Constantinople 1204

The preaching of Fulk of Neuilly, Peter Capuano, and others bore fruit when Counts Thibaud III of Champagne and Louis I of Blois took the cross at a tournament at Ecry-surAisne on 28 November 1199. Other lords and knights followed suit, including Baldwin IX of Flanders, Hugh of Saint Pol, Geoffrey III of Perche, and Simon of Montfort. The great lords dispatched six plenipotentiaries to secure sea transport and supplies; they included Geoffrey of Villehardouin, marshal of Champagne, the future historian and apologist of the crusade. In late winter 1201, the envoys concluded a treaty with the republic of Venice for the transport and provisioning of 33,500 men and 4,500 horses for a payment of 85,000 marks of silver on the standard of Cologne. A fleet of ships sufficient to carry all of these men and their animals, as well as fifty war galleys to be provided at Venice’s own expense, was to be ready to sail on 29 June 1202, along with provisions for nine months. The objective, Egypt, made strategic sense, as it was the center of Ayyūbid power and potentially the first step on a triumphal march to Jerusalem, but this destination was kept secret from the rank and file. Venice became a full partner in the crusade and was to receive a half-share of spoils. The city suspended commerce and turned to full-time ship refitting and construction, drafting half its able-bodied men as sailors and marines.

The Venetians upheld their contractual obligations, but the leaders of the crusades had far less control over circumstances surrounding their half of the compact. Thibaud of Champagne died on 24 May 1201. The nominal leadership of the crusade was then offered to, and accepted by, Boniface I, marquis of Montferrat in Lombardy. Boniface duly assumed the crusader’s cross at Soissons in late summer 1201 and probably added a substantial number of followers to the crusade. They were not, however, enough to swell the army’s forces to anything approaching the number that the French envoys had estimated would sail from Venice. What is more, the contracted embarkation date of 29 June 1202 arrived and passed with crusaders still straggling into Venice. Even Boniface did not leave home until early August. Many crusaders chose not to rendezvous at Venice but sailed to Outremer from other ports. The cost of passage also dissuaded many. In the end, no more than 12,000-13,000 warriors assembled at Venice. After their money was collected and after the great lords had contributed everything they had or could borrow, the army could only raise 51,000 marks, a shortfall of 40 percent. Venice needed to recoup its investment in time, lost commerce, and materials. To make matters worse, the army’s campsite on the sands of the Lido became increasingly oppressive as the hot summer wore on, and the rate of deaths and defections rose alarmingly.

The Diversion to Zara (1202)

In the midst of this crisis, a compromise was proposed by Enrico Dandolo, doge of Venice: the republic would defer payment of the 34,000-mark balance until the army enriched itself with plunder in Egypt, if the army would assist Venice in regaining control over the rebellious city of Zara on the coast of Dalmatia. This proposal was consonant with contemporary mores, inasmuch as every lord or city had the right to secure the loyalty of subject territories before setting off on crusade. Yet it was dangerous, in that Zara, a Latin Christian city, had pledged its loyalty to King Imre of Hungary, himself a sworn crusader, which meant that his lands were under papal protection.

Faced with the choice of accepting the doge’s offer or allowing the crusade to disintegrate, the lords agreed to go to Zara. The aged and blind doge requested permission from the Venetians to take up the crusader’s cross himself, which he received on 8 September. In response to Dandolo’s display of piety, many Venetians who had escaped being drafted for the crusade fleet now flocked to the cause. Venetian draftees and the new volunteers, as well as conscripts later enrolled from Adriatic port cities under Venetian hegemony, combined to raise the number of crusaders to probably over 44,000. This meant that 70 percent or more of the crusaders who sailed with the fleet were Venetians or citizens of cities subject to Venice.

Some of the non-Venetian crusaders from northern Europe who heard of the decision to go to Zara were troubled. These included Abbot Martin of Pairis and Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, who were commanded by the legate Peter Capuano to stay with the army and work to reduce the level of violence at Zara. However, the Venetians, fearing Peter would forbid the attack once the fleet was under way, refused to accept him as a papal legate, and he returned to Rome, where he informed the pope of this turn of events. Innocent III forbade any attack on Zara under threat of excommunication and dispatched a letter to the army to that effect. It was a canonical yet ultimately impractical response to the crusaders’ predicament.

The fleet, consisting of 50 war galleys, about 150 horse transports, and an unknown number of other transport vessels, set sail at the beginning of October 1202, reaching Zara in two divisions on 10 and 11 November. Initially the Zarans were ready to capitulate, but they were dissuaded by some dissidents within the army who believed the pope’s warning would forestall any attack. It was bad advice. Despite hearing the pope’s words forbidding any violence to the Zarans, most soldiers joined the Venetians in bombarding the city and undermining its walls. On 24 November the Zarans capitulated, and their city was sacked.

The Venetian and Frankish crusaders settled down in winter quarters in the captured city. During the winter, a number of dissident crusaders left the army, some for home and others to the Holy Land. Those who remained behind were eager to have the ban of excommunication lifted from their shoulders. They prevailed upon the clergy traveling with the army to absolve them and sent a legation to Rome to beg papal forgiveness.

Despite his anger, Innocent accepted the Frankish crusaders’ profession of contrition and plea that they had acted out of necessity. In February 1203 he provisionally lifted the ban, provided that the crusade leaders bound themselves and their heirs to make full restitution to the king of Hungary. He also ordered them to swear formally never again to attack Christians, save in the most exceptional circumstances, and then only with the approval of the pope or his legate. The Venetians, who admitted no wrongdoing, did not at first seek papal absolution and remained excommunicated. Although Christians normally had to shun excommunicated persons, this extraordinary situation called for extraordinary measures, and Innocent allowed the army to continue to sail with the Venetians.

The Treaty of Zara (1203) and the Diversion to Constantinople

In Zara the crusaders’ provisions were dwindling, and their funds were exhausted. While their legates were on their way to Rome, they received emissaries from Philip of Swabia, claimant to the throne of Germany, begging the army to help his brother-in-law, Alexios Angelos. Alexios’s father, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, had been deposed, blinded, and incarcerated by his brother, also named Alexios, who now reigned as Alexios III. Prince Alexios had fled to the West in 1201. Although rebuffed by the pope, Alexios the Younger continued to court Western help, including meeting Boniface of Montferrat at Philip of Swabia’s court at Christmas 1201 and sending representatives from his base in Verona to the crusade leaders assembled in Venice, probably in September 1202. Young Alexios’s plight and ambitions were already well known to the Frankish leaders, and Boniface clearly supported his cause. In return for the crusaders’ help in ousting his uncle, Prince Alexios promised through Philip’s emissaries to submit the Greek Orthodox Church to obedience to Rome, to subvent the crusade with 200,000 marks and provisions for a full year, to supply 10,000 mounted soldiers for the crusade, and to maintain 500 soldiers in the Holy Land for the rest of his life.

The army’s leaders were deeply divided on this proposal. After spirited debate, Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, Louis of Blois, Hugh of Saint-Pol, and Dandolo decided they could not refuse this offer, even though they were in the minority. Several influential clerics, such as Conrad of Halberstadt and Abbot Peter of Lucedio, also supported the baronial leaders. One factor in their decision was the belief that Alexios III was unpopular and would be deposed when the rightful heir appeared before the city. Thus, a small but decisively powerful faction of the army’s baronage entered into a treaty with the Byzantine prince whereby he would join the army at Zara before 20 April 1203. When the legation to the pope returned, the army’s leaders conspired to suppress news of Innocent’s prohibition of the Constantinopolitan adventure (rumors of which had reached him in Rome) and the Venetians’ continued excommunication. As a result, all of the rank-and-file crusaders believed that they had received full absolution for the attack on Zara.

On 7 April the crusaders evacuated Zara. Unable to hold the city with their fleet on crusade, the Venetians reduced it to rubble. On 20 April the army set sail, with Boniface and Dandolo remaining to wait for Prince Alexios, who arrived on 25 April. A month later they joined the army at Corfu, where the plan to sail to Constantinople met its severest test. Most members of the Frankish army still did not favor the diversion and were only persuaded when the leaders gave a solemn promise that the army would remain in Constantinople no more than a month, unless it freely consented to an extension of that limit.

The First Capture of Constantinople (1203)

The fleet reached the Bosporus on 24 June. On 26 June the army encamped about a mile upstream from Constantinople and awaited the palace coup they believed was imminent. On 2 July a legation from Alexios III arrived offering the crusaders provisions and money if they promised to leave, and threatening resistance if they remained. The crusade barons countered by calling for Alexios III’s immediate abdication. Believing that the people of Constantinople were still ignorant of Prince Alexios’s presence, the crusaders sailed up to the city’s walls and displayed the young man, while calling on the Byzantines to take action. They were met with missiles and insults.

On 4 July the leaders held a war council and decided their first objective had to be control of the Golden Horn (Turk. Haliç), the natural harbor to the north of the city. The following day, the army, which now numbered about 10,000 (not counting the fleet’s sailors and marines), landed at the suburb of Pera (Galata) across the harbor from the city. Byzantine resistance was weak and ineffective. On 6 July the crusaders captured the Tower of Galata, which was located at the harbor’s entrance, enabling them to break the chain that ran across the harbor from the tower to the city. The Venetian fleet was now able to sail into the Golden Horn, the only enemy fleet ever to do so.

On 17 July the army attacked the land walls at the Blachernae Palace and was repulsed. The Venetians attacked a nearby portion of the inner harbor wall and took twenty-five or thirty towers, about one-quarter of the harbor fortifications. Fierce resistance by the Byzantines prevented any meaningful advance into the city. To protect their perimeter, the Venetians set fire to nearby houses. The wind whipped the fires into a conflagration that consumed about 125 acres of the city. Emperor Alexios sallied out with a massive force in a feigned attack against the Frankish crusaders, inducing the Venetians to abandon their hard-won towers in order to assist their comrades.

By day’s end, the crusaders had suffered numerous casualties and apparently gained nothing, but the fire and the emperor’s retreat in the face of the smaller crusade army so enraged the citizens of Constantinople that Alexios III fled the city that night. The nobles in the city now reinstalled Isaac II Angelos, who summoned his son to join him in the city. The crusaders, however, refused to allow Prince Alexios to leave camp until Isaac agreed to confirm the Treaty of Zara and to accept Alexios as co-emperor. Isaac acceded, possibly in return for the crusaders’ camping across the Golden Horn in Pera and not in the city. The coronation of Alexios IV took place on 1 August.

Alexios IV and Isaac II made an initial payment sufficient to allow the army to pay off its debt to the Venetians; after imperial funds dried up, they had to resort to confiscating church treasures, but even that was insufficient. A more difficult task was delivering on the promise to submit the Byzantine church to papal authority, and there is no evidence that the co-emperors even tried. Isaac and his son had a precarious hold on the throne and faced the grim prospect of not being able to fulfill all of Alexios’s promises to the crusaders. On their part, the army’s leaders were burdened with their vow to the soldiers to quit Byzantium within a month of their arrival. The most generous computation of the due date was one month from 18 July, when they entered the city. Alexios IV therefore proposed that the army remain in his service until March 1204 and campaign with him so that he could capture his uncle, secure control over the provinces, and gain the riches of empire. The plan made sense to the crusade leaders, who won over the soldiery to their point of view. With most of the crusaders remaining behind as a security force, Alexios and some of the crusaders marched into Thrace, where they won over some cities but failed to capture Alexios III.

