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.

Byzantine defeat at Manzikert

The large Byzantine army intended to strengthen the fortifications of the eastern frontier and to invade Turkish Syria. The wild Turkish tribes who were raiding the empire could probably not have opposed this assault, but Alp Arslan was drawn into the fray by the threat to the Seljuk lands.

The Emperor of the Romans was led away, a prisoner, to the enemy camp and his army was scattered. Those who escaped were but a tiny fraction of the whole. Of the majority, some were taken captive, the rest massacred. MICHAEL PSELLUS, CHRONOGRAPH/A, 1018-79

At Manzikert the Seljuk sultan of Baghdad, Alp Arslan (1063-72), decisively defeated the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes (1067- 71), opened the way for the Turkish domination of Anatolia and ultimately triggered the Byzantine appeal for aid which gave rise to the First Crusade in 1095.

The Turks were a pagan Steppe people who attacked Islam on its northern frontier. As brilliant horse-archers, many were taken into the service of the Caliph of Baghdad and other Muslim potentates. Long contact converted the Turks to Islam. In 1055 Muslim Seljuk leader Tughril Beg captured Baghdad and brought an end to the Buyid dynasty. Initially they did not seek war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, but such a clash became more likely as Seljuk power expanded into the dissident Byzantine border province of Christian Armenia. From Armenia, marauding Turkish forces penetrated central Anatolia and even reached the eastern Aegean Sea. The leading member of the Seljuk family ruled as Shah. Many of the tribes resented Seljuk domination and attacked Byzantium, where their Muslim zeal as new converts provided a religious cloak for their natural raiding ways. In 1057 they sacked Melitene (Malatya), in 1059 Sebasteia (Sivas) and by early 1060 were savaging eastern Anatolia.

This came at a difficult time for the Byzantine empire. Its hold on south Italy was threatened by rebellious Norman mercenaries, while Patzinacks from the Steppe attacked the Balkans. The Macedonian dynasty had died out shortly after the death of Basil II (976-1025) and no dominant emperor emerged who could impose his dynasty. As a result there was bitter rivalry between the great noble families. There were no fewer than thirty rebellions in the period 1028-57, and the frontiers were stripped of troops to put them down. In eastern Anatolia weak central government gave rise to turbulence as the numerous Armenian and Syrian Christians feared that Constantinople aimed to impose religious unity upon them. The imperial army was a mercenary force and extremely expensive, so military expenditure was cut or expanded at the whim of emperors. Constantine X Doukas (1059- 67) was the head of a great noble family and on his deathbed he vested power in his wife to rule on behalf of his son. But the rule of a woman in such difficult times was not acceptable and she married a successful general, Romanus IV Diogenes. The Doukas family regarded him as merely guardian of their succession, but when he produced two sons they began to fear for their position.

After rebuilding the Byzantine Army, during 1068-1069 Romanos conducted a series of successful campaigns against Seljuk sultan of Baghdad Alp Arslan (the “Brave Lion”), forcing him back into Armenia and Mesopotamia. Romanos then campaigned in Syria, which had taken advantage of Seljuk successes to rise against Byzantium, but returned to eastern Anatolia to defeat the Ottomans in the Battle of Heraclea (Eregli) in 1069. Alp then withdrew to Aleppo. Romanos again controlled Armenia except for a few Seljuk fortresses.

In 1070 Romanos shifted his efforts to Italy. He enjoyed some success against the Normans, but a renewed Turkish threat against eastern Anatolia forced him to withdraw, and in 1071 the Normans conquered southern Italy completely. The Anatolian threat took the form of two Turkish armies under Alp and his brother-in-law Arisiaghi. Alp took the Byzantine fortress city of Manzikert but was repulsed at Edessa (Urfa). Arisiaghi meanwhile defeated the principal Byzantine force under Manuel Comnenus near Sebastia.

The campaign and context of the battle

Romanus’s prestige depended on him successfully dealing with the Turks. It was suggested that he reduce to a desert the eastern provinces across which they raided, but he was reluctant to do this. He preferred to force the Shah to curb the raiders by attacking Syria in great military expeditions, as in 1068 and 1069. Alp Arslan was preoccupied in attacking Egypt where a dissident Caliphate had formed a rival centre of power, and had no wish for war with Byzantium. However, when Romanus mounted a great expedition in 1071 he could not ignore the threat. On this occasion a huge Byzantine army, perhaps 40,000-60,000 men, was raised – a mixed force of native levies and mercenaries. Amongst the native units the emperor’s Varangian Guard and a few others were of high quality, but the Armenians and Syrians were unwilling soldiers. Amongst the mercenaries there were Frankish, German and Norman heavy cavalry and Turkish light cavalry. During the march the Germans had attacked the emperor in pursuit of claims to wages, while there had been frequent clashes with local Armenians.

Arriving in eastern Anatolia, Romanos dispatched an advance force under General Basilacius to the vicinity of Seljuk-held Akhlat to ravage that area and serve as a screen for his own force. Romanos laid siege to and took Manzikert, then moved to besiege Akhlat. He sent Basilacius toward Khoi, in Media, where Alp was reported to be assembling a large army.

In late July or early August, Alp’s army of 50,000 or more men brushed aside Basilacius’s covering force of perhaps 10,000-15,000 men. Basilacius then withdrew his men to the southeast without informing Romanos. The reasons for this are obscure but are believed to have been prompted by a treachery including Basilacius; Romanos’s second-in-command, Andronicus Ducas; and Empress Eudokia.


Almost entirely cavalry, especially mounted archers

Commanded by Seljuk sultan of Baghdad, AlpArslan

Unknown casualties


40,000-60,000 men: natives- Varangian Guard, Armenians, Syrians; mercenaries – Frankish, German, Norman heavy cavalry, Turkish light cavalry; elite units mounted; some heavy cavalry

Commanded by Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes

Unknown casualties

The battle

Before Romanus attacked Manzikert, where resistance was weak, he sent his best troops on to Chliat under General Joseph Tarchaniotes. He divided his army in the belief that Alp Arslan was in retreat. In fact the sultan gathered a small but efficient force of Turkish cavalry and surprised Romanus’s troops, whose anxieties were increased by the desertion of many of their own Turkish troops. But Alp Arslan was aware of his weakness and offered to negotiate. Romanus, however, needed a victory to shore up his prestige and knew the Turks were few. Accordingly, he deployed his army with Nicephorus Bryennius on the left, himself in the centre and a leader called Alyattes on the right. Andronicus Doukas commanded the reserve. The army advanced with the cavalry to the fore and the heavily outnumbered Turks retreated.

As evening approached, Romanus gave the order to turn back to the camp, and his division did so in good order. Those more distant from Romanus were uncertain of what was expected of them, and so they believed the story spread by the fleeing Andronicus that the emperor had been defeated. These confusions augmented the tensions within the army and a general flight began, led, we are told, by the Armenians. The astonished Turks slaughtered the fleeing troops while Romanus and his division fought bravely, but ultimately had to surrender. The main force of the Byzantine army at Chliat, including the Franks, Normans and Germans, had simply fled when they heard that Alp Arslan was nearby. The Byzantine defeat illustrates the difficulties of controlling a large army, in this case made worse by its diverse nature and the forces of treachery.


Although Manzikert was a heavy defeat, it need not have had serious consequences. Alp Arslan freed Romanus in return for tribute and the dismantling of Byzantine fortresses. But the emperor’s enemies then blinded him and renounced the treaty, recognizing Michael VII Doukas as emperor. But he was not a strong ruler. The empire divided between feuding families who frequently called in the Turks.

Anatolia was effectively given away to a series of Turkish war lords. Dissident Seljuks ruled the greatest of these principalities, based on Nicaea and Iconium, the Danishmends controlled the area around Erzincan, the Menguchekids around Erzurum, while a Turkish prince held Smyrna and Ephesus. Alexius Comnenus (1081- 1118) managed to hold the empire together by an alliance with the other great families. The empire remained rich, but Alexius lacked troops and was thus frustrated in his attempts to reconquer Anatolia. When the great Seljuk sultanate of Baghdad began to break up after 1092 he asked Pope Urban II (1088-99) to help him raise mercenaries, influencing westerners with terrible tales of the sufferings of Christians under the Islamic yoke. This inspired Urban II to launch the First Crusade which would have such consequences for the Byzantine empire.


Friendly, Alfred. The Dreadful Day: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071. London: Hutchinson, 1981.

Kaegi, Walter E. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Treadgold, Warren. Byzantium and Its Army, 284–1081. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

The Red Apple

A red apple invites stones.

Turkish proverb

Early spring. A black kite swings on the Istanbul wind. It turns lazy circles round the Suleymaniye mosque as if tethered to the minarets. From here it can survey a city of fifteen million people, watching the passing of days and centuries through imperturbable eyes.

When some ancestor of this bird circled Constantinople on a cold day in March 1453, the layout of the city would have been familiar, though far less cluttered. The site is remarkable, a rough triangle upturned slightly at its eastern point like an aggressive rhino’s horn and protected on two sides by sea. To the north lies the sheltered deep-water inlet of the Golden Horn; the south side is flanked by the Sea of Marmara that swells westward into the Mediterranean through the bottleneck of the Dardanelles. From the air one can pick out the steady, unbroken line of fortifications that guard these two seaward sides of the triangle and see how the sea currents rip past the tip of the rhino horn at seven knots: the city’s defenses are natural as well as man-made.

But it is the base of the triangle that is most extraordinary. A complex, triple collar of walls, studded with closely spaced towers and flanked by a formidable ditch, it stretches from the Horn to the Marmara and seals the city from attack. This is the thousand-year-old land wall of Theodosius, the most formidable defense in the medieval world. To the Ottoman Turks of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was “a bone in the throat of Allah” – a psychological problem that taunted their ambitions and cramped their dreams of conquest. To Western Christendom it was the bulwark against Islam. It kept them secure from the Muslim world and made them complacent.

Looking down on the scene in the spring of 1453 one would also be able to make out the fortified Genoese town of Galata, a tiny Italian city state on the far side of the Horn, and to see exactly where Europe ends. The Bosphorus divides the continents, cutting like a river through low wooded hills to the Black Sea. On the other side lies Asia Minor, Anatolia – in Greek literally the East. The snowcapped peaks of Mount Olympus glitter in the thin light 60 miles away.

