Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

New Gothic Victories

The emperor thought that the conquest of Italy was now as good as complete, and he at once proceeded to turn his new acquisition to practical account. Justinian's notion of government was the extortion of money, to be spent in keeping up the splendour of his court, and in building magnificent churches, palaces, and fortresses all over the empire. Although he thought himself a great lover of justice, and took immense pains in reducing the Roman laws to a scientific system, he did very little to ensure the laws being justly administered in his dominions. Whether his subjects were prosperous or not was a secondary matter; the one great thing was that they should pay their taxes regularly. His revenue officers were allowed to oppress the people as they liked, and to enrich themselves with ill-gotten gains, if only they did not fail to send plenty of money to Constantinople. His policy was as shortsighted and foolish as it was wicked; a policy of "killing the goose that laid the golden eggs." As Theoderic had so well seen, the only lasting way to enrich the treasury of the state is to labour for the prosperity of the subjects. Justinian can hardly have been wholly blind to this truth, but his thought seems to have been that expressed in the famous words, "After me the deluge." While he lived the empire was outwardly brilliant and glorious: it was his successors that had to suffer the penalty which his recklessness had deserved.

The first thing that Justinian did after Belisarius's return was to send to Ravenna the most energetic and unscrupulous of his revenue officers, a certain Alexander, whom the people at Constantinople had spitefully nicknamed "Scissors," because, they said, he could clip a gold coin and leave it as round as it was before. This man seems to have been entrusted with almost absolute authority over the government of Italy, and he used his power to oppress all classes alike not only the native Italians and the Goths who had submitted to the empire, but even the soldiers, whom he cheated out of their pay and punished by heavy fines for trifling or imaginary offences.

It is easy to guess what happened. The Goths who had accepted Roman rule were driven to revolt, and betook themselves to the camp of their native king. The Roman soldiers were unwilling to fight, and many of them deserted to the enemy. In a few months the little band under Hildibad had become a powerful army.

Justinian had appointed no commander-in-chief in the place of Belisarius; the generals in Italy were all equal in authority. They were too jealous of one another, and too intent on enriching themselves by the plunder of the people, to attempt any united movement against the Goths. One of them, however, who happened to be in Venetia with a large portion of the army, ventured to make an attack on Hildibad near Treviso, but was defeated and lost nearly all his men.

The Goths were greatly elated by this victory, and for a time they were full of enthusiastic devotion to their king. But Hildibad forfeited the affection of his people by causing the assassination of Uraias, the very man to whom he owed his kingdom. He did not deny the deed, but pretended that he had detected Uraias in a plot to betray the nation to the Romans. Everyone knew, however, that the real motive of the crime was that Hildibad's queen had been insulted by the wife of Uraias. The Goths did not attempt to depose Hildibad, because they felt that his bravery and ability made him indispensable; but their loyalty to him had received a fatal shock, and they no longer cared to obey him. One day, as the king reclined at the dinner-table, in the presence of all his great nobles, a Gepid soldier, who had a private wrong to avenge, came behind him and smote off his head with his broadsword. Bitterly as the Goths had condemned Hildibad's shameful deed, they knew his value as a leader, and his death caused them for a while to lose all heart and hope.

During this time of discouragement, the Rugians, one of the smaller Gothic peoples, who had joined themselves to the Ostrogoths without mixing with them, took advantage of the opportunity to set up one of their own nobles, named Eraric, as "King of the Goths." The Ostrogoths did not like this, but they were so much in need of a leader that they were content to obey even the Rugian, if only he had shown himself a capable man. But Eraric simply remained inactive; and it was found out afterwards that he had been trying to make a bargain with Justinian for the betrayal of Italy.

The Gothic garrison of Treviso was commanded by a nephew of Hildibad, a young man of about twenty-five, whose name was Totila. After Eraric had been on the throne three or four months, without making any movement against the Romans, the Goths became impatient, and sent a deputation to offer the crown to Totila. He informed the delegates (so, at least, we are told) that he had entered into an agreement with the imperial general Constantian, to surrender the city and the army on a certain day. "But," he added, "if Eraric is put to death before the date fixed for the surrender, I am willing to accept the kingdom." Whether this story be true or not, it is certain that Eraric was soon afterwards assassinated, and Totila became king.

If Totila did indeed obtain his throne by breaking his pledged word and by instigating an assassination, the beginning of his reign contrasts strangely with his after history. His character was marked by a chivalrous sense of honour, and a magnanimity towards his enemies which, in that age, were rare indeed. One or two of his recorded actions, indeed, seem unworthy of the man's noble nature; but we must remember that his life has been written by no friend or countryman, but by a foreigner and an enemy, who nevertheless could not refrain from expressing with emphasis the admiration he felt for the uprightness and the humanity of this "barbarian."

It should be mentioned here that Totila seems on becoming king to have changed his name to Baduila. Or possibly the latter may have been his real name, and Totila only a nickname. At any rate he was known to his countryman by both names, though Baduila is the only one which appears on his coins. However, in history he is always called Totila; the other name would have been unknown to us but for the coins and a solitary mention in Jordanes.

When Justinian heard how the imperial cause in Italy was being ruined through the inaction of the generals, he wrote to them in such severe terms that they felt something must be done. So they all gathered together (eleven there seem to have been) at Ravenna, and devised plans for making a combined movement against the Goths. They determined to begin with an attack on Verona; but their cowardice and blundering caused the scheme to fail, and they marched southwards in all haste as far as Faventia. Here they were overtaken by Totila, and a battle took place. Although the Goths had only five thousand men, while the Romans had twelve thousand, Totila was victorious; the imperial army was completely dispersed, with a great loss both in slain and in prisoners. Another battle in the valley of Mucella (Mugello) had a similar ending, and Totila led his army into the south, capturing one city after another, and making the farmers pay into his treasury both the rents due to their landlords and the taxes that were due to the emperor. In other respects, however, he treated the people with so much kindness that he won a great deal of goodwill from those who had suffered from the lawless behaviour of the Roman armies. At last, in the summer of 542, he encamped before Naples, which a certain Conon was holding for the emperor, with a garrison of one thousand men.

