The Third Siege of Rome: Byzantine Armies Battle the Ostrogoths
The Third Siege of Rome occurred in 549-550 AD and was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogoths. The former was in control of the city, whilst the latter tried to seize the city. The Third Siege of Rome was part of the Gothic War, a conflict between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths that lasted from 535 to 554 AD. During this 19-year period, control of Rome switched between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths several times. Indeed, the city endured three sieges by the Ostrogoths, the one in 549-550 AD being the third and last siege.
As the Third Siege of Rome was the last of the three sieges suffered by the Eternal City of Rome during the Gothic War, it would be best to place it in its proper context by considering not only the two sieges that preceded it, but also the war itself, and the incredible strength of the Ostrogoths as well.
Medallion (or triple solidus) featuring Theodoric (circa 491–501 AD), who was the legendary first king of the Ostrogothic Kingdom that attacked Rome three times including the final Third Siege of Rome. (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme / CC BY 3.0 )
The Complicated Century That Led to the Third Siege of Rome
Between 535 and 554 AD, the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom were locked in a conflict known as the Gothic War. Although the immediate causes of this conflict belong to the 6th century AD, its origins can be traced further back to the preceding century.
In 476 AD, the last Western Roman emperor was overthrown, and the barbarian Odoacer became the first barbarian King of Italy. Although Odoacer was supposed to be a vassal of the Byzantines, he was also causing them much trouble. Odoacer was harassing the territories of the empire with impunity and did not respect the rights of the Byzantines in his Italian kingdom.
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Around the same time, the Ostrogoths had settled on Byzantine territory as allies, but were becoming increasingly difficult for the Byzantines to manage. The Byzantine emperor, Zeno, with help from the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, succeeded in killing two birds with one stone.
Theodoric was born in 454 AD and went to Constantinople as a hostage whilst he was still a young boy. Therefore, he spent many years at the Byzantine court, and gained much experience that would serve him well when he eventually returned to rule over the Ostrogoths.
In 488 AD having been encouraged by Zeno, Theodoric brought his Ostrogothic army to Italy. Theodoric and Odoacer fought against each other for the next five years, with neither side being able to achieve complete victory over the other.
In 493 AD a peace treaty was concluded, which assured that Theodoric and Odoacer would rule Italy together. A banquet to celebrate the treaty was organized in Ravenna, during which Theodoric treacherously killed Odoacer with his own hands after making a toast.
Following Odoacer’s murder, Theodoric became the new King of Italy, and the Ostrogothic Kingdom was established. The Ostrogothic Kingdom reached its height during Theodoric’s reign, which lasted until his death in 526 AD. During Theodoric’s reign, he managed to maintain peace in the peninsula, and made alliances with the Visigoths and the Franks, who ruled Spain and France respectively. Soon after Theodoric’s death, however, the Ostrogothic Kingdom began to decline, due primarily to dynastic struggles.
Map of the territories (pink) ruled by Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogothic Kingdom at its peak in 523 AD when he annexed the southern part of the Burgundian kingdom. Stippled areas indicate other kingdoms dominated by Theodoric at this time. (Vortimer / CC BY 3.0 )
Italian King Theodoric Dies and Justinian Becomes Emperor
About the same time, the Byzantine Empire was about to enter a period of military expansion. In 527 AD, a year after Theodoric’s death, Justinian I , known also by his title “Justinian the Great,” succeeded to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.
Justinian I was an ambitious emperor who intended, amongst other things, to recapture the territories in the western part of the former Roman Empire that had been lost to the barbarians. Naturally, the Italian peninsula was the first target for Justinian. His military campaigns, however, did not begin immediately after his accession, as he was initially engaged in a war with the archenemy of the Byzantine Empire: the Sassanian Empire.
In 532 AD Justinian concluded an “Eternal Peace” with the Sassanians, which allowed him to turn his attention to the Italian peninsula. It may be added that in the same year, Justinian was almost overthrown during the Nika riots. Ultimately, the rebellion was brutally suppressed, thereby securing Justinian’s position.
One of the generals who played a major role in the crushing of the Nika riots was Belisarius. This same general would become a key figure in Justinian’s military expansion in the west. Between 533 and 534 AD Belisarius led a Byzantine campaign against the Vandals, and recaptured North Africa from them. In the following year, Belisarius brought his army to Sicily , which was part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. This marks the beginning of the Gothic War.