Looking back into Europe, the terrain stretches out in gentler, undulating folds toward the Ottoman city of Edirne, 140 miles west. And it is in this landscape that the all-seeing eye would pick out something significant. Down the rough tracks that link the two cities, huge columns of men are marching; white caps and red turbans advance in clustered masses; bows, javelins, matchlocks, and shields catch the low sun; squadrons of outriding cavalry kick up the mud as they pass; chain mail ripples and chinks. Behind come the lengthy baggage trains of mules, horses, and camels with all the paraphernalia of warfare and the personnel who supply it – miners, cooks, gunsmiths, mullahs, carpenters, and booty hunters. And farther back something else still. Huge teams of oxen and hundreds of men are hauling guns with immense difficulty over the soft ground. The whole Ottoman army is on the move.

The wider the gaze, the more details of this operation unfold. Like the backdrop of a medieval painting, a fleet of oared ships can be seen moving with laborious sloth against the wind, from the direction of the Dardanelles. High-sided transports are setting sail from the Black Sea with cargoes of wood, grain, and cannonballs. From Anatolia, bands of shepherds, holy men, camp followers, and vagabonds are slipping down to the Bosphorus out of the plateau, obeying the Ottoman call to arms. This ragged pattern of men and equipment constitutes the coordinated movement of an army with a single objective: Constantinople, capital of what little remains in 1453 of the ancient empire of Byzantium.

The medieval peoples about to engage in this struggle were intensely superstitious. They believed in prophecy and looked for omens. Within Constantinople, the ancient monuments and statues were sources of magic. People saw there the future of the world encrypted in the narratives on Roman columns whose original stories had been lost. They read signs in the weather and found the spring of 1453 unsettling. It was unusually wet and cold. Banks of fog hung thickly over the Bosphorus in March. There were earth tremors and unseasonal snow. Within a city taut with expectation it was an ill omen, perhaps even a portent of the world’s end.

The approaching Ottomans also had their superstitions. The object of their offensive was known quite simply as the Red Apple, a symbol of world power. Its capture represented an ardent Islamic desire that stretched back 800 years, almost to the Prophet himself, and it was hedged about with legend, predictions, and apocryphal sayings. In the imagination of the advancing army, the apple had a specific location within the city. Outside the mother church of St. Sophia on a column 100 feet high stood a huge equestrian statue of the Emperor Justinian in bronze, a monument to the might of the early Byzantine Empire and a symbol of its role as a Christian bulwark against the East. According to the sixth-century writer Procopius, it was astonishing.

The horse faces East and is a noble sight. On this horse is a huge statue of the Emperor, dressed like Achilles … his breastplate is in the heroic style; while the helmet covering his head seems to move up and down and it gleams dazzlingly. He looks towards the rising sun, riding, it seems to me towards the Persians. In his left hand he carries a globe, the sculptor signifying by this that all earth and sea are subject to him, though he has neither sword nor spear nor other weapon, except that on the globe stands the cross through which alone he has achieved his kingdom and his mastery of war.

The Equestrian Statue of Justinian as recreated by

It was in the globe of Justinian surmounted by a cross that the Turks had precisely located the Red Apple, and it was this they were coming for: the reputation of the fabulously old Christian empire and the possibility of world power that it seemed to contain.

Fear of siege was etched deep in the memory of the Byzantines. It was the bogeyman that haunted their libraries, their marble chambers, and their mosaic churches, but they knew it too well to be surprised. In the 1,123 years up to the spring of 1453 the city had been besieged some twenty-three times. It had fallen just once – not to the Arabs or the Bulgars but to the Christian knights of the Fourth Crusade in one of the most bizarre episodes in Christian history. The land walls had never been breached, though they had been flattened by an earthquake in the fifth century.

Islam’s desire for the city is almost as old as Islam itself. The origin of the holy war for Constantinople starts with the Prophet himself in an incident whose literal truth, like so much of the city’s history, cannot be verified.

In the year 629, Heraclius, “Autocrat of the Romans” and twenty-eighth emperor of Byzantium, was making a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem. It was the crowning moment of his life. He had shattered the Persians in a series of remarkable victories and wrested back Christendom’s most sacred relic, the True Cross, which he was triumphantly restoring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Islamic tradition, when he had reached the city he received a letter. It said simply: “In the name of Allah the most Beneficent, the most Merciful: this letter is from Muhammad, the slave of Allah, and His Apostle, to Heraclius, the ruler of Byzantines. Peace be upon the followers of guidance. I invite you to surrender to Allah. Embrace Islam and Allah will bestow on you a double reward. But if you reject this invitation you will be misguiding your people.” Heraclius had no idea who the writer of this letter might have been, but he is reported to have made inquiries and to have treated its contents with some respect. A similar letter sent to the “King of Kings” in Persia was torn up. Muhammad’s reply to this news was blunt: “Tell him that my religion and my sovereignty will reach limits which the kingdom of Chosroes never attained.” For Chosroes it was too late – he had been slowly shot to death with arrows the year before – but the apocryphal letter foreshadowed an extraordinary blow about to fall on Christian Byzantium and its capital, Constantinople, that would undo all the emperor ever achieved.

In the previous ten years Muhammad had succeeded in unifying the feuding tribes of the Arabian Peninsula around the simple message of Islam. Motivated by the word of God and disciplined by communal prayer, bands of nomadic raiders were transformed into an organized fighting force, whose hunger was now projected outward beyond the desert’s rim into a world sharply divided by faith into two distinct zones. On the one side lay the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam; on the other, the realms still to be converted, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. By the 630s Muslim armies started to appear on the margins of the Byzantine frontier, where the settled land gave way to desert, like ghosts out of a sandstorm. The Arabs were agile, resourceful, and hardy. They totally surprised the lumbering mercenary armies in Syria. They attacked, then retreated into the desert, lured their opponents out of their strongholds into the barren wilderness, surrounded and massacred them. They traversed the harsh empty quarters, killing their camels as they went and drinking the water from their stomachs – to emerge again unexpectedly behind their enemy. They besieged cities and learned how to take them. Damascus fell, then Jerusalem itself; Egypt surrendered in 641, Armenia in 653; within twenty years the Persian Empire had collapsed and converted to Islam. The velocity of conquest was staggering, the ability to adapt extraordinary. Driven by the word of God and divine conquest, the people of the desert constructed navies “to wage the holy war by sea” in the dockyards of Egypt and Palestine with the help of native Christians and took Cyprus in 648, then defeated a Byzantine fleet at the Battle of the Masts in 655. Finally in 669, within forty years of Muhammad’s death, the Caliph Muawiyyah dispatched a huge amphibious force to strike a knockout blow at Constantinople itself. On the following wind of victory, he had every anticipation of success.

To Muawiyyah it was to be the culmination of an ambitious long-term plan, conceived and executed with great care and thoroughness. In 669 Arab armies occupied the Asian shore opposite the city. The following year a fleet of 400 ships sailed through the Dardanelles and secured a base on the peninsula of Cyzicus on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. Supplies were stockpiled, dry dock and maintenance facilities created to support a campaign that would last as long as was necessary. Crossing the straits west of the city, Muslims set foot on the shores of Europe for the first time. Here they seized a harbor from which to conduct the siege and mounted large-scale raids around the hinterland of the city. Within Constantinople itself, the defenders sheltered behind their massive walls, while their fleet, docked in the Golden Horn, prepared to launch counterattacks against the enemy.

For five successive years between 674 and 678 the Arabs conducted the campaign on a steady pattern. Between spring and autumn each year they besieged the walls and mounted naval operations in the straits that involved running battles with the Byzantine fleet. Both sides fought with the same types of oared galleys and largely with the same crews, as the Muslims had access to the seafaring skills of Christians from the conquered Levant. In winter the Arabs regrouped at their base at Cyzicus, repaired their ships, and prepared to tighten the screw the following year. They were in the siege for the long haul, secure in the belief that victory was inevitable.

And then in 678 the Byzantine fleet made a decisive move. They launched an attack on the Muslim fleet, probably in their base at Cyzicus at the end of the campaigning season – the details are either unclear or were deliberately suppressed – spearheaded by a squadron of fast dromons: light, swift-sailing, many-oared galleys. There are no contemporary versions of what happened next, though the details can be deduced from later accounts. As the attack ships closed on their opponents, they unleashed, behind the conventional volley of winged missiles, an extraordinary stream of liquid fire from nozzles mounted high on their prows. Jets of fire burned the surface of the sea between the closing vessels, then caught hold of the enemy ships, falling “like a flash of lightning on the faces in front of it.” The explosion of flame was accompanied by a noise like thunder; smoke darkened the sky, and steam and gas suffocated the terrified sailors on the Arab ships. The firestorm seemed to defy the laws of nature: it could be directed sideways or downward in whatever direction the operator wished; where it touched the surface of the sea, the water ignited. It seemed to have adhesive properties too, sticking to the wooden hulls and masts and proving impossible to extinguish, so that the ships and their crews were rapidly engulfed in a propulsive torrent of fire that seemed like the blast of an angry god. This extraordinary inferno “burned the ships of the Arabs and their crews alive.” The fleet was destroyed, and the traumatized survivors, “having lost many fighting men and received great injury,” lifted the siege and sailed home. A winter storm wrecked most of the surviving ships while the Arab army was ambushed and destroyed on the Asian shore. Discouraged, Muawiyyah accepted a thirty-year truce on unfavorable terms in 679 and died, a broken man, the following year. For the first time the Muslim cause had received a major setback.

