Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, July 9, 2018

Military and Government Couriers in the Roman Empire

Roman wagon that could have been part of the
state-run courier and transportation service.

The Cursus Publicus
The challenge of sending and receiving
information in the Roman Empire

The cursus publicus (Latin: "the public way") was the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire, later inherited by the Byzantine Empire

For an Empire that spread over Africa, the Middle East and Europe it was vital for both Rome and Constantinople to get news of enemy attacks as rapidly as possible so troops could respond.

The Emperor Augustus created it to transport messages, officials, and tax revenues between the provinces and Italy. The service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century in the Byzantine Empire, when the historian Procopius accuses Emperor Justinian of dismantling most of its sections, except for the route leading to the Persian border. 

The extent of the cursus publicus is shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the Roman road network dating from around AD 400.

A series of forts and stations was spread out along the major road systems connecting the regions of the Roman world. The relay points (stationes) provided horses to dispatch riders and (usually) soldiers as well as vehicles for magistrates or officers of the court. The vehicles were called clabulae, but little is known of them. 

Union Army Mail Wagon
No doubt the Roman system was not too different than those that came later.

Cursus Publicus
Rome used wagons as well as horsemen to deliver information and some packages to the Legions and local governments.

diploma, or certificate, issued by the emperor himself was necessary to use the services supplied by the cursus publicus. Abuses of the system existed, for governors and minor appointees used the diplomata to give themselves and their families free transport. Forgeries and stolen diplomata were also used. Pliny the Elder and Trajan write about the necessity of those who wish to send things via the imperial post to keep up-to-date licences.

There is evidence that inspectors oversaw the functioning of the system in the provinces, and it may be conjectured that they reported to the 'Praefectus' in Rome. However, the office does not seem to have been considered a full-time position.

As Altay Coskun notes in a review of Anne Kolb's work done in German, the system "simply provided an infrastructure for magistrates and messengers who traveled through the empire. It consisted of thousands of stations placed along the main roads; these had to supply fresh horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen, as well as carts, food, fodder, and accommodation." 

Thus, there was no “department of postal service” with employees paid by the emperor. The one who was sending a missive would have to supply the courier, and the stations had to be supplied out of the resources of the local areas through which the roads passed.

Following the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine I, the service was divided in two sections: the fast and the regular. The fast section provided horses, divided into veredi ("saddle-horses") and parhippi ("pack-horses", and mules, and the slow section provided only oxen. The existence of the 'cursus clabularis' service shows that it was used to move heavy goods as well as to facilitate the travel of high officials and the carriage of government messages.

Speed of Delivery
How soon a letter got to its destination is something that varied widely for Roman Letter writers. On the reliable cursus publicus it is estimated that a courier could travel on average around fifty Roman miles a day, which was extremely fast for antiquity. But again, the cursus publicus was only open for the government.
For everyone else there was nowhere near that level of reliability. Over short distances messages moved rather quickly. It was common for a letter sent by a courier to get from Rome to Naples in five days. But, over long distances, especially when crossing water was involved, delivery times fluctuated wildly. 
Sometimes a letter to Athens would take only three weeks to reach Rome, while other times it could take as much as seventeen weeks to cover the same distance. There were many causes for delay, but one of the most common was simply that there were no ships heading to the letters destination. Couriers would sometimes wait weeks checking the harbors daily for the right ship.

Frank E. Webner, pony express rider, ca. 1861.  (Department of Commerce)

Persian Influence

The Romans adapted their state post from the ancient Persian network of the royal mounted couriers, the angarium. As Herodotus reports, the Persians had a remarkably efficient means of transmitting messages important to the functioning of the kingdom, called the Royal Road
The riders would be stationed at a day's ride along the road, and the letters would be handed from one courier to another as they made a journey of a day’s length, which allowed messages to travel fast. Augustus, at first, followed the Persian method of having mail handed from one courier to the next, but he soon switched to a system by which one man made the entire journey with the parcel. 
Although it is possible that a courier service existed for a time under the Roman Republic, the clearest reference by Suetonius suggests that Augustus created the system:

To enable what was going on in each of the provinces to be reported and known more speedily and promptly, he at first stationed young men at short intervals along the military roads, and afterwards post-chaises. The latter has seemed the more convenient arrangement, since the same men who bring the dispatches from any place can, if occasion demands, be questioned as well.

