His lofty stature and majestic countenance fulfilled their expectations of a hero ... 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 ... In the licence 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 bv real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XLI
In the period of relative domestic tranquillity that followed the Nika revolt and the peace concluded with Persia eight months later, Justinian was at last able to turn his mind to what he had always determined was to be the primary objective of his reign: to recover the Empire of the West. Like the vast majority of his subjects, he believed the Roman Empire to be one and indivisible, the political manifestation of Christendom; that half of it should have fallen into alien and heretic hands was an offence against the Will of God, and it was therefore his Christian duty to regain his lost heritage. During the previous century such a reconquest had been impossible: the Empire had been hard put to protect itself from the Germanic and Slavic tribes forever pressing on its frontiers, while the barbarian infiltration of the army itself made its very loyalty uncertain. But by Justinian's time these problems were largely solved; moreover, as it happened, he had found in Belisarius one of the most brilliant generals in all Byzantine history - the one man, he believed, to whom this sacred task could confidently be entrusted.
To this end he had recalled him from Mesopotamia in the autumn of 531. Already two years before, the young commander had been promoted to be magister militum per orientem, in which capacity he had inflicted an overwhelming defeat on a far superior Persian army at Dara, some twenty miles north-west of Nisibis. His military gifts were unquestioned: his personal courage had been proved again and again, and he was a natural leader of men. He had but one liability: his wife, whom he married soon after his return from the East. Antonina's background was not unlike that of her Empress. She too had been brought up in the theatre and the circus and her past, if not as lurid as Theodora's, was certainly far from stainless. At least twelve years older than her husband - Procopius says twenty-two - she had already had several children, in or out of wedlock. Unlike Theodora, she made no attempt to reform her character after her prestigious marriage, and in the years to come was to cause her husband much embarrassment and not a little anguish; but Belisarius, it seems, continued to love her and -perhaps to keep his eye on her as much as for any other reason - was accustomed to take her with him on all his campaigns.
The first territory to be singled out for reconquest was the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa. Much had happened in the sixty-five years since that humiliating fiasco when the expedition under Basileus had been annihilated by King Gaiseric. The latter had died in477, having given his Kingdom a constitution in which the succession was decreed by the laws of primogeniture - putting it, in this respect, well in advance of any other Germanic state and even of the Roman Empire itself - and the throne of Carthage had accordingly passed to Gaiseric's grandson, an elderly and mildly homosexual bachelor named Hilderic. The offspring of Princess Eudocia, that daughter of Valentinian III who had been brought back to Africa with her mother and sister after the Vandal sack of Rome and subsequently married off to Gaiseric's son,1 he was a Roman on his mother's side who had so far adopted Roman ways as to renounce the Arian heresy of his forefathers and embrace the orthodox faith; and his hatred of war was such that, if Procopius is to be believed, he would never allow the subject to be mentioned in his presence. All this was of course welcome news to Justinian, who understandably believed that with a little quiet diplomacy he could bring the Vandal Kingdom back into the imperial fold without the loss of a single Roman
1 Sec p. 16).
soldier. Unfortunately, he had less time than he thought. In 5 31 Hilderic's distant cousin Gelimer finally lost patience, and with the enthusiastic support of most of the Vandal nobility seized the throne for himself -replying to the Emperor's immediate protest with a letter pointing out that 'nothing was more desirable than that a monarch should mind his own business'.
Gelimer had, it must be admitted, a point; but to Justinian these were fighting words. His advisers, remembering the earlier debacle, advised strongly against war, John of Cappadocia most insistently of all:
You propose, O Emperor, to launch an expedition against Carthage, to which the land journey is one of a hundred and forty days. If you entrust your army to ships, you must cross a wide waste of waters to the utmost limits of the sea. Should misfortune overtake your forces, it will be a full year before the news is brought back to us. Even if you are victorious, you will never hold Africa while Italy and Sicily are in the hands of others, while if you are defeated your breach of the treaty will put the whole Empire in jeopardy. Success, in short, will bring you no lasting gain, while failure will risk the ruin of your flourishing and well-established state.1
For Justinian, however, Gelimer's insult continued to rankle; and after an Eastern bishop had informed him of a dream in which the Almighty had promised his assistance in a holy war against the Arian Vandals he needed no further prompting. Belisarius was given his orders; and on or about Midsummer Day 533 the Emperor stood at the window of the Palace to watch the departure of the expedition. It consisted of 5,000 cavalry and twice as many infantry - at least half of them barbarian mercenaries, mostly Huns but with a strong admixture of Heruli from Scandinavia. They travelled in a fleet of 500 transports, escorted by ninety-two dromons.2 On the flagship, together with the commander himself, were his military secretary Procopius and, as usual, his wife Antonina.
The journey began inauspiciously, when two drunken Huns - and the Huns, notes Procopius, were the most intemperate drinkers in the world - murdered one of their comrades and were summarily hanged by Belisarius on the hill above Abydos. After that the fleet made good time to
1 Procopius, Hillary oj the Wars, III, x, 14-16.
2 The dromon was the smallest type of Byzantine warship, designed for lightness and speed. It carried a crew of some twentv rowers at a single bank of oars, and was roofed over to protect them from enemy missiles.
Methoni, at the south-west corner of the Peloponnese; but disaster struck when the sacks of ship's biscuit provided by John of Cappadocia were found to be mouldy - not, unfortunately, before 500 men had been severely poisoned. (Procopius claims that John, wishing as always to economize, had sent the dough not to a proper bakery but to the furnace which heated the baths of Achilles in Constantinople, with the result that it had been only half-baked.) Many days elapsed before the ships could be revictualled with local produce and were able to continue, via Zacynthus (Zante), to Catania.
