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, August 7, 2017

Roman Fortress of Taucheira, Libya

Old entrance of Taucheira (Torca) from a later period.

Roman Libya

After the final conquest and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, northwestern Africa went under Roman rule and, shortly thereafter, the coastal area of what is now western Libya was established as a province under the name of Tripolitania with Leptis Magna capital and the major trading port in the region.

In 96 BC Rome peacefully obtained Cyrenaica formed by the cities of Cyrene, its port of ApolloniaArsinoe (Taucheira - Tocra), Berenice (near modern Benghazi) and Barce. 

In 74 BC was established the new province, governed by a legate of praetorian rank (Legatus pro praetor) and accompanied by a quaestor (quaestor pro praetor). But in 20 BC Cyrenaica was united to the island of Crete in the new province of Creta et Cyrenaica, because of the common Greek heritage.

During the first two centuries nomadic raids from the desert were a regular occurrence.

The first desert fort on the limes was built at Thiges, to protect from nomad attacks in 75 AD. The limes was expanded under emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, in particular under the legatus Quintus Anicius Faustus in 197-201 AD.

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. 

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza to regulate the flash floods.  

The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (Centenaria).

But Jewish revolts were a far greater concern to the central government. A serious Jewish revolt was in the time of Trajan (in 115-116 AD).

The 4th century Christian historian Paulus Orosius records that the violence so depopulated the province of Cyrenaica that new colonies had to be established by Hadrian:
"The Jews ... waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out."
By 203 the entire southern frontier of Roman Africa had been dramatically expanded and re-fortified. Desert nomads could no longer safely raid the region's interior and escape back into the Sahara. 

Roman Libya slowly declined in importance and became something of a backwater area to both Rome and Constantinople. 

Cyrenaica was split into two provinces: "Libya Superior" and "Libya Inferior".  Each was under a governor of the modest rank of praeses. Both belonged to the Diocese of Egypt, within the Praetorian prefecture of Oriens.

In April 534 AD, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect.  Roman rule in Libya was strengthened, but the fighting continued against the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

The province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584 AD. Eventually, under Heraclius, Libia and Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.

But that was the last Roman achievement: in 642 AD Moslem Arabs started to conquer Libya. In 670 AD all Libya was in the hands of the Arabs. Roman Libya was no more.

The coastal Fortress of Taucheira was in the province of Libya Superior. For administration it was part of the Diocese of Egypt until 539 AD. Then it came under the Diocese of the East.
The entire area was occupied by invading Persian armies in the 610s and 620s, during the Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628

Plan of early medieval Taucheira (Torca). 
Supplied by sea, the fortress held out for years against invading Muslim armies.

Defending Roman North Africa

The Roman Fortress of Taucheira in Libya has almost totally vanished, but in its time it was a major military project of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565).

With the Roman Re-Conquest of North Africa the Emperor went on an African building spree from the Pillars of Hercules to eastern Libya.  Fortifications were being built from scratch or re-built on top of existing structures.  Justinian also created the new Limes Tripolitanus system of forts to protect the Roman coastal zone from invasion by desert tribes.

Justinian's fortifications were a clear signal to the world that Rome was back in Africa to stay.

The Fortress of Taucheira is a good example of that we here to stay spirit.

Of course, Taucheira always had city walls. They were renewed on several occasions. An inscription in the little museum of Taucheira commemorates a man named Aleximachus son of Sostratus, who had provided the money to improve the walls of the city somewhere in the first century BC.

But Justinian wanted something impressive.

Except for the stretch along the shore, the lower parts of it have survived. It must have have had about thirty towers, of which twenty-three have been excavated. Older stones were reused, like the one with an inscription on which the words Autokrator Kaisar can still be read, the Greek translation of the Latin titles Imperator and Caesar.

The massive walls of Taucheira/Arsinoe enabled the Byzantine commander Apollonius, when besieged by the Muslim forces who had invaded the Cyrenaica in 641, to hold out until 645.

This siege, of which we know next to zero, is yet another untold story of the Eastern Roman military. Obviously there were enough troops there to man the rather considerable city walls. Was the garrison re-supplied by sea from Constantinople or Italy? We do not know.

Excavations at Taucheira provide a glimpse of a coastal Cyrenaican town after the Arab conquests.  Digs have found buildings centered on two courtyards, and a bath complex.

