Vitalian (general)

Last updated
Born Zaldapa
DiedJuly 520
Allegiance Byzantine Empire
Rank magister militum
Relations Bouzes, Coutzes and Venilus (sons)
John (nephew)

Vitalian (Latin : Flavius Vitalianus, Greek : Βιταλιανός; died 520) was a general of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire. A native of Moesia in the northern Balkans, and probably of mixed Roman an Gothic or Scythian barbarian descent, he followed his father into the imperial army, and by 513 had become a senior commander in Thrace.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, is the common name given to the surviving Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both "Byzantine Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire" are terms created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Moesia historical region of the Balkans

Moesia was an ancient region and later Roman province situated in the Balkans south of the Danube River. It included most of the territory of modern-day Central Serbia, Kosovo and the northern parts of the modern North Macedonia, Northern Bulgaria and Romanian Dobrudja.


In that year he rebelled against Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518), whose fiscal stringency and promotion of Miaphysitism were widely unpopular, and allowed Vitalian to quickly win over large parts of the army and the people of Thrace to his cause. After scoring a series of victories over loyalist armies, Vitalian came to threaten Constantinople itself, and forced Anastasius to officially recant his adoption of Miaphysitism in summer 515. Soon after, however, as Anastasius failed to honour some of the terms of the agreement, Vitalian marched on Constantinople, only to be decisively defeated by Anastasius' admiral, Marinus.

Miaphysitism Christological formula of the Oriental Orthodox Churches

Miaphysitism is Cyril of Alexandria's Christological formula holding that in the person of Jesus Christ, divine nature and human nature are united in a compound nature ("physis"), the two being united without separation, without mixture, without confusion and without alteration.

Thrace kingdom of Thracians

Thrace is a geographical and historical region in Southeast Europe, now split between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, which is bounded by the Balkan Mountains to the north, the Aegean Sea to the south and the Black Sea to the east. It comprises southeastern Bulgaria, northeastern Greece and the European part of Turkey.

Constantinople capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Latin and the Ottoman Empire

Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), of the Byzantine Empire, and also of the brief Crusader state known as the Latin Empire (1204–1261). It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire (1453–1923). In 1923 the capital of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, was moved to Ankara and the name Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul. The city was located in what is now the European side and the core of modern Istanbul.

Vitalian fled to his native Thrace and remained in hiding until Anastasius's death in 518. As a staunch promoter of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, he was pardoned by the new emperor Justin I (r. 518–527) and was engaged in the negotiations with the Pope to end the Acacian Schism. He was named consul for the year 520, but was murdered shortly after, probably on the orders of Justin's nephew and heir-apparent, Justinian (r. 527–565), who saw in him a potential rival for the throne. His sons also became generals in the East Roman army.

Justin I Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 518 to 527

Justin I was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 518 to 527. He rose through the ranks of the army to become commander of the imperial guard. When Emperor Anastasius died he out-maneouvered his rivals and was elected as his successor, in spite of being almost 70 years old. His reign is significant for the founding of the Justinian dynasty that included his eminent nephew Justinian I and three succeeding emperors. His consort was Empress Euphemia.

A consul held the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic, and ancient Romans considered the consulship the highest level of the cursus honorum.


Origins and family

Vitalian was born in Zaldapa in Lower Moesia (usually identified with modern Abrit in north-eastern Bulgaria). [1] He is called a "Goth" or a "Scythian" in the Byzantine sources. Since Vitalian's mother was a sister of Macedonius II, Patriarch of Constantinople in 496–511, this points to a mixed marriage and a probable barbarian origin for his father, Patriciolus. [2] [3] On the other hand, the assertion that he was a "Goth" is based on a single Syriac source, and is today considered dubious. [4] Likewise, the "Scythian" label commonly applied to him by some contemporary authors is non-conclusive, since the term "Scythian" could mean an inhabitant of Scythia Minor, or simply, in the classicizing language usual in Byzantine texts, someone from the north-eastern fringes of the Graeco-Roman world, centred on the Mediterranean; the term had a wide-encompassing meaning, devoid of clear ethnic attributes. [5] Furthermore, since none of the "Scythian Monks", to whom Vitalian and members of his family seem to have been related, expressed any kinship, by blood or spiritually, with the Arian Goths who at that time ruled Italy, a Gothic origin for Vitalian is questionable. [6] Whatever Patriciolus's origin, his name was Latin, while of Vitalian's own sons, the generals Bouzes and Coutzes had Thracian names and Venilus a Gothic name. His nephew, John, later also became a distinguished general in the wars against the Ostrogoths of Italy. [7] [8]

Zaldapa was a large Late Roman fortified city in Scythia Minor/Moesia, located near today's Abrit, Bulgaria.

Abrit is a village in Krushari Municipality, Dobrich Province, northeastern Bulgaria.

Bulgaria country in Southeast Europe

Bulgaria, officially the Republic of Bulgaria, is a country in Southeast Europe. It is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and North Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east. The capital and largest city is Sofia; other major cities are Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. With a territory of 110,994 square kilometres (42,855 sq mi), Bulgaria is Europe's 16th-largest country.

According to the chroniclers' descriptions, Vitalian was short of stature and stammered, but his personal bravery and military skills were widely acknowledged. [9] [10]

Vitalian seems to have been of local Latinised Dacian-Getic (Thracian) stock, born in Scythia Minor or in Moesia; his father bore a Latin name, Patriciolus, while two of his sons had Thracian names and one a Gothic name. [11] :129

Dacians Indo-European people

The Dacians were a Thracian people who were the ancient inhabitants of the cultural region of Dacia, located in the area near the Carpathian Mountains and west of the Black Sea. This area includes the present-day countries of Romania and Moldova, as well as parts of Ukraine, Eastern Serbia, Northern Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Southern Poland. The Dacians spoke the Dacian language, a sub-group of Thracian, but were somewhat culturally influenced by the neighbouring Scythians and by the Celtic invaders of the 4th century BC.

Getae name of several Thracian tribes

The Getae, , or Gets were several Thracian tribes that once inhabited the regions to either side of the Lower Danube, in what is today northern Bulgaria and southern Romania. Both the singular form Get and plural Getae may be derived from a Greek exonym: the area was the hinterland of Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, bringing the Getae into contact with the ancient Greeks from an early date. Several scholars, especially in the Romanian historiography, posit the identity between the Getae and their westward neighbours, the Dacians.

Revolt against Anastasius

Gold semissis of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518). Semissis-Anastasius I-sb0007.jpg
Gold semissis of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518).

Vitalian is first mentioned in 503, when he accompanied his father in the Anastasian War against the Persians. [7] By 513, he had risen to the rank of comes in Thrace, possibly comes foederatorum, "count of the foederati ", barbarian soldiers serving in the East Roman army. [7]

From this post, he rebelled against Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518), taking advantage of widespread resentment over the emperor's military, religious, and social policies. [2] In 511, Anastasius had changed the form of the Trisagion prayer and officially adopted the Miaphysite dogma, angering the Empire's Chalcedonian population, and adding to the disaffection caused by his strict financial policies. [12] Furthermore, Anastasius had refused to supply the annonae ("rations, provisions") due to the foederati, allowing Vitalian to quickly gain the allegiance of the regular troops stationed in the provinces of Thrace, Moesia II, and Scythia Minor from the unpopular magister militum per Thracias , Anastasius' nephew Hypatius. Hypatius's subordinate commanders were either killed or joined the rebellion. [13] At the same time, posing as a champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, Vitalian was able to gain the support of the local people, who flocked to join his force. According to contemporary Byzantine historians, he quickly assembled an army of 50,000–60,000 men, "both soldiers and peasants", and marched on Constantinople, possibly hoping that the mostly Chalcedonian inhabitants would join him. [2] [10] [14] Indeed, it appears that Vitalian's revolt was primarily motivated by religious reasons, something suggested by his repeatedly demonstrated willingness to reach an accommodation with Anastasius. [15] To counter Vitalian's propaganda, Anastasius ordered bronze crosses to be set up on the city walls inscribed with his own version of events. The emperor also reduced taxes in the provinces of Bithynia and Asia to prevent them from joining the rebellion. [10]

