The Goths with their extensive kingdom in Italy ought to have found events in Africa thought provoking. Here was a resurgent Empire confidently recovering a lost province. They must have guessed that they were now top of the to do list. Perhaps now was the time to unite against a common enemy.
But they didn’t do that. In fact they did the opposite.
Following the death of Theodoric, who had founded the kingdom in the first place, Gothic politics had fractured. Monarchy is not a bad form of government in some ways but it does have the fatal drawback that from time to time it throws up the most unsuitable of incumbents. The death of Theodoric placed his infant grandson on the throne with his mother as regent. This was just about the worst case scenario from the point of view of the stability of the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. A regent can never have the authority of an actual monarch. And all the political players on the scene would be well aware of the dividends that could be drawn from being an important influence over the pliable young mind of the future king.
Internal stress was therefore a given as the various powerful individuals vied for position. The pretext of the struggle was the nature of the education the prince should receive. His mother, the already pretty Romanised Amalasontha, wanted to bring him up the Roman way. Others argued that he should be raised as a traditional Gothic warrior.
Externally Theodoric’s foreign policy unravelled rapidly. He had built up close links with the neighbouring powers via a set of judicious marriages. These worked well when the Gothic Kingdom was strong and well run. With the man himself off the scene they served to keep rivals well informed about opportunities to interfere and profit from Gothic weakness. In the long run the most significant development was that the Franks pushed the Goths almost completely out of Gaul. This considerably extended the size of the kingdom that would later develop into France. But the biggest direct threat was the newly aggressive Romans under Justinian. Amalasontha had tried to placate him by co-operating with the campaign against Vandal Africa. Notable in this policy was making Sicily available to the Romans.
Amalasontha seems have been a reasonably able politician. She made a sufficiently good job of her dealings with Justinian to get him to agree to provide a bolt hole if needed. And the fact that she was successful enough at getting her own way in a male dominated Gothic culture is quite a testament to her. She was nearly able to get away with a really serious blow to her power as well. Her son died. This left her as a regent with nobody to be a regent for. She hit on the idea of an alliance with a Gothic aristocrat called Theodatus. Some historians report this as an actual marriage. This is a common misinterpretation given that the words alliance and marriage are often used interchangeably when talking about dynastic matters. Amalasontha might have done better to have gone for an actual marriage. Sharing power is never easy and the arrangement didn’t work. To put it mildly. Her new partner first imprisoned her and then had her strangled.
The ironic bit of the story is that Amalasontha had probably chosen Theodatus because he was basically rather weak and unassertive. He demonstrated this rather quickly by getting stitched up like a kipper by the artful Byzantine diplomat Peter and agreeing to virtually hand over his kingdom in return for his life. This was hardly the sign of a man who was likely to save the Gothic Kingdom.
But to be fairer to him than he probably deserves, it was rather hard to predict the outcome of what was obviously shaping up to be a major war. The Goths were a tiny minority compared to the population of Italy and thanks to the successful diplomacy of the reign of Theodoric were not really all that battle hardened at this stage. And the highly aggressive Vandal kingdom in Africa had just been toppled in very short order by a relatively small Byzantine force. On the other hand, the Goths were still numerous enough to put up a fight, and with the home advantage might well be able to stand up to an attack.
Belisarius had succeeded in Africa with resources that were only just adequate to do the job. In Italy he had an army that was seriously short of what was needed. This was good for the byzantine treasury, but was also good politics from the emperor’s point of view. He couldn’t keep control on a day to day basis but by doling out reinforcements piecemeal he could at least prevent Belisarius doing anything too surprising. Restoring Roman provinces was one thing. Restoring the Roman tradition of successful generals ending up on the throne was quite another.
Another difference between the Italian and the African campaigns was the attitude of the local populations. The Africans had never really got on with the Vandals. In Italy on the other hand the Goths had shown a bit more sense and had established a working relationship that was fairly bearable. And there were some question marks over the desirability of returning to the imperial fold. What I suppose nowadays we’d call Byzexit had some appeal. Religious minorities, notably the Jews, were not going to find the insistence on orthodoxy of the Byzantine Church remotely appealing. The loyalty of the local population was something that had to be gained, and once gained could easily be lost. Overall Belisarius was to do a good job of winning the Italians over. But he wasn’t complacent, and keeping the Italians on board is one of the arguments he deploys in letters sent to try and get more resources from Justinian. And this is one of the dimensions of the campaign that should never be ignored .
