Byzantine Fortifications
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Byzantine Fortifications

Protecting the Roman Empire in the East

Nikos D Kontogiannis

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eBook - ePub

Byzantine Fortifications

Protecting the Roman Empire in the East

Nikos D Kontogiannis

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About This Book

The Byzantine empire was one of the most powerful forces in the Mediterranean and Near East for over a thousand years. Strong military organization, in particular widespread fortifications, was essential for its defense. Yet this aspect of its history is often neglected, and no detailed overview has been published for over thirty years. That is why Nikos Kontogiannis's ambitious account of Byzantine fortifications – their construction and development and their role in times of war – is such a valuable and timely publication. His ambitious study combines the results of decades of wide-ranging archaeological work with an account of the armies, weapons, tactics and defensive strategies of the empire throughout its long history. Fortifications built in every region of the empire are covered, from those in Mesopotamia, Syria and Africa, to those in Asia Minor, the Aegean and the Balkan peninsula. This all-round survey is essential reading and reference for anyone with a special interest in the Byzantine empire and in the wider history of fortification.

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Chapter 1

The Late Roman Defences (3rd and 4th centuries)

What Was Before: The Early Roman Times
The Roman State, as consolidated in the years of Julius Caesar and Augustus, included practically the whole Mediterranean basin and the larger part of Europe.1 All these territories were filled with pre-existing fortifications of various dates, size, construction techniques and purposes. At the same time, the unification of these areas under a steady government, especially after the end of the civil wars, made many of these walls obsolete. The Roman State from the 1st to the early 3rd century adopted a different defensive policy from its predecessors, who had opted to actively use fortifications as part of their efforts to defend themselves. The government focused on safeguarding the state, acknowledging at the same time that further expansion would be unmanageable. Whether this was a conscious decision, usually attributed to Augustus, or the result of many factors is still a matter of debate.
In any case, the army was restructured and most of the legions were moved to the frontiers; they were transformed into frontier garrisons, policing the borders and securing the Pax Romana. This led over time to the creation of a huge network of frontier zones, known generically under the term Limes.2 In reality, in each area the Roman strategists opted for a system of barriers that was cost-efficient, and manageable, but in no case was it impenetrable. They created a border zone, especially in more vulnerable places, which in times of peace facilitated communication, trade, and tax collection, while in times of peril it allowed time for the Roman defenders to regroup, relocate forces, and counterattack. In many places, these defences consisted of linear fortifications with moats, external obstacles, walls made of local materials (wood, turf or stone), guard towers and sentry stations; the latter usually followed the famous ‘playing card’ plan, which imitated the standard layout of Roman military camps.3
The most famous of these linear fortifications is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the construction of which consolidated the pre-existing situation along the northern borders of this province.4 It was in turn succeeded by Antoninus’s wall further north, and reused later on. Elsewhere, the Fossatum Africae, the German and Danube Limes, and the Easter Frontier fortifications were parts of the greater scheme for the protection of the Empire.5 This immense defensive system (whether it was centrally controlled or not) – its effectiveness, provisioning, purpose, and results – has been the subject of countless theories and controversies. General assessments usually fail to show the constant mobility in the frontier zone – the raids, wars, destructions, rebuildings, advances or withdrawals of an army, whose numbers, divisions and movements varied greatly according to the wider political or strategic situation.
When it comes to the defensive elements of the Roman walls themselves, one key observation strikes the viewer: their simplicity and lack of provision for active defence (such as flanking fire from regularly spaced towers, multiple platforms to fire from, double walls, posterns for assaults, etc.), particularly given the fact that Rome had inherited an array of Hellenistic fortifications which had attained, at least in the most refined examples (such as the walls of Rhodes, Perge, Messene) and the related military manuals, a degree of sophistication that remained almost unsurpassed until the invention of gunpowder.6 The Roman walls of this period were simply constructed as field bases, points from where the army would conduct open-field operations. They were designed to offer basic protection, but never to sustain prolonged sieges by a formidable adversary. The only such adversary – the Persian Empire – lay to the East, and in that field of action Rome used pre-existing fortifications with minor adjustments. This is how we can interpret the basic defences of the many ‘playing card’ forts along the Roman borders, which lacked projecting or gate towers.
The reintroduction of these active defensive elements (seen in full force from the 3rd century onwards) was often envisaged within an evolutionary scheme from simpler to more complex forms:7 corner and gate towers were first observed in German forts restored by Marcus Aurelius after the Marcomannic Wars. These towers, however, had no enfilading power since they were built far apart from one another; they were probably intended to strengthen feeble parts of the forts, like the gates or the rounded corners. The same tendency continued in the Severan period, with truncated gates on the one hand and semicircular or U-shaped gate towers on the other. Still these forts were not designed to withstand a siege, but simply protected the barracks of a field-operating army from unexpected attacks.
