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After majoring in history at the University of British Columbia, Ludwig Dyck went on to write numerous articles for popular history magazines. His book, "The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest," has been re-published by Pen & Sword Books.

Prince Eugene’s Last Ride, Belgrade 1717

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

Prince Eugene’s last Ride, Belgrade 1717

In the summer of 1717, Prince Eugene of Savoy moved to crush the final bastion of his Ottoman Turk enemies—Belgrade. “Either I will take Belgrade, or the Turks will take me.”

 

Beneath the Gothic steeples of their churches, the priests of Wallachia prayed that the Austrians would deliver them from the Turkish yoke. The cold winter winds howled outside the massive stone walls. Imperial raiders galloped through the white countryside of Wallachia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Although major hostilities had ceased for the winter, the war between Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III continued to drag on.

Far to the west, across the frozen Hungarian plain to the crags of the Alps, the city of Vienna, hub of the Habsburg Empire, nestled between the Danube and Vienna Rivers. Nobles feasted and waltzed in gold-and-white marbled palaces, celebrating the year’s victories of their champion, Field Marshal Prince Eugene of Savoy. A year earlier, Eugene had defeated the Turks at Peterwardein, the “Gibraltar of Hungary,” and then proceeded to wrest control of Temesvár, the last Turkish stronghold north of the Danube. The 53-year-old prince was not only the Holy Roman Empire’s most celebrated warrior, but also one of the great captains of his age.
Prince Eugene of Savoy (Warfare History Network)

Sparking War With the Ottomans

Eugene was of Italian heritage but grew up in France. When he came of age, his king, Louis XIV, refused him a military career, sizing up Eugene as a short, frail dandy whose scandalous mother was infamous for her affairs and dabbling in magic. Undaunted, Eugene defected to the Austrians just in time to battle the Turks investing Vienna in 1683. The battle awakened Eugene’s warrior heart and changed his life.

During the Second Turkish War (1683-1699), the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Eugene won military laurels through his personal bravery and his tactical and strategic genius. His adoring soldiers nicknamed him their “brown Capuchin” after the plain brown coat he preferred over a more lavish officer’s uniform. Eugene’s masterpiece was his 1697 victory over the Turks at Zenta, which ended the Second Turkish War with the Peace of Karlowitz and made Eugene a European hero and Austria a major European power. A shrewd statesman and patron of European culture, Eugene became the right-hand man of Emperor Joseph I and his successor, Charles VI.

Both Eugene and the Porte, the Ottoman high command, regarded the Peace of Karlowitz as little more than an  armistice. In 1711 the Turks were back, defeating Czar Peter the Great’s Russians on the River Pruth. Four years later, eager to regain what was once theirs, a Turkish army swamped the meager forces of the Venetian kingdom of Morea. The locals, who had smarted under injustices done by Venetian nobles and Greek pirates, hailed the Turks as liberators. After a 100-day siege, Morea was Turkish once more, leaving the Turks free to turn on Corfu.

Both Russia and Venice had been Austria’s allies in the Second Turkish War. To Eugene, it was obvious that the Empire would be the Ottomans next target. He believed it was better to go to war sooner rather than later because a rare spell of peace in Western Europe freed the imperial army to concentrate on the Turks. At the urging of both Eugene and Pope Clement XI, Charles VI insisted that the Ottomans relinquish their Venetian conquests. The Porte replied with a declaration of war in 1716, but after Eugene’s victories at Peterwardein and Temesvár the Turks decided it was wiser to cease hostilities. They lifted the siege of Corfu and pleaded for an armistice.

The Turks found support among the English, who wished to curtail Austrian power and see Temesvár returned to the Turks. On the other hand, Peter the Great, who was eager to avenge his earlier defeat, offered to join the war against the Turks. Eugene would have none of it; Emperor Charles VI heeded his advice. The war would continue without the Russians. There was no need to let Russia have easy land grabs in the Danube region while the Turks slugged it out with the Austrians. The Empire did accept much-needed financial aid from Prince Maximilian of Hesse, Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, the Venetian Signoria, and the Pope, who imposed a tax on the clergy of Naples, Milan, and Mantua to help fight the Turks. Half a million additional guldens were extorted from the Jewish community.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (r. 1711-1740) by Martin van Meytens

Belgrade: “House of the Holy War”

Eugene wished to deal the Turks a crippling blow before new fighting broke out in the west. His thoughts centered on the southeast, on the prize that had so far eluded him: Belgrade, which the Turks had named’ “House of the Holy War.” The fortress-city was the gateway of the Turkish invasion route into central Europe. It was also a major trade center. Traditionally being the capital of Serbia, Belgrade had passed to Hungarian rule and there after, with the exception of a short Habsburg interlude,  had remained in Ottoman hands. The capture of the key strategic fortress city of Belgrade would force the Turks to their knees.

Belgrade had seen four bloody battles in the last 30 years. Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria seized it in 1688 after 26 days of siege. Eugene himself was there that day, fighting side by side with the elector. Through enemy fire, the young Eugene led his troopers up to the walls of Belgrade, where a musket ball shattered his knee. Eugene’s wound took months to heal and was complicated by a severe onset of bronchitis and sinusitis. The victory proved short-lived in any event, as Mustafa Kuprili recaptured the city in 1690. Three years later, a 49-day Austrian siege was unable to force the garrison into submission, leaving Belgrade solidly in Turkish hands.

Planning to Draw Out the Turks

In 1717, it was Eugene’s turn to try and hoist the imperial banners over the walls of Belgrade. In preparation for the campaign, he raised additional heavy artillery and magazines and augmented the Danube fleet with 10 new warships. The bigger ships boasted 1,000 men and 56 guns. On May 13, the boom of Vienna’s cannons heralded the birth of Maria Theresa, the future empress and daughter of Charles VI and Empress Elisabeth Christine. Eugene had delayed his departure for the eminent event. When Eugene left Vienna the next day, Charles VI presented him with a jeweled cross. Aware of Eugene’s reckless nature, the emperor warned Eugene to take care of himself.

Eugene sailed down the Danube, disembarking at Buda. Back in 1686, Eugene had been fighting under Duke Charles of Lorraine when the Buda had been recaptured from the Turks. Eugene stayed just long enough to attend Mass and inspect the fortifications and the supply depot before continuing on to Futak, west of Peterwardein, on May 21. The Hungarian village would serve as the assembly point of Eugene’s field army.
“Recapture of Buda Castle from the Turks, 1686.” Prince Eugene of Savoy on the second white horse from the right, behind Duke Charles of Lorraine – the co-savior of Vienna and leading figure in the early years of the Great Turkish War. Artist: Benczúr Gyula (1896).

Eugene had increased his field army by 20,000 men, 17,500 of whom were raised in Hungary, the rest in Italy. At 100,000 men strong, supported by 200 guns and the Danube flotilla, it was the largest army Eugene had ever led against the Turks. Eight thousand volunteers, including nobles from half the royal houses of Europe, came to fight at Eugene’s side. There were 45 nobles from Germany and France alone, including two princes from Lorraine and a company of Frenchmen led by the grandson of the late Louis XIV. The largest volunteer contingent was that of General Field Marshal Alexander Maffei, another veteran of the 1688 siege of Belgrade. Maffei brought with him the two sons of Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria and 5,700 stalwart Bavarians. Also in Eugene’s army was 20-year-old Herman Maurice, the Comte de Saxe, who had served under Eugene since the age of 13. What he learned from Eugene would help Saxe become France’s premier soldier.

Although Eugene knew very little about the size and status of the Turkish army, he planned to draw it into battle by laying siege to Belgrade. Wishing to gain the initiative, Eugene did not bother to wait for the last straggling troops to join his army. He had sent his favorite general, Count Florimund von Mercy, to scout ahead. Using Mercy’s information, Eugene left Futak on June 9 to march his army east along the north bank of the Danube. On June 15, he crossed the Danube at Pancsova. Eugene then doubled back west to approach Belgrade from the east and rear. His route allowed him to cross the Danube out of range of Belgrade’s artillery and to approach Belgrade from the base of the triangle formed by the confluence of the Rivers Danube and Sava, which flanked the city from the north and west.

While his army closed in on Belgrade, Eugene personally led a reconnaissance mission. It nearly cost him his life when 1,200 Turkish cavalry waylaid Eugene and his escort. One of the Turks leveled his pistol at Eugene and came within a hair’s breadth of pulling the trigger before an imperial bullet struck him down.

Choosing not to risk an immediate assault, Eugene planned to enclose the city within a ring of entrenchments. They were designed not only to guard against an outbreak from Belgrade but also to cover the rear of the imperial army in the event of the arrival of a Turkish relief army. Eugene’s siege lines ran in a semicircle from the Danube to the Sava, enclosing Belgrade from the landward side. In addition, his men built a pontoon bridge over the Danube and another over the Sava to allow easy access into Hungary.

Lieutenant Field Marshal Count von Hauben established a bridgehead on the western bank of the Sava, driving the Turks from the higher ground at Semlin and entrenching himself with 16 battalions of infantry, 17 cavalry, and assorted Bavarian units. From there he could bombard northern Belgrade and guard the supply and communication routes to Peterwardein.
Prince Eugene surveys the besieged city of Belgrade through a telescope during the siege of 1717.  Engraving by Gustav Adolph. 19th century, Turkish War ( ©Mary Evans / The Image Works, from Warfare History Network)

Mustafa’s Assault With Cries of ‘Allah’

Belgrade’s defenses had been heavily upgraded since the last battle at the end of the century. Its able commander, Serasker Mustafa Pasha, held Belgrade with 30,000 men, among them the cream of the Janissaries. Six hundred guns were at Mustafa’s disposal and 70 ships guarded the river approach. Belgrade’s civilians had been cleared from the city.

Mustafa watched as cannon fire erupted from the parapets, blasting the imperials who were busily digging trenches in the marshy grounds bordering the rivers. Mustafa was ready to fight until the Turkish relief army arrived. In small boats and raiding parties, the Turks harried imperial efforts to finish the siege lines. Janissary Serdengecti, or “head-riskers,” left behind decapitated imperial corpses. A ducat was awarded for every Christian captured. Meanwhile, Turkish and imperial ships plowed the river, preying on each other’s supply transports.

On July 11, the imperialists captured Turkish outposts on the north bank of the Danube. Two days later, Mother Nature came to Mustafa’s aid when a terrible storm played havoc with the imperial camp. Winds whipped the waters into a frenzy, battering to pieces parts of the two bridges, pulling under supply ships and washing wagons and their hapless oxen into the river. A Turkish half-galley drifted into an imperial warship.

Seeing the imperial camp in shambles, Mustafa launched 10,000 men over the Sava. The Turks were out to finish off what remained of the mauled bridges and take the trenches. A Hessian captain held them off, until reinforcements hurled back the enemy.

Four days later, with cries of “Allah,” the Turks launched another assault. This time they hit the unfinished trench lines near the Danube. Imperial officers in the area squabbled over whether to await the attackers or sally forth and meet them head-on. The situation became critical, but Eugene instantly counterattacked with 250 cuirassiers of Prince Philip von Hessen’s regiment. Sabers flashed as the cuirassiers, resplendent in their ridged helmets and bullet-tested breast and back plates, sent the Turks reeling.

Smoke and flames envelop Belgrade during the month-long siege. Thirty thousand Turkish troops under Mustafa Pasha held out, hoping reinforcements would arrive in time (Warfare History Network).

Khalil’s Relief Force Bound For Belgrade

Mustafa’s efforts and a lack of available timber slowed down imperial efforts to dig more trenches and ravelins (triangular fortifications). Reinforcements continued to trickle in, along with heavy artillery shipped on river transports. By July 22, the siege lines were finally completed. Eugene’s artillery hammered Belgrade relentlessly. The iron balls of his long field guns blasted apart fortifications. Grapeshot and explosive bombs from howitzers shredded defenders.

But Eugene’s attrition of Belgrade’s defenders had started too late. By the end of the month, the news he dreaded arrived. He had hoped to have Belgrade in his hands before he confronted the Turkish army. It was not to be. Cavalry scouts returned to herald the imminent arrival of the enemy army. An intercepted Turkish letter written by the Grand Vizier Khalil Pasha himself flaunted a 300,000-man army. However, as Eugene no doubt guessed, Khalil’s boastful letter greatly exaggerated the strength of the Turkish army.

Khalil had his own problems getting his war machine into gear. In the wake of Eugene’s victories in the previous year, the Ottoman soldiers were demoralized. Many wandered away before reaching the traditional muster at Edrine. They risked execution by strangling, the punishment for desertion, rather than face the imperials. Artillery losses had been so heavy that guns had to be shipped from far away Middle Eastern arsenals.

The only Turkish units worth their salt were those of the Janissary corps and the Spahis, or professional Ottoman cavalry. These elite units made up only a fraction of Khalil’s immense army, which numbered around 160,000 men, including 80,000 cavalry and 120 guns and mortars. The rest of his soldiers were poorly armed and poorly trained rabble collected from the provinces—of little more military value than the tens of thousands of camp followers. The latter included the Ordu Esnaf, literally an army of artisans, who provided everything from blacksmiths and pharmacists to candle makers and sheep’s head sellers. The great number of noncombatants swelled the Turkish host to over 200,000.

In the Crossfire of the Turkish Guns

Much of Belgrade lay in smoldering ruins. Victory for the investing army seemed merely a matter of time. But the eyes of many soldiers in the trenches were not on the battered battlements to their front, where the Turks erupted into inexplicable jubilation on July 28, shooting rockets and fireworks. The exhausted, walrus-mustached imperial troopers looked the other direction, where  the arrival of Turkish cavalry, with its horsetail banners and green and yellow-forked flags, appeared on the slopes to their rear.

During the next few days, countless more Turks wandered in from the valley of the Morawa River, including Khalil Pasha himself. Khalil was not known as a great military commander, but as a former governor of Belgrade he had firsthand knowledge of the battlefield that lay before him. Accordingly, Khalil deployed his army in a half-moon position on the Heights of Crutza and Badjina south of Belgrade and Eugene’s siege lines, which were so deep and high that they resembled a fortress. Khalil decided against an assault. Instead, at the beginning of August he began bombarding the imperial forces squeezed between his army and the besieged city.

News soon spread throughout Europe that Eugene was trapped. The prince was aware of his dilemma but determined to hold out, hoping that Khalil would risk an assault on the imperial lines or be forced to withdraw due to lack of food. But Eugene had misjudged the situation. Two weeks after he arrived, the fire from Khalil’s guns was, if anything, getting more severe. Khalil had boldly advanced his own trench lines and batteries within musket range of the Imperial lines. Eugene’s bridge over the Sava was threatened. If it fell, the corps at Semlin would be isolated.

The imperial soldiers were caught in a murderous crossfire between the guns of Belgrade and those on the higher ground held by Khalil’s relief army. Casualties from the bombardment mounted, adding to those lost to exploding Turkish mines and infiltrating Serdengecti. Many imperial soldiers fell ill to dysentery augmented by an unbearable heat wave. Turkish galleys hindered transports from bringing in much-needed supplies. Attended by princes eager to learn the art of war, Eugene daily inspected his own lines and those of the enemy. On August 14th a lucky shot from a 10-pound mortar struck the main ammunition depot at Belgrade.  A huge explosion erupted, killing purported 3000 Turks. Eugene, who knew his army was otherwise nearing the brink of collapse, knew that now was the time to attack before his men completely withered away.

The 10 pound mortar which blew up the Turkish ammo depot at Belgrade on August 14, 17117, cast by Leopold Halil in Vienna in 1714. Photo: L. Dyck, Imperial War Museum, Vienna. 2013.

“Either I Will Take Belgrade, or the Turks Will Take Me”

At 3 pm on August 15, Eugene summoned his commanders for a council of war. With their complete support, he announced that he would attack the Turkish relief army. “Either I will take Belgrade, or the Turks will take me,”1 he joked grimly. He knew that victory at Belgrade, for either side, would spell the end of the war since neither the Emperor nor the Sultan could afford to raise another army.

As usual, Eugene planned the attack in the smallest details. Sixty guns were moved to the flanks to support the attack. Additional spare officers and gunnery crews were to join the infantry, ready to take over captured Turkish guns. To avoid the lines getting mixed up, officers were ordered to remain calm and not rush their troops. The cavalry should resort to their guns only when necessary, leaving the infantry units mixed among them to maintain a steady fire on the Turks. Eugene feared that even if Khalil was driven from the field premature looting could break up the imperial army and leave it at the mercy of a timely sally from Belgrade’s defenders. Any looting would be punishable by death.

