As well as being characterized by the sort of larger-scale offensive and defensive strategy exemplified in the campaigns of, for example, 838 or 863 described already, the period up to the middle of the tenth century saw a style of frontier fighting and skirmishing, of guerrilla tactics and raiding, that had developed over the centuries from the period when the frontiers became more-or-less stable in the first part of the eighth century. Quite a lot is known about this style of fighting both from historians’ accounts of campaigns and battles, as well as from a number of military handbooks, some of them written by serving soldiers. The late ninth- or early tenth-century Tactica of the emperor Leo VI, for example, shows that warfare along the eastern front followed a well-established pattern. By the 950s and 960s, this was changing, as imperial successes in pushing forward the frontier rendered the traditional system of defensive warfare more or less redundant.
The eastern frontier was guarded by a chain of lookout posts, with small units of irregulars acting as scouts and informants along the frontier, particularly covering the various points of ingress into imperial territory. The frontier was a broad band of territory, and the location of such lookout posts seems to have changed according to the situation, while raids and counterraids intended to destroy enemy outposts or more important local fortresses and bases frequently altered the pattern of local strategy.
An anonymous treatise written in the 960s sets out the key aspects of this type of warfare. First, the local commanders should make sure that the networks of watch-posts and lookouts are in order. Scouts should be recruited from among the local population, men with experience, a good knowledge of local routes and the different qualities they possess. They should work on a fifteen-day rotation, and be dispatched in small groups to watch the roads and routes that might be used by the enemy. Local commanders should make extensive use of spies, including merchants and others on genuine business in the enemy’s land – a long tradition in Byzantine strategic thinking. The call-up of registered soldiers should be strictly observed, and the scouting parties should be checked by an officer from time to time. They should also change their location in order to avoid capture. There were pre-planned schemes for evacuating the non-military population of the regions through which an enemy raiding party would pass, once its route had been ascertained, in order to preserve the local population and at the same time to deprive the enemy of the chance to collect provisions and easy booty.
The most important aspect of this frontier defensive strategy was ‘shadowing’. Following and harassing the enemy by exploiting one’s own knowledge of the local terrain was one aspect; keeping a close watch on his column and especially his encampment, in order to attempt ambushes on forage parties and other isolated groups, was another. Crucial to all operations was the idea of bringing together several smaller forces, leading eventually either to a full-scale confrontation, but with the imperial forces at a numerical advantage, or to a pincer movement, designed to encourage the enemy force to give up and return home. In this case, it was usually planned for imperial troops to have occupied the passes or exit routes which the enemy commander would follow. The subsequent surprise attack or ambush, which could result in the recovery of all or most of the booty, and certainly with the destruction and rout of the enemy army, was the ultimate aim. The possibility that his own forces might themselves become the victims of shadowing and ambush was ever-present, however, and the Byzantine commander was urged to use scouts and outriders in order to prevent this from happening.
One of the distinguishing features of this treatise is the focus on the judgement and independence of the local commanders. Not only should they themselves organize regular, small-scale raids over the border (unless the empire had made a formal truce with the Arab emirs or the Caliphate itself); they should be prepared to attack an invading force whenever an appropriate opportunity arose, and not necessarily wait for the arrival of reinforcements or the local senior commander.
The author of the treatise distinguishes three types of enemy raid, differentiated by size or by timing. Small, rapid raiding parties of cavalry, which might invade Roman territory at any time, and whose entry should be communicated to the local commanders as quickly as possible by the border scouts and watch-posts, should be shadowed, met, ambushed or hemmed in, and turned back, and if possible without any substantial gains in booty. Secondly, there were major raids, generally in August and September, consisting of substantial forces made up of volunteers for the jihâd as well as regular troops from the Arab borderlands – Malatya, Aleppo, Tarsos and Antioch. Such raids had both an economic and an ideological function, first in terms of the desire for booty, and to damage the Roman economy, and second in respect of the desire of many Muslims to participate in the jihâd. The local commander was enjoined to use every means at his disposal to find out when such raids would begin, by which route, and how numerous the enemy host would be. The invading force should be shadowed, along with any accompanying raiding parties which were sent out once the main force had reached Roman territory. The invaders’ logistical difficulties should be maximized by the removal of livestock and crops, or even their destruction in extreme cases. The enemy force should be subject to constant harassment as it moved, foraged for supplies, set up camp, or attempted to collect booty. The passes through which it would return should be occupied and ambushes laid; the water-supplies should be held by Byzantine forces. The enemy should be attacked as they returned, laden with booty. Naturally, the Romans were not always able to respond successfully to such attacks, and there are many examples where Roman preparations failed to produce the desired results, or where the Roman commanders were unable to outwit and out-general their adversary.
The local commander also had to be on his guard against surprise raids, launched before the local population had been evacuated or any sort of ambush or shadowing-party sent out. In an effort to delay the enemy, various measures could be applied, such as a feint attack to distract the enemy from pillaging the villages while they were being hastily evacuated. Once the local troops were in the field, the strategy of harassment and ambush, by day and by night, came into play. While he was one of the empire’s most successful antagonists, the emir of Aleppo was ambushed on at least three occasions using this strategy, barely escaping with his life on one occasion.
This sort of warfare could also be offensive. Local commanders were advised to maintain bands of raiders, whose task it was to raid deep into enemy territory in order to foment insecurity and uncertainty. One of their most important tasks was to take prisoners, so that Byzantine commanders might learn of enemy troop movements and intentions. Similar arrangements seem to have operated in the Balkans at times, although these were not always regular soldiers, but drawn from semi-independent peoples whose marginal situation between the two cultures suited them ideally for this task. Such sources also provided some of the regular light cavalry, in view of their detailed knowledge both of regular routes as well as side-paths and concealed tracks, watering- and camping-places in the mountains.
In the following, a typical penetrative raid into eastern Asia Minor by a medium-sized Arab army is described. The account comes from an eyewitness and contemporary of the leader of the expedition, the famous warrior emir of Aleppo, Sa’if ad-Daulah, and provides a wealth of topographical detail which neatly complements the information and the description of the Byzantine strategic response to such raids found in the tenth-century military handbooks.
Sa’if ad-Daulah’s Raid of 956
The raid in question was launched in early spring of that year, intended as a booty-collecting expedition, as an attack on the Roman frontier provinces, and as a distraction intended to draw off the Roman forces that had been sent to raid the lands to the east of Sa’if’s own base at Aleppo. Its object was the district of Anzitene, recently conquered by the eastern Roman armies and incorporated into the thema of Mesopotamia. This was a rich district and had always been of strategic importance, both in the wars between east Rome and the Persians and later in those between Romans and Arabs. Its strategic location attracted attention, for it commanded access to Armenia from the south and south-west and across the Euphrates. Whoever held Anzitene had a springboard for attacks in either direction, and the Romans were now using it for precisely that purpose, as their campaigns to roll back the Islamic emirates along their south-eastern flank progressed. Sa’if had received information that the military governor of Anzitene, based at the fortress town of Harput (mod. Elaziz), had set out to raid the upper Tigris region, part of Sa’if ’s domain, leaving his home territory more-or-less undefended, presumably because Sa’if was himself still far to the south-west in his capital at Aleppo.
Gathering his forces of both cavalry and infantry (who nonetheless, as was customary with Muslim raiders throughout this period, were mounted so that they could keep up with the fast pace set by the cavalry units), Sa’if set out on Monday 28 April first for the town of Harran, where he negotiated the support of the local Beduin, the Banu Numair. Rather than marching east to deal with the Byzantine raiders in and around Amida, however, he then turned north and marching past several of his own fortresses, entered enemy territory north of the fortress of Hisn Arqanin (mod. Ergani) – the marches of Anzitene – some twelve days after leaving Aleppo, on Saturday 10 May. The castle controls the southern end of the Ergani pass, and it is likely that Sa’if ’s forces controlled the rest of the pass, which cuts through the mountains to enter the plain of Anzitene near the lake now known as Hazar Gölü (anc. Lake Thospitis). Upon receiving news of the Muslim raid, the eastern Roman commander and his forces withdrew from Amida, and began the march back to their own territory. Sa’if ’s raid had clearly taken them by surprise.
