Post-classical history

Chapter Two



In 732, a large Muslim army from Spain pushed far north into France, there to be overwhelmed by Frankish troops led by Charles Martel. From then on, the Muslim invaders slowly began to be driven out of Europe.
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

DESPITE HAVING SO QUICKLY assembled a large empire out of areas conquered from the Persians, Byzantines, and Visigoths, the Muslim armies were not invincible. When they abandoned their camels and ventured far from the deserts to face loyal and determined Christian forces, the “fierce” and “irresistible” Islamic invaders proved to be quite vulnerable and perhaps deficient in both arms and tactics. The first major Muslim defeat occurred at Constantinople, and then they were routed in Gaul. Soon after that, the Muslim tide began to ebb in Spain, and then they were driven out of Sicily and southern Italy.


Having defeated Byzantine armies in Syria and Egypt, and having begun a successful campaign to conquer the entire north coast of Africa from Byzantium, in 672 the caliph Muawiyah decided to strike directly at his enemy. From his new capital in Damascus, the caliph directed his fleet to transport an army through the Dardanelles (the narrow strait linking the Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmara). Numbering about fifty thousand men, the caliph’s troops captured the peninsula of Cyzicus, across the water from Constantinople, and fortified it as their principle base, from where they began a siege of Constantinople.

Had the Muslims taken the city, the way would have been open to invading Europe through the Balkans. But Constantinople easily withstood the siege and inflicted a huge naval defeat on the Muslims. With their fleet destroyed, it was the Arabs who were, in effect, under siege and starving. Soon dysentery became epidemic, and thousands of Muslim soldiers died. Worse yet, few Muslims had ever seen snow or ice, and when winter came they were entirely unprepared. Having no warm clothing, many froze to death. Even so, the Muslims hung on for several years, their ranks continuing to thin while well-fed Byzantines taunted them from the walls of Constantinople. Finally, with his army marooned, “discouraged and demoralized,” Muawiyah accepted Byzantium’s “offer of peace—under terms which, a few years before, he would have considered ignoble: the evacuation of the Aegean islands he had so recently conquered, plus an annual tribute to the Emperor [of Byzantium] of fifty slaves, fifty horses, and 3,000 pounds of gold.”1 A year later Muawiyah died, and the new caliph soon reneged on the annual tribute payments.

Western historians have long hailed this as “a turning point in the history of mankind.”2 The Russian-born Byzantine scholar George Ostrogorsky (1902–1976) characterized the attack on Constantinople as “the fiercest which had ever been launched by the infidels against a Christian stronghold, and the Byzantine capital was the last dam left to withstand the rising Muslim tide. The fact that it held saved not only the Byzantine Empire, but the whole of European civilization.”3 Or as the distinguished historian of Byzantium Viscount John Julius Norwich put it: “Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.”4

How was this Byzantine victory achieved? Unfortunately, Arab sources are “so confused as to be valueless.”5 Hence, we know little from the Muslim side, and the Greeks observed Muslim forces only from a distance, safe behind their battlements. That may not be very important since, perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t all that much fighting, victory being a triumph of Western technology—of impenetrable fortifications6 and a secret offensive weapon.7

The walls of the city not only defended Constantinople on the land side but enclosed the three seaward sides of the city as well, even including the harbor, which could be entered only through a massive gate. These were not merely walls; they were an engineering marvel: a massive outer wall with towers and superb battlements and behind it an even stronger inner wall, forty feet high and fifteen feet thick, having even more elaborate battlements and towers. If that weren’t enough, on the landward side there was a huge moat, and, of course, on the other three sides attackers could reach the walls only by boat. Against these extraordinary fortifications, the Arabs brought siege engines that were quite primitive, even for the times, and able to inflict nothing more than small gouges and scratches on the walls. Until attacked by heavy artillery in the fifteenth century, the walls of Constantinople could only be scaled, not shattered.

Of course, the Muslims might have been able to starve the city into surrender had they retained their control of the seas. But that’s where the secret weapon came in.

