Byzantine troops in Battle of Yarmuk
Muslim troops defending their position
THE BATTLE OF YARMUK 636: The battle of Yarmuk in 636 was the decisive event which opened Syria to the Arab armies. The Byzantines operating in unfamiliar terrain were outmaneuvered and their troops were driven down the rocky ravines to the river where many perished. After this defeat the emperor Heraclius abandoned Syria and withdrew beyond the Taurus Mountains.
In 565 Emperor Justinian died. As the court poet Corippus put it, ‘the awesome death of the man showed by clear signs that he had conquered the world. He alone, amidst universal lamentations, seemed to rejoice in his pious countenance.’ The memory of Justinian was to loom large in the minds of subsequent generations of emperors, just as the physical monuments built in Constantinople during his reign were long to dominate the medieval city. Nevertheless, in spite of the grandeur of Justinian’s project, buffeted by plague, frustrated by deeply entrenched social and religious realities, a reign that had promised so much ultimately ended in disappointment. Justinian bequeathed to his successor, Justin II, an empire which, though larger, was nevertheless markedly fragile and fiscally unstable.
This fiscal instability in particular was to do much to undermine the reigns of Justinian’s successors and limit their ability to meet ever more pressing military needs. Justin II declared upon his accession that he ‘found the treasury burdened with many debts and reduced to utter exhaustion’. The emperor was consequently unwilling, or unable, to continue the subventions by which the empire had secured the support of the Ghassanids in Arabia, as well as, more recently, of the Avars in the Balkans.
The consolidation of Avar power to the north of the Danube rendered Justinian’s policy of ‘divide and rule’ less and less effective. Both Slavs and Lombards attempted to flee Avar domination, entering imperial territory in the Balkans and Italy respectively. Between 568 and 572 much of northern Italy fell. In the 580s, a number of cities in the Balkans from Thessalonica to Athens suffered repeated Avar and Slav attacks, the Avars concentrating on the plains to the north, the Slavs taking advantage of mountainous highlands and forest cover to strike and settle ever further south. In the 590s, the emperor Maurice directed a series of successful military campaigns along and beyond the Danube, but these forays, impressive though they were, did little to remedy the situation elsewhere in the region. Economies were the order of the day. In 588, military pay was reduced by 25 per cent, leading to a major mutiny on the empire’s eastern frontier.
Warfare with Persia continued intermittently during the late sixth century. In spite of a weakening of the Roman position in Arabia, the empire made significant advances at the expense of the Persians in Transcaucasia, when the emperor Maurice took advantage of a coup against the reigning shah Hormizd IV. In 591, Maurice helped to place on the Sasanian throne the shah’s son, Khusro II, in return for major territorial concessions. This was a treaty that Khusro was bound to wish to reverse. Twelve years later, he was to have his chance.
In the year 602, imperial forces were campaigning against Slav tribes beyond the Danube. Maurice ordered that the troops continue the campaign into the winter. The emperor was already unpopular in military circles due to his economizing, and the Danubian army erupted into open revolt under the leadership of an officer by the name of Phokas. The army marched on Constantinople. On 23 August 602, Phokas was proclaimed Augustus. A few days later, Maurice was executed along with at least four of his five sons.
The fall of Maurice and the accession of Phokas saw the empire’s descent into a protracted civil war. A seventh-century Armenian history, which appears well informed on imperial affairs, describes bloodletting throughout the provinces of the Roman world. Khusro II seized this opportunity to attempt to regain what he had been obliged to cede in 591. The weakness of the Roman resistance led to a dramatic escalation of the shah’s ambitions. In the year 603, with the Roman army evidently in a state of some disarray, Khusro struck into the Roman frontier positions, seizing a series of cities and fortifications. By 609/10 the Persians had reached the Euphrates. This was followed by an extension of the campaign into Syria. In 611, the Persians advanced into Anatolia.
These dramatic Persian victories led to further political instability within the empire. In 608, the military governor of Carthage rebelled. In 609 his nephew, Nicetas, advanced into Egypt and seized control of Alexandria. On 3 October 610, the governor’s son, Heraclius, arrived outside the imperial capital at the head of a fleet. Phokas’ supporters deserted him. Two days later, Phokas was dead and Heraclius had replaced him as emperor.
Amongst Heraclius’ first moves appear to have been a withdrawal of Roman troops from the Balkans in an attempt to concentrate resources on driving the Persians out of Anatolia. This Heraclius may have partly achieved in a successful engagement in 612, but in 613 his army suffered a major defeat in the vicinity of Antioch. The Persians now set about the reduction of what remained of Syria and Palestine. In 613 Damascus fell, whilst in 614 a victorious Persian army entered Jerusalem, where, amidst much slaughter, the remains of the True Cross were seized and sent off to Persia.
