The Roman and the Teuton: The Nemesis of the Goths

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Editor’s note: This is the sixth of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).

(Go back to Lecture V: Dietrich’s End)


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.  Men 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 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 aristocracy 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 is 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 have avenged himself on them enough.  He had 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 got 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 they 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.

Then he sends for the wretched remnant of the senators and tells them the plain truth:—How the great Dietrich and his successors had heaped them with honour and wealth; and how they had returned his benefits by bringing in the Greeks.  And what had they gained by changing Dietrich for Justinian?  Logothetes, who forced them by blows to pay up the money which they had already paid to their Gothic rulers; and revenue exacted alike in war and in peace.  Slaves they deserve to be; and slaves they shall be henceforth.

Then he sends to Justinian.  He shall withdraw his army from Italy, and make peace with him.  He will be his ally and his son in arms, as Dietrich had been to the Emperors before him, or if not, he will kill the senate, destroy Rome, and march into Illyricum.

Justinian leaves it to Belisarius.

Then Totila begins to destroy Rome.  He batters down the walls, he is ready to burn the town.  He will turn the evil place into a sheep-pasture.  Belisarius flatters and cajoles him from his purpose, and he marches away with all his captives, leaving not a living soul in Rome.

But Totila shews himself a general unable to cope with that great tactician.  He divides his forces, and allows Belisarius to start out of Ostia and fortify himself in Rome.  The Goths are furious at his rashness: but it is too late, and the war begins again, up and down the wretched land, till Belisarius is recalled by some fresh court intrigue of his wicked wife, and another and even more terrible enemy appears on the field, Narses the eunuch, avenging his wrong upon his fellow-men by cunning and courage almost preternatural.  He comes upon them with a mighty host: but not of Romans alone.  He has gathered the Teuton tribes;—Herules, the descendants probably of Odoacer’s confederates; Gepids, who have a long blood-feud against the Goths; and most terrible of all, Alboin with his five thousand more Burgundians, of whom you will hear enough hereafter.  We read even of multitudes of Huns, and even of Persian deserters from the Chosroo.  But Narses’ policy is the old Roman one—Teuton must destroy Teuton.  And it succeeds.

In spite of some trouble with the Franks, who are holding Venetia, he marches down victorious through the wasted land, and Totila marches to meet him in the Apennines.  The hero makes his last speech.  He says, ‘There will be no need to talk henceforth.  This day will end the war.  They are not to fear these hired Huns, Herules, Lombards, fighting for money.  Let them hold together like desperate men.’  So they fight it out.  The Goths depending entirely on the lance, the Romans on a due use of every kind of weapon.  The tremendous charge of the Gothic knights is stopped by showers of Hun and Herule arrows, and they roll back again and again in disorder on the foot: but in spite of the far superior numbers of the Romans, it is not till nightfall that Narses orders a general advance of his line.  The Goths try one last charge; but appalled by the numbers of the enemy, break up, and, falling back on the foot, throw them into confusion, and all is lost.

The foot are cut down flying.  The knights ride for their lives.  Totila and five horsemen are caught up by Asbad the Gepid chief.  Asbad puts his lance in rest, not knowing who was before him.  ‘Dog,’ cries Totila’s page, ‘wilt thou strike thy lord?’  But it is too late.  Asbad’s lance goes through his back, and he drops on his horse’s neck.  Scipwar (Shipward) the Goth wounds Asbad, and falls wounded himself.  The rest carry off Totila.  He dies that night, after reigning eleven stormy years.

The Goths flee across the Po.  There is one more struggle for life, and one more hero left.  Teia by name, ‘the slow one,’ slow, but strong.  He shall be king now.  They lift him on the shield, and gather round him desperate, but determined to die hard.  He finds the treasure of Totila, hid in Pisa.  He sends to Theudebald and his Franks.  Will they help him against the Roman, and they shall have the treasure; the last remnant of the Nibelungen hoard.  No.  The Luegenfelden will not come.  They will stand by and see the butchery, on the chance of getting all Italy for themselves.  Narses storms Rome—or rather a little part of it round Hadrian’s Mole, which the Goths had fortified; and the Goths escape down into Campania, mad with rage.

That victory of Narses, says Procopius, brought only a more dreadful destruction on the Roman senate and people.  The Goths, as they go down, murder every Roman they meet.  The day of grace which Totila had given them is over.  The Teutons in Narses’ army do much the same.  What matter to Burgunds and Herules who was who, provided they had any thing to be plundered of?  Totila has allowed many Roman senators to live in Campania.  They hear that Narses has taken Rome, they begin to flock to the ghastly ruin.  Perhaps there will be once again a phantom senate, phantom consuls, under the Romani nominis umbram.  The Goths catch them, and kill them to a man.  And there is an end of the Senatus Populusque Romanus.

