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Book V
Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

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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Book V
Note B

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter X

The Relief of Rimini


Sources: —

Procopius, De Bello Gotthico, II.11‑18 (pp191‑217).

538 The utter failure of the Gothic enterprise against Rome did not, as might have been expected, immediately bring about the fall of Ravenna. Unskilful as was the strategy of the Ostrogoths, there was yet far more power of resistance shown by them than by the Vandals. In three months the invasion of Africa had been brought to a triumphant conclusion. The war in Italy had now lasted for three years, two more were still to elapse before the fall of the Gothic capital announced even its apparent conclusion.

Desultory warfare of the next two years. These two years were passed in somewhat desultory fighting, waged partly in the neighbourhood of Milan and partly along the course of the great Flaminian Way. Leaving the valley of the Po for the present out of our calculations, we will confine our attention to the long struggle which wasted the Umbrian lands, traversed by The Via Flaminia. the great north road of Italy which bore the name of Proconsul Flaminius. It had been always an important highway. By it the legions of Caesar had marched forth to conquer Gaul, and had returned  p255 to conquer the Republic. The course of events in the fifth and sixth centuries which made Rome and Ravenna both, in a certain sense, capitals of Italy, gave to the two hundred and thirty miles of road between those capitals an importance, political and military, such as it had never possessed before.

General arrangement of the forces of the combatants. Notwithstanding some slight curves, we may think of this road as running due north and south, since Ravenna is in almost precisely the same longitude as Rome: and at the point of the history which we have now reached the fortresses to the right of it are for the most part in the hands of the Emperor's generals, while nearly all those on the left are held for the Gothic King. This was the manner in which the latter disposed of his forces. At Urbs Vetus, the modern Orvieto, were 1000 men under the command of Albilas. At Clusium,1 that tomb of old Etruscan greatness, 1000 under Gelimer. At Tuder, now Todi, which also still preserves the memory of Etruria by its ancient walls, there were 400 Goths under Uligisalus. Fiesole, which from her high perch looks down upon Florence and the vale of Arno, was another Gothic stronghold, but we are not told by how many men it was occupied. Osimo, which similarly overlooks Ancona and the Hadriatic, was held by 4000 picked troops under Wisand,2 and here, the advance  p256 of Belisarius was to be checked by a more stubborn resistance than was maintained by any of the other Gothic garrisons. At Urbino were stationed 2000 Goths under Morras. Mons Feletris (the high rock of S. Leo and the original capital of the mediaeval principality of Montefeltro)3 was occupied by 500 Goths, and Cesena by the like number. All of these places were high city-crowned hills of the kind with which not only the traveller in Italy but the student of pictures painted by the Umbrian masters is so familiar. They all bring back to the memory of an Englishman those graphic lines of Macaulay, —

'Like an eagle's nest

Perched on the crest

Of purple Apennine.'

Such were the Gothic strongholds.

On the other side the Romans held Narni, Spoleto, Perugia, and, across the central mountain-chain, Ancona and Rimini.

A glance at the map will show how the combatants were ranged, as if for one vast pitched battle, along the line of the Flaminian Way: and the reader will not fail to notice the outlying posts held by each party: Orvieto, within seventy-four miles of Rome, garrisoned by Goths; Rimini, within thirty-three miles of Ravenna, garrisoned by Romans. If we may be permitted to take a simile from chess, each player has one piece pushed far up towards the enemy's line, threatening to cry check to the king, but itself in serious danger if not strongly supported.

Belisarius recalls John from Rimini. Belisarius had no mind to leave his piece so  p257 dangerously advanced. By a brilliant display of rashness, and it must be added of insubordination, John, with his 2000 Isaurian horsemen, had advanced to Rimini; and now the commander-in‑chief, wanting the Isaurians for other service, ordered them to withdraw from that perilous position. Summoning his son-in‑law Ildiger, and Martin (the veteran of the Vandal war and the sharer in the flight of Solomon), who had come out with the recent reinforcements to Italy, he put 1000 horsemen under their command and gave them a commission to take his orders to John. These orders were that he should withdraw with all his troops from Rimini, leaving in it a small garrison of picked soldiers drawn from the too numerous defenders of Ancona, which had been taken possession of by Conon at the head of his Thracians and Isaurians. The very smallness of the garrison at Rimini would, Belisarius hoped, induce the Goths to pass it by unmolested; while, on the other hand, two thousand cavalry soldiers, the flower of the Isaurian reinforcements, would offer a tempting prize to the enemy, to whom they would, if left at Rimini, soon be compelled to surrender by shortness of provisions.

Ildiger and Martin on the Flaminian Way. Ildiger and Martin, whose watchword was speed, soon distanced the barbarian army who were marching in the same direction, but who were an unwieldy host, and were obliged to make a long circuit whenever they came near a Roman fortress. Probable stages of their journey. As many of our actors have to traverse the same Flaminian Way in the course of the next few years, it may be well briefly to describe the journey of these two officers, though assuredly they, in their breathless haste, took not much note of aught beside castles and armies.

 p258  First day: up the Tiber valley. Issuing forth from Rome by the Flaminian Gate (Porta del Popolo), and after two miles' journey crossing the Tiber by the Ponte Molle, they would keep along the high table-land on the right bank of that river til they reached the base of precipitous Soracte —

'Not now in snow,'

but which

'from out the plain

Heaved like a long-swept wave about to break,

And on the curl hung pausing.'4

Soon after Soracte was left behind, they would pass through the long ravine-girdled street of Falerii (near Civita Castellana), and then at Borghetto, thirty-eight miles5 from Rome, would cross the Tiber again and strike into the Sabine hills. The town, which is called in inscriptions 'splendidissima civitas Ocricolana,' now represented by the poor little village of Otricoli,a at a distance of forty-five miles from Rome, might possibly receive them at the end of their first day's journey.

Second day: in the valley of the Nar. Next day they would fairly enter the old province of Umbria,6 exchange greetings with the friendly garrison of Narni, high up on its hill, and gaze down on the magnificent bridge of Augustus, whose single remaining arch stands so proudly in the ravine through which Nar's white waters are rolling. Perchance on a still summer's day they might hear the roar of the cascades of Velinus as they rode out from the city of Interamnia (Terni). The second day's journey of forty  p259 miles would be ended as they wound up the hill of Spoleto and entered the strong fortress built upon its height by King Theodoric. They are still mounting up the valley of the sulphurous Nar, and are now in the heart of what was formerly one of the most prosperous pastoral regions of Italy. The softly-flowing Clitumnus, by which perchance Virgil once walked, viewing with a farmer's admiring eye the cattle in its meadows,7 accompanies them when they start on their next day's journey, and they pass almost within sight of Mevania, which, like Clitumnus, nourished the far‑famed milk-white oxen that were slain for sacrifice on Rome's great days of triumph.8

Third day: up the Topino and across the Apennines. On this their third day's march they would pass the low‑lying city of Fulginium, now Foligno. They might look down the valley of the Topino, past the hill on which now stand the terraced sanctuaries of Assisi, to the dim rock where the stronghold of Perugia was held by the faithful soldiers of the Emperor. But their course lies up the stream in a different direction. It is here that they begin to set themselves definitely to cross the great chain of the Apennines, whose high peaks have long been breaking the line of their northern horizon. Past the city and market which bore the name of the great road-maker Flaminius,9 they ride,  p260 ascending ever, but by no severe gradient, till they reach the upland region in which Nucera, Tadinum, Helvillum10 are situated, and see rising on their left the sharp serrated ridge at the foot of which, on the other side, lies the ancient Umbrian capital of Iguvium.11 They are now breathing mountain air, and, if it be now the month of June, the snow is still lingering in patches on the summits of the Apennines; but the road is good, and easily passable everywhere, even by a large and encumbered army. And here, it may be on the summit of the pass just beyond the place12 where the waters divide, these flowing southwards to the Tiber, those northwards and eastwards towards the Adriatic, our horsemen end their day's journey; a long and toilsome one, for we have supposed them to travel on this day fifty‑six miles. At the place where they halt for the night there is a posting station,13 with a sword for its sign.14 This sign might have been of prophetic import, for here probably, upon the crest of the Apennines, on the site of the modern village of Scheggia, was fought, fourteen years later, the decisive battle between the chosen Gothic champion and the lieutenant of the Byzantine Emperor.

Fourth day: battle of Petra Pertusa. The fourth morning dawns, and the flying column must be early in their saddles, for they suspect that there is tough work awaiting them to‑day. Down through the narrow gorge of the Burano, over at least one bridge whose Roman masonry still endures to our  p261 own days,b they ride for two hours till they reach the fair city of Cales,15 situated on the flanks of the precipitous Monte Petrano. And now at last, at the station which goes sometimes by the name of Intercisa, sometimes by that of Petra Pertusa,16 and which is twenty-three miles from their morning's starting-point, they find their onward course checked, and recognise that only by hard fighting can they win through to bear the all‑important message to Rimini. For what happened at Intercisa we need not draw upon our imaginations, since we find ourselves here again under the guidance of Procopius. This is his description of Petra, a description evidently the result of personal observation: —

Procopius' description of Petra Pertusa (Passo di Furlo). 'This fortress was not built by the hands of man, but was called into being17 by the nature of the place, for the road is here through an extremely rocky country. On the right of this road runs a river, fordable by no man on account of the swiftness of the current. On the left, near at hand, a cliff rises, abrupt and so lofty that if there should chance to be any men on its summit they seem to those at its base only like very little birds. At this point, long ago, there was no possibility of advance to the traveller; the rock and river between them barring all further progress. Here then the men of old hewed out a passage through  p262 the rock, and thus made a doorway into the country beyond. A few fortifications above and around the gate turned it into a natural fortress of great size, and they called its name Petra [Pertusa].'

Present appearance of the Tunnelled Rock. The slight additional fortifications which the place received from the hand of man have disappeared, but the natural features of the Passo di Furlo18 — so the passage is now called — precisely correspond to this description of Procopius. Coming from Cagli on the south, one enters a dark and narrow gorge, as grand, though not as long, as the Via Mala in Switzerland, and sees the great wall of rock rising higher and higher on the left, the mountain torrent of the Candigliano foaming and chafing angrily below. At length, when all further progress seems barred, the end of a tunnel is perceived; we enter, and pass for 120 feet through the heart of the cliff. Emerging, we find the mountain pass ended: we see a broad and smiling landscape before us, and looking back we read upon the northern face of the rock the following inscription, telling us that the passage was hewn at the command of the founder of the Flavian dynasty, seventy‑six years after the birth of Christ: —

Imp · Caesar · Avg

Vespasianvs · Pont · Max

Trib · Pot · VII · Imp · XVII · P · P · Cos · VIII19

Censor · facivnd · cvravit

 p263  An inscription, probably of similar purport, over the southern end of the tunnel has been obliterated.

Of course to our generation, which has seen the St. Gothard and the Mont Cenis pierced by tunnels twelve miles in length, or even to the generation before us which beheld the galleries hewn in the rock for the great Alpine roads of Napoleon and his imitators, this work has nothing that is in itself marvellous. But when we remember that the Romans were unacquainted with the use of gunpowder, and consequently, as blasting was impossible, every square inch of rock had to be hewn out with axe and chisel, we shall see that there is something admirable in the courage which planned and the patience which accomplished so arduous a work.20

The conflict. Before this mountain gateway, additionally fenced  p264 and guarded by some few towers and battlements, and provided with chambers for the accommodation of the sentinels, Ildiger and Martin, with their thousand travel-stained horsemen, appeared and summoned its garrison to surrender. The garrison refused: and for some time the Roman horsemen discharged their missiles to no purpose. The Goths attempted no reply, but simply remained quiet and invulnerable in their stronghold. Then the Imperialist troops — among whom there were very probably some sure-footed Isaurian highlanders — clambered up the steep hill-side and rolled down vast masses of rock on the fortress below. Wherever these missiles came in their thundering course they knocked off some piece of masonry or some battlement of a tower. In the tunnel itself, the Goths would have been safe even from this rocky avalanche: but they were in the watch-towers, and it was perhaps too late to seek the tunnel's shelter. The Goths surrender. Utterly cowed, they stretched forth their hands to such of the Imperialist soldiers as still remained in the roadway, and signified their willingness to surrender. Their submission was accepted. They promised to become the faithful servants of the Emperor, and to obey the orders of Belisarius. A few, with their wives and children, were left as the Imperialist garrison of the fortress: the rest appear to have marched under the banner of their late assailants onward to Rimini. Petra Pertusa was won, and the Flaminian Way was cleared, from Rome to the Hadriatic.

Journey continued down the valley of the Metaurus. If there was yet time the successful assailants would probably push on in order to spend the night in comfortable quarters at Forum Sempronii. It is a journey  p265 of nine miles down the broadening valley of the Metaurus. To every loyal Roman heart this is classic ground, for here Livius and Nero won that famous victory over Hasdrubal, which saved Italy from becoming a dependency of Carthage. One of the high mountains that we have passed on our left bears yet the name of Monte Nerone in memory of the battle.c What more immediately concerns the soldiers of Justinian is that the side valley, the mouth of which they are now passing, leads up to Urbino, thirteen miles off, and that Morras with his 2000 Goths holds that place for Witigis. But the barbarians seem to be keeping close in their rock-fortress, and without molestation from their foraging parties, Ildiger and Martin reach the friendly shelter of Forum Sempronii. This place, of which there are still some scanty ruins left about a mile from its successor and strangely disguised namesake, Fossombrone, was in Roman times an important centre of trade and government, a fact which is vouched for by the large collection of inscriptions now preserved at the modern city.21

Fifth day: they reach Fano on the Hadriatic. Next day, the fifth of their journey according to our calculations, the horsemen would travel, still by the banks of the Metaurus and under the shade of its beautiful groves of oak. Sea‑breezes and a touch of coolness in the air warn them that they are approaching the Hadriatic; but still, if they look back over the route which they have traversed, they can see the deep cleft in the Apennine wall caused by the gorge of Petra, a continuing memorial of the hard-fought fight of yesterday. At the end of sixteen miles  p266 they reach the little city by the sea which bears the proud name of the Temple of Fortune (Fanum Fortunae). Its modern representative, Fano, still keeps its stately walls, mediaeval themselves, but by the quadrangular shape of their enclosure marking the site of their Roman predecessors: and we can still behold the Arch of Augustus, added to by Constantine, under which in all probability rode the horsemen of Ildiger.

Southwards from Fano the great highway runs along the seashore to Sena Gallica (Sinigaglia) and Ancona, which latter place is distant forty miles from the Fane of Fortune. The officers go southward to Ancona, and return from thence to Rimini. To Ancona the two officers proceed, turning their backs for a moment on Rimini. They collect a considerable number of foot-soldiers at Ancona, wend back with them to Fano, and then, turning northwards and passing through the little town of Pisaurum, traverse the forty-four miles which separate Rimini from Fano. They reach Rimini on the third day after leaving Ancona, the ninth (according to our conjectural arrangement of their journey) since their departure from Rome.22

View of Ariminum (Rimini). Rimini is now a tolerably bright and cheerful Italian city, with a considerable wealth of mediaeval interest. The great half-finished church (instinct with the growing Paganism of the early Renaissance), which bears the name of 'The Temple of the Malatestas,' and which shows everywhere the sculptured elephant, badge of  p267 that lawless house, everywhere the intertwined initials of Sigismund and his mistress Isotta, — the chapel in the market-place, where Saint Anthony of Padua, distressed that men would not hearken to him, preached to the silent congregation of the fishes,d — the house of Francesca da Rimini, where she read the story of Lancelot with her ill‑fated lover, and 'that day read no further,' — these are some of the chief spots hallowed by the associations of the Middle Ages.23 But the classical interests of the city are at least equally strong. Here, in the market-place, Julius Caesar sprang to harangue his troops after the passage of the Rubicon. Here is a fine triumphal arch of Augustus, perhaps somewhat spoiled by the incongruous additions of the Middle Ages, but still bearing on its two fronts, the faces, in good preservation, of Jupiter and Minerva, of Venus and Neptune. Above all, here still stands the Roman bridge of five stately arches spanning the wide stream of the Marecchia. Two slabs in the parapet of this bridge, which the contadino, coming in to market, brushes with his sleeve, record, in fine and legible characters, that the bridge was begun in the last year of Augustus and finished in the seventh year of Tiberius. Below the parapet, on the centre-stones of the arches, are yet visible the Augur's wand, the civic wreath, the funeral urn, and other emblems attesting the religious character of the rites with which the Imperial bridge-maker (Pontifex Maximus) consecrated his handiwork.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Tiberius' bridge in 1997: the face towards the Adriatic.

Photo © William P. Thayer

 p268  John refuses to obey the orders of Belisarius. When Ildiger and Martin stood before John in the Praetorium at Ariminum and delivered the message of Belisarius, that general flatly refused to obey it. It is difficult to understand how John could have excused to himself such a violation of that implicit obedience which is the first duty of the soldier: but the one defect in the military character of Belisarius — a defect which parts him off from the general whom in many respects he so greatly resembles, Marlborough — was his failure to obtain the hearty and loyal co‑operation of his subordinate officers. There may have been a strain of capricious unreasonableness in his own character to produce this result: or it may have been due to the fact that he was too obviously guided in important affairs by the whims and the animosities of Antonina.

Whatever the cause, John refused to part with the 2000 horsemen under his command, or to evacuate Rimini. Damian also, his lieutenant, elected to abide with him. All that Ildiger and Martin could do was to withdraw the soldiers who belonged to the household of Belisarius, to leave the infantry brought from Ancona, and to depart, which they did with all speed.24

Rimini besieged by Witigis. Before long, Witigis and his army stood before the walls of Ariminum. The moveable tower. They constructed a wooden tower high enough to overtop the battlements and resting on four strong wheels. Taking warning by their experience at the siege of Rome, they did not, this time, avail themselves of oxen to draw their tower, but arranged that it should be pushed along by men  p269 inside, protected from the arrows of the foe. A broad and winding staircase inside — perhaps not unlike that which leads to the top of the Campanile of St. Mark's at Venice — enabled large bodies of troops to ascend and descend rapidly. On the night after this huge machine was completed, they betook themselves to peaceful slumber, making no doubt that next day the city would be theirs; a belief which was fully shared by the disheartened garrison, who saw that no obstacle existed to hinder the progress of the dreaded tower to their walls. Not yet, however, would the energetic John yield to despair. Leaving the main body of the garrison to guard the walls in their usual order, he secretly sallied forth at dead of night with a band of hardy Isaurians, all supplied with mattocks and trenching tools. Working with a will, but in deep silence, the brawny mountaineers succeeded, before daybreak, in excavating a deep trench in front of the tower: and, moreover, the earth which they had dug out from the trench being thrown up on the inside interposed the additional obstacle of a mound between the besiegers and their prey.25 Neither trench nor mound seems to have gone all round the city, but they sufficiently protected a weak portion of the walls, against which the Goths had felt secure of victory. Just before dawn the barbarians discovered what was being done, and rushed at full speed against the trenching party; but John, well satisfied with his night's work, retreated quietly within the city.

The tower found useless. At day‑break Witigis, who saw with sore heart-ache  p270 the hated obstacle to his hopes, put to death the careless guards whose slumbers had made it possible to construct it. He still determined, however, to try his expedient of the tower, and ordered his men to fill up the trench with fascines. This they did, though under a fierce discharge of stones and arrows from the walls. But when the ponderous engine advanced over the edge of the trench, the fascines bent under its weight, and the impelling soldiers found it impossible to move it further. Moreover, were even the trench surmounted, the heaped‑up mound beyond would have been an insuperable difficulty. As the day wore on, the weary barbarians, fearing lest the tower should be set on fire in a nocturnal sally, prepared to draw their ineffectual engine back into their own lines. John saw the movement, and longed to prevent it. He addressed his soldiers in kindling words, in which, while complaining of his desertion by Belisarius, he urged upon his men the thought that their only chance of seeing again the dear ones whom they had left behind, lay in their own prowess, in that supreme crisis of their fate when life and death hung upon a razor's edge.26 He then led nearly his whole army forth to battle, leaving only a few men to guard the ramparts. The Goths resisted stubbornly, and, when evening closed in, succeeded in drawing back the tower; but the contest had been so bloody, and they had lost in it so many of their heroes, that they determined to try no more assaults, but to wait and see what their ally, Hunger, whose hand was already making itself felt upon the  p271 besieged, would do towards opening the gates of Rimini.27

Narrow escape of the garrison of Ancona. Not long after the successful repulse of the Gothic attack on this Umbrian sea‑port, her rival the sea‑port of Picenum, Ancona, all but fell a prey to a similar assault. Witigis had sent a general named Wakim to Osimo with orders to lead the troops assembled in that stronghold to the siege of the neighbouring Ancona. The fortress of this city was very strong, situated probably on the high hill where the cathedral now stands,28 looking down on the magnificent harbour. But if the Roman castellum was strong, the town below it was weak and difficult to defend. Errors of Conon, commandant of Ancona. Conon, one of the generals of Isaurians recently despatched from Constantinople, either from a tender-hearted desire to protect the peaceful citizens, or from a wish to distinguish himself by performing that which seemed impossible, included not the fortress only but the city in his line of defence, and drew up his forces on the plain about half-a‑mile inland from the city. Here he professed to entrench himself, but his trench, says Procopius contemptuously, winding all round the foot of the mountain, might have been of some service in a chase after game, but was quite useless for war. The defenders of this line soon found themselves hopelessly out‑numbered by the Goths. They turned and fled towards the castle. The first comers were received without difficulty, but when the pursuing Goths began to be mingled with the pursued, the  p272 defenders wisely closed the gates. Conon himself was among those who were thus shut out, and who had to be ignominiously hauled up by ropes let down from the battlements. The barbarians applied scaling ladders to the walls, and all but succeeded in surmounting them. They probably would have succeeded altogether but for the effects of two brave men, Ulimun the Thracian and Bulgundus the Hun, the former in the body-guard of Belisarius, the latter in that of Valerian, who by mere chance happened to have recently landed at Ancona. These men kept the enemy at bay with their swords till the garrison had all re‑entered the fort. Then they too, with their bodies hacked all over, and half-dead from their wounds, turned back from the field of fight.

Procopius does not say what became of the city of Ancona, but it was probably sacked by the enemy.

