Key to Umbria

Gothic War (527 -73 D)

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Umbrian Cities in the 6th Century

The Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, describe a number of sainted bishops who seem to have constituted the civic power of their respective cities at this time:

  1. SS Floridus and Amantius of Città di Castello (“Tivoli”);

  2. St Cassius of Narni;

  3. St Fulgentius of Otricoli;

  4. St Herculanus of Perugia; and

  5. St Fortunatus of Todi.


The stability of King Theodoric’s reign could not outlast him, and civil war broke out among the Goths after his death.  The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-65) used this opportunity to re-assert direct control of the Western Empire.  In 535, he sent General Flavius Belisarius to retake Sicily, and peninsular Italy from the Goths. 

Belisarius took Naples and then Rome in 536, while the Goth general Witiges fell back on Ravenna.  Witiges made the fatal mistake of not securing Via Flaminia, so Belisarius sent two generals to establish a defensive ring around Rome:

  1. Bessas took the fortress at Narni; while

  2. Constantine took Spoleto and Perugia

Witiges regrouped and marched on Rome, and Belisarius withdrew his soldiers from Umbria in order to defend the city.  Witiges’ attack was repulsed so he began what turned out to be a year-long siege.  In 537, the Byzantines managed to take Rimini and Ancona and Witiges was forced to fall back to defend Ravenna.  Belisarius took Todi and then left a contingent of men to lay siege to Orvieto, in order to ensure the safety of Rome.  Orvieto finally surrendered in 539.

Belisarius now marched north and took Milan before moving in on Ravenna.  The battered Goths could not withstand the siege there and finally surrendered to Belisarius in 540.  Belisarius was immediately recalled Constantinople, taking his prisoner Witiges with him.


Following Belisarius’ withdrawal, the Goths regrouped under a new general, Totila.  He managed to retake much of the territory that Witiges had lost to Belisarius.  His most significant early victory was at Naples, which surrendered after a siege in 543. 

Belisarius returned to Italy in 544: he landed at Ravenna and managed to establish a base at Pisaurus (Pesaro), further south along the Adriatic coast.  He had, by this time, lost the trust of the Emperor Justinian and, despite his pleas for increased support, lacked the resources needed  to stop Totila’s advance.  According to a scurrilous account by Procopius:

  1. “Belisarius, coming to Italy for the second time, departed from there most ignominiously. For during a space of 5 years, he did not succeed once in setting foot on any part of the land ... except where some fortress was, but during this whole period he kept sailing about, visiting one port after another.  And Totila was frantic to catch him outside a walled town, but he did not succeed because both Belisarius himself and the entire Roman army were possessed by great fear” ( ‘Secret History’, V: 1-3).

Totila took Firmum (Fermo) on the Adriatic coast and then nearby Asculum (Ascoli), before marching into Umbria:

  1. In 546, the Byzantine general Herodian surrendered Spoleto to him.  He destroyed its walls, along with those of Spello, and fortified the ruins of the amphitheatre as a base for his garrison. 

  2. The Byzantine general Sisifridus was killed outside Assisi, after which that city also surrendered.  Bishop Aventius persuade Totila not to massacre its inhabitants.

  3. A Byzantine traitor, Ulifus,  murdered the Byzantine general Cyprian at Perugia, but that city refused to surrender and survived the subsequent siege.

Totila then moved on to lay siege to Rome.  He intercepted supplies sent by Pope Vigilius from Sicily and then thwarted an attempt by Belisarius to raise the siege.  When the starving city finally fell to him in late 546, the deacon Pelagius (the future Pope Pelagius I) persuaded him not to massacre its inhabitants.  However, he demolished the walls and expelled the inhabitant before withdrawing (with a number of hostages) to Apulia.  He sent Pelagius and Bishop Aventius of Assisi as ambassadors to the Emperor Justinian in 547 in a fruitless attempt to secure peace. 

