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

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Viking Siege of Constantinople

Vikings!  -  Thank Odin for violent programming

The Siege of Constantinople of 860 was the only major military expedition of the Rus' Khaganate recorded in Byzantine and Western European sources.  But who the Rus' were is confusing at best.

In 838 two Rus' ambassadors arrived unexpectedly at Constantinople from the Black Sea. They were greeted warmly by the Emperor Theophilos who sent them on to the German Emperor Ludwig for safe passage home. Ludwig discovered the men were Swedes and was rightfully suspicious as Scandinavian Vikings had started to raid his empire.

This event marked the first appearance in the Roman East of Swedish Vikings also known as Varangians whom the Greeks called Rus. Commercial relations followed, and the Romans had no reason to suspect any hostility.

The Rus' Khaganate is the name applied to the Viking "state" in the poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe, roughly the late 8th and early-to-mid-9th centuries AD. How organized this state was in anyone's guess.

The Rus are described in all contemporary sources as being Norsemen, somewhere in what is today European Russia. The region was also a place of operations for Varangians, eastern Scandinavian adventurers, merchants, and pirates.

The possible cause of the siege was the construction of the fortress Sarkel by Roman engineers, restricting the Rus' trade route along the Don River in favor of the Khazars.

The Rus' under the walls of Constantinople.

A Viking ship is approached by Byzantines at Constantinople. (Credit: Michael Hampshire/National Geographic/Getty Images)


The Vikings’ opportunity came in 860 when Theophilus’ successor, Emperor Michael III, was away campaigning against the Arabs along the Syrian border, where he suffered a severe defeat due to his military incompetence (no doubt aided by his constant drunkenness).

The Empire was struggling to repel the Muslim Abbasid advance in Asia Minor. In March 860, the garrison of the key fortress Loulon unexpectedly surrendered to the Arabs. In April or May, both sides exchanged captives, and the hostilities briefly ceased; however, in the beginning of June, Emperor Michael III left Constantinople for Asia Minor to invade the Abbasid Caliphate.

Michael took with him all the elite Imperial Tagmata regiments normally stationed in and around Constantinople, leaving behind only the normal city garrison under the command of Urban Prefect Nicetas Oryphas. The capital’s extensive suburbs and the thickly settled shores and islands of the Sea of Marmara were therefore left defenseless

The much feared Roman Navy was also absent, having sailed in support of operations against the Normans and Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean and farther west against Danish Viking raids that had penetrated as far as Italy.

An Arab-Viking Coordinated Attack?

Rus' merchants having gone as far south as Baghdad passed along a great deal of intelligence to their lords in Russia.

I find it hard to believe that a large Viking naval strike force just happened to show up at Constantinople at the exact moment Emperor Michael had left with his army for the Syrian border. It is very possible that the Muslims in Baghdad and the Rus' merchants had worked out an agreement  for the Arabs to attack the Syrian border and draw the Roman army away from the city.

As for the Roman Navy, it was not a factor being already spread thin in many directions to the west far from Constantinople.

So suddenly at sunset on June 18, 860, “like a swarm of wasps,” according to Photios, the Archbishop of Constantinople, the Viking fleet of 200 ships emerged from the Bosporus, the narrow strait connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, to assault Constantinople. 

An army of 5,000 to 20,000 Vikings surged ashore, but Prefect Oryphas was an able man and shut the gates of the capital just in time. 

Here is where an Arab-Viking alliance seems likely. The amount of money, time and work needed to assemble a fleet of 200 ships and load them with an army is considerable.

Rus' merchants and spies would have known about the Tagmata regiments being permanently stationed around Constantinople. With those Imperial troops in place an attack on the city would have been a bloody battle with little loot.

So it is reasonable to assume that a Viking fleet would not have set sail on such a long voyage unless they knew the Emperor and his troops were being drawn away by the Arab attacks to the south.

Modern reconstruction of 6th century urban militiaman. His blue tunic marks him as a member of the “Blues Circus Fraction”. The double head eagle though appeared after the 14th century. Once the Vikings appeared the Urban Prefect of Constantinople Niketas Ooryphas would have called out the city militia to help man the walls.

The Vikings may indeed had been planning to rush the gates of the city at sunset in hopes of overpowering the limited number of city garrison troops on duty.  If that was the plan they failed.

The city was saved from falling to the Vikings' bold rush. At that point the Viking leaders, like so many invaders before and after, stood looking helplessly at the powerful walls and moat of Constantinople.

There was little the Vikings could do except burn and loot the unprotected suburbs and kill or enslave the inhabitants.

