Monday, May 5, 2014
The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Belisarius
Story number 2 in Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book, The Savior Generals is entitled, “Byzantium at the Brink.” He tells the epic and tragic story of Flavius Belisarius who served the Byzantine Empire from A.D. 527-59.
The medieval myth has our hero Belisarius ending his life a poor beggar, blind and crying for coins in the street. The truth is not so harrowing, but tragic nonetheless.
Belisarius enters the picture at age 25 into a civilization in crisis. By this point in time, the Byzantine Empire has lost much of its Roman origins. It relied on barbarians, bribes, and strategic marriages to maintain its vast borders. The future emperor, Justinian, and his lieutenant, the young Belisarius, believed Byzantine must be saved at all costs. Justinian dreamed of reuniting the old Roman Empire under his eventual rule. Belisarius would be his instrument. Both recognized the greatness that had been lost when the old empire fell, and both believed, against all odds it could be restored.
While he may have been motivated by the treasure and power to be gained, it appears that “ultimately what drove [Belisarius] and thousands in the high echelons of Byzantine government and the military for more than thirty years against near impossible odds were both his faith in Christianity and his allegiance to the idea of Roman civilization and the gifts it had bestowed on millions.” A restored Rome would be Belisarius’ gift to the world.
Belisarius was first sent out against the trouble-making Persians in the east. Usually, Constantinople determined that it made more sense to simply pay off the Persians to stay away. But in 527, the emperor Justin decided he’d had enough and decided resistance would be cheaper. Although young, Belisarius’ connection to the Emperor’s nephew and future emperor, Justinian, secured his place as the commanding officer. “Belisarius almost immediately proved worthy of his selection through two characteristics that would elevate his leadership above his contemporaries. First, he was calm in battle, and he knew instinctively the relationship between tactics and strategy and thus avoided wasting the limited resources of the empire in needless head-on confrontations that would lead to no long-term advantage. Second, Belisarius was skilled in counterinsurgency, in winning the hearts and minds of local populations by not plundering or destroying villages and infrastructure... Such restraint was rare among gold-hungry Byzantine commanders in the east. The result was that, even after initial defeats, Belisarius never lost an army or had hostile populations turn on his rear.”
These aforementioned traits served time and again throughout his lifetime of service.
After holding the Persians to a stand still and securing the borders, Belisarius was ordered home to Constantinople to prepare to fight the Vandal Kingdom off to the coast of North Africa. Upon his arrival, he found mobs attacking the weak new emperor, Justinian, demanding reforms. Belisarius set out to arrest the ringleader, but on his own initiative, set upon the rioters and led the emperor’s troops in the slaughter of up to 30,000. This, along with the advice of Justinian’s wife, Theodora, to stand and not flee, led to a strengthened and, increasingly ruthless, Justinian.
After setting the kingdom aright, Belisarius flew off to North Africa. For close to a century, the Vandal kingdom had had an uneasy peace with the Byzantine Empire. But after a pro-Byzantine king was dethroned in a coup and his cousin, the usurper, began persecuting Christians, Justinian knew this was his chance to reclaim old Roman land.
Drawing upon his skills of using limited resources wisely and fostering counterinsurgency, Belisarius made it to the capital city, Carthage, in six days. Over the next three months, he worked to win over the local population and those still loyal to the previous regime. He knew his limited forces could never hold the city if he did not have the backing of the inhabitants. “Less than seven months later, his army had destroyed the century-old Vandal kingdom in Africa, captured the usurper king... either killed, enslaved, or recruited into his army most of the Vandal population,established a new Byzantine province... and sent waves of terror through the Gothic hierarchy in Italy that it might be next in line...”
The Goths in Italy had terrorized Roman society for two hundred years. Constantinople was too far from Italy to succumb to the harassment, but also too far to re-occupy it. After returning to Constantinople with the plunder of the Vandals, Belisarius headed west again and on December 9, 536, he entered Rome having “annexed much of North Africa and retaken Sicily and half of Italy.” Belisarius probably paid for his small forces out his own share of the booty from the Vandal campaign, not wanting to stress the official treasury.
His rapid success was not without cost, however. In typical emperor fashion, Justinian began to see the successful, maturing general Belisarius as a potential rival for his power. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople despite the effect it had on the successful retaking of the rest of Italy. Unlike his return from the Vandal conquest, he was given no triumphal marches. Yet the people’s love for him grew. They recognized his virtues and success which led the emperor to fear him even more. Fortunately, the Persians were again threatening in the east and so Belisarius was dispatched.
Belisarius fought the Persians to a standstill for two years while the capital city was ravaged by a plague. This further limited his resources, and personal problems with his enterprising and cunning wife, Antonia, took their toll. Once again, his outreach to the local population proved the best plan of action as he was able to “push back the enemy at little cost while neither exceeding nor failing to meet his emperor’s goals.” All this time, despite Justinian’s fears, Belisarius shows no desire to usurp power from his friend.
Because of the plague, Justinian fell desperately ill. Intrepid generals used this as an excuse to plot for a replacement. Although Belisarius did not indicate he wanted the role, the fact that his name was mentioned and championed was enough to cause his downfall. While Justinian recovered, his wife, Theodora, took over the inquisition into the plotters. “Belisarius was relieved of command and had his wealth confiscated. He could neither finish the Persian war nor head back west to stabilize the renewed Gothic conflict in Italy, Instead, for more than two years he was persona non grata in Constantinople, ostracized, impoverished, and under constant suspicion.” His only hope lay in a fully recovered Justinian returning him to his commission. Although the emperor recovered, Belisarius is lost to the historical record for a decade.
He suddenly reappears in 559. With all the generals and the severely depleted forces scattered all over the world fighting to maintain the newly reformed Roman Empire, the Huns chose to attack the capital. In desperation, the aging Justinian had no choice but to once again turn to his old friend, Belisarius, to protect the Byzantine Empire. Once again the old fighter did what he did best, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the loyal service of his king. “But the contrast between Justinian’s panic and Belisarius’ fortitude only furthered their final estrangement.”
Once again, Belisarius was the subject of a conspiracy investigation. Although finally cleared because it was simply too dangerous to convict such a popular hero, Belisarius died two years later, eight months before the paranoid emperor.
“At his death, Flavius Belisarius’ imperial Constantinople -- nearly wiped out by successive epidemics of bubonic plague, with Bulgars once again nearing the gates of the city, its Christianity torn apart by schisms and heresies, the great dome of the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia just recently restored from sudden collapse due to design flaws, the forty-year reign of its greatest emperor nearing a close -- would nonetheless endure another 888 years. Its resilience had been in no small part due to the thirty-year nonstop warring of Belisarius -- the last Roman general and the greatest military commander that a millennium-long Byzantium would produce -- who in a brief three decades had expanded the size of the eastern empire by 45 percent. Belisarius did not save a theater, or even a war, but rather an entire empire through unending conflict his entire life.”