Gothic War (535–554)

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Gothic war
Part of: Justinian Wars of Conquest
Course of the Gothic Wars
Course of the Gothic Wars
date C 535–554
place Today's Italy and Dalmatia
output Short-term Eastern Roman victory, long-term devastation of Italy
Territorial changes Sicily , mainland Italy and Dalmatia are conquered by the Eastern Roman Empire
consequences End of the Ostrogoth Empire
Parties to the conflict

Eastern Roman Empire ,
Huns ,
Heruli ,
slaves ,

Ostrogoth Empire ,
Franconia ,
Alamanni ,


Justinian I ,
Belisarius ,
Mundus †,
Johannes ,
Narses ,
Germanus ,

Theodahad ,
Witichis ,
Hildebad ,
Erarich ,
Totila †,

Gothic war is, in a broader sense, the name for a war in which the Goths were involved; In a narrower sense, it means the war between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian I in the years 535 - 552 (or 562), which ended with the Pyrrhic victory of the Eastern Romans and the destruction of the Ostrogoth Empire . In research, a distinction is often made between the “First Gothic War” from 535 to 540 and the “Second Gothic War” from 541 to 552/562.

Starting position

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and 480 respectively, rulers of Germanic empires, who nominally still recognized the Eastern Roman emperor as overlord, took his place (see Migration ). In Italy , the old heartland of the empire, Odoacer had established his own rule in 476, which was violently ended after a few years with the conquest of Italy by the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great in 493. The Eastern Roman Empire had in fact recognized this new balance of power in 497, especially since the Ostrogoths left the structures of late ancient Italy largely untouched and formally subordinated themselves to Eastern Rome. However, Emperor Justinian I, who came to power in Constantinople in 527 , had set himself the goal of restoring the old Roman Empire ( Restauratio imperii ) and recapturing the territories lost to the Teutons . The emperor probably reached this goal after the surprisingly short and victorious vandal war that began in 533, in which the Eastern Roman general Belisarius was able to destroy the Vandal Empire in North Africa and incorporate it into the Eastern Roman Empire within a few months . In view of this success, the reconquest of Italy now seemed possible. The Ostrogoth Empire was now threatened from both the east and the south (in addition there was the threat from the Frankish Merovingians in the northwest), and Justinian was only waiting for a suitable occasion to be able to intervene in Italy.

First Gothic War (535-540)

Map showing the army movements during the first phase of the Gothic War (535-540)

Theodoric had died in 526, and his death led to succession battles that weakened his empire. He was succeeded by Theodoric's grandson Athalarich , who, however, was still a minor and was under the reign of his mother Amalasuntha . This was pro-Roman (the Eastern Roman troops had 533 Ostrogoth ports in Sicily as bases for the fight against the Vandals), but came into conflict with their cousin Theodahad , who became co-ruler of the Ostrogoth Empire after the death of Athalaric in 534 . This rivalry escalated in 535 when Theodahad had Amalasuntha imprisoned and murdered on April 30th. Justinian saw these events as a welcome opportunity to invade Italy and overcome his apparently weakened opponent. For this purpose he let his generals attack in 535 on two fronts at the same time.

On the land border in Illyria the east Roman advance was very slow; the general Mundus only succeeded in taking Salona . Belisarius, who had already been victorious in the vandal war, was all the more successful in Italy. With an elite troop of 7,500 men, but supplemented by further troops, he was able to quickly take possession of Sicily and soon landed at Rhegium , which he was able to conquer as soon as possible then (after heavy fighting) Naples . Before the Ostrogoths could organize an efficient defense, Belisarius was already standing in front of Rome , which he took on December 9, 536. The Ostrogoths blamed their king Theodahad for this catastrophic development, who was overthrown and replaced by Witichis (Witigis, Wittiges); the latter had his predecessor killed and made every effort to recapture the lost territory. The former royal bodyguard secured his legitimacy by marrying Matasuentha , who, as the daughter of Amalasuntha, came from the Amal family.

Initially Witichis tried to win over the Frankish Empire , which had remained neutral in the conflict. In view of the desperate situation of the Ostrogoths, he felt compelled to cede today's Provence and areas on Lake Constance to the Merovingians , without the Franks showing excessive commitment for him. Before Rome, however, Witichis managed to regain the initiative and fierce battles over the former imperial center broke out in the period that followed. Rome was besieged by the Ostrogoths from January 537 to March 538 and was only then relieved by Eastern Roman reinforcements. Milan was meanwhile also fiercely contested; Here the Eastern Roman general Mundilas had succeeded in taking the city, which could then be recaptured by the Ostrogoths. Justinian, meanwhile, decided to use the general Narses in Italy , who soon got into rivalry with Belisarius. On the Adriatic coast , the Eastern Romans managed to advance to Rimini in 538 .

In May 540, the Eastern Gothic residence of Ravenna was taken and Witichis captured by Eastern Roman troops and brought to Constantinople. That seemed to be the decision. Only Hildebad continued the (weak) resistance , at the same time the Franks intervened in the western Po Valley , where they conquered Milan and took action against both Eastern Gothic and Eastern Roman associations. The Eastern Roman-Eastern Gothic battles, on the other hand, initially subsided, as Justinian had to withdraw a large part of his associations for the war that broke out again with the Persians in the east (see Roman-Persian Wars ). Belisarius was relieved of his command at the same time, as Justinian recognized that his approach was too arbitrary. Belisarius had negotiated with Ostrogoth nobles before Ravenna, who had offered him the imperial dignity of the west, and the capture of Witichis went beyond his mandate, since Justinian wanted a dependent Ostrogoth empire in the north (as federates ) to secure the border against Lombards and Franks than the complete smashing of the enemy.

Second Gothic War (541-550)

Meanwhile, there was a crisis in the Ostrogoth leadership group. Hildebad, who tried to find a peace solution with Justinian, was murdered by a Gepid at a banquet in 541 ; His successor was initially the Rugier Erarich , who took up the struggle against the East again, but was not recognized by the Ostrogothic nobility and was replaced in early 542 by Totila , Hildebad's nephew. Totila decided to rekindle the Ostrogoths' will to resist and to build a fleet, while the Eastern Roman Empire was weakened by the so-called Justinian plague that broke out at the end of 541 and was militarily bound by the heavy fighting against the Sassanid Persians . The second Gothic War, which was now beginning, was much more bloody than the first; and at first the Goths were very successful. In fact, Totila made advances to the south, in which he recaptured Naples in 543 and besieged Otranto in 544 and in which Rome fell into the hands of the Ostrogoths again, even if only briefly, in December 546. During the previous siege, the aqueducts leading into the city were destroyed, so that not only the operation of the great ancient thermal baths finally came to a standstill, but also the food supply was in danger, since the city mills were dependent on this water; the besieged managed by unceremoniously placing their mills on ships and having them driven by water wheels from the Tiber; thus the ship mills were invented.

In 544 Belisarius, who had previously fought with little success against the Sassanids, reappeared on the Italian theater of war; he was able to lift the siege of Otranto by the Ostrogoths and march on Rome. Since most and best of the imperial troops still had to fight against the Persians, Belisarius did not have sufficient forces. The fighting became very hard and cruel throughout the country and led to famine, so that a decisive turning point can be seen here, which meant the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages for Italy (see also end of antiquity ). For the Ostrogoths, the war presented itself as a decisive battle for life or death, so that even radical measures seemed justified. Totila decreed, for example, that slaves should also be used; a move that was to hit the senatorial class in particular, which was more likely to sympathize with Ostrom. In the meantime, Belisarius had succeeded in retaking Rome in 547, but it continued to be fought over and in 549, after a long siege (and severe famine), the Ostrogoths were able to recapture it. The bloody battles of the Second Gothic War meant that the city, which had survived the attacks of the Visigoths and Vandals in the 5th century somewhat unscathed and 535 still had around 100,000 inhabitants, was now almost depopulated and turned into a field of ruins. Totila is said to have even planned the complete destruction of Rome and was only dissuaded from it at the last moment. The king celebrated his success in early 550 with chariot races in the Circus Maximus - the last to be held there in ancient times. Meanwhile Justinian felt compelled to finally recall Belisarius and replace him with Narses; Noteworthy in this context is the assessment by Prokopios of Caesarea , who accused Belisarius of numerous omissions in his histories , while the latter himself felt abandoned by Justinian, who had withheld the necessary military reinforcement from him.

The campaign of Narses (551–552 / 562)

In 550/51 the military situation on the Persian front eased, and Justinian could now turn his attention back to Italy. Actually would Germanus , a cousin of Justinian, the Matasuntha had married, should lead the imperial forces, but he died before the start of the campaign. Narses, who had the full confidence of Justinian through his appearance in the Nika uprising , now sought the final decision through a vigorous procedure. With a good 30,000 men, the emperor provided him with a comparatively large contingent, with which he advanced via Illyria to northern Italy in 551 . After the losses of the past few years, the Goths hardly had anything of equal value to offer, and their positions in the Po Valley were cleverly bypassed, and Narses immediately advanced from Veneto to central Italy . To save what could still be saved, Totila positioned himself with almost 20,000 men in a narrow valley near Taginae (not far from today's Perugia ) in order to stop the further advance of the Eastern Romans.

