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

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effectual mode of persuasion, and vainly strove, by the gift of lands
and money, to purchase the friendship, or at least the neutrality, of a
light and perfidious nation. But the arms of Belisarius, and the
revolt of the Italians, had no sooner shaken the Gothic monarchy,
than Theodebert of Austrasia, the most powerful and warlike of the
Merovingian kings, was persuaded to succor their distress by an indirect
and seasonable aid. Without expecting the consent of their sovereign,
the thousand Burgundians, his recent subjects, descended from the Alps,
and joined the troops which Vitiges had sent to chastise the revolt of
Milan. After an obstinate siege, the capital of Liguria was reduced
by famine; but no capitulation could be obtained, except for the safe
retreat of the Roman garrison. Datius, the orthodox bishop, who had
seduced his countrymen to rebellion and ruin, escaped to the luxury and
honors of the Byzantine court; but the clergy, perhaps the Arian clergy,
were slaughtered at the foot of their own altars by the defenders of
the Catholic faith. Three hundred thousand males were _reported_ to be
slain; the female sex, and the more precious spoil, was resigned to
the Burgundians; and the houses, or at least the walls, of Milan,
were levelled with the ground. The Goths, in their last moments, were
revenged by the destruction of a city, second only to Rome in size
and opulence, in the splendor of its buildings, or the number of
its inhabitants; and Belisarius sympathized alone in the fate of his
deserted and devoted friends. Encouraged by this successful inroad,
Theodebert himself, in the ensuing spring, invaded the plains of Italy
with an army of one hundred thousand Barbarians. The king, and some
chosen followers, were mounted on horseback, and armed with lances; the
infantry, without bows or spears, were satisfied with a shield, a sword,
and a double-edged battle-axe, which, in their hands, became a deadly
and unerring weapon. Italy trembled at the march of the Franks; and
both the Gothic prince and the Roman general, alike ignorant of their
designs, solicited, with hope and terror, the friendship of these
dangerous allies. Till he had secured the passage of the Po on the
bridge of Pavia, the grandson of Clovis dissembled his intentions, which
he at length declared, by assaulting, almost at the same instant, the
hostile camps of the Romans and Goths. Instead of uniting their arms,
they fled with equal precipitation; and the fertile, though desolate
provinces of Liguria and Æmilia, were abandoned to a licentious host of
Barbarians, whose rage was not mitigated by any thoughts of settlement
or conquest. Among the cities which they ruined, Genoa, not yet
constructed of marble, is particularly enumerated; and the deaths of
thousands, according to the regular practice of war, appear to have
excited less horror than some idolatrous sacrifices of women and
children, which were performed with impunity in the camp of the most
Christian king. If it were not a melancholy truth, that the first and
most cruel sufferings must be the lot of the innocent and helpless,
history might exult in the misery of the conquerors, who, in the midst
of riches, were left destitute of bread or wine, reduced to drink the
waters of the Po, and to feed on the flesh of distempered cattle. The
dysentery swept away one third of their army; and the clamors of his
subjects, who were impatient to pass the Alps, disposed Theodebert to
listen with respect to the mild exhortations of Belisarius. The memory
of this inglorious and destructive warfare was perpetuated on the medals
of Gaul; and Justinian, without unsheathing his sword, assumed the title
of conqueror of the Franks. The Merovingian prince was offended by the
vanity of the emperor; he affected to pity the fallen fortunes of the
Goths; and his insidious offer of a federal union was fortified by
the promise or menace of descending from the Alps at the head of five
hundred thousand men. His plans of conquest were boundless, and perhaps
chimerical. The king of Austrasia threatened to chastise Justinian, and
to march to the gates of Constantinople: he was overthrown and slain by
a wild bull, as he hunted in the Belgic or German forests.

