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

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

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Mosaic Floor of 1,500-year-old 'Boutique Hotel' Found in Jerusalem

Click to enlarge

'In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction' 

(Haaretz)  -  The Nea was the biggest church in Jerusalem and one of the largest in the entire empire, and reportedly included a hospital, monastery and accommodation. Its abbot was Constantine, which explains why he and the emperor were mentioned in the inscription.

The Nea Church was considered so important that it even appears on the famous 6th-century mosaic Madaba Map of ancient Jerusalem (in the upper right corner of the city).

The Nea Church was badly damaged by the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in the year 614. Its remains – at least, the stones that hadn't been repurposed over the ages - were partially excavated in 1970, during archaeological exploration of the ancient Jewish quarter after the Six Day War in 1967.
Emperor Justinian

In one sense, finding the extraordinary mosaic by Damascus Gate was little surprise, say the archaeologists. For centuries, Damascus Gate had been the main northern entry point to Jerusalem, so it would naturally brim with archaeological remains, Gellman explains. 

"In the Byzantine period, with the emergence of Christianity, churches, monasteries and hostels for pilgrims were built in the area north of the gate, and the area became one of the most important and active areas of the city," he says.

"The fact that the inscription survived is an archaeological miracle," Gellman adds. The archaeological remains in that area had been severely damaged by infrastructure groundwork over decades, he explains. "We were about to close the excavation when all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables. Amazingly, it had not been damaged."

An inscription previously found in the vaults of the Nea Church also mentions both Constantine and the Emperor Justinian.

Justinian would reign from 527 C.E. to 565 C.E., during which time he would become famous for his judicial reforms, many of which seem strikingly modern, including protection for prostitutes, and for wives against extravagant husbands. 

The Nea Church in Jerusalem was far from his only architectural achievement: Justinian is also credited with building Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai, in his very first year of rule, to encompass the chapel of the Burning Bush. Today the site is Greek Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And, Justinian is credited with the erection of the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul. Built on the ruins of previous churches, the Hagia Sophia would be converted into a mosque in 1453, then into the museum it is today in 1935.


Excavating the New Church of Theotokos, also known as Nea Church

Mosaic mentioning Emperor Justinian found by Damascus Gate

Cleaning the mosaic floor of what appears to be a pilgrim's hotel in Jerusalem.

Nea Church in Jerusalem

Ruins of the Nea Church, Jerusalem.
Read More:
The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Battle for the Middle East - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine

The Arab Legion in 1948
The last thing either the Persian or Roman Empires expected was invasion from the south by desert-wise soldiers infused with fanatical religious doctrine.

Part III
The Coming Maelstrom
Putting The Chess Pieces in Place

The Middle East has always been a bubbling cauldron of war, terrorism, conquest, hate and insanity. But the period from the start of the last Persian-Roman War in 602 AD to the end of the initial Muslim conquest in 638 was epic insanity on the most grand of scales.

For 26 years the Roman and Persian Empires had been in the death grip war of all death grip wars.  The 700 years of war between the two empires came down to this one life and death conflict.  Only one empire would survive the encounter and it was Rome.

There may have finally been "peace" between Rome and Persia, but it was a disastrous peace.  The Persians sank into dynastic anarchy while the Romans were financially, militarily and politically exhausted.

The two great empires of the world were at their weakest point at just the moment a militant and militaristic Islam appeared.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The basic look of the Roman cavalry during the Arab invasions would have not changed all that much. The heavy Cataphract units would have more armor and other units would have less for better mobility. The armored cavalry would act as the mailed fist of any Roman field army.
(Roman Empire.net)

After consolidating his base in Arabia we saw Mohammad in 629 send a force of 3,000 men to the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris to punish the Christian Arabs who killed Muslim emissaries.

A Roman Army of 10,000 men defeated this initial Muslim assault at Mota (Mu'tah). The Arabs were mauled, but retreated in an orderly manner. On the other side, the Romans did not just call it a day and go home. They continued aggressive contact with the Muslims over several days. This was a solid Roman victory.

Meanwhile at the other end of the Middle East we see the Persian Empire was imploding. 

