Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

Military Glory

While Constantine Porphyrogenitus had been dragging out the monotonous years of his long reign, events which completely changed the aspect of affairs in the Moslem East had been following each other in quick succession on the Asiatic frontier of his realm. Ever since it first came into existence the Byzantine Empire had been faced in Asia by a single powerful enemy; first by the Sassanian kingdom of Persia, then by the Caliphate under the two dynasties of the Ommeyades and the Abbasides. Now, however, the Caliphate had at last broken up, and the descendants of Abdallah-es-Saffah and Haroun-al-Raschid had become the vassals of a rebellious subject, and preserved a mere nominal sovereignty which did not extend beyond the walls of their palace in Bagdad.

The crisis had come in 951 A.D., when the armies of the Buhawid prince Imad-ud-din, who had seized on the sovereignty of Persia, broke into Bagdad and made the Caliph a prisoner in his own royal residence. For the future the Caliphs were no more than puppets, and the Buhawid rulers used their names as a mere form and pretence. But the conquerors did not gain possession of the whole of the Caliphate; only Persia and the Lower Euphrates Valley obeyed them. Other dynasties rose and fought for the more western provinces of the old Moslem realm. The Emirs of Aleppo and Mosul, who ruled respectively in North Syria and in Mesopotamia, became the immediate neighbours of the East-Roman Empire, while the lands beyond them, Egypt and South Syria, formed the dominions of the house of the Ikshides.

Thus the Byzantines found on their eastern frontier no longer one great centralized power, but the comparatively weak Emirates of Aleppo and Mosul, with the Buhawid and Ikshidite kingdoms in their rear. The fur Moslem states were all new and precarious creations of the sword, and were generally at war with each other. An unparalleled opportunity had arrived for the empire to take its revenge on its ancient enemies and to move back the Mahometan boundaries from the line along the Taurus where they had so long been fixed.

Fortunately it was not only the hour that had arrived, but also the man. The empire had at its disposal at this moment the best soldier that it had possessed since the death of Leo the Isaurian. Nicephorus Phocas was the head of one of those great landholding families of Asia Minor who formed the flower of the Byzantine aristocracy; he owned broad lands in Cappadocia, along the Mahometan frontier. His father and grandfather before him had been distinguished officers, for the whole race lived by the sword, but Nicephorus far surpassed them. He was not only a practical soldier, but a military author: his book, ?e?? ?a?ad???? p?????, dealing with the organization of armies, still survives to testify to his capacity.

It was on Nicephorus then that Romanus II., the son and heir of Constantine VII., fixed his choice, when he resolved to commence an attack on the Mahometan powers. The point selected for assault was the island of Crete, the dangerous haunt of Corsairs which lay across the mouth of the Aegean, and sheltered the pestilent galleys that preyed on the trade of the empire with the West. Several expeditions against it had failed during the last half-century, but this one was fitted out on the largest scale. The vessels are said to have been numbered by the thousand, and the land force was chosen from the flower of the Asiatic "themes." Complete success followed the arms of Nicephorus. He drove the Saracens into their chief town Chandax (Candia), stormed that city, and took an enormous booty—the hoarded wealth of a century of piracy. The whole island then submitted, and Nicephorus sailed back to Constantinople to present to his sovereign, in bonds, Kurup the captive Emir of Crete, and all the best of the booty of the island [961].

Nicephorus was duly honoured for his feat of arms, and given command of an army destined to open a campaign in the next year against the great frontier strongholds of the Saracens in Asia Minor. Descending by the passes of the Central Taurus into Cilicia, Phocas stormed Anazarbus, and then forced Mount Amanus, and marched into Northern Syria. There he took the great town of Hierapolis, and laid siege to Aleppo, the capital of the Emir Seyf-ud-dowleh, who ruled from Mount Lebanon to the Euphrates. The Emir was routed, the walls of his capital were stormed, and Aleppo, with all its wealth, fell into the hands of the Byzantine general. But the citadel still held out, and its protracted resistance gave time for the Moslems of South Syria and Mesopotamia to combine for the relief of their northern compatriots. So great an army appeared before the walls of Aleppo that Phocas determined not to risk a battle, and retreated with his booty and his numerous prisoners into the defiles of Taurus [962]. Sixty captured forts and castles in Cilicia and North Syria were the permanent fruits of his campaign.

The next year the emperor Romanus II. died, very unexpectedly, ere he had reached his twenty-sixth year. He left a young wife, and two little boys, Basil, aged seven, and Constantine, who was only two. There followed the form of regency that custom had made usual. Nicephorus, the most powerful and popular subject of the empire, claimed the guardianship of the two young Caesars, and had himself crowned as their colleague. To secure his place he married their mother, the young and beautiful empress-dowager Theophano.

