Mercenaries for the Basileus

1: Norman heavy miles armatus 2: Varangian guardsman, Byzantine army 3: Norman arbelestier

4: Muslim iklīm local soldier

Opportunity came soon, and opportunity for these professional soldiers meant war. This time, however, the war was not to be another of the incessant squabbles between the Lombard states. Their employer was to be the Byzantine emperor, and the objective strategic: control of the eastern Mediterranean. The empire’s objective was no less than the reconquest of Sicily from the Muslims.

The balance of power in the central and eastern Mediterranean had been slowly shifting. The outposts and colonies in Italy that the Arabs had established during their earlier heyday had been gradually eliminated during the tenth century, while raids from Arab corsairs based in Sicily and Spain had been countered by stronger Italian defenses and even counteroffensives by Genoa, Pisa and Byzantium. Sporadic and even devastating corsair raids still occurred, but the Muslim states themselves were increasingly on the defensive, in North Africa, Sicily, as well as in Spain. In Sicily, a civil war had begun which absorbed the attention of the island’s leaders, while their overlords in Tunisia were equally preoccupied with a chaotic internal situation there. Sicily had ceased, in short, to be a major strategic threat to the Christian powers in south Italy, and was beginning to look like a strategic opportunity.

Constantinople had not yet lost the military strength and momentum that had been built up by the great line of Macedonian emperors, even though its increasingly feckless rulers were leading it into a period of corruption and decline. Aggravated into action by Arab corsair raids on coastal cities and shipping, which had sprung up again in Italy following Katapan Bojoannes’ departure, Constantinople had decided to move onto the offensive against the Muslim world around it. The power of the empire was committed to a campaign aimed at clearing the eastern Mediterranean of Muslim pirates. Victory followed victory, and in a series of highly successful campaigns by the army in Syria, and the navy along the Anatolian and North African coasts, the Byzantines succeeded in driving many of the pirates from the sea. But the pirate raids would only resume, Constantinople figured, if their home bases were not crippled as well.

The time was right, it was decided, to dust off Emperor Basil’s plan to attack the corsair ports in Sicily. Doing so could break the pirate threat, and also protect Byzantine power and sovereignty in southern Italy. Basil’s project, which had been abandoned on his untimely death, was thus revived some thirteen years later, in 1038. By late spring a great army had been raised to ravage Muslim Sicily and, if possible, bring it back under Christian rule.

Constantinople had reason to be optimistic. Sicily had been racked for several years by a major civil war, pitting one prince, or emir, Ahmad al Akhal, against his brother al Hafs. The conflict had divided the powerful local aristocracy, creating factions that struggled for power while the central administration gradually fell apart. The loss of central control in turn had allowed the Christian communities in the northeast of the island (the Val Demone), who had held to their faith during over two centuries of Muslim rule, to exercise greater freedom and seek support from potential Christian protectors in Italy and Constantinople. The Byzantines, indeed, were already taking advantage of the chaos afflicting their old enemies, and were preparing the ground for intervention through their superb intelligence systems, subtle diplomacy, and a lavish hand for buying off opponents and securing adherents. Now, secure for the moment on its eastern borders, the court at Constantinople saw that an intervention in Sicily might be successful.

Suddenly, Byzantium was presented with the ultimate tool – potential treason in the Muslim camp. No less than Emir Ahmad had invited them to invade his country. The emir had turned to Constantinople in desperation, after his army had been defeated by al Hafs. The latter’s forces had been reinforced by troops sent from the North African Zirid Emirate, who were the sovereign protectors of Sicily. Ahmad now hoped that, with the help of a Byzantine army, he could turn the tables on al Hafs and the Zirids-who were, themselves, under severe pressure from their superiors in Cairo and probably unable to send further reinforcements. But then, too late, Ahmad began to recognize the implications of his act, and realized that the Byzantines might have bigger designs than merely to help him regain his position. Dropping his planned treason, he quickly, probably desperately, tried to patch up a common Muslim front against the coming invasion. But he had miscalculated again. Al Hafs accepted the principle of a reconciliation, but not the reality, and before long had Emir Ahmad was assassinated.

Even though deprived of their traitor, the Byzantines were not deterred. Preparations for the invasion continued, and the army that was raised for the invasion of Sicily was a truly imperial enterprise. The Eastern Empire had long since abandoned the Roman concept of a citizen army, even in its Greek and Anatolian heartland, and relied instead on a professional army of trained, seasoned, and disciplined troops. But the cost of maintaining a standing army, large enough to defend the empire’s long borders against its many enemies, had become a major political issue in Constantinople -compounded by legitimate fear of the military aristocracy’s political aspirations. This meant, in practice, that an army for a distant campaign – as was the one for Sicily – was composed of a minimal core of professional soldiers, supported by more numerous local levies, mercenaries, and contingents from allies.

The core of the invasion force was composed of Greek and Bulgar soldiers from the heart of the empire, supported by the imperial navy. But the Byzantine provinces of Italy, which presumably would be the first beneficiaries of an end to Sicilian pirate activity, were heavily assessed to support the invasion force. The militias of the major southern Italian towns, which originally had been organized to defend their homes against Arab raids, were now mobilized into the invasion force. Additional troops were levied and conscripted, the local citizens were taxed to cover expenses, and the Byzantine force was further strengthened by a large and motley body of mercenaries. Most interesting of those mercenaries, perhaps, was a contingent of Scandinavians headed by Harald Sigurdson, or Harald Hardrada, a magnificent warrior who figures as one of the last great Vikings. For the previous eight years, while suffering political exile from Norway, Hardrada had employed his energy and skill in the service of the rulers of Kiev as well as of the Byzantines. His Varangian, or Russian, contingent was one of the key infantry units of the invasion force.’ Whether Hardrada and his Scandinavians found any particular affinities with their frenchified Norman cousins, also members of the invasion army, is open to conjecture.

Up to 500 Norman knights, including the Hauteville brothers William and Drogo, had joined the invasion force. When the Basileus had called upon his Lombard allies in Italy to support the invasion, Guaimar and the other princes had found it politic to agree. Guaimar, in fact, had very good reason to please Constantinople: his rival Pandulf was in the imperial capital scheming to get Byzantine support for regaining his old principality of Capua. Guaimar, by pleasing the Byzantines, could hope to neutralize Pandulf, and might even get the Basileus to recognize his own title to Capua. Moreover, with no wars with his neighbors looming, contracting out his Norman mercenaries would relieve Guaimar and his citizens of their dangerous presence – the Norman tendency to freelance raiding when not otherwise engaged having made them exasperating, expensive, even dangerous allies. On these considerations, Guaimar provided a contingent of about 300 knights to the Byzantine army.

Accompanying the Normans was a Lombard mercenary from Milan called Ardouin. Ardouin, who spoke fluent Greek, initially served in the role of intermediary or interpreter between the Greek army commanders and the Norman contingent. As the Normans apparently had no single leader of their own, however, Ardouin was able to use his position to emerge as effective spokesman for the Normans in the polyglot army.

The invasion army was led by Byzantium’s greatest living general, a character of epic proportions called George Maniakes. From Asia, possibly of Mongol origin, he was a great bear of a man: strong, ugly, thoroughly intimidating. His victories in Syria some years earlier had rescued the regime at a time of great danger, and his military prowess was much respected in the capital, but he was a blunt man who had to survive under a regime increasingly given to palace intrigue and treachery. His opposite number as commander of the Byzantine fleet was a nobody called Stephen, who unfortunately for Maniakes was-whatever the chain of command may have said -better connected to the real power behind the Byzantine throne. Stephen’s main qualification, in fact, was that he was brother-inlaw to the eunuch John Orphanotrophus, who dominated both the vacillating Empress Zoe and the man she had raised to the throne with her, Emperor Michael. Stephen the plotter and Maniakes the fighter were a bad match, but not necessarily a fatal one; the Byzantines had had much experience in handling mixed-force armies and divided commands such as the one about to invade Sicily. Indeed, the first operations went exceptionally well. After picking up the Lombard, Norman, and other Italian contingents in Salerno, the fleet carried the army across the strait from Italy to Sicily, without incident and with every hope of victory.

The invasion, even without Emir Ahmad’s assistance, was an initial success. Messina was stormed, major battles were won at Rametta and Troina, and within two years over a dozen major fortresses in the east of the island, plus the key city of Syracuse, had been subdued.’ Byzantium held the initiative and was stronger on the ground and sea. Reestablishment of Constantinople’s rule over this richest prize of the Mediterranean, with its huge grain surpluses, cotton, sugar, fruits, silks, and other luxury manufactures, was conceivable and could have changed the regional balance of power definitively.

Throughout the early victories, the Normans had distinguished themselves as useful allies and valorous warriors; according to their friendly chroniclers, they had often made a crucial difference. The Normans appeared to be part, albeit a small part, of a winning effort that might reestablish Byzantium’s preeminence in the region. Among those Normans, William of Hauteville in particular began to stand out. A competent, unassuming soldiers’ soldier, he apparently had a knack for attracting people’s trust while not making enemies. But it was as a fighter that he made his name amongst the hard men of the invading army. When he dispatched the Emir of Syracuse in single combat outside that city, he was awarded the nickname of “Ironarm” by which he would thereafter be called, in tribute to the strength of his sword hand. It was the first step in developing the leadership role from which his family would launch itself to royalty.

Great as William Hauteville’s personal successes were, the expedition itself began to lose momentum and eventually to fall apart. Pay for the auxiliaries began to slow down and even suffer major interruptions. Disputes arose over the sharing of booty, disputes serious enough, according to the chroniclers, to cause Norman disenchantment with the whole enterprise. Ardouin, according to those accounts, protested the niggardly share awarded to the valorous Normans, and the dispute reached kindling point over a horse which Ardouin had won in battle but which Maniakes had confiscated. Maniakes flew into one of his rages when his act was challenged by Ardouin, and publicly disgraced the proud Lombard by having him whipped throughout the camp. Given Maniakes’ character, the story may indeed be true, even if it is self-serving for the Normans. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that both the Norman and Scandinavian contingents, as well as Ardouin, left the army before the end of 1040. The Normans returned to Salerno and Aversa, angry, bitter, and dangerous.

The Normans emerged from the experience, not as a valued part of a victorious Byzantine army, but as resentful and mistreated employees, fully ready to even the score at some later date with the Greeks, whom they had learned to despise as treacherous and effeminate. But in addition to developing a disdain for the Greeks, the Normans had learned valuable lessons in Sicily: the land was rich, the resident Christians were potential allies, the Muslim inhabitants were divided, and both the Greeks and the Muslims could be beaten in battle. All points that could be useful, at some later date, to those ready to capitalize on them.

The expedition lost all hopes of final victory in 1041, partly because of an argument between Maniakes and Stephen. The admiral had allowed an Arab fleet to escape through the Byzantine blockade; Maniakes had publicly upbraided the admiral, even assaulted him physically. Stephen, not one to take such an insult lightly when he had important patrons in the capital, complained to his relative the eunuch John. In the plot-ridden and suspicious atmosphere of Constantinople, Maniakes’ successes counted for little, and in short order he was recalled in disgrace and imprisoned. Without his energy and skill, and without the Norman and Scandinavian mercenaries, the once glorious invasion force was left to a strategy of consolidating its gains and waiting for better days. But they never came. As it was, developments in southern Italy demanded more urgent attention.