Having devastated the suburbs, the Rus' passed into the Sea of Marmora and fell upon the Isles of the Princes, where the former Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople was in exile at the time. The Rus' plundered the dwellings and the monasteries, slaughtering the captives. They took twenty-two of the patriarch's servants aboard ship and cut them into pieces with axes.

Constantinople was far from helpless. The inhabitants of the Empire’s urban areas were organized in groups along the lines of the Circus Fractions. These groups were called “Deimoi” and were headed by leaders called “Democrats”. 

These groups were organized as paramilitary formations with policing and military tasks. Among their tasks were keeping the city clean, performing fire service and the burial of the dead from the epidemics or war. Because they were not considered reliable in open battle, their main role during wartime, was the defense of the city walls in case of siege.

With the city garrison supplemented by militia the Viking hordes outside the walls could do little since they had no siege equipment.

Meanwhile military signal system would have alerted the Emperor and surrounding military units in Anatolia of the Viking attack.

The invasion continued until August 4. So after about a six week siege the Vikings packed up and left for home.

There was little point in the Vikings staying. Constantinople was easily holding off the Viking army and whatever loot there was outside the city walls was long ago collected. Add in that every day the Vikings stayed in place saw the Emperor and his army, and perhaps the Roman Navy, getting closer and closer.

A Long Trip For Nothing
Viking invaders meet the walls of Constantinople and come up short.

The Theodosian Walls

(Siege of Constantinople)    (archive.org)    (historynet.com)

(history.com)    (Siege of Constantinople)    (Kievan Rus)

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum

The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum 
oil painting (1889) by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

The Eastern Roman Empress Theodora (500AD - 548AD) has fascinated historians for over a thousand years.

The main historical sources for her life are the works of her contemporary Procopius. The historian offered three contradictory portrayals of the Empress.

  • The Wars of Justinian, largely completed in 545, paints a picture of a courageous and influential empress who saved the throne for Justinian.
  • Later he wrote the Secret HistoryThe work has sometimes been interpreted as representing a deep disillusionment with the Emperor Justinian, the Empress, and even his patron Belisarius. Justinian is depicted as cruel, venal, prodigal and incompetent; as for Theodora, the reader is treated to a detailed and titillating portrayal of vulgarity and insatiable lust, combined with shrewish and calculating mean-spiritedness; Procopius even claims both are demons whose heads were seen to leave their bodies and roam the palace at night.
  • Procopius' Buildings of Justinian paints Justinian and Theodora as a pious couple and presents particularly flattering portrayals of them. Besides her piety, her beauty is praised within the conventional language of the text's rhetorical form. Although Theodora was dead when this work was published, Justinian was alive, and perhaps commissioned the work.

(From Prisoners of Eternity)  Theodora was to become arguably the most powerful woman ever to emerge from the Roman Empire, 

She wasn’t born to such exalted status. Indeed, she was of no background whatsoever, neither was she from Rome nor Constantinople but from the remote village of Paphlagloria in Cyprus. Her mother, also Theodora, was an entertainer well vested in the art of seduction, a skill she passed on to her daughter. Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer working for the Green Faction in the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

The Hippodrome was the entertainment center of Constantinople and the venue for the hugely popular chariot races, but much like the Colosseum in Rome it was never just about sport it was a place for deal making, political intrigue, and often a seething cauldron of social discontent, a place of violence and intimidation where fist fights were commonplace, where the great and the good needed to be seen but feared to tread, and where religious disputes were settled in the arena and not the cloister. It was about who ruled, and the Factions who dominated could make and break regimes.

The Circus Factions – Blue, Green, Red and White – operated as rival gangs which were little better than criminal enterprises running prostitution rings and extortion rackets within their own spheres of influence. The rivalry between the Factions was fierce and often political and it was into this world of violence and corruption that Theodora was raised.

Theodora, whose father died when she was aged three, was invested into the life of the Factions early when her mother now destitute needing the support of at least one or other of the Factions to survive brought her and her two sisters into the Hippodrome on the day of the chariot races adorned in blue ribbons and wearing blue garlands and dedicated her life and those of her daughters to the Blue Faction. Though she had previously been a Green she knew that the Blue Faction represented the lower class and was by far the most numerous and powerful. It was to prove an astute move.

