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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

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Decline of the Roman Army before Manzikert


Byzantine warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.
(Pinterest)

A Power Struggle in the Empire


This comes under the category "You can find anything on the Internet".

By accident I found a paper from Leiden University in the Netherlands dealing with the conflict between the Eastern Roman Emperor and his landed nobility. Mixed with that conflict was a weakening of the Byzantine economy, coinage, corruption, invasions and attacks on the independent Farmer-Soldier who made up the backbone of the Roman Army.

By the 11th century the Roman Empire was again at the height of its power following campaigns in the East that restored much territory lost to the Arabs in the seventh and eighth century.

Following the Arab conquests the Roman Empire was greatly reduced in size and less secure than before. The main economic unit had become the independent farmer who lived in small communities and paid their taxes based on the land they owned. The civil aristocracy of the Roman period had mostly disappeared, but a new elite was forming on the fringes of the empire. They held military functions in the provinces where they enjoyed great power thanks to the thematic organisation of the empire; their military function was combined with civil duties and authority.

During the ninth century this elite became more and more prominent, they increasingly found their positions within the bureaucracy to be more or less hereditary since the emperors relied on these military men.  To prevent these aristocrats from endangering the fiscal backbone of the empire (the independent farmer) by acquiring their land the state started legislating against these aristocrats. The struggle over land ownership was one not fought out over a decade but rather over centuries, during a period of great change for the Byzantine Empire.

The land legislation uses the term dynatoi (δυνατοί) which literally means “powerful”. The emperors, at least in theory, tried to defend others groups from these dynatoi.

Land in the possession of farmers was needed by the state in order to receive the gold, through taxes, needed to effectively run the state. If this system was endangered it could mean disaster for the state when it could no longer meet its obligations.

This is a scholarly work and very detailed. But it gives us a feel for a "swirl of anarchy" that was developing within the Empire before the disaster of Manzikert in 1071.

Below is a portion of the much longer paper.
_________________________


Prof. Dr. P. Stephenson and Prof. Dr. P.C.M. Hoppenbrouwers 
History, University of Leiden

The conquests made by the Byzantines during the 10th century, and especially by the last three emperors, would be the last conquests made for a long time. Haldon estimates the total number of soldiers during the 10th century to have been around 110,000. This number would be brought down during the 11th century as emperors after Basil II preferred to use diplomacy, tribute and intimidation rather than military strength.

During the reign of Basil II buffer states were created to stabilize the borders, which would be part of the policy followed by his successors. The army slowly moved away from the thematic organisation and became a local undertaking. This meant that larger threats could only be countered from Constantinople. There was a realisation among the 11th century emperors that an army the size of Basil II’s army was too expensive to maintain on a permanent basis and preference was given to mercenaries who could be maintained for shorter periods of time without the additional training cost.

We get a glimpse of the state of the army just before the battle of Manzikert (1071) which was a decisive defeat for the Byzantines. John Zonaras comments that: “It was not easy to give strength to the army, which had been neglected for such a long time”.

A few lines down he also writes that the Sultan was fearful of the Roman army, especially since it was led by the emperor in person, which gives the impression that the Roman army was not in such a deplorable state as has been assumed.

Manuel I Comnenus gold hyperpyron.
In 1034 we saw to start of the debasement of the Byzantine gold hyperpyron coins. The debasement was gradual at first, but then accelerated rapidly. about 21 carats (87.5% pure) during the reign of Constantine IX (1042–1055), 18 carats (75%) under Constantine X (1059–1067), 16 carats (66.7%) under Romanus IV (1068–1071), 14 carats (58%) under Michael VII (1071–1078), 8 carats (33%) under Nicephorus III (1078–1081) and 0 to 8 carats during the first eleven years of the reign of Alexius I (1081–1118).  More . . . .


A major economic theme during the eleventh century that affected the state and the aristocracy was certainly the debasement of the (golden) coinage and changes in the tax system. Both had great effects for the state economy however more importantly they were intertwined and had numerous side effects. The simple need for more money in order to pay expenses, both civil and military, was a problem seen before and debasement had not been the solution or preferred method then.

The solution often preferred and used by emperors was to simply cut expenses of either the military or civil apparatus. This was done by Heraklios, Isaac I, Nikephoros III, Alexios I and Andronikos II. A more drastic alternative lay in confiscation, either from the populace or the Church, the latter being used by Isaac I and Michael VII in the period here discussed.

Michael IV was the first emperor to debase his coinage (a 4% loss in gold content) and while he had the previously mentioned alternatives available he did not use them, but rather resorted to debasement. He might have been familiar with the practice through his profession as money-changer. The rapid debasement was stopped when Alexios I came to power in 1081 and had military successes on all fronts, reformed the coinage, restructured the financial administration and reformed the tax system. This chapter will describe not only the debasement but also the combination with newer forms of taxation and how that effected the relation between the aristocracy and the state.

With the end of Basil II’s reign there is also an end to land legislation as far as we know. It seems unlikely that stricter laws were written and enacted when looking at the policy of many of the eleventh century emperors. On the other hand it seems even more unlikely that legislation was not used when it suited the emperor or his administration. . . .  Even if the state no longer had the power it had during the reign of Basil II the land legislation was still a valuable piece of propaganda. However it should also be noted that the insertion of new text also included texts that actually helped magnates to gain more land.

Other traces of the land legislation can be found in the histories, like Psellos or Skylitzes, however most are favorable to the dynatoi rather than opposing them. Romanos III Argyros (1028 – 1034) abolished a law that was written by Basil II concerning something called allelengyon by Skylitzes. Its function was to return great landowners to existing fiscal units so that they could not escape the shared fiscal obligation active in village communities, rather than function autonomously and creating their own fiscal unit. That this measure was unpopular with the great landowners and perhaps more importantly, the church, is evident. Romanos lent them a sympathetic ear and abolished this law.

As stated before Michael IV was the first emperor who debased his coinage, a process that continued until the Komnenian reform of 1091. During the reign of Constantine IX we see the first significant debasement, with coins of 18 carats from the latter part of his rule. Modern day historians have two main explanations. The first being that of a fiscal disaster (mostly linked to military defeat) and subsequent emergency debasements to increase the state’s ability to spend. The second is that of “expansionism” which states that debasement was an effect of the expanding economy, more coins were needed for use in the market.

