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, July 12, 2023

The Surrender of Alexandria - The Battle for Africa

The Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse was badly damaged in the earthquake of 956, and then again in 1303 and 1323. The two earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 damaged the lighthouse to the extent that the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta reported no longer being able to enter the ruin, when he visited it in 1349 AD. Finally the stubby remnant disappeared in 1480, when the then-Sultan of Egypt, Qaitbay, built a medieval fort on the larger platform of the lighthouse site using some of the fallen stone.

The Death of the Ancient World

The Beginning of the End 
for Roman Africa, Part III

If we had to pick a date for the fall of the ancient world I think September, 642 AD is as good as any. In that month the traitorous elements in the Roman Government surrendered the great fortress city of Alexandria to the Muslim invaders ending over 600 years of Roman rule and ending a local culture that dated back to 3150BC.

Alexandria was crucial to maintaining Imperial Roman control over the region, based on its large Greco-Egyptian population and economic importance. The population of Alexandria was heavily influenced by both the cultural and religious views of their Roman rulers; nevertheless, the rural population spoke Coptic, rather than Greek, which was more common in the coastal cities.

The Romans relied on Egypt as the main center of food production for wheat and other foodstuffs. Alexandria also functioned as one of Rome's primary army and naval bases, as there was normally a significant imperial garrison stationed in the city.

A Reign of Terror

When the Arabs invaded they faced a divided Roman Empire. The Emperor Heraclius had appointed Cyrus as both the Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria (who was unrecognized by the Egyptians) and the praefectus Aegypti. Cyrus began a ten-year-long reign of terror in an attempt to bring the Egyptians to Chalcedonianism, forcing them to pray in secret and torturing many to death. 

The Coptic PopePope Benjamin I, was in hiding throughout this, and ruthlessly but unsuccessfully pursued by Cyrus.

Map of the Middle East on the eve of the Muslim invasions.

Roman-Byzantine reenactor infantryman from the age Justinian. The Roman infantry facing the Arabs 100 years later might have looked much like this soldier. 

The March to Alexandria

The striking thing about the entire Arab invasion of Egypt was that Roman forces were scattered all over the country and were defeated one by one. It is what I have said for years, most "generals" are worthless bureaucrats who are vaguely aware they should point their army in the general direction of the enemy first before attacking.

The Romans had already seen the lightning fast Arab attacks in Syria and Palestine. Though it goes against the grain to give up land to an enemy, like the Russians in 1812, the smart move would have been to fall back and not engage. Rather to gather all Roman troops behind the walls of Alexandria. 

The Arabs had no siege equipment to attack a huge walled city. Once inside the city the Romans would be standing shoulder to shoulder with their entire army. They would be invulnerable to any meaningful attack and could be endlessly re-supplied by the entire Roman Navy.

The Arabs would have been blocked from advancing. If they tried to march up the Libyan coast they would have been caught in a vice between the Roman Army in Carthage and Libya and the garrison in Alexandria.

Once the Arabs had run out of steam, and the Roman army had been reinforced, the Romans could have advanced out of Alexandria and started to retake Egyptian provinces.

Sadly, this was not to be, and Rome lost Egypt and all of North Africa as a result.

Click to enlarge
The Alexandria Campaign
Map from The Great Arab Conquests by General Sir John Bagot Glubb

The Muslim commander Amr ibn al Aasi started moving north from the captured fortress of Babylon.

A skirmish with the Romans took place 40 miles to the north of Babylon at Tarrana. The Romans were driven back after a sharp engagement. 

Ten miles further on the Arabs found themselves opposite the fortress and city of Nikiou which lay on the east bank of the Nile. The Arabs were obliged to cross the river in order to attack it. An active and enterprising commander might have sallied from the town and disrupted the river crossing or attacked the Arabs when they were halfway across defeating them. 

Instead, panic seized the garrison which evacuated the city in confusion and scrambled into boats and escape down river. The Arabs rushed to attack killing many Roman soldiers on the shore and in the water.

The city which was surrounded with fortifications was left undefended. The Arabs entered the city putting many of the inhabitants to the sword. This massacre took place on May 13, 641. They then raided surrounding villages, killing and plundering indiscriminately. It is probable that is action was taken as a deliberate act of policy to terrorize the local population that vastly outnumbered the invaders. If the locals rose up the Arab's communication lines with Babylon would be cut.