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

As soon as Belisarius was delivered from his foreign and domestic
enemies, he seriously applied his forces to the final reduction of
Italy. In the siege of Osimo, the general was nearly transpierced with
an arrow, if the mortal stroke had not been intercepted by one of his
guards, who lost, in that pious office, the use of his hand. The Goths
of Osimo, four thousand warriors, with those of Fæsulæ and the Cottian
Alps, were among the last who maintained their independence; and their
gallant resistance, which almost tired the patience, deserved the
esteem, of the conqueror. His prudence refused to subscribe the safe
conduct which they asked, to join their brethren of Ravenna; but they
saved, by an honorable capitulation, one moiety at least of their
wealth, with the free alternative of retiring peaceably to their
estates, or enlisting to serve the emperor in his Persian wars. The
multitudes which yet adhered to the standard of Vitiges far surpassed
the number of the Roman troops; but neither prayers nor defiance, nor
the extreme danger of his most faithful subjects, could tempt the Gothic
king beyond the fortifications of Ravenna. These fortifications were,
indeed, impregnable to the assaults of art or violence; and when
Belisarius invested the capital, he was soon convinced that famine only
could tame the stubborn spirit of the Barbarians. The sea, the land,
and the channels of the Po, were guarded by the vigilance of the Roman
general; and his morality extended the rights of war to the practice of
poisoning the waters, and secretly firing the granaries of a besieged
city. While he pressed the blockade of Ravenna, he was surprised by the
arrival of two ambassadors from Constantinople, with a treaty of peace,
which Justinian had imprudently signed, without deigning to consult the
author of his victory. By this disgraceful and precarious agreement,
Italy and the Gothic treasure were divided, and the provinces beyond
the Po were left with the regal title to the successor of Theodoric.
The ambassadors were eager to accomplish their salutary commission;
the captive Vitiges accepted, with transport, the unexpected offer of
a crown; honor was less prevalent among the Goths, than the want and
appetite of food; and the Roman chiefs, who murmured at the continuance
of the war, professed implicit submission to the commands of the
emperor. If Belisarius had possessed only the courage of a soldier,
the laurel would have been snatched from his hand by timid and envious
counsels; but in this decisive moment, he resolved, with the magnanimity
of a statesman, to sustain alone the danger and merit of generous
disobedience. Each of his officers gave a written opinion that the siege
of Ravenna was impracticable and hopeless: the general then rejected the
treaty of partition, and declared his own resolution of leading Vitiges
in chains to the feet of Justinian. The Goths retired with doubt and
dismay: this peremptory refusal deprived them of the only signature
which they could trust, and filled their minds with a just apprehension,
that a sagacious enemy had discovered the full extent of their
deplorable state. They compared the fame and fortune of Belisarius with
the weakness of their ill-fated king; and the comparison suggested an
extraordinary project, to which Vitiges, with apparent resignation, was
compelled to acquiesce. Partition would ruin the strength, exile would
disgrace the honor, of the nation; but they offered their arms, their
treasures, and the fortifications of Ravenna, if Belisarius would
disclaim the authority of a master, accept the choice of the Goths, and
assume, as he had deserved, the kingdom of Italy. If the false lustre
of a diadem could have tempted the loyalty of a faithful subject, his
prudence must have foreseen the inconstancy of the Barbarians, and his
rational ambition would prefer the safe and honorable station of a
Roman general. Even the patience and seeming satisfaction with which he
entertained a proposal of treason, might be susceptible of a malignant
interpretation. But the lieutenant of Justinian was conscious of his own
rectitude; he entered into a dark and crooked path, as it might lead
to the voluntary submission of the Goths; and his dexterous policy
persuaded them that he was disposed to comply with their wishes, without
engaging an oath or a promise for the performance of a treaty which he
secretly abhorred. The day of the surrender of Ravenna was stipulated
by the Gothic ambassadors: a fleet, laden with provisions, sailed as
a welcome guest into the deepest recess of the harbor: the gates were
opened to the fancied king of Italy; and Belisarius, without meeting an
enemy, triumphantly marched through the streets of an impregnable city.
The Romans were astonished by their success; the multitudes of tall and
robust Barbarians were confounded by the image of their own patience and
the masculine females, spitting in the faces of their sons and husbands,
most bitterly reproached them for betraying their dominion and freedom
to these pygmies of the south, contemptible in their numbers, diminutive
in their stature. Before the Goths could recover from the first
surprise, and claim the accomplishment of their doubtful hopes, the
victor established his power in Ravenna, beyond the danger of repentance
and revolt.

Vitiges, who perhaps had attempted to escape, was honorably guarded in
his palace; the flower of the Gothic youth was selected for the service
of the emperor; the remainder of the people was dismissed to their
peaceful habitations in the southern provinces; and a colony of Italians
was invited to replenish the depopulated city. The submission of the
capital was imitated in the towns and villages of Italy, which had not
been subdued, or even visited, by the Romans; and the independent Goths,
who remained in arms at Pavia and Verona, were ambitious only to become
the subjects of Belisarius. But his inflexible loyalty rejected, except
as the substitute of Justinian, their oaths of allegiance; and he was
not offended by the reproach of their deputies, that he rather chose to
be a slave than a king.

After the second victory of Belisarius, envy again whispered, Justinian
listened, and the hero was recalled. "The remnant of the Gothic war was
no longer worthy of his presence: a gracious sovereign was impatient to
reward his services, and to consult his wisdom; and he alone was
capable of defending the East against the innumerable armies of Persia."
Belisarius understood the suspicion, accepted the excuse, embarked at
Ravenna his spoils and trophies; and proved, by his ready obedience,
that such an abrupt removal from the government of Italy was not less
unjust than it might have been indiscreet. The emperor received with
honorable courtesy both Vitiges and his more noble consort; and as the
king of the Goths conformed to the Athanasian faith, he obtained, with
a rich inheritance of land in Asia, the rank of senator and patrician.
Every spectator admired, without peril, the strength and stature of the
young Barbarians: they adored the majesty of the throne, and promised to
shed their blood in the service of their benefactor. Justinian deposited
in the Byzantine palace the treasures of the Gothic monarchy. A
flattering senate was sometime admitted to gaze on the magnificent
spectacle; but it was enviously secluded from the public view: and the
conqueror of Italy renounced, without a murmur, perhaps without a sigh,
the well-earned honors of a second triumph. His glory was indeed exalted
above all external pomp; and the faint and hollow praises of the court
were supplied, even in a servile age, by the respect and admiration of
his country. Whenever he appeared in the streets and public places
of Constantinople, Belisarius attracted and satisfied the eyes of the
people. His lofty stature and majestic countenance fulfilled their
expectations of a hero; the meanest of his fellow-citizens were
emboldened by his gentle and gracious demeanor; and the martial train
which attended his footsteps left his person more accessible than in a
day of battle. Seven thousand horsemen, matchless for beauty and valor,
were maintained in the service, and at the private expense, of the
general. Their prowess was always conspicuous in single combats, or
in the foremost ranks; and both parties confessed that in the siege of
Rome, the guards of Belisarius had alone vanquished the Barbarian
host. Their numbers were continually augmented by the bravest and most
faithful of the enemy; and his fortunate captives, the Vandals, the
Moors, and the Goths, emulated the attachment of his domestic followers.
By the union of liberality and justice, he acquired the love of the
soldiers, without alienating the affections of the people. The sick
and wounded were relieved with medicines and money; and still more
efficaciously, by the healing visits and smiles of their commander. The
loss of a weapon or a horse was instantly repaired, and each deed of
valor was rewarded by the rich and honorable gifts of a bracelet or a
collar, which were rendered more precious by the judgment of Belisarius.
He was endeared to the husbandmen by the peace and plenty which they
enjoyed under the shadow of his standard. Instead of being injured, the
country was enriched by the march of the Roman armies; and such was the
rigid discipline of their camp, that not an apple was gathered from the
tree, not a path could be traced in the fields of corn. Belisarius was
chaste and sober. In the license of a military life, none could boast
that they had seen him intoxicated with wine: the most beautiful
captives of Gothic or Vandal race were offered to his embraces; but he
turned aside from their charms, and the husband of Antonina was never
suspected of violating the laws of conjugal fidelity. The spectator and
historian of his exploits has observed, that amidst the perils of war,
he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid
according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress
he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and
humble in the most prosperous fortune. By these virtues, he equalled or
excelled the ancient masters of the military art. Victory, by sea and
land, attended his arms. He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent
islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric;
filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space
of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his
fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival, the
first of the Roman subjects; the voice of envy could only magnify his
dangerous importance; and the emperor might applaud his own discerning
spirit, which had discovered and raised the genius of Belisarius.

It was the custom of the Roman triumphs, that a slave should be placed
behind the chariot to remind the conqueror of the instability of
fortune, and the infirmities of human nature. Procopius, in his
Anecdotes, has assumed that servile and ungrateful office. The generous
reader may cast away the libel, but the evidence of facts will adhere to
his memory; and he will reluctantly confess, that the fame, and even
the virtue, of Belisarius, were polluted by the lust and cruelty of his
wife; and that hero deserved an appellation which may not drop from the
pen of the decent historian. The mother of Antonina was a theatrical
prostitute, and both her father and grandfather exercised, at
Thessalonica and Constantinople, the vile, though lucrative, profession
of charioteers. In the various situations of their fortune she became
the companion, the enemy, the servant, and the favorite of the empress
Theodora: these loose and ambitious females had been connected by
similar pleasures; they were separated by the jealousy of vice, and at
length reconciled by the partnership of guilt. Before her marriage with
Belisarius, Antonina had one husband and many lovers: Photius, the son
of her former nuptials, was of an age to distinguish himself at the
siege of Naples; and it was not till the autumn of her age and
beauty that she indulged a scandalous attachment to a Thracian youth.
Theodosius had been educated in the Eunomian heresy; the African voyage
was consecrated by the baptism and auspicious name of the first soldier
who embarked; and the proselyte was adopted into the family of his
spiritual parents, Belisarius and Antonina. Before they touched the
shores of Africa, this holy kindred degenerated into sensual love: and
as Antonina soon overleaped the bounds of modesty and caution, the Roman
general was alone ignorant of his own dishonor. During their residence
at Carthage, he surprised the two lovers in a subterraneous chamber,
solitary, warm, and almost naked. Anger flashed from his eyes. "With the
help of this young man," said the unblushing Antonina, "I was secreting
our most precious effects from the knowledge of Justinian." The youth
resumed his garments, and the pious husband consented to disbelieve the
evidence of his own senses. From this pleasing and perhaps voluntary
delusion, Belisarius was awakened at Syracuse, by the officious
information of Macedonia; and that female attendant, after requiring an
oath for her security, produced two chamberlains, who, like herself, had
often beheld the adulteries of Antonina. A hasty flight into Asia saved
Theodosius from the justice of an injured husband, who had signified to
one of his guards the order of his death; but the tears of Antonina, and
her artful seductions, assured the credulous hero of her innocence: and
he stooped, against his faith and judgment, to abandon those imprudent
friends, who had presumed to accuse or doubt the chastity of his wife.
The revenge of a guilty woman is implacable and bloody: the unfortunate
Macedonia, with the two witnesses, were secretly arrested by the
minister of her cruelty; their tongues were cut out, their bodies were
hacked into small pieces, and their remains were cast into the Sea of
Syracuse. A rash though judicious saying of Constantine, "I would sooner
have punished the adulteress than the boy," was deeply remembered by
Antonina; and two years afterwards, when despair had armed that officer
against his general, her sanguinary advice decided and hastened his
execution. Even the indignation of Photius was not forgiven by his
mother; the exile of her son prepared the recall of her lover; and
Theodosius condescended to accept the pressing and humble invitation of
the conqueror of Italy. In the absolute direction of his household, and
in the important commissions of peace and war, the favorite youth most
rapidly acquired a fortune of four hundred thousand pounds sterling; and
after their return to Constantinople, the passion of Antonina, at
least, continued ardent and unabated. But fear, devotion, and lassitude
perhaps, inspired Theodosius with more serious thoughts. He dreaded the
busy scandal of the capital, and the indiscreet fondness of the wife of
Belisarius; escaped from her embraces, and retiring to Ephesus, shaved
his head, and took refuge in the sanctuary of a monastic life. The
despair of the new Ariadne could scarcely have been excused by the death
of her husband. She wept, she tore her hair, she filled the palace with
her cries; "she had lost the dearest of friends, a tender, a faithful, a
laborious friend!" But her warm entreaties, fortified by the prayers of
Belisarius, were insufficient to draw the holy monk from the solitude of
Ephesus. It was not till the general moved forward for the Persian war,
that Theodosius could be tempted to return to Constantinople; and the
short interval before the departure of Antonina herself was boldly
devoted to love and pleasure.

A philosopher may pity and forgive the infirmities of female nature,
from which he receives no real injury: but contemptible is the husband
who feels, and yet endures, his own infamy in that of his wife. Antonina
pursued her son with implacable hatred; and the gallant Photius was
exposed to her secret persecutions in the camp beyond the Tigris.
Enraged by his own wrongs, and by the dishonor of his blood, he cast
away in his turn the sentiments of nature, and revealed to Belisarius
the turpitude of a woman who had violated all the duties of a mother
and a wife. From the surprise and indignation of the Roman general, his
former credulity appears to have been sincere: he embraced the knees of
the son of Antonina, adjured him to remember his obligations rather than
his birth, and confirmed at the altar their holy vows of revenge and
mutual defence. The dominion of Antonina was impaired by absence; and
when she met her husband, on his return from the Persian confines,
Belisarius, in his first and transient emotions, confined her person,
and threatened her life. Photius was more resolved to punish, and less
prompt to pardon: he flew to Ephesus; extorted from a trusty eunuch of
his another the full confession of her guilt; arrested Theodosius and
his treasures in the church of St. John the Apostle, and concealed his
captives, whose execution was only delayed, in a secure and sequestered
fortress of Cilicia. Such a daring outrage against public justice could
not pass with impunity; and the cause of Antonina was espoused by the
empress, whose favor she had deserved by the recent services of the
disgrace of a præfect, and the exile and murder of a pope. At the end of
the campaign, Belisarius was recalled; he complied, as usual, with
the Imperial mandate. His mind was not prepared for rebellion: his
obedience, however adverse to the dictates of honor, was consonant to
the wishes of his heart; and when he embraced his wife, at the command,
and perhaps in the presence, of the empress, the tender husband was
disposed to forgive or to be forgiven. The bounty of Theodora reserved
for her companion a more precious favor. "I have found," she said, "my
dearest patrician, a pearl of inestimable value; it has not yet been
viewed by any mortal eye; but the sight and the possession of this jewel
are destined for my friend." As soon as the curiosity and impatience
of Antonina were kindled, the door of a bed-chamber was thrown open, and
she beheld her lover, whom the diligence of the eunuchs had discovered
in his secret prison. Her silent wonder burst into passionate
exclamations of gratitude and joy, and she named Theodora her queen, her
benefactress, and her savior. The monk of Ephesus was nourished in the
palace with luxury and ambition; but instead of assuming, as he was
promised, the command of the Roman armies, Theodosius expired in the
first fatigues of an amorous interview. The grief of Antonina could only
be assuaged by the sufferings of her son. A youth of consular rank, and
a sickly constitution, was punished, without a trial, like a malefactor
and a slave: yet such was the constancy of his mind, that Photius
sustained the tortures of the scourge and the rack, without violating
the faith which he had sworn to Belisarius. After this fruitless
cruelty, the son of Antonina, while his mother feasted with the
empress, was buried in her subterraneous prisons, which admitted not
the distinction of night and day. He twice escaped to the most venerable
sanctuaries of Constantinople, the churches of St. Sophia, and of the
Virgin: but his tyrants were insensible of religion as of pity; and the
helpless youth, amidst the clamors of the clergy and people, was twice
dragged from the altar to the dungeon. His third attempt was more
successful. At the end of three years, the prophet Zachariah, or some
mortal friend, indicated the means of an escape: he eluded the spies and
guards of the empress, reached the holy sepulchre of Jerusalem, embraced
the profession of a monk; and the abbot Photius was employed, after the
death of Justinian, to reconcile and regulate the churches of Egypt.
The son of Antonina suffered all that an enemy can inflict: her patient
husband imposed on himself the more exquisite misery of violating his
promise and deserting his friend.

In the succeeding campaign, Belisarius was again sent against the
Persians: he saved the East, but he offended Theodora, and perhaps the
emperor himself. The malady of Justinian had countenanced the rumor of
his death; and the Roman general, on the supposition of that probable

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 14 of 49)