While still just a girl Theodora was made to work in a brothel to pay her way and she was obviously very good at what she did for she soon moved from servicing the sexual requirements of low class clients for pennies most of which was taken by the pimp that had been provided by the Faction to the more lucrative role of circus entertainer as a dancer and mime artist. 
Here she provided sexually explicit shows for the social elite. Particularly popular was her notoriously lascivious portrayal of Leda and the Swan where she would be stripped naked, lie on her back, and have barley sprinkled over her breasts and nether regions to be pecked at by geese.
She soon became a star attraction for the great and good of Constantinople and it was during a performance of Leda and the Swan that she met Antonia, the wife of Belisarius who would go onto become the Empire’s leading General and the future Emperor Justinian’s right-hand man. It was a valuable contact and they were to remain lifelong friends.
At the age of sixteen Theodora traveled to Libya as the mistress of its new Governor Hecebolus. If she believed this proffered the opportunity of a better life then she was to be bitterly disappointed for Hecebolus treated her like the whore he obviously thought she was. After she became pregnant he lost all interest in her. 
Abused, ill-treated and abandoned in AD 522 along with her young daughter she returned to Constantinople. She had no desire to return to her previous way of life and tried to make a living as a wool spinner but it was hard work and she barely made enough to maintain herself let alone her daughter.
The lure of the Circus Factions and the rewards on offer was to prove too greater a temptation and she was soon back to doing what she did best, seducing men for money.

A Rather Hot Empress Theodora 
by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)
Like Cleopatra, Theodora has been idealized as a smart and hot ruler. She was not just smart, but she was also a survivor.  
The odds are pretty good that Theodora really was hot.  A plain or ugly Theodora would not have been taken as the mistress of the Governor of Libya or appeared on stage nude before very demanding audiences.

A rather plain and stern version of the Empress at Ravenna done during her lifetime and completed in 547 the year before her death. If an artist knows what is good for him he will make his subject look better in art than in real life. So it is safe to say that we are not dealing with an idealized "hot" or "sexy" Theodora at this latter stage of her life.

The future Emperor Justinian, like Theodora was of humble origin. He had been born Petrus Sabbiatus in the town of Traeserium in Thrace, or modern day Serbia in AD 483. 

It appeared that his life was destined to be one of poverty and back-breaking toil in the fields but his mother, Virgiliana, was the sister of Justin the Commander of the Excubitors, or Imperial Guard in Constantinople. She was unable to cope raising her children on her own and appealed to her brother to allow the young Petrus to visit and remain with his uncle in the city. Justin, who had no children of his own, was happy to oblige.

Justin was to provide for the boys education and secure him a commission in the Imperial Guard. Petrus in turn took his uncle’s name calling himself Justinian and was to prove himself a capable, energetic, and ambitious young man. Justin was impressed by his nephew and he was promoted rapidly through the ranks of the Guard.

Emperor Justinian

In AD 518, the Emperor Anastasius died without an heir and the hard-working and ever loyal Justin became the obvious choice to succeed him. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Justinian, the rough peasant boy from Thrace was in-line to the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire.

As the nephew of the Emperor it was only proper that Flavius Justinianus, as he was now known, be provided with the title and honours that fitted his new exalted status, and he was appointed a Senator. 

He was described at this time as being: “Short in stature, with a good chest, fair skinned, curly haired, round faced and handsome.”

It was around this time that he met Theodora though as a supporter of the Blue Faction he would almost certainly have been already aware of her. He fell hopelessly in love with the undoubtedly beautiful young woman so well-schooled in the arts of seduction who was also highly intelligent, witty, straight talking and who could swear with the best of men, all traits considered unseemly in a woman but which appealed greatly to the equally roughly hewn Justinian. As far as he was concerned it was love at first sight.

Justinian was determined to make Theodora his wife but it was illegal for a Senator to marry beneath himself and a circus entertainer was about as low as it could possibly get so he petitioned his uncle Justin for a change in the law. The Empress Euphemia however despite being personally fond of Justinian and disinclined to deny him anything would not countenance any such thing and it wasn’t until after her death in AD 525 that he again approached Justin who had always been more malleable on the issue. He agreed to his nephews request and changed the law.

Justinian and Theodora were wed soon after but to little acclaim or public rejoicing. The elite of Constantinople were appalled believing he had brought the aristocracy into disrepute by marrying someone who was little better than a common whore. They were also offended that he had rejected many more suitable candidates from amongst themselves.

On 1 August AD 527, the elderly Emperor Justin died. In his declining years he had been displaying the signs of senility and had become increasingly reliant upon his nephew Justinian to run the Empire for him. He was the obvious choice to replace him.

Upon becoming Emperor it soon became apparent that he was no longer the amiable and approachable young man that he had once been but had become distant and aloof. He had always been deeply conscious of his humble background and lowly status at Court. Now both he, and in particular Theodora, became sticklers for Court ceremony. Government officials and even the most venerable of Senators were made to prostrate themselves in the Imperial couple’s presence.

