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

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Arab Invasion of Sicily and the Fall of Palermo

Muslim Arab archers in Sicily.

While Sicily was never considered the "heart" of the Roman state, the island ended up being an important province of the nation for about 1,000 years.  In just counting the Byzantine period alone, Sicily was ruled by the Eastern Empire for nearly 400 years.  A time far longer than the United States has existed as a nation.

As a historian it is maddening the minimal amount of information available on so many of the Eastern Roman military campaigns.

For example, there have been mountains of ultra detailed books written about the military insignificant Battle of the Little Bighorn.  But with the Muslim conquest of Sicily we have a brutal 75 year war for survival for Byzantium and very little information about events.

This 75 year war would have seen countless sieges, attacks and acts of valor or cowardice.  But those details are long lost to history.  What a shame.

Sicily and the Roman Empire

About 750 BC, the Greeks began to live in Sicily, establishing many important settlements. The most important colony was Syracuse.

While Greek Syracuse controlled much of Sicily, there were a few Carthaginian colonies in the far west of the island. When the two cultures began to clash, the Greek-Punic wars erupted, the longest wars of antiquity. Greece began to make peace with the Roman Republic in 262 BC and the Romans sought to annex Sicily as their republic's first province.

Rome intervened in the First Punic War, crushing Carthage so that by 242 BC Sicily had become the first Roman province outside of the Italian Peninsula.  Sicily served a level of high importance for the Romans as it acted as the empire's granary.

Sicily remained a Roman provinve until the Ostrogothic conquest of Italy under Theodoric the Great began in 488.

In the 6th century, the Gothic War took place between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire. Sicily was the first part of Italy to be taken under general Belisarius who was commissioned by Eastern Emperor Justinian I, this campaign being part of an ambitious project of restoring the whole Roman Empire, uniting the Eastern and the Western halves.

Sicily was used as a base for the Byzantines to conquer the rest of Italy, with Naples, Rome, Milan and the Ostrogoth capital Ravenna falling within five years. However, a new Ostrogoth king Totila, drove down the Italian peninsula, plundering and conquering Sicily in 550. Totila, in turn, was defeated and killed in the Battle of Taginae by the Byzantine general Narses in 552.

In 535, Emperor Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, and for the second time in Sicilian history, the Greek language became a familiar sound across the island.

The Eastern Empire was pressed from all sides.
Enemies of Rome attacked from everywhere.  The Lombards attacked
Italy, the Arabs raided Sicily and southern Italy, Slavs poured over
the Danube overrunning Latin and Greek speaking provinces in
the Balkans and Arab armies marched into Anatolia.  To say the
Eastern Roman armies had their hands full is a huge understatement.

Theme of Sicily
 Theme of the Byzantine Empire
ca. 687 to 902 AD
Sicily was a Byzantine military-civilian province (thema, theme) existing from the late 7th to the 10th century, encompassing the island of Sicily and the region of Calabria in the Italian mainland. Following the Muslim conquest of Sicily, from 902 the theme was limited to Calabria, but retained its original name until the middle of the 10th century.
Ever since its reconquest from the Ostrogoths by Belisarius in 535–536, Sicily had formed a distinct province under a praetor, while the army was placed under a dux. A strategos (military governor) is attested on the island in Arab sources between 687 and 695, and it is at that time that the island was probably made into a theme.
The theme was based in Syracuse, traditionally the chief city of Sicily. It comprised not only the island, which was divided into districts called tourmai, but also the mainland duchy of Calabria which extended roughly up to the river Crati.
 In addition, the strategos of Sicily exercised some authority—varying according to the prevailing local political faction—over the autonomous duchies of Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi.
The Muslim conquest of the island began in 826. Following the fall of Syracuse in 878 and the conquest of Taormina in 902, the strategos moved to Rhegion, the capital of Calabria. During the first half of the 10th century, the Byzantines launched a number of failed expeditions to regain the island and maintained a few isolated strongholds near Messina until 965, when Rametta, the last Byzantine outpost, fell. The post of "strategos of Sicily" was thus retained as the official title until the mid-10th century, when the "strategos of Calabria" begins to appear in the lists.
The themes or themata were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of Byzantine territory and replaced the earlier provincial system established by emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great.

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman Army, and their names corresponded to the military units they had resulted from. The theme system reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries, as older themes were split up and the conquest of territory resulted in the creation of new ones. The original theme system underwent significant changes in the 11th and 12th centuries, but the term remained in use as a provincial and financial circumscription, until the very end of the Empire.