Sa’if set up camp on the shores of the lake. The nearest major Byzantine base was at Arsamosata (mod. Haraba), some distance to the north-east at the end of the valley of the Arsanias river, which flows westwards down to the Euphrates. Sa’if ’s force was, therefore, safe from attack for a while. Here the Arab cavalry ravaged the surrounding countryside, carrying off much booty and many captives. The next day – Sunday 11 May – Sa’if himself sent a small raiding force to scout ahead as far as the Arsanias, following himself once it had been deemed safe, and encamped in a small village at the base of the hill on which the provincial capital of Harput was situated – the absence of most of the local forces gave him essentially a free hand in the region. The area was thoroughly ravaged, before he set forth again marching this time to the north-west, where he bridged the river with materials he had carried with him (dismantled rafts and boats) and, having sent across a small cavalry vanguard in advance to secure the bridgehead, crossed with his main army three days later (on Thursday 15 May), destroying the governor’s residence. This was an entirely unexpected action on Sa’if ’s part, and as well as burning the residence of the governor other undefended settlements were also destroyed. The whole area was thoroughly ravaged and an enormous booty in people, livestock and materials was collected.
Having completed his action on the northern bank of the river, Sa’if withdrew to his base and then marched south, pillaging as he went, until he reached the important fortress of Dadima, to which he lay siege. The garrison was quite unprepared for an attack, and would have surrendered had Sa’if not received news at this point of the occupation of the passes through which he was expected to retire by the returning Roman forces. Rather than head for the obvious exits, however, on Friday 23 May he marched south east and encamped not far from Arsamosata, whence he made his way not to the pass of Ergani, by which he had entered Anzitene, but to the pass of Baq’saya, to the south of Arsamosata and east of the Ergani pass. Here he found a small eastern Roman force blocking his way and, in a fierce battle late on Saturday 24 May, he managed to drive it off with considerable loss, seizing its baggage train and killing several prominent leaders. By the evening of Sunday (25 May) he was back in Amida, where he received, of course, a hero’s welcome. In three weeks of campaigning he had penetrated deeply into the Byzantine frontier region, caused a great deal of damage and dislocation to the local population and the military command, totally outmanoeuvred his enemy, outwitted them in a short, sharp field action, and returned safely laden with booty. The raid is a classic of its kind, and also illustrates the problems faced by eastern Roman commanders when they failed to follow the strategy of shadowing warfare enunciated in the treatise we have discussed above and left their own territories inadequately protected. And although there can be little doubt that Sa’if was by far one of the most outstanding of the Muslim emirs with whom the Byzantines had to contend in the region, the account of this raid provides an excellent insight into the character of the warfare along the eastern frontier of the Roman world from the eighth until the tenth century.
Sa’if was not always so successful, however, and indeed there is enough evidence to suggest that the Byzantine tactics – permitting the enemy force to enter Roman territory but blocking their exits – proved sufficiently successful to deter all but the bravest raiders. In 950, for example, he had mounted a similar large-scale raid with a substantial force – supposedly some 30,000, although this may be exaggerated. Leaving Aleppo in the spring he had pushed up through the Taurus, marched north to cross the Halys, and ravaged the area before meeting and defeating a smaller Byzantine force. On his return, however, the Roman forces had correctly assessed which defiles he would use and, permitting the vanguard to pass their pickets unopposed, had then blocked the pass and fallen on the main body and the rearguard. The raiders panicked and fled, suffering substantial casualties, the booty was recovered more-or-less in its entirety and Sa’if, having been abandoned by all but a few of his men, barely escaped with his life. Similar tactics were employed again in both 958 and 960, when Sa’if found his way blocked and suffered a substantial and, on the last occasion, nearly fatal defeat, with the loss of all the booty and his own baggage train.
From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.
As a result of the increasingly aggressive warfare carried on by the empire from the second quarter of the tenth century, particularly on the eastern front, the need to recruit more professional soldiers, and the need to operate effectively on campaigns which demanded more than the seasonally available forces provided by the traditional thematic armies, a number of important changes appeared in the tactical structure and in the arms and armour of Byzantine troops. A number of important technical treatises on strategy and tactics were written in the middle and later tenth century, and the narrative accounts of contemporaries, both Byzantines and Arabs, corroborate much of what they say. The changes can be enumerated briefly as follows: (1) the revival of a corps of disciplined, effective heavy infantry, able to stand firm in the line of battle, confront enemy infantry and cavalry, support their own cavalry, march long distances and function as garrison troops away from their home territory on a permanent basis; (2) the introduction of a corps of heavy cavalry armed with lances and maces, which could operate effectively alongside infantry, adding weight to the Byzantine attack and thus substantially enhancing the aggressive power of the Byzantine cavalry; (3) the development of field tactics in which these arms operate in a complementary way, offering the commanding officer a flexible yet hard-hitting force which could respond appropriately to a range of different situations.
Evidence for these changes comes partly from the contemporary sources, especially the military handbooks already referred to, but also from the startling successes marked up by Byzantine armies in the process of reconquest and expansion from the 950s onwards. In a tract known as the ‘Recapitulation of Tactics’, a new formation of infantry soldiers is described, consisting of troops wielding thick-stocked, long-necked javelins or pikes, probably similar in form to the Roman legionary pilum. Their task was to confront and beat back enemy heavy cavalry attacks. According to the ‘Recapitulation’ there should have been about 300 soldiers equipped in this manner, arrayed in the intervals between the infantry units making up the main battle line. They were deployed in either line or wedge formation to break up an enemy attack. In a treatise known as the ‘Military Precepts’ compiled some twenty years later, the tactic had evolved further, so that there were in each major infantry unit of 1,000 men 100 soldiers so equipped, integrated with 400 ordinary spearmen, 300 archers and 200 light infantry (with slings and javelins). Their task remained unchanged.
This important change in the role of infantry was reflected in the changed political and military situation of the tenth century. Whereas the sixth-century Strategikon presents its sections on infantry drill and formations after those (more detailed) dealing with cavalry, the tenth-century texts give infantry formations equal or even preferential treatment. Infantry had now become a key element of the army both numerically and tactically, outnumbering cavalry by 2:1 or more, in contrast to the normal situation in the preceding centuries. Contemporaries note the greatly improved discipline and training which such troops displayed. The importance of infantry is demonstrated in the fact that a special commander for the infantry division in each army was appointed, the hoplitarch (hoplitarches), in charge of training, discipline and fighting skill. The new tactics were embodied in a new formation, in which infantry and cavalry worked together, essentially a hollow square or rectangle, depending on the terrain, designed to cope with encircling movements from hostile cavalry, as a refuge for Byzantine mounted units when forced to retreat, and as a means of strengthening infantry cohesiveness and morale.
These new formations mark a real change in the role of infantry, no longer drawn up in a deep line with only a limited offensive role, but actively integrated into the offensive heavy cavalry tactics of the period. Infantry units now represented a sort of mobile marching-camp, with a traditionally rather unreliable force given new strength as a defensive field formation on the one hand, to provide security in defence and on the march, a mobile base and refuge for lighter troops and cavalry, and on the other as a formation which could be transformed into a solid attacking formation at a few simple commands. One important aspect of this change was a focus on the recruitment of good infantry from warlike peoples within the empire, especially Armenians. The demand for uniformity in tactical function and therefore equipment and weaponry meant that the Byzantine infantry of this period were more like their classical Roman predecessors than anything in the intervening period.
