It was hardly an auspicious start to what would become the Byzantine golden age. For three days, smoke hung thickly over the devastated capital, and small fires flickered in the streets. The rioters had left a trail of destruction, reducing the main gate of the imperial palace, the Senate house, the public baths, and numerous houses and palaces to ashes in their wake. The center of the city seemed to be a blackened shell, and the flames had even claimed the city’s cathedral of the Hagia Sophia and the neighboring Hagia Irene as well. Constantinople looked as if it had been looted by some ravaging barbarian horde, and the fact that its own citizens had inflicted such a wound hovered like a black cloud over the streets. Surveying the damage from the windows of his palace, Justinian nevertheless saw not a disaster, but a perfect opportunity. The destruction had cleared away the detritus of the past, making way for an ambitious new building program, which would transform the city—and the empire as well—into the glittering center of civilization.
Never before had the citizens of the Roman Empire seen such construction, at such a pace. The dusty city of the emperor’s birth, Tauresium, was refurbished and renamed Justiniana Prime; hospitals and baths sprang up, and fortifications were strengthened. Bridges spanning mighty rivers were constructed, and inns were spaced along the major highways for the imperial post to change horses. The most impressive work, however, was saved for Constantinople. A sumptuous new Senate house, colonnaded with creamy white marble pillars and topped with fine carvings, rose near the city’s central square to replace the burned one. Three statues of barbarian kings were set up, all bowing before a large column surmounted with an equine statue of Justinian in full military dress.* To the west of his column, the emperor built a massive subterranean cistern to feed the city’s numerous fountains and baths and to provide fresh water for all of its inhabitants. Constantinople gleamed with new construction, but, for the emperor, this was merely the prologue. He now turned to the project which would surpass them all.
The Hagia Sophia was undoubtedly the most important structure that had been destroyed in the riots. Originally built by Constantius II to house the mystery of the Holy Communion, it had been demolished by rioters more than a century before when the great golden-tongued reformer Saint John Chrysostom had been exiled to Georgia. The emperor Theodosius II had rebuilt it eleven years later along the same rather uninspired lines, and most in the city assumed that the familiar outline would soon greet them once again. Justinian, however, had no intention of following the tired plans of an earlier age. This was a chance to remake the cathedral on a whole new scale, something worthy of his vision for the empire. It was to be nothing short of a revolution, equal parts art and architecture, the enduring grandeur of the emperor himself frozen in marble and brick.
Little more than a month after the Nika riots, construction began on the mighty showpiece of his reign. Choosing two architects who had more vision than practical experience, Justinian told them to create a building unlike anything else in the world. Sheer scale wasn’t enough—the empire was full of grand monuments and immense sculpture. This had to be something different, something fitting for the new golden age that was dawning. Expense, he informed them, wasn’t an issue, but speed was. He was already in his fifties, and he didn’t intend to have some successor apply the final coat of paint and claim it as his own.
The two architects didn’t disappoint. Rejecting the classical basilica form that had been used for three hundred years, they came up with a bold and innovative plan.* Building the largest unsupported dome in the world, they put it on a square floor plan and distributed its weight over a cascading series of half-domes and cupolas. The riches of the empire were poured into its construction. Each day, gold arrived from Egypt, porphyry from Ephesus, powdered white marble from Greece, and precious stones from Syria and North Africa. Even the old capital provided a quarry for the new, as columns that had once stood in the Temple of the Sun in Rome were carted off to adorn the rising church.
