Byzantine Reconquista - Siege of Chandax 960-961 DOCUMENTARY
From a geopolitical standpoint, the Eastern Roman Empire is often depicted as the sick man of the Middle ages. However, amidst the constant territorial retreat, there were periods when they pushed back against the invading tide. In the early Medieval period, a string of capable military-minded men would bring triumph to Byzantium, and secure the long-time survival of the Empire. Welcome to our new miniseries on the early resurgence of Eastern Rome, where we will cover the territorial gains of the Empire from the 9th to 10th century. In this episode, we will cover the origins of the Macedonian Dynasty, with a focus on the rise of Nikephoros Phokas, the Pale Death of the Saracens.
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The bellicose Lombards had pushed the Eastern Romans to the very fringes of Italy. Constant migrations of Slavs and Bulgars along the Danube had put an immense strain on the Empires’ Balkan territories, and even before that: the meteoric rise of a natal Islamic faith had permanently deprived the Romans of Egypt, Syria and North Africa. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Emperors in Constantinople were the aforementioned Muslim Arabs, who, in a stark departure from their desert-dwelling roots, had taken to the seas to become the most deadly sailors of the Mediterranean coast. In 827, the Byzantines suffered two major losses to two different factions of Muslim corsairs.
The young, Tunisia-based Aghlabid Emirate struck at Sicily, beginning the 80-year long conquest of that island, while a roving band of political exiles from Islamic Al-Andalus seized the ancient isle of Crete. The newly founded Islamic Emirate of Crete became a particular menace to the Byzantines. Supported by the mighty navy of the massive Abbasid Caliphate, the isle became a perfect base from which Arab pirates launched constant and devastating raids into the coastal towns of the Aegean sea. In summary, Byzantium in the early 9th century looked to be a polity in terminal decline. And yet, all was not lost.
In 811 a peasant boy named Basil was born in Chariopolis, in what was then the theme of Macedonia. As a young man, Basil was employed as a stable boy by a distant relative of reigning Emperor Michael III. There he attracted the attention of important courtiers by his tall stature, enormous strength, and ability to break in the wildest horses. Basil soon became a trusted confidant of the Emperor, In 866, he achieved the role of co-Emperor alongside Michael III.
A year later, Basil had Michael assassinated at a banquet, allowing him to ascend as the Basileus, founding the Macedonian dynasty that would endure over 200 years. Basils I’s reign would be the most successful that Eastern Rome had seen in centuries. He oversaw the Christianization of the Balkans, playing a major role in bringing the Bulgars and South Slavs into the Eastern Orthodox fold. He also forged an alliance with Holy Roman Emperor Louis II to eliminate Arab piracy in the Adriatic sea, seizing Bari, which had been a Muslim stronghold, and establishing suzerainty over the Lombard Principality of Benevento in the process. This set the stage for a renaissance of Byzantine power in the Italian peninsula not seen since the days of Justinian. Basil I died in 886, having laid the foundations of a true Eastern Roman resurgence throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Unfortunately, the years following the seminal Emperors’ death began a regressive trend. From 893 onwards, Byzantium was subject to the Imperial Ambitions of the Bulgarian Prince Simeon, who launched war after war upon Byzantine lands, with the goal of claiming the imperial title and trying to replace the Romans as the biggest power in the region. He was never able to take Constantinople itself, but he still managed to greatly expand the borders of his realm at the expense of Byzantine Balkan territory, imposing an annual tribute upon the Emperors in Constantinople, and forcing them to confirm him with the prestigious Imperial title of ‘Caesar’, or in the Slavonic Bulgarian tongue: ‘Tsar’.
With Simeons’ death in 927, Eastern Romes’ northern frontier with Bulgaria became somewhat stable once more. However, its eastern frontiers against the Arabs had remained incredibly volatile the entire time. The ever powerful Abbasid Caliphate still retained inroads into the Empires’ Anatolian heartland, and more importantly, Muslim corsairs continued to launch raid after devastating raid into the Byzantine held Aegean-islands from their the base on Crete. Back in 904, an Abbasid fleet commanded by the infamous Greek defector Leo of Tripoli had even managed to sail all the way up to Thessaloniki, which at the time was the second most prosperous city in Eastern Rome. After a three day siege, the city was put to the torch.
Emperor Leo IV responded by appointing Admiral Himerios to subdue the Muslim pirates. Himerios had some initial success, his Byzantine warships crushed an Arab fleet on St. Thomas’ day of 906, and fought its way to the Syrian coastline, sacking the city of Laodicea in 909. Himerios then sailed onwards to Cyprus, which at the time was, remarkably, jointly ruled by both the Abbasid Caliphate and Eastern Roman Empire. Himerios landed his troops unopposed, and re-established undisputed Byzantine control over the isle. The Byzantine expedition then resupplied and pointed the bows of their dromon at Crete, placing its capital of Chandax [k-] under siege by land and sea.
