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Bill Thayer

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Book V
Chapter 18

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
Chapter 20

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter XIX

Roma Capta

'How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people!'


Sources: —

Procopius, De Bello Gotthico, III.20‑22 (pp362‑373).º

546 Entry of the Goths into Rome. When the Goths had entered by the Asinarian Gate, Totila, still fearful of some treachery, caused them all to halt in good order till day‑light dawned. Meanwhile, universal uproar and confusion reigned in the panic-stricken City. The three thousand Imperial soldiers streamed out of the Flaminian Gate,​1 even as the Gothic garrison had done ten years before. Flight of Bessas and Conon. Bessas and Conon were mingled with the crowd of fugitives, not being compelled by any exaggerated sense of honour to die upon the scene of their discomfiture. The best proof that Bessas was indeed taken unawares is furnished by the fact that all the treasure which he had accumulated at the cost of so much human suffering was left behind in his palace and fell into the hands of the Gothic King. Before the night had ended a messenger came in haste to tell the King of the flight of the Governor and his army. 'Excellent  p494 tidings!' said Totila. 'No! I will not pursue after them. What more delightful news could any one wish for than to hear that his enemies are fleeing?' Of the Roman nobles, a few who were fortunate enough to possess horses accompanied the flight of the army: the rest sought shelter in the various churches. Among the refugees we find the names of Decius and Basilius, the former perhaps descended from the Emperor​2 and from the great Decii of the Republic, the latter probably the same nobleman whom we have already taken note of as the last Roman Consul.​3 Among the suppliants at the altars the names of Maximus,​4 Olybrius,​5, and Orestes​6 also remind us, truly or falsely, of men eminent in the struggles of preceding century.

Ravages of the Gothic soldiery. When day dawned, Totila proceeded to St. Peter's basilica to return thanks to God for his victory. His soldiers roamed through the city, slaying and plundering. One horror usual accompanying the sack of a captured city was absent. No Roman maid, wife, or widow suffered the least insult from any of the Gothic soldiery, so strict were the orders of Totila on this point, and so little did his subjects dare to disobey him. The plunder of the Roman palaces was, however, freely permitted to them, on the somewhat ambiguous condition that the most valuable of the property — meaning probably silver, gold, and jewels — was to be brought to the King to form the nucleus of a new great Gothic hoard.

 p495  Totila at St. Peter's. Thus then, amid the noise and confusion of the plunder of a mighty city, amid the shouts of the slayers and the groans of the dying, Totila proceeded to the great basilica on the Vatican. Interview with Pelagius. Arrived there, he found the deacon Pelagius awaiting him, bearing a roll of the Sacred Scriptures and expressing in every gesture the humility of a suppliant. 'Spare thine own subjects, O our Master!'​7 said the submissive ecclesiastic. With a scoff which he could not forbear at the haughty demeanour of Pelagius on the occasion of their last meeting, Totila said, 'Now, then, thou art willing to make requests of me.' 'Yes,' said Pelagius, 'since God hath made me thy slave. But spare thy slaves, Master! henceforward.' Totila listened to the request, and at once sent messengers all through the City, saying that, though the plunder might continue, no more blood was to be shed. Already, twenty‑six soldiers and sixty citizens had fallen under the swords of the Goths. The smallness of these numbers points rather to the depopulation of the City than to the humanity of the conquerors. Procopius was informed that only five hundred citizens were left in Rome, the greater part of whom had fled to the churches; nor does there seem any reason for supposing that he has underestimated this number, notwithstanding the vast contrast with the many myriads who once thronged the streets of the Eternal City.8

 p496  Condition of the surviving citizens. The condition of the survivors of the Roman people was so miserable that death from the Gothic broadsword might seem in comparison scarcely an evil to be dreaded. Proud Senators and their delicately nurtured wives, clothed in the garb of peasants and of slaves, wandered about from house to house, knocking at the doors and craving from the charity of the Gothic warriors a morsel of food to keep the life within them. Among these abject suppliants was one whose tale seems to carry us back for two generations. The widow of Boethius. Rusticiana, the daughter of Symmachus and the widow of Boethius, yet lived, and in these darkest days of her country she had distinguished herself by the generosity with which she had devoted her wealth to the relief of her starving fellow-citizens. She too was now a humble petitioner for a morsel of bread. When the Goths discovered who she was, many of them clamoured that she should be slain, the chief crime of which she was accused being that she had given money to the Roman generals as the price of their consent to the destruction of the statues of Theodoric. Her resentment against the sovereign who had put her husband and father to death is easily understood: but it is not probable that either Belisarius or Bessas would require much persuasion to induce them to sanction the destruction of the visible emblems of the great Ostrogoth. True or false as the story might be, Totila refused to allow Rusticiana to be molested on account of it, and gave strict orders that the venerable lady should be treated  p497 with all courtesy. We hear nothing more concerning her, and with this incident the family of Boethius passes out of history.

