in Syracuse; Constantinople was not completely abandoned, and indeed the imperial administration returned there after Constans’s murder. Whatever the specific motivation—whether for defense or for offense—it is clear that seventh-century Sicily was considered vital to the safety of the Byzantine government and useful as a possible bulwark against Muslim advances. Nonetheless, Sicily during this period began to experience the first of a century-long series of semiregular raids on its southern shores by Muslim forces from North Africa, bringing the island slowly into the orbit of the dār al-Islām even as Greek emperors struggled to maintain the island’s position within the Byzantine Empire.

Constans’s move may also have been a political decision to protect himself from enemies in Constantinople. Sicily was often utilized as a site of exile for political enemies of the imperial family, and a type of self-exile may have been one of the motives for the transfer by the emperor, who had made plenty of enemies with his policies on matters of theological doctrine. Sicily’s status as a theme provided Constans with a location that was at once far from the center of action in Constantinople and administratively important enough to serve as the capital of the empire. Moreover, Syracuse and Constantinople needed to have already had a regular and dependable flow of communications between them in order for the Sicilian capital to have served, even briefly, as a viable seat of rule for the empire as a whole. The preexistence of this communications system shows that the Byzantines had been sending governors and officials and messengers to the island regularly—in fact, much more regularly than the extant sources demonstrate—and that Constans knew he could rule adequately from there. This already-established route of communications facilitated the transfer of the central government to such a (relatively) remote edge of the empire and allowed for the flow of information from the periphery necessary for governance of the center. At the same time, the location of the imperial government in Sicily would not and could not have taken place if the island had not been considered an integral part of the imperial agenda in relation to the western Mediterranean powers.

The choice of a borderland region as a temporary imperial capital also speaks to the importance of the western frontier zone in seventh-century Byzantium. While much of the historical scholarship has focused on the Syrian frontier with Islam and the Balkan frontier with the Slavs, the western frontier with Islam was also clearly considered vital for protecting Byzantine interests. This was an empire focused on its limes—its boundaries with the Latin world, the Greek territories in southern Italy that were breaking away, the Bulgars and other groups on the Balkan frontier, and the Muslim world on the Syrian frontier and, indeed, in the central Mediterranean region. Constans’s decision may have been one intended to shore up the frontier in one region, by means of his imperial presence; if so, his choice to strengthen an island in the Mediterranean, rather than the Syrian or Balkan frontier, may reflect his perspective on the importance of this particular border zone within the empire as a whole.

Sicily between Constantinople and Rome II

Although the presence of the imperial administration and court in Sicily was brief, Constantinople continued to send officials, messengers, and administrators to Sicily on a regular basis. Many official visits to Sicily from Constantinople were occasioned by violent incidents and rebellions on the island, much like the one following Constans II’s assassination. For example, Theophanes the Confessor (d. 818) notes in his Chronographia that in 718 Emperor Leo III (r. 717–741) dispatched to Sicily a man named Paul, whom he appointed to be the stratēgos (general) for the island. Paul traveled with a group of imperial guards charged with regaining control over the island after Sergius, the previous governor, had rebelled against Constantinople and declared a rival emperor in Syracuse. This Sicilian rebellion took place during a massive Muslim siege of Constantinople (717–718), but the emperor was nonetheless willing and able to dispatch officers to quell it and thus maintain control over the government of Sicily. He clearly considered it to be in the empire’s best interest to deploy the resources necessary to do so, even in the face of threats to the imperial capital, a conclusion suggesting that the loss of the western frontier would also threaten the center of Byzantium.

The final outcome of this story, and its analysis by Theophanes, shows that the maintenance of order in and control of Sicily was of central importance for the entirety of Byzantium’s western possessions. The rebel Sergius fled to the Lombards in Calabria, leaving behind his puppet emperor Basil (renamed Tiberius), whom the imperial appointee Paul beheaded alongside the rebellious generals. Those heads were sent back to Constantinople while Paul remained on the island to enforce order. According to Theophanes, “As a result, great order prevailed in the western parts … all the western parts were pacified.” Pacifying Sicily was thus equated with bringing order to all of Byzantium’s western holdings.

