Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Roman-Byzantine Fortress of Gholaia (Bu Njem)

There are many reasons to visit the ruins of ancient Gholaia or, as it is called today, Bu Njem (satellite). Admittedly, the remains don't look impressive when you approach them, but they belong to the most impressive monument of Libya: the Roman frontier zone, or Limes Tripolitanus.

The Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) ordered the construction of a line of fortifications, which completely changed this part of Libya, Tripolitana.

Emperor Septimius Severus
Lucius Septimius Severus Augustus
Today, this is desert, but the area is not as arid as it seems. In fact, there is sufficient rainfall, but it is highly unpredictable and irregular. However, when the wadis have dams and dikes, the water can be regulated, and the area can be developed for agricultural purposes. This is what happened in the early third century. The first stage was to build forts like Gholaia. This map shows that it was a stereotypical castellum with barracks, a bathhouse, headquarters and a residence for the commander.

It is easy to overestimate the military threat to the Empire's southern boundaries. One single legion, III Augusta, was capable of protecting a frontier zone of 2,500 km: rather less than the four legions that protected the 675 km of the Neckar- Rhine frontier. Nevertheless, nomadic incursions ought to be punished and the Roman government had to protect Tripolitana. In 201, soldiers of the Third started to build forts in the oases of Ghadames, Gheriat el-Garbia, and Bu Njem.

The forts were built by soldiers of the Third Legion Augusta. This can be deduced from the towers near the main gate, which are not square, as is usual, but five-angled. This can only be found in settlements of the Third, which was based in Lambaesis in what is now Algeria. Gates like this can also be seen in Theveste.

The new forts controlled the main roads through the desert, and were situated near oases. On this photo of Gholaia's eastern gate, you can see the Bu Njem oasis in the background. It is about 100 km from the coast. By blocking access to the wells, the forts protected the country that was to be developed against large groups of nomads (e.g., the Garamantes, who lived beyond the Gebel as-Soda).

Against small bands, however, guarding the wells offered insufficient protection, so the farms that were to be built, had to have strong walls to keep invaders out for some time. Examples can be found at Gheriat esh-Shergia, Ghirza, and Qasr Banat. There were also watchtowers that signaled the arrival of intruders. The Limes Tripolitanus was a fine system, and many people settled in Tripolitana as farmers, producing sufficient to make sure that towns like SabrathaOea (modern Tripoli), and Lepcis Magna prospered. Many settlers must have been veterans from the three forts.

The Fortress of Gholaia (Bu Njem)

Photo - Google Earth

Early in 202, the Emperor came to visit the frontier. Lucius Septimius Severus was
born in Lepcis Magna and and had been in charge of the Mediterranean Empire for
almost ten years. His visit to his native country is poorly documented, but the
Historia Augusta tells that 'he freed the Tripolitana, the region of his birth, from
fear of attack by crushing sundry warlike tribes' (Severus, 18.3).

Little is known about the desert war that appears to be implied, but it must have
taken place. Severus had already waged war beyond the Euphrates and was to wage
war north of the Antonine Wall, so a war beyond the imperial frontier in the Sahara
is not impossible, perhaps even likely. However this may be, an expedition against
a potential enemy to inspire fear fits within Rome's grand strategy.

Their culture, based on expert water management and vigilance, survived the Roman Empire. Of course, there were changes.

In the late fifth, early sixth century, there were serious troubles, but the Emperor Justinian reinforced the cities along the coast, built new towns (e.g., Theodorias) and the fortified farms were strengthened. An example is Suq al-Awty, which contains a small Byzantine church.
In the seventh century, the population converted to Islam and the Tripolitanan limes culture survived well into the eleventh century, when war between the Fatimid and Zirid dynasties resulted in invasions by the Banu Hillal nomads, who sacked countless settlements. Because many farms were abandoned, agricultural production fell, and the towns along the coast went into decline.
As a result, there were less people who could loot the abandoned forts and farms. (Oea is the exception.) The stones were never reused and were covered by desert sands. The settlements were forgotten until Italian archaeologists started to investigate them in the1920's and 30's.
The foundations of the Principia have survived reasonably well. Several columns surrounding the square court have been reerected by the French and Libyan archaeologists who studied the site in the 1970's.

The quad may have been used as a market place, because no other site can been identified. There must have been a small prison too; its existence is implied in Ostracon #71. (The ostraca from Bu Njem are sherds on which reports and letters were written. Some of them were discovered in the room you can see in front. A little to the rear is the only scriptorium that has been identified in a Roman fort.)

