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

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Latin Speaking Africa

Brutus and Cassius in HBO's Rome

Language Follows Military Power

It is rather simple, language follows military conquest and economic power.

We saw the Greek language take hold in much of Egypt with the conquest by Alexander the Great. The same is true in North Africa. With the fall of Carthage to Rome in 146 BC we saw Roman military colonies and economic activity spread the Latin language along coastal Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

The populations of Roman North Africa that had a Romanized culture and used to speak their own variety of Latin as a result. Latin continued to be used for centuries after the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD. 

The Latin speaking local population went on during the conquest by the Germanic Vandal tribes and on into the re-conquest period by the Eastern Roman Empire.

What happened to African Latin following the Arab conquest in 696-705 AD is difficult to trace, though it was soon replaced by Arabic as the primary administrative language. At the time of the conquest a the Latin language was probably spoken in the cities and Berber languages were also spoken in the region.

Romanization of Africa in 4th century CE
Red Latin, Pink 60 to 90% Latin

North African Roman Provinces
The province of Mauretania Caesariensis existed from 42 AD to the 7th Century. During and after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, most of the hinterland area was lost, first to the Vandal Kingdom and later to the Mauro-Roman Kingdom, with Roman administration limited to the capital of Caesarea.
The land was reconquered by Rome during the reign of 
Justinian. In the late 580s, under the emperor Maurice, all of the Maghreb was granted to the Exarchate of Africa, and Mauretania Caesariensis became part of a new province, Mauretania Prima. The Muslim conquest of the Maghreb in the late 600s brought an end to Roman rule.
Over time the use of Latin would have moved closer and closer to the coast.

Arch of Caracalla (Triumphal Arch)
Volubilis, Roman Morocco
The city fell to local tribes around 285 and was never retaken by Rome because of its remoteness and indefensibility on the south-western border of the Roman Empire. It continued to be inhabited for at least another 700 years, as a Latinised Christian community.  The Eastern Empire retained a small island of control on the Moroccan coast until the Arab conquest.

Roman Military Colonies

Latin speaking Roman Africans lived in all the coastal cities of contemporary TunisiaWestern LibyaAlgeria and Morocco.

The Roman Africans were generally local Berbers or Punics, but also the descendants of the populations that came directly from Rome itself or the diverse regions of the Empire as legionaries and senators.

The African province was amongst the wealthiest regions in the Empire (rivaled only by Egypt, Syria and Italy itself) and as a consequence people from all over the Empire migrated into the province. Large numbers of Roman Army veterans settled in Northwest Africa on farming plots promised for their military service.

Since the second half of the first century BC and as a result of increasing communities of Roman citizens living in the North African centers, Rome started to create colonies in North Africa.

  1. The main reason was to control the area with Roman citizens, who had been legionaries in many cases. 
  2. The second reason was to give land and urban properties to the Roman military troops who had fought for the Roman Empire and so decrease the demographic problem in the Italian peninsula
  3. The third reason was to facilitate the Romanization of the area and so the integration of the local Berbers -through marriage and other relationships- in the Roman Empire's social and cultural world.

Emperor Septimius Severus
 Leptis Magna in the Roman province of AfricaSeptimius Severus grew up in Leptis Magna. He spoke the local Punic language fluently, but he was also educated in Latin and Greek, which he spoke with a slight accent.

Under Theodosius the area east of the Fossa regia was fully Romanized with one third of the population made of Italian colonists and their descendants. The other two thirds were Romanized Berbers, who were all Christians and nearly all Latin speaking.

Called the "Granary of the Empire", Romano-berber North Africa produced one million tons of cereals each year, one-quarter of which was exported. Additional crops included beans, figs, grapes, and other fruits. By the second century, olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item. In addition to the cultivation of slaves, and the capture and transporting of exotic wild animals, the principal production and exports included the textiles, marble, wine, timber, livestock, pottery such as African Red Slip, and wool.

Berber Africa -from northern Morocco to Tripolitania- had a population of more than 3 million inhabitants in the third century.

Nearly 40% were living in more than 500 cities. But in the sixth century -after the Byzantine reconquest- the population was reduced to less than 2.5 millions and after the Arab conquest in the eighth to tenth centuries there remained only one million.

