Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

Justinian's Foreign Conquests

After the Persians had drawn back, foiled in their attempt to conquer Mesopotamia, and after the suppression of the "Nika" sedition bad cowed the unruly populace of Constantinople, Justinian found himself at last free, and was able to take in hand his great scheme for the reconquest of the lost provinces of the empire.

The enforced delay of six years between his accession and his first attempt to execute his great plan, was, as it happened, extremely favourable to the Emperor. In each of the two German kingdoms with which he had first to deal, the power had passed within those six years into the hands of a weak and incapable sovereign. In Africa, Hilderic, the king of the Vandals, had been dethroned by his cousin Gelimer, a warlike and ambitious, but very incapable, ruler. In Italy, Theodoric, the great king of the Ostrogoths, had died in A.D. 526, and his grandson and successor, Athalaric, in A.D. 533 After the death of the young Athalaric, the kingdom fell to his mother, Amalasuntha, and she, compelled by Gothic public opinion to take a husband to rule in her behalf, had unwisely wedded Theodahat, her nearest kinsman. He was cruel, scheming, and suspicious, and murdered his wife, within a year of her having brought him the kingdom of Italy as a dowry. Cowardly and avaricious as well as ungrateful, Theodahat possessed exactly those vices which were most suited to make him the scorn of his warlike subjects; he could count neither on their loyalty nor their respect in the event of a war.

Both the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Italy were at this time so weak as to invite an attack by an enterprising neighbour. They had, in fact, conquered larger realms than their limited numbers were really able to contol. The original tribal hordes which had subdued Africa and Italy were composed of fifty or sixty thousand warriors, with their wives and children. Now such a body concentrated on one spot was powerful enough to bear down everything before it. But when the conquerors spread themselves abroad, they were but a sprinkling among the millions of provincials whom they had to govern. In all Italy there were probably but three cities—Ravenna, Verona, and Pavia—in which the Ostrogoths formed a large proportion of the population. A great army makes but a small nation, and the Goths and Vandals were too few to occupy such wide tracts as Italy and Africa. They formed merely a small aristocracy, governing by dint of the ascendency which their fathers had won over the minds of the unwarlike populations which they had subdued. The only chance for the survival of the Ostrogothic and Vandal monarchies lay in the possibility of their amalgamating with the Roman provincial population, as the Franks, under more favourable circumstances, did with the conquered inhabitants of Gaul. This was seen by Theodoric, the great conqueror of Italy; and he did his best to reconcile Goth and Roman, held the balance with strict justice between the two, and employed Romans as well as Goths in the government of the country. But one generation does little to assuage old hatreds such as that between the conquerors and the conquered in Theodoric was succeeded by a child, and then by a ruffian, and his work ended with him. Even he was unable to strike at the most fatal difference of all between his countrymen and the Italians. The Goths were Arians, having been converted to Christianity in the fourth century by missionaries who held the Arian heresy. Their subjects, on the other hand, were Orthodox Catholics, almost without exception. When religious hatred was added to race hatred, there was hardly any hope of welding together the two nationalities.

Another source of weakness in the kingdoms of Africa and Italy must be noted. The Vandals of the third generation and the Goths of the second, after their settlement in the south, seem to have degenerated in courage and stamina. It may be that the climate was unfavourable to races reared in the Danube lands; it may be that the temptations of unlimited luxury offered by Roman civilization sufficed to demoralize them. A Gothic sage observed at the time that "the Goth, when rich, tends to become Roman in his habits; the Roman, when poor, Gothic in his." There was truth in this saying, and the result of the change was ominous for the permanence of the kingdom of Italy. If the masters softened and the subjects hardened, they would not preserve forever their respective positions.

The case of the kingdom of Africa was infinitely worse than that of the kingdom of Italy. The Vandals were less numerous than the Goths, in proportion to their subjects; they were not merely heretics, but fanatical and persecuting heretics, which the Goths were not. Moreover they had never had at their head a great organizer and administrator like Theodoric, but only a succession of turbulent princes of the Viking type, fit for war and nothing else.

