Belisarius: Rome’s last amazing general, and the loss of Italy

Roughly a century after the Roman Empire lost Italy to the Goths, in 554, the penisula was improbably reclaimed by the freakishly competent general, Belisarius, a man of so many talents that he constantly prevailed in spite of being seriously undermined by his commander-in-chief, the Emperor Justinian, who feared Belisarius would depose and replace him. Belisarius seemed to be as loyal as a hound, but Justinian’s paranoia was easy to understand: for hundreds of years, every other successful Roman general had proclaimed himself Emperor. It was just what successful generals did!

But not Belisarius. After miraculously taking Italy away from the Goths, severely outnumbered at every turn, he passed on the easy opportunity to be the new boss of Italy, and Justinian fearfully recalled him to Constantinople before the Empire’s gains could really be secured. The Goths (no doubt astonished by their good luck) quickly took back most of what they had so recently lost, led by Teudel, the first capable Goth leader in a while.

So eventually Justinian sent Belisarius back to do it all over again … but this time without an army or a budget. He basically ordered Belisarius to spend his own money to create a new army from scratch on the way back to Italy. It is at this point that the competence of Belisarius becomes almost unbelievable…

He very nearly took back Rome, stopped only by a twist of fate. He then managed to convince Teudel not to raze Rome (“Is that how you want to be remembered? Think about it.”). So Teudel just destroyed Rome’s fortifications and left, assuming Belisarius was in a hopeless position. Everyone knew that underestimating Belisarius was unwise, but seriously: the man didn’t have an army, and Rome didn’t have walls. What was he going to do? Rebuild the walls and hold the city with a handful of tired soldiers?

Well, of course! As soon as Teudel was over the horizon, Belisarius rebuilt most of the fortifications … and then held the city when Teudel returned. Without gates. And not much of an army. I think Teudel must have been thinking, over and and over again, You have GOT to be kidding me.

It’s hard to read about Belisarius’s exploits without thinking he must have had help from a time traveller or something…. Alas, there was only so much even he could do, and the Roman Empire lost Italy again quite quickly. The mechanisms were pithily described in Graves’ Count Belisarius:

Belisarius will be recalled, and the destruction will come about through greedy tax-gatherers, unjust laws, stupid generals, wilful subalterns, mutiny, revolt, invasion. You will see.

And so it was.