Part 90: The Last Thalassan
Part XC: The Last Thalassan
Even setting aside the oncoming invasion Nikephorus III inherited a truly terrible position. Imperial troops had been driven out of Syria completely, and were retreating out of central Italy, with the Ravennan army bearing down on them out of the north. The troops in Hispani and Africa had been forced to surrender when their supply was cut off by local forces.
It can be difficult when looking at the strength of Romanos’s paper army to understand just why the position of soldiers loyal to Constantinople were so rapidly defeated, despite his major additions to their strength. And those additions actually hold the key to their internal weakness. Arming, training, and housing a hundred thousand soldiers, on top of the need to replace some fifty thousand from the Turkish war was expensive, but it was also very time consuming. The Roman state simply didn’t have the capability to make such a drastic expansion to the army so quickly, at least not without far more money than Romanos’s shrinking tax collection could provide.
When Manuel II had undergone such a massive expansion of the Imperial army he had basically raised and equipped a lot of men initially, and then had just taken them along with him on every campaign. Replacing only as needed. And much of the initial preparation had been done by his father. When he expanded the army after his victories to secure the peacetime gains he’d done so over nearly fifty years.
Romanos by contrast had tried to do so immediately, and things just didn’t work out. But, surely you say the soldiers could have been equipped after they were being raised. Well, yes. He did reign for nearly twenty years after all. But here Romanos’s reliance on army officers cost his regime dearly. Because being an army officer absolutely did not give the sort of skills necessary to coordinate mass equipment of men. Nor did his gutting of the civil administration do anything to cut down on the corruption endemic in any pre-modern supply system. So basically, there was a stream of equipment being sent out. Just not enough, and much of the money was ending up in the pockets of men who suddenly had very little accountability.
To compound matters, the influx of senior officers into these civil administrative roles had the added problem of consequently ensuring that the men staffing these new tagmas were not as experienced or as talented as might have otherwise been the case. Romanos’s centurions and other commanders who had won against the Turks, the Berbers, and the Cumans were either out of the army, or back in the capital where they might win Imperial favor and subsequently lucrative civil positions. Many of the men who might have left the civil posts and taken command of the provincial armieshad been surrounded by local troops engaged in the mass mutiny when the rebellions broke out. They were now either dead or prisoners awaiting trial for a multitude of crimes.
That said, the central army was still easily the most powerful force in the Empire. When taken together the Balkans, Anatolia, and the tagmata amounted to nearly one hundred thousand men, including the most elite and experienced soldiers and officers still in the army. So long as say a powerful foreign foe doesn’t come along and massacre the lot of them Constantinople had a pretty solid chance of putting down the Eastern rebellions fairly quickly, and then putting down Italy with the combined resources of the East.
Good thing one of those isn’t on its way.
Nikephorus did not actually start his reign trying to put down the rebellions with vicious violence and reprisals however. He had hated Romanos just as much as any of the rebels did, maybe more since the Emperor had murdered his entire family and then kept him under house arrest for twenty years. He totally got the desire for revenge. Instead he spent his early days, and that title is very fitting, sending out messengers to Syria and Italy to get the rebels to agree to talks. He made promises, spoke of how the tyranny of the old regime was at an end, and really tried to get everyone to agree to go back to how things had been. However, in this he ran into two extremely important obstacles.
First, the rebels really didn’t feel like taking orders from someone in Constantinople. They had been doing that for a long time, and they were sick of it. A multitude of complaints at the capital since the reign of Manuel II, and indeed before him that just hadn’t reached a boiling point now were very nicely simmering away, as the tyranny of Romanos had made all of those issues suddenly seem much larger than the benefits normally gained through the united Empire.
Second, and this is by no means exclusive with the first, none of the rebel leaders actually trusted him at all, or more accurately they did not trust his advisors. Remember, while we might today remember Constantine the Younger for his heroic actions as Emperor in the coming year, that wasn’t what anyone saw at this point. All that Julius in Italy, or Michael in Armenia, or John in Syria, or George in Egypt could see was the old regime just without the old leader at its head.
Also, for reasons not particularly relevant Egypt and Syria fell out pretty much immediately, and a new kingdom has been declared in the former.
And they weren’t exactly wrong either. Nikephorus might have been Emperor, but its not like he suddenly had all this power. The capital was still controlled by Romanos’s former troops. Sure they might have overthrown him, but that was mostly a reaction to his cruelty and a desperate attempt to keep their whole power structure from falling apart. Nothing really changed in the way they wanted to run things. They still wanted the lucrative civil posts out in the provinces, and would you look at that suddenly there were just a whole heap of job openings available. And even as Nikephorus was sending conciliatory messages these same officers were whipping their troops up to get them ready to go and crush the traitors.
