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

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Fortress of Apollonia in Cyrenaica

The Byzantine Palace in Apollonia with the Eastern Basilica in the background. The previous use was as a Roman military commander's house.

Apollonia - African Military Base

  • As the capital of the Roman province of Libya Superior, the walled port of Apollonia would have been a military hub for the region. The army would keep the peace against inland tribal raiders while the navy would drop in for supplies while on patrol.

Apollonia in Cyrenaica (modern Libya) was founded by Greek colonists and became a significant commercial center in the southern Mediterranean. It served as the harbor of Cyrene, 20 km (12 mi) to the southwest.
An earthquake damaged the city in 365, but it survived, although many ancient buildings were destroyed. Nevertheless, Apollonia became more important than it had ever been, because in the fifth century, the interior was abandoned to the Libyan Laguatan nomads.
The port remained one of the last bases of Byzantine troops during the Muslim invasions.  There were several new building projects, like the easterncentral, and western basilicas.
The town, refortified during the Ananeosis ("renewal") but in the end conquered by the Arabs, was abandoned in the Middle Ages.
Apollonia became autonomous from Cyrene at latest by the time the area came within the power of Rome, when it was one of the five cities of the Libyan Pentapolis, growing in power until, in the 6th century A.D., it became the capital of the Roman province of Libya Superior or Libya Pentapolitana. 
The city became known as Sozusa, which explains the modern name of Marsa Susa or Susa, which grew up long after the cessation of urban life in the ancient city after the Arab invasion of AD 643.
The early foundation levels of the city of Apollonia are below sea level due to submergence in earthquakes, while the upper strata of the later Byzantine Christian periods are several meters above sea level, built on the accumulated deposits of previous periods.
The Palace was last used as the Byzantine Duke's Palace and contains over 100 rooms. The previous use was as a Roman military commander's house.
The well-preserved Greek theater stands facing the sea outside the old city walls. The cavea has 28 seat levels.

Apollonia was founded as the port of Cyrene. In case of an emergency, like the Arab invasions in the late 600s, the walls had to be defended. The walls of Apollonia, therefore, do not date back to the oldest stage of occupation, but were built in the Hellenistic Age. They are very well preserved, especially in the southeast.

Gate going to the central court of the palace.

The Palace of Apollonia

Apollonia was made capital of a newly created province, Libya Superior, by the emperor Diocletian (r.284-305). It was renamed Sosouza ("savioress"), probably after a goddess who was venerated here (Isis?). The military leader of the region, the dux, built his palace in the city, and rebuilt the original wall from the third century BCE, which was next to it.

The photo above shows one of the gates that gave access to the central court. As you can see, a cross was cut into the stone over this door: a memory of the Christianization of the Roman empire during the reign of Constantine the Great (r.306-337) and his son Constantius II (r.337-361). 

The palace once had two stories, but only the rooms on the ground floor - where the governor received his guests - remain. There were two large villas near this monument, which were probably used as an annex to the palace.

Apollonia became especially important in the fifth century, when the interior was abandoned to the Laguatan nomads (Synesius of Cyrene describes these disastrous years in his Catastasis). The port remained one of the last bases of the Byzantine troops and the palace of the dux must have been one of the most important military buildings in the Cyrenaica.

According to Procopius, the Byzantine Empress Theodora spent several years in the palace of Apollonia, as mistress of a governor named Hecebolus. Later, she married Justinian (527-565) and became one of the most powerful women from Antiquity.

Reconstruction of the port of Apollonia

The port of Apollonia was built around two or three natural harbors, which have disappeared beneath the waves in 365 CE, when a giant tidal wave destroyed the coast of northern Africa. It seems that the inner harbor - which was surrounded by quays and store houses - was used for warships, and the outer harbor for merchant ships. 

In the eastern part were a large mole and a lighthouse. This mole and the outer harbor were built by the Romans; the inner harbor appears to be Greek.

In 1987, a small ship (thirteen meters long) was discovered; the remains are now in the museum of Sousa.

Port facilities
Apollonia was an important port for commerce in North Africa. 

Apollonia, bathhouse and port
The Bathhouse

The Bathhouse was built during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138). Probably, the court that is the core of the bathhouse is the peristyle of an older house: many Greek houses from the Hellenistic age were built around a garden-court (cf. the Villa of the Four Seasons Mosaic in Ptolemais and the Villa of Jason Magnus in Cyrene).

