Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Goths Lose Ravenna

Belisarius was now master of the whole of Italy, except Ravenna itself and the northern provinces which form what is now called Lombardy. As soon as the siege of Auximum was ended, he marched with all his army to blockade the fortress capital in which King Witigis had taken refuge.

That Ravenna would fall sooner or later was certain. No doubt the great army of Goths who still remained within the walls might, if they had had an efficient general, have sallied forth and overwhelmed the besiegers with their superior numbers. But with Witigis for their commander nothing of the sort was to be feared; and Belisarius had captured the supplies of corn which were being brought to the city down the Po, while the Roman war-ships in the Adriatic prevented any provisions from being imported by sea. And just at this time the storehouses of corn in Ravenna were consumed by fire, through the treachery, it was said, of Queen Mataswintha. The king's nephew, Uraias, the captor of Milan, had set out with four thousand men to attack the besiegers, but nearly all his soldiers deserted to the enemy, and he was obliged to go back again into Liguria, and to leave Ravenna to its fate.

It seemed, therefore, that the game was nearly ended. But the calculations of Belisarius were disturbed by the arrival of ambassadors from Justinian, empowered to offer the Goths liberal terms of peace. Witigis was to remain king of the country north of the Po, and to retain half the royal treasure. The Goths, as well they might be, were delighted with the proposal, but they suspected that it might be only a trap, and, therefore, they refused to agree to it unless Belisarius would assure them in writing that he considered himself bound by the treaty. Belisarius, however, had set his heart on leading Witigis, as he had before led the Vandal king, a prisoner to Constantinople, and he was greatly mortified that he was to be robbed of his prize at the very moment when it was ready to fall into his hands. If the emperor chose to make peace on the proposed conditions, he could not prevent him from doing so, but at least he would be no party to the transaction. However, as an obstinate resistance on his part might seem disloyal to his master, he called a council of his officers, and asked their opinion. They unanimously declared their conviction that there was no use in carrying on the war further, and that it was best to make peace on the emperor's terms. Belisarius made them all sign a document expressing this conclusion, so that it might afterwards be seen that the responsibility for what he considered a foolish act did not rest with himself.

But in the meantime the Goths had been holding a council, and had come to a very strange decision. If Belisarius would have signed the treaty they could have trusted him, but in the honesty of Justinian they had no faith; and they feared that if Ravenna were surrendered the emperor would order them to be carried away to Constantinople or to Asia Minor. They therefore determined to offer the kingdom of Italy to Belisarius himself. The messengers who conveyed this proposal to the imperial general took with them a letter from Witigis, who was now tired of a kingship which he was unable to make a reality, and who entreated his conqueror to yield to the desire of the Goths.

Perhaps Belisarius may have entertained some thoughts of availing himself of the opportunity of making himself sovereign of the West. But his oath of allegiance to Justinian stood in the way, and the enterprise would besides have been full of perils. However, he saw that to pretend to agree to the Gothic proposal would be a means of obtaining the surrender of Ravenna. He therefore called a council of his officers, together with the emperor's ambassadors, and informed them that he had a plan by which he was confident of being able to save the whole of Italy for the empire, and to carry off Witigis and the Gothic nobles, with all their treasure, to Constantinople. "Supposing," he said, "that this plan should be successful, will you consider me justified in setting aside the emperor's instructions?" They all thought that such an achievement would be worthy of the highest praise. Belisarius then sent word to the Goths that he accepted their offer; and ambassadors were sent from Ravenna to the Roman camp with the request that he would swear that the garrison and citizens should suffer no injury, and that he would reign impartially over the Goths and the Italians.

Belisarius readily took the required oath, so far as it related to Ravenna, but as to his assumption of the kingship he said that he must first confer personally with Witigis and the nobles. The ambassadors made no difficulty in that point, for they thought it impossible that he could mean to draw back from an undertaking so gratifying to his own ambition.

So Belisarius, accompanied by the Gothic envoys, entered Ravenna with his army; and at the same time the Roman fleet, laden with provisions, landed at the port of Classis, and food was distributed to the hungry people. The Romans were heartily welcomed by the inhabitants of the city; but when the Gothic women saw the small-statured, mean-looking men (Huns, perhaps, for the most part) who followed Belisarius, they assailed their countrymen with shouts of derision, and even spat in their faces, for allowing themselves to be beaten by such foes. Belisarius faithfully kept his promise to allow no plundering of private property, but he took possession of the treasure stored up in the palace, and Witigis and some of his chief nobles were kept in honourable captivity until they could be conveyed to Constantinople. The Goths whose homes were south of the Po were permitted to return to their farms.

