Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

An Unkingly King

Justinian's design of conquering Italy was a bold one, for the military power of the empire had sunk so low that the number of men that could be placed in the field scarcely amounted to more than ten thousand. It is true that they were commanded by Belisarius, whose skill had just been shown in the brilliant campaign that crushed the Vandals, and who (so many modern writers have judged) was one of the greatest generals of all time. But it was only the distracted state of Italy, and the helpless weakness of the Gothic king, that gave to the project of conquest any chance of success. It was necessary to act at once, lest the opportunity should be lost; and yet caution was equally needed, for the consequences of failure were terrible.

The sagacity of Justinian was equal to the emergency. First of all, he wrote to the king of the Franks announcing that having been deeply wronged by the Goths, he was about to march against them to reconquer the portion of his dominions which they had usurped, and calling upon his fellow Catholics to lend him their support in a religious war for the expulsion of the Arian heretics. Having obtained a promise of aid from the Franks, he proceeded to make his first attack in a way that involved little risk, and yet would be likely to terrify Theodahad into surrender.

It was determined that Belisarius, with seven thousand five hundred men, should take shipping under pretense of going to Carthage, and should land, as if in passing, in Sicily. If he saw reason to believe that the island could be occupied without trouble he was to do so; if not, he was to sail away to Africa without letting it be known what his designs had been. At the same time the Gepid Mundus was sent to make an attack on the undefended possessions of the Goths on the east side of the Adriatic.

Both parts of the scheme succeeded perfectly. Mundus entered Dalmatia, and obtained possession of the chief city, Salona, without resistance. Belisarius found that the people of Sicily were eager to be freed from Gothic rule. He soon captured Catana; Syracuse opened its gates to him; and the only city that gave him any trouble was Palermo, which was strongly fortified, and was held by an important Gothic garrison. Belisarius called on the Goths to surrender, but, trusting to the strength of their walls, they paid no attention to his demand. The stratagem by which he is said to have gained possession of the city was a strange one. Anchoring his ships in the harbour, close to the city wall, he had boat-loads of archers hoisted up to the tops of the masts. When the besieged found that they were assailed with volleys of arrows out of the air, they were terribly frightened, and at once surrendered. Whether this curious story be true or not, there is no doubt that in a few weeks Belisarius received the submission of the whole island almost without the loss of a man. The Goths never forgave the Sicilians for their ingratitude in so joyfully welcoming the change of masters. It was not long before the visits of the imperial tax, gatherers made the islanders feel that the position of subjects of the empire had its palpable disadvantages.

Notwithstanding the outbreak of hostilities, the ambassador Peter still continued in communication with Theodahad, and made it his business to stimulate, by cunningly dropped hints, the anxiety which the events of Dalmatia and Sicily had excited in the king's mind. In this endeavour he was perfectly successful. The poor wretch was soon brought into such an agony of terror that he could hardly believe he was not already a prisoner of war, or—what was still worse at the head of his army, and forced to expose himself to mortal danger. Peter had therefore very little difficulty in inducing Theodahad to agree to all his demands; and a secret agreement was drawn up, which Peter undertook to submit for the approval of the emperor. The conditions stipulated were: "That the emperor should retain possession of Sicily; that Theodahad should pay a tribute of 3 cwt. of gold every year, and supply three thousand Gothic soldiers whenever required; that no senator or Catholic priest should be punished with death or confiscation without the emperor's leave; that the emperor should have the appointment of patricians and senators; that no one should be allowed to shout, 'Long live Theodahad,' but only 'Long live Justinian and Theodahad;' and that no statue of Theodahad should be erected unless accompanied by one of Justinian, which was always to occupy the place of honour at the right hand."

Having obtained Theodahad's consent to this agreement, Peter set out for Constantinople, no doubt thinking that he had made an excellent bargain. As soon as he was out of sight, however, it occurred to Theodahad that possibly the emperor would not approve of the conditions, and that in that case the war would have to go on after all. Tormented by this terrible thought, he hastily despatched a messenger to overtake the ambassador, and entreat him to come back at once. Peter obeyed the summons with a good deal of vexation, for his natural conclusion was that the king, showing for the moment something more like a manly spirit, had repented of his bargain, and that the whole process of coaxing and intimidation would have to be gone through again.

As soon as Peter appeared in the royal presence, Theodahad eagerly asked whether it was quite certain that the emperor would accept the offered terms, and if not, what would be the result. The answer confirmed his worst fears. "I cannot fight," he said; "if it really came to that, I would rather resign my crown, provided the emperor would give me an estate worth twelve hundred pounds weight of gold a year." Peter then persuaded him to put this proposal into the form of a letter addressed to Justinian, but it was agreed that the ambassador should not deliver the letter, or drop any hint about any further offers, until he had tried his best to induce Justinian to accept the treaty as at first drawn up. Himself the most faithless of men, Theodahad had yet the folly to think that the ambassador would keep this absurd promise, at the sacrifice of his duty to his master, and at the risk of his own head. Of course when he got to Constantinople Peter told the whole story. Justinian accepted Theodahad's surrender of the kingdom, and wrote him a letter complimenting him on his wise decision, and promising him not merely the estate he asked for, but the highest honours which could be bestowed on a subject of the empire.

