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The Romans
(Part 2)

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Saracens

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Watch tower
of Charles the Fifth
at San Nicola, Calabria

(Vol. II) The Goths and the Byzantines


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A cliff at Sorrento

The short domination of the Goths in the south is parenthetic rather than vital, and came to an end as soon as the Eastern Roman Empire, which had created it, stretched out its still powerful hand to undo it. The collapse of the Western Empire had been very sudden. In the chaos produced by the arbitrary acts of Ricimer, the Suevian general of the Roman army, the last rivets were loosened and  p2 the whole construction tottered to its fall. Ricimer being dead, Orestes, who had been secretary to Attila the Hun, seized the power and created his son emperor, being a child of six years old. This was Romulus Augustulus. The mercenary troops, under Odoacer, at once demanded a third of Italy for themselves, and when Orestes attempted to oppose their demands, he was killed in fight and the child emperor was shut up in a villa in the country. Odoacer then sent the imperial insignia to Zeno, Emperor of the East, and asked for the right to administer Italy, with the title of 'patrician.' Half acknowledged, and yet never quite authorized, he governed the country for some time, till in a war with the barbarians he took prisoner one of their princes, who escaped and appealed to Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric invaded Italy and overcame Odoacer in a great battle at Verona in 489. He was supported by the Italian bishops against Odoacer, who was an Arian like Genseric; and before long, in 493, Odoacer made negotiations for peace and a division of the kingdom of Italy. A feast was held to celebrate the conclusion of hostilities, and Theodoric rendered a renewal of them impossible by murdering Odoacer at the table.

In the fewest possible words, this is the history of the transition from the last days of the Western Empire to the Gothic kingdom that followed it, and  p3 which endured for a time in conditions so unfavourable that even its short existence seems almost inexplicable. The only explanation that presents itself lies in the fact that the Goths were physically stronger than the Italians. They were supposed to own but one-third of the soil of Italy, but on the other hand they were the only soldiers in the country, and they were commanded by a man of high military talent who was not at all inclined to enter into small quarrels. Both Odoacer and Theodoric had understood, in fact, from the first, that their best policy would be to maintain the Roman administration, to which the people submitted by force of habit; but to control it themselves and to except all their Goths and other mercenaries from its jurisdiction. There was, therefore, a Gothic law for the conquerors and a Roman law for the conquered, and the iron hand of Theodoric was able to enforce both.

The consequence of this state of things was that the administration of the south scarcely changed at all, and that it peaceably submitted to the government to which it was accustomed, indifferent to the fact that the sovereign was a Gothic king instead of a Roman emperor. There are few records of Gothic actions in Sicily. When Theodoric married his sister Amalafrida to the king of the Vandals, he presented her with the district of Lilybaeum, which became Marsala, 'the harbour of God,' under the Saracens. It  p4 appears that there was a Gothic garrison there, as well as in Syracuse, Palermo, and Messina; and it is certain that in the division of lands some estates in Sicily and on the southern mainland fell to the lot of the Gothic captives; but there is excellent historical evidence to show that there were practically no Goths at all in the south when Belisarius landed, in 535. The fact that there were none is adduced to explain why the south surrendered to the imperial general without a struggle.

The Gothic law, for Goths, was administered by counts created by the king for the purpose; in differences between Goths and Romans, that is to say, free Italians, the Gothic count was associated with a Roman judge well acquainted with Roman law. This fact implies that there were counts in Sicily, at least where there were Gothic garrisons, and a few letters are extant in which some of them are mentioned by name, and which deal with matters of administration. They are largely of the time of Athalaric, and it is remarkable that a number of them were written to censure the Gothic officials for having collected taxes beyond the amounts due. There is ample evidence that it was the intention of the kings to treat the south well, and that they did so; and the vast amount of cornº which Sicily was able to send to Rome in the final struggle that resulted in the victory of the Byzantines, shows clearly enough that under Gothic domination  p5 the island recovered from the ravages of Genseric with its usual vitality and became extremely prosperous. The instructions given to the Count of Syracuse with regard to his journeys when 'on circuit,' as we should say, exhibit a care for the people's interests which contrasts strongly with the rapacious methods tolerated in the days of Verres. His functions are to be exercised for one year, during which he is to be escorted by a detachment of Gothic soldiers; the latter are to be quartered on the citizens, but the count is warned that he is not to allow any rudeness or rough treatment on the part of his men, who are everywhere to take what is given them without complaint and with a modest behaviour.

Nevertheless this Gildilas, Gothic Count of Syracuse under Athalaric, seems to have had an eye to his own advantage, for we find him severely taken to task for oppressing the provincials. He is told that he has received money for repairing the walls of the city, but has used it for other purposes, and must now either refund it or execute the work; that he has appropriated to the treasury the property of natives who have died without heirs, a proceeding only authorized in the case of foreigners; that he has made the costs of judicial proceedings excessive; that he has presumed to judge cases of difference arising between Roman parties, whereas his jurisdiction only extends over Goths; that he has forced merchants to sell him  p6 the cargoes of incoming vessels at a derisory price; and on the whole that he had behaved very badly, in a manner unbecoming to a Gothic count, that he is to remember that it is the glory of the Goths to protect all citizens, and that he must immediately mend his ways.

In order to understand what there is to tell about the situation in Sicily at the end of the Gothic domination, during the wars in which Belisarius, and Narses after him, commanded the Byzantine armies, we must glance at the causes of those wars, which were fought by the Emperor Justinian, against the successors of Theodoric, for the possession of Rome. Their result may be described as a preservation of Rome's identity as a Latin capital; for if the Goths had beaten Justinian, as it at one time seemed probable that they might, Rome would soon have ceased to be a true Latin centre, though it might not have become more really Gothic than Vienna is German in our own times.

We have seen that the powers delegated by the Emperor of the East to Odoacer and Theodoric were undefined, if they were unlimited. They had in fact been granted purposely in such a manner as to make them revocable at the emperor's pleasure, and in this respect the kingdom of Italy resembled a feudal holding of the Middle Ages. Odoacer was a mere adventurer and a general of mercenary troops; Theodoric  p7 was indeed by right a king, but was not King of Italy in any correct acceptation of the title. He was, in the imperial theory, the governor of the country as long as the emperor chose that he should remain in office. In real fact, he was the chieftain of an army of giants who, to use an expression proverbial among seamen, would rather drink than eat, and would rather fight than drink; huge men, of huge appetites, gifted with a sort of honourable judgment which would have been common sense if it had not been strongly imbued with a spirit half poetic, half theatrical, and altogether barbaric; guileless as children, and yet dangerous as madmen when thwarted in their immediate desires or when roused to anger, especially by any piece of deception or treachery; spendthrifts who squandered their possessions, their strength, and themselves, and who, speaking figuratively, would swing a sledge-hammer to crush a fly; they were, in a word, a tribe of big, handsome, headstrong, quick-tempered boys, among whom a man like Theodoric appeared now and then, who knew how to manage them, and had something of that cool and unerring spirit which, at a later period, distinguished the Normans from other northern people.

It is doubtful whether the struggle for the possession of Rome was brought on by circumstances into which questions of religion entered, but it is certain that the Catholic Church in Italy stirred up the people  p8 against Theodoric in his old age. He was an Arian, but he did not behave like one; on the contrary, he favoured the attack made by the emperor on the Arian Genseric, and had himself assumed the government with the approval and support of the bishops, who already played so important a part in the state. But towards the end of his reign there was something like a religious revival throughout Italy; there was at all events a sudden and great increase of religious fervour all over the country, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a movement, proceeding as it did from a Latin and Catholic source, should have produced some manifestation of Latin patriotism as opposed to foreign and Arian domination, by drawing the Latin people more closely together.

Now Latin patriotism had come to mean adherence to the Eastern Empire. The patriotic sentiment of Italians was not for Italy, but for the Empire under which they had lived five hundred years, and the fact that its seat had long been transferred to Constantinople did not affect that sentiment in any great degree. The Emperor Justin was as wise as he was enterprising, and he was quick to take advantage of a change of feeling in Italy at a time when that country had practically been long separated from his dominion and seemed forever lost to the Empire. He was assured that to reconquer it he had only to drive out the Goths, who, though very warlike, were by no means  p9 a military nation, who could therefore be beaten by a scientific general commanding trained troops, and who, moreover, would have to fight in the enemy's country, since the whole south and a great part of central Italy were decidedly in favour of what was certainly a reoccupation. Justin began to seek occasion against Theodoric, and maintained continued relations with the Catholic party in Italy.

It has been said that Theodoric was at no time an independent sovereign, that he understood what he was made to do by his great prime minister, and approved, so to say, of his own actions, but that he was nothing more than a lay figure of royalty, wholly directed by Cassiodorus. There is much evidence in favour of this theory. The only objection to it which suggests itself to me is that Cassiodorus was a Roman by birth, by character, and by education, and one would therefore suppose that if he had possessed the directing power attributed to him by some historians he would not have used it to widen the breach between himself and all that distinctively belonged to Rome. Yet he had served Odoacer before serving Theodoric, and it was undoubtedly owing to his efforts that the south submitted peaceably to the Gothic rule. He retired from political life in the last years of Theodoric's reign, but he returned to serve the latter's daughter and grandson in his former capacity; he outlived the fall of the Gothic kingdom  p10 and still had nearly thirty years of life to spend in the retirement of the cloister he had founded in his native place, Squillace, not far from Catanzaro, in southern Calabria, near the sea. There he composed a great part of his many books, most of which have been preserved.

