Byzantium Triumphant
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Byzantium Triumphant

The Military History of the Byzantines 959-1025

Julian Romane

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eBook - ePub

Byzantium Triumphant

The Military History of the Byzantines 959-1025

Julian Romane

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About This Book

This vibrant history examines the wars of three Byzantine emperors: Nicephorus II Phocas, John I Tzimiskes, and Basil II "The Bulgar Slayer". In Byzantium Triumphant, Julian Romane presents an in-depth chronicle of the many wars waged by Nicephorus II Phocas, his nephew and assassin John I Tzimiskes, and the infamous Basil II. Capturing the drama of battle as well as the strategic operations of each campaign, Romane depicts the new energy and improved methods of warfare developed in the late tenth and early eleventh century. He also sheds light on the court intrigues and political skullduggery of the period. These emperors were at war on all fronts, fighting for survival and dominance against enemies including the Arab caliphates, Bulgars, and the Holy Roman Empire, not to mention dealing with civil wars and rebellions. Romane's careful research, drawing particularly on the evidence of Byzantine military manuals, allows him to produce a gripping narrative underpinned by a detailed understanding of the Byzantine tactics, organization, training and doctrine.

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Chapter 1

Romanus II: The Conquest of Crete and War in the East

Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, son of Emperor Leo VI the Wise, died in November, during the third induction, in the year of the world, 6467 (fall AD 959). His son, twenty years old, succeeded him as Emperor Romanus II. The new Emperor continued his father’s policies, depending on one of his father’s ministers, the eunuch Joseph Bringas. Promoted to parakoimomenos (sleeps at the emperor’s side) by Romanus, Bringas controlled the civil administration that continued to run smoothly. Public opinion, there certainly was such in the Great City, viewed the young Emperor as a good person, handsome and well able to fulfil the ceremonial roles expected of the Emperor, yet prone to the distractions and vices of the young. With age, he would mature. A military success would certainly strengthen an already good beginning. Romanus’ advisors directed his eyes to the island of Crete.

Battle for Crete

In the never-ending struggle with the Islamic powers, Crete had fallen to the Muslims over a century before (around 824). As a base for pirates, Crete was a thorn in the imperial side. Marauders from the island raided for plunder and slaves, disrupted trade and depopulated the islands and seacoasts of the Aegean. Constantine VII’s forces had attempted to capture Crete in 949 but failed. At that time, the old palace eunuch, patrician Constantine Gongylios, led an expedition costing some 120,000 numismata. The Patrician sailed in a fleet of transports guarded by dromon fire-bearing battleships with a force consisting of some 9,000 soldiers and about 20,000 mariners. When the army landed on Crete, Gongylios assumed its size and strength would intimidate the Muslims. He did not enforce strict discipline nor did he order the construction of an entrenched base camp. The Muslim commanders soon saw the lack of sound military practice, and they secretly gathered their forces and attacked the Byzantine army. Very unprepared, Gongylios’ army disintegrated under the Muslim assault. The Muslims killed or captured most of his soldiers and Gongylios only escaped because his personal attendance hustled him onto a boat.
The reduction of Crete would improve trade and shine lustre upon the new reign but a defeat could weaken Romanus’ imperial standing, perhaps fatally. The imperial bureaucrats pushed their wheels and gears in motion to ensure victory or at least avoid embarrassing defeat. Of utmost importance was the question of commander-in-chief. Able military aristocrats won battles but then, in the recent past, had proven difficult to control, often striving for their own assumption of imperial power. Eunuch bureaucrats were not eligible for imperial status but had proven to be poor commanders. The Emperor and his main advisor, Bringas, decided that a member of the aristocratic Phocas family from Cappadocia would prove both able and loyal. Romanus II appointed the domestikos ton scholon (Commander of Imperial Guards) Nicephorus Phocas as strategos autokrator (Commander-in-Chief). The new imperial general organized an expeditionary force of elite units and oversaw the readying of unique transport ships that had ramps on their bows allowing foot and horse to embark fully armed and able to manoeuvre into formation immediately. Together with a strong fleet of dromon fire-bearing battleships, the loaded transports sailed to Crete in summer 960.
The fleet anchored off the Cretan coast near Almyros, to the west of the great Muslim fortress of Chandax (from the Arabic, ‘The Moat’, and now Heraklion). A Muslim force deployed on highlands overlooking the coastline, waiting for an opening to disrupt the Byzantine landing. The transports manoeuvred into lines and rowed toward the beach. As the boats grounded, ramps allowed the foot and horse to disembark fully armed and mounted. The Muslim force, not seeing any chance of disrupting the Byzantine deployment, dressed ranks and assumed battle position. Nicephorus’ troops formed a battle-line shield-wall, bristling with spears, organized in a centre and two wings. The commander ordered trumpets to sound the advance as he directed the imperial war standard forward. The army marched directly against the Muslim force above the beach. As the Byzantine archers shot an arrow storm against the Muslim rear, the armoured front crashed into the Muslim line. The defending line waivered and then broke. As the Muslim soldiers fled the field, the Byzantines pursued, killing many of their enemies. The routed soldiers ran back to the gates of Chandax. The Byzantines followed but the fortress’s defences were ready so an immediate escalade was not possible. Nicephorus ordered his soldiers to build a secure camp as a fortified base for his army and its supplies. The fleet found a safe anchorage in which the admirals secured the transports while the dromon battleships patrolled to burn any Muslim ships bringing supplies or attempting to attack the Byzantines.
Once the commander secured his army and fleet, he began organizing an attack against Chandax. His first need was a reconnaissance of the hinterland in order to see if there were significant forces in the neighbourhood besides those in Chandax. He assigned a company of elite horse to Strategos Nicephorus Pastilas, a renowned soldier who had fought against the Muslims for many years, had suffered captivity numerous times and always managed an escape. This commander of the Thrakesian theme had battle scars on his face and chest that made unusual patterns distinguishing his appearance. Nicephorus Phocas instructed Pastilas to sweep across the land, plunder the manors and villages, and return swiftly to the base camp. The land was rich in produce, fruits, cattle and sheep. The raid should relieve much of the need for sea delivered supplies. Nevertheless, Pastilas’ company found a rich land, seemingly devoid of enemies. Indulging in the fine food and wine, they failed to notice that the local forces concentrated in the nearby hilly forests. Suddenly, as out of nowhere, a strong force of Muslim soldiers appeared, drawn up for the attack. They charged the Byzantines, who just had time to mount and deploy. Still, they faced superior numbers and the weight of the attackers began to tell. At their head fought Pastilas, smashing the enemies with his swift sword. While Muslim archers stood and shot arrows at him, infantry carrying stout spears closed in and rushed him, killing his horse by ramming their spears into its front. Pastilas leaped off from his falling mount and swinging his sword, continued to cut down his enemies. Finally, a group of archers caught him in their fire and put an end to him. When he collapsed into a bloody pile, his company of horse broke and fled, only a few of them making it back to the base camp.
The commander, disappointed with the outcome of the raid, nevertheless now saw the strategic situation. Facing strong enemy forces in Chandax, he also faced a Muslim relief effort from the hinterland. If he concentrated his effort against one enemy force, he had to fear an attack in the rear from the other. The situation called for caution and careful manoeuvring. His supplies secure from the sea, he strengthened the fortifications of his base camp and began to consider the best means of attack. Nicephorus Phocas, with his engineers, led a company of horse around the fortifications of Chandax, looking for vulnerabilities. The walls were strong, built of beaten earth, both high and wide, facing a double deep moat. (See above, Chandax means moat.) The commander ordered his men to build a stockade, cutting the town off from the landside, so the only egress was from the sea. Then, assembling his men in camp, Nicephorus told them that he insisted on strict discipline and order. The example of the disaster that befell Pastilas clearly showed, he argued, what happens in the face of the malicious and cunning Muslim enemy. By exactly following his orders, victory would be theirs. The soldiers, led by their officers, drew their swords and pledged to follow their commander.
While his men completed strengthening their camp, Nicephorus chose able and experienced young soldiers, forming a separate battalion. He had heard from his local informants that the Muslims had organized an army, collecting the local militia. This army was some 40,000 men strong and their plan was to bring the Byzantines to battle, overwhelm them with numbers, and with the support of the soldiers in Chandax, push them into the sea. On the next night of the full moon, Nicephorus led his battalion out of his camp quietly, unnoticed by the enemy. Directed by native scouts, he hurried while darkness remained to where the enemy force was encamped on an easily defended hill. Some of the soldiers silently blocked the exits from the hill and others found places to assault the force on top, thus turning their enemies’ strengths against themselves. Nicephorus gave the signal to sound trumpets and drums. At this, his soldiers surged up the hill and attacked the sleeping Muslims. Awakened by the tumult of trumpets, drums, and screams, the sleeping militiamen found swift death at the hands of the Byzantine elite troopers. Panic seized many of the militia who rushed pell-mell down the hill only to find more of Nicephorus’ troopers waiting for them. The slaughter continued and the Byzantines killed many. The commander, in order to have proof of this victory, ordered his men to decapitate the dead bodies and put the severed heads in leather bags. To each trooper who had a bag with a head, he promised a miliaresia (a silver coin worth 1/12 of a gold solidus). The Armenian troopers responded with special gusto. The force returned to the base camp while darkness remained.
As the morning brightened, Nicephorus directed some of the heads impaled on a line of stakes set up in front of the stockade his men had built, which separated Chandax from the hinterland. His men shot the other heads against the city walls, where they exploded with a bloody splat. Some women appeared on the city wall and wailed at the loss of loved ones. Whether the town was seriously demoralized remained unknown. Immediately the Byzantine army deployed to attack. At the sound of the command trumpet, the escalade surged toward the wall, ladders at the ready, archers shooting arrow storms against the wall top, throwing machines bombarding the wall, the men exhorted by their officers to achieve bold accomplishments. However, the walls held. The defenders returned fire; they crushed ladders under large stones dropped on top of them, and repulsed all efforts of the Byzantines to gain a foothold on the wall’s top. Nicephorus saw that the defenders were too strong to fall to this attempt; he ordered the trumpeters to sound the recall before too many of his soldiers were seriously injured. Withdrawing from the attack, the Byzantines set about turning their camp into a permanent settlement, rather than simply a daily make shift and prepared to sit out the coming winter. The engineers designed and began constructing large siege machines; the officers exercised and trained the men and stockpiled sufficient supplies to maintain the army for months. Nicephorus had decided to let the people of Chandax have a taste of famine before he tried another assault.

Siege of Chandax

His army spent the winter practising with their weapons, training to improve assault skills and building a variety of siege machines, throwing machines, and many ladders. As spring came, in March 961, Nicephorus marshalled his forces, ordered them into a massive column and with trumpets sounding and drums beating, marched against the walls of Chandax. The commander directed the leading companies of soldiers to position their ladders for attack while the column shook itself out into assault formation, with heavy infantry prepared to mount the ladders as archers and javelin throwers moved into support position. Suddenly, on the battlements, a woman appeared, making gestures and signs that the Byzantines assumed were magic incantations. Pulling off her skirts, she exposed her nude body and made explicit signs of contempt for the soldiers below. As she danced along the battlements, a practised archer took aim and transfixed her nude body with an arrow. She stumbled and fell from the wall right in front of the assault troopers. They rushed her as she struggled to rise, and crushed her to death. The enraged soldiers scrambled up the ladders as the defenders, waiting for them, struck hard at the men trying to reach the wall’s top. The Byzantine effort, disrupted by the soldiers’ anger at the woman, failed to achieve a foothold on the wall. The Muslims had repelled them, killing and wounding many.
Nicephorus ordered the stone-throwing engines forward. They cleared the walls of defenders with powerful bombardments. However, clearly, the defenders were just out of range of the stone shower and an assault on the walls was not possible. The commander ordered a massive battering ram forward. As the ram stuck the wall, the throwing machines kept the wall above the ram clear of defenders so they could not interfere with the machine. However, the defending commanders were quite sure that the ram would achieve little against the pounded dirt wall. Nicephorus also knew this but the actions of the ram was a cover for another operation: while the ram drew the Muslims’ attention, a crew of miners dug in the moat, cutting into the alluvium upon which the wall sat. While the ram slowly clawed a path through the wall, the miners excavated out a large gallery under the wall, propping up their ceiling up with wooden piers. When the ram finally made a narrow breach in the wall, the Byzantine engineers decided all was ready in the underground gallery. The miners placed pitch, flammables, and the materials of Greek fire in the gallery and set them alight. Slowly, smoke made its way through the ground, venting in the area of the wall. Soon, a cloud of smoke engulfed the wall section. At once, two massive towers and the connecting wall section jolted and broke off sections of masonry, slid down into the moat, and collapsed. The rising dust, billowing smoke, and the unexpected sight of what appeared solid and firm slide into rubble shocked the city defenders dumbstruck.
Nicephorus, however, was ready. His infantry formed an assault column with their shields and sturdy pikes lining a formidable front, backed up by a deep formation of heavy infantry ready to push their comrades through any enemy. Within the powerful column, archers and javelin throwers advanced to support the leading infantry. The Muslim army quickly recovered from their shock and formed a cordon across the breach in the wall. Facing these men of Chandax, in the form of the Byzantine assault column, were plunders, rapists, and enslavement. The defending army locked shields with a will to protect their families, their homes and their own lives. They fought hard. Nevertheless, the assault column inched ahead as the deep formation pushed their comrades forward. When one man fell in front, another replaced him and the struggle continued amidst yells, screams, trumpets, and curses. Eventually, the Muslim cordon unravelled as man after man fell to the Byzantine blades and the remaining defenders turned and fled. The Byzantine soldiers pursued the fleeing defenders, cutting them down as they tried to hide in the city’s narrow streets. Breaking into the houses, the soldiers raped and murdered with abandon. After three days, Nicephorus managed to suppress the soldiers’ passions and ordered his soldiers to accept the surrender of those without weapons. Since the surrendered men counted as booty along with the women and children, accepting surrender only increased the total amount of plunder.
Once the soldiers stamped out the remains of resistance in the city, Nicephorus collected the imperial fifth of the loot for the Emperor and divided out the prisoners who were of the leading families for his anticipated triumph (7 March 961). Then he allowed the soldiers to plunder whatever they could find. Since Chandax was the base for pirate operations for many decades and had held off all enemies, the treasures of the city were rich pickings, indeed. Once the Byzantines had well picked over the city, Nicephorus directed the slighting of the walls. Organizing a mounted force, he then rode out into the countryside, plundering as he went, eliminating opposition when it appeared. Units spread throughout the island of Crete, restoring the land to the Byzantine Empire. On a hilltop overlooking the devastated Chandax, the Byzantines build a fortress they called Temenos. Nicephorus settled older soldiers and those who wanted to stay as garrisons guarding the island. Before he returned to Constantinople, the commander assigned some of the fire-bearing dromon ships to guard the sea-lanes leading to Crete.

Leo Phocas Campaigns in the East

During the late summer of 960, others were looking for plundering opportunities. Since Nicephorus had collected units from the eastern sections of the empire, he significantly reduced the size of many garrisons. Beyond the imperial frontiers, in northern Syria, predatory eyes focused on the Byzantine east. The militant Muslim dynasty, the Hamdanids, controlled the military frontier facing the Byzantine border. Based at Aleppo, forces of Ali ibn Hamdan, Sayf ad-Dawla (Sword of the Dynasty) prepared for another of the almost yearly forays into the empire. Inhabitants of the Muslim frontier lived in areas dedicated to military settlers, in some ways similar to the Byzantine themes. The Syrians called such an area a thughur. Here dwelt soldiers, generally light horsemen, armed with bows and javelins. One of their occupations was raiding across the border and fighting with Byzantine soldiers who also occupied their time with raiding. During the years when the Caliphate was strong, districts sent money to the frontiers to pay for mercenaries. These often took the form of slave-soldiers, called ghulam, either heavy infantry or horse soldiers. The Bedouins, alw...

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