Edward Gibbon.

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 online

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distributing gold medals to the people, on the day which so gloriously
terminated the year of the consulship. He passed the winter season in
the palace of ancient kings, amidst the ruins of a Grecian colony, which
once extended to a circumference of two-and-twenty miles: but in the
spring, about the festival of Easter, the prosecution of his designs was
interrupted by a dangerous revolt of the African forces. Carthage was
saved by the presence of Belisarius, who suddenly landed with a thousand
guards. Two thousand soldiers of doubtful faith returned to the
standard of their old commander: and he marched, without hesitation,
above fifty miles, to seek an enemy whom he affected to pity and
despise. Eight thousand rebels trembled at his approach; they were
routed at the first onset, by the dexterity of their master: and
this ignoble victory would have restored the peace of Africa, if the
conqueror had not been hastily recalled to Sicily, to appease a sedition
which was kindled during his absence in his own camp. Disorder and
disobedience were the common malady of the times; the genius to command,
and the virtue to obey, resided only in the mind of Belisarius.

Chapter XLI: Conquests Of Justinian, Character Of Balisarius. - Part IV.

Although Theodatus descended from a race of heroes, he was ignorant of
the art, and averse to the dangers, of war. Although he had studied the
writings of Plato and Tully, philosophy was incapable of purifying his
mind from the basest passions, avarice and fear. He had purchased a
sceptre by ingratitude and murder: at the first menace of an enemy, he
degraded his own majesty and that of a nation, which already disdained
their unworthy sovereign. Astonished by the recent example of Gelimer,
he saw himself dragged in chains through the streets of Constantinople:
the terrors which Belisarius inspired were heightened by the eloquence
of Peter, the Byzantine ambassador; and that bold and subtle advocate
persuaded him to sign a treaty, too ignominious to become the foundation
of a lasting peace. It was stipulated, that in the acclamations of the
Roman people, the name of the emperor should be always proclaimed before
that of the Gothic king; and that as often as the statue of Theodatus
was erected in brass on marble, the divine image of Justinian should be
placed on its right hand. Instead of conferring, the king of Italy was
reduced to solicit, the honors of the senate; and the consent of the
emperor was made indispensable before he could execute, against a priest
or senator, the sentence either of death or confiscation. The feeble
monarch resigned the possession of Sicily; offered, as the annual
mark of his dependence, a crown of gold of the weight of three hundred
pounds; and promised to supply, at the requisition of his sovereign,
three thousand Gothic auxiliaries, for the service of the empire.
Satisfied with these extraordinary concessions, the successful agent of
Justinian hastened his journey to Constantinople; but no sooner had
he reached the Alban villa, than he was recalled by the anxiety of
Theodatus; and the dialogue which passed between the king and the
ambassador deserves to be represented in its original simplicity. "Are
you of opinion that the emperor will ratify this treaty? _Perhaps_. If
he refuses, what consequence will ensue? _War_. Will such a war, be just
or reasonable? _Most assuredly: every one should act according to his
character_. What is your meaning? _You are a philosopher - Justinian is
emperor of the Romans: it would ill become the disciple of Plato to shed
the blood of thousands in his private quarrel: the successor of Augustus
should vindicate his rights, and recover by arms the ancient provinces
of his empire_." This reasoning might not convince, but it was
sufficient to alarm and subdue the weakness of Theodatus; and he soon
descended to his last offer, that for the poor equivalent of a pension
of forty-eight thousand pounds sterling, he would resign the kingdom
of the Goths and Italians, and spend the remainder of his days in the
innocent pleasures of philosophy and agriculture. Both treaties were
intrusted to the hands of the ambassador, on the frail security of
an oath not to produce the second till the first had been positively
rejected. The event may be easily foreseen: Justinian required and
accepted the abdication of the Gothic king. His indefatigable agent
returned from Constantinople to Ravenna, with ample instructions; and
a fair epistle, which praised the wisdom and generosity of the royal
philosopher, granted his pension, with the assurance of such honors as
a subject and a Catholic might enjoy; and wisely referred the final
execution of the treaty to the presence and authority of Belisarius.
But in the interval of suspense, two Roman generals, who had entered the
province of Dalmatia, were defeated and slain by the Gothic troops. From
blind and abject despair, Theodatus capriciously rose to groundless and
fatal presumption, and dared to receive, with menace and contempt,
the ambassador of Justinian; who claimed his promise, solicited the
allegiance of his subjects, and boldly asserted the inviolable privilege
of his own character. The march of Belisarius dispelled this visionary
pride; and as the first campaign was employed in the reduction of
Sicily, the invasion of Italy is applied by Procopius to the second year
of the Gothic war.

