Pliska [Vǎrbitsa Pass] 811

Bulgars Versus Byzantines

The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarius outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.


Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Vǎrbitsa Pass in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria.

The Bulgars and the Byzantines had a joint history of battles in barricaded passes. In 811 the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoras I laid waste to Bulgaria and burnt the capital Pliska of Krum Khan of Bulgaria. On hearing that the Bulgarians were defending the passes, Nicephoras set out for the Vǎrbitsa Pass on the route back to Constantinople where the Bulgars had built a wooden wall. The Byzantines tried to burn the barricade and were either themselves burned or drowned in the moat built behind the wall.

Vǎrbitsa Pass

Nikephoros had evidently mobilized imperial forces on the largest possible scale to defeat Krum as the Romans might have done, with overwhelming force. To add more mass to the trained, drilled, and organized thematic forces, he had also recruited untrained irregulars fighting for cash (“many poor men”). Mass worked.

“The Byzantine Chronicle of the Year 811.” The Chronicle:

When . . . the Bulghars learned of the size of the army he brought with him, and since apparently they were unable to resist, they abandoned everything they had with them and fled into the mountains.

In an exemplary tale of the downfall of the wicked, there must be spurned opportunities for salvation:

Frightened by this multitude . . . Kroummos asked for peace. The emperor, however, . . . refused. After making many detours through impassable country [a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of maneuver warfare] the rash coward recklessly entered Bulgaria on 20 July. For three days after the first encounters the emperor appeared to be successful, but did not ascribe his victory to God.

The Chronicle adds numbers, even if too large given the earlier assertion that the Bulghars had fled into the mountains:

[Nikephoros found] there an army of hand-picked and armed Bulghars who had been left behind to guard the place, up to 12,000, he engaged battle with them and killed them all. Next in similar fashion he faced another 50,000 in battle, and having clashed with them, destroyed them all.

Subsequent events do indicate that the casualties of Krum’s palace guards and elite forces were indeed heavy.

Next came the looting of Krum’s palace, made of wood but more than the rustic hall of a barbarian chief-the Chronicle says of Nikephoros that while “strolling up the paths of the palace . . . and walking on the terraces of the houses, he exalted and exclaimed `Behold, God has given me all this.'” Moreover, the palace was filled with the accumulated riches of past depredations. Unwilling to give Nikephoros any credit for having conquered Krum’s capital and treasury, Theophanes instead stresses his avarice: “He placed locks and seals on the treasury of Kroummos and secured it as if it was his own.” The Chronicle to the contrary presents a generous Nikephoros:

[He] found great spoils which he commanded be distributed among his army as per the troop roster. . . . When he opened the storehouses of [Krum’s] wine he distributed it so that everyone could drink his fill.

What ensued was pillage and destruction. The Chronicle:

[Nikephoros] left impious Krum’s palace, and on his departure burnt all the buildings and the surrounding wall, which were built of wood. Next, not concerned with a swift departure, he marched through the midst of Bulgaria. . . .

The army . . . plundered unsparingly, burning fields that were not harvested. They hamstrung cows and ripped the tendons from their loins as the animals wailed loudly and struggled convulsively. They slaughtered sheep and pigs, and committed impermissible acts [rape].

Theophanes inserts another missed opportunity to avert disaster:

[Krum] . . . was greatly humbled and declared: “Behold you have won. Take, therefore, anything you desire and depart in peace.” But the enemy of peace would not approve of peace; whereupon, the other [Krum] became vexed and gave instructions to secure the entrances and exits of his country with wooden barriers.

Evidently Krum was able to rally the Bulghar warriors who had fled into the mountains, and others too from farther afield. In the Chronicle, Nikephoros proceeds from hubris to lethargy, conceding the initiative to Krum:

After he had spent fifteen days entirely neglecting his affairs, and his wits and judgment had departed him, he was no longer himself, but was completely confused. Seized by the torpor of false pretension, he no longer left his tent nor gave anyone an instruction or order. . . . Therefore, the Bulghars seized their opportunity. . . . They hired the Avars [a remnant by then] and neighboring Slav tribes [Sklavinias].

Krum’s forces converging on the leaderless Byzantines, who had scattered to loot, employed a characteristic and unique Bulghar technique: the rapid assembly and emplacement of wooden palisades of logs bound with twine across the full width of narrow valleys, erecting “a fearsome and impenetrable fence out of tree trunks, in the manner of a wall” according to the Chronicle. These palisades were not fortifications that could resist a siege, but they could protect troops launching missiles from behind them, essentially negating the archery of the Byzantines while allowing the Bulghars to use their own bows through slits in the palisades-as former steppe nomads, many Bulghars must have retained both composite reflex bows and the skill to use them. Fighting barriers like expedient obstacles are efficient insofar as they are not easily circumvented. But according to the Chronicle, the Bulghars did not wait for the Byzantines to run into their palisade ambushes on their way home; instead they attacked, achieving complete surprise that induced a panic flight that in turn ended in massacre:

They fell on [Byzantine soldiers] still half asleep, who arose and, arming themselves, in haste, joined battle. But since [the forces] were encamped a great distance from one another, they did not know immediately what was happening. For they [the Bulghars] fell only upon the imperial encampment, which began to be cut to pieces. When few resisted, and none strongly, but many were slaughtered, the rest who saw it gave themselves to flight. At this same place there was also a river that was very swampy and difficult to cross. When they did not immediately find a ford to cross the river, . . . they threw themselves into the river. Entering with their horses and not being able to get out, they sank into the swamp, and were trampled by those coming from behind. And some men fell on the others, so that the river was so full of men and horses that the enemies crossed on top of them unharmed and pursued the rest.

According to the Chronicle, there was but one palisade, which only intercepted fleeing remnants and was unmanned, rather than a fighting barrier:

Those who thought they had escaped from the carnage of the river came up against the fence that the Bulghars had constructed, which was strong and exceedingly difficult to cross. . . . They abandoned their horses and, having climbed up with their own hands and feet, hurled themselves headlong on the other side. But there was a deep excavated trench on the other side, so that those who hurled themselves from the top broke their limbs. Some of them died immediately, while the others progressed a short distance, but did not have the strength to walk. . . . In other places, men set fire to the fence, and when the bonds [which held the logs together] burned through and the fence collapsed above the trench, those fleeing were unexpectedly thrown down and fell into the pit of the trench of fire, both themselves and their horses. . . . On that same day the Emperor Nikephoros was killed during the first assault, and nobody is able to relate the manner of his death. Injured also was his son Staurakios, who suffered a mortal wound to the spinal vertebrae from which he died after having ruled the Romans for two months.

Nikephoros was the first Roman emperor to die in battle since the Goths killed Valens on August 9, 378, at Adrianople, but the catastrophe of July 811 was even more dangerous because there was no spare emperor ready to exercise control, as the western emperor Gratian did in 378 until he appointed Theodosius as Augustus of the east in January 379. Moreover, the victorious Bulghars were within two hundred miles of Constantinople, unlike the Goths, who were a very long way from Rome when they won their victory.

As Krum offered barbarian toasts from the skull of Nikephoros, lined with silver in the usual manner, all seemed lost. Nikephoros had gathered every mobile force to overwhelm the Bulghars, so there was nothing left to stop them from seizing Constantinople after his ruinous defeat.

But there is a lot of ruination in an empire. In the east, the Abbasid caliphate, the greatest threat of all under the formidable HarÄn al-RashAd till his death in 809, was paralyzed by the war of his son Abu Jafar alMaUmun (“Belief”) ibn Harun against his other son, the reigning caliph Muhammad al-Amin (“Faith”) ibn Harun, whom he beheaded in 813. Hence field forces from the Armeniakon and Anatolikon themes could be summoned to help defend against the Bulghars. To lead them, there was at first only the badly wounded and unpopular Staurakios, son of Nikephoros, hastily proclaimed emperor in Adrianople on July 26; but on October 2, 811, he was forced to abdicate in favor of his brother-inlaw Michael I Rangabe, chief palace official (kouropalates), who gained the favor of Theophanes by repudiating Nikephoros to embrace Orthodox piety, by gifts of fifty pounds of gold to the patriarch and twentyfive pounds to the clergy, and by ordering the execution of heretics.

Michael readily went to fight, but unsuccessfully, and on July 11, 813, he abdicated in favor of the wily and battle-experienced Leon V (813- 820), former strategos of the Anatolikon theme, who allowed Michael and his family to live peacefully as monks and nuns, after castrating his sons. So by the time Krum tried to attack Constantinople in earnest, there was a fighting emperor ready to defend the city.

One reason why Krum delayed so long was that he had lost many or most of the troops who had guarded his palace-probably his only veritable soldiers, as opposed to Bulghar warriors who might be summoned to war and fight very well, but who were not “hand-picked and armed” and readily commanded. A second reason is that Krum could not attack Constantinople effectively without a fleet to blockade the city and starve it out eventually, or siege engines and the siegecraft to use them to breach the Theodosian Wall. The Bulghars were former mounted warriors of the plains who had also learned to fight very well on foot and in the mountains, but ships, shipping, and naval warfare remained outside their ken. Byzantine defectors were duly found and hired to provide the necessary siegecraft-Theophanes mentions a converted Arab expert, antagonized by the avarice of Nikephoros, of course-but it all took much time, and the necessary machinery was not constructed and ready until April 814, too late for Krum, who died on April 13, leaving an ineffectual successor. By then he had won another major battle at Versinikia on June 22, 813, overrun much Byzantine territory in what is now again Bulgaria, and Thrace, conquering its largest city of Adrianople and many smaller places; but the empire survived, and would one day recover all its lost territories.

The defeat of 811 was not caused by a lack of training or equipment, nor by tactical incompetence or even operational-level shortcomings. It was a fundamental error at the higher level of theater strategy that placed the Byzantine forces at a very great disadvantage, which only prompt and fully successful operation-level actions could have compensated and overcome. Carl von Clausewitz explains in his On War why no defense against a serious enemy should ever be conducted in mountains, if it is at all possible to defend in front of them instead or even behind them, if necessary conceding the intervening territory to temporary enemy occupation.

It is true that mountain terrain offers many opportunities to establish easily defended strongholds, and narrow valleys offer many opportunities for ambushes. Both strongholds and ambushes can magnify the tactical strength of defending forces, allowing the few to prevail against the many at any one place. But if the army is thus fragmented by mountain terrain into many separate holding units and ambush teams, even if each one of them is tactically very strong, the overall defense is bound to be very weak against enemy forces that remain concentrated in one or two vectors of advance. The few defenders holding each place would then confront massed enemy attackers who can break through ambushes and overrun strongholds to advance right through the mountains, leaving most defending forces on either side marooned in their separate strongholds and ambush positions that were not attacked at all.

When the field army of Nikephoros advanced irresistibly all the way to Krum’s capital at Pliska, it left Bulghar forces impotently scattered in mountains and valleys. In their tactically strong but strategically useless positions, they could not resist the Byzantine advance nor defend Krum’s rustic palace. But they also remained unmolested by the Byzantine advance, and could therefore rally into action once they were summoned for Krum’s counteroffensive against the Byzantines, now cut off a long way from home by the Bulghars in between. None of this could have happened if Nikephoros had read his Clausewitz, therefore concentrating all his efforts against Krum’s army instead of Krum’s palace. With Bulghar strength destroyed, Nikephoros could have had the palace and everything else without fear of a counteroffensive. Having mobilized the tagmata, thematic field forces, and irregulars and led them into Thrace, Nikephoros should have slowed down his advance or even stopped altogether for long enough to allow Krum to assemble his own forces. The resulting frontal battle of attrition would have been hard, no doubt, with heavy casualties, but given their numerical superiority if nothing else, the Byzantines would have won. Then Nikephoros could have settled down to reorganize the newly regained lands into taxpaying territories, confident that no significant Bulghar forces remained behind to attack him.

Alternatively, if Krum refused combat, Nikephoros could have advanced on Pliska to seize the palace just as he did, but then he should have swiftly retreated back into imperial territory, before the Bulghars could gather to interpose themselves between the Byzantine army and its home bases. That retreat, moreover, would have had to be conducted as carefully as if it were an advance, with scouts ahead and flanking forces to counter ambushes, and battle groups ready to break through Bulghar palisades.

The only way of remaining in Pliska and the conquered lands even though most Bulghar forces remained undefeated would have been to keep the Byzantine army concentrated and ready for combat at all times, to fight off any and all Bulghar attacks. But it is hard for occupation troops tempted by easy looting to retain their combat readiness, and such a choice would have been very dangerous strategically in any case, given that the empire had other enemies besides the Bulghars, starting with the Muslim Arabs whenever they were not divided by civil war.

Because in the event Nikephoros did not redeem his fundamental error of theater strategy, the untrained “poor men” with their clubs and slings were just as good or just as bad as the finest tagma in the field: both were equally cut off strategically and outmaneuvered operationally by Krum’s Bulghars.


Victory went the other way in 1014 when Bulgar Khan Samuil built a wooden wall across the pass at the village of Klyuch, or Kleidion meaning key, in the Haemus Mountains which provided the main invasion route into Bulgaria. In the summer of 1014 the army of Basil II was repelled at the wall. Again, a path behind the wall was found and the Bulgarians were overwhelmed.

