A Naval Engagement In The Bosphorus

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Venetian “Galley of Flanders.” Illustration of a 15th-century trade galley from a manuscript by Michael of Rhodes (1401–1445) written in 1434.

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For Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI a successful defense of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet – a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys, their beaked prows surging up the Marmara to the beating of drums, the rallying of war trumpets, the lion flags of St. Mark’s or the gonfalons of Genoa cracking in the salt wind. But the sea remained ominously empty.

In effect the fate of the city hung on the complex internal politics of the Italian city-states. As early as the end of 1451 Constantine had sent messengers to Venice to report that the city would fall without help. The matter had been debated by the Venetian Senate at length; it was the subject of prevarication in Genoa; in Rome the pope was concerned but required evidence that the union of the churches had been fully implemented. In any case he lacked practical resources to intervene without the Venetians. Genoa and Venice eyed each other in cold commercial rivalry and did nothing.

Constantine’s appeal to the West rested on notions that were religious and medieval, but they were directed at states whose motivations were economic – and surprisingly modern. The Venetians were largely indifferent to whether the Byzantines were unionists or not and had little appetite for the role of defenders of the faith. They were hard-nosed traders, preoccupied with commercial agreements, the security of their sea routes, and the calculation of interest. They worried about pirates more than theology, about commodities rather than creeds. Their merchants studied the price of what could be bought and sold – wheat, fur, slaves, wine, and gold – the supply of manpower for the galley fleets, and the pattern of Mediterranean winds. They lived by trade and the sea, by discount, profit margins, and ready coin. The doge was on excellent terms with the sultan, and trade with Edirne was profitable; furthermore Constantine had considerably damaged Venetian interests in the Peloponnese in the previous twenty years.

It was in this spirit that in August 1452 a minority of senators actually voted to abandon Constantinople to its fate. The lack of concern was modified the following spring as reports trickled in of the throttling of trade routes to the Black Sea and the sinking of Venetian ships. On February 19 the Senate decided to prepare a fleet of two armed transports and fifteen galleys to sail on April 8. The organization of the expedition was entrusted to Alviso Longo with cautious instructions that included a helpful dictat to avoid confrontation with the Ottomans in the straits. He finally departed on April 19, one day after the first major assault on the walls. Others made similarly uncoordinated efforts. On April 13 the government of the Republic of Genoa invited its citizens, merchants, and officials “in the East, in the Black Sea and in Syria” to help with all means the emperor of Constantinople and Demetrios, despot of the Morea. Five days earlier it had been authorizing loans to arm ships against the Venetians. At about the same time the pope had written to the Venetian Senate informing them of his desire to get up five galleys, on loan from the Venetians, for the relief of the city. The Venetians, ever sticklers for a debt, accepted the commission in principle but wrote back reminding the papacy that the cost of galleys for the failed Crusade of Varna in 1444 was still outstanding.

Pope Nicholas had however already undertaken one prompt initiative at his own expense. Fearful of the fate of Constantinople, in March he hired three Genoese merchant ships, provisioned them with food, men, and weapons, and dispatched them to the city. By the start of April they had reached the Genoese island of Chios off the Anatolian coast but could proceed no farther. The north wind that impeded the Ottoman fleet held the Genoese at Chios for a fortnight. On April 15 the wind shifted to the south and the ships set sail. By the 19th they had reached the Dardanelles where they fell in with a heavy imperial transport, laden with a cargo of corn the emperor had purchased from Sicily and commanded by an Italian, Francesco Lecanella. They swept up the Dardanelles and passed the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli unopposed – the entire fleet had decamped to the Double Columns. The ships were in all likelihood similar to those that had seen off the Ottomans at the boom a few days previously: high-sided sail-powered vessels, probably carracks, described by the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey as “cogs.” On the swell of the south wind they made rapid time up the Marmara so that by the morning of April 20 the crews could make out the great dome of St. Sophia forming on their eastern horizon.

The lookout for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning, and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols, and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet gave a message to commander and fleet that was unequivocal: “either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive.” The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen, and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and “many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breast plates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle.” The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought farther out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.

By early afternoon the four ships were off the southeast shore of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s Acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning maneuver into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men “with ambition and hope of success.” They came on steadily, “with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory.” The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses, or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course, and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins, and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: “they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins, and stones.” The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to maneuver accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.

The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse countercurrent across the open mouth of the Horn and toward Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral “shouted in a commanding voice” and ordered the fleet to close in and board.

The swarm of galleys and longboats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, “like dry land.” Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a series of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armor, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes, and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests “they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet.” Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armored men falling backward into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast “that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water,” the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. “There was great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other,” recorded Kritovoulos, “hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din.”

For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, “like demons,” recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty longboats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one longboat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armored soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which “defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francisco Lecanella rushing to help.” In time, however, it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practiced maneuver and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that “the water could hardly be seen.”

The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and toward the Galata shore. As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats, and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that the Ottomans must win “for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded or killed.” Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter. And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to move forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged toward the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships “and tore his garments in his fury,” but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships farther. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.

In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of “at least twenty galleys” was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbor to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was “stunned. In silence, he whipped up his horse and rode away.”

The immediate consequences of the naval engagement in the Bosphorus were profound. A few short hours had tipped the psychological balance of the siege sharply and unexpectedly back to the defenders. The spring sea had provided a huge auditorium for the public humiliation of the Ottoman fleet, watched both by the Greek population thronging the walls and the right wing of the army with Mehmet on the shore opposite.

It was obvious to both sides that the massive new fleet, which had so stunned the Christians when it first appeared in the Straits, could not match the experience of Western seamanship. It had been thwarted by superior skill and equipment, the innate limitations of war galleys – and not a little luck. Without secure control of the sea, the struggle to subdue the city would be hard fought, whatever the sultan’s guns might achieve at the land walls.

Within the city, spirits were suddenly high again: “the ambitions of the Sultan were thrown into confusion and his reputed power diminished, because so many of his triremes couldn’t by any means capture just one ship.” The ships not only brought much needed grain, arms, and manpower, they had given the defenders precious hope. This small flotilla might be merely the precursor of a larger rescue fleet. And if four ships were able to defy the Ottoman navy, what might a dozen well-armed galleys of the Italian republics not do to decide the final outcome? “This unhoped-for result revived their hopes and brought encouragement, and filled them with very favourable hopes, not only about what had happened, but also about their expectations for the future.” In the fevered religious atmosphere of the conflict, such events were never just the practical contest of men and materials or the play of winds, they were clear evidence of the hand of God. “They prayed to their prophet Muhammad in vain,” wrote the surgeon Nicolo Barbaro, “while our Eternal God heard the prayers of us Christians, so that we were victorious in this battle.”

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The Recapture of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constantinople Prepares for Siege

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Winters on the Bosphorus can be surprisingly severe, as the Arabs had discovered during the siege of 717. The site of the city, jutting out into the straits, leaves it exposed to fierce squalls hurtling down from the Black Sea on the north wind. A particularly dank and sub-zero cold penetrates to the marrow of the bones; weeks of cheerless rain can churn the streets into mud and prompt flash floods down the steep lanes; sudden snowstorms arise as if from nowhere to obliterate the Asian shore half a mile away then vanish as quickly as they have come; there are long still days of muffling fog when an eerie silence seems to hold the city in an iron grasp, choking the clappers in church bells and deadening the sound of hooves in the public squares, as if the horses were shod in boots of felt. The winter of 1452–53 seems to have afflicted the citizens with particularly desolate and unstable weather. People observed ‘unusual and strange earthquakes and shakings of the earth, and from the heavens thunder and lightning and awful thunderbolts and flashing in the sky, mighty winds, floods, pelting rain and torrential downpours’. It did not improve the overall mood. No flotillas of Christian ships came to fulfil the promises of union. The city gates remained firmly closed and the supply of food from the Black Sea dried up under the sultan’s throttle. The common people spent their days listening to the words of their Orthodox priests, drinking unwatered wine in the taverns and praying to the icon of the Virgin to protect the city, as it had in the Arab sieges. A hysterical concern for the purity of their souls seized the people, doubtless influenced by the fulminations of Gennadios. It was considered sinful to have attended a liturgy celebrated by a unionist or to have received communion from a priest who was present at the service of union, even if he were simply a bystander to the rites. Constantine was jeered as he rode in the streets.

