.

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders


A 19th century Bedouin warrior
The Arab forces facing the Romans would look much like this soldier.

(vikingsword.com)

The Coming of Islam


Where is the great historian Procopius when you need him?

We see an amazing lack of information about the final great Roman-Persian War (602 - 628 AD) and the start of the Muslim Arab invasion of the Empire in 629. Because we lack so many details it falls on historians to put their own spin on events. So here I am doing the best an amatuer military historian can do.

The Roman Emperor Heraclius and Persian Shah Khosrau II were is a 26 year long Death Grip of a war that looked like it might never end. But all wars do end. In this case it was with Heraclius at the head of a Roman army marching deep into the Persian Empire and crushing their forces at the Battle of Ninevah.

The Persian War ended in 628 just in time for the first Muslim invasion in 629.

Anarchy in Persia

Shah Khosrau was overthrown and executed by his own son in 627 and peace concluded in 628.

The Persians surrendered the captured lands of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and parts of Anatolia to Rome. The undefeated Persian armies were withdrawn to the homeland.

Over the next four years Persia was in anarchy with ten kings and queens. The final Shah, Yazdegerd III, was thought to be a child of 8 years old upon assuming the throne.

The Persian Empire that faced the invading Arab Muslim armies was bankrupted from the long war, militarily exhausted, had Roman troops still in their country and was in political anarchy.

Shah Khosrau II submitting to Emperor Heraclius

Rome is Supreme

The Roman Empire had decisively won the war and was in the stronger position of the two.

In addition to withdrawing their armies the Persians returned the True Cross to Heraclius. In 630 the Emperor entered Jerusalem by its Golden Gate. Shedding all Imperial insignia Heraclius walked in the city with the cross and restored it to the Patriarch.

The Eastern Empire was at the peak of its fame and power.  But victory masked deep problems.

Like Persia the Empire was financially and militarily exhausted.

Jerusalem had suffered grave damage in the siege of 614. Other cities and farmland over a huge area would also have been damaged or destroyed. Roman Christians held captive in Persia were repatriated and resettled.

With the collapse of the Persian government thousands of Persian Christians migrated to Roman territory under armed escort. This created a new mix of cultures in Roman cities.

Heraclius left Jerusalem and went to the Roman province of Mesopotamia. There he supervised the exit of Persian troops from Roman territory, the return of hostages and the movement of refugees.

A great danger was Heraclius had little time to reestablish governmental rule from Constantinople of the liberated areas. For years provinces like Egypt and Palaestina Prima were ruled from Persia. A Roman Emperor had become but a distant memory. Now the Emperor was back with his tax collectors and attempts to dictate how local Christians were allowed to worship.

Roman-Byzantine reenactor infantryman from the age Justinian. 
The Roman 
infantry facing the Arabs 100 years later
might have looked much like this soldier. 

The Winds of War

In the year 628 Mohammad dispatched messages to the Shah of Persia, the Roman Emperor, the Governor of Egypt and the Prince of Abyssinia asking them to accept Islam.

In 629 a number of minor raids and expeditions were sent out from Arabia.  Some were defeated and others returned with booty.  In September, 629 a more important expedition was organized resulting the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah).  Some 10,000 Roman troops gave the invading Muslim army a bloody nose forcing them to retreat to Arabia.

Then in 632 Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote a contemporary reference to the barbarian ravages on the frontier that must have been about the Arabs:

"What more unfortunate circumstances could there be here than these 
that hold the inhabited world in their grip? . . .  What could be more 
lamentable and more terrible to those upon whom them fell?  To see 
how a people, coming from the desert and barbaric, run through the 
land that is not theirs, as if it were their own; how they, who seem 
only to have simple human features, lay waste our sweet and 
organized country with their wild untamed beasts."
Heraclius, Emperor of Byzntium - Walker Kaegi (pg 218)

When the Muslim invasion began in 633 it was Persia, not Rome, that was the target.

The Romans had beaten back the Muslims at the Battle of Mota. With anarchy in Persia the Muslims no doubt felt it was a softer target.

Eastern Roman Armored Cavalry
A possible look for the Roman cavalry. The standard stirrup and saddle were both used by the Byzantine Cataphract, allowing for more powerful lance attacks and making it a bit harder to knock him off his saddle. Reflecting the nature of heavy cavalry, the horse was covered in Lamellar armor that extended down to its knees, giving the horse protection for when charges were made against dense formation. It's head was enveloped in a plate headpiece. From front to back, there was not a place above the knees left uncovered.
(necromoprhvsfellowship) 

The Roman Army

The historian Warren Treadgold says there were about 109,000 Roman troops in the field in this period.

This number sounds large but is deceptive. The Empire was enormous ranging from the Pillars of Hercules to Italy, the Balkans, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Troops were required everywhere to man fortresses and drive off invaders. The number of troops available to act as actual field armies was a small fraction of the total.

The mix of the available troops is not available to us. How many are infantry? Cavalry? or militia?