The struggle for the possession of Rome, which Felix Dahn has told in one of the most remarkable historical novels ever composed, did not begin until Theodoric was dead. In his old age the king had done unworthy deeds, yielding to the counsels of courtiers who played upon him at his will; he had caused the great Boethius to be put to death with horrible tortures and had beheaded the equally innocent Symmachus, and it is said that Boethius died because he protected the provincials against the extortions of the public officials, a fact which shows how much Theodoric's government had degenerated in his later days. Before his death Justin had issued an edict requiring that the Arian churches in Constantinople should accept the Catholic rite; Theodoric forced Pope John the First to act as his ambassador to the emperor to request a revocation of the order. Justin received the Pope with every honour, but refused the request, and Theodoric retorted by imprisoning the unfortunate pontiff, who died in prison, if he was not actually murdered. In the same year, 526, and only three months later, Theodoric himself passed away, and while the Gothic nation mourned him and buried him  p11 magnificently in Ravenna, a hermit of the south gravely assured the Catholic world that he had seen the shades of Pope John and of Symmachus casting the soul of the dead king bound into the crater of Volcano, the island that lies close to Lipari, off the Sicilian coast. Theodoric was succeeded by his daughter Amalasuntha, for he left no son, and his grandson Athalaric was but a boy. In 527, the next year, Justin died and was succeeded by the great Justinian, his nephew and adopted son. Amalasuntha, brought up in the Roman civilization and culture, effected a reconciliation with the new emperor, but the Arian Goths hated her, and her own cousin murdered her nine years after her father's death. She had allowed the imperial troops to land and collect provisions in Sicily during the Vandal war, and Justinian found it convenient to avenge so useful an ally since vengeance was an excuse for seizing Rome. Sardinia and Corsica had already declared their allegiance to the Empire, and Belisarius appeared before Catania with a force of which the cavalry comprised Huns, Moors, and several thousand nondescript allies, while the infantry was composed of a few thousand Isaurians. Palermo alone was defended by its Gothic garrison, but Belisarius sent his ships into the old harbour, which was in the midst of what is now the city, and actually hoisted his archers in boats to the mastheads of the vessels, whence they were enabled to shoot over the low ramparts. Palermo having  p12 been thus easily reduced, Sicily received Belisarius and the imperial power with open arms, Naples fell into his hands by the discovery of a disused aqueduct that led into the city, and the victorious general advanced upon Rome itself. The unapproachable Gibbon has told the story of what followed, and the genius of Dahn has adorned it; to those who come after such writers nothing remains but to quote or to condense the result of their labours. The Goths chose the brave Vitiges to be their leader, but he was unable to prevent Belisarius from entering Rome. Such armies as the Goths possessed were scattered throughout their dominions, whereas the imperial force was concentrated, well trained, and commanded by a general of genius. During the winter, however, the Gothic warriors assembled at Ravenna to the number of one hundred and fifty thousand men and marched thence through the open country upon Rome. With a thousand cavalry Belisarius rode out to reconnoitre the enemy's position. Almost before he realized his danger, the general was surrounded, and a desperate fight ensued in which the leader's life was only saved by his own extraordinary strength and skill. Instead of retiring at once he pursued the Goths to their camp, and it was not until a thousand of them lay dead upon the field that Belisarius was forced to retreat. The vast army of the Goths immediately besieged the city, but Rome was strong, and the walls of Aurelian made an almost impregnable  p13 defence, the mausoleum of Hadrian was for the first time converted into a fortress, chains were thrown across the river, and the engines of war were immediately  p14 got ready and planted in position. Before the arrival of Vitiges and the Goths, the city had received from Sicily such a quantity of grain as enabled it to defy the terrors of famine, and during the fruitless siege, which lasted a whole year, it does not appear that the inhabitants suffered any great hardship. The Goths brought fascines, scaling-ladders, and battering-rams against the walls, and wooden towers on wheels; and the Romans opposed these with all the military devices of antiquity, among which were enormous catapults, to provide missiles for which the priceless statues on Hadrian's tomb were broken into fragments. Belisarius himself fought from the walls with a bow and arrows, and so completely was the first assault repulsed that the Goths determined to blockade the city, though it was now defended by scarcely four thousand men-at‑arms. Reënforcements arrived at last, which the Goths believed to be only the vanguard of a great army, and they treated for peace. Their forces were greatly diminished; for a vast number of their soldiers had succumbed to the malarious fever of the Campagna, while it is certain that the besiegers suffered more from lack of provisions than the besieged. The Goths at last gave up the siege in despair, burned their tents, and retired. Within a few months all that remained of the Gothic monarchy in Italy had taken shelter in Ravenna, and it seemed as if the Gothic cause were lost beyond all hope. But the Gothic kingdom in Italy was not the Gothic  p15 nation, and the handful of warlike foreigners who remained in the country had friends beyond the Alps both able and willing to help them. Ten thousand Burgundians took Milan and destroyed it, and the king of the Austrasians descended upon Italy at the head of a hundred thousand men, who, if they did not appear out of disinterested friendship for the Goths, were certainly not inspired by any friendly feeling for the emperor. They retired, however, after committing every species of cruelty, and Belisarius was again left to deal with Italy as he could. He forced or tricked Ravenna to a surrender, and the flower of the Goths took service in the imperial army. Belisarius now departed to Constantinople with a vast amount of spoil, and taking with him as a captive the brave but unfortunate Vitiges.

Nevertheless the end of the Goths had not yet come. Belisarius left behind him, as governors of the reconquered country and as chiefs of the imperial forces, a number of officers to whom he gave equal authority, and most of whom proceeded to abuse it. The mistake, or it would be more just to say the crime, of all governments seated in the East has been, and still is, excessive financial oppression. For Italy, Justinian appointed a number of officers who were called 'logothetes,' who acted as tax-gatherers and some of whom soon accumulated vast fortunes by a regular system of embezzlement. They did not confine their operations to the citizens and provincials, but extended them to thefts  p16 from the pay of the army, for they acted also as controllers. One of their favourite methods for making money in this way was to keep down a great number of veterans, who would be entitled to an increase of pay, by pretending that the deceased soldiers who had held the higher rank were still alive, and keeping their names on the rolls as if this were the case. Moreover, the provincials were called upon to render an account of all money which had passed through their hands under the Gothic administration, and in this way a great number of Italians who had been in sympathy with Belisarius were again turned against the emperor. At the time of Belisarius's departure in 540 only about a thousand Gothic soldiers were left in Italy. Within a year their numbers had so increased that they defeated one of the governors near Venice; and though a quarrel for what was no longer anything more than the chieftain­ship of the Goths soon led to the murder of the chief himself, and though his immediate successor had no hold upon his people, they continued to regain their strength at such a rate that when they at last chose Totila to be their king, they immediately became once more a match for the imperial oppressor. They seized Verona, and Totila pursued the Roman generals with a force of five thousand men. Before long Totila was able to cross the Apennines, and in a battle which ensued at a place once called Mugello, but of which the site is now forgotten, the Goths completely routed  p17 the Roman troops. Avoiding Rome, Totila crossed the Tiber and marched southwards upon Beneventum, which he destroyed lest it should harbour an imperial force; a little later he besieged Naples, which was defended  p18 only by a thousand men. Justinian now appointed a praetorian prefect of Italy, to whom he intrusted the supreme power over all his forces; but this officer lingered in Syracuse while another general failed to relieve Naples, and the squadron with which he arrived there was seized by the Goths. It was winter when the prefect sailed from Syracuse, and his fleet perished in a storm within sight of Naples, amid the cries and lamentations of the people who were assembled on the walls. The city now surrendered, and Totila dismantled the fortifications, though he treated the inhabitants with great kindness. All sense of discipline was lost in the imperial armies; the generals gave themselves up to a licentious existence in the cities which they still held, the soldiers of Justinian plundered the country, and the emperor was soon informed that it was no longer possible to hold Italy. Totila wrote a sort of open letter to the Roman Senate, boldly stating that it was his purpose to rescue Italy from her tyrants, and copies of the writing were posted in the Forum and in the chief streets for the people to read. Yet the Romans did not see fit to open their gates to him, and he therefore advanced with the greater part of his army to take it by siege. This happened in the year 544.