If Justinian’s need to compensate for his poor Thracian background by forcing those who considered themselves his better into petty acts of obeisance wasn’t humiliation enough he now began to interfere in areas of governance that had previously been the fiefdom of others. But it was to be upon his wife that the greatest opprobrium would fall.
Procopius in his Secret History wrote of Theodora:
“Often she would attend a dinner party with ten young men or more all at the peak of their physical powers and with fornication as their chief object in life; and she would remain with her fellow diners all night long reducing them to state of physical exhaustion.”
He further went onto describe how:
“To her bodily needs she devoted quite unnecessary attention. She was always in a hurry to get into her bath, and was very reluctant to get out of it.”
The rumours of her insatiable sexual appetite and love of luxury were to persist throughout her life. It was said that Justinian was aware of her behaviour but turned a blind eye to it, that he was willing to indulge her in almost anything. Indeed, many people believed that it was Theodora who was running the Empire. It wasn’t true but her influence was undoubted and in time Justinian was to take the unprecedented step of making her co-Regent and they were to go on to form one of the most remarkable working partnerships in world history.
Circa 1890: French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume as 'Theodora'.

Sarah Bernhardt

Many of the acts of Justinian’s reign were taken at the prompting of Theodora at a time when a woman was expected to be decorous and obedient and little else. To many people this was either a sign of weakness and unfitness to rule on his part or that she was a witch and had cast a spell over him.

Justinian focused on the law, Theodora turned her attention to civil and religious matters.

Both Justinian and Theodora were Christians, as were many of the political and social elite, but many of the common people still worshiped the old Gods. Under pressure from Theodora, Justinian legislated against pagan belief. Those civil servants who held onto their pagan beliefs were removed from their posts. Those who publicly converted to Christianity but continued to worship the old religion in private were liable to execution for heresy. Theodora was also instrumental in forcing through anti-Jewish legislation and many of Constantinople’s Synagogues were torn down.
Theodora was also responsible for encouraging a moral crackdown. Homosexuality was publicly condemned, brothels were closed down, and those caught committing a homosexual act were publicly castrated encouraging vigilantes to roam the streets inflicting their own form of rough justice. Gambling was also banned and the punishment for doing so was to have your hands severed. 
Both Justinian and Theodora were playing a dangerous game for both prostitution and gambling provided a substantial source of income for the Factions and in curtailing their activities the Imperial couple were inviting their wrath.
On 10 January AD 532, the City Prefect Eudaemon arrested a number of hooligans following a riot at the chariot races that had resulted in the murder of a man. Most of the culprits were executed in short order but two escaped when the scaffold they were standing on whilst waiting to be hanged collapsed.
The two men, one from the Blue Faction and the other from the Green were soon recaptured but escaped once more this time fleeing to a nearby Church where they sought sanctuary. The Church was soon surrounded by supporters of both the Factions demanding that the men be permitted to go free.
A nervous Justinian, aware that he had already stretched the patience of the Factions to breaking point and not wanting to inflame the situation further announced that the men’s sentence had been commuted from death to life imprisonment and to try and placate them further announced that there would be chariot races held the following day. Both the Blue and the Green Faction remained adamant that their men be released without charge.
Lady Randolph Churchill as Theodora

