Battle of the Volturnus: Byzantines Defeat Barbarian Invasion of Italy

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Battle of the Volturnus: Byzantines Defeat Barbarian Invasion of Italy

Barbarian invasions of the 5th century AD, and the resulting kingdoms
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 5? AD 554

Today's history lesson involves a fight from the Gothic War (535-554) during the Byzantine reconquest of Italy. It involved a large-scale invasion by Germanic barbarians from modern-day France and Germany, answering a request for assistance from the Ostrogothic kingdom that was soon to be eliminated by the better-trained East Roman army.


In the 530's, Byzantine Emperor Justinian yearned to expand his empire to the original boundaries of the old Roman Empire. Unfortunately in the 60-odd years since the last official Western Roman emperor was deposed (476), the barbarian migration had overwhelmed most of the lands of western Europe. The Ostrogoths occupied Italy and Dalmatia, the Franks and Burgundians had settled in Gaul (modern-day France), the Visigoths and Suevi established their kingdoms in modern-day Spain and Portugal, and the Vandals had taken North Africa and set up a kingdom which hugged the Mediterranean coast. [See the map at the top of this post.]

Justinian committed the Eastern Roman Empire to the recovery of the lands that were once part of the Western Roman Empire. [The Eastern Romans, or Byzantines, regarded themselves as the direct descendants of the Western Empire. In fact, they called themselves Romanioi, “Romans.”] His dream was temporarily delated by a major war with the Sassanian Persians (527-532). In 533, he directed his most successful general Belisarius to lead an attack on the Vandals who ruled North Africa, mainly the coastal areas of western Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. As a result, the Vandal kingdom was destroyed by 534.

Next Belisarius was given the job of recovering Italy, which was under the rule of the Ostrogoths. The initial campaign against the Ostrogoths lasted from 535 until 540. However, despite the capture of the Ostrogothic capital of Ravenna, a premature peace denied Justinian a final victory in Italy. [This can be attributed to a large extent to a renewal of war in the east with the Sassanian Persians, for the troops in Italy were badly needed to oppose them. Also, it seems Justinian was jealous of the success of his favorite general, if we believe the accounts of the historian Procopius.]

Mosaic from the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy; It is believed the men shown are (l to r) Belisarius, Emperor Justinian, and Narses; Image courtesy of
Mosaic from the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
It is believed the men shown are (l to r) Belisarius, Emperor Justinian, and Narses
Image courtesy of

Within eighteen months the situation came unraveled, as a new Ostrogothic king named Totila came to power and began operations to re-conquer Italy from the Byzantines. Thanks to a truce in the war against the Persians, Belisarius was ordered back to Italy in 544. However, after five years of military activities, Belisarius did not achieve his objectives – no thanks to the emperor, who continually refused requests for men and supplies.

As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal eunuch Narses to lead a large army to Italy to conclude the Gothic War. It is not known what qualities allowed Narses to lead this new army. Narses was one of Justinian's most capable bureaucrats, controlling the empire's treasury. Also, he was apparently very loyal to the emperor, and at the age of about 66, was not considered a threat to challenge Justinian for the throne.

It took Narses a year to march from Constantinople to Italy, as the Ostrogoths had control of the Adriatic Sea. The eunuch also spent a great deal of time recruiting barbarian foederati to fill out his army. The non-Byzantine portions of the army likely consisted of Lombards, Ostrogoths, and Heruli. [Narses was, after all, in charge of the East Roman treasury, so apparently had a free hand to use those funds for the benefit of the imperial army.]

Within two years, Narses had defeated the Goths at the battle of Taginae, where Totila was slain in the rout. [Readers interested in this battle should read my BurnPit post from July of 2011: Battle of Taginae: Byzantines Defeat Ostrogoths.] The last major battle of the Gothic War took place at Mons Lactarius (near Naples) in October of 552, and saw the final defeat of the Ostrogoths. The last remnants of the Gothic peoples left the Italian peninsula and settled in what is modern-day Austria. A few cities in northern Italy held out until the 560's, but Ostrogothic power in Italy was finally broken.

*HOWEVER* Narses's job was not done, as a huge army of barbarians came over the Alps to pick at the bones of a prostrate, beaten Gothic kingdom…

Prelude to the Battle

During the course of the Gothic War, the Ostrogoths had made appeals to the nearby Frankish kingdom (in what is now modern-day France and Belgium, then ruled by King Theodebald) for military assistance. At first the Frankish monarch refused official help to the Goths. Instead, Theodebald encouraged two of his nobles, the Alamanni brothers Leutharis and Butilinus to gather Frankish and Alamannic warriors to attack the Byzantines in Italy.