We do know that soldiers were in very short supply. Huge numbers of troops were needed to reoccupy the provinces abandoned by the retreating Persian armies. To fill that gap and to counter the Muslims, Heracilus unsuccessfully tried to shift Roman troops from Numidia in North Africa to Egypt which had a minimal garrison.

Another factor in troop shortages, it appears some level of Roman troops were still inside Persia. They were there perhaps because of the internal political anarchy or to "supervise" the peace of a defeated enemy. In any case those troops were not immediately available to face the Muslims on the frontier of Palestine.

Because of the devastation of war tax money was not coming in. So as a "bonus" the Emperor was cutting expenses left and right and the army was not spared. Even Rome's ally the Arab Ghassanid tribe that protected the desert frontiers of Arabia had their funds cut off at the exact time an invasion from Arabia took place.

Rome needed time and peace to rebuild. Neither were available.

The Arab Army

In 632 AD the Muslim army numbered perhaps 13,000 men.

Because of poverty in Arabia and an arid climate, of that 13,000 perhaps 20% was cavalry.  Infantry would have been an untrained tribal mass.

I do not downgrade the power of tribal based warfare. You can ask the few survivors of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest about tribal warriors. An infantry force of 5,000 fanatical Jihadis slamming into your front lines would have frightened the hardest and most experienced of veteran troops.

But to me the true Arab secret weapon was Islamic Blitzkreig.

In warfare terms think Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel.  Like the Allied forces from 1939 to 1942 the Roman Army was a traditional slower moving force with lots of equipment, supplies and camp followers.

The German armored units often avoided combat and plunged deep behind enemy lines to attack the enemy in the flank or the rear. Like the Germans the light Arab cavalry units under their brilliant commander Khalid ibn Walid moved like lightening through the harsh, waterless deserts. The Arab cavalry played that same role as the German armor by rapidly covering hundreds of miles from front to front appearing seemingly out of nowhere to attack Roman troops.

Click to enlarge
Map details the route of Khalid ibn Walid's conquest of
the western portion of the Persian Empire.

The Battle of Firaz
Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs
combine to stop Islam


The Roman crushing of the Persian Empire made that country an obvious first target for Muslim invaders.

From the Muslim point of view it was also critical to prevent Byzantine military recruiting among the Armenians and the other peoples of the Caucasus region. Troops from the Caucasus had form a major part of Heracilus' army that invaded Persia. The conquest of Persian Mesopotamia was a vital first step before attacking Armenia and thereby deny Heracilus access to new soldiers.

The Muslims gathered their army, such as it was. Lt. General Glubb Pasha estimates that the Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had at best 3,500 warriors available to him. More troops may have come from Arabia as time went on. The Persian forces facing Khalid consisted of local Arab tribes and regular army.

Glubb Pasha explains the situations very well:

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

Terrorism as a weapon.  After an early victory the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period.

In battle after battle Khalid 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 was also a nearby Roman garrison supported by their Christian Arab allies.

The Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs joined forces to face the threat of Khalid.

The Persian-Roman allied army put their backs against 
the Euphrates River to face the Muslims.

Khalid was more or less the master of the Euphrates Valley, but he feared if this undefeated combined force was left alone there could be a Persian re-invasion to take back lost territory.

In December, 633 Khalid marched with a force to the Firaz area and in January, 634 engaged in battle.

There are no records of the size of the forces involved. As commander we can assume Khalid would not have gone into battle with less than several thousand troops. The combined Persian-Roman army might have been the same or maybe smaller. The allies certainly would not have marched to open battle with a tiny force. That would have been suicide. So perhaps their army also numbered in the thousands. It is all guess work.

The combined Persian-Roman army put their backs to the Euphrates River and await the Muslim advance. A bridge over the river was at their rear for an escape if needed.

As usual information is maddeningly vague. It appears Khalid engaged the allies with his infantry. As the front ranks of both sides were engaged in battle he sent his cavalry in a swift lightning movement to engage the flanks of the allies. The Muslims then made a dash for the bridge and cut off the retreat of the allies.

The allies were caught in a double envelopment.

Casualties? We have no idea. We do know that Arab historians do not boast of the allied army surrendering or mass conversions to Islam at sword point. We have to assume the allied army was completely destroyed.

Khalid could now turn his attention on Roman Palestine.


Islamic conquest of Persia




Emperor Flavius Heraclius Augustus
The Emperor was at war for about 27 out of 

his 30 years on the throne.

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract

Map of the Middle East on the eve of the Muslim invasions.


(Bagot Glubb)      (Heraclius)      (Persia)      (Firaz)      (Rashidun)

(Byzantine Army)      (Levant)     

Friday, January 6, 2017

The missing Byzantine column of Venice


A gift to Venice from the Eastern Empire.
The famous bronze winged lion atop the column on Piazzetta San Marco, where the piazza opens onto the end of the Grand Canal and the bacino—probably a Hellenistic work of the 4th or 3rd century BC, taken from a tomb in Tarsus or Cilicia. (Photo by Jakub Hałun)  
(reidsitaly.com)

Venice and the Empire


There are no surviving historical records dealing directly with the founding of Venice, but the area itself had been under Roman control for centuries.

Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons. They were referred to as incolae lacunae ("lagoon dwellers"). The traditional founding is identified with the dedication of the first church, that of San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto (Rivoalto, "High Shore") — said to have taken place at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421.

Roman defenses were overthrown in the early 5th century by the Visigoths and, some 50 years later, by the Huns led by Attila. The last and most enduring immigration into the north of the Italian peninsula, that of the Lombards in 568, left the Eastern Roman Empire a small strip of coast in the current Veneto, including Venice.

The Roman/Byzantine territory was organized as the Exarchate of Ravenna, administered from that ancient port and overseen by a viceroy (the Exarch) appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople, but Ravenna and Venice were connected only by sea routes; and with the Venetians' isolated position came increasing autonomy. New ports were built, including those at Malamocco and Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. The tribuni maiores, the earliest central standing governing committee of the islands in the Lagoon, dated from c. 568.

Flag of the Republic of Venice
The coat of arms of the Region is set in a square in the 
center of the flag: the Lion of Saint Mark.

The traditional first doge of VenicePaolo Lucio Anafesto, was actually Exarch Paul, and his successor, Marcello Tegalliano, was Paul's magister militum (General: literally, "Master of Soldiers"). In 726 the soldiers and citizens of the Exarchate rose in a rebellion over the iconoclastic controversy at the urging of Pope Gregory II. The Exarch was murdered and many officials put to flight in the chaos.

An agreement between the Western Emperor Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus in 814 recognized Venice as Byzantine territory and granted the city trading rights along the Adriatic coast.

In 828 the new city's prestige increased with the acquisition of the claimed relics of St Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, which were placed in the new basilica. (Winged lions, visible throughout Venice, symbolize St Mark.) 

As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, its autonomy grew, leading to eventual independence.
___________________________

The Mystery of the Missing
Byzantine Column
The lost Byzantine column may be at the 
bottom of the Venetian lagoon.


(London Telegraph)  -  A group of explorers hopes to solve one of Venice’s most enduring mysteries – the fate of a giant triumphal column that is believed to have disappeared nearly 1,000 years ago.

The huge granite column was one of three that were delivered to Venice by boat in 1172.

Brought from Constantinople, they were a gift from the Byzantine Empire in recognition of Venice’s help in the Second Crusade. 

But, according to historical accounts, during the difficult process of transferring them from the boats to dry land, the pillar toppled overboard, sinking beneath the waves of the Venetian lagoon.

The two surviving columns were eventually erected and still stand at one end of St Mark’s Square, which Napoleon famously described as “the drawing room of Europe”.

On top of one of them is a winged lion – the symbol of Venice – while on top of the other is a statue of St Theodore, who was once the city’s patron saint until being supplanted by St Mark, holding a spear and with a crocodile at his feet – a representation of the dragon that he is said to have vanquished.

Now a team of researchers plans to embark on a search for the missing third column, which if recovered could one day take its place between the two existing columns.

They believe it is lies on the lagoon floor, a few hundred yards from the banks of St Mark’s Square.

Europe in 814 AD at the 
death of Charles the Great.
At this point Venice and the coastal zone is still part of the Eastern Roman Empire.
As Roman power faded in Italy we see the new Republic of Venice 

break off and become independent.
(Read More)

Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square.
(talesmaze.com)


“If the lagoon floor had been muddy, the column would have sunk without trace and would be impossible to recover,” said Roberto Padoan, a diver and mariner who leads the project. “But in the area in front of St Mark’s the lagoon floor is made of clay. I’m convinced the column is down there.” 

He believes that the column may rest at a comparatively shallow depth – perhaps 30ft beneath the surface of the water. 

According to contemporary accounts, it was topped with a statue of a nobleman wearing a “corno ducale” or doge’s cap, a tribute to Venice’s rulers. 

Venice’s cultural heritage department is expected to give the green light to a non-invasive search of the lagoon floor this week. 

A network of 20 electronic sensors, to be installed on the canal banks, will emit sonar waves to try to detect the column beneath the mud. 

Mr Padoan has teamed up with two Italian companies that specialise in underwater exploration, ground-penetrating radar and seismic studies.

The area to be searched is relatively small – a stretch of water between the Marciana Library and the Ponte della Paglia, which looks onto the more famous Bridge of Sighs. 

A Venetian War Galley 
The galley above had 186 oars, 62 tri-stations. Venice became a major military power and often helped the Eastern Empire in its wars against Islam. As early as the mid-500s Venice twice sent its fleet to help Constantinople.
(modelshipmaster.com)

“Finding the column would be an incredible discovery,” Mr Padoan told La Repubblica newspaper. “If we manage it, we’d have to do everything possible to raise it from the lagoon.”

Raising the column would be a very costly operation, involving barges, cranes and steel cables, and the researchers are seeking funds from private sponsors. 

The recovery operation would affect a stretch of the canal bank that is used by gondolas and water taxis.

The surviving two columns frame the grand entrance to St Mark’s Square and provided an imposing first sight of the city for visitors arriving by boat. 

Although they were delivered to Venice in the 12th century, it was not until decades later that they were erected, such were the technical challenges of the job. 

