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

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Battle of Tryavna Pass (1190 AD)

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

Bulgaria vs Constantinople

Origins of the War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forces Involved

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

Bulgarian Army

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern Roman Army Strength

The Roman Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

That 50,000 man army starts shrinking fast.

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

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

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

Late medieval Bulgarian soldier

Invasion and Siege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Tryavna Pass

From the frying pan into the fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle was a major catastrophe for the Byzantines.

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

11th Century Eastern Roman military formation


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

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

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

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

The Empire before Bulgaria broke away.

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

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

(pinterest)      (Byzantine army)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Army - Unjust Treatment of the Soldiers

Roman heavy infantry

Corruptus in Extremis

The great weakness in the Empire was the decline of the different Roman assemblies so the people had no way of peacefully changing their government. 

By the time of Justinian the eastern Senate had become a rubber stamp institution with little power. The Emperor of the moment could trample on the rights of the people at will.

In this chapter below from Procopius' Secret History we get yet another example of Imperial corruption right at the top in the Royal Palace.

Short of a military coup there was nothing anyone in the Empire could do.

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
The Secret History


I must not pass over his treatment of the soldiers, over whom he appointed paymasters with instructions to hold out as much of their money as they found possible, on the understanding that one twelfth of what they thus collected was theirs. 

Their method each year was as follows. It was the regulation that different ranks in the army receive different pay: the young and newly enlisted received less, those who had seen hard service and had advanced half way up the list received more, and the veterans who should soon retire from service had a still higher rating, so that they could live on their savings as private citizens, and when their span of life was complete, might be able to leave some consolation to their families. In this way, the soldiers step by step arose in rank as their older comrades died or retired, and each man's pay fitted his degree of seniority.
But the paymasters forbade the erasing from the lists of the names of soldiers who died, even when many perished together, as frequently happened in the constant wars. Nor did they fill the vacancies in the lists, even after considerable time.
The result of this was that the number of soldiers grew continually less, and those who survived their dead comrades were deprived of their proper advancement in rank and pay; while the paymasters handed over to Justinian the money that should have gone to these soldiers all this time.
Furthermore, they fined the soldiers for other personal and unjust reasons, as a reward for the perils they underwent in the battlefield: on the charge that they were Greeks, as if none of that nation could be brave; or that they were not commissioned by the Emperor to serve, even when they showed his signature to that effect, which the paymasters did not hesitate to question; or that they had been absent from duty for a few days.

Eastern Roman Guard
Troops were expected to put their lives on the line while the Emperor cheated them of their pay.


Later, some of the palace guards were sent throughout the whole Roman Empire to investigate how many on the military lists were unfit for service; and some were relieved of their uniform for being old and use less, so that for the rest of their lives they had to beg their meals of the charitable in the public Forum, exhibiting their tears and lamentations to passersby; and the rest, lest they might suffer a similar fate, handed over their savings as a bribe, with the result that all the soldiers lost heart for their profession, were reduced to poverty, and had no further enthusiasm for campaigning.
This was ruinous to the Romans and their authority in Italy; and the paymaster Alexander, sent thither, had the audacity to reproach the soldiers for their poor morale; while he exacted further money from the Italians, on the pretext of punishing them for their negotiations with Theodoric and the Goths. The common soldiers, indeed, were not the only ones to be reduced to poverty and helplessness by these commissioners; for all the staff officers, under the generals, who had formerly been in high esteem, were utterly impoverished and in danger of famine, as they had no money left with which to buy their customary provisions.
Speaking of the soldiers reminds me to add further details. The Roman emperors hitherto had stationed large armies on all frontiers of the State to protect its boundaries; and particularly in the East, to repel incursions of the Persians and Saracens. These border troops Justinian used so ill and meanly from the start that their pay became four or five years overdue; and when peace was declared between the Romans and Persians, these poor men, instead of sharing in the fruits of peace, were forced to contribute to the public treasury whatever was owed them; after which they were summarily discharged from the army. Thereafter the boundaries of the Roman Empire were unguarded, and the soldiers were left suddenly on the hands of charity.
Another corps of not less than three thousand, five hundred other soldiers, originally mustered for the palace guard, and called the Scholars, had always received higher pay from the public treasury than the rest of the army. Originally they were chosen to this preferred company by special merit, from the Armenians; but from the time when Zeno became Emperor, it was possible for anyone, no matter how poor or cowardly a soldier, to wear this uniform. 

