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Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)


"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Friday, June 20, 2014

First Contact - Battle of Ongal, The Birth of the Bulgarian Empire


Re-enactor from First Bulgarian State
(theapricity.com) 

First Contact
The Coming of the Bulgars


The Roman campaign against the invading Bulgar tribes ranks as one of the most important in history because the Roman defeat resulted in the creation of a new Bulgarian Empire.  Over the next 675 years the Bulgarians would become either allies or more often deadly enemies of Constantinople.

The Bulgars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who flourished in the Pontic Steppe and the Volga basin in the 7th century AD.

The early Bulgars may have been present in the Pontic Steppe from the 2nd century, identified with the Bulensii in certain Latin versions of Ptolemy's Geography, shown as occupying the territory along the northwest coast of Black Sea east of Axiacus River (Southern Bug).

In the early 4th century, the Bulgars would have been caught up in the Hunnic migrations, moving to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the rivers Donets and Don and the Azov seashore.  Bulgars took part in the Hunnic raids on Central and Western Europe between 377 and 453.

At the end of the 5th century (probably in the years 480, 486, and 488) they fought against the Ostrogoths as allies of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno. From 493 they carried out frequent attacks on the western territories of the Byzantine Empire. Later raids were carried out at the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century.

Slowly the Bulgar peoples moved from what is modern Ukraine down into the Balkans and increasing came into contact with Roman troops at the Danube River frontier.


Roman Emperor Constantine IV
Emperor Constantine IV and his court.  He organized the military and city of Constantinople for a siege of five years while fighting wars on multiple fronts over three continents (Africa, Europe and Asia).  After the defeat of the Arabs the Emperor personally led an army against the invading Bulgars.
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(Mosaic in basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe Ravenna, Italy.)

Of Arabs and Bulgars

The Heraclian dynasty Emperors of Rome faced the near extinction of the Empire from multiple enemies on multiple fronts.  Constantine IV (668 – 685) was simultaneously fighting wars in Italy, Africa, the Balkans and Anatolia.

His greatest challenge was withstanding the massive Arab Siege of Constantinople that lasted from  674-678.

The city survived, and finally in 678 the Arabs were forced to raise the siege. The Arabs withdrew and were almost simultaneously defeated on land and sea in Lycia in Anatolia. This unexpected reverse forced the Arabs to seek a truce with Constantine. The terms of the concluded truce required them to evacuate the islands they had seized in the Aegean, and to pay an annual tribute to the Emperor consisting of fifty slaves, fifty horses, and 3,000 pounds of gold.

At the same time a Roman army in the  Exarchate of Carthage North Africa was battling against invading Muslim Arabs.

With the Arab forces totally defeated at Constantinople and Lycia the Emperor could turn his attentions to the invading Bulgars.


The Bulgar Khan Asparuh
Founder of the Bulgarian Empire

For centuries Roman Balkans had been either under attack or overrun by and endless stream of Asian tribes.  Now it was the turn of the Bulgars.

The Khan Asparuh parted ways with the tribes to the north in order to seek a secure home on Roman Balkan territory. He was followed by 30,000 to 50,000 Bulgars.

He reached the Danube while the Byzantine capital Constantinople was besieged by Muawiyah I, Caliph of the Arabs.  He and his people settled in the Danube delta, probably on the now disappeared Peuce Island.

After the Arab siege of Constantinople ended,  Constantine IV gathered available troops and marched against the Bulgars and their Slav allies in 680.  His attack forced his opponents to seek shelter in a fortified encampment.

Again the Romans faced another pagan invasion that threatened their security.


Roman Empire military districts and force deployment in 668AD.  The Empire had to defend North Africa, Italy the Balkans and Asia Minor.
Click graphic to enlarge.

Opposing Forces

The early Bulgars were a warlike people and war was part of their everyday life, with every adult Bulgar obliged to fight. The early Bulgars were exclusively horsemen: in their culture, the horse was considered a sacred animal and received special care.