The cavalry also evolved at this time. New formations of ‘super heavy’ cavalry appear, called klibanophoroi, heavy cavalry troopers armed from head to foot in lamellar, mail and quilting, whose horse was likewise protected – face, neck, flanks and forequarters were all to be covered with armour to prevent enemy missiles and blows from injuring the cavalryman’s mount. Very few in number (because they were so expensive to maintain) these became the elite strike force within each field army. Drawn up in a broad-nosed wedge, their primary function was to smash through the enemy heavy cavalry or infantry line, disrupt his formation, and open up the enemy battle order to allow the supporting horse to turn the enemy’s flanks. The ‘Military Precepts’ mentions a formation of just over 500 such troops for a large wedge, two-thirds of whom would be real klibanarioi/kataphraktoi, the rest equipped as lightly armed mounted archers.
Both Byzantine and Arab writers of the time comment on the impressive effects of this formation on their foes. One Arab writer notes that the horse-armour of the heavy cavalry mounts made them appear to be advancing without legs. Some of these changes were probably due to the general, later emperor, Nikephoros Phokas, who became commander-in-chief in the East in the 950s, and immediately embarked upon a programme of training and drilling the soldiers in an attempt to re-establish good discipline, fighting spirit and good battlefield skills. His success is evident in the effective warfare waged by Byzantine forces over the following fifty years or more.
A Feigned Retreat in 970
In the autumn of the year 965, shortly after the conquest by Byzantine armies of the islands of Crete and Cyprus, as well as the destruction of the Islamic power in Cilicia and its incorporation into the empire, Bulgarian envoys arrived at the court of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Their purpose was to request the payment of the ‘tribute’ (or ‘subsidy’ from the imperial perspective) paid by Constantinople to the Bulgar Tsar as part of the guarantee for the long-lasting peace which had been established after the death of Tsar Symeon in 927. But the situation of the empire had changed radically in the course of the preceding half century, and rather than pay, the emperor Nikephoros, outraged by the presumptive demand of the Bulgarian ruler, had the envoys beaten and sent home in disgrace. He despatched a small force to demolish a number of Bulgarian frontier posts, and then called in his allies to the north, the Kievan Rus’, to attack the Bulgars in the rear.
The steppe region stretching from the plain of Hungary eastwards through south Russia and north of the Caspian was the home of many nomadic peoples, mostly of Turkic stock. It was always a key principle of Byzantine diplomacy to keep these peoples well disposed towards the empire. Following the collapse of the Avar empire in the 630s, Constantinople had been able to establish good relations with the Chazars whose Khans, although converting to Judaism, remained a faithful ally of most Byzantine emperors. Chazar Khans often took up Byzantine invitations to attack the Bulgars from the North, for example, when war broke out in this region. And they served also to keep the imperial court informed of developments further east. The Chazar empire contracted during the later ninth century, as various peoples to the east were set in motion by the expansion of the Turkic Pechenegs. These newcomers clashed with both the Chazars and the Magyars, establishing themselves in the steppe region between the Danube and Don. Their value to the empire as a check on both the Rus’ and the Magyars was obvious, particularly in the wars of the later tenth century, but they were a dangerous and frequently unreliable ally. The Magyars (Hungarians) had been established to the north-west and west of the Chazars since the middle of the ninth century, settling in what is now Hungary by about 900 AD. Both Chazars and Magyars served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies, particularly against the Bulgars, although the establishment by the later tenth century of a christianized Hungarian kingdom on the central Danube posed a potential challenge to Byzantine power in the region, which became especially acute during later centuries. But the growing power of the Kiev Rus’ during the later ninth and tenth centuries introduced important changes to this situation and to Byzantine diplomacy.
The Rus’ were the product of an amalgamation of Scandinavian settlers and indigenous, largely Slavic peoples, based along the rivers of central and western Russia. Their dominance over the neighbouring steppe and forest peoples had made them an important political power. By the middle of the ninth century their longships were entering the Black Sea, and by the early tenth century they had established trading agreements – not without some serious fighting between the two parties – with the empire. An alliance had been established from the middle of the tenth century; and when Nikephoros II asked for their help in 966, the warlike and ambitious Prince Svyatoslav, who had already established a considerable reputation through his successful warfare with and defeat of the Chazars, was only too willing to agree. In 968 he arrived on the Danube and easily defeated the Bulgarian forces sent against him. In 969 he had to return to Kiev to repulse an attack from the Pechenegs, but he returned later in the year and quickly occupied most of northern and eastern Bulgaria, deposing the Tsar, Boris II, and incorporating Bulgaria into his own domain. (See Map 9)
This was not part of the emperor’s original plan at all. Nikephoros tried in vain to establish an alliance with the Bulgars, but late in 969 he was assassinated, leaving his successor, John I Tzimiskes, with the difficult task of removing this potentially far more dangerous foe. To add to his problems, some of the Bulgar nobility now saw a chance to recover their independence of the Byzantine state and its culture by working with the Rus’. Svyatoslav sent the new emperor an ultimatum to evacuate all the European provinces and confine the empire to Asia alone. Then, in the spring of 970 a large Rus’ force invaded Thrace, sacking the fortress of Philippoupolis (mod. Plovdiv) and moving on down the road to Constantinople. John was forced to take action.
The emperor was not able to march immediately against the Rus’, for the majority of the effective field units were still in the east, where they had been campaigning in the region of Antioch and beyond, consolidating Roman gains after the recent fall of that city to the forces of Nikephoros II. In response, however, John appointed Bardas Skleros, together with the patrikios Peter, both experienced commanders, to take command of a small force and reconnoitre the enemy dispositions in the occupied territories. Their mission was, in addition, to exercise the troops and to prevent, as far as they were able, enemy raiders committing widespread damage on imperial territory. They were also to send spies, disguised in Bulgarian and Rus’ costume, deep into enemy-held territory to learn as much as possible about Svyatoslav’s intentions and movements.
It was not long before the Rus’ leader was informed of the imperial army’s presence, and he despatched a considerable force, consisting of both Rus’ and Bulgar troops as well as a powerful detachment of Pechenegs, whom he had temporarily managed to bring onto his side with the promise of booty and pillage, to drive the Romans off. Bardas immediately collected an elite force of some 10-12,000, sending one of his officers ahead to keep an eye on the enemy army and find out how many they numbered and where they had encamped. On receipt of the information that the enemy force was quite close, in the region of Arkadioupolis (mod. Luleburgaz), Bardas divided his force into three: two divisions were concealed in the rough scrub and woodlands on either side of the track leading towards the enemy position; the remaining division he led himself, launching a furious surprise attack against the Pecheneg contingent in the enemy force. Although heavily outnumbered – Bardas can have had only 2,000-3,000 men with him – he was able to draw the enemy out of their encampment and feign a gradual withdrawal. The fortunes of the battle swung back and forth, and it seemed at times that the small Byzantine force must be overwhelmed. Yet their discipline and training told, and Skleros finally ordered the pre-arranged signal to be given for the whole force to fall back. At the same time, however, the two divisions which lay in ambush prepared themselves, and as their comrades drew level with them and then past them, they too launched themselves upon the unsuspecting enemy from both flanks and the rear. Within a few minutes the Pechenegs had received such a savage mauling that they turned and fled, while their allies, the Rus’ and Bulgars, who had been hastening to catch them up in their pursuit of the supposedly defeated Romans, were caught in the panic and suffered similarly heavy casualties as the rout became general. According to a contemporary, the Romans lost some 550 men and many wounded, as well as a large number of horses, which fell to the archery of the Pechenegs. The combined enemy force, however, lost very many thousands. The action won the emperor John valuable time and also provided him with essential information about the make-up, morale and fighting prowess of his enemy, information which he put to excellent use in his campaign the following year.
