The Eternal Empire: Emperor Maurice dies before being overthrown

Part 1: Emperor Theodosius III
  • Yes, another Byzantine TL. But hopefully approached from at least a semi-original angle. I'm trying to mimic more of a podcast type tone, in particular the History of Byzantium podcast by Robin Pierson. Don't hold that against him though, as his work is better than mine. So anyway, here's my first attempt at a TL I've posted on here:

    Part I: Emperor Theodosius​

    …And so when the army’s mutinous letter arrived, demanding the abdication of Maurice and the elevation of either Theodosius or Germanus as the new Emperor they discovered to their great delight that the now over sixty-year old Emperor had recently falled ill, and died before they had reached the capital. The disgruntled soldiers presented their grievances to the now Emperor Theodosius, who made promises of better treatment and ascension bonuses. Most importantly however, he ordered the army to return south of the Hemus mountains and remain in Roman territory over the winter.

    Theodosius did all of this because he was looking east rather than north. His father might have secured Khosrow II as an ally, but that did not mean the Persian king would not attempt to assert his own authority now that Maurice was dead. But in this Theodosius worried for nothing. It would not be another decade until Khosrow made a move at overturning Roman hegemony. But we will discuss that topic later.

    For now our attention must turn back to the West, where the army was set to the task of settling Armenian settlers into the depopulated parts of the Balkans, and ensuring the new Slavic migrants were on their best behavior. Roman troops also maintained their vigil against the Avars, but for now this was unnecessary.

    The Avars had turned their own attention Westwards toward the Franks and the Lombards, and in a major battle in Verona a Lombard army was virtually annihilated. This victory secured the Avar khan a significant amount of treasure and a position that had been shaken badly by the Roman victories of prior years. Subsequently the Avars dealt a second defeat to the Lombards, including killing Agilulf, the Lombard king, and much of his nobility. The Lombards failed to elect a replacement king even with the Avar threat on their doorstep, and were a badly divided people. Temperorary measures put a king who’s name is lost to time in place after several months, and he dealt a minor defeat to the Avar khan, but was subsequently defeated near Milan. The Avars withdrew at the end of the year, taking a great deal of plunder and captives with them.

    As soon as they withdrew the Lombard king was assassinated, and the surviving chieftains turned on one another in a civil war that would last the better part of the next decade.

    While the Avars looked west Theodosius had made contact with Slavic leaders among the new migrants, and recruited many of them to act as envoys to their people who remained under Avar control. Sending these men north with gold he did his best to woo the Slavs to his side rather than the Avars. More importantly however, Roman diplomats used these channels to contact a more powerful tribe that the Avars had subjugated, the Bulgars. The Bulgars were a people from near the Black Sea who had long been dominated by Turkic tribes in the region, but as the power of those tribes had declined found themselves dominated by the Avars in the late 500s. The Bulgars were still the strongest of the Avar dominated tribes, and were willing to listen to Roman offers of friendship and support should the Bulgar khan turn on his overlords.

    Flush with their victories in Italy the Avars turned their attention back toward the Romans, and invaded again in 608. Theodosius, now firmly entrenched in power sent his father-in-law Germanus to command the Roman field army in the Balkans against the attack. The Avars broke through the Roman fortresses along the Danube and advanced toward Thessaloniki once again.

    The Roman army was slightly outnumbered on paper, but their diplomatic efforts paid off greatly when the Bulgar forces among the Avar army sent private emissaries to Germanus, indicating a willingness to switch sides. Germanus paid them off and sent similar gifts to the Slavic chiefs the Empire had been courting, securing their alliance as well.

    Knowing how the battle would be lined up Germanus left only a token force on the Avar right, where the Bulgars and Slavs had assembled, concentrating all of his heavy cavalry on his own right, the Avar left. His heavy infantry was placed firmly in the center to act as the anvil of the battle.

    The subsequent fight was a slaughter. As agreed the Bulgars and Slavs turned on their overlords as fighting commenced, ravaging the unsuspecting Avar flank and rear with arrows and charges. This had the effect of driving the Avar center forward and to the left, directly into the attacking Roman cavalry. Disorder set in among the Avars, and those who could escaped, but most were trapped inside the tightening noose of Germanus. The Roman Center held firm, allowing the Avars to be smashed against their shields and lances.

    Firm numbers are of course impossible to come by, but the Avar khan was captured, as were thousands of his people, and dozens of nobles. Many captives were given to the Bulgars and Slavs who withdrew North of the Danube, where the Bulgars would subsequently destroy the Avar Khanate over the next few years. Eventually the Bulgars would set up their own kingdom in what had been Avar territory, settling near the Carpates mountains, and giving the modern region of Bulgari its modern name.

    The Khan himself was put in chains alongside many of his remaining men and taken back to Constantinople, where they were paraded through the city and into the Circus Maximus. There are two versions of what happened next. In the first version, Theodosius had one eye of each Avar captive put out. Then he made them draw lots to determine whether he would remove their second eye or right hand. They were then unceremoniously thrown from the city and left to wander their way back home.

    This is almost certainly a fabrication of later authors. The story does not appear until the early 1300s, and was a clear reference to Constantine X’s famous treatment of the survivors of the attempt to capture Constantinople half a century before. More likely is the second explanation, in which Theodosius had the Khan publicly executed and then had his body thrown into the Hellespont. The men were sold into slavery.

    Regardless of which is true however, the Avar threat, and indeed any threat from the North was over. The Bulgars would remain north of the Danube for most of the century consolidating their new domain and raiding into the easier territory of the Franks, who were currently embroiled in one of their frequent civil wars. Theodosius’s successors would pay for peace with the Bulgars, which the khans were more than willing to accept.

    With the Balkans secured, the Lombards in chaos, and the Persians still quiet Theodosius settled into what he hoped would be a long and peaceful reign. This time of peace was critical for what was coming. Over the previous decades war had drained the treasury once again, and while the Empire was not quite broke, it was becoming more and more difficult to pay the army on time and in full. Without the need to send soldiers out campaigning each year Theodosius saved money by stationing soldiers who were in the more devastated regions of the Balkans to setting up new farms and settlements, from which the soldiers could extract additional money.

    As land was still something many soldiers dreamed of on retirement this quieted most of the grumblings about pay. This system would directly provide the foundation for the theme systems which would eventually come to infuse Anatolia and Egypt in the coming centuries. Well, maybe. There is some debate about whether Theodosius did any such thing. Certainly, some historians have argued that the army Theodosius inherited had already mutinied more than once over money, and likely wouldn’t have taken any cut in pay peacefully, suggesting instead that he had simply settled retired soldiers in the region, a long-standing Roman practice. Regardless of which interpretation is true, these new communities were in place, and expenses did decrease.

    Eventually of course the Bulgars would become one of the empire’s most intractable opponents, and the Lombards would regroup. But until then Theodosius had bought nearly fifty years of peace for the Western parts of the Empire. This time would allow Italy in particular to recover from the near century of war that had ravaged the peninsula. The Lombards remained in control of the North, save for Roman holdout cities, but they would not be in a position to challenge Roman control south of the Tiber for many years.

    At home Theodosius continued his father’s policy of tolerance toward the Monophosites, and cultivated better relations with the Pope in Italy. Much of his success in that area can be directly traced to the Lombards being distracted by their own internal affairs rather than the Emperor’s own actions however.

    We know little of the rest of his domestic policies however. The economic problems that were present in the early years of Theodosius’s reign prevented any great architectural work, and the two wars that would define the end of his reign left little time or money for such things in the Emperor’s final years. Whatever these were Theodosius prevented the state from falling into bankruptcy, secured the Balkans to a greater extent than they had been in the past century, and even built up a reserve of gold for future emergencies. Emergencies that were rapidly approaching.

    With the aid of his father’s old advisors Theodosius was turning out to be a decent emperor. Not great, but certainly not a tyrant or a madman. Unfortunately, much was about to change.

    When Maurice had died his will had technically split the Empire between his heirs. While Theodosius would retain primacy of power his younger brothers were supposed to have received territories as well. But Theodosius had taken one look at this plan and disinherited his brothers. Not publically of course, but they had been underage on his ascension, and so he had been able to claim to be stewarding their territories. Now though Tiberius was a man, and Petrus was approaching his maturity as well. And both were agitating for control over their own realms of the Empire.

    Finally, in 614 a plot was uncovered by Theodosius to have him killed and have his younger brothers split the Empire. In a rage the Emperor ordered his siblings seized, and ordered Tiberius himself killed. When Theodosius’s soldiers arrived however an overzealous soldier killed Tiberius and a younger brother named Paulus both, and in the subsequent struggle most of the rest of the Emperor’s siblings died. Only Petrus survived, and with the help of a eunuch he fled the palace, and eventually Constantinople and headed East. Initially, he likely planned to try and rally support in Syria, but the governor of Syria was Priscus, the general who had initially had such success against the Avars during the reign of Maurice.

    Priscus had done well under the current Emperor, and had no interest in starting a rebellion. And so when his initial offers were rebuffed Petrus went further east to the his last hope for aid, the Sassanids. Khosrow took Petrus in eagerly, as the Persian King was looking for an excuse to go to war with the Romans, as a means of restoring his legitimacy if nothing else. But beyond that, Khosrow wanted nothing less than to conquer the entire territory of the Romans, and restore the old Achaemenid empire in its entirety, and if he could also to push on and secure the Roman territories as well.

    In early 615 the Persians stormed out of their lands and in the south besieged Dara, while another, smaller force smashed through Roman Armenia and were soon besieging the key city of Theodosiopolis.

    The Last Roman/Persian War had begun.
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    Part 2: The Last Persian War
  • Part II: The Last Persian War​

    Priscus responded rapidly to the siege of Dara, marching a field army out of Antioch and gathering forces along the way. He also called on the army of Mesopotamia under Narses to meet him, and Narses complied. This force totaled perhaps thirty thousand men, and met the Persians near Dara a month into the siege.

    Priscus’s army was smaller than the Persian force, but the more professional Roman troops were, he hoped enough to give him the advantage. The Persian cavalry however outmatched their Roman foes and drove off their counterparts after an extended battle, and turned on the Roman infantry. The Romans held their ground however and fought the Persians to a standstill until nightfall. Both armies withdrew and prepared for the next day’s fighting. Priscus’s cavalry returned, but it was clear that victory was unlikely. Priscus withdrew the next day.

    While Khosrow sent token forces after the Roman general, he did not pursue himself, staying behind to accept the surrender of Dara before turning and marching on Amida. That city gave up without a fight, and Khosrow then marched on Edessa. Narses fled, as his own army had gone to Antioch with Priscus during the retreat. After a siege Edessa fell, leading to widespread shock in the Roman world. It had been widely believed that Christ would never allow the city to fall, but now it had. In Constantinople Theodosius was forced to take large numbers of troops from the Balkans, Italy, and Africa and dispatch them to reinforce his eastern possessions. He sent the son of the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius north to relieve Theodosiopolis. The Emperor himself took a larger force toward Syria.

    Priscus, considering his situation carefully had come to the conclusion it was untenable. Khosrow had reinforced his positions in Mesopotamia thoroughly, and was leading a significantly larger army toward Antioch. With no hope of victory in the field, and wanting to avoid the loss of his entire force should he be trapped in a siege the Imperial army retreated from Antioch to Tarsus, leaving behind a garrison large enough to hold the city until help could come. It would not come in time however and Khosrow took Antioch in early 616.

    Thinking victory was in his grasp Khosrow pursued, missing the news that Heraclius, who war from the Caucuses and had many conncetions to the region and surrounding areas, in the north had smashed his invasion force of Armenia and had retaken all of the territory up to Lake Van. The general had then advanced past Roman Armenia and launched an invasion of Sassanid territory, looting the Persian countryside along the way.

    None of this was known yet however, and Khosrow reached Priscus near the city of Adana, and a major battle was fought. This time the Roman cavalry managed to hold their Sassanid counterparts, leaving the battle as a bloody stalemate. When the sun set nearly ten thousand men on both sides were dead, and neither had been driven from the field. The next day however Persian reinforcements arrived, and Priscus retreated again.

    He withdrew past the Cilician gates. It was here that he finally met the Emperor’s advancing army. Theodosius gave overall command to his father-in-law, Germanus who determined that Khosrow would soon be advancing again. But the Persian king was not aware the Priscus had been reinforced, and so Germanus laid a trap for him.

    He set an ambush in the mountains around the Cilician gates, setting up Priscus’s force across a pass, and laying the Emperor’s troops in the terrain above. When the Persian king arrived, he found what appeared to be Priscus’s army fortified in a good position, ready to make a stand. Knowing he outnumbered the Roman general Khosrow arrayed his men so that the heaviest troops were on the flanks of his army, to smash the Roman wings and rout the center. The battle began well enough, with the Roman forces on either flanks being driven back by the heavily armed and armored Daylam infantry Khosrow had raised for his war. But at a signal Germanus called the men in hiding to emerge, and the fell upon the flanks of the Persian forces. The tables turned Khosrow ordered his cavalry in to salvage the battle, but after a fierce battle the Persian cavalry was routed by the combination of Roman cavalry and the advancing infantry. Khosrow ordered a retreat before his force could be destroyed.

    But he left twenty-five thousand men dead or captured on the field. The Persians withdrew from Antioch and other captured cities, taking their garrisons with them. Khosrow settled into Edessa to await reinforcements when he received far worse news. Heraclius had advanced out of the Caucuses and was advancing toward Dastgird.

    The loss of the city would be a complete disaster for the Sassanids. Not only would it leave a major royal center of power under Roman control, but it would also leave the road to Ctesiphon wide open. Khosrow was forced to abandon Edessa as well and rush toward his capital. By the time he reached Nisibis he got the news that Dastgird was under siege.

    Gathering an army of thirty thousand Khosrow moved to block the path onward.

    Behind the Persian King the Roman army was sweeping out of Antioch, retaking all of the territory lost in the initial stages of the war. They reached Dara near the end of 616 and settled in for a siege of Nisibis, using the promise of spoils from the city to keep the troops on campaign through the winter. Khosrow meanwhile had reached Ctesiphon and then marched out to meet Heraclius’s army to the north.

    They arrived two days after the city had surrendered. The Romans had plundered the city of its wealth, and had set up camp outside the city in preparation to move south. But Khosrow’s advance had changed that, and now Heraclius prepared for a full battle.

    The Roman army had been strengthened by a force of Gokturks from north of the Caucuses whom Heraclius had had dealings with in the past, and who had sent a force of nearly twenty-thousand after the promise of Roman gold and plunder from the war. In a sign of magnanimity Heraclius had already granted their khans much of the treasure taken at Dastgird, and the soldiers had been preparing to withdraw back to their homes with their prizes when the prospect of capturing the Persian king himself, the greatest prize of all, had presented itself. And so, Heraclius was able to convince the Gokturks to stay, if only for a few more days.

    This force would be critical, as Heraclius’s force of fifteen thousand would have been completely outmatched by Khosrow’s army otherwise. Heraclius’s Roman forces were virtually all infantry, as the Emperor had taken the cavalry with his own army. Most of this infantry was arrayed at the center of the Roman line, with the ten thousand Gokturks on either wing. Heraclius had also peeled off five thousand of his infantry, and posted twenty-five hundred behind the Gokturk lines, with spacing to allow the horsemen to move between them. The Persians however, could not see these hidden lines of Roman infantry.

    The Sassanids had separated their army into three equal components, with ten thousand in the center and on each flank. When battle was joined the Gokturks rode ahead and began pelting the Sassanid forces with arrows and javelins, beginning a full scale battle between these men and the Aswaran who made up the Sassanid cavalry.

    The Roman center held firm against the Persian infantry, all of whom were of the lighter Paighan. On the flanks the Gokturks steadily gave ground before the heavier Aswaran, before finally performing a favorite trick of later nomadic groups, the feigned rout. Riding along pre-ordered lines the nomads fell back behind the Roman infantry, and the Persians collided with the wall of spears, shields, and axes without realized their mistake. The horses crashed into one another in the sudden stop, and the Gokturks circled back around, and turned their attention on the Sassanid archers who had been sheltered among the heavy cavalry. These forces were no match for their foes, and ran when they realized the situation. The Gokturkik khan kept his men under control, and whirled to hit the Aswaran from behind, killing many and taking even more prisoner. With their flanks in ruins the Persian infantry had seen enough, they threw down their weapons and fled the field. The remainder of the Persian cavalry followed, Khosrow among them. The Goturks pursued for a time, killing many more, but returned before the sun set for the division of spoils.

    In total the Persians had lost nearly twenty-thousand men during the fighting. Of this the infantry had suffered some ten thousand losses, and ten thousand were from the cavalry. The loss of cavalry was by far the larger blow to the Sassanid Empire, as their horsemen were the greatest advantage enjoyed over the Romans in battle. Worse than the dead however were the captured, of whom there were three thousand of the Aswaran.

    These were not Persian conscripts, they were the cream of the Sassanid army, the best of the best. They were made up high nobility, much as the Roman cavalry of the early Republic had been. Their capture was a disaster on the scale of Dastgird.

    The war was effectively over.

    But Khosrow wouldn’t admit it. He retreated back to Ctesiphon and ordered the bridges linking the city to the north be destroyed to stop Heraclius from taking the capital. His army however had been destroyed. Those who hadn’t been captured had scattered, returning to their homes rather than returning to their king to fight on.

    From the West news came that Nisibis had given up after no help had come, and now Theodosius was personally marching on Ctesiphon as well, and later in 617 the Roman army had arrived. Theodosius led nearly forty thousand men, and laid siege to the Sassanid capital in June. From out of the north Heraclius meanwhile had pillaged the countryside of all he could, sent the Gokturks home with their plunder, and joined up with the Emperor.

    The now fifty thousand strong Roman army stormed Ctesiphon in early July.

    The city fell after a brutal three day battle, during which Khosrow was captured and Petrus, the brother of the Emperor committed suicide.

    The Persian capital was sacked, and then burned before the Emperor withdrew. In retaliation for the war Theodosius deposed Khosrow and put his son Kavad on the throne. The following peace was effectively dictated to the Persians by the Emperor. Nisibis was forfeited to the Romans, as was all of the territory from Lake Van to the Caspian Sea. Most of this territory wasn’t directly Roman of course, but the small kingdoms there had been fought over by the two Empires for centuries, and now they were all under Roman domination. Furthermore, the Persians were forbidden to build any fortresses within fifty miles of the Roman border.

    He extracted ransoms from most of Heraclius’s prisoners, and returned to Roman territory victorious. The treasures brought back from the East were vast, and when Theodosius returned to Constantinople he held a spectacular triumph for himself. At this triumph Khosrow was marched through the city in chains and beheaded for the crowd. It was an ignomonius end for the man who had been the King of Kings.

    The war had been hard for both empires. Enormous amounts of treasure had been spent to keep the armies going, and the Romans had to send even more gold to the Bulgars in the north to keep them out of the Empire, and after it was over sent gifts to the Gokturks as reward for their aid in the war, and to keep the nomads out of the Caucuses. The Romans had gained total control the Caucuses, but this would be theoretical domination in many cases. The kings of the region were largely considered heretics by the religious authorities in Constantinople and in Rome, leading to conflict in the future.

    With all of this in mind we must pause to ask why did Khosrow made such a horrible blunder. To answer this question there are three important facts to keep in mind. First, across the previous century the Sassanids and the Romans had often fought over the Eastern provinces, with Sassanid arms triumphing over the Romans on a fair number of occasions. Second, Khosrow believed that the Romans were divided between Theodosius and Petrus, and might be incited to civil war should early battles go against the Emperor. Theodosius himself certainly seemed to be aware of this risk as well, his stripping of the Balkans would be an army both to battle the Persians and also to deprive rebels at home of support should they attempt to overthrow him. Finally, Khosrow may have thought he had no choice. His legitimacy was extremely shaky, having been put on his throne by the hated Romans the king of kings struggled to secure support among the nobles of the Sassanid Empire, and taking advantage of Constantinople’s apparent division provided the best option for him to strike.

    And it is also important to remember, Khosrow was likely not completely wrong. Had the Romans been divided it might have been years before a full response could be marched to face him. But in this his most important miscalculation occurred. Rather than being divided the Roman army were united behind Theodosius. Germanus was the Emperor’s father-in-law, Priscus and Narses had been granted important positions within the regime, and had no reason to turn on their Emperor. Of the major Roman generals who fought in the war only Heraclius had no direct tie to the Imperial Court, but he had no reason to support Petrus either, and so he stayed loyal.

    All of this still may have been enough to see Persian victory if not for one key fact, the Danube was quiet. The Avars had been crushed at Thessaloniki, and both the Bulgars and Slavs were still friendly to the Romans. And so, when Theodosius desperately needed more soldiers to hold the East he could strip the Balkans to the bare minimum without fear of invasion from the north.

    The Sassanids had always done best against the Romans when Imperial attention was divided. But when Constantinople could focus its attention the Persians did poorly.

    The war was also effectively ended of the Sassanid Empire as a major power. While it would limp on for another few centuries its time as the great challenge to the Roman Empire was over. Kavad would be forced to fight a civil war for the next decade to secure his place on the throne, and when the Arabs came he would be driven behind the Zagros mountains, there to desperately cling to what remained of his territory, surviving on Roman gold and hoping that the Arabs were never able to turn their full attention east. The once great Empire was reduced to just another kingdom, and in time would become effectively just another Roman client state.

    But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Theodosius settled down to enjoy the peace and turn his attention to a problem that eventually loomed for all Emperors, succession.
    Part 3: The Interwar Years
  • Part III: The Interwar Years​

    With the Sassanids dealt with in the East we must turn our attention back to the West, specifically to the Roman province of Spania in southern Hispani. In the campaigns of Justinian the Emperor had conquered small parts of the Gothic kingdom, sometimes called the Visigoths, but due to the horrible overextension of the time had been unable to push onward. Since that time Spania had been a long neglected part of the Empire. It was theoretically part of the Exarchate of Africa, but was far away from the center of African power at Carthage, and Imperial attention had been constantly pulled East over the centuries in any case.

    The province was small, consisting mostly of coastal towns and cities, centered around the provincial capital at Carthago Spartaria, the renamed city of Carthago Nova. As time had passed the province had shrunk as more cities and towns were retaken by the Goths. By any reasonable expectation Roman rule should have ended during the reign of Maurice, but Gothic incompetence at siegecraft, which would continue as the Gothic military declined over the centuries, had kept the fortified areas under the Romans safe. Nevertheless, by the reign of Theodosius the province had been reduced from territory as far north as Cordoba to only a thin strip of land along the coast.

    Roman soldiers were in place to garrison these cities, but were stripped away as emergencies elsewhere caused the Emperors to decide that Spania was the less important concern.

    This was once again the case in 616.

    As part of his muster Theodosius had called on Africa to provide several thousand men for his Eastern campaign, and Exarch Heraclius, father of the general who had been so successful in the East stripped Spania of three quarters of its soldiers to help fill the Emperor’s call. He did this both to keep his own internal position in Carthage strong, but also to ensure as many soldiers as possible would be available to battle Moorish raiders should these forces threaten the far more wealthy province of Africa.

    With the Roman garrisons virtually gone the Gothic king, Sisebut laid siege to Carthago Spartaria, and successfully took the city in 617. He held the city for some time, but when news of the Roman victories in the East came Sisebut ordered the city’s walls destroyed and the city itself burned so that it could not be retaken and used as a strongpoint by the Romans in future.

    This decision proved to be prescient as the Emperor dispatched Heraclius along with the soldiers taken from Africa to stabilize Spania. Heraclius attempted a landing at the old capital, but was forced to change plans on seeing the destroyed city. Instead he departed for the second major city remaining under Roman control, Malaca. The Roman general had only a small force of twelve thousand men with him, a force of nine thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry. Arrayed against him was the entire military force that king Sisebut could raise from among his Goths.

