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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, June 6, 2021

The African Roman Fortress of Vaga



Vaga
Defending Roman North Africa


VagaVecca or Theodorias is an ancient city in Tunisia built by the Berbers and ruled sequentially by the Carthaginians, the Numidians, the Romans, the Vandals and the Byzantines until it was captured by the Arabs who changed its name to the present day Béja. The town was the capital of the Numidian Kingdom during the rule of Jugurtha.

The Vaga fortress was built in the 2nd century BC and still exists till today which makes it one of oldest citadels in the region.

The fortress was built on the top of a hill of 305 meters, and this site was chosen so the castle can overlook the city and its surrounding plains and countryside.

Little is known about the date of the foundation of Vaga, but it's sure that it was before the foundation of Carthage.

In 14 BC, the Romans demolished the old Carthaginian citadel and built a new one on the ruins of the previous and built also fortifications with walls and 22 towers. 

The Romans erected many other monuments which some of them still exist today. And in 105 BC under the rule the Emperor Trajan, the Romans began the building of the bridge near Vaga, the constructions lasted nearly 25 years and event ended only under the reign of Emperor Hadrian and which become known as the Trajan bridge.

Vaga, still flourishing, was promoted by Emperor Septimius Severus to the rank of Roman colonia under the name of Colonia Septimia Vaga. The city continues its prosperity for nearly two centuries till the Vandal invasion of Africa.

The Vandals in 429 and under the leadership of Genseric stormed the Roman province of Africa and made it in 435 as their new kingdom, in their route they destroyed several cities, within them Vaga which was devastated. In 442, the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III made peace with the Vandals giving them the land between the sea and the three cities of ThevesteSicca Veneria and Vaga. And in 448 Genseric destroyed the fortifications of the city and dismantled its castle.


The Roman Fortress of Vaga

Rule By The Eastern Roman Empire

In 533, has the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I restored Africa as a Roman province and put an end to the Vandalic rule, and with that Vaga became a flourishing town again, as the Emperor charged the Count Paulus to leads the works to restore the fortress of the city back. 

But the Emperor didn't only rebuilt the castle, but he also rebuilt the entire city which was ruined by the Vandal rule, and he enlarged, embellished and repopulate the city like it was before, and to be grateful for his actions, the townspeople had renamed their city after the Empress Theodora, Theodorias.

Because of the endless wars and incursions by the Moors Justinian ordered the building of a chain of forts along the frontier. 

Behind this first line was a second barrier of larger towns and stronger garrisons. Watchmen on the first line used signal fires to alert the larger towns of barbarian invasions for locals could seek refuge inside the walled cities.   Vaga was part of this system.

With the Muslim conquest of north Africa the new rulers of the country gave fortress the name "Kasbah" and made it the official center of their representatives of the northern-region.

The Ottomans too contributed to the expansion of the citadel by establishing a flanking tower that protected the southern parts of the Kasbah and Janissary garrison, and in 1677 the Tunisian monarch Ali I Bey supported the garrison by a battalion of 500 Spahis.

After the French occupation of Tunisia in 1881, the Kasbah become a Gendarmerie barracks from September 21, 1888 till the independence of the country in 1957.


Vaga was one of many North African fortifications that protected coastal Roman cities from desert raiders. A number of the forts were built by the Patrician Solomon.

Byzacena was a Late Roman province in the central part of Roman North Africa, which is now roughly Tunisia, split off from Africa Proconsularis. Vaga is located to the left of Carthage.


By Procopius    
The Buildings of Justinian
Written in the 550s AD


These things, then, were done by Justinian at modern Carthage. In the surrounding region, which is called Proconsularis, there was an unwalled city, Vaga by name, which could be captured not only by a planned attack of the barbarians, but even if they merely chanced to be passing that way.  This place the Emperor Justinian surrounded with very strong defenses and made it worthy to be called a city, and capable of affording safe protection to its inhabitants.  And they, having received this favour, now call the city Theodorias in honour of the Empress.  He also built in this district a fortress which they call Tucca. 

