By LARS BROWNWORTH / OCTOBER 24, 2009 / Wall Street Journal
This fall marks the 1,341st anniversary of a watershed moment in history—though not likely one you’ve heard about before. It began with an event that would have been comical if not for the fact that a murder was involved. Even to those living through it, it must have seemed more farcical than ground-breaking.
The unlikely instigator was a disgruntled chamberlain who was tired of paying outrageous taxes and had taken it into his head to address the situation in the most direct way possible. On the morning of Sept. 15, 668 he sneaked into the imperial bathhouse in Sicily and brought a heavy soap dish crashing down on the head of the drowsy emperor Constans II. It was hardly a dignified way to die, but the Roman Empire had seen inglorious deaths before, and this one turned out to be a conclusive turning point for much of Mediterranean history.
As the royal head disappeared beneath the lukewarm water of the imperial bath, the emperor could have been forgiven for being slightly relieved—had he been conscious—at his release from the heavy cares of office. His service as emperor had been a largely thankless task, a desperate scramble to stop a bewilderingly powerful enemy from swallowing up North Africa and the Middle East. At the start of his reign those provinces had been thoroughly Roman, full of Greek and Latin cities of colonnaded streets, civic buildings and public monuments, but the last chance to preserve their common culture was already slipping away.
In 641, at the tender age of 11, Constans II had been handed the crown of an empire with its economy in shambles, its morale plummeting and a ruinous war that was quickly becoming the most severe crisis of its existence. That such a state of affairs had been allowed to happen was a source of deep embarrassment to most citizens, who naturally had a good deal of pride in their history. The Eastern Roman Empire (derisively nicknamed “Byzantine” by later historians) had been the most powerful state in the Mediterranean for centuries, and considered itself the guardian of civilization amidst its rather benighted neighbors. The various peoples existing beyond its frontiers were pitied as barbarians, and the idea that they could threaten the empire’s very existence was somewhere between ridiculous and blasphemous.
But then in 636, without warning, an Islamic army had come surging out of the wastes of Arabia sweeping everything before it. Using the stars to navigate the featureless deserts, and slaughtering the camels they rode to consume the water, the Arabs would emerge behind imperial lines, inflicting humiliating defeats before melting back into the sands. Only once did an imperial army try to follow them. Pursuing their elusive foe to a tributary of the Jordan River, the unwieldy Roman army was cut to pieces, its survivors butchered as they tried to surrender.
Unnerved by the speed and ferocity of the attacks, the stunned empire hardly bothered to defend its territory. Within a year of the battle on the Jordan, Syria had been abandoned, and by the time of Constans II’s coronation two years later, Palestine and Egypt were gone as well. Only the waters of the Mediterranean seemed to form a barrier capable of checking the desert-dwelling Arabs. That was little comfort, though, to the citizens of Roman North Africa who were now exposed to the Islamic sword. For the moment the Caliphate’s attention was directed elsewhere, but it would surely be only a matter of time before the onslaught began.
The loss of nearly half of its territory was met with gloomy silence in the imperial capital in Constantinople. Pessimism and defeatism seemed to be everywhere, and most had concluded that the judgment of heaven had turned against them. After all, who could fail to see divine displeasure when an army of only 4,000 had pried Egypt from the imperial grip?
As desperate as the situation was, however, a Roman recovery was still possible. The Arabs who had come bursting out of Arabia were vastly outnumbered by their new Roman subjects, many of whom had actually failed to resist in hopes of an escape from Constantinople’s relentless tax collectors. Despite their lapse in loyalty, the native populations of Syria and Egypt had been Romanized for nearly seven centuries, and they had far more cultural and religious ties to Roman civilization than to their new overlords.
Once the excitement of the conquest had faded, many began to regret their rash decision. The Arabs were thinly spread over the immense territories they had conquered; Islam hadn’t yet had a chance to put down roots and consolidate its gains. A firm counteroffensive could still roll back the tide.
As promising as the opportunity was, there seemed little chance of seizing it with a demoralized army and a teenager sitting on the throne. But Constans II, for all his youth, proved to be a capable and vigorous ruler. He understood—however dimly—that with each passing year the Islamic conquest grew more permanent, and he brought a swift end to the paralyzing inaction that had plagued the empire for so long. His advisers tried to counsel restraint, but the emperor was nothing if not strong-willed. (At age 11 he had marched into the Senate House in Constantinople and accused his step-grandmother of murdering his father, then watched impassively as she had her tongue cut out.)
