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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Roman Fortress of Ksar Lemsa

Protecting Roman North Africa

Limisa is a town and archaeological site in Kairouan GovernorateTunisia.
Little is known of the ancient Roman city of Limisa. A few excavations have been carried out and only the Byzantine citadel and the small Roman theater are known. The municipal organization is also only slightly understood. 
The city had the status of civitas at least until the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus then as a Municipium sometime before 208.
From an architectural point of view, epigraphy mentions an arch and the restoration of thermal baths built under Constantine at the end of the 4th century.
According to Victor of Vita the basilicas of Lemsa had been burned in 305.
This fine Byzantine fortress with its strikingly well-preserved walls (except for the SE side) can be seen from afar dominating the valley in the middle of a field of ruins. A gushing stream flows down the mountainside next to it. 
The citadel probably was built by the Patrician Salomon in the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who established his country-wide system of fortifications in the first half of the 6th c. Built with materials from the monuments of the ancient city.

Ksar Lemsa

Byzacena was a Late Roman province in the central part of Roman North Africa, which is now roughly Tunisia, split off from Africa Proconsularis. The town of Limisa was a Roman-Berber civitas in the province of Byzacena.

Ksar Lemsa was one of many North African fortifications that protected coastal Roman cities from desert raiders. A number of the forts were built by the Patrician Solomon.

The Roman Re-Conquest of Africa

Following the defeat of the Vandals by Belisarius (533-534 AD) Roman fortifications were built throughout North Africa.

The fortifications not only protected against raiders from the desert, but also helped protect against any revolt by local forces.

The fortified towns stretched from Septum at the Pillars of Hercules in Morocco to Egypt. 

The larger forts acted as both military stations and as a refuge for the population in times of invasion. The smaller forts were isolated but kept watch at strategic locations such as guarding a narrow defile or an important agricultural center.

The Romans developed a coded signaling system. Beacons from station to station would signal the composition, character and numbers of an invading force.

The fortresses were often rectangular. The thickness of the walls raged from 7 feet to 9 feet thick. Surviving walls range from 26 feet to 32 feet high.

The fort towers were of varying shapes. They were usually two story. The basement opened to the courtyard and the top story to the walk along the wall. Sometimes they have no doorway to the wall-walk and were capable of being held independently as a place to make a last stand.

By Procopius    
The Buildings of Justinian
Written in the 550s AD

These things, then, were done by Justinian at modern Carthage. In the surrounding region, which is called Proconsularis, there was an unwalled city, Vaga by name, which could be captured not only by a planned attack of the barbarians, but even if they merely chanced to be passing that way.  This place the Emperor Justinian surrounded with very strong defenses and made it worthy to be called a city, and capable of affording safe protection to its inhabitants.  And they, having received this favour, now call the city Theodorias in honour of the Empress.  He also built in this district a fortress which they call Tucca. 

In Byzacium there is a city on the coast, Adramytus by name, which has been large and flourishing from ancient times, and for this reason it won the name and rank of metropolis of the region, since it chances to be first in point of size and, in general, of prosperity.

The Vandals had torn the circuit-wall of this city down to the ground, so that the Romans might not be able to use it against them. And it lay conveniently exposed to the Moors when they overran that region.  Nevertheless, the Libyans who lived there tried to make provision, so far as they could, for their own safety, and so they made a barricade out of the ruins of the walls and joined their houses together;  and from these they would fight against their assailants and try to defend themselves, though their hope was slight and their position precarious.  So their safety always hung by a hair and they were kept standing on one leg, being exposed to the attacks of the Moors and to the neglect of the Vandals.

Tower of Ksar Lemsa

However, when the Emperor Justinian became master of Libya by conquest, he put an exceedingly massive wall about the city and stationed there an adequate garrison of troops, thus giving the inhabitants assurance of safety and enabling them to disdain all enemies.  For this reason they now call the place Justinianê, thus repaying the Emperor for their deliverance and displaying their gratitude simply by the adoption of the name, since they had no other means by which they could requite the Emperor's beneficence, nor did he himself wish other requital. 

There was also a certain other town on the coast of Byzacium which the inhabitants used to call Caputvada. At that point the Emperor's fleet landed and there the troops first set foot on the land of Libya, when they made the expedition against Gelimer and the Vandals.  In that place also God revealed that marvellous and indescribable gift to the Emperor which I have described in the Books on the Wars. For although the locality was exceedingly arid, so that the Roman army was very hard pressed by lack of water, the ground, which previously had been completely dry, sent up a spring at the place where the soldiers were building their stockade,  for as they dug, the water began to gush forth. 

So the earth threw off the drought which prevailed there, and transforming its own character became saturated with drinking-water.  Because of this circumstance they built a satisfactory camp in that place and spent that night there; and on the next day they prepared for battle and, to omit what intervened, took possession of Libya.  So the Emperor Justinian, by way of bearing witness to the gift of God by means of a permanent testimony — for the most difficult task easily yields to his wish — conceived the desire to transform this place forthwith into a city which should be made strong by a wall and distinguished by its other appointments as worthy to be counted an impressive and prosperous city; and the purpose of the Emperor has been realized.