The baths had the two plunge baths either side of the furnace and the use of stone uprights instead of the usual Roman brick pilae.  The street-plan is somewhat irregular, with winding streets and alleys that lead into the houses.

Byzantine fortress inside the city

Taucheira, main road, to the northeast

North Africa
From Alexandria to the Pillars of Hercules

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

The Buildings

But inasmuch as our account has now led us to Egypt, the close neighbour of Libya, let us now set forth how many things were done by him there also, since this Emperor found all Libya too lying under the power of barbarians and joined it to the remainder of the Roman Empire.

And the land on the left of the Nile bears the name of Libya as far as the Ocean, which on the west marks the boundary between the two continents by sending out a certain arm which opens out into this sea of ours.  All the rest of Libya has received several different names, each region being designated, presumably, by the name of the people who dwell there.  

However, the territory extending from the confines of Alexandria as far as the cities of Cyrenê, comprising the Pentapolis, is now the only region which is called by the name of Libya.  In that territory is a city one day's journey distant from Alexandria, Taphosiris by name, where they say that the god of the Egyptians, Osiris, was buried.  In this city the Emperor Justinian built many things, and in particular the residences of the magistrates and baths.

The greatest part of this land of Libya chances to have been desert, which was in general neglected.  Yet our Emperor takes thought for this land also with watchful care, so that it might not have the ill fortune to suffer anything from inroads of the Moors who inhabit the adjoining country; and to this end he established there two strongholds with garrisons, one of which they call Paratonium, while the other,   which lies not far from the Pentapolis, has received the name Antipyrgum.  

Port facilities of Taucheira

And the Pentapolis is removed from Alexandria by a twenty days' journey for an unencumbered traveller. In this region of Pentapolis the Emperor Justinian surrounded the city of Teuchira with very strong fortifications.  The circuit-wall of Bernicê he rebuilt from its lowest foundations.  In that city he also built a bath for the use of the people.  Furthermore, on the extreme boundary of the Pentapolis which faces the south, he constructed fortresses in two monasteries which bear the names Agriolodê and Dinarthisum;  and these stand as bulwarks against the barbarians of that region, so that they may not come down stealthily into Roman territory and suddenly fall upon it.

There is a certain city there, Ptolemaïs by name, which in ancient times had been prosperous and populous, but as time went on it had come to be almost deserted owing to extreme scarcity of water.  For the great majority of the population, driven by thirst, had moved from there long ago and gone wherever each one could.  

Now, however, this Emperor has restored the city's aqueduct and thus brought back to it its former measure of prosperity. The last city of Pentapolis towards the west is named Boreium. Here the mountains press close upon one another, and thus forming a barrier by their crowding, effectively close the entrance to the enemy.  This city, which had been without a wall, the Emperor enclosed with very strong defences, thus making it 
as safe as possible for the future, together with the whole country round about it.

And there are two cities which are known by the same name, each of them being called Augila. These are distant from Boreium about four days' journey for an unencumbered traveller, and to the south of it; and they are both ancient cities whose inhabitants have preserved the practices of antiquity, for they all were suffering from the disease of polytheism even up to my day.  There from ancient times there have been shrines dedicated to Ammon and to Alexander the Macedonian.  The natives actually used to make sacrifices to them even up to the reign of Justinian.  In this place there was a great throng of those called temple-slaves. 

Taucheira Church mosaic

But now the Emperor has made provision, not alone for the safety of the persons of his subjects, but he has also made it his concern to save their souls, be thus he has cared in every way for the people living there.  Indeed he by no means neglected to take thought for their material interests in an exceptional way, and also he has taught them the doctrine of the true faith, making the whole population Christians and bringing about a transformation of their polluted ancestral customs.  Moreover he built for them a Church of the Mother of God to be a guardian of the safety of the cities and of the true faith. So much, then, for this.

The city of Boreium, which lies near the barbarian Moors, has never been subject to tribute up to the present time, nor have any collectors of tribute or   taxes come to it since the creation of man.  The Jews had lived close by from ancient times, and they had an ancient temple there also, which they revered and honoured especially, since it was built, as they say, by Solomon, while he was ruling over the Hebrew nation.  But the Emperor Justinian brought it about that all these too changed their ancestral worship and have become Christians, and he transformed their temple into a church.

