Home | Prev
LECTURE VI--THE NEMESIS OF THE GOTHS.
Of this truly dreadful Gothic war I can give you but a hasty sketch;
of some of the most important figures in it, not even a sketch. I
cannot conceive to myself, and therefore cannot draw for you, the
famous Belisarius. Was he really the strange compound of strength
and weakness which Procopius, and after him Gibbon, represent him?--a
caricature, for good and evil, of our own famous Marlborough? You
must read and judge for yourselves. I cannot, at least as yet, offer
you any solution of the enigma.
Still less can I conceive to myself Narses, living till his grey
hairs in the effeminate intrigues of the harem, and then springing
forth a general; the Warrior Eunuch; the misanthrope avenging his
great wrong upon all mankind in bloody battle-fields; dark of
counsel, and terrible of execution; him to whom in after years the
Empress Sophia sent word that he was more fit to spin among maids
than to command armies, and he answered, that he would spin her such
a thread as she could not unravel; and kept his word (as legends say)
by inviting the Lombards into Italy.
Least of all can I sketch Justinian the Great, the half-Teuton
peasant, whom his uncle Justin sent for out of the Dardanian hills,
to make him a demigod upon earth. Men whispered in after years that
he was born of a demon, a demon himself, passing whole days without
food, wandering up and down his palace corridors all night, resolving
dark things, and labouring all day with Herculean force to carry them
out. No wonder he was thought to be a demon, wedded to a demon-wife.
The man is unfathomable, inexplicable;--marrying deliberately the
wickedest of all women, plainly not for mere beauty's sake, but
possibly because he saw in her a congenial intellect;--faithful and
loving to her and she to him, amid all the crimes of their following
years;--pious with exceeding devotion and orthodoxy, and yet with a
piety utterly divorced from, unconscious of, the commonest morality;-
-discerning and using the greatest men, Belisarius and Narses for
example, and throwing them away again, surely not in weak caprice,
whenever they served him too well;--conquering Persians, Vandals,
Goths; all but re-conquering, in fact, the carcase Roman Empire;--and
then trying (with a deep discernment of the value of Roman law) to
put a galvanic life into the carcase by codifying that law.
In whatever work I find this man, during his long life, he is to me
inexplicable. Louis XI of France is the man most like Justinian whom
I know, but he, too, is a man not to be fathomed by me. All the
facts about Justinian you will find in Gibbon. I have no theory by
which to arrange and explain them, and therefore can tell you no more
than Gibbon does.
So to this Gothic war; which, you must remember, became possible for
Justinian by Belisarius' having just destroyed the Vandals out of
Africa. It began by Belisarius invading the south of Italy. Witigis
was elected war-king of the Goths, 'the man of witty counsels,' who
did not fulfil his name; while Theodatus (Theod-aht 'esteemed by the
people' as his name meant) had fallen into utter disesteem, after
some last villainy about money; had been struck down in the road by
the man he had injured; and there had his throat cut, 'resupinus
instar victimae jugulatus.'
He had consulted a Jew diviner just before, who had given him a
warning. Thirty pigs, signifying the unclean Gentiles, the Jew shut
up in three sties; naming ten Goths, ten Romans, and ten Imperialists
of Belisarius' army, and left them to starve. At the end they found
dead all the Goths but two, hardly any of the Imperialists, and half
the Romans: but the five Roman pigs who were left had lost their
bristles--bare to the skin, as the event proved.
After that Theodatus had no heart to fight, and ended his dog's life
by a dog's death, as we have seen.
Note also this, that there was a general feeling of coming ruin; that
there were quaint signs and omens. We have heard of the pigs which
warned the Goths. Here is another. There was a Mosaic picture of
Theodoric at Naples; it had been crumbling to pieces at intervals,
and every fresh downfall had marked the death of an Amal. Now the
last remains went down, to the very feet, and the Romans believed
that it foretold the end of the Amal dynasty. There was a Sibylline
'Quintili mense Roma nihil Geticum metuet.'
Here, too, we find the last trace of heathenism, of that political
mythology which had so inextricably interwoven itself with the life
and history of the city. The shrine of Janus was still standing, all
of bronze, only just large enough, Procopius says, to contain the
bronze image of Janus Bifrons. The gates, during Christian
centuries, had never been opened, even in war time. Now people went
by night, and tried to force them open: but hardly succeeded.
