• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

An Epilogue: Byzantine Spain & Africa

The Byzantine chapter on Africa (and to a lesser extent, Spain) tends to be a short one. It starts with a whiff of betrayal from men like Heraclianus (the comes Africae) who rebelled against Honorius in AD 413. Or perhaps Vandals under Gaiseric who took ships from Cartagena (Spain) to Tingitana (Africa) by invitation of another comes Africae, Boniface.

The middle then sags with failed counter-expeditions, including one by the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I whose giant fleet (led by the emperor’s brother-in-law, Flavius Basiliskos) was sunk by Vandal fire-ships off Cape Bon. Or alternatively, pokes fun at the Visigoths for failing to jump across from Gibraltar in AD 415. Instead, boomeranging across the Pyrenees for their first choice of Aquitania Secunda before being shunted back into Spain in reaction to the Frankish offensive that culminated in a major defeat at Vouille (507).

It’s a tale that ends – rather too neatly – with the pacification of Sicily and Africa by Belisarios in the middle of the sixth century. This historiography, however, not only omits the casus belli for a Byzantine presence in Spain, it also tends to shift its roving eye on to the more melodramatic episodes of Mediterranean history (such as Yarmuk, Nahavand or Tours) in a process that anachronistically treats Byzantine Africa as an irrelevant postscript rather than a viable prospect.

To start with Spain, Byzantium didn’t enter on the grounds of its notional sovereignty. Instead, it sought to settle a succession dispute. Since AD 511, the Ostrogoth Theoderic had assumed the kingship of his Visigothic brethren but ruled in Spain through a governor, Theudis, who’d effectively reduced the Visigothic royal title to a sinecure. But when Theudis claimed the crown for himself the peninsula descended into civil war with a noble named Athanagild calling on the Emperor Justinian for support.

Justinian opportunistically occupied south-east Spain from Cartagena to Malaga while Athanagild consolidated his rule around Toledo and his successor, Leovigild, eliminated the Suevi kingdom in AD 585. It was not until the end of Suintila’s reign (d. 635) that the Eastern Romans were ejected. This was the same period in which the empire was dealt a serious hammerblow at Battle of the Masts (655), which opened the Mediterranean to Arabic expansion in a way that Gaiseric’s raiding parties never had.

This had huge consequences for Byzantine Africa, a fear buttressed at the time by Constans II’s insistence on moving to Syracuse in Sicily – though scholarship hints that the move had just as much to do with his precarious domestic position in the capital rather than any grand strategy.

As early as AD 643, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As launched an attack on Tripoli. In 665, al-Sakuni marched into Africa and one of his armies defeated an amphibious force under a patrikios named Neqfur (Nikephoros?) at Hadrumentum. In 669, the Egyptian fleet established its first base at al-Qayrawan (Kairouan, Tunisia). And according to the Chronicle of Alfonso III, a fleet of 270 ships attacked Spain too in the reign of Wamba.

This was not the one-way avalanche of Arabia’s land-battles, however. One of the Arabian offensives (681) was bold enough to go as far as modern Tangier. There, the Byzantines then cut the force off at sea forcing them to march home. En route, however, they encountered a Byzantine-Berber coalition at Tahuda near an old Roman fortress called Thabeudeus in Algeria. Defeated, the Arabs fled to the aforementioned al-Qayrawan (which was in turn destroyed by the same force) and then across to safety at Barqa on the Egyptian frontier.

It took almost another decade before the Arabs dared to resume the fight. Even then, though al-Balawi killed Kusayla (the leader of the Berbers who’d defeated his colleague) he met his own death shortly after at Darna. A fate that led the next expedition to adopt a more methodical approach that reduced Byzantine fortresses one by one on the road to Carthage.

Just when it all looked over, however, another Byzantine-Berber alliance formed. A soothsayer-Queen known as al-Kahina led the land troops while the Romans led the amphibious assault at Carthage under a patrikios named John. After a major defeat, however, the latter retreated to Crete where he was murdered by mutineers who proclaimed Apsimaros, the droungarios of the Kibyrrhaiotai, emperor and then sailed on Constantinople.

Realising Carthage would be far too vulnerable to Roman navies, the Arabs built a new capital at Tunis and connected an inland lake to the sea by a canal. Egypt then sent over a thousand Coptic shipwrights to populate the city and construct a navy that could continue the thrust westwards.

The Byzantines haven’t quite been expelled from the story forever. According to the chronicler al-Hakam, when Tariq ibn Ziyad (governor of Tunis) sent an expeditionary force across the straits in AD 710, they arrived on Byzantine ships, provided by the treacherous governor of Septem (Ceuta), Julian.

The success of this foray led to the Arabs landing en masse at Jabal Tariq (Tariq’s Mount) i.e. Gibraltar the next year where Spain suffered its own Hastings (1066) with Roderick racing from a battle in the Basque country to rally his forces at the Guadalete River only to disappear in the battle, leaving headless communities behind to be mopped up by successive waves of Arabs led by generals such as Musa ibn Nusayr.

The Islamic conquest that followed involved both accommodation (as when Arabian leaders formed a thin icing of an elite above an intact Visigothic nobility) and complete destruction (the sack of Narbonne, for instance, involved the slaughter of men, rape of women and enslavement of children). But the Muslims did not have it all their own way. Instead, the early eighth century dealt it three body blows from which it struggled to recover.

First, Charles Martel’s victory at Tours (732). Second, the Berber revolt in the Maghreb (739). Third, Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga (718) in the Asturian mountains. Consequently besieged by a punitive force, he succeeded in repulsing the enemy until fewer than fifty people remained; thus was born the Kingdom of the Asturias, from which the Reconquista would emerge.