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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians

Scythian warrior on horseback.

Here we go again. I was not even looking for an article on Eastern Roman Emperor Nicephorus Phocas let alone Scythian barbarian invaders. But Google giveth many strange links.

I cannot find much background for the author of the article below. He appears to be Hungarian with an interest in early Hungarian invading tribes and their link to Byzantium. Well that's good enough for me. His article helps shed some light on a part of Byzantine military history that no one has really covered.

A near total lack of data.  When dealing with subjects like Napoleon, the American Civil War or World War II these events took place over a few short years, but we have literally mountains and mountains of excruciatingly detailed information to shift through. But when it comes to Eastern Roman history a century of barbarian invasions might, if we are lucky, get a passing mention by what passed for "historians" at the time. Meaningful details? Not gonna happen.

So this article helps shed some light on nearly ignored segment of Byzantine military history.

"Scythian" Barbarians

The question basically is "What is a Scythian?"

The Byzantines had something of a "if you have seen one barbarian tribe you have seen them all" attitude. The Byzantines had no interest in the fine points of different barbarian cultures. After all these invading barbarian tribes were all trying to kill Romans and conquer the Empire so what difference did it make?

In general the often nomadic peoples of the regions of modern Russia, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea were lumped together and called "Scythians" and in later times called "Turks".

These nomadic warlike peoples, were particularly known for their equestrian skills, and their early use of composite bows shot from horseback. With great mobility, the Scythians could absorb the attacks of more cumbersome foot soldiers and cavalry. Such tactics wore down their enemies, making them easier to defeat. The different Scythian tribes were notoriously aggressive warriors.

In the case of this article the Scythians were likely nomadic Magyar warrior clans invading from the from the region of Ural Mountains into Europe.


Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians


Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late ninth century. From there they conducted numerous campaigns to both the East and West in the course of the tenth century. However, while the western campaigns are well known in the Latin sources, the attacks against the Byzantine Empire, are mentioned in few sources. In the present paper, I would like to discuss a short source detail which have not yet been connected by historians to the Hungarians of the tenth century. 

Byzantine sources of the Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries - thanks to the meticulous and all encompassing work of the renowned Hungarian Byzantinologist, Gyula Moravcsik - have hardly increased in number during the past decades. Recently, Ferenc Makk has collected the new sources concerning Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries. He mentioned only one sentence in the work of Joannes Skylitzes that Moravcsik did not know of, which refers to tenth-century Hungarians. 

In 2009, István Baán drew the scholars' attention to a Byzantine diploma which mentioned the destruction of Hungarian troops in the Byzantine Empire during the tenth century. The number of new details is very limited. Thus any information - even if it is very brief - serves as a valuable addition to our knowledge of Hungarians in tenth-century history.

The Byzantine army of Asia Minor proclaimed Nicephorus Phocas as emperor in 963. He told them that they should expect a serious civil war. Previously they fought bravely against Cretans, Scythians and Arabs, but they now had to fight against their countrymen. The three examples of related events were certainly known to the soldiers.  

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas 
(from ‘Rulers of the Byzantine Empire’ published by KIBEA)
Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits resulted in the conquest of Cilicia and the re-conquest of the island of Cyprus from the Muslims. He conducted raids into Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. In the West he lost Sicily completely to the Muslims and faced Magyar raids deep into the Balkans.

Nicephorus Phocas' army invaded the island of Crete in the summer of 960. The besiegers conquered the capital city, Kandia, in 961. As a result of the victory, after one and a half centuries of Muslim rule, the island again fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire. 

Almost simultaneously, Nicephorus Phocas's brother, Leon Phocas took a part of the Byzantine troops from the Balkans to Asia Minor. Exploiting the fact that most of the Byzantine army was on the island of Crete, Sayf al-Dawla, the prince of Hamdanids carried out more attacks against the border of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. 

When Emperor Romanus II found out about this, he sent Leon Phocas, who previously had successfully defended the Balkans' border of the Empire, to Asia Minor fighting against the Muslims. Leon Phocas's troops defeated Sayf al-Dawla's army when they returned home with booty and numerous Byzantine prisoners on 8 November 960. In the course of the attack the prince barely escaped due to his ingenuity. Subsequently Leon Phocas went to Constantinople, which held a triumph in his honor. 

Following the successful campaign against Crete, Nicephorus Phocas continued the war against the Hamdanids. As a result, the capital of Sayf al-Dawla, Aleppo fell into the hands of the Byzantines in 962 with the exception of its citadel. It appears that the fighting against Cretans and Arabs which is mentioned in Nicephorus Phocas' speech refers to these two victorious wars. It is obvious that Nicephorus Phocas (or Leon Diaconus, who attributes the speech to him) wanted to refer to well-known, recent events in the case of the war against the Scythians.

Leon Diaconus used the Scythian name to indicate a number of peoples who lived then or at once in Scythia, north of the Danube area and the Black Sea. It was him who called the Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Russians, and in general the peoples living in Scythia (which in some cases perhaps also included the Pechenegs) all Scythians. The question is raised, however, which of these peoples were defeated by the Byzantine soldiers?