After Belisarius had left sufficient garrisons in Palermo and Syracuse,
he embarked his troops at Messina, and landed them, without resistance,
on the opposite shores of Rhegium. A Gothic prince, who had married the
daughter of Theodatus, was stationed with an army to guard the entrance
of Italy; but he imitated, without scruple, the example of a sovereign
faithless to his public and private duties. The perfidious Ebermor
deserted with his followers to the Roman camp, and was dismissed to
enjoy the servile honors of the Byzantine court. From Rhegium to Naples,
the fleet and army of Belisarius, almost always in view of each other,
advanced near three hundred miles along the sea-coast. The people of
Bruttium, Lucania, and Campania, who abhorred the name and religion of
the Goths, embraced the specious excuse, that their ruined walls
were incapable of defence: the soldiers paid a just equivalent for
a plentiful market; and curiosity alone interrupted the peaceful
occupations of the husbandman or artificer. Naples, which has swelled to
a great and populous capital, long cherished the language and manners
of a Grecian colony; and the choice of Virgil had ennobled this elegant
retreat, which attracted the lovers of repose and study, elegant
retreat, which attracted the lovers of repose and study, from the noise,
the smoke, and the laborious opulence of Rome. As soon as the place was
invested by sea and land, Belisarius gave audience to the deputies of
the people, who exhorted him to disregard a conquest unworthy of his
arms, to seek the Gothic king in a field of battle, and, after his
victory, to claim, as the sovereign of Rome, the allegiance of the
dependent cities. "When I treat with my enemies," replied the Roman
chief, with a haughty smile, "I am more accustomed to give than to
receive counsel; but I hold in one hand inevitable ruin, and in the
other peace and freedom, such as Sicily now enjoys." The impatience of
delay urged him to grant the most liberal terms; his honor secured their
performance: but Naples was divided into two factions; and the Greek
democracy was inflamed by their orators, who, with much spirit and some
truth, represented to the multitude that the Goths would punish their
defection, and that Belisarius himself must esteem their loyalty and
valor. Their deliberations, however, were not perfectly free: the city
was commanded by eight hundred Barbarians, whose wives and children were
detained at Ravenna as the pledge of their fidelity; and even the Jews,
who were rich and numerous, resisted, with desperate enthusiasm, the
intolerant laws of Justinian. In a much later period, the circumference
of Naples measured only two thousand three hundred and sixty three
paces: the fortifications were defended by precipices or the sea; when
the aqueducts were intercepted, a supply of water might be drawn from
wells and fountains; and the stock of provisions was sufficient to
consume the patience of the besiegers. At the end of twenty days, that
of Belisarius was almost exhausted, and he had reconciled himself to the
disgrace of abandoning the siege, that he might march, before the winter
season, against Rome and the Gothic king. But his anxiety was relieved
by the bold curiosity of an Isaurian, who explored the dry channel of an
aqueduct, and secretly reported, that a passage might be perforated to
introduce a file of armed soldiers into the heart of the city. When the
work had been silently executed, the humane general risked the discovery
of his secret by a last and fruitless admonition of the impending
danger. In the darkness of the night, four hundred Romans entered
the aqueduct, raised themselves by a rope, which they fastened to an
olive-tree, into the house or garden of a solitary matron, sounded
their trumpets, surprised the sentinels, and gave admittance to their
companions, who on all sides scaled the walls, and burst open the
gates of the city. Every crime which is punished by social justice was
practised as the rights of war; the Huns were distinguished by cruelty
and sacrilege, and Belisarius alone appeared in the streets and churches
of Naples to moderate the calamities which he predicted. "The gold and
silver," he repeatedly exclaimed, "are the just rewards of your valor.
But spare the inhabitants; they are Christians, they are suppliants,
they are now your fellow-subjects. Restore the children to their
parents, the wives to their husbands; and show them by you, generosity
of what friends they have obstinately deprived themselves." The city
was saved by the virtue and authority of its conqueror; and when the
Neapolitans returned to their houses, they found some consolation in
the secret enjoyment of their hidden treasures. The Barbarian garrison
enlisted in the service of the emperor; Apulia and Calabria, delivered
from the odious presence of the Goths, acknowledged his dominion; and
the tusks of the Calydonian boar, which were still shown at Beneventum,
are curiously described by the historian of Belisarius.

