BYZANTINE CAMPAIGNS: THE VANDAL WAR


In 406 the East Germanic Vandals and their tribal confederates, including Germanic Suebi and Iranian Alans, crossed the Rhine. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Franks, the Vandals enlisted Alan support and smashed their way into Gaul, plundering the countryside mercilessly as they advanced into the south. In the early 420s Roman pressure forced the Vandals into southern Spain where the newcomers faced a Roman-Gothic alliance; this threat the Vandals managed to defeat, but there could be no peace. Under their fearless and brilliant war leader Geiseric (428–77), whose fall from a horse had made him lame, the Vandals sought shelter across the Mediterranean; their long exodus led as many as 80,000 of them to Africa where, they believed, they could shelter themselves from Roman counterattack. They commandeered ships and ferried themselves across the straits to Tangiers, in the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.

There the local dux had few men to oppose Geiseric, who swept him aside and, after a year’s plundering march, in 410 reached the city of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria). There one of the great luminaries of Christian history lay dying: Augustine of Hippo, bishop of the city and church father. The Vandals stormed the city and spread death and sorrow, but Augustine was spared the final horror; he died on August 28, 430, about a year before the Vandals returned and finally overcame the city. By then Vandal aggression had prompted a large-scale imperial counteroffensive led by count Boniface. In 431 an imperial expedition from the east led by the generalissimo Aspar joined forces with Boniface but suffered defeat and had to withdraw in tatters. The future eastern emperor Marcian (d. 457) served in the expedition and fell into Vandal hands. He helped broker the resulting peace, which recognized Vandal possession of much of Roman Numidia, the lands of what is now eastern Algeria. The Romans licked their wounds but could in no way accept barbarians in possession of one of the most productive cornlands and who threatened the richest group of provinces of the whole of the Roman west. In 442 the emperor Theodosius II dispatched a powerful force from the east with the aim of dislodging the Vandals. It too was defeated and in 444 the Romans were forced to recognize Vandal control over the provinces of Byzacena, Proconsularis, and Numidia, the regions today comprising eastern Algeria and Tunisia—rich districts with vast farmland and numerous cities. In 455 the Vandals sacked Rome, the second time the great city had suffered sack in fifty years, having been plundered by Alaric in 410. The eastern emperor Marcian had his own problems to deal with, namely the Huns, and therefore sent no retaliatory expedition.

Instead, Constantinople finally responded in 461 in conjunction with the capable western emperor, Majorian (457–61), but Majorian’s crossing to Africa from Spain was frustrated by traitors in his midst who burned the expeditionary ships and undid the western efforts. By this time the Vandals had established a powerful fleet and turned to piracy; they threatened the Mediterranean coastlands as far as Constantinople itself. In 468 the emperor Leo I launched another massive attack against Vandal North Africa under the command of his brother-in-law Basiliskos; Prokopios records that the expedition cost the staggering sum of 130,000 lbs. of gold. The expedition began promisingly enough. Leo sent the commander Marcellinus to Sardinia, which was easily captured, while another army under Heraclius advanced to Tripolis (modern Tripoli) and captured it. Basiliskos, however, landed somewhere near modern Hammam Lif, about 27 miles from Carthage. There he received envoys from Geiseric who begged him to wait while the Vandals took counsel among themselves and determined the course of negotiations. While Basiliskos hesitated, the Vandals assembled their fleet and launched a surprise attack using fire ships and burned most of the anchored Roman fleet to cinders. As his ship was overwhelmed, Basiliskos leaped into the sea in full armor and committed suicide.

The stain on Roman honor from the Basiliskos affair was deep; rumors abounded of his incompetence, corruption, or outright collusion with the enemy. The waste of treasure and the loss of life was so severe that the eastern empire made no more effort to dislodge the Vandals and to recover Africa. As the fifth century deepened and the Hunnic threat receded, the east settled into an uneasy relationship with the former imperial territories of North Africa, trading and exchanging diplomatic contacts, but never allowing the Vandals to think that Africa was rightly theirs. The emperor Zeno established an “endless peace” with the Vandal foe, binding them with oaths to cease aggression against Roman territory. Upon the death of Geiseric, his eldest son Huneric (477–84) ruled over the Vandals; he is remembered as a cruel persecutor of Catholics in favor of the heretical form of Christianity, Arianism, practiced by the Vandals and Alans. Huneric’s son with his wife Eudoxia, the daughter of the former western emperor Valentinian III, was Hilderic, who claimed power in Africa in 523. Under Hilderic, relations with Constantinople warmed considerably. Hilderic himself had a personal bond with Justinian from the time the latter was a rising talent and force behind the throne of his uncle, the emperor Justin (518–27), and in a policy designed to appease local Africans and the empire, Catholics were left unmolested; many Vandals converted to the orthodox form of Christianity. The Vandal nobility found their situation threatened, as one of the key components of their identity, Arianism, was under attack; assimilation and disintegration, they reasoned, were sure to follow. When, in 530, Hilderic’s younger cousin Gelimer overthrew the aged Vandal king it was with the support of the majority of the elites. Hilderic died in prison as Justinian monitored events from Constantinople with dismay. Roman diplomatic attempts to restore Hilderic failed. But Justinian was unable to act because war with Persia had commenced and his forces were tied down in Syria. By 532, Justinian sealed peace with Persia, freeing his forces and their young general Belisarios, the victor in 530 over the Persian army at Dara, to move west.

On the heels of the signing of the peace with Persia in 532, Justinian announced to his inner circle his intentions to invade the Vandal kingdom. According to a contemporary witness and one in a position to know, the general Belisarios’s secretary Prokopios, the news was met with dread. Commanders feared being selected to lead the attack, lest they suffer the fate of prior expeditions, while the emperor’s tax collectors and administrators recalled the ruinous expense of Leo’s campaign that cost vast amounts of blood and treasure. Allegedly the most vocal opponent was the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, who warned the emperor of the great distances involved and the impossibility of attacking Africa while Sicily and Italy were in the hands of the Ostrogoths. Eventually, we are told, a priest from the east advised Justinian that in a dream he foresaw Justinian fulfilling his duty as protector of the Christians in Africa, and that God himself would join the Roman side in the war. Whatever the internal debates and the role of faith, there was certainly a religious element to Roman propaganda; Catholic bishops stirred the pot by relating tales of Vandal atrocities against the faithful. Justinian overcame whatever logistical and military misgivings he possessed through belief in the righteousness of his cause.

It could not have been lost on the high command in Constantinople that Justinian’s plan of attack was identical to Leo’s, which was operationally sound. Imperial agents responded to (or more likely incited) a rebellion by the Vandal governor of Sardinia with an embassy that drew him to the Roman side. Justinian supported another revolt, this one by the governor of Tripolitania, Prudentius, whose Roman name suggests he was not the Vandal official in charge there. Prudentius used his own troops, probably domestic bodyguards, armed householders, and Moors, to seize Tripoli. He then sent word to Justinian requesting aid and the emperor obliged with the dispatch of a force of unknown size under the tribune Tattimuth. These forces secured Tripoli while the main expeditionary army mustered in Constantinople.

The forces gathered were impressive but not overwhelming. Belisarios was in overall command of 15,000 men and men attached to his household officered most of the 5,000 cavalry. John, a native of Dyrrachium in Illyria, commanded the 10,000 infantry. Foederati included 400 Heruls, Germanic warriors who had migrated to the Danubian region from Scandinavia by the third century. Six hundred “Massagetae” Huns served—these were all mounted archers and they were to play a critical role in the tactics of the campaign. Five hundred ships carried 30,000 sailors and crewmen and 15,000 soldiers and mounts. Ninety-two warships manned by 2,000 marines protected the flotilla, the largest seen in eastern waters in at least a century. The ability of the Romans to maintain secrecy was astonishing, for strategic surprise was difficult to achieve in antiquity; merchants, spies, and travelers spread news quickly. Gelimer was clearly oblivious to the existence of the main Roman fleet; apparently an attack in force was inconceivable to him and he saw the Roman ambitions confined to nibbles at the edge of his kingdom. The Vandal king sent his brother Tzazon with 5,000 Vandal horse and 120 fast ships to attack the rebels and their Roman allies in Sardinia.

