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Book V
Note C

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

by
Thomas Hodgkin


2nd edition
Oxford University Press
London
1896

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,
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Book V
Chapter 13

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
p301
Chapter XII

Sieges of Fiesole and Osimo

Authority

Sources: —

Procopius, De Bello Gotthico, II.23‑27 (pp238‑260).

May, 539 Desolation of Italy by the war. The war had now lasted four years,1 and it was over a ruined and wasted Italy that the wolves of war were growling. The summer of 538 was long remembered as the time when Famine and her child Disease in their full horror first fell upon Tuscany, Liguria, and the Aemilia. The fields had now been left for two years uncultivated. A self-sown crop, poor but still a crop, sprang up in the summer of 537. Unreaped by the hand of man, it lay rotting on the ground: no plough stirred the furrows, no hand scattered fresh seed upon the earth, and in the following summer there was of course mere desolation. The inhabitants of Tuscany betook them to the mountains, and fed upon the acorns which they gathered in the oak‑forests that cling round the shoulders of the Apennines. The dwellers in the Aemilia flocked into Picenum, thinking that the nearness of the seaboard would at  p302 least preserve them from absolute starvation; yet, even in Picenum, it was computed that not less than 50,000 peasants perished of famine.

Effects of famine on the people. Procopius marked the stages of decline in this hunger-smitten people, and describes it in words which were perhaps meant to remind the reader of Thucydides' description of the Plague of Athens. First the pinched face and yellow complexion surcharged with bile; then the natural moisture dried up, and the skin, looking like tanned leather, adhering to the bones; the yellow colour turning to a livid purple, and the purple to black, which made the poor famine-stricken countryman look like a burned‑out torch; the expression of dazzled wonder in the face sometimes changing to the wild eyes of the maniac; — he saw and noted it all. As is always the case after long endurance of hunger, some men, when provisions were brought into the country, could not profit by them. However carefully the nourishment was doled out to them, in small quantities at a time as one feeds a little child, still in many cases their digestions could not bear it, and those who had survived the famine died of food.

Cannibalism. In some places cannibalism made its appearance. Two women dwelt in a lonely house near Rimini, and were wont to entice into their dwelling the passers‑by whom they slew in their sleep, and on whose flesh they feasted. Seventeen men had thus perished. The eighteenth started up out of sleep just as the hags were approaching for his destruction. With drawn sword he stood over them, forced them to confess all their wickedness, and then slew them.

Elsewhere the famine-wasted inhabitants might be seen streaming forth into the fields to pluck any green  p303 herb that could be made available for food. Often when they had knelt down for this purpose their strength would not serve them to pull it out of the ground. And so it came to pass that they lay down and died upon the ungathered herbage, unburied, for there was none to bury them, but undesecrated, for even the birds of carrion found nothing to attract them in those fleshless corpses.

Story of Aegisthus. One little story told by Procopius brings vividly before us the misery caused in Italy by the movements of the hostile armies. When the historian accompanied Belisarius on his march over the Apennines for the relief of Rimini, he saw a child which was suckled and watched over by a goat. The mother of this child, a woman of Urbs Salvia, had fled before the approach of John's army — the liberating army — into the province of Picenum. In her flight she had been for a moment, as she supposed, parted from her new‑born babe; but either death or captivity had prevented her from returning to the place where she had laid it down. The babe, wrapped in its swaddling-clothes, lifted up its voice and wept. A she‑goat which was near ran to it, and pitying its cry, nourished it as she would have nourished her own little one, and guarded it from all other animals. When the inhabitants of Urbs Salvia found that John's army had friendly thoughts towards them, they returned to their homes; but among them was not the mother of the child. One after another of the women offered to give suck to the child, but it refused all nourishment save that of its four-footed nurse; and she with loud bleatings and gestures of anger claimed the child as her own charge. It was therefore left to the care of the goat,  p304 and named, like the outcast prince of Argos, Aegisthus, 'the goat's child.' Procopius, as has been said, saw this marvel on his way through Urbs Salvia. The goat was at the time at some little distance from her charge, but when Procopius and his friends pinched it and made it cry, she came bounding towards it with a bleat of distress, and standing over it, signified with butting horn that she would guard it against all assailants.

