Interview with Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen  is the former curator of the Royal Danish Military Museum and author of the book The Gothic War: Rome’s Final Conflict in the West. Written as a general overview of this critical period, The Gothic War opens with a history of the conflict with Persia and the great Roman general Belisarius’s successful conquest of the Vandals in North Africa. After an account of the Ostrogothic tribe and their history, the campaigns of the long war for Italy are described in detail, including the three sieges of Rome, which turned the great city from a bustling metropolis into a desolate ruin. In addition to Belisarius, the Gothic War featured many of history’s most colorful antagonists, including Rome’s Narses the Eunuch, and the Goths’ ruthless and brilliant tactician, Totila. Two appendices provide information about the armies of the Romans and Ostrogoths, including their organization, weapons, and tactics, all of which changed over the course of the war.

We interviewed Mr. Jacobsen by email:

How did you become interested in writing about the Gothic Wars?

Particularly the Gothic War has had my interest ever since my first year at the University of Copenhagen, when I had my first experience with the period. I recall the frustration that we could find no modern book giving an overview of the events of the Gothic War. Instead we had to use the books by Thomas Hodgkin from the 1890s on invasions of Italy. While his knowledge of the subject was vast and the books well written, they were not up to date with regards to the extensive archaeological and historical research made in the 20th century on the Goths and other barbarian tribes, who participated in the war. Furthermore the language and style had become somewhat old-fashioned.

Since then, my interest in the history of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages only grew and I had the opportunity of studying the subject around Europe as both a historian and an archaeologist. Needless to say, I gained a much greater knowledge and understanding of the period. One of my favorite sources for the period was Procopius, who was on the staff of the general Belisarius, who conducted much of the Gothic War. Procopius’ vivid descriptions of the war and his curious observations on the life of the period continues to fascinate me. During my stays in Italy, I was reminded further of the great struggle, when seeing the primitive graves of Lombard warriors in Fiesole above Firenze (Florence) or in the desperate repairs of the broken walls of Rome, where all manners of debris was used to cover the breaches made by the Ostrogoths. To read about events long gone while seeing the physical traces of them is always a stirring experience, while the combination of archaeological and historical sources made it a possible theme for a book. After all, little can be written, if there are no sources on which to base the conclusions.The project was slowly developing in my mind, until six years ago, during a visit to the British School in Rome, it was suggested to me by some colleagues that I write a new book on the subject of the Gothic War. I had just finished a major project and I suppose I felt that the time was right to begin a new.

Your book focuses on the operational and tactical level of this conflict. What are some of the interesting aspects in how Byzantine generals such as Belisarius and Narses conducted their campaigns?

The wars of Justinian changed the way the Romans conducted warfare. After the experiences in the war against the Vandals AD 533-534, in which the highly trained horse archers gained the victories, the Romans changed their army from a more traditional infantry and cavalry army to creating mobile and very flexible forces based on the armored horse archers, who were capable both of shock charges and missile combat. Because of their tactical flexibility, these armies would later defeat much greater armies during the wars against the Ostrogoths and Franks. Perhaps particularly the destruction of the Frankish forces at Capua in 554 showed how superior these armies were. The entire Frankish army of many thousands was destroyed at the loss of eighty Romans.

To me, Belisarius and Narses show the almost scientific skill with which many Roman commanders approached warfare in the period. Belisarius had few, but superior and mobile, forces, and so decided to conduct his strategy of “city-hopping”. He could not face the huge Ostrogothic army in a regular battle, but he could run rings around them and force them into a type of warfare, the sieges, which they had no skill in. Belisarius understood and used the Roman forces and their strengths against the weaknesses of the Ostrogothic forces. His understanding of logistics also continually forced the Ostrogoths on the defensive, by sending out small and quick detachments to cut the supply of the great lumbering infantry army of the Goths. When Belisarius fought on the Eastern frontier and in the Vandal war, he also adapted his tactics according to the opponents, their way of fighting, and to the Roman way of fighting. That is true generalship.

Narses, on the other hand, was up against an Ostrogothic army that was as mobile as the Roman and the skilled King Totila. Narses quickly understood that all the power of the kingdom was tied up in the person of the king and the army. Without the Ostrogothic king and his army, there was no Ostrogothic kingdom. So accordingly Narses gathered an army and struck right at the heart of the Ostrogothic kingdom, and sought an open battle with Totila as soon as possible. The Roman army was unstable because of its large barbarian component and unwieldy because of its size, and he would only be able to keep it in the field for a relatively short while. But it was big and powerful and made for the task of an open battle. After defeating Totila, Narses disbanded his barbarian auxiliaries and turned over to the defensive strategy used by Belisarius and stuck to the cities while the Frankish and Alamannic armies in AD 553-554 marched over Italy. The barbarians were soon faced by logistical problems and when they were weakened and slowed down, he struck at them, again exploiting their weaknesses. After all, how can an unarmored infantry soldier fight a horse archer? Despite that Narses had no background as a general, he showed a great ability nonetheless.

You conclude that while the Byzantines were militarily successful during the reign of Justinian, it may have been that “these conquests weakened rather than strengthened the empire.” Could you tell us more about your ideas on this?

The Roman armies had been weakened by losses, which had not been replaced. Emperor Justinian had recovered a number of provinces, which were completely exhausted after the long struggle and could not support themselves. The borders had become much longer and had to be protected against barbarians, but there were simply no troops or money left to defend them. In 568 the otherwise fairly weak tribe of the Lombards invaded Italy and easily conquered most of it. I’m not claiming that other reasons did not factor in, such as particularly the plague and the costly wars on the eastern borders, but the Roman weakness was evident as their conquests were soon lost again, apart from Africa and parts of Italy. In my opinion, Justinian tried too much at the same time and in so doing failed to take advantage of his early successes. If he had focused on consolidating his conquest of Italy and Africa, he would have had two rich provinces, which would easily be able to supply both revenue and soldiers for their own defense. However, it is also important to understand, that the Roman Empire at the time to some extent was self-defeating. A successful general was automatically a threat to the imperial throne and so the able generals did not survive long in the politics of the court.

You also had the opportunity to be in Italy and see first hand some of the sites and places that you wrote about. Can you tell us about this experience and how it helped your writing?

In my opinion, a book such as The Gothic War cannot be written without having seen first hand as many of the places as possible. Rome is of course the greatest experience. To stand on the old Roman walls and see the desperate repairs of Belisarius, gives an excellent understanding of the Roman defenses during the sieges of Rome. The Mausoleum of Hadrian is also fairly well preserved and seeing it, made me understand better its importance as a fortress commanding one of the bridges across the Tiber. Ostia, the harbour of Rome, is also well preserved, although nothing is left of the defenses there.

The Pass of Furlo and the site of the fortress of Petra Pertusa, where the Via Flaminia is going through the mountains in a tunnel, were also important to see. Nothing is left of the fortress, but seeing the site, it is easy to understand, that the fortress could close the Via Flaminia entirely.

Other sites, such as Spoleto and Fiesole, are important to see to understand the sieges and defenses of the time. When I sometimes write that a fortress is almost unassailable, I mean it – they are simply too difficult to access and can only be starved out. Ravenna is also a great sight for the churches and the Mausoleum of Theoderic the Great, but otherwise the area there has changed too much to really see its superior defensive position – the marshes are drained and the coastline has changed much. I can fully recommend travelling through Italy and tracing the campaigns of the war that decided the future of Italy. It is a great experience and much is left to see.

We thank Mr. Jacobsen for answering our questions.

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