Chosroes came rushing home in a desperate defense of his capital, but the Byzantine attack never happened. The year 541, as it turned out, was a high point for both Justinian’s reign and the Byzantine Empire. In the West, Belisarius had returned both Africa and Italy to imperial control; in the East, he had pushed the Persians back and now seemed on the verge of conquering their capital. The immense wealth of the Vandal and Gothic treasuries had added a shimmering veneer of impressive buildings in cities across the empire. Antioch had been rebuilt, and Constantinople gleamed with the crown jewel of the Hagia Sophia, the architectural marvel of the age. The Goths had elected a new king named Totila, but their kingdom was on the verge of collapse, and with the Persians scattered, it seemed as if no enemy could stand before the might of Byzantine arms. Even as Belisarius embarked for Ctesiphon, however, that enemy had arrived.

The port city of Pelusium, tucked into the eastern corner of the Nile Delta, had been a witness to some of the greatest invaders of the ancient world, from Alexander to Mark Antony. Augustus Caesar had once stood before its walls, and Pompey the Great had been murdered at its gates. Its most impressive conquerors, however, were rodents. By the time of Justinian, they had already had a long history with the city. In the eighth century BC, Sennacherib and the Assyrians were chased away when field mice chewed their bowstrings and the straps of their shields. The Persian king Cambyses II—apparently a good student of history—took the city in the sixth century by driving cats before the army, scattering the tiny defenders. The rodents, however, could only be kept out for so long, and in the spring of 540 they returned.

Traveling by boat from ports in Lower Egypt, rats carrying infected fleas slipped into the city and the dreaded Tersinia pestis made its terrible entrance on the world stage. Its most famous appearance would be in the fourteenth century, when it would be shudderingly remembered as the “black death,” but the sixth-century outbreak—though more dimly remembered—was perhaps worse. The disease spread like wildfire to Alexandria, chief source of imperial grain, and from there to the rest of the empire.

Those struck by the contagion had little warning, and it spread with horrifying speed. Victims would awake with a headache and vague sense of weakness. If it spread to the lungs, painful swelling would occur along the lymph nodes, and death would come within a week; if it entered the blood, black patches would appear throughout the skin, and the victim wouldn’t live out the day. There was no understanding of the contagion or how it spread, and therefore no protection. Moving with men and ships, it struck the most densely populated areas, occasionally carrying off as many as three-fourths of the population.

In Constantinople, the disease raged unchecked for four months with the horrifying casualty rate of ten thousand per day. The dead fell in such numbers that they overwhelmed the graveyards and had to be flung into an unused castle until the rotting corpses were spilling over the walls. The depopulated city ground to a halt, unable to maintain the rhythms of daily life under the strain. Trade sank to almost nothing, farmers abandoned their fields, and the few workers who remained did their best to flee the stricken city. When the plague at last abated, famine and poverty followed in its wake.

At first, the disaster didn’t affect Belisarius, far away on the Persian frontier. Stories of tragic sickness were filtering through, but there was little he could do about it, other than resolve the trouble with Persia as quickly as possible. Racing east, however, came news that dramatically changed everything: Justinian himself was stricken.

The Byzantine army was thrown into chaos. Justinian had named no heir, and Theodora had been whispering her poisonous thoughts against the military in the emperor’s ear for years. If he were to die now, the generals had little doubt she would appoint a successor without consulting them. They unanimously picked Belisarius as their choice for emperor and pledged to accept no decision made by Theodora without their input or consent.

As a childless queen, Theodora was acutely aware of her tenuous grip on power, and after a few months of governing the empire by herself, there were few more relieved than she when Justinian unexpectedly showed signs of recovery. It was then, newly secured in her position, that she received word of what the generals had decided in the East. Furious that they would dare dispute her authority, she immediately recalled Belisarius to the capital. Others may have been taken in by his claims of loyalty, but she had always known that he was a viper lusting for the throne. This newest outrage merely confirmed her darkest suspicions.

Enraged as she might have been, however, Theodora knew her limitations. Emperors and empresses had fallen from power by outraging public opinion, and she herself had come within an inch of exile during the Nika revolt. Belisarius was not as other men—his prestige was so great that to throw him into prison would most likely topple her from the throne. So, as much as she would have liked to execute him, she contented herself with stripping his command, seizing his property, and banishing him in disgrace.

Justinian recovered his health to find the empire crumbling around him. Perhaps a fourth of all those living around the Mediterranean had died, and the loss of so many potential soldiers and taxpayers had severely crippled imperial resources. The only consolation was that Persia was suffering as well. Trying to take advantage of his weakened enemy, Chosroes had raided Byzantine territory, but he had only succeeded in infecting his own men—and, on his return, the rest of Persia as well.

