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, December 1, 2019

The Swaying Struggle - Battle for the Middle East Part VII

Roman soldiers 6th and 7th century
Facebook.com/Numerus Invictorum

The Muslims March North
Battle for the Middle East Part VII

Here we are at Part VII of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

Part I  -  In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris.  In 629 AD a force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.  

The Romans held their own in eastern Syria against this attack and effectively defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 634. They drove the Arabs south away from Damascus. The Romans had also dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine and held their positions against Arab attacks. 

But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia.

Part V  -  1st Battle of Yarmouk (634 AD).  In a huge multi-day battle the Roman Army is pushed out of their prepared defenses at the Daraa Gap. The Romans began to withdraw and made an orderly retreat north to Damascus and other walled cities. 

The door to Syria had been forced open.

Part VI  -  After a siege lasting for six months Damascus falls to Muslim invaders who lacked any siege equipment. Traitor Christians inside the city opened the gates and allowed the Muslim troops to enter the city. Damascus was sort of a great victory for the Arabs. After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors within the walls to win the day.

The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre and Tripoli. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

The Emperor Heraclius had not given up. More troops were being raised for yet another counter attack.

Bedouin Warrior. The Romans may have faced troops much like this man.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
As the Muslims moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

The Massacre at Maraj-al-Debj (September, 635)

Thomas, the Roman commander-in-chief and governor of Damascus and son in law of Emperor Heraclius, after hearing that Muslim troops had entered Damascus at the Eastern gate, wisely tricked the Muslim corps commanders at the other gates by suing for peace. The peace offer then was accepted by them. 

After the trick was unveiled the Muslim commanders advised Khalid ibn Walid that the peace agreement should be kept, because if the Romans in Syria heard that the Muslims had given a guarantee of safety and then slaughtered those whose safety had been guaranteed, no other city would ever surrender to the Muslims, and that would make the task of conquering Syria immeasurably more difficult. 

Khalid pretended that he agreed. But he immediately dressed his troops in the garb of local Arabs to hide their movements from any Romans they encountered and set out to attack the fleeing army.

The 10,000 fleeing Damascus Romans included soldiers, women, children and other civilians along with all their worldly possessions.

One historian says the Muslims caught up with the convoy a short distance from Antioch, not far from the Mediterranean Sea, on a plateau beyond a range of hills called Jabal Ansariya, in Northern Syria.

Due to a heavy downpour, the Roman convoy had dispersed on the plateau, seeking shelter from the weather, while their goods lay all over the place. So many bundles of brocade lay scattered on the ground that this plain became known as Marj-ud-Debaj, i.e. the Meadow of Brocade, and for this reason the action described has been named the Battle of Marj-ud-Debaj, or the Battle of Meadow of Brocade.

But it would be generous to call this a "battle". It was more of a massacre of helpless people in a quest for revenge and loot. 

There was a financial incentive. Each Roman captured as a slave was money in the bank for the Muslims plus there were all the personal possessions the refugees had with them. Attacking the Romans was about cold hard cash - - - with a dash of "religion" as a fig leaf.

Muslim scouts established the location of the convoy without being spotted and they brought back sufficient information for Khalid to plan his attack. Khalid arranged a skillful plan of attacking the Byzantines from four different sides. First a cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors would attack the Byzantines from their rear in the south, subsequently followed by an attack of a cavalry regiment 1000 warriors from the east, north (thereby blocking their retreat to Antioch) and finally from the west to encircle them completely.

The Romans received their first indication of the presence of the Muslim army when a regiment of 1000 cavalry came charging at them from the south, along the road from Damascus. Half an hour later another cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors led by Raafe bin Umair, appeared from the east and struck the Byzantine's right flank. Within the span of half an hour another cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors from the north, struck the Byzantines at the rear thus blocking their way to retreat north towards Antioch. After about another half an hour later the final Muslim cavalry of 1000 warriors led by Khalid ibn Walid appeared from the west and attacked the Byzantine's left flank.

The Romans were totally encircled by the Muslim's cavalry.

Khalid personally killed Thomas (Son in Law of Emperor Heraclius) in a duel. After some more fighting, Roman resistance collapsed. Since the Muslims were too few to completely surround the Roman army and the fighting had become confused as it increased in violence, thousands of  Romans were able to escape and make their way to safety. 

