HBR The Gothic War Continues – Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 41 Part 4

Belisarius_mosaicThe Goths were far from out of the running and although they had pulled back from Rome they still held plenty of territory in northern Italy, had a very strong base in Ravenna and were mobile and numerous enough to counterattack at any time.

And in fact there was a prize in the grasp of the Goths that decisive action could have denied them. A small force of Byzantines had been invited to take over Milan by its citizens. Milan was at this time the second biggest city in Italy. If you’re interested, today it is the biggest. The Goths had laid siege to the city and recruited allies from the Franks and Burgundians to help. The garrison was now hopelessly outnumbered and surrendered in return for their lives being spared. The inhabitants were not covered by the agreement and many were killed when the barbarians arrived. Tough times.

There were forces available that could have prevented this from happening, but dissensions in the command meant that they weren’t deployed effectively. The two generals disagreed on exactly what should be done and could not agree upon an effective joint strategy.

Luckily lessons were learned. Narses was recalled and Belisarius put in overall control. He was now able to go on the offensive and started manoeuvres to clear a path to the Gothic capital at Ravenna. The Goths were still in a strong position, but they were now facing a more determined attack than at any time since they first invaded the peninsula. They tried some diplomacy seeking alliances with the Franks and the Persians. A Persian attack was their best hope as it would inevitably lead to Belisarius heading east. But it was a long shot. The Franks offered short term muscle, and were not too distant. This was the sort of project that reflected their skill set and a Frankish army was soon on the way.

So the Franks turned up in the Po valley just as a major engagement was underway between the Goths and the Byzantines. But to the Goth’s surprise the Franks attacked them rather than joining them. The Goths were quickly defeated, and the Franks then attacked the Byzantines and defeated them as well. This intervention could easily have swayed the whole campaign – and indeed the borders of modern Europe – but the Frankish army quickly melted away after an outbreak of dysentery. Fighting in the ancient world always had an element of the random about it – but this particular episode seems especially so.

The Byzantines were able to capitalise on the confusion caused by the rather bizarre intervention of the Franks, and Belisarius, after rescuing a Byzantine contingent besieged in Rimini, was soon able to lay siege to Ravenna, crucially with sea support. The Goths had taken over from the last emperors the practice of using Ravenna as the capital But Ravenna was a tough location to take by force – that being the reason it was selected as the imperial capital in the first place. It was surrounded by morasses that were impassable. The situation was quite likely to turn into a stalemate. Negotiations started, but didn’t make much progress, though it wasn’t clear that Belisarius was actually taking them seriously. He affected to be confident of taking the city. You’d have thought that they would have learnt that Belisarius was adept at mind games from the siege of Rome, but he was able to outwit the Goths again.

Justinian now intervened by offering quite lenient terms. Italy would be divided between the Goths and the Byzantines along the line of the Po. This was quite generous to a foe that had been consistently beaten back in the field. Belisarius however – who had not been consulted on the matter – decided he could do better.

Having first taken the precaution of getting all his officers to sign a document disagreeing with what he was doing, he decided not to accept Justinian’s proposal. Belisarius was taking all the risk on his own shoulders. He insisted to the Goths that he was determined to fight to the end and was going to continue the battle until they surrendered. He then engaged in a subterfuge. The Goths were happy to support Belisarius if he were to declare himself the emperor of a renewed western Roman empire. This ruse enabled him to enter the strongly defended city without a fight.

Justinian’s suspicious nature was bound to wonder if this was a double bluff and that he had just lost all his newly won territory and gained a rival. He immediately recalled Belisarius. It was a confirmation of his loyalty that he obeyed the command. But the conquest of Italy was nearly complete. The Gothic king was in chains and cities that had not been involved in the fighting were sending in their acknowledgements of imperial authority. It was basically just a few mopping up operations left. What could go wrong?

We’ll find out what could go wrong in a few episodes time. In the meantime, Belisarius was sent to the east to defend the borders against the Persians. He was reasonably successful in this, though he failed to win the big prize which would have been the recapture of Nisibus. It was a short campaign. It wasn’t the end of the military exploits of Belisarius, but from now on he was effectively in retirement with just a few more not hugely significant campaigns. So what do we make of him? He was a hero in his own time loved by the people of Constantinople. His exploits spoke for themselves. The Persians held back, the Vandals eliminated and the Goths humbled. No Roman general since Trajan had conquered so much territory. He was also tall, athletic and good looking. He had often been at the heart of the fighting in hand to hand contact with the enemy. So there was no doubting his personal courage either.

As is often the way with these things, he was a modest person and was respectful to people he met. All in all, his was the perfect public career for his time.

His private life was however another matter altogether. We know a great deal about his campaigns because by great good fortune a member of his staff was Procopius, a very effective historian, and much of the detail in Gibbon’s account comes from the history written by Procopius. Procopius was however also a tremendous gossip. And he wrote a not for publication work notorious as the Secret History.

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