You never know what's coming next on Slings and Arrows, I've blogged about everything from dinosaurs to the space race. If it happened in the past it is fair game as far as I'm concerned but there is method in the madness. The general idea is that the blog is a roughly 50/50 split between continuing the Byzantine/Abbasid historical narrative from where my book The Battles are the Best Bits left off in 750 AD and completely random historical topics. This post follows on directly from the last Byzantine post Born in the Purple which charted the early part of the reign of Constantine VII. He had ruled in name only, dominated first by his mother and later by the usurper Romanus Lecapenus. Having finally got his hands on the reins of power at the age of 39 with the aid of the powerful, aristocratic Phocas clan, what sort of emperor would Constantine be after so many years on the sidelines?
Constantine Porphyrogenitus, depicted below, could never be described as a man of action. He is best known for a long and dull treatise on court ceremonial which is a treasure trove of information on the intricacies of the complex Byzantine socio-political hierarchy and for another on the administration of the empire, dedicated to his son Romanus. Preferring the pen to the sword, Constantine allowed the frontier to enjoy a period of peace rather than keeping up the momentum against the caliphate, which remained plagued by infighting between its regional warlords for control of the increasingly irrelevant caliph.
The empire's principle antagonist amongst these warlords remained Sayf al Dawla, 'the Sword of the Dynasty' now established as Emir of Aleppo. Sayf al Dawla was occupied in a struggle to wrest control of Syria from al Ikhshid, governor of Egypt, who ruled the country as a personal fiefdom. The fortunes of war ebbed and flowed between these two. Sayf al Dawla twice took Damascus from al Ikhshid and twice lost it, as well as losing and regaining his own capital, before at last a treaty of peace recognised that perhaps the status quo, with Syria divided between them, was the best solution for both of them.
In 949 the offensive against the caliphate was resumed in earnest. Porphyrogenitus set his eye upon the perennial reconquest objective of Crete and assembled an invasion fleet. The force sent to the island however was woefully inadequate in terms of both manpower and leadership. It was an expedition launched on the cheap and the predictable consequence was its failure. Despite landing unopposed, the force of 4000 soldiers were attacked and overrun in their poorly defended camp. The bedraggled survivors returned to Constantinople in disgrace.
Warfare on the frontier between Byzantium and the Caliphate, effectively represented by the Emir of Aleppo, had in recent decades been waged with limited objectives. Permanent seizure of major settlements and large tracts of territory was certainly not the aim of Sayf al Dawla since he lacked the resources to hold on to such gains. Instead the aims of his razias or border raids were essentially threefold. Firstly he sought to limit the ability of his Byzantine enemies to make war upon him in turn by looting and destroying border fortifications and settlements. Secondly he sought to enrich himself and his followers by plundering the lands and settlements of the enemy and thirdly he sought to fulfil the obligation of jihad by making war upon the infidel. The promise of rewards both heavenly and earthly drew many volunteers to his banners during the campaigning season, swelling his numbers with irregulars, fired up with religious zeal and eager for booty.
The court of Sayf al Dawla - Skylitzes Chronicle
The year 950 saw Sayf al Dawla assemble an unusually large force bolstered by jihadi volunteers, numbering some thirty thousand men, which he led across the border in a more ambitious raid than usual. He defeated a force under Bardas Phocas in eastern Armenia before turning for home, laden with plunder. It was now however that the Byzantine strategy for countering cross border invasions came into play. The defensive approach taken in this period and employed successfully on several occasions against Sayf al Dawla and his lieutenants was known as shadowing. With advance intelligence of enemy movements provided by a network of spies and look outs, the Byzantine commanders employed as much as possible a scorched earth policy in the face of the enemy advance. Civilians were evacuated, valuables and livestock removed and crops burned. The enemy was closely followed by small, mobile forces and his foragers and scouts harassed as he made his way through the valleys from settlement to settlement in search of loot. Generally, the Byzantines did not seek a major engagement at this time; allowing the razia to continue and merely attempting to limit the enemy's opportunities to plunder and forage. Sources of fresh water vital to the enemy were defended where possible by the shadowing forces. Meanwhile, the Byzantines gathered their full strength. The defenders were typically spread across numerous small garrisons throughout the frontier region but as the return route to be taken by the invader was discerned, these forces coalesced into an army which could be deployed in ambush at some suitably constricted point. So it was on this occasion that when Sayf al Dawla was making his way homeward, his forces heavily laden with booty, an ambush was sprung in a mountain pass between Lycandus and Germanicea by Leo Phocas, son of Bardas. Caught in a very bad position, Sayf al Dawla barely escaped with his life, losing 8000 men and most of his ill-gotten gains in the process. It was remembered by Sayf and his followers as ‘the dreadful expedition’ although it did not discourage him from raiding again the following year.
