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 8, 2024

Defending The Roman Frontier - Random Thoughts

Defending The Roman Frontier

My thoughts have turned to the many, varied and often tiny Roman border outposts.

Think of the many American Westerns with small and always undermanned frontier forts. The local garrisons were on alert 24-7 against Indian raids targeting local farmers and commercial traffic.

The borders of the Roman Empire were enormous. Protecting Roman citizens from barbarian raids was as close to impossible as you can get. 

Doubtless there were thousands of stories to be told of heroism, slaughter and sacrifice, but those stories are all lost to the mists of time.

The grand strategy of the empire was, on the whole, defensive. 

The Sahara, Euphrates, Danube, and Rhine were natural frontiers, and it was exceptional when the Romans launched new campaigns of conquest. If territory was added, it was to shorten the frontier, or to improve a vulnerable part of the frontier. 

The basic principle of defense was deterrence: wherever the enemy attacked, he would always find a professional, heavily armed Roman force that often outnumbered him. Except for the desert frontier, the limes usually consisted of a clear line where the enemy had to stay away from (e.g., Hadrian's Wall or the river Danube).

However, sometimes the line was attacked. The soldiers in the watchtowers signaled the invasion to the nearby forts. The watchtowers themselves were lost, but the invaders would immediately have to face with Roman forces from nearby forts.

Almost always, this was sufficient to deal with the situation. If the attackers were able to reach and loot a city, they would be massacred on their way home. The final act of every attempt to attack the empire was Roman retaliation against the native population.

Reconstruction of a Limes tower in Germany.

The Roman Fortress of 
Qasr Bashir in Jordan

Qasr Bashir is an extremely well preserved Roman fortress that lies in the Jordanian desert. 

Qasr Bshir belongs to the chain of forts and watchtowers that is known as the Limes Arabicus and was meant to protect the province of Arabia against roaming desert nomads. They were not extremely dangerous or exceptionally violent, but their dromedaries made them swift, and if trouble arose, they could pillage large parts of the Roman countryside. The Limes Arabicus had to counter this threat, and Mobene was one of the fortifications.

Built at the beginning of the fourth Century AD and known as Mobene, the walls of Qasr Bashir still stand intact, at a height of up to 20 feet in places, while the main entrance remains to this day. The huge corner towers still rise up two stories from the ground.

It is likely that Qasr Bashir was originally home to an auxiliary cavalry unit, charged with defending the Roman frontier and keeping the peace in the surrounding area.

Think of the word "Porous"

The Danube Limes was not a solid wall defending the Empire's frontier.  Rather it a was a series of fortified cities, small forts and watchtowers.  

The Limes was porous with assorted invading Slavs, Huns or Avars pouring through on raids dedicated to looting or conquest.  In theory the Roman/Byzantine strongpoints would slow down invaders allowing for troops stationed close by to push the enemy back over the border. 

Reconstruction of a Balkan Roman frontier strongpoint.

The southern harbor of the Roman fortress of Boreum in Libya.  What is left of the citadel is to the right.

The military post of Boreum was about as far from anything that resembled civilization as you could find under either Rome or Byzantium.

I suspect any commander assigned to this remote post was on the shit list in Constantinople. "Here is your new posting. We will relieve you in about 20 years."

The area was so remote that the historian Procopius reports in the 500s that civil servants from Libya who were promoted to posts in Constantinople had problems communicating with government staff.  They spoke only Latin and did not speak Greek.

As a frontier town, Boreum was mentioned by Ptolemy of Alexandria about 130 A.D. 

The main job of the garrison was to keep inland tribes from causing trouble with the coastal farming communities.

The Walls of Ceuta, in 
what was Byzantine Morocco

Currently ruled by Spain, the ancient Royal Walls originally date back to the 5th century.  Ceuta's location has made it an important commercial trade and military way-point for many cultures, beginning with the Carthaginians in the 5th century BC, who called the city Abyla

It was not until the Romans took control of the region in AD 42 that the port city, then named Septa, assumed an almost exclusive military purpose. It changed hands again approximately 400 years later, when Vandal tribes ousted the Romans. It then fell into the hands of the Visigoths, and finally it would become the western most outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Around 710, as Muslim armies approached the city, its Byzantine Governor, Julian changed his allegiance, and exhorted the Muslims to invade the Iberian Peninsula.

6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry

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