Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ruins of the Forgotten Byzantine Port of Bathonea

A sea wall dating to the fourth century extends
two and a half miles around ancient Bathonea, on
a peninsula in Lake Kucukcekmece.

After a drought revealed the seawall of a Byzantine Empire harbor town near Istanbul, archeologists excavated what was a thriving ancient center. But how does it fit into the city's 1,600-year history?

(Scientific American)  -  Hidden for a millennium, it took a 21st-century drought to reveal the ruins of a long-lost port city. Five years after archaeologists discovered its four-kilometer-long seawall on a polluted lake 20 kilometers from Istanbul, they continue to unearth Bathonea, which is yielding a wealth of rare artifacts and architecture spanning a thousand years of the Byzantine era.

Excavations this year have essentially doubled Bathonea's known size, bolstering the idea that it was a well-connected, wealthy, fully outfitted harbor city that thrived from the fourth to 11th century, when a massive earthquake leveled much of it.

Bathonea is a rare and important find because little remains in Byzantium proper (now the modern city of Istanbul) of the first few centuries of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire. The ancient urban center has been built over too many times in its 1,600-year history to leave much behind.

Located on a long-farmed peninsula on Lake Kucukcekmece, once an inlet on the Marmara Sea, Bathonea reappeared in 2007 after a drought lowered the lake's water table, exposing portions of the seawall. It turned out to be almost half the length of the wall that once surrounded Constantinople (as Byzantium had been renamed for Constantine the Great).

The wall's substantial size suggested Bathonea was a significant safe harbor for ships on their way to Constantinople beginning in the fourth century, just as the city became the seat of power for the Eastern Roman Empire.

In previous years archaeologists, led by Kocaeli University's Sengül Aydingün, have unearthed some of the seawall, a multistory villa or palace, an enormous cistern, the round foundations of a Greek temple, and the toppled remains of a Byzantine church and cemetery. Nearby, stone roads crisscross each other and 1,500 years of history.

This year they discovered a large multistory building and a series of smaller rooms adjacent to the villa that artifacts indicate was a monastery with workshops for making metal, jewelry and glass that began production in the fourth century. The jewelry molds they discovered may be the first archaeological evidence for jewelry production in Constantinople, a tradition known from historical sources.

Another key find is the exceptionally preserved, two-part network of underground water channels hundreds of meters long that kept Bathonea's cistern and buildings supplied with freshwater. They also found a Hellenistic building hiding in plain sight among 19th-century structures and a road connecting it to a second-century B.C. harbor, providing more evidence of Bathonea's earliest days.

A massive earthquake in the 11th century seems to have largely destroyed Bathonea.
Archaeologists continue to find toppled walls (including one that killed the three men found beneath the rubble) from all the buildings. Yet judging from the pottery found, some residents eked out a life at Bathonea as late as the 12th century.

Many questions remain: What was Bathonea's connection to Constantinople? Who lived there? If it was a major harbor inhabited by the wealthy and powerful—the region was a well-known country retreat for Constantinople's elite for centuries—why doesn't it appear in known historical sources? (Its name is a placeholder, inspired by two references eight centuries apart.) And what was its relationship to Rhegion, an imperial compound located just across the lake on the Marmara Sea?

To try to answer these questions, Aydingün and her team will focus next year's dig on the seaward tip of the peninsula, where ground-penetrating radar has detected underground anomalies that may be structures. They also hope to restart underwater exploration. In 2008 they discovered an edifice that may have been a lighthouse. Local lore holds that it is a magical minaret that rises in warning whenever nearby villagers sin too much.

(Scientific American)

Stamped Konstans
Hundreds of bricks stamped Konstans, made in Constantinople starting in the fifth century, were found at Bathonea. 

(New York Times)  -  For 1,600 years, this city — Turkey’s largest — has been built and destroyed, erected and erased, as layer upon layer of life has thrived on its seven hills.

Today, Istanbul is a city of 13 million, spread far beyond those hills. And on a long-farmed peninsula jutting into Lake Kucukcekmece, 13 miles west of the city center, archaeologists have made an extraordinary find.
The find is Bathonea, a substantial harbor town dating from the second century B.C. Discovered in 2007 after a drought lowered the lake’s water table, it has been yielding a trove of relics from the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D., a period that parallels Istanbul’s founding and its rise as Constantinople, a seat of power in the Eastern Roman/Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
While there are some historical records of this early period, precious few physical artifacts exist. The slim offerings in the Istanbul section of the Archaeological Museums here reflect that, paling in comparison with the riches on display from Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Lebanon.
So Bathonea (pronounced bath-oh-NAY-uh) has the potential to become a “library of Constantinople,” says Sengul Aydingun, the archaeologist who made the initial discovery.

After the drought exposed parts of a well-preserved sea wall nearly two and a half miles long, Dr. Aydingun and her team soon saw that the harbor had been equipped with docks, buildings and a jetty, probably dating to the fourth century. Other discoveries rapidly followed. In the last dig season alone, the archaeologists uncovered port walls, elaborate buildings, an enormous cistern, a Byzantine church and stone roads spanning more than 1,000 years of occupation.
“The fieldwork Sengul has conducted over the last few years is spectacular,” said Volker Heyd, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who surveyed Bathonea for two field seasons. “The discoveries made are now shedding a completely new light to the wider urbanized area of Constantinopolis. A fantastic story begins to unveil.”
In 2008, for example, Hakan Oniz, an archaeologist from Eastern Mediterranean University who specializes in underwater research, investigated a structure in the lake that local lore held was some kind of mystical minaret that appeared and disappeared in relation to the rate of sinful behavior by nearby villagers. The ruins, about 800 feet from shore, may have been a lighthouse.
Since then, Dr. Aydingun’s team and researchers from eight foreign universities have found a second, older port on the peninsula’s eastern side, its Greek influences suggesting that it dated to about the second century B.C.

