Of Water and Walls and Weapons

Featured Image: Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul

In our last installment I mistakenly referred to the Strait of Bosporous as a “river.”  Kudos to Ernest Lewicki for correcting me — and for leading me to explore the mechanisms by which Constantinople ensured its water supply.  

Though he gets all the credit for the famous Aqueduct which bears his name,  Valens‘ primary accomplishment was being Eastern Emperor when the system was completed.  The work had been started over two centuries earlier under Hadrian, then restarted when Constantine I moved his new capital to the long-popular resort town of Byzantium.  Yet for all that the Valens Aqueduct and the systems which fed it remain one of Late Antiquity’s great civil engineering feats.   Over 400 km (250 miles) of canals, bridges and tunnels brought water to an extensive network of cisterns and subterranean pipes.  After enjoying the chariot races at a Hippodrome that seated 80,000 Byzantium’s citizens could then wash off at the nearby Baths.   A 6th century Byzantium public house bragged on its sign-board:

Between Zeuxippus’ cool refreshing baths,
And the famed Hippodrome’s swift course I stand.
Let the spectator, where he bathes himself
Or sees the struggling steed panting for breath
Pay a kind visit, to enhance his pleasures;
He’ll find a hearty welcome at my table.
Or if more manly sports his mind affects,
Practice the rough diversions of the stadia.

Theodosian Walls, Istanbul, June 2006.

Armies hoping to sack Constantinople first had to get past the Theodosian Walls.  Built during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), the outer wall stood 7 meters high and was 2 meters thick.  Once you scaled that wall — after getting through the 10-meter deep moat that surrounded it — you found yourself on a terrace, with defenders shooting at you from above.  Past that stood an inner wall which stood 9 meters taller than the outer wall and which was twice as thick.  Defenders had a clear view of incoming armies from the 192 towers atop the wall, giving them plenty of time to arrange a welcoming committee of arrows, artillery engines and boiling oil.

Navies which threatened Constantinople faced sea walls that were nearly as high as the land walls.  Swift currents and rugged terrain thwart sea attacks from the south. The Golden Horn, the estuary which marked Constantinople’s northern border,  was guarded by a heavy chain that could stop a fleet in its tracks. Anchored between the Kentenarion Tower to the south and the Castle of Galatea to the north, this 300-meter chain could be let slack to allow traffic through, then drawn up at a moment’s notice while Byzantine’s defenders prepared a counterattack.  Then, in the late 7th century, an Arab fleet sailing toward Constantinople had the misfortune of discovering Byzantium’s newest weapon.

While the recipe for Greek Fire has been lost we know that it involved a mixture of pine resin, naphtha and sulfur. Other suspected ingredients include quicklime, calcium phosphate and gunpowder. Byzantine warships equipped with bronze pumps shot Greek Fire at oncoming ships: Byzantine foot soldiers wielding long tubes blew it in the faces of advancing opponents.  Thin glass or ceramic vessels filled with Greek Fire as were lobbed as grenades or fired from catapults.  Some claim these vessels had two compartments, one filled with Greek Fire and the other with water.  When the grenade broke, the water set the Greek Fire alight.  The flames could only be put out with sand or vinegar and stuck like napalm: sailors who chose drowning over burning alive did both.

Even in its twilight Rome was capable of great achievements.  Constantinople remained a shining beacon of culture and learning for centuries.  Yet at long last Constantinople fell.  And while we can find inspiration in Byzantium’s heroic struggle, we can also learn a great deal by exploring the seeds of its long decline.

Greek Fire: 1.
Thomas the Slav’s Navy: 0.

Constantinople’s water lines were an engineering marvel, but they were also costly to maintain.  When the Valens line was damaged by Avar raiders during the 626 Siege of Constantinople it was not rebuilt until 765. By the 12th century most of Byzantium’s longer lines were beyond repair — and there was no reason to rebuild them.  In the 5th century Constantinople was home to nearly 1 million residents.  In 1453, when it fell to Sultan Mehmed II, there were 50,000.  Local sources were more than enough to meet their needs and water the village farms where marketplaces and estates once stood.

