Justinian and the Gothic War (part 2)

Christ Ravenna Mosaic by Wikipedia

Despite the puny amount of troops he had under his command, Belisarius achieved great success in the Gothic war due to his resourcefulness. He captured Sicily and invaded Italy from there, taking Naples and Rome. Now as if the fates were testing his brilliance, more obstacles arose to hinder his conquest of Italy. What were these obstacles and what happened to Belisarius? Read on to find out.

The Salvation of Rome

At the end of March 538, the Gothic King Witigis lifted the siege of Rome. He received alarming news that Rimini, only a day’s march from his capital at Ravenna, had fallen to the Byzantines. Aware of the danger that Ravenna was in, Witigis resolved to save his capital. Meanwhile, the Gothic siege had failed to stop reinforcements from entering Rome. Now that Rome had ample troops and supplies it would be impossible to capture. With a heavy heart, Witigis gave the order to march for Rimini. As the Goths headed for Rimini, the Byzantines marched out to attack them, inflicting as much damage as he could. But the Goths were too numerous to be stopped. Soon, the survivors arrived at and laid siege to Rimini.

The Seige of Rimini

With the departure of the Gothic army, Belisarius led his troops north to take the various towns that now lay open. At the same time, he ordered John, the commander of Rimini, to rejoin the main army with his 2,000 horsemen. John refused. He was busy trying to advance his station by getting the Gothic Queen Matasuntha to betray the husband she hated. But before John could succeed, Witigis and his army arrived to besiege Rimini. Belisarius was livid. He knew that Rimini was ill-prepared for a siege. Although he could afford to lose John, he could not afford the loss of John’s troops.

The General and the Eunuch

As Belisarius pondered his next move, the Grand Chamberlain Narses arrived with 5,000 men. Born in Armenia, Narses was a palace eunuch who rose through the ranks to become the most influential person at the imperial court. As a trusted advisor of Justinian and Theodora, he wielded immense power. Ostensibly he arrived to assist Belisarius. But there was another reason for his arrival. The success of Belisarius in Italy had cause tongues to wag in the capital about his ambition. To forestall any chance of revolt, Justinian sent Narses to keep an eye on Belisarius. The general marched out to receive the chamberlain as protocol demanded. But soon they disagreed over how to carry out the campaign in Italy.

In all his 60 years of age, Narses had never acquired any military experience. But this did not prevent him from pressing for the relief of Rimini during the military council. As a close friend of John, Narses wanted to save him. Although Belisarius had a different view, he was aware of the consequences of opposing Narses. For the sake of unity and an urgent plea from Rimini, Belisarius made plans for the expedition. Once again Belisarius showed his brilliance. He managed to fool the Goths into thinking that a superior force was moving against them by land and sea. This forced Witigis to withdraw his troops to Ravenna. Thus at the very last moment Rimini avoided capture.

Ironically, this victory caused even more problems for the Byzantine chain of command. Although John owed his life to Belisarius, he chose to attribute his salvation to Narses. Given John’s political nature, this was not surprising. John followed up his ingratitude by making it clear that he would only follow Narses’s commands. He was not alone. Soon the Byzantine army split into two factions; one sided with Belisarius, the other sided with Narses. Unable to control his men, Belisarius split the army into two to carry on the conquest of Italy. For a time, there was much progress in the capture of towns and cities, but soon, the cracks in the leadership became clear.

The Destruction of Milan

In April 538, Belisarius received a request from Milan, whose population and wealth rivalled that of Rome. The citizens implored him to save them from the rule of the Goths. Seizing this chance, Belisarius dispatched 1,000 men under Mundilas to secure Milan. With the aid of the Milanese, this small army occupied Milan and the surrounding cities. But in the process of garrisoning the cities, they spread themselves too thinly. Milan for example, had only 300 armed soldiers.