In the end the task was achieved by an Italian engineer, Niccolo Barattieri, who, in return, asked for the right to set up gambling tables between them. 

The doge agreed, but the gambling soon got out of control, and to put a dampener on proceedings Venice’s rulers decided to use the pillars to string up local criminals. 

Superstitious Venetians still avoid walking between the two columns.

The story of the lost column is one of Venice’s oldest legends, but is almost certainly based on fact, a historian said.

“It is cited by all the sources, including the very oldest, which were written shortly after the disembarkation of the columns in 1172,” said Alberto Toso Fei, an author and journalist.

“I’m convinced that it’s based on a historical event because when a story is repeated down the centuries, it always contains some truth.

“What is not possible to know with any certainty is whether the third column was as large as the other and whether it, like them, had a symbol of Venice on top. And we don’t know from the sources if it sank near St Mark’s or in another part of the lagoon. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it really is there, lying under the mud.”

The column of St. Theodore in Venice.
The column was a gift to Venice in the 12th century from the Eastern Roman Emperor for the Republic's help in the Second Crusade.

Also in Venice
The Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, is a set of Roman bronze statues of four horses, originally part of a monument depicting a quadriga (a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing).

.
The horses, along with the quadriga with which they were depicted, were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They were still there in 1204, when they were looted by Venetian forces as part of the sack of the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade


(Telegraph)      (Horses of Saint Mark)      (modelshipmaster)      (Venice)


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Byzantine Heavy Artillery



It is better to give than receive


Rule #1 in life: you can find anything on the Internet.

I stumbled on a long 1999 article about Byzantine artillery by George Dennis. The article, summarized below, adds to the Eastern Roman Empire story of warfare.

Like my previously published 1988 article on the Byzantine Infantry Square, we get a better picture of a highly complex Eastern Roman military machine.

This warfare was not the Classic Roman Legion nor was it the simple knights in shining armor of the West mindlessly slashing at each other in battles. The more we get into the details the more we see that Eastern Roman warfare is almost its own stand alone category in military history.

Enjoy
_______________________________


The military manual (Strategikon) attributed to the emperor Maurice stipulated that the infantry contingents should be followed by a train of wagons, some of which were to transport artillery crews, carpenters, and metal workers, as well as . . . “revolving ballistae at both ends.”

I visualized the wagons as mobile fighting platforms with two medium-sized torsion or tension weapons, ballistae, which revolved in a horizontal arc, somewhat like pivoting machine guns. “Both ends,” though, I am now convinced, refers to the weapon, not the wagon, and the revolving motion must have been vertical, up and down (like a child’s seesaw), not horizontal. Torsion weapons, such as the ballista, do not revolve; the onager, which pivots from down to up, moves only at one end.
Emperor Maurice

The Strategikon, I would argue, is not referring to a torsion or tension weapon at all, even though it uses the classical word, ballista, but to a more advanced kind of artillery, recently arrived in the Mediterranean world, which was operated by traction, men pulling ropes at one end of a rotating beam to propel a projectile placed in a sling at the other end, thus “revolving at both ends.” There was as yet no specific term for this artillery piece, but it later came to be known in the west as trebuchet and, as we shall see, very soon in the Byzantine world as helepolis (city-taker).

This thesis seems to be confirmed by the Tactical Constitutions of Leo VI, compiled at the beginning of the tenth century, and which, to a large extent, was intended to bring previous military manuals into line with contemporary equipment and terminology. According to Leo, the wagons accompanying the infantry were to carry . . .  torsion or tension weapons, and a supply of bolts. In addition, they were to carry “ballistae or machines called alakatia which revolve in a circular manner,” . . .

Clearly, these are stone-throwing machines which could also launch incendiary missiles. The fact that they revolved at both ends or in a circular fashion makes it almost certain that these alakatia were trebuchets, very likely pole frame models which could be transported in wagons, quickly assembled, and operated by one or a few soldiers, much as depicted in the illustrated Madrid Skylitzes. Later, in the tenth century, Nikephoros Phokas ordered that each unit of light infantry was to have access to three of these alakatia, along with other portable artillery.

The author of the Strategikon does not tell us when this new kind of artillery was introduced into the Byzantine Empire, but the historian of Maurice’s reign, Theophylaktos Simokatta, does provide information about when it came into use and what name the Byzantines gave the new weapon. Bousas, a Byzantine soldier captured by the Avars, taught them how to construct a siege machine for they were ignorant of such machines. And so he prepared the helepolis to shoot missiles. With this fearsome and skillful device the Avars attacked many Byzantine cities, leveling the fortress of Appiareia in 587 and ten years later attacking Thessaloniki, which successfully resisted. Bousas, and other Byzantine artillerymen, therefore, must have learned how to build and operate these weapons some years before 587.

Now we are talking.
This is a serious weapon.

The fear and destruction wrought by these trebuchets, fifty of which were deployed against Thessaloniki, is vividly described in the Miracula S. Demetrii:


These were tetragonal and rested on broader bases, tapering to narrower extremities. Attached to them were thick cylinders well clad in iron at the ends, and there were nailed to them timbers like beams from a large house. These timbers had the slings from the back side and from the front strong ropes, by which, pulling down and releasing the sling, they propel the stones up high with a loud noise. And on being fired they sent up many stones so that neither earth nor human constructions could bear the impacts. 