The Persians who faced the invading Arab Muslim armies were bankrupted from the long war, militarily exhausted and still had Roman troops still in their country. Political anarchy existed with 10 kings and queens in just a 4 year period.

The Muslims took advantage. 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.

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

There a combined army of Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs joined forces to face the threat of Khalid. Sadly the allies were defeated at the Battle of Firaz.

With the Persians largely knocked out of the war, we see Arab forces massed for an invasion of Roman Palestine.

Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid won a string of victories against the Persians along the Euphrates River front. Then in January 634 orders came for Khalid to join in the battle for Roman Palestine. He took his troops on a brutal march of 600+ miles across the waterless Arabian desert up through Palestine and into Roman Syria in order to flank entrenched Roman troops at Derra.

Organized into three columns Arab forces invade Roman Palestine from the south while Khalid's troops from the Persian front try to draw Roman troops from their prepared positions on the Yarmouk River.


In 632 General Muhammad (prophet if you like) died. After a short time of "reorganization" the new Caliph ordered an invasion of Roman lands.

The Caliph appealed to the tribes around Mecca, Medina and Taif for recruits. He then appointed three commanders and in the tradition of Muhammad gave to each a banner.

The three commanders were Amr ibn al Aasi, Shurahbil ibn Hasana and Yezeed ibn abi Sofian. It is not clear why the army was divided into three columns. Perhaps the lack of water in the desert forced them to move in separate detachments. Also with no system of supply this could have made it easier to live off the land. Dividing the army might have meant harassing raids rather than invasion, but Arab warfare was wild and unpredictable in this period.

Column one under Amr ibn al Aasi was instructed to advance into southern Palaestina Salutaris through Aila (Aqaba) in the direction of Gaza. Column two under Yezeed ibn abi Sofian was to march up the east side of the Dead Sea . Column three under Shurahbil ibn Hasana was to march even further east in the direction of Busra and Damascus. If any column met strong opposition the other two columns were to come to its assistance.

How many Arab troops were sent? We do not know. We know that Khalid initially attacked Persia with perhaps 3,500 men.  It is fair to say the Arabs would not have mounted this major attack on Rome with less men than that, and the army might have been much higher.

Battle of Dathin  (634 AD)

With the Muslim invasion of Persia one would think Roman troops would have been active and in place on the Palestine border. But no.

It appears the Dux Sergius located 125 kilometers away up on the coast in Caesarea heard about the first Arab column and was the only Roman official to react.

Sergius gathered what troops he could find in the immediate area and marched south. How many men he had we do not know. We can assume his quickly assembled strike force was numerically inferior to the invading Muslims.

A swift march of 125 kilometers would have exhausted his men and horses. So we have a smaller worn out army taking on a larger invading army. As one would expect it did not turn out well.

The two forces met at the village of Dathin outside of Gaza on February 4, 634.

Sergius was driven back and pursued by the Muslims. Overtaken again Sergius himself was killed along with 300 of his men. How many escaped we do not know.

At this point the Arab force fanned out over southern Palestine reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Dealing with Arab Cavalry
Starting in September, 629 AD the Eastern Roman Empire came in contact with an enemy like none they had faced before: rapidly moving fanatic Islamist armies from the deserts of Arabia.  
Unlike the slower moving conventional armies of the Persian and Roman Empires, the Arab cavalry forces were extremely nimble and moved swiftly over the harsh conditions of the Roman-Persian desert frontiers.

The Muslim Blitzkrieg and Terrorism

Now the Muslim commander in Persia started his lightning march to help the invading Arab armies in Palestine.

Khalid ibn al-Walid's rapid movements are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II.  The slower moving conventional armies of the Persians and Romans were at a distinct disadvantage.

Khalid first moved south to the desert town of Duma to put down a revolt against the Caliph. Khalid quickly captured the town. The leaders of the revolt were put to death, one Arab chief was crucified and the prisoners massacred.  The surviving women and children were shipped off to Medina.

Islamic terrorism as a weapon was nothing new to Khalid. After an early victory in Persia the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period.

Khalid now moved northwest into the Batn as Sirr Valley taking him within a 5 to 6 day march of Arab forces already operating in the Jordan Valley. He could have easily joined them. He did not do so because they were being held up by a Roman army which was manning prepared defenses near the town of Daraa.

The two Arab columns under Sofian and Hasana had joined forces to confront the Roman army but were unable to dislodge it. The two sides were deadlocked.

The prepared Roman positions in the Darra Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

Click map to enlarge

"The Darra Gap"

The Arab and Roman armies deadlocked in what could be called the "Daraa Gap" is a good place to stop and ask the question: "Why?"

The Holy Grail of this war is a book written in 1964 by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb called The Great Arab Conquests.  The maps on this page are from his book.

The book is a military historian's gold mine. Glubb Pasha was fluent in Arabic, served as commander of the Arab Legion in Jordan and personally campaigned over the very ground the Romans and Arabs fought over.

His observations on the geography and forces involved concluded that the Emperor Heracilus had drawn up a brilliant battle plan to crush the Muslim invaders.  It is worth quoting him at length below.

Glubb Pasha:   "The records of the fighting which occurred between the Arabs and the Byzantine army in Syria are extremely confusing. Our sources are virtually restricted to the Arab historians who wrote more more than a century after the events . . . and who themselves were obviously ignorant of, or indifferent to, the course of the military operations. It was purely by accident that I discovered what appears to me now to be the key to the comprehension of the Arab campaigns in Syria, namely the narrow defile between the Yarmouk River and the Jebel Druze at Derra. . . .
Glubb Pasha

In July 1941 . . . it was feared that the German army, which had seized the Balkans, would attack Turkey and move southwards through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. . . . It was important to discover all the available narrow defiles, where armoured mechanized forces would be at a disadvantage . . . . to hold up German mechanized columns. . . . I myself was employed to examine the area round Deraa.

The Yarmouk River . . . . has cut a deep gorge down which it falls into the Jordan valley . . . . This gorge begins near the town of Deraa. East and northeast of Deraa lies a large group of mountains formed by extinct volcanoes, all the slopes of which are strewn with large black boulders of lava. In place, movement in this area is difficult even to men on foot, while horses and camels are almost immobilized and wheels entirely so. The lava-strewn spurs run down into the plain very nearly to the point at which the Yarmouk becomes an impassable gorge. . . . In 1941, we named this narrow defile the "Deraa gap". We decided to dig an anti-tank ditch across it and to build an entrenched position for an infantry brigade to close the gap.

All the European historians of the Muslim conquest of Syria complain of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Arab records. Again and again the rival armies are reported to be facing one another on the Yarmouk. Then they disperse again without result. Were there several encounters on the Yarmouk, and why does that name keep recurring? It was only when I myself reconnoitered the area for a military purpose that, all of a sudden, the veil fell, as it were, from my eyes. Useful as this defile would be to prevent a German attack from the north, it was obvious to me that it would be  of even great importance in resisting an army coming up from the south. In so far as invasion from Arabia was concerned, the Deraa gap would be the Thermopylae of Syria.

In 1941, the Germans were invincible at their lightning mechanical warfare. . . . The only way to oppose these mechanized-avalanche tactics was to fight in close country, in mountains, in passes in narrow gaps . . . .

The Muslims were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge . . . retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies. In the open plain, the heavy slow-moving Byzantine troops could not compete with this mobility. But the Arabs could not fight a close-order infantry battle, by push of pike as it were. They had not sufficient body-armour, they were not trained to fight in close, well disciplined ranks. More over they had no heavy support weapons. A cloud of arrows was their only covering fire. Thus they easily overran the deserts and plains of Trans-Jordan and southern Palestine but were afraid of the mountains and defiles.

Dreading the Arab blitzkrieg, the Byzantine army in 634, like the British army in 1941, established an entrenched camp near Deraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and sometime withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it. Khalid's operations round Palmyra and Damascus would thus have the object of persuading the Byzantines to withdraw from Deraa, a result, however, which they failed to achieve."

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918.  Camel mounted Arab troops on the march in the desert near Jebel Serd. The Romans would have faced similar forces during the battles in Palestine and Syria.

Khalid Marches North

Once you have read Glubb Pasha's books you become physically ill when so-called "historians" wave their hand and say how the Romans gave up the Middle East without a real fight. The polar opposite is the truth. The Battle for the Middle East was a seven year long slugfest from 629 to 636 AD involving multiple battles, sieges and huge armies operating over hundreds of square miles from the Persian front on the Euphrates to Gaza.

As we have seen above the Arab forces came to a standstill when faced with the entrenched Roman army in the Daraa Gap.

Doubtless with the agreement of the other Arab commanders at Daraa, Khalid executed a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless desert to threaten Damascus and force the Romans to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city. This action was both daring and extremely dangerous. There are no permanent wells through most of that area. 

It is claimed Khalid took 9,000 men with him on the march. This can be considered to be the usual military inflation. No doubt he took a strong force. Perhaps several thousand men, but this was not a march of conquest. It was an overgrown raid to try and draw Roman troops away from their positions and open Syria to invasion.

Wells were vital in waterless desert warfare.

He watered at Qaraqir, a well which still exists today. Before leaving Khalid adopted a Bedouin device. A number of camels were starved of water and then allowed to drink their fill. With full bladders camels could be slaughtered along the way for their water and meat. In the desert lack of water was a more feared enemy than soldiers, and Khalid had many men and their horses to water daily.

The army advanced in March 634 finally coming to a place called Suwa. After five days of marching all the water was gone and all the water-carrying camels slaughtered. Both the men and horses were failing fast. A guide told Khalid of a hidden desert well marked by a thorn bush. They searched and searched, and the entire force was in danger.

Finally the bush was found and in digging the Muslims discovered a hidden water supply.

With his army saved Khalid went on the attack and captured Palmyra. Turning west he sacked Qaryatein.

The march through the desert was not detected by the Romans. Khalid's arrival in the Palmyra area would thus have been a complete surprise. But as he moved closer to Damascus the Romans reacted.

Battle of Marj Rahit  (Easter Sunday, 634)

About 15 miles east of Damascus Khalid engaged the Ghassanid Christian Arab allies of Rome.

The town was filled with refugees fleeing the Muslims, and they were in the middle of Easter celebrations.

It was claimed the Ghassanids had 15,000 men. No doubt that was far too many just like the 9,000 men of Khalid. I would easily cut both numbers by 50% or more.

The Ghassanids had positioned a strong screen of warriors in front of the town, but it was shattered by a determined Muslim cavalry charge. The Ghassanids pulled back. The Muslims then raided the town collecting booty and captives. They then retreated back to their camp.

Arab historians naturally claimed a "victory" at Marj Rahit. That is doubtful. A raid for booty is hardly a victory. And the fact of the matter is Khalid immediately left the battlefield. We do not know why but the Ghassanid army may have been reforming and local Roman troops might have been getting ready to join them. We do see that Khalid was not eager to stick around to find out who he would have to fight. . . . a sign of weakness.

The Romans and their allies, not the Muslims, were in possession of the field of battle. If Khalid had truly been victorious at Marj Rahit he could have pressed an attack on Damascus and forced the Roman army to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city.

But there was no Arab attack on Damascus and the Romans were still holding the Daraa Gap. Khalid's wide flanking march through the desert had failed. So he abandoned his efforts and rejoined the other Arab forces at Daraa.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610 Heraclius had saved the empire from total collapse. Now he organized a major counter attack against the Muslim invaders.

The Chess Pieces Are in Place

So here we are at about April of 634 and there is a stalemate on the Palestine front.

The Roman army has totally blocked the Muslims at Daraa from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north.

We see the hand of the Emperor Heraclius in these movements. A frontline commanding general himself, the Emperor had personally spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the land. The army at Daraa was obviously assigned to its position in order to block the invaders.

While holding the Muslims in Palestine the Emperor had gathered to him a second large army as well as the Roman navy.

All the pieces are now in place. The Roman counter attack begins.

See you later in Part IV.

Roman Cavalry
The Battle for the Middle East
Read More:
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders

(Dathin)      (Khalid)      (Marj Rahit)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Roman Fortress of Taucheira, Libya

Old entrance of Taucheira (Torca) from a later period.

Roman Libya

After the final conquest and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, northwestern Africa went under Roman rule and, shortly thereafter, the coastal area of what is now western Libya was established as a province under the name of Tripolitania with Leptis Magna capital and the major trading port in the region.

In 96 BC Rome peacefully obtained Cyrenaica formed by the cities of Cyrene, its port of ApolloniaArsinoe (Taucheira - Tocra), Berenice (near modern Benghazi) and Barce. 

In 74 BC was established the new province, governed by a legate of praetorian rank (Legatus pro praetor) and accompanied by a quaestor (quaestor pro praetor). But in 20 BC Cyrenaica was united to the island of Crete in the new province of Creta et Cyrenaica, because of the common Greek heritage.

During the first two centuries nomadic raids from the desert were a regular occurrence.

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

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. 

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza to regulate the flash floods.  

The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (Centenaria).

But Jewish revolts were a far greater concern to the central government. A serious Jewish revolt was in the time of Trajan (in 115-116 AD).

The 4th century Christian historian Paulus Orosius records that the violence so depopulated the province of Cyrenaica that new colonies had to be established by Hadrian:
"The Jews ... waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out."
By 203 the entire southern frontier of Roman Africa had been dramatically expanded and re-fortified. Desert nomads could no longer safely raid the region's interior and escape back into the Sahara. 

Roman Libya slowly declined in importance and became something of a backwater area to both Rome and Constantinople. 

Cyrenaica was split into two provinces: "Libya Superior" and "Libya Inferior".  Each was under a governor of the modest rank of praeses. Both belonged to the Diocese of Egypt, within the Praetorian prefecture of Oriens.

In April 534 AD, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect.  Roman rule in Libya was strengthened, but the fighting continued against the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

The province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584 AD. Eventually, under Heraclius, Libia and Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.

But that was the last Roman achievement: in 642 AD Moslem Arabs started to conquer Libya. In 670 AD all Libya was in the hands of the Arabs. Roman Libya was no more.

The coastal Fortress of Taucheira was in the province of Libya Superior. For administration it was part of the Diocese of Egypt until 539 AD. Then it came under the Diocese of the East.
The entire area was occupied by invading Persian armies in the 610s and 620s, during the Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628

Plan of early medieval Taucheira (Torca). 
Supplied by sea, the fortress held out for years against invading Muslim armies.

Defending Roman North Africa

The Roman Fortress of Taucheira in Libya has almost totally vanished, but in its time it was a major military project of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565).

With the Roman Re-Conquest of North Africa the Emperor went on an African building spree from the Pillars of Hercules to eastern Libya.  Fortifications were being built from scratch or re-built on top of existing structures.  Justinian also created the new Limes Tripolitanus system of forts to protect the Roman coastal zone from invasion by desert tribes.

Justinian's fortifications were a clear signal to the world that Rome was back in Africa to stay.

The Fortress of Taucheira is a good example of that we here to stay spirit.

Of course, Taucheira always had city walls. They were renewed on several occasions. An inscription in the little museum of Taucheira commemorates a man named Aleximachus son of Sostratus, who had provided the money to improve the walls of the city somewhere in the first century BC.

But Justinian wanted something impressive.

Except for the stretch along the shore, the lower parts of it have survived. It must have have had about thirty towers, of which twenty-three have been excavated. Older stones were reused, like the one with an inscription on which the words Autokrator Kaisar can still be read, the Greek translation of the Latin titles Imperator and Caesar.

The massive walls of Taucheira/Arsinoe enabled the Byzantine commander Apollonius, when besieged by the Muslim forces who had invaded the Cyrenaica in 641, to hold out until 645.

This siege, of which we know next to zero, is yet another untold story of the Eastern Roman military. Obviously there were enough troops there to man the rather considerable city walls. Was the garrison re-supplied by sea from Constantinople or Italy? We do not know.

Excavations at Taucheira provide a glimpse of a coastal Cyrenaican town after the Arab conquests.  Digs have found buildings centered on two courtyards, and a bath complex.

The baths had the two plunge baths either side of the furnace and the use of stone uprights instead of the usual Roman brick pilae.  The street-plan is somewhat irregular, with winding streets and alleys that lead into the houses.

Byzantine fortress inside the city

Taucheira, main road, to the northeast

North Africa
From Alexandria to the Pillars of Hercules

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

The Buildings

But inasmuch as our account has now led us to Egypt, the close neighbour of Libya, let us now set forth how many things were done by him there also, since this Emperor found all Libya too lying under the power of barbarians and joined it to the remainder of the Roman Empire.

And the land on the left of the Nile bears the name of Libya as far as the Ocean, which on the west marks the boundary between the two continents by sending out a certain arm which opens out into this sea of ours.  All the rest of Libya has received several different names, each region being designated, presumably, by the name of the people who dwell there.  

However, the territory extending from the confines of Alexandria as far as the cities of Cyrenê, comprising the Pentapolis, is now the only region which is called by the name of Libya.  In that territory is a city one day's journey distant from Alexandria, Taphosiris by name, where they say that the god of the Egyptians, Osiris, was buried.  In this city the Emperor Justinian built many things, and in particular the residences of the magistrates and baths.

The greatest part of this land of Libya chances to have been desert, which was in general neglected.  Yet our Emperor takes thought for this land also with watchful care, so that it might not have the ill fortune to suffer anything from inroads of the Moors who inhabit the adjoining country; and to this end he established there two strongholds with garrisons, one of which they call Paratonium, while the other,   which lies not far from the Pentapolis, has received the name Antipyrgum.  

Port facilities of Taucheira

And the Pentapolis is removed from Alexandria by a twenty days' journey for an unencumbered traveller. In this region of Pentapolis the Emperor Justinian surrounded the city of Teuchira with very strong fortifications.  The circuit-wall of Bernicê he rebuilt from its lowest foundations.  In that city he also built a bath for the use of the people.  Furthermore, on the extreme boundary of the Pentapolis which faces the south, he constructed fortresses in two monasteries which bear the names Agriolodê and Dinarthisum;  and these stand as bulwarks against the barbarians of that region, so that they may not come down stealthily into Roman territory and suddenly fall upon it.

There is a certain city there, Ptolemaïs by name, which in ancient times had been prosperous and populous, but as time went on it had come to be almost deserted owing to extreme scarcity of water.  For the great majority of the population, driven by thirst, had moved from there long ago and gone wherever each one could.  

Now, however, this Emperor has restored the city's aqueduct and thus brought back to it its former measure of prosperity. The last city of Pentapolis towards the west is named Boreium. Here the mountains press close upon one another, and thus forming a barrier by their crowding, effectively close the entrance to the enemy.  This city, which had been without a wall, the Emperor enclosed with very strong defences, thus making it 
as safe as possible for the future, together with the whole country round about it.

And there are two cities which are known by the same name, each of them being called Augila. These are distant from Boreium about four days' journey for an unencumbered traveller, and to the south of it; and they are both ancient cities whose inhabitants have preserved the practices of antiquity, for they all were suffering from the disease of polytheism even up to my day.  There from ancient times there have been shrines dedicated to Ammon and to Alexander the Macedonian.  The natives actually used to make sacrifices to them even up to the reign of Justinian.  In this place there was a great throng of those called temple-slaves. 

Taucheira Church mosaic

But now the Emperor has made provision, not alone for the safety of the persons of his subjects, but he has also made it his concern to save their souls, be thus he has cared in every way for the people living there.  Indeed he by no means neglected to take thought for their material interests in an exceptional way, and also he has taught them the doctrine of the true faith, making the whole population Christians and bringing about a transformation of their polluted ancestral customs.  Moreover he built for them a Church of the Mother of God to be a guardian of the safety of the cities and of the true faith. So much, then, for this.

The city of Boreium, which lies near the barbarian Moors, has never been subject to tribute up to the present time, nor have any collectors of tribute or   taxes come to it since the creation of man.  The Jews had lived close by from ancient times, and they had an ancient temple there also, which they revered and honoured especially, since it was built, as they say, by Solomon, while he was ruling over the Hebrew nation.  But the Emperor Justinian brought it about that all these too changed their ancestral worship and have become Christians, and he transformed their temple into a church.

Next after this comes the city of Leptis Magna, which in ancient times was large and populous, though at a later time it came to be deserted for the most part, being through neglect largely buried in sand.  Our Emperor built up the circuit-wall of this city from the foundations, not however on as large a scale as it was formerly, but much smaller, in order  that the city might not again be weak because of its very size, and liable to capture by the enemy, and also be exposed to the sand.  

At present, indeed, he has left the buried portion of the city just as it was, covered by the sand heaped up in mounds, but the rest of the city he has surrounded with a very strongly built wall.  Here he dedicated to the Mother of God a very notable shrine, and built four other churches.  Furthermore, he rebuilt the palace, which had been built here in early times and now lay in ruins, the work of the ancient Emperor Severus, who was born in this place and so left this palace as a memorial of his good fortune.

In this city the Emperor Justinian also built public baths, and he erected the circuit-wall of the city from its lowest foundations, and by means both of the baths and of all the other improvements gave it the character of a city.

The east wall of the Taucheira fortress

Southwest gate

Taucheira, East Basilica

(Procopius)      (Medieval North Africa 650-800)      (Taucheira)

(Livius)      (Tocra)      (Crete and Cyrenaica)      (Cyrenaica)      (Tocra)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Defending Byzantine Spain - Limes in Spania

The Limitanei were the static frontier guard troops that replaced the legions in the fourth century CE. The Romans were responding to the fact their long Danube and Rhine frontiers were subject to constant barbarian raids and that their cities were no longer secure.  The Limitanei may have been stationed in Byzantine Spania.
Byzantine Spania

The reestablished Eastern Roman province of Spania began with the Emperor Justinian in 552AD.

The Emperor sent troops to Spania to take sides in an internal civil war. Which side the Romans helped is unclear. But like many such forces over the centuries that were sent to "help" the locals they did not want to leave once the work was done. Thus the Eastern Roman province of Spania was created and part of Spain was once again Roman.

The province only lasted until 624 (only 72 years). The Visigoths took advantage of the Persian Empire's conquest of Roman Syria, Anatolia and Egypt to crush and absorb a helpless Roman Spain that could expect zero reinforcements from a hard pressed Constantinople.

That brings me to a 2010 article I found on Google:  Defending Byzantine Spain: Frontiers and Diplomacy by Jamie Wood.

Talk about a specialized subject!

The bad part is copy and pasting does not work on his site. So I will have to so a summary of his findings.

Visigoth Warrior 

The Conquest

In 551 or 552 one of the Visigothic factions asked the Romans for help in a civil war.  In July, 552 the Romans won the Battle of Taginae in central Italy. The Gothic Wars in Italy were coming to an end.

It was perhaps at this point extra Roman troops became available to send to Spain.  It is unclear how many troops were sent or even who the commander of the force was.

Some claim the expedition commander was Liberius, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy.  This is doubtful as Liberius was 80 plus years old at this point and no doubt had his hands full in Italy.  Liberius (under Justinian's orders?) may have ordered troops to Spain as part of Justinian's plan to reconquer the West.

How many troops were sent? There are no records. It would have to have been a large enough force to not only defend itself but to engage any serious enemy. An army of 3,000 to 5,000 men would have met those needs and would be typical of the period.

The army was probably sent in 552 and made landfall in June or July. Roman forces landed probably at the mouth of the Guadalete or perhaps Málaga and joined with Visigoth allies and marched south from Mérida towards Seville in August or September 552. 

The war dragged on for two more years. Liberius returned to Constantinople by May 553 and it is likely that a second Roman force from Italy, which had only recently been pacified after the Gothic War, landed at Cartagena in early March 555 and marched inland to Baza (Basti) in order to join up with their compatriots near Seville. 

Their landing at Cartagena was violent. The native population, which included the family of Leander of Seville, was well disposed to the Visigoths and the Roman government of the city was forced to suppress their freedoms, an oppression which lasted decades into their occupation. Leander and most of his family fled and his writings preserve the strong anti-Byzantine sentiment.

Athanagild, the new king of the Goths, quickly tried to rid Spain of the Byzantines, but failed. The Byzantines occupied many coastal cities in Baetica and this region was to remain a Byzantine province until its reconquest by the Visigoths barely seventy years later.

Reconstruction concept of a Limes mile castle along Hadrian's Wall

Limes in Spania?

