The Imperial Roman Armies defeat the Goths – The last phase of the Gothic War in Italy

At the last moment the Goths found a king and a hero to rescue them, and the conquest of Italy was destined to be deferred for twelve years more. Two ephemeral rulers reigned for a few months at Pavia, and came to bloody ends; but their successor was Baduila, the noblest character of the sixth century—“the first knight of the Middle Ages”,  as he has been called.

decanummium coin of Baduila (Badvela Rex), issued AD 541–552

decanummium coin of Baduila (Badvela Rex), issued AD 541–552

When the generals of Justinian marched against him, to finish the war by the capture of Verona and Pavia, he won over them the first victory that the Goths had obtained since their enemies landed in Italy. This was followed by two more successes; the scattered armies of Witiges rallied round the banner of the new king, and at once the cities of Central and Southern Italy began to fall back into Gothic hands, with the same rapidity with which they had yielded to Belisarius. The fact was, that the war had been a cruel strain on the Italians, and that the imperial governors, and still more their fiscal agents, or “logothetes”, had become unbearably oppressive. Italy had lived through the fit of enthusiasm with which it had received the armies of Justinian, and was now regretting the days of Theodoric as a long-lost golden age. Most of its cities were soon in Baduila’s hands; the lmperialists retained only the districts round Rome, Naples, Otranto, and Ravenna. Of Naples they were soon deprived. [A.D. 543.] Baduila invested it, and ere long constrained it to surrender. He treated the inhabitants with a kindness and consideration which no Roman general, except Belisarius, had ever displayed. A speech  which he delivered to his generals soon after this success deserves a record, as showing the character of the man. A Gothic warrior had been convicted of violating the daughter of a Roman. Baduila condemned him to death. His officers came round him to plead for the soldier’s life. He answered them that they must choose that day whether they preferred to save one man’s life or the life of the Gothic race. At the beginning of the war, as they knew well, the Goths had brave soldiers, famous generals, countless treasure, horses, weapons, and all the forts of Italy. And yet under Theodahat—a man who loved gold better than justice—they had so angered God by their unrighteous lives, that all the troubles of the last ten years had come upon them. Now God seemed to have avenged Himself on them enough. He had begun a new course with them, and they must begin a new course with Him, and justice was the only path. As for the present criminal being a valiant hero, let them know that the unjust man and the ravisher was never brave in fight; but that according to a man’s life, such was his luck in battle.

Such was the justice of Baduila; and it seemed as if his dream was about to come true, and that the regenerate Goths would win back all that they had lost. Ere long he was at the gates of Rome, prepared to essay, with 15,000 men, what Witiges had failed to do with 100,000. Lest all his Italian conquests should be lost, Justinian was obliged to send back Belisarius, for no one else could hold back the Goths. But Belisarius was ill-supplied with men; he had fallen into disfavour at Court, and the imperial ministers stinted him of troops and money. Unable to relieve Rome, he had to wait at Portus, by the mouth of the Tiber, watching for a chance to enter the city. That chance he never got. The famine-stricken Romans, angry with the cruel and avaricious Bessas, who commanded the garrison, began to long for the victory of their enemy; and one night some traitors opened the Asinarian Gate, and let in Baduila and his Goths. The King thought that his troubles were over; he assembled his chiefs, and bade them observe how, in the time of Witiges, 7,000 Imperial soldiers* had conquered, and robbed of kingdom and liberty, 100,000 well-armed Goths. But now that they were few, poor, and wretched, the Goths had conquered more than 20,000 of the enemy. And why ? Because of old they looked to anything rather than justice: they had sinned against each other and the Romans. Therefore they must choose henceforth, and be just men and have God with them, or unjust and have God against them.

Baduila had determined to do that which no general since Hannibal had contemplated: he would destroy Rome, and with it all the traditions of the world-empire of the ancient city—to him they seemed but snares, tending to corrupt the mind of the Goths. The people he sent away unharmed—they were but a few thousand left after the horrors of the famine during the siege. But he broke down the walls, and dismantled the palaces and arsenals. For a few weeks Rome was a deserted city, given up to the wolf and the owl [A.D. 550].

For eleven unquiet years, Baduila, the brave and just, ruled Italy, holding his own against Belisarius, till the great general was called home by some wretched court intrigue. But presently Justinian gathered another army, more numerous than any that Belisarius had led, and sent it to Italy, under the command of the eunuch Narses. It was a strange choice that made the chamberlain into a general; but it succeeded. Narses marched round the head of the Adriatic, and invaded Italy from the north. Baduila went forth to meet him at Tagina, in the Apennines. For a long day the Ostrogothic knights rode again and again into the Imperialist ranks; but all their furious charges failed. At evening they reeled back broken, and their king received a mortal wound in the flight [A.D. 553].

With the death of Baduila, it was all up with the Goths; their hero’s knightly courage and kingly righteousness had not sufficed to save them from the same doom which had overtaken the Vandals. The broken army made one last stand in Campania, under a chief named Teia; but he was slain in battle at Nuceria, and then the Goths surrendered. They told Narses that the hand of God was against them; they would quit Italy, and go back to dwell in the north, in the land of their fathers. So the poor remnant of the conquering Ostrogoths marched off, crossed the Po and the Alps, and passed away into oblivion in the northern darkness. The scheme of Justinian was complete. Italy was his; but an Italy so wasted and depopulated, that the traces of the ancient Roman rule had almost vanished, “The land”, says a contemporary chronicler, “was reduced to primeval solitude”—war and famine had swept it bare.

*NovoScriptorium: The original text uses the word “Greeks” instead of “Imperial soldiers”. This is very wrong and also misleading. The legitimate Roman Empire continued her life in the East, with Constantinople/New Rome as capital. No “Greek” or “Byzantine” Empire ever existed. As for the identity of the subjects, please read here.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)

Narses     Narses

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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