All of this assumes that Rome could have survived the great military challenge that ripped through the Old World in the early Middle Ages—the challenge of Islam. As it turned out, the Muslim armies wreaked havoc on the surviving East Roman or Byzantine state, driving the Byzantines out of the Levant and back to their base in Anatolia and the southern Balkans. There the Byzantines were able to regroup and in places even drive back the enemy. Perhaps this is not surprising, because the Byzantines were, after all, Romans. They had inherited a thousand years of military and political skill to call on in a pinch. Had it survived, the Western Roman empire could have come to Byzantium’s help, and together the two of them might have pushed Islam eastward, leaving the Mediterranean and Europe to Rome. What did happen, of course, is very different.
It was one of military history’s most lightning-like accomplishments. Within a generation of the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the armies of Islam had conquered most of the Near East, threatening the Byzantine capital of Constantinople itself. In 711, after conquering Egypt and North Africa, Muslim armies crossed the straits of Gibraltar and attacked the Christian kingdom of Spain, which had been established by descendants of the Visigoths who beat Rome at Adrianople. The Muslims crushed the Visigoths’ army and killed their king, Roderic. In less than a decade, the Muslims conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. They called their kingdom Al-Andalus. Then, in 720, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains to attack the region known as Septimania. Today part of France (Languedoc), at the time it had been a Visigothic province in Gaul. Furthermore, it was the doorway into what Arab authors referred to as “the Great Land,” a vague term not just for Gaul but for all of Europe. Some even envisioned their armies marching all the way to Constantinople, attacking the capital of the Eastern Roman empire by the back door, as it were.
The Muslims quickly took the city of Narbonne, an old Roman colony and an excellent strategic base. They were defeated outside Toulouse in 721, where their commander, As-Sanh ibn Malik, governor of Al-Andalus, was killed. The presence of a seasoned and disciplined officer, Abd Al-Rahman, prevented the setback from turning into a rout: He led an orderly retreat to Narbonne. Shortly afterward, the Arabs returned to the offensive, slowly expanding eastward into the Rhône valley and attacking cities from Bordeaux to Lyon. By the mid-730s, all of the major cities of the French Mediterranean coast between the Pyrenees and the Rhône were in Muslim hands. Around 730, the governorship fell to the man who had saved the day at Toulouse, Abd Al-Rahman. He was popular with the men for his largesse as well as his cool on the battlefield, but he would have his hands full with threats on both sides of the Pyrenees.
Strong central government was the exception and not the rule in the early Middle Ages. Across the Pyrenees, the “kingdom” of the Franks was more like a collection of quarreling princes. In Al-Andalus, a fault line ran between the Arab elite and the Berber tribesmen of North Africa, recent converts to Islam. The Berbers had formed the bulk of the conquering Muslim army in 711 and later years, but they complained that the Arabs took the best land and booty for themselves. By 732, the Berber leader, Munuza, had carved out a splinter kingdom in the strategic eastern Spanish high plain bordering Gaul. According to one source, Munuza made an alliance with his neighbor Duke Odo of Aquitaine. Although a Christian, Odo was a thorn in the side of his nominal overlord, the Frankish king; like Munuza, Odo aimed at his own independence. In 732, Abd Al-Rahman turned on both men. He led an expedition that captured and killed Munuza, and then he crossed the mountains and marched through Gascony and Aquitaine. We do not know the size of his army, but it was large enough to crush Odo’s forces near Bordeaux, to burn and loot Christian strongholds, and to capture a large number of civilians. An estimate of 15,000 Muslim soldiers in this army, which some historians have suggested, is probably not far off the mark.
Abd Al-Rahman’s men drove all the way north to Poitiers, just short of the great sanctuary of St. Martin of Tours, a kind of national shrine of the Franks, famous for its Christian piety and wealth. Tours is only a little over 200 miles from Paris.
They would go no further. Somewhere between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, perhaps at Moussais on the old Roman road, they met the army of the leader of the Franks, Charles the Pippinid. In theory only “Mayor of the Palace” (r. 714-741), a kind of prime minister, he was the de facto king of the Frankish kingdom, which straddled northern France and western Germany. Although he had made war on the Franks before, a desperate Odo had now sought Charles’s aid.