The following table illustrates the thematic structure as found in the Thracesian Theme, c. 902-936:

Structure of the Thema Thrakēsiōn
NameNumber of personnelNumber of subordinate unitsOfficer in command
Thema9,6004 TourmaiStrategos
Tourma2,4006 DroungoiTourmarches
Droungos4002 BandaDroungarios
Bandon2002 KentarchiaiCount
Kentarchia10010 KontouberniaKentarches/Hekatontarches
505 KontouberniaPentekontarches
Kontoubernion101 "Vanguard" + 1 "Rear Guard"Dekarchos
"Rear Guard"4n/aTetrarches


First Arab invasions of Sicily

Sicily was first invaded by the Arab forces of Caliph Uthman in 652. The Arabs failed to make any permanent gains, and returned to Syria after gathering some booty.

By the end of the 7th century, with the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, they had captured the nearby port city of Carthage, allowing the Arabs to build shipyards and a permanent base from which to make more sustained attacks.

Around 700, the island of Pantelleria was captured by Arabs, and it was only discord among the Arabs that prevented an attempted invasion of Sicily coming next. Instead, trading agreements were arranged with the Byzantines, and Arab merchants were allowed to trade goods at the Sicilian ports.

Attacks from Muslim fleets repeated in 703, 728, 729, 730, 731, 733 and 734, the last two times meeting with a substantial Byzantine resistance.

The first true conquest expedition was launched in 740: in that year the Muslim prince Habib, who had participated on the 728 attack, successfully captured Syracuse. Ready to conquer the whole island, they were however forced to return to Tunisia by a Berber revolt. A second attack in 752 aimed only to sack the same city.
A 6th century Eastern Roman reenactor.

Muslim landing and siege of Syracuse, 827–828

On 14 June 827, the allied fleets sailed from the Bay of Sousse, and after three days they reached Mazara in southwestern Sicily, where they landed. There they were met with soldiers loyal to Euphemius, but the alliance soon began to show rifts: a Muslim detachment mistook some of Euphemius' partisans for loyalist troops, and a skirmish ensued.

Although Euphemius' troops were ordered to place a twig on their helmets as a distinctive mark, Asad announced his intention to wage the campaign without them.

Soon after that, Balata, who seems to have taken over the functions, if not the title, of the imperial strategos on the island, appeared nearby with a Byzantine force. The two armies clashed on a plain south-east of Mazara, where Asad's men, after exhortations by their leader, gained a victory.

Balata retreated first to Enna and from there to Calabria on the Italian mainland, where he may have hoped to gather more troops. Instead, he died there shortly after his arrival.

Asad then left Mazara under Abu Zaki al-Kinani, and turned to Syracuse: the Muslim army advanced along the southern shore towards the island's capital, but at Qalat al-Qurrat (possibly ancient Acrae), it was met by an embassy from the city which offered tribute if the Muslims halted their advance. The proposal was probably designed to buy time for the city to better prepare itself for a siege, but Asad, either persuaded by the emissaries' assurances or needing to rest his army, halted his advance for a few days.

At the same time, Euphemius began to regret his alliance with the Aghlabids, and opened secret contacts with the imperials, urging them to resist the Arabs. The Muslims recommenced their advance soon after, and laid siege to the city.

Byzantium, which at the same time was forced to face a threat much closer to home at Crete, was unable to send much aid to the beleaguered island, while the Muslims received reinforcements from Africa. Giustiniano Participazio, the dux of the imperial protectorate of Venice, came to the city's aid, but was not able to raise the siege.

The besiegers however suffered from lack of supplies as well as the outbreak of a disease in spring 828, which cost Asad his life. He was replaced by Muhammad ibn Abu'l-Jawari. When a Byzantine fleet arrived, the Arabs raised the siege and tried to sail back to Africa, but were hindered by the Byzantine ships. Thwarted, the Muslim army burned its ships and retreated over land to the castle of Mineo, which surrendered to them after three days.

View of Enna (Castrogiovanni)

First siege of Enna and the Byzantine counterattack, 828–829

Despite his contacts with the imperials, Euphemius was now willing to serve as their guide, evidently hoping that the Muslims, humbled by their failure and without the strong will of Asad to guide them, could now be made to serve his purposes. After Mineo surrendered, the Muslim army divided in two: one part took Agrigento in the west, while the other, along with Euphemius, attacked Enna.

The garrison of Enna began negotiations, offering to acknowledge Euphemius' authority, but when Euphemius with a small escort met with their emissaries, he was murdered. It is unknown what happened to Euphemius' supporters after his death, whether they dispersed or continued fighting alongside the Muslims.

In spring 829, Michael II sent a new fleet to Sicily under Theodotus, who was well acquainted with the island, having already served as its strategos in the past. After landing, Theodotus marched his army to Enna, where the Arabs were continuing the siege. He was defeated in the subsequent battle, but was able to find refuge in the fortress with most of his men.