The West was in an even worse condition. Without Belisarius, the Byzantine reconquest had collapsed with frightening speed. Ironically enough, Justinian had only himself to blame for most of it. Scared by the power of a general who had never wavered in his loyalty, he had decided that no one officer would wield supreme command and split the leadership of the Italian campaign between no fewer than five of them. This foolish decision divided the diminished Byzantine resources among squabbling, incompetent generals who almost immediately fell to arguing instead of completing the conquest.

Imperial weakness could hardly have come at a worse time. The Goths at last had found a worthy king in the brilliant Totila, and he was determined to save his kingdom from the desperate situation his predecessor had left it in. Easily outmaneuvering the unwieldy Byzantines, Totila surged through Italy, promising deliverance from the heavy imperial tax collectors and an end to the unceasing war. Belisarius had been welcomed into Rome as a liberator, but now it was the Goths who would set the Romans free.

Within a year, Totila had undone most of Belisarius’s work, and the hapless Byzantine generals wrote to Justinian, informing him that they were no longer capable of defending Italy. The reconquest, which had taken so much effort, seemed to be on the brink of slipping away, and the realization stung Justinian into action. Overriding the protests of his wife, he called once again for Belisarius.

The general had hardly deserved his disgrace, but with Theodora at his side, Justinian could never quite bring himself to trust his old friend, and the general was sent to Italy with only four thousand men. When he arrived, Belisarius found that the situation was virtually hopeless. His soldiers were deeply disillusioned, his commanders were uninspired, and the population was sympathetic to Totila and openly hostile to the Byzantines. Opening an offensive against the Goths was out of the question; it would be a miracle to hold those cities left in imperial control.

Somehow Belisarius managed to hold on to the center of Italy, but every day seemed to bring fresh disasters. Barbarian attacks on the frontiers grew more insistent, and the troops who didn’t drift off to protect their homes seemed more eager to defect to Totila than to fight him. They hadn’t seen regular pay since the onset of the plague, and the Gothic conquest had begun to seem inevitable. Hemorrhaging men and worried that he would soon be unable to protect Rome, Belisarius wryly wrote to the emperor, informing him of the deplorable situation and begging him to send more troops: “The soldiers already stationed … are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy they dismiss their horses, and cast their arms on the ground…. If the war could be won by the presence of Belisarius alone, your preparations are perfect…. But if you desire to conquer, you must do something more than this.”* Belisarius’s refreshingly candid letter went on to say that he could rescue the situation only if his old veterans were sent to him.

From the start, the request seemed doomed. The messenger charged with delivering it decided to enjoy his time in the capital instead of going directly to the palace. Only after he had courted a woman and gotten married did he seek an audience with the emperor and fulfill his mission. The second obstacle was more formidable. Theodora had no intention of allowing Belisarius and his veterans to be reunited, and there was simply no money to equip new troops. A few reinforcements were scraped up and sent, but as always it was too little and too late.

Without real aid from Constantinople, Belisarius couldn’t hope to raise enough men to defeat the Goths, and the war settled into a depressing stalemate. Rome seesawed back and forth between each army and was left a shattered ruin, desolate and nearly deserted. By 548, Belisarius was desperate enough to send his wife, Antonina, to Constantinople to beg for aid. The plague had run its course and things seemed to be generally improving elsewhere for the empire, so the general hoped that now money and men could be found to turn the tide against the Goths. There was also a good reason to hope that his wife would prove a more able ambassador than the last man he had sent. A close friend of Theodora, she would be able to bypass whatever red tape was thrown in her way and quickly receive a direct audience with the empress. Antonina arrived in the city eager to see her friend, but she found instead everything draped black in mourning and Justinian overwhelmed with grief. Theodora was dead.

She had been a bulwark in those desperate early days of the Nika riots, but as the de facto leader of the empire, she had been disastrous. Convinced that Belisarius was as politically minded as she herself was, she had poisoned the mind of her husband against the one man who could have accomplished his dreams of reconquest. Even worse, while Justinian lay dying, she had made it her personal mission to restore Monophysitism throughout the empire, revitalizing the heresy just as the entire controversy was on the brink of disappearing.* This single act would do more damage than any barbarian army could have, badly weakening the loyalty of most of Syria and Egypt. A century later, when a new and hostile enemy arrived, they would be greeted as liberators against the religious oppression of Constantinople, and much of the East would be wrenched from the Roman orbit forever.