Despite this unpromising atmosphere, the emperor made what plans he could for the city’s defence. He dispatched envoys to buy food from the Aegean islands and beyond: ‘wheat, wine, olive oil, dried figs, chick peas, barley and other pulses’. Work was put in hand to repair neglected sections of the defences – both the land and sea walls. There was a shortage of good stone and no possibility of obtaining more from quarries outside the city. Materials were scrounged from ruined buildings and abandoned churches; even old tombstones were pressed into service. The ditch was cleared out in front of the land wall and it appears that despite their reservations, Constantine was successful in persuading the populace to participate in this work. Money was raised by public collection from individuals and from the churches and monasteries to pay for food and arms. All the available weapons in the city – of which there were far too few – were called in and redistributed. Armed garrisons were dispatched to the few fortified strongholds still held by Byzantium beyond its own walls: at Selymbria and Epibatos on the north shore of the Marmara, Therapia on the Bosphorus beyond the Throat Cutter, and to the largest of the Princes’ Islands. In a final gesture of impotent defiance, Constantine sent galleys to raid Ottoman coastal villages on the Sea of Marmara. Captives were taken and sold in the city as slaves. ‘And from this the Turks were roused to great anger against the Greeks, and swore that they would bring misfortune on them.’

The only other bright spot for Constantine during this period was the arrival of a straggle of Italian ships that he was able to persuade – or forcibly detain – to take part in the city’s defence. On 2 December a large Venetian transport galley from Kaffa on the Black Sea, under the command of one Giacomo Coco, managed to trick its way past the guns at the Throat Cutter by pretending that it had already paid its customs dues further upstream. As it approached the castle the men on board began to salute the Ottoman gunners ‘as friends, greeting them and sounding the trumpets and making cheerful sounds. And by the third salute that our men made, they had got away from the castle, and the water took them on towards Constantinople.’ At the same time news of the true state of affairs had reached the Venetians and Genoese from their representatives in the city and the Republics stirred themselves into tardy activity. After the sinking of Rizzo’s ship, the Venetian Senate ordered its Vice-captain of the Gulf, Gabriel Trevisano, to Constantinople to accompany its merchant convoys back from the Black Sea. Among the Venetians who came at this time was one Nicolo Barbaro, a ship’s doctor, who was to write the most lucid diary of the months ahead.

Within the Venetian colony in the city, concern was growing. The Venetian bailey, Minotto, an enterprising and resolute man, was desperate to keep three great merchant galleys and Trevisano’s two light galleys for the defence of the city. At a meeting with the emperor, Trevisano and the other captains on 14 December he begged them to stay ‘firstly for the love of God, then for the honour of Christianity and the honour of our Signoria of Venice’. After lengthy negotiations the ships’ masters, to their credit, agreed to remain, though not without considerable wrangling over whether they could have their cargo on board or should keep it in the city as surety of their good faith. Constantine was suspicious that once the cargo was loaded, the masters would depart; it was only after swearing to the emperor personally that they were allowed to load their bales of silk, copper, wax and other stuffs. Constantine’s fears were not unfounded: on the night of 26 February one of the Venetian ships and six from the city of Candia on Crete slipped their anchors and fled before a stiff north-easterly wind. ‘With these ships there escaped many persons of substance, about 700 in all, and these ships got safely away to Tenedos, without being captured by the Turkish armada.’

This dispiriting event was offset by one other positive contribution. The appeals of the Genoese podesta at Galata had elicited a concrete offer of help. On about 26 January two large galleons arrived loaded ‘with many excellent devices and machines for war, and outstanding soldiers, who were both brave and confident’. The spectacle of these ships entering the imperial harbour with ‘four hundred men in full armour’ on deck made an immediate impression on both the populace and the emperor. Their leader was a professional soldier connected to one of the great families of the republic, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a highly experienced commander who had prepared this expedition at his own initiative and cost. He brought 700 well-armed men in all, 400 recruited from Genoa, another 300 from Rhodes and the Genoese island of Chios, the power base of the Giustiniani family. Constantine was quick to realize the value of this man and offered him the island of Lemnos if the Ottoman menace should be repulsed. Giustiniani was to play a fateful role in the defence of the city in the weeks ahead. A straggle of other soldiers came. Three Genoese brothers, Antonio, Paolo and Troilo Bocchiardo brought a small band of men. The Catalans supplied a contingent and a Castilian nobleman, Don Francisco of Toledo, answered the call. Otherwise the appeal to Christendom had brought nothing but disharmony. A sense of betrayal ran through the city. ‘We had received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo,’ George Sphrantzes recalled bitterly.

With the arrival of the Genoese contingent the preparations for a siege were carried forward with greater urgency. Giustiniani, who was ‘an expert in the art of wall fighting’, appraised the city’s defences with a cool eye and took appropriate measures. Under his direction, during February and March they ‘dredged the fosse and repaired and built up the walls, restoring the battlements, refortifying inner and outer towers and strengthening the whole wall – both the landward and seaward sectors’.

Despite their dilapidated condition, the city still possessed formidable fortifications. Among all the many explanations for the longevity of Byzantium, the impregnable defences of its capital city remain a cardinal factor. No city in the world owed as much to its site as Constantinople. Of the twelve miles of its perimeter, eight were ringed by sea. On the south side, the city was fringed by the Sea of Marmara, whose swift currents and unexpected storms made any sea-borne landing a risky undertaking. In a thousand years no aggressor ever seriously attempted an attack at this point. The seashore was guarded by a single unbroken wall at least fifty feet above the shoreline interspersed with a chain of 188 towers and a number of small defended harbours. The threat to this wall came not from ships but from the ceaseless action of the waves undermining its foundations. At times nature was more brutal still: in the bitter winter of 764 the sea walls were crushed by ice floes that rode up over the parapets. The whole length of the Marmara wall was studded with marble inscriptions commemorating the repairs of successive emperors. The sea ran strongly round this shoreline as far as the tip of the Acropolis point, before turning north into the calmer waters of the Golden Horn. The Horn itself provided an excellent sheltered anchorage for the imperial fleet; 110 towers commanded a single wall along this stretch with numerous water gates and two substantial harbours, but the defences were always considered vulnerable. It was here that the Venetians had driven their ships up on the foreshore during the Fourth Crusade, overtopping the ramparts and storming the city. In order to block the mouth of the Horn in times of war, the defenders had been in the habit, since the Arab siege of 717, of drawing a boom across the entrance of the Horn. This took the form of a 300-yard chain, consisting of massive cast-iron links each twenty inches long that were supported on sturdy wooden floats. With the good will of the Genoese, the chain could then be secured to a tower on the sea wall of Galata on the far side. During the winter months both chain and floats were prepared against the possibility of a naval attack.

The base of the triangle of the city’s site on the westward side was protected by the four-mile land wall, the so-called wall of Theodosius, which ran across the grain of the land from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn and sealed off Constantinople from any conventional land-borne assault. Many of the most significant events in the history of the city had been played out along this extraordinary structure. It almost matched the city itself in longevity, and projected a sense of legendary immutability within the Mediterranean world. For many approaching Constantinople across the flat Thracian plains as a trader or pilgrim, an ambassador from a Balkan court or a plundering army with pretensions to conquest, the first sight of Constantinople at its apogee would be the ominous prospect of the land walls riding the gentle undulations of the landscape from horizon to horizon in a regular unbroken succession of ramparts and towers. In the sunlight the limestone walls create a facade of brilliant white, banded with horizontal running seams of ruby red Roman brick, and arrow slits similarly arched; the towers – square, hexagonal, octagonal, occasionally circular – are so close together that, as one crusader put it, ‘a seven-year-old boy could toss an apple from one turret to the next’. They rise up in successive tiers to the summit of the inner wall where the eagle banners of the emperor flutter proudly in the wind. At intervals the eye can pick out the darkness of a heavily guarded entrance to the city through which men and animals vanish in times of peace, and at the western end, close to the Sea of Marmara, a gateway panelled with flat plates of gold and decorated with statues of marble and bronze shines in the sun. This is the Golden Gate, the great ceremonial archway flanked by two massive towers of polished marble through which, in the heyday of Byzantium, emperors returned in triumph with the visible tokens of their victories: conquered kings walking in chains, recaptured sacred relics, elephants, outlandishly dressed barbarian slaves, carts piled high with booty and the whole might of the imperial army. By 1453 the gold and many of the decorations had gone but the structure was still an impressive monument to Roman glory.