The building seemed to grow at a breathtaking rate. The architects split their crew of ten thousand men into two parts, placing one group at the south end and the other at the north end. Spurred on by the presence of the emperor—who daily visited the site—the two teams raced against each other, speeding up the building to a frenetic pace. In the end, it took only five years, ten months, and four days from the laying of the first stone to the completion of the building—a remarkable achievement in any age, much less one without modern machines.†
Stepping through the great doors reserved for the emperor and patriarch into the vast interior of the Hagia Sophia for the first time, Justinian was overwhelmed, struck by a vision of heaven made real in every graceful curve and sweeping arch.‡ The cavernous interior dome, 107 feet high and spanning nearly four acres, was decorated with simple crosses and completely covered in gold, seemingly floating above the ground as if “suspended from heaven itself on a golden chain.” Candles and lamps were hung from the upper galleries, outlining the interior in an unforgettable glow and casting soft light over the glittering mosaics. From the floor rose multicolored columns topped with intricate scrollwork and deeply carved with the complex monograms of Justinian and Theodora. At the front of the church, a massive fifty-foot iconostasis was hung with great silver disks engraved with images of Mary, Jesus, and the saints. Beyond lay the high altar, sheltering an unrivaled collection of relics, from the hammer and nails of the Passion to the swaddling clothes of Christ. Even the wood surmounting the great imperial door was unlike any in the world, composed as it was from an ancient fragment of Noah’s Ark. Marveling at the stunning panorama, Justinian stood silently, drinking it in. After a long moment, those closest heard him whisper, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”
The emperor wasn’t in the habit of making idle boasts, nor had he forgotten his great dream of redressing the embarrassing situation of a Roman Empire that didn’t include Rome. The aftermath of the Nika revolt had given him a measure of domestic peace, and he could now concentrate on his plan to reconquer the lost lands. Predictably, there were plenty of people telling him that it couldn’t be done. Chief among them was John the Cappadocian, who, like any treasurer worth his salt, was looking at it from a financial standpoint and didn’t think it made economic sense. He remembered all too clearly the disaster of Basiliscus’s African invasion, which had crippled the imperial economy for nearly sixty years. Pleading with Justinian not to risk the empire’s resources on an unnecessary campaign, he succeeded in getting the emperor to drastically reduce the size of the force to be sent with Belisarius. On the one hand, this ensured that the empire could survive the expedition’s failure; but on the other, its small size seemed to invite the very failure it was trying to avoid. It hardly mattered to Justinian, however; he had an unwavering faith in the abilities of his general.
In the late summer of 533, Belisarius sailed with eighteen thousand men and, more important for posterity, his personal secretary, Procopius, who would write a firsthand account of the campaign. Arriving in Sicily to pick up new supplies, the campaign got its first lucky break when it was discovered that the Vandal fleet was away putting down a revolt in Sardinia, a diversion that Justinian had carefully encouraged. Belisarius moved quickly to take advantage of the opportunity. Disembarking on the coast of what is now Tunisia without seeing a single Vandal soldier, the Byzantines found a land ripe for the taking.
For years, the Vandal overlords had been alienating the native African population by trying to covert them to Arianism, and, after crushing numerous revolts, the paranoid barbarians had finally torn down the walls of their cities to prevent their seditious subjects from ever resisting again. So Belisarius arrived to find Africa’s great cities shorn of their defenses and filled with a population that welcomed him as a deliverer.
Sixty-five years before, Basiliscus had dithered within sight of his ships until the Vandals had cut him to pieces, but Belisarius, with barely a tenth of his numbers, headed straight for Carthage—the only of all the Vandal cities to have maintained its walls. His aim was to draw Gelimer out and strike a quick knockout blow while surprise was on his side, but when he was only ten miles from the city, his scouts reported a massive Vandal army waiting just ahead in a carefully planned ambush. Prudence seemed to dictate a strategic withdrawal to a neutral ground, but Belisarius was anxious to come to grips with Gelimer. Trusting his instincts, the great general plunged ahead.
Most of Gelimer’s veteran troops were off fighting in Sardinia, so the Vandal king had made the mistake of padding his numbers with raw recruits. This gave him an impressive-looking army, but since it was too large to be effectively commanded by a single person, he was forced to divide the command with his brother. Unfortunately for Vandal Africa, Gelimer’s inexperienced brother was completely incompetent and proceeded to get his entire wing annihilated by blundering into the Byzantine vanguard. Gelimer tried to save the day by charging forward, but his troops took one look at Belisarius’s terrifying Hunnish allies and fled, trampling their own forces in their haste to get away. Somehow Gelimer managed to rally his men, but just as the weight of his superior numbers was beginning to force the Byzantines back, he stumbled on the body of his brother and was overcome with grief. Refusing to budge until the body was given a proper funeral, Gelimer lost whatever momentum he had gained, and a sudden charge by Belisarius shattered the Vandal army.