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of the Capuchin Convent
at Amalfi

Meanwhile, by an extraordinary concatenation of intrigue and misfortune, Belisarius had been utterly disgraced and the command of the Eastern armies had been taken from him. But in the moment of danger  p19 it suited the ends of the Empress Theodora to restore him to favour; he was created Count of the Sacred Stable and was informed that he would be permitted to fight Totila and the Goths in Italy on condition that he would ask for no funds from the imperial treasury. It was with the greatest difficulty that he succeeded in raising a force of volunteers in Thrace, with whom he crossed over to Ravenna, intending to march at once towards Rome. But everywhere he found the Goths opposed to him, the imperial troops were defeated on the shores of the Adriatic, and after fortifying the little city of Pesaro, Belisarius took refuge in Ravenna, whence he sent a desperate appeal to Justinian. After a long time help came, indeed, but the relieving armies were commanded by generals who secretly hated Belisarius. Meanwhile, in 545, Totila had begun the siege of Rome, which was commanded by Bessas, the most corrupt of the governors under whom Italy had suffered. His defence is a record of inactivity, and Belisarius, checked at every turn, was unable to relieve him. The city had not been previously provisioned, as it had been for the former siege, and was driven to the last extremity of famine. Dogs and mice were eaten and were regarded as luxuries, and the dead bodies of horses and mules were sought for with avidity. The people plucked the nettles which grew about the walls, as they still do, and boiled them for food, and when all else failed they began to devour each other.

 p20  The citizens sent an embassy to the Gothic king and chose as their representative the deacon, Pelagius, who was made Pope nine years later. Totila treated him with profound respect, but before he had spoken refused to grant three requests which he expected the churchman to make. He declined beforehand to pardon Sicily for having gone over to the emperor and having supplied Rome with corn, to leave the walls of Rome standing, and lastly, to surrender the slaves who had fled to him from their Roman owners. Pelagius, disappointed by Totila's tone, refused to ask anything else; he returned into the city and the frightful state of siege continued. The inhuman Bessas at last sold to the non-combatants a permission to escape if they could, and most of those who attempted it perished by famine or the sword.

Meanwhile, after much hesitation, Belisarius and the Byzantine leaders sailed from Durazzo, and Belisarius reached the mouth of the Tiber, while one of the leaders inflicted a defeat upon the Goths near Reggio. With consummate skill Belisarius made his preparations, seized Portus, and would perhaps have relieved Rome but for the foolish blunder of a colleague, who attacked Ostia at the wrong moment, failed, and was taken prisoner. Belisarius lost his presence of mind, retreated immediately, and soon fell ill of a fever. Thereupon certain Isaurian soldiers in Rome betrayed the Asinarian Gate to the Goths, and  p21 the whole Gothic army marched in without striking a blow, while the evil Bessas fled with his army, and in such haste that he left his ill-gotten treasure behind him. The Goths were again masters, but in spite of his previous threat Totila did not destroy Rome, being moved to moderation by a letter from Belisarius, who asked the barbarian king whether he would not rather be remembered in future ages as the preserver of the greatest city in the world, than as its destroyer. He had already torn down one-third of the walls, but he now desisted from further destruction, evacuated the defenceless city, and withdrew his army to the Alban hills. These things happened at the end of the year 546. Six weeks later Belisarius reoccupied Rome, and repaired the walls in a fortnight with such materials as he could collect from the ruins. Totila, enraged at learning that the city was again a stronghold, returned to attack it and was thrice repulsed. He fell back upon Tivoli, with his discontented army, and rebuilt the citadel he had before destroyed.

The stupendous conflict for the possession of Rome was not even now at an end, and though Totila longed to be revenged upon the south for its adherence to the imperial cause, he only succeeded in taking the little fortress of Rossano, near the site of ancient Sybaris, in spite of the efforts made by Belisarius to relieve it. The Byzantine general was rendered almost powerless by Justinian's refusal to supply  p22 him with funds and men, and in the following year, 549, he returned to Constantinople. He had not arrived there before Perugia, which had been besieged for three years by a detachment of Totila's troops, surrendered at last, and the king at once proceeded to besiege Rome again. Garrisoned now by picked troops, it might have resisted long; but the soldiers had already mutinied, in the previous year, because their pay was in arrears, and the promises made to win back their loyalty had probably not been fulfilled: from the walls the men could see the rich dress and accoutrements of those whom Totila had rewarded for betraying the city the first time; they hesitated, discussed among themselves, and decided the fate of Rome to their advantage. The gate of Saint Paul was opened to Totila in the night, and once more he entered without striking a blow. In the short fight that followed most of the loyal garrison were slain, but a few hundreds took refuge in the Mausoleum of Hadrian and were starved at last to an honourable surrender. Instead of destroying the city, Totila now set about rebuilding it, repopulating it, and stocking it with provisions; and he sent an embassy to Justinian to propose a peace. Justinian would not even receive the ambassadors; though the north of Italy was now practically in the hands of the Goths, Rome was theirs, and Totila was able to turn southwards at last, to satisfy his desire for vengeance upon Sicily.

 p23  In the beginning of 550 Reggio was forced to surrender. Totila had already crossed the straits, and for nearly two years he ravaged Sicily without mercy, and collected together a vast amount of plunder. Procopius dismisses Totila's deeds during this time with a single short sentence, saying that the Goths then devastated almost all Sicily without opposition; but it is not hard to imagine the horrors that attended his long stay in the country. Dahn, Holm, and Hodgkin have extolled the character of the Gothic king, praising his generosity towards his enemies when he was the victor, his steadfast purpose and courage in adversity, his dignified bearing, his gentleness to the women of the vanquished, and the admirable control which he exercised over his savage soldiers even in moments when they could hardly have been blamed for some excess. But neither these historians nor those from whom they have derived their information have concealed the fact that Totila, like Theodoric, was subject to fits of anger, under the influence of which he sometimes exhibited barbarous cruelty; that he more than once caused a prisoner to be horribly mutilated, cutting off his hands, his nose, his ears, and even tearing out his tongue. It is true that these occasions were rare, and the provocation was often great; but he was a hot-tempered man who felt he had a right to act barbarously when his anger was just, and who remembered injuries long and resentfully. He had  p24 never forgiven Sicily for the help it had rendered Rome against him, he had expressly refused to pardon the Sicilians when Pelagius came to him as ambassador, and, now that Rome was his once more, now that he had regained possession of all Italy, and that Belisarius had been recalled, he gave the rein to his fury and turned his wild soldiers loose upon the peaceable islanders. It is clear that he had no intention of holding Sicily; he understood too well that with the small army at his command it would have been absolutely impossible to extend his power permanently so far. Had he intended to annex the island, he would certainly not have passed by Messina without reducing it to submission. His object was to exact compensation for an injury, and at the same time to make it impossible for the Sicilians to help the emperor as they had helped him before. So far as we are able to judge, he set to work with the deliberate purpose of so crippling the island's resources as to make its recovery within a few years almost an impossibility. We read of no redeeming acts of mercy on his part during this time; we do not hear that he offered the islanders the alternative of serving under his standard; it is not stated, as it is so often in the accounts of his other campaigns, that he spared women and children and abstained from useless bloodshed: Procopius briefly says that Totila laid waste the island, and we know that his raid upon it  p25 lasted nearly two years. He had ships at his command which he must have loaded again and again during that period with the rich spoils of the south, transferring the movable wealth of the island to the strong points he held in Italy; he took not only the corn, the gold, and the silver, but he carried off the herds, the flocks, and the horses in a wholesale spoliation, the like of which Sicily had probably never suffered before. It must have been a reign of terror. He garrisoned the stronger towns, such as Syracuse, Palermo, and Lilybaeum. Some of the cities in which there were imperial troops had indeed resisted him, and there can be no doubt that the Sicilians did what they could to defend themselves in the hope of speedy assistance from Constantinople; but all resistance was useless. That he maintained some kind of method in his mode of plundering is evident from the fact that he had created a quaestor or treasurer in the person of Spinus, a Roman, who was destined to liberate the island at last from the presence of the insatiable Goths. It appears that a Roman force was still in the neighbourhood of Catania, of which the walls had been destroyed, and that this Spinus, who chanced to be within the city, fell into the hands of the imperialists. Totila, being most anxious to set him free, offered to give in exchange for him a noble Roman lady whom he held captive, but the Romans objected that a woman was not an equivalent for so distinguished  p26 a personage as a quaestor. In fear of his life Spinus promised the Romans that he would persuade Totila to evacuate Sicily with the whole Gothic army. The Romans required him to bind himself by an oath, and they sent him to the Goths, keeping his wife as a hostage. As soon as he came into Totila's presence, Spinus began to assure him that the Goths were making a great mistake in remaining in the island after having completely plundering it, merely in the hope of taking a few small places that held out against them; and he said that he had just heard that a large imperial force was already in Dalmatia, that it would proceed thence immediately to Liguria, and that it would be an easy matter for the enemy to make a descent upon the Goths there, and to carry off their wives and children and all their possessions. It would be better, he said, to oppose this plan by wintering in that region, and, moreover, if Totila conquered the imperialists there, it would not be hard for him to invade Sicily again.

Whether the Gothic king was only weary of plunder and irregular warfare, or whether, as Procopius says, he was really moved by the argument, which was sound enough, it is hard to determine; he did, however, leave Sicily almost immediately, after placing garrisons in four of the strongest points. Having loaded a number of vessels with booty, he embarked his troops, apparently from Catania, and crossed the  p27 straits again to Italy, leaving destruction and famine behind him. This was in 551.

He never returned. The man who was destined to drive the whole Gothic army to final ruin was already on his way to the Italian shore, well provided with all that he could need, with men and abundant money. He was the old Narses, once the favourite groom of the bedchamber, who had become grand chamberlain, and whose beardless, wrinkled face and sexless looks masked the mind of a great statesman and the heart of a fearless soldier. The young and great-limbed Goth horseman smiled at the thought of being opposed to an aged eunuch, a small wizened creature of seventy-five years; but Totila's own days were numbered, and in less than two years the terrible remnant of humanity destroyed him and his successor and all their armies, and drove the handful of survivors out of Italy forever.

The end of the long struggle was short and quick. On hearing that Narses was appointed, Totila pressed the siege of Ancona, which had lasted long, and in Rome he made frantic efforts to increase his popularity by recalling the Roman senators and hastening the rebuilding of the city. At the moment when Ancona was about to fall an imperial fleet appeared a few miles to the northward, engaged the Gothic ships, destroyed most of them, and forced the Goths to burn the rest. Masters of the sea, the imperialists  p28 seized Sicily again under Artabanes the Armenian. In the north the Franks took advantage of Totila's defeat to lay their hands on all they could think, but were as ready as the Goths to oppose the imperial army. Meanwhile the main body of Narses' army arrived, a host made up of all the varied elements controlled by the Eastern Empire, comprising many Lombards and many Huns and thousands of warriors from minor tribes, but all perfectly controlled by the genius of the general, and all thirsting for Gothic blood and Italian spoil. They outflanked and outfought their opponents, and marched southwards through the Apennines by the Flaminian Way.

There Totila met them and came to his end. Many have described the great battle, telling how the imperial army spread out to the right and left, and caught and crushed the Gothic cavalry when it made its great charge upon the centre. The incidents of that day, the duels of chiefs, the wild advances, the furious fighting round the little hill that was the key of the field, the splendid riding of Totila and his obscure death, all these things are more like the tale of a Homeric battle fought in an earlier world than the romantic encounters of chivalry to which some writers have compared them. Indeed, the battle of the Apennines was almost the last of those that belong to ancient days.

One more such contest was to be fought, and was  p29 to be the very end of the Gothic episode; but before it came Narses had accomplished the greater part of his work in Italy. He took Rome with ease, after what could not be called a siege; many of the Gothic fortresses surrendered, and, though the Goths had elected their bravest warrior, Teias, to be king, he soon saw that nothing was left to him but to die for the cause that was already reduced to the last extremity. In the reign of Justinian Rome had been five times taken, and the keys of the city were now sent to him again, while Narses drove the remnant of the Goths steadily southwards.

The hunted army encamped at last by the bay of Naples, at the foot of the volcano and on the side towards Castellamare,º set out the little stream of the Sarno, and the remains of their fleet brought them provisions. Narses encamped on the bank of the river and waited, for the Goths had fortified the bridge and he had no ships. He knew also what despairing men could do, and he would not attack them until he was sure that the struggle would be short and final, or until they attacked him; and meanwhile he corrupted the commander of their ships. When these had been betrayed into his hands, the Goths retired a little way further inland, to an eminence now called Monte Lettere.

All authors who have described this final battle have, as is usual in accounts of the Gothic war, taken their  p30 material from Procopius. It may interest the reader, therefore, to read a literal translation of his own account, remembering that he was a contemporary and a soldier, as well as an historian, and that although  p31 he was not present at this fight, he knew the ground well, and received his information from an eye-witness, probably from Narses himself.

"At last," he says, "a Goth betrayed to the Romans all the enemy's fleet, and innumerable ships arrived from Sicily and from other parts of the Empire. At the same time Narses disheartened the barbarians by placing wooden towers on the river bank. Fearing these engines, and suffering from lack of provisions, they took refuge on a hill near by, which the Romans call, in Latin, 'Milk Hill.' The Roman army could not follow them to that point, as the inequality of the ground was against them. But the barbarians did not cease to regret that they had ascended thither, when their want had so greatly increased that they no longer had food for themselves or their horses. Thinking, therefore, that it was better to die in battle than to perish by hunger, they attacked the Romans, when the latter anticipated nothing of the sort, and suddenly made an unexpected charge. The Romans repelled the assault as well as they could, considering the time and circumstances, their line not being marshalled according to their generals, nor in classes, nor by numbers, and they being neither separated from each other in ordered ranks, nor able to hear the commands given in the battle; but as chance decided, so they opposed the enemy with all their might. And first the Goths dismounted, left their horses, and stood on foot, turning  p32 their faces to the enemy, so that their line was in a high position. Then, when the Romans saw this, they also sent away their horses, and ranged themselves in a similar order of battle.

"I shall here," continues Procopius, "describe this memorable battle, in which Teias, by his splendid behaviour, proved himself equal, in warlike bravery, to any of the heroes, while the despair of their present situation imparted courage to the Goths; and the Romans, seeing them to be desperate, fought with all their strength, ashamed to yield to inferior numbers; and each fell upon those nearest, most furiously, while those on the one side sought death, and those on the other desired praise for their constancy. The fight began in the morning; Teias, protected by a shield, and brandishing his spear, stood out with a few others before the line. When the Romans recognized him, they thought that if he fell the combat would thereupon be broken off, and all who dared united against him, of whom there was a great number. All thrust at him with their spears, and some hurled them, while he, receiving their darts upon the shield with which he covered himself, in a sudden rush slew many in their midst. Seeing his shield full of the shafts that stuck in it, he passed it to one of the men armed with shields, and seized another. When he had spent a third part of the day thus fighting, it happened that he was hardly able to move the shield, in which twelve darts were planted,  p33 nor to repel the assailants with it. Then he earnestly called to one of the shield-armed men, not moving even one finger's breadth from the spot, not drawing back his foot, nor suffering the enemy to advance. On the contrary, he neither turned round, nor set his back against his shield, nor bent to one side, but as if he were cleaving to the soil, he stood fast in his tracks, dealing death to the enemy with his right hand, parrying the attack with his left, and loudly asking for the armour-bearer by name. The latter, having brought a fresh shield, quickly exchanged it for the other, that was heavy with darts. In that instant of time the king's breast was exposed; as fortune would have it, he was pierced through by a javelin, and immediately breathed his last. The Romans set his head upon a spear, and raising it on high, carried it about, exhibiting it to both armies, that the Romans might go forward more boldly, but that the Goths should give up all hope and lay down their arms. Yet even then the Goths would not give over fighting, but persisted until night, though they knew that their king was already dead. When darkness separated the combatants, both armies spent the night in arms, where they were. On the morrow they rose together at dawn, and having drawn up their ranks in the same way, fought on until night, each determined not to yield to the other, nor to turn their backs, nor to break ground, though many had been slain on both sides; and they persisted in action, wild  p34 with bitter hatred for each other. The Goths saw that they must united for the end; the Romans would not give way to them. At last, the barbarians, sending some of their nobles, made it known to Narses that they understood that they were fighting against God; that they felt His adverse power, and perceived the real nature of the matter, deducing their conjectures from the things which had happened; that they were willing to desist from fighting, not, however, on condition of serving the emperor, but that they might go and live according to their own laws, with other barbarians. They asked that the Romans should neither molest their departure, nor trouble themselves to show kindness, but that each should receive, by way of provision for the journey, the money which he had previously deposited in the Italian military stations. As Narses was deliberating about the matter, John, the grandson of Vitalian, induced him to accede to the request, and to desist from fighting with men who wished to die, and not to make trial of a daring born of the despair of life, fatal alike to those whom it animated and to their opposers. 'For,' said he, 'men possessed of prudence and moderation think that victory is enough; but a vainglorious eagerness leads surely to ruin.' Embracing this opinion, Narses consented to an agreement by which the surviving barbarians were immediately to evacuate all Italy, taking their possessions with them, and were on no account to wage war further against  p35 the Romans. Meanwhile, a thousand Goths had left their camp, and they reached the city of Ticinum and the region beyond the Po, some following Indulph, who has been mentioned already, and some under other leaders; the rest ratified the compact by taking oath. And so the Romans took Cumae and all the other strong places, and this was the end of the eighteenth year of this Gothic war, of which Procopius wrote the history."

And here ends the invaluable chronicle of the soldier historian, without whose book it would have been quite impossible to understand the nature of the struggle for Rome, and the transition from the fall of the Western Empire to the temporary supremacy of Pope Gregory the Great, and thence to the story of the Saracen domination. There can be no doubt but that Narses stemmed the stream of history in the battle of the Apennines and turned it at Monte Lettere, and he deserves to be numbered among the world's great generals. The chronicler, Agathias, has given us the best brief description of his character. "He was, above all, a man of sound mind, keen and clever in adapting himself to the times; and though he was not versed in literature nor practised in oratory, he made up for these deficiencies by the fertility of his wit, and did not lack words with which to express his opinions, which was an extraordinary thing for a eunuch brought up among the follies of the royal palace. In stature he was small and of a lean habit,  p36 but stronger and more high-spirited than would have been believed."​a Such was the general who, in his old age, reduced the story of the Gothic kingdom to the limits of a page in the history of mankind, and against whom such heroes of arms as Totila and Teias fought and gave up their lives in vain. Again the difference between warlike spirit and military genius presents itself, and while distinguishing between  p37 the two, and according our admiration to the great general, we need not withhold our sympathy from the fair-haired warriors who fought so bravely and died so manfully under the southern sky.

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Grotto church at Praia d'Aieta, Calabria

So far as the south is concerned, the story of the Gothic domination divides itself into two periods, of which the first comprises Theodoric's long reign, a time of peace and plenty and agricultural activity, while the second includes about two years of robbery and violence, that left the land a wilderness and reduced the cities to desolation. The Goths avenged themselves, and Narses took vengeance upon them in turn; but after him, in the changing fortunes of the miserable Empire, there came Franks and Lombards, and all Northern Italy was laid waste with fire and sword. One of their kings, Autharis the Lombard, rode southward far, and reached the straits. For the Deacon Paul says that he went down by Spoleto to Benevento, and took it, and that he went through the country to Reggio, the Italian city nearest to Sicily, and it is said that there a column stood out alone, washed by the waves of the sea. Then Autharis spurred his horse through the salt foam, and he smote the pillar with the point of his spear, saying, 'Here shall be the boundary of the Lombards.' Which column, says the good deacon, is said to be standing to‑day, and is called the Pillar of Autharis. But a little further on he tells us that this Autharis died of  p38 poison at Ticinum, which is Pavia, in the north; and he died in 590, in which same year a greater man than he arose, who was Pope Gregory the Great. But by that time the Lombards had taken all that part of Italy from the empire, and they held it, and made a kingdom.

As for the rest of Italy, the great struggle had meant only that the East was trying to get possession of the heritage of the West, in spite of the barbarians who wanted it for themselves, since it no longer had any emperor. The result of it was that the East got all Italy, then lost a part of it and kept the rest, that is, the centre, the south, and Sicily, governing the provinces by an exarch residing in Ravenna, leaving Rome to a prefect much under the influence of the Pope, when the latter was a strong man, and appointing a praetor and a quaestor, according to the ancient Roman custom, to govern Sicily, to keep the peace, and levy war taxes, while the regular revenues of the country were under the management of officials controlled by the so‑called 'Count of the Patrimony of Italy.'

At this time our notice is first attracted by the existence of vast estates, in Sicily, Italy, Corsica, Africa, and elsewhere, which were the property of the Catholic Church, and constituted what were called the Patrimonies; that is, as we should say, the Patrimony of Saint Peter. It appears that these lands  p39 had been left by will to the Church of Rome, before the final disappearance of the Western Empire, it was even then customary for individuals to leave property in that way, and also to the churches of other cities. These estates were controlled by the Pope, who appointed a rector to manage them, paid taxes and titles in kind to the imperial government, and enjoyed the income or decided what use should be made of it.

The lands thus held by the Church of Rome in Sicily were so extensive as to enable the popes to supply Rome with Sicilian corn, and it is not surprising to find Sicily again the granary of the Italian capital. It was the possession of these lands that laid a first foundation for the temporal power of the popes, which became a fact when actual possession of a territory on the mainland was necessary, in order to compensate for the financial disaster suffered by the Church through the loss of Sicily to the Empire. Pope Gregory was a man whose intellectual superiority would in any case have led him to distinction, and whose charitable disposition could hardly fail to procure him a well-deserved popularity; but the real power which he wielded with such wholesome energy was based upon the Church's already vast possessions in the south, and was perhaps supplemented by the great private wealth he is generally believed to have inherited from his mother. This fortune  p40 likewise came to him in the shape of Sicilian lands, on which he was able to found rich monasteries before he became Pope; and though Gibbon observes with some sarcasm that his devotion pursued the path which would have been chosen by a crafty and ambitious statesman, it is the general opinion of mankind that he deserved the title of Saint and the veneration of Christians, at least as truly as any man since the Apostles and the early martyrs.

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Positano, between Sorrento and Amalfi

The fall of the Gothic kingdom was followed within a few years by the rise of the Papacy. The Eastern Empire was never able to hold and govern Italy  p41 directly, owing, perhaps, to that radical defect in all Eastern governments to which I have already alluded. On the other hand, the emperors could not and would not relinquish such a possession, and where the authority of their exarchs and their praetors was insufficient, they supplemented it by increasing that of the popes, which was sure to be exercised in a more or less conservative spirit. A right understanding of these simple facts is all that is necessary in order to trace the evolution of the Papacy, with its organized temporal power, from the chaos that followed the extinction of the Western Empire. In other words, and to recapitulate briefly, chaos was followed by a tremendous effort on the part of the barbarians to get possession of Italy; this having failed, and Justinian having reoccupied the country, he found himself unable to govern it without the support of the popes, who gradually turned their assistance into a domination. The connexion of all this with the story of the south lies in the fact that the popes relied upon their possessions in Sicily for the greater part of their worldly wealth and power, before the union and consolidation of these produced their temporal sovereignty.

The Synod of Constantinople, held in the year 381, had acknowledged the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome by giving him precedence over all others, and this action was confirmed by the Synod of Chalcedon  p42 in 451. Justinian had further acknowledged this precedence of the popes by the manner in which he had received Pope John when the latter came to Constantinople as Theodoric's ambassador, and it was not unnatural, therefore, that the emperor should suffer the popes to exercise such very great influence upon Italian affairs; and since Sicily is spoken of at that time as the 'Asylum and Paradise of the Church,' it is quite certain that the papal influence must have been especially strong in the island, and may have amounted to a positive domination under such a Pope as Gregory the Great.

This extraordinary man was born in Rome about the year 540, and was therefore thirteen years old at the time when the Goths were finally overcome. He was the son of a Roman senator, Gordianus, and of his wife Sylvia, who is believed to have been a Sicilian lady of great wealth. Gordianus himself afterwards entered the Church, and died one of the seven cardinal deacons who administered the seven ecclesiastical districts of Rome. Gregory received an education befitting his birth and fortune, and it is a sign of the decay of Greek influence in Central Italy that he never learned the Greek language. At the age of thirty-four, as most writers think, he was appointed Prefect of Rome by Justin the Second, which means that he presided in the Senate, was the chief magistrate of the city, and was largely responsible for providing  p43 it with food. How long he remained in this high office is not known, but it was probably not more than a year, and on the death of his father he inherited a palace on the Coelian. His mother, who was still alive, appears to have abandoned to him her Sicilian possessions, for he founded there six monasteries on lands of his own, and he converted the Coelian palace to monastic uses in 575, and dedicated it to Saint Andrew. It probably occupied the site of the hospital which now stands opposite the Lateran basilica, and within which there is still a church of Saint Andrew. He had always loved the society of monks and ecclesiastics; he now gave himself up entirely to devotion, and injured his health by the severity of his fasting. After this, having seen certain fair Anglian children exposed for sale as slaves,​b he desired to convert Britain, saying that it was 'a lamentable consideration that the prince of darkness should be master of so much beauty and have such comely persons in his possession; and that so fine an outside should have nothing of God's grace to furnish it within'; and he played also upon the words 'Anglians' and 'Angels,' for playing upon words in this manner was a sort of weakness with him, and many of his jests are recorded. At first the Pope permitted him to undertake the conversion of those heathen; but when he had journeyed three days towards Britain, the Pope sent a messenger after him, because his fame was already so great that  p44 the people murmured and cried out, saying that without Gregory Rome was lost. So he returned, and soon afterwards he was made a cardinal deacon, and was then sent as nuncio, or ambassador, to Constantinople, where the Emperor Tiberius the second was reigning, to whose grandson Gregory stood godfather; and there he remained long enough to write his work of Morals upon Job, 'in such a manner as to reduce into one body the most excellent principles of morality.' In the year 584 he was recalled, and resumed his tranquil monastic life, of which many anecdotes are told. The Pope died in 590, in the great pestilence, and the clergy, the Senate, and the Roman people chose Gregory to be his successor; but in those days it was the custom to consult the emperor about the election of a Pope, and Gregory wrote many letters to Constantinople, imploring that his own election might not be approved. The prefect of Rome intercepted them all, and wrote very strongly requesting the imperial approval. During the pestilence Gregory publicly prayed with the people, walking in procession and singing a solemn Kyrie, and while he walked through the streets four score of those who went with him fell dead of the plague. When he learned that his letters had not been delivered, he tried to escape from Rome, lest he should be made Pope, and in order to elude the guards at the gates he had himself carried out in a wicker basket, and lay three days  p45 hidden in the woods. But he was found and brought back with great joy and acclamation, and he was consecrated, and made profession of faith at the tomb of Saint Peter, which is called the Confession to this day.

Then, says the best of his biographers, he became the common father of the poor, relieving their necessities with such gentleness as to spare them the shame of receiving alms. He made them sit at his own table, and he made exact lists of them. As each month began he made distribution to all of corn, wine, lentils, cheese, fish, meat, and oil, and he appointed officers over districts and streets, whose duty it was to see that poor sick persons were fed and cared for. He redeemed captives taken by the Lombards, and for this purpose he even ordered the Bishop of Messina to break up and sell certain sacred vessels. He ordered the Bishop of Terracina to restore to the Jews their synagogue, which had been taken from them, saying that if they were to be converted, it should be done by meekness and charity.

