Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, May 8, 2017

Farming on Roman Empire Desert Frontier

Olive trees were a major Byzantine frontier crop 

It Takes an Economy to 
Support an Empire

  • I found this wonderful little Internet article on the economy of the desert frontier of the Roman Empire.  Simply, you can't fund an empire and military machine without a strong economy and the tax revenue it generates.
  • So much information on the Eastern Roman economy and society was never written down by contemporaries. We have to use archaeological evidence and work backwards to paint a picture of the world at that time.

(Haaretz)  -  The tiny olive grove sits atop a dry canyon in the middle of the Negev desert, surrounded by barren hills and a few wisps of withering vegetation. Despite the parched setting, the ancient, gnarled trees are alive, their branches heavy with green leaves and ready to bear fruit.

Researchers believe these few trees, located a handful of kilometers outside the ruins of the ancient Byzantine settlement of Shivta, grew there through no fluke of nature. They may be among the last living witnesses to a complex civilization that built prosperous towns and farmed the Negev during the Byzantine period, more than 15 centuries before Zionists started imagining they could make Israel’s desert bloom.

Fresh research is shedding new light on these Byzantine desert dwellers – who were they? How did they shape their environment to such an extent? And why they ultimately, and quite mysteriously, abandon the lands they had fought for so hard?

Wine is still produced in the desert today
just as it was in Roman times.
Researchers say these questions are key not just for historians but for any society, including modern Israel, that wishes to develop and grow sustainably in an extreme environment like the desert.

“This was a complex society, so this question is very relevant to us, because the next time that the Negev was so densely settled was with Zionism and the creation of Israel,” says Haifa University archeologist Guy Bar-Oz. “It is very relevant for us to understand how they did it and what went wrong.”

From frankincense to farming

If we visited the central Negev 1,700 years ago, far from a barren wasteland peopled mainly by nomads and lizards, we would see a countryside dotted with farms and monasteries.

Vast fields of grain, olive groves and fruit orchards lined the wadis; vineyards produced some of the most popular wines in the ancient world. There were also at least seven large towns supporting trade and agriculture in the area.

Although their remains are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, archaeologists have barely scratched the surface in some of them.

The regional capital, Halutza – once the seat of a bishop, public baths, churches and a theater – has largely been left buried under the sand, mostly due to lack of funds and frequent looting by local Bedouins.

The second largest Byzantine town in the area – Ruheibe, also known as "Rehovot in the Negev" – has been partially excavated. But it is difficult to access, including because it is surrounded by an Israeli army firing zone.

Still, archaeologists have managed to glean some information about the people who lived there, says Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who in January published an article on research in Ruheibe in the Israeli journal Kadmoniot.

Palaestina Salutaris
The Eastern Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris covered the area of the NegevSinai (except the north western coast) and south-west of Transjordan, south of the Dead Sea
The province, a part of the Diocese of the East, was split from Arabia Petraea in the 6th century and existed until the Muslim Arab conquests of the 7th century.

Tribal population of Nabateans

The inhabitants worshipped in churches and wrote in Greek, the Byzantine empire’s official language. But the architecture of towns like Ruheibe – clusters of small houses and tight winding alleys to keep the sand out and provide shade – point to a local, tribal population, Dahari says.

The names on the tombstones of Ruheibe’s cemetery and the morphology of dozens of skeletons that were dug up, further indicates that most of the inhabitants were Nabateans, Dahari told Haaretz during a visit to the site.

The Nabateans were a semi-nomadic Arab people best known for building the spectacular rock-cut city of Petra and a trade empire that brought spices and luxury goods from the Orient to the Mediterranean. In fact, the Byzantine towns of the Negev started out in pre-Roman times as Nabatean trading posts on the spice route between Petra and the port of Gaza. Later they also profited from the passage of Christian pilgrims between Jerusalem and St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

So why would rich merchants, fat on the profits from selling frankincense and myrrh, decide to settle down and become farmers?

“Imagine if we stopped using oil: what would happen to the Saudis?” says Dahari. “They could not go back to being nomadic shepherds, also because their numbers have increased, so they would have to use their money to create something else.”

An open-air Byzantine reservoir outside Ruheibe
used to collect winter rain.

How to capture the rain

And that’s probably what the Nabateans did. In the 3rd century C.E., the Roman empire underwent a political and economic crisis that disrupted trade routes. During the next two centuries, the fall of the Western empire and the spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean further reduced the demand for the luxury goods that the Nabateans had supplied.

“They could not move north, because during the Byzantine period, the Holy Land was very densely populated. So they had to settle and farm this land, possibly with the support of the Byzantine administration and outside experts,” Dahari explains.

The climate would not have been much different from today, with rainfall averaging around 100 millimeters a year, he says. So, their entire lives were centered on capturing and storing the rains that each year fall in the Negev during brief, violent showers.

The entire city was plastered and paved to channel water toward the cisterns dug in the courtyard of each house. Larger cisterns and open-air reservoirs were built in the surrounding countryside, along with wells that could reach the underground aquifer – up to 63 meters deep, like a 20-story building.

This system would have been just enough to provide water all-year round to satisfy the basic drinking and washing needs of the inhabitants, according to Dahari. But what about the fields?

For this, just around the town of Ruheibe, the inhabitants built 250 kilometers of terraces, dams and canals, using a vast 180,000 cubic meters of stone, according to a survey conducted by Dahari and his team. This system would be used to control the violent floods that usually follow the rare storms in the Negev. Instead of running off into the desert, the water would be channeled into the terraces, where it would soak the ground, helping to keep it moist for the rest of the year.

Parrotfish were imported from the sea to the desert.

Importing parrot fish

Similar systems have been found around other settlements in the area, including at Shivta, where a solitary olive grove still survives atop a stone terrace which, judging from the pottery archaeologists found there, was built in the Byzantine period. (Scientists are still working to try to date the trees).

“Once this system is working, it can provide the equivalent of 500 millimeters of rain instead of the average 100,” explains archaeologist Yotam Tepper. “But it’s very labor intensive. It requires constant maintenance: if one dam is breached, one terrace is damaged, the water escapes, the ground doesn’t get soaked and you lose everything.”

Despite the backbreaking work required, from the 4th to the 7th century C.E., the communities of the Negev did not merely survive, they thrived. Locals could afford to import exotic goods, like parrot fish from the Red Sea, hundreds of kilometers away. Meanwhile, they shipped their produce, including fruits, olive oil and especially wine across the Mediterranean and beyond.

The distinctive amphorae in which the sweet, highly alcoholic wines of the Negev were packaged have been found as far as Italy, France and Britain, says Bar-Oz.

And then, almost overnight, it all ended.

If you walk through the streets of Shivta and other Byzantine desert towns you notice something strange about the crumbling houses: most of the entrances were neatly sealed with large stones.

It’s as if one day the inhabitants packed up their belongings, sealed their homes and left, never to return.
Invading Muslim Arab Warriors may
have collapsed the local economy.

Why that happened remains a mystery, and is one of the key questions behind a project, led by Bar-Oz and funded by the European Union, to investigate the Byzantine Negev using advanced scientific methods.

Go north, young Nabatean?

Many theories have been put forward. It is however too early to draw conclusions, Bar-Oz says.

One preliminary study, based on dating samples from the ancient garbage dumps outside Halutza, suggest that organized refuse collection in the city abruptly ended around the year 540. This could point to a crisis connected to the Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that is estimated to have killed millions in Europe and the Middle East at that very time.

But there is little or no evidence in the area of mass graves or other signs of such a catastrophe, Bar-Oz notes.

Other data from the garbage dumps of Halutza indicates that as the years went on, locals used an ever-increasing amount of low-quality wood as fuel, which may suggest they were facing climate change.

Finally, one theory that historians have long favored, connects the decline of the Nabatean settlement of the Negev to the Muslim conquest in the first half of the 7th century.

However, there are few signs of violence and destruction in the Negev towns associated with the arrival of Mohammed’s followers. Many of the settlements, including Shivta, continued to be inhabited in the early Muslim period – albeit by a smaller population.

Dahari, the archaeologist who dug at Ruheibe, explains it all by theorizing that the Muslim takeover of the Middle East and the collapse of Byzantine control in the region meant the inhabitants of the Negev simply became freer to leave and seek greener pastures in more fertile areas of the Levant.

“You only live in the desert if you have to,” Dahari says. “The inhabitants here were Arabs, just like the new conquerors, so many probably converted to Islam and went north with their brethren.”

Charred grape seeds. (Photo: University of Haifa)
Read More:
1,500-Year-Old Charred Byzantine Grape Seeds Discovered in Israel’s Negev Desert

(Haaretz.com)      (Negev)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Byzantine Testudo and Shield Wall

EDITOR  -  Eastern Roman military history had suffered from a near total lack of proper histories written by those who witnessed the events.  We historians have to fill in the lack of detailed information with what we know from similar events. In this case I can say that the Byzantine infantry units have not been given proper credit by historians.

Byzantine infantry have lived in the shadow of the Roman Legions. But the Byzantine Army stood centuries longer than the legions of Rome. They must have been doing something right.

The Internet gives us some help.

In 2014 I found a wonderful 1988 Internet article on the Byzantine Infantry Square.  I also found a 1999 article on Byzantine heavy artillery.

Below is a 2004 article on the Roman/Byzantine Testudo formation.  In copying much of the Greek lettering is lost.

When you take in all three of these articles at once you begin to see the highly complex nature of the Eastern Roman Army and the high degree of training of officers and soldiers.


The origin and development of Roman and Byzantine military terms have been the subject of numerous monographs, though the absence of an up-to-date comprehensive lexical work leaves many obscurities in this field. This study examines the fulcum or foËlkon, both as a significant Roman tactical development of intrinsic interest and as an exemplum of the historical and linguistic problems posed by Greek, Roman, and Byzantine military vocabulary.

The word foËlkon is first attested in the sixth-century Strategicon of the Emperor Maurice to designate a compact, well-shielded infantry formation reminiscent of both the testudo of earlier Roman warfare and the hoplite phalanx of classical Greece.  Maurice’s technical description of the fulcum permits its identification in contemporary historical narratives as the standard battle formation of the period.

Maurice’s use of a term drawn from military slang previously unattested in Roman sources, together with the superficial resemblance of the fulcum to the “shield-walls” conventionally associated with “Germanic” warfare, has accentuated its apparent novelty and “unRomanness.” 

The term foËlkon first appears in Maurice’s Strategicon, . . . . Writing in the 590s, the author (hereafter “Maurice”) of this comprehensive military treatise combined in deliberately simple Greek earlier written material with a thorough knowledge of the organisation, training, tactics, and everyday routines of the contemporary Roman army

Maurice prescribes principles of cavalry deployment and tactics modeled on the Avar armies of the period, the Strategicon is on the whole a “codification” or restatement of existing regulations, commands, and procedures in the form of an official “handbook” for officers.

Emperor Maurice (reign 582 - 602).  Painting by Emilian

Maurice chose to write in a plain vernacular, sacrificing stylistic concerns to practical utility, “to which end, we have also frequently employed Latin and other terms which have been in common military use” . . . . the Strategicon is primarily concerned with day-to-day routines and often mundane technicalities, and is aimed at the middle-ranking field officers of the East Roman army, whose literacy is assumed throughout.

Maurice subsequently outlines in more detail what foÊlkƒ peripate›n involves. Before close-quarters contact with the enemy, about two or three bowshots from the enemy battle line, upon the order “iunge,” the infantry were to close in from both the flanks and rear, a manoeuvre Maurice calls pÊknvsiw or sf¤gjiw. Traditionally pÊknvsiw meant reducing the space allotted to each man in a rank to two cubits (three feet), creating a dense formation in which each man was still able to manoeuvre and employ his weaponry; this conventional “close order” appears to correspond to what Maurice describes. 

During this manoeuvre “the men deployed at the front come together side-by-side until they are shield-boss to shield-boss with one another”, while those in the ranks behind stand “almost glued to one another” . Maurice remarks that the rearguards should shove from behind, if necessary, pushing nervous recruits into formation and maintaining a straight battle line.

Thereafter, just outside the range of enemy missiles, the infantry formed a foËlkon:

  • Emperor Maurice:  "They advance in a fulcum, whenever, as the battle lines are coming close together, both ours and the enemy’s, the archery is about to commence, and those arrayed in the front line are not wearing mail coats or greaves. He [the herald] orders, “a d fulco.” And those arrayed right at the very front mass their shields together until they come shield-boss to shield-boss, completely covering their stomachs almost to their shins. The men standing just behind them, raising their shields and resting them on the shield-bosses of those in front, cover their chests and faces, and in this way they engage."

In operations against enemy infantry, therefore, the foËlkon was a compact formation in which the front two ranks formed a “shield-wall.” Maurice characterises this shield wall as “shield-boss to shield-boss”, which should be understood as a colloquial expression rather than a literal description. 

Although Maurice does not define specific measurements, he nowhere implies that the transition to a foËlkon involved reducing still further the intervals between the files, which after pÊknvsiw were already “shield-boss to shieldboss” at the front and “almost glued together” at the rear. This would in any case have fatally restricted the unit’s ability to manoeuvre and fight, and rendered impossible much of Maurice’s subsequent account of how the attack should develop. 

Each man continued to operate in the traditional “close-order” allotment of roughly three feet, so that the edges of his shield just overlapped those of the men to either side, but he retained sufficient space to advance, throw missiles, and slash to his front with a spatha.

It appears that “advancing in a foËlkon” entailed simply an additional defensive measure by the front two ranks, the pur-pose of which was to protect the front of the formation against missiles as it advanced. This would have been particularly the case when fighting the Persians, whose archery remained a tactical problem throughout the late Roman period. 

Persian Sassanid Cataphract armored horse archer
The Shield Wall at the Battle of Callinicum 
We have first hand information on the use of the Roman shield wall/testuda from the historian Procopius who was at the side of General Belisarius during the fight.
Procopius:  "Then the Romans turned their backs to the river so that no movement to surround them might be executed by the enemy, and as best they could under the circumstances were defending themselves against their assailants. 

And again the battle became fierce, although the two sides were not evenly matched in strength; for foot-soldiers, and a very few of them, were fighting against the whole Persian cavalry. Nevertheless the enemy were not able either to rout them or in any other way to overpower them. For standing shoulder to shoulder they kept themselves constantly massed in a small space, and they formed with their shields a rigid, unyielding barricade, so that they shot at the Persians more conveniently than they were shot at by them. Many a time after giving up, the Persians would advance against them determined to break up and destroy their line, but they always retired again from the assault unsuccessful. For their horses, annoyed by the clashing of the shields, reared up and made confusion for themselves and their riders." 

The internal structure of late Roman infantry units ensured that men in the front ranks would know what to do. The less-experienced troops were positioned in the centre of the formation, sandwiched between the junior officers; the “rearguards” prevented flight and literally shoved men into formation, while the “file-leaders” were regularly issued with additional defensive equipment commensurate with their more exposed position, which in this period might include basic items like corselets, as well as greaves and stronger shields, although Maurice notes that even the file-leaders might lack armour. In this solution to the problem of arranging troops of varied quality, success depended less on individual weapons training, and more on unit cohesion, discipline, and stamina.

Within one bowshot of the enemy line, the Roman light infantry began shooting arrows from the rear at a high trajectory. If the heavy infantry were armed with the leadweighted darts commonly called martiobarbuli or other missiles, the formation halted, while the front ranks, fixing their spears into the ground, showered the enemy with these projectiles. 

Late Roman close-order infantry employed an impressive number and variety of missiles, which allowed them to generate casualties and disruption as the battle lines closed, and gave them some of the capabilities traditionally assigned to light infantry. Maurice’s description lacks some details a modern reader would require, but which might have been obvious to a contemporary; presumably the men in the first rank forming the lower tier of the “shield-wall” did not participate in this missile exchange. If such projectiles were unavailable, then closing with the enemy, those at the front hurled their spears like javelins and drew their spathae to fight hand-to-hand, while “those standing behind them, covering their own heads with their shields”, assisted by throwing their spears overhead. 

This last remark does not mean that the whole formation was covered over in the manner of the classical, shed-like testudo, merely that the rear ranks should take care to shield themselves from enemy missiles falling from a higher trajectory. This expedient relates to the changed dynamics of the fighting after closing with the enemy line. It is probable that at close-quarters with enemy infantry the Roman shield-wall was dismantled, having served its primary function as a protective screen against missiles. Maurice suggests that there was greater danger of casualties among the front ranks during the period of approach than in the subsequent hand-tohand fighting, when they would no longer be a target for enemy projectiles, but those to the rear remained exposed to continuous fire from overhead. 

The foËlkon was difficult to manoeuvre, but afforded protection during the last and most dangerous stage of the advance, while from behind the shieldwall the other ranks of close-order infantry and the light infantry to their rear could maintain a constant shower of projectiles. There would have been a concomitant reduction in the momentum in the attack, which perhaps exposed the infantry formation to a longer barrage, but as with the cavalry tactics Maurice describes elsewhere, speed of attack was sacrificed to the essential consideration of tactical cohesion.

 Late Roman cohort reenactment group

Maurice also describes Roman infantry forming a foËlkon when confronting an enemy cavalry charge, though these different tactical circumstances required certain modifications:

  • Emperor Maurice:  "If the enemy [cavalry], coming within a bow shot, attempts to break or dislodge the phalanx, which is hazardous for them, then the infantry close up in the regular manner. And the first, second, and third man in each file are to form themselves into a foËlkon, that is, one shield upon another, and having thrust their spears straight forward beyond their shields, fix them firmly in the ground, so that those who dare to come close to them will readily be impaled. They also lean their shoulders and put their weight against their shields so that they might easily endure the pressure from those outside. The third man, standing more upright, and the fourth, holding their spears like javelins either stab those coming close or hurl them and draw their swords. And the light infantry with the cavalry [stationed to the rear] shoot arrows."

These orders clearly describe a variation suited to cavalry combat, with advice on how to convert the shield-wall into a physical barrier against horsemen.

Maurice’s description of a foËlkon as an anti-cavalry measure differs in detail from the formation he describes operating against enemy infantry, and again not every aspect of the deployment is immediately clear to the modern reader. Whenever Roman infantry oppose cavalry, Maurice requires the front three ranks “to form themselves into a foËlkon, that is one shield upon another”, or a “shield-wall.” 

It is probable, though nowhere explicitly stated, that in this stationary and strictly defensive tactical context the men were positioned more closely than in the manoeuvrable foËlkon deployed against infantry, perhaps equating to the traditional one cubit (one and a half feet) spacing the classical Tacticians called sunaspismÒw. Such dense, well-shielded formations were essential in generating the collective morale required to stand in the face of charging horsemen. 

Maurice explains that the front three ranks should “fix their spears firmly in the ground”, projecting towards the enemy, though the men of the third rank are later required to thrust or throw their weapons. A clue to how these three ranks were positioned is offered by Maurice’s incidental remark that the men of the third rank are “standing higher” or “more upright”. 

The clear implication is that the first and second ranks are lower, probably kneeling and stooping respectively. Maurice nowhere explicitly states this, but, as previously noted, he makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge, and it will be demonstrated below that this arrangement is attested in earlier periods. We can therefore envisage that the first rank knelt, while the second rank crouched, resting the rims of their shields on the shield-bosses of the first rank, and both ranks thrust forward their spears, fixing their spear-butts into the ground. The men of the third rank, “standing more upright,” in turn rested the rims of their shields on the shield-bosses of the second rank, and more actively engaged any enemy horsemen who approached. 

Assuming even large infantry shields of around a metre in diameter, a sloping “shield-wall” constructed by the front three ranks would reach a height of just over two metres, this additional height being necessary to counter the more elevated position of a mounted enemy. Maurice writes that the men of the third rank “holding their spears like javelins either stab those coming close or hurl them,” meaning they wield their spears overarm and projecting above the shield-wall, ready to thrust or throw them as opportunities arose. 

This arrangement of the first three ranks explains how the men of the third rank, with spears of about two metres in length, were expected to stab the enemy horsemen—in effect the front three ranks were so close together as to operate as a single fighting line. The men of the fourth rank, at a greater remove and unable to stab the enemy with their spears, participated by throwing their weapons over the heads of the first three ranks whenever a target presented itself, and presumably replaced casualties in the battle line.

When confronted by mounted opponents, sixth-century Roman infantry regularly arrayed in a compact defensive “phalanx” fronted by a “shieldwall” bristling with spears. The Syriac Chronicle of pseudoJoshua Stylites reports that near Constantina in 502 some Roman infantry units, abandoned by their own cavalry and facing large numbers of Persian horsemen, “drew up in battle array, forming what is called a ‘chelone’ or ‘tortoise’, and fought for a long time,” though ultimately unsuccessfully. The word the chronicler uses is a Syriac transliteration of xel≈nh, the standard Greek equivalent to Latin testudo; I shall return below to the relationship between foËlkon and testudo. A clearer and more successful example is the battle of Callinicum in 531. After the defeat and flight of the Roman cavalry, a small force of infantry and dismounted cavalry covered the Roman retreat in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Maurice’s foËlkon:

  • "the infantry, and few of them indeed, were fighting against the whole Persian cavalry. Nevertheless, the enemy could neither rout them nor otherwise overpower them. For constantly massed together shoulder-to-shoulder into a small space, and forming with their shields a very strong barrier, they shot at the Persians more conveniently than they were shot at by them. Frequently withdrawing, the Persians would advance against them so as to break up and destroy their line, but retired again unsuccessful." 

Holding firm in the face of charging cavalry was one of the most psychologically demanding tasks for infantry; not only was late Roman infantry capable of standing up to cavalry attacks but deterring cavalry was actually one of its primary functions. On the sixth-century battlefield infantry retained an important, albeit more passive role, serving principally as a firm bulwark, behind which Roman cavalry, employing highly fluid tactics, could withdraw and regroup if pushed back. Given sufficient training and morale, infantry possessed the potential for greater cohesion and more accurate firepower than cavalry, and when combined with archers and slingers the effects on enemy horsemen could be devastating.

Finally, it is to be noted that even late Roman cavalry, in moments of crisis or simply wherever tactically beneficial, transformed themselves into infantry and also arrayed in a foËlkon. A minor action in Lazica in 550 is instructive, where Roman and allied cavalry, finding themselves suddenly outnumbered by Persian horseman, dismounted and

  • "arrayed themselves on foot in a phalanx as deep as possible, and all stood forming a close front against the enemy and thrusting out their spears against them. And the Persians did not know what to do, for they were unable to charge their opponents, now that they were on foot, nor could they break up the phalanx, because the horses reared up, annoyed by the spear points and the clashing of shields."

There are numerous other late Roman examples of this tactical expedient and it is expressly what the Strategicon enjoins cavalry to do in these circumstances.

The tortoise formation was one of the prime examples
of Roman ingenuity at warfare.


Later Byzantine Development

Other than Maurice, the only author to use the term foËlkon in a late antique context is Theophanes Confessor (writing ca 810–814), in his account of Heraclius’ campaigns against the Persians (622–628), which occurred a generation after the composition of the Strategicon.

Theophanes writes that at the battle of Nineveh in 627 the Persian commander Rhazates “arrayed his forces in three foËlka”. Here Theophanes, who uses the word nowhere else, appears to mean simply a battle line divided into three broad divisions rather than Maurice’s testudo-like infantry formation. Theophanes himself elsewhere reports this tripartite deployment by Persian armies, employing non-technical language to designate the three “divisions”, and he notes that the Roman line was similarly divided into three “phalanxes”; indeed, sixth- and early seventh-century Roman sources indicate that this was a regular practice of Persian armies. Theophanes therefore uses the word foËlkon differently than does Maurice, as simply a generic term for a large body of troops, whether Roman or foreign.

. . . . two works ascribed to the Emperor Leo VI (886–912), the so-called Problemata and Tactica or Tactical Constitutions. The Problemata, the first work Leo composed in this genre, is preserved only in Mediceo-Laurentianus. It takes the form of a “military catechism,” in which the compiler poses questions which he then answers with excerpta from Maurice’s Strategicon . . . .  the Problemata genuinely reflect late ninth-century practice; continued references to Avars and Persians do not inspire confidence in its contemporary utility. For the present it suffices to note that in answer to the question “How do they advance when the archery is about to commence?” the compiler reproduces Maurice’s description of the foËlkon operating against enemy infantry with only very minor changes, though he omits his anticavalry version.

Leo appears not to understand Maurice’s reference to “shield-bosses”, which is almost certainly late Roman terminological usage; the limited evidence suggests that by the tenth century boÊkoulon had come metonymically to mean “shield” in toto. It is possible that Leo’s textual alteration also reflects changes in shield design and construction in the intervening period.

 . . . . . the treatise on guerrilla warfare Per‹ paradrom∞w or De velitatione ascribed to Nicephorus II Phocas (963–969). The author possessed a detailed knowledge of Leo’s Tactica and its tactical precepts. Yet throughout he employs foËlkon to designate a body of troops in formation, apparently infantry or cavalry, but more often the latter, sent out to protect smaller parties engaged in foraging and pillaging, accompanying them into designated localities in the morning, remaining at hand during the day, and escorting them back to camp in the evening. This sense is clear from the often-repeated formula “a foËlkon, whose role is to protect them while they are dispersed for plundering”.

A foËlkon might also be stationed outside the camp to protect grazing horses or livestock. The author mentions foËlka only in the context of invading Arab forces, and his recommendations for surprise attacks on Arab encampments or dispersed raiding parties are premised on the potential presence of such a foËlkon coming to the rescue and how Byzantine troops should counter it. These protective escorts were not unique to Arab tactical arrangements nor Arab in origin, however; the author merely uses a Greek term to describe what was a standard feature of both Arab and Byzantine armies.

(Mid tenth century military documents are nearly identical to those of Maurice.)

Again it is important to appreciate, however, that new terminology is not necessarily indicative of a new phenomenon. In the late sixth century Maurice clearly describes, and in very similar language, identical protective escorts guarding foraging parties:

  • Emperor Maurice:  "When some men go out on a plundering expedition, not all of them are to be occupied in pillaging, but they must be divided into two—those who are engaged in plundering, and the majority who escort them in close formation as their guard, whether the attack is against a country, an enemy entrenchment, a herd of beasts, a baggage train, or any other objective. Do this also when the whole army collectively undertakes a plundering expedition, again so that not all the men are occupied in pillaging, but if an opportunity for foraging supplies should arise, some must engage in foraging, others in close formation must escort them, otherwise, if all the available men were occupied in pillaging or foraging, some surprise attack or ambush would be undertaken by the enemy and our soldiers would not be able to rally themselves."

This type of escort in force, to which Maurice applies no specific terminology, is precisely what mid tenth-century authors designate a foËlkon. In fact this was a standard procedure for Roman armies dating back at least to the early Principate, and the later Byzantine usage merely reflects changes in terminology rather than practice.

Given the difficulties we have seen in the testimony of Leo’s tactical writings, it is impossible to be certain how and when foËlkon came to mean the mounted escorts or patrols attested in mid tenth-century military literature, distinct from the battle formation for infantry described in Maurice’s Strategicon, and the evidence of the intervening period perhaps points to long-term multiple usage, though the underlying concept of a compact body of troops arrayed for combat is consistent.

The variant meanings of foËlkon over this four-hundred-year period therefore correspond to the broad development of late Roman-Byzantine military vocabulary.

Philip Rance
March, 2004
Hove, East Sussex, UK

Rome - Testudo Formation

Byzantine 10th century Varangians in shield wall

(www.legioxxirapax.com)      (Maurice)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Arab Siege of the Roman Fortress of Ragusium

The Roman Fortress of Ragusium (modern Dubrovnik).

Defending Against Arab Invasion

According to the De administrando imperio of the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, the city was founded, probably in the 7th century, by the inhabitants of the Roman city of Epidaurum after its destruction by the Avars and Slavs in ca. 615.

Some of the survivors moved 16 miles north to a small island near the coast where they founded a new settlement, Lausa. It has been claimed that a second raid by the Slavs in 656 resulted in the total destruction of Epidaurum. Slavs, including Croats and Serbs, settled along the coast in the 7th century.

For centuries the city, known as Ragusium in Latin and was under the rule of the Eastern Roman EmpireThe city remained under Roman control until 1204.

The fortress of Ragusium was part of the
Roman military Theme of Dalmatia.


There is no way to know exactly what the original Roman fortifications of Ragusa looked like.  But there is little doubt the Roman engineers would have followed the natural outline of the coast just as future builders did.

Ragusa was part of the Roman Castra system of fortifications scattered all over the empire.  The Eastern Roman fortress of Sant'Aniceto in Sicily is a good example of defensive fortifications built in that period. The walls of Ragusa might have been just as strong.

The oldest systems of fortifications around the town were likely wooden palisades.

The construction of the first limestone walls began towards the end of the 8th century. But, the "old chronicles" say that some sort of castle reliably existed on the Lave peninsula quite a long time prior to that. 

It is certain that the early town on Laus Island was also surrounded by defensive walls, probably mainly by wooden palisades. The fact that Dubrovnik managed to survive a fifteen-month-long invasion by the Saracens in the 9th century proves how well the city was fortified.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the defensive wall enclosed the eastern portion of the city. When the sea channel separating the city from mainland was filled with earth in the 11th century, the city merged with the settlement on land, and soon, a single wall was built around the area of the present-day city core.

Slavs poured over the Danube overrunning Latin and Greek
speaking provinces in 
the Balkans, but Ragusa and the fortified
coastal zone remained under Roman control.

Current land walls of Dubrovnik (Ragusa).

19th century photo of an Arab warrior. The Arabs invading the 
Roman Empire might have looked much like this warrior.

Muslim Arabs Invade The Balkans
Siege of Ragusa

Turning back the tide of Muslim Jihad conquest was not an accident.

The Emperors in Constantinople directed the only professional military machine in Europe. The Roman army was organized into military Themes all the way down to the local district level. Those local troops could be backed up at need with Imperial Tagmata Regiments centrally located around the capitol.

Forgotten in these wars is the role played by the Roman navy. In wars lasting for centuries against Islam the Imperial Navy not only could transport troops and supplies to far flung endangered outposts, but they also engaged in endless defensive and offensive naval battles.

In the 9th century Muslim fleets and armies were on the march from all over the Mediterranean. The Romans, on the other hand, were weakened by a series of catastrophic defeats against the Bulgars, along with revolts which attracted the support of a large part of the Roman armed forces, including the thematic fleets.

