Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718


umayyads 750ad



Date: August 717–15 August 718.

Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul.

Forces Engaged:

Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian.

Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama.


Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious attempt to overpower the Byzantine Empire led to another seven centuries of Christian power in southeastern Europe.

Historical Setting

Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. In doing so, he occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries had controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. The Sea of Marmara is flanked northeast and southwest by the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two narrow straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. Unless one goes completely around the Black Sea, the passage from Europe into Asia Minor is across one of those straits. Therefore, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been an extremely strategic possession for both land and naval warfare, as well as overland and maritime trade. As Rome faded and Constantinople rose in power, it became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam in Arabia in the seventh century. Claiming his divinely inspired teachings, the Koran, to be the successor to the Bible and the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, he spread his faith by both proselytization and warfare. By coincidence (or divine intervention) Muhammad arrived on the scene just as the two Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He was therefore able to acquire massive territorial gains hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persians and Byzantines suffered major losses of real estate as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

Muhammad the Prophet had a public career of ten years (622–632), then died without publicly naming a successor. His close associate Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him but ruled only two years; upon his death Omar reigned as caliph (“deputy”), the religious and political head of Islam. For ten years Omar oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. It spread further still under the caliphate of Othman (644–656), ultimately stretching west to the Atlantic shore of North Africa as well as east to Armenia and Afghanistan. After he was assassinated Islam split into two major factions: the followers of Muhammad’s nephew Ali became the Shi’ites, while the supporters of the Syrian governor Muawiya started the Sunni faction. Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Muawiya’s goal was the downfall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, for reportedly whoever was involved in capture of the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. Intermittently between 674 and 678 Muslim forces attempted to capture the city, by both land and sea, but the double walls protecting it proved too formidable. Muawiya settled for a peace treaty with the Byzantine emperor, which provided for an annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople. For the next thirty years Muslim armies carried the faith as far as Spain and India, but the lure of Constantinople, the key to Europe, always beckoned. Caliph Walid (705–715) organized the forces necessary to seize the city, but died before the project began. Thus, his successor Suleiman sent men and ships to the Byzantine capital in 717.

The Byzantine Empire had suffered through a series of mediocre emperors since the last assault. Anastasius was now emperor. He came to the throne in 713 and was in the market for able soldiers to defend his realm. In his army served a general named Conon, better known as Leo the Isaurian. (He was probably from Syria rather than the Anatolian province of Isauria [modern Konia], however.) He had been a soldier since 705 and in 716 took command of the theme (district) of Anatolia. He harried the approaching Muslim army as it marched out of Syria toward Constantinople, then took the throne from Anastasius in March 717. Crowned Leo III, he immediately set about laying in as many provisions as he could for the siege he knew was coming, a daunting task for a city of perhaps half a million people. He also oversaw the repair and strengthening of the city’s two walls and the placement of weaponry to repel attacks from land or sea.

The Siege

Caliph Suleiman named Muslama as commander of his army, reportedly 80,000 men marching through Anatolia toward Constantinople. His plan was to invest the city from the western, landward side while a huge fleet blocked any supplies from reaching the city. That fleet numbered some 1,800 ships carrying a further 80,000 men under the command of a general named Suleiman, not to be confused with the caliph. The Muslim fleet was divided into two divisions: one to blockade the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) and keep any relief from coming to Constantinople from the Mediterranean, and one to hold the Bosphorus to the north, keeping out any relief from Black Sea ports. Muslama crossed the Hellespont in July 717, then divided his forces. He took command of the main body that began the siege, while sending a detachment to Adrianople to keep an eye on the Bulgars, who had been pillaging through southeastern Europe and had attacked Constantinople in 712.

Immediately upon his arrival Muslama threw an attack against the walls, but it was easily beaten back. That convinced him against undertaking a frontal assault, so he began digging trenches to prevent any breakout from the city. Most of the fighting, therefore, took place on the water. Admiral Suleiman left part of his navy at the Dardanelles, as ordered, but led the remainder northward to take up station on the Hellespont. As they approached Constantinople, however, the leading ships were caught in a swift and unfamiliar current that began to tangle them. Seizing his opportunity, Leo quickly lowered the chain that protected the Golden Horn (the upper harbor of the city) and dashed out into the Muslim fleet before they could form into line of battle. Using Greek fire, his ships quickly destroyed or captured a large number of vessels while the rest retreated. Suleiman feared sailing past the city now, for another such battle could destroy the rest of his fleet. Thus, the northern avenue for aid for a time was kept open.

The Muslim effort was off to a poor start, and soon bad news came from Damascus. Caliph Suleiman had died of a stomach ailment (probably from overeating) and Omar II, not known for his military acumen, had replaced him. For the next several months little happened except for bad luck. The winter of 717–718 was much colder than usual and snow lay on the ground for more than three months. For an army born and raised in Arabia and Egypt this was disconcerting at best, deadly at worst. Delays in the delivery of supplies from Egypt, coupled with the bad weather, meant the deaths of thousands of besieging soldiers.

The Muslims hoped to take the initiative in the spring of 718 with the arrival of a new fleet from Egypt bringing 50,000 reinforcements. The 400 ships of the fleet from Egypt slipped past the Byzantine fleet in the Golden Horn at night, thus avoiding a naval battle, and anchored at the Hellespont. That cut off the flow of supplies and would eventually have spelled the city’s doom, but Leo’s navy again saved the day. He was aided by the desertion of large numbers of crew members from the new Egyptian fleet, sailors who were Coptic Christians and had been pressed into Muslim service. Learning of the enemy fleet’s disposition, Leo launched a surprise attack in June that caught them completely unawares. The Greek fire (an unknown mixture of materials with many of the characteristics of napalm) once again caused both destruction and terror; the Christian crews deserted wholesale to the welcoming Byzantine forces. The northern blockading fleet was destroyed and Leo followed up his victory with an attack on Muslim forces on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, opposite the capital. That attack was so unexpected that Muslim soldiers and sailors were slaughtered by the thousands.

Leo at this point proved himself to be a diplomat as well as a general. He sent envoys to the Bulgars, who persuaded their King Tervel to attack the Muslim army from the west. In July Tervel’s soldiers drove back the Muslim holding force at Adrianople and attacked Muslama’s forces in the rear, defeating them and inflicting some 22,000 casualties. This new threat was reinforced by the rumor that a Frankish army was marching across Europe to assist their fellow Christians. The Muslims had not yet fought the Franks, but had heard tales of formidable military power. Caliph Omar decided it was time to bring the siege to a close. On 15 August 718 Muslama led the army away from Constantinople.


The defeat at Constantinople was the first disastrous loss the armies of Islam had suffered. There had been occasional defeats, but never a catastrophe such as this. Of the 210,000 Muslim soldiers and sailors who took part, it is reported that only 30,000 actually saw their homeland again. Of the more than 2,000 ships reported to have been involved, only five supposedly made it home.

Had Muslama’s armies captured the city, the route into eastern Europe would have been virtually unguarded. Little organized resistance could have been mounted against hordes of Muslim troops until they reached central Europe. Constantinople, the seat of political, religious, and economic power in the Christian East, probably would have become Islam’s capital as it did in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city in 1453. The Eastern Orthodox Church may have disappeared, with untold consequences in eastern Europe and Russia, although such did not happen in 1453. Sea power would have been completely in Muslim hands, for no European population at the time owned a significant navy. None would until the Vikings a century later. Even with the Frankish victory at Tours in France fifteen years afterward, Islam could well have become the dominant European, and therefore world, religion.

The Byzantine victory insulated Europe from Islam, but also from other outside influences. Hellenistic knowledge and culture survived and in many ways flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Europe entered the Dark Ages. Militarily Europe was strong, but cultural progress was at a crawl. Not until the Crusades and the resulting revival of trade with the East was the old knowledge rediscovered, and the Renaissance was the result. It is interesting to speculate what Europe may have been like had Constantinople fallen seven centuries before it did.

References: J. F. C. Fuller, Military History of the Western World, vol. 1 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954); Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 (London: Methuen, 1898); Warren T. Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, 284–1081 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

The Sixth-Century Army of Justinian

The sixth-century army of Justinian’s era, like its earlier counterparts, was an entirely professional force, but it no longer conformed to the patterns of the Roman army of Caesar or Augustus: overwhelmingly a force of heavy infantry, divided into legions composed of Roman citizens supported by non- Roman auxiliaries. The classic Roman legion of the early empire numbered about five thousand soldiers organized into ten cohorts, each commanded by a centurion, with more or less the same number of non- citizen auxiliary troopers organized in supporting infantry cohorts and cavalry alae (wings). The number of legions slowly increased from the time of Augustus until, in the Severan period in the early third century, it reached a grand total of thirty-three, implying a total paper strength, with an equal quantity of supporting auxiliaries, of around 350,000 men. More or less the entirety of this military establishment was distributed along the empire’s vast frontiers: in northern Britain, along broadly the rivers Rhine and Danube on the European continent, and in Mesopotamia and Armenia facing up to the Persians, while smaller forces patrolled the desert fringes of Egypt and the rest of North Africa as far west as modern Morocco. When larger forces were required for major campaigns, contingents were pulled together from all the legions within reach, but whole legions- each a small expeditionary force in its own right- were moved around the empire only occasionally. By the time of Justinian, the Roman army had changed out of all recognition under the pressure of two sequential periods of military crisis.

The nearest fully comprehensive listing of the Roman army’s order of battle to the time of Justinian is preserved in the eastern portions of the famous Notitia Dignitatum, dating to the 390s. Fifth-century legal materials dealing with military matters and some more episodic pictures of the East Roman army in action provided by fifth- and early sixth- century narrative sources make it clear, however, that the basic pattern of military organization did not alter in the intervening 130 years. Periods of heavy fighting could destroy individual units, and new threats demanded particular recruiting efforts. Sixteen regiments of heavy East Roman infantry were never reconstituted after their destruction at the battle of Hadrianople in August 378, and the Hunnic wars of the 440s both caused heavier casualties and occasioned major recruitment drives in Isauria (south- central Anatolia). But if individual units came and went, the over- all shape of East Roman military organization remained broadly stable. By the late fourth century and on into the mid- sixth, the old pattern of large legionary units stationed at intervals along the major frontier lines had given way to a more complex set of unit structures and dispositions. There were now three broad types of East Roman army grouping: in descending order by status, central (`praesental’) field armies, organized in two separate corps each with its own commanding general (Magister Militum Praesentalis); three regional field armies (one in Thrace, one in Illyricum, the third on the Persian front, each again with its own Magister Militum); and a whole series of frontier guard troops (limitanei) stationed in fortified posts on or close to the frontier line. The last were organized in more local, regional clusters each commanded by a dux (`duke’).

The number and type of military unit found within each grouping had also evolved. The word `legion’ survived in the title of many units, particularly of the limitanei, some of which were direct descendants of very old formations. Legio V Macedonica had originally been raised by Julius Caesar in 43 BC; it still existed in Egypt in the seventh century ad. Like all its late Roman peers, however, it had become a completely different type of unit, for which the standard term was now numerus in Latin, arithmos in Greek. No individual late Roman unit was anything like as large as the old legion of 5,000 men (about the size of a modern brigade). We don’t have exact information, but even the notional manpower of larger infantry formations was no more than 1,000 to 1,500 (much more like a regiment). There were also many more cavalry units in both the frontier limitanei and in the regional and praesental field armies than there used to be; these were smaller still, consisting of no more than 500 men.

