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, July 1, 2016

Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact

19th century photo of an Arab warrior. The Arabs invading the
Roman Empire might have looked much like this warrior.

Battle for the Middle East, Part I
Violent Islam roars in 
from the desert

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

For 26 years the Roman and Persian Empires had been in the death grip war of all death grip wars.  The 700 years of war between the empires came down to this one life and death conflict.  Only one empire would survive the encounter.

The Roman Empire nearly ceased to exist. The Persians conquered massive territories in the east, south and in Africa. Meanwhile the Avars and Slavs overran the Balkans and with the help of the Persians laid siege to Constantinople itself in 626.

Things were so bad that the Emperor Heracilus considered abandoning Constantinople and moving the capital to Carthage in Africa. The Patriarch Sergius convinced the Emperor to stay and put the wealth of the church at the service of the state to finance the wars.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610. Latin was still the official
language of the military and government. The Emperor
faced invasions by Persians, Avars and Muslim Arabs.

The Persian Empire in 621 AD.
The Persians nearly destroyed the Roman Empire by conquering large parts of Anatolia up to Constantinople itself as well as taking Syria, Mesopotamia, Georgia, Palestine and Egypt. Though Persia was finally defeated, the weakened Roman state became an easier target for the coming Muslim Arab invasions.

With financing from the church, Emperor Heracilus raised additional armies and hired Khazar Turk allies to invade Persia with him.

By 628 the Persian Empire had been totally crushed, Shah Khosrow II was murdered by his own son and the Persian armies were withdrawn from Egypt, Syria and other Roman provinces.

There may have finally been "peace" between Rome and Persia, but it was a disastrous peace.  The Persians sank into dynastic anarchy while the Romans were financially, militarily and politically exhausted.

The two great empires of the world were at their weakest point at just the moment a militant and militaristic Islam appeared.

Islam Appears

The 620s saw the birth of Islam deep in Arabia.  General Mohammad, or prophet if you like, was simultaneously a military commander, ruler and prophet. The emotional appeal of religion was combined with terrorist methods and assassinations to clear the way for gathering territory for the faith.

As the battles of General Mohammad progressed the base of Arabia was secured for Islam and Muslim eyes started to look north to the Roman Empire for expansion.

In the year 628 Mohammad dispatched messages to the Shah of Persia, the Roman Emperor, the Governor of Egypt and the Prince of Abyssinia asking them to accept Islam.

The Shah was said to have torn up the message with contempt. Emperor Heracilus accepted his letter and simply inquired who the author was. The Governor of Egypt excused himself from changing religions, but sent as gifts a horse, a mule, a riding ass and two Egyptian girls. If the Prince of Abyssinia got the message at all there is no record of a reply.

Heracilus gave orders that he wanted to interview a traveler from the area. One Abu Sofian was brought to Jerusalem and asked about the "disturbances" in Arabia.  Sofian told the Emperor that the followers of Mohammad consisted of the poorer classes and of adolescent youth. All men of substance opposed him.

The Emperor gathered intel, but did not act. The internal goings on among poor desert tribes did not require much attention.

19th century photo of Arab warriors

The Battle of Mota (Mu'tah)
3,000 Arabs vs 10,000 Romans

In 629 a number of minor raids and expeditions were sent out from Arabia.  Some were defeated and others returned with booty.

In September, 629 a more important expedition was organized. Tradition says the raid was to punish a chief of Rome's ally the Arab Ghassanid tribe for killing Muslim emissaries in the area. Revenge rather than conquest appears to be the motive.

A Muslim camp was formed a few miles north of Medina where volunteers were instructed to assemble.  Zeid ibn Haritha, the adopted son of Mohammad, was given command. He set out with 3,000 men marching to what is today southern Jordan. It was the first Muslim raid of this size going far from Arabia.

Muslim commanders still relied on religious spirit rather than military skill and had neglected to send out spies to scout the land they were invading.
Eastern Roman Soldier

It was not until they reached Maan that they found out there was a large force of Romans gathered to meet them. A halt was called and the Muslim leaders spent two days arguing whether to advance or retreat. The deciding voice came from an early convert who demanded "Victory or martyrdom and paradise." The order was given to advance.