Witigis sends two ecclesiastics on an embassy to Persia. Notwithstanding the cruel exhaustion of Italy, the parties were still too evenly matched for the struggle to come to an end. Witigis, who by his tardy and resourceless policy reminds us not a little of our Saxon Ethelred, began to cast about him for allies, a step which, if he had taken it three years ago, might perhaps have saved him from ruin. The Franks were too utterly untrustworthy; the Lombards, to whose King Wacis he sent an embassy offering great gifts as the price of his alliance, refused to break with Byzantium. He therefore called an assembly of the elders, such an assembly as our ancestors would have called a Witena-gemote, and there setting forth the difficulties of his situation, asked for the advice of his subjects. After long deliberations and many idle suggestions, a proposal was made which was fitted to the present state of affairs. It was pointed out by one of the Gothic statesmen that the peace which Justinian concluded on the accession of Chosroës in 531 was the true cause of the disasters both of the Vandal and the Gothic monarchies. Had the Caesar of Constantinople not felt secure of attack from the Persian King, he had never dared to employ the matchless skill of Belisarius on the banks of Libyan rivers and under the walls  p305 of Umbrian towns. It was therefore proposed and decided to send ambassadors to Chosroës to stir him up, if possible, to a renewal of hostilities against the Roman Empire. The ambassadors chosen were not Goths, whose nationality might have prevented them from traversing in safety the wide provinces of the East, but two priests of Liguria, probably Arian by their creed though Roman by speech and parentage, who for the promise of a large sum of money undertook this hazardous enterprise. One of these assumed the style of a bishop,2 to give weight to his representations, and the other accompanied him as an ecclesiastical attendant.

Justinian shows a disposition to treat with the Goths. The journey of these men to the Persian Court of course occupied a considerable time, and the full results of their mission were not apparent for more than a year after the period which we have now reached. The mere rumour, however, that negotiations were being opened between the Goths and the Persians made Justinian, who knew the weakness of his eastern frontier, so anxious to close the Italian war that he at once sent home the Gothic envoys, who for a twelvemonth had been waiting in his ante-chambers, suffering all those heart-breaking delays which seem to be engendered by the very air of Constantinople. Return of Peter and Athanasius to Constantinople. Now they were bidden to return, offering to the Goths a long truce on terms which should be beneficial to both the combatants. Belisarius, however, who throughout this stage of the proceedings overruled with little hesitation the decisions of his master, refused  p306 to allow the Gothic envoys to enter Ravenna till the sanctity of the persons of ambassadors had been vindicated by the return of Peter and Anastasius, the Emperor's envoys to Theodahad, who, for nearly four years, had been kept in unjustifiable captivity. They returned, and as a reward of their devotion were promoted to high offices in the Empire. Anastasius was made Praetorian Prefect of Italy in the room of Reparatus, slain at Milan; and Peter, the brave and outspoken disputant with Theodahad, was hailed as Illustrious Master of the Offices, and received the embassies of foreign rulers in the palace-hall of Byzantium.

Belisarius undertakes the reduction of the two remaining strongholds of the Goths in Central Italy. In these negotiations the winter and early spring of 539 wore away. In May 539 Belisarius addressed himself to the capture of the two fortresses which still held out for the Goths south of Ravenna: and such was the strength of their position, perched upon their almost inaccessible heights, that all the rest of the year was consumed upon the task. The two fortresses were Faesulae and Auximum, represented by the modern towns of Fiesole and Osimo, the one overlooking the gleaming Arno, the other beholding the blue Hadriatic upon its horizon.

Fiesole. Every Italian traveller knows the little Tuscan town to which we climb for our finest view of the dome of Brunelleschi and the tower of Giotto, pausing in our ascent to visit the villa of the Magnificent Lorenzo, and thinking of Milton's conversations with Galileo as we gaze upon

'The moon whose orb

Through optic glass the Tuscan artist viewed

At evening from the top of Fiesole.'

 p307  Instead of all this cluster of enchanting sights and memories, what had the Faesulae of the sixth century to show? She had, no doubt in greater extent, that stupendous Etruscan wall, the mere fragments of which make the Roman ruins by the side of it look like the handiwork of pigmies. She had the high fortress or Arx, a thousand feet above the Plain of Arno, where the friars of St. Francis' order now kneel for worship; the Temple of Bacchus, which was perhaps even then turned into a Christian basilica; and the Theatre, on whose stone seats we may still sit and imagine that we see from thence the couriers of Belisarius or Witigis spurring their steeds along the Cassian Road below. B.C. 62 She had perhaps some remembrance of the day, six centuries ago, when Petreius defeated Catiline under her cliffs. More probably, her inhabitants yet pointed to the spot, near to her walls, 405 where the vast horde of Radagaisus was surrounded and starved into submission by Stilicho.3

