9/13/533 – Belisarius and the battle of Ad Decimum

Humble milestones like the one picture above marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen.

The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.

In what had been Roman Africa,  stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast.  It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).

At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on September 13th of 533, the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.

The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations.  The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy).  If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements.  The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome).  If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.

Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold.  This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian.  These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.

This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).

For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog by clicking here.

9/4/476 – Romulus Augustulus, Last Western Roman Emperor, Abdicates

On this day (September 4th) in 476CE, the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Goth warlord Odoacer.

When Romulus, who was little more than a boy, stepped down from the throne in Ravenna (then capital of the Western Empire), Odoacer took the Imperial regalia and sent it to the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, claiming that Italy no longer needed a Caesar and that the Goths would rule Italy in Zeno’s name, as his vassals.

It’s a fascinating moment in time, one often misinterpreted as marking the “fall” of Rome – a fallacy created in large part by the great historian Edward Gibbon.  The truth is much more complex!

In reality the Western Empire had ceased to exist, in all but name, decades before.  Yet at the same time the essence of Rome would continue in its former Western territories for centuries to come.  And Italy herself would be brought formally back into the Empire during the reign of Justinian, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of General Flavius Belisarius.  There she would remain until after Justinian’s death.

Nonetheless, the day the boy Emperor abdicated and retired to live peacefully on a Goth-provided pension in the Castellum Lucullanum at Neapolis (Naples) was indeed a turning point in human history and deserves to be remembered.

On a final note, though the Roman fortifications on the site were subsequently replaced by the Normans in the 12th century (see image to the right)Il_Castello_dell'Ovo_In_Napoli, one can’t help but imagine the melancholic Caesar looking out from the battlements, dreaming of Empire lost…

Though nothing is known of Romulus’ death he could not have lived to have witnessed Belisarius’ reconquest of Italy (completed in in 540CE).

Following is a post in today’s “New Historian” for those looking for more on the Last Western Emperor.



The Justinian Plague and Volcanoes?

“The sun gave forth its light without brightness, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.” – Procopius of Caesarea

This has been an unusually rich last couple weeks for the Age of Justinian in the news but of all the recent bits, this takes the cake.

Not many know that the Black Plague of the 14th century first appeared (in recorded history) during Justinian’s reign and was one of the primary reasons for the calamities that followed (including the loss of many of Belisarius’ territorial gains and the collapse of the Persian Empire).  For more on the Justinian Plague, during which over a 1/3 of Constantinople’s one million residents died within a matter of months in the summer of 541, see the brilliant book – “Justinian’s Flea” by William Rosen (on Amazon.com).  The Justinian Plague was savage, ferocious, and more than any single factor can claim to have hastened the end of the ancient world (ushering in the Dark Ages).

This week we learned more about the origins of Justinian’s Plague.  A scientific study just published in the Journal of Nature, and summarized well for the lay-reader on Smithsonian.com, reveals that there were two epic volcanic eruptions that likely facilitated the terrifying Plague.  The first happened in 535/536 (possibly in El Salvador) and the second came later in 540 (somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere).  Together they spewed inconceivable quantities of sulfate and ash into Earth’s atmosphere and dimmed the sun around the Mediterranean Basin for years (as per the quote from Procopius above).   The dimmed sun cooled the planet, causing crops to fail and sparking widespread famine just at the very moment that y. pestis (the organism responsible for bubonic plague) began to spread northward and eastward from the Nile River Basin on the backs of rats.

The volcanic eruptions had opened the gates to Constantinople for the Plague, and Rome (and the civilized world) would never be the same.

For the article on Smithsonian.com see here:


The Enduring Legacy of Roman Roads

Perhaps one of the most obvious and most enduring signs of Rome’s legacy lies underfoot in its network of roads that stretch from Scotland to north of the Danube, east to the Crimea and south to the Red Sea.

This article in Atlas Obscura has some fine pictures (including that of the Pont du Gard in Nimes, France pictured above) and highlights some of the more remarkable, and obscure bits of the Romans highway system that still exists across Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.


Writing Rome Out Of Istanbul’s History

History has always  been written by the victors.

But what is it about the lingering power of Rome’s legacy in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople – Nova Roma – Byzantium), that 600 hundred years after Mehmed the Conqueror breached Constantinople’s walls, the modern Turkish government finds the Roman Empire to be such a threat?  Or so it would seem given the resources that Turkey (led by Prime Minister Erdogan’s party) has devoted to programs to eliminate Rome from the archaelogical record by selectively restoring Roman monuments and buildings in Istanbul to emphasize their Ottoman influences at the expense of their Roman origins.

Perhaps the headline from this recent piece in the Financial Times should have read (encouragingly) as follows: “Rome Still Matters.”


Immortal Africanus – Coming Soon

The third (and final) novel in the Legend of Africanus series, Immortal Africanus, will be available on Amazon.com by September 2015. In Immortal Africanus, Caesar sends General Belisarius, Valentinian, Procopius and a small army of Roman Knights to Italy to reclaim the City of Rome for the Empire.  But the Goth King and his hundred thousand man horde will do whatever they can to crush the Emperor Justinian’s dreams of restoring the Western Empire.

Avenging Africanus – coming soon

Avenging Africanus, the sequel to From Africanus will be available on Amazon by September 2015.

In “Avenging Africanus”, General Belisarius leads Valentinian and the Roman Army on a perilous journey across Mare Nostrum to Africa in order to punish the Vandals for the Sack of Rome a century before, their invasion of Rome’s African province, and their role in the collapse of the Western Empire.  The  journey is perilous – many prior expeditions against the Vandals had been tried and failed.  The Vandal horde outnumbers the Romans twenty to one.    If they fail there will be no rescue.  If they prevail, the Emperor Justinian’s plan for restoring the Western Empire will be within reach.