Costas Kaplanis has recently argued that the debasement first started under Constantine IX and was a response to the Pecheneg invasion in 1046/1047. The general debasement up to that point was hardly noticeable and was conducted over a period of nearly a hundred years. The severity of the Pecheneg invasion has up to this point been underestimated; it left the empire bankrupt and vulnerable to invasions in the East (which indeed then happened under the Seljuk Turks). Kaplanis’ reasoning is a realistic explanation, one backed up by Hendy, Angold and to some extent Harvey. One need not assume an advanced economical knowledge in the Byzantine Empire

The expansionist explanation was first put forward by Morrison and is supported by Oikonomides and Lemerle. It describes the debasement as a method of increasing coins in circulation (with a lower gold content so more coins can be struck) in order to meet economic growth. One of the key arguments is that the debasement was gradual and was not really noticed by contemporaries. It is not until the 1070’s that we see a rapid debasement that was certainly linked to crisis (following the loss of Bari in 1071, the defeat of Manzikert and the internal chaos that followed). Though the expansionist view is rather sophisticated and for it to work a lot has to be assumed concerning demographics, increase in trade and economic expansion can be seen in a broader context, as Oikonomides has done.  He shows that the need for gold (mostly in coins) was not something that first started after 1046/1047, when we assume the first debasement was made in reaction to the Pecheneg wars. The Peira shows an increase in interest rates, certainly before 1045, from 6% to 8,33% which is an indication that money was in short supply.

The Senate from HBO's Rome
Selling The Post of Senator

By 
the sixth century the Senate had ceased to meet in its own building and instead assembled in the Palace of Constantinople under the watchful eye of the Emperor. The power of the Senate progressively decreased over the centuries. By this point becoming a Senator was little more than social status and had become just another fundraising tool for the Empire's annual budget.  (Senate)


Though not necessarily linked with the increased interest rate, the return of investment on honorary titles decreased, due to a price increase. For example the title of protospatharios now cost 20 litrai of gold instead of 18.

Constantine IX Monomachos and Constantine X Doukas opened the doors of the senate for the “noveaux riches”. Psellos notes during the reign of Constantine IX:

  • The doors of the Senate were thrown open to nearly all the rascally vagabonds of the market, and the honor was bestowed not on two or three, nor on a mere handful, but the whole gang was elevated to the highest offices of state by a single decree, immediately after he became emperor.” 

And on the reign of Constantine X:

  • “The government officials, their deputies, the minor dignitaries, even the manual workers, all received something. In the case of the last-named, he actually raised their social status. Until his time there had been a sharp distinction between the class of ordinary citizens and the Senate, but Constantine did away with it. Henceforth no discrimination was made between worker and Senator, and they were merged in one body.” 

This new influx of senators generated revenue for the treasury as they indubitably had to buy their offices and high honors. It also shows that honors at court were still very much in demand and popular even if it was unlikely you would regain your investment.

New capital was found as these new senators had been outside of the rogai system, but the social fabric of court was also affected. The opening of the senate has mostly been explained in a fiscal sense, which was undoubtedly the main reason behind it, it can however also be seen in a political sense. By opening the senate to groups that had previously been banned from participation in the political elite both emperors created a new aristocracy of noveaux riches. But perhaps more importantly these new senators were representatives of the increasingly richer people of Constantinople rather than cultured courtiers or provincial aristocracy.

Michael V made the mistake of going against the wishes of the populace of Constantinople by banning Zoë and Theodora, the last living heirs of the Macedonian line and the nieces of Basil II. He even tried to ally himself with the people; his proclamation was read out loud at the forum of Constantine the Great to the citizens. He promised them: ‘as for you, my people, if you maintain your favorable disposition towards me, you will acquire great honours and benefits, living an untroubled life. ‘.

The citizens were not impressed by these words and took offence that someone like Michael V (of relatively lowly birth) would oust the nieces of Basil II and last representatives of the Macedonian dynasty. They replied: ‘we don’t want a cross-trampling caulker for emperor, but the original and hereditary ruler: our mother Zoe!’ Constantine IX and X both gave out honors to the representatives of the people, mostly through the guilds, when they established their rule, no doubt in part to gain their support.

We can also find other clues that gold had become scarce early on in the eleventh century and that the state had to devise ways of acquiring it. John the Orphanotrophos was a shrewd politician and devised several ways to increase taxation and state income. Skylitzes mentions John’s tax-regime on multiple occasions:

  • “He added this over and above the public taxes: that every village should pay an aerikon tax, each one according to its ability: one village four pieces of gold, another six and so on up to twenty, plus other shameful tolls to generate income which it would be a disgrace to mention. John put the official’s appointment up for sale and gave everybody his head in wrongdoing, filling the world with ten thousand woes. Judges were levying taxes on the people with impunity and nobody cared a farthing for what was going on. . . . they rebelled and threw off the Roman yoke as on account of the Orphanotrophos’ greed and insatiate desire for riches.”

The first mentioned aerikon tax was a tax that had existed during Justinian’s reign in the sixth century and was still in existence in the eleventh. It is unclear what it was a tax on, most likely cattle or other animals that were needed for the army (since it is mentioned in Leo VI’s Taktika as a tax paid by soldiers). This tax was not invented but increased by John the Orphanotrophos and is a prime example of the increase in secondary taxes.

Emperor Constantine IX
With one hand the Emperor organized an allied army to face a Turkish invasion. But with the other hand he deliberately disbanded the eastern frontier border forces in order to raise quick cash. 


One of his most notorious measures was to start taxing Bulgaria in gold rather than in kind as had been the case since Basil II conquered Bulgaria (which the last quote alludes to). The belief that this caused the rebellion of Deljan has recently been refuted, however unpopular such changes may have been. Other increases of secondary taxes were employed, especially through the possibility to buy out military service and other special corvées. These special corvées were named angareiai and could be anything from road, bridge or fortification building right up to the cutting of wood and even ship building.

Constantine IX Monomachos even disbanded the 5,000 soldiers of the Iberian theme, which was the main defensive line against invasions from the East like Seljuk Turks. He made it mandatory for them to pay ‘heavy taxes’ instead of serving the army.

(EDITOR - This portion of the paper is so important. The Emperor was so consumed with the need for gold coin that he foolishly and deliberately weakened the Roman Army in Anatolia facing invasion by the Turks.)

Perhaps the most well known measure John the Orphanotrophos took is the increase in taxfarming (the second from the above quotes mentions tax farming). This was not in itself a new phenomenon; tax-farming was done until the seventh century. The Isaurian emperors put a hold to this practice (which is in line with their fiscal policy and other centralizing initiatives). It slowly returned during the 10th century, but it was still an exception, by the 11th century the practice had become quite common. John the Orphanotrophos began selling offices on a larger scale during the reign of Michael IV when he was basically in command of the empire.

Though the accounts are biased against John the Orphanotrophos it is still clear that his regime added to the growing tax pressure in the provinces, were there was little to no control over the taxfarmers. In this case he sold the office of provincial judge but gave them the right to levy taxes, which was meant that it was also very hard to do anything in legal terms. One way or the other this increased  the tax in the provinces as these judges strove to make a profit (legally or illegally). Being part of the financial administration of the empire could be lucrative as Kekaumenos tells us it was believed that by the eleventh century all major mansions in Constantinople were build by those who had ran the financial administration or worked for that department. He also adds a warning, one John Maios who was a strategos ended up with a deficit of 60 pounds of gold when he was responsible for the tax collection in the tax district of Arabissos.

