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.


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 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.


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.


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.

Justinian’s Disaster I

Human societies may disintegrate for any one of a number of reasons – conquest, pestilence, internal strife or government incompetence. The tragedy which befell the civilisations of the Mediterranean world in 541–2 and undermined its two dominant empires was that all these woes fell upon them at the same time.

The empires in question were Rome and Persia. Both these mighty states could look back on a long and glorious past. They had increased their boundaries, built fine cities and established peace and firm government over their subject peoples. By the sixth century such achievements lay in a distant past, preserved only in imperial chronicles. But the tide of history had turned again – a fact that made the disasters of this year particularly poignant since they fell upon resurgent empires, empires that were just beginning to recover part of their former glory.

In the second century AD the Roman Empire had constituted a continuous band of territory from what is now Portugal to Iran. But, by the 520s, under pressure from ‘barbarian’ tribes from central Asia and northern Europe, its borders had shrunk to an area bordering the eastern Mediterranean from the Adriatic coast to the Nile valley. In fact, strictly speaking, it was no longer a Roman empire. The Emperor Constantine, who had ruled from 312 to 337, had made two major strategic decisions. He had moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, on the Bosphorus, which he renamed Constantinople. The new centre was better placed for guarding the empire’s Danube and Euphrates borders. He had also replaced a welter of pagan religions with one official religion – Christianity. This gave the heterogeneous empire a philosophical/political unity. Henceforth Christianity and classical culture would constitute the ideological foundation on which European civilisation was built.

The empire was stabilised under rule from two centres, Rome and Constantinople. However, when, in 527, Justinian I came to the throne, the civilisation was looking far from secure. What had been the Western Empire had become a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms – Visigoths ruled what is now Spain, Vandals controlled North Africa, Burgundians and Franks had divided between them what is modern France. Scandinavian and north German tribes competed for Britain, and Ostrogoths were masters of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, usually called the Byzantine Empire was hard-pressed by Huns in the North and a revived Persian Empire in the East. In 540 a Bulgar army raided right up to the walls of Constantinople. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Byzantine Empire itself was divided by competing versions of Christianity.

Seen against this background, the achievements of Justinian seem truly remarkable. He completely turned the tide of Byzantine affairs. If he had not had to face a variety of misfortunes which eventually proved to be overwhelming, he might well have restored the power and glory of ancient Rome. This emperor was as forceful and ruthless as he was intelligent. There was no area of life on which he did not set his stamp. After the Bulgar raid he completely rebuilt the fortifications along the northern border. He recodified the laws. He imposed uniformity on the feuding religious factions and made himself the supreme authority in Church as well as state. He outlawed heretics and homosexuals. He forced through administrative and financial reforms, improved the defensive fortifications of the empire and built several churches. The material symbol of his greatness can still be seen in the magnificent Church of Santa Sophia (now a mosque), with its huge dome, which still crowns the skyline of Constantinople (now named Istanbul).

Establishing strong government after years of corruption and administrative incompetence called for ruthlessness. The emperor was hard and uncompromising and he was aided in his reforming programme by some powerful advisers and agents. Foremost among them was his wife, the Empress Theodora. Theodora is one of the most extraordinary women in all of ancient history, and certainly the most important in the story of the Byzantine Empire. Before Justinian made her his mistress and later, his wife, she had been an actress and a woman of very dubious morality. But she was mentally strong and highly intelligent. She came to exercise considerable power and even had a pope deposed on her sole authority. Justinian relied heavily on her advice and she was at her best in times of crisis. On many occasions, the emperor would have abandoned his plans in the light of strong opposition had not Theodora provided an example of unflinching leadership.

