Belisarius - THe Empire Strikes Back

Under Justinian, the great Roman Emperor of the eastern empire, the Empire struck back at the Barbarians and drove them out of Africa and Italy. His greatest general in this great campaign to restore the Empire was Belisarius.

Justinian begins his great Gothic war--Dalmatia recovered for the Empire--Belisarius lands in Sicily--Siege of Palermo--The South of Italy overrun--Naples taken by a stratagem--Theodahad deposed by the Goths--Witigis elected king--The Goths evacuate Rome--Belisarius enters it--The long siege of Rome by the Goths who fail to take it--Belisarius marches northward and captures Ravenna.

The Emperor's preparations for the Gothic war were soon made, and in the summer of 535 two armies were sent forth from Constantinople, one destined to act on the east and the other on the west of the Adriatic. When we think of the mighty armaments by means of which Pompey and Cæsar, or even Licinius and Constantine, had contended for the mastery of the Roman world, the forces entrusted to the generals of Justinian seem strangely small. We are not informed of the precise number of the army sent to Dalmatia, but the whole tenor of the narrative leads us to infer that it consisted of not more than 3,000 or 4,000 men. It fought with varying fortunes but with ultimate success. Salona, the Dalmatian capital, was taken by the Imperial army, wrested from them by the Goths, retaken by the Imperialists. The Imperial general, a brave old barbarian named Mundus, fell dead by the side of his slaughtered son; but another general took his place, and being well supported by a naval expedition, succeeded, as has been said, in reconquering Salona, drove out the Gothic generals, and reincorporated Dalmatia with the Empire. This province, which had for many generations been treated almost as a part of Italy, was now for four centuries to be for the most part a dependency of Constantinople. The Dalmatian war was ended by the middle of 536.

But it was of course to the Italian expedition that the eyes of the spectators of the great drama were most eagerly turned. Here Belisarius commanded, peerless among the generals of his own age, and not surpassed by many of preceding or following ages. The force under his command consisted of only 7,500 men, the greater part of whom were of barbarian origin--Huns, Moors, Isaurians, Gepidse, Heruli, but they were welded together by that instinct of military discipline and that unbounded admiration for their great commander and confidence in his success which is the surest herald of victory. Not only in nationality but in mode of fighting they were utterly unlike the armies with which republican Rome had won the sovereignty of the world. In those days it might have been truly said to the inhabitant of the seven-hilled city as Macaulay has imagined Capys saying to Romulus:

"Thine, Roman | is the pilum:
Roman | the sword is thine.
The even trench, the bristling mound, The legion's ordered line"--

but now, centuries of fighting with barbarian foes, especially with the nimble squadrons of Persia, had completely changed the character of the Imperial tactics. It was to the deadly aim of his Hippo-toxotai (mounted bowmen) that Belisarius, in pondering over his victories, ascribed his antonishing success. "He said that at the beginning of his first great battle he had carefully studied the characteristic differences of each army, in order that he might prevent his little band from being overborne by sheer force of numbers. The chief difference which he noted was that almost all the Roman (Imperialist) soldiers and their Hunnish allies were good Hippo-toxotai, while the Goths had none of them practised the art of shooting on horseback. Their cavalry fought only with javelins and swords, and their archers fought on foot covered by the horsemen. Thus till the battle became a hand-to-hand encounter the horsemen could make no reply to the arrows discharged at them from a distance, and were therefore easily thrown into disorder, while the foot-soldiers, though able to reply to the enemy's archers, could not stand against the charges of his horse".[144] From this passage we can see what were the means by which Belisarius won his great victories. While the Goth, with his huge broadsword and great javelin, chafing for a hand-to-hand encounter with the foe, found himself mowed down by the arrows of a distant enemy, the nimble barbarian who called himself a Roman solder discharged his arrows at the cavalry, dashed in impetuous onset against the infantry, wheeled round, feigned flight, sent his arrows against the too eagerly advancing horsemen, in fact, by Parthian tactics won a Roman victory, or to use a more modern illustration, the Hippo-toxotai were the "Mounted Rifles" of the Imperial army.

[Footnote 144: Procophis, "De Bello Gotthico", i, 27.]

The expedition under the command of Belisarius made its first attack on the Gothic kingdom in Sicily. Here the campaign was little more than a triumphant progress. In reliance on its professions of loyalty, Theodoric and his successors had left the wealthy and prosperous island almost bare of Gothic troops, and now the provincials, eager to form once more a part of the Eternal Roman Empire, opened the gates of city after city to the troops of Justinian; only at Palermo was a stout resistance made by the Gothic soldiers who garrisoned the city. The walls were strong, and that part of them which bordered on the harbour was thought to be so high and massive as not to need the defence of soldiers. When unobserved by the foe, Belisarius hoisted up his men, seated in boats, to the yard-arms of his ships and made them clamber out of the boats on to the unguarded parapet. This daring manoeuvre gave him the complete command of the Gothic position, and the garrison capitulated without delay. So was the whole island of Sicily won over to the realm of Justinian before the end of 535, and Belisarius, Consul for the year, rode through the streets of Syracuse on the last day of his term of office, scattering his "donative" to the shouting soldiers and citizens.

Operations in 536, the second year of the war, were suspended for some months by a military mutiny at Carthage, which called for the presence of Belisarius in Africa. But the mutineers quailed before the very name of their late commander. Carthage was delivered from the siege wherewith they were closely pressing it, a battle was won in the open field, and the rebellion though not yet finally crushed was sufficiently weakened for Belisarius to return to Sicily in the late spring of 536. He crossed the Straits of Messina, landed in Italy, was received by the provincials of Bruttii and Lucania with open arms, and met with no check to his progress till, probably in the early days of June, he stood with his army under the walls of the little town of Neapolis, which in our own days is represented by a successor ten times as large, the superbly situated city of Naples. Here a strong Gothic garrison held the place for Theodahad and prevented the surrender which many of the citizens, especially those of the poorer class, would gladly have made. An orator, who was sent by the Neapolitans to plead their cause in the general's camp, vainly endeavoured to persuade Belisarius to march forward to Rome, leaving the fate of, Naples to be decided under the walls of the capital. The Imperial general could not leave so strong a place untaken in his rear, and though himself anxious enough to meet Theodahad, commenced the siege of the city. His land army was supported by the fleet which was anchored in the harbour, yet the operations of the siege languished, and after twenty days Belisarius seemed to be no nearer winning the prize of war than on the first day. But just then one of his soldiers, a brave and active Isaurian mountaineer, reported that he had found a means of entering the empty aqueduct through which, till Belisarius severed the communication, water had been supplied to the city. The passage was narrow, and at one point the rock had to be filed away to allow the soldiers to pass, but all this was done without arousing the suspicions of the besieged, and one night Belisarius sent six hundred soldiers, headed by the Isaurian, into the aqueduct, having arranged with them the precise portion of the walls to which they were to rush as soon as they emerged into the city. The daring attempt succeeded. The soldiers found themselves in a large cavern with a narrow opening at the top, on the brink of which was a cottage. Some of the most active among them swarmed up the sides of the cave, found the cottage inhabited by one old woman who was easily frightened into silence, and let down a stout leather thong which they fastened to the stem of an olive-tree, and by which all their comrades mounted. They rushed to that part of the walls beneath which Belisarius was standing, blew their trumpets, and assisted the besiegers to ascend. The Gothic garrison were taken prisoners and treated honourably by Belisarius. The city suffered some of the usual horrors of a sack from the wild Hunnish soldiers of the Empire, but these were somewhat mitigated, and the citizens who had been taken prisoners were restored to liberty, in compliance with the earnest entreaties of Belisarius.