Cyprian and Justin sent to besiege Fiesole. Fiesole was held by a body of Gothic troops, of whose numbers we are not informed.4 To compel their surrender, Cyprian, one of the old officers who had fought under Belisarius at the siege of Rome, and Justin, one of the new arrivals under Narses, were sent with some of their own soldiers (probably cavalry) and a band of Isaurian auxiliaries, together with five hundred of the regular infantry, who still represented, though faintly, the old Roman legion.5 John, now again obedient to the orders of Belisarius;  p308 another John, whose mighty appetite procured him in the camp the nickname of the Glutton;6 and Martin, apparently forgiven for his disgraceful failure before Milan, were sent with a large body of troops to cover the siege of Fiesole and to hover about the upper waters of the Po. If possible, they were to intercept the communications of Uraias with Ravenna; if that were impossible, and if he should march to the relief of his uncle Witigis, they were to keep up an active pursuit of his army. Tortona made the basis of their operations. These generals found the town of Tortona (then called Dertona), by the bank of the Po, a convenient basis of operations. As it was unwalled, it could be easily occupied by them; but by the command of Theodoric it had been plentifully supplied with houses suitable for the quartering of troops,7 and these were now taken advantage of by the generals who came to overthrow his kingdom. Fiesole blockaded. After a few skirmishes the siege of Fiesole settled down into a mere blockade. The Roman soldiers were unable to scale the heights on which the city stood, but they could easily surround them and see that no provisions were brought into Fiesole. Pressed by famine, the garrison called on Witigis, who ordered his nephew Uraias to advance to their assistance. Uraias marches to Pavia. Uraias with a large army marched to Pavia, crossed the Po, and sat down over against John and Martin, at a distance of some seven miles from their camp at Tortona. Neither party was  p309 willing to begin the fight. The Romans felt that their end was gained if they prevented Uraias from attacking the besiegers of Fiesole. The Goths feared that one lost battle would shatter the last hope of their monarchy. Both armies therefore resumed that waiting game which they had played before the fall of Milan, and for which the Lombard plain (as we now call it) is so eminently adapted.

The Franks reappear in Italy. While this was the position of affairs, a new enemy swept like a torrent down the ravines of the Alps of St. Bernard, an enemy whose advent for a time changed the whole aspect of the war in Upper Italy.

The Franks described by Procopius.

'The Franks,' says Procopius, 'seeing the mischief which Goths and Romans were inflicting on one another, and the length to which the war was being protracted, began to take it very ill that they should obtain no advantage from the calamities of a country of which they were such near neighbours. Forgetting, therefore, the oaths which they had sworn and the covenants which they had ratified only a short time before with both kingdoms — for this nation is the most slippery of mankind in its observance of its plighted word8 — they marched into Italy to the number of 100,000 men under the guidance of their King Theudebert. A few horsemen armed with spears surrounded the person of their King: all the rest fought on foot, having neither bow nor spear, but each with a sword and shield and one axe. The iron of this axe is stout, sharp, and two‑edged; the handle, made of wood, is exceedingly short. At a signal given they all throw these axes, and thus at the first  p310 onset are wont to break the shields of the enemy and slay his men.'

The Franks come apparently as friends to the Goths. When the Goths heard that this new host under Theudebert's own command was descending from the passes of the Alps, they trusted that the Franks were about to throw their weight into the opposite scale to that of the Empire, and that the hard struggle of the last four years was at length to be terminated by their co‑operation. The Franks took care not to undeceive them so long as the Po had still to be crossed, but marched as a friendly force, harming no one, through Liguria. Their cruelties at Pavia. Having entered Pavia, having been allowed quietly to obtain possession of the bridge at the confluence of the Ticino and the Po, they threw off all disguise, and slaying the Gothic women and children whom they found there, cast their dead bodies into the stream, as an offering to the unseen powers and as the first-fruits of the war. Frankish religion. Procopius assures us that this savage deed had really a religious significance, 'since these barbarians, Christians though they be, preserve much of their old creed, still practising human sacrifices and other unhallowed rites, by which they seek to divine the future.' Thin as the varnish of Christianity was over the Frankish nation, 'the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church,' it is hardly possible that this statement can be literally true. There were many Alamanni, doubtless, and other men of tribes confessedly still heathen, in the wild horde which clustered round the horse of King Theudebert; and it may have been some of these who performed the religious part of the rite, the Christian Franks only sharing in the brutal butchery which preceded it.

 p311  When the Gothic sentinels on the bridge saw the horrid deed perpetrated by these savages, they fled without striking a blow. The Goths flee to Ravenna. The Franks proceeded towards Tortona; the main body of the Gothic army, still believing in their friendly intentions, advanced to meet them, but were soon undeceived by the storm of flying axes, swung by Frankish hands, laying their bravest low. In their consternation they turned to flee, and fled right through the Roman camp, never stopping till they reached Ravenna.

