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

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Battle of Anchialus

The Bulgarian conquest of the Roman Balkans.

Battle of Anchialus  (708AD)


With the decisive Bulgarian victory Battle of Ongal in 680AD around the Danube delta area, the Eastern Roman Empire agreed to the creation of the First Bulgarian Empire on soil long controlled by Rome.

Justinian II came to the throne in 685 shortly after the defeat by the Bulgarians.  Justinian was keen to restore the greatness of the Empire.

After a preliminary strike against the Arabs in Armenia, Justinian managed to augment the sum paid by the Umayyad Caliphs as an annual tribute, and to regain control of part of Cyprus.

Justinian took advantage of the peace in the East to regain possession of the Balkans, which were before then almost totally under the heel of Slavic tribes.  In 687 Justinian transferred cavalry troops from Anatolia to Thrace. With a great military campaign in 688–689, Justinian defeated the Bulgars of Macedonia and was finally able to enter Thessalonica, the second most important Byzantine city in Europe.
Justinian II

Justinian strengthened the thematic military organization of the Empire.  As part of that plan the Emperor sought to protect the rights of peasant freeholders who served as the main recruitment pool for the armed forces of the Empire. There had been steady attempts by the aristocracy to acquire their land.  This action to improve the military also put him in direct conflict with some of the largest landholders in the Empire.

Justinian was deposed in 695.  His tongue was slit and his nose cut off.  He was exiled to Cherson in Byzantine Crimea.

Years later Justinian approached Kahn Tervel of Bulgaria. Trevel agreed to provide all the military assistance necessary for Justinian to regain his throne in exchange for financial considerations, lands located between Stara Zagora, Sliven and the Black Sea, the award of a Caesar's crown, and the hand of Justinian's daughter, Anastasia, in marriage.

In 705, with an army of 15,000 Bulgar and Slav horsemen Justinian appeared before the walls of Constantinople.  Unable to take the city by force, he and some companions entered through an unused water conduit under the walls of the city, roused their supporters, and seized control of the city in a midnight coup d'état.

The Bulgarian army returned home with their payment leaving Justinian to take a bloody revenge on his enemies.

The modern day town of Pomorie, Bulgaria sits on the old Roman city of Anchialus.

The Battle

It is a rule that no good deed goes unpunished.  After disagreements with the Bulgarian Kahn, Justinian attacked his ally.  Now that he was in a stronger position the Emperor wanted to re-take the lands lost by in his deal with Tervel.

There are no real numbers or even much detailed information on the campaign.  But this must have been a major effort because the Emperor himself led the troops into enemy controlled territory.  Tervel had shown up at Constantinople with 15,000 men to support Justinian's claim to the throne. We must assume that Justinian would invade Bulgaria with at least an army of that size and perhaps one even larger.

J.B. Bury says the Roman force moved to the fortress of Anchialus by both land and sea.  Most of the troops appear to have been cavalry.  There is no mention of a battle or enemy contact on the march to the Roman held fortress.

The Romans appear to have been lulled into a sense of safety.  Perhaps locals told them that there were no enemy troops in the area.  In any case, Justinian has to get full blame for a lack of proper scouting and for not building a proper fortified base camp.

While Justinian's soldiers were meandering about in disorder gathering food, Tervel and his cavalry charged the outermost Roman troops. At the same time the Bulgarian infantry attacked the camp. The Romans were surprised and confused; most of them perished in the battle or were captured as well as many horses and arms.

The Emperor fled to the fortress with what troops that were left.  He held out in the fortress for three days with his men.  Seeing no other solution, he had the horses disabled so they would be of no use to the Bulgarians and then boarded the Roman ships waiting offshore and returned to Constantinople.

It was a total Bulgarian victory.


Three years later in 711 the rebel Emperor Philippicus captured and executed Justinian.

The Bulgarian victory secured the new territorial gains for centuries.  In 717 Emperor Leo III made a plea to Tervel for help in the second Siege of Constantinople by the Arabs.  Relying on the treaty of 716 and Tervel agreed. The first clash between the Bulgarians and the Arabs ended with a Bulgarian victory.  The Bulgarians slaughtered some 22,000 Arabs in the battle and stopped the Muslim invasion of Europe. Khan Tervel was called the Savior of Europe by his contemporaries.

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

(Battle of Anchialus)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Roman Fortress of Zenobia

The southern wall and citadel of the Roman fortress of Zenobia near Halabiye, Syria.

Roman Mesopotamia  -  Battle ground between Persia and Rome.

The river Euphrates was the shortest road from the Persian Empire to the Roman Empire. It was also one of the most accessible roads, because there was sufficient water for a big army.

For endless centuries both empires fought over the same ground of what is today Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  Halabiye was fortified in the 3rd century AD by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, after whom the site was named in antiquity. After her revolt against the Roman Empire in 273, Halabiye was captured by the Romans and subsequently refortified as part of the Limes Arabicus.

It is likely that Fort Zenobia was rebuilt by the emperor Diocletian (284-305); a second building phase took place when Anastasius I was ruler of the Byzantine Empire (491-518); the next rebuilding can be dated to the reign of Justinian (527-565), who sent his general Belisarius to the east to fight against the Persians. This building phase is described at some length by Procopius.

The site must have been taken over by the Persians during their epic fight against the Byzantines in the first third of the sixth century, and may have remained abandoned when the Emperor Heraclius reconquered Syria. The Arabs took over the area in 637, reused Zenobia, and modified the citadel. However, because both Syria and Iraq were part of the Caliphate of Damascus, the site had lost much its strategic importance, and the Muslim occupation did not last very long.

The site occupies an area of 12 hectares (30 acres), protected by massive city walls and a citadel on top of a hill. Remains of two churches, a public bath complex and two streets have been excavated. These all date to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who refortified the city in the 6th century AD.

