The Gothic war, fought by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian against the Goths in Italy, saw Naples twice under siege. In 536 Belisarius besieged the city in the hands of the Ostrogoths. In 543 the goth king Totila besieged and reconquered Naples.
Odoacer claims to govern Italy despite of the eastern Roman emperor Zeno, after removing the last emperor Romulus Augustus. The Emperor encouraged the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric to invade Italy to restore his power in Italy, freeing it of the presence of Odoacer.
In 489 Theodoric marched towards the Italian lands at the head of his people. It was a horde of over 100,000 Goths of which about 25,000 were in arms. After a military campaign that lasted five years, he defeated Odoacer definitively, taking possession of the whole territory to the south of the Alps. Nominated by the Roman senate “Patrician” (king) of Italy, governed wisely and moderately, protecting the pope’s religious authority despite the fact that the Goths were of Aryan faith. At his death he was succeeded by the very young Athalaric. The kingdom was ruled by the mother Amalasuntha. She had to share power with Theodatus, nephew of Theodoric, because of the early death of his son.
In 535 Theodatus, with a coup, expropriated his cousin Amalasuntha, who held prisoner on the Martana island of Lake Bolsena. Amalasuntha was later strangled by emissaries of Theodatus, who became the only sovereign of Italy. Justinian, emperor in Byzantium, took the opportunity of the murder of Amalasuntha to wage war on the Ostrogoths who, having become too powerful, represented a danger to his empire.
The emperor entrusted the command of the army to the “magister militium” Flavius Belisarius. Belisarius, who was born in Germany in the year 500, had already commanded the Byzantine troops in 533 leading them victoriously into the “vandal war“, with which he conquered northern Africa that was under the rule of the vandals.
In 535 General Belisarius moved against the Ostrogoths in the so-called “Gothic war“. He landed in Sicily and in a short time subdued it. Palermo was conquered by the Byzantine fleet with an original found. Groups of archers were placed on the fleet’s lifeboats to overcome the obstacle represented by the defensive walls in front of the port. The boats were hoisted upwards with winches attached to the ships’ masts. From that position the archers were able to target the defenders of Palermo beyond the walls. The soldiers, from the ground, climbed the ramparts finding little resistance. The Byzantines could thus penetrate into the city where the defenders, renouncing the battle, surrendered.
The Sicilians, tired of the abuses of the Goths, had finally well received the Byzantines led by the wise Belisarius who, to obtain the favor of the islanders, distributed gold coins to the people.
Belisarius was not resting on one’s laurels. Immediately after the conquest of Sicily he sent an expeditionary force in Dalmatia under command of General Mundus, to take away that land from the power of the Goths. The Byzantine General Mundus, having lost his son in a battle in Dalmatia, pounced on the Goths to take revenge. The Goths were overwhelmed. In the pursuit that followed the defeat one of the soldiers of Goth rearguard struck to death the General Mundus who died on the battlefield.
At first the king of the Goths Theodatus seemed determined to agree with the Byzantines for the cession of Italy to the emperor Justinian in exchange for money. The news of the killing of Mundus gave courage to Theodatus who renounced surrendering. Belisarius embarked his troops and from Sicily reached Reggio Calabria. In defense of Calabria there were troops led by Ebermorus, the son-in-law of Theodatus, who however fleeing to renounce fighting. Belisarius and his troops began the march towards Rome.
The general, with his strong army of 7200 horsemen and 3000 infantrymen, reinforced by troops hired in Sicily, conquered all the strongholds and towns he encountered on his way, since he did not want to run the risk of being attacked from behind by Gothic outposts in the southern cities. In 536, peacefully conquered Salerno, which had willingly surrendered to General Belisarius, preferring the Byzantine domination to the Ostrogothic one, besieged the city of Naples.
Belisarius tried in every way to avoid clashes and loss of time typical of a siege. He invited the Neapolitans to a negotiation. The Neapolitans commissioned Stephen, one of the most prominent people in the city, to go to the Byzantine camp to talk to Belisarius. The general invited the Neapolitans to surrender, presenting to them all the advantages that Sicily and the other cities that they had submitted were able to enjoy. Stephen represented the Byzantine requests to the people of Naples who was inclined to accept, in order to avoid grief and suffering. The part of the population linked to the Goths for business and benefits opposed the surrender.