Water Channels
Spelunkers explored hundreds of feet of a two-part water channel system that archaeologists discovered. The channels directed freshwater to the cistern and buildings throughout Bathonea. "They showed us that such an infrastructure can only be constructed for a very big and important settlement," Aydingün says.
Nearby, atop the round foundations of a Greek temple, they found the remains of a fifth- or sixth-century Byzantine church and cemetery with 20 burials, and a large stone relief of a Byzantine cross.

Coins, pottery and other artifacts indicate that the church suffered damage in the devastating earthquake of 557 but was in use until 1037, when a tremor leveled it — crushing three men whose bodies were found beneath a collapsed wall, along with a coin bearing the image of a minor emperor who ruled during the year of the quake.
After bushwhacking through nettle-choked underbrush a mile and a half north of the harbor, the researchers excavated a 360-by-90-foot open-air cistern or pool, as well as walls and foundations from several multistory buildings that may have been part of a villa or palace altered over many centuries.
Because the archaeologists are at the beginning of a multiyear dig at a site not known from historical sources, they are hesitant to draw many conclusions. Even the name Bathonea is a placeholder, inspired by two ancient references: the first-century historian Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History,” which refers to the river feeding the lake as Bathynias; and a work by a ninth-century Byzantine monk, Theophanes, who called the region Bathyasos.
“There is a big question mark over the name,” Dr. Aydingun said. “It’s too early to say. But the name is not important. The important thing to note is that there are buildings, roads” where “people thought there was nothing.”
“But there’s something there,” she went on. “We need a lifetime to discover what it is. But even by next year, we’ll be able to say more.”

The archaeologists know this much: The site was large. It sprawled across at least three square miles, and its sea wall is nearly half the length of the one that surrounded Constantinople itself. It was moderately wealthy; the region was a country retreat for the urban elite, drawn by its fertile hunting grounds and Lake Kucukcekmece itself, the freshwater body closest to the city. They built villas and palaces all around the region.

As seen in this stitched-together image, the pipes poking through the cistern wall look almost modern and just as ready to pour fresh springwater as they were 1,650 years ago.  At least 80 meters long, the cistern was entirely constructed from bricks stamped with the name of Constantine or his sons Constantine II and Konstans, which have mostly been discovered at imperial sites like Hagia Sophia.

Roman glass and high-end pottery dating as late as the 14th century were found throughout the site. Marble, including a gorgeous milky-blue variety, lined the walls and floors of the church and at least one of the buildings.
Also discovered were hundreds of bricks stamped “Konstans,” which were produced in Constantinople beginning in the fifth century and had mostly been discovered at imperial sites like Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century architectural marvel and primary cathedral of the Byzantine Empire for almost 900 years, and nearby Rhegion, a fifth-century compound on a hill across the lake from Bathonea, overlooking the Marmara Sea.
Bathonea was also well connected. Some pottery was made as far away as Palestine and Syria, typical of places with access to foreign goods. It had wide stone roads, the earliest dating to the Roman era.
But its relationship to Constantinople is still unclear. “I like the idea of Bathonea as a satellite port of a major city,” said Bradley A. Ault, a classical archaeologist with the University at Buffalo who has studied ancient port cities in Greece and Cyprus. “It falls in line with Athens and Piraeus, Rome and Ostia.”
If that is the case, the port may have served as a safe harbor on protected waters outside the city walls for both commercial ships and the imperial naval fleet. “In the fifth century, they had a major fleet around Constantinople,” said Robert Ousterhout, a Byzantine scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. “They had ports around the Golden Horn and the Marmara.”
Now 13 to 65 feet deep, Lake Kucukcekmece would have been a deep bay navigable by ships of all sizes, Dr. Aydingun said. Sonar has revealed what may be six Byzantine iron anchors buried in the sand just offshore, and nails commonly used in shipbuilding were unearthed at the site.
In recent years, Istanbul has been the scene of several stunning discoveries during salvage archaeology digs, most notably at the Yenikapi transit project, which unearthed a remarkable array of shipwrecks. No shipwrecks have been found at Bathonea; nor are they likely to be anytime soon, said Mr. Oniz, the underwater archaeologist. The lake is so polluted by industrial runoff that diving in it is dangerous, he said. A new water-treatment facility may make exploration possible within a few years.
The Bathonea archaeologists also hope to uncover more artifacts dating to the earliest days of civilization. In 2007, Dr. Aydingun and Emre Guldogan of Istanbul University found 9,000-year-old flint tools at the site that could be evidence of the earliest pre-pottery farming settlement in Europe. Bathonea’s role — and its real name — can be determined only through further study, Dr. Aydingun said.
Ground-penetrating radar has indicated that extensive structures remain beneath the soil. And as all of their efforts have been focused on the waterfront, the archaeologists have yet to investigate the patches of trees and brush farther inland that farmers have long avoided because their plows cannot cut through them.
Dr. Aydingun suspects there is a good reason for that. “I think all of these buildings continue,” she said. “Can you imagine?”

(New York Times)   

Hellenistic Building
It doesn't look like much, but archaeologists were excited to find this plaster-coated building hiding in plain sight because it provides more evidence of Bathonea's beginnings. Adjoined to crumbling late-Ottoman buildings, obscured by trees and brush, its walls had been slathered in a deceptive layer of plaster.
This summer the plaster was chipped away to reveal wide, rectangular blocks that are typical of Hellenistic buildings from the second century B.C. It's located on a newly unearthed road that leads to the harbor of the same era. They also found Hellenistic pottery shards in the rubble near the wall. The team speculates it may have been a warehouse.

Monastery and Workshops
Adjacent to the palace archaeologists unearthed one large building and a series of smaller ones that appear to be parts of a complex dating back to the fourth century, which included the palace, a monastery and a series of workshops for making metal, glass and jewelry.
The finds include smelting waste and rare jewelry molds. "From written sources it's known that Constantinopolis had jewelry workshops since the Roman and Byzantine times," Aydingün says. "Our findings may be the first-ever proof. But it is too early to claim it with some confidence. We are still checking with metalwork historians."