    Direct battle would have been hopeless, so instead Heraclius embarked on a Fabian policy toward the Goths. His soldiers raided Gothic towns and farms throughout late 618, before retiring behind the walls of Malaca for the winter. Four thousand reinforcements arrived when spring came, mostly Slavic mercenaries from north of the Danube, and Heraclius felt confident enough to engage in a battle. The Gothic forces were divided into two armies, one under King Sisebut, and a second, smaller force under the king’s brother-in-law Suintila.

    No records remain of the battle that followed, but Heraclius would claim that the Goths were numbered some twenty thousand against his own force of fifteen thousand. Modern scholarship confirms the Roman numbers, but puts the Goths at closer to ten thousand. Whatever the real numbers, the Romans defeated and captured much of the Gothic army, including Suintila. The cost was heavy however, as Heraclius is thought to have lost five thousand men in the fighting, men who could not be replaced.

    With part of the force opposing him defeated Heraclius returned to his strategy of raiding Gothic territory, both enriching himself and his soldiers, and sending portions of the plunder back to Constantinople for the Emperor. The rest of 619 passed without another major battle. Over the winter of 620 however the Roman general entered into talks with Suintila. It was clear that the Romans, while safe in their strongholds, could not reverse the gains that the Goths had made, nor were continuing to make. Heraclius’s raiding did little to slow Sisebut’s methodical envelopment of Spania.

    Urci had fallen, and the Goths had taken all of the territory to its East over the year. Heraclius therefore turned to that old Roman cure-all, diplomacy. Suintila desired the throne of the Hispani, and was convinced to challenge Sisebut for the crown, with Roman backing. In December the Gothic general was allowed to escape and he set about gathering supporters who were tired of Sisebut’s rule, and who were suspicious of his attempts to force the Gothic nobles to accept his son Reccared as successor.

    When Heraclius emerged from winter quarters in 620 he joined a Gothic force of fifteen thousand that Sisebut had raised, and marched on Toletum with them. Sisebut was put to siege inside his capital, and the Roman engineers did their work, breaching the walls in April. The combined force stormed the city, with the Roman soldiers plundering what they could before Heraclius ordered a halt to ensure the temporary allies would not have a falling out over the matter.

    Sisebut took refuge inside a church, and was allowed to take monastic vows and be sent to Italy to live out life in a monastery rather than face death. Suintila granted Heraclius a golden plate that according to legend had been gifted to the Goths by the Roman general Aetius two centuries before. They then made peace, and Heraclius withdrew from Malaca.

    Six months later, per secret terms of the treaty, Imperial agents left the gates of both Malaca and Asidona unlocked, and the Goths stormed both cities. The Imperial province of Spania was gone.

    Theodosius put as good a face on the move as he could, but the reality was that the Spanish province was always doomed. Constantinople had neither the soldiers, nor money, to spare on a backwater so far from their centers of power in the East. This will not be the last we hear of Spania however, as in a few centuries time the Goths will do the unthinkable and beg the resurgent Romans to return and assist them against a more local foe, the Franks.

    That however is still far in the future. For now the Empire was, mercifully, at peace.

    Externally at least. Internally Theodosius’s policy of tolerance for the Christian heresies was straining. While their heresy had been ont eh decline, the Miaphysites in Egypt had grown bolder as first Maurice, and now Theodosius attempted to ignore the issue, but the issue came to a head when the current Imperial archbishop, then called the Patriarch, John died. The Alexandrians clammered for the head of the local Coptic Church, Benjamin, to be appointed as the new Archbishop. There were fears of riots in the city if this was not granted, but Theodosius moderated the issue by having a bishop named Cyrus elevated. He also may have had Benjamin poisoned as the Coptic leader died shortly after Cyrus’s arrival, but witnesses at the time claimed it was natural causes.

    Cyrus was a moderate on the topic, and came to Alexandria seeking compromise with the local Miaphysites. The details are irrelevant to the larger topic, as the idea did not survive Cyrus himself, but fundamentally the Miaphysites agreed, in theory to Christ having only a single energy with which he interacted with the world, but two natures behind that energy.

    For our purposes, the primary impact of Cyrus’s doctrine was that it lured a significant number of the remaining heretics away from their old practices and into communion with the Chalcedonians. The issue had not been settled by any means, and had Egypt remained so vital to the Empire’s finances it is difficult to see how a further compromise could have been avoided. External events would soon render the religious distinctions of Egypt and the rest of the Empire to be far less important.

    This issue being worked on Theodosius again could hope for a rest, but it was alas not to be. On 17 June 626 the Emperor came down with a fever, and was wracked by chills. Soon there was swelling across his body, and Theodosius was confined to a bed. Realizing he would likely die Theodosius undertook his final act. He had no sons, but had three daughters, of whom the oldest had entered a convent, and the youngest two were unmarried.

    He had few good options available, and so chose the least bad. He ordered the general Heraclius’s oldest son, Constantine to divorce his wife, and then married him to his second daughter, Maria. Then he formally adopted the young man as his son. This done, Theodosius died on 1 July, 626. He had been the Emperor for 24 years.

    Theodosius cannot be argued to be anything but a great Emperor. Not a Trajan, an Augustus, a Hadrian, a Constantine (I or X), a Leo IV, a Manuel II, or a Julius II, but great regardless. This was due to no little talent of his own of course, but when we look at Theodosius’s record he did little by himself. At every step of the way he was assisted by more capable men who could be trusted to do what he needed them to, and to be loyal. Priscus, Germanus, Heraclius, and finally Constantine IV. Without them Theodosius’s rule would likely have been a failure.

    With them though he was able to accomplish much, building on everything that his father had done. The Avars were destroyed, and the Sassanids beaten more soundly than any Emperor in all of Roman history had accomplished. The treasury was full after five full years of peace, and the army was happy.

    Constantine was accepted as the new Emperor with surprise by the people of Constantinople, and not a small amount of hostility. He was Armenia by heritage, and his original marriage to a cousin had been scandalous at the time for being incestuous. But his divorce, on those grounds no less, quieted many who disliked the son of Heraclius, and Maria was a popular princess.

    The army meanwhile loved him. Constantine was a soldier, having followed his father into the army as an officer. The new Emperor was young at only 22, and had served on his father’s staff as the war was winding down in Spania. He had however seen no battles, and then returned to Constantinople to serve in the Scholoi, possibly as a means of Theodosius to test for succession even then.

    As it was Theodosius’s death left him no choice but to elevate the young man. Some accounts of the time period pointed to other possibilities, such as Priscus or even Heraclius himself. But both were away from the capital, Heraclius in Africa, and Priscus in Armenia. Indeed, Priscus himself would be dead before news reached him of the succession. Heraclius meanwhile would be co-Emperor in all but name until his own death in 629.

    The Emperor originally simply continued the policies of Theodosius, but in the process he allowed the border forts on the Danube to decline, and shrank the army in the East to save money. Both were policies that would haunt both him and his successors.

    Finally, in 632 a message came from the province of Arabia. The Ghassanids had flooded into the Empire, fleeing from some foe that had arisen to the south. Soon more messages came, that all of Arabia was united and marching under the crescent and the cross. The First Arabic Caliphate had arrived.
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    Part 4: Arabia Wakes
  • Part IV: Arabia Wakes​

    To rewind a little the first question most will have are, who are the Arabs, and why did they arise when they did.

    Arabia had long been an area ignored by the Romans. The province of Arabia was conquered by Trajan in the second century, and arranged into a province called Arabia Petraea. This was then moved into the Diocese of the East under Diocleatian, and by the time of Constantine IV had been split into two territories. The official Arabia province was put in the north, in the territory on the Eastern border of Palestine, and the southern territories were made into the province of Palaestina Salutaris. On the immediate border of this province lay the kingdom of the Ghassanids.

    The Ghassanids were a local tribe who had long been allied with Rome against the Persians, and Persia’s own vassals in the Lakhmids. To their south lay the region of the Hejaz, where our primary focus will be. Hejaz was a desert region, as with virtually all of the peninsula, with agriculture clustered around oases. Local life was spent in either the sedentary settlements of the region, or as keepers of flocks of animals, constantly seeking sources of water and forage. Raiding was commonplace among this latter group as well.

    Within that region lay the city of Mecca, home of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Mecca was one of the most important cities in Arabia, acting as a commercial hub for the many tribes of the region, including the Qushyt, the tribe Muhammad belonged to, who were dominant in the region. According to Islamic tradition Muhammad was a merchant who conducted trade between the ports on the Indian Ocean, and those connected to the Red Sea, through which goods flowed north to the Romans.

    Much of this is speculation, as the Book of Muhammud, or Qur’an as his followers call often call it, is vague about his life, and even his claimed revelation. Biographies of Muhammud’s life also offer little concrete information, as they were written hundreds of years after the initial conquests, by which point Islamic holdings were already on their rapid decline. Few of these biographies even survived. Tradition however holds that in Muhammud’s forties he took to praying alone in caves near to Mecca, and on one such journey the Christ appeared to him, and bade him to remember all that was said.

    This apparition claimed that both the Jews of Israel, and the Christians of Rome had strayed from the word of God, and that a new faith would be needed to guide the children of God into glory. At first this prophet was afraid, and fled from the apparition, but it appeared to him again, and yet again before he would accept its words. Returning to Mecca he began to preach as it had instructed, but he was mocked and harassed by those he tried to help, and so was driven out of the city to a nearby agricultural center called Medina. There Muhammud raised an army of followers, and took Mecca by force, putting many of the inhabitants to the sword and forming a kingdom from the rest.

    That at least is the Roman version. The Arabic version holds that his reconquest of Mecca was virtually bloodless, and that only a small number of the worst offenders were put to death. When considering the actions of Arab armies, and the tolerance shown when they invaded the north, it seems likely that the Arab version is closer to the truth.

    Whichever is accurate, Muhammud then launched a campaign to conquer the rest of the Hejazz, defeating other tribes in the process. By the time of Muhammud’s death in 631 his kingdom ruled all of southern Arabia, and Islamic Christianity was no a major player on the world stage.

    Though, it should be noted, there is evidence that at this stage Islam was not a sect of Christianity at all, and was in many ways closer to Judaism. Some early versions of the Qu’ran also imply that the being which Muhammud claimed to have spoken to was not the Christ, but instead an archangel. The modern version does not appear until the First Caliphate was in its rapid decline one hundred years hence. That argument points out that virtually all writing on Islam originates in the heavily Christian regions they conquered from the Romans, and then in territories later retaken by the Empire. It would fall to the later Second Caliphate to sort through the details and determine the final Orthodox positions of the Muslims.

    Here it should also be noted that for the First Caliphate the title Caliph was a religious title, similar to Pope, or the old Patriarchs, as well as a political one. So that is what should be kept in mind, the pope and Emperor in a single unified office.

    This was not a choice which led to stability when the Caliphs ceased to be successful on the battlefield.

    All of that out of the way, it might seem time to actually look at the Arab invasions, but no. Next we must also look East, where the flailing Sassanid Empire was finally beginning to settle down. After the Romans withdrew from Mesopotamia revolts had flared up across the Sassanid Empire. The Eastern territories, bordering Hindi, these territories would form their own petty kingdoms, which would occasionally raid the reduced Persian Empire for the next two three centuries, until they were all crushed by the power that replaced the Sassanid as the great power on the Persian Plateau. It should also be noted that in the West an Arabic tribe called the Lakhmids successfully won independence as well.

    Kavad set about reordering his house, but met with limited success as nobles were at an all time high in their power compared to the government in the new capital at Seleukia, rebuilding Ctesiphon after the Romans had wrecked it was deemed too expensive at the current time.

    Kavad was assassinated in 624 by an ambitious general named Shahbaraz, who seized Mesopotamia and established a capital for himself at Seleukia, throwing the entire empire into chaos once more. Loyalists focused around the brother of Kavad II, named Shahriyar.

    Shahriyar retreated onto the Persian Plateau, and established himself at a new capital located at Isfahan. Both sides readied themselves for a civil war, but in a rather amusing twist Shahbaraz was assassinated by his own nobles mere weeks after his coup. Apparently, the would-be king was a cruel and petty man, and rapidly alienated everyone around him when he got into power.

    Another round of civil war had been avoided.

    Shahriyar was the disputed king of Persia. He built up a respectable treasury through heavier taxes on the Silk Road, and used what spare money he could to buy off key nobles and get the government in something resembling working order. Shockingly however, he began to court the Roman court, trying to sell the project as a great rapproachment between East and West, and also as a source of hard cash for the still recovering treasury.

    His nobles grumbled at this, and ultimately decided it was better to increase their own contributions to the royal purse rather than be subordinated by the Romans. Few of them would live to see the irony of their decision.

    We are now finally ready to turn our attention fully to Judea, right after mentioning that the Gokturks that were so critical to Heraclius’s victory of Khosrow, had by now grown distracted by wars with the Tang Dynasty in far away Hani, and would soon begin the transformation into the Khazars who would alternate between foes and allies of Byzantium, but more usually allies, for the next two hundred years.

    In 631 Muhammud died, and was succeeded in his position as Caliph his son-in-law Ali. The new Caliph looked to expand the dominions of the Caliphate to all of Arabia first, and that meant war with both the Lakhmids, and the Ghassanids. And that meant war with both Constantinople and Persia. Early in 632 therefore Ali drove into the territory of the Ghassanids, and decisively defeated their king, who was forced to flee the field. Ali captured the king and extracted from him a promise of fealty and conversion. The king did so, but as soon as he was free he gathered all of his people he could and ran to the Romans for asylum. The governor of Palaestina Salutaris allowed the Ghasanids inside his territory, and sent a message to Constantinople for additional instructions. Before those instructions could arrive Arabic raiders began striking at the territory. Local forces were quickly routed, and by the end of the year the capital at Petra had been overrun. Messages now flew every which way from Palaestine. Help was desperately needed.

    The garrisons of the remainder of Palaestine were whoefully inadequate, and messages were rapidly sent to Antioch, where the Emperor himself was visiting. Constantine, who had little military experience remember, reacted rather slowly, only calling together his field armies at the urging of his brother, future Emperor Heraklanos. It was not until nearly the end of 633 that the Emperor had gathered a relief army for Palaestine, by which point the Arabs had overrun not just the Eastern parts of Salutaris, but also Arabia, Palaestina I, and Palaestina II. I hope I’m not giving anything away by saying that all of these provinces would be out of Imperial hands for the next century and a half.

    Only Jerusalem itself had refused to surrender and instead been subjected to a siege, and it was here that the Emperor planned to march and crush the Arabs once and for all. The city itself had only held out so long as it had because the Arabs were less than zealous about the siege of a city they considered almost as holy as the Christian defenders did. Defender and attacker interacted often, and supplies were not just snuck in, but according to Arab sources, openly purchased from Caliphal armies. The 1246 Siege of Constantinople this was not.

    The Emperor left Antioch with his army in March of 634, and moved south at…well not exactly a sluggish pace, but certainly not one that impressed on anyone how seriously he was taking this. The subsequent planning was just as lax. Approaching Jerusalem Constantine seemed to be half under the impressions that the Arabs would simply break and run the moment they saw his force approach. They did not.

    Instead on May 12, an Arab force ambushed the Emperor’s army near Neapolis, and scattered large segments of it, forcing a regroup. In the meantime the main Arab leader, one Khalid ibn al-Walid, probably the best commander of anyone in these invasions.

    Al-Whalid broke off the siege of Jerusalem, and moved his entire army north toward the Roman force, preparing for a full scale battle to be fought. The armies prepared to meet near Neapolis again, with both sides well aware of the terrain and layout of their enemy. The Muslim army numbered about 30,000. Most of this was made up of archers on foot, or lighter cavalry. The heavy infantry was armed and armored in a manner similar to that of their Roman foes, but the foot archers were far superior to their opposite number, and also critically to the Roman horse archers. The Roman force numbered about 40,000 and was made up of three quarters infantry, and the final third were cavalry.

    However, part of the reason that the army had moved slowly was the difficulty of transporting enough supplies to keep this force going. The Romans had typically used smaller armies in the past century, with Theodosius’s campaign being the only major exception. This early in the year the army had to be fed through a complex series of logistical links, and many soldiers were ill-fed, and miserable when the battle began. Worse still, the Eastern armies hadn’t seen significant combat in nearly twenty years now, not since the defeat of the Persians.

    The Arabs by contrast had just overrun their entire homeland, or at the very least been fighting against those same men. They had also crushed the local forces in Palaestine. All of this together mean the Romans frankly, stood no chance despite their greater numbers. Perhaps under a more able commander they would have won, but Constantine IV was no great commander. He deployed his horse archer ahead of his army, while holding the heavier cavalry as a reserve force.

    These archers engaged in a duel with their arab counterparts, but the longer range and power of the Arab bows routed the Romans. Arrows were then loosed on the main Roman lines, who formed up into Testudos to survive the barrage. As they did so the Arab infantry advanced, and soon set upon the Roman infantry. In the Testudo formation they were far more vulnerable than might otherwise have been the case, and attempt to exit the formation failed.

    It was at this point that Constantine ordered his Cataphracts into the fighting. But the commander, seeing how the battle was going took the first of many actions that would cause him to be openly despised by the Romans of his day. That man was Heraklanos, and he withdrew from the field, leaving the army behind to be slaughtered.

    Among the dead was Constantine IV, who died alongside his men, who were killed to the last man. The Arabs lost barely five thousand men in the fighting. Heraklanos withdrew back to Antioch, where he was coldly greeted by the population, who were then alarmed to learn that he was abandoning them to return to Constantinople. The armies of the East had just been destroyed, and there was now nothing stopping the Arabs from overrunning the entire Diocese.

    It is easy to condemn Heraklanos for this choice, as with virtually every other choice he was about to make. But the reality is he kept the Empire together. Every modern reading of the Battle of Neapolis puts the Romans in a far weaker position than they seemed on paper, and Heraklanos’s retreat kept the heavy cavalry who were so essential to the army intact. Had those forces been lost it is difficult to see how the Arabs could have been as well contained as they eventually were.

    Manuel II famously said in his great history of the Arab Wars that “Sometimes an army must be sacrificed to save an empire.” Manuel was indeed an admirer of Heraklanos, and if the man who duels Augustus for the position of greatest ruler in Roman history is willing to grant the benefit of the doubt, I do not see why I should judge him more harshly.

    But that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

    For now, Constantine IV was 30 years old, and had been Emperor for eight years. He was a forgettable ruler in peace, and an utter disaster the moment a crisis loomed. It is to the benefit of all that he made his greatest contribution to the Empire of his life, and died in the first great battle of the Arab Wars. If only he hadn’t taken thirty thousand men to the grave with him.
    Part 5: Heraclanos the Tyrant
  • Part V: Heraclanos the Tyrant​

    The annihilation of the Eastern army had left the entire Diocese open to Arab assault. The garrison of Jerusalem surrendered when news arrived of the Neapolis disaster. The soldiers and priests were given generous terms, and allowed to go away toward Egypt with their holy relics. The city was occupied by some portion of the Caliphate’s soldiers, and the rest turned north and pressed toward Syria.

    Damascus surrendered without a fight three weeks after the Emperor’s defeat, and two weeks later Antioch itself was reached. The residents of the city, fearful of another battle and resentful at being abandoned threw open their gates as well.

    Nisibis, Dara, and Edessa held out as the Roman strongpoints East of Antioch, guarding both Armenia and, ironically, the Persians. Al-Walid did not pursue them, and instead tried to force passage through the Cilician Gates, but local forces threw back his probing attacks, and the Arab general decided trying to force them would cost him too many men.

    Instead he garrisoned Antioch and Adana heavily with soldiers and pulled back toward Palaestina, turning his attention on the greatest prize of all, Egypt.

    Marching to Gaza he rapidly moved forces across the undefended Sinai peninsula, encountering only mild raiding by Ghassanids who had temperorarily into Egypt to regroup. These raiders were easily seen off by the victorious Muslim armies, and overran the northern coast easily. The first real resistance was met at the fortress of Pelusium, which was reached in November of 635. The garrison commander dispatched messages to other fortresses in Egypt, and most especially to Alexandria, then settled in for a siege. He held out for three months before an Arab force successfully slipped over the walls in the night and opened the gates for their fellows. The city was spared plundering, and many of the commanders of the Roman force were sent away unspoiled.

    The long siege had given the Roman governor time to prepare the route however, and more raids hampered Walid’s supply lines, forcing the Arab general to turn back move on Clysma and lay it to siege as well. To his dismay however, the city stubbornly held out for far longer than he had hoped. Supplies flowed into the city from Axum to the south, where the Christian king had no desire to see his Roman neighbors to the north replaced. He would still be there when word came that Pelusium had fallen to Roman reinforcements, and the Emperor was on his way again.

    To catch up to that however we turn back to the north.

    While the East was falling Heraklonas made it back to Constantinople, and rapidly bought the support of the two Imperial armies kept near the capital. His escape had allowed him to bring back with him the Imperial paychests meant for the East, as well as significant amounts of gold stripped from Antioch when he withdrew from that city. Giving his younger brother Justinian, future Emperor Justinian II, significant amounts of gold Heraklonas sent him away east to Italy to raise ships and men from the recovered southern territories of the peninsula.

    Only when all of this had been completed did he enter Constantinople. The city had only just learned of the Emperor’s death, and fears of Civil War ran rampant. Heraklanos stamped these out when he had the armies declare him Augustus, and paid out a large bonus for his ascension. More money built up in the treasury during the reign of his brother were paid out to soldiers on the Danube frontier to maintain their loyalty as well. News of Antioch’s fall was not a great surprise to the Emperor, and he did not concern himself overmuch about it.

    Instead he prepared his marshaling fleet to move a large force to Cyprus, and from there to take Tripoli in a massive seaborne invasion that would trap the entire Arab force left behind, allowing them to be destroyed. Before that operation could be launched however word came of the invasion of Egypt. That news was more dire than any other. Egypt at the time was the wealthiest province in the Empire. Indeed, it was the wealthiest region in all of the ancient world, outside the lands of the Far East. Its grain fed the population of Constantinople, and it provided a third of all Imperial tax revenue. If it fell the Empire would fall with it.

    So Heraklanos changed his plans. His great fleet sailed for Alexandria rather than Cyprus, and word was sent to Africa to raise further forces to reinforce him if needed. In a move guaranteed to make the population hate him, he also suspended the free grain dole for the duration of the emergency. It would not be until 743 that it would be restored.

    The army arrived in Alexandria in July of 635, and caught up on the situation. The Emperor speedily turned his attention East and marched on Pelusium, at the head of an army of fifty thousand. His forces were fed by grain collected from local farmers, as their taxes for the year. As the Emperor passed across the Nile he was joined by seven thousand Ghassanid tribesmen, and a large number of local forces, swelling his numbers to sixty thousand. This army he split, sending a third to Heliopolis, and taking the remainder north to Pelusium, which he reached on 31 July, 635 and laid siege to it, while his navy blockaded the harbor.

    Roman siegecraft was far superior to Arab, and the walls were rapidly breached, leading the Arab garrison to surrender on 31 July. The Emperor then turned his force south and drove toward Clysma, looking to annihilate the Arab army completely. Al-Walid however heard of the Emperor’s push and abandoned his siege, using his men’s experience with the Arabian Peninsula to press toward Heliopolis over the desert, where the Imperial army would be hard pressed to follow.