Justinian was also fortunate in having in his service a talented administrator and legal adviser: John the Cappadocian. John was a born bureaucrat with a clear mind unclouded by compassion or human sympathy. Justinian’s reforms would have been quite impossible without an administrator as single-minded as he was himself. It was John who helped to draw up the new legal code, and he imposed it without fear or favour. Justinian appointed him praetorian prefect of the Eastern Empire, with widespread powers to levy taxes and oversee regional governments. John weeded out ineffective officials and men who were using their office to amass personal fortunes. As far as possible he replaced them with others chosen on merit. He was not afraid to stand up to the emperor or to attempt to dissuade him from policies such as foreign wars, which would deplete the treasury and divert funds from administrative reconstruction. Inevitably, his draconian measures aroused opposition. This diatribe by one of his enemies indicates how much he was hated:

…the villainous John the Cappadocian… proceeded to cause misfortunes that were felt by the general public. First, he set out chains and shackles, stocks and irons. Within the praetor’s court he established a private prison there in the darkness for punishments that were inflicted upon those who came under his authority… There he shut up those who were being subject to restraint. He exempted no one, whatever his station, from torture. He has no compunction about stringing up, without holding an enquiry, those among whom the only information that had been laid was that they possessed gold… they were either stripped of all they possessed or dead before he let them go… A certain Antiochus, who was advanced in years at the time when this happened, was named by an informer who told a tale to John that he possessed some gold. So John arrested him and strung him up by the hands, which were fastened by strong, fine cords, until the old man, who denied the charge, was a corpse.

Justinian’s reign coincided with that of another great ruler in Persia. Khusro I (sometimes spelled Chosroes), who ruled from 531 to 579, was the most outstanding king of the Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanian Empire, founded in 221, had, at its apogee, extended from what is now Turkey to Pakistan and from the Caspian Sea to both shores of the Persian Gulf. However, like the Roman Empire, it had passed its peak by the early sixth century. Enter Khusro I. He was, in many ways, similar to Justinian – forceful and ruthless, an administrative reformer and a builder who left behind several new palaces, fortifications and even towns. Khusro presided over a cultural renaissance. A Christian chronicler, John of Ephesus, wrote of him:

He was a prudent and wise man, and all his lifetime took pains to collect the religious books of all creeds, and read and study them, that he might learn which were true and wise and which were foolish.

Under Khusro, Sassanian art reached its peak of achievement. Everything from clay seals, silverware, pottery and glass to monumental palace architecture testified to the aesthetic refinement, wealth and power of the dynasty. When pagan philosophers were expelled from Athens, Khusro welcomed them to his own capital of Ctesiphon, a city as grand as Constantinople, but now vanished. At the same time he introduced from India the game of chess.

Khusro’s political problems mirrored those of Justinian. His empire was beset by internal sectarian divisions within the national religion of Zoroastrianism and by political revolts. Persia faced the constant threat of Huns along its extended northern and eastern frontiers. In 484 they had ravaged the eastern half of the empire and slaughtered a whole Sassanid army, led by the Persian king. Khusro spent the early years of his reign concentrating on overhauling the tax system and imposing long-overdue military reforms. One of his first acts was to agree with Justinian a treaty of ‘Endless Peace’. No less than Justinian, the Persian king needed to avoid distractions while he dealt with the empire’s internal problems and while he secured his eastern frontier. But, again like Justinian, Khusro was a ruler with huge ambitions. His aim was nothing less than to obtain a stranglehold over all the land and sea routes along which flowed the precious cargoes of merchandise from India and China. Thus, while it was in the interests of both empires to put an end to their rivalry, such a respite could only be temporary.

One reason Justinian was pleased to be free of distractions in the East was his determination on territorial expansion in the West. His ambitions went far beyond establishing strong and efficient government in the Byzantine East. He had never accepted the loss of the western provinces and he was determined to bring together the two halves of the ancient Roman Empire. In this he was assisted by another talented servant, Belisarius. Belisarius was one of the great generals of antiquity, as imaginative and cunning as he was merciless. He also had the advantage of being married to a lady called Antonina, who was a close friend of Theodora. The first test of his loyalty and ability came in 532, when John the Cappadocian’s reforms sparked the first internal crisis of the reign. A revolt blew up in Constantinople and its leaders demanded the sacrifice of the most eminent imperial administrators. Some called for the deposition of the emperor. Justinian would have fled the capital had it not been for the steadfast example of Theodora. She called upon the services of Belisarius and he put a swift and bloody end to the insurrection. He hoodwinked the rebels into a meeting in the hippodrome, ostensibly to present their grievances. Once he had them inside the arena, Belisarius had the entrances sealed and sent in his troops. According to contemporary accounts, 30,000 rebels were massacred that day. Thereafter, Justinian was free from internal discord.

Justinian now employed Belisarius to carry out his reconquest of the western half of the old empire. In a series of brilliant campaigns between 533 and 535, Belisarius crushed the Vandals and captured their capital of Carthage. North Africa was reconquered for the Roman Empire. The following year, Belisarius crossed the sea, occupied Sicily, then moved northwards through Italy, reaching the city of Ravenna in 540, where he captured the Ostrogoth king and sent him back to Constantinople in chains. Justinian was not best pleased with this humiliation of his enemy. According to his political calculation, the stability of the empire would have been better served by allowing the Ostrogoths to rule a client kingdom in North Italy, paying tribute to Constantinople, until Byzantine rule in the peninsula had been firmly established. The emperor wanted a friendly buffer state to protect his own territory against the Franks to the North. Nevertheless, this turning of the tide of history was a remarkable achievement and just might have led to the re-establishment of Roman rule through the Mediterranean if Byzantium had not been beset by a clutch of new problems.

Justinian had scarcely received the news of victory over the barbarians in the West when he heard of a crisis on the eastern frontier. The Persian king Khusro, urged on by the Ostrogoths, who wanted the Romans to divert their forces from Italy, decided that now was the moment to have a go at attacking Byzantium. The temptation was too. By now he had energetically addressed his domestic problems, reorganised his army and was ready to confront the old enemy. So it was that, in 540, the two great empires once more went to war. Khusro marched through Syria, captured several Byzantine towns and made for the great prize of Antioch, one of the richest trading centres in Justinian’s realm. Antioch, as Khusro knew, was vulnerable. Although it had stout walls, they had recently been severely damaged by an earthquake. The citizens were unable to prevent the Persians looting and burning their city and carrying off thousands of its inhabitants into slavery. Khusro settled them in a newly built town which he called ‘Khusro’s-Better-than-Antioch’. Emboldened by easy victory, he then pressed home his advantage. In the next year’s campaign he headed for the Black Sea province of Lazika (part of modern Georgia). Justinian sent Belisarius to repel the resurgent Persians and the region was subjected to months of raid and counter-raid.

For Justinian, the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Lazika were ruinously expensive. He had inherited a full treasury but, by 541, it was virtually empty. What the emperor needed was a few years of peace in which to establish imperial administration in his newly won territories, so that, from taxes and the increase of trade, he could recoup the money expended in conquest. Khusro, too, would have benefited from a period in which to consolidate his gains. What neither ruler reckoned with was the appearance of a new enemy which would make a mockery of both of their calculations – bubonic plague.

This new disaster, which fell upon both great empires, and put their problems into a new perspective, was the outcome of a set of circumstances that had probably begun in 536. Severe meteorological disturbances occurred over the greater part of the northern hemisphere. Procopius, the contemporary Palestinian historian of the Roman Empire, recorded: ‘a most dread portent took place… the sun gave forth its light without brightness… the beams it shed were not clear.’ Instances of excessively low temperatures, crop failures and drought were recorded in Ireland, China, Peru and Europe. A devastating event affected life in Scandinavia, North America and Greenland. Over a vast area the light of the sun was filtered through a dust cloud, resulting in dramatic falls in temperature. There could be no contemporary explanation for these phenomena, but recent scientific speculation has come up with two possible causes. Some suggest that the dust cloud was the result of volcanic activity. Cataclysmic eruptions (though on a smaller scale) in recent centuries have spewed thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, giving rise to ‘dry fog’ and acid rain, which have been disastrous for crops, animals and humans. Could the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, have been responsible for a veil which spread around the globe? The other possible cause is comet activity. Meterorite bombardment has long been suggested as a possible cause for the climatic change that brought to an end the age of dinosaurs. A large piece of debris from a comet tail striking the earth at several thousand kph. would have a force equivalent to over 1,000 atomic bombs and would throw up a plume of dust which would rapidly spread through the atmosphere and take months or years to disperse. One theory states that just such a dramatic event occurred in northern Australia in 536.

Whatever happened at that time was the result of the most destructive force to hit our planet in thousands of years; the effect on the climate was profound, with disastrous consquences for the ecological balance. Hitherto, plague had been confined to the tropical regions of Africa. The rat parasite that carries bubonic plague can only flourish at moderate temperatures. The heat of the desert and semi-desert band that crosses the continent from modern Senegal to Sudan was a barrier it could not cross. The temperature drop caused by the dust cloud breached that northern African barrier long enough for the fleas to cross into the temperate Mediterranean zone. Procopius charted its spread:

It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium [near modern Port Said]. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favourable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it.

Justinian’s Disaster II

A map of the Byzantine Empire in 550 (a decade after the Plague of Justinian) with Justinian’s conquests shown in green.

Alexandria was a great mercantile entrepôt in the sixth century. In its waterfront warehouses the produce of North Africa, ‘the granary of the Roman Empire’, was stored. It was the terminus of vital trade routes which avoided Persian territory and brought, by sea and overland caravan, African slaves, Chinese silks, Indian gems and Indonesian spices. Large fleets regularly plied across the eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople. By 541 they were carrying a new and unwelcome cargo.

Today, we can describe clinically the symptoms of bubonic plague and how it spreads. The rat flea carries a bacterium, Y. pestis. As the rat moves through unsanitary and crowded towns and villages, the flea ‘jumps ship’, seeking a new host – animal or human. When the flea bites its latest victim, the bacterium, which does not harm the rat, is transferred to its new body, with disastrous results. Once in the bloodstream, Y. pestis makes its way to the lymph glands, which swell and rupture, appearing on the surface as painful, dark-coloured ‘buboes’ in the groin or armpits. The victim falls prey to shivering, fever and stiffening of the joints. He/she may experience delirium or fall into a coma. Once the lungs are infected, the plague takes on a new form – pneumonic. Miniscule droplets of sputum are exhaled with every breath, carrying the plague to new victims. The original sufferer has become a machine gun of highly infectious bullets. For several days the newly infected victims display no symptoms. The plague is, therefore, hidden; its real impact concealed. Half of the people catching bubonic plague, if they were reasonably fit and healthy beforehand, survive. Pneumonic plague is virtually one hundred per cent fatal.

It was not only the disease itself that killed people. Some, in delirium or sheer desperation, took their own lives. Some starved to death because there was no one to bring them food. Understandably, neighbours avoided houses where plague victims were lying. More compassionate people faced hardship caring for the afflicted, even if they did not contract the disease:

when patients fell from their beds and lay rolling on the floor, they kept putting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chance to be near [the sufferers] wished to fall into it… because of… the diseased state of their minds.

People took to wearing name tags, so that they could be identified in the event of sudden death. The forums and public places were deserted.

At that time it was scarcely possible to meet anyone going about the streets of Byzantium; all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. If one did succeed in encountering a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans… Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things widespread starvation was running riot… so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have because they lacked the necessities of life.

Fifteen hundred years ago, observers lacked the knowledge of human anatomy and epidemiology that would have enabled them to describe the pestilence objectively. Such medical science as they possessed was freely mixed with religious belief and superstition. Chroniclers, appalled by what they saw and fearful of what it might mean, prophesied the utter destruction of the empire, or even of the entire human race. They readily reported portents in the heavens warning of imminent disaster. They passed on stories of visions and mystical experiences:

many people saw shapes of bronze boats carrying passengers with their heads cut off… These figures were seen everywhere as frightening manifestations, especially at night. They appeared like gleaming bronze and fire, black and without heads they sat in their glistening boats, travelling rapidly across the water – a sight which made those who saw it almost drop dead.

