Justinian can be forgiven his passion for unity; it is the eternal temptation of philosophers as well as of statesmen, and generalizations have sometimes cost more than war. To recapture Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, Spain from the Visigoths, Gaul from the Franks, Britain from the Saxons; to drive barbarism back to its lairs and restore Roman civilization to all its old expanse; to spread Roman law once more across the white man’s world from the Euphrates to Hadrian’s Wall: these were no ignoble ambitions, though they were destined to exhaust saviors and saved alike. For these high purposes Justinian ended the schism of the Eastern from the Western Church on papal terms, and dreamed of bringing Arians, Monophysites, and other heretics into one great spiritual fold. Not since Constantine had a European thought in such dimensions.
Justinian was favored with competent generals, and harassed by limited means. His people were unwilling to fight his wars, and unable to pay for them. He soon used up the 320,000 pounds of gold that Justin’s predecessors had left in the treasury; thereafter he was forced to taxes that alienated the citizens, and economies that hampered his generals. Universal military service had ceased a century before; now the imperial army was composed almost wholly of barbarian mercenaries from a hundred tribes and states. They lived by plunder, and dreamed of riches and rape; time and again they mutinied in the crisis of battle, or lost a victory by stopping to gather spoils. Nothing united or inspired them except regular pay and able generals.
Belisarius, like Justinian, came of Illyrian peasant stock, recalling those Balkan emperors—Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian—who had saved the Empire in the third century. No general since Caesar ever won so many victories with such limited resources of men and funds; few ever surpassed him in strategy or tactics, in popularity with his men and mercy to his foes; perhaps it merits note that the greatest generals—Alexander, Caesar, Belisarius, Saladin, Napoleon—found clemency a mighty engine of war. There was a strain of sensitivity and tenderness in Belisarius, as in those others, which could turn the soldier into a lover as soon as his bloody tasks were done. And as the Emperor doted on Theodora, so Belisarius adored Antonina, bore with melting fury her infidelities, and, for divers reasons, took her with him on his campaigns.
He won his first honors in war against Persia. After 150 years of peace between the empires, hostilities had been renewed in the old competition for control of the trade routes to Central Asia and India. Amid brilliant victories Belisarius was suddenly recalled to Constantinople; Justinian made peace with Persia (532) by paying Khosru Anushirvan 11,000 pounds of gold; and then sent Belisarius to win back Africa. He had concluded that he could never expect to make permanent conquests in the East: the population there would be hostile, the frontier difficult to defend. But in the West were nations accustomed for centuries to Roman rule, resenting their heretical barbarian masters, and promising co-operation in war as well as taxes in peace. And from Africa added grain would come to quiet the critical mouths of the capital.
Gaiseric had died (477) after a reign of thirty-nine years. Under his successors Vandal Africa had resumed most of its Roman ways. Latin was the official language, and poets wrote in it dead verse to honor forgotten kings. The Roman theater at Carthage was restored, Greek dramas were played again.14 The monuments of ancient art were respected, and splendid new buildings rose. Procopius pictures the ruling classes as civilized gentlemen touched with occasional barbarism, but mostly neglecting the arts of war, and decaying leisurely under the sun.15
In June, 533, five hundred transports and ninety-two warships gathered in the Bosporus, received the commands of the Emperor and the blessings of the patriarch, and sailed for Carthage. Procopius was on Belisarius’ staff, and wrote a vivid. account of the “Vandal War.” Landing in Africa with only 5000 cavalry, Belisarius swept through the improvised defenses of Carthage, and in a few months overthrew the Vandal power. Justinian too hastily recalled him for a triumph at Constantinople; the Moors, pouring down from the hills, attacked the Roman garrison; Belisarius hurried back just in time to quell a mutiny among the troops and lead them to victory. Carthaginian Africa thenceforth remained under Byzantine rule till the Arabs came.
Justinian’s crafty diplomacy had arranged an alliance with the Ostrogoths while Belisarius attacked Africa; now he lured the Franks into an alliance while he ordered Belisarius to conquer Ostrogothic Italy. Using Tunisia as a base, Belisarius without much difficulty took Sicily. In 536 he crossed to Italy, and captured Naples by having some of his soldiers creep through the aqueduct into the town. The Ostrogothic forces were meager and divided; the people of Rome hailed Belisarius as a liberator, the clergy welcomed him as a Trinitarian; he entered Rome unopposed. Theodahad had Amalasuntha killed; the Ostrogoths deposed Theodahad, and chose Witigis as king. Witigis raised an army of 150,000 men, and besieged Belisarius in Rome. Forced to economize food and water, and to discontinue their daily baths, the Romans began to grumble against Belisarius, who had only 5000 men in arms. He defended the city with skill and courage, and after a year’s effort Witigis returned to Ravenna. For three years Belisarius importuned Justinian for additional troops; they were sent, but under generals hostile to Belisarius. The Ostrogoths in Ravenna, besieged and starving, offered to surrender if Belisarius would become their king. He pretended to consent, took the city, and presented it to Justinian (540).
The Emperor was grateful and suspicious. Belisarius had rewarded himself well out of the spoils of victory; he had won the too-personal loyalty of his troops; he had been offered a kingdom; might he not aspire to seize the throne from the nephew of a usurper? Justinian recalled him, and noticed uneasily the splendor of the general’s retinue. The Byzantines, Procopius reports, “took delight in watching Belisarius as he came forth from his home each day. … For his progress resembled a crowded festival procession, since he was always escorted by a large number of Vandals, Goths, and Moors. Furthermore, he had a fine figure, and was tall and remarkably handsome. But his conduct was so meek, and his manners so affable, that he seemed like a very poor man, and one of no repute.”16
The commanders appointed to replace him in Italy neglected the discipline of their troops, quarreled with one another, and earned the contempt of the Ostrogoths. A Goth of energy, judgment, and courage was proclaimed king of the defeated people. Totila gathered desperate recruits from the barbarians wandering homeless in Italy, took Naples (543) and Tibur, and laid siege to Rome. He astonished all by his clemency and good faith; treated captives so well that they enlisted under his banner; kept so honorably the promises by which he had secured the surrender of Naples that men began to wonder who was the barbarian, and who the civilized Greek. The wives of some senators fell into his hands; he treated them with gallant courtesy, and set them free. He condemned one of his soldiers to death for violating a Roman girl. The barbarians in the Emperor’s service showed no such delicacy; un-paid by the nearly bankrupt Justinian, they ravaged the country till the population remembered with longing the order and justice of Theodoric’s rule.17
Belisarius was ordered to the rescue. Reaching Italy, he made his way alone through Totila’s lines into beleaguered Rome. He was too late; the Greek garrison was demoralized; its officers were incompetent cowards; traitors opened the gates, and Totila’s army, ten thousand strong, entered the capital (546). Belisarius, retreating, sent a message asking him not to destroy the historic city; Totila permitted plunder to his unpaid and hungry troops, but spared the people, and protected the women from soldierly ardor. He made the mistake of leaving Rome to besiege Ravenna; in his absence Belisarius recaptured the city; and when Totila returned, his second siege failed to dislodge the resourceful Greek. Justinian, thinking the West won, declared war on Persia, and called Belisarius to the East. Totila took Rome again (549), and Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, almost the entire peninsula. At last Justinian gave to his eunuch general Narses “an exceedingly large sum of money,” and ordered him to raise a new army and drive the Goths from Italy. Narses accomplished his mission with skill and dispatch; Totila was defeated and was killed in flight; the surviving Goths were permitted to leave Italy safely, and after eighteen years the “Gothic War” came to an end (553).
Those years completed the ruin of Italy. Rome had been five times captured, thrice besieged, starved, looted; its population, once a million, was now reduced to 40,000,18 of whom nearly half were paupers maintained by papal alms. Milan had been destroyed, and all its inhabitants killed. Hundreds of towns and villages sank into insolvency under the exactions of rulers and the depredations of troops. Regions once tilled were abandoned, and the food supply fell; in Picenum alone, we are told, 50,000 died of starvation during these eighteen years.19 The aristocracy was shattered; so many of its members had been slain in battle, pillage, or flight that too few survived to continue the Senate of Rome; after 579 we hear of it no more.20 The great aqueducts that Theodoric had repaired were broken and neglected, and again turned the Campagna into a vast malarial marsh, which remained till our time. The majestic baths, dependent upon the aqueducts, fell into disuse and decay. Hundreds of statues, surviving Alaric and Gaiseric, had been broken or melted down to provide projectiles and machines during siege. Only ruins bore witness to Rome’s ancient grandeur as capital of half the world. The Eastern emperor would now for a brief period rule Italy; but it was a costly and empty victory. Rome would not fully recover from that victory till the Renaissance.