The Arabs were able to capture numerous places like Nikiou. These places were also deliberately plundered and the people massacred. 

It should be noted that in attacking Babylon the Arabs attacked Romans . . . that is to say the Orthodox Church Party. But the attacks around Nikiou were directed against the Copts, the native born Egyptians who were the victims of Roman persecutions.

After a few days in Nikiou, Amr ibn al Aasi resumed his march on Alexandria. A few miles to the north his advanced guard encountered a considerable Roman army and was severely handled. The Arabs were forced to flee and take refuge on some high ground where they were virtually surrounded. Amr hastened up with the main body and drove the Romans back. 

The Roman force was the remaining field army, commanded by Theodore, from the defeat at Heliopolis the year before.

Reinforcements had arrived from Constantinople. A few miles north of Damanhour another battle took place with The Romans eventually withdrawing. 

At Kariun, Theodore took up a defensive position and very heavy fighting followed. One historian noted that the Copts and the Greeks had joined forces against the Muslims. The Arab massacres convinced the Copts that they had nothing to gain from changing Masters.

The Battle of Kariun lasted for ten days. 

This was a slugfest battle of attrition, not one of swift movement or flanking attacks. Even so, in July 641 Théodore marched his Roman troops in good order back behind the walls of Alexandria. 

The Romans did not flee the Arabs. It is worthy to note that the Arabs had NO DESIRE to attack the Romans as they redeployed into the city. To not attack a retreating foe means the Arabs feared additional battle.

Colorized photo of a Bedouin warrior holding
 a spear / lance, late 1800s to early 1900s.

The Siege of Alexandria

Alexandria was one of the greatest cities in the world. Founded by Alexander the Great 1,000 years before, it contained well over one million people. Egypt was an immensely wealth country, and Alexandria had long been its capital. The lighthouse above the harbor was one of the seven wonders of the world. Once the granary of Imperial Rome, the Nile Delta now played the same part in the economy of Constantinople.

The whole of this massive city was surrounded by massive walls and towers, against which such missiles as the Arabs possessed were utterly ineffectual. One side of the city was defended by the sea and the Roman Navy. Also, the Arabs could not boast of a single ship. The Romans had total control. The landward side was protected by Lake Mareotis and by a number of canals. The result was the only unimpeded approach for an attack was on a comparatively narrow front from the east. 

Following the withdrawal of the Romans into the city, Amr launched a hasty and ill-advised assault on the city walls, and was met with a bloody repulse. The Arabs were forced to withdraw to a distance out of range of the ballistae mounted on the ramparts where they pitched camp.

Amr appears to have appreciated his utter inability to take so great a fortress by storm. With the Romans in total control of the sea, Alexandria could have held out for years. 

In 626 Constantinople itself has just withstood a siege from the Persian Army and Avars, aided by large numbers of allied Slavs. Heavy siege equipment was used against Constantinople. Something the Arabs lacked. The result was a Roman victory.

In a few weeks the Nile River would start to rise. Amr had no interest in campaigning in a Delta filled with water. He left a largeish detachment southeast of the city to keep the Romans inside the city walls and prevent them from re-establishing their authority in the Delta. 

He then marched across the Delta eastward to Sakha and the down to Tuka and Damsis back to Babylon. All three towns were walled and had Roman garrisons which closed their gates as the Arabs approached. Unable to deal with masonry walls, the Muslims passed them by. The open countryside and villages were plundered and their crops burned. After this rather unsuccessful attempt to terrorize the Delta, Arm returned to Babylon. 

Whenever possible the Arab campaigns avoided mountains and wetlands in favor of fighting in the open desert. The very wet Egyptian Delta with its many streams and canals made it difficult for the Arabs to move rapidly like they did in Syria.

The Campaign That Never Happened

The unsuccessful terror attacks in the Delta illustrate that the Arabs were only really successful in the open countryside. 

British General John Bagot Glubb speculated on what the Romans might have done in Egypt. At this stage the Arabs could not fight in the Delta nor the Romans fight in the desert. He suggested that the Romans should have remained on the defensive and only defend the Delta within the irrigated and cultivated areas. The Romans should have worked immediately to fortify towns and villages beginning with those settlements at the edge of the desert border. 

The locals in these towns should have been trained and armed to defend themselves assisted by small groups of regular soldiers here and there. Further back in central positions mobile columns of Roman soldiers should have been positioned to rapidly respond and repulse any Arab raids. The inhabitants in the front line could have been told to just hang on for 12 hours and reinforcements would arrive.

