In 634, Arab tribal armies fired up by Islamic zeal erupted from the sparsely populated Arabian Peninsula to simultaneously attack the day’s two superpowers, the Sassanid Persian Empire to the east, and the Byzantine Empire to the west and north. Within two years, the outnumbered Arabs had won a series of brilliant victories that permanently reshaped the Middle East.
The Sassanid Empire fell, while the Byzantine Empire lost its possessions in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, and got pushed back to today’s Turkey. Of the Arab victories over the Byzantine forces between 634 – 636, the most decisive occurred in August, 636. It was fought along the Yarmouk River, southeast of the Golan Heights, near the intersection of the borders of today’s Syria, Jordan, and Israel.
In 634, the Arabs launched simultaneous attacks against the Persians in Mesopotamia, and against the Byzantine Empire in Syria. However, the forces attacking Syria proved too small for the task. Accordingly, reinforcements were diverted from the Persian front, where things were going smoother, under Khalid ibn al Walid, who assumed command in Syria. In July, 634, Khalid routed the Byzantines at the Battle of Ajnadayn and seized Damascus. He won another victory soon thereafter at the Battle of Fahl, and seized Palestine.
The Byzantines set out to recover their lost lands and assembled an army of 80,000-150,000 men according to modern estimates. It significantly outnumbered the Muslim army of 25,000-40,000 men. The Byzantine army marched in five grand divisions to the Yarmouk, where it met an Arab army broken into 36 infantry and 4 cavalry regiments. An elite cavalry force was held back as a mobile reserve. Khalid assembled his army along a 7.5 mile front facing west, with his left flank anchored on the Yarmouk River, and his right on heights to the north.
17. A Byzantine Defeat That Shaped the Middle East to This Day
The Byzantine and Arab armies spent months camped across from each other, while their leaders engaged in negotiations. The fighting finally began on August 15th, 636. It lasted for five days of attritional warfare, during which the Arab armies remained on the defensive, and withstood repeated, but often poorly coordinated, attacks. Finally, on the sixth day, Khalid drew his opponents into a large-scale pitched battle that ended with the Byzantines retreating in disarray. Retreat turned into a rout when Khalid unleashed his cavalry reserve, who charged with a fortuitous sandstorm at their back, and many panicked Byzantines fell to their death over a steep ravine.
The Byzantines lost an estimated 40,000 men, while the Arabs lost about 5,000. Nearly a Millennium of Greco-Roman rule and influence of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa came to an end, as the successors of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were replaced by the successors of Muhammad. Syria was forever lost to the Byzantines, followed soon thereafter by Egypt and North Africa. Those territories eventually formed the core of the Arab and Islamic world. The Byzantines ended up confined to today’s Turkey and the Balkans.
16. The Only Woman Who Ruled the Byzantine Empire as Sole Empress
Nowadays, the finer points of Christian doctrine seldom raise a kerfuffle beyond the walls of seminaries, or betwixt professors of theology, clerics, or the such. Centuries ago, however, and to an extent that is difficult to grasp today, theological debates riled up your average Christian on the street more than almost anything can rile us up today.
Today’s heated social media passions and internet flame wars don’t hold a candle to how worked up people got over religious arguments back in the days. Worked up enough for mothers to mutilate their offspring to death. That is what the Byzantine Empress Irene (circa 752 – 803) – the only woman to rule the Byzantine Empire openly as sole empress – did to her son.
Sinner are punished in the Bible. So when Islam suddenly erupted out of nowhere to sweep the Byzantines out of the Middle East and Africa, and reduce their empire to a reeling rump, many assumed that they were being punished for their sins. However, which sins? Some pinned the blame on Christians violating the Second Commandment – the one about graven images. Churches were full of religious paintings, leading Christians, so the argument went, to worship idols. How was making offerings to saints or revering their images different from worshiping Ba’al?
That line of reasoning led to a backlash against icons, known as iconoclasm, that kicked off decades of religious turmoil. Icons’ opponents, known as Iconoclasts, reasoned that Muslims had been successful because they strictly obeyed the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images.
In 711, the year the Muslims invaded Spain, a new Byzantine ruler, Leo the Isaurian, ascended the throne in Constantinople. A few years later, the Muslim Caliph ordered the destruction of every Christian image in the Islamic world: every statue, mosaic, and painting, of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Christians appealed to Leo for help, but his response astonished many: he decided to emulate the Caliph, and destroy every Christian icon in his own empire as well.
