Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

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- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Battle of Mons Lactarius - The end of the Gothic Wars

While not a Goth this Celtic/Gaulish Warrior Reenactor
might have looked much like the troops faced by the Romans.(From Pinterest)

The Gothic War (535 - 554 AD)

The Gothic War had its roots in the ambition of East Roman Emperor Justinian to recover the provinces of the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost to invading barbarian tribes in the previous century.

The Gothic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy was fought from 535 until 554 in ItalyDalmatiaSardiniaSicily and Corsica. It is commonly divided into two phases. 

The first phase lasted from 535 to 540 and ended with the fall of the Ostrogothic capital of Ravenna and the apparent reconquest of Italy by the Byzantines. During the second phase (540/541–553), the Goths' resistance was reinvigorated under Totila and put down only after a long struggle by Narses, who also repelled the 554 invasion by the Franks and Alamanni. Several cities in northern Italy continued to hold out, however, until the early 560s.

By the end of the conflict Italy was devastated and considerably depopulated.
Emperor Justinian I

Bogged Down in Italy

The Gothic War had become a slugfest lasting for years on end with neither side able to claim victory.

The new Goth King Totila reversed the tide of war, recovering by 543 almost all the territories in Italy that the Eastern Roman Empire had captured.

Totila was favored in his intention to restore the Gothic realm by three factors: the outbreak of the Black Death that devastated and depopulated the Roman Empire in 542, the beginning of a new Roman-Persian War, and the incompetence and disunity of the various Roman generals in Italy.

A new Italian campaign was organized under Justinian's nephew Germanus Justinus. With the death of Germanus in 551, Narses took on Totila.

A court eunuch, Narses, was appointed the new commander of the army, given supreme command and returned to Italy where twelve years previously he had been recalled. Many historians believe that Narses was put in command because of his old age, so that he would never be able to rebel successfully against Justinian. Narses had considerable military experience in Italy dating back to 538.

Narses' greatest asset in his newfound position was to have access to the Emperor’s financial resources. With the treasury, Narses was able to amass anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 troops. Narses also seemed to be well liked by many of the soldiers of fortune, as he had treated them “especially well”. Procopius reported that Narses had built an army that in the requirement of men and arms was “worthy of the Roman Empire”. The army reflected many of Narses' previous commands, in that most of the troops were barbarians.

At the Battle of Taginae (552) Narses defeated and killed Totila.

Narses marched to Rome after the Battle of Taginae and had to conduct a short siege of the city. Narses attacked on one side with a large contingent of archers, while another part of the walls was attacked. From Rome, Narses would work to remove all of the remaining Ostrogothic forces from Italy.

The Battle of Mons Lactarius

The Battle of Mons Lactarius

Parts of the Roman army were sent throughout the country to deal with Teias, (the son of Totila, and the new Gothic king). Teias followed the example set by Narses on his march into Italy and around the Imperial Army. After engaging Narses in small skirmishes for nearly two months, Teias retreated into the mountains. 

The Goths maneuvered onto Mons Lactarius, where they soon faced death from starvation.

From: History of the Later Roman Empire
By J.B. Bury (1889)

The first act of Narses after his great success, for which he piously ascribed all the credit to the Deity, was to dismiss his savage allies, the Lombards, who, as soon as the victory was won, were devoting themselves to the congenial occupations of arson and rape. He rewarded them with large sums of gold, and committed to Valerian the task of conducting them to the Italian frontier. The remnant of Totila's army had fled with Teïas northward to Ticinum. There Teïas was elected king, and he hoped with the help of the Franks to restore the fortunes of his people. He had at his disposal the treasures which Totila had prudently left in Ticinum.

The Goths now showed themselves, without any reserve, in their true colours. (1) In Campania they put to death the senators who had been sent there by Totila and now proposed to return to Rome. (2) Before Totila went forth to meet Narses he had selected three hundred boys from Roman families of repute and sent them to the north of Italy as hostages. Teïas seized them and slew them all.
6th Century Roman Soldier

Teïas succeeded in getting into touch with his fleet and it was able to supply him with provisions. The situation was changed when Imperial warships which Narses summoned began to come in great numbers from Sicily and other places. The Gothic naval commander, anticipating their arrival, surrendered his fleet. The food-supply of the army was thus cut off.

