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Useful Notes / Flavius Belisarius

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Spare a penny for Belisarius
— Famous saying

Flavius Belisarius (c. 500 - 565) was perhaps the greatest general of the Byzantine Empire, and in his cunning, determination, and his tragic victimization by court politics, is in a way an archetype of the Byzantine state. He is first mentioned as an officer in the bodyguard of The Emperor (first Justin and then Justinian). His first military command was against the Persians. This was a seesaw campaign in which his most notable achievement was the great victory of Dara. His next deed was the bloody subjugation of a revolt by Constantinople's chariot racing fans (yes, really. Chariot races were very Serious Business), which by some accounts had 30,000 people slaughtered.

After this he was sent to North Africa to fulfill Justinian's ambition to restore the Roman Empire in the West. The Vandals who ruled at the time were led by an ineffectual monarch, and Belisarius was able to outwit him militarily and politically and to gain enough defections to give Justinian a solid base. Belisarius' next campaign was in Italy. While there were many victories including the temporary capture of Rome itself, the campaign was tougher than North Africa. At the height of the campaign, the Gothic rulers of Italy tried to bribe him with the offer of making him an independent emperor. Though he refused, Justinian was suspicious enough to recall him to Constantinople (this has been alternately seen as a Secret Test of Character). He was sent back again to Italy and then recalled again, in favour of Narses who was a less famous general (he'd started out as a bureaucrat) but a competent one in his own right, with a nigh uncanny skill for logistics.

He was then forcibly retired but called back to repel an invasion of Bulgars. After this he was tried for corruption in Constantinople and found guilty, though opinion is generally that he was innocent and the victim of political rivalry. In any case, he was pardoned by Justinian but he retired and stepped down for good. According to legend he was blinded and spent the rest of his life as a beggar. However, modern historians generally believe he was simply relieved of duty and died out of favour, but comparatively comfortable.

His skill despite often incredibly unfavourable odds and varying levels of support from his employing government earned him a spot on the list of people who are often claimed to be "Last of the Romans" (a title in reference to the spirit of Ancient Rome, not a literal one) - a list that included the Emperor he served: Justinian. Belisarius also gets the notable honour of being the only Byzantine general and the last in the Roman Empire to be given a Roman Triumph; for his actions in the Vandalic Wars.

Tropes as portrayed in media:

  • Four-Star Badass: While he did lose battles, he gave the Persians a bloody nose, smashed the Vandals, crushed the Goths and beat the Bulgars. If he hadn't been recalled from Italy, where he was on the brink of victory (the incompetence of more than one General Failure led to a canny Gothic leader with only about 1,000 men retake most of the peninsula), the Byzantines might well have kept and consolidated Italy and retaken Spain or Gaul (France).
  • Henpecked Husband: According to Procopius' Secret History anyway - which is not the most... balanced.
  • Stoic Woobie: Remembered as this in Longfellow's poem
  • Tragic Hero: How he is most remembered in legend.

Appears in the following works:


  • Played by Lang Jeffries in The Last Roman, a movie based on Dahn's novel A Struggle for Rome (see below)
  • Count Belisarius by Robert Graves — A historical novel, similar to Graves' more famous I, Claudius. Partially based on Procopius' Secret History, it portrays Belisarius as a noble and brave general, whose talents are wasted in the service of Justinian, a cruel and incompetent tyrant.
  • A fictionalized version appears in the Foundation story "The General"/"Dead Hand" as General Bel Riose.
  • Plays a major role in the historical novel A Struggle For Rome by Felix Dahn, wherein during his Italian campaign he is The Rival to (the fictional) Cethegus, the ambitious prefect of Rome.

Video Games

Web Original

  • Naturally shows up in the Byzantine series of Unbiased History.
  • Unsurprisingly brought up in the The History Of Byzantium podcast. Procopius', his aide, history books (both state-approved and secret) also being a topic of discussion.