Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.08

Ian Hughes, Belisarius: The Last Roman General.   Yardley, PA:  Westholme Publishing, 2009.  Pp. xvi, 272.  ISBN 9781594160851.  $26.00.  

Reviewed by Nadejda Popov-Reynolds, Florida Gulf Coast University (
Word count: 1484 words

A new book on Belisarius' military career is long overdue. In spite of the boom of scholarship on Late Antiquity in the past several decades, and the growing interest in Justinian, Belisarius has mostly managed to avoid attention.1 In fact, with the delightfully bizarre exception of a children's book about Belisarius, published in 1960,2 little has been written about the general since Lord Mahon's 1829 biography. Curiously enough, Lord Mahon's book has recently been reprinted by Westholme3--the same publisher who now brings to us the present work on Belisarius. The two books are vastly different in focus and approach, and the reprinting of Lord Mahon's book certainly does not diminish the need for a major re-evaluation of Belisarius' career. Lord Mahon's biography is rather sensationalizing and popularly oriented in its scope, with much attention given to political intrigue and speculation, especially in connection to Justinian's wife, Theodora, and Belisarius's wife, Antonina. Hughes's book, on the other hand, is specifically a military biography that devotes only minimal attention to the politics of Justinian's court.

In his book, Hughes self-admittedly sets out on a mission to show that Belisarius, magister utriusque militae under the emperor Justinian, and the re-conqueror of parts of the Western Roman empire, was "... one of the greatest generals who ever lived, and certainly one of the greatest in Byzantine history".4 Belisarius's stellar military career makes him, in Hughes's eyes, a military giant worthy of a spot on the same pedestal as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar. The grandiose title of the book further confirms that, in the author's eyes, Belisarius is indeed the "Last Roman General." Those who decide to read the book, however, because of interest in the comparative premise, and the idea of finding out just where Belisarius stands in relation to other military greats, will be sorely disappointed. The book is, rather, a military biography of Belisarius, with merely a brief concluding section at the end of the book devoted to evaluating the general's level of skill compared to other generals, and a slightly longer section, at the end of chapter 10, evaluating Belisarius's overall strengths and weaknesses as a general.

Hughes organizes his narrative chronologically, with the first three chapters of the book providing a reader who might not be well-versed in the history of Late Antiquity with background information pertinent to Belisarius's campaigns. Chapter 1 briefly surveys the events of the century and a half prior to Justinian's accession to power, with special attention to the loss of the Western provinces, and the constant Persian threat in the East. Chapter 2 is an introduction to the inner workings of the Byzantine court at the time of Justinian's accession. The concluding part of the chapter is also an attempt on Hughes's part to explain the mystery of Belisarius's unusually swift rise to favor--a question that indeed puzzles anyone who studies the general's career. Since, however, the sources are silent on Belisarius's early life and career, Hughes's explanations are limited to the realm of educated guessing. For instance, Hughes speculates that Belisarius's success may have been due to the possibility that he may have had much in common with Justinian, since both of them hailed from Thrace, and would have found themselves as the few native speakers of Thracian and Latin in the Greek-speaking East. An additional hypothesis is that Belisarius was Justinian's confidant in the early phases of the latter's relationship with the future empress Theodora--a woman of a scandalous background, unconventional for an emperor's wife. Both are interesting possibilities, but Hughes himself admits that there is no evidence to support either. These kinds of speculations, in fact, are present on several occasions throughout the book and, arguably, are a necessary sin for anyone writing a biography of Belisarius, since the sources include very little information about his personal life. For instance, in the conclusion to the book, Hughes includes a similarly questionable argument about another factor that may have contributed to Belisarius's success--his personality. While there is some evidence in Zacharias, whom Hughes cites, about Belisarius being impossible to bribe and kind to noncombatants, it is a far cry to conclude from that "The result (of Belisarius's good personality and character) was that the inhabitants of Africa and then Italy chose loyalty to the empire over loyalty to the Vandals and Goths."5 Overall, however, it is clear that Hughes's interests lie in military history, and it is in his treatment of military questions throughout the book that he is most clear and convincing.