The Sicilian expedition had backfired, as far as Byzantine rule of their Italian provinces was concerned. The heavy taxes and levies that had been necessary to raise the army, and the almost two years’ absence of the militias, had fanned the ever-present spirit of anti-Byzantine separatism among the largely Lombard-Italian populations, particularly in the coastal towns of Apulia. Several Byzantine officials had been assassinated as early as 1038, and the tension ratcheted up throughout the next year. In 1040, open revolt broke out. The katapan was assassinated, and local militias took over control of most major cities in Apulia. The leader of the Lombard insurrection, it turned out, was Marianus Argyrus, none other than the son of that Melo who had originally urged the Normans to come to Italy some twenty years earlier. His timing was good, it seemed. With much of their army off in Sicily, the Byzantines had been caught unprepared for so extensive a revolt. But an energetic and capable new katapan was quickly appointed, who was able to hold the line and even roll back some of the rebellion by the end of the year, while waiting for reinforcements from Sicily.

All this might have been a matter of indifference to the Normans in Salerno, including those just returned from Sicily, had it not been for the machinations of their old comrade in arms Ardouin. That crafty Lombard, in spite of his questionable departure from the Greek army, still had credibility with the local Byzantine authorities, and approached them upon his return to Italy for new employment. He succeeded in gaining the trust of the new katapan, and then obtaining a military command at Melfi, a small but strategically important town in Apulia, controlling a pass on the Byzantine-Beneventan frontier. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the new job did not secure Ardouin’s gratitude, and he would prove to be a most disloyal lieutenant. Apparently still smarting from his humiliation in Sicily, and perhaps motivated as well by a touch of Lombard patriotism, he wanted to get even with the Byzantines. He began subtly, but successfully, preaching rebellion to the citizens of Melfi. Moreover, once he felt that he had the citizens ready to act, he approached the Normans to be the instruments of his vengeance.

In early 1041, Ardouin went secretly to Aversa, where he met with a group of his old Norman comrades and made them a seminal proposition. Come with me to Apulia, he urged; I can assure you control and possession of Melfi, and from there you and I can drive the Byzantines from the rich but poorly defended areas of northwestern Apulia, and even beyond. It is not hard to imagine the excitement which Ardouin’s proposal offered; by all accounts his urgings found a ready audience among the once-again underemployed young, restless, and greedy Norman knights. Nor was Prince Guaimar inclined to stop the headstrong Normans from another adventure; they had once again become a potential problem in Salerno’s lands, where their excess of energy could only result in trouble. He may have thought that the Byzantines, now having difficulties both in Sicily and Apulia, were unlikely to hold him responsible for the Normans’ escapades.

Once Gauimar agreed to release a number of knights from his service, Ardouin had little trouble in recruiting a force of 300 knights, headed by twelve chiefs. The raid was plotted and agreement reached to split any gains from the adventure evenly, with half to be shared by the Normans and half for Ardouin.

Among the twelve chiefs who would lead parties of knights on the adventure were the two elder sons of Tancred, William Ironarm and Drogo. Once again, they were ready when opportunity beckoned. Even though full ramifications of the step they were taking would not be evident for years, it was from this thinly disguised raiding party that a great kingdom grew.

The Fall of Constantinople: Aftermath

The reckoning followed hard on the heels of the fall. The next day, there was a distribution of the booty: according to custom, Mehmet as commander was entitled to a fifth of everything that had been taken. His share of the enslaved Greeks he settled in the city in an area by the Horn, the Phanar district, which would continue as a traditional Greek quarter down to modern times. The vast majority of the ordinary citizens – about 30,000 – were marched off to the slave markets of Edirne, Bursa and Ankara. We know the fates of a few of these deportees because they were important people who were subsequently ransomed back into freedom. Among these was Matthew Camariotes, whose father and brother were killed, and whose family was dispersed; painstakingly he set about finding them. ‘I ransomed my sister from one place, my mother from somewhere else; then my brother’s son: most pleasing to God, I obtained their release.’ Overall, though, it was a bitter experience. Beyond the death and disappearance of loved ones, most shattering to Camariotes was the discovery that ‘of my brother’s four sons, in the disaster three – alas! – through the fragility of youth, renounced their Christian faith … maybe this wouldn’t have happened, had my father and brother survived … so I live, if you can call it living, in pain and grief’. Conversion was a not uncommon occurrence, so traumatic had been the failure of prayers and relics to prevent the capture of the God-protected city by Islam. Many more captives simply disappeared into the gene pool of the Ottoman Empire – ‘scattered across the whole world like dust’, in the lament of the Armenian poet, Abraham of Ankara.

The surviving notables in the city suffered more immediate fates. Mehmet retained all the significant personages whom he could find, including the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras and his family. The Venetians, whom Mehmet identified as his key opponents in the Mediterranean basin, came in for especially harsh treatment. Minotto, the bailey of their colony, who had played a spirited part in the defence of the city, was executed, together with his son and other Venetian notables; a further twenty-nine were ransomed back to Italy. The Catalan consul and some of his leading men were also executed, whilst a vain hunt was conducted for the unionist churchmen, Leonard of Chios and Isidore of Kiev, who managed to escape unrecognized. A search in Galata for the two surviving Bocchiardi brothers was similarly unsuccessful; they hid and survived.

The Podesta of Galata, Angelo Lomellino, acted promptly to try to save the Genoese colony. Its complicity in the defence of Constantinople made it immediately vulnerable to retribution. Lomellino wrote to his brother that the sultan ‘said that we did all we could for the safety of Constantinople … and certainly he spoke the truth. We were in the greatest danger, we had to do what he wanted to avoid his fury.’ Mehmet ordered the immediate destruction of the town’s walls and ditch, with the exception of the sea wall, destruction of its defensive towers and the handing over of the cannon and all other weapons. The podesta’s nephew was taken off into the service of the palace as a hostage, in common with a number of sons of the Byzantine nobility – a policy that would both ensure good behaviour and provide educated young recruits for the imperial administration.

It was in this context that the fate of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras was decided. The highest-ranking Byzantine noble, Notaras was a controversial figure during the siege, given a consistently bad press by the Italians. He was apparently against union; his oft repeated remark, ‘rather the sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat’, was held up by Italian writers as proof of the intransigence of Orthodox Greeks. It appears that Mehmet was initially minded to make Notaras prefect of the city – an indication of the deeper direction of the sultan’s plans for Constantinople – but was probably persuaded by his ministers to reverse the decision. According to the ever-vivid Doukas, Mehmet, ‘full of wine and in a drunken stupor’, demanded that Notaras should hand over his son to satisfy the sultan’s lust. When Notaras refused, Mehmet sent the executioner to the family. After killing all the males, ‘the executioner picked up the heads and returned to the banquet, presenting them to the bloodthirsty beast’. It is perhaps more likely that Notaras was unwilling to see his children taken as hostages and Mehmet decided that it was too risky to let the leading Byzantine nobility survive.

The work of converting St Sophia into a mosque began almost at once. A wooden minaret was rapidly constructed for the call to prayer and the figurative mosaics whitewashed over, with the exception of the four guardian angels under the dome, which Mehmet, with a regard for the spirits of the place, preserved. (Other powerful ‘pagan’ talismans of the ancient city also survived for a while intact – the equestrian statue of Justinian, the serpent column from Delphi and the Egyptian column; Mehmet was nothing if not superstitious.) On 2 June, Friday prayers were heard for the first time in what was now the Aya Sofya mosque ‘and the Islamic invocation was read in the name of Sultan Mehmet Khan Gazi’. According to the Ottoman chroniclers, ‘the sweet five-times-repeated chant of the Muslim faith was heard in the city’ and in a moment of piety Mehmet coined a new name for the city: Islambol – a pun on its Turkish name, meaning ‘full of Islam’ – that somehow failed to strike an echo in Turkish ears. Miraculously Sheikh Akshemsettin also rapidly ‘rediscovered’ the tomb of Ayyub, the Prophet’s standard-bearer who had died at the first Arab siege in 669 and whose death had been such a powerful motivator in the holy war for the city.

Despite these tokens of Muslim piety, the sultan’s rebuilding of the city was to prove highly controversial to conventional Islam. Mehmet had been deeply disturbed by the devastation inflicted on Constantinople: ‘What a city we have committed to plunder and destruction,’ he is reported to have said when he first toured the city, and when he rode back to Edirne on 21 June he undoubtedly left behind a melancholy ruin, devoid of people. Reconstructing an imperial capital was to be a major preoccupation of his reign – but his model would not be an Islamic one.


The Christian ships that had escaped on the morning of 29 May carried word of the city’s fall back to the West. At the start of June three ships reached Crete with the sailors whose heroic defence of the towers had prompted their release by Mehmet. The news appalled the island. ‘Nothing worse than this has happened, nor will happen,’ wrote a monk. Meanwhile the Venetian galleys reached the island of Negroponte off the coast of Greece and reduced the population to panic – it was only with difficulty that the bailey there managed to prevent a whole-scale evacuation of the island. He wrote post-haste to the Venetian Senate. As ships criss-crossed the Aegean exchanging news, the word spread with gathering speed to the islands and the sea ports of the eastern sea, to Cyprus, Rhodes, Corfu, Chios, Monemvasia, Modon, Lepanto. Like a giant boulder dropped into the basin of the Mediterranean a tidal wave of panic rippled outwards all the way to the Gates of Gibraltar – and far beyond. It reached the mainland of Europe at Venice on the morning of Friday 29 June 1453. The Senate was in session. When a fast cutter from Lepanto tied up at the wooden landing stage on the Bacino, people were leaning from windows and balconies avid for news of the city, their families and their commercial interests. When they learned that Constantinople had fallen, ‘a great and excessive crying broke out, weeping, groaning … everyone beating their chests with their fists, tearing at their heads and faces, for the death of a father or a son or a brother, or for the loss of their property’. The Senate heard the news in stunned silence; voting was suspended. A flurry of letters was dispatched by flying courier across Italy to tell the news of ‘the horrible and deplorable fall of the cities of Constantinople and Pera [Galata]’. It reached Bologna on 4 July, Genoa on 6 July, Rome on 8 July and Naples shortly after. Many at first refused to believe reports that the invincible city could have fallen; when they did, there was open mourning in the streets. Terror amplified the wildest rumours. It was reported that the whole population over the age of six had been slaughtered, that 40,000 people had been blinded by the Turks, that all the churches had been destroyed and the sultan was now gathering a huge force for an immediate invasion of Italy. Word of mouth emphasized the bestiality of the Turks, the ferocity of their attack on Christendom – themes that would ring loudly in Europe for hundreds of years.