The defenders also made use of stone-throwing machines, petrar°ai, to fire back at the Avaro-Slav artillery. Sailors on the ships bringing supplies to the city were said to be experienced operators of these petrareai.

In Byzantine usage, however, helepolis, as will be clear in the following pages, almost invariably means a stone-throwing trebuchet.

This use of helepolis to mean trebuchet is found as far back as . . . the seventh century. . . a Byzantine attack on a Persian fortress situated on a height. Herakleios ordered the helepoleis to be placed in position and to launch missiles directly at the fortifications, as well as over them into the fortress. The Byzantines kept up the barrage night and day, changing the pulling teams at regular intervals.


Lord of the Rings Catapult Scene
Ignoring the dragons, the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of 
Mordor is an impressive recreation of pre-gunpowder warfare. Many have
commented that Tolkien patterened Minas Tirith after Constantinople. 
A shrunken, weakened, outnumbered empire fighting a hopeless fight
for what is left of civilization.




In 821–823, the forces of the would-be emperor Thomas brought up “rams, tortoises, and some helepoleis in order to shake down the walls” of Constantinople. In addition to petroboloi, ladders, rams, tortoises, as well as fire arrows from his ships, Thomas ordered the engagement of some four-legged helepoleis. These last were obviously large, trestle-framed, traction trebuchets, the other petroboloi perhaps being smaller. “Every day large bands of soldiers brought these machines forward against the walls of the city”.

Constantine Porphyrogennetos compiled an inventory of the weapons and equipment assembled for the unsuccessful invasion of Crete in 949. For attacking a fortress, the ships were to transport large arrow-firing ballistae. Constantine lists this among the mangana, siege machines, together with petrareai and alakatia. There were four petrareai, four lambdareai, and four alakatia and, for these twelve engines, there were twelve iron slings, in addition to various nuts and bolts.

Constantine also recommended that the emperor take a number of books along with him on a military expedition. Among these were manuals of strategy, mechanical treatises, including the construction of helepoleis, the fabrication of missiles, and other works helpful in waging war and conducting sieges. 

Another military manual recommended that an army besieging a city should pitch camp far enough away to be out of range of arrows or missiles from the stonethrowing machines. But it should not be too far from its own siege engines, poliorkhtikå ˆrgana; otherwise, the defenders may sally forth and chop them down and burn them. The attacking troops should encamp close enough so that they can race out of their tents to protect their helepoleis.

An Armenian account of the Seljuq siege of Mantzikert in 1054 describes a huge trebuchet, originally built for Basil II, called a baban, which weighed some 2,000 kilograms and had a pulling crew of 400 men and which could fire stones weighing up to 200 kilograms. Michael Attaleiates apparently refers to the same siege, for he describes a trebuchet operated by a large number of men which fired an immense stone against which the defenders were helpless. They were saved only when a Latin grabbed a container of Greek fire, dashed out through the besiegers, and set the machine on fire. 

When Romanos IV Diogenes in 1071 was preparing an assault against the same city, he had a large number of helepoleis prefabricated from huge beams of all sorts and transported by no less than a thousand wagons, obviously very large trebuchets. An Arab source speaks of one huge trebuchet transported in 100 carts pulled by 1,200 men, with a composite beam of eight spars and launching stone-shot of 96 kilograms.

Reenactment Event at Birdoswald. Men load a Catapulta.
(pinterest)

In the Alexiad, her history of the reign of her father Alexios I Komnenos, Anna Komnene makes it abundantly clear that the major artillery piece of the Byzantines was the helepolis and that it was a large, stone-throwing trebuchet.

Anna notes that the Normans constructed helepoleis to bombard Byzantine fortifications. Without helepoleis, armies would find it difficult to capture fortified places, as did the Latins and the Bulgarians. Forced to retreat, the Byzantines burned their helepoleis so that the enemy would not be able to use them. Alexios employed helepoleis to destroy the walls of Kastoria. To drive the Arabs away from the coastline he positioned helepoleis on ships. The Byzantine general Dalassenos employed helepoleis on ships to demolish fortifications on land. Anna many times records the regular use of helepoleis in sieges.

The reigns of John Komnenos and Manuel Komnenos (1118– 1180) witnessed a dramatic increase in Byzantine reliance on siege warfare and, consequently, on the helepolis or trebuchet.

In 1130 or 1132 John surrounded Kastamon with helepoleis and captured it.43 At Gangra in 1135 he kept up a constant barrage of missiles aimed at the houses within the city. Against the seemingly impregnable Anazarba the following year, the Byzantine trebuchets began pounding the city walls, but the Armenian defenders returned their fire with stones and fiery iron pellets which set the Byzantine helepoleis on fire. John had new helepoleis built and constructed protective brick ramparts around them; his men then demolished the walls and forced their way into the city. In 1142 he took action against some island-dwellers in Lake Pousgouse by lashing small boats together and making a platform on which he positioned helepoleis

In 1165 four large Byzantine trebuchets launched huge stones against the Hungarian city of Zevgminon. Andronikos Komnenos, after personally adjusting the sling, the winch, and the beam, fired stones which hit with such violence that they brought down a section of the wall between two towers.

