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Belisarius

Belisarius

 

 

BelisariusBelisarius is one of those heroic names which are familiar to every age and nation. He was a military commander of the first order, and the greatest general of the Byzantine Empire. To his genius and victories the Emperor Justinian was indebted for the military glory of bis reign. The pathetic close of his career, according to the common story, yet not thoroughly authenticated, has impressed his memory on the popular mind.

 

Belisarius was born of obscure parents at Germania, in Illyria, about 505, A.D. His native Slavonic name, Beli-Tzar, means" White Prince," The historian, Procopius, was bis secrdary and biographer, but has not given information about his youth. Belisarius served in the private guard of Justinian during the reign of Justin, and on the accession of Justinian, in 527. A.D., he was appointed general of the Eastern annies, which defended the empire from Persian invasion. In 530 he gained a decisive victory at Dam, and in the next year at Callinicum. In 532, A.D. , a dangerous sedition was raised in Constantinople, by the mutual hatred of factions called the Blues and the Greens. Belisarius, with 3,000 veterans under his command, quelled the sedition after about 30,000 of the rioters and rebels had been killed.

 

Belisarius married Antonina, who had been all actress of loose morality, yet she reigned with absolute power over her uxorious husband, and accompanied him in all the hardships and dangers of a military life. In 533 Justinian collected a large fleet and army for an expedition against the Vandals of Africa, and gave the supreme command, by land and sea, to Belisarius, with unlimited power to act according to his discretion. Departing from Constantinople in June, he landed on the coast of Africa in September, 533, A.D. The Vandal king, Gelimer, who reigned at the city of Carthage, collected a formidable army which he commanded in person. Belisarius gained a decisive victory ten miles from Carthage and entered that city without resistance. The citizens, with joyful acclamations, welcomed and invited their Roman deliverers. Belisarius maintained strict discipline, and forbade the soldiers to rob or massacre the inhabitants. Another battle, in which he defeated the Vandals, resulted in the final overthrow of their African kingdom. He dispatched all officer to inform Justinian that ill the space of three mouths he had achieved the conquest of Africa. Gelimer was captured and treated with clemency. In 534. A. D., Belisarius was honored with a triumph, which was the first ever witnessed in Constantinople, and the first ever enjoyed by a subject since the reign of Tiberius.

 

Belisarius became sole consul in the year 535; and in the same year commanded an expedition against the Gothic king, Tbeodatus, who reigned in Italy. He besieged and took Naples and marched to Rome, which Vitiges, the new Gothic king, did not defend. The deputies of the Pope and the Senate invited Belisarius to accept their voluntary allegiance and to enter the city, which he did in December, 536, A.D. In the following spring, Vitiges collected an army of I50,000 Goths and besieged Rome. With an army of 5,000 veterans, Belisarius defended the city for a year. In one battle between the Goths and Romans, the former were repulsed with 30,000 killed. "This perilous day," says Gibbon, "was the most glorious in the life of Belisarius." From this day the siege degenerated into a tedious blockade. In March, 538, A.D. , the Gothic anny was forced to raise the siege of Rome, and Vitiges retreated to Ravenna, the Gothic capital. The war was terminated by the capture of Ravenna and Vitiges, in 5390 A.D. The Goths then tempted Belisarius to desert the service of his master and become the emperor of the West but his regard for his oath caused him to maintain h is loyalty, and he returned to Constantinople in 540- In the space of six years he had subdued Amca and Italy, and recovered half of the province of the Western Empire. By the union of justice and liberality, he acquired the love of the soldiers and of the people.

