On December 9, 536 AD, Byzantine Count Belisarius entered Rome through the Asinarian Gate at the head of 5,000 troops. At the same time, 4,000 Ostrogoths left the city through the Flaminian Gate and headed north to Ravenna, the capital of their Italian kingdom. For the first time since 476, when the Germanic king, Odoacer, had deposed the last Western Roman emperor and crowned himself ‘King of the Romans,’ the city of Rome was once more part of the Roman empire–albeit an empire whose capital had shifted east to Constantinople.
Belisarius had taken the city back as part of Emperor Justinian’s grand plan to recover the western provinces from their barbarian rulers. The plan was ambitious, but it was meant to be carried out with an almost ridiculously small expeditionary force. The 5,000 soldiers that General Belisarius led included Hunnish and Moorish auxiliaries, and they were expected to defend circuit walls 12 miles in diameter against an enemy who would soon be back–and who would outnumber them at least 10-to-1.
The Roman empire had been permanently divided by Theodoric the Great in the 5th century, making official what had been in the offing for 100 years since Constantine the Great had established his capital of Constantinople on the Golden Horn, where he was closer to the troubled frontier along the Danube River. The capital of the west had been moved to Milan and then to Ravenna, which, being surrounded by swamps, was easier to defend and also closer to the eastern empire. In effect, the Roman empire had been split into two states. Only the eastern half was to survive as a political entity, for another 1,000 years, but in a form quite different from that in the west. The Eastern Romans, or Byzantines, spoke Greek and were Orthodox Christians, but they rightly saw themselves as the direct political descendants of the Western Roman state. By 536, Justinian had ruled for 18 years and regarded himself as the successor of Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and Constantine. As such, he meant to retake the west.
The Rome that Belisarius entered reflected the general decline of the western empire. Though still the largest city in the west, its population had shrunk, people drove cattle through the forums, and buildings destroyed by the Visigoths and Vandals in the last century had not been repaired.
The armies sent by the emperor Justinian against the Persians, Vandals, Franks and Goths differed radically from the Roman armies of centuries past. The army with which Rome had conquered Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was made up of heavy infantrymen who cast javelins and then rushed in to fight with pilum, sword and shield. They were supported on the flanks by small numbers of cavalrymen recruited from provincials more adept with the horse than the typical Roman. Centuries of warfare against mounted enemies such as the Goths, Huns and Persians, however, had changed the makeup of the Roman army. By the 6th century ad, the army consisted primarily of a cavalry force of armored lancers, or cabalarii, wearing body armor and capable of handling a bow from horseback. Garrison duties and defensive positions were held by two types of infantry: lightly armed archers and heavily armed soldiers in mail jackets who fought with sword, ax and spear.
Organizationally, the Roman army had not been divided into legions for a century. Now it was divided into squadrons called banda, a Greek word taken from German and formerly used to designate German allied troops. While many of the soldiers in the Byzantine army were subjects of the empire whether they were Greeks, Thracians, Armenians or Isaurians, many others were mercenaries who swore allegiance only to their commander. This practice was a holdover from hiring entire companies of barbarians, called foederati, to serve under a chief, a measure adopted by the Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. This tactic had spread so that by the 6th century, native generals had small private armies. Belisarius himself had a regiment of 7,000 of these household troops. Because such soldiers had their commander’s interests at heart, a successful general could become a potential threat to the government’s stability or even a contender for the throne.
A contemporary description of a late-Roman cavalryman was given by Procopius of Caesarea, Belisarius’ personal secretary, who accompanied him on his campaigns and was present during the siege of Rome: ‘[Our] archers are mounted on horses, which they manage with admirable skill; their head and shoulders are protected by a casque or buckler; they wear greaves of iron on their legs and their bodies are guarded by a coat of mail. On their right side hangs a quiver, a sword on their left, and their hand is accustomed to wield a lance or javelin in closer combat. Their bows are strong and weighty; they shoot in every possible direction, advancing, retreating, to the front, to the rear, or to either flank; and as they are taught to draw the bowstring not to the breast, but to the right ear, firm indeed must be the armor that can resist the rapid violence of their shaft.’