 Based on building style, the Third Legion
Augusta may have been used to build
forts in the Limes Tripolitanus.
The Principia (HQs) must have looked like the principia elsewhere; these buildings were the same all over the empire. Gholaia also had a square court surrounded by small rooms, a large transverse hall (basilica), and a shrine (sacellum) were the unit's standard was kept and venerated.  The unit's library must have been in one of the adjoining rooms.

The soldiers who served at Gholaia were recruited from all over Africa, like most legionaries of III Augusta. However, in 219, the Emperor Heliogabalus disbanded the Third Legion Gallica, and many soldiers of this unit were added to the African legion. This means that several soldiers in Gholaia were from Syria.

Memos were found that were written in the first half of the third century in Fort Gholaia. It belongs to a collection of more than 146 notes written on sherds that have survived the centuries. They enable us to catch a glimpse of everyday life in the fort. We read about soldiers on leave, about people who are ill, and about men sent to a police station where travelers feed and water their dromedaries.

We read about the arrival of fifty-four recruits, about the return of a soldier who has been on duty during a gladiatorial show, and about soldiers cutting wood for the heating of the fort's bathhouse. 

This last detail will surprise modern visitors of the ruin of Gholaia, near Bu Njem, because it is situated in the desert. The only wood in the neighborhood can be found in the palm grove in the nearby oasis, where cutting trees would be economical suicide. That the soldiers at Bu Njem were able to get wood, proves that in the third century, the country was greener and more fertile than today. The history of the Roman Sahara frontier is, therefore, in the first place a story about human interference with the ecological system.

The Byzantine church at Suq al-Awty in the Wadi Buzra
Roman settlement in the Libyan desert.

Olive production and Roman water management.
The Romans and Byzantines built dams and cisterns to capture the limited
rain fall. Local farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds,
dates, and perhaps melons.

Byzantine North Africa

The frontier civilization of the Limes Tripolitanus survived the Roman Empire, although with some difficulty, because the cities went into decline. However, the rural areas managed to cope with the change.

In the fifth century, the Tripolitanans had to fight against a new enemy: the Vandals, a European tribe that had fought itself a way through Gaul, Hispania, and Numidia and had settled in Carthage. For the first time since the Tripolitana had been conquered by the Romans, it became a real war zone. Riders on horse had to fight against warriors on dromedaries.

Much of the area was conquered from the Romans and the Vandals set up their North African kingdom from 435 to 534. 

As part of the re-conquest of Africa the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian organized an anti-Vandal revolt with the support of Byzantine troops from Egypt and Cyrenaica.  Tripolitana once again returned to Roman rule.

Emperor Justinian
Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus

An interesting side note, the historian Procopius (500 – c. AD 565) recorded that an Imperial official was brought from Libya to work in Constantinople.  The official spoke only Latin and naturally had difficulty with the many Greek speakers in the capital.  This small story tells us a great deal about a still flourishing Latin-Roman civilization in North Africa.

New garrisons were stationed in the three cities, where the sixth-century walls are still visible. The centenaria remained and some of them even became real palace villas called castra, like the one at Suq al-Awty, where a visitor can not only see the remains of the boundaries of the ancient fields, but also the ruin of a Byzantine church.

The olive oil production increased and appears to have been larger than ever and the countryside was wealthy, making the Tripolitana an almost natural target for Laguatan and Islamic expansion.

The Muslim Invasions

The Roman frontier zone, or Limes Tripolitanus, was designed to protect settlements and cities from desert raids coming from the south.  Invasion from Egypt was not expected.

First Invasion - The first invasion of North Africa, ordered by Caliph Umar, commenced in 647. Some 20,000 Arabs marched from Medina in Arabia, another 20,000 joined them in Memphis, Egypt, and Abdallah ibn al-Sa’ad led them into the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa.

The army took Tripolitania. Count Gregory, the local Byzantine governor, had declared his independence from the Byzantine Empire in North Africa. He gathered his allies, confronted the Islamic invasion force and suffered defeat (647) at the battle of Sufetula, a city 150 miles south of Carthage. With the death of Gregory his successor, probably Gennadius, secured the Arab withdrawal in exchange for tribute. The campaign lasted fifteen months and Abdallah's force returned to Egypt in 648.
Emperor Constans II
The last Roman Emperor
of Tripolitanus.

Second Invasion - Then, from 665 to 689, a new invasion of North Africa was launched.

It began, according to Will Durant, to protect Egypt "from flank attack by Byzantine Cyrene." So "an army of 40,000 Muslims advanced through the desert to Barca, took it, and marched to the neighborhood of Carthage." A defending Byzantine army of 30,000 was defeated in the process.

Next came a force of 10,000 Arabs led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and took the vanguard. In 670 the city of Kairouan (roughly eighty miles or 160 kilometers south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations.

This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.
Thus ended 800 years of Roman Africa.
7th Century Arab warrior

The regime change did not intervene with the economical or social structures. The linguistic change was small: many people still spoke Punic, and for them it was easy to learn Arabic. The centenaria/castra from now on being called qasr, pl. qsur.

Except for a new religion, the predesert civilization that was based on careful water management and constant vigilance remained the same. It was only in the eleventh century, when two Arabian dynasties, the Zirids and the Fatimids, were involved in a major war, that the system collapsed. After the garrisons had been transferred from the cities to the front, nomads of Banu Hillal tribe could capture the qsur. The agricultural production declined rapidly, the cities were no longer fed, and the remaining town dwellers abandoned Lepcis Magna and Sabratha to settle in Oea, which was from now on known as Tripoli.

The twelfth-century Sicilian geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi writes:

"Until recently, the Tripolitana was well-exploited and covered with fig trees, olives, dates palms, and other fruit trees. But the Arabs have completely destroyed this prosperity. The peasants were forced to leave the country, the orchards were destroyed, and the canals were blocked."  - - - Al-Idrisi, Roger's Book, 121.

What had for eight centuries been a wealthy province of the Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim empires, now became a desert again. The decline of the population meant that there was no one who could destroy the ancient cities, the qsur, the watchtowers, the forts. They were simply left as they were, until nine centuries after the collapse, the first archaeologists started to study them.

The excellent state of preservation makes the forts of the Limes Tripolitanus unique. Another reason is that there are few places on this planet where you can see the immense power of a Roman emperor. To protect his home town, Septimius Severus changed an entire ecosystem, and the result lasted for more than eight centuries. For this display of power, world history offers no parallel.

The Limes Tripolitanus
The Limes Tripolitanus was a frontier zone of defense of the Roman Empire, built in the south of what is now Tunisia and the northwest of Libya. It was primarily intended as a protection for the tripolitanian cities of Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Oea in Roman Libya.
The first fort on the limes was built at Thiges, to protect from nomad attacks in 75 AD. The limes was expanded under emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, in particular under the legatus Quintus Anicius Faustus in 197-201 AD.
Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza (then not dry like today) to regulate the flash floods. The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (centenaria). Two of them were really large. It was abandoned in the Middle Ages.

Fortress of Gholaia - East Gate

The fort at Bu Njem; oasis in the distance.

The Cardo (main road)

The Principia


The basilica in the Principia, seen from the place
where the ostraca were found.

(www.persee.fr/web)      (Septimius Severus)       (Legio III Augusta)

(vfp-archaeologie.uni)      (Umayyad conquest of North Africa)     

(www.livius.org/bu njem)      (Limes Tripolitanus)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Siege of Sirmium and The Invasion of the Avars

Left to right - Slavic peasant, Avar warrior and Avar nobleman approx. 7th century AD.

The Invasion of the Eurasian Avars

Christ, our Lord,
help our city halt the Avars.
Protect the Roman Empire,
and he who was written this.
A rooftile in Sirmium dated 582

The Roman Empire faced a thousand years plus of endless waves militaristic barbarian invasions including Huns, various Gothic tribes, Arabs, Bulgars and Turks.  The 6th century saw the newest barbarian tribe to threaten the Empire - the Avars.

The Avars were a group of equestrian warrior nomads who established an empire spanning considerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe from the late 6th to the early 9th century. They were ruled by a Khagan, who led a tight-knit entourage of professional nomad warriors.

In 557, the Avars sent an embassy to Constantinople, marking their first contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, presumably from the northern Caucasus. In exchange for gold, they agreed to subjugate the "unruly gentes" on behalf of the Byzantines. They conquered and incorporated various nomadic tribes -- Kutrigur Bulgars, Onogur/Utigur Bulgars, and Sabirs—and defeated the Antes.