On 13 January, a large crowd converged on the Hippodrome to watch the chariot races that had been promised and the tension was palpable. As Justinian viewed proceedings from his royal box in the Imperial Palace overlooking the vast arena he could hear the murmurings, the jeers, and the abusive chants being leveled at both him and in particular his wife. As the day began to draw to its close and following Race 22 the crowd many of whom were by this time clearly intoxicated began to chant in unison Nika! Nika! ( Victory! Victory! ). 
Justinian tried to address the crowd but was shouted down. They then tried to storm the Imperial Palace and the guards were hard-pressed to keep them out, but they did not go away and for the next five days the Emperor was effectively besieged in his own Palace as the mob rampaged through the streets of Constantinople looting shops and setting much of it alight, and he was forced to watch in impotent rage as they torched his beloved Church of Hagia Sophia. In a further attempt to placate the mob he fired a number of unpopular Ministers but rather than calm the situation this just seemed to embolden them even further.
It seems unlikely that the Nika Riots as they became known were entirely spontaneous. Many leading members of the aristocracy, most of whom had connections to the Factions, had long been offended by Justinian’s humble origins, his arrogant manner, and his overbearing whore of a wife. That the mob was being manipulated by leading politicians and opponents of Justinian’s reign is borne out by the specific political demands they now began to make. They demanded that the Chief Tax Collector John of Cappadoaccia be removed along with the Magistrate Tribonian who had been pivotal in helping Justinian rewrite the legal code. Justinian indicated that he might be willing to do so but a furious Theodora refused to contemplate any such thing and demanded that not only should they remain but he should stand firm. As a result, the Factions now declared for Hypatius the nephew of a former Emperor Anastasius I.
Justinian was at a loss what to do and was all for fleeing the city. He still had access to the sea and boats had been prepared for a swift evacuation but Theodora was not going anywhere. She may have been born in obscurity but she would die an Empress. She told her husband in no uncertain terms:
“May I never be separated from the purple. If now it is your wish to save yourself Emperor, then it is no problem, for we have much money and here is the sea, the boats. However, having saved yourself consider the day when you would not have exchanged your security for death. Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as Empress. Purple makes a fine funeral shroud.”
Justinian was both shamed and emboldened by his wife’s steadfastness and courage. Having regained his composure he would after all fight for his crown.
A plan was devised for the recapture of the city and it was a cunning and audacious plan that carried the stamp of Theodora upon it. A popular eunuch by the name of Narses would approach the Factions still populating the Hippodrome to address them on behalf of the Emperor. In the meantime, the General’s Bellisarius and Mundus would ready the Imperial Army to retake the streets.
Narses entered the Hippodrome alone. It was a brave thing to do, hundreds had already been killed and anyone associated with the Emperor was liable to be swiftly dispatched. Carrying a bag of gold he walked directly over to where the Blue Faction were gathered and reminded them that both the Emperor and the Empress were Blues and that their intended replacement Hypatius was a supporter of their deadly rivals the Green Faction. He then began to distribute the gold amongst the leading members of the Blue Faction telling them that the friends of the Emperor would always be well rewarded. Following a brief discussion the members of the Blue Faction began to leave the Hippodrome en masse. 
It left those remaining stunned but they had little time to vent their anger for as the Blue Faction left, the Imperial troops moved in. A bloody massacre ensued as the much diminished and lightly armed demonstrators were brutally cut down. The troops then stormed onto the streets and over the next three days as many as 30,000 people were killed as the Nika Riots reached their bloody denouement. Order had been restored and Hypatius and many of those who had supported him were rounded up and executed.
In his Secret History Procopius tells us of an Empress consumed by vulgarity and insatiable lust. Procopius even claims that both the evil Emperor and Empress took on demon forms to roam the palace at night.  Read More . . . .

In the wake of the Nika Riots Justinian and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople, grand bridges and aqueducts soon adorned the city, spectacular Churches were constructed, and Hagia Sophia restored to its former glory. Together they were to transform it into the most splendid city in the world, but in truth it was just papering over the cracks. Justinian had barely survived the greatest crisis of his reign. He was living on borrowed time and like many bankrupt regimes before and since he looked to war abroad to restore his authority at home. In AD 534 his great General Bellisarius brought to heel the Vandals in North Africa returning to parade their leader Gelimer and vast amounts of plunder around the Hippodrome to cheering crowds. Five years later in AD 539 he invaded and recaptured much of Italy.
These were the golden years of his reign but he knew more than anyone just how overstretched the Empire was and how close to economic collapse.
Whilst Justinian gloried in the success of his Generals and fretted over the paucity of his treasury, Theodora dictated domestic policy becoming the great social reformer and her overriding concern was always the position of women. She passed laws that permitted women to divorce and retain control over their own property, she provided mother’s with guardianship rights over their children and banned the exposure of unwanted infants. She also abolished the death penalty for women convicted of adultery and instigated it for men convicted of rape.
Theodora also banned forced prostitution and closed the brothels which caused a great deal of antipathy towards her not only from those who made their fortunes from it but also the many rich and powerful men who were their regular customers. She was accused of hypocrisy not only because of her own rumoured behaviour but because she had made her own name performing sexually explicit shows in the very places she was now closing.
Women could still prostitute themselves voluntarily if they chose but she did not expect them to and her punishments could be harsh for those who did not comply with her wishes. She had a convent built supposedly for women who wanted to escape the brothels which was in reality a prison for those who refused to mend their ways. Here they were kept under lock and key, made to do hard labour, and were neglected and half-starved. Indeed, such was the stigma attached to prostitution that many women who became the subject of abuse were afraid to report it to the Authorities in case they fell into Theodora’s net.
Theodora could be harsh and unforgiving and was utterly ruthless but the reforms she instigated were to be significant and lasting. She took the rights of women seriously and was to raise their status in Byzantine society to unprecedented levels. Indeed, to the point where they were almost the equal of men making her one of the earliest great feminist icons. Even Procopius felt compelled to write “She was inclined to help women in hardship,” though it remains doubtful if this was intended as a compliment.
On 28 June AD 548, Theodora who had been ill for some time, died, aged 48. The likely cause was breast cancer. Justinian was utterly distraught. At her funeral he wept uncontrollably and had to be steadied and led away. It was perceived as unseemly for an Emperor to display such raw emotion in public.
Without Theodora things were never the same. In AD 550 Rome was recaptured briefly uniting the Western and Eastern Empires for the last time earning Justinian the title of the Last Great Roman. It was to be a last hurrah.
The latter years of his reign saw the Empire in the grip of plague. A devastating famine had seen taxation rise to punitive levels and following the death of Bellisarius, Justinian had been reduced to buying off the Empire’s enemies. It seemed to many that the Empire was teetering on the brink of collapse.
In his final few years Justinian who had always been renowned as a bundle of energy and was said to be the Emperor Who Never Sleeps could often be found in the early hours wandering the vast corridors of the Imperial Palace alone muttering to himself. Now he could no longer sleep tormented by his loss. His distress gained him little sympathy, many still sought to vent their anger on the peasant Emperor who had married a whore whereas others just thought him senile.
Justinian, the last great Emperor of Rome died neglected, alone and little mourned on 14 November AD 565, aged 83.
For Theodora, marriage was the the "holiest of all institutions", as Diehl (1979) highlights. Her convictions were fully supported thanks to a range of laws that 
expanded the rights of women.

