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, August 21, 2012

The Byzantine Fortress of Qasr Bashir

The Roman - Byzantine Fortress of Qasr Bashir in Jordan.

The Limes Arabicus
A chain of forts protecting Roman lands from Arab raids

The Limes Arabicus was a desert frontier of the Roman Empire, in the province of Arabia Petraea. It ran -at its biggest extension- for about 1,500 km, from Northern Syria to Southern Palestine and northern Arabia, forming part of the wider Roman limes system. It had several forts and watchtowers.

The reason of this defensive "Limes" was to protect the Roman "Province of Arabia" from attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Arabian desert. 

Next to the limes arabicus Trajan built a major road, the Via Nova Traiana, from Bostra to Aila on the Red Sea, a distance of 267 miles. Built between 111 and 114 AD, its primary purpose may have been to provide efficient transportation for troop movements and government officials. It was completed under Hadrian.

During the Severan dynasty (AD 193-235), the Romans strengthened their defenses on the Arabian frontier. They constructed several forts at the northwest end of the Wadi Sirhan, and they repaired and improved roads.

Qasr Bashir
Reproduced from: Campbell DB, Roman Auxiliary forts 27 BC - AD 378. Fortress Series 83. Osprey Military Publishing, 2009. P. 58.


In Jordan there was no natural boundary other than desert all the way down to the Red Sea. Major communication routes here tended to run between oases and along the seasonal wadis. Linking Syria to the Arabia, the cities of the Decapolis, Petra and the ultimately the Gulf of Aqaba was the route known in the Bible as the King's Highway, parts of which came to be incorporated in the via nova Traiana, across which the Roman military presence was distributed.

Indeed the frontier here has long been recognised as more a zone than a delineated line and where the environment played an important part in the settlement pattern. In the province of Arabia there was the less tangible but increasingly important rise of tribal confederations of nomads with whom Rome had to treat and who in time became partners in the defence of the later empire.
Emperor Leo I
Ruler of the Eastern Empire from 457 to
474.  The Roman forts in Jordan were
still being funded and staffed with troops
during his reign.

With the annexation of Nabataean Arabia The Romans transferred the Legio III Cyrenaica from Egypt to the new province with auxiliaries. In 106 the unit was maybe based in Bostra, with the likelihood that smaller vexillations with other auxiliary units were distributed among the various cities and towns of Nabataea.

At the same time some new forts were erected together with the construction of a well-known pre-Roman road, the via nova Traiana, which linked Aqaba on the Arabian Gulf to the province of Syria in the north. Various units were stationed along and behind the desert line east of this main transfer road. In the early 3rd century significant construction work was done, probably in the Severan period. Pushing out in to the desert regions in north-east Arabia to control the oases with the erection of new forts and new road building.

The emperor Diocletian's army reform around 300 also affected the form and distribution of Roman military installations. About this time the Roman army constructed three new but smaller legionary sites in Betthorus-Lejjun, Adrou-Udruh and Aila-Aqaba and smaller sized other forts. Most of those garrisons were still maintained in many of the locations into the 4th century and only successively reduced to be compensated with greater use of control exerted through diplomacy and subsidy with the leaders of the local nomadic population.

In AD 106 the Romans under Emperor Trajan achieved control of the region east of the Jordan River, which was previously ruled by the Nabataeans. Until then, the Nabataean kingdom had provided a buffer between the Roman Empire and the threat of enemies to the east. Historians do not know how and why the Romans took direct control. Perhaps the lack of a legitimate successor to the deceased Nabataean king resulted in a power vacuum. The Romans annexed the area and called it Provincia Arabia. It was governed by a senatorial legate appointed by the emperor, and its capital was Bostra (or Bosra) in southern Syria.

Qasr Bashir

Qasr Bashir is an extremely well preserved Roman fortress that lies in the Jordanian desert. Unlike many Roman remains, Qasr Bashir is exceptionally well preserved, having never been re-built by later civilizations.

Qasr Bshir belongs to the chain of forts and watchtowers that is known as the Limes Arabicus and was meant to protect the province of Arabia against roaming desert nomads. They were not extremely dangerous or exceptionally violent, but their dromedaries made them swift, and if trouble arose, they could pillage large parts of the Roman countryside. The Limes Arabicus had to counter this threat, and Mobene was one of the fortifications.

Built at the beginning of the fourth Century AD and known as Mobene, the walls of Qasr Bashir still stand intact, at a height of up to 20 feet in places, while the main entrance remains to this day. The huge corner towers still rise up two stories from the ground.

It is likely that Qasr Bashir was originally home to an auxiliary cavalry unit, charged with defending the Roman frontier and keeping the peace in the surrounding area. 

The courtyard, which has two cisterns, is on all sides surrounded by rooms, twenty-three in number, which have been identified as stables. There was a second story, where the soldiers must have slept. The roof of these barracks reached the same height as the rampart walk, creating a really wide fighting platform. One room, opposite the main gate, may have been the headquarters, some kind of sanctuary, or both.

