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

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Roman - Persian War

The Roman - Persian frontier.

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 politics and brushfire mini-wars of the period can easily make you dizzy.  The connections and interconnections and political-military layers are no different than the world today.

You had the Eastern Roman Empire attempting, and failing, to make a military alliance with Turkish tribes in Central Asia against Persia.  The Roman Empire and the Persian kingdom were in very similar circumstances. The Romans were placed between the Avars in the West and the Persians, just as the Persians were placed between the Turks (on the north) and the Romans.
Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era
Persian Cataphract.  Light to heavy armored cavalry
were used by the Persians.

The Romans also backed a pro-Roman faction in a takeover of Yemen.  The Persians in turn backed their allies in restoring a Persian client state in Yemen.  Both sides had their client Arab tribes battle each other on the frontier.

The Christians in Anatolia and the Caucasus region were in a constant state of actual or intermittent rebellion.  As the Christian population could not remain happy under Persian domination, they appealed to the Emperor of the Romans in the name of their common religion.  In 570 the Romans made a secret agreement to support an Armenian rebellion against the Sassanids, which began in 571, accompanied by another revolt in Iberia.

Any one of the causes mentioned might have been insufficient to produce a rupture, but all together were irresistible, and accordingly, when the time came for paying the stipulated peace treaty annuity, Emperor Justin II refused (572). The war which ensued lasted for twenty years; and its conclusion was due to the outbreak of a civil war in Persia.

The War Begins

Early in 572 the Armenians under Vardan Mamikonian defeated the Persian governor of Armenia and captured his headquarters at Dvin; the Persians soon retook the city but shortly afterwards it was captured again by combined Armenian and Roman forces and direct hostilities between Romans and Persians began.

By joining the Iberians, Lazi and Romans in a coalition of the region's Christian peoples, the Armenians dramatically shifted the balance of power in the Caucasus, helping Roman forces to carry the war deeper into Persian territory than had previously been possible on this front.

The Fall of Dara

In Roman Mesopotamia the war began disastrously.  After a victory at Sargathon in 573 they laid siege to the fortress of Nisibis and were apparently on the point of capturing this, the chief bulwark of the Persian frontier defenses, when the abrupt dismissal of their general Marcianus led to a disorderly retreat.

Persian forces under Shah Khosrau I (531-579) swiftly counter-attacked and encircled Dara.  Khosrau besieged it, using against its walls the engines which the Romans had left behind them at Nisibis. But it was not easily taken, and the Persians almost despaired. Finally, over-confidence produced remissness in the garrison, and after a siege of six months the city passed into the hands of the Persians.  Khosrau now held the two great fortresses of eastern Mesopotamia, Nisibis and Dara.
Minted Coin of Persian Shah Khosrau I.

At this juncture the Persians and their Arab allies invaded Syria and laid it waste as far as Antioch.

The invasion of Syria took place under the leadership of Adarmahan, and the country, as has been said, was devastated up to the walls of Antioch. The city of Apamea was committed to the flames. Syria seems to have been entirely undefended; for thirty years the inhabitants had been exempt from hostile attacks, and had consequently become so unaccustomed to the sights of war that they were unable to take measures for their own defense. The captives who were led away to Persia are said to have numbered in the tens of thousands.

To make matters worse, in 572 the Emperor Justin II (565–578) had ordered the assassination of his Arab ally the Ghassanid king al-Mundhir III.  Needless to say, the formerly pro-Roman tribe did nothing to help the Empire during this phase of the Persian invasion.

The Empire needed to buy time to regroup.  In 574 the Romans agreed to pay 45,000 nomismata for a one-year truce, and later in the year extended this to five years, secured by an annual payment of 30,000 nomismata.  These truces applied only to the Mesopotamian front and elsewhere the war went on.

Eastern Roman Empire infantry.
Shah Khosrau's Campaign

In 575 the Romans managed to settle their differences with the Ghassanids; this renewal of their alliance at once bore dramatic fruit as the Ghassanids sacked the Lakhmid capital at Hira. In the same year Roman forces took advantage of the favorable situation in the Caucasus to campaign in Caucasian Albania.

In 576 Khosrau set out on what was to be his last campaign and one of his most ambitious, staging a long-range strike through the Caucasus into Anatolia, where Persian armies had not been since the time of Shapur I (241-272). His attempts to attack Theodosiopolis and Caesarea were thwarted, but he managed to sack and burn Sebasteia before withdrawing.