The way to Carthage was now clear, and the victorious general entered the cheering city in triumph, taking possession of Gelimer’s palace in time to eat the feast prepared for the Vandal king. The city’s population turned out to greet him, scattering flowers before his horse and waving branches. Some feared looting and destruction like the last time a Roman army had taken Carthage, but Belisarius had instructed his men carefully* This wasn’t an occupation; it was a liberation. After more than a century under the barbarian boot, a treasured province was welcomed back into the Roman Empire. There was no swagger or requisitioning. Food was paid for at a fair price, and discipline was strictly enforced.
The conquering army didn’t stay for long. Gelimer’s veteran Vandal troops had returned from Sardinia, and the furious king was now marching with his surviving brother to retake his capital. By cutting the aqueduct that provided fresh water to the city, the Vandals forced Belisarius to abandon the city to face them. Choosing a vast plain that would give advantage to neither side, Belisarius drew up his forces for the decisive contest of the war.
The two sides heaved against each other, sweating under the blazing North African sun, and, imperceptibly at first, the heavily outnumbered but more-disciplined Byzantines began to push the Vandals back. Gelimer surged forward, trying to encourage his men, but history repeated itself as his brother was cut down in front of him in the vicious fighting. Paralyzed with grief, the king halted, and his wavering troops broke completely before the Byzantine charge. Vandal thoughts were now only of escape, and men clawed and flailed their way frantically through the confusion toward the distant mountains rising from the dusty African plain. Thousands of them were cut down in flight, soaking the battlefield with barbarian blood before Belisarius wearily called off the pursuit.
The victory shattered the Vandals so thoroughly that they virtually disappeared from history. Gelimer survived to flee into the mountains and fight on, but by the time winter was over, he realized it was a lost cause and surrendered. Belisarius entered the bustling city of Hippo in triumph and found there both Gelimer’s vast treasury and the looted riches of Rome. Within a few months, Sardinia, Corsica, and Gibraltar had fallen, and his extraordinary victory was complete. The Vandal kingdom had been extinguished in little more than a year, and the watching world had been put on notice. The empire was returning to claim its own.
Leaving a subordinate to finish mopping up resistance, Belisarius gathered his spoils and the most prominent captives and sailed for Constantinople. Justinian greeted his general with euphoria. The stunning reconquest of North Africa had vindicated all his cherished dreams of reuniting the empire. He’d proved all the doubters wrong and added immense prestige to both empire and emperor. Somehow Justinian had to communicate his thanks and he characteristically chose an extravagant reward. Belisarius, he announced, would be granted a triumph.
There was no higher honor a Roman general could receive, but no triumph had been awarded outside of the imperial family since 19 BC. For Justinian, however, steeped as he was in history, such a fact was yet another witness that his reign signified the return of the glorious ancient empire.
The young general strode through the ecstatic crowds into the Hippodrome, his face painted red, and the bright sun gleaming off his armor. At his side—as was traditional—stood a slave holding a golden wreath above his head and whispering into his ear, “Remember, you are but a man.”* Following him, beneath the fluttering insignias of the Vandal kingdom, came Gelimer, his family, and the best-looking specimens of Vandal prowess. Behind them, ranged out in a seemingly endless baggage train, came the spoils of war: solid-gold thrones, jewel-encrusted chariots, the silver menorah that Titus had seized from Jerusalem in AD 71, and all the treasures the Vandals had plundered from Rome. Entering the Hippodrome, the mighty procession found the entire population on its feet, as far above them Justinian and Theodora sat enthroned in the imperial box. The noise rose to a deafening crescendo as Gelimer tore off his royal robes and was forced to kneel in the dust before the emperor. Groveling with the ruins of his power around him, the fallen king was heard to whisper a verse from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
As much as Belisarius would have liked to stay in Constantinople and enjoy the rewards of his recent campaign, the emperor had other plans for him. As far as Justinian was concerned, the conquest of North Africa had only paved the way for the more symbolically important conquest of Italy, and there was no reason to delay. Ordering the fleet to be prepared immediately, the emperor sent Belisarius with seventy-five hundred men to take Sicily, while another general led the main army through Dalmatia into northern Italy.
