Sulayman, king of the Arabs said, ‘I shall not cease from the struggle with Constantinople until I force my way into it or I bring about the destruction of the entire dominions of the Arabs.’
Chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, seventh century
During the seventh century, Byzantium was almost destroyed by desert tribes who emerged from the Arabian peninsula to overrun the eastern Mediterranean. This unexpected challenge came on top of nearly a decade of warfare with Persia in the 620s and persistent Slav raiding into the Balkan provinces. Its consequences were so severe that in the 660s Emperor Constans II left Constantinople for the safety of Sicily. Some senators, however, refused to leave the Byzantine capital and their confidence in the power of the empire to resist was confirmed by a major triumph over the Arabs in 678. Nonetheless, this turbulent period transformed the ancient Roman world, and the establishment at Damascus of an Islamic caliphate created a permanent rival to Christian Byzantium.
In order to understand this devastating change (or triumph, depending on your point of view), we must consider developments of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Under Emperor Maurice (582–602), simultaneous threats from Slavs in the Balkans and Persians in the East stretched Byzantine defences to breaking point. In the 580s, Slavonic and Avar tribes crossed the Danube frontier and captured major fortified cities like Singidunum (Belgrade), allowing them to move south with their families and flocks in search of better pasture. By the early seventh century they besieged Thessalonike, whose patron saint Demetrios was allegedly crucial in preventing its capture. Large regions of the Balkans, Greece and the western Peloponnese were gradually overrun and temporarily passed out of imperial control. The immediate result of this pressure was that Roman troops refused to campaign north of the Danube in the winter of 602, marched on Constantinople and overthrew the emperor.
Shortly after this coup d’état, the Persians overran the eastern frontier and devastated major cities in Asia Minor. In conditions of grave disarray, the Senate of Constantinople appealed to the exarch of Carthage, who sent his son Herakleios and nephew Niketas with troops to restore order in Byzantium. But nothing could deter Persian attacks: Antioch succumbed and Jerusalem was savagely sacked in 614. After a massacre of the local population, the patriarch and remaining Christians carrying the relic of the True Cross were marched off into Persian captivity, which they compared to the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. In 619, the Persians occupied Alexandria and prevented the grain fleet from sailing to Constantinople.
With the help of the Patriarch Sergios (610–38), who crowned him emperor in 610, Herakleios concentrated all his attention on defeating Persia. For over ten years he improved Byzantine fighting forces and planned new strategies, which were used in the prolonged campaign of 622–8, when he spent whole years away from the capital, making alliances with Caucasian tribes, and planning attacks deep inside Persian territory. During his absence, however, the Persians made common cause with the Avars, who now dominated their Slavonic allies, and advanced to the shores of the Bosphoros. The siege of 626 was a challenging moment in the history of the empire. The Byzantines believed that the Mother of God had defended the city in person and it had passed under her special protection.
Less than two years later, Herakleios advanced into Persia from the north, capturing the major cities of Nineveh and Ctesiphon. In 628 Chosroes II, the Shah of Shahs, was overthrown, his palace at Dastergard was sacked, the True Cross recovered, and vast amounts of booty had to be burned because the army could not carry it all off. The official announcement of victory was sent to Constantinople and read to the assembled population in Hagia Sophia by the patriarch: ‘Let all Christians give thanks to the one God… For fallen is the arrogant Chosroes, opponent of God.’ It went on to describe the army’s return from Persia and concluded: ‘We have confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ, the good and almighty God, and in our Lady the Mother of God, that they will direct all our affairs in accordance with their goodness.’ Herakleios probably restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in the spring of 630 before he finally returned to the capital, where a great triumph was celebrated. Patriarch Sergios, the young prince Herakleios-Constantine and the entire population went out to greet him and accompanied him into the city ‘dancing with joy’, as Theophanes records in his Chronicle.
