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

Monday, April 22, 2013

Berat Castle, Albania


Berat Castle is a fortress overlooking the town of Berat, Albania. It dates mainly from the 13th century and contains many Byzantine churches in the area and Ottoman mosques. It is built on a rocky hill on the left bank of the river Osum and is accessible only from the south.

After being burned down by the Romans in 200 B.C., the walls were strengthened in the fifth century under Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, and were rebuilt during the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian I and again in the 13th century under the Despot of Epirus, Michael I Komnenos Doukas, cousin of the Byzantine Emperor.

Emperor Justinian

In the Siege of Berat the forces of the Angevin Kingdom of Sicily faced off against the Byzantine garrison of the city in 1280–1281.  Berat was a strategically important fortress, whose possession would allow the Angevins access to the heartlands of the Byzantine Empire.

A Byzantine relief force arrived in spring 1281, and managed to ambush and capture the Angevin commander, Hugo de Sully. Thereupon, the Angevin army panicked and fled, suffering heavy losses in killed and wounded as it was attacked by the Byzantines. This defeat ended the threat of a land invasion of the Byzantine Empire, and along with the Sicilian Vespers marked the end of the Western threat to reconquer Byzantium.

The main entrance, on the north side, is defended by a fortified courtyard and there are three smaller entrances.

The fortress of Berat in its present state, even though considerably damaged, remains a magnificent sight. The surface that it encompasses made it possible to house a considerable portion of the cities inhabitants. The buildings inside the fortress were built during the 13th century and because of their characteristic architecture are preserved as cultural monuments.

The population of the fortress was Christian, and it had about 20 churches most built during the 13th century and only one mosque, for the use of the Turkish garrison (of which there survives only a few ruins and the base of the minaret).

The churches of the fortress were damaged through years and only some have remained.

Berat Castle is depicted on the reverse of the Albanian 10 lekë coin, issued in 1996 and 2000.

Statue in Berat Castle (UNESCO World Heritage site), Albania

(Berat Castle)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Milion of Constantinople


Constantinople  -  Capital of the Western World

The Milion was a mile-marker monument erected in the early 4th century AD in Constantinople. It was the starting-place for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire and had the same function as the Milliarium Aureum of Rome.

The domed building of the Milion rested on 4 large arches, and it was expanded and decorated with several statues and paintings. It had survived intact, following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453), for about the next 50 years, but disappeared at the start of the 16th century. During excavations in the 1960s, some partial fragments of it were discovered under houses in the area.

The remains of the monument are located in Istanbul, in the district of Eminönü, in the neighborhood of Cağaloğlu, at the northern corner of the square of Hagia Sophia, and close to the Basilica Cistern

A fragment of the Milion has been
re-erected as a pillar.

History and description

When Emperor Constantine I the Great rebuilt the city of Byzantium to make it his new imperial capital, which he named Nova Roma ("New Rome"), he consciously emulated many of the features of "Old Rome".

Among these was the Milion: it was a tetrapylon surmounted by a dome, built in the first Region of the city, near the old Walls of Constantinople, at the very beginning of the main thoroughfare of the new city, the Mese, which at that point formed a bend.

The new building fulfilled the same role as the Milliarium Aureum in Rome: it was considered as the origin of all the roads leading to the European cities of the Byzantine Empire, and on its base were inscribed the distances of all the main cities of the Empire from Constantinople.

The monument was just west of the Augustaeum, and was much more complex than its Roman counterpart. It can be described as a double triumphal arch surmounted by a dome, which was carried by four arches. It was crowned by the statues of Constantine and his mother Helena with a cross, looking towards the east, between them.

A statue of the Tyche of the City stood behind them.

From the beginning of the sixth century, the building became an increasingly important station of the imperial ceremonial. Justinian I added to it a Sundial, while Justin II adorned the lower part with the statues of his wife Sophia, his daughter Arabia and his niece Helena . The monument was also adorned with equestrian sculptures of Trajan, Hadrian, Theodosius II and a bronze Quadriga of Helios.

During the first half of the eighth century, the vaults of the building were adorned by Emperors Philippikos and Anastasios II with paintings of past ecumenical councils, but during the Iconoclastic Age, Emperor Constantine V replaced them with scenes from the Hippodrome.