Next after this comes the city of Leptis Magna, which in ancient times was large and populous, though at a later time it came to be deserted for the most part, being through neglect largely buried in sand.  Our Emperor built up the circuit-wall of this city from the foundations, not however on as large a scale as it was formerly, but much smaller, in order  that the city might not again be weak because of its very size, and liable to capture by the enemy, and also be exposed to the sand.  

At present, indeed, he has left the buried portion of the city just as it was, covered by the sand heaped up in mounds, but the rest of the city he has surrounded with a very strongly built wall.  Here he dedicated to the Mother of God a very notable shrine, and built four other churches.  Furthermore, he rebuilt the palace, which had been built here in early times and now lay in ruins, the work of the ancient Emperor Severus, who was born in this place and so left this palace as a memorial of his good fortune.

In this city the Emperor Justinian also built public baths, and he erected the circuit-wall of the city from its lowest foundations, and by means both of the baths and of all the other improvements gave it the character of a city.

The east wall of the Taucheira fortress

Southwest gate

Taucheira, East Basilica

(Procopius)      (Medieval North Africa 650-800)      (Taucheira)

(Livius)      (Tocra)      (Crete and Cyrenaica)      (Cyrenaica)      (Tocra)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Defending Byzantine Spain - Limes in Spania

The Limitanei were the static frontier guard troops that replaced the legions in the fourth century CE. The Romans were responding to the fact their long Danube and Rhine frontiers were subject to constant barbarian raids and that their cities were no longer secure.  The Limitanei may have been stationed in Byzantine Spania.
Byzantine Spania

The reestablished Eastern Roman province of Spania began with the Emperor Justinian in 552AD.

The Emperor sent troops to Spania to take sides in an internal civil war. Which side the Romans helped is unclear. But like many such forces over the centuries that were sent to "help" the locals they did not want to leave once the work was done. Thus the Eastern Roman province of Spania was created and part of Spain was once again Roman.

The province only lasted until 624 (only 72 years). The Visigoths took advantage of the Persian Empire's conquest of Roman Syria, Anatolia and Egypt to crush and absorb a helpless Roman Spain that could expect zero reinforcements from a hard pressed Constantinople.

That brings me to a 2010 article I found on Google:  Defending Byzantine Spain: Frontiers and Diplomacy by Jamie Wood.

Talk about a specialized subject!

The bad part is copy and pasting does not work on his site. So I will have to so a summary of his findings.

Visigoth Warrior 

The Conquest

In 551 or 552 one of the Visigothic factions asked the Romans for help in a civil war.  In July, 552 the Romans won the Battle of Taginae in central Italy. The Gothic Wars in Italy were coming to an end.

It was perhaps at this point extra Roman troops became available to send to Spain.  It is unclear how many troops were sent or even who the commander of the force was.

Some claim the expedition commander was Liberius, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy.  This is doubtful as Liberius was 80 plus years old at this point and no doubt had his hands full in Italy.  Liberius (under Justinian's orders?) may have ordered troops to Spain as part of Justinian's plan to reconquer the West.

How many troops were sent? There are no records. It would have to have been a large enough force to not only defend itself but to engage any serious enemy. An army of 3,000 to 5,000 men would have met those needs and would be typical of the period.

The army was probably sent in 552 and made landfall in June or July. Roman forces landed probably at the mouth of the Guadalete or perhaps Málaga and joined with Visigoth allies and marched south from Mérida towards Seville in August or September 552. 

The war dragged on for two more years. Liberius returned to Constantinople by May 553 and it is likely that a second Roman force from Italy, which had only recently been pacified after the Gothic War, landed at Cartagena in early March 555 and marched inland to Baza (Basti) in order to join up with their compatriots near Seville. 

Their landing at Cartagena was violent. The native population, which included the family of Leander of Seville, was well disposed to the Visigoths and the Roman government of the city was forced to suppress their freedoms, an oppression which lasted decades into their occupation. Leander and most of his family fled and his writings preserve the strong anti-Byzantine sentiment.

Athanagild, the new king of the Goths, quickly tried to rid Spain of the Byzantines, but failed. The Byzantines occupied many coastal cities in Baetica and this region was to remain a Byzantine province until its reconquest by the Visigoths barely seventy years later.

