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Byzantine strategy in the East and the key role of Armenia

Byzantine strategy in the East

By Georgios Theotokis

Until the early years of the tenth century, the Byzantines had not committed themselves into any definite war in a specific part of their frontiers in the East. However, from the year 915 onwards the attention of the Empire was focused – with intermediate breaks – on Armenia.

Empress Zoe’s government initiated a series of campaigns led by John Curcuas in Armenia and Mesopotamia in the 920s-40s, a policy which, however, did not include a conscious and long-term ambition of territorial expansion. That would changed with the emergence of the Hamdanid dynasty – led by Nasir and Sayf-ad-Dawla, these two powerful brothers established their Emirates in the regions of northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Sayf-ad-Dawla posed a vigorous resistance against the Byzantine raids in Mesopotamia and Armenia.

For a number of political, diplomatic, social, cultural and geographical reasons, the Empire was also attracted in the region of Armenia, Taron, Vaspourakan and northern Mesopotamia. But what were the deeper reasons that drew the super-power of the time, Byzantium, into a protracted and ‘all-out’ conflict with the Arabs of Aleppo in the middle of the 10th century?

“If these three cities, Khliat and Arzes and Perkri, are in the possession of the Emperor, a Persian [Arab] army cannot come out against Romania, because they are between Romania and Armenia, and serve as a barrier (φραγμός) and as military halts (απλίκτα) for armies.” – Constantine Porphyrogennitus’ De Administrando Imperio

This is, perhaps, one of the most significant statements for the strategic aims of the Byzantine governments in the tenth century, written between the years 948-52. It highlights not just the strategic importance of Armenia to the eastern frontiers of the Empire, but also the strategic importance of the fortress-towns around Lake Van and the Diyar-Bakr as “buffer-zones” between Armenia and the Caliphate – the towns of Khliat, Arzes, Perkri, Matzikert, Mayyafariqin and Amida.

Looking back into the Empire’s foreign policy in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, Byzantium scored its first success in the East as early as the 870s during the reign of Basil I (867-86). His reign was marked by the troublesome war with the heretical Paulicians when Basil unsuccessfully campaigned against their leader, Chrysocheir, in the spring of 871. A second expedition next year caught up with Chrysocheir near Dazimon and the Paulician leader was captured and killed. Basil further led an expedition against the strategic eastern Anatolian town of Melitene in 873 which, although failed to take the city, it sacked Sozopetra and Samosata. The emperor won valuable support in the East by breaking an alliance with the Armenian King of Kings Ashot I of the Bangratids and with his son and successor Smbat who pursued a clearly pro-Byzantine policy.

Following the end of the Bulgarian threat in 927, the strategic goals of the Imperial armies would be the preservation of a pro-Byzantine Armenia and the establishment of control over the cantons of Taron and Vaspourakan in eastern Anatolia, especially the strategic towns of Khliat, Matzikert, Perkri and Arzes around the Lake Van, and in northern Mesopotamia (Melitene, Samosata, Edessa and the regions facing the themes of Lykandos and Mesopotamia).

Hamdanids in 955
The Hamdanid Dynasty in 955 – image by Ro4444 / Wikimedia Commons

After 931, further attempts to besiege Samosata brought the Byzantines into contact with the emerging Emir Nasir-ad-Dawla of Mosul and his brother Sayf. The latter managed to prevent the siege of Theodosiopolis in 939. This success was followed up next spring (940) by a campaign deep into Byzantine territory through Taron and Chaldia: the young Muslim Emir seemed determined not to leave Byzantium to dominate the strategic region of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia. A peace treaty in 944 – after the taking of Edessa – put a halt in hostilities for the next six years.

But what were the attractions that drew Byzantium to the region of Armenia, Taron, Vaspourakan and northern Mesopotamia? The reasons can be divided into three categories:

1) Political and diplomatic

Chapters 43-46 of the De Administrando Imperio present a detailed account of the kastra and the local family connections in the principalities of Armenia proper. Constantine VII’s special interest in the internal politics and family connections of the Armenian naxarars is certainly linked to Sayf-ad-Dawla’s expeditions leading up to that of 940 when Sayf invaded north to Chaldea, forcing several Armenian princes in Taron and Vaspourakan to submit.

This was “soft diplomacy” and not aggressive policy of expansion. The ground was more fertile in Armenia for the use of diplomacy than in any other region on the eastern frontier of the Empire.

2) Social and cultural

The social and cultural reasons that drew Byzantium in Armenia and the region of the Caucasus involve the presence of Armenian migrants in Byzantium and the influence they would have exhorted over the shaping of the Imperial foreign policy in the East. Armenia became the primary recruiting pool for the Byzantine army after the loss of the Balkans to the Avaro-Slavs in the sixth century, with the Armenians quickly turning into the most prominent group in the ranks of the Imperial forces. All of these soldiers would also have accepted the Chalcedonian Rite of Orthodox Christianity without much difficulty, thus improving the religious ties between Constantinople and Armenia.

