THE NEAR EAST IN THE BALANCE

The Battle of the Masts – 655 AD

Roman Emperor Constans II personally commanded a fleet of 500
ships. He sailed south meeting the smaller Arab fleet off of the province of
Lycia in the southern portion of Asia Minor.

In spite of the rapidity of the Roman military collapse in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the 630s and early 640s, the strategic outlook for the imperial authorities c.652–3 was not entirely bleak; there were still a number of cards that the Emperor in Constantinople could hope to play. First, although the Eastern Roman Empire of the late sixth and early seventh century does not appear to have possessed much by way of a standing navy, the Romans were far more experienced than the Arab high command in operating at sea, and could take advantage of the huge stretch of coastline that the Arabs now had to police to cause the invaders problems similar to those which Rome’s extended desert frontier had posed emperors in the sixth and seventh centuries. The frontier, in short, could not be defended in its entirety, and the Romans could attempt to destabilise Arab rule by striking almost anywhere along it.

Second, although the resources of Asia Minor were severely depleted, the empire still controlled extensive and economically highly productive territories in southern Italy, Sicily, and north Africa, which could be harnessed to finance a Byzantine counter-strike. Third, in spite of Christological differences between Constantinople and leaders of the Church in Armenia, Syria, and Egypt, with one or two exceptions, there was little sign of anything but hostility towards the Arabs on the part of the Christian clergy, members of which, if properly handled, might yet be turned to in order to mobilise broader bodies of support in the occupied territories, especially in the Transcaucasus. It is instructive that the authors of both the Armenian History and the Egyptian Chronicle of John of Nikiu, although rabid anti-Chalcedonians, regarded the Arab invaders with palpable animosity. Fourth, it was highly likely that the leaders of the Arab armies of conquest, flushed with tribute and the spoils of war, would fall out amongst themselves, opening the way to a restoration of Roman rule. It was thus a matter of the utmost importance that the imperial authorities remain in contact both with key figures among the inhabitants of the occupied territories in Syria and Palestine, in order to identify potential allies and clients should Arab rule begin to fragment, as well as with the lords and churchmen of the Transcaucasus, so as to be in a position to piece together a Heraclian-style ‘grand alliance’ capable of striking down from the north and sweeping the Arabs before them.

The imperial authorities’ ability to emulate Heraclius in this respect was severely impaired, however, by the aftermath of the crisis on the steppe orchestrated by the T’ang rulers of China. A newly stable nomad state, the Khazar khaganate, was only just taking root to the north of the Caucasus in place of the Turks, and was yet to be fully integrated diplomatically by Constantinople. In 642 the Arabs had struck across the Caucasus and defeated the Khazar khagan on the lower Volga and momentarily forced him to accept Islam. Although this initiated over a century of intermittent hostilities between the Khazars and the Arabs, the Romans were not yet in a position to take advantage of the situation militarily.

Constantinople also faced a number of other difficulties with respect to putting any grand strategy against the Arabs into place. A Roman counter-strike, as we have seen, would need the active support of the leaders of Miaphysite communities in both the Transcaucasus and the occupied territories. It was thus important that the imperial government adopt a pragmatic and conciliatory stance with respect to Christology. In his attempt to hold together the East, Heraclius had permitted a modification of the Christological position adopted at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 and reached out, with some success, to Miaphysite communities. This had been done by examining ways in which one could describe the human and divine in the person of Christ to have been galvanised by a single unifying energy (a policy known as monoenergism) or will (monotheletism), thus avoiding discussion of His natures. This attempted compromise had enunciated shrill condemnation from hard-line supporters of the Council of 553 (known as ‘Neo-Chalcedonians’), such as the Patriarch Sophronius in Jerusalem, but, of necessity, their voices were not those to which the ear of the Emperor had inclined.

The same imperative to reconcile Miaphysite opinion was incumbent upon the regime of the young Emperor Constans II. For Constans, however, the situation was complicated by the fact that, whereas Heraclius’ war effort had depended upon the resources and population of Asia Minor and Anatolia, the war machine that the new Emperor now needed to put in place was dependent upon the resources of southern Italy and north Africa; however, episcopal opposition even to Justinian’s attempted engagement with the Miaphysite leadership was intense there, and had almost broken the authority of the Pope in Rome, sparking a schism with the north Italian churches that had only recently been healed. Robbing Peter while cutting a deal with Paul would be no easy matter.