It had been seven decades since the Romans had launched such a large-scale expedition into western waters, and the lack of logistical experience told. John the Cappadocian economized on the biscuit; instead of being baked twice, the bread was placed near the furnaces of a bathhouse in the capital; by the time the fleet reached Methone in the Peloponnese, the bread was rotten and 500 soldiers died from poisoning. The water was also contaminated toward the end of the voyage and sickened some. After these difficulties, the fleet landed in Sicily near Mount Aetna. In 533 the island was under the control of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, and through diplomatic exchanges the Ostrogoths had been made aware of the Roman intentions of landing there to procure supplies and use the island as a convenient springboard for the invasion. Prokopios reports the psychological effect of the unknown on the general and his men; no one knew the strength or battle worthiness of their foe, which caused considerable fear among the men and affected morale. More terrifying, though, was the prospect of fighting at sea, of which the vast majority of the army had no experience. The Vandal reputation as a naval power weighed heavily on them. In Sicily, Belisarios therefore dispatched Prokopios and other spies to Syracuse in the southeast of the island to gather intelligence about the disposition of the Vandal navy and about favorable landing spots on the African coast. In Syracuse, Prokopios met a childhood acquaintance from Palestine, a merchant, whose servant had just returned from Carthage; this man informed Prokopios that the Vandal navy had sailed for Sardinia and that Gelimer was not in Carthage, but staying four days’ distance. Upon receiving this news, Belisarios embarked his men at once and sailed, past Malta and Gozzo, and anchored unopposed at Caput Vada (today Ras Kaboudia in east-central Tunisia). There the high command debated the wisdom of landing four days’ march or more from Carthage in unfamiliar terrain where lack of provisions and water and exposure to enemy attack would make the advance on the Vandal perilous. Belisarios reminded his commanders that the soldiers had openly spoken of their fear of a naval engagement and that they were likely to flee if they were opposed at sea. His view carried the day and they disembarked. The journey had taken three months, rendering it all the more remarkable that news of the Roman expedition failed to reach Gelimer.

The cautious Belisarios followed Roman operational protocol; the troops established a fortified, entrenched camp. The general ordered that the dromons, the light, fast war galleys that had provided the fleet escort, anchor in a circle around the troop carriers. He assigned archers to stand watch onboard the ships in case of enemy attack. When soldiers foraged in local farmers’ orchards the next day, they were severely punished and Belisarios admonished the army that they were not to antagonize the Romano-African population, whom he hoped would side with him against their Vandal overlords.

The army advanced up the coastal road from the east toward Carthage. Belisarios stationed one of his boukellarioi, John, ahead with a picked cavalry force. Ahead on the army’s left rode the 600 Hun horse archers. The army moved 80 stadia (about 8 miles) each day. About 35 miles from Carthage, the armies made contact; in the evening when Belisarios and his men bivouacked within a pleasure park belonging to the Vandal king, Vandal and Roman scouts skirmished and each retired to their own camps. The Byzantines, crossing to the south of Cape Bon, lost sight of their fleet, which had to swing far to the north to round the cape. Belisarios ordered his admirals to wait about 20 miles distant from the army and not to proceed to Carthage where a Vandal naval response might be expected.

Gelimer had, in fact, been shadowing the Byzantine force for some time, tracking them on the way to Carthage where Vandal forces were mustering. The king sent his nephew Gibamund and 2,000 Vandal cavalry ahead on the left flank of the Roman army. Gelimer’s strategy was to hem the Romans between his forces to the rear, those of Gibamund on the left, and reinforcements from Carthage under Ammatas, Gelimer’s brother. The plan was therefore to envelop and destroy the Roman forces. Without the 5,000 Vandal troops sent to Sardinia, the Vandal and Roman armies were probably about equal in strength. Around noon, Ammatas arrived at Ad Decimum, named from its location at the tenth milestone from Carthage. In his haste, Ammatas left Carthage without his full complement of soldiers and arrived too early by the Vandals’ coordinated attack plan. His men encountered John’s boukellarioi elite cavalry.

Outnumbered, the Vandals fought valiantly; Prokopios states that Ammatas himself killed twelve men before he fell. When their commander perished, the Vandals fled to the northwest back toward Carthage. Along their route they encountered penny packets of their countrymen advancing toward Ad Decimum; the retreating elements of Ammatas’s forces panicked these men who fled with them, pursued by John to the gates of the city. John’s men cut down the fleeing Vandals in great number, bloody work far out of proportion to his own numbers. About four miles to the southeast, the flanking attack of the 2,000 Vandal cavalry under Gibamund encountered the Hunnic flank guard of Belisarios. Though they were outnumbered nearly four to one, the 600 Huns had the advantage of tactical surprise, mobility, and firepower. The Vandals had never experienced steppe horse archers; terrified by the reputation and the sight of them, Gibamund and his forces panicked and ran; the Huns thus decimated the second prong of Gelimer’s attack.

Belisarios had still not been informed of his lieutenant’s success when at the end of the day his men constructed the normal entrenched and palisaded camp. Inside he left the baggage and 10,000 Roman infantry, taking with him his cavalry force and boukellarioi with the hopes of skirmishing with the enemy to determine their strength and capabilities. He sent the four hundred Herul foederati as a vanguard; these men encountered Gelimer’s scouts and a violent clash ensued.

The Heruls mounted a hill and saw the body of the Vandal army approaching. They sent riders to Belisarios, who pushed forward with the main army—Prokopios does not tell us, but it seems that this could only have been the cavalry wing, since only they were drawn up for action. The Vandals drove the Heruls from the hill and seized the high point of the battlefield. The Heruls fled to another portion of the vanguard, the boukellarioi of Belisarios, who, rather than hold fast, fled in panic.

Gelimer made the error of descending the hill; at the bottom he found the corpses of the Vandals slain by John’s forces, including Ammatus. Upon seeing his dead brother, Gelimer lost his wits and the Vandal host began to disintegrate. Though Prokopios does not mention it, there was more in play; the string of corpses on the road to Carthage informed the king that his encirclement plan had failed and he now faced a possible Roman encirclement. He could not be certain that a Roman force did not bar the way to Carthage. Thus, as Belisarios’s host approached, the Vandal decision to retreat to the southwest toward Numidia was not as senseless as Prokopios claimed. The fighting, which could not have amounted to much more than running skirmishing as the Vandals withdrew, ended at nightfall.

The next day Belisarios entered Carthage in order; there was no resistance. The general billeted his soldiers without incident; the discipline and good behavior of the soldiers was so exemplary that Prokopios remarked that they purchased their lunch in the marketplace the day of their entry to the city. Belisarios immediately started repairs on the dilapidated city walls and sent scouts to ascertain the whereabouts and disposition of Gelimer’s forces. Not much later his men intercepted messengers who arrived from Sardinia bearing news of the defeat of the rebel governor at the hands of the Vandal general Tzazon. Gelimer and the Vandal army, which remained intact, were encamped on the plain of Bulla Regia, four days’ march south of Carthage. The king sent messengers to Tzazon in Sardinia, and the Vandal army there returned and made an uncontested landing west of Carthage and marched overland to Bulla Regia where the two forces unified. Belisarios’s failure to intercept and destroy this element of the Vandal force when it landed was a major blunder that Prokopios passes over in silence.

Once Gelimer and Tzazon unified their forces, they moved on Carthage, cut the main aqueduct, and guarded the roads out of the city. They also opened negotiations with the Huns in Roman service, whom they enticed to desert, and they attempted to recruit fifth columnists in the city to help their cause.

The two armies encamped opposite one another at Tricamarum, about 14 1/2 miles south of Carthage. The Vandals opened the engagement, advancing at lunch time when the Romans were at their meal. The two forces drew up against one another, with a small brook running between the front lines. Four thousand five hundred Roman cavalry arrayed themselves in three divisions along the front; the general John stationed himself in the center, and Belisarios came up behind him with 500 household guards. The Vandals and their Moorish allies formed around Tzazon’s 5,000 Vandal horsemen in the center of the host. The two armies stared one another down, but since the Vandals did not take the initiative, Belisarios ordered John forward with picked cavalry drawn from the Roman center. They crossed the stream and attacked the Vandal center, but Tzazon and his men repulsed them, and the Romans retreated. The Vandals showed good discipline in their pursuit, refusing to cross the stream where the Roman force awaited them. John returned to the Roman lines, selected more cavalry, and launched a second frontal assault. This, too, the Vandals repulsed. John retired and regrouped and Belisarios committed most of his elite units to a third attack on the center. John’s heroic final charge locked the center in a sharp fight. Tzazon fell in the fighting and the Vandal center broke and fled, joined by the wings of the army as the Romans began a general advance. The Romans surrounded the Vandal palisade, inside which they took shelter along with their baggage and families. In the clash that opened the battle of Tricamarum in mid- December 533, the Romans counted 50 dead, the Vandals about 800.

As Belisarios’s infantry arrived on the battlefield, Gelimer understood that the Vandals could not withstand an assault on the camp by 10,000 fresh Roman infantry. Instead of an ordered retreat, though, the Vandal king fled on horseback alone. When the rest of the encampment learned of his departure, panic swept the Vandals, who ran away in chaos. The Romans plundered the camp and pursued the broken force throughout the night, enslaving the women and children and killing the males. In the orgy of plunder and captive taking, the cohesion of the Roman army dissolved completely; Belisarios watched helplessly as the men scattered and lost all discipline, enticed by the richest booty they had ever encountered. When morning came, Belisarios rallied his men, dispatched a small force of 200 to pursue Gelimer, and continued to round up the Vandal male captives. The disintegration of the Vandals was clearly complete, since the leader offered a general amnesty to the enemy and sent his men to Carthage to prepare for his arrival. The initial pursuit of Gelimer failed, and Belisarios himself led forces to intercept the king, whose existence still threatened a Vandal uprising and Moorish alliances against the Roman occupiers. The general reached Hippo Regius where he learned Gelimer had taken shelter on a nearby mountain among Moorish allies. Belisarios sent his Herul foederati under their commander Pharas to guard the mountain throughout the winter and starve out Gelimer and his followers.

