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Ch. 18, §5
This webpage reproduces a section of
History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. 18, §11


(Part 4 of 5)

§ 6. Siege and Relief of Ariminum (A.D. 538)

After the raising of the siege of Rome the scene of war shifts northward, to the fortresses along the Flaminian Way, in the lands of Umbria and Picenum, and to the provinces beyond the Po, where fighting was still to go on for two years before Belisarius succeeded in capturing the Gothic capital.

The Flaminian Way, which, traversing the Apennines, connected Rome with Ravenna, reached the Hadriatic at Fanum Fortunae (Fano), whence, following the coast, it led to Ariminum, and was continued to Ravenna. The general disposition of the belligerent forces in these districts is easy to grasp. The principal fortified hill towns to the west of the Flaminian Way, with the exception of Perusia, were held by the Goths, and those to the east, with the exception of Auximum (Osimo), by the Romans.​110 Ariminum, as we saw, had been somewhat audaciously occupied by John, the nephew of Vitalian, with 2000 Isaurians, and Ancona was securely held by Conon.

It appeared to Belisarius that it would be a serious error to keep 2000 excellent cavalry, who would be invaluable in open warfare, shut up in Ariminum, and only tempting the Goths to besiege it. Accordingly, as soon as the enemy retired from Rome, his first care was to send forward Martin and Ildiger at the head of 1000 horsemen to order John to withdraw from Ariminum, and replace his Isaurians by a small force of infantry taken from the garrison at Ancona, which could easily spare them. As the retreating army of Witigis had diverged from the Flaminian highroad in order to avoid the forts of Narnia and Spoletium, no obstacle opposed the advance of Martin and Ildiger until they reached Petra Pertusa, "The tunnelled Rock," a pass between Cales (Cagli) and Forum Sempronii (Fossombrone),  p196  about twenty-five miles from the Hadriatic Sea.​111 This pass, now known as the Passo di Furlo, is accurately described by Procopius. The Flaminian Road comes up against a high wall of rock, on the right of which a river descends with such a rapid current that it would be death to attempt to cross it, and on the left the precipitous cliff to which the rock belongs rises so high that men standing on its summit would appear to those below like the smallest birds. The Emperor Vespasian bored a tunnel through this rock, as an inscription on the spot records. It was a natural fortress, well adapted for defence. The Roman troops who now advanced found it held by a Gothic garrison and closed by doors at either end. The Goths, who had their women and children with them, lived in houses outside the tunnel, apparently on the Hadriatic side. When it was found impossible to make any impression on the well-fortified entrance to the passage, some men were sent to the top of the cliff, and dislodging huge fragments of rock they rolled them down on the Gothic block-houses below. The enemy immediately surrendered, and Martin and Ildiger, leaving a small garrison behind them, continued their journey to Fanum. From here they had to ride southward to Ancona to pick up a detachment of foot-soldiers to replace the Isaurians at Ariminum. Then retracing their steps to Fanum they arrived safely at their destination, and delivered the commands of Belisarius to John. But John declined to obey, and leaving the foot-soldiers with him Martin and Ildiger departed to report the issue of their errand to the commander-in‑chief.

The insubordination of John strikes the note of the subsequent course of the Roman conduct of the war. Counsels were divided, and the commander-in‑chief could no longer depend on his generals to conform to his plans. Belisarius was slow and cautious, but it is probable that, if he had been able to have his own way and secure the punctual obedience of his subordinates, the war would have been shortened. John was an excellent but sometimes over-confident soldier. He was impatient of the cautious deliberation of Belisarius, and doubtless thought that he was himself more worthy of the post of supreme commander.  p197  In the present instance, the event speedily showed that Belisarius was right. Witigis had no sooner crossed the Apennines than he addressed himself to the siege of Ariminum. Failing in his assaults, he sat down to take it by hunger, and the besieged were presently reduced to extreme distress (April, A.D. 538).

Belisarius meanwhile had begun to advance northward from Rome, to carry out methodically his plan of reducing, first of all, the Gothic fortresses west of the Apennines. It was about the middle of the year. Clusium and Tuder surrendered on his approach. His next object would have been the reduction of Urbs Vetus, but the execution of his plan was disarranged by the arrival of reinforcements from the East which now reached Picenum under the command of the eunuch Narses, keeper of the Emperor's privy purse.​112 The new army was 7000 strong, consisting of 5000 Roman troops under another Narses and Justin the Master of Soldiers in Illyricum, and 2000 Herul auxiliaries under their own leaders. Such an important addition to the Imperial fighting forces modified the situation, and Belisarius, leaving Urbs Vetus unreduced, marched to Picenum to confer with Narses and arrange the future conduct of the war. They met at Firmum and a council was held which had weighty consequences. The urgent question was the relief of Ariminum, which was hard pressed and might be forced to surrender through hunger. Should the army march to its relief immediately? Belisarius was opposed to this course on military grounds. So long as Auximum was held by the enemy, an advance against the Goths at Ariminum would expose his rear to an attack from the garrison of that fortress. The majority of the generals present agreed, and held that no risks should be taken to save John, whose predicament was due to his own rashness and insubordination. Narses, who was a personal friend of John, opposed this view. He pointed out that the disobedience of John was a side-issue which ought not to affect their decision. After the relief of Ariminum John could be punished for defying the commands of Belisarius. But it would be highly inexpedient, he argued, considering not only the material loss, but also the moral consequences, to allow an important city and a large  p198  body of troops — not to speak of a vigorous general — to fall into the hands of the foe.

