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, June 15, 2019

Barbarians at the Gates - The Roman Balkans

Roman Reenactor
Marco le Méro Photographie is with Gwendal Lazzara at Funkenburg Westgreußen

The Coming of - Just About Everyone

In the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire it is hard to believe that there were any people at all left in Central Asia - - - just about every tribe imaginable marched southwest and invaded the Eastern Roman Empire.

By the year 500AD the entire northern bank of the Danube from Belgrade to the Black Sea was occupied by one Slavic tribe or another. Why these tribes showed up no one knows. But in their desire for loot, slaves or land they put mounting pressure on the Roman frontier. Two of the earliest Slavic tribes were the Antes and the Sclaveni.

The history of the Eastern Empire in the 500s is dominated by the re-conquest of Roman lands by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). All of Italy, North Africa, Southern Spain, Sicily and Sardinia once again were part of the Empire. But these new lands brought a serious military strain to the country: endless wars in all directions from invaders.

While the Roman armies were fighting in Italy, North Africa and against the Persian Empire the Slavs were crossing the Danube into the heart of the Roman Balkans.

The earliest inroads by the Slavs came under Justin I (518-527). But under Justinian the floodgates began to open. As powerful a threat as the Persians were, it was on the Danube, not the Euphrates, that the fate of the Empire was decided.

  • Contemporary historian Procopius:  "Illyricum and all of Thrace, that is, from the Ionian Gulf to the suburbs of Constantinople, including Greece and the Chersonese (the Gallipoli peninsula) were overrun by the Huns (the Bulgars), Sclavini and Antes almost every year, from the time when Justinian took over the Roman Empire; and intolerable things they did to the inhabitants."

At first these annual raids were for loot, after which the barbarians retired over the Danube.

Then in 540 the Kutrigurs delivered a shattering attack capturing 32 fortresses in Illyriccum on the west coast and plundering the countryside all the way to the suburbs of Constantinople. In 545 the Slavs plundered Thrace. Repulsed by Justinian's famous general Narses. they returned five years later coming within 40 miles of Constantinople, defeated a Roman army at Adrainople until finally being turned by at the walls of Constantinople itself.

By 550 things began to change. The raids became longer and the Slavs started to capture cities and fortresses often holding them for several years.

In 559 a Kutrigur-Slavic army crossed the frozen Danube and marched into Thrace. There it divided into sections. One marched into Thessaly where they were turned back by the Roman defenses at the defile of Thermopylae. A second attacked and was defeated at Gallipoli.

The third attacked the walls of Constantinople and laid waste to the suburbs. The Emperor recalled an aged General Belisarius. He forced the barbarians to retire beyond the Long Wall. A Roman fleet was simultaneously reinforced on the Danube cutting off the retreat of Slavs. Caught between two fires the Kutrigus sued for peace and returned to the steppes. This strategy would be used by the Romans many times over the years.

Map of Slavic peoples of the 6th century

Roman – Persian War of 572–591
Roman Wars on Four Fronts
The Roman armies faced a major war with the Persian Empire in the east.  At the same time they face invasion in the Balkans by the Avars, the invasion of Italy by the Lombards and a North African war against the Berbers.

Central and Eastern Europe about 650AD
The first appearance of the Slavs in the Eastern Roman Empire can be dated no earlier than the 6th century. Throughout this century, beginning with the reign of Justinian, Slavs repeatedly invaded the Balkan possessions of the Empire. Not until the reign of Maurice, however, did any Slavs settle in these territories. Between the years 579-587 there took place the irruption of several barbarian waves led by the Avars, but consisting mostly of Slavs. The latter came in great numbers, and, as the troops of the Empire were engaged in the war with Persia, they roamed the country at will.

Slavs devastated Illyricum and Thrace, penetrated deep into Greece and the Peloponnesus, helped the Avars to take numerous cities, including Singidunum, Viminacium (Kostolac), Durostorum (Silistria), Marcianopolis, Anchialus, and Corinth, and in 586 laid siege to the city of Thessalonica, the first of a series of great sieges which that city was destined to undergo at their hands What is more, they came to stay.

The Balkan Limes

The extent to which the Emperor Justinian neglected the Balkan Limes should not be exaggerated. The historian Procopius lists over 600 fortresses that were either built or restored by the Emperor.

Some of these were no doubt little more than fortified watch towers. Others may have never gotten beyond the planning stages. Even allowing for this the building was impressive. The old Roman limes were built along the Danube. Justinian's defenses formed a system of three fortified parallel belts - more of a defense in depth.

The first belt followed the natural barrier of the Danube River. Roman cities on the south bank such as Singidunum and Novae were strengthened to withstand invasions.

The second fortified line was just to the south. It stretched west to east in Roman provinces like Upper Moesia and Dacia Ripensis.  Some 107 strongholds were built or re-build. This zone also helped guard passes over Balkan mountains.

The third fortified zone was deep in the interior. It guarded the provinces of Haemimontus and Thrace, along with areas of eastern Serbia and western Bulgaria. A network of fortifications was strengthened or built.

It is believed that in many cases Justinian's fortifications were not built to last. As the tempo of barbarian invasions picked up in the last half of the 500s the Emperor's fortresses were obliterated and forgotten to such a degree that historians have problems with their locations.

In many ways Justinian cannot be blamed. From any point of view defending the massive Roman Empire stretching from Spain and Morocco to Switzerland to the Sahara Desert to the Balkans and the Euphrates was close to impossible. The manpower and money were just not there.

Reconstruction of a UNESCO limes fortress in Germany. Due no doubt to budgets, most of the Roman limes defenses along the Danube were much weaker - often little more than watchtowers like the one below.

Roman forts along the Danube limes - theoretical reconstruction

The Empire might not have been able to turn back many of the invading Slavic armies, but then there was the old standby of using money and diplomacy.

To relieve pressure on the Danube, Justinian used a combination of military pressure, economic cajolery and religious propaganda to divide and control the different tribes.

For example in 530 a certain Slavic chief of great ability named Chilbudius was enticed into Roman service. He was appointed supreme commander on the Danube which he successfully defended for several years against the Kutrigurs, Antes and Sclavini. In 535 Justinian offered the Antes money and lands on the northern bank of the lower Danube. The tribe was granted the status of Foederati on condition they would hold the river against the Bulgars.

This policy worked for for and against the Empire. The Romans had gained allies to defend the frontier but at a great drain on the Imperial Treasury and widespread discontent among the people. Also paying out money to barbarians just attracted more barbarians.

  • Procopius:  "For these barbarians, having once tasted Roman wealth, never forgot the road that led to it . . . . Thus all the barbarians became masters of all the wealth of the Romans, either being presented with it by the emperor, or by ravaging the Roman Empire, selling their prisoners for ransom, and bartering for truces."

The Coming of the Avars

In the last years of Justinian's rule the Central Asian Avars appeared in Constantinople. Their leaders were placated with presents of gold chains, saddles and silk robes. A treaty was concluded where the Avars would defend the Empire. But as foederati they did their job too well defeating enemies everywhere.

Tired of paying out money in 565 the new Emperor Justin II haughtily rejected an Avar delegation's request for tribute. Shortly thereafter began a 58 year long series of wars with the Avars.

The Avars usually raided the Balkans when the Roman Empire was distracted elsewhere, typically in its frequent wars with the Sassanid Empire in the East. As a result, they often raided with impunity for long periods of time, before Roman troops could be freed from other fronts to be sent on punitive expeditions. This happened during in the 580s and 590s, where Byzantium was initially distracted in the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 572–591, but then followed up by a series of successful campaigns that pushed the Avars back.

The Avars almost launched a massive attack on Sirmium in 568, but were repulsed.

The Romans paid them 80,000 gold solidi a year. Except for a raid on Sirmium in 574, they did not threaten Byzantine territory until 579, after Tiberius II stopped the payments. The Avars retaliated with another siege of Sirmium. The city fell in c. 581, or possibly 582. After the capture of Sirmium, the Avars demanded 100,000 solidi a year. Refused, they began pillaging the northern and eastern Balkans, which only ended after the Avars were pushed back by the Byzantines from 597 to 602.

Avar mounted archer

Avar warriors

Charge of the Avars taken May, 2011.

The flavor of the times, the helplessness of the Empire to defend the Balkans, is captured by Syriac historian John of Ephesus in 584.

  • "That same year, being the third year after the death of King Justin, was famous also for the invasion of an accursed people, called the Slavonians, who overran the whole of Greece, and the country of the Thessalonians, and all Thrace, and captured the cities, and took numerous forts, and devastated and burnt, and reduced the people to slavery, and made themselves masters of the whole country, and settles it by main force, and dwelt there in it as though it had been their own without fear. And four years have now elapsed, and still, because the king is engaged in a war with the Persians, and has sent all his forces to the East, they live in the land, and dwell in it, and spread themselves far and wide as God permits them, and ravage and burn and take captive. And to such an extent do they carry their ravages, that they have even ridden up to the outer walls of the city (i.e. the Long Wall of Constantinople), and driven away all the king's herds of horses, many thousands in number, and whatever else they could find.  And even to this day . . . . (584) they still camp and dwell there, and live in peace in the Roman territories, free from anxiety and fear, lead captive and slay and burn: and they have grown rich in gold and silver, and herds of horses, and arms, and have learnt to fight better than the Romans . . . . "

After the end of the Roman war with the Persians in 591, Emperor Maurice shifted his focus to the Balkans. Maurice deployed veteran troops to the Balkans, allowing the Byzantines to shift from a reactive strategy to a pre-emptive one. The general Priscus was tasked with stopping the Slavs from crossing the Danube in spring 593. He routed several raiding parties, before he crossed the Danube and fought the Slavs in what is now Wallachia.

After years of offensive warfare the Romans pacified the Balkans for the first time since the reign of Anastasius I (r. 491–518). Maurice planned to repopulate the devastated lands which the Byzantines had recovered by settling Armenian peasants, as well as Romanizing the Slav settlers already in the area. Maurice also planned to lead further campaigns against the Avar Khaganate, so as to either destroy them or force them into submission. However, Maurice was overthrown in 602 by Phocas, as his army rebelled at the endless Balkan campaigning. Phocas promptly scrapped those plans.

The Avars, who were likely encouraged by their successful campaigns against the Lombards in 610 and the Franks in 611, resumed their incursions some time after 612. By 614, with the Persian capture of Jerusalem, it became clear to the Avars and their Slav subjects that retaliation from the Byzantines was extremely unlikely. Chronicles of the 610s record wholesale pillaging, with cities such as Justiniana Prima and Salona succumbing. The cities of Naissus and Serdica were captured in 615, and the cities of Novae and Justiniana Prima were destroyed in 613 and 615, respectively. 

The Slavs also raided in the Aegean, as far as Crete, in 623. During this time period, there were three separate sieges of Thessalonica: in 604615, and 617. In 623 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius journeyed into Thrace in an attempt to agree peace with the Avar Khagan face to face. Instead the Byzantines were ambushed, with Heraclius narrowly escaping and most of his bodyguard and retainers being killed or captured. 

Avar power peaked culminating in the Siege of Constantinople in 626.

The Persian king Khosrau II, after suffering reverses through Heraclius' campaigns in the Persian rear, resolved to launch a decisive strike. While general Shahin Vahmanzadegan was sent to stop Heraclius with 50,000 men, Shahrbaraz was given command of a smaller army and ordered to slip by Heraclius' flank, and march for Chalcedon, a Persian base across the Bosporus from Constantinople. Khosrau II also made contact with the Khagan of the Avars to allow for a coordinated attack on Constantinople, the Persians on the Asiatic side, and the Avars from the European side.

The Avar army approached Constantinople from Thrace and destroyed the Aqueduct of Valens. Because the Byzantine navy controlled the Bosporus strait, the Persians could not send troops to the European side to aid the Avars, which deprived the Avars of the Persian expertise in siege warfare. Byzantine naval superiority also made communication between the two forces difficult.

The Byzantine defenders had 12,000 well-trained cavalry troops, who were likely dismounted, facing roughly 80,000 Avars and Sclaveni (Slavs whose land was controlled by the Avars). Because the Persian base in Chalcedon had been established for many years, it was not immediately obvious that a siege would take place. It only became obvious to the Byzantines after the Avars began to move heavy siege equipment towards the Theodosian Walls.

On August 7, a fleet of Persian rafts ferrying troops across the Bosporus to the European side were surrounded and destroyed by the Byzantine fleet. The Sclaveni then attempted to attack the Sea Walls from across the Golden Horn, while the Avars attacked the land walls. However, the Sclaveni boats were rammed and destroyed by the galleys of Bonus, and the Avar land assaults on August 6th and 7th were repelled.

Even though the Persian army of Shahrbaraz still remained at Chalcedon, the threat to Constantinople was over, as the Persians could not use artillery from their side of the Bosporus.

After failing to capture Constantinople, the Avar nation rapidly began to decline before disintegrating entirely.

Roman Reenactor

The "De-Romanization" of the Balkans

The permanent colonization of Greece and other provinces by pagan Slavic tribes basically shattered the old Roman Balkans nearly beyond repair.

Latin and Greek were largely replaced by assorted barbarian languages. Christianity was replaced by pagan faiths.

In the West the German foederati looked to have a legitimate place and land within the Empire. The invading Slavic tribes destroyed nearly everything they came in contact with.

  • Cities were sacked. 
  • Large areas of the countryside were laid waste and were turned, in the words of Procopius, into a "Scythian wilderness". 
  • The Roman governmental machinery totally collapsed.
  • The network of bishoprics established in the 300s were almost wholly uprooted. Christianity was virtually extinguished for several centuries.
  • Entire stretches of the countryside were emptied of their inhabitants. Those who survived the slaughter were deported north of the Danube.

Long Term Military Impact - For centuries the Prefecture of Illyricum had produced some of the best soldiers for the Roman Army. With the massive genocide Illyricum was all but eliminated as a source of conscripts. The generals in Constantinople turned to Armenia and the Caucasus to fill the ranks.

By turning east for new officers and soldiers the Empire became more and more Asian in politics and orientation and less European. The late sixth century marks the rise of Armenians in government and the military.

From Magister Militum
 Heavy infantryman of the Ioviani Seniores, equipped with a long thrusting spear, lenticular shield and a heavy mail shirt alongside his helmet and thick, military belt. 

The Slow Roman Re-Conquest of the Balkans

To say the generals and Emperors had their hands full is an understatement.

No sooner was the Avar siege of Constantinople defeated and the Persian Empire totally crushed that they saw the rise of militant Islam.

Within a few decades the Roman provinces in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria fell to the Muslims. Trying to regain control of the Balkans was about as low on their list as it could get.

But re-conquer the Balkans they did - slowly, inch by inch.

The military theme system first appeared in the early 7th century, during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius, and as the Roman Empire recovered, it was imposed on all areas that came under Byzantine control. 

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas. 

The first Balkan theme created was that in Thrace, in 680 AD. By 695, a second theme, that of "Hellas" (or "Helladikoi"), was established, probably in eastern central Greece.

It was not until 100 years later that a third theme would be established. 

In 782–784, the eunuch general Staurakios campaigned from Thessaloniki, south to Thessaly and into the Peloponnese. He captured many Slavs and transferred them elsewhere, mostly Anatolia. However it is not known whether any territory was restored to imperial authority as result of this campaign, though it is likely some was. 

Sometime between 790 and 802, the theme of Macedonia was created, centered on Adrianople. A serious and successful recovery began under Nicephorus I (802–811). In 805, the theme of the Peloponnese was created.

In the 9th century, new themes continued to arise, although many were small and were carved out of original, larger themes. New themes in the 9th century included those of ThessalonicaDyrrhachiumStrymon, and Nicopolis. From these themes, Byzantine laws and culture flowed into the interior. 

By the end of the 9th century most of Greece was culturally and administratively Greek again. But above Greece when the Emperor reconquered a province he would be ruling over Slavs - - - not Romans.

The re-Hellenization process begun under Nicephorus I involved (often forcible) transfer of peoples. Many Slavs were moved to other parts of the empire, such as Anatolia and made to serve in the military. In return, many Greeks from Sicily and Asia Minor were brought to the interior of Greece, to increase the number of defenders at the Emperor's disposal and dilute the concentration of Slavs. 

Hanging on by its fingernails the Roman Empire had survived the horrors of the Slavic, Persian and Muslim invasions of the 500s to the 700s. Latin vanished and Greek became the official language.

Moving forward the Empire was more of a fusion Greek-Armenian state than Roman.

Photo From Magister Militum
Roman reenactor

The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 by Dimitri Obolensky

(Avar-Byzantine wars)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Roman Fortress of Ksar Lemsa

Protecting Roman North Africa

Limisa is a town and archaeological site in Kairouan GovernorateTunisia.
Little is known of the ancient Roman city of Limisa. A few excavations have been carried out and only the Byzantine citadel and the small Roman theater are known. The municipal organization is also only slightly understood. 
The city had the status of civitas at least until the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus then as a Municipium sometime before 208.
From an architectural point of view, epigraphy mentions an arch and the restoration of thermal baths built under Constantine at the end of the 4th century.
According to Victor of Vita the basilicas of Lemsa had been burned in 305.
This fine Byzantine fortress with its strikingly well-preserved walls (except for the SE side) can be seen from afar dominating the valley in the middle of a field of ruins. A gushing stream flows down the mountainside next to it. 
The citadel probably was built by the Patrician Salomon in the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who established his country-wide system of fortifications in the first half of the 6th c. Built with materials from the monuments of the ancient city.

Ksar Lemsa

Byzacena was a Late Roman province in the central part of Roman North Africa, which is now roughly Tunisia, split off from Africa Proconsularis. The town of Limisa was a Roman-Berber civitas in the province of Byzacena.

Ksar Lemsa was one of many North African fortifications that protected coastal Roman cities from desert raiders. A number of the forts were built by the Patrician Solomon.

The Roman Re-Conquest of Africa

Following the defeat of the Vandals by Belisarius (533-534 AD) Roman fortifications were built throughout North Africa.

The fortifications not only protected against raiders from the desert, but also helped protect against any revolt by local forces.

The fortified towns stretched from Septum at the Pillars of Hercules in Morocco to Egypt. 

The larger forts acted as both military stations and as a refuge for the population in times of invasion. The smaller forts were isolated but kept watch at strategic locations such as guarding a narrow defile or an important agricultural center.

The Romans developed a coded signaling system. Beacons from station to station would signal the composition, character and numbers of an invading force.

The fortresses were often rectangular. The thickness of the walls raged from 7 feet to 9 feet thick. Surviving walls range from 26 feet to 32 feet high.

