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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

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Byzantine Prostitution and Sex Workers

Circa 1890: French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume as Emperess 'Theodora'. In her youth Theodora was made to work in a brothel. 




By Claudine Dauphin
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

There were two categories of Byzantine harlots: on the one hand, actresses and courtesans (scenicae), on the other, poor prostitutes (pornai) who fled from rural poverty and flocked to the great urban centres such as Constantinople and Jerusalem. There, even greater destitution pushed them straight into the rapacious hooks of crooks and pimps. 

Actresses and courtesans

The scenicae were involved in a craft aimed primarily at theatre-goers. It has been described as a ‘closed craft’, since daughters took over from their mothers. The classic example is that of the mother of the future Empress Theodora who put her three young daughters to work on the stage of licentious plays. The poet Horace described in his Satires (1.2.1) Syrian girls (whose name ambubaiae probably derived from the Syrian word for flute, abbut or ambut) livening up banquets by dancing lasciviously with castanets and accompanied by the sound of flutes. Suetonius simply equated these with prostitutes (Ner. 27). That is why Jacob, Bishop of Serûgh (451-521) in Mesopotamia warned in his Third Homily on the Spectacles of the Theatre against dancing, ‘mother of all lasciviousness’ which ‘incites by licentious gestures to commit odious acts’. A sixth-century mosaic in Madaba in Transjordan depicts a castanet-snapping dancer dressed in transparent muslin next to a satyr who is clearly sexually-roused.[7] 

According to Bishop John of Ephesus’ fifth-century Lives of the Eastern Saints, Emperor Justinian’s consort was known to Syrian monks as ‘Theodora who came from the brothel’. Her career proves that Byzantine courtesans like the Ancient Greek hetairai could aspire to influential roles in high political spheres. Long before her puberty, Theodora worked in a Constantinopolitan brothel where, according to the court-historian Procopius of Caesarea’s Secret History, she was hired at a cheap rate by slaves as all she could do then was to act the part of a ‘male prostitute’. As soon as she became sexually mature, she went on stage, but as she could play neither flute nor harp, nor even dance, she became a common courtesan. Once she had been promoted to the rank of actress, she stripped in front of the audience and lay down on the stage. Slaves emptied buckets of grain into her private parts which geese would peck at. She frequented banquets assiduously, offering herself to all and sundry, including servants. 

She followed to Libya a lover who had been appointed Governor of Pentapolis. Soon, however, he threw her out, and she applied her talents in Alexandria and subsequently all over the East. Upon her return to Constantinople, she bewitched Justinian who was then still only the heir to the imperial throne. He elevated his mistress to Patrician rank. Upon the death of the Empress, his aunt and the wife of Justin II (who would never have allowed a courtesan at court), Justinian forced his uncle Justin II to abrogate the law which forbade senators to marry courtesans. Soon, he became co-emperor with his uncle and at the latter’s death, as sole emperor, immediately associated his wife to the throne (Anecd. 9.1-10). 

Pompeii brothel
 The graffitis in the brothels depicted instructions like 'Thrust slowly' or advertisement for a prostitute that said  'Euplia was here with two thousand beautiful men', and even listed prices like 'Euplia sucks for five dollars*' This shows that sex workers worked under pseudonyms or aliases. The wall paintings also ascertain that many male prostitutes also rendered their services in the sex trade.


Poor prostitutes

Only a few courtesans could climb the social ladder in this phenomenal way. Most prostitutes who worked in brothels and tavernae and are described as pornai, were slaves or illiterate peasant girls like Mary the Egyptian who later became a holy hermit in the Judaean desert. Because neither hetairai nor pornai had any legal status, and since hetairai were also slaves belonging to a pimp or to a go-between, the distinction between courtesans and pornai was based entirely on their different financial worth. This aspect of the trade was inherent in the Latin name meretrix for prostitute, meaning ‘she who makes money from her body’. 

Three types of prices should be taken into consideration: the price for buying, the price for redeeming and the price for hiring. The peasants of the Constantinopolitan hinterland sold their daughters to pimps for a few gold coins (solidi). Thereafter, clothes, shoes and a daily food-ration would be these miserable girls’ only ‘salary’. To redeem a young prostitute in Constantinople under the reign of Justinian was cheap (Novell. 39.2). It cost 5 solidi, thus only a little more than the amount needed to buy a camel (41/3 solidi) and a little less than for a she-ass (51/3 solidi) or a slave-boy (6 solidi) in Southern Palestine at the end of the sixth century or in the early seventh century. That women could be degraded to the extent of being ranked with beasts of burden tells us much about Byzantine society. 