This brief encounter, although the sources offer few details of the order of battle of either side, gives some idea of the possibilities for a properly trained eastern Roman force, when well-led and prepared, to defeat an enemy vastly superior in numbers. There is no doubt that the troops Bardas Skleros had under his command were well-trained and disciplined, as their careful withdrawal and feigned retreat under very difficult conditions, heavily outnumbered and under constant fire from accurate enemy archery, demonstrates. The short battle admirably reflects the esprit de corps, training and morale of the armies of this period.
Immediately following this victory the emperor ordered more units from the Asia Minor forces to cross into Thrace and prepare for the coming campaign. He also began to build up a strong siege train and amass supplies adequate for the powerful force he intended to assemble in order to drive the Rus’ forces from Bulgaria entirely. The expedition was to be accompanied by a powerful naval force which was to carry troops and supplies and be ready to harry the invader from the coast or support the imperial land forces once they had reached the Danube. For this was John’s intention, and his careful preparations make it clear that he was hoping to drive the Rus’ forces back across the mighty river. Diplomacy also played a key role, with the defeat near Arkadioupolis being used to persuade the Pechenegs to withdraw their support, and John claiming that his intention was to replace the deposed Boris on his throne.
In April 971 the emperor’s army – a reasonable estimate based on contemporary sources suggests it may have numbered as many as 30,000 – set off and passed through the Bulgarian frontier regions. The passes which had so often proved the site of Byzantine reverses were undefended – possibly because the Rus’ were engaged in suppressing Bulgarian rebellion to the north – and the army passed safely through, to issue onto the plain in which the Bulgarian capital, Preslav, was located. After a series of short but vicious encounters the Russian forces were defeated and driven off, and the city was recovered, along with the important political prize of the deposed Tsar himself. The Rus’ forces withdrew to the north and joined the remaining Rus’ troops under Svyatoslav himself, who had established his base in the fortress of Dorostolon (Dristra, modern Silistra) on the south bank of the Danube.
The campaign proceeded with the emperor’s march northward. As he went the Bulgarians began to slip away from Svyatoslav, which prompted the latter to execute a number of high-ranking Bulgars he had with him at Dorostolon and imprison many others. The emperor’s advance was virtually unopposed, and the army quickly took a series of smaller fortresses and strong-points defended nominally by Bulgarian troops who, however, offered no resistance when the emperor offered them terms. Only in the approach to Dorostolon itself was there some hostile action: a small Rus’ force had set an ambush in the dense woodland on the approaches to the fortress, and were able to surprise an advance party of imperial cavalry, sent ahead to scout the terrain and, possibly, locate a suitable site for the various divisions of the imperial army to set up camp. As the main body of the vanguard, together with the emperor, arrived to find the bodies of those who had been killed, troops from the imperial bodyguard were despatched to comb through the woods and eradicate the threat. A number of prisoners were taken and as a token of his policy to the enemy the emperor ordered them immediately put to the sword.
Once clear of the woodland, the imperial forces established a base camp where the baggage and siege trains were drawn up in a defensive position with a small detachment to guard them. Shortly afterwards the scouts returned to inform the emperor that the Russians were drawn up in battle order on open terrain before the fortress. Their formation was reported as a long, dense line bristling with weapons, awaiting the imperial assault and confident in their numbers. Although the figure of 60,000 given by one of the sources is an exaggeration (the area of the medieval fortifications within which the Rus’ forces were quartered shows that this figure is far too large), it is clear that the Russian army was considerable, and had been built up over the three years that Svyatoslav had been active in Bulgaria. The incremental addition of more soldiers – possibly including some from beyond the Rus’ lands themselves – had no doubt increased very considerably the original force that had accompanied Svyatoslav’s first campaign in 968.
To oppose the long, dense line of the Rus’, John drew up his force in three divisions over the same front. Both wings were reinforced by a reserve of heavy cataphract cavalry; and in a second line behind the first he placed infantry archers and slingers, who were instructed to maintain a constant hail of missiles on the enemy forces as long as they were in range. By shortly after midday the two forces were drawn up opposite one another. The Russians did not await the Roman attack, but with a long drawn-out battle roar advanced to meet the imperial forces. At the initial clash the Romans were able to halt the Rus’ advance and at one or two points break through the densely packed mass of warriors; but the latter were quickly able to regroup and re-establish the shield-wall with which they now opposed the Roman thrusts. The battle lines moved back and forth for more than an hour until both sides fell back and regrouped preparatory to a fresh assault. Again the Byzantine forces halted the Russian charge, and were even able to push their line back some distance, but it could not be broken. A contemporary eye-witness, Leo the Deacon, who accompanied the imperial high command on the expedition, remarks on the Russian refusal to concede defeat when they had a reputation for invincibility to maintain, as well as their personal honour as warriors; the Roman forces, unwilling to accept defeat at the hands of a barbarian nation who, to paraphrase Leo, could not even ride, were equally unwilling to give up. By late afternoon the battle appeared to have reached a stalemate, and it was at this point that the emperor gave the command to commit the heavy cavalry on both wings. Supported by a renewed push from the heavy infantry in the centre, the wedges of heavily armoured horsemen now advanced against the enemy wings, and with a concerted war-cry from the whole Roman front the imperial forces charged into the Russian lines, the cavalry crashing through the shield-wall with irresistible force, driving the Russian wings back towards their centre. Within a few minutes the Rus’ front collapsed, imperial units had penetrated the enemy line, and the Russians began to break and stream back towards the fortress for refuge. The rout was complete, and many were killed as they tried desperately to enter the fortress before the Romans caught up or the gates were shut on them.
The emperor recalled his troops, and as they began to return to their base camp, preparatory to establishing a siege of Dorostolon, Leo records that the soldiers sang a victory song. The emperor had selected for the imperial encampment a low eminence at some distance from the fortress. This was fortified by a ditch with the earth piled inside, upon which the troops were ordered to set their spears and lances and, propped against them in an unbroken wall, their shields. Leo the Deacon notes that this was the usual arrangement for a Roman encampment in hostile country.
The following day the imperial troops approached the fortress and launched attacks against various points around the defences, but were met with a hail of arrows and stones. Although they replied in kind, neither side seems to have suffered particularly badly from this exchange and, after being unable to make any headway against the defenders, the army was withdrawn to its camp, although the fortress was kept under constant surveillance. Towards evening the Rus’ made a sortie from the fortress and sent a mounted detachment to harry the Roman pickets. Leo notes that this was the first time they had seen the enemy on horseback. It soon became obvious that their lack of experience in mounted fighting would tell against them, and a detachment of Roman cavalry rapidly broke their formation and sent them helter-skelter back to Dorostolon.
The emperor seems at this stage to have decided not to press the fortress too closely but rather to try to tempt the Russian forces out to meet his own army in open battle, where victory might be had much more readily and quickly than through either a direct attack against the well-defended walls and towers of Dorostolon or a prolonged siege. But he had prepared for all eventualities, and it was at this point, about the third day after the Roman forces reached the fortress, that the fleet arrived, a fleet which included both supplies and reinforcements, as well as a number of warships equipped with liquid fire projectors. This weapon – a type of medieval napalm projected from tubes mounted on the bows of the vessels in question – was already known to the Rus’, for the warships of Svyatoslav’s father, Igor, had been destroyed by the very same weapon some thirty years earlier. The arrival of the fleet, which now sealed the Russians on the southern bank of the Danube and removed any chance they might have had to escape, was a great boost to Roman morale but must have seriously eroded the confidence of the Rus’ forces bottled up in Dorostolon.
The day after the arrival of the fleet, Svyatoslav led his forces out once again in an effort to draw the Roman forces into battle, hoping to defeating them and relieve the siege. As before, however, the two armies were evenly matched until the Roman heavy cavalry with their fearful iron maces once more drove the Russian line in on itself. Again the enemy fell back, at first in some order, then dissolving into rout and fleeing back inside the defences.
The emperor now set up his siege weapons around the fortress and began to attack both the walls and the troops within by a constant shower of missiles. In an effort to rid themselves of this annoyance, which was causing casualties and affecting morale, the Rus’ mounted a series of sorties with the aim of burning the Roman siege engines and other equipment. In one such incident the detachment guarding one of the emplacements was taken almost by surprise and its leader, a certain Kourkouas, who is reported to have been slightly drunk following his midday meal, was killed. Kourkouas was renowned for his luxurious and conspicuous outfit, and the Rus’ who killed him, thinking he was the emperor himself, hefted his head on a spear and mocked the Romans, though without the effect for which they had hoped. The siege machinery that they attacked remained undamaged, and the siege continued.
Pleased with this apparent success, however, the Russian army issued forth again the next day, and the emperor permitted them to draw up their line of battle. Once again the battle was joined, with the Roman forces drawn up in a single deep phalanx, the cavalry partly concealed behind the extremities on each wing and the missile troops behind the heavy infantry in the centre. On this occasion, a sharp charge by a Rus’ contingent succeeded in pushing deep into the Roman line, inflicting heavy casualties. But a counter-charge by the supporting cavalry, including units of the imperial guards, thrust it back, with the loss of its leader, Svyatoslav’s second-in-command, at the hand of Anemas, a member of the emperor’s own bodyguard. The Romans were immediately ordered to advance and push back the demoralized Rus’ line, which broke and ran, retreating once more in disorder to the safety of the fortress.
That night the Rus’ soldiers and their families opened the gates and came out onto the field of battle to search for their dead, for whom they then built funeral pyres and, having carried out the appropriate rites, committed their bodies to the flames. Whether the Roman forces watching the fortress were ordered not to interfere, or whether they allowed this activity to take place without consultation, is not stated. But Svyatoslav now summoned a meeting of the leading warriors to seek counsel. Some advised an attempt to break out by boat, across the Danube, braving the Roman warships which were on constant patrol; others advised opening negotiations with the emperor in an effort to save as many lives as possible – for, as one of the Rus’ leaders put it, ‘we are not accustomed to facing heavily armoured cavalry, especially after the loss of so many of our foremost warriors, upon whom the men depend for their courage and leadership’.
Svyatoslav was unwilling to follow either of these courses of action, however, and with the support, apparently, of the majority, voted to fight it out to the bitter end. The Rus’, he said, are not accustomed to give in, but would rather die in battle and go to Valhalla. And, as Leo the Deacon adds in his account, a Rus’ soldier has never been known to fall living into the hands of their enemies.
The same night, therefore, in a desperate attempt to obtain supplies, a Rus’ detachment of some 2,000 men left the fortress in small boats, and at some distance along the southern bank of the river crept ashore to begin their search for provisions. The naval detachments guarding the river should have detected this move, for the emperor had ordered that no Russian should be allowed to get out of the fortress. Instead, having succeeded in collecting some food for their beleaguered comrades, the Russian force made its way back by a different route from that which it had followed on the way from its boats, and stumbled by accident upon a small group of Byzantine cavalry soldiers sent out to water their horses and collect wood. Heavily outnumbered, the unsuspecting Roman troops were quickly put to the sword, and although the alarm was quickly raised, the Russians managed to get back with their supplies before they could be intercepted. The emperor was furious at this lapse in naval discipline, which had caused an entirely unnecessary loss of life and allowed the enemy, who were clearly in increasingly short supply, to replenish their stores. The naval commanders were threatened with execution if such a lapse recurred.
The next day was Friday 24 July, and having spent the day preparing for the battle, the whole Rus’ army sallied out towards late afternoon before the fortress. They formed up in a deep, solid phalanx protected by a solid shield-wall bristling with spears. The Roman forces were drawn up in the usual three divisions with the heavy cavalry behind the wings and with the emperor himself in the centre leading his own cavalry as a reserve. The location of the conflict was slightly nearer the fortress than hitherto, however, with the result that both forces were crowded together on a narrower front, with woodland on one flank and the marshy regions stretching back from the river on the other. The Russians, in order to counter the effect of the heavy cavalry on the Roman side, placed their archers on the wings where they could do most damage should the Roman cavalry attack them there. Led now by Svyatoslav himself, the desperate Rus’ warriors hurled themselves with fury against the Roman line, and soon began to push the centre back. Many cavalry mounts were injured or killed by the unusually heavy Rus’ archery. The emperor, observing that while his men were holding the line they were also rapidly tiring in the heat of the day, ordered the issue of water mixed with wine to the ranks, presumably on a rotational basis so as to leave the battle-lines undisturbed, a move which refreshed the imperial troops and enabled them to withstand the constant Rus’ charges.
Realizing that the overall tactical situation did not favour the Roman dispositions, however, the emperor then ordered a general withdrawal, and with admirable discipline and order the whole Roman line was able to pull back some distance from the fortress onto a broader plain which offered much greater room for manoeuvre and for more effective use of the Roman heavy cavalry. During the withdrawal one Roman officer, a certain Theodore of Misthia, was cut off and isolated from his unit – suggestive of the closeness of the Russian pursuit – and a fierce mêlée developed around him. At one point he is reported to have used a Rus’ corpse, which he lifted before him by the belt, as a shield. He was eventually helped by his comrades who rushed his attackers and got him safely back to their own lines. Some time after this, Anemas, who had already distinguished himself, moved with his unit of guards (probably the Athanatoi, the Immortals, a unit created by the emperor John shortly after his accession in 969) to reinforce the line. Anemas himself came close enough to the Rus’ leader to attack him and knock him down, but Svyatoslav’s armour prevented serious injury and within seconds Anemas was himself cut down by the spears and axes of Svyatoslav’s men.
Heartened by this the Rus’ in the centre attacked with renewed force and the Roman line began to give way. Some of the cavalry in the rear of the line began to waver and turn, and at this crucial moment the emperor decided that he must commit his reserve, his own bodyguard, to the fray. The emperor’s units, with the emperor himself in the forefront, moved to join the fray, and this sight steadied the Roman centre and allowed them to stabilize their position once more. At this critical point a strong wind blew up, accompanied by a fierce thunderstorm – not untypical of midsummer weather conditions in the region – and the Rus’ had the misfortune to find the wind blowing directly in their faces. Eye witnesses reported seeing a rider on a white horse, who appeared in the centre of the Roman lines and led a charge which smashed through the Russian shield-wall. Later stories had it that this was in fact St Theodore, the emperor’s own patron and a leading soldier saint in the Byzantine Church. In fact, it was almost certainly the emperor himself and his elite guards who, in a final move to open up the Russian shield-wall, led a charge of the heavy cataphract cavalry. Either way, the move was successful. The Roman centre now began to push forward once more, and the Rus’ warriors themselves, partially blinded by the rain and dust, were unable to organize themselves against this new onslaught. At the same moment the Roman heavy cavalry on one wing (the reports do not specify which) under the general Bardas Skleros completed an encircling movement begun moments before, crashing into the flank of the Russian wing and driving it back onto the troops in the centre. With this sudden turn of events the Russian lines dissolved and began to flee once more towards the fortress. The slaughter was enormous as the victorious Roman cavalry fell on the routing troops. The Romans lost some 350 against over 15,000 Russian casualties, an improbable figure but indicative nevertheless of very heavy losses. Some 20,000 shields and innumerable swords were taken from the field by the Romans.
This battle marked the end of the Russian attempts to break the siege and drive the Romans off. They had lost too many men and were rapidly running out of provisions to continue the struggle. Despite his earlier refusal to contemplate asking for terms, Svyatoslav now so no other option before him. The emperor accepted the Rus’ proposals for a peaceful withdrawal and the handing over of Dorostolon undamaged, with all the prisoners and booty the Rus’ had taken, and agreed to permit the remnants of the Rus’ army to cross the Danube without being attacked by the warships with the liquid fire projectors, which the Russians greatly feared. Indeed, John even agreed to resume friendly commercial contacts with the Rus’, once Svyatoslav had reached home. In the event, the Russian prince was never to do so, dying in an ambush set at the mouth of the Dnieper by his erstwhile Pecheneg allies.
