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Ch. 18, §11
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. 19, §§4‑8

Vol. II
Chapter XIX

The Reconquest of Italy (II)

(Part 1 of 4)

§ 1. The Reigns of Ildibad and Eraric (A.D. 540‑541)

The policy of Belisarius had frustrated the conclusion of a peace which would have left the Goths in peaceful possession of Italy north of the Po. Such a peace could hardly have been final, but it would have secured for the Empire a respite of some years from warfare in the west at a time when all its resources were needed against the great enemy in the east. If Belisarius had not been recalled, he would probably have completed the conquest of the peninsula within a few months. This, which would have been the best solution, was defeated by the jealousy of Justinian; and the peace proposed by the Emperor, which was the next best course, was defeated by the disobedience of his general. Between them they bear the responsibility of inflicting upon Italy twelve more years of war.

The greater blame must be attached to Justinian. He had indeed every reason to be displeased with the behaviour of Belisarius, but the plainest common sense dictated that, if he could no longer trust Belisarius, he should replace him by another commander-in‑chief. Of the generals who remained in Italy the most distinguished was John, the nephew of Vitalian. But instead of appointing him or another to the supreme command, the Emperor allowed the generals to exercise co-equal and independent authority each over his own troops. In consequence of this unwise policy there was no effective co-operation; each commander thought only of his own interests. They plundered the Italians, and allowed the soldiers to follow their example, so that discipline was undermined. In a few months so many blunders were committed that the work accomplished by Belisarius p227 in five arduous years was almost undone, the Goths had to be conquered over again, and it took twelve years to do it.1

The situation was aggravated by the prompt introduction of the Imperial financial machinery in the conquered provinces. The logothete2 Alexander, an expert in all the cruel methods of enriching the treasury and the tax-collector at the expense of the provincials, arrived, and soon succeeded in making both the Italians and the soldiers thoroughly discontented. Having established his quarters at Ravenna, he required the surviving Italian officials of the Gothic kings to account for all money that had passed through their hands during their years of service, and compelled them to make good deficits out of their own pockets. It cannot be doubted that many of these officials had made illegitimate profits and we need not waste much pity on them; but Alexander extended his retrospective policy to all private persons who had any dealings with the fisc of Ravenna. In an inquiry into transactions of twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, conducted by a man like Alexander, it is certain that grave injustices were done.

He was acting on the constitutional principle that Italy was, throughout the Gothic régime, subject to the Imperial authority, and that the kings and their servants were responsible to the Emperor for all their acts. But his proceedings were calculated to alienate the sympathies of the Italians and render the government of Justinian unpopular. At the same time, by curtailing the pay of the soldiers on various pretexts, he caused a deep sense of injustice in the army.

After the departure of Belisarius, Vitalius was stationed in Venetia, Constantian commanded the troops in Ravenna, Justin held Florence, Conon Naples, Cyprian Perusia, and Bessas perhaps had his quarters in Spoletium.3 North of the Po, the only important places still held by the Goths were Ticinum, p228 which king Ildibad made his residence, and Verona.4 The army of Ildibad amounted at first to little more than a thousand men, but he gradually extended his authority over Liguria and Venetia. The Roman generals did nothing to prevent this revival of the enemy's strength, and it was not till he approached Treviso, which appears to have been the headquarters of Vitalius, that Ildibad met any opposition. Vitalius, whose forces included a considerable body of Heruls, gave him battle and was decisively defeated, Vitalius barely escaping, while the Herul leader was slain.

Ildibad did not live long enough to profit by the prestige which his victory procured him. His death was indirectly due to a quarrel with Uraias, to whose influence he had owed his crown. The wife of Uraias was beautiful and wealthy, and one day when she went to the public baths, in rich apparel and attended by a long train of servants, she met the queen, who was clad in a plan dress (for the royal purse was ill-furnished), and treated her with disrespect. The queen implored Ildibad to avenge her outraged dignity, and soon afterwards Uraias was treacherously put to death. This act caused bitter indignation among the Goths, yet none of them was willing to avenge the nephew of Witigis. But a Gepid belonging to the royal guard, who had a personal grudge against the king, murdered Ildibad at a banquet in the palace (A.D. 541, about May). He would not have ventured on the crime if he had not known that it would please the Goths, as a just retribution for the murder of Uraias.