The man responsible for the land wall, built to define the mature limits of the city, was not the boy Emperor Theodosius after whom it is named, but a leading statesman of the early fifth century, Anthemius, ‘one of the wisest men of the age’, for whose far-sightedness the city would owe a limitless debt of gratitude. The first line of the walls built in 413 deterred Attila the Hun, ‘the scourge of God’, from making an attack on the city in 447. When it collapsed under a severe earthquake the same year with Attila ravaging Thrace not far away, the whole population responded to the crisis. Sixteen thousand citizens totally rebuilt the wall in an astonishing two months, not just restoring Athemius’s original structure, but adding an outer wall with a further string of interspaced towers, a protecting breastwork and a brick-lined moat – the fosse – to create a formidable barrier of extraordinary complexity. The city was now protected on this side by a chain of 192 towers in a defensive system that comprised five separate zones, 200 feet wide and 100 feet high from the bed of the moat to the top of the tower. The achievement was recorded with a suitably boastful inscription: ‘In less than two months, Constantine triumphantly set up these strong walls. Scarcely could Pallas have built so quickly so strong a citadel.’

In its mature form, the Theodosian wall summarized all the accumulated wisdom of Graeco-Roman military engineering about defending a city before the age of gunpowder. The heart of the system remained the inner wall constructed by Anthemius: a core of concrete faced on both sides by limestone blocks quarried nearby, with brick courses inserted to bind the structure more firmly. Its fighting ramparts were protected by battlements and reached by flights of steps. In line with Roman practice, the towers were not bound to the walls, ensuring that the two structures could each settle at their own rate without breaking apart. The towers themselves rose to a height of sixty feet and consisted of two chambers with a flat roof on which engines to hurl rocks and Greek fire could be placed. Here the sentinels scanned the horizon unceasingly, keeping themselves awake at night by calling out to each other down the line. The inner wall was forty feet high; the outer one was lower, about twenty-seven feet high, and had correspondingly lower towers that interspaced those on the inner wall. The two walls were separated by a terrace sixty feet wide, where the troops defending the outer wall massed, ready to engage the enemy at close quarters. Below the outer wall another terrace sixty feet wide provided a clear killing field for any aggressor who made it over the moat. The brick-lined moat itself was another sixty-feet-wide obstacle, surmounted by a wall on the inner side; it remains unclear whether it was in parts flooded in 1453 or simply comprised a dry ditch. The depth and complexity of the system, the stoutness of its walls and the height from which it commanded its field of fire rendered the Theodosian wall virtually impregnable to an army equipped with the conventional resources of siege warfare in the Middle Ages.

Along its length the land wall was pierced by a succession of gates. Some gave access to the surrounding countryside via bridges over the moat, which would be destroyed in the run-up to a siege; others, the military gates, allowed connection between the different layers of the walls and were used to move troops about within the system. The wall also contained a number of posterns – small subsidiary doorways – but the Byzantines were always aware of the danger these sally ports posed for the security of their city and managed them rigorously. In general the two sets of gates alternated along the length of the wall, with the military gates being referred to by number while the public gates were named. There was the Gate of the Spring, named after a holy spring outside the city, the Gate of the Wooden Circus, the Gate of the Military Boot Makers, the Gate of the Silver Lake. Some spawned multiple names as associations were forgotten and new ones created. The Third Military Gate was also referred to as the Gate of the Reds, after a circus faction in the early city, while the Gate of Charisius, a leader of the blue faction, was also called the Cemetery Gate. And into the structure were built some remarkable monuments that expressed the contradictions of Byzantium. Towards the Golden Horn the imperial palace of Blachernae nestled behind the wall, a building said once to be of such beauty that foreign visitors could find no words to describe it; adjoining it, the dank and dismal prison of Anemas, a dungeon of sinister reputation, scene of some of the most ghastly moments in Byzantine history. Here John V blinded both his son and his three-year-old grandson, and from here one of Byzantium’s most notorious emperors, Andronikos the Terrible, already horribly mutilated, was led out on a mangy camel amongst taunting crowds to the Hippodrome, where he was strung upside down between two columns and mockingly slaughtered.

The continuous life of the wall was so long that a deep accretion of history, myth and half-forgotten association attached to the various sectors. There was hardly a place that had not witnessed some dramatic moment in the city’s history – scenes of terrible treachery, miraculous deliverance and death. Through the Golden Gate Heraclius brought the True Cross in 628; the Gate of the Spring saw the stoning of the unpopular Emperor Nicephorus Phocas by an enraged mob in 967 and the restoration of the Orthodox emperors after Latin rule in 1261 when the gate was opened from within by sympathizers. The dying Emperor Theodosius II was carried through the Fifth Military Gate in 450 following a fall from his horse in the valley outside, while the Gate of the Wooden Circus was blocked up in the twelfth century after a prophecy that the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa would use it to capture the city.

Next to St Sophia itself no structure expressed the psychic life of the city’s people as powerfully as the walls. If the church was their vision of heaven, the wall was their shield against the battering of hostile forces, under the personal protection of the Virgin herself. During sieges the constant prayers and the procession of her sacred relics along the ramparts were considered by the faithful to be generally more crucial than mere military preparations. A powerful spiritual forcefield surrounded such actions. Her robe, housed at the nearby church at Blachernae, was accorded more credit for seeing off the Avars in 626 and the Russians in 860 than military engineering. People saw visions of guardian angels on the ramparts and emperors inserted marble crosses and prayers into the outward facing walls. Near the centre point of the wall there is a simple talisman that expresses Constantinople’s deepest fear. It says: ‘O Christ God, preserve your city undisturbed and free from war. Conquer the fury of the enemies.’

At the same time, the practical maintenance of the walls was the one essential public work for the city, in which every citizen was required to help, without exemption. Whatever the state of the Byzantine economy money was always found to patch up the wall. It was sufficiently important to have its own special officials under the overall authority of the impressively named ‘Count of the Walls’. As time and earthquakes shattered towers and crumbled masonry, running repairs were marked by a wealth of commemorative marble inscriptions set into the stonework. They span the centuries from the first reconstruction in 447 to a total renovation of the outer wall in 1433. One of the last dated repairs before the siege expresses the co-operation of divine and human agencies in the maintenance of the city’s shield. It reads: ‘This God-protected gate of the life-giving spring was restored with the co-operation and at the expense of Manuel Bryennius Leontari, in the reign of the most pious sovereigns John and Maria Palaeologi in the month of May 1438.’

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.

Islam’s Initial Conquests I

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Raids into Byzantine and Persian territory by Arab tribesmen had long been a feature of life in the region, but it had been sporadic and usually desultory and had not previously been conducted by a unified Arab power. Moreover, by 633 the Byzantine and Persian empires were at a moment of unique weakness; having engaged from 602 to 628 in a mortal struggle that left Persia defeated and both empires thoroughly exhausted, neither was in good condition to recognize, react to, or cope with a serious invasion from another quarter. Yet that is exactly what confronted both powers.

Zoroastrian Persia, which Christian optimists had once hoped would become a Christian state due to the growing popularity of the faith in the region, was overrun and conquered in a series of campaigns carried out by Muslim Arabs between about 633 and 651 but it does not particularly concern us here. Christian Byzantium, exhausted though it was, had considerably more resilience, and a titanic struggle commenced between Muslims and Eastern Christians that would last from the 630s to May 29, 1453 (when Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks) and even beyond. This long history of attacks against Byzantine Christian territories by varying Muslim armies over the course of several centuries, which would ultimately result in the complete conquest of the Byzantine Empire, began only about fifteen months after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.

Indeed, Muhammad had envisioned Syria as the primary objective of Islamic expansion and had made provision for its invasion. Caliph Abu Bakr (r. 632–634) was left to carry out the project, launching a moderately successful raid in depth on southern Syria by an army of about 24,000 in the autumn of 633. A full invasion of this key province began in 634 under the leadership of Caliph Umar (r. 634–644). In 634 or 635 (sources differ), Damascus fell, and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius realized he had a serious situation on his hands. Scraping together all available troops, many of whom were Christian Arab auxiliaries, he sent out an army against the Muslim invaders. At the River Yarmuk, Heraclius’ army was decisively defeated and destroyed, leaving him with no choice but to cede Syria and withdraw. In 637 Antioch, in northern Syria, fell. The Muslims then turned their attention south, taking Byzantine-controlled Christian Jerusalem in 637 (or 638). Moving into Egypt, they occupied Alexandria in 642. The Byzantines counterattacked and recaptured Alexandria, but it fell again, and definitively, in 646.