The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.

Thunder out of Arabia

The Battle of Manzikert was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuq Turks on August 26, 1071 near Manzikert (modern Malazgirt in Muş Province, Turkey). The decisive defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes played an important role in undermining Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia, and allowed for the gradual Turkification of Anatolia.

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

In Mecca, eight hundred miles south of Jerusalem, in a landscape as bleak and parched as the Judaean wilderness, there existed another empty tomb. This was the kaaba, or “cube,” where according to Islamic tradition Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, were buried. Originally built by Abraham, it was later used as a temple for the worship of Hubal, the red-faced god of power, and al-Uzza, the goddess of the morning star, together with three hundred other gods and goddesses who formed the pantheon of the Arabs before Muhammad destroyed them. Then the kaaba was dedicated to Allah, the One God, lord of all universes. There was nothing in it except silver lamps, brooms for sweeping the floor, and the three teakwood columns that supported the roof. Fragments of a black meteorite were inserted in the southeastern wall, and these are kissed by the faithful who walk, and run, around the kaaba in obedience to Muhammad’s command.

The kaaba is a statement of religious belief—four-square, sharp-edged, emblematic of the power believed to reside in the Arab people. Those qualities were already present in these people before the coming of Muhammad. It was their sharpness of intellect and solidness of purpose that were to make them a world power, and Muhammad was therefore justified in retaining that strange unornamented box, which had once housed so many gods, as the symbol of his own powerful faith in Allah, the One God.

The faith of Muhammad was unlike any other that existed at that time. It was compounded out of visions and dreams, the apocrypha learned along the camel routes from Mecca to Damascus, stray bits of learning and tradition, and a vast understanding of the human need for peace and salvation. The Koran, meaning “the Recitations,” reads strangely to Western ears. It is a work of fierce intensity and trembling urgency. God speaks, and what he has to say is recorded in tones of absolute authority by a mind singularly equipped to reflect the utmost subtleties of the Arabic language. The message Muhammad delivers is that God is all-powerful, his hand is everywhere, and there is no escape from him. Just as he is everywhere, so is his mercy. Into this mercy fall all men’s accidents and purposes. It is not that God is benevolent–the idea of a benevolent and helping God is foreign to Muhammad’s vision–but his mercy is inevitable, uncompromising, absolute. In this assurance Muhammad’s followers find their peace.

Muhammad ibn-Abdullah, of the tribe of Quraysh, was born in Mecca about the year A.D. 570. His father died before he was born and his mother, Amina, died when he was a child. As a youth he traveled with the caravans that traded between Mecca and Syria, and he was twenty-five when he married Khadija, a rich widow fifteen years his senior. He was about forty when he first saw visions and heard the voice of the Angel. Out of these visions and voices came the revelations he attributed directly to God.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad commanded that the human figure must never be depicted, so he himself is very rarely depicted in Islamic art. On the rare occasions when he is seen, he wears a veil over his face. But his friends remembered him and described him. They spoke of a thickset man with burly shoulders, a rosy skin “like a woman’s,” a thick, black, curling beard. Most of all they remembered his eyes, which were very large, dark, and melting. The clue to his personality lies perhaps in his rosy skin, for he was no sun-bitten Bedouin of the desert, but a townsman with a townsman’s peculiar sensibilities and perplexities.

In a cave on Mount Hira, not far from Mecca, he would spend time meditating. There he became aware one day of the presence of the Angel standing “two bow shots away,” watching him. “O Muhammad, you are God’s messenger and I am Gabriel,” the voice thundered. From the Angel he learned that man was created from a clot of blood and lay under the protection of Allah, the Only God, the All-Merciful, whose mysteries would be revealed to him. Thereafter, day after day, in waking visions, Muhammad was visited by the Angel who expounded mysteries testifying to God’s mercy and absolute power in verses that crackle and roar like a brushfire.

Half-learned in the religions of his time, impatient with all of them, Muhammad struck out into unexplored territories with a new style, a new rhythm, speaking urgently in a voice of great power:

That which striketh!

What is that which striketh?

Ah, who will convey to thee what the Striking is?

The day mankind shall become like scattered moths,

And the mountains like tufts of carded wool.

Then those whose scales weigh heavy shall enter Paradise,

And those whose scales are light shall enter the Abyss.

And who shall convey to thee what the Abyss is?

A raging fire!

(Sura ci)

Like Jesus, Muhammad was haunted by the Last Day. The end seemed very near, but instead of simply submitting to the dissolution of the universe, there must be in this waiting time a change of heart, a total submission to God. Muhammad felt that the laws of submission must be discovered, and that men should find the way in which to hold themselves in the light of the coming flames. In these visions, dictated over a long period, Muhammad presented a cosmology of breathtaking simplicity, rounded, complete, and eminently satisfying to the Arab mind.

His torrent of visionary poetry convinced Muhammad’s friends that he was indeed a prophet and a messenger of God. Soon he acquired followers and an army. Medina fell, and then Mecca, but these were only the beginnings. The furious pent-up poetry, so memorable and so naked, had the effect of inspiring the Arabs to challenge all their neighbors on behalf of the messenger of God. The Jews must be converted; so must the Christians; all the world must acknowledge the truth of the Koran. Muhammad also proved to be a gifted military commander. His successors were even more gifted. They came like thunder out of Arabia. Within a generation after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, long-established empires fell like ninepins, and half the known world, from Spain to Persia, fell to the armies he had set in motion.

Out of the blaze of Muhammad’s visionary eyes there came a force that shook the world to its foundations.

In July A.D. 640, eight years after Muhammad’s death, an Arab army under Amr ibn-al-As stood outside the walls of the great university city of On, the modern Heliopolis, where the Phoenix was born and where Plato had once studied. On was the most sacred of Egyptian cities, and one of the oldest. Egypt was then a province of the Byzantine empire, and the viceroy was Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria. The Arabs attacked, Cyrus fled to the north, and soon the Arabs pursued him to Alexandria, where there were huge battlements and siege works and a harbor that included within its ample seawalls the largest naval base in the world. For a thousand years the Greeks and the Romans had been quietly building a city so powerful and so sumptuous that no other city could rival it. Gleaming between the sea and a lake, illuminated by the great lighthouse called the Pharos in the harbor, with powerful ships riding at anchor, and guarded by an army believed to be the best in the world. Alexandria was a bastion of Byzantine power in Africa. The scholarly and ambitious Cyrus looked upon the guerrilla army lodged outside the walls of Alexandria with cunning and distaste. He thought he could bargain with Amr ibn-al-As, while the citizens continued to receive supplies by sea, to attend the racetrack and to worship in the great cathedral of St. Mark overlooking the two harbors. Cyrus was overconfident.

In time, Alexandria fell and the Arabs rode in triumph through the Gate of the Sun and along the Canopic Way, past Alexander the Great’s crystal tomb. What they did to Alexandria is described very aptly by E. M. Forster: “Though they had no intention of destroying her, they destroyed her, as a child might a watch.”

The Arab army also raged through Palestine and Syria, swung eastward toward Persia, and defeated the army of the Sassanian emperor in the same year that Cyrus surrendered Alexandria. Two years later the Arabs were in command of all of Persia. The Umayyad dynasty, ruling from Damascus, derived from the Persians the habits of splendor. Luxury and corruption set in: the grandsons of the followers of Muhammad preferred to be city dwellers. The same corruption soon became evident in North Africa and Spain, which the Arabs conquered with incredible speed. In A.D. 732, a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, the Arabs poured into France, where they were defeated by the ragged army of Charles of Heristal and the bitterly cold weather.

The Arab tide was turned back, but the Arab empire now extended halfway across the known world from the Pyrenees to Persia. It had made inroads into India, and Arab armies were breaking through the Asiatic outposts of the Byzantine empire, which would endure for another seven hundred years. The Muslims regarded Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, as the eastern gateway to Europe: it must be captured and all Europe must fall under their sway.

The Christians saw in the religion of Muhammad a mortal enemy to be opposed at all costs. The name of the religion was Islam, which means “submission,” “submission to God’s purposes.” The Christians were not prepared to submit. They regarded Islam as a heresy, a diabolic and dangerous perversion of the truths handed down by Moses, the prophets, Jesus and St. Paul. Islam was monotheism stripped bare, unclouded by ambiguities, without mysteries, without vestments, without panoply, without hierarchies of priests, democratic in its organization, abrupt and simple in its protestations of faith. There are no complex ceremonies in Islam, no Nicene Creed, no Mass, no tinkling of bells. A mosque is usually a walled space open to the sky with a pulpit, a prayer niche, and a tower from which the faithful are called to prayer; the religion, too, is open, spacious, clear-cut, without shadows. God is conceived as an abstraction of infinite power and infinite glory, the source and end of all things. That God should in some mysterious way be divided into the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost was incomprehensible to the Muslims, who conceived of him as one and indivisible.

Although Islam reserved a special place for Jesus, the Islamic Jesus is almost unrecognizable to Christians. Muhammad tells the story of the Virgin Birth three times and is deeply moved by it, and he is aware of something supernatural in Jesus, but he has no patience with those who proclaim his divinity. Jesus is a sign, a word, a spirit, an angel; he is also a messenger and a prophet. He could raise the dead, heal the sick, and breathe life into clay birds. He was not crucified in the flesh, for someone else was crucified in his stead. He ascended to heaven when God summoned him, and he will return in the Last Day.

No one knows where Muhammad learned about Jesus. Most likely it was from some lost Gnostic scriptures, or he may have listened to a Christian preacher during his travels. Mary and Jesus “abide in a high place full of quiet and watered with springs”; and there, very largely, they remain. They are peripheral to his main argument, which is concerned with the nature of man, the clot of blood, confronted with the stupendous presence of God, who is both far away and as close to man as his neck artery. Man is naked and defenseless; he has nothing to give God except his utter and total devotion. God, to the Muslims, has no history, while to the Christians the history of God is bound up with the history of Christ.

The two religions had no common ground, or so little that it could scarcely be perceived. It was as though Christianity and Islam were meant to engage in a death struggle, which would end only when one submitted to the other. Yet there were long periods when there was a kind of peace between them. Jerusalem, captured very early by the Arabs, was permitted to retain a Christian community, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained untouched. Charlemagne conducted a long correspondence with Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, who acknowledged the right of the Christians to maintain their church. Harun gave the church over to Charlemagne, who was addressed as “Protector of Jerusalem.” Although Charlemagne never visited Jerusalem, he sent a stream of envoys, founded a hospital and library in the Holy City, and paid for their upkeep. Throughout the ninth century, relations between Christians and Muslims were fairly amicable. The Christians demanded only that Jerusalem should be accessible to them, and that pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be treated reasonably. And so it continued for another century. Even after the destruction of the church by the mad Caliph Hakim, there was peace, for the church was quickly restored. The pilgrims continued to come to Jerusalem, worshipping at the altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, passing freely in and out of the city. It was as though the two religions had reached an accommodation, as though nothing would interrupt the continual flow of pilgrims.

In the middle years of the eleventh century there occurred an event that would cause a drastic change in the military posture of the Muslims in the Near East. The Seljuk Turks, advancing from Central Asia, conquered Persia. Converted to Islam, they moved with the zeal of converts, prosetyliz-ingall the tribes they came upon in their lust for conquest. They had been herdsmen; they became raiders, cavalrymen, living off the earth, setting up their tents wherever they pleased, taking pleasure in sacking cities and leaving only ashes. The once all-powerful Caliph of Baghdad became the servant of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. In August 1071, the Seljuk army under Alp Arslan confronted the much larger army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes near Manzikert north of Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was an emperor with vast military experience, brave to excess, commanding a hundred thousand well-trained troops, including many Frankish and German mercenaries. There was, however, treachery among his officers; orders were not obeyed. The lightly armed Seljuk cavalry poured thousands of arrows into the tight formations of the Byzantine army, and when the emperor ordered a retreat at the end of the day, his flanks were exposed, his army began to disintegrate, and the Turks rushed in to fill the vacuum created by his retreating troops. Romanus fought bravely; he was seriously wounded in the arm and his horse was killed under him. Captured, he was led to the tent of Alp Arslan in chains. There he was thrown to the ground, and Alp Arslan placed his foot ceremonially on the emperor’s neck. The Seljuk sultan half-admired the broad-shouldered Byzantine emperor, and two weeks later the emperor was allowed to go free. Still the defeat was so decisive, so shattering, that the emperor fell from grace in the eyes of the Byzantines, who had no difficulty deposing him. When he returned to Constantinople, he was blinded, and in the following year he died either from the injuries caused by the blinding or of a broken heart.

Although Alp Arslan himself, and his son Malek Shah, had no thought of conquering the Byzantine empire, the chieftains who served under them had different ideas. They poured into the undefended provinces of Anatolia. While the Christians remained in the towns, the invading Turks ravaged the countryside. Gone were the days when the Byzantine empire stretched from Egypt to the Danube and from the borders of Persia to southern Italy. The Turks advanced to Nicaea, less than a hundred miles from Constantinople, and occupied the city, making it the capital of the sultanate that ruled over Asia Minor. The Turks were spreading out in all directions. In the same year that saw the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, they captured Jerusalem from the Arabs of Egypt on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. In 1085 Malek Shah captured Antioch from the Byzantines. Malek Shah himself came to the Palestinian shore and dipped his sword in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ceremony by which he asserted that the Mediterranean itself belonged to him.