Now when Justin came to the throne, this Justinian distributed the honor among a large number upon their paying him a considerable price for it. And when he saw there was no further possible vacancy, he enrolled two thousand more, whom he called Supernumeraries. When he himself took over the throne, he immediately disbanded the Supernumeraries, without giving them back any of the money they had paid him.
This, however, is what he schemed with reference to the Student Corps. Whenever an army was about to be sent against Libya, Italy, or the Persians, he ordered them to pack for service with the regulars, though he knew well they were utterly unfit for the campaign. And they, trembling at the possibility of active service, surrendered their pay for the period of the war. The Students had this unpleasant experience more than once. Also Peter, during all the time he was Master of Offices, worried them daily with unheard-of thefts.
For he was a gentle seeming and unassuming man, but the biggest thief alive, and simply bursting with sordid meanness. It was this Peter whom I mentioned before as responsible for the murder of Amasalontha, Theodoric's daughter.
There were also others in the palace guard of much higher rank; and the more they paid into the treasury for their commissions, the higher was their military rating. These were called Domestics and Protectors, and had always been exempt from active service. Only as a matter of form they were listed in the palace guard. Some of them were regularly stationed in Constantinople, others had always been assigned to Galatia or other provinces. Justinian scared these, too, in the same way, into forfeiting their pay to him.
Finally, it was the law that every five years the Emperor should give each soldier a bonus of a fixed sum in gold. And every five years commissioners had been sent over all the Roman Empire to give each soldier five gold staters. Not to comply with this custom was simply unthinkable. Yet from the time that this man managed the State, he never once did this, nor had any idea of doing it, though he reigned for thirty-two years: so that the very custom was finally forgotten by everyone.

Empress Theodora 
by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)

"Now when the Emperor and Theodora dismissed John of Cappadocia, they wished to appoint a successor to his office, and agreed to choose a still baser rogue; so they looked everywhere for such an instrument of tyranny, examining all manner of men that they might be able to ruin their subjects the faster. 

For the time being, they appointed Theodotus to the office: a man who was by no means good, but still not bad enough to satisfy them; and meanwhile they continued their general search till finally, almost to their surprise, they discovered a banker named Peter, a Syrian by birth, surnamed Barsyames; who, after years of sitting at the copper money-changer's table had made himself rich by thievish malpractices, being gifted at stealing obols, which he could filch under the eyes of customers by the quickness of his fingers. He was not only smart at this sleight-of-hand thievery, but if he were ever detected, would swear it was a mistake, covering up the sins of his hands with the impudence of his tongue.

Enlisting in the Pretorian guard, he behaved so outrageously that Theodora was delighted with him, and decided he could most easily serve her in the worst of her nefarious schemes. So Theodotus, who had succeeded the Cappadocian, was straightway removed from office and Peter appointed in his place; and he did everything to their taste. Cheating all the soldiers of -their due pay, without the slightest shame or fear, he also offered offices for sale to a greater extent than ever to those who did not hesitate to engage in this impious traffic for dishonored positions; and he openly licensed those who bought these offices to use as they wished the lives and substance of their subjects. For he claimed himself, and granted to whoever paid the price of a province, the right to destroy and ravage without restriction."

Eastern Roman Soldier


Monday, July 9, 2018

Military and Government Couriers in the Roman Empire

Roman wagon that could have been part of the
state-run courier and transportation service.

The Cursus Publicus
The challenge of sending and receiving
information in the Roman Empire

The cursus publicus (Latin: "the public way") was the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire, later inherited by the Byzantine Empire

For an Empire that spread over Africa, the Middle East and Europe it was vital for both Rome and Constantinople to get news of enemy attacks as rapidly as possible so troops could respond.

