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, June 15, 2019

Barbarians at the Gates - The Roman Balkans

Roman Reenactor
Marco le Méro Photographie is with Gwendal Lazzara at Funkenburg Westgreußen

The Coming of - Just About Everyone

In the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire it is hard to believe that there were any people at all left in Central Asia - - - just about every tribe imaginable marched southwest and invaded the Eastern Roman Empire.

By the year 500AD the entire northern bank of the Danube from Belgrade to the Black Sea was occupied by one Slavic tribe or another. Why these tribes showed up no one knows. But in their desire for loot, slaves or land they put mounting pressure on the Roman frontier. Two of the earliest Slavic tribes were the Antes and the Sclaveni.

The history of the Eastern Empire in the 500s is dominated by the re-conquest of Roman lands by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). All of Italy, North Africa, Southern Spain, Sicily and Sardinia once again were part of the Empire. But these new lands brought a serious military strain to the country: endless wars in all directions from invaders.

While the Roman armies were fighting in Italy, North Africa and against the Persian Empire the Slavs were crossing the Danube into the heart of the Roman Balkans.

The earliest inroads by the Slavs came under Justin I (518-527). But under Justinian the floodgates began to open. As powerful a threat as the Persians were, it was on the Danube, not the Euphrates, that the fate of the Empire was decided.

  • Contemporary historian Procopius:  "Illyricum and all of Thrace, that is, from the Ionian Gulf to the suburbs of Constantinople, including Greece and the Chersonese (the Gallipoli peninsula) were overrun by the Huns (the Bulgars), Sclavini and Antes almost every year, from the time when Justinian took over the Roman Empire; and intolerable things they did to the inhabitants."

At first these annual raids were for loot, after which the barbarians retired over the Danube.

Then in 540 the Kutrigurs delivered a shattering attack capturing 32 fortresses in Illyriccum on the west coast and plundering the countryside all the way to the suburbs of Constantinople. In 545 the Slavs plundered Thrace. Repulsed by Justinian's famous general Narses. they returned five years later coming within 40 miles of Constantinople, defeated a Roman army at Adrainople until finally being turned by at the walls of Constantinople itself.

By 550 things began to change. The raids became longer and the Slavs started to capture cities and fortresses often holding them for several years.

In 559 a Kutrigur-Slavic army crossed the frozen Danube and marched into Thrace. There it divided into sections. One marched into Thessaly where they were turned back by the Roman defenses at the defile of Thermopylae. A second attacked and was defeated at Gallipoli.

The third attacked the walls of Constantinople and laid waste to the suburbs. The Emperor recalled an aged General Belisarius. He forced the barbarians to retire beyond the Long Wall. A Roman fleet was simultaneously reinforced on the Danube cutting off the retreat of Slavs. Caught between two fires the Kutrigus sued for peace and returned to the steppes. This strategy would be used by the Romans many times over the years.

Map of Slavic peoples of the 6th century

Roman – Persian War of 572–591
Roman Wars on Four Fronts
The Roman armies faced a major war with the Persian Empire in the east.  At the same time they face invasion in the Balkans by the Avars, the invasion of Italy by the Lombards and a North African war against the Berbers.

Central and Eastern Europe about 650AD
The first appearance of the Slavs in the Eastern Roman Empire can be dated no earlier than the 6th century. Throughout this century, beginning with the reign of Justinian, Slavs repeatedly invaded the Balkan possessions of the Empire. Not until the reign of Maurice, however, did any Slavs settle in these territories. Between the years 579-587 there took place the irruption of several barbarian waves led by the Avars, but consisting mostly of Slavs. The latter came in great numbers, and, as the troops of the Empire were engaged in the war with Persia, they roamed the country at will.

Slavs devastated Illyricum and Thrace, penetrated deep into Greece and the Peloponnesus, helped the Avars to take numerous cities, including Singidunum, Viminacium (Kostolac), Durostorum (Silistria), Marcianopolis, Anchialus, and Corinth, and in 586 laid siege to the city of Thessalonica, the first of a series of great sieges which that city was destined to undergo at their hands What is more, they came to stay.

The Balkan Limes

The extent to which the Emperor Justinian neglected the Balkan Limes should not be exaggerated. The historian Procopius lists over 600 fortresses that were either built or restored by the Emperor.

Some of these were no doubt little more than fortified watch towers. Others may have never gotten beyond the planning stages. Even allowing for this the building was impressive. The old Roman limes were built along the Danube. Justinian's defenses formed a system of three fortified parallel belts - more of a defense in depth.

The first belt followed the natural barrier of the Danube River. Roman cities on the south bank such as Singidunum and Novae were strengthened to withstand invasions.

The second fortified line was just to the south. It stretched west to east in Roman provinces like Upper Moesia and Dacia Ripensis.  Some 107 strongholds were built or re-build. This zone also helped guard passes over Balkan mountains.

The third fortified zone was deep in the interior. It guarded the provinces of Haemimontus and Thrace, along with areas of eastern Serbia and western Bulgaria. A network of fortifications was strengthened or built.

It is believed that in many cases Justinian's fortifications were not built to last. As the tempo of barbarian invasions picked up in the last half of the 500s the Emperor's fortresses were obliterated and forgotten to such a degree that historians have problems with their locations.

In many ways Justinian cannot be blamed. From any point of view defending the massive Roman Empire stretching from Spain and Morocco to Switzerland to the Sahara Desert to the Balkans and the Euphrates was close to impossible. The manpower and money were just not there.

Reconstruction of a UNESCO limes fortress in Germany. Due no doubt to budgets, most of the Roman limes defenses along the Danube were much weaker - often little more than watchtowers like the one below.

Roman forts along the Danube limes - theoretical reconstruction

The Empire might not have been able to turn back many of the invading Slavic armies, but then there was the old standby of using money and diplomacy.

To relieve pressure on the Danube, Justinian used a combination of military pressure, economic cajolery and religious propaganda to divide and control the different tribes.

For example in 530 a certain Slavic chief of great ability named Chilbudius was enticed into Roman service. He was appointed supreme commander on the Danube which he successfully defended for several years against the Kutrigurs, Antes and Sclavini. In 535 Justinian offered the Antes money and lands on the northern bank of the lower Danube. The tribe was granted the status of Foederati on condition they would hold the river against the Bulgars.

This policy worked for for and against the Empire. The Romans had gained allies to defend the frontier but at a great drain on the Imperial Treasury and widespread discontent among the people. Also paying out money to barbarians just attracted more barbarians.

  • Procopius:  "For these barbarians, having once tasted Roman wealth, never forgot the road that led to it . . . . Thus all the barbarians became masters of all the wealth of the Romans, either being presented with it by the emperor, or by ravaging the Roman Empire, selling their prisoners for ransom, and bartering for truces."

The Coming of the Avars

In the last years of Justinian's rule the Central Asian Avars appeared in Constantinople. Their leaders were placated with presents of gold chains, saddles and silk robes. A treaty was concluded where the Avars would defend the Empire. But as foederati they did their job too well defeating enemies everywhere.

Tired of paying out money in 565 the new Emperor Justin II haughtily rejected an Avar delegation's request for tribute. Shortly thereafter began a 58 year long series of wars with the Avars.

The Avars usually raided the Balkans when the Roman Empire was distracted elsewhere, typically in its frequent wars with the Sassanid Empire in the East. As a result, they often raided with impunity for long periods of time, before Roman troops could be freed from other fronts to be sent on punitive expeditions. This happened during in the 580s and 590s, where Byzantium was initially distracted in the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 572–591, but then followed up by a series of successful campaigns that pushed the Avars back.

The Avars almost launched a massive attack on Sirmium in 568, but were repulsed.

The Romans paid them 80,000 gold solidi a year. Except for a raid on Sirmium in 574, they did not threaten Byzantine territory until 579, after Tiberius II stopped the payments. The Avars retaliated with another siege of Sirmium. The city fell in c. 581, or possibly 582. After the capture of Sirmium, the Avars demanded 100,000 solidi a year. Refused, they began pillaging the northern and eastern Balkans, which only ended after the Avars were pushed back by the Byzantines from 597 to 602.

Avar mounted archer

Avar warriors

Charge of the Avars taken May, 2011.

The flavor of the times, the helplessness of the Empire to defend the Balkans, is captured by Syriac historian John of Ephesus in 584.

  • "That same year, being the third year after the death of King Justin, was famous also for the invasion of an accursed people, called the Slavonians, who overran the whole of Greece, and the country of the Thessalonians, and all Thrace, and captured the cities, and took numerous forts, and devastated and burnt, and reduced the people to slavery, and made themselves masters of the whole country, and settles it by main force, and dwelt there in it as though it had been their own without fear. And four years have now elapsed, and still, because the king is engaged in a war with the Persians, and has sent all his forces to the East, they live in the land, and dwell in it, and spread themselves far and wide as God permits them, and ravage and burn and take captive. And to such an extent do they carry their ravages, that they have even ridden up to the outer walls of the city (i.e. the Long Wall of Constantinople), and driven away all the king's herds of horses, many thousands in number, and whatever else they could find.  And even to this day . . . . (584) they still camp and dwell there, and live in peace in the Roman territories, free from anxiety and fear, lead captive and slay and burn: and they have grown rich in gold and silver, and herds of horses, and arms, and have learnt to fight better than the Romans . . . . "

After the end of the Roman war with the Persians in 591, Emperor Maurice shifted his focus to the Balkans. Maurice deployed veteran troops to the Balkans, allowing the Byzantines to shift from a reactive strategy to a pre-emptive one. The general Priscus was tasked with stopping the Slavs from crossing the Danube in spring 593. He routed several raiding parties, before he crossed the Danube and fought the Slavs in what is now Wallachia.

After years of offensive warfare the Romans pacified the Balkans for the first time since the reign of Anastasius I (r. 491–518). Maurice planned to repopulate the devastated lands which the Byzantines had recovered by settling Armenian peasants, as well as Romanizing the Slav settlers already in the area. Maurice also planned to lead further campaigns against the Avar Khaganate, so as to either destroy them or force them into submission. However, Maurice was overthrown in 602 by Phocas, as his army rebelled at the endless Balkan campaigning. Phocas promptly scrapped those plans.

The Avars, who were likely encouraged by their successful campaigns against the Lombards in 610 and the Franks in 611, resumed their incursions some time after 612. By 614, with the Persian capture of Jerusalem, it became clear to the Avars and their Slav subjects that retaliation from the Byzantines was extremely unlikely. Chronicles of the 610s record wholesale pillaging, with cities such as Justiniana Prima and Salona succumbing. The cities of Naissus and Serdica were captured in 615, and the cities of Novae and Justiniana Prima were destroyed in 613 and 615, respectively. 

The Slavs also raided in the Aegean, as far as Crete, in 623. During this time period, there were three separate sieges of Thessalonica: in 604615, and 617. In 623 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius journeyed into Thrace in an attempt to agree peace with the Avar Khagan face to face. Instead the Byzantines were ambushed, with Heraclius narrowly escaping and most of his bodyguard and retainers being killed or captured. 

Avar power peaked culminating in the Siege of Constantinople in 626.

The Persian king Khosrau II, after suffering reverses through Heraclius' campaigns in the Persian rear, resolved to launch a decisive strike. While general Shahin Vahmanzadegan was sent to stop Heraclius with 50,000 men, Shahrbaraz was given command of a smaller army and ordered to slip by Heraclius' flank, and march for Chalcedon, a Persian base across the Bosporus from Constantinople. Khosrau II also made contact with the Khagan of the Avars to allow for a coordinated attack on Constantinople, the Persians on the Asiatic side, and the Avars from the European side.

The Avar army approached Constantinople from Thrace and destroyed the Aqueduct of Valens. Because the Byzantine navy controlled the Bosporus strait, the Persians could not send troops to the European side to aid the Avars, which deprived the Avars of the Persian expertise in siege warfare. Byzantine naval superiority also made communication between the two forces difficult.

The Byzantine defenders had 12,000 well-trained cavalry troops, who were likely dismounted, facing roughly 80,000 Avars and Sclaveni (Slavs whose land was controlled by the Avars). Because the Persian base in Chalcedon had been established for many years, it was not immediately obvious that a siege would take place. It only became obvious to the Byzantines after the Avars began to move heavy siege equipment towards the Theodosian Walls.

On August 7, a fleet of Persian rafts ferrying troops across the Bosporus to the European side were surrounded and destroyed by the Byzantine fleet. The Sclaveni then attempted to attack the Sea Walls from across the Golden Horn, while the Avars attacked the land walls. However, the Sclaveni boats were rammed and destroyed by the galleys of Bonus, and the Avar land assaults on August 6th and 7th were repelled.

Even though the Persian army of Shahrbaraz still remained at Chalcedon, the threat to Constantinople was over, as the Persians could not use artillery from their side of the Bosporus.

After failing to capture Constantinople, the Avar nation rapidly began to decline before disintegrating entirely.

Roman Reenactor

The "De-Romanization" of the Balkans

The permanent colonization of Greece and other provinces by pagan Slavic tribes basically shattered the old Roman Balkans nearly beyond repair.

Latin and Greek were largely replaced by assorted barbarian languages. Christianity was replaced by pagan faiths.

In the West the German foederati looked to have a legitimate place and land within the Empire. The invading Slavic tribes destroyed nearly everything they came in contact with.

  • Cities were sacked. 
  • Large areas of the countryside were laid waste and were turned, in the words of Procopius, into a "Scythian wilderness". 
  • The Roman governmental machinery totally collapsed.
  • The network of bishoprics established in the 300s were almost wholly uprooted. Christianity was virtually extinguished for several centuries.
  • Entire stretches of the countryside were emptied of their inhabitants. Those who survived the slaughter were deported north of the Danube.

Long Term Military Impact - For centuries the Prefecture of Illyricum had produced some of the best soldiers for the Roman Army. With the massive genocide Illyricum was all but eliminated as a source of conscripts. The generals in Constantinople turned to Armenia and the Caucasus to fill the ranks.

By turning east for new officers and soldiers the Empire became more and more Asian in politics and orientation and less European. The late sixth century marks the rise of Armenians in government and the military.

From Magister Militum
 Heavy infantryman of the Ioviani Seniores, equipped with a long thrusting spear, lenticular shield and a heavy mail shirt alongside his helmet and thick, military belt. 

The Slow Roman Re-Conquest of the Balkans

To say the generals and Emperors had their hands full is an understatement.

No sooner was the Avar siege of Constantinople defeated and the Persian Empire totally crushed that they saw the rise of militant Islam.

Within a few decades the Roman provinces in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria fell to the Muslims. Trying to regain control of the Balkans was about as low on their list as it could get.

But re-conquer the Balkans they did - slowly, inch by inch.

The military theme system first appeared in the early 7th century, during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius, and as the Roman Empire recovered, it was imposed on all areas that came under Byzantine control. 

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 first Balkan theme created was that in Thrace, in 680 AD. By 695, a second theme, that of "Hellas" (or "Helladikoi"), was established, probably in eastern central Greece.

It was not until 100 years later that a third theme would be established. 

In 782–784, the eunuch general Staurakios campaigned from Thessaloniki, south to Thessaly and into the Peloponnese. He captured many Slavs and transferred them elsewhere, mostly Anatolia. However it is not known whether any territory was restored to imperial authority as result of this campaign, though it is likely some was. 

Sometime between 790 and 802, the theme of Macedonia was created, centered on Adrianople. A serious and successful recovery began under Nicephorus I (802–811). In 805, the theme of the Peloponnese was created.

In the 9th century, new themes continued to arise, although many were small and were carved out of original, larger themes. New themes in the 9th century included those of ThessalonicaDyrrhachiumStrymon, and Nicopolis. From these themes, Byzantine laws and culture flowed into the interior. 

By the end of the 9th century most of Greece was culturally and administratively Greek again. But above Greece when the Emperor reconquered a province he would be ruling over Slavs - - - not Romans.

The re-Hellenization process begun under Nicephorus I involved (often forcible) transfer of peoples. Many Slavs were moved to other parts of the empire, such as Anatolia and made to serve in the military. In return, many Greeks from Sicily and Asia Minor were brought to the interior of Greece, to increase the number of defenders at the Emperor's disposal and dilute the concentration of Slavs. 

Hanging on by its fingernails the Roman Empire had survived the horrors of the Slavic, Persian and Muslim invasions of the 500s to the 700s. Latin vanished and Greek became the official language.

Moving forward the Empire was more of a fusion Greek-Armenian state than Roman.

Photo From Magister Militum
Roman reenactor

The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 by Dimitri Obolensky

(Avar-Byzantine wars)