The end is near now.  And yet these terrible Goths cannot be killed out of the way.  On the slopes of Vesuvius, by Nuceria, they fortify a camp; and as long as they are masters of the neighbouring sea, for two months they keep Narses at bay.  At last he brings up an innumerable fleet, cuts off their supplies; and then the end comes.  The Goths will die like desperate men on foot.  They burst out of camp, turn their horses loose, after the fashion of German knights—One hears of the fashion again and again in the middle age,—and rush upon the enemy in deep solid column.  The Romans have hardly time to form some sort of line; and then not the real Romans, I presume, but the Burgunds and Gepids, turn their horses loose like the Goths.  There is no need for tactics; the fight is hand to hand; every man, says Procopius, rushing at the man nearest him.

For a third of the day Teia fights in front, sheltered by his long pavisse, stabbing with a mighty lance at the mob which makes at him, as dogs at a boar at bay.  Procopius is awed by the man.  Most probably he saw him with his own eyes.  Second in valour, he says, to none of the Heroes.

Again and again his shield is full of darts.  Without moving a foot, without turning an inch right or left, says Procopius, he catches another from his shield-bearer, and fights on.  At last he has twelve lances in his shield, and cannot move it: coolly he calls for a fresh one, as if he were fixed to the soil, thrusts back the enemy with his left hand, and stabs at them with his right.  But his time is come.  As he shifts his shield for a moment his chest is exposed, and a javelin is through him.  And so ends the last hero of the East Goths.  They put his head upon a pole, and carry it round the lines to frighten the Goths.  The Goths are long past frightening.

All day long, and all the next day, did the Germans fight on, Burgund and Gepid against Goth, neither giving nor taking quarter, each man dying where he stood, till human strength could bear up no longer, while Narses sat by, like an ugly Troll as he was, smiling to see the Teuton slay the Teuton, for the sake of their common enemy.  Then the Goths sent down to Narses.  They were fighting against God.  They would give in, and go their ways peaceably, and live with some other Teuton nations after their own laws.  They had had enough of Italy, poor fellows, and of the Nibelungen hoard.  Only Narses, that they might buy food on the journey back, must let them have their money, which he had taken in various towns of Italy.

Narses agreed.  There was no use fighting more with desperate men.  They should go in peace.  And he kept his faith with them.  Perhaps he dared not break it.  He let them go, like a wounded lion crawling away from the hunter, up through Italy, and over the Po, to vanish.  They and their name became absorbed in other nations, and history knows the East Goths no more.

So perished, by their own sins, a noble nation; and in perishing, destroyed utterly the Roman people.  After war and famine followed as usual dreadful pestilence, and Italy lay waste for years.  Henceforth the Italian population was not Roman, but a mixture of all races, with a most powerful, but an entirely new type of character.  Rome was no more Senatorial, but Papal.

And why did these Goths perish, in spite of all their valour and patriotism, at the hands of mercenaries?

They were enervated, no doubt, as the Vandals had been in Africa, by the luxurious southern climate, with its gardens, palaces, and wines.  But I have indicated a stronger reason already:—they perished because they were a slave-holding aristocracy.

We must not blame them.  All men then held slaves: but the original sin was their ruin, though they knew it not.  It helped, doubtless, to debauch them; to tempt them to the indulgence of those fierce and greedy passions, which must, in the long run, lower the morality of slaveholders; and which, as Totila told them, had drawn down on them the anger of heaven.  But more; though they reformed their morals, and that nobly, under the stern teaching of affliction, that could not save them.  They were ruined by the inherent weakness of all slaveholding states; the very weakness which had ruined, in past years, the Roman Empire.  They had no middle class, who could keep up their supplies, by exercising for them during war the arts of peace.  They had no lower class, whom they dare entrust with arms, and from whom they might recruit their hosts.  They could not call a whole population into the field, and when beaten in that field, carry on, as Britain would when invaded, a guerilla warfare from wood to wood, and hedge to hedge, as long as a coign of vantage-ground was left.  They found themselves a small army of gentlemen, chivalrous and valiant, as slaveholders of our race have always been; but lessening day by day from battle and disease, with no means of recruiting their numbers; while below them and apart from them lay the great mass of the population, helpless, unarmed, degraded, ready to side with any or every one who would give them bread, or let them earn it for themselves (for slaves must eat, even though their masters starve), and careless of, if not even hostile to, their masters’ interests, the moment those masters were gone to the wars.

In such a case, nothing was before them, save certain defeat at last by an enemy who could pour in ever fresh troops of mercenaries, and who had the command of the seas. I may seem to be describing the case of a modern and just as valiant and noble a people.  I do not mention its name.  The parallel, I fear, is too complete, not to have already suggested itself to you.

Continue to Lecture VII: Paulus Diaconus

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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