The grandson of nomads from Central Asia, Malek Shah had the temperament of an emperor. He was more relentless, more determined, than his more famous father. He ruled in great state and saw himself as the sovereign of all the Near East. His Turks were rougher than the Egyptians; they had come like thunder from the regions north of the Caspian and they possessed to the highest degree what the historian Ibn Khaldun called assabiya, the determination based on a communion of interests that characterized the early Arab conquerors. The Arabs had made accommodations with the Christians; the Turks were more sure of themselves.

Christendom was reeling from the Turkish invasions. In a single generation Asia Minor had fallen into their hands. The Byzantine empire had lost the sources of its greatest wealth. Christians could no longer be assured that they could journey to Jerusalem without being arrested or sold into slavery or ill-treated in other ways. The Turks were fanatical Muslims, determined to exact the last ounce of power from their victories. But their survival as a united people depended on their leader, and when Malek Shah died in 1091, the empire was divided up among his sons and nephews, whose hatred for one another contributed to the early success of the Crusaders when at last they made their way across Asia Minor in order to recover Jerusalem.

In 1081, Alexius Comnenus, who had served in the army of Romanus IV Diogenes as a general fighting against the inroads of the Turks, came to the throne at the age of thirty-three. He was an able commander in the field and uncompromising in his determination to regain the lost provinces of his empire. His daughter, Anna Comnena, wrote a history of his reign that is among the acknowledged masterpieces of Byzantine literature. Through her eyes he appears as a superb diplomat, a man who moved surefootedly amid treacheries, who knew his own value and was both forceful and humble in dealing with his friends and enemies. He reigned for thirty-seven years, recaptured some of the lost provinces, and there were few Byzantine emperors who reigned so long or fought so well.

When Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the empire was in disarray. Although the Balkan provinces had been recaptured from Robert Guiscard, the Norman-Sicilian adventurer who founded his own kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily, he was confronted with dangers along the long Danube border from the Oghuz, Kuman, and Pecheneg Turks, half-brothers to the Turks in Asia Minor, and from Slavs and Bulgars. Only a few coastal cities in Asia Minor remained in his hands. It was necessary at all costs to push back the frontiers of the sultanate of Roum. He appealed for military assistance to the pope and to the Western princes who might be sympathetic to his cause. They were asked to raise armies, to march to Constantinople and to join forces under the banner of Christendom against the infidels. He recounted the atrocities committed by the enemy and pointed to the peculiar sanctity of Constantinople as the guardian of so many relics of Christ. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire must be saved, Jerusalem must be reconquered, and the pax Christiana must be established in the Near East. A copy of his letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, a cousin of William the Conqueror, has been preserved. The emperor speaks with mingled anguish and pride, despair and humility, and from time to time there appears a faint note of humor.


TO THE LORD AND GLORIOUS COUNT, Robert of Flanders, and to the generality of princes of the kingdom, whether lay or ecclesiastical, from Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium.

O illustrious count and great consoler of the faith, I am writing in order to inform Your Prudence that the very saintly empire of Greek Christians is daily being persecuted by the Pechenegs and the Turks. . . . The blood of Christians flows in unheard-of scenes of carnage, amidst the most shameful insults. . . . I shall merely describe a very few of them. . . .

The enemy has the habit of circumcising young Christians and Christian babies above the baptismal font. In derision of Christ they let the blood flow into the font. Then they are forced to urinate in the font. . . . Those who refuse to do so are tortured and put to death. They carry off noble matrons and their daughters and abuse them like animals. . . .

Then, too, the Turks shamelessly commit the sin of sodomy on our men of all ages and all ranks . . . and, O misery, something that has never been seen or heard before, on bishops. . . .

Furthermore they have destroyed or fouled the holy places in all manner of ways, and they threaten to do worse. Who does not groan? Who is not filled with compassion? Who does not reel back with horror? Who does not offer his prayers to heaven? For almost the entire land has been invaded by the enemy from Jerusalem to Greece . . . right up to Thrace. Already there is almost nothing left for them to conquer except Constantinople, which they threaten to conquer any day now, unless God and the Christians of the Latin rite come quickly to our aid. They have also invaded the Propontis . . . passing below the walls of Constantinople with a fleet of two hundred ships . . . stolen from us. They forced the rowers against their will to follow the sea-roads chosen by them, and with threats and menaces, as we have said, they hoped to take possession of Constantinople either by land or by sea.

Therefore in the name of God and because of the true piety of the generality of Greek Christians, we implore you to bring to this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ . . . to bring me aid and to bring aid to the Greek Christians. . . . Before Constantinople falls into their power, you should do everything you can to be worthy of receiving heaven’s benediction, an ineffable and glorious reward for your aid. It would be better that Constantinople falls into your hands than into the hands of the pagans. This city possesses the most holy relics of the Saviour [including] . . . part of the True Cross on which he was crucified. . . .

And if it should happen that these holy relics should offer no temptation to the pagans, and if they wanted only gold, then they would find in this city more gold than exists in all the rest of the world. The churches of Constantinople are loaded with a vast treasure of gold and silver, gems and precious stones, mantles and cloths of silk, sufficient to decorate all the churches of the world. . . . And then, too, there are the treasuries in the possession of our noblemen, not to speak of the treasure belonging to the merchants who are not noblemen. And what of the treasure belonging to the emperors, our predecessors? No words can describe this wealth of treasure, for it includes not only the treasuries of the emperors but also those of the ancient Roman emperors brought here and concealed in the palace. What more can I say? What can be seen by human eyes is nothing in comparison with the treasure that remains concealed.

Come, then, with all your people and give battle with all your strength, so that all this treasure shall not fall into the hands of the Turks and Pechenegs. . . . Therefore act while there is still time lest the kingdom of the Christians shall vanish from your sight and, what is more important, the Holy Sepulchre shall vanish. And in your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.

If all this glory is not sufficient for you, remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks to the plains of Thrace.

In this way, mingling allurements and enticements with intimations of the final disaster that would overwhelm the community of Christians if the Turks and Pechenegs succeeded in conquering what was left of the Byzantine empire, Alexius Comnenus appealed to Robert of Flanders to come to his aid. The letter contained admissions of terrible defeats and was sustained by a vast pride, but it also provided a picture of the world as he saw it, with its pressing dangers and wildest hopes. Two images prevailed: the atrocities committed by the enemy, and the spiritual and material wealth of Constantinople, last bastion against the Turks.

The letter was addressed not only to Robert of Flanders but to Western Christendom. Pope Urban II read it and was deeply moved. Robert of Flanders would eventually take part in the Crusade. And now very slowly and with immense difficulty there came into existence the machinery that would bring the armies of the West to Constantinople and later to Jerusalem.


The conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the founding of the Latin Empire split the remaining possessions of the Byzantines into two large states, Nikaia and Epiros, and some smaller states. Despite reduced resources, it was an effective army which rarely lost a battle, beating the Seljuqs at Antioch in 1211, the Latin Empire at Poimanenon in 1224 and the Achaian Franks at Pelagonia in 1259. Originally based only on the Anatolian provinces, it regained Thrace in 1235, Macedonia and Thessaloniki in 1246. The Varangians were now purely palace guards and no longer went to war, but the Vardariotai guards originally recruited from Magyar settlers in the Vardar valley did still take the field. The Latinikon were Frankish knights, now mainly recruited from Constantinople, the Latin Emperor being poor and Byzantine pay generous.

Tourkopouloi were Christianised Turks. The Skythikon had originally been recruited from Pechenegs, but were now usually Cumans. They were not used in a single body, but as detachments scattered through the army. They were supplemented from 1242 by a mass settlement of Cuman refugees fleeing from the Mongols. These were given lands in exchange for military service, but on one occasion deserted to the enemy on the field of battle. Native cavalry were now mostly reservists called stratiotai holding individual pronoiai, grants not of land but of its rents. They were thus neither localised soldier-farmers as in the old Thematic forces, nor feudal lords, but soldiers who collected their own pay and were called up by the central authorities for service anywhere in the empire. They were still armoured lancers, but had reverted to the skirmishing tactics of earlier days.

Until the accession of Theodoros II Laskaris they served only in Anatolia. Their quality was variable, those of the Paphlagonian theme for example being considered good and those of Macedonia bad. The illustrations in the Skylitzes manuscript of around the start of this period shows several bodies of lancers who lack armour. Infantry were now predominantly archers from the Anatolian themes. Peltastai are no longer mentioned, but some archers are depicted with spears and small shields. Camp servants were used to attack the unwalled town of Serres in 1246. Byzantine warships were now lighter and no longer mentioned using Greek Fire.

The restored Byzantine Empire in 1265.

When Pope Innocent III was informed of the sacking of Constantinople, he understood at once the damage that had been done. Furiously excommunicating everyone who had taken part, he wondered aloud how the dream of church unity could ever now occur. How could the Greeks, he wrote to his legates, ever forgive their Catholic brothers, whose swords still dripped with Christian blood, and who had betrayed and violated their holiest shrines? Eastern Christians, he concluded with good reason, now detested Latins more than dogs.

The new masters of Constantinople, meanwhile, seemed determined to increase the native resentment. In a hastily cleaned Hagia Sophia, where a few days before a prostitute had been mockingly perched on the patriarchal throne, a Latin emperor was crowned, and the feudal arrangements of the West were forced on the corpse of the Byzantine Empire. The various nobles were rewarded with large estates, and a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms replaced the single authority of the emperor. A crusader knight seized Macedonia, calling himself the king of Thessaloniki, and another set himself up as the lord of Athens. Not even in its most advanced decay had the Byzantine state been as powerless as the Latin one that took its place.

Remarkably enough, given the deplorable state of the capital, the vast majority of Byzantines in the countryside were reasonably well off. As the central authority of the emperors had weakened in the years before the Fourth Crusade, the towns and villages of Byzantium had flourished. Merchants of the West, the East, and the Islamic world converged in fairs held throughout the empire, where they displayed exotic wares from as far away as Russia, India, China, and Africa. The urban population boomed, and since the corrupt and paralyzed imperial government was unable to collect taxes, the wealth stayed in private hands. Emperors could no longer afford their lavish building programs as the treasury dried up, but private citizens could, and the cities became showpieces for personal fortunes. A new spirit of humanism was in the air, along with an intellectual curiosity. Byzantine art, which had been stylized for centuries, became suddenly more lifelike; writers began to depart from the cluttered, archaic styles of antiquity; and individual patrons of the arts sponsored vibrant local styles in the frescoes and mosaics of their villas. The spirit of Byzantium was flowering even as imperial fortunes declined, and not even the terrible trauma of the Fourth Crusade could dampen it for long.

Despite the resilience of its culture and economy, the empire’s power seemed irretrievably lost. Alexius Murtzuphlus had tried to organize a counteroffensive with his fellow emperor-in-exile Alexius III, but his idiotic colleague had betrayed him, and the crusaders had flung Murtzuphlus to his death from the top of the Theodosian column. In remote Trebizond on the shores of the Black Sea, the grandsons of Andronicus the Terrible declared themselves the rightful emperors; while at Epirus, the great-grandson of Alexius Comnenus claimed the same thing. The most powerful and important fragment of the empire, however, was centered at Nicaea, where the patriarch crowned Alexius III’s son-in-law Theodore Lascaris as emperor.

As refugees and wealth poured into the Nicene haven of the Orthodox faith and Byzantine culture, the crusader’s Latin Empire of Constantinople grew progressively weaker. Within a year, a Bulgarian army had effectively broken its power, destroying its army, capturing the impotent emperor, and allowing Theodore Lascaris to reconquer most of northwestern Asia Minor. Instead of confronting the obvious danger of Nicaea, however, successive Latin emperors concentrated on extracting wealth from the citizens of Constantinople, abandoning themselves to the pleasures of palace life.

Only the threat of the Seljuk Turks at their rear prevented the Nicaean emperors from further exploiting Latin weakness; but in 1242, a terrifying Mongol horde suddenly appeared, and the situation dramatically changed. Smashing the Turkish army sent against him, the Mongol khan forced the Seljuk sultan to become his vassal and extracted a promise of an annual tribute of horses, hunting dogs, and gold. The Mongol horde seemed poised to descend on Nicaea next, but it unexpectedly withdrew the next year, leaving the Seljuks crippled in his wake. To the relieved Byzantines, it seemed as if God had delivered them from certain destruction, and perhaps even given them a powerful new ally. Nestorian Christians who had been expelled from the Byzantine Empire had reached Mongolia in the seventh century, and though the khans had yet to embrace a major religion, several high-ranking Mongols—including the daughter-in-law of Genghis Khan—were Christian. In any case, whether they were well disposed to Christianity or not, the Mongols’ timely attack finally left Nicaea free to pursue its dream of recapturing Constantinople.

