The Second Siege of Constantinople: July 717-August 718
(This is a guest cross-post from the amazingly funny and informative blog, GRAPHIC FIRING TABLE. Please take time to go visit that blog; I guarantee you wont be disappointed.)
I wanted to discuss this, possibly the most important military event between the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the Ottoman conquest of the city (and the final curtain on the “Roman” imperial polity) in 1453.
There’s a real problem with doing this in my usual way, and that’s that we have almost no record of the military actions of the Second Siege. I’ll get to this issue in the “Sources” section, but the accounts of the events of the tumultuous year that ended the Omayyad expansion into southeastern Europe are largely political or anecdotal in nature. The best we can do at this remove is make some guesses about what happened and why, so the “military lessons” from this engagement are perforce at a higher level than what is by rights the province of a sergeant.
I will, however, attempt to reconstruct the siege year and draw some conclusions from my results. But, unlike a typical “Decisive Battles” post, this one will address the geopolitical issues and outcomes of the 8th Century collision between the first wave of Islam and the last remnants of Rome.
Roman (Byzantine) Imperial:
Here’s where we come up against our first encounter with the empty space where the military record of the Second Siege should be – we have no idea how large, or what units composed, the garrison of the city of Constantinople in 717. Those records must have existed – the Roman Empire still kept a professional standing army, with all the bureaucracy that implies – but in the succeeding 1300 years they were destroyed, lost, or mislaid. We have none of the imperial records of units assigned to the capital garrison as we have for much earlier times in Rome itself. So the best we can do is guess.
By the 8th Century the Byzantine version of the Roman Army had undergone significant changes from the classical short-sword-and-square-shield infantry legion of Augustus’ times. Probably the most important change was the rise of the cavalryman. After the Gothic tribes showed how effective a heavy armed and armored man on a heavy horse could be the Byzantine/Romans did what any good soldier does – they adapted and overcame.
In addition to becoming a cavalry-heavy organization the Byzantine empire lacked the logistical efficiency of the earlier imperium. The Empire was unable to support a large force of full-time professionals, and therefore developed the “Theme” system.
Under this arrangement the Byzantine field armies ceased to become Imperial garrisons or expeditionary forces, controlled by the central administration in Rome (or Constantinople, as was now the case). The units were settled in provinces, or themata, and the army commander also became the local civil ruler.
This allowed the themata to become what we would think of as reservists; farmers or landholders most of the time but with their arms and armor on hand to form up when the barbarians came over the wire.
At the time of our Siege there were eight themata, but only two were close enough to the capital to have provided troops to the garrison; Thrace and Optimatoi.
In the 10th Century we have a TO&E for the Thracian theme that puts the total troop number at 9,600; I could not find a breakdown of cavalry and infantry but a typical Byzantine force would certainly have been at least half heavy cavalry, called cataphracts, armed with lance, bow and sword.
Don’t confuse these guys with the ironheaded medieval chivalry that followed them; they were competent professional troopers equally comfortable skirmishing with the bow or charging home with long lance in hand. They could and would also fight on foot if needs must; no feudal pigheadedness about the “nobility” of the steed in these guys.
The remaining half would have been some combination, largely heavy melee infantry with a mixture of projectile-firers, slingers or more likely archers.
Light troops would probably have been hired “barbarian” horsemen; Turks, Arabs, Scythians or other Central Asians.
The problem with drawing too many troops from the themata, though, is that the remainder of the Empire had to be defended as well; the besiegers hadn’t actually conquered the Anatolian mainland – as we’ll see, they had moved through Byzantine territory as a mobile force, and other Arab incursions from the east, as well as potential Balkan raiders, were still a threat. So it’s unlikely that the themata provided more than 8,000-10,000 troops or so to the garrison before the siege lines closed.