Leo’s agents spread throughout what was left of the Byzantine Empire, invading churches to root out and destroy images and icons. That kicked off half a century of Iconoclasm, as Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V, went about smashing icons as enthusiastically as his father had done. However, while Iconoclasm had plenty of support, it also had plenty of opposition: many loved their icons, and hated Iconoclasts. One opponent was Emperor Constantine V’s daughter-in-law, Irene of Athens. She bided her time, until the moment came for her to undo Iconoclasm. Unfortunately, that also entailed undoing her own son.
13. An Emperor Discovers That Crossing His Mother Was a Bad Idea
Irene’s husband became Emperor Leo IV, but died soon thereafter. He left the empire to his son, the child Emperor Constantine VI, with Irene as regent. After consolidating her power, Irene set about undoing the preceding decades of Iconoclasm, with all the tenacity and enthusiasm of a religious zealot. In her determination to let nothing stand in the way of her religious mission, Irene rode roughshod over the Iconoclasts – including her own son.
In 786, Irene called a church council and packed it with opponents of Iconoclasm. Unsurprisingly, the council concluded that Iconoclasm had been a huge mistake. That kicked off a Byzantine counter-reformation against the Iconoclasts, who resisted the return of religious imagery just as vehemently as their opponents had resisted the destruction of icons. When Constantine VI finally came of age, he declared himself an Iconoclast. Irene demonstrated the strength of her faith by overthrowing him, and in 797, ordered her son’s mutilation by gouging out his eyes. He was maimed so severely, that he died of his wounds soon thereafter. Irene then proclaimed herself empress, and continued her quest to undo Iconoclasm and reintroduce religious imagery.
Mercenary units are usually ad hoc affairs of adventurers from all over, gathered together under a captain for a specific mission, campaign, or war. As such, mercenary units seldom last for more than a few years before they are disbanded, once the conflict that gave rise to their creation is concluded.
The Byzantine emperors’ Varangian Guard, composed of Vikings, were an exception to that rule. Their history as a mercenary unit lasted for hundreds of years, stretching from the early tenth to the fourteenth centuries.
In the ninth century, Swedish Vikings penetrated deep into today’s Russia and the Ukraine. By 850, they had formed their own principalities in Kiev and Novgorod. From there, they dominated the surrounding Slavs as a ruling caste of a new civilization that came to be known as Kievan Rus. The princes of Rus tended to hire new fighters from Scandinavia, who were known as Varangians – a term meaning a stranger who had taken military service, or a member of a union of traders and warriors.
By the early 900s, some of these Varangian Vikings had ventured further south, sailed across the Black Sea, and raided Constantinople and the Byzantine lands. Some, however, took service with the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries. As early as 902, contemporary records describe a force of about 700 Varangians taking part in a Byzantine expedition against Crete.
10. The Privilege of Looting an Emperor’s Possessions After His Death
In 988, Byzantine Emperor Basil II sought military aid from his ally, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev. The Rus ruler sent 6000 of his most unruly warriors, whom he was having trouble paying anyhow. The emperor put Vladimir’s discards to good use against his enemies, then organized them into what became the nucleus of the Varangian Guard. As foreigners, the Vikings had no local ties, and thus few political links that could tangle them in the Byzantine court’s intrigues and cabals. That made them suitable as bodyguards. They were not just palace soldiers, however, but accompanied the emperor on campaign, and formed the Byzantine army’s shock infantry.
The Varangians proved themselves in battle time after time, and their unit became an elite outfit whose members received higher pay than the rest of the army. In addition to higher pay, they were often granted the privilege of being the first to loot after victory. Another informal privilege, which fell into their lap as the main armed force in the imperial palace, was the privilege of plundering the emperor’s possessions after his death.
9. The Warrior Princess Who Tormented the Byzantine Empire
Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a Lombard warrior princess and Duchess of Apulia in southern Italy, who gave the Byzantine Empire all it could and handle and more. A six foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Armed and armored and going into combat at Guiscard’s side, or leading men into battle on her own, Sichelgaita and her husband roiled the Mediterranean world during the second half of the eleventh century.
She was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, and from an early age, Sichelgaita exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. When her father, the Duke of Salerno, was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, while she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachments from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard. It was love at first sight. Impressed by the six foot Amazon who went into battle, armed and armored at his side, Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita. For the next eighteen years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, helping consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy. In addition to fighting at her husband’s side, Sichelgaita also led men on her own in independent commands.
In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, she rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, she besieged and starved him into surrender, seized the city, and sent him into exile. She and her husband then tried to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so they decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, by conquering it.
Sichelgaita’s greatest exploit occurred at the Battle of Durazzo on the Albanian coast, in October, 1081. She led an advance force ahead of the main body, which encountered a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements. However, her men faltered, and some fled.
As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.”