A first big step was taken thanks to the legitimization of marriages between men and women of different social classes. With regards to this, a marriage between a citizen and an ex-slave woman, or one who has been an actress, was to remain intact, even if the husband was made a senator. A similar reform allowed senators to marry the daughters of tavern-keepers or pimps. Dowry, in addition, was described as 
strictly unnecessary and being rejected on the basis of not having one was strictly prohibited. As the law stated: “mutual affection is what creates a marriage”. In other words, the main prerequisite for a marriage has been defined as the consent from both the woman and the man.

(Empress Theodora)     (diggitmagazine.com)     (Theodora)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Crest of an Emperor

I Love Reenactors

They not only have an intense love for their subject, but often have a deep knowledge of strange and obscure areas of history.

This photo from Facebook is a beautiful recreation of might have been. This could very well be similar to the feathered helmet of the Emperor Justinian below.

Flavius Stilicho
Really pleased with the new crest! Robert Pustelak is a master of course! Iconographic as well as textual sources give us a clear picture as to what kind of feathers would have been used for the crest of an emperor of the dominate.

Contemporary drawing of the equestrian 
statue of Justinian (1430).

The Column of Justinian was a Roman triumphal column erected in Constantinople by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I in honor of his victories in 543. It stood in the western side of the great square of the Augustaeum, between the Hagia Sophia and the Great Palace, and survived until the early 16th century, when it was demolished by the Ottomans.

The column of Justinian stood on the south-west of Hagia Sophia and was nearly as high as its dome. The column was built of brick and covered with a bronze sheating. On its top there was a statue of Emperor Justinian (527-565) on horseback, the left hand holding a globe, the right hand raised and pointing to the east. 

The column was made of brick, and covered with brass plaques. The column stood on a marble pedestal of seven steps, and was topped by a colossal bronze equestrian statue of the emperor in triumphal attire (the "dress of Achilles" as Procopius calls it), wearing an antique-style muscle cuirass, a plumed helmet of peacock feathers (the toupha), holding a globus cruciger on his left hand and stretching his right hand to the East. 

Read More . . . .

Computer recreation of the Column of Justinian

Monday, July 15, 2019

Did Roman Legionaries Wear Red Tunics?

Classic Roman Red Uniforms

Roman and Byzantine Uniforms

  • What we know about Roman and then Eastern Roman uniforms is minimal and perhaps mostly wrong. As for the use of the color "red", it may not have been used too much more than other colors.
  • If red was a dominant color in a united Roman Army I doubt that it continued too long once the East broke off from Rome. Over time an independent East would have started to establish its own military traditions.

Hollywood costume departments have perhaps poisoned our history.  The "classic" red Roman uniform used in so many movies may have never existed. Instead the "uniforms" might have been mix of whatever happened to be available.

We have more evidence about uniforms for the purely Roman period, still even that is limited.

But on January 17, 395 Theodosius I (r. 379-95), the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire died.  The day before on January 16th, Emperor Theodosius commanded Roman troops stationed from Mesopotamia to Morocco to England to Bulgaria.  But at some point on the 17th a sole commander-in-chief of the Roman military machine died.

The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale). 

For many decades to come the Eastern Roman Army would not have looked or acted much different from its Western counterpart.  Any changes in uniforms, unit structure and tactics would have been very gradual.  

The early American Republic shows how rapidly uniforms can change. Between 1776 and World War I the U.S. Army had six distinct uniform styles - Revolution, 1812, Mexican War, Civil War-Indian Wars, Spanish-Philippine Wars and the WWI.

If American uniforms could change so rapidly in basically a 150 year period, the possible changes in Roman and Byzantine uniforms over centuries could be considerable and perhaps mostly undocumented.