The loss of Milan was a huge blow to Gothic pride. Soon a combined army of Goths and 10,000 Burgundians appeared at the walls of Milan and lay siege to the city in the summer of 538. Milan was ill-prepared for a siege and Mundilas wrote to Belisarius asking for immediate reinforcements. In the meantime, every able-bodied citizen had to take part in the defence of the city and their lives. Having betrayed the Goths, the Milanese knew they could expect little mercy.

When Belisarius learned about the siege, he dispatched a relief force to Milan post-haste. Here the disunity amongst the Byzantine high command doomed Milan. The leaders of the relief force arrived at the city and realized they were badly outnumbered. Refusing to attack the enemy, they wrote to Belisarius asking for help. Belisarius swiftly ordered John and Justin to move in with their troops to save Milan. But these two men refused him outright, stating that they would only follow direct orders from Narses. Even when Narses issued the orders, John happened to fall ill and this stalled the relief efforts. All of these delays proved fatal for Milan.

During this time, Milan was on the verge of starvation. The Goths offered to spare Mundilas and his troops if he surrendered, but the stoic general refused. The terms did not include the Milanese whom he resolved to defend. But after months of holding out in vain for the relief force which never arrived, the starving troops had enough. At the end of March 539, they forced Mundilas to accept the offer of the Goths. As promised, the garrison left the city unmolested. But the Goths showed no mercy to the Milanese. They massacred the men, sold the women and children into slavery and razed the city to the ground.

Belisarius resumes command

After hearing about the fate of Milan, Justinian realized his error. Acting swiftly, he recalled Narses to Constantinople and gave full command of Italy to Belisarius once more. With Narses gone, Belisarius focused on taking the towns south of Ravenna to prepare for the siege of the Gothic capital itself. Despite a brief interruption by Frankish troops, Belisarius managed to take the towns towards the end of 539.

As Witigis watched his kingdoms slip from his grasp, he learned that the Persians were threatening the eastern frontiers of the Byzantines. Sensing a way out, he dispatched his envoys to the Persian court to persuade the Persians to attack the Byzantines. This would force Justinian to withdraw his troops from Italy to fight Persia. But his envoys never returned. As luck would have it, one of them fell into the hands of Justinian and revealed Witigis’ plan to him. By now, Justinian knew that a war with Persia was likely. Not wanting to fight on two fronts, he decided to come to terms with the Goths and dispatched his envoys to do so.

San Vitale Ravenna by Madaki

Fall of Ravenna

Meanwhile, Belisarius began his siege of Ravenna. At the same time, Justinian’s envoys reached the Gothic court to offer peace. The lands south of the Po River would belong to the Byzantines while the Goths could keep the lands north. In addition, Justinian only demanded half of the Gothic royal treasury. With little choice in the matter, Witigis agreed. But when Belisarius learned about the treaty, he was shocked. With victory over the Goths so close at hand, he refused to sign the treaty unless Justinian himself ordered him to do so. The siege continued apace. Soon Witigis approached him with a private offer. He was willing to resign his throne and hand over his remaining domains if Belisarius became Emperor of the West.

Although Belisarius was too loyal to consider this option, he was shrewd enough to seize the chance. Pretending to accept the offer, Belisarius and his troops entered Ravenna in May 540. He treated the Goths well and gave strict orders not to loot the city. Word of this soon spread and several other Gothic garrisons north of the Po also surrendered. Meanwhile, Belisarius loaded the Gothic nobility and royal treasures onto his ships and left for Constantinople. He had fulfilled his duty and now the Italy was once more a part of the empire. Witigis became a patrician and retired to his new estates to live out his life. As for the captive Gothic soldiers, they ended up in the eastern armies for the war with Persia.

Reflection of the Vizier

In spite of the odds against him, Belisarius completed his mission to conquer Italy. By this time he must have been aware of Justinian’s doubts about his loyalty. But instead of making himself Emperor of the West as the Goths wished, he chose to remain loyal to his master. While I may never understand why he made this choice, it is possible that he placed the interests of the empire above his own. I am thankful he did. Because of Belisarius’s loyal service to the empire there was no civil war which would surely have doomed it.


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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