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Belisarius, The Last Roman General (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1303-1305 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0377

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Flavius Belisarius was the commander of the East Roman (Byzantine) expeditionary forces sent west by the Emperor Justinian with the objective being the recovery of the western provinces lost to the empire during the preceding two centuries. The book being reviewed is a biographical study which investigates the circumstances of the effort from the perspective of the commanding general of the expedition(s). The effort failed in the long run, but did enjoy enough initial success to be regarded as spectacular.

The author, Ian Hughes, has written a concisely comprehensive account of the wars which were part of the attempt, using as the central figure Flavius Belisarius, who by his early thirties had recovered North Africa from the Vandals, as well as having won a brilliant victory over the Sasanid Persians at the Battle of Dara. By the time he reached forty, Belisarius would be on the verge of recovering Italy from the Ostrogoths.

Belisarius was one of a collection of talented commanders in imperial service who carried out the policy of the Emperor of the Romans (Byzantines). Of equal significance, he was a magnetic personality who captured the imagination of his own day and of present day fantasy fiction aficionados. But more to the point, Professor Hughes has chosen Belisarius to serve as the focal point of inquiry into the Justinianic era.

This leads Hughes to providing an account of the salient features/characteristics of the age. Very carefully and concisely, the investigation moves into an account of the evolution of the imperial army from a basically Mediterranean recruited heavy infantry force to one modeled after the steppe nomad armies of the Huns and other horse archer tribes. The engineering warfare of the legions was replaced by archery fire power and the mobility of a horseman. The steppe tribes not only served as a model to be emulated, they provided recruits for the army.

This particular investigation of the Byzantine military system is replicated with similar accounts of the “barbarian” and Persian military systems. In each case a summary of the political and economic framework is provided with an emphasis on how Belisarius was affected. The Nika Riots which nearly brought down Justinian’s government provide an example of how Belisarius was politically involved. His troops were the principal agents of suppression. The role of the Empress Theodora and her ties to Antonina, Belisarius’s wayward spouse, provides another example of how a military career could be affected by court intrigues.

The conduct of military operations is presented clearly with clarifying accompaniment by strategic maps and tactical diagrams which are particularly useful. A strong point is made of Belisarius’s success in gaining the support of the reconquered population by controlling his troops and insisting on restraint in treating civilians. A policy not followed by his successors. The question of numbers is dealt with as the sources permit and commonsense supports. The ancients’ tendency to exaggerate the numbers, particularly of the “barbarians,” is notorious. Hughes shows a healthy skepticism when the numbers become fantastic. He carefully uses the constants of logistics and demographics to establish a measure of reality to the size of armies and magnitude of losses. At the same time he provides concise accounts of the “barbarian” successor states in the West. The failure of the Vandal state and the limited success of the Gothic polity are considered as part of the work of the Reconquests. The result is a comprehensive picture of the protagonists in the wars.

Hughes is a sympathetic biographer and clearly regards Belisarius as a brilliant commander, but he is aware of his subject’s flaws. At Callinicum and other unnamed battles on the eastern frontier Belisarius was defeated by the Persians and displayed an inability to effectively control his unruly troops. Hughes’s careful analysis fixes responsibility and Belisarius does not escape being held responsible in whole or in part for failure or defeat. Belisarius’s failure in Italy after 541 is accounted for by the impact of the plague and inadequate numbers of troops. No reference is made to the impact of the Avar takeover of the western steppe.

A significant factor is that Procopius is, on the whole, a sympathetic...

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