Two exponents of the Gothic partisans, Pastore and Asclepiodoto convinced, with a fluent talk, the people to make further demands to Belisarius, in the secret hope of a refusal. Stefano returned to the enemy camp and pointed to further requests. Surprisingly Belisarius accepted them without any conditions. Stephen returned to the city and he informed the population. The two representatives of the conservatives questioned will of Belisarius to respect the agreed conditions once he had entered the city. The population of Naples decided to resist the siege faced with this perspective.
Months went by. The Byzantine troops were blocked in futile attempts to overcome the defenses of the city, which was equipped with high walls. The interruption of supplies and water, that the Byzantines had caused by diverting the Serino aqueduct, did not submit the Neapolitan people because the city had large silos full of grain and wells inside the walls that allowed the inhabitants to survive without major problems.
While Belisarius was considering whether it was better to abandon the siege to continue towards Rome, his main objective, an Isaur, belonging to the auxiliaries of the army, made an important discovery. He was one of the many Isaurs, a population of Asia Minor, who had been hired as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. This soldier was taken by the curiosity to explore the ravines of the aqueduct that, before the interruption of the water supplies wanted by Belisarius, supplied Naples with water. At the height of the defensive walls he encountered a tunnel that passed beneath the walls. It was the pipeline through which water supply entered the city. This tunnel, which was on the north-west side of the walls, at the height of today’s Via Carbonara, was too narrow for a man to cross it.
“In this Isaur soldier was born the desire to know the structure of the aqueduct, and how the citizens had the water. Entering therefore, far from the city and because of the break made by Belisarius, he spent a lot of time without reviving a trickle of water because of the interruption. Except that he was arrested by a huge stone put there by non-human work but by nature near the walls. The old builders of the aqueduct, urged to continue the work, had drilled it so much that it was enough for the water course but it was not enough for the crossing of a man. “ (Procopio, De Bello Gothico)
The discovery of the soldier was referred to Belisarius who decided to expand the breach to let his men enter the opposing defenses. Before he wanted to make a last attempt to avoid the battle that would develop into a great bloodshed and the subsequent sack to which the city won would be submitted. He sent his ambassador to parliament with the city authorities urging surrender in exchange for granting all the benefits requested by Stephen in the last meeting. Because the umpteenth refusal, Belisarius gave orders to proceed.
Four sturdy soldiers, armed with picks, were led by the Isaur to the breach of the aqueduct. In a short time they enlarged the conduit as long as it was enough for armed men to crawl inside. In the night 400 soldiers were ready in single file for the crossing. To divert the attention of the defenders The Byzantine besiegers made a loud noise with songs, shouts, insults against the Neapolitans, to divert the attention of the defenders The first soldier who crossed the conduit emerged into the courtyard of a house, situated near of the current church of Santa Sofia, inhabited by a widow. The woman was silenced under the threat of death. Quickly and silently all the 400 soldiers, accompanied by some trumpeters, passed through the tunnel.
Meanwhile the Byzantine troops, which were outside the walls, prepared for battle. The auxiliaries had prepared a large number of stairs to overcome the walls. The soldiers who penetrated the city killed the guards and the defenders who were on the ramparts. The trumpeters gave the signal agreed to the external troops. At the signal the soldiers rushed towards the walls but they realized with great disappointment that the prepared stairs were too short to overcome the obstacle. The stairs were tied two by two to lengthen them in haste. Finally a large number of soldiers managed to penetrate the city. The battle was lit with the troops who were in defense. The Byzantine soldiers managed to open some gates of the city, others were set on fire by the besieging army. All the troops entered the city.
In the morning the Byzantine army defeating the Neapolitan defenders. The sack began, what Belisarius wanted to avoid at all costs. There were slaughters of innocents, women raped, children taken slaves. Valuables were removed from the houses. Numerous houses were burnt, often together with the inhabitants of the same.
Belisarius, worried by the sad consequences of the looting under way and wanting to do an alliance with the Neapolitan people, spoke to his troops ordering the end of the violence. He freed men, women and children who could return to their homes, giving back most of the looted goods. Despite the intervention of the general the Neapolitan victims were many. In the following years the city had to be repopulated by people coming from southern Italy, Sicily and northern Africa.