Scythian Warrior

Bulgarians cannot be identified with these Scythians. There was peace between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria around this time, which only ended after the Nicephorus Phocas occupied the throne. Thus it is not surprising, that the collection containing the Byzantine sources of Bulgarian history does not mention the emperor's speech. Similarly, we know of no Russian or Pecheneg attacks in the 950s reaching the Byzantine Empire.  

Therefore it is most likely that by a struggle against the Scythians we are to understand Scythian invasion which was successfully beaten back by Nicephorus Phocas brother's Leon Phocas, according the Leon Diaconus' work. According the unanimous opinion of historians, the same event was reported in one part of the Vita Athanasii.w Leon Diaconus mentions that when a Scythian army crossed the Danube, Leon Phocas did not immediately enter into a battle with them because he had only a very small army, instead, he was waiting for the appropriate moment and he attacked the opposing camp at night. 

The Byzantine troops killed many of the Scythians, while many others were forced to flee. The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas, who was the "commander of the West(ern affairs)" brought a serious defeat onto the Scythians. The identification of the enemy is very clear in this case. The Byzantine sources reported an ill-fated attack by a Hungarian army.  
This campaign could be identical with the Hungarian campaign which had reached the Byzantine Empire in 961. According to Theophanes Continuatus, Hungarian troops invaded the Byzantine Empire at the Easter of 961 (on 7 April, 961). Emperor Romanus II sent Marianos Argyros, who was the "commander of the West", to stop the attackers. The Byzantine general defeated the Hungarians, and forced them to return home.  

However, this view is hardly tenable. Scholars probably dated the Hungarian attack to be in the year 961 because this date was written on the margin of the text in the collection of sources. However, it is not the date of the fight against the Scythians: it only indicates that Leon Diaconus's second book discusses the events of 961. The Byzantine author only makes a brief mention of Leon Phocas's previous victory as the one that reveals his courage. However, Leon Phocas left the Balkans in 960. Romanus II sent Leon Phocas to Asia Minor, because the commander fought successfully against the Scythians. Thus, he could not be fighting the Scythians in 961 or later.

The Empire is Pressured on Three Fronts
Every morning the Emperor and his generals woke up in a nightmare. No matter where you looked there was always a new invasion or a military disaster and there were never enough troops to stabilize the borders or reconquer lost territory.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the Empire faced massive attacks on three fronts.  There were endless invasions by Muslims from Africa into Byzantine Italy where they conquered Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and established themselves on the mainland. The Danube frontier had totally collapsed with invading Magyar and other barbarian tribes thrusting deep into the Balkans. Then there was the non-stop warfare with the Arabs on the eastern front in Anatolia.

The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas visited Athanasios after having brought defeat onto the Scythians. The source explains that first Athanasios met Leon Phocas, then he was tempted by the Devil for one year, afterwards he visited Nicephorus Phocas in Crete in 961. This also suggests that the campaign against the Scythians took place in or before 960 but not in 961. According to the Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas fought against the Scythians as commander of the West. But in 961 it was Marianos Argyros and not Leon Phocas who occupied this position. 

Thus, it is obvious that Leon Phocas cannot have been fighting against the Scythians in 961. When did, then, Leon Phocas fight against the Scythians? And who were these Scythians?

Two Byzantine authors, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon mention that the Hungarians (Turks) attacked the Byzantine Empire in 959. The emperor, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, sent Pothos Argyros, the commander of a guardian army with general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion, against them. The Byzantine troops attacked the Hungarians in the night and defeated them - just like Leon Phocas's troops in the story by Leon Diaconus. The Hungarian army was forced to return home. The details of the campaign: a night attack, the year 959, the enemies (Turks, Scythians namely the Hungarians) it creates an impression that Leon Diaconus, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon reported about the same war.  

Some problems, however, remain. Theophanes Continuatus only mentions Pothos Argyros but not Leon Phocas in relation with the war to the spring of 959. According to Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas was the „commander of the West(ern affairs)", but he was appointed to this rank by Romanus II, at the end of 959. Assumptions are necessary to interpret of the sources. It is presumable that since Leon Phocas fought at the eastern and western borders of the Empire in 959-960, the Vita Athanasii did not exactly follow the rapid changes of his titles, sometimes identifying him as commander of the West already during the spring of 959. In such a mistake, a bibliography of a saint would not be unusual to some extent. 

It is also possible that the Byzantine chronicles only accidentally fail to mention Leon Phocas in relation with the fight of 959 (perhaps he would be the unnamed general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion). The other possibility is that the sources do not speak of the same campaign. If we accept that Leon Phocas was the commander of the West when he fought against the Hungarians (his brother, Nicephorus Phocas was the general of Anatolia at this time), then a Hungarian army again attempted to attack the Byzantine Empire in the beginning/ early summer of 960. So Pothos Argyros and Leon Phocas defeated two different Hungarian armies using the same tactics on two occasions

After Leon Phocas gained victory over the Hungarian troops (959 or 960), Emperor Romanus II sent the successful general to the eastern border of the Empire. But the Hungarian attacks did not end. Again a Hungarian army invaded the Empire in 961. Although these raids were beaten back by the Byzantine army, but Byzantine soldiers were able to experience how dangerous their enemy was. In 963 Nicephorus Phocas mentions three dangerous enemies: the Arab warriors on the island of Crete, the army of Hamdanids in Asia Minor, and the Scythians, that is the Hungarians in the Balkans. 