 

In 542, Belisarius was again called to defend the Eastent frontier against the inroads of Chosroes or Nushirvan, King of Persia. At the end of the campaign he was recalled by the intrigues of Theodora and Antonina, and escaped death by a heavy fine and submission to his infamous wife. The Gothic king, Totila, having gained several victories over the Romans, and recovered possession of nearly all Italy, Belisarius returned, in 544, to Italy, with a small army of raw recruits. Being nearly destitute of arms, horses and money, his force was inadequate to deliver Rome, which was besieged by the Gothic king and taken by him in December, 546, A. D. Yet, two months later, Belisarius recovered Rome, and defended it with success against the assaults of Totila. His career was again interupted by the jealousy of Justinian and the intrigues of courtiers and rival generals. He returned from Italy in September, 548, A.D., leaving the fruits of his victories to be reaped by his inferior rival, Narses. For nearly ten years Belisarius reposed from his toils in the high station of General of the East and Count of the Domestics, while the older consuls and patricians respectfully yielded the precedency of rank to the peerless merit of the first of the Romans.

 

The general's last achievement was the defeat of the Bulgarians, who invaded the empire im 559. and advanced within twenty miles of the capital of the trembling Justinian. After be had gained one victory, he obeyed the command, dictated by the emperor's envy, forbidding him to achieve the deliverance of his country. The acciatllatious of joy and gratitude with which the people received him, were imputed as a crime to the victor. In 563, A.D., a conspiracy to kill Justinian was detected, and one of the conspirators accused two officers of the household of Belisarius. Torture forced them to confess that they had acted according to his instructions. He was condemned and his fortune was sequestered, but his life was spared. For many months he was guarded as a prisoner in his own palace. He is commonly reported to have been deprived of sight and reduced to beggary, though some assert that his innocence was finally acknowledged, and his honors restored. The circumstances of his disgrace and death are involved in great uncertainty. He died in March, 565, A.D., leaving but one daughter.

 

In person, Belisarius was tall and handsome. He is generally reputed to have been a Christian. As a general he was. remarkable for presence of mind and rapidity of movement, and for effecting the greatest conquests with the smallest armies and resources. He was distinguished by his loyalty to the emperor, his humanity to the vanquished and bis patience towards rivals and enemies who falsely accused him. " His campaigns, I says Dean Stanley, form an era in military history as being the first conducted by a really great soldier under the iuAuel1ce of Christianity. ,. One result of hi~ career was the preservation of the Byzantine empire, and with it the ancient literature bequeathed by it to the West.

 

THE CAPTURE OF RAVENNA.

 

Ravenna, against which Belisarius now directed his whole army, was surrounded by a twofold barrier of strong ramparts and impervious morasses. Its strength needs no further proof than the constant residence of the timid Honorius, who first selected this city for the capital. Even Alaric, in the fullness of his power. had never ventured to invest it, and it had vainly been besieged for nearly three years by Theodoric the Great. Thus therefore the late victories of Belisarius over the Goths did not altogether insure him certain, or still less, speedy success before Ravenna.

 

These obstacles were very rapidly surmounted by the Roman general. On his first approach, he discovered that the spirit of Vitiges was almost broken by repeated failure, and that he might, perhaps, be persuaded to enter into terms. Ambassadors were therefore dispatched to Ravenna but in the meanwhile every passage, both by sea and land, was guarded by the prudent care of BeLisarius, and his prospects of negotiation never induced him to relax his vigilance. During the progress of these parleys, he planned and executed a measure, which enabled him to dictate rather than to treat He opened a correspondence with Queen Matasontha, and by her secret aid, found means of firing the Gothic granaries and magazines, so that Ravenna became almost devoid of provisions, and unable much longer to hold out. The co-operalion of their queen was suspected by some of the Goths but a greater number imputed the calamity to lightning, and the first were less terrified by domestic treachery than the latter by so evident a mark of the divine displeasure. All, however, concurred in regarding the immediate downfall of their monarchy as certain and inevitable, either from the rigorous terms of the negotiation, or from the effects of the blockade.