The Muslim army move north with the rocky hills of Moab on their left. When they crossed the lower foothills of the mountains the Muslims suddenly found themselves in the presence of a Roman army several times larger that their own, perhaps about 10,000 men.

A majority of the Roman force appears to have been made up of Christian Arab allies of the Empire. Some proportion of the army (how much?) was reinforced by regular Roman troops, perhaps from a local garrison.

It is likely that the Roman commander was Theodore, the brother or half brother of the Emperor. Theodore had extensive experience as a Kouropalates and leading general in the Persian wars. An army this large would have required a senior office such as Theodore.

There is a small plain near the village of Mota. It was decided to give battle there.

Zeid ibn Haritha seized the white banner given to him by Mohammad.  He then a wild charge of his men into Roman ranks until he fell transfixed by their spears. Another Muslim grabbed the banner from the dying Zeid, raised it aloft and cried "Paradise! Paradise!" until he was killed by a Roman soldier.

Fighting in the ranks new Muslim convert Khalid ibn al-Walid came to the rescue at this point.  Perhaps a little less anxious for Paradise, he assumed control. The white banner was planted in the ground and the disorganized, battered Muslims gathered to that point. Under Khalid's leadership they retired methodically from the battlefield.

Khalid continued to engage the Romans in skirmishes, but he avoided a pitched battle. One night Khalid completely changed his troop positions. The rearguard was given new banners to give the impression that reinforcements had arrived from Medina.

On another night he had his cavalry retreat behind a hill hiding their movements. He then had the cavalry return during the day when the battle resumed raising as much dust as possible to give the impression of fresh troops arriving.

Information on the battle is minimal. Still we can read between the lines. The Arabs were mauled, but retreated in an orderly manner. On the other side, the Romans did not just call it a day and go home. They continued aggressive contact with the Muslims over several days.

Casualties are unknown, but this first contact was a solid Roman victory.


When the defeated Muslims approached Medina, Mohammad and the people went out to meet them. The citizens began to throw dirt on the defeated soldiers crying, "You runaways, you fled in the way of God."  Mohammad said they were not runaways but could fight again for the cause.

In spite of the disaster at Mota, throughout the rest of 629 many Bedouin tribes sent deputations to Mohammad seeking friendship and alliance.

Mohammad sent a force to the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris
to punish the Christian Arabs who killed Muslim emissaries.

Bedouin, Warriors 1890s

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC
As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's book is the Holy Grail on the 
Arab invasions. Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read original
documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion
and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and
Muslims fought over.

(John Bagot Glubb)      (Bagot-Glubb)      (Ghassanids)      (Mutah)

(Byzantine-Sasanian War)


Anonymous said...

Very nice material you put on this subject.
History is randon ignored , but even some curious fellow must ask himself why after 1400 years , or in the beginning of the XX century, for more acurate view on it , things look like they where beeing lived as in this first years of those clashes.
Very revealing of times we live by .
That idea of the first Caliphate is very appealing . Is very understandable why . Glorious times of conquest , bother not on the victims , as now .

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to remember why the Moslems were so successful.

They were fanatical and believed in what they were doing.
They came from one one type -the desert Arabs
They all spoke the same language

The 'Romans' were very unhappy with the Byzantine tax-gathers and the pole tax that came around every 7th year. People had to sell their children to pay this tax.
People were better of without the Byzantines. They paid less in tax and there was no conscription.
Most of the Roman army, as you stated, was made up of different tribal groups and not the same language

Anonymous said...

The war between Roman and Islamic empire was because a messenger sent to the Roman empire was killed which was a direct proof of declaration of War.
Heraclius hid from a direct confrontation when he confirmed that Mohammad (SAW) was a prophet of God.

He avoided a direct confrontation as he was sure of defeat. And defeat was shameful for the people who worshipped the rising Sun.
The first battle was the one in which prophet did not participate. The changing of charge in battle is very suspicious but charge was surely transfered on the death of the previous commander. Many deaths of muslims led their retreat. Then the prophet ordered a army to be created to balance the damage done to them. But the army was not complete in the prophet's earthly time. After that the battle was lost by the Romans, and because they decided to oppose the Islamic regime, their demise was certain whose descriptions are clear in history.

