1 July 552, after more than twenty years of death struggle between Eastern Rome and the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy during Emperor Justinian’s attempt of reconquering the lost Western Empire, the Byzantine General Narses decisively defeated King Totila’s Goths in the Battle of Taginae in the Apennine Mountains, some 120 mile northeast of Rome.
“…the king exhibited in a narrow space the strength and agility of a warrior. His armour was enchased with gold; his purple banner floated with the wind: he cast his lance into the air; caught it with the right hand; shifted it to the left; threw himself backwards; recovered his seat; and managed a fiery steed in all the paces and evolutions of the equestrian school.” (Edward Gibbon, “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”)
|King Totila, as imagined in Luca Signorelli's (1445 - 1523) Renaissance vision of "Benedict Discovers Totila's Deceit" (around 1500)|
|An imagination of charging Gothic heavy cavalry|
Narses, an elderly Armenian eunuch and actually an accountant by trade, had already seen some fighting in Italy earlier in the Gothic War and became Belisarius’ bitter rival, especially since he seemed to enjoy Justinian’s full confidence and that of the bustling Empress Theodora who had significantly contributed to Belisarius’ demise. The Armenian took his time, marched his army through Illyria until a Byzantine fleet managed to bring Totila’s warships to bay and annihilate them off Ancona. With his supplies lines secure, Narses finally pushed into Italy and marched down the old Via Flaminia to meet Totila. The armies clashed at a place known as Busta Gallorum, the burial mounds of the Gauls, once defeated and buried there after Brennus, of vae victis fame, was thrown out of Rome under Camillus some 800 years before. A good omen for a Roman army, though, and Narses proved to be far more than a pen pusher and Imperial favourite. He knew how to fight as well. Totila had rushed the famous Gothic heavy cavalry forward, dragging his infantry levies behind. He chose a narrow valley to offer battle and Narses accepted. He anticipated the cavalry charge, let most of his men dismount, positioned them in a half circle with his experienced archers on the flanks, quite like the English at Agincourt 850 years later. Totila knew that his lancers wouldn’t stand half a chance if they were exposed too long to the withering fire of the Romans and opened the battle with a charge against the archers on one of the wings. The arrows fired from the Byzantine composite bows that already had stopped Sassanid heavily armoured cataphracts in their tracks were still overwhelming. The Gothic charge was pushed away to the Roman centre, lost its momentum, the Roman infantry reserves charged and broke the Goths. Then Narses’ own cataphracts came over both wings and rode what was left of Totila’s disorganized ranks into the ground. The king himself was mortally wounded and died soon after, his coat and bejeweled hat were later presented to Justinian and Narses’ had decisively defeated the Ostrogoths with almost no losses of his own. Their rule in Italy was virtually over.
|Adolf Zick (1845 - 1907): "Die Gotenschlacht am Vesuv" (The Goths' Battle at Mount Vesuvius, around 1900), depicting King Teia's last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius near the Vesuvius|
They crowned one last king, Teia, and Narses defeated him and the last of the Ostrogoths at a place known as Mons Lactarius in Campania in the November of the same year. Teia died fighting and what was left of his people was allowed to leave and withdraw beyond the Alps and into legend. The dream of an Ostrogothic Italy was over. The Franks sniffed their chance, tried to invade the heap of ruins the peninsula had become over the last twenty years of war and Narses defeated them as well. Italy had found the piece of the grave for a while. Narses remained as exarch, did his best to restore at least something resembling a civil infrastructure until he simply disappears from the records towards the end of the 560s. The next wave of invaders, the Lombards, already sharpened their battle axes and were about to knock at the door. In 568 they migrated into Italy under their King Alboin, tens of thousands of them, along with various other tribes and they would rule most of the place for the next two hundred years, locked in a continuous struggle with Eastern Rome. By then, Theoderic, Totila, Teia and Belisarius had entered the realm of legends just as the tribe of the Ostrogoths did and they lived and fought on in heroic epics well into the 20th century. Narses, arguably the most brilliant commander of them all and certainly the most unheroic figure, was duly forgotten outside of Byzantine historiography, though.
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