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Heodoric's Tomb
Italy Under Odovacar
Roman Officials--cassiodorus
Rome And Ravenna
Storm And Stress
The Arian League
The Conquest Of Italy
The Might Of Attila
The Southward Migration
The Theodoric Of Saga
Theodoric's Ancestors
Theodoric's Boyhood


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

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

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 L22 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.

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 AEterna. 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.

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]

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

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.

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