Whereas there can never be valid proof that people threw dirt at the prophet, this entire article looks bot-generated. Bot-generated articles are a new way to change history to falsify written documents. Mass publishment of such articles and the fact that they dont have any valid source supports this assumption. God knows better.
(Source The Holy Quran).

Gary said...

**** this entire article looks bot-generated. ****

Sorry buddy, I wrote it. Live with it.

Hutch Bailie jr. said...

I am going to use this piece on Cold War Radio in a weekly segment called Shaping our World - Islam the fall of Rome and a dire warning to us all. It will air live 8PM EDT 26 June http://www.spreaker.com/show/cold-war-radio if you would like a copy of the audio contact me scrtv@live.com

Hutch Bailie Jr.

Gary said...

Thank you. I was so burned out on endless WWII and Civil War films and books. Then I discovered the Byzantine military. At last fresh material that has not been retold 20,000 times.

Anonymous said...

What are the "terrorist methods" supposedly used by Muslims back then? How do they differ to methods used by other powers?

The article was good but that kind of language belies a certain bias and, for me, reduces the quality of an otherwise interesting article.

Gary said...

From Part III

"After an early victory in Persia the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period."

Yes I have a bias for telling the truth. If truth telling bothers you then you need to do more reading in the Fairy Tale section of the library.

This website is devoted to the history of the Eastern Roman military. I am not here to discuss the horrors done by Mongols, Germans or Aztecs.

Anonymous said...

Its necessary to be partial and forget truth when writing history for readers who are never going to find on own. This article is partial towards byzan...

Anonymous said...

There are some glaring inaccuracies here. First of all, the Prophet was informed that the Romans were going to attack and as his norm he would send an army to intercept. It was 3,000 vs 200,000 Romans of which half were Romans proper and the other one hundred thousand were Christian Arabs.

The three appointed commanders were Zayd ibn Haritha, Jafar ibn Abe Talib and finally Abdullah ibn Rawaha. These were the three the prophet appointed in concession should one of them fall. All of them fell and the Bedouin Arabs who held Khalid ibn Walid in high regards encouraged him to lead the battle and hold the banner of the Muslims.

As usual the enemies were dumbfounded by the fight at hand and had no choice but to draw to conclusion that the Muslims were in much greater number than they had previously thought. The tactics of Khalid were as described. He switched the forces around, washed the banners clean, held the cavalry at bay and used them to create dust etc which gave the impression new re-reinforcements came.

It was the Romans who retreated and the Khalid did not pursue them. The companions were ordered to fight to the last man. Had a retreat have been a choice, they would have done it much earlier. In the hadeeth commentaries it is mentioned that Jafar, the last of the original appointed three knew, he was going to die and read to himself poems to muster the courage to pick up the banner after Abdullah.

There were many such miracles during the battles of Mohamed, peace and blessings be upon him, and his companions.

Gary said...

Thank you for your thoughts.

My historical source is Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, KCB, CMG, DSO, OBE, MC. Commander of the Arab Legion. He spoke Arabic, read the old Muslim documents himself and as a general personally campaigned over the very ground where these events took place.

None of us were there. So in my case I go with Glubb and add my thoughts. Again, thank you.

Abu Abdullah said...

Thank for the response Gary. I appreciate it's very difficult to corroborate History. I am a recently practicing Muslim myself and just studied one of the biography books of the Prophet. There is such a vast intellectual tradition among the Muslims that is unknown to westerners. Even Muslims do not hold historical books (that lack narrations) in high regard. However, corroborated hadeeth collections that have historical information is an entirely different matter. The science of hadeeth remains unmatched till today, leaving the Muslims with pristine preserved narrations 1,400 years later. For example, with all due respect to Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot, only narrations with authenticated chains and an authentic text would be accepted as historical evidence/testimony. Fortunately there are many corpus collections that such narrations can be found. It's wonderful to have discovered your site and will try to contribute where I can.

Rexory said...

We can say Battle of Mu'tah was a draw.

Khalid retreated to lure the Byzantines and to prevent destruction (his army were only 3.000). But, the Byzantines didn't chase the Muslims because they knew this tactic was a trap. So, the Muslims just went back to Medina safely.

Source: Al-Bidayah wa An-Nihayah

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Anonymous said...

Funny thing how Christians always turned fact upside

Anonymous said...
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