The invasion was perfectly timed. The Goths were reasonably popular with the rank-and-file Italians, but the main chink in the armor of their support was religion.† The church had long been the vehicle for Roman culture and civic values—the clergy still dressed in their Roman aristocratic robes (now called vestments), even though their congregations had adopted barbarian dress—and this acted as a great dividing line between those who were civilized and those who were not. For all their warm relations with their subjects, the Goths were still Arian heretics who could never really be fully accepted.
Italy was clearly ripe for the picking, but first Belisarius had to conquer Sicily. This he did with his customary panache, sweeping through the island and overcoming the only Gothic resistance at Palermo by sailing his ships up to the city walls and having his men jump onto the battlements. The suddenness of Sicily’s collapse completely unnerved Theodahad, the Ostrogothic king. When an imperial ambassador was shown into his presence, the king tremblingly offered to turn over Italy on the spot. For a moment, it looked as if the ancient heartland of the empire would fall as quickly as Africa.
It might indeed have done so, but unfortunately for the inhabitants of the peninsula (and subsequent Western history), the Byzantine general invading Dalmatia chose this moment to bungle his advance and was killed in an inconclusive battle. Since the army didn’t have the authority to advance without its general, it withdrew to its winter quarters and refused to budge without further instructions. Suddenly, the Byzantine threat began to look less impressive, and Theodahad started to recover his nerve. Regretting his rash promises of surrender, he threw the imperial ambassadors into jail and prepared to resist, raising an army as fast as he could. The opportunity for a quick victory was lost forever, and Italy, still glowing in the sunset of the classical world, was plunged into the darkness of a ruinous war. The region would remain a bloodstained battlefield for centuries to come.
The entire Byzantine offensive momentum ground to a halt as even Belisarius, in Sicily, ran into delays. Just as he was about to cross into southern Italy, word reached him that a full-blown mutiny was sweeping across Africa. Months were lost while the general raced to put it down, and when he returned, it was to find his own men on the verge of revolt. By the time he had calmed them, autumn had begun, and the campaigning season was over.
The delays annoyed Belisarius as much as his men, and early the next year, he crossed the Strait of Messina, determined to make up for lost time. Theodahad hadn’t bothered to build up the Gothic defenses, and virtually every city in the south fell in rapid succession. Each victory further reduced Ostrogothic morale, but it also required Belisarius to leave a garrison behind. By the time the general reached Naples, his forces were too small to take the nearly impregnable city by storm. There were more ways to enter a city than by frontal assault, however, and Belisarius’s resourceful mind soon found one.
One of his men had been climbing up the old aqueduct to see how it was constructed and discovered a small, unguarded channel that still went into the city walls. Unfortunately, it wasn’t large enough for an armored man, but Belisarius knew how to get around that. Noisily attacking another section of the wall, he used the clamor of battle to cover the sound of his workmen enlarging the hole. After the work was completed, Belisarius cheerfully retreated and waited till nightfall, then sent six hundred men through and launched an all-out attack. The guards were quickly overwhelmed, the gates thrown open, and, within a matter of hours, the most important Gothic city in the south was in his hands.
The fall of the city panicked the Goths into murdering their spineless king and abandoning Rome for the nearly impregnable Ravenna. Electing an energetic noble named Vitiges as their new monarch, they set to work improving their defenses in the new capital, leaving only four thousand men with the impossible task of manning and defending Rome’s sprawling and dilapidated walls. A few weeks later, Belisarius arrived.
