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

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and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises of the camp. The
soldiers already stationed in the province are discontented, fearful,
and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy, they dismiss their horses, and
cast their arms on the ground. No taxes can be raised, since Italy is in
the hands of the Barbarians; the failure of payment has deprived us of
the right of command, or even of admonition. Be assured, dread Sir, that
the greater part of your troops have already deserted to the Goths.
If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your
wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you
desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a
military force, the title of general is an empty name. It would be
expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards.
Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light
and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money that you can
procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the
Huns." An officer in whom Belisarius confided was sent from Ravenna to
hasten and conduct the succors; but the message was neglected, and the
messenger was detained at Constantinople by an advantageous marriage.
After his patience had been exhausted by delay and disappointment, the
Roman general repassed the Adriatic, and expected at Dyrrachium the
arrival of the troops, which were slowly assembled among the subjects
and allies of the empire. His powers were still inadequate to the
deliverance of Rome, which was closely besieged by the Gothic king. The
Appian way, a march of forty days, was covered by the Barbarians; and as
the prudence of Belisarius declined a battle, he preferred the safe and
speedy navigation of five days from the coast of Epirus to the mouth of
the Tyber.

After reducing, by force, or treaty, the towns of inferior note in the
midland provinces of Italy, Totila proceeded, not to assault, but to
encompass and starve, the ancient capital. Rome was afflicted by the
avarice, and guarded by the valor, of Bessas, a veteran chief of Gothic
extraction, who filled, with a garrison of three thousand soldiers, the
spacious circle of her venerable walls. From the distress of the
people he extracted a profitable trade, and secretly rejoiced in the
continuance of the siege. It was for his use that the granaries had been
replenished: the charity of Pope Vigilius had purchased and embarked
an ample supply of Sicilian corn; but the vessels which escaped the
Barbarians were seized by a rapacious governor, who imparted a scanty
sustenance to the soldiers, and sold the remainder to the wealthy
Romans. The medimnus, or fifth part of the quarter of wheat, was
exchanged for seven pieces of gold; fifty pieces were given for an ox,
a rare and accidental prize; the progress of famine enhanced this
exorbitant value, and the mercenaries were tempted to deprive themselves
of the allowance which was scarcely sufficient for the support of life.
A tasteless and unwholesome mixture, in which the bran thrice exceeded
the quantity of flour, appeased the hunger of the poor; they were
gradually reduced to feed on dead horses, dogs, cats, and mice, and
eagerly to snatch the grass, and even the nettles, which grew among the
ruins of the city. A crowd of spectres, pale and emaciated, their bodies
oppressed with disease, and their minds with despair, surrounded the
palace of the governor, urged, with unavailing truth, that it was the
duty of a master to maintain his slaves, and humbly requested that he
would provide for their subsistence, to permit their flight, or command
their immediate execution. Bessas replied, with unfeeling tranquillity,
that it was impossible to feed, unsafe to dismiss, and unlawful to kill,
the subjects of the emperor. Yet the example of a private citizen might
have shown his countrymen that a tyrant cannot withhold the privilege of
death. Pierced by the cries of five children, who vainly called on their
father for bread, he ordered them to follow his steps, advanced with
calm and silent despair to one of the bridges of the Tyber, and,
covering his face, threw himself headlong into the stream, in
the presence of his family and the Roman people. To the rich and
pusillanimous, Bessas sold the permission of departure; but the
greatest part of the fugitives expired on the public highways, or were
intercepted by the flying parties of Barbarians. In the mean while, the
artful governor soothed the discontent, and revived the hopes of
the Romans, by the vague reports of the fleets and armies which were
hastening to their relief from the extremities of the East. They derived
more rational comfort from the assurance that Belisarius had landed at
the _port_; and, without numbering his forces, they firmly relied on the
humanity, the courage, and the skill of their great deliverer.

Chapter XLIII: Last Victory And Death Of Belisarius, Death Of Justinian. - Part II.