If there is any moment at which it is possible to recognize a modern sensibility in a medieval event it is here in the account of reactions to the news of the fall of Constantinople. Like the assassination of Kennedy or 9/11 it is clear that people throughout Europe could remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. ‘On the day when the Turks took Constantinople the sun was darkened,’ declared a Georgian chronicler. ‘What is this execrable news which is borne to us concerning Constantinople?’ wrote Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini to the Pope. ‘My hand trembles, even as I write; my soul is horrified.’ Frederick III wept when word reached him in Germany. The news radiated outward across Europe as fast as a ship could sail, a horse could ride, a song could be sung. It spread outwards from Italy to France, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, Serbia, Hungary, Poland and beyond. In London a chronicler noted that ‘in this year was the City of Constantine the noble lost by Christian men and won by the Prince of the Turks, Muhammad’; Christian I, King of Denmark and Norway, described Mehmet as the beast of the Apocalypse rising out of the sea. The diplomatic channels between the courts of Europe hummed with news and warnings and ideas for projected crusades. Across the Christian world there was a huge outpouring of letters, chronicles, histories, prophecies, songs, laments and sermons translated into all the languages of the Faith, from Serbian to French, from Armenian to English. The tale of Constantinople was heard not just in palaces and castles but also at crossroads, market squares and inns. It reached the furthest corners of Europe and the humblest people: in due course even the Lutheran prayer book in Iceland would beg God’s salvation from ‘the cunning of the Pope and the terror of the Turk’. It was just the start of a huge renewal of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Within Islam itself, the word was greeted with joy by pious Muslims. On 27 October an ambassador from Mehmet arrived in Cairo, bearing news of the city’s capture and bringing two highborn Greek captives as visible proof. According to the Muslim chronicler, ‘The Sultan and all the men rejoiced at this mighty conquest; the good news was sounded by the bands each morning and Cairo was decorated for two days … people celebrated by decorating shops and houses most extravagantly … I say to God be thanks and acknowledgement for this mighty victory.’ It was a victory of immense significance for the Muslim world; it fulfilled the old pseudo-prophecies attributed to Muhammad and seemed to restore the prospect of the world spread of the Faith. It brought the Sultan immense prestige. Mehmet also sent the customary victory letter to the leading potentates of the Muslim world that staked his claim to be the true leader of the holy war, taking the title of ‘Father of the Conquest’, directly linked ‘by the breath of the wind of the Caliphate’ to the early, glorious days of Islam. According to Doukas the head of Constantine, ‘stuffed with straw’, was also sent round ‘to the leaders of the Persians, Arabs and other Turks’, and Mehmet sent 400 Greek children each to the rulers of Egypt, Tunis and Granada. These were not mere gifts. Mehmet was laying claim to be the defender of the Faith and to its ultimate prize: protectorate of the holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. ‘It is your responsibility’, he peremptorily scolded the Mamluk sultan in Cairo, ‘to keep the pilgrimage routes open for the Muslims; we have the duty of providing gazis.’ At the same time, he declared himself to be ‘Sovereign of two seas and two lands’, heir to the empire of the Caesars with ambitions to a world domination that would be both imperial and religious: ‘There must … be only one empire, one faith and one sovereignty in the world.’

In the West the fall of Constantinople changed nothing and everything. To those close to events, it was clear that the city was undefendable. As an isolated enclave its capture was ultimately inevitable; if Constantine had managed to stave off the Ottoman siege it would only have been a matter of time before another assault succeeded. For those who cared to look, the fall of Constantinople or the capture of Istanbul – depending on religious perspective – was largely the symbolic recognition of an established fact: that the Ottomans were a world power, firmly established in Europe. Few were that close. Even the Venetians, with their spies and their endless flow of diplomatic information back to the Senate, were largely unaware of the military capabilities available to Mehmet. ‘Our Senators would not believe that the Turks could bring a fleet against Constantinople,’ remarked Marco Barbaro on the tardiness of the Venetian rescue effort. Nor had they understood the power of the guns or the determination and resourcefulness of Mehmet himself. What the capture of the city underlined was the extent to which the balance of power had already shifted in the Mediterranean – and clarified the threat to a host of Christian interests and nations that Constantinople, as a buffer zone, had encouraged them to ignore.

Throughout the Christian world the consequences were religious, military, economic and psychological. At once the terrible image of Mehmet and his ambitions were drawn into sharp focus for the Greeks, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Pope in Rome, the Hungarians, the Wallachians and all the peoples of the Balkans. The implacable figure of the Great Turk and his insatiable desire to be the Alexander of the age were projected wildly onto the screen of the European imagination. One source has the Conqueror entering the city with the words ‘I thank Muhammad who has given us this splendid victory; but I pray that he will permit me to live long enough to capture and subjugate Old Rome as I have New Rome.’ This belief was not without foundation. In Mehmet’s imagination, the seat of the Red Apple had now moved westward – from Constantinople to Rome. Long before Ottoman armies invaded Italy they went into battle with the cry ‘Roma! Roma!’ Step by step the very incarnation of the Antichrist seemed to be moving inexorably against the Christian world. In the years following 1453, he would snuff out the Black Sea colonies of the Genoese and the Greeks one after another: Sinop, Trebizond and Kaffa all fell. In 1462 he invaded Wallachia, the following year Bosnia. The Morea fell under Ottoman rule in 1464. In 1474 he was in Albania, 1476 in Moldavia – the rolling tide of the Ottoman advance seemed irreversible. Its troops failed to take Rhodes in a famous siege in 1480 but it was only a temporary setback. The Venetians had more to fear than most: war with Mehmet opened in 1463 and ran for fifteen years – it was to be just the overture to a titanic contest. During this time they lost their prize trading-post at Negroponte, and worse: in 1477 Ottoman raiders plundered the hinterlands of the city; they came so near that the smoke of their fires could be seen from the campanile of St Mark’s. Venice could feel the hot breath of Islam on its collar. ‘The enemy is at our gates!’ wrote Celso Maffei to the Doge. ‘The axe is at the root. Unless divine help comes, the doom of the Christian name is sealed.’ In July 1481 the Ottomans finally landed an army on the heel of Italy to march on Rome. When they took Otranto, the archbishop was felled at the altar of his cathedral, 12,000 citizens were put to death. In Rome the Pope considered flight and the people panicked, but at this moment news of Mehmet’s death reached the army and the Italian campaign collapsed.

Under the impetus of the fall of Constantinople, popes and cardinals tried to breathe life back into the project of religious crusades that continued well into the sixteenth century. Pope Pius II, for whom the whole Christian culture was at stake, set the tone when he convened a congress at Mantua in 1459 to unify the fractious nations of Christendom. In a ringing speech that lasted two hours he outlined the situation in the bleakest terms:

We ourselves allowed Constantinople, the capital of the east, to be conquered by the Turks. And while we sit at home in ease and idleness, the arms of these barbarians are advancing to the Danube and the Sava. In the Eastern imperial city they have massacred the successor of Constantine along with his people, desecrated the temples of the Lord, sullied the noble edifice of Justinian with the hideous cult of Muhammad; they have destroyed the images of the mother of God and other saints, overturned the altars, cast the relics of the martyrs to the swine, killed the priests, dishonored women and young girls, even the virgins dedicated to the Lord, slaughtered the nobles of the city at the sultan’s banquet, carried off the image of our crucified Saviour to their camp with scorn and mockery amid cries of ‘That is the God of the Christians!’ and befouled it with mud and spittle. All this happened beneath our very eyes, but we lie in a deep sleep … Mehmet will never lay down arms except in victory or total defeat. Every victory will be for him a stepping-stone to another, until, after subjecting all the princes of the West, he has destroyed the Gospel of Christ and imposed the law of his false prophet upon the whole world.

Despite numerous attempts, such impassioned words failed to provoke practical action, just as the project to save Constantinople itself had failed. The powers of Europe were too jealous, too disunited – and in some senses too secular – ever to combine in the name of Christendom again: it was even rumoured that the Venetians had been complicit in the landing at Otranto. However it did reinvigorate deep European fears about Islam. It would be another two hundred years before the advance of the Ottomans into Europe was definitely halted, in 1683, at the gates of Vienna; in the interval Christianity and Islam would wage a long-running war, both hot and cold, that would linger long in the racial memory and that formed a long link in the chain of events between the two faiths. The fall of Constantinople had awakened in Islam and Europe deep memories of the crusades. The Ottoman peril was seen as the continuation of the perceived assault of Islam on the Christian world; the word ‘Turk’ replaced the word ‘Saracen’ as the generic term for a Muslim – and with it came all the connotations of a cruel and implacable opponent. Both sides saw themselves engaged in a struggle for survival against a foe intent on destroying the world. It was the prototype of global ideological conflict. The Ottomans kept the spirit of jihad alive, now linked to their sense of imperial mission. Within the Muslim heartlands the belief in the superiority of Islam was rejuvenated. The legend of the Red Apple had enormous currency; after Rome it attached successively to Budapest, then Vienna. Beyond these literal destinations, it was the symbol of messianic belief in the final victory of the Faith. Within Europe, the image of the Turk became synonymous with all that was faithless and cruel. By 1536 the word was in use in English to mean, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘anyone behaving as a barbarian or savage’. And what added fuel to these attitudes was a discovery that typified the very spirit of Renaissance enlightenment – the invention of printing.

The fall of Constantinople happened on the cusp of a revolution – the moment that the runaway train of scientific discovery started to gather speed in the West at the expense of religion. Some of these forces were at play in the siege itself: the impact of gunpowder, the superiority of sailing ships, the end of medieval siege warfare; the next seventy years would bring Europe, amongst other things, gold fillings in teeth, the pocket watch and the astrolabe, navigation manuals, syphilis, the New Testament in translation, Copernicus and Leonardo da Vinci, Columbus and Luther – and movable type.

Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized mass communications and spread new ideas about the holy war with Islam. A huge corpus of crusader and anti-Islamic literature poured off the presses of Europe in the next 150 years. One of the earliest surviving examples of modern printing is the indulgence granted by Nicholas V in 1451 to raise money for the relief of Cyprus from the Turks. Thousands of copies of such documents appeared across Europe along with crusader appeals and broadsheets – forerunners of modern newspapers – that spread news about the war against ‘the damnable menace of the Grand Turk of the infidels’. An explosion of books followed – in France alone, eighty books were published on the Ottomans between 1480 and 1609, compared to forty on the Americas. When Richard Knolles wrote his bestseller The General History of the Turks in 1603, there was already a healthy literature in English on the people he called ‘the present terror of the world’. These works had suggestive titles: The Turks’ Wars, A Notable History of the Saracens, A Discourse on the Bloody and Cruel Battle lost by Sultan Selim, True News of a Notable Victory obtained against the Turk, The Estate of Christians living under the Subjection of the Turk – the flood of information was endless.

Othello was engaged in fighting the world war of the day – against the ‘general enemy Ottoman’, the ‘malignant and turbaned Turk’ – and for the first time, Christians far from the Muslim world could see woodcut images of their enemy in highly influential illustrated books such as Bartholomew Georgevich’s Miseries and Tribulations of the Christians held in Tribute and Slavery by the Turk. These showed ferocious battles between armoured knights and turbaned Muslims, and all the barbarism of the infidel: Turks beheading prisoners, leading off long lines of captive women and children, riding with babies spitted on their lances. The conflict with the Turk was widely understood to be the continuation of a much longer-running contest with Islam – a thousand year struggle for the truth. Its features and causes were exhaustively studied in the West. Thomas Brightman, writing in 1644, declared that the Saracens were ‘the first troop of locusts … about the year 630’ who were succeeded by ‘the Turks, a brood of vipers, worse than their parent, [who] did utterly destroy the Saracens their mother’. Somehow the conflict with Islam was always different: deeper, more threatening, closer to nightmare.

It is certainly true that Europe had much to fear from the wealthier, more powerful and better organized Ottoman Empire in the two hundred years after Constantinople, yet the image of its opponent, conceived largely in religious terms at a time when the idea of Christendom itself was dying, was highly partial. The inside and the outside of the Ottoman world presented two different faces, and nowhere was this clearer than in Constantinople.

