King Totila's last Battle at Busta Gallorum and the end of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy

1 July 552, after more than twenty years of death struggle between Eastern Rome and the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy during Emperor Justinian’s attempt of reconquering the lost Western Empire, the Byzantine General Narses decisively defeated King Totila’s Goths in the Battle of Taginae in the Apennine Mountains, some 120 mile northeast of Rome.

“…the king exhibited in a narrow space the strength and agility of a warrior. His armour was enchased with gold; his purple banner floated with the wind: he cast his lance into the air; caught it with the right hand; shifted it to the left; threw himself backwards; recovered his seat; and managed a fiery steed in all the paces and evolutions of the equestrian school.” (Edward Gibbon, “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”)

King Totila, as imagined in Luca Signorelli's (1445 - 1523) Renaissance vision of "Benedict Discovers Totila's Deceit" (around 1500)

 very meekest cannot rest in quiet, unless it suits with his ill neighbour's humour, as William Tell once put it in Schiller’s eponymous play. Not that the word “meek” would suggest itself in regards to the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great. The Germanic condottiero had led his tribal followers into Italy during the last quarter of the 5th century and managed to carve out a kingdom from the ruins of the Western Empire. A couple of years later, the Eastern Roman emperors in Constantinople recognised Theoderic as de facto successor of their bygone western counterparts and even the ambitious Merovingian Franks were kept at bay with a successful combination of military action, threat and high quality diplomacy while the petulant Roman inhabitants of the peninsula by and large accepted and prospered under the certainty of the law under the benign Gothic overlordship. Not half bad for a ruler who had started out as a bare-arsed, louse-ridden barbarian chieftain as some of the contemporary Roman sources and imperial die-hards described him. His death at the age of 70-something in 526 without a suitably adult male heir left the Gothic kingdom in Italy in something of an impasse, though, especially since in Constantinople a new emperor came into the purple who had a vision of resurrecting the lost western part of the Roman Empire. Justinian. And after having settled his internal affairs and concluded an admittedly fragile peace with the Sassanid Empire, the next-door superpower east of the Euphrates, Justinian had his hands free to put his idea of restauratio imperii into action. The Vandal kingdom in North Africa was in for it first and fell after a lighting campaign led by the rather brilliant General Belisarius. The Gothic Kingdom of Italy was the next in line. Their royal infighting over the past years provided Justinian with the pretence he needed and in 535, Belisarius landed in pro-Roman Sicily with a small but highly professional army, occupied the place, rolled up the south of Italy, sweeping away all Gothic resistance until Naples and finally Rome fell in December 536. And then, things went completely pear-shaped for the conquerors. Even while the Goths changed their leaders more often than their shirts, resistance began to form in earnest, the Roman offensive foundered in the north, the plague broke out in Constantinople and the Sasanians declared war again in the east. Rome herself became a battlefield and while the Eternal City had somehow survived the turmoil of the 5th century and the Visigothic and Vandal sacks, her remaining 100,000 inhabitants of 536 had either fled or were killed when the Gothic king Totila recaptured the city for the last time. Belisarius was recalled from the Italian theatre, Justinian feared intrigue and his general had demanded reinforcements and more supplies once too often anyway. Now Narses was mobilised to give the Goths the coup de grace with an army of 30,000 and almost every imaginable resource Belisarius had clamoured for in vain.

An imagination of charging Gothic heavy cavalry

Narses, an elderly Armenian eunuch and actually an accountant by trade, had already seen some fighting in Italy earlier in the Gothic War and became Belisarius’ bitter rival, especially since he seemed to enjoy Justinian’s full confidence and that of the bustling Empress Theodora who had significantly contributed to Belisarius’ demise. The Armenian took his time, marched his army through Illyria until a Byzantine fleet managed to bring Totila’s warships to bay and annihilate them off Ancona. With his supplies lines secure, Narses finally pushed into Italy and marched down the old Via Flaminia to meet Totila. The armies clashed at a place known as Busta Gallorum, the burial mounds of the Gauls, once defeated and buried there after Brennus, of vae victis fame, was thrown out of Rome under Camillus some 800 years before. A good omen for a Roman army, though, and Narses proved to be far more than a pen pusher and Imperial favourite. He knew how to fight as well. Totila had rushed the famous Gothic heavy cavalry forward, dragging his infantry levies behind. He chose a narrow valley to offer battle and Narses accepted. He anticipated the cavalry charge, let most of his men dismount, positioned them in a half circle with his experienced archers on the flanks, quite like the English at Agincourt 850 years later. Totila knew that his lancers wouldn’t stand half a chance if they were exposed too long to the withering fire of the Romans and opened the battle with a charge against the archers on one of the wings. The arrows fired from the Byzantine composite bows that already had stopped Sassanid heavily armoured cataphracts in their tracks were still overwhelming. The Gothic charge was pushed away to the Roman centre, lost its momentum, the Roman infantry reserves charged and broke the Goths. Then Narses’ own cataphracts came over both wings and rode what was left of Totila’s disorganized ranks into the ground. The king himself was mortally wounded and died soon after, his coat and bejeweled hat were later presented to Justinian and Narses’ had decisively defeated the Ostrogoths with almost no losses of his own. Their rule in Italy was virtually over. 

Adolf Zick (1845 - 1907): "Die Gotenschlacht am Vesuv" (The Goths' Battle at Mount Vesuvius, around 1900), depicting King Teia's last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius near the Vesuvius

They crowned one last king, Teia, and Narses defeated him and the last of the Ostrogoths at a place known as Mons Lactarius in Campania in the November of the same year. Teia died fighting and what was left of his people was allowed to leave and withdraw beyond the Alps and into legend. The dream of an Ostrogothic Italy was over. The Franks sniffed their chance, tried to invade the heap of ruins the peninsula had become over the last twenty years of war and Narses defeated them as well. Italy had found the peace of the grave for a while. Narses remained as exarch, did his best to restore at least something resembling a civil infrastructure until he simply disappears from the records towards the end of the 560s. The next wave of invaders, the Lombards, already sharpened their battle axes and were about to knock at the door. In 568 they migrated into Italy under their King Alboin, tens of thousands of them, along with various other tribes and they would rule most of the place for the next two hundred years, locked in a continuous struggle with Eastern Rome. By then, Theoderic, Totila, Teia and Belisarius had entered the realm of legends just as the tribe of the Ostrogoths did and they lived and fought on in heroic epics well into the 20th century. Narses, arguably the most brilliant commander of them all and certainly the most unheroic figure, was duly forgotten outside of Byzantine historiography, though.

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