The fall of Neapolis, to whose assistance no Gothic army had marched, and the unhindered conquest of Southern Italy crowned the already towering edifice of Theodahad's unpopularity. It is not likely that this selfish and unwarlike pedant--a "nithing", as they probably called him--had ever been aught but a most unwelcome necessity to the lion-hearted Ostrogoths, and for all but the families and friends of the three slain noblemen, the imprisonment and the permitted murder of his benefactress must have deepened dislike into horror. His dishonest intrigues with Constantinople were known to many, intrigues in which even after Amalasuentha's death he still offered himself and his crown for sale to the Emperor, and the Emperor, notwithstanding his brave words about a truceless war, seemed willing to pay the caitiff his price. Some gleams of success which shone upon the Gothic arms in Dalmatia towards the end of 535 filled the feeble soul of Theodahad with presumptuous hope, and he broke off with arrogant faithlessness the negotiations which he had begun. Still, with all the gallant men under him longing to be employed, he struck not one blow for his crown and country, but shut himself up in his palace, seeking by the silliest auguries to ascertain the issue of the war. The most notable of these vaticinations was "the Augury of the Hogs", which he practised by the advice of a certain Jewish magician. He shut up in separate pens three batches of hogs, each batch consisting of ten. One batch was labelled "Romans" (meaning the Latin-speaking inhabitants of Italy), another "Goths", and the third "Soldiers of the Emperor". They were all left for a certain number of days without food, and when the appointed day was come, and the pens were opened, all the "Gothic" hogs but two were found dead. The "Emperor's soldiers", with very few exceptions, were living; of the "Romans" half only were alive, and all had lost their bristles. Ridiculous as the manner of divination was, it furnished no inapt type of the miseries which the Gothic war was to bring upon all concerned in it, and not least upon that Latin population which was still so keen to open its gates to Belisarius.

But, as I have said, when Neapolis had fallen, the brave Gothic warriors felt that they had submitted too long to the rule of a dastard like Theodahad. They met in arms, a nation-parliament, on the plain of Regeta, about forty-three miles from Rome in the direction of Terracina. Here there was plenty of grass for the pasture of their horses, and here, while the steeds grazed, the dismounted riders could deliberate as to the fortunes of the state. There was found to be an unanimous determination that Iheodahad should be dethroned, and, instead of him, they raised on the shield, Witigis, a man somewhat past middle age, not of noble birth, who had distinguished himself by his deeds of valour thirty years before in the war of Sirmium. As soon as Theodahad heard the tidings of his deposition, he sought to escape with all speed to Ravenna. The new king ordered a Goth named Optaris to pursue him and bring him back alive or dead. Optaris had his own wrongs to avenge, for he had lost a rich and beautiful bride through Theodahad's purchased interference on behalf of another suitor. He followed him day and night, came up with him while still on the road, "made him lie down on the pavement, and cut his throat as a priest cuts the throat of a victim".[145] So did Theodahad perish, one of the meanest insects that ever crawled across the page of history.

[Footnote 145: There was perhaps an interval of some months during which Theodahad was in hiding. His deposition is fixed by one authority (Anastasius) to August, and his death, by another (Agnellus), to December, 536, but all our chronological details as to this part of the history are vague and uncertain.]

Witigis, the new king of the Goths, had personal courage and some experience of battles, but he was no statesman and, as the event proved, no general. By his advice, the Goths committed the astounding blunder of abandoning Rome and concentrating their forces for defence in the north of Italy. It is true that a garrison of four thousand Goths was left in the city under the command of the brave veteran Leudaris, but, unsupported by any army in the field, this body of men was too small to hold so vast a city unless they were aided by the inhabitants. As for Witigis, he marched northward to Ravenna with the bulk of the Gothic army and there celebrated, not a victory, but a marriage. The only remaining scion of the race of Theodoric was a young girl named Matasuentha, the sister of Athalaric. In some vain hope of consolidating his dynasty, Witigis divorced his wife and married this young princess. The marriage was, as might have been expected, an unhappy one. Matasuentha shared the Romanising tendencies of her mother, and her spirit revolted against the alleged reasons of state which gave her this elderly and low-born barbarian for a husband. In the darkest hour of the Gothic fortunes (540) Matasuentha was suspected of opening secret negotiations with the Imperial leaders, and even of seeking to aid the progress of their arms by crime.

By the end of November, 536, Belisarius, partly aided by the treachery of the Gothic general who commanded in Samnium, had recovered for the Empire all that part of the Italian peninsula which, till lately, formed the Kingdom of Naples. Pope Silverius, though he had sworn under duresse an oath of fealty to King Witigis, sent messengers offering to surrender the Eternal City, and the four thousand Goths, learning what negotiations were going forward, came to the conclusion that it was hopeless for them to attempt to defend the City against such a general as Belisarius and against the declared wish of the citizens. They accordingly marched out of Rome by a northern gate as Belisarius entered it on the south.[146] The brave old Leudaris, refusing to abandon his trust, was taken prisoner, and sent, together with the keys of the City, to Justinian, most undoubted evidences of victory.

[Footnote 146: December, 536.]

Belisarius took up his headquarters in the Pincian Palace (on that hill at the north of the City which is now the fashionable promenade of the Roman aristocracy), and from thence commanded a wide outlook over that part of the Campagna on which, as he knew, a besieging army would shortly encamp. He set to work with all speed to repair the walls of the City, which had been first erected by Aurelian and afterwards repaired by Honorius at dates respectively 260 and 130 years before the entry of Belisarius. Time and barbarian sieges had wrought much havoc on the line of defence, the work of repair had to be done in haste, and to this day some archaeologists think that it is possible to recognise the parts repaired by Belisarius through the rough style of the work and the heterogeneous nature of the materials employed in it. All through the winter months his ships were constantly arriving with cargoes of corn from Sicily, which were safely stored away in the great State-warehouses. These preparations were viewed with dismay by the citizens, who had fondly imagined that their troubles were over when the Gothic soldiers marched forth by the Porta Flaminia; that any fighting which might follow would take place on some distant field, and that they would have nothing to do but calmly to await the issue of the combat. This, however, was by no means the general's idea of the right way of playing the game. He knew that the Goths immensely outnumbered his forces; he knew also that they were of old bad besiegers of cities, the work of siege requiring a degree of patience and scientific skill to which the barbarian nature could not attain; and his plan was to wear them down by compelling them to undertake a long and wearisome blockade before he tried conclusions with them in the open field. If the Roman clergy and people had known that this was in his thoughts, they would probably not have been so ready to welcome the eagles of the Emperor into their city.

Some hint of the growing disaffection of the Roman people was carried to Ravenna and quickened the impatience of Witigis, who was now eager to retrieve the blunder which he had committed in the evacuation of Rome. He marched southward with a large army, which is represented to us as consisting of 150,000 men, and in the early days of March he was already at the other end of the Milvian Bridge,[147] about two miles from Rome. Belisarius had meant to dispute the passage of the Tiber at this point. The fort on the Tuscan side of the river was garrisoned, and a large body of soldiers was encamped on the Roman side; but when the garrison of the fort saw the vast multitude of the enemy, who at sunset pitched their tents upon the plain, they despaired of making a successful resistance, and abandoning the fort under cover of the night, skulked off into the country districts of Latium. Thus one point of the game was thrown away. Next morning the Goths finding their passage unopposed, marched quietly over the bridge and fell upon the Roman camp. A desperate battle followed, in which Belisarius, exposing himself more than a general should have done, did great deeds of valour. He was mounted on a noble steed, dark roan, with a white star on its forehead, which the barbarians, from that mark on its brow, called "Balan". Some Imperial soldiers who had deserted to the enemy knew the steed and his rider, and shouted to their comrades to aim all their darts at Balan. So the cry "Balan! Balan!" resounded through the Gothic ranks, and though only imperfectly understood by many of the utterers, had the effect of concentrating the fight round Belisarius and the dark-roan steed. The general was nobly protected by the picked troops which formed his guard. They fell by scores around him, but he himself, desperately fighting, received never a wound, though a thousand of the noblest Goths lay dead in the narrow space of ground where this Homeric combat had been going forward. The Imperialists not merely withstood the Gothic onset, but drove their opponents back to their camp, which had been already erected on the Roman bank of the Tiber. Fresh troops, especially of cavalry, issuing forth from thence turned the tide of battle, and, overborne by irresistible numbers, Belisarius and his soldiers were soon in full flight towards Rome. When they arrived under the walls, with the barbarians so close behind them that they seemed to form one raging multitude, they found the gates closed against them by the panic-stricken garrison. Even Belisarius in vain shouted his orders to open the gates; in his gory face and dust-stained figure the defenders did not recognise their brilliant leader. A halt was called, a desperate charge was made upon the pursuing Goths, who were already beginning to pour down into the fosse; they were pushed back some distance, not far, but far enough to enable the Imperialists to reform their ranks, to make the presence of the general known to the defenders on the walls, to have the gates opened, and in some sort of military order to enter the city. Thus the sun set on Rome beleaguered, the barbarians outside the City. Belisarius with his gallant band of soldiers thinned but not disheartened by the struggle, within its walls, and the citizens--

  "with terror dumb,

Or whispering with white lips, 'The foe, they come, they come!"