Emperor Justinian

For a wall has been brought to completion and with it a city, and the condition of a farm land is being suddenly changed.  And the rustics have thrown aside the plough and lead the existence of a community, no longer going the round of country tasks but living a city life.  They pass their days in the market-place and hold assemblies to deliberate on questions which concern them; and they traffic with one another, and conduct all the other affairs which pertain to the dignity of a city. 

This then was done in Byzacium on the sea. In the interior of this land and to its farther parts, where barbarian Moors live hard by, he built very powerful outposts against them, because of which they are no longer able to overrun the Roman dominion.  He surrounded each one of the cities with very strong walls, since they stand on the rim of the territory; these bear the names Mammes, Teleptê and Cululis. He also constructed a fort which the natives call Aumetra, and in these places he stationed trustworthy garrisons of troops. 

In the same way he assured the safety of the land of Numidia by means of fortifications and garrisons of soldiers, each one of which I shall now mention.  There is a mountain in Numidia which is called Aurasius, such as chances to be found nowhere else at all in the civilized world.  For this mountain rises steeply to a towering height and its perimeter extends to a distance of about three days' journey. It offers no path as one approaches it, having no ascent except over cliffs.

The Emperor Justinian, however, expelled from there the Moors, and Iaudas who ruled over them, and added this mountain to the rest of the Roman Empire.  As a precaution in order that the barbarians might not again make trouble by getting a foothold there, he fortified cities about the mountain which he found deserted and altogether unwalled. I refer to Pentebagae and Florentianae and Badê and Meleum and Tamugadê, as well as two forts, Dabusis and Gaeana; also he established there sufficient garrisons of soldiers, thus leaving to the barbarians there no hope of attacking Aurasius.

And at Gadira, at one side of the Pillars of Heracles, on the right side of the strait, there had been at one time a fortress on the Libyan shore named Septum; this was built by the Romans in early times, but being neglected by the Vandals, it had been destroyed by time.  Our Emperor Justinian made it strong by means of a wall and strengthened its safety by means of a garrison.  There too he consecrated to the Mother of God a noteworthy church, thus dedicating to her the threshold of the Empire, and making this fortress impregnable for the whole race of mankind. 
So much for these things. There can be no dispute, but it is abundantly clear to all mankind, that the Emperor Justinian has strengthened the Empire, not with fortresses alone, but also by means of garrisons of soldiers, from the bounds of the East to the very setting of the sun, these being the limits of the Roman dominion.

Sleeping chambers inside the fort of Ksar Lemsa.

(Ksar Lemsa)      (commons.wikimedia)      (Limisa)

(lonelyplanet.com)      (looklex.com)      (Lemsa)      (History of Fortifications)     

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Fall of Damascus - Battle for the Middle East

Members of the Bedouin camel cavalry near Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image.
The Arab forces facing the Romans might have looked much like these soldiers.

The Fall of Damascus
Battle for the Middle East Part VI

Here we are at Part VI of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

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.  In 629 AD 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. In 634 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 Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.  

The Romans held their own in eastern Syria against this attack and effectively defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 634. They drove the Arabs south away from Damascus. The Romans had also dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine and held their positions against Arab attacks. 

But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans 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.

Part V  -  1st Battle of Yarmouk (634 AD).  In a huge multi-day battle the Roman Army is pushed out of their prepared defenses at the Daraa Gap. The Romans began to withdraw and made an orderly retreat north to Damascus and other walled cities. 

The door to Syria had been forced open.

The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre, Tripoli and Damascus. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

The Emperor Heraclius had not given up. More troops were being raised for yet another counter attack.

Late Roman-Byzantine Cavalry

The Battle of Pella (January, 635)

The Muslims had over run the Roman defensive positions at Yarmouk in September, 634. This was a defeat but not a total disaster. The Roman forces retreated in an orderly manner to Damascus, Jerusalem, Caesarea and other walled cities.

With multiple Roman armies at their rear the Muslims could not just march straight to Damascus. They needed to protect their lines of communication to the south.

The Fortress of Pella in modern Jordan was of particular importance. It had been a Greek city since the days of Alexander the Great. Under Alexander and later in the seventh century Pella stood on the main military road from Damascus south to Palestine going through Deraa, Pella and Beisan. The road was blocked by the Yarmouk position.

To slow down the Arab operations the Romans partly flooded the Jordan Valley near Pella.

The Arabs met the Romans outside the city, perhaps in the flooded areas, and defeated them. Some Byzantine soldiers fled to Beisan.

A siege of the fortress-city itself was begun. I suspect the city was short on manpower or supplies. Feeling a new Roman Army was not going to show up anytime soon the inhabitants negotiated their surrender.  The agreed to pay a poll-tax and a land-tax to the Muslims.  In return the Muslims guaranteed their lives, property and agreed not to demolish the city or its walls.

With their lines of communications more secure the Muslims starting moving north.

The Battle of Marj As Suffar (February, 635)

Historian and Lieutenant-General John Bagot Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, commanded the British Arab Legion and campaigned over the very ground where these battles were fought.

He says after Pella the Arabs moved north towards Damascus and that the Romans sent out yet another force to stop their advance.