The remains of a well-appointed villa continue to yield evidence of its residents' wealth. The nine-meter walls held statue nooks and ornate wall mosaics; thousands of dirt-encrusted tesserae were found this year. Milky blue marble lined the floors and an extensive water system channeled freshwater throughout. The small graves likely once held children.

Aerial of the Little Harbor
This aerial shows about a third of the excavated site—a section archaeologists call the "little harbor" after the second-century B.C. pier shown at left. At right are newly uncovered crisscrossing roads spanning 1,500 years, the round foundations of a Greek temple, a fifth-century Byzantine church and cemetery as well as an Ottoman-era building. Hidden by trees is a newly spotted Hellenistic edifice, positioned just up the road from the harbor.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Fortress of Sergiopolis in Syria

Defending The Persian Frontier

Resafa, known in Roman times as Sergiopolis and briefly as Anastasiopolis, was a city located in the Roman province of Euphratensis, in modern-day Syria. It is an archaeological site situated south-west of the city of Ar Raqqah and the Euphrates River.

Procopius describes at length the ramparts and buildings erected there by the Emperor Justinian. The walls of Resafa which are still well preserved are over 1600 feet in length and about 1000 feet in width; round or square towers were erected about every hundred feet; there are also ruins of a church with three apses.


As you look at lonely Resafa in the desert, it is easy to forget that once it stood on one of the world's main roads, with populous towns and cities all around. It was on several great caravan roads, with Palmyra to the south, Dura-Europos southeast, and Aleppo on the west. Hardly a day passed that did not see streams of traffic converging on its walls. Caravans did not follow the edge of the Euphrates close by, as the ravines made travel difficult, and every small village expected their toll. Instead, the large caravans moved parallel to the river but farther inland. This put Resafa on the east-west trail.

Just to the north and northeast of Resafa there were two fords of the Euphrates, one at Nicephorium [ar-Rakka] and the lesser, at Thapsacus [Balis]. Elsewhere along the Euphrates the river came right up to the cliffside, forbidding an easy crossing. Thus travel from Palestine and Egypt was funneled up the broad valley between the foothills of the Antilebanon and Alawit ranges tot he west, and the higher plateau to the east called, al-Bisri [Bashan]. This eastern plateau is deeply cut many times with erosion valleys, extending the travel distance going around, or causing hardship on animal and handlers with constant ascent and descent.

The Roman-Byzantine Fortress in central Syria
was one of a series of forts protecting the eastern
frontier from invasion by the Persian Empire.

The village if Resafa had no spring or running water; it depended upon cisterns holding the winter and spring rains. The rainfall in this area is more than sufficient, enough for year-around pasturage to the south of Resafa.

The Bedouin still water their flocks with the brackish water from the open well at the north-west tip of the rampart. The rope, more than 120 feet long, shows how deep the well is. There are four immense, vaulted underground rain-water cisterns, still covered with water-tight cement.


The site dates to the 9th century BC, when a military camp was built by the Assyrians. During Roman times it was a desert outpost fortified to defend against the Sassanid Persians, and a station on the Strata Diocletiana.

It flourished as its location on the caravan routes linking Aleppo, Dura Europos, and Palmyra was ideal. Resafa had no spring or running water, so it depended on large cisterns to capture the winter and spring rains.

In the 4th century, it became a pilgrimage town for Christians coming to venerate Saint Sergius, a Christian Roman soldier said to have been martyred in Resafa during the Diocletianic Persecution. A church was built to mark his grave, and the city was renamed Sergiopolis. Indeed, it became the "most important pilgrimage center in Byzantine Oriens in [the] proto-Byzantine period", with a special appeal to the local Arabs, especially the Ghassanids.

The Persian Frontier  -  For 700 years there was an endless series of wars between the Empire and Persia in Anatolia and along the Mesopotamian border region of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.  Over the centuries different Roman Emperors built fortified cities like Dara to act as strong points to keep the Persians from raiding too far into imperial territory.

Resafa was planted right in the path of the Roman–Persian wars, and was therefore a well-defended city that had massive walls that surrounded it without a break. It also had a fortress.

The historian Procopius describes a raid by Arabs seeking plunder.  That caused the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century to build more massive fortifications commensurate with the city's status and wealth.  The walls consisted of 29 towers and 21 solid rectangular bastions.  Justinian installed a garrison to protect the city.

The Persian Khusrau I is credited with making an unsuccessful attack on the town.

The 638 AD Roman Syria had been overrun by invading Muslim Arabs.  There is no record of any serious attempt by the Romans to defend the Resafa Fortress.  The fortress was to defend Syria against Persians.  With Persia no longer a threat the troops may have been moved other fronts to face the Arabs.

In the 8th century, the Umayyad Caliph Hischam ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724–743) made the city his favoured residence, and built several palaces around it.

The massive walls, formed of massive blocks of stone, surround Resafa almost without a break. It is possible to follow the sentry-walk for hundreds of yards at a stretch, and to enter the guard-houses where Byzantine garrisons kept watch over the desert.
There are three rectangular gates, the big central one for wagon traffic, two flanking entrances for pedestrian and horsemounted traffic. Roman arches, formed of white gypsum, sit on columns with Byzantine capitals. The gypsum is quarried fifteen miles away, and the white stone glitters like quartz crystals in the sun.

Fortifications at Sergiopolis (Rusafa).
Plan of part of the circuit-wall.
Above, section of a tower.
Below, elevation and section of part of the circuit-wall.