Belisarios garrisoned the land and sent a force to Sardinia which submitted to Roman control and sent another unit to Caesarea in Mauretania (modern Cherchell in Algeria). In addition, the general ordered forces to the fortress of Septem on the straits of Gibraltar and seized it, along with the Balearic Islands. Finally he sent a detachment to Tripolitania to strengthen the army of Prudentius and Tattimuth to ward off Moorish and Vandal activity there. Late in the winter, facing deprivation and surrounded by the Heruls, Gelimer negotiated his surrender and was taken to Carthage where Belisarios received him and sent him to Constantinople.

Roman victory was total. The Vandal campaign ended with a spectacular recovery of the rich province of Byzacium and the riches of the African cities and countryside the Vandals had held for nearly a century. Prokopios is reserved in his praise for his general, Belisarios, and for the performance of the Roman army as a whole, laying the blame for Vandal defeat at the feet of Gelimer and the power of Fortune, rather than crediting the professionalism or skill of the army commanders and rank and file. The Romans clearly made several blunders—chief among these the failure to intercept Tzazon’s reinforcing column, and Belisarios’s inability to maintain discipline in the ranks upon the plundering of the Vandal encampment at Tricamarum. On balance, though, the army and the state had performed well enough. The work of imperial agents in outlying regions of Tripolitania and Sardinia distracted the Vandals and led them to disperse their forces. Experienced Roman soldiers who had just returned from years of hard fighting against the Persians proved superior to their Vandal enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. Indeed, they had proved capable of meeting and destroying much larger enemy contingents. Belisarios’s leadership, maintenance of morale, and (apart from the Tricarmarum incident) excellent discipline accompanied his cautious, measured operational decisions that conserved and protected his forces. Roman losses were minimal in a campaign that extended imperial boundaries by more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) and more than a quarter million subjects. The empire held its African possessions for more than a century until they were swept under the rising Arab Muslim tide in the mid-seventh century.

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Arab Conquests


During the last few years of his life, the Prophet gradually expanded his sphere of influence within the Arabian Peninsula by means of military campaigns and peaceful alliances. In the aftermath of his death, the Muslim leadership at Medina began a series of conquests that still have the power to amaze the observer. Taking place over a period of ninety years, these conquests swept away the imperial forces of the Arabs’ proud neighbors to the north and resulted in a permanent cultural transformation of the societies that came under Muslim control.

Arabia and the Fertile Crescent

The Prophet’s sudden death in 632 was a stunning and disorienting experience for his followers. Having become dependent upon him to serve as both the channel of God’s revelation and the political and military leader of the new state, the community was bereft of its religious and political leadership at a stroke. That the despair and confusion in the wake of his death did not cause the collapse of his nascent movement is a testimony to the strength of the institutions and the ideals that Muhammad had left behind and to the quality of the leadership that succeeded him.

According to the most commonly accepted version of events, several factions emerged among the Muslims, each advocating its own solution to the leadership vacancy. The three primary groups were the original Muslim migrants to Medina, the natives of Medina who converted to Islam, and the Meccans who converted after the conquest of their city in 630. Two of the first converts to Islam, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and Abu Bakr, played leading roles during the decision-making days after the Prophet’s death. In the heat of the debate over the course of action to be taken, ‘Umar made a passionate speech that convinced those present to accept Abu Bakr as the leader of the Umma. Abu Bakr was a pious, highly respected confidant of Muhammad who was famous for his knowledge of the genealogy of the region’s tribes, a valuable asset for the politics of the day. He and the Prophet had solidified their relationship by Muhammad’s marriage to Abu Bakr’s nine-year-old daughter, ‘A’isha, soon after the Hijra. The young wife became Muhammad’s favorite, and he died in her arms. The title of the position that Abu Bakr now held came to be known as that of the caliph, although as we shall see later, it is not clear whether Abu Bakr himself was addressed by this title. There is evidence, in fact, that ‘Umar and Abu Bakr worked together closely during the latter’s short administration.

With the loss of the Prophet, the new leader’s most pressing challenge was that many of the tribes that had subjected themselves to Medina no longer considered themselves under Medina’s control. Interpreting the situation in traditional fashion, they felt that the terms that they had contracted with Muhammad had been of a personal nature, and that it was incumbent upon his successor to renegotiate the terms. They failed to pay their tax and waited for Medina to react. A reversion to paganism does not appear to have played a major role in this challenge to Medina’s authority. There were, indeed, certain “false prophets” leading challenges to Islam’s dominance among tribes in central and northeastern Arabia, but these were not areas within Medina’s sphere of influence. In most cases, the revolt represented a residual tribal antipathy toward unfamiliar centralized control, and it is clear that in some cases the affected tribes were divided, with significant factions wishing not to break with the Umma. Abu Bakr’s stature as a leader, however, lay in his recognition that to allow tribes to secede from the union would doom the newly emerging society and allow a relapse into the polytheistic and violent tribalism of the recent past. He perceived that Muhammad’s polity inextricably combined religious expression with political authority. Islam was not a religion that could recognize a difference between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. In the Prophet’s vision, any distinction between the “religious” and the “political” was fatuous. Political infidelity would result in religious infidelity.

The military campaign that Abu Bakr ordered to bring the recalcitrant tribes back under Medina’s control is known in Islamic history as the ridda wars, or the Wars of Apostasy. The campaign is important historically because it marks the transition to the Arab wars of conquest outside the peninsula. The campaign to coerce rebel groups to resubmit to Medinan hegemony made two seamless shifts in policy. The first was a transition from pacification of the rebellious tribes to one of subduing Arabian communities that had never had a treaty with the Prophet. The subjugation of the rebels was a short affair, which may be explained in part by evidence that many of the secessionist tribes and settlements were experiencing internal divisions over the issue of rebellion and put up only a half-hearted resistance. In the process of coercing rebel groups back under Medinan hegemony, the Muslim army at some point began to subdue the Arabian tribes that had not made submission. Despite fierce resistance from a handful of tribes, Medina won an overwhelming victory and was master of the peninsula by 634. Augmented by the manpower of the forces that it had conquered in the Ridda wars, the Muslim army was large and confident, whereas its opponents could never unite against Medina. The decisive victory by the diverse coalition that made up the Islamic state made a deep impression on many Arabs regarding the inadequacy of a purely tribal identity.

Just as the Ridda wars are impossible to distinguish from the war for the conquest of the peninsula, so the latter evolved imperceptibly into invasions of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. The specific reasons for this evolution into major international military expeditions are lost to history, but scholars have suggested three factors that may have converged precisely when the two empires were at their weakest. The first was a geopolitical motivation on the part of the Muslim leadership. As Medina’s campaign moved into the northern part of the peninsula, the objectives of the Muslim elite may well have expanded. Muhammad himself had already attempted to gain control of the Arabian tribes and settlements on the route from the Hijaz to Syria; now Abu Bakr seems to have been concerned about the threat posed to the Umma by nomads and rival settlements situated on important trade routes. He was concerned with bringing under his control any potential security threat to the trade of the new state, and he used a combination of force, cajolery, and material incentives to do so.

The second factor was the inspiration of religion itself. Many of the soldiers who fought for Medina throughout the Arabian campaigns were genuinely motivated by religious concerns. The Qur’an repeatedly enjoins believers to engage in a struggle (jihad) against unbelievers until God’s rule is established on this earth. Muslims who refuse to help either by fighting, or by helping the cause by contributing to it financially, are called hypocrites. On the other hand, those who fight are rewarded not only spiritually (in the afterlife), but also materially (the troops are to share four-fifths of the loot captured in fighting the infidels). The scriptures, the promise of material reward, and social pressure all combined to create a polity that offered powerful ideological motivations for participation in warfare.

Which of these motivations was most important to the typical rank-and-file soldier? It would be interesting to know. Few of the fighters could have been knowledgeable regarding the nature of societies beyond their own, and no doubt initially envisioned fighting and converting only pagan Arabs. As it turned out, they chose to tolerate the existence of the huge number of Christians and Jews in the lands west of Iran, and nowhere did they welcome non-Arab converts to Islam. What, then, was the nature of God’s rule that they hoped to establish as a result of their efforts? Unfortunately, it is as impossible to know the answer to this question as it is to know the exact motivations of the Frankish crusaders who went off to Palestine or of the conquistadores with Cortes who claimed to be engaging in a mission for God against the Aztecs.

A third factor in the unexpected irruption of the Islamic movement into regions outside the peninsula was one that we shall see repeated many times over the next eight centuries when nomads were recruited into armies in the Afro-Asiatic land mass: Although the nomads were supposed to be instruments of the policy of political leaders, their own needs and expectations often dictated policy. The irony facing the Medinan and Meccan elites was that a majority of their troops were of necessity the very bedouin who historically had depended on raiding settlements for the acquisition of their surplus. In a sense, the Muslim leadership was riding a tiger by depending on armies made up of the social group that posed a perpetual threat to the personal, political, and economic security of town dwellers.

