Conflict and exchange through the wars of the Byzantines: Technology, information, culture (7th-11th c.)

Taxiarchis Kolias, Efstratia Synkellou


The present research project examines the wars between the Byzantines and the Arabs during the middle Byzantine period (7th-11th c). The clashes and battles are ‘mapped’ as points of conflict and exchange, as positions of communication and information, as well as junctions in a system of defensive infrastructure. They thus form part of a network of cultural transmission within which different perceptions and attitudes, military practices and expertise are all confronted, intersected and assimilated. The worlds of the Byzantines and the Arabs meet on the battlefields, where the human factor, as a driving force of war, struggles to survive both by technical-military means and by various forms of interaction and communication.

War is a ‘dynamic’ phenomenon in the History of Civilization. J. Keegan, analyzing the characteristic elements of Western culture in reference to war, stressed its Greek and Eastern origins that laid its moral, intellectual and ideological foundations. In fact, in the conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the East during the Middle Ages he distinguished the existence of cultural exchanges of great importance, by bringing to the West the culture of holy war, which, in turn, invested Western military culture with an ideological dimension.

Indeed, the notion of holy war (jihād) can be traced back to the first clashes between the Arabs and the Byzantines during the third decade of the 7th century. This notion, a dominant cohesive factor of the Arab tribes, contributed to the formation of a theocratic state (caliphate), and allowed for their expansion in the Near East, and later, during the 8th and 9th centuries, in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Muslim volunteers, who saw their participation in war as a holy duty, formed an important part of the Arab military forces of both the Caliphate and the emirates, which were shaped after a series of civil wars during the 8th and 9th centuries (e.g. the emirates of Tarsus, Melitene, Aleppo, Antioch). At first, the Arab holy war seems to have bewildered the Byzantines, since until then they did not give war religious qualities, but only political. War was an issue of state authorities, and its declaration was decided mostly by the Emperor. The Byzantines took a defensive stance against the rage of the Arab warriors, although defense was, for them, a choice of strategy throughout time.

On the other hand, the Arabs, skillful horseback combatants, usually resorted to guerilla warfare of a smaller or larger scale, with economic and ideological/religious objectives. Land pirates and, following the acquisition of strong navy forces in the end of the 7th century, sea pirates as well, they were quite hostile, waging wars of conquest or attrition. From the 8th century onwards, and after the last attempt of the Arabs to capture Constantinople in 717, the wars of attrition became more often, mainly in Asia Minor. The conquests of Crete and Sicily, however, were attributed to military power, and consequently to the Arabs’ momentum of aggression in the Mediterranean. Until the 10th century, during the age of the Emperors-generals, as in the case of Nicephorus II Phocas and Ioannes I Tzimiskes, the Arab-Byzantine confrontation was characterized by various battles of victory and defeat for both sides, such as the battles of Sozopetra (837), Amorium (838), the river Lalakaon (863), Marg al-Uskuf (863). The Arab raids had an almost ritual character, as they were held every year for plundering and pillaging, without bringing any permanent gains. The Byzantines realized the characteristics and motives of their opponents, and adapted their tactics and strategy accordingly. Main elements of their tactics were surprise and ambush, with the use of appropriate military means (warriors and armor), and the use of a warning system, such as beacon towers from Constantinople all the way until the Cilician Gates.

