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

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

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

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sex Crimes in Byzantium - Torture and Mutilation

Sex and love were much more open in a tolerant Greek and Roman world.

Byzantine Christians made sex a crime punishable by torture, mutilation and death 

Greece and Rome in many ways had more tolerant, open societies regarding sex and love.  But as Christianity took a stronger hold on the Roman Empire, and Paganism was forcibly stamped out, Puritanism became the law of the land.

If you dared to have sex then you were violating the laws of the Christian God.  The proper punishment for sex crimes were torture, mutilation or castration.

Although the frequently mentioned punishment of mutilation might offend modern sensibilities, it is important to note that such measures often replaced capital punishment and were considered to provide a time for penance, thus presumably allowing the wrongdoer to secure the forgiveness of God.

Let's see.  As you are being strapped down by government officials to be castrated or tortured you were supposed to be thankful that the Christian God was a loving God and now you had extra time to save your soul.

Right.  No wonder there was a Protestant Reformation.

The Ecloga of Eastern Roman Emperor Leo III (717-41) was meant an abridgment of the Corpus Juris Civilis, but there are several modifications to be noted in it. These have led some scholars to term the Ecloga the first law code to be influenced by Christian principles. This influence is apparent in the following list of criminal punishments, taken from the Ecloga.

The Ecloga on Sexual Crimes

1. A married man who commits adultery shall by way of' correction be flogged with twelve lashes; and whether rich or poor he shall pay a fine.

2. An unmarried man who commits fornication shall be flogged with six lashes.

3. A person who has carnal knowledge of a nun shall, upon the footing that he is debauching the Church of God, have his nose slit, because he committed wicked adultery with her who belonged to the Church; and she on her side must take heed lest similar punishment be reserved to her.

4. Anyone who, intending to take in marriage a woman who is his goddaughter in Salvation-bringing baptism, has carnal knowledge of her without marrying her, and being found guilty' of' the offence shall, after being exiled, be condemned to the same punishment meted out for other adultery, that is to say, both the man and the woman shall have their noses slit.

5. The husband who is cognizant of, and condones, his wife's adultery shall be flogged and exiled, and the adulterer and the adulteress shall have their noses slit.

6. Persons committing incest, parents and children, children and parents, brothers and sisters, shall be punished capitally with the sword. Those in other relationships who corrupt one another carnally, that is father and daughter-in-law, son and stepmother, father-in-law and daughter-in-law, brother and his brother's wife, uncle and niece, nephew and aunt, shall have their noses slit. And likewise he who has carnal knowledge with two sisters and even cousins.

7. If a woman is carnally known and, becoming pregnant, tries to produce a miscarriage [abortion], she shall be whipped and exiled.

8. Those who are guilty whether actively or passively of committing unnatural offences shall be capitally punished with the sword. If he who commits the offence passively, is found to be under twelve years old, he shall be pardoned on the ground of youthful ignorance of the offence committed.

9. Those guilty of "abominable crime" [homosexuality?] shall be emasculated.

From E. Freshfied, trans, A Manual of Roman Law: The "Ecloga", (Cambridge, 1926], 108-12.). Reprinted in Deno Geanokoplos, Byzantium, (Chicago: 1984), 78

Going from an open Roman-Greek sexual culture to Puritanism under the Byzantine Christianity.

Internet Medieval Sourcebook

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Battle of the Masts - 655 AD

At the Battle of the Masts in 655, a fledgling Arab fleet from the Levant crushed the mighty Byzantine navy (Cyclopedia of Universal History, 1885).


The popular view of the Roman Empire falling in 476 AD has always been wrong.  The Western half of the Empire did indeed fall.  But the Eastern Empire, the Emperor, the Senate, the bureaucracy, Imperial Army and Navy went on.

From 476 on the Empire fought a staggering and endless stream of foes coming from all possible directions:  Vandals, Goths, Slavs, Persians, Arabs and more.  More than once the Empire nearly ceased to exist and held on only by its' fingernails.

Up to this point in the 600s the Romans had finally come out on top.  They has totally crushed their ancient enemy the Persian Empire.  After decades of war there was a badly needed peace.

But that much needed peace was shattered almost at once by the sudden rise of Islam.  An exhausted and almost bankrupt Empire fought an endless series of major battles with the Arabs resulting in the loss of the Roman provinces in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya.

No matter how badly the Empire needed peace to re-build their military and economy, the Arab invasions just would not stop.


Constans was the son of Constantine III and Gregoria. Due to the rumors that Heraklonas and Martina had poisoned Constantine III he was named co-emperor in 641. Later that same year his uncle was deposed and Constans II was left as sole emperor.

Constans owed his throne to a popular reaction against his uncle and to the protection of the soldiers led by the general Valentinus. Although the precocious emperor addressed the senate with a speech blaming Heraklonas and Martina for eliminating his father, he reigned under a regency of senators
Eastern Roman Emperor
Constans II

Under Constans, the Byzantines completely withdrew from Egypt in 642, and Caliph Uthman launched numerous attacks on the islands of the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean Sea. A Byzantine fleet under the admiral Manuel occupied Alexandria again in 645, but after a Muslim victory the following year this had to be abandoned. The situation was complicated by the violent opposition to Monothelitism by the clergy in the west, and the related rebellion of the Exarch of Carthage, Gregory. The latter fell in battle against the army of Caliph Uthman and the region remained a vassal state under the Caliphate, until the civil war broke out and the imperial rule was again restored.