The fort towers were of varying shapes. They were usually two story. The basement opened to the courtyard and the top story to the walk along the wall. Sometimes they have no doorway to the wall-walk and were capable of being held independently as a place to make a last stand.

By Procopius    
The Buildings of Justinian
Written in the 550s AD

These things, then, were done by Justinian at modern Carthage. In the surrounding region, which is called Proconsularis, there was an unwalled city, Vaga by name, which could be captured not only by a planned attack of the barbarians, but even if they merely chanced to be passing that way.  This place the Emperor Justinian surrounded with very strong defenses and made it worthy to be called a city, and capable of affording safe protection to its inhabitants.  And they, having received this favour, now call the city Theodorias in honour of the Empress.  He also built in this district a fortress which they call Tucca. 

In Byzacium there is a city on the coast, Adramytus by name, which has been large and flourishing from ancient times, and for this reason it won the name and rank of metropolis of the region, since it chances to be first in point of size and, in general, of prosperity.

The Vandals had torn the circuit-wall of this city down to the ground, so that the Romans might not be able to use it against them. And it lay conveniently exposed to the Moors when they overran that region.  Nevertheless, the Libyans who lived there tried to make provision, so far as they could, for their own safety, and so they made a barricade out of the ruins of the walls and joined their houses together;  and from these they would fight against their assailants and try to defend themselves, though their hope was slight and their position precarious.  So their safety always hung by a hair and they were kept standing on one leg, being exposed to the attacks of the Moors and to the neglect of the Vandals.

Tower of Ksar Lemsa

However, when the Emperor Justinian became master of Libya by conquest, he put an exceedingly massive wall about the city and stationed there an adequate garrison of troops, thus giving the inhabitants assurance of safety and enabling them to disdain all enemies.  For this reason they now call the place Justinianê, thus repaying the Emperor for their deliverance and displaying their gratitude simply by the adoption of the name, since they had no other means by which they could requite the Emperor's beneficence, nor did he himself wish other requital. 

There was also a certain other town on the coast of Byzacium which the inhabitants used to call Caputvada. At that point the Emperor's fleet landed and there the troops first set foot on the land of Libya, when they made the expedition against Gelimer and the Vandals.  In that place also God revealed that marvellous and indescribable gift to the Emperor which I have described in the Books on the Wars. For although the locality was exceedingly arid, so that the Roman army was very hard pressed by lack of water, the ground, which previously had been completely dry, sent up a spring at the place where the soldiers were building their stockade,  for as they dug, the water began to gush forth. 

So the earth threw off the drought which prevailed there, and transforming its own character became saturated with drinking-water.  Because of this circumstance they built a satisfactory camp in that place and spent that night there; and on the next day they prepared for battle and, to omit what intervened, took possession of Libya.  So the Emperor Justinian, by way of bearing witness to the gift of God by means of a permanent testimony — for the most difficult task easily yields to his wish — conceived the desire to transform this place forthwith into a city which should be made strong by a wall and distinguished by its other appointments as worthy to be counted an impressive and prosperous city; and the purpose of the Emperor has been realized.

Emperor Justinian

For a wall has been brought to completion and with it a city, and the condition of a farm land is being suddenly changed.  And the rustics have thrown aside the plough and lead the existence of a community, no longer going the round of country tasks but living a city life.  They pass their days in the market-place and hold assemblies to deliberate on questions which concern them; and they traffic with one another, and conduct all the other affairs which pertain to the dignity of a city. 

This then was done in Byzacium on the sea. In the interior of this land and to its farther parts, where barbarian Moors live hard by, he built very powerful outposts against them, because of which they are no longer able to overrun the Roman dominion.  He surrounded each one of the cities with very strong walls, since they stand on the rim of the territory; these bear the names Mammes, Teleptê and Cululis. He also constructed a fort which the natives call Aumetra, and in these places he stationed trustworthy garrisons of troops. 

In the same way he assured the safety of the land of Numidia by means of fortifications and garrisons of soldiers, each one of which I shall now mention.  There is a mountain in Numidia which is called Aurasius, such as chances to be found nowhere else at all in the civilized world.  For this mountain rises steeply to a towering height and its perimeter extends to a distance of about three days' journey. It offers no path as one approaches it, having no ascent except over cliffs.

The Emperor Justinian, however, expelled from there the Moors, and Iaudas who ruled over them, and added this mountain to the rest of the Roman Empire.  As a precaution in order that the barbarians might not again make trouble by getting a foothold there, he fortified cities about the mountain which he found deserted and altogether unwalled. I refer to Pentebagae and Florentianae and Badê and Meleum and Tamugadê, as well as two forts, Dabusis and Gaeana; also he established there sufficient garrisons of soldiers, thus leaving to the barbarians there no hope of attacking Aurasius.

And at Gadira, at one side of the Pillars of Heracles, on the right side of the strait, there had been at one time a fortress on the Libyan shore named Septum; this was built by the Romans in early times, but being neglected by the Vandals, it had been destroyed by time.  Our Emperor Justinian made it strong by means of a wall and strengthened its safety by means of a garrison.  There too he consecrated to the Mother of God a noteworthy church, thus dedicating to her the threshold of the Empire, and making this fortress impregnable for the whole race of mankind. 
So much for these things. There can be no dispute, but it is abundantly clear to all mankind, that the Emperor Justinian has strengthened the Empire, not with fortresses alone, but also by means of garrisons of soldiers, from the bounds of the East to the very setting of the sun, these being the limits of the Roman dominion.

Sleeping chambers inside the fort of Ksar Lemsa.

(Ksar Lemsa)      (commons.wikimedia)      (Limisa)

(lonelyplanet.com)      (looklex.com)      (Lemsa)      (History of Fortifications)     

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Fall of Damascus - Battle for the Middle East

Members of the Bedouin camel cavalry near Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image.
The Arab forces facing the Romans might have looked much like these soldiers.

The Fall of Damascus
Battle for the Middle East Part VI

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

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

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

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

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

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.

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

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

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

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

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

The door to Syria had been forced open.

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

The Emperor Heraclius had not given up. More troops were being raised for yet another counter attack.

Late Roman-Byzantine Cavalry

The Battle of Pella (January, 635)

The Muslims had over run the Roman defensive positions at Yarmouk in September, 634. This was a defeat but not a total disaster. The Roman forces retreated in an orderly manner to Damascus, Jerusalem, Caesarea and other walled cities.

With multiple Roman armies at their rear the Muslims could not just march straight to Damascus. They needed to protect their lines of communication to the south.

The Fortress of Pella in modern Jordan was of particular importance. It had been a Greek city since the days of Alexander the Great. Under Alexander and later in the seventh century Pella stood on the main military road from Damascus south to Palestine going through Deraa, Pella and Beisan. The road was blocked by the Yarmouk position.

To slow down the Arab operations the Romans partly flooded the Jordan Valley near Pella.

The Arabs met the Romans outside the city, perhaps in the flooded areas, and defeated them. Some Byzantine soldiers fled to Beisan.

A siege of the fortress-city itself was begun. I suspect the city was short on manpower or supplies. Feeling a new Roman Army was not going to show up anytime soon the inhabitants negotiated their surrender.  The agreed to pay a poll-tax and a land-tax to the Muslims.  In return the Muslims guaranteed their lives, property and agreed not to demolish the city or its walls.

With their lines of communications more secure the Muslims starting moving north.

The Battle of Marj As Suffar (February, 635)

Historian and Lieutenant-General John Bagot Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, commanded the British Arab Legion and campaigned over the very ground where these battles were fought.

He says after Pella the Arabs moved north towards Damascus and that the Romans sent out yet another force to stop their advance.

The two armies met at Marj as Suffar about 20 miles south of Damascus. Glubb states this was approximately the same location where in 1941 the Vichy French offer battle against the invading British. He says there is a natural defensive position there that was used by both the French and earlier by the Romans.

Again an important battle takes place and we have no detail at all of events.

Glubb says the two sides met in February, 635. We have no idea of the size of either force. There was a hard fought and costly battle. The Romans withdrew.  Not a slaughter, but withdrew. There was no boasting by Arab histories of a huge Roman loss. We can assume the Romans again retreated to Damascus or other walled cities.

By mid-March 635 the Muslims had finally arrived at Damascus.

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

A War on Two Fronts
As the Muslims advanced into Syria they were at the same time fighting armies of the Persian Empire to the east. 

In Part V of my series the Muslims overran the Roman defensive positions at the Daraa Gap and pushed north to Damascus.

A view of Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

Siege of Damascus (March - September 635)

The fortifications of Damascus matched its importance to the Empire. The main part of the city was enclosed by a massive 11 m (36 ft) high wall. The fortified city was approximately 1,500 m (4,900 ft) long and 800 m (2,600 ft) wide.

At the time of the Syrian campaign, the Roman Commander of Damascus was Thomas, son-in-law of Emperor Heraclius. A devout Christian, he was known for his courage and skill at command, and also for his intelligence and learning.

The Roman garrison in the city might have numbered 15,000 troops. There would normally be no reason for so many soldiers to be stationed in the city. So I suspect most of the troops fled there from Palestine and from the Roman retreat from Yarmouk.

The Muslims showed up in March with about 20,000 men under assorted commanders and began the siege.

Seventh-century Muslim armies had no siege equipment, and typically employed siege tactics only when there were no other options. Without the necessary siege equipment, armies of the early Muslim expansion would surround a city, denying it supplies until the city's defenders surrendered.