There were 20 cities in the territory of actual Tunisia with the title and privileges of "Roman Coloniae" or similar, while in Algeria there was nearly the same amount and in Morocco and Libya only a few. 
The most important was the "capital" new Carthago, with more than 300,000 inhabitants during Septimius Severus times (who enhanced Leptis Magna -where he was born- to be the second city of Berber Africa with nearly 100,000 inhabitants).  
The verified "Roman Coloniae" in Africa were:

 A mosaic on the floor ‘Labors of Hercules house’
in Volubilis, near Meknes, Morocco.

The End of Latin

The Muslim conquest of North Africa in the late 600s and early 700s did not end Latin. Local Latin speaking communities appear to have gone on for many centuries.

Spoken Latin is attested in the city of Gabès by Ibn Khordadbeh (died 912), in BéjaBiskraTlemcen and Niffis by al-Bakri (died 1094) and in Gafsa and Monastir by al-Idrisi (died 1165). 

The latter said of Gafsa that "its inhabitants are Berberised, and most of them speak the African Latin tongue."

The Normans, when they were acquiring their African kingdom in the 12th century, received help from the remaining Christian populations of Tunisia, and some historians argue that those Christians still spoke a Romance language.

The language existed until the arrival of the Banu Hilal Arabs in the 11th century and probably until the beginning of the fourteenth century. According to one historian, "Christian communities, generally labelled Afariqa or Ajam in the Arab sources and speaking a Latin dialect ... are known to have survived until the fourteenth century."

Virginie Prevost pinpointed that -between the Berbers of Afrikiya- the African Romance language was linked to Christianity, that survived in north Africa until the XIV century and according to the testimony of Mawlâ Aḥmad probably until the early XVIII century in Touzeur (south of Gafsa). 

The Arab Mawla Ahmad wrote that in 1709 "the inhabitants of Tazeur are what remains of the Christians who were once in Afrikiya, before the Arab conquest".

Click to enlarge
Languages of the Eastern Roman Empire

Portrait of the Roman African poet Terentius
Terentius may have been born in or near Carthage. He may have lived in the territory of the Libyan tribe called by the Romans Afri. 

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Heraclius brought an army from Latin speaking Carthage to Constantinople to overthrow the Emperor Phocas. He was crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus in 610.

(Roman Africans)    (Languages)    (African Romance)

(Kingdom of Africa)    (Roman colonies)

Monday, April 20, 2020

Romans vs Turks in Anatolia - Anna Comnena

11th Century Eastern Roman Reenactor

Warfare on the Eastern Front
A contemporary historian's account

Military Reform

At the beginning of the Komnenian Dynasty period in 1081, the Eastern Roman Empire had been reduced to the smallest territorial extent in its history. Surrounded by enemies, and financially ruined by a long period of civil war, the empire's prospects had looked grim. 

Through a combination of determination, military reform, and years of campaigning, Alexios I Komnenos, John II Komnenos and Manuel I Komnenos managed to restore the power of the Empire.

During the reign of Alexios I, the field army may have numbered around 20,000 men. By 1143, the entire Roman Army has been estimated to have numbered about 50,000 men. The total number of mobile professional and mercenary forces that the Emperor could assemble was about 25,000 soldiers while the static garrisons and militias spread around the empire made up the remainder. 

During this period, the European provinces in the Balkans were able to provide more than 6,000 cavalry in total while the Eastern provinces of Anatolia provided about the same number. This amounted to more than 12,000 cavalry for the entire Empire, not including those from allied contingents.

The reconstructed Roman Army played an important role in providing the empire with a period of security that enabled Roman civilization to flourish.

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena
Book XV

EDITOR - The "Alexiad" of Anna Comnena is one of only two great histories of the Eastern Roman Empire - the other being "The History of the Wars" by Procopius. 

In Book XV below Anna goes into enormous detail about the battles against the Turks in Anatolia. I had great difficulty editing the content down to a more readable size for the casual military history reader. Those wanting the full chapter can click the link at the bottom. Enjoy.

The doings of the Emperor in Philippopolis and with regard to the Manichaeans were such as I have related; after that a fresh potion of troubles was brewed for him by the barbarians. For the Sultan Soliman was planning to devastate Asia again and assembled his forces from Chorosan and Chalep [*=Berroea (now Aleppo)] to see whether he might possibly be able to resist the Emperor successfully. As the whole of the Sultan Soliman's plan had already been reported to the Emperor, he contemplated advancing as far as Iconium. with his army and there forcing him into a closely contested battle. For that town formed the boundaries of the Sultanicium of Clitziasthlan. Therefore he solicited troops from foreign countries, and a large mercenary force, and called up his own army from all sides. 

Then, whilst these two generals were making preparations against each other, the old trouble in his feet attacked the Emperor. And forces kept coming in from all quarters, but only in driblets, not all together, because their countries were so far away, and the pain prevented the Emperor not merely from carrying out his projected plan, but even from walking at all. And he was vexed at being confined to his couch not so much because of the excessive pain in his feet, but by reason of the postponement of his expedition against the barbarians. The barbarian Clitziasthlan was well aware of this and consequently despoiled the whole of Asia at his leisure during this interval and made seven onslaughts upon the Christians.

After a short interval he was relieved from pain and commenced his projected journey. He ferried over to Damalis, then sailed across the straits between Cibotus and Aegiali, disembarked at Cibotus and went on to Lopadium to await the arrival of his armies and the mercenary army he had engaged. When they were all assembled he moved away from there with all his forces and occupied the fort of Lord George close to the lake outside Nicaea, and thence on to Nicaea. 

Then after three days he returned and encamped on this side of the bridge of Lopadium near the fountain of Caryx as it was called; for he thought best to send the army over the bridge first to pitch their tents in a suitable spot and then to cross himself by the same bridge and erect the imperial tent in company with all the army. 

But the wily Turks were devastating the plain lying at the foot of the Lentianian hills and the place called Cotoeraecia, and on hearing of the Emperor's advance against them, they were terrified and immediately lighted a number of beaconfires, thus giving beholders the illusion of a large army. And the sky was lighted up by these fires and frightened many of the inexperienced soldiers but nothing of all this troubled the Emperor. 

East Roman Reenactors  -  (Twitter)
Emperor Alexios I Komnenos &
wife Empress Irene Doukaina
I have no idea where this image came from. A movie perhaps. A historical festival. The picture gives us a good feel for the period.

Then the Turks collected all the booty and prisoners and went away; and at dawn the Emperor hastened after them to the plain (already mentioned] with the desire of overtaking them on the spot, but he missed his quarry. On the contrary he found a number of Romans still breathing, and many corpses, which naturally enraged him. But he was very anxious to pursue the Turks so as not to lose all his prey, and, as it was impossible for the whole army to follow up the fugitives quickly, he pitched his palisades on the spot near Poemanenum and selecting at once a detachment of brave light-armed soldiers, he entrusted them with the pursuit of the barbarians and told them which road to take after the wretches. 

These soldiers overtook the Turks with all their booty and captives at a place called Cellia by the natives and rushed upon them like fire and soon killed most of them but took a few alive and after collecting all the booty there they returned brilliantly victorious to the Emperor.

After welcoming them and learning of the total destruction of the enemy he returned to Lopadium. When he reached it he stayed in that town for three whole months partly because of the want of water in the districts he would have to pass through (for it was the summer-season and the heat was intolerable) and partly because he was waiting for part of the mercenary army which had not yet arrived. But when they had all assembled, he shifted his camp and quartered his army between the ridges of Olympus and of the mountains called Malagni and himself occupied Aër. 

The Empress meanwhile was lodging at Principus, as from there she could more easily have news of the Emperor after his return to Lopadium. Directly the Emperor went to Aër, he sent the imperial galley to fetch her, firstly because he was always dreading the pain in his feet, and secondly through fear of his bosom enemies who were accompanying him, and thus he wanted her both for the extreme care she took of him, and for her most vigilant eye.

Now my father, the Emperor, sometimes overcame his adversaries by prowess, and at others by his quick wit, for even during a battle he occasionally thought out some clever device and by daringly using it at once carried off the victory. By making use of stratagems on some occasions, and on others by hard fighting he often and unexpectedly set up trophies. If there ever was a man who was fond of danger, it was he, and dangers could be seen continually rising up in his path, and at times he would walk into them bare-headed and come to close quarters with the barbarians, and at others again he would pretend to decline battle, and act the frightened man, if the occasion demanded it and circumstances advised it. 

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.

Or to put the whole matter concisely, he prevailed when he fled, and conquered when he pursued, and falling he stood, and dropping down he was erect on the principle of caltrops which always stick upright however you throw them.

