Belisarius (505-565) was probably the greatest general of the Byzantine Empire. He is not very well known today, but this is due more to a lack of attention to Byzantine history than to his skill and accomplishments, which were matched by few, if any, military commanders.
Early life and career
Belisarius was born in Germane, Illyria (modern day Yugoslavia), though we are not sure of the exact date. He entered the Byzantine army as a young man and seems to have risen to the rank of general during the reign of the emperor Justin I. Following Justin I's death in 527, the new emperor, Justinian I, gave Belisarius command of part of his army and sent the general east to deal with skirmishes on the Persian border. His novel disposition of troops and territory initially bewildered the opposing generals, and he easily repelled their initial forays and ended up routing the much larger Persian army. In June, 530 he led the Byzantines to a victory over the Persians at Dara, followed by a near defeat (really a mutual escape) at Callinicum on the Euphrates River in 531, followed by the negotiation of an "Endless Peace" with the Persians.
In 532, he was the ranking military officer in the capital of Constantinople when the Nika riots (among factions of chariot racing fans) broke out in the city and nearly toppled the emperor Justinian I. Belisarius, with the help the magister militum of Illyria, Mundus, suppressed the rebellion in a bloodbath that is said to have claimed the lives of 20,000 people.
Campaigns against the Vandals
For his efforts, Belisarius was rewarded by Justinian with the command of a great land and sea expedition against the Kingdom of the Vandals. The Vandal king Gelimer had recently offended Justinian by deposing and imprisoning the Vandal king Hilderic, and Justinian coveted the Kingdom's territory (much of the northern coast of Africa) in any event; while barbarian tribes held both Africa and Italy, Byzantium had little access to the western Mediterranean. In the late summer of 533, Belisarius sailed to Africa and landed near the city of Lepcis Magna, from which he marched along the coastal highway toward the Vandal capital of Carthage.
Ten miles from Carthage, the forces of Gelimer (who had just executed Hilderic) and Belisarius finally met at the Battle of Ad Decimium (Tenth Milestone). It nearly turned into a devastating defeat for the Byzantines; Gelimer had chosen his position well and had great success against the opposing forces along the main road. However, when on the verge of victory, he became distraught upon learning of the death of his nephew in battle. This gave Belisarius a chance to regroup, and he went on to win the battle and capture Carthage. A second victory at the Battle of Ticameron later in the year resulted in Gelimer's surrender early in 534 at Mt. Papua, permitting the lost Roman provinces of north Africa to be restored to the empire. Belisarius was given a triumph in Constantinople in 534.
Campaigns against the Ostrogoths
Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the western Roman Empire as he could. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths. Again, he chose well, as Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then crossed into Italy proper, where he captured Naples and Rome in 536 and then moved north, taking Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540.
At this point Justinian offered the Goths a generous settlement, too generous by far in Belisarius' eyes: the right to maintain an independent kingdom in the Northwest of Italy, with the requirement that they merely give half of all their treasure to the empire. Belisarius conveyed the message to the Goths, although he himself refrained from endorsing it. The Goths, on the other hand, felt that there must be a snare somewhere. They didn't trust Justinian, but because Belisarius had been so well-mannered in his conquest they had more faith in him and agreed to the terms on the condition that Belisarius endorsed it. This led to an impasse.
Some enterprising Goth pointed out that their own king, who had just lost, was something of a weakling, and they would need a new one. He endorsed Belisarius, and the rest of the kingdom agreed, so they offered him their crown. Belisarius was a soldier, not a statesman, and still loyal to Justinian. He pretended to accept the offer, rode to Ravenna to be crowned, and promptly arrested the leaders of the Goths and reclaimed their entire kingdom - no halfway settlement - for Byzantium.
Justinian was furious. The Persians had been attacking in the east, and he wanted a stable neutral country separating his western border from the Franks, who were unfriendly. Belisarius returned expecting honours; he was coldly received and sent off to the eastern frontier. Persia had already broken the Eternal Peace treaty and overrun Syria, a crucial province of the empire. Belisarius took the field and waged a brief, inconclusive campaign against them, but ultimately (545) was able to negotiate a peace (aided with payment of a large sum of money, 5000 pounds of gold), in which the Persians agreed not to attack Roman territory, not for eternity, but for five years. It is interesting that in the meantime (542) the bubonic plague had broken out in Constantinople for the first time in history, spreading through Europe.
Belisarius then returned to Italy, where he found the situation had changed greatly. In 541 the Ostrogoths had elected a new leader, known to history as Totila, and this brilliant commander had recaptured all of northern Italy and even driven the Byzantines out of Rome. Belisarius took the offensive, tricked Totila into yielding Rome along the way, but then lost it again after a jealous Justinian, fearful of Belisarius' power, starved him of supplies and reinforcements. Belisarius was forced to go on the defensive, and in 548, Justinian relieved him in favor of Narses, of whom he was more trustful.
His later life and campaigns
However, Belisarius was too valuable to leave on the shelf, and Justinian called upon him again in 559, when the Bulgars crossed the Danube River for the first time and raided Byzantine territory. Belisarius accepted the command, defeated the Bulgars, and drove them back across the river. It was his last victory.
In 562, Belisarius stood trial in Constantinople on a charge of corruption. The charge was likely trumped-up, and modern research suggests that his bitter enemy, his former secretary Procopius of Caesarea, the author of the Secret History, may have judged his case. Belisarius was found guilty and imprisoned. However, not long after the conviction, Justinian pardoned him, ordered his release, and restored him to favor at the imperial court.
Fittingly, Belisarius and Justinian, whose sometimes strained partnership doubled the size of the empire, died within a few weeks of one another in 565.
Belisarius in fiction
The life of Belisarius was the subject of the historical novel Count Belisarius (1938) by noted classical scholar Robert Graves. This book, ostensibly written from the viewpoint of the eunuch Eugenius, servant to Belisarius' wife (and based on the actual history thereby), portrays Belisarius as a solitary honorable man in a corrupt world, and paints a vivid picture of not only his startling military feats but also the colorful characters and events of his day (such as the savage Hippodrome politics of the Constantinople chariot races, which regularly escalated to open street battles between fans of opposing factions, or the intrigue between the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora).
Belisarius was also featured in Belisario, an opera by Gaetano Donizetti.
Belisarius is a main character of the Belisarius series of science fiction novels by Eric Flint and David Drake, an alternate history exploring what might have happened if Belisarius (and a rival) were granted knowledge of future events and technologies.
Isaac Asimov, who was very familiar with Roman history, seems to have loosely based the character of General Bel Riose, "The Last Great General" of the late Galactic Empire in the Foundation Series, on Belisarius.