Among the hostages that Totila had taken were the wife and children of a young Byzantine soldier called Martinianus.  With Belisarius’ permission, Martinianus e went to meet Totila, pretending to be a traitor.  Totila knew of his prowess in single combat and clearly thought highly of him.  He therefore released his wife and one of his children and sent him to join the Gothic garrison at Spoleto.  There, he subverted a number of Byzantine soldiers who had defected to the Goths and also called on reinforcements from Perugia (then still under siege).   Using surprise as a weapon, they took the city and killed most of the garrison, sending the rest as prisoners to Belisarius. 

Belisarius now moved to the deserted city of Rome and threw up emergency walls to defend his garrison.  Totila was unable to retake it immediately, and he faced considerable criticism from his soldiers, who argued that he should either have held it in 547 or destroyed it completely.  Perhaps to distract them, he marched on Perugia to reinforce the contingent that was besieging it, having first destroyed the bridges that would have allowed Belisarius to march out of Rome.   These were the circumstances that led to the fall of Perugia and the execution of is bishop, St Herculanus.

In 548, shortly before the fall of Perugia, Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople.  The soldiers he had left in Rome revolted because their pay was in arrears and murdered their commander, Conon.  Further treachery allowed Totila to take the city.  He reinstated the senators whom he had taken hostage, initiate a programme of rebuilding, and presided over games in the amphitheatre.  He then marched south to drive the remaining Byzantine forces from Italy. 

Exarch Narses

Justinian now lost interest in Italy until, in 552, Vigilius persuaded him to rid the country of the Arian Goths.  He therefore ordered the aged Narses to march against Totila.   Narses raised a new army that included a contingent of Lombards under King Audoin.  He landed near modern Venice and marched down the coast to Ravenna, where he met no resistance.  Totila mustered his forces at Rome and the respective armies marched along Via Flaminia to engage. 

The armies met at Taginae (near modern Gualdo Tadino) and, for the first time, Goths and Byzantines engaged in a pitched battle on open ground.  Narses emerged victorious, and the wounded Totila died as he fled the field.  In revenge, the Goths killed the Roman senators that Totila had sent to the Campania, together with some 300 boys from noble Roman families that were held hostage in the north.  Narses now discharged the Lombard mercenaries and they returned to Pannonia.  He sent a detachment to defeat the Goths who had managed to regroup at Pavia. 

Narses himself, with the remainder of his army, marched along Via Flaminia, towards Rome.   Procopius reports that Narses:

  1. “... took Narnia by surrender and left a garrison at Spoletium, which was then without walls, ordering them to rebuild as quickly as possible such parts of the fortifications as the Goths had torn down.  And he also sent some men to make trial of the garrison in Perusia” (‘History of the Wars’, VIII xxxiii 9).

At this time, Perusia was in the hands of the renegade Roman soldier soldier Uliphus, who eight years before had murdered Cyprian and taken the city for Totila.  His fellow-deserter and deputy, Meligedius changed sides once more: he had Uliphus murdered and surrendered Perusia to Narses.

Narses then took Rome and sent the keys of the battered city to Justinian.  No attempt was made to re-establish the Senate: Italy became a province that Narses ruled as Exarch from Ravenna.  The war dragged on until 544, when Narses finally defeated Teias, the successor of Totila, near Mount Vesuvius.  Pockets of Gothic resistance still existed: for example, Narses sacked Terni in 560, presumably because it was still under Gothic control.  Franks and Alamanni invaded northern Italy at about this time: Narses defeated them in 562 and finally established Byzantine control of Brescia and Verona, the last of the major cities under Barbarian control.

When Vigilius died in 555, Justinian chose Pelagius (who had been at the imperial court since 547 - see above) as his replacement.  The Roman clergy gave their grudging assent but none of them was prepared to consecrate him.  Finally, two non-Roman bishops, one of whom was Bishop John of Perugia, agreed to perform his consecration in 556.

The new emperor, Justin II recalled Narses to Constantinople in 568, probably at the behest of his wife Sophia.  Narses declined to be recalled, settling instead in Naples.  His erstwhile Lombard allies under King Alboin (the successor to Audoin) invaded Italy, perhaps at his instigation, at about this time.   Pope John III (561-74) persuaded Narses to return to Rome in 571 to take charge of the crisis, but he died there in ca. 573 without ever engaging the Lombards.

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Continue to the page on the Umbria under the Lombards and Byzantines.