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Gothic War
Part of Justinian's wars of Reconquest
Erster und Zweiter Gotenkrieg
LocationItaly and Dalmatia
Result Decisive Byzantine Victory
Sicily, mainland Italy and Dalmatia annexed by the Byzantines
Byzantine Empire Ostrogoths,
Commanders and leaders
Mundus ,
Totila ,

The Gothic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy was fought from 535 until 554 in Italy, Dalmatia, Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica. It is commonly divided into two phases. The first phase lasted from 535 to 540 and ended with the fall of Ravenna and the apparent reconquest of Italy by the Byzantines. During the second phase (540/541–553), the Goths' resistance was reinvigorated under Totila and put down only after a long struggle by Narses, who also repelled the 554 invasion by the Franks and Alamanni. In the same year, Justinian promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction which prescribed Italy's new government. Several cities in northern Italy continued to hold out, however, until the early 560s.

The war had its roots in the ambition of Roman Emperor Justinian to recover the provinces of the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost to invading barbarian tribes in the previous century (the Migration Period). By the end of the conflict Italy was devastated and considerably depopulated. As a consequence, the victorious Byzantines found themselves unable to resist the invasion of the Lombards in 568, which resulted in the loss of large parts of the Italian peninsula.


Italy under the Goths[]

In 476, the Western Roman Empire in Italy was overthrown, when Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus and declared himself rex Italiae ("King of Italy"). Although he recognized the nominal suzerainty of the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, his independent policies and increasing strength made him a threat in the eyes of Constantinople. At that time, the Ostrogoths, under their leader, Theodoric, were settled as foederati of the Empire in the western Balkans, but were also growing restless. Zeno decided to "kill two birds with one stone", and sent the Ostrogoths to Italy to remove Odoacer, officially acting as the representatives of the Empire. Theodoric and the Goths were able to defeat Odoacer, and Italy came under Gothic rule. However, as per the arrangement between Theodoric, Zeno and the latter's successor Anastasius, the land and its people were regarded as still being part of the Empire, with Theodoric fulfilling merely the role of a viceroy and head of the army (magister militum).[1] This arrangement was scrupulously observed by Theodoric: the administration continued in its old form and was staffed exclusively by Romans, and legislation remained the preserve of the Emperor[2] At the same time, the army remained the exclusive preserve of the Goths, who came under the authority of their own chiefs and courts.[3] The two peoples were further kept apart by faith: the Roman population was Chalcedonian, while the Goths were Arians, although, unlike the Vandals or the early Visigoths, considerable religious tolerance was practised.[4] This complex dual system worked effectively under the capable and strong leadership of Theodoric, who knew how to carry out his own policy without alienating the Roman aristocracy, but began to break down during his later years and collapsed entirely under his heirs.

With the ascension of Emperor Justin I, the end of the Acacian schism and the return of ecclesiastical unity with the East, several members of the Italian senatorial aristocracy began to favour closer ties to Constantinople as a balance to the Goths' power. The deposition and execution of the distinguished magister officiorum Boethius and his father-in-law in 524 was a symptom of the slowly increasing alienation of their caste from the Gothic regime. When Theodoric died in August 526, he was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric. As he was an infant, the regency was held by his mother, Amalasuntha, who had received a Roman education and initiated reconciliatory policies with the Senate and the Empire.[5] These policies, and her efforts to educate Athalaric in the Roman way, displeased the Goths, who started plotting against her. Perceiving the danger, Amalasuntha executed three leading conspirators, while at the same time writing a letter to the new Emperor, Justinian I, and asking to provide her with sanctuary if she should be forced to flee Italy.[6] Eventually, however, Amalasuntha remained, even after her son's death in 534. Seeking support, she chose her cousin Theodahad, to whom she offered the kingship. It was a fatal move, as Theodahad lost little time in having her arrested and then, in early 535, executed.[7]

Justinian's policies and preparations[]

Already in 533, utilizing a dynastic dispute, Justinian had sent his most talented general, Belisarius, to recover the North African provinces held by the Vandals. The Vandalic War produced an unexpectedly swift and decisive victory for the Roman Empire, and must certainly have encouraged Justinian in his ambition to recover the lost western provinces. During this war, Amalasuntha had allowed the Roman fleet to use the harbours of Sicily, which belonged to the Ostrogothic Kingdom, as bases of operation. Through his agents, Justinian tried to save Amalasuntha's life, but to no avail.[8] Her death, in any case, gave him the perfect excuse for war. As Procopius writes: "as soon as he learned what had happened to Amalasuntha, being in the ninth year of his reign, he entered upon war."[9]

