LXXVI: The Second Nubian War
Prince John was informed of his father’s death in late August 1157, and was immediately crowned the new Augustus Basileus. The new Emperor was in his mid-thirties, and while he was married and got along well with his wife the pair had no children. While there is obviously no confirmation in any of our sources, it has long been speculated that John was secretly homosexual. We cannot know for certain of course, but the crowning of his brother, Manuel, as heir does give an indication that John expected no children from his union.
If this speculation is true, his marriage does not seem to have suffered for it. Empress Eirene was popular with the people, having been born into a lower ranking Greek family who couldn’t believe their luck when she and John had met and grown to be close friends. The marriage of the pair six years before John became Emperor was a major boon to the family, as they were catapulted up the social ladder and awarded a number of lands that had fallen into Imperial hands in Palaestina.
The family patriarch would eventually adopt the name Tycheros, remember them. They will be very important a few hundred years down the line.
John IV himself was a rather lazy ruler. He enjoyed games, feasts, plays, and music. He did his job well enough, but he rarely went beyond the minimum required of him. In particular, audiences with the Emperor virtually disappeared under John’s reign, something that was quite unusual. While Manuel II had basically vanished from public later in his rule, his son and then grandson had always been in the public eye. His successors had maintained similar policies, but they were still at least present for mass on major holidays as well as particularly important festivals.
John though settled down into the Chalcedon Palace and did not emerge for any reason. Now we’ve seen this sort of Emperor before. Alexios I immediately springs to mind for a number of reasons, but John wasn’t like Alexios. He had grown up living a mostly pampered life, and hadn’t ever had any major responsibilities. He hadn’t even served in the army. All in all John comes across as a deeply spoiled child who never outgrew that phase of his life.
But he wasn’t a cruel and petty tyrant, which is at least something. And we’ll see why its something four Emperors from now.
The most important act John undertook from our perspective took place ten years into his reign, when he arranged for Gaius Caesarus, usually noted as Kaius Kaiseros in the histories, the oldest son of Exarch Aurelius of Italy to marry Princess Agatha, his brother’s oldest child. This union will be extremely important down the road.
But that will have to wait, as two years into John IV’s reign the defining event of his rule occurred, the second Markurian invasion of Egypt. The causes of the invasion aren’t particularly complex. Probably the most obvious was the ongoing disputes over exactly where the border was as Roman tax collectors still made forays into the Theme of Nubia, despite it being abandoned well over a century before. Usually they left after being confronted by local soldiers, but in 1156 a new Exarch of Egypt, Antonios Kommenos, a former Domestic of the Scholae who had fought in the recent war against the Bulgari, took charge. And he decided to press the issue in the south.
When Roman tax collectors went south that year they took with them escorts of soldiers. To be clear, Antonios wasn’t planning to start a war, but the ongoing disaster in Syria was causing more of a tax burden to fall on Egypt; as money, men, and food were required in large amounts.
As the people of Egypt were grumbling at the increased grain confiscations Antonius’s fellow exarch, Alexios Doukas, his civilian counterpart decided to put more effort into taxing the former Theme of Nubia. So, just to put to bed the idea that the war started as a result of some Egyptian conspiracy, Romanos II signed off on the policy in Syria.
But in the aftermath of his death no one thought to alert the new Emperor of what they were up to.
In retrospect that was a bad idea, since John probably would have shot the whole project down simply to keep the peace. But, in 1158 two thousand men were sent into Nubia alongside epikroi, and began collecting taxes. Or raiding the population if you prefer.
The local Markurian garrison took issue with this, and in a skirmish just south of the cataract that marked the unofficial boundary they attacked a Roman force, killing them all. The Romans were outraged, and Antonios immediately sent more men to the area. His reinforcements attacked the garrison responsible, overwhelmed the defenses, stormed in and killed everyone inside. As this was a fortified town this included non-soldiers. In a rather pointed statement the town was then burned to the ground, and the commander’s body impaled in the center.
What moveable wealth was present was naturally confiscated.
So, the obvious question is, why is this all happening. To understand that there is a key point which must be understood, which explains why both sides thought they were in the right. From the Roman perspective, the treaty granting them control of the Theme of Nubia was fully intact. Indeed Antonios’s predecessor had presented the treaty to the Markurians in the past when they objected to Roman tax collectors moving a bit too far south. This meant that from a strictly legal perspective the Romans could be argued to still be the rulers of the theme, even if all their soldiers had departed well over a century before.
The Markurians had what is frankly a far more correct argument when they said that the Romans had…well, abandoned the territory well over a hundred years before and then just kind of ignored it until they wanted money. And it is pretty hard to argue against this. The Romans had abandoned the territory, and its people. Banditry had skyrocketed in the aftermath, and the local economy had collapsed with both the bandits running wild, and also with the subsequent decline in Nile trade. The Romans did have a responsibility to keep order in the area, in the exact same treaty they tried to use as justification for collecting taxes. Taxes which remember, were being levied so that the Egyptians wouldn’t be paying as much to repair the damage in Syria.
