Belisarius of Illyria: The Last of the Good Romans

This blog tries to incorporate history into fitness to encourage YOU to learn up on: historical events and figures, become more knowledgeable, as well as well-rounded. At least we hope we’re doing that. This time around we go for a great story of hard-work, integrity, and how it doesn’t amount to success all the time. In fact, you can lay yourself on the line, and still get slapped in the face.

With that, let’s go back into Roman history, in the age of empire. People here of the great Caesars when it comes to Roman history. If you’re lucky they may know about a dude named Pompey, or even Hadrian, Or even a crazy guy named Caligula. But let’s dive into a more obscure name in Roman history. However, by obscure we definitely don’t mean less influential. Let’s talk about the Roman General, Belisarius.

Belisarius was a person who would be called the Last of the Good Romans. Now this title was no joke. It was probably one of the most esteemed titles of the time. To be called one of the few people to still embody the values of the Roman Empire in a time where being “Roman” had changed greatly. In fact, during Belisarius’ time, and that of his Emperor Justinian’s, Rome itself was not even part of the empire.

Belisarius, in true Roman fashion, would change that. Born in the land known as Thrace, Belisarius would rise to great heights as the Byzantine Empire’s finest military mind. Innovation was his forte as he would come up with an elite group of heavy cavalry troops called the Bucellarii that would become the cornerstone of the Roman military during his command.

Belisarius’ innovative heavy cavalry were both capable archers on horseback and able to double as lance-wielding shock troops.

It was through Belisarius’ ability as a general that Justinian was able to broker a temporary peace with the Sassanid Persians, a historic rival of the Roman Empire in Asia. He would go on to save the Emperor’s life in the Hippodrome of Constantinople when a riot broke out between two rival gangs of chariot racers and their fans. Called the Nika Riots, Justinian and his power of office were about to be overthrown by the Blues and the Greens (rival gangs of the stadium). However, Belisarius was able to quickly mobilize troops to save his emperor and allow Justinian to retain his foothold on the situation.

For those who remember the Stanley Cup Riots in Vancouver when the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins, the Nika Riots were on a whole other level.

For doing so, Belisarius was granted an epic campaign to reclaim North Africa, which he successfully led. This success led to winning the chance to go and reclaim Italy for Justinian. The chance was all that he needed because Belisarius was able to secure Rome and most of Italy, immortalizing Justinian as the emperor who took back Rome.

Now a bit about Belisarius’ character; he was a man pushed by two passions. One was his loyalty to Justinian and the other, was his love for his wife, Antonina. In an empire notorious for having successful generals try and usurp power from their current leaders, Belisarius proved to break the trend again and again. Upon reclaiming Rome, he was offered by the former inhabitants of the city, the title of Roman Emperor. He refused (although he initially accepted so that he could get into the city and fully claim it in the name of Justinian).

There was a popular myth in the Middle Ages that Emperor Justinian had Belisarius blinded and stripped of all his honours. Belisarius was then forced to go on begging in the streets.

Unfortunately Belisarius’ high character would not be rewarded as he would end up stripped of his rank and forced to stand trial later on in his life. So frightened was Justinian of Belisarius’ popularity that he quaked to give his epic general the gratitude he deserved. What’s even more unfortunate is that Belisarius actually married his wife Antonina due to her close friendship with Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora. In turn, his wife cheated on him with their adopted son, leaving Belisarius publicly humiliated.

With an Emperor who was too scared to trust him, and an infidelous wife, Belisarius was poorly rewarded for his loyalties. Belisarius’ life is a great example of how putting in incredible work, being innovative, and loyal to ideals doesn’t always lead to acknowledged success. There was a cool quote that a weightlifter said (sorry for the vagueness) that there is no other place than your physical training that YOU alone are accountable for the results. In other areas of your life you can put in hard work and yet not be personally rewarded for it, just like Belisarius was. However, with physical training, it’s YOU alone who are responsible for the results. Whether those efforts result in progress or stagnation.

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