Through careful diplomacy and military displays, Nicaea slowly built up the pressure on the tottering Latin Empire. By now the crusader kingdom had virtually shrunk down to Constantinople itself, and the capital lived under a perpetual shadow of gloom, with its deserted streets and dilapidated palaces. Its humiliated emperor Baldwin II was so impoverished that he’d been obliged to sell off the lead from the roof of the imperial palace—which was now in a tumbledown state of advanced decay—and in his desperate search for money had even begun to pawn the few relics that had survived the sack. By 1259, when a dashing young general named Michael Palaeologus was crowned in Nicaea, Baldwin was barely clinging on to power, and few doubted the general would recover the city. The only question was when.

Michael VIII Palaiologos

Nicaea was not without its own turmoil. The thirty-four-year-old Michael Palaeologus had come to power only after the regent was brutally hacked to death during the funeral service of his predecessor, but by the time Michael was crowned on Christmas day, his empire was infinitely more powerful and vibrant than its Latin counterpart. In the summer of 1261, Michael neutralized the threat of the Venetian navy by signing a treaty with their archrivals Genoa, and sent his Caesar, Alexius Strategopoulos, to see how strong Constantinople’s defenses were. When the Caesar arrived outside the city in July with eight hundred men, some farmers immediately informed him that the Latin garrison—along with the Venetian navy—was away attacking an island in the Bosporus. Hardly believing his luck, Strategopoulos hid until nightfall in a monastery near the Pege Gate, easily escaping detection by the laconic defenders. Upon discovering a small, unlocked postern gate nearby, the Caesar sent through a handful of men who quietly overpowered the guards and opened the main gate. On the morning of July 25, 1261, the Nicaean army poured into the city, shouting at the top of their lungs and beating their swords against their shields. Emperor Baldwin II was so terrified by the noise that he left the crown jewels behind, fleeing to the palace of the Bucoleon, where he was somehow able to find a Venetian ship and make good his escape. Within hours, it was all over. The Venetian quarter was burned to the ground, and the returning Venetian navy was too busy rescuing its loved ones to fight back.

For the Latins inside the city, there was no thought of resistance, only of panicked flight. Scattering in all directions, they hid in churches, disguised themselves as monks, and even leaped into the sewers to avoid detection. When they cautiously emerged, however, they found that there had been no massacre. The Byzantines had come home not to plunder but to live. The bedraggled Latins hurried quietly down to the harbors and boarded the returning Venetian ships, glad that Byzantines had shown more restraint in victory than their own crusading predecessors.

The incredible news reached Michael Palaeologus where he was asleep in his tent, nearly two hundred miles away. Refusing to believe that his forces had captured the city until he had seen Baldwin’s discarded scepter, Michael hurried to take possession of the capital that he had long dreamed of but never seen. On August 15, 1261, he solemnly entered through the Golden Gate and walked to the Hagia Sophia, where he was crowned as Michael VIII. After fifty-seven years in exile, the Byzantine Empire had come home.

The city that Michael VIII triumphantly entered was a pale shadow of its former self. Charred and blackened houses stood abandoned on every corner, still sagging and in ruin from the sack more than five decades before. Its churches were despoiled and dilapidated, its palaces decayed, and its treasures dispersed. The formidable Theodosian walls were badly in need of repair, the imperial harbor was completely unprotected, and the surrounding countryside was devastated. Its weary citizens had little hope for relief from a throne that had seen—from Irene in 780 to Alexius Murtzuphlus in 1204—half of its occupants overthrown. Worst of all, however, the old unity of the Byzantine world had vanished—the splinters of the empire in Trebizond and Epirus remained stubbornly independent, sapping the already diminished strength of Byzantium. The only hope of salvation seemed to be from the West, but the Fourth Crusade had severely ruptured western relations.

If anyone had a chance of repairing the damage, however, it was Michael VIII. Not yet forty, he was energetic and vibrant, hiding a fierce intelligence behind a convivial smile. Boasting an impressive imperial lineage of no fewer than eleven emperors and three dynasties among his ancestors, he was well connected, able, and smarter than anyone else around him. His first task was to restore the city’s shattered morale, and he did so with a whirlwind of construction, repairing walls and rebuilding churches. In the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia, the emperor commissioned a stunning mosaic of Christ flanked by Mary and John the Baptist—perhaps the finest piece of art that Byzantium ever produced. A massive chain was stretched across the imperial harbor to protect it from enemy vessels, and the moats around the land walls were cleared. Knowing the value of propaganda, the emperor designed a new flag and sent it fluttering from every parapet and tower in the city. Though the eagle had been the symbol of the Roman Empire since Gaius Marius had chosen it thirteen hundred years before, most banners before Michael bore either Constantine’s cross or the Chi-Rho—the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name. Now the emperor added a great golden eagle, double-headed with two crowns—one for the interim capital of Nicaea and one for Constantinople. Those who saw it could swell with pride and remind themselves that Byzantium had been a mighty empire embracing two continents, looking both east and west. Perhaps under the dashing Michael VIII it would be so again. The imperial enemies were scattered and disunited, and an immediate offensive just might catch them on their heels.

At the head of his small, battle-hardened army, Michael VIII had soon pushed back a marauding Bulgarian army and forced the Byzantine despot of Epirus to submit to the empire. By 1265, he had conquered most of the Peloponnese from its Latin overlords and even managed to clear the Turks out of the Meander valley. The next year, however, a new player appeared on the international stage, and everything was thrown into confusion.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily had dominated Italian politics for a long time, but by 1266 its energy was exhausted. Pope Urban IV, wanting a friendlier hand at its helm, invited Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis IX of France, to seize the kingdom. If the pope wanted a neutral power to his south, however, he could hardly have made a worse choice. Charles was cruel and grasping, and after beheading his sixteen-year-old opponent in a public square, he immediately began planning to enlarge his domains. His schemes were given an unexpected boost when Baldwin II, the exiled and rather pathetic Latin emperor of Constantinople, offered to give him the Peloponnese in exchange for help regaining the throne. The delighted Sicilian king immediately began levying heavy taxes to support the war effort and searching for allies, forming an anti-Byzantine league with Venice.

Knowing his small army and decrepit navy would stand no chance against his united enemies, Michael VIII turned to diplomacy, adroitly managing to keep them at bay. Venice was bought off with greater trading privileges within the empire, and a few letters hastily written to King Louis persuaded the French king to restrain his headstrong younger brother. For the moment, the voracious Charles was forced to sit on his hands, but the French king died in 1270, and Charles gleefully invaded. Sicilian arms were irresistible, but once again Michael VIII outthought his opponent. Writing to the pope, the emperor cleverly dangled the promise of a union of the churches before the pontiff’s eyes in exchange for bringing Charles to heel.

The ploy worked and Charles was recalled, but Michael was playing a dangerous game. He was well aware that his subjects would never accept domination by the hated Roman church, and he couldn’t keep stalling the pope indefinitely. For three years, the emperor smoothly dodged the papal representatives; but by 1274, Pope Gregory X got tired of waiting and sent an ultimatum to Constantinople—either implement the union immediately or face the consequences. There was little that Michael VIII could do. Asking only that eastern practices be left alone, he submitted his church to the authority of the pope.

The firestorm in Constantinople was both unsurprising and immediate. The patriarch angrily refused to ratify the hated document, and most of Michael’s subjects felt bitterly betrayed. The emperor had not only dangerously weakened his throne, but he had also handed the Orthodox powers of Serbia and Bulgaria the perfect bit of propaganda. Each could now invade imperial territory at will and claim to be fighting for tradition and truth. Any such invasion, Michael well knew, would receive dangerous support from his outraged subjects. But he had removed the justification of papal support from any future attack by Charles, and that for Michael VIII was worth the price of popular unrest. In any case, he didn’t intend to sit idly by while his enemies pounced. When Bulgaria invaded, trying to exploit the weakness, Michael simply invited the Mongol Golden Horde into Bulgaria. The Mongol advance crippled the kingdom, dealing Bulgaria a blow from which it never recovered.

Charles of Anjou had been seriously checked, but he wasn’t beaten yet. If his grand alliance had foundered on Byzantine treachery, then it must be more solidly rebuilt. Venice was easily seduced. She was always looking to her own advantage, and the rights Michael VIII had granted to Genoa were cutting deeply into her profits. A victory for Charles would mean the banishment of the Genoese upstarts—an irresistible attraction for the Lion of Saint Mark’s. The only thing restraining Charles was papal displeasure, but the resourceful king overcame even this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Pope Gregory X died in 1276, and through steady interference and intimidation Charles managed to have a French cardinal elected pope who hated the Byzantines almost as much as he did. In 1281, the French pope sent a letter to the stunned Byzantine emperor informing him that he had been excommunicated on the grounds of his subjects’ continued resistance to Catholicism. The emperor could hardly believe the news. He had sacrificed his popularity and invited charges of impiety and betrayal for nothing. Now Venice and Sicily were firmly allied against him, and they would sail under the papal blessing. Not even the Fourth Crusade had such support.

Byzantium’s only advantage was Michael VIII. In a brilliant bit of truly “byzantine” diplomacy, Michael reached out to Peter III of Aragon, urging him to invade Sicily. Peter was related to the dynasty that Charles of Anjou had evicted from power and considered Sicily his birthright. And thanks to vicious taxation and a copious amount of Byzantine gold, anti-French feeling on the island was at a fever pitch. Now, suggested Michael VIII, would be the perfect time for the Spanish savior to arrive.

Unaware of the storm that was gathering, Charles of Anjou left Sicily for the mainland of Italy to put the finishing touches on his army. In his absence, the island exploded. The revolt known to posterity as the Sicilian Vespers started innocuously enough on the outskirts of Palermo. As the bells of the church of Santo Spirito rang to call the faithful to Vespers on Easter Monday of 1282, an inebriated French soldier tried to seduce a Sicilian girl. To the outraged onlookers, it was the last straw. These boorish French had lorded it over them for long enough, growing fat off Sicilian labor. The enraged mob killed the offending soldier and fanned out through the streets of Palermo, venting nearly two decades of frustration on anyone with a drop of French blood. When the sun rose on Tuesday morning, there wasn’t a Frenchman left alive, and the electrifying news of the revolt sped throughout the island. By May, French resistance had collapsed, and by the end of August Peter III had landed and taken possession of Palermo. Charles of Anjou furiously put several Sicilian ports under siege, but he had abused his former subjects for too long, and they preferred death to his return. Though he spent the rest of his life trying to recover the island, he was never successful, and in 1285 he died, a broken man.

Michael VIII never lived to see the death of his great enemy. With the threat of western aggression gone, the despot of Epirus was once again asserting his independence, and the emperor was determined to bring him into line. The fifty-eight-year-old emperor again led his troops toward battle, but he had gotten no farther than Thrace when he fell seriously ill. Thinking as always of his responsibilities, the dying emperor proclaimed his son Andronicus II to be his successor, and expired quietly in the first days of December.

He had been among Byzantium’s greatest emperors, restoring its capital and dominating the politics of the Mediterranean. Without him, the empire would certainly have fallen to Charles of Anjou—or any number of watching enemies—and the Byzantine light would have been extinguished, its immense learning dispersed among a West not yet ready to receive it. Instead, Michael VIII had deftly outmaneuvered his enemies, founding in the process the longest-lasting dynasty in the history of the Roman Empire. Nearly two hundred years later, a member of his family would still be sitting on the throne of Byzantium, fighting the same battle of survival—albeit with much longer odds. Michael had done what he could to repair the imperial wreckage. He left behind valuable tools to continue the recovery: a small but disciplined army, a reasonably full treasury, and a refurbished navy. But for the savior of the empire, no gratitude awaited. Excommunicated by the pope, he died a heretic to the Catholic West and a traitor to the Orthodox East. His son buried him without ceremony or consecration in a simple, unmarked grave. Michael VIII’s affronted subjects, however, would all too soon have reason to miss him. If Byzantium looked strong at his death, it was only because his brilliance had made it so. Without a strong army or reliable allies, its power was now purely diplomatic, and it needed hands as skillful as Michael’s to guide it. Unfortunately for the empire, however, few of Michael’s successors would prove worthy of him.

Battle of Tagina

The strength of the Byzantine Empire lay in its disciplined heavy cavalry – the cataphracts. Both men and horses were trained to a high degree, and were capable of carrying out complex drills on the battlefield. As well as proficiency in the lance, cataphracts were adept in the use of their bows.


The Byzantine cataphract – from the Greek word for “covered” – was equipped with full metal-scale armor, which extended to the horse as well as the rider. The Parthians had been the first army to make use of cataphracts, and their Roman opponents were sufficiently impressed to create heavy cavalry units of their own. The Byzantines later made the cataphracts the major strike force within their army. Mounted on a powerful warhorse, the Byzantine cataphract bristled with weapons, which included a bow, lance, sword, and even a dagger. Besides body armor he wore an iron helmet and carried a shield, the latter strapped to the arm so he could use both hands to control his horse. The main cataphract tactic depended on shock action – a ferocious charge that could crash through virtually any enemy.

