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.

Remembering the “Last Roman”

On this day in the year 565CE, one thousand four hundred and fifty one years ago, a truly extraordinary man died – a man who changed our world irrevocably. What’s more, the changes he wrought impact all of us, every single day in ways grand and small and yet most of us have never heard of him. It is safe to say that our world would be quite different had he not lived.

Mosaic_of_Iustinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna)At birth his name was Pietrus Sabbatius, citizen of the Roman Empire born to a family of little merit in the grasslands of Thrace, west of the capitol of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. A note on that city – at the time of his birth not only was it the seat of government (the Emperor Constantine had moved the capital to Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium, known today as Istanbul in 335CE) – but it was the grandest city in the entire world, filled with a million inhabitants. By the time he died, Pietrus was known as the Emperor Justinian “the Great”, Caesar, “Restitutor Orbiter” (restored of the world) and later Saint of the Orthodox Church.

He was a most peculiar man, married to an equally peculiar woman by any standard who went by the name of Theodora – she was as beautiful and cunning as Cleopatra herself. Together the Imperial couple were (not by accident) surrounded by some of the most extraordinarily able, creative, and dedicated people that had ever been assembled in support of an idea, a sovereign, or a nation. In the case of Justinian’s cabinet (filled with such luminaries as the General Belisarius who won wars with ideas, John ‘the Cappadocian’ the able administrator, Anthemius of Tralles the architect and inventor responsible for the Santa Sophia, and Tribunian the Qaestor the man who codified the whole history of Roman law), they supported something that was at once of this earth and yet more, aspirational, otherworldly. A single word that captures their cause continues to enchant us for reasons that none can entirely explain so long after it ceased to exist – ROME. It enchanted Justinian as well, it motivated his every breath, for that reason he bears remembering this day.

Justinian ruled Rome (and hence the known world) for 38 years, rising to the throne 51 years after the last Western Emperor was forced off the throne by the Goth warlord Odoacer. This new Caesar did not accept the status quo of a dismembered Empire where barbarian princes ran roughshod over Roman peoples and principles. Eastern Emperors that had ruled before him, after the fall of the West, seemed resigned to this new, diminished, belittled Rome but not Justinian. He dedicated his life to stitching the Empire back together – his unequalled general by the name of Belisarius took a handful of elite Roman knights and reconquered Africa and Italy, defeating vastly superior barbarian armies in the process.

Although Justinian was known by contemporaries as the Last Roman, the very last Caesar of Rome, Constantine XI “Palaiologos” would die in 1465, nine hundred years later, scant decades before Columbus set sail for the New World. Yet Justinian was very much the last Caesar of the ancient world. Many scholars have sought to explain why the Western Roman Empire declined prior to Justinian’s ascension, and to distill the world-rending pressures that would forever change Rome after Justinian (I would warmly recommend “Justinian’s Flea” by William Rosen for any interested in a brilliant and unconventional analysis of Rome’s transition into the Dark Ages – for those interested in a fictional account of his reign I’d be honored if you would see my trilogy on the subject, the “Legend of Africanus” on Amazon).

That said, it is worth repeating a few of the simple reasons why Justinian’s life represents such a milestone in world history and why his controversial reign marks the end of the Ancient World. Here is a short list of my reasons why this man should matter to you.

– Justinian was the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue (after him they would speak Greek first, Latin as an afterthought if at all).

– His remarkable compilation of a thousand years of Roman law formed the basis of most modern Western democracies, continuing to provide their legal framework to this day.

– His legal reforms allowed woman to inherit property and decreed that the beaches of his territory were public property and could not be taken as private property nor could access to them be blocked (a tradition that is still enshrined in our legal system).

– He was the last Caesar to rule over a Roman Empire that included the city of Rome amongst its dominions (thanks to General Flavius Belisarius – another contender for the title of “Last Roman”).

And while he lived, Rome remained ‘The One’ – after him, she gradually became one amongst many. She would wax and wane over the next nine hundred years and for as long as there was a Caesar on the Bosporus she would influence the world in infinite ways large and small, but never again as she did under Justinian.

Romans in Medieval Japan

On the eastern side of Okinawa Island in Japan the remains of Katsuren japan_location_map_with_side_map_of_the_ryukyu_islands-svgCastle stand on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the promontory. The castle experienced its golden age in the 15th century CE when it served as a hub of trade and cultural exchange between Japan, Korea, China, and the broader world. Just how broad was its reach? In a wonderful counterpoint to the recent discovery of Chinese skeletons in a 2nd century CE Roman cemetery in London, recent archaeological excavations at Katsuren unearthed a handful of 2nd century bronze Roman coins in recent weeks depicting the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great katsuren-castleon the castle grounds. It is the first time that Roman coins have been discovered in Japan. While researchers cannot know for certain how the 2nd century coins came to the 15th century castle (at a time when the vestigial Roman Empire was confined to the City of Constantinople itself which would ultimately disappear in May of 1453), but they speculate that the lords of Katsuren obtained the Roman coins in trade with China.
And as we learned in my prior post, ancient China was more familiar with their Roman counterparts than many might have believed.coin-in-japan
For more on the find of Constantine-era coins in Japan please see here:
And for more on the UNESCO protected world heritage site of Katsuren Castle see here:

Chinese Travelers in Londinium

2nd-century-roman-empireIn the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire stretched from the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum where the southernmost Roman Legion was stationed at the Limes Arabicus on the Gulf of Aqaba) to deep in the Scottish Highlands (where the Antonine Wall bisected the British Isle from the Firth of Forth to the Irish Sea).

