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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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Controlling The Population of Constantinople


Chariot races and games at Constantinople's Hippodrome
were the center of social and political life in the city.

Controlling the People of Constantinople


No information has come down to us of a proper census, but the population of Constantinople ranged between 500,000 and 800,000 people in 800s and 900s. By comparison the population of Paris in the 700s to 1,000 AD was 20,000 people.

Keeping control over such a large and always hungry population was a major political task. A few political missteps could easily trigger riots and/or a revolt by a general.

In AD 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment. The Hippodrome of Constantinople provided entertainment, but also brought together the many factions of the city into one place.

The Roman empire had well-developed associations, known as demes, which supported the different factions (or teams) under which competitors in certain sporting events took part; this was particularly true of chariot racing

There were initially four major factional teams of chariot racing, differentiated by the color of the uniform in which they competed; the colors were also worn by their supporters. These were the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites, although by the Byzantine era the only teams with any influence were the Blues and Greens. Emperor Justinian I was a supporter of the Blues.

The team associations had become a focus for various social and political issues for which the general Byzantine population lacked other forms of outlet. They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, taking positions on current issues, notably theological problems or claimants to the throne. They frequently tried to affect the policy of the emperors by shouting political demands between races. 

The "Bread and Circuses" of the East took 
place at Constantinople's Hippodrome.

The imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the circus factions which were in turn backed by the aristocratic families of the city; these included some families who believed they had a more rightful claim to the throne than Justinian.

In 531 some members of the Blues and Greens had been arrested for murder in connection with deaths that occurred during rioting after a recent chariot race.Relatively limited riots were not unknown at chariot races, similar to the football hooliganism that occasionally erupts after association football matches in modern times. The murderers were to be hanged, and most of them were. But on January 10, 532, two of them, a Blue and a Green, escaped and were taking refuge in the sanctuary of a church surrounded by an angry mob.

These events snowballed into the most violent riot in the history of Constantinople, with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.

The resulting Nika Revolt nearly overthrew the government. 

Once the revolt was put down Justinian started enacting assorted "reforms". Some might have been genuine attempts at bringing justice to government. But if the Secret History of Procopius is to be believed the reforms of Justinian (like those of modern politicians) also served to protect the leader and his supporters from their own citizens.
____________________________


The Reforms of Emperor Justinian
J.B. Bury's account below shows the Emperor Justinian enacting 
"reforms" right after the Nika Riots that could easily be interpreted 
as acts self preservation to tamp down the discontent of the 
citizens of the Empire and to control their actions against him.


The second Prefecture of John the Cappadocian (A.D. 533‑540) was marked by a series of reforms in the administration of the Eastern provinces, and it would be interesting to know how far he was responsible for instigating them. Administrative laws affecting the provinces were probably, as a result, evoked by reports of the Praetorian Prefects calling attention to abuses or anomalies and suggesting changes. If half of what the writers of the time tell us of John's character is true, we should not expect to find him promoting legislation designed to relieve the lot of the provincial taxpayers. But we observe that, while the legislator is earnestly professing his sincere solicitude for the welfare of his subjects, he always has his eye on the interests of the revenue, and does not pretend to disguise it. 

The removal of abuses which diminished the power of the subjects to pay the taxes was in the interest of the treasury, and it was a capital blunder of the fiscal administration of the later Empire that this obvious truth was not kept steadily in view and made a governing principle of policy. It was fitfully recognised when the excessive burdens of the cultivators of the land led to an accumulation of arrears and the danger of bankruptcy, or when some glaring abuse came to light. John, clever as he was, could not extract money from an empty purse, and there is no reason to suppose that he may not have promoted some of the remedial laws which the Emperor directed him to administer.

. . . . . good intentions were frustrated by defects of the fiscal system which they had inherited, and by the corruption of the vast army of officials who administered it.
Emperor Justinian I
(Reign 527 - 565AD)

We do not know how far Justinian's enactments may have been successful, but they teach us the abuses which existed. There was none perhaps which he himself regarded as more important — if we may judge from his language — than the law which forbade the practice of buying the post of a provincial governor.

It had long been the custom to require the payment of considerable sums (suffragia) from those who received appointments as governors of provinces, and these sums went partly to the Emperor, partly to the Praetorian Prefect. Men who aspired to these posts were often obliged to borrow the money. The official salary was not sufficient to recompense them for the expense of obtaining the post, and they calculated on reimbursing themselves by irregular means at the cost of the provincials. 