Today, you can still see the courtyard, which was once surrounded with Corinthian columns, and must have been used by people doing their athletic exercises (palaestra). Also visible are the real baths, which were still in use in the fourth century. The original entrance must have been to the north, where the main road of Apollonia used to be until, in 365, a large tidal wave destroyed much of the city. After that, the Baths were abandoned; it seems that people were living in the old monument.

Defensive city walls of Apollonia

Military and Civil Administration

Egypt was formed into a separate diocese in about 381. According to the Notitia Dignitatum, which for the Eastern part of the Empire dates to ca. 401, the diocese came under a vicarius of the praetorian prefecture of the East, with the title of praefectus augustalis, and included six provinces:
  • Aegyptus (western Nile delta), originally established in the early 4th century as Aegyptus Iovia, under a praeses
  • Augustamnica (eastern Nile delta), originally established in the early 4th century as Aegyptus Herculia, under a corrector
  • Arcadia (central), established ca. 397 and having previously briefly listed in the 320s as Aegyptus Mercuria, under a praeses
  • Thebais (southern), under a praeses
  • Libya Inferior or Libya Sicca, under a praeses
  • Libya Superior or Pentapolis, under a praeses

6th Century Eastern Roman Soldier

Parallel to the civil administration,
the Roman army in Egypt had been placed under a single general and military governor styled dux (dux Aegypti et Thebaidos utrarumque Libyarum) in the Tetrarchy
Shortly after the creation of Egypt as a separate diocese (between 384 and 391), the post evolved into the comes limitis Aegypti, who was directly responsible for Lower Egypt, while the subordinate dux Thebaidis was in charge of Upper Egypt (Thebais). 
In the middle of the 5th century, however, the latter was also promoted to the rank of comes (comes Thebaici limitis). The two officers were responsible for the limitanei (border garrison) troops stationed in the province, while until the time of Anastasius I the comitatenses field army came under the command of the magister militum per Orientem, and the palatini (guards) under the two magistri militum praesentales in Constantinople.
The comes limitis Aegypti enjoyed great power and influence in the diocese, rivalling that of the praefectus augustalis himself. From the 5th century, the comes is attested as exercising some civilian duties as well, and from 470 on, the offices of comes and praefectus augustalis were sometimes combined in a single person.
This tendency to unite civil and military authority was formalized by Justinian I in his 539 reform of Egyptian administration. The diocese was effectively abolished, and regional ducates established, where the presiding dux et augustalis was placed above the combined civil and military authority:
  • dux et augustalis Aegypti, controlling Aegyptus I and Aegyptus II
  • dux et augustalis Thebaidis, controlling Thebais superior and Thebais inferior
  • Augustamnica I and Augustamnica II were likewise probably — the relevant portion of the edict is defective — were placed under a single dux et augustalis
  • in the two Libyan provinces, the civil governors were subordinated to the respective dux
  • Arcadia remained under its praeses, probably subordinated to the dux et augustalis Thebaidos, and a dux et augustalis Arcadiae does not appear until after the Persian occupation of 619–629.

Apollonia, central basilica, baptistery

Apollonia, central basilica

Apollonia, east basilica, mosaics

Apollonia in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) after Alexander

From Megas Alexandros

In 322 BC, the year after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy I who had established himself as ruler of Egypt conquered five Libyan cities. They are collectively known as thePentapolis and include beside Cyrene, the cities of Apollonia, Ptolemais or Barca,Arsinoe or Taucheira (modern Tocra) and Euesperides or Berenice (near modern Benghazi). In those days, Cyrenaica was part of greater Egypt and often simply assimilated to Egypt itself. 

The region was very fertile and produced wheat and barley, as well as olive oil and wine; the orchards in turn were filled with fig and apple-trees; sheep and cattle roamed widely; and above all, this was the only place in the world where silphium grew, a natural medicine, a contraceptive and aphrodisiac.

In an earlier post, I already wrote about Cyrene (see: Cyrene, founded by the Greeks), so this time I’ll concentrate onApollonia, now renamed Susa in today’s eastern Libya, the most obvious choice since it was the harbor for majestic Cyrene only some twenty kilometers further inland.

