Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Ruin of the Ostrogoths

The departure of Belisarius was soon followed by the loss of Rome. Again, as on the last occasion, it was through treason that the city was delivered into the hands of the Goths. The Isaurian soldiers amongst the garrison were discontented on account of their pay being long in arrears If we may believe Procopius, they had received nothing from the imperial treasury for several years; though doubtless they had been allowed to make good the deficiency by the plunder of the Italian peasantry. They heard that their four countrymen who in the last siege had opened the Asinarian gate to Totila had received princely rewards for their betrayal, and they resolved to follow the example. Totila readily accepted their proposal, and at the time agreed upon a sudden sound of trumpets was heard, which caused the garrison to hasten to the portion of the walls skirting the river, expecting that a great attack was about to be made from that side. Meanwhile, the Gate of St. Paul, on the northwest, was opened by the Isaurian traitors, and Totila and the vanguard of his army marched into the city. The imperial soldiers fled in all directions through the other gates, but Totila had posted strong bodies of men to intercept their flight, and very few of them escaped the sword.

There was, however, one brave officer amongst the besieged, Paul of Cilicia, who with his four hundred men took refuge in the fortress-tomb of Hadrian, and prepared to hold it against all attacks. But the Goths were wiser than to attempt an assault. They closely surrounded the fortress, and remained quiet, waiting for hunger to do its work. At length the brave four hundred found that they could hold out no longer, and resolved to sally forth in one desperate charge against the foe. Feeling that they were about to rush upon certain destruction, they embraced each other, and "kissed each other with the kiss of those doomed to death;" and then they issued from the gate of the castle, expecting to perish, but determined to sell their lives as dearly as they could. Before, however, they reached the Gothic lines, they were met by a flag of truce, bringing the unlooked-for offer from the Gothic king, that he would either send them unhurt to Constantinople, on condition of laying down their arms and giving their promise never more to fight against the Goths, or, if they chose, he would accept them as soldiers in his own army, on an equal footing with his own countrymen. Brave men as they were, life was sweet, and they hailed with joy the sudden deliverance. At first they asked to be sent to Constantinople; but when they thought of the cold reception they would meet with there, and the dangers of the journey to unarmed men, they came to the conclusion that Totila was a better master to serve than Justinian, and so they agreed to be enrolled in the Gothic ranks. There were also four hundred other soldiers who instead of escaping from the city had taken refuge in the churches, and these too joined themselves to Totila's army.

A few months before these events, Totila had sent an embassy to one of the Frankish kings, asking the hand of his daughter in marriage. The ambassadors not only brought back a refusal, but also a very insulting message. "Tell your master," said king Theudebert, "that we cannot recognize as King of Italy a man who could not keep Rome when he had it, but allowed it to fall into the hands of his enemies." Totila was deeply stung by this taunt, and he resolved to prove to the world that he was not unworthy to be the master of Rome. He carefully restored all the buildings and the portions of the walls that had been destroyed, and sent for the senators who were imprisoned in Campania. The city assumed its old aspect, and for the last time the ancient public games were celebrated in the presence of a sovereign who sat on the throne of the Western Caesars.

Again the Goths were masters in Italy; the scattered remnants of the imperial armies showed little sign of being able to offer any serious resistance. Totila now sent an embassy to Justinian, offering to become his vassal, on condition of being recognized as the ruler of Italy. If the emperor had consented, perhaps the Gothic monarchy might even yet have established itself, and the whole course of the history of Southern Europe would have been different. But Justinian refused to admit the ambassadors to his presence, and they returned without obtaining any answer.

Totila now set out to fulfill his cherished project of punishing the Sicilians for their faithlessness. Two years were spent in the plunder of the wealthy cities of Sicily, in the conquest of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica; and in victorious invasions of the emperor's domains in Greece.