By 562 they controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea and the lower Danube basin. By the time they arrived in the Balkans, the Avars formed a heterogeneous group of about 20,000 horsemen. After the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-565) bought them off, they pushed northwest into Germania. However, Frankish opposition halted further expansion in that direction.
Roman Emperor Maurice
Flavius Mauricius Tiberius Augustus
Maurice stabilized the Roman frontier
in the Balkans.
By Emilian Stankev (from ‘Rulers of the
Byzantine Empire’ published by KIBEA)

Seeking rich pastoral lands, the Avars initially demanded land south of the Danube River (in present-day Bulgaria), but the Byzantines refused, using their contacts with the Göktürks as a threat against Avar aggression. They thus turned their attention to the Carpathian plain and to the natural defenses it afforded.

By about 580 the Avar Khagan, Bayan, established supremacy over majority Slavic, Hunno-Bulgar, and Germanic tribes. When the Eastern Roman Empire was unable to pay subsidies or hire Avar mercenaries, the Avars raided their Balkan territories.

According to Menander, Bayan commanded an army of 10,000 Kutrigur Bulgars and sacked Dalmatia in 568, effectively cutting the Byzantine land link with North Italy and the West.

At Maurice's accession, the greatest omissions of his predecessors were to be found in the Balkans. Justinian I neglected Balkan defenses against the Slavs, who threatened the frontier since 500 and pillaged the Balkan provinces ever since.

Although he rebuilt the fortifications of the Danube Limes, he abandoned campaigns against the Slavs in favour of a policy focusing on western and oriental theatres.

His nephew and successor Justin II played off the Avars against the Gepids and later on against the Slavs. But this only allowed the Avar Khaganate to become a more powerful threat than Gepids and Slavs. As Justin II let the Avars attack the Slavs from Roman territory, they soon noted where the most booty was to be made.

To make matters worse, Justin II started the Roman-Persian War of 572–591, which tied down forces in the east at a time when they were needed in the Balkans. Maurice's predecessor and father-in-law Tiberius II Constantine emptied the treasury. For all those reasons, the Slavic incursions in the Balkans continued.

A few months before Maurice's accession in the winter of 581/2 the Avar Khagan Bayan, aided by Slavic auxiliary troops, took Sirmium, a large fortified settlement south of the Danube. Doing this, Bayan established a new base of operations within Roman territory from which he could raid the anywhere in the Balkans unhindered.

The Avars were only compelled to leave territory once the Romans under Maurice agreed to pay 80,000 solidi annually. The Slavs, partially under Avar rule, were not bound by the treaty and continued to pillage south of the Danube, making the Avars and Slavs quite different threats.

An Avar Invasion
Originally from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, the Avars were a group of equestrian warrior nomads who established an empire spanning considerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe from the late 6th to the early 9th century.

Roman Wars on Four Fronts
Romans faced wars on multiple fronts in the Balkans,
Italy, North Africa and against the Persian Empire.

So many historians fail to understand the unbelievable military and economic pressure the Eastern Roman Empire was under from constant invasions.

Simply, the barbarian invasions never ended.  They just kept coming over and over.  The massive military expense of wars drained the Empire dry.  Virtually all available funds were spent just to survive leaving little for building projects.

A major consideration is what I call the "de-Latinization" of the Empire.  With every barbarian thrust over the border you saw the destruction of Roman peoples, towns, cities, infrastructure and the economy.  Lands lost to the Empire meant a loss of taxes paid to Constantinople as well as recruiting grounds for soldiers to defend the state.

Every day was a nightmare.  -  Historians tend to write about a single Eastern Roman battle with no thought given to an Empire wide view. 
While the  Eurasian Avars were invading the
Balkans the Romans fought an invasion of
Italy by the Germanic Lombard tribe. 

The Eastern Emperors and their generals in Constantinople woke up every day to a living nightmare of horror.  The Empire was monstrously huge with multiple wars both large and small often happening simultaneously on several continents.  If the Emperor transferred troops from one front to strengthen another he would only invite invasion on the first front.

The Avars were only one of many problems.

Tiberius II Constantine negotiated a truce with the Avars, paying them 80,000 nomismata per year, for which the Avars agreed to defend the Danube frontier, thereby allowing Tiberius to transfer troops across to the east for a planned renewal of the conflict against the Persians.

In 575 Tiberius began moving the armies of Thrace and Illyricum to the eastern provinces. Buying time to make the necessary preparations, he agreed to a three-year truce with the Persians, paying 30,000 nomismata, though the truce excluded action in the region around Armenia.

Not content with making preparations, Tiberius also used this period to send reinforcements to Italy under the command of Baduarius with orders to stem the Lombard invasion. He saved Rome from the Lombards and allied the Empire with Childebert II, the King of the Franks, in order to defeat them. Unfortunately, Baduarius was defeated and killed in 576, allowing even more imperial territory in Italy to slip away.

Tiberius was unable to respond as the Persian Sassanid Emperor Khosrau I struck at the Empire’s Armenian provinces in 576, sacking Melitene and Sebastea. Shifting his attention eastward, Tiberius sent his general Justinian with the eastern armies to push the Persians back across the Euphrates. The Byzantines followed, and pushed deep into Persian territory, culminating in a raid on Atropatene.

In 577, however, Justinian was defeated in Persian Armenia, forcing a Byzantine withdrawal.  In response to this defeat, Tiberius replaced Justinian with the future Emperor Maurice. During the truce which Tiberius concluded with Khosrau, he busily enhanced the army of the east, not only with transfers from his western armies but also through barbarian recruits, which he formed into a new Foederati unit, amounting to some 15,000 troops by the end of his reign.

Roman – Persian War of 572–591
The Roman armies faced a major war with the Persian Empire in the east.  At the same time they face invasion in the Balkans by the Avars, the invasion of Italy by the Lombards and a North African war against the Berbers. 

Solidus of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine wearing consular robes.

Throughout 577 and into 578, Tiberius avoided all other entanglements which would have distracted him from the approaching Persian conflict. He appeased, quite successfully, both Chalcedonian and Monophysite Christians by the use of strategic appointments and the easing of persecutions. He paid the Lombard tribal chieftains some 200,000 nomismata in an attempt to keep them divided and prevent the election of a king.

When the Slavs invaded Illyricum, he transported Avar armies to attack them and force their retreat. Consequently, when Khosrau invaded Roman Mesopotamia in 578, his general Maurice was able to invade Persian Arzanene and Mesopotamia, sacking a number of key towns and forcing the Persians to abandon their advance and defend their own territory. It was during this period that the ailing Emperor Justin finally died in early October 578.

The ongoing success against the Persians in the east once again allowed Tiberius to turn his gaze westward. In 579 he again extended his military activities into the remnants of the Western Roman Empire – he sent money and troops to Italy to reinforce Ravenna and to retake the port of Classis. He formed an alliance with one of the Visigothic princes in Spain who was fomenting rebellion, and his generals defeated the Berbers in North Africa.

The reality, however, was that the Empire was seriously overextended. In 579, with Tiberius occupied elsewhere, the Avars decided to take advantage of the lack of troops in the Balkans by besieging Sirmium.

At the same time, the Slavs began to migrate into Thrace, Macedonia and Greece, which Tiberius was unable to halt as the Persians refused to agree to a peace in the east, which remained the Emperor’s main priority. To top it all off, the Army of the East was beginning to become restless, as they hadn’t been paid, to the point where they threatened to mutiny.

In 580, the general Maurice launched a new offensive, raiding well beyond the Tigris. The following year (581), he again invaded Persian Armenia, and succeeded in almost reaching the Persian capital at Ctesiphon before a Persian counter-invasion of Byzantine Mesopotamia forced him to retreat back to deal with this threat.

By 582, with no apparent end to the Persian war in sight, Tiberius was forced to come to terms with the Avars, to whom he agreed to pay an indemnity and to hand over the vital city of Sirmium, which the Avars then destroyed. Unfortunately, the migration of the Slavs continued, with their incursions reaching as far south as Athens.

Although a new Persian invasion was halted with a significant defeat at Constantina in June 582, by this stage Tiberius was dying, apparently having eaten some poorly prepared, or possibly deliberately poisoned, food.

The City of Sirmium
Protected on two sides by the Sava River, Sirmium would have presented major
problems to any attacking army.
In the 1st century AD, Sirmium gained a status of a colony of the citizens of Rome, and became
an important military and strategic center of Pannonia province. The war expeditions of
Roman Emperors Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Claudius II were prepared in Sirmium.
The only known unexcavated Roman Hippodrome in the world is in Sirmium. A colossal
building about 150m wide and 450m long lies directly under the Sremska Mitrovica town
center and just beside the old Sirmium Emperor's Palace (one of just a few Sirmium publicly
accessible archeological sites). The presence of the arena has clearly affected
the layout of the present town.
Ammianus Marcellinus called Sirmium "the glorious mother of cities".

The Attacks on Sirmium (568–582 AD)

The Siege of Sirmium in 580–582 was a decisive event in the history of the Balkans.

