Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire

Patrick Lynch - October 24, 2017

When it comes to the vast history of the Byzantine Empire, there are dozens of well-known battles that had a significant impact, not only on the empire but world history. The battles of Yarmouk, Pliska, and Manzikert are relatively well-known, but there are scores of other fights that played a major role in Byzantium’s history that are often overlooked. In this article, I try to right that wrong by looking at ten battles that caused sea changes in the Byzantine Empire.

1 – Battle of Heliopolis (640)

Although the Byzantines all but destroyed the Sassanids at the Battle of Nineveh in 627, it came at the end of a quarter-century war that depleted its resources. It was also a case of extremely bad timing because a new threat emerged on the horizon at that time. Islam had unified the Arabian Peninsula by the death of Muhammad in 632, and it didn’t take long to take what remained of the Sassanid Empire. Once the Arabs conquered Syria by 638, the next step was an invasion of Egypt.

The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was stunned by the speed with which the Arabs invaded Africa. His generals had told him that the Arabs would take decades to digest Persia before considering another invasion. However, the Arabs effectively held all former Sassanid territory by 638 and the following year, an army of 4,000 under the command of Amr ibn al-A’as, invaded the Diocese of Egypt, after receiving permission from Caliph Umar. Despite the relatively small size of the army, the brilliance of the Arab commander meant the invading force caused havoc.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Depiction of the Battle of Heliopolis. Twitter

Further troops were sent to reinforce Amr so by the time they faced a 20,000 strong Byzantine army under the command of Theodore at Heliopolis in 640; the Arabs had a formidable force of 15,000 men. Rather than adopting a Fabian strategy of harassment and containment, Theodore decided to meet the enemy in open battle. It was a catastrophic move as an Arab detachment ambushed the Byzantines during the fight and caused Theodore’s army to panic. Total losses are unknown on both sides, but it’s probable that the Byzantines lost most of their army.

Theodore fled the battlefield with the remnants of his army, but the damage was done; the victory at Heliopolis removed the last major standing Byzantine force that stood between the Arabs and the heart of Egypt. The native population heard that life under the Arabs was better than under the Romans in terms of taxation and general rule. Therefore, a significant portion of Coptic Christians sided with the invaders. Alexandria surrendered in November 641, and the Byzantines lost a huge source of food and money forever.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Depiction of Umayyad Warriors. Tripline.net

2 – Battle of Akroinon (739 or 740)

Since the beginning of the early Muslim conquests in 622, Byzantium was one of the major enemies of the Arabs. The Byzantines suffered a succession of crucial defeats such as the catastrophe at Yarmouk in 636 and the loss at Heliopolis in 640. The Byzantines repelled attempted Arab sieges of Constantinople but another heavy defeat, this time at the Battle of Sebastopolis in 692, placed them on the defensive. That battle had marked the end of over a decade of peace between the two warring factions.

The Umayyad Caliphate failed to capture Constantinople after a lengthy siege in 717-718 and turned their attention away from the Byzantine capital for a couple of years. However, they renewed their offensive in 720 with annual incursions into enemy territory designed to plunder and destroy the Byzantine countryside. The goal was to wear the enemy down, and the raids became more aggressive during the 730s.

After more successful raids in the late 730s, the Arab Caliph, Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, launched the largest invasion of his entire reign in 739/740. The 90,000 strong invading force was led by the Caliph’s son, Sulayman, and he divided it into three sections. 10,000 raided the western coastlands, 60,000 went to Cappadocia under Sulayman’s command, and the other 20,000 marched towards Akroinon.

It was here that the Byzantine Emperor, Leo III the Isaurian, and his son (who later became Constantine V) encountered the invaders. Details of the battle are sketchy, but it appears as if Leo and his son outmaneuvered the enemy and won a crushing victory. The two Arab commanders, Abd Allah and Malik, were killed in action and an estimated 13,200 Arabs fell at Akroinon.

Although the rest of the Arab forces succeeded in one goal, to cause devastation to the enemy countryside, they failed to take any major Byzantine forts or towns. The Battle of Akroinon was a turning point in the Byzantine-Arab Wars because it forced the Arabs to reduce the pressure on their enemies. It also weakened the Umayyad Caliphate, and within a decade, it had been overthrown by the Abbasids. The Arabs were pushed out of Asia Minor and did not launch any major incursions for the next three decades.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Ruins of Marcellae Fortress. Archaeology in Bulgaria

3 – The Second Battle of Marcellae (792)

While Bulgarian strength was undermined during the reign of Constantine V (741 – 775), it started to recover in the final part of the 8th century at a time when the Byzantine Empire was in a period of turmoil. The Bulgarians invaded Byzantine territory in the valley of the Struma River and defeated their enemies in 789. Emperor Constantine VI tried to alleviate the threat by launching a campaign in Northern Thrace two years later but had to retreat.

