BELISARIUS (c.505-565). An heroic and loyal Byzantine general, to whom the Emperor Justinian was indebted for many of his victories. He was born in Thrace, and first attained celebrity as the commander of the Eastern army of the Empire, stationed on the confines of Persia, where in 530 A.D. he gained a victory over a Persian army nearly twice as large as his own. The historian Procopius was at this time secretary of Belisarius. In the following year Belisarius was compelled by the impatience of his troops to offer battle at Callinicum, a town at the junction of the rivers Bilecha and Euphrates; some authorities state that he was defeated, and in consequence recalled; this is probably not true. At all events, he remained faithful to his sovereign, and rendered him great service in Constantinople, where the strife of "the Greens" and "the Blues" (two of the factions into which the keen interest in the chariot races in the circus long had split the people) had endangered the authority and even the life of Justinian. Already a new Emperor, Hypatius, had been elected, when Belisarius, at the head of the Life Guards, attacked and slew in the race course 30,000 of the rioters and restored tranquillity (532). Previous to this he had married a wealthy but profligate lady, Antonina, who accompanied hire on his military expeditions. In 533 A.D. Belisarius was sent, with an army of 15,000 men, to recover the province of Africa held by the vandal King, Gelimer. Belisarius gained two victories, made the King a prisoner, seized his treasures, and brought him to Constantinople, conquering on the way Sardinia and the Balearic Isles. Medals were struck in Belisarius' honor, and in March, 534, he was invested with the dignity of Consul, having previously enjoyed the distinction of a double triumph, according to the old Republican custom.
Belisarius was not idle long. The divisions existing in the royal family of the Ostrogoths induced Justinian to attempt to wrest Italy from their hands. In 535 Belisarius conquered Sicily, and in the autumn of 536 he crossed over to lower Italy, where all the cities submitted to him except Naples, which he carried by storm. On December 10 he entered Rome, and held it for a year against the Goths, until the enemy raised the siege. In 538 Narses was dispatched with reinforcements for the army in Italy; but some misunderstanding occurred between the two generals, and they failed to relieve Milan, which in 539 was sacked by Braias, nephew of the Gothic King, Vitiges. Narses was recalled from Italy, and Belisarius was placed at the head of both armies. Refusing his assent to a treaty proposed to King Vitiges by Justinian's ambassadors, he drove the Goths back to Ravenna, which he captured, together with Vitiges himself. But before he could complete his conquest of the Goths, lie was recalled by Justinian to Constantinople. In 541-542 he was engaged in a campaign against the Persians, who had captured Antioch; but he was again superseded, if Procopius is worthy of belief, on account of the slanderous representations made to the Emperor by his own wife, Antonina. His second great struggle with the Ostrogoths now began. The barbarians, under Totila, had again invaded and conquered Italy. In 544 Belisarius was sent against them, but with an insufficient army. He, however, maintained his ground for about four years, harassing the enemy by his skillful movements, and succeeded in regaining possession of Rome for a time; but in spite of his repeated entreaties no reinforcements were sent to him and in September, 548, he was recalled. His rival, Narses, was appointed in his place.
After 10 years of retirement Belisarius once more came forward, at the head of an army hastily collected, and overthrew the Bulgarians, who threatened Constantinople. Towards the end of his life this faithful servant, who at Ravenna had refused the crown of Italy offered to him by the Goths, was accused of a conspiracy against Justinian, and imprisoned, December, 563; but, according to Malala and Theophanes, Justinian became convinced of his innocence, and restored him, after seven months, to all his honors. He died March, 565.
The life of Belisarius has been treated with great license by writers of fiction, especially by Marmontel, who represented the hero as cruelly deprived of sight and reduced to begging for his bread in the streets of Constantinople. Tzetzes, a writer of the twelfth century, states that during his half-year's imprisonment Belisarius suspended a bag from the window of his cell and exclaimed to those who passed by: "Give an obolus to Belisarius, who rose by merit and was cast down by envy"; but no writer contemporary with Belisarius mentions this circumstance. Lord Mahon, in his life of Belisarius (London, 1829), endeavors, but without success, to confirm the tradition. or rather the fiction, of Belisarius' having been deprived of sight and reduced to mendicancy. This fiction supplies the subject of a fine picture by the French painter Gerard. The works of Procopius are the most important original sources for the life of Belisarius. For secondary works, consult: Bury, Later Roman Empire (London, 1893); Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders (Oxford, 1880-85); Gibbon, Decline and Fall, edited by Bury, Vol. iv (London, 1898); The Cambridge MediŠval History, Vol. i (New -York, 1911).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. III (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 94-95.