Flavius Belisarius: The African campaign – The first Italian campaign

After the Persians had drawn back, foiled in their attempt to conquer Mesopotamia, and after the suppression of the “Nika” sedition had cowed the unruly populace of Constantinople, Justinian found himself at last free, and was able to take in hand his great scheme for the reconquest of the lost provinces of the empire.

Justinian declared war on King Gelimer the moment that he had made peace with Persia, using as his casus belli, not a definite re-assertion of the claim of the empire over Africa—for such language would have provoked the rulers of Italy and Spain to join the Vandals, but the fact that Gelimer had wrongfully deposed Hilderic, the Emperor’s ally. In July, 533, Belisarius, who was now at the height of his favour for his successful suppression of the “Nika” rioters, sailed from the Bosphorus with an army of 10,000 foot and 5,000 horse. He was accompanied, luckily for history, by his secretary, Procopius, a very capable writer, who has left a full account of his master’s campaigns. Belisarius landed at Tripoli, at the extreme eastern limit of the Vandal power. The town was at once betrayed to him by its Roman inhabitants. From thence he advanced cautiously along the coast, meeting with no opposition; for the incapable Gelimer had been caught unprepared, and was still engaged in calling in his scattered warriors. It was not till he had approached within ten miles of Carthage that Belisarius was attacked by the Vandals. After a hard struggle he defeated them, and the city fell into his hands next day. The provincials were delighted at the rout of their masters, and welcomed the imperial army with joy; there was neither riot nor pillage, and Carthage had not the aspect of a conquered town.

Belisarius    Flavius Belisarius

Calling up his last reserves, Gelimer made one more attempt to try the fortunes of war. He advanced on Carthage, and was met by Belisarius at Tricameron, on the road to Bulla. Again the day went against him; his army broke up, his last fortresses threw open their gates, and there was an end of the Vandal kingdom. It had existed just 104 years, since Genseric entered Africa in A.D. 429.

The triumphal entry of Belisarius into Constantinople with his captives and his spoils, encouraged Justinian to order instant preparations for an attack on the second German kingdom, on his western frontier. He declared war on the wretched King Theodahat in the summer of A.D. 435, using as his pretext the murder of Queen Amalasuntha, whom her ungrateful spouse had first imprisoned and then strangled within a year of their marriage. The king of the Goths, whether he was conscience-stricken or merely cowardly, showed the greatest terror at the declaration of war. He even wrote to Constantinople offering to resign his crown, if the Emperor would guarantee his life and his private property. Meanwhile he consulted sooth-sayers and magicians about his prospects, for he was as superstitious as he was incompetent.

While Theodahat was busying himself with portents, actual war had broken out on the Illyrian frontier between the Goths and the governor of Dalmatia. There was no use in making further offers to Justinian, and the king of Italy had to face the situation as best he could.

In the summer of 535, Belisarius landed in Sicily, with an even smaller army than had been given him to conquer Africa—only 3,000 Roman troops, all Isaurians, and 4,500 barbarian auxiliaries of different sorts. Belisarius first campaign was as fortunate as had been that which he had waged against Gelimer. All the Sicilian towns threw open their gates except Palermo, where there was a considerable Gothic garrison, and Palermo fell after a short siege. In six months the whole island was in the hands of Belisarius.

Theodahat seemed incapable of defending himself; he fell into a condition of abject helplessness, which so provoked his warlike subjects, that when the news came that Belisarius had crossed over into Italy and taken Rhegium, they rose and slew him. In his stead the army of the Goths elected as their king Witiges, a middle-aged warrior, well known for personal courage and integrity, but quite incompetent to face the impending storm.

After the fall of Rhegium, Belisarius marched rapidly on Naples, meeting no opposition; for the Goths were very thinly scattered through Southern Italy, and had not even enough men to garrison the Lucanian and Calabrian fortresses. Naples was taken by surprise, the Imperialists finding their way within the walls by crawling up a disused aqueduct. After this important conquest, Belisarius made for Rome, though his forces were reduced to a mere handful by the necessity of leaving garrisons in his late conquests. King Witiges made no effort to obstruct his approach. He had received news that the Franks were threatening an evasion of Northern Italy, and went north to oppose an imaginary danger in the Alps, when he should have been defending the line of the Tiber. Having staved off the danger of a Frankish war by ceding Provence to King Theuderic, Witiges turned back, only to learn that Rome was now in the hands of the enemy. The troops of Leudaris, the Gothic general, who had been left with 4,000 men to defend the city, had been struck with panic at the approach of Belisarius, and were cowardly and idiotic enough to evacuate it without striking a blow. Five thousand men had sufficed to seize the ancient capital of the world! [December, 536.]

Next spring King Witiges came down with the main army of the Goths—more than 100,000 strong—and laid siege to Rome. The defence of the town by Belisarius and his very inadequate garrison forms the most interesting episode in the Italian war. For more than a year the Ostrogoths lay before its walls, essaying every device to force an entry. They tried open storm; they endeavoured to bribe traitors within the city; they strove to creep along the bed of a disused aqueduct, as Belisarius had done a year before at Naples. All was in vain, though the besiegers outnumbered the garrison twenty-fold, and exposed their lives with the same recklessness that their ancestors had shown in the invasion of the empire a hundred years back. The scene best remembered in the siege was the simultaneous assault on five points in the wall, on the 21st of March, 537. Three of the attacks were beaten back with ease; but near the Praenestine Gate, at the south-east of the city, one storming party actually forced its way within the walls, and had to be beaten out by sheer hard fighting ; and at the mausoleum of Hadrian, on the north-west, another spirited combat took place. Hadrian’s tomb—a great quadrangular structure of white marble, 300 feet square and 85 feet high—was surmounted by one of the most magnificent collections of statuary in ancient Rome, including four great equestrian statues of emperors at its corners. The Goths, with their ladders, swarmed at the foot of the tomb in such numbers, that the arrows and darts of the defenders were insufficient to beat them back. Then, as a last resource, the Imperialists tore down the scores of statues which adorned the mausoleum, and crushed the mass of assailants beneath a rain of marble fragments. Two famous antiques, that form the pride of modern galleries—the “Dancing Faun” at Florence, and the “Barberini Faun” at Munich—were found, a thousand years later, buried in the ditch of the tomb of Hadrian, and must have been among the missiles employed against the Goths. Thorough usage which they then received proved the means of preserving them for the admiration of the modern world.

A year and nine days after he had formed the siege of Rome, the unlucky Witiges had to abandon it. His army, reduced by sword and famine, had given up all hope of success, and news had just arrived that the Imperialists had launched a new army -against Ravenna, the Gothic capital. Belisarius, indeed, had just received a reinforcement of 6,000 or 7,000 men, and had wisely sent a considerable force, under an officer named John, to fall on the Adriatic coast.

The scene of the war was now transported further to the north; but its character still remained the same. The Romans gained territory, the Goths lost it. Firmly fixed at Ancona and Rimini and Osimo, Belisarius gradually forced his way nearer to Ravenna, and, in A.D. 540 laid siege to it. Witiges, blockaded by Belisarius in his capital, made no such skilful defence as did his rival at Rome three years before. To add to his troubles, the Franks came down into Northern Italy, and threatened to conquer the valley of the Po, the last Gothic stronghold. Witiges then made proposals for submission; but Belisarius refused to grant any terms other than unconditional surrender, though his master Justinian was ready to acknowledge Witiges as vassal-king in Trans-Padane Italy. Famine drove Ravenna to open its gates, and the Goths, enraged at their imbecile king, and struck with admiration for the courage and generosity of Belisarius, offered to make their conqueror Emperor of the West. The loyal general refused; but bade the Goths disperse each to his home, and dwell peaceably for the future as subjects of the empire. [May, 540 A.D.] He himself, taking the great Gothic treasure-hoard from the palace of Theodoric, and the captive Witiges, sailed for Constantinople, and laid his trophies at his master’s feet.

Italy now seemed even as Africa; only Pavia and Verona were still held by Gothic garrisons.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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