The chroniclers presented the episode as clear evidence that “the Roman Empire was guarded by God,” but it had, in truth, been saved by a new technology: the development of Greek fire. The story of this extraordinary weapon remains the subject of intense speculation even now – the formula was regarded as a Byzantine state secret. It seems that at about the time of the siege, a Greek fugitive called Kallinikos came to Constantinople from Syria, bringing with him a technique for projecting liquid fire through siphons. If so, it is likely that he built on techniques of incendiary warfare widely known throughout the Middle East. The core ingredient of the mixture was almost certainly crude oil from natural surface wells on the Black Sea, mixed with powdered wood resin that gave it adhesive properties. What was probably perfected in the secret military arsenals of the city over the length of the siege was a technology for projecting this material. The Byzantines, who were heirs to the practical engineering skills of the Roman Empire, seem to have developed a technique for heating the mixture in sealed bronze containers, pressurizing it by means of a hand pump, then emitting it through a nozzle, where the liquid could be ignited by a flame. To handle inflammable material, pressure, and fire on a wooden boat required precision manufacturing techniques and highly skilled men, and it was this that comprised the true secret of Greek fire and destroyed Arab morale in 678.

For forty years the setback at Constantinople rankled with the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus. It remained inconceivable within Islamic theology that the whole of humankind would not, in time, either accept Islam or submit to Muslim rule. In 717 a second and even more determined attempt was made to overcome the obstacle that hindered the spread of the Faith into Europe. The Arab attack came at a time of turmoil within the empire. A new emperor, Leo II, had been crowned on March 25, 717; five months later he found an army of 80,000 men dug in the length of the land walls and a fleet of 1,800 ships controlling the straits. The Arabs had advanced their strategy from the previous siege. It was quickly realized by the Muslim general Maslama that the walls of the city were invulnerable to siege machines; this time there was to be a total blockade. The seriousness of his intentions was underlined by the fact that his army brought wheat seed with them. In the autumn of 717 they plowed the ground and planted a food supply outside the walls for harvesting the following spring. Then they settled down to wait. A foray by the Greek fire ships had some success but failed to break the stranglehold. Everything had been carefully planned to crush the infidels.

What actually ensued for the Arabs was an unimaginable catastrophe that unfolded in inexorable stages. According to their own chroniclers, Leo managed to deceive his enemies by an extraordinary diplomatic double-cross that was impressive even by the standards of the Byzantines. He persuaded Maslama that he could get the city to surrender if the Arabs both destroyed their own food stores and gave the defenders some grain. Once done, Leo sat tight behind the walls and refused to parley. The tricked army was then subjected to a winter of freak severity for which they were ill prepared. Snow lay on the ground for a hundred days; the camels and horses started to perish in the cold. As they died, the increasingly desperate soldiers had no option but to eat them. The Greek chroniclers, not known for their objectivity, hinted at darker horrors. “It is said,” wrote Theophanes the Confessor a hundred years later, “that they even cooked in ovens and ate dead men and their dung which they leavened.” Famine was followed by disease; thousands died in the cold. The Arabs had no experience of the surprising severity of winters on the Bosphorus: the ground was too hard to bury the dead; hundreds of corpses had to be thrown into the sea.

The following spring a large Arab fleet arrived with food and equipment to relieve the stricken army but failed to reverse the downward spiral of fortune. Warned of the dangers of Greek fire, they hid their ships on the Asian coast after they had unloaded. Unfortunately some of the crews, who were Egyptian Christians, defected to the emperor and revealed the position of the fleet. An imperial force of fire ships fell on the unprepared Arab vessels and destroyed them. A parallel relief army dispatched from Syria was ambushed and cut to pieces by Byzantine infantry. Meanwhile Leo, whose determination and cunning seem to have been indefatigable, had been negotiating with the pagan Bulgars. He persuaded them to attack the infidels outside the walls; 22,000 Arabs were killed in the ensuing battle. On August 15, 718, almost a year to the day from their arrival, the armies of the caliph lifted the siege and straggled home by land and sea. While the retreating soldiers were harassed across the Anatolian plateau, there was one further calamity in store for the Muslim cause. Some ships were destroyed by storms in the Sea of Marmara; the rest were overwhelmed by an underwater volcanic eruption in the Aegean that “brought the sea water to a boil, and as the pitch of their keels dissolved, their ships sank in the deep, crews and all.” Of the vast fleet that had set sail, only five ships made it back to Syria “to announce God’s mighty deeds.” Byzantium had buckled but not collapsed under the onslaught of Islam. Constantinople had survived through a mixture of technological innovation, skillful diplomacy, individual brilliance, massive fortifications – and sheer luck: themes that were to be endlessly repeated in the centuries ahead. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the Byzantines had their own explanation: “God and the all-holy Virgin, the Mother of God, protect the City and the Christian Empire, and … those who call upon God in truth are not entirely forsaken, even if we are chastised for a short time on account of our sins.”

The failure of Islam to take the city in 717 had far-reaching consequences. The collapse of Constantinople would have opened the way for a Muslim expansion into Europe that might have reshaped the whole future of the West; it remains one of the great “What ifs” of history. It blunted the first powerful onslaught of Islamic jihad that reached its high watermark fifteen years later at the other end of the Mediterranean when a Muslim force was defeated on the banks of the Loire, a mere 150 miles south of Paris.


The WALLS had held firm, so that when the army of Sultan Mehmet finally reined up outside the city on April 6, 1453, the defenders had reasonable hopes of survival.

It is a tale of human courage and cruelty, of technical ingenuity, luck, cowardice, prejudice, and mystery. It also touches on many other aspects of a world on the cusp of change: the development of guns, the art of siege warfare, naval tactics, the religious beliefs, myths, and superstitions of medieval people. But above all it is the story of a place – of sea currents, hills, peninsulas, and weather – the way the land rises and falls and how the straits divide two continents so narrowly “they almost kiss,” where the city is strong, defended by rocky shores, and the particular features of geology that render it vulnerable to attack. It was the possibilities of this site – what it offered for trade, defense, and food – that made Constantinople the key to imperial destinies and brought so many armies to its gate. “The seat of the Roman Empire is Constantinople,” wrote George Trapezuntios, “and he who is and remains Emperor of the Romans is also the Emperor of the whole earth.”

Modern nationalists have interpreted the siege of Constantinople as a struggle between the Greek and Turkish peoples, but such simplifications are misleading. Neither side would have readily accepted or even understood these labels, though each used them of the other. The Ottomans, literally the tribe of Osman, called themselves just that, or simply Muslims. “Turk” was a largely pejorative term applied by the nation states of the West, the name “Turkey” unknown to them until borrowed from Europe to create the new Republic in 1923. The Ottoman Empire in 1453 was already a multicultural creation that sucked in the peoples it conquered with little concern for ethnic identity. Its crack troops were Slavs, its leading general Greek, its admiral Bulgarian, its sultan probably half Serbian or Macedonian. Furthermore under the complex code of medieval vassalage, thousands of Christian troops accompanied him down the road from Edirne. They had come to conquer the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Constantinople, whom we now call the Byzantines, a word first used in English in 1853, exactly four hundred years after the great siege. They were considered to be heirs to the Roman Empire and referred to themselves accordingly as Romans. In turn they were commanded by an emperor who was half Serbian and a quarter Italian, and much of the defense was undertaken by people from Western Europe whom the Byzantines called “Franks”: Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans, aided by some ethnic Turks, Cretans – and one Scotsman. If it is difficult to fix simple identities or loyalties to the participants at the siege, there was one dimension of the struggle that all the contemporary chroniclers never forgot – that of faith. The Muslims referred to their adversary as “the despicable infidels,” “the wretched unbelievers,” “the enemies of the Faith”; in response they were called “pagans,” “heathen infidels,” “the faithless Turks.” Constantinople was the front line in a long-distance struggle between Islam and Christianity for the true faith. It was a place where different versions of the truth had confronted each other in war and truce for 800 years, and it was here in the spring of 1453 that new and lasting attitudes between the two great monotheisms were to be cemented in one intense moment of history.

Siege of Brusa 1317–1326

Forces Engaged

Byzantine: Unknown. Commander: Unknown.

Turkish: Unknown. Commander: Osman I and then Orkhan.

The capture of Brusa established Osman I (Othman) and his successors as the major power in Asia Minor, beginning the Ottoman Empire.

The peoples known as Turks originated not in the Turkey of today but in Turkestan in central Asia. In the middle of the sixth century a.d., they formed themselves into a large tribal confederation and then shortly thereafter split into eastern and western factions. The eastern Turkic tribes interacted strongly with the Chinese, most notably the T’ ang dynasty, and alternately aided or were defeated by the Chinese. The western Turkic tribes, however, were better known as conquerors for their occupation of territory stretching from the Oxus River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Their first major entry into western history came with their contact with Arabs spreading Islam past Persia and toward central Asia. The pastoral Turks became exposed to the civilizations of Persia and the Byzantine Empire and began a gradual conversion to western religions, mainly but not exclusively Islam. Soon Turkic soldiers served in Moslem armies, either as volunteers or as slave soldiers, forerunners of the Mamluks or the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. They soon became ghazi, or border warriors, hired by Moslem governments to protect the northeastern frontier. At this point, the western Turks also split, the eastern faction becoming the Ghaznavids and the western becoming the Seljuks.

Most of the Turks embraced the more orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, and they spread the faith as well as practiced it. Based out of the city of Ghazna (some 90 miles southwest of modern Kabul, Afghanistan), the Ghaznavids in the tenth and eleventh centuries spread their power and religion eastward into India. Their most notable achievement was the introduction of Islam into India, though their use of forced conversions often made them more feared than welcomed. They were defeated not by Indian resistance but by the Seljuks.

Named for its first major leader, Seljuk or Selchuk, the western Turkic tribes also served Moslem governments. Their position on the Asian frontier attracted growing numbers of Islamicized Turkic tribes, and soon the land grants ceded by the Moslems proved inadequate for the needs of so many pastoral people. Their growth in numbers gave them an increased military strength as well as a growing need for grazing lands. As the Moslem Buyid dynasty grew weak and the Ghaznavids looked toward India, the Seljuks found conquest of the lands west of Persia relatively simple. They defeated the Ghaznavids in 1040 and then occupied Baghdad in 1055. They did not take the city to pillage it but to return it to Sunni control from the less orthodox Shi’ites. The marriage of the Seljuk chief to the sister of the caliph, and his resulting promotion to the position of sultan, established the Seljuks as the premiere military and political force in the Middle East.

