|Late Roman Empire troops
Defending the Roman Balkans
The Balkan campaigns were the main focus of Emperor Maurice's foreign policies. A favorable peace treaty with Persia in 591 enabled him to shift his experienced troops from the Persian front to the region. The refocusing of Roman efforts soon paid off: the frequent Roman failures before 591 were succeeded by a string of successes afterwards.
Theophylact Simocatta, who wrote in the early seventh century during the reign of Heraclius (Herakleios) (610-41), was the last in the succession of secular classicizing historians devoted mainly to the military, diplomatic, and political history of the Roman empire.
Theophylact’s History is an account of the reign of the emperor Maurice (582-602), within which two major topics dominate the historical narrative: warfare in the Balkans against the Slavs and Avars and on the eastern frontier against the Persians.
In the following section, the emperor has promoted his brother Peter as the commander of the Byzantine (referred to as Roman) forces as they begin a campaign in the Balkans in the year 594. Theophylact is biased against Peter, and his account of his actions shows him to be less skillful and energetic then he was during this campaign.
For more information on this historian, please see The Emperor Maurice and his Historian - Theophylact Simocatta on Persian and Balkan Warfare, by Michael Whitby (Oxford University Press, 1988)
And so Priscus was thus demoted while Peter, who was in fact Maurice’s own brother, was proclaimed as commander by the emperor. Then Maurice inscribed royal letters, delivered these to the general, prepared for him to depart from the city, and ordered him to go to the camp. Now, one clause of the royal letters dealt with military pay; the clause proposed that payment would be organized in three parts, by clothing, equipment, and gold coin.
Then the general departed from Perinthus and came to Drizipera, and leaving Drizipera he reached Odessus. And so the camp gave the commander a most distinguished welcome on his arrival at Odessus, but on the fourth day the commander attempted to publicize to the troops the royal dispatches. And so the troops contemplated agitation, for they had previously heard the royal command.
Then, after the general had hurriedly arranged a united assembly of the forces and had made the congregation listen to the emperor’s utterances, the army shied away and, abandoning the general in disgrace, they pitched camp in uproar four miles away. But Peter, being faced by revolt, concealed the more irksome parts of the royal commands; he also had to hand one of the royal ordinances which would be beneficial to the warring masses, and demanded that this be publicly proclaimed to the Roman troops.
|Late Roman Cavalry (Pinterest)
Information on the true look of Eastern Roman troops is often thin at best. For this article I
selected photos of Late Roman Empire reenactors. Live photos are better than paintings, and
these reenactors may be pretty close to the actual look of the troops. When in doubt I say
listen to the fanatical reenactors. From my experience they often know far more
than many so-called "historians".
And so the Romans assembled and reviled Maurice, but the commander intelligently and persuasively soothed the wrath of the camp and publicized to the men-at-arms the more pleasing of the emperor’s letters. They contained the following generous provisions: that Romans who had acted heroically and encountered some misfortune as a result of courage in danger should thereafter receive a respite, that these demobilized soldiers in the cities should be fed at imperial expense, and that servicemen’s children who had lost their fathers in war should be enrolled for war in place of their parents.
Accordingly, when he had put these proposals to the army from a lofty rostrum, he converted them, and persuasively reduced them to submission; hence their folly was also altered, and each reverted to goodwill towards the emperor Maurice. Accordingly the Caesar was praised, being released from their recent slanders: for the masses are unstable and have never adopted a fixed position, but are transformed randomly and fortuitously by incidental pronouncements.
And so the general was thus reconciled with the camp regarding their grievances. On the fourth day, after he had acquainted the emperor with the mutiny of the forces, he set out from Odessus and moved towards the regions on his left; on reaching Marcianopolis he ordered one thousand men to advance beyond the camp.
These, therefore, encountered six hundred Sclavenes who were escorting a great haul of Romans, for they had ravaged Zaldapa, Aquis, and Scopi, and were herding back these unfortunates as plunder; a large number of wagons held the possessions they had looted. When the barbarians observed the Romans approaching, and were then likewise observed, they turned to the slaughter of the captives. Then the adult male captives from youth upwards were killed.
|Archers - Auxiliaries in the Roman Army
Since the barbarians could not avoid an encounter, they collected the wagons and placed them round as a barricade, depositing the women and youth in the middle of the defence. The Romans drew near to the Getae (for this is the older name for the barbarians), but did not dare to come to grips, since they were afraid of the javelins which the barbarians were sending from the barricade against their horses. Then their captain, whose name was Alexander, commanded the Romans in the ancestral Roman language to dismount from their horses and grasp the enemy danger at, close quarters.
Now the Romans dismounted from their horses, approached the barricade, and gave and received in turn discharges of missiles. Accordingly, while the battle persisted on either side, a certain Roman burst in, went up and climbed on to one of the wagons that formed part of the barricade protecting the barbarians; then, standing on it he struck those nearby with his sword. Then an indivertible peril came upon the barbarians, for thereafter the Romans broke the barbarians’ barricade.
|Emperor Maurice by Emilian Stankev
from "Rulers of the Byzantine Empire".
An able general, the court of Maurice
still used Latin as the official language.
On the following day Peter came to a thick grove in search of hunting; now there was an enormous boar lurking deep in this vale and, as the barking of the dogs grew loud, the beast raised himself from his lair and made for Peter.
The general wheeled his horse in flight, but crushed his left foot by dashing it against a lofty tree. Accordingly, Peter was convulsed by unendurable pains and remained in the place, most grievously stricken by his accident.
But the Caesar was angered by the general’s delay, and in astonishment at his military inactivity he addressed written insults to the general. Then Peter did not tolerate the emperor’s epistolary denigration, and moved camp although he was still sorely oppressed by his affliction; after four changes of camp, he reached the habitations of the Sclavenes.
On the tenth day the emperor Maurice dispatched to his brother a royal letter to remain in Thrace, for Maurice had heard that the Sclavene hordes were directing their thrusts towards Byzantium. Consequently the general came to the fort of Pistus, and subsequently arrived at Zaldapa. On the second day he reached the city of Iatrus, and next, after marching past the fort of Latarkium, encamped at Novae.
Then, when the inhabitants heard of the general’s imminent arrival, they came out of the city, provided him with a most distinguished reception, and begged Peter to join the celebration for the festival of the martyr Lupus: for that day was the festal eve feast for the martyr Lupus. And so the general said that he was unable to spend the day in the place because of the urgency of his march, but the citizens amplified their request with superabundant pleas, and compelled the general to take part in the festival. And so Peter, after being two days in the city, set out from there and pitched camp at Theodoropolis; at the first hour he reached the place called Curisca.
|Click to enlarge
The Roman Balkans in the 6th Century
On the third day he established his quarters at the city of Asemus. But when the inhabitants of the city had learned that the general was expected, they came out of the city to meet Peter, and made his arrival at the city splendid. From bygone times a garrison had been organized in this city for the protection of the citizens, since the barbarians swooped down like lightning around this city quite frequently.
Accordingly, when the garrison stationed in this city learned that the general was about to arrive, they took up the standards, which Romans call bands, and went out of the city; then, arrayed in armour, they welcomed the general most gloriously. And so Peter, on seeing the magnificence of the city’s soldiers, attempted to remove them from the city and include them amongst his own forces. And so the citizens and the city’s garrison produced a decree of the emperor Justin which granted the city this successive armed protection.
On the morrow the commander made objection and hastened to remove from the township those posted for its protection. For this reason the soldiers in the city took refuge in the city’s church. On hearing this, the general ordered the bishop to bring them out of the sanctuary; when the priest angrily refused, the general dispatched the brigadier Gentzon with a body of soldiers to expel by force those who had taken refuge in the church.
On hearing this, those. who had fled to the holy seats arrayed themselves in arms and blockaded the church doors from all sides. And so Gentzon, observing the opposition inside the sacred precinct, recognizing the outrageousness of his task, and at the same time respecting the sanctity of the church, departed without success. But the general was infuriated at this, and demoted Gentzon from his command (Gentzon was leader of the infantry force).
On the following day he summoned to his own tent one of the emperor’s bodyguards, whom Romans call scribo, and prescribed for him a shameful undertaking: his demand was for the city’s bishop to be dragged in dishonour to the camp.
When the citizens had witnessed this, they all assembled together and forcibly thrust out of the city the man dispatched by the general against the priest; after closing the gates in the wall, they hymned the emperor with acclamations and covered the general with insults. Peter was encamped in a fortified enclosure about a mile from the city. But since his enterprise was disgraceful, he left the city and proceeded to march forwards, escorted by great curses from the city.
On the sixth day, he marshalled one thousand men to recon noitre the enemy, and these encountered ten hundred Bulgars. Now the barbarians were marching off guard, since there was peace between the Romans and the Chagan. But the Romans, on the general’s decision, used their javelins against the barbarians.
The Bulgars dispatched ambassadors to negotiate an end to the fight and to advise the Romans not to destroy the peace. The officer of the contingent dispatched the ambassadors to the general, who was eight miles from the spot. Peter, therefore, spurned their peaceful words and instructed the advance guard to put the barbarians to death by the sword forthwith.
And so the Bulgars formed up for battle as best they could, came to grips, and after joining combat most heroically, compelled the Romans to turn away in flight. After these events, the barbarians also retreated a short distance, oft turning back as one small step replaced another, to blend a touch of the Homeric poem with our account, since they feared that a supplementary force might perhaps join the vanquished and rally for battle again.
And so Peter, since his plan had failed, stripped the clothing from the brigadier of the advance guard and scourged him like a slave.
|Bulgarian Warrior Reenactor
The Eastern Roman Empire faced an endless series of invasions in the
Balkans from Huns, Slavic tribes and Bulgars.
The Sack of Pliska and the Massacre at Vărbitsa Pass
Then the barbarians came to the Chagan and disclosed to him the sequence of events; and so the barbarian dispatched ambassadors to Peter, and reproached him for the apparent breach of the truce. But Peter beguiled the ambassadors with plausible arguments, and alleged ignorance of the misdeed; then, with splendid gifts and a forfeit of booty, he converted the barbarian to good humour.
On the fourth day he came near to the neighbouring river, assembled twenty men, and sent them to cross the river and observe the enemies’ movements. And so these crossed the river and were all captured. The manner of their capture was this: it is customary that those detailed for reconnaissance always make their way by night but consort with sleep during the light of day. These men had completed a long journey on the previous day; then at daybreak, being physically exhausted, they turned to rest in a certain nearby copse. At about the third hour, when they were all asleep with no one keeping watch, the barbarians approached the copse.
Then the Sclavenes dismounted from their horses, and proceeded to refresh themselves and give their horses some respite. Accordingly, the Romans were detected by accident. The poor wretches were taken captive and interrogated to reveal what the Romans had planned; and so, despairing of safety, they recounted everything.
But Peiragastus, who was the tribal leader of that barbarian horde, took his forces, encamped at the river-crossings, and concealed himself in the woods like an overlooked bunch of grapes on the vine. But the general, the emperor’s brother, consequently rejected the idea that enemy were present and ordered the army to cross the river. Then, after one thousand men had traversed the river, the barbarians slaughtered all of them.
When the general realized this, he pressed the troops not to make the crossing piecemeal, lest by crossing the river gradually they should fall victim to the foe. Then, after the Roman formation had been organized in this way, the barbarians drew up on the river bank. And so the Romans let fly at the barbarians from the rafts, while the barbarians, unable to endure the mass of discharged missiles, left the banks deserted.
Then their brigadier, whom the story has already declared to be Peiragastus, was killed; for he was struck in the flank by a missile and death took him in hand, since the blow had reached a vital part. Therefore, after Peiragastus had fallen, the enemy turned to flight. Then the Romans became masters of the riverbank; next, encircling the barbarian hordes, they forced them into flight with great slaughter, but they were unable to press their pursuit very far because of their lack of horse, and they returned to camp.
|Click to enlarge
The Roman Empire in 600 AD at the time of Emperor Maurice
Then on the following day, the army’s guides made a great error, with the result that a water shortage beset the camp and the misfortunes increased. Then the soldiers, intolerant of the dearth of water, assuaged their thirst with wine. On the third day the trouble intensified, and the whole army would have perished if a certain barbarian prisoner had not pointed out to them the Helibacia river, which was four parasangs distant.
And so, thus, in the morning the Romans encountered water: then some inclined their knees forwards, as it were, and gulped down the water with their lips, others stooped down and drew up water in their hands, while others decanted the stream in pitchers.
On the opposite side of the river there was a leafy vale; barbarians were lurking therein, and greatest outrage came upon the Romans: for with javelins the barbarians struck the men drawing water. Therefore great slaughter ensued from concealment. Then a choice between two alternatives was necessary, either to refuse the water and relinquish life through thirst, or to draw up death too along with the water.
But the Romans assembled rafts and traversed the river so that the enemy might be detected. When the soldiers reached the other side, the barbarians suddenly attacked and overcame the Romans; and so the defeated Romans turned in flight. Then, since Peter had been outfought by the barbarians, Priscus became general; and so, after being demoted from command, Peter came to Byzantium.
This translation is from The History of Theophylact Simocatta, trans. by Michael and Mary Whitby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
(Maurice) (The History of Theophylact Simocatta) (Balkan campaigns)