When Vitalian's forces reached the capital, they encamped at the suburb of Hebdomon and blockaded the landward side of the city. Anastasius opted for negotiations, and sent out Vitalian's former patron, the former consul and magister militum praesentalis Patricius, as ambassador. [14] [16] To him, Vitalian declared his aims: the restoration of Chalcedonian orthodoxy and the settling of the Thracian army's grievances. Patricius then invited him and his officers in the city itself for negotiations. Vitalian refused for himself, but allowed his senior officers to go on the next day. [14] [17] The officers were well treated by Anastasius, who gave them gifts and promised that their soldiers' grievances would be settled. He also pledged to submit the religious dispute for resolution to the Patriarch of Rome. Upon their return to the rebel camp, these officers unanimously pressured Vitalian to accept this settlement. Faced with no alternative, only eight days after his arrival before the capital, Vitalian retreated and returned with his men to Lower Moesia. [18] [19]

Map of the Diocese of Thrace, the theatre of operations during Vitalian's rebellion. Dioecesis Thraciae 400 AD.png
Map of the Diocese of Thrace, the theatre of operations during Vitalian's rebellion.

Anastasius then appointed as magister militum per Thracias an officer called Cyril, who proceeded to attack Vitalian's forces. After a few inconclusive skirmishes, Vitalian managed to bribe his army's entry into Odessus, Cyril's base, at night. Cyril was captured at his residence and killed. [19] [20] At this point, Anastasius had Vitalian declared a "public enemy" and sent out a huge new army – reportedly 80,000 men – under Hypatius, with a Hun called Alathar as the new magister militum of Thrace. After winning a minor initial victory, the imperial army was eventually pushed back towards Odessus (autumn 513). At Acris, on the Black Sea coast, Vitalian's men attacked their fortified laager in darkness and dealt them a crushing defeat: the larger part of the imperial army was killed, and both imperial commanders were taken prisoner and held for ransom. [18] [21]

The victory consolidated Vitalian's position. With the spoils, he was able to lavishly reward his followers, and at the news of the imperial army's annihilation, the remaining cities and forts in Lower Moesia and Scythia surrendered to him. Soon after, he had another stroke of luck: at Sozopolis, his men captured an embassy sent by Anastasius to ransom Hypatius, including the ransom money of 1,100 pounds of gold. Hypatius, whom Vitalian hated because he had once insulted his wife, was not released until a year later. [19] [22] In 514, Vitalian marched again towards Constantinople, this time gathering, in addition to his army, a fleet of 200 vessels from the Black Sea ports, which sailed down the Bosporus menacing the city from the sea as well. Anastasius was further disquieted by riots in the city, which left many casualties, and resolved to once again negotiate with Vitalian. [19] [22] Vitalian accepted, on the conditions of his nomination to the post of magister militum per Thracias and the receipt of ransom money and gifts worth 5,000 pounds of gold for the release of Hypatius. Anastasius also acceded to the removal of the changes from the Trisagion, the restoration of the deposed Chalcedonian bishops, and the convocation of a general church council at Constantinople on 1 July 515. [19] [23]

The council never materialized, since Pope Hormisdas and Anastasius continued to be at loggerheads over the Acacian Schism. Neither were the deposed bishops returned to their sees. Seeing Anastasius failing to honour his promises, in late 515 Vitalian mobilized his army and marched again towards Constantinople. [24] Vitalian's army captured the suburb of Sycae (modern Galata) across the Golden Horn from the city and encamped there. The two magistri militum praesentalis, Patricius and John, were unwilling to engage their old friend Vitalian, thus Anastasius gave command of his forces to the former praetorian prefect of the East, Marinus, a trusted and influential aide. [24] Despite his lack of military experience, Marinus defeated the rebel fleet in a battle at the entrance of the Golden Horn; according to the report of John Malalas, this was achieved through the use of a sulphur-based chemical substance invented by the philosopher Proclus of Athens, similar to the later Greek fire. Marinus then landed with his men on the shore of Sycae and defeated the rebels he found there. Disheartened by the losses suffered, Vitalian and his army fled north under cover of night. [25] As a sign of his victory, Anastasius led a procession to the village of Sosthenion, where Vitalian had established his headquarters, and attended a service of thanks at the famed local church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. [26]