After a brief period of Vandal rule, Sicily had been bought back by Odoacer in return for an annual subsidy. Since the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy was still, as in the days of Theodoric, friendly to Byzantium, Catania provided a useful vantage-point from which Belisarius could prepare his fleet for the final attack, while simultaneously gathering what intelligence he could about the enemy dispositions. To this end Procopius was sent south to Syracuse - where, as luck would have it, he soon ran into an old friend from his boyhood, one of whose slaves had returned only three days previously from Carthage. The information that this man was able to give him could hardly have been more welcome: the Vandals had heard nothing of the approaching fleet, and had indeed recently dispatched a major expedition of their own to put down a rising - inspired, though they did not know it, by Justinian himself -in Sardinia.
Belisarius, when he heard the news, gave orders to sail at once; and after touching briefly at Malta the fleet arrived safely in North Africa, disembarking the army on the open beach at what is now Ras Kaboudia, the easternmost point of the Tunisian coast where it swells out between Sousse and Sfax. From here both the cavalry and the infantry set off to the north towards Carthage, the ships keeping pace with them offshore. The distance, some 140 miles, is optimistically described by Procopius as being 'five days' journey for an unencumbered traveller'; but the Byzantines, with all their baggage and equipment, took twice that time and were still at the tenth milestone from the capital when, on 13 September, the Vandal army struck.
Once the Roman ships had been sighted off the coast, Gelimer had acted quickly. His fleet and part of his army were indeed away in Sardinia, but he still had plenty of men under arms at home, and by the time the invaders had disembarked his plans were already laid. The place he had chosen for the confrontation was a point near the tenth milestone, where the road from the south entered a narrow valley. The attack itself was to be threefold: his brother Ammatas would attack the vanguard while his nephew Gibamund swept down on the centre from the western hills and he himself dealt with the rear. It was an ambitious plan, which depended for its success- on careful timing; unfortunately for Gelimer, his communications let him down. Ammatas moved too early; the Byzantines, forewarned, were ready and waiting for him. In the battle that followed, the Vandal prince was killed, though not before he had accounted for a dozen Romans; his own soldiers, seeing their leader fall, soon lost heart. Some were cut to pieces around him; the remainder fled.
The flanking attack was no more successful, and a good deal less glorious. By now the element of surprise had been lost, but if Gibamund had moved in quickly enough to the assistance of Ammatas, the two divisions might yet have saved the day. Instead, he hesitated, ordered a halt, and began carefully drawing up his troops in line of battle. He was still doing so when Belisarius's cavalry charged. They were Huns, hideous, savage and implacable. The Vandals took one look at the advancing horde and ran for their lives. All now depended on Gelimer himself. He started well, somehow contriving to cut Belisarius and his generals off from the main bulk of their army; at this point, however, he suddenly came upon the body of his brother - and the fight went out of him. For some time he remained motionless, refusing to leave the spot until the corpse had been carried from the field and arrangements made for its proper burial. Once again, Belisarius saw his chance. Swiftly regrouping, he bore down upon the Vandal host and scattered it to right and left. The battle was over. The defenders fled, not to the north whence they had come - for that road was already under Roman control - but westward into the deserts of Numidia. Carthage lay open.
Two days later, on Sunday 15 September, Belisarius - with Antonina at his side - made his formal entry into the city. Since the day of their first landing in Africa, his men had been under strict orders to respect the lives and property of the local people, who despite a century of barbarian occupation remained Roman citizens like themselves. There was no swagger, no insolence or arrogance, no braggadocio; everything bought in the shops was paid for, promptly and in full. As for Belisarius, he went straight to the palace where, seated on the throne of the Vandal King, he received the leading citizens and later dined in state with his officers - off dishes, Procopius tells us, that had been prepared for Gelimer himself.
But Gelimer had not given up the struggle. From his temporary refuge at Bulla Regia in Numidia, some hundred miles west of Carthage, he had sent an urgent message to his surviving brother Tzazo, who was in command of the Sardinian expedition, summoning him and his forces back at once to Africa. Meanwhile he settled down to reorganize and regroup his own army, and to rally support among the local Punic and Berber tribes, offering them generous rewards for every Roman head that they could lay before him. Thus, little by little, he built up his position; and when Tzazo and his men joined him early in December he felt himself strong enough once more to take the offensive. The new Vandal army was certainly not ten times the size of the Roman, as Procopius claims that Gelimer boasted to his followers; but it was nevertheless an impressive force that marched out of Bulla with the two brothers at its head, and took the road to Carthage - pausing on the way to demolish the great aqueduct on which the capital chiefly depended for its water supply.
Although Belisarius had spent the weeks since the Battle of the Tenth Milestone strengthening the Carthaginian defences, he had no wish to face a siege - particularly since he was beginning to suspect the loyalty of the Huns and other barbarians under his command. They had, he knew, been secretly approached by agents of Gelimer, who had appealed to them as fellow-Arians to transfer their allegiance; if they intended to betray him, he preferred that they should do so in the open field rather than surreptitiously in a besieged city. He too gave the order to march, and met the Vandal army at Tricamarum, thirty miles west of Carthage.
The battle was fought on 15 December. The Romans, with their vastly superior training and leadership, immediately took the initiative, charging three times into the thick of the Vandal ranks; and in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed the third charge Tzazo was cut down under the eyes of his brother. Once again Gelimer hesitated; his soldiers, seeing his indecision, began to draw back; and only then did the Huns - who, as Belisarius had suspected, had been waiting to see which way the battle would turn - make up their minds to enter the fray. Spurring their horses forward in a single thundering charge, they quickly turned the Vandal retreat into a rout. Gelimer fled back into his Numidian fastness, his army pell-mell after him. This time it was the end. Belisarius advanced to the city of Hippo - which opened its gates to him at once - and took possession of the royal treasure. Then, with a train of Vandal prisoners behind him and his wagons loaded with plunder, he returned to Carthage.
