Narses was the most powerful eunuch during the reign of Justinian. An influential and popular figure at the court, he enjoyed the favour and the friendship of both the emperor and the empress. In turn, he also gave them his complete loyalty. But when Justinian gave him the task of conquering Italy, Narses was well over seventy. He also had very little experience in conducting a battle, let alone a whole campaign. How then could this frail old eunuch conquer Italy?
Totila’s Gothic Kingdom
When Belisarius left Italy in 549, effective resistance from the Byzantines slowly collapsed against the Gothic onslaught. On January 16, 550, Totila retook Rome with help from the inside. Once again, the faithless Isaurian troops allowed the Goths to enter the city. This time however, Totila made Rome a permanent part of his domains. He got his troops to reside in the city along with their families. Next, he had the city rebuilt and the Senate restored. Then he appealed to the former citizens to return to their homes. To strengthen his authority in Italy, the Gothic king hosted the Games in the Circus Maximus as if he were the emperor himself. But that was not all. He also ordered his fleet to raid the coasts of Byzantine Italy and Sicily. On the one hand, the rich plunder from the raids enhanced the Gothic treasury in the ongoing war effort. On the other hand, it weakened the Byzantines financially.
The Premature Demise of Germanus
The repeated blows to his pride and prestige finally spurred Justinian to give his full focus to the Gothic question. His answer was to send his cousin Germanus to retake Italy. It was a shrewd choice. Germanus was loyal and skilled in warfare. More importantly, his wife Matasuntha, was the granddaughter of the great Gothic king Theodoric. The emperor was counting on her to win the support of the Gothic nobility. As such, Germanus set off for Italy at the head of a large army. But before he could display his mettle, he died of a high fever at Sardica in the autumn of 550.
The Supreme Commander Narses
The death of Germanus stalled the war effort against the Goths. By this time, only four cities remained outside of Gothic control. They were Ravenna, Otranto, Ancona and Crotone. The situation was critical. If matters did not change soon, Totila would complete his conquest of Italy. After careful thought, the emperor made his choice. He decided to entrust his advisor, the royal eunuch Narses, with the task of retaking Italy. Because eunuchs could not become emperors, Justinian had no qualms about giving Narses supreme command.
The Preparations of Narses
Despite being over seventy, Narses was resolute, forceful, influential and well loved. Having spent most of his life at the imperial court, he understood people and knew how to bend them to his will. It was true that Narses lacked experience in the art of war. But he had the support of all the Byzantine commanders in Italy. His presence would unite the high command in a way that Belisarius never could.
Aware of the daunting task before him, Narses asked for and received more troops from Justinian for the campaign. Composed mostly of barbarians, the army had around 30,000 men. In the spring of 551, the old eunuch and his army set off. But Narses did not head for Italy at once. Instead, he spent the rest of the year in Thrace and Illyria. There he gathered more troops and shaped them into an effective force that he could use. Narses had worked hard all his life for such an opportunity; he had to conquer Italy for his master.
Narses Invades Italy
In the summer of 552, Narses felt ready enough to confront Totila. He chose to march his troops by land, around the Adriatic Sea into Italy. His first stop was Ravenna. There he settled administrative matters and paid the troops who had not gone over to the Goths. Narses knew he had to secure the support of the remaining Byzantine strongholds if he wished to conquer Italy.
The Battle of Taginae
A week and a half later, Narses and his troops set off down the Via Flaminia to face the Goths. By then, Totila had already learned of Narses’ movements and marched his army up the same road to meet him. It was near the end of June when the Byzantines and Goths clashed at Taginae. In this crucial battle, both sides fought bravely with all their might. But in the end, the superior skill of Narses won the day. The Byzantine army smashed the Gothic one into pieces and sent them fleeing for their lives. Although Totila managed to escape, he died of his wounds at the village of Caprae.
The Aftermath of Taginae
With the death of Totila, the tide of war turned against the Goths. Even so, Gothic pride refused to give up. As their next king, the Goths chose Teia, the most courageous general of Totila, to lead them. The Goths however, did not rely on bravery alone to win. They turned to the Franks who were a significant power north of the river Po. Although the Frankish king accepted the gifts from the Gothic envoys, he remained vague about his aid. For the moment, the Goths had to fight on their own.
Meanwhile, Narses continued his march down the peninsula. By now, the Battle of Taginae and the death of Totila was common knowledge. To the people of Italy, the Goths were a waning power who could no longer protect them. Thus, city after city welcomed Narses and his troops to avoid bloodshed. Even Rome fell into the hands of the old eunuch after a brief siege.
The Final Battle
Even so, Narses continued his southward march. His target was the city of Cumae. Narses learned that Totila had stored a huge amount of gold in the city. If he could lay his hands on the gold, it would be of great use to the empire. Meanwhile Teia was also leading his army towards Cumae. He could not allow such riches to fall into the hands of the Byzantines.
Just before November 552 began, the two armies clashed near Vesuvius. The Goths knew that this battle would seal their fate. They fought with all their heart and soul but ultimately proved to be no match for the ably led Byzantines. Teia died heroically in the struggle. But even with his head on a pike for all to see, the Goths refused to surrender. The next day however, the surviving Goths agreed to negotiate or risk complete annihilation.
The End of the Goths
Since the victor determines the terms of peace, the Goths got the raw end of the deal. They had to leave Italy for good and stop fighting against the empire. In return, they could take all that they could carry and need not serve in the imperial army against their will. Those who wished to find their fortunes with the empire could of course do so.
Alarmed by the demise of the Gothic kingdom and the shift in the balance of power, the Franks invaded Italy. They also sent aid to the remaining Goths to divide the Byzantine forces. But despite Frankish aid, the Goths were too weak to resist for long. Cumae fell after a few months of siege. Only Verona and Brescia, north of the river Po remained in Gothic hands for another nine years. This was simply due to Narses having to defeat the Frankish invasion before he could conquer the cities in November 562. Finally, Justinian was the undisputed master of Italy.
Reflections of the Vizier
Despite his great age, Narses had done what Belisarius failed to achieve. He had conquered Italy for his master. A few factors led to this great victory. Firstly, Narses knew how to win the full support of Justinian. This allowed him to get more money, troops and resources than Belisarius ever had. Secondly, he knew how to win the support of his officers and men. This ensured that they carried out his orders to the letter. Belisarius always had his plans disrupted by disobedient officers. Lastly, he left nothing to chance. He made sure he could direct the battle at will by training his men until they could follow his commands well. In this manner, Narses assured his victory.
Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.