Treason during Justinian’s wars

Written by Christopher Lillington-Martin

Justinian’s wars in the Mediterranean area led to many situations rife with treachery, desertion and defection. However, it is arguable that this was most prevalent during his Italian war, especially in the initial stages. In this article, I will consider how and why senior Gothic nobles either defected to the Roman cause or behaved treacherously, why Roman soldiers deserted their posts or joined the Goths, and why the Italian aristocracy, clergy and populace placed their loyalties sometimes with the Goths and sometimes with the Romans. I will evaluate the extent to which such decisions influenced the outcome of the conflict.

Our sources include: Procopius (ca. 500–ca. 560), who participated in the 533–540 African, Sicilian and Italian campaigns (when he undertook logistical and intelligence-related missions at Belisarius’ command), as well as Cassiodorus, Jordanes, the Liber Pontificalis and Marcellinus Comes (all published ca. 550). Although these sources relate very recent and similar events, this may not have prevented hindsight from entering these accounts and they did not enjoy significant historical perspective.

Justinian (r. 527–565) launched an invasion of Sicily in 535 and Italy in 536 to attack Theodahad. The latter was king of the Goths and Italians (r. 534–536), who was treacherously assassinated by fellow Goths after the loss of Naples in November 536 to the Roman army led by Belisarius (general from 527 to 565). Treachery, desertion and defection will be tested in this essay by a re-interrogation of the sources relevant to Belisarius’ conquest of Sicily in 535 and his invasion of Italy in 536. I hope to show that Theodahad’s regime collapsed because of bad luck and treachery by his subordinates, combined with the disparity in resources available to him compared to the Emperor Justinian.

The campaigns of Justinian

Justinian directed campaigns to take western Roman territories conquered by Germanic groups in the fifth century. In 533–534, Belisarius defeated the Vandals and retook North Africa. Strategically, this facilitated subsequent wars in Sicily and Italy from 535 and in Spain in ca. 554. From 526–534, Gothic Italy had experienced eight years of unstable rule during which Theodahad became notorious for land-grabbing in Tuscany, something Queen Amalasuntha curbed (Variae 10.3.6; Wars 5.3.2–3.).

Theodahad was invited to join the Gothic monarchy in late 534. Justinian’s first move in his campaign to re-take Italy was to nurture treachery within the Gothic royal family by offering the bribe of luxurious retirement in the East, in exchange for abdication in his favour, first to Queen Amalasuntha, in 534, and then to King Theodahad, in 535–536, which they each considered but declined (Wars 5.3, 4 and 5–7.). Theodahad showed himself to be treacherous towards his regal cousin by arranging circumstances so that Queen Amalasuntha could be murdered in early 535 (Procopius, Anekdota 16.5).

This gave Justinian his casus belli and (Wars 5.5.1–2.),

the emperor, upon learning what had befallen Amalasuntha, immediately entered upon the war (…) he first commanded Mundus, the general of Illyricum, to go to Dalmatia, which was subject to the Goths, and make trial of Salona.

Theodahad’s forces initially defeated Justinian’s in Dalmatia, and this victory clearly encouraged Theodahad to resist Justinian. But Justinian then sent Constantianus into Dalmatia who took Salona.

b_145_145_16777215_00_images_aw_articles_Lillington-Martin_map.pngIn a vain attempt to avert an escalation of war, Theodahad then forced the Senate of Rome to appeal to Justinian not to attack Sicily and Italy (as he had the Vandals in 533). In May 535, he had the Senate write to Justinian: “If I was ever esteemed by you, most devoted of princes, love my defenders [i.e. the Goths]’ (Variae 11.13.3).

Such extracts from Cassiodorus seem to provide good evidence for the great strength of the commitment to the Gothic regime among Italian elites. However, Barnish notes the possibility of duress and Bury suggests that Theodahad threatened some Roman senators, “with their wives and children”, with massacre to encourage them to send this communiqué. Theodahad also proposed to install a Gothic garrison at Rome to encourage loyalty. This shows that Theodahad feared that the Roman elite would defect to Justinian, and later many, but not all, did.

The conquest of Sicily

Jordanes summarizes the conquest of Sicily in 535 by Belisarius: “the Goths (…) holding (…) Syracuse (…) surrendered of their own accord to Belisarius, with their leader Sinderith” (Getica 40.308), which suggests defection by the Gothic commander to the Roman cause. All but one city in Sicily surrendered easily. The Goths at Palermo, resisted until (Wars5.5.12–18):

Belisarius ordered the fleet to sail into the harbour, (…) filled all the small boats of the ships with bowmen and hoisted them to the tops of the masts (…) the enemy were shot at from above, fell into (…) fear [and] delivered Palermo to Belisarius by surrender (…) [Belisarius] marched into Syracuse, loudly applauded by the army and by the Sicilians and throwing golden coins to all.