Tacitus says that couriers from Judea and Syria brought news to Vitellius that the legions of the East had sworn allegiance to him, and this also shows that the relay system was displaced by a system in which the original messenger made the entire journey. Augustus modified the Persian system, as Suetonius notes, because a courier who travels the whole distance could be interrogated by the emperor, upon arrival, to receive additional information orally.
The cursus operated in Italy and the more advanced provinces. There was only one in Egypt and one in Asia Minor, as Pliny's letters to Trajan attest. It was common for a village to exist every 12 miles (19 km) or so, and there a courier might rest at large, privately owned mansiones

Operated by a manceps, or a business man, the mansiones provided food and lodging, and care and a blacksmith for the horses. The cursus also used communities located along the imperial highways. These towns very often provided food and horses to messengers of the Legions, theoretically receiving reimbursement, and were responsible for the care of their section of the Roman roads.

Roman road of Tall Aqibrin in Syria

The Eastern Empire

The Imperial Post gave the legions the capacity to summon reinforcements and provide status reports before any situation deteriorated too badly. The average citizen sent letters and messages to friends across the sea with slaves and travelling associates. Most news reached its destination eventually.

The highest-ranking generals and frontier generals were issued passes, especially those at danger points like Mesopotamia.

Notwithstanding its enormous costs, in the Eastern Roman Empire the service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century, when the historian Procopius charges Emperor Justinian with the dismantlement of most of its sections, with the exception of the route leading to the Persian border.
Procopius provides one of the few direct descriptions of the Roman post that allows an estimation the average rate of travel overland. In the 6th century, he described earlier times:
If the distance between stages was known, the distance five stages or eight stages and the average rate at which correspondence moved along the cursus publicus would both be known.
The dromos continued to exist throughout the Byzantine period, supervised for much of it by the logothetēs tou dromou, although this post is not attested before the mid-eighth century and a revival of the service may then have occurred after a substantial gap. It was by then a much reduced service.
Being able to pay for the system was the major problem.

The Eastern Empire was under endless military attack from just about every direction possible. Tax paying provinces were lost to enemies or were burned over by invading armies cutting tax income.

Supporting the troops on the front lines had first call on treasury funds. A standing courier service became more and more a luxury item.

So the cursus publicus faded as a full time organized unit within government. What took its place would have been ad hoc couriers chosen by Constantinople or local provincial governors to pass on military and administrative news.

The system of major and minor Roman Roads allowed both information and troops to move rapidly around the the Empire.

A portion of the well-preserved Roman Road that
leads, 31 mi., from Troas to Assos in Anatolia.

(www.scribd.com)      (Master of offices)      (Egypt in the Byzantine world)

(Cursus publicus)      (Roman Syria)      (Roman roads)      (Imperial Rome)

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Grand Byzantine Fortress of Selçuk (Ayasuluk)

Ayasuluk Castle, locally known as Ayasuluk Kalesi or Selçuk Kalesi, lies on a hill in the town of Selçuk, in the province of Izmir in Turkey. It is situated just a mile from the site of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was initially a harbour city but the continually silting up of its harbour eventually made it an inland site situated 5 km from the sea at present. At the beginning of the Byzantine era, Ephesus was still predominantly at its harbour location. During the 6th century the city declined and was split up. The old city at the harbour was enclosed by a defensive wall, making it considerably smaller and thus better to defend. The Ayasuluk hill had been part of the outskirts of the city and was now a mile outside the city. 
The Byzantines then built Ayasuluk Castle, using stones from disused Greek and Roman buildings, for its construction. On the slope of the hill they built the Basilica of St. John. Defensive walls coming down from the castle, encompassed the basilica. Effectively turning the site in a citadel with the castle as an upper castle and the area with the basilica as a lower castle.
The combination of the marble façades and the mortared rubble made the walls 4 meters thick. The citadel walls were 1.5 km around with 17 towers. Entry to the citadel from the south was through the Gate of Persecution, which first led into the Basilica. In the 8th century the square towers on either side of the gate were made pentagonal, aiding in their defensive capabilities.
Over the following centuries, however, people from the harbour site gradually migrated towards the citadel on the hill as the harbour continued to silt up and they battled malaria. By the end of the Byzantine period the harbour was abandoned, and Ephesus was centered around Ayasuluk Hill.
In 1090 Ephesus was conquered by Seljuk Turks under Tengribirmish, but by then it had declined to nothing more than a small village. In 1097 the Byzantines took back control and renamed the village Agios Theologus. They kept control until the early 14th century. Then it was finally taken by the Seljuks, who renamed the site Ayasuluk. They repaired the walls of the castle, dredged the harbour and put it to use again. This resulted in the town prospering again.
Around the beginning of the 15th century Ayasuluk came under Ottoman rule. By that time the harbour had silted up again and had become a swamp. The town declined again to a village. The Ottomans however did keep the castle garrisoned. In the mid-17th century it had a garrison of 40 soldiers. As the population kept declining, the castle was abandoned during the 18th century. In 1914 Ayasuluk was renamed Selçuk.
A nice castle. Inside there are a small ruined mosque, a part of a former church turned into a cistern, a couple of Ottoman cisterns and groundplans of a couple of houses. It can be visited as a visitor of the site of the basilica. For that you have to pay a fee.

