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

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Crusader-Byzantine Siege of Nicaea 1097

The Siege of Nicaea

The Siege of Nicaea took place from May 14 to June 19, 1097, during the First Crusade.

Nicaea, located on the eastern shore of Lake İznik, had been captured from the Eastern Roman Empire by the Seljuk Turks in 1081, and formed the capital of the Sultanate of Rüm.

Background to The First Crusade

The First Crusade (1096–1099) was the military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to assist the Eastern Roman Empire and regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the Levant (632–661).  Ultimately The Crusade resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 1099.

It was launched on 27 November 1095 by Pope Urban II with the primary goal of responding to an appeal from Eastern Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who requested that western volunteers come to his aid and help to repel the invading Seljuq Turks from Anatolia. An additional goal soon became the principal objective—the Christian reconquest of the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and the freeing of the Eastern Christians from Islamic rule.

Alexios I Komnenos
The Emperor was deeply concerned
about this huge, aggressive and very
hungry western army looting and killing
their way right up to his city gates.

During the Crusade, knights and peasants from many nations of Western Europe travelled over land and by sea, first to Constantinople and then on towards Jerusalem.

The Seljuq Turks had taken over almost all of Anatolia after the Roman defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, with the result that on the eve of the Council of Clermont, the territory controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire had been reduced by more than half.

By the time of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, the Eastern Roman Empire was largely confined to Balkan Europe and the northwestern fringe of Anatolia, and faced Norman enemies in the west as well as Turks in the east. In response to the defeat at Manzikert and subsequent Byzantine losses in Anatolia in 1074, Pope Gregory VII had called for the milites Christi ("soldiers of Christ") to go to Byzantium's aid.

Until the Crusaders' arrival the Romans had continually fought the Seljuqs and other Turkish dynasties for control of Anatolia and Syria.

The four main Crusader armies left Europe around August 1096. They took different paths to Constantinople and gathered outside its city walls between November 1096 and April 1097; Hugh of Vermandois arrived first, followed by Godfrey, Raymond, and Bohemond. This time, Emperor Alexios was more prepared for the crusaders; there were fewer incidents of violence along the way.

The size of the entire Crusader army is difficult to estimate; various numbers were given by the eyewitnesses, and equally various estimates have been offered by modern historians. Crusader  armies may have consisted of about 30,000–35,000 crusaders, including 5,000 cavalry. Raymond had the largest contingent of about 8,500 infantry and 1,200 cavalry.
Pope Urban II

The princes arrived in Constantinople with little food and expected provisions and help from Alexios. Alexios was understandably suspicious after his experiences with People's Crusade, and also because the knights included his old Norman enemy, Bohemond, who had invaded Byzantine territory on numerous occasions with his father, Robert Guiscard, and may have even attempted to organize an attack on Constantinople while encamped outside the city.

The Crusaders may have expected Alexios to become their leader, but he had no interest in joining them, and was mainly concerned with transporting them into Asia Minor as quickly as possible. In return for food and supplies, Alexios requested the leaders to swear fealty to him and promise to return to the Byzantine Empire any land recovered from the Turks.

Godfrey was the first to take the oath, and almost all the other leaders followed him, although they did so only after warfare had almost broken out in the city between the citizens and the crusaders, who were eager to pillage for supplies. Raymond alone avoided swearing the oath, instead pledging that he would simply cause no harm to the Empire. Before ensuring that the various armies were shuttled across the Bosporus, Alexios advised the leaders on how best to deal with the Seljuq armies that they would soon encounter.

In 1096, the People's Crusade, the first stage of the First Crusade, had plundered the land surrounding the city, before being destroyed by the Turks. As a result, Sultan Kilij Arslan I initially felt that the second wave of crusaders were not a threat. He left his family and his treasury behind in Nicaea and went east to fight the Danishmends for control of the Melitene.

The Collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw the total collapse of Roman eastern armies and provinces to the invasion of the Muslim Turks.
In a short 25 year period the Roman frontier was pushed back from Armenia in the far east to the walls of Constantinople itself.  The Empire lost all all of their military recruiting grounds and the tax base of Asia Minor.  It was a vicious body blow that the Empire never was able to recover from.
Eastern Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, requested that western volunteers come to his aid and help to repel the invading Muslim Seljuq Turks.  Pope Urban II put out a call for help.  The result was the Crusades.

The First Crusade - Terry Jones

Left to right: Crusaders Godfrey, Tancred, Raymond, Bohemund
March to Nicaea

The Crusaders began to leave Constantinople at the end of April 1097.  Alexius’s first goal was to recapture Nicaea, southeast of Constantinople.

