Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest I

Raids and Razzias

As well as being characterized by the sort of larger-scale offensive and defensive strategy exemplified in the campaigns of, for example, 838 or 863 described already, the period up to the middle of the tenth century saw a style of frontier fighting and skirmishing, of guerrilla tactics and raiding, that had developed over the centuries from the period when the frontiers became more-or-less stable in the first part of the eighth century. Quite a lot is known about this style of fighting both from historians’ accounts of campaigns and battles, as well as from a number of military handbooks, some of them written by serving soldiers. The late ninth- or early tenth-century Tactica of the emperor Leo VI, for example, shows that warfare along the eastern front followed a well-established pattern. By the 950s and 960s, this was changing, as imperial successes in pushing forward the frontier rendered the traditional system of defensive warfare more or less redundant.

The eastern frontier was guarded by a chain of lookout posts, with small units of irregulars acting as scouts and informants along the frontier, particularly covering the various points of ingress into imperial territory. The frontier was a broad band of territory, and the location of such lookout posts seems to have changed according to the situation, while raids and counterraids intended to destroy enemy outposts or more important local fortresses and bases frequently altered the pattern of local strategy.

An anonymous treatise written in the 960s sets out the key aspects of this type of warfare. First, the local commanders should make sure that the networks of watch-posts and lookouts are in order. Scouts should be recruited from among the local population, men with experience, a good knowledge of local routes and the different qualities they possess. They should work on a fifteen-day rotation, and be dispatched in small groups to watch the roads and routes that might be used by the enemy. Local commanders should make extensive use of spies, including merchants and others on genuine business in the enemy’s land – a long tradition in Byzantine strategic thinking. The call-up of registered soldiers should be strictly observed, and the scouting parties should be checked by an officer from time to time. They should also change their location in order to avoid capture. There were pre-planned schemes for evacuating the non-military population of the regions through which an enemy raiding party would pass, once its route had been ascertained, in order to preserve the local population and at the same time to deprive the enemy of the chance to collect provisions and easy booty.

The most important aspect of this frontier defensive strategy was ‘shadowing’. Following and harassing the enemy by exploiting one’s own knowledge of the local terrain was one aspect; keeping a close watch on his column and especially his encampment, in order to attempt ambushes on forage parties and other isolated groups, was another. Crucial to all operations was the idea of bringing together several smaller forces, leading eventually either to a full-scale confrontation, but with the imperial forces at a numerical advantage, or to a pincer movement, designed to encourage the enemy force to give up and return home. In this case, it was usually planned for imperial troops to have occupied the passes or exit routes which the enemy commander would follow. The subsequent surprise attack or ambush, which could result in the recovery of all or most of the booty, and certainly with the destruction and rout of the enemy army, was the ultimate aim. The possibility that his own forces might themselves become the victims of shadowing and ambush was ever-present, however, and the Byzantine commander was urged to use scouts and outriders in order to prevent this from happening.

One of the distinguishing features of this treatise is the focus on the judgement and independence of the local commanders. Not only should they themselves organize regular, small-scale raids over the border (unless the empire had made a formal truce with the Arab emirs or the Caliphate itself); they should be prepared to attack an invading force whenever an appropriate opportunity arose, and not necessarily wait for the arrival of reinforcements or the local senior commander.

The author of the treatise distinguishes three types of enemy raid, differentiated by size or by timing. Small, rapid raiding parties of cavalry, which might invade Roman territory at any time, and whose entry should be communicated to the local commanders as quickly as possible by the border scouts and watch-posts, should be shadowed, met, ambushed or hemmed in, and turned back, and if possible without any substantial gains in booty. Secondly, there were major raids, generally in August and September, consisting of substantial forces made up of volunteers for the jihâd as well as regular troops from the Arab borderlands – Malatya, Aleppo, Tarsos and Antioch. Such raids had both an economic and an ideological function, first in terms of the desire for booty, and to damage the Roman economy, and second in respect of the desire of many Muslims to participate in the jihâd. The local commander was enjoined to use every means at his disposal to find out when such raids would begin, by which route, and how numerous the enemy host would be. The invading force should be shadowed, along with any accompanying raiding parties which were sent out once the main force had reached Roman territory. The invaders’ logistical difficulties should be maximized by the removal of livestock and crops, or even their destruction in extreme cases. The enemy force should be subject to constant harassment as it moved, foraged for supplies, set up camp, or attempted to collect booty. The passes through which it would return should be occupied and ambushes laid; the water-supplies should be held by Byzantine forces. The enemy should be attacked as they returned, laden with booty. Naturally, the Romans were not always able to respond successfully to such attacks, and there are many examples where Roman preparations failed to produce the desired results, or where the Roman commanders were unable to outwit and out-general their adversary.

