Today in European history: the Siege of Syracuse ends (878)

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The Aghlabid dynasty governed the province of Ifriqiya (which included modern Tunisia as well as eastern Algeria and western Libya) from 800 until 909. Although nominally they operated as vassals of the Abbasid caliphate, they were almost totally autonomous from Baghdad. Their reign is noteworthy for the growth of Ifriqiya as an economic center and of their capital city, Qayrawan, as a regional center of commerce and learning. It’s also known for their very extended campaign to conquer the island of Sicily. During the 109 years the Aghlabids controlled Ifriqiya, they spent fully 75 of them trying to take the island from the Byzantines. Their successful 877-878 siege of the Sicilian capital, Syracuse, was their fifth try at taking the city and probably should have been the culmination of their Sicilian conquest, but internal breakdowns delayed their final victory for over two more decades. Which meant they had precious little time to enjoy the fruits of their victory.

Sicily was a target for the expanding Islamic caliphate almost from the first arrival of Arab armies in North Africa. They began raiding the island in the 650s, in fact, years before caliphal armies were able to conquer Ifriqiya (the Arabs established Qayrawan in 670 and weren’t able to conquer Carthage until 698). Sicily had lost some of its Punic Wars-era significance as the the Mediterranean Sea became a Roman lake. It hadn’t really regained much importance after the fall of the western Roman Empire, because there were no Germanic tribes that could really challenge Byzantine control over the island. But when the caliphate arrived in North Africa, Sicily suddenly became of crucial strategic relevance again. It was the steppingstone from North Africa to southern Italy, for one thing, and it controlled the east-west routes across the Mediterranean. Admittedly that wasn’t that important for the mostly navy-less early caliphate, which is why those early Arab incursions were nothing more than hit-and-run raids, but by the time of the Aghlabids those sorts of naval considerations were becoming a much bigger deal.

Despite all the attention Sicily got from the Muslims, the Byzantines were never seriously in danger of losing it. Until, that is, the political situation on the island fell into chaos. The cause of that chaos was a man named Euphemius, who had by 826 risen to become the tourmarches (commander) of the Sicilian navy. The courtly version of this tale is that Euphemius got the hots for a nun and scandalously forced her to marry him. Imperial authorities got wind of this and ordered the Sicilian strategos (the island’s overall military commander) to investigate. When Euphemius got wind of that, he rebelled. The more prosaic version of this story is that the ambitious Euphemius, seeing that the empire was focused on the Arab conquest of Crete and was still reeling from Thomas the Slav’s failed rebellion in Anatolia, figured this would be a good time to move up in the world. Whichever version of the story you believe, he definitely rebelled. And it definitely didn’t go very well.

After being driven out of Syracuse by imperial authorities, Euphemius got the bright idea to appeal to the Aghlabids for help taking what he’d come to view as rightfully his. Here the story of Sicily takes on some similarities with the story of the Muslim invasion of Iberia in the 8th century. In Iberia, as in Sicily, the story goes that there was a disaffected political leader who decided he was being deprived of his rightful dominion and approached North African Muslims about helping him to rectify the situation. In both cases, the Muslims decided to lend a helping hand, but then things backfired on their erstwhile client when the Muslims decided to stick around and conquer the place for themselves. The Iberian version of this story may be mostly fictional, but in the Sicilian case it’s pretty much what happened.

After their initial landing on the island in June 827, the Aghlabid army went straight at Syracuse and laid siege to it that fall. Their lack of proper supplies combined with an outbreak of disease in their camp caused the Aghlabids to lift the siege and attempt to head home. But when they were prevented from leaving the island by Byzantine ships, in as it turns out to was a really big mistake, the Aghlabid army decided to stick around. In need of a base of operations, it headed west and captured a Sicilian fortress called Mineo. Foothold thus established, the Aghlabid army began to settle in for a lengthy campaign. Euphemius, meanwhile, started trying to play both ends against the middle. His initial experience of the invading Muslims was that they weren’t terribly interested in listening to him and didn’t seem very much like they were acting on his behalf, so he opened up a dialogue with his former Byzantine colleagues. At the same time, he continued to help guide the Aghlabids around the island, figuring that maybe their initial struggles would make them see his value. His schemes ended when he was murdered in 828, by a Byzantine delegation supposedly meeting with him to negotiate the surrender of the city of Enna.