But all the booty and a large number of captives, both male and female, fell to the Muslims.

Maneuver of Muslim army (in red) against the Byzantine convoy (in blue).
(Graphic Wikipedia)

Roman soldiers 6th and 7th century
Facebook.com/Numerus Invictorum

Siege of Homs (December 635 - March 636)

The city of Homs was an important center of Eastern Christianity and Roman administration. Starting in 634 the Emperor Heracilus made Homs his forward command post to better direct operations against the invading Muslim armies.

Other Emperors would sent out orders from distant Constantinople without any first hand knowledge of events, of the people or of the geography. Heracilus was a front line commander who had spent considerable time in Syria and Palestine.

One has to wonder how events would have turned out if the Emperor's poor health had not prevented him from commanding Roman troops in person. The destroyer of the Persian Empire might have crushed the Muslim invasion way back in July 634 at the Battle of Ajnadayn.

But with Muslim troops moving on Homs the Emperor retired back just a bit to Antioch to set up his new command post.

After the fall of Damascus most of the Muslim corps returned to their original areas of operations. Amir ibn al Aasi marched back to Palestine and laid siege to Jerusalem which he was still unable to assault. Shurahbil ibn Hasana returned to Jordan and accepted the surrender of Beisan and Tiberias. Abu Ubaida moved north receiving the capitulation of Baalbek, Homs and Hama.

Only Jerusalem and Caesarea still held out in Palestine. Further north the coastal cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli were able to hold out because the Roman Navy could provide troops and supplies.

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, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

In late 635 AD, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah sent Khalid ibn Walid with his mobile guard to begin the siege of Homs and later joined him along the main body of the army. The Roman garrisons of Homs and Qinnasrin made a truce with the Muslim army. It was agreed that Homs would pay 10,000 dinars and deliver 100 robes of brocade and in return, the Muslim army would not attack Homs for one year. If, however, any Roman reinforcements arrived to strengthen Homs' garrisons, then the truce would become defunct. The gates of Homs were opened as soon as the truce was signed.

The governors of Homs and Qinnasrin made the truce for reasons of expediency. Both hoped that their garrisons would be reinforced by Emperor Heraclius, and as soon as that happened they would repudiate the extortion of the Muslims. Muslim armies raided many cities in northern Syria, as well as the major towns of ArethusaHamaShaizarApamia. One by one, each city and town that fell to the Muslim army surrendered in peace and agreed to pay the jizya.

It was while the Muslims were at Shaizar that they heard of Roman reinforcements moving to Qinnasrin and Homs. This, naturally, led to the invalidation of the truce established by the city of Homs. The arrival of winter gave the Roman garrison a further assurance of success. In their forts they would be better protected from the cold than the Muslim Arabs, who were not used to intense cold, and with only their tents to give them shelter would suffer severely from the Syrian winter. 

Heraclius wrote to Harbees, the military governor of Homs, "The food of these people is the flesh of the camel and their drink its milk. They cannot stand the cold. Fight them on every cold day so that none of them is left till the spring."

The Roman garrison at Homs was perhaps 8,000 men. The coming Muslim armies had perhaps 15,000 men.

This sample photo of a fortress shows what the Muslims were up against. The Arabs were fast moving raiders who longed for battle in the wide open deserts. They were helpless when faced by the walled fortifications and moat of Homs. The Roman garrison should have stayed in safety inside the walls awaiting reinforcements.

Abu Ubaidah decided to take Homs first, and thus cleared his rear flank from the enemy before undertaking more operations in northern Syria. The Muslim army marched to Homs with Khalid's guard in the lead. On arrival at the city, a short battle was fought between Khalid and the Roman garrison. The Muslims drove the Roman guard back, which forced the Roman's to withdraw into the fort and close the gates.

Homs was a fortified circular-shaped city with a diameter of less than a mile, and it was surrounded by a moat. There was also a citadel atop a hillock inside the fort.

The winter siege continued and every day there was an exchange of archery, but no major action took place which could lead to a decision either way.

It was about the middle of March 636 when the worst of the winter was over, that Harbees decided to make a surprise sally and defeat the Muslims in battle outside the fort, as the Roman hope of the cold driving the Muslims away vanished. Supplies were running low, and with the coming of spring and better weather the Muslims would receive further reinforcements and would then be in an even stronger position.