The successors of the old legions were highly organized, and their generals were well-trained in both tactics and strategy. The typical Byzantine general adapted his actions to meet his foes–whether Goth, Persian or, later, Arab–such as using horse archers against lancers, or lancers against horse archers where they could be trapped and ridden down. In that respect, at least, the new Romans resembled the earlier legionaries who fought according to plan and understood their enemy before engaging.
One critical difference between ancient Rome and Justinian’s Constantinople, however, was in regard to discipline. The mercenaries and foreign auxiliaries were as highly trained as the Roman infantry of old but were more prone to disobedience. Since the most important part of the army was the cavalry, however, which naturally operated more loosely than infantry and depended more upon individual initiative, that vice was not as significant as it would have been to infantry fighting in close formation.
The equipment of the new Roman army had changed with a view to meeting the challenges of war with barbarians who had themselves changed over the centuries. The Roman legion had adopted chain mail and the gallic helmet from the Celts and the gladius, or short sword, so deadly in close combat, from the Iberians and Ibero-Celts whom they had fought in the Punic Wars.
For Belisarius’ small army, the struggle for Rome required tactics that involved horsemen striking swiftly from walled cities much as the knights of a later age would do. The campaign would amount to a series of sieges against and sorties from fortified places rather than being fought in the field as early Roman wars had been.
The man Justinian chose to lead the expedition, Count Belisarius, was about 30 years old and fresh from a stunning victory over the Vandals in North Africa. Coming from a Thracian family, Belisarius had served in the corps of bodyguards of Emperor Justin, Justinian’s uncle and predecessor, before distinguishing himself as a general.
Before he could advance on Rome, Belisarius first had to take Naples to the south, which he invested in the summer of 536. After failing to persuade the populace to submit peacefully, he subjected the city to a month-long siege. Naples was so stubbornly defended that Belisarius began to despair of taking the place–until a curious foot soldier discovered that a destroyed aqueduct could be used as a tunnel past the city walls. Soldiers made their way along the aqueduct into the heart of the city, climbed down by means of an overhanging olive tree, made their way quietly through the streets to a tower in the wall and, after surprising and killing its defenders, held the position while their comrades roped together their scaling ladders–which their carpenters had made too short–and ascended the wall.
Fighting continued all morning, the fiercest opposition allegedly coming from Naples’ Jewish population, who expected to face persecution under an intolerant Christian regime. In consequence, when resistance broke down, the angry Isaurian troops swept through the city slaughtering civilians. Belisarius had hoped to avoid such a massacre, but it did help him to avoid further bloodshed for some time thereafter. As word of Naples’ fate spread, several other Italian towns opened their gates to the Byzantines, and Pope Silverius sent word to Belisarius that he would be welcomed in Rome.
Belisarius’ unexpected progress alarmed the Ostrogoths, most of whom blamed it on the vacillating leadership of their king, Theodatus, a corpulent Goth who had become Romanized and more interested in riches and comfort than in defending his realm. Sensing trouble, Theodatus tried to flee but was attacked and killed by his own people on the road to Ravenna, after which the Ostrogoths elected a warrior named Vittigis as their new king.
Vittigis fully realized the Byzantine threat but pulled his troops north to first settle a dispute with the neighboring Franks before dealing with the invader. In doing so he left the Gothic garrison of Rome to its fate. The Ostrogoths had treated the Romans fairly well, but the populace was unwilling to risk incurring the wrath of the imperial soldiers by resisting them as Naples had done. When it became clear to the garrison that the Roman populace would open the gates to the Byzantines, the Goths prepared to abandon the city. Only their commander, Leuderis, felt honor-bound not to leave his post and awaited Belisarius. Upon securing the city, Belisarius sent Leuderis to Constantinople with the keys to the city gates.
Criticized for allowing the city to fall into Byzantine hands without a fight, Vittigis pointed out that Rome had never before successfully withstood a siege. Recent history had borne him out. Alaric and his Visigoths had first taken the city in 410, and the shock of that conquest caused Augustine of Hippo to write The City of God as a consolation to Christians everywhere, suggesting that whatever might happen to Rome, the kingdom of heaven, at least, was inviolate. Alaric’s feat was repeated by the Vandals in 455.
