The military commander known as ‘the last of the Romans’
Flavius Belisarius is a name well known to those interested in the conflicts of the later Roman Empire at the time of Justinian I. The Roman Empire of the west had fallen and the emperor of Byzantine Empire in the east, centred on Constantinople, dreamed of recovering by conquest the Mediterranean territories that had been lost. The ambition was a colossal one, but Belisarius was undoubtedly the military commander for the task. Having won his first laurels against the Persians, he went on to fight the Vandals and Ostrogoths, and eventually captured Rome itself. At the time of his death in 565 AD the empire he served had expanded its territory by almost half. This unique Leonaur book contains two interesting accounts of the life, campaigns and battles of this great general.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Belisarius now commanded the archers to let fly, taking aim at the oxen only. In a few moments these animals fell lifeless to the ground, and the military engines remained immovable at an useless distance from the walls. In this manner the laborious preparations of Vitiges were baffled, and he now considered it advisable to alter his original plan. Leaving a large share of his forces under experienced officers, to continue the assault on the Salarian gate, and thereby still engage Belisarius in that quarter; he resolved to attempt the city on two other points nearly opposite to each other, and thus weaken by extending the feeble line of the Roman garrison.
For this purpose he undertook the Praenestine gate for his personal station, and dispatched other troops to the Tuscan bank, to storm the ancient sepulchre of Hadrian, the modern castle of St. Angelo. This structure, one of the most singular and striking which even Rome can display, and by turns a tomb, a fortress, or a prison, has undergone almost as various vicissitudes of fortune as the surrounding city. From the age of Belisarius to the present scarcely any domestic tumult at Rome appears to have occurred in which this castle has not born an important part, and it has often retarded, though rarely prevented, surrender to a public enemy. In its present condition, the new fortifications at its base, the vast and rugged mass of peperine stone which rises from them, and the unwieldy angel of Flemish origin, by which the whole is surmounted, no longer bear the slightest resemblance to the fabric which Procopius has described.
At that time the base was square, and the circular mole above it was cased in large blocks of Parian marble, closely fitted into each other without the assistance of cement. Its breadth is expressed by the vague comparison of a stone’s throw, and of its height we are only told that it overtopped the neighbouring ramparts. Its summit appeared peopled with statues of beautiful sculpture and colossal size, some of them equestrian, and all composed of the same white marble which adorned the rest of the building. This monument stood without the walls, but, as it appeared a convenient bulwark, it had formerly (probably in the time of Alaric) been connected with them by lateral ramparts. Its command on this day had been entrusted by Belisarius to Constantine, but this officer, apprehending an attack on some other point, had imprudently hastened thither, leaving the sepulchre of Hadrian defended merely by a handful of soldiers.
In the meanwhile the Gothic troops advanced against it beneath the arcades and porticoes of the neighbouring church of St. Peter, which held the same site as the present unrivalled basilic, but which, at that time, was not enclosed within the circuit of the walls. By its useful shade the barbarians were concealed till close at hand, when they were seen rushing forwards, provided with ladders to scale the ramparts, and with large shields to intercept the missiles of the Romans.
Their unexpected appearance struck the garrison with consternation. Their shields precluded the effect of arrows, their closeness the use of the balista. Already had they applied their ladders to the castle, and were ascending its walls; already were the besieged on the verge of despair and defeat, when the aspect of the statues around them suggested a new resource. They broke these precious monuments of art, now less important from their workmanship than from their materials, and each soldier raising a massy fragment with both hands hurled it on the heads of the assailants. Overwhelmed with a sculptured quarry, the Goths gave way, the courage of the Romans revived, and their attempt, amidst loud shouts, to play their-military engines, completed the dismay of the barbarians. They fled with precipitation: Constantine, just returned with his troops, made a vigorous sally, and Rome was rescued on the very point of capture. The citizens may, with a pardonable superstition, have regarded this triumph as a last benefit from their ancient heroes, whose very emblems appeared to arise as guardians and preservers of the city.
Meanwhile the Gothic monarch, in person, was attacking the Praenestine gate with such vigour, that Bessas, who commanded in this station, found it necessary to solicit immediate aid from the general. On receiving this message, Belisarius redoubled his exertions at the Salarian gate, and having succeeded in driving back the barbarians was enabled to quit the post which his valour had secured. With the flower of all his forces he hastened to the relief of his lieutenant. On his arrival he found the soldiers much disheartened, and their situation very critical. The Vivarium, which the enemy were battering with their smaller engines, was an enclosure serving to confine wild animals for the public games, and consisting of an angle in the ramparts, across which the ancient Romans had built a low bulwark.
Thus, therefore, the walls were double in this place, but they had been less strongly built than in any other quarter, and from some natural defect in the bricks were now full of fissures. Belisarius perceived that to defend the external wall any longer was impossible, but he devised a scheme to render its loss harmless and even advantageous. Withdrawing the troops from this outwork, he stationed them at the foot of the inner wall, and commanded them to cast aside all arms but their swords for close combat.
As soon as the Goths had broken through the feeble barrier, and rushed by tumultuous crowds into the confined space of the Vivarium, they found themselves unexpectedly encountered by a furious charge of the Romans. In such narrow limits their very multitude proved injurious to them, and rendered them equally incapable of resistance or of flight. Pent in like sheep for slaughter, and overwhelmed with missiles from above while closely pressed from below, the greater part were easily dispatched. Not satisfied with this success, Belisarius forthwith cast open the neighbouring gates, sounded the trumpets, and sallied forth with all the forces around him. The previous disaster of the Goths and their consequent confusion. The consternation of their flight was augmented by his firing the machinery with which they had expected to conquer Rome, and the flames rapidly spread through the wood-work of which it was composed. Another sally at this decisive moment was directed by Belisarius from the Salarian gate, the Goths in this quarter also were put to flight, and their engines reduced to ashes. Great numbers of the enemy fell in the battle, still more in the pursuit, and the relentless carnage was continued till the night. By the confession of their own officers (so at least says Procopius) thirty thousand Goths were slain in this memorable battle, and the amount of wounded was hardly less considerable.