[Footnote 147: Now the Ponte Molle.]

Of the great Siege of Rome, which began on that day, early in March, 537, and lasted a year and nine days, till March, 538, a siege perhaps the most memorable of all that "Roma Æterna" has seen and has groaned under, as part of the penalty of her undying greatness, it will be impossible here to give even a meagre outline. The events of those wonderful 374 days are chronicled almost with the graphic minuteness of a Kinglake by a man whom we may call the literary assessor of Belisarius, the rhetorician Procopius of Cæsarea. One or two incidents of the siege may be briefly noticed here, and then we must hasten onwards to its close.

Owing to the vast size of Rome not even the host of the Goths was able to accomplish a complete blockade of the City. They formed seven camps six on the left and one on the right bank of the Tiber, and they obstructed eight out of its four teen gates; but while the east and south sides of the City were thus pretty effectually blockaded, there were large spaces in the western circuit by which it was tolerably easy for Belisarius to receive reinforcements, to bring in occasional convoys of provisions, and to send away non-combatants who diminished his resisting power. One of the hardest blows dealt by the barbarians was their severance of the eleven great aqueducts from which Rome received its water. This privation of an element so essential to the health and comfort of the Roman under the Empire (who resorted to the bath as a modern Italian resorts to the café or the music hall), was felt as a terrible blow by all classes, and wrought a lasting change, and not a beneficial one, in the habits of the citizens, and in the sanitary condition of Rome. It also seemed likely to have an injurious effect on the food supply of the City, since the mills in which corn was ground for the daily rations of the people were turned by water-power derived from the Aqueduct of Trajan. Belisarius, however, always fertile in resource, a man who, had he lived in the nineteenth century, would assuredly have been a great engineer, contrived to make Father Tiber grind out the daily supply of flour for his Roman children. He moored two barges in the narrowest part of the stream, where the current was the strongest, put his mill-stones on board of them, and hung a water-wheel between them to turn his mills. These river water-mills continued to be used on the Tiber all through the Middle Ages, and even until they were superseded by the introduction of steam.

The Goths did not resign themselves to the slow languors of a blockade till they had made one vigorous and confident attempt at a storm. On the eighteenth day of the siege the terrified Romans saw from their windows the mighty armament approaching the City. A number of wooden towers as high as the walls, mounted on wheels, and drawn by the stout oxen of Etruria, moved menacingly forward amid the triumphant shouts of the barbarians, each of whom had a bundle of boughs and reeds under his arm ready to be thrown into the fosse, and so prepare a level surface upon which the terrible engines might approach the walls. To resist this attack Belisarius had prepared a large number of Balistæ (gigantic cross-bows worked by machinery and discharging a short wedge-like bolt with such force as to break trees or stones) had planted on the walls, great slings, which the soldiers called Wild Asses (Onagri), and had set in each gate the deadly machine known as the Wolf, and which was a kind of double portcullis, worked both from above and from below.

But though the Gothic host was approaching with its threatening towers close to the walls, Belisarius would not give the signal, and not a Balista, nor a Wild Ass was allowed to hurl its missiles against the foe. He only laughed aloud, and bade the soldiers do nothing till he gave the word of command. To the citizens this seemed an evil jest, and they grumbled aloud at the impudence of the general who chose this moment of terrible suspense for merriment. But now when the Goths were close to the fosse, Belisarius lifted his bow, singled out a mail-clad chief, and sent an arrow through his neck, inflicting a deadly wound. A great shout of triumph rose from the Imperial soldiers as the proudly accoutred barbarian rolled in the dust. Another shot, another Gothic chief slain, and again a shout of triumph. Then the signal to shoot was given to the soldiers, and hundreds of bolts from Wild Ass and Balista were hurtling through the air, aimed not at Gothic soldiers, but at the luckless oxen that drew the ponderous towers. The beasts being slain, it was impossible for the Goths who were immediately under the walls and exposed to a deadly discharge of arrows from the battlements, to move their towers either backward or forward, and there they remained mere laughing-stocks in their huge immobility, till the end of the day, when they with all the rest of the Gothic enginery were given as a prey to the flames. Then men understood the meaning of the laughter of Belisarius as he watched the preparations of the barbarians and derided their childish simplicity in supposing that he would allow them calmly to move up their towers till they touched his wall, without using his artillery to cripple their advance.

Though the attack with the towers had thus failed there was still fierce fighting to be done on the south-east and north-west of the City. At the Prænestine Gate (Porta Maggiore), that noble structure which is formed out of the arcades of the Aqueducts, there was a desperate onslaught of the barbarians, which at one time seemed likely to be successful, but a sudden sortie of Belisarius taking them in their rear turned them to headlong flight. In the opposite quarter the Aurelian Gate was commanded by the mighty tomb-fortress then known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, and now, in its dismantled and degraded state, as the Castle of Sant'Angelo. Here the peculiar shape of the fortress prevented the defenders from using their Balistæ with proper effect on the advancing foe, and when the besiegers were close under the walls the bolts from the engines flew over their heads. It seemed as if, after all, by the Aurelian Gate the barbarians would enter Rome, when, by a happy instinct, the garrison turned to the marble statues which surrounded the tomb, wrenched them from their bases, and rained down such a terrible shower of legs and arms and heads of gods and goddesses on their barbarian assailants that these soon fled in utter confusion.

The whole result of this great day of assault was to convince Witigis and his counsellors that the City could not be taken in that manner, and that the siege must be turned into a blockade. A general sally which Belisarius ordered, against his better judgment, in order to still the almost mutinous clamours of his troops, and which took place about the fiftieth day of the siege, proved almost as disastrous for the Romans as the assault had done for the Goths. It was manifest that this was not a struggle which could be ended by a single blow on either side. All the miseries of a long siege must be endured both by attackers and attacked, and the only question was on which side patience would first give way--whether the Romans under roofs, but short of provisions, or the Goths better fed, but encamped on the deadly Campagna, would be the first to succumb to hunger and disease.

Witigis had been in his day a brave soldier, but he evidently knew nothing of the art of war. He allowed Belisarius to disencumber himself of many useless consumers of food by sending the women, the children, and the slaves out of the City. His attention was disturbed by feigned attacks, when the reinforcements, which were tardily sent by Justinian, and the convoys of provisions, which had been collected by the wife of Belisarius, the martial Antonina, were to be brought within the walls. And, lastly, when at length, about the ninth month of the siege, he proposed a truce and the reopening of negotiations with Constantinople, he did not even insert in the conditions of the truce any limit to the quantity of supplies which under its cover the Imperialists might introduce into the City. Thus he played the game of his wily antagonist, and abandoned all the advantages--and they were not many--which the nine months of blockade had won for him.

The parleyings which preceded this truce have an especial interest for us, whose forefathers were at this very time engaged in making England their own. The Goths, after complaining that Justinian had broken the solemn compact made between Zeno and Theodoric as to the conquest of Italy from Odovacar, went on to propose terms of compromise. "They were willing", they said, "for the sake of peace to give up Sicily, that large and wealthy island, so important to a ruler who had now become master of Africa". Belisarius answered with sarcastic courtesy: "Such great benefits should be repaid in kind. We will concede to the Goths the possession of the whole island of Britain, which is much larger than Sicily, and which was once possessed by the Romans as Sicily was once possessed by the Goths". Of course that country, though much larger than Sicily, was one the possession of which was absolutely unimportant to the Emperor and his general. "What mattered it", they might well say, "who owned that misty and poverty-stricken island. The oysters of Rutupiæ, some fine watch-dogs from Caledonia, a little lead from the Malvern Hills, and some cargoes of corn and wool--this was all that the Empire had ever gained from her troublesome conquest. Even in the world of mind Britain had done nothing more than give birth to one second-rate heretic.[148] The curse of poverty and of barbarous insignificance was upon her, and would remain upon her till the end of time".

[Footnote 148: Pelagius.]

