Constantinople and 717-18 – The Crucible of History, Si Sheppard

Constantinople and 717-18 – The Crucible of History, Si Sheppard

Campaign 347

The second Arab siege of Constantinople was one of the most significant events of its period. In the previous century the rising power of Islam had seemed unstoppable, and in 717 the Caliphate dominatad the Middle East and much of North Africa and was able to raise a massive army to attack Constantinople. In contrast the Byzantine Empire was in what appeared to be a terminal state of decline. It had lost some of its most prosperous areas to the Arab Conquests, including its bread basket of Egypt and the thriving urban communities of Syria. Politically the Empire was in chaos, with a series of short lived reigns often interrupted by frequent rebellions. It faced enemies on every front, with the Arabs in the east and Bulgars in the Balkans the most serious threats.

The background section makes you realise just how quickly Islam had risen from being a new religion in Arabia to dominating the Middle East and threatening what was undoubtedly the greatest city in the world at the time. The initial conquests of Egypt and Syria came in the generation after the death of the Prophet, and the siege itself came within a century of his death. As the author says, some of the commanders who achieve this deserve to be amongst the most famous generals in history, but in the West are largely unknown.

On the Byzantine side the resilience of the Empire is very impressive. In the years before the siege Byzantine politics was dominated by the almost tradiational infighting, with the preceeding period sometimes called the twenty years of anarchy. Leo III, the succesful defender of the city, only came to the throne in the previous year, after overthrowing his predecessor, and yet was able to organise a succesful defence of the almost entirely isolated city.

The biggest weakness in this book is the section on the aftermath of the siege. The succesful defence of Constantinople was a major historical event, and extended the life of the Byzantine Empire by nearly a millennium. However that doesn’t seem to be enough for the author, who goes on to claim that it saved all of Western Europe from immediate conquest and absorption into the Islamic World. He even goes as far as including a map of where he believes the tide of conquest might have reached (including most of France, German and Eastern Europe!). I’m sure that the fall of Constantinople in 717-8 would have seen Islam spread some way into the Balkans, just as it did after the eventual fall of the city, but Sheppard’s argument relies on the Balkan route being the only route for Islamic expansion. However at almost exactly the same time as the siege Islamic forces from North Africa were conquering Spain, and in the years afterwards they threatened Gaul. A century later the conquest of Sicily began, and the northern coast of the Mediterranean was exposed to raids for much of the period.

Despite that quibble, this is an excellent account of the siege itself, with good material on both sides throughout the text. We became familiar with both the Byzantine and Arab leaders, their plans, and the reasons for their successes and failures. This is undoubtable one of the most significant sieges of its period, fixing one of the borders between Islam and Christianity for several hundred years, and this is an excellent account of that siege. 

Origins of the Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing Forces and Plans
The Siege of Constantinople, 717-18

Author: Si Sheppard
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 96
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2020

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