Apollonia was founded by Greek colonists as early as the 7th century BC and during the fourth century BC the harbor facilities were widely improved, sheltering the berths against the strong northern winds. On the west side a new inland port was constructed, protected by two towers while on the most eastern island a lighthouse was installed. It was only in the first century BC that Apollonia became a city in its own right. Not for long, however, since upon Ptolemy III’s death in 96 BC the entirePentapolis, including Cyrene and Apollonia was bequeathed to the Romans who just moved a step closer to Egypt itself …

Apollonia was part of The Diocese of Egypt which was a diocese of the later Roman Empire (from 395 the Eastern Roman Empire), incorporating the provinces of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Its capital was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis ("Augustal Prefect", of the rank vir spectabilis; previously the governor of the imperial 'crown domain' province Egypt) instead of the ordinary vicarius. The diocese was initially part of the Diocese of the East, but in ca. 380, it became a separate entity, which lasted until its territories were finally overrun by the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 640s.

Today’s visitor to Apollonia will only find half of the antique city as the other half lies under water. Northern Africa has suffered badly from a devastating earthquake that occurred in 365 AD, causing the entire coastline to drop by four meters. The phenomena is clearly visible here in Apollonia where the old harbor is entirely drowned and the three off-shore islands is all that remains of the northern pier. This explains why the city doesn’t have the appeal of a harbor, and certainly not one to serve a city as important as Cyrene. Apparently shipwrecks from the fourth century BC have been located in the antique harbor where French archeologists were diving during my visit in 2010. I hate to think about what has happened since.

Anyway, Apollonia’s remains are mainly Byzantine, with three Basilicas: the western Basilica with three naves; the central Basilica with five naves; and to the far end the eastern Basilica, the largest, from the 6th century with an exceptional Baptistery because it counts six steps instead of the normal three. My local guide tells me that in the Byzantine era the purpose of this Baptistery was not to baptize people in order to convert them but to receive forgiveness for their sins. One submersion would cleanse the believer from small sins, but for more serious offenses five or six submersions would be required. I never heard of this theory but it may be a logical explanation for the great number of baptisteries in these churches.

Next to the central Basilica are the remains of a Roman Bath, whose lay-out, except for the entrance gate, is rather confusing. That is no surprise when you think how the Byzantines liked to re-model Roman buildings or re-use their stones elsewhere.

Alongside the Byzantine city wall and approximately across from the Roman Baths, lies the Palace of the Dux, the Byzantine governor Hekobolius from the 6th century, i.e. the time when Apollonia was the capital of the Pentapolis. The palace itself has not much to offer but the story that goes with it is rather interesting. For nearly six years, this Hekobolius kept an extremely good looking mistress called Theodora. One day she happened to be dancing in Constantinople for Emperor Justinian who fell in love head over heels and married her soon after. This is how Empress Theodora arrived at the imperial court where she lived happily ever after … Well, this marriage lasted about twenty years and Theodora died before Justinian, on 28 June 548.

There are more remains of Apollonia that have not yet been excavated, including the Acropolis at the far end of the site. Outside the city-wall lies the inevitable Roman theater (although built on an earlier Greek one) that now lies near the shoreline. According to an inscription found near the podium, it was built in 92 AD during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This is the best preserved theater of theCyrenaica in spite being used as a quarry by the Byzantines.

A last glance over Apollonia makes me realize that the restored columns of the different Basilicas are the most notable features, but that is primarily because of their texture. All these columns are made of cipolin marble, imported from the islandof Euboea before the coast of easternGreeceCipolin is the Italian name for onions and is used to describe this kind of marble which, like onion skins, appears in green-greyish streaks – a very appropriate name, I must say.

Walking back along the coastline, my attention is drawn towards four large round pits carved in the rock. These pits were used to marinate fish in order to make the famous garum or fish paste, a delicacy for the Romans. How interesting!

The well-preserved Greek theater stands facing the sea outside the old city walls. The cavea has 28 seat levels.

Byzantine Church in Apollonia by the coast.

The Goddess Ktisis
The personification of generosity and donation, of Libyan Isis: the Goddess of Agriculture.

(Apollonia (Susa) Museum)

(Apollonia)      (Diocese of Egypt)      (temehu)      (makedonia-alexandros)

(Google books)     (apollonia-photos)      (apollonia-baths)      (Livius.org Libya)

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Byzantine Marine Corps

A still of Greek Fire from the game Assassin’s Creed Revelations.
Byzantine Marines would have been used to operate projectile weapons, use Greek Fire, to defend the ship and to board enemy ships.