Thus, in less than a decade, some of the most important cities of the Christian world—including three of its five great patriarchates (Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch; Rome and Constantinople being the other two)—had fallen to Islamic conquerors, causing acute alarm among contemporary Christian authors. These were all important centers of the early Christian world. Saul of Tarsus had formalized his conversion to Christianity as Saint Paul in Damascus, and he had been let down over the wall in a basket to escape his enemies there; it was also the site of the magnificent Basilica of Saint John the Baptist (which would be converted into a mosque in the early eighth century).

Antioch was the place where Christians had first been given the very name “Christian” and the city where Peter, according to church tradition, had first served as bishop before moving to Rome. Saint Mark the Evangelist was associated with Alexandria, as were the later, influential Christian writers Origen and Saint Clement of Alexandria, and it was here that Patriarch Athanasius had, almost alone, withstood the heresy of Arius in the fourth century. And the loss of Jerusalem—the site of many of the most important events of the New Testament, including Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the most important locus of Christian pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and beyond—was particularly painful, not only spiritually but also emotionally. The reaction of Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem, upon seeing the Muslim leader Umar preparing a shrine on the Temple Mount, was typical: he is reported to have cried out, in anguish, “Truly this is the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, and it now stands in the Holy Place,” and to have burst into tears.

The loss of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt was crippling to Byzantium economically, politically, and militarily, but more blows to Christan lands were to come. Christian Axum (Ethiopia) and Nubia (Sudan), in northeast Africa, managed to beat off the first waves of Muslim attacks, which began as early as 640. Muslim advances against Nubia would recommence in the late thirteenth century, turning Nubia into a vassal state of Mamluk Egypt. The Christians of the Ethiopian highlands managed to hold out against Islam, although significant Muslim enclaves were established in the lowlands and along the coast during this later period. Muslim armies entered the Christian kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia in 642–643 and were in Cappadocia in {12} central Anatolia by 647. Cappadocia was the region where, in the first century, Saint Paul had lavished a great deal of missionary energy; later on, in the fourth century the important Eastern Christian fathers Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus had lived and written there, and Saint Macrina (older sister of Saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa) had founded an influential convent of nuns there.37

Between 649 and 655, the formerly land-bound Arabs learned to use the resources of Alexandria to launch naval attacks on the Byzantines that progressively challenged the latter’s fleet, and in the Battle of the Masts off the southwestern coast of Anatolia (Asia Minor) in 655, the Muslim fleet decisively defeated the Byzantines and destroyed Byzantine naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean.38 Nor were the central and western Mediterranean regions immune. With lightning speed, the Muslims exploited their position; they began to raid Byzantine Sicily as early as 652.

North Africa

In 647, Muslims who were advancing west from Egypt took Sufetula (modern Sbeitla in Tunisia) and put Carthage—the ancient city that had been home to two influential Christian writers, Tertullian and Saint Cyprian—in jeopardy; that city and its port fell in 698, and with it went Byzantine naval control of the western Mediterranean.

Here Muslims encountered a short-lived, but surprising, resistance from a shadowy figure: a Berber princess known as “the Kahina.” Whether she was pagan, Jewish, or (most probably) Christian is not entirely clear from the sources, but she rallied her people and managed what the imperial Byzantines seemed frequently incapable of in the seventh century—she rebuffed the Islamic armies, at least for a time. But the Muslim juggernaut was not to be delayed for long; by 702 or 703 the Kahina was dead, apparently killed in battle, as she herself took part in the fighting. According to an Islamic legend, in a gesture of despair, she sent her sons to join the enemy before her death at her last stand. In any case, the Muslims had already bypassed her and, as early as 670, had reached the Atlantic Ocean. When their commander, Uqba ibn Naf’i, reached the Atlantic, reflecting the intertwined nature of the Islamic faith with the goals of the conquerors, he was said to have ridden exultantly out into the waves, shouting, “Oh Allah! If the sea had not prevented me, I would have coursed on forever like Alexander the Great, upholding your faith and fighting all who disbelieved!”

Less than a generation after the Prophet’s death, Christian North Africa—home of theologians such as Saint Augustine and martyrs like Saints Felicity and Perpetua, who were central to the development of Christian tradition and thought, and rich with Christian history—had fallen to Islam. Along with Syria-Palestine and Anatolia, it had been the site of desert hermits and one of the birthplaces of Christian monasticism, home to the great and ancient patriarchate of Alexandria with its vast heritage of ancient learning, and the stage for the conflict between Catholic orthodoxy and two major heretical movements known as Arianism and Donatism, with all the theological developments that sprang from those conflicts.

The final version of the New Testament’s canon (the books approved as genuine) had been sent to the pope in Rome for confirmation by the Council of Carthage in 397. And the list goes on. In short, North Africa, from Egypt to present-day Morocco, was a vibrant and vital part of the pre-Islamic Christian world. Not all of its population was immediately converted to Islam—far from it. Large enclaves of Christians endured till the turn of the millennium or later, especially in Egypt, where perhaps 10 percent of the population remains Christian even today. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes the deeply rooted public Christian culture of North Africa had been abruptly and violently suppressed by 700—by the armies of Islam.

Anatolia (Asia Minor) and the Aegean

Back in the eastern Mediterranean, Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the most important Christian city in the world at the time, was fighting for its life. After 663, Muslim armies made near-annual raids into Anatolia, encroaching ever farther over the next fifteen years, soon reaching the Christian city of Chalcedon, situated across the Bosporus from Constantinople and the site of the historic Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451. The Muslims had been working toward controlling the islands of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and they established a base on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara. Smyrna, farther south on the coast of Anatolia, fell in 672, leaving Islamic forces in control of most of the vast peninsula. By 674, a Muslim fleet was cruising outside Constantinople.

In following years their fleets returned, attempting to besiege and capture the city. In 678, the Byzantines, using their famous “Greek fire” apparently for the first time, drove the Islamic invaders off with heavy losses. A thirty-year truce was concluded, in theory at least, between the Muslim Arabs and the Christian Byzantines, which specified a heavy annual tribute to be paid by the Arabs to the emperor. For the first time, the tide had been stemmed and an important victory won. The Byzantine historian George Ostrogorsky saw it as critical:

The Arab attack . . . was the fiercest which had ever been launched by the infidels against a Christian stronghold, and the Byzantine capital was the last dam left to withstand the rising Muslim tide. The fact that it held saved not only the Byzantine Empire, but the whole of European civilization.

Alexander Vasiliev, another great Byzantine historian of the twentieth century, was of the same opinion: “By the successful repulse of the Arabs from Constantinople and by the advantageous peace treaty, [the Byzantines] performed a great service, not only for [the] Empire, but also for western Europe, which was thus shielded from the serious Muslim menace.”A number of historians have questioned whether the achievement was quite that far-reaching, but there is no question that the gateway to what we would call Eastern Europe and beyond had been held closed. For the moment.

But only for the moment, which was brief. Clashes resumed in 691, and in 709 the Muslims took an important fortress in Cappadocia, the heartland of Anatolia. During the next two years they made significant advances into Cilicia, the southeastern coastal region of Anatolia, bordering Syria. Tarsus, Cilicia’s capital city, was the birthplace of Saint Paul and home to a large number of early Christian martyrs. But worse was yet to come; in August 717, a great Muslim army and fleet appeared at Constantinople and settled down to besiege the city in earnest again, this time for an entire year.

Islam’s Initial Conquests II

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Once again the Byzantines, fighting desperately, drove off their attackers, and once again passage to the rest of continental Europe was blocked, with great effort. The Muslim threat was still by no means neutralized, however. For some time after 726, Muslim forces invaded Anatolia annually, besieging important and historic Christian cities such as Nicaea, the site in 325 of perhaps the most important of all the ecclesiastical councils in Christian history. In 740, however, the Byzantines won another battle, at Acroinon, and suppressed the attacks on their heartland for the time being.

By now, the Umayyad dynasty was losing its hold over the Muslim world (and the Dar al-Islam was about to meet a long-term check in Central Asia by a Chinese army at Talas in 751), and the Byzantines were allowed a respite and a chance to rebuild and even counterattack. In 746 they reoccupied part of Syria and in 747 destroyed a Muslim fleet. And they temporarily reoccupied areas of Armenia and Mesopotamia, though these were quickly lost to powerful Muslim counter-thrusts. In 781, Arabs inflicted a sharp defeat on the Byzantines in western Anatolia. For more than half a century thereafter, the line between the two faiths settled into inconclusive, if bloody, border war. Life was more or less difficult for Christians in the area, depending on the whim and resources of local Muslim rulers. Christian writers recount a tale of repeated harassment and outright persecution, from the seventh century to the eleventh, with occasional respites.

