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Was Constantinople besieged in 674-78?

By Georgios Theotokis

When historians are confronted with sources that are hundreds of years old, it can often be a challenge to piece together even the chronological order of events. The story of the so-called First Arab Siege of Constantinople is a good example of this. One needs to navigate confusing accounts and scraps of other evidence to even try to answer the question of whether a siege actually happened.

This major conflict between the nascent Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire has been conventionally dated to the period between 674-78 AD, marking the first culmination of the Caliphate’s expansionist strategy in the west. According to the Chronography of Theophanes the Confessor (who was writing in the early ninth century), the Arab attack had been meticulously planned: around the beginning of the 670s, the Umayyad-Arab fleets proceeded to impose a loose blockade on Constantinople by laying anchor between the southern suburb districts of Hebdomon (modern Bakırköy) and Kyklobion (modern Zeytinburnu) on the Marmara Sea. They used the peninsula of Cyzicus near the city as a base to spend the winter, and returned every spring to launch their attacks against the city’s defences. Finally, in 676/7 or 677/8, the Byzantines managed to destroy the Arab navy using the new and innovative liquid incendiary substance known as Greek Fire. The Byzantines also defeated the Arab land army in Asia Minor, forcing them to lift the siege.

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Since 2010, however, the veracity and accuracy of Theophanes’ account have been scrutinized by James Howard-Johnston and Marek Jankowiak, who accuse modern historians of being too keen to accept and, in many cases, to paraphrase Theophanes’ garbled account of the events of that period. Rather, both put the emphasis on the re-examination of the plentiful Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic sources that, although fragmentary, could help us paint a very different picture of the events that unfolded in the crucial decade of the 670s between these two major geopolitical players in the region. But what, exactly, are the problems with Theophanes’ account that have been flagged by Howard-Johnston and Jankowiak?

A 15th-century map of Constantinople by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, a Florentine cartographer, from the volume Liber insularum archipelagi – Wikimedia Commons

A twisted chronology

Byzantinists have long argued that the Chronography of Theophanes is a ‘pastiche’ of its sources, with many of them being partly lost or difficult to identify. Nevertheless, for the crucial years that followed Constantine IV’s accession to the throne in November 668, we know that two of Theophanes’ sources were probably the (now lost) history of Trajan ‘the Patrician’ and its continuation, and the Greek translation and continuation of the Syriac chronicle of Theophilus of Edessa. Especially regarding the latter, Theophanes contributes relatively little new information to the pool already formed about the first fifty years or so of Islamic history and, as Howard-Johnston has commented, Theophanes’ “editorial joinery is quite competent” and no serious chronological or sequence errors have been pointed out. That is until we reach the first of the two famous Arab sieges of Constantinople.

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Theophanes’ first serious chronological inconsistency can be traced in his report that Constantinople was under attack – not a tight blockade – for seven successive years between 670/1 and 676/77. This crucial information, however, cannot be substantiated by the detailed account provided by Theophilus of Edessa regarding the Arab naval activity in the Aegean Sea. In fact, Theophilus describes both the beginning and the end of the Arab naval attack against the city in the same year, 673/74, while two Arab fleets raided and temporarily occupied Cilicia (southeastern Anatolia) and Lycia (southwestern Anatolia) in the winter of 672. Another discrepancy includes Constantine IV equipping the Byzantine fleet with Greek Fire one year before its invention by Kallinikos of Helioupolis.

Then comes another of Theophanes’ disagreements with his Syriac source (Theophilus), this time regarding the critical Byzantine defeat of an Arab expeditionary force that was based in Lycia – a resounding victory on land and, thanks to the use of the Greek Fire, on sea. We read in the Chronography that, in 672, three substantial Arab fleets were sent to establish bases between Syria and the Aegean: the first under Muhammad b. Abd al-Rahmân wintered at Smyrna; the second under Abdallah b. Qays wintered in Lycia and Cilicia, and a third fleet, under a certain Khalid, joined them later.