Tradition has it that in about 670 a Greek architect or engineer named Kallinikos of Heliopolis invented something that has come to be called “Greek fire” and took it to Constantinople. Greek fire was a highly flammable liquid, somewhat akin to napalm, that burst into flames and could not be extinguished by water; it may have burned even more intensely when it came in contact with water. The story of its invention seems a folktale; more likely it was developed by “chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school.”8 In any event, the formula was a very closely held secret that eventually was lost when the Fourth Crusade caused many untimely deaths among the ruling elite in Constantinople, 9 and modern scientists have never been able to fully duplicate the effect.10

Possession of Greek fire allowed the Byzantines to destroy opposing fleets as well as terrorize opposing armies. It was delivered in several ways, but most often by catapult or by a pumping device. A glass or pottery container of Greek fire was loaded onto a catapult and then hurled toward a target as distant as four or five hundred yards. When it struck, it shattered and burst into flames, splashing its blazing liquid over a considerable area—perhaps as far as seventy-five feet in diameter. This was immensely effective when hurled from the battlements of Constantinople and soon discouraged the Muslims from approaching the city. However, catapults are not well suited for use from boats. So the Byzantine engineers invented a primitive flamethrower—a pump that discharged a stream of flaming liquid through a tube projecting from the bow of a galley. (These tubes often had animal heads.) This system had quite limited range but was more than adequate for the close-quarters action of galley warfare. Armed with pumps spewing Greek fire, the Byzantines rowed out and burned the Muslim navy to a cinder—several times.11

In 717 the Muslims tried once more. This time they came in even greater numbers aboard as many as eighteen hundred galleys. The Greeks lured them into the Bosporus by removing the huge chain used to block entry, and when the Muslim fleet was packed together in these narrow waters out came the Byzantines with their Greek-fire pumps and destroyed most of the fleet, killing or drowning most of the troops aboard. The Muslims tried again the next spring with a new fleet. The Byzantines came out spouting Greek fire again. Some Muslim galleys managed to flee, only to be caught in a devastating storm. In the end, only five Muslim galleys managed to survive.12


As they so often have throughout history, the Pyrenees Mountains served as a barrier that contained the Muslim advance in northern Spain—for a few years. But in 721, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, the Muslim governor of Spain, led his troops north, intent on annexing the duchy of Aquitaine in southern Gaul (now France). His first step was to lay siege to the city of Toulouse. After three months, with the city on the brink of surrender, Duke Odo of Aquitaine arrived with an army of Franks. While Odo had been away gathering his forces, lack of opposition had encouraged Muslim arrogance, setting them up for a devastating defeat. They had constructed no defenses around their camp, had sent out no scouts to warn of an approaching threat, and may not even have posted sentries. Taken completely by surprise when the Franks attacked, the Muslims fled, many without their weapons or armor, and most of them were slaughtered by Frankish cavalry as they ran away. Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani was mortally wounded.

In 732, led by ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, the Muslims tried again, this time with a far larger force. Muslim sources claim it was an army of hundreds of thousands, and the Christian Chronicle of St Denis recorded that three hundred thousand Muslims died in the battle! More realistic is Paul K. Davis’s estimate of an army of eighty thousand Muslims, 13 while Victor Davis Hanson thinks there were only about thirty thousand.14 In any event, contrary to some historians who want to minimize the importance of the engagement,15 this was no mere raid or exploratory expedition. The Muslims came with a large army and drove deep into Gaul: the battle occurred only about 150 miles south of Paris, although it is uncertain precisely where it was fought. The best that can be done is to place it near where the rivers Clain and Vienne join, between Tours and Poitiers. Thus some historians refer to it as the Battle of Tours, while others call it the Battle of Poitiers.

As they moved north from Spain, everything went very well for the Muslims. A company of Franks attempting to defend Bordeaux was defeated, and the city was plundered. Then another small Christian army was slaughtered at the Battle of the River Garonne. Along the way, the Muslim army laid waste to the countryside, and soon they were heavily burdened with booty and plunder.

At this point, according to Isidore of Beja’s contemporary account, the Muslim commander “burned churches, and imagined he could pillage the basilica of St. Martin of Tours.”16 But first he paused to regroup. Once again the Muslims were brimming with confidence. According to an anonymous Arab chronicler, “The hearts of ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride.”17 Hence, they sent out no scouts and failed to detect the approach of Charles Martel, de facto ruler of Gaul, leading an army of battle-hardened Franks.