Eastern Roman Empire about 1025.
Selçuk Fortress is located one mile from the ancient
Greek city of Ephesus on the Aegean coast.

The castle was built during the time of the Byzantine Empire and later remodeled by the Turks.

The combination of the marble façades and the mortared rubble made the walls 4 meters thick. The citadel walls were 1.5 km around with 17 towers.

(journey)      (Ayasuluk)      (ayasuluk castle)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Battle of Ajnadayn - Islam vs Christianity

Three Arab warriors with rifles standing and sitting in the desert during the Arab Revolt 1916-1918. The invading Arabs the Romans faced might have looked much like these soldiers.

Islam on the March
Battle for the Middle East Part IV

Here we are in Part IV of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

Part I  -  In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris.  A force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. The Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  A Muslim wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus failed when confronted by Roman armies.  The Romans held their own in Syria and had dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine. But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Arab Cavalry
"The key to all the early operations, against Persia and against Syria alike, is that the Persians and Byzantines could not move in the desert, being mounted on horses. The Muslims were like a sea power, cruising off shore in their ships, whereas the Persians and Byzantines alike could only take up positions on the shore (that is, the cultivated area) unable to launch out to 'sea' and engage the enemy in his own element."

So here we are at about April of 634 and there is a stalemate on the Palestine front.

The Roman army at Daraa has totally blocked the Muslims from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north. Protected by their walls Roman cities in 
Palaestina Salutaris were able to hold out against the Muslims preventing them from moving further north. The Arabs did not want armed Roman garrisons in their rear ready to attack.

The Emperor Heraclius was a battle tested front line general who had personally marched into Persia crushing their empire. He had also traveled over and knew the geography of Syria and Palestine. He organized the defense of Damascus and the Roman troops dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications east of the Sea of Galilee.

The Emperor now gathered a second large army to drive the Muslims out of Roman territory. The question is why did he not personally command the army in his counter attack against the Muslims?

The Health of Heraclius

It was said that health was the reason Heraclius did not command troops against the Muslims.

At this point Heraclius was passing the threshold of 60 years of age as he confronted the massive Muslim invasions. Even if he had been ten years younger he would have been challenged to hold things together.  To command armies in the field at this age with all the rigors involved is nearly unheard of in military history. Consider that Napoleon was just 46 years old when he failed at Waterloo.

The Emperor may have been intermittently unable to function efficiently while at other moments he could handle decision making very capably. He appears to have suffered from "dropsy" and mental problems. Less clear he may have had Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) from protracted exposure to combat and related strains.

At the end of the Middle East campaign we see the mental issues come forward. He left Syria, returning to his capital, tired and exhausted. Reaching the Bosphorus, he suddenly had an inexplicable aversion to the sea. He even hid in a side room of one of the imperial palaces on the Asian shore, unable to proceed to Constantinople, ignoring the urgent pleas of the city’s representatives. He became paranoid, believed rumors about a conspiracy by his nephew and a bastard son, and ordered their noses and hands to be cut off before sending them into exile.

After a few weeks, his wife Martina and members of the court found a solution. Patriarch Nicephorus, who wrote a Breviarium or Short History, reports that a large number of boats was tied together, as if it were a bridge, to which they added a “wall” of tree branches and leaves, so that the emperor would not have to look at the sea. It worked: the emperor passed the sea on horseback as if he were traveling on land.

Back to Syria. Instead of being in the front lines the Emperor spent his time in the city of Homs some 150 miles away or in Edessa or in Antioch. These were important communications and supply centers. At these cities Heraclius was more easily able to stay in contact with Constantinople and follow events in Anatolia, supervise Roman troops still inside Persia as well as oversee combat to the south.

But let me say at this point there was no real reason for the Emperor himself to be with the army.

The Eastern Empire's military machine had decades of recent combat experience against the Persians and Slavs in the Balkans. Virtually the entire officer corps would have either fought at the side of the Emperor on campaign or been in combat in other theaters of war.

Going into the Battle of Ajnadain there was no reason to think that well trained Roman generals and their professional troops could not put down untrained desert invaders.

