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7-08-2015, 20:37

The gothic war: early successes

Justinian can only have been delighted at Belisarius’ triumph in 533, and his thoughts naturally turned to a more ambitious project. Imperial legislation of April 535 referred to the recovery of Africa and the imposition of servitude on the Vandals, but added that the emperor now hoped to receive from God things greater than these.14 As it happened, it was a propitious time to intervene in Italy. Following the death of Theoderic in 526, his successors had found it hard to step into his shoes, and both his daughter, Amalasuntha, and the man who came to be her rival, Theoderic’s nephew Theodahad, entered into negotiations with the emperor. In the spring of 535 Amalasuntha was murdered, so providing a casus belli.15 The reason Justinian gave for intervening in Italy was different from that provided for the war in Africa; whereas the Vandals had been attacked for their outrageous treatment of the catholic provincials, theOstrogoths were assaulted because of the weakness of their claim to hold Italy. They had done well, it was now asserted, to defeat the tyrant Odovacer, but their proper course should have been then to hand Italy back to the empire, rather than keeping it for themselves. As we have seen, the ending of the line of emperors in the west in 476 had not escaped notice in Constantinople. The initial attack on Italy took place from two directions.16 One army occupied Dalmatia, which thereafter remained under almost unbroken imperial control, while Belisarius, at the head of a small force, easily gained control of Sicily in 535. From there he could launch an attack on the Italian mainland which the resources of the Goths were ill-equipped to deal with, concentrated as they were in the north. Theodahad, by then sole ruler, offered to resign his kingdom, a proposal he subsequently retracted, and early in 536 Pope Agapetus arrived in Constantinople to hold discussions with Justinian on Theodahad’s behalf. But the emperor was in no mood for discussion. A law of 536 refers to the regaining of territory from one ocean to the other, an ambition not hinted at in earlier sources, which indicates that imperial designs had become larger.17 In the same year Belisarius crossed to the Italian mainland. The Goths, discontented at Theodahad’s failure to lead effectively, raised on their shields Witigis, a man of modest family but of proven fighting ability, and Theodahad was murdered. The new king left Rome for Ravenna, taking hostages and an oath of loyalty from Pope Silverius, who had succeeded Agapetus, and on 9 or 10 December 536 Belisarius occupied the eternal city. In the following February a large Gothic force arrived and laid siege to it, cutting the aqueducts which supplied the city with water and ravaging Christian burial grounds outside the walls, but to no avail. InMarch 538Witigis withdrew. Fighting spread in the north of Italy, and the Byzantines enjoyed the initiative, gaining much territory in 539. The Goths counter-attacked in Liguria and razed the great city of Milan to the ground; we are told that the men were killed and the women handed over to the Burgundians. The Frankish king Theudebert intervened, seeking to benefit no one but himself, and by the end of 539 the Gothic capital, Ravenna, was besieged by imperial forces. In his hour of needWitigis asked Khusro I, the shah of Persia, to break the treaty he had concluded with Justinian in 532 and distract him in the east, a ploy which made the emperor incline towards offering the Goths generous terms.18 But Belisarius was confident, and when theGoths offered to accept him as ‘emperor of the west’, an office obviously prejudicial to Justinian’s position, he feigned consent.19 In May 540 he marched into Ravenna, but refused to honour his agreement with theGoths. Before long he returned to Constantinople, taking with himWitigis and his wifeMatasuentha, various Gothic notables and at least part of the Gothic treasure. The reception he received from Justinian was cool, the emperor possibly having been disquieted by the title his general had pretended to be willing to accept. Nevertheless in 540 the mighty state founded by Theoderic had apparently collapsed. The historian Procopius observed that when Belisarius entered Rome in 536, ‘Rome became subject to the Romans again after a space of sixty years’,20 and one gains the impression of a smooth imposition of Byzantine power. In March 537 Pope Silverius, who had owed his appointment to Theodahad and had subsequently sworn loyalty to Witigis, was deposed by Belisarius and replaced by Vigilius, a prot´eg´e of the powerful empress, Theodora. By early 537 Belisarius had appointed one Fidelis praetorian prefect, and by the end of the year a comes sancti patrimonii per Italiam, an official with competence in financial matters, seems to have been functioning in the conquered lands. Fidelis’ tenure of the prefecture would have overlapped with the end of that of Cassiodorus, who had been appointed to the post by the Goths in 533 and whose last letters on behalf of Witigis were written towards the end of 537. By the end of 539 a scribe at Ravenna employed in a document the formula chi-mu-gamma, in accordance with Byzantine practice.21 As early as 535 there had been signs in Rome of discontent with the Gothic government, and the people of Italy, quickly putting aside positive memories they may have had of the reign of Theoderic, accepted the advent of imperial power. In 540 it must have seemed that the Gothic war, like the Vandal war, had come to a wished-for conclusion. In Constantinople, Justinian had a mosaic placed in the ceiling of the Bronze Gate of the palace, showing Belisarius winning victories for him. In the middle of the composition stood Justinian and Theodora, the kings of the Vandals and Goths approaching them as prisoners, and around them the members of the senate who ‘rejoice and smile as they bestow on the emperor honours equal to those of God, because of the magnitude of his achievements’.22 It was the optimism of a golden moment, such as would never again be possible.