While the council was sitting, a soldier from Ariminum who had eluded the blockade arrived in the camp with a letter from John. Its purport was: "All our supplies have long since failed us. Unable to resist the enemy, we cannot hold out against the pressure of the inhabitants, and within seven days we shall have reluctantly to surrender ourselves and the city. Our extreme necessity is, I think, an adequate excuse for an act which may appear unbecoming." This message, simply announcing a fact and making no demand for succour, strengthened whatever effect may have been produced by the arguments of Narses. Belisarius decided to do all that could be done to save Ariminum, though he still felt grave scruples whether it was a wise thing to do.

It would be bold for a modern critic, with the meagre evidence at his disposal, to assert that the hesitations of the commander-in‑chief were unjustified, but it is difficult to resist the impression that the course recommended by Narses was the right one. It required military skill, but when Belisarius set his mind to the problem he solved it triumphantly. In order to mitigate the danger from Auximum, he posted a thousand men to the east of it near the coast. A large force was sent by sea to Ariminum under the command of Ildiger, who was instructed not to disembark until a second army, which, led by Martin, was to march along the coast road, approached the city. Martin, when he arrived, was to light many more fires than were required, in order to deceive the enemy as to the number of his troops. Belisarius, accompanied by Narses, led the rest of the army by an inland mountainous route with the purpose of descending on Ariminum from the north-west.​113 For the full success of the plan it was necessary that the arrivals of the three armies on the  p199  scene should be timed to coincide. At a day's journey from Ariminum a few Goths fell in with the army of Belisarius, and hardly realised that they were in the presence of an enemy till Roman arrows began to work havoc among them. Some fell, others crawled wounded behind the shelter of rocks. From their concealment they could see the standards of Belisarius, and they received the impression of an army far in excess of its actual numbers. In the night they made their way to the camp of Witigis at Ariminum, and arriving at mid-day reported the approach of Belisarius with an innumerable host. The Goths immediately formed in battle order on the northern side of the city and spent the afternoon looking towards the hills. When night fell and they were composing themselves to rest, they suddenly saw to the south-east the blaze of the fires which had been kindled by the troops of Martin. They realised that they were in danger of being surrounded, and passed the night in terror. When morning came and they looked out to sea, they beheld a great armament of hostile ships approaching. In fear and confusion they broke up their camp, and no man thought of anything but reaching the shelter of Ravenna. If the garrison of the city had rushed out and dealt death among the panic-stricken fugitives, Procopius thought that the war might have ended there and then. But the soldiers of John were too exhausted by their privations to seize the moment.

Ildiger and the troops who had come by sea were the first to arrive in the abandoned camp of the barbarians. Belisarius arrived at mid-day. When he met John, pale and gaunt with hunger, he could not forbear remarking that he ought to thank Ildiger. John dryly replied that his gratitude was due not to Ildiger but to Narses.

§ 7. Dissensions in the Imperial Army

The relief of Ariminum, accomplished without the loss of a single life, was a new proof of the military capacity of Belisarius, but it was a moral triumph for Narses, since but for his influence it would never have been undertaken. Distrust and division ensued between the commander-in‑chief and the chamberlain, and the bloodless victory hardly compensated for the injuries which this dissension inflicted on the Imperial cause. Narses  p200  felt, and his friends convinced him, that it was beneath the dignity of his office to act in subordination to a general, and he determined to use the forces which he had brought to Italy according to his own discretion. In accordance with this resolution he excused himself repeatedly from complying with requests or orders from Belisarius, who at length convoked a military council to clear up the situation.

At this council Belisarius did not at first insist upon his rights as commander-in‑chief or rebuke Narses for disobedience. He pointed out that the enemy were far from being defeated; Witigis had still an army of tens of thousands at Ravenna; the situation in Liguria was serious; Auximum with its large and valiant garrison was still uncaptured, as well as other strong places like Urbs Vetus. He proposed that a portion of the army should be sent to Liguria, to the rescue of Milan, which was in grave peril, and that the remaining forces should be employed against the Gothic fortresses south and west of the Flaminian Way, and first of all against Auximum. Narses replied. He contended that it was inexpedient that all the Imperial forces should be concentrated on the two objects of Auximum and Milan. Let Belisarius undertake these enterprises, but he would attempt the conquest of the Aemilian province. This would have the probable advantage of retaining the main army of the Goths at Ravenna, so that they would be unable to send aid to the places attacked by Belisarius. But Belisarius was opposed to any plan which involved a dissipation of forces, and he decided to assert his authority. He produced a letter which the Emperor had recently addressed to the commanders of the troops in Italy. It was conceived in these terms:

"In sending Narses our purser to Italy we do not invest him with the command of the army. It is our wish that Belisarius alone shall lead the whole army as seems good to him, and it behoves you all to obey him in the interest of our State."114

In the last phrase there was a possible ambiguity of which Narses at once took advantage, interpreting it as a reservation limiting the duty of obedience. The plan of Belisarius, he said, is not in the interest of the State, and therefore we are not  p201  bound to obey him. It may seem difficult to suppose that Justinian intended to lay down a principle which logically led to military anarchy, since it was open to every commander to take a different view of the wisdom of a strategy plan. Yet we cannot consider it impossible that the insertion of the words "in the interest of the State" was designed as a check on the authority of the commander-in‑chief. For if the Emperor had really meant to enjoin unconditional obedience, the phrase in question was entirely unnecessary. The fact that the trusted keeper of his privy purse should have been chosen for a military mission lends colour to the suspicion that Justinian was dissatisfied with the progress of the war, and doubtful whether Belisarius was conducting it with the necessary energy. It would be going too far to suggest that he wished to deprive Belisarius of the undivided glory of conquering Italy, though we are told that this was the personal object of Narses.

