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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Kaninë Castle, Albania - Roman and Byzantine Fortress

Kanine Castle is near the Bay of Vlorë, an inlet on the Adriatic Sea.

For the generals and Emperor in Constantinople, just waking up in the morning must have been a nightmare.

Trying to defend the Eastern Roman Empire must have been a frightening job.  The borders were unbelievable long stretching from Morocco and Spain to the Alps to the Danube out to the Crimean Peninsula to the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia down to Egypt and the Sahara.  It was not unusual for the Roman military to be fighting wars on three continents at the same time.

The frontiers of the Empire would have been dotted by an endless series of major and minor fortifications.

The manpower required to staff all of these posts stretched the army to a breaking point.

Kanine Castle

While browsing the net I accidentally ran across Kanine.

There is absolutely no reason to feature this castle.  It is like a joke historical marker that says, "Nothing happened on this spot."  But I like a challenge.

The Empire was dotted with endless anonymous outposts.  Officers and troopers were assigned the thankless tasks of keeping order at remote locations far from any real civilization.

Kanine would have been one of those remote posts.  Until the Norman invasions in the 11th and 12th centuries not too much happened in the province.  All the barbarian invasion action would have been further east on the Danube River frontier.

Still, the fort would have been important for keeping order among the local population and defend the coast from any raids by pirates.

The Castle of Kanine was located in the Theme of Dyrrhachium.  This was a Byzantine military-civilian province (theme) located in modern Albania, covering the Adriatic coast of the country. It was established in the early 9th century and named after its capital, Dyrrhachium.


The castle is believed to have been erected in the 3rd century B.C. In the 4th century B.C. the castle was transformed into a fortress town.  It would have served as a military post for both a united Roman Empire as well as for the Eastern Empire.

Kanine Castle was built in the village with the same name which is about 6 km from Vlorë. The castle rises on the side of the Shushica Mountain, about 380 meters above the sea level. The castle was built on the site of an ancient settlement, one of the oldest in the Vlorë region. 

Vlorë is one of the oldest cities of Albania. It was founded by Ancient Greeks in the 6th century BC and named Aulōn, one of several colonies on the Illyrian coast, mentioned for the first time by Ptolemy (Geographia, III, xii, 2). Other geographical documents, such as Peutinger's "Tabula" and the "Synecdemus" of Hierocles, also mention it. The city was an important port of the Roman Empire, when it was part of Epirus Nova.

It became an episcopal see in the 5th century. Among the known bishops are Nazarius, in 458, and Soter, in 553 (Daniele FarlatiIllyricum sacrum, VII, 397–401). The diocese at that time belonged to the Patriarchate of Rome.

In the 6th century A.D. the castle was reconstructed by Justinian I as part of his program to beef up the Balkan fortifications of the Empire. 

In 733 it was annexed, with all eastern Illyricum, to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and yet it is not mentioned in any Notitiae episcopatuum of that Church. The bishopric had probably been suppressed, for, though the Bulgarians had been in possession of this country for some time, Avlona is not mentioned in the "Notitiae episcopatuum" of the Patriarchate of Achrida

During the Latin domination, a Latin see was established. Several of the Latin bishops mentioned by Le Quien (Oriens christianus, III, 855-8), and whom Eubel mentions under the See of Valanea in Syria, belong either to Aulon in Greece or to this Aulon in Albania (Vlorë).

Norman Infantry
The Normans and the Romans fought against each other for
the control of Italy and the Balkans.
Battle of Dyrrhachium
Catepanate of Italy

Vlorë played a central role in the conflicts between the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Byzantine Empire during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The castle was the center of the Principality of Valona in the 14th century.

The Principality of Valona, on the coast of modern Albania, had been fought over repeatedly between the Byzantines and various Italian powers in the 13th century. Finally conquered by Byzantium in ca. 1290, it was one of the chief imperial holdings in the Balkans. 

Byzantine rule lasted until the 1340s, when the Serbian ruler Stefan Dušan, taking advantage of a Byzantine civil war, took Albania. 

"Upon the death of the young Andronikos [III], the worst civil war that the Romans had ever known broke out. It was a war that led to almost total destruction, reducing the great Empire of the Romans to a feeble shadow of its former self."  --- Memoirs of John Kantakouzenos, Book III.

Valona fell in late 1345 or early 1346, and Dušan placed his brother-in-law, John Asen, brother of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander, in charge of Valona as his capital, and with Kanina and Berat as his main fortresses.

The civil war proved a critical turning point in the history of the Byzantine Empire.  After the end of the second civil war, Byzantium was an empire in name only.

Kaninë Castle, Albania

Kanine Castle, Albania

Defending The Roman Balkans
  • The Castle of Kanine was one of the many fortifications built or re-built by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565) to protect the Roman peoples of the Balkans from barbarian invasions.  Below are a few selections by the historian Procopius about the fortification project.

By Procopius of Caesarea
The Buildings of Justinian

For it has as neighbours nations of Huns and of Goths, and the regions of Taurus and of Scythia rise up again it, as well as the haunts of the Sclaveni and of sundry other tribes — whether they are called by the writers of the most ancient history Hamaxibian or Metanastic Sauromatae, and whatever other wild race of men really either roams about or leads a settled life in that region. 

And in his determination to resist these barbarians who were endlessly making war, the Emperor Justinian, who did not take the matter lightly, was obliged to throw innumerable fortresses about the country, to assign to them untold garrisons of troops, and to set up all other possible obstacles to an enemy who attacked without warning and who permitted no intercourse.  
Emperor Justinian I

Indeed it was the custom of these peoples to rise and make war upon their enemies for no particular cause, and to open hostilities without sending an embassy, and they did not bring their struggles to an end through any treaty or cease operations for any specified 
period, but they made their attacks without provocation and reached a decision by the sword alone. 

. . . . .Thrace and especially all the suburbs of Byzantium.  The people there build and adorn their suburbs, not only to meet the actual needs of life, but they display an insolent and boundless luxury and all the other vices that the power of wealth brings 
when it comes to men.  And they accumulate much furniture in their houses and make it a point to keep costly objects in them. Thus, when it comes about that any of the enemy overrun the land of the Romans suddenly, the damage caused there is much greater than in other places, and the region is then overwhelmed with irreparable calamities.  

The Emperor Anastasius had determined to put a stop to this and so built long walls at a distance of not less than forty miles from Byzantium, uniting the two shores of the sea on a line where they are separated by about a two-days' journey.  By this means he thought that everything inside was placed in security. But in fact this was the cause of greater calamities. For neither was it possible to make safe a structure of such great length nor could it be guarded rigorously.  And whenever the enemy descended on any portion of these long walls, they both overpowered all the guards with no difficulty, and falling unexpectedly upon the other people they inflicted loss not easy to describe.

But the Emperor rebuilt those portions of these walls which had suffered, and making the weak parts very strong for the sake of the guards, he added the following devices.  He blocked up all the exits from each tower leading to those adjoining it; and he built from the ground up a single ascent inside each individual tower, which the guards there can close in case of emergency and scorn the enemy if they have penetrated inside the circuit-wall, since each tower by itself was sufficient to ensure safety for its guards. Also inside these walls he diligently made provision for safety, not only doing what has just been mentioned, but also restoring all the parts of the circuit-wall of the city of Selymbria which happened to have been damaged.  These things then were done by the Emperor Justinian at the long walls.

(Procopius - Buildings)

The Roman Empire in 1340
The civil war of 1341 proved a critical turning point in the history of the Byzantine Empire.  After the end of the second civil war, Byzantium was an empire in name only.

(Vlorë, Albania)      (Kanine Castle)      (Principality of Valona)

(Civil war of 1341)      (Dyrrhachium Theme)   

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The “Imperial Colleges” and the Varangians

New Varangian Guard at the Abbey Medieval Festival 2012

The Imperial Colleges
Military historian Stefanos Skarmintzos was kind 
enough to send me this article.  Enjoy.

(G. Kyvelos translated by S. Skarmintzos)

Almost all the ancient writers agree that as in Greece the . . . origin of these institutions can be traced back to early fraternities , connected with a common ancestral tomb and traditional ceremonies of ancestor . . worship. However, after the second century B.C. the Colleges (collegia) multiplied to include.. . trade unions, craftsmen’s guilds, and even slaves of the great landowners. . . . In each of Caesar’s legions . . . were Colleges of builders, carpenters and civil engineers. The Colleges were recognized officially by the Roman state and their members, known by the title Sodales (Partners), offered money contributions for the survival of their organization. They had constitutional and internal regulations approved by the state and were managed by their Magistri who appointed various dignitaries bearing the titles Factores, Quaestores, Haruspices, or Decuriones (depending on the activities of each College), as well as secretary and treasurer. Because of their usually limited assets, often they resorted to the solution of honorary integration of eminent persons into their orders so that they increased their income, offering in return their political support.
Both Caesar and Octavian [if you mean the guy I think you mean – the immediate successor to Julius Caesar, husband of Livia, conqueror of Marcus Antonius – he’s usually known as Augustus by English-speakers] (fearing another Catiline conspiracy), tried to check this phenomenon legislatively with special decrees that allowed only the operation of Colleges with proven ancient origin which maintained . . . characteristics similar to those that were fixed by the Athenian state for the Thiasos (that is to say existence of a shrine), and this tactic was also adopted by Trajan. The Colleges ,multiplied dangerously during the reign of Alexander Severus. .. . At the time of Constantine I they were transferred ,to Byzantium with special beneficial legislation, which was . . . strengthened by Theodosius in 438 A.D. In consequence, they became ,so powerful, that Justinian reinstated the restrictive provisions of Octavian [Augustus?].
Varangian's Homecoming by Zorm

Particularly important for the later College development was the Collegium Custodum Corporis or Germani Corporis Custodes (Corps of Bodyguards or Corps of German Bodyguards) that was founded by Octavius [Augustus?] (1). This College became inactive during the life of Octavius [Augustus?], but was strengthened by Tiberius and Nero. Unlike the legions, it was a specifically enacted legal company, whose main mission was the protection of the Emperor. When ,transferred by Constantine to Byzantium as the Schola Palatina (Palace “School”), it acquired an intense mercenary character, including progressively in its ranks . . . Franks, Goths, Alan’s, Sarmatians, Heruls, Alamanni, Markomanni and Vandals.
The Book of Ceremonies of Constantine Porphyrogennitos indicates that in the 7th century A.D. the Scholae were divided into the Great, the Middle and the Small Hetereia. The Great Hetereia accepted as members only Christian subjects of the Emperor, the Medium Hetereia Christian foreigners, mainly from Northern Europe, while the Small Hetereia was made up of pagan foreigners mostly from ,Scandinavia and the Slavonic regions of the Baltic (Prussia, Lithuania) (2). Each one of the Hetereiae had roughly 1,000 members and despite their mercenary character, maintained all the characteristics of the old Collegia, maintaining their Magisters, their dignitaries, their secretaries and ,treasurers. Each new member committed himself to pay contributions to the company, funds, amounting to 16 pounds of gold for the Great Heteria, 10 pounds for the Middle and 7 pounds of gold for the Small.
The Small Hetereia was dissolved by Basil the Macedonian (867-886) and its members were incorporated in the Middle Hetereia, while later ,the Great and Middle Hetereia were combined in a new formation called the Royal Hetereia. This later developed in the eminent Varangian Guard, including mainly Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians and Russians. Specifically the “Inglinoi” (Anglo-Saxons) are recorded by Anna Komnena as coming from Thule (3).
The Orders of the “Knights of Christ”, like the Templar Knights, the Teutonic Knights and the Knights of Saint John (Hospitallers) from which various secret societies from the 17th century onwards trace their origin, were organized on this model.
(1)Peter Wilcox: ROME’S ENEMIES, GERMANICS AND DACIANS, Osprey Publishing, London, 1982, pages 27-82.
(2)Blondal & Benedikz: VARANGIANS, London, 1992, selj’s 21 & Ian Heath: BYZANTINE ARMIES, 886-1118, Osprey Publishing, pages 13-14.
(3)Anna Komnena: ALEXJAS, E.R.A. Sewter, Penguin Books, 1969, pages 95-96, 100-101,124,.144,.206,.224,.392, 447.
Read more at Stefanos Skarmintzos.wordpress.com

2012 Festival Images of the New Varangian Guard.
Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors. They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically, Scandinavians (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking age) and Anglo-Saxons from England (particularly after the Norman Invasion).
Composed primarily of Norsemen and Rus for the first 100 years, the guard began to see increased inclusion of Anglo-Saxons after the successful invasion of England by the Normans. By the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Byzantine Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and "others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans".

The Varangian Guard not only provided security for the Byzantine Emperors, but also participated in many wars, often playing a decisive role, since they were usually used at critical moments of a battle. By the late 13th century Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by Byzantine Greeks, though the guard operated until at least mid-14th century. In 1400 there were still some people identifying themselves as "Varangians" in Constantinople
(Varangian Guard)

An illumination of a scene from the Skylitzes Chronicle, depicting 
Thracesian woman killing a Varangian who tried to rape her, whereupon 
his comrades praised her and gave her his possessions.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Siege of Berat (1280–81)

          Angevin knight, miniature, 15th century.  (Getty)

Eastern Roman Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259–1282) recovered Constantinople from the Latin Empire in 1261.  Though the Roman Empire was now restored it faced constant threats of a Latin Crusade to recover the city.

The antagonistic Greek Despotate of Epirus and the Latin states of southern Greece, fearful of the Byzantine resurgence, sought aid from the Kingdom of Sicily, under the ambitious Charles of Anjou (r. 1266–1285).

Charles I
King of Sicily, Naples, and Albania;
Prince of Achaea

In 1258, the Sicilians took possession of the island of Corfu and the Albanian coast,
from Dyrrhachium to Valona and Buthrotum and as far inland as Berat. This gave Manfred a strategically vital beachhead in the Balkans, controlling the western terminus of the great Via Egnatia, the main overland route to Constantinople.

Michael VIII countered the emerging threat by a diplomatic mission to the Papacy, which in the Second Council of Lyon (1274) agreed to the union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, estranged after the Great Schism of 1054, and thereby placed Michael and his empire under papal protection. 

Taking advantage of Charles's entanglement in Italian conflicts, in spring 1274 Michael launched an attack against Angevin holdings in Albania. Berat and Buthrotum were taken and Charles's troops were pushed back from the hinterland to the two ports of Valona and Dyrrhachium. Although these were assaulted several times in 1274–1275, they remained in Angevin hands.

By 1279 however, Charles had established his control not only over the Latin states of Greece (after 1278 he was the Prince of Achaea), but also received the submission and vassalage of Nikephoros I, Despot of Epirus. 

In August 1279, in preparation for resuming his offensive against Michael along the Via Egnatia, Charles appointed as his vicar-general in Albania the Burgundian Hugo de Sully. Over the next year, Sully received a steady flow of supplies, siege equipment and reinforcements.

The Angevin Kingdom of Sicily fought with the Byzantines
for control of Greece and the Balkans. 

Berat Castle
After being burned down by the Romans in 200 B.C., the walls were
strengthened in the fifth century under Byzantine Emperor 
Theodosius II,
and were rebuilt during the 6th century under the Emperor 
Justinian I and
again in the 13th century under the 
Despot of EpirusMichael I Komnenos
Doukas, cousin of the Byzantine Emperor. 

The forces of the Angevin Kingdom of Sicily faced a tough siege.  Berat
Castle is high on a hilltop overlooking the countryside.  Angevin troops would
have to attack up hill against well entrenched and protected Byzantine
troops while facing an unfriendly population around their positions.

The Siege

In August/September 1280, with an army of 2,000 knights and 6,000 infantry, Sully began his attack by storming the fortress of Kanina and then advancing to central Albania and laying siege to Berat. 

