Quick Note: Why is this node called the Reconquest? Many people would say that the Byzantine Empire
never held Italy
previous to this point. This is a reconquest mostly because of the political state
of Italy at the time. The Italian
area of the Roman Empire
is typically said to have fallen in the fifth century
, but politically it was still seen as a protectorate
of the new Rome
) up until the crowning of Charlemagne
. Many leaders during those, more or less, four centuries after the fall of Rome set themselves as viceroy
s of the area under the Byzantine Empire
. The actual fall of the area into non-Roman
hands was more of a political ploy by Rome’s Papacy
for complete independence from the Orthodoxy
of the Byzantium, with whom they feuded more and more often as the years passed. The view we have today of two Romes is more the result of the Papacy who created the myth of Constantine
the Great leaving the western crown with the Papacy in order to validate their right to crown Charlemagne
and achieve their independence
from the east.
The emperor who led the reconquest was the great Justinian I. Justinian I early reign was a time of turmoil. Almost from the first day that the eastern empire (Byzantine Rome) could be said to have become a political entity, it was in conflict with the Persians to the east. As well, over the two centuries that had passed, large-scale migrations had greatly changed the population of Europe. The Vandals, the Slavs, the Bulgurs, the Lombards, the Ostrogoths, to name a few; all had moved into new lands, many into areas that once were lightly populated Roman lands.
By the time Justinian came to the throne, the Byzantine Empire seemed very likely to follow its other half into turmoil and destruction. Emperors were still emperors only at the whim of the military, the people (those who actually considered themselves Romans), were either too powerful or lacked power at all. The newcomers to the areas, especially the Balkans were putting a strain both on the military and the Byzantine sovereignty of the region. The military arm of the empire was increasingly made up of mercenaries, as the Roman population in the east was rather small throughout the Byzantine history.
Note: The use of mercenaries was a necessity rather than just a statement of weakness. Byzantium Rome just did not have enough people to staff all the armies they would need to rule such a vast area.
Justinian would rise to the political scene under his uncle Justin. It was during this time that he gained a reputation for bringing back the pageantry that the people wished to associate with the empire. He was chief in making the Romans appreciate and celebrate their past and their nationality again.
It was some time after the Nika Troubles that Justinian made a peace with the Persians. (One of many treaties that gave this constant war a few periods of peace.) Under Justinian and after the Nika Troubles, the country had actually prospered; the loyalty of the army and its mercenaries was less questioned and borders, including those in the northern Balkans were actually rather settled. Justinian determined it was time to reclaim his hegemony in Western Europe.
The young emperor had the luck of having a gifted and loyal general under his command by the name of Belisarius. Belisarius was a true man of the military, skilled in command, unquestioned in bravery and an excellent leader of men. His only weakness was his wife Antonina who was once a courtesan, much like the emperor’s own wife, but had refused to give up the lifestyle she so enjoyed even after marriage. Her actions would cause much embarrassment to the imperial general. Overall though, Justinian could not have asked for a better man to lead his reconquest.
The North African Campaign
Much like the Allies in World War II, North Africa, especially the area of modern day Tunisia, was seen as the first area that needed to be taken to gain Italy. The Vandals had migrated here over time and conquered the area under the great leader King Gaiseric. But Gaiseric was long dead and his distant cousin Galimer now ruled the area. Between the two no comparison can be drawn in ability; Galimer was nothing like his cousin had been. But still he chose to resist the Empire. His reply to Justinian’s demand of North Africa is said to have been, “nothing is more desirable than that a monarch should mind his own business” (pp 66 – 67, Norwich). Understandably the line was now drawn. Justinian had no choice but to take the area by force.
The force set out on Midsummer Day 534, under Belisarius. The force consisted of 5000 cavalry (mostly Huns), about 10,000 infantry all carried in about 500 transports and escorted by 92 dromons (Byzantium’s fighting ship). The fleet would land south of Carthage with very little trouble beyond food poisoning from some bad military rations. The troops disembarked and began the march north towards Carthage.