Belisarius was not in a position to enforce his claims, and he had sufficient self-restraint to avoid an actual breach. Matters were smoothed over for the time, and the co-operation of the commanders, though it was far from cordial, continued. A large force was despatched against Urbs Vetus, and Belisarius, again postponing his intention of reducing Auximum, marched to the siege of Urbinum, accompanied by Narses and John. But the forces of the rival commanders did not mingle; they encamped separately on the eastern and western sides of the city. The garrison of Urbinum, which is situated on a high hill at a strenuous day's journey from Ariminum, refused an invitation of Belisarius to surrender; they had abundance of provisions and trusted in the strength of the city. Narses, deeming the place impregnable, considered it waste of time to remain, and, withdrawing to Ariminum, sent John, at the head of all his forces, against Caesena. Failing to take this place, John, who was impatient of sieges, advanced against Forum Cornelii (Imola), which he captured by surprise, and then easily subjugated the whole Aemilian province.

Meanwhile fortune played into the hands of Belisarius. Urbinum was supplied by a single spring. It suddenly ran dry, and deprived of water the Goths could only capitulate. Narses is said to have received the news of this success with deep chagrin.

 p202  § 8. Siege and Massacre of Milan (A.D. 539)

It was now December (A.D. 538)​115 and Belisarius decided that it was inopportune then to attempt the siege of Auximum, which promised to prove a difficult enterprise. He left a large force in Firmum to protect the country against the ravages of the garrison, and marched himself to Urbs Vetus, where provisions were already running short. The place could hardly have been taken by assault. It is a natural stronghold, requiring no artificial fortifications, — built on an isolated hill rising out of hollow country. This hill, level at the top, is precipitous below, and is surrounded by cliffs of the same height, between which and the hill itself flows a large and impassable river, according to Procopius, entirely encircling the hill except at one point where the city could be approached from the cliffs. At the present day, Orvieto is not surrounded by water. The river Paglia flows round the northern and eastern sides of the hill, to join the river Chiana, but on the south and west there is no such natural moat. It is supposed that the Paglia may have changed its course.​116 Hunger was the only weapon which could avail against a brave garrison, and the Goths, when they had been reduced to consuming hides softened in water, surrendered at last to Belisarius (spring, A.D. 539).

In the meantime important events had been happening beyond the Po. Immediately after the Goths had raised the siege of Rome, Belisarius, in fulfilment of his promise to Datius, the archbishop of Milan, had sent 1000 Isaurians and Thracians under the command of Mundilas to Liguria (April, A.D. 538). They went by sea from Porto to Genoa, and, crossing the Po, they succeeded in occupying Milan, Bergamum, Comum, Novaria, and all the strong places of inland Liguria except Ticinum (Pavia). On hearing the news Witigis sent his nephew Uraias to recover Milan, and he received power­ful aid from abroad.

Theodebert, grandson of Chlodwig, had succeeded his father Theoderic as king of Austrasia in A.D. 533. Besides the Austrasian dominion on both sides of the Rhine, with its capital at Metz, he ruled over a portion of Aquitania and a portion of Burgundy which had recently been conquered by his uncles. We  p203  possess a letter which he wrote to Justinian, probably in an early stage of the war, offering excuses for his failure to send to Italy a force of 3000 men which he had promised. As he styles Justinian "father,"​117 it may be inferred that the Emperor formally adopted him as a son when he sought an assurance of the co-operation of the Franks before the outbreak of the war. But Theodebert was ambitious and treacherous, and his filial relation to Justinian was no obstacle to his policy of playing fast and loose between the two belligerents. At this crisis he resolved to assist the Goths, and 10,000 Burgundians crossed the Alps to co-operate with Uraias. He sophistically professed that he was not violating his convention with the Emperor, because no Franks were in the army; the Burgundians, forsooth, were acting as an independent people, without his authority.​118 The Gothic and Burgundian forces blockaded Milan, which Mundilas held with only 300 soldiers as the rest of his force had been distributed in the other Ligurian fortresses.​119 The able-bodied civilian inhabitants were therefore called upon to take part in the defence.

After the relief of Ariminum, Belisarius despatched a large army under Martin and Uliaris to the relief of Milan. These commanders encamped on the southern bank of the Po; they were afraid to face the host of barbarians who were besieging the city. Mundilas despatched a messenger, who managed to evade the sentinels of the enemy, to plead the urgent need of the besieged, and was sent back with promises of speedy aid, which Martin and Uliaris made no effort to fulfil. At last, after a delay so long that it amounted to treason to the Imperial cause, they wrote to Belisarius, representing their forces as hopelessly inadequate to cope with the enemy and requesting him to send John and Justin, who were in the neighbouring province of Aemilia, to reinforce them. Belisarius complied, but John and Justin refused to move without the authority of Narses. Belisarius wrote to Narses, who gave the requisite order. John proceeded to collect ships for the purpose of crossing the Po,  p204  but before his preparations were completed he fell ill. Thus delay ensued upon delay, and meanwhile the unhappy inhabitants of Milan were starving. When they were reduced to feeding on dogs and mice, Gothic envoys waited on Mundilas, inviting him to capitulate on the condition that he and all his soldiers should have their lives spared. He was ready to accept these terms if they would agree to spare the inhabitants. But the Goths, who were infuriated against the disloyal Ligurians, did not conceal their determination to wreak a bloody vengeance. Mundilas therefore refused, but his hands were soon forced. He attempted to induce the soldiers to make a desperate sally against the foe, but, worn as they were by the sufferings of the siege, they had not the courage to embrace so forlorn a hope. They compelled their leader to agree to the terms which the Goths had proposed.

