Underestimation and misjudgement of the Muslim threat; a possible reason for the Roman defeat in the 7th century A.D.

“Roman histories and manuals of warfare contain no special wisdom on how to defend Palestine, Syria, or Roman Mesopotamia, or Egypt or what were the best tactics and strategy and forms of military operations to employ in fighting against Arabs. The historian Procopius, who wrote in the middle of the sixth century, claimed, that beduin could not storm city walls: “For Saracens are by nature unable to conduct sieges. For even the weakest barrier constructed with mud becomes an obstacle to their attack“. The late sixth-century ecclesiastical historian Evagrius Scholasticus, who, significantly, came from northern Syria, where he had some familiarity with Arabs and problems of local terrain, remarks that the best way to fight the Arabs was to use other Arabs against them.

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(Picture: “Bedouins” 1905-6 -Opaque and Translucent Watercolor by John Singer Sargent Brooklyn Museum)

The late sixth-century historian Menander Protector spoke of the “uncouthness and unreliability” of Arabs, and a few decades later, in the early seventh century, another historian, Theophylact Simocatta, similarly wrote “for the Saracen tribe is known to be most unreliable and fickle, their mind is not steadfast, and their judgment is not firmly grounded in prudence“. Problems of Arab raiding in southern Palestine and Roman countermeasures were familiar to such local Roman authors as Choricius of Gaza and St. Nilus the Sinaite.

The Romans may have heard something about Persia’s experiences on that eastern border with beduin, but if so, it is unknown. The experiences of Heraclius’ father, Heraclius the Elder, as a general on the northern edge of the Mesopotamian plain, in addition to Heraclius’ own during his war with the Persians, may have formed the emperor’s impressions about the fighting abilities of the Arabs and the best ways to fight them. Equally unknown is how much local commanders communicated to Heraclius and his immediate circle of military and political advisers and decisionmakers about their immediate experiences and perceptions about the fighting ability and threat of the Arabs on the eastern frontier.

The Strategikon of Maurice, written c. 600, embodies contemporary Roman military thought. This strategist warns against open battles and advises in favor of cunning, guile, caution, and suspicion in war. Defeat and disruption, not slaughter, of the enemy is the objective to achieve by means of secrecy, flexibility, and a readiness to use diverse techniques for fighting different types of opponents. He displays a readiness to exploit uncertainties while minimizing one’s own casualties, resort to artifices, diplomacy, delay, dissimulation, dissension, corruption, caution, and the indirect approach to warfare. By the seventh century this Roman approach to waging war was set. No extant sources indicate what kinds of military treatises or memoranda resulted from Heraclius’ wars with the Persians in the seventh century. It is impossible to know how Roman tacticians and strategists drew up – if they ever did – assessments of how to wage war in the light of their recent experiences against the Persians. Yet it seems unlikely that they were unaffected by that protracted conflict.

There is no evidence whether Muslims possessed copies of Roman manuals of war on the eve of or during the course of their early invasions and conquests of Roman territories. It is even less certain whether the Muslims profited from seizing or acquiring any other written Roman manuals of war or other more secret written military and political documents and information. The military events of the Muslim conquests did not derive from the writing of any special military manual.

There was no military treatise, whether anonymous or by a specific author, that inspired or changed military strategy, tactics, or operations for the Romans or the Muslims in the middle of the seventh century.”

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(Source: “Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests”, by Walter E. Kaegi)

NovoScriptorium: We have replaced the term ‘Byzantine’ used in the original text to the actual historical one, which is simply and only ‘Roman’. Nothing else is changed from the original text.

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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