.

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)     

Friday, January 6, 2017

The missing Byzantine column of Venice


A gift to Venice from the Eastern Empire.
The famous bronze winged lion atop the column on Piazzetta San Marco, where the piazza opens onto the end of the Grand Canal and the bacino—probably a Hellenistic work of the 4th or 3rd century BC, taken from a tomb in Tarsus or Cilicia. (Photo by Jakub Hałun)  
(reidsitaly.com)

Venice and the Empire


There are no surviving historical records dealing directly with the founding of Venice, but the area itself had been under Roman control for centuries.

Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons. They were referred to as incolae lacunae ("lagoon dwellers"). The traditional founding is identified with the dedication of the first church, that of San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto (Rivoalto, "High Shore") — said to have taken place at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421.

Roman defenses were overthrown in the early 5th century by the Visigoths and, some 50 years later, by the Huns led by Attila. The last and most enduring immigration into the north of the Italian peninsula, that of the Lombards in 568, left the Eastern Roman Empire a small strip of coast in the current Veneto, including Venice.

The Roman/Byzantine territory was organized as the Exarchate of Ravenna, administered from that ancient port and overseen by a viceroy (the Exarch) appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople, but Ravenna and Venice were connected only by sea routes; and with the Venetians' isolated position came increasing autonomy. New ports were built, including those at Malamocco and Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. The tribuni maiores, the earliest central standing governing committee of the islands in the Lagoon, dated from c. 568.

Flag of the Republic of Venice
The coat of arms of the Region is set in a square in the 
center of the flag: the Lion of Saint Mark.

The traditional first doge of VenicePaolo Lucio Anafesto, was actually Exarch Paul, and his successor, Marcello Tegalliano, was Paul's magister militum (General: literally, "Master of Soldiers"). In 726 the soldiers and citizens of the Exarchate rose in a rebellion over the iconoclastic controversy at the urging of Pope Gregory II. The Exarch was murdered and many officials put to flight in the chaos.

An agreement between the Western Emperor Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus in 814 recognized Venice as Byzantine territory and granted the city trading rights along the Adriatic coast.

In 828 the new city's prestige increased with the acquisition of the claimed relics of St Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, which were placed in the new basilica. (Winged lions, visible throughout Venice, symbolize St Mark.) 

As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, its autonomy grew, leading to eventual independence.
___________________________

The Mystery of the Missing
Byzantine Column
The lost Byzantine column may be at the 
bottom of the Venetian lagoon.


(London Telegraph)  -  A group of explorers hopes to solve one of Venice’s most enduring mysteries – the fate of a giant triumphal column that is believed to have disappeared nearly 1,000 years ago.

The huge granite column was one of three that were delivered to Venice by boat in 1172.

Brought from Constantinople, they were a gift from the Byzantine Empire in recognition of Venice’s help in the Second Crusade. 

But, according to historical accounts, during the difficult process of transferring them from the boats to dry land, the pillar toppled overboard, sinking beneath the waves of the Venetian lagoon.

The two surviving columns were eventually erected and still stand at one end of St Mark’s Square, which Napoleon famously described as “the drawing room of Europe”.

On top of one of them is a winged lion – the symbol of Venice – while on top of the other is a statue of St Theodore, who was once the city’s patron saint until being supplanted by St Mark, holding a spear and with a crocodile at his feet – a representation of the dragon that he is said to have vanquished.

Now a team of researchers plans to embark on a search for the missing third column, which if recovered could one day take its place between the two existing columns.

They believe it is lies on the lagoon floor, a few hundred yards from the banks of St Mark’s Square.

Europe in 814 AD at the 
death of Charles the Great.
At this point Venice and the coastal zone is still part of the Eastern Roman Empire.
As Roman power faded in Italy we see the new Republic of Venice 

break off and become independent.
(Read More)

Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square.
(talesmaze.com)


“If the lagoon floor had been muddy, the column would have sunk without trace and would be impossible to recover,” said Roberto Padoan, a diver and mariner who leads the project. “But in the area in front of St Mark’s the lagoon floor is made of clay. I’m convinced the column is down there.” 

He believes that the column may rest at a comparatively shallow depth – perhaps 30ft beneath the surface of the water. 

According to contemporary accounts, it was topped with a statue of a nobleman wearing a “corno ducale” or doge’s cap, a tribute to Venice’s rulers. 

Venice’s cultural heritage department is expected to give the green light to a non-invasive search of the lagoon floor this week. 

A network of 20 electronic sensors, to be installed on the canal banks, will emit sonar waves to try to detect the column beneath the mud. 

Mr Padoan has teamed up with two Italian companies that specialise in underwater exploration, ground-penetrating radar and seismic studies.

The area to be searched is relatively small – a stretch of water between the Marciana Library and the Ponte della Paglia, which looks onto the more famous Bridge of Sighs. 

A Venetian War Galley 
The galley above had 186 oars, 62 tri-stations. Venice became a major military power and often helped the Eastern Empire in its wars against Islam. As early as the mid-500s Venice twice sent its fleet to help Constantinople.
(modelshipmaster.com)

“Finding the column would be an incredible discovery,” Mr Padoan told La Repubblica newspaper. “If we manage it, we’d have to do everything possible to raise it from the lagoon.”

Raising the column would be a very costly operation, involving barges, cranes and steel cables, and the researchers are seeking funds from private sponsors. 

The recovery operation would affect a stretch of the canal bank that is used by gondolas and water taxis.

The surviving two columns frame the grand entrance to St Mark’s Square and provided an imposing first sight of the city for visitors arriving by boat. 

Although they were delivered to Venice in the 12th century, it was not until decades later that they were erected, such were the technical challenges of the job. 

In the end the task was achieved by an Italian engineer, Niccolo Barattieri, who, in return, asked for the right to set up gambling tables between them. 

The doge agreed, but the gambling soon got out of control, and to put a dampener on proceedings Venice’s rulers decided to use the pillars to string up local criminals. 

Superstitious Venetians still avoid walking between the two columns.

The story of the lost column is one of Venice’s oldest legends, but is almost certainly based on fact, a historian said.

“It is cited by all the sources, including the very oldest, which were written shortly after the disembarkation of the columns in 1172,” said Alberto Toso Fei, an author and journalist.

“I’m convinced that it’s based on a historical event because when a story is repeated down the centuries, it always contains some truth.

“What is not possible to know with any certainty is whether the third column was as large as the other and whether it, like them, had a symbol of Venice on top. And we don’t know from the sources if it sank near St Mark’s or in another part of the lagoon. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it really is there, lying under the mud.”

The column of St. Theodore in Venice.
The column was a gift to Venice in the 12th century from the Eastern Roman Emperor for the Republic's help in the Second Crusade.

Also in Venice
The Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, is a set of Roman bronze statues of four horses, originally part of a monument depicting a quadriga (a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing).

.
The horses, along with the quadriga with which they were depicted, were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They were still there in 1204, when they were looted by Venetian forces as part of the sack of the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade


(Telegraph)      (Horses of Saint Mark)      (modelshipmaster)      (Venice)


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Byzantine Heavy Artillery



It is better to give than receive


Rule #1 in life: you can find anything on the Internet.

I stumbled on a long 1999 article about Byzantine artillery by George Dennis. The article, summarized below, adds to the Eastern Roman Empire story of warfare.

Like my previously published 1988 article on the Byzantine Infantry Square, we get a better picture of a highly complex Eastern Roman military machine.

This warfare was not the Classic Roman Legion nor was it the simple knights in shining armor of the West mindlessly slashing at each other in battles. The more we get into the details the more we see that Eastern Roman warfare is almost its own stand alone category in military history.

Enjoy
_______________________________


The military manual (Strategikon) attributed to the emperor Maurice stipulated that the infantry contingents should be followed by a train of wagons, some of which were to transport artillery crews, carpenters, and metal workers, as well as . . . “revolving ballistae at both ends.”