Mundilas and the soldiers were placed in honourable captivity, in accordance with the agreement. Milan and its inhabitants felt the full fury of a host of savages. All the adult males, who according to Procopius numbered 300,000, were massacred; all the women were presented as slaves to the Burgundians. The city itself was razed to the ground. It was the wealthiest and most populous town in Italy then, as now, and if Procopius is near the truth in his estimate of the number of males who were slain, it must have been nearly as populous as it is to‑day.120

In the long series of deliberate inhumanities recorded in the annals of mankind, the colossal massacre of Milan is one of the most flagrant. Historians have passed it over somewhat lightly. But the career of Attila offers no act of war so savage as this vengeance, carried out by the orders of the nephew of the Gothic king. It gives us the true measure of the instincts of the Ostrogoths, claimed by some to have been the most promising of the German invaders of the Empire.

Reparatus, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, was found in the city. He was the brother of Pope Vigilius, but this did not save him. He was cut in pieces and thrown to the dogs.  p205  Cerventinus,​121 another brother, escaped to Dalmatia, and went on to Constantinople to announce the calamity to Justinian. The fall of Milan, which happened towards the end of March​122 (A.D. 539), led to the immediate recovery of all Liguria by the Goths. The news came as a heavy blow to Belisarius, but it was an irresistible proof of the unwisdom of divided military authority by which the Emperor himself could not fail to be impressed. Belisarius wrote to him explaining all the circumstances and showing where the blame rested. Justinian inflicted no punishment on those who were in fault,​123 but he immediately recalled Narses, and in language which was not ambiguous confirmed the supreme authority of Belisarius.124

§ 9. Siege and Capture of Auximum (A.D. 539, May to November)

In the meanwhile Witigis, while the fate of Liguria still remained undecided, was seriously alarmed for the safety of Ravenna. The Romans were firmly established at Ariminum and urbinum, and he expected that at any moment Belisarius might advance against his capital. Early in the year he resolved to seek foreign help. He first applied to Wacho, king of the Langobardi, who dwelled beyond the Danube. But no succour was forthcoming from this quarter. Wacho, who was an ally of the Emperor, did not consider it expedient to imitate the double-dealing of the treacherous Franks. The Goths then conceived the idea of appealing to a greater power, the king of Persia himself. They argued, with truth, that Justinian would not have embarked on his enterprises in the West if he had not been secured in the East by the peace which he had concluded with Chosroes. If they could succeed in embroiling him in a war with Persia, it would be impossible for him to continue the war in Italy. As the only practicable route to Persia lay through Imperial territory, it would have been difficult to sent Gothic ambassadors. By large bribes two Ligurian priests, who could travel without exciting suspicion, were induced to undertake the mission, and they succeeded in reaching the court of  p206  Chosroes and delivering a letter from Witigis. This appeal was hardly the chief motive which determined Chosroes to reopen hostilities, but undoubtedly it produced its effect. It must have impressed upon him that in considering his foreign policy it would be wise to take account of the situation in the western Mediterranean. He resolved on war, as Witigis hoped, but his operations began too late to rescue Witigis from disaster.

The report that negotiations were passing between Ravenna and Ctesiphon reached Justinian (in June), and inclined him to the idea of ending the Italian war by a compromise as soon as possible, so as to set Belisarius free to take command on the eastern frontier. He accordingly released the Gothic envoys whom he had detained for more than a year,​125 and promised to send ambassadors of his own to discuss peace. When these Goths arrived in Italy, Belisarius would not allow them to proceed to Ravenna till Witigis surrendered the Roman envoys, Peter and Athanasius, who had been held prisoners for four years.​126 The Emperor rewarded these men for their services by creating Peter Master of Offices, and Athanasius Praetorian Prefect of Italy.

Italy indeed needed peace. Agriculture had ceased in the provinces devastated by war, and in Liguria and Aemilia, in Etruria, Umbria, and Picenum the inhabitants were dying of hunger and disease. It was said that in Picenum alone 50,000 tillers of the soil perished. Procopius noted the emaciation, the livid colour, and the wild eyes of the people, suffering either from want of food, or from a surfeit of indigestible substitutes like acorn bread. Cannibalism occurred, and a ghastly story was told of two women who lived in a lonely house near Ariminum where they offered a night's lodging to passers-by. They killed seventeen of these guests in their sleep and devoured their flesh. The eighteenth woke up as the cannibals were about to despatch him; he forced them to confess, and slew them. Scattered  p207  over the country-sides were the unburied corpses of those who had died while they sought with feeble hands to tear blades of grass from the ground. The Imperial armies suffered little, for they received a constant supply of provisions by sea from Calabria and Sicily.

Belisarius in the meantime prosecuted his plans. He considered it essential to capture Auximum and Faesulae before he advanced upon Ravenna. Placing Martin and John at Dertona (Tortona) to defend the line of the Po against Uraias, he sent Justin and Cyprian to blockade Faesulae, and undertook himself the most important of his tasks, the siege of Auximum. These two sieges occupied more than six months (April to October or November, A.D. 539).127

The army on the Po succeeded, as Belisarius anticipated, in hindering Uraias from marching to the aid of Faesulae. The two hosts, reluctant to risk a trial of strength, remained immobile on the banks of the river, till a new enemy appeared upon the scene. The Franks regarded the calamities of Italy as an opportunity for themselves and were as perfidious towards the Goths as towards the Empire; and Theodebert himself, at the head (it is said) of 100,000 men, descended from the Alps for the plunder and destruction alike of Goths and Imperialists, with both of whom they had recently sworn alliance. Procopius describes their equipment. There were a few mounted spearmen in attendance on the king, the rest were infantry armed with a sword, a shield, and an axe. At the first onset of battle a shower of axes fell upon the foes, shattering shields and killing men.

