Monday, July 27, 2015

This Blog named one of 10 History Blogs to Follow

Recently, The Ancient History Encyclopedia named us one of 10 history blogs to follow. See the following link:

http://etc.ancient.eu/2015/07/22/10-history-blogs-to-follow/

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Inland Navy of the Roman Empire

In modern times, we think of great navies patrolling the oceans of the world. The British Empire, for example, owes the advent of its naval superiority to its victory over the Spanish Armada and the subsequent focus on providing protection for its trading partners and colonies. In Roman times, the naval landscape was principally the Mediterranean Sea, or as the Romans liked to call it, Mare Nostrum.

As I have discussed in other posts, the Romans came late to the game of sea trade and naval power following the successes of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians. They had no navy until the first Punic War (264 B.C.) when it became an important instrument for the capture of Sicily. By the time the empire began, naval power was a critical element of Roman strategy.

A remarkable yet mostly obscure part of the Roman naval story concerns the fleets of the inland frontier. I know of no other case in history where a large scale power deployed a navy for the control of rivers. By accident or design, the northern boundary of the empire would be marked by the great rivers of Europe; the Rhine and the Danube, so a naval force was required to act in support of the army. The Rhine was the western boundary of the empire from the time of Julius Caesar with the Danube following during the time of Augustus, who sought to move the boundary north to avoid attacks emanating from the Alps. Augustus had Drusus and his brother Tiberius push east from the Rhine as far as the Elbe, but following reverses like the Massacre at Teutoburg, Rome retreated to its
old boundary on the Rhine.

With rivers as a physical boundary, Rome needed a naval force to protect it: protect merchant traffic, quickly ferry the army to vulnerable locations, and control any adversarial movement on the waterways. Below is a map of the Rhine and Danube Rivers showing where the Roman fleets were located.

The Iron Gates are a physical landmark in the Lower Danube which divides the river. Its waterfalls and rapids made ship navigation during antiquity problematic, and it was not until 1831 that a successful channel was dug. See the photograph below.


The Roman solution to this Iron Gates problem was to deploy two navies. Classis Moesica on the eastern side and Classis Pannonica on the western side. These fleets were responsible for supporting the volatile Balkan frontier. The upper Danube, running from the Alps through modern Hungary was a more stable boundary which did not require a naval force during the first two centuries AD. A third naval force, the Classis Germanica was based near modern Bonn and was responsible for the Rhine region.

These Roman frontier fleets used a smaller class of ships than those used in the larger bodies of water, principally the Liburna, which was essentially a bireme with two rows of oars, possibly similar to the old Greek pentekontor. The crew was organized as a century like the army but not subdivided into cohorts because there was no tactical movement necessary at sea. A centurion was responsible for training the crew and took orders from a Praefect who acted as an administrator for the navy. These men were of high standing usually members of the equestrian class. The naval administration linked ships and sailors directly to Caesar rather than acting through the army chain of command. This peculiarity was an artifact of the time of Augustus when he placed so much trust in Agrippa as his naval commander and then assumed personal control following the death of his friend.

Actions undertaken by the northern fleets were sporadic and depended on the whether there were pressing threats to the frontier. For example, there were significant actions from 20 B.C. to 10 A.D. under Augustus when he was trying to establish provinces in the Balkans, but peacetime idled the navy from 15-69 A.D. After 85 A.D, the Dacian Wars occupied the fleets of the lower Danube for twenty years. 

There are no real descriptions of the northern fleets in battle, only their support of the efforts of the army. Lack of historical detail and the fact that the indigenous people lacked navies, leads one to believe there few independent actions that one could label noteworthy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Roman Empire and Dacia

The history of Rome and Dacia is another example of friction at the edge of the Empire causing a confrontation with people who refused to be subjugated. It took the Romans nearly twenty years to defeat Dacia once hostilities broke into the open.

With the eastern European frontier the Romans employed, as elsewhere, the same strategy. First, they required that the frontier facilitate traffic flowing between the various parts of the Empire. Second they rejected areas that were difficult to settle. Third they specified that the frontier include lands that could provide food and natural resources for the Romans settled there.

The tribe of Dacians was located north of the Danube River in southeastern Europe in what is today Romania and Moldova. At various times in their history, The Dacians, called Getae by the Greeks, expanded south of the Danube to the edge of the Balkan Mountains in what is now modern Bulgaria. The Dacians had a propensity for centralization which was rare for the peoples of the region and this trait made them a dangerous adversary for any power operating in the vicinity of the Danube.