The trusty Peter, accompanied by a certain Athanasius, was sent over to Italy to receive Theodahad's formal abdication, and to assign to him the lands for which he had bargained; Belisarius was ordered to go from Sicily to Rome to take possession of the Italian kingdom.

But when Peter arrived in Italy he found that Theodahad's mood of abject humility had given place to one of insolent defiance. The cause of this change was some news which had come from Dalmatia. A strong body of Goths had made an attack on the imperial general Mundus at Salona; a battle had taken place without any decisive result, but Mundus and his son were killed. This event was to many superstitious people rather a cause for satisfaction than for regret. A pretended prophecy of the Sibyl had been for some time much quoted, which said that when Africa was subdued the world and its offspring would perish. After the conquest of the Vandal kingdom by Belisarius, many persons feared that the end of the world was at hand. But as mundus is the Latin for "world," it was generally thought the death of the Gepid general and his son had fulfilled the prophecy, and that the threatened calamity was no longer to be apprehended.

The emperor's armies very soon compelled the Gothic generals to retire from Dalmatia in confusion. But in the meantime the news of a Gothic victory had turned Theodahad's weak head, and Peter and Athanasius were received with mockery and insult, and were even threatened with death. They tried then to negotiate with the Gothic nobles, to whom they had brought separate letters from Justinian; but the chiefs refused to listen to any proposals which did not come through their king. The upshot of the matter was that the ambassadors were thrown into prison, and Justinian saw that Italy would have to be conquered by force of arms.

It was about April, 536, when Belisarius crossed the Straits of Messina to begin the work of subduing the Gothic kingdom. As soon as he landed at Reggio he was met by Ebermund, Theodahad's son-in-law, who had been entrusted with the defences of the southern coast, but who at once deserted to the enemy with all his followers. Belisarius reported the fact to Constantinople, and the traitor was rewarded by Justinian with the title of Patrician and many other marks of honour.

The imperial troops met with no resistance until they came under the walls of Naples. The Gothic soldiers occupying the outworks of the city were soon dislodged, and Belisarius summoned the town itself to surrender. Although a party among the citizens desired to shake off the Gothic yoke, the governing officers and the great mass of the people were determined to resist. Belisarius offered the most honourable and easy terms, but after long negotiations he was compelled to commence the siege.

The inhabitants succeeded in communicating with Theodahad, whom they implored to send them an army of relief without delay. The story goes that when the king received this message he consulted a Jewish sorcerer, asking him what the result of the struggle would be. The Jew directed him to take thirty hogs, and to place them in three different styes, ten of them to represent the Romans, ten the Goths, and ten the imperial troops. He was to keep them without food for a given time, and then to go and see what had happened to them. The result was that the hogs which stood for the emperor's soldiers were all found alive and little the worse, but half the "Romans" and nearly all the "Goths" had died, the few which survived being in a very wretched condition. Theodahad, if we are to believe the tale, accepted the omen as meaning that the Gothic cause was fated to defeat, and pleaded that as his excuse for sending no help to the faithful and unfortunate garrison of Naples.

The city, however, was strongly fortified and well provisioned, and, although the besiegers had stopped up the aqueduct, the inhabitants were able to obtain a sufficient supply of water from springs within the walls. After twenty days, Belisarius had made so little progress that he was on the point of determining to raise the siege and push forward towards Rome. Just at that moment, however, a welcome discovery was made. One of the soldiers, an Asiatic barbarian named Paucaris, who was prowling idly about, took a fancy to see how far he could walk along the aqueduct, entering at the point where Belisarius had broken it open. He managed to go on without difficulty until he was just under the city wall, but there he found that the watercourse passed through a hole in the rock, too narrow for a man to get through. He thought, however, that the hole could easily be widened, and that the tunnel would then afford a means of penetrating into the city.

Paucaris, of course, communicated his discovery to Belisarius, who received it with great delight, and promised the man a handsome reward if his clever plan should result in the capture of the city. A number of men were sent up the aqueduct, furnished with tools suited for scraping away the rock without noise, and before long they had made the opening large enough for a man to pass through in full armour.

All was now ready for the execution of the scheme, but Belisarius wished to give the city one more chance of escaping by a timely surrender or, the miseries of a capture by force of arms. He sent for one of the principal inhabitants, named Stephen, who had before acted as the spokesman of the besieged, and urged upon him to persuade his townsmen to accept the favourable conditions offered. "My plans are now complete," he said, "and in a few days at most Naples must be mine. But I shudder to think what will be its fate if it has to be taken by storm. My soldiers are fierce barbarians: how can I control them when they are inflamed with the pride of victory? often have I seen a fair city wrapped in flames, and exposed to the cruel rage of a conquering army, and the sight is so horrible that I never wish to behold it again. Go back to your fellow-citizens, tell them what I have said to you, and entreat them to be wise before it is too late."

Stephen saw from his manner that he was uttering no idle threat, and he tried his best to induce his fellow-citizens to yield. But they believed that Belisarius had only renewed his proposals because he was hopeless of capturing the fortress, and they refused to listen. Belisarius had no choice but to carry his plan into effect.

A body of four hundred men was told off for the duty of entering the city by the aqueduct. At first, half of them shrank from the perilous enterprise, but their places were quickly filled by volunteers, and then those who had refused, stung with shame from their cowardice, begged to be allowed to take part in the expedition. So in the dead of night the whole six hundred entered the tunnel, and marched as noiselessly as they could, under the city walls. In order to prevent their movements from being heard by the defenders of the city, a Gothic officer named Bessa was sent by Belisarius to harangue the Goths on the walls in their own language, inviting them to desert to the emperor. The stratagem was successful: the Goths raised such shouts of indignation that no sounds proceeding from below could possibly be noticed.

The six hundred soldiers proceeded along the dried-up watercourse until they came to a large underground chamber, with lofty brick walls and a vaulted roof. Near one corner a few bricks had fallen, and there was a glimpse of blue sky; but there seemed to be no other means of getting out except this hole at the top. The soldiers stood some time considering what was to be done. At length one of them, who was a good climber, threw off his armour, and tying a strong rope round his waist scrambled up the brick wall with his fingers and toes, and succeeded in getting out into the open air. He found himself in a cottage garden in a quiet part of the city. An old woman, the only occupant of the cottage, came to the door. The soldier threatened to kill her if she made a sound. He then tied his rope to an olive tree, and lowered it into the underground chamber, so that his companions were able to climb up with their armour. When they had all emerged, they rushed to the northern wall, which they soon cleared of its defenders, and held until their comrades were able to scale it with ladders.

The Goths fought desperately, assisted by a large number of Jews, who had not forgotten the kindness which their race had received from the great Theodoric. But their resistance was unavailing. Before the day was over the city was in the hands of the imperial forces, and then began those scenes of massacre and destruction which Belisarius had foreseen and dreaded. The commander himself used all his efforts to check the rage of his followers: exhorting them to mercy, he rode through the streets of the city, threatening and punishing those who were guilty of outrages. At length his authority prevailed; the soldiers were compelled to abstain from further insults to the citizens, and to restore to their families, the women and children whom they had seized as slaves. The townspeople then broke out into fury against the two orators by whose advice they had been led to reject the offered terms of surrender. One of them fell dead of apoplexy: the other was torn in pieces by the mob, and his remains hanged on a gibbet. After this act of vengeance, the streets of Naples assumed once more their accustomed aspect of order and tranquility.

Belisarius treated his Gothic prisoners kindly, and they enlisted under his standard. Other Gothic forces in the neighbouring territories deserted to the Romans, and the commander was soon able to establish the government of the empire over nearly the whole south of Italy.

While these events were taking place, the Goths in the neighbourhood of Rome waited patiently for Theodahad to take some measures of defence. Their loyalty to the Amaling race had such strange power that it was not until Naples had fallen, and the sovereignty of Justinian had been proclaimed within fifty miles of Rome, that they could bring themselves to believe that their king was a traitor. But now, when all this had happened, and Theodahad still remained inactive, they could doubt no longer.

A great council of the nation was called together at a place called Regeta, some forty miles south of Rome. The chiefs laid before the people their grounds for complaint against the king, and asked what was their will. "Down with Theodahad!" was the unanimous cry. "Down with the traitor who is buying pardon for his own crimes by delivering his people to destruction!" But who was to succeed him? The time called for a warrior king, and notwithstanding their respect for royal blood, the Goths with one accord chose Witigis, a man of humble origin, but the ablest military leader they possessed.

When Theodahad heard that the Goths had elected a new king, he hastened from Rome intending to take shelter within the walls of Ravenna. King Witigis despatched after him a certain Optahari with orders to bring him back alive or dead. This Optahari had a quarrel of his own against Theodahad; a wealthy and beautiful young lady had been promised to him in marriage, and the king, influenced by a bribe, had compelled her to marry another man. Optahari set out in pursuit of the fugitive, and by riding night and day managed to overtake him before he reached Ravenna. Screaming with fright, the wretched king was thrown on the ground and killed—"like an animal offered in sacrifice," says the contemporary historian.

Such was the end of the most despicable wretch that ever disgraced the Gothic name. It has strangely happened that while we have no record of the personal appearance of the great Theoderic, the features of his worthless nephew have come down to us on several of his coins. We cannot doubt that the portrait is a faithful one; it expresses too well the mixture of knavery, folly, and cowardice which composed Theodahad's character.