Elevation and plan of a part of the circuit-wall,
with stairs and a projecting tower.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus
Sergius and Bacchus were very popular throughout Late Antiquity.  In the Byzantine Empire, they were venerated as protectors of the army.  A large monastery church, the Little Hagia Sophia, was dedicated to them in Constantinople by Justinian I, probably in 527.  Sergius was a very popular saint in Syria and Christian Arabia.
The city of Resafa, which became a bishop's see, took the name Sergiopolis and preserved his relics in a fortified basilica. Resafa was improved by Emperor Justinian, and became one of the greatest pilgrimage centers in the East. 
Sergius and Bacchus were Roman citizens and high-ranking officers of the Roman Army, but their covert Christianity was discovered when they attempted to avoid accompanying a Roman official into a pagan temple with the rest of his bodyguard.  After they persisted in refusing to sacrifice to Jupiter in Emperor Galerius' company, they were publicly humiliated by being chained, dressed in female attire and paraded around town.
Galerius then sent them to Barbalissos in Mesopotamia to be tried by Antiochus, the military commander there and an old friend of Sergius.  Antiochus could not convince them to give up their faith, however, and Bacchus was beaten to death.  The next day Bacchus' spirit appeared to Sergius and encouraged him to remain strong so they could be together forever.
Over the next days, Sergius was also brutally tortured and finally executed at Resafa.
Speculation  -  If you read between the lines of history I think you see here two Gay Christians being honored.
(Saints Sergius and Bacchus)

Syria Resafa Sergiopolis North Entrance detail.

North gate of the city of Resafa.

Inside the Basilica of Saint Sergius
At one stage the city was known as Sergiopolis as it was named after a Saint. It was a pilgrimage for people visiting the grave of Saint Sergius, a martyred Christian soldier. A church was built to mark his grave and it became an important pilgrimage center in Byzantine period.
From the north gate, the Via Recta formed the main thoroughfare of the city. It is now no more than a pathway overgrown with grass, but lining it on either side there are still blocks of marble, the broken stumps of pillars and chunks of wall from the past.
The street leads to a first building of some size: the martyrium, a church where, at an early date, the bodies of Saint Sergius and his companions Bacchus and Julia were laid to rest. It is a basilican church with an apse. The floor and walls are made of gypsum stone found in Rasafa and the great monolithic columns are of rose-colored marble. The apsidal chapels are well preserved; the capitals and the archway carved like lace.

Underground water cistern at Resafa
There are still substantial sections of the city walls to be seen and some of the main buildings. Most impressive are the underground water cisterns which were needed because the city had no spring or running water. The massive underground cisterns were used to collect water from the winter and spring rains.

(al.amidache.free.fr/sergiopolis)      (Books.google.com)      (Aleppo Orthodox)

(Resafa)      (Procopius Buildings 2)

Friday, June 20, 2014

First Contact - Battle of Ongal, The Birth of the Bulgarian Empire

Re-enactor from First Bulgarian State

First Contact
The Coming of the Bulgars

The Roman campaign against the invading Bulgar tribes ranks as one of the most important in history because the Roman defeat resulted in the creation of a new Bulgarian Empire.  Over the next 675 years the Bulgarians would become either allies or more often deadly enemies of Constantinople.

The Bulgars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who flourished in the Pontic Steppe and the Volga basin in the 7th century AD.

The early Bulgars may have been present in the Pontic Steppe from the 2nd century, identified with the Bulensii in certain Latin versions of Ptolemy's Geography, shown as occupying the territory along the northwest coast of Black Sea east of Axiacus River (Southern Bug).

In the early 4th century, the Bulgars would have been caught up in the Hunnic migrations, moving to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the rivers Donets and Don and the Azov seashore.  Bulgars took part in the Hunnic raids on Central and Western Europe between 377 and 453.

At the end of the 5th century (probably in the years 480, 486, and 488) they fought against the Ostrogoths as allies of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno. From 493 they carried out frequent attacks on the western territories of the Byzantine Empire. Later raids were carried out at the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century.

Slowly the Bulgar peoples moved from what is modern Ukraine down into the Balkans and increasing came into contact with Roman troops at the Danube River frontier.

Roman Emperor Constantine IV
Emperor Constantine IV and his court.  He organized the military and city of Constantinople for a siege of five years while fighting wars on multiple fronts over three continents (Africa, Europe and Asia).  After the defeat of the Arabs the Emperor personally led an army against the invading Bulgars.
(Mosaic in basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe Ravenna, Italy.)

Of Arabs and Bulgars

The Heraclian dynasty Emperors of Rome faced the near extinction of the Empire from multiple enemies on multiple fronts.  Constantine IV (668 – 685) was simultaneously fighting wars in Italy, Africa, the Balkans and Anatolia.

His greatest challenge was withstanding the massive Arab Siege of Constantinople that lasted from  674-678.

The city survived, and finally in 678 the Arabs were forced to raise the siege. The Arabs withdrew and were almost simultaneously defeated on land and sea in Lycia in Anatolia. This unexpected reverse forced the Arabs to seek a truce with Constantine. The terms of the concluded truce required them to evacuate the islands they had seized in the Aegean, and to pay an annual tribute to the Emperor consisting of fifty slaves, fifty horses, and 3,000 pounds of gold.

At the same time a Roman army in the  Exarchate of Carthage North Africa was battling against invading Muslim Arabs.

With the Arab forces totally defeated at Constantinople and Lycia the Emperor could turn his attentions to the invading Bulgars.

The Bulgar Khan Asparuh
Founder of the Bulgarian Empire

For centuries Roman Balkans had been either under attack or overrun by and endless stream of Asian tribes.  Now it was the turn of the Bulgars.

The Khan Asparuh parted ways with the tribes to the north in order to seek a secure home on Roman Balkan territory. He was followed by 30,000 to 50,000 Bulgars.

He reached the Danube while the Byzantine capital Constantinople was besieged by Muawiyah I, Caliph of the Arabs.  He and his people settled in the Danube delta, probably on the now disappeared Peuce Island.

After the Arab siege of Constantinople ended,  Constantine IV gathered available troops and marched against the Bulgars and their Slav allies in 680.  His attack forced his opponents to seek shelter in a fortified encampment.

Again the Romans faced another pagan invasion that threatened their security.

Roman Empire military districts and force deployment in 668AD.  The Empire had to defend North Africa, Italy the Balkans and Asia Minor.
Click graphic to enlarge.

Opposing Forces

The early Bulgars were a warlike people and war was part of their everyday life, with every adult Bulgar obliged to fight. The early Bulgars were exclusively horsemen: in their culture, the horse was considered a sacred animal and received special care.

The permanent army consisted of the khan's guard of select warriors, while the campaign army consisted practically of the entire nation, assembled by clans. In the field, the army was divided into right and left wings.

During the first decades after the foundation of the country, the army consisted of a Bulgar cavalry and a Slavic infantry. The core of the Bulgarian army was the heavy cavalry, which consisted of 12,000–30,000 heavily armed riders.

The Bulgars were well versed in the use of stratagems. They often held a strong cavalry unit in reserve, which would attack the enemy at an opportune moment. They also sometimes concentrated their free horses behind their battle formation to avoid surprise attacks from the rear.

Eastern Roman Cavalry
They used ambushes and feigned retreats, during which they rode with their backs to the horse, firing clouds of arrows on the enemy. If the enemy pursued disorganized, they would turn back and fiercely attack them. According to contemporary historians, the Bulgars "could see in the dark like bats" and often fought at night.

The army had iron discipline, with the officers vigorously checking if everything was ready before a battle. For a horse that was undernourished or not properly taken care of, the punishment was death. The soldiers were under threat of a death penalty when having a loose bow-string or an unmaintained sword; or even if riding a war horse in peacetime

The infantry of the newly formed state was composed mainly of Slavs, who were generally lightly armed soldiers, although their chieftains usually had small cavalry retinues.

The Slavic footmen were equipped with swords, spears, bows and wooden or leather shields. However, they were less disciplined and less effective than the Bulgar cavalry.

The Romans   A direct descendant of the Roman army, the Byzantine army maintained a similar level of discipline, strategic prowess and organization.  Over time the cavalry arm became more prominent as the legion system disappeared in the early 7th century.

The official language of the army for centuries continued to be Latin but this would eventually give way to Greek as in the rest of the Empire, though Latin military terminology would still be used throughout its history.

Tactics, organization and equipment had been largely modified to deal with the Persians. The Romans adopted elaborate defensive armor from Persia, coats of mail, cuirasses, casques and greaves of steel for tagma of elite heavy cavalrymen called cataphracts, who were armed with bow and arrows as well as sword and lance.

Large numbers of light infantry were equipped with the bow, to support the heavy infantry known as scutarii (shield men) or skutatoi. These wore a steel helmet and a coat of mail, and carried a spear, axe and dagger. They generally held the center of a Roman line of battle. Infantry armed with javelins were used for operations in mountain regions.

The Battle of Ongal was east of Preslavets in the Danube River Delta.
Red arrows show the Bulgar attacks to the south and the blue
arrows the Byzantine land and sea movement to the Danube.

The Battle of Ongal

The Kahn Asparukh had marched westward and settled with his folk in the Ongal area to the north of the Danube.  From there he launched attacks against the Byzantine fortresses to the south. During that time Byzantium was at war with the Arabs who were besieging the capital Constantinople.

In 680, after the defeat of the Arabs, Constantine IV led a combined land and sea operation against the invaders and besieged their fortified camp in the Danube River Delta.

As usual little information is available on this all important campaign that resulted in the creation of the Bulgarian Empire.

Numbers of the troops involved are basically made up.  One historian claims that Constantine marched north with 85,000 troops to face 40,000 Bulgars. 

The number of Romans is absurd.  The Byzantine historian Treadgold says the entire strength of the Roman Army at this point was 109,000 men under arms.  The Byzantines never fielded forces this large in one place.
Bulgar Warrior

If you look at the force deployment chart above the Romans had some 40,000 troops stationed in the general Constantinople area and another 20,000 in the Theme of Thrace. 

With the Emperor at the head of the army we can assume a larger than normal force was gathered.  An army of perhaps 30,000 or more might be reasonable.

If 30,000 set out on campaign several thousand would never have made it to the battlefield.  They would have been detached from the main army to protect supply lines back to Constantinople, occupy fortified points in the rear or to protect communications to the Byzantine navy off the coast.

The Bulgarians moved into Roman territory with 30,000 to 50,000 people including women and children.  The male fighting force would be much smaller at perhaps 15,000

The Bulgarian leader made an alliance with the Seven Slavic tribes for mutual protection against Byzantine attacks and formed a federation.  So Slavic allies could have added to that total, but no information is available.

A Roman fleet sailed up the coast along side of the Emperor's army.  The Bulgars did not have a navy to fight so we can assume that the ships transported supplies and perhaps reinforcements.  There is no record of the navy participating in the battle in a meaningful way.

The Bulgars knew the Romans were coming for them.  They built wooden ramparts in a swampy area near the Peuce Island in the Danube River Delta.

Emperor Constantine was over confident after his defeat of the Arabs.  He sent his forces to attack the Bulgars on ground of their choosing, not his choosing.

The marshes and river delta would have prevented larger numbers of Romans from gathering in one location in defense or attack. The Byzantines were forced to attack from different places and in smaller groups which reduced the strength of their attack. With sudden strikes from the ramparts, the well-organized defense eventually forced the Byzantines to retreat, and the retreat developed into a stampede.

The Bulgar cavalry came out and charged the enemy who retreated chaotically. Most of the Byzantine soldiers were killed.

According to popular belief, the emperor had leg pain and went to Nessebar down the coast to seek treatment. The troops thought that he fled the battlefield and in turn began fleeing. When the Bulgars realized what was happening, they attacked and defeated their discouraged enemy.  Accounts say that virtually the entire Roman army was destroyed.