During the Comnenian Age, the Milion, due to its strategic position, witnessed fights in the city, like those between Nikephoros III and Alexios I, or those between imperial troops and Empress Maria of Antioch, who from this position was controlling the Augustaeum.

In the period 1268 to 1271, after the end of the Latin Empire, the Milion — together with the Augustaeum — became property of the church of Hagia Sophia.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453), the building remained intact up to the end of the fifteenth century. It disappeared possibly at the beginning of the sixteenth century because of the enlargement of the nearby aqueduct and the subsequent erection of the nearby suterazi (Turkish: "water tower", lit. "water scale").

In the years 1967 and 1968, following theoretical studies about the location of the monument and after the demolition of the houses placed above it, excavations revealed some foundations and a fragment (now re-erected as a pillar) belonging to the building. These remains could be positively identified as belonging to the Milion thanks to their vicinity to a part of bent Byzantine canalization. This seems to indicate the angle of the disappeared Mese, as reported by the literary sources.

Computer Re-Construction of the Milion.
This image 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.
The Milion was the Golden Milestone in the center of the city, close to the Basilica, the Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia, on which the distances to the important cities of the empire were inscribed. Built shortly after the foundation, it was restored in the time of Justinian and is last mentioned in 1268. According to the texts it was a tetrapylon, i. e. a square of four pillars connected by arches and covered by a domical vault.
The historians and artists at Byzantium 1200 did an respectable job recreating a building but not much more than that.  Not a lot of thought went into this project.  Still it is always worth the effort to review their website. 
(Milion of Constantinople)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Siege of Phasis - Rome vs Persia

Sassanid Persian Cavalry Reinactment

Siege of Phasis  -  Rome vs Persia

The Siege of Phasis took place in 555–556 during the Lazic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia. The Persians besieged the town of Phasis in Lazica, held by the Byzantines, but failed to take it. The main source for the siege is the 6th-century historian Agathias.


The Lazic War had started in 541 with the defection of the Lazi under their king Gubazes II from Rome to Persia. The Persians quickly overran the country, but after Gubazes learned that the Persians planned to kill him, deport his people and bring in Persian colonists, he asked the Byzantines for help.

In 554, the Persians won a major victory against the Laz-Byzantine forces at Telephis, forcing the latter to withdraw to the western parts of the country, and in the next year they were able to thwart a Byzantine attack on the fortress of Onoguris. In the spring of 556, the Persian general Nachoragan took the initiative in besieging their major stronghold, the town of Phasis, which lay at the mouth of the namesake river.

Byzantine Warrior

The exact site of Phasis has never been found.
The town's location was between the Black Sea and the River Phasis secured it from the east, north and west. At its south side, a moat was its first line of defense.  The Persians expected an easy victory as the town and its fortifications were built of wood and were vulnerable to fire.  The wooden fortifications above could have been something like what the Persians faced at Phasis.
A bridge of boats.
The city of Phasis was proteced by the river of the same name.  The Persians overcame that advantage by building a bridge of boats over the river and brought their infantry up to the walls.

Opposing forces and preparations for the siege

Nachoragan led an army of ca. 60,000 men. The Byzantine forces of the area were led by the magister militum per Armeniam Martin and his second-in-command Justin, son of Germanus. Their combined forces were less than 20,000 men. Nachoragan could expect an easy victory as the town and its fortifications were built of wood and were vulnerable to fire.

The Phasis River helped secure the city.

The town's location between the Black Sea and the River Phasis secured it from the east, north and west. At its south side, a moat was its first line of defense.

Nachoragan's forces however emptied the moat after days of hard work, and managed to surround the town from its river side too by building a bridge of boats across the Phasis.

Meanwhile, the Byzantines had organized the defense of the city, with their forces taking their places at the various sides of the fortifications.

The extreme western side, the one closest to the river, was guarded by Justin, while Martin positioned himself in the south-western side.

The south side was defended by Angilas, Theodore and Philomathius. Angilas is recorded leading a regiment of Moorish peltasts and spearmen, probably meaning they were only armed with shield and lances.

Theodore led heavy infantry consisting of Tzani, a recently Christianized tribe living in the mountains above Trapezus, while Philomathius led Isaurian slingers and dart-throwers.