The imperial army was preceded by its formidable reputation, and by the time the first of the Byzantines came within sight of Rome’s walls, the Gothic garrison had convinced itself that resistance was impossible. Thanks to careful negotiations beforehand by the great general, Pope Silverius had already invited Belisarius into the city, and the Goths thought only of preserving their lives. As the Byzantines marched into Rome through the Asinarian Gate, the Gothic garrison hastily marched out the other end of the city along the old Flaminian Way.
For the first time in nearly six decades, the Roman Empire had control of its ancient capital. Its citizens proudly welcomed the restoration of their ancient glory and shouted, “No longer will the tombs of the Caesars be trampled by the savages of the North!”* The keys of Rome were sent, together with a captured Gothic chieftain, to Constantinople, where they were displayed in their entire splendor before Justinian’s throne.
It had been a remarkable year, but Belisarius knew better than to believe that the war was ended. With only a handful of men, he had managed to conquer Sicily, southern Italy, and Rome. The Byzantine success, however, was mostly smoke and mirrors. The moment Vitiges realized that the fearsome Belisarius was holding Rome with only five thousand men, the entire conquest would be in danger of crumbling. The triumphant entry into Rome became a desperate race to repair the walls before Vitiges learned the truth.
When the master of Ravenna found out that he had lost nearly half his kingdom to so few, he was enraged, and within three months a massive Gothic army was drawn up before the gates of Rome. Within moments of their arrival, they almost caught Belisarius and ended the struggle before it began. After fortifying the Milvian Bridge with a tower, the general had ridden out to survey the enemy positions, secure in the belief that the Goths couldn’t cross the Tiber in time to endanger him. Unfortunately, the guards charged with defending the tower fled at the first sight of the enemy, and the Goths poured over the bridge unmolested. Belisarius found himself suddenly surrounded by their vanguard and cut off from the Flaminian Gate. Conspicuous on his bay horse, he flailed about trying to break free while Roman deserters pointed out his position to the Goths. He fought with desperate courage, shouting encouragement to his men and spurring his horse forward. The Goths, surprised by the ferocity of his attack, fell back, and Belisarius was able to slip back inside the city with his men.
With his face covered with blood, dust, and sweat, and his voice hoarse from shouting, he was almost unrecognizable and had to remove his helmet to stop a rumor that he had been killed. After reassuring his men, the exhausted commander visited every post, personally infusing his troops with his infectious optimism. Only when he had convinced himself that nothing more could be done did he allow his wife to lead him away to get some much-needed sleep.
Unaware how close he had come to victory, Vitiges ordered the cutting of all ten aqueducts to Rome, which for more than a millennium had supplied public fountains, plumbing, and the hydraulic mills that made the city’s flour. Belisarius improvised by using the rivers that ran through the city to power the mills—ensuring a constant supply of flour and bread—and braced for the next attack. Vitiges had constructed huge towers to breach the Roman walls, and a few weeks later he put them into action. The fighting was desperate as the Goths attacked two sections of the wall simultaneously. Time and again they came within inches of overwhelming the defenders, but Belisarius seemed to be everywhere at once, firing arrows from the walls and hacking at the scaling ladders. By the end of the day, more than thirty thousand Goths were dead, and Vitiges’ towers lay in a smoking ruin. Looking out over the walls, however, it was hard to see a dent in the waves of enemy soldiers. Belisarius knew that he would be hard-pressed to defend further attacks of this kind and hastily wrote to Justinian asking for reinforcements.
This wasn’t the first time that the general had written requesting more men, and, at first, Justinian simply ignored him. Belisarius had humbled Africa with a mere handful of men, repeatedly performing miracles of improvisation to keep his campaigns going, and this caused the emperor to repeatedly underestimate the men and materials needed to retake Italy. But there was something else, a dim flicker of uneasiness in his queen, a gnawing fear that things were not quite what they seemed. Theodora began to suspect that the constant calls for a larger army were merely a ruse. Surely these barbarian opponents could be vanquished with the troops available. Perhaps the general was preparing to turn the sword against the master. The emperor finally sent a few thousand reinforcements, but Theodora remained suspicious. This general would need careful watching.