Sa’d-ud-din might declare that after the capture of Istanbul ‘the churches which were within the city were emptied of their vile idols, and cleansed from their filthy and idolatrous impurities’ – but the reality was rather different. The city that Mehmet rebuilt after the fall hardly conformed to the dread image of Islam that Christendom supposed. The sultan regarded himself not only as a Muslim ruler but as the heir to the Roman Empire and set about reconstructing a multicultural capital in which all citizens would have certain rights. He forcibly resettled both Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims back into the city, guaranteed the safety of the Genoese enclave at Galata and forbade any Turks to live there. The monk Gennadios, who had so fiercely resisted attempts at union, was rescued from slavery in Edirne and restored to the capital as patriarch of the Orthodox community with the formula: ‘Be Patriarch, with good fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.’ The Christians were to live in their own neighbourhoods and to retain some of their churches, though under certain restrictions: they had to wear distinctive dress and were forbidden from bearing arms – within the context of the times it was a policy of remarkable tolerance. At the other end of the Mediterranean, the final reconquest of Spain by the Catholic kings in 1492 resulted in the forced conversion or expulsion of all the Muslims and Jews. The Spanish Jews themselves were encouraged to migrate to the Ottoman Empire – ‘the refuge of the world’ – where, within the overall experience of Jewish exile, their reception was generally positive. ‘Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of,’ wrote one rabbi to his brethren in Europe. ‘We possess great fortunes, much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes and our commerce is free and unhindered.’ Mehmet was to bear the brunt of considerable Islamic criticism for these policies. His son, the more pious Bayezit II, declared that his father ‘by the counsel of mischief makers and hypocrites’ had ‘infringed the Law of the Prophet’.

Although Constantinople would become a more Islamic city over the centuries, Mehmet set the tone for a place that was astonishingly multicultural, the model of the Levantine city. For those Westerners who looked beneath the crude stereotypes, there were plenty of surprises. When the German Arnold von Harff came in 1499 he was amazed to discover two Franciscan monasteries in Galata where the Catholic mass was still being celebrated. Those who knew the infidel up close were quite clear. ‘The Turks do not compel anyone to renounce his faith, do not try hard to persuade anyone and do not have a great opinion of renegades,’ wrote George of Hungary in the fifteenth century. It was a stark contrast to the religious wars that fragmented Europe during the Reformation. The flow of refugees after the fall would be largely one way: from the Christian lands to the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet himself was more interested in building a world empire than in converting that world to Islam.

The fall of Constantinople was a trauma for the West; not only had it dented the confidence of Christendom, it was also considered the tragic end of the classical world, ‘a second death for Homer and Plato’. And yet the fall also liberated the place from impoverishment, isolation and ruin. The city surrounded by ‘the garland of waters’, which Procopius had celebrated in the sixth century, now regained its old dash and energy as the capital of a rich and multicultural empire, straddling two worlds and a dozen trade routes; and the people whom the West believed to be tailed monsters spawned by the Apocalypse – ‘made up of a horse and a man’ – reincarnated a city of astonishment and beauty, different to the Christian City of Gold, but cast in equally glowing colours.

 Constantinople once again traded the goods of the world through the labyrinthine alleys of the covered bazaar and the Egyptian bazaar; camel trains and ships once more connected it to all the principal points of the Levant, but for sailors approaching from the Marmara, its horizon acquired a new shape. Alongside Aya Sofya, the hills of the city started to bubble with the grey leaded domes of mosques. White minarets as thin as needles and as fat as pencils, grooved and fluted and hung with tiers of delicately traceried balconies, punctuated the city skyline. A succession of brilliant mosque architects created, under sprung domes, abstract and timeless spaces: interiors of calm light, tiled with intricate geometric patterns and calligraphy and stylized flowers whose sensuous colours – crisp tomato and turquoise and celadon and the clearest blue from the depths of the sea – created ‘a reflection of the infinite garden of delight’ promised in the Koran.

Ottoman Istanbul was a city that lived vividly in the eye and the ear – a place of wooden houses and cypress trees, street fountains and gardens, graceful tombs and subterranean bazaars, of noise and bustle and manufacture, where each occupation and ethnic group had its quarter, and all the races of the Levant in their distinctive garb and headdresses worked and traded, where the sea could be suddenly glimpsed, shimmering at the turn of a street or from the terrace of a mosque, and the call to prayer, rising from a dozen minarets, mapped the city from end to end and from dawn to dusk as intimately as the street cries of the local traders. Behind the forbidding walls of the Topkapi palace, the Ottoman sultans created their own echo of the Alhambra and Isfahan in a series of fragile, tiled pavilions more like solid tents than buildings, set in elaborate gardens, from which they could look out over the Bosphorus and the Asian hills. Ottoman art, architecture and ceremonial created a rich visual world that held as much astonishment for Western visitors as Christian Constantinople had done before it. ‘I beheld the prospect of that little world, the great city of Constantinople,’ wrote Edward Lithgow in 1640, ‘which indeed yields such an outward splendor to the amazed beholder … whereof now the world makes so great account that the whole earth cannot equal it.’

Nowhere is the sensuous texture of Ottoman Istanbul recorded more vividly than in the endless succession of miniatures in which sultans celebrated their triumphs. It is a joyous world of primary colour patterned flat and without perspective, like the decorative devices on tiles and carpets. Here are court presentations and banquets, battles and sieges, beheadings, processions and festivities, tents and banners, fountains and palaces, elaborately worked kaftans and armour and beautiful horses. It is a world in love with ceremony, noise and light. There are ram fights, tumblers, kebab cooks and firework displays, massed Janissary bands that thump and toot and crash their way soundlessly across the page in a blare of red, tight-rope walkers crossing the Horn on ropes suspended from the masts of ships, cavalry squadrons in white turbans riding past elaborately patterned tents, maps of the city as bright as jewels, and all the visible exuberance of paint: vivid red, orange, royal blue, lilac, lemon, chestnut, grey, pink, emerald and gold. The world of the miniatures seems to express both joy and pride in the Ottoman achievement, the breathtaking ascent from tribe to empire in two hundred years, an echo of the words once written by the Seljuk Turks over a doorway in the holy city of Konya: ‘What I have created is unrivalled throughout the world.’

In 1599 Queen Elizabeth I of England sent Sultan Mehmet III an organ as a gift of friendship. It was accompanied by its maker, Thomas Dallam, to play the instrument for the Ottoman ruler. When the master musician was led through the successive courts of the palace and into the presence of the sultan, he was so dazzled by the ceremonial that ‘the sight whereof did make me almost to think that I was in another world’. Visitors had been emitting exactly the same gasps of astonishment since Constantine the Great founded the second Rome and the second Jerusalem in the fourth century. ‘It seems to me’, wrote the Frenchman Pierre Gilles in the sixteenth century, ‘that while other cities are mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth.’ 


Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gelimer had, in fact, been shadowing the Byzantine force for some time, tracking them on the way to Carthage where Vandal forces were mustering. The king sent his nephew Gibamund and 2,000 Vandal cavalry ahead on the left flank of the Roman army. Gelimer’s strategy was to hem the Romans between his forces to the rear, those of Gibamund on the left, and reinforcements from Carthage under Ammatas, Gelimer’s brother. The plan was therefore to envelop and destroy the Roman forces. Without the 5,000 Vandal troops sent to Sardinia, the Vandal and Roman armies were probably about equal in strength. Around noon, Ammatas arrived at Ad Decimum, named from its location at the tenth milestone from Carthage. In his haste, Ammatas left Carthage without his full complement of soldiers and arrived too early by the Vandals’ coordinated attack plan. His men encountered John’s boukellarioi elite cavalry. Outnumbered, the Vandals fought valiantly; Prokopios states that Ammatas himself killed twelve men before he fell. When their commander perished, the Vandals fled to the northwest back toward Carthage. Along their route they encountered penny packets of their countrymen advancing toward Ad Decimum; the retreating elements of Ammatas’s forces panicked these men who fled with them, pursued by John to the gates of the city. John’s men cut down the fleeing Vandals in great number, bloody work far out of proportion to his own numbers. About four miles to the southeast, the flanking attack of the 2,000 Vandal cavalry under Gibamund encountered the Hunnic flank guard of Belisarios. Though they were outnumbered nearly four to one, the 600 Huns had the advantage of tactical surprise, mobility, and firepower. The Vandals had never experienced steppe horse archers; terrified by the reputation and the sight of them, Gibamund and his forces panicked and ran; the Huns thus decimated the second prong of Gelimer’s attack.

Belisarios had still not been informed of his lieutenant’s success when at the end of the day his men constructed the normal entrenched and palisaded camp. Inside he left the baggage and 10,000 Roman infantry, taking with him his cavalry force and boukellarioi with the hopes of skirmishing with the enemy to determine their strength and capabilities. He sent the four hundred Herul foederati as a vanguard; these men encountered Gelimer’s scouts and a violent clash ensued. The Heruls mounted a hill and saw the body of the Vandal army approaching. They sent riders to Belisarios, who pushed forward with the main army—Prokopios does not tell us, but it seems that this could only have been the cavalry wing, since only they were drawn up for action. The Vandals drove the Heruls from the hill and seized the high point of the battlefield. The Heruls fled to another portion of the vanguard, the boukellarioi of Belisarios, who, rather than hold fast, fled in panic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa I

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa II

Arab Campaign to Ctesphion

Ctesphion’s star ascended even further under Sasanian rule, and it was lavishly rebuilt and vastly expanded. It was made the capital of the empire and served as a royal palace (once again favoured as a winter residence), an administrative centre and commercial hub in the region. Its rich cultural diversity (including Jews, Christians, Arabs and Syrians to name but a few) drove trade and wealth into the city limits, while its network of waterways and verdant soil enabled the Ctesiphon to support itself indefinitely.

While the Parthians ultimately added very little of their own culture to the design and architecture of the city, the Sasanians had no such problem. Prior to the widespread use of concrete, mud brick was the chosen resource for erecting buildings of worth. So when the Arch of Ctesiphon was built towards the end of the Sasanian Empire during the 6th century, the arch was constructed entirely out of these oven-baked bricks. And while the Sasanians were Iranian by descent, their building techniques were still very much influenced by the designs and practices of Mesopotamian engineers.

Those techniques enabled the builders to create a huge archway without the need to rely on precarious scaffolding. Leading to a huge 30-metrehigh and some 43-metre-long audience hall, the Taq Kasra was constructed by using an ingenious angled brickwork concept. This enabled these ancient engineers to erect each course against its predecessor with only a simple wooden tower used to give the builders access to the incredible heights to which they built. To complete this iconic structure, the Sasanians used façades decorated with blank arcading and pilasters to flank it. It created an awe-inspiring sight, one fit for royal residence – and it’s just as captivating now despite its ruined state.

As the Sasanian period continued, Ctesiphon started to evolve into more than a mere city, but rather a collection of them on both sides of the Tigris. To many, it was now thought of as `The Cities’ (al-Mada’in in Arabic and Mahoze in Aramaic). It was a sprawling metropolis so expansive that its many sides became vastly different in look, feel and purpose. The western side was known as `Veh-Ardashir’ and was home to some of the cities’ wealthiest denizens including both Jews and Christians (a cathedral was even erected in the city). The eastern side was one of the oldest sections of Ctesiphon, and played host to the `White Palace’ – the Sasanian royal residence.

Following years of conflict with the Muslim Arabs (and a number of attempts to occupy and hold the city by the Romans), the Sasanian Empire began to decline. Despite successfully defeating the Emperor Julian and his Roman forces in the Battle of Ctesiphon (363), Ctesiphon and its masters were no longer the great force of trade and power they once were. Its military exhausted and its allies dwindling, the grand cityscape of Ctesiphon soon followed.

Once again they turned east, marching through southern Iraq into the heartland of Sassanian Persia. For three years, Sasanian territories had been under constant attack, and at the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636, the Muslim forces would rout their foes outright. Crossing the Tigris, they reached Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital, and took it easily. At Ctesiphon, the desert warriors paused to gawk at the wonders of the Middle East’s most sumptuous city, its lavish palaces filled with shimmering tapestries and furniture, its storerooms brimming with gold. Some of the Arabs had never seen gold before, did not know its value, and traded their shares of it for equal volumes of silver. Mistaking camphor for salt, they flavored their cooking with the medicinal crystals. In time, they saddled up and moved on. Ahead of them lay the ancient strongholds of the Iranian plateau: Isfahan; Nihavand and Ecbatana in the old land of the Medes; and Istakhr, birthplace of the Sassanian empire. Each fell. In little more than a decade, the Muslims swept east to India.

