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

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Byzantine Fortress of Boreum (Bu Grada)

The frontier town and fortress of Boreum

Boreum:  A Byzantine fortress in modern Libya, now called Bu Grada.

As a frontier town, Boreum was mentioned by Ptolemy of Alexandria about 130 A.D. 

But in looking at the stunningly remote location, any commander assigned to this post must have been a major screw up.  The military post of Boreum was about as far from anything that resembled civilization as you could find under either Rome or Byzantium.

In the fifth century, the new tribal federation of the Laguatan threatened Roman Cyrenaica. Texts like Epistle 73 by Synesius of Cyrene, written in 409, describe the problems of the inhabitants, who felt abandoned by the central government. It is not entirely clear how far the invaders actually got, but the crisis was severe. Cyrene, for instance, was abandoned.

More than a century later, in the 530s, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565), sent garrisons to Paraetonium (modern Marsa Matruh) and Antipyrgon (Tobruk).This reorganization is known as the Ananeosis. He also fortified Ptolemais, Taucheira/Arsinoe, Berenice/Euesperides (modern Benghazi), two monasteries, and a place called Boreion or Boreum, which has been identified by R.G. Goodchild -using aerial photography - with a promontory northeast of modern Marsa al-Brayqah.

Religion  -  The Emperor Justinian converted the local Jewish population to Christianity (by force no doubt) and transformed their synagogue into a church.  The local tradition was the synagogue had been built by Solomon himself.

The historian Procopius says the local population right up to the time of Justinian were Pagan and made sacrifices to the Gods.  There were local shrines with large numbers of temple-slaves dedicated to Ammon and to Alexander the Macedonian.  Justinian converted them to Christianity, also by force.

Language  -  Procopius reports that civil servants from Libya who were promoted to posts in Constantinople had problems communicating with government staff.  They spoke only Latin and did not speak Greek.

The southern harbor; citadel to the right

By Procopius of Caesarea  (AD 500 – c. AD 565)

The Nile River, flowing out of India into Egypt, divides that land into two parts as far as the sea. The land, thus divided by the stream, is thenceforth designated by two separate names: the region on the right of the river is called Asia as far as Colchian Phasis, which divides Asia from the continent of Europe, or even all the way to the Cimmerian Strait and the River Tanaïs. In regard to this question those who are learned in these matters are in conflict with one another, as has been made clear in the Books on the Wars in the course of my description of the sea called Euxine.  And the land on the left of the Nile bears the name of Libya as far as the Ocean, which on the west marks the boundary between the two continents by sending out a certain arm which opens out into this sea of ours.  All the rest of Libya has received several different names, each region being designated, presumably, by the name of the people who dwell there.  However, the territory extending from the confines of Alexandria as far as the cities of Cyrenê, comprising the Pentapolis, is now the only region which is called by the name of Libya.  In that territory is a city one day's journey distant from Alexandria, Taphosiris by name, where they say that the god of the Egyptians, Osiris, was buried.  In this city the Emperor Justinian built many things, and in particular the residences of the magistrates and baths.

Remains of a building

The greatest part of this land of Libya chances to have been desert, which was in general neglected.  Yet our Emperor takes thought for this land also with watchful care, so that it might not have the ill fortune to suffer anything from inroads of the Moors who inhabit the adjoining country; and to this end he established there two strongholds with garrisons, one of which they call Paratonium, while the other, which lies not far from the Pentapolis, has received the name Antipyrgum. And the Pentapolis is removed from Alexandria by a twenty days' journey for an unencumbered traveler.   In this region of Pentapolis the Emperor Justinian surrounded the city of Teuchira with very strong fortifications.  The circuit-wall of Bernicê he rebuilt from its lowest foundations.  In that city he also built a bath for the use of the people.  Furthermore, on the extreme boundary of the Pentapolis which faces the south, he constructed fortresses in two monasteries which bear the names Agriolodê and Dinarthisum; and these stand as bulwarks against the barbarians of that region, so that they may not come down stealthily into Roman territory and suddenly fall upon it.

