More from the Chronicle of Zuqnin

I continue translating part IV of ps.Dionysius of Tell-Mahre.  Dates are in AG, but Chabot has added AD to them.

In the year 1008 (696-697), died Constantine, Emperor of the Romans; he was succeeded by Justinian who reigned ten years.

In the year 1017 (705-706), a synod met in the monastery of Mar Silas. The principal members of this synod are known: the Patriarch Julian, Thomas, bishop of Amida, and James [bishop] of Edessa, the Interpreter of books. This holy Mar James, Bishop of Edessa, is famous.

In the year 1018 (706-707), died Justinian, Emperor of the Romans; he was succeeded by Leontius, who reigned three years.

In the year 1019 (707-708), holy Mar Julian, Patriarch of Antioch, died; Mar Elias succeeded him.

 [12] In the year 1020 (from 708 to 709), there took place a new census that was added to the first, which greatly increased the evil.

In the year 1021 (709-710), died holy Mar James, Bishop of Edessa, who was succeeded by Mar Habib.

At that time flourished holy Mar Thomas the Stylite, of Tela.

In the year 1022 (710-711), died Leontius, Emperor of the Romans, in place of whom reigned for seven years, Tiberius Apsimar.

In the year 1023 (711-712), Walid died, King of the Arabs; he was succeeded by Suleiman who reigned two and a half years.

In the year 1024 (712-713), died Mar Thomas Saint, Bishop of Amida; Mar Theodotus succeeded him.

After Apsimar, emperor of the Romans, Justinian reigned six years; after him Philip reigned three years; then Anastasius two years, finally Theodosius-Constantine one year.  The latter was occupying the throne when Maslamah invaded the territory of the Romans. In the years of the reigns of the Roman emperors added together make twelve years; this calculation is made almost to the year, more or less.  The Arabs only count the moons and never the months like the Syrians; most writers even do not make a complete chronology, but counting only the years of the reign, they omit the time of discord between the two kingdoms. As for me, I did the same in this chapter, so that the reader is not disturbed.

[13] In the year 1028 (716-717), Maslamah entered the Roman Empire. The countless troops of the Arabs gathered and began to invade the territory of the Romans. All the countries of Asia and Cappadocia fled before them, as well as the entire coastal region. 

They reached mount Maurus and the Lebanon, as far as Melitene, and on the river Arsanias, and as far as Armenia. This whole area was remarkable for the number of its inhabitants and its abundant vineyards, its grain, and its magnificent trees of all kinds. Since then it is devastated, and these regions are no longer inhabited. When the emperor saw the multitudes that came against him and he learned that his general, Leo, had made a pact with them, his heart grew weak and his hands trembled. He abdicated the throne, laid down the crown and had his head shaved. Indeed, it is the custom, if a Roman emperor abdicates, that he has his head shaved and then lives in his house without going out. So he did this. Leo sent to him: “Take courage and do not fear,” but he was not convinced, and he persisted in abdicating the empire.

Now this Leo was a man of courage, strong and aggressive. He was Syrian by race and originally from these confines. Because of his valour, he had been made general. By his skillfulness, he prevented the earth drinking the blood of men. He made a pact with Maslamah, promising to bring him into Constantinople without a fight. The latter, confident in the promise of Leo, no longer made war, made no prisoners, went to Constantinople and vigorously laid siege to this city. Leo came into [14] the city, and seeing that the Romans were desperate and that the emperor had abdicated, he stirred up their courage. “Fear not,” he said to them. They saw his bravery, and fearing that he would reproach them for what they had done to the previous emperor, made him emperor.

In assuming the imperial crown, he also gave strength and courage. He consolidated the city wall. He sent an army to cut the roads that would let through an army from Syria; he also destroyed the pontoon bridge and cut it.

The Arabs and their whole army were thus shut up as prisoners. Maslamah ordered vines planted, but a great and violent famine broke out among them, so much so that bread was absent from the camp and they ate their pack animals and horses. When Maslamah asked Leo, “Where is the oath that you made to bring me into Constantinople without fighting?” the latter replied calmly: “Wait a few days until the nobles of the Empire have submitted to me.” They remained without fighting in their respective positions, one inside, the other outside, for about three years. The famine grew so much among Arabs that they ate their shoes and the corpses of dead, and they attacked each other, so that nobody dared to go alone.

