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The Romans under Belisarius had blunted a Persian invasion under the general Azarethes into Mesopotamia and had successfully ushered the Persian host back to the border with minimal damage to the towns and cities of the Roman East. However, with Azarethes about to cross over the Euphrates River and retreat into Persian territory, the officers of the Roman army approached Belisarius and demanded that he attack. According to the historian Procopius, Belisarius balked, thinking it a signal blessing to defeat the enemy without fighting a battle. Presumably an eye-witness, Procopius recorded Belisarius as delivering the following remonstrance to his army:
"O Romans, whither are you rushing? And what has happened to you that you are purposing to choose for yourselves a danger which is not necessary? Men believe that there is only one victory which is unalloyed, namely to suffer no harm at the hands of the enemy, and this very thing has been given us in the present instance by fortune and by the fear of us that overpowers our foes. Therefore it is better to enjoy the benefit of our present blessings than to seek them when they have passed.
For the Persians, led on by many hopes, undertook an expedition against the Romans, and now, with everything lost, they have beaten a hasty retreat. So that if we compel them against their will to abandon their purpose of withdrawing and to come to battle with us, we shall win no advantage whatsoever if we are victorious, for why should one rout a fugitive? While if we are unfortunate, as may happen, we shall both be deprived of the victory which we now have, not robbed of it by the enemy, but flinging it away ourselves, and also we shall abandon the land of the emperor to lie open hereafter to the attacks of the enemy without defenders.
Moreover this also is worth your consideration, that God is always accustomed to succour men in dangers which are necessary, not in those which they choose for themselves. And apart from this it will come about that those who have nowhere to turn will play the part of brave men even against their will, while the obstacles which are to be met by us in entering the engagement are many; for a large number of you have come on foot and all of us are fasting. I refrain from mentioning that some even now have not arrived." [Procopius, The Persian War]Of course, it is not unlikely that the above contains a good bit of Procopian rhetoric inserted ex post facto. Regardless, the speech proved ineffective. The Roman officers continued to importune Belisarius with such vehemence that he feared a mutiny. He offered battle to the Persians on Easter Day, April 19, AD 531.
Here is how I portrayed the resulting battle at the very beginning of Belisarius: Glory of the Romans:
AD 531, Easter Day
Fourth year of the reign of Justinian, Emperor of the Romans
Near Callinicus in Roman Mesopotamia
On the banks of the muddy Euphrates River—the edge of the fertile crescent where it is said that the earthly paradise created by Almighty God once stood—thousands of men now endured an earthly hell. For on Easter Day, rather than giving praise to Jesus Christ for his resurrection to life, the armies of two great empires sought to inflict death upon each other.
The battle need not have happened at all. The invading Persians had been brought to heel by the prowess of Belisarius, the commanding general of the Romans. His reputation was such that the Persians dared not engage with him, and upon his arrival with the Army of the East, the invaders beat a hasty retreat.
Belisarius escorted them to the border, but as the enemy host prepared to ford the Euphrates and escape back into Persia, the officers of the Roman army rebelled against their commander and questioned his courage. Belisarius, for his part, was content to let the Persians escape without bloodshed, counting it a singular blessing to defeat an enemy without losing any of his own men. But the officers under him saw in the retreating enemy a chance for earthly glory. So they raged at their general and demanded that he lead them forth into combat.
Seeing the bloodlust in their eyes and fearing the disorder of a mutiny, Belisarius grudgingly consented.
It was a decision he would subsequently regret.
Belisarius raised his bow toward the enemy and loosed. Before he could draw another shaft, he sensed the hum of an incoming dart. Ducking down at the last instant, the barbed tip struck his steel helm and clanged off.
God save me! he gasped to himself, shaking off the heavy impact.
“Magister! They are taking us from the flank!” screamed Trajan, his lieutenant, pointing with his sword toward a great clamor off to the right of the Roman army.
“No!” Belisarius shouted in disbelief. He jerked his mount around to see with his own eyes and his mouth dropped open in dismay.
A messenger galloped to him, his horse in a froth. “Arethas has deserted us, O Magister! Every last Arab has fled the field!”
“The cowards couldn’t even stand for one charge,” Trajan raged, his fists clenched.
“Not cowards,” Belisarius growled, “They are traitors! How stupid I was to entrust the right wing to them. Despite their boasts, they had no intention of fighting their brother bandits.”
A great wail of despair went up from the Roman lines as the extent of the disaster was realized. Their previous swagger and order quickly dissolved into fear and chaos. In terror, thousands of mail-clad Romans threw down their arms and fled straight toward the nearby Euphrates, hoping to gain safety by swimming to the islands in midstream. Hundreds were cut down in their flight by jubilant Persians who slaughtered them with relish.
A mere thousand picked men stood by Belisarius as he fought on.
Ascan, the implacable Hunnic chieftain, along with several hundred of his best men, remained in the fight as well, forcing back the charging Persians time and again. The elite Persian Immortals, desperate to revenge themselves on the Huns for their losses at Daras the previous year, massed and flung themselves upon Ascan’s men, careless of death. But the wily Hun, perched on his nimble war pony, made them pay dearly each time, dispatching some of their most valiant officers with his own deadly darts.
“We must push through and unite with Ascan’s men,” Belisarius commanded, drawing a javelin. The only way to salvage the day is to recombine our remaining forces and put our backs to the river, he thought, his mind working feverishly.
Anxious to obey their general, his stalwarts shifted front and began to move toward Ascan’s surrounded contingent.
But the Persians were experienced in war and knew well that to secure the victory, it is more important to quell those forces still in the fight than to chase those who run away. Belisarius soon found his path blocked by thousands of Persians foot soldiers who, having returned from the rout, were moving in to finish the job.
“Forward!” Belisarius urged as he forced his way to the point position of his phalanx. Joining the front rank, he struck with his javelin as volleys of arrows from the men in the rear poured over his head. The lightly clad Persian footmen toppled over dead in heaps, but others took their places, their huge wicker shields presenting an impassible obstacle.
Read the rest in the book... Belisarius, Glory of the Romans.
Belisarius’s force was within shouting distance when an unexpected stroke from an Immortal’s sword struck Ascan on the side of the face, sending a fountain of blood into the air. Seeing their hated enemy wounded, the Immortals cried out in triumph and rushed forward in a mass. Ascan’s weary men melted away before the implacable Persian assault and the defenseless Hun captain was hacked to pieces—dead before he hit the ground.
The Battle of Callincum as imaged by Igor Dzis. Click here to visit
the artist's page.
With their commander slain, the remaining Huns gave up the fight and attempted to escape as best they could.
At the sight, Belisarius’s remaining men let out a groan of despair.
“That’s it, we’re finished,” cried Trajan.
“Aye,” Belisarius replied, surveying a battlefied bereft of hope. “Nothing remains but to get as many of our men to safety as we can.”
“Should I sound the retreat?” Trajan asked.
“Yes, we will withdraw toward Peter,” Belisarius commanded, pointing to a contingent of footmen who were fighting a well-ordered rear-guard action to protect those fleeing across the river.