The Muslims now became so confident of victory that they struck their first coins on the island, in the name of Ziyadat Allah and Muhammad ibn Abu'l-Jawari, who however died a short while after and was replaced by Zubayr ibn Gawth.

Shortly after that, Theodotus managed to reverse the situation: he led a sally that routed a Muslim raiding party and then defeated the main Muslim army on the next day, killing 1,000 men and pursuing the rest up to the Muslims' fortified encampment, which he placed under siege. The Muslims tried to break out in a night sortie, but Theodotus was expecting such a move and routed them in an ambush.

The remains of the Muslim army once again sought refuge in Mineo, where Theodotus blockaded them and soon reduced them to the point of eating their horses and even dogs. When they heard of this reversal, the Arab garrison of Agrigento abandoned the city and retreated to Mazara. Thus, by the autumn of 829, Sicily had almost been cleared of the Muslim invaders.

Coin of Emperor Theophilos
Palermo was lost while Theophilos was Emperor.  The Follis coin (above) was a new type, minted in large quantities in celebration of Theophilos' victories against the Arabs from ca. 835 on. On the obverse he is represented in triumphal attire, wearing the toupha, and on the reverse the traditional acclamation "Theophilos Augustus, you conquer".

Muslim recovery and the fall of Palermo, 830–831

The Emperor Theophilos was not able to send reinforcements to Sicily.  He was obliged to wage wars against the Arabs on two fronts at once - in Sicily and Anatolia.  The Arab invasion of Anatolia by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun in took place in 830. The Byzantines were defeated and lost several fortresses. In 831 Emperor Theophilos retaliated by leading a large army into Cilicia and capturing Tarsus. The Emperor returned to Constantinople in triumph.

Meanwhile in Sicily, Theodotus' success was not to be completed, however: in early summer 830, a fleet from Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), under Asbagh ibn Wakil, arrived in Sicily.

Theodotus did not confront them, hoping that they would depart after raiding, but the beleaguered garrison at Mineo managed to get into contact with the raiders and proposed joint action.

The Andalusians agreed, provided that Asbagh was recognized as the overall commander, and together with fresh troops from Ifriqiya marched on Mineo.

Eastern Roman Infantry

Unable to confront them, Theodotus retreated to Enna and the siege of Mineo was broken (July or August 830). The combined Ifriqiyan and Andalusian army then torched Mineo and laid siege to another town, possibly Calloniana (modern Barrafranca). However, once again a plague broke out in their camp, killing Asbagh and many others. The town fell later in autumn, but the Arabs' numbers were so depleted that they had to abandon it and retreat west.

Theodotus launched a pursuit and inflicted heavy casualties, so that most of the Andalusians departed the island. However, Theodotus too was killed at this time, possibly in one of these skirmishes.

Meanwhile, the Ifriqiyans of Mazara, together with some of the Andalusians, had advanced across the island and laid siege to Palermo.

The city held out for a year until September 831, when its commander, the spatharios Symeon, surrendered it in exchange for safe departure for the city's senior officials and possibly the garrison as well.

The city suffered greatly during the siege; the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, records with exaggeration that the city's population fell from 70,000 to 3,000, who were taken as slaves. The city's bishop, Luke, managed to escape and reach Constantinople, where he informed Emperor Theophilos of the disaster.

The fall of Palermo marks a decisive step in the Muslim conquest of Sicily: the Muslims gained not only an important military base, but possession of the city—henceforth known simply as al-Madina ("the City")—allowed them to consolidate their control over the western portion of the island, which was established as a regular Aghlabid province.

Thus, in March 832, the first Aghlabid governor (wali), Abu Fihr Muhammad ibn Abdallah, arrived in Palermo. Abu Fihr was a capable man, and was able to assuage the often violent dissensions between Ifriqiyans and Andalusians.


The western third of Sicily fell relatively quickly into Muslim hands, but conquest of the eastern portion of the island was a protracted and hard fought affair that went on for another 71 years.

Palermo today.

Emirate of Sicily
Map of Italy on the eve of the arrival of the Normans and after the Byzantines were fully driven out of Sicily.  The Arabs of Sicily and north Africa continued their attacks on Byzantine Italy and Greece for decades.
The Emirate of Sicily was an Islamic state on the island of Sicily, which existed from 831 to 1072. Its capital was Palermo.
Muslims, who first invaded in 652 AD, seized control of the entire island from the Byzantine Empire in a prolonged series of conflicts from 827 to 902.

(wraithdt.deviantart.com)        (Sicily History)        (saudiaramcoworld.com)

(Islam in southern Italy)        (Islam in Italy)        (Theme of Sicily)

(Conquest of Sicily)        (Emirate of Sicily)

No comments: