The Ostrogoths (526-544 AD) and their war against Eastern Roman Empire

Athalaric, the grandson of Theodoric the Great, was the supposed successor on the throne as king in Italy. But, since he was not of age, his mother, Amalasuntha, reigned as his regent (526 – 535). Her first intention was the reconciliation with Constantinople and the Romans. The result of failure would be political isolation.

The Ostrogothic aristocracy was against such policies of Amalasuntha, and she prepared her secret escape to Constantinople. But in 534 young Atalaric died. Amalasuntha married Theodahad (534-536), who was also descended from the house of Amali, aiming for a reconciliation with the Ostrogoths. Theodahad was seeking the de facto rule over the Ostrogothic kingdom, and he had Amalasuntha slain in a conspiracy, (535) when he was not able to take over in agreement with her. Her death was used by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I (527 – 565). Justinian’s main goal was the restoration of the great Roman empire.

Gothic War

Since Theodahad ignored Justinian’s ultimatum, Justinian sent an army against Italy. This war in history is known as Gothic War. A part of this force conquered Dalmatia, while the other part, under the leadership of Belisarius, took Sicily striking from North Africa (535), Napoli was conquered shortly after, and after that Rome itself. Belisarius conquered southern Italy swiftly. In the meantime a new Ostrogothic king, Vitiges, was crowned. He claimed the throne by marrying Amalasuntha’s daughter. Vitiges besieged Belisarius in Rome, but Belisarius was able to break out and took Ravenna in 539 after several decisive battles. He captured the Ostrogothic king and conquered northern Italy. Belisarius returned to Constantinople in 540, with a triumphal entry in which he paraded the captured Vitiges.

In 540 the eastern Roman emperor was occupied with the Persian threat, which the Ostrogoths used to regain their strength. The Ostrogoth king Totila (541 – 552) was supported by the lower social classes. He deemed the Roman aristocracy as unreliable. His doubts were reasonable. We should note that many influential Romans fled from Italy when war broke out (among them Cassiodorus). Because of this, Totila recruited soldiers from Roman slaves and coloni. By 552 he had raided Sicily, conquered southern Italy and entered Rome.

But Justinian I was ready to deal with the matters in the west. He sent Narses against Totila, a eunuch (castrated man) of Armenian descent. Narses was capable enough, he defeated the Ostrogoths in the battle of Taginae 552, in which the Ostrogothic king was slain. By 554 Italy was conquered with the aid of the Langobards, Burgundians and the Catholic church. Totila’s policies were abolished, and the estates, slaves and coloni were given back to their former owners. Italy was devastated after twenty years of war. The Gothic War historians usually divide into two phases: First phase (535-540) and Second phase (540-554).