Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Witigis the Unready

Honest and well-meaning the successor of Theodahad seems to have been, and his valour as a soldier had been proved thirty years before in the war against the Gepids. But he had not the talents which were needed for the supreme command of an army, especially when the adversary was a man like Belisarius. The Goths, however, had unbounded faith in the wisdom as well as in the courage of their new king, and confidently expected that he would very soon drive the imperial troops out of Italy.

But although, as events showed, Witigis was not a very wise or far-seeing man, he had the good sense to perceive that to march against Belisarius forthwith would only be to court destruction. Before he could hope to grapple successfully with such a foe, it was necessary both to restore the discipline of the army, so sadly neglected during two feeble reigns, and to make peace with the Franks, so that the Gothic soldiers: engaged in the north might be made available for the struggle against the forces of the emperor. Witigis, called an assembly of the Goths at Rom; and, addressing them as "fellow soldiers," he explained to them the reasons for delay. The people listened to his speech with feelings of disappointment, but they deferred to his judgment, and made no protest when he proposed to leave Rome garrisoned with four thousand men, and to betake himself with the bulk of the army to Ravenna.

This part of the king's plan was a terrible mistake. If the Goths had occupied Rome in force, Belisarius would not have dared to attack them with his small army: he would have had to wait for reinforcements, and Witigis would have gained the delay which he required. The foolish flight to Ravenna, instead of postponing the conflict, only hastened it, and threw an immense advantage into the enemy's hand. Although Witigis knew how little the fidelity of the Roman people was to be trusted, he could not see that to leave the city guarded only by four thousand men, was simply to ensure its fall. Nor did he realize how terrible a calamity, if it did happen, the loss of Rome would be; how it would embolden the whole Italian people to declare themselves on the emperor's side, and how it would weigh down the hearts of the Goths with a sense of the hopelessness of the struggle.

And so the fatal resolution was taken. Before leaving Rome Witigis compelled the Pope Silverius and the senators to swear an oath of eternal fidelity to himself; and in order to ensure, as he thought, the observance of the oath he took with him a number of the senators as hostages. An officer of tried courage and skill, named Leudahari, was placed in command of the four thousand; and then the king and his army marched away to Ravenna.

Although Witigis had been chosen king by the unanimous voice of the people, he could not help remembering that he was not of Amaling blood, and he lived in dread of a conspiracy on behalf of the two persons of the ancient line who might be regarded as entitled to the throne. One of these was Theudagisal, the son of Theodahad. The son of a father so greatly detested could not perhaps have been a very dangerous rival, but Witigis, nevertheless, thought it necessary to throw him into prison. It was more reasonably to be feared that plots would be formed in favour of Amalaswintha's young and beautiful daughter, Mataswintha; and, in order to render his claim to the throne secure, Witigis, on his arrival at Ravenna, divorced his own wife and married the princess. He could now claim to be king by hereditary right; in his addresses to the Gothic people he appeals to their loyalty to the house of Theoderic, and some of his coins bear the queen's monogram. But everyone knew that Mataswintha had been forced into the marriage against her will; she never concealed her dislike of her husband, and in after years she was with good reason suspected of being in league with his enemies.

One of the earliest acts of Witigis at Ravenna was to call an assembly of the Gothic nobles, for the purpose of obtaining their consent to a proposed treaty of peace with the Franks. The conditions were that the Ostrogoths should give up all their possessions in Gaul to the Franks, and pay them two thousand pounds weight of gold. Witigis himself spoke of this treaty as a painful necessity," but he assured the nobles that no better terms could be obtained and after some discussion the proposal was approved; The Franks accepted the bribe, and promised Witigis their assistance in the war. As they did not wish to quarrel with Justinian, they could not themselves appear in the field, but they undertook that their vassals, the kings of the Alamans and the Burgunds, should send troops to fight on the Gothic side.

While King Witigis at Ravenna was busy drilling his soldiers and making his bargain with the Franks, he received the startling news that Belisarius was in Rome. Pope Silverius and the senators had heard of the sad fate that had befallen Naples through its resistance to the imperial army, and determined to save Rome from similar calamities by a timely surrender. Faithless to the oaths which they had sworn to the. Goths, they sent an embassy to Belisarius, inviting him to come with all speed to Rome, and promising that the gates should be opened at his approach. Belisarius lost no time in complying with the request. Leaving a garrison of three hundred men at Naples, he set out with his army along "the Latin Way" to Rome.

When the senators received the tidings that Belisarius was coming, they informed the commander of the Gothic garrison of what they had done. The brave Leudahari called his soldiers together, and told them that though thus shamefully betrayed, he was resolved at all hazards to defend the city. But the Goths refused to obey their general, and unaminously declared that they would abandon Rome, and join the rest of the army at Ravenna.

It was on the 9th of December, 536, that Belisarius entered Rome by the "Asinarian Gate" on the south; and at the same moment the four thousand Goths marched out of the "Flaminian Gate" which led to the great northern road. Leudahari, however; obstinately refused to abandon his post. He remained to be taken prisoner, and was sent, together with the keys of the city, as a token of victory to Justinian.

Belisarius took up his residence in the palace on the Pincian Hill; and at once began to set about the repair of the fortifications, and to procure large supplies of corn from Sicily. The Romans saw these proceedings with dismay, for they showed that the general was preparing to be besieged in Rome. The citizens felt that their treason against Witigis had done them little good, if after all they were to suffer the hardships of a siege, and perhaps—who could tell?—were to fall at last into the hands of the infuriated Goths. The joy with which Belisarius had at first been welcomed now gave place to discontent and gloomy foreboding.

Yet it did not seem as if the danger of a Gothic siege was very close at hand. Witigis remained at Ravenna; and Belisarius ventured to send out detachments of his little army to conquer the province of Tuscany. One of his officers, Bessa the Goth, captured the rock fortress of Narni. Another, named Constantine, marched still further away, and occupied, without resistance from the inhabitants, the cities of Spoleto and Perugia. When Witigis learned that the emperor's troops were in possession of the latter place, nearly half way to Ravenna from Rome, he sent a body of soldiers, under two leaders named Hunila and Pitza, to try to recapture the city. The Goths far outnumbered the soldiers of Constantine, but the battle was long undecided. But in the end the Goths fled in confusion, hotly pursued by the Romans, who left few alive to tell the tale of their defeat. Hunila and Pitza were taken prisoners, and sent at once to Belisarius.

After this disaster, Witigis saw that he must no longer remain inactive. His preparations were not so complete as he had wished, for the soldiers recalled from Gaul had not yet arrived. But even without these, the army which he had collected in the camp at Ravenna numbered 150,000 men, "nearly every one of whom wore a breastplate of steel." With this immense host King Witigis set out along the Flaminian Way, to lay siege to the city which was held by the little garrison of Belisarius.

The king did not stop to attempt the recovery of the captured towns, but hurried forward without pause, eager to stand as soon as possible before the walls of Rome. From time to time the army met with parties of country people who had been turned out of Rome as "useless mouths," and were returning to their northern homes; and as they told how heavily the city was burdened by the presence of the imperial army, Witigis bitterly reproached his own folly in abandoning his capital. Still, he thought that if he could only get Belisarius shut up within the walls his victory was secure. His great anxiety was lest when he arrived at his journey's end he should find that the bird had flown. "Is Belisarius still in Rome?" was the question he impatiently asked of a priest who had left the city a day or two before. "Never fear for that," said the priest with a laugh; "there is not much likelihood of his running away." Perhaps the priest thought that Witigis had more reason to dread Belisarius's remaining where he was than his escape.

The Goths marched on without opposition until they came to the Milvian bridge, which crosses the Tiber about two miles north of Rome; and here they met with an unexpected check. Belisarius had built a gate-tower at the entrance of the bridge, and garrisoned it with a body of soldiers strong enough to render its capture a tedious and costly piece of work. He did not expect to be able to prevent the Goths from crossing the river at all, but he was anxious to gain time, as he was expecting some more troops from Constantinople. Whether the enemy made an attack on the tower, crossed in boats, or marched away to find another bridge, he thought he was sure of several days' delay. In order to make the passage still more troublesome, he determined to place his camp close to the river on the side nearest Rome.

When Witigis saw how the bridge was protected, he was at a loss to know what to do. Most of his officers thought that the best course would be to make an assault on the tower. But it was decided not to attempt any movement until the following morning.

During the night, however, the soldiers in the tower took fright at the immense multitude of the enemy, and abandoned their post. They did not, of course, dare to go in the direction of Rome, but fled into Campania, all except twenty-two, who, being Goths themselves, deserted to their countrymen, and told them what had happened. When morning came, therefore, the Goths had only to batter down the gates, and went over the bridge without meeting any opposition.