A fleet sent to recapture the city of Alexandria in Egypt was surprisingly successful. As soon as the Roman ships were sighted, the cheering population massacred the Muslim garrison and welcomed their deliverers. Unfortunately for the empire, the Roman commander in charge of the expedition proceeded to remind the Egyptians why they had disliked imperial rule in the first place. He plundered the countryside and had soon alienated the entire population.
A few weeks later an immense Arab army showed up and the reconquest collapsed. The failure further drained the diminished imperial resources, but it proved Constans II correct in his belief that local populations still felt themselves to be Roman and would willingly assist his armies.
Still, there was much work to be done. The interior defenses had to be strengthened to prevent the loss of more territory, money had to be raised, and most of all Constans II had to mature as a general. In his first naval battle he had been forced to leap into the water and swim to shore to avoid capture, but he was a fast learner, and before the decade was out he had won several battles and pushed the Arabs out of Armenia. Now he only had to bide his time until the right moment to strike.
The opportunity arrived just after the emperor’s 32nd birthday. Not only had the Islamic advance been stopped in its tracks, but the Caliphate was now caught up in an increasingly disruptive civil war. The empire had an experienced emperor and a battle-hardened army, and there seemed little chance of unified resistance. There would never be a better opportunity to drive the forces of Islam from the imperial borders.
Always a man of action, Constans II inaugurated his campaign with the astonishing step of moving the capital of the Roman Empire. A rumor circulated that he had fled Constantinople to escape ghostly visions of a man he had murdered; the truth was that he needed to be closer to the empire’s western frontier, where the great reconquest would begin. Constantinople was nearly impregnable and could take care of itself; in any case it was too far from the front lines to make an effective headquarters.
Constans II headed to Rome—the first emperor to set foot in the Eternal City for more than two centuries—but the moment was somewhat spoiled when it became apparent that he had only come to raise money. After 12 days spent methodically stripping every last bit of bronze from the imperial monuments, to the point of scraping the metal from the roof of the Pantheon, he departed. Packing his loot off to the treasury in Constantinople, he boarded his own flagship and removed himself to the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
For the next five years, Sicily was the nerve center of the Roman world as the emperor readied his offensive, but the experience wasn’t a particularly pleasant one for the inhabitants of the island. If later chroniclers are to be believed, Constans II was so relentless in gathering funds that husbands were sold into slavery and wives were forced into prostitution to meet the sums demanded by the imperial tax collectors. Soon, the emperor had his army and the money to supply it. The stars were aligned, the omens were auspicious and all that was needed was the command to begin.
The pleased emperor retired to his bath.
It was, no doubt, gratifying to the long-suffering Sicilians to be free of their demanding emperor. But the blow that killed him also destroyed any chance to reclaim the Middle East for the Roman Empire. The golden moment had passed, and the damage could no longer be reversed. Once again the empire was rudderless and drifting, with various regents vying for control. In the year of Constans II’s death, an Arab force sacked Syracuse, and the annoyed imperial army responded by starting a civil war. By the time the legitimate emperor regained control, the imperial momentum was gone and the empire lapsed into paralysis and weakness. The Arabs restarted their offensive and a few years later Carthage fell, permanently extinguishing Roman Africa.
In time, of course, the empire would recover, but by then much of the old lands were no longer Roman. Arabic had replaced Greek, Islam had replaced Christianity, and the Middle East looked to Baghdad instead of Constantinople. Seven centuries of Greco-Roman civilization had been swept away as thoroughly as the Romans themselves had once displaced an earlier civilization.
Had he lived, Constans II may not have succeeded in his great ambition, but his reign marked the last time it would have been possible to preserve Greco-Roman civilization along the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Had he triumphed—and had his successors held the line—the ‘Middle Sea’ would have remained a Roman lake, and North Africa and the Middle East might resemble something like Western Europe today. In antiquity they were among the most prosperous provinces of the empire and though there were regional differences, no great cultural divide existed between the lands to the north and the lands to the south.
Perhaps, if not for an annoyed servant and a derelict bodyguard it might still be so today.
—Lars Brownworth is the author of ‘Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.’