The Goths, fondly imagining that Theodebert was coming to their aid in fulfilment of his promises, rejoiced to hear of his approach. At Ticinum, where a bridge spanned the Po, at its confluence with the stream of Ticinus, the Goths who guarded it gave the Franks every assistance to cross the river. As soon as they held the bridge, the invaders threw off the mask. They seized the women and children of the Goths, slaughtered them, and threw their bodies into the river. Procopius saw a religious  p208  significance in this act. "These barbarians," he says, "though converted to Christianity retain most of their old beliefs and still practise human sacrifices." Having crossed the Po, the Franks advanced southward towards Dertona, near which Uraias and his army were encamped not far from the Roman camp. The Goths went forth to welcome their allies, and were received by a shower of axes. They turned in headlong flight, rushed wildly through the camp of the astonished Romans, and pursued the road to Ravenna. The Romans imagined that Belisarius must have suddenly arrived and surprised the Gothic camp; and issuing forth to meet him they found themselves confronted by the immense army of the Franks. They were forced to fight, but were easily routed and retired to Tuscany.

The victors were in possession of two deserted camps, supplied, however, with provisions. The food did not go far among so many, and in the desolated country they found no subsistence but oxen and the water of the Po. It is satisfactory to know that they paid a heavy price for their rapacity. Dysentery broke out, and large numbers — a third of the host, it was reported — died. The survivors were bitter against their king for leading them into a place of desolation to perish of hunger and disease. Then a letter arrived from Belisarius, reproaching Theodebert for his treachery, menacing him with the anger of the Emperor, and advising him to attend to his domestic affairs instead of running into danger by interfering in matters which did not concern him. The barbarians retreated ingloriously across the Alps.128

This episode had little influence on the course of the war. All the efforts of the Imperial forces were concentrated on the blockades of Auximum and Faesulae. The flower of the Gothic army was holding Auximum and was resolved to hold it to the end. When the provisions began to give out, the commander of the garrison sent an urgent message to Ravenna, imploring Witigis to send an army to relieve them. Immediate help was promised, but nothing was done. Time wore on, the garrison was sorely pressed by hunger, and too careful a watch was kept to allow any one to steal out of the town. But the Goths managed to bribe a soldier named Burcentius, who was keeping guard at mid-day in an isolated spot near the walls, to carry a  p209  letter to Ravenna. Burcentius executed the errand, and Witigis again sent back good words which were read aloud to the garrison, and encouraged them to hold out. As no help came, they again employed the services of the traitor and informed the king that they would be compelled to surrender within five days.

Belisarius meanwhile had repeatedly urged them to surrender on favourable terms, and knowing that they were starving he was puzzled at their refusal to comply. A Slavonic soldier, hidden in a bush for the purpose, succeeded in capturing alive a Goth who had crept out of the city at dawn to gather grass. The prisoner disclosed the treachery of Burcentius, and Belisarius delivered him to his comrades to do with him what they would. They burned him alive in sight of the walls.

The chief water-supply of Auximum was derived from a huge cistern, built in a rocky place outside the walls, so that men had to come out of the city in order to fill their water jars. Belisarius sent some Isaurians to attempt to destroy the cistern, but the masonry resisted all their efforts. Then he poisoned the spring by throwing in quicklime with dead animals and noxious herbs. But there was another small well inside the city, and, though sadly insufficient for their needs, it enabled the loyal Goths to postpone surrender.

The end was brought about by the capitulation of the starving defenders of Faesulae. The captives were brought to Auximum and paraded in front of the walls, and this sight determined the garrison, convinced at last that they had nothing to hope from Ravenna, to follow the example of Faesulae. The terms arranged were that they should give up half of their possessions to be divided among the besiegers, and should pass into the service of the Emperor. They cannot be reproached for having accepted these conditions. Their king had basely left them to their fate. He had professed to regard Auximum as the key of Ravenna, but such was his cowardice that he could not bring himself to send to its relief any portion of the considerable army which was idly protecting his capital.

§ 10. Fall of Ravenna (A.D. 540, Spring)

Auximum fell in October or November and Belisarius lost no time in preparing an advance upon Ravenna. New forces  p210  had just arrived from Dalmatia, and these he ordered to guard the northern bank of the Po, while another contingent was sent to patrol the southern. The purpose of these dispositions was to prevent food stores from being sent down the river from Liguria. The Imperial command of the sea effectively hindered any attempts to supply the city from elsewhere.

The one thing that Belisarius had now to fear was that the Franks might again descend into Italy and again aid the Goths as they had aided them at Milan. When he learned that a Frank embassy was coming to Ravenna, he sent ambassadors to Witigis. The Frank proposal was that Goths and Franks should make common cause, and, when they had driven the Roman invaders from Italy, should divide the peninsula between them. The Imperial envoys warned the Goths against entertaining the insidious offer of a people whose rapacity was only equalled by their treachery. Their rapacity was proved by the way they had dealt with the Burgundians and Thuringians; their treachery the Goths knew to their own cost by the events of a few months ago. Witigis and his counsellors decided that it would be wiser to come to terms with the Emperor than to trust such a dangerous ally as Theodebert, and the Frank envoys were sent empty away. Hostilities were suspended, and negotiations opened with Belisarius, who, however, did not relax his precautions against the introduction of provisions into Ravenna. He even bribed some one to set fire to the public cornº store in the city — at the secret suggestion, it was said, of the queen Matasuntha. Some of the Goths ascribed the conflagration to treachery, others to lightning; the one theory suggested enemies among themselves, the other an enemy in heaven.