    The Arab commanders hope was likely that the restless Egyptian province would result in a greater willingness of the local population to be ruled by a new religious sect rather than the Chalcedonian Romans. In this he was both right and wrong. Theodosius’s bishop had kept the Egyptians in communion with the Chalcedonian church, and by this point Miaphysitism was on the decline in Egypt.

    Those who remained however, many of them wealthy Egyptians, were happy to assist the attempted conquest, largely to keep their own power intact. These men provided food, and even men from their own estates to join the Arab armies. Most importantly however, they betrayed the army at Heliopolis. The force was tricked out of position and into an Arab ambush. Twelve thousand were killed, and the rest scattered. Most made it to Babylon, but many were never seen again.

    By now however Heraklanos had realized what had happened, and was pressing back into central Egypt, and his army was still more than a match for the Arab force, which itself had been reduced to only about fifteen thousand. Al-Walid tried to withdraw, but was cornered by the Emperor and forced to a battle.

    This time, the Emperor positioned his heavy cavalry directly in the center of his army, holding back the horse archers as a reserve force. The Roman infantry advanced to engage the wings of the Arab army, and the cataphracts smashed through the center, scattering the Arab archers and infantry. Al-Walid was not a great commander for nothing however, and he managed to gather what remained of his force and retreat out of Egypt with part of his army intact.

    The Battle of Babylon was a major Roman victory, leaving six thousand Arabs dead on the field, for only two thousand Romans. When counting losses sustained during his retreat Al-Walid had only about five thousand men when he reached the safety of Arab held lands. Heraklanos sent a force to pursue, but leveled his immediate wrath on the Miaphysite nobles who had not fled with the Arabs. Several were executed, and dozens had their lands seized by the Emperor, who showed no distinction between those who had actively betrayed him, and those who merely had followed the wrong Church.

    The Emperor finished cleaning the house in Egypt as 636 dawned, and so turned his attention back toward Palaestina, moving a force of twenty-thousand to Pelusium. He then ran into the same problem his brother had in the march from Antioch however, supply. While his army had arrived in Egypt as the land was ready to supply his army, the same would not be true of a march across the Sinai. His fleet meanwhile was busy keeping the gold coming from Constantinople, as soldier pay had long since exceeded the gold that Heraklanos had brought with him. Despite these difficulties the Emperor was prepared to march back into Palaestina, but was distracted by an uprising back in Thrace. A noble claiming to be the illegitimate son of Theodosius had raised an army of Slavs from their settlements in Thrace and declared himself Emperor.

    Heraklanos turned and went to Alexandria, preparing to meet the threat at Constantinople, but by the time he arrived a further message had been sent that Justinian had already made it back to the capital from Italy, and had scattered the attempted revolt.

    Irritated Heraklanos turned back to Pelusium, and again prepared to march out, but was forced once again to turn back. This time Justinian himself had called the Emperor back to Constantinople, to deal with Senatorial plots.

    The Emperor, at this point at the end of his patience set his troops to building more fortifications at Pelusium, and sent a detachment south to Clysma, which was heavily fortified as well. The two fortresses would form the strongest points of the Limes Aegyptus, and would stand as the border of the Roman Empire for the duration of the First Caliphate. Heraklanos would never again visit the province.

    If you are wondering what the Arabs were up to during all of this, you aren’t alone. Our primary source for all of this is Manuel II, whose extensive histories of the Roman Empire are a great source from the time of Julius I all the way to the days of his own reign. But Manuel is silent on this period, and the Arab sources were destroyed. What little we have to work with is archeological data and guesswork. Most modern scholarship has come to the opinion that the Arabs had never been happy with Ali’s takeover of the title of Caliph, and some sort of civil war had broken out inside Arabia.

    If Heraklanos had taken advantage of such a situation he likely could have reclaimed the entire East with minimal difficulty. Or possibly reunited the Arabs against the Romans. In either case, the instability in both Empires rendered neither able to take advantage of the other’s distraction, at least not yet.

    In Constantinople, several members of the nobility were furious about the loss of their estates in Syria, and the Emperor’s seeming disinterest in retaking them, and had begun plotting his assassination. Justinian had uncovered evidence of six different plots, but was far less ruthless than his older brother. He had imprisoned those suspected of treason, but not brought them to trial. Heraklanos had no such compunction. He tried them all, and found them all guilty rapidly. Estates were seized and nobles executed in large numbers.

    In his justice he revived a practice that had long ago fallen into disfavor in the Empire, proscription. Names of wealthy senators were posted in the city, and those who were named as traitors were seized and tried. Those who tried to fight back in the courts were found guilty and executed. Those who confessed were spared, and sent to monasteries. Their estates that remained in Imperial hands were seized regardless.

    Unfortunately for the Emperor, his policies only made more enemies. In 638 another plot was hatched, this one led by Justinian himself, who had grown sickened by his brother’s policies. In March the plot went forward, Heraklanos was cornered by Excubatores who were loyal to his brother, and murdered. He was 27 years old, and had been Emperor for four years.

    Heraklanos is hard to judge. He was by any reckoning a cruel tyrant. But he was also militarily successful, and laid the groundwork for the defense of Egypt against the Arab raids which would continue for the coming century. If he had not been assassinated it is likely that the Roman army would have swept back into the Diocese of the East, retaking the land rapidly and reestablishing the old order. Perhaps even extending control down into Arabia, as client kings at the very least.

    But he was assassinated. By his own brother, who we know was a kind and generous man, which may say more than anything else about Heraklanos’s rule than anything else.

    Regardless, Justinian II was declared Augustus quickly as had been planned, and he immediately put an end to the proscriptions, destroying the old records. As his the young man prepared to march against the Arabs, but even as he gathered a new army to march across Anatolia, hopefully joining one he planned to dispatch from Egypt news came that changed everything.

    The Lombards had been united under a new king for much of the past decade, and had recovered from their defeats at the hands of the Avars earlier in the century. That king, Aripurt had died in 635, being succeeded by his young and energetic son Rothair. Rothair had a dream of conquering all of Italy, and expelling the Romans once and for all. With Constantinople distracted in the East he invaded Roman Liguria, and conquered it.

    It is here that Justinian II made his most important contribution to Imperial history. He turned his attention away from the Arabs, concluding a quick peace that recognized the Caliph’s hold on the Eastern provinces. Rather than marching East his army would go west. With plans to conquer the Lombards, and bring Italy back under the control of its true masters.

    The Arabs for their part would finish their civil war in 639, and then turn their attention on the other local power, the Sassanids.
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    Part 6: Turning West
  • Part VI: Turning West​

    Justinian II’s turn toward Italy was, in hindsight, a great decision. Italy had fertile soil, was relatively easy to defend, and had significant infrastructure that could be repaired or rebuilt, even considering the terrible destruction left by the Gothic War. At the time however, the Emperor was hated for his decision. Italy was a backwater, a place no one in Constantinople really cared about, and had the Emperor not personally led the campaign, and left loyal retainers in the capital who were willing to undertake actions the Emperor himself would not have done, he would certainly have been overthrown.

    As it was however Justinian II was the last member of his dynasty who would die of natural causes.

    Looking at it from the situation of people alive at the time however, we have to wonder, why did Justinian prioritize holding, and reconquering, Italy over retaking Syria. Certainly Syria was a wealthier province, one which had been heavily fortified, and one in which significant Roman forces still held out in the Eastern sections, primarily around the twin fortresses at Nisibis and Dara.

    Beyond Syria the loss of Jerusalem rankled the clergy of the Empire, and many priests gave long sermons demanding that the Holy Land be retaken from the Arab pagans. More than a few had discussions with Imperial soldiers. The Patriarch was among these priests, and he would eventually die of completely unsuspicious causes when he was found to have somehow confused a plate of fruit with poison. Quite mysterious. His appointed successor, an Imperial supporter, quickly set the record straight about the Empire’s spiritual priorities.

    The only holy figure who whole-heartedly approved of the Emperor’s turn was, naturally the archbishop of Roma itself, the Pope. The Lombards were Arians, and did not recognize the Pope’s authority, and indeed may have killed him had Imperial protection been revoked.

    Justinian’s decision however was based on one simple fact, he did not particularly care about the East. He had no lands there, and had not visited before the Arab invasion. Both of his brothers had at least been with their father when he was in the East after the Spanish Wars. But Justinian had only been born in 615, he was too young to have traveled there when his father died.

    Instead he had lived his entire life in Africa, where his family’s holdings were. Before Constantine became Emperor, Justinian had traveled extensively in Africa, and then had gone to Italy for a time, traveling the old cities of the Empire, both those under Imperial control and under the Lombards. He had also, according to tradition at least, traveled into the Frankish kingdoms in 630, where he had met the future king Dagobert, and had formed a friendship with the young prince.

    That said, this latter point is almost certainly an invention of later writers as a fanciful justification for the way Justinian’s campaign unfolded.

    Justinian’s initial army landed at Ravenna, as a force of about twenty-thousand. He gathered the soldiers of the Exarchate which could be spared and marched out immediately for Liguria. He had hoped to move swiftly enough to take the Lombards by surprise while they were still besieging Genoa, but this hope was not to be. Genoa had already surrendered when the Emperor landed, and Rothair turned his army to face the Romans, meeting them near Florenti. A brief battle was fought, with light casualties on both sides. His attempt to ambush the Lombards foiled however Justinian withdrew south. Rothair followed him, but his less professional army wasn’t able to keep up with the Roman pace. Instead Rothair turned and marched on Rome itself, hoping to draw the Romans back into a pitched battle.

    Justinian did not take the bait. He instead invaded the Duchy of Beneventum. Duke Arechis, who had previously raided Roman territory, made a token showing of resisting the Romans, but after retreating from the field after a brief combat he instead opened talks with the Emperor. Justinian’s force made it clear what his objective was, and Arechis chafed under the authority of the greater kingdom to the North.

    In mid-639 a treaty was signed between the Duchy and the Emperor, under which Beneventum would bow to Constantinople, but keep virtually all of his priveleges intact. His heirs would retain the Duchy as well, though their authority would be reduced. In exchange Arechis would be a tax totaling ten Nomismata to the Imperial treasury per year, and would enforce Imperial tax collection in the province.

    The Duke of Spoleto, not wanting to be thrown under the cart to his southern neighbor did likewise in early 640. It may seem odd that the two most powerful Lombard dukes would switch allegiance so rapidly, but the reality is that neither expected Imperial control to last through their own lifetimes. The previous Roman attempts to hold Italy had been dismal failures, and both men likely expected this time to be no different. A bit of gold paid, a few soldiers provided, and in exchange they spared their realms the ravages of an Imperial war being waged on their soil.

    The Romans now had, at least theoretical, control over the boot of Italy. His rear secured Justinian moved back toward the north. It was too late for the pope however, Rome had held out for almost a year under the Lombard siege, but gave up in April 940. The city was sacked, and the pope himself was killed by the Arian Rothair.

    The Lombards retreated with the treasure they had taken, leaving behind a garrison in the city. Knowing the force was small however Justinian left a force of Bulgar mercenaries to harass any Lombard force that emerged from the city and instead turned north to pursue the Lombard king. A series of skirmishes ensured as both sides tried to lure the other into traps, but neither leader was tricked. The countryside of Tusci was ravaged by the fighting. A full year passed with no progress being made.

    With the war having already lasted longer than he’d intended Justinian looked for a solution and found one in the north. Dagobert, the Frankish king, was an active monarch, and devoted Nicean, and had been outraged by the murder of the pope during the Lombard attack on Rome. With promises of Roman gold that outrage turned to action, and Dagobert invaded northern Italy in May 642.

    The Franks smashed through what little resistance remained in the north, besieging Pavia in July. Rothair had to race north to try and drive the Franks away from his capital, with the Roman army hot on his heels.

    The Lombard king likely meant to defeat the Franks in battle, then make a quick peace and return to the war of maneuver with Justinian. If so, he overestimated his army. The men were exhausted and angry from the long campaign, and with their homes in the north under attack they began to desert. When the Lombard army did reach the Franks it was a demoralized and reduced force. The subsequent battle of Pavia saw the Lombard army decisively beaten by the Franks, and then as they retreated the Romans fell upon them. Most of the soldiers surrendered, and Rothair was captured alongside many of his nobles. These wealthy men expected execution, but Justinian granted most of them clemency, requiring only that they renounce their territories in Italy and go to Constantinople for new land grants, far away from their bases of power. The nobles and their families were loaded onto ships and sent to the capital. Somehow Justinian’s strict instructions that they be granted new lands were misinterpreted by his bureaucrats however, who had most executed or tonsured.

    This happened remarkably often under Justinian II’s reign, which is why his reputation as such a kind man is suspect. He was openly generous, but few of these generous claims were ever actually followed. The generous actions he did follow through on, such as the grants to the Italian dukes would be reneged on by his successors within a century, and were made from pragmatism more than anything else.

    The Italian conquest however had no been completed, mostly. Some holdouts remained, but most of Italy was now back in Roman hands. The Franks would hold the Po Valley and other sections of the Peninsula for several centuries, but instability in the Frankish kingdom would keep a large-scale threat from appearing in the West for a long time. Additionally, Justinian married one of his cousins to Dagobert’s oldest son, cementing an alliance, and signing a treaty promising that Rome would not interfere if the Franks were to invade Gothic Spain while the alliance lasted.

    This clause of the treaty was a cause of alarm for the Goths, who now had to worry about the possibility of Frankish conquest. A string of forts would be built along the northern border with Frankia, but they fell into disuse as the decades passed without incident.

    Apart from the two duchies which were under Roman control the new Italian territories were granted to the Exarch of Ravenna, who was tasked with making sure the newly reconquered population of Italy did not try for independence. In this the Exarchate was mostly successful. There would be a few revolts that broke out, but Italy would be peaceful for a long time, shielded from the North by the Frankish territories.

    The Emperor returned to Constantinople and celebrated a triumph. The victory however had been expensive. After effectively a decade of constant war the treasury was empty, and further campaigning was out of the question.

    That however would not be the only bad news for the Empire. For the past fifty years the Romans had been free to concentrate on only one foe at a time. This breathing room had allowed them to destroy the Avars, decisively defeat the Persians, hold the Arabs out of Egypt, and finally retake Italy.

    But as 643 began the Bulgars launched a raid across the Danube into Moesia. They were rapidly driven off by the local army, but not long after word came that the Sassanids and the Arabs had made peace in the East, and Arab raids into Egypt, and to a lesser extent Anatolia began.

    The coming century would be one of conflict and hardship for the Romans, which would see the Empire stretched to the brink on more than one occasion. It would however be one that Justinian did not see. The plague had returned, and in its 643 sweep across the Empire the Emperor became sick, and died.

    Justinian II was 28 years old, and had been Emperor for 5 years. Justinian II was a bad Emperor. His conquest of Italy was a move that would pay enormous dividends in the coming centuries. When the peninsula recovered it would become one of the most important sources of tax revenue, and more importantly one from which tax money could be relied upon, much like Sicily and Africa. With Egypt and Anatolia hit by Arab raids, Thrace and Greece raided by Bulgars, and even Armenia raided by the Khazars on occasion, the Romans needed the steady stream of currency from the West to keep the army function, and the grain to keep the Empire fed. All of that said however, the conquest Italy was a mistake. Retaking Syria and Palaestina would have resecured the far more valuable territories of Egypt and Anatolia, sparing both from the battles to come. Furthermore, with a weakened Arab caliphate the Empire would have been able to afford more troops along the Danube, holding off the Bulgars more effectively.

    When both threats were weakened in the coming centuries then perhaps Italy could have been retaken, but Justinian’s obsession weakened the Empire he left behind too much. He conquered Italy yes, but he left behind an overstretched army, and an empty treasury, much as his namesake had. But he also left behind a four-year old heir.
    Part 7: Turning East
  • Part VII: Turning East​

    Before we reach the tragic end of the Justinian dynasty, and the decade of anarchy and usurpation which followed however we must turn our attention back to the East. When we last were in the Caliphate Khalid ibn al-Walid had returned to Arab lands with the remnant of his Eastern army to fight a civil war.

    Probably. No Arab or Persian records of this period survive, and the Roman records come from centuries afterward. What we know of this period stems mostly from archeological findings. Sometime in 637-638 A major battle was fought near Medina, in al-Walid’s veteran army marching out of Syria routed an opposing force.

    A second battle was then fought near Mecca, with al-Walid’s army again proving victorious. So the battles definitely happened. Of that we have no doubt. What we are left to ponder however is why they were fought, and against whom. We only know of al-Walid’s army’s involvement from following their trail during the advance down toward the Islamic Holy Cities.

    Ali died at some point here, and it seems plausible that al-Walid was either on his way to depose the Caliph, or avenging him. Either could be completely true. We do know however that Ali’s successor was no a relative of Muhammud, but was instead a man named Umar, a former advisor to the Caliph and a man who was probably the most capable administrator of his age. He was also one of the most pious, a point which immediately turned dark as he had al-Walid dismissed from military service, and quite possibly executed, claiming that God brings victory rather than man.

    Al-Walid was the most capable commander the Arabs had, and his loss was dearly felt in the coming campaign.

    One of Umar’s first official acts however was to free captives taken from Arab tribes during the wars that had initially united the peninsula, winning loyalty and affection for himself. He also officially moved the capital north to Damascus, and set up the administration which kept the Caliphate functioning.

    The jizya tax was introduced across the entire swathe of conquest now. The jizya was a Muslim innovation in which people who were not members of their faithful would pay extra taxes into the state, but otherwise be left largely undisturbed. It was one of many items which the Romans would keep when the lands were retaken. Although naturally, aimed in a different direction.

    Soon however, resistance began building to Umar’s reign, and he turned the resistance toward more productive ends, pushing the powerful men in Arabia into an invasion of Lakhmid territory, previously ignored by the Arabs. Umar believed, rightly, that military victory would quiet those who doubted his reign. Lakhmid territory was overrun by June of 640, but this pulled the attention of the Sassanid Empire.

    The Sassanids by this time had had room to recover, at least some, from the disastrous first quarter of the century. The Arabs had been forced to focus on the far stronger Romans first, and then one another, and only now could put their forces against the Persians. The Persian army was still weak, but when the Arabs crossed into Mesopotamia Shahriyar gathered a force and moved to oppose them.

    The Arabs invaded from the south, taking town along the way, until they had effectively conquered the territory West of the Euphrates River. This force met and joined a second army marching out of Syria, and the two pressed down toward the old capital at Ctesiphon, now replaced by Esfahan deeper in core Persian territory.

    More of less all of this had been unopposed, as Shahriyar had learned the lesson of the last Roman war, and so was against splitting up his forces in any way. Armies that might have stood and fought the Arabs instead had been ordered to retreat rather than be defeated piecemeal. This plan paid off when Shahriyar finally gave a battle, northeast of Seleukia. The Arab force numbered about 30,0000 and they faced off against forty thousand Persians.

    Shahriyar hoped the Persian cavalry would give him a decisive edge against the Arabs and it well might have. But, the nobles were over-eager to crush the Arabs, and charged too soon. Rather than crushing the Arab armies the Persian cavalry was surrounded and destroyed. Seeing this disaster play out Shahriyar made a choice that Khosrow had refused to, he withdrew from the field. More than that he withdrew from Mesopotamia. The Battle of Seleukia had effectively been the defining battle of the war, much as Neapolis had been for the Roman loss of he East.

    Retreating to the Zagros Mountains Shahriyar had his men begin construction of forts that would give the Persians a defensive position from which to resist Arab incursions into Persia proper. At the end of 640 the Arabs ruled Mesopotamia. The Persians would never again control the area.

    I know what you are thinking. Is that it? The Persian Empire just lost its best territory in a single battle, and gave up?

    Well, no. Persian soldiers raided across the border regularly through 641 and 642, while the Arabs set about actually conquering the area. Even though the Persian government had withdrawn the region wasn’t actually under Arab control yet. The fortified cities still had to be taken, or negotiated into surrender, and that took time. The Arabs were still conquering and holding a huge section of land. But if things had gone differently, there’s every chance the Persians would have won the war. The Arabs were overstretched, and Shahriyar was rebuilding an army to go on the offensive again.

    But, those plans were canceled in 642 due to that old foe of the Romans and the Persians. The Black Death had finished its circuit, and was back in Persia decades after the last outbreak, and it swept through the cities and army camps, killing tens of thousands.

    Of Shahriyar’s new army its estimated that somewhere between a third and half were dead of plague at year’s end, rendering any further plans he might have made pointless. On the positive side for the Persians, the disease cared little about national boundaries, and so it swept on through Persia, and into Mesopotamia, where it devastated the completely unprepared Arab armies as well.

    From there it went on through Syria, and Palaestine, into Egypt and Anatolia. In 643 it reached Constantinople, where it killed the Emperor and twenty thousand people before reaching Italy. Here the still intact south was hit hard, and it spread north, ultimately reaching the territory of the Franks, and from there the Goths.

    The 642 outbreak of Plague wasn’t as bad as the initial outbreak in Justinian I’s day, but it hit the Mediterranean badly, rendering any chance of external war out of the question for several years. Armies had to be rebuilt, and finances had to recover.

    Quite by accident then the status quo going forward had been established. The Romans in Anatolia and Egypt, the Persians behind the Zagros Mountains, and the Arabs in the middle.

    I should also note now, that when the Persians retreated so did the Nestorians, who set up their headquarters in Susa. As the Church of the East will be so important in the coming centuries, I thought it was important to mention that now was when it really established what would become the modern form.

    The Arabs were, without a doubt, the strongest in the region. They controlled a large, and by now highly skilled and veteran army. The finances of the Arab state were strong, both because of the territory controlled, but also because of the structure of its empire. The Caliph was the dominant force of the old tribes, who still provided much of the pay and equipment of their soldiers.

    The Sassanids were the weakest, both militarily and financially. The reserves of cash that Shahriyar had built up had been expended trying to rebuild his army after the defeat at Seleukia, and on his fortresses. The aswaran had been virtually destroyed as well, leaving the nobles who made up the elite Persian cavalry severely depleted. Its rather similar to the Roman situation after Cannae. The nobles and their sons were dead. New nobles would have to rise to take those positions, but for now there were simply none left. The elite Persian cavalry, which was such a fixture of the wars between the Romans and the Sassanids, was fundamentally dead.

    The Romans, were the strongest on paper. The Army still numbered some two hundred thousand all told, but most of these were garrison forces. Of the five old field armies only three remained. One of these had to be stationed in Egypt at all times, and one in Anatolia. The last was near Constantinople. That left only garrison forces for Greece, the Balkans, Italy, North Africa, and Armenia. The Roman state was financially drained after a decade of war, and its finances were in shambles. We’ll discuss this after the coming civil war. Oh yes, and the Romans are also about to fight a civil war.
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    Part 8: The Lost Decade
  • Part 8: The Lost Decade​

    Justinian II had only a single child, a son named Maurice who was born in 639. The Emperor didn’t even see the boy until he was three, and had barely spent time with him, or Theodora, the Empress he had married in 638. While it was likely that Justinian would have invested Maurice with Imperial titles eventually, he had not done so when plague struck the Emperor dead.

    The boy was however declared Augustus in 643. Obviously a four year old cannot hold real authority, so a regency council was set up, headed by Gregorious, the cousing of the last three Emperors, and the brother of the briefly mentioned first wife of Constantine IV, and the Exarch of Africa. He left the post to a trusted general named Gennadius and departed for Constantinople as soon as he got the news.

    Gregorious took charge rapidly, and set about securing his position immediately. Theodora was exiled to convent in Italy, and many of Justinian’s former ministers were soon gone as well. In their place men from Africa were appointed, angering many inside the capital.