In Byzacium there is a city on the coast, Adramytus by name, which has been large and flourishing from ancient times, and for this reason it won the name and rank of metropolis of the region, since it chances to be first in point of size and, in general, of prosperity.

The Vandals had torn the circuit-wall of this city down to the ground, so that the Romans might not be able to use it against them. And it lay conveniently exposed to the Moors when they overran that region.  Nevertheless, the Libyans who lived there tried to make provision, so far as they could, for their own safety, and so they made a barricade out of the ruins of the walls and joined their houses together;  and from these they would fight against their assailants and try to defend themselves, though their hope was slight and their position precarious.  So their safety always hung by a hair and they were kept standing on one leg, being exposed to the attacks of the Moors and to the neglect of the Vandals.

However, when the Emperor Justinian became master of Libya by conquest, he put an exceedingly massive wall about the city and stationed there an adequate garrison of troops, thus giving the inhabitants assurance of safety and enabling them to disdain all enemies.  For this reason they now call the place Justinianê, thus repaying the Emperor for their deliverance and displaying their gratitude simply by the adoption of the name, since they had no other means by which they could requite the Emperor's beneficence, nor did he himself wish other requital. 

(Kasbah)     (Vaga)

Friday, May 7, 2021

Byzantine Land Mines



Now That is Going To Hurt


The "landmine" called a caltrop is an area denial weapon made up of two or more sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base. Historically, caltrops were part of defenses that served to slow the advance of troops, especially horseschariots, and war elephants and were particularly effective against the soft feet of camels.

In Roman Republic warfare the caltrop was being used against enemy war elephants as early as 279BC in the Battle of Asculum.

Archaeological excavations around Alesia show the use of caltrops by Caesar's legions. 

The late Roman writer Vegetius, referring in his work De re militari to scythed chariots, wrote:

The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a device composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright.

A Roman historian mentions their use against Persian cavalry in the 5th century. 

In the 6th century the Roman historian Procopius tells how the general Belisarius used caltrops to defend open gates during the siege of Rome.

As cavalry rose in importance the use of caltrops gained in importance to hamper an enemy cavalry attack or to restrict movement.

In an anonymous 6th century Roman treatise caltrops are presented as a full-fledged war stratagem.

He said the caltrops should be used to protect the Roman fortified camp. The caltrops would be laid along the ditch some 12.5 meters in length. The commander of each unit would be responsible to gather them for their re-use and to prevent them from injuring their own troops when they leave camp.

Rear guard soldiers were told to have a supply of caltrops available to delay or wound any enemy in pursuit.


In the Emperor Maurice's war manual the Strategikon, the caltrop is also shown to protect the camp as well as for use on the battlefield. A light wagon was assigned to Roman units with "caltrops tied together with light cords attached to an iron peg so they can be easily collected." If attacked from the rear the caltrops can be thrown from the wagon into the path of an enemy.

When part of the army is forced to leave the main force they are told to bring caltrops along.

Maurice called for a "minefield of calthrops" on the battlefield. Unobserved by the enemy, Roman troops were to spread calthrops along the entire field of battle 100 feet deep. In four or five places there would be 300 foot wide gaps that would allow Roman troops to go and return unhurt. These passages would be market with tree branches or piles of stone. If an enemy was enticed into this minefield they would be confused and more easily destroyed.

The Taktika of Emperor Leo VI written in the 9th and 10th centuries reaffirms the use of calthrops. Almost word for word Leo repeats Maurice's writings on calthrop use in camps or the battlefield.

Leo is original in urging calthrops be thrown on to the decks of enemy ships to hamper the movement of the crews.

In the 10th century work by Heron of Byzantium he suggested wooden soled shoes to protect the infantry and farm rakes to clear a path of calthrops.

