Byzantium Suffers Barbarian Wrath in the Massacre of Milan of 539 AD

“Woe to the vanquished!” the old saying goes, and it was often showcased in history. During the devastating Gothic War that raged between 535 and 554 AD on the Italian Peninsula, the venerable city of Milan suffered greatly at the hands of its conquerors. The events that transpired within the walls of that city remain etched in history as one of the worst massacres ever. The populace suffered greatly at the hands of the warlike Germanic tribes, and would take a long time to recover. Alas, history is seldom kind and merciful. And the Massacre of Milan in 539 serves as a great reminder of this.

The Events that Preceded the Massacre of Milan

Mediolanum, as Milan was known in ancient times, was always a crucial city in northern Italy, and the capital of the region of Lombardy. During the early Christian era, it became one of the seats of Roman imperial power and influence. In 286 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian moved the capital from Rome to prosperous Mediolanum. In the centuries that followed, Mediolanum flourished and expanded greatly. It was here that the famous Edict of Milan was declared by Emperor Constantine. This important document granted tolerance to all religions within the empire including Christianity.

Raphael's The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun emperor outside Rome. (Raphael / Public domain)

Raphael’s The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun emperor outside Rome. (Raphael / Public domain )

Alas, through the many conflicts and wars that the Roman Empire fought, the city of Milan suffered. It was besieged in 402 by the invading Visigoths, forcing the emperor to relocate the capital to the city of Ravenna. It was at that moment that the slow decline of Milan began. The city was besieged again only 50 years later, in 452 AD, by the infamous Atilla the Hun . This ruthless leader sacked the city and left only when given large sums of gold. The town began a slow recovery, but a new threat would follow less than a century later.

During the reign of Justinian I, who was the emperor from 527 to 565 AD, the Byzantine Empire made efforts to reconquer the lost provinces of what was once the Western Roman Empire. What ensued was a prolonged conflict with several “barbaric” Germanic tribes, chiefly the Goths. These conflicts became known as the Gothic Wars, lasting from 535 to 554 AD. By 540, it seemed that the Byzantines had managed to come out on top with the reacquisition of its former provinces on the Italian peninsula.

However, in the very next year the Ostrogothic Kingdom rose once more under the leadership of a new ruler, Totila. By 554, Italy was again on its knees from these conflicts. And Milan suffered most of all.

Map of the operations of the first phase of the Gothic War, covering the period from the first Byzantine attacks in 535 AD until the fall of Ravenna in 540 and the recall of general Belisarius. (Cplakidas / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map of the operations of the first phase of the Gothic War, covering the period from the first Byzantine attacks in 535 AD until the fall of Ravenna in 540 and the recall of general Belisarius. (Cplakidas / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In the Whirlwind of the Gothic War

Around the time the Gothic War began, Milan and the surrounding area suffered immensely from a terrible and widespread famine. As if that wasn’t enough, they were also facing the wrath of ferocious Germanic tribes . At the time of the war, Milan was a part of the large Ostrogothic Kingdom, which covered the whole of the Apennine Peninsula. And now the city’s officials faced a difficult decision: who to side with?

Dacius, the Bishop of Milan was the instrumental figure in these events. In early 538 AD, he traveled with a group of representatives to Rome, which by then was in Byzantine hands. Dacius chose to side with the Byzantine Empire, and for that reason he pleaded with the famed general Belisarius. He asked that a force be sent to Milan in order to liberate it from the Gothic garrison. The bishop assured Belisarius that the city was poorly guarded, as the bulk of the Ostrogothic forces were deployed in the south. By seizing the city, the Byzantines could quickly spread their control over the north of Italy. General Belisarius agreed and prepared for this battle for Milan.

In April of 538, Belisarius decided it was time to march on Milan. He tasked his trusted general, Mundilas, to capture the city and gave him command over a thousand Thracian and Isaurian warriors. After successfully traversing the River Po, this army managed to seize Milan and the neighboring cities of Novaria, Comum, Bergamum, and others. Soon after, however, things worsened. By capturing these cities, Mundilas was obliged to keep them. To do so, he split his already weak 1,000-man army into several smaller units. This meant that he was now guarding the sprawling city of Milan with only a 300-man garrison.