The two armies met at Marj as Suffar about 20 miles south of Damascus. Glubb states this was approximately the same location where in 1941 the Vichy French offer battle against the invading British. He says there is a natural defensive position there that was used by both the French and earlier by the Romans.

Again an important battle takes place and we have no detail at all of events.

Glubb says the two sides met in February, 635. We have no idea of the size of either force. There was a hard fought and costly battle. The Romans withdrew.  Not a slaughter, but withdrew. There was no boasting by Arab histories of a huge Roman loss. We can assume the Romans again retreated to Damascus or other walled cities.

By mid-March 635 the Muslims had finally arrived at Damascus.

Maps from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
As the Muslims moved north into Syria they were still leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

A War on Two Fronts
As the Muslims advanced into Syria they were at the same time fighting armies of the Persian Empire to the east. 

In Part V of my series the Muslims overran the Roman defensive positions at the Daraa Gap and pushed north to Damascus.

A view of Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

Siege of Damascus (March - September 635)

The fortifications of Damascus matched its importance to the Empire. The main part of the city was enclosed by a massive 11 m (36 ft) high wall. The fortified city was approximately 1,500 m (4,900 ft) long and 800 m (2,600 ft) wide.

At the time of the Syrian campaign, the Roman Commander of Damascus was Thomas, son-in-law of Emperor Heraclius. A devout Christian, he was known for his courage and skill at command, and also for his intelligence and learning.

The Roman garrison in the city might have numbered 15,000 troops. There would normally be no reason for so many soldiers to be stationed in the city. So I suspect most of the troops fled there from Palestine and from the Roman retreat from Yarmouk.

The Muslims showed up in March with about 20,000 men under assorted commanders and began the siege.

Seventh-century Muslim armies had no siege equipment, and typically employed siege tactics only when there were no other options. Without the necessary siege equipment, armies of the early Muslim expansion would surround a city, denying it supplies until the city's defenders surrendered.

To isolate Damascus, Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid cut the lines of transportation and communication to northern Syria.

Meanwhile Muslim commanders were instructed to repel any Roman attack from the respective gates, and to seek assistance in the case of heavy attack. A corps of 2,000 horsemen formed a mobile guard to patrol in the empty areas between the gates at night and to reinforce any corps attacked by the Romans.

Roman Relief Column

Due to a lack of any real histories written at the time the dates of events are all over the map. I have chosen to follow Lieutenant-General Glubb's dates and timeline.  Glubb has the siege lasting about six months from March to September 635.

The very hands on Roman Emperor Heraclius had established his headquarters in Syria itself at Homs to personally direct operations. Heraclius had spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the provinces.

At some point during the siege (early? middle?) the Emperor gathered an an army to relieve Damascus. Some accounts claim the army was 12,000 strong. Maybe. Damascus was certainly an important city and deserved a serious effort. But the force could have been smaller and hoped to join with the troops inside Damascus to then outnumber the Muslims.

Scouts posted on the road from Emesa to Damascus reported the approach of a Roman army. Upon hearing this news, Khalid sent Rafay bin Umayr with 5,000 troops. They met 20 miles north of Damascus at Uqab Pass (Eagle Pass) on the Damascus-Emesa road. That force proved insufficient and soon surrounded by the Roman troops. However before the Roman could defeat the Muslim detachment, Khalid arrived with another column of 4,000 men and routed them.

The Muslim siege forces had been weakened by the withdrawal of 9,000 men to repel the relief force. If the Roman garrison had sallied out against the Muslim army, historians suspect the defenders would have broken through the Muslim lines and lifted the siege. Understanding the danger of the situation, Khalid hurriedly returned to Damascus.

Eastern Roman Reenactors

Roman Attack

Word reached Thomas, commander of Damascus, that the relief column had been turned back. Realizing that no reinforcements would not be coming soon he decided to launch a counter offensive.

We must be impressed by Thomas’ skillful handling of such a difficult situation. Typically, the defeat of the relief army is enough to force a besieged city to surrender but Thomas was able to scrape up enough morale from the city’s garrison to sally out, nearly defeat the Arabs and break the siege.

So perhaps in September 634 Thomas drew men from all sectors of the city to form a force strong enough to break through the Gate of Thomas. He was there faced by a corps of about 5,000 Muslims. The Roman attack began with a concentrated shower of arrows against the Muslims. The Roman infantry, covered by the archers on the wall, rushed through the gate and fanned out into battle formation. Thomas himself led the assault. During this action, Thomas was struck in his right eye by an arrow. 

Unsuccessful in breaking the Muslim lines, the Romans retreated back to the fortress. The wounded Thomas is said to have sworn to take a thousand eyes in return. He ordered another great sortie for that night.

Wall of Damascus at the Thomas Gate. 

2nd Roman Attack

This time Thomas planned to launch simultaneous sorties from four gates. The main sector was to be again the Thomas gate, to take full advantage of the exhausted Muslim corps stationed there. The attacks from the other gates—Jabiya Gate, the Small Gate and the Eastern Gate—were intended to tie down the other Muslim corps so that they could not aid the corps at the Thomas gate.