But amid all these victories, the Goths received tidings that filled them with dismay. Justinian, stirred up to action by the entreaties of Pope Vigilius, had prepared a new expedition which he had placed under the command of his nephew Germanus. One reason why the Goths found this news so disquieting was that the new commander was the husband of their own princess Mataswintha, who, it was reported, was to accompanying him to Italy. The thought of having to fight against a descendant of Theoderic was not a welcome one, and it was greatly to be feared that many of Totila's soldiers might be led by this feeling to desert their standards. Besides this, Germanus had proved himself a very able general, and if he had not the genius of Belisarius he was far better supported than that great commander had been. Justinian had, to every one's surprise, granted immense sums of money for the support of the army, and Germanus himself had contributed largely out of his private fortune. The high pay that was offered had tempted great numbers of Gepids, Herules, Lombards, and other barbarians, to enlist under Germanus, so that the expedition which now threatened the Gothic power was by far the most formidable that Justinian had ever sent into the field.

But it was not fated that Germanus should be the conqueror of Totila. Before he had crossed the Adriatic, he fell sick and died, widely regretted throughout the empire, for he was known as a man of pure and noble character, and there were many who hoped that he would succeed Justinian, and that his accession would be the beginning of happier days for the heavily burdened people.

Shortly after his death Mataswintha bore a son, who was named Germanus like his father. It has been supposed that there was a party among the Goths who desired that this young Germanus might someday be installed as Western Caesar, or "King of Goths and Italians," with the consent and under the protection of the court of Constantinople. However, he seems himself to have had no ambition of that kind. He lived a quiet and honoured life for fifty years, and then became involved in conspiracies, on account of which he and his only child (a daughter) were put to death in the year 6o4. And so the line of the great Theoderic came to an end.

The question which Justinian had now to consider was, who should be appointed commander of the Italian army in his nephew's place. It was above all things necessary that the new leader should be one whose authority all the other officers would obey without dispute. To raise one of the generals to the supreme command would have been to provoke again the jealousies and the disobedience which had been fatal to the enterprise of Belisarius. Justinian solved the difficulty by offering the headship of the army to the highest official of his court, the chamberlain Narses, the same whose meddling in the Italian war twelve years before, and its unfortunate results, we have already described. He was now seventy-five years of age, and feeble in body; but that he was still vigorous in mind was proved by the event. For it was he who achieved the task which Belisarius, in the prime of his manhood, had failed to accomplish—the ruin of the Gothic nation, and the establishment of the empire in Italy.

When Justinian proposed to Narses that he should assume the command in Italy, he refused to do so except on one condition. He must have unlimited supplies of money, so that he might raise an army absolutely overwhelming in numbers—even the army collected under Germanus seemed to him insufficient

and that when he arrived in Italy he might reconcile the mutinous soldiers and win back the deserters by giving them their full arrears of pay. The emperor knew his aged servant's faithfulness and his wisdom, and he had learned by bitter experience that too much parsimony was a great mistake. The request of Narses was granted, and before long he had arrived at the head of the Adriatic with such an army as had never before been collected in the name of Justinian. The soldiers came from every quarter of the eastern empire, and from many barbarous peoples beyond its bounds. Even distant Persia was represented by a large body of deserters, who served under a grandson of the Persian king.

What Narses at first intended to do was to enter Italy from the north, and march southward along the middle of the peninsula. But here he met with unexpected difficulties. Totila had sent the bulk of his army to Verona, commanded by a general named Teia, who had taken vigorous means to render the invasion impossible by destroying the roads, and making ditches and embankments. Besides this, the Franks were occupying Venetia with a strong force, and they refused to allow the passage of the emperor's army, because—that was the reason they gave their enemies the Lombards were serving in it. It was plain that if Narses persisted in his original plan he would have to fight not only with the Goths, but with the powerful army of the Franks.

But what else was he to do? He had not ships enough to transport his army by sea; and it seemed impossible to march along the coast, because there were twelve broad rivers to be crossed A council of war was called, at which one of the generals, John the grandson of Vitalian, suggested a clever plan that solved the difficulty. The army was to travel on foot close to the sea-shore, and the ships and boats were to sail alongside of it, so that when there was a river to be crossed a bridge of boats could be made for the soldiers to pass over.

This ingenious contrivance was adopted, and the army arrived at Ravenna without meeting with any resistance. Here they rested for nine days. During this period of repose Narses received a letter from the commander of the Gothic garrison at Ariminum, named Usdrila, sneeringly asking whether the Romans meant to hide themselves behind stone walls, and challenging them to come out and fight like men. Narses laughed heartily at this foolish letter, and when his men were sufficiently rested he set out on his march to Ariminum. At the bridge over the river Marecchia there was a skirmish, in which the boastful Usdrila was killed, and his head carried into the Roman camp. Narses did not pause to attempt the capture of Ariminum, but hastened along the Flaminian Way, till he came near to the little town of Taginae (Tadino). Here Totila, who had been joined by the army of Teia, had pitched his camp.

Narses now sent some of his officers to the Gothic king, urging him to surrender, and not to risk a battle against overwhelming numbers. Totila would not hear of submission, and the envoys then requested him to fix a day for the battle. "This day week," he replied. But Narses was not to be deceived by such a simple trick as this, and when on the very next day the Goths came in force to attack the Roman camp they found the enemy expecting them, and were heavily repulsed.

Both sides now prepared themselves for a great pitched battle, and the commanders made speeches to their men to encourage them for the struggle which they felt would decide the fate of Italy. The Goths were terribly cast down by the sight of the vast numbers and the splendid equipment of the Roman army, and all Totila's eloquence was needed to keep them from despair.

"Fellow soldiers," he said, "this is our last struggle. If we win this battle, Justinian's power is crushed, and our freedom is secure. Show yourselves men this day, for to-morrow it will be too late; spare neither your horses nor your arms, for whether victors or vanquished you will never need them more. Remember that there is no safety for you but in victory; to flee is to seek destruction. Let not the multitude of the enemy dismay you; we are a nation fighting for our freedom, for our country, for all that makes life precious; they are a hireling band of Huns and Herules, and people of all races and tongues, divided by ancient hatreds and bound together by no common interest but their pay."

The two armies were now drawn up in battle array. The Romans remained quiet, expecting the Goths to begin the attack. But Totila found it necessary to-delay, as a body of two thousand men, on whose help he had counted, had failed to arrive at the appointed time. In order to gain time, he sent messengers to Narses pretending that he wished to treat for peace; but Narses refused to agree for a conference, knowing that the request could only be a stratagem. Meanwhile, in order to distract the attention of his own men, Totila rode in front of the Gothic lines, clothed in golden armour and purple robes, and displayed his skill in horsemanship, galloping round in circles, throwing up his spear and catching it as he rode, and other such feats "just as if he had been trained for the circus," says Procopius. But about noon the two thousand arrived, and then Totila retired to his tent and changed his dress, while his soldiers took their midday meal. As soon as this was over, he marshaled his men, and made a sudden assault upon the Roman lines, thinking that after his temporary retirement he should take the enemy by surprise. But Narses guessed his intention, and the Romans remained in perfect order, their food being served out to them as they stood in the ranks.

Totila's attack was badly planned: but no skill in generalship would have been of much avail against an enemy so far superior in numbers and in arms. Narses had neglected no means of stimulating the valour of his troops. Before the battle he had ridden through the camp, accompanied by men who bore aloft on their lances collars, bracelets, and horse-trappings of gold, which were to be the prizes of those who distinguished themselves on that day. His barbarian soldiers could understand this language, if they could not understand his spoken words, and barbarians and Romans vied with each other in their eagerness to t win the promised rewards. The Goths fought with all the energy of despair, and though the battle went against them from the first, it was not till far on in the night that they were driven from the field. Six thousand of them were killed in the battle; many thousands more were taken prisoners, and afterwards massacred in cold blood.

After the fight was over, the king of the Goths was making his escape from the battlefield accompanied by two or three of his faithful friends, when Asbad, the chief of the Gepids, rushed at him with his lance, not knowing, in the darkness, who he was. One of the Goths indignantly exclaimed, "Dog! would you kill your own master?" Asbad knew then whom he was attacking, and thrust at Totila with all his Strength, but himself fell wounded immediately after. The Goths carried their master as far as Caprae, a village seven miles away, where he shortly afterwards breathed his last. His companions buried him secretly near the village where he died, but his grave was not destined to remain unmolested. A few days after the battle, a Gothic woman betrayed the secret of the king's resting-place to some of the imperial officers. Eager to convince themselves that Totila was really dead, they opened the grave, and found that the woman's story was true. They then committed the body again to the earth, having first despoiled it of its clothing and ornaments, which were afterwards sent to Justinian as evidence that his enemy was no more.

