History’s Model General? Reflections on the Life and Times of Belisarius


In 1780, the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David completed one of his finest works. Entitled “Belisarius Begging for Alms,” the oil painting depicts an aging warrior, blinded with a hand outstretched, seated at the base of a colossal Roman monument. His feet are bare, his beard unkempt, and his armor draped in coarse rags, dull in sheen. A slender walking cane rests to his side, propped against a stone slab bearing the name of a famous former general — Belisario, or Belisarius. A beautiful woman, her face etched in concern, drops a few coins into an upturned helmet, and whispers words of consolation. Her husband, a man in the vigor of youth and full military regalia, is in shock, his arms raised and his mouth open. He has just realized that the stricken veteran is his former commander, the legendary Belisarius himself.

Although his name is not as well known as it once was, Belisarius has long been considered one of history’s finest tacticians. Under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the sixth century general reclaimed vast tracts of Western Roman territory, from northern Africa to the Italian peninsula. Frequently outnumbered and leading an eclectic grouping of warriors composed of romaioi (Eastern Romans), foederati (Barbarian allies), and ethnikoi (specialist ethnic troops), the Thracian commander greatly expanded the footprint of the Byzantine empire at a time when many thought that Rome’s ancestral lands had been irredeemably lost. The fact that many of these conquests, as we shall see, only proved fleeting, has, if anything, only burnished his myth, transmogrifying the soldier into something of a crepuscular icon — Western Europe’s last great Roman protector before the advent of the so-called Dark Ages.

For Liddell Hart, Belisarius was also the consummate practitioner of the so-called “indirect approach” and the “master of the art of converting his weakness into strength; and the opponent’s strength into a weakness.” T.E. Lawrence, an avid reader of the ancient military classics, considered “the Thracian genius” to be one of “three really first-class Roman generals in history” (the other two being Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar) and encouraged his friend, Robert Graves, to write the novel Count Belisarius. This piece of historically informed fiction retraces Belisarius’s military campaigns and was much admired by Winston Churchill, who is said to have often turned to it for guidance during the fraught early years of World War II.

Who was the man behind the myth? And why do the tales of Belisarius’s life and military exploits continue to resonate, firing the imaginations of great men from David to Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia? What insights can be gleaned, not only from his campaigns, but from the Eastern Roman Empire’s strategic literature more broadly?

Vainest of All Things is the Gratitude of Kings

Before attempting to answer these questions, it is worth examining one of the more captivating aspects of the general’s mythos. Indeed, over the centuries, Belisarius’s life — or the various interpretations of it — has taken on a unique form of symbolism. Through the writings of historians, poets, and novelists, he has progressively morphed into the noble warrior-citizen par excellence, the selfless public servant who waged wars across continents, and through mountain, forest and scorching desert — all in the service of a megalomaniac emperor who, riven by his own insecurities, falsely accused him of treason and had him blinded. Never mind that modern historians consider the legend of his blinding to be apocryphal, and that it is highly unlikely that even a disgraced general ever found himself cast onto the streets of Constantinople begging for food and coin. For many, the legend of the devoted soldier callously betrayed by his fickle political masters remains a powerful one. In a broader sense, it speaks to a timeless yearning for a virtuous military figure, one who — guided by a strong sense of the public good — can rise above and beyond the unseemly scrum of elite politics. One need only think of the reaction many Americans had last month, when watching footage of Secretary Jim Mattis, a former general, urging U.S. troops to remain aloof from their nation’s increasingly rancorous political debates in order to focus on a higher purpose.

Belisarius is thus often presented as a lonely, gruff, and honorable serviceman who prefers the company of his barbarian horsemen to the courtiers of the imperial palace, and the exiguity of a campaign tent to the marbled villas of Constantinople. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn between his moral probity and the seething corruption of Byzantium. These contrasts are rendered all the more stark by a long and unfortunate Western tradition of portraying Byzantium in a negative light, and as a den of inequity, crawling with scheming eunuchs, feckless bureaucrats, and sexually ravenous rulers.