Gelimer, though well aware that his Kingdom was lost, did not at first surrender. For some weeks he wandered in the mountains, sheltered by Berber tribesmen. Early in 534 he found himself surrounded by a Roman force whose commander, Pharas the Herulian, encouraged him to give himself up - with assurances that Justinian bore him no grudge, that he would treat him as the king he was and arrange for him a dignified and comfortable retirement. But still Gelimer refused, asking only to be sent a sponge, a loaf of bread and a lyre - requests which caused the Romans some bewilderment until the messenger explained that his master needed the sponge to bathe an infected eye and the loaf to satisfy a craving for real bread after weeks of unleavened peasant dough. As for the lyre, he pointed out that Gelimer had devoted his time in hiding to the composition of a dirge bewailing his recent misfortunes, and was eager to try it out.
We are not told whether his wishes were granted; but in March, after a long and extremely disagreeable winter, the King of the Vandals finally surrendered. As he was led into the presence of Belisarius, those in attendance were surprised to see him shaking with uncontrollable laughter. Procopius suggests that his mirth was a cynical comment on the vanity of human ambition. Perhaps it was; there were, however, others present who concluded - more plausibly perhaps - that the unsuccessful usurper, after all his sufferings, was no longer quite right in the head.
It was high summer when Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople. Africa was not entirely pacified - some years were to elapse before the Berber tribes eventually became reconciled to imperial dominion - but that was a task that could be left to the Praetorian Prefect charged with the responsibility for the seven new provinces - they included Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands - which had been set up in the former Vandal territories. For his victorious general the Emperor had other, more ambitious plans.First, however, he must be properly rewarded; and it was typical of Justinian's love of ancient customs and traditions that he should have accorded Belisarius a Triumph. Since the earliest days of the Empire these ceremonies had been the prerogative of the Emperor himself - or, very occasionally, members of his immediate family - and in recent centuries the practice had almost died out, even for them: the last non-imperial recipient of the honour had been Lucius Cornelius Balbus the younger in 19 BC. Now, 553 years later, the Roman populace cheered to the echo as Belisarius marched1 into the Hippodrome at the head of his
1 Procopius makes it clear, however, that even Belisarius was obliged to enter the Hippodrome on foot, rather than in the quadriga, the four-horse chariot that he would certainly have been given in ancient times.
soldiers, followed by Gelimer, his family, and all the tallest and best looking of the Vandal prisoners. The procession continued with a seemingly endless succession of wagons, creaking under the weight of the spoils of war - including the menorah, that sacred seven-branched candlestick that had been brought by the Emperor Titus in AD 71 from the Temple in Jerusalem to Rome, whence in 455 Gaiseric had taken it to Carthage.
Later, after representations by the Jewish community - who emphasized the bad luck that would inevitably fall on Constantinople if it were allowed to remain - the ever-superstitious Justinian returned the menorah, together with the other vessels from the Temple, to Jerusalem. For the time being, however, objects that were at once so famous and so venerable lent additional lustre to the Triumph of Belisarius. The climax of the ceremony came when he and Gelimer - the latter's purple cloak now torn from his shoulders - prostrated themselves before the imperial box, where Justinian and Theodora sat in state. 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity', the last King of the Vandals is said to have murmured as he grovelled in the dust beside his conqueror. In a subsequent private conversation with the Emperor, however, while refusing the offer of Patrician rank - which would have obliged him to abandon his Arian faith - he gratefully accepted Justinian's offer of rich estates in Galatia where, safely out of the way, he could live in quiet retirement with his family and worship as he liked. His fellow-prisoners were less fortunate: rounded up and formed into five imperial regiments known as the Vandali Justiniani, they were marched off to the Persian front, there to fight unwillingly for the Empire and to survive as best they could.
But neither Justinian nor Belisarius were to pay them much attention. Their minds were now fixed on the next stage of the Emperor's grand design to restore his Empire to its ancient glory: the reconquest of Italy.
Ever since he first came to power in his uncle's day, Justinian had cherished the dream of bringing the entire Italian peninsula back into the imperial fold. A Roman Empire that did not include Rome was an obvious absurdity; an Ostrogothic and Arian Kingdom that did, however well-disposed it might be, could never be anything but an abomination in his sight. Henceforth, too, it could be politically dangerous: now that Theodoric was dead, it was far from certain whether the friendly relations that he had always sought to maintain towards Constantinople would be continued by his successors - who could cause the Byzantine authorities all manner of trouble in the Balkans if they chose to do so.
Clearly, then, the Kingdom must be destroyed; the only question to be settled was the manner of its destruction. The situation in Italy was altogether different from that which had prevailed in Vandal North Africa. Where Gaiseric and his successors had arrogantly asserted their independence, the Ostrogothic King ruled - theoretically at any rate - in the Emperor's name as his Viceroy. Where they had cruelly persecuted the orthodox church, he - while himself remaining staunchly Arian -took immense pains to cultivate the friendship and support of the Pope and the leading Romans. In consequence he enjoyed great popularity among the citizens of the Empire whom he governed; and Justinian was well aware that those citizens, satisfied as they were with the status quo, might well resent the increased regimentation - to say nothing of the far heavier taxation - that would be sure to follow Italy's reintegration in the Empire.
Shortly before his death in 526, Theodoric had summoned the leading Gothic chieftains to his bedside and had presented to them as their future King his eight-year-old grandson Athalaric. The boy was the son of his only daughter Amalasuntha, now four years a widow and one of the most remarkable women of her time - as remarkable in her own way as Theodora herself, possessed of the same driving ambition and love of power for its own sake but at the same time an intellectual, fluent in Latin and Greek, enjoying a breadth of culture rare in any woman of the sixth century and unique among the Goths. Unfortunately for her, however, she had no Justinian to rely on for strength and support; and Gothic society was far more male-orientated than Greek. From the moment her father died and she assumed the regency on behalf of her son, she was conscious of the growing resentment of those around her -a resentment aggravated by her insistence on giving Athalaric a thorough classical education similar to that which she herself had received. Barely a year later, a body of influential Gothic nobles - almost all of whom were illiterate themselves - forced a showdown and, claiming that Athalaric should be studying the arts of war instead of spending his time with greybeard grammarians and philosophers, removed the young King altogether from his mother's control.