Belisarius’ army was still about 10 miles away from Carthage, on September 13th, when the Vandal army struck the Byzantine forces. Galimer had planned a three-pronged attack. The army would be split into three, one force under his command, one under his brother Ammatus and the third under his nephew Gibamund. Unfortunately, either through bad planning or bad communication, the attack did not go off as planned. Ammatus moved too early and his forces were easily broken, Ammatus himself killed. The Hun cavalry then charged the forces of Gibamund before they could actually attack the Byzantine forces.
Galimer himself was supposed to act as the reserves and was to be the last to engage the Byzantine forces. As he moved towards battle he is said to have come upon the body of his brother and lost all will to fight. His troops easily broke and with Galimer tried to flee the battle, unfortunately for the Vandals the road north had been seized by Byzantine detachments and they were forced to flee into the western desert.
With Carthage open to Belisarius the battle for North Africa had been quickly won. By September 15th, the city of Carthage was again in Roman hands.
The Vandal king Galimer tried one more time to defeat the Byzantine forces and with his brother Tzazo advanced on Carthage. But they were easily defeated and the army fled. This time Belisarius followed the Vandal forces. At the city of Hippo, the Vandals were completely defeated and any threat removed. Belisarius returned to Carthage with all of Galimer’s wealth and many Vandal prisoners. Galimer himself finally surrendered in March of 534.
The Italian Campaign
Italy was an entirely different situation. Not only were the Ostrogoths, who then ruled the area, more civilized, but they also ruled as viceroys under the Byzantine emperor and made great pains not to anger the Orthodox Church and most often to actually improve relations with the church. As would happen though, so very often, in history matters had a habit of resolving themselves.
The great leader of the Arian Goths (Ostrogoths) had been Theodoric. He though had died in 526 AD, but not before bequeathing his title to his eight-year-old grandson, Athalaric, the son of Theodoric’s only daughter Amalasuntha. Amalasuntha was a thoroughly classically trained woman, she understood both Greek and Latin and had extensive learning, she also though had a major desire for power. The Goth nobles though were greatly worried about Amalasuntha’s insistence that her son would receive a classical education. They were quick to bring Athalaric under their own wings and deny his mother access to her child.
This prompted Amalasuntha to begin correspondence with Justinian I, in an effort to regain her power. It was agreed that she would flee across the Adriatic Sea to Dyrrachium, where she would petition the emperor to restore her to power. This idea was readily agreeable to Justinian, as Amalasuntha did not lack in respect from the common people of Italy and indeed even from some of the nobles. Justinian expected that Italy could be regained with very little or even no blood lost.
Events though moved much too fast. Under the nobles Athalaric had gained a penchant for drinking his life away. He died at the age of seventeen in the capitol of Ravenna and was quickly succeeded by his cousin Theodahad. Amalasuntha seeing that Theodahad was a man to be ruled rather than a man to rule abandoned her plans with Justinian and petitioned the new Goth king with the idea of a joint rule. Theodahad eagerly accepted.
Again Justinian I was left with no idea how to proceed in the reconquest of Italy. Again though the Goths would provide him what he needed as the political quagmire that was Italy seemed to only get thicker, deeper and more advantageous to the Empire all the time. In April 535, Theodahad had Amalasuntha imprisoned and just a short while later had her murdered. Justinian now had his reason.
War is Declared
Belisarius was again to command the attack. With 7,500 men he was commanded to sail to Sicily and to seize the island. Sicily fell to Belisarius with almost no effort and he prepared to make for the southern mainland and Naples. Unfortunately a revolt began in North Africa and Belisarius was forced to put it down. It was not until the spring of the 536 AD that he would be able to return to the campaign.
Belisarius landed in southern Italy and proceeded north to Naples with no resistance from the Goths or any other forces for that matter. Naples though would be his first serious test, as the city refused to submit to the Byzantine forces. After a three week siege the city fell and was summarily looted for three days as was the custom of the time.
Note: This was an excepted custom to be used ONLY against cities that resisted capture. Most kingdoms used the custom during the Roman era (of which the Byzantine, at least early Byzantine, is part of) as sort of an incentive to surrender.
The Conquest of Rome
Theodahad’s reign would not last much past the fall of Naples. He was deposed and executed, his successor being an old general by the name of Vitiges. Vitiges’ first announcement was the abandoning of Rome. Belisarius though did not move towards Rome for many months. It wasn’t until he received an invitation from Pope Silverius that he finally marched north. It would be expected that he had been waiting for this very thing as a diplomatic coup. On December 9th, 536 Belisarius arrived in Rome as the garrison left by the Goths fled the city.
The general immediately set to fortifying the city. Massive amounts of grain was collected from the countryside, as well as from Sicily, and the age scarred walls of Rome were repaired to withstand the siege that Belisarius expected to come. And as was expected, the Goths arrived at Rome under command of Vitiges. In March of 537 they took up positions around the city, cutting the aqueducts into the city first and then beginning the siege of Rome itself.
Belisarius, thanks in large part to his foresight in preparing for the siege, was able to withstand the Goths. It was after a few months of siege that a small contingent of 1,600 Slavs and Huns, sent as reinforcements from the empire, broke through the Goth blockade to reinforce and resupply the city. From that point, Belisarius was now able to commence occasional attacks against the Goths. By the time summer was rolling around though plagues were breaking out within the Goth ranks and famine had set into the Byzantine ranks, as well as the people of Rome.
Still though the Byzantine forces and the Roman peoples resisted the Goths. Their struggle would bear fruit in March of 538, a year after the siege began, when 5,000 reinforcements arrived from the empire under the command of a general named John. Thereafter the balance began to shift heavily and the Goths requested a peace from Belisarius. The general forwarded the request to Constantinople and awaited a reply.
It was during this time that Belisarius sent John on campaign. With 2,000 cavalry, John was sent northward towards Rimini. Burning and looting along the way, he finally arrived, seized the area and set up his forward headquarters in Rimini. Belisarius, fearing that John would be defeated there, sent two officers to John’s headquarters to fetch the general home. John though refused and just days later the Goths began the siege of Rimini.
Now as the powers within the Byzantium hierarchy had started to get strained by too many strong wills, a third and even more disastrous addition was made. One Narses, a eunuch and hero of the Nika Troubles, was dispatched to Italy to both relieve the Byzantium forces and to watch Belisarius, who Justinian felt was becoming just a bit too successful. Narses immediately called for a council wherein he decided that a relief operation to Rimini should be undertaken. Belisarius, knowing he would be over-ruled anyway kept silent so as not to earn disfavor or dishonor. Belisarius though did lead the attempt and when it was successful and John gave Narses the recognition, then did all semblance of a command structure break down in Italy.
Narses may have been a very poor commander, but his was an awe-inspiring leader of men. Very quickly the common soldiers in the Byzantine army began to be swayed over to his side. When things seemed to be at their worst though, the question of Milan arose and the whole mess was flung onto another ever more damaging level.
The Siege of Milan
Milan’s archbishop had requested help from Belisarius in freeing the city from the Goths. Belisarius would accept and sent 1,000 men to Milan. Immediately upon their arrival the city welcomed them and the act was followed by many other cities within the region. Each of these cities required a garrison too and the force of soldiers that eventually was left in Milan numbered about 300. So it was that the Byzantium forces were hopelessly outnumbered when Vitiges sent a Goth army, along with 10,000 Burgandy reinforcements against Milan. Belisarius, seeing that Milan was in peril sent John and another general, Justin, to relieve Milan.
The two generals marched north towards Milan, but realizing that they were heavily outnumbered they refused to cross the Po River. Nothing Belisarius could do would persuade them and eventually the two announced that they now followed only the orders of Narses. Thus due to these command breakdowns Milan would fall and though the few Byzantium soldiers in the city were spared, in return for opening the gates, the people of Milan were slaughtered for their betrayal with all the females in the city being given to the Burgundians as slaves.