As long as the Emperor pitched his tent there (in Nicomedia) he had nothing else to do besides enrolling recruits in the army and training them carefully in the art of stretching the bow, wielding the spear, riding on horseback, and making various formations. 

He also taught the soldiers the new system of marshalling the lines which he had invented himself ; now and again he would ride with them and review the phalanxes and give seasonable suggestions. 

But the sun was now returning from its large circuits, and as the autumn equinox was passed, it was already inclining to the more southern circuits, this seemed a season well-adapted for taking the field, so with all his forces he marched straight for Iconium according to the plan he had originally proposed to himself. Then on reaching Nicaea he detached a body of light troops with experienced leaders from the rest of the army and ordered them to go on ahead and in separate divisions make sallies upon the Turks and go foraging. But, if God gave them the victory and they routed the enemy, he advised them in no case to continue their raid, but be satisfied with the victory given them and at once make an orderly retreat. 

So they all with the Emperor occupied a place situated . . . and locally called Gaita, and there the one lot went off, while he moved on from there with all his forces and held the bridge over the river Pithecas. Then in three days' march by way of Armenocastrum and the so-called Leucae he reached the plains of Doryleum. He saw that these were large enough for marshalling his troops and being anxious to review them all and find out exactly his military strength, he seized this opportune moment and drew up his soldiers, in very reality in the battle-order for which he had so long been yearning and so often described on paper when planning this arrangement (for he was well-versed in Aelian's tactics); and then he set up his camp in the plain. 

For he knew from very long experience that the Turkish battle-order did not agree at all with that of other nations, for with them "shield did not rest upon shield, and helmet upon helmet and man upon man " as Homer says, but the Turks' right and left wing, and centre were quite disconnected and the phalanxes stood as if severed from each other.  Consequently if you attacked the right or left wing, the centre would swoop down upon you and all the rest of the army posted behind it, and like whirlwinds throw the opposing body into confusion. 

Peltistes and Archers
11th Century Eastern Roman military
The 4th and 7th ranks may contain an additional kontaratos, but often these positions and the 5th and 6th ranks are filled by peltistes ( lighter armed missle-throwing (javelin and slingers) or archery soldier). The javelin men also detached sometimes to act as skirmishers.

Now for their weapons of war:-they do not use spears much, as the Franks do, but surround the enemy completely and shoot at him with arrows, and they make this defence from a distance. When he pursues, he captures his man with the bow; when he is pursued he conquers with his darts ; he throws a dart and the flying dart hits either the horse or its rider, and as it has been dispatched with very great force it passes right through the body; so skilled are they in the use of the bow. 

Having noticed this from long experience the Emperor arranged his lines and phalanxes in such a way that the Turks should shoot from the right side, the side on which the shields were advanced, and that our men should shoot from the left, the side on which the Turks' bodies were unprotected. And he himself imagined that this order of battle would be invincible, and marvelled at its strength and looked upon it as an arrangement directly inspired by God and a marshalling due to the angels. And everybody else admired and rejoiced in it and took fresh courage from the Emperor's invention. And when he himself thought about his forces and the plains through which he was soon to pass and reflected that his battle-order was solid and not easily broken, his hopes rose high and he prayed to God to bring them to fulfilment.

. . . . some soldiers came to him and said there were an immense number of barbarians in the small towns situated quite near of the once celebrated hero, Burtzes. Directly the Emperor had heard their report, he repared for action. He instantly summoned a descendant of 1he famous Burtzes, Bardas by name, and George Lebunes, and a Scythian called Pitican in his native tongue, brought up the troops under them to a sufficiently strong force and dispatched them against the Turks, and gave them orders that when they got there they were to send out foragers to lay waste all the neighbouring villages, and then drive out all the natives from their homes and bring them to him. 

So these men at once started on the journey assigned them, but the Emperor, holding to his former purpose, hastened to reach Polybotum and thence hurry on as far as Iconium. With these intentions he was on the point of commencing his task when he received reliable information that the barbarians and the Sultan Soliman himself on hearing of his approach, had set fire to all tile crops and plains in Asia, so that there was no sustenance at all for man or beast. Another incursion of barbarians from the higher countries was heralded too, and the rumour flew quickly throughout Asia. So he was afraid for one thing that during his march to lconium his whole army might fall a prey to famine owing to the lack of food . . . .

As the Turks had not tasted water at all during the fight on the previous day, they now took possession of the banks of the river, and quenched their burning thirsts and then returned to the fight in batches. For while one party continued the battle, the other tired-out party refreshed itself by drinking the water. Burtzes seeing the barbarians' consummate boldness and worried to death by their numbers, felt quite helpless, and so did not send one of the common soldiers to carry news of his straits to the Emperor, but the George Lebunes I have already mentioned. 

Unarmored Skutatos
Byzantine Infantry, 11th Century

The file closer and the one in the 3rd rank may be armored only with a heavy padded coat (kavadion)and felt cap wrapped in a turban. He would likely be within the 3rd-7th rank of a foulhon, but may be front ranker is less well equipped units. This skutatos is also similarly attired to a peltistes (or lighter armed missile-throwing or archery soldier) while the first rank or two of the foulhon  might be hoplites in metal armor. With my shield I am well protected from the front, and the most likely danger to my side or rear - arrow strikes - are fairly well protected against by the padded coat. I might also be called a  kontaratos for my kontarion (or makron) - 16 foot pike, which is wielded 2-handed or one handed.

As Lebunes could see no path which was not held by a number of Turks, he threw himself recklessly into the midst of them, pushed his way through and got safely to the Emperor. When the latter heard the news about Burtzes and found out fairly accurately the number of Turks, he realized that Burtzes required a large number of reinforcements, so he speedily got under arms himself and ordered the army to do likewise. Then with the army drawn up in phalanxes he advanced against the barbarians in good order. The front wing was held by Prince [Michael], the right by Bryennius, the left by Gabras and the rear by Cecaumenus. 

As the Turks stood awaiting them at a distance, Nicephorus, the Empress' nephew, who was young and longing to fight, rode on ahead of the line and taking with him a few more devotees of Ares, engaged the first man who attacked him and received a wound in the knee, but struck the man who wounded him in the chest with his spear. And the Turk straightway fell from his horse and lay speechless on the ground, and the others behind him on seeing this at once turned their backs upon the Romans. The Emperor received the brave young man with delight and praised him highly and continued his march to Philomelium.

Next he selected various units from the whole army and placing them under brave leaders dispatched them to villages situated round about Iconium to despoil these and deliver the captives out of the Turks' hands. Accordingly they scattered themselves over the country like wild beasts, brought back the barbarians' prisoners in droves to the Emperor and then returned with the prisoners' baggage after freeing them all. 

EDITOR - This is a great description of a Roman infantry square. The role and power of the Late Roman infantry is at best downplayed and most of the time ignored by historians.

And the inhabitants of those regions who were Romans followed them of their own accord fleeing from servitude to the barbarians; there were women with babies, even men, and children, all rushing to the Emperor as if to a place of refuge. He then drew up his lines in the new formation with all the captives, women and children enclosed in the centre, and returned by the same road as he had come, and whatever places he approached, he passed through with perfect safety. And had you seen it, you would have said a living walled city was walking, when the army was marching in the new formation we have described.

But the Emperor rode before the line like a tower or pillar of fire or some divine and heavenly vision, exhorting his men and bidding them March on in the same formation and be of good cheer, and added that it was not for his own safety that he had undertaken this toilsome business but for the honour and glory of the Roman Empire, and moreover he was quite ready to die on behalf of them all. All took courage at his words and each kept his own place and went on marching at his ease; so much so that to the barbarians they did not even appear to be moving. 

Dekarklos- Skutatos
My armor is complete and shield has a spike and the the 2nd ranker does not have a spike, for fairly obvious reasons.   Hey what's wrong with this picture? ( I am wearing the armor backwards.) 2nd rank might have somewhat lighter armor.

Throughout the whole of the day the Turks kept attacking the Roman army without any success, for they were unable to break it up either entirely or even partially, so they ran back to the hills without accomplishing anything and lighted a great many bonfires and howled all through the night like wolves and occasionally made jeering remarks at the Romans; for there were some semi-barbarians among them who spoke Greek.

EDITOR - I found the highlighted sections above interesting. The Turkish cavalry tried over and over to break the Roman infantry square without success. 

When Nicephorus saw that the battle had become a hand-to-hand contest, he dreaded a defeat and therefore wheeled round with all his troops and hastened to their aid. Hereupon the barbarians turned their backs and with the Sultan Clitziasthlan himself they fled at full speed and hurried back to the hills. Many fell in the battle on that occasion, but more were captured; and the survivors all scattered. 

