Byzantine Warfare in the Sixth Century, according to John Malalas

John MalalasJohn Malalas wrote a chronicle covering events from Adam to at least year AD 565. Malalas was born around 490 and was probably an imperial bureaucrat in Antioch, and later on in Constantinople. For evernts in his own lifetime, the author largely relied on oral sources.

The first account deals with a rebellion by a Thracian named Vitalian, in 515-16. Using a large army of Huns and Bulgars, Vitalian was able to capture two Byzantine military commanders, known as magistri militum, and was moving his forces upon Constantinople. The section below reveals some information about the early use of Greek fire.

Book 16

[Chapter 16] The emperor Anastasios had formerly summoned, through Marinus, the philosopher Proklos of Athens, a famous man. The emperor Anastasios asked him, “Philosopher, what am I to do with this dog who is so disturbing me and the state?” Proklos replied to him, “Do not despair, emperor. For he will go away and leave as soon as you send some men against him”. The emperor Anastasios immediately spoke to the ex-prefect Marinus the Syrian, who was standing close by while the emperor was conversing with the philosopher Proklos, and told him to prepare for battle against Vitalian who was then opposite Constantinople. The philosopher Proklos said to Marinus the Syrian in the presence of the emperor, “Take what I give you and go out against Vitalian”. And the philosopher ordered that a large amount of what is known as elemental sulphur be brought in and that it be ground into fine powder. He gave it to Marinus with the words, “Wherever you throw some of this, be it at a building or a ship, after sunrise, the building or ship will immediately ignite and be destroyed by fire”. Marinus asked the emperor to send one of his magistri militum with the weapon.

The emperor immediately summoned the Phrygian Patricius, the magistri militum and John, the son of Valeriana, and told them to prepare an attack against Vitalian across the water, and to take fast ships and soldiers. They fell at the emperor’s feet, saying, “We two have been his friends and his father’s friends. We are afraid that chance may bring an unfavourable result and we might be suspected of treachery”. The emperor was angry with them and dismissed them from the palace. He then ordered Marinus the Syrian to take the ships, the elemental sulphur and the force of soldiers that had been prepared and to go out against Vitalian. When Vitalian heard that Marinus was moving against him with a large force, he seized every ship he could find and loaded them with bands of Huns and Goths, fully armed. He then set out to attack Constantinople, confident that he would certainly capture it and crush Marinus, who was coming to meet him, together with the force under his command.

Marinus distributed the elemental sulphur, which the philosopher had given to him, among all the fast ships, telling the soldiers and sailors, “There is no need for weapons but throw some of this at the ships that are coming against you and they will burn. And if we get to the houses on the other side, where the enemies of the emperor are, throw it there”. Marinus told his men to throw it exactly as the philosopher had told him, when he had said that the ships would be set alight by the fire and sunk with the men on board. So he set out for the other side against Vitalian and his men, and Vitalian’s ships came to meet them. They drew very close to one another opposite St Thekla’s in Sykai at that part of the Bosphorus which is called Bytharion. The sea battle took place there at the third hour of the day. Suddenly all the ships of the rebel Vitalian caught fire and were set ablaze and plunged to the bottom of the Bosphorus, taking with them the Gothic, Hunnish and Scythian soldiers who had joined him. But when Vitalian and those on the other ships saw what happened, that their own ships had suddenly been set ablaze, they fled and returned to Anaplous. The ex-prefect Marinus crossed over to Sykai and killed all Vitalian’s men whom he found in the suburbs and houses, pursuing them as far as St Mamas. When evening fell, Marinus and his force stayed there, defending those areas. Vitalian fled from Anaplous during the night with his remaining men and travelled 60 miles that night. At daybreak none of Vitalian’s men could be found on the other side. Christ the Saviour and the emperor’s tyche had won the victory.

The second section deals with warfare between Byzantium and the Persian Empire in 530.

Book 18

[Chapter 60] In that year the magister Hermogenes was sent into the eastern regions because of the Persian war, for the Roman emperor had learnt that a Persian general named Exarath, with a Persian force and in possession of a royal standard, had set out against Roman territory. Alamoundaros, the Saracen prince, with a great armed force, appeared at Kallinikon, a city in Osrhoene, having come by way of Kirkesion. When the magister militum Belisarios learnt this, he came to support the duces with 8,000 men; among them was the phylarch Arethas with 5,000 men. The Persians advanced with their Saracens and encamped at night near the fortress of Gabboula beside which flowed a small river. After they had dug a ditch there they scattered iron caltrops over a great distance around the ditch, leaving one entrance for themselves. Coming behind them with 4,000 men, the dux Sounikas found some of the Persians and Saracens plundering the villages round about, and hunted them down. He killed a few of them and captured some others whom he interrogated and learnt about their plans.

The Roman magister came to Hierapolis and learnt that the Persians had encamped on Roman territory. He went off to Belisarios who was near the Persians at the city of Barbalissos, together with Stephanos and Apskal, the exarchs and the dux Simmas, with 4,000 men. Belisarios was angry with Sounikas because he had attacked the Persian army on his own initiative. When the magister arrived he reconciled them, urging them to advance on the Persians. The Persians and their Saracens were intercepted at the village known as Beselathon and at Batnai and at the cities round about. The Persians made wooden engines, breached and destroyed the walls of Gabboula and, when they entered it, they killed everyone they found and also took captives. They captured other places as well in sudden raids.

When the Antiochenes heard what had happened, they fled to the coast of Syria. The Roman generals sent messages to one another to be ready to fight with them, for it had been made clear on the Persian side that they would join battle. They collected all their booty and withdrew by night. When Belisarios and the Roman exarchs learnt this, they pursued and overtook them. The Persians turned and stopped and, drawing themselves up, they encamped on the limes across the Euphrates and made plans. Likewise the Roman exarchs drew up their army and took a position opposite the Persians. They were arranged with the Euphrates at their back, while Belisarios ordered that boats be stationed along the riverbanks. Arethas was encamped on the southern section with Dorotheos and Hamantios, the Isaurian exarchs, while Sounikas and Simmas, with their army, were on the north. It was on 19th April, on Holy Saturday, at Easter, that the battle took place. The Persians attacked Sounikas arid Simmas and, as the Romans resisted, the Persians as a trick turned their backs and retreated to their own men. When the Persians had come together they realized that the Romans had the Euphrates at their back, so they attacked with their Saracens and joined battle; many fell on both sides. Among those who fell on the Persian side were Andrazes the tribune and Naaman, son of Alamoundaros; on the side of the Roman Saracens the dux named Abros was captured, while Stephanakios was wounded and fell. In the general melee Apskal charged into the middle of the Persians and was killed there when his horse trampled on a corpse. When the Phrygians saw their exarch fall and his standard captured by the Persians, they turned in flight and the Roman Saracens fled with them, but others continued with Arethas fighting. Some supposed that a number of the Saracens fled because of the treachery of the phylarchs. When the Isaurians who were stationed nearby saw the Saracens fleeing, they threw themselves into the Euphrates thinking they could get across. When Belisarios saw what was happening, he took his standard with him and got into a boat; he crossed the Euphrates and came to Kallinikon. His army followed him. Some used boats, others tried to swim with their horses, and they filled the river with corpses. Sounikas and Simmas continued fighting the Persians and these two exarchs, persevering with their surviving army, dismounted and valiantly fought a battle on foot. By skilful deployment they destroyed many of the Persians. They did not allow them to pursue the fugitives but intercepted three of their exarchs. They killed two of them and captured alive one named Amerdach, a warlike man whose right arm had been cut off at the elbow by Sounikas. They continued fighting with their army.

When evening fell the Roman exarchs and their army came to the city of Kallinikon, after the Persians had been pursued for two miles. At sunrise the next day they left the city of Kallinikon, crossed the Euphrates with their army and the citizens and despoiled the Persian corpses. When the magister (Hermogenes) learnt all that had happened in the battle, he informed the Roman emperor. Having read the letter, the emperor Justinian ordered by letter the magister militum praesentalis Sittas, resident in Armenia, to journey to the East to give military help. Sittas also captured Persian lands. He came to Samosata by traversing the Armenian mountains. Constantiolus was also ordered to go to the East to find out the truth about the battle. After reaching Antioch he set out in the direction of the Roman exarchs, to learn the complete truth.

[Chapter 61] At that time Julian the praetorian prefect was dismissed from office and John the Cappadocian was appointed in his place.

The Romans learned that Persian exarchs with a Persian force and Saracens had moved against Osrhoene, and had encircled the fort known as Abgersaton, which had been built by Abgaros, the toparch of the city of Osrhoene. It had an old brick wall. The garrison inside killed 1,000 of the Persians by shooting down with their arrows; and when they ran out of arrows they used slings and killed many of them. As a result the Persians were hard-pressed, and by use of a variety of engines they dug through the brick wall of the fortress and started to make their way in. But those on the wall became aware of the breach that had been made by the barbarians and came down from the wall; they began to cut down with their swords the Persians who were entering. The Persians realized this and, while the Roman soldiers were occupied at the breach, they took ladders and made their way up to the wall at night. They forced their way in, captured the fortress and killed everyone, except for a few who were able to escape and brought news of what had happened. The Persians set out from there and returned to Persian territory.

