Underrated Generals in History: Belisarius and Yue Fei

*Disclaimer: I do not own any of the photos used in this blogpost and all credits goes to their respective owners.*

Introduction

Across the world, whether in the east or west, war was never absent throughout history. With war comes bloodshed, and also the tales of legendary generals.

Speaking of famous generals, the first few that may come to your mind could be Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. 

Yet today, we’ll be looking into the lives of two less famous generals (at least compared to those mentioned above), Flavius Belisarius and Yue Fei.

Although 600 years apart and living in different civilizations, these two generals had similar characteristics and fates. Both were capable and loyal but untrusted by their boss, their respective emperors. 

Without further ado, let’s dive right in!

Who is Belisarius?

Belisarius mosaic
A mosaic presentation of Belisarius
Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Φλάβιος Βελισάριος

Flavius Belisarius (c. 500/505-c. 565)

Belisarius was a military commander of the Byzantine Empire that served Justinian I. Under the rule of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire entered its first golden age.

About the era of Belisarius

If there is an Eastern Roman Empire, there must be a Western, right?

In 286, the Roman Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two halves. The western part became the Western Roman Empire, and the eastern part became the Eastern Roman Empire. 

Since Diocletian, the two empires have divided and reunited themselves a few more times. Until 395, when the two split for the last time and were never reunited again. 

King Alaric of the Visigoths raided Rome in 410, which marked the beginning of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. 66 years later, the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus was deposed. His father, the actual leader of the empire, was killed by the barbarian leader Odoacer. 

The Western Roman Empire fell, but the Eastern Roman Empire survived.

Achievements of Belisarius

In his 31-year career, Belisarius restored the Byzantine Empire to the past glory of the Roman Empire.

Roman Empire at its greatest extent, under the reign of Trajan
Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent, under the reign of Justinian I
Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He conquered the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, much of Italy, and even took Rome—The historical heartland of the Roman Empire. 

These lands remained in Byzantine control until the death of Justinian. Some of Italy was later lost, but the rest remained on the map of the empire for at least one more century.

Thus, Belisarius was able to (temporarily) expand the Byzantine Empire to its greatest extent in its 1123 years of history. Until the fall of the empire in 1453, nobody other than Belisarius had ever been able to achieve this again. 

Iconic victories of Belisarius include:

-Iberian War against the Sassanid Empire

  • Battle of Dara, 530

-Vandalic War against the Vandalic Kingdom

  • Battle of Ad Decimum and Tricamarum, 533

-Gothic War against the Ostrogothic Kingdom 

  • First Siege of Naples, 536
  • First Siege of Rome, 537-538

Because of his success in conquering the lost Roman lands, Belisarius was remembered as “The last of the Romans”.

Who is Yue Fei?

Portrait of Yue Fei, painted in Qing dynasty

岳飛

Yue Fei (1103-1142)

Yue Fei was a Chinese military general who served Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song dynasty in ancient China.

About the era of Yue Fei

During the time of Yue Fei, the Southern Song dynasty had just been founded in Southern China. 

The neighboring Jin dynasty, ruled by the Jurchen, had conquered the lands that belonged to the Northern Song dynasty in the north. Even the capital, Bianjing (present-day Kaifeng, Henan), was sieged by the Jurchens. 

The predecessors of Gaozong, Qinzong, and Huizong, his half-brother and father, were also captured in the incident. This marked the end of the Northern Song dynasty. 

Gaozong, by then Prince of Kang, escaped the incident and fled to Southern China. Soon, Gaozong established the Southern Song dynasty, continuing the Song dynasty. Linan (present-day Hangzhou, Zhejiang) was made the new capital. 

The Jurchen Jin took over Northern China. The Southern Song dynasty was only able to control parts of China south of the Yangtze River until it fell to the Mongols in 1279. 

Map of Northern Song dynasty and neighboring countries

玖巧仔, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of Southern Song dynasty and neighboring countries

玖巧仔, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Achievements of Yue Fei

Yue Fei is best known for his military achievements against the Jurchen Jin. 

With his personal fleet, Yue Fei’s army, Yue Fei went on 4 expeditions to the north to reclaim lands that fell to Jin and its puppet state, Qi. 

He recovered several counties near Xiangyang(located approximately in Hubei today), followed by six more further north(located in Henan) today during his first two expeditions. 

When Wuzhu, the sole military leader of Jin, declared war and marched south in 1140, Yue Fei set off on his last and most successful expedition. 

He conquered 7 prefectures in the north. At the peak of the expedition, they were only 20km away from Kaifeng, the lost capital. 

Yet because of political reasons, Gaozong sent 12 orders to Yue Fei and recalled him back to Linan. Having no choice, Yue Fei was forced to halt the campaign at the brink of success and return to the capital.

He never made it back to the battlefield again because he died.

How did Yue Fei die? He was accused of treason (obviously framed) by Qin Hui, prime minister of the time, and executed.

Soon after his death, the Song dynasty made peace with the Jurchens. All the land Yue Fei and his comrades had conquered was given back to the Jurchens.