During the first century AD, before Trajan, the Roman frontier in southeast Europe had its northern boundary at the Danube River stretching from Vienna all the way to the Black Sea. The Danube was fortified along its entire length with large forts, watchtowers, and auxiliary units assigned to reconnaissance, while two naval fleets, the Classis Pannonica and Classis Moesia, patrolled the river itself.


The map above shows the geography of the Balkans area.

Dacian raids against Rome were somewhat controlled under Augustus through reprisal operations. Tiberius tried diplomacy but was unsuccessful, possibly because the Dacians possessed gold and refused to be bought off. Then, during the middle of the first century AD, the Romans used Sarmatian Lazyges as a buffer by having them occupy areas Between the Tisza River and the Danube. The Lazyges, a nomadic people, were willing to take as payback for their territorial commitment Roman help in suppressing internal rebel activity.

In 85/86, during the reign of Domitian, the Dacians came together under the rule of Decebalus and became more belligerent. A Dacian attack on Moesia in 87 led to a Roman pursuit across the Danube and a serious Roman defeat, later avenged by Roman victory at Tapae in 88. Domitian had designs on attacking the Dacian capital at Sarmizegethusa but delays caused by matters needing Roman attention elsewhere resulted in a lost opportunity. By the time Rome turned its attention back to Dacia, the client kingdoms of the Danube had crumbled, making a large scale attack no longer possible. Uncertainty in the region required that Domitian treat with the Dacians, including the offering of a technical aid program, so things remained quiet along the eastern Danube up until the time of Domitian’s assassination in 96 AD.

Trajan attacked Dacia in the 101-2 period, defeated Decebalus, and exacted severe concessions on the losers. Almost immediately, the terms of the treaty were abused and a second war commenced in 105. This time Trajan laid siege to Sarmizegethusa and destroyed it. Decebalus committed suicide to avoid Roman capture.

Trajan made Dacia a Roman province extending its land as a deep wedge north from the Danube, a design intended to separate the local tribes and decrease their ability to organize together. This Dacian wedge survived until 270, when Aurelian abandoned the territory to conserve military resources.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Roman Assault on Carthage and the Role the Great Harbor played in it.

The Third Punic War was the inevitable result of treaty that was too restrictive and a long standing feud that couldn't be mitigated.

After defeat in the Second war in 202 B.C, Carthage was prohibited from attacking any friend of Rome and also required to pay reparations to the victor. But, over time, the Roman Senate saw hawk and dove factions emerge during arguments over the future of Carthage. The Punic council, looking at Rome from a position of weakness, saw similar factions argue over the risk of provoking their longtime adversary. Adding to the mix, neighbors of the Carthage began to attack her thinking she would not fight back. But she did and finally, in 149 B.C, the efforts Carthage made to protect herself were seen as violations by the hawks in the Roman Senate and war was declared.

The years of 149-148 B.C, were unsuccessful from the Roman standpoint as multiple attempts to assault the city failed. Then, after Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul in late 148, he proceeded to Carthage intent on finishing the war. Aemilianus spent the summer of 147 B.C. getting his army in shape and then in the fall built a double wall 3.2 miles across the Isthmus separating the city of Carthage from the rest of the Tunisian Peninsula. The inner wall would starve the Carthaginians into submission while the outer wall served to protect the Roman army from being attacked from behind. The inner wall was twelve feet high with parapets and towers. A central tower was high enough to provide a view into the city.

To help you understand the geography involved in this battle, I have constructed the following map which shows the city of Carthage and its critical landmarks.


Aemilianus came to realize, soon after the siege began, that closing the land route to Carthage was only a partial solution because the Carthaginian port was still open. Moreover the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, had his army stationed between the city walls and the port (labeled 2 on the map). Aemilianus wanted to move Hasdrubal so he created a distraction by sending a night raiding party of 4,000 to an area north of the Utica Gate, labeled 1 on the map, where scaling the wall was easier. The raiders had free reign over wealthy neighborhoods and an alarm went up immediately.

When Hasdrubal got word of the attack, he abandoned his position at 2 and brought his army back inside the city walls to counter the Romans, but they abandoned their positions the same night and retreated. The Romans overran the vacated position 2 and moved on to position 3 where they could devise an attack on the port. Meanwhile, parallel trenches were dug close to the city was with cross trenches connecting them. The trenches were filled with sharpened spikes.

Next, the Roman army began to construct a “mole” or sea wall to block the entrance to the commercial harbor (labeled 4). The mole was ninety six feet wide at the bottom, twenty-four feet wide at the surface, and constructed of heavy stones. The Roman army worked twenty-four hours a day on the construction until the mole was completed.

When the Carthaginians saw what the Romans were up to, they began a desperate construction project of their own to make a hole in the seaside wall of the commercial harbor so their ships could escape to the sea. The location of this hole was between 4 and 5 on the map. Since the majority of the project was conducted under cover, the Romans were unaware of what the Carthaginians were doing until 50 Triremes from the Carthaginian fleet emerged through the newly created opening. A more resourceful commander could have used the element of surprise to inflict a great deal of damage on the Roman fleet but the Punic commander was content to make a parade of his ships and engage in some training exercises before retiring for the night. When they emerged again three days later, the Roman fleet was prepared for battle. In the confusion of ships, the opening into the harbor was blocked by ships so the Carthaginians had to tie up along the outer break wall and absorb repeated Roman attacks. By nightfall they were able to return to the harbor. Before the end of the campaign season, the Romans attacked and took control of the outer break wall but put off attacking the city to direct their attention to raids on the interior and wait for the end of the year elections. With his choke hold on the city in place, Aemilianus knew it was just a matter of time before the city would starve.

During the spring of 146 B.C, Aemilianus returned to Carthage to finish the job. The final assault was focused on a point near the military harbor labeled 5 on the map. The Romans fought their way over the wall and despite Hasdrubal’s attempt to block them by setting fires, they were able to work their way into the city. The Carthaginians retreated to their citadel at Byrsa shown (rectangle on the map). The citadel was on top of a hill and between that point and the harbor sat three or four blocks of multi-story apartment buildings, so, in order to reach the citadel, the Romans had to engage in the worse kind of urban combat imaginable. Aemilianus ordered the neighborhood to be set on fire and the conflagration lasted for six days.

At that point, 50,000 civilians from the citadel where allowed to leave and be delivered into Roman hands to be sold as slaves, while Roman deserters and the remainder of Hasdrubal’s army fought on. But it wasn't long before the Punic general surrendered and threw himself at the mercy of the Romans. We know nothing of his fate other than he was paraded in Rome during the triumph celebrating the end of Carthage. The city itself was leveled and salt was poured on the arable land to prevent its use. No doubt this was the residue of hatred the Romans felt for Carthage going back to the time Hannibal embarrassed them during the second war.

Later Carthage would have a new life when Julius Caesar built a colony there in the mid-40s B.C. By the first century A.D, Carthage would become the second largest city in the western empire.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Great Harbor at Carthage

What is a Cothon?

A cothon is a man-made harbor found in the ports of ancient Phoenicia. In actuality, cothon refers to a man-made island at the center of a harbor, but because this island was typically included in the harbor design, its name eventually became the general term for the type of harbor. The great harbor of Carthage is the most well-known example, although others existed in Cyprus and Sicily.


The relationship between Carthage and Phoenicia is much deeper, of course, than the mere copying of a harbor design. Carthage, circa 814 B.C, began as a Phoenician colony at the start of the first millennium B.C. later to become independent of its mother country. The name Carthage is Phoenician for “New City”. As the Carthaginians moved forward to build their own nation, they used the Phoenician model of building an economy based on trade. After the Greek settlements in the Italian peninsula caused the Phoenicians to retreat to the eastern Mediterranean, Carthage was in position to dominate the western Mediterranean, which she accomplished by 650 B.C. Carthage remained a maritime power until she was crushed by the Romans at the end of the third Punic War in 146 B.C.

We don’t know when the great harbor was built because the history is lacking. The best information about it comes from Appian, far removed from the events he writes about. Polybius would have been a great source because he was eyewitness to the Roman attack on Carthage at the end of the third Punic War, but his writings are lost.

Here is what Appian had to say:

The harbors had communication with each other, and a common entrance from the sea twenty meters wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships' tackle. Within the second port was an island which, together with the port itself, was enclosed by high embankments. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. Above them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbor and the island. On the island was built the admiral's house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself overlooked everything. The island lay near the entrance to the harbor and rose to a considerable height, so that the admiral could observe what was going on at sea, while those who were approaching by water could not get any clear view of what took place within. Not even the incoming merchants could see the docks, for a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards.


Above is a drawing of the harbors of Carthage.

The architecture of the military harbor was stunning as you can see from the drawing below by RadoJavor, copyright 2012-2014.


The photograph below shows the harbors today.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

Articles from The University of Warrick, UK

I received a note recently from the University of Warrick, UK, asking me to provide a link to one of their journal articles, which introduces an unknown Roman writer named Bryson Arabus. The link to that article follows:

Bryson Arabus - Who was he?

While looking over the newsevents/features section of the University's website,  I found an interesting article marking the seventieth anniversary of the book, The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, the well known economic historian. Polanyi's work sought a middle ground between the political and social philosophy of Hayek and the economic philosophy of Keynes by proposing that society was a fusion between the nation state and market economy, rather than existing in a form dominated by one or the other. Polanyi believed that a "market society" was invented by man and developed organically as a result of human behavior.

Market economies were created the first time two human beings made a trade of equal value, dating back to the time when man became man. The social layer was added during antiquity when the human population density was great enough to foster social classes, a division of labor, and a government designed to enforce property rights. Because man evolved society to meet the needs of a large group, his sense of capitalism and the function of markets evolved in tandem with it. The Athenian agora was no primitive cousin of today's market economy. It was just a smaller version.

A link to the Polanyi article is below;

Karl Polanyi

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Antonine Wall - Guest Post

Completed in the year 128 C.E., Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most famous civil engineering projects undertaken by the Roman Empire. The wall ran a distance of 73 miles (117.5 kilometers), crossing the English countryside from the waters of Solway Forth to the mouth of the River Tyne. It took the effort of three Roman legions working over the course of six years to complete, and required a garrison of more than 10,000 men to guard its length. Built by the Emperor Hadrian, many people believe this wall represents the limit of Roman expansion as well as the northernmost reach of the Empire.


The truth of the matter is that the mortar was hardly dry on Hadrian’s wall when plans began for another wall across the southern portion of what is now Scotland. Construction of this new wall began four years after Hadrian’s death. Though shorter than its famous cousin, the new wall would take twice as long to build and run along a stretch of countryside a 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall.

When Hadrian died in 128 C.E., a new emperor ascended to the title of Caesar. His name was Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus, or as he is better known, Antonius Pius. Though one of the four great emperors of the empire’s golden age, he was remembered as being quietly competent, ruling from Rome, focused on the promotion of the arts and sciences, and introducing significant reforms to the Roman legal system rather than leading armies of invasion as his predecessors had done. His timing was fortunate because he was able to avoid the armed conflict that would come later.

During the first year of his reign, Antoninus appointed Quintus Lollius Urbicus to be the governor of Britannia. This was not the sort of political appointee one would expect if the Emperor was looking to maintain a quiet northern border. Lollius Urbicus had been one of the men who had put down the Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kokhba in 132-136 C.E. The revolt had been suppressed with a violence and ferocity that was shocking even by Roman standards.

Lollius got to work immediately and between 138 and 140 C.E. strengthened the fortifications behind Hadrian’s Wall for use as launching points for an invasion. Once his army was trained, he launched a two year long campaign to conquer the Votadani, Selgovae, Damnonii, and the Novantae tribes living in the Scottish lowlands. On the heels of his victory he began the construction of a new wall.
This one stretched across a distance only a little more than half the length of Hadrian’s Wall, requiring fewer troops to garrison its defenses and freeing men to keep order among the conquered tribes to the south. This wall would be of a simpler construction, using a berm made of sod overlooking a deep cut ditch. Fortresses would be spaced every two miles for the garrisoning of troops, and a military road would run alongside the berm. To help improve the defensive capabilities of this smaller, less durable wall, a number of forts and outposts were built to the north of the wall, to act as an early warning system for the garrisons stationed at the Antonine Wall.

Started in 142 C.E, the new wall would not be finished until 154 C.E. The Caledonian tribe, immediately to the north, proved to be a constant thorn in the side of those constructing the wall, and their recalcitrance would not be ended by its completion. The garrisons in the forts to its north, as well as those manning the wall, would be under constant pressure from this adversarial tribe.

After the death of Antoninus in 161 C.E. his successors (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus) ordered the abandonment of the Antonine Wall. The Roman legions fell back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the previously conquered tribes to act as a buffer against the Caledonians. Though additional forays in 197 would lead to a brief reoccupation of the wall, Hadrian’s Wall would remain as the northern border of the Roman Empire until sometime around the turn of the 5th century.

James Hinton is a life time learner and U.S. Army veteran. He has a fascination with history for both the lessons it can teach and the high drama its stories can produce.