Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Fighting in the West and the East

Belisaurus and Narses
Mural of a man believed to be Narses

The Goths now besieged Araminum where five thousand Byzantine troops were ensconced under the leadership of John, nephew of Vitalian[i]. John had refused an order from Belisaurus to join him in Ancona.

‘When John was again despatched to Italy, he dared not go anywhere near Belisaurus for fear of Antonina’s machinations, until that lady was safe in Byzantium. For there was every reason to suspect that the empress had entrusted her with the task of arranging his murder.’[ii]

John was in contact with the estranged wife of the new Ostrogoth leader, Queen Matasuntha. Belisaurus was contemplating his next move when the powerful Narses arrived with reinforcements.

The Grand Chamberlain Narses was one of the most powerful people in the empire. His close proximity to Justinian only increased his influence. But despite his appointment as Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard Narses was not a soldier. So why did the emperor send him? Norwich believes that the emperor was suspicious of Belisaurus’ motives and ambitions. Narses was sent to keep an eye on a potential candidate for the imperial throne.

At a council of war it was agreed that John’s forces at Arminum should be relieved; Narses having indicated that this would be Justinian’s preferred option. Belisaurus put the besieging Ostrogoths to flight within a couple of weeks. He must have been annoyed when John ignored him and attributed his relief solely to the brilliance of Narses. Belisaurus was now aware that a large contingent of his army would follow Narses rather than himself in the event of any disputation between the two.

The army was split into two to mop up the remaining Ostrogoth defences. Milan opened its gates to the Byzantine army and the Ostrogoth king sent a force to regain this largest of the Italian towns. They were joined by ten thousand troops from Burgundy. The relieving force was numerically overwhelmed and refused Belisaurus’s orders, claiming they could only take orders from Narses. Narses’ confirmation came too late; the Milanese had already surrendered. All the male Milanese were put to the sword and the women were enslaved and handed over to the Burgundians in acknowledgement of their support.

One of the side effects of the fall of Milan was Narses’ recall. The mopping up detail was assisted by the appearance of a large Frankish army. The Ostrogoths were attacked by their former allies, who fell on them and large numbers of Goths fled southwards. The Franks also turned on the Byzantine army but fell victim to dysentery.

The Ostrogoths wrote to the Persians suggesting that they strike at the empire, before it could call on the resources of Italy as well. The news of this reached Justinian, who was faced with a dilemma. Should he continue with the conquest of Italy or concentrate his forces to see off the Persian armies. He decided to come to terms with the Ostrogoths and sent ambassadors at the end of 539 AD tasked with reaching agreement. The Ostrogoths demanded that the treaty be signed not only by Justinian’s envoys but also by Belisaurus, who saw the treaty as a betrayal of all he had worked to achieve in the peninsula.

Belisaurus claimed that the treaty was an insult to his soldiers and that victory was only a few weeks away. He refused to append his signature to the treaty. The Ostrogoth king sent a messenger to Belisaurus offering to make him king of the Ostrogoths if he would agree to declaring himself Emperor in the West. Belisaurus appeared to accept the offer saying he would proclaim himself emperor once he had entered his capital as king of the Ostrogoths. The Goths accepted this prevarication and were betrayed when Belisaurus transported their nobility off to Constantinople as prisoners along with the royal treasury. Belisaurus returned to Constantinople in May 540 AD.

War with Persia

Coins of Chosroes reign
In June the troops of King Chosroes of Persia captured Antioch, massacring most of the inhabitants and demolishing the city. His troops had already taken Sura and burned Beroea (Aleppo). Having made off with large amounts of spoils Chosroes offered Justinian peace at a price, which Justinian was prepared to pay; five thousand pounds of gold upfront and an additional five hundred pounds per annum to be added to the annual payment made to the Persians.

‘To Chosroes Justinian handed over vast sums in gold to secure peace’[iii]

Belisaurus had stayed in Constantinople; apparently obsessed with his wife’s infidelity, which Theodora abetted, protecting Antonina. Long time friends, Theodora and Antonina were now bound by the enmity towards John of Cappodocia, who was known to harbour imperial ambitions. Antonina inveigled him into a secret meeting and persuaded him to talk of his plans. Theodora’s hidden spies recorded the conversation and John was arrested, found guilty and stripped of his wealth. He was not mutilated or executed but merely exiled.