Both the Byzantine and Persian empires possessed physicians and philosopher/astrologers whose understanding of the human condition was advanced by the standards of the day, but they were powerless to cope with this new and terrible visitation. The second-century physician, Galen, whose thinking had dominated medical theory and practice for centuries, made important discoveries about the nervous system and the ‘flow’ (not circulation) of blood, but his assertion that health was determined by the balance of four ‘humours’ which had their bases in blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile was of no value in combating plague. His disciples sought to achieve ‘balance’ in their patients by a combination of simple drugs, incantations, the application of saints’ bones and other magical charms, diet and exercise. The only result of such clinical methods was that many doctors succumbed to plague as a result of close contact with their patients. Small wonder that Procopius was sceptical about the medical services available:

the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering… and declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately.

Potentially more valuable was the practice of isolating plague victims. Hospitals were the invention of early Christians in Palestine and, by the fifth century, they were to be found in many towns and cities of the Roman Empire. There were several in Constantinople, and Justinian provided state aid to them to cope with the new emergency, but these institutions were soon overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem. Procopius and other chroniclers have left us a vivid and horrifying picture of life in the Byzantine capital during these dreadful months, and the scenes they recorded must have been replicated in other towns and cities.

The most urgent problem was disposal of the dead. The city’s cemeteries were soon filled, even when people were being buried three or more to a grave. Justinian commandeered waste or unused land to provide more burial grounds but these, too, were overflowing within weeks. The next location found for cadavers was along the city walls. At regular intervals there were watchtowers, designed to house soldiers to man the walls when Constantinople came under attack. These empty buildings were now used for a more gruesome purpose. Their roofs were removed and bodies were thrown inside and stamped on in order to get as many as possible into the space available. The stench drifting over the city was appalling. The terrible reality presents a real challenge to the imagination, as another contemporary writer bewailed:

How can anyone speak of or recount such a hideous sight, and who can watch this burial, even though his soul remain in his body and not waste away from bitter lamentations over so much iniquity which would suffice to destroy the children of Adam? How and with what utterances and what hymns, with what funeral laments and groanings should somebody mourn who has survived and witnessed the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God?

There is no way of knowing exactly how many people died in the East Roman capital during this terrible visitation, but contemporaries claimed that between a third and a half of Constantinople’s citizens succumbed and that this degree of mortality was replicated throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. The plague had no respect; it claimed victims at all levels of society. The emperor himself caught the disease. He was one of the lucky ones not to die but he was ill for several weeks. Had it not been for the vigorous efforts of the Empress Theodora and a small team of palace officials, the running of the empire might well have collapsed in chaos. While the emperor remained incapacitated, officials looked to Theodora for instructions, and it was she who masterminded the provision of aid to sufferers and maintained some semblance of law and order. John the Cappadocian was no longer there to apply his considerable administrative skills to overcoming the crisis. He had survived the mounting tide of criticism, but he could not surmount the opposition of Theodora. The empress was increasingly jealous of John’s influence with her husband and eventually she had him stripped of office and sent into exile. Almost at once the Byzantine bureaucracy began to slip back into corruption and was quite unable to handle the effects of plague.

Death brought other grave problems in its wake. Because of the threat of invasion, Justinian had made sure that Constantinople’s grain stores were full. But there were soon few bakers left to make bread, and those that were still in business charged inflated prices. There was famine in the midst of plenty and malnutrition kept pestilence company on the streets. The economic effects were no less disastrous than the loss of life. Slavery was the basis of Byzantine society and when the stock of slaves was drastically cut, all human activities were affected. Farm animals went untended. Shops remained closed. Businesses went out of production. Ships rotted in harbour for want of mariners to sail them and chandlers to equip them. Aristocratic households could not function without indoor and outdoor servants. The army was severely depleted. Government business came to a standstill. Inevitably, the costs of labour and goods rocketed, resulting in rapid inflation. In a desperate attempt to stabilise the currency, the coinage was debased. This made matters worse since those who could afford to do so hoarded gold and silver, which drove down the value of coin, forcing producers to charge more for their goods and workers to demand higher wages. The government tried to halt the wage-price spiral by forbidding workers to raise the price of their labour. In March 544, Justinian issued the following edict:

