BELISARIUS (c. 505–565), one of the most famous generals of the later Roman empire, was born about A.D. 505, in “Germania,” a district on the borders of Thrace and Macedonia. His name is supposed to be Slavonic. As a youth he served in the bodyguard 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 clever, intriguing woman, and a favourite of the empress Theodora. During the sedition of the “green” and “blue” parties of the circus (known as the Nika sedition, 532) 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 Sicily; 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 Chosroes (Anushirvan); but, thwarted by the turbulence of his troops, he achieved no decisive result. On his return to Constantinople he lived under a cloud for some time, but was pardoned through the influence Of Antonina with the empress. The Goths having meanwhile reconquered Italy, Belisarius was despatched with utterly inadequate forces to oppose them. Nevertheless, during five campaigns he held his enemies at bay, until he was removed from the command, and the conclusion of the war was entrusted to the eunuch 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 (562); his fortune was confiscated, and he was confined as a prisoner in his palace. He was liberated and restored to favour in 563, and died in 565.
The fiction of Belisarius wandering as a blind beggar through the streets of Constantinople, which has been adopted by Marmontel in his Bélisaire, and by various painters and poets, is first heard of in the 10th century. Gibbon justly calls Belisarius the Africanus of New Rome. 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. He was the idol of his soldiers, a good tactician, but not a great strategist.
Authorities.—Procopius, De Bellis and Historia Arcana (best edition by J. Haury, 1905, 1907); see Gibbon, Decline and Fall (ed. Bury, vol. 4); T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders (vol. 4); J. B. Bury, Later Roman Empire, vol. i.; Diehl, Justinien (Paris, 1901). (J. B. B.)