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

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Zoroastrians and Christians vs Islam - The Amorium Campaign

Israeli reenactors doing the later Battle of Hattin. But you get a
flavor of the brutality of warfare in the period.  (theatlantic.com)

The Amorium Campaign (837-838 AD)
A two year campaign of a Roman invasion of Arab held Mesopotamia and a counter invasion by Arab Muslims

For 500 years the Eastern Roman heartland of Anatolia was ground zero for endless invasions by Arab Muslim forces and counter attacks by Roman troops.

The ancient Roman city and fortress of Amorium was one of many strong points looking to slow down or delay invaders to allow time for Constantinople to gather an army to repel enemy forces.

Amorium was founded in the Hellenistic period. It was situated on the Byzantine military road from Constantinople to CiliciaThe city was fortified by the Emperor Zeno in the 5th century, but did not rise to prominence until the 7th century. Its strategic location in central Asia Minor made the city a vital stronghold against the armies of the Arab Caliphate following the Muslim conquest of the Levant.

The city was first attacked by Muʿāwiya in 646. It capitulated to ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn Khalid in 666 and was occupied by Yazid I in 669, then retaken by Constans II's general Andreas. Over the next two centuries, it remained a frequent target of Muslim raids into Asia Minor, especially during the great sieges of 716 and 796. It became capital of the thema of Anatolikon soon after. 

In 742-743, it was the main base of Emperor Constantine V against the usurper Artabasdos, and in 820, an Amorian, Michael II, ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing the Amorian dynasty. This began the period of the city's greatest prosperity, when it became the largest city in Asia Minor. Its status however as the native city of the reigning dynasty also spelled its doom: in 838, the Caliph Al-Mu'tasim launched a campaign specifically against the city.

Roman Emperor Theophilos

Babak Khorramdin
Babak was the leader of the Zoroastrians revolting against oppressive 
Muslim rule. They became allies with Constantinople against Islam.
He was captured and tortured to death by the Muslims.

The Faravahar symbol of Zoroastrianism
and ancient Persia.

A Zoroastrian - Christian Alliance

The warfare between the Eastern Romans, Persian Zoroastrians and Islam had been non-stop for 200 years by this point.

In 827 AD, two years before Emperor Theophilos took power, the Muslims had landed in Roman Sicily looking to conquer Italy.  The Emperor was searching in any direction he could for allies to help take the pressure off front line Byzantine forces in Italy or on other fronts.

The Zoroastrian Khurramites in the Mesopotamia area had been in rebellion against their oppressive Muslim overlords since 816.  Under their leader Babak, the Khurramites broke up the great Muslim estates and redistributed the land back to the Zoroastrian people.

With Roman support the Khurramites had attacked Arab forces in Persia and Mesopotamia, and they defeated four different Muslim armies sent against them by the Caliph.

The Muslim attempts to suppress the rebellion sent 14,000 or more Khurramite refugees into Roman territory.  Their leader Nasr was baptized a Christian and took the new name of Theophobos.  Many of the Khurramites were enrolled in the Byzantine army under their leader.

Click to enlarge
Map of the Byzantine and Arab campaigns in the years 837–838,
showing Theophilos's raid into Upper Mesopotamia and Mu'tasim's
retaliatory invasion of Asia Minor (Anatolia), culminating in
the conquest of Amorium.

Roman Invasion of Mesopotamia

At the urging of a hard-pressed Babak, the Emperor gathered a large army to strike the lightly protected Muslim frontier emirates.

As usual sources from that period claim the Emperor assembled a massive army of 70,000 to 100,000 men for the invasion.  Pure fantasy as usual.  The historian Warren Treadgold places the entire strength of the Eastern Roman army on all fronts at between 80,000 and 100,000 men.

Follis minted in large quantities in
celebration of Theophilos's victories
against the Arabs. He is represented in
triumphal attire, wearing the 
and on the reverse the traditional
acclamation "Theophilos 
you conquer".
Still with the Emperor himself at the head of an army invading Muslim territory the force would have been above average.  Using troops from Constantinople as the core, and picking up theme troops along the way, the army might have grown to 20,000 to 25,000.

In any case, the Emperor's army invaded the upper Euphrates almost unopposed.  With the Arab forces busy attacking the Khurramites the Romans took the towns of Sozopetra and Arsamosata.  The Romans ravaged and plundered the countryside and extracted ransom from several cities in exchange for not attacking them.  Several small Arab forces were defeated.

Emperor Theophilos then returned to Constantinople, gave himself a triumph and acclaimed himself an "incomparable champion" at the Hippodrome.

A true victory it was not. This was pure ego and political theater for the people back home.

While the Emperor was having his "triumph" his allies the Khurramites were being crushed by the Muslims. In late 837 the Khurramites were forced from their mountain stronghold by General Afshin. Babak fled to Armenia, but he was betrayed to the Muslims and was tortured to death.

So much for the Emperor's "victory".