Such was the sad end of this gallant young king, after a reign of eleven years. We cannot, as some have done, call him the greatest of the Goths. He had neither Theoderic's unfailing sagacity nor his genius for command. But he had the same passion for justice, the same lofty ideal of kingship; and though the lustre of his career is dimmed by more than one act of cruel revenge, his character is marked on the whole by a chivalrous highmindedness to which it would be hard to find a parallel in his own age. There are few personages of history whose adverse fate so irresistibly excites our sympathy as does that of Totila the Harold Godwin's son, as Theoderic is the Alfred, of Gothic history.

After the disaster of Tadino, the remnant of the Gothic army retired into Northern Italy, and there Teia was chosen king of the Goths. Narses pressed forward to Rome, and after a short siege the city was once more captured for the fifth time during Justinian's reign. Perhaps never before had the Italian people been so miserable as at this time of so-called "Roman" victory. The barbarians in the imperial army, we are told "treated as enemies all who came in their way"; that is, they murdered and plundered indiscriminately both friend and foe. And the Gothic soldiers who garrisoned the yet uncaptured cities, fired with revengeful passion, and no longer having Totila to restrain them, committed dreadful cruelties upon the unoffending Romans. King Teia himself ordered the murder of three hundred youths of the noblest Roman families, whom Totila had detained as hostages.

The Gothic kingdom had received its death-blow at the battle of Tadino; but it was not yet dead, and its last struggles were terrible. Teia saw clearly that there was little hope of contending unaided with the mighty army of Narses; he tried hard to induce King Theudebald of the Franks to become his ally, and offered him large sums of money as a bribe. But the Franks were not to be tempted: their game was to wait until the Goths were beaten and the imperial army weakened by the fierce conflict that was coming, and then to try to conquer Italy for themselves.

When Teia found that no Frankish aid was to be hoped for, he marched with all his army to the rescue of Totila's brother Aligern, who was besieged by a strong body of the enemy in the fortress-town of Cumin, where a great part of the Gothic treasure was deposited. Narses with all the imperial army hastened to meet him. Teia wished to delay the unequal combat as long as he could: and he pitched his camp in a strong position near the foot of Vesuvius, protected by a deep and narrow ravine, at the bottom of which flows the river Sarno. The two armies faced each other on opposite sides of the ravine and harassed each other by volleys of missiles; but Narses could neither dislodge the Goths from their position by force, nor induce them to abandon it by stratagem. The Gothic camp was so placed that it could be kept constantly supplied with provisions by sea; and it was Teia's intention to hold out until—vain hope!—Fortune should in some unknown way declare herself in his favour.

But after two months the admiral of the Gothic fleet turned traitor, and delivered into the hands of the Romans the stores which he was bringing to his countrymen. The Goths now began to feel the pressure of hunger, and were obliged to forsake their impregnable position. At first they betook themselves to the heights of the Mons Lactarius, now Monte Lettere, where they were still secure from attack; but their hopes of being able to find food proved delusive. But still they scorned the thought of surrender to the Romans, and their only alternative was to risk everything in one desperate assault on the enemy. Sending away their horses, they suddenly rushed on foot upon the astonished Romans. The battle that ensued was terrible. "Not one of Homer's heroes," says Procopius, "ever performed greater miracles of valour than did Teia on that day." After fighting for many hours in the front of his army, he called to his armour-bearer to change his shield, which was heavy with the weight of twelve broken spears. Left for a moment unprotected, he was pierced in the breast by a dart So fell the last Gothic king of Italy. The Romans cut off his head and displayed it on a pole, to encourage their own soldiers and to dismay their enemies. But even the loss of their king was ineffectual to abate the desperate fury of the Goths; they fought on until the fall of night, and at daybreak they renewed the struggle, which continued till darkness again compelled them to pause.