When matters heated up again, it was because the Byzantines had gotten their feet under them sufficiently to mount significant campaigns with a real chance of success. In 843 the Byzantines recovered Crete, though only for about a year, and this brief advance was answered by a Muslim victory in Anatolia in 844. But in 853, the Byzantines sent a great fleet to the south, taking and sacking Damietta in the Nile Delta in the first Byzantine counter-thrust against Egypt since the 640s. Unfortunately for them, the principal long-term result of this action was to inspire the Muslim rulers of Egypt to concentrate more intently on their own naval power, which would cause the Byzantines a great deal of trouble in the next century. But at the moment, it was a great achievement, and Christian arms began to advance steadily.

In 853, Emperor Michael III sent his general Petronas to campaign against the Muslims in Anatolia, and the military momentum began to shift back toward the Byzantines. When the emir of Melitene in northern Mesopotamia, who had been raiding and harassing Anatolia since the 850s, penetrated as far as Amisos on the Black Sea, they caught him on his way home in 863, encircled his army, and killed him. Following up this victory with a counterattack into Muslim lands, the Byzantines thereby eliminated the immediate threat to their frontiers and took the fight back to the enemy.

The mid-tenth century saw a great wave of Byzantine victories. In 943 and 944, they retook the northern end of Mesopotamia, besieging Edessa, which had fallen to Muslim forces in 638 but still had a majority Christian Armenian population. Edessa famously possessed the relic known as the “Mandylion,” believed to be an imprint of the face of Jesus Christ and thought by some to be the “Veil of Veronica” or even what is now called the “Shroud of Turin.” The emir of Edessa handed over this relic to the Byzantines in exchange for some two hundred Muslim prisoners. In 960 and 961, the Byzantines finally retook Crete, which would remain in Christian hands till 1669. The island had been a major staging ground for Islamic campaigns in the Mediterranean, so this was an important victory. It was followed up by the reconquest of Cilicia and the island of Cyprus in 965 and of Antioch in 969. In the next year Aleppo was captured and its emir made a tributary of Byzantium, though the city was not formally re-incorporated into the empire.

The next decade—the 970s—saw the high point of the Byzantine counterattack. It would not be correct to call these campaigns actual “crusades,” as some writers have attempted to do, but in the words of George Ostrogorsky, they “breathed the veritable crusading spirit.” The idea that Jerusalem was a Christian city that ought to belong to Christians, not Muslims, was not, as Khalid Yahya Blankinship claims, original to Pope Urban II, nor was it at all unheard of before 1095; rather, everyone knew that Jerusalem, for reasons including those given above, was central to the Christian faith, and the Byzantines were demonstrably trying very hard to recover it more than a century before the First Crusade.

In pursuit of this goal, Emperor John Tzimiskes mounted a series of major, and mostly successful, campaigns against the Muslims. He pressed farther into Mesopotamia, placed Damascus under tribute, and retook Lebanon (including Beirut and Sidon), Tiberias, Nazareth (Christ’s home town), the area around the Sea of Galilee (where Christ had carried out much of his ministry, including, it was believed, delivering the Sermon on the Mount), Acre, and even Caesarea (one of several centers of apostolic activity in the first century). He lacked the resources to reach Jerusalem, however, and some of his conquests were short lived, though he wrote rather optimistically to his Armenian allies that “all Phoenicia, Palestine and Syria are freed from the yoke of the Saracens [Muslims] and recognize the rule of the Romans [Byzantines].” Unfortunately for the Byzantines, this energetic and capable ruler died in early 976, and the program of reconquest slowed. But the Byzantines retained Antioch and were able to use it as an operational base for the next several decades.

The Muslims promptly contested this; in the mid-990s, the Fatimid Egyptians mounted serious attacks on both Antioch and Aleppo and were barely fought off. Within the Shi’a Fatimid Empire, which was often more tolerant than the Sunni caliphate toward Christians and Jews, the period of the late tenth to early eleventh centuries proved difficult for dhimmis. The “mad” Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (996–1021) persecuted Christians and Jews with unusual vigor. He outlawed wine (which had the practical and probably intended effect of interdicting not only the Christian Eucharist but also some Jewish rituals, such as the Passover seder meal), forced conversions, forbade the celebration of Epiphany and Easter, required them to wear identification of their subject status in public, and, in 1009, ordered the demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the most revered church in the Christian world, as well as a number of other churches and at least one convent.

True to his mercurial, supposedly mad nature, after 1012 he allowed unwilling apostates to return to their Christian and Jewish faiths and rescinded most of his anti-Christian, anti-Jewish edicts, but by then great damage had been done to his dhimmi subjects. Al-Hakim was hard on Sunni Muslims, as well, and came to a mysterious and apparently violent end in 1021. His successors were less relentlessly repressive than he, but the Christians remaining in the Holy Land, who might still have been as much as 40 to 50 percent of the population, were traumatized. Word reached the West fairly quickly of their sufferings and vulnerability, of the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and of the difficulties encountered by pilgrims to the Holy Land.60 That news would color and inform Western attitudes toward Jerusalem and Muslims throughout the eleventh century and into the era of what we call the crusades.

The mid-eleventh century saw serious disruptions to the Muslim world of the Near East. In 1055, the Seljuk Turks, nomads from the steppes of Central Asia who were part of a larger group of Turkish peoples known as the Oghuz, effectively neutralized the weakened descendants of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and began the process of replacing Muslim Arabs as overlords of the region. Pagan at first, the Seljuks converted to the Sunni branch of Islam during this process of replacement. By the latter part of the century, then, the Muslim Arab elite, which had forced itself on the diverse population of the Near East in the seventh century, found itself displaced by another foreign, and once again newly Muslim, elite. By 1065, the Seljuk Turks had captured part of Christian Armenia, devastated Byzantine Cilicia, and made inroads into Byzantine Anatolia. In 1067, they took Caesarea, in Cappadocian Anatolia.

In response, Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes assembled a large but patchwork army, drawing on pagan Pechinegs and other steppe peoples, Norman and Frankish mercenaries, and the various peoples of the empire, and carried off some reasonably successful counterattacks in 1068 and 1069. But in 1071, the world fell apart for the Byzantines when the Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan thrust into far eastern Anatolia, meeting an imperial army near the shores of Lake Van. On August 26, the Byzantine army was decisively defeated, and the emperor himself was taken prisoner.

The emperor was later ransomed for several cities—including the promise (never fulfilled) of Antioch and Edessa (which the Byzantines had recovered in 1031)—and an enormous sum of money. Romanus never recovered his throne, however, losing it in a palace coup that resulted in his blinding, exile, and death. Christian Byzantium was plunged into several decades of turmoil and instability. It lost its “breadbasket” and principal military recruiting grounds in Anatolia and, of course, those ancient Christian centers such as Antioch (which was taken again by the Turks in 1084) and Nicaea, both of which would not be recovered until the First Crusade. In the 1080s, Alp Arslan established his own Sultanate of Rum (Rome) with its eventual capital tauntingly near Constantinople, 125 miles away in the city of Nicaea.

In the chaos that followed Manzikert, Romanus’ Norman mercenaries tried briefly to establish their own principality in Galatia, in central Anatolia. They failed, but the knowledge of this attempt probably made its way back to Norman territories in southern Italy, Sicily, and France. Here was territory that might be taken and perhaps even held.

The Byzantines, in the person of the new emperor, Michael VII (r. 1071–1078), had begun sending off appeals to the West soon after Manzikert, primarily to the person they thought most likely to help, since—among other things—holders of his office had been involved in defensive actions against Muslim invaders in Italy for quite some time: the pope. Gregory VII (r. 1073–1085), current occupant of the See of Saint Peter, was favorably inclined63 and immediately began to plan for an expedition to the eastern empire’s aid. Unfortunately for him and them, he was soon interrupted by a conflict with the German king and emperor elect, Henry IV, and embroiled in the Investiture Controversy (1075–1122). Documents mentioning any such rescue expedition thereupon ceased to be written by Pope Gregory’s secretariat—he now had neither time nor resources to come to Constantinople’s aid, as he was fighting, often literally, for his life.

Meanwhile, the Seljuk Turks, avowed champions of Sunni Islam, continued their encroachments against Shi`a Muslims and Eastern Christians alike. They seized Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1073 and took Damascus around 1076. The Fatimids seem to have retaken Jerusalem in 1076, only to lose it again to the Turks soon thereafter.