3) Geographical

Finally, geographical, topographical and climatic factors dictated the importance of Armenia for the defence of Anatolia. One of the reasons is that the distance between Armenia and Baghdad or Mosul is simply much smaller than the one between them and the cities and ports of Cilicia. Other topographical factors include the terrain of Mesopotamia and the Anti-Taurus and Pontic Mountains which are less rugged and more dissected by rivers than the Taurus. This means that any large armies marching through the Cilician Gates would be more exposed to threats from smaller Byzantine detachments. As Walter Kaegi has noted in his comparison of the Mesopotamian campaigns of Julian (363), Heraclius (627-28) and John Tzimiskes (974), that any army from Iraq or Syria could by-pass the Taurus by marching north following the Euphrates and entering Anatolia through Taron and Vaspourakan, a strategy that required, however, the co-operation of the Armenian princes.

But if Armenia was strategically far more important to the Byzantine government than Cilicia and Syria, then how can we explain the paradox of the extensive territorial gains on the other side of the Empire’s eastern frontiers – in Cilicia – in the third quarter of the 10th century, and the massive mobilisation of manpower for a war that lasted for decades? It all comes down to the personal and, as these were inter-connected, political image of the Byzantine Emperor as a sovereign chosen by God to protect His people. In this case, it was the personal image of Constantine VII Porphyrogennitus and of his predecessors.

“Your wondrous deeds are on every tongue”

In the opening years of his rule as sole Emperor, Constantine VII staked his prestige on recovering Crete, thus putting himself in the tradition of his father’s policy to recapture the island. But as the Cretan campaign of 949 was to end in a disaster, it would be humiliating and politically damaging for the Emperor’s prestige and it would make a great impression on the nobility and the people of the capital. This situation was followed in the 950s by an equally disastrous period of incessant raids conducted by Sayf-ad-Dawla, which would result in some of the most spectacular and humiliating defeats of Byzantine arms for many decades. But since the Byzantine strategy of the period was clearly defensive, and did not involve any kind of territorial expansion, then – to return to my question – how can we explain the extensive gains of territory in Cilicia and Syria in the following decades? The answer lies in the propaganda war against an emerging enemy of the Hamdanid Empire in the East, led by “the Sword of the Dynasty” Sayf-ad-Dawla!

Image from the Madrid Skyltizes depicting the Byzantine defeat on Crete

As Jonathan Shepard has highlighted, one of the major cultural changes that took place in the Empire in the mid-seventh century was the lack of protracted literary attention to, or substantive discussion of, “frontiers” as physical barriers or limits in Byzantine writings. The reasons behind that is, firstly, it must have been demeaning, to the point of insulting the Emperor, to point out how much “the Roman Empire has been diminished to the East and the West and mutilated” and, secondly, the Imperial foreign policy and the way this was shaped by diplomacy and diplomatic relations with Byzantium’s neighbours – in a sense, the “soft policy” that was already mentioned before. Geographical borders still existed in the Byzantine literature, like the Rivers Danube and Euphrates. But warfare was seen primarily as a matter of subjecting or sacking cities, and breaking the power of troublesome border emirs rather than any territorial expansion per se.

The following is a military oration that was read out – probably in late 950 – to the Byzantine soldiers returning from the eastern campaign of that year.

“With confidence in this hope [in Christ], and after entrusting your souls to it, you have set up such trophies as these against the enemy, you have striven for such victories as these, which have reached every corner of the world, and have made you famous not only in your native lands but also in every city. Now your wondrous deeds are on every tongue, and every ear is roused to hear them.”

The victory of Leo Phocas against the Hamdanids that year seems to have been exploited for propaganda purposes rather than for its real strategical value.

Between the composition of the aforementioned oration in 950 and the famous battle of the Hadath in October 954, Constantine attempted to make overtures to Sayf. These were defiantly rebuffed by the Emir and, instead, they were used by the Court poet Mutanabbi to enhance his patron’s stance in the Muslim world as champion of the jihad. The motives behind Sayf’s decision, coupled with his incessant raids in Cilicia and Mesopotamia, can be traced to a political situation very similar to that of the Emperor in the same period. Sayf was a newcomer in the region of northern Syria, trying to establish his power against the odds and against many enemies on different fronts, both Muslim (Ikshidites who took southern Syria during two wars in 945 and 947) and Christian. But Sayf’s biggest problem was internal – the Arab-Bedouin tribes of the Syrian desert and the Jazira and their raids against the sedentary populations of the region: the famous Αραβίται that will acquire special attention in the Praecepta Militaria of Nicephoros Phocas in that period.