When Constantiolus learned of the events from the magister and the rest of the exarchs, he set out for Byzantion and reported the events to the emperor. When he had heard a report on the battle from Constantiolos, he relieved Belisarios of his command and appointed Moundos to the position of magister militum per Orientam.

In the month of June, while the Roman magister militum were making preparations against the Persians, Alamoundaros, the prince of the Saracens, wrote to the Romans for a deacon called Sergius to be sent to him so that he could convey peace terms through him to the Roman emperor. Sergius was sent back to the Roman emperor with the letter sent by Alamoundaros. The emperor, having read the letter, did not stop his campaign against the Persians. He sent Rufinus as an ambassador to Persia with a letter for the king recommending that he accept friendship; “for it is honourable and glorious to make the two states to live in peace. If you do not do this, I shall seize the Persian land for myself.”

At the same time Sergius the deacon was sent to king Alamoundaros with imperial gifts.

In that year gifts were sent from the emperor of the Romans to the emperor of the Persians. Likewise the Augusta sent gifts to the Persian empress, who was his sister. When Rufinus and Strategios reached the city of Edegsa they sent a message to Koades, the emperor of the Persians. He put off receiving them, since he had sent a force secretly against the Romans.

[Chapter 62] In that year there was a fire in Antioch. Somebody lit candles in the theatre, and when the wax dripped on to the timbers, they caught fire. A crowd rushed up and the fire was put out.

[Chapter 63] In that year Demosthenes was sent to the East, conveying a considerable sum of money to prepare granaries in each city because of the war with Persia. When he reached Antioch he then went on to Osrhoene.

[Chapter 64] Rescripts were sent to the cities, saying that those who did not take communion in the holy churches should be sent into exile, for they were excusing themselves by citing the Council of Chalkedon, that is, the Council of the 630 Bishops. A riot broke out in Antioch, and the mob burst into the bishop’s residence, throwing stones and chanting insults. Those who were in the patriarchate came out, together with the comes Orientis, and resisted them with missiles and stones and killed many of the rioters. These events were reported to the emperor, and he ordered many to be punished.

[Chapter 65] In that year a report was sent from Hermogenes concerning a battle which had taken place between Romans and Persians. The Persian generals had made a raid with a force of 6,000 men, to capture Martyropolis, for they had camped in the area of Amida by the river known as Nymphios. The Romans made a stand against the Persians but could not drive them back. When a second battle took place, the Romans, using the tactic of flight, appeared to be in retreat. The Persians made a charge and, thinking their opponents were in flight, broke their own ranks. The Romans turned and cut down 2000 of the Persians, taking some of their exarchs as prisoners and capturing some standards from them. When the rest escaped and expected to cross the river Nymphios, they perished in its currents as they were pursued. The Romans returned victorious to Martyropolis. The Roman dux went out with the landowners and stripped the Persian corpses, having put their exarchs under guard.

[Chapter 66] In that year Dorotheos, the magister militum per Armenian, also set out against the Persians with a Roman force. He won a victory, and killed Persarmenians and Persians, whom he treated cruelly. He also captured many Persian fortresses. One of those he captured was a strong fortress on top of a mountain, approached by a single narrow pathway, by which the inhabitants came down to draw their water from the river which flowed past. The Persian traders used to store up there all the goods they carried with them for their business, since the place was safe. When news of this was brought to Dorotheos, he encircled the fortress and put a guard on the path to it. The Persians inside were starved out and surrendered, persuaded by sworn promises. When a report was sent by Dorotheos to the emperor Justinian about what had been found in the fortress, he sent out Narses the cublcularius to take over what was stored there. When Narses arrived, they handed everything over to him.

The Persian exarchs reported the events to their emperor. A large Persian army was sent out, and came close to Martyropolis, for they had received a message from their emperor not to return to Persia until they had recaptured that fortress. They appeared before the place and besieged it, making attacks. They undermined the wall and made scaling-ladders, setting them up against the wall. Later they constructed a tall wooden tower but won no advantage, for among those besieged there was a clever man who worked out counter-strategies to oppose the Persian schemes. He made a taller tower inside the walls and, with the Persians fighting from the tower outside and the Romans fighting back from the tower inside, the Romans used a machine to drop a column which smashed everything to the ground and killed many Persians at the same time. When the rest of the Persians saw what had happened, since they were suffering losses and had also heard that Sittas, the Roman magister militum, was approaching to help those in the fortress, they withdrew, frightened that they would be surrounded. When the emperor Justinian heard this, he instructed his ambassadors not to enter Persia until he sent them a second letter, and so they remained on Roman territory with the gifts.

These two sections are from The Chronicle of John Malalas: A Translation, by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys and Roger Scott (Australian Association for Byzantine Studies vol.4, 1986). We thank the AABS for giving us their permission to include these portions.

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