George Finlay : History of the Bizantine Empire from DCCXVI to MLVII (part 13)

George Finlay : History of the Bizantine Empire from DCCXVI to MLVII (part 13)

Posted February 19th, 2008 by webmaster






First Edition February 1906



In the year 782, Haroun was sent by his father, the Caliph Mahdy, to invade the empire, at the head of one hundred thousand men, attended by Rabia and Jahja the Barmecid. The object of the Mohammedan prince was, however, rather directed to pillaging the country, and carrying off prisoners to supply the slave-markets of his father's dominions, than to effect permanent conquests. The absence of a considerable part of the Byzantine army, which was engaged in Sicily suppressing the rebellion of Helpidios, enabled Haroun to march through all Asia Minor to the shores of the Bosphorus and from the hill above Scutari to gaze on Constantinople, which must have presented a more imposing aspect than Bagdad. Irene was compelled to purchase peace, or rather to conclude a truce for three years, by paying an annual tribute of seventy thousand pieces of gold, and stipulating to allow the Saracen army to retire unmolested with all its plunder; for Haroun and his generals found that their advance had involved them in many difficulties, of which an active enemy might have taken advantage. Haroun Al Rashid is said to have commanded in person against the Byzantne empire in eight campaigns.

Experience taught him to respect the valour and descipline of the Christian armies, whenever able officers enjoyed the confidence of the court of Constantinople; and when he ascended the throne, he deemed it necessary to form a permanent army along the Mesopotamian frontier, to strengthen the fortifications of the towns with additional works, and add to their means of defence by planting in them new colonies of Mohammedan inhabitants.

During te time Constantine VI ruled the empire, he appeared several times at the head of the Byzantine armies, and his fickled charcater did not prevent his displaying firmness in the field. His popularity with the soldiers was viwed with jealousy by his mother, who laboured to retard his movements, and prevent him from obtaining any decided success. The Saracens acknowledged that the Greeks were their superiors in vanal affairs; but in the year 792 they defeated the Byzantine fleet in the gulf of Attalia with great loss. The admiral, Theophilos, was taken prisoner, and solicited by the caliph to abjure Christianity and enter his service. The admiral refused to forsake his religion or serve against his country, and Haroun Al Rashid was mean enough to order him to be put to death.

When the Saracens heard that Constantine had been dethroned, and the emepire was again ruled by a woman whom they had already compelled to pay tribute, they again plundered Asia Minor up to the walls of Ephesus. Irene, whose ministers were occupied with court intrigues, took no measures to resist the enemy, and was once more obliged to pay tribute to the caliph. The annual incursions of the Saracens into the Christian territory were made in great part for the purpose of carrying away slaves; and great numbers of Christians were sold throughout the caliph's dominions into hopeless slavery. Haroun, therefore, took the field in his wars with the Byzantine empire more as a slave-merchant than a conqueror. But this very circumstances, which made war a commercial speculation, introduced humanity into the hostile operations of the Christians and Mohammedans: the lower classes were spared, as they were immediately sold for the price they would bring in the first slave-market; while prisoners of the better class were retained, in order to draw from them a higher value as slaves, or to exchange them for men of equal rank who had fallen into the hands of the enemy.

This circumstance had at last brought about a regular exchange of prisoners as early as the reign of Constantine V, A.D. 769. In the year 797, a new clause was inserted in a treaty for the exchange of prisoners, binding the contracting parties to release all supernumerary captives, on the payment of a fixed sum for each infividual. This arrangement enabled the Christians, who were generally the greatest sufferers, to save their friends from death or perpetual slavery, but it added to the inducements of the Saracens to invade the empire. The Byzantine, or, as they were still called, the Roman armies, were placed at a disadvantage in this species of warfare. Their discipline was adapted to defensive military operations, or to meet the enemy on the field of battle, but not to act with rapidity in plundering and carrying off slaves; while the state of society in Christian countries rendered the demand for slaves less constant than in countries where polygamy prevailed, and women were excluded from many of the duties of domestic service.

The war on the Bulgarian frontier was on simultaneously with that against the Mohammedans. In the year 788, a Bulgarian army surpised the general of Thrace, who had encamped carelessly on the banks of the Strygmon, and destroyed him, with the greater part of the trops. In 791, Constantine VI took the field in person against Cardam, king of the Bulgarians, but the campaign was without any result: in the following year, however, the Emperor was defeated in a pitched battle, in which several of the ablest generals of the Roman armies were slain. Yet, in 796, Constantine again led his troops against the Bulgarians: though victorious, he obtained no success sufficient to compensate his former defeat. The effects of the military organisation of the frontier by Constantine V are visible in the superiority which the Byzantine armies assumed, even after the loss of a battle, and the confidence with which they carried the war into the Bulgarian territory.

The Byzantine empire was at this period the country in which there reigned a higher degree of order, and more justice, than in any other. This is shown by the extensive emigration of Armenian Christians, which took place in thje year 787. The Caliph Haroun Al Rashid, whose reputation among the Mohammedans has arisen rather from his orthodoxy than his virtues, persecuted his Christian subjects with great cruelty, and at last his oppression induced twelve thousand Armenians to quit their native country, and settle in the Byzantine empire. Some years later, in the reign of Michael III, the drunkard, orthodoxy became the great feature in the Byzantine administration; and, unfortunately, Christian orthodoxy strognly resembled Mohammedanism in the spirit of persecution. The Paulicians were then persecuted by the emperors, as the Armenians had previously been by the caliphs, and fled for toleration to the Mohammedans.