Because each of the twenty-three stables was used by three horses, and because a cavalry unit of frontier soldiers appears to have numbered between 120 and 150 men.

The Roman Limes defense system.

The Roman Frontier in Jordan, Part I
The short film The Roman Frontier in Jordan is part of the multimedia DVD-project Frontiers of the Roman Empire. The aims of the film are to show fascinating pictures from the Roman frontier in the Middle East and to connect people from different countries through their common history and archaeology. The Roman fort of Qasr Bshir is one of the best preserved installation of the Roman army known today.

Southern tower

Inscribed above the gate.

The central gate, which faces the shallow valley to the southwest, is flanked by two towers that are about half as large as the corner towers. The building inscription of the fort, a rarity in this part of the limes, survives and mentions the emperors of the First Tetrarchy
Optimis maximisque principibus nostris Caio Aurelio
Valerio Diocletiano Pio Felici Invicto Augusto et
Marco Aurelio Valerio Maximiano Pio Felici Invicto Augusto et
Flavio Valerio Constantio et Galerio Valerio Maximiano
nobilissimis Caesaribus Castra Praetorii Mobeni fossamentis
Aurelius Asclepiades praeses provinciae Arabiae
perfici curavit
In honor of our best and greatest rulers, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletian, our pious, lucky, and unconquered emperor, and Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximian, our pious, lucky, and unconquered emperor, and to Flavius Valerius Constantius and Galerius Valerius Maximianus, our noblest caesars, has Aurelius Asclepiades, praeses of the province of Arabia, ordered to build Castra Praetorium Mobene from its foundations.

This inscription allows us to date the construction of the fort to 293-305, when the Romans constructed more forts in this sector of the frontier.

The End of the Roman Frontier in Arabia

The Roman military presence in Arabia began to decline in the mid-400s when forces were diverted to other threatened frontiers. In the early 500s, Justinian turned over the defense of the southeastern frontier to the Ghassanids, a Christian Arab tribe. Around AD 530, the troops were withdrawn and the limes Arabicus ceased to exist.

The forts of el-Lejjun, Khirbet el-Fityan, Rujm Beni Yasser, Qasr Bshir, and Da'janiya were abandoned at this time. The numerous watchtowers provide no evidence of occupation in the sixth or early seventh centuries. At least by the early 600s, the fortified frontier system in Palestine and Transjordan no longer existed. This withdrawal of defenses paved the way for the eventual Muslim conquest of the region in the 600s.

Sources:   (livius.org/q/qasr_bshir)      (gla.ac.uk)      (amanfrommoab-fort-bashir)

The frontier zone south of Wadi al-Hasa was called the limes Palaestina, which extended to the Red Sea at Aila ('Aqaba). In this region, ten castella and a legionary camp have been identified.

Qasr Bashir


Qasr Bashir

The Roman Frontier in Jordan, Part II

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

Diocletian engaged in a major military expansion in the region, building a number of forts (castella), watchtowers, and fortresses along the fringe of the desert just east of the Via Nova. The term used for this north-to-south line of military installations is limes Arabicus, which means "Arabian frontier." This line of defense extended from south of Damascus to Wadi al-Hasa. The region from Wadi Mujib to Wadi al-Hasa contained four castella and a legionary camp.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Byzantine Southern Provinces

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented:  Byzantium and Islam:  Age of Transition.  The exhibit was on display March through July, 2012.

Byzantium's Southern Provinces

As the seventh century began, much of the wealth of the Byzantine Empire came from its southern provinces, which extended from Syria to Egypt and across North Africa. Affluent cities dotted the trade routes that moved the silks and spices of the east as well as local products throughout the region and beyond. Local officials were appointed from the imperial capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The state religion of the region was Orthodox Christianity, as defined by the patriarch in Constantinople.

Although proscribed, other forms of Christianity as well as Judaism flourished. As heir to the Greco-Roman tradition, the empire promoted classical academic training, including scientific learning. In the arts, well-established motifs, especially themes associated with Dionysos, the god of wine, were joined by subjects related to Christianity and Judaism.

The Sasanian Empire occupied much of Syria and Egypt from 614 to 629, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius would celebrate regaining those territories by returning the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630. Late in his life, adversaries from the Arabian Peninsula advanced into the region, taking the Byzantine provinces and ultimately establishing Damascus as the capital of the Umayyad Dynasty, which lasted until 750.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

Drawing of Job and His Family Represented as Heraclius and His Family

Date:  5th century (text), ca. 615–629 (drawing)
Geography:  Made in, Egypt
Heraclius (r. 610–41), the most celebrated Byzantine emperor of the seventh century, suppressed the Sasanian Persian army’s advance on the Byzantine Empire’s southern provinces, reclaiming Jerusalem in 630, only to lose much of the territory to Arab advances during the final years of his reign. Under Heraclius, Greek replaced Latin as the official language of the state, signifying the importance of Byzantium’s southern territories. His efforts toward religious accommodation made him a hero in Islamic literature.

