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

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Empire Strikes Back - Battle for the Middle East Part VIII

Late Empire Roman Cavalry Horse-Archer

The Roman Army Marches South
Battle for the Middle East Part VIII

Here we are at Part VIII of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

Part I  -  In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris.  In 629 AD a force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. 

Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.
Byzantine cataphract

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.

The Romans held their own in eastern Syria against this attack and effectively defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 634. They drove the Arabs south away from Damascus. The Romans had also dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine and held their positions against Arab attacks.

But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia.

Part V  -  1st Battle of Yarmouk (634 AD).  In a huge multi-day battle the Roman Army is pushed out of their prepared defenses at the Daraa Gap. The Romans began to withdraw and made an orderly retreat north to Damascus and other walled cities.

The door to Syria had been forced open.

Part VI  -  After a siege lasting for six months Damascus falls to Muslim invaders who lacked any siege equipment. Traitor Christians inside the city opened the gates and allowed the Muslim troops to enter the city. Damascus was sort of a great victory for the Arabs. After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors within the walls to win the day.

The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre and Tripoli. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

Part VII  -  After the fall of Damascus, Syria Muslim forces started their move north. Escaping Roman civilians and soldiers were massacred at Maraj-al-Debj in September of 635. Many survivors were sold into slavery by the Muslims.

The Muslims went on to lay Siege to the city of Homs from December 635 to March 636. After the fall of Homs the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar

There they stopped as they faced a new Roman army raised by the Emperor Heraclius.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
As the Muslims moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

The Roman Army Gathers

By the winter of 635 AD the Muslim forces had conquered most of Syria.

The Muslims were just a march away from Aleppo, a Roman stronghold, and Antioch, where Heraclius resided. Seriously alarmed by the series of setbacks, Heraclius prepared for a counterattack to reacquire the lost regions.

In 635 Yazdegerd III, the Emperor of Persia, sought an alliance with the Roman Emperor. Heraclius married off his daughter Manyanh to Yazdegerd III, to cement the alliance. While Heraclius prepared for a major offensive in the Levant, Yazdegerd was to mount a simultaneous counterattack in Iraq, in what was meant to be a well-coordinated effort. 

The Emperor had not been idle on the southern front. Heraclius directed the Roman garrisons in Syria and Palestine to stand their ground.

After his past experiences, Heraclius now avoided pitched battle with the Muslim army. His plans were to send massive reinforcements to all the major cities, isolate the Muslim corps from each other, and then separately encircle and destroy the Muslim armies.

So as the Muslims moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli. The coastal cities could easily be resupplied by the Roman Navy. With Roman forces in their rear the Muslims were always looking over their shoulder. 

Muslim troops had to be pealed off from the northern invasion just to keep Roman garrisons bottled up in the cities.

With Roman garrisons in their rear, the somewhat smaller Muslim armies had advanced north into Syria about as far as they could go. While in a holding pattern word reached the Muslims of a new Roman army gathering around the Emperor based in Antioch.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The exact size and composition of the Roman Army and its units in the Yarmouk campaign is a matter of considerable debate due to the scantness and ambiguous nature of the primary sources.

I laugh out loud reading "modern estimates" of an army ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 men. Those kinds of numbers had not been seen in centuries of Roman warfare. By the 630s the entire Roman Army from Carthage to Italy to Egypt to the Danube may have been 109,000 men.

A typical Eastern Empire field army often numbered 15,000 to 20,000 men. It is possible that this being a major effort to recapture Syria and Palestine then all stops might have been pulled out. I would put my guess at an army of 30,000 plus.

The endless battles and defeats were beginning to take a serious toll on the Romans. This was partly due to financial setbacks resulting in the Empire's treasury failing to provide salaries for some of the troops.

To help solve this problem the Emperor appointed Theodore Trithyrius as perhaps Commander-in-Chief in the newly raised army. Trithyrius was a Greek Christian and Roman Treasurer working for Emperor Heraclius and extremely loyal to the Emperor himself. He enjoyed supremacy under his title of sacellarius, usually appointed to the state treasurer.

Trithyrius's role with the army served as a constant reassurance. A certain lassitude had filled the air because Heraclius had to disband many regiments for economy's sake. There was no enthusiasm towards joining the army, however the presence of the Imperial paymaster encouraged recruitment.

Symbol of Secunda Armeniaca
Legio II Armeniaca (from Armenia) was a legion of the late Roman Empire. The Legion survived the fall of the Western Empire in 476 and went on to serve in the East. Armenian units were sent to fight the Muslims in Syria. Legio II Armeniaca may have been among them. 

Many Imperial regiments had been destroyed or badly mauled in recent campaigns. So the Emperor looked east to Armenia for the bulk of his troops. With the Persians defeated Armenia would have been a quiet front well able to spare frontier troops for Syria. 

Thus perhaps two-thirds of the new army were Armenians. 

This does not mean the Armenians were mercenaries. Far from it. While some Armenians may have signed on just for this campaign the history of Armenian Legions in the Roman Army goes back centuries. It is possible many of the Armenian troops were trained professionals or maybe partly trained militia that were called into service.

The units in the other one-third of the army varied. Roman ally Jabalah ibn al-Aiham, King of the Ghassanid Arabs, commanded an exclusively Christian Arab force. Other army contingents consisted of SlavsFranks and Georgians. Buccinator, a Slavic prince, commanded the Slavs. 

Byzantine sources mention Niketas the Persian, son of the Persian general Shahrbaraz, among the commanders. With Persia and Rome allied against the Muslims did Niketas bring with him a contingent of Persian troops? or did he command Romans? We do not know.

These different units coming together under one commander would not be new for the Romans. Foreign troops during the late Roman period were known as the Foederati ("allies") in Latin and often supplemented the regular army units.

There is little real historical information on just about anything. What kind of mix were the troops? What percent were cavalry, infantry or archers? Were they full timers or militia? Were there artillery units? etc.

The lack of meaningful information extends to the different commanders. 

The Commander-in-Chief in the army may have been Trithyrius. But Trithyrius was basically a bean counter from the Treasury. His level of military experience is unknown.  Vahan, an Armenian and the former garrison commander of Emesa, was in command of his Armenian units and may have had some command over the non-Armenian troops. . . . or perhaps command was partly shared with a somewhat joint council of the leaders of the different units.

Late Roman cohort reenactment group

The Romans March South

Word had spread among the Muslims of this large new army. Now in the early months of 636 the Empire stuck back.

We may not know the exact size or makeup of the Roman Army. All we can do is judge the reaction of the Muslim forces facing them.

Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible.

The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. The Muslims ran.

That reaction tells us two things:

  • 1) The Muslims were spread thin across Palestine and Syria and did not have the manpower to do open battle or even man the walls of the large cities. 
  • 2) As untrained wild raiders from the desert the Muslims still feared the organized Roman Army.

Under their king the mobile and nimble Christian Arabs acted as an ideal cavalry screen in front of the main Roman Army and pushed the Muslims almost totally out of Syria.

The Muslims fell back to the Daraa Gap where in the 1st Battle of Yarmouk (September 634) they had forced the Romans to leave their prepared fortifications.

The Muslims passed through the Gap with the Romans hot on their heals. The Romans re-occupied their old defenses and slammed shut the Door to Syria.

Heraclius' policy was to stonewall.

Syria was safe as long as the Yarmouk-Daraa Maginot Line held firm.

The Arabs with their fear of close country and mountains would never invade Syria to the west through Tiberias. To the east there was the dry desert that nearly killed the Muslims two years earlier when they threatened and failed to capture Damascus.

This was a stunning, total and virtually bloodless Roman victory.

Heraclius must have heaved a sigh of relief when he heard that the Daraa Gap had been reoccupied and the Muslims had been pushed out into the desert beyond. Syria, he must have thought, was saved. Now he could concentrate on the recapture of Palestine.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
When faced with a new Roman Army the Muslim forces in northern Syria abandoned all their gains.  Without firing a shot they ran as fast as they could run far to the south through the Daraa Gap into the desert.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed 
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.


Bedouin Warrior.
The Romans may have faced troops much like this man.


(Great Arab Conquests)    (Levant)    (Yarmouk)