The Byzantine Marines
"From the Halls of Asia Minor
to the Shores of Sicily"

There is a near total lack of proper military histories of the Eastern Roman Empire from those who were witness to the great events of the time.

I use the example of the battle the Little Bighorn in 1876. Literally mountains and mountains of excruciatingly detailed information has been published about what was (historically) an extremely minor frontier dust up with about 300 American casualties.

By comparison we have 1,000 years of Eastern Roman Empire military history with close to zero meaningful detail of events.

That brings us to the Byzantine Marine Corps.

The fact that the Eastern Empire even had a Marine Corps may rank as one of the best kept secrets in military history.

Roman marines storm a Carthaginian galley during the Battle of Mylae, 1st Punic War 260 BC - Giuseppe Rava

Early Empire Marines

The Roman Legions get all the historical glory.  The Roman Navy? An afterthought if even that. The Roman Marines? No one cares.

But the fact of the matter is all navy ships require fighters on board to attack enemy ships, protect their own ships and to enforce the will of the officers on the crew.

During the early Principate, a ship's crew, regardless of its size, was organized as a centuria. Crewmen could sign on as marines (called Marinus), rowers/seamen, craftsmen and various other jobs, though all personnel serving in the imperial fleet were classed as milites ("soldiers"), regardless of their function; only when differentiation with the army was required, were the adjectives classiarius or classicus added. 

Along with several other instances of prevalence of army terminology, this testifies to the lower social status of naval personnel, considered inferior to the auxiliaries and the legionaries.

Emperor Claudius first gave legal privileges to the navy's crewmen, enabling them to receive Roman citizenship after their period of service. This period was initially set at a minimum of 26 years (one year more than the legions), and was later expanded to 28. Upon honorable discharge (honesta missio), the sailors received a sizable cash payment as well.

Eastern Empire

In 395 AD the eastern and western Empires broke away from each other. Except for the Vandals in North Africa the eastern Mediterranean was a Roman lake with little combat and no real need for Marines.

The re-conquest of Vandal North Africa was a huge amphibious operation. But the historian Procopius makes no mention of Marines on the invasion ships. The regular infantry provided security. With the fall of the Vandals and the re-conquest of Italy the entire Mediterranean once again became a Roman lake. The Roman navy and Marines, if any, had little to do except to transport and then supply the troops.

That started to change in 629 AD with the Muslim Arab invasions of the Middle East and then North Africa.

For years the Muslim forces were land based. In the 600s the Byzantines used their command of the sea to organize counter attacks against newly Muslim conquered Alexandria and and Carthage.

In the 600s and 700s there was still not much need for Marines. As we move into the 800s we see the growth of an Arab navy and Arab pirates raiding Byzantine controlled southern Europe.

Eastern Empire Marines
Marines were organized to help fight in the endless Arab naval attacks against southern Europe, the Greek islands and Asia Minor.

By the end of the 7th century, with the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, the Muslims had captured the port city of Carthage, allowing the Arabs to build shipyards and a permanent base from which to make more sustained attacks against Byzantine Italy.

Attacks on Sicily from Muslim fleets repeated in 703, 728, 729, 730, 731, 733 and 734, the last two times meeting with a substantial Byzantine resistance.

As we move into the 800s we see Arab naval attacks spreading all over the Mediterranean.

The Muslim invasion of Sicily began in 827.  The suburbs of Rome itself were raided in 846 and Malta captured 869. Other areas attacked were:  Fraxinetum (see map below) in southern France, cities all over southern Italy, Crete, Rhodes, cities in Greece and Asia Minor.

There were at least 28 major naval engagements across the Mediterranean from 800 to 1000 AD. Again battles with little to zero information. The Byzantines and Italians won 16 of the battles. The Muslims won 12. But strategically the contest went to the Muslims because they took control of most of the key islands along the sea lanes of antiquity.  By 700 east, west trade had virtually ceased.

By the late 800s the naval war began to change in favor of the Byzantines.

Renewed prosperity allowed the Emperors to build up the fleet. Between 842 and 900 the number of oarsmen enrolled in the navy more than doubled from 14,600 to 34,200. To arm the additional ships more Marines were recruited.

In AD 870 the Imperial Central Fleet based in Constantinople received its own dedicated troops in the form of 4,000 new Marines.

Byzantine naval battle against the Turks

Oarsmen were salaried professional or semi-professional seaman. They were not amateur volunteers or slaves.

Marines (polemistia) and ordinary oarsmen were paid nine nomismata (gold coins) per year.

Marines, like land soldiers, also had other income. They were often holders of tax-free military lands. Typically they had a good sized holding of 432 modii or 35 hectares which they sub-let to tenant farmers.

A Marine was more of a soldier than a farmer. His holding was large enough to afford him to have his relatives, tenants and hired hands run it for him when needed. This would allow the Marine or his son to devote a large part of the year to military training, military exercises or fighting in naval expeditions.

The largest Byzantine dromon warship crew was 300: some 230 crew and 70 Marines. A smaller ship might have a crew of 110 and an additional 50 "others" - a mix of officers, support and Marines.

In 911, a large-scale Byzantine expedition of well over 100 ships was launched against the Emirate of Crete, headed by the admiral HimeriosHere are the number of Marines that participated in the invasion:

  • 5,087 Mardaites Marines from the military Themes of Epirus, Nicopolis and the Peloponnese.
  • 4,200 Marines from the Imperial Central Fleet in Constantinople.
  • 1,190 Marines from Kibyrrhotai (Asia Minor) Fleet.
  • 1,890 from assorted flotillas.
  • 700 Norsemen from the Imperial Fleet.
13,067  total

The Mardaites Marines above were from a new Theme in the Peloponnese where in AD 809 Emperor Nicephorus I resettled 4,000 Marines and their dependents.

Ships show a store of arms in one Byzantine inventory: 22 mail hauberks, 50 padded surcoats, 70 lamellar corselets  - perhaps one per each Marine.  There were 50 bows and 10,000 arrows (200 per archer), 100 javelins, 100 heavy pikes, 80 ordinary helmets, 10 visored helmets, 80 boat hooks etc.

We are not sure who used the bows. Maybe the Marines fired them. The Marines might have doubled as light-armed archers.

Greek Fire 

For 500 years the Byzantine secret weapon was the napalm spraying Greek Fire.

The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival.

The Marines were the front line battle troops on ships. They may have been given the task of operating the fire-pumps.

Byzantine Marines threw pots filled with powered
quicklime at the crews of enemy ships.

Late Empire Marines

The Gasmouloi were the descendants of mixed Byzantine Greek and "Latin" (West European, most often Italian) unions during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire

As the Gasmouloi were enrolled as marines in the Byzantine navy by Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259–1261), the term eventually lost its ethnic connotations and came to be applied generally to those owing a military service from the early 14th century on.

Following the Fourth Crusade, mixed unions between Greeks and Latins occurred to a very limited extent when the Latin Empire and the other Western principalities were established on Byzantine soil. The term gasmoulos itself is of unknown etymology and first appeared in the second half of the 13th century. It is, however, not unlikely that it has some relation with the Latin word mulus, "mule". Although it was generally used to refer to children of these mixed unions, it more specifically designated the children of a Byzantine woman and a Latin (often Venetian) father. 

The Gasmouloi were socially ostracized and distrusted by both the Byzantines and the Latins, who distrusted their ambiguous identity. In the words of a French treatise of ca. 1330, "They present themselves as Greeks to Greeks and Latins to Latins, being all things to everyone...". In a treaty signed in 1277 between Michael VIII and the Venetians, the Gasmouloi of Venetian heritage were considered as Venetian citizens, but in subsequent decades, many reverted to a Byzantine allegiance. As some of their descendants in turn wished to reclaim their Venetian citizenship, the issue of the Gasmouloi would plague Byzantine-Venetian relations until the 1320s.

After the recovery of Constantinople by the forces of Michael VIII in 1261, the Gasmouloi were hired by the Emperor as mercenaries. Together with men from Laconia, they served as lightly armed marine infantry in Michael's effort to re-establish a strong "national" navy. 