The foresight of Totila had raised obstacles worthy of such an
antagonist. Ninety furlongs below the city, in the narrowest part of the
river, he joined the two banks by strong and solid timbers in the form
of a bridge, on which he erected two lofty towers, manned by the bravest
of his Goths, and profusely stored with missile weapons and engines of
offence. The approach of the bridge and towers was covered by a strong
and massy chain of iron; and the chain, at either end, on the opposite
sides of the Tyber, was defended by a numerous and chosen detachment of
archers. But the enterprise of forcing these barriers, and relieving
the capital, displays a shining example of the boldness and conduct of
Belisarius. His cavalry advanced from the port along the public road, to
awe the motions, and distract the attention of the enemy. His infantry
and provisions were distributed in two hundred large boats; and each
boat was shielded by a high rampart of thick planks, pierced with many
small holes for the discharge of missile weapons. In the front, two
large vessels were linked together to sustain a floating castle, which
commanded the towers of the bridge, and contained a magazine of fire,
sulphur, and bitumen. The whole fleet, which the general led in person,
was laboriously moved against the current of the river. The chain
yielded to their weight, and the enemies who guarded the banks were
either slain or scattered. As soon as they touched the principal
barrier, the fire-ship was instantly grappled to the bridge; one of
the towers, with two hundred Goths, was consumed by the flames; the
assailants shouted victory; and Rome was saved, if the wisdom of
Belisarius had not been defeated by the misconduct of his officers.
He had previously sent orders to Bessas to second his operations by a
timely sally from the town; and he had fixed his lieutenant, Isaac, by
a peremptory command, to the station of the port. But avarice rendered
Bessas immovable; while the youthful ardor of Isaac delivered him into
the hands of a superior enemy. The exaggerated rumor of his defeat was
hastily carried to the ears of Belisarius: he paused; betrayed in that
single moment of his life some emotions of surprise and perplexity; and
reluctantly sounded a retreat to save his wife Antonina, his treasures,
and the only harbor which he possessed on the Tuscan coast. The vexation
of his mind produced an ardent and almost mortal fever; and Rome was
left without protection to the mercy or indignation of Totila. The
continuance of hostilities had imbittered the national hatred: the Arian
clergy was ignominiously driven from Rome; Pelagius, the archdeacon,
returned without success from an embassy to the Gothic camp; and a
Sicilian bishop, the envoy or nuncio of the pope, was deprived of both
his hands, for daring to utter falsehoods in the service of the church
and state.