Remains of a pier in the southern harbor

There is a certain city there, Ptolemaïs by name, which in ancient times had been prosperous and populous, but as time went on it had come to be almost deserted owing to extreme scarcity of water.  For the great majority of the population, driven by thirst, had moved from there long ago and gone wherever each one could.  Now, however, this Emperor has restored the city's aqueduct and thus brought back to it its former measure of prosperity. The last city of Pentapolis towards the west is named Boreium. Here the mountains press close upon one another, and thus forming a barrier by their crowding, effectively close the entrance to the enemy.  This city, which had been without a wall, the Emperor enclosed with very strong defences, thus making it as safe as possible for the future, together with the whole country round about it.

Remains of a cistern

And there are two cities which are known by the same name, each of them being called Augila.  These are distant from Boreium about four days' journey for an unencumbered traveler, and to the south of it; and they are both ancient cities whose inhabitants have preserved the practices of antiquity, for they all were suffering from the disease of polytheism even up to my day.  There from ancient times there have been shrines dedicated to Ammon and to Alexander the Macedonian. The natives actually used to make sacrifices to them even up to the reign of Justinian.  In this place there was a great throng of those called temple-slaves. But now the Emperor has made provision, not alone for the safety of the persons of his subjects, but he has also made it his concern to save their souls, be thus he has cared in every way for the people living there. Indeed he by no means neglected to take thought for their material interests in an exceptional way, and also he has taught them the doctrine of the true faith, making the whole population Christians and bringing about a transformation of their polluted ancestral customs.  Moreover he built for them a Church of the Mother of God to be a guardian of the safety of the cities and of the true faith. So much, then, for this.

The eastern harbor

The city of Boreium, which lies near the barbarian Moors, has never been subject to tribute up to the present time, nor have any collectors of tribute or taxes come to it since the creation of man.  The Jews had lived close by from ancient times, and they had an ancient temple there also, which they revered and honoured especially, since it was built, as they say, by Solomon, while he was ruling over the Hebrew nation.  

But the Emperor Justinian brought it about that all these too changed their ancestral worship and have become Christians, and he transformed their temple into a church.

The southern moat

Beyond these lie the Great Syrtes, as they are called. And I shall explain what their form is and why they are given this name.  A sort of shore projects there, but is itself divided by the influx of the sea, and being hidden by the water it seems to disappear and to retreat back into itself; and it forms by its curve a very long crescent-shaped gulf. The chord of the crescent extends to a distance of four hundred stades, but the perimeter of the crescent amounts to a six-days' journey, for the sea, thrusting itself inside of this arm of the mainland, forms the gulf.  When a ship driven by the wind or wave gets inside the opening and beyond the chord of the crescent, it is then impossible for it to return, but from that moment it seems "to be drawn" (suresthai) and appears distinctly to be dragged steadily forward. 
Tunnel between the eastern harbor and the citadel

From this fact, I suppose, the men of ancient times named the place Syrtes because of the fate of the ships.  On the other hand, it is not possible for the ships to make their way to the shore, for submerged rocks scattered over the greater part of the gulf do not permit sailing there, since they destroy the ships in the shoals.  Only in small boats are the sailors of such ships able to save themselves, with good luck, by picking their way amid perils through the outlets.

(Procopius - Buildings)

(Livius - Boreum)

(Boreum of Cyrenaica)

Remains of rock chambers

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Battle of Volturnus - Romans vs Franks

Franks vs Romans at the Battle of Volturnus.
The Franks generally fought naked to the waist, with leather trousers, without breastplate or greaves, and bareheaded, though a few had helmets.  The Franks were armed with lance, sword and ax.

Franks vs Romans in 554 AD . . . . the last stages of the Gothic Wars

The Battle of the Volturnus, also known as the Battle of Casilinum or Battle of Capua, was fought in Central Italy in 554 between an army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a combined force of Franks and Alemanni. The Romans, led by Narses, were victorious.


