The Siege of Tarsos in 965, according to Leo the Deacon

Leo the DeaconLeo the Deacon (Leo Diaconus) was born around the year 950. In his early youth he came to study at Constantinople and, as his name tells, was ordained deacon. In 986 he took part in the war against the Bulgars under the Emperor Basil II (976-1025), was present at the siege of Triaditza (Sofia), where the imperial army was defeated, and barely escaped with his life. After the year 992 he began to write a history of the empire, presumably at Constantinople. The work is incomplete. Apparently he died before he could finish it. The history, divided into ten books, covers the years from 959 to 976, that is, the reigns of Romanus II (959-963), Nicephorus Phokas (963-969) and John Zimisces (969-976). It describes the wars against the Arabs including the recovery of Crete from the Arabs in 961, the conquest of Antioch and Northern Syria (968-969), the Bulgarian War (969) and the defeat of the Southern Russians (971), one of the most brilliant periods of the later Empire. For the reigns of Nicephorus Phocas and John Zimisces, Leo the Deacon is the one source, the only contemporary historian, from whom all later writers have drawn their material. The following section relates the siege of Tarsos, a city in modern-day Turkey.

This translation and the notes have come from Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century: The History of Leo the Deacon, Introduction, Translation and Annotation by Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F. Sullivan (with the assistance of George T. Dennis and Stamatina McGrath), published by Dumbarton Oaks.

1. Thus the emperor Nikephoros captured Mopsuestia and reduced the neighboring fortresses by force in the manner I have related. Then he spent the winter in Cappadocia,[1] vexed and worried and disheartened because he had not captured Tarsos at the first assault, but had been driven away from it, like a blunt dart[2] falling on something harder, and had accomplished nothing mighty or courageous. He considered the matter a disgrace, a downright insult and ineradicable reproach; for when he, Nikephoros Phokas, had previously been a general and was later proclaimed Domestic of the Schools, he had destroyed untold numbers[3] of cities, plundered them and reduced them to ashes. He had enslaved prosperous regions, and routed and subdued war-like peoples in pitched battle, nor had they been able to withstand at all his power and invincible force of weapons; but now that he had assumed leadership of the Romans through his courage and wits, and was leading an army numbering 400,000,[4] he was driven back, having done nothing but shadow-fight. Furthermore, he had been driven off not from Babylon, which Semiramis fortified with seven circuit walls,[5] nor from Old Rome, which was built by the might of the Romans, nor from the walls of Judaea, whose solid height[6] seemed to be a tall tale, devoid of truth, to those who had only heard about it with their ears and not seen it,[7] but he had been repelled from Tarsos, a city of modest size,[8] on a plain suitable for cavalry, with a combined population of immigrants and natives. As he brooded on this, trying to reach a decision, he was annoyed and uncontrollably angry, that, when their neighbors had been killed, and those who had escaped the point of the sword had exchanged freedom for servitude, the Tarsians alone had gone scot-free, and were laughing loudly at his bravery, making fun of his military experience. Therefore he drilled his men rigorously in battle skills, while he waited for the right time of year. As soon as spring shone forth,[9] and the bitter cold of winter changed considerably to the warmth of summer, the troops started to assemble round the emperor following his orders. He arrayed the army, which was composed of over 400,000 men, in compact fashion, and, after raising the standard,[10] set off toward Tarsos.

