Post-classical history

III
Byzantium Becomes a Medieval State

13
Greek Fire

The Greeks began to fling their fire all around; and the Rusii seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.

Liutprand of Cremona, Antapodosis (Tit for Tat), on the Russian attack on Constantinople in 941

Greek fire remains a mystery. It was probably made from crude oil acquired from naphtha wells in the Crimea, mixed with resin, but the precise proportions and the hydraulic mechanism for projecting it are still rather unclear. Some combination of substances nonetheless created the most important weapon in the Byzantine military arsenal, which could be forced onto enemy ships, causing terror and destruction. I have already mentioned its effects during sieges of Constantinople. In the famous illustrated Chronicle by John Skylitzes, which continues a historical narrative from 813, when Theophanes ends, down to 1077, the mechanics of Greek fire are vividly depicted. A small sailboat guided by rowers advances towards an enemy ship; the heated liquid is forced through a long tube; it burns on the water between the two vessels and engulfs the enemy ship (plate 25). Although scholars do not agree about the origin of the drawings, the place where the manuscript was copied or the groups of artists involved, the 524 illustrations are fascinating and apparently realistic. Known as the Madrid Skylitzes, from the library where it is now kept, it preserves a unique breadth of mainly secular images: emperors receiving or sending embassies, making triumphal entries into Constantinople, battle scenes and sieges of cities, as well as portraits of individuals.

Greek fire was allegedly invented by a certain Kallinikos, who arrived in Constantinople just before the long Arab siege of the capital (674–8) and displayed his secret to great effect. It became one of the enhanced technical weapons used in both naval engagements and land attacks on cities, when liquid flame was thrown onto the battlements. Even unmanned fireboats could be launched, using the prevailing wind, as happened in 1204 during the siege of the capital. In 2006, John Haldon published an account of his attempt to re-create both the substance and its projection. Graphic photographs show the heated liquid emerging from a narrow tube and burning ‘with a loud roaring noise and a thick cloud of black smoke’. Using a reconstructed siphon and oil from the Crimea, the flame was projected 10–15 metres and was so intense that in a few seconds it completely burned a target boat. Thanks to his modern experiment, we can begin to appreciate the horror and confusion of Greek fire in medieval warfare.

Because of its capacity to strike fear into the enemy, in the tenth century Constantine VII listed it as a Byzantine state secret that was never to be revealed to outsiders. This conceit was somewhat misplaced, since the Arabs quickly developed their own version of it. Nonetheless, in advice to his son Romanos II, he reports that foreigners often ask Constantinople for three things: Greek fire, imperial regalia and imperial brides ‘born in the purple’. On no account were these to be granted, except in the case of marrying an imperial princess to a Frank. In fact, on numerous occasions imperial regalia were bestowed on foreigners in order to secure advantageous alliances, and marriages were arranged as part of foreign policy, but the secret of Greek fire was not shared.

The three requests, however, reflect Byzantium’s unique position during the Middle Ages: the empire had prestigious status symbols, traditions and military secrets that were coveted by many. The widespread imitation of Byzantine regalia, titles, imperial costume, jewelled crowns, orb and sceptre, in western and central Europe, confirms their defining standing. When kings and princes tried to elevate their status to a truly imperial one, they wanted to be acclaimed in the Byzantine style, to sit on a Byzantine throne, crowned and holding Byzantine symbols of power. In these respects, imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery. It could be indirect as well. In Norman Sicily, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, King Roger II, who may have commissioned the Madrid Skylitzes, constructed the exquisite mosaics of the Palace Chapel in Palermo in the Byzantine manner. These were in turn copied by Ludwig of Bavaria for his fairy-tale castle at Neuschwannstein in the 1880s.

