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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Singidunum Fortress in Belgrade

Skyline of the Sava's bank of Ušće by night, seen from the Kalemegdan fortress.  The hilltop Roman-Byzantine fortress commanded a panoramic view of the Danube.

Singidunum  -  Roman Serbia

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.

The Fortress of Singidunum was one of the limes strongpoints.

Singidunum is the name for the ancient city in Serbia which became Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was recorded that a Celtic tribe, the Scordisci, settled the area in the 3rd century BC following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans 

The Roman Empire conquered the area in 75 BC and later garrisoned the Roman Legio IV Flavia Felix in 86 AD. It was the birthplace to the Roman Emperor Jovian. Belgrade has arisen from its ashes 38 times.

It wasn't until the rule of Octavian, when Marcus Licinius Crassus, the grandson of the Caesarian Triumvir and then proconsul of Macedonia, finally stabilized the region with a campaign. 

Beginning in 29 BC Moesia was formally organized into a province some time before 6 AD, when the first mention of its governor, Caecina Severus, is made. Singidun was Romanized to Singidunum. It became one of the primary settlements of Moesia, situated between Sirmium and Viminacium, both of which overshadowed Singidunum in significance. Singidunum became an important and strategic position along the Via Militaris, an important Roman road connecting fortresses and settlements along the Danubian limes, or border.

Was this the Byzantine Fortress?
In the probing of the medieval walls of the Belgrade Fortress the walls of the Roman castrum Singidunum were discovered beneath.  
Governments are always on a budget.  It is common for the military to 
take the line of least resistance and expense by using or improving 
upon existing older fortifications.  We do not know what the original
Roman-Byzantine fortifications looked like.  But it would be a good 
guess that they might have looked much like the surviving structures.

Roman Empire around 600AD
The Fortress of Singidunum was one of several strongpoints 
on the Danube Limes defense system.

Belgrade Fortress consists of the old citadel (Upper and Lower Town) and Kalemegdan Park on the confluence of the River Sava and Danube, in an urban area of modern Belgrade, the capital of Serbia

Belgrade Fortress is the core and the oldest section of the urban area of Belgrade. For centuries the city population was concentrated only within the walls of the fortress, and thus the history of the fortress, until most recent times, equals the history of Belgrade itself. 

The first mention of the city is when it was founded in the 3rd century BC as "Singidunum" by the Celtic tribe of Scordisci, who had defeated Thracian and Dacian tribes that previously lived in and around the fort. The city-fortress was later conquered by the Romans, was known as Singidunum and became a part of "the military frontier", where the Roman Empire bordered "barbarian Central Europe". Singidunum was defended by the Roman legion IV Flaviae, which built a fortified camp on a hill at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers.

Singidunum reached its height with the arrival of Legio IV Flavia Felix in 86 AD. The legion set up as a square-shaped castrum (fort), which occupied Upper Town of today's Kalemegdan

At first, the fortress was set up as earthen bulwarks, but soon after, it was fortified with stone, the remains of which can be seen today near the northeastern corner of the acropolis. The legion also constructed a bridge over the Sava, connecting Singidunum with Taurunum. The 6,000-strong legion became a major military asset against the continuous threat of the Dacians just across the Danube. 

Another step the Romans took to help strengthen Singidunum was the settlement of its legion veterans next to the fortress. In time, a large settlement grew out from around thecastrum. The town took on a rectlinear construction, with its streets meeting at right angles. The grid structure can be seen in today's Belgrade with the orientation of the streets Uzun Mirkova, Dušanova, and Kralja Petra I. Studentski Trg (Students' Square) was a Roman forum, bordered by thermae (a public bath complex whose remains were discovered during the 1970s) and also preserves the orientation the Romans gave Singidunum. 

Other remnants of Roman material culture such as tombs, monuments, sculptures, ceramics, and coins have been found villages and towns surrounding Belgrade. Hadrian granted Singidunum the rights of municipium during the mid 2nd century. Singidunum later outgrew this status and became a full-fledged colony. The Roman Emperor Jovian who reestablished Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire was born in Singidunum in 332. Singidunum and Moesia experienced a peaceful period, but that was not to last, due to the growing turmoil not only from outside the Roman Empire, but also from within.
The Roman Empire began to decline at the end 3rd century. The province of Dacia, established by several successful and lengthy campaigns by Trajan, began to collapse under pressure from the invading Goths in 256. By 270, Aurelian, faced with the sudden loss of many provinces and major damage done by invading tribes, abandoned Dacia altogether. Singidunum found itself once again on the limes of the fading Empire, one of the last major strongholds to survive mounting danger from the invading barbarian tribes.

Statue of Eastern Emperor Justinian I.
The Emperor rebuilt the fortress in 535 AD.

The Byzantine Period

In the period between AD 378 and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila's grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).

In the 5th and 6th centuries, Moesia and Illyricum suffered devastating raids by the successive invasions of the HunsOstrogothsGepidsSarmatiansAvars, and Slavs. Singidunum fell to the Huns in 441, who razed the city and fortress, selling its Roman inhabitants into indentured servitude. 

Over the next two hundred years, the city passed hands several times: the Romans reclaimed the city after the fall of the Hun confederation in 454, but the Sarmatians conquered the city shortly thereafter. In 470 the Ostrogoths seized the city around, expelling the Sarmatians. The city was later invaded by Gepids (488), but the Ostrogoths recaptured it in 504. Six years later the Eastern Roman Empire reclaimed the city according to a peace treaty.

The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the fortress around 535. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges. 

The Slavs (Serbs) and Avars had their "state union" north of Belgrade with the Serbs and other Slavic tribes finally settling in the Belgrade area as well as the regions west and south of Belgrade in the beginning of the 7th century. 

The name Belgrade (or Beograd in Serbian), which, not just in Serbian but in most Slavic languages, means a "white town" or a "white fortress", was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. 

The fortress kept changing its masters: Bulgaria during three centuries, and then the Byzantines and then again Bulgarians. The fortress remained a Byzantine stronghold until the 12th century when it fell in the hands of the newly emerging Serbian state. It became a border city of the Serbian Kingdom, later Empire with Hungary. 

The Hungarian king Béla I gave the fortress to Serbia in the 11th century as a wedding gift (his son married the Serbian princess Jelena), but it remained effectively part of Hungary, except for the period 1282–1319. After the Serbian state collapsed after the Battle of Kosovo in 1404, Belgrade was chosen as the capital of the principality of Despot Stefan Lazarević. Major work was done to the ramparts which were encircling a big thriving town.  

Belgrade remained in Serbian hands for almost a century. After the Despot's death in 1427 it had to be returned to Hungary. An attempt by Sultan Mehmed II to conquer the fortress was prevented by Janos Hunyadi in 1456 (Siege of Belgrade), saving Hungary from Ottoman dominion for 70 years.

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..

See:  The Danube Limes - Protecting the Roman Balkans 

(Belgrade)      (belgradepass)      (voiceofserbia.org)      (Singidunum)

(Belgrade Fortress)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

First Contact - Seljuqs vs Byzantines at the Battle of Kapetron

First Contact - The Coming of the Turks
A Byzantine-Georgian army meets the 
Muslim Turks for the first time.

It seems that the Eastern Roman Empire could never catch a break.  For centuries the empire had been fighting Muslim Arab invasions in Anatolia and Italy as well as endless Bulgarian invasions in the Balkans.

Then along comes the great Roman Emperor Basil II (976 - 1025).  His long reign were dominated by civil war against powerful generals from the Anatolian aristocracy. Following their submission, Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire, and above all, the final and complete subjugation of Bulgaria, the Empire's foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. For this he was nicknamed by later authors as "the Bulgar-slayer", by which he is popularly known. 

At his death, the Empire stretched from Southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the borders of Palestine, its greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces in the world – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. 

Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. 

From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II PhokasJohn Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

Eastern Roman Themes
The themes were the main military-administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great. 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 that had existed in those areas.
A theme was an arrangement of plots of land given for farming to the soldiers. The soldiers were still technically a military unit, under the command of a strategos. They did not own the land they worked as it was still controlled by the state. Therefore, for its use the soldiers' pay was reduced. By accepting this proposition, the participants agreed that their descendants would also serve in the military and work in a theme.
The commander of a theme did not only command his soldiers. He united the civil and military jurisdictions in the territorial area in question.  Military staffing for local themes might range up to 9,600 men.

The Seljuq Turks

By 1045 the Byzantines had stabilized their eastern borders with the Arabs and eliminated Bulgaria as a threat.  But they were still being pressed by Muslim armies in Italy.

