A Flame in Byzantium Page 1



Text of a dispatch to Belisarius near Roma.

Hail to the General Belisarius on the feast of the Holy Spirit in the Lord's Year 545.

We have scouted the villages around Roma as you have required us to do and it is agreed that siege is the intention of Totila. His forces have already attempted it with some success, which has given these barbarians a taste of success.

Drosos has taken a small party of five men and is currently foraging. The local farmers do not welcome us, claiming that we are as bad as the Ostrogoth fighters, which has already caused a few unfortunate events that we were unable to avoid. The foraging is necessary for Totila's men have reduced the game in the countryside, otherwise we would not be driven to this extremity.

There is a monastery not far from here, and the monks are cenobites, and so are little help to us. We have not been able to persuade them to provide us more than a shelter from the rain, and that was granted grudgingly. Some other arrangements are necessary if we are going to be able to remain in the field for much longer, as we had intended to do. We will await your instructions before moving on.

Two days ago we encountered an Ostrogoth scouting party of considerable strength and from what we were able to overhear, they are part of a larger contingent sent to establish themselves with the peasants so that they will be supported when they strengthen their assault on Roma itself. We are trying to gain confirmation on this now, but we do not expect to have more information for some little time since you specifically ordered that we were not to engage these men in combat, no matter how much we might wish to do so. It was no easy thing to have the enemy close at hand and to do little more than cower in bushes and listen like slaves at a keyhole.

We pray that God will continue to aid Roma, no matter how she has fallen into evil, and that it will be given to us to save her from the rapine and pillage of these barbarians. Surely if God can pardon all sin, He will rescue this whore of a city as He welcomed the harlot Maria into the company of Heaven.

From the hand of Captain Chrysanthos and carried by the man-at-arms Iakobos, two hours before sunset.


At Neapolis there was chaos as those who could flee Roma came to this port seeking escape. Carts, wagons, litters, and every beast of burden had been pressed into use for the rout, and reports from Belisarius' forces indicated that the flood of refugees ran all the way back to the walls of Roma itself.

"What has become of the Romans, that they do this?" Belisarius asked the officer who rode beside him against the surge of terrified humanity.

Drosos shrugged. "They're frightened. Small wonder."

"Romans were supposed to be made of sterner stuff than this," Belisarius said, a faint regret in his words. He shielded his eyes against the sun and squinted down the road through the dust.

"Perhaps they were once," said Drosos, dragging on the reins to keep from running into a heavily laden oxcart.

His horse quivered with dread as the vehicle lumbered by them.

"That beast of yours is as bad as the Romans," said Belisarius, doing his best to make light of the situation now that he was faced with it. "The Emperor will be disgusted to learn of this. I hope we can give him a better report of Roma itself once we arrive there."

"Do you still intend to go there?" Drosos asked, sweating with the effort to hold his mount.

"I am ordered to do so. And I confess that I want to see if any of the old Roman virtues still survive in the people. Surely they can't all be running away, can they?" Belisarius was not a big man, but he sat a horse like a giant and he carried himself like one of the most noble. There were lines around his eyes and his mouth was framed by deep creases.

Drosos was a stockier version of his General, and his junior by eight years. He was as steadfast as Belisarius was forceful and as such was an ideal subordinate and Captain. "What are the plans now?"

"We leave for Roma at first light tomorrow." He said it as calmly as if he had discussed the weather or the breed of horse he rode.

"Who rides with you?" As always when he asked such questions, Drosos had to fight the urge to hold his breath as he waited for the answer.

"You, of course, and one or two others; I haven't decided who yet." He indicated a group of monks in filthy habits. "Even they are leaving. What does that say of their faith and devotion? How can the Romans claim any right to the favor of God if His servants fly with the rest of the people?"

"Totila has not been kind to monks and priests," Drosos offered, embarrassed for the religious men whose vocation had shown itself to be so inadequate.

"And the people of Judah chose Barabbas over Our Lord," said Belisarius more sternly, not willing to excuse the cowardice he saw.

Drosos had no answer for this; he busied himself with his horse and with watching the wretched parade that wound from the gates of Neapolis to the quays.

At nightfall, when the gates had to be closed, there were many hundreds of people still on the road, and they made what little they could of this, some banding together to make a more secure camp to afford some protection from the Ostrogoths as well as from the other Romans. All along the branch of the Via Latina the way was marked with cooking fires and makeshift tents, and the sounds and odors crowded together in the air.

A delegation from the city of Neapolis visited Belisarius early in the night. They were exhausted men, most of them wary and a few angry with what had befallen their home.

"We are thankful to the Emperor for sending his aid," began the oldest, who boasted his family went back to the time of the ancient Roman Republic.

Belisarius recognized the note of disapproval in the man's tone and he raised his eyes from the report that had been handed to him only moments before. "Yes? What are your objections?"

"They are not objections, precisely, General," the man said, glancing at his companions uneasily.

"Then what are they?" Belisarius sensed that the visit would be a long one unless he brought the others to the point as soon as possible.

"Reservations," said the oldest man. "We are concerned, as you must be yourself. There are so many people leaving Roma and while we are willing to do what we can for them, we haven't the room or the supplies to care for all of them."

"And what supplies we have are already reduced," added one of the others. "We cannot continue to give out food and cloth at the rate we have been doing. It isn't possible."

Belisarius looked at the men before him and tried to find a virtue in them that reflected all he had been told of Roma in her days of glory. He could find nothing but exhaustion and the venality that was the chief complaint of most of those who dealt with Romans in these days. "What do you propose?" he asked them patiently.

The youngest scratched his head and flicked away lice. "We need to know what the situation is—what we really have on hand and how much of it we can spare. We must find out what the farmers can actually supply us and how safe the crops will be once Totila and his forces arrive."

"Wait," said Belisarius, holding up his hand to halt the stream of words. "There is no indication that you have to fear Totila will get this far, and I tell you from experience that you cannot anticipate everything that happens in a campaign."

"We must be prudent," said the oldest. "You may not think that we are putting up the kind of resistance that you and the Emperor would like, but we have families and businesses and trade to fill our time, and we're not eager to see our children starve, no matter who rules in Roma or in Constantinople, and you may tell the Emperor that. It is not treason to want to preserve our lives and the lives of our families. According to what you and the others say, that is what Justinian wishes to do." He folded his arms, revealing two long tears in the threadbare silk.

"It is what all of us wish to do," Belisarius said wearily. "Your goals are no different than those of the Emperor; we work to the same ends."

"That may be," said the youngest, his expression blank with disapproval. "But what can we do to save our children? Whether the Emperor agrees or not, we must look to our own welfare or see our families without shelter and food."

"Yes," said the one with the darkest beard.

Belisarius nodded. He had seen hungry children all over Italy. "We will do all that we must to insure that as few as possible are lost."

"Fine words," scoffed the oldest man. "But it will not feed our children or save our houses." He glared at Belisarius and did not bother to appear respectful.

"What do you wish me to do, good citizens?" Belisarius inquired, rubbing his aching eyes as he spoke. "Tell me."

This was what they had been waiting for; the youngest took a step closer and said, "We want to keep the gates closed in the morning so that we can take time to find out how much there truly is in the city. We need to discover how much food is left, where there is room for more people to be housed, where there can be more animals stalled and fed, how much water is left, what clothing is available—"

The one with the darkest beard interrupted him. "There are also slaves and servants to deal with. Most of those coming from Roma are not wealthy, but they are bringing their goods and chattels with them, and all must be considered if we are going to be able to plan for any of them."

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