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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Harbor of Theodosius

Harbor of Theodosius
Image Harbor of Theodosius
The Harbor of Theodosius
  • The harbor was built in the late 4th century during the reign of Theodosius I, and was the city's major point of trade in Late Antiquity. The area was later transformed for agricultural use due to the effects of erosion and silting. In Ottoman times, the area was built over.
  • In November 2005, workers on the Bosphorus Tunnel Project discovered the silted-up remains of the harbour. Excavations produced evidence of the 4th-century Port of Theodosius. There, archaeologists uncovered traces of the city wall of Constantine the Great, and the remains of over 35 Byzantine ships from the 7th to 10th centuries, including several Byzantine galleys, remains of which had never before been fou.nd.

The Harbor of Eleutherios later known as the Harbor of Theodosius (Greek: λιμήν Θεοδοσίου, Latin: Portus Theodosiacus) was one of the ports of ancient Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, located beneath the modern Yenikapi neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey.

The Harbor of Theodosius in Istanbul dates back to the period of 4th century A.D. It was unearthed in Yenikapi in Istanbul. Various works of excavation in Yenikapi, Sirkeci and Uskudar count among the splendor remains of archaeology belonging to the periods ranging from Ottoman, Roman, Byzantine, Ancient Greek and Neolithic times.

Istanbul, which happens to be capital of these two empires for several centuries has been successfully preserving its importance in all the periods of history till now. Travelers from the world over have been inspired by the majestic beauty of the districts of Pera and Galata, the Golden Horn, the Virgin’s Tower and its grand mosques atop the seven hills. However, as of now, the city is facing the problem of transportation which originated way back in the 19th century and persists even today. The problem was meant to be solved by the construction of rail link projects namely Marmaray and the Metro.

These two projects by the Department of Transportation will help in making a rail link between Asian and the European continents through a tunnel beneath the Bosphorus.

Portus Theodosiacus

In the year 2004, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums undertook the work of archaeological excavations around the terminals before proceeding with the digging work for the Marmaray and the Metro construction. These excavations which are being carried out by the efforts of dig teams have unearthed several cultural treasures of historical importance for Istanbul.

The Harbor of Theodosius, which is regarded to be the most prominent harbor of the Byzantine era, is the result of these archaeological excavations. This harbor was unearthed in Yenikapi (‘Vlanga’ in the Ottoman times). The district of Yenikapi was known to be the fruit and vegetable garden of Istanbul. it has also become known by reading the notes of the travelers visiting Istanbul during the mid-16th century that the Harbor of Theodosius, built during the 4th century and used till 7th century was used as a truck garden after it silted up and became a part of the mainland.

Harbor of Theodosius

Excavations undertaken at Yenikapi

Although the location of this harbor of Istanbul, namely, the Theodosius’ harbor was known from the maps in the ancient times, however, there was no knowledge about its exact size, position and the layout of this harbor which played an important role in the economy of the Byzantine period.

Founded on the crossroads between the Balkans and Anatolia and the pathway extending from the Aegean right up to the Black Sea, Byzantion’s location was a great contributor to the development of the city, so mush so that it dominated various commercial routes.

Discovered ship.

To meet the growing needs of the expanding capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Theodosius I commissioned the construction of the Theodosius Harbor between 379-395 A.D. so, a breakwater extending from east to west along the south way of a natural bay was built for creating this harbor. And a large tower that stood at the far end for keeping a guard on the entrance of the harbor was among several other structures and silos for keeping the grain brought by big ships from Alexandria and neighboring ports that stood around the harbor. Sources claim that the Alexandria silo was the only silo of the city that was in wide use during the 10th century when this harbor silted up.

During the archaeological excavation undertaken in the harbor, 34 ships were excavated out of which 21 were in the Metro while 13 were in the Marmaray excavations. Once again, this harbor silted up from the alluvion brought by the waters of the Lycos (Bayrampasa) River which emptied in the natural bay. Apart from the alluvion, the built of enormous silt was also the result of the construction and farming carried out in the city.

The Harbour of Eleutherios (Greek: λιμήν Ἐλευθερίου), later known as the Harbour of Theodosius (Greek: λιμήν Θεοδοσίου, Latin: Portus Theodosiacus) was one of the ports of ancient Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, located beneath the modern Yenikapi neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey.
Image (Feedblitz.com) 

From the excavations, it came to the notice that the majority of the shipwrecks in the Theodosius Harbor are at the eastern side nearing the entrance of the harbor. While the harbor was thought to have been silted up from the western end towards the east, the eastern end continued to be in wide use till a natural calamity that took place in the 10th or the beginning of the 11th century rendered extensive damage to the ships there.

The YK 1 ship that carried amphorae from the Marmara Island and was anchored here was claimed by the excavations to have been sunk. The YK 12 was another shipwreck that was found in the excavations in the area of the harbor. Several fragments of amphorae along with 16 intact amphorae were found on this YK 12. Although, at present, the exact cause of the disaster that struck these ships cannot be found, however, the assumption is some natural disaster or tragedy including tsunami or a storm might be the possible reason behind the cause of the disaster to these ships.
Unearthed pottery

The history of Istanbul has got some very crucial data from the architectural remains recovered to the western side of the Yenikapi excavation area in the work being carried out in the 3rd and 2nd Zone towards the east. A quay consisting of stone blocks of rectangular shape has been found at the western edge within the breakwater.

The excavations in the Metro area uncovered a church building that was believed to be built in the 13th century A.D. when large amount of silt was piling up in the harbor. And around this church building were found twenty-three graves. The excavations also unearthed a gold coin belonging to the time of Justinian the Great (527-565 A.D.).

Post Card of Constantinople

In the Yenikapi excavations being carried out under the Marmaray and Metro Project, nearly 25,000 artifacts have been unearthed so far. And the most distinguishing factor or such findings happens to be the vital information provided by them regarding day-to-day life, economy, trade, culture and religious aspects of the period to which they belong. Some of the findings uncovered during the excavations include hawsers of the sunken ships, inscribed image of a ship on an amphora that belongs to the 10th century, iron and stone anchors and baked clay tablets with names, place of origin of the owners of the ship inscribed on them. All such findings also provide important information regarding the types of ships and the shipping during the period.

Apart from the above named findings, there are nearly 2,500 items made of wood including combs, different varieties of spoons, bath clogs etc. that have been found by the excavation work. Also, a Christ figure, tools of bone and ivory, a bronze balance, bronze weights, lead tablets and a scale weight in the form of Athena’s bust throw light on the lifestyle of the period they belong.

Archaeological excavations in Sirkeci

Under the Marmaray Project, the archaeological works being carried out in the eastern and the western shafts and in the south and the north entrance areas of the Rail Station in Sirkeci provide an excellent opportunity for knowing the stratigraphy of the city of Istanbul. In such excavation works, several structural remains that belong to the period ranging from the Early Byzantine to the Byzantine and even the Late Ottoman times along with a considerable number of small items and pottery have been found. These relate important details about the different aspects of the life of these periods.

Archaeological excavations in Uskudar Square

As part of the Marmaray project, a large number of archaeological excavations were undertaken from the year 2004 which continued till the year 2008. These excavations conducted in the Uskudar Square found the remains of the foundation of a bazaar whose existence was although known from a number of other sources but was unable to have been unearthed so far. And to unearth the foundation of this bazaar, the workers involved in the excavation work had to drill up quite deep up to nearly 7 meters.

The archaeological remains was found deep in the fill dirt. In the excavations, there were no traces or archaeological remains belonging to the Roman period or the earlier periods. But, the excavations uncovered a huge amount of pottery, along with coins, oil-lamps, stamp seals that dated back to the different periods ranging from the Roman period to the Late Roman period and the Byzantine period.

A Computer Re-Constructed Portus Theodosiacus of Constantinople.
This image and the one below used under FAIR USE from Byzantium1200.
Review for comment, criticism and scholarship as allowed under FAIR USE section 107 of the
US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C.
The Byzantium 1200 website published an article with some stunningly beautiful computer
recreations of the harbor.  A lot of thought went to their work on this project.  Especially
interesting is a breakdown of the harbor section by section on if there is proof that
part really existed or if it is simply pure imagination.
 As always the historians and artists are groping in the dark as to what things really
looked like.  Guess work is all we have after so many centuries.  But I suspect they are
right on with this article.


(Harbour of Eleutherios)         

(sultanahmet1.com)          (Yenikapi-shipwrecks)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Byzantine Trade Goods

Trade was a large part of the Byzantine economy
  • Goods from Egypt, Syria and other areas.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented: Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. The exhibit was on display March through July, 2012.
Textiles were only one of the many goods that moved along the trade routes that brought valuables from the east to Byzantium and later to the western Islamic world. Ivory from Africa and India was transported as tusks or carved luxury goods.

In Byzantium's southern provinces and possibly elsewhere, ivory was carved into small boxes or plaques to decorate furniture; less expensive versions were made from bone. Various trade goods such as textiles, openwork censers, gold jewelry, and small clay lamps were decorated with popular motifs that remained in use as the Byzantine empire's southern provinces became part of the Islamic world.

Animal motifs, often associated with the hunt, continued to encourage recognition of the common pursuits of the elite of the Byzantine and Islamic periods. Vine patterns—favored from the classical past through the Byzantine era—appeared, often in more stylized forms, in the Islamic period. Inscriptions became an increasingly prominent decorative motif, at times identifying the donor or providing auspicious wishes for the owner. Depictions of courtly pleasures, including female acrobats, dancers, and musicians, popular under Byzantine rule, were also popular during the Umayyad era.

Necklace and Pendant with Aphrodite Anadyomene

Date:  7th century
Geography:  Made in, Eastern Mediterranean
Medium:  Gold, lapis lazuli, garnet ( ? ), and rock crystal
A large piece of valuable lapis lazuli mimics a shell containing a representation of Aphrodite, the classical goddess of beauty, arranging her hair and wearing jewelry. Her appearance on a woman’s necklace demonstrates the continued resonance of pre-Christian mythology well into the Byzantine and early Islamic periods.

Chalice with Inscription in the Dialect of the Fayyum

Date:  6th–7th century (chalice); Early Islamic period (inscription)
Geography:  Made in, Egypt
Medium:  Silver with gold and gilded silver inlay
Following Byzantine tradition, an inscription identifies the owner of the chalice as a site in the Fayyum, an area noted for textile production. The opening phrase, "In the name of God"—a standard Muslim phrase—came into Christian use during the early period of Muslim rule in the region.

Bucket with a Hunting Scene

Date:  6th century
Geography:  Made in, Eastern Mediterranean
Medium:  Brass, hammered, lathe-turned, chased, and ring-punched; handle cast separately and hammered into shape.
Richly animated animals are part of a hunt, a favorite activity of the elite in the Byzantine world. The inscription in Greek, "Use this in good health, master, for many good years happily," identifies the bucket as being for domestic use, possibly for the elaborate rituals of the bath.

Gold Necklace with Pendants

Date:  ca. 7th century
Culture:  Byzantine
Medium:  Pendants: gold - sheet; scribed, engraved, chased, punched; wire - beaded; granulation. Tubes: gold - sheet; wire - beaded. Chain: gold - strip (half round).
The intricately worked pendants are separated by hexagonal spacers.

Opus interrasile was a technique used by goldsmiths to make elegant jewelry from the 200s through the 600s. Designs were traced onto sheets of gold; the background was punched with holes of various sizes to highlight the pattern; and fine details were then worked on the surface. The patterns formed by piercing the metal ground encouraged the play of light and shadow across an object's surface.

Tapestry Fragment with Inhabited Vine in an Eight-Pointed Star

Date:  5th–6th century
Geography:  Made in, Byzantine Egypt
Culture:  Coptic
Dimensions:  Overall: 10 5/8 x 12 1/2 in. (27 x 31.8 cm) Album Size: just under 26 in x just under 20 in. (some slightly smaller).
Classification:  Textiles

Pair of Crescent-Shaped Earrings with Peacocks

Date:  late 6th-7th century
Geography:  Made in, Eastern Mediterranean
Medium:  Gold
On these openwork earrings—another example of the quality of goldsmithing in Byzantium’s southern provinces—beaded gold wire encloses peacocks facing a central vase. These earrings may have been an engagement or a wedding gift intended to ward off the evil eye.

Pyxis with Crosses and Vine Scrolls

Date:  7th–8th century
Geography:  Made in, Syria (?)
Medium:  Ivory with red paint added later
Dimensions:   3 3/8 in. (8.5 cm); diam: 2 11/16 in. (6.8 cm)
Indicative of social status, these three circular, bellied-shape ivory boxes were luxury objects produced for the elite. Each is decorated with vine scrolls springing from pots, a Byzantine motif drawn from the world of the classical god Dionysos that was also popular during the early Islamic period.

The vines on this luxury object, carved from a single piece of ivory, grow under a series of arcades. As it was intended for a Christian audience, crosses appear regularly on its surface.
See more at metmuseum.org - exhibitions.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Fort of Gheriat el-Garbia, Libya

Gheriat el-Garbia - Roman/Byzantine fort in Libya. 
Above is one of the fort towers.  The area of North Africa which has been known as Libya since 1911 was under Roman domination between 146 BC and 670 AD. 

Gheriat el-Garbia
Roman/Byzantine fort in Libya, part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

If desert people (e.g., the Garamantes) wanted to attack the Roman Empire, they had to travel through the arid desert and needed water. By fortifying the oases, the Romans effecively shut them out from their own world. Like Fort Gholaia (Bu Njem) and Gadames, construction of the fort at Gheriat el-Garbia was ordered by the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). This line of fortifications is known as the Limes Tripolitanus.

The fort controlled an oasis and the upper reaches of a little wadi that empties itself in the Wadi Zemzem. Gheriat el-Garbia was built on a hilltop that was almost impossible to attack. Unless an enemy would approach it from the northeast, he would have to build a siege mole, which is rather difficult in the desert.

Map of Gheriat el-Garbia

ليبيا يا بلادى   ANCIENT LIBYA

The fort measured about c.185x135 m (24,800 m²), or double the size of the Bu Njem fort. The corners are directed to the four quarters of the compass. On the platform was a small well. Archaeologists have also identified cisterns in the northern corner of the ancient fort. The outer walls are almost entirely preserved, but the buildings inside did not survive. Berbers have reused them.

Gheriat el-Garbia was built by soldiers of the Third legion Augusta. This can be deduced from the shape of the towers of the northeastern gate, which are not square, as is usual, but five-angled. This can only be found in settlements of the Third, which was based in Lambaesis in what is now Algeria. Gates like this can also be seen in Theveste and Bu Njem.

Northern tower

The photo below shows a detail of the artwork on the northeast gate (the only surviving part, in fact): two Victories and two eagles carrying a laurel wreath. There was also an inscription, from which it is clear that the fort was built in 201, when Anicius Faustus was governor. To the east the remains of two (perhaps three) temples have been identified.

About a kilometer from Gerhiat el-Garbia, to the northeast, are the remains of an ancient signal tower, which onve connected the fort with other military settlements. Through this tower, Gheriat al-Garbia was in signalling contact with the centenarium of Gheriat esh-Shergia.

North tower

Because there was water and wood, a bathhouse  could be constructed in the oasis itself. The remains have been identified about five hundred meters west of the fort.

After Antiquity, other residents started to settle in the towers of Gheriat el-Garbia; the Berbers who often allowed their cattle to live there, also built the mosque that is still visible.

There is some evidence that soldiers of III Augusta were sometimes sent abroad. The Römisches-Germanisches Museum in Cologne in faraway Germania Inferior shows a tombstone of a legionary from III Augusta, and we can be confident that this man must have visited Gheriat el-Garbia too. The fort may have been an outpost in the Libyan desert, the people belonged to a world that was much, much larger.

Artwork on the northeastern gate.
Two Victories and two eagles carrying a laurel wreath

The Limes Tripolitanus

The Limes Tripolitanus:   frontier zone of the Roman Empire in the west of what is now called Libya.

The area of North Africa which has been known as Libya since 1911 was under Roman domination between 146 BC and 670 AD. The Latin name Libya at the time referred to the continent of Africa in general. What is now coastal Libya was known as Tripolitania and Pentapolis, divided between the Africa province in the west and Creta et Cyrenaica in the east. In 296 AD, the Emperor Diocletian separated the administration of Crete from Cyrenaica and in the latter formed the new provinces of "Upper Libya" and "Lower Libya", using the term Libya as a political State for the first time in history.

The frontier civilization of the Limes Tripolitanus survived the Roman Empire, although with some difficulty, because the cities went into decline. However, the rural areas managed to cope with the change. In the fifth century, the Tripolitanans had to fight against a new enemy: the Vandals, a European tribe that had fought itself a way through Gaul, Hispania, and Numidia and had settled in Carthage. For the first time since the Tripolitana had been conquered by the Romans, it became a real war zone. Riders on horse had to fight against warriors on dromedaries.

Emperor Septimius Severus
Born in Lepcis Magna (Khoms, Libya)

In 533, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent an army to restore the African provinces to the Empire.

New garrisons were stationed in the three cities, where the sixth-century walls are still visible. The centenaria remained and some of them even became real palace villas called castra, like the one at Suq al-Awty, where a visitor can not only see the remains of the boundaries of the ancient fields, but also the ruin of a Byzantine church.

In April 534 AD, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect.

During the following years, under the smart general Solomon, who combined the offices of both magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa, Roman rule in Libya was strengthened (Theodorias was refounded), but the fighting continued against the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

Solomon achieved significant successes against them, but his work was interrupted by a widespread military mutiny in 536. The mutiny was eventually subdued by Germanus, a cousin of Justinian, and Solomon returned in 539. He fell, however, in the Battle of Cillium in 544 against the united berber tribes, and Roman Libya was again in jeopardy. It would not be until 548 AD that the resistance of the Berber tribes would be finally broken by the talented general John Troglita. The last Latin epic poem of Antiquity, the de Bellis Libycis of Flavius Cresconius Corippus was written about this struggle.

Successively the province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584 AD. Eventually, under Heraclius, Libia and Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.

But that was the last Roman achievement: in 642 AD Moslem Arabs started to conquer Libya. The Arabs succeeded in temporarily driving the Byzantines out of Tripoli in 645 AD, but they did not follow that conquest with the establishment of a permanent Arab presence in the city.

No further raids were conducted until 661, when the new Umayyad dynasty under Mu'awiya ushered in a new era of Muslim expansion. An official campaign to conquer North Africa began in 663, and the Arabs soon controlled most major cities in Libya. Tripoli fell again in 666 AD, and this time the Muslims ensured their control of their new lands by not immediately retreating to Egypt after the conquest.

In 670 AD all Libya was in the hands of the Arabs: Roman Libya was no more.

Leptis Magna en Lybie, il y a 1800 ans

The olive oil production increased and appears to have been larger than ever and the countryside was wealthy, making the Tripolitana an almost natural target for Laguatan and Islamic expansion.

The regime change did not intervene with the economical or social structures. The linguistic change was small: many people still spoke Punic, and for them it was easy to learn Arabic. The centenaria/castra from now on being called qasr, pl. qsur. Except for a new religion, the predesert civilization that was based on careful water management and constant vigilance remained the same.

It was only in the eleventh century, when two Arabian dynasties, the Zirids and the Fatimids, were involved in a major war, that the system collapsed. After the garrisons had been transferred from the cities to the front, nomads of Banu Hillal tribe could capture the qsur. The agricultural production declined rapidly, the cities were no longer fed, and the remaining town dwellers abandoned Lepcis Magna and Sabratha to settle in Oea, which was from now on known as Tripoli.

The twelfth-century Sicilian geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi writes:

"Until recently, the Tripolitana was well-exploited and covered with fig trees, olives, dates palms, and other fruit trees. But the Arabs have completely destroyed this prosperity. The peasants were forced to leave the country, the orchards were destroyed, and the canals were blocked."

What had for eight centuries been a wealthy province of the Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim empires, now became a desert again. The decline of the population meant that there was no one who could destroy the ancient cities, the qsur, the watchtowers, the forts. They were simply left as they were, until nine centuries after the collapse, the first archaeologists started to study them.

The excellent state of preservation makes the forts of the Limes Tripolitanus unique. Another reason is that there are few places on this planet where you can see the immense power of a Roman emperor. To protect his home town, Septimius Severus changed an entire ecosystem, and the result lasted for more than eight centuries. For this display of power, world history offers no parallel.

Libya's ancient Leptis Magna now a ghost town 

Leptis Magna Reconstructed

Leptis Magna


Wikipedia - Limes Tripolitanus

Wikipedia - Roman Libya


Friday, November 23, 2012

Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)

The Varangian Guard
The Varangian Guard was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors.
The guard was first formed under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus' by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement.
This man is of Scandinavian origin, migrated in Kievan Rus kingdom.  The shield depicts the crow-symbol of god Odin and he holds Danish Axe.  Greaves, hand protection, chest leather strips and pteryges, are obviously Byzantine, borrowed from the Imperial arsenal.

Normans vs Byzantines  -  The Battle of Dyrrhachium
  • In 1071 the Romans experienced their greatest defeat ever at the Battle of Manzikert.  The eastern provinces of the Empire were being overrun by Muslim Turks.  It was at this moment that the Normans chose to invade the Roman Western provinces to carve out an even greater empire for themselves at the expense of fellow Christians.

The Battle of Dyrrhachium (near present-day Durrës in Albania) took place on October 18, 1081 between the Roman Empire, led by the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, and the Normans of southern Italy under Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and Calabria. The battle was fought outside the city of Dyrrhachium (also known as Durazzo), the Byzantine capital of Illyria.

Following the Norman conquest of Byzantine Italy and Saracen Sicily, the Byzantine emperor, Michael VII Doukas, betrothed his son to Robert Guiscard's daughter and sent her to Constantinople.

Guiscard’s ambitions drew him east, for the new Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus was deeply involved in recovering Asia Minor after a disastrous defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071. 


Guiscard conscripted all men of a fighting age into the army, which he refitted.  He sent his son Bohemond with an advance force towards what is modern Albania. Bohemond landed at Aulon, with Guiscard following shortly.

The Norman fleet of 150 ships including 60 horse transports set off towards the Byzantine Empire at the end of May 1081. The army numbered 30,000 men, backed up by 1,300 Norman knights. The fleet sailed to Avalona in Byzantine territory; they were joined by several ships from Ragusa, a republic in the Balkans who were enemies of the Byzantines.

Robert Guiscard
Duke of Apulia and Calabria

Robert soon left Avalona and sailed to the island of Corfu, which surrendered because of a small garrison. Having won a bridgehead and a clear path for reinforcements from Italy, he advanced on the city of Dyrrhachium, the capital and chief port of Illyria.

The city was well defended on a long, narrow peninsula running parallel to the coast, but separated by marshlands. Guiscard brought his army onto the peninsula and pitched camp outside the city walls. However, as Robert's fleet sailed to Dyrrhachium, it was hit by a storm and lost several ships

Meanwhile, when Alexius heard that the Normans were preparing to invade Byzantine territory, he sent an ambassador to the Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo, requesting aid and offering trading rights in return.

The Doge, alarmed by Norman control of the Strait of Otranto, took command of the Venetian fleet and sailed at once, surprising the Norman fleet under the command of Bohemond as night was falling. The Normans counter-attacked tenaciously, but their inexperience in naval combat betrayed them. The experienced Venetian navy attacked in a close formation known as "sea harbour" and together with their use of Greek fire "bombs", the Norman line scattered, and the Venetian fleet sailed into Dyrrhachium's harbour.

Durrës Castle, Albania.
Durrës (Dyrrhachium) was the center of a battle between invading Normans and the Roman Empire.  The castle was built by Emperor of the Byzantine Empire Anastasius I originating from Durres, which transformed it into one of the most fortified cities on the Adriatic.
 The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the city a colony for veterans of his legions following the Battle of Actium, proclaiming it a civitas libera (free town).  In the 4th century, Dyrrachium was made the capital of the Roman province of Epirus nova.

Near the port of Durrës is the ancient Byzantine city wall.

Siege of Dyrrhachium

Robert was not discouraged by this naval defeat, and began his siege of Dyrrhachium. In command of the garrison at Dyrrhachium was the experienced general George Palaeologus, sent by Alexius with orders to hold out at all costs while Alexius himself mustered an army to relieve the city.

Meanwhile, a Byzantine fleet arrived and – after joining with the Venetian fleet – attacked the Norman fleet, which was again routed. The garrison at Dyrrhachium managed to hold out all summer, despite Robert's catapults, ballistae and siege tower. The garrison made continuous sallies from the city; on one occasion, Palaeologus fought all day with an arrowhead in his skull. Another sally succeeded in destroying Robert's siege tower.

Robert's camp was struck by disease; according to contemporary historian Anna Comnena up to 10,000 men died, including 500 knights.

Norman infantry reenactors.
"Not being satisfied with the men who had served in his army from the beginning and had experience in battle, he formed a new army, made up of recruits without any consideration of age. From all quarters of Lombardy and Apulia he gathered them, over age and under age, pitiable objects who had never seen armour in their dreams, but then clad in breastplates and carrying shields, awkwardly drawing bows to which they were completely unused and following flat on the ground when they were allowed to march."
Princess Anna Comnena
describing Robert Guiscard's conscription.

Norman Cavalry Charge

Norman Cavalry Attacking 

Norman Cavalry.
"Alexius was undoubtedly a good tactician, but he was badly let down by the indisciplined rush to pursue the beaten enemy wings, a cardinal sin in the Byzantine tactical manuals. He failed to take adequate account of the effectiveness of the Norman heavy cavalry charge, which punched through his lines with little resistance."
Historian John Haldon's assessment of the battle
The situation of the Dyrrhachium garrison grew desperate because of the effects of Norman siege weapons. Alexius learned of this while he was in Salonica with his army so he advanced in full force against the Normans.

According to Comnena, Alexius had about 20,000 men. It consisted of Thracian and Macedonian tagmata, which numbered about 5,000 men; the elite excubitors and vestiaritai units, which numbered around 1,000 men; a force of Manichaeans which comprised 2,800 men, Thessalian cavalry, Balkan conscripts, Armenian infantry and other light troops.

As well as the native troops, the Byzantines were joined by 2,000 Turkish and 1,000 Frankish mercenaries, about 1,000 Varangians and 7,000 Turkish auxiliaries sent by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm. Alexius also withdrew the tagmas from Heraclea Pontica and the remaining Byzantine holdings in Asia Minor and by doing so, he effectively left them to be overrun by the Turks.


Alexius advanced from Salonica and pitched camp on the river Charzanes near Dyrrhachium on October 15. He held a war council there and sought advice from his senior officers; among them was George Palaeologus, who had managed to sneak out of the city. A majority of the senior officers, including Palaeologus, urged caution, noting that time was with the Emperor. Alexius, however, favoured an immediate assault, hoping to catch Guiscard's army from the rear, while they were still besieging the city. Alexius moved his army to the hills opposite the city, planning to attack the Normans the next day.

Guiscard, however, had been informed of Alexius' arrival by his scouts and on the night of October 17, he moved his army from the peninsula to the mainland. Upon learning of Guiscard's move, Alexius revised his battle plan. He split his army into three divisions, with the left wing under the command of Gregory Pakourianos, the right wing under the command of Nikephoros Melissenos, and himself in command of the centre. Guiscard formed his battle line opposite Alexius's, with the right wing under the command of the Count of Giovinazzo, the left under Bohemond and Guiscard facing Alexius in the centre.

Bad Day at Dyrrhachium- A Varangian Perspective

The Varangians had been ordered to march just in front of the main line with a strong division of archers a little behind them. The archers had been commanded to move in front of the Varangians and fire a volley before retreating behind them. The archers continued this tactic until the army neared contact.

As the opposing armies closed in, Guiscard sent a detachment of cavalry positioned in the centre to feint an attack on the Byzantine positions. Guiscard hoped the feint would draw up the Varangians; however, this plan failed when the cavalry was forced back by the archers.

The Norman right wing suddenly charged forward to the point where the Byzantine left and centre met, directing its attack against the Varangian left flank. The Varangians stood their ground while the Byzantine left, including some of Alexius' elite troops, attacked the Normans. The Norman formation disintegrated and the routed Normans fled towards the beach. There, according to Comnena, they were rallied by Guiscard's wife, Sikelgaita, described as "like another Pallas, if not a second Athena".

Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

Byzantine collapse

In the meantime, the Byzantine right and centre had been engaging in skirmishes with the Normans opposite them. However, with the collapse of the Norman right, the knights were in danger of being outflanked.

At this point, the Varangians (mainly Anglo-Saxons who had left England after the Norman Conquest) joined in the pursuit of the Norman right. With their massive battle axes, the Varangians attacked the Norman knights, who were driven away after their horses panicked. The Varangians soon became separated from the main force and exhausted so they were in no position to resist an assault.

Guiscard sent a strong force of spearmen and crossbowmen against the Varangian flank and inflicted heavy casualties on them. The few remaining Varangians fled into the church of the Archangel Michael. The Normans immediately set the church on fire, and all Varangians perished in the blaze.

Meanwhile, George Palaeologus sortied out of Dyrrhachium, but failed to save the situation. Worse, Alexius's vassal, King Constantine Bodin of Duklja, betrayed him. The Turks who had been lent to him by the Seljuk Sultan Suleyman I followed Constantine's example and deserted.

Deprived of his left wing (still in pursuit of the Norman right), Alexius was exposed in the centre. Guiscard sent his heavy cavalry against the Byzantine centre. They first routed the Byzantine skirmishers before breaking into small detachments and smashing into various points of the Byzantine line. This charge broke the Byzantine lines and caused them to rout. The imperial camp, which had been left unguarded, fell to the Normans.

Byzantine Tagmata
The Roman Army at Dyrrhachium included
Thracian and Macedonian Tagmata, which
numbered about 5,000 men.
Alexius and his guards resisted as long as they could before retreating. As they retreated, Alexius was separated from his guard and was attacked by Norman soldiers. While escaping, he was wounded in his forehead and lost a lot of blood, but eventually made it back to Ohrid, where he regrouped his army.


The battle was a heavy defeat for Alexius. Historian Jonathan Harris states that the defeat was "every bit as severe as that at Manzikert." He lost about 5,000 of his men, including most of the Varangians. Norman losses are unknown, but John Haldon claims they are substantial as both wings broke and fled. Historian Robert Holmes states: "The new knightly tactic of charging with the lance couched – tucked firmly under the arm to unite the impact of man and horse – proved a battle-winner."

George Palaeologus had not been able to re-enter the city after the battle and left with the main force. The defense of the citadel was left to the Venetians, while the city itself was left to an Albanian, Komiskortes.

In February 1082, Dyrrhachium fell after a Venetian or Amalfian citizen opened the gates to the Normans. The Norman army proceeded to take most of northern Greece without facing much resistance. While Guiscard was in Kastoria, messengers arrived from Italy, bearing news that Apulia, Calabria, and Campania were in revolt.

He also learned that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, was at the gates of Rome and besieging Pope Gregory VII, a Norman ally. Alexius had negotiated with Henry and given him 360,000 gold pieces in return for an alliance. Henry responded by invading Italy and attacking the Pope. Guiscard rushed to Italy, leaving Bohemond in command of the army in Greece.

Varangian Guards.(in ceremonial costumes)
Nea Moni-Chios Monastery-1040's.

Alexius, desperate for money, ordered the confiscation of all the church's treasure. With this money, Alexius mustered an army near Thessalonica and went to fight Bohemond. However, Bohemond defeated Alexius in two battles: one near Arta and the other near Ioannina.

This left Bohemond in control of Macedonia and nearly all of Thessaly. Bohemond advanced with his army against the city of Larissa. Meanwhile, Alexius had mustered a new army and with 7,000 Seljuk Turks sent by the Sultan, he advanced on the Normans at Larissa and defeated them. The demoralised and unpaid Norman army returned to the coast and sailed back to Italy.

Meanwhile, Alexius granted the Venetians a commercial colony in Constantinople, as well as exemption from trading duties in return for their renewed aid. They responded by recapturing Dyrrhachium and Corfu and returning them to the Byzantine Empire. These victories returned the Empire to its previous status quo and marked the beginning of the Komnenian restoration

The Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081 A.D.)

Byzantine infantry reenactor

(Durres Castle)

Charles Oman - The art of war in the Middle Ages, A.D. 378-1515 (1885)

Normans in the Mediterranean (1050-1150)          Battle of Dyrrhachium

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Byzantine "Castle of the Angels"

The Castle of the Angels.
View of Angelokastro approaching from the nearby village of Krini. Archangel Michael's church at the Acropolis can be seen at the top left of the castle. The Ionian sea can be seen in the background. Remnants of the battlements can be seen on the right (northeast) side of the castle. The circular protective tower can be seen in front of the main gate.

Angelokastro  -  Powerful Fortress on the Western Border of the Empire
Angelokastro or "Castle of the Angels" is one of the most important Byzantine castles of Greece.
It is located on the island of Corfu at the top of the highest peak of the island's shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 1,000 ft (305 m) on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.
The origin of its name is not completely clear, with some historians mentioning that in 1214 Michael I Komnenos Doukas, Despot of Epirus, sometimes called Michael Angelos, annexed Corfu to Epirus and following his death, Michael II Komnenos Doukas, often called Michael Angelos in narrative sources, further fortified the area and named it after himself and his father: Angelokastro. The Despots were related to the Komnenoi dynasty of Byzantine emperors.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Byzantine Corfu. It forms an Acropolis, translated as city on the edge, that surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and therefore presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle. The engineering of its construction at such a remote and forbidding location is remarkable by any standards, not only medieval.

It played a pivotal role during the Great Siege of Corfu in 1571 when the Turkish attack on the northwestern flank of Corfu was successfully repulsed by the defenders of the castle.

Angelokastro and surrounding area - Corfu 

Origins and strategic significance

Situated at an impregnable and strategic position, Angelokastro became important to the island's fortunes for many centuries. In peace time it was also a centre of commerce and development. During excavations in 1997 by the Society of Byzantine Antiquities of Corfu, two Early Christian slabs were unearthed at the top of the acropolis, indicating that the site was occupied by the early Byzantine period (between 5th-7th century AD).

The Byzantines built the castle in order to defend the island from the attacks of the Genoan pirates. Before the Venetians conquered Corfu there were three castles which defended the island from attacks: The Cassiopi Castle in the northwest of the island, Angelokastro, defending the west side of Corfu and Gardiki in the south of the island. It is considered one of the five most imposing architectural remains in Corfu along with Gardiki Castle, the Kassiopi Castle built by the Angevins and the two Venetian Fortresses of Corfu City, the Citadel and the New Fort.

It can be reasonably assumed that since Byzantium lost its dominion over southern Italy in 1071 AD, the Komnenoi must have paid a lot of attention to the castle since Corfu by default became the frontier to the west of the Byzantine Empire between the 11th and 12th centuries, serving to separate and defend Byzantium from its dangerous foes to the west.

At the same time, the acritic and windswept fortifications helped safeguard Corfu from the great menace of that era, i.e. the Normans of Sicily whose constant incursions had turned the island into a theatre of military conflict.

Ruled by Rome and Constantinople.
During the Roman Empire, the Ionian Islands were variously part of the provinces of Achaea and Epirus vetus. These would form, with the exception of Cythera, the Byzantine theme of Cephallenia in the late 8th century. From the late 11th century, the Ionian Islands became a battleground in the Byzantine–Norman Wars.
The island of Corfu was held by the Normans in 1081–1085 and 1147–1149, while the Venetians unsuccessfully besieged it in 1122–1123. The island of Cephalonia was also unsuccessfully besieged in 1085, but was plundered in 1099 by the Pisans and in 1126 by the Venetians.
Finally, Corfu and the rest of the theme, except for Lefkada, were captured by the Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185. Although Corfu was recovered by the Byzantines by 1191, the other islands henceforth remained lost to Byzantium.


After the Crusaders took Constantinople in 1204, Corfu fell into the hands of a variety of invaders until 1267 when it was occupied by the Angevins of Naples. Shortly thereafter the Angevins took over Angelokastro. The takeover is documented in a rare manuscript of the time confirming the change of ownership of the castle. The manuscript is the oldest written reference to the castle.


In 1386, the castle came under the ownership of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Venetian: Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta). Throughout the period of the Venetian rule the castle enjoyed great prominence because it offered protection to the locals from foes such as the Genoan pirates to the west as well as the Turks to the east. The Turks were never able to penetrate its defences.

The Venetians, being the prominent maritime power of the era, used it to monitor the shipping lanes in the southern Adriatic and the Ionian sea. The Castellan (Venetian: Castellano) i.e. the Governor of the castle was appointed by the city of Corfu and was a nobleman whose family name was included in the Venetian originated Libro d'oro or Golden book, a list of the aristocratic families of Corfu.

Under the dominion of Venice Corfu was defended throughout the period of her occupation. However invasions and associated destruction still occurred during this time, especially at the undefended areas of the island

Genoan piracy

In 1403, a Genoese pirate fleet made an attempt to occupy Angelokastro. The Genoan pirates burned and pillaged the surrounding area. Then they attempted to occupy the castle. After furious battles with the Corfiot garrison, they were ultimately repulsed.

Turkish sieges

In August 1571, the Turks made another of many attempts at conquering Corfu. Having seized Parga and Mourtos from the Greek mainland side they attacked the Paxi islands, killing, looting and eventually burning the island. Subsequently they landed on Corfu's southeast shore and established a large beachhead all the way from the southern tip of the island at Lefkimi to Ipsos in Corfu's midsection of the eastern part of the island. These areas were thoroughly pillaged and burnt as in past encounters.

Although the Corfu city castle stood firm the rest of Corfu was destroyed and the general population outside the castles was defenceless and suffered heavy casualties while homes, churches and public buildings were burned in the city suburbs.

The Turks also attacked Angelokastro at that time trying to establish a beachhead at the northwestern part of the island but the Corfiot garrison at Angelokastro stood firm. These Turkish defeats both at the city castle in the east and Angelokastro in the west proved decisive and the Turks abandoned their attempt at conquering Corfu.

Angelokastro protected the population of the region again during the second Great Siege of Corfu by the Turks in 1716

The Siege of Corfu (1537) was the first great siege by the Ottomans. It began on 29 August 1537, with 25,000 soldiers from the Turkish fleet landing and pillaging the island and taking 20,000 hostages as slaves. Despite the destruction wrought on the countryside, the city castle held out in spite of repeated attempts over twelve days to take it, and the Turks left the island unsuccessfully because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks.

View from the battlements

Angelokastro excavations

(Corfu History)      (Angelokastro Corfu)