The faithful soldiers and citizens of Naples had expected their
deliverance from a prince, who remained the inactive and almost
indifferent spectator of their ruin. Theodatus secured his person within
the walls of Rome, whilst his cavalry advanced forty miles on the Appian
way, and encamped in the Pomptine marshes; which, by a canal of nineteen
miles in length, had been recently drained and converted into excellent
pastures. But the principal forces of the Goths were dispersed in
Dalmatia, Venetia, and Gaul; and the feeble mind of their king was
confounded by the unsuccessful event of a divination, which seemed
to presage the downfall of his empire. The most abject slaves have
arraigned the guilt or weakness of an unfortunate master. The character
of Theodatus was rigorously scrutinized by a free and idle camp of
Barbarians, conscious of their privilege and power: he was declared
unworthy of his race, his nation, and his throne; and their general
Vitiges, whose valor had been signalized in the Illyrian war, was raised
with unanimous applause on the bucklers of his companions. On the first
rumor, the abdicated monarch fled from the justice of his country; but
he was pursued by private revenge. A Goth, whom he had injured in his
love, overtook Theodatus on the Flaminian way, and, regardless of his
unmanly cries, slaughtered him, as he lay, prostrate on the ground, like
a victim (says the historian) at the foot of the altar. The choice of
the people is the best and purest title to reign over them; yet such is
the prejudice of every age, that Vitiges impatiently wished to return to
Ravenna, where he might seize, with the reluctant hand of the daughter
of Amalasontha, some faint shadow of hereditary right. A national
council was immediately held, and the new monarch reconciled the
impatient spirit of the Barbarians to a measure of disgrace, which the
misconduct of his predecessor rendered wise and indispensable. The Goths
consented to retreat in the presence of a victorious enemy; to delay
till the next spring the operations of offensive war; to summon their
scattered forces; to relinquish their distant possessions, and to trust
even Rome itself to the faith of its inhabitants. Leuderis, an ancient
warrior, was left in the capital with four thousand soldiers; a feeble
garrison, which might have seconded the zeal, though it was incapable
of opposing the wishes, of the Romans. But a momentary enthusiasm of
religion and patriotism was kindled in their minds. They furiously
exclaimed, that the apostolic throne should no longer be profaned by the
triumph or toleration of Arianism; that the tombs of the Cæsars
should no longer be trampled by the savages of the North; and, without
reflecting, that Italy must sink into a province of Constantinople, they
fondly hailed the restoration of a Roman emperor as a new æra of freedom
and prosperity. The deputies of the pope and clergy, of the senate and
people, invited the lieutenant of Justinian to accept their voluntary
allegiance, and to enter the city, whose gates would be thrown open for
his reception. As soon as Belisarius had fortified his new conquests,
Naples and Cumæ, he advanced about twenty miles to the banks of the
Vulturnus, contemplated the decayed grandeur of Capua, and halted at the
separation of the Latin and Appian ways. The work of the censor, after
the incessant use of nine centuries, still preserved its primæval
beauty, and not a flaw could be discovered in the large polished stones,
of which that solid, though narrow road, was so firmly compacted.
Belisarius, however, preferred the Latin way, which, at a distance from
the sea and the marshes, skirted in a space of one hundred and twenty
miles along the foot of the mountains. His enemies had disappeared: when
he made his entrance through the Asinarian gate, the garrison departed
without molestation along the Flaminian way; and the city, after
sixty years' servitude, was delivered from the yoke of the Barbarians.
Leuderis alone, from a motive of pride or discontent, refused to
accompany the fugitives; and the Gothic chief, himself a trophy of the
victory, was sent with the keys of Rome to the throne of the emperor

