Edward Gibbon.

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

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wiser citizens, who judged of the future by the past, revolved in their
memory the immense loss, both of men and money, which the empire had
sustained in the expedition of Basiliscus. The troops, which, after
five laborious campaigns, had been recalled from the Persian frontier,
dreaded the sea, the climate, and the arms of an unknown enemy. The
ministers of the finances computed, as far as they might compute, the
demands of an African war; the taxes which must be found and levied to
supply those insatiate demands; and the danger, lest their own lives, or
at least their lucrative employments, should be made responsible for the
deficiency of the supply. Inspired by such selfish motives, (for we may
not suspect him of any zeal for the public good,) John of Cappadocia
ventured to oppose in full council the inclinations of his master. He
confessed, that a victory of such importance could not be too dearly
purchased; but he represented in a grave discourse the certain
difficulties and the uncertain event. "You undertake," said the præfect,
"to besiege Carthage: by land, the distance is not less than one hundred
and forty days' journey; on the sea, a whole year must elapse before
you can receive any intelligence from your fleet. If Africa should
be reduced, it cannot be preserved without the additional conquest of
Sicily and Italy. Success will impose the obligations of new labors;
a single misfortune will attract the Barbarians into the heart of your
exhausted empire." Justinian felt the weight of this salutary advice; he
was confounded by the unwonted freedom of an obsequious servant; and the
design of the war would perhaps have been relinquished, if his courage
had not been revived by a voice which silenced the doubts of profane
reason. "I have seen a vision," cried an artful or fanatic bishop of the
East. "It is the will of Heaven, O emperor! that you should not abandon
your holy enterprise for the deliverance of the African church. The God
of battles will march before your standard, and disperse your enemies,
who are the enemies of his Son." The emperor, might be tempted, and
his counsellors were constrained, to give credit to this seasonable
revelation: but they derived more rational hope from the revolt, which
the adherents of Hilderic or Athanasius had already excited on the
borders of the Vandal monarchy. Pudentius, an African subject, had
privately signified his loyal intentions, and a small military aid
restored the province of Tripoli to the obedience of the Romans. The
government of Sardinia had been intrusted to Godas, a valiant Barbarian
he suspended the payment of tribute, disclaimed his allegiance to the
usurper, and gave audience to the emissaries of Justinian, who found him
master of that fruitful island, at the head of his guards, and proudly
invested with the ensigns of royalty. The forces of the Vandals were
diminished by discord and suspicion; the Roman armies were animated by
the spirit of Belisarius; one of those heroic names which are familiar
to every age and to every nation.

The Africanus of new Rome was born, and perhaps educated, among the
Thracian peasants, without any of those advantages which had formed
the virtues of the elder and younger Scipio; a noble origin, liberal
studies, and the emulation of a free state. The silence of a loquacious
secretary may be admitted, to prove that the youth of Belisarius could
not afford any subject of praise: he served, most assuredly with valor
and reputation, among the private guards of Justinian; and when his
patron became emperor, the domestic was promoted to military command.
After a bold inroad into Persarmenia, in which his glory was shared by a
colleague, and his progress was checked by an enemy, Belisarius repaired
to the important station of Dara, where he first accepted the service
of Procopius, the faithful companion, and diligent historian, of his
exploits. The Mirranes of Persia advanced, with forty thousand of her
best troops, to raze the fortifications of Dara; and signified the
day and the hour on which the citizens should prepare a bath for his
refreshment, after the toils of victory. He encountered an adversary
equal to himself, by the new title of General of the East; his superior
in the science of war, but much inferior in the number and quality
of his troops, which amounted only to twenty-five thousand Romans and
strangers, relaxed in their discipline, and humbled by recent disasters.