This fairly peaceful situation did not last.  A new enemy appeared.  The second half of the 11th century was marked by the strategically significant invasion of the Seljuq Turks, who by the end of the 1040s had succeeded in building a vast nomadic empire including most of Central Asia and Persia.

The Seljuqs united the fractured political scene of the eastern Islamic world and played a key role in the first and second crusades. Highly Persianized in culture and language, the Seljuqs also played an important role in the development of the Turko-Persian tradition, even exporting Persian culture to Anatolia. 

The settlement of Turkic tribes in the northwestern peripheral parts of the empire, for the strategic military purpose of fending off invasions from neighboring states, led to the progressive Turkicization of those areas.

A Seljuk horse-archer


The Battle of  Kapetron

Once again we are faced with major political and military events about which there is near zero meaningful information.

The 1040s saw the Muslim Seljuk Turks first appear on the eastern borders of Byzantium.  Word of the aggressive and militaristic Turks would have long before reach Constantinople's leaders.  Since the 900s the Seljuqs had slowly expanded their empire from central Asia through Persia to the borders of Byzantium.

The Turks had invaded the Roman military theme of Iberia (see map below), and for some time there appears to have been a considerable amount of fighting on the eastern border.

The Turks under İbrahim Yinal attacked the city of Arzen, a vibrant commercial center in the Byzantine-administered in Iberia.  The city was home to warehouses belonging to Syrian and Armenian merchants.

The city defended themselves for six days by barricading the streets and attacking the Turks from roof tops.  Roman troops in the area refused to march to the defense of the city, and the Turks were focused on destroying a supply base for their enemies.  The Turks set fire to the city reducing it to ashes.

Emperor Constantine IX
The Emperor organized an allied army
to face a Turkish invasion.

Armenian historians claim that 140,000 people were killed and that the Turks filled the slave markets of the east with women and children from Arzen.  

As Roman troops entered the area in 1048 it was reported that tens of thousands of Christians had been massacred and several areas were reduced to piles of ashes. 

Both Byzantium and the Christian Kingdom of Georgia were alarmed and agreed on an alliance to face the Turks.

The Emperor Constantine IX ordered a defensive strategy till the arrival of Georgian reinforcements.  The Emperor sent to the Georgian warlord Liparit, whom the Byzantines had aided in his struggle against the Georgian king Bagrat IV, to unite with Roman forces against the advancing Seljuqs.

A combined Byzantine-Georgian army of 50,000, under the command of AaronKatakalon Kekaumenos and Liparit, met the Seljuqs head-on at Kapetron on September 10, 1048.

For reasons that are not explained the allied army took on the Turks in a fierce nocturnal battle.  The Turks might have been outnumbered and may have tried to surprise their enemies in a night attack.

Night battles in any war are more about anarchy and the blind attacking the blind.  That was most likely the case at Kapetron.  Blind or not, the Christian allies managed to repel the Turks, and Aaron and Kekaumenos, in command of the two flanks, pursued the Turks "till cock's crow". 

In the center, however, Yinal managed to capture the Georgian prince Liparit, a fact of which the two Byzantine commanders were not informed until after they gave thanks to God for their victory.

Losses on both sides were said to be great.

Ibrahim Yinal was nevertheless able to safely leave the Byzantine territory, laden with spoils and captives. The Emperor later sent ransoms to the Turks who refused them, however, and released Liparit on condition that he would never again fight the Seljuqs.


The devastation left behind by the Seljuq raid was so fearful that the Byzantine magnate Eustathios Boilas who moved to Iberia described, in 1051/52, those lands as "foul and unmanageable... inhabited by snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts." The Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir reports that Ibrahim brought back 100,000 captives and a vast booty loaded on the backs of ten thousand camels.

The Roman-Georgian army had driven their enemy from the field of battle and earned a "victory" of sorts . . . the right to rule over a countryside that was devastated by their Muslim enemy.

It was not a good sign that the Allied generals decided they would not, or could not, follow and crush a defeated enemy.  The allies may have felt they were too weak, the Turks still too strong or both.  

But allowing a defeated enemy army burdened with captives and loot to slowly escape sent a strong message of Christian weakness to the Turks.

Seljuk Turks

Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invades the Byzantine military theme of Iberia.

(Battle of Kapetron)      (Seljuk Empire)      (Byzantine Army)

(Iberia)      (Battle of Kapetron)