Ancient History & Civilisation

The Invasion of Italy

The triumph of 534 encouraged much larger ambitions in Constantinople, to recover control of Italy from the Ostrogoths and to reconquer the heartlands of the western empire in Italy. While the driving impulse for this policy surely came from Justinian, Belisarius, and the militant inner circle of the regime, the situation among the Ostrogoths themselves presented the Romans with an opportunity and a pretext.

After the death of Theoderic in 526, there was a power struggle in his family over the succession, which involved Amalasuntha, Theoderic's daughter, her ten-year-old son Athalaric, and Theoderic's nephew, Theodahat. Procopius portrays a scene of cultural conflict within the Gothic elite, which was split between a Romanizing group, including most of Theoderic's family and associates, and others who held to more barbarous, Germanic, and warlike ways. Coin portraits and sculptures of Amalasuntha depict her in a fashion that resembled the style of the Roman court of Constantinople. 104 This split no doubt represented the genuine political option which the Ostrogoths faced in coming to an accommodation both with the western empire, which they had inherited, and with the eastern Romans, who had come to reclaim it.

Amalasuntha's supremacy was then challenged by Theodahat, who owned large possessions in Tuscany. Both parties approached Justinian for support, although neither can have conceived that it was in the emperor's mind to re-establish direct Roman rule over Italy. Justinian's motives for intervening were religious as well as political. Although the Arian Ostrogoths had not interfered with the Catholic Church hierarchy in Italy, the presence of a heretical regime would have been an affront to Justinian's militant orthodoxy. He sent two bishops to Italy to confer with the bishop of Rome, and a senatorial legate, with an official letter to Amalasuntha. This complained about Gothic conduct in the recent wars, and especially objected to their request for the return of Lilybaeum in Sicily. Amalasuntha responded:

Do not act in this way, emperor, but remember how when you were mounting your expeditions against the Vandals, not only did we not obstruct you, but with great enthusiasm provided a passage against the enemy and a market for the purchase of all the most essential supplies, and especially the great quantity of horses, which provided you with the most important means of overwhelming the enemy. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.3.23)

The conflict between Amalasuntha and Theodahat sharpened after the death of the youthful Athalaric. Theodahat had the queen murdered by three leading Goths whom she had antagonized during the succession struggle after Theoderic's death. His actions provided Justinian with further cause for extending his military intervention in the West (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.4).

The undertaking to reclaim Roman control of Italy had enormous ramifications among the barbarian kingdoms of the West. In particular, the Franks used the conflict as an opportunity to extend their influence into northern Italy. The Roman military strategy was two-pronged. Mundus, the Gepid magister militum in Illyricum, was to invade Dalmatia, targeting the port of Salona, while Belisarius was to take a larger force, made up of 4,000 regular troops, 3,000 Isaurians, and foederati, first to Sicily and then into Italy. Belisarius' forces crossed the straits of Messina and, heartened by high-level Gothic defections, laid siege to Naples, which fell after a twenty day siege. The resistance of its inhabitants, headed by the Jews who were justly alarmed at the prospect of being ruled by the fanatical Christian Justinian rather than the tolerant Ostrogothic regime, was notable but unavailing (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.8–10). Theodahat had done nothing to organize help for them and was rightly suspected by his own people of selling out to the Romans. A force of Gothic cavalry assembled in early December south of Rome, and replaced him with Vitigis, a commander who had won his laurels in the battle for Sirmium. In a letter to his people crafted for him by Cassiodorus, the new king marked the change of style and intention betokened by his accession:

You must know that I was not chosen in the privy chambers but in the wide open fields; I was not sought among the subtle debates of sycophants, but as the trumpets blared, so that the Gothic race of Mars, roused by such a din and longing for their native courage, might find themselves a martial king. (Cassiodorus, Var. 10.31)

Vitigis left behind a garrison of 4,000 men in Rome in support of bishop Silvestris and the Roman Senate, before he moved north to Ravenna. Here he married a reluctant Matasuntha, the daughter of Amalasuntha, and secured his dynastic position by marital rape. Gothic soldiers were summoned from throughout Italy and provided with arms and mounts. This move mobilized all his troops except those who were needed to protect Ostrogothic territory in Gaul from the Franks (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.11.10–29).

