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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Byzantine Spain

Spania at its greatest extent, with cities indicated and lost territory.
Click for enlarged map of Byzantine Spain.

Byzantine Province of Spania (552 to 624 AD)

Roman rule over Spain ended in 400 AD with the endless barbarian invasions.  The re-conquest of Spain by the Eastern Empire was almost an accident.

The Emperor Justinian had re-conquered North Africa in 534 and was still fighting the long re-conquest of Italy 535 to 554.

It is impossible to say whether Justinian in the early years of his reign had formed any definite plan for re-conquering Spain, but we may be sure that it was one of his ambitions.  But before he had completed the subjugation of the Ostrogoths he was invited to intervene in Spain, and, although the issue of the Italian war was still far from certain, he did not hesitate to take advantage of the occasion.

Emperor Justinian

In a nasty dynastic civil war the Visigoth King Athanagild sought the support of the Emperor Justinian, and the Emperor sent a fleet to the southern coasts of Spain. The commander of this expedition was the octogenarian patrician Liberius.

Liberius was campaigning in Sicily.  He appears not to have returned to Constantinople till late in A.D. 551, it is probable that he received commands to sail directly to Spain with the troops who had accompanied him to Sicily, in A.D. 550, for the date of his expedition cannot have been later than in this year. As the armament must have been small, it achieved a remarkable success. Many maritime cities and forts were captured.

The cities were captured professedly in the interests of Athanagild, but when Athanagild's cause had triumphed, the Imperialists refused to hand them over and the Visigoths were unable to expel them. Athanagild recovered a few places, but Liberius had established an Imperial province in Baetica which was to remain under the rule of Constantinople for about seventy years. There can be no doubt that this change of government was welcomed by the Spanish-Roman population.

Byzantine government in Spania

We have very few details as to the extent of this Spanish province. It comprised districts and towns to the west as well as to the east of the Straits of Gades; it included the cities of New Carthage, Corduba, and Assionia; we do not know whether at any time it included Hispalis.

It was placed under a military governor who had the rank of Master of Soldiers (Magister militum), but we do not know whether he was independent or subordinate to the governor of Africa.

Byzantine settlement of Son Pereto (Mallorca, Spain)

Typically the magister was a member of the highest aristocratic class and bore the rank of patrician. The office, though it only appears in records for the first time in 589, was probably a creation of Justinian, as was the mint, which issued provincial currency until the end of the province.

Enough Roman troops, backed by the Roman fleet, would have been stationed in the province to prevent any re-conquest by the Visigoths.  But there are no records remaining about the local fortifications or the size and make up of the force.

The province of Spania was predominantly Latin Christian.  Some of the Byzantine governors were the same, though some were Eastern Christians.  Despite this, the relationship between subject and ruler and between church and state seems to have been no better than in Arian Visigothic Spain.

The Byzantine Balearic Islands of Spania

The Early Christian and Byzantine settlement of Son Peretó, located in the eastern part of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.

Son Peretó is one of the most important sites for the period on the islands and a notable example of Early Christian architecture. Archaeologists have already uncovered a basilica, a baptistery with two baptismal basins and two sectors of adjacent rooms used for housing and funeral rites.

The current project, managed by the Manacor Historical Museum and the University of Barcelona, began in 2005, and since then they have aimed to preserve and restore the remains uncovered during the 20th-century excavations, especially standing structures such as the foundations of several walls and untouched graves. So far the graves uncovered have been found in excellent condition.

Byzantine settlement of Son Peretó, one of the most western outposts of the Byzantine Empire and dating to the 6th century.

Several of the existing archaeological sites on the Balearic Islands dating from the Byzantine era suggest a military use. In the forum of Pollentia, archaeologists discovered that the Byzantines used pre-existing structures such as the Capitoline Temple to build a fortification at the highest point of the city. Likewise, at Can Pins on the nearby island of Formentera, archaeologists uncovered a square fort with towers at each corner, a characteristic that has led scholars to compare it to the Byzantine strongholds in North Africa. But while the architecture suggests proximity to Northern Africa, the mosaics found at Son Peretó display artistic styles closer to the traditional schools in Constantinople.

Religion played an important role as well. The Byzantine churches on the islands thus far studied and excavated include Son Bou (Alaior), Cap des Port (Fornells), Fornàs de Torelló (Maó), and Illa del Rei (Maó) in Menorca; and Cas Frares (Santa Maria des Camí), Son Fradinet (Campos), and Son Peretó in Mallorca. The study of these basilicas and excavation work has led archaeologists to two arguments: that these rural parishes acted as gathering points for dispersed communities, or that they were established to stamp out the remaining pockets of Paganism and replace it with Christianity.

Spania in 586 after the conquests of Leovigild (with dates of conquest on map).

The re-conquest by the Visigoths

The Byzantines were unable to push their offensive forward deeper into Spain and the Visigoths made some successful pushes back.  Around 570, the Visigoth King Leovigild ravaged Bastetania (Bastitania or Bastania, the region of Baza) and took Medina Sidonia through the treachery of an insider named Framidaneus (possibly a Goth).  He may have taken Baza and he certainly raided into the environs of Málaga, defeating a relief army sent from there.

He took many cities and fortresses in the Guadalquivir valley and defeated a large army of rustici (rustics), according to John of Biclarum, who may have been referring to an army of bandits called Bagaudae who had established themselves in the disputed buffer zone between Gothic and Roman control.  In 577 in Orospeda, a region under Byzantine control, Leovigild defeated more rustici rebellantes, probably Bagaudae.

After two seasons of campaigning against the Romans, however, Leovigild concentrated his military efforts elsewhere.  If he was meeting with military success he would have continued.  We might assume that he met stronger Byzantine resistence.