The permanent army consisted of the khan's guard of select warriors, while the campaign army consisted practically of the entire nation, assembled by clans. In the field, the army was divided into right and left wings.

During the first decades after the foundation of the country, the army consisted of a Bulgar cavalry and a Slavic infantry. The core of the Bulgarian army was the heavy cavalry, which consisted of 12,000–30,000 heavily armed riders.

The Bulgars were well versed in the use of stratagems. They often held a strong cavalry unit in reserve, which would attack the enemy at an opportune moment. They also sometimes concentrated their free horses behind their battle formation to avoid surprise attacks from the rear.

Eastern Roman Cavalry
They used ambushes and feigned retreats, during which they rode with their backs to the horse, firing clouds of arrows on the enemy. If the enemy pursued disorganized, they would turn back and fiercely attack them. According to contemporary historians, the Bulgars "could see in the dark like bats" and often fought at night.

The army had iron discipline, with the officers vigorously checking if everything was ready before a battle. For a horse that was undernourished or not properly taken care of, the punishment was death. The soldiers were under threat of a death penalty when having a loose bow-string or an unmaintained sword; or even if riding a war horse in peacetime

The infantry of the newly formed state was composed mainly of Slavs, who were generally lightly armed soldiers, although their chieftains usually had small cavalry retinues.

The Slavic footmen were equipped with swords, spears, bows and wooden or leather shields. However, they were less disciplined and less effective than the Bulgar cavalry.

The Romans   A direct descendant of the Roman army, the Byzantine army maintained a similar level of discipline, strategic prowess and organization.  Over time the cavalry arm became more prominent as the legion system disappeared in the early 7th century.

The official language of the army for centuries continued to be Latin but this would eventually give way to Greek as in the rest of the Empire, though Latin military terminology would still be used throughout its history.

Tactics, organization and equipment had been largely modified to deal with the Persians. The Romans adopted elaborate defensive armor from Persia, coats of mail, cuirasses, casques and greaves of steel for tagma of elite heavy cavalrymen called cataphracts, who were armed with bow and arrows as well as sword and lance.

Large numbers of light infantry were equipped with the bow, to support the heavy infantry known as scutarii (shield men) or skutatoi. These wore a steel helmet and a coat of mail, and carried a spear, axe and dagger. They generally held the center of a Roman line of battle. Infantry armed with javelins were used for operations in mountain regions.


The Battle of Ongal was east of Preslavets in the Danube River Delta.
Red arrows show the Bulgar attacks to the south and the blue
arrows the Byzantine land and sea movement to the Danube.

The Battle of Ongal

The Kahn Asparukh had marched westward and settled with his folk in the Ongal area to the north of the Danube.  From there he launched attacks against the Byzantine fortresses to the south. During that time Byzantium was at war with the Arabs who were besieging the capital Constantinople.

In 680, after the defeat of the Arabs, Constantine IV led a combined land and sea operation against the invaders and besieged their fortified camp in the Danube River Delta.

As usual little information is available on this all important campaign that resulted in the creation of the Bulgarian Empire.

Numbers of the troops involved are basically made up.  One historian claims that Constantine marched north with 85,000 troops to face 40,000 Bulgars. 

The number of Romans is absurd.  The Byzantine historian Treadgold says the entire strength of the Roman Army at this point was 109,000 men under arms.  The Byzantines never fielded forces this large in one place.
Bulgar Warrior
(worldhistoria.com)


If you look at the force deployment chart above the Romans had some 40,000 troops stationed in the general Constantinople area and another 20,000 in the Theme of Thrace. 

With the Emperor at the head of the army we can assume a larger than normal force was gathered.  An army of perhaps 30,000 or more might be reasonable.

If 30,000 set out on campaign several thousand would never have made it to the battlefield.  They would have been detached from the main army to protect supply lines back to Constantinople, occupy fortified points in the rear or to protect communications to the Byzantine navy off the coast.