Uraias in the meantime was preparing to come to the aid of his uncle with 4000 men, most of whom he had taken from the garrisons which held the forts of the Cottian Alps. But John and Martin hurried westward, seized the forts, and captured the wives and children of the Goths. On hearing that their families were in the hands of the Romans, the soldiers of Uraias deserted him and went over to John; and Uraias was forced to remain inactive in Liguria.

Two senators, Domnicus and Maximin, now arrived from Constantinople, bearing the Emperor's instructions for the  p211  conclusion of peace. The menace of Persia inclined Justinian to grant more lenient terms than the military situation seemed to warrant. He proposed a territorial division of Italy. All the lands north of the Po should be retained by Witigis, all the lands south of the Po should be retained by the Emperor. The royal treasury of Ravenna should be divided equally between the two contracting powers. Witigis and the Goths were surprised by a proposal which was far more favourable than they had looked for, and they accepted it without hesitation. But it did not please Belisarius. He saw within his reach a complete victory to compensate for the toils and anxieties of five weary years. He had dethroned and led captive the king of the Vandals; he was determined to dethrone and lead captive the king of the Ostrogoths. When the ambassadors returned from Ravenna to his camp and asked him to ratify by his signature the treaty of peace, he declined. As his refusal was severely criticised by some of the generals as an act of disobedience to the emperors's decision, he summoned a military council and asked those present whether they approved of the division of Italy, or whether they deemed it practicable to conquer it entirely. All the officers were unanimous in approving the terms which the Emperor had dictated, and Belisarius required them to put in writing their opinion that nothing would be gained by continuing the war, so that he should be exonerated from blame if future events were to prove that it would have been wiser to carry to completion the overthrow of the Gothic kingdom.129

But the refusal of the commander-in‑chief to sign the treaty had already produced an unfavourable impression at Ravenna. Witigis suspected that the negotiations were a trap, and refused to execute the agreement unless Belisarius signed it and gave them a sworn guarantee of good faith. Famine meanwhile was doing its work, and the discontent of the Goths with their incompetent king reached a climax.

Then a remarkable idea occurred — we do not know from what quarter the suggestion came — to the men of weight among the Goths. Why not revert to the political condition of Italy  p212  as it existed before the days of Theoderic, before the days of Odovacar? The regime of Witigis had discredited Ostrogothic royalty, and they would feel no repugnance to submitting to the direct authority of a western Emperor​130 residing at Rome or Ravenna, if that Emperor were Belisarius, whom they deeply respected both as a soldier and as a just man. They entertained no doubts that he would eagerly accept the offer of a throne. They did not know his uncompromising loyalty or suspect that there was no rôle that seemed more thoroughly detestable to him than the rôle of a usurper. He had once taken an express and solemn oath that he would never aspire to the throne so long as Justinian was alive. But when messengers of the Goths privately sounded him on the plan he professed to welcome it with pleasure. For he saw in it a means of bringing his work to a speedy and triumphant conclusion. When these clandestine negotiations came to the knowledge of Witigis, he resigned himself to the situation and sent a secret message to Belisarius urging him to accept the offer.131

Belisarius then summoned a meeting of the generals and invited the presence of the two Imperial ambassadors. He asked them whether they would approve if, without striking another blow, he should succeed in recovering the whole of Italy, in taking captive Witigis, and seizing all his treasure. The assembly agreed that it would be a magnificent achievement, and urged him to accomplish it if he could. Having in this way protected himself against misinterpretation of his motive in pretending to yield to the Gothic proposal, he sent confidential messengers to Ravenna to announce his definite acceptance. Official envoys were sent back to the camp, nominally to continue the discussion of peace terms, but privately to receive from the commander pledges of his good faith. He gave them sworn pledges on all matters save his willingness to accept the purple; on that point he deferred his oath till he should stand in the presence of Witigis and the Gothic magnates. The envoys  p213  were satisfied; they could not imagine that he would reject the Imperial diadem.

He then made his arrangements for entering Ravenna. He dispersed a part of his army, under the command of those leaders who were ill-disposed towards himself — John, Aratius, his brother Narses, and Bessas — to various destinations, on the pretext that it was difficult to provide the requisite commissariat for the whole army in one place. He sent his fleet laden with corn and other foods to the port of Classis, to fill the starving mouths of Ravenna. Then he advanced with his army and entered the city in May A.D. 540.​132 It is disappointing that the historian does not describe the scene in which Belisarius undeceived the Gothic king and nobles as to his intentions. We are only told that he kept Witigis in honourable captivity, and that he allowed all the Goths who lived in the cis-Padane provinces to return to their homes. He seized the treasures of the palace, but the Goths were allowed to retain all their private property, and plundering was strictly forbidden.

