Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 6

Rise of Islam

“In the victorious days of the Roman republic, it had been the aim of the senate to confine their councils and legions to a single war, and completely to suppress a first enemy before they provoked the hostilities of a second. These timid maxims of policy were disdained by the magnanimity or enthusiasm of the Arabian caliphs. With the same vigour and success they invaded the successors of Augustus and those of Artaxerxes; and the rival monarchies at the same instant became the prey of an enemy whom they had been so long accustomed to despise. In the ten years of the administration of Omar, the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles, destroyed four thousand churches or temples of the unbelievers, and edified fourteen hundred moschs for the exercise of the religion of Mohammed. One hundred years after his flight from Mecca, the arms and the reign of his successors extended from India to the Atlantic Ocean…”

 – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter LI, Edward Gibbon (1776)

It must have seemed like Armageddon.

Fire danced on the Bosphorus, leaping from ship to ship as they crashed in to one another, driven by the wind and the furious current. The screams of dying men filled the air, rising above the beleaguered city. Watching from the ramparts, the defenders could see their victorious fleet chasing down the remaining enemy ships, spewing the incendiary Greek Fire from siphons mounted on their decks. Debris and dead bodies bobbed in the swell, and clouds of dense smoke choked the air. And everywhere, surrounding her on all sides, the enemy army continued to press upon Constantinople, too numerous to count.

Even victory was tinged with defeat.

How had it come to this?

Less than a century ago the Byzantines had been basking in their renewed glory. Under Heraclius the Sassanids had been utterly defeated, and all the territories in the east previously lost to the Persians had been regained. The True Cross of Christ had been returned to Jerusalem, and all was right with the world…

As it turned out, this was but the calm before the storm.

In 632AD the prophet Muhammad died, having united the tribes of the Arabian peninsula under the banner of the newly formulated religion of Islam. In the years following his passing, his successors – the Rashidun (The Rightly Guided Caliphs) – continued his quest to unite all peoples in worship of Allah, the One True God. To this end they began a series of conquests that would ultimately lead to the creation of an empire bigger than any the world had yet seen, stretching from the borders of India and China in the east, all the way across Asia and North Africa, into Spain and to the peaks of the Pyrenees. By this time the Rashidun had given way to the Umayyad Caliphate, and though it wouldn’t be long before the unified Islamic empire fractured and split into a number of competing states, the threat to Christian Europe would not abate for many centuries to come.

In the 7th-century though, no-one knew the danger the Arab tribesmen represented until it was too late. Both the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, decimated by their long struggle and still recovering from the disaster that was the bubonic plague a century before, were ripe for the fall.

First to feel the hammer of the Islamic juggernaut were the Persians. The forces of the King of Kings proved no match for the zealous, hardy fighters of the Arabian Desert, and in a few short years (and defeat after defeat), the Sassanids were no more.

With all of Central Asia quickly falling into their grasp, the Mohammedan now turned their sights on the west, and the conquest that was their destiny – Constantinople, the centre of the Christian world. As Islam was the successor to Christianity amongst the Abrahamic religions, so the Islamic Empire would succeed the Romans/Byzantines.

Growing old, and unable (or unwilling) to take the field once more, Heraclius was forced to watch as the eastern frontier he’d fought so hard for collapsed under the impetus of the Muslim expansion.

First Syria and the Levant, including the principle cities of Damascus and (crucially) Jerusalem, fell to the invaders; then Armenia and Egypt. It was at this time, in 641AD, that the Emperor Heraclius, no doubt tired and heartbroken, died – he was 66 years old, and had reigned for 31 (mostly) troubled years.

A succession crisis ensued that further weakened the Byzantine position. Although there would be a brief reassertion of stability under the controversial Emperor Constans II, it was not until Constantine IV came to the throne in 668AD that the Byzantines would have a chance to stem the tide of territorial loss.

While Italy and the Balkans continued to fall prey to the Lombards and Bulgars respectively, North Africa was lost to the Rashidun in 652AD. It was briefly recovered (thanks to internal Muslim dissension) before being lost again in 665AD. Cyprus too, was gone. And the First Arab Siege of Constantinople commenced in 674AD, continuing intermittently until 678AD. It was during this period that the Byzantine “super weapon” Greek Fire first made its appearance on the battlefield.

A potent incendiary used principally at sea against the flammable fleets of Byzantium’s enemies, the composition of Greek Fire would remain a closely guarded state secret – even now historians are not sure of the exact recipe for its synthesis.


Even with Greek Fire though, the Muslim onslaught did not abate, and a second siege began in 717AD.

While this was going on in the east, in the west Visigothic Spain (Hispania) was invaded and subjugated. The advance of Islam was only halted by the victorious Franks under Charles Martel at Tours in 732AD – that, and by Constantinople…

The Second Siege lasted but a year, but its effect on the Muslim forces was devastating. Under the guardianship of the new Emperor Leo III the Byzantines mounted a stalwart defence. By keeping control of the waters around Constantinople using their fleet of Greek Fire-armed ships, the soldiers and citizens of the capital were able to remain supplied by sea. Meanwhile, the besieging forces of the Caliphate were forced to subsist on dwindling provisions as a harsh winter set in. Despite surrounding the city on both its European and Asiatic sides, the Muslim forces were unable to take it – the walls of Theodosius II proving once again that they were impregnable. An alliance concluded between the Emperor and the Khan of the Bulgars, Tervel, meant that the army of the Caliphate was forced to defend against the constant threat of Bulgarian attacks, as well as famine and disease. Reports of cannibalism amongst the besiegers are well known.

Eventually, the combined Byzantine-Bulgar forces triumphed – the Muslim forces withdrew, taking heavy losses on the way back to Syria thanks to storms in the Marmara Sea.

For the Byzantines it must have been a bittersweet victory – they had survived to fight another day, but at a great cost. Constantinople itself would not come under threat again for many years, but the Empire was now a shadow of its former self.

Next part: The Macedonian Dynasty and the Conquest of Bulgaria

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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