Justinian, the son of Germanus, was appointed Magister militum (Latin for "Master of the Soldiers") and marched his troops to Armenia (576) to meet the Shah in battle. 

The Shah found himself in serious difficulties in a hostile and mountainous country, and apparently not supported in the rear.  Khosrau began to retreat. But he was not allowed by Justinian to depart with impunity; the Romans pressed on, and the Persians were forced to fight against their will.

The battle was fought somewhere between Sebaste and Melitene, probably in the valley of the river Melas, land its details are described or invented by a rhetorical historian. It resulted in a complete victory for Justinian.  Khosrau was forced to flee from his camp to the mountains, and leave his tent furniture, with all the gold, the silver, and the pearls which an oriental monarch required even in his campaigns. The booty, it is said, was immense.

The routed Persians grumbled at their lord for conducting them into this hole in the mountains, and Khosrau with difficulty mollified their indignation by an appeal to his gray hairs. Then the Sassanid descended into the plain of Melitene and burned that city, which had no means of resisting his attack. In the meantime, it may be asked, how was the Roman army occupied? It would seem that there was nothing to prevent the Romans from following the defeated and demoralized Persians, and at least hindering the destruction of Melitene, if they did not annihilate the host. This loss of opportunity is ascribed by a contemporary to the envy and divisions that prevailed among the Roman officers.

After the conflagration of Melitene, Khosrau retired towards the Euphrates, but he received a letter from the Roman general, reproaching him for being guilty of an unkingly act in robbing and then running away like a thief. The great king consented to accept offer of battle, and awaited the arrival of the Romans. The adversaries faced one another until the hour of noon; then three Romans rode forth, three times successively, close to the Persian ranks, but no Persian moved to answer the challenge. At length Khosrau sent a message to the Roman generals that there could be "no battle today," and took advantage of the fall of night to flee to the river. The Romans pursued and drove the fugitives into the waters of the Euphrates. More than half of the Persian army was drowned; the rest escaped to the mountains. It is said by Roman historians that Khosrau  signalized these reverses by passing a law that no Persian king should ever go forth to battle in person.

Sassanian Persian fortress in Derbent, Russia
The twenty-meter-high walls with thirty north-looking towers are believed to belong to the time of  Khosrau I of Persia. The chronicler Movses Kagankatvatsi wrote about "the wondrous walls, for whose construction the Persian kings exhausted our country, recruiting architects and collecting building materials with a view of constructing a great edifice stretching between the Caucasus Mountains and the Great Eastern Sea."   This Persian fortress is a good example of walled cities that both Roman and Persian armies would face in their endless border wars, sieges and invasions.

Thus the campaign of 576 was attended with good fortune for the Romans, notwithstanding the destruction of Sebaste and Melitene. Nor were the events to the west of the Euphrates the only successes. Roman troops  penetrated into Babylonia, and came within a hundred miles of the royal capital; the 24 war elephants which they carried off were sent to Constantinople.

The Romans exploited Persian disarray by raiding deep into Albania and Azerbaijan, launching raids across the Caspian Sea against northern Iran, wintering in Persian territory and continuing their attacks into the summer of 577. Khosrau now sued for peace, but a victory in Armenia by his general Tamkhosrau over his recent nemesis Justinian stiffened his resolve and the war continued.

In 576 - 577, the Persian general Tamkhusro invaded Armenia, where he defeated the Byzantines under Justinian. Later, Tamkhusro and Adarmahan launched a major raid into the Byzantine province of Osroene. They threatened the town of Constantina, but withdrew when they received word of the approach of the Byzantine army under Justinian. Following these reversals, later in the same year, the Byzantine regent, Caesar Tiberius, appointed Maurice as Justinian's successor.

Mesopotamia and Stalemate

A coin with Maurice in consular uniform.  Maurice
served as the Roman commander on the Persian front
and went on to become Emperor.
In 578 the truce in Mesopotamia came to an end and the main focus of the war shifted to that front. After Persian raids in Mesopotamia, the new magister militum of the East Maurice mounted raids on both sides of the Tigris, captured Aphumon and sacked the town of Singara. Khosrau again sought peace in 579, but died before an agreement could be reached and his successor Hormizd IV (579-590) broke off the negotiations.