In 1082 Emperor Alexios Komnenos used fields of calthrops against Norman cavalry in the Balkans - - - - but the Normans avoided the calthrops by flanking the Roman line.

From the Alexiad: "There he [Alexios I Komnenos] assembled his regiments and mercenaries again and started on his march against Bohemund, with a new device in his head for overcoming the Franks. For he prepared iron caltrops, and on the eve of the day on which he expected a battle, he had them spread over the intermediate part of the plain, where he guessed the Frankish cavalry would make their fiercest onslaught, thus aiming to break the first irresistible attack of the Latins by piercing the feet of their horses." 

But nothing lasts forever.

At the end the Empire's population was exhausted, their wealth was spent, their economy was shattered and perhaps worst of all they were mostly alienated from Western Europe who had come to their aid in the previous centuries. 

A few competent rulers in a row would have helped them more than caltrops or maybe just a few competent diplomats.






(Caltrop)    (BYZANTINE LANDMINE)


Saturday, March 27, 2021

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

 

Artwork by Alexander Groznov
Eastern Roman Soldier


The Roman Middle East Ends
The Arab Consolidation
Battle for the Middle East Part X


Here we are at Part X of 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.  This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

After years and years of fighting the Muslims the Romans finally lost Syria and Palestine due to a freak sand storm at the The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk.

The Fighting Goes On and On

Yarmouk did not end the fighting. The Romans fought on for another two years doing their best to hold off the invasion and even drive the Muslims back.

The problem is a near total lack of any detailed information on the campaigns. 

So I am using Part X of this series to rapidly wrap up the final Muslim conquest and consolidation of the Roman Middle East.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
The initial problem for the Muslims was as they moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

Roman troops were in short supply after their defeat at the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk. So the Emperor Heraclius ordered a general redeployment of his remaining soldiers from Syria and Palaestina Salutaris to the Taurus Mountains region to better defend Anatolia. 

The Roman garrisons holding out in the coastal cities had been supplied by the Roman Navy. Those troops were slowly withdrawn to the north. The port city of Caesarea was put under a Muslim siege. However Caesarea would not be taken until 640 (four years after Yarmouk), when at last, the garrison surrendered to the Muslim governor of Syria. 


The 6 Month Siege of Jerusalem

After the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk the Muslim commanders held a council of war in early October 636 to discuss future plans. Opinions of objectives varied between the coastal city of Caesarea and Jerusalem. The Muslim commander Abu Ubaidah could see the importance of both these cities, which had resisted all Muslim attempts at capture. Unable to decide on the matter, he wrote to Caliph Umar for instructions. In his reply, the caliph ordered them to capture the latter. The Muslims arrived at Jerusalem around early November, and the Roman garrison withdrew into the fortified city.

Jerusalem had been well-fortified after Heraclius recaptured it from the Persians. After the Roman defeat at Yarmouk, Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, repaired its defenses. 

The Muslims had so far not attempted any siege of the city. However, since 634, Saracen forces had the potential to threaten all routes to the city. Although it was not encircled, it had been in a state of siege since the Muslims captured the towns of Pella and Bosra east of the Jordan River. After the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk, the city was severed from the rest of Syria, and was presumably being prepared for a siege that seemed inevitable. 

When the Muslim army reached Jericho, Sophronius collected all the holy relics including the True Cross, and secretly sent them to the coast to be taken to Constantinople. The Muslim troops besieged the city some time in November 636. Instead of relentless assaults on the city, they decided to press on with the siege until the Romans ran short of supplies and a bloodless surrender could be negotiated.

After six months, the Patriarch Sophronius agreed to surrender, on condition that he submit only to the Caliph. According to tradition, in 637 or 638, Caliph Umar traveled to Jerusalem in person to receive the submission of the city.

This 19th Century Arab warrior might have looked much like the Muslims fighting the Romans.

Battle of Hazir  (June 637)

Marching into northern Syria Muslim Generals Abu Ubaidah and Khalid moved towards Chalcis, which was strategically the most significant Roman fort in the area. Through Chalcis the Romans would be able to guard Anatolia, Heraclius' homeland of Armenia, and the regional capital, Antioch. Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid with his mobile guard towards Chalcis.

The virtually impregnable fort was guarded by Roman troops under Menas, reportedly second in prestige only to the Emperor himself. Menas, diverting from conventional Roman tactics, decided to face Khalid and destroy the leading elements of Muslim army before the main body arrived.

The battle began on a plain three miles east to the east. Khalid deployed his Mobile Guard into its fighting formation for battle. Menas arranged his army in one center and two wings and was himself in the front ranks leading the army like Khalid. Soon fierce clashes broke out at Hazir. The battle was still in its early stages when Menas was killed. 

As the news of his death spread among his men, the Roman soldiers went wild with fury and savagely attacked to avenge their leader's death. Khalid took a cavalry regiment and maneuvered from the side of one of the wings to attack the Roman army from the rear. Soon the entire Roman army was encircled and defeated.

Abu Ubaidah soon joined Khalid at Chalcis, which surrendered some time in June. With this strategic victory, the territory north of Chalcis lay open to the Muslims.

Aleppo’s Citadel
Aleppo The "Jewel of Syria"
The Citadel is a focal point of the entire city, it was a fortress used to protect the city and all of it’s inhabitants. The design of the walls allowed archers to fire their arrows down into any mass of troops.


Siege of Aleppo  (August–October 637)

The Muslims marched northward deeper into Syria. After taking many small and large cities, both Abu Ubaidah and Khalid met and marched to Aleppo. 

There a strong garrison under a Roman general named Joachim held the fort. Aleppo consisted of a large walled city and a smaller but virtually impregnable fort outside the city atop a hill, a little more than a quarter of a mile across, surrounded by a wide moat.

Rather than stay inside this powerful fortress the Roman commander Joachim, met the Muslim army in the open outside the fort. He was defeated and hastily retreated back inside. He boldly launched many sallies to break the siege but failed every time. Joachim received no signs of any help from the Emperor Heraclius (who could indeed send none). Consequently, around October 637, the Romans surrendered on terms according to which the soldiers of the garrison were allowed to depart in peace.

In an unusual move Joachim converted to Islam. He would prove himself a remarkably able and loyal officer to the caliphate and would fight gallantly under various Muslim generals.

Click to Enlarge
A beautiful reconstruction of Roman Antioch

Antioch was the center of the Seleucid kingdom until 64 BC, when it was annexed by Rome and was made the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It became the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance (after Rome and Alexandria) and possessed magnificent temples, theatres, aqueducts, and baths.


Battle of the Iron Bridge  (October 637)

Before marching towards the great city of Antioch, Khalid and Abu Ubaidah decided to isolate the city from Anatolia. They accordingly sent detachments north to eliminate all possible Roman forces and captured the garrison town of Azaz, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

The capture and clearance of Azaz was essential to ensure that no large Roman forces remained north of Aleppo, from where they could strike at the flank and rear of the Muslim army during the operation against Antioch.

After Azaz the Muslims moved on Antioch. The resulting battle took place about 12 miles from the city. Its name came from a nearby nine-arch stone bridge spanning the Orontes River which had gates trimmed with iron.

Again, we have ZERO real information on events so the claims of troop levels for both sides is largely a fantasy.

The Muslims are said to have had 17,000 troops. Who knows? The Romans perhaps 20,000. Again who knows? Certainly Roman troops from captured cities were allowed to leave. It is logical that most of them would end up in Antioch to bolster defenses.

Why did the Romans fight a major battle outside the city walls?  

At best this was an act of total and complete stupidity. These troops should have manned the the city walls which were partly protected by the Orontes River.