The primary garrison of the city, however, was drawn from what was called the tagmata “the regiments”; the full-timers, the Active Duty guys. There were four main tagmata units that would have been around the Emperor and the capital when the Arab banners showed up around the Golden Horn:
- The Scholai (Σχολαί, “the Schools”), was the senior unit, the direct successor of the imperial guards that replaced the Praetorians after Milvian Bridge. The Scholai of 717 were not genuine fighting soldiers, however; they had become a sort of parking place for young noblemen too incompetent to be given a troop command and too sparky to be happy lolling about Constantinople as a town clown. The real imperial guards units included:
- The Exkoubitoi or Exkoubitores (Ἐξκούβιτοι, “the Sentinels”), and
- The Arithmos (Ἀριθμός, “Number”) or Vigla (Βίγλα, from the Latin Vigiles, or Watch). The actual Constantinople garrison included the
- Noumeroi (Gr. Νούμεροι, “Numbers”), and a similar regiment called “of the Walls” (τῶν Τειχέων in Greek).
Now…we have no fucking idea of the strength of these units. We know that the Exkoubitoi and the Arithmos were cavalry units and the Noumeroi were infantry, but other than that we can only guess. The numbers mentioned range from 1,000 to 4,000. Let’s be generous and assume that a big city like Constantinople would need a sizeable garrison, so let’s take the top number for the two city infantry units, together about 8,000 to 10,000. Let’s assume probably about 5,000-6,000 for the two other guards units, plus another 5,000 for the sort of ash-and-trash that gets swept up whenever there’s a real panic on, and you have a land garrison of roughly 25,000.
But the combat power of the Constantinople garrison wasn’t primarily land-based. The city was surrounded on three sides by water, so the Home Fleet was a powerful component of the garrison.
Again, we have no real idea of the number of warships and sailors on hand to meet the Islamofascists of 717. The Byzantine fleet had been hammered pretty badly by Muslim warships at the “Battle of the Masts” in 655, and though the Imperial navy had been largely rebuilt, it also had a hell of a lot of the Mediterranean to patrol. So to assume that the fleet base at the capital moored no more then 300 to 400 galleys and no more then 10,000 sailors and marines probably isn’t too harsh on the Imperials.
So, altogether, roughly 35,000 troops and 400 warships, all under the overall command of the Emperor Leo III (Λέων Γ), the so-called Isaurian who should have been called the Cunning, or the Sneaky. We’ll hear more of His Sneakiness later.
Here again, we’re talking about accounts usually written decades or even generations after the events of 717-718, and often by men who had little or no military experience. Medieval chroniclers tended to exaggerate troop numbers wildly, either to celebrate their own forces’ victory over the Heathen Hordes; or because they assumed that armies were just huge and invented numbers that sounded huge,to them.
Here’s what we’ve got:
An Arabic account written in Syria in the late 8th Century (i.e. geographically distant and outside the lifetime of the participants) just calls the Omayyad army “innumerable”.
Writing about 300 years later “Michael the Syrian” pegs the Omayyad forces as 200,000 men and 5,000 ships; this is just ridiculous and can ignored.
Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas’udi (say that with a mouth full of marbles, I dare ya!), writing in Egypt in the 10th Century comes up with 120,000 troops, and the 9th-century account by the monastic chronicler Theophanes puts the Omayyad fleet at 1,800 ships. Other guesstimates for the Arab forces put the land contingent at between 80,000 and 100,000 and the fleet at something between 800 and 1,000 vessels. It’s really anyone’s guess, but something like 80,000 troops sounds like the minimum needed for a siege of this sort, and 1,000 warships doesn’t sound unreasonable.
As with the Byzantines, the composition of the Omayyad army is almost unknown. The Arab chroniclers claim that the most numerous and dependable element of the force was the ahl al-Sham, the “Army of Syria” that had formed the hard core of the Omayyad campaigns against the Romans. These troops would have included a mixture of melee infantry and foot archers, light cavalry and heavy cavalry similar to the Byzantine cataphracts.
For a siege the force probably included a fairly large number of “labor troops”, a nice way of describing a bunch of poor bastards levied from the villages to do the dog-work of digging and carrying essential to taking a fortified place in the 8th Century.