The new men tipped the balance in favor of Belisarius, and the general soon felt secure enough to go on the offensive. In the medieval world, siege warfare was often worse on the invading army than on the besieged. Exposed to the elements, running short of food, and trying to avoid sickness in unsanitary conditions, Vitiges was fighting a losing battle, and he knew it. Even the land he was encamped on seemed exhausted. It had long ago turned to a sea of mud, and his men were forced to wander farther and farther away in search of food. This left them dangerously vulnerable to counterattack, and each successful raid dented their spirits.
The mood in the Gothic camp wasn’t improved when Vitiges got word that a Byzantine advance force had managed to slip out of Rome and capture the town of Rimini, only thirty-three miles from Ravenna. This entire struggle had been a vast exercise in futility for the Gothic king, and having his new capital in danger was the last straw Cursing the winds that brought such an enemy to Italy, the disgusted king gave the order to retreat. Not even then, however, were the Goths allowed to leave in peace. Somehow guessing the timing of the withdrawal, Belisarius came roaring out from behind his walls and inflicted a thoroughly humiliating rout on Vitiges’ panicked forces.
As the last Goth fled, he could perhaps have consoled himself with the fact that Italy hadn’t seen a man of Belisarius’s character since Hannibal had crossed the Alps more than seven hundred years before. With only a few thousand men, the Byzantine general had taken on a kingdom that numbered in the hundreds of thousands and managed to cripple its fighting ability within two years. In five years, with scarcely more men, he had subdued Africa and Italy and bent them to the imperial will.
Given a proper army and a little trust, there was no telling what Belisarius would have been able to do. The conquests of Spain and Gaul were tantalizingly within his reach; perhaps the Western Empire itself could be revived. With the imperium thus restored, Europe would have been spared the ravages of the Dark Ages, or at least the intensity of their destruction.
Unfortunately for the empire, it was never to find out. The brilliance of the general’s success had planted seeds of jealousy and distrust in the mind of Theodora, and there they were about to bear a bitter harvest. Belisarius was too young, too talented, and far too popular to be trusted.
When Justinian received yet another letter asking for reinforcements, he sent seven thousand troops and a man named Narses to keep an eye on his brilliant general. Already in his mid-sixties, Narses was the perfect candidate for the job. Indisputably the most powerful figure at court, he was the same eunuch who had helped Belisarius put down the Nika revolt, and he could be implicitly trusted because his condition prevented him from gaining the throne himself.
The reinforcements were welcome enough, but as Justinian should have been able to foresee, the aging eunuch’s presence completely undercut Belisarius’s authority and nearly ruined the war effort. Generals who wanted to fast-track their careers quickly saw that Narses had the imperial favor; before long, the officers were hopelessly split between those loyal to Belisarius and those loyal to the eunuch. The only solution was to divide the already small force in half. While Narses kept the main Gothic army tied down, Belisarius left to mop up northern Italy.
Moving with his customary speed, Belisarius swept through the north, liberating Italian cities from the Gothic yoke. Most towns threw open their gates, eager to rid themselves of their heretical oppressors and rejoin the empire. The general was happy to accommodate them, but this led to the familiar problem of siphoning off his manpower with garrisons as the victories piled up. By the time the archbishop of Milan begged for Byzantine aid in liberating his city. Belisarius could spare only three hundred men. Sending the soldiers under the command of a subordinate, Belisarius continued on while the archbishop of Milan opened the city gates and massacred the Gothic garrison.
The ease of Milan’s fall was gratifying to the Byzantines, but it provoked a furious response from the Gothic king. Milan was the crown jewel of Vitiges’ kingdom, easily the largest city in Italy, and the moment he heard the news of its capture, he sent an army thirty thousand strong to retake it.
