Belisarius: “The Africanus of new Rome” (—Gibbon)

Count Belisarius was an outstanding general of the Roman Empire in the reign of Justinian. He seems to have retained the old Roman ideas of civic virtue when most of the society around him had degenerated into luxury, dissipation, and the flushing out of heresy. His devotion to the ideas of community and propriety symbolize the outlook of this site.

His life was interesting enough to have caught the eye of more than one writer of historical novels. Eric Flint and David Drake have written a series of books about him, and Robert Graves wrote one as well. He was also the subject of an opera by Donizetti. He is, it seems to me, surprisingly well known for someone from the sixth century. There's even a Belisarius.com, which, strangely enough, appears to be concerned with the application of military concepts to business in the manner that has made Sun Tzu required reading for the self-respecting businessperson. I asked for ‘belisarius@earthlink.net’, but it was taken and I accepted the preceding ‘count_’ rather than settle for a number.

The Emperor Justinian

The Emperor Justinian ruled during a time that was cursed with being interesting. Belisarius was a person near the top of two lists Justinian thought about a lot: his best tools, and his most dangerous enemies. Belisarius was far more popular and better regarded than Justinian, who was therefore alert to the possibility that Belisarius might replace him on the throne. But Belisarius preferred to operate according to law; he continued to serve the state despite being imprisoned by Justinian for a period; and he refused any part in schemes to get rid of the emperor. He asserted that the rule of law was more important than having the throne occupied by the best available person. Or at least, so it seems from our vantage point almost fifteen hundred years later.

One can certainly argue with this assertion, especially in the context of a state with a ruler whose power is unlimited. But Belisarius apparently believed that civic virtue was the original cause of Rome's greatness, and that he could best contribute to the common good by recalling the old ideas and ordering his life according to them, thus providing an example of what he considered to be the right way to live.

The Historian Procopius

A lot of what we know about Belisarius comes from the historian Procopius, who was his personal secretary early in life, and accused him of treason late in life. It appears the accusation was unfounded; although Belisarius was convicted and imprisoned, he was pardoned, released, and restored to favor by Justinian. This sequence of events is not incompatible with an attempt by an emperor to tame a particularly strong but restive subject. But the events do at least make one wonder about the veracity of the historian. It's possible that Procopius was forced to accuse Belisarius against his will; but Procopius wrote a “Secret History”, unknown to Justinian and not published during Procopius's lifetime, in which he apparently did not mention a compulsion to accuse. Of course, this isn't proof either; Justinian might have known something about Procopius that Procopius didn't want us to know.

The Point

In this context I don't want to emphasize the military skills of Belisarius, considerable as they were. My purpose here is to discuss the situation in which the world finds itself today, and to attempt to draw lessons from history that will help us all become citizens again. (Chalmers Johnson has written a wonderful description of what will happen otherwise.) That purpose provoked thoughts of the virtue of Belisarius, so I named the blog after him. I'm not channeling him or attempting to say what I think he might have said. I'm just recollecting his example, as Julian did with the Greeks:

The venerable age of Greece excited the most tender compassion in the mind of Julian; which kindled into rapture when he recollected the gods, the heroes, and the men, superior to heroes and to gods, who had bequeathed to the latest posterity the monuments of their genius or the example of their virtues.

—Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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