This force was led by Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik and included the Omayyad commanders Umar ibn Hubaira, Sulayman ibn Mu’ad, and Bakhtari ibn al-Hasan (the Kitab al-’Uyun says Abdallah al-Battal instead of Bakhtari).
We’re dealing with the usual problems of ancient history again: the primary sources have been lost; army pay records, unit lists, first-hand accounts, letters, diaries – not many of those, anyway, in a largely illiterate age.
The secondary sources are usually written by monks or academics, whose military knowledge is scanty and credulity about military matters bottomless.
And even those sources are often lost.
Let’s look at one, the Byzantine “history” of Theophanes “the Confessor”.
First of all, this mook wasn’t even born until some time in the middle 8th Century. By the time he was old enough to spit up his mother’s milk the guys who had fought over the walls of Constantinople would have been in their fifties at best, those who were still alive.
His entire training for the job of military historian was the standard education for a Byzantine noble; reading and writing in Latin and Greek, typically the older Roman classics.
He is said to have written his historical chronicle (referred to as Annus Mundi (“Years of the World”) probably because the text survived in Latin although the original would have been in Greek) some time in the early 9th Century; this, in turn, is supposed to have been not much more than an annotation and continuation of the Ἐκλογὴ Χρονογραφίας (Selection of Chronography) by an earlier monastic scholar, George Syncellus. Of this earlier work “despite its obvious influence on and importance to later chronographic tradition, nothing survives of the original text” (Thornton, 2004).
I was not able to track down the provenance of the existing texts of Theophanes’ work in the short time allotted to this post; I am guessing that it followed the typical monastic copyist routes until the Gutenberg Revolution. It seems to have been transcribed accurately enough, but begs the question of exactly how and from who Theophanes got his information.
We don’t know how, and the who seems to have been largely other, older chroniclers up until the events of his recent past. We have no idea who told him the story of the Second Siege; he doesn’t attribute anyone. It may well have been an eyewitness…or not. We just don’t know.
Let’s look at the Arab side of the hill. One of the main secondary sources is the Khitab Al ‘Uyun, or Book of Springs, written some time in the 11th Century. This work is well discussed in Brooks (1899) in the Journal of Hellenic Studies article found here. In it Brooks (1899) states that the author of the work sourced mostly from two earlier Arab writers, al-Waqidi ( الواقدي) and primarily Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (أبو جعفر محمد بن جرير بن يزيد الطبري) whose monster work History of the Prophets and Kings ( تاريخ الرسل والملوك, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk) forms the primary source for much of our understanding of the Omayyad period.
But the author of the Book of Springs includes a highly detailed – if, at times, highly creative – account of the political side of the campaign, and it is from this that we derive much of our understanding of the Arab strategy and movements.
But here, too, I cannot find any indication that a contemporary copy of either Al-Tabari’s manuscript, or the later Book of Springs survived into the print era; both were preserved as later copies; al-Tabari as a Persian digest made nearly forty years after the author’s death, and the later work as a European print edition.
On-line studies of this engagement are likewise sparse. The Wiki entry appears to be well-written and researched but suffers from the lack of military detail evident from all other sources. I could not find a single site that discussed the military aspects of the siege, probably because the details from the sources for the tactical and even the grand tactical operations are so sparse.
The usual sources are available for the forces engaged although, as I’ve noted above, many of the usual sorts of details we expect for military organizations such as size of units, number, and type are absent.
As you can tell; ancient history is damn frustrating.
To understand how a bunch of Arabs wound up slowly starving outside the walls of what is today the capital of the Republic of Turkey, a largely-Islamic state, you have to start with Rome.
Because by their lights the Byzantines WERE Romans. They called themselves that, and thought of themselves as the unbroken successors to the Caesars even though they spoke Greek instead of Latin, worshiped the God that the Caesars would have scoffed at (and in a rite that the then-Christians of Rome were horrified by and anathematized with all the bile they could scrape up), and were about as much like the classical Romans of the early Imperial period as a stone is like cheese.