Sichelgaita was badly wounded at the Battle of Durazzo, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement against the Byzantine army. Despite the victory, the plans for conquering Byzantium were discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1084, the power couple resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, including a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine fleet. That gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign died with him. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090. The sighs of relief were probably audible all the way from Constantinople.
For a while in the ninth and tenth centuries, it seemed as if the Byzantine Empire had caught a break when its chief rival, the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, went into decline. During this period, the Byzantines experienced a revival, and reached a medieval peak of cultural and military might during the reign of Emperor Basil II (circa 958 – 1025). Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the decline of the Muslim Arabs presaged the rise of the Muslim Turks, who eventually put an end to the Byzantine Empire.
The Turks had been subjugated by the Arabs in the eighth century, but they eventually supplanted their overlords as the dominant power in the Islamic world. In the eleventh century, a branch of the Turks established the Seljuk Empire. Reducing the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad to a figurehead puppet, Seljuk sultans ruled a vast Islamic state that absorbed other Turkic principalities, and dominated the heart of the Muslim Middle East.
4. The Defeat That Spelled the Beginning of the End of the Byzantine Empire
With the bow and arrow as their symbol of authority, the Seljuk Turks extended their rule over Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. Then in 1071, they crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert. Over the long term, that proved to be one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of the Byzantine Empire.
In the seventh century, the Byzantines had been faced with extinction after the Arabs overran roughly two thirds of their empire, and seized the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa. The Byzantines survived, with Anatolia forming their new heartland and source of their manpower. After their victory at Manzikert, the Seljuk Turks overran much of that Byzantine heartland, fatally weakening the Empire and setting it on a path of inevitable decline and extinction.
3. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, Their New Turk Enemies Proved Different From Most Nomads
At its greatest extent, Seljuk dominion stretched from western Anatolia and the Levant to the Hindu Kush in the east, and from Central Asia in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. The Turks were thus established in the Middle East, and began their transition from Steppe nomads to a settled state. The Seljuks differed from most nomadic conquerors throughout history, such as the Huns, Avars, and Mongols, whose states proved short-lived and ephemeral. Instead, the Seljuks pulled off the rare feat of managing a successful transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one. They went from shepherds and Steppe warriors to urban dwellers, taking up new occupations such as farmers, administrators, merchants, manufacturers, and artisans. They built roads, mosques, schools, hospitals, and caravansaries.
Emulating the Persians and Arabs who wielded power before them, the Seljuks came to appreciate and encourage scholarship, such as the literature, arts, philosophy, and the sciences. By the time their state went into decline and collapsed, the Seljuks had established a foundation of a Turkic culture and identity, which other Turks – chiefly the Ottoman Turks – would build upon to create even greater states.
2. The Byzantine Empire’s Final Foe Began as a Religious Order
It would not be the Seljuk Turks who would finally finish off the Byzantine Empire. Instead, that task fell to their successors, the Ottoman Turks. Even as the Seljuks governed a settled empire, other independent Turks continued to roam the Steppe. Allied to other nomads, some of them still pagan, the still-nomadic Turks formed warrior groups that continued to raid into settled lands. They became a constant headache for the Seljuks. Most dominant among them were bands of what came to be known as “Ghazis” – religious orders of holy warriors.
Ghazis were a motley lot of volunteers, many of them vagabonds, malcontents, fugitives, and unemployed seeking subsistence. They assigned themselves the task of fighting infidels – and plundering as much as they could lay their hands on while they were at it. Their chief targets were the Byzantine Empire and the Christian states of the Caucasus. By the late thirteenth century, one Ghazi chieftain, Osman I, a religious leader who founded the Ottoman dynasty, came to rule a territory directly bordering what was left of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia.
1. The Byzantine Empire’s Executioners Burst on the Scene
The fledgling state of Osman I experienced an explosive growth during the fourteenth century. Osman’s son Orhan captured the northwestern Anatolian town of Bursa in 1326, and made it the capital of the Ottoman state. In 1354, an earthquake devastated the Gallipoli Peninsula across the Dardanelles Strait from Anatolia, and wrecked its Byzantine forts. The Ottoman Turks quickly seized and occupied the peninsula, establishing a foothold in Europe.
In 1387, Ottoman forces seized the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. In 1389, an Ottoman army crushed the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo, and made the Ottoman Empire the dominant power in the Balkans. In 1396, at the Battle of Nicopolis, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I routed the last large-scale crusade of the Middle Ages, which had set out to halt Ottoman expansion. The Ottoman state suffered a humiliating but short-lived setback in the early fifteenth century, when it was defeated by Tamerlane. The dynasty bounced back quickly, however, and in 1453, made its greatest conquest by capturing Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and final stronghold, bringing that long-lived state to an end.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading