Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Witigis in Hiding

Sorely as the Gothic ranks had been thinned by famine, pestilence, and the sword, it was still an enormous army that Witigis led away from the walls of Rome. The joy that Belisarius felt at the raising of the siege was mixed with some anxiety, for the way to Ravenna was through Rimini, where John still remained with his two thousand horsemen. The general knew the headstrong character of his sub-ordinate, and he feared that John might allow himself to be besieged by the Goths, and that the consequence would be the total destruction of his little force.

To prevent such a calamity Belisarius put one thousand horsemen under two trusty officers, Hildiger and Martin, and commanded them to convey to John his orders to withdraw with his cavalry from Rimini, and to leave the place in charge of a small garrison of foot-soldiers, summoned from the lately taken fortress of Ancona. Belisarius thought that if Witigis found that Rimini contained neither cavalry nor any officers important enough to be valuable prisoners, he would not think it worthwhile to besiege the place; and even if he did so, John and his horsemen would be able to cause the Goths a great deal of annoyance and probably to compel them to abandon the siege.

Hildiger and Martin found no difficulty in outstripping the slow march of the Goths. On their way they captured a Gothic post at a place called the Tunneled Rock (Petra Pertusa), where the road running along a ledge in the side of a precipitous cliff overhanging a deep river-gorge, passes through a tunnel forty feet long, cut through the solid rock in the time of the emperor Vespasian. By way of securing this passage, the two openings had been walled up and provided with gates. The Goths made no attempt at fighting, but took shelter inside their huts at the farther end of the tunnel. So the Romans climbed up to the top of the cliffs, and dislodging huge masses of rock sent them rolling down upon the roofs of the huts. The Gothic, soldiers then not only opened the gate, but offered to enter the emperor's service, and the greater part of them accompanied the Roman horsemen on their forward march, while the rest, together with a few Romans, were left behind to guard the tunnel. After this, Hildiger and Martin met with no resistance, and going round by way of Ancona, where they selected from the garrison the required number of infantry, they proceeded to Rimini, and delivered their orders to John. He flatly refused to obey, and the two officers went back to Rome. They left the foot soldiers behind, but taking back with them a few of the garrison of Rimini, who being part of Belisarius's own guard were not subject to John's commands.

Soon afterwards the vast army of the Goths arrived before Rimini, and attempted to storm the walls with the help of a wooden tower on wheels, like those which they had tried to employ in the siege of Rome; but, mindful of their former failure, they contrived that the machine should be propelled by men inside instead of being drawn by oxen. Most of the Romans, when they saw these preparations, gave themselves up for lost; but the energy of John was equal to the need. In the dead of night he issued from the walls with a band of men armed with spades, and dug a deep trench between the siege tower and the walls. So the attack, like every other undertaking managed by King Witigis, resulted in failure and the loss of hundreds of Gothic lives. The Goths therefore determined not to try any more to carry the city by storm, but to starve out the little garrison by a strict blockade no difficult task, unless, as did not seem likely, Belisarius should be able to send a powerful army to the rescue.

While the Goths were encamped before Rimini, a body of a thousand Romans, at the invitation of the citizens, had entered the great city of Milan. Witigis was greatly enraged to hear of the faithlessness of the Milanese, and sent his nephew Uraias [Wraihya] with a large detachment of his army, to besiege the city, ordering him, when it should be taken, to show no mercy to the traitors. Uraias was joined by ten thousand Burgunds, whom the Frankish king Theudebert had sent in aid of the Goths, and Milan was so closely blockaded that no food could be brought into the city.

Just at this time (about midsummer 538) a new imperial army landed at Ancona, commanded by Narses, the emperor's chamberlain.

This Narses, though he had not had a soldier's education, possessed a great deal of native military genius, and we shall hear how, fourteen years later, his bold and skillful generalship effected the ruin of the Gothic kingdom, and made his master Justinian undisputed sovereign of Italy. But on the present occasion his coming wrought little but mischief to the Roman cause. The truth seems to be that Justinian was beginning to fear least Belisarius's victorious career might end in his aspiring to the diadem of the Western Empire, and that Narses was sent as a sort of spy. Although the emperor's letter to the officers of the army said expressly that Narses was not sent to take the command, but that Belisarius was to be obeyed "in all that tended to the good of the state," there were many who thought this assurance was merely an empty form, and looked to the chamberlain for their orders. Narses for his part continually disapproved of the general's plans, and refused to carry them out. When Belisarius claimed obedience, the chamberlain coolly answered that he considered that the proposed course was not "for the good of the state," and therefore neither he nor the officers were bound to agree to it. It is easy to see how dangerous such a state of things would be, in the presence of an enemy immensely superior in numbers.

Belisarius, however, did not know the temper in which Narses had come, and he advanced with all his army to meet him, congratulating himself on so large an addition to his forces. The two leaders met at Firmium, a town near the Adriatic shore, a day's march south of Ancona, and a great council of war was held to decide on the plan of operations to be adopted. The question debated was whether the first step should be to relieve the garrison of Rimini, or to make an attack on the fortress of Auximum, which was held by four thousand Goths commanded by Wisand.