According to one historian, this army totaled 75,000 men. Furthermore, it seems the Frankish-Alamannic force was intent on two objectives that would not have met with the approval of either the Goths or the Byzantines. Those aims were: 1) acquistion of loot from the residents of Italy, and 2) the expansion of the Frankish kingdom into the completely helpless, dazed political situation on the Italian peninsula.

The Alamanni nobles and their army crossed the Alps into northern Italy in the spring of 553. They captured the city of Parma, and shortly afterwards defeated a Heruli army (fighting on behalf of the Ostrogoths). Soon, Ostrogothic soldiers began joining the Frankish horde. In addition, the Franks decided to winter over in northern Italy. To counter any possible attack to the newly acquired Byzantine portions of Italy, Narses dispersed his army among the major cities of Italy, while he and his personal retinue wintered in Rome.

Ancient regions of Italy (Rome is located in Latium; Casilinum is in Campania); Image courtesy of
Ancient regions of Italy (Rome is located in Latium; Casilinum is in Campania)
Image courtesy of

When the Frankish-Alamannic army reached the vicinity of Rome, it was divided into two separate forces, each one commanded by one of the Alamanni noble brothers. The army commanded by Leutheris marched southeastward through the provinces of Latium, Samnium, Apulia, until it reached Calabria in the “heel” of the Italian boot. When this army reached the Adriatic, Leutheris decided to return home, with a huge collection of booty systematically looted from the towns on his line of march. He apparently had no political ambitions in Italy, but just wanted to go home and enjoy the spoils of his campaign.

Leutheris's army marched along the Adriatic coast, but at the town of Fanum it was attacked by a nearby East Roman garrison. In the retreat after the battle, the invaders lost the majority of their booty. After an arduous march through the Apennine Mountains, Leutheris and his Franks reached the town of Centa in Venetia, where they stopped to rest. Unfortunately, a virulent plague broke out in the barbarian camp, and many of the Frankish-Alamanni warriors died, including their leader.

Meanwhile, the Frankish-Alamanni army under Butilinus – which Procopius claims was the larger of the two forces – began marching through Campania, Lucania, and Bruttium, marching southwest down to the Strait of Messina at the end of the “toe” of the boot of Itally. Finding no way to cross the strait to continue raiding in Sicily, Butilinus reverse course and began retracing his march.

When the Franks reached the town of Casilinum (near Naples in Campania), they crossed the Volturnus River – using the Appian Way, a Roman road constructed in the mid-third century BC and still in use today – and built a strong camp on the north shore of the Volturnus. The other three sides of the camp were covered by an earthen rampart and a number of supply wagons. It appears that Butilinus had dreams of re-establishing the Ostrogothic kingdom, with himself as the ruler, once he brushed aside those pesky Byzantines. Unfortunately, the East Romans were not in a cooperative mood.

When he received word of the return march of Butilinus's army, Narses ordered many of his units to meet in Rome, then began marching toward Casilinum. Arriving in the neighborhood of Capua, Narses sent a force of cavalry toward the Frankish camp in an attempt to cut off their supplies. A number of the Franks' supply wagons were captured, and a wooden watchtower built to guard the bridge over the Volturnus was set ablaze. This last act goaded the two army commanders into action.

Byzantine Army

Early Byzantine heavy cavalry, c. 554 AD; Image courtesy of
Early Byzantine heavy cavalry, c. 554 AD
Image courtesy of

The army under Narses numbered about 18,000 men, and consisted of heavy infantry, some heavy cavalry, and light horse archers. In addition to East Romans, it likely included a few Ostrogoths, Heruli, and perhaps some Lombards; all these last three groups were foederati, barbarians recruited with inducements of land and pay to enter the service of the Emperor Justinian.

Narses placed his heavy infantry – including spearmen and swordsman – in the center of his battleline athwart the Appian Way [A]. On his right and left wings he positioned some of his heavy cavalry, and placed himself among the horsemen on the right wing [B]. There were woods on either side of his army's position, so Narses hid his horse archers in these woods with orders to remain hidden until orders were given [C].

During the positioning of his forces, Narses received a report of a Heruli mercenary captain who had killed his slave for some reason. When summoned before the Byzantine commander for an explanation, the Herul was unrepentant, and said he would do it again. Reluctantly, Narses ordered the man executed. This caused all the Heruli foederati to leave the Byzantine camp, saying they would not participate in the upcoming battle. The Herul commander, Sindual, told Narses to proceed with his plans, and he would convince his men to fight. Anticipating the return of the Heruli, Narses left a gap in the middle of his infantry line.