Early in the fourteenth century, the Greek version of the Chronicle of Morea called this weapon by its French name: trebuchet. Around the end of that century one again finds helepolis used for trebuchet in an account of sultan Bayezid’s siege of Constantinople in 1396–1397. And in 1422 Murad had trebuchets, this time called (battlementtaker), prepared to bombard the city with large stones. 

Thirtyone years later, however, the walls were pummeled by huge stones propelled by gun powder from cannons, and the helepolis or trebuchet was sent off to the dustbins of history.

November, 1999

GEORGE T. DENNIS
Department of History 
The Catholic University of America 
Washington, D.C. 20064




(deremilitari.org)      (deremilitari.org - helepolis)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Roman Empire Military Organization (802 - 867 AD)


Byzantine Warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.
(Pinterest.com)

Defending an Empire


Eastern Roman military history had suffered from a near total lack of proper histories written by those who witnessed the events.  We historians have to fill in the lack of detailed information with what we know from similar events. The Byzantine military has not been given proper credit by historians.

We have literally mountains of information in excruciating detail on the American Civil War and World War II.  But when it comes to the Eastern Empire documents on military units, fortifications, budgets and battles have vanished into the mists of time.

It is safe to say the the Eastern Roman military machine was not a haphazard or accidental creation. The Byzantines carried on the Roman tradition of a highly organized military. This can be seen in the structure and variety of full time professional units that were backed up by a large body of trained reserves. We see it also in command structure, military provinces (themes) and huge numbers of fortifications.

To run such an extensive military war machine required not only a well trained officer corps but also a large bureaucracy to direct supplies, recruits, hospitals and more.

Sadly we lack so much detail. But the article below by Professor J.B. Bury does a great deal to fill in the gaps. Bury shows a well oiled military machine at a time when western Europeans operated at the most primitive feudal levels.
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By J.B. Bury
From: A History of the Eastern Roman Empire
from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I
(A.D. 802 - 867)  Published 1912


Under the Amorian dynasty considerable administrative changes were made in the organization of the military provinces into which the Empire was divided, in order to meet new conditions. In the Isaurian period there were five great Themes in Asia Minor, governed by stratégoi, in the following order of dignity and importance: the Anatolic, the Armeniac, the Thrakesian, the Opsikian, and the Bukellarian.

This system of “the Five Themes,” as they were called, lasted till the reign of Michael ., if not till that of Theophilus. But it is probable that before that time the penetration of the Moslems in the frontier regions had rendered it necessary to delimit from the Anatolic and Armeniac provinces districts which were known as kleisurarchies, and were under minor commanders, kleisurarchs, who could take measures for defending the country independently of the stratégoi. In this way the kleisurarchy of Seleucia, west of Cilicia, was cut ofi“ from the Anatolic Theme, and that of Charsianon from the Armeniacta Southern Cappadocia, which was constantly exposed to Saracen invasion through the Cilician gates, was also formed into a frontier province. We have no record of the times at which these changes were made, but we may suspect that they were of older date than the reign of Theophilus.

This energetic Emperor made considerable innovations in the thematic system throughout the Empire, and this side of his administration has not been observed or appreciated. In Asia Minor he created two new Themes, Paphlagonia and' Ghaldia. Paphlagonia seems to have been cut off from the Bukellarian province; probably it had a separate existence already, as a “ katepanate,” for the governor of the new Theme, while he was a stratégos, bore the special title of Icatepano, which looks like the continuation of an older arrangement.

Military Themes In Asia Minor
Military Themes were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great


In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas.


The rise of Paphlagonia in importance may be connected with the active Pontic policy of Theophilus. It is not without significance that Paphlagonian ships played a part in the expedition which he sent to Cherson, and we may conjecture with probability that the creation of the Theme of the Klimata on the north of the Euxine and that of Paphlagonia on the south were not isolated acts, but were part of the same general plan.

The institution of the Theme of Chaldia, which was cut off from the Armeniac Theme (probably A.D. 837), may also be considered as part of the general policy of strengthening Imperial control over the Black Sea and its coastlands, here threatened by the imminence of the Moslem power in Armenia. To the south of Chaldia was the duchy of Koloneia, also part of the Armeniac circumscrrption.” In the following reign (before AD. 863) both Koloneia and Gappadocia were elevated to the rank of Themes.

The Themes of Europe, which formed a class apart from those of Asia, seem at the end of the eighth century to have been four in number—Thrace, Macedonia, Hellas, and Sicily. There were also a number of provinces of inferior rank— Calabria, under its Dux; Dalmatia and Crete, under governors who had the title of oz'rchon; while Thessalonica with the adjacent region was still subject to the ancient Praetorian Prefect of Illyricum, an anomalous survival from the old system of Constantine. It was doubtless the Slavonic revolt in the reign of Nicephorus I. that led to the reorganization of the Helladic province, and the constitution of the Peloponnesus as a distinct Theme, so that Hellas henceforward meant Northern Greece.

