Surely in these evil days you must sometimes remember the benefits that you were wont to receive, not so very long ago, at the hands of Theodoric and Amalasuntha . .. My Roman friends, only compare the memory of those rulers with what we now know of the conduct of the Greeks towards their subjects. Do not think that I speak with youthful presumption or barbarian arrogance when I tell you that we shall change all this and deliver Italy from her tyrants -and not through our valour alone, but in the sure belief that we are ministers of divine justice against these oppressors . ..
Totila, in his letter to the Roman Senate, 5451
The Great King Chosroes I of Persia - known to his subjects as Anushirvan, 'of the Immortal Soul' - had occupied the throne since 531. Of all the great Sassanian Kings, perhaps of all the Persian rulers throughout history, he was the most illustrious and is still the best remembered. As a statesman, he reformed and reorganized every branch of government and completely revised the fiscal system; as a general, he created the first standing army loyal to the King alone and pushed forward his frontiers till they extended from the Black Sea to the Yemen, from the Oxus River to the shores of the Mediterranean; as an intellectual, he had given - even before his accession - an enthusiastic welcome to those pagan Greek scientists and philosophers who had drifted to Persia after Justinian's closure of the School of Athens in 5 29. He founded his country's great medical academy at Gondeshapur, codified the Avista - the sacred book of Zoroastrianism - compiled the first collection of the myths and legends of his people and introduced from India the game of chess. He was, in short, a worthy match for Justinian, his adversary and rival for over thirty years.
1 Trans. Hodgkin. In fact, a fairly free translation when compared with the text given by Procopius (History of tbt Wars, VII, ix, 7-18); but at least an admirable precis, which faithfully preserves the tone of the original.
And yet, progressive as he was in many ways, in others Chosroes was very much the child of his time. His wars with the Byzantine Empire, for example, were fought not for conquest but, unashamedly, for plunder. Thus, studiously ignoring first a letter from Justinian in which he was sternly reminded of his treaty obligations under the 'Eternal Peace' and, later, one from Theodora - addressed to a minister but clearly intended for the Great King to see - promising rich rewards in return for non-intervention ('for my husband will do nothing without first seeking my advice') he crossed the imperial frontier in March 540 and captured the town of Sura on the upper Euphrates, whose handful of defenders took one look at the size of the army marching against them and sensibly withdrew. From there he passed on to Beroea (the modern Aleppo), setting fire to the city when the populace failed to raise the 4,000 pounds of silver he had demanded as a ransom, and so in early June found himself before the walls of Antioch - politely drawing his army aside to allow the newly arrived garrison, 6,000 strong but panic-stricken, to flee for its life. The citizens, however, did not give in so easily. They fought with determination and courage, Greens and Blues standing side by side on the ramparts and many of them dying where they stood. Sheer force of numbers allowed Chosroes finally to carry the day; but when he did so he made the people of Antioch pay dearly for their resistance. The great cathedral was stripped of all its gold and silver, and even of the polychrome marbles that adorned its walls; the other churches were similarly pillaged - except that of St Julian, which owed its salvation to its privileged position among the foreign embassies. Meanwhile the Persian soldiery satisfied its various lusts in the traditional manner, to the point where at least two distinguished ladies are said to have flung themselves into the Orontes to escape its attentions.
With all the wealth of Antioch loaded on to his baggage wagons, and before setting out on a triumphal tour of northern Syria during which he proposed to exact heavy tribute from every -city he visited, Chosroes could afford to be generous; he therefore offered peace to Justinian in return for only a little more blood money: 5,000 pounds of gold to be paid at once, plus 500 more each succeeding year. The Emperor had no choice but to accept and pay up; and Chosroes returned to Persia, profoundly satisfied with his campaign. But he was back the following year, when an opportunity arose which, even if it meant a further breach of his treaty obligations, he could not possibly miss.
At the far south-eastern corner of the Black Sea lay the small, semi-autonomous kingdom of Lazica, sometimes known as Colchis. Its ruler, King Gobazes, had in the past been content to be a vassal of the Byzantine Emperor, who had caused him and his immediate predecessors little trouble; but Justinian had recently sent in a personal representative, who had established various imperial monopolies and so antagonized the people that Gobazes in despair appealed to the Persian King. Lazica was a poor country, and would normally have offered Chosroes little temptation; on the other hand, as Gobazes was not slow to point out, it would provide him with a bridgehead on the Black Sea from which he could sail directly against Byzantium and make contact with other potential allies, notably the Huns. So it was that the spring of 541 saw Chosroes once again invading the Empire at the head of his army and marching into Lazica - where, after a pitched battle with the defenders which exacted a heavy toll on both sides, he captured its principal port, the strongly fortified city of Petra.1 The summer would probably have been still more disastrous for Byzantium had it not been for a simultaneous expedition by Belisarius; even this proved, however, to be an oddly lacklustre affair. Ignoring Lazica altogether, he headed straight for Mesopotamia, crossing into Persian territory near Nisibis; but, deciding that this great fortress was too strong for him, he bypassed it and captured only one relatively unimportant town, Sisaurani, before the Mesopotamian summer and an outbreak of dysentery among his soldiers forced him to retire.
There seemed to be little in him of the old Belisarius: little of the energy, the cunning and the infinite resourcefulness that had brought him, while still under thirty, to the top of his profession and made his name famous throughout the known world. In 540, after his return from Italy, he had been expected to head straight for the East as ordered; instead, he had remained in his palace at Constantinople, showing himself little in public and seeing only a few close friends. When he did at last set out on campaign he seemed unable to take even minor decisions without seeking the advice and approval of his associates, to whom he appeared somehow distant and preoccupied; and so indeed he was. He had become obsessed by the infidelity of his wife Antonina - infidelity in which she was being abetted and protected by the Empress herself.
Theodora and Antonina had long been friends; but their friendship was further cemented in the course of 541 by their joint conspiracy against the Empress's most hated enemy, the Praetorian Prefect John of Cappadocia. John was well known to have imperial ambitions; and it was an
1 Not, of course, to be confused with the caravan city of southern Arabia, which was by this time already deserted and in ruins.
easy matter for Antonina to entice him to a secret meeting and persuade him to talk about how he planned to achieve his objective, while Theodora's spies remained in hiding, listening to every word. He was arrested, found guilty and dispossessed of his enormous wealth, but he was not condemned to mutilation or execution. His fate - the compulsory taking of holy orders, followed by exile in the comfortable diocese of Cyzicus on the Marmara - was, it was generally agreed, a good deal better than he deserved.
As a result of this intrigue, Antonina was able to call on the Empress for help in a domestic drama of her own, which reached a crisis at this time. For several years she had been involved in a passionate liaison with a young man named Theodosius - an indiscretion made more reprehensible by the fact that he was the godson of her husband and herself, and their adopted child. The extent to which Belisarius knew of this affair and condoned it is uncertain: Procopius's account - the only one that we have1 - is a positive minefield of improbabilities and obvious exaggerations. But the young general possessed his full share of personal vanity and had no wish to be shown up publicly as a cuckold. He had raised no objection when Antonina told him that for the first time in their married life she would not be accompanying him on his new campaign, since he was well aware that she was at that moment engaged on delicate business with the Empress; but he was shattered when, a month or two after his own departure, he received reliable information that Theodosius - who had sought temporary refuge from the scandal by attaching himself to a monastery at Ephesus - had now returned to the capital and was living once again under his godmother's roof.
Belisarius's informant was none other than his stepson Photius - the son of Antonina by an earlier association - who had accompanied him to the Persian front. Photius cordially detested his mother, whom he suspected (with some justification) of having plotted to kill him; and when he received the news of her recent behaviour from a friend newly arrived from Constantinople he lost no time in passing it on to his stepfather. Together, the two decided on a plan of action. By this time the intrigue against the Cappadocian had been satisfactorily concluded and Antonina had announced her intention of coming east. When she did so, it was reasonably certain that Theodosius would return to Ephesus; at that moment Photius, taking advantage of his mother's absence, would follow him there and abduct him, putting him away in some remote and secret prison where he could cause no further trouble.
1 Secret History, i-iii.
Antonina arrived, and to her astonishment found herself immediately under arrest; meanwhile Photius had set off for Ephesus, taking with him one of his mother's eunuchs from whom he had gathered, with morbid satisfaction, further intriguing information about her private life. On reaching the city he found that Theodosius had been warned of his approach and had taken refuge in the church of St John; but the local archpriest, in return for a small bribe, handed him over without a word. Photius sent him off to a remote castle in Cilicia, and himself returned to the capital.