Byzantine Cataphract Attempt
From 400 AD on Eastern Roman Cavalry units would mirror their Persian enemies and would grow to become the mailed fist of the army in combat.
Cataphract armored horsemen were almost universally clad in some form of scale armor that was flexible enough to give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, but strong enough to resist the immense impact of a thunderous charge into infantry formations.

The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forces throughout history was the lanceThey were roughly four meters in length, with a capped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal bone and usually wielded with both hands. Cataphracts would often be equipped with an additional side-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the melee that often followed a charge.

The historian Procopius said:  "They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike

 having no power to check its force. Still there are those who take into consideration none of these things, who reverence and worship the ancient times, and give no credit to modern improvements." 

Campaign of Ajnadayn
The Romans (in yellow upper right) were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia. 
Instead the Muslims at Daraa sent most of their army on a rapid 200 mile forced march to the south to join with the Beersheeba force and do battle with the Romans at Ajnadayn.

Muslim Forces

In 634 there is no way to measure the size of the Muslim armies invading Palaestina Salutaris. The Muslims divided into three columns. One column marched to Gaza on the coast, and the two other columns worked their way north on the right side of the Jordan River.

Perhaps the lack of water in the desert forced them to move in separate detachments. Also with no system of supply this could have made it easier to live off the land.

There was an additional fourth army of about 3,500 men that invaded Persia.

To round off numbers the three columns in Palestine might have initially had 10,000 to 15,000 men. When the Persian invasion force under Khalid ibn al-Walid failed in its wide flanking attack against Damascus his thousands of troops fell back to reinforce the other Muslim troops at the Daraa Gap.

So there may have been 15,000 plus Muslim troops in east Palestine and a smaller force of perhaps 3,000(???) near Gaza.

In total there could have been 20,000 Muslim soldiers in the Palestine area under assorted commands.

Click to enlarge
The Roman Army had perhaps 109,000 men at this point. But those troops were spread out over Asia, Africa and Europe in multiple sub-theaters. Gathering a sizable force in one spot was a major challenge.

Roman Forces

Historian Warren Treadgold places the strength of the Roman army at this point at 109,000 men.

But those troops were stretched thin. If troops were taken from one area then that part of the frontier would be weakened in the face of enemy forces and invite invasion on yet another front.

A factor in moving troops was local reluctance to comply. Heraclius was unsuccessful when he ordered that troops be moved from Numidia to assist in the defense of Egypt against the Muslim threat. Egypt lacked a large permanent garrison. The Empire was hard-pressed to find enough troops to reoccupy and monitor the huge areas from Egypt to Anatolia that had been evacuated by Persian armies.

Meanwhile in Syria, on Easter 634 at the Battle of Marj Rahit we saw Roman troops and their Ghassanid Christian Arab allies field about 8,000 men to defeat the Muslims in Syria.

Some miles south at the Daraa Gap fortifications the rather large Muslim force could not dislodge the dug in Roman army. We can assume the Romans at Daraa had at least as many troops there as the Muslims facing them.

So if the Muslims had some 15,000 men around Daraa then the entrenched Romans may have had roughly the same. Add in the thousands of Christian Arab allies just above Daraa and there is a sizable Roman army on hand that has totally blocked the Muslims from marching north.

Rome vs Muslims

The Arabs moved like lightening through the deserts. The rapid movements of the Muslims are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II. The desert Arabs had no training, fought wildly, but also had no big baggage train or camp followers that slowed down Western armies.  

The Eastern Roman military machine drew upon centuries of tradition, training and organization. The Byzantines had carefully organized administrative services, carts with entrenching tools, mills for grinding corn, supply wagons, an ambulance corps, doctors and more. This cause the army to move slower than their desert based opponents.

Tactical training was diligently carried out and books on the military arts were taught to the Roman officer corps. But the military manuals did not teach the officers how to combat wild, fanatical desert hordes motivated by religious fanaticism.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

Battle of Ajnadayn  (July 634)

The Muslim "victory" near Gaza at the Battle of Dathin in early 634 was minor one against a slapped together force of local Roman garrison troops. The Muslim army was so weak it could not exploit their opportunity. 

The Muslims under Amr ibn al Assi raided and probed only a few miles to the north reaching Lydda and Jaffa. They were unable or unwilling to venture into the mountains of Judea and Samaria while Roman troops stood behind the walls of fortified cities.