The Arabs liked to travel and fight in the desert, but there is no food there. Arab forces depended on the cultivated areas for supplies. An energetic defense of the cultivated areas would have put great pressure on the Arabs for the very basics. Glubb felt this type of aggressive defense would buy time for the Romans to build up their field armies.

The problem with Glubb's idea is it required a loyal local population. Though the Egyptian Copts were starting to turn against the Muslims, there was no love for the Greek speaking population in the cities nor any love for their Greek speaking armies.

So we are back to my original idea above that all Roman troops should have redeployed into Alexandria where they could hold out for years.

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.

Solidus of Heraclius Constantine (right) 
with his father Heraclius (left)

Anarchy in Constantinople

The great general and Emperor Heraclius died in February, 641 in the middle of the Battle for Egypt. 

Before his death Heraclius was preparing reinforcements. He declared his intention to lead this force in person to reconquer Egypt. But the sick 66 year old Emperor was not the man he was when he crushed the Persian Empire years before in the 620s. How the Egyptian campaign would have turned out is interesting to speculate on.

With the death of Heraclius there was soon anarchy in the royal family. Often called Constantine III, he was crowned co-emperor by his father on 22 January 613. Constantine became senior emperor when his father died on 11 February 641. But the new 29 year old Emperor died of tuberculosis, ruling for only three months. 

Just to put a nail in the coffin of Roman Africa, before he died Constantine III recalled from exile Cyrus to advise him on Egypt.  As the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyrus had tortured and murdered Coptic Christians for ten years. 

No sooner was Constantine dead than Martina, the hated widow of Heraclius' incestuous marriage, caused her fifteen-year-old son Heracleonas to be proclaimed sole Emperor. But Constantine had left two young sons. The eldest Constans was twelve years old. 

The Senate in Constantinople sided against Martina and the population rose in revolt. 

Valentine, the commander of the army in Asia Minor, marched on Constantinople and forcibly crowned Constans as co-emperor.

The Empire was briefly "ruled" by a set of 15 and 12 year old Emperors.

The rule of Martina and her sons was brief. The historian Theophanes states they were ousted by the Senate, and there is some evidence to suggest that the Senate acted following riots instigated by the aristocratic Blue faction. A seventh-century inscription found in the walls of Byzantium references the role that the Blues had within this insurrection, saying "The fortune of Constantine our God-protected ruler and of the Blues is victorious."

The sources all report that some manner of the Byzantine practice of mutilating defeated enemies to prevent them from reclaiming the throne was undertaken at the defeat of Martina and her sons, possibly the first time such occurred, although they disagree on the exact nature of these mutilations. 

Theophanes says that the tongue of Martina and the nose of Heraclonas were cut off. John of Nikiû reports that Theodore "had Martina and her three sons, Heraclius, David, and Martinus, escorted forth with insolence, and he stripped them of the imperial crown, and he had their noses cut off, and he sent them in exile to Rhodes" in 642.

This left a 12 year old on the Roman throne.

Treason at the Highest Levels

Heraclius committed his adult life to saving the Roman Empire, first against the Persians and then against the Muslim Arab invasions.

The child "Emperors" had no clue what to do. The puppet masters of the child Emperors appeared eager to give away Roman North Africa as long as they could protect their money and power in Constantinople. To me this was treason.

Once Constantine died, Martina sent Cyrus back to Egypt. Martina was engrossed in the palace intrigues to place her son on the throne, and we can assume she was anxious to terminate the war with the Arabs and surrender Egypt.

The spineless Cyrus was good for murdering and torturing Egyptian Copts but not much else. He eagerly persuaded both Martina and the young Heracleonas of the necessity of surrender. He pressed for surrender so energetically that it went beyond mere execution of his official instructions.

Meanwhile violence broke out in Alexandria. The reinforcements sent by Constantinople were divided against each other, some supporting the claims of Martina and some the claims of the sons of Constantine. 

Soon conflicts broke out in the streets of Alexandria between supporters of the two factions. The Blue and Green circus factions in Constantinople were also represented in Alexandria and backed those fighting in the streets. Looting and arson was rampant in the city.

