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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Byzantine Spain

Spania at its greatest extent, with cities indicated and lost territory.
Click for enlarged map of Byzantine Spain.

Byzantine Province of Spania (552 to 624 AD)

Roman rule over Spain ended in 400 AD with the endless barbarian invasions.  The re-conquest of Spain by the Eastern Empire was almost an accident.

The Emperor Justinian had re-conquered North Africa in 534 and was still fighting the long re-conquest of Italy 535 to 554.

It is impossible to say whether Justinian in the early years of his reign had formed any definite plan for re-conquering Spain, but we may be sure that it was one of his ambitions.  But before he had completed the subjugation of the Ostrogoths he was invited to intervene in Spain, and, although the issue of the Italian war was still far from certain, he did not hesitate to take advantage of the occasion.

Emperor Justinian

In a nasty dynastic civil war the Visigoth King Athanagild sought the support of the Emperor Justinian, and the Emperor sent a fleet to the southern coasts of Spain. The commander of this expedition was the octogenarian patrician Liberius.

Liberius was campaigning in Sicily.  He appears not to have returned to Constantinople till late in A.D. 551, it is probable that he received commands to sail directly to Spain with the troops who had accompanied him to Sicily, in A.D. 550, for the date of his expedition cannot have been later than in this year. As the armament must have been small, it achieved a remarkable success. Many maritime cities and forts were captured.

The cities were captured professedly in the interests of Athanagild, but when Athanagild's cause had triumphed, the Imperialists refused to hand them over and the Visigoths were unable to expel them. Athanagild recovered a few places, but Liberius had established an Imperial province in Baetica which was to remain under the rule of Constantinople for about seventy years. There can be no doubt that this change of government was welcomed by the Spanish-Roman population.

Byzantine government in Spania

We have very few details as to the extent of this Spanish province. It comprised districts and towns to the west as well as to the east of the Straits of Gades; it included the cities of New Carthage, Corduba, and Assionia; we do not know whether at any time it included Hispalis.

It was placed under a military governor who had the rank of Master of Soldiers (Magister militum), but we do not know whether he was independent or subordinate to the governor of Africa.

Byzantine settlement of Son Pereto (Mallorca, Spain)

Typically the magister was a member of the highest aristocratic class and bore the rank of patrician. The office, though it only appears in records for the first time in 589, was probably a creation of Justinian, as was the mint, which issued provincial currency until the end of the province.

Enough Roman troops, backed by the Roman fleet, would have been stationed in the province to prevent any re-conquest by the Visigoths.  But there are no records remaining about the local fortifications or the size and make up of the force.

The province of Spania was predominantly Latin Christian.  Some of the Byzantine governors were the same, though some were Eastern Christians.  Despite this, the relationship between subject and ruler and between church and state seems to have been no better than in Arian Visigothic Spain.

The Byzantine Balearic Islands of Spania

The Early Christian and Byzantine settlement of Son Peretó, located in the eastern part of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.

Son Peretó is one of the most important sites for the period on the islands and a notable example of Early Christian architecture. Archaeologists have already uncovered a basilica, a baptistery with two baptismal basins and two sectors of adjacent rooms used for housing and funeral rites.

The current project, managed by the Manacor Historical Museum and the University of Barcelona, began in 2005, and since then they have aimed to preserve and restore the remains uncovered during the 20th-century excavations, especially standing structures such as the foundations of several walls and untouched graves. So far the graves uncovered have been found in excellent condition.

Byzantine settlement of Son Peretó, one of the most western outposts of the Byzantine Empire and dating to the 6th century.

Several of the existing archaeological sites on the Balearic Islands dating from the Byzantine era suggest a military use. In the forum of Pollentia, archaeologists discovered that the Byzantines used pre-existing structures such as the Capitoline Temple to build a fortification at the highest point of the city. Likewise, at Can Pins on the nearby island of Formentera, archaeologists uncovered a square fort with towers at each corner, a characteristic that has led scholars to compare it to the Byzantine strongholds in North Africa. But while the architecture suggests proximity to Northern Africa, the mosaics found at Son Peretó display artistic styles closer to the traditional schools in Constantinople.

Religion played an important role as well. The Byzantine churches on the islands thus far studied and excavated include Son Bou (Alaior), Cap des Port (Fornells), Fornàs de Torelló (Maó), and Illa del Rei (Maó) in Menorca; and Cas Frares (Santa Maria des Camí), Son Fradinet (Campos), and Son Peretó in Mallorca. The study of these basilicas and excavation work has led archaeologists to two arguments: that these rural parishes acted as gathering points for dispersed communities, or that they were established to stamp out the remaining pockets of Paganism and replace it with Christianity.

Spania in 586 after the conquests of Leovigild (with dates of conquest on map).

The re-conquest by the Visigoths

The Byzantines were unable to push their offensive forward deeper into Spain and the Visigoths made some successful pushes back.  Around 570, the Visigoth King Leovigild ravaged Bastetania (Bastitania or Bastania, the region of Baza) and took Medina Sidonia through the treachery of an insider named Framidaneus (possibly a Goth).  He may have taken Baza and he certainly raided into the environs of Málaga, defeating a relief army sent from there.

He took many cities and fortresses in the Guadalquivir valley and defeated a large army of rustici (rustics), according to John of Biclarum, who may have been referring to an army of bandits called Bagaudae who had established themselves in the disputed buffer zone between Gothic and Roman control.  In 577 in Orospeda, a region under Byzantine control, Leovigild defeated more rustici rebellantes, probably Bagaudae.

After two seasons of campaigning against the Romans, however, Leovigild concentrated his military efforts elsewhere.  If he was meeting with military success he would have continued.  We might assume that he met stronger Byzantine resistence.