Greek Fire was a terrifying weapon, and one which would be equally terrifying in an enemy’s hands.  Its production was a carefully guarded secret: artisans who refined one ingredient knew nothing about the others.  Its use required highly trained soldiers and skilled craftsmen to build and operate the machines.  It could only be produced in limited quantities and anybody who has seen Game of Thrones can imagine the storage issues.  Anna Komnene describes Greek Fire driving off Crusaders during a 1099 battle with Byzantine forces.  There is no evidence of Greek Fire being used against the Crusaders during the sack of 1204, or against Mehmed II in 1453.

When an earthquake damaged the walls in 447 the citizens worked to repair the damage.  Two inscriptions near the Rhegium Gate (now called Mevlevihane) claimed the job could be done in sixty days because fans of competing Circus factions were doing the work.  In 532 those factions — fans of different teams — went to war.  The ensuing Nika riots left thousands dead and half of Constantinople ablaze.  The walls were repaired in subsequent earthquakes even as everything else faded, even as gunpowder rendered them obsolete.  Today Constantinople’s Gate of Saint Romanus is Istanbul’s Topkapi (“Cannon Gate”), named after the great cannon which breached it.  A cannon caster named Orbanos had offered his services to Constantinople, only to find they lacked the resources to build it or funds to pay him.   The Sultan had access to both.

Theodosian Walls: 0.
Sultan’s Doorknocker: 1.

In 2018 California provided us with 100% of our honeydew melons, garlic, pistachio, olives and artichokes; 96% of our celery; 93% of our processing tomatoes; 91.8% of our broccoli; and 88.9% of our strawberries. Today the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area is home to 4.3 million people, up from 1.5 million in 1980. During that same period the Las  Vegas metro population grew from 463,087 to over 2.2 million.  This has all been made possible thanks to elaborate networks of aqueducts, dams and canals moving water to once-arid regions.  And where the Byzantines faced crumbling water lines we face an even more daunting problem — an overtaxed water supply amidst an ongoing drought .

Our military-industrial complex produces ever more sophisticated weaponry for our military forces.  Often that weaponry fails to live up to its promises.  Costly boondoggles like the F-35 fighter do more to line plutocrat coffers than to protect American interests.  And while we continue to spend billions on nuclear weapons designed for the Cold War and laser weapons out of midcentury space opera, we remain woefully unprepared for opponents driving Toyota Land Cruisers and wielding improvised explosive devices.  Envisioning a scenario where China invaded Taiwan or Russia the Baltic states, Loren Thompson writes that:

Once the attackers have seized their initial objectives, it would be hard to dislodge them without contemplating the risky step of resorting to nuclear weapons… The only way to prevent that from happening would be if U.S. forces were nearby and ready on very short notice to block aggression without resorting to weapons of mass destruction. So readiness is central to whether America wins or loses…

Many of the metrics measuring how ready the military is indicate decay in recent years. Training time for pilots is down. Maintenance backlogs are growing. Spare parts are in short supply. Operators are losing their edge, and experienced support technicians are leaving military service. So it would be challenging to quickly mobilize the nation’s vast investment in military personnel and equipment if Russia or China made military moves.

And where Constantinople maintained its walls to the bitter end, Americans have grown increasingly ambivalent about defending their territory.  We are told love has no borders.  We are reminded open borders made America great.  We are warned that Trump’s immigration policy is White Nationalism.  Memhed II needed cannons to breach Constantinople’s barriers.  We would greet his troops inside the gates with rainbow flags and WELCOME OTTOMANS banners, then protect the oppressed Turks against any soldiers bigoted enough to offer a defense.

Scholars and entertainers alike prefer the fixed date, the decisive triumph, the  catastrophe.  Our histories and our myths are built on conflagrations.  Byzantium gives us an opportunity to examine the slow burn.  It reminds us that having power and keeping it are two very different things. It illuminates the differences between financial and military power, and teaches us that iron holds an edge better than gold.  It shows that “empires” can exist in name long after their subjects have been left to fend for themselves.  And it challenges us to imagine a future where our grandchildren are poorer than we are and where their grandchildren will be poorer still.


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