But in fact the empire that ran out of Constantinople was about as Roman as anything left in the 8th Century. The fragmented mess that existed west of the Strait of Mamara was like nothing a Roman citizen of the glory years of imperium would have recognized, while the orderly edifice of Imperial power that emanated from Constantinople, well…that was Roman.
For centuries, the Eastern Romans – let’s just agree to call them “Byzantines”, just to satisfy convention – had looked East and South; down the Levantine coast to Egypt and northern Africa, and to the old “fertile crescent” of Iraq, Syria, and dreamed of India beyond.
Oh, sure, the Byzantines has frolicked about in the old Roman territories (remember the campaigns of Belisarius? Yeah, them) back in the 6th and 7th Centuries. But the center of Byzantium was in Anatolia – modern Turkey.
And for that entire time the Byzantines clashed with the Persian empire of the Sassanids. The story of the Byzantine-Sassanid Wars – and there were a pantsload of them, follow the link – lasted over the whole of the 6th Century and is a tale all of its own. But the short version is that the two fairly evenly-matched enemies battered each other until they were both worn out.
The Wiki entry above sums this ginormous clusterfuck up concisely and viciously:
“The devastating impact of this last war, added to the cumulative effects of a century of almost continuous conflict, left both empires crippled. When Kavadh II died only months after coming to the throne, Persia was plunged into several years of dynastic turmoil and civil war. The Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation from Khosrau II’s campaigns, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, and the increasing power of the provincial landholders. The Roman Empire was even more severely affected, with its financial reserves exhausted by the war, the Balkans now largely in the hands of the Slavs, Anatolia devastated by repeated Persian invasions and the empire’s hold on Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt loosened by many years of Persian occupation.”
And there was worse – the Empire was constantly torn up by civil wars.
Part of this was the old devil of Roman rule; a province couldn’t be kept too weak or the barbarians would be tempted to take a slap at it. But make it too strong and the governor would be tempted to try his hand as king. So the fringes of Empire alternated between barbarian wars (from raids all the way up to full-scale invasions) and rebellions.
All very familiar and very trying, yes, but…
But overtopping everything else was the completely unexpected ex oriens semper aliquid novi of the 7th Century; the Muslims.
We talked about the rise of Islam back in March of 2009 in discussing the Battle of Badr. That little scrum had been fought at nearly the exact moment that the Sassanid Persians finally went down for the third time. If the Byzantine and Sassanid commanders had been directed to take note of some tiny desert skirmish fought who-the-fuck-knew-where between a couple of gangs of scruffy Arab heathens versus god-pesterers they’d have laughed themselves sick.
But fifty years later the laugh was on the other side of the Byzantine’s faces.
The Arabs had boiled out of the worthless sands of the Arabian peninsula like something out of a scary Bible story and had started beating the living homoousios out of the Byzantine garrisons. The Rashidun Caliphs snatched Syria and Egypt; their successors, the Omayyads, completed the conquest of North Africa (and on into Spain) and began pushing into the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia. The attacks culminated in an opportunistic years-long “siege” of Constantinople between 674 and 678.
The Omayyad forces weren’t really prepared for an assault; it seems that they had been just doing their usual attack-the-Byzantine thing and had ended up camped out around the imperial capital. They had no battering train and “siege” lines were so loose that the city was never in real danger of starvation, the other sure winner for besiegers back in the days before high explosives. Eventually Caliph Muawiyah’s guys decided to quit dicking around outside the walls and sloped off back to Syria.
Then the two enemies spent much of the next forty-odd years focused on internal problems rather than each other.
First the Omayyads had a civil war. That kept them occupied for a decade or so.
The Byzantines’ bad luck was that just as the Omayyads sorted out their rebels the Byzantine Empire spent twenty years going through a period that comes across as one hell of a good story but as one seriously screwed up form of government.
It all started with a gomer called Emperor Justinian II , who rejoiced in the improbable nickname of Rhinotmetus (ὁ Ῥινότμητος) which means “slit-nosed”; (Wonderful, yes, but what the fuck? Wait, it gets better!) and who turned out to be a major asshole. He managed to piss off pretty much everyone in the Empire to the point that in 695 they up and kicked him out. To be sure he was a goner someone cut off his nose (slit-nose, get it? Politics in Byzantium was a full-contact sport, baby…) and exiled the noseless son-of-a-bitch.
