Perozes would not fall into the trap he saw. Clearly, he must have thought, the young Roman in command lacked finesse if he were so naive as to expect him to make a simple frontal assault on the Roman middle and be enveloped and trapped. Instead he would ignore the infantry and Ephthalite archers to direct his cavalry only at the flanking Roman cataphracts. He expected to entangle with them before the Roman archers could seriously impede his heavily armored horsemen. If he could drive these back against the walls of Daras they would be nothing but a confused mass of men and horses, pinned against their own walls to be shot down by Persian bows in the hands of experienced cavalrys or impaled on their lances. The Roman infantry could then be expected to flee the field when they found themselves squeezed between two armored columns.

But Belisarius, himself, was with the infantry. He had even sent his horse to the rear. He stood at the head of his young men. Foolish? Perhaps; perhaps not. Beside him one of his best recruits held the eagle aloft so that Perozes would know where the Roman commander stood with a shield resting against his thigh, his spathion in his right hand, and a simple infantry pike in the other.

He sent a message to his cataphracts under Hermogenes and Pharas, encouraging them but also reminding them of the shame of their previous loss to the Persians. His words have been recorded and probably improved by the rhetoric of Procopius: “Persians are not invincible, nor too strong to be killed. You know that, having taken their measure in the previous battle. You were superior to them in bravery and in strength of body. You were defeated only by reason of being heedless of your officers. This you cannot deny. You now have the opportunity to set right that defeat, for while the adversities of fortune cannot be set right by effort, reason may easily become a physician for the ills a man caused himself. If you heed orders you will win in battle, for the Persians come against us basing their confidence on nothing else than our previous disorder. As for the great numbers of the enemy by which more than anything else they hope to inspire fear; despise these men. Their pitiable infantry is nothing more than a crowd of untrained peasants who come into battle only to dig through walls, despoil the slain, and serve the real soldiers.”

Again, the scene somewhat resembled Troy. The days of single combat were generally a thing of legend by then but that day a tall and powerful cavalryman rode out from the Persian ranks and taunted any “Greek” to single combat. One of the Roman regulars, a bold man named Andreas who in civilian life had been a wrestling coach in Constantinople, took up the challenge and speared the Persian in seconds. Another lancer challenged the Daras defenders. Andreas also laid him on the ground. The omens were bad and Perozes delayed a day.

“Steady, steady.”



The next day the opposing armies resumed the same positions as on the previous. Unbeknown to Belisarius, Antonina was standing with a group of women and tradesmen and merchants, on a section of the the city’s walls that they had appropriated. She looked across the thin desert grasses that separated the Roman army and Belisarius from the Persians. There was nothing she could do but watch: watch and wait and worry. Antonina had come to Asia again but she was no longer the girl who had accompanied Anthemius Antonius to Antioch. For the last year she had lived in the household of a Roman senator, something like a guest and something like a family member; and then in a little room of the Great Palace itself. She was experienced now not only in the vices of the Roman empire which she had seen from birth, but also in the more proper behavior of those who directed the state, sometimes with larceny but sometimes by the very same men with virtue and nobility. Today would see the latter.

She had taken the road through Anatolia to Daras, avoiding Antioch. En route she had seen first hand the bloody business of empire. Along the frontier soldiers too badly injured to travel were being cared for in monasteries and villages. These were the veterans of Mindon and other skirmishes. She noted that the villages had been stripped of young men; they were with Belisarius now. Food was scarce for those who remained, having been requisitioned for the army. There was no starvation but there was hunger.

Now she felt useless but consoled herself with the thought that after the battle she could help the injured using the knowledge of wounds she had acquired while treating the maimed of two earthquakes. For now she would watch and hope her soldier would survive the horror about to unfold on the field below. He did not know she was there and would have had no time for her had he known.