During the rule of Recared I (reigned 586–601) the Byzantines again took the offensive and probably even regained or gained ground.  Recared recognized the legitimacy of the Byzantine frontier and wrote to Pope Gregory requesting a copy be sent from the Emperor Maurice.  Gregory simply replied that the text of the treaty had been lost in a fire during Justinian's reign and warned Recared that he would not want it found because it would have probably granted the Byzantines more territory than they actually then possessed (August 599).  Leovigild's gains against the Roman government were greater than the Roman re-conquests of Recared's reign.

Beginning of the End 

In 602 AD events taking place far in the eastern part of the Empire sealed the fate of  the province of Spania.

The Roman army on the Danube under Phocas revolted against Emperor Maurice and marched on Constantinople.  The Emperor abdicated and fled the city.  The "Green" faction in Constantinople acclaimed Phocas as Emperor.  He was crowned in the Church of St. John the Baptist and his wife Leontia was invested with the rank of Augusta.

Phocas headed a military coup
that made himself Emperor but
thrust the Empire into anarchy.
Maurice was dragged from his monastic sanctuary at Chalcedon, and killed along with his five sons. It is said that he had to watch as his sons were executed in front of his eyes. The bodies were thrown in the sea and the heads of all were exhibited in Constantinople.

Almost at once the Empire was invaded by Persia from the east and the Slavs in the Balkans.  The nation fell into anarchy with Persia conquering Syria, Anatolia, Egypt and the Slavs roaming the Balkans.

The Persian War lasted from 602 until 628.  The Empire was nearly destroyed.  The outer provinces were pretty much on their own.  Though there is no information about troop redeployments it is very possible that the Emperor recalled some troops from Spania to help in other provinces.

It was at this point that the Visigoths renewed their attacks on the Roman cities.

They captured the small town of Gisgonza.  King Gundemar campaigned against Spania in 611, but to no effect. The next king, Sisebut, more than any king before him became the scourge of the Byzantines in Spain. In 614 and 615, he carried out two massive expeditions against them and conquered Málaga before 619.   He conquered as far as the Mediterranean coast and razed many cities to the ground, enough even to catch the attention of the Frankish chronicler Fredegar:
"King Sisbodus took many cities from the Roman Empire along the coast, destroying them and reducing them to rubble."
Sisebut probably also razed Cartagena, which was so completely desolated that it never reappeared in Visigothic Spain. Because the Goths were unable to undertake decent sieges, they were forced to reduce the defenses of all fortified places they took in order to prevent later armies from using them against them. Because Cartagena was destroyed but Málaga was spared, it has been inferred that the former fell first while the Byzantine presence was still large enough to constitute a threat. Málaga fell some time after when the Byzantines were so reduced as to no longer form a danger to Visigothic hegemony over the whole peninsula.

In 621, the Byzantines still held a few towns, but Suinthila recovered them shortly.  By 624 the entire province of Spania was in Visigothic hands save the Balearic Islands which remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab invasions.

(Byzantine Son Pereto)

J. B. Bury: History of the Later Roman Empire (1889)

(Byzantine Spain)

The Roman Empire at its' peak under Justinian including the conquest of southern Spain.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Byzantine–Genoese War

Genoese Dromone 11th Century

Byzantine–Genoese War (1348–1349)


The Byzantines were desperately trying to rebuild the Empire after having been gang raped by their fellow Christians in the Fourth Crusade.  They were still being pressed on all sides by Bulgaria, Serbia, Venice, Genoa and the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The devastation of the Byzantine 1341–1347 civil war so greatly weakened the Empire that its financial reserves were irrevocably depleted.

To regain control over their finances and their fate the Byzantine's only recourse was to break their dependence for food and maritime commerce on the Genoese merchants of Galata.  The Byzantines made an attempt to take control of the custom duties and tariffs of the trade route through the Bosphorus and rebuild their naval power.

Galata Tower in the Genoese colony.

Constantinople was the Imperial seat of power and was the cultural and military center of the state. But only thirteen percent of custom dues passing through the strait were going to the Empire. The remaining 87 percent was collected by the Genoese from their colony of Galata.  Genoa collected 200,000 hyperpyra from annual custom revenues from Galata, while Constantinople collected a mere 30,000.

The 1348-49 war was the last attempt for the Byzantines to retake control single-handedly.

The Battle

The Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos lowered Constantinople's duties and most tariffs to undercut the Genoese in Galata.  With the treasury empty, the Emperor had raised 50,000 hyperpyra from private sources for a shipbuilding program. When the tariffs and custom duties were finally lowered, merchant shipping coming through the strait bypassed Genoese Galata and diverted their ships across the Golden Horn to Byzantine Constantinople.

This was a direct attack on the income of the Genoese merchant colony of Galata and war was declared in 1348.  The Genoese sailed their navy to Constantinople in 1349 and destroyed the Byzantine fleet.  The Byzantines retaliated by burning wharfs and warehouses along the shore and catapulted stones and burning bales of hay into Galata, setting major parts of the city on fire.

Peace Treaty

After weeks of fighting the representatives of Genoa negotiated a peace agreement.

The Genoese agreed to pay a war indemnity of 100,000 hyperpyra and evacuated the land behind Galata which they illegally occupied; finally they promised never to attack Constantinople. In return the Byzantine surrendered nothing, however the Genoese custom duties remain in effect.

The war was a total loss for the Byzantines.  A one-time peace payment to the Emperor by Genoa was meaningless.  The permanent yearly income from tariffs and custom duties remained in the hands of Genoa.

With almost no financial resources available to them to support a military, Byzantium began its' death spiral ending with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Battle of Solachon - Romans vs. Persians

Heavy Armored Persian Sassanian Cavalry.  The Battle of Solachon appears to
have been mostly a cavalry fight.