The strength of the sixth-century Byzantine army was undoubtedly its cavalry. The majority were equipped equally for shock action or for fighting from a distance. These horsemen wielded lance or bow as the situation demanded, but although the riders were heavily armoured, their horses do not seem to have been protected. The Strategikon emphasized the need for cavalry to charge in a disciplined manner, always maintain a reserve of fresh troops, and be careful not to be drawn into a rash pursuit. Bucellarii were normally cavalry, and by their nature horsemen were more suited than foot soldiers to the raids and ambushes which dominated the warfare of this period. The sixth-century cavalryman was far more likely to experience combat than his infantry counterpart. In a largescale action a well-balanced mix of horse and foot was still the ideal, but the Roman infantry of this period had a very poor reputation. In part this was a result of their inexperience, but they often seem to have lacked discipline and training. N ars’es used dismounted cavalrymen to provide a reliable centre to his infantry line at Taginae. At Dara Belisarius protected his foot behind specially prepared ditches. Roman infantry almost invariably fought in a defensive role, providing a solid base for the cavalry to rally behind. They did not advance to contact enemy foot, but relied on a barrage of missiles, javelins, and especially arrows, to win the combat. All units now included an element of archers and it was claimed that Roman bows shot more powerfully than their Persian counterparts. The front ranks of a formation wore armour and carried large round shields and long spears, but some of the ranks to the rear carried bows. Infantry formations might be as deep as sixteen ranks. Such deep formations made it difficult for soldiers to flee, but also reduced their practical contribution to the fighting, and were another indication of the unreliability of the Roman foot soldier. The Strategikon recorded drill commands given in Latin to an army that almost exclusively spoke Greek. There were other survivals of the traditional Roman military system, many of which would endure until the tenth century, but the aggressive, sword-armed legionary was now a distant memory.

In 541, the Byzantine hold on Italy was seriously threatened by Totila, the new Ostrogoth king. Raising the banner of rebellion, Totila advanced as far south as Naples before being stopped.

After he had taken Naples, Totila laid siege to Rome. Belisarius was sent back to Italy. Rome was taken by Totila in December 546. The Byzantine forces were left holding only four fortresses in Italy. Belisarius returned again to Constantinople and was replaced by Justinian’s Court Chamberlain, Narses, a man who conducted his generalship less with flamboyance than with the precision of a mathematician. In the meantime Totila had taken Sicily again and manned 300 ships to control the Adriatic. By the spring of 552 Narses had mobilized his forces fully, composed mainly of Barbarian contingents, Huns, Lombards, Persians and others. Finding his way south blocked by Teia and his Gothic warriors at Verona, he outflanked them by marching close to the Adriatic coast, reaching Ravenna safely. When Totila received the news in the vicinity of Rome, he took almost his entire army, crossed Tuscany, and established his base at the village of Taginae, the present day Tadino.

The Byzantine reconquest of Italy proved short-lived. In 568, the Lombards invaded Italy and forced the Byzantines into the southern part of the peninsula. However, southern Italy and Sicily remained Byzantine until the advent of the Normans. The Byzantine reconquest of Spain, completed in 554, was somewhat more successful. The empire held the southern third of the Iberian Peninsula until 616, when the Visigoths reclaimed their lost territories.


Byzantine Emperor Justinian had finally realized that he could not succeed in Italy without a major effort, in which an able general would have to be placed in command of adequate forces. Still jealous of Belisarius, he first selected his nephew Germanius, who had distinguished himself as a subordinate of Belisarius in Persia and who had recently won a substantial victory over the Slavs. Germanius, however, died near Sardica, so Justinian selected the aged eunuch Narses (478-573) for command in Italy. Narses refused to accept the post without adequate forces. When he marched north from Salona, later that year, he probably had a total force of 20,000-30,000 men. Arriving in Venetia, he discovered that a powerful Gothic-Frank army at least 50,- 000 strong, under the Goth leader Teias and the Frank King Theudibald, blocked the principal route to the Po Valley. Not wishing to engage such a formidable force and confident that the Franks would soon tire of their alliance with the Goths, as they had in the past, Narses cleverly skirted the lagoons along the Adriatic shore by using his vessels to leapfrog his army from point to point along the coast, some going by ship, some marching, in a manner similar to a modern truck and foot march. In this way he arrived at Ravenna without encountering any opposition. Near Ravenna he attacked and crushed a small Gothic force at Rimini.

Narses now began an advance on Rome. Crossing the Apennines with nearly 20,000 men, he was met by Totila, who probably did not have more than 15,000. In a narrow mountain valley suitable for the shock tactics of his heavy cavalry lancers, Totila had chosen a position which Narses could not bypass. Totila first tried to compensate for his weakness in numbers by attempting to seize a hill from which he could outflank the enemy position, but he was stopped by a unit of 50 Roman infantry.

The imperial general immediately deployed his army in a concave formation. He dismounted his Lombard and Heruli cavalry mercenaries, placing them as a phalanx in the center. His heavy Roman cavalry cataphracts were on each flank, reinforced with all his infantry-who were foot archers. On his left he sent out a mixed force of foot and horse archers to seize a dominant height.

Totila delayed while waiting for an additional 2,000 cavalry to join him, then, after attempts to draw out the Romans had failed, he launched an attack after the midday meal.

Totila’s army was in two lines: the heavy cavalry lancers in the front, with his archers and a line of spear and axe-wielding infantry behind. The Goths opened the battle with a determined cavalry charge. As they swept down the valley they first came under the fire of the advanced force on Narses’ left, then rode into the cross fire of the archers in his concave wings. Halted by the devastating fire, the attackers were then thrown back in confusion on the infantry advancing behind them. Efforts of the Gothic archers to support their cavalry were foiled by the more aggressive, more mobile imperial horse archers on the flanks. Covered by continued fire from the foot archers, these heavy cataphracts then swept into the milling mass of Goths in a double envelopment. More than 6,000 of them, including Totila, were killed. The remnants fled. Narses then continued on to Rome, which he captured after a brief siege.

Man traditionally identified as Narses, from the mosaic depicting Justinian and his entourage in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.



BORN 478

DIED 573


KEY BATTLES Taginae 552, Vesuvius 553, Volturnus 554

Born in Armenia, Narses was a court eunuch in the Byzantine imperial palace in Constantinople. In 532, when riots threatened Emperor Justinian, he was commander of the imperial guard, but this was a court rather than a military appointment. In 538 Narses was chosen to lead an army to reinforce Belisarius fighting the Ostrogoths in Italy. He had no military experience, but the ageing eunuch was intended to control Belisarius, whom Justinian distrusted, rather than to win battles.

Yet Narses was to turn into an outstanding battlefield leader. His first visit to Italy was short, his constant disagreements with Belisarius too disruptive of military operations. But in the 540s he was given a real command, in charge of an army of Heruli – Germanic troops – whom he soon led to an important victory over raiding Slavs and Huns in Thrace.

In 552 Narses led another army to Italy to fight the Ostrogoths once more. Unlike Belisarius he was given plenty of troops. Though a shrivelled 74-year-old, he provided them with inspiration and organization. At Taginae he defeated the Ostrogoth leader, Totila, retook Rome, and finally crushed the Gothic army at a second battle in the foothills of Vesuvius. Narses had regained Italy in a single lightning campaign. In 554 he won another great victory, defeating the Franks and Alamanni tribes at Volturnus. He was still defending Italy against Goths and Franks in 562, when old age ended his unlikely military career.

Byzantine Cities, Villages and Fortifications

The fortress town of Theodoro-Mangup in the 15th century, the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire to resist against the Ottomans until being conquered in 1475.

Gevele Castle is a ruined castle located on the summit of Mount Takkeli in Konya Province, Turkey. The site was used as a fortified site during the Hittites, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Karamanid and Ottoman eras.

One of the most obvious effects of warfare is to be seen in the architectural heritage of a society, primarily in respect of fortifications and in shifts in settlement patterns and relationships between centres of consumption and areas of production. In the East Roman world such shifts are especially apparent during the seventh century and in the aftermath of the Persian and more particularly the Arab invasions. While these wars were in themselves neither the original stimulus for the transformation of urban life in the late Roman and early Byzantine period, nor the only factor affecting the evolution of fortified inhabited sites during the period from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, they were nevertheless a crucial factor in the form towns and fortresses took and in the pace of their evolution.

In fact, there had been a slow process of transformation in the pattern of late Roman urban society over the centuries preceding both the Persian wars and the Arab conquests which it will be worth very briefly summarizing here. During the Roman period cities—poleis or civitates—had held a key role in both social and economic relations, as well as in the imperial fiscal administration. They could function as market centres for their district or region or, where ports were concerned, as major foci of long-distance commerce. Some fulfilled all these roles, others remained merely administrative centres created by the state for its own fiscal administrative purposes. All cities were also self-governing districts with, originally, their own lands, and were made responsible by the Roman state for the return of taxes—indeed, where cities in their Mediterranean form did not exist, the Roman state created them, either establishing new foundations or amalgamating or changing the form of preexisting settlements, providing them with the corporate identity, institutional structure and legal personality of a civitas. All cities, with a few exceptions such as Rome and Constantinople, were dependent on their immediate hinterlands for their (usually highly localized) market and industrial functions, where these existed at all, as well as for the foodstuffs on which the urban populace lived. As the society of the empire evolved away from the relationships and conditions which gave rise to and maintained these urban structures, so the cities became the first key institution of the classical world to feel the effects of these changes.

The form which these changes took are complex, but mirror the effects of a growing tension between state, cities and private landowners to extract surpluses from the producers, and the failure of the cities to weather the contradictions between their municipal independence on the one hand, and on the other the demands of the state and the vested interests of the wealthier civic landowners. While many cities were able to maintain themselves and their fiscal role well into the first half of the seventh century in the east, it is clear already by the later fourth century that many did or could not. There were regional variations, but as a result, and over the period from the later fourth to the later fifth century (in the west until the empire disappears as well as in the east), the state had to intervene increasingly to ensure the extraction of revenues, so that the burden of fiscal accountability had been considerably reduced, if not removed entirely, during the reign of Anastasius (491–518). This may even have promoted the brief renaissance in urban fortunes which took place in some eastern cities in the sixth century, but it did not re-establish their traditional independence and fiscal responsibilities.

The physical structure of cities was transformed over the course of the later fifth and sixth centuries, and archaeological evidence has revealed an almost universal tendency for cities to lose by neglect many of the features familiar from their classical structure. Major public buildings fall into disrepair, systems of water supply are often abandoned (suggesting a drop-in population), rubbish is dumped in abandoned buildings, major thoroughfares and public spaces are built on, and so on. These changes may not necessarily have involved any substantial reduction in economic or exchange activity in cities, of course. On the other hand, the undoubted decline in the maintenance of public structures or amenities—baths, aqueducts, drains, street surfaces, walls—is suggestive of a major shift in the modes of urban living: of both the object of the investment of wealth, and of finance and administration in particular. And from the middle of the seventh well into the ninth century the only evidence for building activity associated with provincial urban contexts concerns fortification work and the construction or repair of churches or buildings associated with monastic centres.

By the early years of the seventh century all the evidence suggests that cities as corporate bodies were simply less well-off than they had been before about the middle of the sixth century. There may have been as much wealth circulating in urban environments as before, with the difference that the city as an institution had only very limited access to it, having lost their lands and the income from those lands. During the later sixth century in particular the local wealthy tended to invest their wealth in religious buildings or related objects (so that there was an evolving pattern of investment as much as there was a decline). In addition, the church was from the fourth century a competitor with the city for the consumption of resources. And however much their citizens might donate, individually or collectively, this can hardly have compensated for this loss. Indeed, such contributions became the main source of independent income for many cities. The archaeological data suggests a shrinkage of the occupied area of many cities during the sixth century, and even an increasing localization of exchange activity; but again, this does not have to mean a change in their role as local centres of such exchange.

The survival of urban settlements during and after the Arab invasions—thus from the 640s until the 750s—owed much to the fact that they might occupy defensible sites, as well as be centres of military or ecclesiastical administration. But endemic warfare and insecurity, economic dislocation and social change meant that the great majority played a role peripheral to, and derived from, the economic and social life of the countryside, and reflected if anything the needs of state and church. The invasions of the seventh century dealt what was simply the final blow to an institution that was already in the process of long-term transformation.

Fortifications serve several purposes: to protect populations and/or soldiers and their supplies, equipment and armaments, to act as refuges for civilian populations in times of need, and to provide safe bases for soldiers from which to protect the surrounding countryside or a particular route or crossroads of strategic value, as well as to serve as a deterrent to hostile attack and as defended watch-posts to warn of invasion and perhaps to delay the enemy advance, or to function as bases from which raids or attacks against enemy installations might also be mounted. Each of these functions demands different sorts of defensive works, of course, depending upon size, location, availability of supplies of food and water, proximity to similar defensive structures, the possibilities of relief when attacked, and so forth. The Roman state had a long and sophisticated tradition of fortification, and this was inherited without a break by its medieval East Roman successor.