During the night, Eugene visited his officers and soldiers. He issued orders and offered words of hope, personally handing out wine, brandy, and beer to boost the men’s courage. The Turks, he assured them, could be beaten if order was maintained and the imperial lines remained unbroken. His men’s confidence in their leader, who had fought the Turks for 30 years, remained high. Eugene knew in turn that he could count on his officers and soldiers, many of whom were battle-hardened veterans of the War of the Spanish Succession. Lieutenant Field Marshals Count Browne de Camus and Peter Josef de Viard remained behind to hold the trenches with 10,000 men, including cavalrymen whose horses had perished. They would continue the siege, guard the thousands of sick and wounded, and be ready to repulse any sortie out of Belgrade.

Before midnight three bombs exploded, signaling the advance. Eugene was back in the saddle. The trenches came to life and 50,000 imperial troopers filed out into the darkness beneath a clear, star-spangled night sky. The cavalry regiments, the elite of the imperial army, commanded by Hungarian Field Marshal Count Johann von Pálffy, were first to walk out of the openings on the left and right wings of the imperial entrenchment. While Palffy’s cavalry assembled in its squadrons, the infantry under Field Marshal Prince Alexander von Württemberg followed to form the imperial center. Fifteen battalions under Lieutenant Field Marshal Friedrich von Seckendorf stood in the reserve. In all, 52 infantry battalions, 53 grenadier companies, and 180 cavalry squadrons were coming for the Turks.

Fighting in the Fog

The imperial troopers did their best to dampen the sound of their battle gear and calm their horses. In places the Turkish lines were only a few hundred steps away. Vigilant Turkish guards heard the faintly audible clatter of steel blades, the tramp of boots and hoofs, the neighing of horses, and the foreign tongues of infidel officers giving orders to their men. A covering fog rose around 3 am on August 16. Into it marched the imperial pearl-gray lines, seemingly swallowed by the mist.

The Turks stared in disbelief as imperial cavalry suddenly rode out of the fog. Led by von Pálffy, the horsemen appeared practically on top of the Turks who were busy digging new trenches. No one could see more than 10 paces ahead. For a split second the Turks remained frozen, then alarms shattered the predawn air. The deafening clamor of massive kettle drums, clarinets, trumpets, and cymbals burst forth as the Ottoman military band urged on its troops.

Sitting on his horse, Eugene heard the first shots echo somewhere on his extreme right wing. The battle had begun—much too soon for Eugene’s liking. Inside the fog it was pure chaos. Everywhere the enemy was so close that artillery and musket fire were of little use. Imperial bayonets stabbed at red-clad Janissaries. Turks wielding two-handed axes ducked beneath flailing hoofs to hack at rearing imperial horses and riders. Pistol bullets ripped through Turkish shirts embroidered with verses from the Koran. Curved Yatagan swords parried the straight-bladed, heavy imperial cuirassier sabers.

On the Turkish left wing, Spahis galloped to the aid of the hard-pressed Turkish infantry. Pálffy’s horsemen seemed unable to batter their way through the Turkish defenses. Count Mercy boldly dashed forward with the second cavalry line. The Turks broke, but not for long, rallying and then viciously striking back. The first imperial infantry line, bristling with bayonets, appeared, led by Quartermaster-General Max von Starhemberg. The imperial cavalry rallied and struck the Turks in the flanks. This time the Turks fled for good, abandoning the higher ground and some batteries to the enemy. In the center of the line, other Turkish troops charged forward uncontested.

The Turkish Rout

Around 8 am, a strong morning breeze blew away the mist and revealed the terrible scene below. The battle raged on. The trenches were filled with Turkish and imperial dead. Eugene’s army was in dire peril. Instructed to stay close to the cavalry, the first line of imperial infantry had been led too far to the right by Pálffy’s disoriented horsemen. As a result, a gap had appeared in the imperial center, and into this gap poured untold masses of Turks.

There was no time to waste. If the Turks pushed any further, the imperial right wing would be severed and the battle surely lost. Eugene reacted with characteristic coolness and decisiveness. He galloped over to Prince von Braunschweig-Bevern’s second infantry line, which was not yet engaged. Sword in hand, Eugene personally rallied his men. With drum rolls and trumpet calls, Bevern’s men plowed into the Turks and pushed them back. The rapid fire of the imperial muskets mowed down the Turks, who shot back with slower matchlocks or charged with drawn swords. An endless human wave of Turkish soldiers, washing over the bodies of their fallen comrades, threatened to suffocate the imperials with their sheer numbers.

More help was needed, and Eugene was already on his way to get it. It was time for the cavalry reserves, whose horses nervously pawed the ground. Eugene’s sword glittered in the sun as the cuirassiers and hussars thundered into battle. Mounted on his white horse Eugene personally led the attack. It was Eugene’s last ride into battle. Like a battering ram, the imperial horsemen tore open the Turkish flanks. A musket ball hit Eugene’s arm, and his horse reared up in panic, threatening to throw its master, but Eugene reined him in and dashed farther into the fray.

A cry of despair rumbled over the Turkish hordes that were fleeing everywhere in heedless panic. On the Badjina Heights of the Turkish right wing, dense rows of crack Janissaries refused to give up the 18-gun grand battery. Their cannons blasted the imperial lines. To take the battery, Eugene gathered no less than 10 imperial grenadier battalions, three Bavarian infantry regiments, and two cavalry regiments. Unflinching in the face of cannon fire that ripped horrid gaps into their ranks, the imperial troops closed on the artillery barrels. With the call “Lower the bayonets!” the grenadiers and Bavarians overwhelmed the Janissaries, turning the captured guns on their former owners. The last centers of Turkish resistance collapsed. Bewildered at the rapid turn of events, Khalil ordered a retreat to save what he could of his army.

Around 9 am, Eugene and his troopers topped the crest of the hill and beheld the vast, multicolored Turkish tent city. Farther to the south, the Turks were still trying to escape. Cannons fired into the fleeing masses, which were mercilessly hunted down by Hungarian hussars and Serbian infantry. Eager to clear the path before them, some Turks even hacked down their own men.

Prince Eugene’s Imperial forces attack and overrun Turkish defenders in their trenches. Extra rations of wine, brandy and beer fueled Eugene’s soldiers on the eve of battle (Warfare History Network), Credit: The conquest of Belgrade in 1717, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, 1717-20 (oil on canvas) by or Huchtenburgh Huchtenberg, Jan van (1647-1733), Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

 

Eugene’s Spoils of War

The Battle of Belgrade cost the Turks 20,000 dead, wounded, or captured. The imperials suffered 3,500 wounded, including Pálffy, von Württemberg, and the young Comte de Saxe. For Eugene, it was the 13th time he had been wounded in combat. Imperial dead amounted to 1,500, among them 17 generals and two lieutenant field marshals.

Upon the news of Eugene’s victory, all of Vienna broke out in jubilation. Eugene’s messenger had to dismount his horse to pass through the ecstatic masses. In front of the emperor and empress, the Jesuit preacher of the Cathedral of St. Stephan praised the divine intervention of “God’s victory in the fog.”2

Back at Belgrade, Eugene’s unexpected victory so overwhelmed Mustafa Pasha that he was unable to react fast enough to come to the army’s aid. With Khalil Pasha’s army routed, Mustafa was on his own. Still, Mustafa was reluctant to surrender. The city retained supplies to last another six months and, while most of the town was leveled, the defenses were not yet breached. However, Mustafa’s soldiers thought otherwise. Many had wives and children in the city who continued to suffer from the imperial bombardment. When his soldiers began to grumble of revolt, Mustafa decided to answer Eugene’s offer of safe passage in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade.

Eugene’s white horse trod over the ruins of Belgrade’s crumbled walls. From his saddle he surveyed the fallen city, the field of battle, and the columns of soldiers behind him. Eugene lifted his hat as a joyous roar of approval split the air, causing his horse to rear up on its hind legs.

Mustafa’s trust in Eugene, who had treated Mustafa and his soldiers honorably after the earlier conquest of Temesvár, was not misplaced. Despite the grueling siege and battle, Eugene managed to curtail his troops and spare the city any major carnage. On August 22, 60,000 Muslims, among them 20,000 Janissaries, filed out of Belgrade’s gates with their personal belongings and 300 carriages and 1,000 camels. Curious imperial soldiers gazed at the Muslim women, whose dark eyes were all that could be seen of their shrouded faces.

Along with Belgrade, Eugene netted 15 Turkish galleys and hundreds of additional cannons. The prince had no wish to push the war further into Turkish-occupied territory. Not only would the distances involved create supply problems, but the deteriorating political situation in the west made it prudent to reach a quick conclusion to the war. King Philip V of Spain had already sent his fleet to seize Sardinia from the Austrians. With the Austrian possessions in Italy under increasing Spanish threat, Emperor Charles VI pressured Eugene to free up his troops from the Balkans.

A 25-Year Truce

Negotiations dragged on until July 21, 1718, with Eugene keeping mostly aloof, although at times he mobilized his troops in such a way as to frighten the Turks into quicker acceptance of imperial terms. He met the Grand Vizier at the Serbian village of Passarowitz to open the peace conference. The Treaty of Passarowitz between Emperor Charles VI and Sultan Ahmed III, mediated by England and Holland, secured a 25-year truce and relinquished the Banat of Temesvár, Belgrade, western Wallachia, and part of Serbia and Bosnia to Austria. The Ottomans managed to retain their Morean conquests—the reason the Empire had allegedly gone to war with the Turks in the first place.

Ottoman Sultan Ahmet III (r. 1703-1730).  After suffering further defeats in Iran in 1729-1730, Ahmet was deposed during an uprising. He died in captivity in 1736 (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica).

Belgrade proved to be Eugene’s last great battle. He retired from active military service, although he remained the emperor’s primary adviser. For his services at Belgrade, Charles rewarded Eugene with a diamond-studded sword. He mildly chastised Eugene for personally taking part in the battle, observing, “If you had not survived, the greatest victory of all time would have been a tragedy and meant an irreplaceable loss.”

At elite European social gatherings, lords and ladies marveled at Eugene’s war trophies. Poets, painters, and historians immortalized Eugene’s deeds. But perhaps the most appropriate tribute to Eugene was the famous folk song and later imperial cavalry march, “Prinz Eugen Lied.” Composed by a Bavarian veteran of Belgrade, it was sung by imperial soldiers marching into battle for ages to come.
Prince Eugene statue on the Heldenplatz in front of the grand façade of the Hofburg, Vienna. The inscription of “Prince Eugen the Noble Knight” (der Edle Ritter) is in front on the base. Photo: L. H. Dyck, 2013.
“Prince Eugene’s Last Ride,” by L. Dyck was first published in the February 2012 issue of Military Heritage. In 2016 the article was  republished on the magazine website, Military History Network. The above version has been re-edited by the author and contains images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.

Notes

  1. Victor Bibl, Prinz Eugen, Ein Heldenleben (Wien, Leipzig, Günther, (1941) , p. 210.
  2. Oehler Helmut. Prinz Eugen in Volkslied und Flugschrift (Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger), 1968, p.  104.
  3. Feldzuge, II Ser., VIII, p. 185, as quoted in
    Henderson. Nicholas Prince Eugene of Savoy (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.), 1964, p. 230.

Sources

Barker Thomas M. Double Eagle and Crescent. New York: State University of New York, Press. 1967, Bethovart Antoine. Le Prince Eugene de Savoi. Paris: Librairie Academique Perrin. 1975, Bromley J.S. Editor. The New Cambridge Modern History. Volume VI. Cambridge: University Press. 1970, Chandler David G. Atlas of Military Strategy 1618-1878. Ontario: Collier Macmillan Canada Ltd. 1980, Coxe William. History of the House of Austria. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1864, Henderson. Nicholas Prince Eugene of Savoy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1964, Kroener R. Bernhard. Prinz Eugen und die Turken in Prinz Eugen von Savoyen und seine Zeit. Kunish Johannes. Freiburg: Ploetz Verlag. 1986, Kossak-Raytenau Karl. Prinz Eugenius Der Edle Ritter. Prag: Kaiser Verlag. 1942, Lindsay J.O. Editor. The New Cambridge Modern History. Volume VII. Cambridge: University Press. 1970, Mckay Derek. Prince Eugene of Savoy. London: Thames and Hudson. 1977, Nicolle David and Hook Christa. The Janissaries. Botley: Osprey Publishing. 2000, Oehler Helmut. Prinz Eugen in Volkslied und Flugschrift. Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger. 1968, Priesdorff Kurt von. Prinz Eugen. Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt. 1940, Sabel von, Heinrich. Prinz Eugen von Savoyen. Munich: Verlag Georg D.W. Callmey Verlag. 1861, Setton. Kenneth M. Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society. 1991, Windrow Martin and Mason K. Francis. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Military Biography. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions LTD. 1990, Wolfram Herwig. Osterreichische Geschichte 1699-1815. Wien: Ueberreuter. 2001

 

 

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Telamon, 225 BC: The Battle for Northern Italy

Telamon, 225 BC: The Battle for Northern Italy

By Ludwig H. Dyck

Prologue

After burning and sacking Rome in 390 BC, the Gallic tribes of northern Italy repeatedly clashed with the resurgent and expanding Roman Republic. Rome took the war to the Gauls and in 284 BC vanquished the Senones and utterly devastated their lands (modern Romagna). The powerful Boii, who lived north of the Senones, in turn invaded the Roman heartland. The Boii suffered defeats, however, and in 282 BC agreed to a peace treaty.

Fifty years passed before the Senones lands recovered sufficiently for the settlement of Roman citizens. The establishment of the Roman colony of Sena Gallacia along the coast worried the Boii, who justifiably feared further Roman inroads into Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul south of the Alps). A new generation of Boii had grown up, “full of unreflecting passion and absolutely without experience in suffering and peril” (Polybius, The Histories, II. 21). They were ready to renew the war with Rome. The Boii looked for help from Gallic tribes north of the Alps (Gallic Transalpina), but their first attempt ended in a quarrel during which two of the Transalpina kings were killed. In north-western Italy, however, the powerful Insubres were ready to fight alongside the Boii.

Together the Boii and Insubres sent ambassadors across the Alps, this time soliciting help from the Gaesatae who dwelt near the Rhone. The ambassadors enticed the Gaesatae kings Concolitanus and Aneroestus with tales of Gallic valor and gifts of gold, a small sample of what could be looted from the Romans. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 22).

The Celtic World of Iron Age Europe, from Maps of the World, MOTW/Tumblr

Preparation for War

In 225 BC, the Gaesatae crossed the Alps to meet up with the Boii and Insubres  on the Po River plain. They had been joined by another tribal army, that of the Taurisci from the southern Alps. However, not all the tribes of Gallia Cisalpina wanted war with Rome. The pro-Roman Veneti and Cenomani were even threatening the lands of the anti-Roman tribes. The Boii coalition thus had to ensure that enough warriors remained behind to protect their homelands. Even so, the army that assembled was the biggest the pan-Gallic army ever to march on Rome, with over 20,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry.

Unlike two centuries ago when Rome was sacked by the Gauls, Rome was no longer a mere city state but a republic that had laid the foundation of an empire. After consolidating its hold on peninsular Italy, Rome emerged victorious in the First Punic War (264-241 BC) and established itself as a major power in the Mediterranean. Tempered in battle with a myriad of nations, the Roman army had become bigger and better.

The threat of the Gallic army terrified all of peninsular Italy into raising tens of thousands of soldiers to aid the Romans. Allied Sabines, Samnites, Lucanians, Marsi and a host of other infantry and cavalry, joined the Roman legions. Over 150,000 men stood ready to fight under the Roman banner, stationed in three armies; in Etruria,  on the Adriatic coast, and on Sardinia.

Ambush at Faesulae

The Gauls entered Etruria over a path in the northern Apennines. Having encountered no opposition, they plundered along the way to Rome. They were within three days of the city when their scouts reported that a large Roman army was behind them. It was the one from Etruria. By sunset, the Roman army had approached within sight of the Gauls.

