Byzantine Guerilla Warfare

Byzantine Guerilla Warfare

By AD 641., Roman Empire had lost its easternmost provinces. Income of the empire in the second half of 7th century was only about one-fifth (20%) of what it had been before the Arabic invasions. It has also lost most of its major urban centers, and those that remained would experience the process of reduction in size, population and functions that was also in evidence in the Western Europe. As a result, Empire’s ability to wage war was forever altered. It was forced to move away from open battles and direct contests of strength, and towards guerilla warfare. This accumulated knowledge was preserved in military manuals such as De Velitatione Bellica.

This manual has long been considered an accurate description of how Byzantines fought its Muslim neighbors during the Dark Ages, and possibly even later. It certainly is an accurate description of the “lessons learned”, as they existed in 9th and 10th centuries, question is whether it is applicable to 7th and 80th centuries as well. Evidence does suggest that tactics akin to those in De Velitatione Bellica had been utilized during Byzantine Dark Age.

Vegetian tactics appeared around the time of the siege of Constantinople in 717/8. In the year prior to the siege, orders were given for the population to move into fortresses following the approach of an Arab army. Byzantine forces were ordered to avoid battle, but when they saw that the Arab host has split to raid the countryside, they could not avoid the temptation to attack. In this however they were driven back by Arab ambushes.

While campaigns were listed as taking place almost annually, the next mention of Byzantine resistance is in 731., when Abd al-Wahhab b. Bukht is noted as having been killed after charging into Byzantine forces after a retreat. In the following year, Byzantine forces advanced against invading Muslims but were defeated. Only in late 730s, during the attack on Synnada, does guerilla warfare make an appearance, with Byzantine army surrounding the Arab army of 50 000 in their camp and killing all but 5 000.

In an entry dated to 735., al-Tabari reported that two raids had departed that year for the Byzantine territory. The leader of one, Sulayman, departed from Mesopotamia and upon reaching the Byzantine territory he spread out his raiding parties. This matches descriptions provided in the De Velitatione.

There are few sources for the middle years of the eighth century. The Abbasid Revolution appears to have limited Muslim campaigning. Constantine V took advantage of this to campaign against the Bulgarians as well as attack Melitene and Germanikeia. In late 760s, Muslims attacked Kamakhon. During the siege, groups of Arabs moved away from the main army and departed into Byzantine lands to raid. Moving through the mountainous terrain, they infiltrated the lands around Kaisareia in Cappadocia, plundering them without much resistance. Having taken much loot the Muslims retreated and set up the camp, but did not adequately prepare defenses. As a result, they were surprised by a Byzantine force of 12 000 cavalry, which occupied the passes out of the meadow before summoning reinforcements. These then destroyed the Muslim force in a simultaneous night attack. Roman forces appear to have been assembled during the raid, which is why they were only able to catch the Muslims as they were returning home.

Roman forces shadowed the Muslims until they could assemble their full strength at a point and time when Muslims were unprepared. Roman forces themselves were cavalry-based, which Phokas had in 10th century suggested is ideal for fighting on the eastern frontier. Similar tactics to the above were repeated when Muslims attacked Pyke, but were unsuccessful as the Muslim army instead went on the offensive and broke through.

It is thus clear that Byzantines have been using guerilla strategy on the East since 760s at the latest. In general, Byzantines avoided direct confrontations with Arab armies, although evidence becomes sparse in late 8th century. In 779/80, Lachanodrakon intercepted and destroyed a large Muslim raiding party, but that is all that is known. In the following year (781), Eirene successfully deployed the Asian themata to guard the Tauros passes. In 781/82, Eirene sent tagmata to Bane to hinder the movement of Harun al-Rashid’s invaders, which appears to be clear usage of guerilla tactics. In 788., forces from the Opsikon and the Anatolikon were defeated by a Muslim raid near Cilician gates.

Overall, it is clear that Byzantines were very familiar with the guerilla warfare in their fight against Muslims. Tactics in 7th and 8th centuries closely resemble those written down in the 10th century’s De Velitatione Bellica. This proves manual’s claim that it preserves an earlier form of warfare.

4 thoughts on “Byzantine Guerilla Warfare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s