Almost out of sight from Daras’ walls, behind a dust cloud raised by the Persian horde, there was another group of camp followers watching from a hilltop and praying to Ahura Mazda, and to his prophet Zarathustra. Had he the time, her husband might have spared a thought for the enemy women, but that was not in Antonina’s makeup. She stood alert and watching only the Romans. She tried to look confident and strong to the others gathered around her. That much she could do for her side. Just for a moment she considered taking charge and hushing the nervous clatter of the wives and washerwomen and prostitutes. No, she thought, they can no more be silent than a child would be on his first day at school. Let them jabber away if it helps them. The Arab money changers were more serious. If the battle turned against Belisarius and the Romans,- as most expected, they would simply slip through some unguarded gate before the town could be looted. If it went in their favor there would be plenty of Persian loot to purchase from the victorious soldiers at a tenth its value. This they would resell in the Antioch bazaar.

The Persian attack came at noon heralded by trumpets. Daras’ women hurried to the battlements of the town along with old men and boys. The men and boys strung bows while the women prepared to take the wounded to safety. Antonina, with the camp followers, had never seen a battle but she was not afraid of every movement the enemy made. The Persians were fearsome to be sure, but so were her Romans. She felt that today was not going to be a standoff like yesterday or a skirmish from which both sides would emerge slightly bloodied and each claiming victory. There is such a thing as days of decisive battle and both armies on the plain of Daras were intent that this would be such a day.

Belisarius had been busy for weeks preparing his soldiers, but he knew that once battle was joined there was little that could be done by the commander. Like Antonina and the camp followers Belisarius would not be able to do much more than watch the troopers and their junior officers at the bloody work of slaughter; possibly slay a Persian or two if they attacked where he stood. That and pray. It mightn’t bring victory but it couldn’t hurt. Besides, the wounded and dying on both sides would want prayers.

There was an exchange of archery directed at the all-important cavalry and each side covered themselves with their shields as best they could until most of the arrows had been fired. Belisarius again stood with the infantry. He knew his officers from their months together in Constantinople, and knew they could be relied upon to lead the Roman cavalry. He’d stay with the infantry. His farm boys and the young men of Daras were proud, for the general himself was with them. Today the weak and despised infantry of the sixth century Byzantine Empire were determined to hold their ground for him. More, they would support the haughty cataphracts instead of merely taking up space to divide the wings of the Persians and spread them far apart. Indeed were it not for the steady commands of Belisarius the infantry would have charged from their trenches to attack the opposing Persian infantry who, as it turned out, would not even be committed to battle.

“Steady, steady.”

Now the enemy cavalry could be heard gathering in formation. These lancers were the scions of Persian squires whose own fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers had fought the fathers and grandfathers of Romans for generations, Their own sons would do the same if they survived this war to father any. They were proud. Just as Belisarius’ local boys had determined to hold their ground, not one Persian would be so craven as to flee without orders however frightened he might be. Should he do so his family would lose everything they owned and be shamed forevermore. Better to die bringing down a Roman than to flee.

The solid front of Persian cavalry split and charged the Roman cataphracts on both flanks of Belisarius’ infantry and light Ephthalite cavalry. At first the battle seemed to go their way as the cataphracts were pushed back. Yet arrows from the Ephthalites and also from the city walls were taking a toll at the trench. Just as bad, when the Persians managed to advance near to the battlements they found their broken front could not panic the foot soldiers between their two thrusts. A line of Roman pikes held against one attacking column on the right and another on the left. Unheard of! The Persians were unable to squeeze the Roman infantry. Fire continued from both the horse archers stationed with the infantry and from old men on the battlements. Moreover, the Roman heavy cavalry were showing themselves braver than expected. It was the Persians who were becoming worried and confused. The Roman cataphracts had not broken as they’d retreated toward the city wall. They turned, and under the command of John, the son of Nicetas on the right and Bouzes on the left they pushed back. Now Belisarius ordered the mounted Ephthalite archers to attack both Persian prongs in their rear while their vanguard was still engaged at the wall. Persians on the Roman right could only break west like fluid from a ruptured bladder. Even this escape was denied them on the Roman left for Belisarius had stationed his Heruli reserves behind a small hill and he now sent a message to Pharas who had asked the honor of that command. He ordered Pharas to release these fresh ax-wielding Swedes and close the box on that side.