    Gregorious was not interested in being a mere regent however, and had himself declared Caesar. Soon afterward he was crowned Augustus. In early 644 his wife bore a son, and soon afterward Maurice was found dead. Messages went out that Gregorious was now the sole Emperor. He did not get the answers he expected, which is to say complete and immediate fealty. Gregorious’s regime had been viewed with suspicion by the Danube commanders, and he had sent no support the army of Anatolia.

    Their generals, Thomas the Armenian and George of Amorium were hailed Augustus by their troops, and were soon marching on Constantinople. I mentioned last time that of the five old field armies only three remained. One was posted in Egypt to defend against further Arab attack, one was kept near the capital, and one was posted to Anatolia. Thus, the army marching from the East was the full field army of Anatolia, while the Danube troops were the local defense forces, and their march south would not go unnoticed by the Bulgars.

    Thomas the Armenian naturally arrived first, setting up camp outside of the city in 645. He rapidly set about putting his soldiers in contact with city guards, and after a few days of negotiations one of the guards took a bribe, allowing Danube soldiers into the city, where they entered the palace and murdered Gregorious. Thomas was declared Augustus on April 3, 645.

    Immediately however problems emerged. The Imperial field army had been across the Hellespont in Honorius when the Danube forces arrived, and had not moved quickly enough to confront Thomas. But they refused to recognize the new Emperor, instead elevating their own commander, John of Lazika to Augustus.

    John was a friend to the man in command of the Imperial fleet, and at night in June 645 Admiral Manuel ferried five thousand men across the Hellespont and into the capital. Thomas was murdered in the palace and John was recognized as Augustus the next day. Note, that for the purposes of numbering our Emperors only one of these men will ever be recognized as Emperor.

    John was in place less than a month when George’s army arrived inside Bithynia. He personally led the battle that followed as the two Imperial armies clashed. We know little of the battle that followed, only that at the end John was dead, his army had surrendered, and George was declared Emperor.

    George was in place all of six months when word arrived that the Egyptian army was in revolt. The general of the Egyptian Army, Cyrus of Rhodes had been a partisan of Gregorious, and so declared himself in revolt when word of his assassination came. George gathered his men and prepared to sail to Egypt, but Admiral Manuel despised him, and so when George tried to sail away the Admiral had a heavy iron ball tied to the Emperor, and threw him into the Aegean.

    Cyrus arrived in Constantinople in 646 and had himself declared Augustus.

    For a time the Romans hoped normality was returning, and Cyrus reigned for a full year. But his time in Egypt had left him a firm believer in the compromise religion which still was in place in the province. When he tried to change the liturgy of the Chalcedonian services in Constantinople the Archbishop had him excommunicated. Cyrus’s bodyguards were all Chalcedonians, and when the mob came for him they did not resist. Cyrus was murdered on June 7, 647.

    In his place was elevated a man named Probus, about whom we know very little. He doesn’t appear to have held any major commands, nor to have made much of a name for himself in any other field. It doesn’t matter however as Probus would be dead of fever sixteen weeks after being declared Augustus.

    His death left a power vacuum at the top. Five men had now worn the purple in less then three years, and none of them had lasted very long. Their supporters and family were each purged in turn, and with the three field armies now all having had their commanders take the purple only to lose it there were few senior men ready to fill the role of Emperor. One finally emerged when Isaac, the Exarch of Ravenna declared himself Augustus, and departed Italy in July 647. Word of his elevation was met by the new commanders of the field armies, and once again the Roman people settled down for infighting. Isaac arrived at the capital with twenty-five thousand men raised from Italy, mostly mercenaries from Beneventum and the Exarchate troops. He met the forces of the Anatolian field army in August, and defeated them, then did the same to the Capital’s army.

    Seeing the way the winds were blowing the Egyptian army murdered their commander and sent his head to Constantinople as a show of loyalty.

    Isaac was officially recognized as Augustus on August 22, 647. The new Emperor rapidly set about consolidating his position, putting able men in charge of the armies and sending them back out to their posts. He also organized a planned attack on the Caliphate when word came that the Arabs had besieged Nisibis and Dara while Imperial attention was focused inward. For eighteen months Isaac set about preparing a new dynasty. But then in March 649 he had a stroke, and died.

    His son, also named Isaac was elevated to the purple, and he tried to continue his father’s plans. Inn 650 he led an army into Armenia, and then down and toward the two fortresses, which by now had been forced to surrender. The Battle of Dara was fought on May 8, 650. It was a crushing Roman defeat. Isaac was completely inexperienced, and lost nearly fifteen thousand men against the hardened Arab army. The Romans fled back into the mountains, the Arabs on their heels. Isaac was murdered by his own officers two days later.

    Using local knowledge the new Roman commander, Gregoryy of Armenia managed to put together a smaller army and inflict a defeat on the pursuing Arab forces, driving them out of the mountains once again. He did not risk another campaign south however. For now the Romans would have to wait and watch for signs of weakness. For his victory Gregory was declared Augustus by his men on June 3, 650. He returned to Constantinople, but rumors had filtered back that he had actually deserted Isaac on the field, and that was why the Emperor had lost.

    This was not idle speculation either. You will recall it was exactly what had gotten Heraklanos into power, and a second such rumor set the city on edge. Gregory was murdered by a plot of the city’s elite on February 25, 651.

    Immediately a single man put his foot down. Manuel had been the key force behind the murder of at least two usurpers, and had had enough. The admiral of the Imperial fleet already controlled access to the city, and used his naval power to seize the city itself on February 28, 651. Soon afterward he was declared Augustus, and we will now refer to him as Manuel I.

    The civil war was not over however. News of Isaacs death had seen the Duke of Benevento declare himself independent and try to invade Calabria. Manuel gathered the remains of the Anatolian and Constantinople field armies and fused them into a single army, the Tagmata, before sailing to Italy. The Duke’s army was beaten in a battle near Reggio, and the man fled back to Beneventum, the Emperor following. Over the next three months the duchy was steadily overcome by Imperial forces, and the duke was besieged.

    Hoping to spare themselves the Emperor’s wrath the population of Beneventum mutinied, opening the gates for the Roman army. Manuel’s forces stormed the city, sacking it and capturing the Duke and his family, who were all murdered. Key to Manuel’s victory had been forces sent by the Duke of Spoleto, who was happy to stab his fellow Lombard duke in the back. As a reward he was given control of most of Campania. The former territory of Beneventum was organized into new provinces, and due to the now lack of foreign threat to Italy Manuel took the momentous step of simply abolishing the Exarchate of Ravenna completely. Italy would be reformed into two new Diocese, one in the north with headquarters at Ravenna, and one in the south headquartered at Taretum.

    Finally, in May 654 Manuel sailed back to the capital to properly begin his reign as the sole master of the Roman Empire. He would be the first Emperor of the Thalassan dynasty, which would rule more or less interrupted for the next six hundred years. The longest of any dynasty in the history of the Empire. Along the way it would preside over victories, defeats, the lowest lows, and some of the highest highs in Roman history.

    The decade of civil war was from any metric, a complete disaster for the Empire. Thousands of soldiers were dead. The treasury, already depleted by the decade before, was now completely empty. Manuel, upon returning to the city to take stock of his finances is said to have commented that if he had to rub two coins together to keep warm he would instead have to die of cold.

    The Arabs were once again on the offensive in the East, with raids having smashed through the Cilician Gate while the soldiers were away, and more raids having penetrated Egypt in the south. In the North the Bulgars had crossed the Danube and looted and burned their way across Moesia.

    The new Emperor had a lot of work to do if he was to stop the ongoing collapse.
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    Part 9: Of the Sea
  • Part IX: Of the Sea​

    We ended last time with a mention of how dire the military situation was for the Empire, with Arab raiders penetrating both Anatolia and Egypt, and Bulgars sweeping across Moesia. This, if anything, paints a rather rosy picture. The Empire had few soldiers, no cash, and desperately needed both.

    Manuel, with a practical mind therefore turned to the one source of gold never tapped by an Emperor. The Church. He called the Patriarch of Constantinople to meet him in the palace, and hammered out a religious edict, which was forwarded onto Rome for papal approval, along with a personal plea from both the Emperor and the Patriarch about how desperate the situation as. The Pope sent back his agreement rapidly, with the expectation that all would be restored when the immediate danger had passed.

    And so, in 954 Imperial soldiers, priests, slaves, and craftsmen visited every church in the city, and departed for churches in other parts of the Empire. Every bit of gold that could be removed was, including the Hagia Sophia being stripped virtually bare. Coins were minted by the tens of thousands, and the refugees that had flooded into Constantinople were searched for able-bodied men, who were immediately conscripted into the army. He trained and drilled his army relentlessly, making sure that priests were sent through the ranks daily, giving sermons and reminding the men of why they were fighting, to defend Christendom from the heathens.

    The first target were the Arabs. Getting Anatolia back under control, and driving the raiders our of Egypt was of utmost importance. The former admiral sent his son, Anastasius, along with the entire Roman fleet to raid and pillage the coastline of Syria and Palaestina, to draw whatever forces back to defend their homes as he could. It is here that our first references to liquid fire are mentioned, as the Romans mounted spigots of the weapon on ships, and turned them on docks and trade ships in harbors that were attacked.

    Anastasius arrived at Cyprus in 655, and set up a headquarters there. His campaign was carefully planned, and soon the fleet departed for Caesarea. Dozens of Roman ships fought their way into the city, burning and looting as they went. The Arab garrison was captured as it tried to organize, and the population of the city were herded onto the ships at sword-point if necessary. By the time any real response could be organized Caesarea was in flames, and thousands of people were gone. Ascalon was hit next, where a similar situation played out. After that however Anastasius returned to Cyprus with his loot and prisoners, sending the former Roman citizens back to Constantinople and keeping the Arabs n the island as prisoners.

    By now the Caliphate was well-aware that the Romans were again on the offensive, and the raids were scaled back to try and defend the coast from Roman attack. But the Arabs had no fleet, and their attempts to build one in Tripoli were interrupted when the Roman fleet arrived and burned their efforts to ash. Despite the efforts to defend their coast the Arab raid into Anatolia of 655 still penetrated deeply into the Diocese of Pontus, reaching to Pessinius before the Emperor arrived. There the forty thousand Romans faced off against twenty-thousand Arabs. Manuel attempted an encirclement but his efforts failed in the face of the more experienced Arab soldiers. Despite this, the Arabs were forced to withdraw the field in defeat, and retreated out of Anatolia for now.

    In 656 however the raiders returned, but this time were met near Tyana, again by the numerically superior Roman force. Once again fighting was inconclusive, but the Arabs were forced to withdraw. The Romans pursued, and caught up with the Arabs at the Cilician Gate. There a major battle was fought, and this time the highly motivated Roman army was able to deal a significant defeat the Arabs, capturing nearly three thousand prisoners, and freeing hundreds of Arab captives. The treasures the Arabs carried, originally taken from the Roman people, were divided up amongst the army to keep the soldiers loyal.

    Before the 657 campaign began however word came from the Caliphate. Caliph Umar was dead, and a new leader was being selected. Arab envoys arrived with gold and a five year truce, looking to buy peace with the Romans. Manuel, still looking over his shoulder toward Thrace agreed readily. In exchange for five hundred pounds of gold per year, ten horses, and a prisoner exchange the peace went into effect. Thousands of people changed hands in the swap, including all the Arabs taken in Anastasius’s raids.

    The Arabs dealt with Manuel whirled his army around and raced back toward the capital, crossing the Hellespont near the new year, and settling into winter quarters there. More men were raised from the returned prisoners and liberated citizens of Roman towns in the East, and when spring came Manuel departed Constantinople with an army that again numbered forty-thousand. He also sent envoys north to the Khazars with the first year’s payment from the Arabs, and induced the Khazar khan to strike at Bulgar positions in the north.

    This done the Emperor set out for Nicopolis, where he set up a base and sent his cavalry out to patrol for Bulgar raiders. The raids came, and the Emperor went out to meet them, facing the Bulgar khan near Dorostratum. The Romans lost, with the Emperor being forced to withdraw back toward the south, but critically the army stayed together. The Bulgars pursued, and the Emperor entered the Hemus mountains to escape them. Despite this the Bulgars persisted, to their doom. The Romans were familiar with the mountain passes, and lured the Bulgars into one, which they blocked with stones. Forces left behind then blocked the far side of the pass, and Roman soldiers rained missiles down upon the Bulgars.

    The khan was forced to give up and negotiate for his men to be set free. Manuel offered him good terms, but required the khan to sign a truce with the Romans, and return captives. He also offered a stipend to the Bulgars if they did not attack. The khan agreed and withdrew back across the Danube.

    Despite this victory however, the Emperor knew the Bulgars would be back, and would not fall for that trick a second time. And so rather than returning the refugees and prisoners to Moesia he took an alternative. Constantinople’s population had ballooned as refugees fled south, and those taken by the naval raids had been brought to the capital as well. It was around half a million, which without the dedicated grain shipments from Egypt, which had seen its production plummet under Arab raiding, was impossible to sustain.

    Fifty thousand people were gathered at spearpoint, put on boats, and sailed to Italy. They were largely settled in Tuscani, as an attempt to make the region functional again. Others were sent to Beneventum to dilute the local Lombards. These new holdings were placed under strict Imperial control, with residents completely forbidden to ever sale or otherwise leave their land. Manuel intended for the region to recover economically, and that would never happen if the farmers could depart. Another wave followed, of about twenty-five thousand. These people were settled, or returned, to Anatolia where they would normally take up raising sheep, as the flocks could be hidden and moved if more raids arrived.

    Moesia instead was settled by soldiers from Manuel’s campaign, who would serve as a constantly armed militia, working land when they could, and fighting the Bulgars if necessary. Some historians label this group in Moesia as the first theme, but that system would wait until Anastasius’s turn on the throne to be established.

    With peace abroad in place Manuel turned to administrative matters he had put off. The Roman tax system was in shambles. Collectors had been unable to go to Anatolia or Egypt for most of the past decade, and so revenues had declined precipitously. Manuel sent out tax collectors with a zeal, trying to get whatever he could gather to pay the army. Eventually he did managed to set the Empire back on some financial footing, restoring a total revenue of about three million nomismata per year. An impressive figure until you remember this was only about sixty-percent what had been collected just a century before. The decline in revenue meant the Emperor was unable to fulfill his promise to restore the Empire’s churches in his lifetime, nor would his immediate descendants.

    The Emperor had barely had time to get his administrative affairs in order when the truce with the Arabs expired. Raids resumed immediately, and the Emperor once again left the capital, this time for Egypt. With him he took the veteran core of the army that had fought the Arabs and the Bulgars, about twenty-thousand men. This army had been complete amateurs just a few years before, but now were hardened and ready to resume the war against the heathens of the East.

    They also looked forward to the paydays their previous victories had brought, but the sources assure religious fervor was the primary motivation.

    Egypt was, to put it simply, a chaotic mess. Farms and towns were burned, lawlessness was rampant, and Imperial authority was in tatters. Increasingly the people had turned to the authority of the Church, and Chalcedonian Christianity, to save them from what the local priests blamed on the old monophysite heresy.

    Th Emperor’s arrival, along with his army, brought things back under some degree of control. The Emperor personally being on the scene in Egypt hadn’t happened in twenty years now, and the population thought that maybe things were going to go back to normal.

    They were sorely disappointed. The first thing that the Emperor did in Alexandria was march into the Church of Saint Mark, pointed his officers to the gold that decorated the building, and soldiers marched in to strip it bare. The Alexandrians almost rioted, but were barely mollified when their archbishop assured them it was all in service of God, and that indeed not using wealth given to God to defend his kingdom was far greater sacrilege.

    That the Emperor bore a letter with the signature and seal of both the pope and patriarch of Constantinople, both of whom had already done what was being asked of Alexandria likely mollified the man. Even still, the Emperor departed Alexandria as quickly as possible, gathering supplies and more men wherever he could. One of the important sources of these soldiers were the Ghassanids, who had been waging a private war against the Muslims in the Sinai, with Roman backing when possible. On the border the fortresses of Pelusiumand Clymsa still held firm, but both were easily bypassed by the Arab raiders. The cities acted less as barriers to raids, and more as barriers to return as soldiers from the fortresses conducted counter-raids on returning parties of Arabs, stealing back as much treasure and freeing what prisoners they could.

    Manuel approved of these strategies, and left additional men to garrison the forts before returning to Babylon in central Egypt. There he waited for the Arab raids for the year.

    They came on schedule, under the command of a general named Mu’awiya, who had previously led successful attacks into both Persia and Anatolia. Mu’awiya led a force of fifteen thousand, and came out of the north, bypassing Pelusium and heading for the Nile. The Emperor sallied from Babylon, and met the Arab force near Bilbies, where the Roman veterans drove back the now less experienced Arab forces.

    Ghassanid foederate troops harassed the retreating Arabs, who suddenly found their way blocked by the four thousand man garrison of Pelusium. Realizing the mistake he had made Mu’awiya tried to deal, but Manuel was no interested. His army caught the Arabs in the trap, and scattered them. Mu’awiya himself was killed, and the raiding army was destroyed.

    Afterward the Muslims again contacted the Emperor, and arranged another five year truce. This time offering seven hundreds pounds of gold per year, and fifteen horses. Manuel accepted, and went home taking most of his army with him, and leaving the rest to garrison the border provinces of the Diocese.

    The Romans did not know it of course, but Mu’awiya’s raid had been largely a show of force, an attempt to win legitimacy for his own claim to power, as preparation to make a bid for the Caliphate himself. That attempt had failed disastrously, but back in Syria the situation causing his actions had not. The tribes were agitating against the rule of the Caliphs, and what is called in Arabic the First Fitna was underway

    The causes of the various Fitnas that plagued the Caliphates over the years are varied, but most come down to the simple fact that for the majority of Arab history the tribes had been mostly independent, and now that a central power was trying to force them to follow orders the local leaders chafed at this change. They didn’t object to that central power in theory of course, so long as that person was picked by God, but with the death of Umar the last of the men who could seriously claim to be direct comrades of Muhammud had died, leaving the question of leadership open. The tribal leaders looked around and largely came to the conclusion that God’s logical picked successor was themselves. And those who did not backed whoever was the most powerful or who promised them the most.

    That had been Mu’awiya, who had the largest base of support, and a good military record. But suddenly he was dead, and his army was gone. Clearly God hadn’t picked Mu’awiya at all, and so a lively debate would be required to determine who had been.

    Civil war was the natural result. The Fitna would last for seven years, and give the Romans much needed breathing room to get back on stable footing.

    Manuel himself would not live to see it however. In 667, two years into the second five year truce Manuel I Thalassa died. He was sixty-three years old, and had been Emperor for sixteen successful years. Manuel I was a great Emperor. He took a weak, divided, and broke Empire and managed to keep it together when it by all rights should have fallen apart.

    He did not save the Roman Empire, that job would be left to his successors. But he did force the state to keep functioning, and win much needed time for the Romans to save themselves. The reality was that the Fitna was just a sign of things to come, and every year that the Arabs didn’t finish the Romans off was one more year that the inevitable drew closer. Its been said looking back on this period that the Caliphate could never have destroyed the Empire, and this might well be true. But it didn’t mean the Arabs couldn’t have simply picked up the pieces and let the Romans destroy it themselves.

    Thanks to Manuel I that didn’t happen, and the pieces instead were held, if only barely, together.
    Part 10: Hunkering Down
  • Part X: Hunkering Down​

    When Manuel died there was no question about succession. His son Anastasius was forty years old, had served on his father’s staff even before the man had become Emperor, and then had commanded men for the entire period of his father’s reign. He was a seasoned and skilled commander. Anastasius was hailed as Augustus less than an hour after his father’s death. Two days later his own son, a twenty-year old named Leo was named Caesar. Romans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that for the forseeable future the succession was stable.

    That same year however the Bulgars, wanting to test Imperial resolve launched raids into Moesia and Scythia Minor. Slavs allied with the Bulgars meanwhile had crossed the Danube and begun raiding into Dacia Repinsis.

    Taking stock, the Emperor decided to deal with the Slavs first, rightly assuming they would be less enthusiastic. Recruiting local forces into his army, ironically largely Slavs themselves who had by now lived under the Empire for most of living memory, and began hunting raiding parties. When groups were found the Emperor’s armies used local knowledge to surround their camps, and force a surrender. If at all possible battle was to be avoided. The Romans couldn’t afford significant troop losses, and weakening the Slavs who lived under the Bulgars was counter-productive.

    The Slavic leaders were willing to talk to the Emperor, and happily took Roman gold in exchange for simply going home. While these negotiations persisted the Slavic soldiers of the Emperor were encouraged to mingle with their counterparts, who were offered land in Thrace and Dacia if they switched sides.

    A good number took the deal, and in coming years Slavic migrants would cross the Danube to settle. Most would end up alongside their fellows in the Diocese of Dacia, and over the coming centuries they would steadily become productive citizens. The Emperor was willing to bring in these Slavic migrants for two reasons. First, the Slavs formed a significant part of the Bulgar military forces. While the core of the Bulgar army were the cavalry, much like any steppe tribe, they were reliant on other groups to provide infantry forces. The Slavs were the most important of these forces, and by getting Slavs migrating from north of the Danube into the border provinces the Emperor secured these forces for his own army, while making sure his opponents would not be able to draw upon a key source of soldiers.

    Second, the border provinces were empty. Most of the population had fled from Bulgar raiders during the decade of Anarchy back in the 640s, and Manuel had shipped that population to Italy rather than back to their old homes. While this was understandable given the need to repopulate the peninsula, which was far more defensible and secure than the Balkans, it had the knock-on effect of rendering the Danube thoroughly depopulated. Settling Slavs on the old Roman farms and setting them to work was the only way to keep armies north of the Hemus Moutains functioning.

    Taking the best recruits from Dacia the Emperor spent the winter of 667 in Sirmium, then marched into the Diocese of Thrace. There the Emperor began a hit and run campaign against the Bulgars, launching night attacks on Bulgar camps and trying to capture loot trains rather than fighting open battles. In this the Slavs proved to be invaluable. Their own experience with raiding proved decisive as Slavic groups successfully ambushed small Bulgar groups and defeated them.

    These victories were overall minor, but they allowed the Emperor to declare victory, even as the main Bulgar forces withdrew across the Danube with their captured loot. The Emperor sent emissaries to the Bulgar khan suggesting a truce. The khan responded positively, and after negotiating the Emperor sent three hundred pounds of gold north as a first year payment, with the payment to increase to four hundred pounds of gold the next year. Fundamentally Anastasius had arranged for the gold paid by the Caliphate to be shipped through the Roman Empire and sent north to the Bulgars. Often quite literally, as it was better to send foreign currency abroad rather than Roman coins.

    Peace now purchased Anastasius set about trying to make the Empire safer in the future. The old Diocese and provinces system was now clearly obsolete. The system had been fine when the Empire was strong and able to ship soldiers around to get overwhelming force against a given foe. This was no longer true. The Emperor was being pulled in three directions, and in the future would likely not be able to turn his personal attention toward a specific problem area.

    It would have to fall to local forces to defend their home provinces. To this end Anastasius began building forts in the Hemus mountains to block the passes into Greece and Thrace, and stationing larger garrisons in them. The lands between the Hemus and the Danube were reorganized into two new military commands, called themes. The theme of Dacia was made up on the former provinces of Moesia I, and Dacia Ripensis. Settled and manned mostly by Slavs the theme was headquartered at Sirmium, and would serve as the main bulwark north of Macedonia.

    The remainder of the Diocese of Dacia was merged with the provinces of Macedon Salutaris to become the Theme of Macedon. The soldiers here would be stationed mostly on the border with the Theme of Dacia, and would be used to reinforce problem areas within the Dacian theme. The headquarters of the Macedonian theme was placed at Serdica.

