Battle of Taginae: Byzantines Defeat Ostrogoths

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Battle of Taginae: Byzantines Defeat Ostrogoths

Today in Military History: July 1, AD 552

It's been just over a year since my last battle report involving the Byzantines, so here's a post about a battle which paved the way for the re-conquest of Italy by the East Romans in the mid-sixth century.


After the collapse of the West Roman Empire in the mid- to late fifth century A.D., the East Roman Empire continued almost as if nothing had happened. The Byzantines regarded themselves as the lineal successors of the old Roman Empire; therefore, they felt it was their duty to reclaim those lands of the fallen empire and rule them.

This movement was pushed hard by East Roman emperor Justinian I (above, reigned 527-565). He instituted a war of re-conquest against the Ostrogothic kingdom which had established itself in Italy and Sicily. Surprisingly, the "barbarians" ruled Italy well, basically using the old Roman governmental system, which yielded a smooth transition of power. Theodoric the Great, who ruled the Ostrogoths from 493 to 526, conquered Dalmatia (modern-day Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, and parts of Austria and Hungary), as well as southern Gaul (modern-day France). In addition, Theodoric nearly absorbed all of Roman Gaul into his kingdom, but was stopped by the Franks (see the map above).

Justinian had ordered the invasion of the Ostrogothic kingdom in 535, with only limited success. This was due to other conflicts, mainly with the Sassanid Persians in the Middle East and the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. Finally, in 551 Justinian determined that he wanted to put a definitive end to the Ostrogoths in Italy once and for all. To that end, he delegated the task to one of his most trusted aides, the eunuch Narses (pictured below).

Narses: Loyal Retainer and General

Narses is one of those men who waited in the wings of the stage of history, came on-stage several times to deliver his "lines" well, then left again waiting for his next "cue." He was believed to have been born sometime between 478 and 480. His family was likely of Persarmenian origin, but how he came to the court of Constantinople is unknown. He is described as a very pious man, constantly praying, founding churches. [One historian, probably tongue in check, says that Narses won battles mainly by praying and not from any military knowledge or experience.]

Narses is first mentioned in the writings of the historian Procopius in 530 as steward to Emperor Justinian. He eventually worked his way up to the title of Grand Chamberlain, the equivalent of the Praetorian Prefect in the old Roman Empire. One of the first significant events in which Narses is mentioned involved the quelling of the Nika Riots of January, 532. [For more on that event, please see my post of January 13, 2010: "Nika Riots in Constantinople: 'Sports Fans' Burn the City".] Narses distributed bribes to one of the factions, leading to the final destruction of the rioters.

In 538, he was sent to Italy with a mostly barbarian foederati army to assist in the re-conquest of Italy. Apparently Narses and Belisarius, who commanded the main army already involved in the Byzantine invasion, did not see eye-to-eye, and Narses was eventually recalled to Constantinople by 539.

Despite this, he never lost favor at the emperor's court. Narses then remains in the background until about 551. He was sent back to Italy that year, with the sole purpose of destroying the Ostrogothic kingdom. Procopius mentioned that, for some reason, the barbarians served ably and happily under Narses. Because he had access to the vast sums of the Byzantine royal treasury, Narses built an army consisting mainly of various barbarian tribes, namely Lombards, Heruli, Gepids, and Bulgars. He seemed to possess a certain empathy for the non-Byzantine foederati, since Narses himself was a non-Roman. [Incidentally, at the time Narses took command of this army, he was around 73 years of age. Apparently, Emperor Justinian did not regard him as a possible rival for the throne, and did not think he would survive the rigors of campaigning.]

Prelude to the Battle

Via Flaminia (ancient route in blue)

Narses marched his rather large army (estimated at between 20,000 to 25,000 men) around the coast of the Adriatic Sea, as the Ostrogoths had control of the shipping lanes. The Byzantine army arrived in Italy in the spring of 552. Eventually, Narses began his march on Rome itself, still the main target of the re-conquest more for its morale value as the "Eternal City" than for any strategic objective. The invading army traveled down the Via Flaminia, the most direct route from the Adriatic seacoast, across the Apennine Mountains, and on to Rome. However, when Narses received word that the Goths controlled an important chokepoint on the road, he ordered the army to leave the more travelled way and march through the more rugged terrain.

The Gothic monarch Totila learned of the approach of the Byzantine force, and sent word to his various commanders to gather their men to repel the eastern invaders. He placed his camp at the town of Tadinum, some 14 miles away from where the Byzantines had encamped near the town of Busta Gallorum, probably located near the present-day town of Fabriano.

Upon learning of the Ostrogothic army's closeness, Narses sent trusted messengers to Totila's camp. The communiqué gave the Gothic king a choice: either submit to Narses peacefully, or name the time for a battle. Totila answered that eight days later would suit him just fine. However, hoping to catch the enemy off-guard, Totila marched his army the 14 miles to Busta Gallorum overnight. Arriving close to the Byzantine camp, Totila arranged his army for an early-morning attack; however, he was himself shocked to find that Narses had already made his battle plan and was arranging his forces in anticipation of such a move.