The Aghlabids struggled to build on their small enclave until they received support from the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba in 830. Their combined forces were able to lay siege to the major Byzantine city of Palermo, which fell to the Muslims in 831. Suddenly the Aghlabids had gone from controlling a tiny fortress to ruling a major port city that became their Sicilian capital. Sicily was no longer a purely Byzantine province. For the next couple of decades the Aghlabids and the Byzantines remained more or less in a stalemate. A couple of Byzantine relief armies arrived but were unable to make much difference. The Aghlabids were able to capture a couple of port cities on the southern Italian mainland but couldn’t make much headway on the island. But they were eventually able to capture the important central Sicilian city of Enna in January 859, which meant they could turn their attention back to the eastern Sicilian coast without having to worry about a possible attack from the rear.

Syracuse once again became the focus of Aghlabid attention. They unsuccessfully besieged it in 868, 869, and 873. In the meantime, though, they captured the island of Malta in 870, further helping to secure their rear for a campaign against Syracuse. Finally, upon his 875 accession, the Aghlabid emir Ibrahim II resolved to finish off Syracuse once and for all. Appointing a new governor of Sicily, Jafar ibn Muhammad Abu Ishaq, he also sent a large fleet to the island carrying supplies and reinforcements. After capturing a number of fortresses surrounding the city, Jafar laid siege in August 877. If residents of the city were expecting a Byzantine fleet to come charging over the horizon to save them, they were disappointed. In fact it seems that Emperor Basil I “the Macedonian” was more interested in using his fleet to bring building materials to Constantinople than to help lift the siege of Syracuse. Perhaps he figured that with the rest of the island in Muslim hands it wasn’t worth the trouble.

The Siege of Syracuse, taken from a manuscript from the Synopsis of Histories by 11th century Byzantine historian John Skylitzes (Wikimedia Commons)

Sources tell of a lengthy siege during which the Aghlabids simply wore down the residents of Syracuse with steady bombardments and starvation. By the end the city was completely out of food and there are reports in some accounts of the residents turning to cannibalism to survive. Near the end the artillery fire opened a breach in the city’s walls, but its garrison was still able to hold the Aghlabids at bay for several weeks. On May 21, 878, the Aghlabid army finally broke through the breach and the exhausted defenders were overwhelmed. Thousands were reportedly killed in the ensuing carnage and the city was heavily damaged amid some very energetic looting.

As I noted above, the capture of Syracuse probably should have been the beginning of the end of Byzantine Sicily. But shortly after the siege ended the Aghlabid administration on the island fractured. Jafar’s uncle and brother arranged his assassination, but were then overthrown themselves and sent back to North Africa to be executed. The delay this turmoil caused gave the remaining Byzantines time to organize their defenses around their last major city on the island, Taormina, and they were subsequently able to resist several Muslim attacks into the early 880s and even began to take back some military initiative. These setbacks caused more internal conflict for the Aghlabids, whose soldiers began to rebel over the lack new conquests and, therefore, of any significant booty. Since most of the Aghlabid army was made up of Berber soldiers while the Aghlabids and their senior officials were Arab, these revolts may also have taken on an ethnic element as well.

Eventually the situation worsened into a civil war, and the Aghlabids lost Palermo to the rebels. Ibrahim II sent his son, Abu al-Abbas Abdullah, to the island as its new governor and he was able to retake Palermo in 890 and refocus attention on Taormina. In 902, events in North Africa forced Ibrahim II to abdicate in favor of Abu al-Abbas, so the two switched places and Ibrahim led the assault that finally captured the last major Byzantine city on the island. There continued to be a few straggling Byzantine holdouts in Sicily until the 960s, but with the capture of Taormina the island was for all intents and purposes entirely under Aghlabid control. And it remained part of the Aghlabid emirate for, uh, all of seven years, before becoming part of the newly emerged Fatimid Caliphate when it supplanted the Aghlabids in 909.