The Gasmoulikon corps played a prominent role in the Byzantine campaigns to recover the islands of the Aegean Sea in the 1260s and 1270s, but after Michael VIII's death, his successor, Andronikos II Palaiologos, largely disbanded the navy in 1285. Denied of any remuneration by the Emperor and out of work, some Gasmouloi remained in imperial service, but many others sought employment in the Latin and Turkish fleets, as hired bodyguards for magnates, or turned to piracy.

By the early 14th century, the notion of gasmoulikē douleia ("service as a gasmoulos") had lost its specific ethnic connotations, and gradually came to refer to any service as a lightly armed soldier, both on sea and on land. In this capacity, Gasmouloi served the Byzantines and Ottomans in the 14th century, and the Latin principalities of the Aegean (where the servitio et tenimento vasmulia was hereditary) in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Byzantine navy, such as it was during the empire's last century, continued to use their services. The Gasmouloi played a role in the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, fiercely supporting their commander, the megas doux Alexios Apokaukos, against John VI Kantakouzenos. After the latter's victory, many of the Gasmouloi of Constantinople must have been dismissed. Those of Kallipoli eventually joined the Ottoman Turks, providing the crews for the first Ottoman fleets.

Click to enlarge
A map of the Byzantine-Arab naval competition
in the Mediterranean, 7th to 11th centuries.

(Navy and Marines)      (Gasmouloi)      (marines)      (Byzantine)

(jstor.org)      (Navy Crews)

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Battle of Tryavna Pass (1190 AD)

Eastern Roman Varangian Guard
A Hungarian reenactor's armor and comments
"The kit is mainly based on the Alexiad, most notably on the comments of Anna Komnena about the Varangian Guard. This character is of Scandinavian origin, in service of the Byzantine army, rather than the eastern rus contingent of 6000 warriors who formed the core of the Guard later in 988, if I recall correctly. Therefore I based most of the armour and clothing on the Gjermundbu, Birka and Valsgärde finds, with exception of the leather vest. It has a debated origin that byzantine troops used this type of vests along scale and lamellar armour. I refrained to acquire a lamellar armor as the Wisby find turned out to be a "hoax", well not a hoax, only it was originated centuries later. I also looked up on a large number of byzantine manuscripts about guardsmen, but they weren't really helpful aside from the clothing.
The kit is still incomplete, as I still miss a shield, a proper shoes (will be also based on Birka) and an authentic belt, but I'll have them as well soon enough..
A limb guards were based on the first misinterpreted Valsgärde find, it's not a complicated design, as you can see..
The gloves, well, those are of course a hoax as we don't have a find or manuscritp up to date about protective gloves from this era. But I'm not too keen to lose a finger or two, or my hand entirely, so I gotta wear something. Yeah, I too think the pale leather stands out, and I'm about to dye it darker if I'll have the time and proper materials for it.

Bulgaria vs Constantinople

Origins of the War

Since 680 AD the Eastern Roman Empire had faced and endless wave of invasions by Bulgarian tribes. At his point that make 510 years of wars, sieges, invasions, counter invasions and slaughter.

In 1190, on paper at least, the Eastern Empire "ruled" from the Danube down to Greece. But huge areas had been re-populated with less than loyal barbarian tribes and had been burned over producing modest to little tax income for Constantinople.

In 1185 we saw the Uprising of Asen and Peter the theme of Paristrion.  

Eastern Roman Emperor Isaac II Angelus, in order to raise money for his wedding with the daughter of King Béla III of Hungary, levied a new tax which fell heavily on the population of the Haemus Mountains. They sent two leaders (Peter and Asen) to negotiate with the emperor. They asked to be added to the roll of the Byzantine army and to be granted land near Haemus to provide the monetary income needed to pay the tax. This was refused, and Peter and Asen were treated roughly. Their response was to threaten revolt.

In the spring of 1187, Isaac attacked the fortress of Lovech, but failed to capture it after a three-month siege. The lands between the Haemus and the Danube were now lost for the Byzantine Empire, leading to the signing of a truce, thus de facto recognising the rule of the Asen and Peter over the territory, leading to the creation of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The Tarnovo Campaign
 The Bulgarian Army is in red and Byzantines in blue.
The Emperor marched the Roman Army north along the coast while the Roman fleet held his right flank just off the coast.
 The Byzantines made a bluff indicating that they would pass near the sea by Pomorie, but instead headed west and passed through the Rishki Pass to Preslav. The Byzantine army next marched westwards to besiege the capital at Tarnovo. At the same time, the Byzantine fleet reached the Danube in order to bar the way of Cuman auxiliaries from the northern Bulgarian territories.

