Zach – Welcome back to Minimum Wage Historian. We have another exciting episode for you. Today’s topic is the Gothic War!
Anna Komnene – Those infernal Goths! They’re barbarian scum. I’m glad we get to speak of a war that has us Romans defeating their infernal nation.
Zach – At least you’re not letting your personal biases affect your historical opinion.
Anna – Of course not.
Zach – Yes, today we’re talking about the Gothic War. It was an epic plan by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian to reform the entire Roman Empire by recapturing the West. He viewed it as shameful that the Roman Empire didn’t actually have Rome in its borders. It saw terrible destruction all across Italy that did more damage than the barbarians ever did.
Anna – That’s a harsh judgement. Well, to set the record straight we have with us Matilda of Tuscany who is our resident expert in warfare in Italy. Then we have Gaspar Correia our expert in… nothing really. And finally we have Olga of Kiev, our expert in destruction.
Olga – Dah, I am good at this destroying things.
Zach – Let’s get started then. I’ll do a quick history lesson to catch us up. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476AD by the barbarian Odoacer. He crowned himself “King of Italy” and was theoretically under Byzantium’s authority. Both sides held the illusion that Odoacer was there by Byzantium’s consent. It gave odoacer prestige and legitimacy and gave the Byzantines the appearance of not looking quite so weak. But eventually Byzantium grew tired of these barbarians and decided to do something about it.
Anna – There was an Ostrogoth named Theodoric that settled his people in the Balkans and lived under the protection of the emperor. The Emperor Zeno didn’t like a bunch of filthy barbarians living within his territory and he didn’t like those pesky barbarians over in Rome, so he sent Theodoric over to take Italy. He’d let the two barbarians fight it out. So, he gave Theodoric a bunch of important Roman titles such as Patrician and Magister Militum and Theodoric went over and fought several battles against Odoacer and eventually captured Ravenna, then capital of Italy. Odoacer, knowing he was losing, sued for peace and invited Theodoric to a banquet to sign their peace treaty. Theodoric showed up in his best barbarian suit then promptly drew his giant two handed sword and cut Odoacer in half. Shoulder to groin.
Gaspar – Not the most peaceful of beginnings but Theodoric actually turned out to be a pretty cool dude. He set up shop in Ravenna and kept the local Romans in their positions to keep the government running smoothly. He adopted the Roman way of life, built churches, palaces and theaters.
Matilda – Enough back story. Fast forward to Justinian’s time. Fast forward to 535 and Justinian has sent his genius general, Belisarius, probably the best general since Caesar, to take out the Vandals in northern Africa. With a small task force he rolled in and extinguished the Vandals as a nation. Justinian then sicked his attack dog on Italy and the Gothic Kingdom there. Let me explain Belisarius’s army here. This isn’t the famed Roman Legions of old. No, this was a rag tag force of mercenaries, private armies, Huns and whoever else they could scrape together. But they needed an excuse to invade. Remember, the Goths were supposedly under Byzantine authority so when they killed the legitimate heir and placed someone else on the throne, Justinian used this as his excuse and ordered the invasion.
Zach – For any students of the Second World War, this next part should sound familiar. In order to invade Italy, they invaded Sicily first and took it without much fuss. Palermo was the only place with an real resistance. With that out of the way, the Byzantines invaded southern Italy. Southern Italy had a lot of Greek speakers from centuries before and were pro-Byzantine. They welcomed Belisarius and they marched in with ease. Naples, an important port town then as it is even now, resisted with a long siege which lasted until November. From there they marched north to Rome which threw their gates open to them. the Goth forces were consolidating in the north where their base of power was. The Romans were moving so fast that the Goths were simply unprepared.
Olga – Dah, the Romans sacked Naples. Good times for everybodies, unless you lived in Naples.
Anna – Well, that was the tradition at that time, if a city resisted, they get sacked. But Rome let them in so they were spared the horrors of war. But the Goths finally got organized and launched a counter offensive. They marched to Rome and laid siege to it. Belisarius was greatly outnumbered and didn’t have the forces to fight the Goths, so they help up behind the walls of Rome. Here’s how a siege worked. The city would be surrounded while the attackers tried to dig mines to “Undermine” the walls, bribe gate guards, launch assaults or launch plague ridden animals and body parts over the walls. In turn, the defenders would sally out for rapid strikes against important targets. Us Eastern Romans had a greater knack for cavalry than our Western counterparts ever did and our cavalry was great for these lightning raids against the besiegers. This siege went on for a year with several large battles. Reinforcements from Constantinople arrived. The Roman cavalry sallied out and cut off the Goths from their logistic supply train. For a besieger this is very bad news. It meant that they might run out of food before the people in the city. At this time, Belisarius cut off the aquaducts to Rome to deprive the Goths of water. They were never restored. You can still see those ruined aquaducts today.
Gaspar – Then the Romans did something I like to do in computer strategy games, he sent a force to threaten a town near Ravenna, the Goth capitol. This forced the Goths to give up and go protect Ravenna. But then the Goths attacked a Roman controlled town of Ancona and would fall to the Goths if not relieved. So, Belisarius with his c0-commander, sent their secret weapon. The Byzantines had long traded with the Far East and with their group of Ninja, brought over from Japan, they snuck into the enemy camp and killed every one of them in one bloody night.
