A period of stability in the early sixth century AD gave the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian an opportunity to recapture parts of the Western Empire which had been lost to invading barbarians in the preceding centuries. It was an ambitious plan to attack such a vast territory with relatively few soldiers and resources. Yet Justinian’s army succeeded in checking the Persians in the East and in retaking North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths, the strongest and most organized Barbarian tribe in the West. The climactic conflict over Italy between 535 and 554—the Gothic War—decided the political future of Europe, holding in its balance the possibility that the Roman Empire might rise again. While large portions of the original territory of the ancient Roman Empire were recaptured, the Eastern Empire was both unwilling and incapable of retaining much of its hard-won advances, and soon the empire once again retracted. As a result of the Gothic War, Italy was invaded by the Lombards who began their important kingdom, the Franks began transforming Gaul into France, and without any major force remaining in North Africa, that territory was quickly overrun by the first wave of Muslim expansion in the ensuing century.
Written as a general overview of this critical period, The Gothic War opens with a history of the conflict with Persia and the great Roman general Belisarius’s successful conquest of the Vandals in North Africa. After an account of the Ostrogothic tribe and their history, the campaigns of the long war for Italy are described in detail, including the three sieges of Rome, which turned the great city from a bustling metropolis into a desolate ruin. In addition to Belisarius, the Gothic War featured many of history’s most colorful antagonists, including Rome’s Narses the Eunuch, and the Goths’ ruthless and brilliant tactician, Totila. Two appendices provide information about the armies of the Romans and Ostrogoths, including their organization, weapons, and tactics, all of which changed over the course of the war.
TORSTEN CUMBERLAND JACOBSEN is a former curator of the Royal Danish Military Museum.