In a brilliant four-month campaign, carefully prepared and supported by a well-oiled logistical organization – one of the greatest strengths of eastern Roman military administration – the emperor John I had crushed and driven off one of the fiercest enemies the Romans had yet faced. Leaving a strong garrison in Dorostolon, he returned to Constantinople, where the great victory was celebrated with an imperial triumphal procession. The deposed Tsar Boris was asked to surrender his crown, and the eastern parts of Bulgaria were absorbed into the empire as a province. The Bulgarian campaign of 971 highlighted again the discipline, order and effectiveness of the imperial armies of the second half of the tenth century.
With the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, leadership of the umma had passed to one of his earliest followers, Abu Bakr, whose piety won him the allegiance of the new faith’s followers in both Medina and Mecca. Beyond this core of believers, however, as noted earlier, a series of rebellions and revolts arose amongst various of the other tribes that—whether by negotiation or conquest—had joined the Prophet’s fledgling commonwealth. It was as part of the ensuing so-called ridda, or ‘wars of apostasy’, that the commander Khalid Ibn al-Walid initiated his campaign against the tribes of the Iraqi desert fringe in 633, as a concerted effort was made to bring all Arabs within the embrace of the faith. By 634, as we have seen, this process was sufficiently complete for the Muslim high command in Medina to turn its attention to the conquest of Roman Palestine that Muhammad had ordained, initiating the campaigns of that year. From the first, these endeavours were characterised by a high degree of central control of the Arab armies, which combined the warlike spirit and rapid mobility of the nomadic Bedouin with the more organised military traditions of the settled populations of the southern Arabian littoral.
After the defeat of the Roman army east of Gaza in early 634, and the subsequent failure of imperial forces to contain the second, more easterly Arab column, the invaders were able to establish control of much of Palestine, focusing their attacks on villages and winning mastery of the countryside. This in turn enabled them to isolate the cities of the region, a number of which began to submit to Arab rule, agreeing to pay tribute in return for security. By Christmas, Bethlehem was in Arab hands, making it impossible for the Christian clergy of Jerusalem to perform their customary pilgrimage. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, the hard-line Chalcedonian Bishop Sophronius, whose lament on the fall of the city to the Persians was cited earlier, complained of how: ‘As once that of the Philistine, so now the army of the godless Saracens has captured the divine Bethlehem and bars our passage there, threatening slaughter and destruction if we leave this holy city. ‘The Saracens’, he declared, ‘have risen up unexpectedly against us because of our sins and ravaged everything with violent and beastly impulse and with impious and ungodly boldness.’ By the end of 635, not only much of the Holy Land but also probably Jerusalem itself was under Arab control. The death of Abu Bakr and his succession by another of the early companions of the Prophet, Umar ‘al-Faruq’, or ‘the Redeemer’, did nothing to stem the Arab advance. Bearing the title of amir almu’minin, or ‘Commander of the Faithful’, Umar would eventually make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, whence the remains of the True Cross had been spirited away to Constantinople. As the Chronicle of Theophanes records: ‘Sophronius, the chief prelate of Jerusalem, negotiated a treaty for the security of all of Palestine. Umar entered the holy city clad in a filthy camelhair garment. When Sophronius saw him he said “In truth, this is the abomination of the desolation established in the holy place, which Daniel the prophet spoke of.” With many tears, the champion of piety bitterly lamented over the Christian people.
The Arab armies now pressed on to the west bank of the Jordan, advancing on Roman Syria. In a series of engagements along the northern fringes of the volcanic Hawran plain, by the River Yarmuk, the Arabs defeated a large Roman army led by the Emperor’s brother Theodore. As Heraclius reconfigured the forces available to him in southern Syria, resistance stiffened somewhat, but in a decisive encounter the Arabs broke the East Roman field army in open battle between Emesa and Damascus. The remnants of the Roman forces were obliged to withdraw to defensive positions in Cilicia, the foothills of Armenia, and northern Mesopotamia. An Arab raid across the Euphrates targeted the region’s famed monastic communities. As one near-contemporary Syriac source records: ‘the Arabs climbed the mountain of Mardin and killed many monks there’. Another account relates how ‘these Arabs went up to the Mardin mountains and they killed there many monks and excellent ascetics, especially in the great and famous abbey on the mountains above Rhesaina’.
In response, the commander of the Roman forces in Upper Mesopotamia attempted to buy peace, leading to his dismissal by the Emperor. The Roman refusal to pay elicited a concerted Arab response, and in 636 the amir Umar’s armies advanced in force across the Euphrates into Upper Mesopotamia. The civic notables of Edessa and Harran surrendered, but first Tella and then Dara were taken by storm. In the latter, we are told, every single Roman found in the city was executed. Rather than face this fate, the inhabitants of Amida and a number of other cities rapidly came to terms. Extending their control over the old Roman-Persian frontier zone, the Arabs now struck east into Sasanian territory, sweeping across the ‘black lands’ of the Iraqi alluvium and bearing down on the capital of the shahs at Ctesiphon. A massive Persian army was assembled to meet them under the leadership of the general Rushtam. In 637 this force, which included significant Transcaucasian contingents and which the author of the Armenian History reckoned at some eighty thousand men, managed to drive the Arabs away from Ctesiphon and propel them back across the Euphrates, inflicting the first significant defeat on the Arabs since their campaigns of conquest had begun.
From the length and breadth of Arabia the forces of the umma were rallied, and in January 638 at al-Qadisiyya, near the old Nasrid capital of al-Hira, the massed ranks of the Arab and Sasanian field armies clashed. The result was a cataclysm for the Persians. Broken in open battle, a retreat rapidly became a rout. As the Armenian History records, ‘The Persian army fled before them, but they pursued them and put them to the sword. All the leading nobles were killed, and the general Rushtam was also killed.’ As the Arabs once more focused their attention on Ctesiphon, in the following year a desperate attempt to evacuate the Persian high command and the royal treasury ended in disaster as the baggage train was ambushed and its precious cargo seized. Shah Yazdgerd III, a grandson of Khusro II who had ascended the throne in 632, managed to flee east to the rocky fastness of the Zagros Mountains, but there was little he could do to save his capital, which the Arabs were now able to occupy almost unopposed.
In the west, the Romans took advantage of the Arab preoccupation with Persia to launch raids on Arab-held northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia, whilst, on the Palestinian coast, the garrison at Caesarea continued to hold out, receiving supplies by sea. The Arab general Iyad was, however, able to drive back these imperial assaults, which are recorded to have done much to alienate the local population from the Roman army, and the commander of the Muslim forces in Syria, Mu’awiya, finally overcame the defences of Caesarea and put both the garrison and the population to the sword. ‘The city’, we are told, ‘was plundered of vast quantities of gold and silver and then abandoned to its grief. Those who settled there afterwards became tributaries of the Arabs.
With the loss of Caesarea, all of Syria and Palestine was now in Arab hands. In 640 Muslim forces advanced into south-western Armenia while the general Amr ibn al-As, pursuing retreating Roman forces out of Palestine, initiated the conquest of the Nile valley. Aided by reinforcements directed to him from Medina, the general was able to take first Oxyrhynchus, then in 641 the Roman military base at Babylon, where he seized abandoned siege engines, before fighting his way up towards the Nile Delta, attacking the estate complexes of the local aristocracy where resistance was seemingly concentrated. In 642 the general’s armies initiated the siege of Alexandria. Parleying on behalf of the imperial authorities, the Patriarch Cyrus negotiated an armistice whereby the Arabs received an annual sum of 200,000 solidi and the city was demilitarised, the Roman army and administration being obliged to withdraw to Cyprus. A subsequent attempt in 646 on the part of the Roman general Manuel to reoccupy the city and use it as a bridgehead for the reconquest of Egypt (to which we shall return in the following chapter) impelled the Arab army to enter the city and slaughter the garrison. Manuel and the Patriarch Cyrus fled to Constantinople.