The event came as a surprise, and the Goths could not immediately agree on the choice of a successor to the throne. The matter was decided in an unexpected way. The Rugian subjects of Odovacar, who had submitted after his fall to the rule of Theoderic, had never merged themselves in the Gothic nationality, but had maintained their identity as a separate people in northern Italy. They seized the occasion to proclaim as king Eraric, the most distinguished of their number. The Goths were vexed at the presumption of the Rugians, but nevertheless they recognised Eraric, and endured his rule for five months, presumably because there was none among themselves on whose fitness for the throne they could agree.

p229 Eraric summoned a council and persuaded the Goths to consent to his sending an embassy to Constantinople for the purpose of proposing peace on the same terms which the Emperor had offered to Witigis. But the Rugian was a traitor. He selected as ambassadors creatures of his own, and gave them secret instructions to inform Justinian privately that he was prepared, in return for the Patriciate and a large sum of money, to abdicate and hand over northern Italy to the Empire.

In the meantime he made no pretence of carrying on the war, and the Goths regretted the energy of Ildibad. Looking about for a worthy successor, they bethought them of Totila,5 Ildibad's nephew, a young man who had not yet reached his thirtieth year and had acquired some repute for energy and intelligence. He had been appointed commander of the garrison of Treviso, and after his uncle's assassination, despairing of the Gothic cause, he had secretly opened negotiations with Ravenna, offering to hand over the town. A day for the surrender was fixed when he received a message from the Gothic nobles who were conspiring against Eraric, inviting him to become their king. Concealing his treacherous intrigue with the enemy, he accepted the proposal on condition that Eraric should be slain before a certain day, and he named the day on which he had undertaken to admit the Romans into the town. Eraric was duly put to death by the conspirators and Totila ascended the throne (A.D. 541, September or October).

§ 2. The First Successes of Totila (A.D. 541‑543)

Eraric's ambassadors seem to have been still at Constantinople when the news of his murder and Totila's accession arrived. Justinian was incensed at the supine conduct of his generals who had failed to take advantage of Eraric's incapacity, and his indignant messages at last forced them to plan a common p230 enterprise. They met at Ravenna and decided that Constantian and Alexander should advance upon Verona with 12,000 men. One of the Gothic sentinels was bribed to open a gate, and when the army approached the city, a picked band led by an Armenian, Artabazes, was sent forward at night to enter and take possession. Artabazes did his part, and Verona would have been captured if the commanders had not wasted the night in quarrelling over the division of the expected booty. When they arrived at last, the Gothic garrison had regained possession of the place and barred the gates, and the little band of Artabazes, having no other means of escape, leaped from the walls and all but a few were killed by the fall.6

The army retreated across the Po and encamped on the stream of Lamone,7 near Faventia. Totila marched against them at the head of 5000 men, and in the battle which ensued gained a brilliant victory, all the Imperial standards falling into his hands.8 Verona and Faventia exhibited the evil of a divided command.

Totila was encouraged by this success to take the offensive in Tuscany. He sent a force against Florence, where Justin, who had helped to capture it three years before, was in command. John, Bessas, and Cyprian hastened to its relief, and on the appearance of their superior forces, the Goths raised the siege and moved up the valley of the Sieve. This locality was then known as Mucellium, and the name survives as Mugello. The Roman army pursued them, and John with a chosen band pushed on to engage the enemy while the rest followed more slowly. The Goths, who had occupied a hill, rushed down upon John's troops. In the hot action which ensued, a false rumour spread that John had fallen, and the Romans retired to join the main army, which had not yet been drawn up in order of battle, and was easily infected with their panic. All the troops fled disgracefully, and the Goths pursued their advantage. The prisoners were well treated by Totila and induced to served under his banner. The defeated generals abandoned all thought of p231 further co-operation and hastily retreated, Bessas to Spoletium, Cyprian to Perusia, and John to Rome.