Seeing this Muslim weakness around Gaza the Emperor, who was in Homs, was busy raising a new army for a major counterattack into southern Palestine. Heraclius was obviously confident the Roman fortifications at Daraa would hold. Otherwise he would not be sending an army so far away. By sending his new army south he resumed the initiative and would force the Muslims on the defensive.

The Emperor was no stranger to bold and aggressive moves. In the Spring of 623 Constantinople itself was under siege by the Persians and Avars. Heraclius left the city in the hands of others. He gathered to himself a corps d'elite of 5,000 men and sailed over 600 miles to the east landing at the Black Sea city of Trebizond.  There he met up with an additional Roman army and eventually marched into the heart of Persia crushing their Empire.

The Emperor now used the same bold strategic methods against the Muslims that he had used against the Persians.

A bold plan of attack  

Exhausted with mental issues or not, the Emperor recognized opportunity. Heraclius saw that the Muslim forces were divided into two parts: Their main force was sitting in place blocked by the Roman fortifications at Daraa in southwest Syria. A much smaller Arab force was floundering around southwest, coastal Palestine basically looting or doing nothing.

The Emperor gathered to him in Syria a new army. Estimates on the size of the army range from 10,000 to 20,000 men. I will split the difference at 15,000 men which is a normal size for many Byzantine campaigns.

Heraclius planned for his new army to march from Syria to the city of Tiberias on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. From Tiberias they would march to Caesarea on the coast where they would rendezvous with the Roman Navy for re-supply. Then they would march south with the navy following them offshore for support. The navy could land at Jaffa and Gaza as needed to provide additional supplies or troops.

The goal of this operation was to overwhelm the smaller Muslim army in the Beersheeba area and then push south to Aila (Aqaba) on the the coast.

From that strong point the Roman Army in the south would threaten the lines of communication with Mecca of the main Muslim force up at Daraa.

With a Roman army in front of them at Daraa and behind them at Aila the Muslims would be forced to abandon their position at Daraa and return south to Arabia.

It is rather difficult to march a 15,000 man Roman army from Syria south through Palestine and not attract attention. The Muslim commanders at Daraa got word of the troop movements and recognized at once the danger they were in.

The main Muslim army at Daraa was nearly 200 miles away from their smaller western counterpart. To make matters worse the mountains of Samaria and Moab were controlled by walled towns and cities manned by Byzantine garrisons. Any reinforcements sent to the west had to go far to the south and around the mountains.

With the Romans on the move it was already too late for the Arabs to march south and join with the Beersheeba army via the Aila (Aqaba) route. But if they did not act then they would be overwhelmed and defeated separately.

The Trans-Jordan Mountains form an almost impassable barrier of cliffs. To the north the Romans controlled Jerusalem and other cities. The only other pass that could take the Arabs to the plains of Beersheeba was south of the Dead Sea at Karak at the Moab Mountains. Even that pass was so steep that riders had to dismount their horses and camels and lead their animals over rocks and ravines.

To save Amr ibn al Aasi the Muslims largely disappeared from Darra and marched day and night to the pass at Karak. Suddenly confronted by a torrent of wild camel-riders the people of Moab were happy to make peace with the Muslims and let them pass through. The local tribes were doubtless monophysite Christians with little love for the Greek Orthodox ruling class.

Like Rommel's Afrika Korps the
Muslim cavalry moved light lightening
through the deserts.
The Muslims poured down the pass, across the Wadi Araba and up to the semi-desert plain of Beersheeba just as the main Roman army started marching south from Caesarea.

The nimble Bedouins had won the race to the battlefield.  Mounted on camels, able to travel day and night with only a crust of bread to eat they had out marched the more ponderous Roman army weighed down with all of its civilized paraphernalia. The comparison to Erwin Rommel the Desert Fox moving like lightening through World War II north Africa is a good one.

Here is where the military historian pulls out his hair. The great Roman Army and Muslim forces meet at the Battle of Ajnadayn in the July heat of 634 and we have next to zero information on what happened.

We can speculate that between the western Muslim army and the force withdrawn from Daraa the Muslims might have put together a force equal to the Roman army of 15,000 men.

The Romans may have been commanded by the Emperor's brother Theodore. There was also a commander named Vardan who might have been the patrikios (commander) of Emesa. Vardan may have brought fresh reinforcements of Armenian troops that had been with Heraclius in Syria. The army may have also contained local Arab tribal levies.

The Arab army consisted of three separate contingents, with either Khalid or, less likely, Amr, as the overall commander.

With no meaningful information about the battle we can come up with any number of possible scenarios.