The Seljuk Turks had captured this city and their Sultan, Kilij Arslan brazenly declared Nicaea his capital. They posed the greatest threat to Byzantium because of Nicaea’s close proximity to Constantinople. For that reason, it wouldn’t take much effort for the Turks to march north and invade Constantinople. Determined and ferocious, the Turks resisted every Byzantine attempt to re-conquer Nicaea. But now, Alexius had an immense Latin army at his disposal and he was prepared to unleash them, confident that they would drive the Turks out of Nicaea for good.

Since summer was fast approaching, Alexius was anxious to move the Crusaders along, and the Crusaders, themselves, were growing impatient.

It was a perfect time for the crusaders to lay siege to Nicaea because Kilij Arslan was embroiled in conflict with the Danishmend princes over the suzerainty of Melitene on his eastern frontier. His easy defeat of Peter the Hermit’s army taught Kilij Arslan that the crusaders were nothing more than a bunch of unskilled, rabble-rousers, so he did not fear them. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Just as he was the first prince to arrive in Constantinople, Godfrey of Bouillon was the first to march on Nicaea. He left Pelecanum sometime the end of April, his army joined by that of Bohemond’s which as commanded by Tancred, as well as Peter the Hermit and what remained of his following. Bohemond stayed in Constantinople and arranged with the emperor provisions for the crusaders: siege engines, food, armor and Byzantine soldiers.

Godfrey and Tancred’s combined forces arrived at Nicaea in early May, followed by those of Robert of Normany, Raymond, Count of Toulouse, the Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy and Stephen of Blois one month later.

The Crusaders saw almost right away that, to conquer Nicaea, would be no easy feat. It was heavily fortified: encircling the city was a 10 meter (33 foot) tall wall that was nearly 5 kilometers (3 miles) long in circumference. The wall boasted 114 towers from which warriors could keep watch for enemy advancement, and the western wall rose almost right out of Askanian Lake.

The only way to attack the city at its west end was by boat, but the Crusaders had no boats. Neither did the 2,000 Byzantine infantry — commanded by General Tatikios — who accompanied them. So, the one and only option to lay siege was to encircle the south, north and east walls, cutting Nicaea off from the outside world. Godfrey’s army blockaded the northern wall; Tancred positioned his troops outside the eastern wall; Raymond of Toulouse and the remaining princes took the southern wall.

The Walls of Nicaea
Southern gate; triumphal arches were incorporated when the walls

were built.  About 10,000 Seljuk Turks defended the city.

City wall around Nicaea

A section of the 5 miles of Roman walls still surrounding Nicaea.

The Siege of Nicaea

When Kilij Arslan learnt that the Crusaders had besieged Nicaea, he was caught off guard. He hastened back to his army, then marched on Nicaea with the intention to launch a surprise attack on the south wall. Kilij Arslan hid his army in the thickly wooded hills close to the city and, when he thought he could take the enemy by surprise, Kilij ordered his troops to attack.

But the Crusaders were not to be fooled: they were fully prepared to engage the Turks in battle. Prior to the Turkish ambush, they had caught a Turkish spy in their camp, forced him to reveal Kilij Arslan’s plans and abandon his sultan under pain of torture.

On May 16, the Turkish defenders sallied out to attack the Crusaders, but the Turks were defeated in a skirmish with the loss of 200 men. The Turks sent messages to Kilij Arslan begging him to return, and when he realized the strength of the crusaders he quickly turned back. An advance party was defeated by troops under Raymond and Robert of Flanders on May 20, and on May 21, the Crusader army defeated Kilij in a pitched battle which lasted long into the night. Losses were heavy on both sides but in the end the Sultan retreated, despite the pleas of the Nicaean Turks.

Faced no longer with the threat from Turks in the surrounding countryside, the crusaders refocused all of their energy on the siege. “Our men hurled the heads of the killed far into the city, that they (the Turks) might be the more terrified thereat,” the Gesta Account suggested. To the Christian warriors, catapulting heads of their enemy’s dead wasn’t enough: they placed some of those heads on spikes and paraded them around the walls in effort to strike greater terror into the hearts of the Turkish garrison, hoping that they will capitulate.

Crusaders throwing heads of Muslims over the ramparts.

The Turks, though, were not willing to submit: they put up a fierce resistance against the Crusaders. In retaliation, they strung up dead Christian warriors along the wall and left them there to rot.

After spending several weeks fighting, unable to breech the thick walls, the Crusaders realized that, if they were to capture Nicaea, they had to employ more than one strategy. They had effectively blockaded Nicaea from the outside world, but the west wall was left open, leaving that side of the city open to receive supplies from allies.