Where the color red fit in is anybody's guess.

Military of the Roman Republic and Empire wore loosely regulated dress and armor. The contemporary concept of uniforms was not part of Roman culture and there were considerable differences in detail. Armor was not standardized and even that produced in state factories varied according to the province of origin. 
Likewise the Romans had no concept of obsolescence. Provided it remained serviceable, soldiers were free to use armor handed down by family members, buy armor from soldiers who had completed their service or wear discontinued styles of armor if they preferred it to (or could not afford) the latest issue. Thus it was common for legions to wear a mix of various styles that could cover a considerable time period.
Fragments of surviving clothing and wall paintings indicate that the basic tunic of the Roman soldier was of red or undyed off-white wool
Senior commanders are known to have worn white cloaks and plumes. The centurions who made up the long serving backbone of the legions were distinguished by transverse crests on their helmets, chest ornaments corresponding to modern medals and the long cudgels that they carried.

Ever changing uniforms
Eastern Empire troops about 530 AD.  The great General Belisarius directs his soldiers.  The painting is the artist's view. It could be dead on or far from the mark. Were the uniforms more "Roman" with red cloth? or had the army totally changed? No one knows for sure. 
We do have the historian Procopius discussing weapons, armor and tactics in the 500s. The troops being clad in red (or in any other color) is not brought up.

reenactor dressed as a Roman soldier in lorica segmentata - a type of personal armor used by soldiers of the Roman Empire, consisting of metal strips ("girth hoops" fashioned into circular bands), fastened to internal leather straps.

(From Imperium Romanum) - In films, historical reconstructions and illustrations, Roman legionaries are dressed in red tunics. But in reality, did the ancient Romans in the army have a unified dress, which was mainly made up of red?
At the beginning, it should be noted what was symbolized by the red color. In the Romans’ sense, it was the color and symbol of Mars – the god of war and the mythological father of twins Romulus and Remus. Thus, red was of great importance in the public sphere of the Romans, who considered themselves a warlike people, coming directly from Mars.
On the battlefield the red tunic worn under the armor represented blood and strength. Certainly, the compact line of Roman infantry, dressed in red, had a psychological impact on the enemy army, which perceived it as strong and valiant.

Fresco from the Doctor’s House in Pompeii showing three Roman soldiers: two in white tunics and one in red tunic.

We do not have any hard evidence that the legionaries were wearing only red (as we commonly see). You need to know that the soldiers themselves took care of their wardrobe and often, for example, received parcels from their families, including with tunics. Thus, they certainly had more than one. What’s more, there was no requirement for unified weapons and clothing. And yes, soldiers had different types of armor (depending on what they could afford) and different colors of tunics.
It also happened that the generals confiscated the fabrics in a given area and assigned them to the attire for soldiers. There was no top-down command to use only red. In addition, one should also take into account the fact that there were various access to individual dyes at different latitudes. The cheap color in Egypt did not necessarily have to cost as much as Britain.
The price itself was also a big barrier. Legionnaires did not earn much money, and the tunic during service was easy to get dirty and destroyed. Probably the tunic was losing its color after many washes, and gray-bure colors predominated. It is certain that tunic in natural colors was worn, i.e. from white, through shades of gray, browns to black. During the ceremony, specially prepared snow-white tunics were set up.
The proof that the soldiers were serving in various colors of tunics is a fresco from one of the houses in Pompeii. We can see there two legionaries in white tunics, and one in red clothes.
It can certainly be said, however, that red was the most popular because of the cheapness of its production. White and dark colors (i.e. dark brown) probably predominated. Among the higher command of the legion appeared more expensive – “red scarlet”. The most expensive purple, in turn, was reserved for generals, and later only for emperors.
When it comes to Roman soldiers and rowers serving in the sea fleet, we know that they had blue tunics thanks to a Vegetius (writer from the 4th century CE).

Late Roman Reenactors
All colors are represented

Postings from the Quora website

Tim O'Neill, Head Inquisitor against bad history.

Our evidence for the colour of tunics worn by Roman soldiers is scanty and not absolutely certain.  Judging from traces of paint on some funerary monuments, some wall paintings, references in Roman historians and literature and archaeological finds, the most common colour for legionary tunics was off-white - i.e. undyed and untreated wool.  The second most common colour seems to have been a deep brownish red.  The latter was not the result of any expensive dye and was made using dried madder root: one of the cheapest and most common dyes of the time.  Parade dress seems to have required a special dress tunic made of bleached wool.

We have some other evidence of officers wearing blue tunics, as well as some evidence of green and mustard yellow.  But in the Late Republican and Early Imperial Periods, off-white and then madder red would have been the most common colours.