As the level plain of Dara refused all shelter to stratagem and ambush,
Belisarius protected his front with a deep trench, which was prolonged
at first in perpendicular, and afterwards in parallel, lines, to cover
the wings of cavalry advantageously posted to command the flanks and
rear of the enemy. When the Roman centre was shaken, their well-timed
and rapid charge decided the conflict: the standard of Persia fell;
the _immortals_ fled; the infantry threw away their bucklers, and eight
thousand of the vanquished were left on the field of battle. In the next
campaign, Syria was invaded on the side of the desert; and Belisarius,
with twenty thousand men, hastened from Dara to the relief of the
province. During the whole summer, the designs of the enemy were baffled
by his skilful dispositions: he pressed their retreat, occupied
each night their camp of the preceding day, and would have secured a
bloodless victory, if he could have resisted the impatience of his
own troops. Their valiant promise was faintly supported in the hour
of battle; the right wing was exposed by the treacherous or cowardly
desertion of the Christian Arabs; the Huns, a veteran band of eight
hundred warriors, were oppressed by superior numbers; the flight of
the Isaurians was intercepted; but the Roman infantry stood firm on the
left; for Belisarius himself, dismounting from his horse, showed them
that intrepid despair was their only safety. They turned their backs
to the Euphrates, and their faces to the enemy: innumerable arrows
glanced without effect from the compact and shelving order of their
bucklers; an impenetrable line of pikes was opposed to the repeated
assaults of the Persian cavalry; and after a resistance of many hours,
the remaining troops were skilfully embarked under the shadow of the
night. The Persian commander retired with disorder and disgrace, to
answer a strict account of the lives of so many soldiers, which he had
consumed in a barren victory. But the fame of Belisarius was not sullied
by a defeat, in which he alone had saved his army from the consequences
of their own rashness: the approach of peace relieved him from the
guard of the eastern frontier, and his conduct in the sedition of
Constantinople amply discharged his obligations to the emperor. When
the African war became the topic of popular discourse and secret
deliberation, each of the Roman generals was apprehensive, rather than
ambitious, of the dangerous honor; but as soon as Justinian had declared
his preference of superior merit, their envy was rekindled by the
unanimous applause which was given to the choice of Belisarius. The
temper of the Byzantine court may encourage a suspicion, that the hero
was darkly assisted by the intrigues of his wife, the fair and subtle
Antonina, who alternately enjoyed the confidence, and incurred the
hatred, of the empress Theodora. The birth of Antonina was ignoble;
she descended from a family of charioteers; and her chastity has
been stained with the foulest reproach. Yet she reigned with long and
absolute power over the mind of her illustrious husband; and if
Antonina disdained the merit of conjugal fidelity, she expressed a manly
friendship to Belisarius, whom she accompanied with undaunted resolution
in all the hardships and dangers of a military life.

The preparations for the African war were not unworthy of the last
contest between Rome and Carthage. The pride and flower of the army
consisted of the guards of Belisarius, who, according to the pernicious
indulgence of the times, devoted themselves, by a particular oath of
fidelity, to the service of their patrons. Their strength and stature,
for which they had been curiously selected, the goodness of their horses
and armor, and the assiduous practice of all the exercises of war,
enabled them to act whatever their courage might prompt; and their
courage was exalted by the social honor of their rank, and the personal
ambition of favor and fortune. Four hundred of the bravest of the
Heruli marched under the banner of the faithful and active Pharas; their
untractable valor was more highly prized than the tame submission of the
Greeks and Syrians; and of such importance was it deemed to procure a
reënforcement of six hundred Massagetæ, or Huns, that they were allured
by fraud and deceit to engage in a naval expedition. Five thousand horse
and ten thousand foot were embarked at Constantinople, for the conquest
of Africa; but the infantry, for the most part levied in Thrace and
Isauria, yielded to the more prevailing use and reputation of the
cavalry; and the Scythian bow was the weapon on which the armies of Rome
were now reduced to place their principal dependence. From a laudable
desire to assert the dignity of his theme, Procopius defends the
soldiers of his own time against the morose critics, who confined
that respectable name to the heavy-armed warriors of antiquity, and
maliciously observed, that the word archer is introduced by Homer as
a term of contempt. "Such contempt might perhaps be due to the naked
youths who appeared on foot in the fields of Troy, and lurking behind
a tombstone, or the shield of a friend, drew the bow-string to their
breast, and dismissed a feeble and lifeless arrow. But our archers
(pursues the historian) are mounted on horses, which they manage with
admirable skill; their head and shoulders are protected by a casque or
buckler; they wear greaves of iron on their legs, and their bodies are
guarded by a coat of mail. On their right side hangs a quiver, a sword
on their left, and their hand is accustomed to wield a lance or javelin
in closer combat. Their bows are strong and weighty; they shoot in every