The gradual stabilization, in particular, of the borders between the two adversaries during the 8th century, without altering the raiding character of Arab warfare, led to the consolidation of war of position, and the emergence of another type of war; the war waged in passes and enclosures, which is based on the close surveillance of the enemy, and its harassment during mobilization, supplying, camping, and even pillaging. Although the Arabs applied similar tactics, this type of warfare became part of the Byzantine defense strategy, possibly also successful in attacking, as well, as shown in military treatises of the 10th century2. The role of local commanders was crucial, as were the intelligence diffused through captives. The sources, both Arab and Byzantine, show the large number of prisoners of war, through numerous mentions of their exchanges and fate. The same sources reveal that from the 920’s the Byzantines passed on the counterattack, which was accompanied by major changes in the military (use of heavy infantry and cavalry, and adaptation of tacticts). This brought important victories, such as the re-conquest of Crete and lands in Syria, and the Empire began to favor more and more the alliances with controlled neighboring states combined with versatile diplomacy. From the mid- 11th century, a series of insurrections and internal strife led to a decrease of military power, which, until then, was based on local troops of the themata and forces of the tagmata. The recruitment of foreign mercenaries, mainly Westerners, would bring Byzantium in contact with Western warfare (heavy cavalry). The ‘encounter’ of Byzantines and Arabs on the battlefield was undoubtedly important for the military history of both forces. It consisted mostly of an analysis of the tactical moves and strategies of both adversaries, the adaptation to each other’s war methods and military ethics, as well as the mutual embracing of elements of military organization. For example, in the battle of Dazemon (838), the Arabs used Turkish mounted archer corps, which later led the Byzantines to recruit corps to face the ‘unorthodox’ tactics. Adapting to the harassing tactics of the Arabs, they often copied them, also organizing raids (such as in Dorylaeum, 779), or surprise attacking the Arabs during their retreat from the battlefield (as in Adrassus, 960). Moreover, the Byzantines used the collaboration they had with the Arab tribes, mainly in the context of a wider political goal to bring all foreign or opposing entities within their sphere of influence. Such was the case of the Ghassanid Arabs, who became channels for the transmission of Byzantine material and spiritual culture. Similar was the case of the Mardaite Christians. Finally, the development of a powerful military system by the Arabs in the mid-8th century at areas of the borderline (from Taurus in Cilicia, to Germanikeia and Melitene), characterized by the organization of city-forts and the support of a constant presence of military forces, creating a militarized zone that reflects elements belonging to the Byzantine thematic system, springs from the long contact between the Arabs and the Byzantines.

Of course, the Arab-Byzantine clashes raised the competition in terms of armor. By being of great service to war, technical expertise allows for exchange and interaction. The Byzantines used Greek fire mainly for their sea forces in order to attack the Arabs (for example during the first siege of Constantinople), implicitly encouraging the latter to seek new weapons and means in order to regain military superiority over the Byzantines. Realizing the importance of the navy at the end of the 7th century, the Arabs started constructing war ships that would compete with the Byzantine navy, and made use of the sea-farers living at the coastal areas of the lands they conquered in order to acquire combat-effective forces. They thus managed, during the 9th and 10th centuries under the Abassids, to dominate in the Mediterranean, developing a naval technology of their own, and realize organized naval operations, together with an array of pirate attacks on islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean. During the same period, the Byzantine military treatise on naval warfare by Leo VI appears to have been translated into Arabic.3 The military rivalry, however, also brought an ‘upgrade’ in siege warfare, with the wide-spread use of siege engines and the further development of siege techniques, at which the Byzantines excelled. It is a fact that human factor is a decisive element for the outcome of a battle. Armed men, as well as prisoners or hostages, either using or suffering military force, play a role in the outcome of war and appeasement. At this stage, information is of vital importance, and it is carried by both special military units (scouters and spies) and prisoners. The latter, in particular, often become the apple of discord, and they are many times used for the transfer of intelligence, assisting this way the communication between various forces. It is noteworthy that, since the late 8th century, group exchanges of prisoners were organized, taking place at specific places (e.g. Lamos River at Tarsus) and by specific procedure, bringing into contact both the official authorities and the borderline population, which usually participated in the process. Within this framework, ambassadors, such as Leo Choirosphaktes or Naşir bn al-Azhar, had a dominant position through their stay in the courts of the rulers and their participation in official diplomatic ceremonies. The etiquette of foreign ambassador reception in Byzantium is described in detail by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in De Ceremoniis. Furthermore, information given by Arab historians refers to an exchange of ideas, perceptions and experiences during the exchange of prisoners.