The Sultan himself in desperate fear escaped with only his cupbearer and climbed up to a chapel built on a mountain top, round which very tall cypresses stood in rows, as he was hard pressed by three Scythians and the son of Uzas who were pursuing him; there he turned off in another direction, and, as he was not known to his pursuers, he himself escaped, but the cupbearer was seized by the Scythians and offered to the Emperor as a great prize. 

The Emperor rejoiced at this signal victory and in having prevailed over his enemies, but was vexed that the Sultan himself had not fallen into their hands too and been captured, but was saved 'by the skin of his teeth,' as the proverb goes. Evening had now overtaken them so he encamped on the spot, and the barbarians who had survived again mounted to the hilltops, lighted exceedingly many fires and barked the whole night long at the Romans like dogs.

For the Sultan had again collected his forces and now encircled the army and attacked it from every side; yet he did not manage to break through the close ranks of the Romans at any point, but as though he had attacked walls of adamant he had to retire without accomplishing anything. Therefore all through that night in vexation of spirit and despair he took counsel with Monolycus and the rest of the satraps, and when the light of day appeared he sued the Emperor for terms of peace, as all the satraps thought this the best thing to do. 

The Emperor did not reject, but received, their petition and immediately gave the order for the sounding of the recall, but ordered that the men should keep quiet and halt as they were, and not get off their horses or unload the baggage from the sumpter beasts, but halt protected by shield, helmet and spear as they had been throughout the whole journey. This order was given by the Emperor for no other reason but this, that, if confusion [405] arose, the line might perhaps be broken and in that case all could easily be captured. For he feared the host of Turks which be saw was very great, and was afraid they might attack the Roman army from all sides.

(The Emperor and Sultan meet.)  After a short silence he made known to him all he had decided upon, saying, "If you are willing to submit to the Roman Empire and cease your onslaughts on the Christians, you shall enjoy favours and honour and live at peace for the rest of your life in the countries assigned you, where you formerly had your dwellings before Romanus Diogenes took over the reins of government and suffered that terrible defeat when he unfortunately joined battle with the Sultan and was captured by him. 

Therefore you ought to choose peace in preference to war, and keep your hands off the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and be content with your own. And if you listen to my words, who am giving you wise counsel, you will never repent, but even partake of many privileges -if you do not, then be assured that I shall be the destroyer of your race." The Sultan and his satraps readily agreed to these terms . . . .

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 Emperors. They 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.

The Army Marching

Anyone hearing the word 'line of battle' and 'phalanx' or 'captives' and 'booty' or again 'general' and' captains,' will think he is hearing about the things which every historian and poet mentions in his writings. Bat this battle-formation was new and seemed very strange to everybody and was such as had never been seen before or handed down to posterity by any historian. 

For while advancing along the road to Iconium, the army marched in regular order and moved forward in time to the music of a flute. And if you had seen the whole phalanx you would have said it was remaining motionless when in motion and when halting that it was moving. For thanks to the close formation of the shields and the men standing in serried lines it looked like the immovable mountains, and when it changed its route it moved like a very great beast, for the whole phalanx walked and turned as if directed by one mind. 

But after it had reached Philomelium and rescued men on all sides from the hand of the barbarians, as we have related before somewhere, and enclosed all the captives and the women too and the children and the booty in the centre it marched slowly on its return and moved forward leisurely, as it were, and at an ant's pace. 

Moreover since many of the women were with child and many of the men afflicted with disease, whenever a woman's time for bringing forth came, a trumpet was sounded at a nod from the Emperor and made all the men stop and the whole army halted on the instant. And when he knew the child was born, a different call, not the usual one, but provocative of motion, was sounded and stirred them all up to continue the journey. 

And if anyone died, the same procedure took place, and the Emperor would be at the side of the dying man, and the priests were summoned to sing the hymns for the dying and administer the sacraments to the dying. And after the rites for the dead had been duly performed and not until the dead had been put in the earth and buried, was the army allowed to move even a step. 

And when it was the Emperor's time for lunch he invited the men and women who were labouring under illness or old-age and placed the greater part of the victuals before them and invited those who lunched with him to do the same. And the meal was like a complete banquet of the gods for there were no instruments, not even flutes or drums or any disturbing music at all.

The shrunken and battered Eastern Roman Empire
at the accession of 
Alexios I Komnenosc. 1081.