Israeli reenactors as Arabs doing a later battle but it
gives you the flavor of the time period.  (theatlantic.com)

The Muslim Counter Invasion

The Caliph al-Mu'tasim claimed to be outraged by the brutality of the Roman invasion (as if Arab invasions were polite affairs). It appears during the sack of Sozopetra, the possible birthplace of the Caliph, all male prisoners were killed or sold into slavery and many women were raped by Khurramites.

With the Khurramites eliminated the Caliph targeted the Roman city of Amorium, the capital of the powerful Anatolic Theme deep in Anatolia. Another reason for targeting the city is it was the birthplace of Michael II, the Emperor's father and founder of the dynasty.

This was a very, very serious objective for the Arabs. Far from the frontier, the Anatolic Theme was the largest and most powerful of the themes. Later Arab historians say the theme contained 34 fortresses and could field 15,000 troops at need.

Byzantine historian Michael the Syrian says the Arabs gathered an army of 80,000 men and 30,000 camp followers and servants. As usual the numbers are fantasy. But this was a major campaign of revenge. An invading army of 40,000 Arabs might not be far off.

Marking his target, the Caliph had the city of Amorium placed on the shields and banners of his troops.

The Caliph divided his force into two parts.

First Corps - A detachment of 10,000 Turks under General Afshin were sent to the northeast to join forces with Muslim and Armenian troops. Together this force would invade the neighboring Charsianon and Armeniac Themes through the Pass of Hadath. It was claimed that once the forces were joined this army reached 30,000 men.  Too high a number? Perhaps.

Second Corps - The Caliph with the main army of perhaps 30,000 men would invade Cappadocia through the Cilician Gates and on into central Anatolia.
Byzantine reenactor

Upon hearing of the Arab invasion the Emperor gathered the Tagmata from Constantinople and in June marched to the frontier. His army included Khurramite troops and perhaps some soldiers from European themes.

Michael the Syrian claimed the Byzantine army marching east was 40,000 men. Too many in my view. Even if the Emperor added units to his army from Anatolia I doubt if his army was more than the 20,000 to 25,000 based on his previous invasion of Mesopotamia.

The Emperor's generals advised the evacuation of the city of Amorium in order to deprive the Caliph of his prime target. But the Emperor did not want to give up on a major city and military strong point. So he ordered Aetios, the Strategos of the Anatolics theme, to reinforce the city. In addition the Emperor added to that force with men from his army: men from the Tagmata of the Excubitors and the Vigla.

The Emperor then marched with the remainder of his force to the river Halys and positioned himself between the Cilician Gates and the fortress of Ancyra.

On June 19 the first corps of the Arab army under Ashinas passed through the Cilician Gates with the Caliph's second corps following two days later.

In mid-July Emperor Theophilos learned of the arrival of Arab army at Dazimon far to the northeast.

The Emperor divided his army a second time. He left part of his army at the river with a family member and took the rest on a march to Dazimon.

The Emperor moved fast and attacked the Arabs in the Battle of Anzen on July 22. He outnumbered his Arab enemy. That in itself shows the true size of the armies involved on both sides. If after twice detaching troops from his own army the Emperor still outnumbered the Arabs then the historians of the period overstated the size of the invading army.

The Roman attack was successful at first, but the Emperor decided to lead an attack in person. His absence from his usual position with the army created panic among the troops who feared his had been killed. After a fierce attack by Turkish horse-archers the Byzantine army broke and fled. Some men as far as Constantinople bring "news" that the Emperor was dead.

Meanwhile the Emperor was surrounded and trapped on a hill with his Tagmata troops and some Kurdish allies. Nearly avoiding disaster the Emperor's force broke through the Arab lines suffering many casualties. Theophilos and his men reached the safety of the town of Chilokomon where he gradually reassembled what was left of his army.

Emperor Theophilos flees after the Battle of Anzen, miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

Click to enlarge
Artist's impression of the Byzantine Lower City at Amorium in ca. A.D. 800, showing the bathhouse and wine-making installations (by Tatiana Meltsem). © The Amorium Excavations Project.  (metmuseum.org)
Amorium was one of Byzantium’s most important cities between the 8th and 10th centuries. The fact that Amorium remained uninhabited following the 12th century guarantees a good level of monument preservation, allows the smooth conducting of excavations, as well as the execution of large-scale surface and geophysics research.  (snf.org)

The Siege and Sack of Amorium

The political situation of the Empire was often unsettled in the best of times.

After the defeat at Anzen the Emperor had to immediately leave the battle against the Muslims in order to secure his throne. Rumors of the Emperor's death created a whirlwind of plots to declare a new Emperor.

With the Emperor in Constantinople the Khurramite troops gathered in the coastal town of Sinop declared their commander Theophobos the new Emperor. But Theophobos was reluctant to take on the Emperor and appears to have been pardoned by Theophilos.

While this game of thrones was being played out, advanced units of the Arab second corp reached the Roman city of Ancyra on July 26th. The Arabs found the city deserted, but the inhabitants were discovered hiding in local mines and taken captive. The city was plundered and the Arabs continued their march to Amorium.

Looting the countryside on the way the Arab army advanced on Amorium in three different corps. The Muslim Turkish General Ashinas was in the front, the Caliph was in the middle and the Persian Muslim general Afshin in the rear. They began the siege of the city on August 1st.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven gives you
an idea of the Muslim attack on Amorium.