It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have escaped the dilemma. Muslims expected the raids and battles to yield plunder as well as strategic or religious gains. The Qur’an stipulated that the Prophet would retain one-fifth of the captured property from such battles for distribution among the community, and the remainder would be divided among the warriors who participated in the fighting. The wars under the first caliphs continued that policy, with one-fifth of the captured property going to the caliph. Each Muslim victory yielded plunder and recruits from the ranks of the vanquished. The additional warriors made the next stage of conquest easier, but they also made the next stage imperative. Further conquests were needed to satisfy the demand and expectation of plunder. The conquest of neighboring tribes within the peninsula, then of settlements outside the peninsula, and then of contiguous areas beyond, proved to be a way of providing the nomads with loot, which kept their minds on new enemies and opportunities, rather than on the central government. Controlling the forces that made their very success possible, however, would be a continuing challenge for the Muslim leadership.

The Arabian Peninsula merges imperceptibly with the land mass of southwest Asia. So, too, did the presence of Arabs extend from the peninsula into the Fertile Crescent. From the Medinan perspective, the Syrian and Iraqi Arabs were obvious candidates for incorporation into the Umma. The Syrian portion of the Fertile Crescent received priority. As we have seen, Muhammad had already sent more than one army in its direction. Its oases and green hills were known to those who plied the caravan trade, and it was the setting for many of the important religious figures mentioned in the Qur’an. Populated by numerous Arabs, it attracted Muslims for both religious and economic reasons.

In the autumn of 633, four Arab armies entered southern Syria and were soon joined by a fifth army that Abu Bakr transferred to Syria from its location on the southern Euphrates in Iraq, where it had been engaged in raiding and reconnaissance. The total manpower of the Muslim forces probably amounted to about 24,000 troops, including both infantry and cavalry. Abu Bakr died a few months later and was succeeded by his friend ‘Umar by the same process of deliberation that had brought Abu Bakr into the leadership role a mere two years earlier. Reflecting the common vision of the two men, the Syrian conquest proceeded without interruption.

Whereas the Muslim conquest of Syria proceeded seamlessly despite the death of the first caliph, the Byzantine defense of the region never became coherent. Plague and sustained warfare had reduced the population of the area by twenty to forty percent over the previous century, and adequate provision had not been made for the loss of the Ghassanid auxiliaries. Byzantine armies, forced to move at the rate of their infantry, might travel twenty miles per day at best and by this time had developed a reputation for preferring a defensive rather than an offensive posture. They had also lost much of their discipline and combat readiness. The best of the regular imperial troops were concentrated near Constantinople, and those in Syria were outnumbered by their own, friendly, Arab forces by a ratio of at least two to one, and perhaps five to one. The populace was sullen. The numerous Monophysite Christians had no reason to feel loyalty to distant Constantinople, and the Jews were suffering severe persecution in retaliation for their active support of the Sasanian occupation that had just ended.

The first objective of the Muslims was to establish dominance over the Arabic-speaking areas of southern and eastern Syria. Many of these tribes put up stiff resistance against what they thought was another raid from desert dwellers, but many local Arabs, including Christians, joined the conquering armies. With these reinforcements, the invaders developed a numerical advantage over the local defenders. Syrian cities in the interior began to fall, and Damascus surrendered in 636. At that point, Heraclius realized that the invasion was a serious threat and sent in a huge Byzantine army that was reinforced by Arab and Armenian mercenaries. At the Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan River just south of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), the Muslims and their local allies decisively defeated the Byzantine coalition, effectively sealing the fate of Syria. The only question would be how long the sieges of the remaining cities would take. Over the next few months, Antioch and Aleppo fell, and Jerusalem capitulated in 637. The seaport of Caesarea was the last Byzantine city to fall, in 640. The Muslim Arabs now ruled the coastal plains and the interior, although they never gained effective control of the remote and rugged Lebanese mountainous areas.

Although the chronology is not certain, it appears that after the battle of Yarmuk, ‘Umar felt that he could send troops into Iraq. When the Muslims began their attacks on Iraq, local Arab nomads and the Aramaic towns fought to protect themselves. Soon, however, the primary Muslim army devastated a much larger Sasanian force at Qadisiya, northwest of Hira. It then moved on to capture Ctesiphon. From that point, the largely Nestorian and Jewish population of central Iraq put up little resistance. Meanwhile, a second Muslim army captured southern Iraq. The young Sasanian emperor, Yazdagird, fled east, and, by 638, the Muslims had secured almost all of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The conquerors established military settlements to serve as garrison cities that could ensure security, serve as supply points, and keep the Arab troops from mixing with the local people. Kufa and Basra were the biggest of these new settlements, and within a short time, each of these new towns was thronged with tens of thousands of Arabs from the peninsula.

Meanwhile, in 639, the Arab commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As requested permission from ‘Umar to lead a force into the Nile valley. ‘Umar, whose clearly stated focus had been the subjugation of Arab populations rather than conquest in general, initially refused. After further consideration, ‘Umar gave his reluctant consent, perhaps being persuaded by the security threat posed by the Byzantine army and navy that were based in Alexandria. Muslim armies now entered a new phase of their conquests. From that point, they would spread the hegemony of Islam wherever their power enabled them to overcome local resistance. ‘Amr’s army benefitted from the policies of the Orthodox patriarch, Cyrus. After the Byzantines retook Egypt from the Sasanians in 628, Cyrus had begun a savage repression of Monophysitism, with the result that Copts provided no support to their hated Byzantine overlords. ‘Amr’s army won control of Egypt by 641, and he created a military garrison and capital, calling it Fustat. Significantly, it was near the old Roman settlement of Babylon, on the southern fringe of the Nile delta, rather than at the traditional seaside capital, Alexandria. Whereas Alexandria was Greek in culture and faced the Byzantine-dominated Mediterranean, Fustat—like Kufa and Basra—was for Arab troops, and was oriented toward Medina.

Iran

Seven years of campaigning won the Fertile Crescent and Egypt for the Muslim armies. The flat terrain and arid and semiarid climate were familiar and congenial to the victors; the poor organization and morale of the imperial armies had allowed the traditional superiority of nomadic attackers to prevail over settled life; and after the initial shock, the population had reacted to the new administration with a mixture of relief and resignation. The momentum of the victories carried the Muslim armies to the east and to the west simultaneously, and they were continuously augmented by migrants from Arabia, new converts in the conquered territories, and even by warriors, such as former Sasanian troops, who were not required to convert as a condition of service in the Muslim army. The next stage of the conquests would prove to be no less remarkable than the first, but would be much more difficult.

The Sasanians had been defeated in Iraq, but Yazdagird’s generals organized a large army on the Iranian plateau with the intention of driving out the invaders. ‘Umar ordered a campaign to meet him that entailed having to advance through the Zagros Mountains, a terrain unfamiliar to the Arab army. The Zagros at that point are 125 miles wide. They run north and south and are arranged in parallel, rugged ridges that contain deep gorges. It was in the Zagros that the Arab army encountered Yazdagird at Nahavand in 642, the most difficult and costly of all the battles the Arabs had to fight against the Sasanian forces. The Arabs won, however, and Yazdagird once again fled to the east as a fugitive, with the Arabs in pursuit.

The Arab campaign to conquer Iran was well planned, but it faced formidable challenges. One was a change in leadership. In 644, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was stabbed to death by an Iranian who had been captured during the conquest. His successor was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who had supported Muhammad from the beginning of his mission. Again reflecting the remarkable unity of the early leadership, the Iranian campaign continued without interruption under the new caliph.

The other challenges were the different terrain and the new level of resistance from the local inhabitants. In southwestern Iran, the Sasanian royal family’s favorite province of Fars produced the fiercest resistance of all. Five years (645–650) of sustained, brutal fighting were required to reduce such opposition, during which time the Sasanian aristocracy was exterminated. The inhabitants of Fars resisted conversion to Islam for longer than any other group in Iran. In order to control the other Iranian cultural areas, an invader must master the Zagros Mountains, rugged Azerbaijan in the northwest, and the Elburz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea, as well as maintain a vigilant watch on the great deserts of the interior. Moreover, unlike Iraq, whose population had not defended the Sasanian regime, other provinces fought the invaders almost as fiercely as the inhabitants of Fars did. The Muslim army encountered bitter and prolonged fighting in Azerbaijan from the fiercely independent mountain peoples there. As a result, the province suffered extensive destruction. On the northern Iranian plateau itself, the Arabs also faced stiff resistance. The Arabs secured the southern slopes of the Elburz Mountains while following the trade route east through Rayy en route to Khorasan. They took Nishapur (Neyshabur) and Merv (near modern Mary) in 651, not long after Yazdagird was murdered in that region by his own companions. Due to its size and its resistance, Khorasan was not effectively under Arab control until 654.

In 656, the conquests suddenly stopped for a decade, due to a civil war that rocked the new community of Islam. This bloody conflict was a shock to the many Muslims who had assumed that the principles of religious unity, equality, and justice would bring an end to factionalism. (The civil war will be the subject of a detailed treatment in the next chapter.) At this point, it is sufficient to say that the conflict began when the third caliph, ‘Uthman, was assassinated in 656 by disgruntled warriors from the garrison of Fustat in Egypt. These men then secured the selection of ‘Ali ibn Talib as ‘Uthman’s successor. ‘Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and had been among the very earliest of the converts to Islam. He was widely admired, and a devoted group of followers had been demanding that he be selected caliph ever since the death of the Prophet. Now, however, because he took no steps to punish the murderers of his predecessor, ‘Ali became the target of a vendetta by ‘Uthman’s kinsmen, who were known as the Umayyads.