Meanwhile two disasters struck in Constantinople. On or around 18 August, a riot broke out in which Greeks slaughtered a number of Latin resident aliens and looted their quarters. Many survivors fled to the crusader camp across the harbor. On 19 August a group of armed westerners (probably largely refugees from the riot) crossed the Golden Horn and attacked a mosque built by Isaac II as a token of friendship with Saladin. The Latins set the mosque on fire and set additional fires in the abandoned Latin quarters. These grew into one of history’s greatest urban conflagrations. By the time the flames were under control two days later, about 450 acres of the city had been consumed and approximately 100,000 inhabitants were homeless, although few, if any, had died in the flames. The city’s remaining Latins fled across the harbor to the crusader encampment.

The Constantinopolitans blamed Alexios IV for having brought the destructive Westerners to their city. He now tried to distance himself from the crusaders following his return from the Thracian expedition in November, although he continued to use them to support his hold on the crown. Alexios IV suspended payments to the crusaders, and on 1 December armed conflict on both land and water broke out, with deaths on both sides. After a formal warning to Alexios IV was rebuffed, hostilities now began in earnest, although there is no reason to conclude that the crusaders intended at this time to conquer the city. They wanted to either force Alexios to honor his contract or plunder wealth equal to what the emperor owed them. Alexios’s antipathy toward the crusaders appears to have been largely feigned, for he seems to have harbored hopes of reestablishing friendly relations with them.

The Second Capture of Constantinople (1204)

Following two unsuccessful Byzantine attempts to destroy the Venetian fleet with fire ships and the inglorious defeat of an imperial land force, Alexios IV’s tenuous popularity plummeted. On 25 January 1204, an urban mob declared him deposed, and two days later they forced the imperial purple on a young nobleman, Nicholas Kanabos. In desperation, Alexios IV turned to the crusaders for assistance, but he was seized and imprisoned by the imperial chamberlain, Alexios Doukas (nicknamed Mourzouphlos), the leader of the faction opposed to the westerners, who declared himself emperor. With the execution of Kanabos and the death of Isaac II, who died from natural causes shortly before or after Alexios IV’s deposition, Doukas had an uncontested hold on the throne.

Alexios V Doukas was crowned emperor on 5 February, and on 7 February he tried to negotiate a peaceful crusader withdrawal from Constantinople. The crusaders refused, neither trusting him nor wishing to abrogate their treaty with Alexios IV. The next night, Alexios V had the young emperor strangled. With no reason to hope for any accommodation with the Byzantines, the crusaders decided on a full-scale war against Alexios V and the imperial city. The clergy traveling with the army provided justification by assuring the crusaders that their cause was righteous, and even the moral equivalent of an assault on Muslim-held Jerusalem.

In March the crusade barons and the Venetians entered into a new treaty that arranged a division of the empire to follow the capture of the city. On 9 April all their forces concentrated an assault on the same area of harbor walls that the Venetians had held for a while in July 1203. They were repulsed with substantial losses but made another amphibious assault on 12 April. Thanks to gallantry, foolhardiness, and luck (largely by forcing an entry through a poorly defended postern gate along the harbor strand), the crusaders established a precarious forward position within the city. With the situation still in doubt, the crusaders set a defensive fire during the night. This-the third conflagration in nine months-brought the overall destruction by fire to about one-sixth of the total area of the city. During the night, Alexios V fled the city, and on the morning of 13 April the crusaders unexpectedly found themselves in uncontested possession of Constantinople. They then subjected the city to three days of pillage.

During the second week of May, the crusaders elected Count Baldwin IX of Flanders as the new emperor. His coronation on 16 May inaugurated the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which lasted to 1261. The crusading clergy had convinced the rank and file that their attack on Christian Constantinople, a city supposedly bathed in sin, schism, and heresy, was consonant with their crusade vow. Cardinal Peter Capuano even confirmed that their capture and defense of the city fulfilled that vow. He and Cardinal Soffredo released the Venetians from their ban of excommunication incurred at Zara, even though they still admitted no wrongdoing, and Peter dispensed from their crusade obligation all crusaders who stayed on in the Latin Empire for an additional year. Despite the consternation of Pope Innocent III, there was great hope in the West that the conquest of Constantinople would unify Christendom under Roman obedience and lay the foundation for the reconquest of Jerusalem. The reality was the opposite. The Latin Empire, teetering continually on the brink of disaster, soaked up crusade energy that could otherwise have been directed to the Holy Land. As for Christian unity, arguably the events of 1204 closed an iron door between the Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West that has not been reopened.


Andrea, Alfred J., “Adam of Perseigne and the Fourth Crusade,” Citeaux 36 (1985), 21-37.

—, “Cistercian Accounts of the Fourth Crusade: Were They Anti-Venetian?” Analecta Cisterciensia 41 (1985), 3-41. Andrea, Alfred J., and John C. Moore, “A Question of Character: Two Views on Innocent III and the Fourth Crusade,” in Innocenzo III: Urbs et Orbis: Atti del Congresso Internazionale Roma, 9-15 settembre 1998, ed. Andrea Sommerlechner, 2 vols. (Roma: Presso La Societa alla Biblioteca Vallicelliana, 2003), 1: 525-585. Angold, Michael, “The Road to 1204: The Byzantine Background to the Fourth Crusade,” Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 257-278.

—, The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context (London: Longman, 2003). Brand, Charles M., Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968). Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade, ed. and trans. Alfred J. Andrea (Leiden: Brill, 2000). Longnon, Jean, Les Compagnons de Villehardouin: Recherches sur les croisés de la quatrieme croisade (Geneve: Droz, 1978). Madden, Thomas F., “Vows and Contracts in the Fourth Crusade: The Treaty of Zara and the Attack on Constantinople in 1204,” International History Review 15(1993), 441-468.

—, “Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade,” International History Review 17 (1995), 726-743.

—, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Meschini, Marco, 1204: L’incompiuta. La Quarta crociate e le conquiste de Costantinopoli (Milano: Ancora, 2004). Phillips, Jonathan, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (New York: Viking, 2004).

Pryor, John H., “The Venetian Fleet for the Fourth Crusade and the Diversion of the Crusade to Constantinople,” The Experience of Crusading, vol. 1: Western Approaches, ed. Marcus Bull and Norman Housley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 103-123.

Queller, Donald E., Thomas K. Compton, and Donald A. Campbell, “The Fourth Crusade: The Neglected Majority,” Speculum 49 (1974), 441-465.

Queller, Donald E., and Gerald W. Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade,” American Historical Review 81 (1976), 717-737.

Queller, Donald E., and Thomas F. Madden, “Some Further Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade,” Byzantion 62 (1992), 433-473.

—, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

The first challenge: Bayezid I’s siege of Constantinople (1394–1402) I


Contemporary Byzantine tradition ascribed the deliverance of Constantinople to a miraculous intervention by the Virgin Mary (Theotokos).


Constantinople in 1422; the oldest surviving map of the city.

Ottoman troops roaming the outskirts of Constantinople had seized almost all the lands surrounding the city by the year 1391, that is, a few years before Bayezid I embarked upon the actual siege operations. During the siege, therefore, the control of these areas, besides depriving the capital’s inhabitants of agricultural products grown there, enabled Bayezid to restrict overland movements to and from the city and thus prevent the transportation of food supplies and other necessities from elsewhere. The city’s gates seem to have remained closed throughout most of the blockade. In a fairly short speech written to commemorate the termination of the siege Demetrios Chrysoloras makes three allusions to the closed gates of the beleaguered capital, indicating the strong impact that this situation must have had on the citizens. According to an anonymous eyewitness account of the siege, Ottoman ships that patrolled the waters around Constantinople prohibited access to its harbor and limited contact with the outside world by means of the sea as well. Indeed, Bayezid’s strategy was to ensure the surrender of the Byzantine capital by pushing its population to starvation in this manner. Almost as soon as the siege started, therefore, scarcity of food became such a serious threat that Manuel II was compelled to turn immediately to Venice for grain supplies. However, the Emperor’s repeated appeals to the Senate of Venice between 1394 and 1396 received positive responses on three occasions only, once each year. At the end of 1394, the Senate ordered the shipment of 1,500 modioi (351 tons) of grain to Constantinople, the following year 7,000–8,000 staia (441–504 tons), and an unspecified amount in March 1396. Apart from the relatively small size of these annual shipments, it is not even certain that they ever reached Constantinople past the Ottoman ships that guarded the entrance to the city’s harbor.

The Byzantine capital may have experienced some relief from the constraints of the blockade at the time of the Crusade of Nikopolis, which engaged most of Bayezid’s armed forces in the Balkans during part of 1396. Nonetheless, immediately following his victory at Nikopolis (September 25, 1396), the Ottoman ruler brought his army back before Constantinople and, tightening his grip on the city, demanded its surrender. Thereafter, until the end of the siege in 1402, all sources reiterate the exhausted state of food reserves and the constant outbreaks of famine, which were accompanied by frequent deaths and numerous cases of flight from the city, sometimes to the Italians, sometimes to the Ottomans.

In a letter written in the fall of 1398 Manuel Kalekas describes how the population of Constantinople was worn out by famine and poverty. About two years earlier Kalekas had moved from the Byzantine capital to Genoese Pera, in part to avoid the siege and its privations, following the example of many other people who had lost hope after Nikopolis and fled from the city, leaving it “deserted like a widow.” In 1400 Kalekas again wrote about a famine and lack of necessities that afflicted those who stayed behind in Constantinople. He was on the Venetian island of Crete at this time where, just like in Pera, a fairly sizable group of Constantinopolitan refugees had taken up residence. The historian Chalkokondyles, too, reports the death and flight of large numbers of famine stricken inhabitants, but he draws attention to those who went over to the Ottomans rather than to territories under Genoese or Venetian rule as in the previous examples. Likewise, the aforementioned anonymous eyewitness of the siege notes that many citizens fled to the Ottomans, openly as well as in secret, because of the severity of the famine. According to Doukas, moreover, shortly after the Ottoman victory at Nikopolis the majority of the people began to contemplate surrendering the city to Bayezid as they could no longer endure the famine and shortages, but they changed their minds as soon as they recalled how the Turks had destroyed the cities of Byzantine Asia Minor and subjected their inhabitants to Muslim rule. Nonetheless, Doukas’ account of later events reveals that around 1399 the persistence of the siege and famine gave rise to a new wave of agitation among the common people of the capital in favor of surrender.

Concerning the last stages of the siege, sources are even more emphatic about the harsh famine conditions and give graphic descriptions of the consequent flight of citizens in order to deliver themselves to the Ottomans standing guard outside the city walls. In an encyclical composed in the sixth year of the siege, the Patriarch Matthew refers more than once to a severe famine. In the same text the patriarch also relates that he pronounced sentences of excommunication against certain Byzantine ambassadors, whom he suspected of intending to negotiate with Bayezid I the city’s surrender. While the patriarch does not explicitly draw any causal links between the famine and the concurrent arrangements for surrender, other sources are more direct in expressing such links. For example, the author of the exploits of the French Marshal Boucicaut recounts how the starving citizens of Constantinople, because they could not bear the outbreak of a serious famine circa 1400, escaped from the city by lowering themselves with ropes down the walls at night and turned themselves in to the Ottomans. Boucicaut’s lieutenant Jean de Chateaumorand, who was in Constantinople from 1399 to 1402, tried to reduce the hunger problem by sending his soldiers on small-scale plundering expeditions into the surrounding countryside whenever circumstances made it possible for them to slip out of and then back into the city without being noticed by the Ottomans. The anonymous eyewitness to the siege likewise indicates that Constantinople was seized by a terrible famine at the outset of 1400, which caused everyone to lose hope and compelled the majority of the inhabitants to go over to the enemy. Meanwhile a large group of men and women who managed to escape from the city by sea fell captive to the Turks near Abydos and Sestos as they were trying to sail through the Dardanelles. Finally, with reference to the spring–summer of 1402 a short chronicle notice reports that, as everyone inside Constantinople was famished, the populace took flight, while at the same time an embassy set out to deliver the city’s keys to the Ottoman Sultan.

