The Early Career of Belisarius

June 17, 2009

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.

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Why Belisarius?

May 29, 2009

I’ve always had an affinity for what I would call the noble second-in-command. Time and again, in history and in literature, my favorite personalities aren’t the heroes and kings, but those standing steadfastly beside them. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it has to do with my natural disposition, or my concept of leadership. Whatever the case, it’s there.

Take Lord of the Rings, for example. My favorite character isn’t Frodo, or Aragorn, or Gandalf, it’s Sam (followed closely by Faramir – another second-in-command). I prefer Marcus Agrippa to Augustus, Achates to Aeneas, Sherman to Grant. These characters – real and fictional – were all content, happy even, to play second fiddle. Perhaps recognizing their own weaknesses, they never moved to supplant those they supported, even when power was within their grasp.

It’s this affinity for the second-in-command that draws me to Belisarius. Here was an honest man, a brilliant general, who served his at time thankless, at times jealous emperor with loyalty and dedication. Had he been so inclined, he could have rebelled against Justinian, or defected and established his own kingdom in Italy. God knows he had cause. But he never wavered.

That complicated relationship between Belisarius and Justinian is what inspired me to write about him. As I progess through the research, I’m finding more fascinating relationships, such as those between Belisarius and his unfaithful wife, Antonina, or his disaffected secretary, Procopius, but it’s the relationship between second-in-command Belisarius and his emperor that will form the narrative thread of the story.


Who the #$@* is Belisarius?

May 29, 2009

If you read the name Belisarius and your first thought is “Beli-who?”, don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone. Belisarius hails from a period of history oft-neglected by teachers and professors – even at the collegiate level.

To put it succinctly:

Belisarius was a general who served under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the mid-6th century A.D. He fought wars against Persia and, more famously, spearheaded Justinian’s campaign to reconquer the Western Roman Empire. He is widely regarded as a brilliant tactician and one of the best field commanders of the ancient and early medieval periods. The historical accounts also show that he possessed a rare streak of nobility in an age of rampant intrigue and corruption.

There’s much more to Belisarius’ story, but that will be revealed in good time.

If you’re interested in further reading, I recommend Belisarius’ wikipedia entry and this thoroughly readable account of the Siege of Rome.