Sergius’s rebellion was not the only such uprising on the part of the Sicilian Greek leaders. Sicily’s significant distance from Constantinople, and its position at the edge of the empire, meant that, despite imperial efforts to control the island, it was in a prime location for those wishing to break free from Byzantine central authority. Likewise, the relative independence from Constantinople of the southern Italian Greek cities may have provided a model for the aspirations of Sicilian governors hoping for greater local power. In 780/781, for example, the Sicilian ruler Elpidios rebelled against imperial authority after having been in office only a few months. In response, the empress Irene (regent, 780–797, regnant, 797–802) commanded a spatharios (a member of the imperial guard) named Theophilos to sail to Sicily and arrest Elpidios, but the Sicilians refused to hand the latter over. The following year, Irene sent to Sicily an entire fleet, led by an official named Theodore, to put down the revolt; the Byzantine forces at last triumphed over the rebels.

The latter rebellion took place during a period of peace between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa—a pause in the semiregular raids on Sicily’s southern shores. This peace between Syracuse and Qayrawān was one of several treaties that halted the regular raiding parties from Egypt and Ifrīqiya that had been attacking the island for around a century by that point. The initial aim of these raids does not appear to have been the conquest of the island, but rather the collection of booty and slaves. Nonetheless, Greek Sicily was facing regular security threats that prompted Constantinople to increase its grip on the island. The late eighth century was a time when Constantinople tried to preserve Sicily as a Byzantine stronghold in the Mediterranean, perhaps fearing that the island’s loss would spell the end of Byzantine power in the western Mediterranean. At the time, Byzantium maintained only loose control over other formerly Greek lands in Italy, having lost direct influence in the majority of southern Italy. Even the Exarchate of Ravenna had been drifting away from Greek control and functioned independently in many arenas; it would fall to the Lombards in 751, leaving Sicily as the last holdout of direct Byzantine power in the West. Despite Irene’s successful defense of Sicily against internal rebellion, less than fifty years later the island would fall under Muslim control, and Constantinople would never again wield great influence in the western Mediterranean. The imperial government could not know this future, however, and the continued efforts (even until the eleventh century) to reclaim the island demonstrate Sicily’s centrality in the Byzantine agenda.

That said, not all of the acts of travel between Constantinople and Syracuse indicate the island’s importance to the empire; in fact, some imply nearly the opposite. At several points during the eighth century’s political tumult, for example, Sicily served as a place of exile for political rebels whom the Byzantine ruler wanted to keep far away from the political center of Constantinople. Theophanes’s Chronographia mentions several cases of political exiles who were sent to Sicily so that they could not continue to cause trouble in the imperial capital. Despite the island’s history as a site of repeated rebellions, Sicily presented itself to some emperors as an expedient spot for marginalizing political troublemakers. In these cases, the distance between the two locations was key to the effectiveness of the political move.

In 789/790 both Emperor Constantine VI (780–797) and his mother, Empress Irene, banished their political rivals to Sicily. Constantine VI likewise sent rebels to exile on this and other islands in the year 792/793. Distance and relative inaccessibility were vital for keeping an exiled person far from the center of political power. However, because Constantinople maintained regular communications with Syracuse, it was possible for the rulers to remain aware of the activities of their exiles. It is important to note that Sicily was not the only location chosen for receiving political deportees, as there were many islands closer to Asia Minor that routinely served as places of exile, such as the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara and Aegean islands such as Patmos. In some cases, Sicily may have been preferred because a particular governor of Sicily was deemed to be trustworthy in safeguarding against rebel activities. In any event, the island was both geographically far from the capital and conceptually near to it—near enough that the imperial government could keep a close watch on its rivals’ actions, by means of established networks of communication. Thus, it seems, Sicily could be considered both close to and far from Constantinople, depending on the political need.

