1. Historical context
In the summer of 863 Amr al-Aqta, emir of Melitene, joined forces with Ja' far, probably the emir of Tarsus,1 in order to launch a joint campaign against the Byzantine Empire. The large Arab army,2 in which probably also participated Paulicians under their leader Karbeas, left Tarsus and passing through the Cilician Gates entered Cappadocia, making camp in an area which in the Arab sources is called al-Matamir, close to Tyana.3 From then on the emir of Melitene decided to move independently.4 He headed north along with his troops, towards the area which in the Arab sources is called Mardj al-Usquf, (i.e. Bishop’s Meadow), close to Malakopi, north of Nazianzos, where he joined battle for the first time with emperor Michael III (842-867) and suffered great losses.5 This did not, however, thwart Amr al-Aqta’s march, who with the rest of his army headed further north pillaging the lands of the theme of Armeniakon and reaching as far as the coasts of the Black Ssea, where he captured the important port of Amisos (modern Samsun in Turkey).6 As soon as Michael III was informed of this in Constantinople he raised a large army7 drawn from the eastern and western themes, giving its command to his uncle Petronas, strategos of the theme of Thrakesion who was was also a domestikos ton scholon,8 in order to immediately oust the Arabs from the territories of the Empire. A large part of this army had already participated in the Battle of Mardj al-Usquf and, after that victory, followed the invaders from a distance, according to the Byzantine tactic. The news that a large army had been mobilized against him reached the emir of Melitene when he was still in Amisos. Disregarding the advice of his officials to avoid giving battle and choose another return route,9Amr al-Aqta decided to stick to his original plan and moved his forces to the west. Finally, early in September he met the Byzantine troops on the borders between the themes of Armeniakon and Paphlagonia, more specifically at a site called Poson, close to the Lalakaon River.10
2. The battle
The strategy that Petronas adopted in battle against the Arabs consisted in surrounding the enemy, in order to launch a simultaneous attack on all sides. Thus, the strategoi of Armeniakon,11Boukellarion,12 Koloneia and Paphlagonia moved to the north, while the strategoi of Anatolikon, Opsikion and Cappadocia, together with the kleisourarchs of Seleukeia and Charsianon moved to the south. The strategoi of Thrace and Macedonia together with the soldiers of Thrakesion and of the four imperial tagmata took up positions in the west, under the direct command of Petronas. During the night before the battle, Petronas ordered a Byzantine contingent to take control of a hillock in the area, which was of strategic importance, so as to cut off the Arabs’ only way out. The operation was successful, notwithstanding enemy attempts to control this hill. The next day, September 3, 863 the combined Byzantine attacks from north, south and west began. When the Arab emir realized the grave danger he was in, he rallied all his forces on the west side and attempted to break through the Byzantines lines at that point and escape. This attempt failed, however, and the trapped Arab army was almost totally annihilated. Amr al-Aqta fell fighting and the leader of the Paulicians, Karbeas, propably lost also his life in battle.13 The emir’s son was the sole who managed to escape; he crossed with a small contingent the Halys River and made his way southeast, towards the kleisoura of Charsianon. Machairas, the kleisourarch of Charsianon, chased him down and soon after managed to capture him and hand him over, together with his soldiers, to Petronas.
The crushing defeat of the Arabs in Lalakaon, which ended a great campaign by the emir of Melitene and led to the decimation of his army and his own death, did more than to undermine the morale and warlike brunt of the Arabs.14Apart from the fact that for a short term it bolstered Byzantine morale and strength, it also marked an important turning point in the history of the Arab-Byzantine conflict. Up to then Byzantine efforts were mainly limited to a war of survival and then a defensive war against the Arabs. From now on, however, the empire begins its counteroffensive, which gradually becomes intense and reaches its peak during the second half of the 10th century, when Byzantine rule over the majority of Asia Minor becomes firmly established. After their victory over the emir of Melitene, the Byzantines moved east and, after crossing the Euphrates, attacked the Arab emir Alī ibn Yahya in Armenia.15Furthermore, the shift of balance in favour of the Byzantines in the East allowed them to turn their attention to the Balkans and the threat of the Bulgarians, Russians, and Slavs. After returning victorious to Constantinople and making a glorious triumph,16 Petronas was honoured by Michael III for his achievement with the title of magistros.17
1. See Huxley, G., "The Emperor Michael III and the Battle of Bishop's Meadow (A.D. 863)", Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975), p. 448, and Belke, Κ., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 9: Paphlagonien und Honorias (Wien 1996), p. 77, who accepted the earlier view of Bury, J., A History of the Eastern Roman Empire (London 1912), p. 283.