Although this deficit was quiet large it was a rather limited tax-district meaning large profits could be made when administering larger tax-districts. This increase in tax-farming and the money that could be made by such an enterprise was slowly replacing the rogai system. We can see the first signs of this general decline during the reign of Michael IV when John the Orphanotrophos was looking for ways to increase income. Other signs that the rogai system was in decline come from the rule of Isaak Komnenos who cut “gifts” for the offikion.  Nikephoros III Botaneiates stopped paying his administration altogether because he had been too lavish in his gifts and honors (which he gave out for free). Alexios I Komnenos later abolished the rogai system altogether

This general increase in taxes can be seen in a very clear example in 1082, when the monastery of Vatopedi was obliged to pay 19 nomismata in land tax. The secondary tax which was called kaniskion was also collected. It was usually paid in kind directly to fiscal officials (since it was meant as upkeep for the tax officials) since it seems to refer to a round loaf of bread, a half measure of wine, a modios of barley and a chicken. This kaniskion was set a total of 20 nomismata meaning this supplementary tax could also be bought out.

The secondary tax that had to be paid was now greater than the primary, land tax. One of the effects of this increase, mainly in secondary tax that taxes became increasingly hard to predict especially in combination with tax farming. Hoarding was still a popular practice in the eleventh century and we have two examples of hoards created by high officials. During the reign of Michael IV the archbishop of Thessalonica had hoarded 3,300 lb of gold (237,600 nomismata) which was to be distributed to the poor and the clergy of Thessalonica. In 1043 we learn that on his death the Patriarch Alexios Stoudites had left 2,500 lb of gold (180,000 nomismata) in his monastery (which the Emperor confiscated). For large landowners with hoarded gold the unpredictability of the tax was unpleasant but at least bearable.

(Pinterest)
Byzantine Skoutatoi Heavy Infantry X Century
Most of the foot-soldiers of the empire were the armored infantry SkutatoiTheir training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords and archery was extensively practiced.
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Tax policies played an important role in weakening the military theme system which fielded local armies of Farmer-Soldiers to meet invaders. As these loyal citizen independent troops declined the Emperor was forced to spend more and more of his limited tax income on often unreliable foreign mercenary units. 


For the small landowning peasants, however, the increasing tax pressure and its unpredictability became a real problem. This more or less forced them to seek protection of greater landowners who could offer reductions in secondary taxes through privileges such as exkousseia. This meant that it became increasingly attractive to work as a paroikos for an ecclesiastical institution or lay magnate that had to power to acquire exkoussiea or other privilege rights.

An example of a village community searching the protection of a lord, is Michael Psellos. In 1060 the villagers of Atzikome asked Michael Psellos to become their lord so he could protect them and intersect on their behalf with the krites/praitor of the Opsikion theme whom the villagers did not know. Because Psellos was influential at court and knew the system he was much more likely to acquire tax relieve for the villagers than they could acquire by themselves.

This is not to say that the independent farmers disappeared during the eleventh century. The coastal plains and themes close to Constantinople and the conquered themes of the tenth century were still either in imperial hands or at least not in the hands of magnates. However we do see a line that would became clearer during the Komnenian period, paroikoi working the land of great institutions that had developed during the tenth and eleventh century.

Toward the end of the eleventh century (after 1071) we can see the financial crisis deepen. The purity started to deteriorate quickly, 1071 was a year of crisis in the empire as a large army was defeated by the Turks at Manzikert and the emperor captured in battle. What followed was a period of rebellions and general hardship. Gold content in golden coinage fell to 58.1% under Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071 – 1078), 35.8% under Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078 – 1081) and finally to 10.6% under Alexios I pre-reform. Though many historians have blamed this sharp reduction of gold content in the coinage to the battle of Manzikert this is probably not the case.

Byzantium had been defeated in many battles before Manzikert without this drastic action. The difference lies in the ensuing internal unrest, Michael VII was not a strong ruler who was led by his bureaucrats (like Psellos). The rebellions during his reign aimed at re-establishing some sense of order which was finally achieved by Alexios I Komnenos. By that time the Byzantine Empire had changed radically yet again. Power was divided by those who were of the Komnenos clan and their close allies,while the church gained more power yet again and held vast tracts of land that were worked by paroikoi.

Anatolia was never really recovered which meant that the Eastern magnates disappeared, they either came to Constantinople to form the elite around the Komnenian dynasty or they settled in the Balkans were they never acquired quite as much land as they had had in Anatolia.


Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invaded the Byzantine military theme of Iberia during the period of this article. While the Turkish threat grew in the east we see the Emperor cutting border forces in order to raise quick cash for the Treasury.
...
Read More:
First Contact - Seljuqs vs Byzantines at the Battle of Kapetron


(openaccess.leidenuniv.nl)      (Byzantine battle tactics)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slavs Invade The Roman Balkans




The Sclaveni (in Latin) were early Slavic tribes that raided, invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and settled the Balkans in the Early Middle Ages along with other South Slav tribes. The Sclaveni were mentioned by early Byzantine chroniclers as barbarians having appeared at the Byzantine borders along with the Antes, another Slavic group.

The Emperor Justinian appears to have changed his policy against Slavic barbarians from attack to defense, exemplified by his grand program of re-fortification of garrisons along the Danube. Procopius notes that in 539/40, the Sklavenes and Antes 'became hostile to one another and engaged in battle. probably encouraged by the Romans' traditional tactic of 'divide and conquer'. At the same time, the Romans recruited mounted mercenaries from both groups to aid their war against the Ostrogoths. 

Both Procopius and Jordanes report numerous raids by "Huns", Slavs, Bulgars and Antes in the years 539–40 AD; reporting that some 32 forts and 120,000 Roman prisoners were captured. Sometime between 533 and 545, the Antes invaded the Diocese of Thrace, enslaving many Romans and taking them north of the Danube to the Antean homelands. Indeed, there was numerous raids during this turbulent decade by numerous barbarians, including the Antes.

I have come to call this the de-Latinization of the Roman Empire.

Raid after raid of barbarians crossed the Danube. Latin and Greek speaking communities loyal to the Empire were "ethnically cleansed". . . . exterminated. . . . and replaced by foreign tribes that hated the Empire. Hostile Slavic tribes were permanently settling lands closer and closer to Constantinople.

Not only were Roman populations decimated, but we see a move to a ruralization of the Empire. Small, medium and even large cities were wiped out. 

These genocidal invasions had the impact of reducing the recruiting grounds for the Roman military machine as well as cutting off tax income to the Empire.

The account below by the historian Procopius gives us a good feel for the Slavic terrorism of the invading tribes.
_________________________


By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

History of the Wars, Book VII


At about this time an army of Sclaveni amounting to not more than three thousand crossed the Ister River without encountering any opposition, advanced immediately to the Hebrus River (Maritsa), which they crossed with no difficulty, and then split into two parts.