A mosaic depicting Belisarius in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. The Bishop of Milan, Dacius, sided with the Byzantine Empire successfully pleaded with general Belisarius to save his city. (Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A mosaic depicting Belisarius in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. The Bishop of Milan, Dacius, sided with the Byzantine Empire successfully pleaded with general Belisarius to save his city. (Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Burgundians Cross the Alps

In the meantime, news of the loss of Milan reached the Ostrogothic king, Vitiges. Furious, this ruler was determined to recapture this key city and sent his nephew, the powerful commander Uraias, to retake the city. This wasn’t a serious threat to the Byzantines as the Ostrogothic forces were stretched thin at the time.

However, there was one curious fact that the Byzantines did not know. The Merovingian ruler of the Franks, Theudebert, was an ally of the Byzantine Emperor. However, he was also an ambitious and treacherous Germanic ruler. Seeking to expand his kingdom, he secretly lent aid to Uraias and his Gothic warriors by sending to their aid a force of 10,000 fierce Burgundian tribesmen.

Theudebert’s excuse was simple enough. He claimed the independent Burgundians acted outside of his authority. The Burgundians quickly crossed the alps and joined the army of Uraias. It was a force to be feared. As they began to besiege Milan, general Mundilas knew that his 300 warriors stood no chance against such an army. He urged Milan’s citizens to take up arms and help defend the city, which they did.

In the meanwhile, the leading Byzantine generals – Narses and Belisarius – made good progress in liberating the rest of Italy. However, they were hampered by a bitter rivalry, and were not keen on cooperating. Thus, they acted almost independently of one another. And in the case of besieged Milan, it would become a big contributing factor in the horrible Massacre of Milan.

A complex situation emerged. To respond to the Germanic army at the gates of Milan, Belisarius dispatched a sizable army of roughly 4,000 men. At the head of this force were two of his subordinate generals, Uliaris and Martinos. However, once they reached the River Po and observed the might and the size of the Gothic-Burgundian army, they hesitated.

Using an obvious pretext that there was no adequate way to cross the river, these generals remained inactive and waited. In time, after failing to act, one of the generals was forced to write back to Belisarius and the Byzantine command, seeking more men. He described the size of the enemy army and asked for reinforcements from two other generals who were in the vicinity.

Emperor Justinian I, the Byzantine emperor who bankrolled the attempt to take Italy from the Goths and make it part of the East Roman Empire again. (Juulijs / Adobe Stock)

Emperor Justinian I, the Byzantine emperor who bankrolled the attempt to take Italy from the Goths and make it part of the East Roman Empire again. ( Juulijs / Adobe Stock)

Left to the Mercy of the Barbarian Army

Belisarius agreed and dispatched messengers to these generals, but they both refused to act without direct orders from General Narses. This is where the rivalry in Byzantine command became a major disadvantage for struggling Milan. Belisarius wrote to Narses, who then gave a direct order to the two generals in the area to save Milan. But by then, as it would turn out, it was too late.

The siege was now in an advanced state, and the men trapped in Milan were starving. In their desperation, they began eating mice and dogs, but even those were scarce. The leader of the garrison, Mundilas, was thus forced to negotiate with the envoys of his Gothic enemies. The Goths invited him to capitulate and surrender the city. In return, he and his men would be spared. However, there was no mention of the citizens of Milan.

Suspecting the worst, Mundilas requested that the lives of the inhabitants be spared as well. The Goths refused. It was clear that they were determined on vengeance, angry at the treachery that Milan exhibited under bishop Dacius. Knowing that the lives of innocent people would not be spared, Mundilas refused to capitulate, and the siege continued.

Back behind the city walls, Mundilas convened with his soldiers. Just 300 strong and starved, they were no match for the Germanic army that was over 10,000 strong. Yet even so, Mundilas asked his men to make one last desperate attempt and sally against the enemy in an attempt to break out of the siege and save the citizens. Hungry, weak, and demoralized, the men refused to accept this proposal.

