1902 Encyclopedia > Belisarius

Byzantine general
(c. 505 - 565)

BELISARIUS (Sclavonic, Beli-tzar, "White-Prince"), the greatest general of the Byzantine empire, was born about 505 A.D., at Germania, on the borders of Illyria. As a youth he served in the body-guard of Justinian, who appointed him commander of the Eastern army. He won a signal victory over the Persians in 530, and successfully conducted a campaign against them, until forced, by the rashness of his soldiers, to join battle and suffer defeat in the following year. Recalled to Constantinople, he married Antonina, a profligate, daring woman. During the sedition of the " green" and " blue " parties of the circus he did Justinian good service, effectually crushing the rebels who had proclaimed Hypatius emperor. In 533 the command of the expedition against the Vandal kingdom in Africa, a perilous office, which the rest of the imperial generals shunned, was conferred on Belisarius. With 15,000 mercenaries, whom he had to train into Roman discipline, he took Carthage, defeated Gelimer the Vandal king, and carried him captive, in 534, to grace the first triumph witnessed in Constantinople. In reward for these services Belisarius was invested with the consular dignity, and medals were struck in his honour. At this time the Ostrogothic kingdom, founded in Italy by Theodoric the Great, was shaken by internal dissensions, of which Justinian resolved to avail himself. Accordingly, Belisarius invaded Sicilv; and, after storming Naples and defending Rome for a year against almost the entire strength of the Goths in Italy, he concluded the war by the capture of Ravenna, and with it of the Gothic king Vitiges. So conspicuous were Belisarius's heroism and military skill that the Ostrogoths offered to acknowledge him Emperor of the West. But his loyalty did not waver; he rejected the proposal and returned to Constantinople in 540. Next year he was sent to check the Persian king Nushirvan; but, thwarted by the turbulence of his troops, he achieved no decisive result. On his return to Constantinople the intrigues of Antonina, whom he had confined on account of her illicit amours, caused him to be stripped of his dignities and condemned to death, and he was only pardoned by humbling himself before his imperious consort. The Goths having meanwhile reconquered Italy, Belisarius was despatched with utterly inadequate forces to oppose them. Nevertheless, during five campaigns his strategic skill enabled him to hold his enemies at bay, until he was removed from the command, and the conclusion of the war entrusted to his rival Narses. Belisarius remained at Constantinople in tranquil retirement until 559, when an incursion of Bulgarian savages spread a panic through the metropolis, and men's eyes were once more turned towards the neglected veteran, who placed himself at the head of a mixed multitude of peasants and soldiers, and repelled the barbarians with his wonted courage and adroitness. But this, like his former victories, stimulated Justinian's envy. The saviour of his country was coldly received and left unrewarded by his suspicious sovereign. Shortly afterwards Belisarius was accused of complicity in a conspiracy against the emperor; his fortune was confiscated, and himself flung into prison. His last years are shrouded in uncertainty, as they are not dealt with in the circumstantial history of Procopius ; but he seems to have been liberated and reinstalled in the enjoyment of his hard-won honours before his death in 565. The fiction of Belisarius wandering as a blind beggar through the streets of Constantinople, which has been adopted by Marmontel in his Belisaire, and by various painters and poets, seems to have been invented by Tzetzes, a writer of the 12th century. Gibbon justly calls Belisarius the Africanus of New Rome. But for his successes, which were achieved with most insignificant means, the effete Byzantine empire would have been dismembered among Vandals, Persians, and Goths. He was merciful as a conqueror, stern as a disciplinarian, enterprising and wary as a general; while his courage, loyalty, and forbearance seem to have been almost unsullied. Like Corbulo, the faithful general of Nero, he was suspected and persecuted by an ungrateful master; and, like him, he restored the old discipline to the troops and the ancient lustre to the Roman arms'in a corrupt and nerveless age. (Cf. Mahon's Life of Belisarius ; Finlay's Greece under the Romans ; Procopius; Gibbon's Decline and Fall, ch. 41-43.).

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