After the capture of Naples southern and central Italy fell into Belisarius' grasp. Silverius, the bishop of Rome, invited the invading Romans to occupy the city after negotiations which allowed the Gothic garrison of 4,000 to withdraw to Ravenna (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.14–15). Belisarius organized his garrison of 5,000 men into a tenacious defense of the huge circuit walls, fourteen miles long, which were now partly enclosed from the north and east by seven Gothic camps. Procopius provides an extended and dramatic account of the siege of Rome, which began with a major three-week assault in late February and early March of 537. The climax of the siege were two major Roman counter-offensives at the Vivarium, the enclosure used for stabling wild animals destined for the Roman arena, and at the Porta Salaria, in which 30,000 Goths are said to have died. Belisarius celebrated the victory, or the reprieve, but promptly evacuated the women and children from the city and sent urgently to Justinian for reinforcements (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.17–25).

The rigors of defending Rome, under siege through 537 into 538, were relieved by sallies and skirmishes outside the walls, which are recalled with much anecdotal detail in the vivid reportage of Procopius, who himself was present as a senior member of Belisarius' staff.105 Prolonged resistance had been possible because the Goths were never able to seal off the city, despite having gained control of the harbor at Portus. Nevertheless famine and disease became acute in the early months of 538. Belisarius countered the growing demoralization by announcing that a fleet from Constantinople had arrived in Campania, and sent Procopius himself to round up whatever troops he could find in the Naples region and bring them to Rome in the guise of a relieving force (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.3–4.5). He was aided by Belisarius' wife Antonina (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.4.6–20).

In March 538 the promised relieving force finally docked at Naples. The arrival of these reinforcements brought despair to the Goths, who were already suffering themselves from severe food shortages and pestilence. An armistice was declared and a deputation consisting of one Roman and two Goths parleyed with Belisarius.

The arguments which were deployed laid out the political positions of the two sides with perfect clarity. The Goths argued that they had legitimate authority to control Italy. The emperor Zeno had charged Theoderic, whom he had already appointed to be a Roman consul and a patricius, to oust the usurper Odoacar and to take legitimate control of his Italian kingdom. This Theoderic had done. His regime had preserved the laws and administrative forms of the Roman government, and been scrupulously tolerant of Catholic religious practice. Romans indeed had held all the high state offices in the Gothic kingdom, and consuls were appointed not by him but by the eastern emperor. Belisarius, accordingly, had no business to threaten this legitimate sovereignty. The case was a powerful one. Indeed in 509 Anastasius had explicitly legitimized Theoderic's position. However, it was crudely swept aside by Justinianic realpolitik. Belisarius riposted that Theoderic's mission to depose Odoacar had been undertaken on behalf of the emperor with the view of freeing Italy from its tyrant and reclaiming it for the empire. Theoderic had failed to give to the emperor the land that was his. The barbarians, making no headway with the central case, offered to yield up Sicily, an essential requirement if the eastern empire was to keep a grip on Africa, but received the sarcastic answer that they could have the island of Britain, far larger than Sicily, in return. The implication was that the Goths had no more right to give the Romans Sicily than the Romans had to give them Britain. The Gothic embassy moved to its bottom line, offering to negotiate the sovereignty of Naples and Campania, and indicating a readiness to pay annual tribute to Constantinople. The rebuff was that Belisarius had no powers to negotiate about territory which was owned by someone else, the emperor. The only agreement reached was to send embassies to put the matter before Justinian in person (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.6).