The Danube River Delta
The Roman Emperor Constantine made a mistake of fighting on ground of the Bulgars choosing.  Wet, slushy conditions, lots of river channels and trees to block your view of enemy forces is not ideal for any attacker.  These conditions prevented different Roman units from easily supporting each other in battle. 

Historical Speculation

Again, there is maddeningly little hard information for historians.  But the "official" account of the battle, such as it is, does not ring true.

There should not have been all that many Buglar troops inside a slapped together wooden swap fort.  Sure the Bulgars may have made a few ferocious attacks from the fort at the Byzantines.  But the idea that the limited forces inside the fort would destroy a larger attacking Roman army is not believable.

What is more likely is substantial units of Bulgar cavalry, infantry and Slavic allies were operating outside the fort.  The fort acted as bait to draw the Romans into battle.  The wet delta river system would have made a Roman attack much harder and also split up their forces on to different islands and riverbanks so they were unable to support each other.
Emperor Constantine IV

The Bulgars may have been attacking Roman regiments isolated from each other by the delta.  They may also have been working their way around to attack the flanks and/or the rear of the main Roman army working on the fort.

The Emperor leaves.  The story is the Emperor suddenly decided in the middle of a campaign that he had "leg pain" and needed treatment far away from the battlefield.

This is pure press release political bull if you ask me.

More likely is that Constantine's generals came to him with reports that a number of his units out in the delta were being overrun by Bulgarian forces and that his army was in danger of being flanked or surrounded. 

Political, not military considerations, would have caused the relocation of the head-of-state to prevent his capture or death by an invading enemy.

The Emperor would not have left by himself.  He would have taken with him his staff and a large bodyguard of troops for protection.  Troops that would have been vital to strengthen Roman defenses.

It is reasonable to assume that with the battle already going badly the flight of the Emperor added to the panic of the troops causing a total collapse and the Bulgarian victory.

Battle of Ongal
Screen shots of the battle in a Bulgarian language YouTube video.  The movie clip
is pretty good showing the wooden defensive walls and the Byzantine
attackers.  The wet, delta conditions were not really addresses.
Link Battle of Ongal


After the victory, the Bulgars advanced south and seized the lands to the north of Stara Planina. In 681 they invaded Thrace defeating the Byzantines again. Constantine IV found himself in a dead-lock and asked for peace. With the treaty of 681 the Byzantines recognized the creation of the new Bulgarian state and were obliged to pay annual tribute to the Bulgarian rulers.

The Romans were greatly humiliated.  The empire had recently defeated the Sassanid Persians and the Ummayad Arabs.  Now they in turn had been decisively beaten by an invading tribe from Asia.

This battle was a significant moment in European history, as it led to the creation of a powerful state, which was to become a European superpower in the 9th and 10th century along with the Byzantine and Frankish Empires. It became a cultural and spiritual centre of Slavic Europe through most of the Middle Ages.

The foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire. The army
of Asparukh is in red. The army of Constantine IV is in blue.

The new Bulgarian Empire after the Battle of Ongal.

(Medieval Bulgarian Army)      (militaryhistoryonline)      (theapricity.com)

(Bulgars)      (Asparuh)     (Ongal)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Roman and Byzantine Egypt - "Bread Basket" of the Empire

Pompey's Pillar, the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria.

700 Years of Roman Rule in Egypt
Egypt was the "Bread Basket" of the Empire for centuries.

The Coming of Rome

An independent Egypt came to an end with the coming together of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Octavian.

After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony's alliance with Cleopatra angered the Roman elite.  Octavian declared war on the "Foreign Queen" of Egypt. Off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in at Actium, where the forces of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated the Navy of Cleopatra and Antony.  Octavian then arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony.

In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra VII, the Roman Empire declared that Egypt was now a province (Aegyptus), and that it was to be governed by a prefect selected by the Emperor from the Equestrian and not a governor from the Senatorial order, to prevent interference by the Roman Senate.

A statue of Augustus as a younger
Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC

The main Roman interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government, although Romans replaced Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the administrative offices and Greek remained the language of government except at the highest levels. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers.

Culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced.

Roman Government in Egypt

The effect of the Roman conquest was at first to strengthen the position of the Greeks and of Hellenism against Egyptian influences. Some of the previous offices and names of offices under the Hellenistic Ptolemaic rule were kept, some were changed.

The Romans introduced important changes in the administrative system, aimed at achieving a high level of efficiency and maximizing revenue. The duties of the prefect of Egypt combined responsibility for military security through command of the legions and cohorts, for the organization of finance and taxation, and for the administration of justice.

The economic resources that this imperial government existed to exploit had not changed since the Ptolemaic period, but the development of a much more complex and sophisticated taxation system was a hallmark of Roman rule. Taxes in both cash and kind were assessed on land, and a bewildering variety of small taxes in cash, as well as customs dues and the like, was collected by appointed officials.
Portrait of a Boy
Roman period, 2nd century
Met Museum.org

A massive amount of Egypt's grain was shipped downriver both to feed the population of Alexandria and for export to the Roman Capitol.

This wealthiest of provinces could be held militarily by a very small force; and the threat implicit in an embargo on the export of grain supplies, vital to the provisioning of the city of Rome and its populace, was obvious. Internal security was guaranteed by the presence of three Roman legions (later reduced to two), each about 6,000 strong, and several cohorts of auxiliaries.

The social structure in Egypt under the Romans was both unique and complicated. On the one hand, the Romans continued to use many of the same organizational tactics that were in place under the Ptolemies. At the same time, the Romans saw the Greeks in Egypt as “Egyptians”, an idea that both the native Egyptians and Greeks would have rejected.

To further compound the whole situation, Jews, who themselves were very Hellenized overall, had their own communities, separate from both Greeks and native Egyptians.

The Romans began a system of social hierarchy that revolved around ethnicity and place of residence. Other than Roman citizens, a Greek citizen of one of the Greek cities had the highest status, and a rural Egyptian would be in the lowest class. In between those classes was the metropolite, who was almost certainly of Hellenic origin.