Belisarius garrisoned Rome, and the Goths attacked it, but in vain.
You must read the story of that famous siege in the really brilliant
pages of old Procopius, the last good historian of the old world.
Moreover, and this is most important, Belisarius raised the native
population against the Goths. As he had done in Africa, when in one
short campaign he utterly destroyed the now effeminate aristocracy of
the Vandals, so he did in Italy. By real justice and kindness; by
proclaiming himself the deliverer of the conquered from the yoke of
foreign tyrants, he isolated the slave-holding aristocracy of the
Goths from the mass of the inhabitants of Italy.
Belisarius and the Goths met, and the Goths conquered. But to take
Rome was beyond their power; and after that a long miserable war
struggled and wrangled up and down over the wretched land; city after
city was taken and destroyed, now by Roman, now by Goth. The lands
lay waste, the people disappeared in tens of thousands. All great
Dietrich's work of thirty years was trampled into mud.
There were horrible sieges and destructions by both parties;--sack of
Milan by Goths, sack of Rimini and the country round by Romans;
horrors of famine at Auximum; two women who kept an inn, killing and
eating seventeen men, till the eighteenth discovered the trap and
killed them. Everywhere, as I say, good Dietrich's work of thirty
years trampled into gory mud.
Then Theudebert and his false Franks came down to see what they could
get; all (save a few knights round the king) on foot, without bow or
lance; but armed with sword, shield, and heavy short-handled double-
edged francisc, or battle-axe. At the bridge over the Ticinus they
(nominal Catholics) sacrificed Gothic women and children with horrid
rites, fought alike Goths and Romans, lost a third of their army by
dysentery, and went home again.
At last, after more horrors, Vitigis and his Goths were driven into
Ravenna. Justinian treated for peace; and then followed a strange
peripeteia, which we have, happily, from an eye-witness, Procopius
himself. The Roman generals outside confessed their chance of
success hopeless. The Goths inside, tired of the slow Vitigis, send
out to the great Belisarius, Will he be their king? King over them
there in Italy? He promised, meaning to break his promise; and to
the astonishment and delight of the Romans, the simple and honest
barbarians opened the gates of Ravenna, and let in him and his
Romans, to find themselves betrayed and enslaved. 'When I saw our
troops march in,' says Procopius, 'I felt it was God's doing, so to
turn their minds. The Goths,' he says, 'were far superior in numbers
and in strength; and their women, who had fancied these Romans to be
mighty men of valour, spit in the faces of their huge husbands, and
pointing to the little Romans, reproached them with having
surrendered to such things as that.' But the folly was committed.
Belisarius carried them away captive to Constantinople, and so ended
the first act of the Gothic war.
In the moment of victory the envy of the Byzantine court undid all
that it had done. Belisarius returned with his captives to Rome, not
for a triumph, but for a disgrace; and Italy was left open to the
Goths, if they had men and heart to rise once more.
And they did rise. Among the remnant of the race was left a hero,
Totila by name;--a Teuton of the ancient stamp. Totilas, 'free from
death'--'the deathless one,' they say his name means. Under him the
nation rose once more as out of the ground.
A Teuton of the ancient stamp he was, just and merciful exceedingly.
Take but two instances of him, and know the man by them. He retook
Naples. The Romans within were starving. He fed them; but lest they
should die of the sudden repletion, he kept them in by guards at each
gate, and fed them up more and more each day, till it was safe to let
them out, to find food for themselves in the country. A Roman came
to complain that a Goth had violated his daughter. He shall die,
said Totila. He shall not die, said the Goths. He is a valiant
hero. They came clamouring to the king. He answered them quietly
and firmly. They may choose to-day, whether to let this man go
unpunished, or to save the Gothic nation and win the victory. Do
they not recollect how at the beginning of the war, they had brave
soldiers, famous generals, countless treasures, horses, weapons, and
all the forts of Italy? And yet under Theodatus, a man who loved
gold better than justice, they had so angered God by their
unrighteous lives, that--what had happened they knew but too well.
