How Justinian Revived Gothic Italy: Rise of Totila (part 2)

When Belisarius left Italy in 540, he had almost wiped out the Goths. But Justinian’s policies led to their revival under Idibad from 540-541. Instead of learning from his mistakes and making the needed changes, Justinian was slow to act. This gave the new Gothic king Totila the chance he needed. In the span of a few years, Totila seized much of Italy from Byzantine hands. He became so powerful that the generals wrote to Justinian telling him they could no longer defend Italy from Totila. Find out how Totila managed to achieve this.

Background of Totila

Totila was the nephew of Idibad. But his real name was Baduila as noted from the coins minted during his reign. Before his ascension, he was already in talks with the Byzantine generals about the state of affairs in Italy. After the murder of Eraric, the Gothic nobles chose Totila as their new king due to his lineage. This did not bother the Byzantine generals too greatly since they had dealings with Totila and did not think that a youth in his mid-twenties could cause much trouble. It was a fatal mistake they would come to regret.

The Rise of Totila

The first act of Totila as king was to declare an all out war on the Byzantine Empire. Despite his youth, the king was not a fool. From his dealings with the Byzantines, he had learned their strengths and weaknesses. He knew that there was no unity amongst the Byzantines and that each general only cared about his own interests. He also knew that the people hated the Byzantines for oppressing them. The generals plundered the people while Justinian’s corrupt tax collectors forced them to pay high taxes. Misery was widespread and the people longed for a saviour. This was his chance to drive the Byzantines out of Italy. But he had to move quickly before the generals realized the threat he posed and moved against him.

Building upon the foundations laid by his uncle before him, Totila worked hard to garner support for his cause. He did not bother with the Italian nobles who had thrown in their lot with the Byzantines; they were few in number anyway. Instead, Totila focused on the middle class and the peasants who formed the bulk of the people. He promised to save them from Byzantine oppression and greed. No longer would their hard earned money support a corrupt bureaucracy, build palaces in distant lands, or pay off barbarian tribes far away. There would be no more slaves. Farmers and peasants would have their own land to till. Totila promised that the time had come for change and a better tomorrow. Quite naturally, he won the support of the people.

Totila’s Successes

But that was not all. Even the Byzantine troops deserted and joined Totila. They too hated the exorbitant taxes they had to pay. Thus a few months into his reign, Totila’s army managed to repel a Byzantine force of 12,000 men at Verona. From there, his troops went on to destroy another Byzantine army at Faenza. Totila’s successes did not end there. In early 542, he beat the best Byzantine general in Italy; John, nephew of Vitalian, in the Mugello valley. With John’s defeat, the rest of the Byzantine generals did not dare to oppose Totila head on.

With no one to stop him, Totila marched southwards to retake Italy for the Goths. By the end of summer 542, only Ravenna, Rome, Florence and some of fortified coastal cities remained in Byzantine hands. At this point, Totila laid siege to Naples. Its garrison, which comprised of 1,000 Isaurians, put up a stout defence.

Maximin; Praetorian Prefect of Italy

Meanwhile, Justinian kept abreast of Totila’s progress through reports from Italy. On one hand, he wanted to stop Totila. But on the other hand, he was afraid that his general would rebel against him if he had too much power and resources. This was why Justinian had not appointed an overall commander for Italy. Left with no choice, Justinian decided to put aside his fears and act. He appointed a man named Maximin as Praetorian Prefect of Italy. Maximin had full control of Italy and answered only to Justinian himself.

Aware of Totila’s might, Maximin was not too keen to meet the Gothic king head on. He tarried at Epirus till the end of 542 before he landed in Syracuse, Sicily. During this time, Totila crushed a Byzantine naval assault on Naples. To earn his keep, in January 543, Maximin sent a fresh naval squadron to relief Naples on his behalf. But before the squadron could reach Naples, a violent storm destroyed it.

The Fall of Naples

The siege of Naples ended in May 543 when the city surrendered to Totila due to starvation. In victory, Totila was lenient and magnanimous. He allowed the Isaurians to keep their belongings and leave the city. He even went so far as to provide transport and escorts to take them to Rome. Next, he turned his attention to the starving people of Naples. Knowing full well that too much food could cause them great harm, he made sure to properly ration food to each household until the people got used to a normal diet again. His conduct at Naples worked to win people to his side and turn them against the Byzantines. For the rest of 543, Totila worked hard to secure his hold on Italy.

The Need for Belisarius

By January 544, the Byzantines generals were at their wits end. They wrote a letter to Justinian to inform him that they did not have the means to halt the advance of Totila. The situation was indeed dire. The loss of Naples and large parts of Italy to Totila had hurt Byzantine morale, pride and prestige. If Justinian did not act to save his remaining domains, he could lose the whole of Italy. There was little choice. Even though he did not trust Belisarius fully, none of his other generals had the ability to stop Totila. And so, Justinian summoned his great general once more and dispatched him to save Italy.

Totila and Rome

During this time, Totila was not idle. He had set his sights on Rome. Eager to avoid a costly siege, Totila crafted an emotional letter which he sent to the Roman Senate, hoping to win them to his side. Unfortunately, John, the nephew of Vitalian, controlled the city and refused to allow the Senate to respond. Undaunted, Totila appealed to the citizens of Rome instead. He managed to get copies of his letter into the city and had them posted where everyone could read it. In that letter, the Gothic king promised to treat the Romans kindly and fairly if they sided with him. But Totila’s efforts were in vain. The people did not deliver Rome to him through an uprising. If he wanted the city, he had to conquer it.

While his appeal to the Romans was going on, Totila laid siege to port town of Otranto. It was a strategic decision. He feared that reinforcements would come through the port town to retake Italy. But the siege took longer than he planned for. Even so, in the summer of 544, Totila split his army into two. He left a small force to carry on the siege Otranto. Then, he personally led the rest of his troops north to besiege Rome. What he did not expect was the return of Belisarius to Italy.

Reflections of the Vizier

There were a few factors for the success of Totila. Firstly, Justinian turned the people of Italy against him through his policies. Secondly, Totila himself was a brilliant leader who knew how to exploit the situation. Lastly, the Byzantine generals could not unite to oppose Totila due to their selfish interests. They also had no overall leader to lead them. Because of Justinian’s fears, Totila had the chance to grow unchecked and revive Gothic Italy in the process. Finally, in desperation, Justinian sent Belisarius to retake Italy once more. But his distrust of his general would only serve to hamper the effort.


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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