As the empire re-established control over its frontier regions during the ninth and tenth centuries, long coastlines had to be defended from naval attack, particularly after the Arab capture of Crete (c. 820). Boat builders, sea captains and sailors with maritime skills were recruited from all sea-faring communities to form special naval units. Islands such as Euboia, attached to the theme of Hellas, had to provide sailors, ships and naval equipment (such as ropes, sails and anchors) for maritime warfare. The imperial fleet protected Constantinople and led the major naval campaigns of reconquest. New contingents of professional, full-time troops (tagmata) were recruited to protect Constantinople; they were garrisoned in or near the capital and provided a bodyguard for the imperial family in the Great Palace. In contrast to the theme troops, who were called up in the spring and campaigned under their generals (strategoi) until the autumn, these units received a salary for permanent service and formed the army’s core. Using this reorganized and energized military administration, Byzantine generals initiated campaigns that aimed not only to reconquer previous imperial territory but also to annex more distant regions.

Byzantium gradually became a stable and efficient medieval state, assisted by the upward mobility of relatively unknown men, through military or other careers. The success of Basil I (867–86) was based on his skills as a horse tamer and boxer, learnt in Macedonia where his Armenian family had been settled as peasant farmers to guard the northwestern frontier. Finding no great opportunities there, Basil made his way to the capital, where his ability to tame horses attracted the attention of wealthy patrons. From private employment he gained promotion to the imperial stables, where Michael III selected him as guardian of the imperial bedroom (parakoimomenos), a post normally reserved to eunuchs. Basil did everything to please Michael and ruthlessly removed anyone opposed to him. His ambition culminated in a ceremony described by Patriarch Photios: in 866 a double throne was set up in the gallery of Hagia Sophia and Michael crowned Basil as his colleague and co-emperor. Their joint rule was short. Just over a year later, Michael III was murdered, by Basil himself according to one account, and the Armenian peasant became sole ruler over Byzantium.

Despite his lack of education, Basil proved an able military commander and continued the empire’s campaigns against the Arabs both in southern Italy and in the east. A generation after his death in 886, Romanos Lekapenos (920–44) used his position as commander of the navy in his successful bid for power. From a relatively humble Armenian background, he had risen through the naval ranks to lead a coup d’état in 921. He married his daughter Helena to the boy emperor Constantine VII, and as emperor organized the defence of the capital against the Russian attack of 941, instructing his navy to set up ‘devices which shoot out fire… in the prow and also in the stern and on both sides of each ship’. Taken by surprise, the Russians called Greek fire ‘lightning from heaven’.

In addition to the promotion of talented men even from poor backgrounds, the Byzantine military developed its medieval power in the tenth century. After numerous attempts to regain Crete, Nikephoros Phokas finally drove the Arabs off the island in 961, and four years later Cyprus was brought back under imperial control. Byzantine expansion into Armenia created a province of Taron in 966/7, and encouraged numerous Armenian families to migrate into the empire. John I Tzimiskes continued this eastern reconquest, with the recovery of Antioch in 969, which remained under Byzantine rule until 1084, and he exercised brief control over Damascus and Beirut in 975. His aim of regaining Jerusalem was never achieved, though it reflects a constant Byzantine desire to restore Christian rule over the Holy Places.

As the Byzantines developed more effective ways of defending the empire, military handbooks of strategy began to change, although they continued to quote from earlier sources. The Taktika, attributed to Leo VI (886–912), emphasized how to combat the fighting tactics of the Arabs, who had developed a particular form of punitive raiding: against this activity the emperor recommended avoiding direct contact with the enemy, but shadowing and harassing the departing troops, who might be laden with booty or plunder of cattle and prisoners. In his later handbook, Nikephoros Phokas, another brilliant general who rose to become emperor (963–9), expanded this type of guerrilla warfare, which proved highly effective. Often it was followed by the exchange of prisoners that took place at frontier rivers and involved no hostilities. In this way peaceful formalities were also introduced into Arab–Byzantine relations across the eastern border regions.