Gaining citizenship and moving up in ranks was very difficult and there were not many available options for ascendancy.

Romanized Egyptians
The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.
 Mummification was performed on ordinary people but the work was shoddy compared to what was done for pharaohs and noblemen in Pharonic times. The mummification process was done in 40 days instead of 70, there were no canopic jars for organs, and many mummies were buried with coffins or sarcophagi.
 The mummies had Roman hairstyles and held Greek or Roman coins used to bribe the ferryman in the other world the but the iconography on the masks and painted deities that showed the way to the afterlife were clearly Egyptian.
The practice of mummification began to disappear around the A.D. 4th century when Christianity began to flourish.
See more at Factsanddetails.com 

Christianity in Egypt

Little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt.

The ancient religion of Egypt put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity. Possibly its long history of collaboration with the Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt had robbed its religious leaders of authority. Alternatively, the life-affirming native religion may have begun to lose its appeal among the lower classes as a burden of taxation and liturgic services instituted by the Roman emperors reduced the quality of life.

By 200 it is clear that Alexandria was one of the great Christian centers.

Over the course of the 5th century, paganism was suppressed and lost its following, as the poet Palladius bitterly noted. It lingered underground for many decades: the final edict against paganism was issued in 435, but graffiti at Philae in Upper Egypt proves worship of Isis persisted at its temples into the 6th century.

Many Egyptian Jews also became Christians, but many others refused to do so, leaving them as the only sizable religious minority in a Christian country.

Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.  Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world.

In 395 AD the Roman Empire is forever divided into two nations
under two Emperors, two Senates and two armies and two navies.

Egypt is fully under the control of Constantinople from this point. 

Egypt Under The Eastern Empire

The reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337) saw the founding of Constantinople as a new capital for the Roman Empire.

Slowly economic and military power began to shift to the new eastern capital.  Then 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 and bureaucratic civilian machine died.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
(395 to 408) First of many
eastern emperors ruling Egypt.

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

From 395 on Egypt was ruled from Constantinople.  Its taxes and gain shipments increasingly provided wealth and power to the Eastern Roman Empire.
Latin, never well established in Egypt, would play a declining role with Greek continuing to be the dominant language of government and scholarship. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Eastern Roman Empire gradually transformed itself into a thoroughly Christian state whose culture differed significantly from its pagan past.

The fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century further isolated the Egyptian Romans from Rome's culture and hastened the growth of Christianity. The triumph of Christianity led to a virtual abandonment of pharaonic traditions: with the disappearance of the Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples, no-one could read the hieroglyphs of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert.

The old Græco-Roman world faded. The Greek system of local government by citizens had now entirely disappeared. Offices, with new Byzantine names, were almost hereditary in the wealthy land-owning families. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, continued to be a center of religious controversy and violence.

Egypt nevertheless continued to be an important economic center for the Empire supplying much of its agriculture and manufacturing needs as well as continuing to be an important center of scholarship. It would supply the needs of Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean as a whole.

The reign of Justinian (482–565) saw the Empire recapture Rome and much of Italy from the barbarians, but these successes left the empire's eastern flank exposed. The Empire's "bread basket" now lacked for protection.

Byzantine-era gold coins found in Luxor
Twenty-nine gold coins discovered in Draa Abul Naga on Luxor's west bank.  During a routine excavation carried out inside a tomb at an ancient Egyptian necropolis in the Deir Beikhit area of Draa Abul Naga, German excavators unearthed the collection of golden coins.
Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the coins were found wrapped in linen inside a hole found on one of the tomb's decorative columns.
Early studies, he went on, reveal the coins date from the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

The Persian Conquest of Egypt
In a three year long struggle with Roman forces the
armies of Persia conquered Egypt.

The Persian Invasion of Egypt (617 or 618 AD)

The Roman–Sasanian War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Persia.

The previous war between the two powers had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice helped the Sasanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602 Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrau proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of Maurice.

This became a decades-long conflict and the longest war in the series and was fought throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe.

The Romans were being pressed on multiple fronts at the same time.  The Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkans.  The Persian armies defeated the Roman forces conquering Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, much of Anatolia, the Levant and finally Egypt itself.
Sassanid Persian Cavalry

The lowest point came in 626 when the Avar and Persians laid siege to Constantinople itself.  The Roman Empire almost ceased to exist.

Also see our article The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army.

EGYPT  -  With the empire in almost total collapse the Persian armies invaded Egypt in either 617 or 618 AD.

Invasion was something Egypt had not seen sense the days of Caesar and Octavian over 600 years before.  Egypt was used to being the bread basket of the Empire, not being on the front lines of war.

Little is known about the particulars of this campaign, since the province was practically cut off from the remaining Roman territories and records are few.

We can suspect that the Emperor pulled as many troops and ships out of Egypt as possible in order to reinforce other parts of the empire.

On the other hand, we do know that the conquest was completed in 621.  For the war in this province to last for 3 or 4 years implies that there was some level of resistance to the Persians from Roman forces, the local population or both.

The Persian army headed for Alexandria.  There Nicetas, Heraclius' cousin and local governor, withstood year-long siege.   Resistance in Alexandria collapsed, supposedly after a traitor told the Persians of an unused canal, allowing them to storm the city.

The fact that the siege lasted for a year tells us that there were enough Roman troops on hand to successfully resist the Persians.

Records say Nicetas fled to Cyprus along with Patriarch John the Almsgiver, who was a major supporter of Nicetas in Egypt. The fate of Nicetas is unclear, since he disappears from records after this, but the Emperor Heraclius was presumably deprived of a trusted commander.

The loss of Egypt was a severe blow to the Roman Empire, as Constantinople relied on grain shipments from fertile Egypt to feed the multitudes in the capital. The free grain ration in Constantinople, which echoed the earlier grain dole in Rome, was abolished in 618

After the fall of Alexandria, the Persians gradually extended their rule southwards along the Nile. Sporadic resistance required some mopping-up operations, but by 621, the province was securely in Persian hands.