True, the Franks were not the power they had once been under their first great king, Clovis (r. 481-511), but under the Pippinids they were on an upward trajectory. A bastard son who had to fight for power after the death of his father, Pepin II (d.714), Charles fought well—and often. Charles was a seasoned and popular warrior at the head of a victorious army when he came to Poitiers, but so was Abd Al-Rahman. It ought to have proved a dramatic showdown.
So it did, but we know frustratingly few of the details. Contemporary evidence insists that the battle took place on a Saturday in the month of October and in the year that most would date to 732, although some scholars opt for 733. The preliminaries lasted seven days, each side observing the other and, in skirmishing, looking for some advantage of terrain or timing. This would suggest that the two forces were relatively evenly matched; that is, each side had roughly 15,000 men, to make an educated guess. Although they had some cavalry, the heart of the Frankish army was the infantry, who fought closely massed and wore heavy armor, carried large wooden shields, and fought with swords, spears, and axes. The Muslims were renowned for their cavalry. Their infantry had adopted the European style of heavy armor but perhaps with mixed emotions; after all, a Bedouin curse recalled the Arabs’ origins as light-armed fighters: “May you be cursed like the Frank who puts on armor because he fears death.”
Finally, the great clash came. The near-contemporary continuator of the Chronicle of Isidore implies that the Muslims attacked: At least he emphasizes the point that the Franks held their ground—“like a wall . . . and like a firm glacial mass”—unlike other Christian armies of the day with a reputation for fleeing the battlefield. By contrast, the continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar has Charles charge aggressively, “scattering them [the Muslims] like stubble before the fury of his onslaught. . . .” Fortunately, both sources agree on one point: Frankish warriors killed Abd Al-Rahman. There is reason to think that this proved decisive. True, the continuator of Fredegar has the Frankish victory turn into a rout, but the author worked under the patronage of Charles’s brother Childebrand, so he could hardly make the Franks look less than glorious. The continuator of Isidore tells a more complex story: The battle continued until nightfall. The next day, the Franks approached the Muslims’ tents in battle order, expecting a fight, but the enemy had withdrawn at night beneath their noses. If this account is true, then the Franks had not inflicted an obvious, crushing defeat on the Muslims. They expected that the enemy could still fight—and perhaps he could have, were he not leaderless. The Muslim army withdrew. Tours was saved.
News of the victory at Poitiers (or Tours, as the battle is sometimes called) reached as far as northern England, where the Anglo-Saxon scholar the Venerable Bede heard of it. Later generations gave Charles the surname “Martel” or “Hammer” because of his success against the Muslims. As for the Muslims, never again would their armies reach so far north in Western Europe. To the great historian Edward Gibbon, Poitiers was “an encounter which would change the history of the whole world.”
In his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon envisioned the possible consequences of Arab victory at Poitiers:
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland: the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
More recent scholars tend to be less sure that Poitiers made a difference. Even had Abd Al-Rahman and his men carried the day, they argue, they could not have done much more damage, since they were only a raiding party, not an occupying army. Nor could they have made the most of victory, not given the revolts about to burst forth in Spain in the 730s and 740s, revolts both on the part of Berbers and Arabs.
But if it is possible to build too much on the events of that day in 733, it is also possible to build too little. Like the Battle of Britain in 1940, Poitiers had not cut a deep crack in the invader’s armor, but it had deterred him from further advance. The Muslims made Abd Al-Rahman into a martyr, but they smarted from the shame of having left booty behind for the enemy. The raid had failed: safer to stay in the fortified bases in southern Gaul. But what if the Muslims had defeated the Franks on the eighth day at Poitiers? What if the general of the Franks, Charles Martel, lay dead with many of his men? A Muslim victory might have rendered Poitiers a fishing expedition that showed that the water was well stocked and unguarded.
Even if the Muslim expedition of 732 was far from an all-out attack, it is hard to imagine it simply stopping and going home after having faced a challenge from the war leader of the Franks and having killed him. After all, the attack on Spain in 711 also began as a raid; victory whetted the appetite for conquest. No, the victorious warriors of Al-Rahman would have sacked Tours as they had sacked Poitiers, and they would have been tempted by the road to Orléans and Paris.