Now God had seemed to have avenged himself on them enough. He had
begun a new course with them. They must begin a new course with him;
and justice was the only path. As for the man's being a valiant
hero: let them know that the unjust and the ravisher were never
brave in fight; but that according to a man's life, such was his luck
His noble words came all but true. The feeble generals who were
filling Belisarius's place were beaten one by one, and almost all
Italy was reconquered. Belisarius had to be sent back again to
Italy: but the envy, whether of Justinian himself, or of the two
wicked women who ruled his court, allowed him so small a force that
he could do nothing.
Totila and the Goths came down once more to Rome. Belisarius in
agony sent for reinforcements, and got them; but too late. He could
not relieve Rome. The Goths had massed themselves round the city,
and Belisarius, having got to Ostia (Portus) at the Tiber's mouth,
could get no further. This was the last woe; the actual death-agony
of ancient Rome. The famine grew and grew. The wretched Romans
cried to Bessas and his garrison, either to feed them or to kill them
out of their misery. They would do neither. They could hardly at
last feed themselves. The Romans ate nettles off the ruins, and
worse things still. There was not a dog or a rat left. They even
killed themselves. One father of five children could bear no longer
their cries for food. He wrapped his head in his mantle, and sprang
into the Tiber, while the children looked on. The survivors wandered
about like spectres, brown with hunger, and dropped dead with half-
chewed nettles between their lips. To this, says Procopius, had
fortune brought the Roman senate and people. Nay, not fortune, but
wickedness. They had wished to play at being free, while they
themselves were the slaves of sin.
And still Belisarius was coming,--and still he did not come. He was
forcing his way up the Tiber; he had broken Totila's chain, burnt a
tower full of Goths, and the city was on the point of being relieved,
when one Isaac made a fool of himself, and was taken by the Goths.
Belisarius fancied that Portus, his base of operations, with all his
supplies, and Antonia, the worthless wife on whom he doted, were
gone. He lost his head, was beaten terribly, fell back on Ostia, and
then the end came. Isaurians from within helped in Goths by night.
The Asinarian gate was opened, and Rome was in the hands of the
And what was left? What of all the pomp and glory, the spoils of the
world, the millions of inhabitants?
Five or six senators, who had taken refuge in St. Peter's, and some
five hundred of the plebs; Pope Pelagius crouching at Totila's feet,
and crying for mercy; and Rusticiana, daughter of Symmachus,
Boethius' widow, with other noble women, in slaves' rags, knocking
without shame at door after door to beg a bit of bread. And that was
what was left of Rome.
Gentlemen, I make no comment. I know no more awful page in the
history of Europe. Through such facts as these God speaks. Let man
be silent; and look on in fear and trembling, knowing that it was
written of old time--The wages of sin are death.
The Goths wanted to kill Rusticiana. She had sent money to the Roman
generals; she had thrown down Dietrich's statues, in revenge for the
death of her father and her husband. Totila would not let them touch
her. Neither maid, wife, nor widow, says Procopius, was the worse
for any Goth.
Next day he called the heroes together. He is going to tell them the
old tale, he says--How in Vitigis' time at Ravenna, 7000 Greeks had
conquered and robbed of kingdom and liberty 200,000 rich and well-
armed Goths. And now that they were raw levies, few, naked,
wretched, they had conquered more than 20,000 of the enemy. And why?
Because of old they had looked to everything rather than to justice;
they had sinned against each other and the Romans. Therefore they
must choose, and be just men henceforth, and have God with them, or
unjust, and have God against them.
Then he sends for the wretched remnant of the senators and tells them
the plain truth:- How the great Dietrich and his successors had
heaped them with honour and wealth; and how they had returned his
benefits by bringing in the Greeks. And what had they gained by
changing Dietrich for Justinian? Logothetes, who forced them by
blows to pay up the money which they had already paid to their Gothic
rulers; and revenue exacted alike in war and in peace. Slaves they
deserve to be; and slaves they shall be henceforth.
Then he sends to Justinian. He shall withdraw his army from Italy,
and make peace with him. He will be his ally and his son in arms, as
Dietrich had been to the Emperors before him, or if not, he will kill
the senate, destroy Rome, and march into Illyricum.
Justinian leaves it to Belisarius.