Devastated by his loss, Justinian recalled Belisarius in 549 and greeted him like a brother. Throwing his arms around the tired man who had been so faithful through the years, Justinian installed the general in a sumptuous palace and even erected a bronze statue in his honor. Belisarius was uncomfortable with such praise and soon faded quietly into the background, but there were few people in the empire who deserved fame more. Without him, Justinian’s vast re-conquests would have been unthinkable, and the smaller, reduced state wouldn’t have had the resources to withstand the coming turbulent centuries.

As Belisarius watched from the shadows of Constantinople, Totila besieged Rome, and its unpaid, demoralized garrison, tired of the taste of horse meat, threw open the gates after a brief show of resistance. With the fall of the ancient capital—the fourth time it had changed hands since the war began—Justinian was finally convinced that Italy could only be won by entrusting undivided command to a single general. Calling the elderly eunuch Narses to him, he outfitted a massive army and entrusted it to the courtier.

Already in his seventies, Narses was an odd choice as supreme commander, especially since his only military experiences had been butchering a few thousand unarmed citizens during the Nika riots and causing Belisarius to lose Milan twelve years before. But Narses was a shrewd diplomat who had spent a lifetime gliding among the turbulent waters of the imperial court, and there were few men in the empire who were better connected. As far as the emperor was concerned, age wasn’t a concern. He was nearly seventy himself, and if age hadn’t diminished his own energy, he didn’t see why it should affect his new general.

Narses was equipped with all the supplies that had been denied to his predecessor to claim the victory that should have belonged to Belisarius. Sailing with nearly ten times the number of men granted to the great general, Narses brought with him all the money owed to the long-suffering Byzantine garrisons. When he arrived in Italy, scattering largesse, men flocked to his banner, swelling his ranks.

Just as the last transport ship left the imperial harbor, two ambassadors entered Constantinople bringing an intriguing message to the emperor. They were from Visigothic Spain and brought news of spreading chaos and a Roman revolt against the barbarian king. Under the command of a brilliant leader named Athanagild, the rebels had taken Córdoba and were now asking for imperial help to take Seville.

Almost any other man would have wished the men the best of luck and rejected the entire ridiculous idea. The empire’s resources were strained to the breaking point, its armies were bogged down in the ugly Italian morass, and the last thing it needed now was to commit to a far-flung province miles away from the overextended communication and supply lines. Justinian, however, couldn’t resist the opportunity and instantly agreed. Spain was the last kingdom where a Christian, Roman population was ruled by a barbarian, Arian king, and it would be easy for the Byzantines to present themselves as the champions of the faith. The Spanish population would inevitably rally against their heretical overlords, Justinian thought, providing a perfect bridgehead for the eventual reconquest of the whole peninsula.

Those who had thought Narses too old and decrepit to lead a military invasion were stunned with the man Justinian chose to lead the expedition to Spain. Nearly ninety years old, Liberius was a general of long experience, and—despite his age—an excellent choice for a commander. Leading an army of only a few hundred men, the wily general would soon have the Spanish on their heels. Upon landing in Spain, he quickly came to Athanagild’s aid and conquered Seville, but when the rebel leader was proclaimed king and nervously asked the Byzantines to leave, the shrewd general refused. Conducting a brilliant guerrilla war, he managed to play off the Romanized populace against their Arian overlords and reconquered the entire south of Spain for the empire.

The same month that Liberius set sail, Narses started the long march on Rome. Totila laughed when he heard that a eunuch was leading the imperial armies and let the barbarian Franks flood into northern Italy, hoping that they would eradicate the nuisance for him. As the Goths were soon to find out, however, there was an able mind concealed in Narses’ frail body, and he effortlessly dodged the Franks by keeping to the coast.

Near the old Roman town of Busta Gallorum, Narses caught Totila and, in a bloody struggle, completely crushed the Gothic army, killing the king in the process. Impoverished Rome threw open its gates to the Byzantines, and Narses sent its keys—along with Totila’s jewel-encrusted crown, golden armor, and bloody robe—to Constantinople as symbols of his triumph.

While the victorious Narses concentrated on driving the remnants of Gothic power from Italy, Justinian started preparing the conquest of Spain, but the plague returned to spoil his plans. For six months it raged, draining the already depleted empire, and the emperor was forced to give up his dreams of further conquest. As if to symbolize the hardships now afflicting Byzantium, that same year an earthquake caused the collapse of the half-dome above the high altar in the Hagia Sophia. What must have seemed a lifetime ago, the entire church had been built in six years, but now money was so scarce that five years passed before the dome was repaired.