Byzantine offensive strategy was similarly limited in its scope. Raids were launched with the aim of securing modest territorial gains in the frontier region if possible but more importantly to reduce the enemy’s ability to launch raids by taking and destroying his settlements and fortifications, inflicting casualties and taking plunder. In the years following the dreadful expedition, Bardas Phocas proved himself inept at these tactics, repeatedly being defeated by Sayf al Dawla, who was seemingly unbeatable on his home ground. Meanwhile, Byzantine efforts to make gains in southern Italy met only with defeats and further loss of territory.
Sayf al Dawla flees the field of battle -- Skylitzes Chronicle
Following this defeat, the emperor had tired of Bardas’ bungling and replaced him as Domestic of the Scholae with his son Nicephorus. Citing his wound to maintain his honour, Bardas retired with dignity intact. The new domestic earned a brief reprieve whilst Sayf al Dawla had his hands full with a tribal revolt.
By a mixture of diplomacy and ferocity, Sayf al Dawla pursued a policy of divide and conquer, driving some tribes into the desert to starve whilst winning others to his side with the promise of the lands and property of the vanquished. By 956 he was once more the master of his own territories but was now facing a renewed challenge from Nicephorus Phocas, who sent the promising young Armenian general John Tzimisces to seize the city of Amida. Sayf al Dawla launched a successful counter raid into Byzantine Mesopotamia, which saw the governor’s palace at Harput burned and large numbers of captives taken. Avoiding the principle ambushing force which had moved in behind him, Sayf al Dawla’s force then managed to fight their way through another pass, which the returning Tzimisces had occupied, routing the Byzantine forces with heavy losses and capturing their baggage. Whilst he had his hands full however, Leo Phocas had led another raid into his territory, defeating and capturing his cousin, who was paraded in Constantinople. The following year Nicephorus led a campaign to destroy the crucial border stronghold of Adata. Meanwhile he employed intrigue to undermine any counter-moves that the Emir might make. As he made his preparations, Sayf al Dawla discovered that a group of his followers had accepted a Byzantine bribe to capture him and hand him over to Nicephorus. Furious, he abandoned his campaign and returned to Aleppo to root out the conspiracy, killing or mutilating over 300 of his bodyguards in a brutal purge.
Sayf al Dawla's cousin is captured - Skylitzes Chronicle
Emboldened, the Byzantines launched a major campaign into Sayf al Dawla’s territory in the spring of 958, with John Tzimisces successfully capturing and sacking the significant strongholds of Dara and Samosata. Reinforced by troops led by the eunuch chamberlain Basil Lecapenus, who by virtue of his mutilation retained the confidence of the emperor, Tzimisces inflicted a crushing defeat on Sayf al Dawla, who lost around half of his forces to slaughter or captivity.
The brothers Nicephorus and Leo Phocas and John Tzimisces were presiding over a renaissance in Byzantine military prowess, marked by increased professionalism and new tactics. Their latest campaign showed greater ambition than the border raiding of recent years and they were growing in confidence as the armed forces and in particular the foot soldiers of the empire began to establish a formidable reputation such as they had not held for centuries. From the days of Justinian and Belisarius, the Byzantine army had been a cavalry army. The footsloggers had been there to make up the numbers, to hold fixed positions and to garrison fortresses. The real fighting had been done by men on horseback. Now, however, Byzantine infantry was beginning to play a role on the field of battle it had not done since the heyday of the legions of old Rome. Good quality foot soldiers, recruited predominantly from Armenia, well drilled and disciplined, would play an increasingly important role in Byzantine armies from here on in, making up around two thirds of their strength, in a complete reversal of what had gone before.