The Emperor Augustus created it to transport messages, officials, and tax revenues between the provinces and Italy. The service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century in the Byzantine Empire, when the historian Procopius accuses Emperor Justinian of dismantling most of its sections, except for the route leading to the Persian border. 

The extent of the cursus publicus is shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the Roman road network dating from around AD 400.

A series of forts and stations was spread out along the major road systems connecting the regions of the Roman world. The relay points (stationes) provided horses to dispatch riders and (usually) soldiers as well as vehicles for magistrates or officers of the court. The vehicles were called clabulae, but little is known of them. 

Union Army Mail Wagon
No doubt the Roman system was not too different than those that came later.

Cursus Publicus
Rome used wagons as well as horsemen to deliver information and some packages to the Legions and local governments.

diploma, or certificate, issued by the emperor himself was necessary to use the services supplied by the cursus publicus. Abuses of the system existed, for governors and minor appointees used the diplomata to give themselves and their families free transport. Forgeries and stolen diplomata were also used. Pliny the Elder and Trajan write about the necessity of those who wish to send things via the imperial post to keep up-to-date licences.

There is evidence that inspectors oversaw the functioning of the system in the provinces, and it may be conjectured that they reported to the 'Praefectus' in Rome. However, the office does not seem to have been considered a full-time position.

As Altay Coskun notes in a review of Anne Kolb's work done in German, the system "simply provided an infrastructure for magistrates and messengers who traveled through the empire. It consisted of thousands of stations placed along the main roads; these had to supply fresh horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen, as well as carts, food, fodder, and accommodation." 

Thus, there was no “department of postal service” with employees paid by the emperor. The one who was sending a missive would have to supply the courier, and the stations had to be supplied out of the resources of the local areas through which the roads passed.

Following the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine I, the service was divided in two sections: the fast and the regular. The fast section provided horses, divided into veredi ("saddle-horses") and parhippi ("pack-horses", and mules, and the slow section provided only oxen. The existence of the 'cursus clabularis' service shows that it was used to move heavy goods as well as to facilitate the travel of high officials and the carriage of government messages.

Speed of Delivery
How soon a letter got to its destination is something that varied widely for Roman Letter writers. On the reliable cursus publicus it is estimated that a courier could travel on average around fifty Roman miles a day, which was extremely fast for antiquity. But again, the cursus publicus was only open for the government.
For everyone else there was nowhere near that level of reliability. Over short distances messages moved rather quickly. It was common for a letter sent by a courier to get from Rome to Naples in five days. But, over long distances, especially when crossing water was involved, delivery times fluctuated wildly. 
Sometimes a letter to Athens would take only three weeks to reach Rome, while other times it could take as much as seventeen weeks to cover the same distance. There were many causes for delay, but one of the most common was simply that there were no ships heading to the letters destination. Couriers would sometimes wait weeks checking the harbors daily for the right ship.

Frank E. Webner, pony express rider, ca. 1861.  (Department of Commerce)

Persian Influence

The Romans adapted their state post from the ancient Persian network of the royal mounted couriers, the angarium. As Herodotus reports, the Persians had a remarkably efficient means of transmitting messages important to the functioning of the kingdom, called the Royal Road
The riders would be stationed at a day's ride along the road, and the letters would be handed from one courier to another as they made a journey of a day’s length, which allowed messages to travel fast. Augustus, at first, followed the Persian method of having mail handed from one courier to the next, but he soon switched to a system by which one man made the entire journey with the parcel. 
Although it is possible that a courier service existed for a time under the Roman Republic, the clearest reference by Suetonius suggests that Augustus created the system:

To enable what was going on in each of the provinces to be reported and known more speedily and promptly, he at first stationed young men at short intervals along the military roads, and afterwards post-chaises. The latter has seemed the more convenient arrangement, since the same men who bring the dispatches from any place can, if occasion demands, be questioned as well.

Tacitus says that couriers from Judea and Syria brought news to Vitellius that the legions of the East had sworn allegiance to him, and this also shows that the relay system was displaced by a system in which the original messenger made the entire journey. Augustus modified the Persian system, as Suetonius notes, because a courier who travels the whole distance could be interrogated by the emperor, upon arrival, to receive additional information orally.
The cursus operated in Italy and the more advanced provinces. There was only one in Egypt and one in Asia Minor, as Pliny's letters to Trajan attest. It was common for a village to exist every 12 miles (19 km) or so, and there a courier might rest at large, privately owned mansiones

Operated by a manceps, or a business man, the mansiones provided food and lodging, and care and a blacksmith for the horses. The cursus also used communities located along the imperial highways. These towns very often provided food and horses to messengers of the Legions, theoretically receiving reimbursement, and were responsible for the care of their section of the Roman roads.

Roman road of Tall Aqibrin in Syria

The Eastern Empire

The Imperial Post gave the legions the capacity to summon reinforcements and provide status reports before any situation deteriorated too badly. The average citizen sent letters and messages to friends across the sea with slaves and travelling associates. Most news reached its destination eventually.

The highest-ranking generals and frontier generals were issued passes, especially those at danger points like Mesopotamia.

Notwithstanding its enormous costs, in the Eastern Roman Empire the service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century, when the historian Procopius charges Emperor Justinian with the dismantlement of most of its sections, with the exception of the route leading to the Persian border.
Procopius provides one of the few direct descriptions of the Roman post that allows an estimation the average rate of travel overland. In the 6th century, he described earlier times:
If the distance between stages was known, the distance five stages or eight stages and the average rate at which correspondence moved along the cursus publicus would both be known.
The dromos continued to exist throughout the Byzantine period, supervised for much of it by the logothetēs tou dromou, although this post is not attested before the mid-eighth century and a revival of the service may then have occurred after a substantial gap. It was by then a much reduced service.
Being able to pay for the system was the major problem.

The Eastern Empire was under endless military attack from just about every direction possible. Tax paying provinces were lost to enemies or were burned over by invading armies cutting tax income.

Supporting the troops on the front lines had first call on treasury funds. A standing courier service became more and more a luxury item.

So the cursus publicus faded as a full time organized unit within government. What took its place would have been ad hoc couriers chosen by Constantinople or local provincial governors to pass on military and administrative news.

The system of major and minor Roman Roads allowed both information and troops to move rapidly around the the Empire.

A portion of the well-preserved Roman Road that
leads, 31 mi., from Troas to Assos in Anatolia.

(www.scribd.com)      (Master of offices)      (Egypt in the Byzantine world)

(Cursus publicus)      (Roman Syria)      (Roman roads)      (Imperial Rome)

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Grand Byzantine Fortress of Selçuk (Ayasuluk)

Ayasuluk Castle, locally known as Ayasuluk Kalesi or Selçuk Kalesi, lies on a hill in the town of Selçuk, in the province of Izmir in Turkey. It is situated just a mile from the site of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was initially a harbour city but the continually silting up of its harbour eventually made it an inland site situated 5 km from the sea at present. At the beginning of the Byzantine era, Ephesus was still predominantly at its harbour location. During the 6th century the city declined and was split up. The old city at the harbour was enclosed by a defensive wall, making it considerably smaller and thus better to defend. The Ayasuluk hill had been part of the outskirts of the city and was now a mile outside the city. 
The Byzantines then built Ayasuluk Castle, using stones from disused Greek and Roman buildings, for its construction. On the slope of the hill they built the Basilica of St. John. Defensive walls coming down from the castle, encompassed the basilica. Effectively turning the site in a citadel with the castle as an upper castle and the area with the basilica as a lower castle.
The combination of the marble façades and the mortared rubble made the walls 4 meters thick. The citadel walls were 1.5 km around with 17 towers. Entry to the citadel from the south was through the Gate of Persecution, which first led into the Basilica. In the 8th century the square towers on either side of the gate were made pentagonal, aiding in their defensive capabilities.
Over the following centuries, however, people from the harbour site gradually migrated towards the citadel on the hill as the harbour continued to silt up and they battled malaria. By the end of the Byzantine period the harbour was abandoned, and Ephesus was centered around Ayasuluk Hill.
In 1090 Ephesus was conquered by Seljuk Turks under Tengribirmish, but by then it had declined to nothing more than a small village. In 1097 the Byzantines took back control and renamed the village Agios Theologus. They kept control until the early 14th century. Then it was finally taken by the Seljuks, who renamed the site Ayasuluk. They repaired the walls of the castle, dredged the harbour and put it to use again. This resulted in the town prospering again.
Around the beginning of the 15th century Ayasuluk came under Ottoman rule. By that time the harbour had silted up again and had become a swamp. The town declined again to a village. The Ottomans however did keep the castle garrisoned. In the mid-17th century it had a garrison of 40 soldiers. As the population kept declining, the castle was abandoned during the 18th century. In 1914 Ayasuluk was renamed Selçuk.
A nice castle. Inside there are a small ruined mosque, a part of a former church turned into a cistern, a couple of Ottoman cisterns and groundplans of a couple of houses. It can be visited as a visitor of the site of the basilica. For that you have to pay a fee.

