2018-08-22 / Features

In The Footsteps of Byzantium: Belisarius, The Last of the Romans

By Catherine Tsounis
“For not by numbers of men, nor by measure of body, but by valor of soul is war to be decided.”- Belisarius, Byzantine General under Emperor Justinian 1

Belisarius (left) of his Emperor Justinian (center), who he remained loyal to the end.
Belisarius (left) of his Emperor Justinian (center), who he remained loyal to the end. "Belisarius, help the tourist”, said an administrator at the Parthenon Hotel, Athens Greece. “I was named after my grandfather Belisarius from the island of Evia,” the young, vibrant man said with a smile. 2018 Greeks still hold on to their Byzantine names. Byzantine General Belisarius of the Justinian Age 527-565 AD demonstrated that military skill and discipline could enable small armies to win remarkable victories. As one of the last important figures in the Roman military tradition, he led imperial armies against the Sasanian empire (Persia), the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, the Ostrogothic regime of Italy, and the barbarian tribes encroaching upon Constantinople.2       

The Justinian Mosaic panel in the Basilica of St. Vitale show us the physical appearance of Belisarius. He was born in the Roman province of Illyria of peasant stock. His face is oval, with large brown eyes, long nose, that is seen in Roman Greek art. He was a Roman, not a Slav: The Last Romans” of that military tradition.

“Flavius Belisarius (505-565 CE) was born in Illyria (the western part of the Balkan Eastern Roman Byzantine General Belisarius, Basilica of St. Vitale.
Eastern Roman Byzantine General Belisarius, Basilica of St. Vitale. Peninsula) to poor parents and rose to become one of the greatest generals, if not the greatest, of the Byzantine Empire. Belisarius is listed among the notable candidates for the title of `Last of the Romans’ by which is meant the last individual who most perfectly embodies the values of the Roman Empire at its best. He seemed to understand completely when it was necessary to strike and when it was more prudent to heal. Belisarius served under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and, according to the historian Durant: ‘no general since Caesar ever won so many victories with such limited resources of men and funds; few ever surpassed him in strategy or tactics, in popularity with his men and mercy to his foes; perhaps it merits note that the greatest generals – Alexander, Caesar, Belisarius, Saladin, Napoleon – found clemency a mighty engine of war.’”3

“It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. ..And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF? The first thing is that it’s a time when history could have changed, a pivot point, and a very clear one. If the Roman empire could have been reunited, well, everything would have been different!

The second thing is the richness of the sources. There are whole swathes of history where we don’t have any historians. We know things about them because we have archaeology, and inscriptions, and account books and letters and random surviving things, but we do not have contemporary history written as history or memoir by people who were there. For the age of Justinian, we have a history, the work of Procopius. Better, we have two, and both of them are the work of Procopius. We have his official history, with wars, facts, glory, and we have his secret history where he stabs everyone in the back.

Justinian Mosaic, Basilica of St. Vitale.
Justinian Mosaic, Basilica of St. Vitale. The last thing is the one I think is the real reason that this is appealing to us in particular: preventing empires from falling, preserving civilization from dark ages is something that appeals very specifically to science fiction readers. Retelling Belisarius in all these different ways, changing history, changing the end, letting Belisarius win, let people play with stories of staving off the collapse of civilization through a historical analog. Yarbro has Belisarius lose as he did historically, but most of the others have him pull it off one way or another. And historically Byzantium did endure and preserve Greek and Latin texts to be rediscovered in the Renaissance, though many scientific texts were translated into Arabic and preserved through Islamic culture.”4

Ravenna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy. It is a world UNESCO site. Above all, the city represents a shining jewel of the greatness of the Byzantine Age under Justinian. This emperor’s genius was in surrounding himself with persons of extraordinary abilities, such as his wife, the Empress Theodora and General Belisarius, who helped him reunite the East and Western Roman Empires.

Make the effort to go to Ravenna when visiting Northern Italy. I have been to Istanbul, Basilica of St. Vitale.Basilica of St. Vitale.Turkey. It is symbolic, but no longer has the Byzantine Glory that we saw in Ravenna. To be quite frank with my readers, Hagia Sophia  the  former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica  in Istanbul, Turkey was a total disappointment. We are all lucky Hagia Sophia was not destroyed in War that destroys civilizations. 2018 tourists are all indebted to the Catholic Church and Italian government and nation for preserving these treasures for over 1500 years of history. We were lucky to have a knowledgeable guide, Marta Chiera, who showed us the “Glory of Byzantium” . Belisarius is remembered as saying: “The first blessing is peace, as is agreed by all men who have even a small share of reason....The best general, therefore, is that one which is able to bring about peace from war.” 5

All photos by Despina Siolas, MD/Ph.D.
1.     https://izquotes.com/author/belisarius
2.     https://www.britannica.com/biography/Belisarius
3.     https://www.ancient.eu/Belisarius/.
4.     https://www.tor.com/2017/05/23/why-is-genre-fiction-obsessed-with-belisa...

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