As the final remnants of Roman resistance in the Near East beyond Anatolia, Asia Minor, and the islands were snuffed out, the Arabs pressed ahead with their conquest of the crumbling Sasanian Empire. Assaults were launched across the Persian Gulf in 641 and into the Zagros Mountains. In 642 the Arabs advanced through the Zagros into the Parthian territory of Media. With the defeat there of the Persian army at Nihawand, the Arabs spread over the remaining regions of the Persian world in what was essentially a mopping-up exercise, breaking down the resistance of the regional lords and princes one by one. Finally, in 652, Yazdgerd III was assassinated as he attempted to flee to the steppe, the last son of the House of Sasan ignominiously a fugitive in the realm of Turan. The medieval Persian epic the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings’, describes how the assassin, a miller by the name of Khusro, approached Yazdgerd ‘his heart filled with shame and fear … his cheeks were stained with tears, and his mouth was dry as dust. He came up to the king like someone about to impart a secret in a man’s ear and plunged a dagger beneath his ribs. The king sighed at the wound, and his head and crown fell down to the dust, beside the barley bread that lay before him.’
REASONS FOR ARAB SUCCESS
What had begun as an attempt on the part of Muhammad’s followers to claim and occupy what they regarded as their divinely promised patrimony in Palestine had therefore escalated into an extraordinary wave of conquests; these wiped the ancient empire of Persia off the face of the map and once more drove Heraclius and the Romans back behind the mountains of the Taurus and ante-Taurus that defended the Anatolian plateau. From their initial focus on Palestine, and on uniting all Arabs within the embrace of the new faith, the armies of Abu Bakr and Umar had acquired a momentum of their own: they would continue to march on and conquer until either they were defeated or the Day of Judgement came. The Arab armies were clearly aided in their success by the relative exhaustion of the two great superpowers that they had set about dismembering; it was the perspective of the author of the Armenian History, for example, that it was the destructive pride and overweening ambition of Khusro II which had opened the gates of Hell and unleashed the Saracen scourge. In Persia, as we have seen, political circles in Ctesiphon had gone into meltdown as a result of Heraclius’ victorious campaign of 628. Heraclius’ daring descent into Persian territory and his ravaging of the lands to the north of Ctesiphon may well have done lasting damage to the agricultural resources and administration of a region that had been the economic powerhouse of the Sasanian state. Political paralysis and administrative chaos may also have critically limited the ability of the Persian authorities to respond to the Arab threat.
Likewise, Heraclius, it should be noted, had gambled everything on his last throw of the dice against Persia. Already drained of their resources by the demands of his war effort, or reduced to ruin by Persian assault, the cities of Asia Minor simply may not have been in a position to finance and support a sustained defence of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, where the restoration of Roman rule in the aftermath of the Persian withdrawal of 628–30 is likely, in any event, to have been largely symbolic at the time when the Arab armies began to appear: long-standing traditions of Roman control had been fractured and disrupted and were yet to be fully restored. Indeed many of the ‘Roman’ armies that the Arabs encountered are likely to have been little more than gendarmes, or local levies, hastily gathered together by civic notables and landowners to defend their cities and estates.
Moreover, it could be argued that the Eastern Roman Empire’s extensive desert frontier was in any case its Achilles heel. The Romans had never successfully resolved the problem of how to police and defend the frontier: walling it off was impossible; maintaining security through the services of conflicting networks of client chiefs had proved untenable; and relying upon the services of a single client chief had been unworkable. At the end of the day, all that had perhaps rendered Roman imperialism practicable and sustainable in Syria and Palestine had been the absence of a concerted threat from along the desert fringe. The Palmyrene revolt of the 270s had demonstrated how fragile Roman control of the region might be if faced with such a challenge. ‘Divide and rule’ thus remained the key to Roman survival. Given the objective military and geographical circumstances, the unity that the religion of Muhammad provided to the tribes of north-central Arabia, and the cultic and military focus towards Roman Palestine that the Prophet ordained, may of itself have been sufficient to seal the fate of Roman power in the East. Constantinople, too, suffered political problems of its own: the death of Heraclius in 641, and the power struggle that ensued, did much to distract attention from the Arab march on Alexandria and to detract from the effective coordination of Roman resistance. Likewise, disaffection on the part of Jewish and other religious minorities, and alienation on the part of the peasantry and the poor, are also likely to have played their role in encouraging communities to come to terms with the invaders in their midst.
But the triumph of the Arab armies was also the work of the Arabs themselves. The combination of Beduin mobility and the more organised military and political traditions of the sedentary populations of the southern Arabian littoral, such as the Yemenis, created a formidable war machine, whilst the wealth of the Roman and Persian territories provided a clear material incentive for military expansion (especially for tribesmen whose ability to profit from trade with the sedentary empires to the north had perhaps been disrupted by warfare). Tactically, the strategy we see at work in Palestine in 634, of Arab armies attacking ‘soft targets’ such as villages, engaging in conspicuous massacres of the rural population, and then offering terms to the leaders of civic communities, promising security in return for tribute, was a psychologically canny one that permitted strikingly rapid conquests and the avoidance of entanglement in lengthy sieges. When faced with resistance from cities such as Dara, the favoured Arab strategy was simply to storm them, throwing men at the walls until enough of them got in, rather than bedding down to a long drawn-out war of attrition. The brutality shown to the inhabitants of those cities that did resist sent a clear message to the leaders of other communities that it would be in their manifest interest simply to surrender and ‘pay tribute out of hand’, as the Qur’an directed, rather than risk suffering a similar fate. As the Armenian History records of the Arabs, ‘then dread of them fell on the inhabitants of the land, and they all submitted to them’.
It is, however, the ability of the Arab commanders to storm cities—to order their warriors to advance and attack and advance again until a city fell, irrespective of the casualty rate—that perhaps alerts us to the ultimate factor behind Arab success: zeal. Driven on by religious fervour and certain of paradise, the Arab armies appear to have had a far higher ‘pain threshold’ and to have enjoyed morale superior to that of either their Persian or Roman adversaries. Dead or alive, Allah would reward them. Confident in the power of their God, the authority of the Prophet, and the imminence of Divine Judgement, the forces of Islam swept all before them. Both Roman and Persian armies, by contrast, had recently experienced defeat, and, as the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz realised, in warfare it is morale that is often the decisive factor.
Between the initial raids into Roman Palestine in the early 630s and the death of Yazdgerd III in 652, the ‘Arabs of Muhammad’ and their allies had not only managed to drive the Roman forces of Heraclius back into Anatolia and Asia Minor but had also destroyed once and for all the ancient empire of the shahs of Persia. Of the two great powers that had for so long dominated the politics and culture of western Eurasia, one was no more and the other was palpably on the ropes. In 652–3 the Arabs extended their control into the Transcaucasus, exacting oaths of loyalty from the Armenian prince Theodore Rshtuni and his vassals, who had hitherto fought on Constantinople’s behalf.
