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Bill Thayer

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Book V
Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book V
Chapter 18

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter XVII

The Return of Belisarius


Sources: —

For the private life of Belisarius, the Anecdota or Historia Arcana of Procopius, cap. IV (pp30‑36).º As before said, this book, though almost certainly a genuine work of Procopius, must be used with caution on account of the tone of rancorous hostility to Antonina and Theodora and their husbands, which pervades the whole of it.

For the plague at Constantinople (542), the De Bello Persico of the same author, II.22‑23 (pp249‑259).

At the point where we left the narrative of the fight for the possession of Italy the struggle had been proceeding for nine years. We had reached the spring months of 544. Totila, in the two years and a‑half of his kingship, had beaten the Imperial generals in two pitched battles on land, and in one engagement by sea had opened to himself the Flaminian Way by the capture of Petra Pertusa, could march freely from one end of Italy to the other, had taken Naples and Benevento, and was threatening the southern port of Otranto. The Roman generals, without concert or courage or care for their master's interests, were shut up in Rome, in Ravenna, in Spoleto, and a few other still untaken strongholds, more intent on plundering  p444 the wretched Italians than on defending the Imperial cause.

Justinian decides to send back Belisarius to Italy. At this point of the struggle the Emperor, with a heavy heart, recognised the truth of what all his subjects had doubtless for many months been saying, that the only hope of saving any part of his Italian conquests lay in employing the man who had first effected them. Belisarius, now no longer Master of the Soldiery, but only Count of the Sacred Stable, was to be relieved from the comparatively useless work of superintending the Imperial stud and sent to reconquer Italy.

The unhappiness of Belisarius. But the Belisarius who came back to the peninsula in 544 to measure swords with Totila was a different man from the triumphant and popular hero who had sailed away from Ravenna in the spring of the year 540. First came the certainty of Antonina's unfaithfulness, the attempt to punish her, the sacrifice of his brave helper Photius, the unworthy and hollow show of reconciliation forced upon him by the imperious Theodora; a reconciliation which left husband and wife still strangers to one another, rival and hostile powers though dwelling in the same palace. These events, the bitter fruit of the year 541, had already aged and saddened Belisarius. 542 Then in the year 542 he lost even the semblance of his master's favour, and became an utterly broken and ruined man. Plague of Constantinople. It was in that year that a pestilence, one of the most terrible that have ever devastated the East, visited Constantinople. It arose in Egypt, and in its leisurely course sought out and ravaged every corner of the Roman and Persian worlds, not sparing the new barbarian kingdoms. For four months it hung heavily over  p445 Constantinople, the number of deaths rising at one time to five thousand daily. The markets were deserted, all ordinary crafts were abandoned, the cares of tending the patients in their terrible delirium and of burying the dead overtaxed the energies of their unstricken relatives. The work of burial had at length to be undertaken by the Emperor, who employed all the household troops for the purpose. Even so, it was impossible to dig graves fast enough to supply the terrible demand, and at length they were satisfied with stacking the corpses in a large and deserted fortress, which was roughly roofed over when it would hold no more. A sickening odour filled all Constantinople when the wind happened to set towards the city from this horrible charnel-house.

Justinian stricken by the pestilence. Justinian himself was one of those who were struck down by this terrible pestilence, and for a time it seemed that he, like the great majority of those attacked, would fall a victim to the disease. The situation of Theodora was full of peril. The victims of her cruelty and avarice had left avengers who were all eager for her blood. Anxiety of Theodora. The life of that weak, plague-stricken, probably delirious patient was all that intervened between her and death at the hands of an infuriated populace; unless, indeed — and this seemed the desperate woman's only chance of retaining life and power — the imminent death of her husband could be concealed long enough to give her time to assemble the senate in the palace, and to have some pliant nephew, or some popular general, who would promise to make her his wife, clothed in the purple and presented to the Romans in the amphitheatre as the new Augustus.

 p446  Such were the calculations of Theodora, as, under that form of government, they were sure to be the more or less avowed calculations of every ambitious and childless Empress. The army restless. There was still, however, the army to be reckoned with, that supposed embodiment of the Roman people in arms by which in old time the title Imperator had been exclusively conferred. The Eastern army was jealous and uneasy. A rumour reached it that Justinian was already dead: and at a hastily-summoned military council some generals were heard to mutter that if a new Emperor was made at Constantinople without their consent they would not acknowledge him.

Recovery of Justinian. Suddenly the whole aspect of affairs was changed by the unlooked‑for recovery of Justinian. The ulcer, which was the characteristic mark of the disease, probably began to suppurate freely, and the other dangerous symptoms abated: such, at least Procopius tells us, was the almost invariable course of the malady in the small number who recovered. Mutual accusations of the generals. Now were all other voices hushed in a chorus of servile loyalty to Justinian and Theodora; and the officers who had been present at that dangerous council hastened to clear themselves of suspicion by each accusing some one else of treason to the present occupants of the throne. Two parties soon declared themselves. On the one side were John surnamed the Glutton, and Peter;​1 on the other, Belisarius and a general named Buzes, a greedy and self-seeking man, but one who had held the high offices of Consul and Magister Militum per Orientem.

Vengeance of Theodora; Theodora ordered all the generals to repair to the capital, caused a strict enquiry to be made into the  p447 proceedings at the so‑called treasonable council, and decided, whether rightly or wrongly we cannot say, that Belisarius and Buzes had acted in opposition to her interests. on Buzes. Her vengeance on Buzes was swift and terrible. Summoning him to the women's apartments in the palace, as if she had some important tidings to communicate, she ordered him to be bound and conveyed to one of her secret dungeons. 'Dark, labyrinthine, and Tartarean,' says Procopius, were the under­ground chambers in which she immured her victims. Here, in utter darkness, unable to distinguish day from night, with no employment to divert his thoughts, dwelt for twenty-eight months the former Consul and Master of the Host. Once a day a servant entered the prison, forbidden to hear or utter a word, and cast his food down before the captive 'as to a dumb brute, dumb as a brute himself.' Thus he remained, men generally supposing him to be dead and not daring to mention his name, till Theodora, taking pity on his misery, in the third year of his imprisonment released him from his living tomb. Men looked upon him with awe, as if he had been the ghost of Buzes. His sight was gone and his health was broken, but we hear of him again, three years after his liberation, as commanding armies and as a person of importance at the Imperial court.2

Disgrace of Belisarius. As for Belisarius, it was not thought desirable to proceed to such extreme lengths in his punishment, and there was probably even less evidence against him  p448 then against Buzes of having discussed the succession to the throne in a treasonable manner. There was, however, a charge, which had been vaguely hanging over him for years, of having appropriated to himself the lion's share of the treasures of Gelimer and Witigis, and having brought only a remnant of those treasures into the palace of the Emperor. His recent Eastern campaigns, too, though they had not added greatly to his fame, were reported to have added unduly to his wealth. The law or the custom which regulated the division of such booty was perhaps not very clearly defined, and it might be urged with some reason that such splendid successes as those of Belisarius, achieved against such overwhelming odds, made him an exception to all rules. It is admitted, however, by Procopius that 'his wealth was enormous and worthy of the halls of kings;' and from the way in which the subject is handled by the historian, for so many years his friend and follower, we may fairly infer that this charge was substantially a just one. The chief blot upon the character of Belisarius, as upon the character of the general who in modern times most resembles him, Marlborough, was avarice. Unlike Marlborough, however, he was lavish in the spending, as well as greedy in the getting of money. His avarice was the child of ostentation rather than of mere love of hoarding. To see himself surrounded by the bravest warriors in the world, to look at their glittering armour, to feel that these men were his dependants, and that the world said that his house alone had delivered Rome, this was the thought dearest to the heart of Belisarius. For this he laboured and heaped up treasure, not always perhaps regarding the rule of right.

 p449  Command taken from Belisarius and given to Martin. All this splendour of his, however, was now shattered at a blow. If it was not safe to shut up Belisarius in a Tartarean dungeon, it was safe to disgrace him, and it was done thoroughly. The command of the army of the East was taken from him and given to his old lieutenant, Martin, the same who galloped with Ildiger along the Flaminian Way, bearing the General's message to Rimini, the same who was sent with Uliaris to Milan, and who failed so disgracefully in his mission.