All efforts and success Yue Fei made on the battlefield were in vain, yet his legacy remains. 

Yue Fei is still celebrated as a hero in Chinese history textbooks and folklore until today, almost a Millenium later. 

Iconic victories of Yue Fei:

  • Battle at Qingshuiting/清水亭之戰/清水亭之战(1130)
  • Battle of Yancheng/郾城之戰/郾城之战 (1140)
  • Battle of Yingchang/穎昌之戰/颖昌之战(1140)
  • Battle of Zhuxian Town、朱仙鎮之戰/ (1140)

(Some of these battle names may not be accurate, so if you are interested in learning more, please search up the Chinese name)

Belisarius vs. Yue Fei: How are they similar?

1. Discipline and Fairness: Key to managing people

“Discipline is the soul of an army”

George Washington

Both Belisarius and Yue Fei ruled their troops with absolute discipline.

Let me give you some examples, starting from Belisarius. 

In 533, Belisarius was reappointed as Magister Millitum per Orientum (General of the East). Then, his army set sail to North Africa to invade the Vandalic Kingdom. 

(Note: During the Iberian War with the Persians, Belisarius was General of the East. But he was removed from the position due to a Byzantine defeat in the battle of Callinicum)

As they sailed toward North Africa, they stopped along different cities in the empire to replenish supplies.

As you can see here, Dardanelles Straight isn’t very far away from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey)
© Google Map, 2022

When they were passing through the Dardanelles Strait (called Hellespont in the old times), 

Belisarius discovered that two intoxicated Hun mercenaries (hired foreign soldiers) had killed a soldier. 

In an attempt to warn his soldiers of their fate if they dared to commit a crime, he had the two murderers hanged in front of the entire army. 

Following the execution, he addressed the army as follows.

“If you are not able to use clean hands against the enemy, I shall not consider you a fellow soldier of mine, no matter how fearsome he is reputed to the enemy. For bravery cannot be victorious unless it be arrayed along with justice.”

Yue Fei also had similar strategies in managing his army of ten thousand soldiers. 

Yue Fei’s army (岳家軍) was well-known for its strict discipline.

Never destroy a house even if you are freezing to death, never loot for food even if you are starving to death.

Such were the ground rules of Yue Fei’s army. He instructed his soldiers to maintain good behavior all the time, even if that might cost their life. 

Achieving this level of discipline is insanely difficult, but Yue Fei was able to make his soldiers achieve that. 

Once, a soldier took a bundle of hemp rope from a peasant. He intended to use it to bound piles of hay together as horse food. 

Just a bundle of ropes, no big deal. 

Yue Fei had the soldier beheaded immediately for stealing from the commoners. 

This proves how Yue Fei valued discipline, just like Belisarius 600 years ago.

2. Undisputed loyalty

Both Belisarius and Yue Fei were the most respected and most powerful Generals in history. 

They nurtured strong, highly disciplined soldiers who swore allegiance to them. Belisarius had his personal regiment, his Bucelarii, and so did Yue Fei, who was (obviously) head of Yue Fei’s army. 

They were looked up to as a national hero, and well-respected by their people. 

They were the Thanos of their age. With a snap of the finger, they could easily overthrow the emperor. 

Despite their power, they have never been unfaithful to their respective emperors. In fact, it was the emperors who failed to do them justice.

Again, let’s start with Belisarius. 

Belisarius-Loyalty worth more than a crown

Photo by Paul Chard on Unsplash

At the final stages of the Gothic wars in 540, Belisarius was ready to besiege Ravenna, the capital of the Ostrogoth Kingdom. 

Aidless and weary of war, King Vitiges of the Goths opened negotiations with Belisarius. 

The gothic nobles made a secret offer to Belisarius. They promised to surrender and make Belisarius Emperor of the West if they would secure the safety of the Gothic population. 

Belisarius had no intention of becoming a traitor. 

He tricked the Goths into believing he wanted the crown they offered, only to have Ravenna under his belt and end the war ASAP. 

Satisfied with the “Acceptance”, the gates of Ravenna were opened to the Roman troops. 

Belisarius honored his words, and not a single person in the city was harmed. Without any bloodshed in Ravenna, the war was over. 

Soon after settling down, Belisarius was recalled back to Constantinople. Vitiges and his wife were held as captives. Along with all the Gothic treasuries, they were taken to Constantinople.

He never crowned himself Emperor of the West.

Even when offered a crown, his loyalty to Justinian was not shaken. Instead, he used this to his advantage to win land for Justinian. 

But how did Justinian treat his victorious and loyal general? The answer? Distrust and disgrace. 

Mistreatment by Justinian

After hearing what the Goths offered Belisarius, Justinian grew suspicious of Belisarius, fearing that he might threaten his reign. 

Since then, Belisarius constantly went in and out of favor. Each time he was disgraced, stripped of his positions and riches, he was only restored because Justinian needed him to secure his empire. 

Yet every time, Belisarius never failed to disappoint Justinian. Despite being mistreated and untrusted, Belisarius never betrayed his emperor. 