Moreover, neither the imperial government nor what remained of the East Roman army appeared to be fit for purpose. Upon Heraclius’ death in February 641, the throne had initially passed, in accordance with the late Emperor’s will, to his eldest son, the twenty-nine-year-old Heraclius Constantine, ruling jointly with Heraclius’ eldest son by his second wife (his niece Martina), the fifteen-year-old Heraclonas. Just three months later, however, Heraclius Constantine had died of tuberculosis, leaving a boy on the throne under the care of his mother, who now became regent. Many in court and ecclesiastical circles had regarded Heraclius’ marriage to his niece as an incestuous abomination and the children as degenerate bastards. Rallying support around the regime of Martina and Heraclonas was thus fraught from the start, and opinion began to strengthen in favour of the late Heraclius Constantine’s ten-year-old son, Constans.

The commander of the Eastern field army, Valentine, marched on Chalcedon trumpeting the young prince’s claims, while rioting directed against Martina and her entourage broke out on the streets of Constantinople. In September, Valentine entered the city. Martina and Heraclonas were deposed, although, as an act of kindness, they were not executed. Instead she had her tongue slit and Heraclonas’ nose was sliced open, such physical disfigurements traditionally being regarded as incompatible with imperial office. Valentine was now the dominant political figure in the empire, but as the military situation deteriorated, opinion had in turn hardened against him. In 644, as the Arabs raided deep into Asia Minor and, in Italy, as the Langobards defeated and killed the Byzantine governor, or ‘exarch’, and occupied Liguria, Valentine was himself strung up by an angry mob. This had secured Constans’ place on the throne, but it had also left a youth of barely fourteen years of age in charge of affairs. Critically, during the political paralysis resulting from these court intrigues, the Arabs had been able to secure their grip on Egypt and Alexandria.

A further round of infighting in Constantinople, of uncertain date but presumably aimed at deposing the young Emperor, is recorded in highly colourful and clearly exaggerated terms in the Armenian History. As in the reign of Phocas, the result was a purge of the Senate and court:

What more shall I say about the disorder of the Roman empire, and the disasters of the slaughter from which the civil war was never free, and the flowing of the blood of the slaughter of prominent men and counsellors in the kingdom who were accused of plotting the emperor’s death? For this reason they slew all the leading men; and there did not remain in the kingdom a single counsellor, since all the inhabitants of the country and the princes in the kingdom were totally exterminated.

This crisis of political leadership had coincided with a crisis in the administration of the army and the state. The war-torn remnants of the East Roman field army as it had been pulled back into Anatolia and Asia Minor appear to have been in utter disarray. Maintaining and supplying the troops in the field—even billeting them—is likely to have posed near insurmountable problems, given the cash-starved nature of the state and the fact that already under Heraclius there are signs that the administrative machinery of the Praetorian Prefecture, on which the fiscal system and the army depended, was in a state of collapse and had effectively had to be dismantled. In 638, as noted in Chapter Seven, a Roman counter-attack against the Arabs in northern Syria had alienated the local population by virtue of the fact that the imperial army had been obliged to forage for supplies: the units under the command of the Armenian general David, we are told, had had ‘no scruples at all about plundering the population down to their last possession. They also tortured men and women cruelly to discover where hoards of treasure had been buried.’ By the early 640s matters would have deteriorated further. In such circumstances, the army could barely be relied upon even for the defence of Anatolia and the land approaches to Constantinople, let alone an aggressive campaign to regain lost ground. The imperial army and its system of supply needed to be dramatically overhauled, and a navy had to be put in place so as to attack the Arabs, defend Asia Minor, and secure the lines of communication and supply to the west.

There are indications that by the mid-640s those around Constans II were beginning to take matters in hand, and the boy-Emperor himself was asserting his authority to ever greater effect, demonstrating that it really was Heraclius’ blood that flowed through his veins. It was on the reorganisation of the army and the piecing together of a specialised naval capability out of the empire’s extensive merchant fleet that attention was necessarily focused. At some point in the early 640s, the surviving units of the Roman field army in Anatolia, presumably bolstered by local levies, had been organised into newly consolidated regiments called ‘themes’, or themata; those of the ‘Anatolikon’ (comprising survivors of the Eastern regiments formerly under the magister militum per Orientem); the ‘Armeniakon’ (from the forces under the magister militum per Armeniam); the ‘Thrakesion’ (from the Balkan field army); and the ‘Opsikion’, probably built up around a core of privately armed retainers, Transcaucasian volunteers, and men-at-arms who, like freedmen (ex-slaves) in Roman law, had an obligation of loyalty and service (obsequium) to their masters.