The vendetta grew to such large proportions that it became a civil war. The leader of the Umayyad cause was ‘Uthman’s nephew, Mu‘awiya, the talented governor of Syria. In 661, ‘Ali became the third caliph in a row to be murdered, stabbed to death while at prayers in a mosque. Mu‘awiya now claimed the right to succeed ‘Ali as caliph. Because Mu‘awiya remained in Syria, Damascus became the center of Muslim political and economic power, and Medina was relegated to the periphery of the Arab empire. Mu‘awiya (661–680) proved to be a skillful and honest administrator, but one of his decisions won him enduring enmity among many Muslims. Rather than relying on a council to select the next caliph, he named his own son to be his successor. His family, the Umayyads, thus became the dynastic rulers who claimed the leadership of the Arab empire from 661 until they were overthrown in 750.

Under the Umayyads, the conquests resumed. Using Coptic sailors who had been in the Byzantine naval squadron based in Alexandria, the Arabs led several fruitless naval raids on Constantinople between 667 and 680. During these same campaigns, however, the Arabs captured Crete and established a presence on the island of Cyprus, which they used as a base to attack Byzantine shipping for the next three centuries. Arab armies could not secure a lasting foothold in the densely settled areas north of the Taurus Mountains. The Byzantines had lost Syria and Egypt, but still retained Anatolia and the Balkans. Anatolia’s population was equal to that of Egypt and Syria combined, and by possessing it and the Balkans, Constantinople was sufficiently wealthy to remain the mighty capital of a powerful empire for centuries to come. The Sasanians had been destroyed, but the Byzantines would engage the Muslims in almost continuous warfare for centuries and present a difficult barrier against further Islamic expansion despite their notorious political instability.

The Bulwark Against Islam


 

Sulayman, king of the Arabs said, ‘I shall not cease from the struggle with Constantinople until I force my way into it or I bring about the destruction of the entire dominions of the Arabs.’

Chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, seventh century

During the seventh century, Byzantium was almost destroyed by desert tribes who emerged from the Arabian peninsula to overrun the eastern Mediterranean. This unexpected challenge came on top of nearly a decade of warfare with Persia in the 620s and persistent Slav raiding into the Balkan provinces. Its consequences were so severe that in the 660s Emperor Constans II left Constantinople for the safety of Sicily. Some senators, however, refused to leave the Byzantine capital and their confidence in the power of the empire to resist was confirmed by a major triumph over the Arabs in 678. Nonetheless, this turbulent period transformed the ancient Roman world, and the establishment at Damascus of an Islamic caliphate created a permanent rival to Christian Byzantium.

In order to understand this devastating change (or triumph, depending on your point of view), we must consider developments of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Under Emperor Maurice (582–602), simultaneous threats from Slavs in the Balkans and Persians in the East stretched Byzantine defences to breaking point. In the 580s, Slavonic and Avar tribes crossed the Danube frontier and captured major fortified cities like Singidunum (Belgrade), allowing them to move south with their families and flocks in search of better pasture. By the early seventh century they besieged Thessalonike, whose patron saint Demetrios was allegedly crucial in preventing its capture. Large regions of the Balkans, Greece and the western Peloponnese were gradually overrun and temporarily passed out of imperial control. The immediate result of this pressure was that Roman troops refused to campaign north of the Danube in the winter of 602, marched on Constantinople and overthrew the emperor.

Shortly after this coup d’état, the Persians overran the eastern frontier and devastated major cities in Asia Minor. In conditions of grave disarray, the Senate of Constantinople appealed to the exarch of Carthage, who sent his son Herakleios and nephew Niketas with troops to restore order in Byzantium. But nothing could deter Persian attacks: Antioch succumbed and Jerusalem was savagely sacked in 614. After a massacre of the local population, the patriarch and remaining Christians carrying the relic of the True Cross were marched off into Persian captivity, which they compared to the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. In 619, the Persians occupied Alexandria and prevented the grain fleet from sailing to Constantinople.

With the help of the Patriarch Sergios (610–38), who crowned him emperor in 610, Herakleios concentrated all his attention on defeating Persia. For over ten years he improved Byzantine fighting forces and planned new strategies, which were used in the prolonged campaign of 622–8, when he spent whole years away from the capital, making alliances with Caucasian tribes, and planning attacks deep inside Persian territory. During his absence, however, the Persians made common cause with the Avars, who now dominated their Slavonic allies, and advanced to the shores of the Bosphoros. The siege of 626 was a challenging moment in the history of the empire. The Byzantines believed that the Mother of God had defended the city in person and it had passed under her special protection.

Less than two years later, Herakleios advanced into Persia from the north, capturing the major cities of Nineveh and Ctesiphon. In 628 Chosroes II, the Shah of Shahs, was overthrown, his palace at Dastergard was sacked, the True Cross recovered, and vast amounts of booty had to be burned because the army could not carry it all off. The official announcement of victory was sent to Constantinople and read to the assembled population in Hagia Sophia by the patriarch: ‘Let all Christians give thanks to the one God… For fallen is the arrogant Chosroes, opponent of God.’ It went on to describe the army’s return from Persia and concluded: ‘We have confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ, the good and almighty God, and in our Lady the Mother of God, that they will direct all our affairs in accordance with their goodness.’ Herakleios probably restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in the spring of 630 before he finally returned to the capital, where a great triumph was celebrated. Patriarch Sergios, the young prince Herakleios-Constantine and the entire population went out to greet him and accompanied him into the city ‘dancing with joy’, as Theophanes records in his Chronicle.

At this high point of Herakleios’ achievement, the Prophet Muhammad died in Arabia (632). The final defeat of Byzantium’s most serious enemy coincided with the birth of another: Zoroastrian Persians were replaced by Muslim Arabs. In their post-victory confidence, imperial officials refused the tribute traditionally paid to tribes who guarded the edges of the desert and had previously provided an early-warning system. Byzantium was therefore quite unprepared for invasion from the south. In the regained provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt the military authorities set up by Herakleios after 630 were taken by surprise. They were also dismayed by the coherent military challenge of the Arabian tribesmen, whom Muhammad had united after much inter-tribal warfare.

The death of the Prophet only confirmed the Arabs’ determination to spread Islamic domination throughout the known world. They adopted the year of Muhammad’s flight (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina (AD 622) as the first in their own lunar calendar, and began dating the conquests that followed from that year (AH). Using camels accustomed to the desert, they developed successful military tactics of rapid raiding and effective siege technology. The great cities of the Near East fell in quick succession: Damascus in 634, Gaza and Antioch in 637 and Jerusalem in 638. At the battle on the River Yarmuk in northern Syria in 636, Herakleios witnessed a terrible defeat. He retreated to Antioch but was forced to abandon it to the Arabs. Although no one in Constantinople imagined that these huge losses would be permanent, it proved impossible to reverse them. In 661, the Muslims established their capital at Damascus and began to launch annual campaigns against Byzantium.

In a single decade (632/42) the Arabs had occupied Syria, Palestine and the richest province of Egypt, including the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was a major turning point in Byzantine history. The Arabs had conquered about two-thirds of imperial territory and clearly intended to take the rest, as they pressed on with their expansion across Asia Minor and the coast of North Africa. In the process they nearly put an end to Byzantium. The capture of Jerusalem inflicted a deep humiliation on Christian prestige, while the conquest of Egypt put an end to the economic system constructed by Rome and inherited by New Rome. Using their mastery of practical astronomy to travel through the desert, the Arabs adapted to the sea without difficulty and began to attack the islands and coastlines of the empire.

From commercial contacts with the inhabitants of the Near East, Arab leaders knew that the Roman Empire had had a great history. They wanted to re-create its ancient unity around the Mediterranean under their own control. To western historians it may appear as ‘the swamping of Christian civilization’, but the Arabs saw it differently. Islam had replaced Christianity in the same way that Christianity had replaced Judaism and outlawed the pagan cults, and all were urged to convert to this final revelation from God. But the Arabs had to capture New Rome before they could move on Old Rome, and Byzantium proved to be the stumbling block which frustrated their initial attempt at the conquest of the known world.

The Arabs’ ambitions were confirmed by their destruction of the Persian Empire: Ctesiphon, Tabriz, Nineveh, Isfahan and Persepolis were all conquered by 648, and new garrison settlements constructed at Kufa, Basra and Mosul provided bases for later conquests. The Arabs combined an eastern thrust towards Kabul in Afghanistan (664) with a western advance across North Africa to Kairouan (670), near Carthage. By 711, they crossed both the River Oxus to capture Bukhara and Samarkand and the Straits of Gibraltar to invade Spain. The blue-tiled mosques of Samarkand and Tashkent, together with the Great Mosques of Kairouan and Cordoba, symbolize the extent of this expansion. From its base in Arabia, the new religion of Islam not only replaced Christianity in the lands of its birth, but also controlled the widest extent of the known world.

