Stymied by the Great Walls of the Qin and Tang Dynasties in the early first millennium CE, the Huns moved west. They drove entire nations before them, creating a ripple effect that exacerbated the rot inside the Roman Empire and brought about its fall. When the Huns burst into Europe 400 years later in the mid fifth century, Rome had been sacked three times in fifty years, and what remained of the Western Roman Empire was a Romano-Celtic-Germanic conglomeration at the ripples’ end in Gaul (modern France).
In 450 CE, Honoria, the sister of Roman emperor Valentinian III, was unhappy with her betrothal so she sent a message to the Huns’ leader, Attila, for assistance. Attila took the message as a marriage proposal with the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian obviously disagreed. Atilla, known as the Scourge of God because Christians believed that he was sent to punish the corrupt Romans, invaded.
In 451, Attila and his army crossed the Rhine and sacked most of Gaul before confronting a combined Romano-Germanic army under Attila’s friend, Flavius Aetius, and the Visigothic King Theodric I, son of the infamous Alaric, who sacked Rome in 410.
The Allied army was typical of the “barbarization” of the Roman military in the final days of the Roman Empire. Ironically, so was Attila’s. Gone were the days of Roman legionary heavy infantry and Hunnic horse archers, though they existed in small numbers in both armies. Each army was mostly Germanic foederati, light spearmen and horsemen, though the Franks allied with Flavius were already known for the quality of their heavy(er) cavalry. On 20 June 451, outside of Chalons on the Catalaunia Fields, the two nearly indistinguishable armies met. In a chaotic battle in both which commanders lost control, they fought each other to a standstill. Theodric was killed, but Attila felt that no chick was worth this and retreated.
The Battle of Chalons was the last gasp of the Western Roman Empire. Attila’s campaign broke the Roman army, destroyed Gaul, shattered the Visigothic Kingdom, and neutered the Hunnic army. None recovered. Into the vacuum stepped the Slavs and various Germanic nations, especially the Franks. In gratitude for their service (and because they were going to take it anyway) Valentinian gave the semi mythical leader of the Franks, Merovech, land around the town of Aachen as his own. Within 50 years the Merovingian Franks would be the masters of west central Europe.
After the Achaemenid Persian defeat under Darius at the Battle of Marathon ten years before, his son Xerxes decided, under pressure from his advisors, to invade Greece overwhelmingly by land with an accompanying supply fleet offshore. In the summer of 480 BCE, Xerxes’ Persian Army conducted the largest seaborne invasion of Europe until the Normandy landings in 1944, 2500 years later. And then in one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Persians constructed two 1,300m pontoon bridges across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) and marched the rest of his massive army across over a total of seven days and seven nights.
The Athenian General Themistocles suggested that the Greeks make a stand at the narrow pass at Thermopylae (or “Hot Gates”, named after a warm spring nearby) and the adjacent straits of Artemesium. The narrow confines of each would mitigate the Persians’ greater numbers. Themistocles, an Athenian, would lead the Greek navies at Artemesium, while King Leonidas of Sparta led the Greek armies. On his march to the pass, Leonidas collected various contingents from other Greek city states, but due to the Olympic Games, during which fighting is prohibited, he could only collect limited forces. Nonetheless he planned to delay the Persians long enough for the rest of the Greeks to mobilize after the games. From Sparta, he brought only his personal bodyguard of 300 hoplites, and 900 other squires and armed retainers. The remaining Spartan army would fight with the main Greek army when it formed. Along the march he collected 4000 hoplites and 3000 more armsmen from the city states of Phocia, Trachis, Arcadia, Corinthia, Tegea, Mantinea, Thebes, Thespia, Malia, and Locria.
On 19 August 480 BCE) the 400,000 strong Persian Army under Xerxes I arrived outside of the narrow pass of Thermopylae and met the 8000 Greeks under King Leonidas. A Trachian lamented that the Persians were so many that their arrows would blot out the sun. A Spartan file commander, Dienekes, responded, “Good, then we will fight in the shade.” Hoping that the show of force sufficiently cowed the Greeks, the Persian herald demanded Leonidas surrender his weapons in a show of subservience to Xerxes. Leonidas responded “Molon labe”, “Come and get them.”
