Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Failure of Belisarius

It was not merely the old suspicion which made Justinian unwilling to send Belisarius to Italy. The great general had recently fallen into disgrace with his imperial master. In the year 542, Justinian had been smitten with plague, and it was said that while he was on what was supposed to be his death-bed Belisarius had formed a plot for the purpose of succceding him on the throne, to the exclusion of the Empress Theodora. The emperor, however, recovered, and as he believed the accusations against Belisarius, he deprived him of all his honours and of a large part of his property. He also took away from him his famous "household" of soldiers, and sent them away on foreign service. Afterwards Justinian had professed to forgive Belisarius, and had conferred on him the office of "Count of the Imperial Stable." But he still treated him with haughty coldness, and even in making him the offer of the Italian command he seems not to have been able to conceal the distrust which he felt. Belisarius, however, was tired of inaction, and eager to prove his loyalty, and he accepted the appointment with gladness. He even promised, it is said, that he would himself supply all the money which the expedition might cost. Perhaps it was this promise that overcame the avaricious emperor's reluctance to avail himself of the services of the general whom he distrusted.

It was in May, 544, that Belisarius went to take the command of the Italian armies. He remained five years in Italy, and when he at length returned it was with the consciousness of failure: the Gothic power was still unbroken.

How was it that the great general, who a few years before had so brilliantly, with a mere handful of men, wrested Italy from the grasp of the gigantic host of Witigis, was no longer able to contend against a foe whose army was inferior in numbers to his own? The reasons, no doubt, were many. It is possible that the troubles through which he had passed had in some degree broken his spirit and dulled his brain. Something, too, may be set down to the fact that his adversary now was a resolute and skillful youth, and not a feeble and purposeless old man. But there were other causes which were more important still. The Roman soldiers in Italy were thoroughly demoralized by the shameful oppression which they had undergone at the hands of Justinian's governors, and by the spectacle of the sloth and rapacity of their own commanders. Great numbers of them had deserted to Totila, in whose service they might at least be sure of their pay. Those who remained were rather a mob than an army; they professed to be on the emperor's side, because of the opportunity that was allowed them for pillaging and insulting the Italian country people, but in the field they were worse than useless. Then, too, Belisarius had associated with him other commanders with authority nearly equal to his own; and they were little inclined to submit to a chief whom they knew to be under the emperor's frown. His plans were thwarted continually, and he was sometimes obliged to defer to the opinions of his subordinates against his own wiser judgment.

Even under these miserable circumstances Belisarius managed to gain some advantages over the enemy, and to delay for a long time Totila's march to Rome. But when a year had passed he felt that the Goths would never be conquered with such means as he had. He therefore wrote an urgent letter to the emperor, begging him to send to Italy an army worthy of the name, and money for the heavy arrears of pay that were due to the barbarian troops. To show to Justinian emphatically how hopeless he considered the struggle to be without further resources, he left Italy altogether, and waited at Durazzo, on the other side of the Adriatic, until the soldiers should arrive from Constantinople.

While Belisarius was waiting, Rome was once more undergoing the miseries of a close blockade. The commander of the emperor's garrison was Bessa, the Thracian Goth, a man who in the past had shown himself a brave soldier, but whose hard-hearted avarice now added to the wretchedness of the unfortunate Romans. The hardships which the citizens had to endure were a matter of satisfaction to him, for they enabled him to enrich himself by selling, at outrageous prices, the provisions of which he had collected an ample store.

When the senators found that there was little prospect of speedy relief, they determined to try whether they could induce Totila to agree to favourable terms of surrender. They chose as their ambassador a deacon named Felagius, who had gained great esteem among the people by the generosity with which he had supplied the necessities of the poor during the siege. His instructions were to ask Totila for a truce of a few days, and to promise, if he would agree to their conditions, that at the end of that period the city should be given up, unless an imperial army arrived in the meantime for its relief.

Totila received Pelagius with a great appearance of respect and kindness, but said that before they entered into any discussion it must be understood that on three points his mind was firmly made up. "In the first place," said he, "you must not ask me to let the Sicilians go unpunished for their treachery. Secondly, I am resolved that the walls of Rome shall be destroyed. This will be far better for the citizens themselves, because they will then be in no danger of having again to suffer the calamity of a siege. The third point is that I will listen to no proposals for restoring to their former masters the slaves who have taken service in the Gothic army. I have pledged my word to them that they shall be free; if I broke faith towards these unfortunate people, how could you trust in my observing any treaty I made with you? Apart from these three points, however, I am ready to consider favourably any proposition you have to make."

