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Review: Belisarius: The Last Roman General

Ian Hughes

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Belisarius: The Last Roman General

The book “Belisarius: The Last Roman General” by Ian Hughes is a very interesting position about the famous Byzantine commander who recaptured part of the lands of the former Western Roman Empire from the barbarians and implemented the ambitious plans of Emperor Justinian I, who wanted to rebuild the Roman Empire.

As the author pointed out in the introduction, the main goal of the work is to tell the story of Flavius ​​Belisarius, who fought with the Persians in the east, recaptured North Africa (including Carthage) from the Vandals and Italy (including Rome) from the Ostrogoths. Thanks to this, in the middle of the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire significantly expanded its territorial range.

However, apart from biographical facts, the author skilfully describes the events that were taking place in Byzantium at that time and subsequent military campaigns. It should be noted, however, that they are related to the person of Belisarius and do not stray far from the main plot of the book.

The basic and main source of knowledge about the brilliant leader is Procopius of Caesarea, who was Belisarius’ secretary. He accompanied him on most of his military campaigns and personally experienced the luxurious life in Constantinople. His two works (1) History of Wars and (2) Secret History allow us today to understand well the world of intrigue, politics and struggle of that time. Especially the second item proves how much influence women had on their high-ranking husbands at court, e.g. Antonina on Belisarius or Empress Theodora on Justinian.

The author of the book describes the next years of Belisarius’ life in a reasonable way and based on sources, thoughts and research of scientists. He reflects on the reasons for his military decisions and draws conclusions. To a large extent, thanks to this, the reader has the opportunity to form their own opinion and evaluate the characters.

What can certainly be interesting is the huge amount of information about the weapons, fighting style, the structure of the Persians, Goths, Vandals and Byzantines themselves. The Byzantine army was completely different from its Roman counterpart in the early Empire. The strength of the army was no longer based on heavy infantry, and was largely based on horse archers (hippo-toxotai), whose rise was associated with the invasions of the Huns and their incorporation into the Byzantine army. Numerous conflicts on the borders and the extent of land meant that the forces had to be mobile and divided into smaller units. It is worth mentioning that in 559 the Byzantine army consisted of about 110,000 soldiers.
Finally, the author allows himself to assess the character of Belisarius, based on sources and his own thoughts.

I can certainly recommend the book “Belisarius: The Last Roman General” to anyone who would like to learn about the last attempts to rebuild the mighty Roman Empire. Belisarius’ conquests were exceptional, and he had established himself in an important position in the emperor’s court; among others also because he was his friend and close advisor. This also, however, led to the birth of political opponents, numerous slander and accusations of an attempted coup d’état.

Undoubtedly, the military aspect is also an added value of the book. Anyone who would like to learn about the manner of command, tactics and armament of the army of late Roman times should decide to explore this position. Ian Hughes is a specialist in the Roman army of late antiquity and will certainly not disappoint even the most demanding readers.

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