Certainly it was not Italy. Materially the result of those eighteen years of war, which began with the invasion of Italy by Belisarius in 536, reached their crisis in 540 with the capture of Ravenna, and were finally decided by Narses in 552-554, was the ruin of Italy. Exhausted, devastated, and unfilled, the prey, for half a generation, of a fundamental war, Italy was materially ruined by Justinian’s Gothic campaigns, and so hopelessly that, when in 568 the Lombards fell upon her, she was almost unable to defend herself, to offer any resistance to what proved—and in part for this reason—the only barbaric invasion which had upon her any enduring consequences. Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, all poured over her, and presently, like winter floods, retreated and subsided, leaving nothing to remind us of their fear and devastation; the Lombards remained.
I say this was largely due to the appalling exhaustion and ruin of Italy in the Gothic war; but there was something else which we must not forget. The Gothic war was a religious war. The Arianism of the Goths had really threatened our civilisation. But the Lombards were largely mere heathens. Their heathenism was not at all dangerous to us as a heresy must always be. Therefore Italy never roused herself from her exhaustion, one might almost say her indifference. It was only her material well-being that was at stake, her future was safe. Her great attempt against the Lombards was a spiritual effort, was an effort for their conversion, and their final discomfiture, wrought not from within the peninsula, but from over the Alps, did not involve their expulsion from Italy, but was seized upon as the opportunity for the re-establishment in name and in fact of the Western Empire, and for the great crowning of Charlemagne by the pope in S. Peter’s church.
[Footnote 1: It was not the paganism of the Italian Renaissance but the heresy of the Teutons which destroyed the unity of Europe in the sixteenth century.]
Italy, and with Italy Europe, were, then, saved from nothing less than death when Narses finally disposed of Totila in the Apennines in 552; but that war which had a result so very glorious had materially ruined the country.
From this general bankruptcy one city certainly escaped; that city was Ravenna, which since the year 540, when she had opened her gates to Belisarius, had been free from attack, and had more than ever been established as the capital of the West. That position was secured to her, as I have already said, by her geographical position, which now that Constantinople had reasserted the claim of the empire to Italy established her more than at any time in her history as the necessary seat of military and administrative power; and from Ravenna as from the citadel the whole of the second part of the Gothic war was waged by the imperialists. As we might expect the true nature of that war is immediately manifested in her history at this time.