Martel was an unusually tall and powerfully built man, the bastard son of King Pippin and famous for his military exploits. Even had he not confronted Muslim invaders, Martel would have been a major historical figure for having founded the Carolingian Empire (named for him) by winning many battles against the Bavarians, the Alemanni, the Frisians, and the Saxons—an empire later perfected by his grandson Charlemagne. Now, after gathering his troops, Martel marched south to meet the Muslim threat.

Taking the Muslims completely by surprise, Martel was able to choose a battleground to his liking, and he positioned his dense lines of well-armored infantry on a crest, with trees to the flanks, thus forcing the Muslims to charge uphill or refuse to give battle. And charge they did. Again and again.

It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed and well-disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them.18 The effective role of cavalry is to ride down infantry fleeing the battlefield, once their lines have given way. But when determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted in the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away; the horses often rear out of control and refuse to meet the spears. In this instance, the Muslim force consisted entirely of light cavalry “carrying lances and swords, largely without shields, wearing very little armor.” Opposing them was an army “almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, wearing mail [armor] and carrying shields.”19 It was a very uneven match. As Isidore of Beja reported in his chronicle, the veteran Frankish infantry could not be moved by Arab cavalry: “Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice.”20The Muslim cavalry repeatedly rushed at the Frankish line, and each time they fell back after suffering severe casualties, with increasingly large numbers of bleeding and riderless horses adding to the confusion on the battlefield.

Then, late in the afternoon, as the Arab chronicler reported, many Muslims became “fearful for the safety of the spoil which they had stored in their tents, and a false cry arose in their ranks that some of the enemy were plundering the camp; whereupon several squadrons of the Muslim horsemen rode off to protect their tents.”21 To other units this appeared to be a retreat, and it soon became one, during which the Franks unleashed their own heavily armored cavalry22 to inflict severe casualties on the fleeing Muslims; at least ten thousand of them died that afternoon, including ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, who was run through repeatedly by Frankish lancers.23

Even during the rout, the Frankish infantry left the pursuit to their cavalry and maintained their discipline, remaining firmly in position, finally spending the night lying in their ranks. In the morning no Muslim forces reappeared. After very carefully scouting the Muslim camp, the Franks learned that during the night the Muslims had fled, leaving empty tents behind them.

Many historians have regarded the victory at Tours/Poitiers as crucial to the survival of Western civilization. Edward Gibbon supposed that, had the Muslims won at Tours, they would soon have occupied “the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland…and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”24 Subsequently, many Western historians have taken a similar view of the battle as a major historical turning point; indeed, the German military historian Hans Delbrück (1848–1929) wrote that there was “no more important battle in world history.”25

As would be expected, some more recent historians have been quick to claim that the Battle of Tours was of little or no significance. According to Philip Hitti, “[N]othing was decided on the battlefield at Tours. The Muslim wave…had already spent itself and reached a natural limit.”26 And Franco Cardini wrote that the whole thing was nothing but “propaganda put about by the Franks and the papacy.”27 This is said to be consistent with evidence that the battle made no impression on the Muslims, at least not on those back in Damascus. Bernard Lewis claimed that few Arab historians make any mention of this battle at all, and those who do present it “as a comparatively minor engagement.”28

Given the remarkable intensity of Muslim provincialism, and their willful ignorance of other societies, 29 the defeat at Tours/ Poitiers probably was regarded as a minor matter as seen from Damascus. But that’s not how the battle was seen from Spain. Indeed, unlike Muslim leaders elsewhere, the Spanish Muslims were fully aware of who Charles Martel was and what he had done to their aspirations. Indeed, Muslims in Spain had learned from their defeat that the Franks were not a sedentary people served by mercenary garrison troops, nor were they a barbarian horde. They, too, were empire builders, and the Frankish host was made up of very well trained citizen volunteers who possessed arms, armor, and tactics superior to those of the Muslims.30 Indeed, when the Muslims tried to invade Gaul again in 735, Charles Martel and his Franks gave them another beating, so severe that Muslim forces never ventured very far north again. Forty years later, Martel’s grandson joined the long process of driving them from Spain.