While geographically distant from Constantinople, the island was directly adjacent to Greek-claimed territories in southern Italy. Proximity to these Greek regions of southern Italy was thus another advantage Sicily had in its political utility for Constantinople. During its years under Byzantine rule, Sicily often functioned as a link between Constantinople and the Byzantine territories in mainland Italy, both as a transit point for messengers and as a base for enforcing order in Italy, particularly when the mainland Greek cities were more successful in their efforts to establish their independence from imperial rule. Greek imperial officers often sailed to Sicily and stayed there briefly before taking the land or sea route to Greek lands in Italy.

One example of Constantinople’s use of Sicilian government officials against Byzantine territories in Italy occurred around the year 709. Felix, archbishop of Ravenna (r. 705–723), attempted to liberate his city from Byzantine rule, and so Emperor Justinian II (669–711, r. 685–695 and 705–711) sent the governor of Sicily, Theodorus, to take hold of Felix and the rebels. Theodorus and the Greek fleet sailed from Sicily to Ravenna to carry out the order. He arrested and shackled the rebels aboard a ship, alongside the riches they had purportedly stolen, and sent them to Constantinople. Felix was exiled to Pontus until around 712, when the next emperor, Philippicus, restored him to the church in Ravenna and had him sent back there with an escort, again by way of Sicily. Sicily does not necessarily lie on the most obvious route between Ravenna and Constantinople, and, notably, other trips between the two cities did not always involve Sicily. Therefore, on these trips there must have been compelling but unstated reasons for the entourage to stop on the island. It is not clear from the text if Sicilian officials were involved in this return trip or why Sicily was the chosen route between Constantinople and Ravenna. Nonetheless, this anecdote allows us to see Sicily and its officials as key factors in Constantinople’s attempts to maintain power in southern Italy, even when geography was not the determining reason for using Sicily as a way station along the journey.

The Royal Frankish Annals contain a reference to similar activity in the year 788. It is recorded that Emperor Constantine VI ordered the governor Theodorus to destroy the city of Benevento in revenge for the emperor not having received Charlemagne’s daughter as his wife. The Byzantine forces traveled from Sicily to Calabria, where they met the Frankish-allied Beneventan troops in battle but were defeated. Thus we again see a Sicilian governor tasked with carrying out imperial edicts on the mainland. While its placement close to mainland Italy certainly made the island useful geographically, the presumed ability of the island’s officials to raise appropriate armies and attack the mainland, along with the trust the emperor placed in those distant representatives to carry out such campaigns, demonstrates the island’s conceptual utility to the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was not simply a distant province at the periphery of the empire but was at times an integral extension of the central authority of Constantinople.

In general, then, early medieval Sicily’s communications with Constantinople show the island in a number of important roles: a site of political rebellion and exile, an agent of imperial authority within Italy, and a stronghold of Byzantine power along the vulnerable three-way border at the far western edge of the empire. Sicily and its governors acted in the West as an extension of Constantinople, relying on a steady stream of officials, news, messengers, and troops between the capital and the island. The island also functioned as a specific site of imperial authority when it was the temporary capital of the empire under Constans II, and even though this was a brief and isolated instance, it demonstrates the multiple ways in which Sicily was deemed central to the goals and safety of the Byzantine Empire as a whole. As the bulwark of Byzantine power in the central Mediterranean, Sicily both protected the empire’s western edge and represented imperial authority in the region. And, in the case of revolt against Constantinople, the island could serve as a base for rival power and as a stepping-stone to the center of the empire: if rebels were to gain power on the island, they might be able to use the established relationship between Syracuse and Constantinople to assert their claim to authority over all of Byzantium. Even when the emperors were distracted by business closer to home, the imperial authorities strenuously worked to maintain their hold over Sicily. By keeping control of this island borderland, the Byzantines were able to use Sicily in the enforcement of their will in Italy as well as in diplomatic relationships with sites of power in the Latin world, Rome, and the Frankish court (represented by Aachen) and, after the mid-seventh century, with the new centers of Muslim power in North Africa.

