A new Leonidas

Belisarius' defence of Constantinople

In his final battle, fought against the Kutrigur Bulgar Huns in 559, Belisarius was called out of retirement to fight for the city of Constantinople and his emperor, Justinian, one last time. Belisarius faithfully answered the call, despite the fact that Justinian had relied on him time and time again only to cast him aside when the crisis was resolved. Belisarius led only 300 men against the Bulgars, and was to be explicitly compared to King Leonidas of Sparta fighting against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC.

According to the historian Agathias, Belisarius had slightly more than 300 heavily-armed, first-rate troops, many of them veterans of his earlier campaigns (Agathias, Histories 5.16.2) The rest of his men were unarmed civilians and crowds of peasants from surrounding fields. This small force was, nonetheless, confident of victory. Agathias praises Belisarius for showing “superb generalship and a daring out of all proportion to his age” (5.16.1) – he was nearing sixty, again like Leonidas.

Belisarius encamped not far from the city, near the village of Chettus. The peasants dug a trench around the camp, and spies were sent out to discover the enemy's strength. Commanded by one Zabergan, they were at the village of Melantias (or Malanthius, the modern suburb of Istanbul, Hoşköy; Agathias 5.14.5). This site was mentioned in both the Ravenna Cosmography and the Tabula Peutingeriana and in Ammianus Marcellinus (31.11.1 – although his location would seem to be further from the city).

The armies

Agathias tells us Zabergan had 7,000 cavalry (5.12.5) and headed straight for Constantinople, reaching the outskirts of the city unopposed and committing atrocities unchecked. Agathias tells us that “There was nothing to stop them, no sentries, no engines of defence, nobody to man them. There was not even the sound of a dog barking” (5.13.6). 

Agathias laments that the armies had not remained at the level of earlier emperors and had dwindled in number to a fraction of what they had been. Here, he gives us one of the few concrete numbers - their reliability is disputed - for troops in late Roman armies. He tells us that while, there had been 645,000 men in Rome’s armies, in the sixth century this had dropped to barely 150,000 (5.13.7). What is more, these paltry forces were split between Italy, Africa, Spain, Lazica (on the east coast of the Black Sea, modern Georgia), Egypt, and Persia. Justinian, Agathias tells us, had allowed the quality of the legions to deteriorate “as though he thought he would have no further need of them” (5.14.2)

In addition, corruption meant the men were not paid properly, and soldiers revolted so that all of Thrace was deserted of troops when Zabergan invaded.

Agathias tells us that the citizens of Constantinople were terror-stricken and the only men standing guard were the Scholarii – formerly soldiers, but now soldiers in name only: “merely civilians in splendid uniforms” (5.15.3). In this state of terror, only one man answered the call: Belisarius, the “aged general” (5.15.7).

In a later speech, Belisarius describes himself as having “grey hair and aged frame, long past the time for bearing arms” (5.17.5). We do not know the date of Belisarius’ birth but it is usually placed around AD 500. After a military career that spanned twenty years and which had seen both defeat and the most magnificent of triumphs, Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in 548 and forced into retirement. He had been thus retired for eleven years when he was called back to service to face Zabergan. He was welcomed enthusiastically, but he was the city's only hope.

Leonidas and Belisarius

Encamped at Chettus, Belisarius lit many fires to mislead the enemy about his numbers. Perhaps because he led them, or in a mistaken pride that, being Roman, they had already won, Belisarius sought to check the over-confidence of his men and make them realise the gravity of the situation they faced. He gave a speech (5.17.1-18.11) to his soldiers urging caution and censuring his men for their “rash and over-confident daring” (5.17.2). His strength “is more or less evenly matched by that of our enemy” (5.17.5) which suggests that the unarmed civilians and peasants accompanying him numbered more than 6,000 men. Belisarius warned that “brute force without the aid of sound judgement is powerless to defeat an enemy” (5.17.5). Agathias states explicitly (5.19.1) that this speech had a sobering effect and that their “disciplined courage was, in its humble way, not unlike that exhibited by Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae when Xerxes and his army were already approaching.” Agathias makes an explicit comparison with Leonidas and his 300, despite the different situation. The only similarities were the slightly more than 300 men and Belisarius’ age – both he and Leonidas were approaching, or had reached, sixty year. Agathias continues the comparison (5.19.2):

“But the Spartans perished to a man, their fame resting solely on the fact they did not die like cowards but killed a large number of Persians before they were overwhelmed. Belisarius and his Romans in addition to the courage of Spartans routed all the enemy, inflicting heavy casualties on them and suffering practically no losses themselves.”

The battle

Agathias then gives us details of the battle. 2,000 of the enemy, led by Zabergan, charged the Roman camp independently of the rest of their force, probably out of contempt of the Romans and intending to prove themselves and win renown. Belisarius led out his troops in response, arming 200 of his cavalry with javelins and shields and placing them in ambush on either side of the woodland from which he thought the barbarians would make their appearance. At his signal, these troops were to let their missiles fly. This would roll up the enemy flanks so that they would be crowded together, unable to take advantage of their superiority of numbers. He placed his remaining troops (100?) in the centre of the line with the civilians and peasants,  instructing the latter to make as much noise as they could.

As the enemy approached and the ambush was about to be sprung, Belisarius led his remaining men forward to counter-charge the enemy. The pre-arranged signal was given and the ambush unleashed from either side of the enemy. Agathias tells us that “the barbarians, finding themselves assailed by missiles on all sides, did exactly what Belisarius had anticipated” (5.19.7-8). They closed ranks and huddled together so tightly that they could not effectively defend themselves. They could not use their bows, and they could not manoeuvre their horses and thought they were hemmed in by a vast army; dust raised by the crowds behind Belisarius and the noise they were making concealed the true nature of Belisarius’ fore and its size. A charge led by Belisarius broke the barbarians and they fled not even trying to defend themselves.

The Romans followed in an orderly manner and despatched any barbarians they came across. 400 barbarians were killed, but the Romans lost not a man and only a few were injured. The remnants of the barbarians made it back to their camp. There, their panicked arrival threw the rest of the camp into disorder; the whole force broke camp and retreated in chaos.

Belisarius, and a Spartan victory

For Agathias, however, the comparison with Leonidas was more important than the outcome (or the precise details) of the original Thermopylae 300 in comparison to Belisarius’ exploit. In this, we can see that the misappropriation of the imagery and idea of King Leonidas and the Spartan 300, where the battle of Thermopylae is misunderstood and misrepresented as a Spartan victory, is not an entirely modern phenomenon.

See also: J. D. Frendo Agathias: The Histories in Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, (English translation with introduction and short notes), vol. 2A, Series Berolinensis, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975).


Whoops – that was an empty layout block that got autofilled with ‘lorem ipsum’. Thanks for the heads-up – fixed now.

Jasper Oorthuys

Your ‘Latin’ quote is gibberish – it’s generated placeholder text.
Apart from that, an interesting article… :-)

Mark M

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