At this high point of Herakleios’ achievement, the Prophet Muhammad died in Arabia (632). The final defeat of Byzantium’s most serious enemy coincided with the birth of another: Zoroastrian Persians were replaced by Muslim Arabs. In their post-victory confidence, imperial officials refused the tribute traditionally paid to tribes who guarded the edges of the desert and had previously provided an early-warning system. Byzantium was therefore quite unprepared for invasion from the south. In the regained provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt the military authorities set up by Herakleios after 630 were taken by surprise. They were also dismayed by the coherent military challenge of the Arabian tribesmen, whom Muhammad had united after much inter-tribal warfare.
The death of the Prophet only confirmed the Arabs’ determination to spread Islamic domination throughout the known world. They adopted the year of Muhammad’s flight (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina (AD 622) as the first in their own lunar calendar, and began dating the conquests that followed from that year (AH). Using camels accustomed to the desert, they developed successful military tactics of rapid raiding and effective siege technology. The great cities of the Near East fell in quick succession: Damascus in 634, Gaza and Antioch in 637 and Jerusalem in 638. At the battle on the River Yarmuk in northern Syria in 636, Herakleios witnessed a terrible defeat. He retreated to Antioch but was forced to abandon it to the Arabs. Although no one in Constantinople imagined that these huge losses would be permanent, it proved impossible to reverse them. In 661, the Muslims established their capital at Damascus and began to launch annual campaigns against Byzantium.
In a single decade (632/42) the Arabs had occupied Syria, Palestine and the richest province of Egypt, including the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was a major turning point in Byzantine history. The Arabs had conquered about two-thirds of imperial territory and clearly intended to take the rest, as they pressed on with their expansion across Asia Minor and the coast of North Africa. In the process they nearly put an end to Byzantium. The capture of Jerusalem inflicted a deep humiliation on Christian prestige, while the conquest of Egypt put an end to the economic system constructed by Rome and inherited by New Rome. Using their mastery of practical astronomy to travel through the desert, the Arabs adapted to the sea without difficulty and began to attack the islands and coastlines of the empire.
From commercial contacts with the inhabitants of the Near East, Arab leaders knew that the Roman Empire had had a great history. They wanted to re-create its ancient unity around the Mediterranean under their own control. To western historians it may appear as ‘the swamping of Christian civilization’, but the Arabs saw it differently. Islam had replaced Christianity in the same way that Christianity had replaced Judaism and outlawed the pagan cults, and all were urged to convert to this final revelation from God. But the Arabs had to capture New Rome before they could move on Old Rome, and Byzantium proved to be the stumbling block which frustrated their initial attempt at the conquest of the known world.
The Arabs’ ambitions were confirmed by their destruction of the Persian Empire: Ctesiphon, Tabriz, Nineveh, Isfahan and Persepolis were all conquered by 648, and new garrison settlements constructed at Kufa, Basra and Mosul provided bases for later conquests. The Arabs combined an eastern thrust towards Kabul in Afghanistan (664) with a western advance across North Africa to Kairouan (670), near Carthage. By 711, they crossed both the River Oxus to capture Bukhara and Samarkand and the Straits of Gibraltar to invade Spain. The blue-tiled mosques of Samarkand and Tashkent, together with the Great Mosques of Kairouan and Cordoba, symbolize the extent of this expansion. From its base in Arabia, the new religion of Islam not only replaced Christianity in the lands of its birth, but also controlled the widest extent of the known world.
Ever since the 1930s, when the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne pointed out the significance of the Arab expansion with the memorable phrase ‘Without Muhammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’, Islam has been connected with the emergence of Europe. He argued that the Muslim disruption of ancient trade patterns, which had united all shores of the Mediterranean, forced northern Europe to develop its own economic base, independently of the south. Contacts across the North Sea with Britain and Scandinavia led eventually to the development of the Hanseatic League that linked Germany with the Baltic regions. Pirenne failed, however, to acknowledge the role played by Byzantium in preventing continued Muslim expansion across Asia Minor, the Dardanelles and into Europe. Instead of analysing how the empire fought for its existence, he took for granted its role in shielding the West. But if Constantinople had fallen to the Arabs in the mid-seventh century, they would have used its great wealth and imperial power to advance directly into Europe. The broad swathe of early Muslim conquests would have been replicated throughout the Balkans and farther west, where the Slavonic and Germanic peoples would not have been able to resist. And without its Christian hinterland, Rome too would surely have converted. Without Byzantium, Europe as we know it is inconceivable.