The proposed construction of the Halabiye Dam on the Euphrates south of Halabiye will lead to the partial flooding of the site by the dam’s reservoir.

Outer façade of the northern city wall, looking west toward the Praetorium and the citadel.

By Procopius  (Buildings - Published in the 550s AD)

So these structures were erected by the Emperor Justinian in the manner which I have described in Mesopotamia and in Osroenê, as it is called.  And I shall describe the fashion in which his work was carried out on the right of the Euphrates River.  The other boundaries between the Romans and the Persians are in general of such a sort that the territories of the two peoples are adjacent to each other, and both peoples push out from their own territory and either fight with each other or compose their differences, as people will whenever nations differing in customs and in government hold any land on a common boundary.

For a land which is altogether bare and unproductive separates the Roman and the Persian territory for a great distance, and this contains nothing worth fighting for.  Both of them, however, have built forts carelessly of unbaked brick in the desert which chances to lie nearest to the land which they inhabit;  these forts never suffered attack from their neighbours, for both peoples lived there without enmity, since they possessed nothing which their adversaries might desire.  The Emperor Diocletian had built three forts, such as I have described, in this desert, one of which, Mambri by name, had fallen into decay in the long course of time and was restored by the Emperor Justinian.

The southern wall looking down to the Euphrates River.

At a distance of about five miles from this fort on the road to Roman territory, Zenobia, wife of Odonathus, who was ruler of the Saracens in that district, once founded a small city in earlier times and gave her name to it;  for the name she gave it was Zenobia, as was fitting.  But the long period of time that had elapsed since those events had reduced its circuit-wall to a ruin, since the Romans were quite unwilling to take care of it, and thus it had come to be altogether destitute of inhabitants.  So it was possible for the Persians freely, whenever they wished, to get into the middle of Roman territory before the Romans had word of the hostile inroad.

But the Emperor Justinian rebuilt Zenobia completely and he filled it quite full of inhabitants, and he stationed there a commander of select troops and a thoroughly adequate garrison, and made it a bulwark of the Roman Empire and a frontier barrier against the Persians;  indeed he did not simply restore its previous form, but he actually made it very much stronger than it was before.

The Praetorium, interior.

It is surrounded by cliffs which stand very close to the city, and for this reason it was possible for the enemy to shoot down from their summits upon the heads of the defenders of the circuit-wall.  This he was anxious to prevent, and so he built a certain additional structure on the top of the circuit-wall, at precisely the place where the cliffs are nearest, designed to serve permanently as a shelter for the men fighting there. Such a structure they call "wings" (ptera), because it appears to droop, as it were, from the wall.

However, it is impossible to describe all that the Emperor accomplished at Zenobia, since, seeing that it occupies a site far removed from any neighbour and on this account is sure to be always in danger, and that it is unable to secure succour because there are no Romans who live near at hand, the Emperor considered the city worthy, as well he might, of his unceasing attention above all other places. Nevertheless I shall describe a few of the things that were done there.

Video  -  The Roman Fortress of Zenobia (Halabiye, Syria)

By the side of Zenobia flows the Euphrates River, passing to the east of it and coming very close to the circuit-wall on that side; but since high mountains rise beside the river at this point, the stream cannot spread out at all, but by reason of the proximity of these mountains and because it is constrained by its banks, which are hard, it would gather its stream into an extraordinarily narrow space whenever it chanced that rains caused it to rise in flood, and would pour out against the wall and immediately rise, not only about the foundations but even as far as the battlements.

And when the wall had once been soaked through by the water, the result was that the river loosened the courses of stones and thereafter the wall stood upon a dangerous conglomeration of stones.  But he constructed a huge protective wall (probolos) of hard stone of equal length with the circuit-wall, and caused this to check at that point the turbulence of the river when it rose, and so freed the wall entirely from harm from this source, even should the river rise to a great height in its most violent state.

He also found that portion of the city's circuit-wall which faces the north dangerously weakened by the passage of time; so he first took it down, along with the outworks, clear to the ground, and then rebuilt it, yet not as it had been before, for at that point the buildings of the city had been especially crowded, causing trouble to those who lived there.  But he went beyond the place where the foundations of the circuit-wall and the outworks had formerly stood, even beyond the moat itself, and there he built the wall, which is a remarkable sight in itself and exceptionally beautiful, thus materially increasing the area of Zenobia.

A view from the citadel.

Furthermore, a certain hill stood very close to the city on the side toward the west, from which it was possible for the barbarians, whenever they attacked the city, to shoot down with impunity upon the heads of the defenders, and even upon the heads of those who stood in the middle of the city.  So the Emperor Justinian connected the fortifications with this hill on both sides, and thus brought it inside Zenobia; and he escarped the whole hill throughout, so that no one might climb it to work harm from there, and placed another fortification on its summit and thus made the city altogether inaccessible to those who wished to assault it.  For beyond the hill it chances that the ground is very low and for this reason it is impossible for the enemy to approach it at all closely.  And immediately above the depression rise the mountains which face toward the west.

Yet this Emperor did not provide only for the safety of this city, but he erected churches there and barracks for the military forces;  nay more, he added to it public baths and stoas. For all these operations the master-builders Isidorus and John gave their assistance — John a Byzantine and Isidorus a Milesian by birth, nephew of the Isidorus whom I have mentioned before.  Both of them were young men, but they displayed a natural ability beyond their years, and they had come to their full maturity with their experience in the Emperor's undertakings.

The Euphrates and, beyond it, the towers of Zalebiye.

The southern wall.

Inside the Praetorium.

(Byzantine Mesopotamia)

(Procopius Buildings)

(Zenobia - Halabiye. Wikipedia)