Saturday, June 25, 2011

Varangians:The enigmatic Byzantine imperial guards(1rst part)

Varangian as a Roman centurion in  a Monastery of Chios(notice the scandinavian type sword) 

The name Varangians(Norse : Vaeningjar) derives from the Norwegian word var which means speech of honour or more commonly  oath of honour.

This etymology is considered to be linked with populations of Scandinavians(Swedes in majority) who initially entered the region of the Baltic sea and later invaded the territories that belong to modern Russia. Those populations  which were consisted of Viking warriors and merchants(their distinction wasn't always clear) took advantage of the big Russian rivers and expanded their political and economical influence rapidly. Those Scandinavians who settled and created new kingdoms were named Varangians.

Varangians as Roman soldiers in the iconography of the betrayal of Jesus.(Notice the axes in the background)
The Varangians were more commonly known as Rus. That's how they were called by their neighbouring Finns(Finnish word Ruotsi=rowers) However there was also a province in Sweden which was called Roslagen(The area of Rus). The varangians dominated over the Slavic population with their military strength and they gave their name to the country(Rus/Russia). The settlement of Varangians in the area of modern Russia is dated back to the 6th 7th century.

According to the tradition the Varangians were invited to come to Russia by the Slavs who later became their subjects. Particularly the hegemony of Novgorod invited them to give military assistance against Finnish invasions and raids. The Varangians succeeded to drive out the Finns but they didn't intend to return back home. Their leader called Rurik saw that the Slavs had many weaknesses and with the help of his countrymen he became ruler of Novgorod in 862 . Other Varangians sailed down the river Dneiper and conquered Kiev two years later. These chronologies are attested in a book called "Russian chronicle".

Generally the historians believe that the varangians had dominated over the Slavic regions much earlier and these events just consolidated their power.

The attacks on Byzantium(860-1043)

The first recorded contacts of the Rus with Byzantium date back to the 9th century. At this period the Varangians had already laid the foundations of their dominance over the Slavs and by reaching the Black sea they found themselves at the gates of Byzantium and Constantinople. They conducted raids on the imperial lands with the help of their small fast and rugged vessels.The Varangians attracted by the fame and the wealth of the Byzantine capital (they called it Miklagard=The great city) attempted to conquer it several times.
Varangians besiege the Byzantine city of Chersonesos in Crimaea in 860AD

From the 9th century till the 11th century the Varangians attempted 5 times to conquer the Capital of the Byzantines but they failed. The first time was in 860. The fleet of the Rus was consisted of 200 vessels which the Byzantine sources called trochantiria(name related to the quickness of the Rus' ships) Likely the Rus ships were similar in shape and construction to the famous Viking ships called Drakkars. The Byzantines inspired by their religious beliefs(The Rus were pagans at this time) and with the help of the terrible weapon called Greek fire achieved to make the Rus lift the siege.

Typical Scandinavian ships

The Rus re-appeared in 907 in an invasion which is questioned by many Byzantinologists as it lacks reliable historical sources. However the leader of the invaders was prince Oleg . This attack was also crushed but four years later in 911 the Rus achieved to sign a treaty with Byzantium which  aknowledged the Kiev hegemony as a naval power. By this treaty essentially the Byzantines were losing for a first time the full control of the Black sea which had to be shared with Rus since then.

The third attack on the Byzantine capital was conducted in 941 and it was possibly related to the ending of the 911 treaty. This time the Rus used land forces which invaded Bithynia(The Asian province neighbouring Constantinople) and looted its towns and villages. Eventually this force was defeated by the Eastern army under the leadership of Ioannis Kourkouas.The siege was lifted  again with the help of Greek fire. One month after the siege ended  when the defeated Rus fleet was returning to the north  it was attacked by the Byzantine fleet it was utterly annihilated.

Three years later the Kievan prince Igor ordered a land attack this time(probably the Rus fleet was not restored till that time) The threat was bigger for the Byzantines cause the Rus were joined by the Pechenegs. This time the invasion was stopped by the Byzantine diplomacy. The Byzantines paid a ransom to the invaders  in exchange for the security of the Byzantine lands.

Varangians depicted in Skylitzes manuscript
The last attack of the Rus took place a century later in 1043. The relations between the Rus and the Byzantines became  once again abysmal . The emperor Constantine Monomachos prefered to keep a neutral stance at the demands of the Rus  after some Byzantine-Rus mercantile disputes something which angered the Rus.Prince Vladimir son of the ruler of the Rus campaigned against Constantinople . Once again the city was saved by the Greek fire. The Byzantine fleet caused a panic on the Rus fleet when they attacked using Greek fire. Many ships of the Rus crushed on sea rocks and reefs and others were burned. In the same time the Byzantine cavalry defeated the Rus army that had landed near Constantinople inflicting severe casualties which according to the sources reached 15000 men and the general of the Paristrian theme Katacalon Kekaumenos achieved to secure the important Byzantine city of Varna at the western shores of the Black sea from a Rus attack.Since then the Byzantine empire wouldn't be threatened again by the Rus.Instead it would find a way to exploit their excellent war skills.

the second part:

source: magazine Military history(στρατιωτική ιστορία) issue 69. translation made by me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Greek inscription of a Roman gladiator's tombstone decoded after 1800 years

An enigmatic message(written in Greek) on a Roman gladiator's 1,800-year-old tombstone has finally been decoded, telling a treacherous tale.

Tombstones talk
The epitaph and art on the tombstone suggest the gladiator, named Diodorus, lost the battle (and his life) due to a referee's error, according to Michael Carter, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. Carter studies gladiator contests and other spectacles in the eastern part of the Roman empire.

He examined the stone, which was discovered a century ago in Turkey, trying to determine what the drawing and inscription meant. 

His results will be published in the most recently released issue of the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik(Journal for Papyrology and Ancient Epigraphics).
The tombstone was donated to the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium, shortly before World War I. It shows an image of a gladiator holding what appear to be two swords, standing above his opponent who is signalling his surrender. The inscription says that the stone marks the spot where a man named Diodorus is buried.
"After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately," reads the epitaph. "Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."
The summa rudis is a referee, who may have had past experience as a gladiator.
The inscription also indicates Diodorus was born in and fought in Amisus, on the south coast of the Black Sea in Turkey.
Though Carter has examined hundreds of gladiator tombstones, this "epitaph is completely different from anything else; it's telling a story," he told LiveScience.

The final fight
The story the tombstone tells took place about 1,800 years ago when the empire was at its height, its borders stretching from Hadrian's Wall in England to the Euphrates River in Syria.
Gladiator games were popular spectacles, many of them pitting two men against each other. Although deaths from wounds were common, the battles were not the no-holds-barred fights to the death depicted by Hollywood, said Carter.
"I believe that there are a number of very detailed rules involved in regulating gladiatorial combat," Carter said.
Though the exact rules are not well understood, some information can be gleaned from references in surviving texts and art. 
For starters, most, if not all, of the fights were overseen by the summa rudis.
Among the rules he enforced was one in which a defeated gladiator could request submission, and if submission was approved by the munerarius (the wealthy individual paying for the show), the contestant could leave the arena without further harm.
Another rule that appears to have been in place was that a gladiator who fell by accident (without the help of his opponent) would be allowed to get back up, pick up his equipment and resume combat.

Death of Diodorus
It's this last rule that appears to have done in Diodorus. Carter interprets the picture of the gladiator holding two swords to be a moment in his final fight, when Demetrius had been knocked down and Diodorus had grabbed a hold of his sword.
"Demetrius signals surrender, Diodorus doesn't kill him; he backs off expecting that he's going to win the fight," Carter said.
The battle appears to be over. However the summa rudis — perhaps interpreting Demetrius' fall as accidental, or perhaps with some ulterior motive — thought otherwise, Carter said.
"What the summa rudis has obviously done is stepped in, stopped the fight, allowed Demetrius to get back up again, take back his shield, take back his sword, and then resume the fight."
This time Diodorus was in trouble, and either he died in the arena or Demetrius inflicted a wound that led to his death shortly thereafter.
This event would have happened before a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a theater or in part of an athletic stadium converted into a sort of mini- Colosseum.
After Diodorus was dead, the people who created his tombstone (probably family or friends) were so upset, Carter suggests, that they decided to include some final words on the  epitaph:   
"Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."

source :

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Emperor Nikephoros Phokas . "The pale death of the Saracens"

Nicephoros Phokas

Nikephoros Phocas was born in 912. In 943 he was appointed strategos(general with military and political authority) of the theme of Anatolikon. After 955 when he was appointed Domestikos of scholae(general of the eastern army) and he achieved many victories against the Arabs in the eastern frontier. The time for imperial recognition came in 959 when he was appointed general of the campaign for reconquering Crete.

The byzantines under Nikephoros Phokas capture Crete.
In 961 when the news about Nikephoros Phokas success in Crete arrived in Constantinople, he became very popular and festivities were organised in the hippodrome .After his success in Crete he returned to the eastern front to deal with the main rival of the Byzantines the Hamdanid emir who was based in Halepi(Aleppo).In 962 Nikephoros Phokas took the initiative to order an offensive and invaded Hamdanid Cilicia from his base Caesaria capturing many cities and forts. During the fall of the same year he entered Syria and sacked Halepi(Aleppo). It's worth to mention that second in command was the general and future emperor Ioannes Tzimisces.

Rise to the throne

Gold coin with Christ on the one side and Basil II and Nikephoros Phokas on the other
The emperor Romanos II died in 963 in undefinable circumstances. He was only 24 years old. His two heirs were only children at this time but both of them would become later emperors. The one was Basil(later Basil II the Bulgarslayer) and the other Constantine (later Constantine VI)  Thus the reign was passed to Romanos' wife , empress Theofano. Nikephoros took advantage of the lack of emperor and organised a new triumphant parade for his victories in the east in order to gain public support. The eunuch and prime minister Bringas cautious of Nikephoros' actions and because of a rumour of an alleged relationship with the empress made an attempt to finish him off. Nikephoros avoided being arrested by finding refuge in  the church of Aghia Sophia under the protection of the patriarch. The patriarch because of the public pressure persuaded the senate to keep the charismatic Nikephoros as a domestikos of scholae. Indeed Nikephoros swore an oath of faith to the children of Romanos and went to the East.

Nicephoros Phocas enters Constintinople in triumph
Bringas didn't give up, he considered Nikephoros Phokas a main enemy for his throne aspirations and attempted to organise a conspiracy by contacting the generals Ioannes Tzimisces and Romanos Kourkouas to get rid of Nikephoros. However the two generals revealed the plan of Bringas to Nikephoros and as a result the army of Caesaria declared Nikephoros as emperor in 963. At first Nikephoros showed some doubt about this decision(Byzantine sources refer though, that this was hypocritical). 

After these developments Nikephoros headed towards Constantinople. His arrival in the city was followed by riots and hostilities in the streets of the city between supporters of Bryggas and of Nikephoros. His popularity as a victorious general helped Nikephoros to win the crown eventually. In order to make his coronation legal he married empress Theophano. He respected the rights of Romanos' children and didn't try to establish a dynasty of  Phokas family.

Military activity
Cypriot post stamp about the liberation of Cyprus by Nicephoros Phocas

During Nikephoros' absence from the eastern front , Ioannes Tzimisces  had continued the Byzantine victories over the Arab armies. When Nikephoros returned as an emperor this time the army took once again the offensive to start conquering and consolidating their possessions this time. In a quick invasion of Cilicia Nikephoros secured the region by conquering the capital city called Adana. In 967 Nikephoros signed a peace treaty with the Arabs after his first defeat as  an emperor in a campaign to reclaim Sicily from the Arabs. However three years earlier he had succeeded to to capture the island of Cyprus which was a major supply base for  the Arabs for the war  in the Cilician front.

The Byzantine army pursuing the Bulgarian.
The news of the death of the last Hamdanid emir  allowed Nicephoros to turn his eyes towards the Balcan front. As part of the treaty of 927 the Bulgarians every year received a tribute in gold coins by the Byzantine emperor. Nikephoros used this as a pre text and declared war to the Bulgarians. His army invaded and conquered many cities and fortresses. Crucial to the result of the war was the Byzantine-Kievan Rus alliance by which the Rus forces invaded bulgaria from the north. In the same time the Holy Roman emperor Otto invaded the Lombard principalities of Southern Italy which were under Byzantine sphere of influence. Diplomacy failed after the disastrous  meeting of the ambassador Liutprand with Nikephoros Phokas in which Liutprand asked the hand of princess Anna Porfyrogenita(purpleborn) for the emperor Otto.The Byzantine sensitivity with issues like imperial marriages and also the fact that the German emperors claimed the title of the Roman emperor made things worse. As a result of all that, Otto besieged the Byzantine city of Bari in Italy and hostilities continued in the following years without a clear result.
Nikephoros Phokas greatest feat. The capture of Aleppo.

In the same time Nikephoros continued his invasion of the Levantine by conquering cities in Syria and even reaching  Phoenike(Lebanon) which was never under Byzantine control since the Arab expansion of the 7th century.In 968 he captured major cities like Akre, Laodicea(Latakya) and Tortossa. In 969 his generals captured the biggest city of Syria, Antioch after a long siege.

Internal policy
Nicephoros Phocas' depiction in an Athonite monastery

The military victories had given Nikephoros much fame and the people of Constantinople nicknamed him white death. However Nikephoros Phokas proved to be incapable of handling the internal affairs. He broke his good relations with the church by introducing a law which forbade  the creation of new monasteries cause monasteries and their property were excepted from imperial taxation and the empire was losing a significant amount of mone by this.

The people began to feel frustrated after so many years of heavy taxation for maintaining the offensive Byzantine armies. Nikephoros' indifference towards the citizens and his focus on the army made the situation even worse . The events of the easter of 967 when Armenian soldiers quarrelled with sailors at the docks and the death of hundreds of citizens in the hippodrome after a military display that went out of control after a slaughter of the citizens by the soldiers who tried to maintain order angered even more the population.
The Byzantine flag during Nicephoros Phocas' reign

Nicephoros towards the end of his regn became cautious with everyone. He even changed his residence moving to a better fortified palace that the people were calling it tyrraneion(tyrrant's house). Eventually Nicephoros might have lost his sanity as he began acting as a monk. He wore monk's clothing and was sleeping on the floor. Theophano who was feeling neglected by Nikephoros already had started a relationship with Ioannis Tzimisces who was the Nicephoros' right hand. Ioannes Tzimisces along with other generals organised a plot and killed Nicephoros in his room after they woke him up. The imperial guards arrived late and Ioannes Tzimisces showed them the cut head of Nikephoros to prevent any useless bloodshed for a dead emperor.

On a blustery night, the conspirators went into the palace dressed as women. Nikephoros was warned that assassins were in the palace, and demanded the palace be searched. The guards however left the empresses' room unsearched, and the assassins avoided capture. Later, when Nikephorus was asleep on the floor before the holy icons,Tzimiskes and the others sneaked into his bed chamber, alarmed at first to find the bed empty (Nikephoros frequently slept on the floor). Aroused by the noise, Nikephoros rose just as one of the assassins swung his sword in an attempt to decapitate him. It struck him in the face, and he was then dragged to the foot of the bed, where Tzimiskes sat.

Tzimiskes then shouted:
"Tell me, most senseless and malicious tyrant, was it not through my actions that you attained the heights of Roman power? How therefore did you pay no regard to such a good service? How, blinded by malice and madness, did you thus not hesitate to remove me, your helper, from command of the army?...

Friday, June 10, 2011

The emirate of Crete: Foundation and Byzantine reconquest

It is strange that Islamic studies are not so much interested in the history of the Emirate of Crete especially if we consider how much it affected the Byzantine empire and the whole Eastern Mediterranean region.
For historians the Byzantine campaign for reclaiming Crete under the leadership of Nicephoros Phocas labels the begining of the so called second period of Byzantine Crete.
The area of the Aegean sea. Crete is the big island at the bottom.

The first period had been abruptly stopped by the Arab invasion and occupation of the island. According to recent research by historians the emirate of Crete is presented as a civilised muslim state and not as a pirate nest as it was considered by historians of older times.

The emirate of Crete(Ikritis in the Arab sources) was founded approximately in 823 AD and it marked the begining of a new Arab thalassocracy. It's first Emir and founder was Abu Hafs( Αποχαψ Apohaps in Byzantine sources) who along with other muslims was driven out of Andalusia after an unsuccesful uprising. However before occupying Crete Abu Hafs and his people seized Alexandria for a short time.
The arab expansion over Byzantine lands(in red)
According to the superstitious Byzantine sources the occupation of Crete and Sicily were a god's punishment for the sins of the population in the Eastern themata(provinces) A rational explanation is that the occupation of Crete was an opportunity for the muslims because there was a civil war in Byzantium after an uprising ignited by Thomas the Slav.

The capital city of the emirate was founded by Abu Hafs in an area which had no natural harbor or fortifications and it was located a little bit to thenorth of Knossos the citandel of Minoan civilization. Abu Hafs chosen this location because it was seeing towards the Aegean islands and coasts which were raid targets.
The city was named Chandakas. It was named after the ditch that surrounded the city fortifications.Nowadays in the site is located the capital of the Cretan periphery which was renamed Herakleion in 1822  .

From 823 and for 100 years the Cretan Saracens were conducting raids in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean sea. The Byzantine fleet was unable to deal with them because of internal conflicts.  As a result all the economic activities in the Aegean collapsed, the population was reduced  and in 904 Thessalonica the second biggest city of the Byzantine empire fell after a combined siege by Cretan and Syrian Arabs.
Siege of Chandakas by the Byzantines

Before Nicephoros Phocas' expedition there were several unsuccesful attempts of the Byzantines to retake the island. During the 10th century there are also diplomatic contacts between Byzantium and the emirate. In a letter sent by the patriarch to the Emir of Crete about the release of Byzantine prisoners the patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos calls the emir a honourable man and praises his administration . He also adds that the Cretans and Romans can live side by side even though they have many religious differences.
Byzantine Trebuchet

The reconquest of Crete began with the siege and occupation of Chandakas in 961. A crucial point for the success of the Byzantines was that the Cretan Arabs weren't able to secure assistance from neighbouring muslim factions.

Siege constructions on ships

Naval siege tower
The Byzantine force was consisted of 2.000 Chelandria(large warships equiped with Greek fire) 1,000 Dromons (Fast warships) and 360 transport ships which carried siege equipment and supplies.The Byzantine author Leo Diaconos describes the siege engines that were used. The most notable except the Greek fire were a Catapult that was throwing large rocks and Helepolis, a siege tower which had a metallic Ram on it and it was built over a Warship.

The victorious general Nicephoros Phocas like the Roman generals of the past, transferred the prisoners to Constantinople for a triumphant parade and public display. The emperor Romanos II cautious of Nicephoros' intentions attemted to undermine the festivities . Eventually many of those prisoners were christianised and some of them became prominent members of the Byzantine society. One of those converts was named Al-Numan and it is mentioned that he achieved to join the prestigious military regiment of the Athanatoi(immortals) even though his father had never converted to christianism.
Cretan Saracens punished(maybe a rechristianisation process)
The reconquest of Crete was very important historically. Trade activity in the Aegean was re enacted and gave a boost to the collapsing Byzantine economy.The Cretans were rechristianised by a missionary who was nicknamed "Nikon the Repent" because of his zeal to convert the population. Historians however believe that Nikon's activity was mainly to organise the hierachy of the church and reestablish the bonds with the patriarchate . Historians assume that it would cause unstability if the Arabs attempted to convert the  population of the island and they were rather tolerant with the christians.

source: Historical issues magazine(Ιστορικά θέματα) issue:40 Translation made by me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

3. Suggestive units(About Virtue)-Κεφάλαια Παραινετικά(περι Αρετής)

Continuing from this post: I post the translation of an excerpt from this text written by emperor Basil himself.

The unit about virue is the 8th unit in Basil's text.

A king is not honoured by the pleasures of this world as much as he can be honoured by the wealth of virtue,because abidance and compliance wither as a result of time passing and sickness. The physical wealth is the reason  behind human akwardness and sexual pleasure. The physical strength honours a person's body with victories but it also overshadows and obstructs the mental activities of soul .The acquisition of virtue which near to those who are fortunate is about to be revealed, is more useful than the physical wealth, the human relations and the things that to some people seem to be impossible. However , she(virtue) can make everything possible along with the help of god.

source:Παραινετικά Βασίλειου Μακεδόνος,(Parenetika by Basil the Macedonian)

translation is made by me directly from the medieval text. Therefore forgive me for any mistakes.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The secret visit of general Mladic in Greece

Mladic and Karadjic the two Serbian generals accused for war crimes

In December the 10th , 1993, general Ratko Mladic who was arrested some weeks ago in Serbia and now he is in Hague awaiting for his trial , visited  Thessalonica incognito via the Greco-Bulgarian borders with his true identity. At this time he still wasn't considered a war criminal  and because of the special relations of Serbia and Greece the public opinion in Greece considered him a Serbian hero and defender of orthodoxy . Therefore there was no reason for him entering the country with fake papers.
He was escorted by the head of the Serbo-bosnian intelligence one person nicknamed Popa and a lieutenant of Milosevic.Formally they justified their visit as an intention of visiting the Holy mountain(an autonomous community of monasteries in greece)  but the real reasons were revealed the second day when Mladic had a secret meeting with an agent from the Greek intelligence service.
The day after the serbian general attempted to visit the Holy mountain but a sea turbulence changed his plans. However this aspiration of visiting the Holy mountain has created the last years conspiracy theories that Mladic was hiding in a monastery of Holy mountain disguised as a monk.
It was never revealed what was discussed between Mladic and the Greek agent.We can however guess what was the topic of conversation.It was the time that the Greek prime minister Mitsotakis who was the closest ally of Milosevic lost the elections to the pro-American Papandreou . Perhaps Mladiv wanted to invenstigate whether the new government would continue the pro-Serbian policy of the previous one.It is assumed that he returned back to Serbo-Bosnia satisfied because he was guaranteed that the greek government would remain an ally of Serbia. Rumors say that the Greek aid to Mladic was not always official.
Those who were involved in organising the Greek humanitarian aid for Bosnians made secret exchanges with Mladic.One example were the trucks full with olive oil that were sent for the Bosnian people which eventually turned to be engine oil for the Serbian tanks.

translation is made by me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Buddha statue that was saved from the madness of the Taliban regime.

Ten years  have passed after the destruction of the impressive statues of Buddha in Afghanistan by the Taliban.  regime.These statues were declared Unesco world heritage monuments. Luckily  one sculpture of Buddha wasn't destroyed like approximately the rest 2750 statues and sculptures that disappeared from the face of earth.Today this statue is exhibited at the archaeological museum of Britain.

The statue which is 1.2 m. tall was stolen from the archaeological museum of Kambul during the 90s' and it belongs to the art of the Gandhara culture which was strongly influenced by the Hellenistic art.

Responsible for saving and preserving the sculpture is a British merchant. He was passionate of the Greco-buddhist art and he recognised a statue of buddha that he had seen years before in the museum of Kambul from a photo that a Japanese merchant had sent to him.
The British merchant explained:
I was begging him to return it back to the museum of Kambul but he was indifferent because the Japanese legislation doesn't prosecute someone who possesses something stolen even if it is an ancient artifact. Thus i decided to purchase it from him
Even though there was a danger with the British legislation he dared to purchase it with the backing of the British archaeological museum. The value of the statue is estimated at 691.000 euros but the British museum claims that it is much more valuable. It is going to be exhibited in the British museum until the 17th of July  when it will be transferred back to Afghanistan.

source: ta nea newspaper , translation is made by me.
electronic source:

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