Which didn’t stop him for a moment. He proceeded to strangle two wanna-be assassins with his bare hands, returned to Constantinople a decade later behind a horde of Bulgarian (old enemies of Byzantium from the European side of the ditch) wild men, snuck into the city through a drain, took it back and, with his brand-new shiny golden nose (See? See? Is this a great story, or what?) taped firmly in place proceeded to butcher all his old enemies and eff the place up for another six years or so, until a whole new bunch of people who hated his ass finally killed him.
And replaced him with a guy who lasted two years.
Who got kicked out and replaced with another guy who lasted…two years.
Who was in turn kicked out and replaced with a guy who lasted…you guessed it…two years.
Who was finally replaced by our man Leo III.
Meanwhile the Bulgars were romping in the west and the Arabs in the east.
The Byzantine Army was one hell of a damn fine outfit; it managed to keep things pretty well together while all these aristocratic ding-dongs were kacking each other and everyone else they could get hold of. But things changed in 715.
That year a fella named Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik climbed the gaddi in Damascus. Somebody had told him that a Caliph with the name of a prophet – Solomon – would take the Imperial city. Apparently Sulayman was no slouch, and he set out to assemble the forces to do just that.
Meanwhile, the current Byzantine Emperor was a former tax farmer ruling as Theodosius III. This poor idiot had been hoicked on the throne by the Fleet as an afterthought to a mutiny and is said to have been a boob as well as a functionary. He did what he could, which wasn’t much, but he didn’t have much time (two years, remember?).
In September 715 the Omayyad advance forces pushed into Anatolia, marching westwards along what is now the south coast of Turkey. In the spring of 716 the Omayyad fleet joined in cruising the south coast. Back in Syria Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik - y’know, let’s just call him “Maslamah” from now on – waited with the main force.
Our boy Maslamah had already started playing footsie with Leo-the-then-Isaurian who was the commander of the powerful Anatolian Theme. Hard to say what these two were playing at; it’s likely that both we trying to bullshit the other. Leo may have promised to take over as an Omayyad vassal, while Maslamah probably just wanted Leo to stir stuff up and make it easier for his own takeover bid.
The first time this played out was at the “strategically important fortress of Amorium” (which is no longer a place, by the way; the ruins are in west central Turkey near the little town of Hisarköy).
Site of long abandoned Amorium
Anyway, Maslamah’s commanders showed up outside this place with all their bag and baggage, fierce nasty Arabs and all, and offered the good citizens of Amorium a deal; hail Leo as Byzantine emperor, or get what the residents of conquered cities usually got (that is, to get raped, then killed, then probably raped some more).
The folks of Amorium said yabetcha! but still did not open the gates; no fools they.
Not long after Leo himself comes farkling up smartly with a corporal’s guard, and starts running his jaw. And here the plot really thickens.
Because Leo seems to have had the measure of Maslamah’s guy (it’s probably Sulayman ibn Mu’ad, the commander of the lead element) and Maslamah himeslf. The Book of Springs says this about him:
“And Leo used to go to Maslamah in his position at Ammuriya (Amorium) and converse and negotiate with him with fraud and deceit, until he said, “If Maslamah had been a woman, and I had then chosen to seduce her, I would have done it, and he would never have refused me anything that I desired of him.”
First, let’s linger on the image of steamy hot 8th Century man-love for a momen…nah, let’s not. But as a passing observation, you’ll note the fixation the author of the Book of Springs has for Maslamah as – for lack of a more polite term – Leo’s bitch. We’ll hear more on that subject before we’re done.
Leo managed to finesse his way out of Amorium, leaving the Omayyad forces outside, a small Byzantine garrison inside, and himself off to Constantinople to kick poor dumb Theo the Third off the throne and take his place.