Most of the garrisons of the strong places north of the Po voluntarily surrendered,​133 apparently under the impression that Italy was to be ruled by Belisarius. Ticinum, which was the headquarters of Uraias, and Verona, which was held by Ildibad, were the chief exceptions. When the Gothic notables of the northern provinces realised that Belisarius had made "the great refusal" and was about to return to Constantinople, they proceeded to Ticinum and urged Uraias to assume the royal insignia and place himself at their head to fight a desperate battle for freedom. Uraias was ready to fight, but he declined to step into the place of Witigis; the nephew of such an unlucky ruler would not, he declared, have the necessary prestige. He advised them to choose as their king Ildibad, a man of conspicuous energy and valour, and a nephew of Theudis the king of the Visigoths. Accordingly Ildibad, at the request of the Gothic leaders, came from Verona and suffered himself to be proclaimed king. But he persuaded his followers to make one more effort to induce Belisarius to recall his decision. A deputation waited on the commander, who was making his preparations to leave Ravenna.  p214  They upbraided him, with justice, for having broken faith. But reproaches and enticements produced no effect. Belisarius told them definitely that he would never assume the Imperial name in Justinian's lifetime. Soon afterwards he left the shores of Italy, taking with him the dethroned king and queen, many leading Goths, and the royal treasure.134

The impregnable fidelity of Belisarius to Justinian's throne, under a temptation which few men in his position would have resisted, is the fact which has been chiefly emphasised by historians in describing these tortuous transactions. But his innocence of criminal disloyalty in thought or deed does not excuse his conduct. He was guilty of a flagrant violation of his promises to the Goths, and he was guilty of gross disobedience to the Emperor's orders. It was not the business of the commander-in‑chief to decide the terms of peace; that was entirely a question for the Emperor. We can understand his unwillingness to allow the complete victory, which seemed within his grasp, to escape him; but it would be difficult to justify the chicanery which he employed at first in protracting the negotiations, and then in deceiving the enemy by pretended disloyalty to his master. Nor was his policy justified by success. It did not lead automatically to the complete conquest of Italy and the extension of Imperial authority to the Alps. When he sailed for Constantinople, he left behind him in the provinces north of the Po, enemies who had not submitted and a new Ostrogothic king who was bound by no covenant. A resumption of hostilities could not fail to ensue. If the peace which Justinian offered to the Goths had been concluded, and Witigis had remained as the recognised ruler of trans-Padane Italy, bound to the Empire by treaty, the arrangement could not indeed have been final, but the Emperor was justified in calculating that it would ensure for some years to come the tranquillity of Italy, and enable him to throw all his forces into the imminent struggle with Persia.

It is as little surprising then that when the victorious general disembarked at Constantinople with a captive king in his train, the Emperor should have given him a cold reception and denied him the honours of a triumph, as that the people, dazzled by the distinction of his captives and the richness of his spoil,  p215  and measuring his deserts by these spectacular results,​135 should have attributed the Imperial attitude to jealousy. Though the enemies of Belisarius did all they could to poison Justinian's mind with suspicions, he can hardly have had serious doubts of his general's loyalty, yet it must have been far from agreeable to him to know that a subject had been given the opportunity of rejecting the offer of a throne. But, apart from this, it must be admitted that he was justified in refusing a triumph to a general who, whatever his services had been, had deliberately frustrated his master's policy. That the anxiety of the Emperor to hasten the departure of Belisarius from Italy was not entirely due to the urgent need of his services in the East, may be inferred from the fact that he was not sent against the Persians until the ensuing spring.

The Gothic prisoners were honourably treated. Witigis received the title of patrician and an estate on the confines of Persia.​136 He survived his dethronement for two years.

It is naturally to be assumed that, as the provinces of Italy were gradually recovered, measures were taken for securing the civil administration. In some cases probably the Italians who served under the Goths were allowed to continue in their posts as governors of provinces, in others new men must have been appointed. But it was also necessary, perhaps even before the capture of Rome, to set up a central financial administration.​137 Sicily had been reorganised after its submission to Belisarius and committed to the government of a Praetor, who had the  p216  responsibility for military as well as for civil affairs.​138 Amid the din of arms these administrative measures occupied little attention, and they were soon to be upset or endangered by the renewal of war throughout the whole peninsula.


It may be convenient to the reader to have before him a table showing some of the distances on the routes between Italy and the East.

Rome to Brundusium (Via Appia)
Constantinople to Dyrrhachium or Aulon (Via Egnatia)
Rome to Constantinople
+ sea passage of at least 24 hours (total time of the journey — 23 to 26 days), but messengers in haste could do it in between 2 and 3 weeks.
Rome to Ravenna (Via Flaminia)
Ravenna to Aquileia (coast road)
Aquileia to Constantinople (via Poetovio)
Aquileia to Salona
Salona to Dyrrhachium
(These numbers are approximate. Note that a Roman mile = nearly 1½ kilometres.)

The usual rate of travelling, on horseback, varied from 60 to 75 kilometres daily. The regular rate of marching for an army was from 15 to 17 kilometres, but might be considerably more if the army was small or when there was a special need for haste.

The average rate of sailing was from 100 to 150 sea miles in 24 hours.

The Author's Notes:

110 Cp. Hodgkin, op. cit. iv.288. Urbs Vetus (Orvieto) was held by 1000 Goths, Tuder (Todi) by 400, Clusium (Chiusi) by 1000, Urbinum by 2000, Mona Feletris (Montefeltro) by 500, Caesena by 500, Auximum by 4000. Narnia, Spoletium, and Firmum were in the hands of the Romans. The distance from Rome to Ravenna by the Via Flaminia is 370 kils.; from Fanum to Ravenna about 96.

111 It is called Intercisa in the Itineraries, and is a little to the east of the modern Acqualagna. The pass is 125 feet long, over 17 feet high, and broad. On either side are the halves of a mountain: on right Monte Paganuccio, 3259 feet high, on left Monte Pietralata, 2960 feet high.

112 They probably landed at Ancona. Shortly before this Witigis had sent a force against it. Conon, the commander, gave the Goths battle outside the walls and was severely defeated; but the fortress was not taken.