The truce, as will be easily understood, brought no alleviation to the sufferings of the Goths, who were now almost more besieged than besiegers, and who were dying by thousands in the unhealthy Campagna. Before the end of March, 538, they broke up their encampment, and marched, in sullen gloom, northwards to defend Ravenna, which was already being threatened by the operations of a lieutenant of Belisarius. The 150,000 men who had hastened to Rome, dreading lest the Imperialists should escape before they could encompass the City, were reduced to but a small portion of that number, perhaps not many more than the 10,000 which, after all his reinforcements had been received, seems to have been the greatest number of actual soldiers serving under Belisarius in the defence of Rome.

I pass rapidly over the events of 538 and 539. The Imperial generals pressed northwards along the Flaminian Way. Urbino, Rimini, Osimo, and other cities in this region were taken by them. But the Goths fought hard, though they gave little proof of strategic skill; and once, when they recaptured the great city of Milan, it looked as though they might almost be about to turn the tide of conquest. Evidently they were far less demoralised by their past prosperity than the Vandals. Perhaps also the Roman population of Italy, who had met with far gentler and more righteous treatment from the Ostrogoths than their compeers in Africa had met with from the Vandals, and who were now suffering the horrors of famine, owing to the operations of the contending armies, assisted the operations of the Byzantine invaders less than the Roman provincials in Africa had done. Whatever the cause, it was not till the early months of 540, nearly five years after the beginning of the war, that Belisarius and his army stood before the walls and among the rivers of Ravenna, almost the last stronghold of Witigis. Belisarius blockaded the city, and his blockade was a far more stringent one than that which Witigis had drawn around Rome. Still there was the ancient and well-founded reputation for impregnability of the great Adrian city, and, moreover, just at this time the ambassadors, sent by Witigis to Justinian, returned from Constantinople, bearing the Emperor's consent to a compromise. Italy, south of the Po, was to revert to the Empire; north of that river, the Goths were still to hold it, and the royal treasure was to be equally divided between the two states. Belisarius called a council of war, and all his officers signed a written opinion "that the proposals of the Emperor were excellent, and that no better terms could be obtained from the Barbarians". This, however, was by no means the secret thought of Belisarius, who had set his heart on taking Witigis as a captive to Constantinople, and laying the keys of Ravenna at his master's feet. A strange proposition which came from the beleaguered city seemed to open the way to the accomplishment of his purpose. The Gothic nobles suggested that he, the great Captain, whose might in war they had experienced, should become their leader, should mount the throne of Theodoric, and should be crowned "King of the Italians and Goths", the change in the order of the names indicating the subordinate position which the humbled barbarians were willing to assume. Belisarius seemed to acquiesce in the proposal (though his secretary assures us that he never harboured a thought of disloyalty to his master), and received the oath of the Gothic envoys for the surrender of the city, postponing his own coronation-oath to his new subjects till he could swear it in the presence of Witigis and all his nobles, for Witigis, too, was a consenting, nay, an eager, party to the transaction. Thus, by an act of dissimulation, which brought some stain on his knightly honour (we are tempted to use the language of chivalry in speaking of these events), but which left no stain on his loyalty to the Emperor of Rome, did Belisarius obtain possession of the impregnable Ravenna. He marched in, he and his veterans, into the famine-stricken city. When the Gothic women saw the little dark men filing past them through the streets, and contrasted them with their own long-limbed, flaxen-haired giants, they spat in the faces of their husbands, and said: "Are you men, to have allowed yourselves to be beaten by such manikins as these?"

Before the triumphal entry was finished the Goths had no doubt discovered that they were duped. No coronation oath was sworn. Belisarius, still the humble servant of Justinianus Augustus, did not allow himself to be raised on the shield and saluted as King of the Italians and Goths. The Gothic warriors were kindly treated, but dismissed to their farms between the Apennines and the Adriatic. Ravenna was again an Imperial city, and destined to remain so for two centuries. Witigis, with his wife and children, were carried captives to Constantinople where, before many years were over, the dethroned monarch died. His widow, Matasuentha, was soon remarried to Germanus, the nephew of Justinian, and thus the granddaughter of Theodoric obtained that position as a great lady of Byzantium which was far more gratifying to her taste than the rude royalty of Ravenna.

There is one more personage whose subsequent fortunes must be briefly glanced at here. Cassiodorus, the minister of Theodoric and Amalasuentha, remained, as we regret to find, in the service of Theodahad when sole king and composed his stilted sentences at the bidding of Amalasuentha's murderer. Witigis also employed him to write his address to his subjects on ascending the throne. He does not seem to have taken any part in the siege of Rome, and before the tide of war rolled back upon Ravenna, he had withdrawn from public affairs. He retired to his native town, Squillace, high up on the Calabrian hills, and there founded a monastery and a hermitage in the superintendence of which his happy years glided on till he died, having nearly completed a century of life. His was one of the first and greatest of the literary monasteries which, by perpetuating copies of the Scriptures, and the Greek and Roman classics, have conferred so great a boon on posterity. When Ceolfrid, the Abbot of Jarrow, would offer to the Holy Father at Rome a most priceless gift, he sent the far-famed Codex Amiatinus, a copy of the Vulgate, made by a disciple of Cassiodorus, if not by Cassiodorus himself.


Misgovernment of Italy by Justinian's officers--The Gothic cause
revives--Accession of Ildibad--Of Eraric--Of Totila--Totila's character
and policy--His victorious progress--Belisarius sent again to Italy to
oppose him--Siege and capture of Rome by the Goths--The fortifications
of the City dismantled--Belisarius reoccupies it and Totila besieges it

in vain--General success of the Gothic arms--Belisarius returns to Constantinople--His later fortunes--Never reduced to beggary.

With the fall of Ravenna, and the captivity of King Witigis, it seemed as if the chapter of Ostrogothic dominion in Italy was ended. In fact, however, the war was prolonged for a further period of thirteen years, a time glorious for the Goths, disgraceful for the Empire, full of lamentation and woe for the unhappy country which was to be the prize of victory.

The departure of Belisarius, summoned to the East by his master in order to conduct another Persian war, left the newly won provinces on an in cline sloping downwards to anarchy. Of all the generals who remained behind, brave and capable men as some of them were, there was none who possessed the unquestioned ascendancy of Belisarius, either in genius or character. Each thought himself as good as the others: there was no subordination, no hearty co-operation towards a common end, but instead of these necessary conditions of success there was an eager emulation in the race towards wealth, and in this ignoble contest the unhappy "Roman", the Italian landholder, for whose sake, nominally, the Gothic war was undertaken, found himself pillaged and trampled upon as he had never been by the most brutal of the barbarians.

Nor were the military officers the only offenders. A swarm of civil servants flew westwards from Byzantium and lighted on the unhappy country. Their duty was to extort money by any and all means for their master, their pleasure to accumulate fortunes for themselves; but whether the logothete plundered for the Emperor or for himself, the Italian tax-payer equally had the life-blood sucked from his veins. Even the soldiers by whom the marvellous victories of the last five years had been won, found themselves at the mercy of this hateful bureaucracy; arrears of pay left undischarged, fines inflicted, everything done to force upon their embittered souls the reflection that they had served a mean and ungrateful master.

Of all these oppressors of Italy none was more justly abhorred than Alexander the Logothete. This man, who was placed at the head of the financial administration, and who seems by virtue of that position to have been practically supreme in all but military operations, had been lifted from a very humble sphere to eminence, from poverty to boundless wealth, but the one justification which he could always offer for his self-advancement was this, that no one else had been so successful as he in filling the coffers of his master. The soldiers were, by his proceedings against them, reduced to a poor, miserable, and despised remnant. The Roman inhabitants of Italy, especially the nobles, found that he hunted up with wonderful keenness and assiduity, and enforced with relentless sternness all the claims--and they were probably not a few--which the easy-tempered Gothic kings had suffered to lapse. In their simplicity these nobles may have imagined that they could plead that they were serving the Emperor by withholding contributions from the barbarian. Not so, however. Theodoric, now that his dynasty had been overthrown, became again a legitimate ruler, and Justinian as his heir would exact to the uttermost his unclaimed rights. The nature of the grasping logothete was well-known in his own country, and the Byzantines, using the old Greek weapon of satire against an unpopular ruler, called him "Alexander the Scissors", declaring that there was no one so clever as he in clipping the gold coins of the currency without impairing their roundness.