Egypt would remain in Persian hands for 10 years, run by general Shahrbaraz from Alexandria. As the new Roman Emperor Heraclius reversed the tide and defeated Khosrau, Shahrbaraz was ordered to evacuate the province, but refused. In the end, Heraclius, trying both to recover Egypt and to sow disunion amongst the Persians, offered to help Shahrbaraz seize the Persian throne for himself.

An agreement was reached, and in the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt.

The Diocese of Egypt c. 400 AD
Egypt under the Eastern Roman Empire.  The capital of the province was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis. 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.

Islam and the End of Roman Rule

In 629 AD the Persians withdrew from their ten year control of Egypt.

While there would have been joy that a Christian army was replacing the pagan Persian government, that was tempered by religious bigotry between Greeks and Egyptian Copts.  The Greeks held to Chalcedonian Christianity and the Egyptian Christians held the position of Miaphysitism.

The growing conflict between Christian sects would undermine Byzantine rule in Egypt.  Freedom of religion did not exist as we know it.  Many Copts may have looked at the 10 years of Persian rule as a golden age where they could worship as they pleased without edicts from Constantinople telling them what to do. 

With the Persians gone Egypt was again governed by the East Roman civil service and military, both of which were filled by the Greek-speaking ruling class to the general exclusion of the native Coptic-speaking Egyptians. Locally, the Romans ruled Egypt from the capital of Alexandria, and from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, with its great bulwark, the fortress of Babylon, on the eastern bank of the Nile. A chain of fortress towns ran across the country from which the Romans kept order and collected taxes.

Mailed Arab Archer

Peace would not last long.  Only ten years after the Persians left came a new invader - Arab Muslims.

In December 639 some 4,000 Muslim Arabs made a march to the border of Egypt.  The Muslim invasion had begun.

From 629 AD to 637 these new invaders of Egypt had just engaged in a series of major battles in Syria and Palaestina against the Romans.  The major cities of the Middle East fell one by one to Islam.

Now the Muslim armies targeted a Christian Egypt still recovering from war and occupation by Persia.

How many Roman troops were garrisoned in Egypt is an open question without an answer.  The massive campaigns in greater Syria may have drawn off a number of the troops in Egypt.  Certainly with the Romans hard pressed in Syria there were not a lot of reinforcements available to sent to Africa.

The Romans resisted the invasion in open battle and in fortified cities with no success.

Cyrus of Alexandria entered into a treaty with the Muslims. By the treaty, Muslim sovereignty over the whole of Egypt, and effectively in the province of Thebaid, was recognized, and the Egyptians agreed to pay Jizya at the rate of 2 diners per male adult. The treaty was subject to the approval of the emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus stipulated that even if the emperor repudiated the treaty, he and the Copts of whom he was the High Priest would honor its terms, recognize the supremacy of the Muslims and pay them Jizya

Though some Copts from personal considerations continued to support the Byzantines, the sympathies of the Copts were now by and large with the Muslims. The Copts were not supposed to fight against the Byzantines on behalf of the Muslims, but they undertook to help the Muslims in the promotion of war effort and in the provision of stores, build roads and bridges for them, and provide them moral support.

Conquest of Alexandria and fall of Egypt

The Muslims laid siege to Alexandria in March 641 AD. The city was heavily fortified: there were walls within walls, and forts within forts. There was no dearth of provisions and food supply in the city. The city also had direct access to the sea, and through the sea route help from Constantinople in the form of men and supplies could come at any time.

The Byzantines had high stakes in Alexandria, and they were determined to offer stiff resistance to the Muslims. They mounted catapults on the walls of the city, and these engines pounded the Muslims with boulders. This caused considerable damage to the Muslims who pulled back beyond the range of the missiles. A see-saw war followed. When the Muslims tried to go close to the city they were hit with missiles. When the Byzantines sallied from the fort, they were invariably beaten back by the Muslims.

It is said that Emperor Heraclius collected a large army at Constantinople. He intended to march at the head of these reinforcements personally to Alexandria. But before he could finalize the arrangements, he died. The troops mustered at Constantinople dispersed, and consequently no help came to Alexandria.

In September, 641 an assault was successful and Alexandria was captured by the Muslims.  Thousands of Byzantine soldiers were killed or taken captive while others managed to flee to Constantinople on ships that had been anchored in the port.

Eastern Roman Troops

Byzantine Counterattack

There were several Byzantine attempts to retake Alexandria. Though none of these were successful for a sustained period of time, Byzantine forces were able to briefly regain control of the city in 645.

Arab chroniclers tell of a massive fleet and army sent by the Byzantines with the goal of retaking Alexandria. The imperial forces were led by a lower ranking imperial official named Manuel. After entering the city without facing much resistance, the Byzantines were able to regain control of both Alexandria and the surrounding Egyptian countryside.

The Muslims retaliated by readying a large force of 15,000 who promptly set out to retake the city under command of the veteran Amr ibn Al-Asi. The Byzantines, following their standard tactical doctrine, advanced out of the city and sought an open battle away from the shelter of their fortifications. Accounts of the battle portray the Muslim forces as relying heavily on their archers before eventually assaulting the Byzantine positions, driving many back and routing the rest in the process. After this, the Byzantines were utterly defeated and withdrew from the region.

In 654, yet another attempt to bring Alexandria back into imperial hands failed when an invasion force sent by Constans II was repulsed.

This marks the end of Byzantine attempts to retake the city.  The permanent loss of Egypt meant a loss of a huge amount of Byzantium's food and money. 

But more important, some 1,000 years of Greek and Roman rule over Egypt had finally ended.

The Arab invasion of Egypt

(Ptolemaic Egypt)      (Roman diocese)      (Diocese of Egypt)

(Egypt Roman province)      (Sassanid conquest)      (Sassanid War)

(Muslim conquest)      (countrystudies)