Map of the Eastern Roman Empire under Manuel Komnenos, c. 1170. By this time, the Empire was once again the most powerful state in the Mediterranean, with client states stretching from Hungary to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

(From prezi.com)
Princess Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena, was a Roman Princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and historian. She was the daughter of the Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina.
Regarding her history the Alexiad, Anna wrote, “My material ... has been gathered from insignificant writings, absolutely devoid of literary pretensions, and from old soldiers who were serving in the army at the time that my father seized the Roman sceptre ... I based the truth of my history on them by examining their narratives and comparing them with what I had written, and what they told me with what I had often heard, from my father in particular and from my uncles … From all these materials the whole fabric of my history – my true history – has been woven.” 

.Beyond just eyewitness accounts from veterans or her male family members, scholars have also noted that Anna used the Imperial archives, which allowed her access to official documents.

(AnnaComnena-Alexiad)    (Komnenos dynasty)    (Komnenian Army)

(Anna Komnene)

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Empire Strikes Back - Battle for the Middle East Part VIII

Late Empire Roman Cavalry Horse-Archer

The Roman Army Marches South
Battle for the Middle East Part VIII

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

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

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

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

Part I  -  In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris.  In 629 AD a force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. 

Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.
Byzantine cataphract

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.

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

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

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia.

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

The door to Syria had been forced open.

Part VI  -  After a siege lasting for six months Damascus falls to Muslim invaders who lacked any siege equipment. Traitor Christians inside the city opened the gates and allowed the Muslim troops to enter the city. Damascus was sort of a great victory for the Arabs. After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors within the walls to win the day.

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

Part VII  -  After the fall of Damascus, Syria Muslim forces started their move north. Escaping Roman civilians and soldiers were massacred at Maraj-al-Debj in September of 635. Many survivors were sold into slavery by the Muslims.

The Muslims went on to lay Siege to the city of Homs from December 635 to March 636. After the fall of Homs the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar

There they stopped as they faced a new Roman army raised by the Emperor Heraclius.

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

The Roman Army Gathers

By the winter of 635 AD the Muslim forces had conquered most of Syria.

The Muslims were just a march away from Aleppo, a Roman stronghold, and Antioch, where Heraclius resided. Seriously alarmed by the series of setbacks, Heraclius prepared for a counterattack to reacquire the lost regions.

In 635 Yazdegerd III, the Emperor of Persia, sought an alliance with the Roman Emperor. Heraclius married off his daughter Manyanh to Yazdegerd III, to cement the alliance. While Heraclius prepared for a major offensive in the Levant, Yazdegerd was to mount a simultaneous counterattack in Iraq, in what was meant to be a well-coordinated effort. 

The Emperor had not been idle on the southern front. Heraclius directed the Roman garrisons in Syria and Palestine to stand their ground.

After his past experiences, Heraclius now avoided pitched battle with the Muslim army. His plans were to send massive reinforcements to all the major cities, isolate the Muslim corps from each other, and then separately encircle and destroy the Muslim armies.

So as the Muslims moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli. The coastal cities could easily be resupplied by the Roman Navy. With Roman forces in their rear the Muslims were always looking over their shoulder. 

Muslim troops had to be pealed off from the northern invasion just to keep Roman garrisons bottled up in the cities.

With Roman garrisons in their rear, the somewhat smaller Muslim armies had advanced north into Syria about as far as they could go. While in a holding pattern word reached the Muslims of a new Roman army gathering around the Emperor based in Antioch.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The exact size and composition of the Roman Army and its units in the Yarmouk campaign is a matter of considerable debate due to the scantness and ambiguous nature of the primary sources.

I laugh out loud reading "modern estimates" of an army ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 men. Those kinds of numbers had not been seen in centuries of Roman warfare. By the 630s the entire Roman Army from Carthage to Italy to Egypt to the Danube may have been 109,000 men.

A typical Eastern Empire field army often numbered 15,000 to 20,000 men. It is possible that this being a major effort to recapture Syria and Palestine then all stops might have been pulled out. I would put my guess at an army of 30,000 plus.

The endless battles and defeats were beginning to take a serious toll on the Romans. This was partly due to financial setbacks resulting in the Empire's treasury failing to provide salaries for some of the troops.

To help solve this problem the Emperor appointed Theodore Trithyrius as perhaps Commander-in-Chief in the newly raised army. Trithyrius was a Greek Christian and Roman Treasurer working for Emperor Heraclius and extremely loyal to the Emperor himself. He enjoyed supremacy under his title of sacellarius, usually appointed to the state treasurer.