Early one morning the Rastan Gate was flung open and Harbees led 5,000 men into a quick attack on the unsuspecting Muslim army facing that gate. The speed and violence of the attack took the Muslims by surprise, and although this was the largest of the four groups positioned at the four gates, it was driven back from the position where it had hastily formed up for battle. 

A short distance back the Muslims reformed their front and held the attack of the Romans, but the pressure became increasingly heavy and the danger of a break-through became clearly evident. 

Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid to restore the situation. Khalid moved forward with the mobile guard, took the hard pressed Muslims under his command and redeployed the Muslim army for battle. After all these defensive measures Khalid took the offensive and steadily pushed the Romans back, though it was not till near sunset that the Romans were finally driven back into the fort. The sally had proved unsuccessful.

Colorized photo of a Bedouin warrior holding a spear / lance, late 1800s to early 1900s.

The following morning Abu Ubaidah held a council of war and expressed his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Muslims had given way before the Roman attack, whereupon Khalid remarked, "These Romans were the bravest I had ever met."
Abu Ubaidah asked Khalid for his advice and Khalid told him his plan. The next morning they would make a fake withdrawal of the army from Homs giving the Romans the impression that the Muslims were raising the siege and were withdrawing to the south. The Romans would surely attack the rearguard of the withdrawing Muslim army and at that moment the army would turn back, encircle the Roman army and annihilate them.
According to the plan, early the following morning, the Muslims raised the siege and withdrew to the south. Viewing it as a brilliant military opportunity, Harbees immediately collected 5,000 Byzantine warriors and led them out of the fort to chase the Muslims. He launched his mounted force into a fast pursuit to catch up with the retreating Muslim forces and strike them down as they fled.

The Roman army caught up with the Muslims a few miles from Homs. The leading elements of Roman cavalry were about to pounce upon the 'retreating Muslims', when the Muslims suddenly turned and struck at the Romans with ferocity.

As the Muslims turned on the Romans, Khalid shouted a command at which two mounted groups detached themselves from the Muslim army, galloped round the flanks of the surprised Byzantines and charged from the rear. Steadily and systematically the Muslims closed in from all sides.

At the time when the Muslims started their attack on the encircled Romans, a group of 500 horsemen had galloped back to Homs to see to it that no escaping Roman got into the fort. As these horsemen neared Homs, the terrified inhabitants and the remnants of the Roman garrison which had not joined the pursuit hastily withdrew into the fort and closed the gates. Muslim troops deployed in front of the gates to prevent the soldiers inside Homs from coming out and the Romans outside Homs from getting in.

As soon as this action was over the Muslims returned to Homs and resumed the siege. The local inhabitants offered to surrender on terms, and Abu Ubaidah accepted the offer. This happened around the middle of March, 636. The inhabitants paid the Jizya at the rate of one dinar per man, and peace returned to Homs.

It was said that only about a hundred Romans chasing the Muslim army got away. The Muslims claimed to have lost about 235 dead in the entire operation against Homs, from the beginning of the siege to the end of the last action. That very low number is highly doubtful. 

But no matter how the real numbers broke down this was a major victory for the Muslims with yet another large Roman army eliminated from the war.


Soon after the surrender of Homs, the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar

Here a Roman convoy taking provisions to Qinnasrin and escorted by a small body of soldiers was intercepted and captured by Khalid. The prisoners were interrogated, and they provided the information regarding the plan of the Emperor Heraclius, and concentration of a large Roman army at Antioch. 

The Emperor had not been idle. Heraclius directed the Roman garrisons in Syria and Palestine to stand their ground.

While these units kept the Muslims busy, the Emperor was gathering troops in northern Syria from all over the Roman Empire for a major counter attack. Heraclius was bringing in Roman regiments from the Balkans and Asia Minor. In addition he collected a large force of Christian Arabs and Armenians to join in the march south.

But more of this in Part VIII.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed 
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.


(Great Arab Conquests)    (Maraj-al-Debaj)    (Conquest of the Levant)


Friday, November 1, 2019

Uniforms of the Eastern Roman Army

From the Facebook page: Fectio
Fectio is the only Dutch Late Roman Re-enactment Society, founded on Saturday May 31st, 1997. Our main aim is education about the Late Roman army by show and tell, focusing on Late Roman society during the 4th to 5th century.