The Imperial troops also scattered in flight before the Franks. When the Imperial troops saw the flight of the Goths, deeming that Belisarius must certainly have arrived, must have conquered, and must be now pursuing, they advanced, as they supposed, to meet him. They too were cruelly undeceived, and being easily routed by the vast host of the Franks, fled across the Apennines, some into Tuscany to join the besiegers of Fiesole, others to Osimo to tell the grievous tidings to Belisarius. The Franks, having thus won an easy victory over both armies, and sacked both camps, rioted for some time in the enjoyment of all the good things that they found there.9 When these came to an end, having no proper commissariat, and, like the brutish barbarians that they were, having no skill for aught but mere ravage of the country in which they found themselves, they fell short of provisions. The large draught-oxen of Liguria furnished them for a time with beef, but their only drink was the  p312 water of the great river. Disease in the Frankish army. The combination proved injurious to the digestion of the greedy soldiers, and diarrhoea and dysentery soon scourged the army of Theudebert, a third part of which, so it was reported, fell victims to these diseases.

Belisarius writes to Theudebert, who retires from Italy. Belisarius was filled with anxiety for the fate of the besiegers of Fiesole when he heard of the Frankish invasion. He wrote a letter to Theudebert charging him with conduct which the basest of mankind could scarcely have been guilty of, in violating his sworn and written promise to join in a league against the Goths, nay more, in actually turning his arms against the Empire. He warned him that the wrath of the Emperor for such a wanton outrage would not be easily turned aside, and recommended him to take care lest, in his light-hearted search after adventures, he fell himself into the extreme of peril. The letter reached Theudebert just at a time when his fickle soldiers were loudly complaining of the loss of so many thousands of their comrades by disease. The purpose of his soul was changed, and he vanished across the Alps with the remainder of his host as speedily as he came, having done nearly as much mischief and reaped as little advantage as Charles VIII, the typical Frank of the fifteenth century, in his invasion of Italy. Thus already is the melancholy strain begun which for a thousand years and more was to be the dirge of Italy. Already might a truly statesmanlike Roman see the mistake which had been made in rejecting — for merely sentimental reasons — the wise policy of Theodoric and Cassiodorus, that policy which would have made the Roman the brain and the Ostrogoth  p313 the sword‑arm of Italy. Might that scheme have had fair play, —

'Then, still untired,

Would not be seen the armëd torrents poured

Down the steep Alps, nor would the hostile horde

Of many-nationed spoilers from the Po

Quaff blood and water, nor the stranger's sword

Be her sad weapon of defence, and so,

Victor or vanquished, she, the slave of friend or foe.'10

Auximum
(now Osimo): present appearance and early history.
While these events were passing in the north and west of Italy, Belisarius was prosecuting, with less success than had hitherto fallen to his lot, the slow siege of Osimo. This little city, which stands on a hill 900 feet above the sea, is ten miles south of Ancona, and about nine west of the Hadriatic shore. Few travellers now climb up to its difficult height except those who may be disposed to take it on their way, when making pilgrimage to the Holy House of the Virgin brought, as the story goes, by angels from Nazareth and deposited on the neighbouring hill of Loretto. The journey leads us through one of the fairest districts of Italy; a fertile undulating land, each height crowned with its own village, a stronghold in former days. We meet the stalwart peasants of La Marcaa driving their milk-white oxen in their antique chariot-like carts. Each cart is adorned with some picture of virgin or saint, or, for those who do not soar so high, of wife or sweetheart, rudely painted, but testifying to that yearning after the beautiful in Art which is the Italian's heritage. At length the road mounts steeply upward. After a toilsome ascent we stand upon the mountain crest of Osimo and  p314 survey the wide panorama. Almost at our feet lies Castelfidardo, where, in 1860, Lamoricière, commanding the soldiers of the Pope, sustained a crushing defeat at the hands of the general of Victor Emmanuel. The curving coast of Ancona on the north, the Hadriatic filling up the eastern horizon, the long line of the Apennines on the west, and their king the Gran Sasso d'Italia in the dim south, may all be seen from our airy watch-tower. In the Palazzo Pubblico of the town we find abundant evidence of its vanished greatness. Here are many inscriptions, belonging to the age both of republican and imperial Rome, betokening the pride of the Auximates in their city, once like Philippi in Macedonia, 'a chief city in that country and a colony.' The gens Oppia seems for some time to have supplied the chief persons of the miniature senate, but all, of whatever family, proudly claim the title of 'Decurio of the Roman colony of the Auximates,' that word Decurio being still a badge of honour, not yet the branded mark of servitude.b Looking at these tombs we recall with interest the words of Caesar, who tells us that B.C. 49 at the beginning of the Civil War, the Decuriones of Auximum sent a message to the Senatorial general who commanded the garrison, 'that neither they nor their fellow-townsmen could endure that after all his services to the Republic, Caius Caesar the general should be excluded from their walls.' In the years, nearly six hundred, which had passed since that important resolution was formed, Auximum had generally played its part with credit, as the leading city of Picenum. Ancona, which now far surpasses it in importance, was then its humble dependent, bearing to it nearly  p315 the same relation that Ostia bore to Rome or Peiraeus to Athens.11