The south-eastern side was guarded by Gibrus, who led a combined force of Heruli and Lombards. The extreme eastern side was guarded by Valerian, leading forces from the praetorian prefecture of the East. Their composition is not recorded. Finally, the Byzantine ships were placed under the protection of Dabragezas the Wend and Elmingir (Elminegeir) the Hun.

Eastern Roman infantry reenactors
The composition of the Roman Army at Phasis reflected the international nature and wide reach of the Empire.  Roman units came from as far away as Morocco.  Other ethnic groups represented were Huns, Isaurians, Heruli, Lombards and Wends (Western Slavs from Northern Europe).

Sassanid Cataphract

Events of the siege

Operations started with a volley of arrows from the Persians. Martin, the overall commander of the Byzantine troops, had given instructions to the whole army to stay at their respective posts. They were to disregard attempts by the Persians to induce them to sally forth from the fortifications and fight in the open. However, Angilas and Philomathius with about two hundred of their men opened a town gate, exited the town and attacked the nearest force of Sassanids whose archers were harassing the defenders.

Theodore at first attempted to restrain them, but then bowed down to "majority opinion" and followed them in attacking. He was reportedly reluctant to violate orders, but unwilling to be branded a coward by the soldiers.

The Byzantine force was heavily outnumbered, and Agathias reports that they "would almost certainly have been annihilated", but they were saved by an error of the Dailamites. The Dailamites were a force of auxiliaries, originating in the mountains of Persia. "They fought on foot, armed each with a sword, a shield, and three javelins".

Persian Dailamite infantry

They decided against attacking the Byzantines from a distance, and instead they "calmly awaited their approach" and then easily performed an encirclement. The encircled Byzantines however began a desperate attack on the enemies positioned closer to the town walls, and the Dailamites "opened up their ranks and made way from them" instead of standing their ground. Thus Angilas and the others escaped back to the safety of the city.

Martin eventually conceived a ruse of war, which would both raise the morale of his soldiers and spread fear in enemy units. He called the army in an assembly, supposedly to discuss further measures of defense. The assembly was interrupted by an unknown person, posing as a messenger from Constantinople.

Martin reported the contents of the "imperial message" to all those assembled. The fabricated message congratulated the defenders for their valour and informed them that reinforcements were approaching, and the "messenger" claimed that they were camped near the river Neocnus, at a short distance from the town itself. Martin then feigned indignation that newcomers would share the glory and spoil "with those who had borne the burden and the heat", to which his troops shouted their approval, being motivated to action.

The Byzantine reinforcements did not in fact exist, but news of their approach reached Nachoragan, who reacted in two ways. He first assigned a large reconnaissance force, sending them out to locate and observe the Byzantine reinforcements, and then launched the rest of his forces in a general attack on the walls, hoping to capture the city before the reinforcements arrived.

He boasted that he would burn the city and its inhabitants down, and sent his camp servants to the nearby woods and instructed them to gather timber to burn down the city. He also instructed them to watch for great smoke rising to the heavens, for it would mean that the city had fallen and that they should immediately return to help.

The Romans employed
Isaurian slingers and dart-throwers.

While Nachoragan was forming his plan, Justin decided to take advantage of the calm before the storm: he exited the city, leading a force of 5,000 men, cavalrymen and an infantry brigade to "a church of great sanctity in the vicinity".

We need to stop right here and question this part of the original account by the historian Agathias. 

Justin did not take 5,000 troops on some casual stroll or religious "pilgramage" to a local church.  With this seriously large force, there is no doubt that Justin was looking to meet the Persians and perhaps take out some smaller units that might have become separated from the main army.

Agathias says the Persians somehow failed to notice the departure of Justin's force, and began their great attack that same morning.  Did the Romans leave under cover of darkness to avoid detechtion?  We do not know, but it is a logical assumption.

A large Roman force walking out of the city implies that the Persians were not there in great enough numbers to completely cut off the city.

In the attack arrows and darts filled the air, while Sassanid siege weapons were attempting to destroy the wooden walls. The defenders answered by throwing "huge blocks of stone" at the weapons and smaller stones at the enemy soldiers.

The initial stages of the fight lasted long enough for Justin to return from his pilgrimage. He could not return to the city, but was able to organize his own forces and attack the rear of the enemy force. 

Attacking the rear of the Persians may, or may not, have been in the original Roman plan.  But a good general knows to take advantage of an opportunity.

The sudden attack of the Romans spread havoc, breaking through enemy lines. At least some of the Sassanid forces believed that Justin's men were the rumoured Byzantine reinforcements.

Panicked Sassanid troops started to retreat, and most of the Dailamites left their positions to "relieve those who were being hard pressed". Angilas and Theodore noticed that there were few troops left besieging their section of the fortifications and led a sortie against the besiegers.

The few Dailamites left behind were either slain or forced to flee, "pressed in relentless pursuit" by the Byzantine force. The other Dailamites noted that their kinsmen were in peril and abandoned their current positions in an attempt to face Angilas and Theodore, but their counterattack was disorganized and ineffective.

Sassanian Persian War Elephant Unit battle formation.
War Elephant Unit: Rider armed with spear and Persian 
Sword rides in front and archers armed with spears
and supplied with bow and arrows ride in the cabin.

The nearby Persian forces in turn thought that the Dailamites were retreating in haste, panicked and started fleeing "ignominiously in all directions". The Dailamites were left unsupported and "rushed to join them in flight".

Agathias regards them as the cause and victims of a "double misunderstanding". Angilas and Theodore thus succeeded in causing a general flight of the Sassanid forces. The rest of the Byzantine troops sallied forth from behind the walls and started pursuing the fleeing enemies. The entire left wing of the Sassanid army fell apart, although the right wing remained unbroken and continued to fight.

The right wing included the war elephants of the Sassanid force. They might have stopped the Byzantine advance, but one of the elephants panicked and turned against the Persian ranks. The horses of the Sassanid cavalry were terrified of the attacking elephant, panicked in turn and bolted. In the confusion, the Sassanid forces scattered.

Nachoragan gave the command to retreat, but by that time most of his forces had either already fled the battlefield or were in the process of doing so.

By the time night fell, the Persians had reportedly lost at least ten thousand fighting men and most of their siege equipment.

The Byzantine casualties "did not number more than two hundred". The Byzantines set the siege equipment on fire. The servants and porters of the Sassanid army reportedly mistook the smoke for a sign that the city had fallen, and started rushing towards the Byzantine lines. Nearly two thousand of them were killed that night, others captured.

Islamic Mughal Empire:  War Elephants
The Mughal Empire used war elephants in a sophisticated and pioneering manner, this part looks at the armour and tusks of the elephants.

The elephant war "tank" was used in wars for centuries in wars Africa, the Middle East and in Habbibal's famous invasion of Italy.

Aftermath  -  Flayed Alive

Nachoragan was already running out of supplies and winter was approaching. He broke off the siege and retreated the following day. His troops headed towards Kotais and Mochereisis. Sassanid reinforcements arrived too late to make a difference and also retreated. The Byzantine forces were left in undisputed control of the western districts of Lazica. Nachoragan eventually crossed into Caucasian Iberia to winter.

News of the disaster however reached the Persian shah, Khosrau I (r. 531–579), who was enraged with his general. Agathias reports that Nachoragan was flayed alive by orders of Khosrau. "His skin, torn off in one piece from head to foot, so as to retain the shape of the body, was sewn up and inflated like a bladder". Khosrau reportedly kept it on display as a warning against "anyone who fled before the enemies" of the King of Kings.

The Lazic War had started in 541 with the defection of the Lazi under their king Gubazes II from Rome to Persia. The Persians quickly overran the country, but after Gubazes learned that the Persians planned to kill him, deport his people and bring in Persian colonists, he asked the Byzantines for help.

The Roman - Persian Wars.
For centuries both empires had fought a series of nearly meaningless border wars with each other over the control of assorted smaller client states and selected fortresses.  For the most part, the Roman-Persian border hardly moved. 

Sassanid Persian Empire

Persian soldier at the walls of Ctesiphon, Persia.

(Lazic War)          (iranpoliticsclub.net - Sassanian)

(books.google - Siega of Phasis)         (Siege of Phasis)