The Emperor states that they used to extract from the taxpayers three or even ten times the amount they had paid for the office, and he shows how the system caused loss to the treasury, and led to the sale of justice and to general demoralisation in the provinces. The law abolishes the system of suffragia. Henceforward the governor must live on his salary, and when he is appointed he will only have to pay certain fixed fees for the ensigns and diploma of his office. Before he enters on his post he has to swear — the form of oath is prescribed — that he has paid no man any money as a suffragium and severe penalties 
are provided if the Prefect or any of his staff or any other person should be convicted of having received such bribes.


The governor who has paid for his appointment or who receives bribes during his administration is liable to exile, confiscation of property, and corporal punishment. Justinian takes the opportunity of exhorting his subjects to pay their taxes loyally, "inasmuch as the military preparations and the offensive measures against the enemy which are now engaging us are urgent and cannot be carried on without money; for we cannot allow Roman territory to be diminished, and having recovered Africa from the Vandals, we have greater acquisitions in view."

Several other laws were passed in this period to protect the people from mal-administration. The confirmation of the old rule that a governor should remain in his province for fifty days after vacating his office, in order to answer any charges against his actions, may specially be mentioned. 

The office of Defensor Civitatis had become practically useless as a safeguard against injustice because it had come to be filled by persons of no standing or influence, who could not assume an independent attitude towards the governors. Justinian sought to restore its usefulness by a reform which can hardly have been welcomed by the municipalities. He ordained that the leading citizens in each town should fill the office for two years in rotation; and he imposed on the Defensor, in addition to his former functions, the duty of deciding lawsuits not involving more than 300 nomismata and of judging in minor criminal cases. 

The work of the governor's court was thus lightened. We may suspect that the bishops who were authorised to intervene were more efficacious in defending the rights of the provincials because they were more independent of the governor's goodwill.

Constantinople Recreation
Follow the link to view the video



Constantinople and the Hippodrome

Among the restrictions which the Roman autocrats placed upon the liberty of their subjects there is none perhaps that would appear more intolerable to a modern freeman than those which hindered freedom of movement. 

It was the desire of the Emperors to keep the provincials in their own native places and to discourage their changing their homes or visiting the 
capital. This policy was dictated by requirements of the system of taxation, and by the danger and inconvenience of increasing the proletariat of Constantinople. Impoverished provincials had played a great part in the Nika sedition, and the duties of the Prefect of the City were rendered more difficult and onerous by the arrival of multitudes of unemployed persons to seek a living by beggary or crime. 

Justinian created a new ministry of police for the special purpose of dealing with this problem. The function of the Quaesitor, as the minister was called, was to inquire into the circumstances and business of all persons who came from the provinces to take up their quarters in the capital, to assist those who came for legitimate reasons to get their business transacted quickly and speed them back to their homes, and to send back to the provinces those who had no valid excuse for having left their native soil. 

He was also empowered to deal with the unemployed class in the capital, and to force those who were physically fit into the service of some public industry (such as the bakeries), on pain of being expelled from the city if they refused to work. Judicial functions were also entrusted to him, and his court dealt with certain classes of crime, for instance forgery.

The Prefect of the City was further relieved of a part of his large responsibilities by the creation of another minister, who, like the quaesitor, was both a judge and a chief of police. The Praefectus Vigilum, who was subordinate to the Prefect, was abolished, and his place was taken by an independent official who was named the Praetor of the Demes and whose most important duty was to catch and punish thieves and robbers.

J.B. Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire  (1889)


Chariot Race at the Hippodrome





A street scene in old Constantinople.



(Nika)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders


A 19th century Bedouin warrior
The Arab forces facing the Romans would look much like this soldier.

(vikingsword.com)

The Coming of Islam


Where is the great historian Procopius when you need him?

We see an amazing lack of information about the final great Roman-Persian War (602 - 628 AD) and the start of the Muslim Arab invasion of the Empire in 629. Because we lack so many details it falls on historians to put their own spin on events. So here I am doing the best an amatuer military historian can do.

The Roman Emperor Heraclius and Persian Shah Khosrau II were is a 26 year long Death Grip of a war that looked like it might never end. But all wars do end. In this case it was with Heraclius at the head of a Roman army marching deep into the Persian Empire and crushing their forces at the Battle of Ninevah.

The Persian War ended in 628 just in time for the first Muslim invasion in 629.

Anarchy in Persia

Shah Khosrau was overthrown and executed by his own son in 627 and peace concluded in 628.

The Persians surrendered the captured lands of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and parts of Anatolia to Rome. The undefeated Persian armies were withdrawn to the homeland.

Over the next four years Persia was in anarchy with ten kings and queens. The final Shah, Yazdegerd III, was thought to be a child of 8 years old upon assuming the throne.

The Persian Empire that faced the invading Arab Muslim armies was bankrupted from the long war, militarily exhausted, had Roman troops still in their country and was in political anarchy.

Shah Khosrau II submitting to Emperor Heraclius

Rome is Supreme

The Roman Empire had decisively won the war and was in the stronger position of the two.

In addition to withdrawing their armies the Persians returned the True Cross to Heraclius. In 630 the Emperor entered Jerusalem by its Golden Gate. Shedding all Imperial insignia Heraclius walked in the city with the cross and restored it to the Patriarch.

The Eastern Empire was at the peak of its fame and power.  But victory masked deep problems.

Like Persia the Empire was financially and militarily exhausted.

Jerusalem had suffered grave damage in the siege of 614. Other cities and farmland over a huge area would also have been damaged or destroyed. Roman Christians held captive in Persia were repatriated and resettled.

With the collapse of the Persian government thousands of Persian Christians migrated to Roman territory under armed escort. This created a new mix of cultures in Roman cities.

Heraclius left Jerusalem and went to the Roman province of Mesopotamia. There he supervised the exit of Persian troops from Roman territory, the return of hostages and the movement of refugees.

A great danger was Heraclius had little time to reestablish governmental rule from Constantinople of the liberated areas. For years provinces like Egypt and Palaestina Prima were ruled from Persia. A Roman Emperor had become but a distant memory. Now the Emperor was back with his tax collectors and attempts to dictate how local Christians were allowed to worship.

Roman-Byzantine reenactor infantryman from the age Justinian. 
The Roman 
infantry facing the Arabs 100 years later
might have looked much like this soldier. 

The Winds of War

In the year 628 Mohammad dispatched messages to the Shah of Persia, the Roman Emperor, the Governor of Egypt and the Prince of Abyssinia asking them to accept Islam.

In 629 a number of minor raids and expeditions were sent out from Arabia.  Some were defeated and others returned with booty.  In September, 629 a more important expedition was organized resulting the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah).  Some 10,000 Roman troops gave the invading Muslim army a bloody nose forcing them to retreat to Arabia.

Then in 632 Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote a contemporary reference to the barbarian ravages on the frontier that must have been about the Arabs:

"What more unfortunate circumstances could there be here than these 
that hold the inhabited world in their grip? . . .  What could be more 
lamentable and more terrible to those upon whom them fell?  To see 
how a people, coming from the desert and barbaric, run through the 
land that is not theirs, as if it were their own; how they, who seem 
only to have simple human features, lay waste our sweet and 
organized country with their wild untamed beasts."
Heraclius, Emperor of Byzntium - Walker Kaegi (pg 218)

When the Muslim invasion began in 633 it was Persia, not Rome, that was the target.

The Romans had beaten back the Muslims at the Battle of Mota. With anarchy in Persia the Muslims no doubt felt it was a softer target.

Eastern Roman Armored Cavalry
A possible look for the Roman cavalry. The standard stirrup and saddle were both used by the Byzantine Cataphract, allowing for more powerful lance attacks and making it a bit harder to knock him off his saddle. Reflecting the nature of heavy cavalry, the horse was covered in Lamellar armor that extended down to its knees, giving the horse protection for when charges were made against dense formation. It's head was enveloped in a plate headpiece. From front to back, there was not a place above the knees left uncovered.
(necromoprhvsfellowship) 

The Roman Army

The historian Warren Treadgold says there were about 109,000 Roman troops in the field in this period.

This number sounds large but is deceptive. The Empire was enormous ranging from the Pillars of Hercules to Italy, the Balkans, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Troops were required everywhere to man fortresses and drive off invaders. The number of troops available to act as actual field armies was a small fraction of the total.

The mix of the available troops is not available to us. How many are infantry? Cavalry? or militia?

We do know that soldiers were in very short supply. Huge numbers of troops were needed to reoccupy the provinces abandoned by the retreating Persian armies. To fill that gap and to counter the Muslims, Heracilus unsuccessfully tried to shift Roman troops from Numidia in North Africa to Egypt which had a minimal garrison.

Another factor in troop shortages, it appears some level of Roman troops were still inside Persia. They were there perhaps because of the internal political anarchy or to "supervise" the peace of a defeated enemy. In any case those troops were not immediately available to face the Muslims on the frontier of Palestine.