He issued the same orders for the Jews of Sicily, as well as of Sardinia, and in his letters to his stewards he constantly inculcates the duty of dealing liberally with the farmers, and even of advancing money to them in bad times, to be repaid in small sums. Yet he was a man of undaunted courage, who could be hot in anger, and he said of himself that he tolerated long, but that  p46 when he had once determined to bear no longer, he would face any danger with delight.

With regard to Sicily and its administration, we find that Syracuse was still regarded as the natural and traditional capital of the island, and Gregory's vicar, the Subdeacon Peter, was established there. The first of the Pope's letters which has been preserved enjoins upon the Sicilian bishops to meet the vicar once a year, either in Syracuse or in Catania, for the discussion of important matters. The monasteries founded by him are believed to have been the following: Saint Herma, now San Giovanni degli Eremiti, in Palermo; San Martino, at the head of a valley not very far from the same city; Saint Maxim and Saint Agatha, called 'Mons Lucusianum'; Saint Theodore; Saint Hadrian; and the Praetorianum or Praecoritanum. With the exception of the first two, their sites are not positively known, and it will probably never be possible to determine them. The influence of these religious institutions, founded as they were by Gregory himself, may have been considerable, and they were most probably not subject to the papal vicar, but were under the control of the superior of the order, who resided in Rome, and occasionally conferred with the Pope himself.

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Saracen-Norman Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo

As for the Vicar Peter, he began by being Gregory's most trusted friend and servant in Sicily, but he was guilty of all manner of neglect, he tried his master's patience beyond the limit of endurance, and was ultimately  p47 removed from office. As a specimen of the Pope's manner of rebuke, it would be impossible to give anything better than the fragments which Mr. Hodgkin has selected and translated from the vast mass of Saint Gregory's letters; and when we remember that it was this Pope who first signed himself in all his letters, 'Servus servorum Dei,' the Servant of the servants of God, thereby inaugurating a custom which still survives, we cannot but be edified and interested by his manner of admonishing those in service under him, both with sarcasm and with earnest exhortations. He addresses his vicar politely as 'Your Experience,' when Peter had shown his signal lack of that quality, and as 'Your Anxiety,' when the slothful vicar had exhibited the most culpable indifference.

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A Sicilian courtyard

Professor Grisar, cited as a high authority by Mr. Hodgkin, has estimated that the whole Patrimony of the Church in Saint Gregory's time amounted to eighteen hundred square miles of land, and Mr. Hodgkin speaks of these possessions as, 'wide domains,' the revenue of which is calculated by Professor Grisar at three hundred thousand pounds sterling. I do not know how the estimate and the calculation were made, not being able to obtain a copy of the article from which Mr. Hodgkin quotes them; but there is a manifest discrepancy between the extent of the land and the large income supposed to be derived from it. As I have before said, the modern Brontë estate in Sicily is eighty  p48 miles in circumference. If the figure were a square, twenty miles on each side, the area would be four hundred square miles; if a circle, it would be considerably more than five hundred. Four or five such estates would therefore equal the 'vast domains' that composed the Patrimony of Saint Peter, and which were situated in Rome and its environs, in the country of the Sabines, in Picenum, in the neighbourhood of Ravenna, in Campania, Apulia, and Bruttii, in Gaul and Illyricum, in the islands of Sardinia and Corsica — and principally in Sicily. A little further calculation shows that an even distribution would give only one hundred and fifty square miles to each of the regions named, or an estate in each equal to about one-third of the Brontë property. Moreover, the revenue calculated would amount to one  p49 hundred and sixty-six pounds sterling per average square mile, or five shillings per acre, roughly, which, at three and a half per cent, a very high estimate, would make the land worth over eight pounds an acre in the year 600; which is impossible, especially as much of the property lay in half-civilized regions. If, on the other hand, we suppose that Professor Grisar, cited by Mr. Hodgkin, meant eighteen hundred miles square, instead of eighteen hundred square miles, we should have an area much larger than the whole of Europe. There is, therefore, some radical mistake in the estimate or in the calculation, or in both, which renders them quite useless as a basis of argument. Of the figures given, that of the income actually enjoyed by the Pope is by far the most probable, from whatever sources the revenue may have been derived; and the conclusions drawn by Mr. Hodgkin are just, namely, that the care of such a property must have been a heavy burden on the shoulders of an ascetic Pope, and that the expenditure, as well as the receipt, of the large income derived from the Papal Patrimony imposed severe labour on so conscientious a steward of his wealth as Pope Gregory.

There was less difference between the position of the agricultural classes in Pope Gregory's day and that which they occupied under the Roman Empire, or even under the Republic, than might be supposed, considering the long time that elapsed; but it was during this  p50 first time of papal influence that the population began to be divided into three classes, namely, the clergy, the nobility, and the common people; and the clergy stood between the whole country and the spasmodic government of Constantinople, to protect the one and restrain the other. It was largely because the bishops of that period were truly the shepherds of their flocks, at a time when the officers of the Empire deserved, not unjustly, to be compared to wolves, that the Church acquired that direct influence throughout the country, and won that almost passionate affection of the poor, which she preserved through so many centuries, and has not even yet wholly lost in the south, whatever may be said to the contrary. This position of the bishops is chiefly traceable to the efforts of Pope Gregory, and even Gibbon's sarcasms have not shaken the honourable position he occupies in history. That he succeeded, as he did, in improving the condition of the governed, was in part due to the dominating position he occupied in Rome; but it must not be forgotten that he was supposed to be subject to the emperor, to whom he expressed his wishes in the form of advice in matters of government and of recommendations in affairs that were personal. In a majority of cases the emperor had no choice but to act upon these expressions of the Pope's desires; but a very great amount of arbitrary power was conferred upon the imperial commissioner, who was superior to the governor of Sicily himself, and over  p51 whom the Pope could only exercise a moral influence, not supported by any legal force. At all events, the position was such that the Pope could only restrain him indirectly, through the emperor himself; so that in case a good understanding was not maintained, it was possible for the commissioner to do much harm, before the Pope could hinder him, by the circuitous method which consisted in appealing to Constantinople. Yet such difficulties arose rarely, if at all, during the reign of the wise Gregory, and the rich south put out new blossom and fruit under his careful hand. The clergy, the nobility, and people lived peacefully under his paternal guidance, if not under his direct and sovereign rule, and the vast wealth began to accumulate which was erelong to fill the treasury of a new conqueror. When  p52 the Arabs destroyed Syracuse in 878 they took, with other booty, more than a million pieces of gold, which is said to have been the largest sum of money ever seized by them in any one city throughout all their conquests.

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Balcony at Taormina

Cultivation had become very extensive in Sicily, and individual estates were of enormous extent. One is mentioned which required no less than four hundred overseers, and with the Empire the custom of letting land to small tenants had arisen, as being more practical in some cases than that of cultivating a great estate for the owner's direct benefit, under the supervision of stewards; these small free tenants were called 'coloni,' and the word is used in its original meaning to the present day in Italy. Of the number and condition of the slaves at the time of Pope Gregory we know little, and are not likely to learn more. The free tenants were evidently a substitute for slaves, as a means of getting the greatest possible income from the land, and this fact alone goes to show that the number of slaves had diminished, and that their value had increased, so that it no longer paid the landholder to employ them. That there were still a number of slaves in Sicily, however, we know. We know also that the introduction of the 'Malvasia' grape took place in this period. Malvasia is a corruption of Monembasia, and has been further corrupted in English to 'Malmsey.' Monembasia is a harbour in the Peloponnesus, called in ancient times  p53 Epidaurus Limera, and a very close trading connexion existed between it and Sicily in the sixth century. Its sweet white grapes were the original stock whence descended those of which the good white wines of Sicily are made in our day, and there is not a farmer in the south who does not pride himself upon having a demijohn or two of the rich Malvasia wine ripening in a corner of his 'grotta' for some great occasion. Its flavour is like that of Malaga, and it has as much body, and often as fine a colour; but excepting where it has been made with great skill and patience, it is usually a coarser wine. From the same grapes the Marsala is made, and the principal peculiarity of the Malvasia is that in making it a certain quite of grapes are used which have been hung in a dry place till they are half dried, and as sweet as sugar.

While Justinian was discriminating between the relative demerits of a dozen heresies, and while his successors were in vain attempting to imitate what they only half understood; and while the wise and saintly Gregory was ruling the Church for the true advancement and benefit of the Empire, as well as of mankind, a man was growing up whose influence was to change the course of history and modify the lives of many millions. When Gregory was elected Pope in 590, Mohammed was twenty years of age. Two hundred years later the Mohammedan Arabs destroyed Syracuse, and made themselves masters of the south.  p54 That period of two centuries, therefore, embraces the first preachings of Mohammed, who began to propagate his doctrines about the year 610, when he gave out that the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to him, declaring those truths which he was to reveal to men. Twelve years later, after converting his family and many other persons to the belief that he was the messenger and prophet of God, he fled before persecution to Yatreb, and thence to Medina, and the date of his escape and flight was the beginning of the Mohammedan era. Seated high upon his swift camel, and wrapped in his Arab blanket, fleeing by night with a few faithful followers, the delicate, red-haired, pale-faced young man was far from dreaming that he too, like his divine predecessor, had brought not peace but a sword into the world; or that the near descendants of those whom his converts were set soon to convert should snatch an empire from the midst of a world which, in his own childhood, had been governed by such men as the Emperor Justinian and the Pontiff Gregory. It may be that the amazing progress of the Mohammedan religion was due to the wretched moral state of man in the East, that the natural force it possessed by the simplicity of the appeal it made to human passions was strengthened by the promises of unbounded satisfaction in a future which the Christian shudders to contemporary; it may be also that Christianity had not fulfilled its mission in those  p55 countries where Mohammedanism spread first and most rapidly. Between the death of Saint Gregory and the first descent of the Arabs upon Sicilian shores falls the war of the Images, than which no conflict could give a more precise notion of the condition of Christian worship in the East.