While Sicily functioned as an important Byzantine borderland in the western Mediterranean and maintained close communications with Constantinople, ties between Sicily and Rome and the Latin world also remained strong. Having been a Roman province for several centuries, the island featured a population with many Latin speakers and numerous Latin churches. Due also to the persistence of communication networks between Rome and Sicily, the island was never fully detached from the Latin West in terms of culture, religion, and, to some degree, politics. Simply because the island shifted from Roman to Germanic and then to Greek administration does not mean that cultural or social connections between the island and Rome were severed. The endurance of these links is partly due to the continued presence of a Latin population and the maintenance of papal estates on the island, and many Sicilians remained adherents of the Latin Church. Simultaneous connections to Rome and to Constantinople allowed the island to function, in some ways, as part of both the Latin and Greek worlds and therefore as a vital point of connection between them. Thus, in addition to functioning as a link between Constantinople and the Byzantine-claimed territories in mainland Italy—both as a transit point for messengers and as a base for enforcing order in Italy—Sicily could serve as a mediator in communications between Constantinople and Rome.

Indeed, Sicily functioned as an important node in the networks of communication that existed between emperors in Constantinople and popes, kings, and emperors in the West. In terms of papal-imperial business and diplomacy, Sicily appears to have been a regular stop on the route between Constantinople and Rome, although it was not the only path for information or messengers between the two places. Official and political business between Rome and Constantinople was conducted often by way of Sicily and, it appears, less often via an overland route. Many early medieval travelers between Constantinople and Italy made Sicily a way station on their travels, even if their business did not directly involve the island. For example, in 653 Pope Martin I (649–655) was arrested in Rome and taken by ship to Constantinople. The journey, which lasted from the middle of June until mid-September, followed a route through Sicily as well as many other Mediterranean ports. In this case, even though the affair had nothing to do with Sicily, a Sicilian Byzantine official was involved in the delegation sent to Ravenna. A similar journey took place in 709, when Pope Constantine (708–715) answered a summons by the Byzantine emperor Justinian II to appear at Constantinople. The papal party, as detailed in the pope’s vita in the Liber Pontificalis, journeyed to the Byzantine capital by way of Sicily, although their return trip did not follow the same route, and they skipped Sicily on that second leg. Evidently, therefore, various itineraries were available for travelers between mainland Italy and the Byzantine capital during the early eighth century. Sicily was, however, an obvious choice of route when the pope and his entourage were traveling on the orders of the Byzantine emperor or through the political agency of Sicilian officials—even when they did not have any particular business to transact on the island. This fact may have been due to a larger number of Constantinople-bound ships sailing from Sicilian ports than from other ports in Italy. Likewise, Sicily’s importance as a transit point for papal-imperial business may have resulted from the involvement of Greek Sicilian officials as representatives of the imperial government. In either case, officials frequently chose routes involving Sicily over other routes to Constantinople; that is, Sicily often found itself at the nexus of Byzantine-Latin relationships even when a stopover there was not necessitated by the involvement of Sicilian personnel.

There is also evidence that, during the seventh through ninth centuries, Roman Church officials traveled to Sicily on administrative business that did not involve transactions with Greeks. Representatives of the Latin Church at Rome traveled to the island to govern the Latin churches there and the agricultural lands in papal estates. The papal patrimony in Sicily was concentrated in the cities of Syracuse and Palermo, and some Sicilian lands were also held by the churches of Milan, Ravenna, and other mainland Italian cities.33 Latin sources show that early medieval popes frequently traveled to Sicily, either personally or via their officials, on routine affairs of land and church administration. Papal visits to Sicily are recorded from the sixth century and continued at least through the eighth century. One of the earliest papal visitors, Pope Vigilius (537–555), arrived on the island very soon after Justinian’s reconquest of Sicily from the Goths: he traveled from Rome to the Sicilian city of Catania, where he appointed priests and deacons. He then sailed to Constantinople in order to negotiate with the emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and empress Theodora (500–548) about a dispute over ecclesiastical leadership. Later, after an illness, Vigilius died in Syracuse, whence his body was taken to Rome for burial. Vigilius obviously deemed the island useful both as a stopover en route to the eastern Mediterranean and as a significant place within the wider Latin Church. Other popes and their officials, throughout the sixth through ninth centuries, likewise traveled to Sicily regularly, demonstrating the island’s integral position in the Mediterranean system and its role as a node of Rome-Constantinople communications.