The Crusaders couldn’t scale the walls with ladders as earlier attempts to do so had failed. They also couldn’t bombard the walls with stones using mangonels; they couldn’t find stones large enough to penetrate those walls. So, instead, they bombarded the walls with light missiles while a contingent of troops attempted to undermine the walls by hand.

Another contingent of Christian warriors built a screen, made of oak that boasted a sloping roof. This screen was built to protect them from the onslaught of arrow heads, stones and boiling water or tar. They ran the screen up against the wall and began immediately to undermine the walls. “So they dug to the foundations of the wall and fixed timbers and wood under it and then set fire to it.

However, evening had come; the tower had already fallen in the night, and because it was night they could not fight with the enemy. Indeed, during that night the Turks hastily built up and restored the wall so strongly that when day came no one could harm them on that side.” This made the crusaders’ task at hand much more difficult because, faced with an equally formidable foe, they had to imagine a new and better strategy to take Nicaea.

Nicaea Northern city gate, 3 of the 4 gates survive, restricted to pedestrians.


Kingdom of Heaven Soundtrack

Nicaea Surrenders to Alexius I Comnenus

As June wore on, the early summer heat bore down upon the Crusaders, making their war against the Turkish garrison at Nicaea even more unbearable than it already was. But they were not all alone. All that time, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus made sure he was kept up to date on the siege. It was quite possible that his general commander, Tatikios, kept Alexius well informed. When no news of Nicaea’s capture came to his attention, Alexius decided to intervene.

The Crusaders, in the meantime, fought valiantly and ferociously, but the Turks displayed an equal level of military prowess. That was because Nicaea’s heavily fortified walls and aid from allies afforded them the ability to resist the Franks until Alexius showed up on the shores of Askanian Lake with a flotilla.

Emperor Alexius I chose not to accompany the Crusaders, but marched out behind them and made his camp at nearby Pelecanum. From there, he sent boats, rolled over the land, to help the crusaders blockade Lake Ascanius, which had up to this point been used by the Turks to supply Nicaea with food. The boats arrived on June 17, under the command of Manuel Boutoumites.

Byzantine Infantry
For the front line infantry the Composition
on Warfare (965 AD) describes a set of
minimal equipment consisting of a turban
over a thick felt cap and a coat (kavadion)
made of coarse silk quilted with cotton
wadding “as thick as can be stitched”. Leo's
Taktika implied that such troops might have
mail or lamellar, helmets and other armor.

“The Turks marvelled upon seeing them, not knowing whether they were manned by their own forces or the Emperor’s. However, after they recognized that it was the host of the Emperor, they were frightened even to death, weeping and lamenting,” the Gesta recorded.

It was at that point the Turks realized that if they continued to resist the now combined forces of Latins and Byzantines, they would all be massacred. So, they sent a letter to Alexius, expressing their desire to surrender the city, and begged for mercy; to let them leave with their wives and children unharmed.

Without the Crusaders knowing, Alexius conducted terms of surrender with the Turkish garrison and graciously allowed them to purchase their freedom. The Byzantines also took much of the booty inside the city without the Crusaders knowing. Nicaea was, once again and to Alexius’s greatest delight, under Byzantine dominion.

The siege of Nicaea was a high point in Byzantine-Latin relations: Emperor Alexius was immensely satisfied because the crusaders had, thus far, accomplished what he had required, while the crusaders were – despite the heavy losses they suffered – revelling in their first victory.

Alexius planned to reward the Franks, but before he did so, he made those who did not swear the oath in Constantinople – namely Tancred and Baldwin of Boulogne – swear their oath of allegiance to him. They did so, but begrudgingly.

Regardless, all of the Crusaders – warriors and non-combatants alike — were grateful for the emperor’s generosity. According to Fulcher of Chartres, a chronicler of the First Crusade, “The Emperor ordered gifts to be presented to our leaders, gifts of gold, and silver, and raiment; and to the foot-soldiers he distributed brass coins, which they call tartarons.” The emperor also made sure the poorer Franks were rewarded.


That task complete, Alexius provided the Latin princes with valuable advice: how to draw a battle line and how to lay an ambush. He even educated them on Turkish strategy and ordered Tatikios to accompany the Latin army with a small contingent of Byzantine soldiers.

Because they were preparing for the march south, further away from Constantinople, Alexius did not need to direct them as closely as he had at Nicaea. That is not to say he released the Crusaders from their duty to his empire. Alexius had every intention to direct them. Until the Crusaders reached the walls of Antioch, Alexius kept in contact with the princes.