The old binary divide between citizen legionaries and noncitizen auxiliaries, likewise, had been replaced by three main categories of soldiers, who received differing rates of pay and enjoyed varying grades of equipment. The highest- ranking palatini and second- ranked comitatenses were distributed across the central and regional field armies, while frontier forces were composed of limitanei and/ or ripenses. Differences in status materially affected military capacity. When a cavalry unit operating against desert raiders in Cyrenaica was downgraded from field army status (as comitatenses) to limitanei, it lost the right to the extra remounts and supplies, making it potentially much less effective against trouble- some desert raiders, much to the chagrin of Synesius of Cyrene. The men themselves presumably also didn’t much enjoy the resulting pay cut. But it is a mistake to write off the effectiveness of limitanei altogether. It used to be fashionable to envisage them as part- time soldier farmers who would have struggled to cope with anything more demanding than a little patrol- ling and the odd customs inspection. But while it is conceivable that their state of readiness and overall training may have varied substantially on different frontiers, the limitanei of the eastern and Danubean fronts were battle hardened. Warfare in the East largely took the form of extended sieges, and in this theatre the garrison forces of many of the major Roman fortresses were composed of limitanei. As such, they bore the brunt of much of the initial fighting in many campaigns. The same was also true of the Danubean front, where heavy fighting had been endemic throughout the fifth century. For really major campaigns, units of limitanei were sometimes also mobilized alongside designated field army formations.

Much of this reorganization can be traced back to the period of extended military and political instability known as the third-century crisis. The fundamental destabilizing factor here was the rise of Persia to superpower status under the Sassanian dynasty, which displaced its Arsacid rivals in the 220s and found new ways to unite the massive resources of what are now Iraq and Iran and turn them against Roman possessions in the East, with extremely negative effects upon the overall strategic position of the Roman Empire. The third- century Persian King of Kings Shapur I (ad 240/ 2- 270/ 2) set out the record of his achievements in a great rock inscription, the Res Gestae Divi Saporis.

I am the Mazda-worshipping divine Shapur, King of Kings . . . , of the race of the Gods, son of the Mazda- worshipping divine Ardashir, King of Kings. . . . When I was first established over the dominion of the nations, the Caesar Gordian from the whole of the Roman Empire . . . raised an army and marched . . . against us. A great battle took place between the two sides on the frontiers of Assyria at Meshike. Caesar Gordian was destroyed and the Roman army was annihilated. The Romans proclaimed Philip Caesar. And Caesar Philip came to sue for peace, and for their lives he paid a ransom of 500,000 denarii and became tributary to us. . . . And the Caesar lied again and did injustice to Armenia. We marched against the Roman Empire and annihilated a Roman army of 60,000 men at Barbalissos. The nation of Syria and whatever nations and plains that were above it, we set on first and devastated and laid waste. And in the campaign [we took] . . . thirty- seven cities with their surrounding territories. In the third contest . . . Caesar Valerian came upon us. There was with him a force of 70,000 men. . . . A great battle took place beyond Carrhae and Edessa between us and Caesar Valerian and we took him prisoner with our own hands, as well as all the other commanders of the army. . . . On this campaign, we also conquered . . . thirty- six cities with their surrounding territories.

It actually took the Roman Empire three political generations to recover from this cataclysm of humiliating defeats and restore balance to the eastern front and thereby to its own internal workings. The most immediate level of response, as you might expect, was a revolution in the empire’s overall military capacity. Some of this came in the form of new unit types. Persian elite forces of the third century AD characteristically took the form of heavily armed lancers-cataphracts-who were responsible for much of the carnage inflicted on the armies of Gordian, Philip, and Valerian. In response, Rome substantially increased the number of cavalry units at the disposal of its commanders and, in particular, created from scratch a number of heavily armoured cavalry units, the plate-mailed clibanarii. These units still formed part of the Eastern praesental field armies at the end of the fourth century.

For the most part, however, the response took the form of a huge expansion in the size of the traditional heavy infantry arm of the Roman military. Because the notional paper strength of the new unit types is far from certain, the exact scale of this expansion is impossible to calculate. But a whole range of evidence, from the size of extant barrack blocks to pieces of specific information, provides the basis for worthwhile calculation. From these materials, no serious student of the late Roman army thinks that its notional manpower strength increased by less than 50 per cent in the century after 230, and a pretty good argument can be made that it actually doubled in size. There could be no more eloquent testimony to the scale of the strategic problem posed by the emergence-better, perhaps, reemergence (Shapur’s great inscription was placed near the tombs of the great Achaemenid kings of antiquity, Darius and Xerxes)- of Persia as a rival superpower to Rome. As a result of this expansion, the Persian threat had been broadly contained by the turn of the fourth century. The first serious Roman victories came in the final decade of the third century, and while one side or the other often held a short-term advantage in subsequent years, the fourth century saw no repetition of the stunning victories recorded by Shapur I.

But the effects of increasing Persian power and of consequent Roman military expansion were felt not just on the battlefield. The rise of Persia to superpower status gave a new importance to the eastern front, which in the longer term destabilized existing political balances of command and control within the empire as a whole. Once Persian power became such a basic fact of life, it demanded imperial- level oversight be available more or less constantly for the eastern front, since only an emperor could safely command the kind of resources that war making in this theatre now required. In the Notitia Dignitatum, about 40 per cent of the entire Roman imperial army was positioned to deal with a potential Persian threat, and this was far too large a force to leave under the control of an unsupervised general, since few could resist the opportunity that such an army provided to bid for the imperial throne. Moreover, given the enormous size of the empire, stretching from Scotland to Iraq, and the catatonically slow speed of movement – Roman armies could move on average twenty kilometres a day for three to four days at a time before needing a rest day – this in turn meant, in practice, that an additional source of command and control had to be available for the empire’s other major European fronts, where a smaller but nonetheless significant increase in the level of threat posed by the new, largely Germanic- dominated confederations of the Rhine and Danube was another characteristic feature of the late imperial period.

After a long period of experiment in the third century, punctuated by repeated usurpations as under supervised generals made successive bids for the purple, the result was a general tendency in the late imperial period- for as long as the Western Empire remained in existence- for political power to be divided between two or more emperors. The knock- on political effects of military reorganization also help explain the relatively complex structure of central and regional field armies. Logistics meant that regional commanders required sufficient forces to respond to most `normal’ levels of threat. It generally took at least a year to concentrate the necessary food supplies and animal fodder and then move the actual troops required for major campaigns, and this was obviously far too long a delay for most frontier problems. But since army commanders also had a long track record of usurpation, emperors wanted to make sure that individual generals did not have so many troops at their disposal that they could easily make a bid for the throne. The field army organization of the fourth to the sixth centuries can be seen as compromise. It redistributed elite portions of the army to allow for quicker, more effective responses to the new strategic demands of the late Roman period but tempered the potential political consequences by carefully dividing units, even of the central, praesental field army, between two separate commanders whose political influence could be counted on more or less to cancel each other out.

The same kind of balance is also visible in another military innovation which had become a characteristic feature of East Roman armies by the time of Justinian. It is not clear when exactly it emerged, but by the sixth century field army generals, the Magistri Militum, all seem to have had substantial forces of officers and soldiers- `guardsmen and spearmen’, as Procopius calls them-who were recruited by them personally and tended to follow their generals on campaign even to far-flung corners of the Mediterranean. Belisarius’s guards served with him in the East, in Africa, and in Italy, and when the commanding general in Armenia was assigned to the Balkans in preparation for an Italian campaign, his guards came with him. The normal term for these soldiers is bucellarii, and the institution clearly grew out of the tendency of the great and good, military and civilian, in the late Roman world to maintain personal armed retinues. The bucellarii of the sixth- century Roman military, however, were different. They were supported at least in part out of state funds (although rich generals, such as Belisarius became, might also employ some of their own money in recruiting and equipping their men, just like richer ships’ captains in Nelson’s navy), and they swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor as well as to their own general. The state funding increased their numbers- at one point Belisarius’s guards amounted to 7,000 men, but 500 to 1,500 seems much the more usual range- and rather than think of them as an expanded personal retinue, they are better understood as elite striking formations whose permanent attachment to successful generals (successful at least in the sense of having been promoted to Magister Militum) meant that they enjoyed higher levels of training and equipment. It is also clear that by the sixth century, bucellarii were being recruited from both outside `barbarians’ and the empire’s own citizens. Here, too, we see the desirability of heightened military effectiveness being balanced by the necessity of preventing individual generals from becoming politically dangerous.

If the size, geographic distribution, and command structure of Justinian’s army can be traced back to the military convulsions of the third century, its unit forms and tactical doctrines had their origins in a quite separate crisis. From the late fourth century, the rise of Hunnic power in eastern and central Europe generated an unprecedented level of threat liability for service- but with the added proviso that the foederatii could preserve their own existing communal and political structures and would always serve under their own leaders. The use of mercenary contingents from beyond the imperial frontier, hired in for particular campaigns, also remained a regular feature of the sixth- century East Roman army. Procopius records a whole range of such contingents, from groups as diverse as the Germanic- speaking Lombards of the Middle Danube to the Turkic- speaking Bulgars (whom he calls Massagetae) from north of the Black Sea. But the empire continued to maintain largely autonomous groups of foederatii on Roman soil, too, even after the departure of the Thracian Goths for Italy in 488, with Heruli in particular playing an important role in Justinian’s campaigns.

In the long term, however, the most important military response to the era of Hunnic domination was tactical. The Romans first met the Huns as small- scale cavalry raiders equipped with a more powerful version of the reflex bow, which had long been a characteristic weapon of Eurasian steppe nomads. This gave different Hunnic groups sufficient military edge rapidly to establish hegemony over large numbers of the semi- subdued, largely Germanic- speaking clients of Rome- Goths and others- who controlled the territories beyond the defended imperial frontier. As a result, the military problem posed by the Huns in the era of Attila evolved into a much more complex one, since the great Hunnic warlord disposed of the combined forces of both the Hunnic core of his empire and of a host of conquered subject peoples: other steppe nomads, such as the Alans, and the largely infantry forces of Germanic Goths, Gepids, Suevi, Sciri, and others. The range of weaponry that Attila could deploy was accordingly varied; it encompassed mounted archers to heavy, mailed shock cavalry equipped with lances to dense groupings of infantry.

The full story of all the experimentation which underlay the Roman adaptation to new patterns of warfare in the Hunnic era cannot be recovered, but its overall effect upon the sixth-century army emerges clearly from the battle narratives of Procopius’s histories and contemporary military manuals, above all the Strategicon of Maurice. As seen in action in these texts, the East Roman army of the sixth century was characterized by a much greater reliance upon its cavalry arm. Now often deployed in the front of the battle line instead of just as flank protection (as had still generally been the case in the fourth century), it comprised two distinct elements. Occupying the van were the lighter cavalry (koursoures in the terminology of the Strategicon) characteristically armed with Hunnic- type reflex bows, whose archaeological remains, in the form of bone stiffeners, start to appear in Roman military contexts in the early fifth century. The koursoures were the first to engage an enemy, using their projectile weaponry at least to inflict some initial losses on an enemy or, at best, to spread disorder in his tactical formations. If this initial assault was successful, the heavier shock cavalry- defensores- could then be deployed almost literally to ram home the advantage. They were armed not only with bows but with cavalry lances to break up an opposition line. Alternatively, if the koursoures ran into trouble, the heavy cavalry would cover their retreat. Procopius’s battle narratives indicate that the new elite cavalrymen of the sixth- century army tended to be concentrated in the bucellarii of the Magistri Militum, but regular field army cavalry units, and some of the foederatii too, were intensively trained in the new battlefield practices.