Thus, this communication was manifold. The prisoners of war brought back home images of the material culture of the adversaries, while they often became channels of transmission of knowledge, both scientific and technological. The case of philosopher Leo the Mathematician’s student, a prisoner of the Arabs, is quite characteristic, since he urged the Caliph Mamŭn to show interest in the dissemination of sciences in the Caliphate. Moreover, prisoner writers wrote down their own experiences transmitting information and ideas, and contributing to the literary production of their times. John Kaminiates’ De Expugnatione Thessalonicae and Abŭ-Firas’ Rumiyate are only two characteristic examples.4 At this point it is worth noting the development of epic poetry, which took form during the Arab-Byzantine clashes, conveying popular convictions and reactions to war. From the Songs of Armouris and of the Castle of Oria, which reflect the capture of Amorium in 838, to the epic poem of Digenis Akritas, which presents aspects of the border guards and populace together with the legends that enwrapped important victories or defeats, war inspires, leading to an exchange of feelings, ideas and perceptions. The ‘coexistence’ of Arabs with the Byzantine populations in the former Byzantine provinces of Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and Egypt had, undoubtedly, moments of tension and violence. Massacres of civilians, executions of prominent figures and ecclesiastical leaders, expulsions and migrations, captivity and prisoner trade, looting of treasures and holy relics, demolishment of towns and churches, were all the outcome of the military operations of the belligerents. Within this framework, common practices, such as the renovation or founding of towns and places of worship, defense constructions (fortifications and bridges), expulsions, and the relocation of prisoners as basic ways of demographically strengthening areas, all prove that war brings reaction and interaction. Thus, assaults with the pretext of reprisals, aiming at safeguarding religious symbols, as, for example, under Theophilus, or the crusade-like military operations of Nicephorus II Phokas and Ioannes I Tzimiskes, reflect the reaction of the Byzantines against the holy war of the Arabs, in an atmosphere of widespread religiosity – albeit under a different perspective – of the two worlds. The Arabs fought for religion, the Byzantines with religion. Islamization, Christianization, and the emergence of martyrs were fundamental psychological parameters of war during the 10th century.

Obviously, war did not cancel cultural interaction between the two worlds. The Arabs, both from Damascus (under the Umayyads) and from Baghdad (under the Abbasids), made good use of Byzantine culture, with the use of Greek language for the administrative mechanism, the use of various elements from Christian art and architecture in mosques, the translation of Greek classical texts and their dissemination from East to West. The activity of John the Damascene in the court of the Umayyad Caliph, and John the Grammarian’s visit to Baghdad in 829, which inspired him to propose to Emperor Theophilus the construction of the Palace of Bryas in imitation of the Saracen palaces, are but a few cases of communication and coexistence of the two worlds.

At the end of the 11th century, the Arabs (Caliphate of Baghdad, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo, the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba) coexist in terms of culture with the Byzantines and the Westerners in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The balance of power was to change once more during the next century from the appearance of certain Asian peoples (e.g. the Seltzuks) and the Crusaders in the Near East. These new factors will take the place of the Arabs in the frontline and will make Byzantium weaker, without, though, destroying the cultural substratum of the Arab and Byzantine worlds, as it emerged from their mutual ‘encounter’ in the battlefields. War was once more to motivate cultural transfer.