Khalid played a prominent role with his Mobile guard. The Roman forces suffered heavy losses and were defeated. The claim is that Roman casualties in this battle were the third highest in the Muslim conquest of Syria, only exceeded by the battles of Ajnadayn and the 2nd Yarmouk. The remnants of the defeated Roman force fled to Antioch. 

The Muslim army later moved up and laid siege to Antioch. The city surrendered almost at once on 30 October, 637. According to the pact the defeated Roman soldiers were again allowed to depart in peace.

Late Roman Reenactors


A Major Roman Counter Attack  (638)

Here is where historians are driven insane. Literally mountains of books have been written about Gettysburg and D-Day, but we have as close to ZERO information as possible about about operations in northern Syria.

I will have to speculate.

Emperor Heraclius must have been super angry at his idiot general surrendering Antioch in spite of him having a fairly large Roman Army at his disposal. So I assume the Emperor planned this double attack on the Muslims on two different fronts - one attack the coast and another attack inland.


One was a Roman Amphibious Attack to recapture Antioch.  We see the Roman Navy landing an army on the coast in the Spring of 638 and march the 20 miles inland to take Antioch. 

The cleverness and power of this attack cannot be overstated. The navy landed what must have been a large Roman Army behind enemy lines to attack a major walled fortress. That means this was not just a raid. The army had to be large enough to not only defend itself but to attack and capture a large enemy held city. 

The navy might have consisted of several hundred troop transport and and supply ships bringing everything from soldiers, horses, weapons, food etc. The number of troops is only a guess. Certainly no less than 5,000 men and perhaps more. The mix of cavalry and infantry is unknown.

An enemy held city would not surrender to a small force. So this army had to be on the larger side.

The details are lost to us. It appears no meaningful battle was fought. The Muslims abandoned Antioch. The Romans walked into the city and restored their government.

In support of the coastal attack on Antioch we see Roman Christian Arab Allies attack the Muslims inland. The Christian Arabs assembled from Upper Mesopotamia and from Circesium and Hīt.

The Muslim commander Abu Ubaidah suddenly found himself between Christian Arabs moving toward Homs and a Roman army on the coast. 

Based on the actions of those involved the situation must have been serious. 

Abu Ubaidah withdrew all his forces from northern Syria to Emesa, and the Christians laid in a siege. In response the Caliph ordered 4,000 men to leave the active Persian war front and to march into Syria. Muslims attacked Hīt, which they found to be well fortified; thus, they left a fraction of the army to impose a siege on the city, while the rest went after Circesium. 

When the Christians received the news of the Muslim invasion of their homeland, they abandoned the siege and hastily withdrew there. At this point Khalid and his mobile guard came out of the fort and devastated their army by attacking them from the rear.

The Muslim column from the Persian front then moved north and "pacified" the Christian Upper Mesopotamian region ending Roman rule.

Seeing the defeat of their allies the Romans withdrew from Antioch. There are no reports of battles. I suspect the Romans simply boarded their ships and returned to the Taurus Mountains to bolster the defenses against Muslim invasion.

Reports are these operations ended by mid-summer. So the entire Roman campaign might have lasted 3 to 5 months.

The Middle East was now officially lost to the Empire.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed 
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.

.

k

Part IX - The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk


Click to Enlarge

Muslims Invade Roman Armenia
After the Roman collapse in Syria the Muslims push north taking the whole of Armenia up to Ararat and raided northern and central Anatolia.
.
 In 641 Emperor Constantine III decided to recapture Syria. A full-scale invasion was planned and a large force was sent to reconquer Syria. Muawiyah I, the governor of Syria, called for reinforcements and defeated the Roman army in Northern Syria.
.
In 645–646, Sufyan bin Mujib Al-Azdi managed to seize Tripoli and captured the last Roman stronghold on the Levantine coast.


(Great Arab Conquests)   (Muslim Conquest)


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Constantinople - Capital of the Roman Empire

 

Click images to enlarge to full screen


Constantinople - Capital of Western Civilization.