In doing so he made a grievous mistake; for by the time he reached Constantinople Antonina had somehow contrived to send the Empress an appeal for help. Photius was arrested in his turn, together with a number of other close friends of his stepfather; several of them, Procopius tells us, suffered imprisonment and even death for no other reason than their friendship. Photius himself was subjected to unspeakable tortures, but steadfastly refused to reveal the whereabouts of Theodosius. He was to languish in the palace dungeons for three years before he succeeded - with the unexpected assistance of the Prophet Zechariah, who appeared to him in a dream - in escaping to Jerusalem. Procopius bitterly reproaches Belisarius for having made no move to help his stepson after his own return to Constantinople; he may be right to do so, and the accusation has certainly left a stain on the general's character. But with Antonina - to whom, on the Empress's orders, he had become officially reconciled - and Theodora herself in league against him, it is not easy to see what he could have done.
Eventually Theodora tracked down the young man by other means, and restored him to the arms of his mistress; soon afterwards, however, Theodosius died of dysentery - foul play was not, as far as we know, suspected - and a great weight was lifted off Belisarius's spirit. Back in the East in 542, he was plainly himself again. Procopius delightedly describes how he received an ambassador from Chosroes:
. . . He set up a tent of heavy cloth known as a pavilion, and seated himself within it . . . and he arranged his soldiers as follows. On either side of the tent were Thracians and lllyrians, with Goths behind them, and next to these Herulians, and finally Vandals and Moors. And their line extended a great distance across the plain, for they did not remain standing always in the same place, but stood apart from one another and wandered about, looking casually and without the least interest upon the envoy of Chosroes. And not one of them had a cloak or any other outer garment on his shoulders, but they sauntered about in linen tunics and trousers, tied loosely with girdles. And each one carried a horse-
whip, but for weapons one had a sword, another an axe, another an uncovered bow. And all gave the impression that they were eager to be off on the hunt, with never a thought for anything else ...
And when Abandanes [the envoy] came to Chosroes he advised him to take his departure with all possible speed. For he said that he had met a general who in manliness and wisdom surpassed all other men, and soldiers such as he had never seen.1
So the Great King turned back and, concludes Procopius, 'the Romans were loud in their praises of Belisarius, who seemed to have achieved greater glory in their eyes by this affair than when he brought Gelimer or Vitiges captive to Byzantium.' As usual he exaggerates; but it is clear that the old Belisarius touch was once more in evidence.
As it happened, the 542 campaign proved indecisive, owing to an outbreak in both camps not of the usual dysentery or typhoid but of bubonic plague - an outbreak that was to prove one of the worst in Byzantine history. Beginning in Egypt, it quickly spread across all the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople, where it raged for four months, the toll rising to some 10,000 a day and, on one particular day, 16,000 - as many as the entire army in Italy. The proper burial of the dead soon became impossible; the corpses were carried off to a huge, long-abandoned fortress where they were piled up until they reached the roof. Daily life in the city came to a standstill; the surrounding fields lay unharvested, the markets were closed, the mills and bakeries fell idle with no one to work them. In consequence, plague was succeeded by famine. By the time the disease had run its course, the number of its victims was estimated at 300,000 - perhaps two out of five of the population.
Among those stricken was Justinian himself. For weeks during that nightmare summer he lay between life and death - leaving the supreme authority of the state in the hands of his wife and simultaneously introducing a new and urgent question to be considered - that of" the succession. Theodora knew that her whole future was at stake. She and Justinian were childless; if her husband were to die, her only chance of retaining her power lay in arranging for him to be succeeded by a ruler of her own choice: a trusted courtier, perhaps, or some faithful old general with whom she could go through a ceremony of marriage, just as her predecessor Ariadne had done with Anastasius half a century before.
1 History of the Wars, II, n.
Traditionally, however, the choice of Emperor lay with the army, most of whose senior officers were away in the East. By the time they heard of Justinian's illness, it seemed to them more than likely that he was already dead; and at a hastily convened meeting in Mesopotamia they agreed that they would refuse to recognize any ruler chosen at Constantinople in their absence and without their consent. Reports of this meeting in their turn were brought back to the capital, but not before Justinian was out of danger; and Theodora, feeling herself once again secure, flew into a fury. Two generals in particular were believed to have instigated the meeting. One of them, Buzes, a former Consul and magister militum per orientem, was flung into the by now notorious dungeons, where he languished in total darkness for twenty-eight months, emerging, it was said, more like a ghost than a man.
The other was Belisarius. He was too popular, and too powerful, to be dealt with in the same way as his subordinate, and Procopius asserts that none of the charges levelled against Buzes could conclusively be brought home to him. How this can be is not altogether clear: it may be that he was not physically present at the fateful meeting - though he must surely have endorsed its decisions. In any case, another pretext had to be found; and he was now accused of having enriched himself unduly with Vandal and Gothic treasure that should properly have been delivered to the Emperor. Here at least Theodora might be said to have had a case: Belisarius certainly made no secret of his immense wealth. His passage through the streets of Constantinople, mounted on a sumptuously caparisoned charger and followed by a regiment of his private barbarian bodyguards, had for some years savoured more of some royal progress than of a citizen of the Empire about his lawful occasions. On his return to the capital after the premature close of the 542campaign, the Empress struck. First, the general found himself relieved of his Eastern command; next, his magnificent household was disbanded, his picked spearmen and footguards being distributed among his brother-officers and the palace eunuchs, who drew lots for them. Finally, his accumulated treasure was confiscated at Theodora's command - by the simple expedient of sending round one of her personal attendants with orders to bring everything of value straight to the imperial palace.
It was not till the following year, 543, that Justinian recovered sufficiently to reassert his authority. Soon afterwards Belisarius was pardoned and partially restored to favour; his treasure, too, was returned to him - with the important exception of thirty hundredweight of gold, which Theodora had graciously bestowed on her husband as a present - and the seal was set on the reconciliation by the betrothal of Joannina, his and Antonina's only child, to the Empress's grandson Anastasius. In a letter to him at this time, Theodora emphasized that she had forgiven him because of her close friendship with his wife; but it seems reasonably clear that there was another reason, far more cogent, for the general's reinstatement. In the outlying provinces of the Empire, the situation was deteriorating fast. Across the Mediterranean, an insurrection started by the Moorish tribes was spreading with terrifying speed throughout the province of Africa; in Italy, the Goths under Totila were also striking back and had already recaptured Naples. Only in the East had the year begun on a note of hope, King Chosroes's warlike intentions having been frustrated by a renewed outbreak of plague as well as by a rebellion fomented by one of his sons. But even here, the late summer brought disaster: an immense Byzantine army of some 30,000 men - the largest that Justinian had ever raised - marched into Persian-held Armenia and was annihilated by a far smaller Persian force.
This was, in short, no time to keep the Empire's one general of genius dishonoured, disarmed and humiliated in Constantinople; he was desperately needed in the field. Belisarius for his part asked nothing better. He at first hoped to go back to the Persian front, but this prospect was firmly blocked by Antonina: never again, she insisted, would he return to that part of the world in which she had been so grossly insulted. Theodora, predictably, supported her; and Belisarius received instead the supreme command of the imperial army in the West. But here again disappointment awaited him. Old scores, it seemed, had not yet been entirely settled. It was not with the rank of magister militum as he had assumed, but merely with that of comes stabuli, Count of the Stable, that he returned in May 544 - sadder, wiser and, though still only in his fortieth year, infinitely more tired - to Italy.
There is no more convincing testimony to the brilliance of Belisarius than the collapse of Byzantine power in Italy after his departure in 540. With his triumphal entry into Ravenna that spring it must have seemed to everyone - Greek, Goth and Italian alike - that the whole peninsula had been recovered for the Empire. True, there were one or two small pockets of resistance, notably in Verona and Pavia, where the Gothic nobles acclaimed a young chieftain named Hildebad as their new King; but Hildebad's effective army amounted to no more than 1,000 men, and it seemed inconceivable that he could hold out longer than a few more weeks at most.
Nor would he have done so, if Belisarius had remained in Italy - or even, in all likelihood, if Justinian had appointed a competent successor. But the Emperor did no such thing. Instead, he left five subordinate generals jointly to consolidate the Byzantine hold on Italy as best they might, giving no single one of them authority over the rest. With the arguable exception of John, nephew of Vitalian, who for all his other faults was an excellent commander in the field, these generals were all distinctly second-rate: one, also named John, was known as Phagas, the Glutton; another, Bessas, was a turncoat Goth; the other two, Vitalius and Constantian, were relatively recent arrivals from Dalmatia. On Belisarius's departure, they divided up the territory between them and gave themselves over to a single object - plunder. Within weeks, the demoralization of the Byzantine army was complete. By the end of the year Hildebad had built up a considerable force of his own - it included a good many deserters from the imperial ranks - and was in effective control of all Italy north of the Po.
The reason for the Emperor's disastrous decision is not far to seek: he had clearly been informed of the Goths' offer of the throne to Belisarius - a fear that the latter might change his mind and accept it must almost certainly have been a factor in his recall - and he was terrified lest any successor might succumb to the same temptation. So compelling was this fear that for over two years he was to watch the situation in Italy steadily deteriorate before naming a Praetorian Prefect, and was then to pick on a feckless nonentity whom he knew to be incapable of rebelling against him but who unfortunately proved equally incapable of anything else. It was another two years before he reluctantly brought himself to return to Belisarius - not only the most inspired but also the most unswervingly loyal of all his generals - the command that he should never have lost.
King Hildebad meanwhile had not lasted long, having in May 541 been beheaded at dinner by one of his guards, Velas, whose bride-to-be he had unthinkingly bestowed on another.1 His successor Eraric attempted to come to terms with Justinian and after only five months was murdered in his turn; and so the way was clear for the young man who was to prove himself the greatest, as well as the most attractive, of
1 'So when he had stretched out his hand to the food as he lay reclining upon his couch, Velas suddenly smote him on the neck with his sword. And so, while the food was still grasped in the man's fingers, his head was severed and fell upon the table, and filled all those present with great consternation and amazement.' So Procopius, History of the Wars, VII, i, 47-9.
all the Gothic rulers. His name, according to the evidence of every one of his coins, was Baduila; but even in his lifetime he seems to have been universally known to his subjects as Totila, and it is thus that he has gone down to history.
Totila was Hildebad's nephew; the date of his birth is not known, but he can hardly have been out of his middle twenties. He too had been secretly negotiating with the imperial generals, who were probably not unduly alarmed at the news of his elevation; once in the seat of power, however, he declared an out-and-out war against them, galvanizing the Goths as none of his predecessors could have hoped to do. Nor did he limit his attentions to his own people. He never forgot that the vast majority of his subjects were not Goths but Italians; their support too was vital if he were ever to expel the Byzantines from Italian soil. In Theodoric's day, and under his immediate successors, relations between Italian and Goth had been cordial - particularly among the governing classes, since the Gothic rulers needed Roman administrative and financial skills for the smooth running of their kingdom. Since Belisarius's victories, however, the Italian aristocracy had thrown in its lot with the Empire; and so it was to the humbler echelons of society - the middle class, the urban proletariat and the peasants — that young Totila now appealed.
And they responded, as he knew they would. They no longer felt any natural loyalty to the Empire which, though it still called itself Roman, was by now almost entirely Greek; furthermore, they were already suffering appallingly from Byzantine rapacity. That of the various generals had been bad enough; more recently, however, they had been forced to submit to the attentions of Justinian's own tax-gatherers, a new class of high officials whom he called Logothetes. The reputation of these men can best be indicated by the nickname given to their chief, a certain Alexander, who was universally known as Psalidon, 'the Scissors', for his notorious ability to clip round gold coins, retaining the clippings for himself. He and his subordinates were paid by results, the imperial treasury allowing them a commission of one-twelfth on all that they collected; and they bled the country white.
Totila's call promised an end to oppression. The slaves would be liberated, the great estates broken up, the land redistributed among the tenant farmers and the peasants; no longer would Italian taxes be used to maintain a vapid and corrupt court, to build vast palaces a thousand miles away that none of the contributors would ever see, or to pay protection money to barbarian tribes beyond the remotest frontiers of the Empire. It was hardly surprising that the people listened to him -and followed.
So indeed did many of the imperial soldiery, for they too were feeling the Scissors' edge. Within months of his accession Totila was strong enough to drive back one imperial army of 12,000 men from the gates of Verona, and to annihilate another in pitched battle outside Faventia (Faenza). In the spring of 542 came yet another victory, in the Mugello valley some fifteen miles north of Florence, in which he completely routed the army of John, nephew of Vitalian, the ablest of all Justinian's generals in the peninsula. Now the whole of the centre and the south lay open to him. On he went; and by the late summer of the same year he had effectively subjugated all Italy apart from Ravenna, Rome, Florence and a few fortified coastal cities. Chief among these was Naples; and it was to Naples, defended as it was by a largely Isaurian garrison of 1,000 men, that he now laid siege.
It is significant, if hardly surprising, that not one of the imperial generals in Italy should have made any attempt to relieve the city. Now, and only now, did Justinian steel himself to appoint a Praetorian Prefect with supreme powers in the province; but this man, Maximin, delayed till the end of the year on the coast of Epirus and, having finally landed at Syracuse, refused absolutely to leave it. By this time one naval relief expedition, launched on his own initiative by an old colleague of Belisarius, had been destroyed by Totila; a second, dispatched in January 543 by Maximin - who took care, however, not to join it himself - was overtaken by a sudden storm and dashed against the rocks.
Meanwhile the Gothic blockade of the city was total; and in May the Neapolitans were starved into surrender. Totila's terms were characteristically generous: the soldiers of the Byzantine garrison were allowed to leave in peace with all their possessions, and even had ships put at their disposal to take them wherever they liked. They chose Rome, and when contrary winds made the sea journey impossible they were given horses and beasts of burden and sent on their way with an escort. Typical too was the consideration shown by the young King to the Neapolitans themselves. Well understanding the danger of giving too much food too quickly to starving men, he first sealed off the city and then had a relatively small amount of food distributed to each household; the next day the ration was increased, and so on succeeding days until the people had once again returned to their normal diet.
The fall of Naples - for the second time in seven years - dealt a further blow to Byzantine morale. For the rest of the year Totila continued to mop up pockets of resistance and to consolidate his hold on the peninsula, and by January 544 the Greek generals in their various redoubts decided that they had had enough. A letter to Justinian was drafted by Constantian in Ravenna - Maximin, if he was around at all, seems to have been universally ignored - and signed by his fellow-commanders, declaring that they could no longer defend the imperial cause in Italy; it was this letter, almost certainly, that decided the Emperor to send back Belisarius. Meanwhile, in the hope that he might be able to gain control of the city without bloodshed, Totila addressed a passionate appeal to the Senate in Rome, an extract from which, condensed and somewhat freely translated, will be found at the head of this chapter.
It received no answer. John, who was commanding in Rome, forbade the Senate to send a reply - much as they would probably have liked to do so. Totila then tried a direct appeal to the Romans. He arranged for a number of copies to be made of a shortened version of his letter and smuggled in under cover of darkness; and the populace awoke one morning to find these posted up in prominent places all over the city, assuring them that the Gothic King wished only to bring them freedom, and that he promised to respect the lives and property of all those Romans who were prepared to give him their support. John, now seriously alarmed, persuaded himself that the Arian clergy had been responsible for the propagation of the letter and went so far as to expel them wholesale; but the true culprits were never identified.
Nor, however, was there a spontaneous uprising by the people of Rome that Totila may have hoped for: if he wished to occupy the city he could do so only by force. By now he was far away to the south, besieging the little Apulian port of Hydruntum (Otranto) which he feared might be used as a bridgehead for a Byzantine relief expedition; but its resistance proved fiercer than he had expected; leaving a small force beneath the walls to continue the siege, in the early summer of 544 he set off at once with the bulk of his army on the long march up the peninsula to Rome.
He might, conceivably, have been one degree less confident had he known that, while he was marching, Beiisarius was already on his way to Italy. The next round of the long contest between Greek and Goth could not be much longer delayed.
From the moment he left Constantinople, Belisarius had known that he would have to fight his second Italian campaign with, effectively, one hand tied behind his back. Justinian had entrusted him with the re-conquest of the peninsula, but had given him only a handful of inexperienced troops, little authority and no money at all. It was even rumoured that the Emperor had extracted a promise from his general not to request funds from the imperial treasury, but to provide both the men and the necessary equipment at his own expense. In former days Belisarius would probably have accepted such charges willingly enough; with a private fortune greater than that of any other citizen of the Empire outside the imperial family he would hardly have noticed them, and a few victories would soon have replenished his coffers. But now, with much of his wealth expropriated by the Empress and fully conscious that in the existing situation there might be no victories at all, he was powerless; and the few extra soldiers that he had managed to recruit on his way to Italy were not such as to inspire any greater confidence in the future.
He did his best. Within a year of his arrival in the summer of 544, he had relieved Otranto and Osimo and rebuilt the defences of Pesaro, which subsequently withstood a determined attack by Totila. During this time, however, he had also seen several defections by imperial troops, many of whom had received no pay for well over a year, and had understood all too clearly how radically the situation had changed in the four years that he had been away. It was no longer just the Goths who were actively hostile to the Empire; it was virtually the whole population. With the forces at his command he might just succeed in maintaining an imperial presence in Italy; but he could never reconquer it.
Such were the considerations in his mind when he wrote in May 545 to Justinian, telling him of his desperate need of men, horses, arms and money:
A man who has not a sufficient supply of these cannot, I believe, wage war. It is true that after laborious searches in Thrace and Illyria I was able to collect some soldiers there; but they are few in number, wretched in quality, have no weapons worth speaking of and are altogether inexperienced in fighting. As for the soldiers whom I found here, they are discontented and discouraged, demoralised by frequent defeats, and at first sign of a foe are so bent on flight that they slip at once from their horses and hurl their arms to the ground. To find money in Italy for the war is impossible, since the country has been largely reconquered by the enemy. Thus we cannot give the soldiers their long overdue arrears of pay, and this knowledge of our indebtedness makes it hard for us to speak freely to them.
Sire, you must be plainly told that the greatest part of your army has enlisted and is now serving under the enemy's standards. If the mere sending of Belisarius to Italy were all that were necessary, your preparations for war would be perfect; but if you would overcome your enemies you must do something more than this, for a general is nothing without his officers. First and foremost you must send me my own guards, both cavalry and foot-soldiers; secondly, a large number of Huns and other barbarians; and thirdly, money with which they may all be paid.
Belisarius entrusted this letter to John, whom he naturally expected to return as soon as possible with whatever military and financial help the Emperor might have been persuaded to provide. John, however, delayed for several months in Constantinople; it was not until late autumn that he returned, to find Belisarius awaiting him impatiently in Dyrrachium. The latter's irritation at the delay can hardly have been diminished by the news that his subordinate had taken advantage of his stay in the capital to woo and marry the daughter of Germanus, the Emperor's first cousin; henceforth, with his new imperial connections, he would be more insufferable than ever. On the other hand he had brought with him a considerable army, a mixed force of Romans and barbarians under the joint command of himself and an Armenian general named Isaac. They all crossed at once to Italy, landing there not a moment too soon: almost simultaneously, the army of Totila reached Rome and laid siege to the city.
To the Byzantines, the prospects looked bleak. Totila controlled all the territory between Rome and the sea, while his fleet was already drawn up at the mouth of the Tiber. Moreover the commander of the imperial garrison, Bessas, was of Gothic origin and uncertain loyalty. He had made no effort to lay in emergency food supplies; provisions were already found to be short when the siege began, and as it progressed he showed himself less interested in defending the city than in lining his own pocket by selling off what little was left to the highest bidder. As famine took hold, the saintly deacon Pelagius - Pope Vigilius being, for reasons shortly to be explained, under imperial arrest in Sicily - attempted negotiations with Totila, but they came to nothing. Belisarius saw at once that the only hope lay in sailing quickly to the mouth of the Tiber, running the gauntlet of the Gothic fleet, then landing his men and falling on the besieging army from behind; but John, though technically his junior, once again refused to obey. The first priority, he insisted, must be to recapture the south; only then could the army advance northwards to Rome. The result of this disagreement was probably the worst expedient of all: a division of the limited forces available, with each commander pursuing his own plan of action.
But Belisarius did not despair. By the time he reached Portus, where the Tiber flowed out into the sea, he had already laid his plans. While Bessas kept the Goths occupied with diversionary sorties, he proposed to lead an amphibious attack against their rear, marching part of his army along the south bank of the river while the rest, embarked on 200 ships, would smash the enemy fleet and then sail upstream in support. During the entire operation, the Armenian general Isaac was to remain in charge at Portus, looking after the reserves, the provisions, the remaining vessels and - by no means the least important - his wife Antonina, who had recently arrived to join him. Under no circumstances whatever, he emphasized - not even if it was reported that he himself had been captured or killed - was Isaac to leave his post.
In the event Bessas made no sorties, nor indeed the slightest effort of any kind to help his chief. Belisarius launched his expedition regardless. Keeping at bay the Gothic defenders along the banks with streams of arrows fired from the decks, his ships slowly forced their way up the river. After four miles, he easily smashed through the great iron chain and wooden boom that Totila had flung across as an additional protection, and was just about to attack the heavily fortified bridge that constituted the last obstacle before Rome itself when an urgent message was brought to him: Isaac had been taken prisoner. As Belisarius saw it, this could mean one thing only: the Goths had launched a surprise attack on Portus, seized the town and cut him off from the sea. And there was something else, still more terrible to contemplate: if Isaac had been captured, so too had Antonina. Calling off the attack at once, he dashed back to the coast - only to discover that Isaac, chafing at his enforced inactivity, had attacked the Gothic garrison at Ostia in flagrant disobedience of his orders and had been overcome by his intended victims. Apart from himself and the few soldiers who had accompanied him, everything and everyone else - including Antonina - was safe.
The last chance had been lost: Rome's fate was sealed. And yet, sick and starving as the Romans were, it was neither sickness nor starvation that caused the city's fall. It never surrendered; but on the night of 17 December 546 a group of four discontented Isaurian soldiers of the garrison opened up the Asinarian Gate, and the Goths flooded in. Whether the traitors had been among those Isaurians to whom Totila had shown such unusual consideration after his capture of Naples three and a half years before, we shall never know; but the young King certainly had little cause to regret his generosity.
Bessas took flight at once, together with most of the garrison, leaving all his ill-gotten treasure behind to swell the Gothic coffers. Several of the Roman nobles - those of them who had not been obliged to eat their horses - rode off with him. The remainder sought refuge in the churches till Totila had brought his men under control, then slowly emerged to resume their desperate search for food until such time as supplies in the city returned to normal. Of the populace, Procopius1 tells us that only 500 citizens were left. Some of us may agree with Gibbon in finding this figure hard to accept; in fact, however, there seems nothing particularly improbable about it. There can in any case be no doubt that although, strategically speaking, the fall of Rome was of little real significance, as a symbol it was all-important; and Totila understandably saw its capture as an opportunity to send ambassadors to the Emperor, offering him peace on the basis of a return to the status quo of happier days. 'You will have learned,' he wrote,
of what has occurred in the city of the Romans; this I propose to pass over in silence. Why I am sending you these envoys, however, I shall explain. It is our wish that you should accept for yourself the blessings of peace, and that you should grant them also to us. Of these blessings we have most excellent examples and reminders in Anastasius and Theodoric, who ruled not long ago and whose reigns were given over to peace and prosperity. If this should be also your desire, I shall look upon you as my father, and you may henceforth count on us as your allies against all your enemies.
But Justinian would have none of it. To accept Totila's proposals would have been effectively to write off ten years' campaigning and to admit the defeat not only of his armies but also of his most cherished ambitions. Belisarius, he pointed out, was his commander in Italy, and was possessed of complete plenipotentiary authority. If the King of the Goths had anything he wished to communicate, it was to him that his words should properly be addressed.
It is unlikely that Totila even approached Belisarius as Justinian had suggested; and it is unlikelier still that, even had he done so, he would have received a remotely encouraging reply. The fall of Rome was soon forgotten - the Byzantines even managed briefly to reoccupy it in April 547, though they were to lose it again less than three years later - and after a few more months of desultory fighting up and down the peninsula it became clear that the two sides had reached a stalemate, with neither strong enough to eliminate the other. Belisarius decided on one last
1 His full account of Totila's siege of Rome will be found in his History of the Wars, VII, xv-xx.
appeal to his Emperor. He knew that for Justinian the international situation had improved since his last attempt: peace had finally been concluded - though at a considerable price - with King Chosroes, and the rebellion in Africa, which had been raging for the past five years and had made formidable demands of money and manpower, had finally been put down. Perhaps, in the calmer conditions now prevailing, he might at last get what he wanted.
His emissary on this occasion was his wife Antonina. She had seen for herself the difficulties that he was having to face, and could speak of them from first-hand experience. She had, moreover, direct access to the Empress, and through her to Justinian himself; she would not allow herself to be fobbed off with underlings. Around midsummer, 548, she left for Constantinople - only to find the city plunged into deepest mourning. Just a few days before, on 28 June, Theodora had died of cancer. Antonina saw at once that her mission was doomed: the Emperor, prostrated with grief, would see no one and was incapable of taking decisions. All that she managed to obtain from those in temporary control was the recall of her husband; if failure in Italy was now inevitable, she was determined that he should not carry the blame.
Early in 549 Belisarius returned to the capital. After the glory of his first Italian campaign, his second had brought him only five years of frustration and disappointment. But he had saved Italy, at least temporarily, for the Empire. Had it not been for his energy and resolve, in the face of the most discouraging conditions imaginable, there is little doubt that the Byzantines would have been expelled in 544; thanks to him the foundations for reconquest were laid for the second time, making it relatively easy when the moment came for his old rival Narses - possessed of all the resources for which he, Belisarius, had appealed in vain -to win the victories and the acclaim that should rightfully have been his own.