He tells the truth; Hungarian troops regularly attacked the Byzantine Empire at this time. Thus the short datum in speech of Nicephorus Phocas provides a piece of the colorful mosaic of the tenth-century history of the Hungarians. 

The Magyars successfully conquered the Pannonian Basin (i.e. what is now Hungary) by the end of the 9th century, and launched a number of plundering raids both westward into what used to be the Frankish Empire and southward into the Byzantine Empire.
The westward raids were stopped only with the Magyar defeat of the 
Battle of Lechfeld of 955, which led to a new political order in Western Europe centered on the Holy Roman Empire. The raids in to Byzantine territories continued throughout the 10th century, until the eventual Christianisation of the Magyars and the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 or 1001.  (More)

Magyar Warrior

(Hungarian invasions)      (chronica)      (Scythians)

(Nikephoros II Phokas)      (Magyar tribes)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Roman and Byzantine Marching Camps

Late Roman Reenactment 3rd - 5th century AD

Byzantine armies maintained the Roman practice of making fortified camps while marching. Laid out in a square, the camps would be made defensible, especially when an enemy force was in the area, with a ditch. The earth from the ditch was used to make a wall reinforced by a shield palisade. 

On the march, the square formation of the camp translated into a square infantry formation guarding the baggage train and guarded, in turn, by cavalry units. If a battle threatened, the infantry square became the focus of the army’s deployment, with the baggage sent to the rear and the cavalry now shielded inside the infantry.

Marching-camps were also of strategic defensive value. They were vital to the control of conquered land. Having been originally built on defensive ground, many were transformed from temporary entrenched sites into permanent fortified positions. As such, they became not only centers of territorial administration but also troop staging areas and strongpoints protecting vital lines of communications.

In the tactical realm, marching-camps were essential to the success of Roman military campaigns in a number of ways. As a medium of protection they granted the troops who sheltered in them a psychological reassurance. The late 4th-century Roman military commentator Vegetius wrote in Epitome of Military Science that a camp “gave the soldiers a place of safety … as if they were carrying a walled city with them.”

The outline of the camp was usually marked by a ditch, with the resulting spoil used to make a rampart thrown up on the camp’s inner edge. This was then reinforced with earthen sod and strengthened by palisades. The latter items were fashioned from local timber or stakes carried by the troops. Vegetius notes that the average camp ditch was five feet wide and three feet deep. 

Josephus, the historian of the Jewish War (ad 66-73), mentions that the soldiers who created the camps used saws, axes, sickles, chains, ropes, and baskets in their construction and that each worker carried one of each of these tools.

The camps were usually square or rectangular and had four gates with the commander’s tent placed in the center. The camp streets were arranged in definite lines, and coded symbols showed directions to each avenue, storage area, stable, cooking house, etc., on the site. Assembly points for the different legionary infantry cohorts, cavalry tumas, and auxiliary troops were also marked. 

When a camp was being constructed out of reach of an enemy, the entire force, except for a small picket, would participate in the building process. When the enemy was near at hand, the precaution was that half the infantry and all the cavalry would be drawn up in battle order to guard the workers building the camp. The first legion on the scene would take up defensive positions and the actual work on the camp would not begin until the arrival of the next legion in the line of march.

Late Roman Cavalry
Some 6,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry would have been sheltered inside a massive fortified camp in the invasion of North Africa.

"Camping" in North Africa

The historian Procopius tells of the creation of the Roman fortified camp during the invasion of North Africa in 533 AD by General Belisarius.

The size of the Roman camp would have been massive. 

The invasion force had 10,000 infantry, another 5,000 cavalry and two additional bodies of Allied Troops: 600 Huns and 400 Heruls, all mounted horse archers. In addition thousands of sailors were brought ashore to assist the combat troops with construction and unloading supplies and extra horses and pack animals for this huge force. 

What you have here is a small city. Feeding, watering and protecting this city was a major military and engineering project.

  • "When Belisarius had said this, the whole assembly agreed and adopted his proposal, and separating from one another, they made the disembarkation as quickly as possible, about three months later than their departure from Byzantium. And indicating a certain spot on the shore the general bade both soldiers and sailors dig the trench and place the stockade about it. And they did as directed. And since a great throng was working and fear was stimulating their enthusiasm and the general was urging them on, not only was the trench dug on the same day, but the stockade was also completed and the pointed stakes were fixed in place all around. Then, indeed, while they were digging the trench, something happened which was altogether amazing. A great abundance of water sprang forth from the earth, a thing which had not happened before in Byzacium, and besides this the place where they were was altogether waterless. Now this water sufficed for all uses of both men and animals. And in congratulating the general, Procopius said that he rejoiced at the abundance of water, not so much because of its usefulness, as because it seemed to him a symbol of an easy victory, and that Heaven was foretelling a victory to them. This, at any rate, actually came to pass. So for that night all the soldiers bivouacked in the camp, setting guards and doing everything else as was customary, except, indeed, that Belisarius commanded five bowmen to remain in each ship for the purpose of a guard, and that the ships-of-war should anchor in a circle about them, taking care that no one should come against them to do them harm."

The "as was customary" remark by Procopius tells what we need to know about the standards of the Roman army on campaign.

  • After a march in the direction of Carthage Procopius said we "were going on to Decimum. And Belisarius, seeing a place well adapted for a camp, thirty-five stades distant from Decimum, surrounded it with a stockade which was very well made, and placing all the infantry there . . . Belisarius left his wife and the barricaded camp to the infantry, and himself set forth with all the horsemen. For it did not seem to him advantageous for the present to risk an engagement with the whole army . . . "

In the account above by Procopius a wooden stockade was used to secure their fortified camp in North Africa. Naturally the available local materials helped dictate the type of fortification to be built.
These photos are of Fort Ligonier in the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century.

Sharpened wooden stakes would break the charge
of any enemy infantry or cavalry.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
Here is a marching camp segment from the book

The Roman castrum was certainly one of the secrets of Roman military success—a secret not lost in Byzantium: the tenth-century work known as De Re Militari, newly edited as “Campaign Organization and Tactics,” begins with the detailed layout of a marching camp.

By constructing an entrenched and palisaded camp for themselves, if necessary each and every night when marching through insecure territories, the Romans and the Byzantines after them not only guarded against dangerous night assaults, but also ensured a calm sleep undisturbed by harassment raids or infiltrators.

When thousands of soldiers and horses are crowded inside a fortified perimeter, which must be as short as possible to be well guarded, a tightly defined layout of the tents, baggage, and horses, unit by unit, with clear passages between them, leading to broad “streets,” is the only alternative to chaos, congestion, and confusion in the event of a enemy attack, or simply an urgent exit from the camp. Moreover, it is the only way to keep latrines well separated and downhill from streams or wells.

Click to enlarge
Ideal reconstruction of a Roman marching camp in Austria. Ground-penetrating radar and aerial photography have helped scientists from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology and the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics discover what is thought to be the earliest Roman military encampment at the Archaeological Park Carnuntum, located on the Danube River in lower Austria. The Austrian Times reports that while investigating the area outside the western gate of the Roman town, the team found the encampment, which was fortified with a ditch, beneath the traces of a large village along the Roman road to Vindobona (Vienna). 

In the fundamental Byzantine military manual known as the Strategikon of (emperor) Maurikios, night attacks on their camps are suggested (Book XI, 1, 31) when fighting the Sasanian Persians; otherwise highly competent, the Sasanians were lacking in their camps. Although they too entrenched and guarded a perimeter, they did not enforce a disciplined internal layout unit by unit—the troops camped where it suited them.

The camp described in De Munitionibus Castrorum is very large indeed—too large, most would have been far smaller—for it assigns places for three complete legions, four cavalry alae miliariae of 1,000 men each with more than 1,000 horses, five alae quingenariae of 500 men each, and thirty-three more legionary detachments and auxiliary units, with a broad panoply of unit types represented, including 1,300 marines or assault-boatmen (500 classici misenates and 800 classici ravvenates), 200 scouts (exploratores), 600 Moorish and 800 Pannonian light cavalry, and many more, for an impossible total of more than 40,000 troops and 10,000 horses.

Evidently this was a design exercise, and there are specific places for each unit in the layout: the cohorts of legionary heavy infantry are tented in the outer perimeter, which they would be the first to defend, and the usual twin headquarters the Quaestorium and the Praetorium are in a spacious central segment. In its small compass, the work is highly instructive, and it may well have sustained the marching-camp concept that we know was studied and practiced for at least another seven hundred years.

For the Byzantines, Roman military literature, whether in Latin or Greek, could not be classical—only the texts of ancient Greece could aspire to that status, starting with the impeccably antique fourth-century BCE Aeneas, usually known as Tacticus, on the defense of fortified positions. The surviving text is only part of a longer work cited and quoted by Polybius in Book X, 44, with faint praise for the method of signaling suggested by Aeneas.

The Remains of a marching camp in England.

(Fortified camp)      (Marching camps)      (Military camp)      (Grand strategy)

(Fortified camps)      (Romanmilitary.net)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Roman Fortress of Viminacium in Serbia

Late Roman Infantry

Viminacium, the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, was one of the most important Roman cities and military camps in the period from 1st to 4th centuries. Its exceptional strategic importance was reflected both in the defense of the northern border of the Roman empire and in turn of communications and commercial transactions.

At its peak it is believed the city had 40,000 inhabitants, making it one of the biggest cities of that time. It lies on the Roman road Via Militaris.  The archaeological site occupies a total of 450 hectares (1,100 acres), and contains remains of temples, streets, squares, amphitheatres, palaces, hippodromes and Roman baths.

There was virtually no Roman emperor who did not pass through Viminacium or spend some time there. Among visits by Roman emperors, mention should certainly be made of Hadrian’s residency when hunts were organized for him at Viminacium on two occasions; the Emperor Septimus Severus visited twice; later on other emperors stayed there: Gordian III, Phillip the Arab, Trebonius Gallus, Hostilian, Diocletian, Constantine The Great, Constans I and Julian. Gratian was the last emperor known to have visited Viminacium.


The Roman fort (castrum) at Viminacium was built in the first decades of the 1st century AD. The existence of an earthwork fortification, although not archaeologically confirmed, was very likely built as early as the beginning of that century.

The camp’s dimensions have been determined by geophysical methods and by analysis of digital soil sampling. They were 443 metres by 387 metres. These methods determined that the original camp was twice that size and that there is reason to believe that two legions were probably stationed there, most likely until Domitian’s edict of 86 AD. That year the order was issued that due to the threat posed to the Roman Empire, it was prohibited to station two legions at the same place. 

The remnants of the entrance gate with massive tiling, cesspool and lavishly decorated architectural elements point to the powerful defensive system for which the camp was built on the then northern frontier of the Empire. The unearthed store of bronze coins dating back to the beginning of the 4th until the middle of the 5th centuries AD indicates the time of the destruction of the camp which, after the Hun invasion in 441 AD was abandoned and had never since been restored to its former glory. 

Aerial pictures, as well as geo-radar and geomagnetic filming carried out on the site of the former castrum, provide a true picture of the camp with its ramparts, gates, turrets, the legion’s headquarters and barracks lying beneath the fertile cultivated fields.

Viminacium was the permanent base of the Seventh Legion Claudia.

The Romans became interested in the region during the Illyrian Wars. It has been argued that the Fourth Legion Scythica stayed in Viminacium (or the neighborhood) during the first half of the reign of the emperor Augustus

Another unit that may have stayed here for a short while, is the Fourth Legion Flavia Felix, which took part in Domitian's war against the Dacians after 86. However, it would soon find its permanent base in Singidunum (Belgrade), and Viminacium was to be the permanent base of the Seventh Legion Claudia.

In the legion camp, 6.000 soldiers were stationed, and 30-40.000 lived nearby. A cavalry unit was stationed here, and it appears that the city was the place where the prefect of the Danube Fleet had his office.

In the first half of then the 3rd century the city was in full development, as evidenced by the fact that at that time it acquired the status of a Roman colony, and the right to coin local money.

Byzantine Era  (395AD to 600?)

In 395 AD the Empire permanently split into east and west and Viminacium come under the rule of Constantinople. 

Then in 441 Viminacium was completely destroyed by the Attila the Hun.  Shortly after in 476 AD the Western Empire fell.  But destroyed or not the strategic importance of Viminacium was not lost to the Eastern Emperors.

In addition is reconquering Africa, Spain and Italy the Emperor Justinian (r527-565) began a major building project in the Balkans. Up and down the Roman frontier Justinian built and re-built fortifications.

Viminacium was re-built and fortifications strengthened. In 535 the city had a bishop and was raised to the rank of archdiocese. 

Some historical sources say the city was again destroyed by Avars during their invasion in 582.

I have my doubts that the city was destroyed. 

Records are nearly non-existent about the state of the city, but the actions of both the Avars and Romans suggest the city still stood.

In 599 the Romans sent an army to the city and set up camp. It was noted that the commanders spent time in the city. The Avars and Romans then fought a series of three battles around Viminacium resulting in a major Roman victory.

It is fair to say that the Emperor would not send an important general (Priscus) and an army to defend a pile of rubble. Nor would the Avars send a large army to attack Romans who were defending rubble. 

So the city was still active at some level. Since the battles resulted in Roman victories it is reasonable to say that Viminacium continued to exist to some degree into the 600s. 

The 600s continued to see endless barbarian invasions over the Danube. With the Roman-Persian War of 602–628 all military focus was directed to the east to defend Anatolia, Syria and Egypt. Protecting the Balkan cities far from Constantinople was about as low a military priority as you could have.

We can safely say that it was during this period that Viminacium finally fell never to be rebuilt again.

Click to enlarge
Viminacium map. Excavations of Mihailo Valtrovic in 1882

Viminacium was a Legion outpost and capital
of the Eastern Roman province of Moesia.

Think of the word "Porous"

The Danube Limes was not a solid wall defending the Empire's frontier.  Rather it a was a series of fortified cities, small forts and watchtowers.  The Danube River itself was the most dominant element of the frontier system, used as a demarcation line against the Barbarian world to the north and as a fortified transport corridor.

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

Model of Viminacium

Roman Legion camp of Viminacium


Viminacium Roman Aqueduct

Re-Building The Danube Limes

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
Procopius - Buildings

Thus did the Emperor Justinian fortify the whole interior of Illyricum. I shall also explain in what manner he fortified the bank of the Ister River, which they also call the Danube, by means of strongholds and garrisons of troops.  

The Roman Emperors of former times, by way of preventing the crossing of the Danube by the barbarians who live on the other side, occupied the entire bank of this river with strongholds, and not the right bank of the stream alone, for in some parts of it they built towns and fortresses on its other bank.  However, they did not so build these strongholds that they were impossible to attack, if anyone should come against them, but   they only provided that the bank of the river was not left destitute of men, since the barbarians there had no knowledge of storming walls.  In fact the majority of these strongholds consisted only of a single tower, and they were called appropriately "lone towers," and very few men were stationed in them.  

At that time this alone was quite sufficient to frighten off the barbarian clans, so that they would not undertake to attack the Romans.  But at a later time Attila invaded with a great army, and with no difficulty razed the fortresses; then, with no one standing against him, he plundered the greater part of the Roman Empire.  But the Emperor Justinian rebuilt the defences which had been torn down, not simply as they had been before, but so as to give the fortifications the greatest possible strength; and he added many more which he built himself.  In this way he completely restored the safety of the Roman Empire, which by then had been lost. And I shall explain how all this was accomplished.
Emperor Justinian

The River Ister flows down from the mountains in the country of the Celts, who are now called Gauls; and it passes through a great extent of country which for the most part is altogether barren, though in some places it is inhabited by barbarians who live a kind of brutish life and have no dealings with other men.  

When it gets close to Dacia, for the first time it clearly forms the boundary between the barbarians, who hold its left bank, and the territory of the Romans, which is on the right.  Consequently the Romans apply the term Ripesia to this part of   Dacia, for ripasignifies bank in the Latin tongue.  Accordingly they had made a beginning by building on the bank there in ancient times a city, by name Singidunum.  This the barbarians captured in time, and they immediately razed it, leaving the place quite destitute of inhabitants.  They did precisely the same thing to most of the other strongholds.  

But the Emperor Justinian restored the entire city and surrounded it with a very strong fortification, and thus made it once more a famous and important city.  And he set up another new fortress of exceptional strength about eight miles distant from Singidunum, which they call by the appropriate name of Octavus.  

Beyond it was the ancient city of Viminacium, which the Emperor rebuilt entire and made new, for it had long before been ruined down to its uttermost foundations.

As one goes on from Viminacium there chance to be three strongholds on the bank of the Ister, Pinci and Cupi and Novae.  These were formerly both single in construction and when named were single towers. But now the Emperor Justinian has greatly increased the number of the houses and enlarged the defences at these places, and thereby has properly given them the rank of cities.  

And opposite Novae in the mainland on the other side of the river, had stood from ancient times a neglected tower, by name Literata; the men of former times used to call this Lederata.    This the present Emperor transformed into a great fortress of exceptional strength.  After Novae are the forts of Cantabaza, Smornês, Campsês, Tanata, Zernês, and Ducepratum. And on the opposite side he built a number of other forts from their lowest foundations. 

Farther on is the so‑called Caput Bovis, the work of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and beyond this is an ancient town named Zanes.  And he placed very strong defences around all these and so made them impregnable bulwarks of the State.  And not far from this Zanes there is a fort, Pontes by name. The river throws out a sort of branch there, and after thus passing around a certain small portion of the bank, it turns again to its own stream and is reunited with itself.  It does this, not of its own accord, but compelled by human devices.  The reason why the place was called Pontes, and why they made this forced diversion of the Ister at this point, I shall now make clear.

(Procopius Buildings)      (Viminacium)      (Moesia)

(Viminacium)      (Viminacium)      (Viminacium)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Byzantium Invades The Kingdom of Italy - The Gothic War Begins

Goth Warriors
Adding Rome back into
the Roman Empire

The Gothic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy took place from 535 until 554. The war had its roots in the ambition of the East Roman Emperor Justinian I to recover the provinces of the former Western Roman Empire, which the Romans had lost to invading barbarian tribes in the previous century.

In 533, utilizing a dynastic dispute, Justinian had sent his most talented general, Belisarius, to recover the North African provinces held by the Vandals. The Vandalic War produced an unexpectedly swift and decisive victory for the Roman Empire. 

Now another dynastic dispute gave Justinian an excuse to invade Italy. Amalasuntha (c. 495 – 30 April 534/535) was a regent of the Ostrogoths during the minority of her son from 526 to 534, and ruling queen regnant from 534 to 535. Amalasuntha had allowed the Roman fleet to use the harbors of Sicily, which belonged to the Ostrogothic Kingdom, as bases of operation against the Vandals.

Seeking support, she chose her cousin Theodahad, to whom she offered the kingship. It was a fatal move, as Theodahad lost little time in having her arrested and then, in early 535, executed.

Through his agents, Justinian tried to save Amalasuntha's life, but to no avail. Her death, in any case, gave him cause for war with the Goths. As Procopius writes: "as soon as he learned what had happened to Amalasuntha, being in the ninth year of his reign, he entered upon war."

Command of the seas.  Initially at the start of Justinian's wars of re-conquest the Western Mediterranean was controlled by the fleet of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa. With the collapse of the Vandals all of the Mediterranean from Palestine to the Pillars of Hercules became a Roman Lake.

The military importance of this control cannot be overstated. With the Vandals gone the Roman fleet was able to transport troops and supplies at will to almost any location. 

The navy allowed for the conquest and resupply of towns all along the North African coast, the capture of Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and Spain.

The navy was a vital if unsung component in the Gothic War. In Dalmatia the navy was at the side of Roman land troops as they marched north.

In Sicily the navy was a major factor. The fleet transported 7,500 Roman troops, their horses, pack animals and supplies in an amphibious operation to capture a huge island from the Goths.

As always we are privileged to view events directly through the eyes of Procopius who was at the side of General Belisarius during these campaigns.

The Roman Navy was vital in the campaigns of reconquest.

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

History of the Wars, Book V

Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard. But fearing that by this act he had given offence to the emperor, as actually proved to be the case, he sent some men of the Roman senate, Liberius and Opilio and certain others, directing them to excuse his conduct to the emperor with all their power by assuring him that Amalasuntha had met with no harsh treatment at his hands . . . 

And the emperor, upon learning what had befallen Amalasuntha, immediately entered upon the war, being in the ninth year of his reign. And he first commanded Mundus, the general of Illyricum, to go to Dalmatia, which was subject to the Goths, and make trial of Salones. 

The Emperor Justinian attacked the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy on two fronts at the same time. One army marched north from the Roman Balkan frontier invading the Gothic controlled Dalmatian coast.
As was done against the Vandals in Africa another Roman army was transported by the navy and mounted an amphibious operation landing in Sicily.

The Sicily Campaign
#1) Belisarius lands in Sicily the summer of 535.  #3) The conquest of Sicily is complete with the capture of Pamormus in December of 535.  #4) Belisarius sails to Carthage to put down a rebellion by the army (March-April 536).  #6) Belisarius crosses into Italy and captures Rhegium (June 536).  #8) Belisarius advances to Naples (Autumn 536).

Two Invasions

Now Mundus was by birth a barbarian, but exceedingly loyal to the cause of the emperor and an able warrior. 

Then he sent Belisarius by sea with four thousand soldiers from the regular troops and the foederati, and about three thousand of the Isaurians. 

And the commanders were men of note: Constantinus and Bessas from the land of Thrace, and Peranius from Iberia which is hard by Media, a man who was by birth a member of the royal family of the Iberians, but had before this time come as a deserter to the Romans through enmity toward the Persians; and the levies of cavalry were commanded by Valentinus, Magnus, and Innocentius, and the infantry by Herodian, Paulus, Demetrius, and Ursicinus, while the leader of the Isaurians was Ennes. And there were also two hundred Huns as allies and three hundred Moors. 

Emperor Justinian

But the general in supreme command over all was Belisarius, and he had with him many notable men as spearmen and guards. And he was accompanied also by Photius, the son of his wife Antonina by a previous marriage; he was still a young man wearing his first beard, but possessed the greatest discretion and shewed a strength of character beyond his years. 

And the emperor instructed Belisarius to give out that his destination was Carthage, but as soon as they should arrive at Sicily, they were to disembark there as it obliged for some reason to do so, and make trial of the island. And if it should be possible to reduce it to subjection without any trouble, they were to take possession and not let it go again; but if they should meet with any obstacle, they were to sail with all speed to Libya, giving no one an opportunity to perceive what their intention was.

And he also sent a letter to the leaders of the Franks as follows: "The Goths, having seized by violence Italy, which was ours, have not only refused absolutely to give it back, but have committed further acts of injustice against us which are unendurable and pass beyond all bounds. For this reason we have been compelled to take the field against them, and it is proper that you should join with us in waging this war, which is rendered yours as well as ours not only by the orthodox faith, which rejects the opinion of the Arians, but also by the enmity we both feel toward the Goths." Such was the emperor's letter; and making a gift of money to them, he agreed to give more as soon as they should take an active part. And they with all zeal promised to fight in alliance with him.

Now Mundus and the army under his command entered Dalmatia, and engaging with the Goths who encountered them there, defeated them in the battle and took possession of Salones. 

As for Belisarius, he put in at Sicily and took Catana. And making that place his base of operations, he took over Syracuse and the other cities by surrender without any trouble; except, indeed, that the Goths who were keeping guard in Panormus, having confidence in the fortifications of the place, which was a strong one, were quite unwilling to yield to Belisarius and ordered him to lead his army away from there with all speed. 

But Belisarius, considering that it was impossible to capture the place from the landward side, ordered the fleet to sail into the harbour, which extended right up to the wall. For it was outside the circuit-wall and entirely without defenders. 

Now when the ships had anchored there, it was seen that the masts were higher than the parapet. Straightway, therefore, he filled all the small boats of the ships with bowmen and hoisted them to the tops of the masts. And when from these boats the enemy were shot at from above, they fell into such an irresistible fear that they immediately delivered Panormus to Belisarius by surrender. 

As a result of this the emperor held all Sicily subject and tributary to himself. And at that time it so happened that there fell to Belisarius a piece of good fortune beyond the power of words to describe. For, having received the dignity of the consulship because of his victory over the Vandals, while he was still holding this honour, and after he had won the whole of Sicily, on the last day of his consulship, he marched into Syracuse, loudly applauded by the army and by the Sicilians and throwing golden coins to all. 

This coincidence, however, was not intentionally arranged by him, but it was a happy chance which befell the man, that after having recovered the whole of the island for the Romans he marched into Syracuse on that particular day; and so it was not in the senate house in Byzantium, as was customary, but there that he laid down the office of the consuls and so became an ex-consul. Thus, then, did good fortune attend Belisarius.

Belisarius and his Staff
(Johnny Shumates Portfolio)

Late Roman Infantry

#2) General Mundus conquers Dalmatia in the summer of 535.  #5) The Goths counter attack, Mundus is killed and the Roman army withdraws.  #7)  A new Roman army under Constantinianus drives the Goths out of Dalmatia in June-July 536 forcing them to fall back into Italy.

Roman Re-Conquest of Dalmatia

But meantime, while the emperor was engaged in these negotiations and these envoys were travelling to Italy, the Goths, under command of Asinarius and Gripas and some others, had come with a great army into Dalmatia. 

And when they had reached the neighbourhood of Salones, Mauricius, the son of Mundus, who was not marching out for battle but, with a few men, was on a scouting expedition, encountered them. A violent engagement ensued in which the Goths lost their foremost and noblest men, but the Romans almost their whole company, including their general Mauricius. 

And when Mundus heard of this, being overcome with grief at the misfortune and by this time dominated by a mighty fury, he went against the enemy without the least delay and regardless of order. The battle which took place was stubbornly contested, and the result was a Cadmean victory for the Romans. For although the most of the enemy fell there and their rout had been decisive, Mundus, who went on killing and following up the enemy wherever he chanced to find them and was quite unable to restrain his mind because of the misfortune of his son, was wounded by some fugitive or other and fell. 

Thereupon the pursuit ended and the two armies separated. And at that time the Romans recalled the verse of the Sibyl, which had been pronounced in earlier times and seemed to them a portent. For the words of the saying were that when Africa should be held, the "world" would perish together with its offspring. This, however, was not the real meaning of the oracle, but after intimating that Libya would be once more subject to the Romans, it added this statement also, that when that time came Mundus would perish together with his son. For it runs as follows: "Africa capta Mundus cum nato peribit." But since "mundus" in the Latin tongue has the force of "world," they thought that the saying had reference to the world. So much, then, for this. 

As for Salones, it was not entered by anyone. For the Romans went back home, since they were left altogether without a commander, and the Goths, seeing that not one of their nobles was left them, fell into fear and took possession of the strongholds in the neighbourhood; for they had no confidence in the defences of Salones, and, besides, the Romans who lived there were not very well disposed towards them.

But when the Emperor Justinian heard these things and what had taken place in Dalmatia, he sent Constantianus, who commanded the royal grooms, into Illyricum, bidding him gather an army from there and make an attempt on Salones, in whatever manner he might be able; and he commanded Belisarius to enter Italy with all speed and to treat the Goths as enemies. 

So Constantianus came to Epidamnus and spent some time there gathering an army. But in the meantime the Goths, under the leadership of Gripas, came with another army into Dalmatia and took possession of Salones; and Constantianus, when all his preparations were as complete as possible, departed from Epidamnus with his whole force and cast anchor at Epidaurus which is on the right as one sails into the Ionian Gulf. 

Now it so happened that some men were there whom Gripas had sent out as spies. And when they took note of the ships and the army of Constantianus it seemed to them that both the sea and the whole land were full of soldiers, and returning to Gripas they declared that Constantianus was bringing against them an army of men numbering many tens of thousands. And he, being plunged into great fear, thought it inexpedient to meet their attack, and at the same time he was quite unwilling to be besieged by the emperor's army, since it so completely commanded the sea; but he was disturbed most of all by the fortifications of Salones (since the greater part of them had already fallen down), and by the exceedingly suspicious attitude on the part of the inhabitants of the place toward the Goths. 

And for this reason he departed thence with his whole army as quickly as possible and made camp in the plain which is between Salones and the city of Scardon. And Constantianus, sailing with all his ships from Epidaurus, put in at Lysina, which is an island in the gulf. Thence he sent forward some of his men, in order that they might make enquiry concerning the plans of Gripas and report them to him. Then, after learning from them the whole situation, he sailed straight for Salones with all speed. 

And when he had put in at a place close to the city, he disembarked his army on the mainland and himself remained quiet there; but he selected five hundred from the army, and setting over them as commander Siphilas, one of his own bodyguards, he commanded them to seize the narrow pass which, as he had been informed, was in the outskirts of the city. And this Siphilas did. And Constantianus and his whole land army entered Salones on the following day, and the fleet anchored close by. 

Then Constantianus proceeded to look after the fortifications of the city, building up in haste all such parts of them as had fallen down; and Gripas, with the Gothic army, on the seventh day after the Romans had taken possession of Salones, departed from there and betook themselves to Ravenna; and thus Constantianus gained possession of all Dalmatia and Liburnia, bringing over to his side all the Goths who were settled there. 

Such were the events in Dalmatia. And the winter drew to a close, and thus ended the first year of this war, the history of which Procopius has written.

6th Century Eastern Empire Cavalry

(History of the Wars)      (Gothic War)