To isolate Damascus, Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid cut the lines of transportation and communication to northern Syria.

Meanwhile Muslim commanders were instructed to repel any Roman attack from the respective gates, and to seek assistance in the case of heavy attack. A corps of 2,000 horsemen formed a mobile guard to patrol in the empty areas between the gates at night and to reinforce any corps attacked by the Romans.

Roman Relief Column

Due to a lack of any real histories written at the time the dates of events are all over the map. I have chosen to follow Lieutenant-General Glubb's dates and timeline.  Glubb has the siege lasting about six months from March to September 635.

The very hands on Roman Emperor Heraclius had established his headquarters in Syria itself at Homs to personally direct operations. Heraclius had spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the provinces.

At some point during the siege (early? middle?) the Emperor gathered an an army to relieve Damascus. Some accounts claim the army was 12,000 strong. Maybe. Damascus was certainly an important city and deserved a serious effort. But the force could have been smaller and hoped to join with the troops inside Damascus to then outnumber the Muslims.

Scouts posted on the road from Emesa to Damascus reported the approach of a Roman army. Upon hearing this news, Khalid sent Rafay bin Umayr with 5,000 troops. They met 20 miles north of Damascus at Uqab Pass (Eagle Pass) on the Damascus-Emesa road. That force proved insufficient and soon surrounded by the Roman troops. However before the Roman could defeat the Muslim detachment, Khalid arrived with another column of 4,000 men and routed them.

The Muslim siege forces had been weakened by the withdrawal of 9,000 men to repel the relief force. If the Roman garrison had sallied out against the Muslim army, historians suspect the defenders would have broken through the Muslim lines and lifted the siege. Understanding the danger of the situation, Khalid hurriedly returned to Damascus.

Eastern Roman Reenactors

Roman Attack

Word reached Thomas, commander of Damascus, that the relief column had been turned back. Realizing that no reinforcements would not be coming soon he decided to launch a counter offensive.

We must be impressed by Thomas’ skillful handling of such a difficult situation. Typically, the defeat of the relief army is enough to force a besieged city to surrender but Thomas was able to scrape up enough morale from the city’s garrison to sally out, nearly defeat the Arabs and break the siege.

So perhaps in September 634 Thomas drew men from all sectors of the city to form a force strong enough to break through the Gate of Thomas. He was there faced by a corps of about 5,000 Muslims. The Roman attack began with a concentrated shower of arrows against the Muslims. The Roman infantry, covered by the archers on the wall, rushed through the gate and fanned out into battle formation. Thomas himself led the assault. During this action, Thomas was struck in his right eye by an arrow. 

Unsuccessful in breaking the Muslim lines, the Romans retreated back to the fortress. The wounded Thomas is said to have sworn to take a thousand eyes in return. He ordered another great sortie for that night.

Wall of Damascus at the Thomas Gate. 

2nd Roman Attack

This time Thomas planned to launch simultaneous sorties from four gates. The main sector was to be again the Thomas gate, to take full advantage of the exhausted Muslim corps stationed there. The attacks from the other gates—Jabiya Gate, the Small Gate and the Eastern Gate—were intended to tie down the other Muslim corps so that they could not aid the corps at the Thomas gate.

At the Eastern Gate, Thomas assembled more forces than at the other gates, so that Khalid would be unable to move to assist in the decisive sector. Thomas' attack at several gates also gave more flexibility to the operation: if success were achieved in any sector other than the Gate of Thomas, such success could be exploited by sending troops to that sector to achieve the breakthrough. Thomas ordered Khalid to be taken alive.

After some hard fighting at the Jabiya Gate, commander Abu Ubaidah and his men, repulsed the sally and the Romans hastened back to the city. The battle was intense at the Small Gate, which was guarded by fewer troops but the 2,000 cavalry of the Mobile Guard came to help. The cavalry attacked the flank of the Roman sortie force and repulsed the sally.

At the East Gate, the situation also became serious, for a larger Roman force had been assigned to this sector. The Muslims were unable to withstand their attacks. The timely arrival of Khalid with his reserve of 400 veteran cavalry and his subsequent attack on the Roman flank, marked the turning point in the sally at the Eastern Gate.

The heaviest fighting occurred at the Thomas gate, where Thomas again commanded the sally in person. After intense fighting, Thomas, seeing that there was no weakening in the Muslim front, decided that continuing the attack would be fruitless and would lead to even heavier casualties among his men. He ordered a withdrawal and the Romans moved back at a steady pace, during which they were subjected to a concentrated shower of arrows by the Muslims. This was the last attempt by Thomas to break the siege. The attempt had failed. 

He had lost thousands of men in these sallies, and could no longer afford to fight outside the walls of the city.