The July Heat
Most of the Roman soldiers would have come from the cooler climates of Armenia, Anatolia or even the Balkans. Cavalry or infantry, marching and fighting in the July heat of Palestine wearing armor would have been hard on the most experienced soldiers. The lightly clad Arab forces could have had an advantage.

Unreliable Allies
Any number of battles have been lost when allies failed to deliver. In the Battle of Callinicum some 5,000 allied Roman Arab cavalry holding the right flank simply vanished without firing a shot. Something like this could easily have happened with several different ethnic formations fighting in one Roman army.

Muslim Blitzkrieg
The lightening fast movements of the Muslim cavalry were like nothing the Romans had ever encountered before. Imperial forces were trained to fight traditional slower moving enemies like the Persians. Thoughts go back to the German invasion of France in 1941. The Germans were not better soldiers. The Germans were just organized differently and moved at a faster pace. That could have happened here with fast moving Muslim cavalry getting behind Roman forces causing a panic.

The result is what matters and the Romans were completely defeated.

What we do know is this was not an easy victory for the Muslims. The Arabs suffered heavy casualties, and many deaths among of Companions of Muhammad, including several members of the early Muslim aristocracy, who fell in the battle and were regarded as martyrs.

The Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. The survivors were forced to retreat to Damascus or to other walled cities.  It is significant that they were able to retreat. That means the retreat may have been more or less orderly and that the Muslims were in no condition to follow them.

The Muslim sources report that one of the two commanders, probably Vardan, fell in the battle, but that Theodore escaped and withdrew north where Heraclius replaced him with other commanders and then sent him to imprisonment in Constantinople.


Heraclius himself withdrew from Emesa to the greater safety of Antioch. His strategic counter-offensive was crushed and the troops available to fight off the invasion vastly reduced. 

It is interesting that the victorious Muslims had no interest in moving up coastal Palestine or attacking the coastal or mountain cities. That tells me there were enough active Roman troops in the area or behind walls to worry the Muslim commanders. It may also say the Muslim victory may have cost them a lot more troops than we are told by Arab historians.

Instead the Muslims retraced their steps sending the bulk of their army back to Daraa in Syria to face the only intact Roman army still in the field.

More to come in Part V.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The Battle for the Middle East
Read More:
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine

(livius.org)      (books)      (Great Arab Conquests-Bagot Glubb)


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians

Scythian warrior on horseback.

Here we go again. I was not even looking for an article on Eastern Roman Emperor Nicephorus Phocas let alone Scythian barbarian invaders. But Google giveth many strange links.

I cannot find much background for the author of the article below. He appears to be Hungarian with an interest in early Hungarian invading tribes and their link to Byzantium. Well that's good enough for me. His article helps shed some light on a part of Byzantine military history that no one has really covered.

A near total lack of data.  When dealing with subjects like Napoleon, the American Civil War or World War II these events took place over a few short years, but we have literally mountains and mountains of excruciatingly detailed information to shift through. But when it comes to Eastern Roman history a century of barbarian invasions might, if we are lucky, get a passing mention by what passed for "historians" at the time. Meaningful details? Not gonna happen.

So this article helps shed some light on nearly ignored segment of Byzantine military history.

"Scythian" Barbarians

The question basically is "What is a Scythian?"

The Byzantines had something of a "if you have seen one barbarian tribe you have seen them all" attitude. The Byzantines had no interest in the fine points of different barbarian cultures. After all these invading barbarian tribes were all trying to kill Romans and conquer the Empire so what difference did it make?

In general the often nomadic peoples of the regions of modern Russia, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea were lumped together and called "Scythians" and in later times called "Turks".

These nomadic warlike peoples, were particularly known for their equestrian skills, and their early use of composite bows shot from horseback. With great mobility, the Scythians could absorb the attacks of more cumbersome foot soldiers and cavalry. Such tactics wore down their enemies, making them easier to defeat. The different Scythian tribes were notoriously aggressive warriors.

In the case of this article the Scythians were likely nomadic Magyar warrior clans invading from the from the region of Ural Mountains into Europe.


Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians


Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late ninth century. From there they conducted numerous campaigns to both the East and West in the course of the tenth century. However, while the western campaigns are well known in the Latin sources, the attacks against the Byzantine Empire, are mentioned in few sources. In the present paper, I would like to discuss a short source detail which have not yet been connected by historians to the Hungarians of the tenth century. 

Byzantine sources of the Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries - thanks to the meticulous and all encompassing work of the renowned Hungarian Byzantinologist, Gyula Moravcsik - have hardly increased in number during the past decades. Recently, Ferenc Makk has collected the new sources concerning Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries. He mentioned only one sentence in the work of Joannes Skylitzes that Moravcsik did not know of, which refers to tenth-century Hungarians. 