Meanwhile, the sons of Charles—no longer surnamed Martel—would have quarreled over the succession. No doubt one of them would have prevailed eventually, and the new leader, either Carloman or Pepin the Short, would have had to do what his father, Charles, in fact did after his victory at Poitiers: fight far-flung battles against Frisians, Burgundians, Provençals, and Muslims. That is, if he had the energy to achieve what his father would: expanding the Frankish state to the Mediterranean Sea and the Jura Mountains. But it would have been difficult, because the new leader would not be commanding men made united and confident by their victory at Poitiers, nor facing, in the Muslims, an enemy that feared the Franks: after all, the Muslims had found them wanting at Poitiers. Charles’s successor accordingly might not have retaken Avignon, as Charles did in 737, nor defeated the Muslims in battle again, as Charles did, in the marshes of the river Berre in Corbières in 738. Without these victories to build on, that commander might not have driven the Muslims out of Septimania and back over the Pyrenees, as Pepin did between 752 and 759. And faced with a continued major Arab presence in southern Gaul, Pepin’s successor, Charlemagne, would have lacked a free hand for his campaigns in Italy and the East—that is, if the militarily unsuccessful Pippinids had stayed in power long enough for there even to be a Charlemagne.
As for the Muslims, had they maintained their hold on their province across the Pyrenees, sooner or later they would have given in to the temptation to expand it. After all, even with the expulsion from Septimania in 759, even with Charlemagne’s and his generals’ campaigns across the Pyrenees in 778 and 801, the Muslims continued to raid southern France until 915. With cities like Narbonne and Avignon as bases, there would have been no need to be content with mere raids. The Muslims might have returned to the practice of sending governors of Spain to command their armies, as had been the rule before Charles’s victory at Poitiers. Berbers and Arabs might have put aside their differences in order to win booty and glory in the Great Land. Undeterred by the weakened Frankish monarchy, the conquerors might have gone from strength to strength until they crossed the English channel and planted the crescent, as Gibbon imagined, in Oxford. It would then have been emirs and imams, not dukes and bishops, who faced the challenge of invasion by Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries. Had they been successful, the empire that had once governed Western Europe from Rome might have reemerged—as the caliphate.
What would a Muslim Western Europe—an Al-Andalus stretching from Gibraltar to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the Vistula or even beyond—have been like? Christianity would have survived, but as a protected and ever-shrinking enclave, not as the ruling faith. While continuing to practice their religion, many Christians would have become all but Arabs in their language and customs, just as happened in Muslim Spain. Many would have gone all the way and converted to Islam, as many Christians did in Spain, and more would have, if not for the steady advance of the Christian reconquista. No doubt the vast majority of Europeans would have become Muslims, as the vast majority of North Africans and Middle Easterners eventually did
Nor would Christianity have expanded across the globe. If Western Europeans had crossed the Atlantic in 1492 they would have done so under the banner not of the cross but the crescent. A great naval power in the Mediterranean under the Umayyad Dynasty (A.D. 632-750), a great trading power in the Indian Ocean until the advent of the Portugese, Islam is likely to have taken to the Atlantic with gusto. In the Americas they would have turned the natives into proper Europeans—that is, Muslims. Today there would only be one world religion: Islam.
In Europe, meanwhile, the Muslim elite would have made the most of its new provinces conquered after Abd Al-Rahman’s victory at Poitiers. The Muslims built in Spain arguably the most civilized Western European society since the Roman Empire’s heyday. In Al-Andalus, as the Arabs called their kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, the tenth century witnessed a world of abundant agriculture and booming towns, of palaces and poetry, of art and enlightenment. Its cities put northern Europe’s to shame, its traders covered wider ground, its philosophers dwarfed Westerners in their knowledge of the classical Greek heritage.