The conquest began with the Roman reconquest of Septem (modern Ceuta) in North Africa.  A garrison and naval force was stationed there under the command of a Tribune who was responsible for monitoring event in Spain and Gaul. The Balearic Islands were also rapidly occupied. These twin actions helped secure Roman North Africa from attacks by Visigoth Spain.

But once the Romans has reoccupied southern Spain the question remain on how to defend it from invasion.

The most prevalent theory is Roman southern Spain was defended by a limes-style fortified frontier.

A popular theory is the Spania limes consisted of a network of fortified cities interspersed with smaller defensive positions.  More advanced positions, Castra, would be linked by roads and defended by Limitanei troops.

The author of the above study trashes the idea of a Limes Spania.  I would disagree.  The Romans always fortified their frontier outposts.  If the Byzantines could fortify and man outposts in the deserts of Libya and Tunisia there is no reason to think they would not do the same in Spain.

The budget of Constantinople was always tight. I have no doubt Roman troops in Spania took over existing Visigoth Castra and cities and repaired or expanded defenses.

Though there is little "proof" of a Spania Limes the fact that for 70 years the province was not overrun by Visigothic armies is indirect evidence that serious fortifications backed by Roman troops were in place.

The Visagoths only made advances in Spain when the Persians conquered Roman Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.  We can conclude that military pressure in the east forced Constantinople to strip outlying provinces like Spania of troops so they could join the war against Persia.

Only with the Spania Limes under or unmanned could the Visigoths drive out the Romans in 624.

Map showing Byzantine Spain
and North Africa c. 580

The Walls of Ceuta, North Africa
Ceuta was directly across from, and offered support to, Byzantine Spania. The fortifications were originally built by the Byzantines and later improved on by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Ceuta is still ruled by Spain.
See More:
Byzantine Morocco

Diplomacy and Defense

War is expensive and the outcome often uncertain. So warfare was often the last resort.

The Eastern Romans of the period had no problem using force to achieve their goals.  But it was often more productive to use proxies, diplomacy or to manipulate factions in neighboring nations.  An anonymous Byzantine treatise on strategy states:
  • "Negotiating for peace may be chose before other means, since it might very well offer the best prospect for protecting our own interests."
In a number of cases the Byzantines may have taken advantage of dissent within the Visigothic kingdom.  In 571 and 576 the Visigoths put down revolts in Cordoba and Orospeda which just happened to border Spania.  A 580s rebellion may also have been Byzantine inspired. When the revolt was defeated the family of the rebellion leader fled to Spania and the protection of Roman troops.

Keeping your enemy divided was perhaps more important than the number of Roman troops stationed in the province.


It appears a mint was established in the province. Gold coins were produced locally that matched those from other Roman mints.

The chief administrative official in Spania was the magister militum Spaniae, meaning "master of the military of Spain." The magister militum governed civil and military affairs in the province and was subordinate only to the Emperor. Typically the magister was a member of the highest aristocratic class and bore the rank of patrician. The office, though it only appears in records for the first time in 589, was probably a creation of Justinian, as was the mint, which issued provincial currency until the end of the province (c. 624).

The first known governor, Comenciolus, repaired the gates of Cartagena in lieu of the "barbarians" (i.e. the Visigoths) and left an inscription (dated 1 September 589) in the city which survives to this day. It is in Latin and may reflect the continued use of Latin as the administrative language of the province.

The fact that high level Patricans were sent to Spania suggests there was a lot more at stake than a few coastal towns. That the province was considered important and extended much further inland.

Coinciding with the Persian invasion of the east, by the 610s and 620s the number of references to Visigothic aggression increased. Letters show Roman cities were taken, territory lost and prisoners captured.

No doubt troops were withdrawn to fight in either the Balkans or against the Persians. Weakened it was only a matter of time and the province fell to the Visigoths in 624.

Limes Fortifications in Spain?
Eastern Roman rule in Spania lasted only 70 years so a full blown Limes system may not have developed.  But in an age where might makes right something was in place that for decades kept the Visigothic armies from invading. Most likely it was a somewhat less formal series of defensive fortifications.

Reconstruction of a Limes strongpoint.

The Western Roman Empire in 565 AD
In yellow are the lands re-conquered by the Emperor Justinian
and returned to the Roman Empire including Spania.

(Byzantine Spain)      (Spania)