Later life

Once back in northern Thrace, Vitalian went into hiding, while many of his erstwhile aides were captured and executed. Nothing is known of him for the next three years, although a short remark by a chronicler seems to indicate that he resurfaced and led another armed rebellion during the last months of Anastasius's life. [26] When Anastasius died in July 518, he was succeeded by Justin I, the comes excubitorum (commander of the imperial bodyguard). The new emperor quickly moved to strengthen his rule, dismissing a number of potential rivals or enemies. At the same time, he called upon Vitalian to come to Constantinople. [27]

Upon his arrival, Vitalian was made magister militum in praesenti, named honorary consul, and soon after raised to the rank of patricius . [28] As a well-known champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, Vitalian was to play a role in the new regime's reaffirmation of the Chalcedonian doctrines and reconciliation with Rome. He played an active role in the negotiations with the Pope, and in 519, he was one of the prominent men who escorted a papal delegation into the capital. [2] [29] Vitalian also took vengeance on the staunchly Monophysite Patriarch of Antioch, Severus, who had celebrated Vitalian's defeat in his panegyric On Vitalian the tyrant and on the victory of the Christ-loving Anastasius the king: Justin ordered Severus's tongue to be cut out, and Severus fled to Egypt along with Julian, Bishop of Halicarnassus. [30]

Finally in 520, Vitalian was appointed ordinary consul for the year, sharing the office with Rusticius. Nevertheless, the former rebel continued to pose a potential challenge to Justin, and more importantly to his nephew and heir-apparent, Justinian (r. 527–565). Thus, in July of the same year he was murdered inside the Great Palace along with his secretary Paulus and his domesticus (aide) Celerianus. [31] According to John of Nikiou, he was killed because he was plotting against Justin; most chroniclers, however, put the responsibility for the crime on Justinian's desire to rid himself of a potential rival for his uncle's succession. [2] [9] [32]

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  1. Whitby & Whitby 1986 , pp. 182, 248.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Kazhdan 1991 , p. 2182.
  3. Amory 2003 , p. 435.
  4. Amory 2003 , p. 128.
  5. Amory 2003 , pp. 127–130.
  6. Amory 2003 , p. 130.
  7. 1 2 3 Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 1171.
  8. Amory 2003 , p. 129.
  9. 1 2 Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 1176.
  10. 1 2 3 Bury 1958a , p. 448.
  11. Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  12. Bury 1958a , pp. 447–448.
  13. Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , pp. 578–579, 1172.
  14. 1 2 3 Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 1172.
  15. Cameron, Ward-Perkins & Whitby 2000 , pp. 56–57.
  16. Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 840.
  17. Bury 1958a , pp. 448–449.
  18. 1 2 Bury 1958a , p. 449.
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 1173.
  20. Croke 1995 , pp. 37–38.
  21. Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , pp. 579, 1173.
  22. 1 2 Bury 1958a , p. 450.
  23. Bury 1958a , pp. 450–451; Cameron, Ward-Perkins & Whitby 2000 , p. 820.
  24. 1 2 Bury 1958a , p. 451.
  25. Bury 1958a , pp. 451–452; Cameron, Ward-Perkins & Whitby 2000 , pp. 57, 294.
  26. 1 2 Bury 1958a , p. 452.
  27. Bury 1958b , pp. 17, 20.
  28. Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , pp. 1174–1175.
  29. Bury 1958b , p. 20; Martindale, Jones & Morris 1980 , p. 1175.
  30. Mango & Scott 1997 , pp. 245 note 1, 249–251.
  31. Cameron 1982 , pp. 93–94. The month of Vitalian's death is taken from the chronicle of Marcellinus Comes, sub anno 520. Alan Cameron discussed the supporting evidence, concluding that Marcellinus is correct.
  32. Bury 1958b , pp. 20–21.



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  • Jeffreys, Elizabeth; Jeffreys, Michael; Scott, Roger (1986). The Chronicle of John Malalas: A Translation. Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies. pp. 225–227, 231–233. ISBN   0959362622.
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  • Whitby, Michael (2000). Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. pp. 193–194, 200–203. ISBN   0-85323-605-4.


Preceded by
Imp. Caesar Iustinus Augustus I,
Fl. Eutharicus Cillica
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Fl. Rusticius
Succeeded by
Fl. Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus,
Fl. Valerius