Now the one section of them contained eighteen hundred men, while the other comprised the remainder. And although the two sections were thus separated from each other, the commanders of the Roman army, upon engaging with them, both in lllyricum and in Thrace, were defeated unexpectedly, and some of them were killed on the field of battle, while others Siived themselves by a disorderly flight.

Now after all the generals had fared thus at the hands of the two barbarian armies, though they were far inferior to the Roman forces in number, one section of the enemy engaged with Asbadus. This man was a guard of the Emperor Justinian, since he served among the candidati as they are called, and he was also commander of the cavalry cohorts which from ancient times have been stationed at TzuruUum, the fortress in Thrace, a numerous body of the best troops.

These too the Sclaveni routed with no trouble, and they slew the most of them in a most disgraceful Hight ; they also captured Asbadus and for the moment made him a prisoner, but afterwards they burned him by casting him into a fire, having first flayed strips from the man's back.

The Limitanei troops would have faced the Slavic invaders in this article.

The Limitanei were the static frontier guard troops that replaced the legions in the fourth century CE. The Romans were responding to the fact their long Danube and Rhine frontiers were subject to constant barbarian raids and that their cities were no longer secure.

In a short sighted cost saving move the Eastern Empire the Limitanei saw their pay cancelled by Justinian. 
After this, the eastern Limitanei were no longer professional soldiers, but continued to exist as militia through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.
(Pinterest.com)


Having accomplished these things, they turned to plunder all the towns, both of Thrace and of Illyricum, in comparative security ; and both armies captured many fortresses by siege, though they neither had any previous experience in attacking city walls, nor had they dared to come down to the open plain, since these barbarians had never, in fact, even attempted to overrun the land of the Romans.

Indeed it appears that they have never in all time crossed the Ister River with an army before the occasion which I have mentioned above. Then those who had defeated Asbadus plundered everything in order as far as the sea and captured by storm a city on the coast named Topirus,- though it had a garrison of soldiers ; this is the first of the coast towns of Thrace and is twelve days' journey distant from Byzantium.

And they captured it in the following manner. The most of them concealed themselves in the rough ground which lay before the fortifications, while some few went near the gate which is toward the east and began to harass the Romans at the battlements.

Then the soldiers keeping guard there, supposing that they were no more than those who were seen, immediately seized their arms and one and all sallied forth against them. Whereupon the barbarians began to withdraw to the rear, making it appear to their assailants that they were moving off in retreat because they were thoroughly frightened by them ; and the Romans, being drawn into the pursuit, found themselves at a considerable distance from the fortifications.

Then the men in ambush rose from their hiding-places and, placing themselves behind the pursuers, made it no longer possible for them to enter the city. Furthermore, those who had seemed to be in flight turned about, and thus the Romans now came to be exposed to attack on two sides. Then the barbarians, after destroying these to the last man, assaulted the fortifications.

But the inhabitants of the city, deprived as they were of the support of the soldiers, found themselves in a very difficult situation, yet even so they warded off the assailants as well as the circumstances permitted. And at first they resisted successfully by heating oil and pitch till it was very hot and pouring it down on those who were attacking the wall, and the whole population joined in hurling stones upon them and thus came not very far from repelling the danger.

But finally the barbarians overwhelmed them by the multitude of their missiles and forced them to abandon the battlements, whereupon they placed ladders against the fortifications and so captured the city by storm.

Then they slew all the men immediately, to the number of fifteen thousand, took all the valuables as plunder, and reduced the children and women to slavery. Before this, however, they had spared no age. but both these and the other group, since the time when they fell upon the land of the Romans, had been killing all who fell in their way, young and old alike, so that the whole land inhabited by the Illyrians and Thracians came to be everywhere filled with unburied corpses.


Now they killed their victims, not with sword nor spear, nor in any other accustomed manner, but by planting very firmly in the earth stakes which they had made exceedingly sharp, and seating the poor wretches upon these with great violence, driving the point of the stake between the buttocks and forcing it up into the intestines ; thus did they see fit to destroy them.

These barbarians also had a way of planting four thick stakes very deep in the ground, and after binding the feet and hands of the captives to these they would then assiduously beat them over the head with clubs, killing them like dogs or snakes or any other animal. Others again they would imprison in their huts together with their cattle and sheep—those, of course, which they were utterly unable to take with them to their native haunts —and then they would set fire to the huts without mercy.

Thus did the Sclaveni consistently destroy those who fell in their way. But from this time onward both these and those of the other group, being as it were drunk with the great quantity of blood they had shed, saw fit to make prisoners of some who fell into their hands, and consequently they were taking with them countless thousands of prisoners when they all departed on the homeward way.


Slavic warrior fighting with Byzantine infantryman.
(Pinterest.com)

The Empire and the Ostrogoth Kingdom in 535AD
The Emperor Justinian bled the Empire white in efforts to re-conquer North Africa, Spain and Italy.
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Starting in 535AD Roman armies invaded the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy. For ten years the Empire's troops were being pulled out of Anatolia and the Balkans and sent to Italy. The defensive strength of Roman Limes along the Danube got thinner and weaker by the year. Then came the barbarian Slavs crossing the Danube and roaming the Empire almost at will.



(History of the Wars, Book VII)      (Sclaveni)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Taxes and the Fall of the Roman Empire


Eastern Empire Coins

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
Ben Franklin


Simply it took a horde of locust-like tax collectors to fund the Roman military machine, the massive Imperial bureaucracy and pay for the opulent lifestyle of the Emperor and his large family.

So some "barbarian horde" crosses over the Rhine, the Danube or the deserts of Arabia to set up shop. Sure the Emperor's army is gone, but once the initial looting and raping is over the locals notice that the Emperor's tax collectors are also gone.

Suddenly it looks like there is an upside to no longer being a citizen of Rome.


The Muslim Conquest and Tax Reduction


From: The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by EDWARD N. LUTTWAK


What the Muslim Arab conquerors themselves humbly saw as a divine victory, Nasr Allah, can be recognized in retrospect as something even better, a political victory over both empires that won not merely vast territories but also the consent of many of their inhabitants.

The impetuous Arab advances could have been nothing more than ephemeral raids, destined to be nullified by nativist resistance, had the invaders not offered two very great and immediate advantages with their arrival.

One was a drastic reduction in taxes that had become ruinously onerous. The other was truly paradoxical: by imposing discriminatory rules on all non-Muslims, the Muslim Arabs ended the arbitrary religious persecutions that had recently oppressed a majority of the inhabitants of Syria and Egypt.

Muslim taxes could be low because the cost of Muslim rule was very low at first. The conquerors had neither a vast imperial overhead of bureaucrats and courtiers in the austerity of Mecca and Medina, nor were they trying to rapidly rebuild wrecked imperial armies as both the Byzantines and Sasanians were doing in those years. The taxes imposed by the Muslim authorities were both harshly discriminatory, because only non-Muslims had to pay most of them, and blessedly lower than the relatively well-documented Byzantine taxes, and known Sasanian taxes.