In 2009, István Baán drew the scholars' attention to a Byzantine diploma which mentioned the destruction of Hungarian troops in the Byzantine Empire during the tenth century. The number of new details is very limited. Thus any information - even if it is very brief - serves as a valuable addition to our knowledge of Hungarians in tenth-century history.

The Byzantine army of Asia Minor proclaimed Nicephorus Phocas as emperor in 963. He told them that they should expect a serious civil war. Previously they fought bravely against Cretans, Scythians and Arabs, but they now had to fight against their countrymen. The three examples of related events were certainly known to the soldiers.  

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas 
(from ‘Rulers of the Byzantine Empire’ published by KIBEA)
Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits resulted in the conquest of Cilicia and the re-conquest of the island of Cyprus from the Muslims. He conducted raids into Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. In the West he lost Sicily completely to the Muslims and faced Magyar raids deep into the Balkans.

Nicephorus Phocas' army invaded the island of Crete in the summer of 960. The besiegers conquered the capital city, Kandia, in 961. As a result of the victory, after one and a half centuries of Muslim rule, the island again fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire. 

Almost simultaneously, Nicephorus Phocas's brother, Leon Phocas took a part of the Byzantine troops from the Balkans to Asia Minor. Exploiting the fact that most of the Byzantine army was on the island of Crete, Sayf al-Dawla, the prince of Hamdanids carried out more attacks against the border of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. 

When Emperor Romanus II found out about this, he sent Leon Phocas, who previously had successfully defended the Balkans' border of the Empire, to Asia Minor fighting against the Muslims. Leon Phocas's troops defeated Sayf al-Dawla's army when they returned home with booty and numerous Byzantine prisoners on 8 November 960. In the course of the attack the prince barely escaped due to his ingenuity. Subsequently Leon Phocas went to Constantinople, which held a triumph in his honor. 

Following the successful campaign against Crete, Nicephorus Phocas continued the war against the Hamdanids. As a result, the capital of Sayf al-Dawla, Aleppo fell into the hands of the Byzantines in 962 with the exception of its citadel. It appears that the fighting against Cretans and Arabs which is mentioned in Nicephorus Phocas' speech refers to these two victorious wars. It is obvious that Nicephorus Phocas (or Leon Diaconus, who attributes the speech to him) wanted to refer to well-known, recent events in the case of the war against the Scythians.

Leon Diaconus used the Scythian name to indicate a number of peoples who lived then or at once in Scythia, north of the Danube area and the Black Sea. It was him who called the Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Russians, and in general the peoples living in Scythia (which in some cases perhaps also included the Pechenegs) all Scythians. The question is raised, however, which of these peoples were defeated by the Byzantine soldiers?

Scythian Warrior

Bulgarians cannot be identified with these Scythians. There was peace between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria around this time, which only ended after the Nicephorus Phocas occupied the throne. Thus it is not surprising, that the collection containing the Byzantine sources of Bulgarian history does not mention the emperor's speech. Similarly, we know of no Russian or Pecheneg attacks in the 950s reaching the Byzantine Empire.  

Therefore it is most likely that by a struggle against the Scythians we are to understand Scythian invasion which was successfully beaten back by Nicephorus Phocas brother's Leon Phocas, according the Leon Diaconus' work. According the unanimous opinion of historians, the same event was reported in one part of the Vita Athanasii.w Leon Diaconus mentions that when a Scythian army crossed the Danube, Leon Phocas did not immediately enter into a battle with them because he had only a very small army, instead, he was waiting for the appropriate moment and he attacked the opposing camp at night. 

The Byzantine troops killed many of the Scythians, while many others were forced to flee. The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas, who was the "commander of the West(ern affairs)" brought a serious defeat onto the Scythians. The identification of the enemy is very clear in this case. The Byzantine sources reported an ill-fated attack by a Hungarian army.  
This campaign could be identical with the Hungarian campaign which had reached the Byzantine Empire in 961. According to Theophanes Continuatus, Hungarian troops invaded the Byzantine Empire at the Easter of 961 (on 7 April, 961). Emperor Romanus II sent Marianos Argyros, who was the "commander of the West", to stop the attackers. The Byzantine general defeated the Hungarians, and forced them to return home.  

