How Justinian Revived Gothic Italy (part 1)

When Belisarius left Italy in 540, he had more or less secured the entire peninsula for his master. The Goths were on the verge of total defeat. It was merely a matter of consolidating the gains and absorbing Italy into the empire. But it seemed like Justinian could not even get this simple task done right. Somehow or other, he sowed the seeds that undid all of Belisarius’s hard earned gains. If Justinian had been more prudent, he would not have created the opportunity for the Goths to rise again. Then he would not have needed to waste lives and money to retake Italy. Read on to learn how Justinian revived Gothic Italy through his folly.

The Work of Belisarius

When Belisarius left Italy in 540, it seemed as if he had subdued the whole of Italy for the Byzantine Empire. Most of Gothic Italy was in the hands of the empire except for some areas to the north which continued to resist. It came mainly from Verona and Pavia. But even so, Gothic forces were small and posed little threat. A vigorous assault would have crushed the remaining Goths once and for all. Or so it seemed.

The Suspicions of Justinian

On the surface, Justinian recalled Belisarius to send him to the Eastern front. He needed his best general to defend the empire from the Persian invasion. But that was not the only reason. Justinian had also learned of the Goth’s offer to make Belisarius Western Emperor if he would lead them. Justinian feared that his greatest general would become his greatest rival. Thus at the most convenient opportunity, he recalled and reassigned Belisarius to a different theatre of war. But it was too late. The seeds of doubt had begun to grow in his mind and he feared that the Goths would appeal to another of his generals. This led to his strange and inefficient arrangements which almost destroyed Italy itself.

Justinian Turns Italy Against Him

Throughout his reign, Justinian displayed a remarkable talent for turning people against him. It was no different in Italy. Due to his suspicions and fears, Justinian did not dare to entrust Italy to any one general. He feared that the chosen general would betray him at the right moment with the help of the Goths. Not wanting to lose Italy, Justinian sent five generals to protect his newest domains. But he did not appoint an overall leader amongst them. He hoped that by doing so, they would keep each other in check while holding onto Italy for him. Unfortunately, they did no such thing.

The most skilled and intelligent of the five was John, nephew of the rebel Vitalian. It was this same John who had given Belisarius much trouble during the Italian campaign. The other four generals were mediocre. Of the four, there was another John aptly named “the Glutton,” who was known more for his love of food than his love of battle. Then there was Bessas, a Goth who had betrayed his kin and joined the empire. He was of uncertain loyalties. The last two were Vitalius and Constantian who had just arrived from Dalmatia on the orders of Justinian. As there was no clear leader to guide them, they agreed to split up Italy amongst themselves. Once done, each would set to work, plundering their region to line their pockets. The actions of these generals caused the people in Italy to turn against the empire.

The Heavy Taxes of Justinian

Taxation will always be a sensitive issue. Nobody enjoys paying taxes. During the administration of the Goths, the people of Italy were content to pay their taxes. But things changed during the war for Italy. The war brought death and devastation to the land. When Justinian took over, his heavy taxes despite the war only served to alienate and turn the people against him.

Justinian Demoralizes the Byzantine Army

But that was not all. Justinian also turned his own troops against him. In his attempt to save money, Justinian did not pay his soldiers on time. This had an adverse effect on the morale of his army in Italy. They were less motivated to fight and many soldiers chose to defect to employers who paid them well. As his policies gained the hatred of the people, Justinian needed an army to hold on to his domains. Without a motivated and effective army to do so, Italy slowly began to slip from his grasp.

The Ascension of Ildibad

Meanwhile, the Goths realized that Belisarius had fooled them when he left for Constantinople. Despite their pleas, Belisarius refused to become Western Emperor and rule them. Left with no choice, the Goths sought a new leader. After careful thought, they chose Ildibad or Hildebad, a nephew of the Visigoth king Theudis. The Goths had two main branches; the Visigoths in Gaul and the Ostrogoths in Italy. Although Ildibad was a Visigoth, he was still an acceptable choice. Before he ascended the throne, Ildibad sent one last embassy to Belisarius to make a final offer. When Belisarius turned it down, Ildibad took the Gothic throne.

The Short Reign of Ildibad

The Byzantines were not too worried about Ildibad. They knew he only had 1,000 soldiers at his command and didn’t pose much of a threat. But all that changed when Justinian turned everyone against him. It gave Ildibad a chance to lead the Goths in a comeback. Without much effort on his part, he soon had a sizable army to do his bidding. Many soldiers defected from the Byzantine army and came knocking at his door. They knew that he needed an army if he was to reclaim the lands for his Gothic kingdom. The defectors also knew that Ildibad would reward them well if they fought under his banner. And indeed, by the end of 540, Ildibad controlled all of Italy north of the River Po. Learning from Justinian’s mistakes, he made sure to reward his army well.

Ildibad owed a large part of his success to Justinian. The unpaid Byzantine garrisons did not see any sense in risking their lives for nothing and fled at the sight of the Gothic army. This allowed the Goths to retake the cities with ease. Due to the high taxes imposed by Justinian, the people also welcomed a return to Gothic rule. With the support of the people, Ildibad had an easier time holding onto his gains.

The Rise of Totila

In May 541, Ildibad died unexpectedly at the hands of his guard during a dinner. The guard beheaded Ildibad in full view of the guests and the king never saw it coming. The motivation behind this ghastly murder was revenge. It seems that Ildibad had taken the bride-to-be of the guard and married her off to another man.

Ever practical, the Goths quickly appointed a new king name Eraric. Upon his ascension, Eraric tried to make peace with Justinian, but he too did not last long on the throne. After a brief reign of a mere five months, he too was murdered. With the murder of Eraric, the Goths chose the nephew of Ildibad; Totila. Totila, unlike his predecessors, would prove to be one of the greatest Gothic kings to face off against the Byzantine Empire. He was so skilful and so successful that Justinian had to send Belisarius to retake Italy once more.

Reflections of the Vizier

Justinian was fond of creating needless trouble for himself. If he alone bore the consequences of his actions, there would be no problem. But his errors in judgement in this case affected the lives of all the people living in Italy. Thus far, Ildibad had retaken the cities without too much bloodshed. But this was mainly due to a lack of stout opposition rather than genius on his part. Nevertheless, Ildibad had seized the chance and laid the foundation for a Gothic revival. With the death of Ildibad and the rise of Eraric, Justinian might not have needed to retake Italy. But fate was clearly siding with the Goths when Eraric met his untimely demise. This cleared the way for the ascension of Totila, who would lead the Goths to greatness one final time.


Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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