Dispositions of the Armies

The Byzantine army was nearly all cavalry, with some 8000 Byzantine foot archers. Narses ordered his barbarian foederati to dismount, and form a deep phalanx. There is speculation that Narses did this to keep the barbarians from going over to the Goths. Apparently, there had been some desertions prior to the battle. The foederati numbered perhaps 10,000 men. The archers were divided into two sections, which were placed on either wing of the infantry. Then, the Byzantine cavalry was divided into two main wings, placed to the rear of the archers. Finally, a further 1500 horsemen were placed at the far left wing of the army; these men would be used to outflank the Gothic army, if the opportunity presented itself. [Prior to the main Byzantine deployment, Totila attempted to outflank his enemy by occupying a small hill in the left rear of the Byzantine army's staging area. Fortunately, Narses send a small force of infantry to hold the prominence.]

The Ostrogothic cavalry was drawn up into a long line, which probably accounted for over 50 percent of the entire army. Totila probably thought he could break the Byzantine center with a single cavalry charge. The Gothic foot soldiers, originally archers, were positioned in a single block behind the cavalry. [Procopius noted that Totila gave the unusual order that he entire army could only fight with their spears. Why he gave this command is one of history's mysteries.]

Typical Ostrogothic Army

Battle of Taginae

Both sides were in formation and ready to go by mid-morning. However, Totila was still awaiting some reinforcements. Knowing he was outnumbered (his army may have numbered about 15,000 at this point), Totila tried to stall for time. He sent out a Byzantine deserter named Coccas, described as "a horseman of great physical strength," who rode to the middle of the battlefield and challenged any Byzantine to single combat. He was quickly dispatched by one of Narses' retainers. Then, Totila himself rode out. He was dressed in "shining armor, with purple and gold trimmings...on a huge steed, hurling his spear in the air and catching again as he galloped, and performing other feats of horsemanship." All this activity consumed the balance of the morning.

Ostrogothic cavalryman

Finally, sometime in the early afternoon, Totila's reinforcements arrived: 2000 horsemen under the command of Teias. Then, hoping to keep the Byzantine army off guard, Totila ordered his entire army to return to camp for lunch. Narses, suspecting a ruse, ordered his men to keep their ranks. They were not permitted to sit or remove their armor, but they were served lunch.

Narses made one change to his army's dispositions: he ordered the two archer units to incline slightly toward the center, essentially making his entire battle line crescent-shaped. Shortly thereafter, the Gothic army quickly reformed and launched the long-anticipated attack, a massive charge of his cavalry, hoping to catch the Byzantines off-guard.

As the Gothic cavalry charged, the Byzantine archers unleashed several volleys of arrows, which cut down large numbers of horsemen, disrupting the impetus of the charge. Those Goths who reached the infantry block were repelled with heavy losses. Totila sent wave after wave of troops that became so disorganized by the raining arrow storm, by the time they met the dismounted infantrymen they were completely broken. This folly continued through the afternoon.

Byzantine heavy cavalryman

The Gothic infantry never even engaged in actual combat as they hesitated to advance far enough to actually become effective. They were kept in the rear of the advance, fearing that Narses' horsemen would outflank them. Finally, the Byzantine center began to push Totila's cavalry backwards onto their own line of infantry, At that critical moment, sometime in the early evening, Narses charged with his own cavalry – nearly all of them Byzatine heavy cavalry – that had been held in reserve. The retreat quickly turned into a rout, as the Gothic cavalry in their haste ran right over their own infantry, who joined them in the withdrawal.


The only casualty figures given for this battle were by Procopius, who said that 6,000 Ostrogothic cavalry were slain in the battle. However, there is every reason to believe that most of the barbarian army was killed or captured in the rout afterwards. The majority of the Byzantine casualties were sustained by their foederati, who bore the brunt of the initial fighting.

Footnote #1: Totila and a few faithful followers fled that battlefield, but were caught by Gepid horsemen. When the Gepid commander saw who he was fighting, he struck Totila with his spear and killed him. Totila was later buried in an unmarked grave, but a local Gothic woman led the Byzantines to his resting place. After examining the blood-stained clothes and the cap adorned with gems was identified as belonging to the Ostrogothic ruler. According to historian J.B. Bury, the items "were taken to Narses, who sent them to Constantinople, where they were laid at the feet of the Emperor [Justinian] as a visible proof that the enemy who had so long defied his power was no more."

Footnote #2: Narses remained in Italy for about 12 more years, subjugating the Ostrogoths and defeating a Frankish invasion in 554 at the battle of the Volturnus. The date of his death is as conjectural as his birth date. He is believed by some historians to have died in 574, which would have made him somewhere around 95 at his death. 

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