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

A successful Byzantine naval raid that curiously isn't well-attested in Byzantine sources.

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

The city of Damietta, located in Egypt’s Nile Delta, became quite important during the Crusades, once it dawned on the Crusaders that capturing Jerusalem was pointless so long as Muslims ruled Egypt. Damietta’s location made it the ideal beachhead for two Crusader attempts to conquer or at least subdue Egypt—the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade and the ridiculously unsuccessful Seventh Crusade. But prior to the Crusades, Damietta served as a port for the Abbasid caliphate, and that made it a fairly frequent target for Byzantine raids. The one we’re talking about today, which took place in 853, is the most impactful of those raids, and covering it allows us to talk about one of the more peculiar figures in Byzantine history, Emperor Michael III (d. 867).

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 misery for the Byzantine Empire for decades to come. Those raids notwithstanding, the loss of Crete deprived the Byzantines of a crucial forward naval base. Having tried and failed on several occasions to retake the island, in the 850s the Byzantines decided to render the Muslim position there untenable by cutting its supply lines to Egypt. They sent out three fleets, of which we only know the whereabouts of one, the fleet that raided Damietta for three days starting on May 22, 853.

At this point in time, Egypt didn’t have that much of a fleet, and what it did have was mostly used to patrol the Nile, not the sea. 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, you guessed it, 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 only came to an end over a century later in 961, nor did they really affect Muslim piracy in the eastern Mediterranean. But at a time when the Byzantines usually emerged the loser in their military exchanges with the Arabs, this 853 raid in particular stands out as a rare unambiguous success. In that sense it foreshadowed the Byzantine resurgence that would really begin under the Macedonian dynasty later in the century. On the other side, this raid spurred the Abbasids and their Egyptian governors to rebuild Egypt’s navy, which grew within a couple of centuries to become a formidable force in the Mediterranean.

Given how successful the 853 raid was, it’s strange that no extant Byzantine sources mention it. We know about the raid from Arab sources—which is good evidence 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 the Byzantine chroniclers who would’ve written about it 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 under a regency at the age of two and was assassinated at the age of 27. Thus he had little time between the end of his minority and the end of his, uh, life to establish his own legacy. Moreover, the circumstances of Michael’s assassination—specifically, the fact that his assassin, Basil the Macedonian (d. 886), succeeded him and founded a whole new dynasty—meant that he had to be trashed by subsequent historians in order to justify his murder and flatter the new political order. Allegedly Michael was, as his nickname suggests, drunk quite a bit, and he also seems to have made a habit of mocking the Church, a huge mistake that damaged his reputation even though it was technically during his reign (during his regency) when his mother, the Empress Theodora (Saint Theodora in Orthodox Christianity) ended the practice of iconoclasm. These are the main details those later Byzantine writers used to trash his reputation.

The issue with which modern historians have had to reckon is that if you set aside the personal criticisms of hostile imperial chroniclers, there’s no question that Michael III left the empire in better shape than he received it. By the time he was killed, imperial revenue was up, the military was revived, and religious strife was tamed as compared with circumstances when he took the throne. The empire’s fortunes, especially vis-a-vis the caliphate, began to turn around under his reign, though the full effect of that reversal wouldn’t be felt until the Macedonian dynasty had taken over. It’s possible or even likely that, given his young age, Michael himself didn’t have that much to do with these positive outcomes. Byzantine sources do praise his regents, but it’s unusual for a ruler’s regents to be treated so well by historians while the ruler himself is treated as an embarrassment. Arab writers, on the contrary, treat Michael as a worthy opponent, and these days scholars tend to view him in a somewhat better light than Byzantine tradition allows.

The last thing I’ll say about Michael involves his convoluted private life. During his regency period he fell in love with a woman named Eudokia Ingerina, but Theodora disapproved because Eudokia’s family were iconoclasts. So she arranged his marriage to a Eudokia Dekapolitissa, who became Michael’s empress consort—but Michael carried on an affair with Eudokia Ingerina anyway. In order to facilitate this, he had Eudokia Ingerina married off to his chamberlain, the aforementioned Basil, who seems to have understood the arrangement and apparently carried on his own affair with Michael’s sister, Thekla. Like sands through the hourglass, etc.

Amid all these domestic shenanigans, Basil was able to manipulate Michael into murdering his uncle and designated heir, Bardas, in 866, which of course cleared a path for Basil, a commoner who made good, to rise to the top of the imperial hierarchy. Basil and Eudokia had a son later that year, the future Leo VI (d. 912). There’s some reason to suspect that Leo was Michael’s biological son, or at least that Michael believed him to be so, a belief that Basil may have been happy to feed. Michael then appointed Basil as his co-emperor—perhaps as a way to legitimize Leo’s eventual accession to the throne. That decision proved to be a fatal mistake. The following year, Basil murdered Michael and became sole emperor (Basil I) and Eudokia Ingerina got to be empress consort after all. Basic founded the aforementioned Macedonian dynasty, which (thanks in part to the breakdown of the Abbasid Caliphate) led the empire through perhaps its most successful period since the 7th century Arab conquests.