As both armies settled down to camp for the night, the Gauls contemplated what to do. The Roman army must have been of considerable size, for instead of offering battle the Gauls came up with a ruse. At night the Gallic infantry departed towards the nearby town of Faesulae. The cavalry remained behind at the campfires so that in the morning the Romans did not know where the Gallic infantry had gone. Assuming the latter had fled, the Romans advanced on the Gallic cavalry, which took off towards Faesulae. Following in pursuit, the Romans were ambushed by the Gallic infantry attacking out of the woods and shrubs near Faesulae. The Gallic cavalry now wheeled around so that the Romans were caught between infantry and cavalry.

Celts charging the Roman lines, in another great illustration by Angus McBride.

The Romans were now in a real bind, but discipline and training paid off. The legions and their allies were able to carry out a fighting retreat. Although they suffered a loss of 6,000, the bulk of the army was able to reach a defensible position on a nearby hill. Here they fought off the Gauls, who, having slept little the night before, were further exhausted by fighting uphill. Unable to dislodge the Romans, the Gauls fell back and retired to recuperate from the fighting, leaving some cavalry to keep an eye on the Romans.

Meanwhile, Consul Lucius Aemilius Papus, commander of the Roman army on the Adriatic, got wind of the Gallic inroads and force-marched his men over the Apennines. He arrived just after the battle at Faesulae. As night was descending upon the land, Papus set up camp. His arrival naturally encouraged the Romans on the hill and, conversely, presented a major problem for the Gauls. Since the Gauls had already taken numerous slaves, cattle, and plunder, King Aneroestes of the Gaesatae thought that it would be wiser to return to their homelands with what they already had and return to deal with the Romans at a later date. Thus, at night, the Gallic army once again slipped away into the darkness. Blocked by the Romans to the north and by wooded hills to the east and west, the Gauls headed south.

The next day the two Roman armies combined and followed the retreating Gauls. When the terrain opened up at Lake Bolsena, the Gauls struck west for the Eturian coast. Once they reached the coast, they headed back north, hoping to reach the River Po and their homelands. The Roman army, just as cumbersome with its own supply train, draft animals, livestock, and hangers-on, followed in the Gallic army’s wake.

Decision at Cape Telamon

Meanwhile, the third Roman army from Sardinia had sailed north, past Corsica, and crossed to the mainland to land at Pisae. Probably at this point, the army’s commander, Consul Gaius Atilius Regulus realized that the Gauls were no longer a threat to Rome but had taken captives and plunder and were trying to escape back to their homelands. Regulus marched south, hoping to intercept the Gauls.

Likely it was in the valley east of the green ridges of the Uccellina mountains,  north of Cape Telamon, that one of Regulus’ reconnaissance parties captured Gallic scouts. The captives were forced to divulge the current position of their army. Regulus was pleased; the Gallic army would be squeezed and annihilated between two Roman armies. He ordered his tribunes to march forward in fighting order.

View north of Fonteblanda (east of Cape Telamon (Talamone)). The 225 BC battle of Telamon likely took place in the valley to the north,.  Image from Booking.com.

Between Regulus’ army and the approaching Gallic army, a gentle hill rose beside the road. Eager to gain the hill before the Gauls, Regulus personally led his cavalry toward the hill. The Gallic army was still not aware of the new Roman threat from the north. Espying the Roman cavalry headed for the hill, the Gauls thought that they had been outflanked by Papus’ cavalry coming from behind. The Gauls sent their own cavalry and light skirmishers to take the hill and took some prisoners in the fight. The prisoners told them the grim truth; they were about to get caught between two gigantic Roman armies.

This time there was no escape for the Gauls. The Boii and Taurisci formed up to face Regulus’ army approaching from ahead. The Gaesatae and Insubres wheeled to confront Papus’ army coming up from behind. The Gallic chariots and wagons formed up on the flanks while a small detachment took the booty to the neighboring hill side.

On the roadside hill, the cavalry melee raged on. Regulus was struck a mortal blow, and the macabre trophy of his head was carried back to the Gallic kings. The Gauls, however, had little time to gloat about Regulus’ death, for Papus’ army forthwith arrived on the scene. Papus drew up his legions in preparation for battle with the Gaesatae and Insubres and sent his cavalry to aid the Roman cavalry engaged on the hill.

The Roman infantry now sized up their foes. While they were well trained and armed, the Roman legionaries were citizens levied from the population during times of war. Though honor-bound to fight for Rome, they were not professional soldiers. To them, the enemy were savage barbarians.

“[The Romans] were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry” (Polybius, The Histories, II. 29).

The tall, tawny and red-haired Gallic warriors worked up their courage, shouting and gesturing with their spears, swords, and shields. The shield was their main defense, usually being oval and painted with swirling patterns. Many also wore bronze helmets, adorned with horns, plumes, or the Celtic symbol of war, the wheel. Only the chiefs and warriors of note boasted mail armor. Most wore the typical multicolored, checkered trousers and cloaks popular among the Gauls. Not so the Gaesatae, who in a show of courage and oneness with nature went into battle naked, wearing only their torques, armlets and bracelets.

The Roman consuls opened the battle with the light troops which streamed through the gaps of the maniples, the 60-120-men-strong primary tactical units of the Roman legions. Thousands of troops wearing wolf, badger, and other animals skins on their helmets, and carrying round shields, hurled their small javelins upon the front rank of the Gauls. The spears and slings of the Gauls lacked the range to fire back. The Gallic warriors crouched behind their shields while the deadly Roman missiles whistled among them. The naked Gaesatae suffered most of all. Enraged at their impotence, the bravest of them charged forward but were impaled by javelins before they could close in on their foes.

The first maniple line, the hastati, with heavy pilum in throwing position. Others at the front have drawn their swords. In between, a pair of velites with their small javelins, shields and fur caps.  The velites are first mentioned by Livy in his account of Regulus’ defeat in 255 BC (1.33, 2.30). Before them, Roman light troops were called rorarii. Painting by the A. Kapawyk 2004.

Trumpets blared, and the ground shook beneath the tramp of tens of thousands of legionaries as the maniples advanced upon the Gallic horde. The first manipli line, the hastati, unleashed another javelin volley upon the Gauls. The iron heads of their heavy pilum javelin were barbed and remained stuck in the Gallic shields. While the Gauls tried to pry the javelins out of their shields the hastati drew their short swords and charged.

The Gauls swung their powerful swords in great arcs, splintering shields, and biting into the bronze of the Roman helmets. The Romans, in turn, stabbed with their short swords. Needing less space per warrior, they presented a tighter shield wall. The Romans enjoyed the further advantage in that their oblong scutum shield bent backward at the sides, enclosing part of the bearer’s body. Below the shield, the exposed forward Roman leg was protected by greaves. The hastati also wore breastplates while the second and third Roman lines, the principes and triarii, wore chainmail.

With skill, brute force, and courage, the outnumbered and surrounded Gauls held on. For a while it even looked like the battle could go either way. However, the cavalry battle on the hill had already ended in a Roman victory. The Gallic cavalry had fled, leaving the Roman horsemen free to come to the aid of their comrades on the plain below. Down the hill the Roman horses thundered, their spears slicing into the flanks of the Gallic infantry. The Gauls broke in panic but, hemmed in from all sides, were cut to pieces.

Aftermath

Forty thousand Gauls were killed and 10,000 captured for the slave markets. Among the captives was King Concolitanus. King Aneroestes escaped but overcome by grief ended up taking his own life. Papus sent the Gallic booty to Rome, to be returned to its owners. He then led his army towards the lands of the Boii to exact vengeance, burning and killing. Papus returned home to celebrate a triumph, displaying his loot and captives.

In a series of campaigns that followed the battle at Telamon, the Romans shattered Gallic resistance in northern Italy. After the Roman victory at Clastidium, in 222 BC, most of the Gauls submitted to Roman rule. Gallic resistance revived with Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and continued for another ten years after the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). The Boii were the last to give up in 191 BC. Refusing to live under the Roman yoke, they wandered to the Danube region where they gave their name to Bohemia. Roman roads and colonies spread across Gallia Cisalpina, which by the mid-2nd century BC had already become Italianized.

Dying Gaul. Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic original of 230-220 BCE.

 

Telamon, 225 BC; The Battle for Northern Italy, was originally written for Ancient History Encyclopedia and is based on the longer chapter in The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest and an article for Military History Magazine.  The version above has been further edited and includes different illustrations, sourced from the net for educational enhancement of the writing.

 

Selected Sources

Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome. Palgrave MacMillan, 1980, Dyck, L.H. The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest, Pen and Sword, 2016, Livy. History of Rome, Volume X. Harvard University Press, 1935, Polybius. The Histories, Volume II. Harvard University Press, 2010, Sekunda, N.V. Caesar’s Legions. Osprey, 2000, Wilcox, P. Barbarians against Rome, Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies. Osprey Publishing, 2000.

 

North of the Latini and the River Tiber lay the land of Etruria…

North of the Latini and the River Tiber lay the land of Etruria…

With the Tyrrhenian1 Sea lapping its western shores and the Apennines Mountains rearing up to the east and north, Etruria occupied the land north of the Tiber to the River Arno. The Etruscans carried out much land clearing and drainage and built roads into the surrounding wilderness. The hilly country favored the emergence of individual city-states, whose agricultural base was supplemented by hunting and fishing. Unlike Latium, Etruria was rich in minerals, especially in copper and iron but also in tin, lead and silver.

By the 8th century BC, Etruria’s mineral wealth was in high demand by Greek and Phoenician merchants. It was during this period, that early Iron Age Villanovan culture (c. 1000-c. 750 BC) grew into Etruscan civilization (8th to 3rd centuries BC). The exact nature of Etruscan origin remains mysterious, however, as parts of their language continue to defy translation and appear unrelated to other Indo-European languages.

The gods of the Etruscans were many, some of native origin, others, adopted or assimilated from other cultures, especially the Greeks. Chief among them was the trinity of Tinia, the sky god (equivalent of Jupiter/Zeus), his wife Uni (Juno, Hera) and Menerva (Minerva/Athena) who was armed with a spear but also associated with children and education.

Exporting their wealth, the Etruscans formed a league of twelve cities. With such power and influence, Etruscan dominion did not remain limited to Etruria and from the seventh century on spread southward into Latium

  • Copyright Ludwig H. Dyck

1. Tyrrehnian was the Greek name for Etruscans

Sources: Bonfante, G.; L. Bonfante. The Etruscan Language. An Introduction. Manchester University Press, 2002, Edward Tipp, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology, New York, A Meridian Book, 1974, L.H. Dyck, The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest, Mark Cartwright, Etruscan Pantheon, Villanovan Culture, Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.Ancient.eu.

Photo: Rebuilt in medieval times, Italy’s Civita di Bagnoregio dates to Etruscan times when it was called Ratumna. “The main entrance is a huge stone passageway, cut by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago and decorated in the 12th century with a Romanesque arch.” Photo and quote from Rick Steves, Italy’s Civita di Bagnoregio: Jewel on the Hill, (ricksteves.com).

Barbarians at the Gate: The 410 Sack of Rome

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

Barbarians at the Gate: The 410 Sack of Rome

The tattered banners of Hercules fluttered in the howling wind. Ravens picked bits of flesh and plucked eyes from corpses. For two days, the Roman Emperor Theodosius “the Great” had mercilessly hurled his Visigoth warriors against the soldiers of a usurper Eugenius of Gaul. The Goth captain Alaric hewed into the ranks of his foes. He watched the dead pile higher and higher. Then a wind blew up, so powerful that it nearly blew men over. The storm at their backs, the Goths burst the enemy lines asunder. “The Alpine snows grew red with slaughter, the cold Frigid, its waters turned to blood, ran hot and steaming, and would have been choked with the heaps of corpses had not their own fast-flowing gore helped on its course,” elaborated the poet Claudian (Claudian VII). The September 5-6th AD 394  bloodbath on the banks of the River Frigid ended with a victory for Theodosius but more than half of his 20,000 Goths lay dead.

Alaric King of the Visigoths by Janboruta (http://civilization-v-customisation.wikia.com)

After Arcadius reduced the Visigoths’ stipend, angry calls for revenge went up among the barbarians. To reaffirm the Goths’ favored position within the Empire, Alaric felt the need to lead his people in a new war against the same legions they had fought alongside at Aquileia. Throughout their ceded homeland of Moesia, northwest of Constantinople, Goth farmer-warriors cast aside their plows and took up their spears once more.

Following the death of Emperor Theodorius, angry Goths swept southward across the Danube River through Macedonia and Thrace, then moved east to Constantinople (Warfare History Network)

From the trackless forests north of the Danube, other fierce, bearded barbarians heeded Alaric’s call. They rolled their ponderous war wagons across the broad and icy Danube. Thus reinforced, the Visigoths swept unopposed through Macedonia and Thrace until they approached the outskirts of Constantinople. Teenage Emperor Arcadius possessed neither the courage nor the troops to meet the Goths in open battle. Even so, Alaric soon realized that the city’s lofty walls were beyond his means to conquer. Instead, he turned west toward Thessaly, where Flavius Stilicho, now the supreme commander of the western Roman armies, waited to confront him. Alaric knew that Stilicho was not a man to be trifled with. The son of a Vandal cavalry officer and a Roman mother, Stilicho had worked his way up to become the most powerful man in the Empire. He had with him not only the crack troops of the West Roman army, but the Eastern Roman field army as well.

Flavius Stilicho was the supreme commander of the western Roman armies (Warfare History Network)

Behind a hastily built stockade at Thessalonika, Alaric awaited an assault by Stilicho’s larger army. The attack never came. Seeds of distrust had sprouted between the two Imperial courts. The self-serving court advisers who held Aracadius’s ear were worried that Stilicho, who already had complete control over Honorius, would extend his influence over the Eastern Empire as well. Arcadius ordered Stilicho to send the eastern army to Constantinople and return to Italy immediately. A baffled Alaric watched as Stilicho’s army suddenly broke camp and departed the field. The Visigoths marched unopposed down the historically fateful path to Thermopylae. Attica’s villages went up in flames, their men succumbing to Goth spears and their women becoming the conquerors’ spoils of war. Alaric spared Athens in return for most of its treasures. After a triumphant entrance, he relaxed with a warm bath and attended a banquet in his honor. From Attica, the Goths moved down the Peloponnese peninsula, where Corinth, Argos and Sparta yielded their treasures as well.

Alaric receives the gifts of the Athenians by Ludwig_Thiersch (Heritage History)

Stilicho Strikes Back

In the spring of  AD 397, the sails of a massive armada billowed above the azure waves of the Ionian Sea. Stilicho was returning with a powerful force to put an end to Alaric’s outrages. With his greater army Stilicho  drove Alaric and his Goths up the arid slopes of Mount Pholoe, where the beleaguered barbarians hunkered down for a last stand. With hunger gnawing at their ribs and thirst parching their throats, defeat seemed inevitable.

With victory all but won, Stilicho took time to enjoy the theaters and dancers of Greece. Unfortunately, so did many of his troops, who made themselves a nuisance in the countryside. Alaric saw his chance and broke through the depleted encirclement, transporting his troops, captives, and loot to the Epirus coast of northwestern Greece.

The ease of Alaric’s escape stirred rumors that Stilicho had purposely let Alaric go so that he could later use him against the Eastern Empire. At the same time, the Eastern Empire was hoping to use Alaric against Stilicho. Even though he had wreaked havoc over much of the Eastern Empire’s domain, Alaric was awarded the post of Master of Soldiers and the Prefecture of Illyricum. The fox was now guarding the hen house.

Illyricum was of no small importance to the Empire. The Prefecture covered all the Greek and Balkan provinces outside of Thrace. Both the eastern and western courts desired jurisdiction over Illyricum. Alaric had attained his original goals, and his people were pleased. In the time-honored custom of the barbarians, they lifted him high on a shield and enthusiastically proclaimed him their king.

For the next four years there was peace in Illyricum, but Alaric’s Visigoths were not the only barbarians stirring up trouble within the Empire. An independent contingent of Goth mercenaries at Constantinople seized control of the city. They were quickly overthrown, and 7,000 of them were massacred inside the city. The resultant anti-German sentiment at Constantinople turned against Alaric and his Goths, who were consequently stripped of their titles and lands.

It was time for the Visigoths to load up their wagons, mount their horses, and make the Empire take notice of them again. The west looked enticingly vulnerable at the moment. Vandals and Alans led by an eastern Goth warlord named Radagaisus, were advancing from Pannonia, and Stilicho was even now moving against them. With Stilicho squaring off against Radagaisus, Alaric’s Goths tramped into unprotected Italy in November AD 401. The invasion sent shock waves of terror through the Roman Empire. Most of the towns of Venetia fell to Alaric.  Honorius quivered in fear in Milan, the seat of emperors since the end of the 3rd century AD, praying for Stilicho’s imminent return. In the midst of winter, Stilicho smashed Radagaisus’s invasion. Radagaisus escaped, but otherwise the haul of captives was so great that the price of slaves plunged on the open market. Stilicho then led his battle-hardened veterans through the snow and ice of the Alps. With them marched 12,000 of the defeated Vandals and Alans, who had been drafted into the Roman army. Stilicho was taking no chances against Alaric. Far away, along the forts of the Rhine and the Caledonian border, his messengers raced to summon all available aid against the Visigoths.

A Roman coin bears the image of Emperor Honorius.
A Roman coin bears the image of Emperor Honorius (Warfare History Network)

By the time Stilicho returned in February 402, Alaric had pillaged northern Italy for three months. At the Imperial palace of Milan, the palace attendants cried that Alaric’s cavalry was already riding through the suburbs. Terrified, Honorius fled Milan. Nearly captured by the Goth horsemen, he found shelter in the walled Ligurian town of Asta on the River Tanarus. As the footfalls of Stilicho’s army drew near, Alaric conferred with his long-haired chieftains. He looked at faces scared from battle, at old warriors leaning on their spears. One of the eldest had given Alaric his first bow and quiver. The grizzled veteran advised Alaric to escape from the spreading Roman net while he still had time. Unabashed, Alaric retorted that “witless age” had deprived the old man of his senses. “This land shall be mine whether I hold it in fee as a conqueror or in death as conquered,”1 he declared. With those defiant words, he decided to pursue the emperor to Asta.

The Easter Surprise Attack

At Milan, the lookouts on the walls could not tell if the dust cloud raised by Stilicho’s approaching army heralded friend or foe. When Stilicho’s helmet, glittering like a star, was recognized, the population broke out in relieved jubilation. Stilicho did not tarry in the city for long before pressing on after Alaric. He found the Visigoths encamped near Pollentia, having put Asta under siege. The Roman forces enjoyed a 2-to-1 superiority over Alaric’s estimated 20,000 warriors. Despite such odds, however, Stilicho was too prudent to waste his men in an assault on the Goth wagon barricades. Instead, he enclosed the Goths within a line of fortifications and waited until April 6, Easter Sunday, when Alaric and his men, who were Christians of the Aryan faith, devoutly celebrated the festival. Riding along the ranks of his soldiers, Stilicho shouted: “Friends of Rome, the time has come for you to exact vengeance for outraged Italy! Protect Father Tiber with your shields!”2

A palace official  at Honorius’ court, named  Olympius, spread the rumor that Stilicho was plotting the assassination of young Theodosius so that he could hand over the eastern Empire to his own son. The allegations laid the groundwork for Olympius’ palace revolt. On August 13, AD 408, Honorius summoned his legion commanders to his quarters. Not one of them stirred at his orders. Instead, they looked to Olympius, who gave them a nod. It was the signal to begin killing Olympius’s enemies, who were dragged screaming from the Western Emperor’s feet into the street and cut down in cold blood. Worried about Honorius’s safety, Stilicho hastened to his side. Honorius, however, had already decided to save his own skin and side with the mutineers. Stilicho was bound in chains and thrown into the dungeons. Although he made some bad judgments, Stilicho had served the Empire loyally for 23 years. Despite his service, on August 22 Stilicho was led outside and beheaded. His remaining supporters were clubbed to death. All the now-vacant positions were given to Olympius’ friends.

The Roman hatred of Stilicho spilled over to the barbarian auxiliaries serving in the army. In one town after another, the legionaries massacred Alan, Vandal, and Goth families whose husbands and fathers had been enrolled by Stilicho. Some 30,000 barbarian soldiers and surviving women and children fled to Alaric. Only Sarus’ Goths and a number of Huns remained with the Romans. Olympius conferred with Honorius about what to do next. On the positive side, Stilicho’s death had restored relations between the eastern and western courts. This was of no help against Alaric, who demanded money and hostages in exchange for a promise to peacefully withdraw into Pannonia. Honorius refused. His offers spurned, Alaric crossed the Alps in the late summer of 409. His barbarian army quickly overran Aquileia, Concordia, Atltinum, and Cremona. Alaric bypassed Ravenna, the new seat of the Empire. Flanked by sea, rivers, and marshes, the fortress city was nearly as impregnable as Constantinople.

The Siege of Rome

Alaric moved on to seize Ariminum. He then turned to loot his way unopposed across the backbone of Italy, past villages nestled beneath limestone cliffs and through woods of oak and beech. The highlands gave way to brush and cultivated lands as his barbarian horde descended to the banks of the Tiber, to stand at last before the fabled walls of Rome. The city walls precluded a direct assault, prompting Alaric to blockade Rome’s 12 principal gates and stop provisions coming in from the Tiber River. Faced with incipient starvation, the Roman mobs seethed in anger at the barbarians, but were too cowardly to take up arms against them. Instead, they made Stilicho’s family their scapegoats. His son was murdered and his innocent widow, Serena, was strangled to death by order of the Senate.

Serena’s death did nothing to alleviate the people’s pangs of hunger. Daily rations dropped from three pounds of bread to one-third of a pound, then to nothing. Laeta, the wealthy, aged widow of the Emperor Gratian, did her best to aid the needy, but it was not enough to feed the insatiable hunger of Rome’s over half a million inhabitants. Emaciated corpses soon joined the refuse that polluted the city’s narrow, winding streets.

Men whispered darkly of cold-blooded murders in desolate alleys, of loathsome wretches whose hunger had driven them to feed on the dead. The stench of death hung over Rome, and the plague found a fertile breeding ground in the city. The Senate had no choice but to send envoys to parley for peace. When the envoys threatened Alaric with Rome’s armed populace, he laughed in their faces; “the thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed.”5 Alaric would only break the blockade if all the gold, silver and other treasures of Rome were laid at his feet and the barbarian slaves were released from captivity. “What will be left to us?” exclaimed the envoys. “Your lives,”6 mocked Alaric.

The Senate was dumbfounded. There seemed no way out of their dire predicament. The pagans cried out for human sacrifices to the abandoned old gods, but such was the growing influence of the Christians in Rome that nobody was willing to carry out such sacrifices in public. All that was left was to beg Alaric for more reasonable terms. At last, in mid-December, he relented, demanding 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet-dyed skins, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. As the royal treasury was empty, the citizens of Rome had to come up with the ransom themselves, but even this was not enough. Gold and silver statues had to be melted down and ornaments stripped from the graven images of the gods.

After receiving the treasures and hostages, Alaric kept his word and lifted the siege, but he did not leave Italy itself. Instead, he settled into Etruria for the rest of the winter. Alaric had done well—not only were the Goths sitting on a pile of booty, but their ranks were swelled with the newly freed barbarian slaves. More reinforcements were on the way as well. Athaulf, Alaric’s brother-in-law, led a body of Goths and Huns across the Danube and cut his way through leagues of Imperial territory. Near Pisae, however, 300 Huns in Honorius’s service sprang upon Athaulf’s columns. Firing from their swift ponies, the compound bows of the Huns  took a deadly toll. Before Athaulf’s men could gather their greater numbers and drive off the raiders, 1,100 Goths had been killed or wounded.

Back in Italy, Alaric was ready to settle for being named Master of Soldiers of the impoverished frontier province of Noricum. This was a lesser rank than he had held in Illyricum, but Alaric desperately needed to provide food and shelter for the multitudes of Goths under his care. Meanwhile, Honorius faced another near-mutiny in Ravenna. Olympius, the newest scapegoat for the Empire’s woes, was dismissed and forced to flee Italy. The troops, however, did not quiet down until several other high-ranking commanders were exiled and subsequently killed by their guards.

Honorius’ handling of the latest crisis must have raised his self-confidence for he refused Alaric’s demand for Master of Soldiers. When it was suggested that Alaric might soften his already reasonable territorial demands if given Stilicho’s old title, Honorius scoffed that “such an honor should never be held by Alaric, or any of his relatives.”7

To protect Rome from Alaric’s anticipated reprisal, Honorius released the flower of the legions from Ravenna. Some 6,000 Roman soldiers were heading toward Rome. Apparently, their commander, Valens, thought it was beneath his dignity to sneak around Alaric’s detachments. Alaric prepared an ambush and completely overwhelmed Valens’s puny army. Only a hundred legionaries ever reached Rome.

The Sacking of Rome

At the end of 409, Alaric, now reinforced by Athaulf, marched on Rome with 40,000 Goth, Vandal, Alan, and Hun warriors. This time Alaric occupied the huge Port of Ostia, with its massive wave-breaking moles, deep, capacious basins, and numerous outbuildings. It was here that the great grain shipments from the Province of Africa were stored. Their food supply assured, the Goths welcomed the shelter from the violent rainstorms that marked the Italian winter.

Proclaiming that his enemy was not Rome but Honorius, Alaric threatened to cut off Rome’s grain supplies unless the Senate elected a new emperor. Honorius having been of no help to them, the Senate obliged by placing the crown and purple on the city prefect, a Greek named Priscus Attalus. The fickle mob greeted the Senate’s choice with jubilation, not just in Rome but in Milan as well. Attalus boasted that he “would leave Honorius not even the name of Emperor nor yet a sound body, but would mutilate him and exile him to an island.”8 Confident of his new ally, Alaric marched immediately to besiege Ravenna.

With Attalus in Rome and Alaric’s army outside his gates, Honorius was deeply worried. He was about to flee to Constantinople when six legions, some 4,000 men, arrived from the eastern capital. With the reinforcements manning the parapets and towers, Honorius felt confident enough to remain holed up in Ravenna. He had another ally as well. Count Heraclian of Africa closed his ports. No more ships laden with grain sailed into Ostia. Whatever grain was left in the magazines the Goths used for themselves. Famine again afflicted the Romans.

Alaric broke off his investment of Ravenna and reduced most of the cities of Aemilia, which had refused Attalus’ rule. In this he received no help from Attalus, who seemed capable only of conducting fruitless negotiations with Honorius and Heraclian. Alaric soon had enough and summoned Attalus to Ariminum to publicly strip him of the purple. Alaric decided to have another try at negotiating with Honorius, whom he met in July 410, a few miles from Ravenna.

A frustrated Alaric publicly strips Greek pretender Priscus Attalus of the emperor’s crown in this 19th century woodcut (Warfare History Network

Also in Ravenna was Sarus, Alaric’s old enemy. He did not wish to see peace between Alaric and the emperor. Yelling and waving their weapons, Sarus and his Goths tore through Alaric’s camp before hightailing it back to the safety of Ravenna’s bastions. Convinced that Honorius and Sarus were working together, Alaric angrily broke off talks and marched on Rome for the third time. This time he was in no mood for mercy.

Once more the barbarians were at the gates, blockading Rome and starving its hapless population. The Goth slaves and servants inside the city, asked themselves why they should suffer for their Roman masters. At midnight on the night of August 24, 410, a group of them stole to the Salarian Gate and opened it to their erstwhile kinsmen.

The citizens of Rome awoke to the sound of the Goth trumpets—the enemy was inside the city. The barbarians stormed through the streets, sacking the city for three nightmarish days. The palace of the historian Sallust was burned to the ground, and the aristocratic houses along the Aventine went up in flames. The worst offenders were the Huns who served in Alaric’s army. Rich furniture was thrown out of windows, silk hangings were torn from the walls, jeweled flourishes were pried out of statues. Wealthy Romans were repeatedly pummeled and kicked until they revealed hidden treasures. At last the conquerors filed out of the wasted city, laden with booty and followed by throngs of captives. Among the latter was the stunningly beautiful sister of Honorius, Galla Placidia, who remained in comfortable captivity with her childhood friend Alaric.

Alaric’s Goth army storms the streets of Rome during a brutal sacking of the city that would last for three days. The worst offenders would be the mercenary Huns (Warfare History Network)

The Legacy of Alaric

Alaric did not survive the sack of Rome for long. He led his people south, planning to sail for Africa. At Cosenza, however, the Visigoth ruler was struck by a violent fever that killed him within a matter of days. Mourned by his people, Alaric was only 40 years old when he died. His bereaved followers dammed the Busento River, and slaves buried Alaric’s body alongside a trove of treasure in the dry stream bed. To insure that no one knew the exact burial place, all the slaves were killed. The dam was then broken and the waters of the Busento washed over Alaric’s grave. Alaric died, but his people lived on. Athaulf married Galla Placidia and became the new king of the Visigoths. Under his leadership and those of succeeding kings, the Visigoths  eventually settled in Spain. Their rule lasted until the Islamic invasion of the early 8th century.

Falling victim to a fatal case of fever shortly after sacking Rome, Alaric’s lifeless body is moved to the Busento riverbed for burial. Insure secrecy, the slaves who buried him were killed (Warfare History Network)

Honorius continued to preside over his fragmented Empire until his death in AD 423. Although history has judged him a weak ruler, he managed to stay alive and remain in power in a political atmosphere that was more reminiscent of gang warfare than organized government. During his reign, however, Roman military losses were enormous. At least 50,000 soldiers of the field army, half its fighting strength, were killed. It was the beginning of many years of woe. In 455, the Vandals laid waste to Rome again. Twenty-two years later, a barbarian king named Odoacer disposed of the last of the Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, bringing to an end over eight centuries of Roman domination of the western world.

 

“Barbarians at the Gate: the 410 Sack of Rome” was first published in Military Heritage Magazine, October 2005 and republished on January 20, 2017, online at Warfare History Network. The above version includes additional editing by the author, L.H. Dyck and images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.

Bill Thayer, Lacus Curtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian, Boak and Sinnegin in Nardo Don. Editor. The End of Ancient Rome. San Diago: Greenhaven Press. Inc. 2001, Bunson Matthew. A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. New York: Oxford University. 1991, Bury.J.B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: The Norton Library. 1967, Cary M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome. London: MacMillan Education.1988, Gibbon Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol.III. London: Methuen & Co. 1909, Grant Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Colllier Books.1990, Heather P.J. Goths and Romans 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991, Jones A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire. Oxford : B. Blackwell, 1973, MacDowall Simon and Embelton Gerry. Late Roman Infantryman 236-565 AD. Osprey Publishing: Oxford. 1999, MacDowall Simon and Hook Christa. Late Roman Cavalryman 236-565 AD. Osprey Publishing: Oxford. 1999, MacDowall Simon and McBride Angus. Germanic Warrior 236 AD-568 AD. Osprey Publishing. Oxford. 1996, Malcolm Todd. Everyday Life of the Barbarians. New York: Dorset Press. 1972, Mannix Daniel P. The Way of the Gladiator. New York: ibooks. 2001, Norwich John Julius. Byzantium The Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books.1990, Orosius Paulus. The Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Translated by Deferrari Roy. J. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press. 1961, Twine Kevin, The City in Decline Rome in Late Antiquity. Middle States Geographer Vol. 25, 1992, Montclair. Montclair State College, Wolfram Herwig. History of the Goths. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gothic Wars -Battle of Adrianople 378 AD

The Gothic Wars

The Battle of Adrianople

The death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople during the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD, was one of the decisive battles in Western history.

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

In 376 AD the Goths appeared on the lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. They came as a whole tribe, with warriors, women and children. They came on foot, on horseback, and in lumbering ox-drawn wagons, refugees on the retreat from a foe even fiercer than themselves. They came knocking on the Roman door.

A Germanic people and originally of Scandinavian origin, the Goths migrated from their homeland in eastern Germany to the shores of the Black Sea in the late 2nd century AD. In 247 their raids on the Roman Empire began in earnest. On land and sea, the Goths spread terror for nearly a quarter of a century and defeated the Roman army of Emperor Decius, who was killed in battle against the invaders.

The Romans managed to contain the Gothic threat, but the western branch of the Goths, the Visigoths (“wise Goths”) pushed into the abandoned Roman province of Dacia (Transylvania). Not until the reign of Constantine the Great was a lasting peace procured with the Visigoths. They became federates of the Empire, which they were obliged to protect in exchange for yearly monetary subsidies. To the east of the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths (“bright Goths”), under their great King Hermanic, meanwhile built up a vast empire of barbarian peoples that stretched from northeast of the Dniester to the shores of the Baltic.

Visigoths by Angus McBride

The nominally peaceful relations between Goth and Roman continued for about half a century. War resumed in 364, however, when the Visigoths interfered in a Roman civil war. But the rightful heir to the East Roman Empire, Emperor Flavius Julius Valens, not only managed to squash the usurper to his throne but drove the Goths back north across the Danube and pursued them into their homelands.

As it turned out, the latest Gothic incursions were but a tremor compared to the earthquake that was unleashed with the appearance of the Huns, a pastoral people who roamed the steppes between the Caspian and Aral seas. Political turmoil in their own lands caused the Huns to press toward Eastern Europe.

‘Desperate and Dangerous’ After Being Defeated by the Huns

Like the Goths, the Huns were not numerous, but relied on cunning, brutality, terror, and above all the speed and endurance of their sturdy ponies. In 372 they routed the Alans, a nomadic people of Iranian or Turkish origin, from their homeland north of the Caucasus and south of the river Don. The armies of Hermanic were next to fall; the old king slew himself in despair. Neither his successor nor the Visigoths were able to stop the Huns, whose swift mounted archers cut down the Goth infantry from afar.

The Huns are part of numerous legends of the Germanic heroic age. The image above shows Geatish King Gizur challenging the Huns By Peter Nicolai Arbo – Public Domain

Their defeat at the hands of the Huns caused great turmoil among the Goth tribes. Many became subjects of the Huns while others wandered west. The more anti-Roman and anti-Christian factions of the Visigoths pushed into the Carpathians, but the bulk of the Visigoths, the powerful Tervingi, under the leadership of Fritigern and Alavivus, sought refuge within the confines of the Roman Empire and trekked toward the Danube border, where they appeared in 376.

So it was that the Roman Empire suddenly found itself faced with upward of 50,000 barbarians in desperate need of food and land. The obvious danger was that a refusal of the Tervingi pleas would result in war. The issue demanded the personal attention of the Eastern Emperor Valens, who had successfully dealt with the Goths a decade previous. Unfortunately for the Romans, Valens was over 300 miles to the south, at Antioch, and involved in a war against the Persians.

To deal with barbarian invasions and with the more organized Persians, the Roman emperors of the late fourth century had at their disposal an army in excess of half a million men. However, the Empire’s borders were vast and the bulk of the troops were in stationary garrisons, the limitanei. Only a third were in the better trained and armed mobile army, the comitatenses. Virtually none of the soldiers and few of the generals were Romans, the soldiers being recruited from the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, Gaul, and the African frontiers, or from beyond the Rhine and Danube. Indeed, contingents of Goth troops served within the ranks of the eastern army. The barbarian ethnic origins of the Roman troops increased their fighting prowess but at the same time undermined their reliability and loyalty.

Late Roman army – post mid 4th century CE. Artwork by Johnny Shumate Pinterest

Defiantly, the Goths Refused to be Disarmed

In the east, the bulk of the Roman mobile army was deployed against Persia. The immediate defense of the lower Danube would have to be carried out by the barely adequate Thracian garrison. After much heated debate among ministers and councilors, the pleas of the Tervingi were accepted on the condition that their warriors be disarmed. Without their weapons the Goths would pose little threat and present a handy source of recruits for the legions.

Late in 376 the Tervingi received news of their acceptance. As a gesture of goodwill to the Romans, Fritigern and his people accepted the religion of the Emperor, that of Arianism, a creed of Christianity that believed Jesus the Son to be mortal and separate from, not co-eternal with, God the Father. In spite of such a show of friendship, the Tervingi prudently refused to obey the Roman demands of disarmament and defiantly kept their weapons.

The Tervingi crossed the Danube on boats and rafts made up of tree trunks. Heavy rains had swollen the river and not a few Goths drowned in its ice-cold torrents. The barbarians camped on the southern bank of the river near Durostorum (Silistria) where they endured a bitter winter. Not only were Roman food supplies barely adequate, but the corrupt Roman Count of Thrace, Lupicinus, used the supplies destined for the Goths to run a black market. The barbarians were reduced to starvation and forced to barter the favors of their women and sell their children into slavery in return for dog meat dished out by the Romans.

Gothic tribes seeking refuge across the Danube by Angus McBride

Around this time a tribe of Ostrogoths, the Greuthungi, appeared on the Danube border. Under their leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, the Greuthungi managed to avoid Hunnish subjugation. Like the Tervingi, they wished to cross into the Empire. The Romans rejected their request. The Tervingi, after all, had been former federates, but the Greuthungi were an unknown factor. Roman troops deployed along the Danube as river patrols forced the Greuthungi to remain on the river’s north bank, but this was soon to change.

No longer would they suffer Hunger and Slavery

Early in 377, back at the Tervingi camp, tensions ran high and there were murmurs of revolt. To intimidate the angry barbarians, Lupicinus assembled the Roman Danube garrisons and shepherded the whole tribe toward his headquarters at Marcianople. There he might keep a better eye on them, even rid himself of potentially rebellious chieftains. But with the Danube defenses stripped of their troops, the way became clear for the Greuthungi, who forded the river and followed in the Tervingi’s wake.

At Marcianople, Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to a dinner conference. While the chiefs’ honor guard remained outside the palace, Fritigern and Alavivus pleaded their case to Lupicinus. Of the two, Alavivus was probably the most vocal. Meanwhile, outside of the city, Roman soldiers kept the hungry Tervingi multitude away from the city’s walls. The barbarians soon turned unruly. The Romans tried to quiet them by dragging away troublesome individuals. But such bullying only inflamed the Tervingi more and some of them picked fights with the Roman soldiers.

Inside the palace, Lupicinus seemed drowsy after a luxurious meal followed by a noisy floor show. When he heard of the troubles outside the city, he suddenly ordered the Tervingi chiefs’ guard of honor to be put to death and for Alavivus to be seized and held captive. The situation looked equally dire for Fritigern but he cleverly wormed his way out of the predicament. Perhaps not too dismayed at having been rid of his rival, he promised Lupicinus to prevent bloodshed if released. It was a ruse. With swords drawn, Fritigern and his personal retainers made their way through the palace and angry crowds gathered in the city. Alavivus was never heard of again.

Once back with his people, Fritigern promptly struck out to loot the countryside. No longer would he heed the will of the Romans, no longer would they suffer hunger and slavery. From now on the Goths would take what they wanted and make war on those who opposed them. The mournful blare of the barbarian battle horns—of the wild bull, the Uri—resounded across the countryside.

In answer Lupicinus mustered his troops and met the Goths nine miles outside Marcianople. The Roman troops fought bravely but the onslaught of the Goths proved unstoppable. Leaving his troops to be slain among their fallen standards, cowardly Lupicinus rode away to hide behind Marcianople’s walls.

The Tervingi warriors equipped themselves with the arms and armor of the slain Roman soldiers. Soon after, they joined up with the Greuthungi. Their combined forces raided all the way to Adrianople. Outside the city, Fritigern found yet more allies. In light of recent events, the city populace had turned on a regiment of Goths that had formerly been part of Adrianople’s garrison. Surrounded by a clamorous multitude, which pelted the Goths with missiles, the barbarians beat their way out of their encampment in the city suburbs with their blades.

The newcomers enthusiastically joined Fritigern who led their combined forces in an assault against Adrianople’s walls. But the Goths lacked knowledge of siege craft and the city’s defenders were well armed; Adrianople was a locale of fabricae, Imperial armament factories. The barbarians suffered heavy casualties with no gain. Fritigern counseled from now on “to keep peace with walls.”1

“Everything Was Consumed in an Orgy of Killing and Burning…”

Unable to seize Adrianople, the Goths broke up into smaller bands to plunder the Thracian countryside. Escaped slaves, primarily mine workers, drifted in to join Fritigern’s army. Numerous Goth children, whom the Romans had dragged into slavery, were restored to the joyful embrace of their parents. Upon the Roman civilian population the barbarians exacted brutal vengeance. “Everything was consumed in an orgy of killing and burning that paid no regard to age or sex,”2 wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century Greek historian and principal source for the Goth wars.

To restore order, strong detachments of Roman troops from Armenia arrived in Thrace. Word also reached Flavius Gratian, the 18-year-old West Roman Emperor and nephew of Valens. Gratian sent regiments from Pannonia and Gaul led by Count Richomer the Frank. But even before the western reinforcements arrived, the Armenians managed to drive large numbers of barbarians into the defiles of the Haemus Mountains and push Fritigern’s main army into the marshy region of the northern Dobrudja near the town of Salices.

Gothic-Wars-Battle-of-Adrianople-04

With his back to the Danube and the shore of the Black Sea, Fritigern decided to make his stand. The Goths drew up a laager (a circle of wagons) and went on the defensive. Not wishing to risk an attack on the Goth wagon fortress, the Romans planned to wait until hunger forced the Goths to break camp. To the frustration of the Romans, Fritigern got word of the enemy plan through a deserter and stoutly remained inside his wagon fortress. To bolster his forces, Fritigern called in all nearby raiding parties.

In late summer 377 Fritigern decided to press the attack against the inferior Roman forces. The Romans were ready and the two sides met at the crack of dawn in Ad Salices, “the battle of the Willows.” The Romans’ barbarian troops began the attack with the “barritus,” the battle song that began softly and then worked its way up to a deafening roar. The Goths responded with a thunderous chant in praise of their forefathers.

A hail of javelins, sling-shot, and arrows at long range descended on both sides, which advanced behind the barrier of shield walls. The infantry lines clashed while Goth and Roman cavalry skirmished along the flanks, chopping down loose infantry units and stragglers. With huge fire-hardened clubs the Goths threatened to cave in the Roman left wing. A fierce counterattack by Roman reserves restored the situation. Both Roman and Goth fought with unrelenting tenacity but neither could win the upper hand. At nightfall each army crept away to lick its wounds. Flocks of ravens and other carrion feeders descended upon the battlefield, which years later remained covered with the bones of the fallen.

Barbarian Hordes Pillaged with Impunity

The Romans fell back to their blockade and a lull set in. Richomer returned to the west to obtain further troops and orders from Gratian. The remaining Roman forces set up a system of outposts and pickets to maintain the blockade, which dragged on into November.

Once again the Goths faced starvation. Their future looked bleak, but Fritigern, with promises of booty, managed to entice Alani and Hun bands to cross into the Empire and join his Goth army. The newcomers tipped the balance of power and caused the Romans, who feared an imminent breach of their thin lines, to order a general withdrawal.

Hordes of barbarians now pillaged throughout Thrace. At Dibaltum the Romans suffered yet another defeat when a large troop of retreating Roman infantry was ambushed and annihilated by Goth cavalry. Emperor Valens received the news of the recent disasters while still at Antioch. He hastily concluded a peace with Persia. With the extra troops now available he left for Constantinople in 378 to personally take the field against the Goths.

When Valens arrived at Constantinople on May 30 he was dismayed to find the public in a state of unrest over his disastrous Goth policy. Brutal and sadistic, the pot-bellied and bow-legged emperor had never been popular with the people who suffered through his purges of torture, public execution, and banishment that followed the civil war of the previous decade. It also did not help matters that he was of the increasingly detested Arian faith.

To avoid the crowds, Valens stayed in his capital only a few days before he moved his headquarters to the nearby village of Melanthias. He decided to replace the commander of his infantry, Trajanus, with Sebastianus, an able general who had personally requested his recent transfer to Constantinople. Trajanus, nevertheless, remained in the emperor’s service.

At Melanthias, Valens attempted to boost the morale of his soldiers with pay, supplies, and flattery. The perhaps 20,000-man army then slowly marched toward Nice. Sebastianus and an elite corps of two thousand lightly armed soldiers were sent ahead to conduct guerrilla warfare against the barbarians.

Sometime in June, scouts brought the news of a large number of barbarians near Adrianople. The barbarians, heavily laden with booty, had returned from a devastating raid into the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains and were pulling back farther to the main Goth camp between Beroea and Nicopolis. Sebastianus set out in pursuit. Along the shores of the river Hebrus, he fell upon the Goths in a night ambush and killed all but a few.

More good news for the Romans was on the way with the arrival of a letter from West Roman Emperor Gratian. Gratian recently beat back serious Alemanni (West German) incursions over the Rhine and was coming to aid his uncle with the Goths. Encouraged by Sebastianus’s victory and Gratian’s forthcoming reinforcements, Valens marched forth from Nice to Adrianople, arriving at the city in mid-July.

At Adrianople, Valens received Richomer returning from the west with more news from Gratian, who beseeched his uncle to wait for his arrival and not to do anything rash. Information also came in from his scouts, who told Valens of Goth cavalry activity to his rear, threatening to sever the supply line to Constantinople. Valens sent a regiment of infantry and archers to secure the roads to his capital and entrenched his army in front of Adrianople, within a strong rampart and moat, to await his nephew. An eventual Roman victory seemed assured. However,  Valens smoldered with jealousy over his popular young nephew’s recent victory. Valens resented having to be bailed out by Gratian and wished that he alone could claim the victory laurels.

On the Goth side, Fritigern was faced with the problem of how to lure Valens into battle before Gratian’s arrival —his Goth army was too weak to risk an attack on the fortified Roman encampment. Fortunately for Fritigern, Gratian was delayed by Alan raiders at Casta Martis, in eastern Dacia, who may have been acting in concert with the Goth leader. Fritigern then gathered his various foraging parties to prevent them from being destroyed piecemeal by Sebastianus, and marched to Cabyle. From there he descended toward Adrianople. Circumventing the city, he struck toward Nice to position himself between Constantinople and Valens’ army.

Roman scouts reported that the Goth army was a bare 15 miles from Adrianople, advancing toward Nice, and numbered a mere 10,000. Such tidings further strengthened Valens’ resolve to engage them on his own. After all, with a two-to-one numerical superiority, Valens could scarcely stand idly by with the main Goth army poised to ravage the countryside all the way to the gates of his capital.

A council of war was held. Victor the Sarmatian, a cavalry commander and veteran of Valens’ earlier Goth war, spoke for many of the generals who urged Valens to wait for Gratian. In contrast, Sebastianus, roused by his own success, counseled an immediate attack in what he saw as an assured victory.

At this point an Arian priest, sent by Fritigern, arrived at the Roman camp. The priest declared that the Goths were willing to accept peace if the province of Thrace, along with all its livestock and grain, was ceded to them. He also slipped Valens a secret note from Fritigern. The note asked the emperor to move out with his army to overawe Fritigern’s unruly barbarians into accepting a peace.

Valens aims to crush the Goths once and for all!

No doubt the Goth’s desire for Thrace was sincere. But their belief that the emperor would simply give it to them seemed incredibly naïve to the point of being a coverup for luring the Romans into battle. Not surprisingly Valens rejected the “peace” proposal. A decade previous Valens had defeated the Goths; he was sure he could do so again. On the morning of August 9 Valens led his army from Adrianople to crush the Goths once and for all!

The sun beat down mercilessly, with temperatures reaching of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the blazing heat,  the Roman soldiers  force-marched 12 miles over rough ground to Fritigern’s camp. Cavalry led the front of the column and brought up the rear, with the infantry in the middle. The infantry made up about two-thirds of the army; it consisted of thousand-men-strong, heavily armed, legions and smaller units of more versatile auxilia. Around two in the afternoon, before having their midday meal, the tired and hungry Romans unexpectedly stumbled upon the Goths. They were encamped on a hill, as usual, within their wagon burg.

Overconfident, Valens had ordered inadequate reconnaissance. The Romans were caught off guard and still strung out along the road. With much confusion and delay, barbarian howls, and a clash of shields, the Roman soldiers began to form their lines of battle. The lead cavalry took position on the right, the infantry eventually formed the center, and the rear cavalry charged ahead and attempted to form the left wing. A corps of Batavi, a Frankish tribe renowned for its cavalry, remained behind as a reserve. To make things even more difficult for the Romans, the Goths lit fires on the plain between the two armies. The heat and smoke became all but unbearable to the Romans while the Goths were able to seek shelter beneath the cool shade of their wagons.

Nevertheless, like the Romans, the Goths proved unprepared for battle. Fritigern’s entire cavalry, under Alatheus and Saphrax, were out foraging, so that only the Goth infantry defended the camp. At once Fritigern summoned Alatheus and Saphrax back. To buy time until their arrival he dispatched more envoys to the Romans. These were men of humble origins and at first were scorned by the emperor. The last brought an appeal from Fritigern who pleaded that, in return for noble Roman hostages, he would do all in his power to secure a peace. Valens accepted Fritigern’s dubious proposal. Either he, too, wished to buy time to properly deploy his troops, or the fortified position of the enemy and the exhausted state of his own men caused him to reconsider not waiting for Gratian.

The Goth Army strikes like a Thunderbolt from the Mountains

Brave Richomer volunteered to be the hostage but he never reached the Goth camp. On his way to the Goths, his overeager bodyguard of archers and skirmishers lost their nerve and prematurely opened fire. A limited Goth counterattack threw the skirmishers back against their own lines in confusion. Valens decided to order a general advance. The Roman infantry was still not fully deployed but the cavalry was ready. At this moment the cavalry of Alatheus and Saphrax appeared on both flanks of the Goth laager. The Greuthungi chiefs wasted no time and led the five thousand or so Goth, Alan, and Hun horsemen in a wild charge down the hillside.

The Goth cavalry hit the Roman cavalry, in Ammianus’s words, “like a thunderbolt from the mountains.”3 The Roman right wing cavalry was closing in on the Gothic camp when it was completely overwhelmed and scattered by the furious charge of the barbarians. The cavalry on the Roman left wing fared even worse. Having advanced too fast it opened a dangerous gap between it and the Roman infantry. Into this gap rode the Goth cavalry to strike the Roman cavalry from the sides and rear. Hewn to pieces, the Roman horsemen were swept from the field or driven back upon their infantry.The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

With the Roman cavalry eliminated, Alatheus and Saphrax’s horsemen galloped around the Roman infantry’s flanks and rear. Caught between the hammer of the enemy cavalry and the anvil of the wagon ramparts, the Roman soldiers were pressed together amid much confusion. Vast clouds of dust all but obscured a sky thick with the arrows of Goth archers.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Like an avalanche the Goth infantry now broke loose from behind the wagon barricades and stormed upon the legions. Surrounded and crowded, many a Roman soldier had scarce room to draw back his sword arm. But the men who fought for Rome were barbarians themselves—warriors who refused to give up without a fight. Ammianus captured the savageness of the battle:

“Strokes of Axes Split Helmet and Breastplate”

“The lines dashed together like beaked ships and tossed about like waves at seas. On both sides strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. One might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance. The infantry, their lances broke, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives.”4

The battle continued until sunset, when what remained of the Roman lines finally broke under the pressure. Valens himself stood among a battalion of elite Palatini troops, the lancearii and mattiarii who thus far had held back the enemy. Trajanus, who was with the emperor, cried out that all hope was lost unless the Batavi reserves came to the rescue. Upon hearing Trajanus’s words, General Victor hastened to find the Batavi only to find that they had already taken to flight. Everywhere the Goths, berserk with rage, hacked down fleeing Imperial infantry with their double-edged long swords or impaled them on their spears, whether they surrendered or not. Victor decided to make good his escape while he could.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Behind Victor the Palatini finally gave way to the Goths. With all but his personal bodyguard bolting in panic, Valens too attempted to flee but was mortally wounded by an arrow. Dragged to a nearby peasant’s cottage by his entourage, his bodyguard fought another small unit action against the Goths. Without knowing that the emperor himself was inside the building, the Goths set it aflame, burning everyone inside. Thus ended Valens’ 14-year reign. To the Catholic Christians of the day, it seemed that the fires of Hell had claimed the hated “Arian” Valens.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

The emperor did not die alone. Beneath a dark, moonless night, the blood-drenched battlefield was covered with heaps of the 14,000 dead Roman soldiers, virtually the entire Roman infantry. Along with Victor, Richomer managed to flee the slaughter but they were the exception. Trajanus, Sebastianus, the Masters of the Stables and of the Palace, and 35 tribunes were killed. Of the Gothic losses there are no records, but considering the length of the battle they too must have been heavy.

A Bane for Rome, a Boon for the Goths

Adrianople was one of the greatest military disasters in Roman history, later heralded as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. Its immediate consequences, however, were negligible. The Goths, now splendidly equipped with Roman arms and armor, marched on to Adrianople where they hoped to capture Valens’ war treasury and supplies.

The second Goth siege of Adrianople began with preliminary and confused engagements in the suburbs on August 10. A thunderstorm dispersed the attacking army. Fritigern, who wisely remembered his earlier inability to capture the city, opposed a direct assault in favor of deserters within the city who were willing to open the gates to the Goths. When this plan failed the other Goth chiefs overruled Fritigern’s caution, and on the 12th the Goths fervently stormed the walls.

Accompanied by the drone of war horns, the chiefs led the assault. The city was jammed to the limit with war refugees from the defeated Roman army, who ably manned heavy catapults and other missile weapons in the city’s defense. With many of their men skewered by the javelins or crushed beneath the monstrous rocks of siege engines, the Goths failed to make any headway. Both below the walls and on the parapets, dead Goths and Romans lay in heaps.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Frustrated, the Goths decided to move toward Constantinople. Only when they got there did they seem to realize the utter inadequacy of their army in face of the Roman capital’s lofty fortifications. After being given a bloody nose by a sortie of Arab horsemen, the Goths abandoned any hope of taking Constantinople. This deprived Fritigern of the much-needed supplies to keep his army unified. Once again his army splintered into various small factions that preyed upon the hapless Thracian rural population.

Gratian realized that the disaster of Adrianople meant a lengthy and drawn-out campaign against the Goths—a campaign that he, with his commitments in the west, would not be able to carry out. Accordingly, in January of 379 he raised Theodosius the Spaniard, a veteran commander of the Illyrian cavalry, to be Emperor of the East.

Rome Pays a High Cost for Peace

During the next three years Theodosius had his hands full. In 380 Fritigern and the Tervingi raided as far as Thessaly where they inflicted a defeat on Theodosius. Meanwhile, Alatheus and Saphrax led the Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns into northern Illyricum but suffered a loss to Gratian’s army. The following year, small-scale actions against scattered Goth raiders drove both bands back into Thrace.

By 382 Fritigern had disappeared from the scene, due to death or because he lost the support of his followers. After years of wandering around the Balkans and continuous minor skirmishes, the Goths had become weary of battle and were ready for a peaceful resolution. Theodosius was ready to give them one.

The Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns were settled in Pannonia II and the Tervingi in Moesia II, the same region originally granted by Valens. However, under Theodosius both groups became federates of the Empire, were not required to pay tribute, and received high pensions in return for their military services. Vast numbers of Goths were also enrolled into the Imperial army, again at extraordinary salaries. Theodosius became “the friend of peace and the Gothic people.”5

For the Romans peace finally reigned throughout the land, albeit at a high monetary cost and with potentially dangerous high numbers of Germans in the army. As to the Huns, the original cause of the whole war, their migration toward the west petered out, as for now they consolidated their rule over the Ostrogoths and the former Visigoth lands of Old Dacia.

The Beginning of Rome’s End?

The battle of Adrianople has traditionally been seen as the deathblow to the legions and the advent of a thousand-year supremacy of cavalry on the battlefield. The Gothic victory is often described as one of heavy cavalry over infantry. True, after they routed the Roman cavalry, the Goth horsemen ensured the encirclement of the legions. But the ratio of cavalry units on both sides was roughly equal, with infantry comprising the bulk of both forces. The reason for the Roman defeat was not so much a lack of cavalry, but poor leadership and exhausted and disorganized troops having to fight a fresh and better-led enemy.

As to the advantage of cavalry over infantry, this was nothing new. Although for a long time the Roman army, to its detriment, continued to lack an adequate cavalry arm, the increasing strain put on the Roman army by mounted barbarians and Persian Sassanids in the third century caused the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine to raise the prevalence of the cavalry. Even the Praetorian Guard was disbanded, to be replaced by a new guard, the scholae palantinae, made up of barbarian cavalry. Thus Adrianople was less a turning point than part of an ongoing trend in which Rome’s enemies were increasingly mounted and Rome’s armies had to follow suit. By the fifth century this trend led to the cavalry replacing the legions as the primary unit of the Roman army.

The real importance of Valens’ defeat lay in the eventual peace settlement that occurred in the battle’s aftermath. For the first time, whole tribes of armed barbarians were settled within the borders of the Empire. This marked a new and ultimately disastrous stage in Roman-German relations. With whole regions given over to the rule of barbarian tribes, it was only a matter of time before these tribes declared total independence from Rome and thereby threatened to dismember the Empire from within.

 

“The Gothic Wars, The Battle of Adrianople” was first published in Military Heritage Magazine in the June 2001 issue and republished online at Warfare History Network, October 2015. The above version has been re-edited by the author and includes additional images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.

Notes

1. Heather P.J.,  Goths and Romans 332-489 (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991), p. 142, Marcellinus Ammianus, The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378) (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 31. 6, p. 422. 2. Marcellinus Ammianus , Book 31. 6-7, 3. Macrellinus Ammianus . Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John. C.Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939, p. 471., 4. Macrellinus Ammianus  p. 473-475, 5. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths (Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California, 1990), p. 131.

Sources

Ammianus Macrellinus. Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John. C.Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939, Bury.J.B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: The Norton Library. 1967, Cary M. and Scullard. H.H. A History of Rome. London: MacMillan Education. 1988, Delbruck Hans. The Barbarian Invasions. Trans. By Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. London: University of Nebraska Press. 1990, Dupuy Ernest R. and Dupuy Trevor N. The Encyclopaedia of Military History. New York: Harper & Row. 1986, Ferrill Arther. The Fall of the Roman Empire-The Military Explanation. London: Thames & Hudson. 1986, Gibbon Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol.III. London: Methuen & Co. 1909, Gunther R. Korsunskij. Germanen Erobern Rome. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. 1988, Heather P.J. Goths and Romans 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991, Lot Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row. 1965, Macdowall Simon. Germanic Warrior 236-568 AD. London: Osprey. 1996, Malcom Todd. Everyday Life of the Barbarians. New York. Dorset Press. 1972, Norwich John Julius. Byzantium The Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books. 1990, Sandell Roger. Attila the Hun. in Command Magazine. Issue 47. Feb. 1998, Williams S. and Gerard Friell. Theodosius The Empire at Bay. London: Batsford Ltd. 1994, Wolfram Herwig. Geschichte der Goten. Munchen: Verlag C.H. Beck. 1983 also used English edition.(E), Zosimus. Historia Nova: The Decline of Rome. Trans. By James J. Buchanan and Harold T. Davis. Trinity University Press. 1967.

 

Charlemagne: Warlord of the Franks

Charlemagne: Warlord of the Franks

With warrior skills learned at his father’s side, Charles the Great—Charlemagne—carved out a mighty empire in strife-torn western Europe

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

On Christmas morning, 800 AD, a tall, powerfully built man walked up the steps of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Highly pious but by no means meek, Charles, ruler of the Frankish empire, had come—so he thought—simply to attend mass. In his mid-fifties, Charles retained the characteristic vigor for which he was known, his muscles hardened by years of warfare and his two favorite pastimes, hunting and swimming. Charles  usually preferred the blue cloak and cross-gartered leggings of his own people. Today, however, he had obliged Pope Leo III, who had asked Charles to wear a long tunic, Greek mantle, and shoes of Roman fashion. Despite his classical garb, Charles’  fair skin, golden hair, piercing blue eyes, and great height marked him as a man of the cold, gloomy northern realms.

If Charles had had any inkling of the elaborate ceremony about to take place, he likely would have avoided the entire affair. He was a no-nonsense sort of individual, a man more accustomed to giving orders than to taking them. But as a scrupulously practicing Catholic, he felt it his duty to obey a summons from the Pope, even one who had a good deal more reason to obey Charles than the Frankish king had to obey him.

“The Most Pious Augustus”

Once inside the church, Charles was surprised and somewhat taken aback by the emotional greeting accorded him by the Pope. Leo, having barely escaped imprisonment and mutilation by his political enemies on spurious charges of perjury and adultery, owed his recent reinstatement to Charles. Charles had publicly shown his support of the Pope and demanded that he be restored to his seat as bishop of Rome. Now the grateful Leo returned the favor by placing a golden crown on the king’s startled head while the entire congregation cried out a blessing: “To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, life and victory!”1 After 324 years, there was once again an emperor in the West—not that Charles, better known to history as Charlemagne, needed a papal decree to make him emperor. He had already been one in fact, if not in name, for many years.

Through Charles’ great heart pumped the blood of the Franks, one of the major Germanic tribal groups. Centuries earlier the Franks poured into Roman Gaul from their homelands on the lower Rhine. The western Roman Empire was in its death throws and the great migrations were in full swing. Axe wielding Frank infantry, mailed Goth cavalry and fearsome Hun archers, among a colorful array of tribes, carved up the carcass of the western empire. The final act came in 476 AD, when Odoacer, a half Germanic, half  Hun, barbarian general, disposed the last of the West Roman Emperors and became king of Italy.

In northern Gaul, King Clovis (c.465-511) consolidated the Franks’ hold on on the land through a combination of force and deceit. Although born a pagan, Clovis’ shrewd mind saw the Catholic Orthodox Church as a potential ally and unifying force. Clovis allowed himself to be baptized, along with thousands of his troops.

The Merovingian Franks are usurped by the Carolingians

Hedonistic excesses inevitably sapped the vigor of Clovis’s dynasty, the long-haired Merovingians. Their power gradually gravitated into the hands of their leading officials, the Arnulfing, or as they later became known, the Carolingians. The most famous of these usurpers was Charles Martel—the Hammer—who in 732 repulsed a Moorish invasion of Europe at the Battle of Tours and henceforth was immortalized as a savior of Christendom.

Pepin III, father of Charlemagne

Martel’s grandson, eight-year-old Charles, must have looked up to his grandfather with awe. Born out of wedlock, Charles was the oldest of three children born to Pepin III, known by the unflattering nickname Pepin the Short, and to  Bertrada of Laon. While his father was disposing of the last of the Merovingian kings in 751, Charles was learning from grizzled veterans how to use the weapons of war—the spear, the round shield with its heavy iron boss, the single-edged short sword, and the most powerful weapon of all, the double-edged long sword. It was a skill that would stand him in good stead in years to come.

Frankish arms (Altaipanther – Own work, Public Domain)

The western Europe of Charles’s youth was fragmented by tribal rivalries, the growing power of the Catholic Church, the encroachment of Islam, and the waning influence of the Byzantine Empire. All these factions jockeyed for advantage and territory. In 754 a  tear-stained Pope Stephen II threw himself at Pepin’s feet and begged for his aid against the “most evil Lombards.”2  Stephen was hoping that Pepin would help the Church retain its tenuous hold on Rome and the rest of Italy. At the time, the most prominent power in Italy was Lombard King Aistulf, who had just swallowed up the last Byzantine lands around Ravenna and was threatening to do the same to Rome. Aistulf swore that the he would butcher all the Romans unless they submit.

Honoring the Franks’ Ancient Alliance

Fortunately for the Church, Pepin decided to honor the Franks’ ancient alliance, which went back to the days of Clovis. Pepin not only wrested the Byzantine lands away from the Lombards but, instead of handing them back to their rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor, he gave them to the Church instead. In gratitude, the Pope anointed Pepin and his sons, Charles and his younger brother Carloman, as his rightful heirs.

Besides the Lombards, Pepin also fought Saxon and Moorish raiders. More often than not, Charles was at his father’s side. After a lengthy campaign, the Gothic kingdom of Septimania (Mediterranean France)  was conquered and subdued in 759. Thereafter, the renowned Goth cavalry became a loyal Frankish ally. The rebel kingdom of Aquitaine, however, gave Pepin more trouble. During the eight-year-long Aquitaine War, Pepin’s Bavarian vassal, Duke Tassilo, refused to send any help, thus beginning a long feud between him and the Carolingians. Pepin, preoccupied by the fighting in Aquitaine, was unable to resolve the feud and bring Tassilo back into line.

When Pepin III passed away in 768 his Kingdom was split in Frankish tradition among his two sons. Right away, Charles was faced with a falling-out with his brother and with renewed rebellions in Aquitaine. Egged on by court flatters, Carloman resented having to share his father’s lands with a “bastard,” and refused to help his brother in Aquitaine. Like his father, Charles was left to fight in Aquitaine alone. Charles nevertheless drove the rebel leader into Gascony, whose duke not only surrendered the fugitive, but also submitted his province to Charles. Carloman was infuriated by his brother’s success.

In 770, Charles married the second of his five successive wives, Desiderata, daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius. Engineered by Charles’ mother, it was an effort to smooth out the traditional enmity between Lombards and Franks, but it failed miserably. The Pope was outraged, cursing the union with the “perfidious and foully stinking race of the Lombards.”3 Charles was none too happy himself. Claiming that Desiderata was ill and barren, he sent her back to her insulted father within the year. Relations with the Lombards soured further after Carloman suddenly fell ill and died. When Charles annexed Carloman’s kingdom, Desiderius sheltered the anti-Charles nobles of Carloman’s court, along with Carloman’s wife, Gerberga, and his infant sons. Together, Gerberga and Desiderius hatched plots to check Charles’ growing power.

In 772, Desiderius made another grab for the Papal States and tried  to bully the Pope into declaring that Carloman’s son, not the bastard Charles, was the true king of the Franks. Charles strove to resolve the situation without resorting to violence, offering Desiderius 14,000 solidi in compensation for the Papal lands. Desiderius foolishly interpreted Charlemagne’s goodwill as a sign of weakness and refused the offer. Although it was late in the year and the weather turned foul and cold, Charles believed there was no time to be lost.

Charles called for the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host. Foremost among Charles’ warriors were his elite guard, the “scara,” made up of though, battle hardened Franks, in chain or scale mail armor, with iron coifs and helmets, greaves or vambracers. A scara’s full arms and horse were of enormous expense, costing 40 solidi or as much as over a dozen cows. The military value of mail was such that any merchant exporting mail shirts was forced to forfeit his property. Only the King, his lords and bishops, could afford such splendidly equipped warriors. The bulk of the soldiers, levied by the counts and equipped by their home villages, made due with a spear or a bow and a shield. Charles’ entire armed forces numbered an estimated 30,000 heavily armed cavalry and 120,000 local levies. Most of these were absorbed in garrison duty, however, so that the field armies rarely numbered above 35,000.

Emperor Charlemagne, a Papal Guardsman to the right and a mounted infantry man in the back. Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In a two-pronged attack, Charles’ Frankish warriors descended upon Italy. Charles led one column down the shoulder of Mont Cenis, while his uncle, Count Bernard, moved through the St. Bernard pass, thereafter named after the count’s patron saint.

Cold wind, rain and sleet whipped at the Franks, who drew their cloaks about them and lifted one weary leg after another. Around them, rocks and pathless ridges reared to misty skies and abrupt abysses plunged to unseen depths. The slowly moving columns, with their pack horses, leather-covered ox carts, and a wide array of herdsmen, cooks, carpenters and merchants, pushed steadily onward. When Charles’ column descended into the valley of Susa, the hardest part of the trek was behind it. The soldiers may have breathed a sigh of relief, but they soon saw to their dismay the powerful Lombard fortifications that stretched across the valley ahead. Prince Adelghis, son of Desiderius, had come to contest Charles’ entry into Italy. Undaunted, Charles ordered an immediate assault.

Charlemagne crossing the Alps (Eugene Roger 1807-1840)

Charles takes the Iron Crown of the Lombards

With brawny arms lifting banners high and battle horns resounding, the Franks let loose a thunderous war cry as they tore down upon the Lombard parapets and towers. Lombard bows twanged and arrows thudded into shields and faces. Lombard swords hacked through shoulder bones, blood spurted from rend mail, and spears thrust and parried as the Franks tried vainly to scale the ramparts. Charles contemplated a retreat when, according to legend, a wandering minstrel happened by. The minstrel sang of a secret mountain pass that led to the rear of the Lombard lines. “What reward shall be given to the man who shall safely conduct Charles into Italy?” the singer wondered, “on paths where no spear will be hurled, nor shield raised against him?”4

Whatever the truth of the legend, Charles sent a detachment along a high trail, which afterward was known as “The Way of the Franks.” The next morning, Charles renewed his frontal assault. Suddenly, the Lombards heard the tramp of marching feet, the clatter of arms and the neighing of horses- not just in front of them but behind them as well. Outflanked, the Lombard army broke in wild panic, the Frank cavalry riding down the stragglers. Prince Adelghis had enough. He fled to Verona and from there eventually made his way to the safety of the Byzantine court.

Unlike his son, King Desiderius was not ready to give up yet. He abandoned Susa but rallied his troops for a last stand at Pavia. Meanwhile, Charles reunited with Bernard’s column and advanced unopposed onto the Lombard capital.

A trio of warriors from the age of Charlemagne, left foreground a Austrasian ‘scara’ mounted infantryman, right a Lombard cavalryman and mounted in the back, a Gascon cavalryman Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In fanciful prose the Monk of Saint Gall, one of Charlemagne’s biographers, captured the scene of Desiderius watching from a high tower. Beside Desiderius stood a noble who knew Charles in person. Both anxiously awaited the first sights of the approaching Frankish army:

First the baggage train appeared over the horizon. Desiderius asked, “is that Charles in the midst of that vast array?” “No, not yet” answered the noble.

Next the Frank army marched up, causing Desiderius to snap “now Charles is advancing proudly in the midst of his troops.” When this was still not the case, Desiderius flew into a panic, “ if even more soldiers come into battle…what can we do?

“There now appeared Charles’ escort followed by his abbots and their attendants. By this time Desiderius was sobbing, “let us go down and hide our selves in the earth, in face of the fury of an enemy so terrible.

When you see the field bristle as with ear of iron corn…then you can be sure that Charles is at hand, ” said the noble and with those words, blew “from the west a mighty gale…the wind of the true north…which turned the bright daylight into frightful gloom.

“The Emperor rode ever on…topped with his iron helm, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his Platonic shoulders clad in iron cuirass. An iron spear raised high against the sky” in his other hand “his unconquered sword.” “His shield was of iron, his horse gleamed iron colored” and all those who rode with him wore the same armor. “That is Charles,” exclaimed the noble to Desiderius, who “fell half conscious to the ground.”5

Charles counted upon his scara to breach Pavia’s defenses but in spite of the Desiderius’ apparent weakness, Pavia refused to submit.  Lacking powerful siege equipment, Charles had to settle in for a lengthy investment of Pavia. A siege camp, including a chapel, grew up beneath Pavia’s mighty walls, graced by the arrival of Charles’ new young queen, Hildegard. Before winter passed, Charles found time to visit Rome, where he was given a triumphant reception. Roman soldiers lined the Flamian way, children waved palms and olive branches and sang hymns of praise to the puissant savior of the Church. Meanwhile, disease and famine wore down Pavia’s defenders until in June 774 the city fell to the Franks. Charles seized the Iron Crown of the Lombards and exiled Desiderius to a monastery. Charles’ conniving sister-in-law Gerberga and her children were found at the city of Verona and promptly handed over to Charles. Presumably they too ended their days in a monastery.

Alfred Rethel’s (1816 – 1859) Romantic impression of the triumphant Charlemagne entering Pavia.

During his battles the Lombard cavalry impressed Charles so much that afterwards he made them the the spearhead of his army. The rising popularity of the stirrup in the 8th century transformed man, horse and lance into one massive projectile. Already since the 5th century, cavalry had been the backbone for most armies and now too the Franks were following suite.  To lead the Lombard cavalry in the future and preside over the Carolingian Italian domains, Charles choose his second son by Hildegaard, Pepin. Already in 781, while on a pilgrimage to Rome, Charles had Pepin, who was still a toddler, crowned as King of Italy (r. 781-810).

Even though Desiderius was in exile at the Francia monastery of Corbiento, the feud of his family with Charles had not yet reached its end. One of Desiderius’ daughters, Liutberga, was the wife of Tassilo, the treacherous Duke of Bavaria, and she goaded her husband against Charles. Not that Tassilo need any prodding; what he needed were powerful allies. He looked to Italy, where half of the Lombard lands still remained in the hands of their dukes. There was no questioning the loyalty to Charles of brave Eric, Duke of the march of Friuli, or of Hildebrand, Duke of Spoleto, but Arichis, Duke of Beneveto, was another matter. Arichis eagerly allied himself with Tassilo and the two of them were further strengthened by the alliance of Constantine VI (r.780-797), the Byzantine boy-emperor who was still fuming because he had been denied Charles’ daughter in marriage.

In 888 Charles crushed the brewing conspiracy before it could get out of hand. He first dealt with the Lombard Duke Arichis who fled into the unconquerable fortress of Salerno from where he bend over backwards to appease Charles. To spare the people the ravages of war, Charles accepted Arichis overtures of peace and made Arichis’ son, Grimoald, Duke of Beneveto in his stead.  As Byzantine envoys appeared to indicate a change of heart in their emperor’s stance against Charles, this left only Tassilo of Bavaria of the three conspirators. Having gained Papal support, Charles with his eleven-year-old son Pippin at his side, moved their army of Frank, Italian, Saxon and Thuringian soldiers upon Bavaria in a three-pronged assault. Tassilo, who had so contemptuously refused to acknowledge Charles’ suzerainty, panicked, surrendered, and was shipped off to a distant monastery. Bavaria was now under Charles’ control.

The Ring of the Avars

Before his fall, Tassilo had opened a new Pandora’s box by inviting the much-feared Avars across his borders. From their homelands in Turkestan, the Avars had migrated to settle in the old Roman province of Pannonia (Hungary), subjugating the local Slavs. Under their “Kagan,” the great Khan, they rapidly became a menace to their Slav, Germanic and Byzantine neighbors. For years even the Byzantine Emperor was forced to pay the Avars an annual tribute of an astounding 80,000 gold solidi. Although the Avar Khaganate came to extend over territory of modern-day Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, by the time of Charlemagne its zenith had passed.

Warriors from the age of Charlemagne: A Saxon bowman infantry levy to the right, an Avar horseman to the left and a western Slav tribesman in the back. Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In 782, swarthy Avar “jugars” (chiefs) with brightly colored strands interwoven into their hair, had visited Charles’ Royal and Military Assembly in Saxony. They talked of peace but Charles knew that the short, wiry Avars were as dangerous as hungry wolves, no different than his own Franks and the Saxons. If given the chance, they would sink their teeth into his growing empire.

In 788, with Charles busy subduing the troublesome Italian and Bavarian Dukes, the Avars saw their chance. They attacked Friuli in Lombardy but were unsuccessful, then advanced into Bavaria. Again they were defeated and their their terror-stricken warriors hunted down until they drowned in the Danube. After so many defeats, the Avars mused about the wisdom of having attacked Charles’ realm. In 790 their envoys came to Charles’ palace at Aachen to negotiate a mutually acceptable border with Francia along the River Enns. It was too late -the time for talk had passed.

The campaign against the Avar Khaganate was to be carried out by two armies. Charles would lead one down the Rhine, advancing from Bavaria, while a second army under Charles’ son Pepin, King of Italy (r. 781-810) would attack with the Lombards from north eastern Italy.

At the 791 Assembly, enthusiastic cheers greeted Charlemagne’s proposal to make war on the Avars. Charles assembled his army at Regensburg and from there advanced into the land of the Avars. On the bank of the Enns, Charlemagne held mass for three days, imploring “God’s help for the welfare of the army, the assistance of Lord Jesus Christ, and for victory over the Avars and revenge on them.”

At his camp Charles received messages from Pepin telling him that he had already struck into Avar territory and on August 23rd won a great victory. Pepin’s Lombard cavalry was acquitting itself well against the Avar cavalry. It was during the Avar wars that the superbly trained Lombard cavalry established itself as premier shock troops. A prideful Charles wrote to his wife, “Our beloved son tells us that the Lord God gave them overwhelming triumph: so great a number of men have never been killed in battle.”7

Continuing along the Danube, Charles’ army of Franks, Saxons, Frisians, Serbs, Abodriti and Czechs continued on until near Vienna they reached the first Avar fortifications on both banks of the river. The Avars standing vigil on their fortifications in the wooded hills beheld the ominous sight of Charles’ great army, approaching on both banks, with a flotilla sailing in between them. God really did seem to be on Charles’ side that day, for Avars decided to abandon their defenses without a fight. They fell back to await the Franks at their legendary fortress, known as the “Ring of the Avars.”

Pepin meanwhile went on to captured the first or outer ring of Avar defenses and looted the villages therein.  However, the appearance of Avar reinforcements prevented Pepin from advancing further.  Pepin fell back, no doubt hoping to join his armies with that of his approaching father. However, Charles, had penetrated up to the river Raab when disaster struck. Pestilence broke out among the horses, devastating the cavalry. In addition the alarming news arrived of a palace revolution instigated by Charles’ neglected bastard son, Pepin the Hunchback. The Avar campaign was called off as Charles returned home, burning and killing along the way. Once back home, he squashed the Hunchback’s revolt and sent his deformed son to a monastery. Pepin, the king of Italy, delivered the treasures he had taken and 150 Avar prisoners to Charles at Aachen.

For several years Charles was kept busy by the Saxons (see Saxon Wars below) and other affairs. In 795, there surfaced the first indication of dissension among the Avars when the emissaries of the highest Avar “tudun” (Chancellor) appeared at Charles’ court at Aachen. The emissaries declared that the tundun wished to submit himself and his people and accept the Christian faith. The Avars had turned upon each other and were soon at each other’s throats. Civil war broke out, claiming the lives of both the Kagan and jugar.

With the Avars fighting each other, Duke Eric of Friuli sensed easy prey. In 796 Eric unleashed his Lombards under a Slav general named Wonimir. On the plains of Pannonia, armored Lombard and Avar horsemen sliced through each other’s ranks. Heavy lances powered through mail links and shattered shields. Avar horse archers sent arrow after arrow into the Lombard ranks, whose own bowmen trudged onward on foot. But the Avars were disunited and the Lombards shattered their famed Ring. The Ring went into legend as a gigantic, near impregnable, fortress of nine concentric rings of stone and clay, crowned with hedges and palisades. Modern opinion, on the other hand, holds that it more likely referred to a series of fortified earthworks surrounding Pannonia. Duke Eric of Friuli faithfully sent the vast Avar treasures to Charles.

That same year the tunus and his following received baptism but soon after broke their fealty. A second Frank army under Pepin King of Italy was needed to hold the Ring and secure the rest of the treasures. In all, 15 wagons loaded high with gold and silver coins, cloth of gold and precious ornaments rolled into Charles’ court at Aachen. A gratified Charles lavished gifts upon friends and allies and used the wealth to complete his magnificent palace and chapel. The Avars, however, were not entirely finished yet and sporadic fighting lingered on into 803 before their lands were incorporated into Charles’ empire.

The Saxon Wars

Even more savage than the Avar war was Charles’ war against the Saxons. By the end of the great migrations, the Saxons occupied most of northern Germany. Unlike most of the other Germanic peoples, they had never embraced Christianity and stayed true to the old gods and to the reverence of nature and trees. The Saxons were the most poorly equipped of Charles’ foes. Cavalry and armor were all but unheard of – a spear, an axe or, if he was lucky, a sword was all a Saxon soldier could count on. What the Saxons lacked in equipment, however, they made up in bravery, tenacity and unconventional warfare. A terrible cycle of raids and counter-raids was the order of the day along the Saxon-Frank border.

In 772, fuming with anger, a vengeful Charles crossed the Rivers Eder and Diemel. Deep in the Saxon heartland, at Eresburg, he destroyed the sacred, all sustaining pillar of the Saxons, the wooden “Irminsul.” There had been sacrificed to Othin eight different beasts and one man, hanged from branches, their blood soaking the earth of the Saxon holy site. There too, were treasures of gold and silver to enrich the Frankish war chest.

Charlemagne cuts down the sacred “Irminsul,” as the pagan Saxons are forced to submit to Christianity (Hermann Wislicenus – circa 1885)

The Irminsul’s destruction only served to unite the Saxons under a powerful guerilla leader, Widukind, whose vengeful warriors set fire to Frankish border villages and churches, looting, raping and killing at will. Everywhere, Frankish villagers fled in terror of the Saxon raiders. As soon as Charles’  heavily armed troopers arrived to fight the invaders, Widukind’s raiders took to the woods or melted back into the general Saxon population. Unable to come to grips with the partisans, Charles released his Franks on the hapless Saxon villages.

To establish order Charles built strongholds or captured them from the Saxons. The Saxons struck back, infiltrating a Frankish camp in 775 and butchering the sleeping and half-awake garrison. The following year the Saxon army demolished the Frankish stronghold at Eresburg but faltered at Syburg, which resisted both the clumsily built Saxons siege engines and the torch.

Nevertheless, Charles kept up the pressure and by 777 it was the Frankish banner which fluttered over many of the circular palisades, ramparts and moats that protected the strongholds of Saxony. Charlemagne deemed that the time had come to hold his annual Assembly in Paderborn, Saxony. The Saxons found themselves called to the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host, and there were mass baptisms. Even now, however, the Saxons’ eyes burnt with an unbroken will to retain their pagan freedom.

Widukind had fled to his Kinsman, the Pagan King of Denmark but returned to lead another uprising in 778. The following year the Franks tore through the Saxon ramparts at Bochult. In the aftermath of the battle, churchmen in lavish robes moved among dead and dying, chanting Psalms and giving last rites and lending aid to the handful of doctors. The clergy became a permanent fixture of the Saxon wars, as Charles further consolidated his hold on the land by establishing mission districts.

In 782, news arrived of Slavs raiders on eastern Saxon borders. Charles sent three high-ranking commanders, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad, to take care of the intruders. The three marched their soldiers the east, when to their horror their Saxon auxiliaries deserted in another massive uprising led by the elusive Widukind. When Charles heard this, he sent in reinforcements under his cousin, Count Theodoric.

The Saxons awaited the four Frank commanders on the slopes of Süntel Mountain. Theodoric ordered a pincer movement, much to the annoyance of the other three commanders. Confident that they did not need Theodoric’s help, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad attacked prematurely. With a blare of trumpets they spurred their cavalry up the slope, right into the Saxon lines bristling with spears. It was a slaughter. The Saxon ranks stood unbroken, the Frank cavalry a writhing mess of dying and trampled horses and men. Both Adalgis and Geilo, along with five counts and 19 other nobles, perished in the attack.

A raging Charles came storming back across the Rhine but once again the Saxon army vanished into the villages and forests while Widukind found safety among the Danes. Charles’ fury knew no bounds. In a grizzly bloodbath at Verden, 4500 Saxons were rounded up and beheaded. And if that did not prove his point, Charles ordered churches built near his Saxon military outposts. He ordered the death penalty for any Saxon who refused baptism or committed even the slightest transgression against Christianity.

The next few years saw incessant punitive raids, battles and castle assaults, as Charles pushed through Saxony and into the lands of the Slavs. Those Slavs that readily submitted, he treated as allies, the others were subject to the same brutalities as the rebellious Saxons.

In 785, Widukind, after defeats at Detmold and at Osnabrück, on the “Hill of Slaughter,” finally surrendered. He had enough of the bloodshed and accepted that the Christian god was stronger than Othin was. Widukind received his baptism at Attigny. As a sign of respect for his old adversary, Charles stood as Widukind’s godfather. With Widukind no longer an adversary, peace seemed assured. Yet even though they had lost their charismatic and skilled leader, the Saxons refused to bow to Charles’ Christian yoke. In 793, Saxon rebels ambushed and annihilated Count Theodoric and his entourage, reopening the war.

Charles’ final answer was forced deportations: seven thousand Saxons in 794, every third household in 797 and1600 leaders the next year. This finally did the trick, as increasing numbers of Saxons remained loyal and the centers of resistance shrunk to the eastern borders of their realm. In 804, 10,000 Saxons, the entire population east of the Elbe, were settled in Francia. Christianity had been hammered into the Saxons. After thirty years of war and resistance, the last embers of resistance flickered out. The Saxons learned their lessons well. Centuries hence their descendants, the Teutonic Knights, marched east to convert the pagan Baltic peoples at the point of the sword.

Charlemange’s Campaigns in Spain

Charles fought longer in Saxony than anywhere else but it was in Spain, where he fought arguably his most famous battle. Ironically, it was also his greatest defeat. During the 777 assembly at Paderborn, a deputation of exotic strangers caused much attention among the tall, fair-skinned Franks and Saxons. Suleiman ibn Al-Arabi, the governor of Barcelona and Gerona, had come to ask Charles for help against his rival, the Emir Abd al Rahman of Cordova. Suleiman was ready to hand over his own cities to Charles and promised that the governor of the key strategic city of Saragossa would do so as well. Charles liked what he heard, and in 778, over 40,000 Franks and allied Lombards, Bavarians, Burgundians, Provencals, Bretons and Goths crossed the Pyrenees to meet up at Saragossa’s gates. The enraged Muslims inside, however, refused to open the gates to an infidel. For a month Charles laid siege to Saragossa. Although Suleiman kept his word and submitted both Barcelona and Gerona to Charles, he was unable to offer any concrete help. Branded as a traitor to the Muslim cause, Suleiman was assassinated by an emissary of Abd al Rahman. Frustrated, Charles called off the siege and turned back home. On the way he let his anger out on the less fortified city of Pamplona, razing the walls and sacking the city.

Disaster befell the rear guard of Charles’ army on its way through the narrow pass of Roncesvalles. Hidden in the woods and shrubs lurked thousands of wild hill folk, the Basques. They patiently watched the Frank army march through the forbidding countryside. After a long wait, there appeared the rearguard with the baggage. The day was hot and the Frank soldiers huffed in their heavy mail and wiped rivulets of sweat from their brows. Suddenly, boulders came rumbling down the slope, crushing whoever was caught in their wake. Missiles whistled through the air, piercing shields, mail and flesh. With a roar, the lightly armed Basques swept down the slope. A furious, chaotic melee erupted. Frankish swords shattered Basque spears and splintered shields. But the Basques were too many. Overwhelmed, the Franks fought until the last man. Among the fallen was Roland, prefect of the Breton march. Darkness shrouded the crimson splattered, corpse filled, pass. The Basques looted the baggage and quickly disappeared into the night. Although a humiliation for Charles, the valor of his soldiers was later immortalized in the famous “Song of Roland.” In the song, the Basques are changed to Saracens and Roland becomes the brave hero, who blew the Oliphant horn in a desperate call for help.

Roland blows the horn, note the Basques hurling boulders from the cliff onto the Frankish rear guard.

The Spanish debacle of 778 was not the last time the Franks and Muslims crossed blades. The Muslim cities of the Spanish march continually tried to defect to the Emirate of Cordova and in 801 Barcelona only resubmitted after a two-year siege.

The turn of the century marked the end of Charles’ great conquests. Battles continued to rage on virtually every border of Charles’ realm, but they were for the most part wars of consolidation. Brittany rebelled repeatedly and was never really conquered. In the east, the withering of the Avar and Saxon wars gave way to escalating conflicts with the Slavs. Led by Charles’ namesake son, the Franks conquered the Sorbs and the Bohemians. In Italy, Charles’ second son, Pepin, King of Italy, was kept busy with the unfaithful Grimoald of Beneveto. Ortona and Lucera were besieged, and there were skirmishes with the Byzantines concerning Venice.

Charles rides to Battle for the last Time

With old age creeping up on him, Charles left most of the fighting to his sons and captains. He resided longer and longer at Aachen, which he loved due to its hot springs. He stayed busy with the administration of his empire.

Reconstruction of Aachen

The latest and most dangerous threat to Europe was the advent of the Vikings. From Norway, the sons of Odin hit the British Isles the earliest and the hardest. The Danes under King Godofrid likewise made war on Charles’ Slavic allies and raised a colossal rampart along the Danish-Saxon border from the Baltic to the North Sea. In 810, Godofrid’s huge fleet of 200 ships crushed the Frisians, who were part of the Saxons realm. Godofrid boasted that he could not wait to meet Charles in open battle.

For the last time, Charles mounted his battle charger. Even at nearly seventy years old, Charles, with his platinum hair and six-foot-tall gaunt frame remained a larger-than-life figure. Before the two forces could clash in combat, Godofrid was murdered by one of his retainers. His fleet returned home and his successor was eager to make peace with Charles. There would be much war to come between Vikings and Franks, but not while Charles still lived. 

Charles’ Pan-European Empire

Charlemagne carved out the first pan-European empire, a feat that many future warlords, including Louis XIV the “Sun King,” and Napoleon, tried to emulate but could not. Charles lived in a brutal age and did not refrain from using overt violence to obtain his goals. Yet within his realm there was peace unknown since Pax Romana. Charles kept his soldiers on a tight leash, forbidding pillaging of the countryside and drunkenness. When possible, scouts marked out the route, warning the villagers of the cattle and sheep that would be requisitioned from them once the army passed through. Charles needed no walls to protect his villas, instead building monasteries, schools and a great bridge across the Rhine. He fostered the liberal arts and gathered to his court the intellectual elite of Europe in what became known as the Carolingian renaissance.

Charles’ ascendancy was not lost on the rest of the western world. There was correspondence with the Kings of the British Isle and with the Byzantines. For a time there was even a chance of Charles marrying the beautiful widowed Empress Irene. Harun-al Rachid, the opulent Caliph of Baghdad and enemy of the Spanish Emirate of Cordova, was Charles’ lifelong friend. One of his gifts to the great barbarian king of the north was an elephant named Abbul Abuz.

In 823, Charles personally crowned his remaining legitimate son, Louis the Pious, King of Aquitaine, as co-Emperor and successor. The crowning took place in Aachen and not in Rome. By this Charles made it clear that despite his own investiture by the Pope, it was Charles, not the Church, who choose his successor. Nevertheless, the Pope’s investiture of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor set a precedent that led to centuries of dissension between the Papacy and the Medieval Holy Roman Empire.

Originally, Charles had intended to split his Empire among his three sons but sadly both Pepin, King of Italy, and Charles the Younger, the conqueror of the Slavs, had died prematurely. Louis the Pious inherited his father’s love for learning but unlike his late brothers, he had none of his father’s warlike nature. When on January 28, 814, Charles succumbed to old age after 47 years as King of the Franks, Louis found himself unequal to the task of carrying on his father’s legacy. It was not long until feuds fragmented the empire forever.

Without Charles’ coalescing personality his empire was fated to collapse. In many ways Charles never saw himself as anything more than a great tribal warlord; his “empire” no permanent institution like that of Rome but an amalgamation of tribal kingdoms loyal to himself. The days of great empires were over anyway. The Medieval age had begun, which forever remembered Charles as the ideal king, the champion of Christ, the rex pater Europa (King father of Europe),  source of glorious legends, as Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse, as “Charlemagne.”

The gold and silver gilded bust of Charlemagne containing part of his skull and dating from around 1350.  Aachen Cathedral Treasury.

Notes

1. Stephens, W. R. W., Hildrebrand and his times (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1988), p. 7. 2. Eduardo Fabbro, Charlemagne and the Lombard Kingdom That Was: the Lombard Past in Post-Conquest Italian Historiography (Journal of the Canadian Historical Association: Volume 25, 2., 2014) p. 5, 6., 3. Russel Chamberlin, The Emperor: Charlemagne (New York: Franklin Watts. 1986), p. 66, 70., 4. J.I. Mombert, A History of Charles the Great (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888), p. 91., 5. Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. LewisThorpe , translator and Introduction, Two Lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987), p. 162, 163., 6. Bernhard W. Scholz  and Rodgers Barbara, Translators. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (The University of Michigan Press. 1972), p. 69., 7. Russel Chamberlin, p. 177.

Sources

Bunson Matthew E. Encycolpedia of the Middle Ages. New York: Facts on File. 1995,  Chamberlin Russel. The Emperor: Charlemagne. New York: Franklin Watts. 1986, Clark Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. 1981, Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Thorpe Lewis. Translator and Introduction. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987, Goldin Frederick. Translator. The Song of Roland. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1978, Hildinger Erik. Warriors of the Steppes. New York: Sarpedon. 1997, Joshua J. Mark, Odoacer,  Avars, Ancient History Encyclopedia., Keegan John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993, Mombert J.I. A History of Charles the Great. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888, Nicolle David. The Age of Charlemagne. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2004, Norwich John Julius. Byzantim the Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books. 1990, Parker Geoffrey. Editor. Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995, Russel Charles Edward. Charlemagne, First of the Moderns. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1930, Scholz W. Bernhard and Rodgers Barbara. Translators. Carolingian Chronicles. Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories. The University of Michigan Press. 1972.

Charlemagne “Warlord of the Franks,” was originally published in Military Heritage Magazine and republished on the magazine’s website, Warfare History Network. The above re-edited version contains additional images for non-profit, educational purposes only.

 

Origin and Recruitment of the Janissaries

Origin and Recruitment of the Janissaries

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

During the reign of Murad I (r. 1360-1389) many prisoners of war fell into Ottoman captivity. Rather than kill those that were not worth ransom, the Ottomans used them for the Kapikulu Ocaklari, meaning ‘gate or court slaves.’ Of the captives the fittest young men were selected to begin training for service in the Sultan’s personal army. They formed the first ortas (battalions) of the Yeni Ceri ‘new army’ or Janissaries.

Toward the end of Murad’s reign, the Devsirme ‘collection’ tax of eight to fifteen year-old boys from subjected Christian population was introduced. The Devsirme became the main recruiting base for the Janissaries. Enslaving your own subjects, including Christians, was against the Sariat, the Islamic religious law, but the Ottomans followed their own unorthodox believes. Reaction to the Devsirme varied according to the time period and location. Parents hid their children or tried to flee, in what were usually futilely attempts to escape the efficient Ottoman collectors. Others volunteered their children in hopes of giving them a chance at a better career than the rural farming life. Some families, not only Christians but Muslim converts among Bosnian Slavs as well, even bribed the Ottoman officials so that their children were taken.

Devsirme recruit, 16th century with Enderum Sakirdi eunuch teacher to right and Civelek, young trainee off duty, in background. Artist: Christa Hook (The Janissaries, Osprey Elite Series).

Assembled by their local Christian priest, who was needed to proof their Christian identity, the boys were led away by an Ottoman Surucu drover. The boys nearly all hailed from rural Balkan villages as they were fitter and deemed more naive than their ‘street wise’ city counterparts. Almost none were Balkan Greeks, who were mostly urban folk, and none were Jews, who were exempt. A few of the smarter ones were selected for schooling in office positions. The rest were assimilated into Turkish culture by serving as a farmhands for a Turkish family. In an age were slavery and the atrocities of war were commonplace, the initial shock gave way to grudging acceptance. Given human nature, no doubt many of the young lads bonded with their new Turkish families.

Acemi Oglan Janissary trainee early 16th century, with Ic Oglan Cavusu officer of Janissary recruits (17th century) to right and Falakaci Basi of punishment unit (17th-18th century) to the left. Artist: Christa Hook (The Janissaries, Osprey Elite Series).

After four to eight years laboring on Turkish farms, the boys were sent to become the Acemi Oglans, ‘foreign boys,’ of the Acemi Ocagi, ‘hearth of the inexperienced’ -the Janissary training center at Gallipoli. For another four to eight years, the Acemi Oglans underwent rigorous infantry training, under challenging and Spartan conditions, until their Kapiya Cikma, their final examination. The young Christian farm lad was now a young Muslim soldier in the prime of his life. He would always remember with pride the evening, when after prayers he donned the soldier’s dolama to become one of the honored Janissary. Through it all, he had not forgotten his Christian parents, however, and in many cases had been able to keep in touch with them.

The young age of the recruits left more time for training in the arts of war and for indoctrination of Islam so that they would be completely obedient to their superiors and their ultimate master, the Sultan. In return the Janissaries were honored and amply rewarded for success in battle. They are generally considered the finest infantry of their heyday, which lasted into the early modern period. No European power had an infantry corps to compare with the Janissaries.

Sources:

Nicolle, David, Nicopolis 1396 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999) p. 27, 28, Nicolle David, The Janissaries (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000) p. 4, 13, Uyar, Mesut and Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottoman Turks: From Osman to Ataturk (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2009) p. 17-20.