possible direction, advancing, retreating, to the front, to the rear,
or to either flank; and as they are taught to draw the bow-string not to
the breast, but to the right ear, firm indeed must be the armor that
can resist the rapid violence of their shaft." Five hundred transports,
navigated by twenty thousand mariners of Egypt, Cilicia, and Ionia, were
collected in the harbor of Constantinople. The smallest of these vessels
may be computed at thirty, the largest at five hundred, tons; and the
fair average will supply an allowance, liberal, but not profuse, of
about one hundred thousand tons, for the reception of thirty-five
thousand soldiers and sailors, of five thousand horses, of arms,
engines, and military stores, and of a sufficient stock of water and
provisions for a voyage, perhaps, of three months. The proud galleys,
which in former ages swept the Mediterranean with so many hundred oars,
had long since disappeared; and the fleet of Justinian was escorted only
by ninety-two light brigantines, covered from the missile weapons of
the enemy, and rowed by two thousand of the brave and robust youth
of Constantinople. Twenty-two generals are named, most of whom were
afterwards distinguished in the wars of Africa and Italy: but the
supreme command, both by land and sea, was delegated to Belisarius
alone, with a boundless power of acting according to his discretion,
as if the emperor himself were present. The separation of the naval and
military professions is at once the effect and the cause of the modern
improvements in the science of navigation and maritime war.

In the seventh year of the reign of Justinian, and about the time of
the summer solstice, the whole fleet of six hundred ships was ranged in
martial pomp before the gardens of the palace. The patriarch pronounced
his benediction, the emperor signified his last commands, the general's
trumpet gave the signal of departure, and every heart, according to
its fears or wishes, explored, with anxious curiosity, the omens
of misfortune and success. The first halt was made at Perinthus or
Heraclea, where Belisarius waited five days to receive some Thracian
horses, a military gift of his sovereign. From thence the fleet pursued
their course through the midst of the Propontis; but as they struggled
to pass the Straits of the Hellespont, an unfavorable wind detained them
four days at Abydus, where the general exhibited a memorable lesson of
firmness and severity. Two of the Huns, who in a drunken quarrel had
slain one of their fellow-soldiers, were instantly shown to the army
suspended on a lofty gibbet. The national dignity was resented by their
countrymen, who disclaimed the servile laws of the empire, and asserted
the free privilege of Scythia, where a small fine was allowed to expiate
the hasty sallies of intemperance and anger. Their complaints were
specious, their clamors were loud, and the Romans were not averse to the
example of disorder and impunity. But the rising sedition was appeased
by the authority and eloquence of the general: and he represented to
the assembled troops the obligation of justice, the importance of
discipline, the rewards of piety and virtue, and the unpardonable
guilt of murder, which, in his apprehension, was aggravated rather
than excused by the vice of intoxication. In the navigation from the
Hellespont to Peloponnesus, which the Greeks, after the siege of Troy,
had performed in four days, the fleet of Belisarius was guided in their
course by his master-galley, conspicuous in the day by the redness of
the sails, and in the night by the torches blazing from the mast head.
It was the duty of the pilots, as they steered between the islands, and
turned the Capes of Malea and Tænarium, to preserve the just order and
regular intervals of such a multitude of ships: as the wind was fair and
moderate, their labors were not unsuccessful, and the troops were safely
disembarked at Methone on the Messenian coast, to repose themselves for
a while after the fatigues of the sea. In this place they experienced
how avarice, invested with authority, may sport with the lives of
thousands which are bravely exposed for the public service. According to
military practice, the bread or biscuit of the Romans was twice prepared
in the oven, and the diminution of one fourth was cheerfully allowed
for the loss of weight. To gain this miserable profit, and to save the
expense of wood, the præfect John of Cappadocia had given orders that
the flour should be slightly baked by the same fire which warmed the
baths of Constantinople; and when the sacks were opened, a soft and
mouldy paste was distributed to the army. Such unwholesome food,
assisted by the heat of the climate and season, soon produced an
epidemical disease, which swept away five hundred soldiers. Their health
was restored by the diligence of Belisarius, who provided fresh bread
at Methone, and boldly expressed his just and humane indignation the
emperor heard his complaint; the general was praised but the minister
was not punished. From the port of Methone, the pilots steered along
the western coast of Peloponnesus, as far as the Isle of Zacynthus, or
Zante, before they undertook the voyage (in their eyes a most arduous
voyage) of one hundred leagues over the Ionian Sea. As the fleet was
surprised by a calm, sixteen days were consumed in the slow navigation;
and even the general would have suffered the intolerable hardship of
thirst, if the ingenuity of Antonina had not preserved the water in
glass bottles, which she buried deep in the sand in a part of the ship
impervious to the rays of the sun. At length the harbor of Caucana, on
the southern side of Sicily, afforded a secure and hospitable shelter.