Surrender of Goths at Tuder and Clusium. We hear but little of the doings of Belisarius while these events were passing.29 His scheme for gradually and cautiously reducing the district which lay nearest to Rome, before advancing northwards, was rewarded by the surrender of Tuder and Clusium. The four hundred Goths who occupied the former place and the thousand Goths in the latter surrendered at the mere rumour that his army was approaching, and having received a promise that their lives should be spared, were sent away unharmed to Sicily and Naples.

Fresh reinforcements from Constantinople. But now the arrival of fresh and large reinforcements from Constantinople in Picenum30 drew Belisarius,  p273 almost in spite of himself, to the regions of the Hadriatic, and forced him to reconsider the decision which he had formed, to leave the mutinous general at Rimini to his fate.

Narses the Eunuch. At the head of this new army31 sent forth from Constantinople was the Eunuch Narses, a man destined to exert a more potent influence on the future fortunes of Italy than even Belisarius himself. He was born in Persarmenia — that portion of Armenia which was allotted to Persia at the partition of 384 — and the year of his birth was probably about 478. As the practice of rearing boys for service as eunuchs in the Eastern Courts had by this time become common, it is quite possible that he was not of servile origin. But whatever his birth and original condition may have been, we find him in middle life occupying a high place in the Byzantine Court. After filling the post of Chartularius,32 or Keeper of the Archives of the Imperial Bed‑chamber, an office which he shared with two colleagues and which gave him the rank of a spectabilis, he rose (some time before the year 530) to the splendid position of Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi, or Grand Chamberlain. He thus became an Illustris,  p274 and one of the greatest of the Illustres, standing in the same front rank with the Praetorian Prefects and the Masters of the Soldiery, and probably, in practice, more powerful than any of those ministers, as having more continual and confidential access to person of the sovereign.33

Services at the ΝΙΚΑ riot, 532. It has been already stated that in the terrible days of the insurrection of the Νικα the Eunuch Chamberlain rendered essential service to his master. While the newly proclaimed Emperor Hypatius was sitting in the Circus receiving the congratulations of his friends and listening to their invectives against Justinian, Narses crept forth into the streets with a bag in his hand filled from the Imperial treasury, met with some of the leaders of the Blue faction, reminded them of old benefits of Justinian's, of old grudges against the Greens, judiciously expended the treasures in his bag, and finally succeeded in persuading them to shout 'Justiniane Imperator Tu vincas.' The coalition of the two factions was dissolved and the throne of the Emperor was saved.

Motive of the Emperor for sending Narses to the seat of war. This then was the man, hitherto versed only in the intrigues of the cabinet, or at best in the discussions of the cabinet, whom Justinian placed at the head of the new army which was sent to Italy to secure the conquests of Belisarius. What was the Emperor's motive in sending so trusty a counsellor but so inexperienced a soldier, a man too who had probably reached the sixth decade of his life, on such a martial mission? The motive, as we shall see, was not stated in express terms to the Eunuch: perhaps it was not  p275 fully confessed by the Emperor even to himself. But there can be little doubt that there was growing up in the Imperial mind a feeling that the splendid victories of Belisarius might make of him a dangerous rival for the Empire, and that it was desirable to have him closely watched, but not seriously hampered, by a devoted partisan of the dynasty, a man who from his age and condition could never himself aspire to the purple. Like an Aulic counsellor in the camp of Wallenstein, like the Commissioners of the Convention in the camp of Dumouriez, was Narses in the praetorium of Belisarius.

Council of war at Fermo. A great council of war was held at Firmum (now Fermo), a town of Picenum about forty miles south of Ancona and six miles inland from the Hadriatic. There were present at it not only the two chiefs Belisarius and Narses, but Martin and Ildiger, Justin the Master of the Soldiery for Illyricum, another Narses with his brother Aratius (Persarmenians like the Eunuch Narses,34 who had deserted the service of Persia for that of Byzantium), and some wild Herulian chieftains named Wisand, Alueth, and Fanotheus.35 The one great subject of discussion was, of course, whether Rimini should be relieved or left to its fate. To march so far northwards, leaving the strong position of Osimo untaken in their rear, seemed like courting destruction for the whole army. On the other hand,  p276 the distress of the defenders of Rimini for want of provisions was growing so severe that any day some terrible tidings might be expected concerning them. The opinion of the majority of the officers was bitterly hostile to John. 'By his rashness, his vanity, his avaricious thirst for plunder, he had brought a Roman army into this extremity of danger. He had disobeyed orders, and not allowed the commander-in‑chief to conduct the campaign according to his own ideas of strategy.' They did not say 'Let him suffer the penalty of his folly,' but the conclusion to be drawn was obvious.

Advice of Narses in favour of relieving Rimini. When the younger men had blurted out their invectives against the unfortunate general, the grey-headed Narses arose. Admitting his own inexperience in the art of war, he urged that in the extraordinary circumstances in which they were placed, even an amateur soldier might be listened to with advantage. The question presented itself to his mind in this way. Were the evil results which might follow from one or other of the two courses proposed, of equal magnitude? If Osimo were left untaken, if the garrison of Osimo were allowed to recruit itself from without, still the enterprise on that fortress might be resumed at some future time, and probably with success. But if Rimini were allowed to surrender, if a city recovered for the Emperor were suffered to be retaken by the barbarians, if a gallant general, a brave army were permitted to fall into their cruel hands, what remedy could be imagined for these reverses? The Goths were still far more numerous than the soldiers of the Emperor, but it was the consciousness of uniform disaster which cowed their spirits and prepared them for defeat. Let  p277 them gain one such advantage as this, so signal, so manifest to all Italy, they would derive new courage from their success, and twice the present number of Imperial soldiers could not beat them. 'Therefore,' concluded Narses, 'if John has treated your orders with contempt, most excellent Belisarius, take your own measures for punishing him, since there is nothing to prevent your throwing him over the walls to the enemy when once you have relieved Rimini. But see that you do not, in punishing what I firmly believe to have been the involuntary error of John, take vengeance on us and on all loyal subjects of the Emperor.'