By the time the Muslim Arabs reached Ctesiphon in 637, they found the city mostly deserted, the royal family having fled their long-standing home. Now under Muslim rule, the city began to rescind in prominence in the region, a process that only increased in severity when the Abbasid Caliphate established its capital in the nearby city of Baghdad during the 8th century. In fact, it would be the stones taken from the now dilapidated ruins of Ctesiphon that would help build Iraq’s longstanding capital

Between the Rivers – The Battle of the Bridge, 634

636 was not just a pivotal year for the future of Roman Syria. It also saw the decisive Muslim breakthrough in Persian Mesopotamia. By the time he left for Syria in late-633/early-634, Khalid had conquered virtually all Sassanid territory south of the Euphrates and safeguarded these conquests by establishing a series of garrisons. Ostensibly, these new Muslim territories were left under the command of Amr b. Haram, an early supporter of Muhammad, but, in reality, al-Muthanna, who had played such a large role in Khalid’s campaign, was the real authority around Hira. However, the constant threat of military reprisal from the Sassanids still remained and the Qadisiyyah garrison that had been Khalid’s next target was still unsubdued. Due to this threat, al-Muthanna sent repeated messages to Medina asking for reinforcements, perhaps going as far as to visit the Muslim capital to ask Abu Bakr in person once more.

Yet it was not until after the accession of Umar in August 634 that this request was fulfilled with the dispatch of a force under Abu Ubayd b. Ma’ud. With a core of about 1,000 volunteers from his Thaqif tribe gathered at Medina, and picking up contingents from local tribesmen as he marched north, Abu Ubayd may have had about 4,000 men by the time he arrived at Hira. Joining forces with al-Muthanna and about 1,000 of his kin, these two began raiding across the Euphrates. A series of encounters between this Muslim column and Perso-Arab forces are recorded but the sequence and exact location, beyond being in the alluvial plains between Hira and Ctesiphon, of many of these raids cannot be established. What is known is that these raids proved enough of an irritant and close enough to Ctesiphon to provoke a sizeable Persian response, with Bahman marching from the Persian capital to the Euphrates.

Despite the claims of some sources and his success along the Euphrates, it is probable that Khalid had not faced a true imperial Sassanid army. Much like the Romans in Syria, Yazdgerd and his generals were slow to react to what they would have perceived as just another instance of Arabic raiding. The Persians will have been further encouraged to downplay the Muslim attack by their continued dealing with the aftermath of not just the invasion of their territory by the Romans and Turks but also the destructive period of civil war that had followed Shahrbaraz’s assassination. Therefore, it would be somewhat unrealistic to expect Yazdgerd to be able to recognise and react immediately to the emergent threat from Islam. Perhaps only the defeat at Walaja and the fall of Hira saw to it that Yazdgerd and his generals `began to take the business of the Arabs more seriously.’ Furthermore, after the defeats of Bahman’s congregating forces at Muzayyah, Saniyy and Zumail in late 633, it may have taken a year before Yazdgerd could field another army.

Whatever the circumstances, with Abu Ubayd’s force campaigning along the Euphrates and Bahman advancing south from Ctesiphon, a confrontation was inevitable. It appears to have occurred sometime in November 634 at a river crossing near the present day site of Kufa, variously recorded as Mirwaha or al-Qarqas. Situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Bahman reputedly had up to 30,000 men to intercept the raiding Muslims, although the likelihood is that this is an exaggeration. As for the Muslim army, it is possible that the success of their raiding into Mesopotamia both in terms of prestige and material wealth may have bolstered the force of Abu Ubayd and al-Muthanna to as many 9,000. However, it is more likely that it remained closer to the 5,000 recorded at the time of Abu Ubayd’s arrival at Hira.

With the Euphrates dominating the battlefield, the focus of the subsequent fighting was the bridge that separated the two armies. Buoyed by previous successes and perhaps in search of personal renown, Abu Ubayd took an overly aggressive stance against Bahman and attempted to force a crossing of the river. However, while this crossing was successful, Abu Ubayd’s aggression was to prove disastrous. Bahman may have allowed the Muslims to cross the river before attacking to maximise casualties; however, accounts of the battle suggest that it was the presence of elephants in the Persian army that decided the outcome. The smell and clamour they exuded disrupted the Muslim cavalry and, when Abu Ubayd led an attack against them, he himself was trampled by a rampant white elephant. With their commander killed, a large part of the Muslim bridgehead collapsed. It was then that this Battle of the Bridge turned from a defeat into a disaster as the retreating Muslims were driven into the river itself, leaving 1,000 Muslims dead from combat and perhaps a further 3,000 carried away by the Euphrates. There is some suggestion that the bridge was in fact destroyed by a Muslim Arab to force his comrades to continue fighting rather than fleeing. The forces of al-Muthanna, who was wounded, do seem to have survived the battle largely intact, which could suggest that perhaps they formed the Muslim rearguard or were able to find another way across the river.

The Muslim army seems to have disintegrated in the aftermath of this defeat with al-Muthanna returning to his homelands at Ullais and Abu Ubayd’s Thaqif kinsmen returning to Medina. However, despite the totality of their tactical victory at the Battle of the Bridge, the lack of a Persian follow-up would appear to be something of a strategic blunder. Again, much like the Romans, the Persian hierarchy was demonstrating a lack of understanding about what the words, deeds and writings of the Prophet had done for the Arabs. In the past, such a devastating defeat would have broken any pretensions that Arab raiders might have had regarding Mesopotamia. They probably expected those settlements conquered by Khalid to simply return to their original Sassanid allegiance without having to intervene any further militarily, perhaps with al-Muthanna serving as a successor to the Lakhmid buffer state. Whatever the reasons, the failure of the Persians to press their victory over Abu Ubayd in November 634 was not the military anomaly that it would appear to be; the anomaly was the failure of the Muslims to capitulate in the face of such a defeat.

Ostrogothic Siege Warfare

Just as in battlefield tactics, military organization and logistical capabilities, Ostrogothic siege warfare differed little from East Roman practices. They regularly constructed siege camps or full-scale siegeworks to hem in the besieged, and were also adept at other sorts of field fortification, such as the fortified bridge mounted with ballistae that they constructed near Vesuvius at the end of the war. Despite many comments on the late or rare appearance of Ostrogothic artillery during these wars, it is possible to argue that the Ostrogoths had defensive artillery from the outset, where the Ostrogothic defensive barrages during the siege of Osimo in 539 seem to indicate as much. However, secure identification is obscured by Procopius’ writing style and emphasis. Furthermore, the Ostrogoths had a formidable arsenal of offensive siege engines that have not yet been taken seriously. Artillery was in fact rarely used (or at least hardly ever described) in offensive siege operations during the early 6th century, so engineering capabilities must be evaluated on the basis of other machines. During the first assault of Rome (537), at the northern Salarian gate sector, they brought up four powerful rams, which Procopius described in great detail, noting that they were very destructive. In addition the Goths had built large moving towers that terrified the civilian defenders. Procopius relates how Belisarius dismissed the assault with a laugh, since they were using oxen to haul the towers forward. Many scholars have taken this anecdote as proof of barbarian ineptitude, or at least as a classicizing topos on the same, but a close reading of the text reveals that there is more to these events. The Ostrogoths were in fact well prepared and knew what they were doing.

Elsewhere Procopius describes how the Ostrogoths had large shields that made them impervious to regular archery fire. When they assaulted Hadrian’s mausoleum, they could take cover under the colonnade of St. Peter’s to get so close that the defenders were unable to operate the ballistae against them. The angle was too steep and the range too short to use machines, which only left the use of bows. When archery failed against their large shields and the Goths were about to scale the wall with ladders, the defenders survived by breaking up the statues on the mausoleum and dropping them onto the heads of the Goths.

The effectiveness of their shields makes the Gothic approach with oxen more comprehensible. The oxen were protected by serried ranks of armored infantry: “Belisarius, seeing the enemies’ formation marching slowly with the machines (…).” Instead of expending fire on well-prepared infantry marching slowly in formation and protected by large shields, Belisarius deliberately let them get close to the moat. He then built up the confidence of his troops with two well-aimed bowshots that took down two of the armored leaders of the formation, to roars of approval from the defenders. Only “then did Belisarius signal to the whole army to set in motion all the archery, but those around him he ordered to shoot at the oxen only.”

From this it is clear that the strategy was planned out beforehand, since simultaneous firing began from the whole wall on a given signal. While Procopius uses the generic toxeumata (archery), bows alone would have been insufficient to break up the Gothic formations. From Procopius’ description of the ballista, however, where he compares it to a large bow, it is possible that his use of toxeumata included the ballistae, which could wreak havoc on the infantry protecting the oxen. This was what Belisarius was waiting for; he personally led those who were to fire on the oxen, taking advantage of the gaps and chaos caused momentarily by massive archery and ballista fire against the infantry. The oxen fell “immediately” when the whole operation was set in motion. At that point the Goths gave up an outright storm at that sector, but kept up pressure with continuous archery fire against the parapets. Meanwhile assaults took place at Hadrian’s mausoleum to the west, mentioned above, and Vivarium to the east. Here the “machines,” which possibly included towers and certainly rams, worked as planned, and the defenders were terrified by the Gothic assault before Belisarius arrived with substantial reinforcements. The Goths assaulted with machines along a large sector, and were able to reach the outer wall of the Vivarium, which was less heavily fortified than other parts of the wall. They put their rams to good use, breaking through the wall, but here Belisarius kept his cool, holding the reinforcements in reserve at the gates. He ordered one group to hold up those who had broken through the wall, while he himself led a sally out the gates that caught the Goths outside by surprise. At the same time, a sally at the Salernian gate drove off the Goths at that sector as well. Most of the Gothic siege engines were burnt that night. It had been a close call on two of three sectors, only warded off by quick thinking, good leadership and an extremely well-equipped and highly motivated expeditionary army. A similar deployment of a large siege tower at Rimini (II, 538) has also been used to dismiss Gothic engineering capabilities, but again, a close reading of the text makes it clear that the Goths actually handled the engine well and adapted to circumstances. Furthermore, Gothic approaches were similar to that used by the Romans at Amida, and while military means were ultimately fruitless, they won Rome by treason after hard fighting, and took a host of Roman cities by surrender or storm.

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback


Alexius I Comnenus


Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.


Alexius I Comnenus was an unlikely savior. A member of the aristocratic ranks that the Macedonian dynasty had struggled so long to suppress, he seemed at first to be just another usurper in a long line of meddlesome nobles that had brought such ruin to imperial fortunes. It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control. Some of Constantinople’s older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun.

It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople.

The Normans were no ordinary wandering band of adventurers. The descendants of Vikings, these Northmen were the success story of the eleventh century. While their more famous brothers in Normandy had battered their way into Saxon England under the command of William the Conqueror, the southern Normans had batted aside a papal army, held the pope captive, and managed to expel the last vestiges of the Roman Empire from Italy. Led by the remarkable Robert Guiscard, they had invaded Sicily, capturing Palermo and thoroughly broken Saracen power over the island. Now, having run out of enemies at home, and with his appetite whetted for imperial blood, the irascible Guiscard turned his attention to the far more tempting prize of Byzantium.

Upon arriving before the walls of Durazzo, Guiscard cheerfully put the city under siege, but its citizens were well aware that Alexius was on his way and showed no inclination to surrender. After a few months of ineffectual assaults, Robert withdrew to a more defensible position. On October 18, the emperor arrived with his army. The force Alexius had managed to gather in such a short period of time was impressively large, but it suffered from what was by now the traditional Byzantine weakness. The core of the army as always was the elite Varangian Guard, but the rest was an undisciplined, ragtag collection of mercenaries whose loyalty—and courage—was at best suspect. The only consolation for Alexius was that the Varangians, at least, were eager for battle.

Fifteen years before, a Norman duke had burst into Anglo-Saxon England, killing the rightful king at Hastings and placing his heavy boot on the back of anyone with a drop of Saxon blood. Many of those who found life intolerable as second-class citizens in Norman England had eventually made their way to Constantinople, where they had enlisted with their Viking cousins in the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Now at last they were face-to-face with the foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions.

Swinging their terrible double-headed axes in wicked arcs, the Varangians waded into the Norman line, sending their blades crunching into any man or horse that got in their way. The Normans fell back in the face of such a ferocious assault, but Alexius’s Turkish mercenaries betrayed him, and he was unable to press the advantage. The moment the Norman cavalry wheeled around, the bulk of the imperial army scattered, and the exposed and hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were surrounded and butchered to a man. Alexius, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, kept fighting, but he knew the day was lost. Soon he fled to Bulgaria to rebuild his shattered forces.

The empire had proven as weak as Guiscard had hoped, and with the cream of the Byzantine army gone, there was seemingly nothing to fear from Alexius. By the spring of 1082, Durazzo had fallen along with most of northern Greece, and Guiscard could confidently boast to his men that by winter they would all be dining in the palaces of Constantinople. Unfortunately for the invader’s culinary plans, however, Alexius was far from finished. The ever-resourceful emperor knew he couldn’t hope to stand toe-to-toe with Norman arms, but there were other ways to wage war, and in his capable hands diplomacy would prove a sharper weapon than steel.

Guiscard had been all-conquering in southern Italy, but his meteoric career had left numerous enemies in its wake. Chief among them was the German emperor Henry IV, who held northern Italy in his grip and nervously watched the growth of Norman power in the south. When Alexius sent along a healthy amount of gold with the rather obvious suggestion that a Norman emperor might not be a good thing for either of them, Henry obligingly invaded Rome, forcing the panicked pope to beg Guiscard to return at once. Robert wavered, but more Byzantine gold had found its way into the pockets of the Italians chafing under Norman rule, and news soon arrived that southern Italy had risen in rebellion. Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Guiscard had no choice but to withdraw, leaving his son Bohemond to carry on the fight in his place.

Alexius immediately attacked, cobbling together no fewer than three mercenary armies, but each one met the same fate, and the emperor accomplished nothing more than further draining his treasury. Even without their charismatic leader, the Normans were clearly more than a match for his imperial forces, so Alexius began a search for allies to do the fighting for him. He found a ready one in Venice—that most Byzantine of sea republics—where the leadership was as alarmed as everyone else about the scope of Guiscard’s ambitions. In return for the help of its navy, Alexius reduced Venetian tariffs to unprecedented (and from native merchants’ perspectives rather dangerous) levels, and gave Venice a full colony in Constantinople with the freedom to trade in imperial waters. The concessions virtually drove Byzantine merchants from the sea, but that spring it must all have seemed worth it as the Venetian navy cut off Bohemond from supplies or reinforcements. By this time, the Normans were thoroughly exhausted. It had been nearly four years since they had landed in Byzantine territory, and though they had spectacularly demolished every army sent against them, they were no closer to conquering Constantinople than the day they arrived. Most of their officers were unimpressed by the son of Guiscard and wanted only to return home. Encouraged by Alexius’s shrewd bribes, they started to grumble, and when Bohemond returned to Italy to raise more money, his officers promptly surrendered.

The next year, in 1085, the seventy-year-old Robert Guiscard tried again, but he got no farther than the island of Cephalonia, where a fever accomplished what innumerable enemy swords couldn’t, and he died without accomplishing his great dream. The empire could breathe a sigh of relief and turn its eyes once more to lesser threats from the East.

The Muslim threat—much like the Norman one—had recently been tremendously diminished by a fortuitous death. At the start of Alexius’s reign, it had seemed that the Seljuk Turks would devour what was left of Asia Minor. In 1085, Antioch had fallen to their irresistible advance, and the next year Edessa and most of Syria as well. In 1087, the greatest shock came when Jerusalem was captured and the pilgrim routes to the Holy City were completely cut off by the rather fanatical new masters. Turning to the coast, the Muslims captured Ephesus in 1090 and spread out to the Greek islands. Chios, Rhodes, and Lesbos fell in quick succession. But just when it appeared as if Asia was lost, the sultan died and his kingdom splintered in the usual power grab.

With the Norman threat blunted and the Muslim enemy fragmented, the empire might never have a better opportunity to push back the Seljuk threat—and Alexius knew it. All the emperor needed was an army, but as the recent struggle with the Normans had shown, his own was woefully inadequate. Alexius would have to turn to allies to find the necessary steel to stiffen his forces, and, in 1095, he did just that. Taking pen in hand, he wrote a letter to the pope.

The decision to appeal to Rome was somewhat surprising in light of the excommunication of forty-one years before, but most of those involved in that unfortunate event were long dead, and tempers had cooled in the ensuing decades. The emperor and the pope might quibble occasionally about theological details, but they were members of the same faith, and it was as a fellow Christian that Alexius wrote Urban. As a gesture of goodwill to get things off on the right foot, the emperor reopened the Latin churches in Constantinople, and when his ambassadors reached Pope Urban II, they found the pontiff to be in a conciliatory mood. The appalling Turkish conquests had profoundly shocked him, and the sad plight of eastern Christians under Muslim rule could no longer be ignored. No record of the conversation that followed has survived, but by the time the pope made his way to France a few months later, a grand new vision had formed in his mind. Islam had declared a jihad to seize the holy places of Christendom and spread its faith into Europe; now it was time for a grand Christian counteroffensive. On November 18, the pope mounted a huge platform just outside the French city of Clermont and delivered one of the most fateful speeches in history.

The Saracens, he proclaimed, had come storming out of the deserts to steal Christian land and defile their churches, murdering Christian pilgrims and oppressing the faith. They had torn down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and forced innumerable believers to convert to Islam. The West could no longer in good conscience ignore the suffering—it was the sacred duty of every Christian to march to the aid of their eastern brothers. The Saracens had stolen the city of God and now righteous soldiers were needed to drive them out. All those who marched with a pure heart would have their sins absolved.

The moment the pope finished speaking, the crowd erupted. Medieval Europe was filled with violence, and most of those gathered were painfully aware of how much blood stained their hands. Now, suddenly, they were offered a chance to avoid the eternal damnation that in all likelihood awaited them by wielding their swords in God’s name. A bishop knelt down on the spot and pledged to take the cross, and within moments the papal officials had run out of material for those who wanted to sew crosses on their clothing as a sign of their intentions. France, Italy, and Germany were swept up in crusading fever as Urban traveled spreading the message, and peasants and knights alike flocked to his banner. So many responded that the pope had to begin encouraging some to stay home to take in the harvest and avert the danger of a famine. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined such a groundswell.

The sheer scale of the response electrified the pope, but it horrified Alexius. The last thing he needed was a shambling horde of western knights descending on his capital. What he really wanted were some mercenaries who recognized his authority, while the pope had given him what was sure to be an undisciplined rabble that listened little and demanded much.

And there were plenty of other reasons to mistrust the crusaders. Not only had the pope cleverly substituted Jerusalem for Constantinople as the object of the holy war, but he had also neglected to mention Alexius in any of his speeches, putting the Crusade firmly under his own control, and reinforcing the idea that the pope—not the emperor—was the supreme authority in Christendom. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “holy” war was an alien concept to the Byzantine mind. Killing, as Saint Basil of Caesarea had taught in the fourth century, was sometimes necessary but never praiseworthy, and certainly not grounds for remission of sins. The Eastern Church had held this line tenaciously throughout the centuries, even rejecting the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas’s attempt to have soldiers who died fighting Muslims declared martyrs. Wars could, of course, be just, but on the whole diplomacy was infinitely preferable. Above all, eastern clergy were not permitted to take up arms, and the strange sight of Norman clerics armed and even leading soldiers disconcerted the watching hosts.

These strange western knights were obviously not to be trusted, and some Byzantines suspected that the true object of the Crusade was not the liberation of Jerusalem at all, but the capture of Constantinople. Anyone who doubted that only needed to look at the nobles who were already on their way, for foremost among the crusading knights was Bohemond—the hated son of Robert Guiscard.

The first group of crusaders to arrive before the gates of the city didn’t improve Alexius’s opinion of them. After the pope had returned to Italy, other men had taken up the task of preaching the Crusade, fanning out to spread the word. One of them, a rather unpleasant monk named Peter the Hermit, traveled through northern France and Germany, preaching to the poor and offering the destitute peasants a chance to escape their crushing lives. After attracting a following of forty thousand men, women, and children who were too impatient to wait for the official start date, Peter led his shambling horde to Constantinople. When they reached Hungary, it became apparent that many had joined the Crusade for less than noble reasons, and neither Peter nor anyone else could control them. Looting their way through the countryside, they set fire to Belgrade and stormed the citadel of any town that didn’t turn over its supplies. At the city of Nish, the exasperated Byzantine governor sent out his troops to bring them into line, and in the skirmish ten thousand crusaders were killed. By the time Peter and his “People’s Crusade” reached Constantinople, they were looking less like an army than a rabble of hungry, tired brigands. Knowing that they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Turks, Alexius advised them to turn back, but they had come too far by now and were firmly convinced of their invulnerability. They were already becoming a headache—taking whatever they pleased and looting the suburbs of Constantinople—so with a final warning Alexius ferried them across to Asia Minor.

The People’s Crusade came to a predictably bad end. The crusaders spent most of the next three months committing atrocities against the local Greek population—apparently without noticing that they were fellow Christians—before blundering into a Turkish ambush. Peter the Hermit managed to survive and make his miserable way back to Constantinople, but the rest of his “army” wasn’t so lucky. The youngest and best-looking children were saved for the Turkish slave markets and the rest were wiped out.

The main crusading armies that arrived over the next nine months bore no resemblance to the pathetic rabble that Peter had led. Headed by the most powerful knights in western Europe, they were disciplined and strong, easily doubling the size of any army Alexius could muster. The logistics of feeding and handling such an enormous group were a nightmare, made especially difficult by the fact that neither they nor Alexius trusted the other an inch. Obviously, the emperor had to handle the situation with extreme care. Since these westerners valued oaths so highly, they must all be made to swear their allegiance to him, but it had to be done quickly. Arriving separately, they were small enough to be overawed by the majesty of the capital, but if they were allowed to join together, they would undoubtedly get it into their heads to attack the city. Constantinople had been a temptation to generations of would-be conquerors before them; why would crusaders prove any different?

The emperor was right to be alarmed. Constantinople was unlike any other city in the world, more splendid and intoxicating than any the westerners had ever seen. To a poor knight, the city was impossibly strange, dripping in gold and home to a population nearly twenty times that of Paris or London. The churches were filled with mysterious rites that seemed shockingly heretical, and the babble of dozens of exotic languages could be heard on streets choked with merchants and nobles dressed in bright silks and brilliant garments. The public monuments were impossibly large, the palaces unbearably magnificent, and the markets excessively expensive. Inevitably, there was a severe culture clash. The Byzantines the crusaders met treated them like barely civilized barbarians, resenting the swarms of “allies” who had looted their cities and stolen their crops, while the crusaders in response despised the “effeminate” Greeks arrayed in their flowing robes and surrounded by perfumed eunuchs who needed westerners to do their fighting for them. Annoyed by the cloying ceremony of the Byzantine court, most of the crusading princes at first treated the emperor with barely concealed contempt—one knight even went so far as to lounge impudently on the imperial throne when Alexius entered to meet with him. The emperor, however, was quite capable of holding his own. With a shrewd mixture of vague threats and luxurious gifts, he managed to procure an oath from each of them. Few arrived eager to pledge their loyalty, although some were compliant enough (Bohemond in particular was a little too willing to swear), but in the end virtually every leader agreed to return any conquered city to the empire. Only the distinguished Raymond of Toulouse stubbornly refused the exact wording, substituting instead the rather nebulous promise to “respect” the life and property of the emperor.

By the early months of 1097, the ordeal was over and the last of the crusaders had been ferried across the Bosporus and settled on the Asian shore. For Alexius, the feeling was one of extreme relief. The armies that had descended on his empire had been more of a threat than a help, and even if they were successful in Anatolia, they would most likely prove more dangerous than the currently disunited Turks. In any case, all that he could do now was wait and see what developed.

As soon as they landed, the crusaders headed for Nicaea, the ancient city that had witnessed the first great council of the church nearly eight centuries before. The Turkish sultan who had wiped out the People’s Crusade was more annoyed than alarmed, assuming that these recent arrivals were of the same caliber. Instead, he found an army of hardened knights mounted on their powerful horses, encased in thick armor that rendered them completely impervious to arrows. The Turkish army shattered before the first charge of the crusader heavy cavalry, and the stunned sultan hastily retreated.

The only thing that marred the victory for the crusaders was the fact that the garrison of Nicaea chose to surrender to the Byzantine commander—who promptly shut the gates and refused to let them enjoy the customary pillaging. Such behavior by the Byzantines was perfectly understandable since the population of Nicaea was predominantly Byzantine Christian, but to the crusaders it smacked of treachery. They began to wonder if the emperor might not be confused between his allies and his enemies—especially when the captured Turks were offered a choice between service under the imperial standards or safe conduct home. For the moment, the crusaders muted their criticism, but their suspicions didn’t bode well for future relations with Byzantium.

Alexius was more than happy to ignore western knighthood’s injured pride, because he was fairly certain that they stood no chance against the innumerable Muslim enemies arrayed against them. Against all expectations in Constantinople, however, the First Crusade turned out to be a rousing success. The Turkish sultan tried again to stop the crusaders, but after two crushing defeats, he ordered their path stripped of supplies and left them unmolested. After a horrendous march across the arid, burning heart of Asia Minor, the crusaders reached Antioch and managed to batter their way inside. No sooner had they captured the city, however, than a massive army under the Turkisn governor of Mosul appeared, and the crusaders—now desperately short of water—were forced to kill most of their horses for food. Alexius gathered his army to march to their defense but was met halfway by a fleeing crusader, who informed him that all hope was lost and that the city had most likely already fallen. Realizing that there was nothing to gain by sacrificing his army, Alexius turned around and returned to Constantinople.

The crusaders, however, hadn’t surrendered. Inspired by the miraculous discovery of a holy relic, they had flung themselves into a last-ditch offensive and managed to put the huge army to flight. Continuing their advance, they reached Jerusalem in midsummer, and on July 15, 1099, successfully stormed the Holy City. Many crusaders wept upon seeing the city that they had suffered so much to reach, but their entry into it unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of the last four years. Few of the inhabitants were spared—neither Orthodox, nor Muslims, nor Jews—and the hideously un-Christian bloodbath continued until early the next morning.

It was the work of several weeks to cleanse the city of the stench of rotting bodies, and by that time the crusaders had chosen a king. By the oaths they had all taken, they should have returned the city—along with everything else they had conquered—to the Byzantine Empire, but there was no longer any chance of that. As far as they were concerned, when Alexius had failed to relieve them in Antioch, he had revealed himself to be treacherous, releasing them from their vows. Bohemond had already seized Antioch, setting himself up as prince, and the rest of their conquests were now broken up into various crusader kingdoms. If the emperor wanted to press his claims to their lands, then he could do so in person with an army at his back.

Alexius was more than happy to let Palestine go. A few Christian buffer states in lands that had been lost for centuries might even be a good thing. But having his enemy Bohemond installed in Antioch was more than he could swallow. Long regarded as the second city of the empire and site of one of the great patriarchates of the church, Antioch had been lost to the Turks only fifteen years before. Its population was thoroughly Orthodox, its language was Greek, and its culture was Byzantine through and through. But even when Bohemond added insult to injury by tossing out the Greek patriarch and replacing him with a Latin one, there was little Alexius could do. The emperor had used the distraction of the Crusade to recover most of northwestern Asia Minor—including the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, and Philadelphia—but his armies were stretched out, and there was no hope of extending his reach into Syria.

The Wars of Basil II

The Byzantine Empire at the death of Basil II in 1025

Basil II (976-1025) is generally held to have been one of the most effective and competent rulers of the eastern Roman empire. His early years were not easy but, despite beginning his reign with a civil war and military defeat in the Balkans, he continued and consolidated the conquests of his immediate predecessors, re-establishing the Byzantine empire as the paramount power in the region. After a long and gruelling war against a revived Bulgarian state, under the Tsar Samuel, he was finally victorious, entirely incorporating Bulgaria and its vassals into the empire, giving them their own provincial administration and establishing them as regular imperial provinces. The Danube once more became the imperial frontier in the north; the emirate of Aleppo and its more easterly neighbours became client states of the empire in the east. Here, the dynamic military power of the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty, whose interests likewise lay in exercising some control over the Syrian emirates and cities, now became the main enemy.

Basil became effective ruler only in 976, on the death from typhoid fever of John I. But he was still very young, and there were members of the aristocracy related to the previous emperors, Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, who felt that they had better claims to imperial power. Both Nikephoros and John had, in effect, seized the throne, and had been able to legitimate their position only through marriage to the widow of emperor Romanos II – father of Basil and his brother Constantine – who had died in 963. It was a leading member of one of these ambitious noble clans, Bardas Skleros, who rebelled against Basil II shortly after his succession in 976; and it was another leader of an even more prestigious family, Bardas Phokas, whom the emperor called to his assistance in 978. The rebellion was defeated and Skleros escaped to the Caliphate where he was imprisoned. On his release in 987, however, and with Arab support, he returned and raised an army once more. Bardas Phokas was sent against him, but betrayed the emperor, first coming to an agreement with Skleros, then imprisoning him and declaring against Basil II himself. The emperor called upon the Russian prince Vladimir for help, and an agreement was reached which involved both Vladimir’s acceptance of Christianity and his marriage to Basil’s sister Anna. Vladimir also sent Basil a stout body of Norse-Russian troops (known in the Byzantine sources as Varangians). With their help, Basil was able to defeat Phokas, who died after a second battle in 989. And although Skleros continued in rebellion for a while, a reconciliation was soon arranged and peace restored.

Basil’s early military ventures were largely unsuccessful (a factor which contributed to the desire in certain aristocratic quarters to replace him). In 986 he had marched against the reviving power of the Bulgarians, under their Tsar Samuel who, together with his brothers, had rebelled against Roman rule in Macedonia after the death of Tzimiskes, establishing a capital first at Prespa and later at Ohrid. Although taking up the older Bulgarian tradition, this was essentially a kingdom based in Macedonia, which now became the political centre of the new empire. From there he was able to extend his sway over the regions to the north and east, and by the mid-980s he controlled all the original Bulgarian state up to the Danube as well as the western Balkans, including much of Thessaly, Epiros and what is now Albania. He then began pushing directly into Byzantine Thrace, attacking Thessaloniki and other major centres in 985 and 986.

The young Basil had to take action before the empire’s Balkan provinces fell away. An expedition led by the emperor marched north against the region of Serdica, but failed to take the town and, on his return, his forces were badly mauled in the Balkan passes, losing the imperial baggage in the process. The ensuing civil wars took up the emperor’s attention for the next years, allowing the new Bulgarian power to extend and consolidate its hold. When next the emperor turned his attention to Tsar Samuel, he faced a very different problem indeed.

By 991, when Basil finally had the time to devote to the Balkan situation, Samuel’s power was well established. Basil began by trying to forge diplomatic alliances with some of the other Balkan powers, such as the princes of Serbia, for example. In 991 Basil campaigned briefly and successfully in Macedonia, but eastern politics then took up his attention until 1001. In the meantime, in 997, Samuel had suffered a major defeat at the hands of one of Basil’s generals, Nikephoros Ouranos, following a raid as far south as the Peloponnese. But it became clear that this would not affect his overall situation. Beginning in 1001, therefore, Basil began a series of regular, yearly campaigns that, with the strength of the well-disciplined Byzantine armies behind him, soon reduced Samuel’s power to a fraction of its former extent. Basil’s campaigns were well thought through. He first established a wedge of Byzantine-controlled territory stretching up from Thrace to the Balkan range and Pliska, thus cutting Samuel’s core Macedonian lands off from the old Bulgarian heartlands. In a series of pincer movements he then progressively isolated the Tsar’s forces, until by about 1007 the war had become a question of searching out and bringing Samuel’s remaining forces to battle. The end for Samuel came in 1014 when, at the battle of Kleidion, a narrow pass in the Belasica mountains which Samuel had fortified against Byzantine attack, his remaining forces were caught in a pincer movement and annihilated. Samuel died shortly after the battle, possibly from a cerebral haemorrhage or heart attack, and within four years the remainder of his empire had collapsed in civil war and been absorbed into the empire. The whole Balkan region up to the Danube was, for the first time since the sixth century, again in Roman hands, and was to stay in Roman hands until the rebellions of the later twelfth century.

The effectiveness and inventiveness of Roman generalship during this period is exemplified by a number of battles fought during the reign of Basil II. One of the best known is the battle of the Spercheios river, fought in 997. Tsar Samuel had marched into Thrace, where he was able to ambush and capture Ashot, the son of the Byzantine doux, or commander, of the region of Thessaloniki, Gregory Taronites. In a vain attempt to rescue his son, Gregory too was drawn into a trap and surrounded, and died trying to cut his way out. Samuel then marched across northern Greece and down as far as the Gulf of Corinth, from where he entered the Peloponnese and proceeded to ravage and harry the land. Samuel’s forces had managed to avoid the detachments placed to halt their advance into the Peloponnese and Greece, but on the march back towards his home territories he was forced to confront one of the empire’s most able commanders, the general Nikephoros Ouranos, a close friend of the emperor Basil and author of an important military handbook. Nikephoros, who held the post of supreme commander of all the western armies, set out from Thessaloniki with his forces and crossed the mountains of Olympos to Larissa, where he left his baggage before proceeding. From Larissa he set out with a select and lightly equipped force to try and intercept Samuel’s army. Moving by forced marches he crossed Thessaly and the plain of Farsala before arriving at the Apidanos river, which he crossed to reach the Spercheios, where his scouts had located the Bulgar encampment. Nikephoros pitched his camp on the bank opposite Samuel’s army, but this did not dishearten the Bulgars: not only were there no nearby fords, but the river was in full spate due to particularly heavy rains.

Nikephoros was not prepared to give up, however. Scouts were despatched up and down the river for a considerable distance in both directions and eventually a fordable stretch was found, sufficient to permit the select force under Nikephoros’s command to pass over. Marching along the bank of the river after nightfall, the troops were safely crossed over before dawn. Forming up on the opposite bank, they now marched back towards the Bulgar encampment and, just before dawn, fell on the imperfectly defended camp which Samuel had thought adequate. The Bulgar troops were caught completely unawares, and there was no organized resistance. The greater part of the Bulgar force perished or was captured. Samuel and his son Romanos, who had accompanied him, were both badly wounded and only escaped with their lives by hiding among the dead and injured until they could creep away. The Romans captured Samuel’s baggage train and all his booty, and returned to Thessaloniki with a substantial body of captives.

A similarly stubborn refusal to give up when faced with apparently insurmountable physical obstacles was demonstrated by Basil II himself and his officers in the campaign of 1014. In the years preceding, the Roman strategy of attrition had worn down Bulgar resistance to such an extent that Samuel could no longer go on the offensive, but was limited to trying to prevent Byzantine incursions into his core territory and to preserve what lands and resources were still in his power. The Tsar’s strategy was to attempt to prevent the damaging raids mounted by Basil each year into these Macedonian heartlands. Campaigning generally began in May, and the raids usually involved imperial units pushing up from Serres in the south, through the pass of Rupel and along the ‘long plain’ (Campulungu, or ‘Kimbalonga’ in its Greek form) formed by the Strymon valley itself. Following well-established Bulgar practice, Samuel blocked many of the passes off with timber palisades and ditches, including the important pass at Kleidion (near the modern village of Kljuc), regularly employed by the imperial armies as they marched into Macedonia, despatching at the same time a diversionary attack against Thessaloniki by another route. The latter move was defeated by the local commander in the region, Theophylaktos Botaneiates, whose troops cut the Bulgar force to pieces. The attempt to block the pass also failed.

Confronted by the high palisade erected by the Bulgars, the eastern Roman forces at first tried to storm the obstacle, but after sustaining disproportionate losses in the attempt, found that they would have to march a long way westwards or eastwards in order to circumvent the obstacle, which would have meant calling off the campaign for that year. One of Basil’s commanders, however, Niketas Xiphias, the commander of Philippoupolis, volunteered to lead a small force over the mountains in an attempt to find a way across and behind the enemy position. Basil’s forces maintained their position before the pass, launching a series of small-scale assaults to keep the Bulgars occupied, while Xiphias spent some time scouting the area on either side of the pass. Eventually he located a narrow and difficult track to the west of the pass, which led across mount Belasica, and at dawn on 29 July Xiphias’s small force fell on the rear lines of the Bulgar army with bloodcurdling yells. Order was never really established and, as panic gripped the Bulgar soldiers, the main imperial army under Basil, no longer faced by a determined and focused resistance from the palisade, were able to tear it down and begin the pursuit of their utterly disorganized foe. Many were killed, but the vast majority were surrounded and forced to surrender.

This was Samuel’s last remaining army of any consequence, and its destruction effectively ended serious resistance. According to a slightly later source, some 15,000 prisoners were taken in all, and of these, Basil is supposed to have blinded all but one in every hundred, whom he left with one eye each to guide the rest back to Samuel. Whether the tale is true is hard to know, although there is probably some element of truth to it. At any rate, Samuel had a seizure or stroke of some kind when he saw what had happened to his soldiers, and died. Within the next four years Basil and his generals completed the subjugation of Bulgaria, and the Danube became once again the effective frontier of the Roman empire.

The successes of the period from about 960 to 1025 are impressive, but they were by no means uniform. The imperial armies had achieved a powerful reputation, so much so that by the 1030s the mere threat of an imperial army marching into northern Syria was enough to keep the local Muslim emirs in check. Yet while these successes were the result of a combination of good organization and logistics, intelligent tactics, well-armed, trained and disciplined soldiers, and good morale, the key still remained the competence and effectiveness of the commanders. Even under Basil II incompetent officers led their troops to disaster, so it can reasonably be maintained that the dependence on the charisma and intelligence of its leaders was one of the most significant inbuilt weaknesses of the imperial military system at the tactical level. Combined with short-sighted strategic planning and internal political conflict, this was to lead during the middle of the eleventh century to serious problems and to the erosion of the effectiveness of the field armies as well as the provincial defences.




The army of Heraclius’ empire after demobilization in 629 and 630 was almost certainly smaller than that of Justinian’s reign, which the contemporary historian Agathias had speculated in estimating its strength at 150,000. The question is how much smaller were the total disposable Byzantine forces at the beginning of the 630s than they had been late in the reign of Justinian. Perhaps they were smaller by as much as one-third, although it is difficult to conceive how they could have been much less than two-thirds of the late Justinianic armies’ size, because of the remaining vast dimensions of the empire.

Heraclius’ armies on the eve of the Muslim conquests probably included approximately 10,000 to 20,000 elite mobile praesental expeditionary forces at and near Constantinople. Those troops were capable of fighting in pitched campaigns in the field. These were the best troops who could be sent against the Muslims, or against any other invader. Of varying but usually less reliable quality were other troops: 25,000 mostly mediocre soldiers in Egypt; 5-10,000 in Africa; 5-10,000 in what was left of Byzantine Italy; in the embattled Balkans under the magister militum per Thraciam a hypothetical 20,000, of whom probably an inadequate 8,000 to 10,000 or less were available for expeditionary campaigning elsewhere, 5,000 for fleet and island commands; under the magister militum per Armeniam hypothetically 12,000, but 5-8,000 or less could be spared from duties in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus; under the critical magister militum per Orientem there were hypothetically 20,000, of whom 1,000 to 2,000 remained in Isauria and Cilicia for constabulary service, 8,000 in upper Mesopotamia, primarily facing the Persians but also to ward off any Bedouin incursions, 10,000 in Syria, especially northern Syria, of whom surely only 5,000 or less, including friendly but irregular Arab hired guards remained in the three Palestinian provinces and Arabia. The exact military command structure for these troops is unclear and any clarification depends on elucidating how long the system of late Roman magistri militum (Masters of the Soldiers) survived. It appears that magistri militum still existed on the eve of the Muslim conquests, and more specifically, that the magister militum per Orientem or Master of the Soldiers in the East was the military commander who still commanded the Byzantine troops in Syria and Mesopotamia. In addition to these regular troops, although some were essentially performing routine garrison duty, were friendly Arabs, whose numbers could easily match or double or triple, for a very short and specific campaign only, those of the regular Byzantine forces in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. These are only estimates, not secure figures.

The figures for non-Arab Byzantine soldiers in the Byzantine Empire in c. AD 630 would make a total of 113,000 to 130,000 troops at the higher end of a likely range of figures, or 98,000 or even less at the lower end. Fifty thousand or less of these might have been available for all forms of deployment against Arabs. Protection of logistical lines and garrison duties probably reduced the maximum potential strength of a regular force to 20,000 or 30,000, in addition to friendly Arab contingents. However, it is possible that the financial strains at the end of the Persian wars led to an even sharper reduction in the total number of effectives, but this is very conjectural. These troops varied greatly in quality. In any case, these totals were insufficient for internal security purposes and for proper defense of the empire’s borders after 630. But the logistical problems of supporting even these inadequate numbers of soldiers were formidable.

The relevance of these broader figures for defenses against potential Muslim invasion requires closer scrutiny. Probably only small postings of local regular units existed at scattered points in the three Palestinian provinces, Palestine I, Palestine II, Palestine III, and in Arabia. The largest posting probably was at Caesarea, with maybe 200 or 300 mobile troops available. Small garrisons, composed of Byzantine but in effect long assimilated indigenous troops, many of whom probably carried on some other occupation as well, existed probably of 100 or less to 200 soldiers, at sites on both sides of the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley. The quality of these troops was mediocre but not impossibly bad. Some of them drilled at least occasionally. It was difficult to coordinate these scattered garrisons if some serious external threat appeared. These garrison troops were inexperienced at fighting any open warfare of maneuver and pitched combat. They were best suited for passive, low-intensity stationary guard duty, or for defending well-fortified fixed positions. Individual towns may have held a garrison of the size of a numerus, whose numbers likely totalled 100 to 500 soldiers.

The largest garrisons were not in any of the three Palestinian provinces, but in northern Syria and upper Mesopotamia, facing greater traditional threats to security, namely, the Persians. A substantial garrison existed at and near Antioch, probably 1,500 or less, and a much smaller but important garrison at Chalkis (Qinnasrin) possibly a few hundred. Troops covering the Mesopotamian frontier with Persia may have fluctuated but after demobilization in 629, in peacetime, probably counted several thousand good troops, with additional thousands of troops, and perhaps one thousand or more, established at key points, including Melitene, along or near the Armenian frontier. The exact strength of these units is uncertain, but the government probably maintained some strength there to insure enforcement of the peace terms of the recent peace treaty with Persia and the agreement of Arabissos of 629. The threat might come not only from the Persian government, which was weakened by internal strife, but also from dissident Persian forces, irregulars and stragglers, and Bedouin. Even the Byzantine government’s fiscal pressures and the knowledge that Persia was no longer a major threat could not have allowed Heraclius to denude that region of all troops. But some were probably scattered at Callinicum, others at Nisibis and Dara and Edessa, Zeugma, Hierapolis, and Berrhoia. Modest-sized detachments of 100 or so may well have been the emplacements of regular soldiers, supplemented at some sites with encampments of friendly Christian (usually nominally Monophysitic) Arabs.

Local Arab garrisons probably equaled or exceeded the numbers of regular Byzantine soldiers. Likewise there appear to have been modest (hundred or more soldiers) detachments stationed at a few strategic points across the legal border inside Persia, at least at Hit and Takrlt, on the upper Euphrates and Tigris Rivers respectively. Defenses of areas east of the Jordan and east of the Golan Heights were another matter. The Byzantine army appears to have allowed local sheikhs of a friendly sort to handle security patrols and the guarding of passage through desert and semi-desert peripheral territories.

The mobile effectives among the theoretical 25,000 troops in Egypt were probably small in number, a few thousand, widely scattered and difficult to collect to send to Syria/Palestine, of poor quality, and normally needed for internal security needs in Egypt and Cyrenaica. Even less available were troops stationed west of Egypt, in Numidia, and the Exarchate of Africa, which was exposed to grievous Berber raids. Likewise, the Byzantine government was not defending its Balkan regions well against Avars and Slavs and could temporarily divert Thracian troops, under the command of the magister militum per Thraciam, from there to Syria or Egypt only at the risk of experiencing the devastation of those regions and their populations.

The best Byzantine troops, those who were stationed at Constantinople, were located more than 1,600 kilometers from the areas of earliest Muslim penetration. It was possible to shift them to Syria, but it was expensive and time-consuming, requiring several months at least to remove the bulk of them there. Most Byzantine troops who were already stationed in Syria were located in the north, about 800 to 1,200 kilometers away from areas of the earliest major clashes. Time, organization, money, logistical planning, and the risks of offending local population were involved in any shifts. Except for emergency short-term needs, troops other than cavalry could not move much more than 25 to 30 kilometers per day, and even that speed presented problems for transportation of some of their equipment and supplies. After such a lengthy and exhausting trip, moreover, the troops and their animals required some rest and adjustment before being truly ready for serious operations and combat. A basic reality was the government’s inability to concentrate all or even most of its potentially available troops for open campaigning or to raise expeditionary armies much larger than 20,000 soldiers, including foot and horse.

The recruitment of additional soldiers required time, money, much training, and could disrupt existing rural social and economic structures. It was easier to raise contingents from the ranks of friendly Arab tribes, who were located more conveniently and who knew the terrain and fighting techniques of the Muslim invaders at least to some extent, than to recruit troops of Greek and Latin stock. Friendly Arab forces may have numbered two to five times the size of the available regular and garrison troops of “Byzantine” (Greek, Armenian, or Latin) stock; by this time very few Germanic recruits were available. Armenians could be and were recruited, but it was hazardous to rely too heavily on them, even though they shared a common Armenian heritage with Emperor Heraclius.