Belisarius was appointed commander in chief (stratēgos autokratōr) for the expedition against Italy with 7,500 men while Mundus, the magister militum per Illyricum, was tasked to occupy the Gothic province of Dalmatia. The small size of the forces made available to Belisarius must be noted, especially when compared to the much larger army he took in the field against the Vandals, an enemy much weaker than the Ostrogoths. The preparations for the operation were carried out in absolute secrecy, while Justinian tried to secure the neutrality of the Franks by gifts of gold.[10]

Belisarius subdues the Goths, 535–540[]

Fall of Sicily and Dalmatia to the Byzantines[]

Gothic War - First Phase, 535-540

Map of the operations of the first five years of the war, showing the Byzantine conquest of Italy under Belisarius

Belisarius first landed at Sicily, which was strategically located between the now Roman Africa and Italy, and whose population was well disposed toward the Empire. The island was quickly captured, with the only determined resistance, at Panormus (modern Palermo), overcome by late December. From there, Belisarius prepared to cross over into Italy, where Theodahad, fearful because of the Byzantines' successes, had sent envoys to Justinian, proposing at first to cede Sicily and recognize his overlordship, but later to cede all of Italy to him.[11][12] In the meantime, triumph and disaster had befallen the Romans in Dalmatia. Mundus had quickly overrun Dalmatia and captured its capital, Salona. But a large Gothic army arrived to reclaim the province, and Mundus' son Mauricius fell in a skirmish. Enraged by this loss, Mundus marched with his army against the Goths, and inflicted a heavy defeat upon them. However, in the pursuit, Mundus himself was wounded mortally. As a result, the Roman army withdrew, and all of Dalmatia, with the exception of Salona, was abandoned to the Goths.[13] All this happened in March 536, and Theodahad, learning of this success, became emboldened, and rejected and imprisoned Justinian's ambassadors. Any possibility of a peaceful takeover was now over. Justinian sent the new magister militum per Illyricum, Constantianus, to recover Dalmatia, and ordered Belisarius to cross into Italy. Constantianus accomplished his task speedily. The Gothic general, Gripas, abandoned Salona, which he had only recently occupied, because of the ruined state of its fortifications and the pro-Roman stance of its citizens, and withdrew to the north. Constantinianus then occupied the city and rebuilt its walls. Seven days later, the Gothic army departed for Italy, so that by late June Dalmatia was again in Roman hands.[14]

Ascension of Vitiges, first siege of Rome[]

In the late spring of 536, Belisarius crossed with his army into Italy, where he captured Rhegium. The Roman army sacked Naples after a costly siege in November, and finally entered Rome unopposed in December. The rapidity of Belisarius' advance had taken the Goths by surprise, and the inactivity of Theodahad enraged them. After the fall of Naples he was deposed, and a new king selected. Vitiges left Rome and headed for Ravenna, where he married Amalasuntha's daughter Matasuntha and began rallying his forces against the invasion. Vitiges led a large force against Rome, where Belisarius, who did not have enough troops to face the Goths in the open field, had remained. This siege of Rome, the first of three in the Gothic War, lasted for a year, from March 537 to March 538. It featured several sallies and minor engagements, as well as several large-scale actions, but after reinforcements from Constantinople arrived in April 537 (1,600 Slavs and Huns)[15] and November 537 (5,000 men),[15] the defending Byzantines took the offensive. The Byzantine cavalry took several towns in the Goths' rear, which worsened their already-bad supply situation[16] and threatened Gothic civilians. Finally, the fall of Ariminum (modern Rimini), barely a day's march from Ravenna, to a Roman cavalry force, forced Vitiges to abandon the siege and withdraw.[17]

Siege of Ariminum, arrival of Narses[]

As Vitiges marched to the northeast, he strengthened the garrisons of various towns and forts along his way, in order to secure his rear, and then turned towards Ariminum. The Roman force of 2,000 horsemen[18] occupying it comprised some of Belisarius' finest cavalry, and Belisarius decided to replace them with an infantry garrison, so as to have them available at his side. However, their commander, John, refused to obey the orders of his commander, and remained at Ariminum.[19] The error of this was made plain when, shortly after, the Goths arrived. Although an initial assault failed, they proceeded to subject the city, which had few supplies, to a siege. At the same time, another Gothic army marched against Ancona. Although they routed the Roman forces in open battle, they ultimately failed to take the city's fortifications. At that time, new forces, 2,000 Herul foederati, under the Armenian eunuch Narses, arrived at Picenum.[20] Belisarius marched to meet Narses, and when the two generals met in council, they disagreed on the course to be followed, with Narses supporting a direct relief expedition to Ariminum and Belisarius favouring a more cautious approach, but the arrival of a letter from John, which illustrated the immediate prospect of the city's fall, resolved the issue in favour of the former.[21] Belisarius divided his army in three parts, a seaborne force under his capable and trusted lieutenant Ildiger, another under the equally experienced Martin which was to arrive from the south, and the main force under himself and Narses, which was to arrive from the northwest. However, Vitiges learned of their coming, and, facing the prospect of being surrounded by superior forces, the Goths hurriedly withdrew to Ravenna.[22]