Manzikert I

In the period from the late 1040s until the late 1060s the Seljuk Turks under the Sultan Alp Arslan (1063-1073) had made considerable inroads into formerly Byzantine territory in eastern Anatolia. As ruler of Iran, Iraq and northern Syria – nominally for the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad – Arslan had faced a problem with his unruly Turkmen nomads, whose desire for further booty and conquests could not be accommodated within the Islamic world. And so he had released them against the Christian powers to the north and west, where they were soon able to bring the kingdom of Armenia under his sway – the capital, Ani, was sacked in 1064 – and mount yearly raids deep into imperial lands. Plundering and destroying as they went, sacking several major cities, they had soon created a situation which the regular armies of the empire were only with extreme difficulty able to contain. In a series of campaigns between 1068 and 1070 the emperor Romanos IV (1068-1071) had led his armies in an attempt to bring the Turks to battle and destroy their power, but had been thwarted by their mobility, small numbers, and the large number of incursions which they mounted. The Turks were able literally to ride circles around the much slower moving imperial forces which, as we have noted already, were no longer as well-led or as effective as in the heyday of the Byzantine reconquests under Basil II.

In the winter of 1070-1071 Romanos prepared another major expedition, directed against the Seljuk garrisons which had been placed in the Byzantine border fortresses at Khliat and Manzikert in the east. His intention was certainly to re-establish the frontier defences as far as he could, although whether he also hoped to meet Alp Arslan himself in battle is a moot point. For in March or April 1071, when his preparations were well advanced, the emperor proposed a treaty with the Turkish Sultan, who was engaged upon the siege of Edessa, by which the latter would abandon his siege and the former would return the city of Hierapolis (Manbidj) to the Sultan’s authority, taken by the emperor during his campaign in 1068. This would then enable the Sultan to resume his war with the Fatimid-controlled cities of Syria, in particular Aleppo, removing him from the scene in Asia Minor and leaving Romanos a free hand to reassert Roman authority over the region, and perhaps set up a defensive chain that would hinder or prevent future Turkmen raids. Romanos’s first offer of a truce was reinforced by a second embassy, which arrived at Aleppo in May, more or less demanding the exchange of the towns named in the first offer, and threatening war if no agreement was reached.

Romanos had already left Constantinople, and had begun mustering his troops in late February and March. By the time the Sultan received the second embassy, therefore, he must also have received news of the imperial advance towards his Armenian territories. Abandoning his negotiations with the governor of Aleppo, he seems precipitately to have headed back east, crossing the Euphrates with his own guards and a small retinue, to take command of the forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia and deal with the threat from Romanos.

The emperor’s advance across Asia Minor was accompanied by several events that did not augur well for the success of the expedition. In the first place, he chose to leave the general Nikephoros Botaneiates behind, a competent officer whom, however, he suspected of potential disloyalty. Yet he chose to take with him Andronikos Doukas, eldest son of John Doukas, one of his rivals for the imperial throne, who certainly was disloyal to him. At the same time, Romanos began to distance himself from his troops and his officers, insisting eventually on establishing a separate baggage train and encampment for the imperial party, refusing to share in the hardships of the campaign but taking with him elaborate materials and equipment for his own accommodation. On the march from the Halys river to Sebasteia his guard of German mercenaries, the Nemitzoi, suffered some casualties at the hands of the local population, whose property and lands they had pillaged en route, and then complained to the emperor about their treatment. Romanos was forced to cow them into submission by threatening them with force from the other units encamped around them, and then dismissed them to a distant posting, away from the immediate area of the campaign; while at Sebasteia the emperor had to deal with possible opposition from the local Armenian population, who had been accused of making common cause with the Seljuk raiders during the previous year.

By late June the imperial forces had reached Erzurum (Theodosioupolis), where a decision had to be made as to which direction the army should take and how exactly the emperor wished to implement his strategy. There appears to have been some dissension. On the one hand, some of the generals suggested he move on, try to outflank the sultan and take the war into Seljuk territory, and bring him to battle. The emperor’s last report of the Sultan was that he had departed in haste, indeed in a panic, from Aleppo, and it was assumed that he would need to go first to Iraq to raise his forces there before he could deal with the Roman attack. Others, including the generals Joseph Tarchaneiotes and Nikephoros Bryennios, argued rather that the emperor should wait, fortify the surrounding towns and strengthen their garrisons, lay waste the countryside to deprive the Turks of necessary supplies when they approached, and await events. The latter course of action seemed inappropriate, the more so since the army was clearly in danger of running out of supplies if it waited in one place for too long, and so the order was given to move on.

An estimate of the forces at the emperor’s disposal at this point is difficult, but it is clear that he had by no means denuded the empire of troops for this campaign. A detachment of Varangians was certainly left in the imperial palace; a detachment of Frankish heavy cavalry under their leader Krispos had been left at Abydos; and since both the Normans and the Hungarians were a threat at different points in the Balkans, the garrisons in these regions will certainly not have been reduced. It may have been to these areas that the unruly German contingent was posted. The field troops in Syria, and in particular those under the doux or military governor of Antioch remained substantial, as later events demonstrate, even though some reinforcements to the emperor’s field army had been sent from Syria. The contemporary sources also make it clear that, after the battle, considerable numbers of troops were still in their garrisons and posts throughout Anatolia.

Of the units which accompanied the emperor, some are mentioned in the sources by name. The Franks under Roussel de Bailleul, who may have numbered 500 or more; the five tagmata of the West, each of perhaps 1,000 men; a number of detachments of Oğuz (Turk) mercenaries, whose exact number is unknown; troops from Bulgaria; indigenous eastern thematic tagmata from Cappadocia, and probably also from Koloneia, Charsianon, Anatolikon (units from Pisidia and Lykaonia are mentioned in earlier campaigns for the 1050s), Chaldia (Trebizond) and Armeniakon, again perhaps in each case as many as 1,000 strong, but of dubious quality in many cases. Units from Cilicia and Bithynia are also mentioned in one of the sources. Tagmata from the field armies of Syria were also present, although it is not certain how many. In addition to these troops, there were also substantial numbers of Armenian infantry units. Where these were drawn from is unknown: possibly from the regions around Sebasteia and Theodosioupolis, as well as from the Syrian forces. In addition, there was a substantial body of Pecheneg mercenaries and allies and some units from allied or vassal states in the Balkans. Of the palace regiments, the soldiers of several other units, the Hetaireai, the Scholai, and the Stratelatai made up a reserve division, and there were detachments of Varangians also present. The total of the forces thus assembled can only be guessed at. The medieval Islamic sources reckon it at anything from 100,000 to 300,000, both preposterous in view of both the demography of the empire at the time and the logistics involved. But a grand total of perhaps 40,000 may be reasonable, and would certainly explain the emperor’s apparent confidence and the fact that the Turkish Sultan was clearly worried by the size of the threat.

The emperor’s plan seems to have been to take both Manzikert and Khliat, which lay somewhat to the south on the western shore of Lake Van. But he was completely misinformed of the movements of Alp Arslan and his troops. The latter, in fact, had not returned to Iraq at all; rather, he had marched directly towards the Armenian border by way of Amida and Mosul, then on to Khoi just to the north of Lake Urmia. There his vizier had proceeded to Azerbaijan to raise further troops, while he himself, having collected some 10,000 cavalry from his allies and vassals en route, had by now assembled a force of some 30,000 horsemen. Thus while Romanos thought that the Turkish leader was some way away, he was in fact just over 100 miles distant, with his scouts covering and reporting every move made by the Roman emperor. Already, therefore, Romanos was at a disadvantage, even if his forces were in a substantial majority.

From Erzurum/Theodosioupolis the emperor advanced eastwards. The troops were ordered to collect enough provisions for two months – a very considerable amount that necessarily entailed the use of large numbers of pack-animals and, possibly carts, slowing the army down somewhat. A substantial body of the Pecheneg allied force, closely followed by the Frankish troops under Roussel, were ordered ahead to the region around Khliat, which Romanos clearly perceived as the more difficult of his two first objectives, with instructions to collect fodder and provisions, prevent enemy damage to the harvest and, presumably, to secure it for the imperial advance. The emperor must have continued his march east along the same route, before turning south to cross the Araxes, and then east, either along the valley of the Murat Su, or a little further south (which is the route the forces under Roussel will have followed) at Muş (Taron), towards Manzikert itself.

Before reaching this first objective, he detached a further substantial force under Tarchaneiotes, with orders to assist Roussel in taking and garrisoning Khliat. According to Attaleiates, this included the elite of the army, most of the better and more battle-hardened units, including the Varangians and some of the Armenian infantry from the field forces under the doux of Theodosioupolis. He also notes that the troops remaining to Romanos were now fewer than those he had sent off to Khliat. We may surmise that, after the separation of these various detachments, it is likely that the forces remaining with the emperor at this point numbered only some 20,000 or so, and were therefore – contrary to Romanos’s expectation and assumptions – barely superior in numbers, if at all, to the main Turkish host.

The detachment of the troops under Roussel and then Tarchaneiotes, based on the false assumption that the enemy would approach from the south or east of Khliat and was still some distance away, proved to be a major blunder. Unaware of the closeness of the Seljuk forces, which were by now approaching both Khliat and Manzikert from the east, the two Roman commanders were suddenly confronted by what seemed to be a substantial enemy force. What happened next has no explanation in the sources, for both forces appear simply to have about turned and moved with great haste away from the Seljuks, whom they seem neither to have reconnoitred, nor to have reported to the emperor, a mere 50km or less to the north. Both divisions simply marched off towards Melitene/Malatya on the Euphrates, and took no further part in the campaign.

There are two possible routes between Manzikert and Khliat, and it is likely that the troops under Tarchaneiotes took the slightly quicker, more easterly road, across the plain stretching south-eastwards from Manzikert, down towards the Süphan Daği. Since they were clearly able eventually to reach Melitene (Malatya), they must certainly have got as far as the junction with the westerly road down from Manzikert, just north of Khliat, where they perhaps also joined up with the troops under Roussel. It can, therefore, only have been at this point that the Seljuk troops appeared in strength, compelling the imperial forces to turn north along the westerly route back towards Manzikert, before turning westwards after a few kilometres, back through Taron, Harput and on to Malatya. It is likely that they may also have found this route back to the north, along which they would march to rejoin the emperor, cut by Seljuk forces, which would explain the decision to turn westwards, although a few fast riders might still have been able to get through to warn the emperor. Whether or not treachery played a role is unclear; more probably their understanding of the overall strategic situation encouraged their response, and the information required to assess this is simply not at our disposal.

Whatever the reason for this loss, the emperor was now deprived of some of his best and most reliable units. Unaware of the events to the south, he proceeded to Manzikert, which capitulated without a struggle, the garrison being released without punishment. Romanos set up his camp outside the fortress and on the banks of a small tributary of the Murat Su which flowed down from the Süphan Daği. The city was located on the northwestern edge of a roughly quadrangular rocky steppe region which stretches for some ten miles along a northwest/south-east axis, before rising gradually towards the foothills of the Süphan Daği, north-east of Khliat. This was an area thoroughly known to the Turks, but less familiar to both Romanos and his commanding officers, a fact which again proved to be a significant disadvantage to the Romans.

On the morning after the occupation of Manzikert, probably Wednesday 24 August, the emperor was informed that some of the detachments sent out to forage for supplies along the route south – towards Khliat, in fact – had been attacked and driven back by Turkish warriors. The commander of the left wing, Nikephoros Bryennios, was ordered to chase these raiders off; but in dealing with what turned out to be a much larger force than expected, soon found his units lured into ambushes and surrounded, so that he was compelled to withdraw to the camp. The emperor, still believing that this could not be the main Seljuk army, now sent out a much stronger force of cavalry under the Armenian commander Nikephoros Basilakes, the doux of Theodosioupolis. But Basilakes, ignoring the tenets of Byzantine tactics in respect of feigned retreats and the tactics of nomadic peoples, allowed his forces to engage in an uncontrolled pursuit of what he took to be retreating Seljuk troops. In fact, of course, the Turks had set an ambush, and not only were Basilakes’s troops cut to pieces and driven back in flight, but he himself was captured.

