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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Byzantine Heavy Artillery

It is better to give than receive

Rule #1 in life: you can find anything on the Internet.

I stumbled on a long 1999 article about Byzantine artillery by George Dennis. The article, summarized below, adds to the Eastern Roman Empire story of warfare.

Like my previously published 1988 article on the Byzantine Infantry Square, we get a better picture of a highly complex Eastern Roman military machine.

This warfare was not the Classic Roman Legion nor was it the simple knights in shining armor of the West mindlessly slashing at each other in battles. The more we get into the details the more we see that Eastern Roman warfare is almost its own stand alone category in military history.


The military manual (Strategikon) attributed to the emperor Maurice stipulated that the infantry contingents should be followed by a train of wagons, some of which were to transport artillery crews, carpenters, and metal workers, as well as . . . “revolving ballistae at both ends.”

I visualized the wagons as mobile fighting platforms with two medium-sized torsion or tension weapons, ballistae, which revolved in a horizontal arc, somewhat like pivoting machine guns. “Both ends,” though, I am now convinced, refers to the weapon, not the wagon, and the revolving motion must have been vertical, up and down (like a child’s seesaw), not horizontal. Torsion weapons, such as the ballista, do not revolve; the onager, which pivots from down to up, moves only at one end.
Emperor Maurice

The Strategikon, I would argue, is not referring to a torsion or tension weapon at all, even though it uses the classical word, ballista, but to a more advanced kind of artillery, recently arrived in the Mediterranean world, which was operated by traction, men pulling ropes at one end of a rotating beam to propel a projectile placed in a sling at the other end, thus “revolving at both ends.” There was as yet no specific term for this artillery piece, but it later came to be known in the west as trebuchet and, as we shall see, very soon in the Byzantine world as helepolis (city-taker).

This thesis seems to be confirmed by the Tactical Constitutions of Leo VI, compiled at the beginning of the tenth century, and which, to a large extent, was intended to bring previous military manuals into line with contemporary equipment and terminology. According to Leo, the wagons accompanying the infantry were to carry . . .  torsion or tension weapons, and a supply of bolts. In addition, they were to carry “ballistae or machines called alakatia which revolve in a circular manner,” . . .

Clearly, these are stone-throwing machines which could also launch incendiary missiles. The fact that they revolved at both ends or in a circular fashion makes it almost certain that these alakatia were trebuchets, very likely pole frame models which could be transported in wagons, quickly assembled, and operated by one or a few soldiers, much as depicted in the illustrated Madrid Skylitzes. Later, in the tenth century, Nikephoros Phokas ordered that each unit of light infantry was to have access to three of these alakatia, along with other portable artillery.

The author of the Strategikon does not tell us when this new kind of artillery was introduced into the Byzantine Empire, but the historian of Maurice’s reign, Theophylaktos Simokatta, does provide information about when it came into use and what name the Byzantines gave the new weapon. Bousas, a Byzantine soldier captured by the Avars, taught them how to construct a siege machine for they were ignorant of such machines. And so he prepared the helepolis to shoot missiles. With this fearsome and skillful device the Avars attacked many Byzantine cities, leveling the fortress of Appiareia in 587 and ten years later attacking Thessaloniki, which successfully resisted. Bousas, and other Byzantine artillerymen, therefore, must have learned how to build and operate these weapons some years before 587.

Now we are talking.
This is a serious weapon.

The fear and destruction wrought by these trebuchets, fifty of which were deployed against Thessaloniki, is vividly described in the Miracula S. Demetrii:

These were tetragonal and rested on broader bases, tapering to narrower extremities. Attached to them were thick cylinders well clad in iron at the ends, and there were nailed to them timbers like beams from a large house. These timbers had the slings from the back side and from the front strong ropes, by which, pulling down and releasing the sling, they propel the stones up high with a loud noise. And on being fired they sent up many stones so that neither earth nor human constructions could bear the impacts. 

The defenders also made use of stone-throwing machines, petrar°ai, to fire back at the Avaro-Slav artillery. Sailors on the ships bringing supplies to the city were said to be experienced operators of these petrareai.

In Byzantine usage, however, helepolis, as will be clear in the following pages, almost invariably means a stone-throwing trebuchet.

This use of helepolis to mean trebuchet is found as far back as . . . the seventh century. . . a Byzantine attack on a Persian fortress situated on a height. Herakleios ordered the helepoleis to be placed in position and to launch missiles directly at the fortifications, as well as over them into the fortress. The Byzantines kept up the barrage night and day, changing the pulling teams at regular intervals.

Lord of the Rings Catapult Scene
Ignoring the dragons, the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of 
Mordor is an impressive recreation of pre-gunpowder warfare. Many have
commented that Tolkien patterened Minas Tirith after Constantinople. 
A shrunken, weakened, outnumbered empire fighting a hopeless fight
for what is left of civilization.

In 821–823, the forces of the would-be emperor Thomas brought up “rams, tortoises, and some helepoleis in order to shake down the walls” of Constantinople. In addition to petroboloi, ladders, rams, tortoises, as well as fire arrows from his ships, Thomas ordered the engagement of some four-legged helepoleis. These last were obviously large, trestle-framed, traction trebuchets, the other petroboloi perhaps being smaller. “Every day large bands of soldiers brought these machines forward against the walls of the city”.

Constantine Porphyrogennetos compiled an inventory of the weapons and equipment assembled for the unsuccessful invasion of Crete in 949. For attacking a fortress, the ships were to transport large arrow-firing ballistae. Constantine lists this among the mangana, siege machines, together with petrareai and alakatia. There were four petrareai, four lambdareai, and four alakatia and, for these twelve engines, there were twelve iron slings, in addition to various nuts and bolts.

Constantine also recommended that the emperor take a number of books along with him on a military expedition. Among these were manuals of strategy, mechanical treatises, including the construction of helepoleis, the fabrication of missiles, and other works helpful in waging war and conducting sieges. 

Another military manual recommended that an army besieging a city should pitch camp far enough away to be out of range of arrows or missiles from the stonethrowing machines. But it should not be too far from its own siege engines, poliorkhtikå ˆrgana; otherwise, the defenders may sally forth and chop them down and burn them. The attacking troops should encamp close enough so that they can race out of their tents to protect their helepoleis.

An Armenian account of the Seljuq siege of Mantzikert in 1054 describes a huge trebuchet, originally built for Basil II, called a baban, which weighed some 2,000 kilograms and had a pulling crew of 400 men and which could fire stones weighing up to 200 kilograms. Michael Attaleiates apparently refers to the same siege, for he describes a trebuchet operated by a large number of men which fired an immense stone against which the defenders were helpless. They were saved only when a Latin grabbed a container of Greek fire, dashed out through the besiegers, and set the machine on fire. 

When Romanos IV Diogenes in 1071 was preparing an assault against the same city, he had a large number of helepoleis prefabricated from huge beams of all sorts and transported by no less than a thousand wagons, obviously very large trebuchets. An Arab source speaks of one huge trebuchet transported in 100 carts pulled by 1,200 men, with a composite beam of eight spars and launching stone-shot of 96 kilograms.

Reenactment Event at Birdoswald. Men load a Catapulta.

In the Alexiad, her history of the reign of her father Alexios I Komnenos, Anna Komnene makes it abundantly clear that the major artillery piece of the Byzantines was the helepolis and that it was a large, stone-throwing trebuchet.

Anna notes that the Normans constructed helepoleis to bombard Byzantine fortifications. Without helepoleis, armies would find it difficult to capture fortified places, as did the Latins and the Bulgarians. Forced to retreat, the Byzantines burned their helepoleis so that the enemy would not be able to use them. Alexios employed helepoleis to destroy the walls of Kastoria. To drive the Arabs away from the coastline he positioned helepoleis on ships. The Byzantine general Dalassenos employed helepoleis on ships to demolish fortifications on land. Anna many times records the regular use of helepoleis in sieges.

The reigns of John Komnenos and Manuel Komnenos (1118– 1180) witnessed a dramatic increase in Byzantine reliance on siege warfare and, consequently, on the helepolis or trebuchet.

In 1130 or 1132 John surrounded Kastamon with helepoleis and captured it.43 At Gangra in 1135 he kept up a constant barrage of missiles aimed at the houses within the city. Against the seemingly impregnable Anazarba the following year, the Byzantine trebuchets began pounding the city walls, but the Armenian defenders returned their fire with stones and fiery iron pellets which set the Byzantine helepoleis on fire. John had new helepoleis built and constructed protective brick ramparts around them; his men then demolished the walls and forced their way into the city. In 1142 he took action against some island-dwellers in Lake Pousgouse by lashing small boats together and making a platform on which he positioned helepoleis

In 1165 four large Byzantine trebuchets launched huge stones against the Hungarian city of Zevgminon. Andronikos Komnenos, after personally adjusting the sling, the winch, and the beam, fired stones which hit with such violence that they brought down a section of the wall between two towers.

Early in the fourteenth century, the Greek version of the Chronicle of Morea called this weapon by its French name: trebuchet. Around the end of that century one again finds helepolis used for trebuchet in an account of sultan Bayezid’s siege of Constantinople in 1396–1397. And in 1422 Murad had trebuchets, this time called (battlementtaker), prepared to bombard the city with large stones. 

Thirtyone years later, however, the walls were pummeled by huge stones propelled by gun powder from cannons, and the helepolis or trebuchet was sent off to the dustbins of history.

November, 1999

Department of History 
The Catholic University of America 
Washington, D.C. 20064

(deremilitari.org)      (deremilitari.org - helepolis)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Roman Empire Military Organization (802 - 867 AD)

Byzantine Warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.

Defending an Empire

Eastern Roman military history had suffered from a near total lack of proper histories written by those who witnessed the events.  We historians have to fill in the lack of detailed information with what we know from similar events. The Byzantine military has not been given proper credit by historians.

We have literally mountains of information in excruciating detail on the American Civil War and World War II.  But when it comes to the Eastern Empire documents on military units, fortifications, budgets and battles have vanished into the mists of time.

It is safe to say the the Eastern Roman military machine was not a haphazard or accidental creation. The Byzantines carried on the Roman tradition of a highly organized military. This can be seen in the structure and variety of full time professional units that were backed up by a large body of trained reserves. We see it also in command structure, military provinces (themes) and huge numbers of fortifications.

To run such an extensive military war machine required not only a well trained officer corps but also a large bureaucracy to direct supplies, recruits, hospitals and more.

Sadly we lack so much detail. But the article below by Professor J.B. Bury does a great deal to fill in the gaps. Bury shows a well oiled military machine at a time when western Europeans operated at the most primitive feudal levels.

By J.B. Bury
From: A History of the Eastern Roman Empire
from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I
(A.D. 802 - 867)  Published 1912

Under the Amorian dynasty considerable administrative changes were made in the organization of the military provinces into which the Empire was divided, in order to meet new conditions. In the Isaurian period there were five great Themes in Asia Minor, governed by stratégoi, in the following order of dignity and importance: the Anatolic, the Armeniac, the Thrakesian, the Opsikian, and the Bukellarian.

This system of “the Five Themes,” as they were called, lasted till the reign of Michael ., if not till that of Theophilus. But it is probable that before that time the penetration of the Moslems in the frontier regions had rendered it necessary to delimit from the Anatolic and Armeniac provinces districts which were known as kleisurarchies, and were under minor commanders, kleisurarchs, who could take measures for defending the country independently of the stratégoi. In this way the kleisurarchy of Seleucia, west of Cilicia, was cut ofi“ from the Anatolic Theme, and that of Charsianon from the Armeniacta Southern Cappadocia, which was constantly exposed to Saracen invasion through the Cilician gates, was also formed into a frontier province. We have no record of the times at which these changes were made, but we may suspect that they were of older date than the reign of Theophilus.

This energetic Emperor made considerable innovations in the thematic system throughout the Empire, and this side of his administration has not been observed or appreciated. In Asia Minor he created two new Themes, Paphlagonia and' Ghaldia. Paphlagonia seems to have been cut off from the Bukellarian province; probably it had a separate existence already, as a “ katepanate,” for the governor of the new Theme, while he was a stratégos, bore the special title of Icatepano, which looks like the continuation of an older arrangement.

Military Themes In Asia Minor
Military Themes were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas.

The rise of Paphlagonia in importance may be connected with the active Pontic policy of Theophilus. It is not without significance that Paphlagonian ships played a part in the expedition which he sent to Cherson, and we may conjecture with probability that the creation of the Theme of the Klimata on the north of the Euxine and that of Paphlagonia on the south were not isolated acts, but were part of the same general plan.

The institution of the Theme of Chaldia, which was cut off from the Armeniac Theme (probably A.D. 837), may also be considered as part of the general policy of strengthening Imperial control over the Black Sea and its coastlands, here threatened by the imminence of the Moslem power in Armenia. To the south of Chaldia was the duchy of Koloneia, also part of the Armeniac circumscrrption.” In the following reign (before AD. 863) both Koloneia and Gappadocia were elevated to the rank of Themes.

The Themes of Europe, which formed a class apart from those of Asia, seem at the end of the eighth century to have been four in number—Thrace, Macedonia, Hellas, and Sicily. There were also a number of provinces of inferior rank— Calabria, under its Dux; Dalmatia and Crete, under governors who had the title of oz'rchon; while Thessalonica with the adjacent region was still subject to the ancient Praetorian Prefect of Illyricum, an anomalous survival from the old system of Constantine. It was doubtless the Slavonic revolt in the reign of Nicephorus I. that led to the reorganization of the Helladic province, and the constitution of the Peloponnesus as a distinct Theme, so that Hellas henceforward meant Northern Greece.

The Mohammadan descent upon Crete doubtless led to the appointment of a stratégos instead of an archon of Crete, and the Bulgarian wars to the suppression of the Praetorian prefect by a stratégos of Thessalonica. The Theme of Kephalonia (with the Ionian Islands) seems to have existed at the beginning of the ninth century ; but the Saracen menace to the Hadriatic and the western coasts of Greece may account for the foundation of the Theme of Dyrrhachium, a city which probably enjoyed, like the com munities of the Dalmatian coast, a certain degree of local inde pendence. If so, we may compare the policy of Theophilus in instituting the stratégos of the Klimata with control over the magistrates of Cherson.

It is to be noted that the Theme of Thrace did not include the region in the immediate neighbourhood of Constantinople, cut off by the Long Wall of Anastasius, who had made special provisions for the government of this region. In the ninth century it was still a separate circum scription, probably under the military command of the Count of the Walls, and Arabic writers designate it by the curious name Talaya or Talia.

Balkan and Italian Military Themes of The Empire

There were considerable differences in the ranks and salaries of the stratégoi. In the first place, it is to be noticed that the governors of the Asiatic provinces, the admirals of the naval Themes, and the stratégoi of Thrace and Macedonia were paid by the treasury, while the governors of the European Themes paid themselves a fixed amount from the custom dues levied in their own provinces. Hence for administrative purposes Thrace and Macedonia are generally included among the Asiatic Themes. The rank of patrician was bestowed as a rule upon the Anatolic, Armeniac, and Thrakesian stratégoi, and these three received a salary of 40 lbs. of gold (£1728).

The pay of the other stratégoi and kleisurarchs ranged from 36 to 12 lbs, but their stipends were somewhat reduced in the course of the ninth century. We can easily calculate that the total cost of paying the governors of the eastern provinces (including Macedonia and Thrace) did not fall short of £15,000.

In these provinces there is reason to suppose that the number of troops, who were chiefly cavalry, was about 80,000. They were largely settled on military lands, and their pay was small. The recruit, who began service at a very early age, received one nomisma (12s.) in his first year, two in his second, and so on, till the maximum of twelve (£7 : 4s), or in some cases of eighteen (£10 : 16s.), was reached.

The army of the Theme was divided generally into two, sometimes three, turms or brigades; the turm into drungoi or battalions; and the battalion into banda or companies. The corresponding commanders were entitled turmarchs, drungaries, and counts. The number of men in the company, the sizes of the battalion and the brigade, varied widely in the different Themes. The original norm seems to have been a bandon of 200 men and a drungos of 5 banda.

It is very doubtful whether this uniform scheme still prevailed in the reign of Theophilus. It is certain that at a somewhat later period the bandon varied in size up to the maximum of 400, and the drungos oscillated between the limits of 1000 and 3000 men. Originally the turm was composed of 5 drungoi (5000 men), but this rule was also changed. The number of drungoi in the turm was reduced to three, so that the brigade which the turmarch commanded ranged from 3000 upwards.

The pay of the officers, according to one account, ranged from 3 lbs. to 1 1b., and perhaps the subalterns in the company (the kentarchs and pentekontarchs) are included; but the turmarchs in the larger themes probably received a higher salary than 3 lbs. If We assume that the average bandon was composed of 300 men and the average drungos of 1500, and further that the pay of the drungary was 3 lbs., that of the count 2 lbs. and that of the kentarch 1 1b., the total sum expended on these oflicers would have amounted to about £64,000. But these assumptions are highly uncertain. _ Our data for the pay of the common soldiers form a still vaguer basis for calculation; but we may conjecture, with every reserve, that the salaries of the armies of the Eastern Themes, including generals and oflicers, amounted to not less than £500,000.

The armies of the Themes formed only one branch of the military establishment. There were four other privileged and _ difl'erently organized cavalry regiments known as the Tagmata : 2 (1) the Schools, (2) the Excubitors, (3) the Arithmos or Vigla, and (4) the Hikanatoi. The first three were of ancient foundation ; the fourth was a new institution of Nicephorus I., who created a child, his grandson Nicetas (afterwards the Patriarch Ignatius), its first commander. The commanders of these troops were entitled Domestics, except that of the Arithmos, who was known as the Drungary of the Vigla or Watch.

The Varangian Guard
An elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries,
 whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine EmperorsThey are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus' provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard.

Some companies of these Tagmatic troops may have been stationed at Constantinople, where the Domestics usually resided, but the greater part of them were quartered in Thrace, Macedonia, and Bithynia. The question of their numbers is perplexing. We are variously told that in the ninth century they were each 6000 or 4000 strong, but in the tenth the numbers seem to have been considerably less, the strength of the principal Tagma, the Scholarians, amounting to no more than 1500 men. If we accept one of the larger figures for the reign of Theophilus, we must suppose that under one of his successors these troops were reduced in number.

The Domestic of the Schools preceded in rank all other military commanders except the stratégos of the Anatolic Theme, and the importance of the post is shown by the circumstance that it was filled by such men as Manuel and Bardas. In later times it became still more important; in the tenth century, when a military expedition against the Saracens was not led by the Emperor in person, the Domestic of the Schools was ex oficio the Commander-in-Chief The Drungary of the Watch and his troops were distinguished from the other Tagmata by the duties they performed as sentinels in campaigns which were led by the Emperor in person. The Drungary was responsible for the safety of the camp, and carried the orders of the Emperor to the generals.

Besides the Thematic and the Tagmatic troops, there were the Numeri, a regiment of infantry commanded by a Domestic ; and the forces which were under the charge of the Count or Domestic of the Walls, whose duty seems to have been the defence of the Long Wall of Anastasius. These troops played little part in history. More important was the Imperial Guard or Hetaireia, which, recruited from barbarians, formed the garrison of the Palace, and attended the Emperor on campaigns.

The care which was spent on providing for the health and comfort of the soldiers is illustrated by the baths at Dorylaion, the first of the great military stations in Asia Minor. This bathing establishment impressed the imagination of oriental visitors, and it is thus described by an Arabic writer :

"Dorylaion possesses warm springs of fresh water: over which the Emperors have constructed vaulted buildings for bathing. There are seven basins, each of which can accommodate a thousand men. The water reaches the breast of a man of average height, and the overflow is discharged into a small lake."

In military campaigns, careful provision was made for the wounded. There was a special corps of oflicers called deputat0i, whose duty was to rescue wounded soldiers and take them to the rear, to be tended by the medical staff. They carried flasks of water, and had two ladders attached to the saddles of their horses on the left side, so that, having mounted a fallen soldier with the help of one ladder, the deputatos could himself mount instantly by the other and ride off.

It is interesting to observe that not only did the generals and superior officers make speeches to the soldiers, in old Hellenic fashion, before a battle, but there was a band of professional orators, called cantatores, whose duty was to stimu late the men by their eloquence during the action. Some of the combatants themselves, if they had the capacity, might be chosen for this purpose. A writer on the art of war suggests the appropriate chords which the cantatores might touch, and if we may infer their actual practice, the leading note was religious. “ We are fighting in God’s cause; the issue lies with him, and he will not favour the enemy because of their unbelief.”

Eastern Roman Dromon
Read More

Eastern Roman Navy

Naval necessities imposed an increase of expenditure for the defence of the Empire in the ninth century. The navy, which had been efiiciently organized under the Heraclian dynasty and had performed memorable services against the attacks of the Omayyad Caliphs, had been degraded in import ance and suffered to decline by the policy of the Isaurian monarchs.

We may criticize their neglect of the naval arm, but we must remember that it was justified by immediate impunity, for it was correlated with the simultaneous decline in the naval power of the Saracens. The Abbasids who trans ferred the centre of the Caliphate from Syria to Mesopotamia undertook no serious maritime enterprises. The dangers of the future lay in the west and not in the east,—in the ambitions of the Mohammadan rulers of Africa and Spain, whose only way of aggression was by sea. Sicily was in peril throughout the eighth century, and Constantine V. was forced to reorganize her fleet ; accidents and internal divisions among the Saracens helped to save her till the reign of Michael II.

We shall see in another chapter how the Mohammadans then obtained a permanent footing in the island, the beginning of its complete conquest, and how they occupied Crete. These events necessitated a new maritime policy. To save Sicily, to recover Crete, were not the only problems. The Imperial possessions in South Italy were endangered ; Dalmatia, the Ionian islands, and the coasts of Greece were exposed to the African fleets. It was a matter of the first importance to preserve the control of the Hadriatic. The reorganization of the marine estab lishment was begun by the Amorian dynasty, though its effects were not fully realized till a later period.

The naval forces of the Empire consisted of the Imperial fleet, which was stationed at Constantinople and commanded by the Drungary of the Navy, and the Provincial fleets of the Kibyrrhaeot Theme, the Aegean, Hellas, Peloponnesus, and Kephalonia. The Imperial fleet must now have been increased in strength, and the most prominent admiral of the age, Ooryphas, may have done much to reorganize it. An armament of three hundred warships was sent against Egypt in AD. 853, and the size of this force may be held to mark the progress which had been made. Not long after the death of Michael III. four hundred vessels were operating off the coast of Apulia.

We have some figures which may give us a general idea  of the cost of these naval expeditions. Attempts were made to recover Crete from the Saracens in AD. 902 and in A.D. 949, and the pay of officers and men for each of these expeditions, which were not on a large scale, amounted to over £140,000. This may enable us to form a rough estimate of the expenditure‘ incurred in sending armaments oversea in the ninth century. We may surmise, for instance, that not less than a quarter of a million (pounds sterling), equivalent in present value to a million and a quarter, was spent on the Egyptian expedition in the reign of Michael III.

Siege of Constantinople 717 AD

(pinterest.com)      (Byzantine Themes)      (Varangian Guard)

(hathitrust.org)      (Michael II)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Roman Fort of Qasr Banat in Libya - The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat, fortified farm entrance

The Limes Tripolitanus

The Limes Tripolitanus was a frontier zone of defence 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 MagnaSabratha and Oea in Roman Libya.

The Limes Tripolitanus was built after Augustus. It was related mainly to the Garamantes menace. Septimius Flaccus in 50 AD did a military expedition that reached the actual Fezzan and further south.

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.

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania, among which Garbia and Golaia (actual Bu Ngem) in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. He fulfilled his task quickly and successfully.

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza 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).

With Diocletian the limes was partially abandoned and the defence of the area was done even by the Limitanei, local soldier-farmers. The Limes survived as an effective protection until Byzantine times.  Emperor Justinian restructured the Limes in 533 AD.

From 665 to 689, a new Muslim Arab invasion of North Africa was launched.  The limes fortifications played little part.

Roman Limes System

The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat (Qasr Isawi)

Qasr Banat was built by the Romans, who called these buildings centenaria. They were built in the mid-third century, when the Third legion Augusta had been disbanded and the people along the desert frontier (the Limes Tripolitanus) had to start to defend themselves. Because the centenaria were built according to standard designs, the Qasr Banat farm looks a lot like the one at Gheriat esh-Shergia. 
It is situated on a steep hill along the Wadi Nefud, close to the confluence with another wadi. The dams in the wadis are ancient. In the neighborhood, you will also find a well that is often frequented by modern shepherds; there is a white, more recent sanctuary of a Muslim saint about 400 meters east of it. In this direction, you can also see the ancient quarry, where the stones were cut to build the centenarium.
The centenarium remained in use for centuries; in the area surrounding it, you can see medieval walls and several buildings that have, in the meantime, collapsed. The walls of the centenarium, however, has survived in nearly perfect condition.
The nearby mausoleum, which is even better preserved, consists of two rooms. It it of the "temple type" that is also known from Ghirza's northern cemetery. In the lower room, the people were buried, you can still see traces of the ancient decoration. One of the common themes is the fish, which is in this arid zone a predictable symbol of eternal life; it is interesting to notice that the nomadic tribes of the Libyan and Egyptian desert still a very common motif. The upper room was probably used for picknicks; the people gathered, commemorated their ancestors, had a drink, and poured a libation through a hole in the ground, into the room with the tombs.
Qasr Banat, mausoleum

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.  

Emperor Constans II
The last Roman Emperor
of Tripolitanus

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.

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

In 642–643, the Arabs had seized Cyrenaica and the eastern half of Tripolitania, along with Tripoli

By 698 the Islamic province of Ifriqiya was born. The province would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. Thus ended 800 years of Roman Africa.

Qasr Banat
The purple marker on the left is the fortified Roman farm of Qasr Banat.
The bluish marker on the right by the trees is the 

Qasr Banat, well and sanctuary of a local saint.

Qasr Banat, centenarium

Qasr Banat, surrounding wall

Qasr Banat, mausoleum, lower room


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Battle of Kalavrye - Eastern vs Western Empire Civil War

Byzantine Infantry

Civil War Drains The Empire
  • In 1078 AD the Byzantines squandered precious resources fighting each other instead of attacking the invading Muslim Turks.

The great weakness of the Roman Empire was always the lack of a peaceful way to change rulers and a lack of the old Roman Assemblies giving a voice to the people. Unless you were lucky enough to be the son of the Emperor your only path to power was to kill the current Emperor, his family and supporters.

The resulting civil wars often badly drained and damaged the state and its ability to defend itself from invaders.

The disastrous Roman defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was perhaps more of a result of internal political treachery than the military power of the Muslim Turks.

Unrest and war was everywhere. 
Miliaresion of Michael VII Doukas.

The Normans were attacking the Byzantine city of Bari in Italy, there was a revolt in the Balkans to restore the Bulgarian state, Balkans invasions by the Pechenegs and the Cumans and Serbian princes renouncing allegiance to the Empire.

In addition the Byzantines were defeated by the Seljuk Turks in attempts to recapture Asia Minor for the Empire.

Emperor Michael VII Doukas was worthless. He refused to honor the treaty with the Turks, increased taxes and luxury spending while not funding the army. Broke he had Imperial officials confiscate private property and the wealth of the church.

With near anarchy the state of affairs the Emperor devalues the money supply. This gave his the nickname Parapinakes or "minus a quarter."

In 1078 the ruling class could stand it no longer. Two generals, Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted at opposite ends of the Empire and marched on Constantinople.

From The West  -  Nikephoros Bryennios, the Doux of military theme of Dyrrhachium on the Albania coast, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. Marching from Dyrrhachium towards Constantinople he picked up support along the way including pledges of loyalty from most of the Empire's Balkans field army.

Bryennios first tried to negotiate with Michael VII, but the Emperor rejected any demands. Bryennios then sent his brother John to lay siege to Constantinople. Unable to penetrate the walls of the city the rebel forces withdrew.

The Doux then worked on isolating Constantinople from the remaining Imperial territories of Europe. He hoped the Emperor would give up once isolated.

Princess Anna Comnena (1083 - 1153)
In her history, The Alexiad, Anna tells the story of the Empire in her father's time.

Anna Comnena:  "Nicephorus Bryennius, who was upseting the whole of the West by putting the crown on his own head, and proclaiming himself Emperor of the Romans.

Nicephorus Bryennius, on the other hand, who had been appointed Duke of Dyrrachium in the time of the Emperor Michael, had designs on the throne even before Nicephorus became Emperor, and meditated a revolt against Michael. . . . he used Dyrrachium as a jumping-off place for over-running all the Western provinces.

Bryennius was a very clever warrior, as well as of most illustrious descent, conspicuous by height of stature, and beauty of face, and preeminent among his fellows by the weightiness of his judgment, and the strength of his arms. He was, indeed, a man fit for kingship, and his persuasive powers, and his skill in conversation, were such as to draw all to him even at first sight; consequently, by unanimous consent both of soldiers and civilians, he was accorded the first place and deemed worthy to rule over both the Eastern and Western dominions. 

On his approaching any town, it would receive him with suppliant hands, and send him on to the next with acclaim. Not only Botaniates was disturbed by this news, but it also created a ferment in the home-army, and reduced the whole kingdom to despair; and, consequently, it was decided to dispatch my father, Alexius Comnenus, lately elected "Domestic of the Schools," against Bryennius with all available forces."

The rebel army of Nikephoros Bryennios was unable
to break through the walls of Constantinople.

From The East  -  From the Asian end of the Empire the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme, Nikephoros Botaneiates, marched to Nicaea where he was declared Emperor by his troops. The shame of this event comes from the Muslim Seljuk Turks providing 2,000 troops for Botaneiates and his coup.

With Roman armies on two sides of Constantinople the Emperor saw no reason to go on. Michael made arrangements and on March 31, 1078 peacefully retired to become a monk at a monastery.  Later he was elevated to metropolitan of Ephesus.

At this point Strategos Bontaneiates' "election" as Emperor was ratified by the nobility and clergy of Constantinople. Nikephoros III Botaneiates entered Constantinople in triumph and was crowned by the Patriarch.

Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates among his senior court officials.
Nikephoros was declared Emperor by his troops in Asia Minor.

The Byzantine Empire in 1081 three years after the Battle of Kalavrye.
In 1078 Nikephoros was declared Emperor in Nicaea. This map
shows that even during this short period the city and additional lands
were lost to the invading Muslim Turks.

Coming from the east that was conquered by the Turks, the newly crowned Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates lacked the troops to fight Bryennios who had most of the Roman army from the Balkans on his side.

Princess Anna Comnena:  "In these regions (Asia Minor) the fortunes of the Roman Empire had sunk to their lowest ebb. For the armies of the East were dispersed in all directions, because the Turks had over-spread, and gained command of, nearly all the countries between the Euxine Sea [#Black Sea] and the Hellespont, and the Aegean and Syrian Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian Sea. 

Such was the position of the Eastern armies, whilst in the West, so many legions had flocked to Bryennius' standard that the Roman Empire was left with quite a small and inadequate army. There still remained to her a few "Immortals" who had only recently grasped spear and sword, and a few soldiers from Coma, and a Celtic regiment, that had shrunk to a small number of men. These were given to Alexius, my father, and at the same time allied troops were called for from the Turks, and the Emperor's Council ordered Alexius to start and engage in battle with Bryennius, for he relied not so much on the army accompanying him as on the man's ingenuity and cleverness in military matters."

The Emperor played for time. The Emperor (76 years old) offered Bryennius the rank of Caesar and his support for the throne when he died. Negotiations took place, but the Emperor finally rejected the conditions of Bryennius and ordered Alexios Komnenos (Anna's father) to go on the attack.

Forces Involved
Byzantine Kentekarkhes

The battle was to be fought just outside of Constantinople on the plain of Kedoktos.

Army of the West  -  Doux Bryennius brought about 12,000 seasoned soldiers to the field from the Balkans. Marching with the Doux were Tagmata regiments from Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace. In addition there were Frankish mercenaries and the Imperial Guard Hetaireia regiment.

Army of the East  -  Estimates for the size of Alexios Komnenos' force range from a low of 5,500 to 10,000.  I would guess that splitting the difference at about 7,500 might be close to reality.

It is doubtful that an army at the low end of the estimate would have ever left the safety of the walls of Constantinople. Also, with manpower shortages in the east the high end estimate is just too high.

As it is the army Alexios had was a patchwork of units. He had 2,000 Turkish horse-archers, another 2,000 Roman Chomatenoi troops from central Asia Minor and a few hundred Frankish knights from Italy. 

Joining the army was a newly raise Tagmata regiment of Immortals. The unit was formed from remnants of eastern Tagmata units defeated by the Turks. The regiment was created to help form the nucleus of a new eastern army. The Immortals may have been cavalry like many Tagmata units.

The Battle of Kalavrye

Bryennios arranged his army in three divisions, each in two lines, as prescribed by Byzantine military manuals.

Princess Anna Comnena:  "Bryennius, on being informed that Alexius Comnenus had cut off his approaches and was encamped near Calaura, drew up his troops in the following order and marched against him. He posted the main army on the right and left wings, and gave the command of the right to his brother John; the men in this wing numbered 5,000, and were Italians, and those belonging to the detachment of the famous Maniaces, as well as some horse-soldiers from Thessaly, and a detachment, of no mean birth, of the "Hetaireia." The other, the left wing, was led by Catacalon Tarchaniotes, and was composed of fully-armed Macedonians and Thracians, numbering in all about 3,000. Bryennius himself held the centre of the phalanx, consisting of Macedonians and Thracians, and the picked men of the whole nobility. All the Thessalians were on horseback."

In addition on his left Bryennios had a detachment of Pecheneg Turkic cavalry.

The outnumbered Alexios Komnenos divided his force under two commands. Alexios took charge of the Immortals and Franks on the left while General Constantine Katakalon commanded the Chomatenoi and the Turks on the right. The Turks were given the task of guarding the right flank and keeping an eye on the Pecheneg cavalry.

While the allied Turks watched the right flank, Alexios formed a flanking detachment from the Immortals. Most likely they were cavalry. Alexios hid them out of sight in a hollow on the left. Being outnumbered Alexios hoped this hidden unit would join with the Immortals at just the right time to create confusion and allow hime to break through Bryennios' lines.

The initial dispositions and opening phase of the battle,
showing Alexios's failed ambush

As the right-wing of the rebel army under John advanced, Alexios' flanking force came out of hiding and attacked. There was some initial success and confusion, but that did not last. John brought up a second line of troops to attack the ambush force. Alexios' flanking unit dissolved in panic and fled directly into the Immortals.

Instead of Bryennios' army being ambushed and in panic it was the Immortals that now broke, abandoned their posts in panic and fled well to the rear of Alexios' army with the troops of Bryennios inflicting some casualties.

Alexios and his retinue were fighting with the Franks and did not realize that his entire left flank had just vanished.

Princess Anna Comnena:  Then, my father, hurling himself into the midst of the foe, . . . . kept on fighting desperately. But when he saw that his phalanx was utterly broken, and fleeing in all directions he collected the more courageous souls (who were six in all) . . . Alexius turned in the opposite direction, and decided to retire to a short distance from Bryennius' army; then he collected the men personally known to him from the dispersed soldiery, re-organized them, and returned to the work.

Alexios saw Bryennios' Imperial parade horse and grabbed it. As he reached a hill to the rear Alexios rallied what troops he could saying Bryennios was dead and showing the horse as proof.

The second phase of the battle: Alexios's right flank collapses and he himself barely manages to escape encirclement. Bryennios's Pechenegs break off pursuit and attack their own camp, throwing Bryennios's rear into confusion.

Talk about confusion of the battlefield. Alexios' left wing had collapsed. On the right wing the Chomatenoi troops who were fighting Tarchaneiotes' were now being flanked and attacked in the rear by the Pechenegs cavalry.

Somehow the Pechenegs managed to get by Alexios' allied Turkish cavalry without a fight. Had the two opposing allied units cut a deal? or was it just incompetence?

In any case, the Franks in the Roman center were now in danger of a double envelopment. They dismounted and offered to surrender. Units on both sides were mixed and disorganized and even started to relax thinking the battle was over.

Two Major Events - The allied Pechenegs broke off their attacks on Alexios and attacked and looted the camp of Bryennios. Now the allied Turks helping Alexios arrived on the battlefield. The battle was not over yet.

Princess Anna Comnena:  They spoil their victory by looting. For all the slaves and camp followers who formed the rear of Bryennius' army had pressed forward into the ranks from fear of being killed by the Scythians; and as this crowd was continually augmented by others who had escaped from the hands of the Scythians, no small confusion arose in the ranks, and the standards became commingled.

The final phase of the battle: Alexios regroups his army, attacks Bryennios's forces, and lures them into a new ambush. The rebel army collapses, and Bryennios himself is captured.

I will let the princess tell the story.

Princess Anna Comnena:  Then fortune, too, contributed the following incident to Alexius' success. A detachment of the Turkish allies happened upon Alexius, the Great Domestic, and on hearing that he had restored the battle, and asking where the enemy was, they accompanied him, my father, to a little hill, and when my father pointed out the army, they looked down upon it from an observation tower, as it were. And this was the appearance of Bryennius' army; the men were all mixed up anyhow, the lines had not yet been re-formed, and, as if they had already carried off the victory, they were acting carelessly and thought themselves out of danger. 

And they had slackened off chiefly because after the initial rout of our men, my father's contingent of Franks had gone over to Bryennius. For when the Franks dismounted from their horses and offered their right hands to Bryennius, according to their ancestral custom in giving pledges, men came running up towards them from all sides to see what was happening. For like a trumpet-blast the rumour had resounded throughout the army that the Franks had joined them and deserted their Commander-in-Chief, Alexius. 

The officers with my father, and the newly-arrived Turks, duly noted this state of confusion, and as a result they divided their forces into three parties and ordered two to remain in ambush somewhere on the spot, and the third they commanded to advance against the foe. The whole of this plan was due to Alexius.

The Turks did not attack all together, drawn up regularly into phalanx, but separately and in small groups, standing some distance apart from each other; then he ordered each squadron to attack, charging the enemy with their horses, and to let loose heavy showers of darts. Following upon the Turks came my father Alexius, the author of this strategy, with as many of his scattered men as the occasion warranted. 

Next, one of the "Immortals" with Alexius, a hot-headed, venturesome fellow, spurred on his horse, and out-riding the others, dashed at full gallop straight at Bryennius, and thrust his spear with great violence against the latter's breast. Bryennius for his part whipped out his sword quickly from its sheath, and before the spear could be driven home, he cut it in two, and struck his adversary on the collar bone, and bringing down the blow with the whole power of his arm, cut away the man's whole arm, breastplate included.

The Turks, too, one group following up another, overshadowed the army with their showers of darts. Bryennius' men were naturally taken aback by the sudden attack, yet they collected themselves, formed themselves into line, and sustained the shock of the battle, mutually exhorting each other to play the man. 

The Turks, however, and my father, held their ground for a short time against the enemy, and then planned to retire in regular order to a little distance, in order to lure on the enemy, and draw them by guile to the ambuscade. When they had reached the first ambush, they wheeled round, and met the enemy face to face. 

The Horse Archer
The allied Muslim Turks brought their deadly horse-archers to the battlefield.
The Turks moved at high speed while raining arrows into enemy formations.

Forthwith, at a given signal, those in ambush rode through them like swarms of wasps, from various directions, and with their loud war-cries, and shouts, and incessant shooting, not only filled the ears of Bryennius' men with a terrible din, but also utterly obscured their sight by showering arrows upon them from all sides. Hereupon, as the army of Bryennius could no longer put up any resistance (for by now all, both men and horses, were sorely wounded), they turned their standard to retreat, and offered their backs as a target to their foes. 

But Bryennius himself, although very weary from fighting, shewed his courage and mettle. For at one minute, he would turn to right or left to strike a pursuer, and at the next, carefully and cleverly arrange the details of the retreat. He was assisted by his brother on the one side, and his son on the other, and by their heroic defence on that occasion they seemed to the enemy miraculous.

(The Turks captured Bryennius and) led him away to Alexius Comnenus, who happened to be standing not, far from the spot where Bryennius was captured, and was busy drawing up his own men, and the Turks, into line, and inciting them to battle. News of Bryennius' capture had already been brought by heralds, and then the man himself was placed before the General, and a terrifying object he certainly was, both when fighting, and when captured. 

And now, having secured Bryennius in this manner, Alexius Comnenus sent him away as the prize of his spear .to the. Emperor Botaniates, without doing any injury whatsoever to his eyes. For it was not the nature of Alexius to proceed to extremities against his opponents after their capture as he considered that being captured was in itself sufficient punishment, but after their capture he treated them with clemency, friendliness and generosity. This clemency he now displayed towards Bryennius, for after his capture he accompanied him a fair distance, and when they reached the place called ... he said to him (for he was anxious to relieve the man's despondency and restore hope in him); "Let us get off our horses and sit down and rest awhile." 

But Bryennius, in fear of his life resembled a maniac, and was by no means in need of rest, for how should a man be who has lost all hope of life? And yet he immediately complied with the General's wish, for a slave readily submits to every command, more especially if he is a prisoner of war. When the two leaders had dismounted, Alexius at once lay down on some green grass, as if on a couch, while Bryennius sat further off, and rested his head on the roots of a tall oak. My father slept, but "gentle sleep," as it is called in sweet poetry, did not visit the other.

If later on undesirable things happened to Bryennius, the blame must be laid on certain of the Emperor's courtiers; my father was blameless. Such then was the end of Bryennius' rebellion.


The Emperor blinded Nikephoros Bryennios for his failure to capture the throne. Perhaps out of pity (which I doubt) or to restore unity, the Emperor restored Bryennios' titles and fortune. After Alexios became Emperor in 1081 even more honors were given to him, and even though blinded Bryennios helped defend Adrianople from a rebel attack in 1095.

Bryennios son or grandson Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger married Alexios' daughter Anna Comnena, became an important general and rose to the rank of Caesar.

The remaining troops of the defeated army of the west were gathered up by General Nikephoros Basilakes who then declared himself Emperor and continued the revolt. In 1079 Alexios put down the revolt and Basilakes fled to Thessalonica where he attempted to defend the city.

Seeing the writing on the wall, his own troops turned over Basilakes to the Emperor who ordered that he be blinded.

Princess Anna Comnena
Anna Comnena, was a Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital
administrator, and historian. She was the daughter of the Byzantine
Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina.

East Roman Reenactors  -  (Twitter)
Emperor Alexios I Komnenos &
wife Empress Irene Doukaina
I have no idea where this image came from. A movie perhaps. The picture gives us a good feel for the period where then General Alexios took the eastern Roman Army to victory against the Roman Army of the Balkans in this article. 
Only three years after the battle Alexios became Emperor as the 79 year old Nikephoros III Botaneiates retired to a monastery.
Also See Alexios in Battle:
Battle of Dyrrhachium

(Anna Comnena)      (Michael VII Doukas)      (Nikephoros III Botaneiates)

(Byzantine Infantry)      (Kalavrye)