Famine had relaxed the strength and discipline of the garrison of Rome.
They could derive no effectual service from a dying people; and the
inhuman avarice of the merchant at length absorbed the vigilance of the
governor. Four Isaurian sentinels, while their companions slept, and
their officers were absent, descended by a rope from the wall, and
secretly proposed to the Gothic king to introduce his troops into
the city. The offer was entertained with coldness and suspicion; they
returned in safety; they twice repeated their visit; the place was twice
examined; the conspiracy was known and disregarded; and no sooner had
Totila consented to the attempt, than they unbarred the Asinarian gate,
and gave admittance to the Goths. Till the dawn of day, they halted in
order of battle, apprehensive of treachery or ambush; but the troops of
Bessas, with their leader, had already escaped; and when the king was
pressed to disturb their retreat, he prudently replied, that no sight
could be more grateful than that of a flying enemy. The patricians, who
were still possessed of horses, Decius, Basilius, &c. accompanied the
governor; their brethren, among whom Olybrius, Orestes, and Maximus, are
named by the historian, took refuge in the church of St. Peter: but
the assertion, that only five hundred persons remained in the capital,
inspires some doubt of the fidelity either of his narrative or of his
text. As soon as daylight had displayed the entire victory of the Goths,
their monarch devoutly visited the tomb of the prince of the apostles;
but while he prayed at the altar, twenty-five soldiers, and sixty
citizens, were put to the sword in the vestibule of the temple. The
archdeacon Pelagius stood before him, with the Gospels in his hand. "O
Lord, be merciful to your servant." "Pelagius," said Totila, with an
insulting smile, "your pride now condescends to become a suppliant." "I
_am_ a suppliant," replied the prudent archdeacon; "God has now made us
your subjects, and as your subjects, we are entitled to your clemency."
At his humble prayer, the lives of the Romans were spared; and the
chastity of the maids and matrons was preserved inviolate from the
passions of the hungry soldiers. But they were rewarded by the freedom
of pillage, after the most precious spoils had been reserved for the
royal treasury. The houses of the senators were plentifully stored with
gold and silver; and the avarice of Bessas had labored with so much
guilt and shame for the benefit of the conqueror. In this revolution,
the sons and daughters of Roman consuls lasted the misery which they had
spurned or relieved, wandered in tattered garments through the streets
of the city and begged their bread, perhaps without success, before
the gates of their hereditary mansions. The riches of Rusticiana, the
daughter of Symmachus and widow of Boethius, had been generously
devoted to alleviate the calamities of famine. But the Barbarians were
exasperated by the report, that she had prompted the people to overthrow
the statues of the great Theodoric; and the life of that venerable
matron would have been sacrificed to his memory, if Totila had not
respected her birth, her virtues, and even the pious motive of her
revenge. The next day he pronounced two orations, to congratulate and
admonish his victorious Goths, and to reproach the senate, as the
vilest of slaves, with their perjury, folly, and ingratitude; sternly
declaring, that their estates and honors were justly forfeited to the
companions of his arms. Yet he consented to forgive their revolt; and
the senators repaid his clemency by despatching circular letters to
their tenants and vassals in the provinces of Italy, strictly to enjoin
them to desert the standard of the Greeks, to cultivate their lands in
peace, and to learn from their masters the duty of obedience to a Gothic
sovereign. Against the city which had so long delayed the course of his
victories, he appeared inexorable: one third of the walls, in different
parts, were demolished by his command; fire and engines prepared to
consume or subvert the most stately works of antiquity; and the world
was astonished by the fatal decree, that Rome should be changed into a
pasture for cattle. The firm and temperate remonstrance of Belisarius
suspended the execution; he warned the Barbarian not to sully his fame
by the destruction of those monuments which were the glory of the dead,
and the delight of the living; and Totila was persuaded, by the advice
of an enemy, to preserve Rome as the ornament of his kingdom, or the
fairest pledge of peace and reconciliation. When he had signified to
the ambassadors of Belisarius his intention of sparing the city, he
stationed an army at the distance of one hundred and twenty furlongs,
to observe the motions of the Roman general. With the remainder of his
forces he marched into Lucania and Apulia, and occupied on the summit of
Mount Garganus one of the camps of Hannibal. The senators were dragged
in his train, and afterwards confined in the fortresses of Campania: the
citizens, with their wives and children, were dispersed in exile; and
during forty days Rome was abandoned to desolate and dreary solitude.

The loss of Rome was speedily retrieved by an action, to which,
according to the event, the public opinion would apply the names of
rashness or heroism. After the departure of Totila, the Roman general
sallied from the port at the head of a thousand horse, cut in pieces the
enemy who opposed his progress, and visited with pity and reverence the
vacant space of the _eternal_ city. Resolved to maintain a station so
conspicuous in the eyes of mankind, he summoned the greatest part of
his troops to the standard which he erected on the Capitol: the old
inhabitants were recalled by the love of their country and the hopes
of food; and the keys of Rome were sent a second time to the emperor
Justinian. The walls, as far as they had been demolished by the
Goths, were repaired with rude and dissimilar materials; the ditch was
restored; iron spikes were profusely scattered in the highways to annoy
the feet of the horses; and as new gates could not suddenly be procured,
the entrance was guarded by a Spartan rampart of his bravest soldiers.
At the expiration of twenty-five days, Totila returned by hasty marches
from Apulia to avenge the injury and disgrace. Belisarius expected his
approach. The Goths were thrice repulsed in three general assaults; they
lost the flower of their troops; the royal standard had almost fallen
into the hands of the enemy, and the fame of Totila sunk, as it had
risen, with the fortune of his arms. Whatever skill and courage could
achieve, had been performed by the Roman general: it remained only that
Justinian should terminate, by a strong and seasonable effort, the
war which he had ambitiously undertaken. The indolence, perhaps
the impotence, of a prince who despised his enemies, and envied his
servants, protracted the calamities of Italy. After a long silence,
Belisarius was commanded to leave a sufficient garrison at Rome, and
to transport himself into the province of Lucania, whose inhabitants,
inflamed by Catholic zeal, had cast away the yoke of their Arian
conquerors. In this ignoble warfare, the hero, invincible against
the power of the Barbarians, was basely vanquished by the delay, the
disobedience, and the cowardice of his own officers. He reposed in his
winter quarters of Crotona, in the full assurance, that the two passes
of the Lucanian hills were guarded by his cavalry. They were betrayed by
treachery or weakness; and the rapid march of the Goths scarcely allowed
time for the escape of Belisarius to the coast of Sicily. At length a
fleet and army were assembled for the relief of Ruscianum, or Rossano,
a fortress sixty furlongs from the ruins of Sybaris, where the nobles
of Lucania had taken refuge. In the first attempt, the Roman forces were
dissipated by a storm. In the second, they approached the shore; but
they saw the hills covered with archers, the landing-place defended by
a line of spears, and the king of the Goths impatient for battle. The
conqueror of Italy retired with a sigh, and continued to languish,
inglorious and inactive, till Antonina, who had been sent to
Constantinople to solicit succors, obtained, after the death of the
empress, the permission of his return.