Totila's harangue to the Goths. On the day after the capture of the City, Totila addressed two very different harangues to two very different audiences. The Goths were all gathered together, — surely in the same Forum which once echoed Cicero's denunciations against Catiline, and Antony's praises of the murdered Julius: — and here their King congratulated them on an event which he almost described in Cromwell's words as 'a crowning mercy,' so urgently did he insist on the truth that it was not by human strength, but by God's manifest blessing on the righteous cause, that the victory had been won. 'At the beginning of the war, 200,000 valiant Goths, rich in money, in arms, in horses, and with numbers of prudent veterans to guide their counsels,​9 lost empire, life, liberty, to a little band of 7000 Greeks. Now, from more than 20,000 of the same enemies,​10 a scanty remnant of the nation, poor, despised, utterly devoid of experience, had wrested the great prize of the war. Why this difference? Because aforetime the Goths, putting justice last in their thoughts, committed, against the subject Romans and one another, all sorts of unholy deeds: but now they had been striving to act righteously towards all men.  p498 In this resolution, even at the risk of wearying them, he besought them to continue. For if they changed, assuredly God's favour towards them would change likewise, since it is not this race or that nation, as such, on whose side God fights, but He assists all men everywhere who honour the precepts of eternal righteousness.'11

Totila's harangue to the Senate. It is not without a feeling of pain that we pass from the Forum to the Senate House, and listen to the bitter words with which the Gothic King rebuked the cowering Senators of Rome. He reminded them of all the benefits which they had received at the hands of Theodoric and Athalaric; how these Kings had left in their keeping all the great offices of state and had permitted them to accumulate boundless wealth;​12 and yet after all this they had turned against their benefactors and brought Greeks into the common fatherland. 'What harm did the Goths ever do you? And now tell me, what good have you ever received from Justinian the Emperor? Has he not taken away from you almost all the great offices of state? Has he not insulted and oppressed you by means of the men who are called his Logothetes? Has he not compelled you to give an account to him of every solidus which you received from the public funds even under the Gothic  p499 Kings? All harassed and impoverished as you are by the war, has he not compelled you to pay to the Greeks the full taxes which could be levied in a time of profoundest peace?' With words like these, the boldness of which astonishes us in a subject of Justinian, though he does put them into the mouth of a Gothic King,​13 did Totila lash the wincing Senators even as an angry master scolds his slaves. Then, pointing to Herodian, the former Roman General, and to the four Isaurian deserters, 'These men,' he said, 'strangers and aliens, have done for us what you our fellow-citizens14 failed to do. Herodian received us into Spoleto, the Isaurians into Rome. Wherefore they, our friends, shall be received into the places of trust and honour, and you henceforward shall be treated as slaves.'

Pelagius sent to Constantinople. Not a single Senator dared to make an answer to this torrent of upbraiding. Pelagius, however, soothed the wrath of Totila, begged him to have compassion on the fallen, and obtained from him a promise of kinder treatment than his speech had foreshadowed. The Deacon, who had evidently acquired considerable influence over the mind of Totila, was now (after solemnly swearing speedily to return) sent to Constantinople, in company with a Roman orator named Theodore, to propose terms of peace.

Totila's letter to Justinian. The letter which they bore was in the following words: 'I shall keep silence about the events which have happened in the City of the Romans, because  p500 I think you will have already heard them from other quarters. But I will tell you shortly why I have sent these ambassadors. I pray you to secure for yourself and to grant to us the blessings of peace. You and I have excellent memorials and models in Anastasius and Theodoric, who reigned not long ago, and who filled their own lives and those of their subjects with peace and all prosperity. If this request should be consented to by you, I shall look upon you as a father, and gladly be your ally in whatsoever expedition you may meditate.' The written courtesies of the letter were supplemented by a verbal threat, that if the Emperor would not consent to peace, that Eternal City should be rased to the ground, and Totila, with his triumphant Goths, would invade the provinces of Illyricum. Justinian refers him to Belisarius. The only reply, however, which Justinian deigned to make to either courtesies or threats was that Belisarius had full powers for the conduct of the war and any proposals for peace must be addressed to him.

Totila's presence required in Lucania. Meanwhile the war in Lucania, under the guidance of Tullianus, who had gathered the peasants of the province round him, was being prosecuted with some vigour. Three hundred Antae, wild mountaineers from the hills of Bosnia,​15 were holding the fastnesses of the Apennines against all comers, and successfully repulsed some followers of Totila who were sent to dislodge them. The Gothic King was desirous to transfer his operations to the South of Italy, but feared either to weaken his army by leaving a garrison in Rome, or to  p501 give Belisarius, still lying sick at Portus, the chance of recovering it if left ungarrisoned. One‑third of the walls of Rome demolished. In these circumstances, from no blind rage against the prostrate City, but simply as a matter of strategy, he decided to make it untenable and uninhabitable. He threw down large portions of the walls, so that it was roughly computed​16 that only two‑thirds of the line of defence remained standing. He was about to proceed to burn all the finest buildings in Rome, and turn the City by the Tiber into a sheep-walk, when ambassadors were announced who brought a letter from Belisarius.

Belisarius persuades Totila not to destroy the City. 'Fair cities,' said the General, 'are the glory of the great men who have been their founders, and surely no wise man would wish to be remembered as the destroyer of any of them. But of all cities under the sun Rome is confessed to be the greatest and the most glorious. No one man, no single century reared her greatness. A long line of kings and ever since, the united efforts of some of the noblest of men, a vast interval of time, a lavish expenditure of wealth, the most costly materials and the most skilful craftsmen of the world, have all united to make Rome. Slowly and gradually has each succeeding age there reared its monuments. Any act, therefore, of wanton outrage against that City will be resented as an injustice by all men of all ages, by those who have gone before us, because it effaces the memorials of their greatness, by  p502 those who shall come after, since the most wonderful sight in the world will be no longer theirs to look upon. Remember too, that this war must end either in the Emperor's victory or your own. If you should prove to be the conqueror, how great will be your delight in having preserved the most precious jewel of your crown. If yours should turn out to be the losing side, great will be the thanks due from the conqueror for your preservation of Rome, while its destruction would make every plea for mercy and humanity on your behalf inadmissible. And last of all comes the question what shall be your own eternal record in history, whether you will be remembered as the preserver or the destroyer of the greatest city in the world.'

Belisarius, in writing this letter, had not miscalculated the temper of his antagonist. Totila read it over and over again, laid its warnings to heart, and dismissed the ambassadors with the assurance that he would do no further damage to the monuments of the Eternal City. Totila evacuates Rome, but does not destroy it. He then withdrew the greater part of his troops to Mount Algidus,​17 a shoulder of the high Alban mount, about twenty miles south-east of Rome, and marched himself into Lucania to prosecute the war against John and his eager ally Tullianus. The Senators had to follow in his train, unwilling hostages. Their wives and children were sent to the chief cities  p503 of Campania. Rome herself, though not ruined, was left without a single inhabitant.

Would it have been better for archaeology if Totila had laid the City in ruins? The archaeologist who reads correctly how narrowly Rome thus escaped destruction at the hands of Totila may, at first, almost regret that he was prevented from carrying his purpose into effect. There would then, so he thinks, have been one mighty conflagration, in which all that was of wood must have perished, but which the mighty walls of temple and palace would assuredly have survived. Then the City would have become a wilderness of grass-grown mounds, amid which the shepherd of the Campagna might have wandered while his goats nibbled the short grass in the halls of Emperors and Consuls. The successive sieges by Lombard, Norman, and German, the havoc wrought by ignorant feudal barons, the yet worse havoc of statue-hunting Papal nephews, the slow but ceaseless ruin effected by the 'little citizens' of Rome, whose squalid habitations burrowed into the foundations of temple and forum and theatre, the detestable industry of the lime-kilns, which for ten centuries were perpetually burning into mortar the noblest monuments of Greek and Roman art, — all this would have been avoided, and the buried city might have lain hidden for twelve centuries, till another Layard or another Schliemann revealed its wonders to a generation capable of understanding and appreciating them.

She must have been rebuilt. But no: this could never have been. The religious memories which clustered around Rome were too mighty to allow of her ever being thus utterly deserted. If Rome herself in the plenitude of her power could not obliterate Jerusalem, much less could the Northern barbarians cause Rome to be forgotten. The successor  p504 of St. Peter must inevitably have come back to the tombs of the Fisherman and the Tent-maker; pilgrims from all the countries of the West must have flocked to the scenes of the saints' martyrdoms; convents and hostelries must again have risen by the Tiber; and in the course of centuries, if not of a few generations, another city, not very unlike the Rome of the Middle Ages, would have covered the space of the marble-strewn sheep-walk left by Totila.18

The Author's Notes:

1 Διὰ πύλης τῆς ἑτέρας probably means this, though they might escape to Portus by the Porta Portuensis.

2 Vol. I pp52‑55.

3 P374,º and Usener, Anecdoton Holderi, p14. His full name was Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius.

4 Vol. II pp199‑208.

5 Vol. II pp471‑472.º

6 Vol. II pp496‑522.

7 'Φείδου τῶν σῶν, ὦ δέσποτα' εἶπε.' There is surely an allusion here to the words, 'Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach' (Joel ii.17). The context of the verse gives great emphasis to the quotation.

8 Gibbon says (V.222, ed. Smith): 'The assertion that only five hundred persons [citizens] remained in the capital inspires some doubt of the fidelity either of his narrative or of his text.' But it seems to me that the whole earlier and later course of his narrative agrees well enough with this statement. Of course all these statistical assertions require to be received with a good deal of caution.

9 Καὶ γερόντων ξυνετωτάτων πολὺν ὅμιλον, ὅπερ τοῖς ἐς ἀγῶνας καθισταμένοις ξυμφορώτατον εἶναι δοκεῖ. Possibly, like the English in the Crimea, the followers of Witigis were overweighted with the experience of veteran soldiers.

10 This is no doubt the sum total of the Imperial troops in Italy, not in Rome, the number of the latter being, as we know, 3000. I think this is the only indication that we have of the size of the Imperial army at this time.

11 Οὐ γὰρ ἀνθρώπων γένει οὐδὲ φύσει ἐθνῶν ξυμμαχεῖν εἴωθεν [ὁ θεός], ἀλλ’ οἷς ἂν μᾶλλον ὁ τοῦ δικαίου λόγος τιμῷτο. Golden words, whether Totila or Procopius be the true author of them, and an admirable answer to the war‑cry of some modern politicians, 'Our country, right or wrong.'

12 The words are important as a description of Theodoric's system of government: Πολλὰ πρός τε Θευδερίχου καὶ Ἀταλαρίχου ἀγαθὰ πεπονθότες, ἐπί τε τῆς ἀρχῆς ἁπάσης αὐτοὶ ἐς ἀεὶ καταστάντες καὶ τήν τε πολιτείαν διοικησάμενοι, πλούτου τε περιβεβλημένοι μέγα τι χρῆμα.

13 And this hinted disapprobation of the Emperor's government in the De Bellis is a strong confirmation of the genuineness of the Anecdota.

14 Ὑμεῖς ξύντροφοι Γότθοις γεγενημένοι.

15 Probably. They were neighbours of the Slovenes (see Procop. De B. G. III.14), but one cannot pretend to locate these Illyrian tribes with perfect accuracy.

16 Ὅσον ἐς τριτημόριον τοῦ παντὸς μάλιστα. I have no doubt that this is a very loose and conjectural statement; and it is probable that a careful survey of the wall, assigning to each part its approximate date, would greatly reduce the proportion of wall destroyed by Totila. The analogy to the proceedings of Gaiseric in Africa (vol. II p537) will naturally suggest itself to the reader.

17 It seems necessary to translate Ἀλγηδὼν Algidus, but the topographical indications do not fit. Procopius describes it as west of Rome, whereas Algidus is a little south of east; and though from that high vantage-ground the troops might observe Belisarius at Portus, they were surely too distant to impose any effectual check on his movements (ὅπως δὴ μηδεμίᾷ μηχανῇ δυνατὰ εἴη τοῖς ἀμφὶ Βελισάριον ἔξω πη τοῦ Πόρτου ἰέναι).

18 The view here urged of the practical indestructibility of Rome is strongly supported by the somewhat similar case of Aquileia. If ever an ancient city was thoroughly destroyed, Aquileia was thus destroyed by Attila: and as a city of commercial or political importance she never did rise again. But ecclesiastically the city revived, and the Patriarch of Aquileia was for centuries one of the most important personages in the countries of the Hadriatic.

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