During the later stages of the Gothic War, the Gothic king Teia called upon the Franks for help against the Roman armies under the eunuch Narses

Although king Theodebald refused to send aid, he allowed two of his subjects, the Alamanni chieftains Leutharis and Buccelin, to cross into Italy. According to the historian Agathias, the two brothers gathered a host of 75,000 Franks and Alamanni, and in early 553 crossed the Alps and took the town of Parma. They defeated a force under the Heruli commander Fulcaris, and soon many Goths from northern Italy joined their forces. In the meantime, Narses dispersed his troops to garrisons throughout central Italy, and himself wintered at Rome.   

Narses spent the winter in Rome, and in the spring (A.D. 554) his army, which had been dispersed among the forts and towns in the Ravennate region for the winter, was collected and reunited at Rome. We do not know his reasons for this retreat, which meant the abandonment of Etruria and the Hadriatic provinces to the enemy. He could rely with some confidence on his garrisons in the great fortresses, but the open country and unwalled towns were at the mercy of the invader.

The host of Buccelin and Leutharis moved southward, without haste, plundering and destroying. When they approached Rome they divided into two separate armies, of which the larger under Buccelin, avoiding Rome itself, marched through Campania, Lucania, and Bruttii to the Straits of Messina, while Leutharis led the other through Apulia and Calabria as far as Hydruntum. The provinces were systematically plundered, and an enormous booty was collected. In this work of pillage and devastation there was a marked difference between the conduct of the Franks and their Alamannic comrades. The Franks, who were orthodox Christians, showed respect for churches, but the heathen Alamanni were restrained by no scruples from carrying off the ecclesiastical plate and pulling down the roofs of the sacred buildings.

When he had reached the limits of Calabria, Leutharis laden with spoils decided to return home to enjoy them. He had no political ambitions, and his one thought was to get safely away with his wealth and run no further risks. He marched along the coast as far as Fanum, but there his troops suffered considerable losses through an attack by the Roman garrison of Pisaurum, and the greater part of the booty was lost. Leaving the coast he struck into the Apennines and reached the Po safe but dispirited. At the Venetian town of Ceneta, where he took up his quarters to rest, a virulent plague broke out in the army and Leutharis himself was one of its victims.

18,000 Romans vs 25,000 to 30,000 Franks.
General Narses deployed the Roman cavalry on each wing anchored by the forests and placed his infantry in the center, but it was not a solid center.  There was a gap where the Roman allied Herul troops should have been.  The army of the Franks consisted entirely of infantry.  They formed an infantry wedge and marched directly for the gap in the center of the Roman lines.   

The Battle

Buccelin returned to Campania and encamped on the banks of the Vulturnus close to Casilinum and Capua, which are only a few miles apart.  Casilinum is the modern Capua, and the ancient Capua is the modern village of S. Maria di Capua Vetere. On one side the river formed the wall of his camp, on the other side he fortified it securely. He had some hopes that he would soon be reinforced, for his brother had promised that when he had reached Venetia he would send back his troops. 
As soon as Narses learned that Buccelin had occupied this position at Capua he marched from Rome with his army, numbering about 18,000, and encamped not far from the enemy. The battle which ensued was probably fought across the Appian Way which passed through Capua and crossed the river at Casilinum.

The course of the battle was affected by an accident. One of the Herul captains killed his servant for some delinquency, and when Narses called him to account asserted that masters had the power of life and death over their slaves and that he would do the same thing again. He was put to death by the command of Narses, to the great indignation of the Heruls, who withdrew from the camp and said they would not fight. Narses drew up his line of battle without them. He placed his cavalry on the two wings and all the infantry in the centre. 

Byzantine Armored Cavalry.
Trained to fire the bow on horseback, they could do enormous damage to an enemy from afar and then close in for the kill with lance and sword.