Pursuant to the chastening that we have received in the benevolence of our Lord God, some people… have abandoned themselves to avarice and demand double and triple prices and wages that are contrary to the custom prevalent from antiquity, although such people ought rather to have been chastened by this calamity. It is therefore our decision to forbid such covetous greed… In the future no businessman, workman or artisan in any occupation, trade, or agricultural pursuit shall dare to charge a higher price or wage than that of the custom prevalent from antiquity.

It is no surprise that this clumsy attempt to frustrate the laws of simple economics had little effect.

Inevitably, fear and grief drove people to ask the question: ‘Why?’ Procopius confessed himself baffled:

Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters, for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man… but for this calamity, it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God.

Later moralists, who saw the events of the 540s as precursors to the collapse of the Sassanian and Western Roman empires, had less hesitation. A seventh-century monastic chronicler interpreted the catastrophe in terms of divine judgement. God had sent his agents to punish the arrogant presumption and cruelties of the ancient empires:

The land of the Persian was given to Devastation for him to devastate it, sending its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter: Syria was given to the sword of Devastation, its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter; the Roman empire was given to Devastation and its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter.

By the time this writer recorded his view of history, he was able to see the plague as part of the long-term decline of Sassanian Persia and of Rome’s empire in the West. To those who lived through these terrible times, matters were more complex.

The enemies of the Byzantine Empire were not slow to take advantage of its weakness. The Persians attempted to press home their advantage in the region between the Black Sea and Mesopotamia and laid siege to Edessa. The inconclusive war went on for months and ended in a truce under whose terms Khusro undertook to remove his troops from the area for five years, in return for a payment of 2,000 pounds in gold. It was a heavy price, but Justinian needed to buy time. Affairs were going badly in Italy. Under a new king, the Ostrogoths were mounting a fresh offensive, steadily reclaiming territory which the Byzantines had gained. Justinian had to send Belisarius back to the West in a desperate attempt to cling onto his conquests there. But the great general was woefully short of resources. The plague had decimated the Byzantine army and economic difficulties created shortages of equipment. Belisarius found himself bogged down in a long and, eventually, unsuccessful series of campaigns. The grand vision of recreating the glories of the Roman Empire had to be abandoned.

The debilitating effects of the plague cannot be described only in terms of economic and political decline. There was a widespread sense of fatalism. When Bulgars and other tribes displaced by the Huns raided into the Balkans and northern Greece, they encountered little resistance. The garrisons that should have defended the inhabitants were seriously undermanned and the people had no confidence in the government to protect them. They had to suffer the barbarian incursions, watch their homes being pillaged and their womenfolk raped. There was only one way to put an end to their ordeal: they had to pay the invaders to go away. Some wealthy citizens hid their treasures – and many never returned to reclaim them. Numerous hoards of buried coins, silver plate and gold ornaments have been found throughout this region – graphic testimony to the turbulence of the times. Administration broke down and much of Justinian’s reforming work was undone.

Yet, ironically, the pestilence thaht devastated the Eastern Roman Empire also saved it from more severe depredations. The plague took no account of territorial boundaries, as Procopius recorded:

this calamity… did not come in one part of the world or upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age.

When he described this catastrophe as one that ‘embraced the entire world’, Procopius was, of course, referring to the world he knew: Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and the nearer parts of Asia. However, this outbreak reached well beyond the fringes of the known Mediterranean world and resulted in human mortality on an unimaginable and incalculable scale. It galloped over mountains, deserts and seas, striking down men, women and children as far away as Ireland, China and the African interior.