This integration of Greek-ruled Sicily with the church in Rome is most evident in the corpus of letters written by Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604). Pope Gregory maintained continuous contact with Sicily and left a series of letters concerning the island that serves as the most important source of information about Sicily in the sixth century. For example, one of Gregory’s earliest extant letters, written in 590, was sent to all of the island’s bishops, and in it he appointed Peter as his subdeacon on the island, in charge of administering the Sicilian patrimony on the pope’s behalf. Throughout his letters, Gregory shows himself to have been deeply concerned with the political, ecclesiastical, and economic affairs of the island. Also the personal owner of extensive lands and the founder of several monasteries in Sicily, Gregory remained, throughout his papacy, in regular contact with his agents and with the Roman clergy on the island. He intervened often in the affairs of the Sicilian churches, appointed and corresponded with local bishops, founded monasteries and convents on Sicily, and kept a watchful eye on the Greek praetors who ruled the island on behalf of Constantinople. For example, he wrote a letter in 590 to Justin, the praetor of Sicily, in which he noted that he would be closely observing Justin’s administration of the island.

The connection between Greek Sicily and the church at Rome continued throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, even at the highest level of church authority.40 In fact, several popes from those years were born and educated on the island, some from the Latin population and some from the Greek. Pope Agatho (r. 678–681) was originally from Sicily (natione Sicula), although very little is known of his life there; he seems not to have maintained a particularly close relationship with the island. Likewise born in Sicily was Pope Leo II the Younger (682–683), who was renowned for his knowledge of both Greek and Latin; his biographer asserts that he translated into Latin the acts of the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681), which condemned Monothelitism. Another seventh-century pope, Conon (686–687), was born in Greece but was raised and educated in Sicily before he traveled to Rome and took leadership of the Latin Church. Also raised and educated in Sicily was Pope Sergius I (687–701), whose father, Tiberius, was of Syrian origin, having migrated to Palermo (called at the time Panormus; see figure 2) from Antioch. Likewise, Pope Stephen III (768–772) was born in Sicily and moved as a youth to Rome, where he became a cleric and a monk in St. Chrysogonus’s monastery before ascending to the papacy. Despite having been transferred to Greek political control, Sicily was, to some significant degree, still considered part of the Latin Church, such that the island could be the source of so many popes during these centuries. The island may have served as a convenient source of Greek-educated candidates during a period in which Constantinople continued to try—increasingly unsuccessfully—to appoint and approve the election of the popes. Sicily, with its connections to both churches, may have been an easy place for emperors to find candidates for the papacy with enough familiarity with the two traditions to serve the interests of both institutions.

Some of the relations between Byzantium and the leaders of western Europe, as directed through Sicily, were more hostile. For example, the vita of Pope John VI (r. 701–705) records that the Byzantine exarch of Italy, Theophilactus (r. 701/702–709), traveled from Sicily to Rome for unknown reasons and encountered there a violent reception. In Rome he was met by the local military troops (“militia totius Italiae”), who attempted to kill him. The pope sheltered the Byzantine official, thus demonstrating his commitment to maintaining an amiable relationship with the Byzantine emperor, even if the local population was less welcoming to the Greek envoy. A more detailed account of hostile relations between Rome and Constantinople being negotiated via Sicily concerns a confrontation that took place in 732, during the first iconoclastic period. Pope Gregory III (731–741) sent a representative named George to the Byzantine capital with a condemnation of Emperor Leo’s position on iconoclasm. George failed in his mission the first time he traveled from Rome to Constantinople, so he was sent a second time. This second attempt to deliver the pope’s message was disrupted by George’s yearlong detention in Sicily, and the letter never made it to Constantinople. Later, the pope tried again to send the Byzantine emperor a condemnation of iconoclasm, this time with Constantine the defensor. On his way to Constantinople, he passed through Sicily where he and his party were arrested and imprisoned by Sergius, the stratēgos of Sicily, who was acting on the emperor’s orders. Sergius confiscated the letter and held Constantine captive for nearly a year. In this extended episode, the Sicilian Byzantine official obstructed the ability of Rome to communicate with Constantinople its displeasure on the divisive issue of iconoclasm. Sicily, as a regular stopping point on Rome-to-Constantinople journeys, was well situated to act as a regional representative of the emperor and his policies, as well as an intermediary in the relationship between pope and emperor—whether that enhanced or limited the actual communication between the two parties.