The Persians left eight thousand dead on the battlefield including many of their immortals. These were the picked shock troops of Persia who tried in the last hour of battle to save the day by counterattacking the Herulian horse. They failed and retreated, a thing almost unknown until that day.

When the enemy fled the field, the Romans would have followed them slaughtering comfortable cavalrymen and poor infantrymen alike were it not that Belisarius forbade it. It would have been poor tactics. The Persians were not cowards. If they could regroup they would still have outnumbered what by then would be his equally disorganized Roman army. There was another reason too: mercy.

It was the first defeat Persia had suffered at the hands of the despised Romans in decades. Kobad was learning that the Byzantine cavalry was becoming as good as his own. He was also learning that Constantinople had bred a new kind of general, a man willing to delegate the honor of responsibility for his primary forces to trusted lieutenants while himself remaining afoot with bowmen and half-trained peasant pikesmen. That day at Daras he stood with the Roman infantry and gave them the confidence to provide a solid wall which the proud Persians could neither penetrate nor confound. In Babylon Kobad considered whether it might not be best to negotiate.



As night fell Belisarius began his most hated duty but one he would not shirk. He had sent scouts to watch the retreating Persians and with a priest he now returned to the field of carnage. The dead of both sides were all about. He had ordered that the Persian bodies be given a proper funeral. The Persians would have wanted to be exposed for the birds to devour as was Mazdan practice but there were far too many and the danger of pestilence so near the city too great. A Mazdan chaplain was found. He had come of his own volition to do his duty by his god and countrymen… indeed a holy man. He performed the rites and begged Ahura Mazda to forgive the Roman desecration of fire. While the Christian soldiers stood apart the bodies were cremated. The Roman dead were buried near the battlefield while priests sang masses that God would forgive them the slaughter they had wrought for the good of his Christian empire.

The wounded of both sides had been brought within Daras’ walls and were being tended to in its hospices and churches. Romans had preference but both were cared for as the Persians would have cared for fallen Romans had the field been theirs. War was for kings; the wounded soldiers were brothers now. Many would not see the next dawn; perhaps they were the lucky ones. Crude surgery would save some lives but the shock of amputation or the gangrene which often followed merely increased and prolonged the death-agonies of many more. Once, when the empire had been pagan, a spiked roller drawn across the battlefield had provided the coup de grace to badly wounded friends and foes alike. Soldiers wondered if that had not been a better way but it was forbidden by the church. God is merciful, Belisarius though, but theologians at their books who have never seen a battlefield… Oh, what’s the use. The world is what it is.

Inhaled hashish and mandrake mixed in wine were used as anesthetics when available but they worked poorly and could kill. They were reserved for surgery on those not strong enough to endure much more pain but who yet had a chance of survival. All night the saws and knives did what swords and axes and arrows had left half finished. All night long there were screams. The next day there were fewer. Belisarius came again – he owed his men that – and took time to speak with those Romans who were conscious:

“Yes, I will see that a letter is sent home. I will write it myself.”

“No, your wound will heal.” He hoped he wasn’t lying.

“Rest your head on my hand. Let us pray together.”

“You have saved Daras, young man. Your mother is here; your father too. He was on the wall and saw you fight. He says you were very brave.”

Then the general had to return to his staff. The enemy had been defeated and was retreating. but they might turn and attack again. There were plans to be made. He tried to look confident. He tried to look cheerful.

A woman who had kept her head covered and her back to him, seemingly busy with unpacking bandages, watched him leave with a feeling of pride mixed with a sense of horror. The man she loved had ordered and overseen this butchery.