In Rome and Pompeii, the services of a ‘plebeia Venus’ cost generally two asses – no more than a loaf of bread or two cups of wine at the counter of a taverna. Whereas the most vulgar kind of prostitute would only cost 1 as (Martial claimed in Epig. 1.103.10: ‘You buy boiled chick peas for 1 as and you also make love for 1 as’), R. Duncan-Jones notes that the Pompeian charge could be as high as 16 asses or 4 sestercii.[8] In early seventh-century Alexandria, the average rate for hiring a prostitute is provided by the Life of John the Almsgiver. As a simple worker, the monk Vitalius earned daily 1 keration (which was worth 72 folleis) of which the smallest part (1 follis) enabled him to eat hot beans. With the remaining 71 folleis, he paid for the services of a prostitute which being a saint, he naturally did not use, for his aim was to convert them to a Christian life. 

At the 'Lupanar of Pompei', a famous brothel comprising ten rooms, was extremely popular with men. The walls of the ancient brothel feature a number of erotic paintings that depict group sex and many other sexual acts, indicating a myriad of sexual services that the brothel offered. These murals are almost pornographic, illustrating fair-skinned women in the nude, with styled hair and assuming various sexual positions with young, tanned, athletically-built men.


Lack of clients over several days meant poverty and hunger. Thus a harlot in Emesa, modern Homs in central Syria, had only tasted water for three days running, to which St Symeon Salos remedied by bringing her cooked food, loaves of bread and a pitcher of wine. On days when she earned a lot, Mary the Egyptian prostitute in Alexandria ate fish, drank wine excessively and sang dissolute songs presumably during banquets. In denouncing the Byzantine courtesans’ obscene lust for gold, the sixth-century rhetor Agathias Scholasticus echoed the authors of the fourth-century BC Athenian Middle Comedy. In particular, the poet Alexis claimed that ‘Above all, they [the prostitutes] are concerned with earning money’.[9] Sometimes a prostitute’s jewellery was her sole wealth. When in 539, the citizens of Edessa, modern Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, decided to redeem their fellow-citizens who were held prisoners by the Persians, the prostitutes (who did not have enough cash) handed over their jewels (Procop. De Bell. Pers. 2.13.4). 

It is probably because prostitution could occasionally be very lucrative and thus beneficial through taxation, that the Christian Byzantine State turned a blind eye. Since the Roman Republic, according to Tacitus (Ann. II.85.1-2), male and female prostitutes had been recorded nominally in registers which were kept under the guardianship of the aediles. From the reign of Caligula, prostitutes were taxed (Suet. Cal. 40). 

Christianity’s condemnation of any type of non-procreative sexual intercourse brought about the outlawing of homosexuality in the Western Empire in the third century and consequently of male prostitution. In 390, an edict of Emperor Theodosius I threatened with the death penalty the forcing or selling of males into prostitution (C.Th. 9.7.6). Behind this edict lay not a disgust of prostitution, but the fact that the body of a man would be used in homosexual intercourse in the same way as that of a woman. And that was unacceptable, for had St Augustine not stated that ‘the body of a man is as superior to that of a woman, as the soul is to the body’ (De Mend. 7.10)? 

In application of Theodosius’ edict in Rome, the prostitutes were dragged out of the male brothels and burnt alive under the eyes of a cheering mob. Nevertheless, male prostitution remained legal in the pars orientalis of the empire. From the reign of Constantine I, an imperial tax was levied on homosexual prostitution, this constituting a legal safeguard for those who could therefore engage in it ‘with impunity’. Evagrius emphasises in his Ecclesiastical History (3.39-41) that no emperor ever omitted to collect this tax. Its suppression at the beginning of the sixth century removed imperial protection from homosexual prostitution. In 533, Justinian placed all homosexual relations under the same category as adultery and subjected both to death (Inst. 4.18.4). 

Already in 529, Justinian had attempted to put a curb on female child prostitution by penalising all those engaged in that trade, in particular the owners of brothels (CJ 8.51.3). In 535, he invalidated the contracts by which the pimps of Constantinople put to work peasant girls whom they had bought from their parents (Novell. 14). The prostitution of adult women, however, does not appear to have unduly worried the imperial legislator. The punishment inflicted on pimps who ran the child prostitution network, varied according to their wealth and respectability. Paradoxically, Byzantine administration considered the job of Imperial Inspector of the Brothels as eminently honourable, so much so that in 630 the Bishop of Palermo was appointed to this post. 

Most sex workers were subjected to slavery. Biblically and historically, the ancient attitude towards slaves has always been indifferent, so the conditions of the women that worked in the brothel were barely of concern to the brothel owners, clients on anyone else. They would display no empathy to those that were 'beneath' them and only show them disdain or violent outbursts.