Amalasuntha had no choice but to yield. From that moment on she renounced all responsibility for Athalaric, who almost immediately fell into undesirable company and soon began, while still little more than a child, a decline into drunkenness and dissipation that was to kill him before he was seventeen. Meanwhile his mother, conscious of the increasing danger of her own position, entered into secret correspondence with Justinian. Over the next few years, although they never met, their relations grew steadily closer until finally a plot was hatched according to which Amalasuntha would flee across the Adriatic to the imperial port of Dyrrachium, where she would formally seek asylum and call on the Emperor to restore to her the power that was rightfully hers.
With the great Theodoric's daughter at his side, Justinian knew that he would be able to count on a large measure of support among the Goths themselves; given a modicum of good luck, he might even regain Italy for the Empire without bloodshed. But - just as in Africa three years before - events moved too fast for him. On 2 October 534 young Athalaric, exhausted by his debauches, died at Ravenna; and the throne passed to the last surviving male member of Theodoric's line, his nephew Theodahad. The new King was an unattractive figure, whose greed for vast territorial estates and lack of scruple in their acquisition had already made him the largest land-owner in the Kingdom; but he took no interest in power, preferring to lead the life of a Platonic gentleman-scholar in one of his innumerable villas. Amalasuntha was almost certainly unaware that he too had been in secret contact with Justinian; but with his accession she saw her chance. Let the two of them, she proposed, divide the sovereignty between them. Theodahad would thus be able to enjoy all the pleasures and privileges of kingship with none of its attendant responsibilities, while she herself took over the regulation of affairs. She was not, she emphasized, suggesting marriage - apart from anything else Theodahad had a wife already - merely a joint monarchy, with King and Queen working harmoniously together on an equal footing.
Theodahad agreed, and the new dispensation was duly proclaimed; almost at once, however, he regretted his decision and began to plot his cousin's overthrow. Amalasuntha still had many enemies in high places, plenty of them only too happy to enter into a new conspiracy against her. In April 535 she was seized and shut up in a castle on an island in Lake Bolsena, where she was shortly afterwards strangled in her bath. Theodahad vehemently disclaimed all complicity in the crime, but the rich rewards which he lavished on the murderers were enough to persuade most of his subjects otherwise.
Procopius tells us that Justinian, the moment he heard of Amalasuntha's imprisonment, sent Theodahad a message through his ambassador, Peter the Patrician, warning him that if the Queen were not immediately restored to the throne he would be forced to intervene; but that at the same time another message arrived secretly from the Empress, containing secret assurances that her husband would do no such thing and that Theodahad could feel free to deal with his prisoner in any way he saw fit. Whether this second message was prompted, as Procopius suggests, by jealousy or whether Theodora - perhaps with Justinian's connivance - was deliberately acting as an agent provocateur we do not know; in any event, by his murder of his cousin Theodahad played straight into Byzantine hands, giving the Emperor precisely the casus belli he needed. As soon as the news reached him in Constantinople, Justinian issued his orders. Mundus, the magister militum per Illyricum, was to occupy Dalmatia, which formed part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom; meanwhile Belisarius, fresh from his Triumph, was commanded to sail with an army of 7,500 men to Sicily.
The expeditions started well enough, but soon ran into difficulties. Gothic resistance in Dalmatia proved a good deal more stubborn than had been expected, and within a few weeks Mundus was killed in battle. Belisarius took Sicily with scarcely a struggle,1 but was then called urgently to Africa to deal with a serious mutiny by the imperial army of occupation. This delayed him for many weeks, and on his return he found that dissatisfaction had spread among his own troops. By the time their morale had in turn been restored, winter was approaching and the campaigning season was at an end. It was not until the late spring of 536 that his army was finally able to land on Italian soil. Meanwhile Theodahad - who had panicked on first hearing of the Byzantine expeditions and had actually concluded a secret treaty with Justinian, according to which he undertook to hand over the entire government of Italy in return for the promise of 1,200 pounds of gold a year and a high position at Constantinople - had reneged on the agreement and, in an uncharacteristic burst of courage, ordered the striking of new coins depicting himself alone, bearing the imperial insignia.
But his elation was short-lived. One night in April or early May, Belisarius crossed the Straits of Messina, landed his army at Reggio and pressed onward up the peninsula. He met no resistance until he reached Naples, whose citizens defended it stoutly for three weeks; they would have held out still longer had not one of the Isaurians in the besieging army accidentally stumbled upon an ancient water-conduit, through which 400 picked men were able to crawl beneath the fortifications and
1 The only show of resistance was made by the Gothic garrison in Panormus - the present Palermo, but then a small port of relatively little importance. Belisarius massed his fleet so close inshore that the masts of his ships rose above the town walls. He then filled the ships' boats with men and hoisted them up to the yard-arms, whence they were able to fire their arrows down on the defenders and then leap directly on to the battlements. The garrison soon capitulated.
into the city. At a given signal from them, the remainder of the army then set up its scaling-ladders and launched a concerted attack on the walls. The defenders, finding themselves simultaneously assailed from within and without, were obliged to surrender and Naples was regained for the Empire.
Or what was left of it. Belisarius had warned the Neapolitans at the beginning of the siege that if they put up any resistance he would be unable to restrain his army - which, he reminded them, was largely composed of semi-savage barbarians - from the murder, rapine and pillage which they would consider their just reward after the capture of the city. But the warning had been ignored, and the miserable citizens now paid the price of their heroism. It was many hours before Belisarius was able to persuade his motley hordes of Alans and Isaurians, Herulians and Huns - these last the most terrifying of all since, being pagans, they had no compunction in burning down the churches in which their intended victims had sought asylum - to put up their swords and spears and return to their various camps. Soon, he explained, they would be on the march again; and their next objective would be Rome itself.
The Byzantine capture of Naples dealt a severe blow to the morale of the Goths, who unhesitatingly laid the blame for their defeat on Theodahad. He had long been detested by his subjects for his avarice and his extortions; more recently, persistent rumours of his secret correspondence with the enemy had done still more harm to his reputation. The fact that he had not dispatched a single soldier to the relief of Naples seemed to confirm these rumours: such apparent apathy could mean only that he had been bribed by Justinian to betray his people. Accordingly, at a vast assembly near Terracina, the Gothic leaders solemnly declared him deposed and, in the absence of any male descendant of Theodoric, nominated as his successor an elderly and not particularly impressive general named Vitiges. The first command issued by the new King of the Goths was for the execution of the old one: Theodahad had fled to the north, but was captured near Ravenna and dispatched on the spot.
Meanwhile Belisarius was about to march on Rome; and many of the Gothic chieftains must have wondered whether they had been wise in their choice of King when Vitiges announced that he would not be defending the city. Its people must look after themselves as best they could while he withdrew to Ravenna, there to consolidate his forces, draw up his long-term strategy and - somewhat more controversially divorce his wife of many years in favour of Athalaric's sister Matasuntha. There were, it must be admitted, sound political reasons for such a marriage. Vitiges was of humble origins and needed to improve his social status; he knew, too, that any other husband of the young princess might prove a dangerous rival. Finally there was the consideration that, with the granddaughter of Theodoric on the throne, Justinian would have less cause for intervention in Italy. But the marriage, as might have been expected, was an unhappy one from the start, and seems to have done the old man's reputation more harm than good.
With the retreat of Vitiges to Ravenna, Belisarius might have been expected to march with all speed on Rome. In fact, he showed himself to be in no particular hurry, preferring to spend the summer and autumn consolidating his hold on South Italy. Only in December did he move northward, ostensibly in answer to an invitation from Pope Silverius1 to occupy the holy city; and one is tempted to conclude that the intervening months had been passed in arranging for such an invitation - which must have greatly strengthened his diplomatic position - to be sent. There is no reason to believe that Silverius was any more favourably disposed to the invaders than were his fellow-Romans: the Goths might be Arians, but they had always been tolerant and considerate rulers, whereas the Byzantines were widely mistrusted and their barbarian troops universally feared. But the formidable reputation of Belisarius himself - to say nothing of memories of the recent fate of Naples -would have been more than enough to persuade the Pope to do as he was told. Whatever the truth may be, on 9 December 536 Belisarius led his army north from Naples,2 entering Rome by the Porta Asinaria near the Basilica of Constantine (now St John Lateran) as the Gothic garrison marched out through the Porta Flaminia.
But if Silverius and his flock imagined that by opening the gates to the imperial army they had avoided the miseries of a siege, they were to be disappointed. Belisarius himself entertained no such delusion. He knew that the Goths would be back soon enough; and the strength of the opposition encountered by the advance units that he had sent to
1. Silverius, who had been raised to the pontificate only six months before, was probably the only Pope in history to be the legitimate son of another. His father was Pope Hormisdas, who took orders only after the early death of his wife.
2. It is intriguing to reflect that had Belisarius stopped for rest and refreshment at the great abbey which he must have seen dominating the road from a high hill on his right, he would have found himself face to face with St Benedict in person, who had established his monastery - and the Order that still bears his name - on Monte Cassino only eight years before.
capture other strategic points in Umbria, Tuscany and the Marches suggested that they would fight a hard battle. Immediately he set his men to the task of repairing and strengthening the Aurelian walls; meanwhile he requisitioned immense quantities of corn from the surrounding countryside and ordered additional shiploads from Sicily, until the huge public granaries of Rome were full to overflowing. Once the Goths arrived and surrounded the city he could not be sure of keeping open his supply lines to the port of Ostia; and the coming siege, he knew, might be a long one.
And so it was. After a fierce encounter near the Milvian Bridge in which the Byzantines, though righting with supreme courage, were unable to stem the Gothic advance, Vitiges and his men took up their positions around the city in the middle of March, 537. They were to hold them for a year and nine days - an agonizing time for besiegers and besieged alike, at the very beginning of which the Goths cut all the aqueducts, thereby dealing Rome a blow from which it was not to recover for a thousand years. The history of the aqueducts stretched almost as far back into the past: it had been as early as 312 BC that the Romans, no longer prepared to make do with the murky insufficiency of the Tiber, built the first of these magnificent conduits; over the eight centuries that followed they were to construct ten more, the better to supply not only their domestic needs but the innumerable fountains and public baths for which their city was famous. And those aqueducts provided something else as well: the hydraulic power which drove, among other things, the mills on which the people depended for their bread. It was, we read, Belisarius himself who now had the idea of mounting millstones on small boats, suspending water-wheels between them and then tethering them beneath the arches of a bridge where the current was strongest, thereby ensuring a regular supply of flour throughout the siege.
Meanwhile he had applied to Justinian for reinforcements, the first of which arrived before the end of April - some 1,600 Slavs and Huns, who broke through the blockade and for the first time made it possible to launch occasional sorties outside the walls. But the stalemate continued, and as summer drew on the sufferings increased on both sides - for those within the city, famine; for those outside, disease and pestilence. Only in November did the balance begin to shift in favour of the Byzantines, when 5,000 more men, both cavalry and infantry, arrived from the East under the command of John, nephew of that rebellious Vitalian who had given so much trouble to old Anastasius twenty years before.
Soon afterwards the Goths asked for a three-month truce, during which they offered peace proposals which Belisarius would have rejected out of hand had he not been obliged to transmit them to Constantinople for the Emperor's consideration. While awaiting a reply, he dispatched John with 2,000 horsemen on a punitive campaign along the eastern slopes of the Apennines. Leaving a trail of devastation behind him, John advanced rapidly up the peninsula, ignoring the fortified hill-towns of Urbino and Osimo but occupying the low-lying port of Rimini (then known as Ariminum) where he set up his advance headquarters.
The knowledge that the invaders were now in possession of an important city 200 miles in his rear and only thirty-three from Ravenna was enough to persuade Vitiges to raise the siege of Rome. Although there had been as yet no reply from Constantinople he was by now practically certain that his peace proposals had been rejected; he knew, too, that Belisarius had succeeded in bringing in fresh provisions during the early days of the truce and would therefore be able to hold out in Rome almost indefinitely. One early morning in the middle of March 538 his troops, sick, demoralized and dispirited, methodically set fire to their seven camps around the city and headed northwards along the Via Flaminia. But even now their humiliation was not over: Belisarius and his men came pouring out of the gates, fell on them from behind and, after yet another engagement at the Milvian Bridge, left several hundred more Goths dead on the river banks or drowned, weighed down by their armour, in the spring flood of the Tiber.
After this battle the surviving Goths were allowed to retreat in peace. A few days later, however, leaving only a small garrison in Rome, Belisarius himself set out to the north, occupying towns and mopping up isolated pockets of resistance as he went. Spoleto, Perugia and Narni had been taken by his advance parties even before the siege of Rome; to these he now added Ancona, together with a whole chain of strong-points linking those towns and Rome with the Adriatic. One thing only-worried him: the knowledge that John with his large force of cavalry was still dangerously exposed in Rimini. He therefore sent two of his trusted officers up the coast with orders to the general to withdraw and to rejoin him, with his men, in Ancona.
And John, who seems to have inherited his uncle's rebellious streak, flatly refused. He had ambitions of his own; besides, he was in secret communication with Queen Matasuntha, a pro-imperialist like her mother, who was by now longing to do down her detested husband in any way that she could. The two officers had no choice but to return and report this flagrant piece of insubordination; and hardly had they done so when the Gothic army appeared beneath the walls of Rimini. A few days later the siege began, and the prospects for those within looked grim indeed. Unlike Rome, which had been able to hold out thanks to its splendid walls and the immense quantity of provisions laid in by Belisarius before the arrival of the Goths, here was a small town in a dead-flat plain, ill-protected and poorly stocked with food. The fury of Belisarius when he heard the news can be imagined. The loss of John he could probably by now contemplate with equanimity; but his 2,000 horsemen were less easily spared. On the other hand any relief expedition would be fraught with difficulty and danger, particularly since Auximum (Osimo) was still held by the Goths. Was he, for the sake of a single regiment of cavalry, to put his entire army in jeopardy? Should not John, who was after all solely responsible for his own misfortunes, now be left to pay the price of his disobedience?
Belisarius was still considering his next move when fresh troops arrived from Constantinople, headed by the most powerful figure at the imperial court: the eunuch Narses, who has already made a brief appearance in this story when as commander of the imperial bodyguard he played a decisive part, with Belisarius and Mundus, in putting down the Nika revolt. Born some sixty years before in that part of eastern Armenia that had been transferred to Persia in the partition of 387, he had risen steadily through the palace hierarchy to be Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi or Grand Chamberlain, a position which gave him the rank of illustris and made him an equal of the Praetorian Prefects and Magistrum Militum -although, being constantly at the Emperor's side, he probably wielded more influence than any of them.
But he was no soldier. His life had been spent in the Palace, and even his command of the bodyguard was more of a domestic appointment than a military one. The question therefore arises, why he was given the leadership of the new expeditionary force; and to it there can be but one answer. Justinian was beginning to have his doubts about Belisarius. The general was too brilliant, too successful - and, being still only in his early thirties, too young. He was the stuff of which Emperors were made; worse, he was the stuff of men who made themselves Emperors. In short, he needed watching; and who better to watch him than Justinian's most intelligent and trusted confidant, a man whose age and condition alike debarred him from any imperial ambitions of his own? Even the eunuch's instructions from
Justinian gave a hint as to the real reason for his presence in Italy: he was to obey Belisarius in all things, so far as seemed consistent with the public weal. In other words, he must accept the general's orders in military matters, but could overrule him on all major decisions of state policy.
Within days of his arrival, Narses found himself taking part in a council of war summoned by Belisarius at Firmium - now Fermo - to discuss whether or not to mount an expedition to relieve Rimini. The majority of those present (who included, as always, Procopius) were hostile to John, on the grounds that 'he had been moved by insensate recklessness and a desire for large financial gain' - this last motive is not explained - 'to occupy the dangerous position in which he found himself; and that he had refused to allow his commander-in-chief to conduct the campaign according to his own ideas of strategy'. After all the junior commanders had had their say, Narses arose. Readily admitting his own lack of military experience, he pointed out that the Goths were deeply dispirited after the succession of reverses that they had suffered over the past two years. The capture of Rimini, however, and of so important a Byzantine force within its walls, would be hailed by them as a major victory, perhaps as the turning-point of the whole war. 'If,' he concluded, turning to Belisarius, 'John has treated your orders with contempt, it is in your power to deal with him as you like once the city is relieved. But see that in punishing him for the mistakes that he has made through ignorance you do not exact a penalty from the Emperor himself and from us his subjects.'1
The suggestion that John had acted 'through ignorance' can perhaps best be explained by Procopius's statement that 'Narses loved him above all other men'; at any rate, the eunuch's counsels prevailed and Belisarius, who seems wisely to have kept silent so that he should not appear to be overruled, began to make his plans accordingly. A week or two later, by means of a brilliantly executed amphibious operation in which he contrived to suggest to the Goths outside Rimini that they themselves were surrounded - and by a far more numerous force than in fact existed - he put the entire besieging army to flight and entered the city just in time to save the defenders from starvation. His natural resentment of his new rival, however, cannot have been diminished when John, instead of apologizing for his conduct and expressing gratitude for his rescue, attributed it exclusively to Narses and refused absolutely to thank anyone else. Between the general and the eunuch the seeds of dissension had
1 Procopius, History of the Wars, VI, xvi.
been sown; but neither could have imagined how bitter the harvest was to be.
Belisarius was a supreme strategist and, thanks to his immense physical courage, a superb commander in the field. As a general, however, there was one quality that he lacked: the ability to inspire the unquestioning loyalty of those under him. One of his chief lieutenants had already disobeyed his orders; now, after the relief of Rimini, a considerable portion of the army made it clear that, in the event of a split in the high command, they would follow Narses rather than himself. He knew that he was powerless to change matters, and it may have been as much to save his own face as for any other reason that he divided the army into two for the mopping-up operations that followed. At the start, the system worked well enough: the Byzantines took Urbino, Imola and Orvieto and re-annexed the province of Emilia. But now, suddenly and unexpectedly, there came disaster. The cause of it was the growing hostility between the two commanders; the place Mediolanum - better known to us as Milan.
The previous spring, at the time of the three-month truce during the siege of Rome, Archbishop Datius of Milan had appeared in the city and implored Belisarius to send troops to deliver his diocese from alien -and Arian - occupation; and the general had agreed. Why he did so is not altogether clear - it seems to have been just the same kind of mistake as that which had led John to occupy Rimini, dangerously over-extending his lines of communication and supply - but he had nevertheless dispatched 1,000 troops back with the archbishop to the north. They went by sea to Genoa, used the ships' boats to cross the Po, and decisively defeated a Gothic army beneath the walls of Pavia. To their disappointment they failed to take the city, but on their arrival at Milan the citizens immediately opened the gates. Bergamo, Como, Novara and several other towns gave them a similar welcome. Each, however, required a small garrison of imperial troops - which effectively reduced the force in Milan to some 300 men.
Now Milan was already the largest and most prosperous of all the cities of Italy, its population considerably greater than that of Rome itself; and its voluntary surrender came as a bitter blow to the Goths. Immediately he heard the news, Vitiges sent an army to recover it under his nephew Uraias. At the same time, and to the additional discomfiture of the Byzantine garrison, there arrived a body of some 10,000 Burgundians, sent by the Frankish King Theudibert. Thus, by the high
summer of 538, the Milanese found themselves besieged by a far larger force than that which had threatened Rimini, and defended by so few soldiers that all able-bodied male citizens were obliged to take their turn on the ramparts. On this occasion - for which he may well have felt himself to be at least partially to blame - Belisarius unhesitatingly sent two of his best commanders to the relief of Milan, with an army which he believed to be similar in size to that of Uraias. These commanders, however, realized on reaching the Po that they would be hopelessly outnumbered, and refused to advance further without the support of John - who, probably through the influence of Narses, had escaped all punishment for his earlier disobedience - and Justin, who had succeeded Mundus as magister militumper Illyricum.
Belisarius at once issued the necessary instructions, but John and Justin refused point-blank to obey them, claiming that they now took their orders from no one but Narses; and by the time the eunuch had confirmed the command it was too late. The garrison, who had already for some time been reduced to a diet of dogs and even mice, had had enough. Ignoring a stirring exhortation by their commander, Mundilas, they gratefully accepted the terms offered them by Uraias, who gave them his word that they would be allowed to leave the city unharmed.
And so they were; but the offer, as they well knew, did not extend to the people of Milan, who in the eyes of the Goths had betrayed the city. All the male citizens - whose numbers Procopius improbably estimates at 300,000 - were put to the sword, the women being reduced to slavery and presented to the Burgundians in gratitude for their alliance. As for Milan itself, not a house was left standing.
Milan fell in the first months of 539. It was a catastrophe, but it had one useful consequence. On learning what had happened, Justinian recalled his chamberlain at once to Constantinople. The departure of Narses in its turn resulted in the withdrawal of the 2,000wild Herulians who had accompanied him to Italy and who refused to serve under any other leader; but even this was a small price to pay for a single and undisputed command. No longer troubled by dissension within his ranks, Belisarius was able to concentrate on the capture of Auximum and Fiesole, the last two pockets of resistance south of Ravenna itself. The two towns would have fallen a good deal earlier than they did had it not been for the irruption of a huge Frankish army, this time under Theudibert himself, in the early summer. The Goths, to whom the Franks were bound by treaty, assumed that they had come as allies like the Burgundians in the previous year, opened the gates of Pavia to them and helped them to cross the Po; only then did they reveal themselves in their true colours, suddenly turning on their unsuspecting hosts and slaughtering them wholesale. As the surviving Goths fled towards Ravenna the Byzantines, similarly deceived, now also approached the Franks as new allies; but the barbarians, with a fine lack of discrimination, greeted them with a hail of flying axes - their favourite weapon - and put them in their turn to flight. For a moment it looked as though all Belisarius's careful work was to be undone; then, fortunately, dysentery struck the Frankish camp, accounting for as much as a third of Theudibert's men. The King gave the order to withdraw, and within days his savage, shambling host had dragged itself back across the Alps. The Byzantines, shaken but not seriously weakened, returned to their tasks, and by the end of the year the two stubbornly defended towns had given in.
It was now nearly four years since the imperial forces had first landed on Italian soil: four years during which the peninsula had been fought over, ravaged and laid waste from end to end. The farms had been burnt, the crops destroyed. The land had become a wilderness again, Italians and Goths alike suffering all the miseries of famine. Meanwhile Belisarius was gathering his strength for a final assault on Ravenna which, if successful, would put an end to the Ostrogothic Kingdom once and for all. For Vitiges, the situation was desperate.
One hope only was left to him. Some months before, he had received reports suggesting that Justinian was in difficulties on his eastern frontier, where the Persian King Chosroes I was threatening invasion; if the danger of this were such as to oblige the Emperor to throw his entire military strength against Persia, the cause of Gothic Italy might yet be saved. Vitiges had accordingly sent a letter to Chosroes by the hand of two secret agents, purporting to be a bishop and his chaplain travelling to the East on Church affairs. In it he pointed out to the Great King that the Roman Empire would be a far more redoubtable adversary if it had all the manpower and resources of Italy to draw on. If Chosroes were to strike at once, he would force the Byzantines to fight on both fronts simultaneously and immeasurably increase his own chances of success.
The two agents never returned to the West. Their Syrian interpreter, however, was caught as he tried to slip back across the frontier, brought to Constantinople and interrogated; and gradually the truth was revealed. For a long time Justinian had been worried by the worsening situation in Persia; now he grew seriously alarmed. It would be heartbreaking to have to call off the Italian campaign just as he was on the brink of victory, and to renounce - perhaps for ever - his life's dream of reuniting all Christendom under his aegis. On the other hand he could not possibly afford to take any chances with Chosroes; if the Great King was truly bent on war, the imperial army must be ready for him. The choice was agonizing, but at last he made up his mind. He would have to come to terms with the Goths, in order to free the most brilliant of his generals for another period of service in the East.
By the time the Emperor's orders reached Italy, Belisarius had moved in on Ravenna. The city was already surrounded - to the landward side by his army, to the seaward by the imperial fleet, which had set up a virtually impenetrable blockade. Its surrender could only be a matter of time; all that was required was patience. Then, one day towards the end of 539, ambassadors arrived from Constantinople empowered to sign a treaty with the Goths by the terms of which, in return for capitulation, they would be allowed to retain half their royal treasure and all Italy north of the Po. Belisarius was horror-stricken. This was betrayal indeed; but he could see no way of preventing the proposed agreement and was just about to accept the inevitable when, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Goths played straight into his hands. As astonished, presumably, as he was himself at their apparent good fortune, and perhaps fearing some sort of diplomatic trick, they made it clear that they would accept the treaty as valid only if it bore his own signature as well as those of the imperial plenipotentiaries.
Belisarius seized his chance. The proposed concessions, he thundered, were not only an insult to his soldiers, they were also unnecessary: total victory was imminent, for within a few weeks at the most the Goths could be made to surrender unconditionally. In such circumstances he refused absolutely to sign the treaty, and would agree to do so only on receipt of a personal command from the Emperor himself. For the moment there was stalemate. Then, one night, a secret emissary arrived from the Gothic court, bearing a new and extraordinary proposal: Vitiges would resign his throne and deliver up his crown to Belisarius, on the understanding that the latter should then proclaim himself Emperor of the West. Many an imperial general would have seized such an opportunity; the bulk of the army would probably have supported him, and with the Goths at his back he would have been more than capable of dealing with any punitive expedition from Constantinople. But Belisarius, whatever his long-term ambitions may have been, did not waver in his loyalty. In the words of Procopius, 'he hated the name of usurper with a perfect hatred', and it is unlikely that he gave the Goths' proposal a moment's serious consideration. On the other hand, he saw in it an ideal means of bringing the war to a quick and victorious end. All he had to do was to tell the Goths that he accepted their offer, and the gates of Ravenna would be opened to him.
First he sent away on foraging expeditions those commanders who had formerly allied themselves with Narses: he did not want them making trouble in advance, or claiming the credit afterwards. Then, summoning those on whose loyalty he could rely, he sought their approval for one last effort - an effort which promised to win back all Italy for the Empire and bring the whole Gothic nobility, with the royal treasure, captive to Constantinople. Once they had given their agreement - which they did without hesitation - no further preparations were necessary. Messengers sped to the Gothic court, with word that the great general looked favourably on their proposals and would formally invest himself with the diadem of the Western Empire after entering his capital. Duly the gates were flung open, and the imperial army marched in.
We do not know exactly when the Goths realized that they had been deceived. It may be that Belisarius never told them in so many words that he had no intention of setting himself up as a rival to Justinian, and that it was only gradually that there came upon them an understanding of the true state of affairs. As they watched the Roman soldiery loading their royal treasure on to the ships while Vitiges, Matasuntha and the chief nobles were all taken off into captivity, they must have reflected bitterly indeed on the perfidy of the general who had betrayed them. But there is no indication that Belisarius's conscience gave him any trouble. The Goths' proposal had been in itself perfidious; besides, were they not all of them rebels against the Emperor's lawful authority? War was war; and, by occupying Ravenna as he had done, he had saved untold bloodshed on both sides. One promise, in any case, he had kept to the letter: there had been no looting of private houses, no rapine and no killing. As he himself took ship for the Bosphorus in May 540 he felt no shame, only elation and pride. His Triumph after the capture of Carthage had been magnificent; how much more splendid might be his reward for returning the whole Italian peninsula, including Ravenna and even Rome itself, to the Empire?
Alas, he was disappointed. Perhaps he would have been doomed to disappointment in any event, for every victory that he won increased the Emperor's jealousy, together with his fears that one day his brilliant young general might take the law into his own hands and usurp the throne. But there was no feeling of victory in the air when he returned to Constantinople, and neither Justinian nor his subjects were in any mood for celebration. In June 540, only a few weeks after the fall of Ravenna, the troops of King Chosroes had invaded the Empire and captured Antioch, demolishing the city, massacring most of its inhabitants and sending the rest into slavery. The presence of Belisarius would be required, not at the Hippodrome but on the eastern front.