Furthermore, while Byzantine descriptions of Vittigis’ army as numbering 150,000 are undoubtedly exaggerated, he could sustain a siege force of some 50,000 men at a time against Belisarius’ 5,000 soldiers, 2,000 of whom the imperial general had had to leave to garrison other towns he had taken on the way to Rome. He had hardly enough soldiers to man the walls. If Rome had fallen easily to Belisarius, Vittigis was confident that he would retake it with even greater ease.
The Romans themselves shared Vittigis’ view and became dismayed when they realized that the Byzantines meant to withstand a siege. Thus Belisarius faced not only a Gothic military threat but also tepid support from the Romans themselves, who in adversity might turn against him. He quickly wrote to Justinian requesting reinforcements.
Vittigis, by contrast, had no problem marshaling his forces, which soon began to move south from Ravenna, ready to lay siege to Rome for a year, if necessary. Belisarius did not wait for their arrival before preparing to defend the city. There were more gates than he could hope to guard successfully, and there was always the danger that the townsmen might open the gates to the Goths as they had done for him, so he walled up several of the gates.
Rome was too large for the Goths to encircle. Instead, upon arriving at Rome on March 2, 537, they established a series of six camps facing several of the main gates. The camps were located across from those parts of the city to the east of the Tiber River. The Tiber formed part of Rome’s western defenses, and a wall ran down to the water. Spanning the river stood the Mulvian Bridge, where, 140 years before, the armies of the contending emperors Constantine and Maxentius had fought, and after which the winner Constantine had established Christianity as the state religion. Belisarius saw something more than historical significance in the bridge. Because of the topography, he reckoned that the Goths would need at least an additional 20 days to build another bridge to move their troops across the river. Without a camp there, the city would not be completely ringed by the Goths. Belisarius also wanted a clear avenue of entry for the reinforcements he had requested.
Accordingly, he fortified the Mulvian Bridge with a tower and set a small garrison of mercenaries to defend it. Belisarius must have thought that a small force positioned in a fortification could hold off a large number indefinitely, especially since they could be reinforced by nearby troops and the Goths could attack only from the narrow front of the bridge’s roadway. But these barbarian mercenaries proved untrustworthy. Shortly after Vittigis’ huge force arrived, the garrison force became terrified and deserted to the enemy, handing over control of the fortified bridge. The next morning Belisarius went on a reconnaissance into the area with 1,000 horsemen, completely unaware that he no longer held the bridge. A large body of Gothic cavalry surprised him and engaged him at close quarters. The deserters from the bridge recognized the general mounted on a white-faced bay and exhorted everyone to attack him with a view to ending the campaign on the spot. But Belisarius, fighting sword in hand, and his men engaged the Goths in a bloody fight in which they killed 1,000. The Goths broke and fled to their camp, pursued by the Byzantines. Reinforced there, the Goths compelled Belisarius to conduct a fighting retreat back to the city, where, to his anger, he found the gates closed to him. In fact, Belisarius was already falsely rumored to be dead and the Romans, failing to recognize him in the dark, feared the Goths would follow the fugitives into the city and take the town if they opened the gates.
As Belisarius and his men gathered beneath the walls, an ever greater number of Goths converged on them to finish the fight. At that point, the general conceived a plan both simple and daring–he ordered a charge. The Goths, surprised and supposing that he was being reinforced by fresh troops coming from another gate, withdrew. Instead of pursuing them, Belisarius turned back to the city and was finally admitted. Despite hours of close combat, the general had not been touched by a single weapon.
Belisarius realized that Rome would soon be completely surrounded and there would be no easy path for reinforcements. He was right; the Goths established a seventh camp in the Vatican Field and prepared for an assault. Meanwhile, Belisarius had flanges built onto the left sides of the battlements to shield the defenders, installed catapults on the city walls and ordered a ditch, or fosse, dug beneath the walls. He also drafted townsmen into brigades to defend the walls and interspersed them among his own soldiers to enforce discipline. He thus spread his thin forces farther and involved the Romans in the defense of their own city. He had a chain drawn across the Tiber to prevent the Goths from entering on boats and fortified the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian. The tomb, a fortress known today as the Castel’ Sant’Angelo, jutted out a bit from the city walls at that time to form an unintended bastion.