On the third morning, worn out with fatigue and hunger, they felt that it was impossible for them to fight any longer. Their leaders sent ambassadors to Narses to treat for peace; but even then they would not humble themselves to become the subjects of Justinian. All they would promise was that they would never again bear arms against the empire, and this only on condition of being allowed an unmolested passage out of Italy, and of receiving money for the expenses of their journey.

The Roman generals held a council to discuss this proposal; they had had such terrible experience of the desperate valour of the Goths that they decided to accept the conditions. So, in March, 553, the remnant of the defeated army set out on their northward march. What became of them history does not say. Perhaps they may have found a home among the Franks or Alamans; perhaps they may have made their way to the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain.

But even yet Narses had a hard struggle to undergo before the conquest of Italy was complete. The Gothic garrisons in the cities still offered an obstinate resistance to their besiegers; and while the emperor's generals were occupied with their siege operations, the Franks saw the opportunity for which they had been waiting. In the autumn, accompanied by their half-savage allies, the Alamans, they poured into Italy, to the number of eighty thousand men. The brave Aligern, who had defended Cumae for a whole year, surrendered to the Romans, thinking it better to become the soldier of the empire than the slave of the Franks. Soon afterwards Lucca was taken by the Romans; but the Goths who held the other cities opened their gates to the Franks. The invaders were allowed to march over the whole length of the peninsula to the Straits of Messina, plundering, burning, and massacring as they went. The army of Narses had suffered such heavy losses that it was no match for this mighty horde; and the commander was obliged to remain in humiliating inactivity, leaving the barbarians to roam unchecked over the land.

During the winter, however, the armies of the Franks and Alamans were terribly wasted by plague, and by the effects of their own intemperance; and one of the Alaman leaders had returned to his home beyond the Alps. When the spring came, Narses, who in the meantime had been assiduously drilling his men, prepared himself for a decisive encounter with the foe.

At Casilinum, on the banks of the Vulturno, the two armies met. The Romans were still far inferior in numbers to the enemy; but the skill of their general won the day. The defeat of the Franks was so crushing that they offered no further resistance, and hastily sought their own land. After the battle Narses entered Rome, and for the last time in history, the imperial city beheld the stately ceremonies of a triumphal procession.

In the next twelve months, the towns which had still held out fell one by one into the hands of the Romans. The Goths who had defended them either went into exile or became blended with the surrounding population. The nation of the Ostrogoths was no more.

It is strange to think how different were the fates of the two great Teutonic kingdoms which in the last quarter of the fifth century were planted on Latin soil. After fourteen centuries, the fruits of the conquests of Clovis in Gaul still abide. If we cannot say that the state which he founded still survives, yet in a real sense he may be called the creator of the French nation. The Franks were never driven from Gaul, and though they lost their native tongue, and were absorbed in the greater mass of the people whom they had conquered, the country to this day bears their name. Theoderic was in all ways a greater man than Clovis; and yet the results of his conquest of Italy perished utterly within eighty years. The ruin of the Ostrogoths was the effect of many combined causes. Their numbers from the first were too few to enable them to hold Italy by force. Their Arian heresy, in spite of their noble tolerance in matters of religion, estranged them from the sympathies of their Catholic subjects; and the successors of Theoderic inherited neither his genius nor his lofty aims. But even so, we know not what the result might have been if Justinian had encouraged the Gothic kings to build up in Italy a powerful dominion, tributary to his own sovereignty. He would have been wiser had he adopted such a policy, for the conquest of Italy brought no advantage to the empire sufficient to repay the terrible sacrifices of blood and treasure by which it was bought.

The conqueror Narses was appointed the emperor's "exarch" or governor of Italy. He took up his residence in Theoderic's city of Ravenna; and for just two hundred years he and his successors continued to govern, on behalf of the emperors, as much of the country as was left them by the successive conquests of Lombards and Franks. But with the fortunes and misfortunes of Italy wider their rule our story has nothing to do.