In an innovation that would be familiar to British redcoats, a contemporary treatise describes how Byzantine infantry was to be deployed in a square formation in order to thwart the mounted attacks of the enemy. Detachments of soldiers would be armed with long, stout pikes for repulsing cavalry, whilst their fellows presented a hedge of spears, making their formation invulnerable to mounted troops. This was not intended simply as a defensive measure but rather infantry and cavalry were to operate offensively together, with the cavalry and light troops able to take refuge within the squares and sally out as required. The infantry served as a mobile fortress, moving inexorably against the enemy, able to deploy into line swiftly on command and surge forward against any enemy foot soldiers who stood against them. In another throwback to the days of war against the Savaran of Persia, Nicephorus and John reintroduced the magnificent spectacle of the super heavy cataphract, clad in lamellar armour, riding a similarly armoured horse. A force of perhaps five hundred such horsemen, arranged in a wedge formation of steel and horseflesh, armed with lances and maces, with mounted archers following on at the base of the wedge, would comprise an elite strike force to be unleashed in an irresistible charge. These troops could sweep aside more lightly armed mounted opposition, were relatively invulnerable to missile weapons and could crash straight through a line of infantry, no doubt already wavering at their thundering approach.
When Constantine met Olga - Radziwill Chronicle
Constantine VII may have been a stranger to the field of battle but he had been a good judge of character and had appointed capable generals and crucially had left them to get on with what they did best. He had also continued Romanus’ policy of enforcing the return of lands to peasant farmers, who were the backbone of the thematic military system. Now Phocas and Tzimisces were about to raise the military fortunes of the empire to a level of success that had not been seen since the advent of Islam. Constantine Porphyrogenitus would not live to see it however. In 959, aged fifty four, he died. Through his quiet wisdom, he left the empire in a better state than it had been for many years. He had even sought to reduce the menace posed by the Rus by cultivating Olga, the widow of Prince Igor of Kiev, who was given a lavish baptism by the Patriarch in Hagia Sofia, with the emperor himself standing as her godfather. Sent on her way, Olga, now baptised as Helena, set out to Christianise her people and establish a Russian church. It was a major step towards bringing the Rus into the fold, although her son Svyatoslav would reject Christianity.
Death of Constantine VII - Skylitzes Chronicle
The succession of the twenty year old Romanus II was untroubled and the future of the ruling dynasty appeared secure. After the death of his first wife, Romanus had developed a passion for a barmaid, whom he had surprisingly been permitted to marry once she had been rechristened Theophano in memory of his grandfather’s first wife, who had retired to a nunnery and become a saint. This rebranded saintly barmaid had subsequently presented Romanus with two sons; Basil and Constantine, putting herself in an unassailable position. Once Romanus had taken the throne she had used her considerable influence over the emperor to see to it that his mother and sisters were all put away in convents and that any of the former emperor’s advisors who were not favourably inclined towards her were put out to grass.
Romanus was an admirer of the new revitalised military and he wanted more of the same. Keeping faith with his father’s generals, Romanus divided the senior military position of Domestic of the Scholae into separate eastern and western commands for the Phocas brothers Nicephorus and Leo. The elite regiments of the Scholae and Exubitors had their numbers increased to accommodate the split. Nicephorus found himself sent against Crete once more, this time at the head of a fleet and army large enough to get the job done. Three hundred warships escorted a huge fleet of transports to land some fifty thousand troops on the island, who swept all before them before laying siege to the capital Chandax, present day Heraklion. The siege dragged on through the winter of 960-1 with both sides suffering privation. Despite their desperate straits, the defenders held out until in March Nicephorus’ troops succeeded in storming the city at the third attempt. The inhabitants of Chandax received little mercy from the soldiers who had suffered through the long winter and those who were not slaughtered were enslaved. The Emir and his family were returned to be paraded in Constantinople. Vast stores of plunder were taken. Crete had been essentially a pirate state for over a century and all of the ill gotten gains now fell into Nicephorus’ hands. Being an exceptionally pious man, he gave over much of his personal share to his friend Athanasius, an ascetic hermit, who used the wealth to construct the first monastery on Mount Athos.