The victory of Mugello, however, did not lead to the defection of Tuscany, and Justin remained safely in Florence. Totila captured some places in Umbria — Caesena and Petra Pertusa,9— but then instead of pursuing steadily the conquest of central Italy, where the Imperialist forces, concentrated in strong cities, were too formidable for his small army, he decided to transfer his operations to south of the peninsula. There the success of his arms was swift and sweeping. Avoiding Rome, he marched to Beneventum, which was an easy prey, and razed its walls to the ground. The provinces of Lucania and Bruttii, Apulia, and Calabria acknowledged his authority and paid him the taxes which would otherwise have gone to satisfy the demands of the Imperial soldiers, to whom long arrears were owed. Totila had meanwhile laid siege to Naples, which Conon was holding with a garrison of 1000 Isaurians. He collected considerable treasure from Cumae and other fortresses in the neighbourhood, and created a good impression by his courteous treatment of the wives and daughters of Roman senators whom he found in these places and allowed to go free. This is one instance, and we shall meet others, of the policy which he often followed of winning the sympathy of the Italians by a more generous treatment than they were prepared to expect from an enemy.

The news of the revival of the Gothic power and the danger of Naples alarmed the Emperor, and he took some measures to meet the crisis, but they were far from sufficient. Instead of confiding the supreme command to an experienced general, he appointed a civilian, Maximin, to be Praetorian Prefect of Italy, and gave him powers of general supervision over the conduct of the war, sending with him Thracian and Armenian troops and a few Huns. Maximin, who seems to have been one of the worst choices the Emperor could have made, sailed to Epirus and remained there unable to decide what to do. Soon afterwards Demetrius, an officer who had formerly served under Belisarius, was sent to the west. He appears to have been invested with the office of Master of Soldiers, but we find him acting under the orders of Maximin.10 He sailed straight to p232 Sicily, where he learned how severely Naples was suffering from lack of food, and he made prompt preparations to bring help. He had only a handful of men, but collecting as many vessels as he could find in the Sicilian harbours, he loaded them with provisions and set sail in the hope that the enemy would believe that they were conveying a large army. It is thought that if this bold design had been executed the Goths would have withdrawn from Naples and the city might have been saved. But before Demetrius reached his destination, he revised his plan and made for Porto, hoping to obtain some reinforcements from Rome. But the Roman garrison was demoralised and refused to join in an expedition which seemed full of danger. Demetrius then sailed for the bay of Naples. Totila meanwhile had been fully informed of the facts and had a number of war vessels ready to attack the transports when they were close to the shore. Most of the crews were slain or made prisoners; Demetrius was one of the few who escaped in boats.

Another attempt to relieve Naples was another failure. Maximin and the forces which accompanied him had at last left Epirus and reached Syracuse. Moved by the importunate messages of Conon for help, he consented, although it was now midwinter, to send these troops to Naples, and Demetrius, who had made his way back to Sicily, accompanied this second expedition. It reached the bay of Naples safely, but there a violent gale arose which drove the ships ashore close to the Gothic camp. The crews were easily slain or captured, and Demetrius fell into the hands of Totila.11

The Neapolitans were starving, and Totila proposed generous terms. "Surrender," he said, "and I will allow Conon and all his soldiers to depart unhurt and take all their property with them." Still hoping that help might come, Conon promised to surrender on these terms in thirty days. Confident that there was no chance of relief forthcoming, Totila replied, "I will give you three months, and in the meantime will make no attempt to p233 take the city." But before the term had run out, the exhausted garrison and citizens abandoned hope and opened the gates (A.D. 543, March or April).

On this occasion Totila exhibited a considerable humanity which was not to be expected, as the historian Procopius remarks, from an enemy or a barbarian. He knew that if an abundance of food were at once supplied, the famished inhabitants would gorge themselves to death. He posted sentinels at the gates and in the harbour and allowed no one to leave the city. Then he dealt out small rations, gradually increasing the quantity every day until the people had recovered their strength. The terms of the capitulation were more than faithfully observed. Conon and his followers were embarked in ships with which the Goths provided them, and when, deciding to sail for Rome, they were hindered by contrary winds, Totila furnished horses, provisions, and guides so that they could make the journey by land.