The Crusaders left Nicaea on June 26, in two contingents: Bohemond, Tancred, Robert of Flanders, and Taticius in the vanguard, and Godfrey, Baldwin of Boulogne, Stephen, and Hugh of Vermandois in the rear. Taticius was instructed to ensure the return of captured cities to the empire. Their spirits were high, and Stephen wrote to his wife Adela that they expected to be in Jerusalem in five weeks.

On July 1, they defeated Kilij at the Battle of Dorylaeum, and by October they reached Antioch; they would not reach Jerusalem until two years after leaving Nicaea.

Results of the Siege of Nicaea
The Crusader-Roman victory at Nicaea had captured the capital of the Seljuk Turks.  The Crusader forces then poured into central Anatolia taking the battle to the Turks.  The Roman forces of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos fanned out behind the Crusaders re-capturing towns and lands in western Anatolia from the Muslims.
The push into Western Asia and the Holy Land by the Crusaders provided the Romans a much needed breathing spell to regroup and reorganize their Empire.

The First Crusade 1096-99
Siege of Nicea  -  The Gesta Account
". . . we began to attack the city on all sides, and to construct machines of wood, and wooden towers, with which we might be able to destroy towers on the walls. We attacked the city so bravely and so fiercely that we even undermined its wall. The Turks who were in the city, barbarous horde that they were, sent messages to others who had come up to give aid."
"The Count of St. Gilles and the Bishop of Puy. The Count, approaching from another side, was protected by divine might, and with his most powerful army gloried in terrestrial strength. And so he found the Turks, coming against us here. Armed on all sides with the sign of the cross, he rushed upon them violently and overcame them. They turned in flight, and most of them were killed."
"However, there was a large lake on one side of the city, on which the Turks used to send out their ships, and go back and forth and bring fodder, wood, and many other things. Then our leaders counselled together and sent messengers to Constantinople to tell the Emperor to have ships brought to Civitote, where there is a fort, and that he should order oxen to be brought to drag the ships over the mountains and through the woods, until they neared the lake."
"Moreover, at earliest daybreak the ships stood in good order and hastened through the lake against the city. The Turks marvelled upon seeing them, not knowing whether they were manned by their own forces or the Emperor's. However, after they recognized that it was the host of the Emperor, they were frightened even to death, weeping and lamenting; and the Franks were glad and gave glory to God."
"We were engaged in that siege for seven weeks and three days. Many of our men there received martyrdom, and, glad and rejoicing, gave back their happy souls to God. Many of the very poor died of hunger for the name of Christ."
Medieval Sourcebook: The Siege and Capture of Nicea
Account of Raymond d'Aguiliers
"We recognized, then, that the Emperor had betrayed Peter the Hermit, who had long before come to Constantinople with a great multitude. For he compelled him, ignorant of the locality and of all military matters, to cross the Strait with his men and exposed them to the Turks. Moreover, when the Turks from Nicea saw that unwarlike multitude, they cut them down without effort and delay to the number of sixty thousand. The rest, indeed, fled to a certain fortified place and escaped the swords of the Turks. The Turks, made bold and haughty by this, sent the arms and the captives which they had taken there to the Saracens and the nobles of their own race, and they wrote to the peoples and cities far off that the Franks were of no account in battle."

The Great Seljuk Empire

Emperor Alexius I:
Letter to the Abbot of Monte Cassino
 "I beseech you earnestly to furnish aid to the army of Franks, your most thoughtful letters state. Let your Venerable Holiness be assured on that score, for my empire has been spread over them and will aid and advise them on all matters; indeed, it has already cooperated with them according to its ability, not as a friend, or relative, but like a father. It has expended among them more than anyone can enumerate. And had not my empire so cooperated with them and aided them, who else would have afforded them help? Nor does it grieve my empire to assist a second time. By God's grace, they are prospering up to this day in the service which they have begun, and they will continue to prosper in the future as long as good purpose leads them on. A multitude of knights and foot soldiers have gone to the Eternal Tabernacle, some of which were killed; others died. Blessed, indeed, are they, since they met their end in good intent!"
Medieval Sourcebook: The Siege and Capture of Nicea
Princess Anna Comnena
"The august Emperor tarried about Pelacanum for some time, since he desired those Gallic counts who were not yet bound to him also to take the oath of loyalty. To this end, he sent a letter to Butumites, asking all the counts in common not to start upon the journey to Antioch until they had said farewell to the Emperor. If they did this, they would all be showered with new gifts by him. Bohemund was the first to prick up his ears at the mention of money and gifts. Quickly won by these words of Butumites, he strove industriously to force all the others to return to the Emperor - so greatly did cupidity move the man. The Emperor received them on their arrival at Pelecanum with magnificence and the greatest show of goodwill."
"At length, when they were assembled, he addressed them thus: "'You know that you have all bound yourselves to me by oath; if you do not now intend to ignore this, advise and persuade those of your number who have not yet pledged faith to take the oath." They immediately summoned the counts who had not sworn. All of these came together and took the oath."

