Justinian and the Gothic war (part 1)

Coin of Theodahad by World Imaging

Justinian’s successful conquest of North Africa did much to enhance his prestige and confidence. As his ambitions grew, he turned his attention to the Gothic kingdom of Italy. The recent dynastic struggles presented him with an opportunity to reabsorb Italy into his growing empire. All he lacked was a pretext to do so. But soon an opportunity presented itself to Justinian, allowing him to wage his Gothic war. To find out more, read on.

How the Gothic kingdom in Italy was formed

In 476, the barbarian general Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor. Aware that this would not go down well with the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, Odoacer resorted to diplomacy. Pretending to recognize the sovereignty of Zeno, Odoacer sent emissaries along with the imperial regalia to inform him of the new situation. He requested the title of patrician and proposed to rule Italy in the name of the Eastern emperor. Lacking the means to interfere, Zeno neither agreed to nor reject Odoacer’s proposal. But he saw no harm in keeping the imperial regalia. Meanwhile, styling himself King of Italy, Odoacer slowly expanded his kingdom. In 477, he gained Sicily from the Vandals and took over ancient Dalmatia a few years later.

Soon, the actions of Odoacer caused Zeno to regard him as a rival. But Zeno had his hands full with the Ostrogoths in the Balkans. Under their able king Theodoric, the Ostrogoths were just as happy to fight with or against Zeno. Finally in 488, Zeno persuaded Theodoric to attack Odoacer in Italy. He offered Italy to the Ostrogoths if they managed to remove Odoacer. In one move Zeno removed the Ostrogoths from the Eastern Empire and pitted them against his rival Odoacer.

Ultimately, Theodoric managed to defeat and kill Odoacer. As agreed with Zeno, he ruled Italy as a viceroy of the Eastern Empire. While Theodoric controlled the military power, Roman administration and laws governed his kingdom. During his reign, Theodoric wisely tolerated the Catholic faith of his Roman subjects even though the Goths were Arian Christians. But this co-existence between Goths and Romans ended with the death of Theodoric in 526.

Europe 526 by Gmelfi

Pretext for a new war

Theodoric’s grandson Athalaric succeeded the throne under the regency of his pro-Roman mother Amalasuntha. But Amalasuntha’s pro-Roman stance displeased the Gothic nobles who plotted against her. Firstly, they forced her to give up responsibility for the upbringing of her son. Instead of a good classical education, they taught Athalaric drinking and all manner of vices which ruined his health. Next, they conspired to have Amalasuntha killed. As a safety measure, Amalasuntha wrote to Justinian asking for sanctuary. But this proved unnecessary when she managed to have three of her conspirators killed instead. Nevertheless, she remained on good terms with Justinian through this ordeal. Unfortunately, her son died in 534, worn out by his excesses. Following the death of her only son, Amalasuntha made a huge mistake by making her cousin Theodahad the new King of the Goths. Theodahad had her imprisoned and later executed around April 535.

Justinian always had a keen interest in and kept a close eye on the developments in Italy. Given the close proximity of Italy to Constantinople, this was unsurprising. Both Amalasuntha and Theodahad had written to him declaring their friendship. Furthermore, Amalasuntha had allowed the Eastern Roman or Byzantine troops to use the harbours of Sicily during the Vandalic war. The failure of Justinian’s agents to save Amalasuntha from execution gave Justinian the perfect excuse to invade Italy; to avenge her death.

Preparations began immediately. Justinian appointed Belisarius as commander-in-chief over 7,500 men to invade Sicily. Due to the small size of Belisarius’s forces, success depended upon the elements of speed and surprise. Meanwhile, Justinian sent Mundus, the master of the soldiers for Illyricum to occupy Dalmatia. But this was not all. To secure the success of his two-prong invasion, Justinian also tried to obtain the neutrality of the Franks through generous bribes.

Initial successes

Sicily, strategically located between Roman Africa and Italy, was vital to the invasion of Italy. In 535, Belisarius and his army landed in Sicily and quickly captured the island. Worsening matters for the Goths, the Sicilians welcomed Byzantine rule making it easy for Belisarius to secure Sicily. Meanwhile, Theodahad was fearful of Byzantine successes as he remembered how quickly North Africa had fallen. In his ongoing negotiations with Justinian, he offered to cede Sicily and Italy to him in return for a yearly pension. Justinian was thrilled at the possibility of capturing Italy so easily. But events soon turned against the Byzantines.

Disaster at Dalmatia

Over in Dalmatia, Mundus quickly overran the province and captured its capital Salona. But soon a large Gothic army arrived to reclaim Dalmatia. In the unfortunate battle, Mundus’s son Maurice died. Filled with rage, Mundus led his army in a brutal assault on the Goths, inflicting a heavy defeat on them. Unfortunately, while pursuing the fleeing enemy, Mundus received a mortal wound which forced the Byzantines to withdraw. Beating a hasty retreat, the Byzantines abandoned all of Dalmatia except Salona to the Goths in March 536.

When Theodohad received news of the Byzantine losses, he gained newfound courage. Deciding to fight the Byzantines instead of surrendering to them, he imprisoned Justinian’s ambassadors and called off the negotiations. There would be no more chance of a peaceful takeover for Justinian.

Meanwhile, Justinian ordered Constantianus to replace Mundus and recover Dalmatia. It was a prudent choice. Constantianus quickly recaptured Salona from the Gothic general Gripas. Assigning some men to refortify the walls of Salona, he then set out to retake the rest of Dalmatia. By late June, the province was once again in Byzantine hands. Realizing that it would be difficult to stand against the ably led Byzantines, the Gothic army departed for Italy.

Belisarius invades Italy

With the failure of negotiations, Belisarius received his orders to take Italy by force. In the late spring of 536, he crossed into Italy. Advancing unopposed, he reached Naples and conquered it after a three week siege. As the citizens had refused to surrender, Belisarius allowed his barbarian troops to sack the city.

Meanwhile, Theodahad’s failure to stop the rapid advance of Belisarius and the sack of Naples cost him his throne and his life. In his place, the Goths appointed an elderly general Witigis as their new king. Aware of Belisarius’s ability and with the sack of Naples still fresh in his mind, Witigis decided to assemble his army before facing Belisarius. He headed for Ravenna after leaving a 4,000 strong garrison to protect Rome. At Ravenna, Witigis found time to cement his hold on the throne. He divorced his wife and married Matasuntha, the daughter of Amalasuntha.

During this time, Belisarius made no move to occupy Rome. Instead he secured his hold on South Italy and corresponded with Pope Silverius. Eager to avoid the fate of Naples, the Pope and the leading citizens of Rome decided to support Belisarius. And so, on December 9, ostensibly at the invitation of the Pope, Belisarius led his army into Rome. Aware that the odds were against them, the Gothic garrison fled north towards Ravenna to link up with Witigis. Immediately, Belisarius set about strengthening the fortifications and stockpiling supplies in preparation for a siege by the Goths. Additionally, he sent part of his forces to occupy Umbria, Tuscany and the Marches. These strategic positions were crucial in the upcoming battle against a numerically superior enemy.

The siege of Rome

After concluding his marriage to his unhappy bride, Witigis turned his attention to the matter of Rome. By this time, he had assembled a force of 50,000 men. Witigis was well aware that his entire tenure as king rested on his defeat of the Byzantines. With his preparations carefully completed, he led his Gothic army towards Rome. Along the way they destroyed the aqueducts that supplied the city with water to raise their chances of victory. At the end of February 537, the Goths arrived at the walls of Rome and began the siege.

Meanwhile, Belisarius had only 5,000 men to defend Rome and its numerous inhabitants. The destruction of the aqueducts as a water source forced the defenders to rely on the springs in the city. The springs however proved to be insufficient. To alleviate the situation, Belisarius sent some civilians to Naples. Aware that his meagre forces could not overcome the besiegers, he wrote to Justinian requesting reinforcements. Justinian responded by sending an initial force of 1,600 Slavs and Huns who arrived at the end of April. They broke through the blockade and joined with Belisarius in Rome. But the Goths still greatly outnumbered the Byzantines and apart from occasional sallies by the defenders, the stalemate continued till November. During these long months, hunger and disease afflicted the besiegers and besieged alike.

The tide turns for the Byzantines

In November, a 5,000 strong army of infantry and cavalry arrived to reinforce the defenders. Their commander was John, whose uncle Vitalian had rebelled against the emperor Anastasius twenty years ago. Originally, Witigis was fairly confident of taking Rome due to his blockade and numerical superiority. But each new arrival of reinforcements caused Witigis to lose hope. Attempting to salvage the situation before it deteriorated any further, Witigis requested a three-month ceasefire to negotiate a peace treaty with Justinian. As Belisarius had to convey the enemy’s intentions to Justinian, he had no choice but to agree and await further instructions.

In the meantime, he dispatched John with 2,000 horsemen to Rimini. Like his uncle before him, John was also equally ambitious. After capturing Rimini, which was close to the Gothic capital of Ravenna, John opened discussions with Matasuntha. On the one hand he tried to convince her to betray Ravenna to the Byzantines. On the other hand, he also negotiated a possible marriage with her because she was the granddaughter of Theodoric. Meanwhile, Witigis was still waiting for the outcome of his peace proposals from Justinian when he received news that Rimini had fallen. Fearing the loss of his capital, Witigis lifted the siege of Rome at the end of March 538. Immediately, he led his army towards Rimini to besiege it. And so, Rome managed to survive a siege that had lasted a year.

Reflections of the Vizier

Thus far Justinian enjoyed remarkable success in his conquest of Italy under Belisarius. Despite the meagre forces Belisarius had, he was able to achieve spectacular gains. The swift capture of Sicily, the sack of Naples and the successful defence of Rome were the result of his resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Belisarius’s very successes aroused jealousy and suspicion in Constantinople that would create obstacles for him in Italy. Find out what happened in part 2 of Justinian and the Gothic War.

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

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

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Bury, John Bagnall. History of the Later Roman Empire. Dover Books, 1958.

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