Medieval Tarnovo
On high ground and surrounded by the Yantra River the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo was an almost impossible military objective for the Byzantines.

The Tarnovo Fortress
Who thought this was a good idea?
The Roman Emperor Isaac II Angelos marches deep into enemy territory to attack the Bulgarian capital that is surrounded by the Yantra River.  To capture the city Roman troops would have to cross the river and attack up hill to reach the Bulgarian fortifications.

The newly restored Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo is now open for tourists.

Forces Involved

Because of the lack of property histories once again we have next to zero real knowledge of the forces involved in this battle and the massive amount of details about the combat that took place.

Bulgarian Army

The core of the Bulgarian army was the heavy cavalry, which consisted of 12,000–30,000 heavily armed riders. At its height in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was one of the most formidable military forces in Europe and was feared by its enemies. There are several documented cases of Byzantine commanders abandoning an invasion because of a reluctance to confront the Bulgarian army on its home territory.

Bulgarian army used large numbers of Cuman cavalry which numbered between 10,000 and 30,000 riders, depending on the campaign. These were drawn from among the Cumans who inhabited Wallachia and Moldavia.

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

To put it mildly, any Roman Emperor who invaded Bulgaria did so at his own risk. The Bulgarians would have the advantage of defending their own lands and fortified cities while their armies would be easily supported by local militias or allied forces from across the Danube.

I would make an educated guess the number of 30,000 Bulgarian soldiers (perhaps more) defending their country in this campaign. Add to that number thousands of allied Cuman cavalry attacking the Byzantines in the rear.

Eastern Roman Army Strength

The Roman Army

We have a little better idea of the size of the Eastern Roman Army.  In this period it is was roughly 50,000 men under arms.

These professional Tagmata troops would have been divided into assorted units. 

For example, the most famous of all tagmatic units, the 6,000-strong mercenary Varangian Guard, was established ca. 988 by Emperor Basil II (r. 976–1025).  There was the heavy cataphract corps called the Athanatoi (Ἀθάνατοι, the "Immortals") after the old Persian unit, which were revived in the late 11th century by Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071–1078). There were the Megathymoi of the 1040s or the Archontopoulai and Vestiaritai (Imperial Guard) of Alexios I.

The Emperor had these professional units to all upon for an invasion of Bulgaria. What units he selected or the total strength of the army we have no idea.

Using a 50,000 man army as a base number we need to subtract from there. Thousands of troops would have been needed to face the Muslim Turks in Asia Minor. Fortresses would need to be manned and standing mobile forces would be needed to defend the frontier.

Even more troops would be needed to protect Constantinople, the Greek islands, Greece itself and other Western Balkan outposts against Bulgarian invasion.

That 50,000 man army starts shrinking fast.

What we do have is the Emperor himself invading deep into Bulgaria. That means all available troops would be gathered under his command to protect the head of state. We can assume this was an all out campaign by the Byzantine State to crush the revived Bulgarian Empire.

If 30,000 troops are held in place to defend different frontiers that might give the Emperor a force of 20,000 men to invade Bulgaria.  Might give him . . . this is just an educated guess. His army could have been smaller.

The Bulgarians may have had an army of 30,000 waiting for the Emperor and another 10,000 or more Cuman allied cavalry.  That makes a 20,000 man invading Byzantine army look like fresh meat for a Bulgarian grinder.

Late medieval Bulgarian soldier

Invasion and Siege

In the late autumn of 1186, the Byzantine army marched northwards through Sredets (Sofia). The campaign was planned to surprise the Bulgarians. However, the harsh weather conditions and the early winter postponed the Byzantines and their army had to stay in Sredets during the whole winter.
In the spring on the following year, the campaign was resumed but the element of surprise was gone and the Bulgarians had taken measures to bar the way to their capital Tarnovo. Instead the Byzantines besieged the strong fortress of Lovech. The siege lasted for three month and was a complete failure.
Then the Byzantines dodged a bullet.  The soldiers of the Third Crusade with an army of 12,000–15,000 men, including 4,000 knights reached the Bulgarian lands. Asen and Peter offered to help the Emperor of the Holy Roman EmpireFrederick I Barbarosa, with a force of 40,000 against the Byzantines. But the Byzantines and Crusaders worked out their differences avoiding a major problem.