However, this view is hardly tenable. Scholars probably dated the Hungarian attack to be in the year 961 because this date was written on the margin of the text in the collection of sources. However, it is not the date of the fight against the Scythians: it only indicates that Leon Diaconus's second book discusses the events of 961. The Byzantine author only makes a brief mention of Leon Phocas's previous victory as the one that reveals his courage. However, Leon Phocas left the Balkans in 960. Romanus II sent Leon Phocas to Asia Minor, because the commander fought successfully against the Scythians. Thus, he could not be fighting the Scythians in 961 or later.

The Empire is Pressured on Three Fronts
Every morning the Emperor and his generals woke up in a nightmare. No matter where you looked there was always a new invasion or a military disaster and there were never enough troops to stabilize the borders or reconquer lost territory.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the Empire faced massive attacks on three fronts.  There were endless invasions by Muslims from Africa into Byzantine Italy where they conquered Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and established themselves on the mainland. The Danube frontier had totally collapsed with invading Magyar and other barbarian tribes thrusting deep into the Balkans. Then there was the non-stop warfare with the Arabs on the eastern front in Anatolia.

The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas visited Athanasios after having brought defeat onto the Scythians. The source explains that first Athanasios met Leon Phocas, then he was tempted by the Devil for one year, afterwards he visited Nicephorus Phocas in Crete in 961. This also suggests that the campaign against the Scythians took place in or before 960 but not in 961. According to the Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas fought against the Scythians as commander of the West. But in 961 it was Marianos Argyros and not Leon Phocas who occupied this position. 

Thus, it is obvious that Leon Phocas cannot have been fighting against the Scythians in 961. When did, then, Leon Phocas fight against the Scythians? And who were these Scythians?

Two Byzantine authors, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon mention that the Hungarians (Turks) attacked the Byzantine Empire in 959. The emperor, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, sent Pothos Argyros, the commander of a guardian army with general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion, against them. The Byzantine troops attacked the Hungarians in the night and defeated them - just like Leon Phocas's troops in the story by Leon Diaconus. The Hungarian army was forced to return home. The details of the campaign: a night attack, the year 959, the enemies (Turks, Scythians namely the Hungarians) it creates an impression that Leon Diaconus, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon reported about the same war.  

Some problems, however, remain. Theophanes Continuatus only mentions Pothos Argyros but not Leon Phocas in relation with the war to the spring of 959. According to Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas was the „commander of the West(ern affairs)", but he was appointed to this rank by Romanus II, at the end of 959. Assumptions are necessary to interpret of the sources. It is presumable that since Leon Phocas fought at the eastern and western borders of the Empire in 959-960, the Vita Athanasii did not exactly follow the rapid changes of his titles, sometimes identifying him as commander of the West already during the spring of 959. In such a mistake, a bibliography of a saint would not be unusual to some extent. 

It is also possible that the Byzantine chronicles only accidentally fail to mention Leon Phocas in relation with the fight of 959 (perhaps he would be the unnamed general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion). The other possibility is that the sources do not speak of the same campaign. If we accept that Leon Phocas was the commander of the West when he fought against the Hungarians (his brother, Nicephorus Phocas was the general of Anatolia at this time), then a Hungarian army again attempted to attack the Byzantine Empire in the beginning/ early summer of 960. So Pothos Argyros and Leon Phocas defeated two different Hungarian armies using the same tactics on two occasions

After Leon Phocas gained victory over the Hungarian troops (959 or 960), Emperor Romanus II sent the successful general to the eastern border of the Empire. But the Hungarian attacks did not end. Again a Hungarian army invaded the Empire in 961. Although these raids were beaten back by the Byzantine army, but Byzantine soldiers were able to experience how dangerous their enemy was. In 963 Nicephorus Phocas mentions three dangerous enemies: the Arab warriors on the island of Crete, the army of Hamdanids in Asia Minor, and the Scythians, that is the Hungarians in the Balkans. 

He tells the truth; Hungarian troops regularly attacked the Byzantine Empire at this time. Thus the short datum in speech of Nicephorus Phocas provides a piece of the colorful mosaic of the tenth-century history of the Hungarians. 

The Magyars successfully conquered the Pannonian Basin (i.e. what is now Hungary) by the end of the 9th century, and launched a number of plundering raids both westward into what used to be the Frankish Empire and southward into the Byzantine Empire.
The westward raids were stopped only with the Magyar defeat of the 
Battle of Lechfeld of 955, which led to a new political order in Western Europe centered on the Holy Roman Empire. The raids in to Byzantine territories continued throughout the 10th century, until the eventual Christianisation of the Magyars and the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 or 1001.  (More)

Magyar Warrior

(Hungarian invasions)      (chronica)      (Scythians)

(Nikephoros II Phokas)      (Magyar tribes)