Byzantium survived. But it had to come to terms with a new enemy that had unleashed a permanent change in the world of Late Antiquity, one which it could neither defeat nor incorporate. In place of Roman rule around the Mediterranean, a threefold division produced an Islamic South, a Byzantine Christian East and a Latin Christian West. No doubt, the long wars between Byzantium and Persia had weakened both the old imperial structures, creating a partial vacuum into which the Arabs moved, maximizing their energy for additional campaigns. But the Arab conquest, initially driven by economic pressures in Arabia, owes most to the new religion of Islam, which means submission (to the will of Allah). The revelations of Muhammad, who identified himself as the ‘last Prophet of God’, bound the desert warriors together under a vigorous but narrow banner. His sayings were the first texts to be written down in Arabic, in contrast to the rich oral poetry of those who had previously worshipped numerous idols. The Qur’an in classical Arabic is not only the first but also a beautiful example of the previously spoken language. The Arab tribes thus became a chosen people, who had received God’s final message and had recorded it in their own tongue. Insistence on monotheism and spiritual worship in easily mastered rituals inspired believers, disciplined converts, however reluctant, and gave all adherents a new sense of purpose.
Although holy war, jihad, was not one of the five pillars of Islam (the confession of faith, daily prayer, pilgrimage, fasting in the month of Ramadan and giving alms), it rapidly became a distinctive aspect of the new faith. The Arabian tribesmen who participated in the first great wave of conquest needed followers and additional forces to sustain their campaigns east and west. Initially the warriors, who were paid and encouraged by booty, lived in garrison centres separated from the conquered population. Jews and Christians, the peoples of the Book (i.e. the Old Testament), were allowed to keep their religions as long as they paid extra taxes under the rule of Islam, but many converted. As Patricia Crone and Michael Cook have shown, the history of this amazing process must be reconstructed from external contemporary accounts, since nearly all the Arabic records date from centuries later and preserve mythic aspects.
Eventually the Arab campaigns extended beyond anyone’s grasp of geography in the seventh century. It is hard for us to realize how quickly the religion of Islam was carried from Arabia to the ends of the known world. In 712, the Arabs captured the Visigothic capital of Toledo and created a Muslim state in Spain. Forty years later, they defeated Chinese forces at Talas in Sogdiana, thus securing the extension of Islam through Central Asia. This new world was linked by camel trains following desert routes overland from Ceuta, opposite Gibraltar, to the Far East. But the desert zeal of holy war collided with the urban seductions of occupation: the fighters started to settle in cities, married local girls and began to lose their tribal identity. Almost inevitably, the process generated division and civil wars.
Much earlier in their campaigns, however, when the Arabs attempted to conquer Byzantium, they were checked by the fortified Taurus Mountains which separate Asia Minor from the continent of Asia proper. Byzantium became a frontier zone, the barrier between Christianity and Islam, Europe and the Near East. During the high point of Arab power, from 660 to 740, the empire had to contend with annual raiding across the Taurus, and three major campaigns were directed against Constantinople by land and sea. As Caliph Sulayman (715–17) declared, Constantinople was a great prize, and in 717 he was determined to take it. The defeat after a twelve-month siege was all the more important for Byzantium’s survival. The Arabs were rebuffed and their ambitions to make Constantinople the base of expansion farther west were thwarted.
The Arabs established in Spain found that the Pyrenees marked the limit of their westward expansion. In 733, when they campaigned farther north, combined Frankish forces under Charles Martel (‘the Hammer’) defeated them near Poitiers and forced them back. They remained behind this natural frontier for the next seven hundred years, generating a highly sophisticated society in Spain, especially in what is now Andalusia. Two mountain ranges thus marked the extent of Muslim conquest of the Roman world and these boundaries remained fixed for centuries. By AD 800, a new Christian society emerged in the West and identified its territory as ‘Europa’, while Byzantium sustained the faith in the East. Both flourished outside the newly established limits of Islamic expansion, which they gradually pushed back.