Even Edward Gibbon, whose opinions of the Byzantine Empire and of its citizens were otherwise colored by an orientalist form of disdain, described the Thracian in the following terms:

His lofty stature and majestic countenance fulfilled their expectations of a hero (…) The spectator and historian of his exploits has observed that amidst the perils of war he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.

In the late 18th century, the French writer Jean-Francois Marmontel wrote Belisaire, a novel that presented a romanticized rendition of the life of the general, which once again popularized the tale of his fall from grace and into destitution, despite his decades of illustrious service to the empire. The novel was pitched as a not-so-subtle moral parable on the duplicity and ungratefulness of monarchs. It was promptly banned by a peeved Louis XV — a counterproductive and shortsighted move, as it only earned its author even greater renown. A half century later, the English historian Lord Mahon penned a biography of Belisarius that depicted the serial campaigner as the providential figure of Byzantium, and as a shining beacon of morality within an otherwise turgid swamp of political corruption and ineffectualness:

At the beginning of the sixth century of the Christian era, the empire of Constantinople was beset with enemies and sinking to decay…Frequent insurrections wasted the resources of the state, and deprived the government of all energy and enterprise; while the armies, turbulent and feeble, had thrown off the restraints of military discipline. It is the purpose of this narrative, to show how the genius of one man averted these dangers, and corrected these defects; how the tottering empire was upheld; how the successors of Augustus were enabled, for a time, to resume their former ascendancy, and to wrest from the hands of the barbarians their most important possessions.

Lord Mahon’s panegyric fits into a long tradition, hailing back to Plutarch, of viewing biographies as useful means of moral instruction. The didactic biography became a particularly popular genre during the Victorian era, when biographers became fixated on the spiritual edification of their fellow citizens. Classical figures of heroic virtue, such as Belisarius, were eagerly bankrolled into this literary tradition. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the great romantic poet Henry Ladsworth Longfellow also paid tribute to the Byzantine commander’s by now iconic status as a tragic hero in one of his most haunting poems:

Ah! vainest of all things
Is the gratitude of kings;
The plaudits of the crowd
Are but the clatter of feet
At midnight in the street,
Hollow and restless and loud.

But the bitterest disgrace
Is to see forever the face
Of the Monk of Ephesus!
The unconquerable will
This, too, can bear;–I still
Am Belisarius!

The Man Behind the Myth

Who was the man behind the myth and what lessons can be derived from his life and military actions? When Robert Graves first published Count Belisarius, there was one criticism levied by reviewers that he found especially galling. The hero of his novel, many thought, was too perfect and “stiffly noble” — almost tediously so. Stung by their critiques, Graves delivered a fiery retort in a letter to The Sunday Times, in which he wrote that it was, “a shocking comment on twentieth-century literary taste that when…a really good man is shown…it must be said that he does not really come to life.”

The truth of the matter is that it is not possible — nor is it advisable — to deliver grand moral judgments on historical figures whose private and inner lives remain cloaked in obscurity. That said, there is little doubt that Belisarius was a supremely gifted general. He may not have won all his battles — during his early career along the Persian front he frequently proved unsuccessful — but his conquests in northern Africa and Italy were nothing short of remarkable. These victories appear even more impressive when examining the various correlations of force in each respective campaign. Indeed, the Thracian was frequently operating at a severe numerical disadvantage, thousands of miles from home, and with severely strained financial and logistical resources. Time and time again, he managed to mitigate these shortcomings through deception (lighting large numbers of campfires, creating noise, or spreading his troops to trick his opponent into thinking he was at the head of a much larger force), bold action (engaging in diversionary counterthrusts or flying sorties during sieges), or by leveraging certain key tactical advantages over his foes. For example, in North Africa, he made excellent use of his highly mobile Roman and Hunnic horse archers against the more heavily armored (and slow-moving) Vandal mounted lancers.