Due to this huge setback, Narses was almost immediately recalled from Italy and command fell once again to Belisarius. With no resistance within his own command structure, the general was again able to actually fight the Goths. In a very short period, all of Italy outside of Ravenna was in Byzantine hands and Ravenna itself was surrounded on all sides by Belisarius’ forces.
The First Italian Campaign Draws to a Close
During that year though, word had reached Justinian that the Persians were preparing for war with the Byzantines. He had no choice but to seek peace in Italy so that he might prepare for war in the east. By the time his orders reached Belisarius, the Byzantine forces in Italy had already surrounded Ravenna. The deal that the emperor was willing to offer was the retention of all lands north of the Po River for the Goths. Belisarius though was unwilling to accept that idea when he was so close to victory. Instead he accepted an offer to make himself the Western Emperor in return for Ravenna and Vitiges giving the throne to Belisarius. After much consideration and counseling Belisarius agreed to the offer and was welcomed into Ravenna. He immediately reneged on his agreement and after looting the city, turned it over to Justinian thus continuing his role of being a great AND loyal general. The Byzantine general did keep one promise; there was no looting of the private houses of Ravenna and the populace was spared.
So it was, that with Italy under Roman control for the first time in a century Belisarius went home expecting to be welcomed as a hero. In fact Justinian I had grown wary of his general, fearing that more fame meant less loyalty. Belisarius was not given his parades, he was instead hastened off to the east to fight yet another long and bitter campaign.
In Italy it would take less than a year for the five generals left in Italy to lose almost all of Belisarius’ gains to a new Goth army. The stage would be set for another campaign in Italy.
The Goths Retake Italy
Throughout Italy there were only small pockets of resistance from the Goths. Mostly they were put down, but the Byzantine generals in the area and their penchant for looting the areas, along with the imperial tax collectors who were stripping the area of wealth, combined to make it easier and easier for these groups to survive. One Goth, a recently elevated chieftain by the name of Hildebad would become the leader of the Goth resistance to the empire.
By 540, thanks in large part to the oppression by the Byzantine generals, Hildebad’s army had grown from 1,000 men to a force large enough to face the Byzantine armies one on one. Because Vitiges had offered Belisarius the rank of emperor, Justinian I was afraid that the leading governor of Italy might accept any other offer. So it was that he placed a man of unquestioned loyalty in control of the area. Unfortunately the new governor was also of unquestionable lack of skill. He did nothing to improve the situation and the Byzantium holdings in Italy fell yet faster.
During this time, Hildebad had been murdered and a new leader had risen. This was Totila, the most skilled leader the Goths had found in a long time. Totila appealed to the younger Italians to rise against their Byzantine oppressors. It wouldn’t take long before his tactic worked. Totila would proceed to drive the Byzantine forces from Verona, route them outside Farenza and in the spring of 542 AD, he completely destroyed the army if John in a battle north of Florence.
By the summer of 542 Totila controlled all of Italy outside of Ravenna, Rome, Florence and Naples, as well as a few coastal cities and towns. Totila now began the siege of Naples, starved the people and forced the Byzantine garrison to flee the city. The fall of Naples was resounding and with all of Byzantine Italy set to fall back into barbarian hands, the emperor had no choice, Belisarius was again dispatched to Italy. Meanwhile Totila set about appealing to the people of Rome to rise against the Byzantine forces and give the city to him, but by 544 nothing had happened and Totila set out to take the city himself.
The Second Italian Campaign
It just so happened though that Belisarius was at this time already on his way to Italy. He would go into the new campaign with many more problems than he had during the last. Justinian had given him few troops, and what he had were inexperienced. He had very little money. And most damning, this time it was not just the Goths he was fighting, but the entire population of Italy.