113 The only indication that Procopius gives of the route is that they passed Urbs Salvia (Urbesaglia),º which is half-way between Fermo and Nocera. They must of course have crossed the Flaminian Way. Hodgkin's view that they followed the Flaminian Way from Nocera, so that from Fano onward their route would have coincided with that of Martin, is entirely incompatible with the narrative of Procopius. There can, I think, be little doubt that they left the Flaminian Way at Scheggia or at Acqualagna and followed one of the routes noticed below, pp288-289. Compare the retreat of Garibaldi in 1849, via San Marino to Musano (due west of Rimini). See G. M. Trevelyan, Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic, chaps. xiii, xiv.

114 B. G. II.18.28 αὐτῷ τε ὑμᾶς ἔπρεσθαι ἅπαντας ἐπὶ τῷ συμφέροντι τῇ ἡμετέρᾳ πολιτείᾳ προσήκει.

115 B. G. II.20.1.

116 Cp. Hodgkin, iv p338.

117 D. illustro et praecellentissimo domno et patri Iustiniano imperatore Theodebertus rex (Epp. Merow. et Kar. aevi i Epp. Austrasicae, 19). The soldiers were to have been sent to the help of the patrician Bregantinus (perhaps = Vergentinus, below, p205, n1)

118 Procopius, B. G. II.12.38.

119 Marcellinus, sub 539, records that Theodebert devastated the Aemilian province and plundered Genoa.

120 B. G. II.21.39. The population of modern Milan is between 600,000 and 700,000 (that of Rome is over 500,000). Procopius describes it (B. G. II.7.38) as the most populous Italian city next to Rome. It seems probable that he has immensely exaggerated the number of the slain. For the massacre see also Cont. Marcell., s.a., and Marius of Aventicum, Chron., s.a. 538 (senatores et sacerdotes cum reliquis populis etiam in ipsa sacrosancta loca interfecti sunt). Datius the archbishop escaped.

121 Procopius calls him Vergentinos, B. G. II.21.41.

122 B. G. II.22.1 ὁ χειμὼν ἐτελεύτα ἤδη.

123 Belisarius would not allow Uliaris to appear in his presence, ib. ii.

124 The Heruls, who had come to Italy with Narses, refused to remain when he was recalled.

125 They had been sent to Constantinople during the siege of Rome. See above, p191.

126 We may infer from B. G. II.22.25 that this happened at the end of June or beginning of July 539. Körbs (op. cit. 31 sqq.) calculates that the Gothic embassy to Ctesiphon started in March from Ravenna. They could reach the Bosphorus in about four weeks, if they travelled quickly at the rate of 75 kils. a day. To reach Ctesiphon meant five or six weeks more, so that they might have arrived about the middle of May. Thus Justinian could have heard of their arrival and released the Gothic envoys before the end of June. For the distances of Ravenna from Constantinople via Aquileia see below, p225.

127 Cont. Marcell., s.a., states that these cities were taken in 539 septimo mense, but erroneously records their capture before the fall of Milan. The sieges must have begun in April or May, cp. B. G. XXII.1, and so the seventh month would be October-November.

128 The retreat gave Justinian the pretext for assuming the title Francicus.

129 Procopius curiously says that Belisarius was pleased with the opinion of the generals (B. G. II.29.16 ἡσθείς), though he had just recorded (ib. iv) his vexation at the conditions prescribed by Justinian.

130 B. G. II.29.18 βασιλέα τῆς ἐσπερίας Βελισάριον ἀνειπεῖν ἔγνωσαν.

131 Martroye (L'Occident, p401) argues that this intrigue had been arranged in consultation with Chosroes. His reason is that in autumn 539 the Armenian envoys who urged Chosroes to declare war pointed out that Justinian had lost his two best generals, Sittas who had been killed, and Belisarius who had left his service to be the sovran of Italy. Martroye is mistaken in supposing that the Gothic proposal was made to Belisarius at about the same time; this cannot have been earlier than Jan. or Feb. 540.

132 Agnillus, Lib. Pont. p101.

133 Tervisium (Treviso) and the forts of Venetia are expressly mentioned. Caesena, west of Ariminum, had held out till the fall of Ravenna.

134 Probably in June.

135 The populace indeed were not permitted to see the treasures. They were exhibited to the senators in the Palace. B. G. III.1.3. It is possible that the victory over Witigis was celebrated in the following year when Justinian made a triumphal entry into Constantinople on August 12, through the Charisian Gate. The ceremony is briefly described in Constantine Porphyrog., App. ad libr. prim. de Cer. p497, a passage evidently taken or abridged from Peter the Patrician. The immediate motive of the triumph may have been the success of Belisarius in Mesopotamia in capturing the fort of Sisaurana. See Serruys, in Revue des études grecques, XX.240 sqq. 1907. The question has also been discussed by Martroye, who rejects the explanation of Serruys, thinks that the date meant is 540, not 541, and explains the ceremony as a solemn entry, distinct from a triumph, in which Belisarius took part. See Mém. de la Soc. des Antiquaires de France, 1912, p25 (the article is only known to me through Bréhier's notice in Rev. Hist. CI, Sept.-Déc. 1912, p325).

136 Jordanes, Get. § 313; Hist. Misc. xvi p107 administrationem illi Persarum tribuit terminos. It is not quite clear what this means.

137 Nov. 75 (Dec. 537) seems to imply that a comes s. patrimonii per Italiam had already been appointed. He dealt with the patrimonial estates in Sicily as well as in Italy.

138 Nov. 75 (Dec. 537). This law provides that the Quaestor at Constantinople should be the court of appeal for Sicilian lawsuits.

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