A friend emailed me some recreations of Constantinople off the internet. My favorite is the photo above. This one photo displays the glory of the Eastern Empire: the Hippodrome, the Great Palace and Hagia Sophia.

Many historians look down on Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. Many look down because they are snobs. Many others out of ignorance.

To compare you need to look at European life outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. For example, take Paris around the year 500 AD. It was an overgrown village of perhaps 20,000 mostly illiterate people basically living in their own filth.

In the same year of 500 AD Constantinople had a sophisticated urban population of about 500,000 people. The city was served by a strong government, a professional military, libraries, schools, hospitals, entertainment, aqueducts and more. It was also capital of a Roman Empire that stretched from North Africa to Persia to the Balkans.

Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Eastern Roman Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453).

In founding the new city the Emperor Constantine stimulated private building by promising householders gifts of land from the imperial estates in Asiana and Pontica and on 18 May 332 he announced that, as in Rome, free distributions of food would be made to the citizens. At the time, the amount is said to have been 80,000 rations a day, doled out from 117 distribution points around the city.

From the mid-5th century to the early 13th century, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.

These photos help us understand a vanished civilization.

Click images to enlarge to full screen



The Imperial University of Constantinople, sometimes known as the University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura, was an Eastern Roman educational institution that could trace its corporate origins to 425 AD, when it was founded by the Emperor Theodosius II.

The original school was founded in 425 by Emperor Theodosius II with 31 chairs for lawphilosophymedicinearithmeticgeometryastronomymusicrhetoric and other subjects, 15 to Latin and 16 to Greek. The university existed until the 15th century.

Eastern Roman society on the whole was an educated one. Primary education was widely available, sometimes even at village level and uniquely in that era for both sexes. Female participation in culture was high. Scholarship was fostered not only in Constantinople but also in institutions operated in such major cities as Antioch and Alexandria.


Click images to enlarge to full screen



The Imperial Library of Constantinople, in the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, was the last of the great libraries of the ancient world. Long after the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria and the other ancient libraries, it preserved the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans for almost 1,000 years.

The majority of Greek classics known today are known through copies originating from the Imperial Library of Constantinople. The library is estimated to have contained well over 100,000 volumes of ancient text.


Click on images to enlarge to full screen



Sir Steven Runciman, historian of the Crusades, wrote that the sack of Constantinople is "unparalleled in history".

For nine centuries, [...] the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen. The Venetians [...] seized treasures and carried them off to adorn [...] their town. But the Frenchmen and Flemings were filled with a lust for destruction. They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine-cellars [...] . Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In Hagia Sophia itself, drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the great silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank merrily from the altar-vessels a prostitute set herself on the Patriarch's throne and began to sing a ribald French song. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were entered and wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes [...] continued, till the huge and beautiful city was a shambles. [...] When [...] order was restored, [...] citizens were tortured to make them reveal the goods that they had contrived to hide.



Click images to enlarge to full screen




The Wondrous Waters of Constantinople

This computer recreation of Constantinople gives us a stunning visual of what the city looked like.

Click on the YouTube link to watch.


(Constantinople)


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Senate's Election of Emperor Justin

 

The Sword Behind The Throne


The threat of violence. The photo above of Commodus twirling his sword during a meeting of the Senate really says it all. The Senate has the right to vote - but only if it votes for the "correct" candidate or law.

It was no different with the Senate of Constantinople than the Senate in Rome.

At best the Senate's "election" of an Emperor was a fig leaf to hide from the people the naked power of the military selecting and perhaps controlling the next leader.

In this case the Emperor Anastasius died childless in Constantinople on 9 July 518. A new Emperor would have to be legally chosen or a violent civil war might happen.

"Magically" Justin, who had risen through the ranks of the army to become commander of the Imperial Guard, was selected as Emperor.