Somehow the beleaguered defenders got word to Belisarius, and he ordered the two closest generals to relieve the city. Now, however, the dangers of dividing the command were disastrously illustrated. The generals charged with coming to the city’s rescue, perhaps fearing for their political careers, refused to move another inch without a countersignature from Narses; and while they dithered, Milan died. The desperate defenders had been reduced to eating dogs and mice; now, on the brink of starvation, they at last gave up and agreed to surrender to the Goths. The terms were horrendous. Milan was to be made an example of, a cautionary warning to the rest of Italy of what it meant to defy the Gothic sword. The women and children were rounded up and sold into slavery, the men were butchered on the spot, and the city was burned to the ground.
The shocking fate of one of the most beautiful cities in Italy was made far worse because it could have been easily prevented, but it at least convinced Justinian of the folly of undermining Belisarius’s authority, and Narses was hurriedly recalled. At last, Belisarius had an undisputed command, and he was determined to strike a quick blow to end the war. Vitiges’ forces still easily outnumbered his own, but by now the king was terrified of the general and refused to venture beyond the walls of Ravenna. If Belisarius could take the city with all of his enemies pinned inside, the war would be ended at a single stroke.
The news that the terrible Byzantine army was on the way threw Vitiges into a panic, and he did the only thing he could think of to preserve his throne. A few weeks earlier, word had reached him that the Persian king Chosroes was threatening war on the Byzantine flank, and Vitiges now desperately wrote to the Persian monarch, hoping to enlist the aid of the empire’s traditional enemy. If only the Persians could be persuaded to invade the East, the threat would force Justinian to recall his fearsome general and save the cornered Gothic king. Although Vitiges’ messengers were caught and killed long before they came near Persia, luck was with the Goths. After eight years of struggle, Chosroes had finally established himself on the Persian throne and had no need for a Gothic invitation to invade. The Byzantine forces in the East had been noticeably thinned by the Italian campaign, and in any case he was quite sure that without Belisarius they would prove an easy match. Of course, there was the small matter of the “everlasting peace” with the empire that he had personally signed, but Chosroes wasn’t one to let an inconvenient piece of paper get in the way of glory and tribute. Sending raiders knifing into Syria, the Persian king mobilized his army, determined to take full advantage of the empire’s preoccupation with the West.
As Vitiges had hoped, the Persian threat hanging in the air was enough to scare Justinian into prematurely ending the Italian campaign. There was no telling how long the siege of Ravenna would take, and the emperor couldn’t afford to have his best general pinned down besieging an already beaten enemy while the Persians ran free in the East. The only solution was to come to terms with Vitiges. In exchange for half of their treasury, the emperor was willing to let the Goths keep all their land north of the Po River.
When the two ambassadors carrying Justinian’s terms reached Belisarius’s camp, the general was horrified. Vitiges was a beaten man, and Ravenna was on the verge of collapse. Furiously, the general tried to reason with the imperial ambassadors, but they could hardly disobey Justinian’s instructions. Seeing that it was hopeless, Belisarius bowed his head to the inevitable, but he refused to sign the treaty. He had no wish to put his name to such a shameful thing, and since Justinian hadn’t ordered him to, he left it off as an act of defiance.
Once again, his famous luck saved the situation. Fearing one of Belisarius’s ruses, the Gothic king refused to believe that the offer was genuine and sent it back to the Byzantine camp, saying that he wouldn’t consider it until the general had signed it. Belisarius cleverly announced that he would only put his name to the document if Justinian himself ordered him to, forcing the imperial ambassadors to make the long return trip to Constantinople to get the emperor’s response. Having temporarily rid himself of the meddlesome pair, Belisarius let the Goths know that there would be no further offers, and the announcement crushed what little hope remained to Vitiges. Sending messengers to secretly slip into the Byzantine camp under the cover of night, the Gothic king offered an intriguing proposal. If Belisarius would accept the crown of a revived Western Roman Empire, Ravenna’s gates would be thrown open, and the Goths would bow at his feet.