At the eastern end of the Mediterranean world, Jerusalem had passed into Muslim hands – the patriarch Sophronios surrendered the city to Umar, the second caliph (successor to the Prophet) of the Arabs (634–44), rather than permit a repeat of the Persian desecration and massacre of 614. In the Qur’an, Jerusalem was recorded as the place from which Muhammad was taken on a tour of heaven after a miraculous nocturnal visit from Arabia. The rock on the Temple Mount on which he had stood was enclosed in a building. In 691/2, Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik replaced it by a most beautiful shrine, the Dome of the Rock. The interior is decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine style, executed by Byzantine craftsmen, but they carry a purely Islamic message. Verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, proclaimed on a band above entirely non-figural images of idyllic gardens, trees, flowers and ornamental urns, are directed against the Byzantines:
The messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He committed to Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not say ‘three’ [a reference to the Christian Trinity]: refrain, it is better for you.
This monument symbolizes the decisive shift of power and religious observance in the Near East.
Only indirect records of the contemporary Byzantine reaction are preserved, in apocalyptic stories of the end of the world which imply that the Arab tribes are the precursors of the Antichrist. Based on ancient predictions, such as the Book of Revelation, these accounts reinterpret the story of the last Roman emperor who will go to Jerusalem and hang up his crown to signify the end of time. In one version, the column of Constantine in his Forum in Constantinople will be the last monument to survive the floodwaters, which will destroy the earth. Borrowing the name of Methodios, Bishop of Patara, who was supposed to have written an Apocalypse in Syriac, these pseudo-Methodian texts reflect the anxiety of seventh-century Christians about the Arab conquest of their capital.
This was indeed the Muslim aim, but it did not happen. Byzantine resistance drew on military, dynastic, cultural and religious strengths. Constantinople’s giant walls, moats and seaboard defences generated profound self-belief among the inhabitants of the city, whose faith in the support of the Mother of God inspired confidence. They also provided the vital human investment in maintaining the walls which ensured the city’s impregnability. The empire’s inner strength was nourished by its Christian devotion, its belief that Byzantine military victories were granted by God, and that by sincere prayer He would continue to protect them.
Behind the natural barrier of the Taurus Mountains, the few remaining troops from the Near Eastern provinces were regrouped and settled in areas of Asia Minor. In place of traditional Roman military methods of recruitment and pay, a new system, which we now characterize as ‘medieval’, gradually evolved: the fighting forces were allotted lands in a military region, thema (Greek, plural themata), on which their families lived and from which they equipped themselves for annual summer campaigning. The first three of these themata, identified as Anatolikon (Eastern), Armeniakon (Armenian) and Opsikion (from the Latin obsequium, a term used for military followers), seem to have developed in the period c. 630–80. Shortly after, Thrakia (Thrace, the area west of Constantinople), Thrakesion in western Asia Minor and a naval thema on the southern coast of Asia Minor, named Kibyrraioton (based on the port city of Antalya), were created. A separate naval force (Karabisianoi) continued to patrol in Aegean waters but never seems to have formed a thema.
In these new units of military government, the general (strategos) combined all powers. Civilian officials were subordinate to his authority and their chief function was related to the recruitment of soldiers, whose names were recorded on military lists (katalogoi). Beyond this essential aspect, their task was to measure land, and calculate, record and collect taxes on all the territory under imperial control. This formed the basis of Byzantine administration to the end of the empire, eight hundred years later. But the establishment of the new provincial administration took several generations and did not prevent regular raiding by Muslim forces from Damascus. Byzantium had had to change its method of financing and organizing military defence, adapting its system of government to a smaller scale. It had to come to terms with the loss of Egypt, which had supplied wheat to feed the metropolis for centuries, as well as the prosperous regions and cities of Syria and Palestine. This decisive change moulded all subsequent history and helped to define medieval Byzantium. Despite these losses Byzantium continued to issue a reliable gold coinage and to live by its legal system. Roman law was translated into Greek as the emperor abandoned his Latin designation, imperator, for the Greek, basileus. Herakleios also issued new laws and reformed the copper currency.