As a young man Justin joined the palace guard, the excubitors. He served in various positions, campaigning against the Isaurians and the Sassanian Persians and was noticed for his bravery. Because of his ability he was successively appointed a tribune, a comes, a senator and, under the Emperor Anastasius I, the influential position of comes excubitorum, commander of the palace guard.

Justin's approval by the Senate was not automatic. This implies a certain amount of power in the Senate and/or tradition requiring the support of that body.


The Election of Justin


History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,
1923

Anastasius had made no provision for a successor to the throne, and there was no Augusta to influence the election. Everything turned out in a way that no one could have foreseen. The most natural solution might have seemed to be the choice of one of the late Emperor's three nephews, Probus, Pompeius, or Hypatius. They were men of average ability, and one of them, at least, Pompeius, did not share his uncle's sympathy with the Monophysitic creed. But they were not ambitious, and perhaps their claims were not seriously urged.

The High Chamberlain Amantius hoped to play the part which Urbicius had played on the death of Zeno, and he attempted to secure the throne for a certain Theocritus, otherwise unknown, who had probably no qualification but personal devotion to himself. As the attitude of the Palace guards would probably decide the election, he gave money to Justin, the Count of the Excubitors, to bribe the troops.

In the morning (July 9) the people assembled in the Hippodrome and acclaimed the Senate. "Long live the Senate! Senate of the Romans, tu vincas! We demand our Emperor, given by God, for the army; we demand our Emperor, given by God, for the world!" The high officials, the senators, and   the Patriarch had gathered in the Palace, clad most of them in mouse-coloured garments, and sat in the great hall, the Triklinos of the Nineteen Akkubita. Celer, the Master of Offices, urged them to decide quickly on a name and to act promptly before others (the army or the people) could wrest the initiative from their hands. 

But they were unable to agree, and in the meantime the Excubitors and the Scholarians   were acting in the Hippodrome. The Excubitors proclaimed John, a tribune and a friend of Justin, and raised him on a shield. But the Blues would not have him; they threw stones and some of them were killed by the Excubitors. Then the Scholarians put forward an unnamed patrician and Master of Soldiers, but the Excubitors would not accept him and he was in danger of his life. He was rescued by the efforts of Justin's nephew, the candidatus Justinian. The Excubitors then wished to proclaim Justinian himself, but he refused to accept the diadem. As each of these persons was proposed, their advocates knocked at the Ivory Gate, which communicated between the Palace and the Hippodrome, and called upon the chamberlains to deliver the Imperial robes. But on the announcement of the name, the chamberlains refused.


At length, the Senate ended their deliberations by the election of Justin, and constrained him to accept the purple. He appeared in the Kathisma of the Hippodrome and was favourably received by the people; the Scholarians alone, jealous of the Excubitors, resented the choice. The coronation rite was immediately performed in the Kathisma. Arrayed in the Imperial robes, which the chamberlains at last delivered, he was crowned by the Patriarch John; he took the lance and shield, and was acclaimed Basileus by the assembly. 

To the troops he promised a donation of five nomismata (£3: 7: 6) and one pound of silver for each man.

Such is the official description of the circumstances of the election of Justin. If it is true so far as it goes, it is easy to see that there was much behind that has been suppressed. The intrigue of Amantius is ignored. Not a word is said of the candidature of Theocritus which Justin had undertaken to support. 

If Justin had really used his influence with the   Excubitors and the money which had been entrusted to him in the interest of Theocritus, it is hardly credible that the name of Theocritus would not have been proposed in the Hippodrome. If, on the other hand, he had worked in his own interest, as was naturally alleged after the event, how was it that other names, but not his, were put forward by the Excubitors? 