Stunning really. Just look at the world today, fragmented, at odds, in retreat, and contrast that with a world (equally as barbaric of course as anything we know today) where such a broad swathe of humanity looked to Caesar in Rome, for better or for worse.

These things are known. We also know that the influence of the Empire stretched far beyond the imperial borders. Rome’s merchants actively traded with far flung lands, down the African coast, to Yemen, India and even to Asia where the Roman presence has been well documented (where, for example, a splendid piece of Roman glass was uncovered last year in an ancient Japanese burial mound).

Yet a find announced this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals the discovery of skeletons in an ancient Roman cemetery in South location-of-southwark-cemetery-on-lant-streetLondon – the Roman’s Londinium – that appear to have belonged to two men of Chinese origins – proves that the Romans retain the ability to surprise.

Chinese in Londinium in the 2nd Century! Moreover, two additional skeletons of African descent were also found in the same small cemetery after sampling dental enamel from 20 sets of human remains from between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they travel there of their own free will, or as soldiers or slaves (or as the native born descendants of any of the above)? These questions remain unanswered skeleton-lant-street-teenager-museum-londonthough scientists and archaeologists continue to explore little Southwark, mere steps away from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The City of London is known as a cosmopolitan place and much was made of immigration in the recent debate over Brexit, as immigration is being discussed in much of the Western world. The argument goes that the City was once a certain, way, and then immigration changed the fundamental nature of things. These skeletons provide an interesting wrinkle that will not change the discussion but perhaps it should.

Here we have proof that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans were able to create and sustain a world in which travelers from the opposite side of the planet could comfortably travel and did so, from China (which the Romans knew as Serica, its people as Seres) to Londinium. The find also weakens the previously held view that Roman-era London was a parochial, homogeneous place.

It would appear that London has been cosmopolitan ever since it was Londinium, back in the mists of time.

And that seems something to celebrate.

For more on this find see the following link:…/chinese-skeleton-discovery-r…

News of a Tyrant in Jerusalem.

nero-in-jerusalemArchaeologists digging on Mount Zion just unearthed a truly beautiful Roman coin, exceptionally rare both for its quality, condition and the era in which it
was minted (and lost).

The coin (see below) depicts the Emperor Nero, the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was estimated to have been minted and buried in approximately 56CE, just over a decade before Jerusalem was leveled by the
Romans during the devastating Revolt. The coin was unearthed on the grounds of a private villa that was sat on the slopes of Mount Zion and that was almost certainly razed during the subsequent destruction of the city by the Roman Army as the team of archaeologists from the University of North mount-zion-2Carolina who said:

“This mansion and others like it were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground,” he said. “It is likely
– owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin – [that] it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.”

A coin of this quality is very rarely found and it is particularly interesting mount-ziongiven the fact that it points to the Romans’ presence in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70CE).

For more on this discovery see this link to the Jerusalem Post.

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 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.

Caesar’s Gold, A Murder Mystery in Sweden

On a windswept island twenty times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Sweden, investigators are scouring a crime scene for clues, to understand who was behind a terrifying massacre whose details are only now coming to light. Yellow crime scene tape circles the remains of homes, and the remains of their former inhabitants, under a slate grey sky. Many dozens of people, Sandy-Borg-Excavations-CISmen, women and children fell victim to a horrendous attack on the island. Most remarkable is that the dastardly attackers had to overcome towering fifteen foot stone walls capped with battlements and manned by some of the most fearsome warriors Europe has ever known to commit their crime.

So what does it have to do with Rome?

To begin with, this attack happened some 1,500 years ago.Oland Map

And the investigators that even now study this dark deed are archaeologists from Kalmar County Museum, located on the mainland just across from the island.

As described in Archaeology Magazine (link to the full article below):

“Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire.”

But there is more “Rome” in this story than simply the time period in which Sandby Borg was devastated by unknown assailants. Again quoting from Archaeology Magazine:

“Archaeological excavations and chance finds [on Öland] have turned up hundreds of Roman coins, bronze statues, glass beads, and vessels dating to
the first four centuries A.D., when Öland had extensive contact with the Roman Empire. As the empire began to decline, Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and Öland found that a set of skills different from what they had sharpened before was now in demand. They had traveled thousands of miles south between a.d. 350 and 500 to work as mercenary bodyguards for the last of the Roman emperors, who paid well to guarantee their loyalty. Ölanders had long brought their wages back to the windswept Baltic island in the form of Roman solidi, gold coins commonly issued in the late empire. The solidi found on the island are distinctive, matching dies that have been uncovered in Rome. “A lot of them are very fresh, in mint condition,” Victor says, without the characteristic wear of coins that have been passed from hand to hand in trade. “There’s a direct link to Rome, and later to Milan and Arles.”

Stones at Oland

So this long, exposed island was populated by retired bodyguards that had enriched themselves in service of Caesar, the last Caesars to rule the Western Empire. And when they were released from duty they returned home with the gold that they had accumulated and they stashed that wealth in homes with turf walls that they raised behind massive stone fortifications knowing that word would spread of their wealth. That their hard won wages would prove to great a temptation in their horrendously violent age.

And that concern would prove to be terribly prescient.

Caesar’s bodyguards, and their families, fell not long after those protective walls were built.

Their story is dark, and fascinating, and well recounted in Archaeology Magazine for those interested in more..