By Periklis Deligiannis
The Walls of Constantinople today.
In 661 AD, the new caliph Muawiyah (Muāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān AD 602–680)became the absolute master of the Islamic-Arab Caliphate after the murder of his antagonist, Ali. He made Damascus the Arabic capital, while Syria became the new political center of the Islamic world. The advanced peoples of Syria-Palestine and Egypt were the main supporters of the new Ummayad Dynasty (AD 661-750) of caliphs founded by Muawiyah. The new caliph based his power on the old Byzantine administrative officials, because the Arabs had not yet the required experience in governance issues. The Ummayad Caliphate had its political-administrative center in former Hellenistic Syria and used the Greek of the former Byzantine rule as its administrative language (and also used the Greek/Byzantine administrative infrastructure), thereby closely resembled to a more extensive Seleucid Kingdom. The main politico-military supporters of the Ummayads were the pre-Islamic local Arabs of Syria and Palestine (the Arab tribes of the Ituraeans, Palmyrans, Gasanids and others), who had become Muslims.
After the proclamation of Muawiyah as caliph, the Arab forces moved again against Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire), following two directions of attack. A portion of them was carrying out devastating raids in Asia Minor, while another portion attacked the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa (modern NW Africa). One by one the Byzantine fortresses and the (Berber) tribes of the Numidians, Mauri and Maurusians were subjugated by the Arab invaders.
Model of a Byzantine pyrophoric (flame-thrower) Dromon. You can see in the bow of the ship, the mechanism of Greek fire ending in a flame-thrower with the form of a dragon.
Septum, the last African stronghold of the Empire, on the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) was conquered by the Muslims around 709-711. According to a view, the last Byzantine commander of Septum before surrendering it to the invaders, took care of revenging the Visigoths of Spain for the expulsion of the Byzantine troops from Andalusia several decades ago. In AD 711 he helped several thousands of Muslim Berber warriors disembark at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula. But he was probably bribed by the Arabs to do so. The ‘Muslim tide’ almost exterminated the Visigoth army and then, enforced by new Arab and Berber troops dashed into Iberia conquering most of the Peninsula in 711-717. In 717, the Islamic Arab Caliphate was the largest state in the world, controlling a vast area from the Caucasus to Nubia (Sudan) and from the Iberian and North African Atlantic coast to the borders of the Chinese Empire and the Thar desert of India. Compared with the Byzantine Empire, already in AD 661 the Caliphate was larger and had more resources.
After the loss of Africa, the Byzantine Empire had lost more than half of her area in favor of the Caliphate. However, Byzantium managed to avoid the fate of the Sassanid Persian Empire which was conquered entirely by the Arabs, and it was ultimately strengthened by these losses: The core of the new Byz. Empire consisted mainly of the provinces of the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor (except the Western Mediterranean provinces which were gradually lost), a development which made her more compact and unbreakable, because her populations were on their largest part Greek-speaking and Orthodox Christian.
Returning to 661 AD, Muawiyah after his proclamation as caliph, could implement the plans that he had prepared as governor of Syria (before becoming caliph) on a maritime attack on Constantinople. In the Byzantine capital, Constantine IV (668-685) was the new emperor since 668 AD. The Caliph sent a squadron of the Moslem fleet in the Aegean Sea, which entered the Hellespont and the Propontis (modern Sea of Marmara) and conquered the peninsula of Cyzicus (670). The Arabs had already captured the island of Rhodes, while a portion of their fleet anchored at Smyrna in 672. Through these naval bases (Rhodes and Smyrna), Muawiyah secured the supply of the Arabs of Cyzicus. Impressive is the ease with which the Muslim fleet penetrated the Byzantine core seas of the Aegean and the Propontis, and the occupation of such key sites in the core of the Byzantine State. Especially the Cyzicus peninsula lies just 100 km away from Constantinople. Probably the defeat of the previous emperor Constans by the Arab fleet in the so called Battle of the Masts (655 AD) was a major blow to the Byzantine naval forces.
(Atlas of Islamic History, Princeton University Press)
However, the main reason of this Byzantine weakness seems to have been the military overexertion of the years 622-628 AD against the Sassanid Persians and the successor long overexertion of the Empire in 634-670 AD to halt the Muslim tide, which had brought the imperial recourses to their limits and probably had exceeded them. Finally, an important reason of the Byzantine naval failure was the fact that after the overthrow of the Vandal Kingdom by the army and the navy of the Empire in AD 534, there was no other opponent who could challenge the Byzantine maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean. There was therefore no reason for the Empire to maintain a large navy and the existing naval forces became significantly warless after 121 years of inactivity (534-655 AD). On the other hand, the Byzantines had begun to use an improved synthesis of flammable substances, the so called ‘Greek fire’ or ‘liquid fire’ (as it was usually called by the Byzantines themselves) which soon gave them a serious advantage in naval warfare.
