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Bill Thayer

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Book V
Chapter 2

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 4

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter III

The Elevation of Witigis


Sources: —

Procopius De Bello Gotthico, I.11‑13. Cassiodorus, Variarum, X.31‑35. Jordanes, De Regnorum Successione, 372‑3; De Rebus Geticis, 309‑10.

Indignation of the Goths against Theodahad. The failure of the Gothic King to avert the fall of Neapolis exasperated beyond endurance the warlike subjects of Theodahad. His avarice and his ingratitude were known; his want of loyalty to the nation of his fathers was more than suspected. Rumours of his negotiations with Constantinople, even the most secret and the most discreditable of them, had reached the ears of his subjects, and now the worst of those rumours seemed to be confirmed by his desertion of the defenders of Neapolis, a desertion so extraordinary that mere incompetence seemed insufficient to account for it.

Assembly of the nation under arms at Regeta, Aug. 536.1 That which our ancestors would have called a Folcmote, an assembly of the whole Gothic nation under arms, was convened, by what authority we know not, to deliberate on the perilous condition of the country.  p63 The place of meeting was forty-three miles2 from Rome. It has been hitherto impossible to discover any clue to the name given by Procopius, who says 'The Romans call the place Regeta;' but the other indications afforded by him show that it was situated in the Pomptine Marshes, and in that part of them which the draining operations of Decius, who had apparently cleared out the old Decennovial3 Canal, had restored to productiveness, perhaps even to fertility.4

Allusion has already been made to Theodoric's share in the promotion of this useful work, and to the palace bearing his name which crowned the heights of Terracina.5 If not that palace itself, yet at any rate the hill on which it stood, rose conspicuously on the southern horizon some fifteen miles from the Gothic meeting-place. The reason for choosing this spot was that, thanks to the draining operations just referred to, the vast plain furnished a plentiful supply of grass for the horses of the assembled warriors.6

 p64  536 Deposition of Theodahad. As soon as the nation met upon the plain of Regeta, it was clear that the deposition of Theodahad was inevitable, and that the only question was who should succeed him. The line of the great Theodoric was practically extinct (only a young girl, the sister of Athalaric, remained); and in the great necessity of the nation, they travelled beyond the circle not only of royal, but even of noble blood, to find a deliverer. Election of Witigis. A warrior named Witigis, not sprung from any illustrious house,7 but who had rendered himself illustrious by great deeds wrought against the Gepids in the war of Sirmium,8 was raised upon the buckler and acclaimed as king.9 The pen of the veteran Cassiodorus was employed to draw up the document in which was announced to the Goths the elevation of a king, 'not chosen in the recesses of a royal bedchamber, but in  p65 the expanse of the boundless Campagna; of one who owed his dignity first to Divine grace, but secondly to the free judgment of the people; of one who knew the brave men in his army by comradeship, having stood shoulder to shoulder with them in the day of battle.' His countrymen were exhorted to relinquish that attitude of fear and mutual suspicion which the rule of the craven Theodahad had only too naturally produced, and to work with one accord for the deliverance of their nation.

Death of Theodahad. Witigis decided without hesitation that the dethroned monarch must die. He gave the word to a Goth named Optaris to follow Theodahad and bring him back, dead or alive. Optaris had the stimulus of revenge besides that of obedience to urge him to fulfil his bloody commission, since he had lost a bride rich and lovely, whose hand had been plighted to him, by Theodahad's venal interference on behalf of a rival suitor. Night and day he spurred on his steed. He came up with the flying King before he had reached Ravenna, threw him to the ground, and cut his throat as a priest would slay a sheep for sacrifice.10

 p66  So vanishes the Platonist Ostrogoth, the remover of land-marks, the perjurer and the coward, from the page of history. It is not often that the historian has to describe a character so thoroughly contemptible as that of Theodahad.