During the rule of Recared I (reigned 586–601) the Byzantines again took the offensive and probably even regained or gained ground.  Recared recognized the legitimacy of the Byzantine frontier and wrote to Pope Gregory requesting a copy be sent from the Emperor Maurice.  Gregory simply replied that the text of the treaty had been lost in a fire during Justinian's reign and warned Recared that he would not want it found because it would have probably granted the Byzantines more territory than they actually then possessed (August 599).  Leovigild's gains against the Roman government were greater than the Roman re-conquests of Recared's reign.

Beginning of the End 

In 602 AD events taking place far in the eastern part of the Empire sealed the fate of  the province of Spania.

The Roman army on the Danube under Phocas revolted against Emperor Maurice and marched on Constantinople.  The Emperor abdicated and fled the city.  The "Green" faction in Constantinople acclaimed Phocas as Emperor.  He was crowned in the Church of St. John the Baptist and his wife Leontia was invested with the rank of Augusta.

Phocas headed a military coup
that made himself Emperor but
thrust the Empire into anarchy.
Maurice was dragged from his monastic sanctuary at Chalcedon, and killed along with his five sons. It is said that he had to watch as his sons were executed in front of his eyes. The bodies were thrown in the sea and the heads of all were exhibited in Constantinople.

Almost at once the Empire was invaded by Persia from the east and the Slavs in the Balkans.  The nation fell into anarchy with Persia conquering Syria, Anatolia, Egypt and the Slavs roaming the Balkans.

The Persian War lasted from 602 until 628.  The Empire was nearly destroyed.  The outer provinces were pretty much on their own.  Though there is no information about troop redeployments it is very possible that the Emperor recalled some troops from Spania to help in other provinces.

It was at this point that the Visigoths renewed their attacks on the Roman cities.

They captured the small town of Gisgonza.  King Gundemar campaigned against Spania in 611, but to no effect. The next king, Sisebut, more than any king before him became the scourge of the Byzantines in Spain. In 614 and 615, he carried out two massive expeditions against them and conquered Málaga before 619.   He conquered as far as the Mediterranean coast and razed many cities to the ground, enough even to catch the attention of the Frankish chronicler Fredegar:
"King Sisbodus took many cities from the Roman Empire along the coast, destroying them and reducing them to rubble."
Sisebut probably also razed Cartagena, which was so completely desolated that it never reappeared in Visigothic Spain. Because the Goths were unable to undertake decent sieges, they were forced to reduce the defenses of all fortified places they took in order to prevent later armies from using them against them. Because Cartagena was destroyed but Málaga was spared, it has been inferred that the former fell first while the Byzantine presence was still large enough to constitute a threat. Málaga fell some time after when the Byzantines were so reduced as to no longer form a danger to Visigothic hegemony over the whole peninsula.

In 621, the Byzantines still held a few towns, but Suinthila recovered them shortly.  By 624 the entire province of Spania was in Visigothic hands save the Balearic Islands which remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab invasions.

(Byzantine Son Pereto)

J. B. Bury: History of the Later Roman Empire (1889)

(Byzantine Spain)

The Roman Empire at its' peak under Justinian including the conquest of southern Spain.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Byzantine–Genoese War

Genoese Dromone 11th Century

Byzantine–Genoese War (1348–1349)


The Byzantines were desperately trying to rebuild the Empire after having been gang raped by their fellow Christians in the Fourth Crusade.  They were still being pressed on all sides by Bulgaria, Serbia, Venice, Genoa and the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The devastation of the Byzantine 1341–1347 civil war so greatly weakened the Empire that its financial reserves were irrevocably depleted.

To regain control over their finances and their fate the Byzantine's only recourse was to break their dependence for food and maritime commerce on the Genoese merchants of Galata.  The Byzantines made an attempt to take control of the custom duties and tariffs of the trade route through the Bosphorus and rebuild their naval power.

Galata Tower in the Genoese colony.

Constantinople was the Imperial seat of power and was the cultural and military center of the state. But only thirteen percent of custom dues passing through the strait were going to the Empire. The remaining 87 percent was collected by the Genoese from their colony of Galata.  Genoa collected 200,000 hyperpyra from annual custom revenues from Galata, while Constantinople collected a mere 30,000.

The 1348-49 war was the last attempt for the Byzantines to retake control single-handedly.

The Battle

The Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos lowered Constantinople's duties and most tariffs to undercut the Genoese in Galata.  With the treasury empty, the Emperor had raised 50,000 hyperpyra from private sources for a shipbuilding program. When the tariffs and custom duties were finally lowered, merchant shipping coming through the strait bypassed Genoese Galata and diverted their ships across the Golden Horn to Byzantine Constantinople.

This was a direct attack on the income of the Genoese merchant colony of Galata and war was declared in 1348.  The Genoese sailed their navy to Constantinople in 1349 and destroyed the Byzantine fleet.  The Byzantines retaliated by burning wharfs and warehouses along the shore and catapulted stones and burning bales of hay into Galata, setting major parts of the city on fire.

Peace Treaty

After weeks of fighting the representatives of Genoa negotiated a peace agreement.

The Genoese agreed to pay a war indemnity of 100,000 hyperpyra and evacuated the land behind Galata which they illegally occupied; finally they promised never to attack Constantinople. In return the Byzantine surrendered nothing, however the Genoese custom duties remain in effect.

The war was a total loss for the Byzantines.  A one-time peace payment to the Emperor by Genoa was meaningless.  The permanent yearly income from tariffs and custom duties remained in the hands of Genoa.

With almost no financial resources available to them to support a military, Byzantium began its' death spiral ending with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.