There were few men better placed to see the advantages of such a situation than Belisarius. He’d been marching up and down Italy for the better part of five years, and with the Goths united behind him, there was no force in the East or the West capable of displacing him. The opportunity would have been irresistibly tempting to most of his officers, but Belisarius’s loyalty never wavered. Feigning acceptance to Vitiges’ terms, he entered Ravenna in May 540 and received the Gothic surrender. The streets were crowded with cheering Goths, as yet unaware of the deception. Writing to Constantinople, Belisarius informed Justinian of his actions, announcing that the war was over and Italy had been restored to the Roman Empire. The remarkably bloodless victory had been flawlessly executed, and Belisarius must have wondered if he would receive a triumph, or perhaps an even greater reward. In his mind, the way he had conquered Ravenna differed from a thousand other conquests only in the details, but accepting the Gothic crown—even as a ruse—was an unpardonable crime that awoke all the smoldering fears in Empress Theodora’s mind. From now on, it would be war between them, and Theodora was not one to easily forgive.
Those shadows, however, were not yet apparent to the conquering general. The next month, breathless ambassadors reached him, recalling him to Constantinople with the news that Chosroes had invaded. Loading the entire Gothic treasury as well as the presumably surprised Vitiges and his family onto transports, Belisarius left to obey the summons. It wasn’t until the ships sailed out of the harbor that the Goths realized that they had been betrayed.
The general arrived in the East to find it in complete disarray. Chosroes had made the most of his four-month head start by heading straight for Antioch, the third-largest city in the Byzantine world. The emperor’s cousin Germanus, who had been charged with the defense of Syria, had offered a large bribe to the Persians if they would leave Byzantine territory, but he had gotten bogged down in the details and petulantly decided to leave the city to its fate. The six thousand soldiers charged with guarding its expansive walls prudently fled at the approach of the massive invading army, and the Persians poured into the city.
Blue and Green street fighters desperately tried to stem the tide, but they were helpless against the tough, professional Persians, and the carnage was terrible. Soldiers ran through the streets burning and looting as they went, and when everything of value had been stripped away, Chosroes burned the city and sold its population into slavery. The Persian king had been right about Byzantine vulnerabilities all along, and he cheerfully continued his assault toward Syria. By the time the Persians arrived, however, things had drastically changed, and Chosroes abruptly halted his advance. A terrified Persian ambassador was brought into the Great King’s presence and breathlessly advised his monarch to flee. “I have met a general,” he said, “who surpassed all other men.” Belisarius was in the East.
The general’s arrival electrified the troops and immediately improved morale. News of Chosroes’ presence in Syria arrived, but Belisarius had no intention of waiting around for him. Since the Persians had invaded the empire, he would return the favor. There was nothing like a little pillaging to raise the spirits and bring the Persian king scampering home. Chosroes had barely crossed into imperial territory when he discovered to his horror that Belisarius was burning his way toward the capital of Ctesiphon. It seemed as if the war with Persia would be ended with one bold strike.
*Justinian chose to portray himself in a Persian uniform to signify Belisarius’s victories in the East. The column and statue, alas, no longer exist.
*The two architects—and Justinian himself—were almost certainly thinking about their novel design before the Nika riots. Their first attempt (albeit on a much smaller scale) still exists in the nearby Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
†By contrast, Westminster Cathedral took some thirty-three years to rebuild, Notre Dame more than a hundred, and the Duomo in Florence about 230.
‡Unlike Western cathedrals, the Hagia Sophia’s domed shape makes its entire interior space visible from any of its seven main doorways.
*That had been in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War, when Scipio Aemilianus had burned the city to the ground, sold the population into slavery, and scattered salt on the ruins.
*This was originally done as a safeguard against rebellion, lest the fickle adulation of the crowd go to the hero of the moment’s head.
†But then again, the malodorous Goths were barbarians, after all. The Italians loved to complain about their appalling taste in music, ridiculous trousers, and overabundance of hair grease.
*Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v. 4 (New York: Random House, 1993).