Deplorable state of the Gothic monarchy. Witigis on his accession to the throne found an utter absence of effective preparation to meet the enemy. The two enemies, we should rather say, since the Franks, in fulfilment of a secret compact with Justinian, were in arms against the Goths, and a considerable part of the army of Theodahad was stationed in Provence and Dauphiné, endeavouring to defend that part of the kingdom against the sons of Clovis. Witigis proposes to leave Rome. In these circumstances Witigis determined to retire for a time to Ravenna, not indeed evacuating Rome, since the gallant veteran Leudaris was to be left in charge of that city with 4000 picked troops, but withdrawing the bulk of his army to the stronger capital, and there at his leisure preparing for the defence of the kingdom. In a speech to the army he set forth the reasons for this course, the necessity for getting the Frankish war off their hands and so of reducing the number of their invaders, the difference between a withdrawal dictated by motives of high policy and a cowardly flight, and so forth. The most important point of all, the effect of such a movement on the Roman population, was thus slightly handled: 'If the Romans be well affected toward us, they will help to guard the city for the Goths, and will not put Fortune to the proof, knowing that we shall speedily return. But if they are meditating any intrigue against us,  p67 they will do us less harm by delivering the city to the enemy than by continuing in secret conspiracy; for we shall then know who are on our side, and shall be able to distinguish friends from foes.'

Error of this course. With these and similar arguments Witigis persuaded his countrymen to retire with the bulk of the army into North Italy. It is easy to see now, and surely it should have been easy to see then, that this was a fatal blunder. The Franks, as the events of the next few months were to prove, were fighting only for their own hand, and might easily be bought off by territorial concessions in Gaul. The real and only inevitable enemy was Belisarius, the daring strategist who was now at Neapolis, and who had come to the Italian peninsula to conquer it, the whole of it, for his master or to die. All‑important in this struggle was the attitude of the Roman population, not in Rome only, but over the whole of Italy. They could still look back on the peace and plenty which had marked the just reign of Theodoric. Though by no means welded into one nation with their Gothic guests, there was not as yet, we have good reason to believe, any impassable chasm between the two races; and if they could be persuaded to cast in their lot with the Teutonic defenders of their land, if they could practise the lesson which they had been lately learning, of substituting the name 'Italy' for 'the Empire'; above all, if they could be induced to think of Belisarius and his troops as Greek intruders into their country, the new Romano-Gothic people and fatherland might yet be formed. The example of the resistance of Neapolis showed that this was not a mere idle dream. But all these hopes would be blasted, all the great work of  p68 Theodoric and Cassiodorus would be unravelled, and the Ostrogoths would sink into the position of a mere countryless horde, themselves invaders of Italy rather than the invaded, if the general of Justinian could once get within the walls of Rome, if the name of that venerable city with its thirteen centuries of glory could once be his to conjure with, if the head and the members being again joined together he could display himself to the world as the defender of the Roman Empire, in Rome, against the barbarians.

Departure of the Gothic host to Ravenna, leaving a small garrison in Rome. The chance, if chance there was, of so defending the Gothic kingdom was thrown away. The unwise counsel of Witigis — who, it may be, could not believe himself a king till he had actually sat in Theodoric's audience-chamber at Ravenna — prevailed, and the Gothic host marched off northwards, leaving only Leudaris and his 4000 braves to hold the capital against Belisarius. Witigis took, indeed, some precautions, such as they were, to assure the fidelity of the citizens. He harangued Pope Silverius, the Senate, and the people of Rome, calling to their remembrance the great benefits which they had received from Theodoric; he bound them under most solemn oaths to be faithful to the Gothic rule; he took a large number of Senators with him as hostages for the loyalty of the rest. To force the subjects whom he was not defending to swear eternal allegiance to his rule was the work of a weak man; to hint that, if they did not, their innocent friends should suffer for it, was the threat of a cruel one. This taking of hostages, though it might seem for the moment an easy expedient for securing the fidelity of an unguarded city, was essentially a bad security. If the bond were forfeited by the surrender  p69 of the city, to exact the penalty, namely, the death of the chief citizens of Rome, helpless and innocent, was to put an absolutely impassable barrier between the Gothic King and the vast majority of the inhabitants of Italy.

