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Book V
Note B

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.
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Book V
Note C

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter XI

Dissensions in the Imperial Camp


Sources: —

Procopius, De Bello Gotthico, II.12 and 18‑22 (pp195, 217‑235).

538 The party of Narses in the camp. The relief of Rimini greatly strengthened the party of Narses at the council-table of the Imperial generals. It was indeed the arm of Belisarius that had wrought that great achievement, but the directing brain, as John asserted, and as most men in the army believed, was the brain of the Imperial Chamberlain. Accordingly friends and flatterers of this successful amateur general gathered round him in large numbers, with their unwise yet only too gratifying suggestions. 'It was surely,' they said, 'beneath his dignity to allow himself to be dragged about, as a mere subordinate officer, in the train of Belisarius. When the Emperor sent a minister of such high rank, the sharer of his most secret counsels, into the field, he must have intended him to hold a separate command, to win glory for himself by his great actions, and not merely to help in gathering fresh laurels for the brow of the already too powerful Master of the Soldiery. The suggestion that he should himself be general-in‑chief  p284 over a separate army was one which would meet with ready acceptance from the bravest of the officers and the best part of the troops. All the Herulian auxiliaries, all his own body-guard, all John's soldiers and those of Justin, all the men who followed the standards of the other Narses and his brother Aratius, a gallant host amounting in all to fully 10,000 men, would be proud to fight under the deliverer of Rimini, and to vindicate for Narses at least an equal share with Belisarius in the glory of the recovery of Italy. An equal, or even henceforward a greater share; for the army of Belisarius was so weakened by the detachment of soldiers doing garrison-duty in all the towns from Sicily to Picenum, that he would have to follow rather than to lead in the operations which were yet necessary to finish the war. '

Belisarius summons a council of war. These insidious counsels, urged at every possible opportunity, bore their expected fruit in the mind of the Eunuch, elated as he was by his great success in the affair of remission. Order after order which he received from Belisarius was quietly disregarded, as not suited to the present posture of affairs; and the General was made to feel, without the possibility of mistake, that, though he might advise, he must not presume to command, so great a personage as the Praepositus of the Sacred Bed‑chamber. When Belisarius understood that this was really the position taken up by Narses he summoned all the generals to a council of war. His speech. Without directly complaining of the spirit of insubordination which he saw creeping in among them, he told them that he saw their views did not coincide with his as to the present crisis. The enemy, in his view, were still essentially stronger than  p285 their own forces. By dexterity and good-luck the Goths had hitherto been successfully out‑generalled; but, let them only redeem their fortunes by one happy stroke, the opportunity for which might be offered them by the over-confidence of the Imperial officers, and, passing from despair to the enthusiasm of success, they would become dangerous, perhaps irresistible. To the mind of Belisarius the present aspect of the theatre of war brought grave anxiety. With Witigis and thirty or forty thousand1 Goths at Ravenna, with his nephew besieging Milan2 and dominating Liguria, with Osimo held by a numerous and gallant Gothic garrison, with even Orvieto, so near to Rome, still in the possession of the enemy, and with the Franks, of old so formidable to the Romans, hanging like a thundercloud upon the Alps, ready at any moment to sweep down on Upper Italy, there was danger that the Imperial army might soon find itself surrounded by foes. He proposed therefore that the host should part itself into two and only two strong divisions, that the one should march into Liguria for the relief of Milan, and the other should undertake the reduction of Osimo and such other exploits in Umbria and Picenum as they might find themselves capable of performing. We are led to infer, though the fact is not expressly stated, that Belisarius offered to Narses and the generals of his faction the choice of undertaking independently either of these alternative operations.

Reply of Narses. When the speech of Belisarius was ended, Narses said curtly, and with little deference to the General's  p286 authority, 'What you have laid before us is doubtless true as far as it goes. But I hold that it is quite absurd to say that this great army is equal only to the accomplishment of these two objects, the relief of Milan and the reduction of Osimo. While you are leading such of the Romans as you think fit to those cities, I and my friends will proceed to recover for the Emperor the province of Aemilia [in other words, the southern bank of the Po from Piacenza to the Hadriatic]. This is a province which the Goths are said especially to prize. We shall thus so terrify them that they will not dare to issue forth from Ravenna and cut off your supplies, an operation which they are sure to undertake if we all march off together to besiege Osimo.'