Eastern Roman Empire about 1025.
Selçuk Fortress is located one mile from the ancient
Greek city of Ephesus on the Aegean coast.

The castle was built during the time of the Byzantine Empire and later remodeled by the Turks.

The combination of the marble façades and the mortared rubble made the walls 4 meters thick. The citadel walls were 1.5 km around with 17 towers.

(journey)      (Ayasuluk)      (ayasuluk castle)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Battle of Ajnadayn - Islam vs Christianity

Three Arab warriors with rifles standing and sitting in the desert during the Arab Revolt 1916-1918. The invading Arabs the Romans faced might have looked much like these soldiers.

Islam on the March
Battle for the Middle East Part IV

Here we are in Part IV of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

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.  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. 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.

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  A Muslim wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus failed when confronted by Roman armies.  The Romans held their own in Syria and had dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine. But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

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

So here we are at about April of 634 and there is a stalemate on the Palestine front.

The Roman army at Daraa has totally blocked the Muslims from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north. Protected by their walls Roman cities in 
Palaestina Salutaris were able to hold out against the Muslims preventing them from moving further north. The Arabs did not want armed Roman garrisons in their rear ready to attack.

The Emperor Heraclius was a battle tested front line general who had personally marched into Persia crushing their empire. He had also traveled over and knew the geography of Syria and Palestine. He organized the defense of Damascus and the Roman troops dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications east of the Sea of Galilee.

The Emperor now gathered a second large army to drive the Muslims out of Roman territory. The question is why did he not personally command the army in his counter attack against the Muslims?

The Health of Heraclius

It was said that health was the reason Heraclius did not command troops against the Muslims.

At this point Heraclius was passing the threshold of 60 years of age as he confronted the massive Muslim invasions. Even if he had been ten years younger he would have been challenged to hold things together.  To command armies in the field at this age with all the rigors involved is nearly unheard of in military history. Consider that Napoleon was just 46 years old when he failed at Waterloo.

The Emperor may have been intermittently unable to function efficiently while at other moments he could handle decision making very capably. He appears to have suffered from "dropsy" and mental problems. Less clear he may have had Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) from protracted exposure to combat and related strains.

At the end of the Middle East campaign we see the mental issues come forward. He left Syria, returning to his capital, tired and exhausted. Reaching the Bosphorus, he suddenly had an inexplicable aversion to the sea. He even hid in a side room of one of the imperial palaces on the Asian shore, unable to proceed to Constantinople, ignoring the urgent pleas of the city’s representatives. He became paranoid, believed rumors about a conspiracy by his nephew and a bastard son, and ordered their noses and hands to be cut off before sending them into exile.

After a few weeks, his wife Martina and members of the court found a solution. Patriarch Nicephorus, who wrote a Breviarium or Short History, reports that a large number of boats was tied together, as if it were a bridge, to which they added a “wall” of tree branches and leaves, so that the emperor would not have to look at the sea. It worked: the emperor passed the sea on horseback as if he were traveling on land.

