The Justinianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses
By Maria Kouroumali
War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, edited by Alexander Sarantis and Neil Christie (Brill, 2013)
Abstract: This article examines a particular aspect of Justinian’s campaigns against the Ostrogoths in Italy, one that is often overlooked, yet one that is essential to the understanding of these wars, namely the nature of the relations among the three sides caught up in the conflict: Romans, Goths and Italians. This study shows, through careful examination of the primary sources, notably the account of Procopius, that the relations of the inhabitants of Italy with the two warring sides were dependent on the Italians’ needs and concerns to preserve their security, rather than on ideologically-driven alliances.
Introduction: There are a number of issues which are of importance in understanding the events of any war. Here I will attempt to highlight an often overlooked aspect of the campaigns of the East Romans against the Ostrogoths in Italy in the A.D. 530s–550s: the impact of the war on the local population, the Italians. We should first note that the ‘barbarians’ who invaded not long after Rome’s Fall—the Ostrogoths—were already to some degree Romanised before they entered the country. They maintained the pre-existing Roman social and political conditions in Italy, thereby ensuring the continuity of a still highly urbanised and functional society. The Ostrogoths also upheld the inherited Roman infrastructure and communications network, and, as will be seen, these remained active fully into the war decades while there was also considerable diplomatic activity between Ostrogoths and Romans. Scholarship has usually focused on these and other aspects, and yet the attitude of native inhabitants towards invading and resident armies during a war should be of equal importance, giving a fuller
human face to the conflicts. After all, in this case, the situation is complicated by the fact that the Italians themselves were not the primary targets of Justinian’s campaign, but rather their appointed overlords, the Ostrogoths. A considered study of the exact nature of the relationship between the native Italian population and the two opposing forces will potentially enable us to perceive some of the underlying tensions that influenced the often shifting allegiance of the Italian citizens during the long, drawn-out war.
Before we proceed to examine the relations between native Italians, Goths and Romans, some introductory comments must be made on several other topics. These are: the issue of ethnicity and self-identity and the related use of the terms ‘Italian’, ‘Roman’, ‘Goth’; the primary written sources; the archaeological record of late antique Italy; and the limitations of both source types in helping to explore the subject of this article. These matters are not the central focus here, not because they are unimportant, but because they have received considerable scholarly attention elsewhere.