One of the most challenging facets of writing historical fiction is staying true to, well, history.
On the one hand, “connecting the dots” between recorded events and exploring the motives and interests of those involved can lead to some fascinating story developments.
But recorded history can also be a trap. It can set up an intriguing story, and then fall apart, or peter out to an unsatisfying conclusion. The latter is precisely why I decided to shelve a novel on Alaric, Visigothic king who sacked Rome in 410 A.D. His life, who he was, what he did, would all make great story material, but his life culminates in one of the most infamous tantrums in history, and then he drops dead a few months later. Talk about a bummer of an ending.
In the course of researching Belisarius’ life, I will admit I’ve been fearing the worst. When I embarked down this path, I was fairly well versed…to a point. But after Belisarius’ second recall from Italy in 548, my knowledge of the man dropped off a cliff. With every note taken, I’ve been bracing for disappointment.
But tonight, I read about “the last battle”. And it’s practically the stuff of Hollywood.
In 548, Belisarius was recalled from Italy. Procopius has a few reasons, but I agree with Ian Hughes’ take. Empress Theodora had died, and Justinian desperately needed someone he could trust to provide him with honest advice. Belisarius was the natural choice. For the next eleven years he remained in Constantinople, no doubt advising Justinian and helping shape imperial strategy and policy.
Then, in 559, an army of Huns crossed the Danube and moved toward Constantinople with the intention of crossing into Asia Minor. At the time, the empire’s armies were engaged elsewhere, and Agathias states the army centered on Constantinople had been dispersed throughout Thrace (probably to lessen the crippling effects of the plague, which popped up again in 558). With his generals and armies engaged in other theaters, Justinian turned to his friend, his advisor, his best general – Belisarius.
Belisarius didn’t have much to work with. The only soldiers at his command were the 300 veterans of his comitatus (household troops). With these and a large force of unarmed civilian volunteers, he marched from Constantinople to stop the Huns.
Setting some extra campfires made the 7,000-strong Hunnic army hesitate, but once they learned how few men Belisarius had, their general detached 2,000 Huns and advanced on the Roman camp.
Hearing of their approach, Belisarius divided his 300 veterans into three groups of 100. Two of these he stationed in the woods on either side of the Huns’ line of advance. The remaining 100 he kept with himself. He formed the civilians to his rear, with orders to make a lot of noise.
When the first Huns saw Belisarius with his pitiful army, they advanced to meet him in the wooded glen. Once they had come far enough, Belisarius charged, and simultaneously gave the signal for the 200 veterans in the woods to emerge and attack the Huns from the flanks and rear.
Trapped in the woods, the Huns’ numbers and manueverability were useless. They became packed together, panicked, and fled.
Thus did Belisarius, outnumbered nearly 7-to-1, deliver Constantinople from the Hunnic threat and earn his final victory in the field.
As a final battle, one could do a whole lot worse.