Back to Syria. Instead of being in the front lines the Emperor spent his time in the city of Homs some 150 miles away or in Edessa or in Antioch. These were important communications and supply centers. At these cities Heraclius was more easily able to stay in contact with Constantinople and follow events in Anatolia, supervise Roman troops still inside Persia as well as oversee combat to the south.

But let me say at this point there was no real reason for the Emperor himself to be with the army.

The Eastern Empire's military machine had decades of recent combat experience against the Persians and Slavs in the Balkans. Virtually the entire officer corps would have either fought at the side of the Emperor on campaign or been in combat in other theaters of war.

Going into the Battle of Ajnadain there was no reason to think that well trained Roman generals and their professional troops could not put down untrained desert invaders.

Byzantine Cataphract Attempt
From 400 AD on Eastern Roman Cavalry units would mirror their Persian enemies and would grow to become the mailed fist of the army in combat.
Cataphract armored horsemen were almost universally clad in some form of scale armor that was flexible enough to give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, but strong enough to resist the immense impact of a thunderous charge into infantry formations.

The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forces throughout history was the lanceThey were roughly four meters in length, with a capped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal bone and usually wielded with both hands. Cataphracts would often be equipped with an additional side-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the melee that often followed a charge.

The historian Procopius said:  "They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike

 having no power to check its force. Still there are those who take into consideration none of these things, who reverence and worship the ancient times, and give no credit to modern improvements." 

Campaign of Ajnadayn
The Romans (in yellow upper right) 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. 
Instead the Muslims at Daraa sent most of their army on a rapid 200 mile forced march to the south to join with the Beersheeba force and do battle with the Romans at Ajnadayn.

Muslim Forces

In 634 there is no way to measure the size of the Muslim armies invading Palaestina Salutaris. The Muslims divided into three columns. One column marched to Gaza on the coast, and the two other columns worked their way north on the right side of the Jordan River.

Perhaps the lack of water in the desert forced them to move in separate detachments. Also with no system of supply this could have made it easier to live off the land.

There was an additional fourth army of about 3,500 men that invaded Persia.

To round off numbers the three columns in Palestine might have initially had 10,000 to 15,000 men. When the Persian invasion force under Khalid ibn al-Walid failed in its wide flanking attack against Damascus his thousands of troops fell back to reinforce the other Muslim troops at the Daraa Gap.

So there may have been 15,000 plus Muslim troops in east Palestine and a smaller force of perhaps 3,000(???) near Gaza.

In total there could have been 20,000 Muslim soldiers in the Palestine area under assorted commands.

Click to enlarge
The Roman Army had perhaps 109,000 men at this point. But those troops were spread out over Asia, Africa and Europe in multiple sub-theaters. Gathering a sizable force in one spot was a major challenge.

Roman Forces

Historian Warren Treadgold places the strength of the Roman army at this point at 109,000 men.

But those troops were stretched thin. If troops were taken from one area then that part of the frontier would be weakened in the face of enemy forces and invite invasion on yet another front.

A factor in moving troops was local reluctance to comply. Heraclius was unsuccessful when he ordered that troops be moved from Numidia to assist in the defense of Egypt against the Muslim threat. Egypt lacked a large permanent garrison. The Empire was hard-pressed to find enough troops to reoccupy and monitor the huge areas from Egypt to Anatolia that had been evacuated by Persian armies.

Meanwhile in Syria, on Easter 634 at the Battle of Marj Rahit we saw Roman troops and their Ghassanid Christian Arab allies field about 8,000 men to defeat the Muslims in Syria.

Some miles south at the Daraa Gap fortifications the rather large Muslim force could not dislodge the dug in Roman army. We can assume the Romans at Daraa had at least as many troops there as the Muslims facing them.

So if the Muslims had some 15,000 men around Daraa then the entrenched Romans may have had roughly the same. Add in the thousands of Christian Arab allies just above Daraa and there is a sizable Roman army on hand that has totally blocked the Muslims from marching north.

Rome vs Muslims

The Arabs moved like lightening through the deserts. The rapid movements of the Muslims are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II. The desert Arabs had no training, fought wildly, but also had no big baggage train or camp followers that slowed down Western armies.  

The Eastern Roman military machine drew upon centuries of tradition, training and organization. The Byzantines had carefully organized administrative services, carts with entrenching tools, mills for grinding corn, supply wagons, an ambulance corps, doctors and more. This cause the army to move slower than their desert based opponents.

Tactical training was diligently carried out and books on the military arts were taught to the Roman officer corps. But the military manuals did not teach the officers how to combat wild, fanatical desert hordes motivated by religious fanaticism.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars 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.

Battle of Ajnadayn  (July 634)

The Muslim "victory" near Gaza at the Battle of Dathin in early 634 was minor one against a slapped together force of local Roman garrison troops. The Muslim army was so weak it could not exploit their opportunity. 

The Muslims under Amr ibn al Assi raided and probed only a few miles to the north reaching Lydda and Jaffa. They were unable or unwilling to venture into the mountains of Judea and Samaria while Roman troops stood behind the walls of fortified cities.

Seeing this Muslim weakness around Gaza the Emperor, who was in Homs, was busy raising a new army for a major counterattack into southern Palestine. Heraclius was obviously confident the Roman fortifications at Daraa would hold. Otherwise he would not be sending an army so far away. By sending his new army south he resumed the initiative and would force the Muslims on the defensive.

The Emperor was no stranger to bold and aggressive moves. In the Spring of 623 Constantinople itself was under siege by the Persians and Avars. Heraclius left the city in the hands of others. He gathered to himself a corps d'elite of 5,000 men and sailed over 600 miles to the east landing at the Black Sea city of Trebizond.  There he met up with an additional Roman army and eventually marched into the heart of Persia crushing their Empire.

The Emperor now used the same bold strategic methods against the Muslims that he had used against the Persians.

A bold plan of attack  

Exhausted with mental issues or not, the Emperor recognized opportunity. Heraclius saw that the Muslim forces were divided into two parts: Their main force was sitting in place blocked by the Roman fortifications at Daraa in southwest Syria. A much smaller Arab force was floundering around southwest, coastal Palestine basically looting or doing nothing.

The Emperor gathered to him in Syria a new army. Estimates on the size of the army range from 10,000 to 20,000 men. I will split the difference at 15,000 men which is a normal size for many Byzantine campaigns.

Heraclius planned for his new army to march from Syria to the city of Tiberias on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. From Tiberias they would march to Caesarea on the coast where they would rendezvous with the Roman Navy for re-supply. Then they would march south with the navy following them offshore for support. The navy could land at Jaffa and Gaza as needed to provide additional supplies or troops.

The goal of this operation was to overwhelm the smaller Muslim army in the Beersheeba area and then push south to Aila (Aqaba) on the the coast.

From that strong point the Roman Army in the south would threaten the lines of communication with Mecca of the main Muslim force up at Daraa.

With a Roman army in front of them at Daraa and behind them at Aila the Muslims would be forced to abandon their position at Daraa and return south to Arabia.

It is rather difficult to march a 15,000 man Roman army from Syria south through Palestine and not attract attention. The Muslim commanders at Daraa got word of the troop movements and recognized at once the danger they were in.

The main Muslim army at Daraa was nearly 200 miles away from their smaller western counterpart. To make matters worse the mountains of Samaria and Moab were controlled by walled towns and cities manned by Byzantine garrisons. Any reinforcements sent to the west had to go far to the south and around the mountains.

With the Romans on the move it was already too late for the Arabs to march south and join with the Beersheeba army via the Aila (Aqaba) route. But if they did not act then they would be overwhelmed and defeated separately.

The Trans-Jordan Mountains form an almost impassable barrier of cliffs. To the north the Romans controlled Jerusalem and other cities. The only other pass that could take the Arabs to the plains of Beersheeba was south of the Dead Sea at Karak at the Moab Mountains. Even that pass was so steep that riders had to dismount their horses and camels and lead their animals over rocks and ravines.