Sulayman had to withdraw east, out of food and unable to take Amorium and therefore leaving a potential enemy in his rear.
And just in time, too; Maslamah was coming on strong with the main Arab army straight for Amorium. Because he thought his puppet-emperor Leo was still his pal he did not trash the Armeniac and Anatolic themes – he still thought the governors there were his allies.
Maslamah responded to the news that Leo had punked him out by changing direction and starting a act like an invader: he attacked Akroinon, sacked Sardis and Pergamon, and marched to the west coast of Turkey for the winter, with his fleet spending the winter of 716-717 along the south coast.
In early summer of 717 Maslamah ordered up his fleet and crossed the Hellespont into Thrace, southwest of the imperial capital. The approach march to Constantinople is a reaving; the Arabs take what they can and burn the rest, human and material both. Some time in mid-July the Omayyad army reaches the landward side of the city and built classic lines of circumvallation and contravallation to begin the siege in earnest.
The Book of Springs claims that at this point Leo offered to pay a gold coin for every resident. Maslamah refused; he was there for the fight.
The Arab fleet is said to have arrived in 1 SEP 717; on 3 SEP various squadrons began anchoring on the both shores around of Constantinople while the main fleet sailed northeast past the city and cut off the supply lines from the Black Sea.
Constantinople was invested for the second time in fifty years.
Here’s where we start to lose our sight picture; we just don’t know what happened, the tactical to-and-fro of a year-long siege. We do know a couple of incidents, however. The first happened within the first several days, according the our guy Theophanes.
As the last twenty-odd vessels in the Arab fleet were sailing past the capital they lost the wind and – presumably pushed south and west by the current – were pushed down onto the seawalls where a Byzantine squadron sortied and attacked them with Greek fire.
Let’s stop right here for a moment and talk about this stuff, because it’s usually described as the secret weapon that saved Byzantium and Constantinople in 717. Basically, is was ancient napalm.
Sure, there’s some big mysteries to it: we don’t know exactly what is was made of, or how it was “projected”. Apparently it needed some special flamethrower-type devices (like the one pictured below). But, basically, it was the same sort of thing you’ve seen in every film about the Pacific War; a tank full of nasty flammable stuff that shot out and fried you to a crisp.
This stuff was probably the first “state secret”; security was so good that the actual gimmick has been lost – nobody wrote down the whole macguffin and eventually someone died without passing it on. But it was a new thing, a shocking terror weapon in 717, and it apparently had a stunning effect on the Arabs.
The Wiki entry says that
“Theophanes reports that some went down with all hands, while others, burning, sailed down to the Princes’ Islands of Oxeia and Plateia. The victory encouraged the Byzantines and dejected the Arabs, who, according to Theophanes, had originally intended to sail to the sea walls the same night and try to scale them using the ships’ steering paddles.”
Which, by the way, sounds idiotic and the sort of thing that a damn monk would think was a cunning sort of fighting stunt. Jesus, padre, why don’t you stick to writing about what you know..? Sorry; back to Theo -
“The same night, Leo drew up the chain between the city and Galata, closing the entrance to the Golden Horn. The Arab fleet became reluctant to engage the Byzantines, and withdrew to the safe harbour of Sosthenion further north on the European shore of the Bosporus.”
We also have a report of another fleet action the following spring, more about which later.
But of siege actions?
We talked about sieges just earlier this year, when we were discussing the Battle of Canton in 1841. Well, what was true in 1841 was true in 717; there were three ways of getting into a defended city: over, under, and through.
Well, the Walls of Theodosius were some damn fine walls. Here’s a typical section; nasty, isn’t it? Any sensible infantryman would take one look at that thing and whistle for the nearest artilleryman.
Even in ruins they’re pretty impressive, and to batter them down would probably have taken more of a siege train than Maslamah had brought with him.
Except from all accounts it seems pretty evident that he a) hadn’t brought a siege train and b) hadn’t brought anything to construct one.