The Caliphate advance continued unabated. In 647 they had entered into Armenia and Cappadocia, and sacked Caesarea Mazaca. In 648 the Arabs raided into Phrygia and in 649 launched their first maritime expedition against Crete. A major Arab offensive into Cilicia and Isauria in 650–651 forced the emperor to enter into negotiations with Caliph Uthman's governor of Syria, Muawiyah. The truce that followed allowed a short respite, and made it possible for Constans to hold on to the western portions of Armenia.


In building a new navy the Muslim elite, which came from the inland-oriented northern part of the Arabian peninsula, largely relied on the resources and manpower of the conquered Levant (especially the Copts of Egypt), which until a few years previously had provided ships and crews for the Byzantines. 
The Arab dhow were between 150
and 250 tons, 85 feet long and 20
feet wide.

There is evidence that in the new naval bases in Palestine shipwrights from Persia and Iraq were also employed. The lack of illustrations earlier than the 14th century means that nothing is known about the specifics of the early Muslim warships, although it is usually assumed that their naval efforts drew upon the existing Mediterranean maritime tradition.

The centuries-long interaction between the two cultures, Byzantine and Arab ships shared many similarities. This similarity also extended to tactics and general fleet organization; translations of Byzantine military manuals were available to the Arab admirals.


The Byzantine navy was the naval force of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Like the empire it served, it was a direct continuation from its imperial Roman predecessor, but played a far greater role in the defense and survival of the state then its earlier iterations.

With the onset of the Muslim conquests in the 7th century. Following the loss of the Levant and later Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was transformed from a "Roman lake" into a battleground between Byzantines and Arabs. In this struggle, the Byzantine fleets were critical, not only for the defense of the Empire's far-flung possessions around the Mediterranean basin, but also in the repulsion of seaborne attacks against the imperial capital of Constantinople itself.
Reconstruction of an early 10th century
Byzantine bireme dromon

The size of the standing navy varied over the centuries based on the enemy of the monent and budgets.  In 899 the navy numbered 42,000 men with 300 ships.

The dromon (from Greek δρόμων, dromōn, i.e. "runner") was a type of galley and the most important warship of the Byzantine navy from the 6th to 12th centuries AD. It was indirectly developed from the ancient trireme and was usually propelled by both oars and sails, a configuration that had been used by navies in the Mediterranean Sea for centuries.

The dromon would come in different sizes.  Crews could run from 100 to 200 men.  The larger ships could carry 50 Marines.

The dromons had a central tower (xylokastron – Greek: "wooden castle") near the main mast, from which the marines could use their bows and arrows or throw spears and other projectiles. Dromons were frequently equipped with catapults capable of hurling 10 kg projectiles up to 250 meters.

Roman Emperor Constans II personally commanded a fleet of 500
ships.  He sailed south meeting the smaller Arab fleet off of the province of
Lycia in the southern portion of Asia Minor.


Konstans II recognized the danger posed by Muawiya’s success at sea, since it meant that the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor was being caught in the “pincers” of a double threat from the Arabs: attacks by land and a surrounding movement to the south by sea. The emperor organized and personally commanded a fleet that set off to challenge the Arab navy, and the two powers met at the “Battle of the Masts” at Phoenix (modern Finike) in Lycia, off the southern coast of Asia Minor, in 655.

Word reached Constans that Arab ships had attacked the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Crete in the southern Aegean. Clearly, they meant to sail up the Aegean, through the Dardanelles, and into the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople, Constans's home and the Byzantine capital, was being threatened again, this time from the sea. The emperor set out to destroy these upstarts once and for all. His navy of 500 ships was the greatest in the Mediterranean, its galleys crewed by the finest sailors and marines in the empire.

When it caught the Arab fleet of 200 ships north of Cyprus, near the modern Turkish port of Finike, Constans attacked without hesitation. The emperor did not bother to bring his ships into formation. The Arabs knew nothing of naval warfare, and he expected to crush them in a single assault. Sailing straight into the Arabs, the Byzantines engaged so closely the clash was called the Battle of the Masts. 

Very little information is available on the battle.  But it appears the Byzantine's suffered from poor generalship, while the Arabs had better than expected leadership.  The fighting lasted more than a day; according to one account, "the sea ran with blood and the waves piled up the bodies on the shore.

Though outnumbered, the Arabs cut the Byzantines to pieces.  According to the 9th century chronicler Theophanes the Confessor,  Constans escaped only by putting on the garb of an ordinary seaman and having himself thrown bodily onto another ship. As the Byzantines fled, a storm decimated what remained of their shattered fleet.

Although the Arab fleet retreated after its victory, the Battle of the Masts was a significant milestone in the history of the Mediterranean, Islam and the Byzantine Empire, as it established the superiority of the Muslims at sea as well as on land. For the next four centuries, the Mediterranean would be a battleground between Byzantines and Muslims. In the aftermath of this disaster, however, the Byzantines were granted a respite due to the outbreak of a civil war among the Muslims.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 650 A.D under Constans II.  By 650 The Romans had lost their
provinces in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya to Arab conquest.