How Did The Eastern Army Dress?

The East Roman Army was a direct continuation of the eastern portion of the Roman Army, from before the division of the empire. The East Roman Army started with the same basic organization as the late Roman Army and its West Roman counterpart, but between the 5th and 7th centuries, the cavalry grew more important, the field armies took on more tasks, and the border armies were transformed into local militias.

How the Eastern Roman soldiers dressed we know almost nothing.

The surviving Byzantine frescos in churches and in important buildings give only a clue. These paintings were commissioned works of art. As such they would present an idealized view of politicians, saints or soldiers. The raw realistic view of war only came with the invention of modern photography.

Hollywood costume departments have poisoned our history.  The "classic" Roman uniform used in so many movies may have never existed. Instead the "uniforms" might have been mix of whatever happened to be available.

During the time of Diocletian ( 284 — 305), the department of the sacrae largitiones distributed shirt, tunic, and cloak to the soldiers while boots were being provided by the local communities as tax in kind. The state owned and managed a system of imperial arms factories (fabricae). The workshops were under the supervision of the Master of Offices (Magister Officiorum). The workers were civilian but served under a military organization.

During early Byzantine times, shields were recommended to be painted the same color in order to distinguish the troops. The term skoutarion was used for shields. Round shields could be domed or conical in section.

By the fifth century, soldiers were being paid in cash to purchase their own armor and equipment. A standard price for a gear was about six solidi. This meant that a high degree of uniformity in appearance must have been unlikely.

Shield insignia of regiments (see photo at the top of this page) under the command of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II of the East Roman army c. 395 AD. Page from the Notitia Dignitatum.

Beautiful Late Roman-Byzantine creation.
(Sara Parkes - Facebook)

I think it is fair to say that Roman reenactors may have the dress of the troops down pretty well. But most of the reenactors look too formal, "too pretty" you might say. They want to look their best for the hobby. In real life the look of the troops would have been far rougher.

The Roman units may have looked somewhat ragtag. Armor was non-standard. A soldier might have brought his grandfather's old armor & sword. Also, uniforms themselves were not a concept at that time. So colors of the the tunics worn by different men in the same unit could vary.

I suspect that except for special units like bodyguards for the Consul or the Emperor, soldiers dress would've been rather drab and nondescript.

A Byzantine infantryman wore metal body armor and helmet. Iron mail or bronze scale was the most common body armor. But not everyone purchased such uniforms; some spent their allowance on a large shield, since it could offer sufficient protection. 

Soldiers were free to use armor handed down by family members, buy armor from soldiers who had completed their service or wear discontinued styles of armor if they preferred it to (or could not afford) the latest issue.

The basic dress was a loose-fitting long-sleeved tunic. Most tunics must have been made of undyed wool, linen or a mix of wool and linen. Soldiers that were wealthier purchased red dyed tunic as red was considered a military color. Less common colors were blue, yellow and green. 

As for legwear, it depended on the environment. In cold climate, long trousers or breeches were being worn. Knee high socks bound up with laces were also used. In warmer climate, soldiers wore lower leg coverings without trousers or breeches. To keep out wet and cold, soldiers had a thick wool cloak.

In the 600s both Heraclius and Constans II faced massive invasions by the Persians and then Arabs. The Emperors halved the military pay. In order for the army to function the state had to once again be the one to provide arms and equipment. What it looked like is unknown.

By the 840s there was a return to cash payments which resembled those of the sixth century. Soldiers once again purchased their own equipment. Requisition remained though a part of the system for major campaigns. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, aside from their salaries, soldiers were being provided with cash allowance for food and personal equipment.

From the seventh century on the influence of the steppe nomads began. The Eastern Romans adopted the lamellar armor that was crafted from leather, bone, or metal lamellae sewn together. From the tenth century onwards, this became the most frequently used type of armor in the army.

Many infantry soldiers also wore thick felt cap and turban. They also used leggings padded with wool. For footwear thigh boots were considered ideal for the infantry.

In the cavalry the lightest equipped were the horse archers. They were equipped with paramerion but the primary armament was the bow. They wore a padded coat made of cotton wadding (kavadion). Next were the koursores, medium troops with flexible role in combat. They had armor in order to have protection but not so heavy that it would be cumbersome to their flexibility. They wore mail shirt or shirt of scales.