However, he began another campaign in 792 and led his army north until they met a Bulgarian army at Marcellae under the leadership of Khan Kardam. Initially, Constantine did not want to engage the enemy in an open battle. However, according to a Byzantine chronicler named Theophanes the Confessor, he was convinced to fight by false astrologists. Apparently, he was told that the stars predicted a victory, so he attacked.

It seems as if the stars failed to tell him that Kardem had hidden part of his cavalry behind the hills overlooking Marcellae. The difficult terrain meant the Byzantine army was unable to stay in shape. Kardem saw this and ordered a counterattack which seriously damaged the enemy army. The hidden cavalry sprang into action and prevented the Byzantines from returning to Marcellae’s fort or their supplies. The Bulgarians inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and chased Constantine VI from the field.

Constantine VI agreed to pay tribute to the Bulgarians but stopped the annual payment in 796 which led to another war. Constantine was overthrown by his mother Irene in the following year while Kardem was probably murdered sometime between 796 and 802. Under the leadership of Khan Krum, the Bulgarian Empire grew stronger, and it inflicted a number of notable defeats on the Byzantines including at the Battle of Pliska in 811.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Emperor Michael III. Encyclopedia Britannica

4 – Battle of Lalakaon (863)

This battle took place near the Lalakaon River in Asia Minor between the Byzantine Empire and an Arab army in the process of invading Paphlagonia, which is modern-day northern Turkey. The Byzantine victory at Akroinon in 739/740 more or less put a halt to the Arab-Byzantine wars until the 780s. At this point, the Arabs began to launch regular raids into Asia Minor and won some important victories such as a complete rout of the Byzantines at Amorium in 838.

However, the Abbasid Caliphate’s power began to diminish in the 840s which enabled the Byzantines to gain a foothold for a short time. Yet the raids of Asia Minor in 860 resulted in the widescale devastation of Byzantine territory. In 863, the Emir of Malatya, Umar al-Aqta, launched yet another raid, this time into Cappadocia. Emperor Michael III defeated the Arabs at a place called Bishop’s Meadow but was unable to prevent them from sacking the city of Amisos.

Once Michael heard about the sack of Amisos, he reacted by assembling a 50,000 man army and placing his uncle, Petronas, in command. There is a suggestion that Michael commanded the army at Lalakaon; the bias against him by sources of the day means it is a possibility. Certainly, they would not have wanted to give him credit for what turned out to be a great victory.

In any case, three separate Byzantine armies were formed and managed to converge on September 2, 863. The combined forces surrounded Umar at Porson near the Lalakaon River, and the battle took place the following day. Umar launched a massive attack on Petronas’ men in the west to try to make a breakthrough but the Byzantines refused to yield, and the other two wings came to the rescue. Umar died on the battlefield, and his army was routed. Umar’s son fled but was soon captured.

The Byzantines took advantage of the victory by launching a counteroffensive across the border and ultimately ended the main threat to their borderlands. The Battle of Lalakaon was the beginning of an era of Byzantine dominance in the East which resulted in a number of significant wins during the 10th century as the empire underwent a revival. Also, the Byzantine Empire was able to focus on Europe, and it eventually forced the Bulgarians into accepting Byzantine Christianity as their religion.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Basil II flanked by his Varangian Guard. AMELIANVS. DeviantArt

5 – Battle of Kleidion (1014)

This was the decisive battle in the lengthy war between the Byzantines and the Bulgarians. By the end of the 10th century, the Byzantine Empire was still an important power in Europe and the Middle East, and it was stable under the excellent leadership of Basil II. It had a love-hate relationship with the Bulgars since the days of the First Bulgarian Empire in the late seventh century. During the Arab siege of Constantinople in 717, the Bulgars sent 30,000 men to help the Byzantines.

However, the two empires were usually on opposite sides of the conflict, and by the 970s, the Bulgarians appeared defeated. The Byzantines even claimed Bulgaria as part of their empire but thanks to the efforts of the Cometupoli brothers, the Byzantines were unable to conquer the western part of Bulgaria. By 997, Samuel Cometupoli became Bulgaria’s new tsar, and the experienced general led his people in a war of survival.

While Samuel extended his territory at the beginning of the eleventh century, Basil II was causing problems with annual invasions. Eventually, Samuel realized that his nation’s resources were dwindling and resolved to stop Byzantine invasions once and for all. He was expecting the enemy to invade once again and assembled a large army with an estimated 20,000 – 45,000 men. Meanwhile, Basil invaded with at least 20,000 men and marched into the Bulgarian heartland via the Struma River.

Samuel split his army when he heard of Basil’s arrival and sent 20,000 men under general Nestorista to strike at the enemy and threaten Thessalonica. Samuel expected Basil to send men to deal with the threat, but his plans were foiled when the governor-general of Thessalonica met the Bulgarians and defeated them in battle.

