Belisarius and the Siege of Rome

belisarius-mosaicOn this day, December 9th in 536CE, Roman General Flavius Belisarius entered the city of Rome through the Asinarian Gate with his small cohort of Roman knights.

The city’s residents had not seen a Roman Legionnaire for almost exactly 60 years, when what remained of the Western armies deserted the Eternal City after the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (“little Augustus”).

Since that time, Rome (the city) had been under the control of a series of Goth rulers, including Odoacer, Theodoric (the “Great”), Amalasuntha (daughter of Theodoric), Theodad (cousin of Amalasuntha and her murderer) and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, the Goth King Vitiges.250px-porta_asinaria_2948

Imagine that! For 60 years, the Roman Empire had gone about its business with an Emperor mounted on a throne in Constantinople, while Rome herself – the birthplace of Empire – was held by barbarians. Imagine a United States continuing to exist, and to thrive, with a Washington D.C. belonging to a foreign power. It sounds inconceivable and so it was to the Emperor Justinian who was determined to accomplish what none had dared, to return Rome to Rome.

By the time that Belisarius arrived in Rome his exploits (in Persia and Africa) were the stuff of legend. But he arrived woefully understaffed with barely

Vitiges (? - 540) Prince des Goths, roi des Ostrogoths de 536 à 540.
Vitiges (? – 540) Prince des Goths, roi des Ostrogoths de 536 à 540.

5,000 Roman knights, and soon faced a Goth army that exceeded 100,000 in number surrounding the city, determined to crush Belisarius and with it, Justinian’s aspirations of restoration.

Did Belisarius panic in the face of such impossible odds?  This quote from Procopius – an eyewitness to these events – makes the hairs on my neck stand on end every time I read it:

“On the eighteenth day from the beginning of the siege the Goths moved against the fortifications at about sunrise […] and all the Romans were struck with consternation at the sight of the advancing towers and rams, with which they were altogether unfamiliar.  But Belisarius, seeing the ranks of the enemy as they advanced with the engines, began to laugh, and commanded the soldiers to remain quiet and under no circumstances to begin fighting until he himself should give the signal.” – Procopius

300px-walls_of_rome_6th_century-1Belisarius stood atop the Aurelian Walls and drew his bow (a compound bow design that he borrowed from the Huns and improved upon) and in a blur fired three arrows that killed the three Goth field commanders that commanded the attack, causing chaos in the Goth ranks.  Then he began to fire one arrow after another at the oxen that drew the siege engines forth and order his knights to do the same, stopping the towers dead in their tracks.  The Siege of Rome that followed would last for one year and nine days and its outcome would make indelible history…

Absolutely fascinating stuff!

This Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.

Ad Decimum – Belisarius Ends Vandal Africa…

roman-milestoneHumble milestones like the one picture above marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen.

The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.

In what had been Roman Africa,  stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast.  It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).

At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.belisarius-mosaic

The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations.  The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy).  If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements.  The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome).  If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.

Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold.  This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian.  These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.

This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).

For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog by clicking here.

General Belisarius Enters Rome – on this day in 536CE

On this day, December 9th in 536CE, Roman General Flavius Belisarius (pictured above) entered the city of Rome through the Asinarian Gate (seen below) with his small cohort of Roman knights.

250px-Porta_Asinaria_2948

The city’s residents had not seen a Roman Legionnaire for almost exactly 60 years, when what remained of the Western armies deserted the Eternal City when the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.

Since that time, Rome (the city) had been under the control of a series of Goth rulers, including Odoacer, Theodoric (the “Great”), Amalasuntha (daughter of Theodoric), Theodad (cousin of Amalasuntha and her murderer) and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, the Goth King Vitiges.

Imagine that!  For 60 years, the Roman Empire had gone about its business with an Emperor mounted on a throne in Constantinople, while Rome herself – the birthplace of Empire – was held by barbarians.  Imagine a United States continuing to exist, and to thrive, with a Washington D.C. belonging to a foreign power.  It sounds inconceivable and so it was to the Emperor Justinian who was determined to accomplish what none had dared, to return Rome to Rome.

By the time that Belisarius arrived in Rome his exploits (in Persia and Africa) were the stuff of legend.  But he arrived woefully understaffed and soon faced a Goth army that exceeded 100,000 in number surrounding the city, determined to crush Belisarius and with it, Justinian’s aspirations of restoration.

Absolutely fascinating stuff!

Following is a Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.

Belisarius – the “Africanus of New Rome” – in the news

It’s not often that a mainstream blog or news outlet posts something on General Flavius Belisarius so I thought that I would pass along this link to a recent post in the Ancient Origins blog which does a decent job of providing an overview of Belisarius’ life and achievements.

The piece also repeats many of the fallacies pioneered by Sir Edward Gibbon 300 years ago that have been repeated in similar pieces and histories about the Justinian era ever since (i.e. the Roman Empire is the “Byzantine” empire, Romans are”Greeks”, etc.).

That said, it’s entertaining nonetheless for those not familiar with the General.

Please click here for the full article.

And please note that for a fictional account of General Belisarius’ life and times, my Legend of Africanus trilogy in which he figures most prominently is now available on amazon.com here.