Belisarius reads a letter from the Emperor. So spake Narses, and thus forced Belisarius to fall back on his Imperial commission, which gave him the supreme and ultimate responsibility for the movements of the whole army of Italy. That this authority was not impaired by recent changes was proved by a letter from the Emperor, which he read to the council, and which ran as follows:

'We have not sent our chamberlain Narses to Italy to take command of the army. For we wish Belisarius alone to lead the whole army, whithersoever it may seem best to him; and it behoves you all to follow him in whatsoever makes for the good of our Empire.'

Singular limiting clause in this document. So ran the letter of Justinian, which seemed at first sight entire to negative the claims of Narses to an independent command. But, as the Eunuch pointed out, a singular limitation was contained in the last clause, 'you are to follow him in whatsoever makes for the good of our Empire.' 'We do not think,' said Narses, 'that your present plan of campaign is for the  p287 good of the Empire, and therefore we decline to follow you.' The clause had possibly been introduced in order to guard against the contingency of Belisarius aspiring to the purple. Or perhaps, now as in the case of Odovacar's embassy to Constantinople, it seemed to the guiding spirits in the Imperial Chancery a stroke of statesmanship to put forth an ambiguous document which might be interpreted by each side according to its own inclination. The Empire by the Bosporus was already developing those qualities which we, perhaps unfairly, term Oriental.

Temporary compromise arranged. For the moment some kind of compromise seems to have been patched up. Peranius, with a large army, was sent to besiege Orvieto, which, from its nearness to Rome, was admitted by all to be a point of danger. Belisarius, with the rest of the army, moved off to attack Urbino, which was a day's journey to the south of Rimini. Narses and John, and the other generals of that party, followed or accompanied Belisarius; but when they came in sight of the city, the disaffected generals encamped on the west, leaving Belisarius and his adherents to sit down on the eastern side.

Siege of Urbino begun. Urbino, the 'Athens of Italy,' as she was called in the short but glorious summer of her fame, acquired imperishable renown under the rule of the princes of the house of Montefeltro3 in the fifteenth century. The influence exerted on Italian Literature by the fostering care of these princes is known to all scholars;  p288 but in the history of Painting the name of their little capital is of mightier meaning, since the utmost ends of the earth have heard the fame of Raphael of Urbino. Now, she is again not much more than she was in the days of Belisarius, a little bleak fortress looking forth upon the bare horizon of Umbrian hills, herself highest of them all. No river has she of her own, but is reached by a steep ascent of five miles from the fair valley of the Metaurus. This was the city to which in the autumn of 538, Belisarius sent ambassadors, promising all kinds of favours to the garrison if they would anticipate their inevitable fate by a speedy surrender. Strong in their belief of the impregnability of their fortress, in the good store of provisions which they had accumulated within its walls, and in the possession of an excellent spring of water, the garrison refused to surrender, and haughtily bade the ambassadors to depart from the gates immediately.

Narses and John march away from Urbino. Seeing that Belisarius was bent upon reducing the place, by a tedious blockade if that were needful, Narses and John decided to take their own course. John had slightly attempted Urbino before, on his first entry into Picenum, and had found it impregnable. Since then a much larger garrison and stores of provisions had been introduced. Why linger any longer on these bleak highlands, winter now approaching, and success well-nigh impossible? They broke up their camp on the west of the city, and marched away, intent upon their favourite scheme of the annexation of the Aemilia.

Operations of Belisarius. The garrison, seeing that half their enemies had marched away, flouted and jeered those who remained. The city, though it did not stand on a precipitous cliff  p289 like others of these Umbrian fortresses, was nevertheless at the top of an exceedingly steep hill; and only on the north side was the approach anything like level. On this side Belisarius proposed to make his attack. He ordered his soldiers to collect a quantity of trunks and boughs of trees, and out of these to construct a machine which they called the Porch.4 The trunks being fixed upright, and the boughs, perhaps still covered with leaves, being wattled together to form the sides, the machine, worked by soldiers within, was to be moved along the one level approach to the city, and the soldiers under its shelter were to begin battering at the wall. But no sooner had they reached the vicinity of the fortress, than, instead of being met by a shower of arrows, they saw the battlements thronged with Goths stretching out their right hands in the attitude of suppliants and praying for mercy. Urbino surrenders. This sudden change in the attitude of the garrison, lately so bent on resistance to the death, was caused by the mysterious failure of their one hitherto copious spring. It had for three days fallen lower and lower, and now, when the soldiers went to draw water, they obtained nothing but liquid mud. Without a spring of water defence was impossible, and they did wisely to surrender. The characteristic good-fortune of Belisarius had prevailed. Urbino was his, and some of its late defenders appear to have taken service in the Imperial army.