The bucellarii of field army generals also provided the key military structure of institutional continuity which allowed new weaponry and the tactics to exploit them fully first to be developed and then passed on across the generations. This is partly an argument from silence. There were no officer training schools or military academies in the later Roman Empire where they might have been able to develop new doctrines by discussion in the classroom, which is how modern armies operate. But it is a bit more than that, too. The bucellarii, the new elite arm of the Roman army of the sixth century, enjoyed the highest rates of pay and best equipment on offer from the state factories (not to mention any extras that their often rich commanders chose to provide), so that they could generally attract the best recruits. The officer cadres of the bucellarii were also a source of new field army generals. At least two of Justinian’s initial tranche of his own appointees to the rank of Magister Militum in command of key field army formations in the late 520s- not only Belisarius who will play such an important role in this book but Sittas as well- had served in his bucellarii when the future emperor first held the rank of Magister Militum Praesentalis in the early 520s; several of Belisarius’s household and underofficers from the original African campaign would find promotion to the rank of magister in turn as the reign progressed. Not only were the bucellarii a key element in their own right of the new model East Roman army of the sixth century; they also trans- mitted military expertise across the generations.

Even if the most striking feature of this military revolution was its transformation of the role and equipment of Roman cavalry, it did also affect the battlefield operations of the infantry. Both the lighter and heavier cavalry units were trained to operate in integrated fashion with the infantry, which remained the largest element in every Roman field army and whose tactics and equipment had also been revamped accordingly. The latest interpretation suggests that defensive armour was indeed lightened- as the military commentator Vegetius complained in the later fourth century- but to increase the infantry’s battlefield mobility so that it could work in more integrated fashion with the rapidly developing cavalry arm. The range of infantry equipment was also increased to include more bows and other projectile weaponry so that foot regiments could perform a wider variety of roles: everything from reinforcing and driving home a tactical advantage created by successful cavalry assault to providing a strong covering force should the horsemen be forced to retreat. Experience of combat in the Hunnic era eventually taught Roman commanders that it was no use operating the infantry in dense, relatively static formations, since Hunnic- style horse archery was likely to cause mayhem within the massed ranks before the heavy infantry’s brute force could be brought tellingly to bear at close quarters. The infantry had to become more mobile and less vulnerable to sustained missile and cavalry attack and, by the time of Justinian, had been reordered accordingly. By this stage, it even operated with portable anti-cavalry barricades-munitiones, as an early sixth-century commentator labels them- to help protect it from the unwelcome attention of horse archers.

Two strategic crises, therefore, shaped the armed forces available to the Emperor Justinian on his accession to the throne in 527. The old heavy infantry legions which had conquered an empire had been forced to adapt: numerically, to the threat posed by a newly united Persian superpower in the third century, and tactically, to the intrusion of large numbers of steppe nomads into eastern and central Europe in the later fourth and fifth. Such was the importance of war making in both practical and ideological terms to the overall functioning of the empire that a military revolution on this scale was bound to have equally profound effects on the workings of its internal structures.

First Crusade: Siege of Nicaea and the Battle of Dorylaeum 1097 AD


Most significantly for the course of future crusades, during Bohemond’s stay in Constantinople he took a vow of allegiance to the emperor that resembled very closely a feudal oath of homage. Then he cajoled, bullied and browbeat many of the other princes who had been arriving at the city’s gates since the previous December into doing the same. In some cases this aroused considerable antipathy. Nevertheless, oaths were taken on relics including the Holy Cross and crown of thorns by Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois, Robert of Flanders, Stephen of Blois, Tancred of Hauteville and many of the lesser lords, all of whom vowed to restore to the empire any Turkish-held towns and strongholds that they might capture along the road to Jerusalem. Even Raymond of Toulouse, who detested the emperor, grudgingly committed not to damage his property. In turn Alexios swore he `would not cause or permit anyone to trouble or vex our pilgrims on the way to the Holy Sepulchre’. He also awarded the crusading princes eye-poppingly large gifts of treasure and expensive religious vestments and dangled the prospect of land-grants far to the east of Asia Minor – assuming the crusaders got there.

Bohemond’s sudden display of subservience towards Alexios confused the author of the Gesta Francorum: `Why did such brave and determined knights do a thing like this? It must have been because they were driven by desperate need.’ Another chronicler marvelled that the mighty Latins had been prepared to bend their knees to `the puny Greeks, laziest of all people’. In fact selfinterest loomed large on both sides. Alexios had invited the armies into his territories and fully intended to see them deployed clearing the Turks from Asia Minor before they disappeared off towards Jerusalem. The crusaders, for their part, could not hope to proceed without the emperor’s goodwill and financial support. Bohemond himself had arrived with the smallest army and lowliest standing among all the princes; he realized there was much to be gained in prestige and power if he could become the man who held the eastern and western leaders together. To that end Bohemond even petitioned the emperor to appoint him as his domestikos – a title which would connote supreme command in Asia Minor – but Alexios demurred; Bohemond could not `out-Cretan the Cretan’, said Anna. Their exchange of oaths, brokered by Bohemond, effectively cemented a relationship that would – for a time – yield spectacular results for both sides.

With Easter celebrated, homage sworn, and tens of thousands of troops – including 7,500 heavy cavalry and perhaps six times as many light infantry – waiting across the Bosphorus on the western tip of Asia Minor, there was little point in wasting time. At the beginning of May Bohemond and the other princes marched their armies south-east towards the first target agreed with the emperor: Nicaea, the Seljuq sultan of Rum, Qilij Arslan’s capital. They arrived and set up camp on 6 May. A week later they laid the city under siege.

Bohemond had attacked plenty of cities in his life, but at Nicaea he encountered formidable defences. Huge walls, punctuated with towers topped with catapults, protected three sides of the city. A large lake called Askania (Ascanius/Iznik) rendered the fourth side inaccessible to the besiegers while allowing resupply of food, firewood, armour and other provisions to the citizens within. Robert the Monk reckoned it `the chief place to which no other is equal in Anatolia’. The princes camped in orderly fashion around the walls (Bohemond’s men took up their position before Nicaea’s main gates) to effect a land blockade while their engineers built siege engines. One eyewitness saw battering rams, mobile sheds to protect sappers known as `sows’, `cats’ and `foxes’, wooden towers and petrariae, or stone-throwing catapults. When these were constructed an exchange of missiles to and from the battlements began, with occasional skirmishing between besiegers and besieged. `The supporters of Christ deployed their forces around the city and attacked valiantly,’ wrote Robert the Monk. `The Turks, fighting for their lives, put up strong resistance. They fired poisoned arrows so that even those lightly wounded met a horrible death.’

Soon, amid the sawing and hewing of half-built war-machines, the crash of stone pelting stone and catcalls from the ramparts, came more ominous shrieks. On 16 May the woods behind the crusaders suddenly sprang to life: a relieving army sent by Qilij Arslan came forth, `exulting in their certainty of victory, bringing with them ropes with which to lead us bound into Khorasan [i. e. as slaves to be taken to Persia]’. They charged the besiegers and a major engagement began outside the city walls.

The relievers may have assumed that one crusading army was much like another, and that the princes’ armies would be as easily dispatched as Peter the Hermit’s followers had been the previous year. They were soon disabused of the notion, beaten backwards by a cavalry charge commanded by Raymond of Toulouse and Bishop Adhémar. Large numbers were killed on both sides, and grisly retribution followed. The crusaders decapitated corpses and flung the severed heads over Nicaea’s walls. The citizens let down grappling hooks from the ramparts, fishing for Latin soldiers, whose bodies they hanged in mockery from the towers.

On 1 June sappers tunnelled beneath one of Nicaea’s towers. That night they set fire to the wooden struts supporting their mine, collapsing it and bringing down a section of the wall above. Now a breach existed where efforts to storm the city could be focused. A daily contest began, in which crusading troops attempted repeatedly to rush the breach, while the defenders inside the city piled up rubble to barricade it. For those involved it was almost impossibly exciting. `I do not think that anyone has ever seen, or will ever again see, so many valiant knights,’ exclaimed a Latin eyewitness.

However, after several inconclusive days of this, the siege was slipping into stalemate. As long as the city could be supplied via the lake, it could tolerate any amount of bombardment. What broke the deadlock was action undertaken not by Bohemond and his Latin allies, but by the emperor they had taken such care to woo. Alexios had held back from the action at Nicaea, having no desire to take part in a fight he had hired foreigners to pick on his behalf. But he had crossed the Bosphorus and hung back a day’s ride away, monitoring events from the safety of a magnificent marquee shaped like a city, with a turreted atrium, which took twenty camels to transport. To represent him among the princes he sent one of his most trusted military advisors, a grizzled, jocular Arab-Greek eunuch by the name of Tatikios, who had fought against Bohemond’s father, Robert, in the 1080s, and who was distinguished both by his exemplary military record and his missing nose, in place of which he wore a golden prosthesis. Even more valuably, Alexios sent a small flotilla of ships, dragged 25 miles (40 km) overland from the shores of the Bosphorus by oxen and men wearing leather straps on their shoulders. These were launched quietly into Lake Askania, in readiness for a major combined assault.

At daybreak on 18 June the flotilla set sail across Askania towards Nicaea’s waterfront. Crewed with heavily armed turcopoles (imperial mercenaries recruited from the same ethnic group as the enemy), the vessels floated slowly and ominously into view of Nicaea’s defenders. On the landward side, a heavy assault by siege towers and catapults was taking place. As Robert the Monk wrote:

[When] those in the city saw the ships, they were terrified out of their wits and, losing the will to resist, fell to the ground as if already dead. All howled, daughters with mothers, young men with young girls, the old with the young. Grief and misery were everywhere because there was no hope of escape.

Having held out for more than seven weeks, the Nicaeans’ spirits were broken. They sued for a truce, and the garrison (along with Qilij Arslan’s wife and children) surrendered to be taken off to prison in Constantinople. As the city fell, there was plunder aplenty: some of the Frankish knights now treasured curved Turkish scimitars, taken from the dead hands of the enemy. The fall of Nicaea had proceeded from a model of co-operation between Latins and Byzantines. `It was Gaul that assured it, Greece that helped and God who brought it about,’ remarked Ralph of Caen, with satisfaction.


In line with the oaths sworn, Nicaea was handed over to Alexios, who showered the Latin princes, including Bohemond, with gifts and handed out alms to the rank and file of the crusader army. Ten days later, having refreshed and revived themselves, and taken counsel from the emperor about the best way to fight the Turks in the field (as well as receiving his gracious permission to leave) the princes packed up their camp and struck out eastwards into the Anatolian interior. They divided their army into two divisions, who were to follow parallel roads towards an abandoned Roman military encampment at Dorylaeum (Dorylaion), about four days’ march away. The first division was led by Raymond of Toulouse, Bishop Adhémar, Godfrey of Bouillon and Hugh of Vermandois. The second was headed by Bohemond, Tancred and Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy. A long and difficult summer march across Asia Minor awaited them. Qilij Arslan would assuredly be rallying his own troops for another attack.

It did not take long for Qilij Arslan’s next strike to come. As Bohemond’s army approached Dorylaeum, which lay at the confluence of two valleys, in the early morning of 1 July, `an innumerable, terrible and nearly overwhelming mass of Turks suddenly rushed upon [them]’. The author of the Gesta Francorum recalled hearing cries of `some devilish word I do not understand’ – surely the Islamic battle cry of Allahu Akhbar (`God is great’). Chroniclers suggested (with poetic licence) that more than a quarter of a million Turks, reinforced with Arab soldiers, descended on Bohemond’s army, forcing them to scramble a defence in which knights repelled the first waves while lighter-armed foot soldiers pitched a defensive camp in which the non-combatants could be protected. This formation held for a while but it was clear that, separated from Raymond, Godfrey and Adhémar’s army, the Latins were badly outnumbered. As the Turks closed in on the camp, every able person was deployed: women shuttling water to refresh men near the front line and cheering encouragement. Despite being outnumbered and occasionally panicked, with leaders including Bohemond contemplating a disorderly retreat, the crusader ranks did not break up. According to the Gesta Francorum, a motivational motto was passed down the line. `Stand fast all together, trusting in Christ and in the victory of the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty.’

In later years the Battle of Dorylaeum would gain legendary status as the moment the First Crusade truly sprang to life. The writer Raymond of Aguilers, who travelled in the retinue of Raymond, count of Toulouse, reported on sightings within the Latin lines of miraculous, ghostly protectors: `Two handsome knights in flashing armour, riding before our soldiers and seemingly invulnerable to the thrusts of Turkish lances.’ That these sounded remarkably like the heavenly warriors who were said to have protected Judas Maccabeus in ancient times was probably no coincidence. It was certainly the first time that a full-scale battle had been fought against Turkish mounted archers, whose tactics of lightning raids and feigned retreat under a hail of arrows were designed to cause chaos in enemy ranks and drag them apart, inviting cavalry to attempt pursuit rather than holding a disciplined formation. Alexios had sent the goldennosed eunuch Tatikios out with the princes in order to advise them on resisting this stratagem (and the motto of `stand firm’ suggests that his words were heeded). Nevertheless, it was everything that Bohemond and Robert Curthose could do to keep their warriors from abandoning camp and fleeing in confusion, as they sent desperate word to the other princes to hurry across country and reinforce them.

A brutal contest of devastating arrow-shot against butchery at close quarters lasted from around 9 a. m. until midday. For one perilous moment a rout looked possible when the Turks broke through into the middle of the Latin encampment. Raymond of Toulouse charged into the valley with several thousand of his own knights, fresh to the battlefield; the Turks turned tail and fled, hoping to fight another day. The Franks, overwhelmed with relief and puffed up with pride in having survived, celebrated by chanting belligerent verses from the Old Testament (`Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy’), buried as martyrs all the dead who wore a crusader’s cross, plundered and desecrated the corpses of those who did not, and prepared to continue their march eastwards.

So under the leadership of Bohemond and the other princes, the debacle of the People’s Crusade was gradually forgotten. Robert the Monk later imagined a furious Qilij Arlsan berating Turkish troops he encountered running away from Dorylaeum. `You are totally insane. You have never come up against Frankish valour or experienced their courage. Their strength is not human: it comes from heaven – or the devil.’ Fanciful this may have been, but Qilij Arslan did not attempt to engage the crusader army on the battlefield again. In a way, he did not need to. Buoyed by victory, the princes decided to head for the vast city of Antioch that lay at the gates between Anatolia and Syria. A three-month summer trek through bitterly hostile countryside awaited them. They would have enough problems as it was.

The Byzantine Successor States, 1204-1261

The Fourth Crusade left the Byzantine world in utter confusion. Since the empire had never been a Greek national state and violent successions were nothing new, at first many provincials failed to see that what had happened was a foreign conquest, and not a somewhat irregular revolution. The Crusaders promptly chose an emperor who was to assume control over the Byzantine church, bureaucracy, and provinces as the successor of Alexius IV Although the better-informed Byzantines and Venetians realized that the old empire was gone, not even they knew quite what was going to take its place.

In March 1204, before the Crusaders and Venetians made their final assault, they had agreed to let a college of six Crusaders and six Venetians choose a new emperor. The emperor elected was to receive a quarter of both Constantinople and the empire as his domain. The forces of the Crusaders and the Venetians would each receive half of the remainder to hold 25 fiefs in vassalage to the emperor. If a Crusader was elected emperor, as everyone assumed would happen, a Venetian was to be patriarch of Constantinople. After taking the city, but apparently before electing an emperor, the Crusaders and Venetians divided the land among themselves. In broad outline, the partition put the imperial domain in Asia Minor and some of Thrace, the crusader fiefs in Greece, and the Venetian fiefs in the islands, some ports, and Epirus.

In May the electors did choose a Crusader emperor, but not Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, who had led the Crusade and expected to be elected. Boniface had already moved into the Great Palace, attracted some Byzantine supporters, and arranged to marry Isaac II’s widow Margaret-Maria. He had earlier family connections with both the Angeli and the Comneni, and was a man of energy and ability. But the Venetians wanted an emperor who would be easier to control, and joined with some French and German Crusaders to outvote Boniface’s Italian followers. They selected the thirty-one-year-old Count Baldwin of Flanders, who was duly crowned.


At first Baldwin, whom Byzantines called the Latin emperor, held only Constantinople and its immediate hinterland. The rest of the empire was subject partly to its bewildered Byzantine governors, and partly to a bewildering crew of rebels and deposed emperors. Alexius V reigned at Tzurulum in eastern Thrace. The previously deposed Alexius III was at Mosynopolis, from which he controlled western Thrace and the region of Thessalonica. Kaloyan of Bulgaria ruled to the north of the two Alexiuses. The rebel magnate Leo Sgurus held the parts of Greece around Nauplia, Corinth, and Thebes. Crete was apparently held by the men of Boniface of Montferrat, whom Alexius IV seems to have granted it in pronoia during his brief reign.

Rhodes was under another Byzantine magnate, Leo Gabalas. Attalia had been seized by the Italian condottiere Aldobrandini. Three more magnates held the Meander valley: Sabas Asidenus around Priene, the old rebel Theodore Mangaphas around Philadelphia, and in the east Manuel Maurozomes, who had given refuge to the fugitive sultan Kaykhusraw. Northwestern Anatolia was held by Theodore Lascaris, a son-in-law and nominal partisan of Alexius III. The Pontus had just fallen to David and Alexius Comnenus, grandsons of the emperor Andronicus who had been lynched nineteen years before. Alexius Comnenus now proclaimed himself Byzantine emperor at Trebizond.

The Byzantine resistance therefore included three men who claimed to be emperor, Alexius III, Alexius V, and Alexius of Trebizond. Of these Alexius III seemed the most plausible. He certainly hoped to retake Constantinople, and with his son-in-law Theodore Lascaris he could claim footholds in both the Balkans and Asia Minor. But he had been a disappointing ruler and had fled from the Crusaders early on. Alexius V had fled later, but after accomplishing even less. Alexius of Trebizond, descended from a widely detested usurper, was far away in a peripheral province. Although Kaloyan of Bulgaria also called himself emperor and was thinking of bigger things, few Byzantines thought of him as one of themselves. The rebel magnates had purely local ambitions. Byzantium appeared to be smashed beyond repair.

By the same token, the Latin emperor Baldwin had a hard task to create a Latin empire that would be nearly comparable to the Byzantine one his men had wrecked. The Latins had already ruined their new capital by plundering it and giving much of the booty to Venice. The Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo was not even Baldwin’s vassal, though many other Venetians were. Boniface of Montferrat, disappointed at losing the imperial election to Baldwin, remained suspicious of him, though Boniface was consoled with the promise of a vassal kingdom around Thessalonica, then held by Alexius III. After first welcoming the Latin capture of Constantinople as a means of reuniting the Church, Pope Innocent discovered how brutal the conquest had been, and condemned the sack of the city and the Crusaders’ plundering of Byzantine church property.

Once elected, Baldwin found himself one of many adventurers, and only a little stronger than the others. That summer he attacked his most formidable Byzantine enemies, the deposed emperors Alexius III and Alexius V. Fleeing west, Alexius V very reasonably sought an alliance with Alexius III, whose deposer he had after all deposed. Alexius III accepted the offer and married his daughter Eudocia to Alexius V, then had his new ally blinded. This stupid act threw away the best chance fro an early and effective Byzantine resistance to the Latins. As Baldwin marched to Mosynopolis, Alexius III retreated before him.

But the Crusaders could be as pigheaded as the Byzantines. The Latins emperor insisted on marching to Thessalonica, ignoring the protests of Boniface, whose kingdom it was supposed to be. Boniface retaliated by attacking Baldwin’s men around Adrianople. This dangerous dispute was hastily arbitrated by the crusader barons and the Venetians. Boniface agreed to leave Baldwin’s domain and to sell Venice his holdings in Create for a thousand marks, while Baldwin let Boniface occupy Thessalonica and help the Crusaders claim their fiefs in Greece. Toward the end of the summer, the confused Thessalonians received Boniface as their king.

Among the Byzantines accompanying Boniface was Michael Ducas, the cousin of Alexius III who had rebelled against him in 1200. In early autumn, however, Michael left for Epirus to answer an appeal from a local governor related to him. Arriving to find his relative dead, Michael stayed at Arta to organize Byzantine resistance in Epirus. Mountainous Epirus, though not rich, was easy to defend against the Latins, and Michael, though a bastard, had his connection with the Angelus dynasty in his favor, and a driving ambition at a time when many others were uncertain what to do next.

Meanwhile Alexius III retreated to Greece, where he joined forces with the rebel magnate Leo Sgurus. Sgurus married Alexius’s daughter Eudocia, undeterred by Alexius’s treatment of her previous husband Alexius V Alexius V was now dead, having been captured after his blinding and killed by the emperor Baldwin. Before the Byzantine alliance between the deposed emperor and the rebel magnate had taken definite shape, King Boniface of Thessalonica advanced into Greece. He captured Alexius III and drove Sgurus into the Peloponnesus, besieging him in the Acrocorinth, Corinth’s almost impregnable upper town. Thus the two former Byzantine emperors, Alexius III and Alexius V, were put out of contention.

While Boniface expanded his vassal Kingdom of Thessalonica, the emperor Baldwin took over his designated holdings in Thrace and prepared to claim his Anatolian domains from Theodore Lascaris. Theodore, apparently still professing loyalty to his father-in-law Alexius III, had organized an army in the northwest. But Theodore had plenty of Byzantine rivals to his rear. The rebel magnates remained active in the south, while the self-proclaimed emperor Alexius of Trebizond had sent his brother David with an army that captured coastal Paphlagonia. Against this divided Byzantine opposition, the Latins crossed the Hellespont and defeated Lascaris near Poemanenum, south of the Sea of Marmara. They went on to besiege Lascaris’s city of Prusa.

The Latins were apparently carrying everything before them. Michael Ducas of Epirus submitted to Pope Innocent to protect his fledgling state. Kaloyan of Bulgaria also made an agreement with the pope, accepting the authority of the papacy in return for a royal crown from Rome. As a nominal member of the western church, Kaloyan then offered an alliance to the Latin emperor Baldwin. But Baldwin refused, annoyed that Kaloyan had been taking border territory in Thrace.

The Crusaders seemed to need no allies. In early 1205 Baldwin’s brother Henry led reinforcements into Asia Minor, captured Adramyttium, and defeated the magnate Theodore Mangaphas. In the Balkans King Boniface of Thessalonica conquered Euboea, central Greece, and most of the eastern Peloponnesus, where he continued besieging Sgurus in the Acrocorinth. The western Peloponnesus fell to some Crusaders recently arrived from Syria, who defeated an army apparently brought from Epirus by Michael Ducas.

Rebuffed by the emperor Baldwin, Kaloyan of Bulgaria incited the Byzantines in Latin Thrace to revolt. They expelled the Latins from Adrianople and several other towns. Baldwin, with whatever troops his brother had not taken to Asia Minor, marched on Adrianople and besieged it. In April Kaloyan arrived with his army and attacked the Latin emperor. The Bulgarians routed the overconfident and outnumbered Latins, killing many of them and capturing Baldwin himself. The aged doge Dandolo died soon afterward. After so much rapid success, suddenly the Latin Empire seemed on the verge of collapse.

Baldwin’s brother Henry hurried back to Constantinople to assume the regency of the Latin Empire and call for help from the West. He had to abandon practically all his conquests in Anatolia to Theodore Lascaris. Kaloyan, who already held most of Thrace, turned on the Kingdom of Thessalonica and sacked Serres before King Boniface could arrive from the Peloponnesus. But Kaloyan made the mistake of mistreating and fighting his Byzantine allies, and the Latins profited by recapturing some of Thrace. Since Kaloyan failed to exploit his victory, the main beneficiary of the Latin rout was Theodore Lascaris. The Latins had already broken the power of one of his rivals, Theodore Mangaphas, whom Lascaris soon took prisoner. When Alexius of Trebizond’s brother David sent an army against Theodore, Lascaris defeated it and captured its commander. Probably after this victory, Theodore proclaimed himself Byzantine emperor at Nicaea.

Now that the new emperor of Nicaea had defeated the forces of Alexius of Trebizond, while Alexius III was Boniface’s captive, Theodore had as good a claim as anyone to the imperial title. Aged about thirty-one, with no less ability than his rivals and more vision, Theodore had already built up a functioning successor state in northwestern Anatolia from next to nothing. Later in 1205 the Nicene emperor defeated his two competitors to the south, Sabas Asidenus and Manuel Maurozomes. By early 1206 Theodore made peace with Maurozomes, who kept only the border forts of Chonae and Laodicea as a vassal of the recently restored sultan Kaykhusraw. Theodore tried to secure his claim as the leading Byzantine pretender by inviting the exiled patriarch of Constantinople John to leave the rebel-held part of Thrace for Nicaea. But the patriarch would not desert his embattled countrymen, and in any case died in spring 1206.

The same spring Kaloyan raided Thrace with a ferocity that drove the Byzantine rebels into the arms of the Latin regent Henry. The rebels surrendered Adrianople to Theodore Branas, a Byzantine general in Henry’s service, and allowed Henry and his men to reoccupy most of Thrace. Having learned that his brother Baldwin had died in Bulgarian captivity, Henry had himself crowned Latin emperor. Although the Latin Empire he inherited was gravely weakened, he was a much more gifted leader than his brother and set about regaining what had been lost.

Henry tried to restrain Theodore Lascaris of Nicaea by allying with David Comnenus, the last Byzantine rival bordering on Theodore’s territory. The Nicene emperor was marching on David’s city of Heraclea Pontica when the Latins attacked him from the rear, and he had to turn back to chase them off. In the winter the Latins invaded Theodore’s lands again, capturing Nicomedia and Cyzicus from him. He retaliated by persuading Kaloyan to attack Latin Thrace. In spring 1207 Henry had to withdraw troops from Anatolia to rescue Adrianople from the Bulgarians. To obtain a badly needed truce from Theodore, the Latin emperor agreed to return Nicomedia and Cyzicus to him.

By this time all the surviving combatants were becoming exhausted. The Latins seemed to have Kaloyan at bay, until the Bulgarians ambushed and killed Boniface of Thessalonica in late summer. Kaloyan was besieging Thessalonica when he too suddenly died in the early autumn. Since both Boniface and Kaloyan left only underage sons, a group of rebellious barons took over Thessalonica, and Kaloyan’s nephew Boril usurped the Bulgarian throne. Both Bulgaria and Thessalonica were incapacitated.

By early 1208 the major players eliminated some minor ones from the game and made matters a little less chaotic. Leo Sgurus, cornered on the Acrocorinth by the Latins, committed suicide by riding his horse off a cliff. The sultan Kaykhusraw took Attalia from the freebooter Aldobrandini. Venice and its vassals finished conquering most of the islands except Crete, which had been seized by the Genoese. Theodore Lascaris chose a patriarch, nominally of Constantinople but resident at Nicaea, who crowned him emperor, nominally of the Byzantine Empire but at Nicaea for the present.

That summer the Latin emperor Henry crushed a raid by Boril of Bulgaria, secured Thrace, and took Philippopolis. Henry then marched against the rebel barons of Thessalonica. In the first part of 1209 he suppressed their rebellion by a combination of diplomacy and warfare, installed his brother Eustace at Thessalonica as regent for Boniface’s infant son, and received the homage of the Latin vassals throughout Greece. To avoid trouble with the resurgent Latins, Michael Ducas of Epirus married his daughter to Eustace and made a formal submission to Henry.

After several years of anarchy, the principal powers within former Byzantine territory had established themselves. Except for Genoese Crete, independent Rhodes, and Turkish Attalia, nearly all the lands that had been Byzantine around 1200 were in the hands of four rulers. The emperor of Nicaea Theodore ruled western Anatolia. The emperor of Trebizond Alexius held the Crimea and the northern Anatolian coast, including Paphlagonia under his brother David. Michael Ducas, content to do without a title, ruled Epirus. The remainder of Greece and almost all of Thrace were subject to the Latin emperor Henry and his vassals, who had subdued the Bulgarians and made the Latin Empire the leading state in the region. Though the three main Byzantine successes held about half of what had been Byzantine territory, they remained rivals.

The Recapture of Constantinople

The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus-the borders are very uncertain.

Between 1254 and 1261, the Latin Empire comes to an end, and the Byzantine Empire is restored

Half a century before, Byzantium had splintered into four mini-kingdoms and faded from sight. For a little less than a millennium, Constantinople had been a pivot point of international politics; now, like Kiev, or Braga, or Krakow, it was of vast importance to its immediate neighbors, but little more.

Constantinople now stood as the capital of the “Latin Empire,” a tiny and penniless realm. Immediately after the conquest of the city by the Fourth Crusade, the Latin Empire, under the Count of Flanders turned Emperor, had stretched from Constantinople into the south of Greece, across the Black Sea to encompass the coast of Asia Minor. But under the count’s nephew Baldwin II, who inherited the throne in 1228 at the age of eleven, the Latin Empire had shrunk. The Bulgarian empire, under the ambitious Ivan Asen, mounted constant attacks on its western border; the Empire of Nicaea, under the ruthless John Vatatzes, assaulted it from the east. Baldwin had few troops, and no money to hire mercenaries. A delegation of Franciscan and Dominican friars who visited the city in 1234 reported that city was “deprived of all protection,” the emperor a pauper: “All the paid knights departed. The ships of the Venetians, Pisans . . . and other nations were ready to leave, and some indeed had already left. When we saw that the land was abandoned, we feared danger because it was surrounded by enemies.”

Baldwin spent much of his reign out of Constantinople, traveling from court to court in Europe and begging each Christian king to help him protect the city that had once been Christianity’s crown jewel in the east. Both Louis IX of France and Henry III of England made small contributions to the Latin treasury, but in its king’s absence Constantinople itself grew shabbier and hungrier. By 1254, Baldwin could claim to rule only the land right around Constantinople’s walls. He had already sold most of the city’s treasures and sacred relics: a fragment of the True Cross, the napkin that Saint Veronica had used to wash the face of Christ as he walked towards Golgotha, the lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross, the Crown of Thorns itself. (Louis IX bought most of them and built a special chapel in Paris to house the collection.) He had borrowed so much money from the Venetian merchants that he had been forced to send his son Philip to Venice as a hostage pending repayment; he had torn the copper roofs from Constantinople’s domes and melted them down into coins.

While the Latin Empire withered, the Empire of Nicaea grew. John Vatatzes, claiming to be the Byzantine emperor in exile, spent most of his thirty-three-year reign fighting: swallowing most of Constantinople’s land, seizing Thrace from Bulgaria and Thessalonica from the third of the mini-kingdoms, the Despotate of Epirus. (The fourth mini-kingdom, the Empire of Trebizond, never expanded very far away from the shoreline of the Black Sea.) By 1254, the Empire of Nicaea stretched from Asia Minor across to Greece and up north of the Aegean.

In February of that year, the sixty-year-old John Vatatzes suffered a massive epileptic seizure in his bedchamber. He slowly recovered, but seizures continued to plague him. “The attacks began to occur altogether more frequently,” writes the historian George Akropolites, who lived at the Nicaean court. “He had a wasting away of the flesh and . . . no respite from the affliction.” In November, the emperor died; his son Theodore, aged thirty-three, became emperor.

But Theodore II soon sickened with the same illness that had killed his father: “His entire body was reduced to a skeleton,” Akropolites says. He died before the end of his fourth year on the throne, leaving as heir his eight-year-old son John.

John’s rule was promptly co-opted by the ambitious Michael Palaeologus, a well-regarded soldier and aristocrat who was also the great-grandson of the Byzantine emperor Alexius III. With the support of most of the Nicaeans (“They did not think it proper,” says Akropolites, “for the . . . empire, being so great, to be governed by a fruit-picking and dice-playing infant”), Michael first declared himself to be regent and then, in 1259, promoted himself to co-emperor as Michael VIII.

From the moment he took the throne, Michael VIII intended to recover his great-grandfather’s city: “His every effort and whole aim was to rescue it from the hands of the Latins,” writes Akropolites. In the first two years of his reign, he prepared for the attack on Constantinople by making peace on his other borders; he concluded treaties with both Bulgaria and the nearby Il-khanate Mongols.

He also equipped himself with a new alliance. The merchants of Genoa had just suffered a commercial catastrophe. In 1256, they had quarreled sharply with the Venetians over the ownership of a waterfront parcel of land in Acre, the last surviving fragment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Whoever controlled it could block rival ships from the harbor of Acre, and both of the maritime republics wanted this advantage. “The Christians began to make shameful and wretched war on each other,” says the contemporary chronicle known as the Rothelin Continuation, “both sides being equally aggressive.” The first major sea battle in the war, between a thirty-nine-ship Venetian fleet (reinforced by ships from friendly Pisa) and a fifty-galley Genoan navy, had ended with an embarrassing Genoan loss. Between 1257 and 1258, the conflict ballooned until all of Acre was at war:

And all that year there were at least sixty engines, every one of them throwing down onto the city of Acre, onto houses, towers and turrets, and they smashed and laid level with the ground every building they touched, for ten of these engines could deliver rocks weighing as much as 1500 pounds. . . . [N]early all the towers and strong houses in Acre were destroyed . . . [and] twenty thousand men died in this war on one side or the other. . . . The city of Acre was as utterly devastated by this war as if it had been destroyed in warfare between Christians and Saracens.

The Genoans were the losers. By the end of 1258, they had been forced out of Acre completely; the old Genoese quarter in Acre was entirely pulled apart, and the Venetians and Pisans used the stones to rebuild their own trading posts.

Now Genoa needed another trading base in the eastern Mediterranean. Carefully guarded negotiations between the Genoese statesman Guglielmo Boccanegra and the emperor Michael VIII went on during the winter of 1260, and ended in July of 1261 with the signing of a major treaty: the Treaty of Nymphaion, which promised the Genoese their own tax-free trading quarters in Constantinople, should they help the ambitious emperor to conquer it.

The conquest itself was an anticlimax; Baldwin II was in no shape to resist, and the city was almost defenseless. As soon as the Treaty of Nymphaion was ratified, Michael sent a small detachment to Constantinople to issue a series of threats. The detachment discovered, to its surprise, that most of the remaining Latin army had been sent off to attack a Nicaean-held harbor island near the Bosphorus Strait. Under cover of thick dark, they climbed into the city, quickly overwhelmed the tiny remaining guard, and opened the gates. Baldwin himself, sleeping at the royal palace, woke up at the sounds of their shouts and managed to flee the city, leaving his crown behind him. The Latin Empire was no more.

Michael VIII himself was camped to the north of Thyateira at the time. When news of the capture arrived at his camp, his sister woke him up by shaking him and saying, “Rise up, emperor, for Christ has conferred Constantinople upon you!” According to Akropolites, he answered, “How? I did not even send a worthy army against it.”

Three weeks later, he arrived at the gates of Constantinople himself. He entered the city on August 14 as the first emperor of a restored Byzantium, and found a disastrous mess: “a plain of destruction, full of ruins and mounds.” The royal palace was so filthy and smoke-stained that it had to be scrubbed from top to bottom before he could take up residence in it.

The Genoese, claiming their reward, now had a trade monopoly in Byzantium and held the premier position in the Mediterranean Sea. Baldwin II ended up in Italy, still claiming to be the emperor of the Latins.

Michael’s co-emperor, young John, remained behind in Nicaea. Michael VIII intended to rule the restored Byzantium on his own, founder of a new royal dynasty, without challenge. Four months later, he ordered the boy blinded and imprisoned in a castle on an island in the Sea of Marmara. The sentence was carried out on Christmas Day, 1261, the boy’s eleventh birthday.

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa I

On 1 April, 536, three months after Sicily had fallen to the victorious army of Belisarius, Justinian issued a law on the administration of the province of Cappadocia. Its provisions do not concern us, but its codicil does, for there Justinian refers both to the cost of his wars, and his hopes:

God has granted us to make peace with the Persians, to make the Vandals, Alans and Moors our subjects, and gain possession of all Africa and Sicily besides, and we have good hopes that He will consent to our establishing our empire over the rest of those whom the Romans of old ruled from the boundaries of one ocean to the other and then lost by their negligence.

To us, with the advantage of hindsight, there is a whiff of irony to Justinian’s prose. But in 536, the push to renew the Roman Empire was still going well, and success seemed to justify the cost of it all.

The Vandals in North Africa had provided an opportunity. In Byzacena, too close for comfort to their estates within the Sortes Vandalicae, they had lost a battle to the Moors. The Vandal king, Hilderic, the grandson of the emperor Valentinian III, was no warrior but Justinian had reason to like him. He had ended the maltreatment of the Catholics, sought a rapprochement with the emperor and had consequently alienated the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. In mid-June, 530, he was deposed in a coup d’état led by a great-grandson of Gaiseric, Gelimer, who was considered an able soldier and whose Arian sympathies were not in doubt. Justinian promptly remonstrated, but Gelimer turned a deaf ear. He told Justinian, as one king to another, not to meddle. Justinian was understandably irritated, and there was an influential lobby of merchants, African churchmen and dispossessed landowners in Constantinople to play upon his sense of grievance. Hilderic had aroused expectations, and now he was fallen, they pressed Justinian to avenge him.

But the consistory was dismayed. The Persian War had just come to a conclusion, the `Endless Peace’ was costly, and the treasury empty, and most of all, the councillors remembered the disastrous expedition that the emperor Leo had dispatched against Gaiseric. But only the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian dared speak against the venture, according to Procopius, who was no friend of John’s, but here calls him the `most daring and clever of all his contemporaries’. John felt no romantic yearning to recover the western provinces. He might have won over Justinian, except that Christian faith intervened. One account has it that a bishop from the eastern provinces appeared, and reported a dream which promised success if the emperor would preserve the Christians of Africa, and another story relates that it was the African martyr Laetus, slain in a Vandal auto-da-fé in 484, who came to Justinian in a dream to urge him on. The African lobby had its way.

The field army that was readied for the expedition numbered about 18,000 men, 10,000 of them infantry, who needed 500 transport ships with 30,000 crewmen, most of them Egyptians or Ionian Greeks. To convoy them, there was a flotilla of 92 fast warships (dromones) with 2,000 fighting men as rowers. The generalissimo was Belisarius, whose wife Antonina accompanied him, and his immediate subordinates were Dorotheus, commander of the troops from Armenia, and Belisarius’ domesticus Solomon, a eunuch castrated by accident rather than intention. Procopius, our chief source for the expedition, went along as a member of Belisarius’ staff.

Just before departure, the Byzantines had two strokes of luck. A Roman Libyan named Pudentius led a revolt in Tripolitania, and in Sardinia, a Gothic retainer named Godas, whom Gelimer had placed in charge of the island, rebelled and sought Justinian’s aid. Gelimer had to let Pudentius be, but he was anxious to reclaim Sardinia, and dispatched his brother Tata with 5,000 men and 120 ships – probably the whole of his effective fleet, for as it turned out, he offered no resistance at sea to Belisarius. The Vandals seem to have been completely unaware of the threat in store for them.

About the time of the summer solstice of 533, the Byzantine fleet anchored off Julian’s harbour on the Sea of Marmara within sight of the Sacred Palace, received the patriarch’s blessing and set sail. The voyage to Africa was to take more than two months. The rift between the Vandals and the Ostrogothic kingdom served the imperial interests well: Amalasuintha provided a market in Sicily for Belisarius’ army. It was in Sicily too where Belisarius discovered that the Vandals did not expect an invasion. Their ignorance is extraordinary, for news travelled well enough over the trade routes, and the fact that no forewarning had reached them demonstrates how separate the world of the Arian Vandals was: they had little contact with traders from the eastern empire, and regarded them with suspicion. Procopius describes how he went to Syracuse to glean what intelligence he could, and there he met a childhood friend from Caesarea whose merchantmen journeyed regularly to Carthage, and a slave agent of his who had come from Carthage only three days before had reported that the Vandals anticipated no danger: their best troops had sailed with Gelimer’s brother to suppress the revolt in Sardinia! Procopius relates how he led the agent down to his boat at the waterfront, and hijacked him off to the roadstead where the fleet lay at Porto Lombardo, and there the slave repeated his story to Belisarius. It was welcome news. It helped dispel the gloom occasioned by the death of Dorotheus, which had only just happened.

At the end of August, the army disembarked along the east coast of Tunisia, at Caput Vada (mod. Ras Kaboudia), some 200 kilometres south of Carthage. It built a stockaded camp, and chanced upon a stroke of luck: as the soldiers dug the moat, they struck a spring of fresh water sufficient for both men and pack animals. It was a good omen. From Caput Vada, the army proceeded warily towards Carthage. Belisarius allowed no pillaging; his war was pointedly directed against the Vandal occupiers of Roman Africa, not against the Roman inhabitants.

The fleet had sailed with the patriarch’s blessing and the promise voiced by the unnamed bishop who had provided the compelling argument for the Byzantine invasion. But thus far it was no anti-Arian crusade.  Belisarius’ mission was to free Africa from a tyrant who had dethroned and imprisoned its rightful king, Hilderic. Justinian had provided Belisarius with an open letter to that effect, which Belisarius in turn gave to an overseer of the public post who had defected, with orders to broadcast it. As the army advanced, Belisarius was careful to maintain discipline and allow no looting that might antagonize the civilian population. And he took no chances. John the Armenian led a vanguard of 300 of Belisarius’ bucellarii some 4 kilometres or more in front of the main army, and on the left there was a company of 600 Bulgars, all mounted archers. On the right was the sea, where the fleet kept pace with the army.

Gelimer was caught unawares. He was staying at a royal estate in Byzacium when he learned of the Byzantine landing. But he reacted swiftly. He sent word to his brother Ammata in Carthage to kill Hilderic and his followers, who were imprisoned there, and to order his men to action. His strategy was sound enough. He planned to trap Belisarius in a natural defile at the tenth Roman milestone from Carthage. Ammata was to attack from the front, and himself from the rear, while another brother, Gibamund, would circle around and attack from the left. The action at the Tenth Milestone (Ad Decimum) was a battle of mounted troops, for Belisarius’ infantry remained in camp, and that was where the Vandal strength lay.

But the plan went awry. The Vandal scouts made contact with the Byzantine army while it was still about 45 kilometres from Carthage and for four days the two armies continued a wary advance to the locale of Ad Decimum, which is now covered by the northern suburbs of modern Tunis. The battle took place on 13 September, which was the eve of the feast of St Cyprian, but instead of the concerted effort Gelimer had planned, it was a series of isolated engagements. Ammata left Carthage too soon without his whole force, and he was defeated and killed by John the Armenian. Gibamund’s force fled and Gelimer himself, unmanned by grief at the discovery of his brother Ammata’s body on the battlefield, threw away his one chance for victory.

The road was open to Carthage. The city walls had been rebuilt in 425, in the last years of Roman dominion, but the Vandals had neglected them and the city could not stand siege. The populace welcomed the victors. Belisarius was careful to keep his army under firm discipline: he allowed no violence that might have alienated popular opinion. The Byzantine fleet sailed around Cap Bon and most of the ships preferred the Bay of Utica as an anchorage instead of the small harbour of Carthage known as the Mandracium. The victory had given the navy a safe haven just as the sailing season came to an end. The victory also decided the Berber sheikhs who had been waiting to see which side would win; now they sent envoys to offer allegiance to Justinian and ask for imperial investiture in return.

On 15 September, Belisarius entered Carthage, took possession of Gelimer’s palace in the emperor’s name and sat upon Gelimer’s throne. Gelimer had ordered a banquet prepared to celebrate the triumph he anticipated and now Belisarius and his officers feasted on it. Meanwhile, at St Cyprian’s basilica, the Arians fled, and for the first time in two generations, the Catholics celebrated the festival of the martyr Cyprian there, only one day late.

In the meantime, the Vandal expeditionary force which had suppressed the revolt in Sardinia returned, and Tata rejoined his brother. Gelimer moved on Carthage, but although Belisarius had not yet had time to complete repairs on the walls, and the city might have fallen easily enough to an enemy equipped with a siege train, the Vandals were horsemen, and the best Gelimer could do was to blockade the city by land and cut its great aqueduct. He also tried to contact the Arian troops in Belisarius’ army and win them over. The Arian clergy had for the most part fled Carthage along with the Vandals, but thus far, the anti-Arian character of the Byzantine expedition had been very low-key. It seems that Justinian thought initially that the Arian clergy could be integrated peacefully into the Catholic hierarchy, and changed his mind later only under pressure from the African bishops seconded by the pope. At this point, Gelimer’s attempt to tamper with the loyalty of the Arian troops came to nothing, but Belisarius took it seriously.