Olga – They should just burn city down. Makes things much easier.
Matilda – One lesson I was smart enough not to have to learn by experience was that it was never a good idea to share command in a war time situation. The last thing an army needs is a divided leadership. Well, Justinian sent the eunuch, Narses with another army to come over and help them out. The two leaders argued. Basically, Narses was a politician that cared more about the cost of blankets than the lives of his soldiers and Belisarius was the best thing since Hannibal. But Belisarius, realizing that a full rift between them would be disastrous for the campaign, compromised the best he could with the eunuch.
Anna – I think you’re being too harsh on Narses. He was a capable general that won a great deal of victories. In fact, after they fought of the Goths in Rome, they went on the offensive and took many cities.
Matilda – But then Narses refused to help a city under siege. A Roman force was trapped in the city and was starving. Belisarius sent a commander to help the city, but the commander refused to move unless Narses ordered him to go. The city was lost and it was a disaster for the Roman war effort. Even Justinian, in his opaque fog of arrogance realized that having two different commanders probably wasn’t a good idea and recalled Narses back to Constantinople.
Zach – Now that Belisarius was in command again, he moved against the Goths. His goal was to take Ravenna and end the war. He faced off against the Goths across the Po River when suddenly an army of Franks poured into the valley. The Goths thought they were allies coming to help and weren’t prepared at all for the Frankish assault. They were quickly broken and ran off with heavy casualties. The Byzantines put up a fight but retreated. The Frankish army was massive and poised to take all of Italy, but then they all got dysentery and slumped back to France.
Matilda – Where’s Joan D’Arc to defend her French honor?
Zach – She’s watching Ironclad with Mulan. Mulan showed her “Painted Skin: The Resurection” so Joan thought a movie exchange was in order. Tomoe Gozen is cooking karage.
Olga – Is that the delicious chickens Tomoe cooks? I must go.
(Olga runs out of room.)
Gaspar – There goes our voice of reason. But then it was time for Belisarius to get real. He sent the Imperial fleet into the Adriatic to cut Ravenna off from supply. Then messengers came from Constantinple with very fair terms for the Goths. They’d keep everything north of the Po River and the Byzantines would keep everything south of it. The terms were so lenient that Belisarius considered it a betrayal. He marched into Ravenna and treated the city with generosity. No looting, no destruction and everyone kept their homes and property. Then Belisarius returned home but he refused a triumph. (Even though I think he earned one.)
Zach – So peace descended upon Italy, but it was not to last. The Byzantines raised the taxes, the army looted the civilians at will and the government was basically run like a cruel and corrupt government from a bad B movie. Needless to say that this didn’t endure them to the locals. There was a lot of bickering, infighting and assassinations among the Goths but eventually they ended with Totilla in charge. In 542 a plague swept through the Byzantine Empire and wiped out thousands of people. This weakened the Byzantine army and left Justinian sterile and some say, mentally weaker. Also, Belisarius was off in Persian dealing with a new Persian war and the generals in Italy were…and let’s be polite here, morons. The Goths surged southward and took several cities and besieged Florence. The Byzantines, even though they were numerically superior, still managed to lose because they sucked.
Anna – The barbarian, Totilla led his forces south in lightning fast strikes against weak Roman positions and took town after town. They bypassed Rome and went down to Naples. Totilla also did something my ancestors forgot to do, he treated the people well so that many people surrendered willingly and viewed him as a liberator. When he took Naples, he fed the citizens and let the Romans live. Well, Belisarius made a five year peace with Persia and hurried back to Italy to do what his incompetent comrades couldn’t do. Rome fell before he could save it, but he quickly captured it back.
Matilda – And just in case you thought Justinian was still cool, here’s what he did with one of history’s greatest generals. Justinian was jealous of Belisarius’s popularity, so he refused to send supplies and reinforcements. Outnumbered and unsupplied, the Goths took back Rome. It was a great deal of warfare in the city of Rome and the city never recovered from this destruction. Justinian then sends back Narses and actually gives him everything he wants. Narses takes back Rome and at the Battle of Taginae, Narses actually managed to kill Totilla.
Zach – Victory was in sight for the Byzantines. The Goths were put in their place and nothing stood in their way.
But then the Franks and Alemani invaded and pushed the Byzantines back to southern Italy where they stayed.
Matilda – What did the Byzantines achieve? Rome and its best cities were desolated. The peninsula was depopulated, Italy fell into a dark age, the Byzantines lost much of its army, most of its money and left them vulnerable to the Persians. Now that Italy was desolated, it provided very little wealth to the Empire. There are many lessons to be learned of what to do and what not to do. This was a long and draw out war with far more to learn about. I encourage you to learn about it because there’s too much for Minimum Wage Historians to handle.
Gaspar – I also encourage you to look up Zach’s book, “Sins of Prometheus.” It’s a pretty cool post apocalyptic adventure. Tomoe says there aren’t enough sword fights, but I like the guns. Mulan likes the Chinese woman that kicks butt. Give it a try!