The recruiting of prostitutes

The evidence of Justinianic legislation brings to light a change in child prostitution from Roman times when paedophilia focused on small boys much praised notably by Tibullus (Eleg. 1.9.53), to the Byzantine period when little girls found themselves at the centre of a prostitutional web. Some of the peasant girls recruited by pimps in the hinterland of Constantinople, were not even ten years old. St Mary the Egyptian admits that she left her parents and her village at the age of twelve and went to Alexandria where she lost both her virginity and her honour by prostituting herself (and enjoying it – which in the eyes of prudish Byzantines was the ultimate sin). 

Abandoned children supplied to a large extent the prostitution market. Justin Martyr had observed that nearly all newborn babes who had been exposed, ‘boys as well as girls, will be used as prostitutes’ (1 Apol. 27). This entailed the risk of incest which obsessed Christian theologians: ‘How many fathers, forgetting the children they abandoned, unknowingly have sexual relations with a son who is a prostitute or a daughter become a harlot?’, asked Clement of Alexandria (Paed. 3.3). 

The patristic and rabbinic ban on birth-control except for abstinence post partum and whilst breast-feeding, as well as the failure both to enforce adherence to the ecclesiastical calendar in marital intercourse or complete abstinence as advocated by Lactantius (Divin. Inst. 6.20.25), resulted in an increase of unwanted infants who joined the small victims of poverty on the Byzantine prostitution market. In 329, Constantine I decreed that a newborn could be sold by its parents in the event of dire poverty. 

A law of 428 cited poverty again as the main reason for the exploitation of poor girls by pimps. A century later, the Byzantine historian Malalas emphasised that it was only the poor who sold their daughters to pimps (Chronogr. 18). It was also out of want and hunger that a desperate Christianised Arab woman offered her body to Father Sissinius, a hermit who lived in a cave near the River Jordan at the end of the sixth century. When Sissinius asked her why she prostituted herself, her answer was limited to a pathetic: ‘Because I am hungry’ (Mosch. Prat. Spir. 136). Likewise, during the 1914-1918 war in Palestine, hunger forced adolescent girls to sell themselves to the German and Turkish troops. 

Women who took to working on the streets of Pompeii would usually wait around the curb or other remote locations like graveyards or public baths. In larger cities, women had autonomy over the sex trade and basically employed themselves without the need for a pimp and they comprised of mostly freed slaves or poor women. 


Prostitution, Baths and illness

Famous courtesans and common harlots, all met in the public Baths which were already frequented in the Roman period by prostitutes of both sexes. Some of these baths were strictly for prostitutes and respectable ladies were not to be seen near them (Mart. Epigr. 3.93). Men went there not to bathe, but to entertain their mistresses as in sixteenth-century Italian bagnios. The fourth-to-sixth-century Baths uncovered in Ashqelon in 1986 by the Harvard-Chicago Expedition appear to have been of that type. The excavator’s hypothesis is supported both by a Greek exhortation to ‘Enter and enjoy…’ which is identical to an inscription found in a Byzantine bordello in Ephesus, and by a gruesome discovery. 

The bones of nearly 100 infants were crammed in a sewer under the bathhouse, with a gutter running along its well-plastered bottom. The sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century. Mixed with domestic rubbish – potsherds, animal bones, murex shells and coins – the infant bones were for the most part intact. Infant bones are fragile and tend to fragment when disturbed or moved for secondary burial. The good condition of the Ashqelon infant bones indicates that the infants had been thrown into the drain soon after death with their soft tissues still intact. The examination of these bones by the Expedition’s osteologist, Professor Patricia Smith of the Hadassah Medical School – Hebrew University of Jerusalem, revealed that all the infants were approximately of the same size and had the same degree of dental development. Neonatal lines in the teeth of babies prove the latters’ survival for longer than three days after birth. The absence of neonatal lines in the teeth of the Ashqelon babies reinforces the hypothesis of death at birth. 

Whilst it is conceivable that the infants found in the drain were stillborn, their number, age and condition strongly suggest that they were killed and thrown into the drain immediately after birth.[11] Thus, the prostitutes of Ashqelon used the Baths not only for hooking clients but also for surreptitiously disposing of unwanted births in the din of the crowded bathing halls. It is plausible that the monks and rabbis were aware of this and that this (and not only the fear of temptation) was their main reason for equating baths with lust. 

In the eyes of the pious Jews of Byzantine Palestine, any public bathhouse which was not used for ritual purification (mikveh) was tainted with idolatry, not only because it belonged to Gentiles, but also because a statue of Venus stood at the entrance of many bathhouses. The statue of Venus greeting the users of the Baths of Aphrodite at Ptolemais-‘Akko which the Jewish Patriarch Gamaliel II regularly frequented, was invoked by Proclus the Philosopher to accuse Gamaliel of idolatry. The Patriarch succeeded in clearing himself of this charge by demonstrating that the statue of Aphrodite simply adorned the Baths and in no sense was an idol (Mishna, Abodah Zarah 3.4). 

