The Death of Belisarius – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 43 Part 1

belisarius blind
This didn’t happen – but reality wasn’t hugely better

My latest dollop of Gibbony goodness as I continue my extended review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And on the subject of extended things, in Chapter 43 we are looking at an empire that has just been considerably extended. Or rather, it is not so much extended as overextended. Let’s start with the newly reconquered province of Africa.

Winning territory is hard. Holding it once won is harder still. Governing it effectively is even more of a challenge. Belisarius had delivered Africa to the empire but that was just the start.

The new citizens of the empire had now to get used to having a ruler a long way overseas rather than one who was on hand to deal with problems as they arose. The occupying army soon arranged for farms and property to be transferred into the hands of its officers, so they had a new local elite to get used to as well. One can assume that the new kids on the bloc were likely to sort things out to suit themselves rather than the locals, and new burdens are always unwelcome and doubly so when you don’t know the people imposing them very well. So far so bad – exchanging one unsatisfactory local boss for another is unpleasant. But there was another new factor. They were now also enjoying the efficiency of Byzantine tax collection. So overall the burden placed on ordinary people was greater than before the empire returned.

Religious factionalism remained a problem as well. The Donatists were still striving for independence from the Catholics. There were still some Vandals around and they were still Arians. They had shown themselves to be quite able fighters during the war, and with Belisarius out of the way they now had a chance to try and restore the previous status quo that had suited them so well.

There were also the Moors. In its heyday the empire had maintained extensive defences to protect Africa from the inroads of the desert version of barbarian. These had been long abandoned. It was now inevitable that the Moors would take advantage of any weakness in the province to loot, and even to seize territory. The Vandals had worked with the Moors right from the original conquest, and so knew them well. It is no surprise that they made common cause with them against the new imperial regime.

The results were inevitable. There were numerous rebellions and uprisings. The Byzantine army was at first able to restore order. But every intervention was a struggle and a depletion of resources that were needed elsewhere. At one stage Belisarius himself had to return to get things back on track. The military actions also destroyed more of the productive capacity of the province.

This was a big deal. The extensive grain production of Africa had to a very large degree made the whole Roman Empire project possible. Cities are hungry things. They need a steady supply of portable calories, day in, day out. Without them, regardless of the outcome of a battle here or the results of a campaign there, it doesn’t really matter who is in charge. The fabric of civilisation inevitably decays. Nothing happens without people to build and maintain the infrastructure, and people need to be fed.

Over the twenty years after the reconquest of Africa the continual strife between the empire and its subjects, between the different religious factions and the inroads of the Moorish tribesmen, the size of the population and indeed the size of the actual province fell precipitously.

Procopius was actually there as an eye witness and he estimates that five million inhabitants lost their lives over the time of the Byzantine occupation. This seems like an outrageously high figure – but Africa was a very populous area during the imperial period. The number of inhabitants has probably never recovered even today to the level it had during Classical times. The population decline might not have been quite as big as the number Procopius quotes, but it was certainly large and it certainly made an impact.

One of the pillars of the Roman world was destroyed and destroyed forever. It feels looking back somehow that this was inevitable. But who knows? Had the Vandals been allowed another couple of generations to settle in, perhaps even now the former Roman province of Africa would still be a member of the European family of nations. It might even have been quite a big one. And as it was one with an Atlantic coast, it might well have rivalled Spain, Portugal and Britain in its influence on the globe in the age of sail. It is one of the fascinating things about reading Decline and Fall. The consequences of the fall of the empire, and the exact pattern of its fall continues to reverberate in the form of the world we live in today.

But in the short run, one consequence of the reconquest of Africa was that it had allowed the reconquest of Italy.

Belisarius would certainly have been the conqueror of Italy had he not been recalled before he had quite completed the mission. When he left it must have looked like it was a fairly easy bit of work to finish of the last few thousand Goths holed up in Pavia.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom’s end was one of the major events of the century. At its height it could field 200,000 warriors. To be reduced to a single city and a fighting strength of around 5,000 was quite a fall. But in defeat the Goths were resourceful. They elected a king. Then they killed him. Running the Ostrogoths was a demanding role and if you didn’t have the chops you got the chop. Gothic politics were as rapid as they were brutal. They elected another leader- and this one had just the kind of qualities needed to revive the fortunes of the Goths. His name was Totila.

But his cause would have been hopeless had not the Byzantines made life easier for him. For a start there was nobody in overall control in Italy. It had been split into eleven military districts each with its own commander and all with equal status. This makes a lot of sense if like the emperor Justinian in Constantinople you are despotic monarch worried about creating a power base for a rival. But it isn’t the best way to create an effective defence against a counterattack by determined barbarians.

Totila was young and energetic, and was soon on the offensive and taking advantage of any opportunities that arose. He was ruthless when he needed to be. He threatened at one point to level Rome to the ground and convert it into a cattle pen. But he could also be compassionate to defeated foes when the mood took him. For example managing for supplies to a city that had been besieged to make sure the hungry inhabitants didn’t overeat and make themselves ill.

The chances of a Gothic revival of course weren’t taken into account in Constantinople. But once things began to get out of hand the response was decisive enough. The eunuch Narses was sent with a just about adequate force and sufficient authority to re-establish the empire’s position in the peninsula. It was a big advantage being a eunuch in the kind of court culture that now prevailed in the Eastern Roman Empire. Because Narses could have no dynastic ambitions of his own he could be trusted with a large command and handed lots of troops. He posed no threat to the emperor either as a direct rival returning from a successful campaign or as a new emperor in the West. The only disadvantage to being a eunuch was he had had his testicles cut off. So swings and roundabouts. But on balance it was probably a good thing overall. Unlike Belisarius who it was necessary for Justinian to keep a regular personal eye on, Narses was left as the effective ruler of Italy for fifteen years.

The only thing that Narses could have done with was better naval support. He was obliged to work his way around the coast of the Adriatic rather than attacking by sea. The Goths had managed to get together something of a navy. This also limited his military options and gave his opponents the chance to prepare for his coming.

Narses deserves and indeed possesses a reputation for military prowess second only to that of Belisarius himself. But his career as a soldier was even more unlikely. He had started out as a member of the court staff and at one point was responsible for the provision of luxuries for the female members of the royal entourage.

Despite this unconventional background as a supplier of upmarket personal care and toiletries he was a diligent and effective commander whose meticulous planning ensured that his well trained but not too numerous troops nearly always came out on top. He was also personally brave. We read of one occasion when he led a squad of 300 cavalry in person against 2,000 Goths and routed them. Gibbon is generally contemptuous of eunuchs as a class, but counts Narses as an exception.

The details of the actual campaign could easily absorb many hours without really illuminating much. The problem was basically the remarkably talented Totilla. His emergence as a leader on the Gothic side succeeded in unifying the opponents of imperial rule, which by this time included not just the Goths themselves. As in Africa the new taxes were not proving popular. The Byzantines proved themselves to be superior in the practice of the military arts. They were better at logistics, better at tactics and better at overall strategy. In pitched battles it is usually the Byzantines that come off on top. But they were operating in hostile territory and were continually having to deploy to deal with a new crises. Rome itself changed hands five times during the course of the campaign, and much of the rest of Italy was involved in the fighting as well.

That the Byzantine army in Italy would be continually under strength was no doubt partially due to low cunning on the part of Justinian who even with Narses was wary of allowing an alternative power base to build up. But there was also the simple fact that the Byzantine military machine was expensive to run and there just wasn’t much in the way of spare resources. Italy was obviously an historically important part of the Roman identity, but its revenues only justified so much expenditure on its capture. At one point Belisarius was sent back, but with so few troops he was able to achieve next to nothing – though he did recapture Rome again. This trip looks a bit pointless at first sight, but I suppose the logic was that if his name alone could do the trick, that would save the cost of an expedition like that that Narses was later to lead. It must have seemed worth a try.

In fact it was something of a win win for Justinian. Had Belisarius succeeded in Italy with an under resourced force then all well and good. But having the biggest rival to the throne tied down in Italy without any serious prospect of a major success with few troops at his disposal with pretty much exactly where it suited Justinian to have him. In fact Belisarius was able to pull off some pretty impressive feats even with the meagre military assets to hand. There aren’t many generals who have captured Rome twice. But war needs money as well as men, and there was a limit to the amount of money that could be extracted from the areas of Italy under Byzantine control. Tax is never popular, and every levy reduced civilian support.

Belisarius eventually was withdrawn back to Constantinople where his skills at military tactics were found to not transfer to court intrigues. He was arrested for plotting against the emperor and his fortune confiscated. His wife intervened on his behalf via her friendship with the empress, and he received a partial pardon and some of his cash back. According to Procopius he was pathetically abject in accepting this remission – though exactly how he could do otherwise in the circumstances I am not sure.

But the last years of the great military tactician were not totally pathetic. There is a lot to be said for being the possessor of unique and in demand skills. So when a group of Bulgarians managed to overcome the empire’s defences and threaten the capital, there was only one man to call for. There were not many troops on hand, but working with inadequate resources was what Belisarius did best. He used guile to lure the attackers into a trap and wiped them out. It was a small scale victory, but a victory nonetheless. It is quite likely that had Justinian died first, Belisarius would have become the next emperor. That would have made a big difference to how he came to be remembered. But as it is, he is rather a pitiful figure. His talents were never truly rewarded by his ungrateful master. There is no truth in the medieval story that he ended his life blind and begging in the streets of Rome, but he was nonetheless treated pretty shabbily.

But his reputation did survive and in Gibbon’s time he was counted as one of the great generals of history. He has done less well subsequently and is no longer a household name. History continues to get bigger but our brains remain the same size so the heroes of ancient history have more competition for our memories. Only Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great remain from the classical period as fighting men you can assume everyone has heard of. I think Caesar is safe enough, but as we all become more multicultural I wonder if Alexander will last much longer.

But it is a shame that Belisarius is not better known. He was a man of his age, and his age was one that was dominated by a despotic emperor whose hands held nearly all the power. And the emperor in question was one who was himself a remarkable leader and exceptional human being in many ways. To shine at all next to so bright a star takes something special, and the exploits of Belisarius in increasing the size of the empire by around 50% has very few parallels. That these achievements would ultimately come to nothing is not something for which he can be blamed.

It might be thought that he should have taken the opportunity to seize control of Italy for himself when its throne was offered to him. But loyalty is a great quality in a general. For me, putting his personal ambition to one side in the interest of the state was his greatest victory. In politics virtue is rarely rewarded, and Belisarius certainly wasn’t rewarded for his. But he remains the great ornament of the age in which he lived.

I hope you have enjoyed this episode and can join me for the next. If you have been listening to recent ones you’ll know that I am going back through all the comments I have got on my iTunes account. This time I am reaching back to 2012 when Utility Maximiser said that he started listening to this podcast about midway through listening to the History of Rome podcast, and found that they went well together. Quote “He has his own unique appealing style and that wonderful English dry wit.” Thanks for those kind words and good luck with maximising your utility. It must be well on the way by now. A few days later Denrock was very enthusiastic. “I can hardly wait for the next podcast. I often re-listen to them. Colin ‘the man’ Sanders does a great job. The man just oozes intellect.” Well sadly since then it has been more a case of a little intellect gradually seeping out rather than oozing , so my apologies but thanks for the kind words.

I have covered most of this chapter in this episode, but I have a small be perfectly formed follow up to the rest of it coming out next time when we look at the death of Justinian and sum up the rest of his reign. In the meantime, thanks for listening.

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