The Bulgarians moved into Roman territory with 30,000 to 50,000 people including women and children.  The male fighting force would be much smaller at perhaps 15,000

The Bulgarian leader made an alliance with the Seven Slavic tribes for mutual protection against Byzantine attacks and formed a federation.  So Slavic allies could have added to that total, but no information is available.

A Roman fleet sailed up the coast along side of the Emperor's army.  The Bulgars did not have a navy to fight so we can assume that the ships transported supplies and perhaps reinforcements.  There is no record of the navy participating in the battle in a meaningful way.

The Bulgars knew the Romans were coming for them.  They built wooden ramparts in a swampy area near the Peuce Island in the Danube River Delta.

Emperor Constantine was over confident after his defeat of the Arabs.  He sent his forces to attack the Bulgars on ground of their choosing, not his choosing.

The marshes and river delta would have prevented larger numbers of Romans from gathering in one location in defense or attack. The Byzantines were forced to attack from different places and in smaller groups which reduced the strength of their attack. With sudden strikes from the ramparts, the well-organized defense eventually forced the Byzantines to retreat, and the retreat developed into a stampede.

The Bulgar cavalry came out and charged the enemy who retreated chaotically. Most of the Byzantine soldiers were killed.

According to popular belief, the emperor had leg pain and went to Nessebar down the coast to seek treatment. The troops thought that he fled the battlefield and in turn began fleeing. When the Bulgars realized what was happening, they attacked and defeated their discouraged enemy.  Accounts say that virtually the entire Roman army was destroyed.


The Danube River Delta
The Roman Emperor Constantine made a mistake of fighting on ground of the Bulgars choosing.  Wet, slushy conditions, lots of river channels and trees to block your view of enemy forces is not ideal for any attacker.  These conditions prevented different Roman units from easily supporting each other in battle. 

Historical Speculation

Again, there is maddeningly little hard information for historians.  But the "official" account of the battle, such as it is, does not ring true.

There should not have been all that many Buglar troops inside a slapped together wooden swap fort.  Sure the Bulgars may have made a few ferocious attacks from the fort at the Byzantines.  But the idea that the limited forces inside the fort would destroy a larger attacking Roman army is not believable.

What is more likely is substantial units of Bulgar cavalry, infantry and Slavic allies were operating outside the fort.  The fort acted as bait to draw the Romans into battle.  The wet delta river system would have made a Roman attack much harder and also split up their forces on to different islands and riverbanks so they were unable to support each other.
Emperor Constantine IV

The Bulgars may have been attacking Roman regiments isolated from each other by the delta.  They may also have been working their way around to attack the flanks and/or the rear of the main Roman army working on the fort.

The Emperor leaves.  The story is the Emperor suddenly decided in the middle of a campaign that he had "leg pain" and needed treatment far away from the battlefield.

This is pure press release political bull if you ask me.

More likely is that Constantine's generals came to him with reports that a number of his units out in the delta were being overrun by Bulgarian forces and that his army was in danger of being flanked or surrounded. 

Political, not military considerations, would have caused the relocation of the head-of-state to prevent his capture or death by an invading enemy.

The Emperor would not have left by himself.  He would have taken with him his staff and a large bodyguard of troops for protection.  Troops that would have been vital to strengthen Roman defenses.

It is reasonable to assume that with the battle already going badly the flight of the Emperor added to the panic of the troops causing a total collapse and the Bulgarian victory.

 
Battle of Ongal
Screen shots of the battle in a Bulgarian language YouTube video.  The movie clip
is pretty good showing the wooden defensive walls and the Byzantine
attackers.  The wet, delta conditions were not really addresses.
Link Battle of Ongal
 

Aftermath

After the victory, the Bulgars advanced south and seized the lands to the north of Stara Planina. In 681 they invaded Thrace defeating the Byzantines again. Constantine IV found himself in a dead-lock and asked for peace. With the treaty of 681 the Byzantines recognized the creation of the new Bulgarian state and were obliged to pay annual tribute to the Bulgarian rulers.

The Romans were greatly humiliated.  The empire had recently defeated the Sassanid Persians and the Ummayad Arabs.  Now they in turn had been decisively beaten by an invading tribe from Asia.