Realizing that the Turks were present in greater strength than he had thought, but still entirely oblivious of Arslan’s nearness, Romanos then ordered the whole left wing division to advance and drive the Turks off. But the latter had now retreated into the foothills surrounding the plain, and it was only when Bryennios reached the spot of the ambush on Basilakes that he learned, from a wounded survivor, what the true situation was. By this time – probably towards the middle of the afternoon – the Turks had arrived in real strength, and launched a determined attack on Bryennios’s division, attempting to encircle it. The latter sensibly ordered a disciplined withdrawal, covering the movement of his own units by occasional charges, and at one point forcing the Turks into a real retreat. But the latter by now had the initiative, and it was with relief that Bryennios and his troops eventually reached the safety of the imperial camp. Bryennios himself was wounded – reportedly having two Turkish arrows fast in the armour on his back and a spear-thrust in the chest – although he was able to fight again the next day.

The emperor now realized that he was facing the main Turkish force, and that his information regarding Arslan’s movements was clearly inadequate. The army was readied for a general assault but when drawn up for the advance the Turks had withdrawn completely into the hill country away to the south-east. In spite of scouts sent out to locate them, the whole enemy force had moved out of range, and the emperor was forced to withdraw to his camp.

Manzikert II

That evening, however, the mobility and speed of the Turkish troops was demonstrated once more, for while a number of the Oğuz mercenaries were outside the camp doing business with local traders and merchants, Seljuk warriors appeared once again in the semi-darkness and swept in to harry those caught off guard outside the fortifications. Panic ensued as the Oğuz troops tried to hurry back inside the camp, while those inside the camp were equally confused by the fact that the Oğuz were hardly different in appearance from the Seljuk enemy, and the rumour spread that this was a full-scale assault upon the camp. But as suddenly as they had come the Turks disappeared, and although occasional raids took place during the night, no major attack was launched.

Next morning, 25 August, another Seljuk detachment attempted to seize control of the river bank opposite the Roman camp, but were driven off quickly by a concerted assault from the Byzantine infantry posted to defend the position. Shortly afterwards, however, a considerable body of the Oğuz warriors deserted to the Seljuks – their distant cousins – causing some anxiety that the remainder would follow. But they assured the emperor of their loyalty with an oath, and the worry subsided. Shortly afterwards there arrived in the imperial camp an embassy from Baghdad, from the court of the Caliph al-Muhalban, offering to negotiate. But Romanos would accept only conditions – including a Seljuk withdrawal – which it was clear the Turks could not, and so the embassy withdrew. It is also possible that he believed, or was persuaded, that the embassy was merely a ploy to delay the confrontation, allowing the Turkish Sultan to increase the forces at his disposal – the emperor having in the meanwhile sent messengers to recall the important body of troops he thought was still in the area of Khliat. In addition, and in spite of the situation of the army at the time, the Roman forces still had an impressive reputation, particularly in pitched battles where discipline and order were key elements; and it was generally felt that with the numbers of troops he had assembled and still available to him, the emperor had an excellent chance of inflicting a heavy defeat on the Turks, if he could bring them to battle.

It was, therefore, shortly after the departure of the Baghdad embassy, and on the morning of Friday 26 August, that the imperial army was drawn up outside the camp and prepared to advance on the Turkish host. The left wing was commanded by Nikephoros Bryennios and included his own western tagmata which, as doux of the west, he had commanded in Asia Minor for some time. The right wing, under Theodore Alyates, consisted of the Cappadocian and presumably most of the other Asia Minor units. The centre, under the emperor himself, included most of the guards units – the scholai included – and the Armenian heavy infantry. We may assume that the majority of the Roman heavy cavalry which remained with the main army (many had been sent off with Tarchaneiotes) were also in the centre, while the Pechenegs and Oğuz who remained with Romanos were disposed on the wings.

In spite of the arrogance and haughtiness which the emperor is reported by some sources to have displayed during the campaign, Romanos had the reputation of being a sensible and cautious general, and he knew the Turkish tactics well. The rearguard and reserve was, therefore, placed well behind the main force, able both to relieve the main line should it be forced to fall back, able also to close in and cut off any enemy units which attempted to encircle the main line and attack from behind. The rearguard included the Hetaireai and certain other elite units as well as regular tagmata, and possibly also a number of allied Turkish – Pecheneg or Oğuz – troops.

The terrain over which the battle was fought stretched over open, rocky ground from the city of Manzikert itself, with the entrenched and fortified imperial camp pitched a short distance to the south or south-east. From the city to the foothills to the south and south-east was a distance of between twelve and fourteen km of stony, rolling steppe land, the ground rising gradually before breaking up into an area of shallow gullies and stream-beds. At some distance from the Roman lines, but well in advance of this rougher land, Arslan had drawn up his own, less numerous force in a crescent formation, although he was himself not among the main body of troops, preferring to observe events from the higher ground to the rear. The Seljuk army was, in effect, divided up into a centre and two wings, but in traditional nomadic fashion these divisions in turn consisted of several smaller groupings which could, where needed, act independently.

Eastern Roman military practice demanded that, where an army of mobile horse-archers was to be attacked, the enemy should be brought to close action as swiftly as possible, to avoid undue casualties and attrition from long- and medium-range missile attack. The Roman force advanced, therefore, at a steady pace, in order with the rearguard keeping well back to protect the main line and flanks, while the Seljuks, equally disciplined, harried the Roman line with arrows while constantly but steadily moving back. While the centre withdrew, however, refusing any close engagement at all, the Turkish wings acted more aggressively, sweeping in to attack the Roman wings at close range before withdrawing again, thus forcing the Roman line to grow ever more ragged as the centre, pushing forward after the Seljuks opposite them, began to move well ahead, while the wings were held to a slower pace by the Turkish sallies.

By mid-afternoon the Byzantine centre division had reached and overrun the Seljuk camp – entirely emptied of its contents, of course – and were still pushing ahead, and when the afternoon drew to a close the emperor’s own division had reached the rougher terrain ringing the edge of the plain across which his army had steadily advanced. Losses thus far seem to have been minimal, but on the flanks things were beginning to get out of hand. The constant shower of arrows was causing considerable annoyance to the Byzantine forces and, motivated by frustration rather than by tactical common sense or good discipline, many of the units attempted to charge their foes to bring them to battle. The Turks before them hesitated and then, in classic steppe style, feigned retreat, drawing the imperial forces into the rough ground where a series of ambuscades had been prepared.

It was now dusk. The emperor had been unable to come to grips with his enemy. He was no longer in close contact with the wings, which were only tenuously connected with his own division; and his army, which had left the main camp more-or-less undefended and extremely vulnerable to a swift mounted attack behind his lines, including his rearguard, was without supplies. To continue the advance into unknown and much rougher terrain, almost certainly prepared by the enemy, would have been disastrous. His army was still well-ordered and coherent, and an orderly withdrawal – which he had himself conducted in not dissimilar situations in the previous Anatolian campaigns – was now the only reasonable course of action.

It was at this point that disaster struck. Having given the order to withdraw, the centre began to pull back. But on the right wing the signal to withdraw was misunderstood by some soldiers and officers, who believed that the emperor had fallen. The rearguard was essential to the success of this withdrawal, of course, for it was the rearguard which would cover the units falling back and enable the manoeuvres to be carried out without undue haste and panic. But Andronikos Doukas was a sworn enemy of Romanos IV, and it is clear from all contemporary accounts that he must have deliberately failed to follow the normal procedures. Rather than wait to cover the retreat of the main line, he reversed his own lines and simply marched back towards the camp, leaving Romanos’s division exposed, and the wings entirely isolated. Although there is one near-contemporary account which tries to explain this action away, most accept that this was a deliberate act of treachery, designed to leave the emperor in the hands of the enemy and, Andronikos may have hoped, bring about his death – an event which would leave the path to the throne of a member of the Doukas clan uncontested. By the same token, these accounts all report the fact that Andronikos deliberately spread the rumour that the emperor had fallen in order to persuade the remaining divisions to abandon the field.

Seeing what was happening to the rearguard, and recognizing the confusion on the right wing, the Seljuks now launched an all-out attack. The right wing crumbled and dissolved in rout, fleeing back across the plain; the left wing, under Bryennios, seems to have withdrawn in order, until the Turkish units which had cut the right wing off from the centre swept into its rear and forced it, too, to break up in flight. Realizing the chaos the original misunderstanding had brought about, Romanos attempted to recall the panicking units and rally them to his own standard, but his signal was ignored and the central division too began to break up and withdraw, apparently in some order still, under the incessant barrage of Turkish arrows which now fell from all sides. The emperor and a small part of the centre were now entirely surrounded and, attempting a final stand, Romanos fought on, injured, until his horse was killed under him and, after a brief struggle on foot, he was knocked down. Only the next day, as the Turks went through the bodies collecting weapons and armour, was he recognized and taken before the Sultan.

Although the imperial army had dissolved at the end of the day’s fighting, contemporary or near-contemporary claims that casualties were very high seem largely exaggerated, and the evidence suggests, on the contrary, that overall casualties were, in fact, quite light. The rearguard and reserve units under Andronikos Doukas escaped entirely unscathed and marched back to Constantinople – where Andronikos was immediately involved in the deposition of Romanos. Bryennios escaped similarly unscathed, and the left-wing units, in particular the tagmata of the west, were fighting effectively against Slavs and Pechenegs in the Balkans the following year. Of the units with the emperor in the centre and on the right wing, the Cappadocian tagmata seem to have been able to withdraw in some order, as did several of the elite units with the emperor himself, such as that of the stratelatai. Indeed, immediately after the battle, substantial numbers of units from these divisions had retreated on Dokeia (mod. Tokat, an important fortress on one of the main routes back to Constantinople, and to the south-east of Amaseia). There the emperor found them eight days later, after the Sultan had released him. Along with their commander Alyates, who had also escaped, the Cappadocian and other Asia Minor contingents vowed to support the emperor against the usurper who had been proclaimed in Constantinople upon the circulation of the false news of the emperor’s death in battle.

It would seem, in consequence, that the actual losses incurred during the battle were quite limited, and affected largely the emperor’s immediate retinue and bodyguard. A recent sensible analysis of the battle has estimated that, even if as many as 20% of the army were taken prisoner in the final hour before darkness fell, the overall losses in dead and wounded probably amounted to no more than 10% of those present at the beginning of the engagement. The most significant loss, apart from the capture of the emperor himself, seems to have been the imperial encampment and baggage train, which was abandoned as the various divisions and units withdrew towards Manzikert and beyond, and which was extremely rich – the sources emphasize the enormous quantity of booty that the Turks found there.

The reasons for these relatively light casualties are not hard to find. In the first place, the emperor’s command was not finally cut off and surrounded until it was almost dark, so that the pursuit seems not to have been pressed beyond the imperial encampment itself. In addition, even as the other divisions withdrew, most of the Turkish troops were concentrated on the defeat of this body of troops around the emperor. This is significant from another point of view also, for, taken together with the Turkish tactics throughout the battle, it implies very strongly that the Seljuk forces were themselves nowhere near as numerous as many of the (later) medieval sources claim. Furthermore, Manzikert had been garrisoned and served as a refuge for many of the troops, and since the Turks did not attempt to retake it, it remained a safe haven until after the emperor’s release.

In contrast to most popular judgements, therefore, the defeat at Manzikert was not a military disaster and did not entail the destruction of the eastern Roman army. On the contrary, the greater part of this army managed to make its way from the field with relatively few losses and in enough order to withdraw, by separate routes and at different rates, to comparative safety. The real disaster was of a political nature, for the capture of the emperor, which was soon broadcast throughout the political circles of the near and middle east, dramatically affected the general view of the Roman empire – a view certainly accepted until that point by the Turkish leader himself – that the Roman empire was a permanent, stable and unshakeable element of the political universe of the era. Romanos’s capture showed that this was not the case, and encouraged a sea-change in attitudes to the power of the eastern Roman state.

By the same token, however, the ensuing civil war, which sapped the resources in troops and money on both sides, left Asia Minor undefended against the continuing incursions of Turkmen nomads and raiders, which Alp Arslan himself was relatively powerless to prevent. It also entailed the wearing down of the divisions which survived and the destruction of many units, so that the army of the eastern Roman empire suffered far more from this internecine strife than it had hitherto suffered at the hands of external enemies.

Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.

Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.

Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.

Vita of Pope Adeodatus II

During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.

The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.

Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.

At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.

The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.

Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.

During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.

‘Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara’

proverbial saying attributed to Loukas Notaras, grand admiral in the years 1444–53

Between the recovery of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, Byzantine foreign policy was dominated by the question of the union of the churches. Political considerations required emperors to pursue this policy because they desperately needed military help from the West to combat the Turks, and the spiritual leaders of the West had made the reunion of the churches, with Constantinople subordinated to Rome, a precondition of any assistance. After the crusaders’ actions in 1204, many in Byzantium considered this abhorrent, if not heretical, and consistently refused to support it. The Palaiologan emperors therefore found themselves in a cleft stick: if the price of an alliance with effective western military forces was reunion, then they had to find an ecclesiastical policy of compromise and agreement. But any such policy would be condemned by those concerned with correct theology, and by the great majority in Byzantium who remained devoted to their own church, icons and ideas of orthodoxy. Most Byzantines wanted support not subordination.

As the Christian oikoumene had expanded in the early medieval West, contracted in the East under the pressure of Islam, and then reunited during the crusading period, specific features of liturgical practice emerged as major differences. For the Byzantines, any change in the wording of the creed was always considered incomprehensible and unacceptable. The primacy of St Peter, as interpreted by his successors – the bishops of Rome – jarred with the eastern concept of the pentarchy, the rule of the five patriarchs. And in the different forms of the Eucharistic bread (leavened or unleavened), all Christians could appreciate a very obvious visual divergence. Whether all clerics were obliged to maintain celibacy, and whether all Christians fasted on the same days, was perhaps less of a problem. Similarly, geography accounted for the use of Greek or Latin in the liturgy and certain unfamiliar habits, which had given the churches distinct histories within the world of Christendom.

Nonetheless, there was a fundamental desire to sustain Christian unity, especially in the face of Muslim beliefs. Bishops of Old and New Rome traditionally accorded each other great respect and ensured that prayers for the other were included in their services. Despite a breakdown in these relations in the ninth century under Patriarch Photios and Pope Nicholas, and again in 1054, mutual excommunication did not last beyond the lifetimes of the individuals involved. When Alexios I Komnenos appealed to Pope Urban II to support the Christians of the East against the infidel Turks, he did so precisely because they shared a common faith. Whatever the divergences in their practices, the First Crusade was duly preached on this basis and Christian control over Jerusalem was restored.

The events of 1202–4, however, deepened the sense of profound difference and left both parties hostile and wary. The orthodox were particularly outraged by the crusaders’ occupation of their churches and monasteries, not to mention the desecration of Hagia Sophia. From the new centres established after the Fourth Crusade, Greek prelates denounced the Latin bishops and friars appointed to ‘their’ sees and monasteries in the occupied capital and conquered territory. Yet in the empire of Nicaea, John III Vatatzes and Theodore II Laskaris had supported contacts between Latin and Greek representatives, finding the western friars less dogmatic than Cardinal Humbert. Serious discussions took place about rebuilding unity among the Christians. After 1261, Michael VIII Palaiologos determined to intensify these contacts.

Political developments, however, continued to impede the process. When the last Latin emperor Baldwin II fled from Constantinople, Pope Urban IV received him at Rome and promised to restore him to his throne, a policy actively supported by his successor, Clement IV (1265–8). At Viterbo in 1267, the pope gave his blessing to a formidable anti-Byzantine alliance led by Charles of Anjou and sealed by political marriages: Charles married his daughter to Baldwin’s son, and his son to the daughter of William Villehardouin, prince of Achaia. Fortunately for Byzantium, Clement IV died, and after a papal interregnum of three years, Gregory X was elected in 1272. The new pope’s overriding concern was to plan a new crusade against the Muslims, and to this end he announced a general council of the Church which would impose ecclesiastical reforms and reunite the western and eastern churches.

This promising declaration encouraged Michael VIII to try to win over the clerics in Byzantium who had expressed doubts and even denounced the idea of reunion: Patriarch Joseph, numerous bishops and monks who were opposed to ‘submission’ to Rome. Against the emperor’s wish ‘to spare the Greeks the terrible wars and effusion of blood threatening the empire’, they considered his proposal for rebuilding Christian unity unacceptable, because it conceded the primacy of St Peter over all churches and the Latin wording of the creed. They had additional concerns, but because the declaration of faith was held to be a critical method of teaching and preaching Christianity, any disagreement over the text was bound to cause splits. During twelfth-century debates between western and eastern theologians, the filioque regularly formed a stumbling block: both Peter Grossolano and Anselm of Havelberg wrote about this after their visits to Constantinople and Thessalonike. In response, Niketas ‘of Maroneia’, later Archbishop of Thessalonike, wrote six dialogues which defended the western interpretation, although perversely he refused to add the clause to the creed.

With full knowledge of this background of disagreement, Michael VIII began a campaign to win over the Byzantine opponents of union. In 1273, he imprisoned Patriarch Joseph and obliged John Bekkos, archivist of Hagia Sophia and later patriarch, to spearhead the campaign. But very few clerics were won over to the Latin position by John’s treatise on the subject, even though the emperor and his son and heir declared their personal adherence to the Roman definition of the faith. It even became difficult to find high-ranking clerics to represent the Church of Constantinople at the General Council which Pope Gregory X had summoned to meet in Lyons in 1274. The Byzantine delegation was led by George Akropolites, the head of the government, the former Patriarch Germanos III (who held the authority very briefly in 1266) and Archbishop Theophanes of Nicaea. It was much stronger on the civilian than the ecclesiastical side.

After a difficult journey, in which all their gifts of icons and church treasure intended for the pope were lost at sea, they arrived at Lyons, where the Council had been opened with tremendous fanfare and ceremonial on 7 May 1274. In their two weeks at the council, the filioque, papal primacy and a relatively new aspect of western theology – the existence of Purgatory – were debated. Since the 1230s, theologians on both sides had been discussing what could happen to sinners who did not have time to repent before death. Pope Innocent IV (died 1254) and Thomas Aquinas in 1263 had elaborated on the purging of minor sins in the fire mentioned in the Gospels. But the Orthodox Church had no notion of an alternative post-mortem existence, as the soul would ultimately be judged and sent either to heaven or to hell, so it was unwilling to accept the new western definition. As a result, the compromise wording adopted in 1274 did not refer to Purgatory, though it stressed the power of masses, prayers and pious almsgiving to assist the souls of the departed, which both sides accepted.

At Lyons, the three Byzantine delegates signed the profession of faith previously agreed with the emperor, George Akropolites swore an oath of loyalty to the pope and the Roman version of the creed, and the Council duly accepted the ‘submission’ of the Emperors Michael VIII and Andronikos. The reunion of the churches was celebrated on 6 July 1274 in the cathedral of Saint Jean, and Pope Gregory welcomed the Greeks back into the fold. The Council was interpreted by Rome as the submission of the entire Orthodox Church, rather than of its rulers; in the East, Michael VIII was legitimized and could demand Christian support against the infidel, but he could not persuade the orthodox to accept the terms of union. After 1274, the emperor begged the pope that their church

be permitted to recite the sacred creed as it had been before the schism and up to our time, and that we may remain in observance of the rites we had before the schism – these rites not being contrary to the faith declared above.

In their later professions of faith sent to Rome, however, both Michael VIII and his successor Andronikos II accepted the existence of Purgatory, citing ‘penalties of purgatory or purification’.

The union was duly celebrated in Constantinpole by John Bekkos, who became patriarch in place of Joseph I, but George Metochites, one of the Byzantine delegation, recorded serious opposition:

Instead of a conflict of words, instead of refutative proof, instead of arguments drawn from the Scriptures, what we envoys constantly hear is, ‘You have become a Frank’. Should we who are pro-unionists… be called supporters of a foreign nation and not Byzantine patriots?

From Constantinople, where memories of the sack of 1204 were still vivid, to Epiros, where the despot presented himself as a true representative of orthodox tradition, an anti-unionist party was created. Serbia and Bulgaria also supported this view, which conveniently combined their political antagonism to Byzantium with correct theology. Nor did the union produce the promised military results, partly because Gregory X died in 1276 and Charles of Anjou continued to campaign for the restoration of the Latin empire. Eight years after the Council, when Michael VIII died, his unpopular policy was immediately abandoned. Andronikos II (1282–1328) took vengeance on John Bekkos, who was deposed, brought to trial and imprisoned; three years later the new patriarch, Gregory II, repudiated the union.

From texts that circulated in the East, it is clear that opposition to the union was based on numerous differences between Latin and Greek Church practice. On the issue of what bread should be used in the Eucharist, raised bread or the western wafer called azymes, because it lacked yeast, zymos, the Byzantines believed:

Those who still partake of the azymes are under the shadow of the Law and eat of the table of the Jews, not of the reasonable and living table of God nor of the bread which is both supersubstantial and consubstantial to us men… For indeed the azymes plainly are lifeless, as the very nature of things even more plainly teaches.

Later on this anonymous tract asks:

Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry. Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.

The same text criticized the Latins for not venerating icons, calling the Theotokos ‘Santa Maria’, i.e. simply a saint, using two fingers to cross themselves from the other side, eating ‘strangled meat’ and numerous other habits which seemed strange and wrong to the Greeks. These differences would all re-emerge in the 1440s as the population of Constantinople disavowed the Union of churches negotiated by John VIII.

Although the attempt to achieve the union of churches had failed in 1274, the hope that western Christian forces with papal blessing would eventually come to the aid of the Byzantines was kept alive by a growing interest in Latin theology and the first translations of Latin Fathers by Greek scholars. Knowledge of medieval Latin in Byzantium, as well as the vernacular tongues spoken by merchants, crusaders, diplomats and pilgrims, had expanded from the eleventh century onwards. When the scholar and monk Maximos Planoudes (c. 1255– c. 1305) began to translate classical Latin authors and St Augustine, he revolutionized Byzantine understanding of the West. His complete prose version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Heroides and some amatory verses; Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy; Cicero’s Rhetoric; Macrobius and sections of Augustine’s City of God: all of these made some fundamental Latin texts available to a Byzantine audience for the first time. The brothers Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones and Manuel Kalekas extended this work, while Gregory Chioniades demonstrated the importance of Islamic astronomy through his translations from Persian into Greek.