The big wall-smashing counterweight trebuchets hadn’t been invented yet – they came along sometime in the late 11th Century. The versions extent in the 8th Century were something called “traction trebuchets” that were basically a big staff sling; a long arm that you pulled on that tossed a rock.
As you can see, these rocks were pretty small. It would have taken a lifetime to batter down those big walls this those little pissant traction trebuchets. But there are no reports of siege engines of any sort. No towers, no rams.
So “through” doesn’t seem to have been in the plans. “Under” – mining – wasn’t much faster, although I imagine that the Arabs may have tried. But mining was a pretty specialized profession even then, and I doubt whether the attempts got anywhere.
So if through was out – and the other way “through”, treachery, was surely tried but went nowhere – and so was under, then the only other real option was over; escalade.
And that’s where the Greek Fire comes in. I’ll bet that the Arabs tried a couple of throw-the-ladders-against-the-wall-and-climb-like-buggery schemes. But when every time you start up the ladder you get quick-fried to a crackly crunch, or baked to a delicate crunch?
Sod THAT for a game of soldiers.
So you could pretty much see how the Arab army got nowhere for a year. But the question it raises to me is; why the hell did they STAY there for a year?
The fleet was cringing in harbor and the Byzantines were clearly not going to get peckish and come crawling out begging for some fois gras and fizzy water drinks anytime soon.
All the methods of ground attack were pretty much obviously – as in “within a week or two” obviously – somewhere between “Gee, that doesn’t seem like a good idea…” and “OhmyfuckingAllah!”
So the only hope was for some sort of epidemic to break out, or a wall to suddenly collapse, or a revolution to break out…in other words, an improbable to impossible miracle to happen.
And the thing is that time was not on the Omayyads’ side.
The chronicles say that initially the Arab supply situation was fairly decent; they had even brought grain to plant (although how well that went, planting in high summer, I can’t imagine…). The Thracian side had been pretty damn well ruined, though, and so there was not much else there to eat if the logpacs ran short.
The Book of Springs claims that Leo the Sneaky Isaurian kept up his shenanigans all winter. Supposedly he either tricked Maslamah into handing over most of his grain supplies (WTF?) or into burning them to show the defenders that he was coming over the wall that night (ummm…not sure how that one worked). Mind you, the Byzantine sources say nothing of this, so it’s hard to credit the more outrageous tales.
But the bottom line was that the Omayyad Army sat outside the walls of Constantinople all winter, freezing and starving. Because the winter of 717-718 was a bad one; snow is reported to have stuck for over three months, in the relatively mild northeastern Levant.
If that wasn’t enough, the neighbors were nasty, too; either from natural cussedness or Sneaky Leo’s machinations. Supposedly the besieging force fought and lost a fight against the Bulgars. Theophanes says this was a big battle and that Maslamah’s force lost 22,000 men. This seems unlikely, since such a major engagement would have likely been reported elsewhere, but is clear that the Bulgars and Omayyads clashed; whether because the Bulgars attacked the Arab siege lines per a treaty with the Byzantines or because the Omayyads sent foraging parties into Bulgarian territory (which is what the Syriac Chronicle of 846 says happened).
Don’t be fooled by the coy little smile on the Bulgar lass in the picture above; the real Bulgars were a bunch of nasty former horse-nomads with an attitude more like the guy with the scowly face over there on the right.
All in all it was a pretty sucky winter to be an Arab trooper.
As the rations ran out first the jawans ate the livestock, and then anything green, and then even the bark and roots of the trees.
Paul the Deacon, writing later in the century, claimed a ridiculous 300,000 deaths from starvation and disease. But, still; the toll was ruinous. Even the Caliph, Sulayman, died in his quarters in Palestine (just a coincidence, by the way).
In the early spring the new Caliph, Umar II, sent 400 ships from Egypt and 360 ships from Africa with supplies and dispatched fresh troops through Anatolia to reinforce the besiegers.
But the majority of the crews of the relieving squadrons were galvanized Muslims – recent more or less forced converts (or out-and-out Coptic Christians) from Egypt and North Africa. When they arrived within swimming (or rowing) distance of their Jesus-freak pals the Byzantines they headed over the hill most quick smart.
