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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Defending Byzantine Spain - Limes in Spania

The Limitanei were the static frontier guard troops that replaced the legions in the fourth century CE. The Romans were responding to the fact their long Danube and Rhine frontiers were subject to constant barbarian raids and that their cities were no longer secure.  The Limitanei may have been stationed in Byzantine Spania.
Byzantine Spania

The reestablished Eastern Roman province of Spania began with the Emperor Justinian in 552AD.

The Emperor sent troops to Spania to take sides in an internal civil war. Which side the Romans helped is unclear. But like many such forces over the centuries that were sent to "help" the locals they did not want to leave once the work was done. Thus the Eastern Roman province of Spania was created and part of Spain was once again Roman.

The province only lasted until 624 (only 72 years). The Visigoths took advantage of the Persian Empire's conquest of Roman Syria, Anatolia and Egypt to crush and absorb a helpless Roman Spain that could expect zero reinforcements from a hard pressed Constantinople.

That brings me to a 2010 article I found on Google:  Defending Byzantine Spain: Frontiers and Diplomacy by Jamie Wood.

Talk about a specialized subject!

The bad part is copy and pasting does not work on his site. So I will have to so a summary of his findings.

Visigoth Warrior 

The Conquest

In 551 or 552 one of the Visigothic factions asked the Romans for help in a civil war.  In July, 552 the Romans won the Battle of Taginae in central Italy. The Gothic Wars in Italy were coming to an end.

It was perhaps at this point extra Roman troops became available to send to Spain.  It is unclear how many troops were sent or even who the commander of the force was.

Some claim the expedition commander was Liberius, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy.  This is doubtful as Liberius was 80 plus years old at this point and no doubt had his hands full in Italy.  Liberius (under Justinian's orders?) may have ordered troops to Spain as part of Justinian's plan to reconquer the West.

How many troops were sent? There are no records. It would have to have been a large enough force to not only defend itself but to engage any serious enemy. An army of 3,000 to 5,000 men would have met those needs and would be typical of the period.

The army was probably sent in 552 and made landfall in June or July. Roman forces landed probably at the mouth of the Guadalete or perhaps Málaga and joined with Visigoth allies and marched south from Mérida towards Seville in August or September 552. 

The war dragged on for two more years. Liberius returned to Constantinople by May 553 and it is likely that a second Roman force from Italy, which had only recently been pacified after the Gothic War, landed at Cartagena in early March 555 and marched inland to Baza (Basti) in order to join up with their compatriots near Seville. 

Their landing at Cartagena was violent. The native population, which included the family of Leander of Seville, was well disposed to the Visigoths and the Roman government of the city was forced to suppress their freedoms, an oppression which lasted decades into their occupation. Leander and most of his family fled and his writings preserve the strong anti-Byzantine sentiment.

Athanagild, the new king of the Goths, quickly tried to rid Spain of the Byzantines, but failed. The Byzantines occupied many coastal cities in Baetica and this region was to remain a Byzantine province until its reconquest by the Visigoths barely seventy years later.

Reconstruction concept of a Limes mile castle along Hadrian's Wall

Limes in Spania?

The conquest began with the Roman reconquest of Septem (modern Ceuta) in North Africa.  A garrison and naval force was stationed there under the command of a Tribune who was responsible for monitoring event in Spain and Gaul. The Balearic Islands were also rapidly occupied. These twin actions helped secure Roman North Africa from attacks by Visigoth Spain.

But once the Romans has reoccupied southern Spain the question remain on how to defend it from invasion.

The most prevalent theory is Roman southern Spain was defended by a limes-style fortified frontier.

A popular theory is the Spania limes consisted of a network of fortified cities interspersed with smaller defensive positions.  More advanced positions, Castra, would be linked by roads and defended by Limitanei troops.

The author of the above study trashes the idea of a Limes Spania.  I would disagree.  The Romans always fortified their frontier outposts.  If the Byzantines could fortify and man outposts in the deserts of Libya and Tunisia there is no reason to think they would not do the same in Spain.

The budget of Constantinople was always tight. I have no doubt Roman troops in Spania took over existing Visigoth Castra and cities and repaired or expanded defenses.

Though there is little "proof" of a Spania Limes the fact that for 70 years the province was not overrun by Visigothic armies is indirect evidence that serious fortifications backed by Roman troops were in place.

The Visagoths only made advances in Spain when the Persians conquered Roman Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.  We can conclude that military pressure in the east forced Constantinople to strip outlying provinces like Spania of troops so they could join the war against Persia.

Only with the Spania Limes under or unmanned could the Visigoths drive out the Romans in 624.

Map showing Byzantine Spain
and North Africa c. 580

The Walls of Ceuta, North Africa
Ceuta was directly across from, and offered support to, Byzantine Spania. The fortifications were originally built by the Byzantines and later improved on by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Ceuta is still ruled by Spain.
See More:
Byzantine Morocco

Diplomacy and Defense

War is expensive and the outcome often uncertain. So warfare was often the last resort.

The Eastern Romans of the period had no problem using force to achieve their goals.  But it was often more productive to use proxies, diplomacy or to manipulate factions in neighboring nations.  An anonymous Byzantine treatise on strategy states:
  • "Negotiating for peace may be chose before other means, since it might very well offer the best prospect for protecting our own interests."
In a number of cases the Byzantines may have taken advantage of dissent within the Visigothic kingdom.  In 571 and 576 the Visigoths put down revolts in Cordoba and Orospeda which just happened to border Spania.  A 580s rebellion may also have been Byzantine inspired. When the revolt was defeated the family of the rebellion leader fled to Spania and the protection of Roman troops.

Keeping your enemy divided was perhaps more important than the number of Roman troops stationed in the province.


It appears a mint was established in the province. Gold coins were produced locally that matched those from other Roman mints.

The chief administrative official in Spania was the magister militum Spaniae, meaning "master of the military of Spain." The magister militum governed civil and military affairs in the province and was subordinate only to the Emperor. Typically the magister was a member of the highest aristocratic class and bore the rank of patrician. The office, though it only appears in records for the first time in 589, was probably a creation of Justinian, as was the mint, which issued provincial currency until the end of the province (c. 624).

The first known governor, Comenciolus, repaired the gates of Cartagena in lieu of the "barbarians" (i.e. the Visigoths) and left an inscription (dated 1 September 589) in the city which survives to this day. It is in Latin and may reflect the continued use of Latin as the administrative language of the province.

The fact that high level Patricans were sent to Spania suggests there was a lot more at stake than a few coastal towns. That the province was considered important and extended much further inland.

Coinciding with the Persian invasion of the east, by the 610s and 620s the number of references to Visigothic aggression increased. Letters show Roman cities were taken, territory lost and prisoners captured.

No doubt troops were withdrawn to fight in either the Balkans or against the Persians. Weakened it was only a matter of time and the province fell to the Visigoths in 624.

Limes Fortifications in Spain?
Eastern Roman rule in Spania lasted only 70 years so a full blown Limes system may not have developed.  But in an age where might makes right something was in place that for decades kept the Visigothic armies from invading. Most likely it was a somewhat less formal series of defensive fortifications.

Reconstruction of a Limes strongpoint.

The Western Roman Empire in 565 AD
In yellow are the lands re-conquered by the Emperor Justinian
and returned to the Roman Empire including Spania.

(Byzantine Spain)      (Spania)