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7-08-2015, 20:38

The gothic war: the resistance of totila

As it turned out, the war with the Goths was by no means over. Justinian, perhaps afraid of the threat a mighty general could pose, failed to replace Belisarius, and rivalry and corruption became endemic among the Byzantine commanders left in Italy. They showed little inclination to attend to the Gothic resistance that continued north of the Po, and with the coming to power in 541 of King Totila (or Baduila, as his name was spelt on coins) the Goths gained a leader of outstanding calibre. Totila’s attitude to Justinian was expressed in his coinage, on which the portrait of the current emperor was replaced by that of Anastasius, who had recognised the kingship of Theoderic in 497; if Justinian challenged the Goths on the basis of legitimacy, Totila was prepared to dispute his claim. Before long war was raging again. In the spring of 542 the new Gothic king defeated the imperial army at Faenza and captured its standards, before proceeding to the south and taking Benevento, Cumae andNaples. Belisarius was sent back to Ravenna in 544 to deal with the deteriorating situation, but found himself powerless to stop the Gothic advance. Indeed, his conduct of the war in this period displays an uncharacteristic passivity. This may owe something to a severe outbreak of plague afflicting the empire at the time, with its consequent impact on manpower resources. InDecember 545 Totila besieged Rome and twelve months later entered it. He immediately visited St Peter’s to pray, an act calculated to suggest continuity with Theoderic, who had himself made devotions at the basilica on his one known visit to Rome, and, beyond him, with the emperors whose conduct Theoderic had imitated. But the act was hollow. There were few people left in the city, and Totila made no secret of his animosity towards the senate. In fact, he planned to raze the walls of the city, but Belisarius wrote warning him of the harsh judgement of posteritywere he to proceed with this course. Perhaps Belisarius was able to play on the vanity of the Gothic king; in any case, Totila behaved foolishly and abandoned Rome, taking members of the senate as hostages. For forty days the city was home to neither man nor beast, but by April 547 Belisarius had moved in and begun work on restoring its defences. During the spring Totila tried to wrest control of the city from him, but failed. Nevertheless, the Goths were still masters of much of Italy, to the extent that Belisarius tended to travel fromone place to another by ship rather than overland, and when Justinian recalled his great general to Constantinople a few years later Belisarius felt much more subdued than he had on his returns in 534 and 540. In 549 an Ostrogothic fleet ravaged the coast of Campania and Rome was again besieged; in the following January it fell. Totila established a mint in the city, held races and, in the words of a contemporary, lived there ‘like a father with his children’.23 With Ravenna still in Byzantine hands, Rome came to hold a political significance to which it had long been unaccustomed. Totila moved to Sicily and ravaged it in 550, whereupon the Franks occupied parts of northern Italy. A full decade after Belisarius had seemed to bring the war to a successful end, the situation in Italy was parlous, and Justinian decided to commit resources on a scale never entrusted to Belisarius. An enormous army was placed under the command of the patricius Germanus. He was an impressive figure, for not only was he a cousin of Justinian but he had married Matasuentha, the granddaughter of Theoderic and former wife ofWitigis, a tie which allowed him to anticipate limited resistance from the Goths in Italy. Indeed, the birth of a baby son to the couple allowed the historian Jordanes to be hopeful of a future union of the families of Germanus and Matasuentha.24 But Germanus died while preparations for the expedition were still underway, and in 551 the general Narses was appointed to finish the job. The great army set off overland for Italy in April 552. Franks who had settled in Venetia sought to deny it passage on the grounds that it included a large contingent of Lombards, their traditional enemies. TheGoths tried to make the road impassable, butNarses was able to make his way to Ravenna, occupying it on 6 June 552. Totila marched out of Rome, and at the end of June or beginning of July the two forces encountered each other at Busta Gallorum, a site in the Apennines.25 Before the troops of both armies Totila performed a stylish war dance on his charger, but the Goths were heavily outnumbered, and the outcome of the battle was inevitable. The Gothic cavalry could not withstand the enemy archers, and both cavalry and infantry fled, Totila dying of a wound received in flight. Numerous Gothic strongholds surrendered as Narses advanced on Rome, which his enemies were no longer strong enough to defend effectively. The city was easily captured and its keys despatched to Justinian. In their despair the Goths put to death senators they found and 300 children they were holding as hostages, but their cause was now hopeless, and the Franks refused to intervene on their behalf. In October a Gothic force did battle with Narses in the south of Italy at Mons Lactarius, near Nocera, but it was defeated, and Narses gave the surviving Goths permission to return to ‘their own land’. Some continued to resist on a local basis until the capture of Verona in 562 or 563, but by the time Narses was recalled, probably not long after the accession of the emperor Justin II (565–78), Italy seemed stable. The Gothic war had lasted far longer than the Vandal war, but its outcome was the same. A puzzling feature of the Gothic war is the failure of the Visigoths to become involved. For much of the war their king was an Ostrogoth, Theudis (531–48), and at one stage his nephew, Ildibad, was prominent in the resistance in Italy, but we have no reason to believe that help from the Visigoths reached Italy.We do know, however, that around 544 a Visigothic force was defeated at Septem, across the Straits of Gibraltar, which suggests an attempted thrust from Spain into what was by then Byzantine Africa. But in 552 a Byzantine force, purporting to answer an appeal for help from a Visigothic rebel, set out for Spain and succeeded in gaining control of a slice of its south-east coast around Cartagena and Malaga. The area has a mountainous hinterland and looks across the sea to Africa, and the defence of Africa may have been the true reason for Byzantine involvement in Spain.26 In any case, this modest success was the culmination of an extraordinary expansion of Byzantine power in the west. Within a few decades Africa and Italy, together with the large islands of the western Mediterranean, Dalmatia and part of Spain had been reintegrated into the empire, so that the poet Agathias could legitimately claim that a traveller could go as far as the sandy shore of Spain where the Pillars of Hercules lay and still tread imperial territory.

 

 

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