The joint reign of Nicephorus Phocas and his wards, Basil II. and Constantine VIII. lasted six years, 963-969. The regent behaved with scrupulous loyalty to the young princes, and made no attempt to encroach on their rights, or to supplant them by any of his numerous nephews, who had looked forward to his accession as likely to lead to their own promotion to imperial power.

Nicephorus was an indefatigable soldier, and spent more of his reign in the field than in the palace. His end in life was to complete, as emperor, the conquest of Cilicia and North Syria, which he had commenced as general. The years 964 and 965 were spent in achieving the former object: three long sieges made him master of the great Cilician frontier fortresses, Adana, Mopsuestia, and Tarsus. Their rich bronze gates were sent as trophies to Constantinople, and set up again in the archways of the imperial palace. A few months later the tale of victories was completed by the news that Cyprus also had fallen back into Byzantine hands, after having passed seventy-seven years in the power of the Saracens.

For two years after this Phocas was employed at home, where his administration was less popular than in the camp. The stern old soldier was not a friend of either priests or courtiers. He had several quarrels with the patriarch Polyeuctus, which made him detested by the clergy, and in his public life he displayed a dislike for pomp and ceremony which led the Byzantine populace to style him a niggard and an extortioner. He suppressed shows and sports, and turned all the public revenues into the war budget, which lay nearest his heart. When he left the city in 968 for a new campaign against the Saracens, he was a much less popular ruler than when he had entered it in triumph in 966 after the conquest of Cilicia.

In the camp, however, Nicephorus was as well loved and as successful as ever. His last Syrian expedition was no less glorious than his earlier campaign in the same quarter six years before. All the North Syrian cities fell into his hands—Emesa, Hierapolis, Laodicea, and with them Aleppo, the residence of the Emir: Damascus bought off the invader by a great tribute. Only Antioch, the ancient capital of the land, held out, and Antioch also was taken in the winter by escalade, through the daring of an officer named Burtzes. The story of its fall is curious. The Emperor had left a blockading army before it under a general named Peter, with orders not to risk an assault. Burtzes, the second in command, disobeyed orders and stormed a corner tower on a snowy night at the head of a small band of 300 men. Peter, in fear of the Emperor's orders, refused to send him aid, and for more than two days Burtzes maintained himself unaided in the tower he had won. At last, however, the main body entered, and the Saracens fled from the town.. Nicephorus dismissed both his generals from the service—Burtzes for having acted against orders, Peter for having obeyed them too slavishly, and allowing an important advantage to be imperiled.

Nicephorus returned to Constantinople in the following year, to meet his death at the hands of those who should have been his nearest and dearest. His wife, Theophano had learnt to hate her grim and stern husband, who, though he possessed all the virtues, displayed none of the graces. She had cast her eyes in love on the Emperor's favourite nephew, John Zimisces, a young cavalry officer, who had greatly distinguished himself in the Syrian war. Zimisces listened to her tempting, but he was not swayed by lust, but by ambition: he had hoped that his uncle would make him heir to the throne, to the detriment of the young emperor Basil. The loyal old soldier had no idea of wronging his wards, and his nephew resolved to gain by murder what he could not gain by favour.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


So John and Theophano conspired against their best friend, and basely murdered him in the palace one December night in 969. The Emperor was awakened from sleep to find a dozen of the assassins forcing his door. John threw him to the ground, and the others stabbed him, while he cried in his death-agony, "Oh, God! grant me Thy mercy!"

Thus ended the brave and virtuous Nicephorus Phocas. His murderers succeeded in their end, for John Zimisces was able to seduce the guards, over-awe the ministers, and force the patriarch to crown him emperor.. He showed some contrition for the base slaughter of his uncle, giving away half his private fortune to found hospitals for lepers, and the other half to be distributed among the poor of the city. He did not wed the partner of his guilt, the empress Theophano, but refused to see her face, and ultimately sent her to a monastery.

If the manner of his accession could but be forgiven John might pass for a favourable specimen of an emperor. He respected the rights of the young emperors Basil and Constantine as scrupulously as his uncle had done, and proved that as an administrator and a soldier he was not unworthy to sit in the seat of Phocas. But the Nemesis of the murder of his uncle rested upon him in the shape of a long civil war. His cousin Bardas Phocas took arms to revenge the death of the old Nicephorus, and stirred up troubles among his Cappadocian countrymen for several years, till at last he was captured and immured in a monastery.

The chief feat for which John Zimisces is remembered is his splendid victory over the Russians, whose great invasion of the Balkan Peninsula falls within the limits of his reign. We have not yet had much occasion to mention the Russian tribes, who for many centuries had been dwelling in obscurity and barbarism, by the waters of the Dnieper and the Duna, in a land of forest and marsh, far remote from the boundaries of the empire. Nor should we hear of them now, but for the fact that their scattered tribes had been of late unified into a single horde by a power from without, and urged forward into a career of conquest by a race of ambitious princes. Into the land of the Russians there had come some hundred years before the reign of John Zimisces [862], a Viking band from Sweden, headed by Rurik, the ancestor of all the princes and Tzars of Russia. The descendants of these adventurers from the north had gradually conquered and subdued all the Slavonic tribes of the great forest-land, and formed them into a single powerful kingdom. Its capital lay at Kief on the Dnieper, and it had proved a formidable neighbour to all the barbarous tribes around. The Viking blood of the new Russian princes drove them seaward, and ere many generations had passed they had forced their way down the Dnieper into the Euxine, and begun to vex the northern borders of the Byzantine Empire with raids and ravages like those which the Danes inflicted on Western Europe. Twice already, within the tenth century, had large fleets of light Russia row-boats—they were copies on a smaller scale of the Viking ships of the North stolen down from the Dnieper mouth to the shores of Thrace, and landed their plundering crews within a few miles of the Bosphorus, for a hurried raid on the rich suburban provinces. On the first occasion in 907, the Russians had returned home laden with plunder, but on the second, which fell in 941, the Byzantine fleet had caught them at sea, and revenged the harrying of Thrace by sinking scores of their light boats, which could not resist for a moment the impact of the heavy war-galley urged by its hundred oars.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


But the attack which John Zimisces had to meet in 970 was far more formidable than either of those which had preceded it. Swiatoslaf, king of the Russians, had come down the Dnieper with no less than 60,000 men, and had thrown himself on to the kingdom of Bulgaria, which was at the moment distracted by civil war. He conquered the whole country, and soon his marauders were crossing the Balkans and showing themselves in the plain of Thrace. They even sacked the considerable town of Philippopolis before the imperial troops came to its aid. This roused Zimisces, who had been absent in Asia Minor, and in the early spring of 971 an imperial army of 30,000 men set out to cross the Balkans and drive the Russians into the Danube. The struggle which ensued was one of the most desperate which East-Roman history records. The Russians all fought on foot, in great square columns, armed with spear and axe: they wore mail shirts and peaked helmets, just like the Normans of Western Europe, to whom their princes were akin. The shock of their columns was terrible, and their constancy in standing firm almost incredible. Against these warriors of the North Zimisces led the mailed horsemen of the Asiatic themes, and the bowmen and slingers who were the flower of the Byzantine infantry. The tale of John's two great battles with the Russians at Presthlava and Silistria reads much like the tale of the battle of Hastings. In Bulgaria, as in Sussex, the sturdy axe-man long beat off the desperate cavalry charges of their opponents. But they could not resist the hail of arrows to which they had no missile weapons to oppose, and when once the archers had thinned their ranks, the Byzantine cavalry burst in, and made a fearful slaughter in the broken phalanx. More fortunate than Harold Godwinson at the field of Senlac, King Swiatoslaf escaped with his life and the relics of his army. But he was beleaguered within the walls of Silistria, and forced to yield himself, on the terms that he and his men might take their way homeward, on swearing never to molest the empire again. The Russian swore the oath and took a solemn farewell of Zimisces. The contrast between the two monarchs struck Leo the Deacon, a chronicler who seems to have been present at the scene, and caused him to describe the meeting with some vigour. We learn how the Emperor, a small alert fair-haired man, sat on his great war-horse by the river bank, in his golden armour with his guards about him, while the burly Viking rowed to meet him in a boat, clad in nothing but a white shirt, and with his long moustache floating in the wind. They bade each other adieu, and the Russian departed, only to fall in battle ere the year was out, at the hands of the Patzinak Tartars of the Southern Steppes. Soon after Swiatoslaf's death the majority of the Russians became Christians, and ere long ceased to trouble the empire by their raids. They became faithful adherents of the Eastern Church, and drew their learning, their civilization, even their names and titles from Constantinople. The Tzars are but Caesars misspelt, and the list of their names—Michael, Alexander, Nicholas, John, Peter, Alexis—sufficiently, witnesses to their Byzantine godparents. Russian mercenaries were ere long enlisted in the imperial army, and formed the nucleus of the "Varangian guard," in which at a later day, Danes, English, and Norsemen of all sorts were incorporated.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


John Zimisces survived his great victory at Silistria for five years, and won, ere he died, more territory in Northern Syria from the Saracens. The border which his uncle Nicephorus had pushed forward to Antioch and Aleppo was advanced by him as far as Amida and Edessa in Mesopotamia. But in the midst of his conquests Zimisces was cut off by death, while still in the flower of his age. Report whispered that he had been poisoned by one of his ministers, whom he had threatened to displace. But the tale cannot be verified, and all that is certain is that John died after a short illness, leaving the throne to his young ward Basil II., who had now attained the age of twenty years [976].