At the Eastern Gate, Thomas assembled more forces than at the other gates, so that Khalid would be unable to move to assist in the decisive sector. Thomas' attack at several gates also gave more flexibility to the operation: if success were achieved in any sector other than the Gate of Thomas, such success could be exploited by sending troops to that sector to achieve the breakthrough. Thomas ordered Khalid to be taken alive.

After some hard fighting at the Jabiya Gate, commander Abu Ubaidah and his men, repulsed the sally and the Romans hastened back to the city. The battle was intense at the Small Gate, which was guarded by fewer troops but the 2,000 cavalry of the Mobile Guard came to help. The cavalry attacked the flank of the Roman sortie force and repulsed the sally.

At the East Gate, the situation also became serious, for a larger Roman force had been assigned to this sector. The Muslims were unable to withstand their attacks. The timely arrival of Khalid with his reserve of 400 veteran cavalry and his subsequent attack on the Roman flank, marked the turning point in the sally at the Eastern Gate.

The heaviest fighting occurred at the Thomas gate, where Thomas again commanded the sally in person. After intense fighting, Thomas, seeing that there was no weakening in the Muslim front, decided that continuing the attack would be fruitless and would lead to even heavier casualties among his men. He ordered a withdrawal and the Romans moved back at a steady pace, during which they were subjected to a concentrated shower of arrows by the Muslims. This was the last attempt by Thomas to break the siege. The attempt had failed. 

He had lost thousands of men in these sallies, and could no longer afford to fight outside the walls of the city.

Remains of the Eastern Gate. Khalid's troops entered Damascus through this gate.

The Fall of Damascus - Traitors Within The Walls

What records there are do not talk about starvation in Damascus.  In fact on September 18th the Romans were holding a festival - - - no doubt food and drink would be provided. Knowing the Muslims were coming Thomas may have stripped the countryside around the city of everything not nailed down to lay in supplies for the siege.

There also appeared to be no serious problems for Muslim Arabs outside the walls. But if the surrounding lands had been cleaned out then as winter approached the Arabs might not be able to feed a large army this far from their home base.

The Emperor was forming a new army in northern Syria to march south.  So if the walls held then time could be on the side of the Romans.

But then there are the traitors from within.

It appears that during the summer Khalid began a correspondence with the Christian Bishop of the city. The Bishop was almost certainly a Monophysite who would have opposed the Orthodox central government in Constantinople.

The reports of the fall of Damascus differ in details. According to the most generally accepted, the Bishop sent a messenger to Khalid telling him of the coming night of celebration in the city. He said the Eastern Gate would be left virtually unguarded. There was a monastery outside the Eastern Gate presumably under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. The monastery supplied the Arabs with two ladders and a little before dawn these were placed against the wall near the Eastern Gate.

A Special Observation - Ladders???? This one act shows how totally and completely unprepared the Muslims were to attack any major walled city. After months of laying "siege" to the city they had to be given two ladders by traitorous Christians to get into the city. One has to wonder. During the entire siege there are no reports of any meaningful attacks on the walls. So we can assume the Arabs spent all of their time sitting on their back sides doing nothing, watching the walls and eating up limited supplies. As long as food inside the city would hold out the Romans could have waited for the Emperor's new army to arrive.

Now with ladders in hand a number of Arabs crept silently up. Two men left on guard were quickly overpowered and the gate was opened from the inside. Just before sunrise the Arabs poured into the city, manned the walls, raising the cry of Allahu Akbar, laid on with sword and dagger.

Thomas saw that the rest of the Arab army did not move from the other gates, he assumed that the other corps commanders were unaware of this sudden attack. The Governor dispatched a messenger through southwest gate directly to the overall Muslim commander Abu Ubaida offering to surrender the city on terms.

The commander-in-chief appears to have been unaware that Khalid war already inside the city. If true that shows a lack of co-operation between different corps commanders. The Governor threw open the southwest gate to Abu Ubaida.

Abu Ubaida marched peacefully with his corps, accompanied by Thomas, several dignitaries, and the bishops of Damascus, toward the center of city. From the East Gate, Khalid and his men fought their way towards the center of Damascus, killing all who resisted. The commanders met at the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus in the center of the city.

Khalid argued that he had conquered the city by force. Abu Ubaidah maintained the city had capitulated, through the peace agreement between him and Thomas.The corps commanders discussed the situation, and reportedly told Khalid that the peace agreement must be honored, which Khalid agreed to although reluctantly.

The terms of the peace agreement were that no one would be enslaved, no harm would be done to the temples, nothing would be taken as booty, every non-Muslim would pay a poll-tax of one dinar and one measure of wheat.  Some accounts say that certain houses and churches were to be divided in half between Muslims and non-Muslims. The great church of St. John was so divided by such a wall - it was now half church and half mosque.   

In addition that safe passage was given to Thomas and every citizen of Damascus who was not willing to live under Muslim rule. The peace agreement also stated that the peace would end after three days and that the Muslims could attack after these three days without violating the agreement.


Trust issues - it appears Khalid had no interest in the agreement or peace.

Leading a cavalry regiment, Khalid caught up with a convoy of Roman refugees from Damascus at the sea, near Antioch. The three-day truce had passed; Khalid's cavalry attacked the convoy during a heavy rain. In the subsequent battle, Khalid reportedly killed Thomas in a duel. All the Roman possessions and a large number of captives, both male and female, were taken by the Muslims as slaves.

Damascus was sort of a great victory.  After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors to win the day.

In addition as the map above shows there were active Roman Armies behind the Arabs in the fortified cities of Jerusalem, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli. The coastal cities could easily be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

Finally there was the Emperor Heraclius.  The Emperor's preparations began in late 635 and by May 636 Heraclius had a large force concentrated at Antioch in Northern Syria. He had assembled yet another Roman army consisting of SlavsFranksGeorgiansArmenians and Christian Arabs ready to march south and drive out the Muslin invaders.

But more of this in Part VII.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC
As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the original documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and Muslims fought over. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I am using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed 
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.

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

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine
Part IV - Battle of Ajnadayn
Part V - The 1st Battle of Yarmouk

(Damascus)    (theartofbattle.com)    (Great Arab conquests)

(themaparchive.com)    (Battle of Fahl)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Byzantine Hand Grenades

Photo credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority

(Vintage News)  -  In Israel, a Crusades-era hand grenade was found and retrieved from the sea. The family that found the old relic has handed it over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. It was found in 2016 and is a unique find.

Nothing like the ones made today, this grenade was made from heavy clay and is beautifully embossed, it does not explode with shrapnel like the hand grenades of this generation, but it is more like a Molotov cocktail or incendiary grenade. It was filled with naphtha, a flammable sticky liquid known as Greek fire, then sealed and thrown at enemies.

Diego Barkan, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority said ‘These hand grenades were being used in the Byzantine and early Islamic period right up until the Ottomans and it is made of a heavy clay and would have been used much like a Molotov cocktail.  He went on to say:  ‘Inside they would have put alcohol and lit a fuse poked in a hole in the top before throwing it towards the enemy ships.’

It was mostly known to be used in naval battles where the fire would easily destroy enemies’ ships and was an effective weapon. The IAA stated that the grenades were very popular in Israel during the crusades, which took place between the 11th to 13th century, and they were used until the Mamluk era, between the 13th and 16th century.

The late Marcel Mazliah, a worker at the Hadera power plant in northern Israel, found the grenade. But this wasn’t the only item that was in Mazliah’s collection. Archaeologists were very surprised to find ancient artifacts that date back 3,500 years.

Marcel’s family told them that he found most of these treasures while working at the power plant that was near the sea, he collected them for many years.

Some of his other finds were the head of a knife which dated back to the Bronze Age, along with candlesticks, two mortars and two pestles dating back to the 11th century.

“The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel,” Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

Archaeologists believe that the metal objects fell overboard while on a metal merchant’s ship in the Islamic period (638-1099).

Byzantine Superweapons

In 717, Arab prince and general Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik oversaw the Islamic Empire’s campaign to claim Constantinople and led his army straight for the capital. There, Maslamah tried to blockade the city with his navy, but this gave the prepared Byzantines an opportunity to unleash their secret weapon.
“Leo III Defends Constantinople with Greek Fire.” Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. 
The fire that was spout out from this hose started to incinerate the entire Arabs’ fleet. The Muslim soldiers started to throw buckets of water to subdue the flames but quickly realized that this was not regular fire. This was a special kind of fire that could not be put out with water. Seeing as how stopping the fire was futile, the soldiers quickly took off their cumbersome armor and leaped out into the water while the ones that stayed got lit on fire. Some unlucky soldiers who impulsively jumped overboard were still wearing their full set of armor and as a result, immediately drowned to the bottom of the sea. 
The fire that had been burning the ship started to spread out onto the water as if it was gasoline. These flames stretched out and the surrounding ships were also caught on fire. Some of the soldiers tried to swim away frantically, for the fire floated across the sea and burned those that were closest. From a distance, the surviving Muslim soldiers were witnessing their own comrades burning, screaming in agony from the top of their scorched lungs. No matter what they did, there was nothing that could be done to put out the flames that were covering their melting bodies. Even some of the spectating Byzantine soldiers shivered at the thought of being burnt alive while being completely surrounded by water. Once the Arabs realized that a significant portion of their ships had been engulfed in flames, they signaled a retreat. As the Arabs fled the scene to lick their wounds, the Byzantine soldiers cheered with victory.

Arabs Start Using Greek Fire

Sometime in the mid-tenth century, the armies of the Islamic Caliphate also began using a similar pump/siphon device that was handheld, in the fashion of the Byzantine device. Whether this was a result of reverse engineering of the Byzantine invention or the outright acquisition is not known. Incendiaries were devastatingly effective against Crusader siege engines. 

Saladin's use of naffata troops is well documented. Saladin sent troops armed with Naphta grenades against houses and civilians during an uprising in Egypt led by African troops. The Christian defenders of Jerusalem noted his use of incendiaries in catapults used to attack the city walls. During the Third Crusade, Swimmers smuggled containers of the fuel into Acre during the Crusader's siege of that city. 

While the Greek Fire of the Byzantines was a closely guarded secrets, Arab alchemists were more ready to commit their recipe to paper. One of Saladin's chroniclers describers the burning substance as a mixture of tar, resin, sulphur, dolphin fat and goat fat.