The city still retained a substantial Christian population, even after the Turkish massacres of its inhabitants in the 1070s. These residents of the Holy City were not just Eastern Christians of various loyalties but increasingly Latin Christians too. Charlemagne had taken an interest in the well-being of Eastern Christians in the eighth and ninth centuries, and in the eleventh century not only pilgrims but also merchants such as Amalfitans from Italy were increasingly taking up residence in Jerusalem, despite the increased difficulties for, and pressure on, Christians in the area.

Therefore, just because the area had fallen under Muslim rule did not mean that Christians had ceased to live there or had forgotten it or lost interest in its well-being and significance to their faith. Recognizing the dangers, however, determined Western pilgrims increasingly began to band together and bear arms to ensure their safety and ability to reach and return from their destination. In 1064–1065, a large group of mainly German pilgrims made it to Jerusalem and back, though they were forced to fight for their lives and suffered losses. Between 1087 and 1091 Count Robert of Flanders (later a leader of the First Crusade) led a major, and armed, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, stopped along the way to visit Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and swearing an oath to him to send five hundred Flemish knights, on his return, to help the Byzantines fight off the Muslims.

In August 1098 the Fatimids recovered Jerusalem. By this time the First Crusade was almost upon them. Bracing for the attack, the Fatimids expelled all Christians from the Holy City in 1099—probably (and reasonably) supposing that their sympathies would be more likely to lie with their fellow Christians than their Muslim overlords—and waited for the arrival of the latest Christian attempt to recover their central city: the First Crusade.

BARBARIAN AND BYZANTINE ITALY

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Belisarius under the walls of Rome by AMELIANVS on DeviantArt.

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Part of Justinian’s wars of Reconquest.

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Italy about 575, Byzantine possessions in orange.

The great Italian historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano recounted that, when he wanted to understand Italian history, he caught a train and went to Ravenna. ‘There, between the tomb of Theodoric and that of Dante, in the reassuring neighbourhood of the best manuscript of Aristophanes and in the less reassuring one of the best portrait of the Empress Theodora’, he could begin to feel what Italian history had ‘really been’.

The presence of a foreign rule, the memory of an imperial pagan past, and the overwhelming force of the Catholic tradition have been three determining features of Italian history for many centuries. These three features first joined together when Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom.

It is an idiosyncratic passage but also an illuminating one so long as we remember that he was not really writing about ‘Italian history’ but about the history of what happened in the Italian peninsula. The Goths, Lombards and Franks of the old ‘Dark Ages’ were fighting not about Italy but for territory they wanted to conquer and settle. As for the Byzantines, foes of the first two barbarian invaders, they fought because they, the Roman imperialists of the east, were ambitious to recover for themselves the western imperial heritage.

Historians have an everlasting desire to overturn the verdicts of their predecessors, and it has become customary to claim that the ‘barbarian invasions’ of the late Roman Empire were neither barbarian nor invasions but migrations of not very aggressive Germanic peoples. Similarly, the Dark Ages are no longer seen as especially dark: if they were a sort of twilight in some areas, in others, such as the Ravenna of the mosaics, they were positively bright. In the endless debates between change and continuity – as if all history, even for the briefest period, is not a combination of the two – continuity in this instance is triumphant, except in Italy, where historians have a long memory of intruders and can recognize an invasion when they see one. Yet although the cities may have survived in a diminished state, along with certain aspects of Roman administration, civilization was altered throughout the western empire, and people became poorer. Archaeological evidence indicates that in Britain after the withdrawal of the legions economic life reverted not to the preceding Iron Age but to the Bronze Age before that: at the beginning of the fifth century the craft of pottery became extinct, and the technique of making it on a wheel was not retrieved for three centuries.

As rulers, the barbarians – if such they were – started well. Little is known of the origins of Odoacer, who in 476 overthrew the last emperor of the west (a child called Romulus Augustulus), except that his father was a notable at the court of Attila, King of the Huns. Odoacer made himself king, governed largely in accordance with Roman practice, and resided in the emperor’s palace in Ravenna, which had been the imperial capital since the beginning of the century. Unfortunately he provoked the anger of the Byzantine emperor, Zeno, who persuaded Theodoric, chief of the Ostrogoths, to abandon his raids on the Balkans and instead invade Italy, where he would be permitted to make himself king as a vassal of Constantinople. Theodoric obliged with an invasion in 489, a long siege of Ravenna and the murder of Odoacer, his wife, his son and many of his followers.

The reign of the new king began with a bloodbath and ended soon after the execution of the philosopher Boethius, who wrote his celebrated De consolatione philosophiae while waiting in prison for his death. Yet for three decades in between Theodoric ruled wisely and peacefully. He insisted on religious tolerance, refusing to favour either side in the controversy over Arianism, the heresy which denied the full divinity of Christ, and he managed to dissuade his victorious Goths from bullying the Roman population. His was the last kingdom to extend over the whole of Italy for over 1,300 years, yet it was even more transient than other regimes of the age, disappearing shortly after his death and leaving little visible trace apart from his imposingly primitive mausoleum at Ravenna.

Theodoric had theoretically ruled Italy in the name of the Byzantine emperor on the Bosphorus, and it was one of Zeno’s successors, Justinian, who intervened again in Italy when Theodoric’s daughter was deposed and strangled by a cousin. The pretext was usurpation and murder, but the motive was the ambition of an emperor of the east to recover the empire of the west. Justinian ordered his general Belisarius to follow up his victories over the Sassanids in Persia and the Vandals in north Africa with an invasion of Sicily and the peninsula. The imperial army reached Ravenna in 540, thus making possible the creation of the great mosaic portrait which unsettled Momigliano: that of Justinian’s tough and capable wife, the Empress Theodora, robed in imperial purple in the octagonal church of San Vitale, a long distance from her past as an actress, a dancer and a single mother.

Sporadically suspicious of his general, Justinian recalled Belisarius a few years later and left the rest of the ‘reconquest’ to be completed by Narses and his other commanders. After a war that lasted nearly twenty years, an emperor once again controlled Italy, this time through the exarchate (or viceroyalty) of Ravenna. Although the Byzantines were in fact Greeks and were phasing out Latin, they called themselves rhomaioi (Greek for Roman) and continued to do so for centuries to come; no one called anyone or anything Byzantine (derived from Buzas, Constantinople’s first name) until the sixteenth century, after their empire had collapsed. They regarded themselves as the heirs of classical and Christian Rome and believed that they had reversed the process of decline. Yet the war had been costly for the empire and ruinous for Italy, destroying the prosperity preserved by Odoacer and Theodoric. The genius of Belisarius may have given the illusion of a genuine imperial revival, but the Byzantines were not rich enough, strong enough or popular enough to keep the whole of Italy.

In 568 Alboino, King of the Lombards, brought his Germanic people from the Danube Valley over the Julian Alps and into north-east Italy. Their advance was almost unopposed, and by the end of the following year they had captured all the cities north of the Po apart from Pavia, which they took in 572 and later made their capital. From there bands of Lombards ventured further south, eventually establishing independent duchies at Spoleto and at Benevento. Between the Lombard kingdom in the north and a reduced Roman-Byzantine exarchate in Ravenna, an uneasy coexistence survived for nearly 200 years, long enough for the heartlands of both to become permanently known as Lombardy and Romagna. Yet the Lombard king seldom exercised the far-flung authority of Theodoric. He was king of his own people (rex gentis langobardorum) not King of Italy, and wide areas of the south remained outside his control. Even in the Lombard areas he was frequently opposed by the dukes, not only of Spoleto and Benevento but also several others who governed the duchies or city-territories of the kingdom. So influential were these magnates that towards the end of the sixth century the Lombards experimented for a disastrous, anarchic decade with rule by dukes only.

Byzantine power began to crumble in the north and centre of the peninsula early in the eighth century. In 727 Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine prohibition of icons and killed the exarch; a generation later, it fell to the Lombards, thus ending its three and a half centuries of glory as the capital of the Roman Empire, of the Ostrogothic kingdom and of Byzantine Italy. Yet in the south the Byzantine Empire held on for longer than the Lombards in the north and even managed to expand its territory: at the beginning of the eleventh century its dominions in Italy included Apulia, Lucania and Calabria, all of them under the ecclesiastical control of Constantinople rather than Rome. Byzantium had possessed Sicily too, and Syracuse, one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean, had briefly been its capital in the seventh century; but Arab invaders from north Africa had subsequently conquered the island, and Taormina, the last toehold, had capitulated in 902. Muslim armies also succeeded in seizing several cities in Apulia and in establishing an emirate based in Bari in 841. They were eventually driven out by Christian forces, and Bari became the imperial headquarters in Italy for a further two centuries. But in 1071 the Byzantines suffered two defeats at the extremities of their empire, in the east by the Seljuk Turks and in the west by Norman knights, who captured Bari and went on to build themselves a sturdy kingdom in southern Italy.