Despite their attacks into France, the Muslims never conquered all of Spain. As the Spanish nobility retreated from the initial Muslim onslaught, they eventually reached the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast, and having nowhere left to go, they made their stand in an area known as Asturias, protected on three sides by mountains and by the sea to the north. This area became the Christian kingdom of Asturias, and from the start the Asturians were committed to reconquering Spain. So, in 741, while Muslim Spain was ravaged by a Berber uprising, Asturia annexed Galicia—the coastal region to the west. However, the next step in the Christian Reconquista was initiated by a Muslim faction.

In 777, more than sixty years after the initial Muslim invasion of Spain, the Muslim governor of Barcelona sought the aid of the great Frankish emperor Charlemagne against his rival the emir of Cordova, offering “Saragossa and other [northern] cities to Charlemagne in return for his help.”31 In the spring of 778 Charlemagne assembled two armies and directed them into Spain. One army marched through the East Pyrenees and approached Barcelona. Charlemagne led the other through the West Pyrenees toward Pamplona. Oddly enough, although Pamplona was a city of Christian Basques, and despite Charlemagne’s intense Christianity, when he reached Pamplona, Charlemagne ordered that the city be taken. Then, joined by his other army, Charlemagne led his forces on to the promised city of Saragossa, accepting surrenders from several cities along the way, only to discover that the Muslim governor had switched sides and refused to surrender the city.32

At this point Charlemagne received news that Saxony had revolted against his rule, so he gathered his forces and quickly marched north to settle this threat. As his rear guard passed through the narrow Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, they were ambushed by a coalition of Muslims and Basques, the latter having been angered by the sack of Pamplona. Trapped and greatly outnumbered, this Frankish contingent was massacred, and among the dead was Charlemagne’s nephew Duke Roland of Brittany—fated to be celebrated in the great medieval epic poem La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland).

This was not the end of Charlemagne’s Spanish adventures. Several years later he sent a new army and forced the Muslims south of Barcelona. This new area of Christian Spain became known as the Marca Hispanica (Spanish March). After Charlemagne’s death in 814, Frankish control weakened and the Christian areas broke up “to become tiny states enjoying practical autonomy.”33 Acting singly and sometimes together, these Christian states continued to push the Muslims slowly south. Their efforts were assisted in 835 when it was believed that the bones of Saint James had been discovered in Galicia. These holy relics served as “a great inspiration to the Christian cause,” and in addition, almost at once Christian pilgrims began to flock to the Shrine of Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, bringing “a substantial flow of wealth into Galicia.”34 Then, in 1063 the local forces received reinforcements and renewed spirit from the north.

Alexander II became pope in 1062—one of a series of reforming popes who brought renewed respect and power to the office. A year after his election, Alexander proposed that knights who went to help drive the Muslims out of Spain would receive remission for their sins, thus launching “a crusade before the crusade” as Menéndez Pidal put it so well.35 The response was very modest. A small number of Frankish knights seem to have ventured into Spain, and their participation may have helped recover more Muslim territory, but no significant battles were fought.

It is worth noting that the pope was very concerned that the knights setting out to fight the Muslims not attack Jews along the way. Having directed that the Jews be protected, he subsequently wrote that he was glad to learn “that you protect the Jews who live among you, so that they may not be killed by those setting out for Spain against the Saracens…for the situation of the Jews is greatly different from that of the Saracens. One may justly fight against those [Saracens because they] persecute Christians.”36

In 1073 Pope Alexander II died and was replaced by another dedicated reformer who also favored the reconquest of Spain. In fact, immediately following his election, Pope Gregory VII wrote to those knights wishing to go to Spain, promising to “dispose of Spanish lands to any Frenchman who conquered them.”37 Again the turnout was very small, but it seems to have been sufficient to encourage local Christian forces, which resulted in the taking of Toledo on May 25, 1085. The fall of Toledo was a strategic and psychological “disaster for the Muslims.”38 Located at the very center of Spain, Toledo was home to one of the wealthiest Muslim dynasties, which had maintained a splendid court there for generations. Indeed, Toledo had been the capital of Visigothic Spain. Now it was back in Christian hands.

