The road to peace is a bloody one. When two empires of equal strength engage in an inconclusive war, true peace only comes about when both sides have no more will to fight. With the outbreak of the plague, the war between Persia and Byzantium reached a turning point. While the plague did sap the will and strength of both parties, by itself, it wasn’t enough to end the war. What it did do was to begin a chain of events that finally led to peace. Read on to learn how the Persian war ended.
The Succession Issue
The plague broke out in 542 in the midst of the war between Byzantium and Persia. That summer, as luck would have it, the plague struck Justinian as well. As he lay in critical condition in the capital, Theodora assumed command of the empire. But her hold on power was insecure. Since she derived power from her husband, she stood to lose everything if he died. Worsening matters, the imperial couple had no children and soon, the question of succession became a vital issue. The only way Theodora could hold onto power was to appoint a successor of her own choosing in the event that Justinian died.
But there was a problem. It was an old practice for the army to choose the emperor. A ruler who did not have the backing of the army could not hope to secure his hold on power. During this time, most of the senior officers were at the Persian front in Mesopotamia. When news of Justinian’s condition reached them, they planned for the worst and assumed he had died given the high rate of mortality. At the military council to decide the succession issue, the officers agreed not to support any ruler chosen at the capital.
Meanwhile, Justinian survived the plague and was on his road to recovery. But the capital soon learned of the military council and its decision. Theodora was livid. To bring the army in line, she moved against the two generals signalled out as the ringleaders. The first general, Buzes, was a subordinate of Belisarius. He had a distinguished career which would have made him an ideal choice as the next emperor. Theodora had him arrested and thrown into a dungeon where he remained for twenty eight months. When he obtained his released, his health and mind was not what it used to be.
The second general was Belisarius himself. But Belisarius was so popular that she couldn’t just throw him into prison. To have done so would have resulted in a backlash and possibly another riot in the capital. Instead, Theodora decided to charge him for enriching himself at the expense of the state. She would claim that he withheld part of the booty from his campaigns for himself. Given Belisarius’s immense wealth, this was probably true. After the end of the 542 campaign, Belisarius returned to the capital. There, the empress relieved him of his military command, removed his private army and seized his wealth.
Belisarius’s Role in the Council
What was the role of Belisarius in the decision that the military council took? Did Belisarius convene the council which led to the decision it made? As the commander of the Byzantine forces in the East, he must have been aware of the council. Even if he did not chair the council which led to its decision, he must have approved of its decision. Did this make him disloyal to Justinian? Not necessarily. If you consider the record of Belisarius, he never made a move against his master although he could have. But the striking point about his endorsement shows that he might not have had the same amount of loyalty towards Theodora. That was the cause of his downfall.
Peace at Last
In 543, Justinian’s health improved enough for him to resume command. He pardoned Belisarius and returned part of his wealth to him. But he refrained from giving him a military command. Given the recent events, Justinian was no doubt suspicious of his leading general. Without Belisarius to lead the army however, Byzantine fortunes declined quickly along the Persian front. In the summer of 543, Justinian sent a large force of 30,000 men to invade Persian Armenia. Sadly, a smaller Persian army destroyed this force. It was a costly setback that the empire could not afford in the midst of a war and the plague. In fact, Justinian had never given Belisarius such a large force to wage war with. I cannot help but wonder what Belisarius could have achieved with it.
In 544, the Shah attacked Byzantine Edessa. Somehow, the city managed to withstand the onslaught and paid Khusrau off with 500 pounds of gold. By 545, both sides had expended themselves and were ready for peace at last. Khusrau was tired of war. He also had to deal with the plague and domestic troubles. As usual, Justinian bought off his enemies. He paid Khusrau 5,000 pounds of gold for a five year peace. Lazica remained in Khusrau’s hands much to Justinian’s chagrin.
Overall, Khusrau had profited from the war which was his original aim. It was the Byzantines who were worse off as they could not present a united front against the enemy. The result was a loss of territories, cities, wealth and soldiers.
War in the West
Meanwhile, the military situation around the empire worsened. There were revolts in Africa and Italy. Peace on the Persian front allowed Justinian to focus on the West once more. But the situation in the West was so dire that few leaders were up to this great task. Belisarius’s name was at the top of a very short list.
It came as no surprise that sometime in 543; Theodora wrote a letter to Belisarius to inform him that she forgave him. Whatever Belisarius’s feelings were about this treatment, we can only imagine. But as Justinian’s options dwindled, he had no choice but to reinstate Belisarius and send him into battle again. Although he did so, this did not mean that the emperor trusted his general.
Initially, it seemed as if Belisarius would return to Persia. The general wanted nothing for than to a chance to distinguish himself against the Persians. But his wife Antonina opposed this appointment. She would never forget the humiliation she had suffered in the East. With Theodora to back her, Antonina got her way. Thus, in May 544, Belisarius returned to Italy instead.
Reflections of the Vizier
The plague affected the manpower and economic might of the Persians and the Byzantines. But by itself, the plague would not have necessarily ended the war in favour of the Persians. The problem was the internal dissension that the plague unearthed within the Byzantine Empire. Because the Byzantines could not present a united front against the Persians, the war ended badly for them. Yet instead of learning from his mistakes, Justinian would continue to distrust Belisarius. This would lead to disastrous results in the West.
Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.