I visualized the wagons as mobile fighting platforms with two medium-sized torsion or tension weapons, ballistae, which revolved in a horizontal arc, somewhat like pivoting machine guns. “Both ends,” though, I am now convinced, refers to the weapon, not the wagon, and the revolving motion must have been vertical, up and down (like a child’s seesaw), not horizontal. Torsion weapons, such as the ballista, do not revolve; the onager, which pivots from down to up, moves only at one end.
Emperor Maurice

The Strategikon, I would argue, is not referring to a torsion or tension weapon at all, even though it uses the classical word, ballista, but to a more advanced kind of artillery, recently arrived in the Mediterranean world, which was operated by traction, men pulling ropes at one end of a rotating beam to propel a projectile placed in a sling at the other end, thus “revolving at both ends.” There was as yet no specific term for this artillery piece, but it later came to be known in the west as trebuchet and, as we shall see, very soon in the Byzantine world as helepolis (city-taker).

This thesis seems to be confirmed by the Tactical Constitutions of Leo VI, compiled at the beginning of the tenth century, and which, to a large extent, was intended to bring previous military manuals into line with contemporary equipment and terminology. According to Leo, the wagons accompanying the infantry were to carry . . .  torsion or tension weapons, and a supply of bolts. In addition, they were to carry “ballistae or machines called alakatia which revolve in a circular manner,” . . .

Clearly, these are stone-throwing machines which could also launch incendiary missiles. The fact that they revolved at both ends or in a circular fashion makes it almost certain that these alakatia were trebuchets, very likely pole frame models which could be transported in wagons, quickly assembled, and operated by one or a few soldiers, much as depicted in the illustrated Madrid Skylitzes. Later, in the tenth century, Nikephoros Phokas ordered that each unit of light infantry was to have access to three of these alakatia, along with other portable artillery.

The author of the Strategikon does not tell us when this new kind of artillery was introduced into the Byzantine Empire, but the historian of Maurice’s reign, Theophylaktos Simokatta, does provide information about when it came into use and what name the Byzantines gave the new weapon. Bousas, a Byzantine soldier captured by the Avars, taught them how to construct a siege machine for they were ignorant of such machines. And so he prepared the helepolis to shoot missiles. With this fearsome and skillful device the Avars attacked many Byzantine cities, leveling the fortress of Appiareia in 587 and ten years later attacking Thessaloniki, which successfully resisted. Bousas, and other Byzantine artillerymen, therefore, must have learned how to build and operate these weapons some years before 587.

Now we are talking.
This is a serious weapon.

The fear and destruction wrought by these trebuchets, fifty of which were deployed against Thessaloniki, is vividly described in the Miracula S. Demetrii:


These were tetragonal and rested on broader bases, tapering to narrower extremities. Attached to them were thick cylinders well clad in iron at the ends, and there were nailed to them timbers like beams from a large house. These timbers had the slings from the back side and from the front strong ropes, by which, pulling down and releasing the sling, they propel the stones up high with a loud noise. And on being fired they sent up many stones so that neither earth nor human constructions could bear the impacts. 

The defenders also made use of stone-throwing machines, petrar°ai, to fire back at the Avaro-Slav artillery. Sailors on the ships bringing supplies to the city were said to be experienced operators of these petrareai.

In Byzantine usage, however, helepolis, as will be clear in the following pages, almost invariably means a stone-throwing trebuchet.

This use of helepolis to mean trebuchet is found as far back as . . . the seventh century. . . a Byzantine attack on a Persian fortress situated on a height. Herakleios ordered the helepoleis to be placed in position and to launch missiles directly at the fortifications, as well as over them into the fortress. The Byzantines kept up the barrage night and day, changing the pulling teams at regular intervals.


Lord of the Rings Catapult Scene
Ignoring the dragons, the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of 
Mordor is an impressive recreation of pre-gunpowder warfare. Many have
commented that Tolkien patterened Minas Tirith after Constantinople. 
A shrunken, weakened, outnumbered empire fighting a hopeless fight
for what is left of civilization.




In 821–823, the forces of the would-be emperor Thomas brought up “rams, tortoises, and some helepoleis in order to shake down the walls” of Constantinople. In addition to petroboloi, ladders, rams, tortoises, as well as fire arrows from his ships, Thomas ordered the engagement of some four-legged helepoleis. These last were obviously large, trestle-framed, traction trebuchets, the other petroboloi perhaps being smaller. “Every day large bands of soldiers brought these machines forward against the walls of the city”.

Constantine Porphyrogennetos compiled an inventory of the weapons and equipment assembled for the unsuccessful invasion of Crete in 949. For attacking a fortress, the ships were to transport large arrow-firing ballistae. Constantine lists this among the mangana, siege machines, together with petrareai and alakatia. There were four petrareai, four lambdareai, and four alakatia and, for these twelve engines, there were twelve iron slings, in addition to various nuts and bolts.

Constantine also recommended that the emperor take a number of books along with him on a military expedition. Among these were manuals of strategy, mechanical treatises, including the construction of helepoleis, the fabrication of missiles, and other works helpful in waging war and conducting sieges. 

Another military manual recommended that an army besieging a city should pitch camp far enough away to be out of range of arrows or missiles from the stonethrowing machines. But it should not be too far from its own siege engines, poliorkhtikå ˆrgana; otherwise, the defenders may sally forth and chop them down and burn them. The attacking troops should encamp close enough so that they can race out of their tents to protect their helepoleis.

An Armenian account of the Seljuq siege of Mantzikert in 1054 describes a huge trebuchet, originally built for Basil II, called a baban, which weighed some 2,000 kilograms and had a pulling crew of 400 men and which could fire stones weighing up to 200 kilograms. Michael Attaleiates apparently refers to the same siege, for he describes a trebuchet operated by a large number of men which fired an immense stone against which the defenders were helpless. They were saved only when a Latin grabbed a container of Greek fire, dashed out through the besiegers, and set the machine on fire. 

When Romanos IV Diogenes in 1071 was preparing an assault against the same city, he had a large number of helepoleis prefabricated from huge beams of all sorts and transported by no less than a thousand wagons, obviously very large trebuchets. An Arab source speaks of one huge trebuchet transported in 100 carts pulled by 1,200 men, with a composite beam of eight spars and launching stone-shot of 96 kilograms.

Reenactment Event at Birdoswald. Men load a Catapulta.
(pinterest)

In the Alexiad, her history of the reign of her father Alexios I Komnenos, Anna Komnene makes it abundantly clear that the major artillery piece of the Byzantines was the helepolis and that it was a large, stone-throwing trebuchet.

Anna notes that the Normans constructed helepoleis to bombard Byzantine fortifications. Without helepoleis, armies would find it difficult to capture fortified places, as did the Latins and the Bulgarians. Forced to retreat, the Byzantines burned their helepoleis so that the enemy would not be able to use them. Alexios employed helepoleis to destroy the walls of Kastoria. To drive the Arabs away from the coastline he positioned helepoleis on ships. The Byzantine general Dalassenos employed helepoleis on ships to demolish fortifications on land. Anna many times records the regular use of helepoleis in sieges.

The reigns of John Komnenos and Manuel Komnenos (1118– 1180) witnessed a dramatic increase in Byzantine reliance on siege warfare and, consequently, on the helepolis or trebuchet.

In 1130 or 1132 John surrounded Kastamon with helepoleis and captured it.43 At Gangra in 1135 he kept up a constant barrage of missiles aimed at the houses within the city. Against the seemingly impregnable Anazarba the following year, the Byzantine trebuchets began pounding the city walls, but the Armenian defenders returned their fire with stones and fiery iron pellets which set the Byzantine helepoleis on fire. John had new helepoleis built and constructed protective brick ramparts around them; his men then demolished the walls and forced their way into the city. In 1142 he took action against some island-dwellers in Lake Pousgouse by lashing small boats together and making a platform on which he positioned helepoleis

In 1165 four large Byzantine trebuchets launched huge stones against the Hungarian city of Zevgminon. Andronikos Komnenos, after personally adjusting the sling, the winch, and the beam, fired stones which hit with such violence that they brought down a section of the wall between two towers.

Early in the fourteenth century, the Greek version of the Chronicle of Morea called this weapon by its French name: trebuchet. Around the end of that century one again finds helepolis used for trebuchet in an account of sultan Bayezid’s siege of Constantinople in 1396–1397. And in 1422 Murad had trebuchets, this time called (battlementtaker), prepared to bombard the city with large stones. 

Thirtyone years later, however, the walls were pummeled by huge stones propelled by gun powder from cannons, and the helepolis or trebuchet was sent off to the dustbins of history.

November, 1999

GEORGE T. DENNIS
Department of History 
The Catholic University of America 
Washington, D.C. 20064




(deremilitari.org)      (deremilitari.org - helepolis)