During the period from the third to the sixth century the Roman world saw a generalized tendency to provide settlements of all sizes with walls and some form of defensive perimeter where there had hitherto been no such defences, a reflection both of a real threat in those areas most affected by external attack, and a changing set of assumptions about what a “city” should look like. In many exposed areas a move from a lowland site to a more defensible situation nearby, or the re-use of older pre-Roman hilltop fortified sites takes place, and although there are a number of reasons for this gradual process in the late Roman period, it increases very dramatically during the later fourth and fifth centuries in the Balkans as a result of the constant threat from Germanic and steppe nomadic barbarians, and again during the seventh century in Anatolia in response to the effects of the Persian and then particularly the Arab invasions and raids. But the contrast between the late ancient polis and the middle Byzantine kastron should not be exaggerated: of the large number of settled sites which can clearly be differentiated from undefended rural settlements, only a small proportion bore the official or unofficial characteristics of a polis in the classical sense. A far larger number were characterized already in the fourth and fifth centuries, and especially in the sixth century, by features normally identified archaeologically and topographically as characteristic of defended centres of population with administrative and military functions, exactly the same, in fact, as the later Byzantine kastron. The transformations which occurred did not, except in a relatively small number of cases, involve a universal abandonment of formerly urban sites (poleis) in favour of hilltop fortified sites (kastra). Rather, it involved a change in the way populations were distributed between such sites, their extent and how they were occupied.

With a handful of exceptions, such as Nicaea, Constantinople and Thessaloniki, most of the major classical cities shrank during the seventh century to the size of their defended citadels, even though the “lower city” of such towns—the main late Roman inhabited area—may have been in many cases still the site of smaller communities. Archaeological surveys suggest that Ancyra shrank to a small citadel during the 650s and 660s, the fortress occupying an area of 350×150 metres, the occupied upper town in which it was situated occupying an area not much larger; Amorion, which supposedly had a vast perimeter wall, was defended successfully in 716 by 800 men against an attacking army more than ten times larger, the area of the kastron occupying some 450×300 metres. The latter survey has also shown that, while the classical/late Roman site was indeed very extensive, with an impressive wall and towers, the occupied medieval areas were thus similar to those of Ancyra. Amastris, mod. Amasra, offers similar evidence, as does Kotyaion, mod. Kütahya, and there are many more formerly major centres which underwent a similar transformation. In some Byzantine texts, mostly hagiographical, there occur descriptions of “cities” with populations inhabiting the lower town. Excavations at Amorion and several other sites show that while the very small fortress-citadel continued to be defended and occupied, discrete areas within the late Roman walls also continued to be inhabited, often centred around a church. In Amorion there were at least two and probably three such areas. Small but distinct communities thus continued to exist within the city walls, while the citadel or kastron—which kept the name of the ancient polis— provided a refuge in case of attack. Many cities of the seventh to ninth centuries survived because their inhabitants, living effectively in separate communities or villages within the walls, saw themselves as belonging to the polis itself. In some cases, the walls of the lower town area were maintained—irregularly, for the most part—in order to provide shelter for larger than usual concentrations of troops. This may have been the case at Amorion, for example. Together with the large number of much smaller garrison forts and outposts of a purely military nature (although sometimes associated with village settlements nearby or below them), such provincial kastra (which were also called, confusingly, poleis by their inhabitants and by many writers who mention them) and frontier fortresses, generally sited on rocky outcrops and prominences, often also the sites of pre-Roman fortresses, typified the East Roman provincial countryside well into the Seljuk period and beyond, and determined the pattern of development of urban centres when they were able to expand once more during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

There is in the development of late Roman fortification a move from passive, linear defences sufficient to repel relatively primitive, barbarian attackers, to more complex, active defensive arrangements, with large numbers of towers providing intersecting fields of fire and complex gate arrangements. Byzantine fortresses after the seventh century generally involved combinations of protruding towers, angled gates, sometimes including a tower-fortress integrated into an inner curtain wall. The notion of a central stronghold that could continue to resist the enemy after the curtain had fallen and the “lower” defences were taken can be traced back to the Hellenistic period at least in some Anatolian fortresses, and was reflected both in the reoccupation and refortification of many ancient citadels and acropoleis within, or attached to, cities of the Roman period as well as in the construction of tower-fortresses where a natural defensive height was not available (as at Nicaea, for example). The Norman and western keep represents the same idea, given added stimulus in respect of technique and materials, especially in the use of lime mortar, by the Crusaders’ experiences in the Balkans, Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine. With the recovery of the empire’s economic stability from the ninth century on, many urban centres recovered their fortunes, although their physical appearance was very different from that of their late antique predecessors. On the eastern frontier especially the empire constructed a number of major fortified centres serving chiefly as strategic centres and military bases, rather than centres of local population, fortresses which have only recently attracted the attention of archaeologists and architectural historians and which clearly had a major role in both frontier defence and internal security. Such fortifications closely reflected the strategic networks of the regions in which they were established, both in respect of communications and routes of ingress and egress, as well as—depending upon the region—of economic activity and the movement of resources. Fortifications were an integral element of every town and, the recovery of substantial areas in western Asia Minor during the first half of the twelfth century owes much to the policies of Alexios I, John II and Manuel I in utilizing fortress towns as solid bases which, regardless of the frequency or damage caused by the raids of the Turk nomads from the plateau to the east, could control the countryside and maintain imperial political and fiscal authority. Warfare—and the events of the seventh century in particular —had a lasting effect on the pattern and form of concentrated settlement in both the Balkans and Asia Minor, a pattern that was further inflected in Asia Minor especially by the Seljuk invasions and the warfare of the twelfth century and after.


Over the millennium of its existence, the Byzantines faced a vast array of peoples who threatened its territory and people. Several of these proved militarily superior and dealt heavy defeats on the empire. In the end, however, the Byzantines generally gained the upper hand, often through decades or even centuries of defense, stabilization, assimilation, and counterattack. The Byzantines learned a great deal from their enemies; indeed the ability to adapt to the challenges posed by opponents was one of the great pillars of Byzantine military success.


The Gothic tribal confederacies posed the most serious challenge to the late antique Roman state of any Germanic group. The Goths comprised coalitions of tribal groups, mostly from the east Germanic peoples who by the third century A.D. inhabited a vast swathe of territory from the Oder and Vistula rivers to the southern steppes of Russia, the Crimea, and the Carpathian basin. East Germanic peoples had posed a significant threat to the eastern provinces of the Roman state from the third century. In 267, Goths and Heruls burst through the Danubian defenses and ravaged Thrace and much of the Balkans, sacking Athens before the emperor Claudius Gothicus dealt them a stinging defeat in 269. Following their defeat by the Huns, large groups of Goths migrated south to the Danube where they were admitted as suppliants to Roman territory. Their provisioning was bungled due to corruption, and an underdeveloped transportation response led to starvation among the Goths and rebellion that culminated in the armed confrontation at Adrianople. At the end of the sixth century, after its recovery from the Goths, the empire had to concede the loss of most of Italy to the newly arrived Lombard confederation, whose grip on the peninsula spread throughout the seventh century. The Byzantines also entered sporadic conflicts with the Franks from the sixth century and even fought against Charlemagne (801–10) for control of the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts.


The Goths were organized in decimal units with major groupings of “hundreds” (hundafaþs) as were their Germanic relatives, the Anglo-Saxons and their Roman neighbors, whose centurions were well known to the eastern Goths. Gothic mercenaries served in the Roman army throughout the late third century, and by the time of the emperor Constantine, Gothic elements were settled in Transdanubia. By the fourth century Gothic military organization had evolved at least in part under the influence of Roman practice. Gothic tribal raiders crossed into Roman territory and proved a sufficient nuisance to attract the interest of Constantine, who waged multiple campaigns against them. By now the Goths probably included and coexisted alongside elements of several ethnic Iranians (Sarmatians), Slavs, Romano-Dacians, and Getae. The remains of a commonly articulated material culture from the second through fifth centuries (the Chernyakhov culture) indicate broad contact and exchanges; such adaptations were not always peaceful and the transferal of knowledge from one people to another certainly included warfare. According to Maurice, the “fair-haired races,” especially the Lombards, grouped themselves not into numerically ordered units but according to kin group.

Methods of Warfare

The Goths fought as both cavalry and infantry. Until the last few decades, historians have viewed the Goths as primarily a cavalry army and attributed to this their shattering victory over the infantry legions in 378 at Adrianople. Their numbers were probably never as numerous as some Roman authors would have us suppose—Heather estimates that in sixth century Italy and Gaul there were about 15,000 Gothic elite males.1 When the Gothic king Theodoric reigned over the united Gothic territories in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, his Gothic subjects numbered about 200,000 people. However, although we have few contemporary sources, the majority of Goths seem to have often fought as infantry spearmen and swordsmen. Certainly the Goths served in large numbers in the legions as infantry. At Adrianople the Goths had perhaps 5,000 cavalry and probably twice as many infantry. According to Vegetius, the Goths possessed numerous archers, who fought on foot. In the sixth century, Prokopios provided a clearer picture of the Gothic army, which fielded a large cavalry component who fought in massed formations as lancers, while the infantry seem to have been mainly skirmishers armed with javelins and archers. Other infantry fought as spearmen and swordsmen equipped with a spatha and carrying shields. Given the high casualty rate caused by Roman archery among the Goths, it is doubtful that they were more heavily armored than their Roman foes. In fact, the Goths closely resembled their late Roman counterparts.

Byzantine Adaptation

Since after Adrianople the empire was too weak to destroy the Gothic confederacies, the Romans sought to neutralize them by treaty. The emperor Theodosius recruited numerous Goths into the Roman army, as an expedient means to replenish the devastated ranks of the eastern field forces, but also as a way to weaken the Goths, whose presence in the Balkans created a state of emergency. Theodosius recruited numerous Gothic federates who fought loyally for him and of whose lives the Roman high command was apparently none too careful—a contemporary panegyrist acclaims the emperor for using barbarian to fight barbarian, thus bleeding both of them. Nonetheless the Goths formed a sizable but not dominant portion of the eastern field army. By 400 A.D. the Gothic warlord Gainas dominated imperial politics in the capital of Constantinople, but his unpopular policies led to his downfall and a riot of citizens who trapped and massacred 7,000 of his Gothic troops. The Gainas affair marked the apogee of Gothic influence in the imperial center; the Romans countered Germanic elements in the army by recruiting Isaurian highlanders from Asia Minor. Finally, the last major elements not assimilated or settled within the Roman Balkans or Asia Minor were sent to Italy under Theodoric the Amal. Justinian renewed the Gothic conflict, invading Italy and conquering it. In 554 the Roman general defeated a Frankish-Alemanni force at Volturnus through his combined arms approach—horse archery again proved a major Roman tactical advantage over the Frankish infantry force. Though the Byzantines lost most of Italy to the Lombards in the later sixth and early seventh centuries, they created the exarchate of Ravenna with several dukes under its control to check the Lombard advance. The exarch held joint civil and military power and, as viceroy of the emperor, was free to respond to crisis without direct orders from Constantinople. These reorganizations helped the Byzantines maintain territory in portions of Italy until 1071.


The most sophisticated, rich, and militarily threatening power that the Romans faced in the early part of their existence was the empire of Sasanian Persia. Founded after victory in a civil war in 226 A.D., the Sasanian dynasty ruled territory stretching from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Their propaganda declared dynastic ties to the Achaemenid Persian Empire destroyed by Alexander the Great and consequently the rights to the former Persian territories of Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Mediterranean coast. While the Sasanians acted on these grand claims on only one occasion, during the mighty conflict that raged with Rome in 603–28, clashes over strategic borderlands and satellite peoples were frequent. The frequency and intensity of these conflicts rose from a simmer to a steady boil by the sixth century, culminating in the Persian conquest of most of the Roman east in the following century.


The Sasanian shah Kosrow I (531–79) reformed the Persian military and in doing so created several Roman-style structures. Kosrow divided the empire into four army districts in which he stationed army corps under the command of four spahbeds (field marshals). Along the border, the king established margraves, marzbans, who administered sensitive border districts and commanded the frontier forces stationed there. The Eran-ambaragbed, “minister of the magazines of empire,” was, like his Roman counterpart, the praetorian prefect, in charge of arming and equipping the troops. The general (gund-salar) led individual field armies on campaign; sometimes under the authority of the spahbed. By the sixth century the army was largely professionally recruited and paid; there was a professional infantry commander in charge of standing guard units, but in the sixth century the Persians apparently continued to rely on conscripts for a large portion of their rank-and-file infantry. Mailed cavalry units and the royal guard formed the crack troops of the empire; these were generally drawn from the Persian nobility or from aristocratic allied families, such as the Hephthalites and Armenians, with whom the Persians had close contacts.