2. In the course of this march, one of the lightly armed soldiers, who was exhausted by the rough terrain (for it so happened that the army was marching through a very deep defile, which was hemmed in by cliffs and caves), took off the shield he was carrying on his shoulder, and dropped it on the path. The emperor saw this with his own eyes as he passed by, and ordered one of his attendants to pick up the shield. When he arrived at their halting place, he asked to which captain was assigned the man who threw away his shield and tossed away his own arms, when there was no danger of battle. The guilty party did not escape detection, but was quickly seized. The emperor gave him a grim and baleful look, and said, “Tell me, you scoundrel, if there were an unexpected attack, what defense would you use to ward off the enemy, since you threw away your shield on the path?” The man remained speechless, paralyzed with terror. The emperor ordered the captain to flog the soldier who was bent on his own destruction, to cut off his nose and parade him through the camp.[11] But, whether seized with pity for the man, or softened by bribes, he (the captain) let the man go unharmed. The next day the emperor saw him passing by, and summoned the captain, and said, “O, stubborn and bold man, how dare you not carry out my order? Or do you think that you have greater concern for this army than I do? I ordered that the man who tossed away his arms receive such a punishment as a lesson for the others, so that none of them might do the same thing in imitation of his carelessness and laziness, and be caught at the time of battle without their arms, and fall easy prey to the enemy.” Then he flogged the captain severely, and cutting off his nose, he instilled fear in all the army, so they would no longer be careless about their own equipment.

3. Upon arrival in the vicinity of Tarsos, he pitched camp there and surrounded it with a palisade; he then ordered his men to clear cut and mow down thoroughly the fields and meadows, which were filled with flowers and all sorts of trees, so that he could launch an attack in the open, and it would be impossible for any of the barbarians to set up an ambush in thickly grown areas, and attack the Roman army from a concealed spot. Thus one could see the area losing its inherent beauty; for it was all fertile and abounding in pasture, and thickly grown with all kinds of trees, which produced every sort of succulent fruit. The Tarsians, exulting in their previous victories over the Romans,[12] again were shown to be rash and arrogant,[13] and could not bear to restrain their anger, but went out from the town, assembled[14] in a powerful close formation for a pitched battle, revealing themselves as daring and overweeningly confident before they engaged in the battle. The emperor himself led out from the camp the bravest and most robust soldiers, and arranged the divisions on the battlefield, deploying the ironclad horsemen[15] in the van, and ordering the archers and slingers to shoot at the enemy from behind. He himself took his position on the right wing, bringing with him a vast[16] squadron of cavalrymen, while John who had the sobriquet Tzimiskes,[17] and was honored with the rank of doux,[18] fought on the left.[19] He was a man of unbridled courage, extremely daring and more reckless than anyone else; although his body was shorter than average, like the fabled warrior Tydeus,[20] there was still a certain heroic strength and force in his diminutive frame. When the emperor ordered the trumpets to sound the charge, one could see the Roman divisions move into action with incredible precision,[21] as the entire plain sparkled with the gleam of their armor. The Tarsians could not withstand such an onslaught; forced back by the thrusts of spears and by the missiles of the <archers> shooting from behind, they immediately turned to flight, and ingloriously shut themselves up in the town, after losing most of their men in this assault. They were overwhelmed by a terrible cowardice, when they saw such an experienced multitude advancing <against them>. Therefore they assigned positions on the circuit wall of the town, fortifying it with artillery engines, and remained patiently inside, awaiting the enemy’s attack.

4. Since the emperor Nikephoros realized that the city was extremely difficult to attack and capture, and that it could not be taken by force, he decided not to take any chances by fighting in an ill-advised manner, but to deliver the city into the grip of famine, which through cruel necessity would make it surrender, even against its will. After making this plan, he encircled the town with diligent guards. The Tarsians kept hurling missiles at the Romans from the towers, as long as the famine had not yet grown serious and completely overwhelmed them. But when it began pitilessly to consume them, and their bodies were weakened by the lack[22] of food, then one could see the dreadful suffering and severe depression which overwhelmed the city; the men were cadaverous, no different from ghostly shadows.[23] Starvation is a most piteous and devastating fate; it wastes away the body’s mass, quenches its warmth with cold, makes the skin stretch over the bones like a spiderweb,[24] and summons death to slowly prevail.

