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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk - Battle for the Middle East

Late Roman Reenactors

The Roman Middle East Ends
Battle for the Middle East Part IX

Here we are at Part IX 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.

Roman Archers

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.

Part VII  -  After the fall of Damascus, Syria Muslim forces started their move north. Escaping Roman civilians and soldiers were massacred at Maraj-al-Debj in September of 635. Many survivors were sold into slavery by the Muslims.

The Muslims went on to lay Siege to the city of Homs from December 635 to March 636. After the fall 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

There they stopped as they faced a new Roman army raised by the Emperor Heraclius.

Part VIII  -  In the early months of 636 the Empire stuck back in Syria. Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible.

The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. The Muslims ran.

The Muslims fell back to the Daraa Gap where in the 1st Battle of Yarmouk (September 634) they had forced the Romans to leave their prepared fortifications. The Muslims passed through the Gap with the Romans hot on their heals. The Romans re-occupied their old defenses and slammed shut the Door to Syria.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC

Explaining the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk

The fact that "historians" have no clue that there was ever a 1st Battle of Yarmouk two years earlier tells you a lot about their true knowledge of events.

As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. 

Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the 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. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I have been using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.

Glubb Pasha:   

"The records of the fighting which occurred between the Arabs and the Byzantine army in Syria are extremely confusing. Our sources are virtually restricted to the Arab historians who wrote more more than a century after the events . . . and who themselves were obviously ignorant of, or indifferent to, the course of the military operations. It was purely by accident that I discovered what appears to me now to be the key to the comprehension of the Arab campaigns in Syria, namely the narrow defile between the Yarmouk River and the Jebel Druze at Derra. . . .

In July 1941 . . . it was feared that the German army, which had seized the Balkans, would attack Turkey and move southwards through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. . . . It was important to discover all the available narrow defiles, where armoured mechanized forces would be at a disadvantage . . . . to hold up German mechanized columns. . . . I myself was employed to examine the area round Deraa.

The Yarmouk River . . . . has cut a deep gorge down which it falls into the Jordan valley . . . . This gorge begins near the town of Deraa. East and northeast of Deraa lies a large group of mountains formed by extinct volcanoes, all the slopes of which are strewn with large black boulders of lava. In place, movement in this area is difficult even to men on foot, while horses and camels are almost immobilized and wheels entirely so. The lava-strewn spurs run down into the plain very nearly to the point at which the Yarmouk becomes an impassable gorge. . . . In 1941, we named this narrow defile the "Deraa gap". We decided to dig an anti-tank ditch across it and to build an entrenched position for an infantry brigade to close the gap.

All the European historians of the Muslim conquest of Syria complain of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Arab records. Again and again the rival armies are reported to be facing one another on the Yarmouk. Then they disperse again without result. Were there several encounters on the Yarmouk, and why does that name keep recurring? It was only when I myself reconnoitered the area for a military purpose that, all of a sudden, the veil fell, as it were, from my eyes. Useful as this defile would be to prevent a German attack from the north, it was obvious to me that it would be  of even great importance in resisting an army coming up from the south. In so far as invasion from Arabia was concerned, the Deraa gap would be the Thermopylae of Syria.

In 1941, the Germans were invincible at their lightning mechanical warfare. . . . The only way to oppose these mechanized-avalanche tactics was to fight in close country, in mountains, in passes in narrow gaps . . . .

The Muslims were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge . . . retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies. In the open plain, the heavy slow-moving Byzantine troops could not compete with this mobility. But the Arabs could not fight a close-order infantry battle, by push of pike as it were. They had not sufficient body-armour, they were not trained to fight in close, well disciplined ranks. More over they had no heavy support weapons. A cloud of arrows was their only covering fire. Thus they easily overran the deserts and plains of Trans-Jordan and southern Palestine but were afraid of the mountains and defiles.

Dreading the Arab blitzkrieg, the Byzantine army in 634 (the 1st Battle of Yarmouk), like the British army in 1941, established an entrenched camp near Deraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and sometime withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it. Khalid's operations round Palmyra and Damascus would thus have the object of persuading the Byzantines to withdraw from Deraa, a result, however, which they failed to achieve."

The fact that "historians" have no clue that there was ever a 1st Battle of Yarmouk two years earlier tells you a lot about their true knowledge of events.

The prepared, fortified Roman positions in the Daraa Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River above and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

Roman Victory in Syria

In 636 the Emperor Heraclius assembled a large army to retake Syria from Muslim Control.

We may not know the exact size or makeup of the Roman Army. All we can do is judge the reaction of the Muslim forces facing them.

Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible.

The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. 
The Muslims ran through the Daraa Gap and out into the desert beyond.

The Roman army moved in and re-occupied their old defenses slamming shut the Door to Syria.

Heraclius' policy was to stonewall and gain time to build up his forces to liberate Palestine..