Later years saw increased influence on military dress of the endless Arab and desert warfare on the eastern and southern fronts - no doubt with little uniformity in dress.

In the 12th to 15th centuries there was Turkish influence as well as input from the increasingly powerful Western European nations.

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Cavalry

Eastern Roman Guard

From the Facebook site: Vicus Ultimus

Eastern Roman Varangian Guard
A Hungarian reenactor's armor and comments
"The kit is mainly based on the Alexiad, most notably on the comments of Anna Komnena about the Varangian Guard. This character is of Scandinavian origin, in service of the Byzantine army, rather than the eastern rus contingent of 6000 warriors who formed the core of the Guard later in 988, if I recall correctly. Therefore I based most of the armour and clothing on the Gjermundbu, Birka and Valsgärde finds, with exception of the leather vest. It has a debated origin that byzantine troops used this type of vests along scale and lamellar armour. I refrained to acquire a lamellar armor as the Wisby find turned out to be a "hoax", well not a hoax, only it was originated centuries later. I also looked up on a large number of byzantine manuscripts about guardsmen, but they weren't really helpful aside from the clothing.
The kit is still incomplete, as I still miss a shield, a proper shoes (will be also based on Birka) and an authentic belt, but I'll have them as well soon enough..
A limb guards were based on the first misinterpreted Valsgärde find, it's not a complicated design, as you can see..
The gloves, well, those are of course a hoax as we don't have a find or manuscritp up to date about protective gloves from this era. But I'm not too keen to lose a finger or two, or my hand entirely, so I gotta wear something. 
Yeah, I too think the pale leather stands out, and I'm about to dye it darker if I'll have the time and proper materials for it.

Med-10th century Akritoi frontier officer based on church wall paintings. The Arab-desert influence is obvious.

A Byzantine kentekarkhes, or centurion. 13th century.

Byzantine warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.

Byzantine fresco of Saint Mercurius with a sword and helmet, dated 1295, from OhridMacedonia.

Modern reconstruction of 15th century Byzantine archer based on contemporary icons of the Crucifixion. The helmet shows western (Italian) influence and it is based on findings from ”Chalcis Armory”. The double head eagle though is again unlikely as it was strictly an imperial family emblem and chroniclers talk about a double lion emblem. Armor courtesy of hellenicarmors.gr and boots courtesy living history association Koryvantes.
Byzantine Militia

Byzantine crossbowman 1453

(medium.com)   (East Roman Army)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Viking Siege of Constantinople

Vikings!  -  Thank Odin for violent programming

The Siege of Constantinople of 860 was the only major military expedition of the Rus' Khaganate recorded in Byzantine and Western European sources.  But who the Rus' were is confusing at best.

In 838 two Rus' ambassadors arrived unexpectedly at Constantinople from the Black Sea. They were greeted warmly by the Emperor Theophilos who sent them on to the German Emperor Ludwig for safe passage home. Ludwig discovered the men were Swedes and was rightfully suspicious as Scandinavian Vikings had started to raid his empire.

This event marked the first appearance in the Roman East of Swedish Vikings also known as Varangians whom the Greeks called Rus. Commercial relations followed, and the Romans had no reason to suspect any hostility.

The Rus' Khaganate is the name applied to the Viking "state" in the poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe, roughly the late 8th and early-to-mid-9th centuries AD. How organized this state was in anyone's guess.

The Rus are described in all contemporary sources as being Norsemen, somewhere in what is today European Russia. The region was also a place of operations for Varangians, eastern Scandinavian adventurers, merchants, and pirates.

The possible cause of the siege was the construction of the fortress Sarkel by Roman engineers, restricting the Rus' trade route along the Don River in favor of the Khazars.

The Rus' under the walls of Constantinople.

A Viking ship is approached by Byzantines at Constantinople. (Credit: Michael Hampshire/National Geographic/Getty Images)


The Vikings’ opportunity came in 860 when Theophilus’ successor, Emperor Michael III, was away campaigning against the Arabs along the Syrian border, where he suffered a severe defeat due to his military incompetence (no doubt aided by his constant drunkenness).