Justinian declared war on King Gelimer the moment that he had made peace with Persia, using as his casus belli, not a definite reassertion of the claim of the empire over Africa for such language would have provoked the rulers of Italy and Spain to join the Vandals, but the fact that Gelimer had wrongfully deposed Hilderic, the Emperor's ally. In July, 533, Belisarius, who was now at the height of his favour for his successful suppression of the "Nika" rioters, sailed from the Bosphorus with an army of 10,000 foot and 5,000 horse. He was accompanied, luckily for history, by his secretary, Procopius, a very capable writer, who has left a full account of his master's campaigns. Belisarius landed at Tripoli, at the extreme eastern limit of the Vandal power. The town was at once betrayed to him by its Roman inhabitants. From thence he advanced cautiously along the coast, meeting with no opposition; for the incapable Gelimer had been caught unprepared, and was still engaged in calling in his scattered warriors. It was not till he had approached within ten miles of Carthage that Belisarius was attacked by the Vandals. After a hard struggle he defeated them, and the city fell into his hands next day. The provincials were delighted at the rout of their masters, and welcomed the imperial army with joy; there was neither riot nor pillage, and Carthage had not the aspect of a conquered town.

Calling up his last reserves, Glimer made one more attempt to try the fortunes of war. He advanced on Carthage, and was met by Belisarius at Tricameron, on the road to Bulla. Again the day went against him; his army broke up, his last fortresses threw open their gates, and there was an end of the Vandal kingdom. It had existed just 104 years, since Genseric entered Africa in A.D. 429.

Gelimer took refuge for a time with the Moorish tribes who dwelt in the fastnesses of Mount Atlas. But ere long he resolved to surrender himself to Belisarius, whose humanity was as well-known as his courage. He sent to Carthage to say that he was about to give himself up, and—so the story goes—asked but for three things: a harp, to which to chant a dirge he had written on the fate of himself and the Vandal race; a sponge, to wipe away his tears; and a loaf, a delicacy he had not tasted ever since he had been forced to partake of the unsavoury food of the Moors! Belisarius received Gelimer with kindness, and took him to Constantinople, along with the treasures of the palace of Carthage, which included many of the spoils of Rome captured by the Vandals eighty-six years before, when they sacked the imperial city, in 453. It is said that among these spoils were some of the golden vessels of the Temple at Jerusalem, which Titus had brought in triumph to Rome, and which Gaiseric had carried from Rome to Carthage.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


The triumphal entry of Belisarius into Constantinople with his captives and his spoils, encouraged Justinian to order instant preparations for an attack on the second German kingdom, on his western frontier. He declared war on the wretched King Theodahat in the summer of A.D. 35, using as his pretext the murder of Queen Amalasuntha, whom, as we have already said, her ungrateful spouse had first imprisoned and then strangled within a year of their marriage.

The king of the Goths, whether he was conscience-stricken or merely cowardly, showed the greatest terror at the declaration of war. He even wrote to Constantinople offering to resign his crown, if the Emperor would guarantee his life and his private property. Meanwhile he consulted soothsayers and magicians about his prospects, for he was as superstitious as he was incompetent. Procopius tells us a strange tale of the doings of a Jewish magician of note, to whom Theodahat applied. He took thirty pigs—to represent unclean Gentiles, we must suppose—and penned them in three styes, ten in each. The one part he called "Goths," the second "Italians," and the third "Imperialists." He left the beasts without food or water for ten days, and bade the king visit them at the end of that time, and take augury from their condition. When Theodahat looked in he found all but two of the "Goth" pigs dead, and half of the "Italians," but the "Imperialists," though gaunt and wasted, were all, or almost all, alive. This portent the Jew expounded as meaning that at the end of the approaching war the Gothic race would be exterminated and their Italian subjects terribly thinned, while the Imperial troops would conquer, though with toil and difficulty.

While Theodahat was busying himself with portents, actual war had broken out on the Illyrian frontier between the Goths and the governor of Dalmatia. There was no use in making further offers to Justinian, and the king of Italy had to face the situation as best he could.

In the summer of 535, Belisarius landed in Sicily, with an even smaller army than had been given him to conquer Africa—only 3,000 Roman troops, all Isaurians, and 4,500 barbarian auxiliaries of different sorts. Belisarius' first campaign was as fortunate as had been that which he had waged against Gelimer. All the Sicilian towns threw open their gates except Palermo, where there was a considerable Gothic garrison, and Palermo fell after a short siege. In six months the whole island was in the hands of Belisarius.

Theodahat seemed incapable of defending himself; he fell into a condition of abject helplessness, which so provoked his warlike subjects, that when the news came that Belisarius had crossed over into Italy and taken Rhegium, they rose and slew him. In his stead the army of the Goths elected as their king Witiges, a middle-aged warrior, well known for personal courage and integrity, but quite incompetent to face the impending storm.

After the fall of Rhegium, Belisarius marched rapidly on Naples, meeting no opposition; for the Goths were very thinly scattered through Southern Italy, and had not even enough men to garrison the Lucanian and Calabrian fortresses. Naples was taken by surprise, the Imperialists finding their way within the walls by crawling up a disused aqueduct. After this important conquest, Belisarius made for Rome, though his forces were reduced to a mere handful by the necessity of leaving garrisons in his late conquests. King Witiges made no effort to obstruct his approach. He had received news that the Franks were threatening an evasion of Northern Italy, and went north to oppose an imaginary danger in the Alps, when he should have been defending the line of the Tiber. Having staved off the danger of a Frankish war by ceding Provence to King Theuderic, Witiges turned back, only to learn that Rome was now in the hands of the enemy. The troops of Leudaris, the Gothic general, who had been left with 4,000 men to defend the city, had been struck with panic at the approach of Belisarius, and were cowardly and idiotic enough to evacuate it without striking a blow. Five thousand men had sufficed to seize the ancient capital of the world! [December, 536].

Next spring King Witiges came down with the main army of the Goths more than 100,000 strong—and laid siege to Rome. The defence of the town by Belisarius and his very inadequate garrison forms the most interesting episode in the Italian war. For more than a year the. Ostrogoths lay before its walls, essaying every device to force an entry. They tried open storm; they endeavoured to bribe traitors within the city; they strove to creep along the bed of a disused aqueduct, as Belisarius had done a year before at Naples. All was in vain, though the besiegers outnumbered the garrison twenty-fold, and exposed their lives with the same recklessness that their ancestors had shown in the invasion of the empire a hundred years back. The scene best remembered in the siege was the simultaneous assault on five points in the wall, on the 2 I St of March, 5 37. Three of the attacks were beaten back with ease; but near the Praenestine Gate, at the southeast of the city, one storming party actually forced its way within the walls, and had to be beaten out by sheer hard fighting; and at the mausoleum of Hadrian, on the northwest, another spirited combat took place. Hadrian's tomb—a great quadrangular structure of white marble, 300 feet square and 85 feet high was surmounted by one of the most magnificent collections of statuary in ancient Rome, including four great equestrian statues of emperors at its corners. The Goths, with their ladders, swarmed at the foot of the tomb in such numbers, that the arrows and darts of the defenders were insufficient to beat them back. Then, as a last resource, the Imperialists tore down the scores of statues which adorned the mausoleum, and crushed the mass of assailants beneath a rain of marble fragments. Two famous antiques, that form the pride of modern galleries—the "Dancing Faun" at Florence, and the "Barberini Faun" at Munich—were found, a thousand years later, buried in the ditch of the tomb of Hadrian, and must have been among the missiles employed against the Goths. The rough usage which they then received proved the means of preserving them for the admiration of the modern world.

A year and nine days after he had formed the siege of Rome, the unlucky Witiges had to abandon it. His army, reduced by sword and famine, had given up all hope of success, And news had just arrived that the Imperialists had launched a new army against Ravenna, the Gothic capital. Belisarius, indeed, had just received a reinforcement of 6,000 or 7,000 men, and had wisely sent a considerable force, under an officer named John, to fall on the Adriatic coast.

The scene of the war was now transported further to the north; but its character still remained the same. The Romans gained territory, the Goths lost it. Firmly fixed at Ancona and Rimini and. Osimo, Belisarius gradually forced his way nearer to Ravenna, and, in A.D. 540 laid siege to it. Witiges, blockaded by Belisarius in his capital, made no such skillful defence as did his rival at Rome three years before. To add to his troubles, the Franks came down into Northern Italy, and threatened to conquer the valley of the Po, the last Gothic stronghold. Witiges then made proposals for submission; but Belisarius refused to grant any terms other than unconditional surrender, though his master Justinian was ready to acknowledge Witiges as vassal-king in Trans-Padane Italy. Famine drove Ravenna to open its gates, and the Goths, enraged at their imbecile king, and struck with admiration for the courage and generosity of Belisarius, offered to make their conqueror Emperor of the West. The loyal general refused; but bade the Goths disperse each to his home, and dwell peaceably for the future as subjects of the empire [May, 540]. He himself, taking the great Gothic treasure-hoard from the palace of Theodoric, and the captive Witiges, sailed for Constantinople, and laid his trophies at his master's feet.

Italy now seemed even as Africa; only Pavia and Verona were still held by Gothic garrisons, and when he sailed home, Belisarius deemed his work so nearly done, that his lieutenants would suffice to crush out the last embers of the strife. He himself was required in the East, for a new Persian war with Chosroes, son of Kobad, was on the eve of breaking out. But things were not destined to end so. At the last moment the Goths found a king and a hero to rescue them, and the conquest of Italy was destined to be deferred for twelve years more. Two ephemeral rulers reigned for a few months at Pavia, and came to bloody ends; but their successor was Baduila, the noblest character of the sixth century—"the first knight of the Middle Ages," as he has been called.

When the generals of Justinian marched against him, to finish the war by the capture of Verona and Pavia, he won over them the first victory that the Goths had obtained since their enemies landed in Italy. This was followed by two more successes; the scattered armies of Witiges rallied round the banner of the new king, and at once the cities of Central and Southern Italy began to fall back into Gothic hands, with the same rapidity with which they had yielded to Belisarius. The fact was, that the war had been a cruel strain on the Italians, and that the imperial governors, and still more their fiscal agents, or "logothetes," had become unbearably oppressive. Italy had lived through the fit of enthusiasm with which it had received the armies of Justinian, and was now regretting the days of Theodoric as a long-lost golden age. Most of its cities were soon in Baduila's hands; the Imperialists retained only the districts round Rome, Naples, Otranto, and Ravenna. Of Naples they were soon deprived [A.D. 543]. Baduila invested it, and ere long constrained it to surrender. He treated the inhabitants with a kindness and consideration which no Roman general, except Belisarius, had ever displayed. A speech which he delivered to his generals soon after this success deserves a record, as showing the character of the man. A Gothic warrior had been convicted of violating the daughter of a Roman. Baduila condemned him to death. His officers came round him to plead for the soldier's life. He answered them that they must choose that day whether they preferred to save one man's life or the life of the Gothic race. At the beginning of the war, as they knew well, the Goths had brave soldiers, famous generals, countless treasure, horses, weapons, and all the forts of Italy. And yet under Theodahat—a man who loved gold better than justice—they had so angered God by their unrighteous lives, that all the troubles of the last ten years had come upon them. Now God seemed to have avenged Himself on them enough. He had begun a new course with them, and they must begin a new course with Him, and justice was the only path. As for the present criminal being a valiant hero, let them know that the unjust man and the ravisher was never brave in fight; but that, according to a man's life, such was his luck in battle.

Such was the justice of Baduila; and it seemed as if his dream was about to come true, and that the regenerate Goths would win back all that they had lost. Ere long he was at the gates of Rome, prepared to essay, with 15,000 men, what Witiges had failed to do with Ioo,000. Lest all his Italian conquests should be lost, Justinian was obliged to send back Belisarius, for no one else could hold back the Goths. But Belisarius was ill-supplied with men; he had fallen into disfavour at Court, and the imperial ministers stinted him of troops and money. Unable to relieve Rome, he had to wait at Portus, by the mouth of the Tiber, watching for a chance to enter the city. That chance he never got. The famine-stricken Romans, angry with the cruel and avaricious Bessas, who commanded the garrison, began to long for the victory of their enemy; and one night some traitors opened the Asinarian Gate, and let in Baduila and his Goths. The King thought that his troubles were over; he assembled his chiefs, and bade them observe how, in the time of Witiges, 7,000 Greeks had conquered, and robbed of kingdom and liberty, 100,000 well-armed Goths. But now that they were few, poor, and wretched, the Goths had conquered more than 20,000 of the enemy. And why? Because of old they looked to anything rather than justice: they had sinned against each other and the Romans. Therefore they must choose henceforth, and be just men and have God with them, or unjust and have God against them.

Baduila had determined to do that which no general since Hannibal had contemplated: he would destroy Rome, and with it all the traditions of the world empire of the ancient city to him they seemed but snares, tending to corrupt the mind of the Goths. The people he sent away unharmed they were but a few thousand left after the horrors of the famine during the siege. But he broke down the walls, and dismantled the palaces and arsenals. For a few weeks Rome was a deserted city, given up to the wolf and the owl [A.D. 550].

For eleven unquiet years, Baduila, the brave and just, ruled Italy, holding his own against Belisarius, till the great general was called home by some wretched court intrigue. But presently Justinian gathered another army, more numerous than any that Belisarius had led, and sent it to Italy, under the command of the eunuch Narses. It was a strange choice that made the chamberlain into a general; but it succeeded. Narses marched round the head of the Adriatic, and invaded Italy from the north. Baduila went forth to meet him at Tagina, in the Apennines. For a long day the Ostrogothic knights rode again and again into the Imperialist ranks; but all their furious charges failed. At evening they reeled back broken, and their king received a mortal wound in the flight [A.D. 553].

With the death of Baduila, it was all up with the Goths; their hero's knightly courage and kingly righteousness had not sufficed to save them from the same doom which had overtaken the Vandals. The broken army made one last stand in Campania, under a chief named Teia; but he was slain in battle at Nuceria, and then the Goths surrendered. They told Narses that the hand of God was against them; they would quit Italy, and go back to dwell in the north, in the land of their fathers. So the poor remnant of the conquering Ostrogoths marched off, crossed the Po and the Alps, and passed away into oblivion in the northern darkness. The scheme of Justinian was complete. Italy was his; but an Italy so wasted and depopulated, that the traces of the ancient Roman rule had almost vanished. "The land," says a contemporary chronicler, "was reduced to primeval solitude"—war and famine had swept it bare.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


It is strange to find that the Emperor was not tired out by waging this desperate war with the Goths; the moment it ended he began to essay another western conquest. There was civil war in Spain, and, taking advantage of it, Liberius, governor of Africa, landed in Andalusia, and rapidly took the great towns of the south of the peninsula Cordova, Cartagena, Malaga, and Cadiz. The factious Visigoths then dropped their strife, united in arms under King Athangild, and checked the further progress of the imperial arms. But a long slip of the lost territory was not recovered by them. Justinian and his successors, down to A.D. 623, reigned over the greater part of the seacoast of Southern Spain.