Nevertheless, Venus which Lucretius (4.1071) had dubbed Volgivaga – ‘the street walker’ – was the patron of prostitutes who celebrated her feast on 23 April late into the Byzantine period. This, too, must explain the intense hostility of some rabbis towards the public baths of the Gentiles over which the goddess ruled both in marmore and in corpore. Since Biblical times, lust had always been intimately associated with the idolatrous worship of the ashera – a crude representation of the Babylonian goddess of fertility Ishtar who had become the Canaanite, Sidonian and Philistine Astarte and the Syrian Atargatis (1 Kgs 14.15) – as well as with the green tree under which an idol was placed (1 Kgs 14.23; Ez 6.13). Had the prophet Jeremiah (2.20) not accused Jerusalem of prostituting herself: ‘Yea, upon every high hill / and under every green tree, / you bowed down as a harlot’? 

Byzantine erotic epigrams, notably those of Agathias Scholasticus in the sixth century, generally describe encounters with prostitutes in the street. The winding, dark alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem were particularly appropriate for soliciting by scortae erraticae or ambulatrices. These lurked under the high arches which bridged the streets of the Holy City and walked up and down the cardo maximus.

Contraception

In the sermons of the Church Fathers, contraception and prostitution formed a couple that could only engender death. St John Chrysostom cried out in Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans 4: ‘For you, a courtesan is not only a courtesan; you also make her into a murderess. Can you not see the link: after drunkenness, fornication; after fornication, adultery; after adultery, murder?’. According to Plautus, abortion was a likely action for a pregnant prostitute to take (Truc. 179), either – Ovid suggested – by drinking poisons or by puncturing with a sharp instrument called the foeticide, the amniotic membrane which surrounds the foetus (Amor. 2.14). Procopius of Caesarea states emphatically that when she was a prostitute, Empress Theodora knew all the methods which would immediately provoke an abortion (Anecd. 9.20). 

In the same breath, the Didascalia Apostolorum (2.2) condemned both abortion and infanticide: ‘You will not kill the child by abortion and you will not murder it once it is born’. In 374, a decree of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens forbade infanticide on pain of death (Cod. Theod. 9.14.1). Nevertheless, the practice which had been common in the Roman period, continued. That is why the Tosephta (Oholoth 18.8) repeated in the fourth century the warning made by the Mishna in the second century: ‘The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean… What do they [the rabbis] examine? The deep drains and the foul water’. This implied that the Gentiles disposed of their aborted foetuses in the drains of their own houses. 

The newborn babes who had been killed and tossed into the main sewer of the Ashqelon Baths, were predominantly boys.[12] This contradicts W. Petersen’s statement that ‘Infanticide is … associated with the higher valuation of males’.[13] According to him, whenever infanticide is practised, girls are first eliminated, followed by deformed and sickly children, offspring unwanted for reasons of magic (such as multiple births, twins or triplets) or of social ostracism (such as bastards). Beyond the biological fact that male births are more numerous than female births, the male dominance in the infanticide pattern at Ashqelon may derive in this precise case from the very trade of the mothers of these newborn children. 

According to Apollodoros’ Against Neaira, Greek hetairai predominantly bought young female slaves or adopted new-born girls who had been exposed. They educated them in the prostitutes’ trade and confined them to the brothels until these girls were old enough to ply their trade themselves and support their adopted mothers in their old age. Consequently, in a society of prostitutes, would Petersen’s ‘natural’ selection not have been reversed? Baby girls would have been kept alive and brought up in brothels so that eventually they would be able to pick up the trade from their mothers when the latters’ attraction had faded. It would not have been possible to raise baby boys in the same way.[14] 

Tainted by the sins of lust, of sexual enjoyment and murder, Byzantine prostitutes, however, were never ‘branded’, unlike the Roman prostitutes who by law had to look different from respectable young women and matrons and were therefore made to wear the toga which was strictly for men (Hor. Sat. 1.2.63); unlike, too the mediaeval harlots of Western Europe who are consistently depicted wearing striped dresses, stripes being the iconographic attribute of ‘outlaws’ such as lepers and heretics.[15] Descriptions of the physical aspect of Byzantine prostitutes are at best vague, such as ‘dressed like a mistress’ in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2). We can only imagine their appearance from fragmentary evidence, such as blue faience beaded fish-net dresses worn by prostitutes in Ancient Egypt, of which there are several strips in the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Archaeology of Trinity College, Dublin. 

by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)


Empress Theodora
Circa 1890: French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume as 'Theodora'.

While still just a girl Theodora was made to work in a brothel to pay her way and she was obviously very good at what she did for she soon moved from servicing the sexual requirements of low class clients for pennies most of which was taken by the pimp that had been provided by the Faction to the more lucrative role of circus entertainer as a dancer and mime artist. 
Here she provided sexually explicit shows for the social elite. Particularly popular was her notoriously lascivious portrayal of Leda and the Swan where she would be stripped naked, lie on her back, and have barley sprinkled over her breasts and nether regions to be pecked at by geese.


(classicsireland.com)    (prostitution-in-the-byzantine-holy-land)


(The-Roman-Empire-of-sex)    (roman-brothels-2000-years-ago)




Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Battle for Africa - Siege of Babylon, Egypt



The Beginning of the End 
for Roman Africa, Part I



The collapse of Roman authority

The centuries of Roman rule in Egypt began in 30 BC. 

But that Roman rule was shaken to the core by the a 26 year long knock down war to the death of Rome vs. the Persian Empire from 602 to 628AD.

The Persian Sasanian conquest of Egypt started in 618 when the Persian army defeated the Roman forces in Egypt and occupied the province. The fall of Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, marked the first and most important stage in the Sasanian campaign to conquer this rich province.

The Persian shah, Khosrow II, had taken advantage of the internal turmoil of the Roman Empire after the overthrow of Emperor Maurice by Phocas to attack the Roman provinces in the East. By 615, the Persians had driven the Romans out of northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine

Determined to eradicate Roman rule in Asia, Khosrow turned his sights on Egypt, the Eastern Roman Empire's granary.

In 617 or 618 the Persian army headed for Alexandria, where Nicetas, Emperor Heraclius' cousin and local governor, was unable to offer effective resistance.

After the fall of Alexandria, the Persians gradually extended their rule southwards along the Nile.

The Persians did not try to force the population of Egypt to renounce their religion and practice Zoroastrianism. They did, however, persecute the Byzantine Church whilst supporting the Monophysite Church. The Egyptian Copts took advantage of the circumstances and obtained control over many of the Orthodox churches. 

There were numerous Persian stations in the country, which included Elephantine, Herakleia, Oxyrhynchus, Kynon, TheodosiopolisHermopolisAntinopolis, Kosson, Lykos, Diospolis, and Maximianopolis. The assignment of those stations was to collect taxes and get supplies for the military. 

Several papyrus papers mention the collection of taxes by the Sasanians, which shows that they used the same method of the Byzantines for collecting taxes. Another papyrus mentions an Iranian and his sister, which indicates that some Persian families had settled in Egypt along with the soldiers.

Egypt and parts of Libya would remain in Persian hands for 10 years, run by general Shahrbaraz from Alexandria. As the Roman Emperor, Heraclius, reversed the tide and defeated Khosrow, Shahrbaraz was ordered to evacuate the province, but refused. In the end, Heraclius, trying both to recover Egypt and to sow disunion amongst the Persians, offered to help Shahrbaraz seize the Persian throne for himself. 

An agreement was reached, and in the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt and a fleet from Constantinople arrived at Alexandria to garrison the country with Roman troops.


Egypt Was Conquered by Persia
Centuries of Roman rule in Egypt, Palestine and Syria came to a violent end with Persian armies invading and the lands being absorbed into the Persian Empire. For over 10 years the locals looked to Persia for their economy, laws, religious freedom and security. Constantinople and ties to Rome faded in the minds of an entire generation. 


Click to enlarge
.
The Diocese of Egypt 
Egypt was a province of the later Roman Empire from 381AD. It incorporated the provinces of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Its capital was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis ("Augustal Prefect", of the rank vir spectabilis; previously the governor of the imperial 'crown domain' province Egypt)



The Muslim Invasion

Roman authority in Egypt had been undermined by the 10 year rule of Persia and the religious freedom that came with it.

The Emperor Heraclius appointed the Orthodox Bishop Cyrus from the Caucasus Mountain region to be both Patriarch of Alexandria and Governor of Egypt. 

Cyrus began an active persecution of Monophysite "heretics". Menas, the brother of the Coptic Patriarch, was seized. His body was burned with torches and his teeth were pulled out. He was placed in a sack weighed with sand and rowed out to sea. Menas was offered his life if he accepted the Orthodox version of worship. When he refused he was thrown into the ocean.

Imperial soldiers were sent to Monophysite monasteries to torture or imprison the abbots who would not obey. Many Copts pretended to submit or fled the cities. It is likely that these events severed the last shreds of loyalty to Constantinople.

When the Muslims crossed into Egypt the local Coptic population was not very interested in defending an Empire that was crushing their freedom.

Click to enlarge
Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC



Roman Egypt was a direct threat to the Muslim conquests in Syria and Palestine. The Roman Amphibious Attack to recapture Antioch in 638 had been executed by naval and ground forces based out of Egypt. Caesarea, the last remaining Roman city in Palestine, was being reinforced and supplied by the navy out of Alexandria, Egypt.

So in December 639, 'Amr ibn al-'As left for Egypt with a force of 4,000 troops. Taking the same ancient caravan road used by the Persian Army only a few years earlier, the Muslim forces reached the fortified town of Pelusium. The Persians has captured the town without much trouble. But the Muslims lacked heavy siege weapons and were unable to take it.

The Muslims blockaded the town for a month. Then one day there was an unsuccessful sally by the garrison and the Arabs were able to enter one of the gates with the retreating soldiers. Shipping in the port was burned, the churches pulled down and the fortifications dismantled. Amr destroyed much of the town because he did not have enough men to garrison the fortress, and he did not want the Romans to land troops from the sea and reoccupy the fortress which would be in his rear on his supply lines.

After the fall of Pelusium, the Muslims marched to Belbeis, some 40 miles from Memphis via desert roads. The Arabs had reached Nile Delta. 

The famous Roman General Aretion came out of the city to negotiate with Amr. Aretion had been the Governor of Jerusalem and had fled to Egypt when the city fell to the Muslims. Amr gave them three options: convert to Islam, pay the jizya, or fight. They requested three days to reflect and then requested two extra days.

At the end of the five days the general decided to reject Islam and the jizya and fight the Muslims. The battle resulted in a Muslim victory during which Aretion was killed. Amr subsequently attempted to convince the native Egyptians to aid the Arabs and surrender the city, based on the kinship between Egyptians and Arabs. When the Egyptians refused, the siege resumed until the city fell around the end of March 640.

The siege of Belbeis had delayed the Muslims another month. 

Meanwhile Cyrus, the Governor of Egypt, and Theodore, commander-in-chief of the Roman Army in Egypt, established themselves in the Fortress of Babylon.


General layout of the fortress of Babylon, Egypt

in the first century AD. (Sheehan, 2015)


Remains of the Babylon Fortress

It is believed that the original Babylon Fortress was built during the 6th century BC by the Persians. It was located on the cliffs near to the Nile River, next to the Pharaonic Canal which effectively connected the Nile River to the Red Sea.

Boats and other river craft making their way up and down the Nile would have paid tolls at the fortress, and when the Romans seized control of the area, they continued to use the original Babylon Fortress, but only for a relatively short period of time.

While the Romans appreciated the strategic importance of the fort due to its original location, efficient water distribution was difficult, and the Roman emperor Trajan gave the orders to move Babylon Fortress closer to the river in order to make water distribution within the fortress grounds easier and more efficient. At the time when Babylon Fortress was moved to its new location, it was right next to the Nile River.



The Siege of Babylon (September 640 to April 641)

Babylon was a fortified city, and the Romans had indeed prepared it for a siege. Outside the city, a ditch had been dug, and a large force was positioned in the area between the ditch and the city walls. The fort was a massive structure 59 ft high with walls more than 6.6 feet thick and studded with numerous towers and bastions and manned by a force of some 4,000 Roman soldiers.

For the timeline of these events I am using those of General Sir John Bagot Glubb and his book The Great Arab Conquests.

Amr may have arrived in the Babylon area in the Spring of 640, but he was in a tough situation. His troops were basically lightly armed tribal desert raiders. They had no heavy siege equipment to take on Babylon. With no easy targets at hand or reinforcements coming from Medina, the morale of Amr's men would go down. He needed action and a victory of some type.

Amr skirmished for some weeks in the neighborhood with no results. Finally he captured a small outpost north of Babylon with a harbor and boats. Using the boats he ferried himself and his troops over the Nile to the West bank and marched about 50 miles south to the fertile district of Fayoum

This was a risky move. Amr was on the West bank of the Nile. Any reinforcements from Arabia would be on the East bank of the Nile. The Roman garrison in Babylon would be between them. If Theodore, the commander of Babylon, took action he might be able to defeat the two separated Muslim armies in detail.

So around May, 640 Amr marched south to Fayoum. The Romans had anticipated this and had therefore strongly guarded the roads leading to the city. They had also fortified their garrison in the nearby town of Lahun. When the Muslim Arabs realized that Fayoum was too strong for them to invade, they headed towards the Western Desert, where they looted all the cattle and animals they could. A smaller town in the province was attacked and all of the men, women and children were massacred. 

A 19th century Bedouin warrior
The Arab forces facing the Romans would look much like this soldier.