Saint Gregory, who was a practical pastor before he was an enlightened Pope, had declared that the presence in churches of pictures and statues representing not only divine beings, but persons of holy life and death, was conducive to an historical knowledge of Christianity, by affording instruction to the many who could not read. In an age when ignorance of all letters was the rule, and when an overwhelming majority of believers were therefore called upon to accept instruction both in dogma and in history of their faith by word of mouth only, such a point of view as that of the great Pope was not only wise and practical, but seemed to be the only reasonable one. The early Christians had inveighed, with a violence paralleled only by that afterwards displayed by the Arabs, against the heathen idolatry; they had animated the images of Apollo, of Aphrodite, and of Athene with the spirits of devils in order to enjoy, in the destruction of senseless matter, the imaginary delights of vanquishing the Prince of Darkness in his stronghold. The first missionary bishop in Sicily, not yet strong enough to overthrow the oracle in his temple, was  p56 believed to have silenced him by secretly fastening a letter round the neck of his image. The fury of the Christians had never been directed against the images themselves, but always against the demons that were supposed to inhabit them. Never, from the earliest times, had the Christians exhibited that horror of a graven image which was an article of faith with the Jews, and which has remained one among strict Mohammedans. From the beginning the Christian slave was impelled to express upon the stone that covered his loved ones, the thought of that peace which is beyond all understanding; and, unlettered as he mostly was, his expression took the form of a rude image, of a symbol, of a mere sign. The simple faith which at first fulfilled its rites in caves, in subterranean quarries, and in the cellars of deserted palaces, rose to the surface and displayed itself in the upper air with a magnificence which was but the outward sign of mankind's approbation; then the mark grew to an inscription, the symbol to a halo, the rude outline of God's image to an exalted image of God himself. Above the dark catacomb wherein had been laid the torn bodies of martyred saints, and where the poor and the outcast had worshipped in hourly fear of death, but in the perpetual certainty of the life to come, — above those places of refuge and suffering rose the splendid cathedrals of a victorious and universal religion. And that religion, like Agag of old,  p57 lived in the illusion that the bitterness of death was past; it depicted its past sufferings and present triumphs with all the art which the times could command, it made light of future trials, and it believed that the millennium of the blessed was at hand.

Such was the condition of the Church in Sicily fifty years after Pope Gregory's death; and it came to pass that Mohammedans sailed up to Sicily out of the southeast, and made a furious raid upon the island, and took much spoil. So strong were the adherents of the new faith become in 652, the thirtieth year of their era. But they were not yet strong enough to conquer the south, in spite of Constantinople, and when they had fought with some imperial troops under the exarch himself, they seem to have yielded to the representations of Pope Martin the First, for they sailed away again to Asia, taking their booty with them, and a number of Sicilian prisoners, who settled in Damascus.

At that time, the emperor was that wretched Constans the Second, who sent the Exarch Olympius to Rome to murder Pope Martin, because the latter refused to accept the imperial opinion as an incontrovertible dogma. But Olympius was converted, and went with the Pope into Sicily against the Mohammedans, and died there of the plague. Then Constans accused the Pope of allying himself with the Arabs, and caused him to be brought from Rome to Messina, and thence to Constantinople, where the venerable pontiff was  p58 condemned to death, and dragged through the streets by the hangman, before he was sent to die in the Crimea.

Then Constans, having satisfied his thirst for vengeance, attempted to chastise the Mohammedans for their attack on Sicily, but was himself ignominiously beaten at sea, and retired to his own capital, which was distracted by schisms and cankered with seditions. At once restless, foolish, and unscrupulous, he conceived the idea of reëstablishing the Empire in Rome, since he could not reign peacefully in Constantinople; he would attack Benevento, crush the Lombard power in the south, conciliate the Pope, restore what had been, and make himself a reputation out of the rags of failure. He collected troops in Italy and Sicily. The Lombard Duke of Benevento had seized for himself the Lombard kingdom in the north, and reigned in Pavia, but his son defended the Duchy, some say by the miraculous help of Saint Barbatus, and put the unwarlike emperor to flight. Constans paused for breath in Naples, and then hastened on to Rome. In twelve days he had performed his devotions at the tombs of the saints and had stripped the city of its beautiful bronze statues, and of every bit of bronze and copper on which he could lay his hands.

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Saracen-Norman court
of the Capuchin Convent
at Amalfi

A new scheme had formed itself in his weak brain; he would establish the empire in Sicily, and make Syracuse his residence. He returned to Naples, and proceeded  p59 thence by land to Reggio. The western side of the south was ruled by Greek dukes, loyal to the Empire, from Gaeta to Naples, Sorrento, and Amalfi, and thence to Taranto; he reached Sicily unmolested by the Lombards, who had no fleet, and he established himself in Syracuse, its last and most despicable tyrant.

Five years he reigned there and ravaged the land that remembered Verres and was soon to be a prey to the Saracens. He seized property by violence, and raised more money by the legal extortion of exorbitant taxes; and when these could not be paid, the miserable debtors were sold into slavery. To fill the measure of his greed, he took the sacred vessels from the churches and convents when there was nothing else left to take.

Then a slave killed him, in the year 668. While he was washing himself in his bath with Gallic soap, the man Andreas — insulted, we know not how, past all bearing — laid hands upon the soap box, which was the only movable thing in the bathroom, and brought it down upon the emperor's head with all his might. Then he fled by an inner way. Either the soap box was very heavy, or the man was very strong, for the work was done, and the last tyrant of Syracuse lay dead on the marble floor. A few courtiers made a puppet-emperor of a certain Armenian, but the soldiers immediately rose and cut off his head, and sent it to Constantinople before the young Constantine the Third reached Sicily with his  p60 fleet. Having restored order he retired, and a Saracen fleet suddenly appeared before Syracuse. The Arabs once more plundered the city, carrying off to Alexandria all spoils of copper and bronze which Constans had brought from Rome. Then there was peace for a time, while Constantine reigned in his own city, and Sicily once more felt the beneficial effects of papal administration. Several Sicilians were popes within a few years; there was Agatho of Palermo, and Leo the Second, also a Sicilian, and there was the Thracian Conon, who had been brought up in Sicily, and Sergius the First, of Palermo, who refused to sign certain articles approved by a council in Constantinople. The emperor, who was then Justinian the Second, sent an officer to Rome to arrest Sergius; but the militia of Ravenna came to the rescue, and the poor Byzantine officer, in fright for his life, took refuge under the Pope's own bed, and was allowed to escape unhurt. The Church was strong enough to defy the emperor now.

