The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 6

Page 1


Of this truly dreadful Gothic war I can give you but a hasty sketch; of some of the most important figures in it, not even a sketch. I cannot conceive to myself, and therefore cannot draw for you, the famous Belisarius. Was he really the strange compound of strength and weakness which Procopius, and after him Gibbon, represent him?---a caricature, for good and evil, of our own famous Marlborough? You must read and judge for yourselves. I cannot, at least as yet, offer you any solution of the enigma.

Still less can I conceive to myself Narses, living till his grey hairs in the effeminate intrigues of the harem, and then springing forth a general; the Warrior Eunuch; the misanthrope avenging his great wrong upon all mankind in bloody battle-fields; dark of counsel, and terrible of execution; him to whom in after years the Empress Sophia sent word that he was more fit to spin among maids than to command armies, and he answered, that he would spin her such a thread as she could not unravel; and kept his word (as legends say) by inviting the Lombards into Italy.

Least of all can I sketch Justinian the Great, the half-Teuton peasant, whom his uncle Justin sent for out of the Dardanian hills, to make him a demigod upon earth. Me whispered in after years that he was born of a demon, a demon himself, passing whole days without food, wandering up and down his palace corridors all night, resolving dark things, and labouring all day with Herculean force to carry them out. No wonder he was thought to be a demon, wedded to a demon-wife. The man is unfathomable, inexplicable;---marrying deliberately the wickedest of all women, plainly not for mere beauty's sake, but possibly because he saw in her a congenial intellect;---faithful and loving to her and she to him, amid all the crimes of their following years; ---pious with exceeding devotion and orthodoxy, and yet with a piety utterly divorced from, unconscious of, the commonest morality;---discerning and using the greatest men, Belisarius and Narses for example, and throwing them away again, surely not in weak caprice, whenever they served him too well;---conquering Persians, Vandals, Goths; all but re-conquering, in fact, the carcase Roman Empire;---and then trying (with a deep discernment of the value of Roman law) to put a galvanic life into the carcase by codifying that law.

In whatever work I find this man, during his long life, he is to me inexplicable. Louis XI of France is the man most like Justinian whom I know, but he, too, is a man not to be fathomed by me. All the facts about Justinian you will find in Gibbon. I have no theory by which to arrange and explain them, and therefore can tell you no more than Gibbon does.

So to this Gothic war; which, you must remember, became possible for Justinian by Belisarius' having just destroyed the Vandals out of Africa. It began by Belisarius invading the south of Italy. Witigis was elected war-king of the Goths, 'the man of witty counsels,' who did not fulfil his name; while Theodatus (Theod-aht 'esteemed by the people' as his name meant) had fallen into utter disesteem, after some last villainy about money; had been struck down in the road by the man he had injured; and there had his throat cut, 'resupinus instar victimæ jugulatus.'

He had consulted a Jew diviner just before, who had given him a warning. Thirty pigs, signifying the unclean Gentiles, the Jew shut up in three sties; naming ten Goths, ten Romans, and ten Imperialists of Belisarius' army, and left them to starve. At the end they found dead all the Goths but two, hardly any of the Imperialists, and half the Romans: but the five Roman pigs who were left had lost their bristles---bare to the skin, as the event proved.

After that Theodatus had no heart to fight, and ended his dog's life by a dog's death, as we have seen.

Note also this, that there was a general feeling of coming ruin; that there were quaint signs and omens. We have heard of the pigs which warned the Goths. Here is another. There was a Mosaic picture of Theodoric at Naples; it had been crumbling to pieces at intervals, and every fresh downfall had marked the death of an Amal. Now the last remains went down, to the very feet, and the Romans believed that it foretold the end of the Amal dynasty. There was a Sibylline oracle too;

'Quintili mense Roma nihil Geticum metuet.'

Here, too, we find the last trace of heathenism, of that political mythology which had so inextricably interwoven itself with the life and history of the city. The shrine of Janus was still standing, all of bronze, only just large enough, Procopius says, to contain the bronze image of Janus Bifrons. The gates, during Christian centuries, had never been opened, even in war time. Now people went by night, and tried to force them open: but hardly succeeded.

Belisarius garrisoned Rome, and the Goths attacked it, but in vain. You must read the story of that famous siege in the really brilliant pages of old Procopius, the last good historian of the old world.

Moreover, and this is the most important, Belisarius raised the native population against the Goths. As he had done in Africa, when in one short campaign he utterly destroyed the now effeminate aristocracy of the Vandals, so he did in Italy. By real justice and kindness; by proclaiming himself the deliverer of the conquered from the yoke of foreign tyrants, he isolated the slave-holding aristrocracy of the Goths from the mass of the inhabitants of Italy.

Belisarius and the Goths met, and the Goths conquered. But to take Rome was beyond their power; and after that a long miserable war struggled and wrangled up and down over the wretched land; city after city was taken and destroyed, now by Roman, now by Goth. The lands lay waste, the people disappeared in tens of thousands. All great Dietrich's work of thirty years was trampled into mud.

There were horrible sieges and destructions by both parties;---sack of Milan by Goths, sack of Rimini and the country round by Romans; horrors of famine at Auximum; two women who kept an inn, killing and eating seventeen men, till the eighteenth discovered the trap and killed them. Everywhere, as I say, good Dietrich's work of thirty years trampled into gory mud.

Then Theudebert and his false Franks came down to see what they could get; all (save a few knights round the king) on foot, without bow or lance; but armed with sword, shield, and heavy short-handled double-edged francisc, or battle-axe. At the bridge over the Ticinus they (nominal Catholics) sacrificed Gothic women and children with horrid rites, fought alike Goths and Romans, lost a third of their army by dysentery, and went home again.

At last, after more horrors, Vitigis and his Goths were driven into Ravenna. Justinian treated for peace; and then followed a strange peripeteia, which we have, happily, from an eye-witness, Procopius himself. The Roman generals outside confessed their chance of success hopeless. The Goths inside, tired of the slow Vitigis, send out to the great Belisarius, Will he be their king? King over them there in Italy? He promised, meaning to break his promise; and to the astonishment and delight of the Romans, the simple and honest barbarians opened the gates of Ravenna, and let in him and his Romans, to find themselves betrayed and enslaved. 'When I saw our troops march in,' says Procopius, 'I felt it was God's doing, so to turn their minds. The Goths,' he says, 'were far superior in numbers and in strength; and their women who had fancied these Romans to be mighty men of valour, spit in the faces of their huge husbands, and pointing to the little Romans, reproached them with having surrendered to such things as that.' But the folly was committed. Belisarius carried them away captive to Constantinople, and so ended the first act of the Gothic war.

In the moment of victory the envy of the Byzantine court undid all that it had done. Belisarius returned with his captives to Rome, not for a triumph, but for a disgrace; and Italy was left open to the Goths, if they had men and heart to rise once more.

And they did rise. Among the remnant of the race was left a hero, Totila, by name; ---a Teuton of the ancient stamp. Totilas, 'free from death'---'the deathless one,' they say his name means. Under him the nation rose once more as out of the ground.

A Teuton of the ancient stamp he was, just and merciful exceedingly. Take but two instances of him, and know the man by them. He retook Naples. The Romans within were starving. He fed them; but lest they should die of the sudden repletion, he kept them in by guards at each gate, and fed them up more and more each day, till it was safe to let them out, to find food for themselves in the country. A Roman came to complain that a Goth had violated his daughter. He shall die, said Totila. He shall not die, said the Goths. He was a valiant hero. They came clamouring to the king. He answered them quietly and firmly. They may choose to-day, whether to let this man go unpunished, or to save the Gothic nation and win the victory. Do they not recollect how at the beginning of the war, they had brave soldiers, famous generals, countless treasures, horses, weapons, and all the forts of Italy? And yet under Theodatus, a man who loved gold better than justice, they had so angered God by their unrighteous lives, that---what had happened they knew but too well. Now God had seemed to begun a new course with them. They must begin a new course with him; and justice was the only path. As for the man's being a valiant hero: let them know that the unjust and the ravisher were never brave in fight; but that according to a man's life, such was his luck in battle.

His noble words came all but true. The feeble generals who were filling Belisarius's place were beaten one by one, and almost all Italy was reconquered. Belisarius had to be sent back again to Italy: but the envy, whether of Justinian himself, or of the two wicked women who ruled his court, allowed him so small a force that he could do nothing.

 Totila and the Goths came down once more to Rome. Belisarius in agony sent for reinforcements, and goth them; but too late. He could not relieve Rome. The Goths had massed themselves round the city, and Belisarius, having got to Ostia (Portus) at the Tiber's mouth, could get no further. This was the last woe; the actual death-agony of ancient Rome. The famine grew and grew. The wretched Romans cried to Bessas and his garrison, either to feed them or to kill them out of their misery. They would do neither. They could hardly at last feed themselves. The Romans ate nettles off the ruins, and worse things still. There was not a dog or a rat left. They even killed themselves. One father of five children could bear no longer their cries for food. He wrapped his head in his mantle, and sprang into the Tiber, while the children looked on. The survivors wandered about like spectres, brown with hunger, and dropped dead with half-chewed nettles between their lips. To this, says Procopius, had fortune brought the Roman senate and people. Nay, not fortune, but wickedness. They had wished to play at being free, while themselves were the slaves of sin.

And still Belisarius was coming,---and still he did not come. He was forcing his way up the Tiber; he had broken Totila's chain, burnt a tower full of Goths, and the city was on the point of being relieved, when one Isaac made a fool of himself, and was taken by the Goths. Belisarius fancied that Portus, his base of operations, with all his supplies, and Antonia, the worthless wife on whom he doted, were gone. He lost his head, was beaten terribly, fell back on Ostia, and then the end came. Isaurians from within helped in Goths by night. The Asinarian gate was opened, and Rome was in the hands of the Goths.

And what was left? What of all the pomp and glory, the spoils of the world, the millions of inhabitants?

Five or six senators, who had taken refuge in St. Peter's, and some five hundred of the plebs; Pope Pelagius crouching at Totila's feet, and crying for mercy; and Rusticiana, daughter of Symmachus, Boethius' widow, with other noble women, in slaves' rags, knocking without shame at door after door to beg a bit of bread. And that was what was left of Rome.

Gentlemen, I make no comment. I know no more awful page in the history of Europe. Through such facts as these God speaks. Let man be silent; and look on in fear and trembling, knowing that it was written of old time---The wages of sin are death.

The Goths wanted to kill Rusticiana. She had sent money to the Roman generals; she had thrown down Dietrich's statues, in revenge for the death of her father and her husband. Totila would not let them touch her. Neither maid, wife, nor widow, says Procopius, was the worse for any Goth.

 Next day he called the heroes together. He is going to tell them the old tale, he says---How in Vitigis' time at Ravenna, 7000 Greeks had conquered and robbed of kingdom and liberty 200,000 rich and well-armed Goths. And now that they were raw levies, few, naked, wretched, they had conquered more than 20,000 of the enemy. And why? Because of old they had looked to everything rather than to justice; they had sinned against each other and the Romans. Therefore they must choose, and be just men henceforth, and have God with them, or unjust, and have God against them.

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