Justinian feared and hated Belisarius, but he had to admit that Belisarius was the only person who could secure lands for him. 

Finally, after being accused of plotting against the emperor in 562, but again restored to favor the next year. The old Belisarius was left to die in peace in 565. 

In stark contrast, Yue Fei was not as lucky as Belisarius. 

Yue Fei-Loyalty that costs his life

Throughout Yue Fei’s military career, he joined and left the army 4 times. 

He left the army for the first time because he had to return home to mourn his dead father. 

Before joining the army for the second time, the Jurchen Jin army raided Yue Fei’s hometown. The heartless Jurchen soldiers raided, looted, and killed as they pleased, while the Song soldiers dropped their weapons and fled. 

Angered by what he witnessed, Yue Fei decided to rejoin the army. This time, he wanted to join the troops stationed on battle frontlines.

To encourage her son, Yue Fei’s mother gave him a tattoo on his back before he left for the battlefield.

精忠報國

Serve the country with absolute loyalty.

Historians debate whether his mother was the one who gave him the tattoo, but it is likely true that Yue Fei did have this tattoo.

Yue Fei had this message engraved on his back and on his soul. 

He fought fearlessly against the Jurchens. Despite being a high-ranked general, Yue Fei fought against the Jin soldiers at the head of the army during the Battle of Yancheng, earning the total respect of his soldiers. 

The results of this battle devastated the Jurchens. Yue Fei’s army crushed their elite heavy cavalry unit and sent the fierce Jurchen soldiers into the run.

Yet, as mentioned before, his success ended when Gaozong sent 12 orders and forced him to abandon the campaign.

The last march of loyalty

He must have been very conflicted while deciding whether he should obey the emperor or not. 

Clearly, the Song army was winning. They were close to retrieving the lost capital. They were capable and equipped to fight all their way north. 

Continuing seemed like the best decision to Yue Fei, as he was not far from achieving his dreams of reconquering the lost lands in the north. 

In terms of loyalty to the country, it was also the right thing to do. Reconquering lost lands in the north was not only a personal ambition of Yue Fei but also the dream of every commoner in the Song dynasty.

However conflicting it may seem, obeying Gaozong was also an act that would prove his loyalty to the country. 

Emperor Gaozong was the symbol of the country. Obeying the orders would prove his loyalty to the emperor, and thus the country. As disobeying the imperial orders meant treason and execution, he would also save his life.

Unwilling to betray Gaozong and lose his life, he eventually obeyed the absurd orders from Gaozong. Before leaving, he wept as he kneeled in the direction of Linan, yearning,

Ten years of effort, all ruined within a day!

Yue Fei

We all know what happened next.

Emperor Gaozong had feared Yue Fei for a long time, viewing him as a threat to the throne. To his convenience, Wuzhu agreed to make peace on one condition: Yue Fei must be killed.

He and Qin Hui, the prime minister, desperately wanted to make peace with the Jurchens. It was the perfect chance to get rid of Yue Fei. Gaozong had no reason not to make good use of it. 

So he straight-up sent Yue Fei to prison without bothering to make reasonable excuses. The dark, cold prison cell was where the life of Yue Fei came to an end.

Belated Justice

20 years after Yue Fei’s death, Emperor Gaozong died. The heir became Emperor Xiaozong. He declared that Yue Fei was innocent, gave Yue Fei several honorary titles, and commissioned a proper tomb. There, he was reburied and able to enjoy his well-deserved rest. 

Later emperors gave him even more honorary titles, such as Prince of E (鄂王). 

Several temples were also built in his name so that his legacy would be remembered forever.

Yue Fei’s statue in Yue Fei Temple in 2016 (Hangzhou, China)
Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

Great minds think alike, and great people often have similar paths to success. 

What were the key factors that contributed to the successes of Belisarius and Yue Fei? Discipline and dedication. 

They disciplined themselves; they improved day by day, becoming more powerful. They proved their abilities with their dedication to themselves and their country. Through hard work, they eventually became great generals. 

With discipline, determination, and dedication, anyone can become successful, and so can you. 


That brings us to the end of this post.

Did you find the similarities between Belisarius and Yue Fei fascinating?

Let me know by leaving a comment!

Really sorry for the super long delay, but this post REALLY took me a lot of effort so I would appreciate if you could give it a like, leave a comment and follow me on social media

Stayed tuned for the next article coming up on 9th May♡


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Attributions (in order)

Belisarius mosaic

Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Cropped, resized and made into a collage in the cover photo)

Roman Empire Trajan 117AD

Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Justinian555AD

Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Yue Fei, The Palace Museum

-Public Domain

北宋疆域图(繁)

玖巧仔, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Parts other than Song dynasty, Liao dynasty and Xixia dynasty were erased, nation labels were translated)

南宋疆域图(繁)

玖巧仔, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Parts other than Song dynasty and Jin dynasty were erased, nation labels were translated)

Location of Dardanelles Strait

Screenshot from Google Map

© Google Map, 2022

Yue Fei statue (Zhonglieci) 1 2016 January

Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Cropped, resized and made into a collage in the cover photo)

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