Cesena attempted by John. The news of the speedy surrender of Urbino brought not only surprise but grief to the heart of Narses, who was still quartered at Rimini. He urged John to  p290 undertake the reduction of the strong city of Cesena, twenty miles inland on the Aemilian Way. John took scaling ladders, and attempted an assault. The garrison resisted vigorously, slaying many of the assailants, among them Fanotheus, the King of the wild Herulian auxiliaries of the Empire. John, whose temper was impatient of the slow work of a siege, pronounced this, as he had pronounced so many other cities under whose walls he had stood, impregnable, and marched off for the easier exploit of overrunning the Aemilian province. Imola taken. The Aemilia overrun. The ancient city of Forum Cornelii (now Imola) was carried by a surprise, and the whole province was recovered for the Emperor, an easy conquest, but probably not one of great strategic value.

539 Osimo to be watched from Fermo. The winter solstice was now past, and the new year, 539, begun. The heart of Belisarius was still set upon what he knew to be the necessary task of the capture of Osimo; but he would not in the winter season expose his troops to the hardships of a long encampment in the open country while he was blockading the city. He therefore sent Aratius, with the bulk of the army, into winter quarters at Fermo, with orders to watch the garrison of Osimo and prevent their wandering at will over Picenum: Belisarius marches to Orvieto, which surrenders. and he himself marched with a detachment of moderate size to Orvieto, which had been for many months besieged by Peranius, and the garrison of which were hard pressed by famine. Albilas their general had long kept up their spirits by delusive hopes of coming reinforcements, but they were already reduced to feed upon hides steeped in water to soften them: and when they saw the standards of the mighty Belisarius under their walls, they soon surrendered at  p291 discretion. It was well for the Roman cause that the blockade had been so complete, for, to an assault, the rock‑built city of the Clanis would have been, in the judgment of Belisarius, quite inaccessible.5

It was now nine months since the raising of the siege of Rome. The progress of the Imperial arms since that time had not been rapid, but it had been steady. Rimini had been relieved, Urbino taken, the Aemilia re‑annexed to the Empire, Orvieto, that dangerous neighbour to Rome, reduced. Milan recovered by the Imperial troops after the raising of the siege of Rome. Now, however, in the early months of 539, the Imperial arms sustained a terrible reverse in the reconquest of Milan by the Goths. To understand the course of events which led up to this disaster, we must go back twelve months, to the early part of 538, shortly after the conclusion of the three months' truce between Belisarius and Witigis. The reader may remember that at that time Datius, the Archbishop of Milan, made his appearance in Rome, at the head of a deputation, entreating Belisarius to send troops to rescue the capital of Liguria from the barbarians. The General, perhaps unwisely, complied, thus in appearance committing the same faults, of advancing too far and extending his line of defence too widely, which he had blamed in the case of his subordinate John, when that officer occupied Rimini. After the siege of Rome was raised he sent one thousand troops to escort Datius back to his diocese. The little army was composed of Isaurians under Ennes, and Thracians under Paulus. Mundilas, whose Praetorium was sentinelled by a few picked soldiers from Belisarius's own body-guard, commanded the whole expedition, which was also  p292 accompanied by Fidelius, formerly Quaestor under Athalaric, now Praetorian Prefect of Italy under Justinian, and the most important civil functionary in the restored province.

April (?), 538 The expedition sailed from Porto to Genoa. There the soldiers left the ships, but took the ships's boats with them on waggons, and by their means crossed the river Po without difficulty. Battle of Ticinum. Under the walls of Pavia (Ticinum) they fought a bloody battle with the Goths, in which the Imperial arms triumphed. The fugitive barbarians were only just able to close the gates of their city in time to prevent it from being taken by the conquerors. It would have been an important prize; for Pavia, even more perhaps than Ravenna, was the treasury and arsenal of the Gothic monarchy. The exultation of Mundilas at his victory in the field was damped by the disappointment of not occupying Pavia, and yet more by the death of the Illustris Fidelius, who had tarried behind to offer his devotions in a church near the field of battle. On his departure, his horse fell with him: the Goths perceived his helpless condition, and sallying forth from the city slew the recreant official, whom they doubtless considered a traitor to the house of Theodoric.