We do not know the strength of the Byzantine force in the Berat fortress, but was strong enough to resist the Angevin army.

The situation was grave for Byzantium: Berat was, in the words of the historian Deno J. Geanakoplos "the key to the Via Egnatia and all of Macedonia". If it were taken, the Empire would lie open to an invasion, which, if joined by the Latin states of Greece and the Greek rulers of Epirus and Thessaly, might result in the fall of Constantinople to Charles. 

Responding to the pleas for reinforcements of the governor of Berat, Michael VIII ordered special prayers for the salvation of the Empire, and assembled an army headed by some of his best generals. The army's commander-in-chief was the megas domestikos Michael Tarchaneiotes, with the megas stratopedarches John Synadenos, the despotes Michael Komnenos Doukas (the emperor's son-in-law), and the unuch court official Andronikos Enopolites as subordinate commanders.
Michael VIII Palaiologos
Emperor of Nicaea
Emperor of the Roman Empire

Meanwhile, the siege of Berat continued through the winter of 1280/1281. By early December, the Angevin forces had seized a number of outlying forts around the city and penetrated its suburbs. Charles, however, remained anxious to take the city before the Byzantine relief force arrived. He ordered his governors in Albania to direct all their resources towards the siege, and displayed his close interest by a series of letters to Sully, instructing him to take the city by assault if necessary. 

The Byzantine force advanced cautiously, and arrived in the area in early spring 1281. The megas domestikos Tarchaneiotes avoided a direct confrontation and relied on ambushes and raids instead. 

We do not know the size of the Byzantine army, but the fact that the Byzantines did not attack is telling.  Using raids and ambushes rather that direct battle tells us that the Byzantines were not confident of victory.  We can assume the size of the Byzantine force was equal to or even smaller than the Angevins.

Tarchaneiotes also managed to resupply the besieged fortress with provisions, which were loaded onto rafts and then left to float down the river Osum which flows by the citadel.
The besiegers became aware of this, and, unlike the Byzantines, the Angevin commanders were eager for a decisive confrontation. 

At this point, Sully resolved to reconnoiter the area personally, accompanied only by a bodyguard of 25 men. As he approached the Byzantine camp, he fell into an ambush by Turkish mercenaries serving in the Byzantine army. The Turks attacked the small troop, killed Sully's horse, scattered his guard, and captured him. A few of Sully's guards escaped and reached their camp, where they reported his capture. Panic spread among the Angevin troops at this news, and they began to flee towards Valona. 

The Byzantines took advantage of their disordered flight and attacked, joined by the troops in the besieged citadel. Many Latins fell, many others were captured as the Byzantines aimed their arrows at the less well-protected horses of the Latin knights, unhorsing them. The Byzantines also took an enormous booty, including all the numerous siege machines. Only a small remnant managed to cross the river Vjosë and reach the safety of Kanina.


The victory at Berat represented Michael VIII's greatest success in battle over the Latins since the Battle of Pelagonia 20 years earlier. 

The many prisoners, including Sully, were taken to Constantinople, where they were publicly paraded in a triumph celebrated by the exultant emperor, who further ordered frescoes depicting scenes from the campaign painted in his palace. 

In the aftermath of their victory at Berat, the imperial troops restored their control over Albania, except the two Angevin strongholds of Dyrrhachium and Valona. The defeat ended Charles's designs of an overland assault on Byzantium, but the Angevin ruler now redoubled his efforts, aiming to launch a seaborne invasion of the Empire with Venetian aid. This he secured with the Treaty of Orvieto in 1281. 

The Papacy also, after the election of the pro-Angevin Martin IV, finally sanctioned his plans, excommunicating Michael Palaiologos and ending the Union of the Churches. Michael VIII countered this with an alliance with Peter III of Aragon (r. 1276–1285), and with his support to various anti-Angevin forces in Italy. Just as Charles was ready to launch his attack, an uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers broke out on March 30, 1282. The subsequent wars, in large part the result of Michael's diplomatic efforts, ended the threat of Charles on Byzantium.

(Books.google)      (Siege of Berat)      (Cerco de Berat (1280-1281)