The Gothic officers who governed the island in the name of the daughter
and grandson of Theodoric, obeyed their imprudent orders, to receive the
troops of Justinian like friends and allies: provisions were liberally
supplied, the cavalry was remounted, and Procopius soon returned from
Syracuse with correct information of the state and designs of
the Vandals. His intelligence determined Belisarius to hasten his
operations, and his wise impatience was seconded by the winds. The fleet
lost sight of Sicily, passed before the Isle of Malta, discovered
the capes of Africa, ran along the coast with a strong gale from the
north-east, and finally cast anchor at the promontory of Caput Vada,
about five days' journey to the south of Carthage.

If Gelimer had been informed of the approach of the enemy, he must have
delayed the conquest of Sardinia for the immediate defence of his person
and kingdom. A detachment of five thousand soldiers, and one hundred and
twenty galleys, would have joined the remaining forces of the Vandals;
and the descendant of Genseric might have surprised and oppressed
a fleet of deep laden transports, incapable of action, and of light
brigantines that seemed only qualified for flight. Belisarius had
secretly trembled when he overheard his soldiers, in the passage,
emboldening each other to confess their apprehensions: if they were once
on shore, they hoped to maintain the honor of their arms; but if they
should be attacked at sea, they did not blush to acknowledge that they
wanted courage to contend at the same time with the winds, the waves,
and the Barbarians. The knowledge of their sentiments decided Belisarius
to seize the first opportunity of landing them on the coast of Africa;
and he prudently rejected, in a council of war, the proposal of sailing
with the fleet and army into the port of Carthage. Three months after
their departure from Constantinople, the men and horses, the arms and
military stores, were safely disembarked, and five soldiers were left as
a guard on board each of the ships, which were disposed in the form of
a semicircle. The remainder of the troops occupied a camp on the
sea-shore, which they fortified, according to ancient discipline, with
a ditch and rampart; and the discovery of a source of fresh water, while
it allayed the thirst, excited the superstitious confidence, of the
Romans. The next morning, some of the neighboring gardens were pillaged;
and Belisarius, after chastising the offenders, embraced the slight
occasion, but the decisive moment, of inculcating the maxims of justice,
moderation, and genuine policy. "When I first accepted the commission
of subduing Africa, I depended much less," said the general, "on
the numbers, or even the bravery of my troops, than on the friendly
disposition of the natives, and their immortal hatred to the Vandals.
You alone can deprive me of this hope; if you continue to extort by
rapine what might be purchased for a little money, such acts of violence
will reconcile these implacable enemies, and unite them in a just and
holy league against the invaders of their country." These exhortations
were enforced by a rigid discipline, of which the soldiers themselves
soon felt and praised the salutary effects. The inhabitants, instead of
deserting their houses, or hiding their corn, supplied the Romans with a
fair and liberal market: the civil officers of the province continued to
exercise their functions in the name of Justinian: and the clergy, from
motives of conscience and interest, assiduously labored to promote
the cause of a Catholic emperor. The small town of Sullecte, one day's
journey from the camp, had the honor of being foremost to open her
gates, and to resume her ancient allegiance: the larger cities of Leptis
and Adrumetum imitated the example of loyalty as soon as Belisarius
appeared; and he advanced without opposition as far as Grasse, a palace
of the Vandal kings, at the distance of fifty miles from Carthage. The
weary Romans indulged themselves in the refreshment of shady groves,
cool fountains, and delicious fruits; and the preference which Procopius
allows to these gardens over any that he had seen, either in the East
or West, may be ascribed either to the taste, or the fatigue, or the
historian. In three generations, prosperity and a warm climate had
dissolved the hardy virtue of the Vandals, who insensibly became the
most luxurious of mankind. In their villas and gardens, which might
deserve the Persian name of _Paradise_, they enjoyed a cool and elegant
repose; and, after the daily use of the bath, the Barbarians were seated
at a table profusely spread with the delicacies of the land and sea.