A six-month standoff ensued, in which the Romans found no headway against the stubborn Arabs that defended the keep. Upon hearing that Emperor Leo IV had become severely ill, Admiral Himerios broke the fruitless siege and began the journey home, only to be ambushed off the coast of Chios in early 912 by his old friend, Leo of Tripoli. Himerios’ fleet was utterly destroyed, and all his gains he had made were reversed in the space of a year. Meanwhile, an Abbasid fleet led by Damien of Tarsus brought Cyprus to its knees after a four-month sacking spree, while Crete, having survived its siege, remained an impregnable stronghold from which Muslim corsairs raided Eastern Roman coastlines with impunity.
From the Bulgarian north, to the Anatolian frontier, and especially upon the Mediterranean sea, the gains Basil I had made to ensure the security of Byzantine borders had begun to falter. However, balance of power is ever a fickle thing, and the geopolitical situation would soon tilt back in the Roman’s favour. The Abbasid Caliphate, which had long been Eastern Romes’ greatest rival, had been slowly losing grip of their central authority since the late 800s.
While they retained control of their heartland in Iraq, all their peripheral provinces were slowly gaining more and more regional autonomy. While most of these Muslim states paid lip service to the Caliph in Baghdad, by the mid 10th century, the Islamic world was nevertheless more fractured than it had ever been, a political climate ripe for exploitation. The turning of the tides truly began with the achievements of one John Kourkouas, a brilliant Armenian general who fought under the service of the fifth Macedonian Emperor, Romanos I Lekapenos. Kourkouas’ martial prowess saw Roman armies push the Arabs out of much of Muslim controlled Armenia and conquer the Emirate of Melitene, which for a century had been a thorn in Constantinoples’ side.
The capture of Melitene sent a shockwave throughout the Muslim world: for the first time in history, a major Muslim city had fallen and been reincorporated into the Byzantine Empire, with the powerless central Abbasid authority able to do little about it. Kourkouas’ later achievements saw him keep the burgeoning Hamdanid Dynasty of Aleppo at bay, occupy many cities in upper Mesopotamia, and recover the sacred Mandylion from the city of Edessa. In 941, he even fended off a large-scale raid along the Black Sea coast led by Grand Prince Igor of the Kievan Rus. However, in true Byzantine fashion, Kourkouas was not rewarded for his victories, but punished for his rising popularity by the scheming Imperial court. He was dismissed from service in 944, and soon after faded from the pages of history.
With the end of Kourkouas story, we begin the tale of the Byzantiums’ next great conqueror. The one called Pale Death of the Saracens. In 912, a son was born into the Cappadocian noble family of Phokas and given the name Nikephoros, which means ‘bringer of victory’. The Phokas clan had long served as a pillar of the Byzantine military, so from a young age, Nikephoros sought to continue this family legacy.
He quickly gained the favour of Emperor Constantine VII, and by 945, had been appointed the military governor of the theme of Anatolikon. Ten years later, he was made Domestic of the Schools, and in 957 proved himself worthy of the position, seizing the strategic fortress town of Hadath from the Hamdanids. 959 saw the ascension of Romanos II to the Eastern Roman throne, who preferred indulging his base pleasures over engaging in statecraft and was happy to leave military matters to his capable generals. To that end, he put Nikephoros in charge of all of Byzantiums’ eastern armies, and commanded him to accomplish what so many other Roman generals had failed to do before him. It was time to finally retake Crete, so Nikephoros set his eyes upon the isle of Minos, and began to prepare for the battle that would make or break his career. It was an opportune time to strike, for the Arabs of Crete were vulnerable.
With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, they had lost their most powerful benefactor. The nearby Hamdanids could not offer any support either. Nevertheless, the Emirate of Crete would not be easy pickings. Its warriors were battle-hardened on both land and sea, and its main fortress of Chandax was a nigh impregnable redoubt. According to the contemporary chronicler Leo the Deacon, it was protected on one side by the sea, and on the other by tall battlements of ‘earth and goat and pig hair mixed together and compressed thoroughly, wide enough so that two wagons could easily make a circuit on top of the ramparts and pass each other’.
These imposing walls were supplemented by two outspread, and thoroughly impassable moats. Nikephoros had a tough fight ahead of him. In early 960, the invasion armada began to assemble at a port south of Ephesus. It was a truly gigantic mass of soldiery, total estimates range between around 30,000 to 50,000 men during an era when the Kings of Europe would rarely muster armies more than a few thousand apiece. Present among this force were not just thematic soldiers of Armenian, Greek, Slavic and other origins, but also a contingent of Norse axe-wielders from Scandinavia. They were transported down the Aegean sea aboard a fleet of 100 Dromon warships, 200 Khelandia light transport ships, and 308 supply vessels.
Nikephoros’ invasion force made landfall on northern Crete on July 13th, 960, disembarking in good order. Of the three Medieval Chroniclers who give us accounts of the conquest of Crete, two claim that the Roman army landed uncontested. Leo the Deacon, however, asserts that Nikephoros’ soldiery was confronted on the shore by a large force of Cretan Muslims. Undaunted, Phokas ordered his army to form up into three contingents, and charged the foe, likely with his heavy Cataphract cavalry.