The fortifications of Naples were partly razed to the ground.12

§ 3. Return of Belisarius to Italy (Summer, A.D. 544)

In the meantime the generals of Justinian were making no efforts to stem the tide of Gothic success. They plundered the Italians and spent their time in riotous living. Then Constantian wrote to the Emperor, stating bluntly that it was impossible to cope with the enemy.13 These messages did not arouse Justinian to action till they were reinforced by news of Totila's next movements.

Totila felt that he was now in a position to attack Rome itself. He began his operations by writing a letter to the Senate, in which he contrasted Gothic with "Greek" rule and attempted to show that it was the interest of the Italians that the old régime of the days of Theoderic and Amalasuntha should be restored. The letter was conveyed to Rome by Italian prisoners, p234 but John, who was in command of the garrison, forbade the senators to reply. Totila then contrived that a number of placards, announcing that he bound himself by the most solemn oaths not to harm the Romans, should be smuggled into Rome and posted up. John suspected that the Arian clergy were his agents and expelled them all from the city.

Totila then sent part of his army to besiege Otranto, and with the rest advanced upon Rome (spring, A.D. 544). Thereupon Justinian at last decided to recall Belisarius from Persia and send him to Italy to assume the supreme command, as the only means of retrieving the situation.14

The first thing Belisarius had to do was to collect some troops in Europe, for it was impossible to weaken the eastern front by bringing any regiments with him from Asia. At his own cost and with the assistance of Vitalius, who had recently been appointed Master of Soldiers in Illyricum, he recruited 4000 men in the Thracian and Illyrian provinces, and proceeded to Salona. His first care was to send a relief expedition to Otranto (summer, A.D. 544), and this enterprise was completely successful.15 The siege was raised and the town supplied with provisions for a year. This was a good beginning, but Belisarius then, persuaded by Vitalius,16 committed a serious mistake. He made Ravenna his base, and he could hardly have chosen a less suitable place for offensive operations of which the most important and pressing objects were to succour Rome and recover Naples and southern Italy.

Some of the fortresses in the province of Aemilia, including Bononia, were occupied, but the Illyrian troops who won these successes, having suddenly received the news that their homes were being devastated by an army of Huns, stole away and marched back to their own country. Bononia could no longer be held, and soon afterwards Auximum surrendered to the Goths, who inflicted a severe defeat on a small force which Belisarius had sent to its relief. At the end of the first year of his command the general had little to show but the saving of p235 Otranto.17 Meanwhile Totila was blockading Rome, now under the command of Bessas, and he had taken Tibur. The fall of this place was due to a dispute between the inhabitants and the Isaurian garrison. The Isaurians betrayed it to the enemy, and all the inhabitants, including the bishop, were put to death in a way which the historian declines to describe on the ground that he is unwilling to "leave to future times memorials of atrocity."

Belisarius saw that the Imperial cause in Italy was lost unless he received powerful reinforcements and money to pay them. In the early summer of A.D. 545 he wrote to the Emperor setting forth the difficulties of the war. "I arrived in Italy without men, horses, arms, or money. The provinces cannot supply me with revenue, for they are occupied by the enemy; and the numbers of our troops have been reduced by large desertions to the Goths. No general could succeed in these circumstances. Send me my own armed retainers and a large host of Huns and other barbarians, and send me money." With a letter to this effect, he sent John to Constantinople under a solemn pledge that he would return immediately. But John, instead of pressing the urgent needs of his commander, delayed in the capital and advanced his own fortunes by marrying the daughter of Germanus, the Emperor's cousin.

It was probably late in the year that John came at last with a new army. Belisarius had gone over to Dyrrhachium to await his arrival and had sent another importunate message to the Emperor. Isaac the Armenian accompanied John, and the Emperor had sent Narses to the land of the Heruls to secure a host of those barbarians18 to take part in the operations of the following spring.

Totila, in the meantime, had been taking town after town in Picenum and Tuscany. Fermo and Ascoli, Spoleto and Assisi, were compelled to capitulate.19 He offered large bribes to Cyprian to surrender Perusia, and, finding him incorruptible, suborned one of his retainers to assassinate him. But the foul murder did not effect its purpose, as the garrison remained loyal to the Emperor. The Goths had now secured effective command of the Flaminian Way, and it was impossible for Imperial troops p236 to march from Ravenna overland to the relief of Rome. The only place which the Imperialists still held in the Aemilian province was Placentia, an important fortress, because here the Aemilian Way crossed the Po. Totila presently sent an army against it, and captured it at the end of a year, when the inhabitants were so pressed by hunger that they were driven to cannibalism (May A.D. 545 to May 546).20

The Author's Notes:

1 For the second period of the Italian war, our source is still Procopius. But the historian is no longer writing from personal knowledge, for he probably never returned to Italy. Haury indeed is confident that he was in Italy during the twelfth year of the war, 546‑47, because he wrote about this year as much as he wrote about the first years of the war (Procopiana, I p9), but this is far from decisive. Chance may have supplied him with fuller information for the events connected with the siege of Rome. And as a matter of fact, the events of the last six months of 552 run to as great a length as those of the whole year 546‑547.

2 For the logothetes see below, p358.

3 See B. G. III.1 § 34; 3 § 2; 5 § 1; 6 § 2; 6 § 8 and 5 § 4; 6 § 8.

4 Procopius, B. G. 1 § 27, says only Ticinum; but it is clear from the narrative that Verona had remained in their hands throughout.

5 So he is always called by Procopius, but on the coins of his reign, both silver and copper, his name is invariably Baduila, which is also found in the Hist. Miscella, B. xvi. p107. Jordanes (Rom. 380) uses both names. The reason of the double designation has not been cleared up. Totila issued at first coins with the head of Justinian, but this recognition of the Emperor was soon abandoned, and the bust of Anastasius was substituted. Finally, in his last years, he issued silver and bronze coins with his own bust (imitated from that of Anastasius), A.D. 549‑552. The regal mint was at Ticinum, but coins were afterwards struck at Rome. See Wroth, Coins of the Vandals, etc., xxxvii‑xxxviii.

6 The attempt on Verona and the battles of Faventia and Mugello are probably to be placed in the spring of 542. See Cont. Marcell. §§ 2, 3, sub a.

7 Cp. Hodgkin, op. cit. iv.444. The Lamone is the ancient Anemo.

8 The most striking incident in the battle was the single combat between Valaris, a gigantic Goth, and Artabazes, in which the Goth was slain and Artabazes mortally wounded.

9 The Continuer of Marcellinus, sub 542, adds Urbinum and Mons Feletris.

10 B. G. III.6.13 Δημήτριον στρατήγον; cp. 7.3.

11 Another Demetrius (originally a Cephallenian sailor who had distinguished himself in the campaigns of Belisarius and had been appointed an overseer of some kind in Naples) had succeeded in leaving the city to community with the relief expedition. He, too, fell into the hands of the Goths. He had given dire offence to Totila, whom, on his first appearance before the walls of Naples, he had overwhelmed with insolent abuse. The king now punished him by cutting out his tongue and cutting off his hands.

12 If there is any foundation for the tradition, preserved in Gregory I, Dial. ii cc14, 15, that Totila visited St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, the incident must have occurred either before or soon after the siege of Naples. The year of Benedict's death is uncertain, perhaps 544 (so Pagi and Martroye, L'Occident, p436); the traditional date, accepted by the Order, is March 21, 543.

13 B. G. III.9.5; the other leaders seem either to have enclosed separate letters to the same effect or to have attached their signatures to Constantian's communication.

14 It was said that Belisarius persuaded Justinian to send him to Italy, by a promise that the war would be self-supporting and that he would never ask for money (Procopius, H. A. 4.39 ὥς φασι), but we find him writing for money at the end of the first year (B. G. III.12.10; see below, p235). He held the office of Comes stabuli.

15 It was carried out by Valentine, who had won distinction in the siege of Rome by Witigis.

16 B. G. III.13.14.

17 He rebuilt indeed the walls and defences of Pisaurum (Pesaro), which had been, like those of Fano, dismantled by Witigis.

18 Procopius does not record their numbers; evidently he had no accurate information (B. G. III.13.21).

19 Cp. Contin. Marcell., sub 545.

20 B. G. III.13.8 and 16.2.

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