Reconstruction concept of a Limes mile castle along Hadrian's Wall

Limes in Spania?

The conquest began with the Roman reconquest of Septem (modern Ceuta) in North Africa.  A garrison and naval force was stationed there under the command of a Tribune who was responsible for monitoring event in Spain and Gaul. The Balearic Islands were also rapidly occupied. These twin actions helped secure Roman North Africa from attacks by Visigoth Spain.

But once the Romans has reoccupied southern Spain the question remain on how to defend it from invasion.

The most prevalent theory is Roman southern Spain was defended by a limes-style fortified frontier.

A popular theory is the Spania limes consisted of a network of fortified cities interspersed with smaller defensive positions.  More advanced positions, Castra, would be linked by roads and defended by Limitanei troops.

The author of the above study trashes the idea of a Limes Spania.  I would disagree.  The Romans always fortified their frontier outposts.  If the Byzantines could fortify and man outposts in the deserts of Libya and Tunisia there is no reason to think they would not do the same in Spain.

The budget of Constantinople was always tight. I have no doubt Roman troops in Spania took over existing Visigoth Castra and cities and repaired or expanded defenses.

Though there is little "proof" of a Spania Limes the fact that for 70 years the province was not overrun by Visigothic armies is indirect evidence that serious fortifications backed by Roman troops were in place.

The Visagoths only made advances in Spain when the Persians conquered Roman Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.  We can conclude that military pressure in the east forced Constantinople to strip outlying provinces like Spania of troops so they could join the war against Persia.

Only with the Spania Limes under or unmanned could the Visigoths drive out the Romans in 624.

Map showing Byzantine Spain
and North Africa c. 580

The Walls of Ceuta, North Africa
Ceuta was directly across from, and offered support to, Byzantine Spania. The fortifications were originally built by the Byzantines and later improved on by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Ceuta is still ruled by Spain.
See More:
Byzantine Morocco

Diplomacy and Defense

War is expensive and the outcome often uncertain. So warfare was often the last resort.

The Eastern Romans of the period had no problem using force to achieve their goals.  But it was often more productive to use proxies, diplomacy or to manipulate factions in neighboring nations.  An anonymous Byzantine treatise on strategy states:
  • "Negotiating for peace may be chose before other means, since it might very well offer the best prospect for protecting our own interests."
In a number of cases the Byzantines may have taken advantage of dissent within the Visigothic kingdom.  In 571 and 576 the Visigoths put down revolts in Cordoba and Orospeda which just happened to border Spania.  A 580s rebellion may also have been Byzantine inspired. When the revolt was defeated the family of the rebellion leader fled to Spania and the protection of Roman troops.

Keeping your enemy divided was perhaps more important than the number of Roman troops stationed in the province.


It appears a mint was established in the province. Gold coins were produced locally that matched those from other Roman mints.

The chief administrative official in Spania was the magister militum Spaniae, meaning "master of the military of Spain." The magister militum governed civil and military affairs in the province and was subordinate only to the Emperor. Typically the magister was a member of the highest aristocratic class and bore the rank of patrician. The office, though it only appears in records for the first time in 589, was probably a creation of Justinian, as was the mint, which issued provincial currency until the end of the province (c. 624).

The first known governor, Comenciolus, repaired the gates of Cartagena in lieu of the "barbarians" (i.e. the Visigoths) and left an inscription (dated 1 September 589) in the city which survives to this day. It is in Latin and may reflect the continued use of Latin as the administrative language of the province.

The fact that high level Patricans were sent to Spania suggests there was a lot more at stake than a few coastal towns. That the province was considered important and extended much further inland.

Coinciding with the Persian invasion of the east, by the 610s and 620s the number of references to Visigothic aggression increased. Letters show Roman cities were taken, territory lost and prisoners captured.

No doubt troops were withdrawn to fight in either the Balkans or against the Persians. Weakened it was only a matter of time and the province fell to the Visigoths in 624.

Limes Fortifications in Spain?
Eastern Roman rule in Spania lasted only 70 years so a full blown Limes system may not have developed.  But in an age where might makes right something was in place that for decades kept the Visigothic armies from invading. Most likely it was a somewhat less formal series of defensive fortifications.