For more details see Graham Sumner, Roman Military Clothing Vol. 1 - 100 BC - AD 200 (Osprey: 2002).  Sumner gathers all the evidence we have on the subject and makes the most reasonable assessment we can come to on the subject.

Soldiers wearing blue.

The basis for the idea of red as a uniform colour is archaeological- we have evidence that some soldiers wore red-dyed coloured clothes.
The problem with the idea of a uniform colour however is rather obvious:
  1. Just because you find evidence of one colour in one instance does not mean everyone, everywhere that served as a Roman soldier wore the same colour, certainly not the same shade. We have no evidence pointing either direction- it’s possible it was a uniform colour, but it’s also possible it is not.
  2. Roman soldiers would wear armour over the red clothes, so the effectiveness of a uniform would not be very useful.
  3. Colours and clothes fade, whereas banners and shields are much more practical uses for visually identifying who was friendly or not. There are accounts where soldiers took up shields to confuse the enemy.
  4. As another user pointed out, higher ranking officers would have wanted more distinctive clothing and armour, so there would have been resistance to some sort of institutional uniform colour.
As for the movies, this is clearly done for dramatic and simplified purposes- it is easy to make sure everyone knows who is a Roman when you just have them dressed in segmental armour and red tunics. In reality though, for much of Rome’s republican history they looked very much like Gauls, especially given that their equipment were ripoffs of Celtic gear.
The economic costs is also another interesting subject- because Roman troops in the republican period were citizen levies (they brought and paid for their own gear), they would likely skimp on the issue of colour dye as part of their budget- the stipends they received for service was incredibly small. We’re talking money allowance of ten bucks to cover for your lunch, when your lunch is like 9 bucks. If you or I was a Roman soldier we wouldn’t even bother with the red dye since it’s not even effective.
Another user pointed out parade dress, this is a more likely answer. Flashy red dye would make for a nice scene when you march in a triumph, and of course you’d want to make yourself look good for the crowd. In all other circumstances you’d likely not care.
There is debate on whether legionaries among centuries or maniples would outfit themselves with different colours to assist in identification; so that group of men next to yours might wear green whereas the guys behind wear yellow, etc. This is entirely plausible, but there is still the economic part- you have to make sure you got all the colours for everyone, which explains why many people find this unlikely.

Scotts Photo Art

Jason Almendra, Most Viewed Writer History 6Feb19/14May19 392k views

Actually I get the impression from all the material I've seen or read that the Roman Legions looked somewhat ragtag. Armor was non-standard. If a legionaire brought his grandpa's old armor & sword he wore it. So some guys wore lorica segmentata & some wore lorica hamata. There was a fresco that showed that only the officer like the tribunii & the legates wore red tunics. Like the British army they used a red dye from the madder plant. The soldiers also wore a red cloak in bad weather called the sagum. Their civilian togas were plain white with a stripe from the murex snail dye. Broad for the senatorial class & thin for the equites class.

Uniform was not a concept at that time. So colors of the the tunics worn by different men in the same unit could vary. There were exceptions for special unit like palace guards (the candidati in Byzantium for example are thought to have worn all white tunics). 

I personally think that, while undyed wool was the cheapest choice (and therefore this wa probably what you would get from an imperial depot) madder-dyed tunics would have the great advantage of not showing the stains. I don't mean blood stains, but simply the rust stains produced by the armour rubbing against a sweated tunic, plus the stains from the oil used to keep the armour clean. Added to this, the famous Spartans were said to wear red, which would be an additional incentive so see red as martial. So I think (just out of my brain, without evidence) that red-brown could in fact be popular choice among soldiers.

"The last legionaries, The Late Roman Army" Tarraco Viva 2019

Ian Miller, Independent physical scientist, author

The red dyes most readily come from madder when mordanted with alum. Weld mordants to give a very nice yellow, and they were the main dyes available. Indigo was imported from India, but was difficult to get. The Imperial purple came from thousands of shellfish and part of the reason it was reserved for the Imperial family was that it was so rare. Woad is much the same as indigo, and the indigo is a different sort of dye it is nor fixed by mordanting, so you can get a purple by lightly coating a red with indigo, and a green by overseeing weld with woad.
Th fact is that many plant dyes give reds or browns, so they would be the most commonly used. Part of the reason for dyeing wool with mordant dyeing is also that it lasts longer.

Stan Harris, Interested in ancient history.

The Roman armies spanned many centuries of the republic and empire, but I speculate that except for special units like bodyguards for the Consul, Emperor and suchlike, soldiers dress would've been rather drab and nondescript.

Soldiers back then didn't actually wear "uniform" in the sense that we use the word today.

A common legionnaire would've probably worn a simple tunic and cape (in colder weather) in a commonly available color.

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