Like these popes, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne also used Sicily as a locus of political leverage with the Byzantine Empire. In this, he appears to have been following the established pathways of East-West communication by way of Sicily. One potential point of tension between Charlemagne and Constantinople was the political and military opportunity the island presented to western rulers: one could invade Sicily to claim it as his own and thus gain a foothold in a Byzantine territory with strong connections to Constantinople. This suggestion is not found in Latin sources, however, but only in Greek ones: for the year 800/801, Theophanes recorded that Charlemagne had planned a naval attack on Byzantine Sicily in order to conquer the island for his new empire. The chronicle stated that the Frankish emperor then abandoned this plan and decided instead to seek the hand of Empress Irene as his wife and thus sent ambassadors to Constantinople on that mission. Even if this story was fabricated by the Greeks in their response to Charlemagne’s claim to be the Roman emperor, it demonstrates that they recognized the possibility that Sicily could potentially be used as a stepping-stone between West and East. Another example of Sicily as a locus of political conflict between eastern and western claimants to the Roman imperial title concerns a Byzantine official from Sicily who defected to the court of Charlemagne in the year 800, for an unknown reason. He stayed in Charlemagne’s service for ten years before requesting that he be sent back to Sicily. The story of this official may reflect the competition between East and West over claims to authority. Both of these examples, however tenuous, suggest that Sicily served, to some western political leaders, as a nearby representative of the Byzantine Empire and thus as a mediator of both diplomacy and potential aggression. Charlemagne’s supposed choice between conquering the island and marrying the empress suggests that the island could, in fact, be as much of a key to uniting the two empires as could a marriage alliance.

Sometimes the Rome-to-Constantinople route through Sicily is only implied in the extant sources by notifications about the transmission of news. Several early sources relate that western leaders received important messages from Constantinople by means of ambassadors sent to Rome by Greek Sicilian officials, but we learn nothing else about the trips to and from Sicily. For example, in 713 a messenger arrived in Sicily from Constantinople and announced that Anastasius II (713–715) had deposed Philippicus (711–713) and replaced him as emperor; this news then traveled from Sicily to Rome. Another similar incident is found in the brief notice that in 799 Michael, the governor of Sicily, sent a representative named Daniel to the court of Charlemagne, although the business he was charged with conducting between Charlemagne and Sicily’s governor is unknown. He may have been carrying news or orders on behalf of Sicily or, like many of the other messengers found in the sources, on behalf of Constantinople via Sicily’s Byzantine officials. It is likely that other such travel between the two courts occurred but was not documented, as the arrival of a Sicilian envoy to Charlemagne’s court was not recorded as an incident out of the ordinary. Most travel by messengers is only implied in our sources, through the record of the news that was transmitted or by a report that envoys appeared as passengers on ships on which other travelers were sailing. For example, there is a brief reference in a saint’s life to both imperial and papal envoys sailing on the same ship from Constantinople to Sicily as the holy man, but we learn nothing of the missions on which these messengers traveled. The travels of these particular envoys are not known from other sources, and it is likely that many other such journeys took place but were not recorded in surviving texts.