As a result of the expansion of Byzantine authority in the east, a novel way of life developed among both Christians and Muslims living in frontier zones. Where previously these borderlands had been largely emptied of populations, who sought refuge in the castles that guarded the mountain passes, they now became settled. On both sides of the nominal frontier, Byzantines and Arabs extended cultivation in the fertile areas and built themselves villas. In the verse epic of Digenes Akrites, the mixed-race borderer, marriage alliances were added to raiding parties; the hero’s father was an emir from the Arab side who carried off a Byzantine bride and later converted to Christianity. His story forms the first part of this long romance, which survives in several versions, all written down later, but seems to reflect conditions of the ninth–tenth centuries. The second part is devoted to the hero, Digenes Akrites, half-Arab, half-Byzantine, whose baptismal name was Basil. He in turn persuaded the daughter of a distinguished general to ride off with him and marry him. Although she was kept locked up in a tower, after he had serenaded her from below the young lady took the initiative, sending her nurse to give him her ring as a token of her affection. Their wedding follows and then the hero’s exploits, with stories that owe much to folk tradition, such as Basil killing lions with his bare hands. The background of Christian–Muslim intermarriage, of grand palaces and gardens on the banks of the upper Euphrates, where Byzantine control facilitated a sumptuous lifestyle, is brilliantly captured: ‘Amid this wondrous pleasant paradise, the noble Borderer [Basil] raised a pleasant dwelling, of goodly size, four-square of ashlared stone’, which he decorated with precious marbles, mosaic ceilings and onyx pavements. He depicted the military triumphs of Samson, David and Goliath, and Achilles, as well as the stories of Penelope and Odysseus, Bellerophon, Alexander, Moses and the Exodus of the Jews. In the church dedicated to Theodore, the military saint, Basil buried his father and mother and constructed his own tomb.

Such activity is confirmed from Arabic sources which record knowledge of Arabic among Byzantine Christians in frontier regions and considerable movement across them. Verses inscribed on a tomb in a place near Melitene (Malatya in Turkey) were explained by the deep friendship between a local man, possibly a doctor, and an Iraqi who settled in the region. After the death of this foreigner, his Christian friend buried him oriented in the Islamic prayer direction (towards Mecca) and carved on his grave the Arabic verses he had written:

I went on long journeys,
travelling hither and thither in search of wealth,
and the misfortunes of time overtook me,
as you can see.
I wish I knew whether my friends cried
when they lost me
or whether they even knew.

In around 1100, the Duke of Melitene commissioned a translation of the Persian tale of Syntipas the Philosopher, which reflected the same close contacts. The Greek version was made from a Syriac reworking of the popular story of the adventures of Sindbad, a young prince unjustly accused of sexual misdemeanours. Through this slow process of acculturation of bordering peoples – Arab, Armenian, Georgian in the east, Bulgarian, Slav and Serbian in the west – Byzantium consolidated its multi-ethnic and polyglot population.

In addition to the secret weapon of Greek fire, another feature that assisted in the recovery of Byzantium after its losses to the Arabs was the concept of an imperial dynasty. Despite his obscure origins, Basil I’s family sustained control over Byzantium for nearly two centuries, from 867 to 1056. In the tenth-century, Constantine VII commissioned a biography of Basil (his grandfather), which invented a noble Armenian origin for the family and traced the portents which led to Basil ‘saving’ the empire from a drunken and dissolute ruler, Michael III, rather than gaining power in treacherous circumstances. By blackening the character of Basil’s patron and colleague, Constantine made sure that his grandfather was given a highly original and invented role, as more legitimate and worthy of the imperial title than Michael. By such means the Macedonian dynasty, as it became known, contributed to a deeper sense of order, taxis, and strengthened the imperial office through a proper and controlled line of succession from father to son. Of course, rivals emerged whenever the empire seemed to lack strong leadership (for instance, during the early years of Basil II’s personal rule, 976–1025), but the dynasty maintained power. It reaffirmed the principle that the empire should be ruled by one family, whose members were legitimated by precedent and blood. In some cases this gave women of the imperial dynasty a major role, as happened in the eleventh century when the sisters Zoe and Theodora represented its last generation (see chapter 17).

This resurgence was underpinned by an economic recovery, which I look at in the next chapter. But the military victories of the centuries after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843 constitute a major achievement, and within the sphere of warfare the secret Byzantine weapon of Greek fire played a vital role. Its technical problems are emphasized by an account of how some Bulgarians captured a supply of the substance and the tubes used to project it. Even with both, they could not work out how to use it. Although Haldon’s modern experiment to re-create Greek fire has resolved many of its mysteries, back in the Middle Ages its secret remained intact and the Byzantine version of it died with the empire.

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