The Mohammadan descent upon Crete doubtless led to the appointment of a stratégos instead of an archon of Crete, and the Bulgarian wars to the suppression of the Praetorian prefect by a stratégos of Thessalonica. The Theme of Kephalonia (with the Ionian Islands) seems to have existed at the beginning of the ninth century ; but the Saracen menace to the Hadriatic and the western coasts of Greece may account for the foundation of the Theme of Dyrrhachium, a city which probably enjoyed, like the com munities of the Dalmatian coast, a certain degree of local inde pendence. If so, we may compare the policy of Theophilus in instituting the stratégos of the Klimata with control over the magistrates of Cherson.

It is to be noted that the Theme of Thrace did not include the region in the immediate neighbourhood of Constantinople, cut off by the Long Wall of Anastasius, who had made special provisions for the government of this region. In the ninth century it was still a separate circum scription, probably under the military command of the Count of the Walls, and Arabic writers designate it by the curious name Talaya or Talia.


Balkan and Italian Military Themes of The Empire

There were considerable differences in the ranks and salaries of the stratégoi. In the first place, it is to be noticed that the governors of the Asiatic provinces, the admirals of the naval Themes, and the stratégoi of Thrace and Macedonia were paid by the treasury, while the governors of the European Themes paid themselves a fixed amount from the custom dues levied in their own provinces. Hence for administrative purposes Thrace and Macedonia are generally included among the Asiatic Themes. The rank of patrician was bestowed as a rule upon the Anatolic, Armeniac, and Thrakesian stratégoi, and these three received a salary of 40 lbs. of gold (£1728).

The pay of the other stratégoi and kleisurarchs ranged from 36 to 12 lbs, but their stipends were somewhat reduced in the course of the ninth century. We can easily calculate that the total cost of paying the governors of the eastern provinces (including Macedonia and Thrace) did not fall short of £15,000.

In these provinces there is reason to suppose that the number of troops, who were chiefly cavalry, was about 80,000. They were largely settled on military lands, and their pay was small. The recruit, who began service at a very early age, received one nomisma (12s.) in his first year, two in his second, and so on, till the maximum of twelve (£7 : 4s), or in some cases of eighteen (£10 : 16s.), was reached.

The army of the Theme was divided generally into two, sometimes three, turms or brigades; the turm into drungoi or battalions; and the battalion into banda or companies. The corresponding commanders were entitled turmarchs, drungaries, and counts. The number of men in the company, the sizes of the battalion and the brigade, varied widely in the different Themes. The original norm seems to have been a bandon of 200 men and a drungos of 5 banda.

It is very doubtful whether this uniform scheme still prevailed in the reign of Theophilus. It is certain that at a somewhat later period the bandon varied in size up to the maximum of 400, and the drungos oscillated between the limits of 1000 and 3000 men. Originally the turm was composed of 5 drungoi (5000 men), but this rule was also changed. The number of drungoi in the turm was reduced to three, so that the brigade which the turmarch commanded ranged from 3000 upwards.

The pay of the officers, according to one account, ranged from 3 lbs. to 1 1b., and perhaps the subalterns in the company (the kentarchs and pentekontarchs) are included; but the turmarchs in the larger themes probably received a higher salary than 3 lbs. If We assume that the average bandon was composed of 300 men and the average drungos of 1500, and further that the pay of the drungary was 3 lbs., that of the count 2 lbs. and that of the kentarch 1 1b., the total sum expended on these oflicers would have amounted to about £64,000. But these assumptions are highly uncertain. _ Our data for the pay of the common soldiers form a still vaguer basis for calculation; but we may conjecture, with every reserve, that the salaries of the armies of the Eastern Themes, including generals and oflicers, amounted to not less than £500,000.

The armies of the Themes formed only one branch of the military establishment. There were four other privileged and _ difl'erently organized cavalry regiments known as the Tagmata : 2 (1) the Schools, (2) the Excubitors, (3) the Arithmos or Vigla, and (4) the Hikanatoi. The first three were of ancient foundation ; the fourth was a new institution of Nicephorus I., who created a child, his grandson Nicetas (afterwards the Patriarch Ignatius), its first commander. The commanders of these troops were entitled Domestics, except that of the Arithmos, who was known as the Drungary of the Vigla or Watch.


The Varangian Guard
An elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries,
 whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine EmperorsThey are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus' provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard.
(pinterest.com)


Some companies of these Tagmatic troops may have been stationed at Constantinople, where the Domestics usually resided, but the greater part of them were quartered in Thrace, Macedonia, and Bithynia. The question of their numbers is perplexing. We are variously told that in the ninth century they were each 6000 or 4000 strong, but in the tenth the numbers seem to have been considerably less, the strength of the principal Tagma, the Scholarians, amounting to no more than 1500 men. If we accept one of the larger figures for the reign of Theophilus, we must suppose that under one of his successors these troops were reduced in number.