Click to enlarge
The Roman Empire in 650AD
After the Conquest of Egypt

Having been reappointed Patriarch and Imperial Governor of Egypt, Cyrus landed in Alexandria on September 14, 641. He was greeted with great popular enthusiasm by the mostly Greek Orthodox population of the city. With the Muslims outside the walls and factional fighting in the streets, the people hoped for stability and security. 

Little did they know that Cyrus had come back not to defend the people but to abandon them.

In October, 641 Cyrus set out for Babylon to meet Amr ibn al Aasi with the intention of surrendering Alexandria and all of Egypt. He had apparently not told anyone in Alexandria his intentions. The people still believed he was there to save them.

Had Cyrus received authority from the Emperor to surrender? If so from which Emperor did he get his authority: the 15 year old Heracleonas? or the 12 year old Constans? or from the incestuous and intriguing Emperess Martina?

Amr had returned to the fortress of Babylon after a rather unsuccessful campaign through the northern Delta leaving Egypt half conquered. If the aged Heraclius had lived long enough to carry out his plan of personally commanding an army in Egypt then resistance might have been prolonged indefinitely.

As it is, on November 8, 641 Cyrus signed an agreement with Amr to surrender all of Egypt.

The treaty stipulated that the people of Egypt pay a tax of two dinars per man and that Christians and Jews be allowed to freely worship. An armistice was to last for 11 months until September 642. During this period the Arabs would not attack Alexandria, and the Roman army would evacuate the city by sea taking its possession with it. The Romans promised never to return to Egypt.

When the populace of heard of the surrender, the people were seized with furious indignation. Mobs of people ran through the city streets to the palace with the object of lynching the Patriarch

For a short time Cyrus was in imminent danger. Cyrus persuaded his critics that surrender actually saved their lives.

Meanwhile the treaty was ratified by the child Emperor Heracleonas in Constantinople. This was one of his last acts. In November 641 he was overthrown in a military coup d'état carried out by the supporters of Constans. 

Empress Martina had her tongue amputated, Emperor Heracleonas had his nose cut off and they were driven into exile.

Despite of the surrender, many Roman garrisons in the Delta refused to open their gates to the Muslims. Even though they were abandoned by Constantinople, it took the Arabs till July 642 to subdue the Delta.

In September 642 Alexandria opened its gates to the Muslims even though the city had never been breeched during the so-called "siege". Some 600 years of Roman control of Egypt was terminated.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC

As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. 

Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the original documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and Muslims fought over. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I have been using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.

(The Great Arab Conquests)    (Siege of Alexandria 641)

(Heraclius Constantine)    (David, son of Heraclius)

Friday, April 14, 2023

No Man's Land 2023, photshoot with Mike South Photography

Group member Matthew Richardson dressed as the Magister Equitum

Photos are from the Magister Militum Facebook page.  They are a re-enactment group focusing on recreating Roman soldiers of the 4th Century AD.  

In the case of this blog it would apply the very early Eastern Empire.

Reenactors are a special kind of crazy. Their devotion to a tiny slice of history is incredible, and the depth of their knowledge is staggering.

Go to Magister Militum

Fantastic group shot of a one-section phalanx

Group member Daniel Kerr dressed as a veteran legionary

Group member Ross Cronshaw dressed as the Magister Militum

Group members Matthew Richardson and Tony Gilligan 
relaxing in camp playing a Roman game

Group member Daniel Kerr displaying the general panoply of a standard heavy infantry legionary, with large oval shiled, spear, sword, and throwing dart as well as full body armour

Group member Callum Mieklem displaying the general panoply of an archer or light infantryman, with a shamm round shield, bow, and sword

Group member Callum Mieklem displaying the general panoply of an archer or light infantryman, with a shamm round shield, bow, and sword

Group member Daniel Kerr displaying the 
equipment of a vexillarius standard bearer

A fun shoot imagining Tony Gilligan as a 
Conan-inspired emperor (Emperor Tonan)

Francis Hagan of The Barcarii, photograph courtesy of MJ WarTog

Group member Ross before the arena display, 
photograph courtesy of Graham Sumner

Magister Militum on parade with VIII Legion Augusta and The Tungrians, photo courtesy of AMHJP Photography

The VIII demonstrate formations and drill, 
photograph courtesy of Mike South Photography

The group at the end of day parade, 
photo courtesy of AMHJP Photography

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Justinian & Theodora were Fiends in Human Form

Emperor Justinian a Fiend?
Justinian's historian was there to see for himself what he viewed as an out of control Emperor. The endless wars, taxes, torture, murder and the stealing by the Emperor himself of everything not nailed down.

