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Bill Thayer

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Book V
Chapter 20

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon 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 21

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Note D

On the alleged Blindness and Beggary of Belisarius

For a full discussion of this often-debated question I must refer my readers to Lord Mahon's Life of Belisarius (pp441‑473) and Finlay's History of Greece (vol. I pp429‑431, ed. 1877). It will be sufficient here to indicate the chief points in this controversy, which is a somewhat peculiar one, inasmuch as we have —

A. No first-rate contemporary evidence.

B. One second-rate authority against the popular story; and,

C. Two third- or fourth-rate authorities for it.

A. Of contemporary notices of the last years of Belisarius there is a disappointing deficiency. Procopius, of whose own death-year we are ignorant (all that we know for certain being that he lived after 559), seems to have written his two latest works, the De Aedificiis and the Anecdota, in 558 or 559 (see Dahn's Procopius von Caesarea, pp38‑39), and therefore of course makes no mention of the events of 563.

Agathias lived to a considerably later period, and died (if Niebuhr's view be correct) about 582. His history, however, closes with the war between the two tribes of Huns in 559, and consequently he has no opportunity of telling us directly what happened to Belisarius three years later. Some readers may think that if so terrible a reverse of fortune as the popular story indicates had happened to the hero whose deeds he commemorates, some indirect allusion would have been made to it by Agathias: but that is only an argument e silentio, and not a very powerful one of its kind.

The chroniclers who have in their dry way given us so much useful information as to the events of the fifth and sixth centuries, now begin to fail us. Marcellinus Comes gives us no facts after 558. Victor Tunnunensis brings his work down to 565, but is so absorbed in the controversy about the Three Chapters that he can hardly speak of anything else.

 p537  The Chronicon Paschale is almost a complete blank for the last thirteen years of the reign of Justinian. Malalas, who tells the story of the disgrace of Belisarius in nearly the same words as Theophanes, stops short at January, 563, and therefore could say nothing about the restoration of Belisarius to favour. But the very measured terms in which he speaks of the General's disgrace ('and the same Belisarius remained under the Imperial displeasure')​1 must be taken, upon the whole, as showing that he had not heard or did not believe the story of the blindness and the beggary.

B. In default of all contemporary and nearly contemporary evidence we consult the Chronographia of Theophanes, from whom is derived the account of the last years of Belisarius which is given in the text. That account seems coherent and probable, and there is a minuteness of detail about it which suggests that here, as in so many other parts of his work, Theophanes is copying from some register of events kept by persons who were contemporary with the actions which they record. (In the precision of his dates, the strange want of arrangement of his facts, and the general absence of polished style, Theophanes reminds one of the hypothetical document known as the Annals of Ravenna.)

Still, the date of Theophanes is a late one (758‑816). He was separated by an interval of at least two centuries from the events with which we are concerned. His own historical knowledge was confused and often inaccurate. If any better authority could be produced against him he would be put out of court at once.

C. But the only authorities on the other side are much inferior to Theophanes. They are —

(1) The anonymous author of Antiquitates Constantino­politanae; and,

(2) Joannes Tzetzes.

(1) From the anonymous writer's panegyrics of Alexius Comnenus it is inferred that he was a contemporary of that Emperor, who reigned from 1081 to 1118. The very end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century is thus the earliest date that can be assigned to this writer, who is therefore three centuries  p538 later than Theophanes. His work is reprinted in Banduri's Imperium Orientale, which is generally included in the series of the Byzantine Historians. In a slight and superficial notice of Justinian and Belisarius (p7, ed. Paris) he says that Justinian, struck with admiration for the great deeds of Belisarius, erected to him an equestrian statue. 'But afterwards moved by envy towards that most eminent commander, he dug out his eyes and ordered that he should be seated at the [Monastery of the] Laurel, and that they should give him an earthenware vessel for the passers‑by to throw pennies into it.' (Ὃς ὕστερον φθονήσας τῷ ῥηθέντι στρατηγικωτάτῳ Βελισαρίῳ ἐξώρυξε τούτου τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς, καὶ προσέταξε τοῦτον καθεσθῆναι εἰς τὰ Λαύρου, καὶ ἐπιδοῦναι αὐτῷ σκεῦος ὀστράκινον, καὶ ἐπιρρίπτειν αὐτῷ τοὺς διερχομένους ὀβολόν.)2

(2) Joannes Tzetzes, a grammarian, lived at Constantinople about the middle of the twelfth century. He is described to us​3 (for I cannot claim any acquaintance with him at first hand) as a man of wide reading and some superficial cleverness, but devoid of taste or sound judgment, puffed up with self-conceit, and in fact a literary coxcomb. Among his poems, which, as he says, he wrote with the speed of lightning, is one which Tzetzes himself called 'An Historical Book,' but which is now more generally known by the name of the Chiliades, from its division into portions of one thousand lines each. This poem is written in a semi-accentual iambic rhythm, and consists of a mass of mythological and historical tales, told from memory, for Tzetzes swept all sorts of materials into his service, and had read everything. In this strange farrago occur the following lines (III.334‑348): —

Οὗτος ὁ Βελισάριος ὁ στρατηγὸς ὁ μέγας

Ἰουστινιανείοις ὢν ἐν χρόνοις στρατηλάτης

Πρὸς πᾶσαν τετραμέρειαν γῆς ἐφαπλώσας νίκας.

Ὕστερον Φθόνῳ τυφλωθείς, ὦ τύχης τῆς ἀστάτου,

Ἔκπωμα ξύλινον κρατῶν, ἐβόα τῷ μιλίῳ

Βελισαρίῳ ὀβολὸν δότε τῷ στρατηλάτῃ.

Ὃν τύχη μὲν ἐδόξασεν, ἀποτυφλοῖ δ’ ὁ φθόνος.

Ἄλλοι φασὶ τῶν χρονικῶν, μὴ τυφλωθῆναι τοῦτον,

Ἐξ ἐπιτίμων δ’ ἄτιμον ἐσχάτως γεγονέναι

Καὶ πάλιν εἰς ἀνάκλησιν δόξης ἐλθεῖν προτέρας.

 p539  These lines may be thus translated: —

'This Belisar a mighty general was,

Who, in the times when great Justinian reigned,

In every quarter of the world won fame.

But afterwards, O Fortune! fickle queen!

By envious tongues traduced, with blinded eyes,

He needs must hold a wooden bowl and cry,​4

"To General Belisar give an obol, pray.

Him Fortune favoured, Envy hath made blind."

Other historians say this was not so:

He ne'er was blinded, but his rank he lost,

And after gained the power he had before.'

Such a statement, coming from such a writer and with the qualifying lines at the end, does not seem to possess any great authority. But all the important evidence is now before the reader, and he can form his own judgment. For my part, notwithstanding Lord Mahon's gallant attempt to restore the credit of the 'Date obolum' story, I side with the majority of those who have examined the subject, and pronounce the story not absolutely disproved, but in the highest degree improbable.

The Author's Notes:

1 Καὶ ἔμεινεν ὁ αὐτὸς Βελισάριος ὑπὸ ἀγανάκτησιν.

2 The credit of observing this, which is perhaps the most important piece of evidence on behalf of the popular story, is due to Lord Mahon.

3 In Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography.

4 Τῷ μιλίῳ I have left untranslated. Does it mean sitting by the milestone? Or is it a corruption from τῷ ὁμίλῳ, 'To the crowd'?

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Page updated: 31 May 20