While nobody has ever been able to prove—as many have tried to prove—that the Roman empire “fell” because of excessive taxation, it was and remained until the mid-seventh century a top-down system, whereby the total amount of imperial expenditure for the coming year was determined first, the revenue needed was then calculated province by province, and that total was in turn allocated within each province among its registered taxpayers, mostly payers of the land tax, according to periodic assessments of the agricultural yield of each tract (jugatio) and the available manpower (capitatio).

Roman tax collector

It was a uniquely sophisticated and very effective system of collection, which was indeed the central advantage of the Roman and Byzantine empire over all other contemporary powers. It did mean, however, that the taxpayer had to pay a precalculated amount regardless of good or bad harvests, droughts or floods, destructive foreign raids, or even outright invasions.

An especially dramatic disaster that attracted much attention might persuade the imperial authorities to reduce the revenue obligation of the affected province, but no allowance could be made for ordinary harvest or market fluctuations, because there was no way of offsetting lost revenues: the concept of the public debt and its sale in the form of interest-bearing bonds had not yet been invented.

The purchase of remunerated government positions, which swapped a single capital payment for a revenue stream, was the functional equivalent of selling bonds to the public, but it could not be widely practiced. Hence current expenditures had to be paid for by current taxes in a strict pay-as-you-go sequence—a tolerable burden in good years but harsh in bad years, and sometimes reason enough to flee homes and lands ahead of the tax collectors.

Fundamentally, Byzantine tax collection was simply too effective. Emperor Anastasios (491–518) had his share of foreign incursions to confront with costly military operations, and four years of more costly full-scale war with ever-aggressive Sasanian Persia from 506, and he also spent vast sums on public works, among other things substantially rebuilding and fortifying the Long Wall and building the fortress city of Dara (near Oèuz, Turkey), “fortifying it with a strong circuit wall and bestowing on it . . . not only churches and other sacred buildings but colonnades, and public baths.”

Anastasios spent much, yet he was able to abolish the collatio lustralis, a top-down capital levy on every form of wealth: buildings, animals, tools, and the slave-value of artisans, merchants, and professionals, excluding teachers but including prostitutes and catamites. It was originally collected every five years (lustrum), which became every four years in the normal way of taxes by the time of Anastasios, but either way it was very hard for artisans and small merchants to come up with the gold payment all at once (in spite of its Greek name chrysargyron, “gold-silver,” only gold was accepted by the tax collectors).

The text known as A Historical Narrative of the Period of Distress Which Occurred in Edessa, Amid and All Mesopotamia, also known as The Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite, describes the ecstatic reaction to the levy’s abolition in the town of Edessa, whose assessment was 140 pounds of gold, 10,080 solidi, evidently a crushing burden:

  • "The edict of the emperor Anastasios arrived this year, remitting the gold which tradesmen paid every four years and freeing them from the tax. This edict did not go only to Edessa but to all the cities of the Roman domain . . . and the whole city rejoiced, and they all dressed up in white, from the greatest to the least, and carrying lighted candles and burning censers, to the accompaniment of psalms and hymns, they went out... thanking God and praising the emperor . . . they extended the feast of joy and pleasure for a whole week. . . . All the artisans sat around and had a good time, [bathing and] relaxing in the courtyard of the City church and all the city’s colonnades."

Having both spent much and given up much revenue—but he also increased the efficiency and probity of tax collection—Anastasios left 3,200 centenaria of gold, that is, 320,000 Roman pounds, in the treasury at his death.11 As of this writing, the price of gold is roughly US$903 per ounce or 31.1 grams, so the surplus left by Anastasios came to roughly US$3,039,496,257—not much these days, but gold was much more valuable then, in terms of bread, for example.

At the time of the Arab invasions there was no budget surplus to hoard. Thirty years of war had increased expenditures while greatly re-ducing revenues, leaving the treasury empty or near enough. Hidden reserves—such as ecclesiastical ornaments in gold and silver that could be confiscated in a crisis—were also exhausted. Already in 622 emperor Herakleios “took the candelabra and other vessels of the holy ministry of the Great Church [the Hagia Sophia], which he minted into a great quantity of gold and silver coin.”

The result was that tax revenues had to be collected from Syria and Egypt as soon as they were reconquered after years of Sasanian occupation—and these were lands that had been taxed by the Byzantines, invaded and taxed by the Sasanians, fought over repeatedly and often looted, before being regained to be taxed again. The empire was rebuilding its strength, and its subjects had to raise the necessary gold, or else face expropriation or worse.

It was too much. They welcomed the Muslim Arabs instead, discriminatory poll tax and all.

American Empire VS Roman Empire : monetary history repeats itself


This is a short montage of a one hour and twenty minutes lecture
by Joseph Peden at the The Ludwig von Mises Institute.



Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire - full lecture by Professor Joseph Peden

This is the long version. Have it play while you are surfing the net. Tons of info on taxation and the funding of the Roman military machine.



Tax Collectors in 16th Century Russia
One way or another the State will get the money it wants.

Taxation, trade and urbanism in the Byzantine Empire


There was a long tradition of urban life in the Hellenistic and Roman East, but it is clear that during the Byzantine period, the nature of urbanism changed from the city-state model of Classical Antiquity.

One of the problems for East Roman provincial cities in Later Antiquity was that power became centralised around the imperial court and family and therefore it was incredibly important for powerful figures to be close to the power and patronage of the court.

Therefore there developed a clear distinction between the elites of the provinces and the elite around the presence of the emperor.

Because in the early mediaeval period, following the loss of the Levant to the Arabs, there was a decline in the population of the provincial cities, this accelerated the drift of the rich and powerful to the centre. The traditional aristocracy gradually lost power and needed patronage and imperial titles, plus the salaries that came with them, to retain their positions in the ruling elite. The administrative changes of the early emperors, culminating with the reforms of Justinian I, made the shift away from the traditional ruling elite complete and henceforth the elites became more and more dependent on imperial patronage and salaried positions.

This led to Constantinople becoming and even more dominant factor in the life of the empire, increasing in importance and population throughout Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

However, at no time did any more than around 10% of the total population of the empire live in cities, and some formerly large cities dwindled fairly dramatically in the 7th and 8th centuries, with them becoming basically walled enclosures for a group of villages, with a central administrative district, often clustered around a church or an administrative building. These were known as kastra, and these kastrons were to become a permanent feature of urban locations from the 8th century onwards.

From the end of the 9th century onwards we see a revival of urbanism in the empire, with rebuilding and even new foundations in previously non-urban settings.

As I mentioned before, the cities had separate localised elites that were linked to the elites of the capital, but with their own networks, often based around the governors, tax officials and bishops. They were not as independent as cities in the West, but the empire was a far more regulated and closely administered political entity than any western nation during the mediaeval period.