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
The Secret History

Now the wealth of those in Constantinople and each other city who were considered second in prosperity only to members of the Senate, was brutally confiscated, in the ways I have described, by Justinian and Theodora. But how they were able to rob even the Senate of all its property I shall now reveal.

There was in Constantinople a man by the name of Zeno, grandson of that Anthamius who had formerly been Emperor of the West. This man they appointed, with malice aforethought, Governor of Egypt, and commanded his immediate departure. But he delayed his voyage long enough to load his ship with his most valuable effects; for he had a countless amount of silver and gold plate inlaid with pearls, emeralds and other such precious stones. Whereupon they bribed some of his most trusted servants to remove these valuables from the ship as fast as they could carry them, set fire to the interior of the vessel, and inform Zeno that his ship had burst into flames of spontaneous combustion, with the loss of all his property. Later, when Zeno died suddenly, they took possession of his estate immediately as his legal heirs; for they produced a will which, it is whispered, he did not really make.

In the same manner they made themselves heirs of Tatian, Demosthenes, and Hilara, who were foremost in the Roman Senate. And others' estates they obtained by counterfeited letters instead of wills. Thus they became heirs of Dionysius, who lived in Libanus, and of John the son of Basil, who was the most notable of the citizens of Edessa, and had been given as hostage, against his will, by Belisarius to the Persians: as I have recounted elsewhere. 

For Chosroes refused to let this John go, charging that the Romans had disregarded the terms of the truce, as a pledge of which John had been given him by Belisarius; and he said he would only give him up as a prisoner of war. So his father's mother, who was still living, got together a ransom not less than two thousand pounds of silver, and was ready to purchase her grandson's liberty. But when this money came to Dara, the Emperor heard of the bargain and forbade it: saying that Roman wealth must not be given to the barbarians. Not long after this, John fell ill and departed from this world, whereupon the Governor of the city forged a letter which, he said, John had written him as a friend not long before, to the effect that he wished his estate to go to the Emperor.

I could hardly catalogue all the other people whose estates these two chose to inherit. 

However, up to the time when the insurrection named Nika took place, they seized rich men's properties one at a time; but when that happened, as I have told elsewhere, they sequestrated at one swoop the estates of nearly all the members of the Senate. On everything movable and on the fairest of the lands they laid their hands and kept what they wanted; but whatever was unproductive of more than the bitter and heavy taxes, they gave back to the previous owners with a philanthropic gesture. Consequently these unfortunates, oppressed by the tax collectors and eaten up by the never-ceasing interest on their debts, found life a burden compared to which death were preferable.

Wherefore to me,- and many others of us, these two seemed not to be human beings, but veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men; and assuming human bodies, became man-demons, and so convulsed the world. And one could find evidence of this in many things, but especially in the superhuman power with which they worked their will.

For when one examines closely, there is a clear difference between what is human and what is supernatural. There have been many enough men, during the whole course of history, who by chance or by nature have inspired great fear, ruining cities or countries or whatever else fell into their power; but to destroy all men and bring calamity on the whole inhabited earth remained for these two to accomplish, whom Fate aided in their schemes of corrupting all mankind. For by earthquakes, pestilences, and floods of river waters at this time came further ruin, as I shall presently show. Thus not by human, but by some other kind of power they accomplished their dreadful designs.

And they say his mother said to some of her intimates once that not of Sabbatius her husband, nor of any man was Justinian a son. For when she was about to conceive, there visited a demon, invisible but giving evidence of his presence perceptibly where man consorts with woman, after which he vanished utterly as in a dream.

And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian's head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.

Another said he stood beside the Emperor as he sat, and of a sudden the face changed into a shapeless mass of flesh, with neither eyebrows nor eyes in their proper places, nor any other distinguishing feature; and after a time the natural appearance of his countenance returned. I write these instances not as one who saw them myself, but heard them from men who were positive they had seen these strange occurrences at the time.

They also say that a certain monk, very dear to God, at the instance of those who dwelt with him in the desert went to Constantinople to beg for mercy to his neighbors who had been outraged beyond endurance. And when he arrived there, he forthwith secured an audience with the Emperor; but just as he was about to enter his apartment, he stopped short as his feet were on the threshold, and suddenly stepped backward. Whereupon the eunuch escorting him, and others who were present, importuned him to go ahead. But he answered not a word; and like a man who has had a stroke staggered back to his lodging. And when some followed to ask why he acted thus, they say he distinctly declared he saw the King of the Devils sitting on the throne in the palace, and he did not care to meet or ask any favor of him.