It took three days for Xerxes to organize an assault and on 22 August he attacked. The Greeks were armored in their traditional heavy bronze breastplate, helmet, and greaves, and armed with a large bronze shield (hoplon), an 8 ft stabbing spear (dory) that they used overhand, and a short sword (xiphos). They fought in their traditional densely packed shoulder to shoulder formation called a “phalanx” which was amazingly effective in the narrow Thermopylae Pass. The Persians were many and varied and from different provinces of Near Eastern Asia but few were as heavily armed as the Greeks. The only equivalents in the Persian army were Thessalian hoplites from already conquered Greek city states who were forcibly conscripted during the Persian advance. Persian arms and armor were meant for speed, mobility, and ranged attacks in the deserts, steppes, and mountains of their homelands. They could not withstand the rigors of close quarters combat in the narrow valleys of Greece. Their cane arrows and javelins couldn’t pierce the bronze armor; and their cloth, wooden or leather armor, and wicker shields, provided no protection against the iron weapons. Furthermore, the Greeks were soldiers in the Western tradition and valued discipline and maintaining position where their large shields could protect the man next to him. The Persians were warriors in the Eastern tradition which valued the personal kill. The Persian warriors continually broke formation making them easier to kill by the disciplined mass of Greek spears. Even Xerxes’ own bodyguard, the elite Immortals, known so because they always maintained a number of 10,000 due to casualties immediately replaced, could not break the Greek phalanx. Leonidas and his small army held the pass against overwhelming numbers for two days under constant assault.
In the early hours of the third day, a Greek traitor named Ephaliates led the Immortals on a little known mountain track which out flanked Leonidas. The small Phocian force sent to hold it was pushed aside. That morning, the Greeks met to discuss the new situation, and only the Spartans and Thesbians volunteered to remain and fight. The Thebans also stayed, but Herodutus said it was against their will. The rest of the army fell back to join the Greeks mobilizing after the Olympic Games. That afternoon the Persians attacked from both sides of the pass and overwhelmed the remaining defenders. The Thebans, bitter rivals of both the Spartans and Athenians, surrendered to the Persians. Leonidas and the remaining Spartans and Thesbians fought to the death.
Over the next few weeks, Xerxes went on to conqueror Phocis, Boeotia, Euboea, and Attica, to include the city of Athens, which was sacked. However, the time bought with the lives of Leonidas’ Greek defenders at Thermopylae was well spent. In September, Themistocles lured Xerxes fleet into battle in the straits of Salamis, where the Persian navy was decisively defeated. With no way to supply his huge army in Greece, most of it returned to Persia, including Xerxes himself. Xerxes turned the army over to Mardonius, Xerxes most powerful advisor and the newly appointed Satrap of Greece. In 479 BCE, the combined armies of the remaining Greek city states under Leonidas’ nephew, the Spartan regent Pausanias, defeated Mardonius and the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. The victories of Salamis and Plataea cemented Greek freedom from Persian domination to this day. The Greek experiment in democracy was not killed off in the cradle.
In 66 CE, the Jewish people revolted in the Roman province of Judea due to heavy handed Roman taxes. Until Nero’s reign, all taxes not used in the maintenance of the Roman garrison were sent to Rome which enabled local rule and provided little incentive to overtax. Nero changed the tax code to a large flat sum based on each province. But what was worse, anything collected over that could be kept by the garrison. This provided the perfect excuse for the greedy legate of Judea to create new taxes just to enrich the garrison and himself specifically. The Romans already had a dim view of Judaism because they would not accept the supposed divinity of the Caesars (Caligula specifically) and the silver in the Temple was too tempting a target. After seizing it, the Jews resisted and the legate slaughtered 6000. The Jews then slaughtered the garrison, and subsequently destroyed the Roman Syrian Army at the Battle of Beth Horon.
This shocked the Romans and in 67 they dispatched their best general, Vespasian, and his son Titus, with four legions, including the elite Tenth Legion. (The X Legion was “Julius Caesar’s Own”, and the one he decimated i.e. killed 10%, for cowardice in 60 BCE. He then renamed them the Tenth Legion to remind them of the price for cowardice. They never forgot.) For a year, Vespasian reduced the Jewish garrisons in countryside. In 69, Vespasian returned to Rome to proclaim himself Caesar and Titus began the siege of Jerusalem. Titus broke through the first two rings of walls but the Jews were firmly entrenched behind the third with years of food on hand.
Unfortunately for the Jews, there were two factions vying for power inside the city. The Sadducees and Pharisees wanted religious freedom and return to local rule within the Roman province of Judea. The other faction, the Zealots, wanted their own Jewish state outside of the Roman Empire among other demands. Open fighting between both factions occurred regularly. The Zealots thought that the others were not dedicated enough in the conflict with the Romans. So in early 70, they burned the food stores of Jerusalem to galvanize resistance, much to Titus’ satisfaction.
On 21 July 70, the Romans stormed the city and overwhelmed the starving defenders. In retribution, Titus ordered the slaughter of most of the city and destroyed the Temple. Tens of thousands of Jews fled Judea. The Great Revolt began the 1878 years of Jewish exile from Judea and is mostly responsible for the Jewish diaspora.
In 390 (or 387) BCE, Rome was just another city state vying for dominance on the Italian peninsula with the Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, Greeks, and Gauls, the Roman name for Celts. In July, a large Gallic warband rapidly descended on the near defenseless city of Rome. Previously, whenever the Gauls struck they looted on their way and this gave time to raise the legions, which at this time were only used for specific campaigns then disbanded. (Also, the Severian Wall which ringed Rome at its height wouldn’t be built for another hundred years.) However this time, the Gauls did not loot and drove straight to the city. The Romans couldn’t raise and train the legions, but every citizen was part of the militia, and expected to arm and armour themselves.
On 18 July, 390 BCE, 25,000 Roman citizens lined up against 15,000 Gauls at Allia outside of Rome. In this period of Roman history, the Romans were armed and organized in the Greek hoplite style (a phalanx of spears and shields) with the richest citizens (and thus best equipped) in the center, and the poorer and less well equipped to the flanks. Phalanxes are devastatingly powerful to the front but are not very maneuverable, and furthermore, vulnerable to the side. The Gauls ignored the center and chose to attack the less well equipped phalanxes on the flanks. The fast moving sword and shield equipped Gauls quickly defeated both sides before the center could react. This broke the Roman army. What was left of it retreated to the nearby walled town of Veii, recently captured from the Etruscans, while the Gauls sacked Rome for a week or so. A small Roman army that was on campaign against the Latins to the south eventually forced the Gauls, heavily laden with slaves and loot and unwilling to fight another battle, back north.
The Battle of Allia forced a decision upon the Romans: should they move their capital to Veii, with its walls, and adopt a generally defensive posture in central Italy? Or should they reform their army and go on the offensive to protect their city? Livy suggests that the Veii option was the favorite, and had they taken it there would have been no Roman conquests as we know them.
Instead, the Romans reformed their army, and made the first steps toward the legionary system we are familiar with today. First, they professionalized part of their army and maintained it throughout the year. Also, the remaining hoplite armed legionnaires formed the reserve, which allowed them time to maneuver into position to use their stabbing spears to great effect. These were the usually the richest and oldest citizens and eventually became the “triarii”. The rest of the army over time adopted the Gallic sword and shield to fight with, increasing their maneuverability, and eventually used their spears to throw. Inevitably, the younger and keener citizens moved to the front and the older and wiser ones to the rear, but this wasn’t formalized into the “hastatii” and “princips” until the First Samnite War thirty years later. The three lines of the hastatii, princips, and triarii formed the basis of the manipular legions with which the Roman Republic conquered most of the Mediterranean basin. The manipular legion was the standard Roman formation until the Marian Reforms 300 years later.
Rome wasn’t sacked again for another 800 years (until 410 CE by the Visigoths under Alaric).
The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
For various reasons, there was no clear successor to the Roman Empire after the death of Emperor Constantius in 306 CE. In the following years, two clear candidates emerged: Maxentius, who held Rome and made himself emperor, and his brother in law Constantius’ son Constantine who was in Britain at the time. In 312, Constantine gathered his legions and marched to the Italian peninsula to challenge the usurper.
On the night of 27 October, Constantine said he had a vision (some accounts say his legions saw it also) of a symbol, and heard the words “Under this sign you shall conquer”. Although commonly thought to be the cross, the symbol was the early Christian Chi Rho (P with an X in the stem) made of the first two letters of the word “Christ”. That night Constantine had the symbol painted on his legion’s shields, helmets, and banners.
The next morning, Constantine’s legionnaires met Maxentius at Milivian Bridge over the River Tiber on the Via Flaminia. Constantine decisively defeated Maxentius, and killed most of his troops, including the usurper himself, as they tried to flee across the bridge or swim the river. Constantine claimed divine intervention of the Christian God as the reason for his victory.
Constantine was not a Christian himself. Like most Roman soldier-emperors he worshipped Sol Invictus and Mithras, but saw the Christian god as one of many, and for the rest of his reign he ended the persecution of Christians. Emperor Constantine I did much to promote and protect Christianity across the Empire and was baptized a Christian on his deathbed. Constantine is arguably the single most important secular reason for Christianity rising from a mostly Eastern slave, outcast, and women’s cult, to the state religion of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.