Filled with religious zeal, the Seljuks conquered Armenia, the Levant, and into Asia Minor; Malik Shah, the most successful Seljuk military leader, scored a major victory over Byzantine forces at Manzikert in 1071. In spite of their desire to reestablish the Sunni sect of Islam, the Seljuks did not undertake the practice of forced conversions, which the Ghaznavids did in India. Though they made subjects of Christians and Jews, they did not persecute them; the Seljuks followed Mohammed’s teachings of religious tolerance. Once established in Asia Minor, they chose as their capital city Konia, a site occupied since the Hittites at the dawn of recorded history. It became a center for culture and learning. The orthodoxy of the Sunni Seljuks frightened Europeans, who rejected peaceful interaction in favor of militant Christianity and mounted the Crusades. Although the Crusades brought about no lasting European presence in the Middle East, and the Seljuks remained in power, they finally were doomed to destruction in the same manner that brought them to power: invasion from central Asia, the Mongols of the thirteenth century. Their occupation of Asia Minor ultimately weakened the Byzantine Empire to the point that it fell to the successors of the Seljuks, the Ottoman Empire.

The Campaign

The formation of the Ottoman Empire was very much a matter of timing and location. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the power of the Mongols had waned, as had that of the Byzantine Empire. In the region in and around Asia Minor, a power vacuum formed. The people living in Asia Minor were basically still a steppe society, uncomfortable with a settled lifestyle and militarily aggressive. Such a combination had served to keep the Seljuks from ever establishing an extended dominion; attempts by political leaders to convince the people to settle down and pay taxes resulted in rebellion. The Turks followed strong leaders, no matter their birth, and, for a strong leader to maintain his following, he needed conquests to keep his people occupied and provide operating capital.

Osman I (or Othman) became the main prince of Asia Minor who attracted warriors. His land, awarded to him in 1290 for service to the Seljuks, was based on the town of Sorgut, supposedly established as a regional stronghold by Hannibal. Sorgut was located southeast of Constantinople, fairly near the Sea of Marmora. This meant that Osman’s lands abutted the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. That location was the primary reason that warriors flocked to his banner; fighting Christians was more honorable and lucrative than fighting fellow Turks. Osman’s campaigns against the Byzantines were at times mere raids for loot and at other times intentional territorial acquisitions, and they both attracted the attention of Constantinople. Of all the Asia Minor princes, Osman was deemed the greatest threat.

Osman focused his attentions on three primary targets: Nicaea (modern Iznik), Nicomedia (modern Izmit), and Brusa (modern Bursa). He first laid siege to Nicaea in 1301. This action attracted the attention of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II to him. The Byzantine government dispatched a force of 2,000 men to relieve the siege, but Osman ambushed and destroyed them at Baphaeon. The local population evacuated the country-side and fled to Nicomedia. The emperor hired some Alan mercenaries to deal with Osman, but they too were defeated (1302 and 1304). Osman was unable, however, to overcome either Nicaea or Nicomedia, so he returned to raiding.

Brusa had once been a town as important as Nicaea and Nicomedia, but after the invasion of the Goths in the third century only the latter two were restored under Byzantine rule. Just before Constantine established the empire and Nicaea was still the regional capital, Brusa had its walls restored. It was such a good job of reconstruction that, when Osman began his siege in 1317, the town held out for more than 9 years. As to the details of the siege of Brusa, almost nothing exists. It was a long siege, and that is about all that can be said, other than some sources say it may have been intermittent rather than continuous. When it fell on 6 April 1326, Osman lay dying, so he never saw the inside of the city. His son, Orkhan, became the second leader of the dynasty that became known as the Ottomans. Upon his occupation of the city, he named it the capital of the emerging Ottoman Empire. Whatever damage that had been inflicted during the siege was quickly repaired and the town’s former elegance was restored. It became “a great city with fine bazaars and broad streets, worthy of the greatest of the Turkmen kings” (Muller, The Loom of History, p. 301).

Although Osman was the father of the ruling line, it was Orkhan who really established the power of the Ottomans. He succeeded in capturing Nicaea in 1331 after beating back a Byzantine relief force and then he took Nicomedia in 1337. All of this served to attract even more warriors to the Ottoman cause. Although there were occasional periods of peace (Orkhan married a Byzantine princess), for the most part the Moslem Ottomans and the Christian Byzantines were at odds. Orkhan’s son Suleiman led troops across the Dardanelles to conquer Thrace, and the empire’s capital was transferred from Brusa to Adrianople. In 1453, another of Osman’s descendants, Mehmet, captured Constantinople. He renamed the city Istanbul and it remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until its demise in 1919.

The Ottomans succeeded where the Seljuks failed because they were able to overcome their nomadic heritage. “The astonishing achievement of the Ottomans was breaking the cycle of birth, short life, then dissolution that characterized the earlier nomadic empires” (McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, p. 36). This was the result primarily of the uncanny abilities of the first nine Ottoman sultans, who put together a 200-year chain of able rulers. By maintaining war against the Byzantines, then the Christians of southeastern Europe, and then the Shi’ites of Persia, the Ottomans were able to harness the warlike nature of their people. However, by adopting Christian/European advisors, military advancements, and technology, they gradually introduced a more settled lifestyle. The sultan ruled from the capital, and the provinces pretty much ruled themselves, but a common culture, religion, and economic life held the population together. Osman’s life of warfare against the Byzantines and his legacy of wisdom and strength in leadership turned the city of Brusa into an imperial capital and then, when it was left behind for bigger and better power centers, a beautiful city: “The successors of Orkhan beautified and sanctified the city by building mosques and tombs, the earliest Ottoman shrines” (Muller, The Loom of History, p. 301).


Koprulu, Mehmet. The Seljuks of Anatolia. Translated by Gary Leiser. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992; McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997; Muller, Herbert. The Loom of History. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958; Parry, V. J. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part I

The story of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-61) is a convoluted and frustrating tale. The crusade had culminated in Baldwin’s coronation, but the attempt to consolidate this achievement meant years of warfare, brief periods of progress and peace and, for many of the main actors, a violent death. Yet the impact of the events of April 1204 went far beyond the walls of Constantinople. A change of such magnitude in the landscape of the Christian world had enormous consequences for many different peoples, not just those in and around the Byzantine Empire. The papacy, the Crusader States in the Levant, the families and countrymen of the crusaders back in western Europe, the Italian trading cities and the Muslim world: each had to calibrate and assess a political and religious topography that had never previously been conceived of. A full consideration of these issues would, however, fill another book and the main concern here is with the early years of the nascent Latin Empire.

In the first months of his reign Baldwin experienced two unexpected and agonising difficulties: the challenge of an internal rebellion and the tragedy of personal bereavement. After his coronation the new emperor started to allocate Byzantine lands to his followers, although many of these areas remained under hostile control. Baldwin had to defeat several challengers who included: Murtzuphlus, Alexius III, Theodore Lascaris (leader of a group of the Byzantine exiles and brother of Constantine Lascaris, the man elected emperor on the eve of the crusader conquest) and, most seriously of all, the powerful King Johanitza of Bulgaria. Given this formidable array of contenders there was every likelihood of a protracted and bloody fight to extend and sustain Latin rule in Greece, but before beginning this, the emperor had to confront an issue closer to home.

The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the unsuccessful candidate for the imperial throne would receive the Peloponnese peninsula and lands in Asia Minor. Following Baldwin’s coronation, Marquis Boniface wanted to renegotiate this: he wished to exchange the territories originally stipulated for the kingdom of Thessalonica, because the latter lay near the kingdom of Hungary – the royal house of his new wife. Boniface had a further interest in Thessalonica through his deceased brother Renier, who had been granted overlordship of the city by Manuel Comnenus as a part of his marriage gift in 1180. Villehardouin mentioned a ‘serious discussion of the pros and cons’ of the situation before Baldwin agreed to this proposal. Some of the emperor’s men opposed the idea, presumably because they had earmarked it for themselves and viewed it as a better prospect than territory in Asia Minor – land that was under threat from Theodore Lascaris and the Seljuk Turks. Boniface, however, had been the nominal leader of the crusade and, if Baldwin turned him down, he could simply leave for home, thereby depriving the Latins of one of their most powerful nobles. This fear of losing manpower had shaped the crusaders’ pre-election discussions and this same concern now surfaced again. The emperor granted Boniface the kingdom of Thessalonica, and amidst much rejoicing the marquis paid homage for the land.

The Latins’ first aims were to extinguish the threat of Murtzuphlus and to bring western Thrace under their authority. As Baldwin led a large army out from Constantinople, the aged doge and the infirm Louis of Blois, along with Conon of Béthune and Villehardouin, remained to preserve authority on the Bosphorus. The Latins’ initial target was Adrianople, a major city about 100 miles north-west of Constantinople, which soon submitted to an advance force led by Henry of Flanders. Murtzuphlus was known to be in the vicinity, but managed to stay ahead of the Latins to reach the settlement of Mosynopolis, around 160 miles west of Constantinople.

The ruler of this town was Alexius III, who had fled from the crusaders in July 1203. Might the two deposed emperors join forces to confront their mutual enemy? Initial contacts were extremely cordial. Alexius offered to give his daughter in marriage to Murtzuphlus (with whom she was already romantically involved) and suggested a formal alliance.

One day Murtzuphlus and a few companions came into Mosynopolis to dine and bathe. As soon as his principal guest arrived, Alexius took him aside into a private room where his men were waiting. They flung Murtzuphlus to the ground, held him down and tore his eyes out. The gestures of friendship had been a façade because Alexius III had no shred of trust for a man who had so callously murdered a rival, and he now showed similar ruthlessness in eliminating a challenger to his own position. Alexius III had signalled his determination to lead the opposition to the Latins alone. To Villehardouin this brutality was yet more evidence of the inherent duplicity of the Greeks: ‘Judge for yourselves, after hearing of this treachery, whether people who could treat each other with such savage cruelty would be fit to hold lands or would deserve to lose them?’ Once Baldwin heard of this gruesome act he marched towards Mosynopolis as fast as he could, but Alexius III departed and all the people of the region submitted to Latin rule.

