The city’s residents had not seen a Roman Legionnaire for almost exactly 60 years, when what remained of the Western armies deserted the Eternal City after the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (the “little Augustus”).
Since that time, Rome (the city) had been under the control of a series of Goth rulers, including Odoacer, Theodoric (the “Great”), Amalasuntha (daughter of Theodoric), Theodad (cousin of Amalasuntha and her murderer) and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, the Goth King Vitiges.
Imagine that! For 60 years, the Roman Empire had gone about its business with an Emperor mounted on a throne in Constantinople, while Rome herself – the birthplace of the Romans – was held by barbarians. Imagine a United States continuing to exist, and to thrive, with a Washington D.C. belonging to a foreign power. It sounds inconceivable and so it was to the Emperor Justinian who was determined to accomplish what none had dared, to return Rome to Rome.
By the time that Belisarius arrived in Rome his exploits (in Persia and Africa) were the stuff of legend despite his tender age of ~31. But he arrived woefully understaffed with barely 5,000 Roman knights, and soon faced a Goth army that exceeded 100,000 in number surrounding the city, determined to crush Belisarius and with it, Justinian’s aspirations of restoration.
Did Belisarius panic in the face of such impossible odds? This quote from Procopius – an eyewitness to these events – makes the hairs on my neck stand on end every time I read it:
“On the eighteenth day from the beginning of the siege the Goths moved against the fortifications at about sunrise […] and all the Romans were struck with consternation at the sight of the advancing towers and rams, with which they were altogether unfamiliar. But Belisarius, seeing the ranks of the enemy as they advanced with the engines, began to laugh, and commanded the soldiers to remain quiet and under no circumstances to begin fighting until he himself should give the signal.” – Procopius
Belisarius stood atop the Aurelian Walls and drew his bow (a compound bow design that he borrowed from the Huns and improved upon) and in a blur fired three arrows that killed the three Goth field commanders that commanded the attack, causing chaos in the Goth ranks. Then he began to fire one arrow after another at the oxen that drew the siege engines forth and order his knights to do the same, stopping the towers dead in their tracks. The Siege of Rome that followed would last for one year and nine days and its outcome would make indelible history…
Absolutely fascinating stuff!
This Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.