Rome Strikes Back: Belisarius and the Wars of Justinian - Deepstash

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The importance of Justinian’s rule

The importance of Justinian’s rule

Justinian was emperor of the Eastern Roman empire between 527–565. He is important because during his rule: 

  • the empire experienced an extraordinary resurgence, reconquering lands - including Italy, North Africa and Rome itself - that had been lost to the 'barbarians' a century before. 
  • Roman laws were codified and written down in what’s now known as the Code of Justinian.

He is the considered the last great Roman emperor.


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The world as Justinian takes power

The world as Justinian takes power

Justinian ascended to the throne decades after the fall of the Western Roman empire:

  • The Italian peninsula was now under the rule of the Ostrogoths.
  • The Vandals who sacked Rome 100 years before were now ruling northern Africa.
  • The Sassanids in the east were continuing the Persian heritage. 

Justinian’s destiny will be tightly linked to his greatest general, Belisarius, the man who will act as the spear-head of Justinian ambition. Similar to the bond between Augustus, the first Roman emperor and Marcus Agrippa, 500 years earlier. 


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The Rise of Belisarius

Belisarius was one of the 4 main generals of the Empire, stationed in the East. As the Sassadins invade Armenia he wins a major victory against them at Dara, but then looses at Callinicum in 531. He looses his command and returns to Constantinople, as the emperor is forced to a disgraceful peace in the East.

But while in the capital, there is a big riot between 2 factions of chariot races and the crowd asks for Justinian’s head. It is Belisarius who marches the troops against the citizens, killing 1/3 of the city but securing the emperor’s trust. 


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Justinian’s Wars

Justinian’s Wars

After securing the city and the eastern borders Justinian needed a military victory. Belisarius is thus tasked with taking on the Vandals after their previous king is deposed. Belisarius brings North Africa back into the fold in about 6 months.

He then continues in Italy, taking back Rome, Milan and Ravenna (the new capital) from the Ostrogoths. It was a major win for the Romans and Belisarius is the first general to get awarded a triumph in Constantinople. 

The conquests will not last beyond Justinian. Historians will see them as distractions for an empire with bigger problems to attend to.


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The Roman Army under Justinian

The Roman Army under Justinian

Long were the days of Caesar’s legions, when infantry was all that mattered and mobile units were mostly mercenaries. 

  • Rome’s infantry had more of a defensive role now, as the cavalry was the main unit of the army.
  • Most riders were armoured and used a lance like knights would 800 years later.
  • The light cavalry were mounted archers, a skill they learned from the huns.
  • The Bucellarii are the elite horseman, and were under the direct command of a Roman general like Belisarius.


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Belisarius's winning formula

Belisarius's winning formula

Belisarius did most of the conquest with less than 15k soldiers (generals during early empire had 50-150k soldiers under command). How:

  • he relied on veterans, experienced soldiers 
  • he forbid any city sackings and protected the civil population, winning him supplies and information

Belisarius is the image of classical roman: loyal, stoic, though, disciplined while gracious.


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The love-hate relationship between Justinian and Belisarius

The love-hate relationship between Justinian and Belisarius

The emperor and his general were not as close as history makes it seem. As the emperor feared his popular general might take his place & didn’t always support him with supplies, money or reinforcements. After an assassination attempt, Belisarius gets accused of being involved and is stripped of all titles, before being forgiven 1 yr later. 

Later, Christians portrayed Belisarius as a beggar because of an ungrateful and pitiful emperor. 


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Life-long learner. Passionate about leadership, entrepreneurship, philosophy, Buddhism & SF. Founder @deepstash.


Belisarius was always one of my favourite Romans. This amateur documentary focuses on him as a main actor during the Justinian Roman Renaissance.


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