Reconstruction of a Limes strongpoint.

The Western Roman Empire in 565 AD
In yellow are the lands re-conquered by the Emperor Justinian
and returned to the Roman Empire including Spania.

(Byzantine Spain)      (Spania)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rome Collapses the Bulgarian Empire - Battle of Kleidion

Middle Byzantine Arms and Armor
Vito Maglie of the group I Cavalieri de li Terre Tarentine wearing the 11th C reconstruction of the klivanion of St. Nestorius by Hellenic Armors.

"Basil the Bulgar-Slayer"
Ends The Bulgarian Empire

For centuries the Balkans provinces of the Roman Empire were assaulted by endless waves of barbarian tribes from Central Asia. But by far the most successful of the invading tribes was the Bulgars.

The Bulgars were semi-nomadic warrior tribes originating from Central Asia whose exact ethnic origin is controversial. They spoke a form of Turkic language and during their migration westwards they absorbed other ethnic groups.

The first clear mention of the Bulgars in written sources dates from 480, when they served as the allies of the Emperor Zeno (r. 474–491) against the Ostrogoths.   In the first half of the 6th century the Bulgars occasionally raided the Roman Empire.

By 681, the Eastern Romans were compelled to sign a humiliating peace treaty, forcing them to acknowledge Bulgaria as an independent state, to cede the territories to the north of the Balkan Mountains and to pay an annual tribute.

The campaigns of each side seesawed back and forth with neither empire able to overcome the other.

It was standard Byzantine practice to attack the Bulgarians whenever there was no active campaigning against the Arabs.

Tsar Samuel I

The last great Bulgarian enemy of Rome was Samuel, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire from 997 to 1014

After defeating the Magyars in the north, Samuel, serving as a general, turned his attention south and in 896 routed the Roman army in the battle of Boulgarophygon. 

Virtually the entire Roman army was destroyed. 

Samuel led the Bulgarian troops to Constantinople, burning villages en route. According to the Muslim historian al-Tabari, Leo VI was desperate after the consecutive refusals of peace, and was forced to gather an army of Arab prisoners of war and send them against the Bulgarians with the promise of freedom. The Bulgarians were stopped just outside Constantinople and Samuel agreed to negotiate.

Byzantium was obliged to pay Bulgaria an annual tribute in exchange for the return of allegedly 120,000 captured Byzantine soldiers and civilians. Under the treaty, the Byzantines also ceded an area between the Black Sea and Strandzha to the Bulgarian Empire.

Samuel had proven himself a good general and a deadly enemy of Rome.  The wars go on and on even as Samuel becomes Tsar in 997. Many Byzantine fortresses fell under Bulgarian rule. The Bulgarian successes in the west raised fears in Constantinople causing Emperor Basil II to attack the Bulgars over and over.

The year 1000 saw a turn in the course of Byzantine-Bulgarian warfare. Basil II had amassed an army larger and stronger than that of the Bulgarians. Determined to definitively conquer Bulgaria, he moved much of the battle-seasoned military forces from the eastern campaigns against the Arabs to the Balkans and Samuel was forced to defend rather than attack.

The multi-year grinding showdown was beginning.

Basil II, The Warrior Emperor

It is a neck and neck race between the Emperors Heraclius (610 - 641) and Basil II (960 - 1025) for the best warrior Emperor.

In that contest Heraclius, to me, is the clear winner.  Heraclius totally crushed the Persians and saved a Roman Empire that was a blink away from total extinction.

Still Basil was unique. As both a general and Emperor he had no interest in living the easy life of the well born elites.  He fought and ruled from the saddle.

Basil was called "The Father of the Army".  He was worshipped by his troops. Instead of issuing orders from distant palaces Constantinople we see Basil living the life of a soldier with his troops and even eating the same daily rations as a common infantryman. All reports say he was a brave soldier and a fine horseman.

He also took the children of deceased officers of his army under his protection and offered them shelter, food, and education. Many of them later became his soldiers and officers and came to think of him as a father.

Basil successfully campaigned against the Arab Fatimid armies and marched as far south as modern Lebanon forcing a 10 year truce with the Caliph in 1001 which was renewed in 1011 and again in 1023.