On July 1, 552, the decisive battle of Busta Gallorum (named after an old burial mound of Gallic warriors) took place there, which the East Romans won. Totila died of the wounds he had suffered in the battle, Narses was able to move further south unhindered, and Rome changed hands one last time when it finally fell into Eastern Roman hands. The surviving Ostrogothic warriors, meanwhile, chose Teja as the new king, who a few months after Totila's defeat near Naples at the foot of Vesuvius in the battle of Mons Lactarius dared the last great battle of the war. Here, too, the Goths sought the advantage offered by the entrenchment in a narrow valley, so that the East Romans needed two full days to gain the upper hand. In the end, however, Teja also fell in battle, which decided the battle and the war for the Eastern Romans. Individual associations still offered resistance for some time, but the country was now practically completely under Eastern Roman control.

One final aftermath came after a Gothic embassy reached the court of the Frankish King Theudebert I , from whom it received no support. The Merovingian dux from Alamannien Butilin was committed to this . Under him and his brother Leuthari , in the spring of 553 an army of - according to the unquestionably exaggerated statements of Agathias - 75,000 Alamannic and Frankish warriors as allies of the last Ostrogoths advanced to Italy in order to defeat Narses. They plundered Italy through to the Strait of Messina, but in the autumn of 554, after they had already been weakened by epidemics, they were completely destroyed by Narses in a battle at Casilinus near Capua . After Agathias, Butilin had hoped for the Gothic crown; It remains to be seen whether this is the case. In 554 Justinian ordered the incorporation of Italy under a Praetorian prefect into the Eastern Roman Empire with the Pragmatic Sanction , while at the same time a number of old Western Roman offices were dissolved. In the year 555 the last Ostrogothic units surrendered near Salerno , some fighters went into exile in Franconia. The last Gothic fortresses only surrendered in 562.


The Eastern Roman Empire had succeeded in recapturing the heartland of the old Roman Empire . Rome, the old imperial center, was again under imperial control. But this quickly turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory . Italy was bled to death by the turmoil of war, famine and plague and was therefore more of a burden than a gain. If the peninsula had previously been shaped by late antique culture in all essential areas , this phase has now come to an end. The bloody war had also led to considerable bloodletting in the Eastern Roman ranks, but above all to high war costs, which considerably reduced the resistance of the empire against future enemies such as the Slavs and Avars in the Balkans and the Sassanids and later the Arabs in the east.

The East Romans tried to restore the infrastructure of Italy; new bridges were built and some aqueducts were repaired. But there was not enough time to carry out a real reconstruction: The Longobards , who settled in Pannonia and knew the passes to Italy well, had accompanied Narses since the Longobard federates in 551, took advantage of the opportunity in 568 to invade northern Italy, where comparatively little resistance was offered to them. Only a wide strip of land from Ravenna to Rome and coastal areas in the south could be held by the Eastern Romans until these too were gradually lost in the following centuries.


The Gothic War and the fall of the Ostrogothic Empire were rather romantically transfigured by Felix Dahn , who himself presented important early historical research, in his novel A Battle for Rome (1876). The author Lyon Sprague de Camp describes a conceivable alternative course of the war in his novel Lest Darkness Fall (in German: Anticipation of the past ) , published in 1939 .


The most important source for the Gothic War in Justinian's time is Prokop , who went into it in detail in his histories (up to 553). Jordanes , whose "Gotengeschichte" ( Getica ), which is more or less an excerpt from the lost history of Cassiodor , describes the history of the Goths (especially the Greutungen / Ostrogoths) up to 551. Both authors also pursue political intentions with their works . With Prokop, the praise of Belisarius is initially a central element, but also the criticism of Emperor Justinian (and later also of Belisarius, because he no longer fulfilled Prokop's expectations), with Jordanes the attempt to make the history of the Goths part of the Roman To make history. Nevertheless, their works represent the most important sources of this time with their depiction of the war events and their backgrounds. Prokop's continuer Agathias then reported on the last battles around the mid-550s .


For further literature see also Justinian I.

  • Roy Boss: Justinian's Wars: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West . Stockport 1993.
  • John B. Bury : History of the Later Roman Empire . Vol. 2. New York 1958 (reprint from 1923), ISBN 0-486-20399-9 .
  • Peter J. Heather : Goths and Romans . Clarendon, Oxford 1991, ISBN 0-19-820535-X .
  • Philip Rance: Narses and the Battle of Taginae (Busta Gallorum) 552: Procopius and sixth century warfare . In: Historia 54 (2005), pp. 424-472.
  • HN Roisl: Totila and the Battle of the Busta Gallorum, late June / early July 552 . In: Yearbook of Austrian Byzantine Studies 30 (1981), pp. 25–50.
  • Torsten C. Jacobsen: The Gothic War . Westholme, Yardley 2009. ( Popular scientific account that retells the ancient sources, especially Prokopios, largely uncritically. )