Some three months after the victory at the Tenth Milestone, which gave the Byzantines the city of Carthage, the decisive engagement took place that ended the Vandal kingdom. The Vandals had encamped with their wives, children and treasure about 30 kilometres from Carthage, at a place called Tricamarum which was protected by a small stream. The actual site is unknown, but probably it commanded the main road to Numidia. The Vandals apparently neglected to fortify their camp; their earlier defeat had not taught them prudence. The Byzantine vanguard under John the Armenian with all but 500 of the cavalry made contact with the enemy first, and camped close by, waiting for Belisarius to come up with the infantry and the rest of the horse. But the next day near noon, the Vandals drew up a battle line behind the stream, and repelled two feints against their centre led by John the Armenian, but without moving from their defensive position. But the third charge resulted in a fierce struggle along the whole front. All the Byzantine cavalry moved in and joined battle (Belisarius had joined the vanguard with his horse just as the action began, leaving the slower infantry to catch up). The Vandal centre sagged, Gelimer’s brother, Tata, fell fighting and the rout began. At this point, the two companies of Bulgar mounted bowmen in Belisarius’ army, whose loyalty was precarious and who were ready to swing over to the victor once they perceived who he would be, joined in the pursuit, and the Vandals fled to their camp.

Now, towards evening, the Byzantine infantry came up, and Belisarius advanced against the Vandal camp. Gelimer’s nerve broke. He mounted his horse and fled, and as soon as his departure was known, the Vandals fled after him, leaving a great wealth of booty behind them. The Byzantine troops abandoned all order and turned their attention to plunder, for they were all penniless men, and here were the riches of Vandal Africa before them for the taking. Had the Vandals rallied and counterattacked, they must certainly have won the day. But Gelimer was galloping along the road to Numidia.

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa II

Belisarius and Officers


The end came quickly. John the Armenian pursued Gelimer hotly for five days, but then he was killed accidentally by one of his own men who aimed an arrow at a bird while he was drunk, and struck down his own commander instead. Gelimer found refuge among the Moors who lived on Mt Papua near the western edge of Numidia, probably in the Kroumirie range. Meanwhile, Belisarius advanced as far as Hippo Regius, where Gelimer had deposited his own treasure for safekeeping, and dispatched a force to take Sardinia and Corsica.

Winter was at hand, and Belisarius returned to Carthage, handing over the siege of Mt Papua to a Herul officer named Pharas. Three months passed: terrible months for Gelimer who, like most of the Vandals, had come to love luxury, and now had to endure the austere life of the Moors. Pharas invited him to surrender but Gelimer declined: he asked only that Pharas send him a loaf of bread, a lyre and a sponge. The messenger who brought Pharas Gelimer’s strange request explained: the loaf Gelimer wanted because he had not seen one since the siege of Mt Papua began, the sponge he wanted to wash his eyes, which had become swollen, and the lyre was to accompany the ode which he had composed on his misfortune. Pharas wept for the king and sent him what he wanted, but he did not slacken the siege a whit.

When spring came, Gelimer at last accepted Belisarius’ assurances that he need have no fear for his own safety, and surrendered.

Belisarius was staying in a suburb of Carthage when Gelimer was brought to him, and according to Procopius, the Vandal king laughed uncontrollably. Some thought him mad, but his friends said that his mind was sound; he was laughing merely at the caprice of fortune which had granted him royal birth and great wealth, and then brought him low. Four generations after Gaiseric, the Vandal kingdom had been brought down with astonishing ease.

Justinian must have waited anxiously for news of the victory that he hoped for. By 21 November 533, however, he knew of the capture of Carthage, for on that day he issued the decree which introduced his Institutes, and its third sentence reads:

The barbarian peoples who have passed under our yoke have come to learn of our warlike labours, and witness to them are both Africa and countless other provinces, which by our victories won by Divine Grace, have been restored to Roman rule within our empire.

and in the preamble the titles of Justinian proclaim himself victor not merely over the Alamanni, Goths, Franks, Germans, Antai and Alans, but over the Vandals and the Africans as well. He had grasped the chance to invade Vandal Africa, and his move was vindicated.

Yet the emperor must also have felt a degree of apprehension, for he received a secret message from some officers that Belisarius was plotting to set himself up as an independent king in Africa. He moved with circumspection. He sent back another commander, Solomon, who had reported back to Constantinople after the capture of Carthage, and he let Belisarius know that he might accompany Gelimer and the other Vandal captives to Constantinople, or, if he preferred, he might send them on and remain in Africa himself. But Belisarius had learned about the denunciation. He was anxious to return to the capital, and even though the Moors in Byzacena and Numidia broke out in revolt before he left, he handed over his command to Solomon and set sail.

In Constantinople, the victory was celebrated with a triumph which recalled the traditions of imperial Rome, in particular the triumph of the emperor Vespasian’s son, Titus, over the Jews. The comparison was fitting: the procession of Titus through Rome to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol put on public display the treasures taken in AD 70 from the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, and the Vandal triumph in Constantinople exhibited the same treasure, which Belisarius had found in Carthage. The parade started at Belisarius’ house, but Belisarius processed on foot, not in a chariot, and the culmination of the triumph took place in the Hippodrome: having reached its entrance near the starting gates for the chariot races, the parade made its way down the arena to the imperial box, where Gelimer was stripped of his purple, and both he and Belisarius prostrated themselves before Justinian and Theodora. This was the climax of the triumph and it contrasted sharply with the ancient triumphs which it recalled: where the triumphant general in pagan Rome had laid down his command before Jupiter Optimus Maximus, in the Christian empire, he humbled himself before the emperor and his empress. Gelimer himself snatched a modicum of dignity from defeat: when he reached the Hippodrome and saw the crowds and the imperial pair in their box, he repeated over and over the verse from Ecclesiastes, `Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ His enforced stay on Mt Papua had given him time to adapt the story of his downfall to poetry, and in his defeat, he assumed the persona of a hero from Germanic saga, and accepted his fate with words that suited the occasion.

But Justinian did Gelimer no harm. He was granted an estate in Galatia and allowed to live there with his family. Some 2,000 able-bodied Vandal prisoners were conscripted into five battalions called the Vandali Justiniani and sent to the Persian front. The treasures from the Temple, including the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, were returned to Jerusalem on the advice of a leading member of the Jewish community in Constantinople, and there they remained lodged in various Christian churches until the Persian sack of 618. As for Belisarius, he was honoured with the consulship for the next year, 535, and his inaugural celebration on New Year’s Day was a reprise of his triumph. Justinian had another conquest in mind for him.

These must have been months of high hopes and anticipations. Justinian had moved to organize his new conquest even before word reached him of Gelimer’s surrender. By a rescript dated to April, 534, he created an African prefecture with an accompanying bureaucracy. The capital was to be Carthage and the first prefect was the patrician Archelaos, who was already in Africa as paymaster of the army. But by New Year’s Day, Solomon had returned as praetorian prefect and commander of the army, and thereafter the military and civil jurisdictions in Africa were never separated. It was a symptom of the future.

Justinian’s rescripts of April, 534 show that he intended to reoccupy all of Roman Africa as it had existed before the Vandal conquest, but much of the area was still controlled by the Berbers. Most of them had come to terms after the fall of Carthage, and some had given hostages. But their wise women had predicted that the Berber conquerer would be a beardless Roman general, which foreshadowed the coming of Solomon who was a eunuch. Belisarius’ staff had full beards, and the Berbers concluded that their conquest was not yet fated. The Libyan landowners had reason for apprehension too, for under the Vandals the tax-collection system had fallen apart, and with the new regime, the imperial tax assessors arrived to restore it. Solomon faced a crisis. The Berbers were plundering Byzacium freely and a detachment of cavalry had already been wiped out.

Solomon advanced into Byzacium, made contact with the Berber camp on the south-east fringe of the Tunisian Dorsal and there fought a pitched battle which was a complete victory. But no sooner had he returned to Carthage for the winter than word came that the Berbers were again plundering Byzacium. Next spring, Solomon brought them to battle on the lower peak of an unidentified mountain called Bourgaon, defeated them again, and captured so many women and children that a Berber slave boy could be purchased for the price of a sheep. Except for the sheikh of the Frexes, Antalas, and his clan, who were still loyal allies, the Berbers left Byzacium and retreated south to the Aures massif on the Sahara rim, a forbidding range to one approaching it from the north, where bare mountain peaks alternated with cultivable valleys. There the sheikh Iaudas had his base from which he raided the plains south of Constantine. In the summer of 535, a small Byzantine garrison gave him a trouncing as he returned from a razzia, and he retreated into the Jebel Aures where Solomon tried to run him down. But he accomplished little in 535. He distrusted his guides, and prudently withdrew to winter in Carthage, and prepare for a campaign next spring.

However, the plan went awry. On Easter Day (March 23), 536, a mutiny broke out in the army. Solomon’s troops were a multicultural group that included at least 1,000 Arians. Justinian’s initial impulse had been tolerant: his rescripts of 534 had allowed the Arian priests to retain their posts, but by the next year, the urging of the Catholic bishops had hardened his attitude. Church property still in Arian hands was to be returned forthwith. Non-Catholics, soldiers not excepted, were denied the right to religious services, and barred from public office. Quite naturally, when the Vandal priests complained, the Arian troops lent a sympathetic ear. In addition, some soldiers had married Vandal heiresses, and were anxious to retain their wives’ estates. Justinian’s regulation that allowed the descendants of landowners evicted by the Vandals to reclaim their lands affected them directly. Then too, there was the problem that was becoming increasingly prevalent: army pay was in arrears.

But what sparked the mutiny was the denial of the sacraments to the Arians at Easter. Solomon, all unsuspecting, would have been murdered at the Easter service if his assassins had not lost their nerve, but five days later the army gathered in the hippodrome, chose as leader Theodore of Cappadocia, one of Solomons officers whom they believed was at odds with Solomon, and then turned to looting and rioting. But Theodore was not disloyal, and with his connivance, Solomon escaped to Sicily to join Belisarius, who had just conquered the island.

The rebels, meanwhile, withdrew from Carthage and chose a more committed leader, Stotzas, who moved to reoccupy Carthage, and the city was on the point of surrender when Belisarius appeared, with 100 of his bucellarii. Of the city garrison, only 2,000 were reliable, but with these Belisarius moved to the attack. At Membrasa on the road to Numidia, he brought the mutineers to battle with the sirocco blowing in their faces, and sent them off down the road in flight. But Belisarius’ own army in Sicily was mutinous, and he could not stay. Meanwhile, the troops in Numidia made common cause with the rebels and killed their officers.

In the crisis, Justinian turned to his cousin Germanus, no favourite of Theodora’s, but at this juncture, Justinian needed a commander of prestige and ability. Germanus arrived to find that only a third of the army, the portion garrisoning Carthage and other African cities, remained loyal. Stotzas outnumbered his forces by more than two to one. So Germanus’ first move was to win back as many mutineers as he could, with pay and promises, and he succeeded well enough that Stotzas decided to attempt a battle in the hope that Germanus’ men would refuse to fight their old comrades-in-arms. But Germanus’ troops did not waver, and Stotzas retreated again to Numidia, pursued by Germanus. He brought his quarry to battle at a site called Cellas Vatari (mod. Fedj es-Siouda?). It was a furious struggle, but it ended with the rout of the mutineers. The Berbers, who up to this point had watched the action as neutral onlookers, joined in pursuing the mutineers and pillaging their camp.