For some time Belisarius allowed it to be believed that he was going to accept the purple. By and by, however, he received from the emperor the command to return at once to Constantinople. The motive for this order was partly that Justinian had heard that the conduct of his general looked as if he were dallying with the thought of usurping the crown of Italy, and partly that the king of Persia had declared his intention of invading the empire. The Goths heard that Belisarius had been recalled, but took it for granted that he would disregard the summons. When, however, they found that he was actually making preparations for departure, they perceived that they had been imposed upon. Their attention then turned to the two Gothic generals who still held out in the north—Uraias the nephew of Witigis, and Hildibad. First, a deputation of Gothic nobles waited on Uraias at Pavia urging him to accept the crown. He refused the offer, saying that his regard for his uncle forbad him to occupy the throne during his uncle's lifetime, and, besides, that he thought that his relationship to one who had been so unfortunate a commander would prevent him from winning the confidence of the army. He recommended them, however, to choose Hildibad, who was then in command at Verona, and who was a nephew of Theudis, king of the Visigoths.

Hildibad accordingly was sent for to Pavia, and was there invested with the purple robe and hailed as king. But before many days had passed away he began to doubt whether the Goths had done wisely in choosing him as king, and whether he himself had been wise in accepting their choice. Calling together a great assembly of the people, he urged them to make one last effort to persuade Belisarius to assume the diadem.

Accordingly, ambassadors were sent to Ravenna to try to induce Belisarius to change his mind. They reproached him in bitter, but not undeserved, terms with his breach of faith: they taunted him with want of spirit in "choosing to be a slave when he might be a king;" but it was all to no purpose. He replied that he was resolved never to assume the title of king or emperor so long as Justinian lived.

So Hildibad was confirmed in his new dignity, and Belisarius set out to present himself, with his Gothic prisoners and the spoils of the palace of Ravenna, before his imperial master. It was in June, 540, that he arrived at Constantinople just after the empire had suffered a humiliating blow in the capture of Antioch by the Persian king. All the more welcome to Justinian and his subjects were the evidences of the Italian victories; but his jealousy of Belisarius was not set at rest, and he made no movement to offer the conqueror the honours of a Roman triumph. The enthusiasm of the people, however, made amends for the emperor's neglect. Whenever Belisarius appeared in public the streets were thronged with citizens eager to gaze upon their favourite hero, and to testify their admiration of him by shouts of applause.

Belisarius was now only thirty-five years of age, but he had reached the highest point of his fame. His secretary, Procopius, has chosen this moment to introduce his description of the great general's person and character. He tells us that Belisarius was tall and of well-proportioned frame, and in countenance handsome beyond all men. He was as perfectly accessible and as unassuming in manner as if he had been some very poor and undistinguished man." His soldiers loved him for his sympathy in all their troubles, and his unequalled generosity in rewarding their deeds of bravery. And yet his discipline was very rigorous; he never tolerated any outrages upon the country people, nor any pillage or wanton destruction of crops, and the provisions required by his army were always paid for at liberal prices. His private life was stainlessly pure, and no one ever saw him excited by wine. His presence of mind was wonderful; no emergency ever took him by surprise. In danger he was cheerful and self-possessed: he was the bravest of the brave, yet he never neglected any needful precaution. As he was never cast down, by adversity, so he was never inflated by success, nor tempted to relax even for a moment the stern simplicity of his manner of life.

Such is the portrait which is drawn of this great man by one who had lived in close intimacy with him. It is a picture which leaves out all the shadows, and the character of Belisarius was not without grave faults. But in what Procopius says of his excellencies there seems to be very little exaggeration. Pity that so noble a man should have laboured for so unworthy an end as that of crushing a heroic nation out of existence, and subjecting Italy to the rapacious misgovernment of the Eastern Empire.

But though the task was unworthy of Belisarius, the success which he had thus far attained is a proof of his wonderful genius. If he had been allowed to return to Italy at once, a few more months would probably have seen the end of the struggle. Justinian, however, thought that the work which had been carried so far might safely be left to inferior hands to finish. It was a great mistake, the result of which, as we shall see, was that the struggle lasted on for twelve more years. The Goths were conquered at last, but at an immense cost of treasure and of human lives that might all have been spared had Justinian been wise in time.

Belisarius's two royal prisoners had no reason to complain of their treatment. King Witigis was made a "Patrician;" he lived in inglorious luxury at Constantinople for two more years, and then died, unlamented by his young widow still only about twenty-two—who immediately became the wife of the emperor's nephew Germanus.