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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Roman Empire Military Organization (802 - 867 AD)

Byzantine Warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.

Defending an Empire

Eastern Roman military history had suffered from a near total lack of proper histories written by those who witnessed the events.  We historians have to fill in the lack of detailed information with what we know from similar events. The Byzantine military has not been given proper credit by historians.

We have literally mountains of information in excruciating detail on the American Civil War and World War II.  But when it comes to the Eastern Empire documents on military units, fortifications, budgets and battles have vanished into the mists of time.

It is safe to say the the Eastern Roman military machine was not a haphazard or accidental creation. The Byzantines carried on the Roman tradition of a highly organized military. This can be seen in the structure and variety of full time professional units that were backed up by a large body of trained reserves. We see it also in command structure, military provinces (themes) and huge numbers of fortifications.

To run such an extensive military war machine required not only a well trained officer corps but also a large bureaucracy to direct supplies, recruits, hospitals and more.

Sadly we lack so much detail. But the article below by Professor J.B. Bury does a great deal to fill in the gaps. Bury shows a well oiled military machine at a time when western Europeans operated at the most primitive feudal levels.

By J.B. Bury
From: A History of the Eastern Roman Empire
from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I
(A.D. 802 - 867)  Published 1912

Under the Amorian dynasty considerable administrative changes were made in the organization of the military provinces into which the Empire was divided, in order to meet new conditions. In the Isaurian period there were five great Themes in Asia Minor, governed by stratégoi, in the following order of dignity and importance: the Anatolic, the Armeniac, the Thrakesian, the Opsikian, and the Bukellarian.

This system of “the Five Themes,” as they were called, lasted till the reign of Michael ., if not till that of Theophilus. But it is probable that before that time the penetration of the Moslems in the frontier regions had rendered it necessary to delimit from the Anatolic and Armeniac provinces districts which were known as kleisurarchies, and were under minor commanders, kleisurarchs, who could take measures for defending the country independently of the stratégoi. In this way the kleisurarchy of Seleucia, west of Cilicia, was cut ofi“ from the Anatolic Theme, and that of Charsianon from the Armeniacta Southern Cappadocia, which was constantly exposed to Saracen invasion through the Cilician gates, was also formed into a frontier province. We have no record of the times at which these changes were made, but we may suspect that they were of older date than the reign of Theophilus.

This energetic Emperor made considerable innovations in the thematic system throughout the Empire, and this side of his administration has not been observed or appreciated. In Asia Minor he created two new Themes, Paphlagonia and' Ghaldia. Paphlagonia seems to have been cut off from the Bukellarian province; probably it had a separate existence already, as a “ katepanate,” for the governor of the new Theme, while he was a stratégos, bore the special title of Icatepano, which looks like the continuation of an older arrangement.

Military Themes In Asia Minor
Military Themes were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great

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 rise of Paphlagonia in importance may be connected with the active Pontic policy of Theophilus. It is not without significance that Paphlagonian ships played a part in the expedition which he sent to Cherson, and we may conjecture with probability that the creation of the Theme of the Klimata on the north of the Euxine and that of Paphlagonia on the south were not isolated acts, but were part of the same general plan.

The institution of the Theme of Chaldia, which was cut off from the Armeniac Theme (probably A.D. 837), may also be considered as part of the general policy of strengthening Imperial control over the Black Sea and its coastlands, here threatened by the imminence of the Moslem power in Armenia. To the south of Chaldia was the duchy of Koloneia, also part of the Armeniac circumscrrption.” In the following reign (before AD. 863) both Koloneia and Gappadocia were elevated to the rank of Themes.

The Themes of Europe, which formed a class apart from those of Asia, seem at the end of the eighth century to have been four in number—Thrace, Macedonia, Hellas, and Sicily. There were also a number of provinces of inferior rank— Calabria, under its Dux; Dalmatia and Crete, under governors who had the title of oz'rchon; while Thessalonica with the adjacent region was still subject to the ancient Praetorian Prefect of Illyricum, an anomalous survival from the old system of Constantine. It was doubtless the Slavonic revolt in the reign of Nicephorus I. that led to the reorganization of the Helladic province, and the constitution of the Peloponnesus as a distinct Theme, so that Hellas henceforward meant Northern Greece.

The Mohammadan descent upon Crete doubtless led to the appointment of a stratégos instead of an archon of Crete, and the Bulgarian wars to the suppression of the Praetorian prefect by a stratégos of Thessalonica. The Theme of Kephalonia (with the Ionian Islands) seems to have existed at the beginning of the ninth century ; but the Saracen menace to the Hadriatic and the western coasts of Greece may account for the foundation of the Theme of Dyrrhachium, a city which probably enjoyed, like the com munities of the Dalmatian coast, a certain degree of local inde pendence. If so, we may compare the policy of Theophilus in instituting the stratégos of the Klimata with control over the magistrates of Cherson.

It is to be noted that the Theme of Thrace did not include the region in the immediate neighbourhood of Constantinople, cut off by the Long Wall of Anastasius, who had made special provisions for the government of this region. In the ninth century it was still a separate circum scription, probably under the military command of the Count of the Walls, and Arabic writers designate it by the curious name Talaya or Talia.

Balkan and Italian Military Themes of The Empire

There were considerable differences in the ranks and salaries of the stratégoi. In the first place, it is to be noticed that the governors of the Asiatic provinces, the admirals of the naval Themes, and the stratégoi of Thrace and Macedonia were paid by the treasury, while the governors of the European Themes paid themselves a fixed amount from the custom dues levied in their own provinces. Hence for administrative purposes Thrace and Macedonia are generally included among the Asiatic Themes. The rank of patrician was bestowed as a rule upon the Anatolic, Armeniac, and Thrakesian stratégoi, and these three received a salary of 40 lbs. of gold (£1728).

The pay of the other stratégoi and kleisurarchs ranged from 36 to 12 lbs, but their stipends were somewhat reduced in the course of the ninth century. We can easily calculate that the total cost of paying the governors of the eastern provinces (including Macedonia and Thrace) did not fall short of £15,000.

In these provinces there is reason to suppose that the number of troops, who were chiefly cavalry, was about 80,000. They were largely settled on military lands, and their pay was small. The recruit, who began service at a very early age, received one nomisma (12s.) in his first year, two in his second, and so on, till the maximum of twelve (£7 : 4s), or in some cases of eighteen (£10 : 16s.), was reached.

The army of the Theme was divided generally into two, sometimes three, turms or brigades; the turm into drungoi or battalions; and the battalion into banda or companies. The corresponding commanders were entitled turmarchs, drungaries, and counts. The number of men in the company, the sizes of the battalion and the brigade, varied widely in the different Themes. The original norm seems to have been a bandon of 200 men and a drungos of 5 banda.

It is very doubtful whether this uniform scheme still prevailed in the reign of Theophilus. It is certain that at a somewhat later period the bandon varied in size up to the maximum of 400, and the drungos oscillated between the limits of 1000 and 3000 men. Originally the turm was composed of 5 drungoi (5000 men), but this rule was also changed. The number of drungoi in the turm was reduced to three, so that the brigade which the turmarch commanded ranged from 3000 upwards.

The pay of the officers, according to one account, ranged from 3 lbs. to 1 1b., and perhaps the subalterns in the company (the kentarchs and pentekontarchs) are included; but the turmarchs in the larger themes probably received a higher salary than 3 lbs. If We assume that the average bandon was composed of 300 men and the average drungos of 1500, and further that the pay of the drungary was 3 lbs., that of the count 2 lbs. and that of the kentarch 1 1b., the total sum expended on these oflicers would have amounted to about £64,000. But these assumptions are highly uncertain. _ Our data for the pay of the common soldiers form a still vaguer basis for calculation; but we may conjecture, with every reserve, that the salaries of the armies of the Eastern Themes, including generals and oflicers, amounted to not less than £500,000.

The armies of the Themes formed only one branch of the military establishment. There were four other privileged and _ difl'erently organized cavalry regiments known as the Tagmata : 2 (1) the Schools, (2) the Excubitors, (3) the Arithmos or Vigla, and (4) the Hikanatoi. The first three were of ancient foundation ; the fourth was a new institution of Nicephorus I., who created a child, his grandson Nicetas (afterwards the Patriarch Ignatius), its first commander. The commanders of these troops were entitled Domestics, except that of the Arithmos, who was known as the Drungary of the Vigla or Watch.

The Varangian Guard
An elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries,
 whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine EmperorsThey are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus' provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard.

Some companies of these Tagmatic troops may have been stationed at Constantinople, where the Domestics usually resided, but the greater part of them were quartered in Thrace, Macedonia, and Bithynia. The question of their numbers is perplexing. We are variously told that in the ninth century they were each 6000 or 4000 strong, but in the tenth the numbers seem to have been considerably less, the strength of the principal Tagma, the Scholarians, amounting to no more than 1500 men. If we accept one of the larger figures for the reign of Theophilus, we must suppose that under one of his successors these troops were reduced in number.