Pots filled with Greek fire were thrown like
hand grenades | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(thevintagenews)      (stmuhistorymedia.org)      (seakingsaga.blogspot.com)


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Strategikon of Maurikios, Part I

Beautiful Late Roman-Byzantine creation.
(Sara Parkes - Facebook)

The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire produced a large number of treatises on military science.

The Empire maintained its highly sophisticated military system from antiquity, which relied on discipline, training, knowledge of tactics and a well-organized support system. A crucial element in the maintenance and spreading of this military know-how, along with traditional histories, were the various treatises and practical manuals. These continued a tradition that stretched back to Xenophon and Aeneas the Tactician, and many Eastern Roman military manuals excerpt or adapt the works of ancient authors, especially Aelian and Onasander.

Byzantine manuals were first produced in the sixth century. They greatly proliferated in the tenth century, when the Byzantines embarked on their conquests in the East and the Balkans

The Strategikon attributed to the Emperor Maurice (r. 582–602) was compiled in the late sixth century. It is a large twelve-book compendium treating all aspects of contemporary land warfare. 

The author is especially concerned to clarify procedures for the deployment and tactics of cavalry, particularly in response to Avar victories in the 580s-590s. He favors indirect forms of combat - ambushes, ruses, nocturnal raids and skirmishing on difficult terrain - and he also exhibits a good understanding of military psychology and morale. 

Book XI offers an innovative analysis of the fighting methods, customs and habitat of the Empire's most significant enemies, as well as recommendations for campaigning north of the Danube against the Slavs, another strategic concern of the 590s. The Strategikon exercised a profound influence upon the subsequent Byzantine genre.

Emperor Maurice (r582 to 602 AD) by Emilian Stankev from "Rulers of the Byzantine Empire". The court of Maurice still used Latin as the official language.

A prominent general, Maurice fought with success against the Sasanian Empire. After he became Emperor, he brought the war with Sasanian Persia to a victorious conclusion. Under him the Empire's eastern border in the South Caucasus was vastly expanded and, for the first time in nearly two centuries, the Romans were no longer obliged to pay the Persians thousands of pounds of gold annually for peace.
Maurice campaigned extensively in the Balkans against the Avars – pushing them back across the Danube by 599. He also conducted campaigns across the Danube, the first Roman Emperor to do so in over two centuries. In the west, he established two large semi-autonomous provinces called exarchates, ruled by exarchs, or viceroys of the emperor. In Italy Maurice established the Exarchate of Italy in 584, the first real effort by the Empire to halt the advance of the Lombards. With the creation of the Exarchate of Africa in 590 he further solidified the power of Constantinople in the western Mediterranean.

The Strategikon of Maurikios
Excerpts from The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak

The Strategikon attributed to the emperor Maurikios (ca. 582–602) remained largely unknown until recent times. This fundamental field manual and military handbook, much copied, paraphrased, emulated by subsequent Byzantine military writers, and much used by warring emperors and their commanders over the centuries, was simply not available when the classics of ancient warfare were rediscovered and mined for useful ideas by Europe’s military innovators from the fifteenth century onward.

The author modestly claimed only a limited combat experience, but he was evidently a highly competent military officer. In the preface, he promises to write succinctly and simply, “with an eye more to practical utility than to fine words,” and keeps his promise. The work was written at the end of the sixth century or very soon thereafter—the modern editor of the text has convincingly shown that it was completed after 592 and before 610.

The Strategikon depicts an army radically different in structure from the classic Roman model, most obviously because of a fundamental shift from infantry to cavalry as the primary combat arm. That was no mere tactical change; it was caused by a veritable strategic revolution in the very purpose of waging war, which compelled the adoption of new operational methods and new tactics

It is interesting to note that there was no such radical change in the language of the army, which had been partly Latinspeaking even in the eastern half of the Roman empire. From the time of Justinian, there was instead a very gradual transition from Latin to Greek, though many of the Greek terms in the Strategikon are still Latin words with Greek endings added and pronounced in a Greek way. 

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract
The late Roman and Eastern Empires copied their main enemy: the Persian armored horse archer. These units provided the Romans with the mobility and firepower to be able to react rapidly in battle.

The Strategikon of Maurikios is the most complete Byzantine field manual in spite of its brevity. To describe the training and tactics that could allow one man to defeat three . . .

. . . the aim in the Strategikon, whose primary type of soldier was neither an infantryman nor a cavalryman but rather both, and a bowman first of all. He therefore required training in both foot and mounted archery with powerful bows, in using the lance for thrusting and stabbing while mounted—with unit training for the charge—and in wielding the sword in close combat. The old term “mounted infantry” does not apply, because in most cases it was nothing more than infantry with cheap horses that could not fight on horseback, let alone with the bow; the even older term “dragoon” is suggestive insofar as the better class of dragoons were equipped with rifles for accuracy and range rather than muskets. Under the heading “The Training and Drilling of the Individual Soldier” we read: 

  • He should be trained to shoot [the bow] rapidly on foot, either in the Roman [thumb and forefinger] or the Persian [three middle finger] manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose [from the quiver] and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced while mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. 