Ever since the 1930s, when the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne pointed out the significance of the Arab expansion with the memorable phrase ‘Without Muhammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’, Islam has been connected with the emergence of Europe. He argued that the Muslim disruption of ancient trade patterns, which had united all shores of the Mediterranean, forced northern Europe to develop its own economic base, independently of the south. Contacts across the North Sea with Britain and Scandinavia led eventually to the development of the Hanseatic League that linked Germany with the Baltic regions. Pirenne failed, however, to acknowledge the role played by Byzantium in preventing continued Muslim expansion across Asia Minor, the Dardanelles and into Europe. Instead of analysing how the empire fought for its existence, he took for granted its role in shielding the West. But if Constantinople had fallen to the Arabs in the mid-seventh century, they would have used its great wealth and imperial power to advance directly into Europe. The broad swathe of early Muslim conquests would have been replicated throughout the Balkans and farther west, where the Slavonic and Germanic peoples would not have been able to resist. And without its Christian hinterland, Rome too would surely have converted. Without Byzantium, Europe as we know it is inconceivable.

Byzantium survived. But it had to come to terms with a new enemy that had unleashed a permanent change in the world of Late Antiquity, one which it could neither defeat nor incorporate. In place of Roman rule around the Mediterranean, a threefold division produced an Islamic South, a Byzantine Christian East and a Latin Christian West. No doubt, the long wars between Byzantium and Persia had weakened both the old imperial structures, creating a partial vacuum into which the Arabs moved, maximizing their energy for additional campaigns. But the Arab conquest, initially driven by economic pressures in Arabia, owes most to the new religion of Islam, which means submission (to the will of Allah). The revelations of Muhammad, who identified himself as the ‘last Prophet of God’, bound the desert warriors together under a vigorous but narrow banner. His sayings were the first texts to be written down in Arabic, in contrast to the rich oral poetry of those who had previously worshipped numerous idols. The Qur’an in classical Arabic is not only the first but also a beautiful example of the previously spoken language. The Arab tribes thus became a chosen people, who had received God’s final message and had recorded it in their own tongue. Insistence on monotheism and spiritual worship in easily mastered rituals inspired believers, disciplined converts, however reluctant, and gave all adherents a new sense of purpose.

Although holy war, jihad, was not one of the five pillars of Islam (the confession of faith, daily prayer, pilgrimage, fasting in the month of Ramadan and giving alms), it rapidly became a distinctive aspect of the new faith. The Arabian tribesmen who participated in the first great wave of conquest needed followers and additional forces to sustain their campaigns east and west. Initially the warriors, who were paid and encouraged by booty, lived in garrison centres separated from the conquered population. Jews and Christians, the peoples of the Book (i.e. the Old Testament), were allowed to keep their religions as long as they paid extra taxes under the rule of Islam, but many converted. As Patricia Crone and Michael Cook have shown, the history of this amazing process must be reconstructed from external contemporary accounts, since nearly all the Arabic records date from centuries later and preserve mythic aspects.

Eventually the Arab campaigns extended beyond anyone’s grasp of geography in the seventh century. It is hard for us to realize how quickly the religion of Islam was carried from Arabia to the ends of the known world. In 712, the Arabs captured the Visigothic capital of Toledo and created a Muslim state in Spain. Forty years later, they defeated Chinese forces at Talas in Sogdiana, thus securing the extension of Islam through Central Asia. This new world was linked by camel trains following desert routes overland from Ceuta, opposite Gibraltar, to the Far East. But the desert zeal of holy war collided with the urban seductions of occupation: the fighters started to settle in cities, married local girls and began to lose their tribal identity. Almost inevitably, the process generated division and civil wars.

Much earlier in their campaigns, however, when the Arabs attempted to conquer Byzantium, they were checked by the fortified Taurus Mountains which separate Asia Minor from the continent of Asia proper. Byzantium became a frontier zone, the barrier between Christianity and Islam, Europe and the Near East. During the high point of Arab power, from 660 to 740, the empire had to contend with annual raiding across the Taurus, and three major campaigns were directed against Constantinople by land and sea. As Caliph Sulayman (715–17) declared, Constantinople was a great prize, and in 717 he was determined to take it. The defeat after a twelve-month siege was all the more important for Byzantium’s survival. The Arabs were rebuffed and their ambitions to make Constantinople the base of expansion farther west were thwarted.

The Arabs established in Spain found that the Pyrenees marked the limit of their westward expansion. In 733, when they campaigned farther north, combined Frankish forces under Charles Martel (‘the Hammer’) defeated them near Poitiers and forced them back. They remained behind this natural frontier for the next seven hundred years, generating a highly sophisticated society in Spain, especially in what is now Andalusia. Two mountain ranges thus marked the extent of Muslim conquest of the Roman world and these boundaries remained fixed for centuries. By AD 800, a new Christian society emerged in the West and identified its territory as ‘Europa’, while Byzantium sustained the faith in the East. Both flourished outside the newly established limits of Islamic expansion, which they gradually pushed back.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean world, Jerusalem had passed into Muslim hands – the patriarch Sophronios surrendered the city to Umar, the second caliph (successor to the Prophet) of the Arabs (634–44), rather than permit a repeat of the Persian desecration and massacre of 614. In the Qur’an, Jerusalem was recorded as the place from which Muhammad was taken on a tour of heaven after a miraculous nocturnal visit from Arabia. The rock on the Temple Mount on which he had stood was enclosed in a building. In 691/2, Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik replaced it by a most beautiful shrine, the Dome of the Rock. The interior is decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine style, executed by Byzantine craftsmen, but they carry a purely Islamic message. Verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, proclaimed on a band above entirely non-figural images of idyllic gardens, trees, flowers and ornamental urns, are directed against the Byzantines:

The messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He committed to Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not say ‘three’ [a reference to the Christian Trinity]: refrain, it is better for you.

This monument symbolizes the decisive shift of power and religious observance in the Near East.

Only indirect records of the contemporary Byzantine reaction are preserved, in apocalyptic stories of the end of the world which imply that the Arab tribes are the precursors of the Antichrist. Based on ancient predictions, such as the Book of Revelation, these accounts reinterpret the story of the last Roman emperor who will go to Jerusalem and hang up his crown to signify the end of time. In one version, the column of Constantine in his Forum in Constantinople will be the last monument to survive the floodwaters, which will destroy the earth. Borrowing the name of Methodios, Bishop of Patara, who was supposed to have written an Apocalypse in Syriac, these pseudo-Methodian texts reflect the anxiety of seventh-century Christians about the Arab conquest of their capital.

This was indeed the Muslim aim, but it did not happen. Byzantine resistance drew on military, dynastic, cultural and religious strengths. Constantinople’s giant walls, moats and seaboard defences generated profound self-belief among the inhabitants of the city, whose faith in the support of the Mother of God inspired confidence. They also provided the vital human investment in maintaining the walls which ensured the city’s impregnability. The empire’s inner strength was nourished by its Christian devotion, its belief that Byzantine military victories were granted by God, and that by sincere prayer He would continue to protect them.

Behind the natural barrier of the Taurus Mountains, the few remaining troops from the Near Eastern provinces were regrouped and settled in areas of Asia Minor. In place of traditional Roman military methods of recruitment and pay, a new system, which we now characterize as ‘medieval’, gradually evolved: the fighting forces were allotted lands in a military region, thema (Greek, plural themata), on which their families lived and from which they equipped themselves for annual summer campaigning. The first three of these themata, identified as Anatolikon (Eastern), Armeniakon (Armenian) and Opsikion (from the Latin obsequium, a term used for military followers), seem to have developed in the period c. 630–80. Shortly after, Thrakia (Thrace, the area west of Constantinople), Thrakesion in western Asia Minor and a naval thema on the southern coast of Asia Minor, named Kibyrraioton (based on the port city of Antalya), were created. A separate naval force (Karabisianoi) continued to patrol in Aegean waters but never seems to have formed a thema.

In these new units of military government, the general (strategos) combined all powers. Civilian officials were subordinate to his authority and their chief function was related to the recruitment of soldiers, whose names were recorded on military lists (katalogoi). Beyond this essential aspect, their task was to measure land, and calculate, record and collect taxes on all the territory under imperial control. This formed the basis of Byzantine administration to the end of the empire, eight hundred years later. But the establishment of the new provincial administration took several generations and did not prevent regular raiding by Muslim forces from Damascus. Byzantium had had to change its method of financing and organizing military defence, adapting its system of government to a smaller scale. It had to come to terms with the loss of Egypt, which had supplied wheat to feed the metropolis for centuries, as well as the prosperous regions and cities of Syria and Palestine. This decisive change moulded all subsequent history and helped to define medieval Byzantium. Despite these losses Byzantium continued to issue a reliable gold coinage and to live by its legal system. Roman law was translated into Greek as the emperor abandoned his Latin designation, imperator, for the Greek, basileus. Herakleios also issued new laws and reformed the copper currency.