Instead, they pleaded with their commander to accept the original terms and capitulate. Mundilas seemingly didn’t agree at first and attempted to endure through the winter. They barely made it through and help still hadn’t arrived. At that point, in March of 539 AD, he accepted the Gothic terms and surrendered. He and his men were treated honorably, as was promised. But the citizens of Milan suffered a terrible fate.

The ferocious Burgundians and their Goth allies were out for revenge and blood. They were determined to punish the citizens of Milan for siding with the Byzantines. And seemingly nothing would deter them from that goal. Once they poured into the city, these warriors showed no mercy. Several historic sources document the fury they unleashed on the city. Procopius famously claimed that 300,000 men were slaughtered in Milan, although modern historians agree that a more reasonable number is 30,000. Nevertheless, it was a great loss of life. The Burgundians committed unspeakable atrocities . They butchered and killed every male citizen they encountered, and they raped and enslaved all the female citizens, later selling them as slaves.

A painting of the Massacre of the Innocents (the Massacre of Milan) from San Eustorgio church in Milan. (Renáta Sedmáková / Adobe Stock)

A painting of the Massacre of the Innocents (the Massacre of Milan) from San Eustorgio church in Milan. ( Renáta Sedmáková / Adobe Stock)

Atrocities of Unspeakable Proportions

Many prominent Byzantine persons did not manage to flee this wrath. The most notable victim of the massacre was the brother of Pope Vigilius, the important politician and aristocrat called Reparatus. He had fled from Ostrogothic captivity, but was now captured, cut into pieces and fed to dogs. Many similar atrocities were documented on that fated day.

The city itself suffered greatly, and most of it was razed to the ground. It was a difficult blow from which Milan wouldn’t quickly recover. It took several centuries for this city to regain the splendor it had lost.

After conquering Milan, Uraias and his fierce army managed to regain most of northern Italy. This came as a big blow for Belisarius and for Emperor Justinian I as well. Both of them were well aware of the main cause of the great loss of life in Milan.

First, there was the refusal of the local area commanders to obey Belisarius’ orders that had been sent to general Narses. Second, the hesitation of the commanders Uliaris and Martinos was also a deciding factor. If the combined forces of the local commanders and the leaders inside of the city had combined,  many innocent lives would have been saved. The divisions and lack of cooperation within the high command of the Byzantine army were now obvious to the emperor. But it was too late to save the innocent.

Milan Cathedral viewed from the city’s central Piazza del Duomo. Dacius, the Bishop of Milan was an instrumental figure in the events that led to the tragic outcomes of the Massacre of Milan. (Jiuguang Wang / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Milan Cathedral viewed from the city’s central Piazza del Duomo. Dacius, the Bishop of Milan was an  instrumental figure in the events that led to the tragic outcomes of the Massacre of Milan. (Jiuguang Wang / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Who was to Blame for the Massacre of Milan?

But even the emperor was to blame for the divisions, as he clearly favored Belisarius. In one surviving letter, he writes: “We have not sent our steward Narses to Italy in order to command the army; for we wish Belisarius alone to command the whole army in whatever manner seems to him best, and it is the duty of all of you to follow him in the interest of the state.”

Following the Massacre of Milan, Narses was recalled to Constantinople, but was not disgraced. Likewise, no other commander was punished, and Belisarius remained the emperor’s most trusted commander.

The tragedy of the Massacre of Milan serves to remind us that the conquerors were not always merciful in history. In ancient history, it was hard to contain the spirits of men on the battlefield, and commanders and rulers were often forced to submit to the desires of soldier hordes. And thus, the Goths and Burgundians that were thirsty for vengeance and the spoils of war could not be contained.

Top image: A ghastly death ossuary in Milan that likely also contains many dead from the Massacre of Milan in 1539 AD during the battles to retake Italy by the Byzantine Empire, which was headquartered in Constantinople.         Source: Francis Malapris / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

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