The same morning, Belisarius, thinking that the enemy was safe on the other side of the river, had ridden out with a thousand horsemen to choose a suitable place for his camp. Suddenly a fierce shout was heard, and the general's guard found themselves struggling with the van of the Gothic cavalry, who had just crossed the bridge. Belisarius, brave but imprudent, forgetting how much depended on his safety, rushed to the front, and fought like a common soldier. He was mounted on his favourite charger, a beautiful dark-brown horse with a white star on its forehead. The deserters recognized their late general, and the word was hastily passed through the Gothic ranks, "Aim at the horse with the white star." Hardly knowing what was meant, the Goths obeyed the hint, and charged with lances and swords upon the imperial commander. His bodyguard gathered round him, and enclosed him within a wall of shields. After a desperate fight, the Goths retired to their camp with the loss of a thousand men.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


But now fresh bodies of cavalry came up, and the Romans, who had themselves suffered serious losses, were compelled to have recourse to flight. At the top of a hill, where they had halted for a moment's breathing space, they were overtaken by their pursuers, and the fight was renewed. Valentine, the groom of Belisarius's stepson, fought like a lion, and by his sole prowess succeeded in checking for a moment the advance of the enemy. But it was in vain to resist the overwhelming numbers of the Gothic host, and the Romans were driven close up to the walls of Rome. A few of the fugitives who had outstripped the rest found entrance into the city. They reported that Belisarius was killed, and that the enemy was in close pursuit. The gate was hastily flung to, and when Belisarius and his comrades had crossed the ditch they found themselves shut out. In vain the general shouted and threatened; the soldiers on the top of the tower did not recognize his voice, and in the gathering twilight his features, covered with blood and dust as they were, could not be distinguished. It seemed as if in another moment the Goths would have scrambled across the moat and massacred the little band huddled under the walls. A daring stratagem of Belisarius saved himself and his companions from destruction. Drawing up his handful of men in battle array under cover of the darkness, he made a sudden charge upon the Goths, who, thinking that it was a sortie of the forces within the city, were seized with panic, and fled in confusion. The sentinels on the wall reported the flight of the enemy, and Belisarius with his brave little band was now allowed admission. The gate through which he passed was long known as "the gate of Belisarius."

The historian who records the prowess of Belisarius tells also of a hero who on this memorable day distinguished himself no less signally on the other side. It was a certain Wandilhari, appropriately surnamed Wisand (i.e., the Bison), who, pierced with thirteen wounds, was left for dead upon the battlefield. On the third day, his comrades, returning to bury the slain, found Wandilhari still breathing, though unable to speak. When water was poured into his mouth he revived a little, and was carried into the camp. Wandilhari the Bison lived to a great age, and was naturally held in the highest honour by his countrymen for his wonderful display of bravery and endurance.

Weary as Belisarius was with the toils and agitations of this long day, there remained yet much to be done before he could allow himself a moment's rest. His first care was to man the walls, which were thirteen miles in circuit. His little army could not spare soldiers enough for this duty, and he instructed his officers to muster all the able-bodied men in the several quarters of the city, dividing them into bands, some of them to occupy their appointed stations at once, and the others to take their places on the succeeding days and nights. At regular intervals along the walls large fires were to be kept burning during the moonless nights. The Goths remained watching the movements of those upon the wall, and when they saw by the light of the fires that men in civil costume were mingled with the soldiers, one of their chiefs, named Wakis, was sent to harangue the citizens on their treachery. "What madness has seized you, O Romans!" he said, "that you should exchange your valiant protectors for a handful of wretched Greeks, who will never be able to defend you. What did Greece ever send to Italy but play actors and thieves?" No one answered a word, and Wakis returned to the camp.

Belisarius meanwhile was occupied in apportioning to his principal officers the charge of the several gates. Before this task was completed, Bessa the Goth, who had been posted at the Praenestine gate, sent a messenger to say that the gate named after St. Pancrace had been forced, and that the enemy was in possession of the part of the city west of the Tiber. The general was earnestly besought by those about him to make his escape at once by some other gate. He ridiculed the story as absurd, and sent horsemen across the river to make inquiry. They soon returned with the report that all was quiet, and Belisarius gave strict orders to all the officers in command at the gates that they should remain at their posts whatever tidings they might hear from other parts of the city. "Let each man attend to his own duty," he said, "and leave all the rest to me."

From early morning Belisarius had been in ceaseless activity without once tasting food. The intense excitement of the day made him insensible to the calls of hunger and fatigue, and it was not until long after midnight that his wife and friends could prevail on him to interrupt his labours to partake of a scanty meal.

The day which followed was the first day of the longest of all the many sieges which Rome has undergone. It began early in March, 537, and lasted for one year and nine days. Belisarius entered on this great struggle with no fear for its result. He foresaw that the vast army of the Goths, badly led and unused to the conduct of a siege, would dwindle away by famine and desertion before the walls of Rome, and that sooner or later the end would be the ruin of the Gothic kingdom, and the establishment of the imperial rule in Italy. The citizens could not understand his cheerful confidence in the face of such fearful odds, and sneered at him as a madman or a boastful Greek. His own soldiers wondered too, but their trust in their well-tried commander could not be shaken.