The situation was even worse in the West. A critical blow was inflicted on the Empire in 827, as the Aghlabids began the slow conquest of Sicily, aided by the defection of the Byzantine commander Euphemios and the island's thematic fleet. In 838, the Muslims crossed over into southern Italy, taking Taranto and Brindisi, followed soon by Bari

Venetian operations against them were unsuccessful, and throughout the 840s, the Arabs were freely raiding Italy and the Adriatic, even attacking Rome in 846. Attacks by the Lombards failed to dislodge the Muslims from Italy, while two large-scale Byzantine attempts to recover Sicily were heavily defeated in 840 and 859. 

By 850, the Muslim fleets, together with large numbers of independent ghazi raiders, had emerged as the major power of the Mediterranean, putting the Byzantines on the defensive.

Byzantine Dromon Warship

Muslims Invade The Balkans

The Muslim conquest of Sicily saw the invasion of southern Italy and the creation of the Emirate of Bari out of Byzantine lands.

The Emirate of Bari then engaged in raiding the Roman coastal cities in the Balkans.

According to Basil I's grandson, the 10th-century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, in 866 the Aghlabids launched a major seaborne campaign against the coasts of Dalmatia, with 36 ships under the command of "Soldan" (Sawdan, the Aghlabid emir of Bari), Saba of Tarento, and Kalfun the Berber.

The Aghlabid fleet plundered the cities of Boutova (modern Budva), Rhosa (modern Risan), and Dekatera (modern Kotor), before going on to lay siege to Ragusa.

Once again we are at a loss for any meaningful detail. The raids themselves are not of much interest. Rape, pillage, move on. Perhaps small pickings.
7th Century Arab warrior

But then the Muslims show up at the fortress of Ragusium.  Reading between the lines it is obvious they were impressed with the size and wealth of the town and decided to settle down for a long siege. The Muslims may have been interested in absorbing the city into the Emirate of Bari or starting a new Balkans based Emirate. 

How many local troops were inside the city walls we do not know.  What we do know is the city walls and defenses were strong enough to resist the invaders. The ocean on several sides of the city helped act as a natural defense.

As to the Muslims, we do not know the strength of the invading force (several thousand?). or if they were reinforced by more troops from Italy during the long siege.

It is doubtful that the Muslims spent the next fifteen months of the siege doing nothing. There may have been multiple Muslim attacks both large and small on the city. There may have also been multiple sortees by the garrison against the invaders. We can only speculate.

As the strength of the garrison declined they sent envoys to Constantinople with urgent calls for help.

Though faced with military problems on several fronts at once, Emperor Basil I agreed to help.  He equipped a fleet of 100 ships.  Command was given to the experienced and capable Patrikios Niketas Ooryphas. 

Roman deserters warned the Muslims of the approaching fleet. Rather than face battle the Saracens abandoned the siege and returned to Bari.


The first and most important result was Islam was expelled from the Balkans and would not to return for many centuries.

The aggressive Roman response to the Muslims had an added political effect.

Inland Slavic tribes sent envoys to the Emperor acknowledging his suzerainty. Basil dispatched officials, agents and missionaries to the region, restoring Byzantine rule over the coastal cities and regions in the form of the new Theme of Dalmatia, while leaving the Slavic tribal principalities of the hinterland largely autonomous under their own rulers.

To secure his Dalmatian possessions and control of the Adriatic, Basil realized that he had to neutralize the Saracen bases in Italy. 

To this end, in 869, Ooryphas led another fleet, including ships from Ragusa which ferried Slavic contingents, in a joint effort to capture Bari with Louis II of Italy. Although this attempt failed, two years later Bari fell to Louis. 

Finally, in 876 the city came under Byzantine control, forming the capital and nucleus of a new Byzantine province, the later Theme of Longobardia

This began a more than decade-long Byzantine offensive that restored imperial control over most of southern Italy, that would last until the 11th century.

The Roman-Arab War Zone
The central and eastern Mediterranean became one massive war zone of naval attacks and counter attacks by the Romans and invading Muslim Arabs.
The Roman Empire had the only organized professional army and navy in Europe. The Romans battled for over 100 years to slow the Muslim conquest of Sicily and their invasion of southern Italy.  If Constantinople's troops had not been on the front lines Muslims would have marched straight up Italy and the Balkans into central Europe.
Click link for full battle map

Muslim Arab archers in Sicily.

(Byzantine wars)      (Ragusa)      (Dubrovnik)      (Balkans)

(Ragusa)      (Walls)      (Dubrovnik)

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.