The first days, which coincided with the old Saturnalia, were devoted to
mutual congratulation and the public joy; and the Catholics prepared to
celebrate, without a rival, the approaching festival of the nativity of
Christ. In the familiar conversation of a hero, the Romans acquired some
notion of the virtues which history ascribed to their ancestors; they
were edified by the apparent respect of Belisarius for the successor
of St. Peter, and his rigid discipline secured in the midst of war the
blessings of tranquillity and justice. They applauded the rapid success
of his arms, which overran the adjacent country, as far as Narni,
Perusia, and Spoleto; but they trembled, the senate, the clergy, and the
unwarlike people, as soon as they understood that he had resolved, and
would speedily be reduced, to sustain a siege against the powers of the
Gothic monarchy. The designs of Vitiges were executed, during the winter
season, with diligence and effect. From their rustic habitations, from
their distant garrisons, the Goths assembled at Ravenna for the defence
of their country; and such were their numbers, that, after an army had
been detached for the relief of Dalmatia, one hundred and fifty thousand
fighting men marched under the royal standard. According to the degrees
of rank or merit, the Gothic king distributed arms and horses, rich
gifts, and liberal promises; he moved along the Flaminian way, declined
the useless sieges of Perusia and Spoleto, respected he impregnable
rock of Narni, and arrived within two miles of Rome at the foot of
the Milvian bridge. The narrow passage was fortified with a tower, and
Belisarius had computed the value of the twenty days which must be lost
in the construction of another bridge. But the consternation of the
soldiers of the tower, who either fled or deserted, disappointed his
hopes, and betrayed his person into the most imminent danger. At the
head of one thousand horse, the Roman general sallied from the Flaminian
gate to mark the ground of an advantageous position, and to survey the
camp of the Barbarians; but while he still believed them on the other
side of the Tyber, he was suddenly encompassed and assaulted by their
numerous squadrons. The fate of Italy depended on his life; and the
deserters pointed to the conspicuous horse a bay, with a white face,
which he rode on that memorable day. "Aim at the bay horse," was the
universal cry. Every bow was bent, every javelin was directed, against
that fatal object, and the command was repeated and obeyed by thousands
who were ignorant of its real motive. The bolder Barbarians advanced
to the more honorable combat of swords and spears; and the praise of
an enemy has graced the fall of Visandus, the standard-bearer, who
maintained his foremost station, till he was pierced with thirteen
wounds, perhaps by the hand of Belisarius himself. The Roman general was
strong, active, and dexterous; on every side he discharged his weighty
and mortal strokes: his faithful guards imitated his valor, and defended
his person; and the Goths, after the loss of a thousand men, fled before
the arms of a hero. They were rashly pursued to their camp; and the
Romans, oppressed by multitudes, made a gradual, and at length a
precipitate retreat to the gates of the city: the gates were shut
against the fugitives; and the public terror was increased, by the
report that Belisarius was slain. His countenance was indeed disfigured
by sweat, dust, and blood; his voice was hoarse, his strength was almost
exhausted; but his unconquerable spirit still remained; he imparted that
spirit to his desponding companions; and their last desperate charge was
felt by the flying Barbarians, as if a new army, vigorous and entire,
had been poured from the city. The Flaminian gate was thrown open to a
real triumph; but it was not before Belisarius had visited every post,
and provided for the public safety, that he could be persuaded, by his
wife and friends, to taste the needful refreshments of food and sleep.
In the more improved state of the art of war, a general is seldom
required, or even permitted to display the personal prowess of a
soldier; and the example of Belisarius may be added to the rare examples
of Henry IV., of Pyrrhus, and of Alexander.