The general feeling was that it would be highly dangerous to leave Auximum in Gothic hands. It seemed likely that if they did so, the Romans would be taken in the rear by Wisand while they were engaged with the great army of Witigis. "Let us first reduce Auximum," urged several speakers, "and then proceed to the relief of Rimini. If in the meantime Rimini is taken, the fault will not be ours, but John's, because if he had obeyed orders he would not be there at all." Now Narses was a great friend of John, and he pleaded his cause so eloquently, showing how the capture of the two thousand and their commander would raise the courage of the Goths, that Belisarius decided to run the risk of an immediate march against the besiegers. He divided his army into three parts, sending the largest division, under Hildiger, by sea, with orders to anchor in front of Rimini at the same time that the second division, under Martin, arrived by the road along the coast. Belisarius himself, accompanied by Narses, marched through the mountains, passing Rimini at the distance of a two days' journey, so that he could bear down upon the besiegers from the north. His object was to frighten the Goths by the sight of an enemy approaching them from three sides at once. In this he was successful. A Gothic foraging party, surprised by the troops of Belisarius, fled to the camp with the news that an enormous army was advancing from the north; the same night the campfires of Martin's division were descried eight miles away to the south; and the rising sun shone on the sails of a Roman fleet in the offing.

In a few hours the whole army of the Goths was in headlong flight towards Ravenna, leaving in the camp the sick and wounded, and not a little of their property, to become the plunder of the soldiers of Hildiger. About noon Belisarius arrived, and when he saw the pale and wasted forms of John and his companions, he told John that he ought to be very thankful to Hildiger. "Not to Hildiger," John replied gloomily, "but to Narses." Belisarius understood what his answer meant, and he knew that he had made a life-long enemy.

Thwarted as he continually was by Narses and John, Belisarius succeeding in capturing the strong fortresses of Urbinum and Urbs Vetus (Orvieto). But the dissensions between the generals caused the loss of Milan. Belisarius had sent a large body of troops, under Martin and an officer of Gothic birth named Wilihari, to the rescue of the beleaguered city, but the officers remained idle for months encamped on the south bank of the Po, and at length wrote to Belisarius asking for aid, as they dared not cross the river, being so enormously outnumbered by the Goths and Burgunds, and Belisarius wrote ordering John and Justin to march for the deliverance of Milan, but they refused to obey any orders but those of Narses. At last—early in the year 539—he was constrained to humble himself to entreat Narses to give the necessary commands. The chamberlain consented; but it was too late. Before the order could be executed Milan had fallen.

When the city was suffering the direst extremity of famine, the Gothic chief called upon the garrison to surrender, promising that if they did so their lives should be spared. The Roman commander, Mundila (himself, like so many other "Roman" officers of the time, a Goth by birth) insisted that the besiegers should pledge themselves to spare the lives of the citizens as well. But the Goths, according to the orders given to them by their king, were bent on having a terrible revenge upon the Milanese for their betrayal, and refused the demand. Then the brave Mundila, addressing the remnant of his thousand men, called upon them to prefer a glorious death to a dishonoured life, and to follow him in a desperate charge upon the enemy. But the soldiers did not share his heroic courage. They accepted the offered terms, and saved their own lives, leaving the hapless citizens to their fate.

The Goths used their victory like the worst of savages. All the men in the city were killed (three hundred thousand, we are told, but the number seems incredible); the women were given as slaves to the Burgunds, and Milan was leveled with the ground. The surrounding cities, fearing a similar fate, hastened to offer their submission, and without any further bloodshed the Goths were once more masters of the province of Liguria.

The Roman generals, Martin and Wilihari, who had allowed Milan to perish before their eyes without striking a blow for its defence, returned to Rome. Belisarius had set out with all his army towards the Adriatic coast, intending to lay siege to Auximum, and on the journey heard the grievous news of Milan. In bitterness of heart he wrote to Justinian, telling him the whole story of what had happened, and doubtless asking for the punishment of those whose fault had caused the disaster. The emperor, however, contented himself with ordering Narses to return at once to Constantinople, and formally appointing Belisarius to the supreme command of the army of Italy. Belisarius seems to have thought Wilihari more to blame than his colleague, and we read that he never permitted him to see his face again.

The dreary story of the remainder of the year 539 need not here be told in detail. From May to December Belisarius was besieging Auximum, near the Adriatic, and his lieutenants were besieging Faesulae, close to Florence. The brave garrison of Auximum suffered cruel hardships, but were encouraged by continual promises of immediate help from Ravenna. The help never carne; Witigis could not make up his mind to exchange the safety of his fortress for the risks of a conflict in the open field. At last, when Faesulae had fallen, and the army which had captured it came with their prisoners to the camp of Belisarius, the resolution of the famished defenders of Auximum broke down. They not only surrendered the city, but they were so hopeless of Gothic freedom under a king like Witigis that they actually took service in the Roman ranks. And so four thousand valiant soldiers passed over from the side of Witigis to that of the emperor.

While these two sieges were going on, King Theudebert of the Franks, with a hundred thousand men, crossed the Alps into North Italy. The Goths, thinking he came to help them, made no preparations for defence, and fled in great confusion when their supposed friends suddenly made a fierce attack on their camp. Upon this the Romans naturally expected that the Franks would take their side, but they fell into the same trap as their enemies had done. King Theudobert's object was merely to enrich himself by robbery. After impartially plundering both camps and ravaging the country, he went back to his kingdom laden with booty; but he had lost so many men by disease that he had little reason to congratulate himself on the results of his treacherous conduct.

What miseries the Italian country people suffered during this terrible year will never be fully known. Fifty thousand peasants died of famine in the province of Picenum alone. The historian Procopius describes in vivid language the ghastly scenes of which he was an eye-witness. The victims of hunger, he tells us, first grew deadly pale, then livid, and finally black, "like the charred remains of torches." Their eyes had the wild glare of insanity. It was rumoured that some had yielded to the temptation to save their own lives by feeding on human flesh. Thousands were seen lying dead on the ground, their hands still clutching the grass which they had been trying to pull up for food. The bodies lay unburied, but the birds disdained to touch them, for there was no flesh left upon the bones.

It is a horrible picture; but it helps us to understand in some degree what is really meant by the

famines" that are so often mentioned in passing as incidents in the wars of the centuries to which our story relates.