Pastore and Asclepiodoto, who had worked for resistance to the bitter end, had a bad ending. Pastore, for fear of the consequences of his work, was seized by a stroke and died. Asclepiodoto, captured and brought before the Byzantine general, invoked his forgiveness. Stephen, who had failed to do his utmost to avoid the painful consequences of the defeat, opposed. Belisarius gave Asclepiodoto to the Neapolitan people who lynched him and tore his body to pieces. Naples had been defeated after a siege for the first time in its history.
The rebellion against their king Theodatus spread among the Goths after the Neapolitan defeat, who was accused of not having sent reinforcements to Naples in time. Theodatus was deposed with the fury of the people and Vitiges was named king.
Conquered and pacified Naples, Belisarius could turn his attention to Rome. Emissaries of the Roman government met the general, opening the doors of the eternal city to the Byzantines. The soldiers of the eastern Roman empire entered the Eternal City without hurting and without the Ostrogoth garrison, which was stationed in the city, moved against invaders to prevent its conquest. The chief of the Ostrogoths, Leutari, was sent to Byzantium to deliver the keys of Rome to the emperor Justinian. Following the example of Rome, all the cities of Lazio surrendered.
In 541 Totila was acclaimed king of the goths. He was the successor of Eraric, who was the successor of Ildibad, who had taken the place of Vitiges, defeated by Belisarius and sent prisoner to Byzantium.
Totila, aware of the Byzantine power, began a policy of reconciliation with the Italic peoples. He promoted an agrarian reform expropriating the great landowners, all in favor of the Byzantines, and distributing the land to the peasants on an equal basis. He engaged in the construction of a naval force to counter the supremacy of the fleet of the Eastern Roman empire. Moreover every city conquered by the Goths was deprived of the defensive walls to avoid having to besiege them in a weary war of position in future.
The Goth king engaged a strange war with the Byzantines, made of attacks and retreats. Totila did not get into a battle with the bulk of the Byzantine army, to avoid defeats due to the best organization and the highest number of enemy soldiers. To attack, to do as much damage as possible and to escape, this was Totila’s strategy. He renounced the siege of Rome, well defended by the Byzantines and headed for Naples to try to reconquer it.
In 542, arrived under the city walls, he sent his emissaries to ask the Neapolitans for spontaneous surrender. After refusing to surrender, Totila besieged Naples. The few troops, however, did not allow a complete encirclement. The Goths simply controlled the access routes to prevent supplies. A Byzantine fleet, commanded by Demetrius, came to the aid of the Neapolitans. Demetrius had many foodstuffs with him but few soldiers. Totila, realized that the enemy fleet was almost defenseless, armed the boats able to transport a large number of fighters and faced the Byzantine ships, defeating the few defenders of the same.
Byzantine reinforcements, led by Maximinus, were stationary in Syracuse for fear of facing the Goths. The Dux of Naples, Conone, sent emissaries to that city to solicit Maximinus to intervene with his fleet to help the Neapolitans. The Byzantine ships, going to Naples, met a strong storm. The commanders of the expedition: Demetrius, Faza and Herodian were forced to land in enemy territory. They were attacked and defeated. Demetrius, one of the few survivors, was captured and sent to Naples, to parliament with the Neapolitan defenders to invite them to surrender. Totila for his part promised an honorable treatment by virtue of the resistance that the city had made during the siege of the Byzantines.
The city of Naples resisted one more month then, due to lack of food, surrendered to Totila, opening the gates to the Gothic troops.
Only after the appointment of Narses as commanders of the troops in Italy, Byzantium was able to definitively defeat the Goths. That people was driven out of Italy and dispersed in Europe. Naples returned to be Byzantine. In the seventh century it became an independent duchy that lasted until 1137 when it was conquered by the Normans.
(Top photo: Ponti Rossi – Rovine dell’antico acquedotto – Baku 2017 – CC BY-SA 3.0)
Procopio, De Bello Gothico
Giorgio Ravegnani, Soldati e guerre a Bisanzio: il secolo di Giustiniano, Il Mulino, Bologna 2009
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerra gotica (535-553)
arsbellica.it/pagine/battaglie in sintesi/Assedio di Napoli 536
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assedio di Napoli (536)