Siege of Chandax - - Skylitzes Chronicle
The Sword of the Dynasty had in Nicephorus’ absence mounted an ambitious raid into imperial territory at the head of some thirty thousand troops and had once again fallen foul of classic Byzantine shadowing strategy, which on this occasion had been executed to perfection by Leo Phocas. At the Battle of Adrassos fought in late 960, whilst Nicephorus was besieging Chandax, the Emir had found himself ambushed in the narrow pass known as Calindros as he was returning to his own lands laden with plunder. Boulders had crashed down the slopes onto his startled troops and Byzantine soldiers had surged from cover to attack his column at both ends. The fighting had gone hard but the Arab force had been caught in an impossibly bad position by well prepared attackers. Sayf al Dawla had had one horse killed under him and had returned to the fray before abandoning his men to slaughter or captivity and fleeing with just three hundred horsemen. According to Byzantine sources the Emir had scattered gold coins behind him to distract his pursuers.
Sayf al Dawla’s losses were disastrous and following Nicephorus’ return to the eastern front, a major campaign was launched early in 962. The two Phocas brothers led their combined forces across the frontier and swept all before them as they marched through Cilicia, capturing over fifty strongholds. Marching on into Syria they advanced almost unopposed on Sayf al Dawla’s capital of Aleppo. The Sword of the Dynasty once more fled in the face of overwhelming force and Nicephorus oversaw the systematic looting and total destruction of his palace before storming the weakly defended city and once more systematically looting and destroying it. Sayf al Dawla had maintained a lavish court in Aleppo. It had been a jewel, a haven for artists and poets. Now it was a smouldering ruin. He would continue to hold sway over northern Syria for another three years until his death but his power had been broken.
Fall of Aleppo - Skylitzes Chronicle
The Sword of the Dynasty may not even have lasted that long had word not arrived at the frontier early in 963 of the sudden and unexpected death of Romanus. The young emperor, whose reign had begun with such promise, had sickened and died with such rapidity that poison had been suspected although neither Bringas or the empress Theophano had much to gain from striking down Romanus. Nicephorus arrived in the capital where he celebrated a full and magnificent triumph for his victories in Crete and Syria. He was rapturously received by the empress, Patriarch and Senate, led by former chamberlain Basil Lecapenus, whilst the populace enthusiastically cheered the man now dubbed the White Death of the Saracens everywhere he went. Nicephorus undertook to safeguard the rights of the two young princes Basil and Constantine before leaving to rejoin his army.
Joseph Bringas, seeing his own position under threat, was most unhappy with this situation and rightly suspected Nicephorus of coveting the throne for himself. He attempted to derail Nicephorus’ preparations to lead his army in a march upon the city by writing to John Tzimisces and offering him the supreme command in return for betraying Nicephorus. Tzimisces knew however that he could have this prize from Nicephorus anyway if he stayed loyal to his commander and so revealed Bringas’ plan. Without further ado Nicephorus led his army towards the capital but Bringas had commandeered all the shipping on the Asian shore and left the White Death of the Saracens to stare helplessly across the Bosporus at his goal as the summer wore on.
Nicephorus' triumphant entry into Constantinople - Skylitzes Chronicle
When Bringas attempted to arrest his rival’s father Bardas Phocas however, the populace, stirred up by Basil Lecapenus, rose up in riot against Bringas, burning half the city in the process and forcing him to flee. Basil restored order and sent ships across the straits. Nicephorus entered the city in a triumphal procession to St Sophia where he was immediately crowned as co-emperor alongside Basil and Constantine. With Basil just six years old, until his coming of age the general was effectively master of the empire. When that day did come the devout Nicephorus, a widower with no children, had promised to enter the monastery he had funded on Mt Athos and live out his days in prayer. A month after his coronation, by mutual consent, he strengthened his position further by marrying Theophano. The empress was half his age and his god-daughter to boot but Nicephorus overcame the many objections of the Patriarch one by one. Bringas was exiled but otherwise unharmed whilst Basil Lecapenus reaped the rewards of having thrown his hand in with his family's former rivals and was once more installed as chamberlain and chief advisor to the young princes. Nicephorus could now once more turn his attention to matters of war. The empire, it seemed, was in very capable hands.
For more Byzantine history on Slings and Arrows check out
For more Byzantine history on Slings and Arrows check out