Turning to the north, Basil acquired considerable territory in what is now southern Georgia. eastern Turkey and western Iran.  Basil also "persuaded" the ruler of Armenia to give the nation to Rome on his death.

The Empire achieved its greatest expansion ever directly to the east, in excess of all Roman conquests.

With the east secure Basil turned to Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactors
(Screenshot HunHorda)

The Bulgarian Army

Originally the core of the Bulgarian Army was a force of heavy cavalry ranging from 12,000 to 30,000 horsemen. The reconquest of northeastern Bulgaria by the Romans reduced the recruiting grounds for the Bulgarians reducing the size of the cavalry units and making them more of a light cavalry force.

The Bulgarian army was well armed according to the Avar model: the soldiers had a sabre or a sword, a long spear and a bow with an arrow-quiver on the back. On the saddle they hung a round shield, a mace and a lasso, which the Bulgarians called arkani. On their decorated belts the soldiers carried the most necessary objects such as flints and steel, a knife, a cup and a needle case. 

The heavy cavalry was supplied with metal armor and helmets. The horses were also armored. Armor was of two types — chain-mail and plate armor. The commanders had belts with golden or silver buckles which corresponded to their rank and title.

With the reduction of the cavalry the infantry's importance grew and the tactics changed to reflect the new conditions: the ambush, although employed in the past, now became the cornerstone of Bulgarian tactics.  During this period, the Bulgarians acquired a reputation for their skillful archers.

In the battle of Kleidion the Bulgarian army numbered around 20,000 soldiers. According some estimates the total number of the army including the squads of local militia reached a maximum level of 45,000.

The Roman Army

At this point the army numbered about 110,000 men.

The key is no one agrees as to the mix of troops.  Were 30,000 the regular standing units backing by local thematic troops?  40,000?

The core of the army were the tagmata regiments - the professional standing army of the Empire. They were formed by Emperor Constantine V after the suppression of a major revolt in the Opsician Theme in 741–743. Anxious to safeguard his throne from the frequent revolts of the thematic armies, Constantine reformed the old guard units of Constantinople into the new tagmata regiments, which were meant to provide the emperor with a core of professional and loyal troops. 

They were typically headquartered in or around Constantinople, although in later ages they sent detachments to the provinces. The tagmata were exclusively heavy cavalry units and formed the core of the imperial army on campaign, augmented by the provincial levies of thematic troops who were more concerned with local defense.

The Byzantine Empire's military tradition originated in the late Roman period, and its armies always included professional infantry soldiers. Though they varied in relative importance during the Byzantine army's history, under Basil II in particular heavy infantry were an important component of the Byzantine army. These troops generally had mail armor, large shields, and were armed with swords and spears. Under militarily competent emperors such as Basil II, they were among the best heavy infantry in the world.

Click to enlarge

Battle of Kleidion - July, 1014

Basil’s systematic campaign to reduce Samuel’s territory— and prestige—continued year after year.

The account in Scylitzes says:

  • "The emperor continued to invade Bulgaria every year without interruption, laying waste everything .... Samuel could do nothing in open country nor could he oppose the emperor in formal battle. He was shattered on all fronts and his own forces were declining so he decided to close the way into Bulgaria with ditches and fences."

Simply, Samuel would be overthrown by his own people if he could not defend the frontier against repeated Roman invasions.

To protect himself, as much as Bulgaria, Samuel gathered as large an army as possible for a showdown with the Romans. Some claimed his army was 45,000 strong.

Weakened as he was from endless Roman invasions that number was no doubt inflated.  The Tsar's forces were already in decline and manpower harder to come by.

Was the Bulgarian army 20,000?  25,000?  30,000?  There is no way to know. We can speculate that Samuel gathered everyone possible for this last fight. The fate of the nation was on the line.

Through spies Basil either knew of the gathering Bulgarian army and/or wanted to make a larger than normal attack.

Basil also gathered a larger than normal army. He prepared carefully and gathered to him some of his most experienced commanders. It appears that the truce with the Arabs allowed Basil to withdraw a number of regiments from the eastern front to use in the Balkan campaign.  A Byzantine army of 25,000 would be a bit larger than than the normal sized field army and might be close to the army that marched from Constantinople.