Then, in 1092 Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile, recalled Spain’s most famous knight from exile. With the king’s permission, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, widely known as El Cid, raised an army and, after a two-year siege, conquered Valencia on June 16, 1094. The Muslims reacted quickly, sending a very large field army to Valencia in December. To their surprise, El Cid did not accept a siege but sallied forth and met the Muslim army at Cuarte, a town near Valencia. El Cid was a brilliant tactician who never lost a battle against Muslims, and in this instance he conducted a daring night attack, inflicting a crushing and bloody defeat. Shortly thereafter he squelched a revolt of Muslims in Valencia, expelling those involved and taking revenge by turning Valencia’s nine mosques into Christian churches. In January 1097 El Cid defeated a new Muslim army sent against Valencia, meeting and beating them at the town of Bairén, and he then rode on to capture a number of other towns in the area.

El Cid’s resounding victories over major forces “showed other Christian Spaniards what could be done.”39 Although Islamic armies won some subsequent battles, the tide had turned. Islamic Spain was receding toward the southern coast.


Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was almost ceaseless internal conflict; the intricate plots, assassinations, and betrayals form a lethal soap opera. North Africa was frequently torn by rebellions and by intra-Islamic wars and conquests. Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another. Recall that it was the Muslim governor of Barcelona who invited Charlemagne to enter Spain, and El Cid spent part of his career as a brilliant mercenary leader on behalf of the Muslim “king” of Saragossa, warring against other Muslims. And just as Muslim disunity made Spain vulnerable to Christian efforts to drive them out, so, too, in Italy and Sicily.

In 873 the Byzantine emperor Basil I, having murdered his co-emperor and driven the Muslims from the entire Dalmatian coast (facing Italy), decided to reclaim southern Italy from Muslim rule.40 He landed his troops on the heel of Italy and soon accepted the surrender of Otranto. Three years later Bari came under his control, and during the next decade “virtually the whole of south Italy was restored to Byzantine authority.”41

It did not, however, become a peaceful province. Time and again there were rebellions, coups, and new regimes, in addition to the constant intrigues back in Constantinople. But Byzantine rule prevailed, and then in 1038, determined to put an end to Muslim pirates and raiders operating from the ports of Sicily, the Italian Byzantines launched an invasion across the narrow Strait of Messina. They had chosen a most opportune time, as the Arab emirs in Sicily had fallen into one of their typical civil wars. In fact, al-Akhal, the Muslim ruler of Palermo, had sent an envoy to Constantinople in 1035 to ask for Byzantine help against his mounting enemies. The emperor agreed to send forces, but al-Akhal was assassinated, and that “removed this useful pretext for an unopposed landing.”42 However, the civil war continued to spread among the Sicilian Arabs, making it seem unlikely that they could offer serious resistance to a Greek invasion force.

So, in 1038, George Maniakes, the most famous of the living Byzantine generals, led an oddly assorted army across the strait. Although he had a Greek name, Maniakes probably was of Mongol origin, “a great bear of a man: strong, ugly, thoroughly intimidating…his military prowess was much respected in the capital, but he was a blunt man who had to survive under a regime increasingly given to palace intrigue and treachery.”43 His troops consisted of Lombards forced into service, a few Byzantine regulars, and various contingents of mercenaries, including one made up of Norman knights who were remarkable for their political awareness and their ambition, as well as for their unusual stature, they being of Scandinavian origins. (The word Norman derives from the Old Norse Northmathr [“Norseman”].)

The invasion began in late summer and was an immediate success. Messina fell almost at once. The invaders then won major battles at Rometta and Troina, “and within two years over a dozen major fortresses in the east of the island, plus the city of Syracuse, had been subdued.”44 Then everything fell apart. First, Maniakes so alienated the Normans by withholding their share of the booty that they returned to Italy, “angry, bitter, and dangerous,”45 leaving the Byzantine force without its most effective contingent. In addition, antagonism had been building between Maniakes and the commander of the navy, the emperor’s brother-in-law Stephen, who lacked military virtues but not ambition. When Stephen foolishly allowed the Muslim fleet to escape through the Byzantine blockade, Maniakes made the mistake of abusing him physically and calling him an effeminate pimp.46 In revenge, Stephen sent a message to the emperor accusing Maniakes of treason. Summoned to Constantinople, Maniakes was immediately thrown into prison, and command in Sicily was given to Stephen, who made a complete mess of things and then died. He was replaced by a court eunuch named Basil, “who proved very little better.”47 The Byzantine army began a slow retreat. At this point, Lombard rebels rose up in Apulia, the southernmost province in the heel of Italy. The army was urgently recalled to quell the rebellion, leaving Sicily once again under uncontested Muslim rule.

The Norman mercenaries found the entire experience most edifying. First, they now knew that Sicily was rich, that the large Christian population would support an invasion, and that the Muslims were hopelessly divided. They also recognized that Constantinople was too far away and too corrupted by intrigues to sustain its rule in the West. So rather than hire out to suppress the Lombard uprising, the Normans decided to lead it. In 1041 the Norman knights sneaked across the mountains and descended into Apulia.

The Normans were led by William of Hauteville, whose heroic exploits in Sicily had earned him the nickname “Iron Arm,” and they quickly seized the town of Melfi as their base—a well-situated and fortified hill town. From there, within several weeks they accepted the submission of all the surrounding towns, having successfully presented themselves as supporters of the rebellion. The Byzantine governor was much too experienced to just sit back and allow the Norman and rebel forces to expand. Assembling an army considerably larger than his opponents’, he met them at the Olivento River. He then sent a herald to the Norman camp offering either a safe return of the Normans to Lombard territory or battle. Historians agree that the following actually happened in response: the enormous Norman knight holding the herald’s horse struck a huge blow with his mailed fist, smashing in the horse’s head, and it fell dead on the spot.48 Provided with a new horse, the herald was sent back to the Byzantine camp, whereupon the battle ensued the next day.

Although vastly outnumbered, the Normans routed the Byzantine forces, most of whom were killed in battle or drowned while trying to flee across the river. The Byzantine governor quickly responded by importing many regular troops from Constantinople and marching them off to confront the Normans and their Lombard allies at Montemaggiore. Again led by William Iron Arm, the Normans slaughtered this new Byzantine army. Even then the Byzantines did not accept defeat, but gathered another army and fought one more battle near Montepeloso. And again Iron Arm and his Normans prevailed, even taking the Byzantine governor prisoner and holding him for ransom. Never again were the Byzantines willing to fight an open battle with Normans in Italy; they instead contented themselves with defending strongly fortified towns and cities. In this manner they avoided any further military catastrophes, but they also failed to hold southern Italy as it was slowly transformed into a Norman kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Normans had not lost interest in Muslim Sicily. In 1059, after Robert Guiscard, duke of southern Italy, had designated himself in a letter to Pope Nicholas II as “future [lord] of Sicily,”49 the Norman plans for an invasion began to take shape. Guiscard was a remarkable man. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena described him as “overbearing,” “brave,” and “cunning,” and as having a “thoroughly villainous mind.” She continued: “He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, [and] broad shoulders,” but was remarkably “graceful.”50

In 1061 Guiscard, his brother Roger, and a select company of Normans made a night landing at Messina and in the morning found the city abandoned. Guiscard immediately had the city fortified and then formed an alliance with Ibn at-Tinnah, one of the feuding Sicilian emirs, and took most of Sicily before having to return to Italy to see after affairs there. He made several minor gestures toward expanding his control of part of Sicily but concentrated on overwhelming the remaining Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy, finally driving the Greeks out of southern Italy in 1071. The next year he returned to Sicily, captured Palermo, and soon took command of the entire island. In 1098 Robert Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, led the crusader forces that took the city of Antioch and became the ruler of the princedom of Antioch. Then, in 1130, Guiscard’s nephew Robert II established the Norman kingdom of Sicily (which included southern Italy).51 It lasted for only about a century, but Muslim rule never resumed.


During the 1920s, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862–1935) gained international fame by claiming that the “Dark Ages” descended on Europe not because of the fall of Rome or the invasion of northern “barbarians,” but because Muslim control of the Mediterranean isolated Europe. He wrote: “The Mediterranean had been a Roman lake; it now became, for the most part, a Moslem lake,”52 and, cut off from trade with the East, Europe declined into a backward collection of rural economies.

To support this claim Pirenne cited fragmentary evidence that overseas trade had declined sharply late in the seventh century and remained low until early in the tenth. Although Pirenne’s thesis was very influential for many years, eventually it lost plausibility as scholars discovered convincing evidence that the alleged decline in trade on which it rested had been greatly overstated. Perhaps there had been some interruptions of seaborne trade with the East during the first fifty years of Muslim expansion, but there is evidence that extremely active Mediterranean trade quickly resumed, even between western Europe and Islamic countries.53

Oddly enough, historians have failed to pay much attention to the most fundamental and easily assessed of Pirenne’s assumptions: that Muslim sea power ruled the Mediterranean.54 It is difficult to know how Pirenne came to this view. Perhaps he simply believed Ibn Khaldimagen (1332–1406), who wrote that “the Muslims gained control over the whole Mediterranean. Their power and domination over it was vast. The Christian nations could do nothing against the Muslim fleets, anywhere in the Mediterranean. All the time the Muslims rode its waves for conquest.”55 Nevertheless, even with the advantages provided by possession of some strategically placed island bases, the Muslim fleet never ruled the waves.

Granted, soon after the conquest of Egypt the Muslims acquired a powerful fleet, and in 655 they defeated a Byzantine fleet off the Anatolian coast. But only twenty years later the Byzantines used Greek fire to destroy a huge Muslim fleet, and in 717 they did so again. Then, in 747 “a tremendous Arab armada consisting of 1,000 donens [galleys] representing the flower of the Syrian and Egyptian naval strength” encountered a far smaller Byzantine fleet off Cyprus, and only three Arab ships survived this engagement.56Muslim naval forces never fully recovered, in part because they suffered from chronic shortages “of ship timber, naval stores, and iron,” all of which the Byzantines had in abundance.57 Hence, rather than the Mediterranean becoming a Muslim lake, the truth is that the eastern Mediterranean was a Byzantine lake, the Byzantine navy having become “the most efficient and highly trained that the world had ever seen, patrolling the coasts, policing the high seas and attacking the Saracen raiding parties whenever and wherever they might be found.”58 It is true that the Muslims were able to sustain some invasions by sea in the western Mediterranean in the eighth and ninth centuries, far from the Byzantine naval bases, but by the tenth century they were driven to shelter by Western fleets as well as those of a renewed Byzantium.

Muslim naval weakness should always have been obvious. For one thing, the Muslims quickly realized that they must withdraw their fleets from open harbors, where they risked destruction from surprise attacks. Thus, for example, Carthage was abandoned, and the fleet stationed there was moved inland to Tunis and a canal dug to provide access to the sea. Being so narrow as to accommodate only one galley at a time, the canal was easily defended against any opposing fleet.59 In similar fashion, the Egyptian fleet was removed from Alexandria and rebased up the Nile. While these were sensible moves, they also revealed weakness.

That the Muslims lacked control of the seas also was obvious in the ability of Byzantium to transport armies by sea with impunity—for example, their landing and supplying of the troops that drove Islam from southern Italy. Nor could the Muslim navies impede the very extensive overseas trade of the Italian city-states such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice.60 Indeed, in the eleventh century, well before the First Crusade, Italian fleets not only preyed on Muslim shipping but successfully and repeatedly raided Muslim naval bases along the North African coast.61 Hence, during the Crusades, Italian, English, Frankish, and even Norse fleets sailed to and from the Holy Land at will, transporting thousands of crusaders and their supplies. Finally, as will be demonstrated in the next chapter, contrary to Pirenne’s thesis, Muslim sea barriers to trade could not have caused Europe to enter the “Dark Ages,” because the “Dark Ages” never took place.


All of these Christian victories preceded the First Crusade. Consequently, when the knights of western Europe marched or sailed to the Holy Land, they knew a lot about their Muslim opponents. Most of all, they knew they could beat them.

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