A "Battle Shy" Emperor

To my mind the actions of the Emperor are very questionable.

All sides agreed that Amorium was vital, but the Emperor appears to have avoided combat to save the city. Was he frightened after his near capture at Anzen? We do not know. What we do know is he made no attempt of any kind to threaten the rear of the Arab forces besieging Amorium.

Spineless Groveling - In a total display of weakness the one thing the Emperor did do was send envoys to grovel in front of the Caliph. His envoys told the Caliph that the atrocities the Romans committed at Sozopetra were not on the Emperor's orders, offered to rebuild the city for the Caliph at Roman expense, release all Muslim prisoners and pay tribute.

The Caliph saw this as a massive display of military weakness. That the Emperor was too frightened or the Empire too weak to do anything about the invading Arab armies. So the Caliph refused to even discuss terms, detained the envoys and forced them to view the siege.

The city itself was a powerful strong point with 44 towers, thick walls and a moat. The Emperor should have been able reduce pressure on the city by threatening besieging forces at different points or trying to cut their lines of communication, but nothing was done.

Click to enlarge

The Caliph assigned each of his generals a section of the walls. Both sides used siege engines against each other and exchanged missile fire for a number of days. The Arabs also used sappers to try and undermine the walls.

A serious problem appeared almost at once. A section of the wall had been badly damaged by heavy rainfall and the Roman commander had only done the most superficial of repairs. Arab accounts say an Arab Christian convert defected from the Romans back to the Caliph and informed them of the weaken section of the wall.

The Arabs immediately concentrated their attacks on this section. The defenders tried to cushion the walls by hanging wooden beams to absorb the shock of the siege engines. Their efforts failed and after two days a breach was made.

After neglecting the city defenses the Byzantine commander Aetios appears to have panicked. He made plans to break out in the middle of the night and link up with the Emperor. But two messengers he sent out were captured, converted to Islam and paraded around the city walls. To make sure no break out would happen Arab cavalry patrols were increased even at night.

The Arabs now stepped up the attacks on the breach. Wheeled four man catapults were brought forward closer to the wall. Ten man mobile towers were brought to the edge of the moat where the men began to fill in the moat with sheep skins full of earth.

To speed the attack the Caliph ordered that dirt be thrown over the sheep skins right up to the wall itself. To help with this a tower was pushed to the mid point of the moat but became stuck. It and other siege engines had to be abandoned and burned.

Over the next two weeks the Caliph continued with multiple attacks against the breach gradually wearing down the Byzantine defenders. The strategos Aetios sent an embassy headed by the city's bishop to the Caliph offering to surrender Amorium in exchange for safe passage for the troops and the residents. The Caliph refused.

Now panic set in among some of the troops. The Byzantine commander of the breach, Boiditzes, entered into secret negotiations with the Caliph. He ordered his men to stand down and went Arab camp to discuss the possible surrender of the breach.

The Arabs betrayed Boiditzes. While the Roman was speaking with the Caliph the Arab troops moved closer to the breach, charged and broke into the city. Taken by surprise resistance was minor. Some soldiers barricaded themselves in a monastery but were burned to death to death by the Arabs. Aetios took refuge in a tower with some of his officers before being forced to surrender.

For five full days the city was plundered. Byzantines said 70,000 people died. A vastly inflated number. But even the Arabs say 30,000 died. The surviving civilian population was sold into slavery. The civic and military elites were held captive by the Caliph.

The Caliph now sent the Emperor's envoys home with news of the defeat and then burned the city to the ground. The massive iron doors of the city were installed at the entrance the Caliph's palace.

Sold into Muslim Slavery
Thousands of Roman Christians from the sacked city of Amorium
were divided among Arab army leaders and sold into slavery.

What Came After

Fresh from his victory the Caliph marched toward Constantinople to take on the forces of the Emperor. Naturally the Emperor and anything resembling a Roman army could not be found. The only thing that stopped the Caliph was news of a conspiracy against him back home. So he left the other Byzantine fortresses intact and returned to his own country.

Both the Caliph's army and Roman prisoners suffered in the dry Anatolian countryside. To put down unrest the Caliph executed 6,000 prisoners.

The Emperor continued to grovel. He sent an embassy to the Caliph offering a ransom 20,000 Byzantine pounds of gold for the Roman captives and the release of all Muslim prisoners. It was rejected.

The border wars between Byzantium and the Arabs continued for years to come without real changes to the frontier borders.

Some 42 high ranking prisoners were held by the Arabs until 845 when the new Caliph ordered that they be killed even though the Emperor continued to offer ransom.

Damage to the Empire was limited. Amorium was rebuilt though it never returned to its former glory. It was also for a time replaced at the capital of the Anatolic Theme.

The Emperor, trying to look relevant, "reorganized" the army, created new commands and dispersed the revolting Khurramite troops among different themes. This was more window dressing than anything else. So the wars went on much as before.

Amorium - click to enlarge

(Anzen)      (archive.org)      (Amorium)      (Sack of Amorium)

(amorium)      (Amorium)