When he heard these words Pelagius lost his temper, and said fiercely that to lay down such conditions of discussion was a gross insult, and that after this he could only regard Totila's show of politeness as a downright mockery. "I came," he said, "as a suppliant; but now I disdain to make any request of you—I will address my prayers to God, whose it is to humble the arrogance of the mighty." And so Pelagius went back to the city with his message undelivered.

Days passed away, and still no succour came. Men were dying of hunger in the city, while the soldiers were well-fed, and their officers still kept up their accustomed luxury. Assembling in a body, the citizens surrounded the house of Bessa, and by their uproar compelled him to come out and listen to their complaints. They besought him either to let them go out of the city, or to supply them with food, or, if he would do neither, to kill them and end their miseries. Bessa replied coolly that to find them food was impossible; to kill them would be wicked, and to let them go would be dangerous. But he ended his speech by saying that he had certain information that Belisarius was speedily coming with a new army. His manner convinced them that he was speaking the truth, and the crowd dispersed without making any attempt at violence.

The news was indeed true. After every possible excuse for delay had been exhausted, Justinian had at last despatched an army to Durazzo. As soon as it arrived, Belisarius embarked with the troops, and after a sail of five days his ships cast anchor in the port of Rome.

But the famine continued to do its fearful work, until at last an incident happened which compelled Bessa to relax his cruel rule. A certain man in the city, worn out by the cries of his five children for bread which he could not give them, at last bade them follow him, saying that he would find them food. He led them through the streets till he came to a bridge over the Tiber, and then, wrapping his cloak round his head, he plunged into the river and was drowned before the eyes of his children and of the crowd. The city rang with cries of indignation against the Roman officers. Bessa perceived that the hungry populace was becoming dangerous. He gave permission that the citizens might go whither they would, and supplied them with money for their journey. All but a very few accepted the offer, but vast numbers of them died of hunger on the way, or fell into the hands of the enemy and were killed.

The first concern of Belisarius was to try to get Rome supplied with provisions. But his plan required the help of Bessa; and Bessa sullenly refused to obey his orders, and the well-laid scheme came to nothing. After this failure Belisarius prepared for an attack on the Gothic camp; and here again he would have succeeded but for the disobedience of his officers. Ten miles from Rome, and half way between the city and the port, Totila had built a wooden bridge across the river, and had erected upon it two towers, which he manned with four hundred of his bravest soldiers. Belisarius, leaving his wife Antonina and his treasures at the port, in charge of one of his officers named Isaac, set out with a fleet of vessels, headed by two fireships, to destroy the obstacle with which Totila sought to prevent his approach. He sent word to Bessa to second his attack by a sally from the gates of Rome, and he strictly charged Isaac on no account to leave his post.

The attack on the bridge was successful: one of the towers took fire, and two hundred Goths perished in the flames. But Bessa did not make the expected sortie; and Isaac, heedless of his orders, foolishly made an attack on a strong body of the enemy, and was defeated and captured.

The news that Isaac was a prisoner was brought to Belisarius in the midst of his victory. He rushed to the conclusion that the port must have been taken, and that his dearly-loved wife was in the hands of the enemy. "For the first time in his life," says Procopius, "he was struck with panic." Leaving unfinished the work he had so brilliantly begun, he hurried back to the port. His wife was safe; but the anguish he had undergone, and the mortification at the failure of his plan, so worked upon him that he fell into an illness, and was for a long time helpless and in danger of his life. And while Belisarius lay on his bed of sickness, the Asinarian gate was opened by the treachery of four sentinels, and Rome fell once more into the hands of the Goths.

It was on the evening of December 17, 546, that Totila and his army passed through the gate. Totila did not feel very sure that the four sentinels were not leading him into a trap, and so he caused his men to remain in a compact body near the gates until day-break. In the night the news was brought to him that the imperial army and its leaders had fled from the city, and some of his officers urged him to pursue them. "Let them go," he said; "what could we wish for more than for the enemy to run away?"

When morning came it was plain that the report was true. The city was deserted, except for a few soldiers who had taken refuge in the churches, and about five hundred of the citizens. Totila's first act was to repair to the church of St. Peter to give thanks to God for his victory. While he was thus engaged, the deacon Pelagius brought him word that the Goths were slaughtering the unresisting Romans in the streets, and holding the book of the Gospels in his hand, he implored him to remember the Christian law of mercy. "So, after all, Pelagius," said Totila, with a smile, "you are coming to me as a suppliant." "Yes," was the deacon's answer, "because God has made me your slave. I beseech you, O our master, to spare the lives of your slaves." Totila at once sent out strict orders that there was to be no more violence, but he permitted his soldiers to plunder the city. A great quantity of spoil was taken, especially in the palace occupied by Bessa, who in his hasty flight had had to leave behind him all his ill-gotten gains.