The local commander also had to be on his guard against surprise raids, launched before the local population had been evacuated or any sort of ambush or shadowing-party sent out. In an effort to delay the enemy, various measures could be applied, such as a feint attack to distract the enemy from pillaging the villages while they were being hastily evacuated. Once the local troops were in the field, the strategy of harassment and ambush, by day and by night, came into play. While he was one of the empire’s most successful antagonists, the emir of Aleppo was ambushed on at least three occasions using this strategy, barely escaping with his life on one occasion.

This sort of warfare could also be offensive. Local commanders were advised to maintain bands of raiders, whose task it was to raid deep into enemy territory in order to foment insecurity and uncertainty. One of their most important tasks was to take prisoners, so that Byzantine commanders might learn of enemy troop movements and intentions. Similar arrangements seem to have operated in the Balkans at times, although these were not always regular soldiers, but drawn from semi-independent peoples whose marginal situation between the two cultures suited them ideally for this task. Such sources also provided some of the regular light cavalry, in view of their detailed knowledge both of regular routes as well as side-paths and concealed tracks, watering- and camping-places in the mountains.

In the following, a typical penetrative raid into eastern Asia Minor by a medium-sized Arab army is described. The account comes from an eyewitness and contemporary of the leader of the expedition, the famous warrior emir of Aleppo, Sa’if ad-Daulah, and provides a wealth of topographical detail which neatly complements the information and the description of the Byzantine strategic response to such raids found in the tenth-century military handbooks.

Sa’if ad-Daulah’s Raid of 956

The raid in question was launched in early spring of that year, intended as a booty-collecting expedition, as an attack on the Roman frontier provinces, and as a distraction intended to draw off the Roman forces that had been sent to raid the lands to the east of Sa’if’s own base at Aleppo. Its object was the district of Anzitene, recently conquered by the eastern Roman armies and incorporated into the thema of Mesopotamia. This was a rich district and had always been of strategic importance, both in the wars between east Rome and the Persians and later in those between Romans and Arabs. Its strategic location attracted attention, for it commanded access to Armenia from the south and south-west and across the Euphrates. Whoever held Anzitene had a springboard for attacks in either direction, and the Romans were now using it for precisely that purpose, as their campaigns to roll back the Islamic emirates along their south-eastern flank progressed. Sa’if had received information that the military governor of Anzitene, based at the fortress town of Harput (mod. Elaziz), had set out to raid the upper Tigris region, part of Sa’if ’s domain, leaving his home territory more-or-less undefended, presumably because Sa’if was himself still far to the south-west in his capital at Aleppo.

Gathering his forces of both cavalry and infantry (who nonetheless, as was customary with Muslim raiders throughout this period, were mounted so that they could keep up with the fast pace set by the cavalry units), Sa’if set out on Monday 28 April first for the town of Harran, where he negotiated the support of the local Beduin, the Banu Numair. Rather than marching east to deal with the Byzantine raiders in and around Amida, however, he then turned north and marching past several of his own fortresses, entered enemy territory north of the fortress of Hisn Arqanin (mod. Ergani) – the marches of Anzitene – some twelve days after leaving Aleppo, on Saturday 10 May. The castle controls the southern end of the Ergani pass, and it is likely that Sa’if ’s forces controlled the rest of the pass, which cuts through the mountains to enter the plain of Anzitene near the lake now known as Hazar Gölü (anc. Lake Thospitis). Upon receiving news of the Muslim raid, the eastern Roman commander and his forces withdrew from Amida, and began the march back to their own territory. Sa’if ’s raid had clearly taken them by surprise.

Sa’if set up camp on the shores of the lake. The nearest major Byzantine base was at Arsamosata (mod. Haraba), some distance to the north-east at the end of the valley of the Arsanias river, which flows westwards down to the Euphrates. Sa’if ’s force was, therefore, safe from attack for a while. Here the Arab cavalry ravaged the surrounding countryside, carrying off much booty and many captives. The next day – Sunday 11 May – Sa’if himself sent a small raiding force to scout ahead as far as the Arsanias, following himself once it had been deemed safe, and encamped in a small village at the base of the hill on which the provincial capital of Harput was situated – the absence of most of the local forces gave him essentially a free hand in the region. The area was thoroughly ravaged, before he set forth again marching this time to the north-west, where he bridged the river with materials he had carried with him (dismantled rafts and boats) and, having sent across a small cavalry vanguard in advance to secure the bridgehead, crossed with his main army three days later (on Thursday 15 May), destroying the governor’s residence. This was an entirely unexpected action on Sa’if ’s part, and as well as burning the residence of the governor other undefended settlements were also destroyed. The whole area was thoroughly ravaged and an enormous booty in people, livestock and materials was collected.

Having completed his action on the northern bank of the river, Sa’if withdrew to his base and then marched south, pillaging as he went, until he reached the important fortress of Dadima, to which he lay siege. The garrison was quite unprepared for an attack, and would have surrendered had Sa’if not received news at this point of the occupation of the passes through which he was expected to retire by the returning Roman forces. Rather than head for the obvious exits, however, on Friday 23 May he marched south east and encamped not far from Arsamosata, whence he made his way not to the pass of Ergani, by which he had entered Anzitene, but to the pass of Baq’saya, to the south of Arsamosata and east of the Ergani pass. Here he found a small eastern Roman force blocking his way and, in a fierce battle late on Saturday 24 May, he managed to drive it off with considerable loss, seizing its baggage train and killing several prominent leaders. By the evening of Sunday (25 May) he was back in Amida, where he received, of course, a hero’s welcome. In three weeks of campaigning he had penetrated deeply into the Byzantine frontier region, caused a great deal of damage and dislocation to the local population and the military command, totally outmanoeuvred his enemy, outwitted them in a short, sharp field action, and returned safely laden with booty. The raid is a classic of its kind, and also illustrates the problems faced by eastern Roman commanders when they failed to follow the strategy of shadowing warfare enunciated in the treatise we have discussed above and left their own territories inadequately protected. And although there can be little doubt that Sa’if was by far one of the most outstanding of the Muslim emirs with whom the Byzantines had to contend in the region, the account of this raid provides an excellent insight into the character of the warfare along the eastern frontier of the Roman world from the eighth until the tenth century.

Sa’if was not always so successful, however, and indeed there is enough evidence to suggest that the Byzantine tactics – permitting the enemy force to enter Roman territory but blocking their exits – proved sufficiently successful to deter all but the bravest raiders. In 950, for example, he had mounted a similar large-scale raid with a substantial force – supposedly some 30,000, although this may be exaggerated. Leaving Aleppo in the spring he had pushed up through the Taurus, marched north to cross the Halys, and ravaged the area before meeting and defeating a smaller Byzantine force. On his return, however, the Roman forces had correctly assessed which defiles he would use and, permitting the vanguard to pass their pickets unopposed, had then blocked the pass and fallen on the main body and the rearguard. The raiders panicked and fled, suffering substantial casualties, the booty was recovered more-or-less in its entirety and Sa’if, having been abandoned by all but a few of his men, barely escaped with his life. Similar tactics were employed again in both 958 and 960, when Sa’if found his way blocked and suffered a substantial and, on the last occasion, nearly fatal defeat, with the loss of all the booty and his own baggage train.

1 thought on “Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest I

  1. Pingback: Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest I – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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