Edward Gibbon.

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

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strength and dexterity, that he transfixed the foremost of the Barbarian

As shout of applause and victory was reëchoed along the wall. He drew a
second arrow, and the stroke was followed with the same success and the
same acclamation. The Roman general then gave the word, that the archers
should aim at the teams of oxen; they were instantly covered with mortal
wounds; the towers which they drew remained useless and immovable, and
a single moment disconcerted the laborious projects of the king of the
Goths. After this disappointment, Vitiges still continued, or feigned
to continue, the assault of the Salarian gate, that he might divert the
attention of his adversary, while his principal forces more strenuously
attacked the Prænestine gate and the sepulchre of Hadrian, at the
distance of three miles from each other. Near the former, the double
walls of the Vivarium were low or broken; the fortifications of the
latter were feebly guarded: the vigor of the Goths was excited by the
hope of victory and spoil; and if a single post had given way, the
Romans, and Rome itself, were irrecoverably lost. This perilous day was
the most glorious in the life of Belisarius. Amidst tumult and dismay,
the whole plan of the attack and defence was distinctly present to his
mind; he observed the changes of each instant, weighed every possible
advantage, transported his person to the scenes of danger, and
communicated his spirit in calm and decisive orders. The contest was
fiercely maintained from the morning to the evening; the Goths were
repulsed on all sides; and each Roman might boast that he had vanquished
thirty Barbarians, if the strange disproportion of numbers were
not counterbalanced by the merit of one man. Thirty thousand Goths,
according to the confession of their own chiefs, perished in this bloody
action; and the multitude of the wounded was equal to that of the slain.
When they advanced to the assault, their close disorder suffered not a
javelin to fall without effect; and as they retired, the populace of the
city joined the pursuit, and slaughtered, with impunity, the backs of
their flying enemies. Belisarius instantly sallied from the gates; and
while the soldiers chanted his name and victory, the hostile engines of
war were reduced to ashes. Such was the loss and consternation of the
Goths, that, from this day, the siege of Rome degenerated into a tedious
and indolent blockade; and they were incessantly harassed by the Roman
general, who, in frequent skirmishes, destroyed above five thousand of
their bravest troops. Their cavalry was unpractised in the use of the
bow; their archers served on foot; and this divided force was incapable
of contending with their adversaries, whose lances and arrows, at a
distance, or at hand, were alike formidable. The consummate skill of
Belisarius embraced the favorable opportunities; and as he chose the
ground and the moment, as he pressed the charge or sounded the retreat,
the squadrons which he detached were seldom unsuccessful. These partial
advantages diffused an impatient ardor among the soldiers and people,
who began to feel the hardships of a siege, and to disregard the dangers
of a general engagement. Each plebeian conceived himself to be a hero,
and the infantry, who, since the decay of discipline, were rejected from
the line of battle, aspired to the ancient honors of the Roman
legion. Belisarius praised the spirit of his troops, condemned their
presumption, yielded to their clamors, and prepared the remedies of a
defeat, the possibility of which he alone had courage to suspect. In
the quarter of the Vatican, the Romans prevailed; and if the irreparable
moments had not been wasted in the pillage of the camp, they might have
occupied the Milvian bridge, and charged in the rear of the Gothic host.
On the other side of the Tyber, Belisarius advanced from the Pincian and
Salarian gates. But his army, four thousand soldiers perhaps, was
lost in a spacious plain; they were encompassed and oppressed by fresh
multitudes, who continually relieved the broken ranks of the Barbarians.
The valiant leaders of the infantry were unskilled to conquer; they
died: the retreat (a hasty retreat) was covered by the prudence of the
general, and the victors started back with affright from the formidable
aspect of an armed rampart. The reputation of Belisarius was unsullied
by a defeat; and the vain confidence of the Goths was not less
serviceable to his designs than the repentance and modesty of the Roman

