Sixth-century Byzantine general; b. Illyricum, c. 500; d. March 565. Belisarius had the historian Procopius as his juridical and administrative adviser from 527 to 540, while he was the faithful and efficacious instrument of the politics of justinian i in the recovery of Italy from the Goths. He was implicated in the troubled events marking the passage of the pontificate from silverius (536–537) to vigilius (537–555). According to the Liber pontificalis, the Anecdota, and the Breviarium of the Carthaginian deacon liberatus, he acted as an unwilling executor of the intrigues of the Empress Theodora, who hoped that with Vigilius's accession she could recover the See of Constantinople for her protégé anthimus of trebizond. Belisarius campaigned successfully against the Persians (541–542), bringing them to submission after they dealt a surprise attack near Nisibis occasioned by Belisarius's pacificatory attitude. He served as the emperor's official representative in the negotiations with Pope Vigilius before and during the Council of constantinople iii (553). He fell into disfavor in 562 when unjustly accused of conspiracy against the emperor, but returned to favor before his death. Procopius described him at the height of his glory; and although he may have given him too much credit, Belisarius's campaigns were wholly successful. A gold cross, his gift for the tomb of St. Peter, is preserved in Rome, as is a hospice that he founded on the Via Lata. Legends about Belisarius can be traced to the Middle Ages.
Bibliography: l. brÉhier, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 7:776–787. e. stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire tr. j. r. palanque, 2 v. in 3 (Paris 1949–59) 284–286, 312–324, 386, 494–498, 665–666, 719–720, 779.
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.
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). □