On this day – 1,478 years ago – Rome was conquered by Byzantium and “reclaimed” from the Ostrogoths. The 5th century was a downright awful time to be a Roman. The Western Roman Empire (formed during the schism of the Roman Empire in 395 AD) finally collapsed in 476 AD due to the constant invasions of empires such as The Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Huns. In the wake of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Ostrogothic (Italian) kingdom reigned from the Balkans all the way to Sicily, leaving the Eastern Roman Empire (known also as Byzantium) as the only “Roman Empire” left in Europe.
Despite both being largely Christian states, the Ostrogoths and Byzantium never really got along, and in the year 535 AD, Emperor Justinian used an internal dynastic dispute in the Ostrogothic empire to launch an opportunistic campaign to “reclaim” Italy from the, er… Italians. This was part of Justinian’s Renovatio Imperii – a campaign to “Restore the Empire”, by consolidating Italy back under “Roman” rule – which had already started in Northern Africa.
The Italian chapter of Renovatio Imperii started in the South, under the command of General Flavius Belisarius, who managed to conquer Sicily and Southern Italy all the way up to Neapolis (Naples) in Autumn of 536 before the Ostrogoths could react. This loss of Neapolis culminated in the ousting of King Theodahad and the ascension of King Vitiges, who – as part of his defense… fled Rome and headed north to the capital of Ravenna.
On the 9th December 536 AD, Belisarius strode into Rome completely unopposed. In 536 AD, Rome wasn’t (tactically speaking) very important; the fall of the Western Roman Empire (whose capital was actually in Ravenna) and the subsequent Gothic Wars had decreased Rome’s population from a massive 1,000,000 in 210 AD to a mere 35,000 in 536. However, the true significance of Rome served not only as a galvanising figure for the Byzantines as the “true Roman Empire”, but also meant the Byzantine church possessed both the eastern and western papacies (culminating in Belisarius’ deposition of the Ostrogothic-appointed Pope Silverius the following year).
The Byzantines then appointed Constantinople-born Pope Vigilius, who was described as “a greedy and treacherous pro-Monophysite (Eastern Orthodox) who ousted and virtually murdered his predecessor”. By this point, Constantinople in the east controlled the Western Papacy, and the Byzantine emperors used their power over Rome to select their own popes for the next century.
As for Belisarius, he campaigned northwards to the Ostrogothic capital of Ravenna, eventually taking it in 540 AD. Belisarius was respected by the Goths, and he oversaw a governorship that resulted in fair treatment for the Gothic people, and a comfortable retirement of King Vitiges.
However, for his successes, Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople to campaign against the Sassanids in the east, leading to his armies (now without strong leadership) losing control and plundering, finally resulting in the Goths retaking Rome in 547 AD.