This suggests that the populace, and perhaps the Goths, were won over by financial incentives and it was because Sinderith and the garrisons defected or surrendered (most of them treacherously quickly) to Belisarius that Theodahad lost Sicily so quickly.

However, treachery was not limited to one side. Serious Roman army mutinies in North Africa and Sicily disrupted and delayed Belisarius’ plans and created time for Theodahad to prepare to defend mainland Italy (Wars 4.14–15; Jordanes, Romana 369–370; Marcellinus 13.1). The mutiny in Africa started at Easter (23 March 536) and, whilst Belisarius went there to regain control, there was another mutiny in Sicily.

It seems an extraordinary coincidence that both mutinies occurred within three months of Belisarius completing the conquest of Sicily (31 December 535), at the start of the 536 campaigning season, when his next logical step was to invade Italy. Another coincidence is that the second mutiny, in Sicily, occurred after Belisarius had dashed to Carthage and Membresa to quell the first. As these Roman mutinies created valuable time for Theodahad to prepare his defence of mainland Italy, it may be reasonable to hypothesise that he may have had a hand in instigating them.

Ebrimuth switches sides

Theodahad’s next line of defence was to deploy an army to defend Bruttium, led by his son-in-law Ebrimuth. He did so with the full support of the Gothic nobles who, during an audience with Justinian’s ambassadors Athanasius and Peter in mid-536, passed letters addressed to them from Justinian to Theodahad (Wars, 5.7.22.). Theodahad’s southern army, led by Ebrimuth, was tasked with preventing Belisarius’ army from crossing from Sicily to mainland Italy, but it failed because, as Marcellinus’ Chronicle summarizes, “Ebrimuth, son-in-law of Theodahad, deserted the royal army in Bruttium and fled to Belisarius in Sicily.”

Jordanes’ Getica (60.308–309) records, “When Ebrimuth (…) saw that his side was the weaker (…) he switched over (defected) to the side of the victor and, of his own accord casting himself at the feet of Belisarius, he decided to serve the rulers of the Roman Empire.” In his Romana (370), Jordanes explains that in Sicily, “Ebrimuth (…), who had come with an army to fight Belisarius (…) surrendered to him of his own accord. He urged him to come to the aid of Italy which, suspicious of his own arrival, now eagerly desired him.”

This suggests other Italians and Goths were minded to defect to the Roman cause. It is supported by, Procopius, who writes that “Belisarius (…) crossed with (…) the army (…) to Reggio (…) and every day the people of that region kept coming over to him.” However, Procopius tempers this enthusiasm by adding that “their towns had from of old been without walls, they had no means at all of guarding them, and because of their hostility toward the Goths they were, as was natural, greatly dissatisfied with their present government.” He continues that “Ebrimuth came over to Belisarius as a deserter from the Goths, together with all his followers (…) he was straightaway sent to the emperor and received many gifts of honour and in particular attained the patrician dignity” (Wars 5.8.1–3). However, it took Belisarius about three months to reach Naples – perhaps there was local resistance.

So Theodahad’s plan to defend Bruttium was thwarted by the defection of a subordinate, as in Sicily. Theodahad evidently placed a great deal of faith in certain family relationships and did not imagine that, “he who is united to a ruler’s family is placed in the very bosom of fame” (Variae 10.11.4), would end, ironically, with his son-in-law gaining fame by facilitating Belisarius’ army-landing in Bruttium and then being elevated to patrician rank by Justinian.

It was no wonder that Ebrimuth was rewarded so handsomely, as the importance of his defection cannot be underestimated. Had he defended the coast, Belisarius would have lost men, equipment and time and perhaps even been repulsed. Ebrimuth’s decision in 536 can be compared to that by Julian, the east Roman dux of Septem, who in 711, with the aim of aiding Wittiza, the Visigothic king, against a usurper, decided to facilitate the transfer of Muslim troops from Tangiers to Spain which then developed into the conquest of Visigothic Spain. After Ebrimuth’s desertion, Jordanes claims that “when the army of the Goths found this out, they held Theodahad suspect and clamoured for his expulsion from the throne and for the appointment as king of their commander Witiges, who had been his armour bearer” (Getica 60.309).

Jordanes’ statement conflicts with Procopius’ account, who states that the Goths remained loyal to Theodahad until after the fall of Naples several months later. Amory argues that “Jordanes’ context suggests that his [Ebrimuth’s] desertion may have been connected to knowledge of the treachery of his father-in-law Theodahad, but this may have been the historian’s hindsight at work” (1997, p. 373).

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.

From : ‘Ancient warfare’