It was really only after 1261, under the Palaiologoi that you see cities with truly independent and separate status to Constantinople; Trebozond, Mistra, Adrianople etc, but many of these were not directly under imperial rule anyway by that time.
“The question of the continuity of civic institutions and the nature of the polis in the late antique and early Byzantine world have become a vexed question, for a variety of reasons. Students of this subject continue to contend with scholars of earlier periods who adhere to a much-outdated vision of late antiquity as a decadent decline into impoverished fragmentation. The cities of late-antique Greece displayed a marked degree of continuity. Scenarios of barbarian destruction, civic decay, and manorialization simply do not fit. In fact, the city as an institution appears to have prospered in Greece during this period. It was not until the end of the 6th century (and maybe not even then) that the dissolution of the city became a problem in Greece. If the early sixth century Syndekmos of Hierokles is taken at face value, late-antique Greece was highly urbanized and contained approximately eighty cities. This extreme prosperity is born out by recent archaeological surveys in the Aegean. For late-antique Greece, a paradigm of prosperity and transformation is more accurate and useful than a paradigm of decline and fall.”
Richard M. Rothaus, Corinth: The First City of Greece. Brill, 2000. ISBN 9004109226
The Walls of Byzantine Thessaloniki
Around 10% of the total population of the empire live in cities, and some formerly large cities dwindled fairly dramatically in the 7th and 8th centuries, with them becoming basically walled enclosures for a group of villages, with a central administrative district, often clustered around a church or an administrative building. 


That is an interesting summary of urban life in the East in Late Antiquity, and one that needs to be seen in contrast to the position in Italy.

Now, a brief overview of taxation in the Byzantine empire.

Regardless of the relative decline or regrowth of urban life in the empire, the main generator of wealth was agriculture.
At least 80% of all tax revenues were raised from taxation of the village units or coloni who represented the agricultural base of the empire.
The village was the demographic unit of taxation, which were broadly speaking land taxes, towns and cities were not treated any different, they were assessed for taxation on the same basis. Indeed most cities and towns were also involved in agricultural production to some degree, with a proportion of urban populations cultivating land either inside the urban boundaries or outside but close to the cities and towns.
The other main source of tax revenue was the hearth tax, basically a poll tax and there were various other taxes, such as inheritance taxes and taxes in trade and what we might call customs duties.
Tax collection was incredibly efficient and imperial tax collectors were able to generate huge amounts of money for the imperial treasuries. Agricultural land was assessed on the basis of productivity, and there were different rates of taxation for higher and lower producing areas.
Obviously, things were not static, the imperial bureaucracy was remarkably resilient and flexible and over the centuries there were different ways that taxes were assessed and collected.
With the administrative changes to the structure of the empire, with the creation of the thematic system, we see a devolution of some power and of tax collection to the theme governors.
Gold solidus of Romanos I with his eldest son, Christopher Lekapenos
Romanos I Lekapenoswas an Armenian who became a Byzantine
naval commander and reigned as 
Byzantine Emperor from 920 until
his deposition on December 16, 944.

However, it was not really until the 11th century that we see a change in the provincial balance of power and a growth and expansion of large provincial landowning families. Under the Macedonian dynasty, land grants were made increasingly, under the pronoia system, whereby, instead of paying salaries to high-ranking aristocrats and officials, the right to tax farm was granted.
The pronoia system was expanded in the 12th century by the Komnenoi and following the period of the Latin Empire, the pronoia grants became increasingly hereditary.
Land grants were also made to the Church and from the 12th century onwards there was a transfer of land from the emperor to the great families and the Church. This led to a reduction in the amount of money available to the Exchequer and resulted in a debasement of the currency and dramatic price inflation.
Trade in the empire was generally mainly an internal affair, between towns and provinces or inwards to Constantinople. The elites derived their power and income from their estates and from their imperial salaries, they did not engage in trade.
There were some imperial monopolies, silk production, for example, but trade and manufacturing seems to have not generated enough wealth to allow speculative trade ventures outside the empire, even where this was allowed by law.
Trade was heavily regulated and tradespeople, in Constantinople at least, were organised into guilds and the guilds were subject to regulation by the City prefect.
As I said earlier, trade was internal and much trade flowed into the centre.
Clearly in the themes, there was small scale local trade, but because of the extreme (for the mediaeval period) centralisation of the state, it was trade with the centre that mattered most. Trade was taxed at a rate of 10% of the value of transactions.
It was this particularly undeveloped aspect of the Byzantine economy that allowed the Italian city-states to take such a large role in the trading life of the empire.
Exports from the empire were actively discouraged, essential goods being prohibited from being exported and over time, the concessions made to the Genoese, Venetians and others effectively removed the wealth generation from Byzantine hands virtually completely.
Read the full article

Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

Dead?  -  You Must Still Pay Taxes.
"When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable."
Procopius
Secret History

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Mosaic Floor of 1,500-year-old 'Boutique Hotel' Found in Jerusalem


Click to enlarge

'In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction' 


(Haaretz)  -  The Nea was the biggest church in Jerusalem and one of the largest in the entire empire, and reportedly included a hospital, monastery and accommodation. Its abbot was Constantine, which explains why he and the emperor were mentioned in the inscription.

The Nea Church was considered so important that it even appears on the famous 6th-century mosaic Madaba Map of ancient Jerusalem (in the upper right corner of the city).

The Nea Church was badly damaged by the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in the year 614. Its remains – at least, the stones that hadn't been repurposed over the ages - were partially excavated in 1970, during archaeological exploration of the ancient Jewish quarter after the Six Day War in 1967.
Emperor Justinian

In one sense, finding the extraordinary mosaic by Damascus Gate was little surprise, say the archaeologists. For centuries, Damascus Gate had been the main northern entry point to Jerusalem, so it would naturally brim with archaeological remains, Gellman explains. 

"In the Byzantine period, with the emergence of Christianity, churches, monasteries and hostels for pilgrims were built in the area north of the gate, and the area became one of the most important and active areas of the city," he says.

"The fact that the inscription survived is an archaeological miracle," Gellman adds. The archaeological remains in that area had been severely damaged by infrastructure groundwork over decades, he explains. "We were about to close the excavation when all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables. Amazingly, it had not been damaged."

An inscription previously found in the vaults of the Nea Church also mentions both Constantine and the Emperor Justinian.

Justinian would reign from 527 C.E. to 565 C.E., during which time he would become famous for his judicial reforms, many of which seem strikingly modern, including protection for prostitutes, and for wives against extravagant husbands. 

The Nea Church in Jerusalem was far from his only architectural achievement: Justinian is also credited with building Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai, in his very first year of rule, to encompass the chapel of the Burning Bush. Today the site is Greek Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And, Justinian is credited with the erection of the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul. Built on the ruins of previous churches, the Hagia Sophia would be converted into a mosque in 1453, then into the museum it is today in 1935.

Haaretz

Excavating the New Church of Theotokos, also known as Nea Church

Mosaic mentioning Emperor Justinian found by Damascus Gate

Cleaning the mosaic floor of what appears to be a pilgrim's hotel in Jerusalem.

Nea Church in Jerusalem


Ruins of the Nea Church, Jerusalem.
k
Read More:
The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Battle for the Middle East - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine


The Arab Legion in 1948
The last thing either the Persian or Roman Empires expected was invasion from the south by desert-wise soldiers infused with fanatical religious doctrine.

Part III
The Coming Maelstrom
Putting The Chess Pieces in Place


The Middle East has always been a bubbling cauldron of war, terrorism, conquest, hate and insanity. But the period from the start of the last Persian-Roman War in 602 AD to the end of the initial Muslim conquest in 638 was epic insanity on the most grand of scales.

For 26 years the Roman and Persian Empires had been in the death grip war of all death grip wars.  The 700 years of war between the two empires came down to this one life and death conflict.  Only one empire would survive the encounter and it was Rome.

There may have finally been "peace" between Rome and Persia, but it was a disastrous peace.  The Persians sank into dynastic anarchy while the Romans were financially, militarily and politically exhausted.

The two great empires of the world were at their weakest point at just the moment a militant and militaristic Islam appeared.


Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The basic look of the Roman cavalry during the Arab invasions would have not changed all that much. The heavy Cataphract units would have more armor and other units would have less for better mobility. The armored cavalry would act as the mailed fist of any Roman field army.
(Roman Empire.net)

After consolidating his base in Arabia we saw Mohammad in 629 send a force of 3,000 men to the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris to punish the Christian Arabs who killed Muslim emissaries.

A Roman Army of 10,000 men defeated this initial Muslim assault at Mota (Mu'tah). The Arabs were mauled, but retreated in an orderly manner. On the other side, the Romans did not just call it a day and go home. They continued aggressive contact with the Muslims over several days. This was a solid Roman victory.

Meanwhile at the other end of the Middle East we see the Persian Empire was imploding. 

The Persians who faced the invading Arab Muslim armies were bankrupted from the long war, militarily exhausted and still had Roman troops still in their country. Political anarchy existed with 10 kings and queens in just a 4 year period.

The Muslims took advantage. Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had at best 3,500 warriors available to him. More troops may have come from Arabia as time went on.

In battle after battle Khalid marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz.

There a combined army of Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs joined forces to face the threat of Khalid. Sadly the allies were defeated at the Battle of Firaz.

With the Persians largely knocked out of the war, we see Arab forces massed for an invasion of Roman Palestine.

Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid won a string of victories against the Persians along the Euphrates River front. Then in January 634 orders came for Khalid to join in the battle for Roman Palestine. He took his troops on a brutal march of 600+ miles across the waterless Arabian desert up through Palestine and into Roman Syria in order to flank entrenched Roman troops at Derra.

Organized into three columns Arab forces invade Roman Palestine from the south while Khalid's troops from the Persian front try to draw Roman troops from their prepared positions on the Yarmouk River.

Invasion

In 632 General Muhammad (prophet if you like) died. After a short time of "reorganization" the new Caliph ordered an invasion of Roman lands.

The Caliph appealed to the tribes around Mecca, Medina and Taif for recruits. He then appointed three commanders and in the tradition of Muhammad gave to each a banner.

The three commanders were Amr ibn al Aasi, Shurahbil ibn Hasana and Yezeed ibn abi Sofian. It is not clear why the army was divided into three columns. 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. Dividing the army might have meant harassing raids rather than invasion, but Arab warfare was wild and unpredictable in this period.

Column one under Amr ibn al Aasi was instructed to advance into southern Palaestina Salutaris through Aila (Aqaba) in the direction of Gaza. Column two under Yezeed ibn abi Sofian was to march up the east side of the Dead Sea . Column three under Shurahbil ibn Hasana was to march even further east in the direction of Busra and Damascus. If any column met strong opposition the other two columns were to come to its assistance.

How many Arab troops were sent? We do not know. We know that Khalid initially attacked Persia with perhaps 3,500 men.  It is fair to say the Arabs would not have mounted this major attack on Rome with less men than that, and the army might have been much higher.

Battle of Dathin  (634 AD)

With the Muslim invasion of Persia one would think Roman troops would have been active and in place on the Palestine border. But no.

It appears the Dux Sergius located 125 kilometers away up on the coast in Caesarea heard about the first Arab column and was the only Roman official to react.

Sergius gathered what troops he could find in the immediate area and marched south. How many men he had we do not know. We can assume his quickly assembled strike force was numerically inferior to the invading Muslims.

A swift march of 125 kilometers would have exhausted his men and horses. So we have a smaller worn out army taking on a larger invading army. As one would expect it did not turn out well.

The two forces met at the village of Dathin outside of Gaza on February 4, 634.

Sergius was driven back and pursued by the Muslims. Overtaken again Sergius himself was killed along with 300 of his men. How many escaped we do not know.

At this point the Arab force fanned out over southern Palestine reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Dealing with Arab Cavalry
Starting in September, 629 AD the Eastern Roman Empire came in contact with an enemy like none they had faced before: rapidly moving fanatic Islamist armies from the deserts of Arabia.  
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Unlike the slower moving conventional armies of the Persian and Roman Empires, the Arab cavalry forces were extremely nimble and moved swiftly over the harsh conditions of the Roman-Persian desert frontiers.


The Muslim Blitzkrieg and Terrorism

Now the Muslim commander in Persia started his lightning march to help the invading Arab armies in Palestine.

Khalid ibn al-Walid's rapid movements are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II.  The slower moving conventional armies of the Persians and Romans were at a distinct disadvantage.

Khalid first moved south to the desert town of Duma to put down a revolt against the Caliph. Khalid quickly captured the town. The leaders of the revolt were put to death, one Arab chief was crucified and the prisoners massacred.  The surviving women and children were shipped off to Medina.

Islamic terrorism as a weapon was nothing new to Khalid. After an early victory in Persia the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period.

Khalid now moved northwest into the Batn as Sirr Valley taking him within a 5 to 6 day march of Arab forces already operating in the Jordan Valley. He could have easily joined them. He did not do so because they were being held up by a Roman army which was manning prepared defenses near the town of Daraa.

The two Arab columns under Sofian and Hasana had joined forces to confront the Roman army but were unable to dislodge it. The two sides were deadlocked.

The prepared Roman positions in the Darra Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

Click map to enlarge

"The Darra Gap"

The Arab and Roman armies deadlocked in what could be called the "Daraa Gap" is a good place to stop and ask the question: "Why?"

The Holy Grail of this war is a book written in 1964 by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb called The Great Arab Conquests.  The maps on this page are from his book.

The book is a military historian's gold mine. Glubb Pasha was fluent in Arabic, served as commander of the Arab Legion in Jordan and personally campaigned over the very ground the Romans and Arabs fought over.

His observations on the geography and forces involved concluded that the Emperor Heracilus had drawn up a brilliant battle plan to crush the Muslim invaders.  It is worth quoting him at length below.