Because of the devastation of war tax money was not coming in. So as a "bonus" the Emperor was cutting expenses left and right and the army was not spared. Even Rome's ally the Arab Ghassanid tribe that protected the desert frontiers of Arabia had their funds cut off at the exact time an invasion from Arabia took place.

Rome needed time and peace to rebuild. Neither were available.

The Arab Army

In 632 AD the Muslim army numbered perhaps 13,000 men.

Because of poverty in Arabia and an arid climate, of that 13,000 perhaps 20% was cavalry.  Infantry would have been an untrained tribal mass.

I do not downgrade the power of tribal based warfare. You can ask the few survivors of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest about tribal warriors. An infantry force of 5,000 fanatical Jihadis slamming into your front lines would have frightened the hardest and most experienced of veteran troops.

But to me the true Arab secret weapon was Islamic Blitzkreig.

In warfare terms think Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel.  Like the Allied forces from 1939 to 1942 the Roman Army was a traditional slower moving force with lots of equipment, supplies and camp followers.

The German armored units often avoided combat and plunged deep behind enemy lines to attack the enemy in the flank or the rear. Like the Germans the light Arab cavalry units under their brilliant commander Khalid ibn Walid moved like lightening through the harsh, waterless deserts. The Arab cavalry played that same role as the German armor by rapidly covering hundreds of miles from front to front appearing seemingly out of nowhere to attack Roman troops.

Click to enlarge
Map details the route of Khalid ibn Walid's conquest of
the western portion of the Persian Empire.

The Battle of Firaz
Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs
combine to stop Islam


The Roman crushing of the Persian Empire made that country an obvious first target for Muslim invaders.

From the Muslim point of view it was also critical to prevent Byzantine military recruiting among the Armenians and the other peoples of the Caucasus region. Troops from the Caucasus had form a major part of Heracilus' army that invaded Persia. The conquest of Persian Mesopotamia was a vital first step before attacking Armenia and thereby deny Heracilus access to new soldiers.

The Muslims gathered their army, such as it was. Lt. General Glubb Pasha estimates that the Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had at best 3,500 warriors available to him. More troops may have come from Arabia as time went on. The Persian forces facing Khalid consisted of local Arab tribes and regular army.

Glubb Pasha explains the situations very well:

"The key to all the early operations, against Persia and against 
Syria alike, is that the Persians and Byzantines could not move 
in the desert, being mounted on horses. The Muslims were like 
a sea-power, cruising off shore in their ships, whereas the 
Persians and Byzantines alike could only take up positions 
on the shore (that is, the cultivated area) unable to launch 
out to 'sea' and engage the enemy in his own element."

Terrorism as a weapon.  After an early victory the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period.

In battle after battle Khalid marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz.

Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There was also a nearby Roman garrison supported by their Christian Arab allies.

The Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs joined forces to face the threat of Khalid.

The Persian-Roman allied army put their backs against 
the Euphrates River to face the Muslims.

Khalid was more or less the master of the Euphrates Valley, but he feared if this undefeated combined force was left alone there could be a Persian re-invasion to take back lost territory.

In December, 633 Khalid marched with a force to the Firaz area and in January, 634 engaged in battle.

There are no records of the size of the forces involved. As commander we can assume Khalid would not have gone into battle with less than several thousand troops. The combined Persian-Roman army might have been the same or maybe smaller. The allies certainly would not have marched to open battle with a tiny force. That would have been suicide. So perhaps their army also numbered in the thousands. It is all guess work.

The combined Persian-Roman army put their backs to the Euphrates River and await the Muslim advance. A bridge over the river was at their rear for an escape if needed.

As usual information is maddeningly vague. It appears Khalid engaged the allies with his infantry. As the front ranks of both sides were engaged in battle he sent his cavalry in a swift lightning movement to engage the flanks of the allies. The Muslims then made a dash for the bridge and cut off the retreat of the allies.

The allies were caught in a double envelopment.

Casualties? We have no idea. We do know that Arab historians do not boast of the allied army surrendering or mass conversions to Islam at sword point. We have to assume the allied army was completely destroyed.

Khalid could now turn his attention on Roman Palestine.


Islamic conquest of Persia




Emperor Flavius Heraclius Augustus
The Emperor was at war for about 27 out of 

his 30 years on the throne.

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract

Map of the Middle East on the eve of the Muslim invasions.


(Bagot Glubb)      (Heraclius)      (Persia)      (Firaz)      (Rashidun)

(Byzantine Army)      (Levant)