The tactical effectiveness of bowmen is obviously a function of their rate of fire, accuracy, and lethality, but there is no homogeneous tradeoff between the three, because enemies will normally either withdraw beyond the useful range of accurate and lethal arrows, or else to the contrary seek to charge and overrun the bowmen, either way making the rate of fire the dominant variable. “He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run [galloping], to the front, the rear, the right, the left.”

According to Prokopios, that was an established skill for the Byzantine horsemen he saw in action not long before the Strategikon was written: 

  • 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 [the rearward “Parthian shot”]. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike having no power to check its force. 

Mounted and dismounted archery had its specific roles in every stage of battle, from initial sniping at long range to the rapid volleys of all-out engagements, to the pursuit of retreating enemies with forward bowshots, or defensively, to provide rearguard covering shots against advancing enemies.

6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry

By the sixth century, Byzantine archers were armed with the composite reflex bow, the most powerful personal weapon of antiquity. Well before the Strategikon was written, when the Byzantines were fighting the Goths in Italy in the mid-sixth century they were already doing so with the tactical edge of mounted archery. The Strategikon provides the specifics of the required training:

  • On horseback at a run (gallop) he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for the purpose, and then he should grab the [kontarion = lance] which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the [lance] in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted. 

Compound bows, held together by animal-bone glues and powered mostly by dried tendons, had to be protected from the rain by special cases, broad enough to hold the bow when already strung for battle and not just when unstrung.

In addition, the Strategikon recommends “an extra-large cloak or hooded mantle of felt... large enough to wear over... [body armor and] the bow” to protect it “in case it should rain or be damp from the dew.”

. . . when the Strategikon was written, the Byzantines believed in containing but not destroying their enemies—potentially tomorrow’s allies. Therefore for them the cavalry was the more important arm because its engagements did not have to be decisive, but could instead end with a quick withdrawal, or a cautious pursuit that would leave both sides not too badly damaged. Still, even at the height of the cavalry era there was a need for some infantry, both light and heavy. The Strategikon accordingly offers its advice for the training of both while admitting that the subject had long been neglected. 

Under the heading “Training of the Individual Heavy-Armed Infantryman” there are only a few words: 

  • They should be trained in single combat against each other, armed with shield and staff [a real shield and a simulated spear], also, in throwing the short javelin and the lead-pointed dart at a long distance. 

There was more on “Training of the Light-Armed Infantryman or Archer”: 

  • They should be trained in rapid shooting with a bow . . . in either the Roman or the Persian manner. They should be trained in shooting rapidly while carrying a shield, in throwing the small javelin a long distance, in using the sling, and in jumping and running. 

The equipment specified in the Strategikon for each type of infantry clarifies its character, with armored coats for at least the first two men in the file of heavy infantry, so that the front rank and the one behind it were both protected against enemy arrows, as well as cutting weapons, if not maces and such; helmets with cheek plates for all, greaves of iron or wood to protect the legs below the knees, and shields of unspecified type but of full size—elsewhere small shields or “targets” are mentioned. An exhaustive if not excessively insightful modern study contains a long list of different equipment types or perhaps of equipment names, and although there are illustrations, they are insecurely related to the names.

Byzantine Infantry

What is certain is that the function of the heavy infantry at the time and for centuries later, indeed until the introduction of firearms, was to seize and hold ground.

In the Strategikon, as in all other Byzantine texts, the light infantry is chiefly a missile force, equipped with quivers holding up to forty arrows for its composite reflex bows, though it is specified that for “men who might not have bows or are not experienced archers” small javelins, Slavic [light] spears, lead-pointed darts, and slings were to be provided.

There was also a more recondite and much misunderstood item of equipment, the solenarion, not a small crossbow with short arrows as was once believed, but rather “tubes” . . . wooden launch tubes for small arrows. . . short arrows that can fly farther than full-size arrows are inserted in a tube with a central slit; . . . these short arrows were useful for harassing volleys against the enemy when still out of range of full length arrows, which were of course more lethal because they could penetrate thick coverings and armor as the myas could not.

In the Strategikon the primary type of soldier is undoubtedly the mounted lancer-archer, and naturally there is more detail about its equipment. The author recommends hooded coats of sewn-on scale armor (lorica squamata), or interlinked lamellar armor, or chain mail (lorica hamata), down to the ankles . . .

There were also carrying cases for them covered in water-resistant leather, for armor was expensive and it would rust; it was further specified that light wicker cases for body armor should also be carried behind the saddle over the loins, because “in the case of a reversal, if the [servants] with the spare horses [and ancillary equipment] are missing for a day, the coats of armor will not be left unprotected and ruined.” 

Helmets, swords, iron breastplates, and head armor for horses are mentioned, but special attention is devoted to the primary weapon: “Bows suited to the strength of each man, and not above it, more in fact on the weaker side.”

The composite reflex bow was effective because it accumulated much energy but was equally resistant, so it was a good idea to choose a bow whose string could be pulled back quickly and confidently even on the thirtieth arrow, and not just the first. Cases wide enough for combatready strung bows are specified, as mentioned above, as are spare bowstrings in the soldier’s own saddlebag and not just in unit stores, quivers with rain covers for thirty or forty arrows—more were in unit stores— and small files and awls for field repairs.

