Totila, original name Baduila (died July 1, 552), was the penultimate King of the Ostrogoths, reigning from 541 to 552 AD. A skilled military and political leader, Totila reversed the tide of the Gothic War, recovering by 543 almost all the territories in Italy that the Eastern Roman Empire had captured from his Kingdom in 540.
A relative of Theudis, sword-bearer of Theodoric the Great and king of the Visigoths, Totila was elected king by Ostrogothic nobles in the autumn of 541 after King Witigis had been carried off prisoner to Constantinople. Totila proved himself both as a military and political leader, winning the support of the lower classes by liberating slaves and distributing land to the peasants. After a successful defence at Verona, Totila pursued and defeated a numerically superior army at the Battle of Faventia in 542 AD. Totila followed these victories by defeating the Romans outside Florence and capturing Naples. By 543, fighting on land and sea, he had reconquered the bulk of the lost territory. Rome held out, and Totila appealed unsuccessfully to the Senate in a letter reminding them of the loyalty of the Romans to his predecessor Theodoric the Great. In the spring of 544 the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I sent his general Belisarius to Italy to counterattack, but Totila captured Rome in 546 from Belisarius and depopulated the city after a yearlong siege. When Totila left to fight the Byzantines in Lucania, south of Naples, Belisarius retook Rome and rebuilt its fortifications.
After Belisarius retreated to Constantinople in 549, Totila recaptured Rome, going on to complete the reconquest of Italy and Sicily. By the end of 550, Totila had recaptured all but Ravenna and four coastal towns. The following year Justinian sent his general Narses with a force of 35,000 Lombards, Gepids and Heruli to Italy in a march around the Adriatic to approach Ravenna from the north. In the Battle of Taginae, a decisive engagement during the summer of 552, in the Apennines near present-day Fabriano, the Gothic army was defeated, and Totila was mortally wounded. Totila was succeeded by his relative, Teia, who later died at the Battle of Mons Lactarius. Pockets of resistance, reinforced by Franks and Alemanni who had invaded Italy in 553, continued until 562, when the Byzantines were in control of the whole of the country. The country was so ravaged by war that any return to normal life proved impossible, and only three years after Justinian's death in 565, most of the country was conquered by Alboin of the Lombards, who absorbed the remaining Ostrogothic population.
"Totila" was the nom de guerre of a man whose real name was Baduila, as can be seen from the coinage he issued. "Totila" is the name used by the Byzantine historian Procopius, who accompanied the Byzantine general Belisarius during the Gothic War, and whose chronicles are the main source of our information for Totila. According to Henry Bradley, 'Totila' and 'Baduila' are diminutives of 'Totabadws'. Born in Treviso, Totila was a relative of Theudis, king of the Visigoths. Elected king of the Ostrogoths in 541 after the assassination of his uncle Ildibad, having engineered the assassination of Ildibad's short-lived successor, his cousin Eraric, in 541. The official Byzantine position, adopted by Procopius and even by the Romanized Goth Jordanes, writing just before the conclusion of the Gothic Wars, was that Totila was a usurper: Jordanes' Getica (551) overlooks the then-recent successes of Totila.
His life's work was the restoration of the Gothic kingdom in Italy, and he entered upon the task from the very beginning of his reign, collecting together and inspiring the Goths, defeating a poorly led Byzantine attack on the Gothic stronghold of Verona in the winter of 541, and scattering the stronger Byzantine army at Faenza (Battle of Faventia) in the spring of 542.
Having gained another victory in 542, Totila avoided the stoutly-defended Florence, in the Mugello valley. Totila treated his prisoners so well, some served under his banner. He left well-defended Tuscany with his enlarged forces, while three Byzantine generals withdrew from Florence, dividing their forces to Perugia, Spoleto, and Rome, cities which Totila would have to take by siege.
In the meantime, instead of pursuing the conquest of central Italy, where the Imperial forces were too formidable for his small army, he decided to transfer his operations to the south of the peninsula. He captured Beneventum and received the submission of the provinces of Lucania and Bruttium, Apulia and Calabria, essentially the whole of the Greek south; their imperial taxes were now diverted to his benefit.