The Markurians were in the right. But as so often has been the case in our history, the stronger side was going to do what it felt like and if the weaker wanted to stop them it was free to try. The Markurian King, Mark III, was going to press the issue.
He ruled a wealthy and powerful kingdom, at least as powerful as King Simeon’s centuries before, moreso in fact as his territory bestraddled the Red Sea. So, in 1159 he gathered his army, and marched into Nubia.In response Antonios sent a message to Constantinople, gathered four of his tagmas and marched south to Ptolamais. Mark wasn’t aware of this, and wouldn’t have backed down regardless, and as the floodwaters reached maximum height he marched into Egypt. The Second Nubian War had begun. This war unfortunately is not as exciting as Alexios’s I’m afraid. No long period of marching and countermarching, no great victory by a foreign mercenary leading the Emperor to need to push onward and win the war for himself. No, Mark had ultimately miscalculated. Had he just ignored the situation in the Nubian theme, or not crossed the border he likely would have lived to a peaceful old age.
Now, its perfectly well to argue that he couldn’t just let the Romans raid, um collect taxes, at will; and that might well be true. By escalating to full scale war though he ensured that the full force of the Egyptian army would be turned on him. And if he’d faced the army that Simeon had faced Mark might well have won, certainly his army was a stronger force than Simeon had led with Arabic troops now mostly on his side for instance.
But the Roman army he faced in 1157 was not the half-rotten husk that Alexios had led. It was still in the prime of power, and Antonios had plenty of reinforcements. Among those were the famous Taxidia Kataphractoi. These wondering knights were Western mercenaries who had departed their homelands for a variety of reasons, by which I mean they had either committed a crime, lost their lands, or otherwise been expelled from society, and come to Constantinople to seek their fortunes. While most famous for the men who would lead the defense of Constantinople in the 1248, including the lone non-dynastic Emperor, the Taxidia were posted across the Empire. Unlike many of their brethren they fought mostly on foot, and only rode their horses to battle, similar to the Pedinoi of the Tagmata. Armored from head to toe these men and carrying kite shields they would be the centerpiece of Antonios’s battle line.
Mark captured Thebae without a fight on the first of September, 1159 and demanded a large cash payment to stop his men from sacking it. The inhabitants tried desperately to pay, but failed and the Markruian army ravaged it, killing much of the population and carrying away all its wealth. Antonios by now was marching south, but did not reach the city before Mark withdrew back across the border and sent evidence of his treasure south to be displayed in the capital.
Antonios arrived in Thebae on the fifth of September, and after surveying the damage decided it was too vulnerable to remain. He took the population in tow and retreated north once again.
Both men were just waitng however, as Antonios did not want to march his army too far from their base of supplies at this time of year. This might seem odd given that harvest was in autumn in the rest of the Empire, but as you probably are aware Egypt was different. In Egypt the Nile flood cycle led to planting being done in January, and harvest occurring in the summer, meaning Antonios was faced with the real possibility of not being able to supply his men if he marched too far south, and in particular he couldn’t go beyond the first cataract. Little occurred in the remainder of 1159, but in January 1160 Antonios led his army south again, taking advantage of planting time to raid the disputed territory. His primary aim was twofold, to disrupt the economy of Markuria, and to prevent raids on Roman farms in the region.
A low-intensity war began, with both sides harrying farmland on the border, looking to disrupt or prevent early planting. In this the Arab light cavalry of Markuria were invaluable, and southern Egypt was significantly impacted. But as the months gave way reinforcements were shipped into the region from Africa, consisting of a full tagma and particularly one thousand Berber camelry.
Also arriving was Prince John, who brought with him a large war chest and additional ships to patrol the Nile. These additional forces in place Antonios and John advanced into Nubia itself, employing the same strategy that Manuel II had used in Aquitaine. They killed the people, stole the valuables, and burned everything else.
Mark could not let the assault continue, and so he rallied his army, and marched out to meet the Romans as they withdrew back to Upper Egypt. He caught up with the Romans at Syene, and the two armies squared off in September. A few days of skirmishes followed, but these were inconclusive. But on the fourth day the armies met fully.
The Romans set their Western knights squarely in the center of their line, with Berbers on the right, and Egyptian cavalry on the right. Behind the Berbers was the African tagma, while the Egyptian tagmas took up the remainder of the center and the right. A final tagma was held in reserve. The Romans held a slight numerical advantage, twenty-four thousand men to just twenty-thousand Markurians. But the Markurians were the more experienced force, as the Egyptian and African armies were well trained, but had seen little actual battle.