In 580 the pro-Roman Ghassanid Arabs scored yet another victory over the pro-Persian Lakhmids, while Roman raids again penetrated east of the Tigris. However, around this time the future Khosrau II was put in charge of the situation in Armenia, where he succeeded in convincing most of the rebel leaders to return to the Sassanid allegiance, although Iberia remained loyal to the Romans.

The following year, an ambitious campaign along the Euphrates by Roman forces under Maurice and Ghassanids under al-Mundhir III failed to make progress, while the Persians under Adarmahan mounted a devastating campaign in Mesopotamia.

To concentrate on the Persian front, the Emperor Tiberias purchased peace with the Balkan Avars for 80,000 aurei.  Maurice became Emperor in 582 and continued the war as well as reforms in the Roman army.  For example, Maurice re-introduced the Roman custom of entrenching the army camps.

During the mid-580s the war continued inconclusively through raids and counter-raids, punctuated by abortive peace talks; the one significant clash was a Roman victory at the Battle of Solachon in 586.

In 588 there was a mutiny by unpaid Roman troops who also had their rations reduced by 25%.  Their new commander, Priscus, was wounded and fled.  This seemed to offer the Sassanids a chance for a breakthrough, but the mutineers themselves repulsed the ensuing Persian offensive; after a subsequent defeat at Tsalkajur, the Romans won another victory at Martyropolis. During this year, a group of prisoners taken at the fall of Dara 15 years earlier reportedly escaped from their prison in Khuzestan and fought their way back to Roman territory.

A Civil War in Persia

In 589 the war was raging on all fronts in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the the Arabian desert frontiers. 

In Central Asia the Persians were led by General Bahram Chobin who was chosen to lead an army against the Turkish tribes of the region.  Bahram's 42,000 man army included 12,000 hand picked Savaran, Persia's elite soldiers.  He successfully defeated a large Turkish army.  Reportedly, the Turkish forces outnumbered his troops five to one. Relying on the discipline and superior training of his Persian Cataphract cavalry.

His army defeated the Turks and Hephthalites in April 588 and again in 589, capturing Balkh and Herat respectively. He then proceeded to cross the Oxus river and managed to repulse the Turkish invasion.

In the Caucasus, Roman and Iberian offensives were repulsed by the Persian general Bahram Chobin, who had recently been transferred from the Central Asian front.  After suffering a minor defeat in battle on the river Araxes in Azerbaijan against the Romans, Shah Hormizd IV humiliated him, sending him women's clothing to wear.

Enraged at this humiliation,  Bahram raised a revolt which soon gained the support of much of the Sassanid army.  Alarmed by his advance, in 590 members of the Persian court overthrew and killed Hormizd, raising his son to the throne as Khosrau II (590–628).  Bahram pressed on with his revolt regardless and the defeated Khosrau was soon forced to flee for safety to Roman territory, while Bahram took the throne as Bahram VI.

With support from the Emperor Maurice, Khosrau set out to regain the throne, winning the support of the main Persian army at Nisibis and returning Martyropolis to his Roman allies. Early in 591 an army sent by Bahram was defeated by Khosrau's supporters near Nisibis, and Ctesiphon was subsequently taken for Khosrau by Mahbodh.

Having restored Dara to Roman control, Khosrau and the magister militum of the East Narses led a combined army of Roman and Persian troops from Mesopotamia into Azerbaijan to confront Bahram, while a second Roman army under the magister militum of Armenia John Mystacon staged a pincer movement from the north. At the Battle of Blarathon near Ganzak, a combined allied army of Romans and Persians decisively defeated Bahram, restoring Khosrau II to power and bringing the war to an end.

Bahram fled to the Turks in Central Asia and settled in Ferghana.  After some time he was murdered by the hired assassin sent by Khusrau II.

The Romans were left in a dominant position in their relations with Persia.  The Persians handed over many Roman cities.  The extent of effective Roman control in the Caucasus reached its zenith historically. Also, unlike previous truces and peace treaties, which had usually involved the Romans making monetary payments either for peace, for the return of occupied territories or as a contribution towards the defense of the Caucasus passes, no such payments were included on this occasion, marking a major shift in the balance of power. The Emperor Maurice was even in a position to overcome his predecessor's omissions in the Balkans by extensive campaigns.


Monday, July 11, 2011

The Battle of Carthage

Barbarian invasions of both halves of the Roman Empire.  The Vandals
took the scenic route through much of Europe before sacking Rome itself
and setting up their own Kingdom in North Africa.

The Battle of Carthage in 468 AD was one of the great missed opportunities in history.  Victory might have prolonged or even saved the weakened Western Roman Empire.

The borders of the Roman Empire were being slammed from all sides with Barbarian Invasions for centuries on end.  Slowly the invades were breaking through and laying waste to large portions of the nation.

The Germanic tribe called the Vandals took a long tour through much of Europe before ending up in Spain.

The Roman historian Procopius recounts how General Boniface, Roman general and governor of Africa, believing there was a plot hatched by the boy emperor Valentinian the III and his mother Galla Placidia to have him killed, enlisted the help of the Vandal King Genseric. He promised the Vandals land in North Africa in exchange for their help. Boniface soon found out that he had been deceived by Roman general Flavius Aetius and was still in Rome's favor. The realization came too late for in 429 AD King Genseric crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with the Vandal tribe numbering 80,000.

The Romans made peace with the Vandals in 435 AD, granting them territory in North Africa. The Vandal King Genseric did not keep this peace for long. In 439 Carthage fell to the Vandal forces and became the capital of the Vandal Kingdom. Genseric and the Vandal army eventually conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands.
Capital for the Romans, Byzantines and the Vandal Kingdom.  This is an older view of
the city.  Records of what the city looked like in later years are almost non-existent. 

Genseric made Carthage his capital, and styled himself the King of the Vandals and Alans, to denote the inclusion of the Alans of northern Africa into his alliance.

"So the Vandals, having wrested Libya from the Romans in this way, made it their own. And those of the enemy whom they took alive they reduced to slavery and held under guard," says Procopius.

Gaining the support of the Moors, the Vandals invaded Italy and Sicily for slaves, plunder and raised some cities to the ground.  In 455 they sacked Rome itself.  When it became harder to find slaves or money the Vandals turned to the Eastern Empire.  They plundered Illyricum and the most of the Peloponnesus and of the rest of Greece and all the islands which lie near it.  Afterwords they again went off to Sicily and Italy, and kept plundering and pillaging.

Three amphibious invasions at once

The invasion of the kingdom of the Vandals was one of the greatest military undertakings recorded in the annals of history, a combined amphibious operation with over one thousand ships and one hundred thousand soldiers.

The purpose of the operation was to punish the Vandal king Genseric for the sacking of Rome in 455, in which the former capital of the Western Roman Empire had been overwhelmed, and the Empress Licinia Eudoxia (widow of Emperor Valentinian III) and her daughters had been taken as hostages.  Also there was the need to recover the lost Roman provinces in North Africa which were used as bases for attacks on the Empire.

Eastern Roman Emperor Leo organized one
of the greatest military campaigns in the
history of the world.  It might have saved
the Roman Empire.

In 468 Eastern Emperor Leo gathered one of the greatest armies and fleets of all time for three different, massive, long distance, simultaneous amphibious operations on the two different continents of Africa and Europe.   The reported cost of the expedition was 130,000 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of silver.  The force consisted of about 100,000 soldiers and sailors.  They sailed on a fleet of 1,113 ships each with about 100 men.

The sheer scale of this operation cannot be over stated.  It was an incredible demonstration of the power of the Roman Empire even at this late stage.  The money needed was massive.  But the logistics required were staggering.

The Empire had to transport and feed a force of 100,000 in a voyage of hundreds of miles from their home bases.  But the troops had to arrive with all their weapons, horses and all the standard equipment needed for large land battles, sea battles and perhaps siege warfare on Carthage. 

The Romans needed these supplies just to get them there.  But there had to be even more supplies available or a re-supply system in place to keep these troops alive and fighting for months on end in enemy controlled territory.

No amphibious campaign on this scale had ever been done before in history.  Nothing like it was ever done again until World War II.  The major nations of the world today would find it almost impossible to duplicate everything involved in this Roman campaign.

The operation involved three different amphibious landings.  The first fleet and a 20,000 man army under General Marcellinus of Illyricum landed his troops and captured Sardina from the Vandals.  The second fleet and army was under the command of Heraclius of Edessa.  His troops landed in Tripolitania, defeated the Vandal forces and occupied the local cities.  Leaving his ships in Libya, Heraclius led his army on foot toward Carthage in support of the main invasion.