Quite apart from the battles with the Goths, and later the Franks, Belisarius was also engaged in a battle for support from Constantinople. It is often portrayed as an issue of a jealous monarch being cautious about possibly building up someone who could be a rival. And this was certainly a big component of what was going on. But it is worth remembering that supplying a military force in an overseas campaign was a very expensive undertaking, and Justinian did need to consider other frontiers. And despite the best efforts of the Byzantine diplomatic service, in the sixth century there was always the possibility of a new and previously unknown enemy suddenly appearing over the horizon without warning.
The Italian campaign opened in Sicily. Belisarius made his intentions clear enough by denying the Goths the fortress of Lilybaeum on the island. This had very recently been handed over by the Goths to the Vandals as part of a peace deal. With the Vandal Kingdom now defunct it might well have been expected to go back to the Goths. And with a potential 200,000 warriors available in Italy it would have been prudent to let them have it. Instead an insulting message was sent claiming that it went back to the emperor who was free to do with it as he willed.
A unified Gothic Kingdom could have laughed at the pretension. But their divisions prevented them from reacting. Belisarius was left free to establish firm rule in Sicily. But the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy included territory on the other side of the Adriatic, roughly what used to be called Yugoslavia and most of modern Austria. This area was at that time known as Dalmatia. So although holding Sicily was good, it was quite distant from the main part of the empire and so it only made sense to hold it at all as a precursor for gaining a foothold on the mainland.
There was a pretty sound overall strategic plan to the invasion of Italy presumably devised by Justinian. Belisarius was to lead the main thrust up the Italian peninsula from the south. In the meantime general Mundus was to lead an army into Dalmatia. The Franks in what I suppose we should now start calling France had been bribed to support the campaign as well.
So although the troops under the direct command of Belisarius were understrength, the other planks of the strategy combined with the support of the local population were quite likely to do the trick and deliver victory.
At first things seemed to go well. The Goths were quickly beaten in Dalmatia and Belisarius made progress on his front. But setbacks arose pretty quickly. The Goths counterattacked in Dalmatia and nearly drove the Byzantines back. In the event this would be a short lived victory and the Byzantines would soon make good their position. But for the moment it heartened the Gothic resistance in Italy itself. Belisarius got bogged down in sieges of southern Italian cities, in particular in Naples.
The population of the city were not exactly unsympathetic, but they weren’t keen to commit themselves either. Whereas the Vandals in Africa had been pretty intolerant of dissenting religious opinions, the Goths had not made a big issue of their Arianism. The local Catholics were not actually being persecuted. So while they would probably have preferred the Byzantines in a straight choice, they were not excited by actually putting their own lives at risk for them. There were after all rather a lot of Goths around and it wouldn’t have been wise to upset them before the outcome of the war was clear.
But although it was not as easy going as it might have been, the prevarications at the top of the Gothic command did leave some options open to Belisarius and he managed to reach Rome in December. He had landed in Italy the previous spring. This doesn’t seem very fast movement by most standards but it was quick enough to catch the city with only a small Gothic garrison which immediately fled.
Belisarius and his small army unopposed entered Rome. The Romans were back in their historic capital.
But they weren’t out of trouble. The Goths soon recovered their composure and laid siege to the city. The siege of Rome is in many ways the most impressive episode in the long history of impressive military achievements of Belisarius. A siege is rarely the chance for a display of leadership. But Belisarius managed to take the initiative despite having the fewest troops and being nominally on the defensive. He made frequent sorties to disrupt the plans of the attackers. Indeed after initially trying to encircle the city they had to pull back and only impose a partial blockade. The attackers attempt to deploy siege engines failed because the defenders superior archery enabled the draft animals drawing the machines to be picked off before they got close enough to do any damage.
One of the more remarkable episodes was when the Goths launched an attack on Hadrian’s mausoleum – a large structure on the bank of the Tiber. This was repelled by using the marble statues on its roof as missiles. Some were found many centuries later in the river where they had fallen. In fact, this episode led to the survival of some antique artwork that would almost certainly otherwise have been lost.
The inhabitants of the city were generally sympathetic to Belisarius and the defenders, but their support couldn’t be relied upon. Belisarius had to send letters to Justinian begging him for further supplies and reinforcements.
Next time we’ll go into a bit more detail about the siege of Rome. In the meantime, thanks for listening.