This was a new development in Byzantine culture which reflects an awareness of the value of foreign, non-Greek learning. It marked a departure from assumptions of intellectual superiority in all fields and shows that Byzantium could adapt and learn from both sides in the arguments over church union. Most of those who translated from Latin into Greek had learnt the new language from friars in Byzantium. Like the ‘Apostles to the Slavs’, they used their linguistic skills to enhance Byzantine culture. Planoudes also served as ambassador on a diplomatic mission to Venice in 1296. He drew upon a very broad interest in ancient Greek culture. He made an edition of Diophantos’ theorems and other mathematical works, as well as copying and adding to the Anthologia Graeca, the late antique collection of epigrams. In contrast, two generations later, Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones were primarily concerned with theology and were directly involved in fourteenth-century church politics. The brothers were responsible for translating St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra gentiles and Summa theologiae into Greek, works which infused new vigour into the unionist camp. They also devoted attention to the works of Augustine, Boethius and St Anselm of Canterbury, and translated a Refutation of the Qur’an by Ricoldo de Monte Croce.

Despite growing interest in western philosophy, the style of Aristotelian logic adopted in the nascent medieval universities of Europe did not make a great impact in Byzantium. The educational system had its own traditions, based on the original texts of Aristotle and enriched by many later commentaries devoted to metaphysics, cosmology, ethics and logic, which had always been taught in the East. Another reason may lie in the growth of hesychasm and the teaching of enlightenment through spiritual contemplation, which owed more to Plato than Aristotle. The hesychast monks of Mount Athos proved to be implacable opponents of church union on the terms negotiated at Lyons. On the other side, those Byzantine intellectuals who favoured union were more impressed by western argumentation based on Latin translations of Aristotle – a tradition of logic that ignored the eastern commentaries.

John V Palaiologos, however, sought to realize plans for western military cooperation against the Turks by making a personal conversion to Catholicism. His travels to Hungary and Italy in 1366–9 culminated in his submission to Roman authority. While this remained his own decision and did not involve the Byzantine Church, he hoped it would secure military assistance. But the fact that on his way home the Venetians arrested him for debts revealed the precarious situation in Byzantium. His son Manuel was forced to ransom him, and before John V could return the island of Tenedos had to be handed over to Venice in lieu of money owed. Although the promised military intervention took shape under Serbian leadership, the Turks defeated this Christian force at the Marica in 1371 and the emperor abandoned his pro-western policy. Several leading Byzantine intellectuals nonetheless converted to Roman Catholicism and continued to urge the reunion of the churches as the only way of defeating the ever-tightening Ottoman encirclement of Constantinople. One of them, Demetrios Kydones, wrote a treatise proposing terms for winning Latin help in 1389, but it was ignored. Divisions within the elite thus contributed to weakening Byzantium while the Turks concentrated on expanding into Europe.

In 1422, the capital survived a major siege, but eight years later Thessalonike was captured, enabling the Turks to surround Constantinople from the West as well as the East. In these parlous circumstances, John VIII Palaiologos began another attempt to reunite the churches and thus win a serious commitment to western military aid supported by the papacy. In 1438, he led a high-level delegation – including Patriarch Joseph II, the two chief spokesmen Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos and Bessarion of Nicaea, sixteen metropolitans, officials and monks, making up a party of over seven hundred – to Ferrara to meet the papal party. Patriarch Joseph was so incensed at the demand that he, like all officials, kiss the pope’s foot that he refused to leave the ship until the issue was resolved. As a result, Pope Eugenius IV accorded him only a private reception rather than a grand public ceremony. The Council opened officially on 9 April after twenty days of debate over where the thrones for the leading figures should be placed. After many delays and inconclusive meetings, an outbreak of plague and shortage of money forced the parties in January 1439 to move to Florence, where the Medici family supported the Council.

While detailed records of the long debates that preceded the agreement were kept, the most interesting account of the Council was written by Sylvester Syropoulos, a patriarchal official. His memoirs record impressions of the unofficial discussions which accompanied the negotiations: how the Byzantine participants argued among themselves (for there were major disagreements between John VIII and Mark Eugenikos) and picked topics for discussion which would not reveal these rifts (such as the existence of Purgatory); how it became ever clearer that if the Greeks knew no Latin, they could not debate with the western theologians, who countered every eastern text with an argument of their own, often drawn from unfamiliar writings.

The filioque addition to the creed remained a major barrier, both as an extra clause in the wording of the creed as agreed at the First and Fourth Oecumenical Councils, and as a statement of orthodox theology. After many months of Latin pressure, agreement was reached on the grounds that all saints are inspired by the same Holy Spirit, whether they are western or eastern, and their faith must therefore be the same in substance even if it is expressed differently in Latin and Greek. Disagreement over papal primacy proved more fundamental, however. While the words of the creed might be accepted, the power claimed by Rome meant subjection, which the Church of Constantinople found much harder to bear. After centuries of elaboration and reinforcement through Rome’s judicial position in the West, popes had asserted superior authority over all churches based on their founder St Peter. They considered that patriarchs in Byzantium should submit to Rome before the union of churches could be celebrated. This not only implied inferiority, it also denied the tradition of the five leading sees meeting in Council as the highest authority in Christendom. While New Rome/Constantinople recognized Old Rome’s higher place of honour, the eastern theory of the pentarchy was hard to reconcile with Rome’s claim to overall primacy.

Under pressure from John VIII, the eastern clerics were persuaded nonetheless to agree a form of words which permitted the Union to be drafted. Remaining issues, like the use of leavened or unleavened bread, the marriage of lower ranks of orthodox clergy, and fasting and genuflecting habits were identified as local customs, which could be accepted. When the Act of Union was finally read in Latin and Greek in Florence on 6 July 1439, and acclaimed by all present, the churches were formally united in one faith. John VIII was commemorated in miniatures, bronzes and a medallion by Pisanello, which show him wearing the large peaked hat then fashionable. The process of negotiating the Union took nearly three years; the imperial party only returned to Constantinople in February 1440.

As a consequence, the princes of central Europe – Hunyadi of Transylvania, Vladislav I of Hungary and George Branković of Serbia – led a crusade into the Balkans which defeated the Turks in 1443/4. Murad II agreed to a ten-year truce, which might have been effective had not some of the western crusaders broken the terms at Varna. In November 1444, they attacked the city and were defeated. Constantinople was now abandoned to its fate; the ‘crusade of Varna’ was to prove the last. Although Hunyadi remained committed to the policy of assisting Byzantium, and Branković, who had not participated in the attack, remained a Christian ally, Constantinople’s essential weakness was symbolized when John VIII Palaiologos was forced to congratulate the sultan on his victory.

Only Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos and one other metropolitan had refused to sign the Union, and Eugenikos became the spokesman of resistance to it. Claiming that he had signed under duress, Syropoulos later joined the majority of Greeks who felt that both their beliefs and their traditions had been abandoned. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V sent Isidore of Kiev, who had converted and become a cardinal of the Catholic Church, to preach the Union in the beleaguered Byzantine capital. He arrived with a body of two hundred archers recruited at his own expense, which initially cheered the inhabitants. The Greek historian Doukas, reported, ‘Of the greater portion of the sacerdotal and monastic orders, abbots, archimandrites, nuns… not one among them assented to the Union. Even the emperor only pretended to do so.’ Nuns, he said, were particularly hostile and they implored Gennadios Scholarios of the Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople to support them. He finally wrote his tract in opposition to the Union and nailed it to his door: ‘Wretched Romans, how you have been deceived… Together with the city which will soon be destroyed, you have lost your piety.’ As these monks and nuns spread news of the resistance, the people called on the Mother of God to protect them against the Turks as she had done in the past against Chosroes and the Avars and the Arabs. They also implored her to ‘Keep far away from us the worship of the Azymites.’

On 12 December 1452, the Union was celebrated in desperation in Hagia Sophia, with the Turks encamped outside the walls of Constantinople. Although Isidore of Kiev reported to the pope that the liturgy was a triumph, Gennadios and other monks failed to participate, and the Union was not widely accepted in Byzantium. Nonetheless, Isidore himself fought on the walls in 1453, was wounded and taken prisoner. By disguising himself, he managed to escape to Crete and constantly mourned the loss of the city. Bessarion, the other major proponent of the Union, also continued to support efforts to regain Constantinople after the fall. As cardinals who served as papal legates, they were considered traitors by the orthodox. Both, however, encouraged humanist scholarship, wrote numerous works of theology and contributed to the growth of Greek libraries in the West. Bessarion’s legacy to Venice in 1468 ensured that his collection would remain intact as the core of the Marciana Library, while Isidore enriched the Vatican library with writings of his own and scholia in numerous manuscripts.

Among those opposed to the Union, Gennadios was also taken prisoner in 1453 but was discovered in the slave market, ransomed and installed as patriarch by Mehmed the Conqueror. His fierce loyalty to what was the original and true Christian theology reflects contemporary opinion voiced by Loukas Notaras, an adviser to the last three emperors: ‘Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.’ Byzantium could not accept the theory of papal primacy and the subordination of Constantinople to Rome. The Byzantines, however few, remained faithfully committed to what they understood to be orthodox. They preferred to maintain their own theology under Ottoman rule than to suffer union with the Church of Rome and western rule. This was surely an echo of the sacrilege of 1204.

Roman to Byzantine Army Transition Part I

In 330 ce, Constantine I, Emperor of the Romans, founded a new capital for his empire on the triangular peninsula of land that divided the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara, commanding the narrow water passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. He named it Constantinople, and in time it grew to be not only one of the greatest cities of antiquity, but the center of one of the most impressive civilizations the world has ever seen: the Byzantine Empire.

Within 200 years, the Byzantines (or Eastern Roman Empire, as they styled themselves) had grown to massive proportions, controlling all of Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Southern Spain. Such an empire could be held together only by a strong and efficient military, and for several centuries the Byzantine army had no equal anywhere in the world.

Although the empire had expanded enormously through conquest, the basic role of the Byzantine army was defensive. Fortifying the long borders was out of the question, and since raiders and invaders could strike anywhere along the empire’s frontier, the army needed to be able to move quickly to meet these threats. Like their predecessors, the Roman legions, the Byzantine units formed a professional standing army which was trained to near-perfection as a fighting machine. Unlike the legions, however, the core of the army was cavalry and fast-moving foot archers. Speed and firepower had become the trademarks of the “new Romans.”

The stirrup reached the empire from China early in the fifth century, and increased the effectiveness of the cavalry enormously. Therefore, the core of the Byzantine army became the heavy cavalry. A typical heavy cavalryman was armed with a long lance, a short bow, a small axe, broadsword, a dagger, and a small shield. He wore a steel helmet, a plate mail corselet that reached from neck to thigh, leather gauntlets, and high boots. His horse’s head and breast might be protected with light armor as well. By the later empire, armor for both rider and horse became almost complete, especially in the frontline units. In a secondary role, unarmored light cavalry horse archers on smaller mounts supported the heavy units with missile fire, while other light cavalry armed with a long lance and large shield protected their flanks.

The infantryman who usually accompanied the cavalry in the field was either a lightly armored archer who used a powerful long bow, a small shield, and a light axe, or an unarmored skirmisher armed with javelins and shield. Because most Byzantine operations depended on speed, tactically as well as strategically, heavy infantry seldom ventured beyond the camps or fortifications. The heavy infantryman wore a long mail coat and steel helmet and carried a large, round shield. He used a long spear and a short sword. The Varangian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguards, were famous for their great two handed axes which they wielded with great effect. Their armor was almost complete plate and mail from head to foot.

To the Byzantines, war was a science, and brains were prized over daring or strength. Military manuals such as the Strategikon (ca. 580) and the Tactica (ca. 900) laid down the basics of military strategy that really did not vary for almost a thousand years. The army was always small in number (field armies almost never exceeded 20,000 men, and the total force of the empire probably was never greater than 100,000) and, because of its training and equipment, very expensive to maintain. Huge losses in combat could be catastrophic, and seldom were great winner take-all battles fought. The goal of any Byzantine general was to win with the least cost. If by delay, skirmishing, or with drawing the local population and their goods into forts he could wear out an invading force and cause it to withdraw without a costly pitched battle, so much the better. Bribing an enemy to go away was also quite acceptable.