The emperor's army in Italy was in a state of general mutiny on account of pay being in arrear, so that the generals could hardly have done anything for the relief of Naples even if they had wished. But apparently they were only too glad of the excuse for remaining inactive in the fortified cities. Justinian, however, sent a considerable land and sea force from Constantinople, but its commanders were no match for the genius of Totila. The fleet was defeated, and the most important of the leaders of the expedition, Demetrius, was paraded in front of the walls with a halter round his neck, and made to harangue the garrison and the citizens, in order to persuade them to surrender. The Gothic king himself also made a speech to the besieged, promising that if they would yield neither soldier nor citizen should be any the worse for their submission.

The temptation was strong, for the defenders were hard pressed by famine and disease; but the garrison was unwilling to seem false to their sovereign, and begged that thirty days' truce might be allowed them. If no help came from the emperor within that time, they promised to surrender. Totila astonished the messengers by his reply. "By all means," he said; "I grant you three months' delay, if you choose to take it." And he undertook to make no attempt to storm the city during that time. He knew that the defenders would find it hard to struggle with the famine for even one month longer. Totila's calm confidence made them feel that the hope of succour was vain indeed; and a few days afterwards the gates were opened.

As soon as Totila entered the city, he saw from the appearance of the inhabitants that they had suffered terribly from famine. He had had, like Procopius, the opportunity of observing the effects of hunger on the human frame, and he knew that if those who were enfeebled by long privation were at once freely supplied with food they were likely to be killed by plenty. With a thoughtful kindness which, as Procopius says, "could neither have been expected from an enemy nor from a barbarian," he ordered that every person in the city should receive a daily ration of food, at first very small, but gradually increased until the danger had ceased to exist. Then, and not before, he allowed the city gates to be thrown open, and proclaimed that the inhabitants were free to go or to remain as they chose.

Conon and most of his soldiers were placed on board ships, and informed that they were at liberty to sail to any port they preferred. They were ashamed to go to Constantinople, and tried to make for Rome. The wind, however, was contrary, and they were obliged to remain at Naples. Naturally they felt very uneasy, for they thought that after Totila had given them one fair chance of escape, he would now consider himself entitled to treat them as prisoners. But the "barbarian's" generosity again surpassed expectation. Sending for Conon, he assured him that he and his companions might consider themselves as among friends; that until it was possible for them to sail the Gothic markets were open to them, and that he would do everything he could to ensure their comfort. As, however, the wind continued unfavourable, Totila at length recommended them to make the journey by land, and actually provided them with beasts of burden, money for travelling expenses, and a Gothic escort. He did all this, though he knew that Conon and his men were going to increase the garrison of the city to which it was his intention shortly to lay siege. Certainly he had given his kingly word that the soldiers should be allowed to march away "whither they pleased;" but it is seldom that any conqueror has observed a capitulation in this splendid fashion, either before or since.

Even more rigorously than Belisarius himself, Totila repressed all acts of outrage on the part of his army. No matter who was the offender, the penalty was death. One officer of high rank, and very popular among his comrades, had committed a crime of this kind and had been placed under arrest. The chiefs of the army implored Totila to spare the man's life. The king listened courteously and calmly to what they had to say, and then, in grave and earnest tones he expressed his conviction that only so long as the Goths kept themselves pure from injustice could they expect the Divine blessing to rest on their cause. He reminded them how brilliant had been the fortunes of the nation under the righteous rule of Theoderic; how, under Theodahad and his successors, the Goths, forsaking the policy of justice and humanity to which they owed their greatness, had brought themselves to the lowest point of humiliation; and how since they had again begun to act in a nobler spirit their prosperity had returned. Would they, he asked, with this experience before them, insist on making the nation an accomplice in this man's guilt? The Gothic chiefs were unable to resist this reasoning, and the criminal underwent his doom.

"While Totila was behaving in this manner, the Roman generals and their soldiers were plundering the property of those who were subject to their sway, and indulging without restraint in every kind of insolence and excess." We are quoting Procopius, who points out with indignant eloquence the contrast between the "civilized" Romans and their "barbarian" foe. In Rome itself the citizens were bitterly regretting their change of masters. Totila knew of the existence of this feeling, and resolved to work upon it. First he sent a letter to the senate, charging them, if they repented of the crime and folly of their treason against the Goths, to earn their pardon by a voluntary surrender of the city. It is strange that the imperialist commander should have allowed such a letter to be delivered at all; however, he would not permit the senate to return any answer.

A few days passed, and one morning it was found that placards, signed with Totila's name, had been nailed up during the night in all the most frequented parts of the city. They announced that the Goths would shortly march to the capture of Rome, and contained a solemn declaration that no harm should be done to the citizens. The officers of the imperial army tried in vain to find out who had put up these placards, but it was suspected that it must have been done by the Arian clergy, who were therefore banished from the city.

Soon afterwards the emperor Justinian received a letter, signed by all his generals in Italy, expressing their opinion that the imperial cause in that country was hopeless, and that the attempt to oppose the victorious progress of the Goths had better be abandoned. Very unwillingly the emperor had to yield to the conviction that his Italian dominions could be preserved only by the help of the great general who, four years before, had all but crushed the Gothic monarchy, and whose premature recall was now proved to have been a fatal mistake. And so Belisarius received orders to go to Italy to retrieve the disasters which had befallen the imperial arms.