At this moment, after years of close and effective co-operation, a serious rift developed between Baldwin and Boniface. Despite the emperor’s promise to give Thessalonica to the marquis, when Boniface asked permission to take control of the region and, at the request of its people, to fight off an incursion from the Bulgarians, Baldwin rejected the idea. The emperor decided to march there and take possession of the lands himself. Boniface was understandably enraged: ‘If you do, I shall not feel you are acting for my good. I must tell you clearly that I shall not go with you, but break with you and your army.’

Villehardouin was perplexed by these developments and wrote how ill-advised this breach was. One senses that his sympathies lay with Boniface and that he felt the emperor had taken bad counsel, perhaps from men who wanted parts of Thessalonica for themselves or who felt that the new emperor should assert his authority over the marquis. Baldwin would achieve the latter goal by going to the lands in person and then publicly bestowing them upon Boniface, rather than letting the marquis assume power by himself.

Furious at such shabby treatment, Boniface stormed away towards Demotika, south-west of Adrianople. Many nobles followed him, including the German contingent and warriors of the standing of Jacques of Avesnes and William of Champlitte. As Baldwin took possession of Thessalonica, Boniface made his displeasure clear: he seized the castle of Demotika from the emperor’s men and laid siege to Adrianople. Messengers rushed to Constantinople to tell Count Louis and Doge Dandolo of these troubling events. The senior crusaders cursed the people who had fomented this rupture, because they feared such divisions might expose them to the loss of all their hard-fought gains. Diplomacy was called for and once again Villehardouin came forward. He approached the marquis ‘as a privileged friend’ and reproached him for acting so rashly. Boniface countered by saying that his behaviour was entirely justified and that he had been grievously wronged. Eventually, Villehardouin persuaded him to place the matter in the hands of the doge, Count Louis, Conon of Béthune and himself. This core of men had been at the heart of the crusade throughout, and it is a mark of the respect in which they were held that Boniface agreed to this idea.

When Baldwin heard that the marquis had besieged Adrianople, his first reaction was one of anger and he wanted to rush to the city and confront him. The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control. Alas! What mischief might have resulted from this discord! If God had not intervened to put things right, it would have meant the ruin of Christendom,’ lamented Villehardouin.6 During the emperor’s stay outside Thessalonica a serious illness had hit the Latin camp. Amongst those who perished were the imperial chancellor, John of Noyon; Peter of Amiens, one of the heroes of the capture of Constantinople; and around 40 other knights. These losses were a grievous blow to the westerners and revealed how easily their numbers could be depleted. Perhaps such sad events brought Baldwin to his senses. When envoys from the crusaders in Constantinople arrived to mediate, some of his nobles decried this as impertinence. Baldwin, however, disagreed and came to see that, in the longer run, he could not alienate the quartet of senior men, as well as Marquis Boniface, and he consented to submit to the judgement of the four nobles.

Back in Constantinople the wise old heads quickly convinced the emperor of his mistake and of the need for reconciliation. Boniface was summoned to the city and many of his friends and allies came to greet him warmly. They organised a conference and decided that Thessalonica and its environs would be given to the marquis as soon as he handed over the castle of Demotika. When this was done, Boniface rode west to take hold of his rightful lands and most people in the region quickly came to recognise his authority.

It was at this point, in September 1204, after the resolution of this wasteful bout of in-fighting, that Villehardouin was able – for the only time in his history – to write of calm in Latin Greece. He said that ‘the land of Constantinople to Salonika [Thessalonica] was at peace. The road from one city to the other was so safe that although it took twelve days to cover the distance between them people were able to come and go as they pleased.’

The westerners began to extend their operations into the Greek islands and across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor. The Venetians took the islands of Corfu and Crete, two valuable and fertile areas in their own right, but also vital staging posts on the sea routes to and from the eastern Mediterranean. Louis of Blois planned the annexation of the duchy of Nicaea, although the count’s health remained poor and he sent the mighty Peter of Bracieux to make war on the Greeks there.

Around this same time the Latins achieved a genuine coup. The blinded Murtzuphlus had managed to escape from Alexius III and was trying to flee into Asia Minor, but informers betrayed his movements and he was captured and brought to Constantinople. The Latins were elated because at last they held the man who had murdered their candidate for the imperial throne, who had directed the fire-ships against them, and whose virulent anti-western invective had caused them so much suffering.

Murtzuphlus knew that he was going to pay a terrible price for his deeds and he could only hope that the westerners would be marginally less cruel than some of his own predecessors had been. In September 1185 Emperor Andronicus had met a particularly grisly fate. At the end of the coup that removed him from power he was seized by the supporters of Isaac Angelos, cast into prison and grotesquely tortured. One eye was gouged out, his teeth torn out, his beard pulled out and his right hand severed. He was paraded through the streets of Constantinople on the back of a mangy camel to face the spiteful savagery of the mob. Some poured human and animal excrement onto him, others pelted him with stones and a prostitute emptied a pot of her urine over his face. In the forum Andronicus was hung upside down and had his genitals hacked off. A few of the crowd thrust swords into his mouth, others between his buttocks, before finally, mercifully, Andronicus expired – surely one of the most public and hideous deaths of the medieval age.8 Could Murtzuphlus hope for greater mercy from the Latin ‘barbarians’?

Some form of hearing or show-trial was held and Murtzuphlus tried to justify the killing of Alexius IV. He claimed that the young emperor was a traitor to his people and that many others had supported his (Murtzuphlus’s) actions. There was, of course, some truth to these arguments, but no heed was paid to the Greek’s desperate pleas and he was sentenced to death. The question remained: how should the captive die?

Baldwin consulted with his nobles. Some recommended that Murtzuphlus should be dragged through the streets, others simply wanted him hanged. It was the doge of Venice who came forward with the solution. He argued that Murtzuphlus was too important a man to be hanged. ‘For a high man, high justice!’ he exclaimed. ‘In this city there are two columns . . . let us make him mount to the top of one of them and then have him thrown to the ground.’ The match of this play on words and the unpleasantness of the proposal pleased everyone and they agreed on death by precipitation. The form of punishment may also have been known to Baldwin and Henry of Flanders because similar executions had taken place earlier in the twelfth century in the city of Bruges.

In November 1204 Murtzuphlus was taken to the column of Theodosius in the Forum of the Bull. As he was led up the narrow steps inside, the baying of the crowd must have been temporarily muffled by the interior of the pillar. He had, of course, seen the column many times and knew where he stood, although now his lack of sight added a further element of hopelessness to his doomed situation.

Emerging from the narrow, cylindrical stairwell into the clear air on the top of the pillar, the defeated emperor must have sensed the space below him. There is no record of any prayers or speeches; one sharp push and he was propelled into the void, where his body fell feet first, accelerating and plummeting headlong, before twisting sideways to thump violently onto the stone ground, a ruptured and shattered sack of flesh and bone. Villehardouin claimed that the decoration of the column included a representation of a falling emperor and marvelled at the coincidence of this with Murtzuphlus’s death.

Within a few weeks the Latins would remove another challenger to their power when Alexius III was captured by Boniface near Thessalonica. The emperor’s scarlet stockings and imperial robes were dispatched to Constantinople to show what had happened and he was imprisoned. Alexius was not a figure so reviled as Murtzuphlus and he was sent to the marquis’s homelands in northern Italy.

Towards the end of 1204 the brief period of calm mentioned by Villehardouin was about to come to a close. Serious opposition to Latin rule began to appear: the Byzantine noble Theodore Lascaris led uprisings in Asia Minor, and in northern Thrace King Johanitza stirred tensions near Philoppopolis. The westerners faced the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts – a task compounded by the failing health of their leaders. The doge found it difficult to leave Constantinople; Louis of Blois remained ill; and Hugh of Saint-Pol became crippled by gout that meant he could not walk. Fortunately, a large group of crusaders led by Stephen of Perche and Reynald of Montmirail, both cousins of Louis of Blois, arrived from Syria.

Stephen had left the main body of crusaders back in the autumn of 1202 when illness prevented him from embarking at Venice with the main fleet, although he had then chosen to sail to the Holy Land rather than Constantinople. Reynald had taken part in a diplomatic mission to the Levant following the capture of Zara but, contrary to his promise, he had failed to return to attack Byzantium. By late 1204, however, both men wished to assist their fellow-crusaders and perhaps hoped for a share in the spoils of victory.

The coming of Reynald and Stephen was not, however, wholly a cause for celebration: they carried the terrible news that Emperor Baldwin’s wife, Marie, had died of plague in the Holy Land. Her connections with the crusade were tragic and complex. Her brother, Thibaut of Champagne, had been the original choice to lead the expedition before his death. Marie had taken the cross with Baldwin, but could not accompany him because she was pregnant with their second child (they already had an infant daughter, Joan, born in 1199 or early 1200). Once she had given birth to another girl, Marie set off for Marseille, leaving her babies in the care of one of Baldwin’s younger brothers. Sadly, the two girls never laid eyes on either of their parents again. In the spring of 1204 Marie sailed towards Acre, ignorant of her husband’s second attack on Constantinople. Almost immediately after she landed, however, messengers told of his success and summoned her to Constantinople as the empress. Marie was delighted, but before she could begin her journey she fell victim to an outbreak of plague that ravaged the Crusader States at that time. She died in August 1204 and her husband’s envoys brought only a corpse to Constantinople, rather than the emperor’s adored and admired wife. Baldwin’s fidelity and devotion, so praised by Niketas Choniates, were cruelly unrewarded and he was crushed by these mournful tidings.

The Fate of the Latin Empire, 1206–61

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

On 15 August 1261 – fifty-seven years after the Fourth Crusade had sacked the Queen of Cities – Michael Palaeologus, the ruler of Nicaea, processed into the Hagia Sophia where he was crowned emperor of Byzantium. The Greeks had reclaimed Constantinople. Other spoils of the Latin victories in 1204 – such as the principality of Achaea and the island of Crete – remained in western hands but the heart of the conquest had been torn out.

As the first generations of Frankish settlers in the Holy Land had discovered, large-scale backing from the West was needed to consolidate their new territories. As early as 1211 Emperor Henry of Constantinople (1206–16) wrote: ‘nothing is lacking for the achievement of complete victory and for the possession of the empire, except an abundance of Latins, since . . . there is little use in acquiring [land] unless there are those who can conserve it’. Yet ultimately, the support of a second Catholic satellite in the eastern Mediterranean proved too great a demand on the physical and emotional resources of Europe.