Then Totila begins to destroy Rome. He batters down the walls, he is
ready to burn the town. He will turn the evil place into a sheep-
pasture. Belisarius flatters and cajoles him from his purpose, and
he marches away with all his captives, leaving not a living soul in
But Totila shews himself a general unable to cope with that great
tactician. He divides his forces, and allows Belisarius to start out
of Ostia and fortify himself in Rome. The Goths are furious at his
rashness: but it is too late, and the war begins again, up and down
the wretched land, till Belisarius is recalled by some fresh court
intrigue of his wicked wife, and another and even more terrible enemy
appears on the field, Narses the eunuch, avenging his wrong upon his
fellow-men by cunning and courage almost preternatural. He comes
upon them with a mighty host: but not of Romans alone. He has
gathered the Teuton tribes;--Herules, the descendants probably of
Odoacer's confederates; Gepids, who have a long blood-feud against
the Goths; and most terrible of all, Alboin with his five thousand
more Burgundians, of whom you will hear enough hereafter. We read
even of multitudes of Huns, and even of Persian deserters from the
Chosroo. But Narses' policy is the old Roman one--Teuton must
destroy Teuton. And it succeeds.
In spite of some trouble with the Franks, who are holding Venetia, he
marches down victorious through the wasted land, and Totila marches
to meet him in the Apennines. The hero makes his last speech. He
says, 'There will be no need to talk henceforth. This day will end
the war. They are not to fear these hired Huns, Herules, Lombards,
fighting for money. Let them hold together like desperate men.' So
they fight it out. The Goths depending entirely on the lance, the
Romans on a due use of every kind of weapon. The tremendous charge
of the Gothic knights is stopped by showers of Hun and Herule arrows,
and they roll back again and again in disorder on the foot: but in
spite of the far superior numbers of the Romans, it is not till
nightfall that Narses orders a general advance of his line. The
Goths try one last charge; but appalled by the numbers of the enemy,
break up, and, falling back on the foot, throw them into confusion,
and all is lost.
The foot are cut down flying. The knights ride for their lives.
Totila and five horsemen are caught up by Asbad the Gepid chief.
Asbad puts his lance in rest, not knowing who was before him. 'Dog,'
cries Totila's page, 'wilt thou strike thy lord?' But it is too
late. Asbad's lance goes through his back, and he drops on his
horse's neck. Scipwar (Shipward) the Goth wounds Asbad, and falls
wounded himself. The rest carry off Totila. He dies that night,
after reigning eleven stormy years.
The Goths flee across the Po. There is one more struggle for life,
and one more hero left. Teia by name, 'the slow one,' slow, but
strong. He shall be king now. They lift him on the shield, and
gather round him desperate, but determined to die hard. He finds the
treasure of Totila, hid in Pisa. He sends to Theudebald and his
Franks. Will they help him against the Roman, and they shall have
the treasure; the last remnant of the Nibelungen hoard. No. The
Luegenfelden will not come. They will stand by and see the butchery,
on the chance of getting all Italy for themselves. Narses storms
Rome--or rather a little part of it round Hadrian's Mole, which the
Goths had fortified; and the Goths escape down into Campania, mad
That victory of Narses, says Procopius, brought only a more dreadful
destruction on the Roman senate and people. The Goths, as they go
down, murder every Roman they meet. The day of grace which Totila
had given them is over. The Teutons in Narses' army do much the
same. What matter to Burgunds and Herules who was who, provided they
had any thing to be plundered of? Totila has allowed many Roman
senators to live in Campania. They hear that Narses has taken Rome,
they begin to flock to the ghastly ruin. Perhaps there will be once
again a phantom senate, phantom consuls, under the Romani nominis
umbram. The Goths catch them, and kill them to a man. And there is
an end of the Senatus Populusque Romanus.
The end is near now. And yet these terrible Goths cannot be killed
out of the way. On the slopes of Vesuvius, by Nuceria, they fortify
a camp; and as long as they are masters of the neighbouring sea, for
two months they keep Narses at bay. At last he brings up an
innumerable fleet, cuts off their supplies; and then the end comes.
The Goths will die like desperate men on foot. They burst out of
camp, turn their horses loose, after the fashion of German knights--
One hears of the fashion again and again in the middle age,--and rush
upon the enemy in deep solid column. The Romans have hardly time to
form some sort of line; and then not the real Romans, I presume, but
the Burgunds and Gepids, turn their horses loose like the Goths.