Methods of Warfare

The proportion of infantry to cavalry in the Sasanian army is unknown, but the Persians relied to a large degree on heavy horsemen, who could both shoot the bow and strike with heavy lances. The Persians favored direct massed cavalry assaults to break up enemy formations; the shock of their horsemen proved decisive against the Romans on several occasions. Normally the Sasanians drew up their forces in three cavalry lines. The Sasanians occasionally employed elephants in combat, but though they made a great psychological impression, they were not an important part of their military. The left of the Persian line was traditionally manned by left-handed archers and lancers who could thus strike effectively across the face of the enemy formation (right-handed mounted archers especially had difficulty shooting to their right). The left of the host formed the defensive anchor, whose role was to avoid enemy flanking maneuvers and to support the offensive right of the formation, where were stationed the best noble cavalry. The Sasanian right typically tried to outflank the enemy left, though the heavily armed kataphracts, covered from head to toe in mail and bearing lances, could be used in frontal assaults on infantry and cavalry groups. Behind the center line of regular cavalry were stationed the infantry formation, which supported the cavalry and sheltered retreating horsemen in case their attacks failed. In addition to their archery and horsemanship, the Sasanians were outstanding siege engineers. From the fourth through seventh centuries they seized some of the best defended and most powerfully built Roman fortress cities.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Sasanians and Byzantines knew one another well and there was considerable exchange of military knowledge and practice across the frontiers. Militarily, each side came to resemble the other. In early twentieth-century excavations at Dura Europus, a Roman frontier city on the middle Euphrates taken by Sasanian assault in the year 256 archaeologists discovered the remains of at least nineteen Romans and one Sasanian attacker. The Sasanian wore chain mail, carried a jade-hilted sword, and wore a pointed ridge-type helmet with a prominent center piece whose rivets joined the two lobes of the helmet together. Such gear was typical in Roman armies by the third century. In 533 at the battle of Dara, Belisarios countered Sasanian superiority by limiting their cavalry and playing to their psychological sense of superiority. In subsequent battles he used the Sasanians’ wariness of his stratagems to force their withdrawal by aggressive posturing. The Persians, used to the traps and feigned retreats of their nomad enemies, could be made too cautious by aggressive maneuvers. They could be thwarted by the commander’s well-chosen battlefield that cut off the Persians’ ability to place their weaker elements on protective rough ground. The poor soldiers among the Sasanians did not fight with spear and shield, but seem to have been mainly skirmishers and archers. They were therefore susceptible to Roman cavalry charges delivered over level ground. The Romans thus relied on strategems, strategic maneuver, tactical coordination, and discipline to defeat the Persians. When Roman commanders selected the battlefield, they were able to neutralize or defeat these stubborn eastern opponents.


Throughout its existence, the empire confronted a vast array of steppe nomad military powers. The Byzantines fought major wars against the Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Khazars, Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Cumans and numerous minor conflicts with a host of other groups. Nomads were generally bent on plunder of imperial territory and rarely sought to settle on lands south of the Danube, only a small portion of which were suitable for the transient, cattle-herding life of pastoralists. However, both the Huns and Avars posed existential threats to the empire, as they sought to dominate the lands south of the Danube and to destroy the Roman power that contained them north of the river. Nomadic confederations formed under charismatic leadership or during periods of environmental or physical stress. Maurice stressed in the Strategikon that nomads typically fought in kin-based tribal or extended family groupings, and this contributed to the nature of their tactics.


Nomadic society was based on nuclear families and wider, extended kinship ties. Like other tribal societies, blood relation or imagined genealogical connections helped to smooth political dealings and allow for larger groupings or “super tribes” that made massive nomadic military enterprise possible. The Huns under Attila formed an effective monarchy and Maurice stressed that the Avars, unlike many nomads, possessed a kingship. Undoubtedly the power of the central figures within a hierarchy during the Hunnic and Avar episodes of Byzantine history bolstered the barbarians’ military effectiveness. After they settled north of the Danube in the late sixth century, the Avars conquered and coopted elements among the Bulgars, Slavs, and Hunnic and Germanic peoples in Transdanubia. The Byzantines portray a grim fate for those whom the Avars conquered, especially the Slavs who served as hard laborers and pressed soldiers during the siege of Constantinople in 626. According to Maurice, the Avars arranged themselves by tribe or kin group while on the march. Their social structure made them vulnerable to desertions and divisions within the ranks, which the Byzantines sought to exploit.

Methods of Warfare

Steppe nomads fought primarily as lightly armed horse archers. Speed and surprise were cornerstones of their strategic and tactical success. Their ability to swarm and the firepower they brought to bear could break up enemy formations and drive the enemy from the field. In the fourth century, when the Romans had little experience dealing with the tactical swarming attacks, war cries, strange appearance, and mobile horse archery of the Huns, these nomads struck terror into the hearts of many soldiers and won numerous victories across the length of the empire. In addition to horse archers, the Huns and Avars deployed heavier lancers who bore a resemblance to the Sasanian hybrid cavalry, armed with bow, sword, and lance. The Strategikon notes that the Avars carried a lance strapped on their back which freed them to operate their bows. In addition to the lance and bow, Avar warriors carried swords; they seem to have been more heavily armed than their Hun predecessors, as Maurice noted that they wore chain mail coats. The Avars wore long coats of mail or lamellar split at the crotch, with panels on each side to protect the leg. The famous Nagyszentmiklós Treasure includes a gold plate depicting what is probably an Avar or Bulgar warrior wearing such a coiffed mail coat, splinted greaves, helmet, and carrying a pennoned lance.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines relied on diplomatic means to buy off and deflect Hun designs on imperial territory. The defensive posture of the empire throughout the fifth century precluded decisive confrontations against a superior enemy in the open field, and the massive defenses of Constantinople shielded the eastern territories from Hun penetration and conquest, though most of their European possessions were ravaged and slipped from Byzantine control. Although our sources provide no insight into the exact mechanisms of the adoption of steppe nomad tactics and equipment, the Byzantines recruited Hunnic horse archers into their armies and probably from these and deserters derived the knowledge of horseback archery. By the sixth century, the hybrid horse archer and lancer cavalry among the armies of Justinian were the most important tactical elements within the Roman army. The Byzantines adopted the stirrup from the Avars and this provided Roman cavalry with a more stable fighting platform. Maurice’s Strategikon notes that the thonged Avar lance and Avar-type tents and riding cloaks were also adopted directly from their steppe enemies. Lamellar cavalry armor also became more prominent in the panoply of Roman soldiers in the sixth and seventh centuries and this, too, indicates that the Byzantines borrowed extensively from nomads. The use of the feigned retreat, while known to classical armies, was a common steppe nomad tactic that the Byzantines perfected under steppe influence and employed throughout their history. The adoption of nomadic equipment, tactics, and strategy were among the most important adaptations of the Byzantine army and proved critical to the long-term survival of the empire.



By the time of the rise of Islam in the early seventh century, the Romans possessed extensive military experience with the Arabs. Arab scouts and light troops had served as guides and auxiliaries almost from the beginning of Roman rule in the Near East. By the sixth century, the Roman system of paying subsidies to allied tribal confederations to maintain law and order along the frontier from the Red Sea to the Euphrates was integral to the governance of the eastern provinces. The powerful Christian tribal confederation of Ghassan, which included both settled and tribal elements, largely managed the eastern periphery of the empire, and despite the general hostility of Greek-speaking elites to their Arab allies, these clients were both effective and reliable. Ghassanid auxiliaries defeated their Persian-sponsored counterparts and provided valuable light cavalry raiders and skirmishers to the eastern field armies on campaign in Syria and Mesopotamia. At the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 the Ghassanids fought alongside their Roman masters and though many subsequently converted to Islam and remained in Syria, a sizable group migrated to Roman territory. The Muslim Arab victors at Yarmuk overran the whole of Syria, Mesopotamia, and eventually wrested Egypt, Libya and North Africa from Roman control. Muslim Arab attempts to conquer Constantinople and thereby destroy the remnants of the Roman Empire unfolded in the epochal sieges of the seventh and early eighth centuries in which the empire emerged battered but intact. With the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and shift of the locus of Muslim government to Mesopotamia, the threat to the existence of the Roman state diminished, and as the Abbasid caliphate unraveled politically, the Byzantines mounted a sustained counterattack to recover lost territories in the east.


Arab armies of the conquest were organized along tribal lines, though it is uncertain if these were grouped into units of 10–15 soldiers called ‘arifs known from just after the conquests. Muslim Arab armies were recruited mainly from Arabic-speaking family and tribal groupings. But soldiers were also raised from among Byzantine and Sasanian deserters, as well as non-Arab clients (mawali) dependent on regional Arab lords. Larger tribal groups fought under the banners of their tribal sheikhs in army groups of varying strength, usually numbering 2,000–4,000 men. On rare occasions, as at Yarmuk, combined commands could field as many as 30,000 or 40,000 soldiers. In 661, the Battle of Siffin was fought between the Syrian forces under Mu ‘awiya and the Iraqi Arabs led by the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, said to have comprised 150,000 and 130,000 men, respectively; these numbers are inconceivable and could probably safely each be reduced by a factor of ten. During the Umayyad era, when the Syrian army provided the main prop to the caliph’s authority, armies of 6,000 Syrian troops are commonly mentioned and these may represent standard field force groupings, not dissimilar in size and equipment from their Byzantine neighbors. In 838, the caliph al-Mu ‘tasim (d. 842) led an army of up to 80,000 men against Amorium, a number that represented a large force and among the largest the Byzantines ever confronted.

Methods of Warfare

Although the commonly held perception of early Muslim armies today is of swift-moving horsemen mounted on Arabian chargers, the armies of the conquest era were mainly infantry forces fighting as spearmen and archers. Arab archery was particularly deadly to both the Byzantine and Persian forces encountered during the first campaigns of the conquest. Early Muslim armies generally lacked heavy cavalry, and they eagerly accepted the Sasanian horse who deserted to their ranks following the initial encounters in Mesopotamia. Infantry continued to form an important part of Arab armies up to the end of their military encounters with the Byzantines. Nikephoros Phokas noted that the Arab raiders who penetrated the Byzantine borderlands included a mix of cavalry and infantry; like their Roman counterparts, the infantry formed a foulkon, a dense mass of infantry spearmen, and supported the cavalry who formed the major offensive wing of Arab armies. Regular Arab cavalry fought primarily as lancers, while missile support was provided by foot archers. The Arabs never mastered horseback archery and instead relied on Turkic troops to provide mobile fire. The light cavalry encountered by the Byzantines in their reconquest of northern Syria and Mesopotamia were Bedouin light horse riding swift Arabian mounts. Nikephoros advised to keep them at bay with archery rather than chase them, since even the best Byzantine horses, encumbered as they were with heavily equipped fighting men, would not be able to catch them and the danger of being cut off and overwhelmed was a persistent peril of pursuit. Well led and generally possessing superior numbers, training, and equipment, the Arab armies of the early medieval period repeatedly exposed Byzantine weaknesses. Decisive engagements nearly always ended with Arab victories; only when the empire recovered somewhat economically and demographically while the caliphate began to fragment did the initiative return to the Romans.

Byzantine Adaptation

Given the asymetrical nature of the encounter between the Byzantines and Arabs after the initial clashes of the early and mid-seventh century, Byzantine commanders responded in the only way they could, via a strategy of defense coupled with limited, punitive raids to keep the enemy from settling in the strategic Anatolian highlands and to maintain the appearance of Byzantine power among the populations of the border lands. Imperial troops, seriously degraded through the loss of many men in the defeats in Syria and Egypt, underpaid, poorly equipped, and scattered throughout the provinces, were scarcely a match for caliphal field armies. The Byzantines often found themselves paying tribute to convince the Arabs not to attack them—a humiliating concession that drained both the fisc and morale. But the sieges of 674–78 and 717–18 revealed that without achieving naval dominance the Arabs had to conquer the Anatolian plateau if they were to achieve their objective of outright conquest of the Christian empire. Yet, due to their organization of the themes, whose armies could shadow and harass Muslim raiding columns and sometimes defeat them, the Romans made penetration of their territory hazardous. Stubborn Byzantine forces, although no match for grand caliphal campaign armies, often held their own against raiding columns and themselves raided exposed regions when Arab field forces were engaged elsewhere. By the tenth century, the centuries of incessant warfare had helped to create a warrior caste among the frontiersmen of the eastern marchlands who would remake the Byzantine army based on their experiences fighting the Arabs. Their combined arms approach and their use of psychological terror, scorched earth, and incremental advancement of imperial territory by sieges marked the apogee of the practice of Byzantine arms in the medieval east.


The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarios outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.


Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Varbica in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria. The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.


The Normans arrived in the Byzantine world not as enemies, but as valued mercenaries esteemed for their martial prowess. The settlement of Scandinavian raiders created the duchy of Normandy, when the region was ceded to their war leader Rollo (d. ca. 931) by the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (898–922). Rollo’s descendants mingled with the local French population to create the Normans, a people thoroughly Christian, doggedly militaristic, and unfailingly expansionistic. Norman soldiers entered Italy around the start of the eleventh century where they served as mercenaries for various Lombard princes. By the 1050s large numbers of “Franks,” as the Byzantines called them, had served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies from Syria to Bulgaria, and Normans served as part of the standing garrison of Asia Minor. In the 1040s the Normans began the conquest of south Italy, establishing several counties in the south and finally invading and conquering Sicily from the petty Muslim dynasts there by 1091. Since the late 1050s the Normans had challenged Roman interests in Italy and Robert Guiscard led a Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081. In the ensuing conflict the Normans defeated Alexios I Komnenos, who expelled them only with great difficulty. Two more major Norman invasions followed over the next century, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily remained a threat to imperial ambitions in the west and to the imperial core until the Hauteville Norman dynasty failed in 1194. By this time all hope for the Byzantine recovery of south Italy and Sicily had vanished, thanks to Norman power.