Letter received from John. This speech, uttered by the most trusted counsellor of Justinian, and coming from one who loved the besieged general with strong personal affection, produced a great effect upon the council; an effect which was increased by the reading of the following letter, which, just at right moment of time, was brought by a soldier who had escaped from the besieged town and passed unnoticed through the ranks of the enemy.

'John to the Illustrious Belisarius, Master of the Soldiery.36

'Know that all our provisions have now long ago been exhausted, and that henceforward we are no longer strong enough to defend ourselves from the besiegers, nor to resist the citizens should they insist on a surrender. In seven days therefore, much against our will, we shall have to give up this city and ourselves to the enemy, for we cannot longer avert the impending doom. I think you will hold that our act,  p278 though it will tarnish the lustre of your arms, is excused by absolute necessity.'

Scheme for the relief of Rimini. In sore perplexity, Belisarius, yielding to the wishes of the council of war, devised the following almost desperate scheme for the relief of Rimini. To keep in check the garrison of Osimo a detachment of 1000 men were directed to encamp on the sea‑coast, about thirty miles37 from the Gothic stronghold, with orders vigilantly to watch its defenders, but on no account to attack them. The largest part of the army was put on ship-board, and the fleet, under the command of Ildiger,38 was ordered to cruise slowly towards Rimini, not out‑stripping the troops which were to march by land, and when arrived, to anchor in front of the besieged city. Martin, with another division, was to march along the great highway, close to the coast, through Ancona, Fano, and Pesaro. March of Belisarius across the mountains. Belisarius himself and the Eunuch Narses led a flying column, which was intended to relieve Rimini by a desperate expedient if all the more obvious methods should fail. Marching westwards from Fermo they passed through Urbs Salvia, once an important city, but so ruined by an onslaught of Alaric that when Procopius passed through it he saw but a single gateway and the remains of a tesselated pavement, attesting its former greatness.39 From thence they struck into the heart of the Apennines, and in the high region near Nocera  p279 descried the great Flaminian Way coming northwards from Spoleto.40 Accidental encounter with some Goths. Keeping upon this great highway they recrossed the Apennine chain, but before they were clear from the intricacies of the mountains, and when they were at the distance of a day's journey from Rimini,41 they fell in with a party of Goths who were casually passing that way, possibly marching between the two Gothic strongholds of Osimo and Urbino. So little were the barbarians thinking of war that the wounds received from the arrows of the Romans were the first indications of their presence. They sought cover behind the rocks of the mountain-pass, and some thus escaped death. Peeping forth from their hiding-places, they perceived the standards of Belisarius; they saw an apparently countless multitude streaming over the mountains — for the army was marching in loose order by many mountain pathways, not in column along the one high road — and they fled in terror to the camp of Witigis, to show their wounds, to tell of the standards of Belisarius and to spread panic by the tidings that the great general was on his march to encompass them. Terror in the camp of Witigis. In fact, the troops of Belisarius, who bivouacked for the night on the scene of this little skirmish, did not reach Rimini till all the fighting was over; but its Gothic besiegers expected every moment to see him emerge from the mountains, march towards them from the north, and cut off their retreat to Ravenna.

 p280  Appearance of the army of Martin, While the Goths were thus anxiously looking towards the north, suddenly upon the south, between them and Pesaro, blazed the watch-fires of an enormous army. These were the troops of Martin, who had been ordered by Belisarius to adopt this familiar stratagem, to make his line appear in the night-time larger than it actually was. and of the fleet. Then, to complete the discouragement of the Goths, the Imperial war‑ships, which indeed bore a formidable army, appeared in the twilight in the harbour of Rimini. Fancying themselves on the point of being surrounded, the soldiers of Witigis left their camp, filled as it was with the trappings of their barbaric splendour, and fled in headlong haste to Ravenna. Had there been any strength or spirit left in the Roman garrison, they might, by one timely sally, have well-nigh destroyed the Gothic army and ended the war upon the spot; but hunger and misery had reduced them too low for this. They had enough life left in them to be rescued, and that was all.

Successive arrival of the relieving columns. Of the relieving army, Ildiger and his division were the first to appear upon the scene. They sacked the camp of the Goths and made slaves of the sick barbarians whom they found there. Then came Martin and his division.42 Last of all, about noon of the following day, Belisarius and the Eunuch appeared upon the scene. When they saw the pale faces and emaciated faces of the squalid defenders of Rimini, Belisarius, who was still thinking of the original disobedience to orders which had brought about all this suffering, could not suppress the somewhat ungenerous taunt, 'Oh, Joannes! you will not find it easy to pay  p281 your debt of gratitude to Ildiger for this deliverance.' John attributes his deliverance to Narses. 'No thanks at all do I owe to Ildiger, but all to Narses the Emperor's Chamberlain,' answered John, who either knew or conjectured what had passed in the council of war at Fermo regarding his deliverance.

Thus were sown the seeds of a dissension which wrought much harm, and might conceivably have wrought much more, to the affairs of the Emperor.

The Author's Notes:

1 I must ask the reader to excuse some apparent inconsistency in my use of ancient and modern names. I prefer Clusium to Chiusi because 'Lars Porsena of Clusium' has made every schoolboy familiar with the former: but for the sake of Signorelli's frescoes and Francesca's death I prefer Orvieto and Rimini to the less easily recognised Urbs Vetus and Ariminum.