On this manuscript page, Job stands to the left in royal dress with his daughters. Job’s regained wealth and stature as described in the eponymous biblical book is emphasized by his contemporary Byzantine courtly costume. Similarities with images of Heraclius suggest that this depiction of Job may have been modeled on representations of the popular Byzantine emperor.

Roundel with a Byzantine Emperor, Probably Heraclius

Date:  8th century
Geography:  Made in, Egypt, possibly Panopolis (Akhmim)
Possibly a representation of Heraclius, this roundel (orbiculus) shows a mounted figure of imperial status, indicated by his crown, orb, scepter, and purple cloak. The cloak arches over two captives in Persian dress. The roundel would have been applied to a tunic or a domestic textile, perhaps as a protective emblem.


Plate with David's Confrontation with Eliab

Date:  629–630
Geography:  Made in, Constantinople
Culture:  Byzantine
Medium:  Silver

In 628–29 the Byzantine emperor Herakleios (r. 610–41) successfully ended a long, costly war with Persia and regained Jerusalem, Egypt, and other Byzantine territory. Silver stamps dating to 613–29/30 on the reverse of these masterpieces place their manufacture in Herakleios’s reign.

The biblical figures on the plates wear the costume of the early Byzantine court, suggesting to the viewer that, like Saul and David, the Byzantine emperor was a ruler chosen by God. Elaborate dishes used for display at banquets were common in the late Roman and early Byzantine world; generally decorated with classical themes, these objects conveyed wealth, social status, and learning.

This set of silver plates may be the earliest surviving example of the use of biblical scenes for such displays. Their intended arrangement may have closely followed the biblical order of the events, and their display may have conformed to the shape of a Christogram, or monogram for the name of Christ.

Plate with the Presentation of David to Saul

Date:  629–630
Geography:  Made in, Constantinople
Culture:  Byzantine
Medium:  Silver



Date:  4th–6th century
Geography:  Made in, Egypt
Culture:  Byzantine
Medium:  Bone



Silenus, the Tutor of Dionysos

Date:  4th–7th century
Geography:  Made in, Egypt
Culture:  Byzantine
Medium:  Bone

Ostrakon with Medical Recipes

Made in, Byzantine Egypt
Pottery fragment with ink inscription

Ostrakon with a Letter Referring to the Persian Occupation

Made in, Byzantine Egypt
Pottery fragment with ink inscription

Floor Mosaic Depicting the Cities of Memphis and Alexandria

Date:  ca. 540
Geography:  Made in, Jordan, excavated Church of Saints Peter & Paul, Gerasa

The Naples Dioscorides

Date:  end of the 6th or beginning of the 7th century
Geography:  Made in, Italy
Medium:  Ink and pigment on parchment, 172 folios

During the seventh century, Byzantine scholars continued to study and advance the scientific and medical knowledge established earlier by Greeks and Romans. Alexandria, in Egypt, remained a major intellectual center. Paul of Aegina, who resided there, would write a medical compendium that was widely used by later Byzantine and Muslim scholars.

The lavishly illustrated manuscript written in Greek is a Byzantine copy of the work of the first-century scholar Dioscorides describing the medical properties of 827 ingredients from the natural world. An important source of scientific learning, the text was used by Byzantine and later Muslim and Western scholars for centuries. The opening seen here illustrates Lesser Burdock and Wild Vine or Wild Grape.


Period:  Sasanian
Date:  ca. 6th century A.D.
Geography:  Mesopotamia, Ctesiphon
Culture:  Sasanian
Medium:  Stucco

Ewer with dancing females within arcades

Period:  Sasanian
Date:  ca. 6th–7th century A.D.
Geography:  Iran
Culture:  Sasanian
Medium:  Silver, mercury gilding

Late Sasanian silver vessels, particularly bottles and ewers, often were decorated with female figures holding a variety of festal objects. The appearance of these motifs attests to the continuing influence of Greek imagery associated with the wine god Dionysus.

On this silver-gilt vessel, floral arches, supported by low pilasters, frame four dancing female figures. Each holds a ceremonial object in either hand: grape and leaf branches, a vessel, a heart-shaped flower. Beneath one arcade, birds peck at fruit, and beneath another a tiny panther drinks from a ewer.

Both the females and their decorative motifs recall representations of the maenads, attendants of Dionysus. However, it has been suggested that these figures have been adapted to the cult of the Iranian goddess Anahita.

No texts survive to explain the appearance or function of these female figures, but it seems likely that vessels decorated with motifs such as these would have been intended to hold wine for court celebrations or religious festivals.

Textile Fragment with Tree

6th-7th century
Made in, Possibly Egypt
Tapestry weave in polychrome wool and undyed linen on plain-weave ground of undyed linen

Trees like this stylized pomegranate with its red fruit appeared widely in domestic interiors on tapestries used as wall hangings and across openings. Perhaps meant as allusions to gardens, they may also be read as images of a heavenly paradise, as the pomegranate was a symbol of immortality.

See more at:   (metmuseum.org/exhibitions)