The Domestic of the Schools preceded in rank all other military commanders except the stratégos of the Anatolic Theme, and the importance of the post is shown by the circumstance that it was filled by such men as Manuel and Bardas. In later times it became still more important; in the tenth century, when a military expedition against the Saracens was not led by the Emperor in person, the Domestic of the Schools was ex oficio the Commander-in-Chief The Drungary of the Watch and his troops were distinguished from the other Tagmata by the duties they performed as sentinels in campaigns which were led by the Emperor in person. The Drungary was responsible for the safety of the camp, and carried the orders of the Emperor to the generals.

Besides the Thematic and the Tagmatic troops, there were the Numeri, a regiment of infantry commanded by a Domestic ; and the forces which were under the charge of the Count or Domestic of the Walls, whose duty seems to have been the defence of the Long Wall of Anastasius. These troops played little part in history. More important was the Imperial Guard or Hetaireia, which, recruited from barbarians, formed the garrison of the Palace, and attended the Emperor on campaigns.

The care which was spent on providing for the health and comfort of the soldiers is illustrated by the baths at Dorylaion, the first of the great military stations in Asia Minor. This bathing establishment impressed the imagination of oriental visitors, and it is thus described by an Arabic writer :

"Dorylaion possesses warm springs of fresh water: over which the Emperors have constructed vaulted buildings for bathing. There are seven basins, each of which can accommodate a thousand men. The water reaches the breast of a man of average height, and the overflow is discharged into a small lake."

In military campaigns, careful provision was made for the wounded. There was a special corps of oflicers called deputat0i, whose duty was to rescue wounded soldiers and take them to the rear, to be tended by the medical staff. They carried flasks of water, and had two ladders attached to the saddles of their horses on the left side, so that, having mounted a fallen soldier with the help of one ladder, the deputatos could himself mount instantly by the other and ride off.

It is interesting to observe that not only did the generals and superior officers make speeches to the soldiers, in old Hellenic fashion, before a battle, but there was a band of professional orators, called cantatores, whose duty was to stimu late the men by their eloquence during the action. Some of the combatants themselves, if they had the capacity, might be chosen for this purpose. A writer on the art of war suggests the appropriate chords which the cantatores might touch, and if we may infer their actual practice, the leading note was religious. “ We are fighting in God’s cause; the issue lies with him, and he will not favour the enemy because of their unbelief.”

Eastern Roman Dromon
Read More

Eastern Roman Navy

Naval necessities imposed an increase of expenditure for the defence of the Empire in the ninth century. The navy, which had been efiiciently organized under the Heraclian dynasty and had performed memorable services against the attacks of the Omayyad Caliphs, had been degraded in import ance and suffered to decline by the policy of the Isaurian monarchs.

We may criticize their neglect of the naval arm, but we must remember that it was justified by immediate impunity, for it was correlated with the simultaneous decline in the naval power of the Saracens. The Abbasids who trans ferred the centre of the Caliphate from Syria to Mesopotamia undertook no serious maritime enterprises. The dangers of the future lay in the west and not in the east,—in the ambitions of the Mohammadan rulers of Africa and Spain, whose only way of aggression was by sea. Sicily was in peril throughout the eighth century, and Constantine V. was forced to reorganize her fleet ; accidents and internal divisions among the Saracens helped to save her till the reign of Michael II.

We shall see in another chapter how the Mohammadans then obtained a permanent footing in the island, the beginning of its complete conquest, and how they occupied Crete. These events necessitated a new maritime policy. To save Sicily, to recover Crete, were not the only problems. The Imperial possessions in South Italy were endangered ; Dalmatia, the Ionian islands, and the coasts of Greece were exposed to the African fleets. It was a matter of the first importance to preserve the control of the Hadriatic. The reorganization of the marine estab lishment was begun by the Amorian dynasty, though its effects were not fully realized till a later period.

The naval forces of the Empire consisted of the Imperial fleet, which was stationed at Constantinople and commanded by the Drungary of the Navy, and the Provincial fleets of the Kibyrrhaeot Theme, the Aegean, Hellas, Peloponnesus, and Kephalonia. The Imperial fleet must now have been increased in strength, and the most prominent admiral of the age, Ooryphas, may have done much to reorganize it. An armament of three hundred warships was sent against Egypt in AD. 853, and the size of this force may be held to mark the progress which had been made. Not long after the death of Michael III. four hundred vessels were operating off the coast of Apulia.

We have some figures which may give us a general idea  of the cost of these naval expeditions. Attempts were made to recover Crete from the Saracens in AD. 902 and in A.D. 949, and the pay of officers and men for each of these expeditions, which were not on a large scale, amounted to over £140,000. This may enable us to form a rough estimate of the expenditure‘ incurred in sending armaments oversea in the ninth century. We may surmise, for instance, that not less than a quarter of a million (pounds sterling), equivalent in present value to a million and a quarter, was spent on the Egyptian expedition in the reign of Michael III.

Siege of Constantinople 717 AD

(pinterest.com)      (Byzantine Themes)      (Varangian Guard)

(hathitrust.org)      (Michael II)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Roman Fort of Qasr Banat in Libya - The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat, fortified farm entrance

The Limes Tripolitanus

The Limes Tripolitanus was a frontier zone of defence of the Roman Empire, built in the south of what is now Tunisia and the northwest of Libya. It was primarily intended as a protection for the tripolitanian cities of Leptis MagnaSabratha and Oea in Roman Libya.

The Limes Tripolitanus was built after Augustus. It was related mainly to the Garamantes menace. Septimius Flaccus in 50 AD did a military expedition that reached the actual Fezzan and further south.

The first fort on the limes was built at Thiges, to protect from nomad attacks in 75 AD. The limes was expanded under emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, in particular under the legatus Quintus Anicius Faustus in 197-201 AD.

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania, among which Garbia and Golaia (actual Bu Ngem) in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. He fulfilled his task quickly and successfully.

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza to regulate the flash floods.  The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (Centenaria).

With Diocletian the limes was partially abandoned and the defence of the area was done even by the Limitanei, local soldier-farmers. The Limes survived as an effective protection until Byzantine times.  Emperor Justinian restructured the Limes in 533 AD.

From 665 to 689, a new Muslim Arab invasion of North Africa was launched.  The limes fortifications played little part.

Roman Limes System

The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat (Qasr Isawi)

Qasr Banat was built by the Romans, who called these buildings centenaria. They were built in the mid-third century, when the Third legion Augusta had been disbanded and the people along the desert frontier (the Limes Tripolitanus) had to start to defend themselves. Because the centenaria were built according to standard designs, the Qasr Banat farm looks a lot like the one at Gheriat esh-Shergia. 
It is situated on a steep hill along the Wadi Nefud, close to the confluence with another wadi. The dams in the wadis are ancient. In the neighborhood, you will also find a well that is often frequented by modern shepherds; there is a white, more recent sanctuary of a Muslim saint about 400 meters east of it. In this direction, you can also see the ancient quarry, where the stones were cut to build the centenarium.
The centenarium remained in use for centuries; in the area surrounding it, you can see medieval walls and several buildings that have, in the meantime, collapsed. The walls of the centenarium, however, has survived in nearly perfect condition.
The nearby mausoleum, which is even better preserved, consists of two rooms. It it of the "temple type" that is also known from Ghirza's northern cemetery. In the lower room, the people were buried, you can still see traces of the ancient decoration. One of the common themes is the fish, which is in this arid zone a predictable symbol of eternal life; it is interesting to notice that the nomadic tribes of the Libyan and Egyptian desert still a very common motif. The upper room was probably used for picknicks; the people gathered, commemorated their ancestors, had a drink, and poured a libation through a hole in the ground, into the room with the tombs.
Qasr Banat, mausoleum

Byzantine North Africa

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.

Much of the area was conquered from the Romans and the Vandals set up their North African kingdom from 435 to 534.  

Emperor Constans II
The last Roman Emperor
of Tripolitanus

As part of the re-conquest of Africa the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian organized an anti-Vandal revolt with the support of Byzantine troops from Egypt and Cyrenaica.  Tripolitana once again returned to Roman rule.

An interesting side note, the historian Procopius (500 – c. AD 565) recorded that an Imperial official was brought from Libya to work in Constantinople.  The official spoke only Latin and naturally had difficulty with the many Greek speakers in the capital.  

This small story tells us a great deal about a still flourishing Latin-Roman civilization in North Africa.

New garrisons were stationed in the Libyan cities. 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 Roman frontier zone, or Limes Tripolitanus, was designed to protect settlements and cities from desert raids coming from the south.  A Muslim invasion from Egypt was not expected.

In 642–643, the Arabs had seized Cyrenaica and the eastern half of Tripolitania, along with Tripoli

By 698 the Islamic province of Ifriqiya was born. The province would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. Thus ended 800 years of Roman Africa.

Qasr Banat
The purple marker on the left is the fortified Roman farm of Qasr Banat.
The bluish marker on the right by the trees is the 

Qasr Banat, well and sanctuary of a local saint.

Qasr Banat, centenarium

Qasr Banat, surrounding wall

Qasr Banat, mausoleum, lower room