The author specifies that cavalry lances with leather thongs and pennons, round neck pieces, breast and neck coverings, broad tunics, and tents (round leather yurts) are to be of the “Avar type.” The Byzantine mounted archers that featured so largely in Prokopios a half century before were patterned on the Huns, but by the time the Strategikon was written, the Byzantines had been repeatedly attacked by the Avars, the first of the Turkic mounted archers to reach the west, who had the same composite reflex bow as the Huns . . . 

. . . a most famous item of equipment first mentioned in the Strategikon: the skala. Literally “stair,” the term is used to mean “stirrup”—“attached to the saddles should be two iron [stirrups]”

When they first encountered them in the searing summer heat of Mesopotamia, the Romans mocked the Persian cavalry in plate armor as clibanarii, from cliba, “bread oven.” Yet they still imitated this heaviest form of armored cavalry, expensive and easily exhausted as it was (especially in hot weather), for the very good reason that in suitable terrain it could offer “escalation dominance” in short, sharp, charging actions.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry

There was also another category of heavy cavalry listed in the Notitia that was destined to endure much longer, the catafractarii (Greek kataphraktoi, from kataphrasso, “cover up”). They too were well protected to confront close combat, and they too were trained to charge with the lance, but originally at any rate they were not as heavily armored as the clibanarii. Instead of heavier plate or lamellar armor, they had sewn-on scale armor or chain mail coats as mentioned in the Strategikon, or body armor of boiled leather or thick, dense cloth— which, if tightly woven to begin with, could be sewn and knotted in multiple layers to function as a sort of proto-Kevlar.

Along with the light missile infantry and the ground-holding and ground-seizing heavy infantry, three other categories of soldiers are mentioned in the Strategikon. The first are the bucellarii, “biscuit-eaters,” named for the twice-baked dehydrated bread issued to ship crews and soldiers on campaign; originally they were raised and paid privately by field commanders as their personal guard and assault force, but evidently they evolved into a state-paid elite force, for we find that special attention is devoted to their appearance: 

  • It is not a bad idea for the [bucellarii] to make use of iron gauntlets and small tassels hanging from the back straps and the breast straps of their horses, as well as small pennons hanging from their own shoulders over coats of mail. For the more handsome the soldier is in his armament, the more confidence he gains in himself and the more fear he inspires in the enemy.

That would have been just as true of other categories of troops, but it is revealing of their status that the point is made about the bucellarii specifically. The latter, incidentally, would soon evolve further into a territorial army corps that was in turn given a fixed military district, or theme, to both govern and defend, when that emergency response to defeat and retreat became an administrative system in the later seventh century.

The second category of troops mentioned as such or simply as “foreigners” were the federati, originally “treaty” (foedus) troops supplied to the empire as complete units under their own chiefs by tribes too poor to pay taxes, or too strong to be taxed; later they could simply be units serving under contract. Unlike today’s mercenaries provided by security contractors, who often cost much more than even well-paid soldiers, units of federati were much cheaper than an equivalent number of legionary troops, because the citizen-soldiers of the legions received good salaries, well-built barracks, careful medical care, and substantia retirement allowances.

Roughly half the army of the Principate was cheaper because it consisted of lower-pay, noncitizen auxiliary troops serving under Roman officers—they provided almost all the cavalry of what was still an infantry-centered army; but because they did not have expensive Roman officers, the federati were even cheaper. That is the reason, no doubt, why they continued to serve in the Byzantine forces till the end in one form or another, most often as more expendable light troops, as in the “javeliners, whether Rhos (early Russians) or any other foreigners” of the Praecepta Militaria, a tenth-century work.

Finally, the Strategikon refers to some kind of citizen militia, or at least to a general preparedness to serve in that capacity: 

  • All the younger Romans up to the age of forty must definitely be required to possess bow and quiver, whether they be expert archers or just average. They should posses two [spears] so as to have a spare at hand in case the first one misses. Unskilled men should use lighter bows. Given enough time, even those who do not know how to shoot will learn, for it is essential that they do. 

Given all the incursions that penetrated right through imperial territory to reach Constantinople itself, one can understand why the author of the Strategikon would favor universal military training, so that all of the able-bodied could help defend their own localities, supplementing professional imperial forces.

We hear, for example, of the valiant role of the population of Edessa (ùanlÕurfa, Urfa) in fighting off the Sasanian Persians in 544:

  • Now those who were of military age together with the soldiers were repelling the enemy most vigorously, and many of the rustics [akgroikon polloi] made a remarkable show of valorous deeds against the barbarians.

But Roman and Byzantine law prohibited private weapons, while organized militias were rarely sanctioned by the Byzantine authorities. That is not surprising. Their potential and episodic military contribution, in the event of enemy incursions that reached their particular part of the empire, was outweighed by their actual and continuing political threat to the imperial authorities in place, and indeed the stability of the empire. 

Late Roman cohort reenactment group
The Eastern Roman military machine was highly complex with many moving parts.  See these stories for more detail.
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(Military manuals)      (Grand strategy)