In Chapter 3, Hughes explains the structure of the Roman army and its armor in Late Antiquity, and in Chapter 4, the main narrative of the book begins with Belisarius's first major campaign--against the Persians. Hughes's strengths as military historian are readily apparent in the diagrams and explanation of the battle of Callinicum. Chapter 5, the shortest in the book, is a brief analysis of Belisarius's role in the Nika riots of 532 A.D., and his marriage to Antonina. The subject of Belisarius's family life, however, appears to be out of place at the end of this chapter, and would have been more appropriate, perhaps, at the end of chapter 2.

Chapters 6-11 are arguably the most interesting in the book. They trace the progress of Belisarius's campaigns from his initial invasion of Africa in 533 A.D. to his recall back to Constantinople in 548 A.D. Hughes continues to shine in this part of the book in explanations of battles and strategic maneuvers. Among the highlights are his narratives of the Battle of Ad Decimum in 533 A.D. and the Battle of Rome in 537 A.D. Also of special interest is the section evaluating Belisarius's skill as general, placed at the end of Chapter 10. Hughes convincingly argues here that Belisarius was, ultimately, a well-rounded general, whose skills were not restricted to merely one type of fighting or one type of terrain. Rather, Belisarius's African campaigns showcase his talents in pitched battles, whereas his Italian campaign shows his skill on both the defensive and offensive sides of siege warfare. Hughes argues, moreover, that Belisarius's success was due to his adaptability to the circumstances--a skill that his opponents, especially Witigis, the king of Goths and commander of the Gothic army in Italy, did not possess. Hughes argues, nonetheless, that for all of Belisarius's skill, he appears to have had a major weakness as well, which eventually proved to be his downfall: he heavily favored the use of cavalry over infantry in battles. This lack of attention to training his infantry and giving it experience turned out to be a major reason in Belisarius's disastrous loss at the Battle of Rome.

The final three chapters of the book explore the legacy of Belisarius's campaigns, and Belisarius's brief return to military command--albeit a minor one--prior to his second recall to Constantinople, following the death of the empress Theodora. Hughes devotes these chapters, mainly, to explaining how all of Belisarius's conquests were swiftly lost, once Belisarius was removed from command in Italy.

Hughes's prose is straightforward and easy to follow. While he assumes that the reader has some basic familiarity with Roman history, he presupposes no previous knowledge of Late Antiquity. For this reason, all Late Antique institutions are explained in terms of their similarities to or change from the High Imperial way of things--a system admittedly more familiar to most armchair historians or undergraduates, for whose use this book is suited best. Latin terms for everything are included, but are always explained well. Moreover, two useful appendices are included in the back of the book: the first provides a chronology of relevant events in Roman history (from the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century to the Lombard invasion of Italy), and the second provides very brief biographies of important individuals mentioned in the book. The narrative is thorough, yet still easily accessible to an undergraduate or anyone interested in military history. All military engagements are explained in detail and illuminated further by the twenty-seven strategic maps, and sixteen tactical diagrams.

Despite these positive features of the book, there is, nonetheless, a serious flaw as well. Anyone who wishes to look up the basis of Hughes's specific arguments will find it frustrating that there are no footnotes or endnotes, and only a few parenthetical citations of sources. There is, moreover, merely a very basic bibliography at the end of the book. This format significantly reduces the usefulness of the book for an academic audience.

Those who believe that what is on the outside matters as much as what is inside will be pleased with the aesthetic appearance of the book. And at $26.00, this beautiful hard-bound book is affordable. Typographical errors are few and far between. A final minor quibble: while the illustrations, drawings, and maps in the book are of great quality, all of the photographs are black-and-white, including ones of mosaics.


1.   Notable exceptions include Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (California, 1985), and R. Boss, Justinian's Wars: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West (Stockport, 1993).
2.   Glanville Downey (1960). Belisarius, Young General of Byzantium (Dutton).
3.   Lord Mahon, Life of Belisarius (1928). Reprinted in 2006 by Westholme Publishing.
4.   Hughes, xi.
5.   Hughes, 249-50.

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