John, the Roman commander of the Fayoum district, set out with 50 men to make a personal reconnaissance of the area. Amr received a report of his presence. He immediately sent a force, surrounded John and killed the entire patrol.  Then receiving word that the reinforcements he asked for were arriving, Amr's army returned to Lower Egypt down the River Nile.

The Caliph had dispatched 4,000 men to reinforce Amr in Egypt. These were mostly veterans of the Syrian campaigns. Even with the reinforcements, Amr was unsuccessful and so, by August, 'Umar had assembled another 4,000-strong force, consisting of four columns, each of 1,000 elite men. The reinforcements arrived at Babylon sometime in September 640, bringing the total strength of the Muslim force to 12,000 up to perhaps 15,000 men, still quite modest.

The Muslim reinforcements of 10,000+ troops under Zubair ibn al-Awam gathered to the north of Babylon. 

The Roman commander Theodore had gathered a "large force" around Babylon. . . . . whatever that might mean. We have no numbers. It might have been equal to or greater than the Muslims. Theodore had a chance to attack Zubair to the north before Amr and his troops could return from Fayoum, but Theodore remained inactive. Meanwhile in July Amr re-crossed the Nile with his army and joined Zubair 10 miles north of Babylon near the city of Heliopolis.

Faced with a united and larger Muslim army Theodore somehow felt now was a good time to march out of Babylon and take on the Arabs. So in July 640 he marched north out of the fortress and out on to the plain to attack at Heliopolis

I will deal with the battle at Heliopolis in a future article. Suffice it to say, the Romans were ambushed and fled back to the safety of Babylon and closed the gates.

With no Roman army in the field the Muslims scoured the countryside for supplies and plunder. The Roman forces who had successfully defended Fayoum abandoned the province. They took to ships and sailed down the Nile going past Babylon (offering no help) and sailed 45 miles north to the town of Nikiou. 

Amr immediately dispatched a force which took Fayoum by assault and massacred the inhabitants. The whole province then surrendered without resistance.

The Arabs occupied towns up to 35 miles north of Babylon. Amr continued to act towards the Egyptians with considerable ruthlessness, either because he had a cruel nature or because he made terrorism into policy to discourage resistance. 

Having subdued the provinces of Misr and Fayoum the Muslims were in a good position to gather supplies for their army.

Meanwhile August had come and the Nile was rising soon to flood a great part of the Delta rendering further operations difficult. Amr decided to reduce Babylon before proceeding further.

Remains of Babylon Fortress
The fortress was surrounded in flood season with a moat made up of the Nile River.



The Siege of Babylon Begins

The great fortress consisted of an irregular quadrilateral of walls upwards of 6.5 to 8 feet thick and upwards of 60 feet high, built in alternate layers of brick and stone. Two towers rose considerably higher. In plan it was about 1,000 feet long by 500 feet wide at one end, tapering to 300 feet wide at the other end.

The River Nile washed one of the long sides. A small harbor for river boats lay at the foot of the wall by the south gate. The whole of the fortress was surrounded by a moat filled with water from the Nile. 

Opposite the main fortress was the island of Raudha which lay in mid-stream. It also was fortified and garrisoned. The two fortresses were able to maintain communications by boat. To capture such a fortress presented a formidable task to Muslims who had found it difficult to even seize a town like Pelusium.

The Patriarch Cyrus, the Governor of Egypt, was himself besieged inside Babylon. The Roman garrison may have consisted of 5,000 to 6,000 men. They were well supplied with food and warlike stores.

The siege probably began in earnest in September 640.

The strong fortress of Babylon would have no trouble resisting the Muslims for months. But Cyrus must have been aware of the hatred felt for his regime in the country. He would also know that because the Empire had its hands full trying to keep the Arabs out of Anatolia, he could expect little to no help from Constantinople. 

An interesting observation. Where was Roman Carthage during the invasion of Egypt? 

In 608, Heraclius the Elder in Carthage renounced his loyalty to the Emperor Phocas, who had overthrown Maurice six years earlier. The rebels issued coins showing both Heraclii dressed as consuls, though neither of them explicitly claimed the imperial title at this time. Heraclius's younger cousin Nicetas launched an overland invasion of Egypt; by 609, he had defeated Phocas's general Bonosus and secured the province. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius gathered a fleet and sailed eastward to Constantinople via Sicily and Cyprus finally being crowned Emperor in 610.

Troops in Carthage were available to invade Egypt in 609. So why were there no reinforcements from Carthage going to bolster Roman forces in Egypt? History is silent on the subject.


The Siege of Babylon
There were more Roman troops than would fit inside the fortress. So the extra troops entrenched themselves outside the walls behind a ditch they dug which was flooded by the waters of the Nile.  But in General Glubb's book he says the moat surrounded the fortress. No doubt the troops continued the trench around the fortress and let the Nile fill it to the top.
Graphic from Kings and Generals



With apparently no help coming from Constantinople or Carthage, in October 640 Cyrus was ferried over to the island of Raudha. From there a mission was sent to Amr to negotiate. Negotiations were conducted from the island so as not to depress the morale of the garrison inside Babylon.

The emissaries from Amr were told they could not resist Roman power over the long run, and they were offered a cash payment to leave Egypt. The Muslim reply was the standard one: submit to Islam, pay tribute and be 2nd class citizens under Muslim rule or fight.

Cyrus appeared to be inclined to accept payment of tribute, but a number of officers strongly protested. Perhaps these officers were residents of Egypt, whereas Cyrus was an outsider who had been sent to Egypt from the Caucasus Mountains region.

Amr offered Cyrus three days to consider his offer. When the three days ended the Romans lowered on of the drawbridges and sallied forth to attack the Arabs. After heavy fighting the Romans were repulsed and driven back inside the fortress. This reverse depressed those who had advocated resistance and strengthen the hand of Cyrus who wanted submission.

Negotiations were reopened. A treaty was drawn up in the usual form of tribute and submission. Christians were to be granted freedom of religion under the "protection" of the Muslims. A clause was added that the treaty was subject to approval of the Emperor. Pending agreement the military situation would remain unchanged.

Cyrus immediately sailed down the Nile to Alexandria. Once there is wrote a dispatch to Heraclius explaining why he had been compelled to submit and begging the Emperor to ratify the treaty. Heraclius was now an old and sick man, but he could not stomach the defeatism of Cyrus. He ordered Cyrus to report at once to Constantinople.

The Emperor received his Governor of Egypt with angry and bitter reproaches which were not unjustified. For Cyrus had alienated the loyalty of the great majority of Egyptians. He was accused of betraying the Empire to an enemy, was dismissed from his post and sent into exile.


Late Roman cohort reenactment group
(www.twcenter.net)


When the Emperor's refusal to ratify the treaty became known hostilities reopened. At this point, certain Egyptians (Copts perhaps) began to assist the Muslims. However the garrison continued to carry out sallies and inflict casualties on the besiegers.

Gradually the winter dragged on. As the Nile flood subsided the protective moat almost dried up. The Muslims had not been able to make any impression on the walls of the fortress. The best they could do was blindly shoot arrows over the walls and hope they might land on someone.

In late winter Amr receiver news that a Roman force was gathering in the Delta. Leaving a small detachment at Babylon he set out to attack the Romans. The Muslims became entangled in the canals and irrigation ditches of the Delta and were roughly handled by Roman attacks forcing them to withdraw back to Baylon.

Then in March 641 news reached Babylon of the death of Emperor Heraclius. The garrison was depressed and the Arabs shouted for joy. 

Encouraged by the news the Muslims prepared for an assault. In some places they had almost succeeded in filling in the moat. Scaling ladders were prepared and Zubair headed up the assaulting column. Under the cover of darkness Zubair and a handful of followers made it to the top of the wall. 

There was still time for a determined counter attack to cut them down and throw them into the moat. But after a seven month siege from September 640 to April 641 the garrison had had enough. 

As dawn broke the garrison commander offered to parley. Amr immediately accepted and a form of capitulation was drafted. After three days the garrison was to retire, embark in ships on the Nile and leave the fortress intact with all its stores. 

On April 9, 641 the garrison withdrew and the great fortress of Babylon was occupied by the victorious Muslims.


Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.


Aftermath

In Syria and Palestine, many of the local Christian Arab tribes had fought at the side of the Romans to the very end. That was not the case in Egypt.

Cyrus was largely responsible for the weakness of Egypt in the face of Arab invasion. The Copts were the large majority in Egypt and had experienced religious freedom under Persian rule. Then they saw ruthless religious persecution when the Romans returned. When the crisis came the only truly loyal groups supporting the Empire would have been the Greek speaking Orthodox people and a smaller number of Egyptians who adhered to the Orthodox Church. 

The Copts might not have welcomed the Muslims, but they knew that in Syria the Muslims gave religious freedom to the local Christians as long as the tribute was paid. Their choice was to be slaves of the Romans or slaves of the Muslims. So why fight?

Babylon was a huge loss to the Empire. Rome had now lost control of central and upper Egypt. The Muslims were free to gather supplies and concentrate their forces on Alexandria.


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Battle for the Middle East
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For more go to Part X of my series on the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to a single Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  My series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

Go To:

The Fall of Jerusalem and Antioch Ends Rome in the Middle East





(Sasanian Egypt)    (Sasanian conquest of Egypt)    (Babylon fortress)

(Amr_ibn_al-As)