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Military Myths and Legends: Belisarius

by James Allan Evans

It was a sorry tale. A brilliant general, military hero, and faithful servant of the state, blind and reduced to penury in his old age, sitting on the main street of Constantinople begging for his living. “Give an obol to Belisarius,” he repeated over and over again. A few passersby took pity and gave.

The legend told of the downfall of a great soldier and the ingratitude of his master, the Emperor Justinian, who held the throne of Byzantium from 527 to 565, and “An obol for Belisarius!” became a catchphase for the shabby treatment governments meted out to their ex-soldiers.

A Poem Tells the Tale

How the story arose we do not know, but sometime in the 14th century an anonymous author composed a long poem about it: the Romance of Belisarius. It tells how Justinian blinded Belisarius in his old age, confiscated his wealth, and left him to beg on the street corner. The tale is quite untrue: Belisarius died in his bed, only a few months before Justinian. But it is the last curtain call of a military officer whose exploits gave the reign of Justinian much of its luster.
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Famous field marshals have always appreciated the power of public relations. Julius Caesar described his military campaigns in his Commentaries, which were supposedly rough drafts for a proper historical work. Napoleon spent his last years on St. Helena rewriting history with such success that he made himself a tragic legend. Belisarius was luckier than either of them: On his staff he had the foremost historian of his age, Procopius, who came from Caesarea in Palestine and became his legal adviser and secretary in 527. Procopius wrote—in seven volumes—a polished history of the wars that the Byzantines fought in Justinian’s reign up to 550 and then, some years later, he added another book taking the wars up to 552, the year when the Byzantines finally wiped out the Ostrogoths in Italy.

The “Secret History”

But by then, Procopius was a disillusioned man. He gave in to his bitterness in an essay he must have written in the year that the first seven books of his great history appeared in the bookstalls of Constantinople. He did not dare publish it, but it survived, and a copy turned up in the Vatican Library in the early 17th century. Its popular name is the Secret History and it portrays the private Belisarius: a unattractive figure, weak, unreliable, and dominated by his wife.

Belisarius attracted Justinian’s attention before he became emperor, while his uncle, Justin I, was on the throne. Justin was an old soldier, almost illiterate, who became emperor unexpectedly in 518, and Justinian was his sister’s son, whom he adopted because he had no children of his own. Belisarius was a trooper in Justinian’s bodyguard when he was assigned to a command on the eastern front where war with the Persians had been dragging on since 525. Why Justinian picked Belisarius is hard to fathom, except that Belisarius was a handsome, dashing trooper and, more important, he had married a close friend of the Empress Theodora. Theodora and Antonina, Belisarius’s wife, both came from the demi-monde of the theater, which was beyond the pale in Constantinople. Even the church would not give the sacraments to the theater crowd. Yet both women rose to positions of power and wealth in the Byzantine Empire. It was probably a nudge from Theodora that brought Belisarius to Justinian’s attention.

Back on Track With His Career

So the man’s career blossomed. In 530 Belisarius defeated the Persians outside the fortress of Dara on the frontier. A Persian army of some 70,000 men, including the elite corps called the Immortals, advanced on Dara, led by Peroz, a scion of the Mihran family that traditionally provided Persia with its commanders. Belisarius probably had about 25,000 troops and shared command with the “Master of Offices,” a powerful official in the Byzantine bureaucracy named Hermogenes. But he made careful preparations for the Persian attack. He ordered trenches dug outside the south watergate of Dara, which directly faced the Persian advance, and behind the trenches he posted his infantry who were the least reliable troops in his army.

Behind the infantry Belisarius and Hermogenes took up their own posts, surrounded by their elite bodyguards, ready to intervene wherever they were needed. On the other side of the ditch Belisarius posted his crack cavalry corps made up of Huns, all skillful bowmen. The Huns, who had terrified the empire almost a century earlier when they invaded under their khan Attila, had now become valuable recruits into the Byzantine army, and Belisarius posted them where they could ride to the aid of his cavalry on his wings. Behind a little hillock where the Persians could not see them was posted a contingent of Heruls, barbarians who had sacked Athens in 267 but since then had settled within the Empire. They were the best corps of horsemen in his army.

The Battle That Made His Reputation

The Persians first hit the Byzantine left wing hard and forced it back, but the Huns rode to the rescue and the Heruls emerged from behind their hillock and assailed the Persian attackers from the rear. Then Peroz threw in his elite Immortals against the Byzantine right wing, but Belisarius moved some of his own guardsmen to strengthen it and, once again, the Huns rode to the rescue. The Persians were forced back in disorder, and their retreat became a rout. Their casualties were heavy. The Battle of Dara was the first victory over the Persians on the eastern frontier in over a century. Outnumbered, Belisarius had prevailed; the battle made his reputation.

The next year, he nearly lost it. The Persians, accompanied by their Arab allies from the Lakmid tribe, made a thrust across Syria toward Antioch. Belisarius countered and pursued them back as far as the Euphrates River. Belisarius, always cautious, would have let them cross the river and return home, but his troops taunted him with cowardice and, against his better judgment, Belisarius invited a battle. He drew his battle line at right angles to the river. Faithful Procopius, who wrote a report of what happened that exculpated Belisarius, tells that what defeated the Byzantines was the collapse of their right wing when their own Arab allies—led by the sheikh of the Ghassanid tribe al-Harith—turned and fled. Belisarius himself dismounted and fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops, thus stemming the rout. But it seems the official report told a much less flattering story, and Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople.

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