Two letters dated November 813, written by Pope Leo III (795–816) to Charlemagne, also provide evidence that news traveled from Constantinople to both Rome and the Frankish imperial court via Sicily. In the first, Leo mentions a letter sent to him on Charlemagne’s behalf by the Sicilian stratēgos, Gregory, in response to one that the pope had delivered. The pope’s letter conveys that the Byzantine emperor Michael (Michael I Rangabe, r. 811–813) had entered a monastery and had been replaced on the imperial throne. Leo explains to Charlemagne in the letter that he had learned the news from a papal representative who had traveled from Rome to Gregory’s court in Sicily. The second letter from Leo continues the discussion of the events in Constantinople, bringing news about the ascension of Leo V, “the Armenian,” (r. 813–820) to the imperial throne. These two pieces of correspondence indicate that at times both Rome and the emperor’s court relied on Sicilian officials for news from Constantinople and that Sicilian envoys were accustomed to taking such news to Europe. The movement of information via Sicily also suggests that travel both between Constantinople and Sicily and between Sicily and Rome was routine: Sicily stayed regularly connected to both the Greek and Latin Christian worlds, simultaneously sending messengers to and receiving them from multiple places.

On the other hand, some accounts of communications between Constantinople and Rome highlight the fact that Sicily was not the only route by which information or envoys traveled between Constantinople and the West. In 797, the emissary Theoctistos, sent by Nicetas, the stratēgos of Sicily, arrived at Aachen with a letter for Charlemagne from an emperor (Constantine VI, r. 780–797) who had in the meantime been deposed in Constantinople (by his mother, Empress Irene, r. 797–802). That vital piece of information had already reached Aachen by another route before the Sicilian messenger arrived, making the deposed emperor’s message obsolete before it even arrived at Aachen. This anecdote shows that the overland route was sometimes faster than the sea route through Sicily. This, then, suggests that Sicily acted as a significant node in the communication linkage between Rome, the Frankish court, and Constantinople not simply for its geographical expedience but for other reasons as well. Indeed, if messages could reach Rome or Aachen more quickly by routes not involving Sicily, then the utilization of the island as a stopover in other instances must have been related to other factors, such as the perceived reliability of particular Sicilian officials or the ease of finding passage to the island’s ports from the eastern Mediterranean. The use of Sicily as a transit point reflected official needs and communication patterns, not simply the necessity to transmit information in the fastest way possible, meaning that in certain instances Sicily could serve as a proxy for imperial authority within the western Mediterranean and a point of connection between East and West. At the edge of the empire, Sicily was also a useful mediator of the relationships between Byzantium and the societies at its borders.

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

Konya [Iconium] City-Fortress

Konya [Iconium] City Walls

With the entry of the Seljuk State into Anatolia, the area of its domination began to expand gradually. During this period, there began to struggle with the Byzantines in order to seize Konya and its surroundings. As a result of these struggles, the Seljuks took the city of Konya and Gevele Castle from the Byzantine governor named Romanus Makri. Since then, Konya has been the center of the Anatolian Seljuk State. The castle of Gevele is very important both in terms of its location and its strategic location. Because of this, the city of Konya was generally defended from the Gevale Castle and was first met in the attacks on Konya.

The Konya Fortress is also believed to have been constructed in the Roman period. However, due to the restorations and addition of new sections, the fortress and the city walls, which are believed to have been built in 2nd century AD, have almost lost their original plans and their architectural features. Although they have reinforced it against the anticipated First Crusade, the Seljuks made initially almost no changes to the fortifications when they conquered the city. Today nothing is preserved from the city walls surrounding the Alaeddin Tepesi (Alaeddin Hill).

Physical changes in Alaeddin Hill and its close surroundings, in the second half of 19th century up to 1897, when the railway line is connected to the city. It shows the inner city wall [i.e.the “keep”] as constructed previously.

Especially during the period of Izzettin Keykavus I and Alaeddin Keykubat I restorations were made to the Byzantine walls substantially. During these restorations one of the first examples of an `exhibition’ in the history of museology occurred when the spolia and the Antique period materials found near the Alaaddin Hill were displayed on a stand set in front of the walls. In this way the Sultan synthesized his own culture with the preceding one. Even more, the fact that the materials used in the city walls were contradictory to Islamic philosophy was tolerated. Displaying spolia with erotic figures on the walls was a clear indication of Seljuk tolerance. Another significance is that it displayed iconography on the walls. During Medieval time sultans believed that this could protect their citizens from enemies. There are two kinds of enemy. One of them is the visible enemy – because they are human like them. The other enemies are the invisible ones, and the city could be protected from these by talismans. There are many medieval stories about talisman present in Islamic culture, i. e. Gog and Magog versus Alexander.

