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, August 21, 2014

The Danube Limes - Protecting the Roman Balkans

Reconstruction of a Limes tower in Germany.

The First Line of Defense - The Limes

A limes was a border defence or delimiting system that marked the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

The Latin noun limes had a number of different meanings: a path or balk delimiting fields, a boundary line or marker, any road or path, any channel, such as a stream channel, or any distinction or difference. In Latin, the plural form of limes is limites.

The word limes was utilized by Latin writers to denote a marked or fortified frontier. This sense has been adapted and extended by modern historians concerned with the frontiers of the Roman Empire: e.g. Hadrian's Wall in the north of England is sometimes styled the Limes Britannicus, the frontier of the Roman province of Arabia facing the desert is called the Limes Arabicus, and so forth.

It would be a misunderstanding that there ever was one limes system of defense. There was a difference between the solid limes of Britain ("Hadrian's Wall"), and the more open system of forts in Syria. Still, there are some similarities. 

The most important one is the easiest to ignore: the grand strategy of the empire was, on the whole, defensive. The Sahara, Euphrates, Danube, and Rhine were natural frontiers, and it was exceptional when the Romans launched new campaigns of conquest. If territory was added, it was to shorten the frontier, or to improve a vulnerable part of the frontier. The exception that proves the rule is Trajan's conquest of Dacia.

The basic principle of defense was deterrence: wherever the enemy attacked, he would always find a professional, heavily armed Roman force that often outnumbered him. Except for the desert frontier, the limes usually consisted of a clear line where the enemy had to stay away from (e.g., Hadrian's Wall or the river Danube).

However, sometimes the line was attacked. The soldiers in the watchtowers signaled the invasion to the nearby forts. The watchtowers themselves were lost, but the invaders would immediately have to face with Roman forces from nearby forts.

Almost always, this was sufficient to deal with the situation. If the attackers were able to reach and loot a city, they would be massacred on their way home. The final act of every attempt to attack the empire was Roman retaliation against the native population.

A combination of force and diplomacy was used to control the border. 

Photo: Danube Limes Project

Think of the word "Porous"
The Danube Limes was not a solid wall defending the Empire's frontier.  Rather it a was a series of fortified cities, small forts and watchtowers.  The Limes was porous with assorted invading Slavs, Huns or Avars pouring through on raids dedicated to looting or conquest.  In theory the Roman/Byzantine strongpoints would slow down invaders allowing for troops stationed close by to push the enemy back over the border. 

The Danube Limes

The frontier of the Roman Empire, from the Danube to the Black Sea, played a crucial role in making and breaking emperors and protecting Roman society along its course.

Along the Danube from Bavaria to the Black Sea there is a frontier system with fortresses and fortlets built by the Roman army such as Carnuntum (Austria), Aquincum (Budapest, Hungary), Viminacium (near Belgrade, Serbia) or Novae (Svistov, Bulgaria). Together with hundreds of watchtowers and large urban settlements they are part of an impressive military machine.

The river itself was the most dominant element of the frontier system, used as a demarcation line against the Barbarian world to the north and as a fortified transport corridor.

The forts, situated mostly on the right side of the river, acted as check-points to control traffic in and out of the empire. Their ruins, above and below ground, visible or non-visible, are often in remarkable shape and well integrated in the landscape.

Some of the early Limes defenses were built in the early Empire period.

The fall of the Western Empire impacted the ability to man the Danube Limes to a degree.  But the Eastern Empire still needed to defend their Balkan borders from invading tribes.

In the east the original Roman Limes system would slowly melt away.  It would be replaced by an Eastern Roman line of fortified towns and strongpoints.

The Byzantines struggled for centuries to maintain anything like a recognizable Balkan border.  Invading tribes from Central Asia were constantly pouring over the Danube River and conquering Roman territory all the way down into Greece and up to the walls of Constantinople itself.

The Byzantines sometimes saw their strongpoints fall almost as fast as they could be built.  A truly permanent Limes system was rare.  But a system of fortifications of one kind or another was used through 1204.

The Limes Fortress of Novae
The legionary fortress in Novae (modern Bulgaria) on the Danube River. The fortress, the same as other military bases, was surrounded by the civilian settlement (canabae) which constituted with its camp a specific settlement structure. Topography and planning of settlements of this kind is not well-recognized, since only a few have been excavated so far, mainly in the western part of the Empire.

Fortress of Novae
The Roman military fortress at Novae was established in AD 45 (46) by Legio VIII Augusta. The Legio I Italica was stationed there in AD 69 and until the second quarter of the 5th century AD Novae was its main camp. Up until now within the camp have been investigated the headquarters of the legion, one of the residences of the senior officers – the tribunes, the military hospital and the legion’s thermae, upon which the episcopal complex was erected in the second quarter of the 5th century AD.
In the late 5th and 6th centuries Novae was a bishopric. The cathedral and neighbouring buildings were built west of the former legionary headquarters. The last period of prosperity was during the reign of Justinian (527-565) when the defensive walls were rebuilt and reinforced. The town existed until the early 7th century AD, when it was destroyed by the attacks of Avars and Slavs.

Roman Limes:
Frontier line of the Roman Empire in the Iron Gate area

By Vladimir Kondić
Former director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.  Below are a few excerpts from the much longer article that apply to the Byzantine period.

Although it is very probable that Valentinian and Valens undertook reconstruction work on a larger scale because of the Gothic threat, the archaeologically most noticeable phase is the period of horrible destruction and fire immediately following the battle of Harianople. But, basic fortification elements like walls, gates, and lowers remained almost unchanged.

In the following period, under new conditions, when units of foederati protected the frontier, all the ruins were filled in and levelled, making a platform where the limitanei built the wattle and daub homes which are so evident at Pontes and Diana. This period in the history of the frontier lasted until the middle of the fifth century. Thanks to the fortunate discovery of five solidi (the latest an issue of 443) of Theodosius II we know the exact termination date of the Iron Gate Roman limes.

The Huns’ invasion from the direction of Niš (Naissus) caused such destruction that Procopius correctly described the situation as disastrous. Fortifications were razed to the ground, and at Diana the south wall with its gate and the fourth-century porticoed building were destroyed. Thick layers of burnt rubble, building debris and ash covered most of the fortress and mark the end of the five centuries of its existence. Other fortresses suffered a similar fate. This period was the terminal phase of the restored, late Roman limes and the northern frontier of the empire. The final renaissance of the Danubian limes occurred under Justinian I.

The significant testimony of Procopius concerning the renovation and reinforcement of the Danubian frontier has been confirmed in its entirety by our recent archaeological research.

Procopius paid considerable attention to construction work on the Iron Gate frontier (limes) and provided at times rather detailed information about the former Roman frontier. The sequence in which he comments on the fortifications in those sectors which have been investigated make it possible to identify the Roman and early Byzantine toponyms for some sites whose ancient names were not known previously (e.g. Kantabaza, Smyrna, Campsa).

Furthermore, excavations in the Iron Gate gorge have demonstrated that Justinian’s builders in the early Byzantine period entirely retained the disposition of fortifications from the former Roman frontier. Some elements of the earlier Roman castella were altered, most likely because of the requirements of a new defensive strategy, and at locations which were in greater danger because of their topographic circumstances completely new fortifications were constructed. Now it is possible with complete certainty to reconstruct the composition of the Justinianic limes on this part of the Danube.

The fortresses can be divided typographically into the following groups:
  1. Renovated Roman auxiliary and other minor forts.
  2. Renovated late Roman burgus – forts (from the Diocletian and Constantine periods).
  3. New early Byzantine forts built around renovated late Roman burgus-forts.
  4. Completely new early Byzantine forts.
After the Huns’ invasion in 443 AD damages to the forts were not repaired until the early sixth century, which for this sector of the Danubian limes is the only period devoid of any traces of activity. Then in the early Byzantine period all the auxiliary bases on the limes were renovated. The former Roman forts for the most part were renovated on the basis of their original plans. The most frequent alterations which can be observed are the closing-off of gates. These were either walled up or replaced by large rectangular or circular towers. Usually the corner towers were completely rebuilt.

At the fortress Diana (early Byzantine Zanes) at the southeast corner a new tower was built in a horseshoe-shape with an apsidal termination, and two fortification walls were joined together in a point to form a type of bastion. The southern wall and gate, which had been razed to their foundations by the Huns, were rebuilt in exactly the same plan as before and the gate remained the only one in use. In the interior of the fortress, without any type of regular disposition, buildings of wood, earth and courses of poorly joined stones were erected.

At Novae (early Byzantine Nobas) the former Roman south gate was completely closed-off and new circular towers were built in place of the earlier east and west gates. All the towers in this fortress were built afresh, with circular plans. The situation is similar at other forts. Everywhere fortification walls were significantly reinforced, most often from the inside. At the former Roman quadriburgium Campsa, the alterations were somewhat more radical. The south gate was closed-off and two new U-shaped towers were added there. Additionally, all of the auxiliary bases contained solidly built, single-nave churches.

Reconstruction of a Limes strongpoint.

The second category of renovation was the least complicated. The Diocletian-Constantine period castella received reinforced fortification walls (cc. one meter thick), and new entrances without towers, features not previously present in these complexes, were constructed. Certainly the most interesting form of renovation consisted of the erection of completely new and characteristically early Byzantine fortification walls around the former burgi. In these situations the renovated burgi functioned as watch towers.

Two outstanding fortifications of this type are Glamija and Donje Butorke. The latter has a more complex plan, with piers on two of the towers and one rectangular tower with an apsidal termination. This type of fortification recalls in a certain sense an inaccurate statement of Procopius (De Aedificiis, 4.1) in which he states that Pincum, Cuppae, and Noveae were formerly only Roman towers around which Justinian caused buildings to be erected and to which he granted municipal status after their defenses were strengthened. As mentioned above, during the Roman period civilian settlements of a type which did not exist in Justinian’s time developed around the auxiliary bases. Could it be that Procopius in his exaggeration of credit to the emperor actually had in mind the construction of new fortresses around earlier Roman towers?

Finally, the last group consists of purely Justinianic castella which were completely new constructions. Up to date six of these have been discovered on the Iron Gate section of the limes. Saldum (Kantabaza) in plan is an irregular rectangular with three circular towers and a single elongated one with an apsidal termination. The fort at Bosman is the only complex with a triangular plan on this part of the Danube and is skillfully into the restricted space between the mountain range and the river. The eastern fortification wall, located right on the river, was laid out in a convex line so that high water levels on the river would not be able to damage it seriously.

The fort at Hajdučka Vodenica was constructed on the site of an earlier tower which was not renovated in the sixth century. It is situated high on the river bank, and from each and of its northwest perimeter wall extends a fortification wall with a tower at its end to protect a small river harbour. The forts at Milutinovac and at the mouth of the Slatinska river are very similar in both construction and size (55 x 55 m.). They are defended by circular towers with square foundations on defensive walls which are turned toward the river and form the foundation for an upper-level entrance.

In almost all of the fortresses of Justinian time one layer of ash and destruction debris can be observed which can be dated to 580 AD when a forceful Slavic incursion on this part of the Danube was recorded. However, the fortresses themselves did not experience such significant destruction that they could not be once again renovated after the passage of that crisis. However, even this strong system of fortifications could not withstand a disastrous attack by combined forces of Slavs and Avars in 596 AD, and it was then that the Justinianic limes was definitively destroyed.

Full article

Castra Capidava, Romania
During the 2nd and 3rd century AD a Roman fort was built in the area, later overbuilt by a Late Roman fort, which lasted from the 4th to the 6th century AD.  The fort functioned as a guard of the Danube River and ford. At the banks of the Danube a massive harbour wall, 2.50 m thick and 60 m long, was found.
The fortified settlement played an important role in the Roman defensive system belonging to the series of camps and fortifications raised during the reign of Emperor Trajan, in the early 2nd century, as part of the measures to organize the Danubian limes. Capidava being part of the Limes Moesiae.  Destroyed by Goths in the 3rd century, the fortifications were rebuilt in the next century. 
Sources between the 4th to 6th centuries talk about cavalry units.  The fort was abandoned in 559 after the invasion of the Cutriguri.  the city was rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 10th century.  In the spring of 1036, an invasion of the Pechenegs devastated large parts of the region, destroying the forts at Capidava and Dervent and burning the settlement in Dinogeţia.

Fortress of Viminacium
Viminacium, in modern Serbia, was a major city and military camp and the capital of Moesia Superior.  The city dates back to the 1st century AD, and at its peak it is believed to have had 40,000 inhabitants, making it one of the biggest cities of that time. It lies on the Roman road Via Militaris.
Viminacium was devastated by Huns in the 5th century, but was later rebuilt by Justinian. It was completely destroyed with the arrival of Slavs in the 6th century. Today, the archaeological site occupies a total of 450 hectares (1,100 acres), and contains remains of temples, streets, squares, amphitheaters, palaces, hippodromes and Roman baths.

Roman Balkans in the 6th century.
Click to enlarge.

The Eastern Romans faced invasion by an endless series
of tribes pouring in from Central Asia.

(Borders of the Roman Empire)      (livius.org)      (Limes)

(castrumandquonset)      (provinces.uw.edu)      (icpdr.org)

(danube-cooperation.com)      (latvany-terkep.hu)      (danube-limes)

(danubelimesbrand.org)      (bnr.bg/en)      (historyfiles.co.uk)

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Byzantine-Crusader Re-Conquest of Egypt

Knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem - Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

The Invasion of Egypt
  • The year 1169 saw the last great military offensive of the Eastern Roman Empire.  A huge Byzantine fleet of 230 warships and transports conducted an amphibious landing on the north coast of Egypt.  The aim was to conquer Egypt and divide the nation between the Empire and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A failed and poorly coordinated joint invasion of Egypt by the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Eastern Roman Empire could have changed history. 

With the proper forces and will power there was the potential to drive out the Muslim rulers of Egypt and restore Christian rule much as was done centuries later in Spain.

Invasions of Egypt

King Amalric of the Kingdom of Jerusalem led his first expedition into Egypt in 1163, claiming that the Fatimids had not paid the yearly tribute that had begun during the reign of Baldwin III. The vizier, Dirgham, had recently overthrown the vizier Shawar, and marched out to meet Amalric at Pelusium, but was defeated and forced to retreat to Bilbeis.

The Egyptians then opened up the Nile dams and let the river flood, hoping to prevent Amalric from invading any further. Amalric returned home but Shawar fled to the court of Nur ad-Din, who sent his general Shirkuh to settle the dispute in 1164.

In response Dirgham sought help from Amalric, but Shirkuh and Shawar arrived before Amalric could intervene and Dirgham was killed. Shawar, however, feared that Shirkuh would seize power for himself, and he too looked to Amalric for assistance. Amalric returned to Egypt in 1164 and besieged Shirkuh in Bilbeis until Shirkuh retreated to Damascus.

King Amalric I
of Jerusalem

Amalric could not follow up on his success in Egypt because Nur ad-Din was active in Syria, having taken Bohemund III of Antioch and Raymond III of Tripoli prisoner at the Battle of Harim during Amalric's absence. Amalric rushed to take up the regency of Antioch and Tripoli and secured Bohemund's ransom in 1165 (Raymond remained in captivity until 1173).

The year 1166 was relatively quiet, but Amalric sent envoys to the Byzantine Empire seeking an alliance and a Byzantine wife, and throughout the year had to deal with raids by Nur ad-Din, who captured Banias.

In 1167, Nur ad-Din sent Shirkuh back to Egypt and Amalric once again followed him, establishing a camp near Cairo; Shawar again allied with Amalric and a treaty was signed with the caliph al-Adid himself. Shirkuh encamped on the opposite side of the Nile. After an indecisive battle, Amalric retreated to Cairo and Shirkuh marched north to capture Alexandria; Amalric followed and besieged Shirkuh there, aided by a Pisan fleet from Jerusalem.

Shirkuh negotiated for peace and Alexandria was handed over to Amalric. However, Amalric could not remain there indefinitely, and returned to Jerusalem after exacting an enormous tribute.

Upper register: Manuel and the envoys of Amalric, an embassy which
resulted in the despatch of the Byzantine force under Kontostephanos
to invade Egypt. Lower register: arrival of the crusaders in Egypt.
(William of Tyre's Historia)

Byzantine Alliance

The ties between Jerusalem and Constantinople grew into a close alliance.

King Baldwin III of Jerusalem (r. 1130 – 1163) had enough prestige to seek a wife from the Byzantine Empire. In 1157 he sent Humphrey of Toron to negotiate with Emperor Manuel, and it was decided that Baldwin should marry Theodora, Manuel's niece. The alliance was more favourable to Byzantium than Jerusalem, as Baldwin was forced to recognize Byzantine suzerainty over Antioch, and if Theodora were to be widowed she would be provided the city of Acre.

Though Theodora personified the Byzantine-Jerusalem alliance, she was not to exercise any authority outside of Acre. The marriage took place in September 1158, when Baldwin was 28 years old and Theodora only 13.

Relations between Jerusalem and Byzantium improved and in 1159 Baldwin met with Manuel in Antioch. The two became friends, with Manuel adopting western clothes and customs and participating in a tournament against Baldwin.

Emperor Manuel I Comnenus

Baldwin died at age 33. Theodora, now queen-dowager, retired to Acre. She was still only 16 years old; their marriage was childless. Baldwin was succeeded by his brother, Amalric I.

During Amalric's reign, Jerusalem became more closely allied with the Byzantine Empire, and the two states launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt.

After his return to Jerusalem in 1167, Amalric married Maria Comnena, a great-grandniece of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. The negotiations had taken two years, mostly because Amalric insisted that Manuel return Antioch to Jerusalem. Once Amalric gave up on this point he was able to marry Maria in Tyre on August 29, 1167.

During this time the queen dowager, Baldwin III's widow Theodora, eloped with her cousin Andronicus to Damascus, and Acre, which had been in her possession, reverted into the royal domain of Jerusalem.

In 1168 Amalric and Manuel negotiated an alliance against Egypt, and William of Tyre was among the ambassadors sent to Constantinople to finalize the treaty. Although Amalric still had a peace treaty with Shawar, Shawar was accused of attempting to ally with Nur ad-Din, and Amalric invaded. The Knights Hospitaller eagerly supported this invasion, while the Knights Templar refused to have any part in it.

In January 1169 Shirkuh had Shawar assassinated. Shirkuh became vizier, although he himself died in March, and was succeeded by his nephew Saladin. Amalric became alarmed and sent Frederick de la Roche, Archbishop of Tyre, to seek help from the kings and nobles of Europe, but no assistance was forthcoming. Later that year however a Byzantine fleet arrived, and in October Amalric launched yet another invasion and besieged Damietta by sea and by land.

The Eastern Empire sent a large navy and army to invade Egypt including
20 large warships, 150 galleys and 60 transports.
The Byzantine Dromon
Literary sources and accounts reveal that there were at least three varieties of Dromon. These were, firstly the Ousiako which took its name from one company or Ousia of one hundred men. This was a two banked galley with the lower rank rowing only, and the upper rank rowing or disengaging to fight when required. Secondly the slightly larger the Pamphylos with a crew of between 120-160. Secondly the Dromon proper, which had a crew of two hundred, fifty on the lower bank, and one hundred on the upper bank in two files, together with fifty marines.
A description of some of the ships is given by Princess Anna Komnene:
"The emperor knew that the Pisans were skilled in warfare at sea and was afraid to clash with them. Thus he ordered the construction on all the ships of bronze and iron heads of lions and other wild animals of all types, with open mouths and covered in gold leaf, so that their appearance alone was enough to spread fear. The liquid fire that was to attack the enemy would pass through the mouths of these heads, so that it would appear verily that they were vomiting forth flames..."

Byzantine - Crusader Invasion of Egypt

The great invasion of Egypt did not happen on a whim or by accident.  There was a long history of an alliance between Byzantium and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Also, the invasion itself required a huge amount of planning and expense.

Control of Egypt was a decades-old dream of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and king Amalric I of Jerusalem needed all the military and financial support he could get for his policy of military intervention in Egypt. Amalric also realized that if he were to pursue his ambitions in Egypt, he might have to leave Antioch to the hegemony of Manuel who had paid 100,000 dinars for the release of Bohemond III.

In 1165, he sent envoys to the Byzantine court to negotiate a marriage alliance (Manuel had already married Amalric's cousin Maria of Antioch in 1161). After a long interval of two years, Amalric married Manuel's grandniece Maria Komnene in 1167, and "swore all that his brother Baldwin had sworn before."

A formal alliance was negotiated in 1168, whereby the two rulers arranged for a conquest and partition of Egypt, with Manuel taking the coastal area, and Amalric the interior.

In the autumn of 1169 Manuel sent a joint expedition with Amalric to Egypt: a Byzantine army and a naval force of 20 large warships, 150 galleys, and 60 transports, under the command of the megas doux Andronikos Kontostephanos, joined forces with Amalric at Ascalon.
Byzantine Soldier

William of Tyre, who negotiated the alliance, was impressed in particular by the large transport ships that were used to transport the cavalry forces of the army.

Forces Involved

Records of the number of troops involved do not exist.  We must speculate.

Kingdom of Jerusalem  -  At the Battle of Hattin in 1187 the Kingdom fielded and army of 20,000 including 15,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.  That battle was an all out effort by the Kingdom.  The invasion of Egypt with the King at the head of the army and with a Byzantine alliance would have been considered a major campaign requiring a larger army.

Let us say King Amalric marched into Egypt with a force of 40% of that at Hattin.  That would give the King 8,000 troops to add to the force brought by the Romans.

Eastern Roman Empire  -  Records do show a massive Roman fleet of 230 ships that included 60 transports. 

We should look at the navy and marines on each ship.  Each ship could have a crew of at least 100 men.  Larger ships could have 350 men with an additional complement of Marines that could number 50 men.  Multiplying out these numbers over 230 ships shows a staggeringly large number of sailors and Marines that could run well over 10,000 men.

But more importantly, these ships were transporting an army to attack Egypt.  William of Tyre, who negotiated the alliance, was impressed in particular by the large transport ships that were used to transport the cavalry forces of the army.  The cavalry would require a large infantry support force to attack Egyptian cities and armies.

If only 50 extra Roman soldiers were placed on each ship you are looking at an army of at least 11,500 men.  If there was an average of 75 extra men on each ship the army grows to 17,250 men.  Both of these numbers would be in the traditional range for a Byzantine army in the field.

The Egyptians  -  The army of Egypt was mostly on the defensive.  In the case of the city of Damietta, there was a large enough force of Muslims to man the defenses, but little more. 

No doubt there were thousands of Egyptian troops roaming the countryside looking to take advantage of any mistakes the invaders might make, and to prevent foraging expeditions to resupply the Christian army.

Modern Damietta, Egypt
The Egyptian port was the target of a joint invasion by the
Byzantines and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A long-range attack on a state far from the center of the Empire may seem extraordinary.  The last time the Empire had attempted anything on this scale was the failed invasion of Sicily over one hundred and twenty years earlier.  The campaign can be explained in terms of Manuel's foreign policy, which was to use the Latins to ensure the survival of the Empire.

This focus on the bigger picture of the eastern Mediterranean and even further afield thus led Manuel to intervene in Egypt: it was believed that in the context of the wider struggle between the crusader states and the Islamic powers of the east, control of Egypt would be the deciding factor. It had become clear that the ailing Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt held the key to the fate of the crusader states.

If Egypt came out of its isolation and joined forces with the Muslims under Nur ad-Din, the crusader cause was in trouble.

As usual with many Byzantine campaigns the historical records are thin.  But we know that the Emperor appointed an important general to command this important invasion force. 

Andronikos Andronikos was the leading Byzantine military figure during the reign of his uncle the emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Like his father he was appointed to the office of megas doux (grand duke), the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine navy and governor of the provinces of Hellas, the Peloponnese and Crete. However, his greatest success was as a general rather than as an admiral. At some point, Andronikos was also appointed commander of the Varangian Guard.

In a war against the Hungarians, bad health prevented Manuel from taking to the field in person, and he entrusted his army to the command of Andronikos. The Byzantine army met the Hungarians in a pitched battle on the 8th of July near the fortified city of Zemun. Andronikos’ skillful dispositions and the discipline of his troops gave the Byzantines a decisive victory at the Battle of Sirmium.
Byzantine Navy

The Hungarians sued for peace on Byzantine terms and recognised the empire’s control over the region around Sirmium, plus all of Bosnia, Dalmatia and the area south of the Krka River. Following the victory Manuel celebrated a triumphal entry into Constantinople with Andronikos Kontostephanos riding by his side.

In 1169, Andronikos was appointed commander of a fleet of 230 ships carrying a Byzantine army to invade Egypt in alliance with the forces of King Amalric.

Events are somewhat confused, but it appears that in October the Byzantines landed in Egypt and began what became a three month siege of the important port of  Damietta.

This is the maddening part.  We have a three month siege going on with zero information on events.  No doubt there were attacks on the city walls, attempts at gathering supplies inland and perhaps clashes with Muslim forces outside the city.  But of these events we know nothing.

The Byzantines prosecuted the siege with vigor, but the siege was unsuccessful due to the failure of the Crusaders and the Byzantines to co-operate fully.  The Byzantine fleet sailed with enough provisions for only three months. 

Amalric appears to have appeared at the city after the siege had been in progress for some time.  The King apparently did not bring any additional supplies with him, and it is very possible that Muslim forces prevented the gathering of new supplies. from the countryside. 

According to Byzantine forces, Amalric, not wanting to share the profits of victory, dragged out the operation until the emperor's men ran short of provisions and were particularly affected by famine; Amalric then launched an assault, which he promptly aborted by negotiating a truce with the defenders.

On the other hand, William of Tyre remarked that the Greeks were not entirely blameless. Whatever the truth of the allegations of both sides, when the rains came, both the Latin army and the Byzantine fleet returned home.

Andronikos, disgusted with Amalric’s double-dealing and with his soldiers in state of starvation, evacuated Egypt. He returned with part of his army by land through the crusader states of Palestine and Syria. Half of the Byzantine fleet was lost in a series of storms on its return journey.

With the collapse of the invasion the last great opportunity to drive back Islam was lost.


Despite the bad feelings generated at Damietta, Amalric still refused to abandon his dream of conquering Egypt, and he continued to seek good relations with the Byzantines in the hopes of another joined attack, which never took place. In 1171 Amalric came to Constantinople in person, after Egypt had fallen to Saladin.

Manuel was thus able to organise a grand ceremonial reception which both honoured Amalric, and underlined his dependence: for the rest of Amalric's reign, Jerusalem was a Byzantine satellite, and Manuel was able to act as a protector of the Holy Places, exerting a growing influence in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1177, a fleet of 150 ships was sent by Manuel I to invade Egypt, but returned home after appearing off Acre due to the refusal of Count Philip of Flanders and many important nobles of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to help.

Now Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile enemies. In 1170 Saladin invaded Jerusalem and took the city of Eilat, severing Jerusalem's connection with the Red Sea. Saladin, who was set up as Vizier of Egypt, was declared Sultan in 1171 upon the death of the last Fatimid caliph. Saladin's rise to Sultan was an unexpected reprieve for Jerusalem, as Nur ad-Din was now preoccupied with reining in his powerful vassal.

Nevertheless, in 1171 Amalric visited Constantinople himself and envoys were sent to the kings of Europe for a second time, but again no help was received. Over the next few years the kingdom was threatened not only by Saladin and Nur ad-Din, but also by the Hashshashin; in one episode, the Knights Templar murdered some Hashshashin envoys, leading to further disputes between Amalric and the Templars.

What If: A Roman-Crusader Victory?
A successful invasion of Egypt would have several further advantages for the Byzantine Empire. Egypt was a rich province, and in the days of the Roman Empire it had supplied much of the grain for Constantinople before it was lost to the Arabs in the 7th century.
The revenues that the Empire could have expected to gain from the conquest of Egypt would have been considerable, even if these would have to be shared with the Crusaders.
A major result of a Christian victory would be the knocking out one of the most powerful states in Islam.  The ripple effect on Middle Eastern history of a restored Christian rule in Egypt are interesting to ponder:  no Egyptian Sultan Saladin, the continuation of the Crusader states and a greatly strengthened Roman Empire. 

Byzantine Soldiers 12th and 13th Centuries

Crusaders and Muslims

(Manuel I Komnenos)      (Andronikos Kontostephanos)      (Amalric I)

(Crusades)      (Byzantine-Crusader raid)      (Kingdom of Jerusalem)

(Egypt)      (Muslim responses-Crusades)