    South of Macedon the remnants of that Diocese were reorganized into the Diocese of Hellas, which was a largely demilitarized province, with only garrison forces, with the headquarters of the Diocese at Thessalonika.

    East of Dacia was organized the Theme of Moesia, out of the provinces of Moesia II, Scythia Minor, and Thracia. The headquarters were at Marcianopolis. South of this would be the theme of Thracia, headquartered at Constantinople and commanded personally by the Emperor.

    The themes were designed to be garrisoned by the people who inhabited the region. Soldiers were granted land that was owned by the Emperor, and worked it as citizen farmers, who were required to pay their rent with military service. As the Empire’s finances recovered Anastasius and his successors would institute a policy of building fortresses across the themes to serve as small power centers, where soldiers and their families could retreat and be safe in times of raids. Usually controlling high ground and local water supplies the phrourion would gradually become larger and more defensible, until entire towns could hide inside with their livestock when the raiders came.

    Initially however the forts built were for one purpose, defending the cavalry. When battling raiders speed was critical, and if the horses could be captured or killed by raiding forces it would cripple the Imperial response.

    Thrace was an exception, as the theme would serve not as a local army, but as the headquarters of the Emperor’s personal army. The days of being able to field five different field armies in the Empire were over. Plague, war, and financial exhaustion rendered the idea impossible. Instead the Emperor maintained one field army, commanded by him personally and stationed near the capital. This was the tagmata, the successor of the old legions. The Emperor wouldn’t always be able to rely on the theme troops to defeat sustained attacks, and so the tagmata would have to be highly mobile. For this reason the entire tagmatic force was cavalry. Both heavy cavalry and horse archers. These men would have the best equipment the Empire could afford, and would spend all of their time training, practicing, or on campaign.

    The tagmata were organized into five smaller divisions, of about 2,500 men apiece for a total force of 12,500. Over the years the tagmata would increase in size, to a maximum of eight divisions of four thousand men apiece in 1200 under Andronkos III. Less than fifty years later however the tagmata would be completely destroyed in one of the Empire’s greatest defeats, and would never be reconstituted.

    With the Balkans hopefully more secure Anastasius bordered a ship and went to Egypt in 669. Here he went about reorganized the provincial defenses as he had done in the Balkans. He did not dismantle the Diocese the way he had done in the Balkans, but instead simply removed Pelusium, Clymsa, and areas around them from the Diocese, organized the Theme of Rhinos, which would have the job of defending Egypt. Here the Emperor settled the Ghassanids who had previously been in a sort of limbo regarding their status, but would now be official subjects of the Empire. The theme would have a garrison of twenty-thousand men focused around the two fortresses.

    Behind the Theme of Rhinos was the Diocese proper, which would have a large garrison as well. Another twenty thousand men were posted throughout the Eastern portions of the Diocese in Augustimnica, focused around the fortresses of Babylon and the surrounding area.

    The province of Aegyptus itself would have a garrison of fifteen thousand centered around Alexandria. Of the perhaps hundred and fifty thousand men left in the Imperial army over a third would be stationed in Egypt. This number would change over the years, especially as the Emperors slowly realized that Egypt was declining under constant raids, but for now it remained the most important province in the Empire. The Emperor departed Egypt in 670 and sailed for Anatolia. His first act there was to reconstitute the Diocese of Asia, disbanded by the first Justinian over a century earlier. From the old diocese he stripped Lycaonia, and merged it with the only province the Romans still held from the Diocese of the Orient, Isauria, and merged them into the theme of Isauria.

    Heading north the Emperor divided the Diocese of Pontus in half, leaving the six Western provinces inside as well as the coastal province of Pontus Polemoniacus but removing the rest. The two Cappadocian Provinces and were organized into the Theme of Cappadocia headquartered at Caesarea. The remainder were organized into the Theme of Armenia I, headquartered at Melitene. Just to be extra confusing the Emperor also organized what had been Persian Armenia into a theme called the Theme of Armenia II. These would eventually come to be known as Dytic Armenia and Anatolic Armenia. And in case you are wondering, yes this is why Eastern Armenia is referred to in many history texts as the Theme of Anatolikon, even though it did not contain any of Anatolia.

    His work done the Emperor returned to Constantinople and the Empire locked its gates and prepared to wait out the remainder of the century’s storm.
    Part 11: Weathering the Storm
  • Part XI: Weathering the Storm​

    The peace brought on by the Arab Fitna would not last. The Fitna had been brought on by disagreements among the Caliphate’s leaders about who should lead. The main army had been loyal to Mu’awihya, and it had seemed that this would be enough to secure him the position. But the disastrous raid on Egypt had seen the commander killed and most of his command destroyed.

    Afterward infighting amongst the various chieftains had led the Arabs to be distracted by internal squabbles for most of the 660s. Raids from Persia also led to Arab attention being turned in that direction. But in 668 Hasan ibn Ali led a successful attack on the Persians, which saw the Shahriyar killed and the Persian army put to flight. Had it not been for an uprising amongst the army back in Syria its possible Hasan would have been able to march to Esfahan and capture the Persian Empire. But the Fitna wasn’t over, and so the Persians managed to avert collapse.

    Hasan put down the revolt and in 669 he was recognized as Caliph by the Arab elite. Hasan’s rise however basically spelt the end of the Caliphate, eventually. In order to gain support of local tribes Hasan had to significantly lessen the amount of central control he would exert over them. And more importantly, collect less money in taxes from the territory these individual leaders held. This meant that while Hasan ruled wealthy territories in Syria, the rest of the Empire sent along far less money than might have been expected. Raiding the Romans or Persians thus became a central focus of Hasan’s reign, and of his successors.

    Now this was fine as far as it went, so long as the Arabs could successfully plunder neighboring territory the Caliph would have the money, slaves, and prestige to maintain power. But, if the raids ever began to fail regularly, then his position would be very shaky indeed. Those reading ahead know that this is exactly what will happen down the line.

    For now however, Hasan waited for the truce with the Romans to expire, and then resumed the raids into Anatolia and Egypt. Previous raids had, at least theoretically been about extending Arab rule into the Roman heartland, but Hasan changed tactics. He was interested in wealth, wealth to keep his reign in place. If he could takes Western Anatolia that would have been one thing, but in the poorer East conquest would do little to expand his power, and would cost much.

    Egypt was of course the greater prize, but the Romans had too many soldiers there, and Hasan had too little control over his tribal supporters to overcome them in the long-term. Mostly his raids were successful. Sometimes they were not, but the seemingly endless war between the Caliphate and the Romans dragged on.

    So passed Anastasius’s reign. The Emperor campaigned on the frontiers virtually every year, leaving administration to Leo, who by now was effectively equal in rank to his father. In 673 Leo was arranged to be married to a young woman named Helena, a move aimed at securing his family’s legitimacy. You will recall that when the Emperor Theodosius died he had married his second daughter Constantine IV. I neglected to mention at the time, but when Justinian II became Emperor he forced Empress Maria into a convent to get her out of the way.

    But Theodosius had three daughters, and after his death the youngest had eventually married, though by that time Justinian was firmly entrenched in power. She and her family had stayed quiet during the civil war, but she had had children, and her oldest son had a single child, Helena. The girl was the last link to the old Justinian dynasty. And more than that, she was the descendent of the by now legendary Theodosius, who was at the time viewed as being similar in stature to Constantine I was viewed. The match was not exactly a marriage founded on love, but the two did get along and it was a political masterstroke.

    The Thalassans were no longer just another family of usurpers. They were now the legitimate links to the previous dynasty. Helena herself also proved to be a capable Empress. She was popular and charismatic, and the people of the capital loved her. Far more than they loved Leo, who was rather humorless and disliked public spaces. Helena would eventually bear three children, two sons and a daughter, to her husband. In order they were Maurice, Sophia, and Andronikos.

    Anastasius died in 681. He was fifty-four years old, and had been Emperor for fourteen years. Anastasius was a solid Emperor. He was a good commander, a capable administrator, and his set-up of the themes secured the Empire’s frontiers against raids on the interior more thoroughly than the Diocese system had allowed. He’s largely forgotten now, but he was a capable man who left the Empire in good hands.

    The largest single thing to note on Anastasius’s death was that nothing really changed. Leo III had already basically been Emperor for most of his father’s reign, and now he simply lacked an Imperial colleague. A few weeks after his ascension however he elevated Maurice to the post of Caesar, though as the boy was still in his mid-teens this meant little.

    Leo III was not his father, and did not go out on campaign often. He adopted a more defensive posture than his father’s, focusing entirely on harassing raids rather than every trying to fight them directly. He also increased the tribute paid t the Bulgar khan to five hundred pounds of gold when the khan’s emissaries hinted that raids might resume if the truce was no renegotiated. Leo, an accountant at heart did the math and determined that paying a little more now would be far cheaper than losing a theme army and paying even more later.

    He did however have to tighten Imperial finances even more, as the tribute to the Bulgars now took up almost a tenth of Imperial revenues.

    Feeling the screws of finance tightenting Leo removed the last of the old Senate’s tax privileges, and levied a tax on trade conducted in Imperial port cities, particularly those in Italy. These monita, the Latin word for notification were specifically placed on trade between the cities of Italy and kingdoms of the Franks and Goths, as well as on good flowing through the Silk Road. Most importantly however, was the monita center in Alexandria. Since Augustus the taxes of Egypt had mostly been collected in the form of grain, which was then given out to the army and population. What grain was sold was heavily controlled, and forced to be sold below a fair value, angering the Egyptians.

    Leo however looked around and decided that he didn’t really need that much grain. He needed coins. And so in conjunction with these monitas Leo actually cut the taxes on Egyptian farmers, a welcome change amongst them, while still taking in more cash. Without the Imperial controls the Egyptians sold at what they considered fairer prices, and the Emperors tax collectors were in place to reap the rewards.

    The key thing to understand about Leo’s worldview is that he was unique among Emperors of the time period in that he despised payments and trade in kind. He didn’t want to collect goods in lieu of cash, he wanted the gold. And so whenever he could he promoted the collection of gold rather than of crops or livestock. In his mind coins should be used for all exchanges, because those could be more easily tracked, and thus taxed. It might not seem so strange to us today, but for the time it was revolutionary thinking.

    It also would not last long beyond the reign of Leo’s children. Additionally, Leo began a policy of exporting silk. Normally silk was reserved for the Roman elite, but the Emperor stared at all of those fine garments and saw nothing but coins where they sat. He was famous for wearing simple cloth rather than silk, and soon was sending merchants for with silk to be sold to the Bulgars, the Franks, and anyone else who was willing to pay the sometimes absurd prices fetched by the material. In one particular amusing story Manuel II describes a situation where Leo’s tribute to the Bulgar khan arrived, and the man immediately sent the entire tribute south in exchange for silks for himself, his son, and all of his leading men.

    The story is probably false, as silk would not have fetched such a massive price at any point, but the point of it is clear. The Emperor wanted gold, and he got it.

    Imperial revenues actually declined slightly in absolute terms during Leo’s reign, dropping to about 2.7 million nomismata in 695, but of this a larger share was now in the form of coins, and Leo considered the trade-off to be worth the decrease.

    If the Church hoped the incoming gold would lead to the return of their golden decorations however they were sorely mistaken. Leo was not one to hoard his gold, and he spent it judiciously, but frequently. In 692 he decided the capital still had too many people in it, and so shipped another fifty thousand off to Italy, and then twenty thousand to North Africa. The population of Constantinople was now down to a more manageable hundred and fifty thousand. Not one to waste space Leo promptly tore down the empty homes between the Theodosian and Constantinian Walls and had farms and gardens put in. These he put into the hands of the poor of his city and set them to work.

    But the question remains, what exactly was the Emperor spending all of this money on?

    Well a variety of things, with most of the gold going to the army (although it was here the Emperor also sent what payments in kind he was still receiving). In 696 he positioned a large naval squadran at Cyprus when the Arabs began launching ships of their own. In 697 Leo began construction of fortifications across the Balkans, as mentioned last time.

    All of this military spending resulted in Leo being very popular with the army, despite the fact he never went out on campaign with them. The soldiers were well fed, well housed, and paid on time and in full. Leo died in 698 when another run of plague swept through the Mediterranean. He was fifty-one years old and had been Emperor for seventeen years.

    Leo III was a unique figure among this period of Roman Emperors. So far as I can tell he never served in the army, never led men in combat at all in fact. He didn’t even leave Constantinople at any point in his reign. The Emperor was shy, and avoided public events whenever possible. He had little interest in most Roman virtues at all in fact. What he was however was the most capable administrator in centuries. Perhaps since Hadrian. His singular focus on getting actual money for the treasury is interesting in itself, as is his methods of collecting the money. The land tax had always provided the majority of the Empire’s tax revenue, but Leo was an early believer in the value of trade, and so did much to encourage it, and then to tax it. Manuel famously labels him as the greatest Emperor of the Thalassan or Justinian dynasty, though as he also labels Heraklanos as a figure to emulate does lead to some questions about the future Emperor’s priorities.

    Regardless, in 698 Maurice II was crowned Emperor. He then was not Emperor anymore, because the same bout of plague that killed his father killed him under three months later. Maurice II was 23 years old and reigned for just 75 days. He is not known to have done anything.

    His brother, Andronikos I was declared Emperor next. He was only twenty, and was very different than his father. Brave and focused on soldering Andronikos went out on campaign against the Arabs in Summer of 699. He then fell off of his horse in Cappadochia and died. He was 21 years old and had been Emperor for one year and six days.

    And that could well have been the end of the Thalassan dynasty. But Leo still had one child left. Sophia was 22 and had married an able commander named Marcian, the prefect of the Scholae. Marcian was ten years older than Sophia, but as her husband he was officially declared Augustus on August 9, 699 as Marcian II. That said, Sophia was the real power in the palace. Marcian was a soldier, and his wife took after her father more than either brother had. She was a micromanager and had taken copying her husband’s signature as a personal challenge. And so when we say that Marcian did this, or Marcian did that, what we really mean is Sophia did this, and Sophia did that.

    The system worked well however, and Marcian was content to let his wife do most of the work while he got the credit. In 700 the Bulgar khan, again wanting to raise the tribute invaded Dacia. Marcian raised the Tagmata, along with soldiers from Macedon, Pontus, Greece, and Moesia and marched out to meet them, gathering the Dacian army as he went. The khan tried to withdraw, but was caught by the Romans and forced to fight. The Bulgars were heavily outnumbered by the Romans, and were dealt a major defeat. In the subsequent talks the annual tribute was reduced to two-hundred and fifty pounds of gold, and the Bulgars were required to send soldiers to assist the Romans in Anatolia. The Bulgar khan withdrew back across the Danube severely chastened.

    The Arabs however were anything but. Hasan had died in the 680s, leaving his son Qasim as Caliph. Qasim was far more aggressive than his father, and in 702 he captured the city of Melitene, and sacked it. Later in 704 he captured Theodosiopolis and did the same. Both times the Theme armies were unable to put up a serious challenge. Marcian would spend the rest of his life in the East, trying to stabilize the Roman position there. He would eventually die in 710 at the age of 44, after an accident. His wife Sophia would reign in her son’s name for the next decade, until that man, Constantine V was old enough to take the throne. She was kept on as an advisor to the Emperor before finally passing on in 735, at the age of 59.

    Sophia and Marcian were a successful team. Sophia managed the Empire’s finances with the skill her father had done, and Marcian was an able leader of men. Neither could have functioned long-term without the other. Marcian was Emperor for 12 years. Sophia was Empress for 22.

    I know that I largely skated over the events of the last 40 years, but this is largely because no much really happened inside the scope of the narrative. Greater events were taking place in Western Europe and in Persia, but these will be discussed in their own sections later when I need to get the world caught up with the Romans.

    Inside the Empire the story would basically just have been explaining that Arab raiders arrived, they raided, they retreated. Sometimes the Empire drove them off, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the Empire recaptured loot, sometimes they didn’t.

    But in the background something important was going on inside of the Caliphate. The decline I talked about earlier was happening. And the Caliph saw only one way to reverse the decline in revenues power. Conquest, and not conquest of just anywhere. No, the Arabs were going to have to conquer Egypt if the Caliphate was to survive.
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    Part 12: Setting the Stage
  • Part XII: Setting the Stage​

    Before we get to the Caliphate’s invasion of Egypt it is worth rewinding and discussing exactly why the Caliphate suddenly found itself in dire straits in the early 700s. You will recall that Hasan ibn Ali had emerged triumphant from the First Fitna after he won the backing of the major tribal groups.

    I spoke briefly about the organization of Arabia before Islam, but the key point for our purposes here is that there were groups of Arabs who were primarily nomads, as opposed to the settled peoples of Mecca and Medina who had emerged dominant in the peninsula. The nomads, called Bedawi, had been the ones who did most of the actual conquering for the Caliphate, especially in the early years. They had been the ones to defeat the Romans and driven them out of the Levant.

    But then they had failed to capture Egypt. Since then however their influence had been on the decline as the Caliphate tried to centralize power in Damascus, and set up a more professional army

    A more professional force had been organized by the Hadi, the settled peoples of the Arabs, and had proceeded to conquer Mesopotamia and actually occupy their conquered territories. That army had been the key power base inside the Caliphate, and when power struggles broke out its backing was the deciding factor. But, when Mu’awiyah led that army into Egypt it was surrounded and destroyed when the Romans concentrated their entire force on it.

    That had left a power vacuum inside the Caliphate that the Bedawi took advantage of. In exchange for a restoration of their power they agreed to back Hasan as Caliph. He accepted, and soon defeated the foes who still stood against him. But the price was heavy. The Bedawi wanted no part of the organized state apparatus of the Caliphate, but instead took farmland to be their grazing sites. And they refused to pay taxes that the former owners had paid. This process repeated across the Caliphate, and revenues coming into Damascus began to decline.

    Hasan tried to reverse the trend, but it was made clear to him that any significant efforts would result in his overthrow by the Bedawi who still represented his key power base. Instead he turned to a more aggressive raiding posture to make up the shortfall. Turning both East and West Hasan launched groups of soldiers across both borders, focusing on capturing as much loot as possible.

    Understand that the Caliphate was not poor, it still held lands that were both rich and prosperous. The Caliph didn’t have trouble paying for the system he currently had, but Hasan wanted more. And one of the key items he desired was a fleet. The Roman navy had been a thorn int eh Arab side of decades. Anastasius had devasted their costline with his fleet during Manuel I’s reign, and a small squadron of ships that Leo had built in Clymsa would actually sack the important port of Jeddah in 691. If the Arabs were ever to really challenge the Romans for domination in the region they needed a fleet.

    This fleet wouldn’t have much to do for most ifs existence. In 685 an attempt to capture Cyprus was made, but it was beaten back with only minor losses for either side. The Caliph didn’t want to risk his fleet over the island. Yet.

    As the 690s progressed however distressing news came from the Empire. Raids were failing more often. The local theme armies were growing strong enough to smash small raiding parties aside with ease, leading to the need for larger raids to be launched.

    These were to be led by the Caliph, Qasim, personally and included a vast array of troops. These soldiers smashed the local theme troops aside, or simply marched through while the soldiers watched from forts and didn’t dare try to challenge such a force. This led to a temporary reversal of the Caliphate’s fortunes. The large raids were able to drive deeper int Anatolia than they ever had before, culminating in the sack of two theme capitals by 704, Melitene and Theodosiopolis.

    But after Theodosiopolis fell the Emperor himself put in an appearance, leading soldiers from Pontus, Asia, and of course the Tagmata. Battles and skirmishes followed with neither side able to achieve a solid victory over their foes. But this hurt the Caliphate far more than the Romans. The cash from the raids was needed to maintain the expenditures the state needed, and the loot captured was a sign of God’s favor for the Caliph.

    But now the loot was drying up. Significant amounts were still captured, but not quite as much as before. That might not have been a problem, but remember these raids were larger and better organized than the ones that had come before. Getting even the same amount wouldn’t have been good enough, because the raids themselves were more expensive to run as the number of soldiers needed increased.

    By the time Marcian II died in 710 the Caliph had already started scaling down the raids on Anatolia. He turned instead to more raids into Egypt and Persia. But Egypt was always better defended than Anatolia was, and any attack on the province meant either besieging Pelusium and Clymsa, or bypassing them and hoping to avoid reprisal attacks on the return trip. By now both cities were among the most heavily fortified in the Mediterranean, and had large garrisons that a besieging force could not hope to defeat in an assault. But what really made both fortresses such nightmares was that they were on the coast. The Romans could easily supply Pelusium by sea, and Clymsa could be supplied both by Roman ships and by Axum ships from the south. Starving either garrison out was impossible.

    Persia was a far easier, but poorer target. The Persian Plateau had seen agriculture collapse over the past 50 years. The people relied on grazing animals for their livelihoods instead, as animals could be hidden away when the raiders came. The Persians grew adept at finding caves and other natural places where they would be relatively safe from the raiding parties. The Arabs would inevitably find many of these people, but never all of them, and as time went on not even most of them.

    The Persian fortresses in the Zagros mountains were not as large or complex as the Roman fortresses in Egypt, but these were always on high ground, and usually completely controlled the local water supply. Besieging them would be a difficult and arduous task. A few fell over the years, but most held out until the Arabs had to withdraw.

    Despite this however the Persians were in desperate straits. Since the loss of Mesopotamia the Sassanid hold on power was always shaky, and revolts were common. By 700 all that was left of the Persian Empire was Daylam and Persia itself. The Eastern territories had slipped from the Shahanshah’s grip.

    Revenues from the silk road were down, and taxes were drastically down as raids took their toll. Finally in 708 Yazdegerd IV took a long, hard look at his Empire’s budget and determined that he could not hold back the Arabs for another ten years. The Empire would be out of money long before then. So he called his nobles together, and flat out told them that if the situation continued the Empire would fall, and all of them would be killed.

    There was protest, but Yazdegerd held firm. He was going to ask the Romans for help. This was not entirely unprecedented. When the Sassanids had been defeated by the White Huns the Shahanshah had gotten tribute from the Emperors with which to pay off the nomads, but this time he would be supplicating himself before Constantine V, who at this stage was only fifteen.

    We’ll talk about the rather…controversial terms of their agreement when I discuss the Persian Empire in more detail later, but the key point was that from now on the Romans would be paying the Persians to distract the Arabs. It was not a large sum, about one hundred pounds of gold per year, but it was enough to keep the Sassanid Empire solvent for at least a little while.

    When Constantine V took power for himself in 710 one of those controversial agreements took place, and he was married to the daughter of Yazdegerd, a princess named Shirin. The princess converted to Chalcedonian Christianity and was baptized in front of the entire capital by the Pope, and the two were then married by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

    The entire deal was arranged by the Empress Sofia, who was the one still really ruling the Empire while Constantine waved to the crowd and went out on campaign, where he mostly waved to the soldiers and let other people actually win the battles.

    With the alliance with Persia in place Constantine began launching a series of counter-raids into Mesopotamia and Syria. These were not as successful as Arab or Bulgar raids, but his soldiers did carry off prisoners and livestock. The prisoners were often traded back to the Arabs for captives taken in raids of Roman territory. The livestock were given to the theme troops in lieu of some of their cash salaries.

    Then, in 713 a serious earthquake struck northern Syria. Cities from Antioch to Edessa were devastated, and thousands died. No sooner had the Caliph gotten the situation back under control when a second major earthquake struck in 717. Roman raids on these territories took additional toll, and the Qasim was forced to confront the reality that things could not continue as they were.

    So I know the question likely coming to mind is why were the Romans on the offensive now? Quite simply, the economy was recovering. Eastern Anatolia and Greece were intact, and even the Balkans were relatively secure while the Bulgars were happy to accept Roman gold and turn their attention elsewhere, usually on the Khazars.