To save Amr ibn al Aasi the Muslims largely disappeared from Darra and marched day and night to the pass at Karak. Suddenly confronted by a torrent of wild camel-riders the people of Moab were happy to make peace with the Muslims and let them pass through. The local tribes were doubtless monophysite Christians with little love for the Greek Orthodox ruling class.

Like Rommel's Afrika Korps the
Muslim cavalry moved light lightening
through the deserts.
The Muslims poured down the pass, across the Wadi Araba and up to the semi-desert plain of Beersheeba just as the main Roman army started marching south from Caesarea.

The nimble Bedouins had won the race to the battlefield.  Mounted on camels, able to travel day and night with only a crust of bread to eat they had out marched the more ponderous Roman army weighed down with all of its civilized paraphernalia. The comparison to Erwin Rommel the Desert Fox moving like lightening through World War II north Africa is a good one.

Here is where the military historian pulls out his hair. The great Roman Army and Muslim forces meet at the Battle of Ajnadayn in the July heat of 634 and we have next to zero information on what happened.

We can speculate that between the western Muslim army and the force withdrawn from Daraa the Muslims might have put together a force equal to the Roman army of 15,000 men.

The Romans may have been commanded by the Emperor's brother Theodore. There was also a commander named Vardan who might have been the patrikios (commander) of Emesa. Vardan may have brought fresh reinforcements of Armenian troops that had been with Heraclius in Syria. The army may have also contained local Arab tribal levies.

The Arab army consisted of three separate contingents, with either Khalid or, less likely, Amr, as the overall commander.

With no meaningful information about the battle we can come up with any number of possible scenarios.

The July Heat
Most of the Roman soldiers would have come from the cooler climates of Armenia, Anatolia or even the Balkans. Cavalry or infantry, marching and fighting in the July heat of Palestine wearing armor would have been hard on the most experienced soldiers. The lightly clad Arab forces could have had an advantage.

Unreliable Allies
Any number of battles have been lost when allies failed to deliver. In the Battle of Callinicum some 5,000 allied Roman Arab cavalry holding the right flank simply vanished without firing a shot. Something like this could easily have happened with several different ethnic formations fighting in one Roman army.

Muslim Blitzkrieg
The lightening fast movements of the Muslim cavalry were like nothing the Romans had ever encountered before. Imperial forces were trained to fight traditional slower moving enemies like the Persians. Thoughts go back to the German invasion of France in 1941. The Germans were not better soldiers. The Germans were just organized differently and moved at a faster pace. That could have happened here with fast moving Muslim cavalry getting behind Roman forces causing a panic.

The result is what matters and the Romans were completely defeated.

What we do know is this was not an easy victory for the Muslims. The Arabs suffered heavy casualties, and many deaths among of Companions of Muhammad, including several members of the early Muslim aristocracy, who fell in the battle and were regarded as martyrs.

The Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. The survivors were forced to retreat to Damascus or to other walled cities.  It is significant that they were able to retreat. That means the retreat may have been more or less orderly and that the Muslims were in no condition to follow them.

The Muslim sources report that one of the two commanders, probably Vardan, fell in the battle, but that Theodore escaped and withdrew north where Heraclius replaced him with other commanders and then sent him to imprisonment in Constantinople.


Heraclius himself withdrew from Emesa to the greater safety of Antioch. His strategic counter-offensive was crushed and the troops available to fight off the invasion vastly reduced. 

It is interesting that the victorious Muslims had no interest in moving up coastal Palestine or attacking the coastal or mountain cities. That tells me there were enough active Roman troops in the area or behind walls to worry the Muslim commanders. It may also say the Muslim victory may have cost them a lot more troops than we are told by Arab historians.

Instead the Muslims retraced their steps sending the bulk of their army back to Daraa in Syria to face the only intact Roman army still in the field.

More to come in Part V.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The Battle for the Middle East
Read More:
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine

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