Amongst the few once wealthy Romans who remained in the city, and who, it is said, were actually reduced to beg their bread from their conquerors, was Rusticiana, the widow of Boethius. Some of the Goths demanded that she should be put to death, because she had given money to the Roman officers to induce them to destroy the statues of Theoderic. But Totila insisted that the aged lady should be treated with all respect.

On the following day Totila harangued his soldiers on his favourite theme the importance of justice and mercy, as their only hope of obtaining the blessing of God on their cause. Soon afterwards he sent Pelagius to Constantinople with other envoys to ask Justinian to agree to terms of peace; but the only answer the emperor would give was that Belisarius had full powers to carry on or to end the war as seemed to him best, and that the Goths must treat with him. But we do not find that Totila attempted to open negotiations with Belisarius; probably he knew too well the iron resolution of his great antagonist to entertain any hope of success.

The failure of the mission to Justinian was a great disappointment to Totila; and just about the same time he learned that an expedition which he had sent into the south of Italy had been defeated with great slaughter. Under the exasperation produced by these events, he determined to take his revenge on Rome—to burn down its magnificent buildings, and to "turn the city into a sheep-pasture." Perhaps he would really have disgraced his glorious career by this barbarous deed; but when Belisarius heard of his intention, he sent a letter to the Gothic king, asking him this pointed question: "Do you choose to appear in history branded as the destroyer of the noblest city in the world, or honoured as its preserver?" The messengers who bore the letter reported that Totila read it over many times, as if he was learning it by heart. After deep consideration, he returned to Belisarius the assurance that Rome should be spared. The incident is honourable alike to each of the two men.

Now that the long siege was over, Totila was able to turn his attention to the other parts of his kingdom, which had been suffering the ravages of the imperial armies. He came to the strange resolve of abandoning Rome altogether, destroying a large part of the walls so that it could no longer be available to the enemy as a fortress; he caused the senators to accompany him on his march, and sent the scanty remnants of the citizens, with their wives and children, away into Campania. Many strange things have happened in the history of Rome, but surely one of the strangest of all is that the vast city, with all its noble buildings still uninjured, should have remained for many weeks without any inhabitants.

At first Totila left behind him the greater part of his army to keep a check on the movements of Belisarius, while he led the remainder into the south of Italy. But before long, for some reason not quite clear, he found it necessary to march with all his available force towards Ravenna, and the neighbourhood of Rome was left unguarded.

And now a rather amusing incident took place. Belisarius hurried up from the port, and meeting with no resistance, took possession of Rome. Of course there was no time to rebuild the fortification properly, but by setting men to work day and night, he managed within three weeks to erect a rough wall in the places where Totila had destroyed the original defences. The inhabitants flocked back to the city, which once more regained something like its accustomed aspect.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


When Totila heard what had happened he marched hastily with all his army to Rome. When he arrived Belisarius had not yet been able to put new gates in the place of those that had been destroyed; but the city was defended with so much spirit that after three furious attempts to take it by storm the Goths were compelled to abandon the undertaking. Hitherto, as Procopius says, the Goths had almost worshipped their young king as a god; but now they angrily reproached him for not having either destroyed Rome or else occupied it himself. They did not rise in rebellion against Totila: one of their national virtues was that of faithfulness to their chosen leaders, even when unsuccessful. But their trust in his wisdom and fortune were shaken, and they fought no longer with their old enthusiasm and hopefulness.

Belisarius completed the fortifications of the city, and sent the keys of the new gates to Justinian as an evidence of his success. But although the re-occupation of Rome was a clever exploit, it was more showy than useful, and did not help to bring the end of the war any nearer. After several months more of unprofitable skirmishing, Belisarius felt that the Goths were not to be conquered by a general who had no means of commanding the obedience of his subordinates. Weary of the hopeless struggle, he allowed his wife to go to Constantinople to solicit his recall. Justinian granted the request, and early in the year 549 Belisarius quitted Italy to return to it no more.

His after history does not concern us here, but we may briefly say that he lived sixteen years longer, during which he performed one exploit worthy of his earlier fame, in saving Constantinople from the Huns Near the end of his life he fell into disgrace once more on account of a suspicion of treason, but he was again restored to favour, and died in the enjoyment of all his wealth and honours. It is hardly needful to mention the idle tale that in old age and blindness Belisarius had to beg his bread from door to door.