Then came the conflict about the use of images, of which the result was to establish the supremacy of the popes in Rome. I have already said enough to explain the view held regarding images in Italy. In the year 717 the Emperor Leo the Isaurian ascended the throne of Constantinople. Animated by a spirit of reform, but unable to understand that the Church's real danger lay in the theological dissensions which continually distracted Constantinople and the East,  p61 he decreed that all images and pictures should be removed from churches throughout the Empire. A more unwise measure could hardly have been adopted, or one more certain to rouse a storm of opposition in the Eastern and in the West. Had Christianity begun its career, like Mohammedanism, by prohibiting the representation of animate living things, there is no reason to suppose that its followers could ever have fallen into an abuse of symbolism or an excess of images. The Persian Mohammedans have departed from the law of the Prophet in regard to at least two points; they drink wine, and in their arts they depict both human beings and animals; yet they are not a nation of drunkards, and the images they paint and carve have little or no connexion with their faith. With Christians it was otherwise; their history was bound up with countless memories of individuals, and while it cannot rightly be said that the sum of their devotion was divided among many objects, yet, in their worship of those they supremely revered, their doctrine taught them of the constant presence of those who before themselves had died for the faith, of the nameless millions who waited for them on the threshold of heaven, worshipping with them and praying for them in the Communion of Saints, and most of all of those whom they themselves had known on earth and who were gone before to the place of refreshment, light, and  p62 peace. The Latin mind was never imaginative; the Greek intelligence had ceased to be; and to unimaginative minds some representation of the thing believed is all but necessary to belief. Half a lifetime spent among the people of the south has convinced me that, in spite of all that northern writers have said to the contrary, the Italian peasant never really confounds the image with the holy person, divine or human, whom it represents. He may call the image miraculous, and to those who do not understand his mode of expressing himself, it may indeed seem that he is attributing supernatural powers to the wood and stone; but a few questions asked in his own language and in terms comprehensible to him, will suffice to convince any fair inquirer that he looks upon the matter very differently. The souls of the departed blessed, he says, are in paradise; they may be moved by prayer to intercede for man, and, as if retaining some of their earthly attributes, they may prefer that men should address them, when possible, in places which their lives and deaths, or their especial choice, may have more particularly indicated. The peasant who makes a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady at Pompeii, or of Saint Michael on Monte Gargano, speaks as if he were going to see the Mother of God, or the Archangel, in their bodily reality; but in real truth he goes to places which he believes they have especially chosen, with  p63 the hope of awakening his sluggish imagination by the sight of revered images and objects in the company of many of his fellows. To destroy those images, even when the places wherein they are preserved are not consecrated, would be to attack his right of stimulating his imagination in the manner most natural to him. If such an edict as that issued by Leo the Isaurian were proclaimed in the south to‑day, it would produce results that might surprise the world. It is no wonder that in the beginning of the eighth century it should have led to a revolution which established the independence of the temporal power of Rome for many centuries to come. Leo indeed published his edict, but Pope Gregory the Second solemnly declared in a papal bull that the emperor was not concerned in such matters and had no right to decide what belief should be held by the Church; and by way of enforcing theory by practice, he forbade his people in Rome and in Italy to pay taxes to the emperor. The latter retorted boldly by deposing the Pope, so far as a mere written declaration could accomplish such a momentous undertaking. Leo wrote his decree, but the whole militia of Naples and of Venice assembled without delay to protect the Pope. The emperor attempted to enforce his will with a fleet and an army, but the Italians stood by the Pope to a man, and the Lombards of the north took up arms in his defence. The emperor's troops were  p64 everywhere repulsed, and their leaders were put to death; the ancient factions and feuds of the Italian cities were forgotten, and the people united to fight side by side for the holy images. At Ravenna, which was the seat of the imperial exarchate, the fighting was long and fierce; the army of Leo was beaten on land and sought a fancied safety in the ships of the imperial fleet; but the people pursued them in small craft and fishing-boats and skiffs, and in a single day the river Po was dyed so deeply red with Byzantine blood that for six years the people would not taste of its fish. Failing in arms, the emperor made more than one attempt to assassinate his stout opponent; but the Pope was secure in the protection of his fellow-countrymen and thundered a general and major excommunication against his defeated adversaries. Gregory the Second could have assumed the reins of independent government had he chosen to do so; or perhaps Liutprand, the Lombard king, might have taken Rome for himself and reëstablished an Italian kingdom. But the skilful diplomacy of Gregory the Second turned his strong ally from the path of conquest on the one hand, and on the other, he did not choose to inflict useless humiliation upon his imperial adversary. The emperor's exarch was suffered to live unmolested in Ravenna, and to enjoy some outward semblance of a departed power. Having been beaten by sea and land, driven to an ignominious  p65 flight, and tacit­ly included under the ban of excommunication, Leo was nevertheless afterwards designated as Piissimus, the Most Pious, and Rome, liberated from imperial oppression, allowed herself to be ruled in the name of the emperors. And so the administration continued to be exercised until another pope crowned Charles the Great as first emperor of a new Western line.

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Entrance to Grotto Church
at Praia d'Aieta, Calabria

The result of the War of the Images was the final establishment of the temporal power; but in the changing chances of the times it came about that the south, or at least that part of it which was not controlled by the Lombard Duchy of Benevento, began to occupy a new position. The emperor had succeeded in confiscating the Patrimony of the Church in Calabria and in Sicily, which practically meant that the Sicilian Church was thenceforth to be controlled by the Patriarch of Constantinople, instead of by the Pope of Rome. In Sicily, and the south, the edict against images was enforced during more than a century, and Sicilian ecclesiastical writers speak with pride of the persecution suffered by their countrymen. Antiochus, governor of Sicily, and others who refused to submit to what they considered an heretical domination, were martyred in the Hippodrome, at Constantinople, in the year 766, with a cruelty that might have satisfied Nero. In 772, Jacob, Bishop of Catania, died a martyr's death; Methodius, of Syracuse, was scourged, and confined for  p66 seven years in a subterranean prison with two thieves, and when one of the latter died, the jailors refused to remove his body. But this same Methodius was freed at last, attained to great dignities, and ended his life as Patriarch of Constantinople. To punish them for their attachment to Rome, the unfortunate Sicilians were forced to pay taxes one-third higher than those levied upon the other subjects of the Empire. As if such misfortunes were not enough, Sicily was exposed to the raids of the Arabs, who as yet had not the power to conquer and hold the island, but who swarmed about it like wasps about a peach tree laden with sweet fruit, and against whom the Byzantine troops seem to have been well-nigh powerless; and it was not until the ninth century that the respectable people of Sicily followed the example of the Italians of Venice and Ravenna, and armed themselves, forming a regular militia for the general protection of the country.

The oppression suffered in consequence of the war of the holy images was not without interruptions. From time to time, when it was known that the Mohammedans were so near Constantinople as to paralyze the forces of the Empire at their centre, or when other circumstances produced a similar state of things, the people of Sicily rose, under the leader­ship of a discontented Byzantine general, or a disaffected governor. It was the last of those insurrections that led directly to the Mohammedan conquest. Before that took place,  p67 however, another event happened which produced results of the greatest importance to history. Gregorius Asbesta, Bishop of Syracuse, quarrelled with Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and in the course of the conflict won the friendship of the celebrated theologian Photius, who was the emperor's favourite. Ignatius appealed to the Pope, who took his side, and condemned both Photius and Gregorius Asbesta. Thereupon the emperor deposed Ignatius, and made Photius patriarch in spite of the Pope, causing him to be consecrated by Gregorius. The Pope and Photius then disagreed upon the dogmatic point of the Procession of the Holy Ghost, Photius declaring that the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father alone, while Pope Nicholas the First maintained the Catholic belief embodied in the words of the Creed, 'proceeding from the Father and the Son.' The result of this disagreement, after a prolonged struggle in which Photius was alternately condemned and rehabilitated, was the great schism of the East and West, that divided the so‑called Greek Orthodox Church forever from the Roman Catholic. Few persons remember that a Sicilian bishop was the original cause of difference.

It must not be forgotten that there were now two Empires, and that the vast conquests of Charlemagne, which outdid in extent those of Julius Caesar, had not included Sicily. The separation of the island from Rome was finally accomplished, and it remained attached  p68 to the tottering Empire of Constantinople, until it pleased the Saracens to take it for themselves. It was included in the same military 'thema,' or circuit, as we may say for lack of a better word, with Calabria and Naples, and the boundary that separated the two Empires was that which for a long time had divided the Duchy of Benevento from the small Greek Duchies that followed the western coast of Italy, from Gaeta to Reggio. The value of this region to Constantinople was twofold; its agricultural wealth made it a most valuable possession, though one not easy to keep, and it served as a basis for attempts at regaining influence in the west. Charlemagne, who never meant to reside in Rome, was not willing to renew his quarrel with the east for the sake of giving back to Rome her ancient granary. Had he chosen to seize Sicily, he could have done so, of course, and if he had taken it, and had unified it with Italy under a good government, the subsequent history of the Holy Roman Empire might have been very different. The popes did not cease to exert their influence to bring about such a result, in the hope of recovering some of their best possessions; but every effort was in vain, and the separation was complete. It was soon to be made still more irrevocable by the Mohammedan conquest of the south. From the very earliest times there seems to have been something fated in the division of Italy into north and south, which more than sufficiently accounts  p69 for the hereditary ill-feeling that still exists between the two.

At the close of this period of southern history in the early part of the ninth century, the Byzantine Empire was in possession of the great island and of the western side of the mainland, a great part of which, however, enjoyed more independence than Sicily itself. The east side, from some point north of Benevento to the Gulf of Taranto, was a single Lombard Duchy, comprising the rich lands and pastures of Apulia and Lucania, and the Lombard Dukes threatened to annex Naples. At this time, about two hundred years after the Hejira, the Mohammedan dominions extended from the borders of India, through Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and Northern Africa, to the straits of Gibel-el‑Tarik, or Gibraltar, and Spain. The conquest of those countries had continued without interruption since the days of Mohammed, and though the Mohammedans were supposed to live under one sovereign, the Khalif of Bagdad, they had, in fact, founded a number of perfectly independent kingdoms, united only in their hatred of Christianity, but sometimes at war with each other, especially in Africa. Perhaps no one of them would have been a match for Constantinople in a regular naval war at that time, but as the Mohammedans were practically masters of the sea, and collected their pirate vessels from time to time in small but active fleets, they were able  p70 to concentrate enough ships and men at any point from Gibraltar to the shores of Asia Minor to bid defiance to the scattered navy and unready soldiers of the Empire. Their conquest of Sicily and of the south was not an isolated action, but formed a part of their national career, and it was to be foreseen that they must succeed in the enterprise with no great loss to themselves, as soon as they should choose to attempt it seriously.

Thayer's Notes:

a Agathias, Histories, I.16, p47 of the Bonn edition.

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b The story is found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, II.I, with two more puns following the famous one.

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