On July 26/27, 1014, Basil’s army arrived at the narrow gorge of Kleidion Pass. For three days, he tried to breach the recently built Bulgarian walls but suffered heavy casualties. Eventually, however, Basil found a way to trick the enemy and surrounded them from the back and front. Samuel was not on the battlefield at that stage and tried to rally his troops, but it was too late, his army had been routed.

The vast majority of the Bulgarian army was killed or captured. According to legend, Basil ordered the prisoners to be divided into groups of 100. He blinded 99 men and gouged out one eye of the other so he could guide the rest home. Samuel died two months later, and while it took the Byzantines four more years to finish the job, they finally defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1018. Bulgaria became a province of the empire until the rebellion of the Asen brothers in 1185.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Alexios I Komnenos. Alexander C.Lindsay WordPress

6 – Battle of Levounion (1091)

The Komenian Restoration was arguably the last hurrah for the Byzantine Empire because things rapidly went downhill upon the death of Manuel I Komnenos in 1180. From 1081 – 1180 however, three members of the same family made great strides in restoring the empire to its former glory days. The victory over the Pechenegs at the Battle of Levounion was the first major military victory of the restoration.

From the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071 until 1080, the Byzantine Empire lost over 30,000 square miles of territory, half its manpower and an enormous amount of resources. From its perspective, the ascent of Alexios I Komnenos to the throne in 1081 was timely. After half a century of ineffective leadership, the empire finally had someone with the capability to rule.

Alexios had his work cut out for him because his enemies knew the empire was in a terrible state. The Pechenegs invaded the empire from the north in 1087 and headed towards Constantinople. Alexios knew he didn’t have enough troops to fight off the invasion, so he used his diplomatic skills (and money) to get the help of the Cumans. The nomadic tribe arrived just in time to help Alexios, and the combined might of the new allies met the Pechenegs at Levounion on April 28, 1091.

The 80,000 strong Pecheneg army was possibly shocked by the arrival of the Cumans. In any case, Levounion turned into a massacre as the Pechenegs were utterly destroyed. They had made the mistake of bringing their families to the scene, and almost every one of them were killed or captured.

Levounion was one of the most important wins in the history of the Byzantine Empire. It had been on its knees before the reign of Alexios, but the manner of the win showed the world that the Byzantines were on the road to recovery. They had almost wiped out one of their enemies and their troops started returning to Asia Minor. The empire grew wealthy during the twelfth century and enjoyed several other crucial military successes along the way.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
John II Komnenos (left) Madonna and Child (middle) Empress Irene (Right). Encyclopedia Britannica

7 – Battle of Beroia (1122)

If the Battle of Levounion was a disaster for the Pechenegs, at least it didn’t signal the end of them as independent people. Alas, that was their fate when they faced the army of Emperor John II Komnenos in 1122 at the Battle of Beroia. In 1094, three years after Levounion, the remaining Pechenegs were defeated in battle by the Cumans.

However, there were still a number of Pechenegs living in Russia until they were expelled in 1121. The following year, the Pechenegs from the Russian steppes crossed into the Byzantine territory and launched an invasion. It posed a major threat to the empire’s rule over the northern Balkans and John wanted to drive the enemy back and eliminate them once and for all.

Once the emperor heard that the Pechenegs had invaded his territory; he wasted no time in assembling an army near Constantinople. At that point, his enemy was camped close to the city of Beroia in Thrace. Initially, at least, John had peace on his mind as he gave the Pecheneg chiefs gifts and promised them a favorable treaty. It was, of course, a trick and the Pechenegs fell into the trap.

The Byzantines attacked their enemy’s defensive wagon fort but were met by thousands of Pecheneg arrows. After John was wounded in the leg, the Byzantines forced their enemy to retreat into their wagon forts but were unable to make a decisive breakthrough. However, John personally led the Varangian Guard who hacked through the Pecheneg defenses until they were breached.

The Pechenegs were routed although survivors were given the option of joining the Byzantine army. After the Battle of Beroia, the Pechenegs were no longer an independent people. While some small communities lived in Hungary, they were eventually assimilated into Hungarian and Bulgarian culture. The victory also enabled John to focus on expansion and defense in the Holy Land and Asia Minor.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Depiction of the Normans in Battle. History Answers

8 – Battle of Demetritzes (1185)

The Battle of Demetritzes is noteworthy because it is perhaps the last great victory achieved by the Byzantine Empire. The death of Manuel I Komnenos in 1180 would prove to be the final turning point as the empire started to crumble thereafter. The Sack of Constantinople in 1204 was practically the end, and while the empire lingered for a quarter of a millennium, it was little more than a small collection of territories and a once mighty city.