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In the years following Theodoric’s death, the Ostrogoths did not have a strong ruler, and had been weakened by the time of Belisarius’ arrival. On the eve of the Gothic War, the Ostrogothic Kingdom was ruled by Theodatus, a nephew of Theodoric. Theodatus had seized the throne from Athalaric, Theodoric’s successor (who was still a minor when he inherited the throne), and Amalasuntha, his mother and regent.
Athalaric indulged in excessive drinking, which killed him after being on the throne for eight years, whereas Amalasuntha was imprisoned, and eventually killed by Theodatus after she lost power. The slaying of Amalasuntha was used by Justinian as an excuse to attack the Ostrogoths.
A mosaic that is believed to depict the Byzantine general Belisarius. He was commissioned with the recapture of the Western Roman Empire from the barbarians. He started in Sicily and proceeded north to the mainland of Italy with relative ease. He fought in the first Siege of Rome against the Ostrogoths. (Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Belisarius and His Byzantine Army Takes Sicily With Ease
Belisarius captured Sicily easily and proceeded north to the mainland of Italy. In the summer of 536 AD, the Byzantines arrived in Naples, capturing the city after besieging it for a month. Belisarius continued his campaign against the Ostrogoths, reaching the gates of Rome in December 536 AD. By that time, the Ostrogoths had a new ruler.
Theodatus, hearing of Belisarius’ approach, tried to flee to Ravenna, but was attacked and killed on the way by his own people. Vittigis, the son-in-law of Amalasuntha, and, more importantly, a warrior, was elected as the new king. Instead of defending Rome, however, Vittigis pulled his men to the north, leaving a small garrison in the city. This was because he had a dispute to settle with the Franks to the north of the kingdom and was aware that Rome would fall to the Byzantines if it were besieged. Therefore, Belisarius entered Rome without a fight.
In March 537 AD, Vittigis had returned from the north, and began to lay siege to Rome (the first siege of Rome). According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, Vittigis’ army consisted of “not less than one hundred and fifty thousand” infantry and horsemen. It is now believed that this figure is an exaggeration, and that Vittigis may have been in command of 50000 men.
Nevertheless, this is still a huge force, as compared to the 5000 men that Belisarius brought for this campaign. Moreover, about 2000 of these Byzantine soldiers were not even in the city, as they had been left to garrison the towns captured on the way to Rome. In any case, Belisarius intended neither to surrender, nor to flee, and prepared the city for a siege.
On the side of the Ostrogoths, Vittigis was confident that he would easily recapture Rome from the Byzantines. It seems that the Ostrogothic king underestimated Belisarius’ military capabilities and was unable to capture the city as easily as he had anticipated. The siege dragged on, and after a year, the Byzantines were still in control of the city. After a year and nine days, Vittigis abandoned the siege, and withdrew to Ravenna. Although this was a spectacular victory for Belisarius, its impact on the overall campaign was limited.
After several more defeats at the hands of Belisarius, the Ostrogoths, in late 539 AD, offered to make Belisarius emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Although the Byzantine general was loyal to Justinian I, he pretended to accept the offer, and proceeded to Ravenna for his coronation. Once he arrived at the Ostrogothic capital, however, Belisarius captured the city, seized the Ostrogothic leaders, and claimed the whole of Italy for the Byzantine Empire.
When this news arrived in Constantinople, however, Justinian was displeased. Firstly, the offer of the Ostrogoths to Belisarius made the emperor doubt his general’s loyalty. Secondly, Belisarius’ went against the lenient terms offered by Justinian, i.e., that Italy would be split up between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines.
After a brief leadership crisis, Totila became the new ruler of the Ostrogoths in 541 AD. He besieged Rome twice! This painting of him is by the Italian painter Francesco de' Rossi. (Francesco de' Rossi / Public domain )
The Rise of Totila, The New Ostrogothic King
The successes of Belisarius in Italy were short-lived. In 541 AD, the general was recalled by Justinian, and the Byzantines gains in Italy were quickly reversed. After his capture, Vittigis was sent to Constantinople as a prisoner, and the Ostrogoths were without a king. After a brief leadership crisis, Totila became the new ruler of the Ostrogoths in 541 AD. Under Totila’s leadership, the Ostrogoths succeeded in recapturing much of the territory that had been lost to the Byzantines.
