Flavius Belisarius saves New Rome in his last military act

After Theodora’s death, Justinian seems to have trusted no one: his destined successor, Justinus, son of his sister, was kept in the background, and no great minister seems to have possessed his confidence. Even Belisarius, the first and most loyal soldier of the empire, does not appear to have been trusted: in the second Gothic war the Emperor stinted him of troops and hampered him with colleagues. At last he was recalled [A.D. 549] and sent into private life, from which he was only recalled on the occurrence of a sudden military crisis in A.D. 558.

Flavius Belisarius

Flavius Belisarius

This crisis was a striking example of the mis-management of Justinian’s later years. A nomad horde from the South Russian steppes, the Cotrigur Huns, had crossed the frozen Danube at mid-winter, when hostilities were least expected, and thrown themselves on the Thracian provinces. The empire had 150,000 men under arms at the moment, but they were all dispersed abroad, many in Italy, others in Africa, others in Spain, others in Colchis, some in the Thebaid, and a few on the Mesopotamian frontier. There was such a dearth of men to defend the home provinces that the barbarians rode unhindered over the whole country side from the Danube to the Propontis plundering and burning. One body, only 7,000 strong, came up to within a few miles of the city gates, and inspired such fear that the Constantinopolitans began to send their money and church-plate over to Asia. Justinian then summoned Belisarius from his retirement, and placed him in command of what troops there were available—a single regiment of 300 veterans from Italy, and the “Scholarian guards”, a body of local troops 3,500 strong, raised in the city and entrusted with the charge of its gates, which inspired little confidence as its members were allowed to practice their trades and avocations and only called out in rotation for occasional service. With this undisciplined force, which had never seen war, at his back, Belisarius contrived to beat off the Huns. He led them to pursue him back to a carefully prepared position, where the only point that could be attacked was covered with woods and hedges on either side. The untrustworthy “Scholarians” were placed on the flanks, where they could not be seriously molested, while the 300 Italian veterans covered the one vulnerable point. The Huns attacked, were shot down from the woods and beaten off in front, and fled leaving 400 men on the field, while the Romans only lost a few wounded and not a single soldier slain. Thus the last military exploit of Belisarius preserved the suburbs of the imperial city itself from molestation; after defending Old Rome in his prime, he saved New Rome in his old age.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)


Roman Emperor Justinian (Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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