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


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

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

Roman Fortress of Viminacium in Serbia


Late Roman Infantry
(pinterest)


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

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


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

Castrum

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

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

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

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


Viminacium was the permanent base of the Seventh Legion Claudia.
(Pinterest)

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

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


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

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


Byzantine Era  (395AD to 600?)

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

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


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

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

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


I have my doubts that the city was destroyed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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







Viminacium was a Legion outpost and capital
of the Eastern Roman province of Moesia.
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Think of the word "Porous"

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

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

Model of Viminacium

Roman Legion camp of Viminacium

Viminacium







Viminacium Roman Aqueduct

Re-Building The Danube Limes


By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
Procopius - Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




(Procopius Buildings)      (Viminacium)      (Moesia)

(Viminacium)      (Viminacium)      (Viminacium)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Byzantium Invades The Kingdom of Italy - The Gothic War Begins


Goth Warriors
(Pinterest)
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Adding Rome back into
the Roman Empire


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Roman Navy was vital in the campaigns of reconquest.
_________________________


By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

History of the Wars, Book V



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

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

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

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


Two Invasions


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

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

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

Emperor Justinian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belisarius and his Staff
(Johnny Shumates Portfolio)

Late Roman Infantry
(Pinterest)

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

Roman Re-Conquest of Dalmatia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Century Eastern Empire Cavalry


(History of the Wars)      (Gothic War)

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Decline of the Roman Army before Manzikert


Byzantine warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.
(Pinterest)

A Power Struggle in the Empire


This comes under the category "You can find anything on the Internet".

By accident I found a paper from Leiden University in the Netherlands dealing with the conflict between the Eastern Roman Emperor and his landed nobility. Mixed with that conflict was a weakening of the Byzantine economy, coinage, corruption, invasions and attacks on the independent Farmer-Soldier who made up the backbone of the Roman Army.

By the 11th century the Roman Empire was again at the height of its power following campaigns in the East that restored much territory lost to the Arabs in the seventh and eighth century.

Following the Arab conquests the Roman Empire was greatly reduced in size and less secure than before. The main economic unit had become the independent farmer who lived in small communities and paid their taxes based on the land they owned. The civil aristocracy of the Roman period had mostly disappeared, but a new elite was forming on the fringes of the empire. They held military functions in the provinces where they enjoyed great power thanks to the thematic organisation of the empire; their military function was combined with civil duties and authority.

During the ninth century this elite became more and more prominent, they increasingly found their positions within the bureaucracy to be more or less hereditary since the emperors relied on these military men.  To prevent these aristocrats from endangering the fiscal backbone of the empire (the independent farmer) by acquiring their land the state started legislating against these aristocrats. The struggle over land ownership was one not fought out over a decade but rather over centuries, during a period of great change for the Byzantine Empire.

The land legislation uses the term dynatoi (δυνατοί) which literally means “powerful”. The emperors, at least in theory, tried to defend others groups from these dynatoi.

Land in the possession of farmers was needed by the state in order to receive the gold, through taxes, needed to effectively run the state. If this system was endangered it could mean disaster for the state when it could no longer meet its obligations.

This is a scholarly work and very detailed. But it gives us a feel for a "swirl of anarchy" that was developing within the Empire before the disaster of Manzikert in 1071.

Below is a portion of the much longer paper.
_________________________


Prof. Dr. P. Stephenson and Prof. Dr. P.C.M. Hoppenbrouwers 
History, University of Leiden

The conquests made by the Byzantines during the 10th century, and especially by the last three emperors, would be the last conquests made for a long time. Haldon estimates the total number of soldiers during the 10th century to have been around 110,000. This number would be brought down during the 11th century as emperors after Basil II preferred to use diplomacy, tribute and intimidation rather than military strength.

During the reign of Basil II buffer states were created to stabilize the borders, which would be part of the policy followed by his successors. The army slowly moved away from the thematic organisation and became a local undertaking. This meant that larger threats could only be countered from Constantinople. There was a realisation among the 11th century emperors that an army the size of Basil II’s army was too expensive to maintain on a permanent basis and preference was given to mercenaries who could be maintained for shorter periods of time without the additional training cost.

We get a glimpse of the state of the army just before the battle of Manzikert (1071) which was a decisive defeat for the Byzantines. John Zonaras comments that: “It was not easy to give strength to the army, which had been neglected for such a long time”.

A few lines down he also writes that the Sultan was fearful of the Roman army, especially since it was led by the emperor in person, which gives the impression that the Roman army was not in such a deplorable state as has been assumed.

Manuel I Comnenus gold hyperpyron.
In 1034 we saw to start of the debasement of the Byzantine gold hyperpyron coins. The debasement was gradual at first, but then accelerated rapidly. about 21 carats (87.5% pure) during the reign of Constantine IX (1042–1055), 18 carats (75%) under Constantine X (1059–1067), 16 carats (66.7%) under Romanus IV (1068–1071), 14 carats (58%) under Michael VII (1071–1078), 8 carats (33%) under Nicephorus III (1078–1081) and 0 to 8 carats during the first eleven years of the reign of Alexius I (1081–1118).  More . . . .


A major economic theme during the eleventh century that affected the state and the aristocracy was certainly the debasement of the (golden) coinage and changes in the tax system. Both had great effects for the state economy however more importantly they were intertwined and had numerous side effects. The simple need for more money in order to pay expenses, both civil and military, was a problem seen before and debasement had not been the solution or preferred method then.

The solution often preferred and used by emperors was to simply cut expenses of either the military or civil apparatus. This was done by Heraklios, Isaac I, Nikephoros III, Alexios I and Andronikos II. A more drastic alternative lay in confiscation, either from the populace or the Church, the latter being used by Isaac I and Michael VII in the period here discussed.

Michael IV was the first emperor to debase his coinage (a 4% loss in gold content) and while he had the previously mentioned alternatives available he did not use them, but rather resorted to debasement. He might have been familiar with the practice through his profession as money-changer. The rapid debasement was stopped when Alexios I came to power in 1081 and had military successes on all fronts, reformed the coinage, restructured the financial administration and reformed the tax system. This chapter will describe not only the debasement but also the combination with newer forms of taxation and how that effected the relation between the aristocracy and the state.

With the end of Basil II’s reign there is also an end to land legislation as far as we know. It seems unlikely that stricter laws were written and enacted when looking at the policy of many of the eleventh century emperors. On the other hand it seems even more unlikely that legislation was not used when it suited the emperor or his administration. . . .  Even if the state no longer had the power it had during the reign of Basil II the land legislation was still a valuable piece of propaganda. However it should also be noted that the insertion of new text also included texts that actually helped magnates to gain more land.

Other traces of the land legislation can be found in the histories, like Psellos or Skylitzes, however most are favorable to the dynatoi rather than opposing them. Romanos III Argyros (1028 – 1034) abolished a law that was written by Basil II concerning something called allelengyon by Skylitzes. Its function was to return great landowners to existing fiscal units so that they could not escape the shared fiscal obligation active in village communities, rather than function autonomously and creating their own fiscal unit. That this measure was unpopular with the great landowners and perhaps more importantly, the church, is evident. Romanos lent them a sympathetic ear and abolished this law.

As stated before Michael IV was the first emperor who debased his coinage, a process that continued until the Komnenian reform of 1091. During the reign of Constantine IX we see the first significant debasement, with coins of 18 carats from the latter part of his rule. Modern day historians have two main explanations. The first being that of a fiscal disaster (mostly linked to military defeat) and subsequent emergency debasements to increase the state’s ability to spend. The second is that of “expansionism” which states that debasement was an effect of the expanding economy, more coins were needed for use in the market.

Costas Kaplanis has recently argued that the debasement first started under Constantine IX and was a response to the Pecheneg invasion in 1046/1047. The general debasement up to that point was hardly noticeable and was conducted over a period of nearly a hundred years. The severity of the Pecheneg invasion has up to this point been underestimated; it left the empire bankrupt and vulnerable to invasions in the East (which indeed then happened under the Seljuk Turks). Kaplanis’ reasoning is a realistic explanation, one backed up by Hendy, Angold and to some extent Harvey. One need not assume an advanced economical knowledge in the Byzantine Empire

The expansionist explanation was first put forward by Morrison and is supported by Oikonomides and Lemerle. It describes the debasement as a method of increasing coins in circulation (with a lower gold content so more coins can be struck) in order to meet economic growth. One of the key arguments is that the debasement was gradual and was not really noticed by contemporaries. It is not until the 1070’s that we see a rapid debasement that was certainly linked to crisis (following the loss of Bari in 1071, the defeat of Manzikert and the internal chaos that followed). Though the expansionist view is rather sophisticated and for it to work a lot has to be assumed concerning demographics, increase in trade and economic expansion can be seen in a broader context, as Oikonomides has done.  He shows that the need for gold (mostly in coins) was not something that first started after 1046/1047, when we assume the first debasement was made in reaction to the Pecheneg wars. The Peira shows an increase in interest rates, certainly before 1045, from 6% to 8,33% which is an indication that money was in short supply.

The Senate from HBO's Rome
Selling The Post of Senator

By 
the sixth century the Senate had ceased to meet in its own building and instead assembled in the Palace of Constantinople under the watchful eye of the Emperor. The power of the Senate progressively decreased over the centuries. By this point becoming a Senator was little more than social status and had become just another fundraising tool for the Empire's annual budget.  (Senate)


Though not necessarily linked with the increased interest rate, the return of investment on honorary titles decreased, due to a price increase. For example the title of protospatharios now cost 20 litrai of gold instead of 18.

Constantine IX Monomachos and Constantine X Doukas opened the doors of the senate for the “noveaux riches”. Psellos notes during the reign of Constantine IX:

  • The doors of the Senate were thrown open to nearly all the rascally vagabonds of the market, and the honor was bestowed not on two or three, nor on a mere handful, but the whole gang was elevated to the highest offices of state by a single decree, immediately after he became emperor.” 

And on the reign of Constantine X:

  • “The government officials, their deputies, the minor dignitaries, even the manual workers, all received something. In the case of the last-named, he actually raised their social status. Until his time there had been a sharp distinction between the class of ordinary citizens and the Senate, but Constantine did away with it. Henceforth no discrimination was made between worker and Senator, and they were merged in one body.” 

This new influx of senators generated revenue for the treasury as they indubitably had to buy their offices and high honors. It also shows that honors at court were still very much in demand and popular even if it was unlikely you would regain your investment.

New capital was found as these new senators had been outside of the rogai system, but the social fabric of court was also affected. The opening of the senate has mostly been explained in a fiscal sense, which was undoubtedly the main reason behind it, it can however also be seen in a political sense. By opening the senate to groups that had previously been banned from participation in the political elite both emperors created a new aristocracy of noveaux riches. But perhaps more importantly these new senators were representatives of the increasingly richer people of Constantinople rather than cultured courtiers or provincial aristocracy.

Michael V made the mistake of going against the wishes of the populace of Constantinople by banning Zoë and Theodora, the last living heirs of the Macedonian line and the nieces of Basil II. He even tried to ally himself with the people; his proclamation was read out loud at the forum of Constantine the Great to the citizens. He promised them: ‘as for you, my people, if you maintain your favorable disposition towards me, you will acquire great honours and benefits, living an untroubled life. ‘.

The citizens were not impressed by these words and took offence that someone like Michael V (of relatively lowly birth) would oust the nieces of Basil II and last representatives of the Macedonian dynasty. They replied: ‘we don’t want a cross-trampling caulker for emperor, but the original and hereditary ruler: our mother Zoe!’ Constantine IX and X both gave out honors to the representatives of the people, mostly through the guilds, when they established their rule, no doubt in part to gain their support.

We can also find other clues that gold had become scarce early on in the eleventh century and that the state had to devise ways of acquiring it. John the Orphanotrophos was a shrewd politician and devised several ways to increase taxation and state income. Skylitzes mentions John’s tax-regime on multiple occasions:

  • “He added this over and above the public taxes: that every village should pay an aerikon tax, each one according to its ability: one village four pieces of gold, another six and so on up to twenty, plus other shameful tolls to generate income which it would be a disgrace to mention. John put the official’s appointment up for sale and gave everybody his head in wrongdoing, filling the world with ten thousand woes. Judges were levying taxes on the people with impunity and nobody cared a farthing for what was going on. . . . they rebelled and threw off the Roman yoke as on account of the Orphanotrophos’ greed and insatiate desire for riches.”

The first mentioned aerikon tax was a tax that had existed during Justinian’s reign in the sixth century and was still in existence in the eleventh. It is unclear what it was a tax on, most likely cattle or other animals that were needed for the army (since it is mentioned in Leo VI’s Taktika as a tax paid by soldiers). This tax was not invented but increased by John the Orphanotrophos and is a prime example of the increase in secondary taxes.

Emperor Constantine IX
With one hand the Emperor organized an allied army to face a Turkish invasion. But with the other hand he deliberately disbanded the eastern frontier border forces in order to raise quick cash. 


One of his most notorious measures was to start taxing Bulgaria in gold rather than in kind as had been the case since Basil II conquered Bulgaria (which the last quote alludes to). The belief that this caused the rebellion of Deljan has recently been refuted, however unpopular such changes may have been. Other increases of secondary taxes were employed, especially through the possibility to buy out military service and other special corvées. These special corvées were named angareiai and could be anything from road, bridge or fortification building right up to the cutting of wood and even ship building.

Constantine IX Monomachos even disbanded the 5,000 soldiers of the Iberian theme, which was the main defensive line against invasions from the East like Seljuk Turks. He made it mandatory for them to pay ‘heavy taxes’ instead of serving the army.

(EDITOR - This portion of the paper is so important. The Emperor was so consumed with the need for gold coin that he foolishly and deliberately weakened the Roman Army in Anatolia facing invasion by the Turks.)

Perhaps the most well known measure John the Orphanotrophos took is the increase in taxfarming (the second from the above quotes mentions tax farming). This was not in itself a new phenomenon; tax-farming was done until the seventh century. The Isaurian emperors put a hold to this practice (which is in line with their fiscal policy and other centralizing initiatives). It slowly returned during the 10th century, but it was still an exception, by the 11th century the practice had become quite common. John the Orphanotrophos began selling offices on a larger scale during the reign of Michael IV when he was basically in command of the empire.

Though the accounts are biased against John the Orphanotrophos it is still clear that his regime added to the growing tax pressure in the provinces, were there was little to no control over the taxfarmers. In this case he sold the office of provincial judge but gave them the right to levy taxes, which was meant that it was also very hard to do anything in legal terms. One way or the other this increased  the tax in the provinces as these judges strove to make a profit (legally or illegally). Being part of the financial administration of the empire could be lucrative as Kekaumenos tells us it was believed that by the eleventh century all major mansions in Constantinople were build by those who had ran the financial administration or worked for that department. He also adds a warning, one John Maios who was a strategos ended up with a deficit of 60 pounds of gold when he was responsible for the tax collection in the tax district of Arabissos.

Although this deficit was quiet large it was a rather limited tax-district meaning large profits could be made when administering larger tax-districts. This increase in tax-farming and the money that could be made by such an enterprise was slowly replacing the rogai system. We can see the first signs of this general decline during the reign of Michael IV when John the Orphanotrophos was looking for ways to increase income. Other signs that the rogai system was in decline come from the rule of Isaak Komnenos who cut “gifts” for the offikion.  Nikephoros III Botaneiates stopped paying his administration altogether because he had been too lavish in his gifts and honors (which he gave out for free). Alexios I Komnenos later abolished the rogai system altogether

This general increase in taxes can be seen in a very clear example in 1082, when the monastery of Vatopedi was obliged to pay 19 nomismata in land tax. The secondary tax which was called kaniskion was also collected. It was usually paid in kind directly to fiscal officials (since it was meant as upkeep for the tax officials) since it seems to refer to a round loaf of bread, a half measure of wine, a modios of barley and a chicken. This kaniskion was set a total of 20 nomismata meaning this supplementary tax could also be bought out.

The secondary tax that had to be paid was now greater than the primary, land tax. One of the effects of this increase, mainly in secondary tax that taxes became increasingly hard to predict especially in combination with tax farming. Hoarding was still a popular practice in the eleventh century and we have two examples of hoards created by high officials. During the reign of Michael IV the archbishop of Thessalonica had hoarded 3,300 lb of gold (237,600 nomismata) which was to be distributed to the poor and the clergy of Thessalonica. In 1043 we learn that on his death the Patriarch Alexios Stoudites had left 2,500 lb of gold (180,000 nomismata) in his monastery (which the Emperor confiscated). For large landowners with hoarded gold the unpredictability of the tax was unpleasant but at least bearable.

(Pinterest)
Byzantine Skoutatoi Heavy Infantry X Century
Most of the foot-soldiers of the empire were the armored infantry SkutatoiTheir training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords and archery was extensively practiced.
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Tax policies played an important role in weakening the military theme system which fielded local armies of Farmer-Soldiers to meet invaders. As these loyal citizen independent troops declined the Emperor was forced to spend more and more of his limited tax income on often unreliable foreign mercenary units. 


For the small landowning peasants, however, the increasing tax pressure and its unpredictability became a real problem. This more or less forced them to seek protection of greater landowners who could offer reductions in secondary taxes through privileges such as exkousseia. This meant that it became increasingly attractive to work as a paroikos for an ecclesiastical institution or lay magnate that had to power to acquire exkoussiea or other privilege rights.

An example of a village community searching the protection of a lord, is Michael Psellos. In 1060 the villagers of Atzikome asked Michael Psellos to become their lord so he could protect them and intersect on their behalf with the krites/praitor of the Opsikion theme whom the villagers did not know. Because Psellos was influential at court and knew the system he was much more likely to acquire tax relieve for the villagers than they could acquire by themselves.

This is not to say that the independent farmers disappeared during the eleventh century. The coastal plains and themes close to Constantinople and the conquered themes of the tenth century were still either in imperial hands or at least not in the hands of magnates. However we do see a line that would became clearer during the Komnenian period, paroikoi working the land of great institutions that had developed during the tenth and eleventh century.

Toward the end of the eleventh century (after 1071) we can see the financial crisis deepen. The purity started to deteriorate quickly, 1071 was a year of crisis in the empire as a large army was defeated by the Turks at Manzikert and the emperor captured in battle. What followed was a period of rebellions and general hardship. Gold content in golden coinage fell to 58.1% under Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071 – 1078), 35.8% under Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078 – 1081) and finally to 10.6% under Alexios I pre-reform. Though many historians have blamed this sharp reduction of gold content in the coinage to the battle of Manzikert this is probably not the case.

Byzantium had been defeated in many battles before Manzikert without this drastic action. The difference lies in the ensuing internal unrest, Michael VII was not a strong ruler who was led by his bureaucrats (like Psellos). The rebellions during his reign aimed at re-establishing some sense of order which was finally achieved by Alexios I Komnenos. By that time the Byzantine Empire had changed radically yet again. Power was divided by those who were of the Komnenos clan and their close allies,while the church gained more power yet again and held vast tracts of land that were worked by paroikoi.

Anatolia was never really recovered which meant that the Eastern magnates disappeared, they either came to Constantinople to form the elite around the Komnenian dynasty or they settled in the Balkans were they never acquired quite as much land as they had had in Anatolia.


Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invaded the Byzantine military theme of Iberia during the period of this article. While the Turkish threat grew in the east we see the Emperor cutting border forces in order to raise quick cash for the Treasury.
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