Ancient History & Civilisation



Belisarius (AD 505–565)

Belisarius therefore addressed those of his officers who were about him thus: ‘It is not my wish to disclose to all what I am thinking. For talk carried about through a camp cannot keep secrets … But seeing that the majority of you are allowing yourselves to act in a most disorderly manner, and that each one wishes to be himself supreme commander in the war, I shall now say among you things about which one ought to keep silence, mentioning, however, first that when many in an army follow independent judgements it is impossible that anything needful be done.’1

IN THE FOURTH AND EARLY FIFTH CENTURIES AD THE ROMAN ARMY RETAINED the potential to become a highly effective fighting force. Pitched battles were rarer than they had been during the Principate, for commanders now preferred to defeat an enemy by stealth and manoeuvre without risking such an encounter. Yet when the Romans did choose to fight a battle, they usually won, and at their best Roman armies proved markedly superior to all their opponents, in spite of a few spectacular defeats such as Adrianople in AD378. The impact of this defeat, where the emperor of the east was killed along with many of his soldiers, has often been exaggerated, and it certainly did not sound the death knell of the army. Military efficiency had always been based on thorough training, and on keeping the troops well motivated, disciplined and properly equipped. At all periods there were occasions when these factors did not apply and the result was often defeat. Maintaining an army in good condition required huge resources of manpower, material and most of all money, as well as the political capacity and will to apply these. This was the essential problem in late antiquity, for whilst the Romans remained fully aware of how to make the army effective, the circumstances were only rarely conducive to achieving this in practice. Frequent civil wars left emperors weak and insecure, whilst adding to the economic decline which may in any case have been under way from the late second century. Much of the infrastructure which supported the army – roads, fortified bases and supply lines – decayed simply because there was neither the money nor determination from central authority to maintain them. The army was still large and formidable, but it was rarely able to perform at its best and on average its units were of lower quality than those of the earlier professional army.

From the third century onwards Rome was in decline, continued instability nibbling at central government so that a good deal of power came to be dispersed amongst local leaders and it was hard to get anything done at a higher level. Internal weakness resulted in more frequent defeats on the frontiers, which sometimes led to further civil war as emperors were killed or discredited by failure, and some regions decided that the solution to the problem posed by external foes was to create their own emperor. Very gradually Rome’s strength grew less, but the sheer size and power of the empire was so great that even by the end of the fourth century she remained much stronger than any of her foreign enemies. The threat posed by the latter was anyway uncoordinated and sporadic, but stretches of frontier perceived to be vulnerable soon became targets for attack.

The presence of an emperor to conduct warfare in a region could, as Julian showed, restore some temporary security, but even when there was more than one emperor these men could not be everywhere simultaneously. Their task was to plug the gaps and hope that these would remain secure for long enough for them to deal with problems elsewhere. If it had been granted a long period of stability without the disruption of internal conflict, then the Empire might still have recovered, but the changed basis of imperial power ensured that this could not happen. Rome declined very slowly and gradually, so that even the final collapse of the western section of the Empire cannot easily be associated with a single cataclysm. Rome itself was sacked by Goths in AD 410, but these Germanic warriors and their leaders were part of the Roman army and the context was more one of civil war than of foreign invasion. The last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476, but most of his predecessors had lacked real power and the event itself had little impact on the lives of the wider population. During the fifth century the Empire’s western provinces went their own way, like Britain, or were overrun and made into kingdoms by Germanic warlords, many of whom had at some time been in Roman service. In this way groups of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks and Vandals took Spain, Gaul, Italy, Sicily and North Africa.

As the western empire fell to pieces, the eastern section, with its capital at Constantinople and territory embracing the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria, endured. In many ways it was a more coherent unit than the wider empire had become, and it had more secure natural boundaries to the north. It was a region which a single emperor could effectively rule and, although sometimes these men chose to appoint a co-ruler, the eastern Roman Empire (usually by modern convention referred to as the Byzantine Empire) came once again to possess the political stability which had so long been lacking. By the sixth century it had become rare for an emperor to go on campaign in person, and their willingness to let others command their armies was an indication of greater personal security. Generals’ activities were closely watched for any sign of disloyalty, but in most respects the relationship between emperor and field commander had returned to something closer to the conditions of the Principate. Eastern emperors were able to conduct active warfare in more than one theatre simultaneously in a way that had rarely been possible for centuries.

The military resources available had diminished, but were still considerable. In terms of territory the eastern empire was roughly equivalent to its greatest rival, Sassanid Persia, although the Romans – for that was how the Byzantines thought of themselves – were probably wealthier and had a bigger population. The diminished size of their realm to some extent altered Roman emperors’ attitude towards the outside world, and there was certainly a tendency to address the Persian king as an equal, or even ‘brother’. This was in marked contrast to the diplomacy of earlier centuries, which had always sought to emphasize Rome’s vast superiority over other nations. Yet at least some eastern emperors continued to nurse an ambition of a revival of the empire’s former power, and during the reign of Justinian (AD 527–65) a concerted attempt was made to reconquer the lost territories around the western Mediterranean. North Africa, Sicily and Italy were all retaken in a series of campaigns, although the gains would prove to be short-lived. One of the most prominent commanders throughout these operations was Belisarius, a man who received his first experience as a general in the wars on the eastern frontier.2


Belisarius was one of Justinian’s doryphoroi, a section of his military household who lived at his expense and were groomed to serve as officers. He was of German extraction, from one of the Danubian provinces, but in cultural terms this probably meant very little. However, he was far more of a professional soldier than the senatorial aristocrats of earlier times, or the academic Julian. In 526 Belisarius and another of the doryphoroi, Sittas, were placed in charge of a force sent to raid a region of the Sassanid Empire known as Persarmenia. At first things went well, and the Romans gathered considerable plunder, but it was not long before they were confronted by superior Persian forces and defeated. This operation was part of the sporadic hostility along the frontier in the decades following a period of full-scale war between the two powers in 502–6. Then hostilities had opened when the Persian king Kavadh (Cabades in the Roman sources), in need of money and denied a loan or gift by the emperor Anastasius, had launched a sudden plundering expedition into the Roman provinces with a view to making a quick profit. In the end negotiations led to the declaration of seven years’ peace, probably accompanied by Roman payments and restrictions against either side’s building new fortifications along the border.

The peace proved uneasy, tension increasing still further when in the early 520s Kavadh began to impose the Persian Zoroastrian religion on his Iberian subjects – a move perhaps prompted more by politics than conviction, fearing a defection to Rome. The Iberians appealed as fellow Christians for Roman support. Each side was also encouraging its allies to attack the other. A further complication arose when the ageing Kavadh, disliking his oldest son Kaoses, attempted to ensure that he was succeeded by the younger Khusro. Persian ambassadors came to Justinian’s uncle, the emperor Justin, asking that he adopt Khusro and so commit himself to ensuring that he succeeded his father. Justin and Justinian were at first elated, until they began to suspect that Kavadh’s real aim was to give his son a claim to the Roman throne. Their counter-proposal, a limited adoption of the kind commonly employed for barbarian royalty which would make such a succession impossible, was taken as an insult by the Persians. The Romans’ fears, like the original proposal itself, reflected the very different relationship between the two powers which prevailed by the sixth century.3

Tension continued to grow until a renewal of open warfare seemed inevitable. Campaigns in this area were dominated by the fortresses which allowed the control of the surrounding area. Battles were rare, most of the fighting consisting of raids like the one led by Belisarius, and strongholds provided secure bases from which these could be launched. In 505 the Romans had begun construction of a new fortress at Dara, some 15 miles away from Persian-held Nisibis. Its existence was resented by the Persians after peace had been declared, especially as the Romans gradually increased the forces stationed there. Other moves to construct new frontier strongholds or to concentrate troops near the border were seen as equally provocative. Sometimes, as when the Romans occupied two forts on the Iberian border in about 527, the Persian reaction was enough to force their evacuation. In 528 Belisarius was tasked with building a fort at Minduos, a place which cannot be precisely identified but was evidently not far from Nisibis. This position also proved untenable in the face of a strong enemy reaction, but it may be that this operation was in any case intended to distract the Persians from an ongoing programme of strengthening Dara.

Belisarius’ early operations had both ended in failure, but his perceived ability and loyalty ensured that when Justinian became sole emperor on Justin’s death in 527 he was granted increasingly senior posts. In 530 he was appointed commander – his title was Master of Soldiers for the East (Magister Militum per Orientem) – of one of the five field armies then in existence. With him came his senior clerk (accessor) Procopius, who would later write a detailed account of Belisarius’ campaigns in his Wars. Although 529 had been spent in peace negotiations, Justinian had also been preparing for open war and the newly appointed Belisarius had some 25,000 men concentrated at his base at Dara, a very large army for this period. It is unclear what proportion of this force consisted of cavalry, although it may have been as much as a third. The infantry seem to have been of questionable quality, in part perhaps because the raid-dominated warfare on the eastern frontier gave them far fewer opportunities for seeing active service than their mounted counterparts. Their experience was more often of garrison life and policing duties rather than actual combat.

Throughout his career Belisarius was to rely heavily on his cavalry, rarely trusting units of foot soldiers to fight in any but the most favourable circumstances. At Dara his mounted troops included 1,200 Huns, fighting in their traditional manner as horse archers, and 300 Heruli, a Danubian people who had a particular reputation for ferocity. All of these troops were to prove highly effective in the coming fighting. Another element within the cavalry consisted of Belisarius’ own household troops or bucellarii. These men lived at their commander’s expense, hence their name derived from the military issue hard-tack biscuit, but were bound by an oath of loyalty to the emperor. It is unclear how many of these men Belisarius had at Dara, although in later years he would have a force of around 1,000 men following him on campaign. They were heavy cavalry, the rider – though probably not the horse – armoured, and equipped with both a spear or two-handed lance and a composite bow. Belisarius’ bucellarii were especially well trained, even by the standards of such picked troops.4

In June an even bigger Persian army advanced against the Romans, the main thrust of a three-pronged attack which was being mounted by Kavadh. It numbered some 40,000 men and was under the command of a man named Peroz or Firuz (Perozes in Greek) who was a member of the Mihran house, an aristocratic family which produced so many Persian commanders that the Romans had come to believe that ‘Mihran’ was an actual rank. Like the Roman army, its strength lay in its mounted troops for most of the Persian infantry were poorly equipped and badly motivated levies, in most circumstances even less effective than their enemy counterparts. Before the main part of the battle Peroz was reinforced by 10,000 men from the garrison of Nisibis, but these do not appear to have been markedly better troops. The Persian cavalry was almost entirely heavy, consisting of cataphracts with both horse and man heavily armoured. They were armed with bows and generally showed a preference for fighting at a distance, but were also willing to close and fight hand to hand when necessary. Peroz also had the Immortals, named after the royal bodyguard of the king of kings in the days before Alexander had shattered the Persian Empire, as an élite cavalry reserve. It is unclear whether all 10,000 of these men were with the army.5


Procopius tells us that the Persians were supremely confident as their army advanced to camp just a few miles from the Roman position. Not only did they significantly outnumber their opponents, but they were buoyed up with the knowledge that they had beaten the Romans in all major engagements fought over recent decades. Peroz sent an envoy ahead instructing Belisarius to have a bath prepared for him in Dara for the following night. Yet in fact he and his subordinate commanders had been shocked by their first sight of the Roman army, for Belisarius had carefully prepared for battle. He had chosen a position no more than a few hundred yards in front of the main gateway in the circuit walls of Dara. With a hill on their left the Roman troops had strengthened their main position with a trench. In the centre there was a straight ditch, at each end of which another ditch ran back at 90 degrees to connect with other straight trenches running parallel with the first. A few crossing places were left in each section, for it would be easier for the Romans to make use of these than for the Persians to find their way across in the heat and confusion of battle. Behind the trenches Belisarius formed a line consisting of all of his infantry and probably a small number of cavalry. In reserve was a line entirely composed of cavalry. In front of the ditch, in the angle next to the connecting trenches, were two units each of 600 Huns. Those on the left were led by Sunicas and Aigan, whilst the group on the right was under the command of Simmas and Ascan. All four of these men were themselves Huns, and also members of Belisarius’ household doryphoroi. The remainder of the Roman cavalry was divided between the two wings. On the left these were led by Bouzes and Pharas who commanded the Heruli. Five commanders are given for the horse on the right wing, namely John, son of Nicetas, Cyril, Marcellus, Germanus and Dorotheus.

The Roman formation was geared to receiving a frontal attack and, with the walls of Dara so close behind them, such an attack was the only viable option open to Peroz if he wished to take the city. No siege could begin until the enemy army had been defeated. Roman soldiers were seen as undisciplined by the Persians, yet the trenches would prevent the bulk of the enemy from being lured forward into open country where Peroz could overwhelm them with his superior numbers. Earlier Roman armies had made use of fieldworks to protect a position – both Sulla and Julius Caesar had on occasion protected their flanks with trenches, ramparts and forts – but there is no real parallel to Belisarius’ decision to protect almost his entire frontage in this way. In earlier conflicts such a move would have deterred most enemy commanders from attacking at all, but Peroz had few alternatives. He had been ordered by Kavadh to take Dara and had been given over half of the total number of troops dispatched against Rome to permit him to achieve this. Therefore he would encourage his men before the battle by telling them that the Romans’ trenches were an indication of their deep fear of the Persians.6

On the first day Peroz was not willing to risk a major attack and for hours the two armies stood facing each other without any aggressive move on either side. Late in the afternoon a group of Persian cavalry advanced alone against the Roman left wing. The most forward Roman squadron pulled back, feigning panic, and managed to lure the Persians into a careless pursuit before turning on them. Seven Persians were killed and the rest fled back to their main lines. This Roman success was a little surprising, for Persian cavalry were normally thought to be too well disciplined to fall for such a ploy. It may be an indication that much of the army was contemptuous of its Roman opponents and so less careful in its manner of fighting. After this there were no more attacks, but a young Persian warrior rode forward and offered to fight any Roman in single combat. Procopius tells us that the challenge was answered by one of the household of Bouzes, a certain Andreas, who was not a soldier but a wrestling instructor and bath attendant of his master. Even so, he was evidently armed and equipped like a cavalryman and in close attendance on Bouzes. Andreas killed the first challenger with disdainful ease and followed this success by defeating a second, more experienced warrior who came forward soon afterwards. His victory produced a great cheer from the ranks of the Roman army. It was late in the day and the Persians soon began to withdraw. As night fell, the Romans marched back to their billets in Dara, cheerfully singing songs of victory.7

The next day was spent in an exchange of messages, the Romans trying to persuade the Persians to withdraw and being accused of faithlessness by Peroz, who would later order their letters to him to be fixed to his standard. It was on this day that Peroz received the reinforcement of 10,000 men from Nisibis. Negotiations having failed, on the following morning both commanders addressed their men in the clear expectation that a battle would occur. Belisarius is supposed to have stressed how badly equipped and poorly motivated the enemy foot soldiers were. Both armies deployed, the Persians in two main lines with the infantry in the centre and the cavalry on the wings. Peroz kept the Immortals in reserve, with orders not to move forward until he gave them a signal. He himself took station with the foot in the centre, but it does not seem that these were expected to launch a serious attack and their role was more to pin down the Roman infantry by their presence and to provide shelter behind which the Persian cavalry could rally. The left wing, which included a strong contingent of the wild Kadiseni, was led by Pityaxes, whilst the right was under Barasmanas. After deploying in this way, the Persians waited for hours without making any move forward. Procopius explains that the Romans were accustomed to eat at noon, whereas the Persians did not take a meal until later in the day, so that Peroz hoped that standing for hours in the hot June sun would weaken the enemy more than his own men. In the meantime the Romans made one alteration to their battle order when Pharas

came before Belisarius and Hermogenes [the Roman second in command], and said: ‘It does not seem to me that I shall do the enemy any great harm if I remain here with my Heruli; but if we conceal ourselves on this slope, and then, when the Persians have begun to fight, if we climb up this hill and suddenly come upon their rear, shooting from behind them, we shall in all probability do the greatest harm.’ Thus he spoke, and, since it pleased Belisarius and his staff, he carried out the plan.8

Pharas and the Heruli moved to a concealed position on the reverse slope of the hill on the army’s left flank.

In the afternoon the battle began with the Persian cavalry launching an attack on both wings. Romans and Persians deluged each other with arrows, but the Persians were shooting into a strong wind which took some of the force from their missiles. Elsewhere Procopius claims that Roman archery was more effective than the Persian method anyway, for the Romans had copied the techniques used by the Huns. As Persian units in the first line of cavalry tired or ran low on ammunition, they were replaced by groups of horsemen from the second line to maintain the pressure. After a while, with many men having shot off all of their ammunition, the horsemen on both sides began to charge into contact. A furious attack by the Kadiseni broke through the Roman left. Seeing the enemy horsemen rushing forward in pursuit of the fleeing Roman horsemen, Sunicas and Aigan led their Huns against the left flank of the breakthrough. Before they came into contact Pharas had already brought his Heruli round from behind the hill to attack the Kadiseni in the rear. Panic and confusion spread rapidly throughout the Persian right wing. Some of the cavalry were able to find shelter behind the solid ranks of foot soldiers, but most were driven from the field with heavy loss. Procopius claims that 3,000 Persians fell in this stage of the fighting.

As his right dissolved into flight, Peroz switched the weight of his attack to the left wing, sending the Immortals to reinforce the cavalry already there. Seeing this move, Belisarius sent orders to Sunicas and Aigan telling them to move across to join the other Huns. Other cavalry were sent up from the reserve to mass behind the Huns, ready to threaten the flank of any units able to smash through the Roman wing. It is unclear on which side of the trenches these troops were positioned, although the Huns were certainly in front and it is possible that the other units had also crossed by one of the pathways left for this purpose. Barasmanas’ men, their attack given new impetus by the Immortals, were able to drive back the Roman cavalry facing them and surged on in pursuit. The Huns then led the attack against the Persians’ exposed flank, driving right through the mass of enemy horsemen to cut them off from their own army. Sunicas personally killed Barasmanas’ standard-bearer with his spear. Many of the Persian cavalry who had been cut off halted their pursuit and made a desperate attempt to hack their way back to their own lines.

At the same time Barasmanas led a group of Immortals in an effort to recapture his standard. Attacked by Roman cavalry from several directions simultaneously, the Persians had little room to manoeuvre and could not charge without exposing their flank or rear to an enemy. This time Sunicas cut down the Persian general himself and Barasmanas’ death robbed his men of any confidence which still remained. Those cavalry able to escape fled, their panic spreading to many of the nearest infantry who dropped shields and weapons and joined in the rout. The Romans are said to have killed a further 5,000 enemy soldiers in this section of the field, but Belisarius and his officers quickly set about restraining their men from pursuing too far, knowing that scattered men on blown horses would be all too vulnerable to counter-attack by even a small number of fresh enemies. The victory he had already achieved was enough. Kavadh’s main army had been defeated in a pitched battle and the humiliation was deeply felt by the enemy. Peroz had the gold and pearl encrusted headband which marked his rank taken from him by the king.9


In the next year a force of 15,000 Persians, guided by Arab allies, attacked at an unexpected point further south along the Euphrates, well away from the main campaigning areas over which the rival armies had recently fought. The attack surprised Belisarius, and it took him some time to move his army down to confront the enemy near Callinicum. His intention was to put on a demonstration of force which would be sufficient to make the invaders withdraw without having inflicted too much damage on the population of the province. With him were some 20,000 men, including 2,000 local allies and a considerable number of new levies, for some of the troops who had fought at Dara had been detached to reinforce the frontier garrisons in case Kavadh launched a fresh attack whilst the main army was further south. The Persians did not become aware of his approach until he was about 14 miles away, and immediately began to retreat, for they too had no particular desire for a battle. Belisarius’ decision to shadow them at a distance proved deeply unpopular with both his senior subordinates and the ordinary soldiers, although Procopius notes that no one dared criticize his strategy to his face. On Good Friday, 18 April 531, the Persians had reached Callinicum and were on the edge of a stretch of barren and sparsely populated land leading back to their homeland. If the Roman army followed them into this country they would find it no easier than their enemies to draw food, for there were no significant garrisons in the region.

The thought of entering this land, or alternatively letting the Persians escape, at last provoked a burst of open dissent from the Roman soldiers. Belisarius addressed the army, explaining that there was nothing to be gained by battle when the enemy was already being driven from their lands. He also noted that it was not a good time to fight because on the next day they would all fast in preparation for Easter Sunday and so lack the stamina for a hard battle. The men remained truculent and began to insult him openly, prompting the general to declare that he had only been testing their valour and that he was keen to fight. Procopius suggests that this was a genuine change of heart on his part rather than a ploy to fire up the soldiers’ spirits. Like Julian at Argentoratum, Belisarius was forced by his army to fight in conditions he did not actually believe were suitable. In this case, though, his earlier judgement proved wise, for the battle ended in defeat. Lacking the carefully prepared position they had held at Dara, the Roman army proved brittle in the whirling cavalry fight which developed and lost 800 men along with most of the allied soldiers. Belisarius was one of the last to flee, fighting on with his bucellarii in an effort to support a detachment of men under Ascan who had been cut off by the enemy, and only pulling back after the latter had been killed.10

The defeat was unfortunate, but did not undo the principal gains of Dara. Kavadh’s death in the autumn of the same year took some of the momentum out of the Persian war effort for a while and would shortly lead to peace negotiations with Khusro. Belisarius was soon afterwards recalled to Constantinople, for Justinian had decided to send him on an expedition to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals. In spite of the limited resources given to him – he had an army of only 5,000 cavalry, including his bucellariialong with a contingent of Huns, and 10,000 infantry – Belisarius landed on the coast in 533 and had defeated the Vandal king Gelimer by the following year. Some of the difficulties he faced would have been familiar to earlier commanders, but others were more symptomatic of just how much the Roman army had changed by the sixth century. Early in the campaign he lost 500 men before it was discovered that the stores of biscuit provided for the army had not been properly made. It was normal for this hard tack to be baked twice, a process that helped to preserve it, but also reduced its weight by about a quarter. Evidently obliged to supply the army with a set weight of biscuit, the official responsible decided to make himself a handsome profit. He declined to pay bakers to prepare the biscuit properly and instead arranged to have the supply crudely heated by placing it in the furnace room of the public baths. The biscuits appeared satisfactory, but retained the original weight of the flour and quickly began to go off. There was nothing new about such an attempt to profit at the expense of the State and of the soldiers on campaign, for at the height of the Second Punic War a company contracted to supply the legions in Spain had been convicted of scuttling decrepit ships in order to claim compensation from the Senate for non-existent cargoes.11

Another significant event early in the expedition was the execution of two Hunnic soldiers who had killed a comrade in a drunken brawl. This produced an uproar from the rest of their unit, who felt that a state of intoxication ought to prevent a man from being held responsible for his actions. Many of the other troops also joined in the protest, nervous that their general might acquire a taste for punishing other infractions of discipline in a similarly harsh manner. In this case Belisarius held firm, determined to prevent his men from plundering or otherwise abusing the mass of the population and so alienating those who might otherwise be keen to turn against their Vandal overlords. On the whole he was successful in preventing this, flogging as an object lesson some soldiers who had been caught foraging, and by the standards of the day Belisarius imposed a tight discipline on his men.12 When Carthage capitulated, he deliberately waited to enter the city in daylight, so that he could keep more of a watch on his men – a measure which Julius Caesar had employed at Massilia during the Civil War.13 His contingent of Huns claimed that they had been misled over their terms of service when first recruited, and proved of questionable loyalty throughout the campaign. By the end they appear to have been willing to remain with Belisarius or defect to Gelimer depending on who seemed most likely to win. After the defeat of the Vandals at Tricamarum in December 533, the discipline of the entire army broke down as they scattered in pursuit, plundering at will. Procopius describes how the soldiers,

being extremely poor men, upon suddenly becoming the masters of very great wealth and of women both young and extremely comely, were no longer able to restrain their minds or find any satiety in things they had, but were so intoxicated … that each one wished to take everything with him back to Carthage. And they were going about, not in companies but alone or by twos … And Belisarius, taking note of all this, was at a loss how to handle the situation. But at daybreak he took his stand upon a certain hill near the road, appealing to the discipline which no longer existed and heaping reproaches upon all, soldiers and officers alike.14

The very thing Belisarius had feared happening to the army after Dara had occurred after this later victory, though fortunately the Vandals proved incapable of exploiting the Romans’ vulnerability. Gradually by his direct pleas and rebukes he was able to bring some organization to the chaos, but even this was at best partial. Not long afterwards one of his best subordinates was mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow fired by a drunken junior officer who had been cheerfully aiming at a bird. Later, after the war seemed complete and he had returned to Constantinople, Belisarius had to be recalled to quell a mutiny amongst his old army.15

Yet in spite of such unpleasant episodes the African expedition had proved a great success, and Belisarius was received by Justininian amidst great ceremony. Not only was the tradition of granting victorious commanders triumphal honours revived, but Belisarius was allowed to march in triumph – literally, for he walked on foot rather than riding in a chariot – through Constantinople. Some of the spoils captured in Africa and carried in the procession were recognized as having originally been taken by Titus from the Temple of Jerusalem for his own triumph, and later plundered from Rome by the Vandals. These were sent to the churches in Jerusalem. At the end of the parade both the captive Gelimer (an Arian Christian like all his people, he had spent the day repeatedly muttering ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, a quote from the second verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes) and the victorious Belisarius both prostrated themselves before Justininian and the Empress Theodora. There seemed no need for a slave to whisper reminders of his mortality to the Roman general, for it was clear that he remained no more than the emperor’s servant.

In 535 Belisarius was sent with a force of just 7,500 men to reclaim Italy and Sicily for the empire. Relations with the Osthrogothic kingdom of Italy had long been good, but had soured in recent years when a faction hostile to Constantinople had come to power. Their activities provided Justinian with a pretext for war, but the success in Africa had anyway encouraged him to seek further adventures in the west. Most of the communities in Sicily welcomed Belisarius and by the end of the year all of the island was under his control. The campaign in Italy proved tougher from the beginning and Naples was only taken after a difficult siege when the Romans discovered the long-forgotten tunnel of an old aqueduct which still led inside the city’s walls. In December the citizens of Rome opened their gates to Belisarius, but he and a force of only 5,000 men soon found themselves under siege by the Goths.16 In one skirmish the Roman commander and 1,000 cavalrymen unexpectedly bumped into a force of tribesmen who had just crossed the Milvian Bridge after the garrison guarding it had either deserted or fled without fighting. Belisarius was soon in the thick of the fighting, and was singled out by the enemy after the deserters amongst them yelled out to attack the man riding the white-faced grey. Procopius tells us that most of the Goths

began to shoot at Belisarius. And every man among them who laid any claim to valour was immediately possessed with a great eagerness to win honour, and getting as close as possible they kept trying to lay hold of him and in a great fury kept striking with their spears and swords. But Belisarius himself, turning from side to side, kept killing as they came those who encountered him, and he also profited very greatly by the loyalty of his own spearmen and guards in the moment of danger. For they all surrounded him … holding out their shields in defence of both the general and his horse, they not only received the missiles, but also forced back and beat off those who from time to time assailed him. And thus the whole engagement was centred upon the body of one man … But by some chance Belisarius was neither wounded nor hit by a missile on that day …17

When the Goths subsequently launched a direct attack on the city walls, the general ordered his men to wait in silence and not to fire their bows until he himself had shot, for he wanted the enemy to come into close range before they were greeted with a barrage of missiles. When the time came, his first arrow managed to hit and kill one of the enemy leaders, his second another warrior. Then, as all of his soldiers fired, Belisarius directed the men nearest to him to aim at the oxen pulling the enemy siege engines. The attack was repulsed.18

Roman successes during the siege encouraged a spirit of overconfidence amongst the troops similar to that which had preceded the defeat at Callinicum. Once again Belisarius felt unable to restrain his men’s enthusiasm, and decided that since they were determined to fight he would at least ensure that they did so under favourable circumstances. Attempts to launch a surprise attack failed when the Romans’ plan was on each occasion revealed to the enemy by deserters. In the end Belisarius led his men out for an open battle, which at first went well for the Romans. However, their initial success, which drove the Goths back in flight, led to confusion as many of the Roman soldiers dispersed to plunder. The Germans rallied, counter-attacked and inflicted a serious defeat on their opponents. Later the siege was finally broken when a carefully prepared surprise attack proved highly successful and permitted reinforcements to enter the city.19

Belisarius began to campaign further north in the Italian peninsula and in 539 was joined by another army led by the eunuch Narses. The latter’s instructions evidently included keeping a close eye on his colleague to ensure that he had no ambitions which might threaten Justinian. The two men did not co-operate well and for a while this took the momentum out of operations in Italy. Narses was recalled later in the year and Belisarius achieved more successes in Northern Italy until he too was withdrawn in 540 to be sent to the Persian frontier again. The eunuch general returned to take charge in Italy and conducted the operations there with considerable skill, but was faced with a resurgence of Gothic power. Belisarius helped to restore the situation in the east through a campaign of manoeuvre and diplomacy, before returning to Italy in 544. Rome was lost in 546, recaptured in 548 and taken again by the Goths in 550. By this time Narses had returned to replace Belisarius and it was he who completed the conquest of Italy by defeating the Goths at Tadinae in either 551 or 552 and the Franks at Casilinus in 554.20

The recovery of Africa, Sicily and Italy were considerable victories, won by commanders given extremely modest resources for their task, but the eastern empire proved unable to hold them in the long term. Belisarius had won a great deal of glory in his campaigns and was much honoured by Justinian, although he was to be given few more opportunities for active service. Emperors in the sixth century were confident enough of their position to allow others to lead their armies in the field, but that did not mean that they were free from all suspicion that generals might attempt to turn against them. Belisarius was briefly recalled to an active command in 559 when barbarian raiders threatened Constantinople itself. In 562 he was accused of treason and imprisoned, and although subsequently released, he lived out his remaining years in bitterness and disappointment, dying in 565.


In some ways Belisarius commanded his army in a style similar to the generals of earlier generations. Although at times he wielded spear, sword or bow in the thick of the fighting, his primary role was to direct the actions of the others, a function he performed by staying behind the fighting line. Yet in so many respects the world and the nature of warfare had changed profoundly by the sixth century. One major difference was in the scale of operations. The 25,000 men mustered at Dara represented an exceptionally large force for the period. The author of a later sixth-century military manual assumed that armies would usually number between 5,000 and 15,000 men, with most being at the lower end of the scale, and it was forces within this range that Belisarius led in Africa and Italy. With the occasional exception on the eastern frontier, none of Rome’s opponents fielded armies which made larger forces than this necessary, even if sufficient men could have been found. Cavalry formed a much higher proportion of the total than had been the case with earlier armies and, under Belisarius at least, did the bulk of the fighting. Although armies had shrunk in size, they still operated over large areas. Pitched battles were rare and wars consisted predominantly of skirmishes, raids and sieges.

As the style and level of warfare changed, so did the essential character of the Roman army. Belisarius was held to be a fairly strict commander, and yet the troops under his command were repeatedly guilty of indiscipline, pressuring him into fighting against his better judgement at Callinicum and Rome, and running wild after their success in Africa. Mutiny was nothing new in the Roman army, having been comparatively common even under the Republic, but the truculence and almost routine disobedience of soldiers in the sixth century had rarely, if ever, been matched in the past, even during the confusion of civil wars. The literary ideal of the great commander who imposed strict discipline on slack soldiers no longer features in late antiquity, for much of the army’s formal system of regulations and punishment had vanished. Military theory still stressed the importance of keeping soldiers well drilled, but in practice only a small proportion of units – often including the bucellarii of a capable leader – came anywhere near this ideal. As armies grew larger by the standards of the day, the probability increased that a significant number of soldiers would prove extremely unreliable. Centuries of making and breaking emperors had left Roman soldiers unwilling to accept tight discipline, and attempts to restrict their behaviour prompted complaints, outright mutiny or desertion.21

There is a strongly medieval feel to the campaigns of Belisarius. For almost a thousand years European warfare would be characterized by relatively small armies, often including a fair proportion of infantry levies whose military value was negligible and mercenaries or allies whose loyalty was sometimes uncertain. The most effective troops were usually the well-armed and mounted retainers of kings or noblemen. Warfare was dominated by fortified positions from which raids could be launched, and most of the fighting was small-scale. Sometimes such strongholds would suffer siege, but rarely did pitched battles occur. Even the greatest kingdoms of the period were incapable of supporting military forces which in any way resembled the well-equipped, organized and disciplined Roman army of the Late Republic or Principate. Such an army was simply too expensive, and had anyway often proved, even for Rome, a difficult thing to control. For several centuries the Byzantine army preserved in its ritual and language some traces of the old army, but in most important respects it was a very different institution. In the west the army vanished with the collapse of empire, whilst in the east it changed into something else. As the old army of the legions disappeared, with it went theimperator, the Roman general with his distinctive style of command.

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