This is volume 4 of Hodgkin’s work on “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire”. A better title for this series might be ‘The wars in Italy from 350 AD – 900 or so AD’. The focus for the most part is on Italy itself, and the Western Empire fell at the end of Volume II.
In this volume, the Eastern Empire is making a comeback, first taking out the Vandals in North Africa. General Belisarius, one of the most admired leaders in history, takes out the nation that had resisted attack from Rome for 50 years until Rome fell. It is a tribute to how good a leader Gaiseric was that only a generation later the Vandals are almost helpless in defending their land.
The next step was the invasion of Italy. Belisarius took an absurdly small army, only a few thousand men, and took Naples and Rome before the Goths could manage to organize themselves. The nasty King Theodahad was deposed and then killed, but the new King Witigis was not an effective leader. He managed to besiege Rome, and cut the aqueducts that made a populous civilized city, but he could not take it. Eventually disease reduced his army enough that Witigis retired to Ravenna.
But soon the cracks in the Imperial armor began to show. Lesser officers began to disobey Belisarius, causing defeats and interfering with his campaign. Belisarius managed to overcome this and take Ravenna and reduce Gothic resistance to a few cities in the north before his recall.
With Belisarius gone, and the Goths electing a new King – Totila, they made a comeback. Imperial dissention did not end with Belisarus’ recall, and the individual forces were isolated and defeated one by one. In just a few years the gains of the initial campaigns were lost and the Imperials were reduced to a few enclaves about the country.
Belisarius was sent back, but without any forces to fight with. Partly this was due to Justinian’s peevishness, and partly due to the ravages of plague in the East. Belisarius managed to retake Rome and withstand another siege, but he was not able to do more and was recalled a second time.
Finally, after 16 years of back and forth, Justinian finally sent a general and an army that could actually win. The new general was Narses, a 75 year old eunuch, seems strange to say the least. But he had skill, and better yet he had the backing of the Emperor, so that the disobedience of subordinate generals pretty much ends. With a large army and a unified front, the Goths were in trouble.
Soon Totila and his army were met in battle and defeated, and Totila was killed. With no leadership, many exhausted Goths gave in. Soon the last fragments of Gothic resistance were crushed and the Imperials were masters of Italy, although it was a country devastated by twenty years of war.