There is no need for tactics; the fight is hand to hand; every man,
says Procopius, rushing at the man nearest him.
For a third of the day Teia fights in front, sheltered by his long
pavisse, stabbing with a mighty lance at the mob which makes at him,
as dogs at a boar at bay. Procopius is awed by the man. Most
probably he saw him with his own eyes. Second in valour, he says, to
none of the Heroes.
Again and again his shield is full of darts. Without moving a foot,
without turning an inch right or left, says Procopius, he catches
another from his shield-bearer, and fights on. At last he has twelve
lances in his shield, and cannot move it: coolly he calls for a
fresh one, as if he were fixed to the soil, thrusts back the enemy
with his left hand, and stabs at them with his right. But his time
is come. As he shifts his shield for a moment his chest is exposed,
and a javelin is through him. And so ends the last hero of the East
Goths. They put his head upon a pole, and carry it round the lines
to frighten the Goths. The Goths are long past frightening.
All day long, and all the next day, did the Germans fight on, Burgund
and Gepid against Goth, neither giving nor taking quarter, each man
dying where he stood, till human strength could bear up no longer,
while Narses sat by, like an ugly Troll as he was, smiling to see the
Teuton slay the Teuton, for the sake of their common enemy. Then the
Goths sent down to Narses. They were fighting against God. They
would give in, and go their ways peaceably, and live with some other
Teuton nations after their own laws. They had had enough of Italy,
poor fellows, and of the Nibelungen hoard. Only Narses, that they
might buy food on the journey back, must let them have their money,
which he had taken in various towns of Italy.
Narses agreed. There was no use fighting more with desperate men.
They should go in peace. And he kept his faith with them. Perhaps
he dared not break it. He let them go, like a wounded lion crawling
away from the hunter, up through Italy, and over the Po, to vanish.
They and their name became absorbed in other nations, and history
knows the East Goths no more.
So perished, by their own sins, a noble nation; and in perishing,
destroyed utterly the Roman people. After war and famine followed as
usual dreadful pestilence, and Italy lay waste for years. Henceforth
the Italian population was not Roman, but a mixture of all races,
with a most powerful, but an entirely new type of character. Rome
was no more Senatorial, but Papal.
And why did these Goths perish, in spite of all their valour and
patriotism, at the hands of mercenaries?
They were enervated, no doubt, as the Vandals had been in Africa, by
the luxurious southern climate, with its gardens, palaces, and wines.
But I have indicated a stronger reason already:- they perished
because they were a slave-holding aristocracy.
We must not blame them. All men then held slaves: but the original
sin was their ruin, though they knew it not. It helped, doubtless,
to debauch them; to tempt them to the indulgence of those fierce and
greedy passions, which must, in the long run, lower the morality of
slaveholders; and which, as Totila told them, had drawn down on them
the anger of heaven. But more; though they reformed their morals,
and that nobly, under the stern teaching of affliction, that could
not save them. They were ruined by the inherent weakness of all
slaveholding states; the very weakness which had ruined, in past
years, the Roman Empire. They had no middle class, who could keep up
their supplies, by exercising for them during war the arts of peace.
They had no lower class, whom they dare entrust with arms, and from
whom they might recruit their hosts. They could not call a whole
population into the field, and when beaten in that field, carry on,
as Britain would when invaded, a guerilla warfare from wood to wood,
and hedge to hedge, as long as a coign of vantage-ground was left.
They found themselves a small army of gentlemen, chivalrous and
valiant, as slaveholders of our race have always been; but lessening
day by day from battle and disease, with no means of recruiting their
numbers; while below them and apart from them lay the great mass of
the population, helpless, unarmed, degraded, ready to side with any
or every one who would give them bread, or let them earn it for
themselves (for slaves must eat, even though their masters starve),
and careless of, if not even hostile to, their masters' interests,
the moment those masters were gone to the wars.
In such a case, nothing was before them, save certain defeat at last
by an enemy who could pour in ever fresh troops of mercenaries, and
who had the command of the seas.
I may seem to be describing the case of a modern and just as valiant
and noble a people. I do not mention its name. The parallel, I
fear, is too complete, not to have already suggested itself to you.