Their silken robes loosely flowing, after the fashion of the Medes, were
embroidered with gold; love and hunting were the labors of their life,
and their vacant hours were amused by pantomimes, chariot-races, and the
music and dances of the theatre.

In a march of ten or twelve days, the vigilance of Belisarius was
constantly awake and active against his unseen enemies, by whom, in
every place, and at every hour, he might be suddenly attacked. An
officer of confidence and merit, John the Armenian, led the vanguard of
three hundred horse; six hundred Massagetæ covered at a certain distance
the left flank; and the whole fleet, steering along the coast, seldom
lost sight of the army, which moved each day about twelve miles, and
lodged in the evening in strong camps, or in friendly towns. The near
approach of the Romans to Carthage filled the mind of Gelimer with
anxiety and terror. He prudently wished to protract the war till his
brother, with his veteran troops, should return from the conquest of
Sardinia; and he now lamented the rash policy of his ancestors, who, by
destroying the fortifications of Africa, had left him only the dangerous
resource of risking a battle in the neighborhood of his capital. The
Vandal conquerors, from their original number of fifty thousand, were
multiplied, without including their women and children, to one hundred
and sixty thousand fighting men: and such forces, animated with valor
and union, might have crushed, at their first landing, the feeble and
exhausted bands of the Roman general. But the friends of the captive
king were more inclined to accept the invitations, than to resist
the progress, of Belisarius; and many a proud Barbarian disguised
his aversion to war under the more specious name of his hatred to
the usurper. Yet the authority and promises of Gelimer collected a
formidable army, and his plans were concerted with some degree of
military skill. An order was despatched to his brother Ammatas, to
collect all the forces of Carthage, and to encounter the van of the
Roman army at the distance of ten miles from the city: his nephew
Gibamund, with two thousand horse, was destined to attack their left,
when the monarch himself, who silently followed, should charge their
rear, in a situation which excluded them from the aid or even the view
of their fleet. But the rashness of Ammatas was fatal to himself and his
country. He anticipated the hour of the attack, outstripped his tardy
followers, and was pierced with a mortal wound, after he had slain with
his own hand twelve of his boldest antagonists. His Vandals fled to
Carthage; the highway, almost ten miles, was strewed with dead bodies;
and it seemed incredible that such multitudes could be slaughtered by
the swords of three hundred Romans. The nephew of Gelimer was defeated,
after a slight combat, by the six hundred Massagetæ: they did not
equal the third part of his numbers; but each Scythian was fired by
the example of his chief, who gloriously exercised the privilege of his
family, by riding, foremost and alone, to shoot the first arrow against
the enemy. In the mean while, Gelimer himself, ignorant of the event,
and misguided by the windings of the hills, inadvertently passed the
Roman army, and reached the scene of action where Ammatas had fallen. He
wept the fate of his brother and of Carthage, charged with irresistible
fury the advancing squadrons, and might have pursued, and perhaps
decided, the victory, if he had not wasted those inestimable moments
in the discharge of a vain, though pious, duty to the dead. While his
spirit was broken by this mournful office, he heard the trumpet of
Belisarius, who, leaving Antonina and his infantry in the camp, pressed
forwards with his guards and the remainder of the cavalry to rally his
flying troops, and to restore the fortune of the day. Much room could
not be found, in this disorderly battle, for the talents of a general;
but the king fled before the hero; and the Vandals, accustomed only to a
Moorish enemy, were incapable of withstanding the arms and discipline
of the Romans. Gelimer retired with hasty steps towards the desert of

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 9 of 49)