The Persian Invasion: Unfavourable Times (part 2)

With the return of Belisarius to the Persian front, it seemed as if he would sweep the enemy away and triumph once more. Unfortunately, good fortune was not on the side of Justinian and the empire. There were a few problems that hampered the effectiveness of the Persian campaign. As a result, Belisarius did not defeat the Persians in a resounding way. In fact, the war continued to go badly for the empire. Read on to find out the problems that hindered the Persian campaign.

The Offer From Lazica

The small kingdom of Lazica occupied a strategic position along the south-eastern corner of the Black Sea coast. But it was a poor country with little to offer to its invaders. Aware of this weakness, King Gobazes and his predecessors submitted to the Byzantine Empire and served as its vassal. Many years of peace passed without issue until Justinian came along.

With his trademark pushiness that nearly cost him his life and throne, Justinian managed to alienate King Gobazes. He did so by sending soldiers to fortify and take over Petra which was the principle port of the kingdom. Furthermore, he also sent an official to establish monopolies for the empire. These arrangements made life hard for the people of Lazica. But there was little they could do about it. In the end, Gobazes could not endure this state of affairs any longer. He had no choice but to turn to the Persians for help. They were the only power who had the strength to face the Byzantines.

Aware that his country was poor, Gobazes focused on its strategic access to the Black Sea. He told the Persian Shah Khusrau that Lazica would serve as an ideal base from which to attack the Byzantines. From Lazica, the Shah could also establish contact with barbarian tribes like the Huns. With the proper incentive, these tribes would gladly assist him in his attacks on the Byzantines. The idea appealed to Khusrau greatly and he agreed to come to the aid of Lazica.

The Fall of Petra

In the spring of 541, Khusrau mobilized his army and led them into Lazica. There he engaged in a bloody siege for the city of Petra. Petra was the principle port of Lazica, so it made strategic sense for Khusrau to take it as well. But the capture of Petra did not come easy. Due to its importance, the city was well-built and defended by Byzantine troops. Yet it was useless against the Persian onslaught. By carrying out a determined attack, the Persians soon captured Petra. As was his usual practice, Khusrau helped himself to the riches of the city.

The Half-Hearted Performance of Belisarius

While Khusrau besieged Petra, Belisarius returned to the Persian front after nearly 10 years away. Fresh from the Gothic war, Belisarius had a unit of Goths in his army to aid him. But there were no brilliant manoeuvres that made him famous. Due to domestic problems, he was deeply troubled and couldn’t focus on the battle at hand. For some reason, he bypassed Lazica and headed for Nisibis in the Persian Empire. But when he assessed the city, he did not have the confidence to capture it. Aware that he had to do something with his men, Belisarius led them to capture a small town called Sisaurani.

At this point, Belisarius found his men stricken with dysentery. With the heat going up in the Mesopotamian region due to summer, he decided it was time to end the campaign to avoid needless losses. Meanwhile, Khusrau learned of Belisarius’s movements and realized the danger he posed. He quickly left Lazica and brought his army home to defend his domains. With that, the Persian campaign for 541 ended. Once again, Khusrau retained the upper hand.

Belisarius Turns Khusrau Away

In the spring of 542, Khusrau marched his armies out to attack the Byzantines once more. This time, Belisarius was ready. Having resolved his domestic problems, he could focus fully on facing Khusrau in battle. Before the two armies clashed, he received and awed a Persian envoy with his troops, military arrangements and confidence. The envoy hurriedly returned to the Shah and advised him not to seek battle with Belisarius. To do so against such a formidable general would only result in great loss of lives. Wisely, Khusrau declined to engage Belisarius and returned home.

The Plague

But there was another reason that prevented a decisive battle. The bubonic plague was raging across the land. From Egypt it quickly spread to all parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. The plague had struck both empires and their armies hard. With people and soldiers dying by the thousands, life came to a standstill. There was no one to man the shops or tend to the fields. Naturally, famine followed the plague. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the plague struck Justinian himself. The fate of the empire hung in the balance. This was not the time to wage war.

Reflections of the Vizier

Time and circumstances play a large part in the success of any venture. If the times are against you, there is no way you can succeed no matter how well laid out your plans are. With the times against the Byzantine Empire, even Belisarius could not successfully defend it. After he managed to resolve his domestic problems and got into the grove of things, the plague struck. The plague affected the economic might and manpower of the empire which in turn hampered the war effort. But the most important victim of the plague was Justinian who hovered between life and death. This would have grave consequences that further affected the Persian effort.


Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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