Thayer's Note: not only these names, and not only here, but pretty much thruout his book. I've found it disconcerting, and to the student new to these subjects, the inconsistency might well cause confusion. I've therefore made the distinction, although only where I felt clarification would be most welcome, by applying my usual Latin or Greek colors for ancient names, and a different color for modern names.

2 Probably the same as Wisandus Bandalarius, the hero of the battle by the Porta Pinciana  (p124).

3 See Dennistoun's Dukes of Urbino, I.71, where there is a striking view of this most peculiar cliff-fortress.

4 Childe Harold, IV.74, 75.

5 These distances are all given in Roman miles. The Roman mile is about eight per cent shorter than the English.

6 At this time forming part of Tuscia et Umbria.


'Hinc albi, Clitumne, greges et maxima taurus

Victima, saepe tuo perfusi flumine sacro,

Romanos ad templa deum duxere triumphos.'

(Georgic II.146‑148)


'And deck the bull, Mevania's bull,

The bull as white as snow.'

(Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome)

9 Forum Flaminii, now curiously metamorphosed into S. Giovanni in Forifiamma.

Thayer's Note: And today, even further, into S. Giovanni Profiamma.

10 Now Nocera, Tadino, Sigillo.

Thayer's Note: Nocera is often called Nocera Umbra to distinguish it from several other towns by the same name in various parts of Italy; and Tadinum's name today is Gualdo Tadino, sometimes just Gualdo, but never Tadino by itself: the first part of the town's name represents the German Wald = forest.

11 Now Gubbio.

12 Now called Casa di due Acque.

13 'Mutatio.' Ordinary travellers would choose a 'mansio' like that at Helvillum rather than a mere 'mutatio' to spend the night in.

14 Ad Ensem in the Tabula Peutingeriana. Corrupted into Ad Aesim in the Itinerary of Antoninus.

15 Its site was a little above its present representative Cagli, which was built in the thirteenth century (Mochi, Storia di Cagli, pp13 and 14). Cagli boasts a lovely picture by the father of Raphael.

16 Procopius generally calls it simply Petra: twice (vol. II pp609 and 636) Petra Pertusa.

17 More literally, 'was invented by the nature of the place' (ἀλλὰ τοῦ χωρίου ἡ φύσις ἐξεῦρεν).

18 The modern name Furlo, probably from forulus (mediaeval Latin for a sheath), Petra Pertusa (of Procopius), and Intercisa (of the Jerusalem Itinerary), all express the same idea, and may all be translated 'The Tunnelled Rock.'

Thayer's Note: forulum ("hole") has left a cognate in the modern Italian word for a hole, foro; and no, it's not related to forum.

19 There certainly appears to be a stroke after the consular VII, but the chronology requires VII not VIII. S. Mochi (p56) argues that the first I, which is an imperfect letter, has been added by a later hand.

20 According to S. Mochi, another much smaller tunnel, running nearly at right angles to that of Vespasian, was made by the Umbrians before their subjection to Rome. This is very possibly true, but Mochi's argument that it is proved by Procopius's language about 'the men of old' is not, I think, a sound one. The dimensions of this little tunnel (now almost or entirely concealed by a wall) are 26 feet long, 15 feet high, and 11 feet wide. The similar dimensions of Vespasian's tunnel are 125 feet of length, 17½ feet average width, and 17 feet average height. It is considerably wider and higher in the middle than at either end, and the northern end is somewhat lower and narrower than the southern. Mochi thinks that the Romans, before Vespasian's tunnel was constructed, carried the road round outside the rock on an artificial platform raised above the stream. [In July, 1886, a great mass of carbonised matter 100 metres square and in some places 70 centimetres thick was discovered in repairing the road near the Passo di Furlo. On examination it was found to consist of charred grain and pulse and it was believed to represent the commissariat stores of an army, possibly Imperial or Gothic, suddenly destroyed on the approach of an enemy. Opinione, 30 April, 1887, and Courrier Archéologique, Jan. 1887.]

21 In the Seminario. Some of them have a curious mixture of Greek and Latin characters.

22 Ἐνθένδε τε ἐς Ἀγκῶνα ἐλθόντες καὶ πολλοὺς ἀπαγαγόμενοι τῶν ἐκεῖ πεζῶν ἐς Ἀρίμηνον τριταῖοι ἀφίκοντο, τήν τε Βελισαρίου γνώμην ἀπήγγελλον. The τριταῖοι of course refers to their departure from Ancona. Eighty-four miles would be three good days' marches for the 'many foot-soldiers' by whom they were accompanied from Ancona.

23 For a full description of the architectural interests both of Rimini and Ancona I must refer my readers to Freeman's Historical and Architectural Sketches (1876, pp135‑156).

24 Οἱ δὲ τοὺς πεζοὺς αὐτοῦ ἀπολιπόντες κατὰ τάχος ἐνθένδε ξὺν τοῖς Βελισαρίου δορυφόροις τε καὶ ὑπασπισταῖς ἀνεχώρησαν.

25 An interesting passage, as illustrating the way in which fosse and agger were constructed in the great limitary works of the Romans in Britain and Germany.

26 Οἷς τὰ πράγματα ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἀκμῆς ὥσπερ ἡμῖν τανῦν ἵστανται. A Homeric simile borrowed by Procopius.

27 Soon after these events Procopius puts 'the end of winter and of the third year of the war' (May‑June, 538).

28 Not actually on the same spot as the cathedral, as it is generally thought that this replaces the Temple of Venus.

29 Possibly Procopius was himself shut up in Rimini at this time, but quitted it and joined Belisarius before the siege was raised.

30 Probably at Ancona, where they may have rescued the city from the troops of Wakim, but we are not expressly told this by Procopius.

31 The number of these reinforcements is not very clearly stated by Procopius, but it seems to have been 5000 men of various nationalities beside 2000 of the barbarous Heruli (De Bello Gotthico, II.13; p199).

32 We get this fact from Marcellinus Comes (s. a. 552): 'Justinianus . . . Narsem eunuchum Chartularium et Cubicularium suum principem militiae fecit. For the Chartularii Sacri Cubiculi Tres, see Böcking's Notitia Imperii (Orientis, 233; Occidentis, 293), and the passages there quoted from the Codes of Theodosius and Justinian.

33 See vol. I pp615‑6 for a sketch of the office of the Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi.

34 Narses' reception of these countrymen of his into the Imperial service is the first event of his career that is recorded (Proc. De Bell. Pers. I.12).

35 Procopius here interposes a long but interesting digression on the Heruli, whose savage habits and inconstant temper seem to have filled him with loathing and yet to have fascinated his gaze.

36 The superscription of the letter is conjectural.

37 Πόλεως Αὐξίμου σταδίους διακοσίους ἀπέχον. The distance seems too great.

Thayer's Note: The straight-line distance from Osimo to the coast is about 11.7 km, i.e., 63 stadia at the common reckoning of 8 stadia to the Roman mile. I wonder whether the earlier manuscripts of Procopius might have had a road distance of ο´ (70) which would easily have been read by a subsequent copyist as σ´ (200). It is certainly hard, at any rate, to watch a garrison vigilantly from thirty miles away.

38 Subordinate officers, Herodian, Uliares, and Narses the Less (brother of Aratius).

39 Urbs Salvia is represented by the modern village of Urbesaglia, near Macerata. It seems that the scanty Roman remains mentioned by Procopius have since disappeared.

Thayer's Note: Modern spelling, Urbisaglia. There are significant Roman remains, chief among them an amphitheater although in ruinous condition.

40 In strictness they had joined it at an earlier point: for the old Via Flaminia went from Nuceria through Septempeda to Ancona: but I adopt the later usage and keep the name for the main track leading northwards through Petra Pertusa to Fanum.

41 One may conjecture, not far from Fossombrone.

42 Procopius does not say this, but we may fairly conjecture it.

Thayer's Notes:

a Otricoli, one of my favorite places in Umbria, is a pretty small town, but I wouldn't qualify it — today — as a village. More importantly here, Hodgkin's condensed mention of the place might mislead: the old Roman town, Ocriculum, sits toward the Tiber on fairly flat ground, but the successor town of Otricoli is perched on a hill above it and about 1½ kilometers away, being largely built of stone quarried from the old site.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I put Otricoli in Umbria, but Hodgkin goes on in his next paragraph to say that only after the town is passed did Ildiger and Martin enter Umbria. Both are correct: the modern and ancient regions by no means coincide.

b There are as of writing (2020) at least five Roman bridges extant to varying degrees in the short stretch of the Via Flaminia between Scheggia and Cagli. I walked the traces of that road, to the extent possible, in 2000: I provide photographs of four of those bridges on two pages of my diary (August 7 and 9); the centuries have reduced the fifth to slight remains. I suspect the one Hodgkin has in mind is the best-preserved of those I photographed, a massive two-arched bridge at Pontedazzo, so here are some additional shots of it that will give a good idea of both landscape and masonry. So large and solid a bridge for so small a trickle of water reminds us that seasonally these mountain streams grow to sizable fast-flowing torrents; the Romans designed accordingly.

[image ALT: A narrow passageway between two hills seen in the background, with a mostly dry rocky riverbed threading its way thru it, which appears to be blocked by two low artificial stone structures. It is a view of a Roman bridge at Pontedazzo in the Marche (central Italy) — and a modern highway adjoining it — which is further captioned and discussed in the text of this webpage.]
[image ALT: In the foreground, the rocky bed of a small mountain stream, with just a trickle of water on one side, leading to an arched stone bridge traversing it; in the background, sharply rising forested hills. It is a view of a Roman bridge at Pontedazzo in the Marche (central Italy), captioned and discussed in the text of this webpage.]

[image ALT: An old structure of rather regular rectangular blocks of stone, in a wooded area of countryside; an archway can be seen. It is a view of a Roman bridge at Pontedazzo in the Marche (central Italy), captioned and discussed in the text of this webpage.]
[image ALT: A stone vault leading out to some trees. We are standing under a Roman bridge at Pontedazzo in the Marche (central Italy), captioned and discussed in the text of this webpage.]

While in my diary the bridge is only seen from the E, these three general views are all from the W; the first photo also shows on the left the modern highway SS3 "Flaminia", which twines back and forth across the trace of the Roman road. Both roads are constricted in different ways by the narrow gorge of the Burano.

The arch in the fourth photograph is the northern one.

[Each thumbnail clicks open to a larger image in a separate window.]

c Almost certainly a folk etymology. A much more forthright derivation of the Italian Nerone is from nero = "black" and the augmentative suffix ‑one = "big", very often found in geographical names in central Italy (Montone, Cimone, Ombrone, etc.); and the Nerone is indeed a big black hulk.

d Hodgkin has conflated two different miracles here. Saint Anthony is indeed reported to have preached to fish — at Rimini or maybe Ravenna or Padua — and in the market-place of Rimini there is indeed a chapel to the memory of the saint: but the chapel, see my page, commemorates his conversation with a donkey. The market-place, said to be on the site of the Roman forum, is not near the sea or any other body of water; any fish there would have been for sale on a table. (Both colloquies were in fact directed at heretics, but the saint, quite rightly in my opinion, judged that the animals would be more receptive.)

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Page updated: 17 Aug 20