This battle was a significant moment in European history, as it led to the creation of a powerful state, which was to become a European superpower in the 9th and 10th century along with the Byzantine and Frankish Empires. It became a cultural and spiritual centre of Slavic Europe through most of the Middle Ages.


The foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire. The army
of Asparukh is in red. The army of Constantine IV is in blue.

The new Bulgarian Empire after the Battle of Ongal.


(Medieval Bulgarian Army)      (militaryhistoryonline)      (theapricity.com)

(Bulgars)      (Asparuh)     (Ongal)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Roman and Byzantine Egypt - "Bread Basket" of the Empire

 
Pompey's Pillar, the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria.

700 Years of Roman Rule in Egypt
Egypt was the "Bread Basket" of the Empire for centuries.


The Coming of Rome

An independent Egypt came to an end with the coming together of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Octavian.

After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony's alliance with Cleopatra angered the Roman elite.  Octavian declared war on the "Foreign Queen" of Egypt. Off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in at Actium, where the forces of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated the Navy of Cleopatra and Antony.  Octavian then arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony.

In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra VII, the Roman Empire declared that Egypt was now a province (Aegyptus), and that it was to be governed by a prefect selected by the Emperor from the Equestrian and not a governor from the Senatorial order, to prevent interference by the Roman Senate.

A statue of Augustus as a younger
Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC

The main Roman interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government, although Romans replaced Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the administrative offices and Greek remained the language of government except at the highest levels. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers.

Culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced.

Roman Government in Egypt

The effect of the Roman conquest was at first to strengthen the position of the Greeks and of Hellenism against Egyptian influences. Some of the previous offices and names of offices under the Hellenistic Ptolemaic rule were kept, some were changed.

The Romans introduced important changes in the administrative system, aimed at achieving a high level of efficiency and maximizing revenue. The duties of the prefect of Egypt combined responsibility for military security through command of the legions and cohorts, for the organization of finance and taxation, and for the administration of justice.

The economic resources that this imperial government existed to exploit had not changed since the Ptolemaic period, but the development of a much more complex and sophisticated taxation system was a hallmark of Roman rule. Taxes in both cash and kind were assessed on land, and a bewildering variety of small taxes in cash, as well as customs dues and the like, was collected by appointed officials.
Portrait of a Boy
Roman period, 2nd century
Egyptian
Met Museum.org

A massive amount of Egypt's grain was shipped downriver both to feed the population of Alexandria and for export to the Roman Capitol.

This wealthiest of provinces could be held militarily by a very small force; and the threat implicit in an embargo on the export of grain supplies, vital to the provisioning of the city of Rome and its populace, was obvious. Internal security was guaranteed by the presence of three Roman legions (later reduced to two), each about 6,000 strong, and several cohorts of auxiliaries.

The social structure in Egypt under the Romans was both unique and complicated. On the one hand, the Romans continued to use many of the same organizational tactics that were in place under the Ptolemies. At the same time, the Romans saw the Greeks in Egypt as “Egyptians”, an idea that both the native Egyptians and Greeks would have rejected.

To further compound the whole situation, Jews, who themselves were very Hellenized overall, had their own communities, separate from both Greeks and native Egyptians.

The Romans began a system of social hierarchy that revolved around ethnicity and place of residence. Other than Roman citizens, a Greek citizen of one of the Greek cities had the highest status, and a rural Egyptian would be in the lowest class. In between those classes was the metropolite, who was almost certainly of Hellenic origin.

Gaining citizenship and moving up in ranks was very difficult and there were not many available options for ascendancy.


Romanized Egyptians
The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.
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 Mummification was performed on ordinary people but the work was shoddy compared to what was done for pharaohs and noblemen in Pharonic times. The mummification process was done in 40 days instead of 70, there were no canopic jars for organs, and many mummies were buried with coffins or sarcophagi.
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 The mummies had Roman hairstyles and held Greek or Roman coins used to bribe the ferryman in the other world the but the iconography on the masks and painted deities that showed the way to the afterlife were clearly Egyptian.
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The practice of mummification began to disappear around the A.D. 4th century when Christianity began to flourish.
See more at Factsanddetails.com 



Christianity in Egypt

Little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt.

The ancient religion of Egypt put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity. Possibly its long history of collaboration with the Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt had robbed its religious leaders of authority. Alternatively, the life-affirming native religion may have begun to lose its appeal among the lower classes as a burden of taxation and liturgic services instituted by the Roman emperors reduced the quality of life.

By 200 it is clear that Alexandria was one of the great Christian centers.

Over the course of the 5th century, paganism was suppressed and lost its following, as the poet Palladius bitterly noted. It lingered underground for many decades: the final edict against paganism was issued in 435, but graffiti at Philae in Upper Egypt proves worship of Isis persisted at its temples into the 6th century.

Many Egyptian Jews also became Christians, but many others refused to do so, leaving them as the only sizable religious minority in a Christian country.

Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.  Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world.


In 395 AD the Roman Empire is forever divided into two nations
under two Emperors, two Senates and two armies and two navies.

Egypt is fully under the control of Constantinople from this point. 


Egypt Under The Eastern Empire

The reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337) saw the founding of Constantinople as a new capital for the Roman Empire.

Slowly economic and military power began to shift to the new eastern capital.  Then on January 17, 395 Theodosius I (r. 379-95), the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire died.  The day before on January 16th, Emperor Theodosius commanded Roman troops stationed from Mesopotamia to Morocco to England to Bulgaria.  But at some point on the 17th a sole commander-in-chief of the Roman military and bureaucratic civilian machine died.
Arcadius
Emperor of the Roman Empire
(395 to 408) First of many
eastern emperors ruling Egypt.

The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale).

From 395 on Egypt was ruled from Constantinople.  Its taxes and gain shipments increasingly provided wealth and power to the Eastern Roman Empire.
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Latin, never well established in Egypt, would play a declining role with Greek continuing to be the dominant language of government and scholarship. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Eastern Roman Empire gradually transformed itself into a thoroughly Christian state whose culture differed significantly from its pagan past.

The fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century further isolated the Egyptian Romans from Rome's culture and hastened the growth of Christianity. The triumph of Christianity led to a virtual abandonment of pharaonic traditions: with the disappearance of the Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples, no-one could read the hieroglyphs of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert.

The old Græco-Roman world faded. The Greek system of local government by citizens had now entirely disappeared. Offices, with new Byzantine names, were almost hereditary in the wealthy land-owning families. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, continued to be a center of religious controversy and violence.

Egypt nevertheless continued to be an important economic center for the Empire supplying much of its agriculture and manufacturing needs as well as continuing to be an important center of scholarship. It would supply the needs of Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean as a whole.

The reign of Justinian (482–565) saw the Empire recapture Rome and much of Italy from the barbarians, but these successes left the empire's eastern flank exposed. The Empire's "bread basket" now lacked for protection.

Byzantine-era gold coins found in Luxor
Twenty-nine gold coins discovered in Draa Abul Naga on Luxor's west bank.  During a routine excavation carried out inside a tomb at an ancient Egyptian necropolis in the Deir Beikhit area of Draa Abul Naga, German excavators unearthed the collection of golden coins.
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Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the coins were found wrapped in linen inside a hole found on one of the tomb's decorative columns.
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Early studies, he went on, reveal the coins date from the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
(english.ahram.org)

The Persian Conquest of Egypt
In a three year long struggle with Roman forces the
armies of Persia conquered Egypt.

The Persian Invasion of Egypt (617 or 618 AD)

The Roman–Sasanian War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Persia.

The previous war between the two powers had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice helped the Sasanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602 Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrau proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of Maurice.

This became a decades-long conflict and the longest war in the series and was fought throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe.