The result of all these oppressions and this misgovernment was to raise up in a marvellous manner the Gothic standard from the dust into which it had fallen. When Belisarius left Italy, only one city still remained to the Goths, the strong city of Ticinum, which is now known as Pavia, and which, from its magnificent position at the angle of the Ticino and the Po, was often in the early Middle Ages the last stronghold to be surrendered in Northwestern Italy. Here had the Goths chosen one of their nobles, Ildibad, for their king, but the new king had but one thousand soldiers under him, and his might well seem a desperate cause. Before the end of 540, however, the departure of Belisarius, the wrangling among his successors, the oppressions of Alexander the Logothete, the disaffection of the ruined soldiery had completely changed the face of affairs. An army of considerable size, consisting in great measure of deserters from the Imperial standard, obeyed the orders of Ildibad; he won a great pitched battle near Treviso over Vitalius, the best of the Imperial generals, and the whole of Italy north of the Po again owned the sway of the Gothic king.

Internal feuds delayed for a little time the revival of the strength of the barbarians. There was strife between Ildibad and the family of the deposed Witigis, and this strife led to Ildibad's assassination and to the election of an utterly incapable successor, Eraric the Rugian. But in the autumn of 541 all these domestic discords were at an end; Eraric had been slain, and the nephew of Ildibad was the universally recognised king of the Ostrogoths. This man, who was destined to reign for eleven years, twice to stand as conqueror within the walls of Rome, to bring back almost the whole of Italy under the dominion of his people, to be in a scarcely lower degree than Theodoric himself the hero and champion of the Ostrogothic race, was the young and gallant Totila.[149]

[Footnote 149: This is the form of the name which was known to the Greek writers, and which is now irrevocably accepted by history. It is clear, however, from his coins that the new king called himself Baduila, and we cannot certainly say that he ever accepted the other designation.]

With true statesmanlike instinct the new king perceived that the cause of the past failure of the Goths lay in the alienated affections of the people of Italy. The greater misgovernment of the Emperor's servants, the coldly calculating rapacity of Alexander the Scissors, and the arrogant injustice of the generals, terrible only to the weak, had given him a chance of winning back the love of the Italian people and of restoring that happy state of things which prevailed after the downfall of Odovacar, when all classes, nobles and peasants, Goths and Romans, joined in welcoming Theodoric as their king. Totila therefore kept a strong hand upon his soldiers, sternly repressed all plundering and outrage, and insisted on the peasants being paid for all the stores which the army needed on its march. One day a Roman inhabitant of Calabria came before him to complain of one of the king's life-guardsmen who had committed an outrage upon his daughter. The guardsman, not denying the charge, was at once put in ward. Then the most influential nobles assembled at the king's tent, and besought him not to punish a brave and capable soldier for such an offence. Totila replied that he mourned as much as they could do over the necessity of taking away the life of one of his countrymen, but that the common good, the safety of the nation, required this sacrifice. At the outset of the war they had all the wealth of Italy and countless brave hearts at their disposal, but all these advantages had availed them nothing because they had an unjust king, Theodahad, at their head. Now the Divine favour on their righteous cause seemed to be giving them the victory, but only by a continuance in righteous deeds could they hope to secure it. With these words he won over even the interceding Goths to his opinion. The guardsman was sentenced to death, and his goods were confiscated for the benefit of the maiden whom he had wronged.

At the same time that Totila showed himself thus gentle and just towards the Roman inhabitants, he skilfully conducted the war so as to wound the Empire in its tenderest part--finance. Justinian's aim, in Italy as in Africa, was to make the newly annexed territory pay its own expenses and hand over a good balance to the Imperial treasury. It was for this purpose that the logothetes had been let loose upon Italy--that the provincials had been maddened by the extortions of the tax-gatherer, that the soldiers had been driven to mutiny and defection. Now with his loyal and well disciplined troops, Totila moved over the country from the Alps to Calabria, quietly collecting the taxes claimed by the Emperor and the rents due to the refugee landlords, and in this way, without oppressing the people, weakened the Imperial government and put himself in a position to pay liberally for the commissariat of his army. Thus the difficulties of the Imperial treasury increased. Justinian became more and more unwilling to loosen his purse-strings for the sake of a province which showed an ever-dwindling return. The pay of the soldiers got more and more hopelessly into arrear. They deserted in increasing numbers to the standard of the brave and generous young king of the Goths. Hence, it came to pass, that in the spring of 544, when Totila had been only for two and a half years king, he had gained two pitched battles by land and one by sea, had taken Naples and Beneventum, could march freely from one end of Italy to the other, and in fact, with the exception of Ravenna, Rome, and a few other strongholds, had won back from the Empire the whole of that Italy which had been acquired with so much toil and so much bloodshed.

There was, of course, bitter disappointment in the council-chamber of Justinian at this issue of an enterprise which had seemed at first so successful. There was but one sentence on all men's lips--"Only Belisarius can recover Italy", and it was uttered so loudly and so universally, that the Emperor could not but hear it. But Justinian, ever since the offer of the Western throne to Belisarius, seems to have looked upon him with jealousy as a possible rival, and (what was even more fatal to his interests at court), the Empress Theodora had come to regard him with dislike and suspicion, partly because of a domestic quarrel in which she had taken the part of his wife Antonina against him, and partly because when Justinian was lying plague-stricken and apparently at the point of death, Belisarius had discussed the question of the succession to the throne in a manner which the Empress considered hostile to her interests. For these reasons the great general had been for some years in disgrace. A large part of his property was taken away from him, and some of it was handed over to Antonina, with whom he had been ordered to reconcile himself on the most humbling terms: his great military household, containing many men of servile origin, whom he had trained to such deeds of valour that it was a common saying, "One household alone has destroyed the kingdom of Theodoric", was broken up, and those brave men who would willingly have died for their chief, were portioned out by lot among the other generals and the eunuchs of the palace.

Still, in deference to the unanimous opinion of his counsellors, Justinian decided once more to avail himself of the services of Belisarius for the reconquest of Italy. But his unquenched jealousy of his great general's fame, and the almost bankrupt condition of the Imperial exchequer converged to the same point, and caused Justinian, while entrusting Belisarius with the command, to couple with it the monstrous stipulation that he was not to ask for any money for the war. And this, though it was clear to all men that the want of money and the consequent desertion of the Imperial standard by whole companies of grumbling barbarians, had been one main cause of the amazing success of Totila. Thus crippled by his master, and having his own spirit broken by Imperial ingratitude and domestic unhappiness, Belisarius, in the whole course of his second command in Italy, which lasted for five years--(544-549) did nothing, or I should rather say only one thing, worthy of his former reputation. This is the judgment which his former friend and admirer, Procopius, passes on this period of his life. "Thus then", (in 549) "Belisarius departed to Byzantium without glory, having been for five years in Italy, but having never been strong enough to make a regular march by land in all that time, but having flitted about from one fortress on the coast to another, and so left the enemy free to capture Rome and almost every other place which they attacked".

Notwithstanding this harsh sentence, it was in connection with the siege of Rome that the old Belisarius, the man of infinite resource and courageous dexterity, once more revealed himself, and while we gladly let all the other events of these five tedious years glide into oblivion, it is worth while devoting a few pages to the Second and Third Gothic sieges of Rome.

Totila had quite determined not to repeat the mistake of Witigis, by dashing his army to pieces against the walls of Rome, but, for all that, he could not feel his recovery of Italy to be complete so long as the Eternal City defied his power. He therefore slowly tightened his grasp on the City, capturing one town after another in its neighbourhood and watching the roads to prevent convoys of provisions from entering it. He was on good terms with the peasants of the surrounding country, paid liberally for all the provisions required by his army (far smaller than that of Witigis), and kept his soldiers in good heart and in high health, while the unhappy citizens were seeing the great enemy--Famine--slowly approach nearer and nearer to their homes.