The Normans served under captains who rose to prominence due to birth or their fortunes in war. Minor nobility like Tancred of Hauteville, who founded the dynasty that would conquer much of Italy and Sicily, was a minor baron in Normandy and probably the descendant of Scandinavian settlers. The warriors who carved out territory within Byzantine Anatolia seem to have been either petty aristocrats or simply successful soldiers. One such Norman was Hervé Frankopoulos, who in 1057 led 300 Franks east in search of plunder and territory. After initial successes around Lake Van, he was delivered to the emperor and eventually pardoned. Thus, Norman companies were of no fixed numbers, and it seems that each baron recruited men according to his wealth and status. Norman lords in Italy raised the core of their army from men to whom they distributed lands and wealth in exchange for permanent military service. Lords were required to provide fixed numbers of troops, either knights or infantry sergeants. Other Normans served for pay and plunder, including conquered lands to be distributed after successful occupation of enemy territory. The Normans that the Byzantines encountered were a fluid group—some fought for the empire and then against it; their interests were pay and personal advancement rather than any particular ethnic allegiance. In this the Normans who warred against the Byzantines resembled the later free companies of the late medieval period—variable in numbers, generally following a capable, experienced, and charismatic commander, and exceptionally opportunistic. As a warlord’s success grew, so did his resources. Thus Robert Guiscard rose from the leader of a band of Norman robbers to be Count and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria; in 1084, following his defeat of Alexios at Dyrrachium, Guiscard marched on Rome with thousands of infantry and more than 2,000 knights, a far cry from the scores or hundreds with which he began his career.

Methods of Warfare

The bulk of the Norman fighting forces were infantry, but they formed a largely defensive force that operated in support of the cavalry. Norman infantry fought generally as spearmen—the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Normans on foot wearing the nasal helm and mail hauberks, but it is unlikely that the majority were so armed. Most were probably unarmored and relied on shields for protection like most of their counterparts throughout Europe. Light infantry archers fought with little or no armor, and missile troops played a role in their Balkan campaigns as well—the Byzantine commander George Palaiologos suffered an arrow wound to his head in battle at Dyrrachium in 1082, but generally the Byzantines relied on superior Turkish archery in order to unhorse the Normans and immobilize the knights. Norman knights wore heavy mail hauberks and mail chausses with in-pointed mail foot guards, which Anna Komnene noted slowed the Norman cavalry down when they were unhorsed. These mounted men carried lances and swords. The weight of their mail made them relatively safe from the archery of the day. Norman knights usually decided the course of battle; it was the shock cavalry charge delivered by the Norman knight that delivered victory in battle after battle. Unlike the Turks and Pechenegs with whom the empire regularly contended and whose weaponry was lighter and who relied on mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and feigned retreat, the Normans preferred close combat. They fought in dense, well-ordered ranks and exhibited exemplary discipline. In an era when infantry were generally of questionable quality, most foot soldiers throughout Europe and the Middle East could not stare down a Norman frontal cavalry charge. Norman horsemen punched holes in opposing formations and spread panic and disorder that their supporting troops exploited. By the end of the eleventh century, Norman prowess on the battlefield yielded them possessions from Syria to Scotland.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines avidly recruited Normans into their armies. Though critics have unfairly blamed the medieval Romans for not adapting their warfare in light of the new western techniques and technologies to which they were exposed, fully equipped and well-trained kataphraktoi could match the skill and shock power of the Norman knight. What the Byzantines of the Komnenoi era lacked were the disciplined heavy infantry of the Macedonian period and combined arms approach of mounted and dismounted archery that could blunt enemy attack and cover infantry and cavalry tactical operations. Alexios I relied on Turkish and steppe nomad auxiliaries and patchwork field armies assembled from mercenaries drawn from the empire’s neighbors. As with other intractable foes, the Byzantines relied on a combination of defense and offense—the Normans were contained in the Balkans allowing space for an imperial recovery and the time to muster new forces following the heavy defeat late in 1081 of the Roman army at Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. Alexios allied with southern Italian nobles and the German emperor Henry IV (1084–1105) who menaced the Norman flanks. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 removed the most serious threat to Byzantine rule since the seventh century, but Guiscard’s son, the redoubtable Bohemund, renewed war against the empire in 1107–8. Alexios had learned from his twenty years of dealing with the Norman adversary and returned to the traditional Byzantine strategies of defense, containment, and attrition. The Byzantines relied on their Venetian allies to provide naval squadrons on the Adriatic that interfered with Norman shipping and resupply, and Alexios’s forces blocked the passes around Dyrrachium; the emperor forbade his commanders to engage in a large-scale confrontation with the Normans. In the skirmishes and running battles against Norman scouting and foraging parties Byzantine archers shot the enemy mounts from beneath their riders and then cut down the beleaguered knights. Hunger, disease, and lack of money undid Bohemund, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and return to Italy. Thus the ages-old Byzantine principles of indirect warfare proved triumphant against a stubborn and superior enemy.

Constantinople and Her Navy

Perhaps no defensive structure summarizes the truth of siege warfare in the ancient and medieval world as clearly as the walls of Constantinople. The city lived under siege for almost all its life; its defences reflected the deepest character and history of the place, its mixture of confidence and fatalism, divine inspiration and practical skill, longevity and conservatism. Like the city itself, the walls were always there, and for anyone in the eastern Mediterranean, it was assumed they always would be. The structure of the defences was mature in the fifth century and changed little thereafter; the building techniques were conservative, harking back to practices of the Greeks and Romans. They had no particular reason to evolve because siege warfare itself remained static. The basic techniques and equipment – blockade, mining and escalade, the use of battering rams, catapults, towers, tunnels and ladders – these were largely unchanging for longer than anyone could recall. The advantage always lay with the defender; in the case of Constantinople its coastal position increased that weighting. None of the armies camped before the land walls had ever succeeded in effecting an entry through the multiple defensive layers, while the city always took prudent measures as a matter of state policy to keep its cisterns brimming and its granaries full. The Avars came with an impressive array of stone-throwing machinery but their looping trajectory made them far too puny to breach the walls. The Arabs froze to death in the cold. The Bulgar Khan Krum tried magic – he performed human sacrifices and sprinkled his troops with seawater. Even its enemies came to believe that Constantinople was under divine protection. Only the Byzantines themselves were ever successful in taking their own city from the land, and always by treachery: the messy final centuries of civil war produced a handful of instances where gates were flung open at night, usually with inside help.

There were just two places where the land wall could be considered potentially weak. In the central section the ground sloped down a long valley to the Lycus River and then up the other side. As the wall followed the downward slope, its towers no longer commanded the high ground and were effectively below the level occupied by a besieging army on the hill beyond. Furthermore the river itself, which was ducted into the city through a culvert, made it impossible to dig a deep moat at this point. Nearly all besieging armies had identified this area as vulnerable, and though none had succeeded, it provided attackers with a vestige of hope. A second anomaly in the defences existed at the northern end. The regular procession of the triple wall was suddenly interrupted as it approached the Golden Horn. The line took an abrupt right-angle turn outwards to include an extra bulge of land; for 400 yards, until it reached the water, the wall became a patchwork structure of different-shaped bastions and sectors, which, though stoutly built on a rocky outcrop, was largely only one line deep and for much of its length unmoated. This was a later addition undertaken to include the sacred shrine of the Virgin at Blachernae. Originally the church had been outside the walls. With a typical Byzantine logic it had been held initially that the protection of the Virgin was sufficient to safeguard the church. After the Avars nearly burned it in 626 – the shrine was saved by the Virgin herself – the line of the wall was altered to include the church, and the palace of Blachernae was also built in this small bight of land. Both these perceived weak spots had been keenly appraised by Mehmet when he reconnoitred in the summer of 1452. The right-angle turn where the two walls joined was to receive particular attention.

As they patched up their walls under Giustiniani’s direction and paraded the sacred icons on the ramparts, the people of the city could be pardoned for expressing confidence in their protective powers. Immutable, forbidding and indestructible, they had proved time and again that a small force could keep a huge army at bay until its willpower collapsed under the logistical burden of siege, or dysentery or the disaffection of the men. If the walls were decayed in places, they were still basically sound. Brocquière found even the vulnerable right angle to be protected by ‘a good and high wall’ when he came in the 1430s. The defenders however were unaware that they were preparing for conflict on the cusp of a technological revolution that would profoundly change the rules of siege warfare.

‘Navigantium fortitudo mihi soli inest’, is a remark made by Nicephorus II (as reported by Liutprand). Nicephorus could make this boast in truth, since the emperors of High Byzantium succeeded gradually in building up a fleet of such power as to check the depredations of Arab pirates almost completely in the eastern Mediterranean. During the latter part of the eleventh century, however, the Venetians and the Genoans gradually caught up with the Byzantine marine power and, despite the strenuous efforts of the Comnenian emperors to increase their naval forces, these represented the stronger force by the death of Manuel I, while the Byzantine naval presence after the death of Michael VIII was derisory and in time it vanished altogether, so that John VIII had to make his way to the Council of Ferrara-Florence by hired craft. The fleet of the naval era was divided into two main sections: the Imperial fleet and the fleet of the themes. The former was organized into two divisions, one for the personal use of the Emperor and Empress, and for the defence of the capital, the other for use on regular military expeditions and for policing the seas against pirates.

The fleet of the themes was kept up at the charge of various maritime themes, particularly those of the Greek islands (Aegea, Samos, Cephalonia), Greece and the Cibirriote theme in Asia Minor. The regular servicemen from these themes were paid in feudal land, as were the land forces in the army of the themes. An alteration was however made in the reign of Manuel I, whereby the monies expended by the themes on the upkeep of the fleet were diverted straight into the Imperial treasury, and the Emperor assumed the direct responsibility for the maintenance of the whole naval service. This was probably intended as an assurance for the better order of the ships, but, as might have been foreseen, it proved a disaster, as the money was repeatedly spent on wasteful civil-service projects, while the navy was starved of even necessary funds.

The fleet often employed foreign mercenaries, and Russian or Varangians who entered the Imperial service often began their time in the navy, this being a form of service which would have suited the temper of the Norse seamen. From what is recorded of Haraldr Siguroarson we may deduce that his first period of Varangian service will have been spent thus. The strategos of each maritime theme commanded his section of the thematic fleet, while the supreme commander was the commander of the Imperial fleet, who was titled in the High Byzantine era the Droungarios, and was of the rank of patrician. This official appears to have been known in the reign of Alexius I as the Grand Duke (Megas Doux), and his deputy as the Thalassokrator, while later still Pseudo-Codinus refers to an Admiral of the (by then insignificant) Fleet. These supreme commanders had other officers under them, and officers of the Hetairia were set to command the foreign naval mercenaries. In the tenth century 77 ships constituted the thematic fleet against 100 in the Imperial fleet, while the force manning the latter was 23,000-24,000 strong, against 17,500 in the former.

The capital ships of the Byzantine fleet were the dromoi, which differed considerably in size, but were built on the same pattern, with a wooden castle (xylokastron) on the deck, and carrying various military engines. In the bows was a figurehead of gilt bronze, usually the shape of the head of a wild beast, the lion being a popular motif, in which were housed the siphon and pumping mechanism to spray out the Greek Fire, the terrible Byzantine secret weapon which burned alike on land and water. This substance was also carried in fragile bowls or spheres of glass, which could be hurled on to the enemy ships and which then set everything that the stuff touched ablaze. The rowers were arranged in two banks, with a normal complement of 25 to each row; there were also on average some 50 soldiers on each dromos. It is calculated that there will have been around 220 persons to the full complement on a capital ship, or even more, since the account of the Cretan expedition of 902 refers to 230 oarsmen and 70 others, or in all a crew of 300 on each dromos. The Chelandia were smaller vessels, one class of which were named Pamphyloi’, they were often manned by foreign mercenaries, and their complement would be 130-160 men. Finally there were the light supporting vessels, the so-called ousiai, on which Varangians were frequently employed; these were swift and easily manoeuvred ships, which were especially useful for coastguard duty or for chasing and overtaking pirate vessels. The Taktnkca speaks of 50-60 soldiers forming the complement of each of these ships, and their total crew will there- fore have been c. 110 strong. On formal expeditions two ousiai generally accompanied each major vessel.

The commander of each dromos bore the title of Kentarchos, while over each division of 3-5 capital ships there was placed a homes? though the titles komes and droungarios are later used without discrimination of the captains of single ships. The fleet had its banner, the sign being a cross surrounded by four fire-siphons.

It appears that admission to the Imperial fleet, and especially appointment to one of the ships based on the capital, or in the personal service of the Emperor and his court, was very much sought after by personnel in the other divisions of the Byzantine navy. As the pay was higher, and the serving personnel could more easily obtain high court distinctions in these ships, this is understandable, and it is very likely that it was necessary to purchase such appointments in the same way as ones in the land Hetairia. It is, however, even more difficult to calculate the naval rates of pay than those of the land forces, though some inkling may be derived from the above mentioned narratives of the two naval expeditions to Crete. The pay of the Russians and Varangians in the sea-forces will certainly have been far smaller than that of those in the Hetairia. If it is true, however, that the commanders of the coastal protection vessels were entitled to keep a considerable proportion of the goods confiscated from pirate vessels, then this could obviously make a very sizeable difference to their emoluments. It is noted in Haraldar saga Siguroarsonar that he was to pay the Emperor 100 marks for every pirate vessel that he was able to capture, but could keep the rest for himself and his men. This could obviously be a very valuable source of income.