By 615, a cowed Constantinopolitan senate was willing to sue for peace. A high-ranking embassy was dispatched to Khusro II. The shah was addressed as ‘supreme emperor’, Heraclius was described as the shah’s ‘true son, one who is eager to perform the services of your serenity in all things’. The senate was willing to acknowledge the Persian Empire as superior to that of Rome and the Roman Empire as its tributary. Khusro’s response was forthright. The ambassadors were imprisoned. No mercy was to be shown. Persia was set to eliminate its ancient imperial rival.
The Persians were now ready to initiate the conquest of Egypt. In 619, Alexandria fell, and within the year the entire province appears to have been in Persian hands. All that now remained was for the Persians to resume the advance into Anatolia and make their way to Constantinople. In 622, the Persians struck to the north-west of the Anatolian plateau, where they met stiff Roman resistance led by the emperor himself. The Roman effort in Anatolia was, however, undermined by a crisis in the Balkans that necessitated the emperor’s return to the capital. In 623 the city of Ancyra fell, whilst, that same year, the Persians launched a series of successful naval operations, seizing Rhodes and a number of other islands.
Facing: The Monastery of St Catherine (originally of the Mother of God) on Mount Sinai was both a major centre of pilgrimage and a fortified military outpost. The still extant basilica, a somewhat rustic work, was built by the emperor Justinian between 548 and 565. The inscription over the outer entrance displaying the date 527 is a fake of the eighteenth century.
The Persians were applying inexorable pressure on what remained of the empire. Heraclius was faced with a stark choice: he could either wait for the Persian grip to tighten, fighting a series of rearguard actions which offered little chance of ultimate success, or he could throw caution to the wind and take battle to the enemy. He opted for the latter. Between 615 and 622 Heraclius instituted a series of crisis measures aimed at maximizing the resources at his disposal. Official salaries and military pay were halved, governmental structures overhauled. Churches were stripped of their gold ornaments and silver plate, the wealth of the cities was drained. These funds were used to attempt to buy peace with the Avars in the West, and to elicit the support of the Christian population of the Transcaucasus and the occupied territories. This effort was reinforced by a religious propaganda drive, emphasizing the horrors associated with the fall of Jerusalem, and playing upon the apocalyptic sensibilities that were a pronounced feature of the day. At the same time, the emperor set about organizing a sort of ‘New Model Army’—an intensively trained infantry force versed in the tactics of guerrilla warfare and enthused with religious fervour. A concept of Christian ‘holy war’ against the Persian infidel came to be enunciated.
There was little point in Heraclius attempting to engage the superior Persian forces on open terrain. Rather, the emperor realized that his best hope would be to head north, to the highlands of Transcaucasia, where he would be able to request reinforcements from the Christian principalities of the region, and where a small, highly mobile army might yet outwit a numerically preponderant foe. On 25 March 624 Heraclius departed from Constantinople. Advancing up the Euphrates, the Romans marched into Persian Armenia, laying waste a number of cities as they went. The emperor then struck south into the Persian Caucasian territory of Atropatene, driving Khusro and his army from the city of Ganzak and destroying the premier fire-temple of the Zoroastrian religion at Takht-i-Sulaiman. Heraclius then headed north once more, establishing his winter quarters in the principality of Albania. It is from here that the emperor is likely to have issued his summons to the Christian lords of the region, considerable numbers of whom appear to have flocked to his standard along with their men-at-arms. At the same time, an embassy was sent to the Turks to the north of the Caucasus, in an attempt to negotiate an alliance with the formidable steppe power.
In the spring of 625 three Persian armies were sent in pursuit of Heraclius. Outmanoeuvring and defeating each of these in turn, the emperor headed towards the Black Sea coast and the kingdom of Lazica. It was then that news reached him of disturbing developments back home. The Persians were once more mobilizing their troops for an assault not only on Anatolia, but on Constantinople itself, an attack which was to be coordinated with an Avar siege of the city’s European defences. Heraclius gambled on his hope that the city would be able to hold out. Rather than rush back to his capital, he marched into Anatolia, from where he would be able to harry the advancing Persian forces. This strategy appears to have been successful. The Persians could neither mount an effective naval assault on the city, nor convey their troops to the European shore so as to launch a land attack. At the same time, the 80,000-strong Avar host was unable to overcome Constantinople’s formidable fortifications and soon melted away.