Struma River Valley
Emperor Basil's army marched up the valley to engage the Bulgarians.  The narrow nature of the valley allowed the Bulgarians to build defenses and hold off the Roman advance.

When Basil II set out to attack Macedonia once again, the stage was set for a major battle, which turned out to be decisive. It was fought in July 1014 in the Kleidion Pass.

Tsar Samuel's army of perhaps 20,000 or more deployed in a narrow gorge of the Struma River, between two mountains named Belasitsa and Ozgrazhden. In that gorge a strong wooden palisade was constructed on the lower slopes of each mountain to hamper the Byzantine advance. In addition, two strong towers were built to guard the flanks of the palisade.

Emperor Basil II's army (probably at least equal to the Bulgarian force) crossed the border. The Roman army followed a road that ran beside the Struma River, which had been a major route into the Bulgarian heartland in years past.

Here we find a situation much like King Leonidas at Thermopylae.  The valley is fairly narrow. Roman numbers and/or professional organization would not count for much. This allowed the defending Bulgarians an advantage. 

The Roman army was stopped by a thick wooden wall, defended by Bulgarian soldiers. The Byzantines attacked the palisade immediately, but were repulsed with heavy casualties.

With this small Bulgarian success, Samuel split his command. He tried to distract Basil by sending a portion of his army (several thousand?) under General Nestoritsa south to attack the Roman city of Thessalonika.

Roman troops under Theophylact Botaneiates, the strategos (Governor-General) of the city and his son Mihail managed to defeat them outside the city walls in a bloody battle. Theophylactus captured many soldiers and a large quantity of military equipment. 

With victory complete Theophylact marched north to add his victorious troops to Basil's army.

Bulgar warriors in a reenactment,
26 July 2006. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

On about July 26 or 27, Emperor Basil's main army arrived in the narrow gorge of Kleidion Pass. Seeing the Bulgarian-built walls manned by thousands of soldiers, Basil ordered an immediate attack on them. The enemy, however, had erected their palisades carefully. 

The initial Byzantine attack was thrown back, suffering heavy losses. Over the next two or three days, several more attempts were made to breach the Bulgarian walls, to no avail. During that time, Botaneiates and his Thessalonikan soldiers joined Basil's army. Hoping their added weight would tip the balance in his favor, Basil threw them against the Slavic walls, to no avail.

Shades of Thermopylae

In the late afternoon of July 28, Basil was approached by his general Nikephoros Xiphias. The general offered to take several thousand Roman soldiers out of the main camp. They were to take mules with them, making it appear they were traveling south to replenish their supplies. They would then march over a steep mountain path to fall in the rear of the Bulgarian entrenchments. 

Basil gave his enthusiastic approval of the plan. Later that day, Nikephorus and his men left the Byzantine encampment, making a great show of their leaving. After traveling an hour or so south, the Roman force veered westward. Local guides directed them through steep passes of Mt. Belasitsa. By early morning of July 29, the Byzantine flanking force found itself in the rear of the Bulgarian lines.  Nikephorus ordered an immediate attack on the Bulgarian rear.

A surprise flanking maneuver and attack in a defender's rear is perhaps the most deadly of all military tactics.  The defenders always have peace of mind knowing their back is secure. Once an enemy shatters that feeling of security the defending army almost always panics and runs for safety.

That story repeated itself here. The Bulgarians were taken completely by surprise, now finding themselves hard-pressed from front and rear. The Bulgars and their Slavic kinsmen abandoned the towers to face the new threat. With defenses abandoned Basil's army was able to break through the Bulgarian wall and come to grips with the defenders.

In the confusion of the rout, thousands of Bulgarian troops were killed and the remainder desperately attempted to flee westwards.

Tsar Samuel had been absent from the battlefield that day miles to the west in his fortress at Strumitsa, conferring with his son, the Tsarevitch Gabriel Radomir. Upon receiving word of the battle, both men gathered their personal retinues and rode eastward to join the fight.

Samuel attempted to rally his troops near the town of Makrievo. Unfortunately, the battle was basically over and the Bulgarian army was in full rout. At one point, the tsar either dismounted or was unhorsed trying to urge his men to fight. Realizing the danger, Radomir grabbed hold of his father and put the old man on the tsarevitch's horse, and the two men rode together to escape the Byzantine pursuers.

The battle of Kleidion was over.