The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk

The Yarmouk Defences

This is one of the greatest and most important battles in history, and yet we know next to nothing about events.

The Roman Army started their march south from Antioch in March or April of 636. The Muslims ran as fast as possible never giving battle. The Romans rapidly recaptured Syria and may have reoccupied their Daraa Gap defences around May or June.

As you can see from General Glubb's map above the Daraa Gap was not narrow. The Romans had to defend a front that was 15 miles wide. Not an easy task for any army.

So what were the "prepared defences" that Gen. Glubb spoke of? We can only guess.

Obviously there is no permanent 15 mile long Hadrian's Wall. There was no need. For centuries the enemy of Rome in the east was the Persian Empire not the Arabs so there was no need for major defences facing south.

So when the Muslims invaded the province of Palaestina Salutaris in 634 I believe the Emperor Heraclius ordered the erection of a string of the traditional fortified earthen Roman marching camps to help block the Daraa Gap. Earthen because I doubt any lumber was easily available to strengthen the walls, though the army may have brought some with them.

The Roman infantry would man the strong points and the cavalry units would patrol the gaps between the forts. Any Muslims pushing through between the forts would have Roman infantry behind them and could be caught in a vice of infantry and cavalry.

So the Roman line was anchored on the Yarmouk River on their right and the Lava fields on their left with forts and cavalry holding the center.

View of the remains of the Roman base camp when the 10th Roman Legion laid siege to Masada. With a lack of trees in the desert it is likely that the Romans erected a series of earthen forts in the Daraa Gap to block the Muslims.

The Opposing Forces

Troop numbers are all over the map and no one can really know the true numbers.

Muslim forces may have numbered between 15,000 and 40,000. I doubt the higher number based on the difficulty in supplying a large force in the desert. I select 25,000 because . . . . well, why not? It's as good a number as any and looks practical.

The Muslim army was commanded by Khalid ibn al-Walid.  Khalid organized the army into 36 infantry regiments and four cavalry regiments, with his cavalry elite, the mobile guard, held in reserve.

The exact size and composition of the Roman Army and its units in the Yarmouk campaign is a matter of considerable debate due to the scantness and ambiguous nature of the primary sources.

A typical Eastern Empire field army often numbered 15,000 to 20,000 men. It is possible that this being a major effort to recapture Syria and Palestine then all stops might have been pulled out. I would put my guess at an army of 30,000 plus.

The Emperor appointed Theodore Trithyrius as perhaps Commander-in-Chief in the newly raised army. Trithyrius was a Greek Christian and Roman Treasurer working for Emperor Heraclius and extremely loyal to the Emperor himself. He enjoyed supremacy under his title of sacellarius, usually appointed to the state treasurer.

Many Imperial regiments had been destroyed or badly mauled in recent campaigns. So the Emperor looked east to Armenia for the bulk of his troops. With the Persians defeated Armenia would have been a quiet front well able to spare frontier troops for Syria. 

This does not mean the Armenians were mercenaries. Far from it. While some Armenians may have signed on just for this campaign the history of Armenian Legions in the Roman Army goes back centuries. It is possible many of the Armenian troops were trained professionals or maybe partly trained militia that were called into service.

The units in the other one-third of the army varied. Roman ally Jabalah ibn al-Aiham, King of the Ghassanid Arabs, commanded an exclusively Christian Arab force. Other army contingents consisted of SlavsFranks and Georgians. Buccinator, a Slavic prince, commanded the Slavs. 

Byzantine sources mention Niketas the Persian, son of the Persian general Shahrbaraz, among the commanders. With Persia and Rome allied against the Muslims did Niketas bring with him a contingent of Persian troops? or did he command Romans? We do not know.

Perhaps two-thirds of the new army were Armenians and Christian Arabs. 

These different units coming together under one commander would not be new for the Romans. Foreign troops during the late Roman period were known as the Foederati ("allies") in Latin and often supplemented the regular army units.

The Commander-in-Chief in the army may have been Trithyrius. But Trithyrius was basically a bean counter from the Treasury. His level of military experience is unknown.  Vahan, an Armenian and the former garrison commander of Emesa, was in command of his Armenian units and may have had some command over the non-Armenian troops. . . . or perhaps command was partly shared with a somewhat joint council of the leaders of the different units.

 Colorized 1898 photo of a Bedouin warrior on horseback carrying a traditional Az-Zayah hunting spear. The Romans may have face soldiers much like this man.

The Battle

Under their king the mobile and nimble Christian Arabs acted as an ideal cavalry screen in front of the main Roman Army and pushed the Muslims almost totally out of Syria.

With the Muslims pushed out beyond the Daraa Gap the main Roman Army reocuppied the fortifications they had abandoned 18 months earlier. No doubt a lot of work was needed to strengthen the old strong points.