Within the City there was now no such provident and resourceful general as Belisarius. Bessas, the commandant, himself an Ostrogoth of Moesia by birth, was a brave man, but coarse, selfish, and unfeeling. Intent only on filling his own coffers by selling the corn which he had stored up in his warehouses at a famine-price to the citizens, he was not touched by the increasing misery around him, and made no effectual attempt to break the net which Totila had drawn round Rome. Belisarius himself, "flitting from point to point of the coast", had come to Portus eighteen miles from Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber. It was no want of good-will on his part that prevented him from bringing his provision-ships up the river to the help of the famished City, but about four miles above Portus Totila had placed a strong boom of timber, protected in front by an iron chain and guarded by two towers, one at each end of the bridge which was above the boom. Belisarius made his preparations for destroying the boom: a floating tower as high as the bridge placed on two barges, a large vessel filled with "Greek fire" at the top of the tower, soldiers below to hew the boom in pieces and sever the chain, a long train of merchantmen behind laden with provisions for the hungry Romans, and manned by archers who poured a deadly volley of arrows on the defenders of the bridge. All went well with his design up to a certain point. The chain was severed, the Goths fell fast under the arrows from the ships, the vessel of "Greek fire" was hurled upon one of the forts, which was soon wrapped in flames. With might and main the Imperial soldiers began to hack at the boom, and it seemed as if in a few minutes the corn-laden vessels would be sailing up the Tiber, bringing glad relief to the starving citizens. But just at that moment a horseman galloped up to Belisarius with the unwelcome tidings--"Isaac is taken prisoner". Isaac the Armenian was Belisarius' second in command, whom he had left at Portus in charge of his stores, his munitions of war, and most important of all, the now reconciled Antonina. In spite of Belisarius' strict injunction to act solely on the defensive, Isaac, watching from afar the successful movements of his chief, had sallied forth to attack the Gothic garrison at Ostia on the opposite bank of the river. His defeat and consequent capture were events of little moment in themselves, but all-important as arresting the victorious career of Belisarius. For to the anxious soul of the general the capture of Isaac seemed to mean the capture of Portus, the cutting off of his army from their base of operations, the captivity of his beloved Antonina. He gave the signal for retreat; the attempt to provision Rome had failed; the Imperial army returned to Portus. When he found what it was that had really happened, and by what a combination of folly and ill luck he had been prevented from winning a splendid victory, his annoyance was so great that combined with the unwholesome air of the Campagna it threw him into a fever which brought him near to death and prevented him for some months from taking any part in the war.

Meanwhile dire famine bore sway in the beleaguered city. Wheat was sold for £22 a quarter, and the greater part of the citizens were thankful to live on coarse bread made of bran, which was doled out to them by Bessas at a quarter of the price of wheat. Before long even this bran became a luxury beyond their power to purchase. Dogs and mice provided them with their only meals of flesh, but the staple article of food was nettles. With blackened skin and drawn faces, mere ghosts of their former selves, the once proud and prosperous citizens of Rome wandered about the waste places where these nettles grew, and often one of them would be found dead with hunger, his strength having suddenly failed him while attempting to gather his wretched meal.

At length this misery was suddenly ended. Some Isaurian soldiers who were guarding the Asinarian Gate in the south-east of the City made overtures to the Gothic soldiers for the betrayal of their post. These Isaurians were probably part of the former garrison of Naples whom Totila had treated with great generosity after the surrender of that city. They remembered the kindness then shown them; they were weary of the siege, and disgusted with the selfish avarice of their generals, and they soon came to terms with the besiegers. Four of the bravest Goths being hoisted over the walls at night by the friendly Isaurians, ran round to the Asinarian Gate, battered its bolts and bars to pieces, and let in their waiting comrades. Unopposed, the Gothic army marched in,[150] unresisting, the Imperial troops marched out by the Flaminian Gate. The play was precisely the same that had been enacted ten years before when Belisarius won the city from Leudaris, but with the parts reversed. What Witigis with his one hundred and fifty thousand Goths had failed to accomplish, an army of not more than a tenth of that number[151] had accomplished under Totila. Bessas and the other generals fled headlong with the rest of the crowd that pressed out of the Flaminian Gate, and the treasure, accumulated with such brutal disregard of human suffering, fell into the hands of the besiegers.

[Footnote 150: 17th December, 546.]

[Footnote 151: Apparently, but we do not seem to have a precise statement of the numbers of Totila's army at this time.]

At first murder and plunder raged unchecked through the streets of the City, the exasperation which had been caused by the events of the long siege having made every Gothic heart bitter against Rome and Romans. But after sixty citizens had been slain, Totila, who had gone to St. Peter's to offer up his prayers and thanksgivings, listened to the intercession of the deacon Pelagius[152] and commanded that slaughter should cease. But there were only five hundred citizens left in Rome to receive the benefit of the amnesty, so great had been the depopulation of the City by war and famine.[153]

[Footnote 152: Pelagius was at this time, owing to the absence of Pope Vigilius on a journey to Constantinople, the most influential ecclesiastic in Rome, and eight years later he succeeded Vigilius in the Papal Chair]

[Footnote 153: At a certain point of the siege the non-combatants had been sent out of the City by Bessas, but the number of those who passed safely through the lines of the besiegers was not great.]

And now had come a fateful moment in the history of Roma Æterna. A conqueror stood within her walls, not in mere joyousness of heart like Alaric, pleased with the exploit of bringing to her knees the mistress of the world, not intent on vulgar plans of plunder like Gaiseric, but nourishing a deep and deadly hatred against that false and ungrateful City, and, by the ghosts of a hundred and fifty thousand of his countrymen who had died before her untaken walls, beckoned on a memorable revenge. Totila would spare, as he had promised, the lives of the trembling citizens, but he had determined that Rome herself should perish. The walls should be dismantled, the public buildings burned to the ground, and sheep should graze again over the seven hills of the City as they had grazed thirteen hundred years before, when Romulus and Remus were suckled by the wolf. From this purpose, however, he was moved by the intercession of Belisarius, who, from his couch of fever, wrote a spirit-stirring letter to Totila, pleading for Rome, greatest and most glorious of all cities that the sun looked down upon, the work not of one king nor one century, but of long ages and many generations of noble men. Belisarius concluded with an appeal to the Gothic king to consider what should be his own eternal record in history, whether he would rather be remembered as the preserver or the destroyer of the greatest city in the world.

This appeal, made by one hero to another, was successful. Totila was still bent on preventing the City from ever again becoming a stronghold of the enemy, and therefore determined to lay one-third of the walls level with the ground, but he assured the messengers of Belisarius that he would leave the great monuments of Rome untouched. Having accomplished the needed demolition of her defences, he marched forth with his army from the desolate and sepulchral City and took up a position in the Alban Mountains, which are seen by the dwellers in Rome far off on their south-eastern horizon.

When Totila withdrew Rome was left, we are told, absolutely devoid of inhabitants.[154] The Senators he kept in his camp as hostages, and all the less influential citizens with their wives and children were sent away to the confines of Campania. For forty days or more the great City which had been for so long the heart of the human universe, the city which, with the million-fold tide of life throbbing in her veins, had most vividly prefigured the London of our own day, remained "waste and without inhabitants", as desolate as Anderida in Kent had been left half a century before by her savage Saxon conquerors.

[Footnote 154: As the passage is an important one I will give a literal translation of the words of Procopius ("De Bell. Gotthico", iii., 22): "Of the Romans, however, he kept the members of the Senate with him, but sent away all the others with their wives and children to the regions bordering on Campania, having permitted not a single human being to remain in Rome, but having left her absolutely desolate". (Greek: en Roome anthropon oudena eassas, all' eremon auten to parapan apolipoon.)

The contemporary chronicler Marcellinus Comes confirms this statement: "Post quam devastationem XL. aut amplius dies Roma fuit ita desolata ut nemo ibi hominum nisi bestiæ morarentur".]