The endless invasions by Eurasian barbarian tribes resulted in a steady "de-Latinization" of the Roman Balkan provinces.

For centuries Sirmium had served as a major civilian and military capital for the Roman Empire.  The fall of the city to the Avars deprived the Romans of its major stronghold on the northwestern Danube, opening the path for devastating incursions by the Avars and their Slavic allies into the Balkans.

Sirmium, which for much of the 6th century had been controlled by the Goths and then the Gepids, had come back under Roman control in 567. The Avars appeared along the Danube at about the same time.

The Avars launched a first attack on Sirmium in 568, but were seen off by the local governor, Bonus.

Bonus resurfaces in chronicles about 568-570 as a general. His exact position in the military hierarchy is uncertain, but the location of his activities at Sirmium, while still being in charge of the Danube limes, suggests the position of a magister militum  per Illyricum.

The spring of 568 found the Avars besieging Gepid controlled Sirmium.  Avar khagan Bayan's ultimate objective was Sirmium; at the original negotiations, he already requested that Langobards provide guides who could lead him against Sirmium.

Avar Nobleman

Moving in through the Moravian Pass and along the left bank of the Danube, 'taking immense pains and covering a long distance,' he set upon the Gepids. The late Langobard chronicles naturally attribute to their own king and people the glory of defeating the Gepids. But Byzantine contemporaries, who were well-informed and had a direct interest in the matter, recorded that it was Bayan who had 'defeated them in war' and 'smashed the Gepids' state'.

Bayan defeated the Gepids' main force, led by King Kunimund; the latter was killed in battle, and Bayan, in keeping with ancient Eastern custom, had his opponent's skull turned into a drinking bowl before presenting it — ostensibly in friendship — to Alboin.

Thereupon, Bayan immediately crossed the Danube to attack Sirmium's Gepidic defenders. The commander of the latter, Usdibad, did not wait for the Avars to arrive; he and his soldiers surrendered to the East Roman forces, who were on a state of alert. The Gepids' heir apparent, Reptila, fled to Constantinople, as did the head of the Gepid Arian Church, Bishop Thrasarik.

By the time Bayan reached Sirmium, the town was already defended by Bonos's Byzantine troops; the latter repulsed the Avar cavalry, which was unprepared for the siege of a fortress.

Bonus was in charge of the defense within the walls and was wounded in combat. When negotiations started between the defenders and the besiegers, Bonus was initially unable to attend the meetings. The Avars started suspecting that their opponent was dead, forcing Bonus to appear to them in person. The Avars eventually agreed to lift the siege in exchange for a "gift" (payment). Bonus sought the approval from Emperor Justin II.

Months later, Bonus allowed an Avar embassy to cross Byzantine areas towards Constantinople. The negotiations at the capital failed. Justin II reprimanded Bonus for granting protection to an embassy that had clearly unacceptable demands. His message to Bonus also warned the general to prepare for renewed hostilities. In 569/570, Tiberius II Constantine, the comes excubitorum, instructed Bonus to guard the river crossings of the Danube once more. His subsequent activities are unknown.

The 10th-century Suda lexicon preserves another fragment of Menander Protector concerning Bonus, though its context is left unclear. The passage has Bonus warning his men that the Avars use battle cries and the beating of the drums to unnerve their enemies. He instructs his forces to answer with battle cries of their own. 

The "Suda On Line" project translates the relevant passage (E, 2310): "The Avars in their battle-charge wanted to raise a confused and fierce noise, and along with their yelling to make a thud on their drums, so that the din would be raised so much that it would astonish and terrify the Roman army. Since Bonos knew this in advance, he forewarned the soldiers, so that they would not be dumbfounded by the melee, but imitating in advance what was going to happen, to be accustomed to what was to come by the similarity even before the event, and when they perceived the beating of the drums, they themselves would beat in return with their shields and shout the war-song and sing a paean and make a thump on the water-pots (which were made of wood)."

The Byzantines secured peace with the Avars through the payment of an annual tribute, which by 578 had risen to some 80,000 solidi.

Eastern Roman Soldiers

The Second Attack on Sirmium (580 - 582 AD)

In 580 began the second attack on Sirmium.  The problem is this is yet another major Byzantine military campaign with nearly zero historical information available.  Even Edward Gibbon's massive "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" spends only a few sentences on the subject with no meaningful detail.

We need to fill in the huge historical gaps using logic and our knowledge of other campaigns.