In the course of the thirteenth century the scope of crusading extended considerably. In 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France. There was also, as before, continuous activity in the Baltic region and periodic campaigns against the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula. Crusading proved a highly flexible concept and in the middle of the thirteenth century, as relations between the papacy and Emperor Frederick II of Germany became hostile, a holy war was preached against the most powerful secular figure in the West. From the late 1230s a new and terrifying force began to appear on the borders of eastern Europe and soon threatened the Levant as well. The fearsome Mongol hordes were in the process of creating the largest land empire in the history of the world, stretching from Hungary to the China Sea, and in 1241 the papacy called for a crusade to combat this deadly menace. Given this extraordinary level of crusading activity – not all of which was met with approval or enthusiasm by the knightly classes of Europe – the chances of a new and comparatively distant sphere of holy war attracting widespread support were slim.

Probably the greatest obstacle to the flowering of the Latin Empire was the situation in the Holy Land. By the mid-thirteenth century, after decades of relative stability, the settlers’ position had deteriorated sharply. In August 1244 at the Battle of La Forbie, 1,034 out of 1,099 knights from the Military Orders were slain. This prompted the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), a substantial expedition consisting of more than 2,500 knights, properly financed by the French crown and the French Church, and led by the saintly King Louis IX. The resources and motivation demanded by an undertaking of this scale could not be summoned repeatedly, particularly if, as with Louis’s crusade, the campaign failed.

The fundamental problem for the Latin Empire was that it lacked the unparalleled cachet of the Holy Places. It could not boast of a biblical past and it had not been seized from the hands of the infidel, but rather from Christians, albeit heretics. Baldwin’s lands were in competition with the allure of the Holy Sepulchre, quite apart from the existing regional holy wars in Spain, the Baltic and the new campaigns in southern France, and those against the Mongols and Frederick II of Germany. For this reason the conquests of the Fourth Crusade were always destined to struggle for attention except from those parties directly interested in the area, such as the Montferrat dynasty or the Venetians. The fact that the Latin emperors were not from a royal house of the West, coupled with a decline in the standing of the counts of Flanders, reduced the obvious sources of help even further.

As early as 1204, the Latin Empire and the Holy Land competed with each other for the attention of the Christian world. A letter from the archbishop of Nazareth pleaded for assistance ‘for the recovery of the patrimony of the Crucified One’; yet around the same time the papal legate, Peter Capuano, released crusaders at Constantinople from their obligation to go to the Levant so that they could stay to defend the new empire. The appeal sent to the papacy in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople was another request for help that reached the West just as the pleas from the archbishop of Nazareth were being considered.

In the early years, the Latin conquerors and the papacy had clung to the belief that their conquests might help the holy war against Islam, but this optimism was utterly misplaced. Even Pope Innocent came to recognise the conflict between consolidating the Latin Empire and liberating the Levant. In 1211 he wrote to Emperor Henry and grumbled, ‘since you and other crusaders have striven to capture and keep the empire . . . principally in order that by this means you may bring help more easily to the Holy Land, you have not only failed to provide any assistance in this, but have also brought trouble and damage . . .’ to those trying to resist the infidel.

In the aftermath of the conquest, the prospect of land and money had attracted people from – of all places – the Levant. In 1202–3 the Crusader States had experienced a plague, a colossal earthquake and were confronted with a numerically overwhelming enemy. Thus, in the aftermath of the conquest of Byzantium, many inhabitants of the Levant – unwilling to pass up new opportunities to win land and money – eagerly decamped to Constantinople. As we have seen, men such as Stephen of Perche, Reynald of Montmirail and Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s nephew (as well as some recent settlers in the kingdom of Jerusalem, such as Stephen of Tenremonde, a Fleming who had remained after the Third Crusade) were quick to abandon the defence of the Frankish East. Defections such as these caused Pope Innocent to complain that the exodus of pilgrims from the Holy Land left it weakened. Of course, given their overall vulnerability, the papacy was obliged to call for support for the Christians in the new empire. Yet every time a crusade set out, or money was sent to Constantinople, it meant less assistance for the Holy Land. Thus, far from preparing a way to liberate Christ’s patrimony, the conquests of the Fourth Crusade actually weakened it.

It was not, however, until 1224 that the first crusade preached for the defence of the Latin Empire prepared to set out. This was a northern Italian (Montferrese) expedition focused on the relief of Thessalonica, but the leadership was delayed by illness and lack of funds and by the time the crusade reached the area, the city had already surrendered to the Greeks of Epirus.

Notwithstanding the adverse effects on campaigns to the Holy Land, the papacy tried hard to persuade some potential crusaders that they should fight for the Latin Empire instead of going to the Levant. In 1239 Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III of England, and his companions were asked to commute their vows to Jerusalem in return for a money payment to help Constantinople or to go there in person, but they refused to be diverted and to shed Christian blood. The popes raised direct clerical taxation in Greece for the defence of the empire but the large-scale crusade that was required to defeat the Byzantines never looked like materialising. In fact, by 1262 Pope Urban IV was so desperate to encourage a new expedition to regain Constantinople that he offered free passage to participants (in contrast to the payments to the Venetians required in 1204) and – astonishingly – an indulgence of 40–100 days’ penance for simply listening to the crusade sermon in the first instance.

The Latin emperors worked hard to gather men and money and Baldwin II (1228–61) resorted to long tours around the courts of western Europe (1236–9 and 1244–8) in the hope of securing support, but all he received were polite displays of interest, small gifts and open-ended promises. Baldwin himself cut an unimpressive figure and contemporaries described him as ‘young and childish’ and not the ‘wise and vigorous’ figure needed.

In 1237 he had to pawn the Crown of Thorns, worn by Christ on the Cross, to a Venetian merchant for 13,134 gold pieces. When he could not redeem the debt, the relic was taken by agents acting for the pious King Louis IX of France, who was so delighted with this treasure that he constructed the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in Paris especially for it. A year later Louis was involved in a more secular transaction when Baldwin mortgaged him the title to the county of Namur (a region of northern France – a link back to the emperor’s Flemish forefathers) for 50,000 livres. By 1257 so impoverished was the empire that Venetian creditors required Baldwin’s son Philip as surety for a loan, and even the lead from the palace roof was being sold to generate cash.

In spite of this generally sorry tale on the mainland, the fertility and relative security of the principality of Achaea (in the Peloponnese peninsula), and the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, formed two regions of economic strength. The export of bulk products, including wheat, olive oil, wine and wool, as well as luxury items such as silk, created real wealth for the Italians and the Villehardouin dynasty who ruled Achaea. The latter fostered a flourishing court life and the chivalric traditions of the West blossomed. On one occasion Geoffrey II (1229–46) rode through his lands accompanied by 80 knights wearing golden spurs and the French spoken in Achaea was said to be as good as that in Paris. Frescos depicting chivalric deeds decorated palace walls, and tournaments and hunting were popular pastimes. The capture of Prince William (1246–78) at the Battle of Pelagonia (1259) marked the end of Achaean ascendancy, although the principality did survive through the female line. Crete remained under Venetian rule until 1669 and was by far the most durable manifestation of the Fourth Crusade.

Elsewhere the Latins were less successful. Boniface of Montferrat did not enjoy his hard-won prize of the kingdom of Thessalonica for long. In September 1207 he was killed in battle, and years of pressure from the Greek rulers of Epirus led to their winning Thessalonica in 1224. It was, however, the empire of Nicaea, based in Asia Minor, which posed the most potent threat to the Latins. John III Vatatzes (1222–54), later canonised by the Orthodox Church, pushed the westerners out of Asia Minor, established a bridgehead at Gallipoli on the European side of the Bosphorus and later took over Thessalonica to tighten the noose around Constantinople. John’s death meant that the final push to eject the Latins came from his general, Michael Palaeologus, who became regent for John’s young son and then seized the imperial title for himself. The boy was, inevitably, imprisoned and blinded.

In July 1261, as the Greeks gathered for a full assault on Constantinople, a sympathiser opened one of the gates and the Byzantine advance party took the city with barely a struggle. Most of the Latin garrison was engaged on a campaign elsewhere and the citizenry were generally pleased to see the return of their natural lords. So unexpected was this turn of events that Michael Palaeologus had yet to cross the Bosphorus. His sister, Eulogia, heard the news early one morning and, as her brother lay sleeping in his tent, is said to have crept in and tickled his feet with a feather. When he awoke she told him that he was now the ruler of Constantinople. Playing along with her lighthearted mood, Michael laughed, but refused to accept what he heard. Only when a messenger entered with the imperial crown and sceptre did he believe it; God had indeed delivered Constantinople back to the Greeks. The principal achievement of the Fourth Crusade was thus wiped out.

In reality then, the Latin Empire proved to be an unwanted burden that only hindered the cause of the Holy Land. It expired 30 years before the fierce Mamluk dynasty prised the westerners from the city of Acre (1291) to mark the end of Christian power in the Levant until the British general, Edmund Allenby, entered Jerusalem in 1917. By one of history’s neater ironies, in later centuries, as the reconstituted Byzantine Empire struggled against the mighty Ottoman Turks, the papacy tried to rouse western Europe for another crusade to help defend the Greeks. The effort failed and, when the Ottomans took the city of Constantinople in 1453, it was finally lost to Byzantium for ever.

Leo III the Isaurian (ca. 680–741)

Byzantine emperor. Leo III, whose original name was Konon, is popularly known as Leo the Isaurian. He was born possibly in 680 in Germanikeia, a city in the ancient country of Commagene in the Roman province of Syria (present-day Maras in southeastern Turkey). It is not clear when, but he entered the service of Byzantine emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695) and was sent by him on a diplomatic mission and then was appointed general (strategus) by Emperor Anastasius II (r. 713- 715). When Anastasius was deposed, Leo joined with another general, Artabasdus, to overthrow the usurper and the new emperor Theodosius III (r. 715-717), who had done little to prepare the empire for an impending Muslim assault on Constantinople. Leo entered Constantinople on March 25, 717; forced the abdication of Theodosius; and assumed the throne, taking the name of Leo III.