Milan and all the surrounding towns garrisoned by Imperial troops. When the expedition arrived at Milan, the city, thoroughly Roman in its sympathies, surrendered itself gladly into their hands. Bergamo, Como, Novara, and other towns in the neighbourhood, followed the example of the capital, and were garrisoned by Roman troops. In this way Mundilas reduced his own immediate following in Milan to three hundred men, among whom, however, were his two capable officers, Paulus and Ennes.

 p293  Uraias the Goth sent to besiege Milan. On hearing of the defection of Milan, Witigis despatched a large army, under the command of his nephew Uraias, for its recovery. Uraias was one of the favourite heroes of the Gothic nation, as brave and energetic as his uncle was helpless and timid. He was the only enemy by which the re‑Romanised city was threatened. The Franks also appear upon the scene. Theudebert, King of the Franks, intent, as his nation used ever to be, on turning the calamities of Italy to profit, but not wishing at present openly to quarrel with the Emperor, ordered, or permitted, ten thousand of his Burgundian subjects to cross the Alps and to encamp before Milan, holding himself ready to disavow the action of the invaders should it suit his purpose to conciliate the Court of Byzantium.6 By these two armies, the Frankish and the Gothic, Milan was, in the spring months of 538, so closely invested that it was impossible to carry any food into the city. The little band of three hundred Thracians and Isaurians being quite inadequate to guard the wide circuit of the city-walls, Mundilas was forced to call upon the citizens themselves to man the ramparts.

Martin and Uliaris sent to relieve Milan. When Belisarius heard that Uraias had formed the siege of Milan, he sent two generals, Martin and Uliaris, with a large army, to relieve the beleaguered  p294 city. Martin had shared with Ildiger the perils of his bold dash through Umbria, and Uliaris had taken, apparently, a creditable part in the expedition for the relief of Rimini;7 but neither officer now behaved in a manner worthy of his former reputation. When they reached the river Po, they encamped upon its southern bank, and there remained for a long time timidly consulting how they should cross the stream.

Message from Mundilas to the loitering generals. A messenger despatched by Mundilas, Paulus by name,8 stole through the ranks of the besiegers, swam across the river, and was admitted to the tent of the generals. With burning words he told them that their delay was ruining the cause of the Emperor, and that they would be no better than traitors if they allowed the great city of Mediolanum, wealthiest and most populous of all the cities of Italy,9 her great bulwark against the Franks and all the other Transalpine barbarians, to fall into the hands of the enemy. The generals promised speedy assistance, a promise with which Paulus, returning by night through the ranks of the enemy, gladdened the hearts of his fellow citizens. But still they sat, week after week, in unaccountable  p295 hesitation, cowering by the southern bank of the great river.

John refuses to march to the assistance of Milan. At length, in order to justify themselves to Belisarius, they wrote him a letter saying that they feared their forces were insufficient to cope with the great armies of the Goths and Franks that were roaming through the plains of Liguria, and begging him to order John and Justin to march from the neighbouring province of Aemilia to their aid. Such an order was sent to those generals, who openly refused to obey any command of Belisarius, saying that Narses was their leader.

Narses gives way, but too late. In these wretched delays, the fruit of cowardice and of insubordination, more than six months must have passed from the first investment of Milan. At length Narses, having received a letter from Belisarius frankly setting before him the dangers which his insubordinate policy was preparing for the Empire, gave the required order. John began collecting boats upon the Venetian coast to enable the army to make the passage of the river, but was attacked by fever, apparently a genuine, not a feigned attack — and when he recovered, the opportunity was lost.

Mundilas treats for the surrender of Milan. For, in the meantime, the disgracefully abandoned defenders of Milan had been undergoing terrible privations. They were reduced at last to eat dogs and mice and such creatures as no man had ever thought of before in connection with the idea of food. The besiegers, who knew how matters stood with them, sent ambassadors, calling on Mundilas to surrender the city, and promising that the lives of all the soldiers should be preserved. Mundilas was willing to agree to these terms if the citizens might be included  p296 in the capitulation; but the enemy, indignant at the treachery of the Milanese, avowed that every one of them should perish. Then Mundilas made a spirit-stirring address to his soldiers, exhorting them to seize their arms and burst forth with him in one last desperate sally. He could not bear, by looking on, to make himself a partaker in the dreadful deeds which would assuredly be done against these unhappy subjects of the Emperor, whose only crime was having invited him within their walls. 'Every man,' said he, 'has his appointed day of death, which he can neither hasten nor delay. The only difference between men is that some meet this inevitable doom gloriously, while others, struggling to escape from it, die just as soon, but by a coward's death.10 Let us show that we are worthy of the teaching of Belisarius, which we have all shared, and which makes it an impiety for us to be anything else but brave and glorious in our dying. We may achieve some undreamed‑of victory over the enemy: and if not, we are nobly freed from all our present miseries.'

