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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