To enhance his fame as a champion of the jihad, Sayf ad-Dawla also used poetry as the ideal tool for his propaganda; he is the hero of the works of Al-Mutanabbi (915-65), one of the greatest, most prominent and most influential poets in the Arabic language:

We read in the extracts from the Panegyric to Saif al-Daula, commemorating the building of Mar’ash in 341 (952 AD):

24. So on one day with horsemen you drive the Byzantines from them, and on another day with bounty you drive away poverty and dearth.

25. Your expeditions are continuous, and the Domesticus in flight, his companions slain and his properties plundered;

26. he came to Mar’ash, deeming the distant near as he advanced, and when you advanced he retreated, deeming the near distant.

30. but he turned his back, when the thrusting waxed furious – when his soul remembered the sharpness, he felt his flank,

31. And he abandoned the virgins, the patriarchs and the townships, the dishevelled Christians, the courtiers, and the crosses.

Mutanabbi’s poetry also does not involve any notion of territorial expansion. The main objective of the Emir is the defeat and humiliation of his enemies: “Your expeditions are continuous, and the Domesticus in flight, his companions slain and his properties plundered.” Mutanabbi further builds-up Sayf’s image as leader of the jihad in the thugur with a comparison; the Emir is painted as a bold and daring leader: “You stood [your ground] when death was not in doubt for anyone who did so”, while the Domesticus is clearly portrayed as a coward: “Dare he [Domesticus] always attack you when his neck was always reproaching his ​​face?”

“What God is great like our God?”

It is from this period of the middle of the 950s (possibly in 955) that we can remark the beginning of a new policy of Constantine VII to “raise the stakes” in his conflict with Sayf-ad-Dawla. We must pay attention to three points:

1. The proliferation of military treatises like the Syntaxis Armatorum Quadrata of the mid-950s, in which the author of the later (c. 969) Praecepta Militaria heavily relied on and revised: a study of which points to the fact that there have been a number of significant battle-tactic innovations that had only recently come into effective use.

2. The dismissal of the ageing Domestic of the Scholai Bardas Phocas in 955; if we believe Skylitzes’ comments on the military ingenuity of the senior of the Phocades: “Whenever he served under another, he showed himself to be a fine commander; but once authority over the entire land forces depended on his own judgement, he brought little or no benefit to the Roman realm.” However, the dismissal of a Domestic of the Scholai was more of a political decision and the fact that Bardas was replaced by his son Nicephoros, the strategos of Anatolikon, which meant that the office remained with the family of the Phocades, and no political persecution of its members took place leads us to assume that this important change of command signifies a change in Imperial policy as well.

Leo Phokas sents the captive Abu’l Asair, cousin of Sayf-ad-Dawla), whom he defeated in 956, to Emperor Constantine VII in Constantinople.

3. The ritual humiliation of Abu’l Asair in 956; Bardas’ second son Leo, strategos of Cappadocia, captured near Duluk (Doliche) a Hamdanid party led by Sayf-ad-Dawla’s cousin Abu’l Asair.  As Constantine and his supporters badly needed some sign of military success, they resulted in an innovative ceremony. Our first-hand source, the De Ceremoniis – and in particular this specific section of the second book that was probably compiled between 957 and 959, talks about the revival of the calcatio, a Roman ritual not used in processions since the crushing of Thomas the Slav’s rebellion in 823. This involved the ritual trampling of the enemy leader, with the protostator pushing the Emperor’s lance in the captive’s neck while the psaltes were singing: “What God is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders” [Constantine Porphyrogennitus’ De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae, II. 19].

The emperor’s wish was not just to humiliate the Hamdanid dynasty but also to involve as much as possible: (a) the people of the capital, by staging his triumph in the Forum of Constantine, and (b) the army and the family of the Phocades, as this is the first time since the early Byzantine period when the theme commanders participate in the victory parade which entered the capital.

The main points that I tried to make here had to do with the political and strategic importance of Armenia proper – and more specifically the cantons of Taron and Vaspourakan – as the “back door” for any enemy invasion routes into Anatolia. The Empire applied a sort of “soft diplomacy” that enabled negotiation, flattering and/or intimidation to win over the local naxarars. In this context, and bearing in mind that the Empire never contemplated any kind of permanent territorial expansion in the East in the 950s-60s, the nature of the warfare with the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo seems quite peculiar.

If we look at the political background of both protagonists – Constantine and Sayf – and their place within their courts, including the dire state of their internal political situation and their desperate need for a military success, then it all seems to fall into place. By the end of the 950s, this war had already escalated into an “all-out” conflict between the Emperor and the Aleppan Emir where no one could (politically) afford to succumb. In the end, it would be logistics and the vast resources Byzantium could pour into the wars in the East that turned the tide in their favour by 962.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His latest book is Twenty Battles That Shaped Medieval Europe. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis.

Top Image: Byzantines and Arabs in battle, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. 

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