Glubb Pasha:   "The records of the fighting which occurred between the Arabs and the Byzantine army in Syria are extremely confusing. Our sources are virtually restricted to the Arab historians who wrote more more than a century after the events . . . and who themselves were obviously ignorant of, or indifferent to, the course of the military operations. It was purely by accident that I discovered what appears to me now to be the key to the comprehension of the Arab campaigns in Syria, namely the narrow defile between the Yarmouk River and the Jebel Druze at Derra. . . .
Glubb Pasha

In July 1941 . . . it was feared that the German army, which had seized the Balkans, would attack Turkey and move southwards through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. . . . It was important to discover all the available narrow defiles, where armoured mechanized forces would be at a disadvantage . . . . to hold up German mechanized columns. . . . I myself was employed to examine the area round Deraa.

The Yarmouk River . . . . has cut a deep gorge down which it falls into the Jordan valley . . . . This gorge begins near the town of Deraa. East and northeast of Deraa lies a large group of mountains formed by extinct volcanoes, all the slopes of which are strewn with large black boulders of lava. In place, movement in this area is difficult even to men on foot, while horses and camels are almost immobilized and wheels entirely so. The lava-strewn spurs run down into the plain very nearly to the point at which the Yarmouk becomes an impassable gorge. . . . In 1941, we named this narrow defile the "Deraa gap". We decided to dig an anti-tank ditch across it and to build an entrenched position for an infantry brigade to close the gap.

All the European historians of the Muslim conquest of Syria complain of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Arab records. Again and again the rival armies are reported to be facing one another on the Yarmouk. Then they disperse again without result. Were there several encounters on the Yarmouk, and why does that name keep recurring? It was only when I myself reconnoitered the area for a military purpose that, all of a sudden, the veil fell, as it were, from my eyes. Useful as this defile would be to prevent a German attack from the north, it was obvious to me that it would be  of even great importance in resisting an army coming up from the south. In so far as invasion from Arabia was concerned, the Deraa gap would be the Thermopylae of Syria.

In 1941, the Germans were invincible at their lightning mechanical warfare. . . . The only way to oppose these mechanized-avalanche tactics was to fight in close country, in mountains, in passes in narrow gaps . . . .

The Muslims were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge . . . retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies. In the open plain, the heavy slow-moving Byzantine troops could not compete with this mobility. But the Arabs could not fight a close-order infantry battle, by push of pike as it were. They had not sufficient body-armour, they were not trained to fight in close, well disciplined ranks. More over they had no heavy support weapons. A cloud of arrows was their only covering fire. Thus they easily overran the deserts and plains of Trans-Jordan and southern Palestine but were afraid of the mountains and defiles.

Dreading the Arab blitzkrieg, the Byzantine army in 634, like the British army in 1941, established an entrenched camp near Deraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and sometime withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it. Khalid's operations round Palmyra and Damascus would thus have the object of persuading the Byzantines to withdraw from Deraa, a result, however, which they failed to achieve."

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918.  Camel mounted Arab troops on the march in the desert near Jebel Serd. The Romans would have faced similar forces during the battles in Palestine and Syria.

Khalid Marches North

Once you have read Glubb Pasha's books you become physically ill when so-called "historians" wave their hand and say how the Romans gave up the Middle East without a real fight. The polar opposite is the truth. The Battle for the Middle East was a seven year long slugfest from 629 to 636 AD involving multiple battles, sieges and huge armies operating over hundreds of square miles from the Persian front on the Euphrates to Gaza.

As we have seen above the Arab forces came to a standstill when faced with the entrenched Roman army in the Daraa Gap.

Doubtless with the agreement of the other Arab commanders at Daraa, Khalid executed a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless desert to threaten Damascus and force the Romans to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city. This action was both daring and extremely dangerous. There are no permanent wells through most of that area. 

It is claimed Khalid took 9,000 men with him on the march. This can be considered to be the usual military inflation. No doubt he took a strong force. Perhaps several thousand men, but this was not a march of conquest. It was an overgrown raid to try and draw Roman troops away from their positions and open Syria to invasion.

Wells were vital in waterless desert warfare.

He watered at Qaraqir, a well which still exists today. Before leaving Khalid adopted a Bedouin device. A number of camels were starved of water and then allowed to drink their fill. With full bladders camels could be slaughtered along the way for their water and meat. In the desert lack of water was a more feared enemy than soldiers, and Khalid had many men and their horses to water daily.

The army advanced in March 634 finally coming to a place called Suwa. After five days of marching all the water was gone and all the water-carrying camels slaughtered. Both the men and horses were failing fast. A guide told Khalid of a hidden desert well marked by a thorn bush. They searched and searched, and the entire force was in danger.

Finally the bush was found and in digging the Muslims discovered a hidden water supply.

With his army saved Khalid went on the attack and captured Palmyra. Turning west he sacked Qaryatein.

The march through the desert was not detected by the Romans. Khalid's arrival in the Palmyra area would thus have been a complete surprise. But as he moved closer to Damascus the Romans reacted.

Battle of Marj Rahit  (Easter Sunday, 634)

About 15 miles east of Damascus Khalid engaged the Ghassanid Christian Arab allies of Rome.

The town was filled with refugees fleeing the Muslims, and they were in the middle of Easter celebrations.

It was claimed the Ghassanids had 15,000 men. No doubt that was far too many just like the 9,000 men of Khalid. I would easily cut both numbers by 50% or more.

The Ghassanids had positioned a strong screen of warriors in front of the town, but it was shattered by a determined Muslim cavalry charge. The Ghassanids pulled back. The Muslims then raided the town collecting booty and captives. They then retreated back to their camp.

Arab historians naturally claimed a "victory" at Marj Rahit. That is doubtful. A raid for booty is hardly a victory. And the fact of the matter is Khalid immediately left the battlefield. We do not know why but the Ghassanid army may have been reforming and local Roman troops might have been getting ready to join them. We do see that Khalid was not eager to stick around to find out who he would have to fight. . . . a sign of weakness.

The Romans and their allies, not the Muslims, were in possession of the field of battle. If Khalid had truly been victorious at Marj Rahit he could have pressed an attack on Damascus and forced the Roman army to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city.

But there was no Arab attack on Damascus and the Romans were still holding the Daraa Gap. Khalid's wide flanking march through the desert had failed. So he abandoned his efforts and rejoined the other Arab forces at Daraa.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610 Heraclius had saved the empire from total collapse. Now he organized a major counter attack against the Muslim invaders.

The Chess Pieces Are in Place

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

The Roman army has totally blocked the Muslims at Daraa from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north.

We see the hand of the Emperor Heraclius in these movements. A frontline commanding general himself, the Emperor had personally spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the land. The army at Daraa was obviously assigned to its position in order to block the invaders.

While holding the Muslims in Palestine the Emperor had gathered to him a second large army as well as the Roman navy.

All the pieces are now in place. The Roman counter attack begins.

See you later in Part IV.

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



(Dathin)      (Khalid)      (Marj Rahit)