Dissension between Belisarius and Narses[]

The bloodless victory at Ariminum strengthened Narses' position vis-a-vis Belisarius, with many Roman generals, including John, turning their allegiance to him. In the council after the relief of Ariminum, the dissension came to the fore. While Belisarius was in favour of reducing the strong Gothic garrison of Auximum (modern Osimo) in their rear and relieving the siege of Mediolanum (see below), Narses favoured a less concentrated effort, including a campaign in Aemilia.[23] Belisarius, to his credit, did not allow matters to reach a full breach, and instead marched with Narses and John against Urbinum. The two armies encamped separately, and shortly afterwards, Narses, convinced that the town was unassailable and well supplied, broke camp and departed for Ariminum. From there he sent John to Aemilia, which was quickly subdued. Nevertheless, aided by the fortunate drying up of Urbinum's only water spring, the town fell to Belisarius soon after.[24] At any rate, the Roman army in Italy now followed two different commanders, and the results of this disunity were to become tragically clear in the failure to relieve Mediolanum.

Siege and sack of Mediolanum[]

In April 538, Belisarius, petitioned by representatives from Mediolanum (Milan), then the second most populous and wealthy city in Italy after Rome, had sent a force of 1,000 men, under Mundilas, to the city. This force succeeded in securing the city and most of Liguria, except Ticinum (Pavia), with ease. However, Vitiges called upon the Franks for help, and a force of 10,000 Burgundians swiftly and unexpectedly crossed the Alps and together with the Goths under Uraias laid siege to the city, which was both ill-provisioned and undergarrisoned, since the already small Roman force had been dispersed as garrisons to the neighbouring cities and forts.[25] A relief force was dispatched by Belisarius, but its commanders, Martin and Uliaris, did not make any effort to help the besieged. Instead, they asked for further reinforcements, by the forces of John and the magister militum per Illyricum Justin, who operated in the nearby province of Aemilia. At this point, the dissensions in the Roman command exacerbated the situation, as John and Justin refused to move without orders from Narses, and even then, John fell ill and the preparations were halted. These delays proved fatal for the besieged city, which, after many months of siege, was reaching the point of starvation. The Goths offered Mundilas a guarantee that the lives of his soldiers would be spared if he surrendered the city, but, since no guarantee was offered for the civilian population, he refused, until, at about the end of March 539, his starving soldiers forced him to accept these terms. The Roman garrison was indeed spared, but the city's inhabitants were subjected to a general massacre, and the city itself was razed.[26][27]

Frankish invasion of northern Italy, fall of Auximum and Faesulae[]

In the aftermath of this disaster, Narses was recalled, and Belisarius confirmed as supreme commander with absolute authority for Italy. At the same time, Vitiges sent envoys to the Persian court, hoping to convince Chosroes I to reopen hostilities with the Byzantines. That would force Justinian to concentrate the majority of his forces, including Belisarius, in the East, and allow the Goths to recover. The war would indeed come, but too late for Vitiges.[28] Belisarius, for his part, resolved to conclude the war by taking Ravenna. Prior to this, he had to deal with the two Gothic strongholds of Auximum and Faesulae (Fiesole).[29] While Martin and John hindered the Gothic army under Uraias to cross the River Po, a part of the army under Justin besieged Faesulae, and Belisarius himself undertook the siege of Auximum. While the sieges were under way, however, a large Frankish army under king Theudebert I crossed the Alps and came upon the Goths and the Byzantines encamped on the two sides of the Po. The Goths, thinking they had come as allies, were swiftly routed. The equally astonished Byzantines gave battle, were defeated and withdrew southwards into Tuscany. In the event, the Frankish invasion, which could have altered the course of the war, was defeated by an outbreak of dysentery, which caused great losses and forced the Franks to withdraw. Belisarius concentrated on taking the two besieged cities, which was accomplished when both garrisons were forced by starvation to capitulate in October or November 539.[30]

Capture of Ravenna and departure of Belisarius[]

After these successes had eliminated potential threats to his rear, and freshly reinforced with troops from Dalmatia, Belisarius moved against Ravenna. Detachments were sent north of the Po, and the imperial fleet patrolled the Adriatic, cutting the city off from supplies. Inside the besieged Gothic capital, Vitiges received a Frankish embassy looking for an alliance, but after the events of the previous summer, no trust could be placed on the Franks' offers. Soon afterwards, an embassy came from Constantinople, bearing surprisingly lenient terms from Justinian. Anxious to finish the war and concentrate against the looming Persian war, the Emperor offered a partition of Italy: the lands south of the Po would be retained by the Empire, those north of the river by the Goths. The Goths readily accepted the terms, but Belisarius, judging this to be a betrayal of all he had striven to achieve, refused to sign, even though his generals disagreed with him.[31] Disheartened, the Goths resorted to a final plan. They offered to make Belisarius, whom they respected, the western emperor. Belisarius had no intention of accepting the role, but saw how he could use this situation to his advantage, and feigned acceptance. Thus, in May 540, Belisarius and his army entered Ravenna. The city was not looted, while the Goths were treated well and allowed to keep their properties. In the aftermath of Ravenna's surrender, several Gothic garrisons north of the Po surrendered. Others remained in Gothic hands, among which were Ticinum, where Uraias was based, and Verona, held by Ildibad. Soon after, Belisarius sailed for Constantinople, where he was refused the honour of a triumph. Vitiges was named a patrician and sent to a comfortable retirement, while the captive Goths were sent to reinforce the eastern armies.

The reigns of Ildibad and Eraric[]

"If Belisarius had not been recalled, he would probably have completed the conquest of the peninsula within a few months. This, which would have been the best solution, was defeated by the jealousy of Justinian; and the peace proposed by the Emperor, which was the next best course, was defeated by the disobedience of his general. Between them they bear the responsibility of inflicting upon Italy twelve more years of war."
John Bagnell Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. II, Ch. XIX

Belisarius' departure left most of Italy in Roman hands, but north of the Po, Ticinum and Verona remained unconquered. Soon after Belisarius' breach of faith towards them became apparent, the Goths, at the suggestion of Uraias, chose Ildibad as their new king. In Belisarius' wake, Justinian neglected to appoint an overall commander-in-chief. While the Roman armies and their commanders neglected their discipline and committed acts of plundering, and the newly established imperial bureaucracy made itself immediately unpopular by its oppressive fiscal demands,[32] Ildibad reestablished control over Venetia and Liguria. Ildibad decisively defeated the Roman general Vitalius at Treviso, but after having Uraias murdered because of a quarrel between their wives, he too was assassinated in May 541 in retribution. At this point, the Rugians, remnants of Odoacer's army who had remained in Italy and sided with the Goths, proclaimed one of their own, Eraric, as the new king. The choice was curiously assented to by the Goths.[33] Eraric however persuaded the Goths to start negotiations with Justinian, but secretly intended to hand over his realm to the Empire. The Goths perceived his inactivity for what it was, and turned to Ildibad's nephew, Totila (or Baduila), and offered to make him king. Ironically, Totila had already opened negotiations with the Byzantines, but when he was contacted by the conspirators, he assented. Thus, in the early autumn of 541, Eraric was murdered and Totila proclaimed king.[34]

Resurgence of the Goths under Totila, 541–551[]

Early Gothic successes[]

Totila was favoured in his intention to restore the Gothic realm by three factors: the outbreak of the great plague that devastated and depopulated the Roman Empire in 542, the beginning of a new Roman–Persian War, and the incompetence and disunity of the various Roman generals in Italy, which brought about his first success. After much urging by Justinian, the generals Constantian and Alexander combined their forces and advanced upon Verona. Through treachery they managed to capture a gate in the city walls, but then delayed so much by quarreling over the prospective booty that the Goths were able to recapture the gate, forcing the Byzantines to withdraw. Totila came up upon their camp near Faventia (Faenza), and with 5,000 men destroyed the Roman army.[35] Totila then marched down into Tuscany, where he besieged Florence. Three Roman generals, John, Bessas, and Cyprian marched to its relief, but in a battle at Mucellium, their forces, although numerically superior, were defeated and dispersed.

Expedition in southern Italy and fall of Naples[]

Instead of remaining in central Italy, where his forces were outnumbered and even a single defeat might prove disastrous, Totila decided to march south, where Roman garrisons were few and weak. He bypassed Rome, and very soon, the provinces of southern Italy were forced to recognize his authority. This campaign amply illustrates the crucial points of Totila's strategy: rapid movements to take control of the countryside, leaving the Byzantines in control of isolated strongholds, mostly on the coast, which could be reduced later. When a fortified location fell, its walls were usually razed so that it would no longer be of any military value. Furthermore, Totila followed a conscious policy of treating his captives well, thus enticing them to surrender rather than resist to the end, and actively tried to win over the Italian population to his side. At the same time, his operations led to a serious disruption of the imperial fiscal system in Italy, since the taxes were now flowing into Totila's coffers, and the Roman soldiers' pay suffered accordingly.

This policy is best exemplified by Totila's behaviour during the Siege of Naples, where he allowed the city to surrender on terms and displayed, in the words of J.B. Bury, "considerable humanity" in his treatment of the defenders: he nursed the famished citizens back to strength and then the Byzantine garrison was allowed safe departure.[36]

Belisarius returns to Italy[]

Taking advantage of a five-year truce in the East, Belisarius was sent back to Italy with 200 ships[37] in 544, where he found that the situation had changed greatly. He failed to prevent the fall of Rome when it was besieged by Totila in 546, although he soon reoccupied it in 547. However, his second Italian campaign proved unsuccessful, thanks in no small part to his being starved of supplies and reinforcements by a jealous Justinian, if we adopt the view of Procopius. Rome was besieged a third time in 549 and captured by Totila, whose offers of peace were rejected by Justinian.

Narses conquers Italy, 551–554[]

A new Italian campaign was organized under Justinian's nephew Germanus Justinus. With the death of Germanus in 551, Narses took on Totila, and at the Battle of Taginae (552) Narses defeated and killed Totila. The Goths holding Rome capitulated, and at the Battle of Mons Lactarius, in October 553, Narses defeated Teias and the last remnants of the Gothic army in Italy.

Though the Ostrogoths were essentially defeated and driven out of Italy for good, Narses soon had to face other barbarians who were invading the Byzantine-occupied borders of northern Italy and southern Gaul. In 554, a massive army of about thirty thousand Franks and Alemanni invaded northern Italy and met the Byzantine army on the banks of the river Volturnus. The Roman legions under Narses formed up the central defenses, while several detachments of Herulian mercenaries controlled the flanks. In the Battle of the Volturnus, the Franks and Alemanni were driven back, suffering heavy losses.

Overall outcome[]

Alboin's Italy

Italy about 575 C.E., Byzantine possessions in orange.

The pyrrhic victory of the Gothic War drained the Byzantine Empire of much-needed resources that might have been employed against more immediate threats in the East. In Italy, the war was devastating to the urbanized society that was supported by a settled hinterland. The great cities of Rome and her allies were abandoned as Italy fell into a long period of decline. The impoverishment of Italy and the drain on the Empire made it impossible for the Byzantines to hold Italy. Imperial gains were fleeting: only three years after the death of Justinian, the mainland Italian territories fell into the hands of a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, leaving the Exarchate of Ravenna, a band of territory that stretched across central Italy to the Tyrrhenian Sea and south to Naples, along with parts of southern Italy, as the only remaining Imperial holdings. Justinian also managed to carve out an Imperial domain in Southern Hispania, but that too would be conquered by Germanic tribes a few decades later. After the Gothic Wars the Empire would entertain no more serious ambitions in the West. Rome itself would remain under imperial control until the Exarchate of Ravenna was finally abolished by the Lombards in 751. Some coastal areas of southern Italy would remain under East Roman influence, direct or indirect, until the late 11th century, while the interior would be ruled by Lombard dukes based at Benevento and later also at Salerno and Capua. In the 11th century both Lombard and Byzantine areas of southern Italy fell into Norman hands.


  1. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIII, p.453–454
  2. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIII, p.454–455
  3. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIII, p.456–457
  4. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIII, p.459
  5. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 159
  6. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 160–161
  7. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 163–165
  8. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 164
  9. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.V.1
  10. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 170–171
  11. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.VI
  12. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 172–173
  13. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 174
  14. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.VII
  15. 15.0 15.1 J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 218
  16. According to Procopius (BG II.VII), the imperial navy cut off the Goths from any seaborne supplies.
  17. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 194
  18. J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 219
  19. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.XI
  20. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.XIII
  21. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 198
  22. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 198–199
  23. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 200
  24. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 201
  25. Procopius, De Bello Gothico I.XII
  26. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, pp. 203–205
  27. Procopius gives the number of adult males slain as 300,000, but this is improbably high. At any rate, the at least several tens of thousands were killed, the rest driven to slavery, and the city effectively destroyed.
  28. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 205–206
  29. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 207
  30. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 209
  31. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XVIII, p. 211
  32. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIX, p. 227
  33. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIX, p. 228
  34. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIX, p. 229
  35. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIX, p. 230
  36. Bury (1923), Vol. II, Ch. XIX, p. 231–233
  37. J. Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium, 77


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