‘Antonina, as I have said, had fallen out with her husband, but was an inseparable friend of the empress because she had recently contrived to ruin John the Cappodocian.’[iv]

Chosroes returned the following year, breaching his own peace treaty. The semi-autonomous kingdom of Colchis had been sent a personal representative of Justinian’s. The representative had instituted a number of imperial monopolies and had antagonised the citizens of Colchis. Their king appealed to Chosroes for assistance. Colchis was a poor country, but offered a bridgehead on the Black Sea, from whence expeditions against the Byzantine Empire could be launched.

‘Again, the Persians under Chosroes thrice invaded the rest of the Roman territory and razed the cities to the ground. Of the men and women they captured in the cities that they stormed and in the various country districts, some they butchered, others they carried away with them, leaving the land completely uninhabited wherever they happened to swoop. And from the time when they first invaded Colchis the destruction of the Colchians, the Lazi, and the Romans has continued to this day.’[v]

Chosroes launched an expedition into Lazica, capturing its port city of Petra[vi]. Belisaurus meanwhile launched an attack into Persian territory capturing the town of Sisaurana, but an attack of dysentery amongst his men meant that they had to retire.
Sex and the City

Antonina now required Theodora’s support in return. She had been conducting an affair with her godson and adopted child Theodosius. The scandal rocked Constantinople. Antonina’s son Photius informed Belisaurus of the affair. Photius detested his mother, whom he suspected of plotting to kill him. Antonina had announced her intention of joining Belisaurus in the east. It was planned that once she arrived Photius would kidnap and imprison Theodosius.

Antonina was arrested upon arrival and Photius had Theodosius was arrested and confined. However somehow Antonina managed to get word to Theodora and Photius was arrested in turn along with a number of Belisaurus’s friends, who were tortured along with Photius, who was to remain incarcerated for three years, but failed to inform Theodora’s servants of the whereabouts of Theodosius.

‘There she imprisoned Photius and kept him guarded for a long time. From this prison he had the extraordinary luck to escape twice over and get clear.……..convinced by this vision, he broke out of his prison and made his way to Jerusalem without being caught………Belisaurus, on the other hand, had paid no regard to his oaths and had chosen to give no help at all to his stepson.’[vii]

Antonina became reconciled with Belisaurus, while Theodora’s agents discovered the whereabouts of Theodosius and restored him to his mistress, only to die a short time later of dysentery.

Year of the Plague

Coin from Justinian's reign

In 542 AD the Bubonic plague spread across the empire; originating from Egypt, killing off over ten thousand people a day at its height. Over three hundred thousand people are estimated to have died; as much as 40% of the population. Justinian fell ill, which opened the question of the succession. Theodora knew that her future safety depended on a successor who was her supporter and with whom she could marry.

The choice of emperor lay with the army and they were in Mesopotamia. When the news of Justinian’s illness reached them they agreed not to accept a diktat from Constantinople. With Justinian too ill to rule Theodora was now in charge. She was furious and blamed Belisaurus and another general named Buzes, who was thrown into the capital’s dungeons.

Belisaurus was too powerful to be dealt with in the same manner as Buzes and he was instead accused of stealing monies from the Vandal and Goth treasuries; monies that should rightfully have enriched the Imperial Treasury. Belisaurus was removed from his command, his household disbanded and his treasury confiscated by Theodora’s agents.

It was not until the following year that Justinian was well enough to intervene. Belisaurus was pardoned and partially restored to favour; his treasury was returned to him with the exception of 3,300 cwt of gold, which Theodora had gifted to her husband. Belisaurus and Antonina’s only child was affianced to Theodora’s grandson Anastasius. Theodora informed Belisaurus by letter that she had only forgiven him because of her close friendship with Antonina.

It is unlikely that Belisaurus was forgiven for any other reason than practicality. The situation in the east was deteriorating rapidly and Belisaurus’s military skills were desperately required.


Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] Vitalian was a military adventurer of Goth origins who had supported Orthodoxy against Anastasius’s monophysite beliefs and had brought an army three times up to the walls of Constantinople.
[ii] Secret History - Procopius
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] Ibid
[vi] Not Petra in Jordan, already in ruins.
[vii] Secret History - Procopius

1 comment:

  1. No wonder 'Byzantine' is a byword for complexity and double dealing in politics...