The Empire was struggling to repel the Muslim Abbasid advance in Asia Minor. In March 860, the garrison of the key fortress Loulon unexpectedly surrendered to the Arabs. In April or May, both sides exchanged captives, and the hostilities briefly ceased; however, in the beginning of June, Emperor Michael III left Constantinople for Asia Minor to invade the Abbasid Caliphate.

Michael took with him all the elite Imperial Tagmata regiments normally stationed in and around Constantinople, leaving behind only the normal city garrison under the command of Urban Prefect Nicetas Oryphas. The capital’s extensive suburbs and the thickly settled shores and islands of the Sea of Marmara were therefore left defenseless

The much feared Roman Navy was also absent, having sailed in support of operations against the Normans and Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean and farther west against Danish Viking raids that had penetrated as far as Italy.

An Arab-Viking Coordinated Attack?

Rus' merchants having gone as far south as Baghdad passed along a great deal of intelligence to their lords in Russia.

I find it hard to believe that a large Viking naval strike force just happened to show up at Constantinople at the exact moment Emperor Michael had left with his army for the Syrian border. It is very possible that the Muslims in Baghdad and the Rus' merchants had worked out an agreement  for the Arabs to attack the Syrian border and draw the Roman army away from the city.

As for the Roman Navy, it was not a factor being already spread thin in many directions to the west far from Constantinople.

So suddenly at sunset on June 18, 860, “like a swarm of wasps,” according to Photios, the Archbishop of Constantinople, the Viking fleet of 200 ships emerged from the Bosporus, the narrow strait connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, to assault Constantinople. 

An army of 5,000 to 20,000 Vikings surged ashore, but Prefect Oryphas was an able man and shut the gates of the capital just in time. 

Here is where an Arab-Viking alliance seems likely. The amount of money, time and work needed to assemble a fleet of 200 ships and load them with an army is considerable.

Rus' merchants and spies would have known about the Tagmata regiments being permanently stationed around Constantinople. With those Imperial troops in place an attack on the city would have been a bloody battle with little loot.

So it is reasonable to assume that a Viking fleet would not have set sail on such a long voyage unless they knew the Emperor and his troops were being drawn away by the Arab attacks to the south.

Modern reconstruction of 6th century urban militiaman. His blue tunic marks him as a member of the “Blues Circus Fraction”. The double head eagle though appeared after the 14th century. Once the Vikings appeared the Urban Prefect of Constantinople Niketas Ooryphas would have called out the city militia to help man the walls.

The Vikings may indeed had been planning to rush the gates of the city at sunset in hopes of overpowering the limited number of city garrison troops on duty.  If that was the plan they failed.

The city was saved from falling to the Vikings' bold rush. At that point the Viking leaders, like so many invaders before and after, stood looking helplessly at the powerful walls and moat of Constantinople.

There was little the Vikings could do except burn and loot the unprotected suburbs and kill or enslave the inhabitants.

Having devastated the suburbs, the Rus' passed into the Sea of Marmora and fell upon the Isles of the Princes, where the former Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople was in exile at the time. The Rus' plundered the dwellings and the monasteries, slaughtering the captives. They took twenty-two of the patriarch's servants aboard ship and cut them into pieces with axes.

Constantinople was far from helpless. The inhabitants of the Empire’s urban areas were organized in groups along the lines of the Circus Fractions. These groups were called “Deimoi” and were headed by leaders called “Democrats”. 

These groups were organized as paramilitary formations with policing and military tasks. Among their tasks were keeping the city clean, performing fire service and the burial of the dead from the epidemics or war. Because they were not considered reliable in open battle, their main role during wartime, was the defense of the city walls in case of siege.

With the city garrison supplemented by militia the Viking hordes outside the walls could do little since they had no siege equipment.

Meanwhile military signal system would have alerted the Emperor and surrounding military units in Anatolia of the Viking attack.

The invasion continued until August 4. So after about a six week siege the Vikings packed up and left for home.

There was little point in the Vikings staying. Constantinople was easily holding off the Viking army and whatever loot there was outside the city walls was long ago collected. Add in that every day the Vikings stayed in place saw the Emperor and his army, and perhaps the Roman Navy, getting closer and closer.

A Long Trip For Nothing
Viking invaders meet the walls of Constantinople and come up short.

The Theodosian Walls

(Siege of Constantinople)    (archive.org)    (historynet.com)

(history.com)    (Siege of Constantinople)    (Kievan Rus)