The Byzantine general Belisarius (ca. 506-565) is one of the great commanders of history. He demonstrated that military skill and discipline could enable small or motley armies to win remarkable victories.

Originally from the Balkans, Belisarius rose to prominence in the imperial bodyguard and was advanced to high military command while still in his 20s. He won outstanding success in the war fought with Persia early in Justinian's reign. He further gained the Emperor's confidence through his loyalty during the Nika riots of 532, during which he commanded the massacre of the rioters. In addition, Belisarius married Antonina, a friend of Empress Theodora. His wife, though unfaithful and often embarrassing to him, had great influence at court, which was valuable when Justinian grew suspicious of him. Although Belisarius seems never to have been disloyal, Justinian was always fearful that so popular a commander might attempt to seize the throne, and he was always receptive to slanders circulated by the general's enemies.

During the first of Justinian's campaigns of reconquest against the Germanic kingdoms in 533, Belisarius led a small force against the Vandals of North Africa. Through two overwhelming victories he destroyed the Vandal regime and recovered North Africa for the empire. For this he was allowed to celebrate a triumph upon his return to Constantinople. In 535 Belisarius was sent to begin the conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Making rapid progress northward from Sicily, he stormed Naples and occupied Rome. The Goths besieged him in Rome during 537-538, but they failed to dislodge him. In 540 the Goths agreed to surrender if Belisarius would become their emperor. He secured their capitulation but then refused the honor, leaving the Goths resentful and fanning Justinian's suspicions. Recalled in temporary disfavor, he was sent in 541 to command imperial forces in Mesopotamia in renewed war with the Persians.

A new Ostrogothic king, Totila, emerged to undo the Roman occupation of Italy, and Belisarius was returned there in 544. The suspicious and parsimonious emperor refused, however, to give him adequate men and supplies, and Belisarius found it impossible to oppose Totila effectively. When Theodora's death in 548 deprived him of his last strong support at court, he requested recall. The Italian war was left to be finished later, by Narses, while Belisarius was allowed to retire to Constantinople.

Belisarius remained inactive until 559, when an attack by an marauding force of Huns threatened the capital, and the frightened Justinian called him out of retirement. Using his household retinue as a nucleus, he gathered a small force and drove the Huns away. Three years later Belisarius was implicated, probably falsely, in a plot against the Emperor's life. Justinian stripped him of his honors and retinue and kept him in enforced confinement for some time. This disgrace gave rise to the later legend that Justinian actually blinded Belisarius, who was then forced to beg in the streets. Somewhat restored to honor the following year, Belisarius died in March 565, only a few months before the death of Justinian himself.

Further Reading on Belisarius

Belisarius is prominently featured in the historical writings of Procopius, who was for many years his personal secretary. The most recent book on Belisarius is in French. In English, Lord Mahon, The Life of Belisarius (1829), is out of date. His career is, of course, presented fully in all accounts of Justinian's reign. His Italian campaigns are also described in Thomas Hodgkin's classic Italy and Her Invaders, vol. 4 (1896).