The endgame now began. As the Goths made final attempts to infiltrate Rome through the aqueducts, a ploy that had worked successfully for Belisarius at Naples (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.9), Roman cavalry advanced into Picenum, and marched into Ariminum (modern Rimini), at the invitation of its Roman inhabitants. Rimini lies a day's march from Ravenna. Vitigis promptly ordered his forces to abandon the siege of Rome and to make all speed to protect the Gothic capital. Thus on March 30, 538, one year and nine days since the city had been invested, the Goths burnt their camps and began to withdraw. For most of their forces this meant crossing the Tiber at the Milvian bridge. Belisarius rushed his troops back to the scene, to inflict maximum damage on the confused mass of Gothic troops who were struggling to escape across the river (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.10).

The Gothic position in central Italy was critically undermined by the arrival of fresh forces from Constantinople, 5,000 troops led by the eunuch Narses, and 2,000 Germanic Heruls, under their own commanders (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.13.15–18). Narses met Belisarius at Firmum, and persuaded him of the urgency of relieving John, the Roman Commander at Ariminum. A soldier from the besieged force arrived with a message that John's men could only hold out for another week. Forces, coordinated with considerable military skill, converged from the sea and by two overland routes to put the Goths to flight. The famished commander emerged with his exhausted troops (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.17–18.2). The Goths escaped to Ravenna.

The invading force now clearly had the momentum of victory with them, but discord among the Roman generals led to catastrophe in Liguria. Bickering between the commanders prevented the Romans from coming to the relief of Milan, which was attacked by an invading army of Franks. The starving inhabitants and tiny garrison were forced into negotiations. The soldiers were surrendered into captivity, but in late March 539 Milan was razed to the ground, its male population was massacred, and the women handed over to the Burgundians as slaves (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.21). The remainder of the Ligurian cities surrendered (see p. 229). As news of the disaster came in and was reported by Belisarius to Justinian, the lesson was drawn. Narses was recalled and Belisarius confirmed as commander with full powers (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.22.1–4).

Much of 539 was taken up in a war of attrition in which the Romans held the upper hand. The Goths, defending the strongholds of Auximum and Urbinum, were at the mercy of famine, and indeed the country dwellers, who had been prevented by the warring parties from planting crops the previous year, were reduced to extreme distress and starvation, described with chilling realism by Procopius. With staring eyes, jaundiced, their skin desiccated and furrowed by emaciation, 50,000 were estimated to have perished from hunger (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.20.23–33). The Roman troops were provisioned by supplies brought into Ancona (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.24.14). After a six-month siege Auximum and Faesulae capitulated and their garrisons defected to Belisarius, pledging loyalty to the emperor (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.27.25–34).

Belisarius now closed in on Ravenna, where Vitigis' position continued to deteriorate. It was agreed that a Gothic deputation should seek surrender terms from the emperor in Constantinople. This secured a better offer than they might have hoped, and better than Belisarius was prepared for his part to concede, namely that Italy south of the Po should revert to the empire, that the Ostrogoths should retain the Transpadana, and that the royal treasures in Ravenna be divided between the two sides. Then, in a surprising turn, a group of Gothic nobles suggested to Belisarius that they would surrender to him if he were to accept the title of emperor of the West. Belisarius gave every appearance of compliance, telling his own men that he now had plans to secure full control of Theoderic's kingdom, and his opponents that he was ready to accept the proposal. He thus marched in and occupied Ravenna in May 540. Royal property was seized, but the other inhabitants were allowed to retain their private wealth. Belisarius announced that he himself would be returning to Byzantium, summoned by Justinian to take command again on the eastern front (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.28–30).

Procopius' account of these events, written largely from the perspective of Belisarius, makes too little of the fact that the general's behavior led directly to one of the gravest political misjudgments of Justinian's reign. The Gothic embassy to Justinian arrived in Constantinople at exactly the moment that the empire faced renewed invasion from the Persians. The emperor and his advisors were well aware that they lacked the resources to continue large-scale warfare on two fronts (to say nothing of the situation in Africa), and accordingly offered a highly rational deal. By reclaiming Italy as far as the Po, including the western capital of Ravenna, the campaign of reconquest could be considered a resounding success. The Goths could now continue the role to which they had long been accustomed, providing military protection to the empire, along its northern frontier, securing the Alpine passes especially against the growing threat of the Franks. Rome and Italy could then enjoy a period of peace and recovery, as well as serving as a major source of tax revenue for the state. Belisarius' mutinous and arbitrary behavior, motivated by his vain belief that the agreement “would prevent him from winning the decisive victory of the whole war, when it was possible to do so with no trouble, and leading Vitigis a captive to Byzantium” (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.29.4), undermined the successes that his campaign had achieved, and led directly to a further generation of misery for Italy and to a weakening of imperial power.