Byzantine Cities, Villages and Fortifications

Konya Museums and Ruins

Lycaonia

Konya from Total War Medieval 2

Byzantine Fire on the Water

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship mêlées. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.

The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromōn by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromōns. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds.

Siphons for spewing ‘Greek fire’ were eventually mounted on protected platforms at the bow and possibly amidships. The parapeted forecastle (xylokastron) housed the main siphon, called the ‘raven’ (katakorax), while the castle amidships was the kastelloma. The aftercastle contained the kravatos, a structure to shield the kentarchos or captain.

The First Siege of Constantinople and the Advent of ‘Greek Fire’ (672–7)

Once Muawiyah had moved his capital to Damascus and consolidated his grip on power, he began preparations for an enormous expedition against Constantinople itself. In 672 he was ready. The caliph unleashed at least two separate fleets on the south coast of Asia Minor. Their activities must have kept the Karabisian fleet fully occupied. Both Crete and Rhodes were raided. One Arab fleet wintered in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of Anatolia) and the other in Lycia (on the south-central coast). Word of these incursions galvanized Constans’ son and successor, Constantine IV, into action. According to Theophanes, the emperor ‘built large biremes bearing cauldrons of fire and dromones equipped with siphons and ordered them to be stationed at the Proclianesian harbour of Caesarius [Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour]’. In 673 Muawiyah’s fleets surged into the Sea of Marmara and ravaged the Hebdomon district just southwest of Constantinople, then captured Kyzikos on the south shore of the sea. Here they established a base camp for incessant attacks on the city.

Constantinople would endure this maritime assault for the next several years, but the emperor was in possession of a terrible new weapon which would finally – and precipitously – end it. Residing in the city at that time was a Christian refugee from Heliopolis in Syria (modern Baalbek in Lebanon) named Kallinikos. Theophanes described him as an ‘architect’ or ‘artificer’ who had ‘manufactured a naval fire [or sea fire]’ which floated on the surface of the sea and could not be extinguished by water. Its precise ingredients were kept a closely guarded state secret and remain a mystery to this day. This has led to endless speculation through the ages and repeated attempts at replication. A similar Muslim concoction of the twelfth century was said to have included ‘dolphin’s fat’ and ‘grease of goat kidneys’. Early scholarly conjecture centred on saltpetre as the main component (as in gunpowder) or some form of quicklime, but recent empirical investigations, particularly by renowned Byzantinist John Haldon, have revealed that its primary ingredient was probably petroleum-based – most likely naphtha or light crude oil. The Byzantines had access to the oil fields of the Caucasus region northeast of the Black Sea where crude seeped to the surface. The theory is that Kallinikos may have distilled this into a paraffin or kerosene, then added wood resins as a thickening agent. The mixture was then heated in an air-tight bronze tank over a brazier and pressured by use of a force pump. The final step was the release of the flammable fluid through a valve for its discharge from a metal-sheathed nozzle, affixed with a flame ignition source. In a 2002 clinical test of this theory, Haldon and his colleagues, Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, were able to produce a fire stream in the neighbourhood of 1,000 degrees Celsius that extended at least 15m (49ft).

It was very probably a compound similar to this that Constantine caused to be loaded onto his dromōns in the autumn of 677. The fearsome new weapon was unleashed from swivel-mounted siphons in the forecastles with horrific results. Theophanes testified almost matter-of-factly that it ‘kindled the ships of the Arabs and burnt them and their crews’. To the Arab victims of his frightful invention, it must have seemed like some early version of ‘shock and awe’. The fact that they would have had no idea of how to combat the weapon must have compounded their panic. Water would have been ineffective. At that point they could not have known that the only way to extinguish the ‘liquid fire’ was with sand, vinegar or urine. The siege soon collapsed. What was left of the Arab armada withdrew, only to be severely mauled by a violent winter storm while passing abeam Syllaem in Pamphylia (on the south coast of Asia Minor between Lycia and Cilicia). Theophanes said, ‘It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.’

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.