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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Rome falls to the Ostrogoths

Sacking of city in 546 left city a shadow of its former self


Francesco Salviati's portrait of the Ostrogoth king Totila, painted in about 1549
Francesco Salviati's portrait of the Ostrogoth
king Totila, painted in about 1549
The Ostrogoths, the Germanic tribe that took over large parts of the Italian peninsula with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, achieved a symbolic victory on this day in 546 when an army under the leadership of King Totila captured and sacked Rome following a year-long siege of the Eternal City.

The event was part of the Gothic War between the Ostrogoths, who had originated on the Black Sea in the area now known as Crimea, and the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire, between 535 and 554.

Totila led a fightback by the Ostrogoths after the fall of the Gothic capital at Ravenna in 540 signalled the apparent reconquest of Italy by the Byzantines.

He had swept south with his forces and was based at Tivoli, east of Rome, as he plotted how he would recapture the region of Latium. In 545, he laid siege to the city.

Bessas, the commander of the imperial garrison charged with protecting the city, was stubborn but cruel to the Roman citizens.  Although he had a stock of grain, he would not let it be used to feed the population unless they paid for it, while at the same time refusing requests from citizens to leave the city.  He set grain prices impossibly high and many Romans starved.

Pope Vigilius, who had taken refuge in Syracuse in Sicily, sent a flotilla of grain ships in a bid to relieve the crisis but these were intercepted by Totila’s navy at the mouth of the Tiber and never reached the city.

A historical illustration said to show the army of Totila entering Rome
A historical illustration said to show the
army of Totila entering Rome
When Bessas relented and allowed citizens to leave, many were so weak with hunger they died en route to safety, either picked off by Ostrogoth soldiers or collapsing from malnutrition.

An attempt by an imperial army led by renowned general Belisarius only narrowly failed to defeat the Ostrogoth forces, its efforts hampered when Belisarius was taken ill and handed command to less-able subordinates.

Totila entered Rome on December 17, 546 after his men scaled the walls at night and opened the Asinarian Gate - the Porta Asinaria supposedly with the help of treacherous Isaurian troops from the imperial garrison who had arranged a secret pact with the Goths.

As the Goths were advancing, not knowing what resistance they would encounter, many of Bessas’s supposed defenders of the city were making their escape through another gate, leaving only about 500 soldiers still inside the walls.

In the event, resistance was minimal, with reportedly only 26 soldiers and 60 civilians killed. Rome was plundered, but Totila, having vowed the reduce the once-great city to a sheep pasture, relented and contented himself with tearing down part of the defensive walls, before moving on in pursuit of Byzantine forces in Apulia.

Yet even with most it buildings still standing, Rome was left a barren ruin. Where it boasted more than a million inhabitants during the glory days of the Empire, its population had dwindled to only a few hundred.

The Porta Asinaria was a small entrance through which farmers could enter Rome with their livestock
The Porta Asinaria was a small entrance through which
farmers could enter Rome with their livestock
Travel tip:

The Porta Asinaria (Asinarian Gate) can be found about 1.6km (1 mile) southeast of the Colosseum along the route of the Via Appia Nuova, next to the Porta San Giovanni. When Emperor Aurelian built the walls that surround Rome, there was only a posterula - a small opening for the farmers who lived outside the walls – at this location, which explains its name Asinaria (of the donkeys). It was only after the nearby Lateran Palace became the official residence of the popes that a proper gate was built, by Emperor Honorius.

The Fountain of Neptune at the Villa d'Este
The Fountain of Neptune at the Villa d'Este
Travel tip:

Tivoli, situated in the Monti Tiburtini hills about 30km (19 miles) east of Rome. Its fresher climate made it an attractive area for moneyed Romans. Nowadays it is famous for the breathtaking gardens of the Villa d’Este, complete with its 51 fountains, designed to entertain guests of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, who had the villa built in the 16th century.  Tivoli’s other major attraction is the enormous Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), which is not so much a villa as a small town, incorporating an array of temples, lakes, fountains, baths and other buildings so extensive that visitors need a whole day to explore.


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