It took the Goths 18 days to prepare their attack. They constructed four siege towers to the height of the city walls, each of which contained a battering ram. The Goths also prepared fascines to toss into the fosse to allow the towers to be drawn over the ditch and to the wall by oxen. Other soldiers stood by with scaling ladders to strike at other places along the walls.
On March 21 the Goths began to bring the siege towers forward while the defenders watched in alarm. Belisarius, however, remained cheerful as he surveyed the attacker, then took up his bow and killed a Gothic officer at a great distance. His men hailed him, and he repeated the remarkable feat. Belisarius then commanded the men to shoot–not at the men, but at the oxen pulling the siege towers. The animals died in a hail of arrows, and the towers came to a halt without reaching the walls.
Meanwhile, some Goths had broken into the vivarium, an enclosure on the eastern side of the city made by joining two low walls at a right angle against the exterior of the city wall. Romans had penned wild animals there before sending them to the amphitheater for combats with gladiators, but the sport had long been outlawed, and the walls were crumbling. At the same time the Goths launched an assault on Hadrian’s tomb. The Byzantine soldiers placed there were in extreme peril because the rectangular shape of the monument’s base jutted out from the city wall and allowed the Goths to get somewhat behind the defenders. The defenders shot back at the attackers until they ran out of arrows. Then, in desperation, they broke up the statues at the tomb into chunks of rock and tossed them upon the Goths. By doing so, they managed to hold their position.
Meanwhile, Belisarius sent troops out of the city to enter the gate of the vivarium and attack the Goths there from the rear. In hard fighting the Byzantines drove them out. Sallies from various city gates then drove off the Goths in disorder and resulted in their siege engines’ being burned to the ground. The Goths admitted to losing 30,000 dead, with an equal number wounded.
After that, the city and its besiegers settled down to a war of waiting. This was interrupted by occasional sorties by Byzantine cavalry, which involved essentially the same tactical feat: A troop of horsemen would leave the city by one of the gates, provoking a number of Goths to attack them. The Byzantine horse archers would then shoot their assailants from a distance with their powerful bows. When the Goths retreated in the face of that missile onslaught, the Byzantines would charge the unprotected Gothic infantry with their lances. While the Goths had both armored lancers and foot archers, they never combined the two methods of fighting into a single system as the Byzantines had done, and so the Byzantines’ strategem routinely succeeded.
The cumulative successes of those forays had an unwonted effect upon the Roman populace. Dreaming no doubt of their earlier glory, they wished to join the Byzantine soldiers in a grand attack against the Goths. Belisarius explicitly opposed the idea, because the citizens had neither the training nor fighting experience and did not even have enough armor. Still the Romans insisted, and he reluctantly agreed.
The sortie, as Belisarius had feared, was a fiasco. Sallying from a number of gates, the regular Byzantine cavalry acquitted itself well and successfully engaged the Goths. The townsmen-cum-foot-soldiers fought as spearmen and were arranged in a phalanx outside of the Flaminian Gate to the north of the city. They were held in reserve until Belisarius was content that they could engage the enemy with the least amount of danger to themselves. They then marched forward against the demoralized Goths and drove them from the Field of Nero into the surrounding hills. At that point, however, the Romans, being mostly an undisciplined rabble, broke ranks and began to loot a Gothic camp, only to be attacked by Goths who could see they were in disarray. The Roman foot soldiers were driven back in flight to the walls of Rome, only to find the populace, again fearful of the pursuing Goths, refusing to open the gates. The Byzantine cavalry intervened and extricated them. Any gain that might have come from the fight was lost.
As the siege dragged on, the Goths destroyed the aqueducts that powered the flour mills. Belisarius countered that by setting the mills in boats on the Tiber within the city walls and suspending the mill wheels in the flowing water. Knowing there would be a shortage of food, he dismissed from the city all those he thought unnecessary to its defense.
