A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

2. The Gothic war consists of two acts, the first (A. D. 535-540), the second (A. D. 544-548). The first began in the claims laid by Justinian to Sicily, and in his demand for the abdication of the feeble Gothic king, Theodatus. It was marked by Belisarius's conquest of Sicily (535) and Naples (537), by his successful defence of Rome against the newly elected and energetic king of the Goths, Vitiges (March, 537--March, 538), and by the capture of Ravenna with Vitiges himself, Dec. 539. (Procop. Goth. 1.5, 2.30.) He was then recalled by the jealousy of Justinian and the intrigues of rival generals, without even the honours of a triumph. (Procop. Goth. 3.1.)

The interval between the two Gothic wars was occupied by his defence of the eastern frontier against the inroads of the Persians under Nushirvan or Chosroes (541-543) (Procop. Pers. 1.25), from which he was again recalled by the intrigues of the empress Theodora, and of his wife Antonina, and escaped the sentence of death only by a heavy fine, and by his complete submission to his wife. (Procop. Hist. Arcan. 3, 4.)

The second act of the Gothic war, which Belisarius undertook in the office of count of the stables, arose from the revolt of the Goths and reconquest of Italy under their new king, Totila, A. D. 541-544. (Procop. Goth. 3.2-9.) Belisarius, on arriving in Italy, made a vigorous but vain endeavour to raise the siege of Rome (May, 546--Feb. 547), and then kept in check the hostility of the conquerors, and when they left the city, recovered and successfully defended it against them. (Procop. Goth. 3.13-24.) His career was again cut short by the intrigues of the Byzantine court, and after a brief campaign in Lucania, he returned from Italy, Sept. A. D. 548 (Procop. Goth. 3.29-32), and left his victories to be completed by his rival Narses in the complete overthrow of the Ostrogothic kingdom, and the establishment of the exarchate of Ravenna. (Procop. Goth. 4.21-35.) (A. D. 549-554.)

The last victory of Belisarius was gained in repelling an inroad of the Bulgarians, A. D. 559. (Agath. Fist. 5.15-20; Theophanes, pp. 198,199.) In A. D. 563 he was accused of a conspiracy against the life of Justinian, and his fortune was sequestered. All that is certain after this is, that he died on the 13th of March, A. D. 565. (Theophanes pp. 160, 162.)

It is remarkable that whilst his life is preserved to us with more than usual accuracy--by the fact of the historian Procopius having been his secretary (Procop. Pers. 1.12), and having published both a public and private history of the times--the circumstances of his disgrace and death are involved in great uncertainty, and historical truth has in popular fame been almost eclipsed by romance. This arises from the termination of the contemporary histories of Procopius and Agathias before the event in question; and in the void thus left, Gibbon (after Alemann) follows the story of John Malala (p. 242), and of Theophanes (pp. 159-162), that he was merely imprisoned for a year in his own palace (A. D. 563, 564) and

restored to his honours eight months before his death; whilst Lord Mahon in his recent life of Belisarius, on the authority of an anonymous writer of the eleventh century, and of Tzetzes in the twelfth century, has endeavoured to revive the story which he conceives to have been handed down by tradition in Constantinople,--which was then transferred in the fifteenth century to Italy, --and which has become so famous through the French romance of Marmontel, that his eyes were put out, and that he passed the remainder of his life sitting in the streets of Constantinople and begging in the words preserved in the metrical narrative of Tzetzes.

The statue in the Villa Borghese, in a sitting posture with an open hand, formerly supposed to be Belisarius, has since the time of Winkelmann been generally conjectured to represent Augustus in the act of propitiating Nemesis.

In person, Belisarius was tall and handsome. (Procop. Goth. 3.1.) As a general, he was distinguished as well by his personal prowess and his unconquerable presence of mind, as by the rapidity and comprehensiveness of his movements, and also as never having sustained defeat without good reason, and as having effected the greatest conquests with the smallest resources. His campaigns form an era in military history, as being the first conducted by a really great soldier under the influence of Christianity (for that he conformed to Christianity, even if he was not himself a Christian, is evident from his mention in connexion with the baptism of Theodosius, Procop. Hist. Arcan. 1.); and it is remarkable to trace the union of his rigorous discipline over his army (Procop. Goth. 1.28, Vand. 1.12, 16) with his considerate humanity towards the conquered, and (especially in contrast with the earlier spirit of Roman generals) his forbearance towards his enemies. (Procop. Vand. 1.16, 17, Goth. 1.10.)

In a private capacity, he was temperate, chaste, and brave; but his characteristic virtue, which appeared to Gibbon "either below or above the character of a man," was the patience with which he endured his rivals' insults, and the loyalty to Justinian--in itself remarkable as one of the earliest instances in European history of loyalty to the person of the sovereign--which caused him at the height of his success and power to return, at the emperor's order, from Africa, Persia, and Italy. Sir W. Temple (Works, vol. ii. p. 286) places him among the seven generals in the history of the world who have deserved a crown without wearing it.

In his two vices--the avarice of his later life (Procop. Hist. Arcan. 5), and his uxoriousness--he has been well compared to Marlborough, except so far as the great Sarah was superior to the infamous Antonina. To her influence over him are to be ascribed the only great blots of his life--the execution of his officer, Constantine (Procop. ibid. 1), A. D. 535, the persecution of his step-son, Photius (Ibid. 1-3), A. D. 540, and the deposition of the pope Sylverius and the corrupt election of Vigilius, A. D. 537. (Goth. 1.25.) He had by Antonina an only daughter, Joannina. (Procop. Hist. Arcan. 1.5,Goth. 3.30.)