Emperor Isaac II wanted to end this Bulgarian threat once and for all and planned out a fairly good campaign using both the army and the navy. The problem was he lacked enough troops to pull it off.

The Byzantines marched north from Constantinople and made a bluff indicating that they would pass near the coastal city of Pomorie, but instead they headed west and passed through the Rishki Pass to Preslav.

As the Byzantine army moved inland to the west the Byzantine fleet sailed on to the Danube in order to bar the way of Cuman auxiliaries from the northern Bulgarian territories.  The fleet alone might not have been enough to stop the Cuman cavalry. We can speculate the navy might have had a certain amount of infantry or cavalry with them to secure crossing points on the Danube.

The Byzantines managed to overcome the passes of the Balkan mountains and march on to the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo.

The Byzantine siege of Tarnovo was unsuccessful. The city was well situated on higher ground and protected by the Yantra River (see photo above). The defense of the city was led by Asen himself and the morale of his troops was very high. They were behind solid walls and defending their nation and people.

The Byzantine morale, on the other hand, was quite low for several reasons: the lack of any military success, heavy casualties and particularly the fact that the soldiers' pay was in arrears.

Asen sent an agent in the guise of a deserter to the Byzantine camp. The man told Isaac II that, despite the efforts of the Byzantine navy, an enormous Cuman army had passed the river Danube and was heading towards Tarnovo to relive the siege. 

Rather than verify the Cuman movements with scouts and his his navy the Byzantine Emperor panicked and immediately called for a retreat through the nearest pass.

Battle of Tryavna Pass

From the frying pan into the fire.

The Byzantine Emperor's plan was bold. Have the navy on the Danube hold enemy reinforcements at bay while the army marched deep into central Bulgaria to capture their capital.  But bold as that plan was the idea of marching a smaller Byzantine army into Bulgaria to attack a powerful fortification while being surrounded by enemy forces was rather stupid and reckless.

Now add into the mix the panic of the Emperor when he was told by one planted soldier that the Cuman cavalry had crossed the Danube. Isaac II did not bother to confirm this single report. He simply decided to turn tale and run for home.

The Bulgarian Emperor deduced that his opponent would go through the Tryavna Pass in his attempt to get to Byzantine territory.

The Byzantine army slowly marched southwards, their troops and baggage train stretching for kilometers. The Bulgarians reached the pass before them and staged an ambush from the heights of a narrow gorge.

The Byzantine vanguard concentrated their attack on the center where the Bulgarian leaders were positioned, but once the two main forces met and hand-to-hand combat ensued, the Bulgarians stationed on the heights showered the Byzantine force below with rocks and arrows.

In panic, the Byzantines broke up and began a disorganized retreat, prompting a Bulgarian charge, which slaughtered everyone on their way.

Isaac II barely escaped; his guards had to cut a path through their own soldiers, enabling their commander's flight from the rout. The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates wrote that only Isaac Angelos escaped and most of the others perished.

The battle was a major catastrophe for the Byzantines.

The Bulgarians captured the imperial treasure including the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was considered the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers - a solid gold reliquary containing a piece of the Holy Cross. It was thrown in the river by a Byzantine cleric but was recovered by the Bulgarians. These trophies later became the pride of the Bulgarian Treasure and were carried around the capital, Tarnovo, during official occasions.

11th Century Eastern Roman military formation


Bulgaria was permanently lost to the Eastern Empire.  Tryavna Pass was but one of an endless stream of Bulgarian victories.

Up to that moment, the official Emperor was Peter IV, but, after the major successes of his younger brother, he was proclaimed Emperor later that year. Officially, Peter preserved his title and ruled from Preslav, but the state now governed by Ivan Asen I. In the next two years, he liberated many lands to the west and south-west including Sofia and Niš.

His troops looted Thrace and the Byzantines were powerless to resist the Bulgarian attacks.

 Eastern Roman infantry known as scutatii (Meaning ″shield men″) or skutatoi (on right).

The Empire before Bulgaria broke away.

(Medieval Bulgarian army)      (Second Bulgarian Empire)      (Tagmata)

(Third Crusade)      (Asen and Peter)      (Tryavna)       (pinterest)

(pinterest)      (Byzantine army)