In the mid-seventh century the Arabs sailed to Cyprus, Cos and Rhodes, which all fell to Muslim control. From these bases the Arabs harried shipping in the Aegean, raiding the islands and coastal sites, sometimes to cut wood for shipbuilding. In 655, they defeated the young emperor Constans II (641–68), grandson of Herakleios, off the south coast of Asia Minor. He then decided to move his court in 662 to the safer environment of Syracuse in Sicily. The Roman Book of the Pontiffs describes how Constans visited Rome, was ceremoniously received by Pope Vitalian and made gifts to the churches, including a gold pallium (cloth), which he laid on the altar of St Peter’s:
He stayed in Rome twelve days; he dismantled all the city’s bronze decorations; he removed the bronze tiles from the roof of the church of St Mary ad martyres… Entering Sicily he lived in Syracuse. He imposed such afflictions on the people… for years on end… as had never been seen before. On 15 July in the 12th indiction, the said emperor was murdered in his bath.
When a pretender claimed the throne, the Senate in Constantinople immediately had Constans’ eldest son crowned emperor as Constantine IV (668–85), and Syracuse reverted to its provincial status. Sicily and southern Italy remained under imperial rule, though in the course of the ninth century the island slowly succumbed to Arab conquest. But long after the military defeat of Byzantium there, some courts still recorded their judgments in Greek, individuals founded orthodox monasteries and artistic workshops copied Greek manuscripts in a Byzantine style.
From the beginning of Constantine IV’s reign, Constantinople was assaulted by persistent Arab attacks; in a five-year campaign, the besiegers wintered at Kyzikos and engaged the Byzantine navy every summer. In these battles ‘Greek fire’ was first used effectively to destroy enemy ships. Finally, in 678, Constantine IV turned the tide of Muslim conquest, not only by demonstrating how strongly defended his capital was, but also by persuading the Mardaites, independent mountain tribesmen of Lebanon, to attack the Arabs. He imposed a thirty-year peace treaty on Caliph Mu’awiya, who agreed to pay a yearly tribute of 3,000 gold pieces, fifty captives and fifty thoroughbred horses. In this way, the emperor ended what had seemed like an unstoppable campaign against the empire, although Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685–705) would later resume attacks. Constantine IV negotiated favourable arrangements with the Lombards in Italy, and the Avars in central Europe, and restored good relations with Rome. By removing his brothers from authority, he insisted that his son Justinian II should succeed him.
This turning point in Arab–Byzantine relations allowed Constantine IV to shift attention from the Muslim threat to the very different one posed by the Slavs in the western provinces. Although they too were capable of besieging major cities, they tended to settle on productive agricultural land in groups identified by Theophanes as Sklaviniai. Their gradual infiltration throughout the Balkans had forced many indigenous communities to flee to fortified cities, mountain tops and islands. In 584, Monemvasia, the city ‘with one entrance’, was established on a rocky outcrop linked to the Peloponnese by a causeway. The population of Argos fled to Orove, an island in the Saronic Gulf, and the inhabitants of Patras sailed across the sea to Sicily. Both the degree of Slavonic settlement, which can be traced through place-names and archaeological evidence, and its time-scale remain disputed. But eventually nearly all the Slavs became Byzantines, whether by military force or through commercial and social interaction.
In this process of incorporation and conversion, the new system of administration and the Church played significant roles. By 695, Hellas in central Greece formed a thema, with its own general and staff who supported local clergy, for instance the bishops of Athens and Corinth, in maintaining orthodox traditions through parishes and monasteries. Initially through trading contacts, the Slavs learnt to speak Greek and gradually became absorbed into the empire, serving in the army, adopting Christianity and paying their taxes to Constantinople, like other imperial subjects. Their cultural conversion strengthened Byzantium and deepened the empire’s Christian identity.