Monday, 1 July 2013

Enemies at the Gate Part Two - Basil I and the siege of Syracuse

In the last post on matters Byzantine I told of how the emperor Michael III raised up his drinking companion Basil to share the rule of the empire alongside him only to be slain by his friend in an act of monstrous ingratitude. Posterity however has largely forgiven Basil this crime with the justification that his reign both represented a return to good governance after the misrule of Michael ‘The Sot’ and that he served as the founding father of the greatest of Byzantine ruling dynasties; the Macedonian. Such at least is the favourable viewpoint left to us by his descendants! Things however were, as usual, more complicated than that. Basil’s second son and eventual successor Leo VI is strongly believed in reality to have been the son of his predecessor Michael, whose mistress Basil had married whilst Michael still lived.

So much then for the emperor’s domestic arrangements. On the international stage matters were scarcely more edifying.
A campaign was mounted against the resurgent Paulicians which, following some serious setbacks, once more saw the heretics slaughtered in their thousands and driven from their capital Tephrike. This led to a resumption of desultory hostilities with the forces of the Caliphate in which the emperor himself periodically participated in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the Muslims from Cilicia.

In the west Basil accomplished a fleeting rapprochement with the Papacy with a view to recovering Byzantine territory in Dalmatia, Sicily and southern Italy from the Saracens, who threatened Rome itself. Relations were patched up at the expense of Patriarch Photius, who, despite having conjured a miracle against the Rus, found himself deposed although he would be reinstated seven years later.

The Saracen invaders were successfully driven from the Dalmatian coast, with the relief of the city of Ragusa in 867 by the capable admiral Nicetas Oryphas being a notable success. An alliance with the Western Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, came to little and ended in acrimonious dispute as Basil, the Thracian peasant turned murderous usurper, refused to acknowledge Louis’ claim to the imperial title! Louis’ capture of the former Byzantine enclave of Bari from the Arabs in 871 with Byzantine naval support from Oryphas was the only fruit of the alliance. In 874 Oryphas pulled off a celebrated feat by transporting his fleet overland across the Isthmus of Corinth to fall upon and destroy an unsuspecting Saracen corsair fleet that was plundering the Adriatic coast.

Louis II at Bari

In Sicily meanwhile the Aghlabid invaders from Muslim-held North Africa had been steadily increasing their hold over the island until only the stronghold of Syracuse remained. Holding on to this last bastion represented the Byzantines’ best and only chance of recovering the island. A first-hand account of the Arab siege of the city from 877 to 878 is related by Theodosius the Monk, who found himself a prisoner of the Arabs at the siege’s end. In his letter to his friend the arch-deacon Leo, Theodosius relates the grim tidings that at last, after a long struggle, Syracuse has been taken in a brutal assault.

Such was the slaughter that on the same day every weapon with which defence had been made was broken to pieces, bows, quivers, arms, swords, and all weapons; the strong were made weak, and the violence of the foe drove to surrender those defenders, those brave men whom I may well call giants, who laboured with all their might, who hesitated not before that day to suffer hunger and all labours, and to be pierced with numberless wounds for the love of Christ, and who were all put to the sword after the city was taken. At length we are fallen into the hands of the enemy, though for a long time we defended ourselves from the walls, and though many times there was fighting on the sea, which indeed was a horrible sight, filling with consternation the eyes of those that looked, for the vision is indeed dismayed by the atrocity of those things which are often brought before it.

With dramatic eloquence Theodosius tells us of the horrors of the siege. He describes the ludicrous rising prices and the eventual desperate shortages of food in the city as the people were driven to eating shoe leather and bread made from the ground up bones of long-since devoured animals. He tells of the terrible outbreak of disease which inevitably occurred in the overcrowded city and of the sufferings of those who expired from starvation.

He describes the relentless bombardment of the Arab siege engines, the terror of the inhabitants and the courage of the defenders. Ultimately the city falls. A battered tower, crumbling beneath the onslaught of the siege engines is eventually taken by storm, the defenders are overwhelmed and the Arabs break into the city, slaughtering all in their path. Theodosius describes the terrible deaths of those taken captive. One man who had unwisely shouted obscenities against the Prophet from the walls was allegedly flayed alive and his heart was cut out. Finally Theodosius describes the dank and vermin infested Palermo prison to which he has been consigned awaiting ransom.

 At length we were thrown into the common prison; and this is a den having its pavement fourteen steps below ground, and it has only a little door instead of a window; here the darkness is complete, and can be felt, the only light being from a lamp, or some reflection by day, and it is impossible ever to see the light of dawn in this dungeon, nor the rays of the moon. Our bodies were distressed by the heat, for it was summer, and we were scorched by the breath of our fellow-prisoners; and besides, the vermin and the lice, and hosts of fleas and other little insects, make a man miserable by their bites; promiscuously with us there were confined in the same prison, to trade (as it were) with these miseries, Ethiopians, Tarsians, Jews, Lombards, and some of our own Christians, from different parts, among whom was also the most holy Bishop of Malta, chained with double shackles. Then the two bishops embraced one another, and kissed one another with the holy kiss, and wept together awhile over the things that had happened to them; but presently the gave thanks to God for it all, and combated their grief with arguments drawn from our philosophy.

The Fall of Syracuse
And where were the emperor’s relief forces whilst this brave but ultimately doomed defence of Syracuse was going on? For two months the fleet sat idle in the Peloponnese, whilst soldiers were employed in the construction of a church on the emperor’s orders and ships were employed in the transportation of marble for the same. It was a shameful misappropriation of imperial resources and the subsequent and inevitable fall of Syracuse dismayed all Christendom.
Sicily was entirely lost to the empire. Under the able commander Nicephorus Phocas however, who arrived in Italy in 880, some notable gains were ultimately made on the Italian mainland as the Arabs were driven from Calabria and many of the cities of the south recognised the suzerainty of the emperor, leading to the establishment of the Theme of Longobardia.

In the east the war against Saracens ultimately went badly with a crushing defeat being inflicted on the Byzantine forces as they laid siege to Tarsus in 883. The island of Cyprus which had been recovered by the empire was lost again after just seven years.

Following the death of his eldest son and heir Constantine in 879 Basil himself was  left a broken man. Constantine’s parentage was not in dispute, being as he was the product of the emperor’s first marriage. His second son Leo, on the other hand, he despised and suspected of plotting against him. When Leo was found with a concealed knife in his boot during a hunt with his father he found himself imprisoned as a traitor. Basil ultimately relented and released and reinstated Leo, bowing to public pressure. In his last years we are told Basil was plagued by despair at the death of his son and guilt over his bloody path to power and he sought constant reassurance from the church that his dead son’s soul had been received well by the almighty. For his own he can have held out little hope. He died in suspicious circumstances on another hunting trip in the summer of 886. Leo duly succeeded him.

Basil gets a reasonably good press from the chroniclers which seems surprising given his bloody seizure of power and less than awe-inspiring military record. As the founding father of the dynasty under whose auspices his story was being written however, he was guaranteed a fairly decent write up. His admirers can point to his recodification of the laws, his programme of church construction and the strident missionary effort which was carried on amongst the peoples of the Balkans under his reign.
None of that would have been of much consolation to poor Theodosius however, as he suffered in his prison and cursed the emperor who had abandoned Syracuse to its fate.

 Leo's concealed weapon is revealed!
Theodosius' account in full

 The reign of Basil I

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