At the same time, existing city walls within the empire were usually neglected, with settlements developing outside their old boundaries. New enclosures or monumental city gates were built as part of city embellishment, or as a mark of imperial favour and elevation to city status, with little regard for their defensive capability. This was the case, for example, in the Hadrianic extension of Athens (only its gate survives), or in the 1st-century walls of Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan).8 Few active fortifications were built within the imperial territory, and then only as a response to specific threats: for example for a number of Thracian cities, such as Philippopolis (Plovdiv, Bulgaria), and Bizye (Vize, Turkey), because of their proximity to the northern borders, especially during the Marcomannic Wars.9
The Late Roman Walls, 3rd and 4th Centuries
Introduction – The Major Conflicts
The Pax Romana was dramatically threatened during the Third-Century Crisis (235–284), when the Empire nearly collapsed under a series of external attacks and internal adversities (rebellions, dissensions and civil wars).10 Enemies stormed the Roman territories from all sides, leaving few regions unaffected. The army fought in many open-field campaigns, ultimately destroying the Goths, Alamans, Vandals, Saxons and Franks in the West, and the Palmyrians and the Persians in the East. One of the most notable episodes on the latter front was the Sassanid conquest of the Roman city of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates in AD256; diligent excavations there have given an unprecedented amount of information not only for the city, but also for the position, preparation, and use of the walls during the siege.11
Eventually, the Roman Empire survived intact, and was reunited once the insurrection of Postumus (r. 260–269) was crushed and his ‘Gallic Empire’ dissolved. Following his accession to the throne (284), Diocletian decided to create a system of government known as Tetrarchy in 293, in essence splitting Roman territory into four regions. A series of civil wars among the various co-rulers shortly thereafter ended in 323 with Constantine I as sole emperor.12
During all this time there was occasional turmoil along the north frontier (the Rhine and Danube rivers), erupting in local skirmishes and quasi-continuous fighting at the eastern frontier (the Persian Empire). In the time of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337–361), the young Caesar Julian crushed the Franks and restored Roman rule in the north, recapturing strongholds such as Cologne.13 Afterwards, Julian, by then emperor, advanced towards the eastern frontier, where the Persians under Shapur had captured the key fortress of Amida in 359. Thanks to Ammianus’s accounts (see below), we have vivid descriptions of the battles, shortly before Julian met his death on Persian soil in 392.14 Under the ensuing treaty between the Romans and the Persians, five frontier provinces and eighteen important fortresses were handed over to the Persians.15
The next pair of emperors, Valentinian and Valens, were once more engaged in local fighting with Gothic tribes along the Danubian frontier, barbarian raiders in Gaul and the Persians in the East. However, the major event of this period took place in 378 in Adrianople, where Valens was killed and his army annihilated by an ad hoc alliance of Goths, Visigoths and Huns.16 This brought to the throne Theodosios I, who succeeded in pacifying Thrace by, among other things, recruiting vast numbers of Goths to the army, settling them in the areas between the Danube and the Balkan Mountains, and turning them into limitanei in the service of the empire (see below). During his reign, a string of co-emperors (Gratian, Maximus, Valentinian, and Eugenius) ruled and lost their lives in repeated civil wars.17 On the eastern frontier, Theodosios concluded with Persia a peace treaty that settled the issue of Armenia by dividing its territory between the two states.
After the death of Theodosios in 395 the empire was divided between his two sons, Arkadios in the East and Honorius in the West. This division was destined to be permanent, and from then onwards the Eastern Roman State can be regarded as a historical (and defensive) reality.
Sources Relevant to Fortifications
The most authentic voice by far among the authors of this period when it comes to military matters is Ammianus Marcellinus, a soldier who wrote some eyewitness accounts.18 Of special importance is the information concerning the practices of siege and fortifications on the eastern Roman frontier. From his work only the part concerning military affairs of the mid-4th century (352–378) is preserved, but he was an eyewitness to some of the sieges he describes and he provides a variety of details about the military and defensive preparations of those involved. It is through his texts that we learn of ballistic machines being actively used in his time, and the ways in which fortifications were put to action. Especially vivid are his descriptions of the handover of Nisibis (363) to the Persians by Jovian,19 and the siege of Amida (359) during the reign of Constantius II.
Vegetius’s Epitoma Rei Militaris was a tactical manual that was destined to be extremely popular in following centuries; it was regarded as mandatory reading until the end of the medieval era, and even into the Modern period.20 Publius Vegetius Renatus, a member of the bureaucratic elite at the imperial court, wrote his work, usually known as De Re Militari, probably in the late 380s. It was done under the patronage, perhaps even at the request, of Theodosios I. The material is organized into four books, the first three of which deal with the recruitment, organization, and training of field armies. The fourth is dedicated to siege and naval warfare. In examining fortifications (chapters 16) he first touches upon naturally formed or man-made protection, including wall planning and earthworks, gate types (such as portcullis, barbicans, murder holes), moats, and battlement provisions. Then he deals with the preparations for a siege (arm and machine supplies, water and food provisions), before speaking in detail about siege strategies of attack and defence (where he also enumerates all the engines that could be used to attack or defend a fortification, such as torsion machines, rams and tortoises, the mobile towers).
Another anonymous manual, De rebus bellicis, was most probably an academic compilation, based on antique authors.21 It describes a number of war machines that may never have been used. It was probably written at the end of the 4th century or in the early 5th century.
Army Organization
Despite the fact that the Roman military machine was able to overcome these adversities, the earlier system of frontier defences nearly collapsed. All the great cities of the empire felt the consequences of raids and conflicts, and a number of solutions were implemented in the afflicted parts of t...

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