Thus a great empire left the western stage, though the duchy of Venice remained within its orbit. Centuries later, Byzantium was condemned by Gibbon, Montesquieu and other writers of the Enlightenment as corrupt, deceitful, ineffective and tortuously bureaucratic; even the adjective Byzantine was used pejoratively, though the noun itself was later rehabilitated in the poetry of W. B. Yeats along with the sages and spirits of Constantinople. Yet it seems unfair to apply such insulting attributes to an empire that lasted a thousand years longer than its western partner and which was forced to expend much of its stamina resisting invasions of, among others, Persians, Huns, Bulgars, Goths, Lombards, Arabs, Normans, Venetians, crusaders, and both the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. By resisting the Arab armies in the seventh and eighth centuries, Byzantium had preserved not only itself but also Christendom and the future of Christian Europe.

Lombard kings were still expanding their territories in the middle of the eighth century, yet within a generation they had lost everything, including their crown. Pushing southwards down the peninsula, they alarmed the papacy which, since the exclusion of the Byzantines from central Italy, now controlled Rome and its hinterland. Pope Stephen II thus travelled to France, where he crowned the Frankish ruler, Pepin the Short, and in return received military help against the Lombards. He thereby inaugurated one tradition – of papal appeals for foreign help – which lasted till the nineteenth century, and another – of French invasions of Italy – which enjoyed an equally long history. Pepin twice brought an army into Italy to defeat the pope’s foes, but it was left to his son Charles, later known as Charlemagne, to descend upon Italy in 773, capture Pavia and sweep away the Lombard kingdom.

The following year Charles journeyed to Rome, where he received the title King of the Lombards to add to that of King of the Franks, and on a subsequent visit to the city he had his son, another Pepin, crowned King of Italy. He changed the name of the kingdom from regnum langobardorum to regnum italiae and he kept its administration separate from the rest of his empire. Yet he was less interested in Italy itself than in its role in his plan of renovatio imperii or ‘the empire renewed’. The goal of his long, obsessive career as a warrior, which included eighteen battles just against the Saxons, was the recovery of the western Roman Empire, of which he considered himself the heir; and he did indeed conquer much of it, with the exceptions of Britain, most of Iberia and the Byzantine parts of south Italy. On Christmas Day 800 he returned to Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Romans, a title which greatly annoyed the other emperor in Constantinople.

The alliance between the Franks and the papacy stimulated two potent ideas that crystallized into two extremely powerful institutions: the idea of a universal power, whose embodiment, the Holy Roman Empire, was only extinguished by Napoleon 1,000 years later, and the idea of territorial dominion of the popes, a reality that survived for even longer. Although the relationship may have been conceived in need and amity, it developed into a contest with fluctuating fortunes for both sides that ended only when the Emperor Charles V emerged victorious more than seven centuries later. This lengthy struggle was one of the determining factors in the saga of Italian disunity.

The papacy owed its rise to a number of audacious claims: that St Peter was Bishop of Rome (for which there is little evidence), that Jesus had given him primacy over his other apostles (which is debatable – the apostles seem to have been unaware of it), and that Peter’s successors – if they were his successors – had received divine authority for their claims to universal jurisdiction over the Church and to superiority over the monarchs of western Christendom. Fortune favoured pretensions to papal supremacy, especially after three rival patriarchates (Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) came under Muslim rule in the seventh century, and a fourth (Constantinople) went into schism with the Roman Church in 1054. Yet while the pope’s claims to be the ‘Vicar of Christ’ might conceivably be supported by a zealous interpretation of the New Testament, no one pretended that Jesus had said anything about Peter and his successors becoming rulers of earthly states. A fresh act of audacity was thus required to justify the papacy’s temporal power.

In 754 the Frankish King Pepin had agreed to conquer and to give Pope Stephen territories in central Italy that had belonged to the exarchate of Ravenna. Known as the Donation of Pepin, the promise was confirmed and magnified (though largely unfulfilled) twenty years later by his son Charlemagne. Yet, as the Frankish kings had no rights in Italy at this time, it could be argued that their donations of former Byzantine land were invalid. An older and higher authority was needed, and thus the Donation of Constantine came into being, a document in which the formidable fourth-century Roman emperor, grateful for his recovery from leprosy, was supposed to have granted his papal contemporary temporal dominion as well as spiritual primacy over the Roman Empire of the west. Not until the Renaissance was this proved to be one of history’s most spectacular forgeries. By that time the document (the work of a papal cleric in the eighth century) had served its purpose of justifying the formation of the Papal States, a thick band of territory stretching from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian that kept the Italian peninsula divided until the second half of the nineteenth century. The popes expanded their territories from Rome and its environs – the so-called ‘Patrimony of St Peter’ – to include the duchies of Perugia, Spoleto and Benevento, the March of Ancona and finally the Romagna and parts of Emilia. In the process Christ’s differentiation between the realms of God and Caesar was forgotten; so was the sixth-century pope, Gregory the Great, who liked to be called ‘the servant of the servants of God’. No one would have considered a Renaissance pope the servant of anyone, even God.

The strident struggles between the popes and the Holy Roman Empire date from the eleventh century. Before then both papacy and government descended into ages so dark that not even revisionists have been able to illuminate them. The empire of Charlemagne was divided between his grandsons and then his great-grandsons, and the dynasty’s generally absentee rule in Italy petered out in the reigns of Charles the Bald (875–7) and Charles the Fat (880–7). The century closed with invasions by the Magyars from Hungary, who ravaged the north, and stability did not improve over the following sixty years. In the long history of Italian disunity these decades are in a league of their own, a period dominated by magnates claiming to be king – and sometimes emperor – fighting other equally implausible claimants. One index of anarchy and upheaval is the list of claimants who succeeded in becoming kings of Italy between 888 and 962: one Marquess of Friuli, two Dukes of Spoleto, one Duke of Carinthia, one King of Provence, one Duke of Burgundy, two Kings of Arles, two Marquesses of Ivrea and one King of Germany.

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback

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Alexius I Comnenus

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graeco-Roman and Sassanian before the Eruption of Islam

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Byzantine and Sassanian Cavalry Clash.

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Sassanian Cataphract.

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Map of the Sassanian and Roman campaigns of the 6th century CE. The end result of the ensuing long and devastating Romano-Sassanian wars of the early 7th century CE was the creation of a military vacuum which was to be adeptly exploited by the Arabo-Islamic invasion forces of the newly established Caliphate in Arabia.

Iran attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in the spring of 571. When Khosrow faced the Roman enemy in the last decade of his reign, he commanded what was probably the world’s most tightly centralized state. Armenia was the casus belli waiting to happen, a religious powder keg wedged between the two empires. Iran’s fifty-year peace with Justinian expressly forbade Christian proselytizing in the Sassanian Empire. The Iranians had become convinced, nevertheless, that the Greeks’ evangelizing clergy, with the full assent of the increasingly mentally addled Justin, was determinedly at work in Armenia. The Sassanian war machine was like a huge boulder in downhill motion. The Immortals were the tested best of the Persian nobility, ten thousand men encased in contoured body armor transforming their close-order cavalry charges into a solid wall of glinting bronze, ostrich feathers rippling from helmets. Behind the bronze wall came the rolling thunder of armored elephants that made horses gag and panic at their smell. Added to the Sassanian advantage of numbers and superior professionalism were the broad sympathy and much complicity garnered among the Eastern Roman Empire’s religiously disaffected. No people showed greater determination to rid themselves of Graeco-Roman rule than the Jews, whose lot had become almost unbearable after Justinian’s policy of forced conversion and property expropriation. To the dogged Nestorians, along with large numbers of suffering powerless and poor, the approach of the kaviani, the Sassanians’ imposing gold, silver, and bejeweled rectangular battle standard, raised hopes of better days. Even Monophysites had become disaffected under Constantinople’s sway.