Battle of Solachon 586 AD

Roman – Persian War of 572–591

The wars between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia had gone on and on for centuries.  Each side looking to gain territory or military advantage over the other.  The latest war was triggered by pro-Roman revolts in areas of the Caucasus under Persian hegemony, although other events contributed to its outbreak.

The fighting was largely confined to the southern Caucasus and Mesopotamia, although it also extended into eastern Anatolia, Syria and northern Iran.

This was also the last of the many wars between the Romans and Persians to follow a pattern in which fighting was largely confined to frontier provinces where neither side achieved any lasting occupation of enemy territory beyond this border zone.  It preceded the much more wide-ranging and dramatic final Persian-Roman War in the early 7th century.

Video  -  Sassanian Persian Cavalry

The Opposing Forces

The backbone of the Persian spah was its heavy cavalry "in which all the nobles and men of rank" underwent "hard service" and became professional soldiers "through military training and discipline, through constant exercise in warfare and military maneuvers".  From the third century the Romans also formed units of heavy cavalry of the Oriental type; they called such horsemen clibanarii "mailclad [riders]", a term thought to have derived from an Iranian *griwbanar < *griwbanwar < *griva-pana-bara "neck-guard wearer". The heavy cavalry of Shapur II is described by an eye-witness historian as follows:

"all the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath. Of these some who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze".

According to the Iranian sources, the martial equipments of a heavily-armed Sassanian horseman were as follows: helmet, hauberk (Pahlavi griwban), breastplate, mail, gauntlet (Pahlavi abdast), girdle, thigh-guards (Pahlavi ran-ban), lance, sword, battle-axe, mace, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, two extra bowstrings, spear, and horse armor (zen-abzar); to these some have added a lasso (kamand), or a sling with slingstones.

The most important Byzantine treatise on the art of war, the Strategicon, also written at this period, requires the same equipments from a heavily-armed horseman. This was due to the gradual orientalisation of the Roman army to the extent that in the sixth century "the military usages of the Romans and the Persians become more and more assimilated, so that the armies of Justinian and Khosrow are already very much like each other;" and, indeed, the military literatures of the two sides show strong affinities and interrelations.

The Byzantine cavalrymen and their horses were superbly trained and capable of performing complex maneuvers. While a proportion of the Cataphracts (Kataphractos or Clibanophori) appear to have been lancers or archers only, most had bows and lances. Their main tactical units were the Numerus (Also called at times Arithmos or Banda) of 300-400 men. The equivalent to the old Roman Cohort or the modern Battalion, the Numeri were usually formed in lines 8 to 10 ranks deep, making them almost a mounted Phalanx. The Byzantines recognized that this formation was less flexible for cavalry than infantry but found the trade off to be acceptable in exchange for the greater physical and psychological advantages offered by depth.

Eastern Roman Armored Cavalry.

The Battle

The Roman-Persian War had already been going on for some fourteen years by the time of this battle.

The Roman forces were commanded by Philippicus the  comes excubitorum (Commander of the Excubitors, the imperial bodyguard).  In 584, he replaced John Mystacon as magister militum for the East, becoming  responsible for the conduct of the ongoing war against the Persians

He was also the son-in-law of Paul, the head of the Byzantine Senate who in turn was father of the Emperor Maurice.

To intercept the anticipated Persian invasion Philippicus positioned the Roman Army in Byzantine Mesopotamia south of the city of Dara in what is now Northern Syria and Turkey.

Philippicus placed his forces at Solachon, a central point that controlled different roads on the plains of Mesopotamia.  But even more important in desert fighting, the Romans controlled the available water supply of the Arzamon River.

The Persian general Kardarigan brought his troops over the desert and away from his supply lines.  Because the Romans controled the water supply he was forced to pack in water on a caravan of camels.

Kardarigan tried to sneak up on the Romans and attack them on their Sunday day of rest.  But Byzantine Arab foederati detected the movements of the Persians and captured a few of Kardarigan's men.  With this advance warning Philippicus had his troops in battle order waiting for the Persians.

The Roman troops were on elevated ground facing the Persians with their left flank anchored on the foothills of  Mount Izalas.  The Romans were in three divisions.

LEFT  -  Commanded by Eiliphredas, the dux of Phoenice Libanensis, and included a Hunnic contingent of horse-archers under Apsich.

CENTER  -  Commanded by the general Heraclius the Elder, later Exarch of Africa and father of Emperor Heraclius.

RIGHT  -  Commanded by the taxiarchos Vitalius.

The Persian right division was under Mebodes, the center under Kardarigan himself, and the left wing under Kardarigan's nephew, Aphraates. Unlike the Persian general, Philippicus remained with a small force at some distance behind the main battle line, from where he could direct the battle.

Both armies appear to have been composed exclusively of cavalry, composed of a mix of lancers and horse-archers.  Though considered a major battle troop numbers are not available.

Persian Cavalry.

To encourage their forces the Romans raised a holy flag with a picture of Christ while the Persian commander destroyed his water supplies to create a "win or die" attitude.

Both armies advanced toward each other shooting arrows as they came.  On the right flank the Roman cavalry under Vitalius smashed through the line forcing the Persians to the left and behind their own troops in the center.  At this point many of the Romans broke formation and headed towards the Persian camp in the rear area intending on looting the baggage.

Philippicus reacted quickly to this potential for disorganization and disaster.  He gave his distinctive helmet to Theodore Ilibinus, his spear-bearer, ordering him to ride among the troops and threaten punishment if they did not come to order.  It worked.  The men thought their commander was at their side and formed back up into the units.  They had reformed not a moment too soon.  The Persian center had regrouped and was pushing back at the Roman right.