Trithyrius's role with the army served as a constant reassurance. A certain lassitude had filled the air because Heraclius had to disband many regiments for economy's sake. There was no enthusiasm towards joining the army, however the presence of the Imperial paymaster encouraged recruitment.

Symbol of Secunda Armeniaca
Legio II Armeniaca (from Armenia) was a legion of the late Roman Empire. The Legion survived the fall of the Western Empire in 476 and went on to serve in the East. Armenian units were sent to fight the Muslims in Syria. Legio II Armeniaca may have been among them. 

Many Imperial regiments had been destroyed or badly mauled in recent campaigns. So the Emperor looked east to Armenia for the bulk of his troops. With the Persians defeated Armenia would have been a quiet front well able to spare frontier troops for Syria. 

Thus perhaps two-thirds of the new army were Armenians. 

This does not mean the Armenians were mercenaries. Far from it. While some Armenians may have signed on just for this campaign the history of Armenian Legions in the Roman Army goes back centuries. It is possible many of the Armenian troops were trained professionals or maybe partly trained militia that were called into service.

The units in the other one-third of the army varied. Roman ally Jabalah ibn al-Aiham, King of the Ghassanid Arabs, commanded an exclusively Christian Arab force. Other army contingents consisted of SlavsFranks and Georgians. Buccinator, a Slavic prince, commanded the Slavs. 

Byzantine sources mention Niketas the Persian, son of the Persian general Shahrbaraz, among the commanders. With Persia and Rome allied against the Muslims did Niketas bring with him a contingent of Persian troops? or did he command Romans? We do not know.

These different units coming together under one commander would not be new for the Romans. Foreign troops during the late Roman period were known as the Foederati ("allies") in Latin and often supplemented the regular army units.

There is little real historical information on just about anything. What kind of mix were the troops? What percent were cavalry, infantry or archers? Were they full timers or militia? Were there artillery units? etc.

The lack of meaningful information extends to the different commanders. 

The Commander-in-Chief in the army may have been Trithyrius. But Trithyrius was basically a bean counter from the Treasury. His level of military experience is unknown.  Vahan, an Armenian and the former garrison commander of Emesa, was in command of his Armenian units and may have had some command over the non-Armenian troops. . . . or perhaps command was partly shared with a somewhat joint council of the leaders of the different units.

Late Roman cohort reenactment group

The Romans March South

Word had spread among the Muslims of this large new army. Now in the early months of 636 the Empire stuck back.

We may not know the exact size or makeup of the Roman Army. All we can do is judge the reaction of the Muslim forces facing them.

Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible.

The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. The Muslims ran.

That reaction tells us two things:

  • 1) The Muslims were spread thin across Palestine and Syria and did not have the manpower to do open battle or even man the walls of the large cities. 
  • 2) As untrained wild raiders from the desert the Muslims still feared the organized Roman Army.

Under their king the mobile and nimble Christian Arabs acted as an ideal cavalry screen in front of the main Roman Army and pushed the Muslims almost totally out of Syria.

The Muslims fell back to the Daraa Gap where in the 1st Battle of Yarmouk (September 634) they had forced the Romans to leave their prepared fortifications.

The Muslims passed through the Gap with the Romans hot on their heals. The Romans re-occupied their old defenses and slammed shut the Door to Syria.

Heraclius' policy was to stonewall.

Syria was safe as long as the Yarmouk-Daraa Maginot Line held firm.

The Arabs with their fear of close country and mountains would never invade Syria to the west through Tiberias. To the east there was the dry desert that nearly killed the Muslims two years earlier when they threatened and failed to capture Damascus.

This was a stunning, total and virtually bloodless Roman victory.

Heraclius must have heaved a sigh of relief when he heard that the Daraa Gap had been reoccupied and the Muslims had been pushed out into the desert beyond. Syria, he must have thought, was saved. Now he could concentrate on the recapture of Palestine.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
When faced with a new Roman Army the Muslim forces in northern Syria abandoned all their gains.  Without firing a shot they ran as fast as they could run far to the south through the Daraa Gap into the desert.

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


Bedouin Warrior.
The Romans may have faced troops much like this man.


(Great Arab Conquests)    (Levant)    (Yarmouk)