Remains of the Eastern Gate. Khalid's troops entered Damascus through this gate.

The Fall of Damascus - Traitors Within The Walls

What records there are do not talk about starvation in Damascus.  In fact on September 18th the Romans were holding a festival - - - no doubt food and drink would be provided. Knowing the Muslims were coming Thomas may have stripped the countryside around the city of everything not nailed down to lay in supplies for the siege.

There also appeared to be no serious problems for Muslim Arabs outside the walls. But if the surrounding lands had been cleaned out then as winter approached the Arabs might not be able to feed a large army this far from their home base.

The Emperor was forming a new army in northern Syria to march south.  So if the walls held then time could be on the side of the Romans.

But then there are the traitors from within.

It appears that during the summer Khalid began a correspondence with the Christian Bishop of the city. The Bishop was almost certainly a Monophysite who would have opposed the Orthodox central government in Constantinople.

The reports of the fall of Damascus differ in details. According to the most generally accepted, the Bishop sent a messenger to Khalid telling him of the coming night of celebration in the city. He said the Eastern Gate would be left virtually unguarded. There was a monastery outside the Eastern Gate presumably under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. The monastery supplied the Arabs with two ladders and a little before dawn these were placed against the wall near the Eastern Gate.

A Special Observation - Ladders???? This one act shows how totally and completely unprepared the Muslims were to attack any major walled city. After months of laying "siege" to the city they had to be given two ladders by traitorous Christians to get into the city. One has to wonder. During the entire siege there are no reports of any meaningful attacks on the walls. So we can assume the Arabs spent all of their time sitting on their back sides doing nothing, watching the walls and eating up limited supplies. As long as food inside the city would hold out the Romans could have waited for the Emperor's new army to arrive.

Now with ladders in hand a number of Arabs crept silently up. Two men left on guard were quickly overpowered and the gate was opened from the inside. Just before sunrise the Arabs poured into the city, manned the walls, raising the cry of Allahu Akbar, laid on with sword and dagger.

Thomas saw that the rest of the Arab army did not move from the other gates, he assumed that the other corps commanders were unaware of this sudden attack. The Governor dispatched a messenger through southwest gate directly to the overall Muslim commander Abu Ubaida offering to surrender the city on terms.

The commander-in-chief appears to have been unaware that Khalid war already inside the city. If true that shows a lack of co-operation between different corps commanders. The Governor threw open the southwest gate to Abu Ubaida.

Abu Ubaida marched peacefully with his corps, accompanied by Thomas, several dignitaries, and the bishops of Damascus, toward the center of city. From the East Gate, Khalid and his men fought their way towards the center of Damascus, killing all who resisted. The commanders met at the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus in the center of the city.

Khalid argued that he had conquered the city by force. Abu Ubaidah maintained the city had capitulated, through the peace agreement between him and Thomas.The corps commanders discussed the situation, and reportedly told Khalid that the peace agreement must be honored, which Khalid agreed to although reluctantly.

The terms of the peace agreement were that no one would be enslaved, no harm would be done to the temples, nothing would be taken as booty, every non-Muslim would pay a poll-tax of one dinar and one measure of wheat.  Some accounts say that certain houses and churches were to be divided in half between Muslims and non-Muslims. The great church of St. John was so divided by such a wall - it was now half church and half mosque.   

In addition that safe passage was given to Thomas and every citizen of Damascus who was not willing to live under Muslim rule. The peace agreement also stated that the peace would end after three days and that the Muslims could attack after these three days without violating the agreement.


Trust issues - it appears Khalid had no interest in the agreement or peace.

Leading a cavalry regiment, Khalid caught up with a convoy of Roman refugees from Damascus at the sea, near Antioch. The three-day truce had passed; Khalid's cavalry attacked the convoy during a heavy rain. In the subsequent battle, Khalid reportedly killed Thomas in a duel. All the Roman possessions and a large number of captives, both male and female, were taken by the Muslims as slaves.

Damascus was sort of a great victory.  After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors to win the day.

In addition as the map above shows there were active Roman Armies behind the Arabs in the fortified cities of Jerusalem, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli. The coastal cities could easily be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

Finally there was the Emperor Heraclius.  The Emperor's preparations began in late 635 and by May 636 Heraclius had a large force concentrated at Antioch in Northern Syria. He had assembled yet another Roman army consisting of SlavsFranksGeorgiansArmenians and Christian Arabs ready to march south and drive out the Muslin invaders.

But more of this in Part VII.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC
As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the original documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and Muslims fought over. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I am using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.

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

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

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine
Part IV - Battle of Ajnadayn
Part V - The 1st Battle of Yarmouk

(Damascus)    (theartofbattle.com)    (Great Arab conquests)

(themaparchive.com)    (Battle of Fahl)