Why Belisarius Failed to Retake Italy (part 1)

Famed for his skill and resourcefulness in war, Belisarius managed to win against great odds time and time again. He was so able that the Emperor Justinian feared he would revolt. Ironically, Justinian relied most on the same Belisarius to win tough wars. None of his other generals had the same amount of skill. But Belisarius was not a God and proved to be only human. By the time Justinian made up his mind to send him to retake Italy again in 544, the situation was critical. Even the great Belisarius could not beat the odds stacked against him. Read on to find out why.

Impossible Odds

Belisarius returned to Italy towards the end of 544. But the Italy he knew and left had changed much since 540. During his absence, Totila had revived the power of the Goths and now controlled most of Italy. The Gothic king also managed to turn the people against the Byzantines due to Justinian’s harsh policies. Without the support of the people, Byzantium found it hard to hold onto her domains. Worsening matters, not only did the Goths possess a strong army, they also had a skilful king to lead them.

These factors alone would have been enough to daunt any man from trying to face the Goths. But Belisarius had other problems as well. Although his master had tasked him to retake Italy, he did not provide adequate resources to do so. The troops that Belisarius received were few and lacking in experience. He even had to recruit soldiers along the way to Italy to bolster his forces.

The worst part however, was the lack of money. Belisarius had no money to pay his troops or to wage war. It was true that Justinian lacked funds due to the plague and the conflicts with Persia and North Africa. But if he expected Belisarius to find money in Italy, it was not to be. The Byzantines had lost much of their domains to Totila. There was no way for Belisarius to find or raise money to pay his troops. As such morale amongst his men was low. They were not willing to risk their lives and fight without pay. Many also left to join Totila’s army. In fact, a large part of Totila’s troops comprised of former Byzantine soldiers. One can only wonder what Justinian hoped Belisarius would achieve with all these handicaps.

The Limited Success of Belisarius

But despite the odds against him, Belisarius still managed to have some successes. Relying on his skill and resourcefulness, he drove off the Goths from Otranto and Osimo. Next, he saw to the fortification of Pesaro. By the time he was done, Pesaro managed to hold off an assault from Totila. All these however, proved to be the limit of Belisarius’s success.

For almost a year, he had tried his best to keep up the morale of his troops. Yet, all the speeches in the world could not replace the need for money. His troops had not received their pay for over a year and quite naturally, many of them left to join their comrades in Totila’s ever growing army. It’s not hard to see why. Those that remained loyal to Byzantium had low morale and suffered frequent defeats. It was a testament of Belisarius’s leadership that he still had an army under his command. But with the resources at hand, he knew he could do no more. Retaking Italy was out of the question.

Appeal to Justinian

In May 545, Belisarius had enough. He wrote an urgent letter to his master to explain the state of affairs in Italy. If Justinian was serious about wanting him to retake Italy from the Goths, he would have to provide more support. Belisarius asked for his household troops, a large number of barbarians and money to pay them all. But here, he made a grave mistake. Instead of handing the letter to a loyal officer, he gave it to John, nephew of Vitalian, to pass on to Justinian. John was highly ambitious and had a long history of disobeying Belisarius. Unsurprisingly, John did not return at once. Instead he used this chance to see to his own marriage at Constantinople and marry well he did. His bride was Justina, daughter of Germanus, the first cousin of Justinian himself.

When John finally met up with Belisarius at Dyrrachium, it was late autumn. Much time and opportunities had slipped by during the past few months. But whatever anger Belisarius felt, he held it in check. Despite being John’s superior, he was now dealing with an imperial relative. At the very least, John had indeed returned with a sizable force which he led jointly with Isaac, an Armenian general. With these troops at his command, Belisarius crossed into Italy. He was just in time to face off against Totila at the siege of Rome.

Reflections of the Vizier

Due to his lack of resources, Belisarius could not turn the tide against the Goths. But even so, he managed to hold his own against them and achieved some success despite the odds. This was due to his skill and determination. When John returned with an army, Belisarius looked forward to gaining the upper hand against Totila. Yet this was not to be. Belisarius always had great difficulty controlling his officers. This would cause him problems as he tried to take the fight to Totila.


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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