And then, everything changed.
In July 1241 a massive nomad army suddenly appeared from out of the Zagros Mountains, and in three weeks had smashed the Turkic state setting itself up in Mesopotamia. The self-proclaimed Emperor fled south into the Arab Caliphate, and the nomads turned north, laying siege to Nisibis. Heralds went flying to Antioch, and the local Syrians were forced to marshal their troops and ready for a march east. Before the pivot could be completed however Nisibis fell in early August, with walls quite literally blown through by this nomad army. The city was razed to the ground, the garrison and population were slaughtered. They moved to Dara, which promptly fell as well.
By August 25th the two strongest fortresses on the Roman frontier were just gone.
Nikephorus heard of this, and readied to march east when he got news that another nomad army had been spotted by traders heading to Cherson, and would be at the Tyras River by mid-September. Constantine the Elder immediately took the army that had been gathering and went north as fast as possible, reaching the Danube as the nomads reached the Tyras. Both armies crossed, and with the phrourions useless against the nomad siege weapons, something that everyone had thought a contradiction in terms, all that stood between Moesia and a foreign invasion was the Roman army. And what an army it was. Eighty thousand men all told. Twenty-five thousand of them the finest heavy cavalry in Roman history. Men and horses armored head to toe in chain and scales. Five thousand Danes equally armored and wielding massive axes to decapitate horses and men.
And with them the best infantry in the empire.
And they were about to be wiped out.
The battle of Tyras is one of the single most depicted battles in history. Something about it captivates audiences the way that Cannae might have an old republic citizen. On the one side the might of the great Roman Empire, which had stood in some form for two thousand years. If you squint and count the legendary kings that is. On the other an up and coming force, but which now commanded the largest land empire in history.
The Romans were commanded by Constantine the Elder, with Nikephorus present to give the young man much needed credibility as a military leader, even if all he was supposed to do was sit on his horse and look inspiring. Constantine the Younger had been left back in Constantinople with a garrison of about two thousand men to keep order until his father’s return.
Constantine deployed his troops in a fairly standard formation, putting all of his heavy cavalry on the wings, with light cavalry as support. The center was held up by the infantry force of pikes and crossbows. A reserve of Danes was in the rear to reinforce the infantry lines should it be required.
Their opposing number, Tolui, commanded a force of some five thousand Syrican mounted infantry, who were mostly there to screen the cavalry should the need arise, and the forty-five thousand cavalry who made up the heart of the Hunnic army. These soldiers were often heavily armored, normally with llamelar. This was similar to scale armor used by the Romans, and offered excellent protection for them. It also was something that the Romans weren’t really prepared for. Most of the nomad tribes they had fought used little heavy armor, and so it came as a surprise when these soldiers were so well protected. But if that was one surprise it absolutely paled in comparison to the other. Firepowder. And in particular the fire lance. Nearly ten thousand men were equipped with one of these weapons, and another five thousand were equipped with fire arrows.
The battle opened with Constantine sending his light cavalry forward to skirmish, which Tolui matched. He critically held back his firepowder armed troops, wanting to save the shock of their attack for the charge. In the fighting which followed the Roman light cavalry was driven back, but the Mongol skirmishers were subsequently caught in a counterattack by the heavy cavalry, and hemmed in by crossbow bolts fired by the infantry. The skirmishers broke and fled back to the Mongol lines, suffering heavy losses.
This, despite some claims to the contrary, does not appear to be a feigned retreat. That was coming.
Seeing his advantage Constantine ordered an advance, looking to pin the Syricans in place with his vastly superior infantry, while holding the cavalry at bay with his own. When the infantry’s work was done he could split his own infantry and destroy both cavalry wings separately. The infantry raised their pikes and advanced, protected by arrows by their shields. Crossbow bolts returned as counterfire, and these weapons did extract many losses from among the Hunnic ranks. But Tolui still held his men in place, trusting to the armor of his most important troops to defend them. And these men were all battle-hardened and experienced, or were with their fellows who were. As the Roman cavalry came on he ordered his own men forward, but only the cavalry. The cavalry thus met at ahead of the Syrican infantry. Constantine seeing this, and mindful of Varro’s mistake at Cannae ordered his men into a square rather than a line, with men on the outside ready to extend their pikes outward should that be necessary.
As the cavalry forces met the Roman tactic seemed to have done its work well. The knight had charged, in complete silence, looking like nothing less than a soulless automaton, completely immune to minor things like some number of them who were killed. They lowered their lances, and slammed into the Hunnic cavalry. A brief fight ensued, but then the Huns broke and fled.
Surprised at the ease of this win Constantine ordered a disciplined pursuit, but hoped to retain some horsemen to turn and smash the flanks of the Hunnic infantry. That however did not happen. The Roman cavalry pulled away from their infantry, and another signal was given on the nomad side. The retreating cavalry suddenly turned, and countercharged the Romans. Leading the charge were the men armed with fire lances, which at this point were still unused. The Romans were momentarily thrown off by the rally, but were too disciplined to break and run at the turn. They steeled themselves and prepared to meet the countercharge with one of their own.
Then the fire started. As one the Huns blasted flames out of their own weapons, directly into the front lines of the Romans. Men and horses were burned by the attack, but the real devastating effect was on morale. The ignition of firepowder weapons brings with it an enormous roar, one that its almost impossible to understand unless you have just never seen an ignifera. To men from this era the noise was quite alien, and the addition of the jets of flame roasting their comrades alive was too much. They fled. In the press of bodies Constantine was knocked from his own horse as he tried to rally his men, and trampled to death.
And now as the Romans fled the fire arrows were added to the attack, unleashing yet more explosives onto the panicking Roman cavalry. Men and horses were slaughtered as the Huns pursued, and the infantry watched nearly helpless as the tagmata was slaughtered outside the ranges of their crossbows. And that’s it. Just like that six hundred years of history of the great Roman tagmata was over. They’re all dead.
Well, not quite all. The Pedinoi were still there to carry on the glorious name. For oh, about an hour. Nikephorus from his spot among the remaining men stood paralyzed with indecision, and his subordinates were little better. The army’s primary commanders were all dead, and victory now seemed impossible.
But then the nightmare just kept getting worse. The massive, slow, lumbering things that Tolui had dragged across the steppe to the Caspian Sea, then hauled onto trading ships, sailed across, then had dragged to the Black Sea, and loaded onto other captured ships, and then sailed along the coast until he thought a battle imminent now added their own voices to the battle.
The canna were big, slow to load, and almost as dangerous for the operators as for the enemy. But he had a very specific use in mind, and he didn’t need that many shots. He only had six of the things, but they exactly what he wanted. The Roman infantry remember were still in that big, immobile square that Constantine had put them in to ward off cavalry attacks. And while the canna might be truly useless against a moving target, they could, sometimes, hit a stationary one, and he would only get the one shot. But when all six of his canna fired, or rather five fired and one did nothing, he managed to hits. One was glancing, doing minimal damage to the Roman line. But it sure terrified the people nearby when suddenly the people standing right next to them were suddenly not standing, but instead were covering them in body parts. The other however impacted at a perfect angle and plowed through half a dozen men before smashing into the ground. The roar of the canna and the impact shook the infantry badly. Then the fire arrows came down on them. And that was it. They began to run. Men threw their weapons down and fled, and the Huns came on them from the sides and the rear. Then a group of three thousand circles around, and just charged from the front too. And the Roman soldiers were slaughtered in droves. Nikephorus’s horse was killed from under him, and he was promptly killed by the charging cavalry.
Some pockets of Pedinoi fought to the bitter end, but they were completely outnumbered and outmatched. By the end of the day barely one hundred Romans had survived, while the Huns lost about five thousand men. Nikephorus’s body was brought to Tolui, who had the Emperor decapitated, and put his head on a spike to parade before the Roman capital before he razed it as punishment.
Nikepherus III was 25 years old, and had been Emperor for about six months. He is impossible to rate. He did little, and was in a position to do little more. If it wasn’t for a quirk of history he would completely forgotten.
He was the last of the Thalassan dynasty, the family which had ruled the Empire since the dark days of the First Caliphate. From the lowest point of Roman fortunes, to a zenith under Leo and Manuel. The family left a permanent mark on the Empire, and the extended clan weren’t even close to being done. But Nikepherus was the last of them, and his death really does mark the end of the Empire as it had been for almost the past thousand years.
But at the time there was no time to think about any of that, because Constantine the Younger got the news a few weeks after of the disaster, and he immediately sent out desperate calls for help both East and West, promising anything that the rebels wanted if they would drop their grievances and come to Constantinople NOW.
Only, no one was really listening.
Well, almost no one. In Italy Julius II was eyeing the situation, and he thought he saw a once in a lifetime opportunity. Maybe once in a millennium. But to accomplish it he was going to need help. A lot of help.