Was the city of Sirmium Important?  -  The actions of both the Romans and the Avars prove the city was very important.  In two campaigns the Avars targeted the city first for conquest.  The second campaign lasted nearly three years indicating a political and military will to make the capture of the city a priority as a key to the future conquest of the Balkans.

For the Romans, Sirmium had been an important regional and Imperial capital for centuries.  An Imperial Palace complex had been built there and a Hippodrome constructed for public entertainment.  The importance of the city is indicated that the Roman commander refused to surrender the city to the enemy for nearly three years until instructed to do so by the Emperor.
Roman Urban Militia
Modern reconstruction of 6th century urban
militiaman.  His blue tunic marks him as
a member of the “Blues Circus Fraction”.
The double head eagle though appeared
after the 14th century.
Thanks to Koryvantes

Certainly the Avars felt they had to take the city before trying to advance deeper into the Balkans.  The Avars could not move south with a major Roman garrison intact in their rear.

What Forces Were Involved?  -  There are no records of the numbers of troops involved.  We do know that the Emperor shipped regiments from the Balkans to the eastern front to fight in the Persian War.   Historians claim the city did not have enough provisions or an "effective" garrison . . . whatever that might mean. 

But the truth of the events has the city garrison, perhaps with the help of a drafted militia,  standing against the Avars for nearly three years.  So there were enough soldiers at hand to man the walls and protect the city.

The Avars would have needed a significantly larger force than the Romans in order to maintain a siege.  I suspect their force would fluctuate over the months and years, but at least several thousand would be on hand to keep the Romans trapped inside.

Was The City Reinforced?  -  We know at the beginning of the siege that the Emperor ordered officers from Illyria and Dalmatia to the city to help organize the defenses.  I suspect the officers did not travel alone so they may have brought a small party of soldiers with them.  It is very possible that over the years that the garrison received periodic small amounts of supplies and reinforcements from neighboring Roman towns.

The Avars may have controlled the countryside with their cavalry, but they faced the task of keeping thousands of their troops supplied with food for years.

What Fighting Took Place?  -  Unfortunately there are no records of battles with the Avars, but I am almost 100% sure that the opposing forces did not sit and stare at each other doing nothing for nearly three years.

The Avars were equestrian warrior nomads who appeared to have no ability or interest in constructing siege weapons to bring down the city walls.  A siege causing starvation is the best they could manage. 

The Avar Khagan would have faced rebellion in his ranks from restless soldiers with nothing to do for months on end.  The Khagan initially would have tried attacks on the city testing the defenses.  As the Romans held firm the Khagan would probably have planned a regular series of smaller day and night probes of the city walls hoping to catch the Romans off guard.

Being short on troops the Roman garrison may not have responded to the Avar attacks beyond cheering from the walls at the defeat of the enemy.  If neighboring Roman garrisons had tried to help resupply Sirmium by river or land at night there could have been a number of small actions against the Avars.

The Nearby Roman Fortress of Singidunum.

What We Do Know  -  Historian Edward Gibbon says the Avar Khagan Bayan I marched with his men to the Roman Fortress of Singidunum which controlled the conflux of the Danube and Sava Rivers.  An Avar fleet of large boats had been constructed to transport bridge making materials up the rivers. 

The Roman commander of this strong garrison challenged the Khagan as to his intentions saying his movements were a violation of the peace treaty.  The Khagan swore oaths that he was not hostile to the Empire saying, "If I violate my oath may I myself, and the last of my nation, perish by the sword."  The Khagan claimed he was simply moving to attack Slav invaders who had refused to pay the Avars their annual tribute.

The Bishop of Singidunum held services with the rather disrespectful Avars who gave even more oaths of friendship.

The Avar Khagan marched with his men from Singidunum following the right bank of the Sava River to Sirmium.

Once the city was besieged Bayan said, "Inform the Emperor that Sirmium is invested on every side.  Advise his prudence to withdraw the citizens and their effects, and to resign a city which it is now impossible to relieve or defend."
Byzantine Infantry 6th C. AD

The city at the time lacked a large enough garrison and unprepared to withstand a siege, as most of the Byzantine forces were engaged in the east against Sassanid Persia.  The Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II tried to forestall the Avar attack by diplomatic means, but when the Khagan′s ambassador demanded the surrender of the city Tiberius said in reply, "I would sooner give your master one of my two daughters to wife than I would of my own free will surrender Sirmium."