 

But they had not reckoned on their Byzantine allies, the feeble judgment and suspicious temper of Justinian. During tile siege of Rome, some ambassadors front Vitiges had embarked for Constantinople, to propose the partition of the Gothic kingdom as the terms of peace. They had been allowed by the imperial court to languish in neglect, till Nushirvan, King of Persia, roused by Gothic solicitations, and by his own ambitious views, resolved to invade the Roman territories. At this intelligence Justinian trembled, and displayed that inconsiderate rashness, to which the foolhardy and the pusillanimous are equally prone. Without deigning to inquire front his successful general, whether it might not be almost as easy to render the Goths his subjects as his allies, the emperor concluded with the barbarian ambassadors a disgraceful treaty, which left to Vitiges the title of king, the provinces beyond the Po, and a moiety of the treasures at Ravenna. Accompanied by two Roman senators, the joyful envoys forthwith proceeded to the imperial camp, and from thence to the Gothic capital, which they filled with surprise at their unexpected good fortune. It may well be imagined that Vitiges, who had already thought himself a captive at Constantinople, hastened to ratify a treaty by which his most sanguine expectations were surpassed, and which rather resembled the gift of a benefactor than the stipulations of an enemy. On the other hand, the Roman General heard with indignation nation of an agreement so pernicious to the public cause, and he called together a council of his principal officers, to consult them on his project of accomplishing the conquest of Italy in spite of the mandate of the emperor. The men to whom this deliberation was referred were but little disposed to forward the views of their high-minded leader. Several amongst them were envious of his fame or impatient of his discipline, and a still greater number regretted the pleasures of peace and of home. To a military spirit, the languor of a long blockade is far more hateful than the peril of a siege, and either timidity or weariness might easily be veiled beneath a respectful submission to the imperial commands. According to the request of Belisarius, who wished to preserve an authentic record of their sentiments, each officer gave in a written opinion, in which the reduction of Ravenna was pronounced to be visionary and impracticable, and the treaty of partition judicious and expedient.

 

Undismayed at this unanimous opposition, the general determined to extinguish the Gothic monarchy, and to present before the throne of Justinian the treasures and the person of Vitiges. He refused to ratify the Byzantine agreement, and his refusal filled the Goths with alarm. Dreading some fraudulent intention on the part of the Romans, they declared that they could place no reliance on the peace proposed to them, unless it were continued both by the signature and the oath of Belisarius. The Roman general, however, persevered in his noble resolution to incur the merit or the guilt of a patriotic disobedience.

 

By the refusal of Belisarius, the brilliant visions of peace: and security which had floated before the eyes of the barbarians, vanisbed almost as rapidly and unexpectedly as they bad arisen. To the pangs of disappointment were added those of approaching famine and their hopeless situation suggested a project which, however singular, is not unparalleled in history. The Goths resolved to depose a sovereign whom they bad always found unfortunate, and to elect as bis successor an enemy whose valor was attested by their overthrow and whose virtues bad extorted their esteem. Under the auspicious command of Belisarius, they trusted to attain a higher pitch of nable fortress, which, for more than two hundred years from this time, proved the firmest bulwark of the Eastern Empire in Italy. The Goths, who still surpassed their victorious enemy in numbers, viewed his scanty battalions with shame and surprise, and the indignant females, spitting in the faces of their husbands and brothers, pointed with bitter upbraidings to the pigmy stature of the southern soldiers. In compliance with the oath, and his own maxims of discipline, Belisarius prevented any outrage on the part of his forces, and carefully preserved inviolate the property and persons of the Goths. On the other hand, Vitiges was detained, though with great respect, a close captive in his palace, the engagement for his safety was renewed in a church, but his treasures, the accumulated wealth of the great Theodoric, became the spoil of the conqueror. According to the example of the capital, some neighboring fortresses which still held out, surrendered to the Roman arms the example of submission extended to the Cottian Alps, and Pavia alone shut her gates, until the reign of Belisarius should be publicly made known. Such hopes were quickly disappointed. As soon as the ramparts of Ravenna were secured, and a share of its barbarian garrison dismissed to the tillage of the neighboring districts, Belisarius proclaimed his unshakcn loyalty" and declared that he would remain, and that the Goths must become the faithful subjects of Justinian.