Totila's strategy was to move fast and take control of the countryside, leaving the Byzantine forces in control of well-defended cities, and especially the ports. When Belisarius eventually returned to Italy, Procopius relates that "during a space of five years he did not succeed once in setting foot on any part of the land … except where some fortress was, but during this whole period he kept sailing about visiting one port after another." Totila circumvented those cities where a drawn-out siege would have been required, razing the walls of cities that capitulated to him, such as Beneventum. Totila's conquest of Italy was marked not only by celerity but also by mercy, and Gibbon says "none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith or his clemency." After a successful siege of a resisting city, such as at Perugia, however, Totila could be merciless, as Procopius recounts. Procopius left a written portrayal of Totila before his troops were drawn up for battle:
The armor in which he was clad was abundantly plated with gold and the ample adornments which hung from his cheek plates as well as his helmet and spear were not only purple, but in other respects befitting a king … And he himself, sitting upon a very large horse, began to dance under arms skillfully between the two armies. And as he rode he hurled his javelin into the air and caught it again as it quivered above him, then passed it rapidly from hand to hand, shifting it with consummate skill.
Procopius's picture is given an uncharacteristic setting, for Totila generally avoided formal battles with opposing armies drawn up in battle array and excelled at skirmishing. A siege was required at Naples, however, where the report of Totila's courteous treatment of Romans at Cumae and other surrounding towns undermined morale. Justinian was alarmed, but jealously kept his one brilliantly competent general Belisarius at Constantinople. An attempt to relieve Naples by sea was badly bungled when Totila was informed during unnecessary delays, and a storm dispersed a second attempt, delivering the general, Demetrius, into Totila's hands. Totila offered generous terms and Conon's starving garrison at Naples opened their gates in the spring of 543.
On this occasion Totila exhibited a considerable humanity which was not to be expected, as the historian Procopius remarks, from an enemy or a barbarian. He knew that if an abundance of food were at once supplied, the famished inhabitants would gorge themselves to death. He posted sentinels at the gates and in the harbor and allowed no one to leave the city. Then he dealt out small rations, gradually increasing the quantity every day until the people had recovered their strength. The terms of the capitulation were more than faithfully observed. Conon and his followers were embarked in ships with which the Goths provided them, and when, deciding to sail for Rome, they were hindered by contrary winds, Totila furnished horses, provisions, and guides so that they could make the journey by land.
The fortifications were partly razed. Totila spent the following season establishing himself in the south and reducing pockets of resistance, while the unpaid Imperial troops in central Italy made such poor reputations pillaging the countryside that, when Totila turned his attention to taking Rome, he was able proudly to contrast Goth and Greek behavior in his initial negotiations with the senate. They were refused, however, and all the Arian priests were expelled from the city, on suspicion of collaboration.
Siege of Rome
Towards the end of 545 the Gothic king took up his station at Tivoli and prepared to starve Rome into surrender, making at the same time elaborate preparations for checking the progress of Belisarius who was advancing to its relief. Pope Vigilius fled to the safety of Syracuse; when he sent a flotilla of grain ships to feed the city, Totila's navy fell on them near the mouth of the Tiber and captured the fleet. The imperial fleet, moving up the Tiber and led by the great general, only just failed to relieve the city, which then was forced to open its gates to the Goths.
It was plundered, although Totila did not carry out his threat to make it a pasture for cattle, and when the Gothic army withdrew into Apulia it was from a scene of desolation. Yet, its walls and other fortifications were soon restored, and Totila again marched against it. He was defeated by Belisarius, who, however, did not follow up his advantage. Several cities, including Perugia, were taken by the Goths, while Belisarius remained inactive and then was recalled from Italy. In 549 Totila advanced a third time against Rome, which he captured through the treachery of some of its starving defenders.
Totila's meeting with Benedict of Nursia at Monte Cassino is preserved in Pope Gregory I's Dialogues (ii.14–15). It occurred either before or soon after the siege of Naples; the Benedictines' traditional date is March 21, 543. It includes a telling of the abbot's discernment of an aide of Totila's, his sword-bearer Riggio, dressed in royal robes, as an impostor, and also his predictions for Totila, who knelt to him. This event was a favorite subject for Italian painters.
His next exploit was the conquest and plunder of Sicily, after which he subdued Corsica and Sardinia and sent a Gothic fleet against the coasts of Greece. By this time the emperor Justinian I was taking energetic measures to check the Goths. The conduct of a new campaign was entrusted to the eunuch Narses; Totila marched against him and was defeated and killed at the Battle of Taginae (also known as the Battle of Busta Gallorum) in July 552, which brought an end to the long struggle between Byzantium and the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, and left the Eastern Emperor for the time being in control of Italy.
Totila was succeeded by his relative Teia, who later died at the Battle of Mons Lactarius. The Goths were later absorbed into the Lombard Kingdom.