Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders

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Flavius Belisarius: The Last Great Roman Conqueror

Yes, the Byzantine Empire counts as Roman. The Byzantines called themselves Roman and didn’t for a second consider themselves anything else, despite not having control of Rome for themselves. As the Western Roman Empire fell and the Eastern Empire faced threats from all sides, Emperor Justinian I entrusted Belisarius to lead his armies.

After a successful campaign in Syria, Belisarius was able to negotiate a peace with the powerful Sassanid Empire. Upon his return to Constantinople, Belisarius witnessed the Nikka riots; over 30,000 spectators of a chariot race began riots that threatened to topple the empire.

Given command to stop the riots, Belisarius crushed the militant mob. Admittedly not the most impressive feat of generalship, but a unique test for any commander. Seeing his commander’s success, Justinian decided to send Belisarius on the difficult task of restoring the old empire.

Carthage and the area of modern Tunisia were the first target as a wealthy port city and a surprisingly massive center of agriculture. Belisarius invaded Africa and sought to take advantage of rebellions against the Vandal rulers there.

While on campaign, the Vandals organized a three-pronged attack at the battle of Ad Decimum to surround Belisarius, but the astute commander launched three separate counter-attacks and decisively defeated the Vandals before they could spring their trap.

Later in the African campaign at Tricamarum, Belisarius faced a Vandal army 3-4 times the size of his own. Rather than adopt a defensive position, Belisarius aggressively attacked, launching several powerful cavalry charges before closing with a determined infantry charge. This furious assault routed the Vandals and Belisarius would win North Africa for Justinian.

In his next campaign to retake Italy, Belisarius used a strategy of city hopping when faced with the numerically superior Ostrogoths. Darting around Italy, Belisarius was able to retake almost the entire Peninsula, showing a masterful grasp of siege assaults and defense.

Belisarius was eventually called back to deal with an incursion into Syria which he easily handled before retiring in Constantinople. Even in retirement, Belisarius was called upon once more to lead an army against a horde of Bulgars who threatened to besiege Constantinople. With a horribly outnumbered force, Belisarius defeated the Bulgars and pushed them out of Byzantine territory.

Belisarius’ gains were short-lived, but that shouldn’t affect his accomplishments of actually winning the territories that brought the Byzantine Empire to its greatest extent. Belisarius gave the Byzantines a taste of the Roman Empire’s former glory and was one of Rome’s last true conquerors.

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