When confronted with a particularly redoubtable foe, he became an expert judge at when to fight, how to fight, and when to walk away and bide his time. This was noted by an anonymous contemporary in a widely read military treatise, and whose ruminations on asymmetric warfare are still worth considering:

If conditions are equal on both sides and the victory could go either way, we should not advance into battle before the enemy have become inferior to us in some respect. This can be brought about if we fall upon them when they may be weary from just having finished a long march or one through rocky and hilly country. We can also fall upon them when they are in disorder, for example, setting up their tents or taking them down. The best time is when the enemy have broken up their units owing to a lack of supplies or some other reason. Then we can attack those detachments one at a time. This is what Belisarius used to do. When the enemy force was so large that he was unable to face up to it, he would destroy the provisions in the area before they appeared. Need for supplies would force the enemy to separate their units from one another and march along in several different groups and then he would defeat each unit by itself. By these methods, large armies have often been defeated by much smaller ones, not to mention by forces equally or nearly as strong.

He also displayed a certain flair for what we would now call special operations, successfully infiltrating a small number of elite solders through a disused aqueduct to break a siege of Naples. Perhaps most importantly, numerous contemporary accounts stress his moral probity and humanity — not only toward the vanquished, but also toward the civilian populations of territories in dispute. Zacharias of Mitylene, a contemporary bishop and historian, thus remarks that “Belisarius was not greedy after bribes, and was a friend to the peasants, and did not allow the army to molest them.” Procopius of Caeserea, Belisarius’s private secretary and our main source of information on his campaigns, describes an incident in North Africa, when his commander severely punished troops caught stealing fruit from local orchards. Clearly, the Byzantine commander was attentive to the need to win “hearts and minds” during his extended overseas operations. Some have suggested that this reputation for fairness and moderation played a role in the capture of several Italian towns during his first campaign against the Ostrogoths. These civilian populations, it is theorized, were more willing to surrender to a man they knew to be humane, especially at a time when protracted sieges often led to extreme brutality against town citizenries.

One should not forget, however, that Belisarius was also a paid sword, loyal to his patron and emperor, a fellow Romanized Thracian. As such, he was not averse to engaging in acts of extreme brutality. In 532, during the Nika riots, when city-wide unrest in Constantinople threatened Justinian’s reign, Belisarius played a leading role in quashing dissent. Positioning his troops at the exits of the main hippodrome, where most of the violent demonstrators had assembled, he proceeded to methodically slaughter the emperor’s foes and, according to one 7th century account, “cut down many rioters until evening.” It is reported that as the sun set over the Bosporus, as many as 30,000 men and women lay dead on the blood-soaked sands of the hippodrome.

Despite his dogged loyalty, Belisarius was often held in suspicion. His successes on the battlefield stirred resentment and anxiety at the imperial court, as well as among his more politically ambitious military subalterns, who did not hesitate on occasion to propagate false rumors or intrigue against him.

All too often, however, his relationship with Justinian has been grossly simplified. The latter was no Nero or Caligula and shared with his general a genuine, if occasionally strained, connection. As mentioned earlier, both were Romanized Thracians in an Empire whose elites had mostly adopted Greek, rather than Latin, as their first language. Both were also of relatively modest provincial stock and chose to marry strong women with more than a whiff of scandal to their names. Justinian shared with Belisarius a certain restlessness and sense of destiny, along with a burning desire for the recovery of Roman civilizational grandeur — albeit in a heavily Christianized form. In addition to erecting some of the most magnificent monuments of Byzantium, such as the Hagia Sophia, his main achievement was the compilation of Justinian’s legal code, a monumental scholarly undertaking. It is to this shrewd and legally-minded emperor, that one attributes the rather splendid adage that, “imperial majesty should not just be decorated with arms, but also with laws.” While Belisarius was accused of being involved in a plot against the emperor and briefly fell into disgrace, it appears that eventually his name was cleared, and that his honors were fully reinstated. The dramatic, but fanciful tale of his blinding was reportedly first concocted a full six centuries after his death, by a notoriously unreliable Byzantine poet.