Indeed, how was this man likely to be anything but an evil spirit, who never knew honest satiety of drink or food or sleep, but only tasting at random from the meals that were set before him, roamed the palace at unseemly hours of the night, and was possessed by the quenchless lust of a demon?

Furthermore some of Theodora's lovers, while she was on the stage, say that at night a demon would sometimes descend upon them and drive them from the room, so that it might spend the night with her. And there was a certain dancer named Macedonia, who belonged to the Blue party in Antioch, who came to possess much influence. For she used to write letters to Justinian while Justin was still Emperor, and so made away with whatever notable men in the East she had a grudge against, and had their property confiscated.

This Macedonia, they say, greeted Theodora at the time of her arrival from Egypt and Libya; and when she saw her badly worried and cast down at the ill treatment she had received from Hecebolus and at the loss of her money during this adventure, she tried to encourage Theodora by reminding her of the laws of chance, by which she was likely again to be the leader of a chorus of coins. Then, they say, Theodora used to relate how on that very night a dream came to her, bidding her take no thought of money, for when she should come to Constantinople, she should share the couch of the King of the Devils, and that she should contrive to become his wedded wife and thereafter be the mistress of all the money in the world. And that this is what happened is the opinion of most people.


Facial recreations of Justinian and Theodora
Great Rulers
or All Four?
From childhood we are fed fairy tale type stories of Knights in shining armor and wise thoughtful Kings.
Decide for yourself, but in my view many of these "wise" Kings murdered their way to power, and the Knights in shining armor were simply hired thugs and killers on the payroll of the Kings.
That is my brutal view. As for Justinian, he may very well be the fiend described by Procopius. Perhaps not a supernatural fiend, but a monster none the less who would do anything to keep and grow his power.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Defender Of A Byzantine Fort Was Decapitated By The Ottomans

(Forbes)  On the acropolis of ancient Abdera in western Thrace, within the fortress of Polystylon, archaeologists discovered a cemetery dating to the final throes of the battle between local Byzantine occupants and invading Ottoman Turks. A single decapitated skull found in the center of the burials may be evidence of the last human trophy head, removed from a defender of the fort.

In the early 1380s, residents of Polystylon made a stand against the Ottoman Turks encroaching upon their family land. It was the last Byzantine stronghold that the Ottomans vanquished along the shores of western Thrace, after all its neighbors fell to the Turks. 

During the final occupation of Polystylon, a large number of people perished and were buried inside the walls. About two-thirds were kids between the ages of 4 and 11, and almost all the rest were adult men. Although DNA work has not yet been completed, skeletal and dental variations on the bones show biological kinship. One sole female skeleton has been found in the Late Byzantine cemetery at Abdera, due either to the evacuation of women prior to the commencement of fighting or to their capture and removal during warfare.

The cemetery within the fortification walls of Polystylon was discovered in 1991 and contained at least 20 graves, all of which were studied by Anagnostis Agelarakis, a bioarchaeologist at Adelphi University. One particular grave, that of a young child, was found nearly dead center in the cemetery. Rows of nails were all that remained of a simple wooden coffin. The child wore bronze beads that likely formed a bracelet around the left wrist and had every indication of healthy teeth and a good quality diet. Also found next to the child was a single human head, that of a middle-aged adult male.


"In my 30-plus years of working in bioarchaeology, it was the first time that I have uncovered such a find," Agelarakis tells me. "It's a truly spectacular time capsule of the Late Byzantine period safely preserved in the earth at Polystylon." In a recent report in the journal Byzantina Symmeikta, Agelarakis details the remains he studied and weaves a narrative of the fall of the fortress and decapitation of one of its last occupants.

Agelarakis's investigation of the adult skull revealed a traumatic injury to the front midline of the skull caused by a sharp blow from a heavy weapon that likely fatally penetrated the frontal lobe. The presence of three small neck vertebrae fragments and the jaw suggest that the head was still mostly fleshed at the time it was deposited near the child's grave, but no clear evidence of the location of the decapitation was found.

Because of this information, Agelarakis hypothesizes that the man may have been decapitated and his body unburied for a period of time. While the rest of the body has not been found, it is possible that someone pitied the man and clandestinely buried his head in the Late Byzantine cemetery. A large fragment of utilitarian pottery was found near the two bodies; it may have been used as a shovel, and then was left in the pit with the head after burial.

Beheadings are not commonly found on archaeological sites from this period, which means the timing of the injury and decapitation is particularly interesting. On the one hand, if beheading was the cause of the man's death, then the head trauma would have been the post-mortem mutilation. If the head wound preceded the beheading, though, then the decapitation would represent a post-mortem mutilation of the man's body.

"Historical records," Agelarakis writes, "provide ample narratives of both executions by impalement and beheading of combatants that had surrendered in battle against the Ottomans, and decapitations for the verification through trophy keeping of important individuals who had fallen while resisting Ottoman subjugation."


The importance of the decapitated man may be seen in the trauma he suffered about a decade before his death. Agelarakis notes that he sustained a fracture of his lower jaw that healed, although not particularly well. While the exact mechanism of this injury is unknown, he may have broken his jaw falling from a horse, from being struck by a spear or dagger, or from being hit by a projectile.

To survive and thrive after such an injury suggests some amount of medical care was tendered to the man while he recuperated. It also may suggest that he was important to the people of Polystylon. Cutting off the man's head may therefore have been a "revengeful act of subjugation, a punishment toward worthy opponents, possibly aimed to belittle, dehumanize, and silence him forever," Agelarakis suggests.

Unusual cases of human skeletons are interesting to look at, but in the end, their importance rests with what new information they can provide about life in the past. As an example of healed trauma, the isolated head reveals evidence that practices detailed in the much earlier Hippocratic Corpus were followed, Agelarakis tells me. And as an example of decapitation, he says, "the warrior head adds valuable data to the historical record of the time period and the relative dating of the Polystylon fortress."


The Byzantine Empire in the early 1300s.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

"On Skirmishing" - Eastern Roman Cavalry Tactics


Late Roman cavalry

I found a great little 2009 article on Byzantine cavalry tactics. Sadly, the good old copy and paste method is blocked. Why??? Who knows? No one is going to pay for this material. So I will do a summary of part of it.

The internet has provided me so many odd tidbits of information on the Eastern Roman Army. For example, articles on hand grenades, heavy artillery, land mines and infantry squares. You can find these articles and others on the right side of this page under "Army".

The picture we get is of a highly sophisticated, trained and powerful Roman military machine.

It was not an accident that the Eastern Empire survived endless attacks from every possible direction by every barbarian tribe imaginable plus by the armies of the civilized Persian Empire. The Roman Army lost and regained ground constantly. But the bottom line is, because of the army and navy the Empire survived for centuries.

"On Skirmishing"

Mobile cavalry was vital in defending the huge eastern border. Strong points would be defended by the infantry.

The military treatise "On Skirmishing" was written during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and deals with tactics involved with border warfare.

In the words of the author "Our part by writing down these things just as our predecessors handed them on to us, as well from our own experience which goes back a long time." References are made about generations of military knowledge handed down.

The author says the strategy of many generations we perfected in the 10th Century:

  • "To the best of my knowledge, it was Bardas, the blessed Caesar, who brought this method to the summit of perfection. I do not want to enumerate all the ancient commanders but shall limit myself to those in our time whom everyone knows. When this method had completely vanished, it was Bardas who brought it back."

Roman Cavalry
Living history military re-enactment group The Ermine Street Guard at Kelmarsh Hall. Photo taken in Kelmarsh, Northamptonshire in July 2009.

The evolution of Roman strategy allowed them to defend the eastern frontier in the 7th and 8th centuries and then reach a point where they could reconquer lost provinces in the 10th century.

On Skirmishing exclusively deals with the eastern front and the non-stop fighting with the Arabs. Secondly, it directly addresses the general on how to face the enemy.

On Skirmishing can be divided into two parts: 

  1. Weaken the enemy as efficiently as possible. This is done by limiting forage, harassing any vulnerable detachments, utilizing favorable terrain, and constantly shadowing the enemy.
  2. Try to defeat the enemy as efficiently as possible once they are worn down. This would be done using a variety of ambushes, night attacks, blocking the enemy's retreat and striking when and where they least expect it.

Basically the plan allows the enemy to march into Roman lands while trying to gain military victories as efficiently as possible.

It is stressed that generals buy time so the Roman peasants could relocate to safer areas. 

Preserving the Roman economic base was vital to the long term health of Empire. The question is asked: "What can be done if the enemy launch a sudden concentrated attack . . .  before Imperial forces have been assembled?" In this case, the general is recommended to do the following:

  • "Dispatch the turmarch of that region, or other officers, with great speed to get ahead of the enemy and, as best they can, evacuate and find refuge for the inhabitants of the villages and their flocks . . . give the enemy the impression that he is getting ready for a battle right then (at night). By doing this he might succeed in forestalling their attack and preserve the region unharmed . . . He himself should advance with selected officers and good horsemen and give the enemy the impression that he has been making preparations to fight against them in order to launch an attack . . . if there is no river or rough ground along the road, he should still expose himself a bit and advance as though to fight . . . By such procedures he will save the villagers from impending assault and from captivity, and they shall keep their freedom. With great precision and foresight, let him make his appearance and charge against them with a few selected horsemen, as we have said. These will immediately turn tail and retreat to the strong places and fortresses and be preserved from harm."

A comparison should be made with the collapse of the Western Roman frontier in the 4th and 5th centuries and the successful defense of the Eastern Empire's frontier from the 7th to 10th centuries.

The Western Romans saw an economic collapse as various barbarian tribes moved in and laid waste to the countryside. The destruction of the economic base helped speed along the military collapse.

The Eastern Romans not only staved off destruction but were able to support themselves and regain the offensive and expand the Empire.

Europe around 800AD
The Eastern Romans had a long border 
to defend with the Caliphate.

Setting traps for the enemy was discussed.
  • "Have him (an experienced commander) order a few of the men under him to dress like farmers, and mix in some real farmers and herdsmen with them. All of them ought to be unarmed and their heads uncovered. Some should be barefoot. All should be on horseback, carrying very short wooden staffs. Do all this to deceive the enemy and to give them the impression that these men are not from the army but just some farmers, of the sort called stewards . . . our men, then, who are disguised as farmers and peasant stewards, when the enemy have begun to follow them, should hurry to reach the site of the ambuscade. There the enemy who are following them, caught off their guard, will fall right into the ambush."
To a large degree On Skirmishing talks about avoiding major battles while protecting the local peasants and economy. Chewing up intruding enemy forces and pushing them back across the border was the goal. But larger battles were discussed.
  • "You should launch your attack from the rear with infantry units. Divide the remaining infantry into six divisions; station three off to the right side of the enemy, and three off to the left . . . leave open and unguarded the road, and that alone, which provides safe passage for the enemy toward their own land. After they have been vigorously assaulted and they discover the open road, beguiled by the idea of being saved, of fleeing the battle, and of getting back to their own land, they mount their horses and race along that road to escape, each man concerned about his own safety . . . He (the general) should occupy the mountain heights (on the enemy's path of retreat) and also secure the road passing through . . . hasten to seize the passes before they do and without delay launch your attack directly against them."
On Skirmishing advises exploiting the retreat of the enemy for maximum effect. The goal is to limit your losses while inflicting the maximum number of losses on your retreating foe.

If an enemy general refuses to fall for the Roman traps then it is advised to ignore the invaders and attack the enemy homeland.
  • "Therefore, General, when you are at a loss about how to injure the enemy with stratagems and ambushes, because they are very cautious and guard themselves carefully, or if, on the other hand, it is because your forces are not up to facing them openly in battle, then this is what you ought to do. Either you march quickly against the lands of the enemy, leaving the most responsible of the other generals behind, with though troops for skirmishing and for security of the themes . . . When the enemy hear of this, they will force their leader, even if he is unwilling, to get back and defend their own country."
It is important to note the context of the time when On Skirmishing was written.

The Romans had lost their richest provinces: Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria to the Arabs. This was a serious blow to the Empire in both manpower for the military and a loss of taxes to support the troops.

The Romans were permanently on the defensive against the now numerically superior Arabs.

To survive the Romans adopted guerilla warfare against the Arabs. They used small, well-led bands of men from local provinces to wear down the enemy. Speed and surprise was the rule of the day and swiftly moving light cavalry was of supreme importance.

After defeating several invading Arab armies the border began to stabilize. The Arabs were reduced to using raiding parties to gather loot. The Romans replied in kind.