Within a year of arriving back in Italy, Belisarius had relieved a siege on the city of Otrano and rebuilt and the defenses at Pesaro. He was woefully outnumbered though and in May 545 he requested reinforcements from the emperor. Thankfully they were sent, with the general John and an Armenian named Isaac in the lead. At about this time, the armies of Totila had reached Rome and began a siege. Rome’s garrison commander Bessas had made little effort to prepare and the city was in dire straits.
Belisarius now was committed to an almost suicidal course, and he set up his plans for the relief of Rome. Though the Goth fleet controlled the Tiber, Belisarius knew that if he managed to move his troops through the enemy ships and Bessas kept the Goth troops busy that he would have a chance to attack the Goth siege troops from behind. So the camps were struck and Belisarius approached Rome, unbeknownst to him Bessas made no effort to occupy Totila’s attentions. Isaac was left behind to guard the captured areas (as well as Antonina, who like always had accompanied her husband on campaign). It was to be, that as Belisarius approached the Goth forces, word arrived that Isaac and thus Antonina had been captured. Belisarius immediately reversed his heading.
It would turn out that in fact it had only been Isaac who was captured. In blatant disregard for his commander’s orders, Isaac had attacked a Goth controlled city. His force was defeated and he was captured, but only a small part of the Byzantine force had been lost and Antonina was safe. Belisarius had achieved much in a short while though, his retaking of Pesaro and Otrano had forced the Goths back and slowed down their advances, it had also made it much tougher for Totila to advance again, but the general was becoming more and more convinced that the war could no longer be won and so he sent Antonina back to Constantinople as an emissary asking the emperor to look towards peace.
Antonina was expected to confer with Justinian's wife Theodora and thus force herself upon the ear of Justinian I. Unexpectedly though she returned to find Theodora dead, the emperor in mourning and actually more than ready to hear what Belisarius had to say. Antonina convinced the emperor that if the war in Italy was to be eventually lost and that if peace was not an option that her husband should at least be recalled so as to spare him the loss of face. So it was that on the eve of victory, Belisarius was recalled from Italy and the war allowed to languish again.
Prelude to Victory
But the war would suffer some because of a theological debate in the empire, one that would push the Papacy yet further away from the Orthodoxy. With Totila still at the gates of Rome and every day another one where he might capture and be able to influence the pope, action was demanded. Justinian had the pope seized and brought to Constantinople where he might be persuaded to see the theological question Justinian’s way. And so the situation might have remained for an indefinite period of time, but that on the 16th of January 550, a garrison guarding Rome instead opened the gates and Totila entered. The Goths made to stay too, they settled in the city and invited refugees back in, as well as Totila’s taking on imperial trappings and restarting the Circus Maximus.
The Final Conflicts
Justinian I now had no choice but to act. Instead of sending Belisarius back to Italy though he chose Narses, who was sent with massive amounts of manpower and resources. By the summer of 552, Narses was in Italy at the head of 35,000 men. They advanced from the Adriatic Sea to Ravenna and then southward down the Via Flemina upon which Totila marched north to block their way. So it was that towards the end of June that the daylong Battle of Taginae was engaged. Totila was mortally wounded in the battle and died during the Goth retreat. His general Teia took up the resistance, but just did not have enough left to fight the massive army of Narses. Rome fell shortly after the battle between Narses and Totila and the Byzantine forces continued to push south.
In one of the valley of the Sarno River, merely a handful of miles from Pompeii, the two armies met for the last time in the Battle of Mons Lactarius. Teia was killed by a javelin, early in the battle, and the Goth forces were completely destroyed. Finally it was over, Justinian I had gained Italy, the Goths had been defeated and the Roman Empire again ruled over both East and West. But the empire had been almost impoverished and completely overstretched by the campaign. In just one man’s reign it had reached its height and now it would begin the descent. Italy would not last forever in Byzantine grasp and it would be only a few short centuries before the Muslim hordes out of Arabia would take Sicily. But for the time being the Roman Empire was restored.
Norwich, J. J. (1988) A short history of Byzantium. Vintage Books.