The Domestic of the Schools preceded in rank all other military commanders except the stratégos of the Anatolic Theme, and the importance of the post is shown by the circumstance that it was filled by such men as Manuel and Bardas. In later times it became still more important; in the tenth century, when a military expedition against the Saracens was not led by the Emperor in person, the Domestic of the Schools was ex oficio the Commander-in-Chief The Drungary of the Watch and his troops were distinguished from the other Tagmata by the duties they performed as sentinels in campaigns which were led by the Emperor in person. The Drungary was responsible for the safety of the camp, and carried the orders of the Emperor to the generals.

Besides the Thematic and the Tagmatic troops, there were the Numeri, a regiment of infantry commanded by a Domestic ; and the forces which were under the charge of the Count or Domestic of the Walls, whose duty seems to have been the defence of the Long Wall of Anastasius. These troops played little part in history. More important was the Imperial Guard or Hetaireia, which, recruited from barbarians, formed the garrison of the Palace, and attended the Emperor on campaigns.

The care which was spent on providing for the health and comfort of the soldiers is illustrated by the baths at Dorylaion, the first of the great military stations in Asia Minor. This bathing establishment impressed the imagination of oriental visitors, and it is thus described by an Arabic writer :

"Dorylaion possesses warm springs of fresh water: over which the Emperors have constructed vaulted buildings for bathing. There are seven basins, each of which can accommodate a thousand men. The water reaches the breast of a man of average height, and the overflow is discharged into a small lake."

In military campaigns, careful provision was made for the wounded. There was a special corps of oflicers called deputat0i, whose duty was to rescue wounded soldiers and take them to the rear, to be tended by the medical staff. They carried flasks of water, and had two ladders attached to the saddles of their horses on the left side, so that, having mounted a fallen soldier with the help of one ladder, the deputatos could himself mount instantly by the other and ride off.

It is interesting to observe that not only did the generals and superior officers make speeches to the soldiers, in old Hellenic fashion, before a battle, but there was a band of professional orators, called cantatores, whose duty was to stimu late the men by their eloquence during the action. Some of the combatants themselves, if they had the capacity, might be chosen for this purpose. A writer on the art of war suggests the appropriate chords which the cantatores might touch, and if we may infer their actual practice, the leading note was religious. “ We are fighting in God’s cause; the issue lies with him, and he will not favour the enemy because of their unbelief.”

Eastern Roman Dromon
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Eastern Roman Navy

Naval necessities imposed an increase of expenditure for the defence of the Empire in the ninth century. The navy, which had been efiiciently organized under the Heraclian dynasty and had performed memorable services against the attacks of the Omayyad Caliphs, had been degraded in import ance and suffered to decline by the policy of the Isaurian monarchs.

We may criticize their neglect of the naval arm, but we must remember that it was justified by immediate impunity, for it was correlated with the simultaneous decline in the naval power of the Saracens. The Abbasids who trans ferred the centre of the Caliphate from Syria to Mesopotamia undertook no serious maritime enterprises. The dangers of the future lay in the west and not in the east,—in the ambitions of the Mohammadan rulers of Africa and Spain, whose only way of aggression was by sea. Sicily was in peril throughout the eighth century, and Constantine V. was forced to reorganize her fleet ; accidents and internal divisions among the Saracens helped to save her till the reign of Michael II.

We shall see in another chapter how the Mohammadans then obtained a permanent footing in the island, the beginning of its complete conquest, and how they occupied Crete. These events necessitated a new maritime policy. To save Sicily, to recover Crete, were not the only problems. The Imperial possessions in South Italy were endangered ; Dalmatia, the Ionian islands, and the coasts of Greece were exposed to the African fleets. It was a matter of the first importance to preserve the control of the Hadriatic. The reorganization of the marine estab lishment was begun by the Amorian dynasty, though its effects were not fully realized till a later period.

The naval forces of the Empire consisted of the Imperial fleet, which was stationed at Constantinople and commanded by the Drungary of the Navy, and the Provincial fleets of the Kibyrrhaeot Theme, the Aegean, Hellas, Peloponnesus, and Kephalonia. The Imperial fleet must now have been increased in strength, and the most prominent admiral of the age, Ooryphas, may have done much to reorganize it. An armament of three hundred warships was sent against Egypt in AD. 853, and the size of this force may be held to mark the progress which had been made. Not long after the death of Michael III. four hundred vessels were operating off the coast of Apulia.

We have some figures which may give us a general idea  of the cost of these naval expeditions. Attempts were made to recover Crete from the Saracens in AD. 902 and in A.D. 949, and the pay of officers and men for each of these expeditions, which were not on a large scale, amounted to over £140,000. This may enable us to form a rough estimate of the expenditure‘ incurred in sending armaments oversea in the ninth century. We may surmise, for instance, that not less than a quarter of a million (pounds sterling), equivalent in present value to a million and a quarter, was spent on the Egyptian expedition in the reign of Michael III.

Siege of Constantinople 717 AD

(pinterest.com)      (Byzantine Themes)      (Varangian Guard)

(hathitrust.org)      (Michael II)