11-year old Alexios II Komnenos became emperor upon the death of his father, Manuel, but he was murdered by one of his relatives who became Andronikos I Komnenos in 1183. The Normans used the chaos to great effect as they sacked the Byzantine territory of Thessalonica in 1185. The Normans advanced towards Constantinople, and at that point, the unpopular Andronikos was murdered and replaced by his brother, Isaac II Komnenos.

Isaac was boosted by the arrival of volunteers in his fight against the Normans and was able to send thousands of reinforcements to aid the experienced general Alexios Branas. The Normans divided their army into three sections; one stayed at Thessalonica, another marched towards the Strymon River while the third part of the group marched towards Constantinople and occupied Mosynopolis.

According to twelfth-century Greek Byzantine historian, Niketas Choniates, the Normans at Mosynopolis became overconfident and were suddenly attacked and routed by the Byzantine army. Branas then took his army to deal with the Norman threat at the towns of Serres and Amphipolis near the Strymon River and met them at Demetritzes. Branas rejected Norman’s requests for a peace treaty and attacked on November 7.

The Normans were unable to handle the aggressive Byzantine attack and were defeated after a lengthy battle; their two main commanders were captured. The remaining Norman army fled first to Thessalonica and then back home by the sea, but many of their ships were lost in storms. The remaining Normans at Thessalonica were massacred by the Alans who had joined the Byzantine army. The Battle of Demetritzes ended the Norman threat to the empire, but it was less than two decades away from almost total defeat.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Osman I. Selosepet

9 – Battle of Bapheus (1302?)

This was an important battle in history because it represented the first of many Ottoman victories over the regular Byzantine army. Osman, I became Sultan of the Ottomans in 1282 and began raids on the Byzantine territory of Bithynia which lasted for the next two decades. The situation was looking grim for Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos who was one of the longest-serving Byzantine rulers and also one of the worst.

From the moment he became a leader, in 1282, he made a series of poor decisions that damaged the empire in the long term. A prime example was his debasement of the Byzantine currency which ended up severely damaging the economy. Once he realized that the Ottomans were bent on taking Byzantine territory, he ordered one of his generals, Alexios Philanthropenos, to push back the enemy in Anatolia.

However, Alexios rebelled against the emperor and was blinded for his troubles. As a result, his campaign ended, and the Ottomans laid siege to Nicaea in 1301. In 1302, Emperor Michael IX Palaiologos (who was co-ruler with his father) marched south to Magnesia and met the Turks. His army was apparently so large that the Turks avoided battle. Michael wanted to fight but made the mistake of listening to his generals who advised him not to engage.

The emboldened Turks resumed their attacks and penned Michael’s army in at Magnesia; the co-emperor was forced to flee by sea. For some reason, Andronikos believed that 2,000 men would be enough to deal with the enemy in Nicomedia, but as usual, he was wrong. On July 27, 1302, the Byzantines met a 5,000 man army under Osman I at Bapheus and were comprehensively defeated.

The Byzantine commander, George Mouzalon, retreated and it marked the beginning of a string of losses. They lost control of Bithynia, and the area’s Christian population fled to Europe. It was the start of Ottoman gains in Asia Minor; a conquest which was completed 27 years later.

Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire
Orhan I. Wikipedia

10 – Battle of Pelekanon (1329)

Also known as the Battle of Pelecanum, this battle marked the end of Byzantine interests in Asia. After defeats at Magnesia and Bapheus in 1302, Emperor Andronikos II tried to fight back by bolstering his army with mercenaries known as the Catalan Company. The Byzantines enjoyed brief success in 1303 as this 6,500 man army, led by Michael IX and Roger de Flor, drove the Turks back. However, it was a momentary respite, and the tide turned when de Flor was assassinated by Michael in 1305.

It was a terrible move by Michael as the Catalans started to pillage the countryside of Anatolia in revenge for the murder of their leader. They left and attacked Thrace in 1307, so the Ottomans were once again able to move back into Anatolia. The Turks continued to enjoy military success for the next couple of decades, and their cause was further helped by the Byzantine Civil War (1321- 1328).

In this war, Andronikos II was backed by Serbia while his rival, his grandson Andronikos III, was backed by the Bulgarians. Andronikos III emerged victorious in 1328, but by then, the Turks had conquered almost all Byzantine territory in Anatolia. With the help of John Cantacuzene, the new emperor summoned an army of 4,000 men and met the Turkish army of 8,000 at Pelekanon; the Ottoman army was led by Sultan Orhan I.

It was the first time that the leaders of the Byzantines and Ottomans met one another on a battlefield. Alas, the Byzantines were no match for their superior opponents and were routed. The small Byzantine army was a clear sign that the empire was no longer any threat and from that point onwards, it continued to lose what little territory it has left. It never again tried to regain territory in Asia and stumbled on for another century, a hollowed-out husk of what it once was.