Europe would have gained much had Al-Andalus spread north of the Pyrenees. In Spain, North Africa, the Near East, indeed, wherever they went, the Muslims had the Midas touch. They encouraged prosperity through trade, agriculture, irrigation works, and city building. To be sure, not all had equal shares in prosperity. Muslim society was thoroughly hierarchical and slavery was a standard feature. In the tenth century, for example, Islamic Spanish armies and even government bureaucracies were staffed with captives from northern Spain, Germany, and above all, from the Slavic countries—our word “slave” comes from “Slav.” The city of Verdun, in northern France, was Europe’s greatest slave market. No doubt that market would have moved further east had the Arabs conquered Western Europe—to some outpost east of the River Elbe, maybe even to the future Berlin. In any case, Western Europe, too, would have become a slave society, and perhaps, in time, the slaves would have become the masters, coming to power in Europe as they eventually did in the Middle East.
Servile much of Islamic Europe might have been, but it would never have been coarse. When the first Arab conquerors had encountered the refinements of Persia and Byzantium it was love at first sight; no matter how far their travels took them in later years, the victorious Arabs insisted on bringing along the comforts of home. So Islamic England, France, and Germany would have been filled not just with mosques and military camps but with palaces, baths, gardens, and fountains. Tenth-century Paris might have become a second Córdoba, teeming with prosperous workshops and merchants’ quarters in which every language of the Old World could have been heard; gleaming with gold-roofed, marble-columned palaces; adorned with the colors of dyes imported from India, instead of what it was—a glorified small town. Had Aachen been the seat of a caliph rather than Charlemagne’s capital, it might have been adorned with light and airy mosques instead of heavy proto-romanesque churches. Nor would the improvements have been merely physical. Patrons par excellence of poetry and philosophy, the Arabs would have turned Europe into an intellectual powerhouse. Works of Plato and Aristotle would have been known by the leading minds north of the Pyrenees in the tenth instead of the twelfth century. Poets would have composed the sort of refined verses that might have pleased a courtier in Baghdad instead of the rough-hewn rhythms of Beowulf. No wonder that Anatole France bemoaned the outcome of Poitiers: “It was,” he said, “a setback for civilization in the face of barbarism.”
Yes, one is tempted to reply, but only in the short term. Islam represented the cultivated heritage of the great empires of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, not the raw, new, and semibarbaric mores of Western Europe, under whose Germanic conquerors Roman civilization had been diluted. But in the long run the new society of the West proved more productive economically and stronger militarily than the ancient culture of Islam. Historians have no easy time explaining this paradox: why rude, Christian Europe rose to world power, beginning the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and inventing capitalism along the way, while civilized Islam lay quiescent economically and fell to Western arms. There are no easy answers, but the most promising line of explanation may have to do with Western pluralism.
Precisely because Western Europe was barbaric it proved ungovernable; no one centralizing authority emerged. Feudal government—if that isn’t a contradiction in terms—never succeeded in reining in individual knights; over the centuries, individualism became democratized and a highly prized Western value. Barons never succeeded in conquering the towns, whose merchant oligarchs pursued profit with the same aggressiveness that medieval knights made war. The Christian church never succeeded in taming the princes. As often as not, church and state were at loggerheads. Eventually, during the Reformation era, individual states opted for independence from the church. The culture that developed in Europe was, compared to Islam, decentralized, secularized, individualistic, profit-driven. It had little respect for the older civilization to the south. No wonder that it was Europe that witnessed the Renaissance, the Reformations, the origins of modern science and industrialism; no wonder that it was Europe that, for centuries, ruled the world.
The irony is that it might never have happened if not for the Dark Ages. A European caliphate after 732, like a revived Western Roman Empire after 476, might have guaranteed stability and cultural resplendence, but it would have nipped modernity in the bud. Neither caliphate nor empire would have permitted the freedom and restlessness out of which the European takeoff eventually emerged. For Europe, the Dark Ages were like a terrible medicine that almost killed the patient but ultimately rendered her stronger.
On top of all this, Europe was lucky. The years 476 and 732 would only be footnotes today if things had turned out differently in 1242. In that year, the most powerful invaders the continent had ever seen withdrew after a lightning conquest of Eastern Europe the year before. If not for the death of their king, the conquerors would have begun an unstoppable ride to the Atlantic. It is doubtful that a revived Roman Empire could have defeated them; it is all but certain that an Arab Europe could not have, given the Arab collapse before the victorious invaders in the Middle East a decade later (the capital city of Baghdad was destroyed in 1258). Those victors may have been, quite simply, the greatest set of warriors the world would ever know. They were the Mongols.