As with so many other prominent figures from antiquity, pretty much nothing is known about Belisarius‘ childhood or the earliest stages of his career. We know only that he was born somewhere between 500 – 505 in the town of Germana (in modern Bulgaria).
Though we cannot know for certain, Belisarius likely hailed from a relatively noble family. This would explain his rapid rise in the army, as well as Procopius‘ silence on his upbringing in the Secret History (in contrast to the vitriol directed at the mean origins of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius’ wife, Antonina).
Whatever the circumstances of Belisarius’ upbringing, he appears to have enlisted in the military at an early age and risen rapidly through the ranks. By the time we meet up with him in 527 A.D., he is serving as an officer in Justinian’s bodyguard. At that time, the Roman Empire was at war with the neighboring Persian Empire, and Justinian, acting as commander of the eastern campaign, sent Belisarius and Sittas into Persarmenia to plunder the countryside in retaliation to Persian attacks on the regions of Iberia and Lazica. The expedition was a success, and Belisarius and Sittas returned with booty and captives.
Soon thereafter, a second expedition was attempted, but this time the Persians were ready, and Sittas and Belisarius were soundly defeated. Though the details of this defeat are lost to us, Belisarius must have made out relatively well, as he was soon promoted to dux Mesopotamiae.
In August 527, Justin died, and Justinian rose to the throne. He immediately ordered the construction of a new border fortress at Tanurin. The Persians mobilized and advanced on the site, bringing all work to a screeching halt. A large Roman force under Belisarius and several other commanders gathered to drive the Persians from Tanurin, but they failed to scout the ground properly and became mired in a series of concealed trenches and pits. The ensuing battle was a disaster, though Belisarius appears to have again managed some distinction by leading the cavalry in an orderly retreat.
After the mess at Tanurin, Justinian ordered Belisarius to oversee the construction of a fort at Minduous. Here Belisarius faced yet another defeat, this time at the hands of the Persian king, Kavadh.
Despite Belisarius’ less than stellar record up to this point, he was recalled by Justinian and promoted to magister militum per Orientem (Master of Soldiers in the East), one of the highest commands in the Empire. His orders were simple – invade Persia. To do so, he assembled a large army and established himself at his former base, the frontier fortress of Dara.
Before Belisarius could launch his invasion, the two empires entered into peace negotiations. But the Persians were not ready for peace. Not yet. Thus far, the war had gone mostly in their favor, and they were keen to capture Dara before signing any treaty. To that end, the Persian king sent an army of 30,000 against Belisarius’ forces at Dara.
Outnumbered nearly two to one, and facing a more maneuverable opponent, Belisarius fell back into a defensive posture. He stationed his men behind a series of ditches and waited for the Persians to come to him. They did, and received a hard kick in the teeth that sent them reeling from Dara and gave Belisarius his first great victory.
The next year saw the memory of that victory wash away as Belisarius faced a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Callinicum. Here the odds were more in his favor. He outnumbered the Persians, and had them on the run before they finally stopped to offer battle. The result was a thrashing that saw the Roman cavalry streaming across the Euphrates in retreat and leaving the infantry stranded, their front to the enemy and their back to the river.
Belisarius was investigated for incompetence in the wake of the disaster, and while he was eventually cleared (on grounds that his men forced him to offer battle), the damage had been done. In late 531, Belisarius was stripped of his command and recalled to Constantinople.
At this point, Belisarius’ future prospects looked bleak. But history is nothing if not unpredictable, and in January 532 Belisarius would find himself one of only two general in the imperial palace when the Nika Riots erupted and nearly swept Justinian from power.
But that’s a story for another time…