What Do the Defensive Structures of Constantinople Suggest about Imperial Military Strategy?

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18th May 2020 Military Reference this

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What do the defensive structures of Constantinople suggest about imperial military strategy

By Rowan Riley

 

Introduction

To understand the fortifications of Constantinople it is prudent to look briefly at the entire kingdom in the various stages of her evolution. Constantinople was founded on the 11th of May 330. The Byzantine army and structures were the product of the Roman military system. This can be verified though the Maurice’s Strategikon (T.Dennis, 1984)and other leading military men[1] of the age.

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 When the empire was large the military was a dedicated, professional well-funded and disciplined force. The defensive structures will show the economic size and ambition of the byzantine empire at various stages of the lifecycle of the empire. With the discipline of the military and the administrative processes of the Roman civilisation in place the empire survived and prospered even into the so-called dark ages. The Byzantine empire survived for 1100yrs.

From the beginning the army was able to stand face to face in pitched battle with the various warring nations, but as time went by the internal politics and external forces that empire faced.  The empire began to crumble, due to constant civil upheaval and the degradation of basic structures and sometimes repressive tax regimes the empire began to lose land and influence. The military leaders opted for non- confrontational battle plans by using the flying columns and guerrilla tactics as at this stage the army was too small to stand a pitched battle. There was also a hevy emphasis on use mercenaries. As a need to survive began to get stronger fortifications were shored up, walls built.

 Assessing the entire picture, we can see how the defensive structures of Constantinople evolved with the times in both feast and famine we might also look at the socio-economic implications of the rise and fall of western Rome. There is one other factor to be considered and that is human element of one-upmanship and thus by building impressive defensives it becomes intimidating to the external enemies of Byzantine empire. From reading and deciphering the facts this element is clearly picked up on.  The closest parallel that can be drawn is the modern state of north Korean testing nuclear weapons this can be said of the byzantine equivalent of Greek fire and a technological advanced military and armaments. By having impressive structures and soldiers this be propaganda, creating the impression that it is a strong society. The military various treatises written by Maurice (T.Dennis, 1984), Phokas, Ouranos one clear theme emerges “adapt to the enemy” and carry a bigger stick.

General Overview

The use of Gunpowder by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in the final siege of Constantinople 29 May 1453 was the decisive hammer blow that destroyed the impenetrable walls of Constantinople and the byzantine empire. Having breached the walls, the demise of Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos was assured, (his body was never discovered), but there is a legend that states he will rise again at the end of days from the floor of the Hagia Sophia (Decker, 2013),  The byzantine army maintained itself by learning from the mistakes of the western roman empire by:

  • Maintaining a force of approx. 150000 men divided up between infantry and cavalry
  • Universal conscription
  • Attracting the brightest and the best from all families
  • Not relying too heavily on mercenaries towards the end of the empire this became the norm
  • Adapting the army
  • Having a professional well-equipped medical service
  • A robust supply and logistic system

When comparing Sun Tzu the Art of War translated by Peter Harris (United States 2018) and Maurice’s Strategikon handbook of Byzantine military strategy (T.Dennis, 1984) is made you findthat they are very much in agreement on how to fight the enemy. Thus this can be seen as indication that the ancient world was more connected that what is originally thought. The main areas of conflict for the byzantine empire were the ares of armenia, iberia, caucasus. The protagmists in this conflict wre first the persians then the Caliphate and finally the turks.

Medical of the byzantine empire and western Rome

In medical terms the empire relied heavily on the traditions and structures of the western roman military and when the western roman empire collapsed in 650 CE the eastern roman empire kept these traditions alive for more than 1000 years.  The emperor Mauritius 582-602 BCE was fundamental in integrating the medical corps into the army, the various mounted battalions had a dedicated medical unit comprising of 2no physicians one general and one specialist surgeon augmented by orderlies which also operated as stretcher bearers, these individuals enjoyed non-combatant status and danger pay. Three emperors are rumoured to have started long time care for wounded personnel Constantine 306-337, Justin II (565-578), Alexis I Comnenus (1081-1118) (Gabriel, 2012). The Roman surgeons where quite adept at saving lives.

Unfortunately, in the west roman empire the medical knowledge that had been learned and earned was lost when it fell into the hands of the barbarian and there was a shift to women taking the lead thus convents dealing with the sick began to emerge. However, with the interference of the church deeming certain medical texts against the church doctrine were destroyed thus huge valuable pools of knowledge and experience vanished to be replaced by superstition and old wife’s tales, Galen was one of the main architects  for perpetuating falsehoods and unwittingly brought the medical profession into disrepute. One fact is the church moved from treating the sick and wounded to palliative care whereby prayers and religious rites were used to ease the mortally wounded into the afterlife.

 

 

 

 

 

The walls of Constantinople

3[2]

The foundations of the western wall were laid in the year of the world 5837 in the 3rd month of the second indiction on the 26th of November (Berger, 2013). The many Sieges of Constantinople were by and large defensive, and rebuffed the attackers except on two occasions, the fourth crusade of 1204 and the Ottoman siege of 1453. The materials used to construct the defensive structures in the harbour roman concrete was likely used.

[3]

 The materials used in the building of the walls and towers would be ashlar, bricks, mortar and rubble. Ashlars being a hewn dressed stone facing block, the style and structure of the walls would have been a coursed random rubble wall, with a mass concrete foundation. With the courses these would have been bonded to a rubble and mortar core 2m thick at the foundations. The arches in the defensive structures have one major weakness and that is the keystone if the keystone is taken out the entire structure collapses under its own weight. Depending on the style of the arches it could be extrados (Greeno, 2014) and intrados with curved voussoirs and quoin stones or the other design which is stepped voussoirs and crossetted voussoirs but other factor which needed to be  factored in was the need to fortify in relation to natutal disasters as can be witnessed by the massive drive that the then Praetorian Prefect Constantine when in 448 an earthquake devastated massive swathes of the wall and towers. The destruction of the towers and sections of the wall repairing was a priority of Constantine and with the Attila the Hun bearing down on the city. Constantine employed thousands of workers to repair areas of the wall and rebuilt 57 towers in 60 days (Decker, 2013). There was a 20m wide moat 10ft deep. On the inner side of the moat was a crenelated parapet 1.5m high a 20m terrace separated the inner and outer wall. To protect the stone from expansion and contraction the limestone ashlars where cut by bands of brick this was the shell for the wall, and this ranged from 4.5m-6m thick rubble cored wall. The inner walls 12m high and crowned with battlements and 96 towers  

Weapons of Byzantine

With the weapons, military structures, defensive structures of the empire they were founded on the backbone of the Roman military. The most effective weapon they had was Greek Fire. The military hierarchy was broken down into the following.  The general weapons the troops carried was varied and depended on what their function in the army was, that being heavy or light infantry, heavy or light cavalry however for the most part, for close combat there was the Spatha[4]. The missile weapons that were used included javelins, darts, slings, bows and arrows. The artillery was ballista, torsion power onager, counterweight trebuchet and traction trebuchet. Grenades but there is source of conflict here, handheld flamethrowers, there are mounted trebuchets mentioned.

Officer

Officer numbers/ unit number

Troops per officer

Domestikos

1 tagma

4.000

Topoteretes

1 or 25

2.000

Komes

20 bandon

200

Kentarch

40 kentarchia

100

 [5]

external enemies and the rise of Islam the Persians the Lombard’s and the Khazars

The enemies throughout the era of the empire were varied and interesting. To avoid being attacked by the Arabs the byzantine theocracy paid tribute, but this was a humiliating and fiscally draining to keep the peace. However, with the sieges of 674-78 and 717-718 it became important for the arabs to achieve naval dominance. If naval dominance was not achieved it would be necessary to fight on the Anatolian plateau, with the byzantine tactics as it was it would be nigh impossible to do.

The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the 6th century this group was defeated by Belisarios in 559 outside Constantinople. Both empires sought tot dominate the Balkans and both empires found each other to be unacceptable

The Persians defeated the Byzantines on numerous occasions. Belisarios took control of the Roman army it was at its lowest in terms of morale, with the defeat at Tannuris. The Persians were a force to reckoned with.

The Lombard’s a Germanic people were recruited as mercenaries in the war of 552 which      devastated most of Italy terms of resources and population.

Khazars being a Turic people who prevented the Arabs from penetrating beyond the Caucasus 

The rise of Islam is also significant as from what can be ascertained were a disparate group of tribes which became united one religion to the challenge the Christian world.

    “Countries” of Armenia Egypt and Iberia

Egypt was the single most productive province of the Roman empire; other areas of the empire were seldom under direct control. Therefore the de facto stance was either diplomacy or the establishment of client rulers, Armenia is one example of client rulers. Under the leadership of Justin from the byzantine empire Iberia entered into an alliance

Internal turmoil 

The overarching stratification of the byzantine empire was when the emperors pulled back from actively campaigning on the battlegrounds, spending more time in the capital this had a negative effect and altered the dynamic. Roman society was very much a pyramid with the emperor at the top. When Constantine established the capital, he tried to recruit the western roman families to no avail which then allowed the for new blood that being new blood from the provinces of the Greek East. The circus factions where a problem their influence is not easily fathomable. The rise of the Christian religion brought with it, its own set of issues those being iconography and the worship of pagan gods. It must be pointed out that ancient Greek and roman languages where used.

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political upheaval of the Byzantine empire seems to be particularly harsh as there seems to be a regular change in upper management of the emperors. Some reigns are incredibly short and as is human nature different emperors had different priorities. Throughout the narrative of the empire there are civil wars which culminated major battles and skirmishers which culminated in the destruction of the Constantinople.

Crusades

As with the crusades there are differing thoughts and thus depending on the bias of the person investigating the crusader societies e.g. the Knights templars or the Hospitaller’s. The Crusaders can be either the villains or the heroes. In an email exchange between myself and Professor R. Darley the point has been made that often the diplomatic exchanges between the Muslim nations and Byzantium were quite cordial and this can be seen in the fact that the Muslim states[6] protected the medical and other knowledge which can found in the university founded by the Nestorians at Jundi-Shapur. The geographical location of this city provided a meeting place for the Chinese, Persians, Alexandrian, Roman, Jewish, Hindu.

religious ideology schism eschatological ideas

7[7]

The religious ideology of the 6th century calcified when the ruling elites and the imperial office converged in the defence of Orthodoxy thus this became byzantine ideology. Another frame of thought began to permeate through the society and that was eschatology, one of the key factors which makes more sense is it was actively encouraged by the populace to leave a record of your life and thus record keeping was detailed and impressive. The embodiment of this philosophy Emperors had to leave their mark e.g. the Hagia Sophia, the walls of Constantinople,

The schism happened after Chalcedon was more widely accepted and enjoyed status by becoming permanent. Anastsios who was a popular leader who created enemies when he altered the Trisagion. Justin reversed several policies and began to have cordial relations with Rome however with the Miaphysites influence, Jacob Baradaeus was elected to become bishop of Edessa 543 and in accepting the role two churches emerged in parallel hierarchy and this is still evidence to this day.

The navy and its role

The Mediterranean through time became known as “the Roman Lake”. The Navy quelled many pirate insurrections and weaker navies. The greatest asset and feared weapon of war the legendary Greek fire. 8[8]

The recipe for Greek fire has been lost to time, many of the competing nations like the Arabs and the Bulgars did manage to get their hands on the technology and the delivery system but it was never successfully duplicated. The Greek fire ships were used to great effect to repel attacks, in one of the few examples of Greek Fire being used from the land is the battle of Euripos in Greece. the main antagonist was the Amir of Tarsos. Greek fire was once again deployed in the naval attack by the Rus 941. In 2004 when the Marmaray rail was being built which links Istanbul’s Asian and European shores in an area called Yenikapi a rich archaeology of ships were found these date from Neolithic to  the late ottoman 34 shipwrecks as 2009 have been discovered and these are in remarkable condition due to the environment. The ships can be grouped into two one being the merchant or galleys (Hamilton, 2011).

Conclusion

What do the defensive structures of Constantinople suggest about imperial military strategy

The defensive structures of Constantinople suggest that imperial military strategy was one of longevity which can be evidenced in The Patria and other sources. By making quality not quantity the pinnacle of the defence regime.  The attention to detail which is abundant throughout the texts of the day show that by having solid structures ensured the survival of the empire however the structures of the day were soon eclipsed by the introduction of GUNPOWDER. These structures had served their purpose and are now relegated to the past. in conclusion the defensive structures of Constantinople are a product of their time and space, but this includes the constraints of enemies surrounding her. The structures of Constantinople are just one piece of the rich tapestry of life in the Byzantine empire. This can be evidenced by the detail that went into her armies, navies, medical and devotion to God. Constantinople was the last outpost for an entire empire before the schism which divided up the empire. In the researching of this paper the byzantine legacy of the buildings is testament to the quality and experience of the craftsman that built her.

Bibliography

  • Berger, T. b. (2013). Accounts of Medieval Constantinople The Patria . United States: By the Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College .
  • Decker, M. J. (2013). The Byzantine art of war. Yardley Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing LLC.
  • Gabriel, R. A. (2012). Man and wound in the ancient world. Dulles Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc.
  • Greeno, R. C. (2014). building construction handbook. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Hamilton, C. F. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. United States: Oxford University Press.
  • McGeer, E. (2008). Sowing the Dragons Teeth. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research.
  • Stathakopoulos, D. (2014). The Byzantine Empire. Padstow, Cornwall: I.B.Tauris & Co.ltd.
  • T.Dennis, G. (1984). Maurice’s Strategikon handbook of Byzantine military strategy. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

Works Cited

  • Berger, T. b. (2013). Accounts of Medieval Constantinople The Patria . United States: By the Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College .
  • Decker, M. J. (2013). The Byzantine art of war. Yardley Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing LLC.
  • Gabriel, R. A. (2012). Man and wound in the ancient world. Dulles Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc.
  • Greeno, R. C. (2014). building construction handbook. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Hamilton, C. F. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. United States: Oxford University Press.
  • McGeer, E. (2008). Sowing the Dragons Teeth. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research.
  • Stathakopoulos, D. (2014). The Byzantine Empire. Padstow, Cornwall: I.B.Tauris & Co.ltd.
  • T.Dennis, G. (1984). Maurice’s Strategikon handbook of Byzantine military strategy. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

 

References

  • Berger, T. b. (2013). Accounts of Medieval Constantinople The Patria . United States: By the Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College .
  • Decker, M. J. (2013). The Byzantine art of war. Yardley Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing LLC.
  • Gabriel, R. A. (2012). Man and wound in the ancient world. Dulles Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc.
  • Greeno, R. C. (2014). building construction handbook. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Hamilton, C. F. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. United States: Oxford University Press.
  • McGeer, E. (2008). Sowing the Dragons Teeth. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research.
  • Stathakopoulos, D. (2014). The Byzantine Empire. Padstow, Cornwall: I.B.Tauris & Co.ltd.
  • T.Dennis, G. (1984). Maurice’s Strategikon handbook of Byzantine military strategy. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Websites and images used I am not the owner of the pictures used in this essay

Further Reading


[1] Sowing the Dragons teeth Eric McGeer,

[2] https://www.egypttoursplus.com/city-walls-of-istanbul/ 15/9/2019

[3] https://travel.sygic.com/en/poi/walls-of-constantinople-poi:5050747 15/09/2019

[4]  http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/6GeWEh3-RyGiPN6XSvLxhg  15/09/19

[5] Basic military hierarchy (Decker, 2013)

[6] Currently the Arab/Muslim states mostly illiterate (Gabriel, 2012)

[7] https://www.economicsvoodoo.com/part-v-section-iii-leave-the-european-union-the-convergence-of-black-holes-so-who-towers-over-trump/ 15/09/2019

[8] https://www.beyondsciencetv.com/2017/06/07/5-superweapons-of-the-ancient-world/ 13/9/2019

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