As emperor, Leo immediately set to work preparing Constantinople for attack, strengthening its defenses and laying in stocks of food to meet a large Muslim force sent by Caliph Suleiman ibn Abd al-Malik and commanded by his general Maslamah. The Muslims hoped to take advantage of the chaos in the Byzantine Empire to capture the great city of Constantinople. the Muslim army besieged the walls of the capital, and Suleiman’s 1800 ships sailed into the Marmara. Leo gained Bulgarian help in this crucial war to stop the Muslim expansion from entering eastern Europe. Once again Greek fire enabled the Byzantine navy to destroy the Muslim fleet, though the blockade lasted a year until August 718. That year Sicily general Sergius tried to proclaim a new Emperor, and two years later ex-Emperor Anastasius II escaped from Thessalonica and tried to reclaim power with Bulgarian support; but both these efforts failed. Muslim armies invaded Asia Minor every year from 726 to 740, when they were defeated by Leo’s army at Acroinon. Leo’s son Constantine married a daughter of the Khazar Khan in 733. Having become Emperor after being the military governor of a powerful theme, Leo divided the larger themes into two parts. Western Anatolia became the Thracesion theme. The maritime Carabisian theme was divided, though the large Opsikion theme was still governed by Leo’s son-in-law Artabasdus.

Having preserved his empire from Muslim overlordship, Leo turned his attention to administrative reform. In 718 he suppressed a rebellion in Sicily, and the next year he crushed an attempt to restore deposed emperor Anastasius II. Leo also reorganized the army and helped restore depopulated areas of the empire by inviting Slavic settlers to live there. He also formed alliances with the Khazars and the Georgians. His reforms were so successful that when the Muslims again invaded the empire in both 726 and 739, they were decisively defeated.

Leo also introduced important legal reforms in the empire that changed taxes and raised the status of serfs to free tenants. He rewrote the law codes, and in 726 he published a collection of his legal reforms, the Eclogia.

Leo’s most striking reforms were probably in the area of religion, where he insisted on the baptism of all Jews and Montanists in the empire in 722 and then embarked on iconoclasm, issuing a series of edicts that prohibited the worship of images. Although many people supported his iconoclasm, a number of others, especially in the western part of the empire, did not. In 727 the imperial fleet crushed a revolt in Greece that had been prompted chiefly by religious reasons. Leo replaced the patriarch of Constantinople, who disagreed with him in the matter of icons. Leo also clashed with Pope Gregory II and Pope Gregory III in Italy on this issue. In 727 Leo sent a large fleet to Italy to crush a revolt in Ravenna, but a great storm largely destroyed the fleet, and southern Italy successfully defied him, with the exarchate of Ravenna in effect becoming free of Byzantine control. Leo continued as emperor until his death on June 18, 741. He was succeeded by his son, Constantine V.

A resourceful, energetic, and bold general, Leo saved the Byzantine Empire and, not incidentally, Western civilization from Muslim control. He also won time for the Byzantine Empire to recover from its early political chaos and survive.

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.

Further Reading Bury, J. B. A History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1966. Gero, Stephen. Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Leo III, with Particular Attention to the Oriental Sources. Louvain: Secrétariat du Corpus SCO, 1973. Guilland, Rodolphe. “L’expédition de Maslama contre Constantinople (717-718).” In Études Byzantines, 109-133. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1959. Ladner, Gerhart. “Origin and Significance of the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy.” Mediaeval Studies 2 (1940): 127-149. Ostragorsky, George. A History of the Byzantine State. Translated by John Hussey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969. Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: University of Stanford Press, 1997.

Sicily between Constantinople and Rome I

Theme of Sicily

Gregory then set sail from the city of Constantinople, and he reached the city of Rome on the twenty first day of the month of June, and there he worshipped the tombs of the holy and most praiseworthy Apostles, and visited every holy place in the city.… They [Gregory, his father, and ecclesiastical leaders] went on to a ship and left Rome of the sixteenth of the month of August, and reached Sicily on the tenth of September, landing in the city of Palermo. And the bishop of the city of Palermo welcomed them with great honour, surrounded by his clergy and all the citizens and all the monks and nuns.

Leontios, Vita S. Gregorii Agrigentini

Pilgrims, messengers, administrators, warriors, saints, and immigrants: Sicily’s shores welcomed a wide variety of travelers during the period of Greek dominion. Between Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of the island from the “barbarian” Ostrogoths in 535 CE and the Muslim invasion beginning in 827 CE, the imperial capital at Constantinople was the primary location that sent official travelers—governors, military forces, and envoys bearing news—to the island and received them in reply. It was also the destination of many traveling Sicilian saints and scholars, since the Greek city was the cultural as well as political capital of the Byzantine Empire. But Constantinople was by no means the only location that was closely linked with Sicily through patterns of travel and communication: many individuals, groups, and the goods and institutions they brought with them also arrived in Sicily from other locations of religious, cultural, and political significance throughout the Mediterranean (especially Rome and Jerusalem), thus tying Sicily into larger networks of culture, power, and communication in the early medieval Mediterranean region.

The ports of Byzantine Sicily, indeed, bustled with ships sailing to and from Constantinople, Rome, Egypt, and North Africa. Muslims, Jews, Latins, and Greeks arrived on the island, at some times for peaceful purposes and at other times for war. The patterns of this travel demonstrate two of the fundamental aspects of the position and role of Sicily within the early medieval Mediterranean: Byzantine Sicily was both a center of political and cultural activity within the region and a shifting, unstable frontier between the three major civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. In these ways, the communication networks in which Greek Sicily was involved reflected many of the larger changes taking place within the early medieval Mediterranean. These were centuries in which Muslims, Latin Christians, Greek Christians, and, to an extent that is hard to quantify in this period, Jews interacted, fought, and shared common cultures, even as political and cultural boundaries in the region were beginning to harden.

Indeed, Sicily’s geopolitical significance took on new meaning during the later centuries of the Byzantine period, as Muslim naval activity in the area intensified and Byzantium struggled to maintain its borders. Sicily under Byzantine rule operated both as the far western frontier of the empire (especially after the loss of Greek territory in mainland Italy to the Lombards, emphasized by the 751 fall of the Exarchate of Ravenna) and as a center of official communication between Constantinople and the western Mediterranean—particularly, Latin Rome and the emergent powers of Muslim North Africa and Frankish Europe. As the western bulwark of Byzantine power, Sicily was often the focus of intense military and political activity during these centuries. Constantinople was determined to maintain its hold over the island despite the difficulty of such a project when so many forces, both in the western Mediterranean and at home in Asia Minor, worked contrary to this agenda. Diplomatically, too, the Greeks often used the island as a site of political discussions, a source of envoys, or a resting place for messengers traveling from Constantinople to the European mainland. At the same time, Byzantine-controlled Sicily never fully pulled away from the orbit of Rome—the island featured both papal estates and numerous Latin Christian churches—and thus could act as a sort of meeting ground between the two Christian civilizations, which were growing increasingly apart in both administrative and cultural senses, especially after the mid-eighth century. After the loss of North Africa to the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, Sicily’s importance to Constantinople was further magnified, even as the imperial government struggled to maintain its hold over this distant island in the face of growing Muslim military and naval dominance in the region. Thus, across the centuries from 535 to 827, the island operated both as a type of physical boundary—although an unstable and incomplete one—dividing the three civilizations of the early medieval Mediterranean and as a locus of cross-cultural communication between them. With ships, goods, information, and people moving between the Greek, Latin, and Muslim worlds via Sicily, the island was the site of overlap and conversation among the three civilizations, just as much as—or even more than—it marked a line of separation between them.

Several categories of travel and communication help to illuminate the system that developed in the central Mediterranean during these centuries. The first, and most prevalent, type of travel to and from Sicily during the Byzantine period was that conducted for political, military, or diplomatic reasons. The abundance of governmental travel in the extant sources is partly a result of the preservation of certain types of texts relating to the Byzantine centuries and partly due to the interests of those sources. Latin papal letters and Latin and Greek chronicles reveal diplomatic and military travelers tasked with maintaining or restoring order in the empire’s territories in Italy, negotiating with the popes in Rome, or, settling peace treaties with Muslim North Africa.

A second kind of traveler in the Byzantine Mediterranean world was those people who took to sea in the course of their religious careers, spiritual pilgrimages, and intellectual pursuits. A number of such travelers went to or through Sicily on their journeys to Rome, Jerusalem, or Constantinople, while others were born and raised on the island and traveled toward the intellectual and religious capital at Constantinople in order to advance their careers. Greek hagiographies from Sicily and southern Italy record the lives and deeds of Greek saints from the region, as well as their travels throughout the Mediterranean world. These hagiographical sources are particularly numerous for the ninth and tenth centuries, and they therefore provide instructive anecdotes about individual interactions between Greek monks and Muslim invaders to Sicily, such as monks who sailed on Muslim ships as captives or those who defended their lands against the Muslim raiders by miraculous means. Early medieval Latin pilgrimage accounts, papal letters, and papal biographies also inform us about travelers to Sicily from Europe.

A third type of travel was that which connected Sicily to broader economic networks within the Mediterranean system. Virtually none of the extant sources from this period directly pertain to commerce or the shipments of the grain annona. Because this type of activity is so rarely represented in the surviving source material from the Byzantine era, definitive conclusions are impossible to establish. Interest in Sicily’s contribution to the early medieval Mediterranean economy is persistent, however, particularly because of its historical status as a major source of grain for the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, it is possible to assume that shipments of merchandise hovered just below the surface of the travel for which we do have records: that is, for every sea voyage of a saint, official, or pilgrim, we might presume that an entire shipload of unrecorded mercantile products made the voyage as well. The bulk of the travel that we can trace may not have been explicitly economic, but it may imply economic exchange that would have taken place along similar routes and on the very same ships. Still, Sicily’s economy in the Byzantine period is impossible to fully understand, and we are left with more questions than answers.