The Romans were being pressed on multiple fronts at the same time.  The Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkans.  The Persian armies defeated the Roman forces conquering Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, much of Anatolia, the Levant and finally Egypt itself.
Sassanid Persian Cavalry
Radpour.com

The lowest point came in 626 when the Avar and Persians laid siege to Constantinople itself.  The Roman Empire almost ceased to exist.

Also see our article The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army.

EGYPT  -  With the empire in almost total collapse the Persian armies invaded Egypt in either 617 or 618 AD.

Invasion was something Egypt had not seen sense the days of Caesar and Octavian over 600 years before.  Egypt was used to being the bread basket of the Empire, not being on the front lines of war.

Little is known about the particulars of this campaign, since the province was practically cut off from the remaining Roman territories and records are few.

We can suspect that the Emperor pulled as many troops and ships out of Egypt as possible in order to reinforce other parts of the empire.

On the other hand, we do know that the conquest was completed in 621.  For the war in this province to last for 3 or 4 years implies that there was some level of resistance to the Persians from Roman forces, the local population or both.

The Persian army headed for Alexandria.  There Nicetas, Heraclius' cousin and local governor, withstood year-long siege.   Resistance in Alexandria collapsed, supposedly after a traitor told the Persians of an unused canal, allowing them to storm the city.

The fact that the siege lasted for a year tells us that there were enough Roman troops on hand to successfully resist the Persians.

Records say Nicetas fled to Cyprus along with Patriarch John the Almsgiver, who was a major supporter of Nicetas in Egypt. The fate of Nicetas is unclear, since he disappears from records after this, but the Emperor Heraclius was presumably deprived of a trusted commander.

The loss of Egypt was a severe blow to the Roman Empire, as Constantinople relied on grain shipments from fertile Egypt to feed the multitudes in the capital. The free grain ration in Constantinople, which echoed the earlier grain dole in Rome, was abolished in 618

After the fall of Alexandria, the Persians gradually extended their rule southwards along the Nile. Sporadic resistance required some mopping-up operations, but by 621, the province was securely in Persian hands.

Egypt would remain in Persian hands for 10 years, run by general Shahrbaraz from Alexandria. As the new Roman Emperor Heraclius reversed the tide and defeated Khosrau, Shahrbaraz was ordered to evacuate the province, but refused. In the end, Heraclius, trying both to recover Egypt and to sow disunion amongst the Persians, offered to help Shahrbaraz seize the Persian throne for himself.

An agreement was reached, and in the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt.


The Diocese of Egypt c. 400 AD
Egypt under the Eastern Roman Empire.  The capital of the province was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis. The diocese was initially part of the Diocese of the East, but in ca. 380, it became a separate entity, which lasted until its territories were finally overrun by the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 640s.

Islam and the End of Roman Rule

In 629 AD the Persians withdrew from their ten year control of Egypt.

While there would have been joy that a Christian army was replacing the pagan Persian government, that was tempered by religious bigotry between Greeks and Egyptian Copts.  The Greeks held to Chalcedonian Christianity and the Egyptian Christians held the position of Miaphysitism.

The growing conflict between Christian sects would undermine Byzantine rule in Egypt.  Freedom of religion did not exist as we know it.  Many Copts may have looked at the 10 years of Persian rule as a golden age where they could worship as they pleased without edicts from Constantinople telling them what to do. 

With the Persians gone Egypt was again governed by the East Roman civil service and military, both of which were filled by the Greek-speaking ruling class to the general exclusion of the native Coptic-speaking Egyptians. Locally, the Romans ruled Egypt from the capital of Alexandria, and from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, with its great bulwark, the fortress of Babylon, on the eastern bank of the Nile. A chain of fortress towns ran across the country from which the Romans kept order and collected taxes.

Mailed Arab Archer

Peace would not last long.  Only ten years after the Persians left came a new invader - Arab Muslims.

In December 639 some 4,000 Muslim Arabs made a march to the border of Egypt.  The Muslim invasion had begun.

From 629 AD to 637 these new invaders of Egypt had just engaged in a series of major battles in Syria and Palaestina against the Romans.  The major cities of the Middle East fell one by one to Islam.

