The sons of Hagar. Byzantine views on the Arab army in military treatises of 9th and 10th century


Arab military expansion was a real challenge to the Byzantine Empire. The defeats sustained in wars with the Arabs, whom the Byzantines called sometimes Hagarenes to refer to Biblical Hagar, forced new method of war waging. That knowledge was taken predominantly directly from battlefield. The Arab menace increased during the reign of Leo VI the Wise (886-912). Albeit not a soldier himself, he took an attempt to reorganize the Byzantine army and navy. Although it did not bring an immediate effect, the Empire gradually be­gan to initiative. The situation changed for better during the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (911-959) and Romanos I Lekapenos (919-959). A peace with the Bulgarians allowed to collect substantial forces on the eastern border of the empire. The weakening of the Abbasids gave way to the Hamdanid dynasty from northern Iraq and Syria to grow to the most serious Byzantine adversary in mid- 10th century, particularly during the reign of Sayf al-Dawla (945-967), who re­corded some remarkable victories over the Byzantine forces. In 955 Nikephoros II Phokas took over the post of domesticos of the East. Along with his brother Leo, Strategos of Cappadocia and John Tzimiskes, they were able to change the course of war, winning some battles in northern Syria. The struggle with the Muslims resulted in a number of military treatises, the most known of which were attributed to emperors Leo VI and Nikephoros II Pho­kas. Although it is not certain if they were written by them themselves, they were certainly created on their behalf. Among several treatises of Leo VI, the Tactica seems to be the most interest­ing. The work divided in 20 chapters was meant as a handbook for military com­manders. It discussed the organization of infantry, cavalry and navy, and their use in war, as well as that of sieges, ambushes etc. Much attention was paid to Arab logistics. Remarkably little, if any attention was paid to religious grounds as a rea­son for expansion. Not too surprisingly, much of the work was dedicated to the methods of efficient struggle against Muslims; the author correctly identified both strong and week sides of the Byzantine army. Some points clearly suggest a desire to take over certain elements of organization and war art from the adversary. Also the treatise by Nikephoros Phokas represents equally good value as Tactica. In this work we find a number of details regarding both military and non-military customs of the Arabs, which is not surprising, as the author was a military commander, experienced in battles against the Muslims. For this reason we should respect even more the military knowledge of Leo’s Tactica, if we remember that the author was not a professional soldier. Interestingly enough, with the notable exception of Nikephoros Phokas, the authors of other treatises added little to the information contained in Leo’s work. The reason for that was explicitly laid out by an anonymous author of still another treatise, Βιβλίον τακτικόν, who wrote that the chiefs knew so much about the raids on the lands of the Hagarenes that there was no use to discuss them in detail.


Byzantium; Arabs, art of war (polemology); military treatises (tactica); Nicephor II Phocas; Leo VI the Wise

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Published : 2015-07-15

Wolińska, T. (2015). The sons of Hagar. Byzantine views on the Arab army in military treatises of 9th and 10th century. Vox Patrum, 63, 397-416.

Teresa Wolińska 
Uniwersytet Łódzki  Poland

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