Why Belisarius Failed to Retake Italy (part 2)

Throughout his entire career, Belisarius had great difficulty getting his officers to follow his orders. When the times favoured him, he could get away with it through luck and skill. But with the odds against him, there was no way he could achieve his goals. All his strategic and tactical brilliance were useless if he could not depend on his officers to carry out his plans. Worsening matters, he was fighting a war he couldn’t win due to inadequate resources. Even so, Belisarius didn’t despair and came up with creative solutions to deal with the problems he faced. Read on to find out what happened.

The Siege of Rome

The delay by John, nephew of Vitalian, allowed Totila to besiege Rome. Worsening matters, the Gothic fleet blockaded the mouth of the Tiber. Totila had effectively cut Rome off from military aid and supplies by land and sea. But that was not all. The commander of the Roman garrison was Bessas; a turncoat Goth. No one knew which side he would support. In any case, Bessas made little effort to defend Rome from Totila’s assault. He was more concerned with war profiteering. Soon, famine set in. Moved by the suffering of the people, the deacon Pelagius tried to get Totila to call off the siege, but to no avail.


At this crucial juncture, Belisarius planned to save Rome through a daring strike. He intended to sail his army past the Gothic fleet at the mouth of the Tiber and land his troops behind Totila. There he would strike at the Gothic army’s rear and defeat them. But his subordinate officer John preferred a different approach. Puffed up with pride over his imperial marriage, he did not agree with or see the need to follow Belisarius’s plan. John felt it was more prudent to retake Southern Italy first while Totila besieged Rome. With Southern Italy secure, they would then be able to face Totila and wrest Northern Italy from him.

Since they could not see eye to eye and refused to cooperate, the two men split up the army. Both Belisarius and John would take their troops and conduct the war as they saw fit. This was a huge mistake. Given the limited amount of troops, the split in the army further weakened the fighting strength of the Byzantines. Their already low morale fell lower as the troops witnessed the dissension amongst their leaders. Lastly, the Byzantines may have had a good chance of beating the Goths before the split. After the split, the idea of retaking Italy seemed much more remote.

Belisarius’s Plan

Even so, Belisarius remained undaunted and took the turn of events in his stride. He led his troops to the port town of Portus on the right bank of the Tiber. There he adapted his original plan to defeat the Goths. He expected Bessas to distract the Goths by attacking them. While Bessas did so, Belisarius would launch a land and naval assault to smash the Goths from behind.

Ever prudent, he left Isaac behind in Portus during the assault. Isaac was responsible for guarding the reserves, the supplies and most of all; Belisarius’s beloved wife Antonina. Belisarius gave strict orders to Isaac not to leave Portus no matter what happened. This included the death of Belisarius himself.

The Failed Assault

Things did not go as Belisarius had hoped or planned. Bessas was too busy enriching himself at Rome to attack Totila who happened to be at his doorstep. Left with no choice, Belisarius opted to carry out the rest of his plan without Bessas. His ships made it past the Gothic fleet and broke through the iron chain that blocked the Tiber. From there they sailed up the river to Rome. But just as Belisarius was about to reach Rome, he learned that the Goths had taken Isaac captive. Since Isaac was at Portus, Belisarius deduced that the town was now in Gothic hands. Not only did the Goths bar his path of retreat, they also threatened his rear in the process. But the greatest fear of Belisarius was the loss of his wife.

Immediately, Belisarius halted his advance and rushed back to Portus. When he arrived, he was relieved to find his reserves, supplies and beloved wife safe and sound. He soon learned that Isaac had defied his orders. With a small force, he attacked the Goths at Ostia hoping to win glory for himself. This was not to be. Instead, the Goths managed to defeat Isaac and take him prisoner. Although Portus was safe, Belisarius had lost the element of surprise. It was the end for Rome.

The Fall of Rome

With no hope of reinforcements, Rome was lost. Even so, the city and its defenders held out valiantly. In the end, it was not sickness or starvation that did the city in. It was treachery. On 17 December, 546, four Isaurians, who formed part of the garrison, betrayed the city to Totila. That night, they allowed the Goths to enter the city via the Asinarian Gate. The Goths quickly overwhelmed the defenders and captured the city. Who knows if these soldiers were the same Isaurians that Totila had treated with kindness and escorted to Rome a few years before? The fact remained that the Gothic king was now in control of Rome.

Meanwhile, Bessas and the garrison fled the city after its fall. Due to his haste, Bessas could not take his money with him which soon ended up in the hands of Totila, along with the riches of Rome. With his newfound wealth, Totila rewarded his troops generously for their service. Then he set about restoring law and order to the city.

In reality, the capture of Rome had little strategic value for Totila. But as a symbol, it showed the impotence of the Byzantines in Italy. With this victory, Totila wrote to Justinian asking for peace. The Goths would rule Italy for the Byzantines just like they did during the time of Theodoric the Great. But Justinian refused. He had invested too much time and effort to acknowledge the loss of Italy to a young upstart. If Totila wished to negotiate, he would have to do so with Belisarius. And so the war continued.


On learning that Totila intended to destroy Rome, Belisarius wrote to remind him that this act would tarnish his good name forever. Surprisingly, Totila left Rome and moved the people to Campania. Rome remained empty for forty days. With no one to oppose him, Belisarius retook Rome in April 547 and restored it. The fighting continued but neither side could gain an advantage. It was a stalemate.

At this stage, Belisarius decided to make a request for reinforcements. He knew that the empire was at peace with Persia and the costly unrest in North Africa was over. Justinian would surely spare him the aid he needed to retake Italy. This time, Belisarius wisely chose his wife as his envoy. Despite her faults, he knew he could count on her to appeal to Justinian. More importantly, she was close friends with the empress Theodora who would surely support her.

Leaving Italy

Unfortunately, Theodora passed away on June 28, 548 due to cancer. When Antonina reached Constantinople a few days later, she found the city mourning the loss of their beloved empress. Given his deep love for Theodora, Justinian was too grieved to handle state affairs. Antonina knew that there was no way to get aid for her husband now. But she would not allow him to become the scapegoat for failing to retake Italy. Using what influence and connections she had, Antonina managed to get Belisarius recalled to Constantinople.

In early 549, Belisarius left Italy once more. But it was not on a note of triumph as he did in 540. Although he failed to retake the peninsula, he managed to prevent the complete loss of Italy for the empire. He did so in spite of his lack of resources and the problems he had to deal with. This feat was only possible because of his ability. It would be up to his rival Narses to retake Italy for the empire.

Reflections of the Vizier

There were many factors that hindered Belisarius from retaking Italy. Firstly, he had inadequate resources to win the war. Secondly, his officers were ambitious and disobedient. Thirdly, he was up against Totila; a great and skilful leader. Lastly, God did not favour him this time. Yet Belisarius did not give up trying to fulfil his task. With each and every setback he faced, he came up with innovative ways to deal with the Goths as best as he could. Although he defied the odds and held onto Italy, it was not his destiny to retake the peninsula. The untimely death of Theodora saw to that.


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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