And then came another change--one of the most marvellous in the history of that City whose whole life has been a marvel. While Totila abode in his camp on the Alban Hills, Belisarius, rising from the bed to which fever had for so many weeks chained him, made a visit to Rome, accompanied by a thousand soldiers, that he might see with his own eyes into what depth of calamity she had fallen. At first, it would seem, mere curiosity led him to the ruined City, but when he was there, gazing on Totila's work of devastation, a brilliant thought flashed through his brain. After all the demolitions of Totila, the ruin was not irretrievable. By repairing the rents in the walls, Rome might yet be made defensible. He would re-occupy it, and the Goths should find that they had all their work to do over again. The idea seemed at first to his counsellors like the suggestion of delirium, but as it rapidly took shape under his hands, it was recognised as being indeed a masterstroke of well-calculated audacity. Leaving a small body of men to guard his base of operations at Portus, he moved every available man to Rome, crowded them up to the gaps made by Totila, bade them build anyhow, with any sort of material--mortar was out of the question; it must be mere dry walling that they could accomplish,--only let them preserve some semblance of an upright wall, and crown the summit of it with a rampart of stakes. The deep fosse below fortunately remained as it was, not filled up. So in five and twenty days the circuit of the walls was completed, truly in a most slovenly style of building, the marks of which we can see even to this day, but Rome was once again a "fenced city". As soon as Totila heard the unwelcome tidings, he marched with his whole army to Rome, hoping to take the City, as his soldiers said, "at the first shout". But he had Belisarius to deal with, not Bessas. There had not yet been time even to make new gates for the City instead of those which Totila had destroyed, but Belisarius planted all his bravest soldiers in the void places where the gates should be, and guarded the approach by caltrops (somewhat like those wherewith Bruce defended his line at Bannockburn), so as to make a charge of Gothic cavalry impossible. Three long days of hard-fought battle were spent round the fateful City. In each the Goths, whatever temporary advantages they might gain, were finally repulsed, and at length Totila, who was not going to repeat the error of Witigis, marched away from the too well-known scene, amid the bitter reproaches of the Gothic nobles, who before had praised him like a god for all his valour and dexterity in war, but now, on the morrow of his first great blunder, loudly upbraided him for his imprudence, adding the obvious and easy piece of Epimethean criticism, "that the City ought either to have been utterly destroyed, or else occupied with a sufficient force". Meanwhile Belisarius at his leisure completed the repair of the walls, hung the massive gates on their hinges, had keys made to fit their locks, and sent the duplicate keys to Justinian. The Roman Empire once again had Rome.

And yet this re-occupation of the Eternal City, brilliant and striking achievement as it was, had little influence on the course of the war. Rome was now like a great stone left in an alluvial plain showing where the river had once flowed, but the currents of commerce, of politics, of war, flowed now in other channels. Belisarius, leaving a garrison in Rome, had to betake himself once more to that desultory warfare, flitting round the coast from one naval fortress to another, in which the earlier years of his second command had been passed; and at length, early in 549, only two years after his re-occupation of Rome, he obtained as a great favour, through the intercession of Antonina, permission to resign his command and return to Constantinople. It was on this occasion that Procopius passed that harsh judgment as to the inglorious character of these later operations of his in Italy, which was quoted on a previous page.[155]

[Footnote 155: See page 349.]

I will briefly summarise the subsequent events in the life of the old hero:

Once more, ten years after the return of Belisarius (in 559), his services were claimed by Justinian in order to repel a horde of savage Huns who had penetrated within eighteen miles of Constantinople. The work was brilliantly done, with much of the old ingenuity and fertility of resource which had marked his first campaign in Italy, and then Belisarius relapsed into inactivity. He was again accused (562), probably without justice, of abetting a conspiracy against the Emperor, was disgraced and imprisoned in his own palace. After seven months he was restored to the Imperial favour, the falsity of the accusation against him having probably become apparent. He died in 565, in about the sixtieth year of his age, and only a few months before his jealous master. He had more than once had to endure the withdrawal of that master's confidence, and some portions of his vast wealth were on two occasions taken from him. But this is all that can be truly said as to the reverses of fortune undergone by the conqueror of the Vandals and the Goths. The stories of his blindness and of his beggary, of his holding forth a wooden bowl and whining out "Date obolum Belisario", rest on no good foundation, and either arise from a confusion between Belisarius and another disgraced minister of Justinian, or else are simply due to the myth-making industry of the Middle Ages.

[Illustration: COIN OF BADUILA. (TOTILA.)]


Totila again takes Rome--High-water mark of the success of the Gothic arms--Narses, the Emperor's Chamberlain, appointed to command another

expedition for the recovery of Italy--His character--His semi-barbarous
army--Enters Italy--Battle of the Apennines--Totila slam--End of the
Gothic dominion in Italy.

Soon after the return of Belisarius to Constantinople came the Fourth Siege of Rome. Totila, who had sought the hand of a Frankish princess in marriage, received for answer from her father, "that the man who had not been able to keep Rome when he had taken it, but had destroyed part and abandoned the rest to the enemy, was no King of Italy".[156]

[Footnote 156: Procopius, "De Bello Gotthico", iii., 37. This is one of the passages which make me somewhat doubtful whether we are not too confident in our denial of the title "King of Italy" to Odovacar and Theodoric. The words are clear.]

The taunt stung Totila to the quick. We know not whether he won his Frankish bride or no, but he was determined to win Rome. Assault again failing, he occupied Portus and instituted a more rigorous blockade than ever. But it had become a matter of some difficulty to starve out the defenders of Rome, for there were practically no citizens there, only a garrison, for whose food the corn grown within the enclosure of the walls was nearly sufficient. The economic change from the days of the Empire thus revealed to us is almost as great as if the harvests of Hyde Park and Regent's Park sufficed to feed the diminished population of London.

There was, however, among the Imperial soldiers in the garrison of Rome, as elsewhere, deep discontent, amounting sometimes to mutiny, at the long withholding of their arrears of pay; and the sight of the pomp and splendour, which surrounded the former betrayer of Rome when they rode in the ranks with Totila, was too much for their Isaurian countrymen. The men who kept watch by the Gate of St. Paul (close to the Pyramid of C. Sestius, and now overlooking the English Cemetery and Keats' grave) offered to surrender their post to the Gothic king. To distract the attention of the garrison he sent by night a little band of soldiers on two skiffs up the Tiber as far as they could penetrate towards the heart of the City. These men blew a loud blast with their trumpets, and thereby called the bulk of the defenders down to the river-walls, while the Isaurians were opening St. Paul's Gate to the besiegers, who marched in almost unopposed. The garrison galloped off along the road to Civita Vecchia, and on their way fell into an ambush which Totila had prepared for them, whereby most of them perished (549).

Totila, now a second time master of Rome, determined to hold it securely. He restored some of the public buildings which he had previously destroyed; he adorned and beautified the City to the utmost of his power; he invited the Senators and their families to return; he celebrated the equestrian games in the Circus Maximus: in all things he behaved himself as much as possible like one of the old Emperors of Rome.

The year 550 was the high-water mark of the success of the Gothic arms. In Italy only four cities--all on the sea-coast--were left to the Emperor; these were Ravenna, Ancona, Otranto, and Crotona. In Sicily most of the cities were still Imperial, but Totila had moved freely hither and thither through the island, ravaging the villas and the farms, collecting great stores of grain and fruit, driving off horses and cattle, and generally visiting on the hapless Sicilians the treachery which in his view they had shown to the Ostrogothic dynasty by the eagerness with which, fifteen years before, they had welcomed the arms of Belisarius.

But at the end of a long and exhausting war it is often seen that victory rests with that power which has enough reserve force left to make one final effort, even though that effort in the earlier years of the war might not have been deemed a great one. So was it now with Justinian's conquest of Italy. Though he himself was utterly weary of the Sisyphean labour, he would not surrender a shred of his theoretical claims, nor would he even condescend to admit to an audience the ambassadors of Totila, who came to plead for peace and alliance between the two hostile powers.

In his perplexity as to the further conduct of the war he offered the command to his Grand Chamberlain Narses, who eagerly accepted it. The choice was indeed a strange one. Narses, an Armenian by birth, brought as an eunuch to Constantinople, and dedicated to the service of the palace, had grown grey in that service, and was now seventy-four years of age. But he was of "Illustrious" rank, he shared the most secret counsels of the Emperor, he was able freely to unloose the purse-strings which had been so parsimoniously closed to Belisarius, and he had set his whole heart on succeeding where Belisarius had failed. Moreover, he was himself both wealthy and generous, and he brought with him a huge and motley host of barbarians, Huns, Lombards, Gepids, Herulians, all eager to serve under the free-handed Chamberlain, and to be enriched by him with the spoil of Italy.

