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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Arab Siege of the Roman Fortress of Ragusium

The Roman Fortress of Ragusium (modern Dubrovnik).

Defending Against Arab Invasion

According to the De administrando imperio of the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, the city was founded, probably in the 7th century, by the inhabitants of the Roman city of Epidaurum after its destruction by the Avars and Slavs in ca. 615.

Some of the survivors moved 16 miles north to a small island near the coast where they founded a new settlement, Lausa. It has been claimed that a second raid by the Slavs in 656 resulted in the total destruction of Epidaurum. Slavs, including Croats and Serbs, settled along the coast in the 7th century.

For centuries the city, known as Ragusium in Latin and was under the rule of the Eastern Roman EmpireThe city remained under Roman control until 1204.

The fortress of Ragusium was part of the
Roman military Theme of Dalmatia.


There is no way to know exactly what the original Roman fortifications of Ragusa looked like.  But there is little doubt the Roman engineers would have followed the natural outline of the coast just as future builders did.

Ragusa was part of the Roman Castra system of fortifications scattered all over the empire.  The Eastern Roman fortress of Sant'Aniceto in Sicily is a good example of defensive fortifications built in that period. The walls of Ragusa might have been just as strong.

The oldest systems of fortifications around the town were likely wooden palisades.

The construction of the first limestone walls began towards the end of the 8th century. But, the "old chronicles" say that some sort of castle reliably existed on the Lave peninsula quite a long time prior to that. 

It is certain that the early town on Laus Island was also surrounded by defensive walls, probably mainly by wooden palisades. The fact that Dubrovnik managed to survive a fifteen-month-long invasion by the Saracens in the 9th century proves how well the city was fortified.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the defensive wall enclosed the eastern portion of the city. When the sea channel separating the city from mainland was filled with earth in the 11th century, the city merged with the settlement on land, and soon, a single wall was built around the area of the present-day city core.

Slavs poured over the Danube overrunning Latin and Greek
speaking provinces in 
the Balkans, but Ragusa and the fortified
coastal zone remained under Roman control.

Current land walls of Dubrovnik (Ragusa).

19th century photo of an Arab warrior. The Arabs invading the 
Roman Empire might have looked much like this warrior.

Muslim Arabs Invade The Balkans
Siege of Ragusa

Turning back the tide of Muslim Jihad conquest was not an accident.

The Emperors in Constantinople directed the only professional military machine in Europe. The Roman army was organized into military Themes all the way down to the local district level. Those local troops could be backed up at need with Imperial Tagmata Regiments centrally located around the capitol.

Forgotten in these wars is the role played by the Roman navy. In wars lasting for centuries against Islam the Imperial Navy not only could transport troops and supplies to far flung endangered outposts, but they also engaged in endless defensive and offensive naval battles.

In the 9th century Muslim fleets and armies were on the march from all over the Mediterranean. The Romans, on the other hand, were weakened by a series of catastrophic defeats against the Bulgars, along with revolts which attracted the support of a large part of the Roman armed forces, including the thematic fleets.

The situation was even worse in the West. A critical blow was inflicted on the Empire in 827, as the Aghlabids began the slow conquest of Sicily, aided by the defection of the Byzantine commander Euphemios and the island's thematic fleet. In 838, the Muslims crossed over into southern Italy, taking Taranto and Brindisi, followed soon by Bari

Venetian operations against them were unsuccessful, and throughout the 840s, the Arabs were freely raiding Italy and the Adriatic, even attacking Rome in 846. Attacks by the Lombards failed to dislodge the Muslims from Italy, while two large-scale Byzantine attempts to recover Sicily were heavily defeated in 840 and 859. 

By 850, the Muslim fleets, together with large numbers of independent ghazi raiders, had emerged as the major power of the Mediterranean, putting the Byzantines on the defensive.

Byzantine Dromon Warship

Muslims Invade The Balkans

The Muslim conquest of Sicily saw the invasion of southern Italy and the creation of the Emirate of Bari out of Byzantine lands.

The Emirate of Bari then engaged in raiding the Roman coastal cities in the Balkans.

According to Basil I's grandson, the 10th-century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, in 866 the Aghlabids launched a major seaborne campaign against the coasts of Dalmatia, with 36 ships under the command of "Soldan" (Sawdan, the Aghlabid emir of Bari), Saba of Tarento, and Kalfun the Berber.

The Aghlabid fleet plundered the cities of Boutova (modern Budva), Rhosa (modern Risan), and Dekatera (modern Kotor), before going on to lay siege to Ragusa.

Once again we are at a loss for any meaningful detail. The raids themselves are not of much interest. Rape, pillage, move on. Perhaps small pickings.
7th Century Arab warrior

But then the Muslims show up at the fortress of Ragusium.  Reading between the lines it is obvious they were impressed with the size and wealth of the town and decided to settle down for a long siege. The Muslims may have been interested in absorbing the city into the Emirate of Bari or starting a new Balkans based Emirate. 

How many local troops were inside the city walls we do not know.  What we do know is the city walls and defenses were strong enough to resist the invaders. The ocean on several sides of the city helped act as a natural defense.

As to the Muslims, we do not know the strength of the invading force (several thousand?). or if they were reinforced by more troops from Italy during the long siege.

It is doubtful that the Muslims spent the next fifteen months of the siege doing nothing. There may have been multiple Muslim attacks both large and small on the city. There may have also been multiple sortees by the garrison against the invaders. We can only speculate.

As the strength of the garrison declined they sent envoys to Constantinople with urgent calls for help.

Though faced with military problems on several fronts at once, Emperor Basil I agreed to help.  He equipped a fleet of 100 ships.  Command was given to the experienced and capable Patrikios Niketas Ooryphas. 

Roman deserters warned the Muslims of the approaching fleet. Rather than face battle the Saracens abandoned the siege and returned to Bari.


The first and most important result was Islam was expelled from the Balkans and would not to return for many centuries.

The aggressive Roman response to the Muslims had an added political effect.

Inland Slavic tribes sent envoys to the Emperor acknowledging his suzerainty. Basil dispatched officials, agents and missionaries to the region, restoring Byzantine rule over the coastal cities and regions in the form of the new Theme of Dalmatia, while leaving the Slavic tribal principalities of the hinterland largely autonomous under their own rulers.

To secure his Dalmatian possessions and control of the Adriatic, Basil realized that he had to neutralize the Saracen bases in Italy. 

To this end, in 869, Ooryphas led another fleet, including ships from Ragusa which ferried Slavic contingents, in a joint effort to capture Bari with Louis II of Italy. Although this attempt failed, two years later Bari fell to Louis. 

Finally, in 876 the city came under Byzantine control, forming the capital and nucleus of a new Byzantine province, the later Theme of Longobardia

This began a more than decade-long Byzantine offensive that restored imperial control over most of southern Italy, that would last until the 11th century.

The Roman-Arab War Zone
The central and eastern Mediterranean became one massive war zone of naval attacks and counter attacks by the Romans and invading Muslim Arabs.
The Roman Empire had the only organized professional army and navy in Europe. The Romans battled for over 100 years to slow the Muslim conquest of Sicily and their invasion of southern Italy.  If Constantinople's troops had not been on the front lines Muslims would have marched straight up Italy and the Balkans into central Europe.
Click link for full battle map

Muslim Arab archers in Sicily.

(Byzantine wars)      (Ragusa)      (Dubrovnik)      (Balkans)

(Ragusa)      (Walls)      (Dubrovnik)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice piece ga ... gar
today dubrovnik , croatia