Growing Roman naval confidence had been revealed when in 646, the expeditionary force under Manuel had set sail for Egypt, where a dispute between the new amir al-mu’minin Uthman and the general Amr ibn al-As had led to the latter’s removal from office and subsequent disaffection on the part of the Arab rank and file. Presumably operating out of Cyprus, Roman marines had been able to occupy Alexandria and fan out across the Nile Delta. This was a serious challenge to which Uthman had responded with forthright pragmatism: Amr ibn al-As was immediately restored to his command and, from his base at Babylon, the Belisarius of the Arabs was able to prevent any Roman advance up the Nile Valley. Defeating the Roman expeditionary force near the town of Nikiu, he retook Alexandria after a short siege. A retaliatory attack was then launched on Roman Africa where, in 647, the Exarch Gregory was defeated in battle and fell in the field. This was not entirely bad news for Constans, as in 646 Gregory had rebelled against his rule and declared himself Emperor on the pretext of imperial ‘monotheletism’. Amr ibn al-As then withdrew to the Pentapolis on the edge of the Libyan desert, securing the land route to Alexandria.

The Arabs now set about commandeering the resources and labour of the Alexandrian and Palestinian shipyards to put together a navy of their own, something they achieved with remarkable success, which may indicate that they were able to draw upon seafaring traditions on the part of Yemeni and other Muslims from the coastal zones of the Arabian peninsula. In 649 a large fleet under the command of the Governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, arrived off the coast of Cyprus, where the Arab forces were able to land effectively unopposed and amass a great deal of booty. In 650 a second Arab army occupied the island. That same year the small but strategically vital island of Aradus (Arwad) off the coast of Syria was attacked and, in 651, fell after an extensive siege.

Although events were not entirely going the Emperor’s way, we can see Constans II and his regime making concerted efforts to respond to the objective military and political needs of the day. The imperial government also began to sketch the outline of an ecclesiastical strategy aimed at undercutting the theological complexities of the interminable Christological dispute. The solution proposed by the imperial edict, or Typos, promulgated in 648 was disarmingly simple: henceforth discussion of how many wills, energies, or natures Christ possessed was to be prohibited. Christians were to be reminded of the core Nicene faith that all had in common. From a partisan perspective however, silence was unacceptable, as it simply provided a cloak for error and a cover for the path whereby the souls of the faithful were led to perdition. In 649 Pope Martin I convened a council in Rome, attended by the hard-line eastern Neo-Chalcedonian monk Maximus, at which the Typos of Constans was formally condemned. The newly appointed Exarch in Italy, Olympius, was ordered to force Martin to sign the Typos just as, in 553, Vigilius had eventually been compelled to sign the denunciation of the ‘Three Chapters’. Instead Olympius chose to side with the Pope and, in 650, following in the footsteps of the African exarch Gregory, declared himself Emperor.

Fortunately for Constans, Olympius died of bubonic plague before he was able to reach Sicily. His replacement as governor, Theodore Calliopas, proved more reliable. Pope Martin and Maximus were arrested and sent to Constantinople. There both were tried and found guilty of treason. Condemned to death, the Emperor intervened to commute the punishment imposed on the churchmen to exile. Whilst Pope Martin was sent to Cherson, on the northern coast of the Black Sea, where he died in 656, his collaborator Maximus (remembered for his mystical theology as the last Father of the Greek Church) was mutilated and sent to the fortress of Schemarion in Lazica, where he passed away in 662. Constans’ actions made Justinian’s humiliation of Vigilius look like child’s play and spoke of the Emperor’s absolute determination to extricate Constantinople from the crisis in which it found itself.

With the fall of both Cyprus and Arwad, military pressure on the Eastern Roman Empire was renewed and in 651 Isauria in southern Asia Minor was raided. This was ominous for the Romans because, although the new ‘theme’ regiments were now in existence, the reformed systems of remuneration and supply envisaged for them were not yet in place. Accordingly, the Governor of Isauria, Procopius, was authorised to travel to the high command of the Arab western field army in Damascus, where he negotiated a three-year truce in return for tribute. The Arab commander in Syria, Mu’awiya, took advantage of this to direct his army to Armenia where, as we have seen, in 653 he secured the submission of Theodore Rshtuni, the commander of Roman allied forces in the region. Now in his twenties, and capable of providing real military leadership, Constans took charge of the situation. Rather than sit back and observe the collapse of the empire’s client network in the Transcaucasus, on which hopes for imperial survival, let alone recovery, would depend, he led his forces east into Armenia to rally support. At Karin, Theodosiopolis, and Dvin, he secured pledges of loyalty from a number of Armenian princes and was able to send troops into Iberia. He also signed a concord with the head of the Armenian Church. Slowly, the Emperor began to piece back together a Christian alliance across the Trancaucasus, as Theodore Rshtuni lay holed up in his fortress island on Lake Van.

Taking advantage of the Emperor’s Armenian sojourn, and using it as a pretext for war, Mu’awiya massed his forces for a joint land and sea attack on Constantinople, greater even than that which the city had faced in 626. He reportedly wrote to the Emperor inviting him to convert and accept the status of a client and tributary: ‘If you wish to preserve your life in safety, abandon the vain cult which you learned from your childhood. Deny that Jesus and turn to the great God whom I worship, the God of our father Abraham. Dismiss from your presence the multitude of your troops to their respective lands. And I shall make you a great prince in your regions and send prefects to your cities. I shall make an inventory of the treasures and order them to be divided, three parts for me, one part for you. I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you may wish, and take tribute from you, as much as you are able to give. The Emperor hastened back to Constantinople.

The dockyards of the Near East and the cities of northern Syria were thronged with shipwrights, sailors, soldiers, and slaves as the forces of jihad were summoned from throughout the lands ruled by the umma. In the occupied territories the Emperor’s allies attempted to thwart these ominous preparations: in the Syrian port town of Tripoli, we are told, ‘two Christ-loving brothers … were fired with a divine zeal and rushed to the city prison. They broke down the gates and after liberating the captives, rushed to the emir of the city, whom they slew together with his suite and, having burnt all the equipment, sailed off to the Roman state.’ Even such acts of sabotage, however, could not hold back the Islamic juggernaut. As Mu’awiya’s Syrian armada amassed off the shore of Asia Minor, the young Emperor decided to lead the Byzantine fleet against them. A major engagement took place off the south coast in the bay of Phoenix in the summer of 654. The result was a decisive Arab victory after which, we are told, ‘the sea was dyed red with Roman blood’. The Emperor himself narrowly avoided capture, escaping back to Constantinople in disguise. The Arabs now seized the islands of Crete, Rhodes, and Cos before sailing north towards Constantinople.

At the same time Mu’awiya’s armies advanced across Anatolia. Roman resistance beyond the capital crumbled. As the Armenian History records: ‘While he [Mu’awiya] marched to Chalcedon … all the inhabitants of the country submitted to him, those on the coast and in the mountains and on the plains … the host of the Roman army entered Constantinople to guard the city.’ With the arrival of a second fleet from Alexandria, Mu’awiya was ready to initiate his assault on the imperial capital: ‘Behold the great ships arrived at Chalcedon from Alexandria with all the small ships and all their equipment. For they had stowed on board the ships mangonels, and machines to throw fire, and machines to hurl stones, archers and slingers, so that when they reached the walls of the city they might easily descend from the top of the towers and break in. … He ordered the ships to be deployed in lines and to attack.

Within Constantinople, Constans is reported to have ‘lifted the crown from his head, stripped off his purple [robes] … put on sackcloth, sat on ashes, and ordered a fast to be proclaimed’. Prayerful and sober, the Emperor and his subjects awaited the Arab onslaught. It was now that Mu’awiya ran out of luck. According to the Armenian History (our closest contemporary source), a sudden and violent storm blew up that first contained and then wrecked much of the Arab fleet, leaving what remained, it might be imagined, prone to Roman assault, rather as had befallen the Slavs and Persians in 626. ‘On that day’, the History declares, ‘by his upraised arm God saved the city through the prayers of the pious king Constans.’ With no means of crossing over to the European side of the Bosphorus to assault the Land Walls of Constantinople, the Arab expeditionary force was obliged to withdraw in haste before winter set in. A second Arab army was defeated by Roman forces in Cappadocia. Driven back into Armenia, an attempt was made by the Arabs to save face by launching an assault on the Romans’ allies in Iberia. The Iberians, however, held firm, and ‘beset by snow’, the Arabs were obliged to retreat south.

For the first time in a generation, the Arabs’ foes sensed blood. ‘The Armenian princes’, we are told, ‘from both Greek and Arab territory … came together at one place and made a pact with each other that there should be no sword and shedding of blood among them … for the lord of Rshtunik [the Arabs’ client Theodore] had fallen ill and withdrew to the island of Altamar [in Lake Van]. He was quite unable to come out or form any plans. They divided the land according to the number of each one’s cavalry.’ With Theodore isolated, Arab authority over the Transcaucasus—always precarious—collapsed. Further east, in the old Parthian territory of north-west Media, ‘the Medes rebelled from submission to Ismael. They made their refuge and retreat the fastness of the land of Media, the deep forested valleys, the precipices, the rocks … and the strength of those active and intrepid peoples who inhabited them. … They began to bring together the surviving militia and to organize battalions, in the hope that they might be able to escape from the teeth of the dragon and from the cruel beast.’ In 655 the Romans launched an offensive in Armenia. Although this campaign was successfully contained, there was little the Arabs could do to prevent revolts from flaring up across the Transcaucasus. Recriminations soon broke out amongst the Arab high command.

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