In the spring of 552, the Eunuch-general, with this strange multitude calling itself a Roman army, marched round the head of the Adriatic Gulf and entered the impregnable seat of Empire, Ravenna. By adroit strategy he evaded the Gothic generals who had been ordered to arrest his progress in North-eastern Italy and--probably by about midsummer--he had reached the point a little south-west of Ancona, where the Flaminian Way, the great northern road from Rome, crosses the Apennines. Here on the crest of the mountains[157] Narses encamped, and here Totila met him, eager for the fight which was to decide the future dominion of Italy.

[Footnote 157: There is some little difference of opinion as to the site of this battle. I place it near the Roman posting station of Ad Ensem, represented by the modern village of Scheggia, in latitude 43º 25' north.]

A space of about twelve miles separated the hostile camps. Narses sent some of his most trusted counsellors to warn Totila not to continue the struggle any longer against the irresistible might of the Empire; "but if you will fight", said the messengers, "name the day". Totila indignantly spurned the proposal of surrender and named the eighth day from thence as the day of battle. Narses, however, suspecting some stratagem, bade his troops prepare for action, and it was well that he did so, for on the next day Totila with all his army was at hand.

A hill, which to some extent commanded the battle-field, was the first objective point of both generals. Narses sent fifty of his bravest men over-night to take up their position on this hill, and the Gothic troops, chiefly cavalry, which were sent to dislodge them, failed to effect their purpose, the horses being frightened by the din which the Imperial soldiers made, clashing with their spears upon their shields. Several lives were lost on this preliminary skirmish, the honours of which remained with the soldiers of Narses.

At dawn of day the troops were drawn up in order of battle, but Narses had made all his arrangements on a defensive rather than an offensive plan and Totila, who was expecting a reinforcement of two thousand Goths under his brave young lieutenant Teias, wished to postpone the attack. Both generals harangued their armies: Totila, in words of lordly scorn for the patch-work host of various nationalities which Justinian, weary of the war, had sent against him. It was the Emperor's last effort, he declared, and when this heterogeneous army was defeated, the brave Goths would be able to rest from their labours. Narses, on the other hand, congratulated his soldiers on their evident superiority in numbers to the Gothic host. They fought too, as he reminded them, for the Roman Empire, which was in its nature, and by the will of Providence, eternal, while these little barbarian states, Vandal, Gothic, and the like, sprang up like mushrooms, lived their little day, and then vanished away, leaving no trace behind them. He had recourse also to less refined and philosophical arguments. Riding rapidly along the ranks, the Eunuch dangled before the eyes of his barbarian auxiliaries golden armlets, golden collars, golden bridles. "These", said he, "and such other ornaments as these, shall be the reward of your valour, if you fight well to-day".

The long morning of waiting was partly occupied by a duel between two chosen champions. A warrior, named Cocas, who had deserted from Emperor to King, rode up to the Imperial army, challenging their bravest to single combat. One of Narses' lifeguards, an Armenian' like his master, Anzalas by name, accepted the challenge. Cocas couched his spear and rode fiercely at his foe, thinking to pierce him in the belly. Anzalas dexterously swerved aside at the critical moment and gave a thrust with his spear at the left side of his antagonist, who fell lifeless to the ground. A mighty shout rose from the Imperial ranks at this propitious omen of the coming battle. Not yet, however, was that battle to be gained. King Totila rode forth in the open space between both armies, "that he might show the enemy what manner of man he was". His armour was lavishly adorned with gold: from the cheek-piece of his helmet, from his pilum and his spear hung purple pennants; his whole equipment was magnificent and kingly. Bestriding a very tall war-horse he played the game of a military athlete with accomplished skill. He wheeled his horse first to the right, then to the left, in graceful curves; then he tossed his spear on high to the morning breezes and caught it in the middle as it descended with quivering fall; then he threw it deftly from one hand to another, he stooped low on his horse, he raised himself up again. Everything was done as artistically as the dance of a well-trained performer. All this "was beautiful to look at, but it was not war". The ugly, wrinkled old Armenian in the other camp, who probably kept his seat on horseback with difficulty, knew, one may suspect, more of the deadly science of war than the brilliant and martial Totila.

At length the long-looked-for two thousand arrived, and Totila gave the signal to charge upon the foe. It was the hour of the noon-tide meal, and he hoped to catch the Imperial troops in the disorder of their repast; but for this also Narses, the wary, had provided. Even the food necessary to support their strength was to be taken by the soldiers, all keeping their ranks, all armed, and all watching intently the movements of the enemy. Narses had purposely somewhat weakened his centre in order to strengthen his wings, which, as the Gothic cavalry charged, closed round them and poured a deadly shower of arrows into their flanks. Again, as in the campaigns of Belisarius, the Hippo-toxotai, the "Mounted Rifles" of the Empire, decided the fate of the battle. Vain against their murderous volleys was the valour of the Gothic horseman, the thrust of the Gothic lance, the might of the tall Gothic steed. Charge upon charge of the Goths was made in vain; the cavalry could never reach the weak but distant centre of the Imperialists. At length, when the sun was declining, the horsemen came staggering back, a disorganised and beaten band. Their panic communicated itself to the infantry, who were probably the weakest section of the army; the rout was complete, and the whole of the Gothic host was seen either flying, surrendering, or dying.

As evening fell Totila, with five of his friends hastened from the lost battle-field. A young Gepid chief, named Asbad, ignorant who he was couched his lance to strike Totila in the back. A young Gothic page incautiously cried out, "Dog! would you strike your lord?" hereby revealing the rank of the fugitive and, of course, only nerving the arm of Asbad to strike a more deadly blow. Asbad was wounded in return and his companions intent on staunching his wound let the fugitives ride on, but the wound of Totila was mortal. His friends hurried him on, eight miles down the valley, to the little village of Capræ, where they alighted and strove to tend his wound. But their labour was vain; the gallant king soon drew his last breath and was hastily buried by his comrades in that obscure hamlet.

The Romans knew not what had become of their great foe till several days after, when some soldiers were riding past the village, a Gothic woman told them of the death of Totila and pointed out to them his grave. They doubted the truth of her story, but opened the grave and gazed their fill on that which was, past all dispute, the corpse of Totila. The news brought joy to the heart of Narses, who returned heartiest thanks to God and to the Virgin, his especial patroness, and then proceeded to disembarrass himself as quickly as possible of the wild barbarians, especially the Lombards, by whose aid he had won the victory which destroyed the last hopes of the Ostrogothic monarchy in Italy.[158]

[Footnote 158: A gallant stand was made by Teias, who was elected king on the death of Totila, but his reign lasted only a few months. He was defeated and slain early in 553 at the battle of Mons Lactarius, not far from Pompeii, and the little remnant of his followers, the last of the Goths, marched northward out ot Italy and disappear from history.]

(568) Not thus easily, however, was the tide of barbarian invasion to be turned. The Lombards had found their way into Italy as auxiliaries. They returned thither sixteen years after as conquerors, conquerors the most ruthless and brutal that Italy had yet groaned under. From that day for thirteen centuries the unity of Italy was a dream. First the Lombard King and the Byzantine Emperor tore her in pieces. Then the Frank descended from the Alps to join in the fray. The German, the Saracen, the Norman made their appearance on the scene. Not all wished to ravage and despoil; some had high and noble purposes in their hearts, but, in fact, they all tended to divide her. The Popes even at their best, even while warring as Italian patriots against the foreign Emperor, still divided their country. Last of all came the Spaniard and the Austrian, by whom, down to our own day, Italy was looked upon as an estate, out of which kingdoms and duchies might be carved at pleasure as appanages for younger sons and compensations for lost provinces. Only at length, towards the close of the nineteenth century, has Italy regained that priceless boon of national unity, which might have been hers before it was attained by any other country in Europe, if only the ambition of emperors and the false sentiment of "Roman" patriots would have spared the goodly tree which had been planted in Italian soil by Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

[Illustration: COIN OF TEIAS. (successor of Totila.)]


[Footnote 159: This chapter is based on Peringskiold's Latin translation of the "Wilkina Saga", and on the German translation contained in F.H. von der Hagen's "Alt-deutsche und Alt-nordische Helden-Sagen". I am also much indebted to the spirited rendering of the Sagas contributed by Madame Dahn to her husband, Professor Dahn's, volume, "Walhall".]

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