Totila proved himself to be a capable general, defending Verona against a Byzantine attack in 541 AD and defeating another Byzantine army at the Battle of Faventia in the following year. Knowing that his small army was no match for the Byzantine forces stationed in central Italy, Totila attacked the southern part of the peninsula first. Moreover, his strategy was to avoid long sieges against the Byzantines’ well-defended cities, targeting the countryside instead.
Totila’s clement treatment of those who surrendered to him would also serve him well, as evident in the Siege of Naples, which lasted from 542 to 543 AD. Totila’s reputation eventually convinced Naples’s starved defenders to accept his generous terms and surrendered the city to him.
By capturing the southern part of Italy, Totila was able to collect the taxes which would have otherwise gone to the Byzantine troops in central Italy. Deprived of their pay, the Byzantines began to plunder the countryside, thereby tarnishing their image. Nevertheless, when Totila besieged Rome in 546 AD (the second siege), the defenders were able to hold out for a year.
This was the second time Rome was besieged during the Gothic War. In the end, the Ostrogoths captured the city, and Rome was plundered. According to Procopius, Totila intended to turn Rome into a sheep pasture. When Belisarius, who had been sent back to Italy by Justinian, heard about this, he sent envoys with a letter to Totila. The letter, which explained why Totila should not destroy Rome, did its job, and the Ostrogothic king spared the city. Totila moved his army south in early 547 AD.
Rome was recaptured by Belisarius in early 548 AD, who hastily rebuilt the city’s fortifications. When Totila learned of this, he brought his troops back to Rome, but was defeated by Belisarius. The Byzantines, however, did not press their advantage, and Belisarius remained inactive. In the following year, however, the ever-suspicious Justinian recalled Belisarius once again.
The last battle of the Ostrogoths and the end of their influence was fought on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in the Battle of Mons Lactarius, fought either in 552 or 553 AD. This painting from 1890 is by Alexander Zick.(Captain Blood / Public domain )
The Third Siege of Rome In 549 AD Was The Last One!
In 549 AD, Totila besieged Rome once again. This was the third and last time the city was besieged during the Gothic War. Although Belisarius had been recalled, he selected 3000 men to garrison the city. Additionally, he made Diogenes, “one of his own spearmen, a man of unusual discretion and an able warrior,” their commander.
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According to Procopius, the Third Siege of Rome “continued for a long time.” It was the betrayal of some Isaurians (fiercely independent marauders originally from southwestern Anatolia or modern-day Turkey) in Rome that led to the city’s fall to the Ostrogoths. The historian goes on to report that a great slaughter ensued, though a few of the defenders managed to escape with great difficulty.
Unlike his first capture of Rome “Totila was unwilling thereafter [after the Third Siege of Rome] either to dismantle or to abandon it; instead he decided to establish in residence there both Goths and Romans, not only members of the senate, but also all the others.”
Following the capture of Rome, Totila continued his campaign against the Byzantines. By the end of 550 AD, the whole of Italy, with the exception of Ravenna and a few coastal towns, was back in the hands of the Ostrogoths.
Despite these victories, Totila’s time was fast running out. In 551 AD Justinian launched another campaign against the Ostrogothic Kingdom this time led by Narses, a general whom he trusted more than Belisarius.
In 552 AD, the Ostrogoths were defeated by Narses at the Battle of Taginae, and Totila was killed. Soon after, Rome was recaptured by the Byzantines.
At the Battle of Mons Lactarius, fought either in 552 or 553 AD, the Ostrogoths were defeated for the last time. This effectively marked the end of the Gothic War, and the Ostrogothic Kingdom was relegated to the pages of history.
Top image: A baroque carved relief (at the Church of Saint Benedict in Venice, Italy) from the life of St. Benedict showing Totila, the king of Ostrogoths, on his knees. During the invasion of Italy, Totila ordered a general to wear his kingly robes to see whether St. Benedict would discover the truth. Immediately Benedict detected the impersonation. Impressed, Totila came to pay his respects to the man of the cloth. Totila was the leader of the Ostrogoths in the Third Siege of Rome. Source: Renáta Sedmáková / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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