Cavalry vs Infantry

Again we lack so much detail on this battle.  Byzantine cavalry was the mailed fist of the army.  But in this case I doubt that cavalry played much of a part until the latter part of the battle.

It would have been the infantry (not horses) assaulting the dug-in Bulgarian wooden palisade.  I suspect it would have also been infantry sent up steep mountain paths to flank the Bulgarians.  Once the flanking attack was taking place it would likely have been infantry (or dismounted cavalry) punching through the Bulgarian palisade to make holes for the cavalry to ride through.

This would have been another victory for the perpetually ignored Byzantine infantry.

The Byzantines defeat the Bulgarians (top). Emperor Samuel dying at the sight of his blinded soldiers (bottom).

A Setback and Mass Blindings

After his victory on 29 July 1014, Basil II marched westwards and seized the small fortress of Matsukion near Strumitsa, but the town itself remained in Bulgarian hands. 
With things looking fairly secure the Emperor sent an army led by one of his most capable generals, Theophylactus Botaniates, to destroy the palisades to the south of the town. Thus he would clear the way of the Byzantines to Thessalonika through the valley of the Vardar river.

The historian Vasil Zlatarski specifies the battlefield at the Kosturino gorge between the mountains Belasitsa and Plavush. The Byzantines could not organize their defense in the narrow pass and were annihilated. Most of their troops perished including their commander. 
Botaniates was killed by the heir to the Bulgarian throne Gavril Radomir, who pierced the Byzantine general with his spear. Upon the news of that unexpected and heavy defeat, Basil II was forced to immediately retreat eastwards and not through the planned route via Thessalonika.

In retaliation for the death of Botaneiates, Basil ordered the blinding of between 8,000 to 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners.

Basil was in a foul mood, considering he had lost of one of his favored generals Botaneiates in an ambush. He pronounced that the Bulgarians, once vassals of the East Roman Empire, were traitors and would be punished thusly. 

The Bulgarians were divided into groups of 100 men. All the men in each group were blinded, save for one man who was left with one eye. Then, these thousands of men were released to roam the mountains, hoping to find their way back to the Bulgar capital. In early October, some of these groups found their way to Samuel's capital. 

As the mutilated men were paraded before him, the shock and horror of the treatment of his soldiers was too much for the tsar. He fell into an apoplectic fit, and went into a coma. Two days later, he died. As a result of his treatment of the Bulgarian prisoners, Basil acquired the nickname of "Basil Bulgaroktonos" or "Basil the Bulgar-Slayer."

Middle Byzantine Armor
11th C Dekarkh of Skutatoi - Rick Orli's group Stratēlatai Tagma.
Just one of a number of infantry impressions from this period.


The Bulgarian state and army were fatally weakened by Kleidon. 

Byzantine casualties are unknown. By contrast, the Bulgarian army was almost completely destroyed. The Byzantine victory essentially destroyed the Bulgarian Empire, though it would take another 4 years of mopping up before Bulgarian lands were consolidated into the Roman orbit. 

As a result of the battle of Kleidion, the Bulgarian army suffered heavy casualties that could not be restored. The ability of the central Bulgar government to control the peripheral and interior provinces of the Empire was reduced and power gravitated into the hands of the local and provincial governors. Many of them voluntarily surrendered to Basil rather than continue a war they knew would end badly for them.

The battle also affected the Serbs and the Croats, who were forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the Emperor after 1018. The borders of the Roman Empire were restored to the Danube for the first time since the 7th century, allowing control the entire Balkan peninsula from the Danube to the Peloponnese and from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea.

Click to enlarge
First Bulgarian Empire, early 10th century.

Click to enlarge
Bulgaria under the rule of Tsar Samuel
Campaign after campaign saw Roman armies probe deeper
and deeper into the Bulgarian Empire.

Click for full sized map

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The Roman Empire of Basil II
Basil not only stabilized Roman borders in the east, but also conquered new lands and added them to the Empire.
But Basil's return of the Balkans to Roman rule was a monstrously huge achievement.

(Byzantine army)    (Bulgarian army)    (Bulgarian Empire Military)

(Bulgarian Empire)    (Grand strategy)    (Kleidion)    (Kleidion)

(Basil)    (Samuel)    (Wars)