The five last campaigns of Belisarius might abate the envy of his
competitors, whose eyes had been dazzled and wounded by the blaze of
his former glory. Instead of delivering Italy from the Goths, he had
wandered like a fugitive along the coast, without daring to march into
the country, or to accept the bold and repeated challenge of Totila.
Yet, in the judgment of the few who could discriminate counsels from
events, and compare the instruments with the execution, he appeared
a more consummate master of the art of war, than in the season of his
prosperity, when he presented two captive kings before the throne of
Justinian. The valor of Belisarius was not chilled by age: his prudence
was matured by experience; but the moral virtues of humanity and justice
seem to have yielded to the hard necessity of the times. The parsimony
or poverty of the emperor compelled him to deviate from the rule of
conduct which had deserved the love and confidence of the Italians. The
war was maintained by the oppression of Ravenna, Sicily, and all
the faithful subjects of the empire; and the rigorous prosecution of
Herodian provoked that injured or guilty officer to deliver Spoleto into
the hands of the enemy. The avarice of Antonina, which had been some
times diverted by love, now reigned without a rival in her breast.
Belisarius himself had always understood, that riches, in a corrupt
age, are the support and ornament of personal merit. And it cannot be
presumed that he should stain his honor for the public service, without
applying a part of the spoil to his private emolument. The hero had
escaped the sword of the Barbarians. But the dagger of conspiracy
awaited his return. In the midst of wealth and honors, Artaban, who had
chastised the African tyrant, complained of the ingratitude of courts.
He aspired to Præjecta, the emperor's niece, who wished to reward her
deliverer; but the impediment of his previous marriage was asserted
by the piety of Theodora. The pride of royal descent was irritated by
flattery; and the service in which he gloried had proved him capable of
bold and sanguinary deeds. The death of Justinian was resolved, but the
conspirators delayed the execution till they could surprise Belisarius
disarmed, and naked, in the palace of Constantinople. Not a hope could
be entertained of shaking his long-tried fidelity; and they justly
dreaded the revenge, or rather the justice, of the veteran general, who
might speedily assemble an army in Thrace to punish the assassins, and
perhaps to enjoy the fruits of their crime. Delay afforded time for rash
communications and honest confessions: Artaban and his accomplices were
condemned by the senate, but the extreme clemency of Justinian detained
them in the gentle confinement of the palace, till he pardoned their
flagitious attempt against his throne and life. If the emperor forgave
his enemies, he must cordially embrace a friend whose victories were
alone remembered, and who was endeared to his prince by the recent
circumstances of their common danger. Belisarius reposed from his toils,
in the high station of general of the East and count of the domestics;
and the older consuls and patricians respectfully yielded the precedency
of rank to the peerless merit of the first of the Romans. The first
of the Romans still submitted to be the slave of his wife; but the
servitude of habit and affection became less disgraceful when the death
of Theodora had removed the baser influence of fear. Joannina, their
daughter, and the sole heiress of their fortunes, was betrothed to
Anastasius, the grandson, or rather the nephew, of the empress, whose
kind interposition forwarded the consummation of their youthful loves.
But the power of Theodora expired, the parents of Joannina returned, and
her honor, perhaps her happiness, were sacrificed to the revenge of an
unfeeling mother, who dissolved the imperfect nuptials before they had
been ratified by the ceremonies of the church.