The area around Byzantien Constantinople – image by Cplakidas / Wikimedia Commons

The assault against the Byzantine capital began the following spring, and for seven years (according to Theophanes) fighting raged beneath the city walls, next to the Golden Gate. Meanwhile, Arab naval activity in the southern Aegean continued unabated. Eventually the Arabs, achieving no significant progress, were forced to lift the siege, only for their fleet to be devastated by a storm at Sillyon, an important fortress and city near Attaleia in Pamphylia, on the southern coast of Anatolia. At this point, the author of the Chronography adds into his text one of the decisive battles of the seventh century – the victory by three Byzantine generals over an Arab expeditionary force that had landed in Lycia, followed by the complete destruction by fireships of the Umayyad fleet that had brought them. But what, exactly, does not make sense for modern historians about this episode of the Byzantine-Arab conflict?

Howard-Johnston and Jankowiak have pointed out that it is confusing how the Byzantine victory over the Arab fleet, led by Sufyān b. ʿAwf, relates to the Siege of Constantinople in the first place. If we take Theophanes’ account at face value, and assume that the Byzantine victory followed the lifting of the siege (in 677/78?), then several questions emerge that lack a solid answer. Why was such a powerful Arab army retreating from the city? Were these Arab reinforcements? And if there was a siege operation against Constantinople for seven years, then what was such a strong Byzantine army doing so far from the imperial capital? How were the Arab besieging fleet and army supplied with provisions? Was the fleet led by Sufyān different from the one destroyed at Sillyon? How did the Byzantines manage to defeat an Arab expeditionary force off Lycia and then, according to Theophanes, dispatch their own huge invasion force of Mardaites to deliver a counter-blow, in 677/8, while their own capital was still purportedly in grave danger?

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Some answers

The siege of Constantinople may not have been simply a myth, as Howard-Johnston implies in his 2010 book on the Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century. Nevertheless, modern historians definitely need to revise their narratives and dismiss the several-years-long siege of the Byzantine capital by Arab forces, conventionally put between the years AD 674 and 678. Only after we come to terms with the significant re-appraisal of this critical episode in the history of Byzantine-Arab relations can we begin to dig deeper into the fragmentary information provided by other Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic sources. And this is exactly what Jankowiak does in his painstakingly detailed 2013 article “The first Arab siege of Constantinople.”

The main weakness in Theophanes’ narrative lies with his decision to expand the annalistic format of writing that he had picked up from his mentor, the Byzantine chronicler and ecclesiastic George Synkellos, whose work Theophanes completed after the former’s death in 813. When Theophanes received George’s lists of annual entry headings, with their regnal years of emperors, Persian kings, Arab caliphs, and patriarchs, he decided to divide his material into annual entries and fit it into the entries that had already been prepared – although George had not completed his list until his own time. But the problem was that whatever the sources of George’s lists were, they seem to have been largely independent of the sources of Theophanes’ text.

During Theophanes’ era, the official Byzantine calendar was known as Anno Mundi – meaning “from the year of creation”. Each new year would begin on September 1, with the last day being August 31. The Byzantine year of 6165 AM would correspond with our dates of September 1, 673 to August 31, 674.

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Theophanes the Confessor bids farewell to patriarch Nikephoros, as depicted in the Skyllitzes Matritensis fol. 21r

For the author of the Chronography, the huge challenge was to establish the absolute date of each event, which often lacked precise dates in his sources, before fitting his material into the annual entries. At times, Theophanes’ material was already arranged in annual entries, but these entries were in regnal years that often did not correspond with those that Theophanes had adopted from George; at other times, the material was arranged by years of the indiction, which recurred in fifteen-year cycles, and the compiler had to make an educated guess on where to place an event in his work. In fact, modern scholars have figured out that Theophanes often dates events one year too early from 609/10 to 684/85, and from 725/26 to 772/73, a discrepancy that derived from a mistake in converting an indictional date to the year of the world.

If we focus on Theophanes’ two main sources for the First Arab Siege of Constantinople, historians have been able to point out the editorial mistakes and the stylistic inconsistency of the Chronography for this particular historical period, which come as a result of the not-very-skilful piecing together of the two accounts at our chronicler’s disposal. Theophanes has made extensive use of Theophilus of Edessa’s account for his narrative on the seventh century, which ‘conveniently’ offered a coherent sequence of precisely dated events arranged into annual entries, into which he often inserted notes from other sources such as Trajan ‘the Patrician’. It is worth noting here that, although the history of Trajan was a continuous narrative based on personal memory, Theophilus’ account, composed probably in the 750s, was of a fundamentally different nature, offering a solid chronological framework that could be inserted into the annalistic skeleton of Theophanes’ Chronography.

For the Byzantine-Arab conflict of the 670s, Jankowiak pointed out that Theophanes shifted between his two main sources thrice: in AM 6164, 6165, and 6169. For AM 6164, the historian mixed the expeditionary force that wintered at Smyrna and in Cilicia and Lycia with the “many ships” sent under the command of the emir Khalid, although there is nothing to suggest that these two fleets were part of the same campaign; in fact, Trajan writes about the fleet that took part in the siege of Constantinople, while Theophilus tells the story of the destruction of an invading Arab army in a battle fought possibly in Lycia, resulting in Theophanes’ effort to tie together his two sources. For the following year (AM 6165), he correlated the destruction of the Arab fleet at Sillyon, taken from Trajan, with the land victory over an Arab army, described in the account of Theophilus, although the two texts place the Arab disaster in different circumstances. Finally, for AM 6169, the entry that concludes the Byzantine-Arab conflict with the peace treaty between Constantine IV and the Umayyad Caliph, there is another attempt at historical synthesis by Theophanes.

In an excerpt from the Concise History of Patriarch Nicephorus (writing around AD 790) – who, like Theophanes, had used Trajan’s account – the anonymous “king of the Saracens” opens peace negotiations immediately after learning the news of the wreckage of the Arab fleet at Sillyon. Theophanes, however, in striving to integrate this with the Mardaite invasion of Lebanon from the account of Theophilus of Edessa, concludes that this preceded the peace treaty – of which Theophilus made no mention – and prompted the Caliph to sue for peace. Therefore, when Theophanes introduces the peace negotiations between the two powers by writing, “When Mauias and his advisers had learnt of this,” he no longer refers to the disaster at Sillyon, but to the Mardaite invasion of Lebanon.

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Reconsidering the chronology of events

Howard-Johnston and Jankowiak have categorically dismissed the many-year siege of Constantinople by the Umayyad land and naval forces, based on the several inconsistencies in Theophanes’ account due to trouble with his sources. However, Jankowiak has sought to reconstruct the actual chain of events that followed Constantine IV’s accession to the throne in November 668. To do so, he has made extensive use of the fragmentary evidence that can be pieced together from several contemporary or later sources transmitted in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic. His conclusions paint a very different picture of Byzantine and Arab conflict in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Marmara Seas throughout the 670s, one that is very much in favour of a Byzantine recovery in the region that would, eventually, lead to the Byzantine invasion of the Lebanese coast and would paralyse the Arab offensive capability, thus forcing the Arabs into formal peace negotiations that would see them ceasing their raids into Anatolia by around AD 680.

The deep crisis that affected the final years of Constans II between 662 and 668, and the first years of the reign of Constantine IV, is reported by Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī – although he lived in the tenth century, he remains a key historian of the early Islamic world – who documents a disastrous defeat of the Byzantine army and the death of several patricians during the first Arab raid inside Anatolia in AD 662/3. That disaster was followed the next year by an incursion said to have reached as far as Constantinople. Numerous sources such as Theophilus of Edessa, Trajan the Patrician, the Life of Saint Andrew the Fool (believed to have been compiled in the 670s), and al-Wāqidī (d. 822/3) report the victory over Sufyān b. ʿAwf in 673/4, in which the Byzantines, led by three patricians, killed 30,000 Arabs before destroying the Arab fleet with Greek fire. This success, however, did not change the course of the war, as it was implied by Theophilus of Edessa – according to al-Ṭabarī, Arab raiding would peak in 668–9 and 669–70.

The surge in the Byzantine Empire’s naval activity far from the Marmara Sea and the Northern Aegean is evident in the information about a Byzantine naval operation in Egypt, in 672 or 673. More specifically, the Book of the Governors of Egypt by al-Kindī (d. 961) reports about a plausible Byzantine attack against the district of Paralos, at the northernmost tip of the Nile Delta: an event that demonstrates their capacity to launch operations on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, something that would have been inconceivable if Constantinople were under any sort of threat by land or by sea. Sigillography and recent studies on the seals of the general kommerkiarioi, the fiscal officials of the Byzantine Empire charged with the collection of the imperial sales tax, can also confirm this activity on the fringes of the Empire.

Constantine IV, mosaic in basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. Photo by Saliko / Wikimedia Commons

Between 676 and 678, when Constantinople is thought to have been besieged by the Arabs, sources confirm that at least three official letters were dispatched from the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Pope of Rome. News also circulated in the opposite direction, as the name of Pope Donus (consecrated on 2 November 676) was known in Constantinople. In fact, the Liber Pontificalis implies that, around that time, Donus anticipated an attempt to restore unity with the Church of Constantinople, which means that the Pope certainly judged the political situation in the Byzantine capital to be sufficiently calm. A similar picture of Byzantine activity far from the walls of Constantinople can be deduced from the narrative of the Miracles of Saint Demetrius. The fourth ‘miracle’ of the second collection tells the story of a siege of Thessalonica by the Slavs: the blockade of the city is said to have lasted for an entire two years before an imperial expedition to relieve the city defeated the Slavs in a pitched battle. Lemerle has dated this ‘miracle’ to the reign of Constantine IV, and the Slavic general assault on Thessalonica to 25 July 677. Furthermore, the ‘miracle’ records that the emperor was unable to relieve Thessalonica earlier because he was “busy arming an expedition against the apostate Agarenes.” This is a reference to the Byzantine attack on the Syrian coast just south of Bāniyās, which can be dated to 675/6.

But if we can so easily dismiss the many-year siege of Constantinople by the Arab forces under Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyah, is it possible to determine another date for the siege? The main thing to keep in mind when we examine the Muslim sources for the period (because they are the ones associated with the most important effort at conquering Constantinople with Yazīd) is that the narratives for these operations have been through an anti-Umayyad ‘historiographical filter’, applied by later Abbasid historians, thus reducing the events to the barest outline. Therefore, of high value are two eighth-century Spanish Umayyad sources that escaped the Abbasid censorship, and which recorded the expedition of Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyah against Constantinople. Although they do not provide an absolute date, they situate the siege of Constantinople by Yazīd around the time of the accession of Constantine IV, between the spring of 668 and the summer of 669. These chronicles are the Continuatio Byzantia Arabica, better known as The Spanish-Arab Chronicle of 741, and The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754.

Depiction of the use of Greek fire, from the Madrid Skylitzes.

Other clues that could help historians pinpoint the exact year of the Arab siege of the Byzantine capital include archaeological evidence from one of the city’s main military gates: in the Yeni Mevlevihane Kapisi, known in Byzantine times as the Gate of Rhegium or the Gate of the Reds after the circus faction that built it, there are two tabulae ansatae engraved on the northern wall of its southern tower that, in all likelihood, bear witness to the speedy renovations for the upcoming siege of Constantinople of early 668, or perhaps to the restoration of the city’s walls after Yazīd had lifted it. The inscription can be dated to the year 667/8. Furthermore, we know of a liturgical hymn written to celebrate and remember the successful defence of the city against the Muslims, commemorating the event on 25 June, which confirms that Yazīd’s siege took place in spring (of 668), and had been lifted by 25 June. Then, there is another kontakion, a hymn performed in the Orthodox liturgical traditions, that was composed in Syracuse in 668, which also refers to the defence of the imperial capital from the ‘impious tribe of Hagar’.

A final clue for the dating of the Arab threat to Constantinople comes from a sealed synodical letter of Patriarch Thomas II (ruled between 667 and 669) to Pope Vitalian (papacy 657-72), that was opened in front of the assembly of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, held in 680-81 in Constantinople. The reason why the letter had remained sealed and was never dispatched to Rome was, as the chartophylax (chief secretary) who produced the letter from the patriarchal archive asserted, “the long-lasting incursion by the godless Saracens and their presence throughout the two years when he [Thomas] was a bishop.”

In piecing together all these different sources, one is left with the impression that the first Arab siege of Constantinople was something that lasted for weeks or months, and that it was certainly not the major challenge to the Byzantine Empire that has been previously believed. That would come a generation later, when the Umayyads returned to lay siege to Constantinople in 717.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of the 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

Further Readings:

The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813, edited and translated by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott (Clarendon Press, 1997)

Howard-Johnston, James, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Jankowiak, Marek, “The First Arab Siege of Constantinople,” Travaux et Mémoires 17 (2013) pp. 237-320.

Wellhausen, Julius, “Arab Wars with the Byzantines in the Umayyad Period,” in Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times, edited by Michael Bonner (Ashgate, 2004) pp. 31-64

This article was first published in Medieval Warfare, Vol.8:5. Click here to buy this issue. You can get new issues of the magazine, now called Medieval World, by joining our Patreon.

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