Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXIX. Rome Beleaguered
A few days later the guards at the Tiburtine Gate of Rome were hailed, before dawn, by a number of Greek soldiers in the disarray of flight. It was a portion of the garrison of Tibur: the town had been betrayed at sunset, by certain of its inhabitants who watched at one of the gates. The soldiers fought their way through and most of them escaped, and had fled hither through the darkness. Before the end of the day came news more terrible. A peasant from a neighbouring farm declared that all the people of Tibur, men, women, and children, had perished under the Gothic sword, not even ministers of religion having found mercy. And very soon this report, at first doubted, was fully confirmed. The event excited no less astonishment than horror, contrasting as it did with Totila's humanity throughout the war. Some offered as explanation the fact that many Goths lived at Tibur, whose indifference or hostility had angered the king; others surmised that this was Totila's warning after the failure of his proclamation to the Romans. Whatever the meaning of such unwonted severity, its effect upon the Romans was unfavourable to the Gothic cause. Just about this time there happened to arrive two captains, sent by Belisarius with a small troop for the reinforcement of Bessas. The addition to the strength of the garrison was inconsiderable, but it served to put the city in heart once more. The Patricius himself would not be long in coming, and when did the name of Belisarius sound anything but victory?
This confidence increased when Totila, instead of marching upon Rome, as all had expected, turned in the opposite direction, and led his forces across the Apennines. The gates were thrown open; the citizens resumed their ordinary life, saying to each other that all fear of a siege was at an end; and when certain ships from Sicily, having by good luck escaped the Gothic galleys, landed a good supply of corn, there was great exultation. True, only a scanty measure of this food reached the populace, and that chiefly by the good offices of the archdeacon Pelagius, now become as dear to the people as Pope Vigilius was hateful; the granaries were held by Bessas, who first of all fed his soldiers, and then sold at a great price. As winter went on, the Romans suffered much. And with the spring came disquieting news of Totila's successes northwards: the towns of Picenum had yielded to him; he was moving once more in this direction; he captured Spoletium, Assisium, and still came on.
Belisarius, meanwhile, had crossed to Italy, and was encamped at Ravenna. Why, asked the Romans, impatiently, anxiously, did he not march to meet the Gothic king? But the better informed knew that his army was miserably insufficient; they heard of his ceaseless appeals to Byzantium, of his all but despair in finding himself without money, without men, in the land which but a few years ago had seen his glory. Would the Emperor take no thought for Italy, for Rome? Bessas, with granaries well stored, and his palace heaped with Roman riches, shrugged when the nobles spoke disrespectfully of Justinian; his only loyalty was to himself.
At high summertide, the Gothic camp was pitched before Rome, and the siege anticipated for so many months had at length begun. For whatever reason, Totila had never attempted to possess himself of Portus, which guarded the mouth of the river Tiber on the north bank and alone made possible the provisioning of the city. Fearing that this stronghold would now be attacked, Bessas despatched a body of soldiers to strengthen its garrison; but they fell into a Gothic ambush, and were cut to pieces. Opposite Portus, and separated from it by a desert island, on either side of which Tiber flowed to the sea, lay the ancient town of Ostia, once the port of the world's traffic, now ruinous and scarce inhabited. Here Totila established an outpost; but he did not otherwise threaten the harbour on the other side. His purpose evidently was to avoid all conflict which would risk a reduction of the Gothic army, and by patient blockade to starve the Romans into surrender.
He could not surround the city, with its circuit of twelve miles; he could not keep ceaseless watch upon the sixteen gates and the numerous posterns. King Vitiges, in his attempt to do so, had suffered terrible losses. It was inevitable that folk should pass in and out of Rome. But from inland no supplies could be expected by the besieged, and any ship sailing up to Portus would have little chance of landing its cargo safely. Before long, indeed, this was put to proof. The Pope, whose indecision still kept him lingering in Sicily, nearly a twelvemonth after his departure from Rome for Constantinople, freighted a vessel with corn for the relief of the city, and its voyage was uninterrupted as far as the Tiber's mouth. There it became an object of interest, not only to the Greeks on the walls of Portus, but to the Gothic soldiers at. Ostia, who forthwith crossed in little boats, and lay awaiting the ship at the entrance to the haven. Observant of this stratagem, the garrison, by all manner of signalling, tried to warn the sailors of the danger awaiting them; but their signals were misunderstood, being taken for gestures of eager welcome; and the ship came on. With that lack of courage which characterised them, the Greeks did nothing more than wave arms and shout: under their very eyes, the corn-ship was boarded by the Goths, and taken into Ostia.
Of courage, indeed, as of all other soldierly virtues, little enough was exhibited, at this stage of the war, on either side. The Imperial troops scattered about Italy, ill-paid, and often starving mercenaries from a score of Oriental countries, saw no one ready to lead them to battle, and the one Byzantine general capable of commanding called vainly for an army. Wearied by marchings and counter-marchings, the Gothic warriors were more disposed to rest awhile after their easy conquests than to make a vigorous effort for the capture of Rome. Totila himself, heroic redeemer of his nation, turned anxious glances towards Ravenna, hoping, rather than resolving, to hold his state upon the Palatine before Belisarius could advance against him. He felt the fatigue of those about him, and it was doubtless under the stress of such a situation, bearing himself the whole burden of the war, that he had ordered, or permitted, barbarous revenge upon the city of Tibur. For this reason he would not, even now, centre all his attention upon the great siege; he knew what a long, dispiriting business it was likely to be, and feared to fall into that comparative idleness. Soon after the incident of the Sicilian corn-ship, he was once more commanding in the north, where a few cities yet held out against him. Dreadful stories were told concerning the siege of Placentia, whose inhabitants were said to have eaten the bodies of their dead ere they yielded to the Goth. So stern a spirit of resistance was found only in places where religious zeal and national sentiment both existed in their utmost vigour, and Totila well knew that, of these two forces ever threatening to make his conquests vain, it was from religion that he had most to fear. In vain was the history of Gothic tolerance known throughout Italy; it created no corresponding virtue in the bosom of Catholicism; the barbaric origin of the Goths might be forgotten or forgiven, their heresy--never.
Totila, whose qualities of heart and mind would have made him, could he but have ruled in peace, a worthy successor of the great Theodoric, had reflected much on this question of the hostile creeds; he had talked of it with ministers of his own faith and with those of the orthodox church; and it was on this account that he had sought an interview with the far-famed monk of Casinum. Understanding the futility of any hope that the Italians might be won to Arianism, and having sufficient largeness of intellect to perceive how idle was a debate concerning the 'substance' of the Father and of the Son, Totila must at times have felt willing enough to renounce the heretical name, and so win favour of the Italians, the greater part of whom would assuredly have preferred his rule to that of the Emperor Justinian. But he knew the religious obstinacy of his own people; to imagine their following him in a conversion to Catholicism was but to dream. Pondering thus, he naturally regarded with indulgence the beautiful and gentle Gothic maiden delivered into his power. by a scheming Roman ecclesiastic. After his conversations with Veranilda, he had a pensive air; and certain persons who observed him remarked on it to each other, whence arose the rumour that Totila purposed taking to wife this last descendant of the Amals. Whatever his temptations, he quickly overcame them. If ever he thought of marriage, policy and ambition turned his mind towards the royal Franks; but the time for that had not yet come. Meanwhile, having spoken with the young Roman whom Veranilda loved, he saw in Basil a useful instrument, and resolved, if his loyalty to the Goths bore every test, to reward him with Veranilda's hand. The marriage would be of good example, and might, if the Gothic arms remained triumphant, lead to other such.
After the meeting at Hadrian's villa which he granted to the lovers, Totila summoned Basil to his presence. Regarding him with a good-natured smile, he said pleasantly:
'Your face has a less doleful cast than when I first saw it.'
'That,' answered Basil, 'is due in no small degree to the gracious favour of my king.'
'Continue to merit my esteem, lord Basil, and proof of my good-will shall not be wanting. But the time for repose and solace is not yet. To-morrow you will go with Venantius to Capua, and thence, it may be, into Apulia.'
Basil bowed in silence. He had hoped that the siege of Rome was now to be undertaken, and that this would ensure his remaining near to Veranilda. But the loyalty he professed to Totila was no less in his heart than on his lips, and after a moment's struggle he looked up with calm countenance.
'Have you aught to ask of me?' added Totila, after observing his face.
'This only, O king: that if occasion offer, I may send written news of myself to her I love.'
'That is a little thing,' was the answer, 'and I grant it willingly.'
Totila paused a moment; then, his blue eyes shining with a vehement thought, added gravely:
'When we speak together within the walls of Rome, ask more, and it shall not be refused.'
So Basil rode southward, and happily was far away when Tibur opened its gates to the Goth. For more than half a year he and Venantius were busy in maintaining the Gothic rule throughout Lucania and Apulia, where certain Roman nobles endeavoured to raise an army of the peasantry in aid of the Greek invasion constantly expected upon the Adriatic shore. When at length he was recalled, the siege of Rome had begun. The Gothic ladies now resided at Tibur, where a garrison was established; there Basil and Veranilda again met, and again only for an hour. But their hopes were high, and scarce could they repine at the necessity of parting so soon. Already in a letter, Basil had spoken of the king's promise; he now repeated it, whilst Veranilda flushed with happiness.
'And you remain before Rome?' she asked.
'Alas, no! I am sent to Ravenna, to spy out the strength of Belisarius.'
But Rome was besieged, and so hateful had Bessas made himself to the Roman people that it could not be long ere some plot among them delivered the city.
'Then,' cried Basil exultantly, 'I shall ask my reward.'