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

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)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rome Collapses the Bulgarian Empire - Battle of Kleidion

Middle Byzantine Arms and Armor
Vito Maglie of the group I Cavalieri de li Terre Tarentine wearing the 11th C reconstruction of the klivanion of St. Nestorius by Hellenic Armors.

"Basil the Bulgar-Slayer"
Ends The Bulgarian Empire

For centuries the Balkans provinces of the Roman Empire were assaulted by endless waves of barbarian tribes from Central Asia. But by far the most successful of the invading tribes was the Bulgars.

The Bulgars were semi-nomadic warrior tribes originating from Central Asia whose exact ethnic origin is controversial. They spoke a form of Turkic language and during their migration westwards they absorbed other ethnic groups.

The first clear mention of the Bulgars in written sources dates from 480, when they served as the allies of the Emperor Zeno (r. 474–491) against the Ostrogoths.   In the first half of the 6th century the Bulgars occasionally raided the Roman Empire.

By 681, the Eastern Romans were compelled to sign a humiliating peace treaty, forcing them to acknowledge Bulgaria as an independent state, to cede the territories to the north of the Balkan Mountains and to pay an annual tribute.

The campaigns of each side seesawed back and forth with neither empire able to overcome the other.

It was standard Byzantine practice to attack the Bulgarians whenever there was no active campaigning against the Arabs.

Tsar Samuel I

The last great Bulgarian enemy of Rome was Samuel, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire from 997 to 1014

After defeating the Magyars in the north, Samuel, serving as a general, turned his attention south and in 896 routed the Roman army in the battle of Boulgarophygon. 

Virtually the entire Roman army was destroyed. 

Samuel led the Bulgarian troops to Constantinople, burning villages en route. According to the Muslim historian al-Tabari, Leo VI was desperate after the consecutive refusals of peace, and was forced to gather an army of Arab prisoners of war and send them against the Bulgarians with the promise of freedom. The Bulgarians were stopped just outside Constantinople and Samuel agreed to negotiate.

Byzantium was obliged to pay Bulgaria an annual tribute in exchange for the return of allegedly 120,000 captured Byzantine soldiers and civilians. Under the treaty, the Byzantines also ceded an area between the Black Sea and Strandzha to the Bulgarian Empire.

Samuel had proven himself a good general and a deadly enemy of Rome.  The wars go on and on even as Samuel becomes Tsar in 997. Many Byzantine fortresses fell under Bulgarian rule. The Bulgarian successes in the west raised fears in Constantinople causing Emperor Basil II to attack the Bulgars over and over.

The year 1000 saw a turn in the course of Byzantine-Bulgarian warfare. Basil II had amassed an army larger and stronger than that of the Bulgarians. Determined to definitively conquer Bulgaria, he moved much of the battle-seasoned military forces from the eastern campaigns against the Arabs to the Balkans and Samuel was forced to defend rather than attack.

The multi-year grinding showdown was beginning.

Basil II, The Warrior Emperor

It is a neck and neck race between the Emperors Heraclius (610 - 641) and Basil II (960 - 1025) for the best warrior Emperor.

In that contest Heraclius, to me, is the clear winner.  Heraclius totally crushed the Persians and saved a Roman Empire that was a blink away from total extinction.

Still Basil was unique. As both a general and Emperor he had no interest in living the easy life of the well born elites.  He fought and ruled from the saddle.

Basil was called "The Father of the Army".  He was worshipped by his troops. Instead of issuing orders from distant palaces Constantinople we see Basil living the life of a soldier with his troops and even eating the same daily rations as a common infantryman. All reports say he was a brave soldier and a fine horseman.

He also took the children of deceased officers of his army under his protection and offered them shelter, food, and education. Many of them later became his soldiers and officers and came to think of him as a father.

Basil successfully campaigned against the Arab Fatimid armies and marched as far south as modern Lebanon forcing a 10 year truce with the Caliph in 1001 which was renewed in 1011 and again in 1023.

Turning to the north, Basil acquired considerable territory in what is now southern Georgia. eastern Turkey and western Iran.  Basil also "persuaded" the ruler of Armenia to give the nation to Rome on his death.

The Empire achieved its greatest expansion ever directly to the east, in excess of all Roman conquests.

With the east secure Basil turned to Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactors
(Screenshot HunHorda)

The Bulgarian Army

Originally the core of the Bulgarian Army was a force of heavy cavalry ranging from 12,000 to 30,000 horsemen. The reconquest of northeastern Bulgaria by the Romans reduced the recruiting grounds for the Bulgarians reducing the size of the cavalry units and making them more of a light cavalry force.

The Bulgarian army was well armed according to the Avar model: the soldiers had a sabre or a sword, a long spear and a bow with an arrow-quiver on the back. On the saddle they hung a round shield, a mace and a lasso, which the Bulgarians called arkani. On their decorated belts the soldiers carried the most necessary objects such as flints and steel, a knife, a cup and a needle case. 

The heavy cavalry was supplied with metal armor and helmets. The horses were also armored. Armor was of two types — chain-mail and plate armor. The commanders had belts with golden or silver buckles which corresponded to their rank and title.

With the reduction of the cavalry the infantry's importance grew and the tactics changed to reflect the new conditions: the ambush, although employed in the past, now became the cornerstone of Bulgarian tactics.  During this period, the Bulgarians acquired a reputation for their skillful archers.

In the battle of Kleidion the Bulgarian army numbered around 20,000 soldiers. According some estimates the total number of the army including the squads of local militia reached a maximum level of 45,000.

The Roman Army

At this point the army numbered about 110,000 men.

The key is no one agrees as to the mix of troops.  Were 30,000 the regular standing units backing by local thematic troops?  40,000?

The core of the army were the tagmata regiments - the professional standing army of the Empire. They were formed by Emperor Constantine V after the suppression of a major revolt in the Opsician Theme in 741–743. Anxious to safeguard his throne from the frequent revolts of the thematic armies, Constantine reformed the old guard units of Constantinople into the new tagmata regiments, which were meant to provide the emperor with a core of professional and loyal troops. 

They were typically headquartered in or around Constantinople, although in later ages they sent detachments to the provinces. The tagmata were exclusively heavy cavalry units and formed the core of the imperial army on campaign, augmented by the provincial levies of thematic troops who were more concerned with local defense.

The Byzantine Empire's military tradition originated in the late Roman period, and its armies always included professional infantry soldiers. Though they varied in relative importance during the Byzantine army's history, under Basil II in particular heavy infantry were an important component of the Byzantine army. These troops generally had mail armor, large shields, and were armed with swords and spears. Under militarily competent emperors such as Basil II, they were among the best heavy infantry in the world.

Click to enlarge

Battle of Kleidion - July, 1014

Basil’s systematic campaign to reduce Samuel’s territory— and prestige—continued year after year.

The account in Scylitzes says:

  • "The emperor continued to invade Bulgaria every year without interruption, laying waste everything .... Samuel could do nothing in open country nor could he oppose the emperor in formal battle. He was shattered on all fronts and his own forces were declining so he decided to close the way into Bulgaria with ditches and fences."

Simply, Samuel would be overthrown by his own people if he could not defend the frontier against repeated Roman invasions.

To protect himself, as much as Bulgaria, Samuel gathered as large an army as possible for a showdown with the Romans. Some claimed his army was 45,000 strong.

Weakened as he was from endless Roman invasions that number was no doubt inflated.  The Tsar's forces were already in decline and manpower harder to come by.

Was the Bulgarian army 20,000?  25,000?  30,000?  There is no way to know. We can speculate that Samuel gathered everyone possible for this last fight. The fate of the nation was on the line.

Through spies Basil either knew of the gathering Bulgarian army and/or wanted to make a larger than normal attack.

Basil also gathered a larger than normal army. He prepared carefully and gathered to him some of his most experienced commanders. It appears that the truce with the Arabs allowed Basil to withdraw a number of regiments from the eastern front to use in the Balkan campaign.  A Byzantine army of 25,000 would be a bit larger than than the normal sized field army and might be close to the army that marched from Constantinople.

Struma River Valley
Emperor Basil's army marched up the valley to engage the Bulgarians.  The narrow nature of the valley allowed the Bulgarians to build defenses and hold off the Roman advance.

When Basil II set out to attack Macedonia once again, the stage was set for a major battle, which turned out to be decisive. It was fought in July 1014 in the Kleidion Pass.

Tsar Samuel's army of perhaps 20,000 or more deployed in a narrow gorge of the Struma River, between two mountains named Belasitsa and Ozgrazhden. In that gorge a strong wooden palisade was constructed on the lower slopes of each mountain to hamper the Byzantine advance. In addition, two strong towers were built to guard the flanks of the palisade.

Emperor Basil II's army (probably at least equal to the Bulgarian force) crossed the border. The Roman army followed a road that ran beside the Struma River, which had been a major route into the Bulgarian heartland in years past.

Here we find a situation much like King Leonidas at Thermopylae.  The valley is fairly narrow. Roman numbers and/or professional organization would not count for much. This allowed the defending Bulgarians an advantage. 

The Roman army was stopped by a thick wooden wall, defended by Bulgarian soldiers. The Byzantines attacked the palisade immediately, but were repulsed with heavy casualties.

With this small Bulgarian success, Samuel split his command. He tried to distract Basil by sending a portion of his army (several thousand?) under General Nestoritsa south to attack the Roman city of Thessalonika.

Roman troops under Theophylact Botaneiates, the strategos (Governor-General) of the city and his son Mihail managed to defeat them outside the city walls in a bloody battle. Theophylactus captured many soldiers and a large quantity of military equipment. 

With victory complete Theophylact marched north to add his victorious troops to Basil's army.

Bulgar warriors in a reenactment,
26 July 2006. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

On about July 26 or 27, Emperor Basil's main army arrived in the narrow gorge of Kleidion Pass. Seeing the Bulgarian-built walls manned by thousands of soldiers, Basil ordered an immediate attack on them. The enemy, however, had erected their palisades carefully. 

The initial Byzantine attack was thrown back, suffering heavy losses. Over the next two or three days, several more attempts were made to breach the Bulgarian walls, to no avail. During that time, Botaneiates and his Thessalonikan soldiers joined Basil's army. Hoping their added weight would tip the balance in his favor, Basil threw them against the Slavic walls, to no avail.

Shades of Thermopylae

In the late afternoon of July 28, Basil was approached by his general Nikephoros Xiphias. The general offered to take several thousand Roman soldiers out of the main camp. They were to take mules with them, making it appear they were traveling south to replenish their supplies. They would then march over a steep mountain path to fall in the rear of the Bulgarian entrenchments. 

Basil gave his enthusiastic approval of the plan. Later that day, Nikephorus and his men left the Byzantine encampment, making a great show of their leaving. After traveling an hour or so south, the Roman force veered westward. Local guides directed them through steep passes of Mt. Belasitsa. By early morning of July 29, the Byzantine flanking force found itself in the rear of the Bulgarian lines.  Nikephorus ordered an immediate attack on the Bulgarian rear.

A surprise flanking maneuver and attack in a defender's rear is perhaps the most deadly of all military tactics.  The defenders always have peace of mind knowing their back is secure. Once an enemy shatters that feeling of security the defending army almost always panics and runs for safety.

That story repeated itself here. The Bulgarians were taken completely by surprise, now finding themselves hard-pressed from front and rear. The Bulgars and their Slavic kinsmen abandoned the towers to face the new threat. With defenses abandoned Basil's army was able to break through the Bulgarian wall and come to grips with the defenders.

In the confusion of the rout, thousands of Bulgarian troops were killed and the remainder desperately attempted to flee westwards.

Tsar Samuel had been absent from the battlefield that day miles to the west in his fortress at Strumitsa, conferring with his son, the Tsarevitch Gabriel Radomir. Upon receiving word of the battle, both men gathered their personal retinues and rode eastward to join the fight.

Samuel attempted to rally his troops near the town of Makrievo. Unfortunately, the battle was basically over and the Bulgarian army was in full rout. At one point, the tsar either dismounted or was unhorsed trying to urge his men to fight. Realizing the danger, Radomir grabbed hold of his father and put the old man on the tsarevitch's horse, and the two men rode together to escape the Byzantine pursuers.

The battle of Kleidion was over.

Cavalry vs Infantry

Again we lack so much detail on this battle.  Byzantine cavalry was the mailed fist of the army.  But in this case I doubt that cavalry played much of a part until the latter part of the battle.

It would have been the infantry (not horses) assaulting the dug-in Bulgarian wooden palisade.  I suspect it would have also been infantry sent up steep mountain paths to flank the Bulgarians.  Once the flanking attack was taking place it would likely have been infantry (or dismounted cavalry) punching through the Bulgarian palisade to make holes for the cavalry to ride through.

This would have been another victory for the perpetually ignored Byzantine infantry.

The Byzantines defeat the Bulgarians (top). Emperor Samuel dying at the sight of his blinded soldiers (bottom).

A Setback and Mass Blindings

After his victory on 29 July 1014, Basil II marched westwards and seized the small fortress of Matsukion near Strumitsa, but the town itself remained in Bulgarian hands. 
With things looking fairly secure the Emperor sent an army led by one of his most capable generals, Theophylactus Botaniates, to destroy the palisades to the south of the town. Thus he would clear the way of the Byzantines to Thessalonika through the valley of the Vardar river.

The historian Vasil Zlatarski specifies the battlefield at the Kosturino gorge between the mountains Belasitsa and Plavush. The Byzantines could not organize their defense in the narrow pass and were annihilated. Most of their troops perished including their commander. 
Botaniates was killed by the heir to the Bulgarian throne Gavril Radomir, who pierced the Byzantine general with his spear. Upon the news of that unexpected and heavy defeat, Basil II was forced to immediately retreat eastwards and not through the planned route via Thessalonika.

In retaliation for the death of Botaneiates, Basil ordered the blinding of between 8,000 to 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners.

Basil was in a foul mood, considering he had lost of one of his favored generals Botaneiates in an ambush. He pronounced that the Bulgarians, once vassals of the East Roman Empire, were traitors and would be punished thusly. 

The Bulgarians were divided into groups of 100 men. All the men in each group were blinded, save for one man who was left with one eye. Then, these thousands of men were released to roam the mountains, hoping to find their way back to the Bulgar capital. In early October, some of these groups found their way to Samuel's capital. 

As the mutilated men were paraded before him, the shock and horror of the treatment of his soldiers was too much for the tsar. He fell into an apoplectic fit, and went into a coma. Two days later, he died. As a result of his treatment of the Bulgarian prisoners, Basil acquired the nickname of "Basil Bulgaroktonos" or "Basil the Bulgar-Slayer."

Middle Byzantine Armor
11th C Dekarkh of Skutatoi - Rick Orli's group Stratēlatai Tagma.
Just one of a number of infantry impressions from this period.


The Bulgarian state and army were fatally weakened by Kleidon. 

Byzantine casualties are unknown. By contrast, the Bulgarian army was almost completely destroyed. The Byzantine victory essentially destroyed the Bulgarian Empire, though it would take another 4 years of mopping up before Bulgarian lands were consolidated into the Roman orbit. 

As a result of the battle of Kleidion, the Bulgarian army suffered heavy casualties that could not be restored. The ability of the central Bulgar government to control the peripheral and interior provinces of the Empire was reduced and power gravitated into the hands of the local and provincial governors. Many of them voluntarily surrendered to Basil rather than continue a war they knew would end badly for them.

The battle also affected the Serbs and the Croats, who were forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the Emperor after 1018. The borders of the Roman Empire were restored to the Danube for the first time since the 7th century, allowing control the entire Balkan peninsula from the Danube to the Peloponnese and from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea.

Click to enlarge
First Bulgarian Empire, early 10th century.

Click to enlarge
Bulgaria under the rule of Tsar Samuel
Campaign after campaign saw Roman armies probe deeper
and deeper into the Bulgarian Empire.

Click for full sized map

Click to enlarge
The Roman Empire of Basil II
Basil not only stabilized Roman borders in the east, but also conquered new lands and added them to the Empire.
But Basil's return of the Balkans to Roman rule was a monstrously huge achievement.

(Byzantine army)    (Bulgarian army)    (Bulgarian Empire Military)

(Bulgarian Empire)    (Grand strategy)    (Kleidion)    (Kleidion)

(Basil)    (Samuel)    (Wars)

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)