After this first and unsuccessful trial of their enemies, the whole army
of the Goths passed the Tyber, and formed the siege of the city, which
continued above a year, till their final departure. Whatever fancy may
conceive, the severe compass of the geographer defines the circumference
of Rome within a line of twelve miles and three hundred and forty-five
paces; and that circumference, except in the Vatican, has invariably
been the same from the triumph of Aurelian to the peaceful but obscure
reign of the modern popes. But in the day of her greatness, the space
within her walls was crowded with habitations and inhabitants; and the
populous suburbs, that stretched along the public roads, were darted
like so many rays from one common centre. Adversity swept away these
extraneous ornaments, and left naked and desolate a considerable part
even of the seven hills. Yet Rome in its present state could send
into the field about thirty thousand males of a military age; and,
notwithstanding the want of discipline and exercise, the far greater
part, inured to the hardships of poverty, might be capable of bearing
arms for the defence of their country and religion. The prudence of
Belisarius did not neglect this important resource. His soldiers were
relieved by the zeal and diligence of the people, who watched while
_they_ slept, and labored while _they_ reposed: he accepted the
voluntary service of the bravest and most indigent of the Roman youth;
and the companies of townsmen sometimes represented, in a vacant post,
the presence of the troops which had been drawn away to more essential
duties. But his just confidence was placed in the veterans who had
fought under his banner in the Persian and African wars; and although
that gallant band was reduced to five thousand men, he undertook, with
such contemptible numbers, to defend a circle of twelve miles, against
an army of one hundred and fifty thousand Barbarians. In the walls of
Rome, which Belisarius constructed or restored, the materials of
ancient architecture may be discerned; and the whole fortification
was completed, except in a chasm still extant between the Pincian and
Flaminian gates, which the prejudices of the Goths and Romans left under
the effectual guard of St. Peter the apostle.

The battlements or bastions were shaped in sharp angles a ditch, broad
and deep, protected the foot of the rampart; and the archers on the
rampart were assisted by military engines; the _balista_, a powerful
cross-bow, which darted short but massy arrows; the _onagri_, or wild
asses, which, on the principle of a sling, threw stones and bullets of
an enormous size. A chain was drawn across the Tyber; the arches of the
aqueducts were made impervious, and the mole or sepulchre of Hadrian was
converted, for the first time, to the uses of a citadel. That venerable
structure, which contained the ashes of the Antonines, was a circular
turret rising from a quadrangular basis; it was covered with the white
marble of Paros, and decorated by the statues of gods and heroes;
and the lover of the arts must read with a sigh, that the works of
Praxiteles or Lysippus were torn from their lofty pedestals, and hurled
into the ditch on the heads of the besiegers. To each of his lieutenants
Belisarius assigned the defence of a gate, with the wise and peremptory
instruction, that, whatever might be the alarm, they should steadily
adhere to their respective posts, and trust their general for the safety
of Rome. The formidable host of the Goths was insufficient to embrace
the ample measure of the city, of the fourteen gates, seven only were
invested from the Prnestine to the Flaminian way; and Vitiges divided
his troops into six camps, each of which was fortified with a ditch
and rampart. On the Tuscan side of the river, a seventh encampment was
formed in the field or circus of the Vatican, for the important purpose
of commanding the Milvian bridge and the course of the Tyber; but they
approached with devotion the adjacent church of St. Peter; and the
threshold of the holy apostles was respected during the siege by a
Christian enemy. In the ages of victory, as often as the senate decreed
some distant conquest, the consul denounced hostilities, by unbarring,
in solemn pomp, the gates of the temple of Janus. Domestic war now
rendered the admonition superfluous, and the ceremony was superseded by
the establishment of a new religion. But the brazen temple of Janus was
left standing in the forum; of a size sufficient only to contain the
statue of the god, five cubits in height, of a human form, but with two
faces directed to the east and west. The double gates were likewise
of brass; and a fruitless effort to turn them on their rusty hinges
revealed the scandalous secret that some Romans were still attached to
the superstition of their ancestors.

Eighteen days were employed by the besiegers, to provide all the
instruments of attack which antiquity had invented. Fascines were
prepared to fill the ditches, scaling-ladders to ascend the walls. The
largest trees of the forest supplied the timbers of four battering-rams:
their heads were armed with iron; they were suspended by ropes, and each
of them was worked by the labor of fifty men. The lofty wooden turrets
moved on wheels or rollers, and formed a spacious platform of the level
of the rampart. On the morning of the nineteenth day, a general attack
was made from the Prænestine gate to the Vatican: seven Gothic columns,
with their military engines, advanced to the assault; and the Romans,
who lined the ramparts, listened with doubt and anxiety to the cheerful
assurances of their commander. As soon as the enemy approached the
ditch, Belisarius himself drew the first arrow; and such was his

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 12 of 49)