Thus, for example, raiders across the borders of the weakened Byzantine Empire often took back with them more than sackfuls of loot. When the Alemanni (a Germanic tribe) leader, Leutharis, led a raid into northern Italy, he was able to plunder at will but, when he turned for home with his laden wagons of loot,

He became deranged and started raving like a madman. [He] was seized with a violent ague and would fall over backwards, foaming at the mouth, his eyes glaring dreadfully… The plague continued to rage until his whole army was destroyed.

Unfortunately, no Persian records describing events in the 540s have survived, but Byzantine writers recorded, in brief, the spread of contagion into the territory of the invader. John of Ephesus referred to this period in Persia’s history as years of ‘famine, plague, madness and fury’. Khusro had to give up the siege of Edessa when many of his troops succumbed to disease. Y. pestis travelled with Khusro’s armies and along his trade routes. Antioch, Nisibis and other important centres were virtually depopulated. Khusro, victorious over his human enemies and confident of further military successes, had encountered a foe he could not beat. It was Persian weakness, not Byzantine strength, that prevented Persia advancing irresistibly westwards. Militarily, the mid-540s were years of stagnation. Two mighty empires stood like punch-drunk boxers, eyeing each other blearily, swaying from side to side and unable to land any telling blows.

Matters were little different in Europe, beyond the farthest Byzantine borders. The plague is recorded as reaching Frankish territory in 543. Familiar, dreadful scenes were soon to be witnessed throughout Gaul (the land of the Franks):

so many people were killed throughout the whole region and the dead bodies were so numerous that it was not even possible to count them. There was such a shortage of coffins and tombstones that ten or more bodies were buried in the same grave. In St Peter’s church [in Clermont-Ferrand] alone on a single Sunday three hundred dead bodies were counted. Death came very quickly. An open sore like a snake’s bite appeared in the groin or the armpit, and the man who had it soon died of its poison, breathing his last on the second or third day.

In terms of the long haul of history, the real impact of plague and war in the years 541–2 was on the size of populations. In the twenty-first century we face the problem of overpopulation. Fifteen hundred years ago societies that felt themselves just as secure as we do fell into the abyss of drastic population collapse. In the first two years of the pandemic it has been suggested that four million of the East Roman Empire’s twenty-six million inhabitants disappeared and the decline continued as Y. pestis sought out more victims. Whole villages and towns vanished. Cities shrank. Crumbling walls left their citizens vulnerable to marauders. Farmland fell into disuse. Governments faced declining revenue and could no longer provide their people with the benefits of advanced civilisation. The same phenomena were to be observed in Persia and the other nations fringing the Mediterranean world.

These ancient societies were not allowed time to recover. Long before population levels, stable government and a measure of prosperity had returned, the Persians and Byzantines faced another foe. Within a century, the great civilisations that had shared the world of the Mediterranean basin found themselves facing a new, vigorous, expanding empire, bursting out of its Arabian heartland. Less than thirty years after the plague visitation of Constantinople, a boy was born in Mecca whose impact upon the lands where Christianity and Zoroastrianism flourished would, in its way, be as devastating as the earlier rat-borne invasion. His name was Mohammed. When the armies of Islam marched out of Arabia carrying their new faith, at swordpoint, to all points of the compass, the older civilisations had been so weakened that they had no effective answer.

What if…

The circumstances under which the ancient Mediterranean civilisations collapsed present us with several ‘what ifs’. What if court rivalries had not forced John the Cappadocian from office? What if Theodora had lived longer (she died in 548)? What if Justinian and Khusro had managed to agree a lasting peace? What if the bubonic plague had not struck when it did? These lead us to bigger questions. Could the empire of Rome have been recreated in the sixth century? Could the Sassanian and Roman empires have survived barbarian incursions? Impressive ancient ruins litter the lands from Spain’s Atlantic coast to the River Indus. Valley-spanning viaducts, soaring pillars that once graced temples, wide amphitheatres scooped from the earth, the crumbling walls of beautiful palaces, javelin-straight highways along which the legions once marched – all such examples of vanished grandeur stir us to wonder and to reflect on the reasons why empires rise and fall.