Since they were not able to fight both invincible suffering from starvation and so great an army, they came to terms with the emperor and surrendered, on condition that anyone who wished could proceed unimpeded to the interior of Syria. After making this concession and agreement with them, he ordered them to leave the city quickly, taking only themselves and necessary[25] clothing. When he captured the city in this way, he distributed to the army some of the booty, which amounted to countless wealth, taking himself the cross-standards made of gold and precious stones which the Tarsians had seized in various battles, when they defeated the Roman forces;[26] after securing the city with a sufficient army, he returned to the imperial city. After arriving there, being magnificently received by the populace,[27] he deposited the captured crosses in the celebrated and holy church,[28] and entertained the people with chariot races[29] and other sights. For the Byzantines are fonder of spectacles[30] than any other people.

[1]The winter of 964-965; for our (and Leo’s) dating of the capture of Mopsuestia in 964, see Book III, n. 90.

[2]Homer, Iliad 11:390; CPG 2:494.

[3]Lit. “myriads”, a term best not taken at face value. Leo above (Book II, ch. 9) says he captured “more than sixty” Agarene fortresses, while Skylitzes (271.65-66) says he took “more than one hundred cities and fortresses.”

[4]Schlumberger (Phocas, 480) comments that the figure 400,000, while also found in some Arab historians, is an exaggeration perhaps indicative of the effort made here by Nikephoros and its effect on Arab observers. Treadgold (Byz. State, 948 n. 3) comments that this would be twice the number of soldiers the empire had at this time. He too suggests significant exaggeration or a possible scribal error of “forty” for “four” myriads (i.e., 40,000). As the figure is later repeated, exaggeration seems more likely. G. Dagron (”Minorités ethniques et religieuses dans l’Orient byzantin à la fin du Xe et au XIe siècle: l’immigration syrienne,” TM 6 [1976], 180 n. 10) comments: “le chiffre de 400,000 hommes … est évidemment fantaisiste …”. On the size of the army, see also Treadgold, Army, 75-80.

[5]For Semiramis (the historical Sammu-ramat of Assyria, 9th c. B.C.), see Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1996), 1383. The legendary story of her construction of Babylon is told in detail by Diodorus Siculus, II:7-10, drawing on and preserving Ktesias’ account (cf. Ktesias in F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, IIIC [Leiden, 1958], 428ff.). Leo’s reference to seven walls here is an exaggeration.

[6]Hase (Leo diac. 436) notes that the phrase τ_ vαστ_v _ψoς is a recurring formula for the walls of Jerusalem, citing Josephus, De bello V:157, 166, etc.

[7]Cf. Leo diac. 5.20, _φθαλμo_ _τωv πιστότερoι, a modified quotation from Herodotus, Hist., 1.8.10.

[8]Tenth-century accounts, however, speak of Tarsos’ impressive fortifications and thoroughly military character; see McGeer, Warfare 231-232, and the bibliography cited there.

[9]This must be the spring of 965.

[10]The standard of the cross; see Leo diac. 8.6 (σταυρικ_v … τρόπαιov) and 128.2 and 138.22 (σταυρικ_v σημε_ov), the last a reference to the vision of Constantine I the Great. See also Leo diac. 61.2-3.

[11]The Ekloga (Appendix 1:17, tr. E.H. Freshfield, A Manual of Roman Law: The Ecloga [Cambridge, 1926] 124) indicates that the penalty for a ρίψασπις (”a man who threw away his shield”) in battle was death. The penalty here was lighter, apparently since the act took place while on the march. On ριvoτoμε_v (”cutting off/slitting the nose”) see ODB 2:1428 s.v. Mutilation, and for discretion in type of punishment, ODB 3:1622 s.v. Penalties. On this incident, see McGeer, Warfare, 335, 338.

[12]Skyl. 144.48ff and 270.40-43 reports that a late 9th-c. Domestic of the Schools, Stypeiotes, appointed by Basil I, had subjected his army to complete destruction at Tarsos due to his poor planning. See also below, n. 26.

[13]There is a play on words in the Greek, Ταρσε_ς … θρασε_ς …

[14]Reading παρεκρατo_vτo as in E instead of παρεκρoτo_vτo as emended by Hase.

[15]On the heavily armed cavalry (kataphraktoi), the core of Nikephoros Phokas’ army, see ODB 2:1114 and McGeer, Warfare 214-217. According to the TLG, Leo is the first author to use the term παvσίδηρoι. On the use of heavy cavalry as an indication of the “renewal of interest in methods of waging warfare, and the re-emergence of the Byzantine armed forces from comparative isolation”, see J. Haldon, “Byzantine Military Technology from the Sixth to the Tenth Centuries,” BMGS 1 (1975), 11-47, esp. 44 and n. 142.

[16]This rendering by McGeer (Warfare, 315) seems preferable to the literal figure of 10,000. While that many regular cavalry would be possible, the specific number would not be in accord with technical recommendations in the Praecepta; see Treadgold, Army 113 and n. 78.

[17]For “sobriquet”, read _πώvυμov with Panagiotakes rather than the _πώvυμα of the Hase ed.; note the rhyming of ε_ώvυμov and _πώvυμov. On the naming convention here, personal name and sobriquet, see A. Kazhdan, “The Formation of Byzantine Family Names in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” BSl 58 (1997) 90-109, specifically at 108 (his reference in line 18 to 93.3-5 should be corrected to 92.3-5). For discussion of the meaning of Tzimiskes (translated by DuCange as “adolescentulus” or “youth”), see n. 85 in Book V.

[18]Above in Book III, ch. 8, Leo stated that Nikephoros Phokas appointed Tzimiskes as Domestikos of the East. On the use of doux, a term employed in the second half of the 10th c. for the military commander of a geographical district (see ODB 1:659), specifically to refer to the Domestikos, see N. Oikonomides, “L’évolution de l’organisation administrative de l’empire byzantin au XIe siècle (1025-1118),” TM 6 (1976) 125-52, specifically 142.

[19]For close correspondence between the battle tactics described here and recommendations in the Praecepta attributed to Nikephoros Phokas, see McGeer, Warfare 315.

[20]In classical legend one of the Seven against Thebes, a fierce warrior characterized by Homer (Iliad 5:801) as Τυδεύς τoι μικρ_ς μ_v _ηv δέμας, _λλ_ μαχητής, hence aptly chosen to exemplify the diminutive Tzimiskes.

[21]The Greek term κόσμoς here indicates the product of the intensive drilling and training to which Nikephoros Phokas subjected his army.

[22]Reading _πoρί_ with Panagiotakes instead of _πoρία of Hase.

[23]Cf. Pindar, Pythian Odes 8:95: σκι_ς _vαρ.

[24]Some of the vocabulary and phrasing of this passage is reminiscent of Basil of Caesarea, _μιλία ρηθε_σα _v λιμ_ κα_ α_χμ_, PG 31:321.

[25]Reading τ_v _vαγκα_ov for τ_v _vαγκαίωv as suggested by Hase and accepted by Panagiotakes.

[26]On the standards carried into battle, see above n. 10. Skyl. 270.39-43 states that crosses were captured when a Domestic of the Schools appointed (ca. 882) by Basil I was defeated at Tarsos; see above n. 12. On the nature of the crosses, see G. Dennis, “Byzantine Battle Flags,” ByzF 8 (1982) 51-59, specifically 57. He notes that the text does not indicate whether these were large processional crosses or crosses attached to regular flags. His third alternative, however, crosses simply depicted on regular flags, seems at variance with Leo’s description of ornamentation with actual gold and gemstones.

[27]In October 965.

[28]I.e., in Hagia Sophia; cf. McCormick, Eternal Victory, 169-70 and Skyl. 270.43-44.

[29]On chariot races in 10th-c. Constantinople, “a traditional and indispensable prop of the monarchy … to celebrate important political events,” see ODB 1:412.

[30]For examples of the sorts of entertainment that the Byzantines enjoyed, see ODB, s.v. Entertainment (1:702) and Sports (3:1939-40).

This translation is from: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century: The History of Leo the Deacon, Introduction, Translation and Annotation by Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F. Sullivan (with the assistance of George T. Dennis and Stamatina McGrath), published by Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. We thank Alice-Mary Talbot and Dumbarton Oaks for their permission to republish this item.


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