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

From the moment that Belisarius had determined to sustain a siege, his
assiduous care provided Rome against the danger of famine, more dreadful
than the Gothic arms. An extraordinary supply of corn was imported from
Sicily: the harvests of Campania and Tuscany were forcibly swept for the
use of the city; and the rights of private property were infringed by
the strong plea of the public safety. It might easily be foreseen
that the enemy would intercept the aqueducts; and the cessation of the
water-mills was the first inconvenience, which was speedily removed
by mooring large vessels, and fixing mill-stones in the current of
the river. The stream was soon embarrassed by the trunks of trees, and
polluted with dead bodies; yet so effectual were the precautions of
the Roman general, that the waters of the Tyber still continued to
give motion to the mills and drink to the inhabitants: the more distant
quarters were supplied from domestic wells; and a besieged city might
support, without impatience, the privation of her public baths. A large
portion of Rome, from the Prænestine gate to the church of St. Paul,
was never invested by the Goths; their excursions were restrained by
the activity of the Moorish troops: the navigation of the Tyber, and the
Latin, Appian, and Ostian ways, were left free and unmolested for the
introduction of corn and cattle, or the retreat of the inhabitants, who
sought refuge in Campania or Sicily. Anxious to relieve himself from a
useless and devouring multitude, Belisarius issued his peremptory
orders for the instant departure of the women, the children, and slaves;
required his soldiers to dismiss their male and female attendants, and
regulated their allowance that one moiety should be given in provisions,
and the other in money. His foresight was justified by the increase of
the public distress, as soon as the Goths had occupied two important
posts in the neighborhood of Rome. By the loss of the port, or, as it
is now called, the city of Porto, he was deprived of the country on
the right of the Tyber, and the best communication with the sea; and he
reflected, with grief and anger, that three hundred men, could he have
spared such a feeble band, might have defended its impregnable works.
Seven miles from the capital, between the Appian and the Latin ways, two
principal aqueducts crossing, and again crossing each other: enclosed
within their solid and lofty arches a fortified space, where Vitiges
established a camp of seven thousand Goths to intercept the convoy of
Sicily and Campania. The granaries of Rome were insensibly exhausted,
the adjacent country had been wasted with fire and sword; such scanty
supplies as might yet be obtained by hasty excursions were the reward
of valor, and the purchase of wealth: the forage of the horses, and
the bread of the soldiers, never failed: but in the last months of the
siege, the people were exposed to the miseries of scarcity, unwholesome
food, and contagious disorders. Belisarius saw and pitied their
sufferings; but he had foreseen, and he watched the decay of their
loyalty, and the progress of their discontent. Adversity had awakened
the Romans from the dreams of grandeur and freedom, and taught them the
humiliating lesson, that it was of small moment to their real happiness,
whether the name of their master was derived from the Gothic or the
Latin language. The lieutenant of Justinian listened to their just
complaints, but he rejected with disdain the idea of flight or
capitulation; repressed their clamorous impatience for battle; amused
them with the prospect of a sure and speedy relief; and secured himself
and the city from the effects of their despair or treachery. Twice in
each month he changed the station of the officers to whom the custody
of the gates was committed: the various precautions of patroles, watch
words, lights, and music, were repeatedly employed to discover whatever
passed on the ramparts; out-guards were posted beyond the ditch, and the
trusty vigilance of dogs supplied the more doubtful fidelity of mankind.
A letter was intercepted, which assured the king of the Goths that the
Asinarian gate, adjoining to the Lateran church, should be secretly
opened to his troops. On the proof or suspicion of treason, several
senators were banished, and the pope Sylverius was summoned to attend
the representative of his sovereign, at his head-quarters in the Pincian
palace. The ecclesiastics, who followed their bishop, were detained in
the first or second apartment, and he alone was admitted to the presence
of Belisarius. The conqueror of Rome and Carthage was modestly seated at
the feet of Antonina, who reclined on a stately couch: the general was
silent, but the voice of reproach and menace issued from the mouth of
his imperious wife. Accused by credible witnesses, and the evidence of
his own subscription, the successor of St. Peter was despoiled of his
pontifical ornaments, clad in the mean habit of a monk, and embarked,
without delay, for a distant exile in the East. At the emperor's
command, the clergy of Rome proceeded to the choice of a new bishop;
and after a solemn invocation of the Holy Ghost, elected the deacon
Vigilius, who had purchased the papal throne by a bribe of two hundred
pounds of gold. The profit, and consequently the guilt, of this simony,
was imputed to Belisarius: but the hero obeyed the orders of his wife;
Antonina served the passions of the empress; and Theodora lavished
her treasures, in the vain hope of obtaining a pontiff hostile or
indifferent to the council of Chalcedon.

The epistle of Belisarius to the emperor announced his victory, his
danger, and his resolution. "According to your commands, we have entered
the dominions of the Goths, and reduced to your obedience Sicily,
Campania, and the city of Rome; but the loss of these conquests will be
more disgraceful than their acquisition was glorious. Hitherto we have
successfully fought against the multitudes of the Barbarians, but their
multitudes may finally prevail. Victory is the gift of Providence,
but the reputation of kings and generals depends on the success or the
failure of their designs. Permit me to speak with freedom: if you wish
that we should live, send us subsistence; if you desire that we should
conquer, send us arms, horses, and men. The Romans have received us
as friends and deliverers: but in our present distress, _they_ will be
either betrayed by their confidence, or we shall be oppressed by
_their_ treachery and hatred. For myself, my life is consecrated to your
service: it is yours to reflect, whether my death in this situation
will contribute to the glory and prosperity of your reign." Perhaps that
reign would have been equally prosperous if the peaceful master of
the East had abstained from the conquest of Africa and Italy: but as
Justinian was ambitious of fame, he made some efforts (they were
feeble and languid) to support and rescue his victorious general. A
reënforcement of sixteen hundred Sclavonians and Huns was led by Martin
and Valerian; and as they reposed during the winter season in the
harbors of Greece, the strength of the men and horses was not impaired
by the fatigues of a sea-voyage; and they distinguished their valor
in the first sally against the besiegers. About the time of the summer
solstice, Euthalius landed at Terracina with large sums of money for the
payment of the troops: he cautiously proceeded along the Appian way, and
this convoy entered Rome through the gate Capena, while Belisarius, on
the other side, diverted the attention of the Goths by a vigorous and
successful skirmish. These seasonable aids, the use and reputation
of which were dexterously managed by the Roman general, revived
the courage, or at least the hopes, of the soldiers and people. The
historian Procopius was despatched with an important commission to
collect the troops and provisions which Campania could furnish, or
Constantinople had sent; and the secretary of Belisarius was soon
followed by Antonina herself, who boldly traversed the posts of the
enemy, and returned with the Oriental succors to the relief of her
husband and the besieged city. A fleet of three thousand Isaurians cast
anchor in the Bay of Naples and afterwards at Ostia. Above two thousand
horse, of whom a part were Thracians, landed at Tarentum; and, after
the junction of five hundred soldiers of Campania, and a train of wagons
laden with wine and flour, they directed their march on the Appian way,
from Capua to the neighborhood of Rome. The forces that arrived by
land and sea were united at the mouth of the Tyber. Antonina convened
a council of war: it was resolved to surmount, with sails and oars,
the adverse stream of the river; and the Goths were apprehensive of
disturbing, by any rash hostilities, the negotiation to which Belisarius
had craftily listened. They credulously believed that they saw no more
than the vanguard of a fleet and army, which already covered the Ionian
Sea and the plains of Campania; and the illusion was supported by the
haughty language of the Roman general, when he gave audience to the
ambassadors of Vitiges. After a specious discourse to vindicate the
justice of his cause, they declared, that, for the sake of peace, they
were disposed to renounce the possession of Sicily. "The emperor is not
less generous," replied his lieutenant, with a disdainful smile, "in
return for a gift which you no longer possess: he presents you with an
ancient province of the empire; he resigns to the Goths the sovereignty
of the British island." Belisarius rejected with equal firmness and
contempt the offer of a tribute; but he allowed the Gothic ambassadors
to seek their fate from the mouth of Justinian himself; and consented,
with seeming reluctance, to a truce of three months, from the winter
solstice to the equinox of spring. Prudence might not safely trust
either the oaths or hostages of the Barbarians, and the conscious
superiority of the Roman chief was expressed in the distribution of his
troops. As soon as fear or hunger compelled the Goths to evacuate
Alba, Porto, and Centumcellæ, their place was instantly supplied; the
garrisons of Narni, Spoleto, and Perusia, were reënforced, and the seven
camps of the besiegers were gradually encompassed with the calamities of
a siege. The prayers and pilgrimage of Datius, bishop of Milan, were not
without effect; and he obtained one thousand Thracians and Isaurians, to
assist the revolt of Liguria against her Arian tyrant. At the same
time, John the Sanguinary, the nephew of Vitalian, was detached with two
thousand chosen horse, first to Alba, on the Fucine Lake, and afterwards
to the frontiers of Picenum, on the Hadriatic Sea. "In the province,"
said Belisarius, "the Goths have deposited their families and treasures,
without a guard or the suspicion of danger. Doubtless they will violate
the truce: let them feel your presence, before they hear of your
motions. Spare the Italians; suffer not any fortified places to remain
hostile in your rear; and faithfully reserve the spoil for an equal and
common partition. It would not be reasonable," he added with a laugh,
"that whilst we are toiling to the destruction of the drones, our more
fortunate brethren should rifle and enjoy the honey."

The whole nation of the Ostrogoths had been assembled for the attack,
and was almost entirely consumed in the siege of Rome. If any credit be
due to an intelligent spectator, one third at least of their enormous
host was destroyed, in frequent and bloody combats under the walls of
the city. The bad fame and pernicious qualities of the summer air might
already be imputed to the decay of agriculture and population; and
the evils of famine and pestilence were aggravated by their own
licentiousness, and the unfriendly disposition of the country. While
Vitiges struggled with his fortune, while he hesitated between shame and
ruin, his retreat was hastened by domestic alarms. The king of the Goths
was informed by trembling messengers, that John the Sanguinary spread
the devastations of war from the Apennine to the Hadriatic; that the
rich spoils and innumerable captives of Picenum were lodged in the
fortifications of Rimini; and that this formidable chief had defeated
his uncle, insulted his capital, and seduced, by secret correspondence,
the fidelity of his wife, the imperious daughter of Amalasontha. Yet,
before he retired, Vitiges made a last effort, either to storm or
to surprise the city. A secret passage was discovered in one of the
aqueducts; two citizens of the Vatican were tempted by bribes to
intoxicate the guards of the Aurelian gate; an attack was meditated
on the walls beyond the Tyber, in a place which was not fortified with
towers; and the Barbarians advanced, with torches and scaling-ladders,
to the assault of the Pincian gate. But every attempt was defeated by
the intrepid vigilance of Belisarius and his band of veterans, who,
in the most perilous moments, did not regret the absence of their
companions; and the Goths, alike destitute of hope and subsistence,
clamorously urged their departure before the truce should expire, and
the Roman cavalry should again be united. One year and nine days after
the commencement of the siege, an army, so lately strong and triumphant,
burnt their tents, and tumultuously repassed the Milvian bridge. They
repassed not with impunity: their thronging multitudes, oppressed in a
narrow passage, were driven headlong into the Tyber, by their own fears
and the pursuit of the enemy; and the Roman general, sallying from the
Pincian gate, inflicted a severe and disgraceful wound on their retreat.
The slow length of a sickly and desponding host was heavily dragged
along the Flaminian way; from whence the Barbarians were sometimes
compelled to deviate, lest they should encounter the hostile garrisons
that guarded the high road to Rimini and Ravenna. Yet so powerful was
this flying army, that Vitiges spared ten thousand men for the defence
of the cities which he was most solicitous to preserve, and detached
his nephew Uraias, with an adequate force, for the chastisement of
rebellious Milan. At the head of his principal army, he besieged Rimini,
only thirty-three miles distant from the Gothic capital. A feeble
rampart, and a shallow ditch, were maintained by the skill and valor of
John the Sanguinary, who shared the danger and fatigue of the meanest
soldier, and emulated, on a theatre less illustrious, the military
virtues of his great commander. The towers and battering-engines of the
Barbarians were rendered useless; their attacks were repulsed; and the
tedious blockade, which reduced the garrison to the last extremity of
hunger, afforded time for the union and march of the Roman forces.
A fleet, which had surprised Ancona, sailed along the coast of the
Hadriatic, to the relief of the besieged city. The eunuch Narses landed
in Picenum with two thousand Heruli and five thousand of the bravest
troops of the East. The rock of the Apennine was forced; ten thousand
veterans moved round the foot of the mountains, under the command
of Belisarius himself; and a new army, whose encampment blazed with
innumerable lights, _appeared_ to advance along the Flaminian way.
Overwhelmed with astonishment and despair, the Goths abandoned the siege
of Rimini, their tents, their standards, and their leaders; and Vitiges,
who gave or followed the example of flight, never halted till he found a
shelter within the walls and morasses of Ravenna.

