Treason during Justinian's wars (part 2)

This is the second part of Christopher Lillington-Martin’s article on traitors, deserters, and defectors in the wars of the Emperor Justinian. You can read the first part here.

Theodahad defends Italy

On learning of Ebrimuth’s desertion, Theodahad’s next order to defend Italy was to garrison Naples. As with his first line of defence with the Roman senate, he discouraged the Gothic troops from ideas of defection by holding their families hostage (Wars 5.8.8). The Neapolitan population debated whether to surrender to Belisarius but decided to defend the city because of the large number of Goths present, so Belisarius cut the aqueduct.

However, a Roman (Isaurian) soldier investigated the aqueduct and found a way in underground (a visit to the catacombs of Naples gives an idea of the experience), which led to the Roman army assault and sack of Naples. 800 Gothic prisoners were taken, but it would be harsh to categorise these 800 as traitors. Once Naples fell, the Goths around Rome voiced their “amazement” that Theodahad “was unwilling to engage” the enemy “in battle”. They “gathered at a place two hundred and eighty stades distant from Rome, (…) Regata” (Wars, 5.11.1), i.e. Forum Appii, towards Tarracina.

Tantalizingly, Procopius does not specify why the Goths gathered there, merely mentioning that there was “pasture for horses” (Wars 5.11.1). Theodahad had been directing strategy from Rome, but at Regata the Goths treacherously deposed him, and chose his general, Witiges, as their new king. Again Theodahad was let down by treacherous subordinates.

In hindsight, it is clear that the Goths would have been better to remain loyal to Theodahad and defend Rome. We can see that Theodahad’s instinct to defend Rome was the right one but, with the fall of Naples, he had lost the confidence of the Gothic warriors. He behaved like an emperor, sending his armies to do battle, but his troops wanted a king to lead them. Gothic coins reflect these viewpoints with imperial style depictions of Theodahad and a more military design for Witiges (see the coins on this external website for Theodahad and Witiges).

The end of Theodahad and its aftermath

As the Via Appia runs straight from Rome to Regata and is closer to the coast, Belisarius simply threatened to outflank the Gothic position there by marching along the inland Via Latina route from Naples to Rome. Outflanked and failing to ascertain the relatively small size of Belisarius’ army, Witiges withdrew to Rome (Wars 5.16.19).

Theodahad fled to Ravenna, where his high-ranking noble supporters were based, with whom he might have held out, leaving Witiges to face Belisarius. However, Witiges allowed Optaris, who had a grudge against Theodahad, to pursue him. He was then very unlucky to be caught, and assassinated, just five miles from Ravenna (which still has much military and religious architecture of the period which is well worth visiting).

After Theodahad’s assassination, the situation went from bad to worse for the Goths. Witiges did not attack or in any way delay Belisarius’ advance, which would have been sensible. He did not defend Rome himself, but delegated responsibility to Leuderis (with a garrison of 4,000 Goths), and decided to go to Ravenna.

Witiges forcibly married a 16 year-old Amal princess, Matasuntha (ca. 518–ca. 560), Amalasuntha’s daughter, “much against her will, in order that he might make his rule more secure by marrying into the family of Theoderic” (Wars 5.11.27). Witiges’ dynastic marriage was attained at great military cost and his regrouping at Ravenna was an enormous error of judgement, which he later regretted.

When Belisarius reached Rome, on 9–10 December 536, the Gothic garrison deserted their post and withdrew north whilst its leader Leuderis surrendered to Belisarius. Belisarius easily secured much of Tuscany by surrender. In early 537, Witiges returned to Rome and led an unsuccessful year-long siege, which initially inspired a few Roman troops to desert to him.

In 538, he retreated to Ravenna and, after two more years of war, he abdicated in 540 (in favour of Belisarius). So Witiges effectively defected and Belisarius’ scheme bordered on treachery towards Justinian as he had no authority to accept the Gothic throne. However, he took Witiges to Constantinople who was rewarded with luxurious retirement in the East.


In this article, I have tried to show that Justinian’s wars led to many situations in which treachery, desertion and defection were committed by kings, commanders, soldiers and civilians on both sides. The reasons often involved bribes, but the main reason seems to have been to survive the war. Such decisions influenced the outcome of the conflict to a large degree as Belisarius, even when delayed by Roman treachery in North Africa and Sicily, managed to conquer Sicily and Italy as far north as Tuscany, after a brief encounter at Palermo and short siege at Naples between 535 and 536.

Ebrimuth’s surrender to Belisarius was pivotal. It saved time and permitted an unopposed landing in Italy. Theodahad took steps to deter the garrison in Naples from defecting with some success, but Belisarius was lucky and captured the city. Theodahad could not have expected Sinderith or Ebrimuth to have defected so easily, nor could he have anticipated Witiges’ treachery or Belisarius’ luck.

Gothic losses were mainly due to bad luck, treachery, and the fact that they were facing a formidable adversary in Belisarius, who had the backing and resources of a great empire behind him. Perhaps Amalasuntha or Theodahad should have accepted Justinian’s offer to defect in 534–536, to enjoy a comfortable retirement in the east, as Witiges did from 540.

After a 25 year career in Spain, Italy, and the UK preparing students for university studies, Christopher Lillington-Martin completed his master’s in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at Oxford University in 2012. He has published articles and spoken at academic conferences with financial support from a variety of academic institutions. He teaches and examines Classics, Archaeology, and History. He spends his spare time leading groups to visit ancient sites.

Further reading

  • P. Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy 489–554 (Cambridge 1997).
  • K. Bowes M. and Kulikowski, Hispania in Late Antiquity. Current Perspectives (2005).
  • J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (London 1923).
  • Cassiodorus, Variae (translated by S.J.B. Barnish, Translated Texts for Historians, Liverpool University Press, 1992)
  • P. Heather, The Goths (Oxford 1998).
  • M. Kouroumali, Procopius and the Gothic War (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2006).
  • C.I. Lillington-Martin, “Procopius, Belisarius and the Goths”, Journal of the Oxford University History Society (2009).
  • C.I. Lillington-Martin, “Procopius on the struggle for Dara and Rome” in A. Sarantis and N. Christie, War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Leiden 2013), pp. 599–630.

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