Like all armies, ancient and modern, the Byzantines arranged their military apparatus hierarchically. The handbooks portray deep organizational structures, inherited from the Romans and persisting until the fall of the empire, with clearly delineated ranks to the level of five or four soldiers. The overall commander of the army was, of course, the emperor. In all cases emperors were expected to uphold the façade of military competence—even the most pacific possessed a smattering of training, could ride, wield weapons, and were literate in strategy and the structure of their forces. In many instances, the emperors were military men and possessed firsthand experience in the affairs of war. Since no head of state could manage security alone, even when he took the field himself, all relied heavily on practiced commanders.

Constantine appears to have made radical structural changes in military organization; he removed the prefects from command and made theirs an administrative post. He further removed the troops stationed in garrison, the frontier guards (limitanei or ripenses), from the emperor’s guard units (protectores) and the field army (comitatenses), which he expanded in size. Units were uprooted and pulled from their old third-century bases. The Master of Infantry (magister peditum) and Master of Cavalry (magister equitum) commanded those branches of individual field armies. We would equate the various magistri with marshals in more modern military parlance, with control over armies in a given theater. After Constantine the empire was once more divided between emperors in east and west and some mobile units transferred to the frontiers where they formed the core of campaign armies and an effective active defense supplemented by the limitanei. Such mobile regional field forces were under the command of a Master of Cavalry who commanded both the infantry and horse.

Prior to Constantine, Diocletian replaced the old Praetorian Guard—which had become infamous through fractiousness, rank insubordination, and regicide—with a new imperial bodyguard. Constantine further increased the new regiments, the Scholae (Latin: schools, group), which totaled twelve units, each with 500 men divided evenly between eastern and western halves of the empire. The magister officiorum (Master of Offices) led them. These units formed an elite guard for the emperor on campaign through the time of Theodosius I (379–95), but most units gradually declined to a civilian honor guard by the later fifth century. By the sixth century a count (comes domesticorum) commanded units of the scholae.

In the fifth century, the strategic disposal of forces and consequently the high command settled into the form it would resemble through the reign of Justinian. There were two imperial armies attached to the emperor’s person led by the magister militum praesentalis (Master of Soldiers of the Emperor’s Presence). These praesental armies comprised elite troops and mobile field forces that would form the core of any imperial expeditionary force. Five regional field armies (two praesental armies, Illyricum, Thrace, and the East) and their supporting frontier forces were under the command of the magister utriusque militiae (Master of Combined Forces [meaning of horse and foot]). His lieutenant, the vicarius, is known from the fifth century onward. There were frontier commands directed from the office of comes rei militaris (military counts) in Egypt and Isauria in mountainous and restive southern Asia Minor and thirteen dukes along the Danube, eastern frontier, and Libya. The magister commanded his field forces and also held authority over the armies under control of the comites and duces. The legatus (legate) or prefects held the reins of individual infantry legions. Infantry cohorts (regiments) of 500–600 still existed in the fourth century and their cavalry equivalent was formed of vexillations (vexillatio) or alae of up to 500 troopers. Tribune was the most common title for officers handling regiment-sized units, whether cavalry or infantry, but we also find the prefect in command of the cavalry vexilliations, alae, and among the limitanei. Another vicarius (hence our word “vicar”) was the lieutenant commander of the regiment whose duties and authority increased throughout this period. While much of the army underwent serious changes in organization and deployment, certain areas, such as Egypt, retained older structures and ranks.

Promotion within the ranks was a matter of service time or, not uncommonly, graft. St. Jerome (d. 420) provides a clear hierarchy of grades for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers in the early Byzantine period. He lists from lowest to highest grade: tiro; eques/pedes; circitor; biarchus; centenarius; ducenarius; senator; and primicerius.

A recruit was a tiro (pl. tirones) until he was trained, and such men did not draw full pay or rations. The anonymous author of a late fourth-century document, the De Rebus Bellicis (Military Affairs), recommended that cohorts maintain fifty or a hundred tirones so that losses could be quickly and cheaply replaced. Soldiers of the line were pedes (infantry) or eques (cavalryman). The semissalis seems to have been a senior ranker but below what we would consider noncommissioned officer status. At the base of the noncommissioned officer ladder of that time, the circitor at one time inspected sentries but little else is known of his authority or responsibilities. By the fourth century he may have been a junior biarchus, (mess-leader; sometimes called decanus or dekarch, “leader of ten,” even though he led eight soldiers, including himself) who commanded the contubernium, the squad or mess-group, which comprised eight to ten men who shared a tent and, as the name suggests, took meals together. By the fourth and fifth centuries the century numbered around eighty men, ten contubernia, commanded by the centurion with the rank of centenarius. The ducenarius, rather than commanding two centuries, was probably a higher-ranking centurion, since Vegetius stated that these men formerly commanded two hundred, an indicator that the title no longer reflected its old order. As historian Warren Treadgold argues, the senator likewise was probably a senior kind of noncommissioned officer with specialist duties, such as adjutor (clerk or scribal assistant), campidoctor (a centurion who drilled rankers and recruits), or actuarius (regimental quartermaster). Each regiment also had an optio (quartermaster), a surgeon, two heralds, two standard bearers, draconarii—named for the dragon-headed pennons known in the fourth century, a cape bearer, a trumpeter, and a drummer.

The five regional field armies possessed an extensive administration that handled correspondence, pay, logistics, and judicial matters. These large staffs, numbering up to three hundred, mirrored their civilian counterparts in the provinces. Military tribunals were more or less the same throughout the staffs of the magister militum, the dux, or the comes. The army judiciary was staffed by a princeps assisted by a commentariensis and an adiutor and a libellis; the latter dealt with judicial petitions. Deputy assistants (subadiuva) and shorthand writers (exceptores) handled the judicial clerking. Another bureau headed by a princeps with his assistant, the primiscrinius, two numerarii (principal accountants), and their support staff of scriniarii (clerks) dealt with financial and supply matters.

Scholars debate the tenor and role of the frontier forces (limitanei) who are sometimes characterized as “static” forces or even as “soldier-farmers” whose quality deteriorated in the fifth and sixth centuries. In a much-cited passage written no later than the year 550, Prokopios criticized Justinian for his elimination of their pay. While the loss of payment in coin may be true, frontier garrisons staffed by local troops continued to exist in some areas of the empire. An Egyptian known as Flavius Patermuthis (the name “Flavius” was taken upon entry into imperial service from the reign of Constantine to show one’s joining the imperial “family”) served as a soldier in Elephantine (modern Aswan, Egypt) from at least 585–613. Patermuthis and his comrades were prominent locals, indicating that in some places the limitanei had come to resemble local self-help forces rather than disciplined professionals. Elsewhere, the picture is somewhat different. Isaac argues that the limitanei were not soldier-farmers but simply the troops under the command of the duces of the provinces and as such they were mobilized for police duties and patrols, manned the frontier posts, and joined the field army on campaign. From papyri recovered in Nessana (modern Nitzana in southern Israel) we know of a numerus of dromedarii (camel riders) who patroled the desert routes around Gaza; these men appear as landowners and prominent members of the community until around 590, when the unit was either disbanded or transferred. Their duties were then probably assumed by allied Arab forces of the great confederation of Ghassan.

Federate soldiers (foederati) remained prominent in the Roman military structures of the fourth to seventh centuries. These troops served under a treaty (foedus) between the empire and tribes on the frontier. During the time of Diocletian and Constantine, federate troops served under their own commanders and were paid lump sums with which to provide for their soldiers’ needs. They also received annona: payment in kind of foodstuffs and fodder. By the sixth century, some tribal groups served under their own leaders in this fashion, such as the Ghassanid Arabs who guarded the eastern frontier from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Others federates were enrolled in regular military units that appear to have been mixed Roman-barbarian contingents under the command of Roman officers. When not in the field these units were under the authority of the comes foederatorum, but for tactical purposes while on campaign they served under the magistri.

In 528, in light of new strategic realities in which the contest with Persia increasingly centered on Armenia and the Caucasus, Justinian divided the eastern command formerly under the magister militum per Orientem. He created a new command, the magister militum per Armeniam, headquartered at Theodosiopolis (modern Erzurum) whose army was drawn from both praesental units and the mobile forces of the old duces and comites of the frontier districts. Following their successful conquests, Africa, Italy, and Spain gained their own regional commands as well, which raised the number of army corps to nine, though there does not seem to have been a commensurate increase in troop numbers.

By the time of Maurice’s Strategikon in the late sixth or early seventh century, the army had changed considerably. The old guard units, the Scholae, Domestici, Protectores, and Candidati (originally a picked unit of the Scholae) became mostly civilianized but remained intact. The limitanei degraded and Justinian seems to have drawn down some of these frontier forces. The military returned to a purely decimal system of organization, with the main building blocks being the commands of ten and one hundred. A change in terminology reflects the decline of Latin in favor of Greek within the military, which was natural since the latter was the language spoken by most people in the eastern Mediterranean.

Book 1 of the Strategikon lays out the ideal officer structure of the Maurician army at the end of the sixth century. The general, now called by the Greek title strategos, held overall command of a given field army. A hypostrategos (lieutenant general) served as his second in command and led the meros (division) in the center of the battle line; this indicates that tactically the hypostrategos was important, since his forces anchored the army. The handbook also says that armies of medium strength were 5,000–12,000, thus representing groups of one to three meroi. A meros (Greek “part,”“portion”) was a division comprised of around 5,000 men, officered by a merarch. The division meros was built from multiple units called moira. The moira numbered 2,000–3,000 under the command of a duke, moirarch, or chiliarch. The units that replaced the cohorts of the older army were variously called tagma (not to be confused with the imperial mobile army which had taken on the name tagma or tagmata after the Greek for “order” or “ranks”), arithmos, or bandon. The tagma and its equivalents numbered 200–400 led by a count or tribune, with his second in command, the ilarch, a higher grade hekacontarch who commanded a hundred men. The hekacontarch then was the successor to the old legionary centurion. The lowest levels of command were the dekarch, pentarch, and tetrarch who commanded ten, five, and four men, respectively (including themselves).

The Strategikon provides the order of march for a 310–man cavalry tagma, probably a common strength (for a number of reasons, unit sizes were not uniform). The commanding officer (tribune or count) held under his command two hekacontarchs (or ilarchs), 27 dekarchs, 29 pentarchs, 31 tetrarchs, a standard bearer, a cape bearer, and a trumpeter, with 217 troopers. Treadgold hypothesizes that the tactical units mentioned in the text, ranging from 200–400, represent deployments from standard, 500 men regiments (tagma or bandon) whose remaining 100–300 men remained in quarters. This is a reasonable interpretation, given that unit sizes seem to have been based on decimal units grouped into thousand-man paper legions whose disposition varied according to the tactical situation.

The Strategikon names among mobile field meroi, the Optimates (“best men”), an elite cavalry regiment (bandon) unit of perhaps 1,000 men. In addition, elite cavalry units clearly owed their names to older Roman forces: the Vexillations, Illyriciani, and Federates, all mobile cavalry divisions that Treadgold estimates numbered around 5,000 each. Haldon sees there being only three elite cavalry units: the Optimates, Boukellarii, and Federates, all formed sometime after 575. These cavalry armies probably replaced the old praesental armies as the core of imperial campaign forces, since the author of the Strategikon envisions deployment of the three in the vanguard of an imperial campaign army.

The Persian War of Heraclius occupied more than a decade and drained the empire of men and resources. By the mid-620s the Romans had rebuilt their forces and attained victory, only to see them swept away by the armies of Islam. The Byzantines adapted to these exigencies by reconstituting their battered forces as best they could and billeting troops throughout the countryside of Asia Minor, the last large territory left in imperial possession. From the settlement of the military corps on the land evolved a new military and administrative apparatus called the theme system. Thema (theme) is a word of unknown origin, but may be derived from the army muster rolls or the tax rolls needed to support them. During the Persian campaigns of Heraclius the term simply meant headquarters of an army command. The earliest attested themes seem to date to the mid-or late seventh century. “Theme” as a territorial and army designator probably derived from the association in the minds of administrators with the cataloging of military men and corresponding territory and material needed to sustain them.