An interesting side note.  The Avar ambassador was returning from Constantinople with his Roman escort when the entire party was killed by Slav pillagers.  This casually mentioned event in Byzantine accounts tells us a great deal about the lawless conditions in the open countryside of the Roman Balkan provinces.

Tiberius's armies were committed in Persia and Italy, but managed to send in a few officers from Dalmatia and Illyria to oversee the city's defenses.  The Roman commander Theognis met with the Khagan on the islands of Casia and Carbonaria, but the negotiations proved to be fruitless.

Despite the relative weakness of the garrison, the city resisted for almost three years.  With no end in sight for the Persian War in late 581 or early 582, shortly before his death, that Tiberius agreed to surrender the city in exchange for the lives of its citizens. The Avars spared the population, but took their possessions and 240,000 solidi from the Emperor, as arrears of the tribute owed over three years.


The Slavs took advantage of the siege of Sirmium to raid deeply into Roman territory.  The Slavs began to raid further south into Macedonia and Greece, evidenced by many coin hoards in the region, particularly in Attica near Athens and in the Peloponnese.

With Sirmium taken Bayan established a new base of operations within Roman territory from which he could raid the anywhere in the Balkans unhindered.

The new Emperor Maurice's forces were tied down for years in a war against the Persians.  He could muster only a small army against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans.

In a long campaign lasting until 602 Maurice pacified the Balkan borders, a feat not performed since the reign of Anastasius I. Avars and Slavs had been kept sternly at bay. The provinces were at a stage of potential recovery; reconstruction and resettlement were the keys to firmly secure Roman rule again. Maurice had plans to settle Armenian militia peasants within the depopulated areas and to Romanize the Slavs settlers in the area.

Golden Roman helmet found near Sirmium; it has been
exhibited in the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad.

Imperial Palace Complex
  Only part of the Imperial Palace Complex at Sirmium can be seen. The walls and pavements preserved there represent for the most part the residential quarters of the palace. Evidence of the luxurious interior decoration is provided by the fragments of frescoes, mosaic pavements and architectural ornament in various kinds of stone, which were imported from different parts of the Roman Empire – Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy.
Installations for a radiant heating system were uncovered beneath almost every floor in the Sirmium Imperial Palace. The long duration and frequent use of the Imperial Palace are documented by the numerous structural repairs, mosaic pavements in several levels and the large quantity of archaeological artifacts recovered.

Ruins of Imperial Palace at Sirmium

Northern Balkans in the 6th century.
Click on map to enlarge.

Sirmium, Capital of the Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum
In 293, with the establishment of tetrarchy, the Roman Empire was split into four parts; Sirmium emerged as one of the four capital cities of the Roman Empire, the other three being Trier, Mediolanum, and Nicomedia and was the capital of Emperor Galerius. With the establishment of Praetorian prefectures in 318, the capital of the prefecture of Illyricum was Sirmium, remaining so until 379, when the westernmost Diocese of the Praetorian prefecture of Illyricum, Pannonia (including Sirmium), was dettached and joined to the Praetorian prefecture of Italia assuming the name of Diocese of Illyricum. The eastern part of Illyricum remained a separate prefecture under the East Roman Empire with its new capital in Thessalonica.
From the 4th century, the city was an important Christian center, and the seat of the Bishop of Sirmium. Five church councils, the Councils of Sirmium, were held in Sirmium. The city also had an emperor's palace, horse racing arena, mint, arena theatre, theatre, as well as many workshops, public baths, temples, public palaces and luxury villas. Ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus called it "the glorious mother of cities".
At the end of the 4th century, Sirmium was brought under the sway of the Goths, and later, was again annexed to the Eastern Roman Empire. In 441, Sirmium was conquered by the Huns, and after this conquest, it remained for more than a century in the hands of various other tribes, such as Eastern Goths and Gepids. For a short time, Sirmium was the centre of the Gepid State and King Cunimund minted golden coins there. After 567, Sirmium reverted to the Eastern Roman Empire. The city was finally conquered and destroyed by the Avars in 582.

(AVAR RULE)      (Eurasian Avars)      (Avar Khaganate)      (Siege of Sirmium)

(Maurice Balkan Campaigns)      (Singidunum)      (Tiberius II Constantine)

(panacomp.net/Serbia - Sirmijum)      (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

Baynes, Norman H. (1913), "Chapter IX. The Successors of Justinian", The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. II: The rise of the Saracens and the foundation of the Western Empire, New York: Cambridge University