Debouching from the Cyzicus peninsula, the Arabs were conducting constant attacks against Constantinople, which used to last from spring to early autumn each year. At the same time, the location of their base of operations controlled the eastern mouth of the Hellespont, producing serious problems for the Byzantine naval defense and maritime trade. The Arab operations started in the spring of 674 and lasted four years. However the Muslim warriors could not really threaten Constantinople, and much less conquer the city since she was communicating freely with the provinces by land and was supplied from them. Muawiyah’s persistence in such an inefficient and ineffective method of assaults on Constantinople, seems inexplicable. Bernard Lewis, an expert on Islamic History, made the reasonable assumption that the reported campaigns of Muawiyah against Byzantium had the dual objective of strengthening his religious validity in the Caliphate (as an unyielding pursuer of the ‘infidels’) while familiarizing the Syro-Arab forces in the Byzantine warfare and enhancing their military experience and discipline. Lewis’ assumption is reasonable, because in this period the caliph was not an absolute monarch of the Caliphate but had to face an internal ‘opposition’, and the Byzantine Empire was the strongest military opponent of Islam. The Muslim soldiers would be especially reinforced by fighting against the Byzantines in naval operations and assaults on the walls of the capital. If these were Muawiyah’s aspirations, they proved to be catastrophic for his forces. However, this judgment of Muawiyah also reveals the ‘nothingness’ of the Byzantine Navy which however did not last for long.
Late Roman/Byzantine Infantry (Late Roman reenactment by the Historic Society Britannia).
Judging from the events that followed, my assessment is that since 655 AD, the Byzantines had prepared an ambitious plan of construction of new warships which during the aforementioned operations of 674-678 were additionally equipped with siphons of Greek fire (see below). They tried to keep this project secret as much as possible for obvious reasons, hence the silence of the chronicles of the era. The new ships probably were not numerous, but their large superiority in power against the Muslim warships was due to the fact that they were pyrophoric (equipped with siphons ofGreek fire). the Byzantines obviously turned also to pyrophoric most of their older warships. Moreover the invaders used the same types of warships (but not pyrophoric) because they were basing their naval power on former citizens of the Byz. Empire, i.e. Syrian (Aramaean and descendants of the Phoenicians) and Egyptian shipbuilders and sailors. Almost only the marines were genuine Arabs. Approximately in 677-678 the new Byzantine fleet was ready as it is demonstrated by its sudden appearance and the crash that brought to the Arabs.
The dromons (δρόμωνες) and the biremes of the Byzantine fleet, pyrophoric ships equipped with siphons of Greek fire, succeeded in burning many Arab warships, while those remaining were forced to leave their bases in Cyzicus and Smyrna, and take the sea road back home. However, near the coast of Pamphylia they fell in a sea storm which destroyed almost entirely the imposing fleet of Muawiyah (AD 678). The losses of the Arabs, Syrians and Egyptians in men and ships were tremendous, clearly higher than the Byzantine losses in the Battle of the Masts (655). Muawiyah had to propose a peace treaty to Constantine IV. The negotiations on the terms of the treaty on behalf of the Empire were undertaken by the skilled diplomat patrician John, who succeeded to gain a large annual payment of tax by the Caliphate to the Byzantine Empire. The Empire also recovered Rhodes. The kings of the Germanic states of Western Europe, the Khan of the powerful Avar nomads and other rulers were impressed by the Byzantine victory sending gifts to the emperor to congratulate him, while seeking the maintenance of peaceful relations. Constantine responded positively to their request.
Conflict between Byzantine and Arab cavalry of this period, in a miniature of Skylitzes’ chronicle.
The Byzantine victory had great historic importance. It was the first major victory of any anti-Muslim power against the warriors of Islam, which demonstrated that the early Muslim militant fanaticism which until then had swept everything in its path, could be confronted and the headlong advance of Islam could be halted. The Christian leaders of the West who hitherto watched anxiously the continuing Arabic expansion, hailed the Byzantine victory. The still more crushing Arab defeat that followed during the second Muslim Siege of Constantinople (717-718 AD) which I will describe in a future article (soon), and the victory of the Franks over the Muslims at Poitiers (at Tours in reality, 732) which I will also analyze in a future article (soon), halted the march of the Islamic deluge to the European continent from East and West respectively, rescuing her Greco-Roman and Christian character.
- CAMBRIDGE MEDIEVAL HISTORY, vol. IV (1st edition of Byzantine History), Cambridge 1923.
- CAMBRIDGE MEDIEVAL HISTORY, vol. IV/1 (New edition of Byzantine History), Cambridge 1966.
- CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF ISLAM, Cambridge 1980.
- ENCYCLOPAEDIAOFISLAM, Leiden (2nd edition), 1960-.
- LewisB.: THE ARABS IN HISTORY