The data seem to point to the conclusion that the whole mise en scène was elaborately planned by Justin and his friends. They knew that he could not count on the support of the Scholarians, and, if he were proclaimed by his own troops alone, the success of his cause would be doubtful. The problem therefore was to manage that the initiation should proceed from the Senate, whose authority, supported by the Excubitors, would rally general consent and overpower the resistance of the Scholarian guards. It was therefore arranged that the Excubitors should propose candidates who had no chance of being chosen, with the design of working on the fears of the Senate. 

The ultimate power behind all thrones

Justin's friends in the Senate could argue with force: "Hasten to agree, or you will be forestalled, and some wholly unsuitable person will be thrust upon us. But you must choose one who will be acceptable to the Excubitors. Justin fulfils this condition. He may not be an ideal candidate for the throne, but he is old and moderate." But, however the affair may have been managed by the wirepullers, Justin ascended the throne with the prestige of having been regularly nominated by the Senate, and he could announce to the Pope that "We have been elected to the Empire by the favour of the indivisible Trinity, by the choice of the highest ministers of the sacred Palace, and of the Senate, and finally by the election of the army."

The new Emperor, who was about sixty-six years of age, was an Illyrian peasant. He was born in the village of Bederiana in the province of Dardania, not far from Scupi, of which the name survives in the town of Üsküb, and his native language was Latin. Like hundreds of other country youths, he set forth   with a bag of bread on his back and walked to Constantinople to better his fortune by enlisting in the army. Two friends accompanied him, and all three, recommended by their physical qualities, were enrolled in the Palace guards. 

Justin served in the Isaurian and Persian wars of Anastasius, rose to be Count of the Excubitors, distinguished himself in the repulse of Vitalian, and received senatorial rank. He had no qualifications for the government of a province, not to say of an Empire; for he had no knowledge except of military matters, and he was uneducated. It is even said that he could not write and was obliged, like Theoderic the Ostrogoth, to use a mechanical device for signing documents.

He had married a captive whom he had purchased and who was at first his concubine. Her name was Lupicina, but she was crowned Augusta under the more decorous name of Euphemia. In his successful career the peasant of Bederiana had not forgotten his humble relatives or his native place. His sister, wife of Sabbatius, lived at the neighbouring village of Tauresium and had two children, Petrus Sabbatius and Vigilantia. He adopted his elder nephew, brought him to Constantinople, and took care that he enjoyed the advantages of an excellent education. The young man discarded the un-Roman names of Peter and Sabbatius and was known by the adoptive name of Justinianus. He was enrolled among the candidati. Justin had other nephews and seems to have cared also for their fortunes. They were liberally educated and were destined to  play parts of varying distinction and importance on the political scene.

The first care of Justin was to remove the disaffected; Amantius and Theocritus were executed, and three others were punished by death or exile. His next was to call to Constantinople the influential leader who had shaken the throne of Anastasius. Before he came to the city, Vitalian must have been assured of the religious orthodoxy of the new Emperor, and he came prepared to take part in the reconciliation of Rome with the Eastern Churches. He was immediately created Master of Soldiers in praesenti, and in A.D. 520 he was consul for the year. The throne of Justin seemed to be firmly established. The relatives of Anastasius were loyal; Pompeius co-operated with Justinian and Vitalian in the restoration of ecclesiastical unity. Marinus, the trusted counseller of the late sovran, was Praetorian Prefect of the East in A.D. 519.

In the spring of A.D. 527 Justin was stricken down by a dangerous illness, and he yielded to the solicitations of the Senate to co-opt Justinian as his colleague. The act of coronation was performed in the great Triklinos in the Palace (on April 4), and it seems that the Patriarch, in the absence of the Emperor, placed the diadem on the head of the new Augustus. The subsequent ceremonies were carried out in the Delphax, where the Imperial guards were assembled, and not, as was usual, in the Hippodrome. Justin recovered, but only to survive for a few months. He died on August 1, from an ulcer in the foot where, in one of his old campaigns, he had been wounded by an arrow.

The gold Solidus of Emperor Justin I


(J.B. Bury)    (Justin I)