In the mid-seventh century the Arabs sailed to Cyprus, Cos and Rhodes, which all fell to Muslim control. From these bases the Arabs harried shipping in the Aegean, raiding the islands and coastal sites, sometimes to cut wood for shipbuilding. In 655, they defeated the young emperor Constans II (641–68), grandson of Herakleios, off the south coast of Asia Minor. He then decided to move his court in 662 to the safer environment of Syracuse in Sicily. The Roman Book of the Pontiffs describes how Constans visited Rome, was ceremoniously received by Pope Vitalian and made gifts to the churches, including a gold pallium (cloth), which he laid on the altar of St Peter’s:

He stayed in Rome twelve days; he dismantled all the city’s bronze decorations; he removed the bronze tiles from the roof of the church of St Mary ad martyres… Entering Sicily he lived in Syracuse. He imposed such afflictions on the people… for years on end… as had never been seen before. On 15 July in the 12th indiction, the said emperor was murdered in his bath.

When a pretender claimed the throne, the Senate in Constantinople immediately had Constans’ eldest son crowned emperor as Constantine IV (668–85), and Syracuse reverted to its provincial status. Sicily and southern Italy remained under imperial rule, though in the course of the ninth century the island slowly succumbed to Arab conquest. But long after the military defeat of Byzantium there, some courts still recorded their judgments in Greek, individuals founded orthodox monasteries and artistic workshops copied Greek manuscripts in a Byzantine style.

From the beginning of Constantine IV’s reign, Constantinople was assaulted by persistent Arab attacks; in a five-year campaign, the besiegers wintered at Kyzikos and engaged the Byzantine navy every summer. In these battles ‘Greek fire’ was first used effectively to destroy enemy ships. Finally, in 678, Constantine IV turned the tide of Muslim conquest, not only by demonstrating how strongly defended his capital was, but also by persuading the Mardaites, independent mountain tribesmen of Lebanon, to attack the Arabs. He imposed a thirty-year peace treaty on Caliph Mu’awiya, who agreed to pay a yearly tribute of 3,000 gold pieces, fifty captives and fifty thoroughbred horses. In this way, the emperor ended what had seemed like an unstoppable campaign against the empire, although Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685–705) would later resume attacks. Constantine IV negotiated favourable arrangements with the Lombards in Italy, and the Avars in central Europe, and restored good relations with Rome. By removing his brothers from authority, he insisted that his son Justinian II should succeed him.

This turning point in Arab–Byzantine relations allowed Constantine IV to shift attention from the Muslim threat to the very different one posed by the Slavs in the western provinces. Although they too were capable of besieging major cities, they tended to settle on productive agricultural land in groups identified by Theophanes as Sklaviniai. Their gradual infiltration throughout the Balkans had forced many indigenous communities to flee to fortified cities, mountain tops and islands. In 584, Monemvasia, the city ‘with one entrance’, was established on a rocky outcrop linked to the Peloponnese by a causeway. The population of Argos fled to Orove, an island in the Saronic Gulf, and the inhabitants of Patras sailed across the sea to Sicily. Both the degree of Slavonic settlement, which can be traced through place-names and archaeological evidence, and its time-scale remain disputed. But eventually nearly all the Slavs became Byzantines, whether by military force or through commercial and social interaction.

In this process of incorporation and conversion, the new system of administration and the Church played significant roles. By 695, Hellas in central Greece formed a thema, with its own general and staff who supported local clergy, for instance the bishops of Athens and Corinth, in maintaining orthodox traditions through parishes and monasteries. Initially through trading contacts, the Slavs learnt to speak Greek and gradually became absorbed into the empire, serving in the army, adopting Christianity and paying their taxes to Constantinople, like other imperial subjects. Their cultural conversion strengthened Byzantium and deepened the empire’s Christian identity.

Normans – Byzantine Mercenaries

The Normans arrived in the Byzantine world not as enemies, but as valued mercenaries esteemed for their martial prowess. The settlement of Scandinavian raiders created the duchy of Normandy, when the region was ceded to their war leader Rollo (d. ca. 931) by the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (898–922). Rollo’s descendants mingled with the local French population to create the Normans, a people thoroughly Christian, doggedly militaristic, and unfailingly expansionistic. Norman soldiers entered Italy around the start of the eleventh century where they served as mercenaries for various Lombard princes. By the 1050s large numbers of “Franks,” as the Byzantines called them, had served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies from Syria to Bulgaria, and Normans served as part of the standing garrison of Asia Minor. In the 1040s the Normans began the conquest of south Italy, establishing several counties in the south and finally invading and conquering Sicily from the petty Muslim dynasts there by 1091. Since the late 1050s the Normans had challenged Roman interests in Italy and Robert Guiscard led a Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081. In the ensuing conflict the Normans defeated Alexios I Komnenos, who expelled them only with great difficulty. Two more major Norman invasions followed over the next century, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily remained a threat to imperial ambitions in the west and to the imperial core until the Hauteville Norman dynasty failed in 1194. By this time all hope for the Byzantine recovery of south Italy and Sicily had vanished, thanks to Norman power.

Organization

The Normans served under captains who rose to prominence due to birth or their fortunes in war. Minor nobility like Tancred of Hauteville, who founded the dynasty that would conquer much of Italy and Sicily, was a minor baron in Normandy and probably the descendant of Scandinavian settlers. The warriors who carved out territory within Byzantine Anatolia seem to have been either petty aristocrats or simply successful soldiers. One such Norman was Hervé Frankopoulos, who in 1057 led 300 Franks east in search of plunder and territory. After initial successes around Lake Van, he was delivered to the emperor and eventually pardoned. Thus, Norman companies were of no fixed numbers, and it seems that each baron recruited men according to his wealth and status. Norman lords in Italy raised the core of their army from men to whom they distributed lands and wealth in exchange for permanent military service. Lords were required to provide fixed numbers of troops, either knights or infantry sergeants. Other Normans served for pay and plunder, including conquered lands to be distributed after successful occupation of enemy territory. The Normans that the Byzantines encountered were a fluid group—some fought for the empire and then against it; their interests were pay and personal advancement rather than any particular ethnic allegiance. In this the Normans who warred against the Byzantines resembled the later free companies of the late medieval period—variable in numbers, generally following a capable, experienced, and charismatic commander, and exceptionally opportunistic. As a warlord’s success grew, so did his resources. Thus Robert Guiscard rose from the leader of a band of Norman robbers to be Count and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria; in 1084, following his defeat of Alexios at Dyrrachium, Guiscard marched on Rome with thousands of infantry and more than 2,000 knights, a far cry from the scores or hundreds with which he began his career.

 

Methods of Warfare

The bulk of the Norman fighting forces were infantry, but they formed a largely defensive force that operated in support of the cavalry. Norman infantry fought generally as spearmen—the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Normans on foot wearing the nasal helm and mail hauberks, but it is unlikely that the majority were so armed. Most were probably unarmored and relied on shields for protection like most of their counterparts throughout Europe. Light infantry archers fought with little or no armor, and missile troops played a role in their Balkan campaigns as well—the Byzantine commander George Palaiologos suffered an arrow wound to his head in battle at Dyrrachium in 1082, but generally the Byzantines relied on superior Turkish archery in order to unhorse the Normans and immobilize the knights. Norman knights wore heavy mail hauberks and mail chausses with in-pointed mail foot guards, which Anna Komnene noted slowed the Norman cavalry down when they were unhorsed. These mounted men carried lances and swords. The weight of their mail made them relatively safe from the archery of the day. Norman knights usually decided the course of battle; it was the shock cavalry charge delivered by the Norman knight that delivered victory in battle after battle. Unlike the Turks and Pechenegs with whom the empire regularly contended and whose weaponry was lighter and who relied on mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and feigned retreat, the Normans preferred close combat. They fought in dense, well-ordered ranks and exhibited exemplary discipline. In an era when infantry were generally of questionable quality, most foot soldiers throughout Europe and the Middle East could not stare down a Norman frontal cavalry charge. Norman horsemen punched holes in opposing formations and spread panic and disorder that their supporting troops exploited. By the end of the eleventh century, Norman prowess on the battlefield yielded them possessions from Syria to Scotland.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines avidly recruited Normans into their armies. Though critics have unfairly blamed the medieval Romans for not adapting their warfare in light of the new western techniques and technologies to which they were exposed, fully equipped and well-trained kataphraktoi could match the skill and shock power of the Norman knight. What the Byzantines of the Komnenoi era lacked were the disciplined heavy infantry of the Macedonian period and combined arms approach of mounted and dismounted archery that could blunt enemy attack and cover infantry and cavalry tactical operations. Alexios I relied on Turkish and steppe nomad auxiliaries and patchwork field armies assembled from mercenaries drawn from the empire’s neighbors. As with other intractable foes, the Byzantines relied on a combination of defense and offense—the Normans were contained in the Balkans allowing space for an imperial recovery and the time to muster new forces following the heavy defeat late in 1081 of the Roman army at Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. Alexios allied with southern Italian nobles and the German emperor Henry IV (1084–1105) who menaced the Norman flanks. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 removed the most serious threat to Byzantine rule since the seventh century, but Guiscard’s son, the redoubtable Bohemund, renewed war against the empire in 1107–8. Alexios had learned from his twenty years of dealing with the Norman adversary and returned to the traditional Byzantine strategies of defense, containment, and attrition. The Byzantines relied on their Venetian allies to provide naval squadrons on the Adriatic that interfered with Norman shipping and resupply, and Alexios’s forces blocked the passes around Dyrrachium; the emperor forbade his commanders to engage in a large-scale confrontation with the Normans. In the skirmishes and running battles against Norman scouting and foraging parties Byzantine archers shot the enemy mounts from beneath their riders and then cut down the beleaguered knights. Hunger, disease, and lack of money undid Bohemund, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and return to Italy. Thus the ages-old Byzantine principles of indirect warfare proved triumphant against a stubborn and superior enemy.

THE NEAR EAST IN THE BALANCE

The Battle of the Masts – 655 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULGARS VERSUS BYZANTINES

Bulgarians against Byzantines – Battle of Rusokastro 18 July 1332

Avar and Bulgar warriors, eastern Europe, 8th century AD

The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarius outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.

Organization

Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Varbica in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria. The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.

Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire

Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, in order to see it in its proper context, beginning in 988, a few words about the Byzantine Empire itself are needed first.

The Byzantine Empire (also known as Byzantium, as the Eastern Roman Empire, and as the medieval Roman Empire) was the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was centered on the capital of Constantinople but scholars cannot say precisely when the Roman Empire ended and when the Byzantine Empire began. If a date is needed, however, the year 395 can conveniently be used. It was then, after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, that the Roman Empire was divided for the last time and its western and eastern halves were permanently separated.

The western half came to an end in 476, when the Germanic Roman general Odocar deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus. The eastern half, however, would go on to become the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Indeed, it would endure until the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

The Byzantine Army was the direct descendant of the Roman army and was among the most effective military forces in western Eurasia for much of the Middle Ages. One of the reasons for its great success is that every time it came up against a strong enemy, it welcomed that enemy as a potential new source of mercenary recruits. Its opponents included Goths; Huns; Vandals; Ostrogoths; Avars; Slavs; Rus, i.e., Vikings from what is now Sweden; Normans; Seljeks; Anatolian beyliks, i.e., the inhabitants of a small Turkish principality; Ottomans; and warriors from Sassanid Persia, the Muslim Caliphate, Bulgaria, and the Crusader states. The Byzantine Empire recruited mercenaries from among its own allies, too. These soldiers included Bulgars, men from the Crusader states, Anatolian beyliks, Khazars, Avars, Rus, and Magyars [Hungarians]. It will be noted that some of the above were both the Byzantine Army’s opponents and its allies, though at different times.

The mercenaries hired by the Byzantines were first known as the foederati (“allies” in Latin—by the 6th century this term came to mean units of non–Roman, as well as Roman, mercenaries brigaded together) and then as the Hetairoi (“Companionships” in Greek). They were mainly assigned to the Imperial Guard. This formidable force was structured into “Great Companionships,” “Middle Companionships,” and “Minor Companionships,” each commanded by their respective “Companionship lords.” Mercenaries may also have been recruited along religious lines, e.g., from the Christian subjects of the Byzantine Empire, from Christian foreigners, and from non–Christians. Mercenary units were organized by their place of origin: Inglinoi (Englishmen), Phragkoi (Franks), Skythikoi (Scythians), and Latinikoi (“Latins,” referring here to Germans and Normans), and Ethiopians. The Skythikoi were often used as a police force in Constantinople.

The Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in the 10th to the 14th centuries, was one of the most famous mercenary corps of history and was certainly the most famous of all the Byzantine regiments. It is thought that the term “Varangian” comes from an archaic Norse word variously translated as “confidence,” “vow of fidelity,” or “ally,” and refers to a group of warriors and traders who had sworn allegiance to their leader and fellowship to each other. Interestingly, what is now the Baltic Sea was in earlier times known as the Varangian Sea.

The first clear glimpse of them comes in 988, when the Emperor Basil II (978–1025) asked Vladimir I of Kiev for military assistance to help defend his throne. Vladimir sent 6,000 warriors, known as “Rus,” to the Emperor. The word “Rus” may have come from an Old Norse term meaning “the men who row.” They were such excellent fighters that they soon became the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Under Basil II, the Byzantine Empire built up a largely mercenary army, generally abandoning the earlier system under which territorial forces defended the provinces and regulars from Constantinople reinforced them when needed. Because Basil II regarded mercenaries as politically more dependable than regular troops, his reliance on them would persist for a long time. The Varangian Guard greatly profited from his support and was paid very well indeed. The Icelandic Laxdale Saga, for example, gives this report on the homecoming in 1030 of the folkloric hero Bolli Bollason, who went to Byzantium as a mercenary recruit and eventually rose to become a senior officer of the Varangian Guard.

The saga says:

Bolli brought back with him much wealth and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were adorned with gold: he was called Bolli the Great….

Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on guilt saddles, and were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king [i.e., the Emperor] had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter [the name of his sword] girt on him, the hilt of which was adorned with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.

Anna Comnena wrote of the 11th century Varangian Guardsmen:

They regarded loyalty to the Emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust and inheritance handed down from generation to generation; this allegiance they preserve inviolate and will never brook the slightest hint of betrayal.

The commander of the Varangian Guard was awarded the title of Akolouthos. Literally, this meant the “Follower” of the Emperor, but in practice it meant the man who stood closest to the Emperor on formal occasions and who served as his most important bodyguard. The tall, fierce men of the Varangian Guard were initially of Scandinavian origin but after the Norman Conquest of 1066, many displaced Anglo-Saxons joined the Varangian Guard, too.

The Varangian Guard demonstrated its worth in the battle of Beroia in 1122 in what is now Bulgaria. Led by Emperor John II Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire, the Varangian Guard won that fight against the Pechenegs. These were men from the Russian steppes who had invaded the Byzantine Empire by crossing the Danube frontier and entering Byzantine territory. The Pechenegs fought as waves of horse archers, shooting arrows continuously and using their laager [wagon fort] as an arrow-depot; as a rallying-point; and, if necessary, as a holdout for a last stand.

After a very hard fight, the Byzantines forced the Pechenegs to take refuge in their laager, but there they put up such a stiff resistance that the Byzantines could not overrun them until the Varangian Guard arrived and used their broad-axes (also known as Danish axes) with shafts up to 6 feet long to hack their way through the circle of wagons, forcing the Pechenegs to flee for their lives. Rather than massacring the surviving Pechenegs, however, the Varangian Guard simply took them prisoner and enrolled them in the Byzantine army.

In 1167 in what is now Serbia, the Byzantine Empire decisively defeated the Kingdom of Hungary at the battle of Sirmium. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the Byzantine army then consisted of one-third foreign and two-thirds native units. This battle involved regular Byzantine troops, Turks, Cumans, Imperial guard units (including the Varangian Guard), Italian mercenary lancers from Lombardy, Serbian infantry and cavalry, German mercenaries, and even some Western mercenary knights. The net result was that the Hungarians were forced to sue for peace on Byzantine terms; to recognize Byzantine control over Bosnia, Croatia, and related areas; and to pay tribute to Byzantium and to provide troops for it whenever so requested.

The Varangian Guard was also instrumental in repelling the Crusader assaults of the First Crusade (1096–1099). In 1204, however, combined Crusader armies of Franks and Venetians besieged and captured Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). Bad weather had delayed the initial Crusader attack on the city but later a strong north wind and good seamanship allowed Venetian ships to moor right alongside the city’s wall. This feat enabled the attackers to seize some of the towers along the wall. After short but sharp battle, about 70 Crusaders managed to fight their way into Constantinople itself. At the same time, other Crusaders were busy knocking holes through the wall—just big enough for a few knights at a time to scramble through them. The Venetians also managed to scale the wall from the sea, in the face of extremely bloody fighting with the Varangians.

The victorious Crusaders burned, looted, and vandalized Constantinople. Under the terms of a prearranged treaty, the Byzantine Empire was then divided between Venice and the Crusader leaders, and what was called the Latin Empire of Constantine was thus established. Much of the Byzantine aristocracy, which was exceedingly unpopular with the common people of the city, fled from the city. The contemporary Byzantine historian and eye-witness Nicetas Choniates (himself an aristocrat) says:

The peasants and common riff-raff jeered at those of us from Byzantium and were thick-headed enough to call our miserable poverty and nakedness equality…. Many were only too happy to accept this outrage, saying “Blessed be the Lord that we have grown rich,” and buying up for next to nothing the property their fellow-countrymen were forced to offer for sale….

After the loss of Constantinople, the Varangian Guard was disbanded as a permanent major fighting force and subsequently performed only secondary or ceremonial duties. Some of its men served the Nicean Empire and the Despotate of Epirus in 1205–1261. Others defended Ainos against the Bulgarians in 1265 and were bodyguards for Emperor John V in 1351. The Varangian Guard was mentioned as participating in imperial ceremonies in Byzantium in 1351. Finally, there is some evidence that English mercenaries and mixed-blood descendants of Varangians served together. For example,” axe-bearing soldiers of British race” are mentioned by Byzantine envoys in Rome in 1404.