Military household of Belisarius broken up. Not only was the command taken from Belisarius, but, by an unusually high-handed exercise of power,​3 his splendid military household was broken up. All these valiant life-guardsmen, both horse and foot-soldiers,​4 taken from the master whom they had served with such loyal enthusiasm, were divided by lot among the rival generals and the eunuchs of the palace. The glittering armour and gay accoutrements of course went with the wearers. Some portion of the treasure of the chief, that which he had brought home from the Eastern campaign, was conveyed by one of the Empress's eunuchs to her own palace. All the band of devoted friends who had hitherto crowded round the steps of Belisarius were now forbidden even to speak to him. As Procopius, himself no doubt one of these forcibly silenced friends, has said, 'A bitter sight in truth it was, and one that men would have scarce believed possible, to see Belisarius walking about Byzantium as a common man, almost alone,  p450 deep in thought, with sadness in his face, ever fearing death at the hands of an assassin.'

Theodora determines to reconcile Belisarius and Antonina. All this time Antonina dwelt with him in the same house as a stranger, mutual resentment and suspicion separating the hearts that had once been so fondly united. Now came out the better side of Theodora's character in the scheme which she devised to reconcile these two divided souls, and at the same time to repay some part of her debt of gratitude to Antonina by restoring to her the love of her husband. Those who prefer it may accept the theory of Procopius, that the whole humiliation of Belisarius had been contrived by the cruel ingenuity of the Empress for the sole purpose of bringing him helpless and a suppliant to his wife's feet. To me it seems more probable that the disgrace of the General was, at least in appearance, justified by his questionable conduct concerning the treasure; that it was partly caused by the unslumbering jealousy of Justinian, and partly by Theodora's resentment for some incautious words of his at the military council; but that the idea of introdu­cing Antonina's name into the settlement of the dispute, and reconciling Belisarius by one stroke both to his wife and to the Emperor, was due to some unextinguished instinct of good in the heart of the cruel Empress, and should not be set down against her on the page of history.

One morning Belisarius went early to the palace, as was his wont, attended by a few shabbily-dressed followers. Ungracious reception at the palace. The Imperial pair appeared to be in no gracious mood towards him; the valetaille of the palace, taking the cue from their masters, flouted and insulted him. After a day thus drearily spent, dispirited and anxious, he returned to his palace,  p451 looking this way and that, to see from which side the dreaded assassins would rush forth upon him. 'With this horror at his heart he went into his chamber and sat there upon the couch alone, revolving no noble thoughts in his heart, nor remembering the hero that he once had been, but dizzy and perspiring, full of trembling despair, and gnawed with slavish fears and mean anxieties.' So writes Procopius, somewhat forgetful of the difference between physical and moral courage, and, for private reasons of his own, unnecessarily severe on these

'Fears of the brave and follies of the wise.'

Antonina was walking up and down in the atrium, feigning an attack of indigestion, apparently longing to comfort her lord, but too proud to do so unasked. Then, just after sunset, came a messenger from the palace, named Quadratus, who, rapidly crossing the court, stood before the door of the men's apartment and called in a loud voice, 'A message from the Empress.' Belisarius, who made no doubt that this was the bearer of his death-warrant, drew his feet up on the couch and lay there upon his back, with no thought of self-defence, expecting death. His hopes revived at the sight of the letter which Quadratus handed to him, and which ran thus: —

Theodora's letter. 'Theodora Augusta to the Patrician Belisarius.​5

'What you have done to us, good Sir, you know very well. But I, on account of my obligations to your wife, have resolved to cancel all these charges against you for her sake, and to make her a present of your life. Henceforward, then, you may be encouraged  p452 as to the safety of your life and property, but it rests with you to show what manner of husband you will be to her in future.'

A rapacious rapture of joy thrilled the heart of Belisarius as he read these words. The reconciliation. Without waiting for the departure of the messenger he ran forth and fell prostrate before Antonina. He kissed her feet,​6 he clasped her robe; he called her the author of his life and his salvation; he would be her slave, her faithful slave henceforward, and would forget the name of husband. It was unheroic, doubtless, thus to humble himself at the feet of the woman who had so deeply wounded his honour; but it was love, not fear, that made him unheroic. It was not the coward's desire of life, it was the estranged lover's delight in the thought of ended enmity that unmanned Belisarius. For two years he had bitterly felt that

'To be wroth with one we love

Doth work like madness in the brain.'

