Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sack of Damietta (853)

Damietta is a much bigger deal as a military target during the Crusade years, when it became the beachhead for both the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade and the ridiculously unsuccessful Seventh Crusade. But this little Byzantine raid in 853 was actually fairly significant at the time, and talking about it allows us to talk about one of the more peculiar figures in Byzantine history, Emperor Michael III (d. 867). So what the hell, let’s do this.

You may recall that Arab forces, fleeing a failed rebellion in al-Andalus, captured Crete from the Byzantines in the 820s, and that their frequent raids from that island were a source of unending misery for the Byzantines for decades to come. Not only that, but the loss of the island itself deprived the Byzantines of a crucial forward naval base. Having tried and failed on several occasions to retake Crete, in the 850s the Byzantines decided to render the Muslim position there untenable by cutting it off from its supply lines to Egypt. They sent out three fleets, of which we only know the whereabouts of the one that raided Damietta for three days starting on May 22, 853.

Byzantine-Arab naval warfare in the 7th-11th centuries (Wikimedia | Cplakidas)

At this point, Egypt had little by way of a fleet, and what it did have was mostly used to patrol the Nile, not the sea. In fact this raid spurred the Abbasids and their Egyptian governors to rebuild Egypt’s navy, which grew within a couple of centuries to once again become a formidable force in the Mediterranean. Neither did Egypt have much in the way of coastal defenses, and Damietta’s military garrison just happened to be in Fustat, the provincial capital, when the Byzantines arrived. So the attackers met little resistance and took away hundreds of women and massive amounts of material plunder–including a mess of supplies that were intended for Crete. Things went so well that the Byzantines raided the city again in 854, and again again in 855. The raids obviously had little impact on the Muslim occupation of Crete, which finally came to an end over a century later in 961, nor on Muslim piracy in the eastern Mediterranean. But at a time when the Byzantines rarely came out on top in their military exchanges with the Arabs, this 853 raid in particular stands out as a rare unambiguous success.

Which is why it’s strange that no extant Byzantine sources mention it. We know about the raid from Arab sources–which actually helps prove that it really happened, Arab historians having no apparent reason to invent a successful Byzantine raid on an Egyptian city.  It’s likely that the Byzantine sources ignore it because Byzantine writers generally loathed the emperor at the time, Michael III, and didn’t want to credit him with a military victory.

Michael, known as “the Drunkard” in the sources so you can tell he was really well respected, became sole emperor at the age of two and was assassinated at the age of 27, so he had little time to establish his own legacy and, having been assassinated, had to be trashed by subsequent historians in order to justify his murder. He was, apparently, drunk quite a bit, and he also seems to have mocked the Church, a huge mistake that drastically damaged his reputation even though it was technically during his reign (during its regency period) when his mother, the Empress Theodora (AKA Saint Theodora per Orthodox Christianity) ended the practice of iconoclasm. As a result his reputation was thrashed by historians.

If you put aside those things, though, it’s unambiguous to say that Michael III left the empire in better shape than he received it–revenue was up, the military revived, religious strife tamed. The empire’s fortunes, especially vis-a-vis the caliphate, began to turn around under his reign. Michael himself didn’t have that much to do with all of this, but it’s still interesting to see a ruler’s regents given so much praise while the ruler himself is treated as such a total embarrassment. But Arab writers, paradoxically, treat Michael as a worthy opponent, and modern scholarship tends to view him in a somewhat better light.

Michael (right-center with the halo) promoting Basil (left-center)

The last thing I’ll say about Michael involves his convoluted private life, which would put most soap operas to shame. During his regency he fell in love with a woman named Eudokia Ingerina, but Theodora disapproved because her family were iconoclasts. So she arranged his marriage to a Eudokia Dekapolitissa, who became Michael’s empress consort, but he carried on his affair with Eudokia Ingerina anyway. In order to facilitate this, he had Eudokia Ingerina married off to his chamberlain, Basil the Macedonian (d. 886), who understood the arrangement and carried on his own affair with Michael’s sister, Thekla. Basil used these ties to influence the emperor to order the murder of his uncle and designated heir, Bardas, in 866, in order to clear a path for Basil to rise up the ranks. Basil and Eudokia “had” a son later that year, the future Leo VI (d. 912), who was probably Michael’s biological son, and Michael appointed Basil as his co-emperor–possibly to legitimize Leo’s eventual accession to the throne. The following year, Basil murdered Michael and became sole emperor, Basil I, and Eudokia Ingerina got to be empress consort after all.

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