Faced with wars on several fronts and the gross wastage of material and human treasure in Mesopotamia, Constantinople finally sued for peace in 579, several months after death of the mentally unstable JustinII. Then, before negotiations could be finalized between Justin’s successor and Khosrow I, the shahanshah died of natural causes in the forty-eighth year of his extraordinary reign. Three years later, Emperor Tiberius Constantine, Justin’s militarily capable but spendthrift successor, dropped dead amid customary Byzantine rumors of poison. The imperial purple was draped over the shoulders of Tiberius Constantine’s militarily cautious and administratively capable son-in-law, Maurice (r. 582–602), who was too proud to sue for a peace that left the empire no better off than at the start of the war. More to the point, his father-in-law had utterly depleted the imperial treasury by desperate stopgap expenditures. Biding his time, Maurice applied himself to the systematic overhaul of the army, dividing the empire into military districts (themes) commanded by prefects (strategoi), and writing Strategikon, a primer that became a military classic.

There matters remained in stasis during his twenty-year reign: two decades of non-peace between the Eastern Roman Empire and Iran, a period of simmering ill will, border incidents and flare-ups, at least one significant confrontation, and proxy hostilities among satellites. In Maurice’s ninth throne year, he overruled his counselors in a carefully calculated decision that ultimately proved to be as disastrous as it was objectively intelligent. The fifteen-year-old grandson of Anushirvan himself appeared on Byzantine soil seeking asylum and asked Constantinople’s help in regaining the ancestral throne. The prince’s father had perished in a coup d’état masterminded by the regime’s senior general, a nobleman boasting descent from the last Parthian kings. The logic of the usurping general’s dictatorship could only mean outright war with the Eastern Roman Empire. Khosrow II, dubbed Parvez, “the Victorious,” hardly deserved his name in 590. Maurice embraced the prince’s cause, supplying arms and scarce gold to the army of loyalists flocking to Syria on condition that, once in power, Khosrow’s grandson would sign a treaty of perpetual peace and surrender of Armenia. The dictatorship collapsed within the year, and the new shahanshah conscientiously and gratefully ended the war with the Eastern Roman Empire. By the terms of the generous peace of 591, Persian Armenia and Syria, along with several major cities, were restored to the Greeks.

By the time Maurice of the Eastern Roman Empire and Khosrow II concluded the peace of 591, years of strident Graeco-Iranian competition since the death of Justinian and Khosrow I had forever altered the social, political, and commercial landscape of Arabia. It would have been the rare imperial counselor in the Great Palace at Constantinople or in the White Palace at Ctesiphon who concerned himself with the state of affairs in Arabia’s inner peninsula. Then, as today, superpower panjandrums assumed the prerogative of optional notice of any collateral consequences of their policies. At the dawn of the seventh century, Arabs rated no more superpower attention than did late-twentieth-century Africans south of the Sahara. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a backwater tenuously tied to the great centers of Asia Minor by camel caravans and political alliances of secondary importance. Then, in the last third of the sixth century and the first twenty years of the seventh, Arabia was drawn into the Fertile Crescent’s wars without end. Parthian Persia and Latin Rome were long gone.

Sassanian Iran and the Eastern Roman Empire carried on in their names. For the tribes of the Arabian heartland, the Graeco-Iranian competition fiercely underway at both ends of their peninsula presented opportunities for enrichment, influence, and out-migration hitherto imagined by only the canniest among them. To be sure, out-migration to the edges of Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, where Arab clans assimilated the more sophisticated cultures, had been ongoing for centuries.

The Sarakenoi, as the Greeks called “the people of the tents” (Saraceni in Latin), in more recent times had begun to press harder against the frontiers of both empires. Bedouin raids on caravans and razzias for slaves and booty had accelerated during Justinian’s reign. And in another of those characteristically principled but strategically questionable decisions, Justin II had provocatively terminated the Bedouins’ protection money. But nothing tempted the Roman or the Iranian military establishments to consider invading Arabia proper, a sand mass nearly one-third the size of Europe, parts of which saw rain only every tenth year and for months were baked at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A growing nuisance, the Arabs were still considered a backward people who merely featured in the peripheral vision of the superpowers, although Greek merchants and Persian importers became less risk-averse about turning a good profit at either end of the thousand-mile Arabian sand conveyor belt.

The Arabs of the Hijaz and the vast Najd watched as proxy wars raged in the peninsula’s north and east, and conflict in the south spurted upward out of Yemen like ink on a blotter. The Romans had called Yemen Arabia felix (“Happy Arabia”) because of its alluvial topography and rain-watered expanses. Once united by a powerful Arab state and ruled by a storied Hebrew king known to the Arabs as Dhu Nuwas (“the man with the hanging locks”), Yemen was partially conquered in 525 CE by an Ethiopian army from the kingdom of Axum, the Christian powerhouse in the Horn of Africa. Yusuf As ‘as was the Hebrew name of the man “with the hanging locks.” He was the scion of the founding Jewish dynasty of the great Himyarite kingdom of Yemen that the Axumite Ethiopians invaded and subjugated. Legend holds that Yusuf As ‘as rode his horse suicidally into the Red Sea after losing his kingdom. With his disappearance, a curious chapter in Judeo-Arab domination closed in southern Arabia. Fifty years later, encouraged by Justin II’s promise of money and manpower, the Ethiopian viceroy of Yemen felt strong enough to expand his control over southern Arabia. Yemeni Jews and local sheikhs who chafed under the Monophysite Ethiopians and remembered the golden age of the “hanging locks” man sent urgent appeals to Ctesiphon to act before it was too late.

War reached the very gates of Mecca in 570. The Ethiopian viceroy, Abraha, approached with a large army and war elephants, beasts previously unseen in the desert. To plant Christianity deep in Yemen’s soil, the Ethiopians had built a large church in San’a, today the capital of Yemen. They intended the church to become a great pilgrimage center, a revenue source freed of competition from Mecca. The people of Mecca quaked behind their flimsy wattled fortifications as sand clouds on the horizon trailed the advancing Ethiopian host and its terrifying cacophony. That day fixed itself permanently in Arabia’s racial and religious memory, an allusive phrase about “elephant people” inscribing itself in the Qur’an. To the Arabs, Mecca had been miraculously spared, some said, by a flock of attacking birds. In reality, Meccans owed their deliverance to the sudden arrival of a Sassanian naval expedition, dispatched by Khosrow I to checkmate Graeco-Roman power in the Gulf of Aden. Iranian forces quickly routed the Ethiopians, who fled across the Red Sea to Axum. Yemen was enfolded into the Sassanian grand alliance. Three score years in the future, great significance would be divined in the fact that the Year of the Elephant, 570, was thought to be the very year of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah’s birth in Mecca. For Edward Gibbon, the Occident’s cheerleader, 570 CE was another of history’s lost opportunities. “If a Christian power had been maintained in Arabia,” he reflected, “Mahomet must have been crushed in his cradle, and Abyssinia would have prevented a revolution which has changed the civil and religious state of the world.”

The political, commercial, and religious tremors visited upon Arabia by the superpowers were sudden, sharp, and unprecedented in force. Ethiopian elephants at Mecca’s gates were but the seeming hallucinations of superpower geopolitics. When war came again in 571, Iran and Rome furiously pressed the game of checkmate by proxies across the Fertile Crescent. The proxy calculus was hardly new. At the top of the century, Constantinople and Ctesiphon had created the Lakhmid and Ghassanid kingdoms, now long forgotten. The Lakhmid kingdom, a Sassanian invention extending from the Persian Gulf to Iraq, was ruled by the Banu Lakhm, an Arab clan that warred more or less on the side of the Iranians against the Graeco-Romans for three generations. The Ghassanid kingdom, a Graeco-Roman creation ruled by the nomadic Banu Ghassan, stretched across the top of Arabia from Sinai to the intersection of the Lakhmid territory with today’s Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. The emperors suspected their Ghassanid potentates of collusion with the Iranians and, almost as intolerable, of genuine Monophysite convictions. In the first decade of the seventh century, Constantinople removed the Ghassanid leadership, whereupon several Ghassanid sheikhs defected to Iran. The Ghassanid kingdom, a considerable power blocking the advance of the hungry tribes of the Hijaz, all but disintegrated. The loyalty of the Lakhmid kingdom’s rulers also came under suspicion from their Persian overlords, and with a similar unintended outcome. The consequences were ultimately disastrous for the Sassanian and Eastern Roman Empires and liberating for the peninsular Arabs. By their own actions, the Greeks and Iranians opened an unrestricted channel to Syria for the desert Arabs.