11th Century Seljuk Turk Soldiers

(European History)        (Siege of Nicaea)        (First Crusade)        (Crusades)

(Anna Comnena - Alexiad)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Byzantine Castle of Sant'Aniceto and the Theme of Calabria

The Castle of Sant'Aniceto (also San Niceto) is an Eastern Roman Empire castle built in the early 11th century on a hill in Motta San Giovanni, now in the province of Reggio Calabria, southern Italy.

It is one of the few examples of High Middle Ages architecture in Calabria, as well as one of the few well-preserved Byzantine fortifications in the world. The name derives from that of St. Nicetas, a Eastern Roman admiral who lived in the 7th-8th centuries.

The castle is one of the few Byzantine fortifications subjected to the work of restoration and recovery.

The castle has an irregular shape, which resembles the shape of a ship with the bow facing the mountain and the stern to the sea.

Near the entrance are visible and two square towers at the foot of a short climb which connects it with the plain below there is a church equipped with a painted dome with a painting of Christ Pantocrator , subject typical of Byzantine art.

The walls have a height varying from 3 to 3.5 meters , a thickness of about one meter and are still in excellent condition. The construction materials used are mostly made ​​of stone square, brick and mortar.

Theme of Calabria
Theme of the Byzantine Empire
ca. 950 AD
Capital  Rhegion (Reggio Calabria)

Following the Muslim conquest of Sicily, from 902 the Theme of Sicily was limited to Calabria, but retained its original name until the middle of the 10th century.  The Castle of Sant'Aniceto would have been the principal Roman fortification of the theme against Arab attacks from Sicily.
The themes or themata were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of Byzantine territory and replaced the earlier provincial system established by emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great.

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman Army, and their names corresponded to the military units they had resulted from. The theme system reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries, as older themes were split up and the conquest of territory resulted in the creation of new ones. The original theme system underwent significant changes in the 11th and 12th centuries, but the term remained in use as a provincial and financial circumscription, until the very end of the Empire.

Arab Pirates
For centuries the Eastern Roman Empire was subjected to an endless series of invasions and raids from Muslim forces in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Castle of Sant'Aniceto was one of many fortifications used to ward off attacks by Muslims looking for gold, slaves or conquest.


The castle was built as a refuge and a warning place during a period in which the ravages of Muslim Saracen pirates on the Calabrian and Sicilian coasts were frequent. When the Normans conquered southern Italy, the structure was enlarged, with the addition of rectangular towers.

The Muslim conquest of Byzantine Italy began began with their first settlement in Mazara, which was occupied in 827.  The Arab-Byzantine war over Sicily lasted until 902, when the last major Byzantine stronghold on the island, Taormina, fell.  Isolated fortresses remained in Byzantine hands for a time.

The Emirate of Sicily lasted from 965 until 1061.  It was during the early 1000s that the Castle of Sant'Aniceto was built.  It was part of the defensive system of the Eastern Roman Empire against constent raids or invasions of Muslims from both Sicily and North Africa.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus

The Fatimid Caliph Ismail al-Mansur named Hassan al-Kalbi as emir of the island. As his charge soon became hereditary, his emirate became de facto independent from the African government.

In 950, Hassan waged war against the Byzantines in southern Italy, reaching up to Gerace and Cassano allo Ionio. A second Calabrian campaign in 952 resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine army; Gerace was again besieged, but in the end Emperor Constantine VII was forced to accept having the Calabrian cities pay a tribute to Sicily.

In 956, the Byzantines reconquered Reggio and invaded Sicily. A truce was signed in 960. Two years later a revolt in Taormina was bloodily suppressed, but the heroic resistance of the Christians in Rometta led the new Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas to send an army of 40,000 Armenians, Thracians and Slavs under his nephew Manuel who captured Messina in October 964.

On 25 October, a fierce battle between the Byzantines and the Kalbids resulted in a defeat for the former. Manuel, along with 10,000 of his men, was killed in the fray.

The new Emir Abu al-Qasim (964–982) launched a series of attacks against Calabria in the 970s while the fleet under his brother attacked the Adriatic coasts of Apulia, capturing some strongholds.

As the Byzantines were busy against the Fatimids in Syria and the Bulgars in Macedon, the German Emperor Otto II decided to intervene, and the allied German-Lombard army was defeated in 982 at the Battle of Stilo. However, as al-Qasim himself had been killed, his son Jabir al-Kalbi prudently retreated to Sicily without exploiting the victory.