After Sicily was politically united to Constantinople in the sixth century—as part of Justinian’s efforts to regain the lost glory of Rome by means of conquest in the western Mediterranean—it initially held the status of a provincia and was governed by a praetor, a civil provincial official in charge of local security, finances, and judicial affairs. However, in the late seventh century, the island was designated a theme—a major military and territorial unit of the empire—after which time it was ruled by a stratēgos, a military general also responsible for financial and judicial administration. Status as a theme raised the importance of Sicily within the empire, and particularly within its western regions. At some point in the eighth century, Constantinople also took direct control of the ecclesiastical administration of Sicily, transferring it from the jurisdiction of Rome to that of the patriarch of Constantinople. Sicily’s status as both a military and an ecclesiastical province necessitated a high level of communication between the island and the empire’s distant capital. Given that most of the imperial holdings in the West would fall away over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, maintaining control of Sicily was of high importance to Constantinople, even when that proved to be difficult, and therefore the patterns of communication between the two locations emphasize the island’s significance in the empire.

Constantinople was an imperial capital that lay at a considerable distance from Sicily—roughly 1,300 nautical miles, depending upon the route taken—meaning that communication between the two places was a serious undertaking that necessitated a long and potentially dangerous journey by sea. Nonetheless, the emperors at Constantinople regularly dispatched administrative officials and military forces to the island—even, sometimes, when the capital was under siege. This type of political communication between Sicily, as the province, and Constantinople, as its imperial capital, took place for a wide variety of reasons—from military actions and the suppression of rebellions to administrative updates, the transmission of important news, and personnel replacements. Armies, naval fleets, governors, and administrators arrived on the island at various times to enforce the political order, restore central rule, or attempt to conquer or recover the island. Sometimes, directed by leaders from the capital, Sicilian governors or military troops were enlisted in movements against other regions—for example, Rome or Byzantine territories in Italy. At other times, Sicily itself was the target of military attacks or forceful attempts at restoring order after attempted rebellions. Through all of these acts of travel and communication, it is evident that Sicily played a key role in the western agenda of the Byzantine Empire. Without the ability to quantify the communications that linked the province and the capital, it is nonetheless possible to clearly see the vital role that Sicily played in the Byzantine conception of its empire and its role in the Mediterranean world system.

Between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, Sicily remained dependent on its political capital for governors, military leaders, and administrators, despite several attempts at revolt against Constantinopolitan authority. Local officials were appointed from Constantinople and often returned there when their service ended. Moreover, whenever a Byzantine Sicilian governor attempted to gain political independence, Constantinople was quick to quash the rebellion. At the same time, Constantinople depended on Sicily and its governors both to maintain the conceptual boundaries between Byzantine and non-Byzantine territories and to push against those supposed borders, as well as to enforce Constantinople’s will in the western Mediterranean. The balance of power between Greek Christian, Latin Christian, and North African Muslim polities in the central Mediterranean was maintained or upset, in large part, by means of communications in and through Sicily.

The very fact that Constantinople appointed, monitored, and replaced Sicily’s governors necessitated the establishment of a fluid communications system between Constantinople and Syracuse. Administrative travel and the movements of Greek officials to the island and back created the sea route between Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean, a route which was then utilized for broader communications between province and capital. That Constantinople closely watched over the island’s affairs is quite clear. For example, the letters of Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604, pope from 590), many of which refer to the administration, agriculture, and churches of Sicily, mention several times that a praetor had been replaced by Constantinople for his poor performance or misdeeds. During Gregory’s pontificate, in fact, Sicily was ruled by four different praetors: Justin (590–592), who was replaced by Libertinus (593–598), then Leontius (598–600), and Alexander (600–?). In order for Constantinople to know about poor leadership in Sicily, there had to have been relatively regular communication between the two locales providing regular updates on provincial administration. Ships, messengers, overseers, and replacement officials—both seen in the sources and surmised from other evidence—must have arrived regularly at Sicily’s ports and been dispatched from there on the voyage to Constantinople; this traffic was likely even more regular than our sources can reveal. Regular but unremarkable communications between province and center—tax collection, appointment of lower-ranking officials, and the sending of regular administrative news—necessitated frequent travel to and from Sicily’s ports, but those acts might not have been deemed worthy of inclusion in the written records that survive. And yet, the arrival and dispatch of news about the events in Sicily or Constantinople demonstrate that a significant pattern of communication existed between the two places. Once established, these lines of regular ship traffic and communication could then be used for other purposes, such as mercantile, spiritual, and other types of journeys.

One of the most politically significant acts of travel between Constantinople and Sicily was the transfer of the imperial capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in 663 by Emperor Constans II (630–668, emperor from 641). His journey from Constantinople to the island was not taken via the direct sea route but was mediated through both Byzantine and Latin territories in mainland Italy, in reverse of many important diplomatic or military journeys between East and West that included a stop in Sicily: most often, we see political travelers from Constantinople stopping in Sicily before then traveling north into Italy. This move of the imperial administration to Sicily took place after Constans unsuccessfully attempted to defend Byzantine Italy from the Lombard invaders and then visited Rome. He abandoned the military endeavor in Italy, retreated to Sicily, and set up his imperial residence in the provincial capital of Syracuse. During his time in Sicily, Constans fortified the island’s navy and defensive structure and reformed the imperial mint at Syracuse. His administrative and military concerns were thus clearly focused on Sicily itself, both as an important province within the empire and as an outpost of Byzantine power in the Mediterranean.

While the island served as the seat of the entire imperial government, Sicily’s importance within the Byzantine Empire reached a high point, but this was an isolated episode of such imperial attention. Constans’s imperial rule from Syracuse was cut short by his assassination in 668 CE and a subsequent attempted rebellion. The emperor was murdered in the baths of Daphne in Syracuse by one of his servants, named Andrew son of Troilos, after which an Armenian named Mizizos was proclaimed emperor in Syracuse. Imperial agents quickly arrived from Constantinople, executed the rebel, and restored order to the island. The chronicler Theophanes attributed Constans’s murder to his unpopularity in Constantinople due to his rough handling of his opponents in the theological debate over the nature of Christ; he had several adversaries, including his brother Theodore, the Roman pontiff Martin (whom he had exiled), and the prominent spiritual leader Maximus the Confessor, but it is not clear who exactly was behind the emperor’s death. On the other hand, the Latin life of Pope Vitalian in the Liber Pontificalis claims that Constans’s death resulted from his tyrannical rule over the Sicilian population, suggesting that local governance rather than imperial politics was to blame for the failure of this experiment in having a western capital for the empire.

Also unclear is Constans’s motivation for abandoning the historical capital of Constantinople in favor of a distant island in the West. A complex combination of political and military needs may have prompted Constans’s temporary westward move of the imperial court: that is, this may have been an attempt to reconfigure the empire with its capital closer to the “heart” of the Mediterranean (and closer to Rome) in response to contemporary events. The mid-seventh century saw the beginning of large-scale Muslim invasions of Byzantine territory, and Constans’s activities in Sicily had the (temporary) effect of strengthening the island’s resistance to the Muslim onslaught. Very early in his reign—prior to the relocation to Syracuse—Constans had had to contend with the loss of Alexandria (abandoned by the Byzantine garrison in 642) and Arab movement west into Byzantine North Africa. Constans’s empire also faced Muslim assaults in Anatolia and Armenia and the first Muslim naval strikes into the Mediterranean. He responded to the attacks of Arab ships on eastern Mediterranean islands by initiating diplomatic contact with Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (governor of Syria from 640, caliph, 660/661–680), but warfare within the Mediterranean continued.

Constans’s transfer to the western capital, therefore, may have been part of an effort to fortify the position of Sicily in the Mediterranean against the Muslim naval threat, shoring up Constantinople’s western provincial outpost and thus, by extension, protecting Constantinople itself. It is also possible that the move may have been intended to shift the center of the empire westward, away from the increasingly aggressive Muslim state, based in nearby Damascus. However, Constans’s son, Constantine IV, continued to fulfill some functions of the imperial government from Constantinople while his father was in Syracuse; Constantinople was not completely abandoned, and indeed the imperial administration returned there after Constans’s murder. Whatever the specific motivation—whether for defense or for offense—it is clear that seventh-century Sicily was considered vital to the safety of the Byzantine government and useful as a possible bulwark against Muslim advances. Nonetheless, Sicily during this period began to experience the first of a century-long series of semiregular raids on its southern shores by Muslim forces from North Africa, bringing the island slowly into the orbit of the dār al-Islām even as Greek emperors struggled to maintain the island’s position within the Byzantine Empire.

Constans’s move may also have been a political decision to protect himself from enemies in Constantinople. Sicily was often utilized as a site of exile for political enemies of the imperial family, and a type of self-exile may have been one of the motives for the transfer by the emperor, who had made plenty of enemies with his policies on matters of theological doctrine. Sicily’s status as a theme provided Constans with a location that was at once far from the center of action in Constantinople and administratively important enough to serve as the capital of the empire. Moreover, Syracuse and Constantinople needed to have already had a regular and dependable flow of communications between them in order for the Sicilian capital to have served, even briefly, as a viable seat of rule for the empire as a whole. The preexistence of this communications system shows that the Byzantines had been sending governors and officials and messengers to the island regularly—in fact, much more regularly than the extant sources demonstrate—and that Constans knew he could rule adequately from there. This already-established route of communications facilitated the transfer of the central government to such a (relatively) remote edge of the empire and allowed for the flow of information from the periphery necessary for governance of the center. At the same time, the location of the imperial government in Sicily would not and could not have taken place if the island had not been considered an integral part of the imperial agenda in relation to the western Mediterranean powers.

The choice of a borderland region as a temporary imperial capital also speaks to the importance of the western frontier zone in seventh-century Byzantium. While much of the historical scholarship has focused on the Syrian frontier with Islam and the Balkan frontier with the Slavs, the western frontier with Islam was also clearly considered vital for protecting Byzantine interests. This was an empire focused on its limes—its boundaries with the Latin world, the Greek territories in southern Italy that were breaking away, the Bulgars and other groups on the Balkan frontier, and the Muslim world on the Syrian frontier and, indeed, in the central Mediterranean region. Constans’s decision may have been one intended to shore up the frontier in one region, by means of his imperial presence; if so, his choice to strengthen an island in the Mediterranean, rather than the Syrian or Balkan frontier, may reflect his perspective on the importance of this particular border zone within the empire as a whole.