This second deadlock at the Daraa Gap lasted about four months.

A four month standoff between armies is a far cry from the incorrect single "Battle of Yarmouk" that historians talk about.

The Muslims tried to lure the Romans out of their prepared positions to no avail. On the other hand the Muslims had no desire to directly attack the Roman line, and that showed their weakness.

The Muslims tried to break the deadlock by working around the flanks of the Romans. Small units of Muslims infiltrated to the west over the Yarmouk River and to the east over the lava beds. These small units could threaten Roman supply lines with attacks and even pick off small units of Roman foragers.

More important there was an atmosphere of mistrust between the Romans, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs. Command lines were not clear and there appears to have been a struggle for power between Trithyrius and the Armenia commander Vahan. The effect of the feud was a decrease in coordination and planning.

Some say the Romans should have attacked the Muslims at once when they arrived. That action had seen the defeat of other Roman forces in the past. The Emperor's plan was to hold firm at Yarmouk. But while the Romans held firm Muslim reinforcements from Arabia were coming.

With the added troops the Muslims became increasingly aggressive. It is confusing but it appears that the Arabs came close to surrounding the Romans - - - or at least they had cut the Roman's communications on three sides.

A massive desert dust storm blinded the Roman Army
reducing visibility to near zero.

Some "Historians" claim the final conflict was a multi-day battle. General Glubb says it was all over in one day.

On August 20, 636 there was a massive sand storm. A hot wind was blowing clouds of sand and dust directly into the faces of the Romans.

  • Gen. Glubb:  "Few experiences are more unpleasant than a really hot dust-storm in the desert. Tents are blown down, cooking is impossible, food and drink are full of grit and the blinding sand stings the face and closes the eyes. Visibility may be reduced to a few yards. To face such a wind is impossible. There is nothing to be done but to crouch on the ground, and wait miserably for the storm to blow itself out."

The Arab attack was planned. Glubb believes the dust storm started the day before on the 19th. Seeing an opportunity the Arabs appear to have early on seized the bridge over the Wadi al Ruqqad which was on the Roman's lines of communications.

  • Gen. Glubb:  "While even bedouin scarcely enjoys a sand storm, it was to them a normal experience. Moreover the direction of the gale was from them to the enemy. Their vision was hampered, but with the wind behind them, they could attack with their eyes open, suffering little inconvenience. Such circumstances would obviously produce a soldier's battle. An army accustomed to fight in ranks by word of command would, under these conditions, be almost helpless." 

This was an impossible situation for any army. The Muslims could not break the Roman line - the sand storm did it for them.

  • Gen. Glubb:  "Then a wild horde of screaming Arabs, suddenly appearing like ghosts through the driving sand, poured across the Byzantine fortifications. If the dust-storm was really thick, it is unlikely that the imperial army succeeded in giving battle at all. With the bridge in their rear already seized by the Muslims, an immense slaughter resulted, Theodorus himself being killed in the melee. By the next morning, the Byzantine army, which Heraclius had spent a year of immense exertion to collect, had entirely ceased to exist. There was no withdrawal, no rearguard action, no nucleus of survivors. There was nothing left."


Roman Syria and Palestine still existed. Roman garrisons still controlled Jerusalem and Damascus. The navy supported the garrisons holding out in coastal towns such as Carsarea, Trye, Sidon and Tripoli.

The Muslims had failed to break the Roman defensive line. One has to speculate what would history have been like if there had been no sand storm. With no storm the army at Daraa might have withdrawn to Damascus and reorganized to fight another day. The Muslims could have been stopped there while the Roman Navy supported the coastal cities. Interesting thoughts to ponder.

When the aged Emperor Heraclius in Antioch heard about Yarmouk he knew the decision was irrevocable. He would have tried to reconquer the province if he had the resources but now had neither the men nor the money to defend the province any more.

Heraclius took to the sea on a ship to Constantinople in the night. 

Tradition says as his ship set sail he bade a last farewell to Syria:

Farewell, a long farewell to Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel's (enemy's) now. Peace be with you, O Syria—what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy.

Heraclius abandoned Syria with the holy relic of the True Cross, which was, along with other relics held at Jerusalem, secretly boarded on ship by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, just to protect it from the invading Arabs.

After abandoning Syria, he began to concentrate on his remaining forces for the defense of Anatolia, Egypt and Byzantine Armenia . Heraclius created a buffer zone in central Anatolia by ordering all the forts east of Tarsus to be evacuated.

But these stories are for Part X.

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



Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The basic look of the Roman cavalry during the Arab invasions would have not changed all that much. The heavy Cataphract units would have more armor and other units would have less for better mobility. The armored cavalry would act as the mailed fist of any Roman field army.
(Roman Empire.net)

(Yarmuk)    (Yarmouk)    (Great Arab Conquests)