Byzantium’s Strategic Treasure Trove

If one is willing, however, to look beyond the tragic myth, and sometimes salacious contemporary accounts (Procopius famously wrote a parallel account of Justinian’s reign, the Secret History, which — although wildly entertaining — verges on the pornographically absurd), there is much to be gleaned from the study of Belisarius’s campaigns and almost surgical application of military force.

Some of the most important lessons, no doubt, can be derived from what happened in the immediate aftermath of his conquests. Indeed, although the hyperactive campaigner succeeded in more than doubling the size of the empire, many of these acquisitions proved short-lived. After Belisarius’ first departure to fight on the Persian front, Justinian entrusted Byzantine rule in Italy to a “mini-junta” of five subordinate generals, who did not share Belisarius’s sense of moderation, and did little to endear themselves to the locals. The Italians already felt at a certain cultural remove from their mostly Greek-speaking “liberators” and began to resent Justinian’s tax collectors. Like a brutal winter following a bountiful harvest, Byzantine rule on the peninsula began to wither on the vine. Decades of turbulence and unrest followed, until in 565, a mere three years after Belisarius’s death, the Lombards succeeded in wresting away the bulk of Eastern Roman territory in Italy. Other territories added to the empire during Justinian’s reign also threatened to dissolve. In Spain, the resurgent Visigoths slowly gnawed away at Byzantine territory and, by 616, had swept away most vestiges of Constantinople’s military presence. In North Africa, however, the situation was somewhat less dire, and the Byzantine empire managed to cling onto its holdings for another century and a half.

A full postmortem of the cost and consequences of Belisarius’s campaigns is not feasible here. The question that most historians have since asked themselves is the most obvious one: Was it all worth it? Were Belisarius’s tireless efforts a mere exercise in futility? Did Justinian’s pursuit of civilizational unity and Mediterranean dominance make any sense or was it a fever dream — one that cost too many young men their lives on foreign shores and that siphoned too many precious funds away from the state treasury? Were Belisarius’s horse archers, spearmen, and mounted lancers simply playing a transcontinental game of whack a mole against self-replenishing hordes of angry barbarians?

It seems self-evident (to me, at least) that this is one of those interstitial periods in history that students of grand strategy might consider worthy of closer examination. At a time when the United States is conflicted over the nature of its role in the world, the extent of its strategic perimeter, and the trajectory of certain of its overseas commitments, more forensic analyses of how previous great powers have debated similar issues would no doubt prove useful.

More broadly, the field of Byzantine military history — currently experiencing a veritable golden age — remains astonishingly underexplored by contemporary students of strategy. It is all the more disappointing, considering the exceptionally rich repository of military treatises and texts the Byzantines have bequeathed us, from the Strategikon of Emperor Maurice, allegedly written a mere generation after both Belisarius and Justinian’s deaths, to the manuals on Skirmishing and Campaign Organization and Tactics compiled in the late tenth century. Edward Luttwak’s 2009 book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, was rightly criticized by eminent Byzantinists for its sweeping claims and historical inaccuracies. The so-called “Machiavelli of Maryland” does deserve some measure of credit, however, for his attempts to introduce Byzantium’s long history of strategic thought to a wider audience.

Surrounded for over a millennium by a kaleidoscopic set of regional competitors, the Eastern Roman Empire proved remarkably adept at adapting its military instrument to different adversaries and geographical theaters. Although surviving military treatises differ in accordance with their areas of focus, the professions of their writers, and their periods of origin, they also share striking thematic commonalities. Much attention is lavished in each document on scouting, intelligence gathering, and on dealing in a subtle, discriminate fashion with a variety of foreign foes. The tenth century De Administrando Imperio, for instance, opens with a commentary from the emperor Constantine VII on how it is necessary for rulers to make a thorough examination, or what we might today call a “net assessment” of the Eastern Roman state’s regional competitors, in order to better comprehend “the difference between each of these nations, and how either to treat with them and conciliate them, or to make war upon and oppose them.”

There is a refreshingly prudential quality to Byzantine military thinking, with a focus on husbanding one’s resources and avoiding crippling force-on-force confrontations. Byzantine strategists display a keen understanding of the psychology of battle, with texts such as the Strategikon warning against the creation of enemies that, driven by desperation, have nothing left to lose,

When the enemy is surrounded, it is well to leave a gap in our lines to give them an opportunity to flee, in case they judge that flight is better than remaining and taking their chances in battle.

Byzantine authors’ discussion of how to manage foreign relations is equally sophisticated. Consider, for example, this passage from the Anonymous Treatment of Strategy (from the Justinian era) on how to deal with foreign envoys, and on the importance of tailoring one’s diplomacy to the power of one’s interlocutor:

Envoys are sent by us and to us. Those who are sent to us should be received honorably and generously, for everyone holds envoys in esteem. Their attendants, however, should be kept under surveillance to keep them from obtaining any information by asking questions of our people. If the envoys come from a very distant country, and others dwell between them and us, then we may show them anything we like in our country. We can act in like manner, even if their country is located next to ours but is much weaker. But if they are greatly superior to us, either in the size of their army or its courage, then we should not draw their attention to our wealth or the beauty of our women, but point out the number of our men, the polish of our weapons, and the height of our walls.

Espionage and disinformation are leitmotifs of Byzantine military treatises. In fact, it is difficult to think of other ancient texts where such features of geopolitical competition feature quite as prominently. (One exception might be the Arthashastra, the monumental Indian text on strategy and statecraft written in the early years of the Mauryan Empire. ) Skirmishing, which provides guidance on how to “shadow” and attrite enemy Muslim forces in the rugged Taurus Mountains, is a sophisticated, premodern discussion on special warfare and operations. Indeed, modern special operations operators would find some of the themes explored in this volume and in Campaign Organization and Tactics jarringly familiar. The Byzantines’ delineation of the various roles of their covert operators, for example, is undertaken with an almost exquisite level of granularity, with clear and detailed distinctions made between scouts trained for strategic reconnaissance, trapezitai or hussars that conduct direct action missions behind enemy lines, and spies (often merchants) that relay a steady stream of information back to Constantinople.

A Broader Reading of History in Security Studies

Some great warriors are more than the sum of their military actions. Throughout the millennium-old history of Byzantium, the legend of Belisarius has succeeded in capturing the imaginations of generations of storytellers, while hundreds of his successors have been largely forgotten, sinking back into the mists of time. Over the centuries, the Thracian commander has embodied different things for different people. A symbol of military virtue for some, an argument in favor of enlightened praetorianism for others, Belisiarius has also been portrayed as the master of the “indirect approach,” — a special operations commander in chainmail — with a preternatural aptitude for light footprint, overseas operations.

A discussion of his life provides first and foremost a precious window into a strategic tradition that has been overlooked for far too long. As the medievalist Dan Jones recently noted when discussing the role of “fake news” in the fall of the Templars, we should spend less time discussing whether history is “relevant,” and more time focusing on whether it is “resonant.” The past few years have borne witness to a surge of interest in the strategic canon of the Western Roman and Hellenistic worlds. The recent debates surrounding the interpretation of Thucydides provide a stimulating example of this intellectual reignition. One can only hope, however, that this reawakened curiosity will also begin to extend beyond our most immediate cultural shores, and drift eastward across the Aegean, toward that civilization — both so alien and yet so familiar — that is Byzantium. Provided one is willing to look, there is much there that is relevant — and maybe even also resonant — for today’s strategic thinkers.


Iskander Rehman is a Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Prior to joining the Pell Center, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman


Image: Painting by Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons