Despite all his efforts it was still very much touch and go as to whether the Romans would be able to keep Rome. The Byzantine position in Italy was still highly precarious. Holding Rome depended on keeping out the Goths who had rapidly regrouped and were now laying siege. There had been a change in leadership too, with the rather indecisive Theodatus by replaced by the much more aggressive Witiges. The Goths were getting back into form as barbarian invaders and finally pulling together as a coherent force.
It is very easy to regard this whole episode in a very romantic light. Here is a Roman general fighting heroically against the odds to hold the city of his forefathers against the barbarians who had usurped it. Some of the dialogue between Belisarius and the attackers fits nicely into this narrative. He points out that the city does not belong to them and they cannot expect him to give it up to them without a fight. What else would befit a man of honour do?
But let’s look at the situation with a bit more realism. The year is 537. It is 60 years since the nominal end of the western empire. The last emperor who had looked like a bit like one was Majorian whose reign had ended in 461. There were plenty of inhabitants of Rome who had never known anything resembling imperial rule. The bread and circuses, which had been funded by the revenues of the provinces and supplied by the granaries of Africa were long gone. The Byzantine troops were in effect occupying a foreign city. And it was a city whose civilian inhabitants would have had a tough enough life without a war going on. And the importunate situation they found themselves in was entirely due to Belisarius turning up and triggering a crisis. There was plenty of scope for civil unrest.
The inhabitants were going to be the first to suffer from any shortages, and although they seem to have generally been supportive the risk of betrayal was very real. Belisarius rotated guards to make any plot to open the city to its attackers harder to arrange. He also had detailed reports made of whether or not people turned up for guard duty regularly. This paranoia about the citizens’ loyalty was well founded, and in fact towards the end of the siege there was a case where a bribe was accepted to get some of the guards drunk and allow the Goths in.
This was not a popular regime supported by the people. The Byzantines were in effect just a slightly more civilised gang of warlords out for their own ends. Nothing makes this clearer than that it was necessary to dispose of the pope. There were some doctrinal issues to justify this,but the real issue was no doubt that the pope had a good working relationship with the Gothic establishment. He would have been obliged to given his position. He would have had no idea that the Byzantines were going to show up. What’s a pontiff to do? But in the circumstances he provided a very credible focus for any move by the population to negotiate a separate peace. He had to go. He was exiled and died shortly afterwards. The precise details of how he came to his end vary from different sources – but a few centuries later he was canonised. So at least his reputation came out of it intact even if he himself didn’t.
The Goths weren’t able to completely cut off the city. They didn’t have the manpower for a complete encirclement. But that wasn’t necessary. Every adult in the city needed a couple of thousand calories a day. Just disrupting supplies was enough to put pressure on them.
And by hampering the water supply they could have an even bigger effect. Water provided not just for drinking and bathing but also powered the mills for the daily task of grinding flour to make bread. This became another front in the battle. Belisarius set up boats in the river to harness its power to drive makeshift flour mills. The Goths sent trees down river to disrupt them. The defenders protected them with chains. This is not perhaps a big deal in the overall scheme of things but I found this example of a technological arms race quite interesting.
That the Goths were only able to apply a partial siege allowed the women and children to be evacuated relieving the pressure on supplies, and reasonable stocks of grain were brought in so the defenders position was not as bad as it might have been.
Belisarius was very active in giving the attackers as much trouble as he could. He sent out cavalry raids which would harry small bands of Goths. The Byzantines were outnumbered but their training and equipment enabled them to run rings around the barbarians. That isn’t a metaphor – it was actually one of their tactics.
The infantry and levies of the citizens were less impressive. An attempt to break the siege by a pitched battle failed largely because of their indiscipline. The Goths were beaten in the early stages of the battle, but the foot soldiers contrary to orders couldn’t resist getting involved in looting the enemy’s camp and broke their formation. This allowed the Goths to counterattack. It was a day that showed in clear relief what the state of play was. Belisarius was a great general with some top notch troops. But he was heavily outnumbered and couldn’t rely on the bulk of his foot soldiers. The Goths had numbers but didn’t have any effective tactics that could get them over the city walls. So it was effectively stalemate.
They did try a few ideas out. They attempted to mimic the hit and run tactics of the Byzantines, But they didn’t have the archery skills, and even if they had they were much less effective against masonry than out in the open country. They tried to get in via an aqueduct. This was something that Belisarius himself had done successfully at Naples earlier in the campaign. But he was careful to guard them. It would have looked a bit remiss if he hadn’t in the circumstances.
And the other problem that the besiegers had was the simple logistic one of keeping a large army supplied and reinforced. The Byzantines were now in control of most of southern Italy and were threatening Gothic positions in the north. The resources available were finite and so the pressure on Rome could not be maintained. And there wasn’t even that much in the way of food to spare either with the disruption to local agriculture and the Byzantines having control of the sea. So with continual losses from Belisarius’s harrying the capabilities and the morale of the attackers was going down steadily.
But it was still important to lift the siege.
Belisarius begged for reinforcements, but was only sent a few boats with a miserly numbers of troops. Nonetheless Belisarius made the most of them and the Goths guarding the port withdrew, perhaps under the impression that either there were more Byzantine forces than there actually were, or fearing that they were a sign that more were on the way. This was capitalised on by Belisarius who opened negotiations where he behaved with the confidence of a man who was in control of the situation. The Goths offered some concessions, including offering to give up their claim to Sicily. Given that this was already firmly under Byzantine control this was not really a great concession. Belisarius offered them Britain in return – the island had not been under Roman control for over a hundred years. The psychology worked. The Goths became even more convinced that the general was in a strong position.
And in a way they were right. A relief column was sent under the command of Narses – I’ll talk about him in a later episode as this one is already sufficiently action packed. But this was sent as independent command not as an addition to Belisarius’s command. Inevitably there were to be tensions between Narses and Belisarius. That might well have been the intention indeed. Justinian would probably prefer two generals sharing the credit than a single hero. But that calculation didn’t really come into play at the moment. The siege of Rome was lifted before Narses arrived. The Goths made one last effort at an all out assault – having failed they were obliged to withdraw before they were surrounded. This wasn’t done especially skilfully and Belisarius was able to inflict some casualties as they retreated. The Goths had to depart via the Milvian Bridge – site of more than one decisive battle in Roman history. When half the army was across Belisarius attacked. Heavy casualties were inflicted.
The keys of Rome were in the hands of Justinian in Constantinople. The Romans were back in Rome. Justinian could allow himself a moment of satisfaction.