    But the largest factor was Italy. The peninsula had now been conquered a century ago. The Gothic Wars were two hundred years in the past, and the massive influx of population from the Empire deporting unwanted citizens had seen both cities and farms recover. Across Italy the fertile soil and profitable trade with the Franks had seen an economic boom. Italy was now contributing almost as much tax revenue as Egypt, with the stipulation that Egypt was contributing far less than normal to the Imperial treasury. I noted last time that under Leo III tax revenues had fallen to about 2.7 million Nomismata. Since then taxes had increased to about 3.1 million gold coins per year. The Tagmata had expanded slightly to about 13,000 men, and the theme armies were growing.

    More land was being cultivated in the Balkans and in Thrace. In 715 Constantine even visited the Hagia Sofia and humbly offered the Patriarch a cross made of gold to be put on display, the sign of greater repayments to come. He also sent a similar present to the Pope in Rome.

    The Caliph looked at the situation and determined that if the situation continued it was possible that the Romans would be launching full-scale invasions of Syria not far into the future if the Empire wasn’t crippled now and so, in 720 he set about preparations for an invasion of Egypt. The Arab fleet, numbering some six hundred ships, was launched from bases along the coast carrying an invasion force of twenty-thousand, and in June they landed on Cyprus, overwhelmed the Roman garrison, and seized the island.

    The local Roman fleet escaped and ran to Corinth where word was sent to the Emperor. He sent ships from the capital and from Italy to Corinth to try to retake the island, but before the expedition could be launched word came that Pelusium was under siege by an Arab force numbering 50,000.

    Realizing what was happening Constantine returned to Constantinople to gather as many men as he possibly. The fleet sailed to Pelusium to try and reinforce the city, but they only arrived in time to evacuate the garrison and their families before the Arabs took the city.

    The great fortress that had stood for decades against the Arabs was now lost. And the largest army the Caliphate had ever raised was advancing into the heart of the breadbasket of the Empire.
    Part 13: The Great Invasion
  • Part XII: The Great Invasion​

    The fall of Pelusium was a shock to the Egyptians. The fortress might be an obstacle the Arabs could bypass, but it had, for all of living memory, been there. Standing strong at the border, a barrier that couldn’t be taken, and hence a place where captives could be freed, stolen property could be recaptured, and vengeance exacted upon the invaders.

    Now, it was gone. Shock was soon replaced with panic as civilians fleeing the advancing armies fled toward Babylon and Heliopolis, with no Imperial troops to stand in their way. Those who could went to Clysma, which was the most heavily fortified position remaining. Soon word came that Bilbies, the last fortress before Babylon had also fallen to an Arab assault.

    The soldiers of Babylon declared their commander, Augustus, but this was counterproductive. The Arabs surrounded the fortress, and the Caliph had no interest in accepting an Emperor’s surrender. The city fell to a sustained assault, and the garrison was massacred. The usurper was executed. With the fall of Babylon only Heliopolis held out, but it was lightly garrisoned, and had no chance of disrupting the Arab advance. A token force was left behind to keep the city from launching a sortie, and the Caliph dispatched soldiers up and down the Nile to take control of Eastern Egypt.

    The Arabs took the lands as far south as Aphroditipolis, and as far north as Sais before the year’s campaigning was over. The Arabs halted there for a time, waiting for additional supplies to be brought in before continuing their advance. By April 721 the Caliph’s army had captured the entire delta to Cabasa, and no longer were meeting any resistance. Heliopolis’s garrison managed to break out of their position, and the soldiers withdrew with their families to Clysma. The city’s population then surrendered. Ten thousand Arab reinforcements arrived in June, and the Caliph advanced on Alexandria, the last Roman fortress in northern Egypt. He might have hoped that the lack of resistance meant the Roman hold on Egypt was over, but in this the Caliph was sorely disappointed. Rather than finding a city ready to surrender the Caliph found a heavily fortified, and heavily reinforced city waiting for his arrival. And among the banners atop the walls was that of the Emperor. Constantine had personally led a massive reinforcing army of ten-thousand into the city, as well as gathering the remaining garrisons of Egypt to the city. In total he had an army of nearly thirty-thousand and had spent the past six months building additional fortifications and bringing in supplies. The civilian population had been encouraged to board the ships heading back to Greece if they couldn’t gather enough food for two years.

    The Arab attempt to assault the city was bloodily repulsed, and the Qasim settled in for a long siege.

    Alexandria was placed under blockade by the Arab fleet, and both sides stared one another down. It was here that the Emperor’s reputation was really made. News made it out of Alexandria in a trickle about the Emperor turning down any extra rations and eating only what his men received, and sleeping in the same barracks that they did. The extra soldiers inside the city were packed into houses and palaces, and the Emperor stayed with them.

    The Caliph tried repeatedly to get the Emperor to agree to give up the city, but Constantine refused each time. Months passed in a stalemate. The Arabs didn’t have the soldiers to storm the city, and the Romans couldn’t make them retreat. Things might have continued like this for years, but the Empire had other ideas.

    The reason the Imperial fleet had not driven off the Arab blockade was because it was busy elsewhere. The Emperor had left he Tagmata in the hands of his younger brother John, who had stayed behind in Greece to gather the Thematic armies to him. He sent a thousand pounds of gold north to the Bulgar khan, in addition to the annual tribute, to get a solid peace deal agreed to. Then he gathered the Slavs of Dacia, and the soldiers of Macedon, Moesia, Greece, Pontus, Asia, Cappadocia, and the two Armenias. He also sent men into Africa and Italy, pulling out troops and conscripting men.

    In total John raised seventy-thousand soldiers. In the process he left the Empire virtually bare of defenses. If any of their enemies took advantage it would be difficult to stop them. But the Bulgars were quiet, and the Arabs had all of their attention on Egypt. All of these men gathered in Greece, along with a fleet of a thousand ships.

    Not a thousand warships note, but virtually every ship that could be taken possession of was taken by the Empire.

    John separated the armies into two groups, one numbered about forty thousand, and the other thirty thousand. He took command of the larger group, and gave the smaller to a personal friend named Narses. Then he gave the orders. Narses’s fleet was sailed to Anatolia, and from there they would march into the Caliphate, causing as much chaos and destruction as they could. If they could take territory they should, but not if it meant significantly weakening his army. If the Arabs reacted strongly Narses was to retreat north into the moutains and disperse his men back to their homes, his armies would be primarily men of the eastern themes and the remaining diocese.

    When the ships returned John sailed for Egypt, specifically for Pelusium. The local Arab garrison left behind was only a few hundred strong, and when the Roman fleet bore down on the harbor they must have panicked. The men fled from the sight of the massive Roman force, and the fortress was retaken without a fight. I should note there that one of the reasons the men had fled was that the walls of Pelusium had been ripped down by order of Qasim, to stop Pelusium being a threat to his power. The city retaken John sent the fleet to Alexandria, then began marching west.

    Qasim’s first indication something was amiss was when he saw the billowing smoke from the direction of the city.

    Since its invention the previous century the Romans had been sparing in their use of liquid fire, and the lack of an Arab fleet had meant there hadn’t been many times that it was truly demonstrated, and the Arab and Syrian sailors likely thought that liquid fire was a mere myth. They were soon disavowed of that view.

    Since its earlier deployment the Romans had modified the mixture in some way, the actual mix is lost to us, and it now burned even when it touched the sea. The pious men of God who crewed the Arab ships were confronted with the fires of hell itself as the Roman fleet set upon them. The battle of Pharos lasted for six hours, but at the end five hundred Arab ships were destroyed, against only one hundred Roman ships. The blockade was thoroughly broken. Qasim himself would not be aware of the scale of his men’s defeat until later however.

    Instead he was faced with the reality of an Imperial army suddenly showing up directly behind him when John’s army completed the march across Egypt and put the Caliph between themselves and Alexandria. Qasim was forced into a battle he never would have picked, and when the Emperor himself marched out he was surrounded by a larger Imperial army, and he ordered his own men to try and break out. The bloodly battle that followed would see twenty-thousand Arabs dead, ten thousand taken prisoner, and the rest escape through the confusion and flee back toward Palaestine. The garrisons left behind would join their retreating comrades, but the Caliph was not among them. He was been captured by John, and was put in chains.

    He likely would have been allowed to return home with a punishing peace deal, but it was not to be. In the fighting Constantine V had been killed. John had loved his brother dearly, and he was going to make sure that Caliph paid for that brother’s death.

    Constantine V was 27 years old, and had done an acceptable job as Emperor for eleven years. He left behind a brother who had adored him, and a six year old son who soon found himself as Augustus.

    Qasim and his army were sailed back to Constantinople where the prisoners were marched through the capital in chains, and the Caliph was impaled on John’s order. His body was left out to be eaten by the crows, and his soldiers were refused any ransom, instead being shipped to Dalmatia and settled there. Narses returned from his expedition successfully, having taken both Amida and Samosata and installed garrisons there.

    The Arabs not would be able to recover them. Indeed, the capture of Qasim set off another round of civil wars as his many sons tried to claim his position and oppurtunistic leaders did the same. It wasn't chaos on the scale of the First Fitna, but was bad enough for it to be labeled in retrospect as the second.

    The failure to take Alexandria, and the disastrous defeat the Arabs took there brought the near-century of Arab dominance to a close. From now on it would be the Romans on the offensive, and the Romans capturing territory. But they won’t manage it quite yet. John likely would have marched all the way to Damascus and burned the city to the ground if he’d had his way, but his ultimate revenge would not come to pass.

    The invasion of Egypt had seen one last great run of the Plague run through the Mediterranean, and it was the worst since the original plague in the days of Justinian. Sources tell of bodies stacked in the streets waiting for collection by men who had died while working their rounds. Armies were depopulated, and farms left fallow as entire families were wiped out.

    But this would mark the end of the Black Death for the next five hundred years. When it returns it will make its final sweep through history, and leave entire continents devastated.

    Few were spared. The Emperor’s mother Shirrin was among the dead, as well as Narses who might have gone on to greater things. But as it was the young Augustus was left almost solely to be trained in war by his uncle, who instilled in him a personal sense that the Arab Empire had to be destroyed for the Romans to survive. This boy would swear to God, on the memory of his father, to destroy the Caliphate once and for all.

    He was of course, Leo IV.
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    Part 14: A Brief Respite
  • Part XIV: A Brief Respite​

    The Devastation of the 720s plague is hard to fathom today. Constantinople shrank from about one hundred-fifty thousand people to just one hundred thousand. Not all of those were deaths and significant numbers of people fled from the city to surrounding towns, including the only recently reoccupied city of Adrianople. But still, a third of capital’s population was now gone. Across the empire hundreds of thousands died. Graveyards were filled to the brim and new sites had to be consecrated.

    Tax revenue plummeted, and the army went without pay for the entire next year of 723. In any other time that would have meant the Emperor would have been overthrown. But the soldiers were often hit just as hard, as the plague spread like fire through the army camps. The soldiers who remained were often too weak to even stand, let alone fight.

    If there was any bright side for the Imperial administration it was their neighbors were hit just as hard. The entire ruling family of the Sassanid Empire was wiped out in the plague, and yet another round of civil war likely would have kicked off there, had the soldiers been in any state to fight. The Caliphate was already consumed with the Second Fitna, but here too many tribes were hit hard and a temporary truce was the order of the day. It wasn’t until 725 that the plague really died away, and the Mediterranean paused to catch its breath. Then, in 726 the volcanic island of Thira erupted, severely hitting the grain harvests across the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Food riots broke out across the Empire, and additional soldiers had to be deployed to restore order in Thessalonica and Alexandria. The Italians finally were able to bring relief as merchants from Venice and Amalfi transported grain from the Franks, Goths, and Italy itself into the Eastern sections of the Empire and brought the crisis to an end.

    During this time John was repeatedly offered the throne by both members of the Imperial family and his own officers, but he refused them.

    I think its worth focusing a bit more on John Thalassan as he is a rather curious and even unique for the time figure in Roman history. He was capable, intelligent, and utterly unambitious. His role as Prefect of the Scholae was the highest position he ever aspired to, and it was as much this as his famous piety that led to him rejecting the crown. But that second factor should not be underestimated. In John’s eyes his brother, and now nephew were the men chosen by God to lead the Chosen people. If he took the throne he would be violating both his sacred oath to defend them, but also committing an unforgiveable sin.

    I think that the best comparisons would be to Agrippa, who had stood beside the first Emperor of Rome on every step of his journey to power, but never wavered in his loyalty to his friend, and to the much later Romanos to Manuel. One might even look to Heraclius and Theodosius, or Constantine and Crispus (at first at least) for similar ideas. What we should remember out of the lives of all of these great Emperors is that none of them got to where they were purely on their own merits. It took the support of great men to take these talented and capable leaders and turn them into the greatest of the great. So too was John as much responsible for Leo’s success as Leo himself was.

    His attitude however would be part of what made the Thalassans as long-lasting as they were. It wasn’t that the Thalassans were the best at governing, as we’ll see in the coming centuries competence is a moniker you can hang only only a few after the first generations. But they were at least not often self-destructive. Claudius and Nero, Caracalla and Geda, Elogobalus and Alexander, the sons of Constantine, the children of Heraclius. All of these old families had turned on one another while in power, and it had destroyed them. The Thalassans would manage to avoid that fate for longer than most. Until the very end of course.

    It was not until 728 that Imperial revenues were approaching what they had been before the Egyptian invasion.

    Leo IV was now thirteen and had shown himself to be interested in the life of a soldier. He was a skilled rider and excellent shot with a bow. He had less interest in practical administration, but that could be left to his aging but still quite capable grandmother. All the Emperor had to do was sign where she told him to.

    In 730 the Emperor got his first taste of real combat when the Berbers in North Africa launched a series of raids against the Exarchate.

    This was not a new phenomenon. Berber raids into the region were not new. The Emperor Hadrian had built defenses to keep the Berber tribes at bay in the one hundreds, and the Exarchate had initially been established to make fighting the Berbers more effective. But over the years with Imperial attention turned toward the Arabs, the African provinces had fallen into neglect. The infrastructure keeping the region as a breadbasket had decline, and economic output was falling. As output fell raids were more successful, until the Roman position became increasingly untenable. But with the Arab threat at least temporarily held at bay the Emperor’s regency council, that is to say his uncle and grandmother, decided that reasserting Roman control on Africa was a key priority, and one which would give the Emperor valuable experience.

    Emperor Leo IV gathered about half of his tagmata and sailed for Africa. While Leo was theoretically in command he left the decisions to his uncle, officially the Prefect of the Scholae, and settled into learn how to run an army. The Roman army landed at Carthago in March 730 and set about gathering local troops until the army numbered about fifteen thousand. We know little of the actual campaign that followed, as Leo’s obsessive insistence on recording his campaigns had not yet been developed.

    Seemingly though a number of raiding parties were tracked down and defeated, with John eventually extracting a truce with local Berber leaders, requiring payments of cash from the Romans and foederate troops to be provided for the Roman army from the Berbers.

    These soldiers were sent to brought back to Carthage, and then sailed to Egypt where their experience in North African raids would serve as an excellent tool for Roman armies plundering into Arabian Palaestina. In Carthage John decided that the old Exarchate was an obsolete tool, and set about reordering Africa into themes. Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena were reorganized into the theme of Africa, headquartered at Carthage and given over to the Exarch as his base of operations.

    Numidia, and Mauretania Sitifensis became the Theme of Numidia headquartered at Constantina. Finally, Mauretania Caesarinsis became simply the Theme of Mauretania. The Exarch would retain overall command of the region until the situation could be better addressed in the future, but with local thematic armies now in place it was hoped that Africa would recover the way Italy had.

    The Emperor sent the tagmata back to Constantinople, and then did something no Emperor had done in centuries, he visited the West. Guarded by his Excubatores and guided by his uncle Leo IV went to Gothic Spain, where he met with King Roderic and exchanged gifts and promises of friendship before departing for the Kingdom of the Franks. King Roderic would be dead six months later in unrelated Gothic politics.

    Leo arrived at Masallia and were met there by the Frankish king Chilperic III. The king greeted the Emperor warmly and arranged for the Emperor’s party to travel north to the Frankish capital at Parisius, and there met Pepin Martel, the mayor of the palace and the real power inside the Frankish state. While Leo made a great show of favoring the king he spent more time discussing the future with Pepin, and according to later accounts it was here that the mayor asked the Emperor point blank if the man who held the power ought not to hold the crown.

    Leo supposedly answered, “If such is the state of things then it should surely be set right.”

    Afterward Leo departed for Italy. As soon as the Emperor was confirmed to be outside of the Frankish kingdom Pepin forced Chilperic into a monastery and had a local bishop crown himself king of the Franks. What opposition he faced was quashed when Pepin revealed a letter from the Emperor recognizing Pepin as King of the Franks, and declaring him a friend of the Roman Empire.

    I will discuss the relationship between the Franks and the Romans later as it demonstrates the odd subservience that the barbarians still had toward the Romans, even centuries after the Empire could wield any power in the lands the kings now held. Leo took a lieusurely path through Italy, checking on towns and farms, administering justice, and simply putting in an appearance. His visit to Rome was the first such visit by a sitting Emperor in hundreds of years, and the pope ensured the visit was marked with elaborate church services, holy feasts, and as much splendor as the eternal city could conjure. From Rome Leo went south to Tarentum, and sailed to Epirus, where he passed through to Dacia and met with Slavic leaders, handing out titles and presents to the men there who had proven themselves to be trustworthy subjects. Finally, he arrived back in Constantinople in 734. It had been four years since Leo had departed and he was now fully grown, and ready to take on the task to which he would devote his life. The reconquest of the East.

    The Emperor’s first task however was securing peace with his neighbors. The Bulgars were still quiet, though the signs of the onslaught that was to come was forming on the steppes. But that left one other power, the Khazars. By this point the Khazars had mostly driven the Bulgars out of the territory north of Crimea, and were looking south toward the Caucuses. Leo met with the Khan in Cherson however and worked out a new peace agreement. The Khan would recognize the Caucuses as exclusively Roman territory. In exchange the Emperor promised that no Imperial soldiers would ever march north onto the steppes. A formal border was agreed to, and most importantly, the Emperor was betrothed to the Khan’s daughter. The girl was dressed in Roman finery, brought to Constantinople and baptized, taking the Christian name Helena.

    The populace was scandalized. The idea of the Emperor marrying a barbarian from the north was unthinkable, but Leo held firm. In the future the people of the city would come to at least tolerate their barbarian empress, and some even saw her as a sort of mascot, but she was never particularly repsected that way that a proper Roman woman would have been. Indeed, for the next decade nobles would continuously try to undermine her relationship with the Emperor, but Leo refused to hear any of it. He didn’t care what their accussations, were, what mattered was the treaty.

    And as an aside, no, none of the rumors are probably true. Manuel obviously agrees with this idea, as he himself was directly descended from Helena, but even the less positive historians like Probus and Alexios go out of their way to point out how ridiculous the rumors about her were. I will leave it to others t describe them in detail because, well its gross, but the most salacious thing the Empress ever actually seems to have done was have ten children with her husband.

    But that would wait, as Helena was a grand total of nine years old when she arrived at the capital.

    The wedding was put off until she was older, but Leo had the treaty he needed and gathered the entire Tagmata in Pontus, and began calling up the thematic armies. It was 736, almost exactly one hundred years since the first Arab conquests. As May approached Leo marched for the Taurus mountains, and then crossed them into Cilicia. The Roman invasion of the Caliphate had begun.
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    Part 15: Taking it All Back
  • Part XV: Taking it All Back​

    Since the failed invasion of Egypt the Caliph’s ruling family was completely disgraced. The news that the Caliph had been captured, alive, by the Romans delegitimized the entire dynasty, and tribal leaders quickly lined up behind their personal favorites. None of the names of these leaders survive unfortunately, for reasons we will get to. But we do know that five different men held the title of Caliph between 721 and 727. None for more than two years. If the situation wasn’t bad enough the eruption of Thira in 726 threw enough volcanic matter into the atmosphere that crops failed here just as easily as they had in Roman territory, leading to hunger in Syria and Palaestine. Riots broke out in Jerusalem and Antioch, and neither city could be easily reinforced due to infighting among the Arabs.

    Worse for the Arabs the Chalcedonians and Monophosite’s within the Caliphate saw this as a perfect time to rise up against their conquerors. Surely if God had dealt such a blow to the Muslims then it was only right that followers of the true Faith, whichever that might be, threw off the heathens and restored the Christian Empire to its rightful position.

    Remember that at this time Islam had almost certainly not settled into its position as the third branch of Christianity.

    The revolts were brutally suppressed by local leaders, but a huge amount of resentment had now built up under the surface within the populations of Syria and Palaestine. On Cyprus it went even further, with the island successfully throwing off the Muslim garrison in 730, and before any response could be sent an Imperial fleet arrived and regarrisoned the island.

    A single Caliph apparently emerged triumphant around 728, but again, no records stating his name exist. He was however probably overthrown in 734 by Bedawi tribesmen angry that their preferred leader had not been put in place. It was this new nameless Caliph who would try and hold the Roman invasion.

    Leo’s initial invasion force had two elements. The first was the army led by the Emperor himself, about thirty thousand men made up of soldiers from Dacia, Moesia, Greece, Macedon, Pontus, Asia, Isauria, and of course the Tagmata. Apart from the Emperor’s personal troops none of the full armies from the West had embarked on this campaign. The men who did come were promised large plots of land in the East. This force mustered inside Cappadocia and would march south, throught he Cilician Gate and would be aimed to taking the city of Antioch, the largest and wealthiest city in Roman Syria. The recapture of Antioch would give the Emperor an incredibly important base to form a new Theme from the area, and launch further campaigns south aimed at retaking Tripolis.

    The second army of about twenty-thousand was to march south out of Anatolik Armenia and retake the fortress cities of Dara and Nisibis. Doing so would put the Romans in position to strike Edessa, and from there resecure all of northern Syria.

    And after that…nothing. That was the extent of the Emperor’s immediate plans. And it is here we have to address the key question, did the Emperor actually swear an oath to destroy the Caliphate? Probably not. This was a colorful story that only appears in the records in Leo’s later years, after he had actually done the deed. It seems to come from a similar oath made by Hannibal, the great Poeni general from Carthage before the birth of Christ. If so, then I believe we can safely say that Leo was more adept at keeping oaths then Hannibal, even if he never actually made them.

    The Emperor set out when his forces were readied, and crossed the Cilician Gate headed for Tarsus. The local Emir didn’t even pretend he could resist. He fled to Antioch, and the population of the city threw their gates open to the Emperor’s advancing army. Leo organized a militia of local Christians to serve as the garrison and whirled his army toward Adana. Here too the city threw open its gates and the Emperor moved on. Antioch should, by all accounts have presented the great challenge of the Emperor’s campaign. The city was huge, its walls tall and it had many towers and even an inner fortress the local army could retreat into.

    Indeed, it was here the Emperor had planned to end his campaign for a reason. Antioch was simply what he felt the limit of his ability to take would be. But Roman luck smiled on the Emperor. He arrived just as the local Emir, a man named Sulayman ibn Maslama was fleeing into the city, followed closely by Bedawi tribesmen who were out for his blood.

    Knowing his local garrison would never be able to stop the Bedawi Sulayman must have been utterly terrified when he learned an Imperial army had overrun territory all the way to the Taurus Mountains and was bearing down on him. But Sulayman was a practical man, and as he looked at the situation an idea formed in his mind. Rather than order the Imperial army to be resisted he ordered the gates opened, and personally led a welcome party out to greet the Emperor.

