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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Battle of Taginae - 552 AD

Battle of Taginae  -  The battle to the death between the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and
the Eastern Roman Empire.

General Narses vs. King Totila and the death of the Ostrogothic Kingdom

The Battle of Taginae brought an end to the long struggle between Byzantium and the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy.

During 550-51 Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I started gathering a large expeditionary force totaling 20,000 or possibly 25,000 men.  The Byzantine army was mostly cavalry, with some 8000 Byzantine foot archers.  It was assembled at Salona on the Adriatic, comprising regular Byzantine units and a large contingent of foreign allies, notably Lombards, Heruls and Bulgars.

The imperial chamberlain (cubicularius) Narses was appointed to command in mid 551.

Narses moved down the Via Flaminia, heading for Rome. The Ostrogothic king, Totila, advanced with a smaller force of perhaps 13,000 men to intercept him at Taginae (the modern Gualdo Tadino). He arrived in time to force Narses to fight, or else make a perilous retreat back over the Apennines.

Roman Emperor Justinian I

Totila, aware that he was outnumbered, and awaiting reinforcement of 2,000 addition troops on the way.  At first the king negotiated with Narses, then advanced on the Byzantines, hoping to take them by surprise.

Narses enjoyed superiority in numbers, but deployed his army in a strong defensive position.

Narses ordered his 10,000 barbarian foederati to dismount, and form a deep phalanx in the center.  The archers were divided into two sections, which were placed on either wing of the infantry. Then, the Byzantine cavalry was divided into two main wings, placed to the rear of the archers. Finally, a further 1500 horsemen were placed at the far left wing of the army; these men would be used to outflank the Gothic army, if the opportunity presented itself.

The Ostrogothic cavalry was drawn up into a long line, which probably accounted for over half of the entire army. Totila probably thought he could break the Byzantine center with a single cavalry charge. The Gothic foot soldiers, originally archers, were positioned in a single block behind the cavalry. The historian Procopius noted that Totila gave the unusual order that he entire army could only fight with their spears. Why he gave this command is one of history's mysteries.

Video of the Battle of Taginae

The Battle

On one flank was a small hill that offered the prospect of turning the Byzantine left, but Narses got to it first, occupying it with just fifty men, who held a defile there. Totila sent cavalry against them but the Byzantine infantry succeeded in holding off multiple attacks by Ostrogothic cavalry.

Again, King Totila played for time.  There was even an individual challenge between warriors from both side out in no man's land between the armies. 

Finally Totila's reinforcements arrives.  Now Totila had his troops break for lunch. 
Byzantine Infantry

Narses fearing a trick permitted his troops to refresh themselves without leaving their positions. Totila, apparently hoping to take his enemy by surprise, launched a sudden large-scale mounted assault upon the Byzantine center. Ancient and modern authors have accused him of folly, but Totila probably sought to close with the enemy as fast as possible in order to avoid the effects of the formidable Byzantine archery.

Narses was prepared for such a move, however, and ordered the archers massed on his flanks to incline their front towards the center so that his battle-line became crescent-shaped. Caught in the enfilading fire from both sides, the Ostrogothic cavalry sustained high casualties and their attack faltered.

The Goths who reached the infantry block were repelled with heavy losses. Totila sent wave after wave of troops that became so disorganized by the raining arrow storm, by the time they met the dismounted infantrymen they were completely broken. This folly continued through the afternoon.

The Gothic infantry never even engaged in actual combat as they hesitated to advance far enough to actually become effective. They were kept in the rear of the advance, fearing that Narses' horsemen would outflank them.

The Byzantine center began to push Totila's cavalry backwards onto their own line of infantry, At that critical moment, sometime in the early evening, Narses charged with his own cavalry – nearly all of them Byzantine heavy cavalry – that had been held in reserve. The retreat quickly turned into a rout, as the Gothic cavalry in their haste ran right over their own infantry, who joined them in the withdrawal.