Before the departure of Belisarius, Perusia was besieged, and few cities
were impregnable to the Gothic arms. Ravenna, Ancona, and Crotona, still
resisted the Barbarians; and when Totila asked in marriage one of the
daughters of France, he was stung by the just reproach that the king of
Italy was unworthy of his title till it was acknowledged by the Roman
people. Three thousand of the bravest soldiers had been left to
defend the capital. On the suspicion of a monopoly, they massacred the
governor, and announced to Justinian, by a deputation of the clergy,
that unless their offence was pardoned, and their arrears were
satisfied, they should instantly accept the tempting offers of Totila.
But the officer who succeeded to the command (his name was Diogenes)
deserved their esteem and confidence; and the Goths, instead of finding
an easy conquest, encountered a vigorous resistance from the soldiers
and people, who patiently endured the loss of the port and of all
maritime supplies. The siege of Rome would perhaps have been raised,
if the liberality of Totila to the Isaurians had not encouraged some of
their venal countrymen to copy the example of treason. In a dark night,
while the Gothic trumpets sounded on another side, they silently opened
the gate of St. Paul: the Barbarians rushed into the city; and the
flying garrison was intercepted before they could reach the harbor of
Centumcellæ. A soldier trained in the school of Belisarius, Paul of
Cilicia, retired with four hundred men to the mole of Hadrian. They
repelled the Goths; but they felt the approach of famine; and their
aversion to the taste of horse-flesh confirmed their resolution to risk
the event of a desperate and decisive sally. But their spirit insensibly
stooped to the offers of capitulation; they retrieved their arrears of
pay, and preserved their arms and horses, by enlisting in the service of
Totila; their chiefs, who pleaded a laudable attachment to their wives
and children in the East, were dismissed with honor; and above four
hundred enemies, who had taken refuge in the sanctuaries, were saved
by the clemency of the victor. He no longer entertained a wish of
destroying the edifices of Rome, which he now respected as the seat
of the Gothic kingdom: the senate and people were restored to their
country; the means of subsistence were liberally provided; and Totila,
in the robe of peace, exhibited the equestrian games of the circus.
Whilst he amused the eyes of the multitude, four hundred vessels were
prepared for the embarkation of his troops. The cities of Rhegium
and Tarentum were reduced: he passed into Sicily, the object of his
implacable resentment; and the island was stripped of its gold and
silver, of the fruits of the earth, and of an infinite number of horses,
sheep, and oxen. Sardinia and Corsica obeyed the fortune of Italy; and
the sea-coast of Greece was visited by a fleet of three hundred galleys.
The Goths were landed in Corcyra and the ancient continent of Epirus;
they advanced as far as Nicopolis, the trophy of Augustus, and Dodona,
once famous by the oracle of Jove. In every step of his victories, the
wise Barbarian repeated to Justinian the desire of peace, applauded the
concord of their predecessors, and offered to employ the Gothic arms in
the service of the empire.

Justinian was deaf to the voice of peace: but he neglected the
prosecution of war; and the indolence of his temper disappointed, in
some degree, the obstinacy of his passions. From this salutary slumber
the emperor was awakened by the pope Vigilius and the patrician
Cethegus, who appeared before his throne, and adjured him, in the name
of God and the people, to resume the conquest and deliverance of Italy.
In the choice of the generals, caprice, as well as judgment, was shown.
A fleet and army sailed for the relief of Sicily, under the conduct
of Liberius; but his youth and want of experience were afterwards
discovered, and before he touched the shores of the island he was
overtaken by his successor. In the place of Liberius, the conspirator
Artaban was raised from a prison to military honors; in the pious
presumption, that gratitude would animate his valor and fortify his
allegiance. Belisarius reposed in the shade of his laurels, but the
command of the principal army was reserved for Germanus, the emperor's
nephew, whose rank and merit had been long depressed by the jealousy of
the court. Theodora had injured him in the rights of a private citizen,

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 20 of 49)