Witigis marries Matasuentha. On his arrival at Ravenna Witigis took part in a pageant which may have both amazed and amused his Gothic subjects. He, the elderly warrior, the husband of a wife probably of his own age, having divorced that companion of his humbler fortunes, proceeded to marry the young and blooming Matasuentha, sister of Athalaric and granddaughter of the great Theodoric. Reasons of state were of course alleged for these strange nuptials. An alliance with the royal house might cause men to forget the lowliness of the new King's origin; and the danger of his finding a rival to the crown in Matasuentha's husband, or even of her making over her rights, such as they might be, to the Emperor, was barred by her becoming the Lady of the Goths. But the marriage was against nature, and brought no blessing with it. The unfortunate girl, as weary of her elderly husband as Athalaric had been of his grey-headed tutors, chafed against the yoke, and made no secret of the fact that she loved not her consort; and he, divided between the pride of the low‑born adventurer exalted to a splendid position, and the unhappiness of the husband who is unloved and who lives in an atmosphere of daily reproaches, lost any power which he may ever have possessed of devising measures for the deliverance of the Gothic nation from its peril.11

 p70  The elevation of Witigis a mistake. Altogether, the elevation of Witigis was a mistake for the Gothic monarchy. It was the old and often-repeated error of supposing that because a man till he has reached middle age has played a subordinate part with some credit, he will be able to rise to the sudden requirements of a great and difficult position; that respectability will serve instead of genius. Against a general, perhaps the greatest that the world has ever seen for fertility of resource and power of rapid combination, the Goths had given themselves for a leader a mere brave and honest blunderer, whose notions of strategy were like those which Demosthenes reproved in his Athenian countrymen, who, as unskilful pugilists, were always trying to parry a blow after it had been struck and always being surprised by its successor. Yet as, with all his incapacity, he was loyal to the nation, the nation was loyal to him, and during the three following years of his disastrous leadership they never seem to have entertained the thought of replacing him by a better commander.12

Embassy to Constantinople. Having now allied himself with the daughter of the murdered Amalasuntha, Witigis sent an embassy to  p71 Constantinople, urging, with some reason, that the cause of quarrel between the Emperor and the Goths was at an end. The vile Theodahad had paid the penalty of his crimes, a penalty which Witigis himself had exacted from him. The daughter of Amalasuntha sat on the Gothic throne. What more did Justinian require? Why should he not stop the effusion of blood and restore peace to Italy? This letter to the Emperor was supplemented by one to the orthodox bishops of Italy, calling upon them to pray for the success of the embassy; to the Prefect of Thessalonica, praying him to speed the two ambassadors on their way; and to the Master of the Offices at Constantinople, beseeching him to use his influence in favour of peace. All these letters came from the pen of Cassiodorus.13

Presumed answer of Justinian. The letters written in reply to Witigis have not been preserved; but there can be no doubt that such letters were received by the Gothic king, probably in the late autumn of 536, and they must have been to the intent that war must now proceed, since nothing but unqualified submission would satisfy the demand of Justinian.

Gaulish possessions ceded to the Franks. One of the first acts of the reign of Witigis was to buy off the opposition of the Franks by the cession of the Ostrogothic possessions in Gaul (Provence and part of Dauphiné)14 and by the payment of twenty  p72 hundredweight of gold (£80,000).15 Negotiations for this purpose had been commenced by Theodahad, but were interrupted by his death. Childebert, Theudebert, and Chlotochar now divided among them the treasure and the towns ceded by the Goths, and concluded a secret alliance with them, promising to send some of their horde of subject nations to assist in the defence of Italy. More they durst not do, being desirous still to keep up the appearance of friendship with Byzantium.

In thus resuming the pacific policy of Theodahad towards the Franks, — a policy which enabled him to recall the general Marcias and many thousands of the bravest of the Goths to the south of the Alps, — Witigis seems to have been only recognising an inevitable necessity. His great error was in not making this concession earlier. If he could thus purchase the friendship of the Franks, and secure his northern frontier from their attacks, he ought to have done so at once, and thus to have avoided the necessity for the fatal abandonment of Rome.

The Author's Notes:

1 We get the date of the deposition of Theodahad from the Liber Pontificalis (Vita Silverii), which states that it occurred two months after the election of Pope Silverius.

2 English miles: forty-seven Roman: see Procopius, De B. G. I.11. This passage is very important for the information which it affords as to the length of Procopius' stadium, which was evidently 272 yards, 70 yards longer than the stadium of Attic historians. Procopius says, in explaining the Latin word Decennovium: Ποταμὸς . . . ἐννεακαίδεκα περιιὼν σημεῖα, ὅπερ ξύνεισιν ἐς τρεῖς καὶ δέκα καὶ ἑκατὸν σταδίους. Since 113 stadia = 19 Roman miles (of 1618 yards each) = 30,742 yards, it follows that one stadium = 272 6113 yards.

3 The Decennovial Canal derived its name from the fact that it flowed past nineteen miles of the Appian Way.

4 See Abstract of the letters of Cassiodorus, II.32, for Theodoric's 'concession' to Decius.

5 See vol. III p277.

6 Scholars seem to have given up in despair the attempt to identify Regeta. Lord Stanhope suggests Lake Regillus, which is absurd, neither the distance nor any of the other indications furnished by Procopius agreeing therewith. The neighbourhood of Terracina and of the Decennovian Canal is clearly pointed out by Procopius. He seems, however, not to be aware that the stream in question was not a natural river. Is it possible that Regeta is an error for Regesta, and has something to do with the dykes or embankments of the Decian drainage-scheme? It seems to me that the site should be looked for pretty near Ad Medias (Mesa Posta), the station on the Appian Way between Appii Forum and Terracina. Procopius here displays a little archaeological learning about the Homeric island of Circe in connection with Terracina and the neighbouring promontory of Circaeum.

7 Οὐίτιγιν εἵλοντο, ἄνδρα οἰκίας οὐκ ἐπιφανοῦς ὄντα.

8 See vol. III p396.

9 The account given by Jordanes (De Regnorum Successione, 372) makes the elevation of Witigis more the result of his own contrivance and less the spontaneous act of the nation than that of Procopius. 'Vitiges . . . qui Campania[m] ingressus mox ad campos venisset Barbaricos, ilico exercitus favore, quod contra Theodahadum suspectum habebat excepit. . . . Facto impetu in eo consona voce Vitigis [Vitigem] regem denuntiant. At ille regno levatus quod ipse optaverat mox populi voto consentit,' etc.

10 Agnellus (Lib. Pont. Ecclesiae Ravennatis, § 62) says of Theodahad, whom he calls Deodatus, 'Non post multos dies ivit rex Deodatus Romam, et revertente (sic) occisus est a Gothis 15 miliario de Ravenna, mense decembris.' Either

(1) This date is wrong, which one does not like to admit, as Agnellus is generally accurate in his indication as to the time of year when events happened, though often wrong as to the year itself;

Or (2) the date assigned, on the authority of Roman Liber Pontificalis, to the deposition of Theodahad (August 536) is wrong;

Or (3) the interval between Theodahad's deposition and death was longer than the narrative of Procopius would lead us to infer. I incline to the last supposition. Perhaps there was really a short civil war between the partisans and the enemies of Theodahad or possibly he was in hiding from August to December.

11 All our authorities agree as to the unhappiness of this marriage. Procopius says (De B. G. I.11): Ματασοῦνθαν . . . παρθένον τε καὶ ὡραῖαν ἤδη οὖσαν, γυναῖκα γαμετὴν οὔ τι ἐθελούσιον ἐποιήσατο. Jordanes (De Regnorum Successione, 373): 'Regno suo confirmans, expeditionem solvit et privata conjuge repudiata regiam puellam Mathesuentam Theodorici regis neptem sibi plus vi copolat quam amori.' The same words are used by Marcellinus Comes, from whom possibly Jordanes has borrowed them.

12 There is something in this attitude of the Goths towards Witigis which reminds one of the French confidence in General Trochu during the siege of Paris. But this comparison is probably unfair to Trochu. Victory over the Germans was scarcely possible when the French general took the command in September 1870. Victory over the Byzantines was abundantly possible for the Gothic King in 536.

13 See Cassiodori Variarum, X.32‑35. It is not quite clear whether Witigis is addressing his own or Justinian's Magister Officiorum: but I think the latter.

14 At this time also, as v. Schubert thinks (Unterwerfung der Alamannen, p178) the remnant of the Alamannic nation which had lived in Raetia under the protection of the Ostrogothic kings, was handed over by Witigis to Theudebert.

15 In the wild legend which figures as the story of Amalasuntha in the pages of Gregory of Tours (Hist. Franc. III.31), this payment, reduced to 50,000 aurei (£30,000), is represented as the weregild paid by Theodahad to the sons of Clovis for the murder of their cousin Amalasuntha. It is possible that some such claim may have been put forward by the Frankish princes, never at a loss for a plausible pretext for war.

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