What money the empire could still produce went to the all-important role of defense. There were simply no men to replace those killed by war or decimated by the plague, so Justinian slashed the military, depending more on gold than steel to repel the empire’s many enemies. At the start of his reign, the army had numbered more than half a million men; by the end, it was down to a mere 150,000. Since the frontiers had nearly doubled in size, the reduced forces couldn’t hope to effectively patrol them all. In 559, the dangerous game Justinian was playing caught up to him when a group of Huns overran the deserted frontier and came within thirty miles of Constantinople.

The city was in no danger thanks to its stout walls, but it was a humiliating experience for the emperor who had humbled the Gothic and Vandal kingdoms to hide behind his walls while a small force of barbarians terrorized the suburbs. Unfortunately for Justinian, there was no army at hand to punish these impudent savages, but there did happen to be a retired general in the city. Summoning the great man before him as he had so many times in the past, the emperor entrusted one last task to Belisarius.

It had been ten years since the general had seen combat, but he had lost none of his brilliance. Improvising an army out of a few hundred guards, veterans, and volunteers, he crippled the Huns with a carefully planned ambush, and even managed to drive the invaders back to the frontier. The sight of his invincible general once more scattering all before him resurrected all the old fears that had lain dormant in Justinian since Theodora’s death. With a rather unedifying flash of jealousy, the emperor abruptly dismissed Belisarius and took personal command of the army. The great general, still only in his fifties, faded gracefully into the background, content to watch yet again as another man claimed the victory that should have been his. Justinian’s methods were perhaps not nearly as inspiring to his watching subjects, but they were certainly effective. After bribing the Huns to leave, the emperor incited a rival tribe to invade their homeland. It hardly seemed a noble victory, but there was reason to celebrate. The empire at last was at peace.

It remained so for the rest of Justinian’s reign. Belisarius was never called on again, but he lived long enough to see Narses smash a Frankish army at Verona, bringing a conclusion to the long and bloody Italian reconquest. Perhaps there was some measure of satisfaction for the general as he saw the final realization of his master’s vision. The thought must have occurred to many that though Narses had planted the final standard, it was Belisarius’s labor that had brought Justinian’s dreams to fruition. Through it all, the general’s loyalty had never wavered, and he had suffered his humiliations in silence, preferring to remain the faithful servant of a man he could have overthrown.* Justinian survived him by only eight months, dying in his sleep at the ripe old age of eighty-three on November 14, 565.

Few emperors had ever worked so hard or devoted so much to the good of the empire. Indeed, the sight of Justinian pacing the labyrinthine halls of the Great Palace deep into the night had been so common that the imperial servants gave him the nickname of “thesleepless one.” His thirty-eight years on the throne saw vast improvements in the government, the law, and the economy, and left his imprint so firmly stamped on the capital that it has yet to disappear. He added more territory to the empire than any emperor but Trajan or Augustus, and he reconquered every country his armies attempted to take, making the Mediterranean once again a Roman lake. Cities from Antioch to Rome were adorned with breathtaking splendor, and rising at the center of it all stood the golden domes of the Hagia Sophia. Designed to outlast the centuries, it remains the most powerful vision of his reign, capable of momentarily lifting the veil of fifteen hundred years to let us glimpse Byzantium in her most glorious age.

Justinian’s human failings may have prevented him from trusting his great general, but that had only slowed the pace of success. The victories had been truly spectacular; nations trembled at his name, and arrogant kings and hostile generals had bowed humbly at his feet. But in the end, his grand dreams were betrayed, not by excessive ambition, but by the arrival of a diseased rat.

As time passed, it became clear that rather than the herald of a new and triumphant order, Justinian was instead the last fleeting glimpse of an old one. Never again would such a visionary rule the empire, nor would a man whose first language was Latin ever sit on its throne again. Despite all of Justinian’s energy and daring, the days of the old Roman Empire were gone and wouldn’t return. The bubonic plague had seen to that, killing off one-fourth of the population in its disastrous run, making Justinian’s reconquest impossible to hold. The new territory should have made the empire far richer and more secure, but instead, with the disease raging, it increased the frontiers at a time when the empire lacked the manpower or money to defend them. To maintain such an expanded empire with diminished resources would have required the ability and energy of both a Justinian and a Belisarius—two luxuries Byzantium would never have again.

*Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v. 4 (New York: Random House, 1993).

The historian Procopius, who was probably there, claims rather unbelievably that only five hundred citizens were left.

*Monophysitism is the teaching that Christ was divine but not fully human.

*He may have been neglected by the emperor, but Belisarius was never forgotten by the common man. Eight hundred years later, the people of Constantinople were still singing songs and writing poems celebrating his life.

Much that we know about Justinian and Belisarius comes from the pen of the great historian Procopius. By a strange twist of fate, the year 565 saw the death of all three Byzantine giants.

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