After a brief return to Constantinople, Heraclius hastened back to Lazica. It was now that he activated the alliance with the Turks that his ambassadors had successfully negotiated. In 627, a large Turkish army stormed the Persian defences between the Caucasus and the Caspian and struck deep into the Persian-held kingdom of Iberia. Outside the regional capital of Tiflis, the Turkish army met up with Heraclius and the Romans. In an impressive show of force, the joint Roman–Turkish army then headed south, through Atropatene, to the Zagros Mountains. The Turks then returned north, but Heraclius marched still further south across the Zagros and, on 12 December 627, defeated a Persian army near the city of Nineveh. Advancing along the left bank of the Tigris, Heraclius bore down upon the Persian capital at Ctesiphon. It was at this point that he demonstrated the full extent of his military cunning. Rather than following in the footsteps of Julian and risking a frontal assault on the city, the emperor ravaged the cities and countryside to the north, intensifying the psychological pressure on the Persian high command.
Amongst military and court circles in Ctesiphon panic set in. A delegation was sent to Heraclius advising him of a conspiracy to depose Khusro, replace him with his son, Kavad-Shiroe, and initiate negotiations with the Romans. On 24 March 628 notice reached the emperor that Khusro II was dead and that the arrival of a peace delegation was imminent. The victory dispatch to Constantinople announced: ‘fallen is the arrogant Khusro, the enemy of God. He is fallen and cast down to the depths of the earth, and his memory is utterly exterminated.’
Political conditions within Ctesiphon remained highly volatile. In October 628, Kavad-Shiroe died and was replaced by his son Ardashir. Ardashir was then overthrown by the commander of the Persian forces in the West, who in turn was deposed and replaced by a weak council of regency. As one regime succeeded another, Heraclius took advantage of the situation to extract ever more favourable terms. Eventually, it was agreed to return the Roman–Persian frontier to that established by Khusro II and Maurice in 591. On 21 March 630, Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem.
The eastern empire was thus restored, or at least, it was to some extent. The imperial concentration on the East had led to a further dramatic weakening of its position in the Balkans. Although the Avar confederacy lay in ruins in the aftermath of the defeat of 626, not only the highlands but, increasingly, the lowlands of the Balkans were coming to be settled by autonomous Slav tribes. The cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been exhausted by the financial exertions of warfare. Many of them stood in ruin as a result of Persian attack. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal. Long-standing traditions of government had been dislocated and were yet to be restored. Before any such restoration could take place, the empire found itself faced with a new challenge from along its extended and largely undefended Arabian frontier.
The rivalry between Rome and Persia of the sixth and early seventh centuries had involved both empires in a series of military and diplomatic dealings with the Arabian tribes to their south. This involvement within the region on the part of the great powers appears to have sparked off what some historians have characterized as a ‘nativist revolt’ amongst elements within Arabian society. By the 620s, the tribes of Arabia had come to be united under the leadership of a religious leader originating from Mecca known as the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad preached a rigorously monotheist doctrine, strongly influenced by apocalyptic trends within contemporary Christianity, and by Messianic fervour amongst the Jews of the region. Divine judgement was imminent, and all were to submit themselves to the will of the one God. In particular, all Arabs were to set aside their polytheist traditions and embrace the new faith. In return, Muhammad declared that, as descendants of Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had cast out into the desert, the Arabs would be granted mastery over the Holy Land which God had promised to Abraham and his seed forever. Perhaps influenced by propaganda disseminated during the course of Heraclius’ struggle against Khusro II, this return to the Holy Land was to be achieved by means of holy war.
Muhammad is said to have died around the year 632. His creed lived on. From 633/4, Roman Palestine suffered savage Arab incursions that combined the terrorizing and massacring of the rural population with assaults on towns and cities. Although the size of the Arab armies appears to have been relatively small, the imperial authorities were evidently in no position to offer effective resistance. Intelligence as to the nature of the Arab threat was limited, whilst the rapid advance of the Arab line of battle gave the imperial forces little time to regroup.
Faced with such a situation, a number of cities in the Transjordan, Palestine, and Syria simply capitulated. Damascus was taken in 635, whilst in 636 a large Roman army was decisively defeated near the river Yarmuk in northern Jordan. Thereafter, conquest was swift. Jerusalem fell in 638. The following year retreating Roman forces were pursued into Egypt. As with Khusro II’s initial campaign of 603, the weakness of the Roman response to the Arabs led the invaders to campaign ever further afield. Similarly, only when they found themselves forced back into Asia Minor were the Roman commanders able to begin to stem the enemy advance. The civil strife of the early seventh century and the years of warfare with Persia had clearly inflicted lasting damage. When, in 641, Heraclius died, the empire was collapsing around him once more. The eastern Roman empire of Byzantium now faced its second great struggle for survival, one which was to dominate its early medieval history.