    Leo’s chroniclers dutifully record the fateful meeting that followed, as Sulayman hailed the Emperor as the Augustos Autokrator of the Roman and the Syrians. Leo was bemused by the greeting, but let Sulayman continue. The Emir declared that the city stood open to the Emperor, as it was his property and it was only right that he should be able to come and go at will. Sulayman were a mere caretaker until the Emperor retook what was rightfully his.

    Leo with characteristic wit asked who else was looking to take it from Sulayman. The Emir laughed at this, and admitted that a force of Bedawi was on their way to kill him even as they spoke, and would be there within days. Leo required that the keys to the city, and its citadel be turned over to him and that he would hold court inside. Sulayman agreed.

    On June 15, 736 the Emperor entered Antioch, and was greeted by a crowd of cheering Christians who had spontaneously turned out to behold the ruler of the Christian world. He was greeted at the gates by the Patriarch of the city and rode with him to the citadel. Along the way they were also greeted by the Muslim population, who had spontaneously decided that going out and cheering the Emperor’s arrival was a more pleasant fate than whatever Sulayman’s guards were going to do with their spears if they didn’t go out and cheer. The Emperor had taken Antioch without a fight, and it was now that he truly began to dream big.

    We don’t have enough detail to know for certain just why Sulayman was so willing to turn over the city, but a theory clearly presents itself. Sulayman’s family were powerful nobles within the Syrian regions of the Caliphate. His father, grandfather Yazid had been one of the men who almost got control of the Caliphate as an alternative to Hasan, but he had been a cousin to Mu’awiya, so the failure of that Egyptian expedition had tarnished the extended family, ruining their prospects for the top job.

    But when the current Caliph had failed again in Egypt it had given Yazid’s descendants free reign to try and reassert their aim to control the Caliphate. Sulayman’s attempt failed, and he was pursued by opposing Bedawi to Antioch. All of this is speculation of course, but it would explain many things. Terms of the Roman reoccupation of the city were hammered out, and Leo set out with his army along with local Muslims loyal to Sulayman to confront the Bedawi.

    The two armies met south of Antioch, and it was clear from the records that facing a full Imperial Army had not been what the Arabs expected. There were only about six thousand of them, and the subsequent battle can hardly be called a fight. Leo’s army enveloped them simply by deploying, and barely five hundred escaped south with word of what was happening.

    Leo’s chroniclers report that the Emperor lost twenty-seven men. These men are listed by name, implying that this report was at least mostly true.

    Leo returned to Antioch and officially formed the Theme of Syria inside the city, with Sulayman as the Strategos. As part of the deal Sulayman visited the Patriarch of Antioch and was baptized into Chalcedonian Christianity. Its unclear how seriously the new Strategos took his new faith, what evidence we have suggests he continued practicing Islam more of less openly, but it was an important point that the Emir of the city publicly converted, even if his private views did not match.

    The new Theme also borrowed an idea directly from the Muslims, that of the foros, or as the Muslims would call it the jizya. As the practice remains across all of Rhomania, Europi, and the Atlanti today I doubt much explanation is needed, but for those who aren’t aware the foros was an annual tax paid to the state by those who did not follow the official religion. It was an important piece of revenue for the Caliphate, and fundamentally was what had kept the state at least somewhat functional as the Bedwari leaders attained more and more power a the expense of the Caliph.

    But while the Arabs had used it as a means of gaining additional revenue Leo instituted the tax as a way to encourage further conversion. Syria was at this point the last bastion of the old Monophosite heresy, and other religious groups, particularly of course Muslims, but also Jews and even some Zoroastrians lived there as well.

    The Emperor took time to decide which way to march next, and ultimately decided to go south, aiming to retake Phoenice, down to Sidon, and then turn inward and march on Damascus if he could. The Emperor’s army blazed south, taking Laodicea and Seleucia without a fight. Going further south the city of Tripoli refused to yield, so Leo sent riders north to Laodicea to sail to Cyprus and bring the Imperial navy to the city. When the ships blockaded Tripoli the garrison murdered their commander and opened the gates.

    Around this time word reached the Emperor that the other army had taken the city of Amida and were moving south toward the old border with the Persians. Realizing that this might be more successful than even had had hoped the Emperor proceeded south to Sidon, which also surrendered. By now however the Arabs were in a state of near panic. The Romans, so long thought too cowardly to really move beyond the safety of the Mountains or the Rhinos desert were now hundreds of miles inside the Caliphate, and looked to be unstoppable.

    The Caliph of the moment, gathered every soldier he could and marched out to meet the Emperor. The Emperor had turned inland toward Damascus after taking Sidon, and moved up the Asclepius River. By now he had reconquered a vast line of territory down the Eastern Mediterranean. The armies met at the Battle of Asclepius in November 736. Leo arranged his men in a formation of his own devising, combining a wall of spearmen similar to the old phalanx with cavalry and archers to create a combined arms force that would crush all that stood against it. The spearmen were arranged into sections that could operate independently, and were far more mobile than the hoplites of older.

    They could turn and face new threats that emerged, all at prearranged commands. In front of the spearmen were the archers and other skirmishers. But unlike many previous armies the archers in this army were actually just ahead of the spearmen, but still behind the spearpoints. From this position of relative safety the archers could bombard the enemy while still mostly safe from counterattack at close quarters. In addition, the spearmen were trained to be able to open their ranks and let the archers retreat back behind them should the need arise.

    There was also a gap between each unit of scutaroi, the name of these spearmen, through which the cavalry could move freely. Horse archers and kataphractoi would weave in an out of the infantry line, hitting place where the enemy were weaker, and reinforcing the infantry as needed. Leo himself waited behind the center of his army alongside his most elite tagmatic units, ready to strike when the opportunity presented itself.

    The Arabs arrayed with the infantry directly facing the Romans, and their cavalry waiting in reserve. Leo’s chroniclers tell us that the Arabs had forty-thousand men, against the Emperor’s thirty thousand. The Caliph launched the first assault, sending in his infantry to try and weaken the Roman lines. The Scutaroi however held firm, driving this assault back with heavy losses on the Arabs, with Roman archers not hesitating to shoot down the retreating Arabs while their backs were turned. As this first wave retreated the horse archers advanced, and soon the retreat became a rout. The Caliph however launched a second force forward, and the horse archers retreated back behind the infantry.

    Again the Arab attack was thrown back and Leo ordered his infantry to begin advancing. Methodically they did so, horse archers darting out when they could to pepper the Arab lines with arrows. When the armies were closer the horse archers were pulled back and sent around to the flanks, with the kataphractoi moving to join them, blocked from view by the dust kicked up by the infantry’s advance. The two lines of infantry met in a great clash, and the horse archers surged forward, putting away their bows and falling on the Arab archers with swords and spears.

    Seeing this the Caliph ordered his light cavalry forward to attack the Romans, but as they did so the kataphractoi revealed themselves, countercharging the light cavalry.

    The Arabs were smashed aside by the kataphractoi charge, and they fled. Like clockwork the fully armored Roman horsemen now turned to face the rear of the Arab army. The horse archers moved to the flanks to hem the Arabs in, and the kataphractoi began to move forward. They came slowly at first, building up momentum as they moved. The force was silent, only the hoofbeats of their horses and the clatter of their armor signaled their move. The Arab infantry tried to turn, but they couldn’t disengage their Roman counterparts. As the cavalry approached the target the kataphractoi lowered their long spears, and smashed into the Arab rear.

    Panic followed. The kataphractoi drove through the Arab ranks, killing anyone they came across. The entire center of the army was surrounded and destroyed in this way. Seeing this both the right and left fled, but they were pursued by the Romans and many died. Those who escaped scattered back to their homes, throwing down weapons and shields as they ran.

    The Caliph fled back to Damascus, and the Romans captured his camp along with a large amount of treasure and slaves.

    The Romans had lost about four thousand men. The Arabs over thirty thousand. Leo sent part of the captured treasure back to Constantinople to be displayed, and distributed the rest to his men. They had already gone further than he had told them they would, but the gold captured from Asclepius soothed what mutinous feeling they might have been feeling. Victory is a great motivator. With promises of even greater spoils ahead Leo offered his men the chance to return to Antioch and be granted the land they were promised, or to go forward to Damascus. The men chose overwhelmingly to follow their victorious Emperor wherever he led them.

    Back in Damascus the Caliph was trying desperately to put another army together. Word had now reached him that Dara had fallen, and Nisibis was under Roman siege, with little hope of holding out. Word also arrived now that the Egyptian army, which had until now not been included in the fighting had taken its own initiative and advanced north, taking control of Gaza. While there was little chance of this army achieving significantly more success it was yet another loss of territory for a man who had never been very secure.

    When Leo’s army arrived at the city gates the populace cut off the Caliph’s head and presented it to the Emperor. Leo had it thrown out to the crows, and issued a stark demand. Damascus was to be evacuated. Its wealth would be turned over to Imperial troops, and then it would be burned. The Christian population of the city tried to protest, but when the Emperor would not budge they complied, and the Emperor sent them north to Antioch, where they would be sent to Moesia for resettlement. The remainder of the population he decided were heathens, and thus laid siege to the city. It held out for three months, but at the end of that time Imperial engineers completed a tunnel under the city walls, and collapsed it. The army moved in, and set about the sack.

    Thousands were taken prisoner, and eventually sold into slavery. Damascus was looted of all its wealth, including the body of John the Baptist and numerous holy relics captured by theCaliphate. Then the city was set on fire. As it burned Leo is stated to have remarked that it was a shame they had not brought enough salt with them. Among the Imperial treasures taken were the old records of the Caliphate. Leo ordered them burned, and sent out an order to the Empire that was a dark echo of an old practice. He declared the memory of the Caliphate damned, and ordered that all traces of it be erased.

    This was a flat out impossible order. The Caliphate was too big and too well-organized to be wiped from history, but Leo did succeed in wiping out all records of the Caliphs since the Egyptian campaign, and he would continue this policy until the last Caliph surrendered in 741. No records survive of any of them.

    Damascus would never be rebuilt. In time a new city would be founded a few miles from the old, that city Thomopolis, named for the apostle Thomas who had once lived in the ruined city, would eventually expand to include ancient Damascus, with a new Church built atop the site where St Thomas lived in the city. Many relics would be housed there, but the Church was destroyed in the 1200s when Julius reasserted his Constantinople's control over rebels in the East. Most of the relics would be destroyed in the fighting.

    We will discuss the reasons behind Leo's destruction of the city later, for now when the fire was out, Leo returned to Sidon and settled in to hear news from the wider Empire.

    Leo would stay in Sidon for the remainder of 737, catching up on events back in the capital and setting up the administration of his new old territory. Of the old Diocese of the East about half of it was now back under Imperial control. In the north Sulayman, looking to prove his worth as a subordinate, and win additional favor for himself and his family used his considerable power to get the strategic cities of Samosata, Beroea, and Hierapolis into defecting to the Emperor’s banner as well.

    These cities then provided key forces and supplies when the Armenian army surrounded Edessa, and took the city in late 737 .

    At this point the old provinces of Cilicia I and II, Syria I, Syria Salutaris, Phoenice, Phonice Libaensis, Euphratensis, Mesopotamia, and Osrhroene were all back in Roman hands. There were holdouts of course, in particular the city of Emesa would not be taken until the Emperor personally led his army north in 738, but effectively all of Roman Syria was now reconquered. But the war was not over, and in March 639 the Emperor turned his attention on the final territory held by the Arabs, Palaestina and in particular the holy city of Jerusalem.
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    Part 16: Holy War
  • Part 16: Holy War​

    As Leo rested his army in Sidon the remainder of the Caliphate was beginning to panic at the realization that the Romans weren’t just on the assault, but had a very good chance of winning. Already one of the wealthiest parts of the Arabic Empire, Syria, had completely fallen under the control of Leo’s advancing army, and in the north Mesopotamia lay open to attack from the army that had returned to Dara to regroup. What fortifications had been in facing Roman Mesopotamia in the time of the Sassanids had long ago fallen into disuse, and the cities of the region were only defended facing the Zagros mountains.

    Adding to the panic of Arab leaders was the clear willingness of the leaders of Arabic Syria to simply switch sides if it looked like they were losing. Sulayman’s defection fo Antioch was a shock to the Bedawi who had thought the Syrians cowed by their power. When Leo left Sidon and began marching south toward Jerusalem it became clear that his goal was the complete reconquest of the Roman east.

    The Arabs needed a central leader who could rally them as the Caliphs of old had done. Each tribal chieftain looked around, and they universally reached the same conclusion. The best man to lead such a force was…themself. Meetings of tribal leaders failed to pick a new overall commander, and many weaker tribes simply deserted their fellows out of fear of complete subjugation by the larger groups.

    And this is why Leo’s armies are about to steamroll what is left of the Palaestina and Mesopotamia, disunity. When the Arabs had originally forged their Empire they had been unified forcefully by the power of Muhammud and his successors. But a century later there simply wasn’t anyone who had the strength to do the same again. Tribal groups were perfectly willing to fight the Romans, they just weren’t willing to do so while subordinate to another group, especially a weaker group who would not have been feared by their fellows .

    So long as the Arabs were victorious on every front the divisions within their society were kept under control. It didn’t matter if one group had gotten a slightly better share of the spoils, since everyone was seeing wealth unimagined in previous generations. Spoils of war and conquest were the sinews that had stitched the Caliphate together. But now, there were no more spoils. There were no great victories to talk about in stories. Only defeat.

    It was at this point the First Caliphate truly died. Eight different Bedawi leaders declared themselves Caliph, and organized armies to try and defeat the Emperor as he marched on Jerusalem.

    In every case they were badly outnumbered, and outmatched by their Roman counterparts. In eight battles the Emperor defeated them, shattered their armies, and either captured or killed the would-be Caliphs. With no hope of resisting Jerusalem’s population murdered their Arab governor and his guards, and threw the gates of the city open. The Emperor entered and took control of the Holy City back in May 739. He would spend the remainder of the year driving Arab forces out of the Eastern diocese and setting up new themes to defend the southern conquests. The old province of Palaestina Salutaris was merged into the existing Theme of Rhinos, and the Pelusium army moved its headquarters to Petra, and the Clysma garrison moved to Aelala. The old fortress cities would now simply be strong points for the theme armies, rather than the primary garrison points defending Egypt. Palaestina I, Palaestina II, and Arabia were merged into the Theme of Palaestine, and headquartered at Bostra.

    In the north the second army, which I now realize I neglected to mention the commander of, but I’ll rectify that now by saying that this was Konon Isauria, because of the general’s claim that his family were from the province of Isauria. In actuality it seems that Konon was of Syrian heritage, and had been raised in the Diocese of Pontus. His family had originally fled into the Empire when their homes were overrun, and had survived as tenant farmers near Sinope, but when the Emperor Constantine V was preparing to sail to Egypt Konon had deserted his family to join the army.

    He had proven to be an excellent soldier, serving in the siege of Alexandria, and then joining the Tagmata for the African expedition. His performance there was exemplary, and he eventually wound up as Strategos of Anatolik Armenia. When Leo war preparing to invade the Caliphate Leo immediately put himself forward to head the second army.

    As 739 came he had an army of about thirty thousand, and had taken up Dara as his headquarters. His scouts told him that Arabic Mesopotamia was lightly garrisoned, and would be completely unprepared for an invasion. Konon was interested in this point, and sent a message to the Emperor asking for permission to invade. Leo sent back a reply stating that Mesopotamia was outside the bounds of his operation. Konon was only to attack if the Arabs attacked him first.

    Most commanders would have sighed, and gone back to watching the border. Konon nodded at that, then sent some gold to a nearby Arab garrison s that they would loose a few arrows at his next patrol. They obliged, and excuse in hand Konon invaded Mesopotamia on the theory it was better to ask forgiveness while handing over treasure and new territory than look for further instructions.

    Konon had no particular goal when he advanced. He was probably looking to take some cities, but once his invasion began it was difficult for him to justify stopping. Konon moved his army north to Martyropolis and marched south down the Tigris River, taking Ninevah in August 739. Scattering what resistance remained Konon decided to push his luck further, and try to take Ctesiphon.

    The Arab garrison of the army massed north of the old Persian Capital, They numbered about twenty-five thousand, and moved to block the Roman advance south. We don’t have direct records of what happened in the battle, but Konon broke them, and took the city. The Arabs regrouped and tried to counterattack, but by now their morale was already low, leading to another decisive Roman victory at Seleukia in November 739. After this battle the remnants of the Lakhmids, that old Persian ally approached the Roman general and offered an alliance. Konon accepted and with Lakhmid assistance he drove further south, eventually arriving at the Persian Gulf in March 940, forcing the surrender or retreat of what Arab troops remained in the area along the way.

    When the city of Charax was taken Konon finally decided it was time to send word back to the Emperor about what he’d been up to. With this message he sent hundreds of captives, and nearly one thousand pounds of treasure he had captured. The rest of the gold he distributed to his men, in the name of the Emperor who had of course masterminded all of this he assured them, or kept for himself.

    Leo had been getting reports of what Konon had been doing, but these had been heavily edited and only half-truthful. He knew the general had been campaigning in Mesopotamia against Arab raiders, but the actual conquest came as a nasty shock. Privately the Emperor raged at the insubordination, but he ultimately decided he could do nothing. The territory was taken. And giving it up might spark a mutiny in the army

    The Emperor sent along administrators to divide up the new territory in themes, then sent word to the Capital that his bride should be sent to Jerusalem, and that she should bring the True Cross. Before the assembled troops of Leo’s army Helena arrived in early 742, and she personally led the procession that placed the Cross inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, and that as she did so a light from heaven illuminated her, leading the soldiers to compare her to the Blessed Virgin come again. When the Cross was put in place Leo and Helena were wed, in a ceremony conducted by the Pope, who had traveled from Rome for this occasion, and the Patriarch from Constantinople, and when the ceremony was completed the soldiers spontaneously declared the girl to be the Augusta.

    This was all of course set up in advance, as Leo’s wider goals shifted from restoration of the Empire to permanently winning legitimacy for his dynasty. After the wedding Helena returned to Constantinople, where the Patriarch would give a spectacular sermon about what had happened, and much of the muttering would die down, for a while at least.

    The Emperor departed for Mesopotamia to deal with his new territories, and left subordinates behind to raid into Arabia and try to get a permanent truce agreed with the scattered tribes. It should be noted that it was in 742 that the Emperor’s uncle John died, leaving a power vacuum in the capital, which the Emperor would soon have to return to deal with.

    Before that however Leo followed through on his promises, settling nearly twenty-thousand of his former soldiers on farms in Syria, and then settling ten thousand of Konon’s soldiers in Mesopotamia. Out of the old Persian territory were formed four new themes. In the south, along the Gulf primarily was the Theme of Antiochia, capitoled at Charax. North of this was the Theme of Babylon, headquartered at Seleukia, then the Theme of Assyria, headquartered at Ninevah, and finally the Theme of Mesopotamia, headquartered at Hatra.

    This done Konon was “promoted” to anaplirotís of Asia, which was a step up from Strategos, but was clearly done to separate him from his army and prevent a separate power base from forming. But Konon was an ambitious man, and was happy to take the promotion he had earned. This was especially true when the Emperor merged the now unneeded Theme of Isauria into the Diocese. Further East the Emperor also merged the two Armenias, and Cappadocia, into the Diocese of Armenia, and gave control of it to another general from the campaign. The theme troops were largely disbanded, and turned into simple farmers who now paid their rent directly to the Emperor, a policy that would cause significant friction down the line.

    Finally, in 744 Leo arrived back in Constantinople, probably hoping for a long and well-deserved rest.

    And I think that’s where we will leave him for now. We will return to the rest of Leo’s turbulent, but important reign later by noting that later in 744 Helena gave birth to their first son, Anastasius.

    Next time we’ll be putting the story of the Romans on hold to get caught up on events outside the Empire. First we will turn West to the Goths, the Franks, and the far away island of Britannia. Then we’ll look East and cover the Persians. Finally we will look north to the Khazars, the Bulgars, and other events in the area.
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    Part 17: The West in 750
  • Part XVII: The West​

    We will begin our wider look at the world by going over the political status of the former Western half of the Empire, excepting of course most of Italy and North Africa. Primarily this means the former provinces in Hispania, Gallia, and Brittania.

    Hispania you will recall was under the control of the old Gothic tribes that had migrated West under Aleric and his successors, sacked Rome in the 400s, and then settled into southern Gael, a region name arising from

    confusion we will eventually cover, after the sack of Rome, and eventually being given leave to invade Hispania by a Roman general to try and get the Vandals and Suebians under control. This failed spectacularly as the Vandals instead crossed into North Africa and took Carthage, effectively killing the Western regions of Rhomania.

    Originally the Goths were ruled by a dynasty descending from Alaric’s family, but by the mid-500s this line was extinct and the Goths adopted a completely elected system of kings, making direct lines from father to son an extreme rarity. This was about as good an idea as it sounds. Civil Wars and rebels plagued the kingdom throughout its history, but despite these by the time the Romans were forced to withdraw completely from Spania under Theodosius the Goths did control the entire peninsula.

    By the year 750 the kingdom had changed hands thirty times, with rebellions and usurpers were common. This number is actually dragged down a bit by the occasional strong kings, particularly Sisenand III who was a strong and dynamic ruler in who took the throne in 660 and then held power for the next thirty years, defeating two short-lived rebellions whose leaders are not counted. Sisenand tried to consolidate more power in the monarchy by adapting a model based on the Mayors of the Palace in Francia, but with himself in that position. He was largely effective while alive, but his attempt to leave the king to his eldest son provoked a major rebellion, which saw the new king dead inside of two years.

    The Gothic Kingdom held together however because none of these rebellions were about actually destroying central authority. Rather they were fought to focus that power and authority in someone different. Much like the civil wars of the Romans.

    But that said, the constant infighting among the nobility both destroyed their credibility with the common people, and also severely damaged the Spanish economy. Roads were destroyed, fields burned, and overland trade was nonexistent. Communities were as self-sufficient as possible, and the state’s foundations steadily eroded. If there had been an outside challenger interested in taking control of the Goths they likely would have been able to do so. But the Franks were focused inward, and then north, while the Romans maintained their own focus intently on the East.

    That’s not to say there was no trade. The cities of the Eastern coast did a brisk overseas trade with the Franks out of Massilia, and better trade with the Romans in Italy and Africa. These merchants will become extremely important later, but for now they were just a group of well off men trying to make a living in the controlled chaos of Gothic Hispani.

    North of Hispani was the Kingdom of the Franks, centered around old Roman Gallia, with territory extending into Germani. This kingdom had arisen from Frankish control over northern Gallia in the waning days of the Western parts of the Empire. It had previously belonged to Burgundians, the Goths, and of course the last bastion of the Roman Empire. The Franks were pagans until the early 500s when their king, Clovis, converted to Nicaean Christianity, a move that had incalculable impact on the the history of Europe, as it was this decision, rather than the conversion to Arianism, which solidified Orthodox Christianity to form the basis of Western European religion.

    Twenty years alter Clovis’s sons would launch an invasion of the Burgundi, decisively defeating the king in 523 and subsequently annexed his territory. The Franks also drove the Goths south of the Pyrenei Mountains as the years wore on, but for now showed little interest in trying to enforce control south of the range. As discussed during the time of Justinian II the Frankish king Dagobert used the murder of the pope by the Arian Lombards as an excuse to invade northern Italy in 642, prodded along by Roman promises, and subsequently annexed Italy around the Po River.

    Dagobert’s reign however would be the beginning of a decline of his dynasty. The Franks had an inheritance system that was, if anything, even worse than that of the Goths. Frankish men would divide their property equally between sons when they died. This had the effect of making each generation worse off than the previous. The practice was damaging enough on a personal level, but the Franks applied it to the Kingdom as well.

    To say that instability followed would be an understatement. Civil Wars between brothers were incredibly common, any king who amassed a decent amount of power during his life would inevitably destroy it all again when he died.

    Contributing even more to this decline in Royal Power was the organization of the state itself. The King gave out land to his nobles in exchange for military service, but whenever the king needed the nobles to fight for him they would often demand even greater gifts, resulting in a consistent strengthening of the lords in relation to the king.

    The actual realm of the Franks had been split into two kingdoms at various points in its history, notably in 567, but the two kingdoms had reunited by the 700s. By reunited I mean one had reconquered the other. Maybe, records are somewhat spotty for whether the kingdoms even had separate names at this point. But for our purposes we will use those given by later historians. I should also note that in these names the kingdoms were referred to in Latin to avoid confusion with the territory of the Romans, which was either referred to as simply the Imperium Romania, or the Basileo Rhomania depending on where in the Empire you happened to be writing from.

    The first was the Regnum Orientis, or Eastern Kingdom was where the Franks originally lived. This meant that the kingdom controlled the Rhine River, parts of Germani, and the old provinces of Germani Superior and Inferior. The capital was at various points at Cologne, or later at Aachen. The second kingdom was the Regnum Occidens, or Western Kingdom. Which was headquartered at Parisius.

    When the kingdoms were united the capital was usually Parisius.

    Complicating matters further was that in the future a third kingdom would arise out of the south, mostly centered around the old Aquitainian provinces, and there was still the independent minded, but weak Burgundi who lived in the southwest.

    All told, the Frankish state was the most powerful realm to arise out of the old Western provinces. It retained a solid state system, apart from the acutal rulers.

    By the 700s the king of the Franks was a toothless position. What power might have been wielded was left to the Mayors of the Palace, a line of men to whom Pepin Martel belonged. This power distribution was yet another source of instability as kings fought with their own Mayors over power as well. But in 732 Pepin overthrew his theoretical king and took official power for himself. The Emperor sent along congratulations, and the Pope legitimized the move, granting Pepin more legitimacy than he might otherwise have gained.

    King Pepin spent the remainder of his life at war with his own nobility regardless however, prying lands and men back under the control of the crown. He died in 741, but left a single adult son behind, Louis, who continued, and ultimately finished, his father’s work. He would die in 757, with only a single son as well. That son, Carloman, would turn Frankish attention outward again for the first time in over a century as he looked East to deal with the pagans still living in Germani. His work in turn would be finished by his own son Louis II, Louis Magnus. And finally, Louis's son would turn Frankish attention north for the first time, as the final group of Western powers came under assault.

    That last group are of course the Anglos and the Saxons on the island of Britanni. This island had been abandoned by the Emperor Honorius in the early 400s, and was subsequently overrun by pagans from Germani, who drove what remained of the Romans into the Western parts of the country, modern Volki, named after one of the old Brittanic tribes on the island. The pagans set up a group of seven kingdoms which took up the remainder of the province, the Eastern Saxons, the Western Saxons, the Southern Saxons, Cantware, Myrce, the Eastern Angles, and the North.

    While each would retain independence for the next few centuries Myrce was the largest and came to dominate the remainder by 750, a situation which would continue until the coming of the Varangians.

    The pagans of the island were steadily converted through the seventh century, with the kings allowing themselves to be baptized one by one, until finally the Church was once again firmly entrenched on the island. The Church in Saxeland, the name for the territories controlled by the Angles and Saxons, however would always be in less than lock-step with Rome, and the island’s current heretics can be said to continue that tradition, even if nothing else positive may be said. There are some records about how the pre-Varangian Saxons ruled, but not much. It would be largely irrelevant regardless since the seven kingdoms would not survive the storm of the next century, and it will not be until the late 1200s that the Saxons would regain any form of independence from foreign lords.

    North of the Saxons kingdoms were the lands of the Caledonians. For whom a lack of records is a complete understatement. The Romans had at times campaigned into Caledonia, but from what we know the Emperor Hadrian’s decision to leave the lands to their own devices was the best option. Better to let the Caldeonians be left to their eternal war against their mortal foe, the Caledonians, than to get involved.

    Next door to Britanni was the island of Hiberni, but we know even less about that island than we do about Caledonia, about whom we know virtually nothing. The island had converted to Christianity sometime in the fifth century. Maybe. Even the old Church records don’t have much to go on in regards to Hiberni.

    Back across the sea the lands East of the Franks were the wilds of old Germani, from which the tribes that overran the West mostly came. These lands were still pagan, still barbarian, and would remain so until the Franks forced civilization upon them at sword-point. We will talk about those in the next century when the Frankish campaigns take place.

    And that is the West as it basically stood in 750. A turbulent place, but at least one where Christianity held firm dominion.

    Next time we will look to the Persians, where the victory of even the heretics of the East is still a long way away.
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    Part 18: The East and North in 750
  • I ended up just doing the East and North as one point since there wasn't enough about either to go the three pages I try and make sure is the minimum for any update.

    Part XVIII: The East and North​

    When we talk about the “East” in the context of old Imperial history we really only mean one thing, Persia. The people who inhabited Persia had been the most long-lasting foe the Romans ever faced. For hundreds of years border was between the Romans and those who controlled Persia, the Seleukids, the Parthians, the Sassanids, the Turks, and others defined the Eastern border.

    By 750 however Persia was a state in decline. Theodosius’s decisive defeat of Khosrow II had completed shattered the Persian government. Civil wars and revolts broke out, and much of the eastern territories were lost. Khwarzem, Khorasan, and Sistan all broke away, taking large numbers of people and wealth with them. Then the Arabs took Mesopotamia, leaving the Persians in control of only the territory between the Zagros Mountains and Nishipur. Throughout the seventh century the Persian state lost control over more territory, until finally by the late 600s the King of Kings could claim little true authority outside of his capital. Governors still paid some taxes and answered to him nominally, but he was broke, out of men, and about to see his empire fall apart.

    Small victories against Arab raiders saw fortunes of the Sassanids improve, enough that in 708 the King of Kings felt he had a strong enough position to do something unthinkable, become a Roman client. Not officially of course, but gold from Constantinople was required to keep the state afloat. Yazdegerd IV offered up many reasons that the Romans should support him. Chief among these was that if the Caliphate suddenly stopped raiding Persia the Romans themselves would be harder pressed. But that failed to entice the Romans to give him what was needed.

    So Yazdegard went a step further. In exchange for cash he would legalize Christiantiy in the Empire. Not tolerate it, not ignore it. Full legalization. Christians would have the same legal rights as Zoroastrians. That got the Emperor’s attention. The Romans tried to push for full adoption by the Sassanids, but this was a step too far. Yazdegard had no doubt that if he tried to force Christianity, and he himself was never and would never be a Christian regardless, it would lead to his overthrow, and yet another round of Civil War.

    The Romans grumbled, but agreed. They began sending along gold, and Yazdegard followed through on his promise. Christianity was legalized throughout the Empire, but as only the Church of the East had a presence past the Zagros Mountains this actually changed little. But, crucially, it legalized missionary work done by the Nestorian Church who went about exploiting their new freedom with a passion. Large groups of Persian citizens would convert to Christianity over the next decades, and this number became a flood as the Christian Romans crushed the Arab Caliphate, something that the Zoroastrian Persians pointedly had nothing to do with.

    It wasn’t that the King of Kings didn’t want to try and jump on the Arabs while they were done, he just hadn’t been ready for such a war, and might not have been able to raise enough loyal men to follow through anyway, not without leaving himself dangerously vulnerable at home.

    And so while Konon was marching through the streets of Ctesiphon Yazdegard’s heir, Khosrow V, was marching what soldiers he had north to quell an uprising in Daylam. He was successful, but then had to turn East and deal with border incursions from Khorason.

    By 750 the Persian Empire was a shell of its former self. Agriculture had virtually collapsed in the Persian plateau after so many years of Arab raids, the old elite cavalry were gone, and increasingly replaced by Turkish mercenaries hired from the Eastern Steppe. The mercenaries were cheaper than maintaining a full army, but would result in an irreversible weakening of the state apparatus. And these Turks were also more inclined to adopt Eastern Christianity than local Zoroastrian.

    The Empire should have collapsed in the late 700s, but Roman gold kept the state limping along, along with occasional Roman field armies marching in to put a rebellion down. The gold was a key part of the Empire’s finances because the wealth of the Silk Road was less than it once had been. In the North the realm of the Khazars served as an alternate route, with the control of the Caspian Sea in the hands of the Khazars and Persian successor states good could be loaded on the Eastern coast of the sea, sailed to the Khazar capital, and then either shipped over the roads of Anatolia to Constantinople, or transported to the Roman outpost of Cherson, and from there loaded onto Roman ships going to Constantinople.

    In the south the merchants of Sistan could ship their goods around southern Persia by sea to the port of Charcas, and then across Roman Mesopotamia into Armenia or Syria and then loaded onto ships or sent across Anatolia to Constantinople. Ironically the collapse of the Caliphate also made Arabia a route which could be returned to. Ships could land in the southeast of Arabia, and then transported to Jeddah on the Western shore and sent up the Red Sea, through the Pharos canal, up the Nile, and then to Constantinople.

    Not all of the Road’s trade could be diverted in such a way of course, but Persia’s extremely lucrative control had been removed. When combined with the decline of normal agriculture the Sassanid tax base had shrunk by nearly four-fifths over the past century. There would be significant recovery in agriculture now that there would be no raids from the West, but never enough to return the Sassanid Empire to its former status.

    So far as the Romans were concerened a weak, divided, and utterly dependent Persia was exactly the sort of neighbor they liked. When Sassanid Persia did finally permanently collapse this view would be proven completely correct.

    For now we will turn our attention north to the last major players in Roman history at this time. The Khazars, and the Bulgars.

    The Khazars you will recall had arisen from the bands of Turks Heraclius had hired to assist in his great campaign into Persia during the 610s. The Khazars were a steppe warrior group, which meant they heavily utilized horse archers and other forms of cavalry, making them a highly dangerous and skilled foe in battle. They had occasionally raided Roman clients in the Caucuses, but relations between the two were largely amicable. Most of the time.

    This was especially true in 750. A Khazar princess was now the Roman Empress, trade between the Romans and the Khazars was flourishing, and the Khazar lords were growing fat off of their complete domination of the steppe. Quite literally in many cases. With their new wealth the Khazars had begun to hire Turks to fight for them, and this would spell the doom of the Khazar state. Eventually. For now the good times continued, and the Khazar khans were happy to let them do so.

    The largest source of tension for the Khazar Khaganate was in the East, where more steppe groups were constantly trying to push into territory now held by the Khan, with two groups in particular being important going forward. The Pechenegs and the Magyars.

    East of the Khazars was the Bulgar khanate. By 750 the Khazar Khan had defeated the Bulgars in their original homeland, and driven them south of the Tyras River, which now formed the northern boundary of Bulgar territory. From this river the Bulgar territory extended south to the Danube, and from the Black Sea in the East to the Danube River in the West as well, ending at the boundary of old Roman Pannonia. Bulgar power was centered around the Carpathian Basin, the most of the modern Bulgari Plain.

    It was here that the Bulgars established Pliska, their capital, and set about subjugating the Slavs on their side of the Danube. Those Slavs who could crossed the river and either settled in Roman Dacia, or in Pannonia and Dalmatia, where they established the groups who would come to be known as the Serbi (those who settled in Pannonia) and the Croati (who inhabited Dalmatia). These still pagan groups were regular targets of raids from both the Franks and the Romans, and it is from these Slavs that the modern word Slavos comes.

    Farther north lay the territory from which the Boreus Varangians and the Notos Varangians would come.

    We will have significant deals with the Notos Varangians of course, and the Boreus Varangians will be the Pedinoi, and then the far more important Normannoi. Or as they will be referred to, as these were their Western names, the Danes and the Normans. As those of you from Normany will know, the Normans will have an extensive impact upon the world. Until then, let me note that I am actually in Normandy this week, and will be staying in Mexiopolis for most of that time.
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    750 map
  • Here is the promised map. Note that the Eastern borders are made off of my guesses as I can't find a good map of Sassanid provinces to base them off of. And in the north there are similiar issues, but borders there especially aren't really a thing.

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    Part 19: Legitimacy
  • Part XIX: Legitimacy​

    Leo’s conquests had secured him in history as a great Emperor. He had pushed the boundaries of the Roman Empire further East than they had been since Trajan, and these territories would be securely held for centuries. Arab raids would be a constant problem for Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palaestine, but there would not be another unified Arab threat until the Empire came the closest it ever came to complete collapse in the thirteenth century.

    The Emperor returned to Constantinople and celebrated the most magnificent triumph the Empire had seen since before Constantine moved the capital. Thousands of prisoners were paraded through the streets, along with every Caliph who had been captured during the invasion. The would-be equals of the Emperor were killed in the Hippodrome for the screaming crowds. With the prisoners was a vast array of treasures taken from the Caliphate. Muslim treasures were booed and publicly melted down, with a couple of cases of golden figures being reworked into crosses in public festivals. Across the Empire priests and bishops gave sermons praising the Emperor as the greatest Roman who had ever lived.

    The gold religious figures the Emperor commissioned were sent to major cities across the Empire as well, to be put on display in Churches. Most importantly however gold figures were sent to the churches that had been stripped by Manuel I a century before, so that the congregations could see that Emperor Leo was a pious and holy man, who respected his obligations and put the position of the Empire with God first and foremost.

    Fundamentally, Leo was rebuilding the confidence the Roman people had in their rulers, and their relationship with God.

    Since the time of Justinian the Emperors had done their best to put negative events on the behavior of the people as a whole, to downplay the role that the Emperor might have in bringing God’s wrath down on his subjects. This kept mutterings about disaster under control, but it was always a factor in Imperial decision making. In the past this had been relatively easy to accomplish.

    But then the Arabs had come. A heathen, or at minimum heretic, people who had crushed the Romans, the chosen people of God so far as they were concerned. It had shaken the core of Roman identity when the East was lost. Victories had come again of course, but the Holy Land was in the hands of the Arabs, as were vast numbers of Christians. Could it be that God did favor the Arabs over the Romans?

    But Leo had retaken those lands, and in so doing had shown that God still favored the Romans over any other state. The Romans were the chosen children of God, who enjoyed his special divine attention. Whatever sins they had been punished for were now forgiven. And the Emperor was at the center of it all. Leo minted coins with his picture on one side, and that of Jesus on the other. These coins also utilized officially the Emperor’s informal title in the Greek speaking parts of the Empire, that of Basileus. The official title of Leo had been Augustos Autokrator, but now it would become Augustos Basileus.

    He also fully embraced the position as God’s Viceroy upon the Earth, a position that would cause significant friction between the Emperor, and the head of the holy church, the Patriarchs and the Pope, friction that would continue until Manuel. For now however there were other issues to deal with. Berber raiders in Africa had begun attacking the holdings again, and Leo dispatched reinforcements to deal with the attackers. But there was a more pressing issue to deal with, the Eastern Churches had fallen out of step with the Orthodox Chalcedonians, and this needed to be dealt with to ensure God’s continued favor. So in 745 Leo called an Ecumenical Council, only the sixth of its kind. Bishops from across the Empire, and those from the Franks and Goths were called to Constantinople to discuss the hierarchy of the Church and settle matters of doctrine. The specific points aren’t particularly relevant, but the key takeaway from the Council was that the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope were placed at the head of the Church, with the two divided along the old lines of Imperial division. The Pope was supreme across the West and the Patriarch supreme in the East. This caused severe dissension in the newly reconquered provinces as the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem were officially demoted, and more importantly the Patriarch of Alexandria was as well.

    That caused some rioting in Egypt, but this was brought under control by the end of the year. But then Leo went a step further. With the East now reconquered he formally reinstituted the free grain dole for citizens of the capital, and reintroduced the old system of taking grain from the Egyptians, while also setting firm price ceilings on them.

    That was intolerable. For decades Egyptian farmers had been able to sell at fairer prices, and the return of old Imperial controls were deeply resented in 748 the religious and economic tensions of Egypt boiled over, and the Diocese went into revolt. Leo sighed, boared a ship, and sailed for Pelusium. There he gathered the armies posted in Palaestina, and a large force of Bedawi, and marched into Egypt. Pelusium was conquered after a swift siege, and the Emperor ordered the fortress demolished. Continuing into Egypt the Emperor took Babylon, and installed a new garrison. From there Arab foederates were unleashed on the surrounding countryside, forcing towns back into line. Finally in 749 Leo advanced north up the Nile, and laid siege to Alexandria itself. The city threw the gates open after a few days, and the Emperor marched in. The Diocese Vicar was executed, and the Patriarch was forced to give up his office, then sent into exile in Italy, where the Pope would keep a close eye on him.

    A new bishop and vicar were put in place, and a larger garrison was installed to keep order in Egypt.

    On the surface the 748 revolt was a minor event, put down pretty quickly and with minimal soldiers lost. But digging deeper it is clear that the events of 748 would ensure that Egypt’s decline in importance was cemented here. While the Egyptian fields would continue to be a major source of Imperial wealth it was no longer, and would never again be, the great source of Imperial wealth. That moniker would go to Italy, Anatolia, and to a lesser extent Greece. Egypt would be a source of annoyance for the Emperor’s for a long time to come.

    Leo returned to Constantinople in early 750, and crowned his oldest son co-Emperor. No sooner than the Emperor had returned however then word came that the African themes were hard pressed by Berber raiders. With a heavy sigh Leo departed for Africa, and spent another two years campaigning against the Berbers there. Another peace was settled, and the Berbers sent hostages in exchange for Roman gold to keep the peace. The Emperor returned to Constaninople yet again, and then was called north to fight the Bulgars.

    When the Bulgars were driven back north of the Danube yet again Leo returned to Constantinople and decided that something was going to have to change. The Emperor could not be expected to go to every trouble spot in the Empire. The realm needed better systems in place to maintain local power. To this end Leo began diverting funds to build the first proper phrourion as we would recognize them today. These were built around a central fortress similar to old acropolis’s the phrourion would then have a strong outer wall to repel attackers, often with a moat surrounding them with a bridge across that could be either easily destroyed or even raised in the case of major fortresses.

    The area between the walls and the acropolis served multiple functions. For the purposes of defense it allowed the entire population around the phrourion to withdraw inside when threatened, taking livestock and even crops with them. These people could then be given stones or bows and stationed on the walls to defend against attack.

    Most importantly however the phrourion were designed to be as easy to defend as possible. A hundred men could hold off a thousands indefinitely, or at least long enough for a response to be organized by the strategos. These fortresses were built across Moesia and Dacia. Under Leo’s original plans the fortresses would have been built of stone, but it rapidly became apparent that this was unfeasible. The project would have been too expensive, and taken too long. Instead the thematic soldiers were set to harvesting timber to be used in the construction. The first phrourions took about a year and a half to build, but as the problems with designs were improved that time decreased to only about nine months.

    Each was garrisoned with only one or two hundred men, and over the next twenty years about fifty would be built across Moesia and Dacia. The remainder of the thematic troops would be garrisoned in the capitals, and dispatched to relieve sieges, if disease and impatience had not already done so.

    The point of these fortresses was never to defeat a Bulgar raid, but rather to slow it down, delay the advance until reinforcement could arrive, or until the Bulgar khan decided that continuing wasn’t worth it. Bulgar raiders would capture some livestock, a few prisoners, and sometimes capture treasure, but only concentrated attacks could capture the phrourions. The borderlands were not exactly safe, but reasonably secure.

    As Leo settled down however another revolt broke out, this time in Sardinia.

    The island had long been neglected as Roman attention was turned East, and the Sardinians assumed this meant they might be able to permanently break away from Imperial control. Leo departed Constantinople yet again in 755. He gathered a large fleet, and blockaded the island, landing personally in June. Steadily the island was subjugated by the Romans, and in 756 the revolt was crushed. More soldiers were left behind, and Leo departed by the end of the year.

    This was the second major revolt of Leo’s reign, and understanding why it was happening will help to understand how the rest of the Emperor’s reign would go. During the Justinian dynasty the Emperor’s were secure in their position. No Emperor went out on campaign except Theodosius, and even that was mostly done against Persia alone. And the Emperor wasn’t really in command of those battles, he acted more as a mascot than a leader.

    But after the Arabs came the Emperor’s had been in command, and that had been disastrous for years. When the Thalassans came to power the Emperor’s had continued to command troops personally, because there was no alternative. A general likely would have overthrown them and repeated the anarchy before Manuel I came to power, a situation that would have been disastrous. Leo had now spent the majority of his reign on campaign to one area or another, and it was wearing on him. The Emperor was tired, and wanted little more than to remain in the capital with his wife and growing family. But whenever he tried revolts or raids began.

    This was in part because the Thalassan dynasty wasn’t really legitimate. It had been founded by another usurper, and that was how it was still viewed. Leo set about changing this by 758. To keep power the Thalassans had to be viewed as the legitimate rulers of the Roman empire.

    To this end Leo began one of the most sustained propaganda operations in Imperial history. You will recall that Leo’s great-grandfather had married the last descendant of the Justinian dynasty, and Leo now now fully embraced that event. Statues commemorating his great-grandfather, and more importantly his wife, were commissioned and displayed for all to see. Everywhere the people turned the message from Imperial systems was the same, the Thalassans weren’t really a new dynasty. They were just the real successors of the Justinian.

    But of course the Justinian dynasty had ended with the children of the general Heraclius, so Leo set about to rewrite history. Constantine IV had not been the legitimate heir of Theodosius at all. Rather his father had tricked the Emperor into marrying his daughter to the man, who was already in an incestuous marriage, one that showed the depravities of the Heraclians all too clearly.

    Had not the sins of the Heraclians been on full display when they had died so early, and how they had turned on one another to such disastrous results. And had this sin not resulted in the Arab conquests? As the years wore on this message, of the sins of Heraclians being the real cause of the Empire’s century of trouble was refined, until the last three Emperors of the Heraclian dynasty had been virtually excised from it, and they had instead been reconsidered as simply the harbingers of the anarchy before Manuel.

    Speaking of the founder of the Thalassans, Leo also began to claim that Manuel had been the real chosen successor of Theodosius, but that the manipulations of Heraclius had prevented this from being revealed. And of course, when Theodosius caught on the Heraclians had poisoned him.

    This story was, to be frank, completely absurd. Manuel was in his early twenties, and was a low-ranking officer in the Imperial fleet. Its doubtful he had Theodosius had ever even spoken. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that Manuel had been successful, and Theodosius had been successful. It therefore followed naturally that Theodosius would have wanted Manuel to follow him as Emperor.

    This view wasn’t really challenged until the 1500s, with the Thalassans long gone. Manuel II is known to have found the idea highly amusing, but even he maintained the charade. The appearance of legitimacy was more important than truth.

    Leo would not live to see his work pay the final fruit, but looking back his efforts were what cemented the Thalassans as the great Imperial dynasty. Even his less than capable successors would not be able to destroy the image of God’s favor that Leo had created. It would take a truly horrible ruler to tear this all down.

    Leo managed to remain in the capital for the rest of his life, letting lower level commanders repel the African and Bulgar raids. He died in 761 in a hunting accident. Leo IV was 45 years old. He had been Emperor for 39 years. Leo was a magnificent Emperor. He easily lands on the top five list of Emperors of all time, and often in the top three, after Manuel and Augustus. It is telling that those two were also the only men to reign as Emperor for a longer period.

    He left the Empire to his oldest son, Anastasius II, who would be one of the sharpest downgrades in Imperial quality since the first Theodosius had died and left Honorius and Arcadius to run the Empire into the ground.