Philippicus was facing a very large mass of Persians from their center and left wing.  He ordered his Roman cavalry in the center to dismount and form a shield-wall with their lances projecting from it (the fulcum tactic).  It is not clear what happened next, but apparently the Roman archers shot at the Persians' horses, breaking their momentum.

At this point the Roman left wing cavalry charged and broke the Persians forcing them to the rear in disarray.  Soon the Persian right broke completely and fled the battlefield toward the city of Dara.

The wings of the Persian army had by now disintegrated. The Roman right and center concentrated their efforts on the still standing Persian center.  The battle in the center raged hotly for a long time.  But outnumbered and attacked from several sides the Persians finally broke and fled.

The Persians suffered horribly.  First from the Byzantine pursuit and then from thirst.  Before the battle Kardarigan had destroyed the Persian water supply.  Now his men were trying to escape over the deserts of Mesopotamia with no water.  Persian survivors from the desert were refused entry into Dara.  Many died of thirst while others died from drinking too much water once they found it.

General Kardarigan with some of his troops found refuge on a nearby hilltop.  Cut off from food and water Kardarigan stood off Byzantine attacks for three or four days.  Finally the Byzantines abandoned the attacks not knowing it was the enemy commander.  He escaped but the 7th century historian Theophylact Simocatta says he suffered another one thousand casualties from the attacks on the hill and Byzantine patrols.


Solachon was an important victory for the Romans and strengthened and stabilized the front.  But it was not a decisive victory.  Both empires were too vast in size and their military power too great for one battle to end the war.

The war continued on for another five years.  It would only end in 591 after a long Persian civil war and a Roman invasion into what is now modern Iran.

Final phase of the Battle of Solachon.  The Roman cavalry in the center (B) dismounts and forms a shield-wall to break the charge of the Persian cavalry.  The Roman left then charges and breaks the Persian right which flees the battlefield.
Click link for enlarged map.

The Roman - Persian Frontier about 565 AD with Byzantine military themes.
Click link for enlarged map.

Source - History of the Later Roman Empire. J.B. Bury (1889)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Sack of Damietta, Egypt

A Byzantine Dromon. 
The Arab and Byzantine navies battled for centuries across the entire Mediterranean Sea. 

The Sack of Damietta, Egypt  -  853 AD

The Arab and Byzantine navies battled for centuries across the entire Mediterranean Sea.  There were an endless series of naval battles, invasions, raids and counter raids from the Balearic Islands to Carthage to Sicily to Egypt and Syria. 

To a large degree the battles saw a slow advance of Islam and Arab forces.  Muslim states were established in Italy, Crete and Cypress.  On the other hand, the Roman navy and army often not only held their ground but administered sound defeats on the Muslims both at sea and on land. 

Even after many losses to the Arabs, for hundreds of years the Romans kept bouncing back, holding their ground and acted as the shield of Europe against Islamic invasion.


In the early 800s the Byzantines has suffered two major defeats.  By 827 the island of Crete had fallen to Islamic invaders and was now acting as a base for Arab raids into the Empire.  There were multiple unsuccessful attempts by the Byzantines to re-take the island.

From 827 and for more than 70 years the Byzantines were fighting tooth an nail against the Islamic invasion of Sicily.  That campaign went on and on for decades in an endless tug of war between Roman and Spanish Muslim and African Muslim troops.  

The Empress Theodora organized
the Roman navy and army in multi-front
wars against the Arabs, including the
sack of Damietta.

These losses ushered an era where Muslim naval forces raided the Christian northern shores of the Mediterranean almost at will.


The Roman Empress Theodora was ruling the Empire as regent for her minor son Michael III.  She ran the government with a firm and judicious hand.  She replenished the treasury, deterred the Bulgarians from an attempt at invasion and directed military operations against the Arabs on multiple fronts.

In the continuing war with the Arabs, Theodora ordered the building of a new Roman fleet numbering 300 ships.  The new naval force was divided into three individual fleets.  Two of the fleets may have operated off the coast of Syria or in the Aegean against the Arabs.

A third fleet of 85 vessels and 5,000 troops was sent on a raid to the port of Damietta on the Egyptian coast.

One must assume that the Romans had good intelligence services available to them.  Damietta was a major arms supplier to the Muslim forces on Crete which the Romans had been fighting hard to re-capture.  Also the Arab governor Anbas had invited the city garrison of Damietta to attend a festival in the far away inland city of Fustat at the exact moment the Roman fleet arrived. 

I doubt it was an accident that the Romans attacked at the very moment that the garrison was gone.  It would be common knowledge that a festival would be held.

On May 22, 853 the Roman invasion fleet arrived.  The people fled the undefended city.  For two days the Romans sacked, plundered and finally torched the city.  A large quantity of arms and supplies were captured that the Arabs were sending to Crete and 600 Coptic Christian and Arab women were taken back to the ships.

The fleet then sailed eastward down the coast to the island of Tinnis.  Fearing sandbanks the fleet moved on to the fortress of Ushtum.  The fortress was strongly walled with iron gates.  The Romans did not want to engage in a major siege operation so far into enemy territory.  So they destroyed what war engines they found outside the city walls and then sailed for home.

The raid was a major victory for the Romans.  They had taken the fight deep into enemy territory and had captured or destroyed military supplies that would have been used against them.  The Arabs would now have to consider protecting their coastal cities in any future operations against Byzantium.

The Arab Abbasid Caliphate

Map of Eastern Roman and Arab naval battles, raids and invasions.
 Click on this link for full sized map. 

Source - Bury, John Bagnell (1912). A History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I (A.D. 802–867).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Arab Sack of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki - the second most important city in the 10th century Eastern Roman Empire.  In 904AD the city was caught by surprise by an Arab naval force out of Syria.  The city was sacked and up to 20,000 citizens were sold into slavery by the Muslims.

The Arab Sack of Thessaloniki in 904AD

For centuries the Roman Empire had suffered from what I call Rural-ization.  This is the exact opposite of urbanization where you see the growth of cities, trade, money, jobs and wealth.
Under Rural-ization every time there was an invasion of outsiders the Empire would grow just a little bit weaker and a bit more rural.  A city would be sacked.  A farm district laid waste and the citizens hauled off into slavery.  Any rebuilding would never quite bring things back to the level they were at pre-invasion.  The population would decline, cities shrank, the economy would atrophy and income to the state treasury contract.

The Sack of Thessaloniki in 904 by Saracen pirates was one of the worst disasters to befall the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century.

An Arab fleet sailing from Syria was led by the Christian turned Muslim renegade Leo of Tripoli.  The imperial capital of Constantinople was its initial target. The Muslims were deterred from attacking Constantinople perhaps by an alert Byzantine navy.  Leo then turned to Thessalonica, totally surprising the Byzantines, whose navy was unable to react in time.

The city walls, especially towards the sea, were in disrepair, while the city's two commanders issued conflicting orders. After a short siege, the Saracens were able to storm the seaward walls, overcome the Thessalonians' resistance and take the city on 29 July. 

The sacking continued for a full week, before the raiders departed for their bases in the Levant.  Leo also freed 4,000 Muslim prisoners while capturing 60 ships.

Many of the captives, including John Kaminiates, who chronicled the sack, were ransomed by the Empire and exchanged for Muslim captives.

The Saracens of Crete co-operated closely with their Syrian counterparts, who often used Crete as a base or a stop-over.  Leo of Tripoli made a stop in Crete when his fleet returned from Thessalonica.  Many of the over 20,000 Thessalonian captives were sold or gifted as slaves in Crete. 

A Saracen fleet used to invade Crete.  The Saracens of Crete co-operated closely with their Syrian counterparts, who often used Crete as a base or a stop-over as during Leo of Tripoli's fleet return from Thessalonica.

John Kaminiates  -  A personal account of the battle and sack

The following account of the short siege comes from John Kaminiates, who was captured and taken as a prisoner with his father and brothers. He wrote a letter to Gregory of Kappadokia while he was in captivity, concluding it around the end of September 905.

Prior to this section, John Kaminiates gives a detailed description of Thessaloniki and its defenses, then reveals that information has come to the city that a naval force under Leo of Tripoli (numbered at fifty-four large galleys by other sources) has turned away from an attack on Constantinople and is headed to his city.

The letter of John Kaminiates

While we were thus exerting ourselves in vain, someone arrived with the news that the ships of the barbarians were already nearing the neck of land described as the ‘Jetty.’ This occurred at daybreak on Sunday the 29th of July in the six thousand four hundred and twelfth year of the Creation of the World (AD 904).

The report spread like wildfire through the city and there was turmoil, din and confusion on all sides, as people shouted out now one thing now another, trying to decide what to do about the immediate situation, and everybody armed himself as best he could and hastened to man the walls. And they were not yet properly deployed along the battlements, when the barbarian fleet appeared in view from the previously mentioned promontory, in full sail.

With the wind abetting them in the first moments of daylight, the enemy swooped down from close by. First of all, they lowered the sails, having positioned themselves alongside the wall, and began to take careful note of the layout of the city. They did not, in fact, offer battle as soon as they had dropped anchor but left some time in order to probe our strength and the extent of our preparedness and to equip themselves for combat.

They stood for a while filled with apprehension, unable to compare the spectacle that now confronted them with anything they had seen before: what they saw was a city of considerable dimensions with the entire course of its wall manned by great numbers of people. Consequently, they were even more dismayed and held back for a short time from giving battle. We, for our part, began to pluck up courage and in the short ensuing respite to restore our morale.

The Byzantine long walls of Thessaloniki.

On Leo of Tripoli

While we were in this situation, the leader of the barbarian forces decided to patrol the entire section of the wall that is washed by the sea. He was a sinister and thoroughly evil person, who flaunted a style of behavior singularly appropriate to the wild animal after which he was named and for whose ferocious ways and ungovernable temper he was more than a match. . . . (he loves nothing more than the) spilling of human blood and to love nothing better than the slaughter of Christians.

He too was once a Christian, was reborn in the saving grace of baptism and taught the precepts of our religion. But when he was taken prisoner by the barbarians, he embraced their impiety.

So Leo, this untamable beast, this felon, sailed around the wall gazing intently and searching out with studied malice a possible point from which to launch his attack. The other ships dropped anchor at a single point on the eastern shoreline and began to make their preparations.

The Attack on the City

Our citizens also donned their armor, manned the battlements and braced themselves for the ensuing contest.

But when that wild beast had surveyed the entire extent of the wall and had noticed that the entrance to the harbor was barred by an iron chain and obstructed by the sunken hulks of a number of ships, he decided to launch his attack just at those points which he perceived to be free of those blocks of stone which, lurking on the seabed where they had earlier been placed, impeded the access of his ships and where his fleet would not be under heavier fire from that part of the wall which had already been built up to some considerable height.

He chose a location, in fact, where a great depth of sea water beat against a particularly low stretch of wall, made a careful note of his position, and then, returning to his men, gave the signal for battle. They swooped down with their ships towards those points which had been described to them, letting out harsh and savage cries and rowing furiously in the direction of the wall. And banging on rawhide drums, they raised a fearful din, and they tried with many other kinds of bluff to frighten the defenders on the battlements.

But those who were manning the wall shouted back even louder and invoked the aid of the saving weapon of the cross against the enemy forces. And they did this to such an effect that the barbarians, at the sound of so many people uttering a cry more fearsome than any they had previously heard, were dazed for a while and did not expect to achieve anything. Estimating the numbers of the citizens from the loudness of their shouts, they concluded that it would be no easy matter to enter the fray against such odds and to sack so great a city, the like of which they had never seen.

Byzantine fortifications  -  the upper city walls

Assault on the Walls

Nevertheless, in order not to create the impression of having lost their nerve at the start of their offensive, they advanced neither fearlessly, nor with the rage which they later displayed, but with a certain blend of frenzy and fear, protecting themselves against their opponents by means of a barrage of missiles. Then their approach became more reckless and they strove to bring the fighting nearer, rousing themselves to fury like barking dogs and thoroughly enraged by the weapons that were hurled down at them from the wall. The citizens, in fact, were anything but remiss in their use of archery, and used it to great and conspicuous effect by stationing all the Sklavenes [a southern Slav peoples] gathered from the neighboring regions at those points from which it was easiest to shoot accurately and where there was nothing to deflect the momentum of their missiles.

But while both parties were shooting and being shot at, and neither side was gaining the upper hand, a detachment of barbarians, consisting no doubt of individuals bolder and more daring than the rest, leaped overboard. They took with them a wooden ladder, which they propelled through the water and with which they attempted to scale the wall, paying no heed to the weapons discharged against them from that quarter. In fact, they kept their bodies underwater until they got close up and swam in holding their shields over their heads. Once they got near, however, left without the protection afforded by the water and using their shields to cover their heads, they struggled manfully against a rain of missiles.

Then, rapidly drawing up the ladder against the rampart, they tried to scale the wall. But death forestalled their plan and before they could form a clear idea of how to carry out their scheme they lost their lives. No sooner, in fact, had their feet touched the rungs of the ladder than a volley of stones as thick as hail was unleashed against them, toppling them off and sending them headlong to a watery grave. Whereupon the ships all drew back quickly, not daring for the time being to venture anything further of the kind. They resorted, instead, to discharging from a distance a hail of missiles that darkened the air, but they too came equally under fire from well-aimed shafts that rarely missed their mark and from shot from the stone-throwing engines, the mere sound of which as it whistled through the air struck terror into the hearts of the barbarians.

Byzantine Infantry

A military manual written about 965 by Nikiphoros Phokas (Composition on Warfare)  goes into much detail about the optimal arms and armor for Roman troops of the time. When correctly read in the light of other source material and practical knowledge, it is an invaluable basis for reconstructing Roman arms and armor of the late tenth to twelfth centuries.

For the front line infantry the Composition on Warfare (I.3-4) describes a set of minimal equipment consisting of a turban over a thick felt cap and a coat (kavadion) made of coarse silk quilted with cotton wadding “as thick as can be stitched”. To avoid the encumbrance to movement that such a stiff, heavy garment would inflict, the arms are to pass out through openings in the armpits and the sleeves buttoned back to the shoulders. Leo's Taktika is more optimistic, implying that such troops might have mail or lamellar, helmets and other armor.

This man also wears padded leggings, kampotouva or touvia and the type of boot probably called mouzakia in one source.

These troops were to be armed with spears 4 to 5 metres long, “belt-hung swords” and either a mace or an axe. This variety of axe is called a tzikourion.

Later sources imply that something very like this remained in use to the late twelfth century, and probably beyond.

Osprey Publishing, Warrior Series volume Byzantine Infantryman: Eastern Roman Empire, c.900 - 1204, (2007).   (Levantia)

Speech to the Troops

Niketas, who has been mentioned before, the one who had been sent by the emperor, was hurrying up and down the entire length of the wall, encouraging the people in the following words: 

‘Men of Thessaloniki, I held a different opinion of you before this moment and would not have considered you to be so gallant and daring in action, since you had neither been put to the test nor had you proved yourselves in this sphere in the past. . . . . stand your ground courageously and endeavor to secure victory for your native city and for yourselves and do not turn and flee from the enemy, lest, having for the sake of one small moment of weakness placed yourselves in such terrible danger, you leave behind you a novel tale for posterity to tell.’

With these fighting words he encouraged the people and went the rounds, instilling no small degree of confidence into the hearts of all.

And the strategos [Leo Chitzilakes], as though oblivious of his own affliction, though it was grievous (resulting as it did from the fall that we related earlier) and unbearably painful, also went around, mounted on a mule, not sitting astride it but sidesaddle, to the extent that the pains in his shattered limbs permitted. He posted the more stalwart members of the imperial guard at certain vital points along the wall, so that for their part they might also spur on those near them to imitate their actions, and thus dispose them to battle.

The barbarians attacked not once but several times in the course of that day, but they suffered more casualties than before and withdrew. At a preconcerted signal they suspended operations at sea, retired with their ships and dropped anchor beside a stretch of coast to the east of the city. Then they disembarked and began to shoot at those who were positioned on the high section of wall where the so called ‘Rome Gate’ stands, close to the sea. They fought there until late into the night and then, apparently fatigued by their exertions, rested on board their ships; though perhaps they were exercising their minds how best to attack us on the following day and were intent on preparing a further series of treacherous and deceitful moves.

We were thrown into a further state of anxiety over the level of vigilance maintained by the troops manning the fortifications that ringed the city and the suspicious movements of the barbarians, movements which might be the prelude to a successful ambush carried out under cover of darkness that would allow them to penetrate our defences undetected and thus encompass our destruction. They are in fact extremely clever in this area, and once they have decided to act, they act decisively.  Accordingly, we stayed awake all that night.

11th century chronicle depicting a Byzantine siege.  Both Arabs and Byzantines used stone throwing weapons in the siege of Thessaloniki.   Traction trebuchets had a range of 100 to 200 feet (30 to 61 m) when casting weights up to 250 pounds  (110 kg).

Day Two of the Attack

But when daybreak came and announced the second day of fighting, the strategoi [Leo Chitzilakes and Niketas] once more went to great lengths to put us on our mettle and prepare us for action. As the sun’s rays spread daylight over the air, the barbarians disembarked and launched a further attack against the wall. They deployed, distributing themselves along certain points in battle formation. And concentrating their greatest numbers on the openings in the wall where the gates stood, they brought the full weight of their weapons to bear against us. Some used bows and arrows, others the handmade thunder of stones.

Others applied themselves to stone-throwing engines and sent giant hailstones of rock hurtling through the air. Death threatened us in many shapes, and since it came from all directions, it lent a further dimension of terror to the experience of those who happened to be nearby. Against the already-mentioned gate alone they placed seven stone-throwing engines heavily protected on all sides, which they had previously equipped specially for this purpose during their progress by way of Thasos.

In front of these they brought up wooden ladders, which they placed against the wall and tried to climb up, providing themselves with cover by means of a barrage of stones from the stone-throwing engines, whose relentless fire made it impossible for anyone to venture forth with impunity on to the wall. And already they had attached a ladder to the battlements of the outwork and their plan would have been realized, had not a heavenly power given certain daring men the strength to leap down on to the spot. They wounded the barbarians with their spears and sent them pitching backwards together with the ladder. When they saw that this strategem too had failed, they fled and even left the ladder behind.

We were so far emboldened as to mock them and to hurl missiles at them and stones from the stone-throwing engines even more eagerly than on the day before. And we no longer allowed them to get anywhere near the wall for even a short time, even though they were kindled to greater fury and sharpened their tusks like wild boars and would have torn us up alive with them, had it been possible.

How terrifying it was to hear them raving like maniacs against us! What towering fits of anger they displayed, when they gnashed their teeth furiously and their demonic nature was revealed by the way they continually foamed at the mouth! Nor would they take any food throughout the entire course of that day but were insatiable for battle in spite of the tremendous heat. Indeed they were not even vaguely aware of the fact that their own bodies were broken with fatigue and scorched by the sun which was beating down on their heads.

But since it was highly dangerous for them to approach the wall, they relied exclusively on missiles and on stone-throwing engines. Drawing themselves up in rows, they took their stand some distance away yet near enough for their shots to fall upon the city with undiminished force. Protecting themselves with their shields and throwing their entire being into the struggle, they stood like statues with bodies of bronze or some other hard material and displayed limitless qualities of endurance and a fighting spirit that defied description.

And in fact, when the sun was in its noonday course, when more than any other time of day it heats the air up like a furnace, they kindled their inborn fury with that last extreme of heat and goading their irrational frenzy still further with the stimulus of despair, they threw all their energies into a different (and particularly deadly) kind of siege.

There were four gates in the wall on the east side of the city. Two of these, the previously mentioned Rome Gate, and the so-called Kassandreiotic Gate, they planned to burn down. The idea was that, if they could penetrate the outwork when the outer gates were burnt down and creep up to the high wall, they could wreck the inner gates without having anything to fear and pen everyone up in the city by posting expert archers opposite the wall to shoot their arrows continually and prevent anyone inside from venturing out.

Byzantine walls in Thessaloniki

City Gates Burn Down

They set about their cunning plan in the following way: They found carts on which they placed upside down very small boats of the kind our fishermen use to fish with, adding a great quantity of firewood and a pile of brushwood. Then they sprinkled it all with pitch and sulphur, put their shoulders to the carts, set their wheels in motion and guided them with their hands until they reached the gates. Then they lit the wood from underneath and covering themselves with their shields, went back to the archers, having carried out their plan unnoticed. The fire took hold of the wood, feeding its flame until it flared up and caused the outer surface of the gates, which were iron-plated, to turn white-hot. Then the white heat, spreading inwards, reduced the gates to a sheet of flame, so that in a short time they collapsed, which threw everyone into a state of abject fear.

No sooner was the news reported throughout the city that the gates had been burnt down than the effect was as though everyone had been stabbed through the heart; such was the state of terror and dejection to which people were reduced, as the color drained from their cheeks, and as they abandoned abruptly every confident expectation.

Now that the outer gates had been destroyed by fire, we quickly protected the inner ones with a new wall. And we put water in containers on the battlements and kept a close watch in case the enemy should by any chance launch an attack against these gates too, so that when they tried to cause further damage, we might have some means of contending with the flames and preserving the gates from their treacherous designs.

When they realized this, however, they no longer resorted to these particular evil tactics. Yet by resorting to other tactics still more cunning and more violent, they were destined to bring about our destruction by a means so effective and so far surpassing all contrivance that it was henceforth in no wise possible to stave it off. They employed this pause in their incendiarism by shooting at us with stone-throwers and with bows during the rest of the day until darkness succeeded daylight and put an obligatory stop to their exertions.
Arab Warrior
The armies of Greater Syria and Egypt relied
more heavily on infantry.  Often they had
little protection  -  a thick padded cap,
quilted coat.  Some might have mail or a
scale shirt. 

Then, when they had stopped fighting, they went aboard their ships and after a brief spell of inaction, they began to carry out the plan of attack they had cunningly contrived beforehand. The plan involved a peculiar kind of gamble. If, thanks to it, they should be able to sack the city.

Having agreed, therefore, upon this plan, they began early in the night to put into effect their complicated scheme. Lighting lamps everywhere, they coupled the ships together in adjacent pairs and lashed their sides together with stout cables and iron chains so that they would not easily drift apart. Then they hoisted by means of the rigging at the fore the pieces of wood that stand up in the middle, which sailors call masts, and attaching by their handles to these the steering-paddles of each ship, they slung them high up in the air across the ropes leading to the prow so that their blades projected beyond the side of the ship.

The result was a remarkable and novel contraption. For when the steering paddles had been suspended aloft by their handles in the manner described, they placed long strips of wood over them in rows, one next to the other, flooring in by this ingenious method the intervening space. They then fenced in the edges on all sides with boards, and secured the ends of the steering-paddle handles by making them fast to very strong cables at the stern end of the ships.

In this manner they devised towers that were more effective than those surmounting walls on dry land. In them they posted armed barbarians, an elite force mounted aloft on account of their physical strength and natural daring and destined to deal us the coup de grace. They ordered some to shoot arrows, others to fling large stones (big enough to fill a man’s hand) at those manning the inner circuit of the fortification. Others were equipped with fire (it too artificially contrived) which had been prepared in advance in earthenware vessels and which they were instructed to hurl at those advancing to confront them.

Fear in the City

All of us were overcome by fear and consternation, not knowing how to preserve our safety for the future. One could see that the entire population was in a state of utter confusion and helplessness, unable to make up their minds from one moment to the next, and that their very lives were in jeopardy. There was indeed no concern to ward off impending disaster, only a morbid obsession with the question of how soon and how painfully death would occur. Flight was no longer an available or a safe option with the barbarians occupying positions all around the wall and keeping a close watch on the gates.

Abandoning all hope of safety, they walked as though dazed up and down the wall, completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of their misfortune. But some, in whose hearts the flame of courage had not been entirely extinguished, decided while waiting for the enemy to make some preparations to defend the wall and repel their advance. These consisted of pitch, firebrands, quicklime and other flammable substances got ready in earthenware vessels for possible use against ships riding at anchor, the idea being to hurl these objects in their midst and put them out of action.

The Arab dhow were between 150
and 250 tons, 85 feet long and 20
feet wide.

The Final Attack

The ships, distributed at several points according to their equipment, crashed against the wall, presenting to the eyes of all a novel and extraordinary spectacle. Each pair of ships brought along its own ingeniously constructed wooden turret, which hugely overtopped the structure of the fortification and held aloft its freight of barbarians leaping up like frenzied bulls and threatening everybody with destruction.

Whereupon, all that part of the population of the city that had come to think nothing of death, since it was both inevitable and staring them, so to speak, in the face, threw themselves unreservedly into the struggle. Making of the moment of maximum danger an occasion for displaying their courage, they stood their ground and fought like heroes; every man did his utmost. In fact, they did not allow the ships to get anywhere near, but by showering them with missiles and firebrands, they prevented them from approaching the wall and putting their plans into effect.

But those who were smitten with cowardice and in their utter helplessness lacked the strength to even consider the experience of misfortune let themselves down gradually from the wall and fled to the mountainous part of the city, giving further encouragement thereby to the enemy. When, in fact, the latter saw that the structure of the wall was in a more serious state of disrepair in one place than anywhere else (it was the spot where we had earlier erected wooden breastworks), and noticed also that the sea was deeper just at that point, they propelled in that direction one of the pairs of ships that had been lashed together, rowing gently until they got near and had brought the bows of the ships right up to the battlement.

Then, when the men on the wooden fortifications tried to hurl stones at them, the barbarians who were standing on top of the contraptions previously described uttered a loud and raucous cry, let fly with huge stones (which were not just big enough to fill a man’s hand this time but were absolutely enormous) whose impact none could withstand, blew fire by means of air through tubes, hurled other receptacles also filled with fire into the fortifications and struck such terror into the hearts of the defenders that they leaped down swiftly and took to their heels, leaving the entire stretch of wall deserted.

When the enemy saw that they had achieved their end (the defenders had all fallen to earth like leaves in the wind, not alighting by means of ladders but crashing down in terror) they sent against the fortifications a particularly daring barbarian with the complexion of an Ethiopian, who was apparently more frenzied than the others. He had a sword in his hand, which he brandished as he leaped down from the wall. Then he waited for the crowd to surge forward, trying to discover whether they had made off in feigned or in genuine flight. For they suspected that the inhabitants might have laid some hidden ambush for them in the streets, in order to waylay them once they had split up into separate groups.

The sack of Thessaloniki, from the Madrid Skylitzes

Herded Together by Death

Consequently, they were reluctant to enter the city, and set about their task without first taking precautions. But then (it was the third hour of the day) the glint of swords brandished by barbarian hands flashed like lightning through the air and revealed at every point the entry of the enemy. Beholding that disaster had well and truly struck, people all began to mill about in different directions, herded together by death, which loomed over them and left no further loophole for escape.

Then, when the barbarians saw that the entire wall had been cleared and that the mass desertion of its defenders now guaranteed their safety, they sallied forth eagerly from the ships, leaped down on to the battlements and set fire to the gates, thus signaling to the other ships that their mission had been accomplished. These too hove swiftly into sight and dispatched against the city their contingents of barbarians, naked except for a small loincloth, and armed with swords.

Once these barbarians were inside, they slew all those whom they found writhing about on the ground in the vicinity of the wall, regardless of whether they found them prostrated and paralyzed with fear and so unable to move or languishing without any hope of flight owing to the injuries they had sustained during their earlier falls. After that they split up, and moved down the main thoroughfares.

The Byzantine walls of Thessaloniki in 1916.

The Themes of the Eastern Roman Empire about 900 AD to 1000 AD.