11th Century Muslim Soldiers
North Africa and Sicily 
Byzantine Infantry, 11th Century
Stratēlatai Tagma & Varangian Gaurd Tagma, re-created military units.  The Eastern Roman forces fought a 75 year long war with Muslims for the control of the island of Sicily.
With the support of the Fatimids, al-Akhal defeated two Byzantine expeditions in 1026 and 1031. His attempt to raise a heavy tax to pay his mercenaries caused a civil war. Al-Akhal asked the Byzantines for support while his brother abu-Hafs, leader of the rebels, received troops from the Zirid Emir of Ifriqiya, al-Muizz ibn Badis, which were commanded by his son Abdallah.

In 1038, a Byzantine army under George Maniaces crossed the strait of Messina. This included a corps of Normans which saved the situation in the first clash against the Muslims from Messina. After another decisive victory in the summer of 1040, Maniaces halted his march to lay siege to Syracuse. Despite his conquest of the latter, Maniaces was removed from his position, and the subsequent Muslim counter-offensive reconquered all the cities captured by the Byzantines.

The Norman Robert Guiscard, son of Tancred, invaded Sicily in 1060. The island was split between three Arab emirs, and the sizable Christian population rose up against the ruling Muslims. After taking Apulia and Calabria, Roger I occupied Messina with an army of 700 knights.

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
As a general and later as Emperor he
organized campaigns in Sicily, the
Saracen Emirate of Crete, Mesopotamia,
Syria, Cyprus and Bulgaria.

In 1068, Roger de Hauteville and his men defeated the Muslims at Misilmeri but the most crucial battle was the siege of Palermo, which led to Sicily being completely in Norman control by 1091. After the conquest of Sicily, the Normans removed the local emir.

By the 11th century Muslim power in the Mediterranean had begun to wane.

With the passage of Calabria under the rule of the Normans , who conquered the fortress around the year 1050 , this structure was renovated and expanded with the addition of some rectangular towers. From this time were written documents that give news.

During the thirteenth century the castle became the command center of the burgeoning feud Sant'Aniceto who in 1200 was plagued by wars between the Angevins and Aragonese who took turns on the territory of Reggio, and like many other areas of Calabria , passed in different hands; in 1321 it was handed over to the Angevins.

In 1434 the Holy Niceto became barony and dominates the territories of Motta San Giovanni and Montebello (a reference earlier Motta San Giovanni is located in a document of 1412 ).

With the passage of time Sant'Aniceto gradually lost power and came into conflict with the city of Reggio and for this reason it was destroyed in 1459 by the Duke Alfonso of Calabria . Sant'Aniceto then finally fell at the hands of Reggini supported by the Aragonese, the final winners of the age-old struggle against the Angevins.

In a document dated 1604 Holy Niceto is said to belong to the Barony of Motta San Giovanni .

Arab troops of the period.

The Byzantine Castle of Sant'Aniceto

Castle of Sant'Aniceto
Italy, Motta Sant'Aniceto, Reggio Calabria. The Byzantine castle of Motta Sant'Aniceto was built in the 11th century. In the background, the Etna volcano.  The Byzantine troops in the castle were looking directly at the now Muslim conquered island of Sicily.  The Arabs were constantly attacking Byzantine troops in southern Italy. 

Emirate of Sicily
Map of Italy on the eve of the arrival of the Normans. The area they eventually conquered included Sicily, and all the territory on the mainland south of the Holy Roman Empire (the bold line), as well as southern regions of the Papal States and the Duchy of Spoleto.
The Emirate of Sicily was an Islamic state on the island of Sicily, which existed from 831 to 1072. Its capital was Palermo.
Muslims, who first invaded in 652 AD, seized control of the entire island from the Byzantine Empire in a prolonged series of conflicts from 827 to 902. Despite the invaders' Arabic language and Islamic faith, an Arab-Byzantine culture developed, producing a multiconfessional and multilingual state. The Emirate was conquered by Christian Norman mercenaries under Roger I of Sicily who founded the County of Sicily in 1071.
The Sicilian Muslims remained citizens of the multi-ethnic County and subsequent Kingdom of Sicily until deportations in the 1240s. Their influence remains in elements of the Sicilian language.

Southern Italy in 1084 after the Eastern Romans were driven out of Italy.  The map shows the remains of the Kalbid emirate, then fought over by multiple claimants, on the eve of the final Norman conquest.

(Castle of Sant Aniceto)          (History of Islam in southern Italy)

(Muslim conquest of Sicily)          (Themes of the Byzantine Empire)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Black Death of the Roman Empire

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

The Great Pestilence (A.D. 542‑543)
Long before the famous Black Death of the Middle Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire was devastated by the plague.  The massive deaths weakened the Empire and its economy.