There was a wood on the left, and Valerian and Artabanes, who commanded on that side, were directed to keep a part of their forces concealed in the wood till the enemy attacked. Narses himself commanded on the right. The leader of the Heruls, Sindual, who was burning to fight, implored Narses to wait until he could persuade his followers to reserve a place for them, where they could fall in, if they arrived late. Accordingly he left an open space in the middle of the infantry.

Meanwhile two Heruls had deserted to the enemy, and persuaded Buccelin that his chance was to attack at once, as the Romans were in consternation at the defection of the Herul troops. Buccelin had drawn up his army, which consisted entirely of infantry, in the shape of a deep column, which should penetrate like a wedge through the hostile lines.  
6th Century Eastern Roman infantry.

In this array the Franks arrived, armed with missile lances, swords, and axes, confident that they would sweep all before them at the first rush. They penetrated into the central space which was to have been occupied by the Heruls, dislodging the outer ranks of the Roman infantry on either side. Narses quietly issued orders to his wings to face about, and the enemy were caught between the cross fire of the cavalry, who were all armed with bows. 

The Franks were now facing both ways. The archers on the right wing aimed at the backs of those who were fighting with the infantry on the left, the archers on the left wing at the backs of those who were engaged with the right. The barbarians did not understand what was happening. They saw the foemen just in front of them with whom they were fighting hand to hand, but they could not see the enemies who from far behind were raining arrows upon their backs. Their ranks were gradually mown down, and then Sindual and his Heruls appeared upon the scene. 

The defeat of the Franks was already certain; it was now to be annihilation. Buccelin was slain and only a handful escaped alive from the stricken field. The Roman losses were small. It will be noticed that Narses won this, his third victory, by a tactical plan similar to that which he had employed in the battle with Totila.

Perhaps 80 Romans were killed.  It was reported that only five Franks escaped.

With the Franks totally engaged in the center, Narses ordered his cavalry on the right and left flanks to close in.  The Franks were caught in a crossfire and their army annihilated.  


The Italians had been terror-stricken by the ruthless deeds of the northern barbarians, and they were wild with joy at the news of their utter destruction. Narses and thoughtful people had little hope that the brilliant victory of Capua head dispelled the danger. They reflected that the foes whose corpses were strewn on the banks or floated in the waters of the Vulturnus were such a small fraction of the Frank people and their dependents, that their fate would provoke rather than intimidate. They expected that a greater host would soon come down to avenge the fallen and restore German prestige. 

These fears were not realized, as they might well have been if Theodebert had been still alive; his feeble son Theodebald, who suffered from a congenital disease, died in the following year. Narses was able to complete in peace the settlement of Italy.

The winter months which followed the battle of Capua were spent in besieging Capsa, a strong place in the Apennines, where seven thousand Goths had established themselves under the leadership Ragnaris, the man who had behaved so treacherously at Tarentum. Campsa has been identified with Conza, about fifty miles east of Naples. Its position defied assault and Narses sat down to blockade it, but a large stock of provisions had been laid in. 

At the beginning of spring (A.D. 555), Ragnaris proposed to Narses that they should meet and discuss terms. Narses refused to agree to his proposals, and he retired in great wrath. When he was near the wall of the fort he turned round, drew his bow, and aimed an arrow at the general who was returning to his lines. It missed its mark, but one of the guardsmen who were with Narses had a surer aim, and transfixed the treacherous Goth. He fell dead, and the garrison surrendered immediately and were sent to Constantinople.

All Italy south of the Po was now restored to the Imperial authority. Of the subjugation of the Transpadane provinces, where Goths and Franks were still in possession, we have no record. It was a slow business, and Verona and Brixia were not recovered till A.D. 562. In November of that year Narses sent the keys of their gates to Justinian.


6th century Frankish infantryman.

The Gothic Wars resulted in the Eastern Roman Empire re-conquering the areas of modern
Italy and Dalmatia.