The siege settled into a more complete blockade when the Goths took the port of Rome a few miles from the city itself, where the Tiber flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That impeded Belisarius’ already limited efforts to bring food and supplies into the city. As hunger set in, the populace at first pressed for a decisive battle to resolve the siege but later vacillated when Belisarius assured the people that reinforcements were on the way. None arrived, however, despite his request to Emperor Justinian. Belisarius knew the people were fickle, so he changed the locks on the city gates and rotated the watches over them so the Goths could not strike up friendships–and deals–with the guards. At night, Belisarius’ Moorish auxiliaries, accompanied by dogs, patrolled the trench outside the walls. The wisdom of his prudence was proved when a letter was intercepted from Pope Silverius to Vittigis, offering to betray the city. Belisarius had Silverius clothed as a monk and shipped east into exile while a new pope was elected.
The Goths made overtures for peace, and Belisarius agreed to a truce to allow the Goths to send representatives to Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. In the meantime a small number of reinforcements–3,000 Isaurian infantry and 800 Thracian cavalry–finally reached Rome along with supplies that came up the Tiber during the truce.
At that point the struggle took another turn as Belisarius decided to go on the offensive. He instructed one of his subordinate officers, John, who bore the Latin nickname Sanguinarius, or ‘Bloody,’ to move north into Tuscany. He told John to observe the truce but to raid whenever he found the Goths had violated it–which, as he had expected, they did. Bloody John led a troop of 2,000 horsemen and encountered little resistance because most of the male Goths of military age were involved in the siege of Rome. Thus he swept across the north in accordance with Belisarius’ orders not to engage enemy troops of any size or to try to take any fortified places. After an encouraging number of successes, however, he advanced against the Gothic capital of Ravenna.
When news of John’s raid reached Vittigis at Rome, he decided to make a last effort to take the city, starting with an unsuccessful attempt to slip soldiers into Rome through an aqueduct as Belisarius had done at Naples, only to be foiled by an attentive guard. He then tried to use agents in the city to intoxicate the guards at the Asinarian Gate, but one of them betrayed the plan to Belisarius. A final assault with scaling ladders at the Pincian Gate also failed.
At that point, the siege of Rome ended not with a bang but with a whimper. By early 538, the Goths had plundered farms throughout the surrounding countryside and were suffering from hunger and plague. On March 12, Vittigis and his dispirited men burned their camps and withdrew toward Ravenna. Belisarius made a last sally and attacked an enemy band crossing the Mulvian Bridge. The Byzantines killed a few of the enemy soldiers but the retreating Goths’ greatest loss came as many of them panicked and fell from the bridge.
For a year and nine days, a small Byzantine army had held Rome against disproportionate numerical odds. It was a remarkable victory for Belisarius, but its significance was limited. Vittigis drove Bloody John’s small force into Rimini, but Belisarius, joined by another Byzantine army commanded by the Armenian eunuch general Narses, compelled the Goths to withdraw to their capital of Ravenna. In late 539, the Goths offered to support Belisarius as emperor of the west, which he pretended to accept until Ravenna surrendered–at which point he sent Vittigis to Constantinople as a prisoner. Justinian learned of the Goths’ offer, and although Belisarius had not accepted it, he began to doubt the general’s loyalty. In 541, he recalled Belisarius to Constantintople–at which point the Ostrogoths, under the leadership of Ildibad and, after his death, Vittigis’ nephew Totila, retook most of what the Byzantines had gained. In 544, Justinian sent Belisarius–again with an inadequate force of 4,000 troops–back to Italy, where Totila took Rome in the following year, only to lose it to Belisarius soon afterward. Belisarius successfully withstood a second siege by Totila in 546, but in 549 the jealous Justinian recalled him to Constantinople once more.
The Gothic War dragged on for years, during which Italy subsequently was ravaged by another campaign against the Franks, who invaded from the north to take advantage of the weakened Ostrogoths. In the end, the effort was just too great for Byzantine resources, even though they had destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. To defeat the enemy was one thing, to hold the territory quite another. Over time Byzantine control persisted in southern Italy and in Sicily. Other Byzantine enclaves in the west were Sardinia, Corsica and southern Spain, and the Frankish kingdom of Gaul nominally recognized Justinian as its overlord. Whatever the long-term effects of the campaign, however, the defense of Rome remains an amazing feat and an example of what a small, determined and organized force can do against overwhelming odds.
This article was written by Erik Hildinger and originally published in the October 1999 issue of Military History.
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