They also warned the defenders about the incoming reinforcements, so the Byzantine fleet sortied again, used their flame weapons again, and again destroyed the Arab task forces.
Meanwhile a Byzantine thematic force bushwhacked the Omayyad relief column in the hills around Sophon, south of the city of Nicomedia, and decimated it.
With the reinforcements and resupply destroyed, the “siege lines” porous, and the methods of forcing entry impractical, the siege had clearly failed.
So later in the summer Caliph Umar ordered Maslamah to retreat, and on August 15, 718 (the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or what Roman Catholics call the “Assumption of Mary”), the defenders woke to find the walls of circumvallation deserted and the Arab fleets sailing east.
The siege of thirteen months was over.
Mind you, 718 still had a further reaming in store for the hapless Omayyad troops; more ships were lost in a storm in the Sea of Marmara and still more to fire…when they sailed into a volcanic ash cloud from an eruption of Santorini!
I can only imagine what the hapless survivors of this goatscrew were thinking. If I had been an Omayyad troop I’d have had some choice words for the re-up guy when he came around after that, I can tell you. Allah wept.
What a mess.
Even the Arab sources estimate some 150,000 casualties; again, a massive exaggeration but some sense of the disaster that was so great that even the paid Omayyad scribes couldn’t ignore or downplay it…
The Outcome: Strategic Byzantine Victory
The Impact: Given the obvious inability of the Omayyads to make a dent in the walls of Constantinople the counterfactual – the city falls and with it, the Byzantine Empire nearly 700 years before the actual collapse in the 15th Century – seems wildly improbably and surely is. In fact, the Caliphate had reached it’s high-water-mark in the first half of the 8th Century. This defeat and the inability of the Muslim forces in Iberia to breach the Pyrenees (or, indeed, to reduce the Christian kingdoms in northern Spain), meant that Europe would remain Christian and Western until the conquerors issued out again with the weaponry, tactics, and organization of the Enlightenment to subjugate the rest of the World.
The losses were difficult for the overstretched Omayyad Caliphate to replace, while the Byzantines under Leo the Wily got a second wind and even managed to regain some of the eastern territories lost in the 7th Century. By the time the Abbasids replaced the Omayyads in the middle of the 8th Century the initial wave of Muslim expansion had been stopped. The next outward push would have to wait for the arrival of the Ottomans hundreds of years later.
In regards the actual fight you have to wonder what the hell Maslamah was thinking. He must have known the strength of the land defenses of the city – the earlier siege was within living memory. And yet his forces were pathetically unprepared for either an assault or a bombardment, and the fleet proved shockingly incapable of the task of blockading. All he could have accomplished was what he did – sitting around on his ass watching the Byzantines flip C-rat crackers at him.
Maybe if his admirals had had a little more sack.
Mind you, the Second Siege may be one of the few times in military history when a single weapon – not a combination of weapons like the fast tank-aircraft-radio of the blitzkrieg campaigns of 1939 and 1940 – had a decisive impact on a major engagement. Greek Fire seems to have been a genuine game-changer, and it’s pretty incredible that the secret, since military secrecy is usually highly perishable (almost every weapon can be captured and reverse-engineered from the captured equipment) has remained as such to this day.
Touchline Tattles: At such a vast remove there is little I can find to add a human dimension to this story – the wild tale of Justinian, The Man With The Golden Nose aside. Instead, let me give you al-Tabari, whose History of the Prophets and Kings has another of those bizarre Maslamah-you-is-mah-woman-now stories (what is it about the Arab chroniclers and abusing guys by calling them out as chicks?) about him and Leo the Extra Cunning;
“And Leo…wrote to Maslama, telling him what had happened and asking him to allow enough corn to be brought in…to make them believe that he and Maslama were at one, and that they were secure from captivity and removal from their country, and to grant them a night to carry off the corn.
It was carried away during the night.and in the morning Leo fought; and he had tricked him by a trick with which a woman would not have been deceived.”