While Maslamah was constantly putting pressure on Leo: “Keep your promise, or I will attack,” the news came that the king of the Arabs, Suliman, was dead and Omar [II] had succeeded him. However, Omar sent him a letter: “Get out of there, lest you perish with hunger, you and all that are with you,” Maslamah, after having received [15] this letter, asked Leo to allow him to enter the city to visit him. He entered with thirty horsemen, went around for three days and admired the royal works. The Arabs retired from there and returned without having achieved anything. They arrived at a certain town called Tounou [=Tyana]; the prefect of the city seeing them starving, emaciated, weak, conceived a contempt for them and sent a message to Leo, “Send me an army and I will attack them by surprise.” But this design did not escape them. When they learned that an army was behind them, a leader of the Arab troops, one of the principal men among them, called `Abbas said to Maslamah: “Give me an army, to go to face them before they arrive, lest they surround us and make us disappear from the earth, and that our end is worse than anything that happened to us in this way.” – He took a large army and went to meet them. The latter were marching in separate groups, were not yet prepared to fight and knew nothing of this army of Arabs coming to meet them. `Abbas went down before them into a large meadow, in which they themselves had intended to camp that day. He put the whole army in ambush, in ditches and patches of reeds that were there.

The Romans came in their turn, and went down into the meadow, not knowing anything and not perceiving even what had been done by Arabs. They set up their camp and everyone sent his horse to pasture, as is customary in the army. Then the Arabs sortied out of their ambush and from the valleys in which they were standing all around the meadow. At the signal agreed upon between them, they rushed upon the Romans they were surrounding them and put them all to the sword. Not one of them escaped. However the Romans were about sixty thousand. After having stripped the dead, the Arabs returned to their companions. 

[16] Another Roman army who was coming from behind, having learned what had happened to the first, was seized with terror and turned back. The Arabs, after they had plundered and foraged everything that was within their reach, they left this country and came to Syria.

In the year 1032 (720-721), which was the first year of `Omar, King of the Arabs, and the fourth of Leo, emperor of the Romans, Maslamah left the territory of the latter, after having plundered and devastated the entire region, which he changed into a barren desert.

I omit many things that happened in this campaign to avoid prolonging this story.

At this time flourished the patriarch Elias, Mar Habib, [Bishop] of Edessa, Simeon of Harran  and Theodotus of Amida.

3 thoughts on “More from the Chronicle of Zuqnin

  1. Amazing. The story of emperor Theodosius-Constantine and the behaviour of the Roman troops during the rule of his successor Leo in the face of the Omayyad Muslim army of Maslamah and Abbas remind one of so many similar stories that depict the weakness, cowardice and strategic poverty of the Romans during these fateful years and since the Arabs made their first burst outside their dismal desert in the 630s AD.

    The savage Arabs did not win in war because they were superior; they won because the Romans were inferior. The change in the Romans from great fighters to such pathetic cowards seems to me to have occurred in the lifetime and during the career of the emperor Heraclius (610-641 AD).

    Dioscorus Boles

  2. I am sure Byzantine sources (I think Theophanes covers this time) give a different account. I think he is describing second Arab siege of Constantinople one of the Empires’ greatest victories. The Arabs lost almost their entire army and navy, only the cavalry managed to escape the siege. Leo III has been called “New Miltiades” for his achievement and the battle is considered more important for the salvation of Europe than Poitiers

  3. We do need to see all sides.

    But I think Dioscorus does put his finger on something. Heraclius, remember, was a great emperor. He achieved what no Roman emperor had done, the complete defeat of the Sassanids. So … why was he unable to deal with the Arabs?

    I suspect the two things are linked. The war with the Persians itself lasted many years, and utterly devastated the richest areas of the Roman empire. It must also have destroyed much of their self-belief. Even though Heraclius won in the end, perhaps he did so because the Persians had over-extended themselves and become worn down likewise. In the end there was simply little with which to fight.

    The empire would have recovered, no doubt; but the Arab custom of having an annual raid into Roman territory meant that the country had no such respite. The crops were destroyed and the inhabitants hauled off to be sold as slaves. Ps.Dionysius refers to the ruin of the countryside, how rich areas became unpopulated. Without security of property no-one can do more than subsistence farming — a problem that has made Africa poor and keeps it poor today — and famines then become an immediate problem.

    Roman weakness, then, became an ingrained attitude.

    From the account of ps.Dionysius, Leo’s victory is perhaps the first of many Byzantine victories, achieved through treachery rather than power.

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