Germanus returned to Carthage to face another plot led by one of the bodyguards of Theodore of Cappadocia. But Germanus was warned in time. The conspirators were killed or captured in the hippodrome where they had gathered, and the leader of the mutiny was crucified close by the walls of Carthage. For nearly two years Africa remained calm.

The Battle of Myriokephalon 1176

The first three Comnenoi emperors (Alexius, John and Manuel),recovered a great part of Asia Minor 1081-1176.

The battle of Sirmium illustrates the fact that in the 1160s, even with a very different type of army from that which had won the great victories of the later tenth and early eleventh centuries, and different yet again from the thematic forces which had defended the empire from the seventh century, eastern Roman armies, when well-led and disciplined, were capable of winning striking victories, and remained a key instrument of imperial foreign policy. By the 1170s in Asia Minor the emperor Manuel had succeeded in establishing a real equilibrium with the Seljuk Sultanate of Konya (Ikonion) and had been gradually pressing forward around the frontier regions, with the ultimate intention of recovering the central Anatolian plateau, lost in the aftermath of Manzikert a century earlier. Imperial forces had been able to reoccupy Cilicia in the south, and the principality of Antioch recognized Byzantine overlordship. The main problem facing the emperor in the east was the fact that his western policies were constantly threatened by the activities, diplomatic or otherwise, of the German emperors, who saw the eastern Roman state as the main challenge to their power in the central Mediterranean, and went so far as to tacitly support the Seljuk Sultan Kilidj Aslan against the eastern Roman emperor. Manuel had therefore to dispose his resources carefully to avoid appearing to neglect his Balkan territories, yet at the same time to assemble sufficient manpower to mount an effective challenge to the Seljuks. An important aspect of his policy in the east was maintaining good relations with the Crusader states in Syria and Palestine, and at the same time remaining on good terms with the emirs of Aleppo who served as a valuable counter-weight to the Seljuk power to their north. When the ruler of Aleppo, Nur ad-Din, died in 1174, the balance of power in the region shifted a little away from Byzantium, as Nur ad-Din’s successor, Saladin, was more interested in affairs in Egypt and to the south.

Manuel decided, in consequence, that a strategy to eradicate the Seljuk power would pay the best results in the short-term, and began preparations for a major expedition aimed at Ikonion, the Seljuk capital itself. It is debatable whether, had his strategy paid off and he had been able to defeat the Seljuks and take the city, the policy could have worked in the long term, in view of the firm hold the Turks had by now established in the region. Nevertheless, having re-fortified a number of fortresses which directly challenged Seljuk power, war broke out and Manuel’s army, accompanied by a large siege and baggage train – stretching, according to the emperor himself in a letter he later wrote to Henry II of England, along ten miles of the route – set out in the summer of 1176 to confront the Seljuk leader in what, it was hoped, would be a decisive encounter.

Kilidj Aslan was, understandably, in some consternation about the imperial attack, which posed a serious threat to his realm. He sent to Manuel offering to negotiate but the emperor, convinced of the superiority of his forces, refused and marched on. The Seljuk Sultan had only one option, to defend his territory as best he could. Accurately assessing the routes the imperial army could follow, he decided that his only chance lay in ambushes and delaying actions. The obvious location for a defensive action was one of the passes across the mountains onto the central Anatolian plateau, on the eastern edge of which Konya was located. Manuel’s approach was from the west, but his route took him somewhat to the north first, before he could proceed along the road from Pisidian Antioch south-eastwards along the eastern shore of Lake Pousgouse (mod. Beyşehir Gölü), and then eastwards. Following this road, his army would have to march through the important pass of Tzybritze along the road to Ikonion, if they were to besiege the city. This was the direct route, which the emperor had traversed once before during an expedition beyond Roman territory in 1146. The pass is about 15 miles in length and follows a winding course, curving down in a south-easterly direction before bending around to the north-east once more. Wooded in places and offering plenty of cover to any force wishing to set an ambush, it is entered by a narrow defile several miles in length, before this opens out into a narrow plain some 9 miles long, with sloping ground on one side, steeper cliffs on the other. Near the beginning of the plain (and about 6 miles from the head of the pass), and some 2 miles from the road to the north, stood the ruins of an abandoned fortress (still visible today as mod. Asar Kalesi), the medieval Myriokephalon (‘thousand peaks’, after the numerous mountains behind it). The ground throughout its length is broken and rugged, adding to the difficulties of any military force trying to keep in formation, a point noted by the contemporary historians. At the head of the pass the cliffs close in again and the road passes through another defile before emerging onto the hilly plateau about 25 miles from Konya.

The Turks had already destroyed as much of the available seasonal forage as they could along the route followed by the imperial forces. They had also poisoned or otherwise rendered unusable the main watering places. The result was that the Roman forces were already suffering from a shortage of water and forage, and dysentery had afflicted many of the troops in the army. The Sultan’s forces occupied the pass and, on approaching it, Manuel had to decide whether or not to attack. In spite of advice to the contrary, which warned him of the danger of ambuscades, he opted to make a frontal attack, although there was at least one nearby alternative, which although difficult, would have brought the army out onto the plain near the town of Philomelion (Turkish Akşehir), and which was followed by the forces of the third crusade in 1190. The reasons for his decision are not stated; but it may have been due to the fact that Manuel was anxious about the army’s need for water and forage and had no option apart from turning back – a humiliation which, at this stage, he was unwilling to contemplate. It is also possible that, being familiar with the contours of the pass from the 1146 expedition, he expected the Turks to let his army pass through and harass him on the far side.

The size of the Seljuk force is unknown. The numbers of the imperial army are likewise difficult to assess, but the siege-and baggage train is reported to have included 3,000 carts, and an army stretching over more than ten miles, marching five abreast, would number something in the order of 25,000 men. The accuracy of this estimate depends on terrain, width of the marching column, numbers of horses and so forth, so it is only the very crudest guide. The army was divided, following standard practice, into several divisions, each of which seems to have consisted of a balanced force of cavalry, archers and infantry, except the van, which was made up chiefly of infantry. A contemporary account based on the reports of those present on the campaign describes the imperial column as made up of the van division (as noted, chiefly infantry, largely of the palace regiments), followed by the main division (made up of the eastern and western tagmata), the right wing under Baldwin of Jerusalem followed by the pack and baggage train, and then the siege train, and then the Roman left wing. This was then followed by the emperor’s own division and picked troops, followed in turn by the rearguard under the trusted senior commander, Andronikos Kontostephanos – a classic Roman marching order.

Manuel is reported to have taken no account of the rough terrain through which his army now had to pass. The heavily laden pack-animals did not have their loads redistributed and lightened; the carts carrying the siege-engines were not redeployed to make their passage more quickly; no advance parties were sent through to try to locate and dislodge the Turkish ambushes. Following the emperor’s decision, the Roman vanguard pushed on and marched through the defile into the pass. The predominantly infantry force seems to have taken the Turks by surprise, for it was able to push through with only token opposition – possibly the Turks were still getting into position at this point, since the sources are not clear about when Kilidj Aslan sent in his troops.

The march through probably took between five and six hours, and given the length of the imperial column, which had almost certainly extended as the troops defiled through the narrower sections, the van will have reached the head of the pass by the time the rear divisions were entering. Close behind the van division, the main division marched hastily through; but it was at this point that the Turks in the heights above and around the pass seem to have launched their attack, falling on the Roman right wing and the baggage train in particular, which had followed more slowly and had become strung out over a longer distance. One source speaks specifically of the failure of the right-wing troops to maintain any sort of battle-order or use their archers to fend off the Seljuk attacks. The right wing suffered heavy casualties and its troops broke formation and began to run both forwards and to the rear. Baldwin himself fell in the action. Many of the soldiers tried to take refuge on a small hill, but large numbers were also injured when they fell into the dry ravine between the road and the raised ground. The Turks had set several ambushes along the length of the pass, according to a contemporary source in seven different ‘trench-like’ valleys through which the route passed, and no sooner had some soldiers made their way out of one ambush than they fell into the next. Meanwhile, the van division, which had escaped the main attack, was through the pass, where it established its own fortified encampment on a hill, soon to be followed by the main division. Choniates notes specifically that the Turks left these divisions alone once they had pushed through the pass and encamped.

The divisions behind the baggage also began to panic and dissolve as the effects of the Turkish attack became evident and as they came upon the carnage of the draught and baggage animals and their handlers, mercilessly shot down by the Turkish archery and now partly blocking their path. Turkish arrows now rained down upon the rearmost Roman units, whose path was blocked by the destruction of the siege and baggage train, and for a while it is reported that the emperor himself resigned all hope and simply sat passively awaiting his fate. The situation was not improved by a sudden dust-storm which blew up, making it impossible for a while for the troops on either side to make out their foe. The emperor was then galvanized by some of his soldiers and officers and, exerting himself to re-establish some discipline, was able to reform the various detachments into a defensive formation, managing to get the rest of the force through the pass where it joined the van and centre divisions. The rearguard seems to have followed through without suffering from the Seljuk attacks, and arrived at the fortified encampment as dark fell.

Analysis of events after the battle, and in particular of all the information pertaining to the numbers and strength of eastern Roman armies in the next year or two, strongly suggest that overall casualties appear, in spite of Choniates’s dramatic account, not to have been heavy, except among the troops of the right wing, which seems to have been almost annihilated. But the whole baggage and siege train was destroyed, its personnel and animals killed or captured. That evening the army took up a defensive position on and around the hill occupied by the van division, where it spent the night repelling the sorties and attacks of the Turkish mounted archers. Without the equipment Manuel had brought with him the expedition could not hope to achieve its aim of taking Konya and, given his difficult situation and following discussions with his officers, the emperor now accepted Kilidj Aslan’s offer to negotiate, and was able to withdraw without further loss.

The defeat, while not costly in manpower, was expensive in terms of opportunities lost through poor tactics. For even though the correct procedure was followed up to the point at which the army arrived before the pass, military handbooks advised that such locations should either be avoided or, where absolutely unavoidable, carefully scouted out in advance. It was a standard tenet of eastern Roman military practice that, where an army has to pass through a narrow defile or pass, or where the soldiers might be able to march only two abreast or even in single file, cavalry should dismount and their horses, with the baggage, should be placed in the centre. A detachment of troops should also be left behind to hold it until the army returns. While the emperor seems to have followed these precepts in part, his failure to consider other options, or to scout the pass and take adequate account of the ways in which the Turks had disposed their defences, was substantially responsible for the defeat and the loss of the siege train.

As with Manzikert, with which Manuel himself compared the defeat, Myriokephalon has usually been grossly exaggerated, at least in terms of casualties and the after-effects on the army. For it was certainly not a catastrophe. The loss of the siege train was indeed a disaster for the expedition and for Manuel’s strategy, however, and threw the emperor into a fit of depression for a while, encouraging a gloomy reaction to the failure. But its longer-term effects were more damaging to the empire, for Manuel was never again in a position to assemble such a costly expeditionary force. Yet even after the battle, the Turks were unable to press what little advantage they had been able to derive from it. The empire’s armies were still intact and in place, and a year later, were able to inflict a dramatic defeat on an invading Seljuk force while maintaining the empire’s position in the Balkans. Only after Manuel’s death in 1180 and the collapse of his carefully constructed system of diplomatic checks and balances did the real collapse in imperial power begin once more.