The Arab line sustained heavy casualties, and fled within the safety of the walls of Chandax, where the Emir Abd al-Aziz ibn Shu’ayb had prepared his garrison to mount a defense. Following this initial victory, Nikephoros marched upon the fortress. According to Leo the Deacon, the Cappadocian general attempted to immediately storm the walls, but was handily repulsed by the Arab invaders. Following this, he had his army surround Chandax and build a fortified stockade around its walls.
He next ordered the navy to blockade the redoubt by sea, commanding them to destroy any Muslim ships that tried to leave its harbour. The Siege of Chandax had begun. While Byzantine catapults showered the Muslim battlements with a withering hail of boulders, Nikephoros instructed one Nikephoros Pastilas, strategos of the Thracesian Theme, to create an expeditionary battalion to scout the Cretan countryside and obtain supplies for the Imperial army. Pastilas’ men ravaged the hinterlands outside Chandax, indulging freely on the food and wine of the local villages, unaware that there were eyes upon them.
Indeed, Pastilas' scouting party had been tailed the entire time by squadrons of Arab guerrillas, who had kept enshrouded amidst the island's hills. Seeing the Byzantine soldiers heavy with drink, the Muslims launched a devastating ambush upon them. Despite being inebriated, the Romans fought back viciously, until Pastilas’ was struck do wn by a hail of arrows. Only a few lucky survivors were able to escape back to the siege camp and inform the main Roman siege camp of the disaster. With both the resistance fighters in the hinterlands, and the garrison in the fort, Nikephoros was stuck fighting a two-front battle.
Time and again, Arab skirmishers would stream out off the hills and make lightning strikes against the Roman stockade, at times coordinating with their comrades inside Chandax, who would launch simultaneous sorties outside of their walls in an attempt to pincer their besiegers. These raids were all inevitably pushed back, and in retaliation, Nikephoros unleashed his most battle-hardened warriors to strike back into the Cretan countryside. No more would he allow his soldiers to behave like hedonistic brigands, now, they meant business. Roman death squads put local communities to the torch, slaughtering women, children and old men, all in an attempt to bring the whole island to heel in a sea of fire and blood. According to Leo the Deacon, at some point the disparate Arab guerrillas mustered together into a united force of some 40,000 men, entrenching themselves on a hill nearby the fortress in an attempt to make one last hail Mary to destroy the Byzantine siege camp.
However, in one of their raids, some Byzantine soldiers managed to take some prisoners who informed Nikephoros of the existence of this relief force. Guided by some local native Christians, Nikephoros himself led a vanguard through the Cretan hills and quietly surrounded the Arab camp. Now it was his turn to strike from the shadows.
He ordered the war trumpets to blare, and charged his unsuspecting foe, taking the Arabs completely by surprise and annihilating them. With the threat from the hinterlands eliminated, Nikephoros was now free to focus all his efforts on Chandax itself. With icy zeal, he ordered the heads of the slain Arabs mounted on catapults and launched into the fortress, so the defenders within would see their dead friends and despair. The Byzantine chief of artillery even had a live donkey launched over the walls, causing Nikephoros to jokingly quip about how it “soared like an Eagle”.
All this accomplished, however, was to imbue the Muslims with rage, and when the Byzantines stormed the fortress once more, they were repelled yet again. Realizing that further direct attacks were futile, the Cappadocian general simply settled in for a long siege. Winter was approaching, and he now counted on starving out his foes.
Completely blockaded from the outside world, Abd al-Aziz knew he and his warriors were living on borrowed time. The Cretan Emir sent pleas for help to the great rulers of Islam, and while the Fatimids of Egypt expressed a willingness to send troops, no physical aid actually materialized out of the deeply divided Muslim world. The winter of 960 was extremely hard on both the attacking and defending armies.
The bitter cold was the worst it had been in years, and while the Muslims inside Chandax had inevitably begun to starve, the Byzantines had also run out of supplies. Morale among the Romans began to plummet, until well-timed arrival of supplies from Constantinople in mid-February reinvigorated the attackers, much to the dismay of the men in the fortress, who had come to realize that the walls that protected them would soon become their tomb. In March of 961, Nikephoros reinvested the fight in earnest. Another barrage of Byzantine siege equipment rained hell upon Chandax, and yet, its walls did not fall.
Undeterred, the Cappadocian general ordered a battering ram team to launch a frontal assault on the fortress’ main gates. This, however, was simply a distraction. Nikephoros’ real play was a contingent of sappers, who dug tunnels beneath the fortress battlements to undermine the integrity of their foundations. On March 7th, a section of the walls finally collapsed, and the full might of the Imperial Byzantine army poured in through the breach. The Muslims formed a line and made a brave final stand, but they were cut down nearly to a man. Men, women and children in the fortress were slaughtered indiscriminately.
Chandax was in Roman hands, and with it, control over the whole island. After nearly 150 years, the Imperial eagle flew over Crete once more, and from then on, Arabic piracy ceased to be a serious threat to the Byzantines. With that said, Nikephoros’ work was far from done. In Anatolia and Syria, the Hamdanids and other Islamic dynasties were still a big threat to the Roman interests.
In our next video, we will cover these upcoming eastern campaigns, and explore how our titular general earned his grim moniker: The Pale Death of the Saracens, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see it. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more. This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.