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Feb 14, 2012

Medieval Mondays: the Hexamilion wall

The Hexamilion is the thin black line across the Isthmus
Medieval Mondays is actually on Tuesday this week because yesterday I participated in the Origins blogfest. Thanks to all those who stopped by!

Genre Author follower and occasional guest blogger Sean McLachlan has been traveling in Greece lately for his travel blog Gadling and writing a series of posts. Some of them are of interest to fans of the Middle Ages, such as the castle of Acrocorinth, the Athens War Museum, and the Byzantine ghost town of Mistra. His writing about medieval Greece gave me today's subject--the Hexamilion Wall.

As you can tell from the name, this was a six-mile long defensive wall. It stretched across the Isthmus of Corinth, the only land route into the Peloponnese, the southwestern part of Greece. This obviously strategic point had been fortified since ancient times, and a major wall was erected during the fifth century AD when Germanic tribes were terrorizing the Roman Empire. It was strenghtened in the seventh century and then gradually allowed to decline.

The Hexamilion became important again in the waning years of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and the Byzantines were anxious to protect the Peloponnese (hten called the Morea) because it was the only wealthy province left to them. In 1415, Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos had it repaired and improved into an impressive fortification with thick walls and numerous towers. This didn't stop the Turks, though, who smashed through it in 1423. It appears there was little fighting; the garrison was so outnumbered and demoralized that most of them ran. The Haxamilion was repaired, but breached again in 1431. Both attacks were raids and the Ottomans did not remain in the Morea.

Constantine Palaeologos, then Despot of Morea and destined to be the last Byzantine Emperor, repaired the wall, but to no avail. In 1446, the Turks came back, this time with a large amount of artillery. Constantine had garrisoned the wall with 20,000 men, but many were Albanian mercenaries who could not be relied upon. After two weeks of bombardment, the Turks stormed the walls and cut down the defenders. Constantine survived, but his wall and his army were destroyed. Sultan Murad signed a treaty with the Byzantines stipulating that the wall would not be repaired.

Not much left!
When Murad died and the warlike Mehmet took the Ottoman throne, the Byzantines repaired the wall anyway. Mehmet's armies easily passed through in 1452. A year later the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell and the Emperor Constantine was killed in action. The Morea held out until 1460, but now the Hexamilion was in ruins and failed to even slow the Turks down.

The Hexamilion was a great idea that didn't work. The Byzantines could never garrison it with sufficient numbers of quality troops to face down the large and disciplined Ottoman army. Little remains of it today. For more on the Hexamilion, check out this cool website about the excavations being carried out there by Ohio State University.


Both images courtesy Wikipedia.

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