At the same time it began to suffer from the play of the engines which Narses installed in wooden towers along his bank of the stream. Teïas broke up his camp and retreated to the shelter of the mountain which overlooks the valley. This mountain, belonging to the St. Angelo range, was known as Mons Lactarius and still retains the name as Monte Lettere. On the slope of this hill the Goths were safe from attack, which the nature of the ground would have rendered too dangerous an enterprise, but they found themselves worse off for food, and they soon repented their change of ground. At length they resolved to make a surprise attack upon their foes. It was their only chance.

They appeared so unexpectedly in the valley that the Romans had no time to form themselves in the regular array prescribed by military handbooks. The Goths had left their horses behind and advanced as a solid mass of infantry. The Romans received them in the same formation.

In the battle there was no room for tactic, it was a sheer trial of personal strength, bravery, and skill. The Gothic king, a few warriors by his side, led the assault, and, the Romans recognising him and thinking that if he fell his followers who were formed in a very deep phalanx would not continue the contest, he became the mark for their most dexterous lancers and javelin-throwers.

It was a Homeric combat, and the historian has described it vividly. Teïas stood covered by his shield, which received the spears that were hurled or thrust at him, and then suddenly attacking laid many of his assailants low. When he saw that the shield was full of spears he gave it to one of his squires, who handed him another. He is 
said to have fought thus for a third part of the day, then his strength failed. There were twelve spears sticking in his shield, and he found he could not move it as easily as he would. Without retreating a foot or moving to right or left, smiting his foes with his right hand, he called the name of a squire. A new shield was brought, but in the instant in which he was exchanging it for the old his chest was exposed, and a lucky javelin wounded him mortally.
Ostrogoth Warrior

The head of the fallen hero was at once severed from his body and raised aloft on a pole that all his host might know that he had fallen. But the expectation of the Romans that their enemies would abandon the struggle was not fulfilled. The Goths did not flee like fawns, nor lay down their arms. They were animated by a spirit of desperation, and in a very different temper from that which they had displayed in the last battle of Totila. They fought on till nightfall, and on the next day the fray was resumed, and again lasted till the evening. 

Then, seeing that they could not win and recognising that God was against them, they sent some of their leaders to Narses to announce that they would yield, not, however, to live in subjection to the Emperor, but to retire somewhere outside the Roman frontiers where they could live independently. They asked to be allowed to retire in peace, and to take with them any money or belongings that they had individually deposited in Italian fortresses.

On the advice of John, who made a strong plea for moderation, these conditions were accepted, on the undertaking of the Goths that they would not again make war on the Empire.


Though the Ostrogoths were essentially defeated and driven out of Italy for good, Narses soon had to face other barbarians who were invading the Byzantine-occupied borders of northern Italy and southern Gaul. In 554, a massive army of about thirty thousand Franks and Alemanni invaded northern Italy and met the Byzantine army on the banks of the river Volturnus

The Roman legions under Narses formed up the central defenses, while several detachments of Herulian mercenaries controlled the flanks. In the Battle of Volturnus, the Franks and Alemanni were driven back, suffering heavy losses.

The somewhat pyrrhic victory of the Gothic War drained the Byzantine Empire of much-needed resources that might have been employed against more immediate threats in the East. In Italy, the war was devastating to the urbanized society that was supported by a settled hinterland. The great cities of Rome and her allies were abandoned as Italy fell into a long period of decline. 

The impoverishment of Italy and the drain on the Empire made it difficult for the Byzantines to hold Italy. Imperial gains were fleeting: only three years after the death of Justinian, many of the the mainland Italian territories fell into the hands of a Germanic tribe, the Lombards.

But even so, large parts of Italy remained part of the Empire until the final Siege of Bari in April, 1071.

The Gothic Wars
After his amazing conquest of North Africa the great General Belisarius organized the invasion of Italy. In 535 Belisarius landed his army in Sicily while General Mundus (magister militum per Illyricum) invaded Goth held Dalmatia and captured its capital Salona.  By 536 the Goths had permanently left, and Dalmatia was again in Roman hands.
In 536 Belisarius marched up Italy capturing Naples, Rome and Ravenna, but the Goths refused to be conquered and the war dragged on until 554.

(Gothic War)      (Mons Lactarius)      (Mons Lactarius)      (Narses)

(Pinterest.com)      (Pinterest.com)