For Procopius the return of Belisarius in 540 marked a turning point in the attempt to reconquer the western empire.

But the other leaders, who were inclined to be on a level with one another and had their minds fixed on nothing except private gain, had already begun to despoil the Romans and to put the subject population at the mercy of their soldiers. They themselves no longer heeded what had to be done and were unable to command their troops' obedience. And so they committed many errors and all the affairs of the Romans were ruined in a short time. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.1.23–24)

With this unmistakable echo of Thucydides, Procopius invited his readers to judge Justinian's Italian expedition as his classical predecessor had viewed Athens' grandiose attempt to conquer Sicily and the West nearly a thousand years before. The vision of reconquest carried with it the seeds of its own collapse. But Procopius' analysis is faulty and the blame is better laid at the door of Belisarius himself.

The fifteen years of Justinian's reign which stretched from his accession in 527 to the outbreak of the plague in 542 were a time of extraordinary achievement and ambition. He had taken over at a propitious moment. Justin had inherited an enormous amount of surplus revenue from Anastasius in 519, and this had hardly been touched. The new emperor, driven by a personal religious mission and a sense of his own destiny, launched an imperial program unmatched since the age of Augustus. The political will of the new regime is surely symbolized by the decision to collect, edit, and publish the entire corpus of Roman law, and then establish it as the unchanging template of order and authority within the Christian empire. The limits of this empire were expanded and redefined. From the Crimean Bosporus to Ethiopia, peoples and kingdoms along the eastern border were secured for Christianity. After the initial, almost fortuitous success in Africa, a plan formed to reclaim the western Mediterranean for Roman orthodoxy from the Arian barbarian kingdoms. The mob in Constantinople, senatorial rivals, doubters, and critics had been intimidated into silence by the carnage that followed the Nika riots.

Much of this was due to Justinian's own demonic energy, the relentless drive of a man who boasted that he never slept. The atmosphere of his early years is captured in the memoirs of the bureaucrat John Lydus:

When the state was being tossed from side to side by waves and storms of this sort, fate proffered a counterweight which served to combat the apathy of the old days, by placing Justinian, the most sleepless of all emperors, in charge of the common good, a man who thought that it was a punishable offence in his own life, unless everyone under his direction remained perpetually vigilant and did battle to their utmost for the state, so that they should take control not only of the possessions which once belonged to the Romans, when these had simply been lost thanks to the indolence of his predecessors, but also even of those of their enemies in addition to these. (John Lydus, de mag. 3.55)

Justinian himself, of course, claimed that the impulse that he channeled into empire was divine inspiration:

Hope in God is our sole recourse for the existence of the monarchy. It is that which assures the safety of our rule and empire. It is necessary that all our legislation flows from this principle, which is for it the beginning, the middle and the end. (Justinian, Nov. 109, preface)

Around himself he assembled one of the most astonishing groups of ministers known from any period of Rome's history. Belisarius, who was only the most distinguished of several highly effective and charismatic military leaders; John the Cappadocian, praetorian prefect, responsible for the empire's finances, bitterly hated by many of his contemporaries but supremely effective; Tribonian, who put previous lawyers in his shadow; Anthemius and Isidore, the architects of St Sophia; and Procopius himself, the historian of the age. This constellation of talents was driven by the same purpose and ambition that motivated the emperor. It was surely their collective aim, above all by the instrument of reconquering the lands that had slipped away from Roman control, to establish an empire of enduring power and restore the dominion of Augustus and Constantine. By the year 540 this was an aim that must have seemed within their grasp (Map 4.4).


Map 4.4    The new Mediterranean empire of Justinian

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