Roman to Byzantine Army Transition Part II


From the fourth through seventh centuries the Roman state ingested soldiers primarily in four ways: through native volunteers, through enforced hereditary service, by conscription, or by hire of foreign mercenaries. Native volunteers were the mainstay of the army and were generally sufficient to fill the requirements of the state. The hereditary obligation for sons to succeed their father in military service, introduced by Diocletian, was soon after abandoned for recruits to the comitatenses, but maintained among the limitanei. The era of Diocletian and Constantine witnessed annual conscription in the provinces in which state agents levied recruits based on regional resources as assessed in the minute reckoning imperial officials had made; villages and estates had either to furnish a set number of men based on their population and expected agricultural surplus or to buy out of their obligation. Slaves were not accepted. In the troubled years of the fifth century when the eastern army suffered from the aftermath of Adrianople and civil war, supplemental conscriptions fell upon elites who had to provide able-bodied men to serve or a cash payment of 30 solidi (the gold coin struck from 309 on at 72 to the pound)—a steep price, since a worker would have received around 12 solidi maximum annually. Unsurprisingly the draft was unpopular and seems to have been employed only in times of significant stress.

With the exception of the ranks of the limitanei, in which service was hereditary, the practice of conscription was generally abandoned. Justinian allowed slaves to join the army rather than resort to general forced levies, which were unpopular among elites and rustics alike.44 Limitanei did enroll in the regiments in which their fathers served until the end of their existence; there were incentives on both sides for the frontier guard to be maintained. For the state the provincial soldiery still served a useful role as garrisons and as logistics and police forces, even if those outside Syria and Mesopotamia rarely took part in campaigns. Soldiers still received payment, supplies, and certain tax and status privileges that somewhat offset the risks posed by service, which in places like Egypt was infrequent.

Although Justinian did eventually allow for slaves to be enrolled in the army (and these must have been provided as substitutions during episodic ad hoc conscriptions) volunteers usually staffed the mobile armies and imperial guards units. Justinian and his general Belisarios are good examples of this—both sought service as an escape from provincial obscurity. Volunteers continued to provide the manpower for the army through the reign of Phokas, though Maurice provided that sons of fallen soldiers would succeed their fathers in the comitatenses. This was a privilege rather than a burden that the soldiers welcomed—it assured their families salaries and support. When Heraclius found himself chronically short of manpower in the midst of the Persian War, he restored the old hereditary recruitment of all soldiers, something he managed to accomplish in a time of crisis.

Native recruits generally came from the rural, rough-and-ready regions of the empire. Illyricum (the modern eastern Adriatic coasts and mountains) provided an ample pool of military manpower. Countless troops and officers came from this and other regions south of the Danube from Diocletian’s time through the sixth century. Isauria, in the mountain lands of southeastern Anatolia, furnished large numbers of military men from the fifth century onwards, when the emperors were especially active in recruiting them to offset Germanic influence in the army. The rugged upland areas of Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, and Pontos also produced surplus men with martial prowess who helped to fill the legions.

Foreign recruits formed a major component of the army. Armenians provided excellent quality cavalrymen and infantry to both Rome and Sasanian Persia. Armenians dominated the imperial scholae after the fifth century. Hunnic horse archers provided a major tactical advantage for Byzantine armies of the sixth century—they were recruited in groups following a native leader and placed under Roman command. Iranian nomadic elements, such as Massagetae, also called “Huns,” and Alans in the sources formed another source of mercenary manpower. They fought as both cavalry and infantry. Three hundred “Hun” or Massagetae horse from Belisarios’s boukellarios proved decisive in the opening engagements of the battle of Ad Decimum (September 15, 533) when under the command of the Armenian adjutant John, they slaughtered the 2,000-man Vandal lancer vanguard and killed the king’s brother, Ammatas.46 Captured Sasanian Persian soldiers were brigaded into units that served among Byzantine forces, and some Persians or Armenian-Persians rose to high positions in the military command.

Germanic-speaking peoples also provided excellent warriors for the Roman army up through the sixth century. Among these groups we find the east-Germanic Goths, who dominated the ranks of the eastern field army after Adrianople and were still found in Roman service in the sixth century. The east-Germanic Heruls feature prominently in Prokopios’s description of Belisarios’s campaigns; they are often seen undertaking special missions and were brave to the point of reckless. Their east-Germanic neighbors, the Gepids, formed another tribal confederation that emerged from the shadow of Attila’s Hunnic Empire in the fifth century and also provided troops until their defeat and destruction by the Lombards. The west-Germanic Lombards provided significant manpower in Italy—5,500 of them served the Romans during the 551–54 campaigns of Narses.

The loss of most of the Balkans in the seventh century to Slavs and Avars deprived the Romans of some of their finest soldiery. This recruiting ground was replaced mainly with Anatolian Greek-speakers from the rugged interior. Armenians became especially important; at the beginning of the seventh century, the emperor attempted to transfer 30,000 Armenian troops with their families to Thrace. The army that Heraclius reformed in 621–22 was largely from native Roman troops—since the emperor was in the midst of an empire-wide collection of loaned church plate to melt down to coin money, there was little cash to pay foreigners. It was at this moment when Haldon proposes that the emperor made military service once more hereditary, as it certainly was by the end of the century.


During the era of the Tetrarchy, soldiers’ pay was rendered largely in-kind. This was a result of the rampant inflation that plagued the empire in the third century. Since the time of Septimius Severus (193–211) the empire had levied a tax in-kind to support the troops, the anonna militaris and accompanying capitus to supply animal fodder. The state issued clothing, arms, and horses to soldiers. Pay was measured in annona, rations paid annually to rankers. Prior to Anastasios (491–518) each annona was reckoned at 4 solidi. Officers received multiple annona; the primicerius of the fourth-fifth century legions typically earned five annonae. During the reign of Diocletian annual pay in coin continued but was modest to say the least—perhaps 7,500 denarii a year plus donatives and special payments made on accession dates of the emperor and other imperial holidays. Fourth-century pay has been calculated as equivalent to about 12 solidi plus arms and equipment, but by the mid-fifth century had fallen to the equivalent of 9 solidi. To provide some frame of reference, a stone cutter in contemporary Egypt might earn something less than 12 solidi per year. Upon their accession and in anniversaries of their reign, emperors paid substantial bonuses called donatives; Julian paid 5 solidi and a pound of silver, a standard sum offered through the sixth century. Donatives paid every five years from the emperor’s accession were about five solidi for soldiers of the line. But over time, by reckoning arms issuances and equipment in annona, the state deeply cut soldiers’ pay while theoretically maintaining their ability to fight. One wonders how such issues worked, since a soldier could have hardly worn out a spear or sword in a normal year; possibly these allowances were convertible to food or fodder.

In the fifth century the cumbersome and easily abused in-kind system was replaced by payments in coin; the stability brought by the fourth-century creation of the gold solidus and economic recovery of the empire permitted a remonetization of military pay. Anastasios seems to have spread the five-year donatives out as annual payments and offered cash instead of supplying arms and equipment; prior to his reign soldiers in the field army received something like 9 solidi plus equipment. Under Anastasios field troops earned 20 solidi annually, an increase of as much as two-thirds; the raise was probably a response to a lack of recruits and the general poor condition of the soldiery. By the beginning of the reign of Justinian, soldiers in the comitatenses were then well paid when compared with the average worker.

Limitanei received far less, perhaps 5 solidi and an equipment allowance. Justinian’s pay scale for the African limitanei survives. The dux earned 1,582 solidi, the cavalry primicerius 33 solidi, infantry centurions 20 solidi, and their cavalry counterparts 16.5 solidi while infantry rankers earned 5 solidi and cavalry 9. It is probable that even this modest wage was eventually cut by Justinian and that the state paid frontier troops only annona payments in-kind in equipment and capitus issuance for their mounts. Allied units on the frontier, like the Ghassanid confederacy, received annona in cash and kind. But like their comrades in the mobile armies, limitanei received tax exemptions for certain family members and were exempt from corvée labor, among other burdens.

In response to the fiscal and military crisis sparked by the Persian War, in 616 Heraclius seems to have ended the cash allowances for uniforms and equipment, which amounted to reducing pay by one-half. The state returned to issuing clothing and equipment to the soldiery. Constans II (641–68) apparently cut this salary in half again and probably replaced the lost salary with grants in land from which soldiers could support themselves. Annual base pay for the rank and file was thus around 5 solidi during the Dark Ages. To put into perspective this abysmal remuneration, we should note that a carpenter in eighth-century Egypt might earn 16 solidi per year.

By the tenth century, the situation had improved and cash payments in gold had expanded. Officers in the tagma were well paid by contemporary standards. In the mid-ninth century average pay had doubled to about 10 nomismata (singular nomisma, the Greek term for solidus). A tagmatic commander earned 144 nomismata, a topoteretes 72 nomismata, a pentekontarchos 24 nomismata, and a ranker in the tagma 9 nomismata.

The health of state finances and the fineness of the nomisma declined sharply in the middle of the tenth century. Alexios I replaced the nomisma with the hyperpon (pl. hyperpyra) a coin inferior in fineness to the solidus/nomisma of the past. As most soldiers were by this time native and foreign mercenary professionals, they earned cash payments and donatives. The limited data suggest that soldiers in service in the late Byzantine period were well paid. In 1272 a soldier in Asia Minor earned 24–36 hyperpyra, well above the salaries of common workers, such as cooks or domestic servants (10 hyperpyra each) or doctors (16 hyperpyra). Even though the currency was further inflated by the fourteenth century, the 288 hyperpyra paid to a Catalan mercenary cavalryman even though he had to equip himself, was exorbitant.

Many of the soldiers of the Palaiologan allagia served on the basis of pronoia grants. The origin of these grants is obscure but, like the settlement of troops in the themes centuries earlier, they served to shift the burden of maintaining troops from the central government to the provinces. Pronoia grants included tax revenues or rents from dependent peasants—a system often likened to the “feudal” customs that supported the landed aristocracy of the West. Unlike the medieval western arrangements, however, the pronoia were at first held for the lifetime of the grantee; they became hereditary under Michael VIII. In contrast to the medieval west, the state remained the owner of the land and in control of the fiscal mechanisms by which the pronoia were administered.

Over the centuries the Byzantines showed a continuous tradition of army organization that evolved from the Roman imperial system but was adapted to the strategic and tactical realities with which the empire was confronted. Until the twelfth century, the organizational structure of the army was relatively conservative—were he to view the army of the eleventh century, the emperor Maurice from some five centuries prior would have recognized many units and their officer structure. There was, however, adaptation and reorganization in response to the defeats at the hands of the Arabs, but the seventh-century wars did not expose the system as completely broken and thus most structures continued, albeit in modified form. There was a generally deep command structure present in the organization, with officers down to the level of four or five soldiers which undoubtedly preserved discipline and offered considerable tactical flexibility.

On the whole the state managed the well-being of the soldiers reasonably well—service was often dreary, unpleasant, and dangerous. Only during times of severe crisis, such as the inflationary era arrested by Diocletian and Constantine, and the seventh-century military collapse faced by Heraclius, did the empire economize at the expense of its troops. Even during the worst of the crisis, cash payments were never halted, though they were apparently sometimes paid in copper and in arrears. Since the military was by far the largest governmental expense, it was frequently the only place that such economies could be enacted. However, once the crisis of the Dark Ages ended, pay rates climbed to an average well above those of most workers.