Now the Muslim armies targeted a Christian Egypt still recovering from war and occupation by Persia.

How many Roman troops were garrisoned in Egypt is an open question without an answer.  The massive campaigns in greater Syria may have drawn off a number of the troops in Egypt.  Certainly with the Romans hard pressed in Syria there were not a lot of reinforcements available to sent to Africa.

The Romans resisted the invasion in open battle and in fortified cities with no success.

Cyrus of Alexandria entered into a treaty with the Muslims. By the treaty, Muslim sovereignty over the whole of Egypt, and effectively in the province of Thebaid, was recognized, and the Egyptians agreed to pay Jizya at the rate of 2 diners per male adult. The treaty was subject to the approval of the emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus stipulated that even if the emperor repudiated the treaty, he and the Copts of whom he was the High Priest would honor its terms, recognize the supremacy of the Muslims and pay them Jizya

Though some Copts from personal considerations continued to support the Byzantines, the sympathies of the Copts were now by and large with the Muslims. The Copts were not supposed to fight against the Byzantines on behalf of the Muslims, but they undertook to help the Muslims in the promotion of war effort and in the provision of stores, build roads and bridges for them, and provide them moral support.

Conquest of Alexandria and fall of Egypt

The Muslims laid siege to Alexandria in March 641 AD. The city was heavily fortified: there were walls within walls, and forts within forts. There was no dearth of provisions and food supply in the city. The city also had direct access to the sea, and through the sea route help from Constantinople in the form of men and supplies could come at any time.

The Byzantines had high stakes in Alexandria, and they were determined to offer stiff resistance to the Muslims. They mounted catapults on the walls of the city, and these engines pounded the Muslims with boulders. This caused considerable damage to the Muslims who pulled back beyond the range of the missiles. A see-saw war followed. When the Muslims tried to go close to the city they were hit with missiles. When the Byzantines sallied from the fort, they were invariably beaten back by the Muslims.

It is said that Emperor Heraclius collected a large army at Constantinople. He intended to march at the head of these reinforcements personally to Alexandria. But before he could finalize the arrangements, he died. The troops mustered at Constantinople dispersed, and consequently no help came to Alexandria.

In September, 641 an assault was successful and Alexandria was captured by the Muslims.  Thousands of Byzantine soldiers were killed or taken captive while others managed to flee to Constantinople on ships that had been anchored in the port.

Eastern Roman Troops

Byzantine Counterattack

There were several Byzantine attempts to retake Alexandria. Though none of these were successful for a sustained period of time, Byzantine forces were able to briefly regain control of the city in 645.

Arab chroniclers tell of a massive fleet and army sent by the Byzantines with the goal of retaking Alexandria. The imperial forces were led by a lower ranking imperial official named Manuel. After entering the city without facing much resistance, the Byzantines were able to regain control of both Alexandria and the surrounding Egyptian countryside.

The Muslims retaliated by readying a large force of 15,000 who promptly set out to retake the city under command of the veteran Amr ibn Al-Asi. The Byzantines, following their standard tactical doctrine, advanced out of the city and sought an open battle away from the shelter of their fortifications. Accounts of the battle portray the Muslim forces as relying heavily on their archers before eventually assaulting the Byzantine positions, driving many back and routing the rest in the process. After this, the Byzantines were utterly defeated and withdrew from the region.

In 654, yet another attempt to bring Alexandria back into imperial hands failed when an invasion force sent by Constans II was repulsed.

This marks the end of Byzantine attempts to retake the city.  The permanent loss of Egypt meant a loss of a huge amount of Byzantium's food and money. 

But more important, some 1,000 years of Greek and Roman rule over Egypt had finally ended.


The Arab invasion of Egypt




(Ptolemaic Egypt)      (Roman diocese)      (Diocese of Egypt)

(Egypt Roman province)      (Sassanid conquest)      (Sassanid War)

(Muslim conquest)      (countrystudies)