The city surrendered. The exhortation was in vain. The soldiers, disheartened by the hardships of the siege, could not rise to the height of the desperate courage of their leader, and insisted on surrendering the city to the Goths. The barbarians honourably observed towards the soldiers the terms of the capitulation, but wreaked their full vengeance on the wretched inhabitants of Milan. Terrible massacre of the citizens. All the men were slain, and these, according to the doubtless exaggerated estimate of Procopius, amounted to 300,000. The women were made slaves,  p297 and handed over by the Goths to their Burgundian allies in payment of their services. The city itself was rased to the ground: not the only time that signal destruction has overtaken the fair capital of Lombardy. All the surrounding cities, notwithstanding their Imperial garrisons, had to open their gates to the foe; but we do not read that they shared the same terrible fate. Liguria was once again part of the Gothic monarchy.

Reparatus and Cerventinus, brothers of Pope Vigilius. Reparatus, the Praetorian Prefect, and successor of Fidelius, fell into the hands of the Goths, and, not being included in the army's capitulation, was cut up by the barbarians into small pieces, which were then contemptuously thrown to the dogs. Cerventinus his brother — the two were also brothers of Pope Vigilius — had shared the flight of Reparatus from Ravenna. More fortunate than his brother, he now escaped from the doomed city, and making his way through Venetia, bore the terrible tidings to Justinian. Martin and Uliaris, returning from their inglorious campaign, brought the same tidings to Belisarius, who received them with intense grief and anger, and refused to admit Uliaris to his presence. Belisarius reports the disaster to Justinian. In his letter to the Emperor he doubtless laid the blame of the fall of Milan on the divided counsels by which for the last twelve months his arm had been paralysed. Justinian, among whose many faults cruelty was not included, inflicted no signal punishment on any of the blunderers by whom his interests had been so grievously injured, but took now the step which he should have taken on the first news of the dissensions of the generals, by sending to Narses a letter of recall, and formally constituting Belisarius Generalissimo of the Imperial forces in Italy.

 p298  Narses accordingly returned with a few soldiers to Constantinople. The wild Herulians who had come in his train refused to serve under any other leader, marched off into Liguria, sold their captives and their beasts of burden to the Goths, took an oath of perpetual friendship with that nation, marched through Venetia into Illyria, again changed their minds, and accepted service under the Emperor at Constantinople. An unstable and brutish people, and one for which Procopius never spares a disparaging word when an opportunity of uttering it is afforded by the course of his narrative.

The Author's Notes:

1 Γότθων μυριάδες πολλαί.

2 The history of this siege will be related consecutively a few pages further on.

3 If, as seems probable, the Μοντεφέρετρον of Procopius (II.11) is the same as the Montefeltro of the Middle Ages, it is curious to observe that these two strongholds, the chief fortresses of the Goths in Northern Umbria in the sixth century, were yet more closely associated in the Middle Ages under the sway of 'the Counts of Montefeltro and Urbino.'

4 στοά. But is it not the same which Roman military writers call vinca?

5 See Note at the end of this chapter.

6 The language of Procopius is curious, as showing the loose nature of the tie which bound the Burgundians to the Frankish monarchy. 'He sent 10,000 men to help the Goths, not from among the Franks themselves, but from the Burgundians, in order not to seem to hurt the Emperor's interest. For the Burgundians were represented as going willingly and by their own independent resolution (ἐθελούσιοί τε καὶ αὐτονόμῳ γνώμῃ), not as obeying the command of Theudebert' (De Bello Gotthico, II.12; p196).

7 Was this Uliaris the man whose drunken sportsmanship proved fatal to John the Armenian during the pursuit of Gelimer? (See vol. III p619). Possibly; but names beginning with Uli‑ were common among the barbarians. Belisarius seems to be more indignant with Uliaris than with his comrade for the failure of the expedition: as if there were already some old score against him not wiped out.

8 Not Paulus the commander of the Thracians, apparently. Procopius would hardly have called him τῶν τινὰ Ῥωμαίων.

9 Πόλεων τῶν ἐν Ἰταλίᾳ πασῶν μάλιστα μεγέθει τε καὶ πολυανθρωπίᾳ καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ εὐδαιμονίᾳ παρὰ πολὺ προὔχουσα (II.21). He does not, apparently, except even Rome.

10 In this passage (p233) Mundilas uses almost the very language of the companions of Mohammed.

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