- Battle of Mothoi, 629

- Arab campaign in Syria (Damascus), 634

- Arab campaign in Palestine (Gaza), 634

- Battle of Ajnãdayn, 634

- Battle of Ieromyax, 636

- Arab campaign in Syria (Emesa), 636

- Arab siege of Jerusalem, 637

- Arab campaign against the Persians (Kadesh), 637

- Arab conquest of Mesopotamia, 640/641

- Arab campaign against Egypt (Alexandria), 642

- Arab campaign in Armenia (Dovin), 642

- Arab conquest of Cyprus (Constantia), 649

- Arab conquest of Arados island, 650

- Arab invasion of Isauria, 650

- Arab campaign in the Aegean (Rhodes), 654

- Sea battle at Phoenix, 655

- Arab attacks in Asia Minor (Amorion), 665

- Arab campaign in northern Africa (Tunisia), 666

- Arab invasion of Sicily, 670

- Arab siege of Constantinople, 674-678

- Arab-Byzantine clash in Algeria (Biskra), 683

- Byzantine campaign in Syria (Germanikeia), 685

- Byzantine campaign in Armenia (Sebastopol), 692

- Arab conquest of Carthage, 697

- Conflict between Byzantines and Arabs in northern Syria (Samosata),700

- Arab invasion of Sicily (Pantelaria), 700

- Arab invasion of Cilicia (Flaviopolis), 705

- Byzantine - Arab clashes in Cappadocia (Tyana), 708

- Arab invasion of Tangiers, 709

- Byzantine operations in Lazica (Archaeopolis), 711

- Arab invasion of Asia Minor (Amaseia), 712

- Arab campaign in Galatia, 713

- Arab invasion of Pisidia (Antioch), 713

- Arab invasion of Pergamum, 716

- Arab siege of Amorion, 716

- Arab siege of Constantinople, 716-717

- Arab campaign in Bithynia (Nicaea), 727

- Battle of Acroino, 740

- Byzantine campaign in Syria (Germanikeia), 746

- Byzantine campaign in Mesopotamia (Melitene), 752

- Sea battle at Ceramaea, 747

- Byzantine campaign in Syria (Germanikeia), 778

- Arab campaign in Asia Minor (Dorylaeum), 779

- Arab campaign in Asia Minor (battle of Darenos), 782

- Battle of Copidnados, 788

- Sea conflict of Lycia, 790

- Byzantine-Arab conflict in Asia Minor (Anousa), 795

- Arab campaign in Bithynia (Malagina), 798

- Arab campaign in Phrygia (Crassus), 804

- Arab campaign in Cappadocia and Galatia (Heracleia), 806

- Arab attack against Rhodes, 807

- Arab conquest of Crete, 828/9

- Arab invasion of Sicily (Palermo), 831

- Byzantine campaign in northern Syria (Sozopetra), 837

- Battle of Dezemon, 838

- Capture of Amorium by the Arabs, 838

- Byzantine campaign in Crete, 843

- Arab conquest of Sicily (Messina), 843

- Battle of Mavropotamos, 844

- Capture of Damietta by the Byzantines, 853

- Byzantine campaign in northern Syria(Samosata), 856

- Battle of Castrogiovanni, 859

- Battle of Chonarion, 860

- Battle of Lalakaon River, 863

- Battle of Marj al-Uskuf, 863

- Arab invasion of Dalmatia (Rausium), 868

- Battle of Bathyrrhyax, 872

- Arab conquest of Syracuse, 878

- Arab-Byzantine clashes in the Ionian Sea (Methone), 879

- Arab operation in Euboea (Evripos), 879

- Byzantine campaign in southern Italy (Taranto), 880

- Arab conquest of Sicily (Tauromenion), 902

- Arab conquest of Thessaloniki, 904

- Byzantine operation in Cyprus, 910

- Byzantine campaign in Melitene, 934

- Byzantine campaign in Mesopotamia (Edessa), 943

- Byzantine campaign in Crete, 949

- Arab attacks in Mesopotamia (Aramosata), 956

- Byzantine-Arab conflicts in northern Syria (Adatas), 957

- Battle of Adrassus, 960

- Byzantine campaign in Crete (Chandax), 961

- Byzantine campaign in Syria(Aleppo), 962

- Byzantine campaign in Cilicia (Mopsuestia), 964

- Byzantine campaign in Cilicia (Tarsus), 965

- Byzantine campaign in Cyprus, 965

- Byzantine campaign in Sicily (Remata), 965

- Byzantine campaign in Syria (Hierapolis), 966

- Byzantine campaign in Syria(Arka), 968

- Capture of Antioch by the Byzantines, 969

- Byzantine campaign in Syria(Damascus), 975

- Battle of Orontes River, 994

- Byzantine-Arab conflicts in Syria(Apamea), 998

- Byzantine campaign in Syria(Aleppo), 1030

- Battle of Edessa, 1031

- Byzantine campaign in Sicily (Remata), 1038

1 Keegan J., History of Warfare, [Greek translation, Charalampidis L.), Athens 1997, 642-645.

2 A quite detailed study on this practice is the military treatise De Velitatione Bellica. See Dagron G. - Mihăescu H., Le traité sur la guérilla (De velitatione) de l’ empereur Nicéphore Phocas (963-969), Paris 1986.

3 Christides V., Piracy, Privateering and Maritime Violent Actions: Maritime Violent Activities of the Taifa of Denia in Spain (11th c.) vs. the Arab Maritime Jihãd in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Middle of the 7th to the 11th Century, in: Jasper N. - Kalditz S. (eds.), Seeraub im Mittelmeerraum. Piraterie, Korsarentum und maritime Gewalt von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit, München 2013, 199-208, particularly 203, 204.

4 Patoura S., Οιαιχμάλωτοιωςπαράγοντεςεπικοινωνίαςκαιπληροφόρησης (4ος-10οςαι.) (Prisoners of war as factors of communication and intelligence (4th-10th c.)), Athens 1994, 141-142 and 147-149.

5 The chronology includes mostly the conflicts described in detail in the database, and not the campaigns that were fruitless or had the form of continuous raids. It is possible that certain conflicts mentioned are not dated exactly, because of the relative unconformity in the bibliography.

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Research directed by: Taxiarchis Kolias. Collaborator: Efstratia Synkellou. GIS Cartography: Dimitris Triantakonstantis.