History of the Later Roman Empire
by J. B. Bury


Justinian had been fourteen years on the throne when the Empire was visited by one of those immense but rare calamities in the presence of which human beings could only succumb helpless and resourceless until the science of the nineteenth century began to probe the causes and supply the means of preventing and checking them.
The devastating plague, which began its course in the summer of A.D. 542 and seems to have invaded and ransacked nearly every corner of the Empire, was, if not more malignant, far more destructive, through the vast range of its ravages, than the pestilences which visited ancient Athens in the days of Pericles and London in the reign of Charles II; and perhaps even than the plague which travelled from the East to Rome in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It probably caused as large a mortality in the Empire as the Black Death of the fourteenth century in the same countries.
The infection first attacked Pelusium, on the borders of Egypt, with deadly effect, and spread thence to Alexandria and throughout Egypt, and northward to Palestine and Syria. In the following year it reached Constantinople, in the middle of spring, and spread over Asia Minor and through Mesopotamia into the kingdom of Persia. Travelling by sea, whether from Africa or across the Adriatic, it invaded Italy and Sicily.
It was observed that the infection always started from the coast and went up to the interior, and that those who survived it had become immune. The historian Procopius, who witnessed its course at Constantinople, as Thucydides had studied the plague at Athens, has detailed the nature and effects of the bubonic disease, as it might be called, for the most striking feature was a swelling in the groin or in the armpit, sometimes behind the ear or on the thighs.
Hallucinations occasionally preceded the attack. The victims were seized by a sudden fever, which did not affect the colour of the skin nor make it as hot as might be expected.

The outbreak in Constantinople was thought to have been carried to the city by infected rats on grain boats arriving from Egypt. To feed its citizens, the city and outlying communities imported massive amounts of grain—mostly from Egypt. Grain ships may have been the original source of contagion, as the rat (and flea) population in Egypt thrived on feeding from the large granaries maintained by the government. The Byzantine historian Procopius first reported the epidemic in AD 541 from the port of Pelusium, near Suez in Egypt.

The Roman Emperor Justinian I
The Emperor contracted the disease himself yet survived.  The plague, which lasted from 541 to 543 decimated the Empire's population, and probably created a scarcity of labor and a rising of wages. The lack of manpower also led to a significant increase in the number of "barbarians" in the Byzantine armies after the early 540s

The Angel of Death comes.


The Historian Procopius Says -
"The fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. . . . But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later a bubonic swelling developed. . . . Up to this point everything went in about the same way with all who had taken the disease. But from then on very marked differences developed. . . . There ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease. For those who were under the spell of the coma forgot all those who were familiar to them and seemed to be sleeping constantly. And if any one cared for them, they would eat without waking, but some also were neglected and these would die directly through lack of sustenance."
"But those who were seized with delirium suffered from insomnia and were victims of a distorted imagination; for they suspected that men were coming upon them to destroy them, and they would become excited and rush off in flight, crying out at the top of their voices. And those who were attending them were in a state of constant exhaustion and had a most difficult time. . . . Neither the physicians nor other persons were found to contract this malady through contact with the sick or with the dead, for many who were constantly engaged either in burying or in attending those in no way connected with them held out in the performance of this service beyond all expectation. . . . [The patient] had great difficulty in the matter of eating, for they could not easily take food. And many perished through lack of any man to care for them, for they were either overcome with hunger, or threw themselves from a height."
Procopius continues, "And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became mortified and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died. And we would suppose that in all cases the same thing would have been true, but since they were not at all in their senses, some were quite unable to feel the pain; for owing to the troubled condition of their minds they lost all sense of feeling."
"Now some of the physicians who were at a loss because the symptoms were not understood, supposing that the disease centred in the bubonic swellings, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. And upon opening some of the swellings they found a strange sort of carbuncle [ἄνθραξ] that had grown inside them."

"Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil, and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death. Moreover I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards, and that they declared that many would be saved who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. . . . "
"While some were helped by bathing others were harmed in no less degree. And of those who received no care many died, but others, contrary to reason, were saved. And again, methods of treatment showed different results with different patients. . . . And in the case of women who were pregnant death could be certainly foreseen if they were taken with the disease. For some died through miscarriage, but others perished immediately at the time of birth with the infants they bore. However they say that three women survived though their children perished, and that one woman died at the very time of child-birth but that the child was born and survived."
"Now in those cases where the swelling rose to an unusual size and a discharge of pus had set in, it came about that they escaped from the disease and survived, for clearly the acute condition of the carbuncle had found relief in this direction, and this proved to be in general an indication of returning health. . . . And with some of them it came about that the thigh was withered, in which case, though the swelling was there, it did not develop the least suppuration. With others who survived the tongue did not remain unaffected, and they lived on either lisping or speaking incoherently and with difficulty."

Dead?  -  You Must Still Pay Taxes.
"When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable."
Secret History

This description shows that the disease closely resembled in character the terrible oriental plague which devastated Europe and parts of Asia in the fourteenth century. In the case of the Black Death too the chief symptom was the pestboils, but the malady was generally accompanied by inflammation of the lungs and the spitting of blood, which Procopius does not mention.
In Constantinople the visitation lasted for four months altogether, and during three of these the mortality was enormous. At first the deaths were only a little above the usual number, but as the infection spread 5000 died daily, and when it was at its worst 10,000 or upward. This figures are too vague to enable us to conjecture how many of the population were swept away; but we may feel sceptical when another writer who witnessed the plague assures us that the number of those who died in the streets and public places exceeded 300,000.

If we could trust the recorded statistics of the mortality in some of the large cities which were stricken by the Black Death — in London, for instance, 100,000, in Venice 100,000, in Avignon 60,000 — then, considering the much larger population of Constantinople, we might regard 300,000 as not an excessive figure for the total destruction. For the general mortality throughout the Empire we have no data for conjecture; but it is interesting to note that a physician who made a careful study of all the accounts of the Black Death came to the conclusion that, without exaggeration, Europe (including Russia) lost twenty-five millions of her inhabitants through that calamity.

At first, relatives and domestics attended to the burial of the dead, but as the violence of the plague increased this duty was neglected, and corpses lay forlorn not only in the streets, but even in the houses of notable men whose servants were sick or dead.

Aware of this, Justinian placed considerable sums at the disposal of Theodore, one of his private secretaries, to take measures for the disposal of the dead. Huge pits were dug at Sycae, on the other side of the Golden Horn, in which the bodies were laid in rows and tramped down tightly; but the men who were engaged on this work, unable to keep up with the number of the dying, mounted the towers of the wall of the suburb, tore off their roofs, and threw the bodies in.

Virtually all the towers were filled with corpses, and as a result "an evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more, and especially whenever the wind blew fresh from that quarter." It is particularly noted that members of the Blue and Green parties laid aside their mutual enmity and co-operated in the labour of burying the dead.

During these months all work ceased; the artisans abandoned their trades. "Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot. Certainly it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else." All court functions were discontinued, and no one was to be seen in official dress, especially when the Emperor fell ill. For he, too, was stricken by the plague, though the attack did not prove fatal.

Our historian observed the moral effects of the visitation. Men whose lives had been base and dissolute changed their habits and punctiliously practised the duties of religion, not from any real change of heart, but from terror and because they supposed they were to die immediately. But their conversion to respectability was only transient. When the pestilence abated and they thought themselves safe they recurred to their old evil ways of life. It may be confidently asserted, adds the cynical writer, that the disease selected precisely the worst men and let them go free.
Fifteen years later there was a second outbreak of the plague in Constantinople (spring A.D. 558), but evidently much less virulent and destructive. It was noticed in the case of this visitation that females suffered less than males.

Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death, an allegory on the universality of death, is a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

Bubonic plague victims in a mass grave from 1720-1721 in Martigues, France

The plague weakened the Eastern Roman Empire at a critical point, when Justinian's armies had nearly retaken all of Italy and the western Mediterranean coast; this evolving conquest could have credibly reformed the Western Roman Empire and reunited it with the Eastern under a single Emperor for the first time since 395.
As a result of plague in the countryside, farmers could not take care of crops and the price of grain rose at Constantinople. Justinian had expended huge amounts of money for wars against the Vandals in the Carthage region and the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy. He had dedicated significant funds to the construction of great churches, such as Hagia Sophia.
As the empire tried to fund these projects, the plague caused tax revenues to decline, possibly due to so many deaths and the disruption of agriculture and trade. Justinian swiftly enacted new legislation to deal more efficiently with the glut of inheritance suits being brought as a result of victims dying intestate.
The number of deaths will always be uncertain. Modern scholars believe that the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople at the peak of the pandemic. The initial plague ultimately killed perhaps 40% of the city's inhabitants and caused the deaths of up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. Frequent subsequent waves of the plague continued to strike throughout the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, with the disease becoming more localized and less virulent. One high estimate is that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 25 million people across the world.
After the last recurrence in 750, major epidemic diseases did not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century.

J.B. Bury - The History of the Later Roman Empire

(The Plague of Justinian)