The siege of Osimo formed. Auximum was garrisoned by some of the noblest and most martial of the Goths, who rightly looked upon it as the key of Ravenna. The Roman troops were quartered in huts all round the foot of the hill; and the garrison saw a chance of success by making a charge at evening upon a portion of the host while Belisarius was still engaged with his body-guard in measuring the ground for the camp. The attack was bravely repelled, and the garrison retired, but the moment they stood again on their precipitous hill‑top the battle again inclined in their favour. Night fell: a number of the garrison, who had gone to forage the day before, returning, found the camp-fires between them and Auximum. A few managed to steal through the lines of the Romans into the city, but the greater number took refuge in some woods near, and were there found by the besiegers and killed.

Belisarius resolves to blockade the city. Reluctantly Belisarius, having carefully surveyed the ground, came to the conclusion that the place being absolutely unapproachable all round, except by a steep ascent, was invulnerable to any sudden stroke, and must be blockaded. The blockade took him seven months, months of weariness and chafing delay, during which the Frank was descending into Lombardy, the Courts of Ravenna and Ctesiphon were spinning their negotiations for alliance, and the position of the Empire under the grasping policy of Justinian was becoming every day more full of peril.

The foraging ground. There was a green patch of ground not far from the  p316 walls of Osimo which was the scene of many a bloody encounter. Each party by turns resorted to it to obtain forage for their horses and cattle, sometimes, in the case of the hard-pressed garrison, to pluck some herbs by which men could allay the pangs of hunger; and each party when thus engaged was of course harassed by the enemy. Once the Goths, seeing a number of Romans on the foraging-ground, detached some heavy waggon-wheels from their axles and rolled them down the hill upon their foes: but the Romans easily opened their ranks and let the waggon-wheels thunder past them into the plain, guiltless of a single besieger's life. In reading of these naïve expedients of the Goths for inflicting injury on their foes, one feels that they were but overgrown schoolboys, playing the game of war with a certain heartiness and joviality, but quite ignorant of the conditions of success.

The ambuscade. The next move, however, showed a little more tactical skill. They stationed an ambuscade in a valley at some little distance from the town, by judicious appearance of flight drew the Romans towards it, and then with their combined forces inflicted heavy loss on the besiegers. The misfortune of the position was that the Romans who remained in the camp could plainly see the ambuscade, and shouted to their comrades not to venture further in that direction: but in the din of battle the shouts were either unheard or supposed to be shouts of encouragement, and thus the Gothic stratagem succeeded.

The advice of Procopius as to the trumpet-calls. While Belisarius was brooding over this disappointing day's work, his secretary, the literary Procopius, approached him with a suggestion drawn from his  p317 reading of the war‑books written by 'the men of old.' 'In ancient time,' said he, 'armies used to have one note on the bugle for advance, another for recall. It may be that your troops, largely recruited from among the barbarians, are too untutored to learn this difference of note, but at least you may have a difference of instrument. Let the light and portable cavalry trumpet, made as it is only of wood and leather, be always used to sound the advance: and when the deep note of the brazen trumpet of the infantry is heard, let the army know that that is the signal for retreat.' The general adopted his secretary's suggestion, and calling his soldiers together delivered a short harangue in which he explained the new code of signals, at the same time cautioning them against headlong rashness, and assuring them that, in the skirmishing kind of warfare in which they were now engaged, there was no shame in retreat, or even in flight when the exigencies of the position required it. Of those exigencies the general must be the judge, and he would give the signal for retreat, when he deemed it necessary, by a blast from the infantry trumpet.