The majority of the army and fleet was in a third force under the expedition's commander in chief Basiliscus, the Emperor's brother-in-law, who was ordered to sail directly for Carthage.

Basiliscus' arrival at took the Vandals by surprise.  Basiliscus cast anchor off the Promontorium Mercurii, now Cap Bon, opposite Sicily, about forty miles from Carthage.

Then he hesitated.  Some claimed he was a coward.  Procopius stated,  "had (he) undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset, and he would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance."

Genseric requested Basiliscus to allow him five days to draw up the conditions of a peace.  It was said that a large amount of gold was sent by the Vandals to Basiliscus along with the reqest for a delay. 

Actually no name was ever given to this military operation except that of
disaster.  So the Battle of Carthage is as good as any.  The Roman Navy
landed at the far end of Cape Bon on the right side of the Bay of Tunis.  The
army that had captured Libya was marching up the coast in support of the landing.

Basiliscus being a traitor or coward no longer mattered.  During the negotiations, Genseric gathered his ships and suddenly attacked the Roman fleet. The Vandals had filled many vessels with combustible materials. During the night, these fire ships were propelled against the unguarded and unsuspecting Roman fleet.

Genseric sent a fleet of 500 Vandal ships against the Romans, losing 340 ships in the first engagement, but succeeded in destroying 600 Roman ships in the second.

"Since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact. And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivaled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder. And already the Vandals too were at hand ramming and sinking the ships," wrote Procopius.
Siliqua of Genseric, King of the Vandals and Alans

The Byzantine commanders tried to rescue some ships from destruction, but these maneuvers were blocked by the attack of other Vandal vessels.

Basiliscus fled in the heat of the battle.  One half of the Roman fleet was burned, sunk, or captured, and the other half followed the fugitive Basiliscus. The whole expedition had failed.  Heraclius effected his retreat through the desert into Tripolitania, holding the position for two years until recalled; Marcellinus retired to Sicily.

After returning to Constantinople, Basiliscus hid in the church of Hagia Sophia to escape the wrath of the people and the revenge of the Emperor. Through the mediation of his sister Basiliscus obtained the Imperial pardon, and was punished merely with banishment to Heraclea Sintica, in Thrace.  Being the brother-in-law of the Emperor has its advantages.

Following up the Byzantine defeat, the Vandals tried to invade the Peloponnese but were driven back by the Maniots at Kenipolis with heavy losses.  In retaliation, the Vandals took 500 hostages at Zakynthos, hacked them to pieces, and threw the pieces over board on the way back to Carthage.

The Kingdom of the Vandals was saved and North Africa lost to the Empire.

Tremissis coin issued by Emperor Basiliscus with his likeness.  Failure
in battle did not stop the general from claiming the imperial throne.

What happend to the leaders?

GENSERIC:    During his nearly 50 years of rule, he raised a relatively insignificant Germanic tribe to the status of a major Mediterranean power.  In 474, Genseric made peace with the Eastern Roman Empire. Finally, on January 25, 477, Genseric died at Carthage.

LEO:   Having lost North Africa, Leo died of dysentery at the age of 73 in January 474.

MARCELLINUS:   Marcellinus was murdered in Sicily the same year as the defeat in Africa, possibly by the order of Ricimer, a Germanic-Roman general.

HERACLIUS:   According to the historian Malchus, he was captured by Goths while on campaign for the Emperor Zeno and then ransomed.  After his release Heraclius was on his way home and was murdered at Arcadiopolis in Thrace by some soldiers for the cruelties he had committed during his tenure.

BASILISCUS:    With his sister he fomented a popular revolt against the new Emperor Zeno forcing him to flee Constantinople and return to his Isaurian homeland.  Basiliscus then had himself made Emperor, but soon alienated almost everyone around him.  The Senate opened the gates of the city allowing the deposed Emperor Zeno to resume the throne. Basiliscus fled to sanctuary in a church, but he was betrayed and surrendered himself and his family after extracting a solemn promise from Zeno not to shed their blood. In 477 Basiliscus, his wife Aelia Zenonis and his son Marcus were sent to a fortress in Cappadocia, where Zeno had them enclosed in a dry cistern, to die from exposure.

Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.

See Procopius, "The History of the Wars"