This was the necessary precursor to the intensification of the jihad against Byzantium, for it secured for the Arabs control over the lines of east-west communication across the valleys of Armenia that led onto the Anatolian plateau. As the Armenian History records:
In that same year the Armenians rebelled and removed themselves from [allegiance to] the Greek kingdom and submitted to the king of Ismael. T’eodoros, lord of Rshtunik, with all the Armenian princes made a pact with death and contracted an alliance with hell, abandoning the divine covenant. Now the prince of Ismael spoke with them and said: ‘Let this be the pact of my treaty between me and you for as many years as you may wish. I shall not take tribute from you for a three-year period. Then you will pay tribute with an oath, as much as you may wish. You will keep in your country 15,000 cavalry, and provide sustenance from your country: and I shall reckon it in the royal tax. I shall not request the cavalry for Syria; but wherever else I command they shall be ready for duty. I shall not send amirs to [your] fortresses, nor an Arab army—neither many nor even down to a single cavalryman. An enemy shall not enter Armenia; and if the Romans attack you I shall send you troops in support, as many as you may wish. I swear by the great God that I shall not be false.’ In this manner the servant of Anti-Christ split them away from the Romans. For although the emperor wrote many intercessions and supplications and summoned them to himself, they did not wish to heed him.
As this passage reveals, however, and as both the Arabic and non-Arabic sources agree, the tightness of Arab rule over the recently acquired territories varied enormously, and would continue to do so to the end of the seventh century and beyond. In general terms, Arab rule was at its most secure in lowland zones and inland areas, such as the jazira of Mesopotamia. The Arab armies of conquest were clearly at their least confident when fighting on mountainous terrain. As a result, all they were really able to acquire from Theodore Rshtuni and the Armenians was a loose acknowledgement of Arab suzerainty and a promise to provide a military levy. The Arabs would only intervene in Armenia if the Romans, under their new Emperor, Constans II, did. What the Arab commanders were effectively promising was a guarantee of Armenian autonomy, something that the princes of the region had hitherto sought to achieve by playing off the rival powers of Rome and Persia.
Likewise, at no point in the seventh century did the Arabs manage to conquer or occupy by force the mountains of the Lebanon, which, as shall be seen, were to be home to bands of Christian insurgents known as the ‘Mardaites’ who maintained a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Muslims and who would periodically descend from Mount Lebanon to attack Arab forces in the plains and cities below. To the east, the Zagros Mountains remained outside direct Arab control and would provide a place of refuge for every malcontent, heretical or disaffected group that early Islam would generate. The Arabs’ grip on coastal zones was similarly precarious. As noted in Chapter Seven, supplied by sea, the city of maritime Caesarea in Palestine had resisted Arab conquest for years. There are indications that many of the cities and communities along the Syrian coast drifted in and out of Arab rule over the course of the seventh century, paying tribute to the Arabs when they perceived them to be strong, but turning off the tributary tap when they sensed the power of the Muslims to be waning. In the late seventh century the inhabitants of Cyprus would pay tribute to both the Arabs and the Romans, sending cargoes of copper west to Constantinople and east to Syria.2 In Egypt the original deal agreed between the Patriarch Cyrus and Amr ibn al-As was that Alexandria would pay tribute and the Nile Delta effectively be demilitarised with the evacuation of the Byzantine garrison. Only Constantinople’s subsequent attempt to reoccupy the city had led to a more forceful assertion of Arab might.
Even within the lowland zones and inland, however, the rapidity of the Arab advance, and the willingness of the conquerors to cut deals with the leaders of provincial society, offering security and religious and property rights in return for the payment of tribute (as recorded for example, with respect to the Christian Arabs of al-Hira in 633), necessarily meant that for much of the seventh century, Muslim rule rested relatively lightly over the lands of the Near East. So long as tribute was paid to the Arab authorities, then long-established local elites could get on with running the communities they had so long dominated. A classic example of this emerges from Egypt where, according to the Chronicle of John of Nikiu, the first Arab-appointed Prefect, or governor of the city of Alexandria, was a certain John of Damietta, who had previously been the Byzantine general in charge of Roman resistance to the Arabs. In the mid-eighth century, the great Christian Orthodox theologian John of Damascus could claim descent from a family of Roman imperial administrators who had continued their mandarin lifestyle under their new Arab masters. In terms of administration, economic activity, and even, to some extent, religion, life in the conquered territories continued as it had before. Essentially, at a grassroots level, the same people were effectively collecting the same taxes in the same manner; the difference was that thereafter these taxes were being handed over to the Arabs rather than to the representatives of the Roman Emperor or the Persian shah. As in the post-Roman west, the provincial-level regional aristocracies and elites remained in place. It was at the level of the grandest families, most closely implicated in imperial rule or most heavily dependent on the trans-regional structures of empire, that discontinuity was at its most apparent, with such families either fleeing or being snuffed out.
The high degree of continuity in social and administrative structures evident in the wake of conquest was also facilitated by the fact that the Arab armies, carefully supervised by the high command in Medina, were, for the most part, cantoned separately from the populations over whom they now ruled. These armies were living in newly established garrison towns such as Fustat in Egypt (modern Cairo), or Kufa and Basra in Iraq, where they received stipends (ata) derived from the tribute of the local population. Only in Syria do rulers and ruled appear to have lived cheek by jowl, but here in any case there were long-standing Arab populations. The conquerors were thus able to maintain their identity, effectively living as a separate and privileged military caste feeding off the resources of their Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian tributaries. The conversion of subject populations was not a priority, and in order not to alienate either the subject peoples or the non-Muslims who had fought in their own ranks in the armies of conquest, the early leaders of the umma such as Umar (r.634–44) and his successor Uthman (r.644-56) adopted the religiously ambiguous and multivalent title of amir al-mu ’minin—‘commander of the faithful’—rather than anything more stridently or aggressively Islamic.
The documentary papyri that survive from Egypt in the seventh century convey much of the paradoxical nature of this nascent ‘early Islamic’ world. The densely inhabited and intensively cultivated landscape of the Nile Valley ought to have been amongst the easiest terrains for the Arab conquerors to dominate. Yet they barely register in the documents we have concerning rural life. Instead day-to-day life was dominated both by members of the local Christian elite, bearing the old Roman title of ‘pagarchs’ (pagarchoi), and the personnel of the Miaphysite Church; together, these took up much of the slack left by the withdrawal of Roman governors, the flight of the Chalcedonian patriarch, and the disappearance of the great households of members of the upper echelons of the senatorial aristocracy, such as the Flavii Apiones of Oxyrhynchus. Indeed, from the ‘bottom up’, for much of its post-Heraclian history, seventh-century Egypt would have looked very much like a Coptic Christian theocracy in which society was dominated and taxes were collected by the Church and by Christian notables—before the lion’s share of these revenues was then handed over to the Arab Muslim administration and its army based at Fustat, whose demands for tribute were pressing and insistent. A similar situation pertained among the Christian communities of Iraq, where the disappearance of the institutions of the Sasanian state led to a major expansion of the juridical and administrative authority of the episcopacy and city-level Christian elites. In both Arab-controlled Egypt and Iraq, ‘Muslim rule’ paradoxically meant stronger bishops.
As the documentary evidence from Egypt and Iraq reminds us, administration was not just continued by the same sorts of people in the same manner; it continued in the same languages, above all Greek (with some Syriac and Coptic) in the former Roman provinces, and Syriac and Pahlavi (Middle Persian) in the ex-Sasanian ones. Roman gold coins and Persian silver coinage continued to circulate in their respective currency zones, with the Muslims minting mock-imperial coinage, albeit ultimately devoid in the Roman case (perhaps from the 660s onwards) of Christian religious imagery. It must have seemed to many that although some seismic shift had clearly occurred, the new world order looked remarkably like the old. To all intents and purposes there existed a ‘sub-Roman’ Arab Empire in the former Roman territories, and a ‘sub-Sasanian’ one in the lands hitherto subject to the shah. Indeed many clearly anticipated an imminent Byzantine counter-strike, whereby the provinces would be restored to the empire of Christ just as Heraclius had won them back after twenty years of Persian occupation in the late 620s. It was a sense shared by certain of the Arabs themselves: a proverb cautioned that ‘Islam has started as a foreigner [to all lands] and may again become a foreigner, folding back [on Mecca and Medina] like a snake folding back into its hole.’
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 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.
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.