Sunday, March 01, 2020

"He incurred the emperor's anger" ~ The last days and death of Belisarius

Belisarius (ca. 1776) by François-André Vincent.
The life of Belisarius, the greatest military commander of the Roman Empire, came to a close in early March AD 565. Considering how much detail we have of his middle life and military career thanks to his secretary, the historian Procopius of Caesarea, we possess comparatively very little information about his final days. The chronicler John Malalas, writing perhaps 10 years after Belisarius's death, provides some of the only reliable notices of the hero's last acts, beginning with the plot against Justinian which was hatched in AD 562 and in which Belisarius was implicated as a co-conspirator. Malalas offers the following:
In the month of November of the 11th indiction, certain persons devised a plot against the emperor Justinian…Their plan was the following: that as the emperor was sitting in the triclinium in the evening, they would go in and murder him. They stationed their own men in various places so that they could create a disturbance when the plot had been carried out….

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The plot had been discovered in advance: Markellos was arrested and, having failed in his aim, he drew the dagger which he was wearing and inflicted three wounds on himself and so died. Sergius, the nephew of Aitherios, sought sanctuary in Our Lady Mother of God at Blachernai. Expelled from the precincts on grounds that he had conspired against the emperor, he was questioned. He made a deposition that Isakios the money dealer, from the household of the patrician Belisarios, also knew about the plot, as did Vitus the money dealer, and Paulus, Belisarios’s sub-optio.

Both were arrested and turned over to Prokopios, the city prefect….They denounced Belisarios the patrician and so he incurred the emperor’s anger. (Jeffreys, Chronicle of John Malalas, pp. 301-303).
Justinian then revealed the details of the plot during a public silentium et conventus which was attended by all of the officers of state. Based on the testimony of the conspirators, Belisarius was stripped of his household guard. Malalas points out that Belisarius did not resist in any way.

In another notice from about nine months later, Malalas says that Belisarius was received by the emperor and given back all his honors.

Finally, near the end of his chronicle, Malalas says: “In March of this year (AD 565) in the 13th indiction, Belisarios the patrician died in Byzantion, and his property accrued to the imperial house of Marina.” (Jeffreys, Chronicle of John Malalas, p. 305).

This sparse account is, sadly, the best we have from a contemporary source. The rest of the story is generally cobbled together from sources writing a long time afterwards. From such later sources emerge the legends about how Belisarius spent the nine months of his disgrace and tales of his being blinded by a vindictive Justinian. Taking stock of all these stories and adding copious assumptions of his own, Lord Mahon, the outstanding mid-19th century biographer of Belisarius, posited his own summary of the great warrior’s last years in his seminal work, The Life of Belisarius:
Since the Bulgarian victory [in AD 559], the hero had remained under the displeasure of Justinian. But it required the very extremity of jealous dotage to believe that he, who in the full vigor of manhood had refused a crown and preserved his loyalty amidst the strongest temptations to rebellion, should now at the close of life assume the part of an assassin. Such considerations were overlooked by his sovereign, or suppressed by his enemies.

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In the month of December, Belisarius was ignominiously deprived of his guards and domestics. His fortunes were sequestered, and he was detained a close prisoner in his palace. The trial of the true and supposed conspirators took place in the ensuing year, when a sentence of death was probably pronounced on all and executed on the greater number. The past services of Belisarius, which might have proved his innocence, served at least to mitigate his fate, and according to a frequent practice of the Byzantine court with eminent state prisoners, the decree of death was relaxed into one of blindness, and his eyes were accordingly put out.

It was then that, restored to liberty but deprived of all means of subsistence by the preceding confiscation of his property, Belisarius was reduced to beg his bread before the gates of the convent of Laurus. The platter of wood or earthenware which he held out for charity, and his exclamation, "Give a penny to Belisarius the General,'' remained for many years impressed on the recollection of the people.

It would seem that this spectacle of persecuted merit, aroused some dangerous feelings of indignation and pity, and was therefore speedily removed from public view. Belisarius was brought back, most probably as a prisoner, to his former palace, a portion of his treasures was allotted for his use, and these circumstances may have given some color for the assertion two or three centuries afterwards, of his having been restored to honors and to freedom.

His death, which perhaps was hastened by the grief or the hardships of captivity, ensued in the course of next spring, and Antonina, who survived him, devoted to the cloister the remains of her life and fortune.

Such, in all likelihood, is the authentic narrative of the fall of Belisarius.
Mahon goes on to build a scholarly case that the legend of the blind Belisarius was in fact reflective of what really happened. His evidence, however, failed to convince many of his contemporaries. Thus, despite the popularity of the blind Belisarius legend in the 18th century, the prevailing view today remains that he was received back into Justinian's good graces and passed away in the imperial favor with his sight intact.

Interestingly, Mahon introduces a previously unconsidered source which, he claimed, pointed toward the truth behind the legend. This source is an anonymous guidebook to Constantinople written during the reign of Alexios I Komenos which Mahon found in Anselmo Banduri's Imperium Orientale. Though this mention moved the first mention of the blind Belisarius legend back about a century, in this same guidebook is a note indicating that there was still standing in Constantinople in the late 11th century a gilded statue of Belisarius outside the Chalke palace beside a statue of the emperor Justin I and a cross erected by Justinian. For details, see Finlay: Greece Under the Romans, BC 146 through AD 176.

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