The armies advanced on one another, and soon the mounted soldiers of both sides met in a clash between the armies, while the infantry came behind. The cavalry battle moved away from the main infantry lines as it wore on, with the Markurian and Arabic horsemen gaining the upper hand over their Roman counterparts, but unable to drive them from the field.
It was in the infantry the day would be decided however. The Markurian archers loosed arrow after arrow into the Roman center, but the dismounted Western knights were heedless of the strikes. Indeed, later chronicles depict them being filled with arrows, and advancing as if they were hedgehogs from the number of shafts which had struck them but had not penetrated their armor.
As the lines met the Taxidia began one of their many tactics to intimidate the enemy, they sang a hymn to God. For some this was already too much. These seemingly invincible foes who neither slowed nor fell were a horrifying sight to even the relatively experienced Markurian soldiers, but to hear praises to God as they readied for the infantry clash was unnerving in the extreme. Then, the lines met. The Taxidia pushed through the spears of the Markurians, using shield, armor, and ax to get within killing distance, and then began the slaughter.
Markurian soldiers were for the most part lightly armored, and wielded spears and short swords for the most part, weapons that did little against the Taxidia armor. And they were set against mace and ax of the knights. There were only a few hundred such men, but they drove through the Markurian line, killing as they went, and behind them came the Egyptian infantry. After a few hours of fighting the Taxidia broke through completely, emerging on the far side of the Markurian line, and the Egyptians poured through the breach, cutting the Markurian army in half.
Seeing this the Arab cavalry immediately reacted in the heroic and brave manner of mercenaries who see their employer was going to have immediate difficulties paying them. They deserted.
Okay, that’s not fair. But the Arabs at this point of the battle did turn and flee from a cavalry battle they were almost certainly winning. And its not hard to imagine why. The Markurian rule of Arabia was deeply unpopular on the peninsula, and these men would not have been in place voluntarily. But now they saw which way the wind was blowing, and wanted no part of it. The Roman horse did not pursue, being in bad shape themselves, but instead regrouped and then moved to pin the breaking Markurian army against the infantry.
This was the last straw. The Markurians broke and fled. There was pursuit, but it was half-hearted after the Roman army overran the enemy camp. Syene was a major Roman victory, and effectively ended the Second Nubian War. In the fighting some six thousand Markurians were killed to only about five hundred Romans, although a significant number of horses seem to have been killed as well.
Captured was the body of King Mark of Markuria. He was beheaded, and his head put on a spike on the main road going south, a warning to the people of Nubia not to defy the Emperor or his army.
Antonios returned to Ptolemais without further incident. Soon afterward envoys came from the regency put in place to raise Mark’s son Simeon IV, and a new peace treaty was hammered out. Naturally after fighting over the territory and demanding it be legally acknowledged as territory of the Roman Emperor Prince Manuel immediately demanded…that the Markurians officially take over rulership of the theme.
Wait, what? What’s going on here. Well, remember what this war was about. The Markurians actually ruled this territory, while the Romans only really wanted the tax money. And that’s what both sides got. The Markurians were now officially in charge of the old theme, but they had to pay half of its annual tax revenue to the Romans, theoretically. In practice this basically just meant that Markuria was paying a tribute equal to about half of the estimated tax revenue would be.
The payment was usually in the form of slaves from deeper into Africa, or in trade goods such as ivory. It will last until the end of the Markurian kingdom, which at this stage only has about fifty years of life remaining.
But that will have to wait. For now, Manuel returned to the Constantinople and the brothers held a joint triumph with selected Egyptian and African soldiers, displaying the royal regalia of Markuria to the cheering crowds.
The war with Nubia marked the end of significant external affairs during John IV’s reign. As usual that’s not to say it was actually remarkably peaceful. A border war was fought in the Alps over Germanni Marcher lords that saw the northern border pushed north slightly to fully control the northern passes. It was mostly unimportant, except that it killed the power of the southern lords of Germanni, leaving the East and West lords as the primary centers of power in the kingdom.
The total Imperial control over the northern passes also led to major economic consequences we will discuss later when talking about the development of Italy’s political structure toward the end of the current century.
But John would not live to see it. By his fiftieth birthday the Emperor’s health was in rapid decline. He was extremely overweight from his habitual feasting and drinking, and was rarely active. As time went on Manuel and Eirene took over running the government, an arrangement that suited all three parties fine. Despite his ill health however the Emperor lasted many more years, finally dying in 1180 at the age of fifty-eight. He had been Emperor for 24 years.
John IV was a bad Emperor. But, he wasn’t that bad. He was lazy, gluttonous, and had a number of other vices. That said, like a number of the Thalassan Emperors from their initial decline, it can’t be said he let those vices impact the government. He had competent and energetic courtiers who were left in charge, and competent commanders to maintain his borders. So while he may have been bad, it could have been much, much worse. Indeed, as well see soon enough sometimes a competent and energetic Emperor can be far, far worse than a lazy incompetent.