And now that a power above them both had ended this agony, he forgot the dignity of the Patrician and the General in the almost hysterical rapture of the reconciled husband.

The friends of Belisarius, including Procopius, probably condemned this reconciliation. That reconciliation was an abiding one. Whatever were the later sins of Antonina, we hear no more of discord between her and Belisarius, rather of his infatuation in approving of all her actions. But the friends who had helped the injured husband in his quarrel found themselves the losers by this 'renewing  p453 of love.' Photius, obliged to hide himself in the squalid habit of a monk at Jerusalem, called in vain for aid to his mighty father-in‑law. Procopius probably found his career of promotion stopped by the same disastrous reconciliation, and now began to fashion those periods of terrible invective which were owned to be stored in the under­ground chambers of the Anecdota, mena­cing ruin to the reputations of Antonina, of Theodora, of Justinian, even of the once beloved Belisarius.

Theodora's mode of dealing with the property of Belisarius. Out of the sequestered property of the General the munificent Empress made a present to her husband of thirty hundred-weight of gold (£135,000), restoring the rest to its former owner. In order that her family might become possessed of the rest by ordinary course of law, she began to arrange a marriage between her grandson Anastasius​7 and Belisarius's only daughter Joannina.

Partial restoration of Belisarius to favour. The entreaties of Belisarius that he might be allowed once again to lead the Eastern army against Chosroës were disregarded, partly on account of the remonstrances of Antonina, who passionately declared that she would never again visit those countries in which she had undergone the cruel indignity of arrest and imprisonment. The 'respectable' but not 'illustrious' office of 'Count of the Sacred Stable' was conferred upon him, to show that he was again received into some measure of Imperial favour. When it became more and more clear that the divided  p454 and demoralised generals in Italy would never make head against Totila, the Emperor graciously assigned him the task of repairing all the blunders that had been committed in that land since he left it four years previously. At the same time a promise (so it is said) was exacted from him that he would ask for no money from the Imperial treasury for the war, but would provide for its whole equipment at his own expense. Thus feebly supported by his master, with his splendid band of household troops dispersed among the eunuchs of the palace, with his own spirit half broken by all the sorrows and humiliations of recent years, he was not likely to threaten the security of Justinian, nor to be heard of as Emperor of the West. Whether this needy and heart-broken man would cope effectually in war with the young and gallant Totila was another question, and one which will be answered in the following chapters.

The Author's Notes:

1 We do not hear of this officer in the Italian wars.

2 De Bello Gotthico, III.32 and 34 (pp415, 426). Possibly Theodora's death, which happened in 548, may have been the reason of his being fully restored to favour. I suspect that Procopius has exaggerated the horrors of the imprisonment of Buzes.

3 Unless there was some sort of action 'de rebus repetundis' under which these proceedings were taken.

Thayer's Note: Legal remedies to recover embezzled money. See the article Repetundae in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

4 Δορυφόροι καὶ ὑπασπισταί. It seems probable from this passage in Procopius that many of these were slaves, bought young by Belisarius and trained to the use of arms.

5 The superscription is conjectural.

6 Χειρὶ μὲν ἑκατέρᾳ περιλαβὼν αὐτῆς ἄμφω τὰς κνήμας, τὴν δὲ γλῶσσαν ἀεὶ τῶν ταρσῶν τῆς γυναικὸς μεταβιβάζων is the ridiculous exaggeration of Procopius, who describes the whole scene of the reconciliation in a spirit of absolute cynicism.

7 Ἀναστασίῳ τῷ τῆς βασιλίδος θυγατριδῷ. Alemannus in his notes to the Anecdota (p357, ed. Bonn) thinks that this was the son of a legitimate daughter of Justinian and Theodora. It seems to me more probable that the mother of Anastasius was an illegitimate daughter of Theodora born before her marriage with Justinian.

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