The Moor and the suit of golden armour. In the next skirmish at the foraging-ground under the new tactics the Romans were victorious. One of the swart Moorish horsemen from Mount Atlas seeing the dead body of a Goth covered with gold armour — haply such as Theodoric was buried in at Ravenna — began dragging him from the field by the hair of his head. A Goth shot an arrow which pierced the spoiler through the calves of both of his legs. Still, says Procopius, the Moor persisted in dragging the golden-armoured hero by his hair. Suddenly the trumpet  p318 of retreat was heard, and the Romans hurried back to the camp carrying off with them both the Moor and his prize.12

The garrison's first message to Ravenna. The garrison, who were beginning to be hard pressed with hunger, resolved to send messengers to Ravenna to claim the help of their King. The letters were written and the messengers prepared. Upon the first moonless night the Goths crowded to the ramparts and uttered a mighty shout, which made the besiegers think that a sally was in progress or that assistance was arriving from Ravenna. Even Belisarius was deceived, and fearing the confusion of a nocturnal skirmish he ordered his soldiers to keep quiet in their quarters. This was exactly what the barbarians desired, since it enabled their messengers to steal through the Roman lines in safety. The letter which they delivered to Witigis was worded in that independent tone which the German warriors feared not to adopt to their King. 'When you placed us, O King, as a garrison in Auximum, you asserted that you were committing to us the keys of Ravenna and of your kingdom. You bade us hold the place manfully, and you promised that you with all your army would promptly move to our assistance. We, who have had to fight both with hunger and Belisarius, have been faithful to our trust, but you have not lifted a finger to help us. But remember, that if the Romans take Auximum, the keys of your house, there is not a  p319 chamber therein from which you will be able to bar them.' Witigis promises to help them, but does nothing. Witigis read the letter, heard the messengers, sent them back to buoy up the beleaguered garrison with hopes of speedy assistance, but took not a single step in fulfilment of his promise. He was afraid of John and Martin, hovering over the valley of the Po; he was perhaps more justly afraid of the difficulty of provisioning his troops on the long march into Picenum. To the Romans who had possession of the sea, and who could import all that they needed from Sicily and Calabria, this difficulty was far less formidable than to him. Still, if the relief of Osimo was dangerous, its reduction meant certain ruin. Anything would have been better than to let his brave soldiers, trusting to his plighted word, starve slowly on their battlements, while he himself, like another Honorius, skulked behind the lagoons of Ravenna.

After these events came the mad torrent of the Frankish invasion, bringing equal consternation to Goths and Romans, and affording to Witigis something more than a mere pretext for the postponement of his promise. The garrison of Osimo of course knew nothing of this invasion; and Belisarius, informed of the previous embassy by deserters, watched the fortress with added diligence to prevent any second message from being sent. Burcentius the traitor. In these circumstances, the Goths, bent on bringing their case again before their King, began to parley with a certain Burcentius, a soldier (probably an Armenian) who had come to Italy with Narses the Less, and who was stationed in a lonely place to prevent the foraging expeditions of the garrison. Large monies in hand and the promise of more on his return from Ravenna induced this man  p320 to turn traitor and to bear the letter of the Goths to Witigis. Second message to Witigis. The letter ran thus:

'You will best inform yourself as to our present condition by enquiring who is the bearer of this despatch. For it is absolutely impossible for any Goth to get through the enemy's lines. Our best food is now the herbage which grows near the city wall, and even this cannot be obtained without the sacrifice of many lives. Whither such facts as these tend we leave to be judged of by you and all the Goths in Ravenna.'

The King's reply. To this short and pathetic letter Witigis returned a long and shifty answer, laying the blame of his past inactivity on Theudebert and the Franks; promising now with all speed to come to the assistance of his brave soldiers, and beseeching them to continue to act worthily of the reputation for valour which had caused him to single them out from all others as the defenders of his kingdom.

With the King's letter and many pieces of Gothic gold in his girdle, Burcentius returned to his station by the foraging-ground. His six days' absence was easily explained to his comrades. He had been seized with illness, and had been obliged to spend those days, off duty, in a neighbouring church. At a suitable time he gave the King's letter to the garrison, who were greatly encouraged thereby, and persevered many days longer in their diet of salad, ever hoping that the trumpet of Witigis would be heard next day beneath their walls.

The third message. Still the slothful and cowardly King came not. Once more the Goths employed the services of the traitor Burcentius, who this time bore a letter from them saying that they would wait five days, no longer,  p321 and would then surrender the city. Again Burcentius returned after his opportune illness, bringing yet further flattering words and false hopes from the Nithing (as our Saxon forefathers would have called him) in his palace at Ravenna. Again they were duped, and waited on in the extremity of hardship, resisting all the kind and coaxing words of Belisarius, to whom it began to be a matter of life and death to get the siege speedily ended.

Belisarius in perplexity. Utterly perplexed by this extraordinary pertinacity of the Goths, and longing to find out its cause, the General discussed with his subordinate Valerian, whether it would be possible to capture some prisoner of distinction and extort from him the desired knowledge. Valerian mentioned that he had in his train some Slovenes from the banks of the Danube, and that these men were wont to crouch behind some small rock or shrub and stealing forth from thence to capture unwary travellers, either Romans, or barbarians of another tribe. This savage accomplishment, as it seemed, might now be turned to useful account. A tall and powerful Slovene was chosen and told that he should receive a large sum if he would capture a living Goth. He went forth accordingly in the domain morning twilight, and, bending his stalwart limbs into the smallest possible compass, hid behind a bush close to the foraging-ground. Thither came soon a Gothic noble to pick some herbs for his miserable meal. He cast many a look towards the Roman camp, to see if danger threatened him from thence, but suspected nothing of his nearer foe. A Gothic noble kidnapped. While he was stooping down, suddenly the Slovene was upon him, grasped him tightly round the waist, and in spite of his  p322 struggles carried him into the camp to Belisarius.13 The prisoner, when questioned as to the cause of his countrymen's extraordinary pertinacity, revealed the history of the last two messages to Ravenna, and pointed to Burcentius as the bearer of them. The wretched Armenian confessed his guilt, and was handed over to his comrades to be dealt with according to their pleasure. Burcentius burned alive. The pleasure of these barbarians was that he should be burned alive in the full sight of the garrison, his employers. 'Thus,' says Procopius, 'did Burcentius reap the fruit of his greediness for gain.'

Belisarius endeavours to cut off the water supply. Still the indomitable Goths would not surrender the fortress which had been confided to them by the faithless Witigis — faithless, but yet their king. Belisarius therefore determined to cut off their supply of water and thus force them to a capitulation. There was outside the city, but near the walls, a cistern constructed of massive masonry, from which the Goths used to draw water, each excursion for the purpose being a sortie, which had to be effected hurriedly and by stealth. The General's design was to break down the masonry of this cistern sufficiently to prevent any large accumulation of water therein, as the Goths would never have time to wait and fill their amphorae from the slowly-running stream.c Drawing up all his troops in battle array and threatening the town with an attack, he kept the garrison occupied while five  p323 Isaurians, equipped with axes and crowbars, stole into the cistern. They were, however, perceived by the garrison, who guessed their errand, and assailed them with a cloud of missiles. The strong vaulted roof over their heads, placed there by the builders of the cistern to keep its waters from the noon‑day sun, proved to the Isaurians an effectual shelter. Hereupon the garrison issued forth to dislodge them. So fierce was their onset that the besiegers' line wavered before them. Narrow escape of Belisarius. Belisarius rushed to the spot, by voice and gesture exhorting them to stand firm. While he was thus engaged an arrow from a Gothic bow came whizzing14 towards him, and would certainly have inflicted on him a fatal wound in the belly, had not one of his guards, named Unigat, seeing the General's danger, interposed his hand and in it received the hostile weapon. The faithful guardsman was forced to quit the field in agony, and lost for the remainder of his days the use of his hand; but the General's life was saved: — his narrowest escape this, since he rode the dark roan charger on the first day of the siege of Rome. At the same time, seven Armenian heroes (soldiers of Narses the Less and Aratius) did great deeds of valour, charging uphill against the Goths, dispersing their forces on the level ground, and at length, about noon‑day, turning the battle, which had begun at dawn and seemed at one time likely to be a Roman defeat, into a Roman victory. Great, however, was the disappointment of Belisarius when he found that all this bravery had been wasted. The Isaurians, emerging from the cistern, were obliged to confess that in six hours of labour they had not been  p324 able to loosen a single stone. 'For the masons of old time,' says the historian, 'put such thoroughly good work into this as into all their other buildings, that they yielded not easily either to time or to the hand of an enemy.' This remark, which is fully confirmed by all that we see of the earlier work of the Romans in our own land, is perhaps meant as a covert criticism on the ostentatious but unenduring edifices of Justinian.15

Belisarius poisons the well. Thus foiled in his attempt to destroy the cistern, Belisarius, regardless of those general instincts of humanity which have endeavoured to formulate themselves under the title of 'The Laws of War,' resolved to poison the well. The bodies of dead animals, poisonous herbs, and heaps of quicklime16 were thrown by his orders into the cistern. Still, however, the brave garrison held out, drawing their water from one tiny well in the city, and looking forth daily for the Gothic banners on the northern horizon.

The surrender of Fiesole brings with it that of Osimo. At length the end of this tedious siege came from an unexpected quarter. The garrison of Fiesole, unable to endure their hardships any longer, surrendered to Cyprian and Justin, on condition that their lives should be spared. Bringing their new prisoners with them, the generals marched to Osimo. The sight of their captive fellow-countrymen, aided by the remonstrances of Belisarius, broke down the long endurance of the defenders of the capital of Picenum,  p325 and they offered to surrender if they might march forth with all their possessions to join their countrymen at Ravenna. Belisarius was earnestly desirous to end the siege at once, before an alliance which he dreaded between Franks and Goths should have had time to consolidate itself. On the other hand, he was reluctant to allow so many noble Goths, the bravest of the brave, to swell the ranks of the defenders of Ravenna; and his soldiers loudly murmured that it was monstrous, after subjecting them to the hardships of a siege, and such a siege, to deprive them of a soldier's heritage, the spoil. At length the two parties came to a fair arrangement. The Goths were to surrender half their property to the besiegers, taking a solemn oath to conceal nothing, and were allowed to retain the other half. So satisfied were they with these terms, and probably also so exasperated at the faithlessness of their King, that they appear to have actually taken service under the standards of the Emperor. There were evidently still many Goths to whom only two relations towards the Empire suggested themselves as possible, hostile invasion of its territory, or settlement as foederati within its borders.

The siege of Osimo had lasted, according to one authority, seven months. It probably began in May, 539, and ended in December of the same year.17


The Author's Notes:

1 Procopius puts the end of the fourth year of the war (May, 539) just after the recall of Narses.

2 Very probably he was really a bishop, whose Arian title was treated as of no account by the orthodox persons from whom Procopius received his information.

3 See vol. I p733.

4 It is strange that in the careful enumeration of the Gothic garrisons given by Procopius (De B. G. II.12; pp187‑8) he does not mention Faesulae.

5 These were under the special command of Demetrius.

6 Ἰωάννης ὃν καὶ Φαγᾶν ἐκάλουν.

7 This we learn from Cassiodorus, VariarumI.17. See the unfulfilled anticipations of Theodoric as to the 'durissimae mansiones' in which his enemies would be compelled to shelter themselves.

8 Compare the 'gens Francorum infidelis' of Salvian (quoted in vol. I p509).

Thayer's Note: Hodgkin's citation is, inadvertently, to his first edition (I1.509); he should have cited his own second edition (I2.922). The texts are identical, though.

9 In the course of this invasion they sacked the city of Genoa. Marcellinus Comes says: 'Theudibertus Francorum Rex cum magno exercitu adveniens Liguriam totamque depraedat Aemiliam. Genuam oppidum in littore Tyrreni maris situm evertit ac praedat' (ap. Roncalli, II.327).

10 Childe Harold, IV.43 (after Filicaja).

11 This change in the relative importance of the two cities is pointed out in Lord Mahon's Life of Belisarius (p248).

12 The responsibility for this story must rest with Procopius (De B. G. II.23); I cannot believe that a man could walk even two steps who had both his legs transfixed by an arrow: Γότθος τις αὐτὸν ἀκοντίῳ βαλὼν μύων τε οἳ ὄπισθέν εἰσι τῶν κνήμων ἑκατέρων, ἐπιτυχών, ἐνέρσει τοῦ ἀκοντίου ἄμφω τὼ πόδε ξυνέδησεν. Ἀλλ’ οὐδέν τι ἧσσον Μαυρούσιος τῶν τριχῶν ἐχόμενος τὸν νεκρὸν εἷλκεν.

13 Procopius' story of the manner in which these Slovenes captured their prisoners seems to require the use of a noose of some kind to render it probable, but none such is mentioned by him. All seems to have been done by sheer physical strength, aided by surprise.

14 ξὺν ῥοίζῳ πολλῷ.

15 Mr. Bryce informs me that some remains of this cistern are still visible.

16 Λίθον κατακεκαυμένην ἣν πάλαι μὲν τίτανον τανῦν δὲ ἄσβεστον καλεῖν νενομίκασιν.   Ἄσβεστος is still the ordinary term used in modern Greek for quicklime.

17 Marcellinus Comes (ap. Roncalli, II.327): 'Belisarius obsidens Auximum septimo mense ingreditur, similiterque et Faesulam.


Thayer's Note:

a The region is known today as le Marche, always in the plural ("the Marches").

b Hodgkin covered in good detail the sad decline of the decuriones in III.582‑588.

c Many years ago, when I was in my twenties and very poor, I lived for a few months in a tenement in Chicago where the landlord decided to follow the law in all punctiliousness, providing hot water to the bathroom down the hall shared by the half-dozen rented rooms on the floor — at so slow a trickle as to be nearly useless, certainly in the bathtub. Some people are more stubborn than others: I got my warm baths.


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