 

The reduction of Ravenna by Belisarius inflamed stilt further the jealous animosity of his enemies and rivals at Constantinople, well skilled in the arts to blacken the faille of any general, by representing him, if defeated, as unworthy, if successful, as dangerous. In spite of his recent declaration of fidelity and refusal of empire, Belisarius was secretly accused of aspiring to independent power. Perhaps, however, Justinian might have withstood these perfidious insinuations, had not the invasion of the Persians afforded first a specious pretext, and afterwards an unexpected necessity for recalling the conqueror of Italy. In the letter which commanded his departure, his services were acknowledged and extolled, and a grateful sovereign seemed only anxious to reward his merit, and to employ it on a wider field. Though it was not difficult for Belisarius to discern the suspicion and displeasure which lurked beneath these courtly professions, he without hesitation determined on obedience. To the Goths, his continued loyalty appeared altogether unaccountable, and the squadron of Uraias at Pavia vainly implored him in another embassy to raise the standard of rebellion, and no longer to prefer the situation of a slave to that of a sovereign.

 

Belisarius embarked A. D. 540, at Ravenna, with the Gothic captives and treasure, and arrived at Constantinople, after five years of warfare from the foot of Etna to the banks of the Po, during which he had subdued nearly the same extent of country as the Romans had acquired in the five first centuries, since the foundation of the city. His prompt unhesitating obedience silenced the voice of envy for a time, and Justinian, urged by the increasing dangers of the East, consented to appoint his faithful servant to that important command.-LORD MAHON.

 

THE BLIND BEGGAR.

 

Nearly four years from the battle of Chettos A. D. 563, a conspiracy was formed by Marcellus, Sergius, and some other illustrious senators, for the murder of Justinian. It is no small proof how much the natural faults of Justinian were aggravated by old age, and how intolerable his government had grown, that the disaffected should not have patiently expected the death of an octogenarian. The conspirators were detected, torture was used to wring from them the names of their accomplices, and some domestics of Belisarius ventured to accuse their master. Since the Bulgarian victory, the hero had remained under the displeasure of Justinian; but it required the very extremity of jealous dotage to believe that he, who in the full vigor of manhood had refused a crown, and preserved his loyalty amidst the strongest temptations to rebellion, should now, at the close of life, assume the part of an assassin. Such considerations were overlooked by his sovereign, or suppressed by his enemies. In the month of December, Belisarius was ignominiously deprived of his guards and domestics; his fortunes were sequestered, and he was detained a close prisoner in his palace.

 

The trial of the true and supposed conspirators took place in the ensuing year A. D. 564, when a sentence of death was probably pronounced on all and executed on the greater number. The past services of Belisarius, which might have proved his innocence, served at least to mitigate his fate and, according to a frequent practice of the Byzantine Court with eminent state-prisoners, the decree of death was relaxed into one of blindness, and his eyes were accordingly put out. It was then that, restored to liberty, but deprived of all means of subsistence by the preceding confiscation of his property, Belisarius was reduced to beg bis bread before the gates of the convent of Laurus. The platter of wood or earthenware which he held out for charity, and his exclamation, "Give a penny to Belisarius the General," remained for many years impressed on the recollection of the people. It would seem that this spectacle of persecuted merit aroused some dangerous feelings of indignation and pity, and was therefore speedily removed from public view. Belisarius was brought back, most probably as a prisoner, to bis former palace, a portion of his treasures was allotted for his use, and these circumstances may have given some color for the assertion two or three centuries afterwards, of his having been restored to honors and to freedom. His death, which perhaps was hastened by the grief or the hardships of captivity, ensued in the course of the next spring A.D. 565, and Antonina, who survived him, devoted to the cloister the remains of her life and fortune. Such, in all likelihood, is the authentic narrative of the fall of Belisarius.-LORD MARON.

 

Belisarius

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