Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Last Great General of Rome - Part One

"The Last Great General of Rome": that is how Lord Mahon, writing in 1829, described Flavius Belisarius. It is an inaccurate title, for the Roman Empire - or the Eastern half of it that endured until 1453 - produced many great soldiers and generals after the death of Belisarius, but he was the last to make any serious attempt to restore the power and glory of the Western Empire. He achieved a run of astonishing victories, all the more impressive since he was usually outnumbered and starved of resources by his envious and suspicious master, the Emperor Justinian I.

Possible depiction of Flavius Belisarius, from the Ravenna mosaics

When I decided to write a novel set during the sixth century AD, between the fall of the Western Empire and the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the life and career of Belisarius immediately stood out. He has starred in fiction before, most notably in "Count Belisarius" by Robert Graves (author of "I, Claudius") but I very much wanted to draw my own version of him,

Born c.500 into a noble Illyrian or Thracian family in what is now south-west Bulgaria, little is known of Belisarius's early life. He joined the Roman army as a young man, and swiftly came to the attention of the aged Emperor Justin and his nephew, a clever, sharp-eyed little man named Justinian. Belisarius distinguished himself in the constant wars against the Sassanid Persians, who were chipping away at the shrunken Empire's Eastern frontiers. When Justin died and his nephew succeeded to the throne, Belisarius was made commander-in-chief of the Imperial armies in the East and sent to teach the Sassanids some manners. 

Map of the Roman-Persian frontier

Belisarius proceeded to do just that, and at the Battle of Dara in 530 he routed a Persian army over twice the size of his own by using defensive tactics that he would repeat time and again: uncertain of the loyalty of many of his soldiers (by this time the famous Roman legions were long gone, and the 'Roman' army was largely made up of mercenaries), he dug a number of ditches and waited for the Persians to come to him. Charge after charge of cavalry was repelled, and when the enemy were exhausted Belisarius counter-attacked at the head of his best troops, the bucellari. The Persians were shattered and fled in rout, but Belisarius recalled the pursuit after a  few miles. Wary that the Persians might rally and turn upon his unreliable soldiers, he allowed the majority of the beaten enemy host to escape.  

A year later, at the Battle of Callinicum, Belisarius had cause to regret his hesitation. Reinforced by five thousand Lakhmid Arabs, the reformed Persian army attempted to invade Syria. Belisarius quickly moved against them, and by a series of brilliant maneuvers managed to block their advance. Puffed up by their success so far, his officers demanded the honour of fighting a pitched battle to round off the campaign. Belisarius didn't want to risk it, and attempted to persuade them otherwise. According to the historian Procopius, who accompanied the general on his many of campaigns, he spoke thus:

 "Whither would you urge me? The most complete and happy victory is to baffle the force of an enemy without impairing our own, and in this favourable situation we are already placed. Is it not wiser to enjoy the advantages thus easily acquired, than to hazard them in the pursuit of more? Is it not enough to have altogether disappointed the arrogant hopes with which the Persians set out for this campaign, and compelled them to a speedy retreat?..."

Belisarius's eloquent pleas fell on deaf ears, and he found himself obliged to fight a battle at Callinicum, in northern Syria. For much of the day the result hung in the balance, but then a squadron of elite Persian cavalry stoved in the Roman right flank and sent their mercenary cavalry fleeing. The Roman army collapsed, and many soldiers drowned as they attempted to swim the Euphrates. Belisarius staged a fighting retreat. He dismounted and stood at the head of his infantry, forming an unbreakable line of shields against the Persian cavalry as they tried to follow up and complete their victory. As night fell, the Persians gave up and the remnant of the Roman army was able to withdraw in good order. 

The Persian victory proved to be a Pyrrhic one. Though victorious, they had suffered terrible casualties and were unable to continue the invasion. Their commander, General Azarethes, was removed from command and stripped of his honours by the furious Persian Emperor. Weary of knocking each other about, both sides agreed to the Eternal Peace, a peace treaty that guaranteed cordial relations between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia forever: naturally, it was broken within a few years.  

Emperor Justinian I

Despite his defeat at Callinicum, Belisarius had done well enough in his first Persian campaign to remain in favour with the Emperor. He was recalled to Constantinople, where he was the highest-ranking military officer on the spot when the 'Nika' riots broke out in 532 - the riots were started by the Blues and the Greens, the two major chariot racing factions in the city, and almost resulted in the destruction of Constantinople and the overthrow of Justinian. Belisarius had to move fast to rescue the situation...just how fast will be described in Part Two!

You can follow the adventures of Belisarius and his slightly less-than-devoted officer, Coel ap Amhar, in my novel "Caesar's Sword":

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