To these walls, and to some fortresses destitute of any mutual support,
the Gothic monarchy was now reduced. The provinces of Italy had embraced
the party of the emperor and his army, gradually recruited to the number
of twenty thousand men, must have achieved an easy and rapid conquest,
if their invincible powers had not been weakened by the discord of the
Roman chiefs. Before the end of the siege, an act of blood, ambiguous
and indiscreet, sullied the fair fame of Belisarius. Presidius, a
loyal Italian, as he fled from Ravenna to Rome, was rudely stopped by
Constantine, the military governor of Spoleto, and despoiled, even in a
church, of two daggers richly inlaid with gold and precious stones. As
soon as the public danger had subsided, Presidius complained of the loss
and injury: his complaint was heard, but the order of restitution was
disobeyed by the pride and avarice of the offender. Exasperated by
the delay, Presidius boldly arrested the general's horse as he passed
through the forum; and, with the spirit of a citizen, demanded the
common benefit of the Roman laws. The honor of Belisarius was engaged;
he summoned a council; claimed the obedience of his subordinate officer;
and was provoked, by an insolent reply, to call hastily for the presence
of his guards. Constantine, viewing their entrance as the signal of
death, drew his sword, and rushed on the general, who nimbly eluded the
stroke, and was protected by his friends; while the desperate assassin
was disarmed, dragged into a neighboring chamber, and executed, or
rather murdered, by the guards, at the arbitrary command of Belisarius.
In this hasty act of violence, the guilt of Constantine was no longer
remembered; the despair and death of that valiant officer were secretly
imputed to the revenge of Antonina; and each of his colleagues,
conscious of the same rapine, was apprehensive of the same fate.
The fear of a common enemy suspended the effects of their envy
and discontent; but in the confidence of approaching victory, they
instigated a powerful rival to oppose the conqueror of Rome and Africa.
From the domestic service of the palace, and the administration of the
private revenue, Narses the eunuch was suddenly exalted to the head of
an army; and the spirit of a hero, who afterwards equalled the merit and
glory of Belisarius, served only to perplex the operations of the Gothic
war. To his prudent counsels, the relief of Rimini was ascribed by the
leaders of the discontented faction, who exhorted Narses to assume an
independent and separate command. The epistle of Justinian had indeed
enjoined his obedience to the general; but the dangerous exception, "as
far as may be advantageous to the public service," reserved some freedom
of judgment to the discreet favorite, who had so lately departed from
the sacred and familiar conversation of his sovereign. In the exercise
of this doubtful right, the eunuch perpetually dissented from the
opinions of Belisarius; and, after yielding with reluctance to the siege
of Urbino, he deserted his colleague in the night, and marched away to
the conquest of the Æmilian province. The fierce and formidable bands
of the Heruli were attached to the person of Narses; ten thousand
Romans and confederates were persuaded to march under his banners; every
malecontent embraced the fair opportunity of revenging his private or
imaginary wrongs; and the remaining troops of Belisarius were divided
and dispersed from the garrisons of Sicily to the shores of the
Hadriatic. His skill and perseverance overcame every obstacle: Urbino
was taken, the sieges of Fæsulæ Orvieto, and Auximum, were undertaken
and vigorously prosecuted; and the eunuch Narses was at length recalled
to the domestic cares of the palace. All dissensions were healed, and
all opposition was subdued, by the temperate authority of the Roman
general, to whom his enemies could not refuse their esteem; and
Belisarius inculcated the salutary lesson that the forces of the
state should compose one body, and be animated by one soul. But in the
interval of discord, the Goths were permitted to breathe; an important
season was lost, Milan was destroyed, and the northern provinces of
Italy were afflicted by an inundation of the Franks.

When Justinian first meditated the conquest of Italy, he sent
ambassadors to the kings of the Franks, and adjured them, by the common
ties of alliance and religion, to join in the holy enterprise against
the Arians. The Goths, as their want were more urgent, employed a more

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 13 of 49)