The only casualty figures given for this battle were by Procopius, who said that 6,000 Ostrogothic cavalry were slain in the battle.  The majority of the Byzantine casualties were sustained by their foederati, who bore the brunt of the initial fighting.

King Totila was either killed on the battlefield or killed shortly afterward after fleeing with several followers.

6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry 

The Roman Empire at the end of the Gothic Wars.

Gothic warriors that could have faced Narses in Italy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Golden Gate of Constantinople

The Golden Gate in the early 20th century.

After 324, Constantine the Great expanded the old city of Byzantium to the west, naming the re-founded town Constantinople. It was a success and by 328, the emperor decided to make it his capital. By then, the mighty walls already surrounded an area of 6 km. Soon, the city expanded beyond these fortifications: during the reign of Theodosius the Great (378-395), the suburb known as Kainopolis stretched  forward along the Via Egnatia for almost 2½ km outside the walls of Constantine.

Solidus of Emperor Theodosius. The reverse depicts Theodosius
and Valentinian II seated, both holding a globe.

To mark the true beginning of the urban area, Theodosius built the triumphal arch that was soon known as Golden Gate. The occasion may have been his victory over the Visigoths in 386, which did much to restore Roman self-confidence after the disastrous battle of Adrianople (378).

Of course an isolated triumphal arch does not defend an entire suburb, and after Rome had been captured and sacked by Alaric's Visigoths, the emperor Theodosius II ordered his praetorian prefect, Anthemius, to build new walls: these Theodosian Land Walls, one of the greatest pieces of military architecture ever, was built between 412 and 414, and were in 447 further expanded by another praetorian prefect of Theodosius's, Cyrus of Panopolis. 

Porta Aurea - Golden Gate (Sunrise Version)
Click this video to full screen.  Beautiful.

The Golden Gate was the splendid entrance to the city for all visitors approaching the city from the west. Theodosius was not the last one to stage a triumphal entry of Constantinople over here; for example, on 14 September 628, the Emperor Heraclius, who had decisively defeated the Sasanians and had recovered the True Cross, entered the city over here in a chariot drawn by four elephants. The arch was indeed the perfect place for celebrations: part of the walls was covered with gilded plates of bronze and there were all kinds of colorful statues.

The gate was later included in a fort with five towers by the emperors John I Tzimiskes (969-976) and Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180). It was partly demolished when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, but restored by John VI Palaeologus (1347-1454) and his regent and successor John V. The name Heptapyrgion, "the seven-towered bulwark", dates from this time. The fort was destroyed for the second time in 1391, when the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I ordered the emperor to do so, threatening with harsh measures against John V's captive son. After Mehmet II the Conqueror had become master of Constantinople in 1453, he rebuilt the Heptapyrgion; the Turkish name Yedikule is a translation of "seven towered bulwark". It was used as the Ottoman state treasury until 1789.

Modern view of the Golden Gate.

This image and the one below used under FAIR USE from Byzantium1200.
Review for comment, criticism and scholarship as allowed under FAIR USE section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C.
The historical website Byzantium 1200 published a beautiful computerized recreation of the Golden Gate.  Here are two samples.

A recreation of what the Golden Gate looked like in 1200 A.D.  The Golden Gate was the great ceremonial gate of the land walls of Byzantium through which the emperors left for their campaigns, and where they celebrated their triumphant return.  In contrast to the usual brick and limestone construction of the walls, it was built from white marble and had golden doors. On its top there was a monumental quadriga with elephants.
Despite its ceremonial role, the Golden Gate was one of the stronger positions along the walls of the city, withstanding several attacks during the various sieges. With the addition of transverse walls on the peribolos between the inner and outer walls, it formed a virtually separate fortress. Its military value was recognized by John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–1354), who records that it was virtually impregnable, capable of holding provisions for three years and defying the whole city if need be.
Byzantium 1200 has done an outstanding job in their recreation.  It is well worth visiting that site to view all of their images.

Recreation of the land walls and defenses around the Golden Gate. 

(Golden Gate of Constantinople)