Frankish-Alamanni Army

The barbarian army was only slightly larger than the Byzantine army (20,000 perhaps), due to a bout of dysentery which swept through the invading force. It is described as being entirely infantry. They likely wore no body armor, using a shield and possibly a helmet for protection. Each footman had a sword and a heavy throwing axe called a francisca (from which the Franks got their name). Some of the higher-class chieftains and nobles may have been armed with a heavy throwing spear called an angon. This last weapon was a descendant of the Roman javeline called the pilum, whose job was to be imbedded in an enemy warrior's shield and weigh it down.

Typical Frankish warrior, c. 554 AD;
Typical Frankish warrior, c. 554 AD

The Frankish-Alamanni army is described as lining up in either a “deep column” or a wedge [D]. This was a tactical formation designed to concentrate the head of the wedge on a single point in the enemy's line and exert maximum pressure. [The gap in the Byzantine front line was the obvious target.] Then the wedge would open the enemy line and allow the rest of its troops to penetrate, hopefully scattering the opposing army.

Battle of the Volturnus

Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Initial Dispositions [Image is author's own work]
Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Initial Dispositions
[Image is author's own work]

During the pre-battle activities, two Herul warriors deserted to the Franks and told them of the temporary desertion of the Heruli foederati from the Byzantine cause. The men also told Butilinus of the opening in the East Roman front line. The Alammani commander quickly made his plans, and ordered his wedge of warriors to aim for the center of the Byzantine front line. [1]

Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; First Stage [Image is author's own work]
Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; First Stage
[Image is author's own work]

It is quite likely that the Byzantine front line began shifting to meet the barbarian threat to their center, trying desperately to close the gap where the Heruli should have been. Before long, the Frankish-Alammani formation slammed into the East Roman infantry. [2, 3] The Byzantines held firm, likely taking down many of the unarmed barbarians. As usually happens in ancient warfare, the Franks in the rear ranks of the wedge split up and began attacking the rest of the enemy line (apparently unaware of the cavalry hidden in the woods). [4]

Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Second Stage [Image is author's own work]
Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Second Stage
[Image is author's own work]

Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Third Stage [Image is author's own work]
Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Third Stage
[Image is author's own work]

The fighting continued for several hours, with Frankish pressure on the Byzantine center increasing. Finally, Narses gave the order for which his horsemen had been waiting. All of his cavarly – even the heavy cavalry – were bow-armed, and their general directed them to fire into the rear of the Frankish army.[5] Before long, the Frankish attacks lost some of their fanaticism, as the near-naked barbarian warriors began wondering where the attacks to their flanks and rear were coming from.

Realizing that this was the time, Narses gave the battle's most important order. His hidden cavalrymen were directed to attack the flanks and rear of the Frankish horde, which was beginning to waver from the storm of arrow fire that was thinning out their ranks. [6] Then, as if on cue, a shout came from the rear of the Byzantine army: the Heruls, finally deciding they wanted to be involved in a good fight, came streaming toward the battle, and contacted the Franks still trying to break through the East Roman infantry line. In the words of historian J.B. Bury, “The defeat of the Franks was already certain; now it was to be annihilation.” [7] Narses ordered a general advance of his entire army, and the Frankish-Alamanni force was ground up and destroyed. Butilinus likely died in this final stage of the fight. The battle of the Volturnus was over.

Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Final Stage [Image is author's own work]
Battle of the Volturnus, October 5, AD 554; Final Stage
[Image is author's own work]


According to the historian Agathias, the Frankish army was essentially annihilated. He also gives the Byzantine casualty figures of 80 killed; I'm sure that is not correct. Some Frankish survivors made their way back to their homeland, probably feeling lucky to be alive.

Footnote #1: Narses had used a similar strategy two years earlier at the battle of Taginae, when he defeated the Ostrogoths. The Byzantine eunuch demonstrated an understanding of the use of combined arms – infantry, cavalry, and archery – unsurpassed by few ancient generals.

Footnote #2: It took Narses about 8 more years to capture the last remaining Ostrogothic strongholds. He stayed in Italy and tried to restore the country; he rebuilt the walls of Rome and made some repairs to various buildings.

Footnote #3: Once the Byzantines had taken over the entire Italian peninsula, they inherited an area that was nearly depopulated, lacked a strong economy, and was no longer the vibrant community it had once been. In 568, the Germanic Lombards invaded Italy and established their own kingdom. Byzantine controlled areas of mainland Italy were reduced over the next two or three centuries, and Sicily – about the only major part of Italy still valued by the East Romans – fell to the Muslims in the early 10th century, and then was conquered by Norman mercenary adventurers in the mid-11th century.

Italy under the Lombards, c. AD 572 (Byzantine territory in orange) Image courtesy of
Italy under the Lombards, c. AD 572
(Byzantine territory in orange)
Image courtesy of

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