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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Battle of the Gates of Trajan (986 AD)

9th Century Eastern Roman Troops.
On the right, Cavalryman of the Imperial Tagmata (elite central army based in Constantinople);  Akritoi frontier cavalryman of an Anatolian theme and light infantry archer.

The Battle of the Gates of Trajan was a battle between Eastern Roman Empire and Bulgarian forces in the year 986. It took place in the pass of the same name, modern Trayanovi Vrata, in Sofia Province, Bulgaria. It was the largest defeat of the Romans under Emperor Basil II.


The Bulgarian armies of Samuil had been attacking the European possessions of the Byzantine Empire. Samuil invaded not only Thrace and the area of Thessaloniki, but also Thessaly, Hellas and Peloponnese. Many Byzantine fortresses fell under Bulgarian rule.

Samuil wanted to seize the important fortress of Larissa, which controlled the key routes in Thessaly, and from 977 to 983, the town was blockaded. After starvation forced the Byzantines to surrender, the population was deported to the interior of Bulgaria and the males were forced to enlist in the Bulgarian army.

Roman Emperor Basil II

Although Basil II sent forces to the region, they were defeated, and the conquest of Larissa marked the loss of an important Byzantine stronghold in that part of the peninsula.

With this victory, Bulgaria had gained influence over most of the southwestern Balkans, although it did not occupy these territories. From Larissa, Samuel took the relics of Saint Achilleios, which were laid in a specially built church of the same name on an island in Lake Prespa.

The Bulgarian successes in the west raised fears in Constantinople, and after serious preparations, Basil II launched a campaign into the very center of the Bulgarian Empire to distract Samuel from southern Greece

Siege of Sredets

In 986, Basil II led the campaign personally with 30,000 soldiers.  This much larger than average Roman field army showed the importance the Emperor placed on the threat from Bulgaria. The commanders of the eastern armies did not take part in the campaign because they were fighting the Arabs.

The Byzantines marched from Odrin via Plovdiv to reach Sredets (Sofia). According to Leo Diaconus the objective of their Emperor was to subdue the Bulgarians with one strike. After the capture of Serdica which was a strategic fortress between the northeastern and southwestern Bulgarian lands Basil II intended to continue his campaign towards Samuil's main strongholds in Macedonia.

On his way to Serdica (the Byzantine name of Sredetz, today Sofia, the capital city of modern day Bulgaria), Basil II left a strong company under Leon Melissenos to guard the rear of the Byzantine army. When he finally reached the walls of the city, Basil II built a fortified camp and besieged the fortress.

The siege lasted for 20 days of fruitless assaults, until shortage of food occurred in the Byzantine army. Their attempts to find provisions in the surrounding country were stopped by the Bulgarians who burned crops and even took the cattle of the Byzantines. In the end, the city garrison broke out of the walls, killing many Roman soldiers and burning all of the siege equipment, which the inexperienced Roman generals had placed too close to the city walls

Basil II  vs Samuil of Bulgaria

The Battle

As a result of the successful Bulgarian actions the Byzantines were no longer capable of taking the city with a direct assault. They also could not exhaust the defenders with hunger because, after their supplies were cut, the Byzantines themselves had to deal with that problem.

In addition, an army led by Samuil marched into the mountains at the Byzantines' rear. In the meantime, instead of securing the way for retreat, Leon Melissenos pulled back to Plovdiv. That action was an additional reason for Basil II to lift the siege. The commander of the Western armies, Kontostephanos, persuaded him that Melissenos had set off to Constantinople to take his throne.

Elite Soldier of the Imperial Tagmata of
Excubita/Excubitores.  His armor has many
nomadic-Islamic elements combined with
the older Roman fashion style.

The Byzantine army retreated from the Sofia Valley towards Ihtiman where it stopped for the night.

The rumours that the Bulgarians had barred the nearby mountain routes stirred commotion among the soldiers and on the following day the retreat continued in growing disorder.

When the Bulgarians under Samuil saw that, they rushed to the enemy camp and the retreat turned to flight. The Byzantine advance guard managed to squeeze through slopes which were not yet taken by the Bulgarian attackers. The rest of the army was surrounded by the Bulgarians.

Only the elite Armenian unit from the infantry managed to break out with heavy casualties and to lead their Emperor to safety through secondary routes.

Enormous numbers of Byzantine soldiers perished in the battle; the rest were captured along with the Imperial insignia.

Byzantine Soldiers

Ruins of the fortress Gates of Trajan
It was named after Roman Emperor Trajan, on whose order a fortress by the name of Stipon was constructed on the hill over the pass, as a symbolic border between the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia.


The disaster of the campaign in Bulgaria in 986 was a blow to the consolidation of the monarchy of Basil II. Soon after the Battle of the Gates of Trajan, the nobility in Asia Minor, led by the general Bardas Phokas, rebelled against Basil II for three years.

Samuil of Bulgaria

According to the historian Petar Mutafchiev, after the battle Samuil was in control of the Balkans. According to some historians, the northeastern parts of the Bulgarian Empire were liberated in the years after the battle.

According to other sources, they were liberated ten years prior to the battle, in 976. The Bulgarians firmly took the initiative and launched continuous attacks towards Thessaloniki, Edessa, and the Adriatic coast.

The Serbs were also defeated and their state incorporated into Bulgaria. The Byzantines overcame the Bulgarian military ascendancy in the Battle of Spercheios in 996.

The Battle of the Gates of Trajan greatly angered Basil.  He made the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire a major part of his rule.  The Bulgarian victory only postponed the fall of Bulgaria, which occurred in 1018.

Roman ruins in Bulgaria
It is not in English but it is a good film.

Bulgaria in the years after the battle.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Image from Istanbul Life.org

Like the Colosseum in Rome, the Hippodrome
was the social center of Constantinople

The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) in the Turkish city of Istanbul, with a few fragments of the original structure surviving.

The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, path or way. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.

Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople's days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippodrome was built when the city was called Byzantium, and was a provincial town of moderate importance. In AD 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment.

In AD 324, the Emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the seat of the government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Nova Roma (New Rome). This name failed to impress and the city soon became known as Constantinople, the City of Constantine. Constantine greatly enlarged the city, and one of his major undertakings was the renovation of the Hippodrome.

The track was lined with other bronze statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive. The hippodrome was filled with statues of gods, emperors and heroes, among them some famous works, such as a Heracles by Lysippos, Romulus and Remus with their wolf and the Serpent Column of the Plataean tripod. In his book De Ceremoniis (book II,15, 589), the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the decorations in the hippodrome at the occasion of the visit of Saracen or Arab visitors, mentioning the purple hangings and rare tapestries.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).

A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.

The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.

Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, by that time, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin. The Ottoman Turks, who captured the city in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were not interested in racing and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, although the site was never actually built over.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

"Now there was another wonderful sight in another part of the city, for near the Palace of Boukoleon was a place which was called the Games of the Emperor. That place was a full crossbow shot and a half long and nearly one wide. Around this place were fully thirty or forty steps where the Greeks used to climb up to watch the games.  
And above these steps was a very tasteful and noble box where the emperor and the empress used to sit when there were games with the other important men and ladies....All along one side of this place was a wall which was surely fifteen feet high and ten wide; on this wall were statues of men, women, horses, oxen, camels, bears and lions as well as many kinds of beast, cast in copper, which were so well made and so naturally shaped that there was no master craftsman in Christian or pagan lands who knew how to sculpt or shape statues so skillfully as these statues were crafted. And in the past they used to play by magic. But they no longer play at all. And the Franks looked at these Games of the Emperor in amazement when they saw them."
Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople (XC)

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

"He [Constantine] decorated the hippodrome most beautifully, incorporating the temple of the Dioscuri [Castor and Pollux] in it; their statues are still to be seen standing in the porticoes of the hippodrome. He even placed somewhere in the hippodrome the tripod of the Delphic Apollo, which had on it the very image of Apollo."

Zosimus, New History (II.31)

"As many nations and cities throughout the whole realm of his [Constantine's] subjects retained a feeling of fear and veneration towards their vain idols, which led them to disregard the doctrines of the Christians, and to have a care for their ancient customs, and the manners and feasts of their fathers, it appeared necessary to the emperor to teach the governors to suppress their superstitious rites of worship. He thought that this would be easily accomplished if he could get them to despise their temples and the images contained therein.

To carry this project into execution he did not require military aid; for Christian men belonging to the palace went from city to city bearing imperial letters. The people were induced to remain passive from the fear that, if they resisted these edicts, they, their children, and their wives, would be exposed to evil. The vergers and the priests, being unsupported by the multitude, brought out their most precious treasures, and the idols called diopetê, and through these servitors, the gifts were drawn forth from the shrines and the hidden recesses in the temples. The spots previously inaccessible, and known only to the priests, were made accessible to all who desired to enter. Such of the images as were constructed of precious material, and whatever else was valuable, were purified by fire, and became public property.

The brazen images which were skillfully wrought were carried to the city, named after the emperor, and placed there as objects of embellishment, where they may still be seen in public places, as in the streets, the hippodrome, and the palaces. Amongst them was the statue of Apollo which was in the seat of the oracle of the Pythoness, and likewise the statues of the Muses from Helicon, the tripods from Delphos, and the much extolled Pan, which Pausanias the Lacedæmonian and the Grecian cities had devoted,—after the war against the Medes."

Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History (II.5)

Chariot Race at the Hippodrome

"From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders."

Eusebius, Life of Constantine (III.54)

The four bronze horses that used to be in the Hippodrome, today in Venice.

Model of the Hippodrome

This recreation shows the majesty and wealth of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Computer re-creation of the Hippodrome in Constantinople which 
could seat 30,000 or more people.
This image and those below used under Fair Use from Byzantium1200.
Review for comment, criticism and scholarship as allowed under FAIR USE section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C.
Those who have not done so should visit the article and images published by the website Byzantium 1200 and view their article on the Hippodrome of Constantinople.  The artists have done an exceptional and stunningly beautiful job as these three sample images can attest.
The historians and artists are groping in the dark.  The hippodrome vanished long ago.  They are using accounts by those who were there and surviving examples of Roman architecture in other parts of the empire.  The images on Byzantium may look very little like the real thing, or they may be dead on.  There is no way any of us can know for sure what it really looked like.  But we should all say a loud thank you to the artists at Byzantium 1200 for a very job well done. 

For more information:

(Wikipedia - Hippodrome of Constantinople)
(University of Chicago)