2. According to the continuators of Theophanes, Χρονογραφία, I. Bekker (ed.), Theophanes Continuatus (Bonn 1838), p. 179,14, and Joseph Genesios, Βασιλεῖαι, ed. Α. Lesmuller-Werner -1. Thurn, Iosephi Genesii Regum Libri Quattuor (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 14, Berlin-New York 1978), pp. 67, 67, the forces of the emir of Melitene numbered 40,000 men.
3. Huxley, G., "The Emperor Michael III and the Battle of Bishop's Meadow (A.D. 863)", Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975), p. 448.
4. According to Treadgold, W. T., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford 1997), p. 452, caliph al-Musta' in was the one who ordered a raid against Cappadocia and when the main Arab army retreated from the Byzantine lands, Amr continued the campaign using his own forces.
5. Haldon, J. F., The Byzantine Wars (Stroud 2001), believes that the army under Michael III was made up of the tagmata and troops from the themes of Cappadocia and Charsianon.
6. Byzantine sources mention that in Amisos the emir imitated Xerxes and ordered the sea be wiped for it prevented him from continuing on his course. However this is probably a myth.
7. According to the Arab historian al-Tabari, Τα 'rikh al-Rusul wa-l-Muluk, ed. Barth J. et al. (Leiden 1879-1901, repr. Beirut 1965), it numbered 50,000 men.
8. According to the Arab historian al-Tabari, Τα 'rikh al-Rusul wa-l-Muluk, Barth J. et al. (eds), this campaign was led by emperor Michael III himself. Vasiliev, Α. Α., Byzance et les Arabes 1: La dynastie d'Amorium (820-867) (Corpus Bruxellense Historiae Byzantinae 1, Bruxelles 1968), p. 251, believes that this might actually be true but was suppressed by the Byzantine historians who were hostile towards Michael III.
9. Huxley, G., "The Emperor Michael III and the Battle of Bishop's Meadow (A.D. 863)", Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975), p. 449; Belke, K., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 9: Paphlagonien und Honorias (Wien 1996), p. 77.
10. The region of Poson and the Lalakaon River can not be identified with certitude. Gregoire, Η., "Études sur le neuvième siècle", Byzantion 8 (1933), p. 534-539, suggests the identification of Lalakaon with the Almyros River, which is rejected by Vasiliev, Α. Α., Byzance et les Arabes 1: La dynastie d'Amorium (820- 867) (Corpus Bruxellense Historiae Byzantinae 1, Bruxelles 1968), p. 253, and Huxley, G., "The Emperor Michael III and the Battle of Bishop's Meadow (A.D. 863)", Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975), p. 445. Most scholars, however, believe that this is an area close to the Halys River, or to its north, according to Belke, Κ., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 9: Paphlagonien und Honorias (Wien 1996), p. 77, or to its west, according to Χριστοφιλοπούλου Αικατερίνη, Βυζαντινή Ιστορία 2: 610-867 (Θεσσαλονίκη 1993), p. 216, or between this and Lalakaon, its tributary, according to Jenkins, R. J. H., Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries (AD 610-1071) (London 1966), p. 162. Haldon, J. F., The Byzantine Wars (Stroud 2001), p. 84, speculates that the Lalakaon River is to be identified with the river today called Şehirmeydanı Çayı.
11. Perhaps the strategos of the theme of Armeniakon who participated in this operation was Theophylaktos, the same man who is mentioned in the letter of Photius dated between 858 and 867. See Βλυσίδου Βασιλική – Κουντούρα Ταλάκη Ελεονώρα - Λαμπάκης Σ., - Λουγγής Τ. - Σαββίδης Α., Η Μικρά Ασία των Θεμάτων: Έρευνες πάνω στην γεωγραφική φυσιογνωμία και προσωπογραφία των βυζαντινών θεμάτων της Μικράς Ασίας (7ος-11ος αι.) (Ερευνητική Βιβλιοθήκη 1, Αθήνα 1998), p. 125.
12. The general of the theme of Boukellarion was called Nasar. See Συνεχιστὴς Γεωργίου Μοναχοῦ, Βίοι τῶν νέων βασιλέων, I. Bekker (ed.), Georgius Monachus Continuatus (Bonn 1838), 825, 2.
13. Such a possibility is thought propable by Vasiliev, Α. A., Byzance et les Arabes I: La dynastie d'Amorium (820-867) (Corpus Bruxellense Historiae Byzantinae 1, Bruxelles 1968), p. 256, as 863 is mentioned as Karbeas’ date of death. See also Jenkins, R. J. H., Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries (AD 610-1071) (London 1966), p. 162; Hild, F. — Restle, M., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 2: Kappadokien (Kappadokia, Charsianon, Sebasteia und Lykandos) (Wien 1981), p. 80; Hild, F. — Hellenkemper, H., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 5: Kilikien und Isaurien (Wien 1990), p. 51.; Treadgold, W. T., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford 1997), p. 452, believes it is equally possible that he was killed soon after, during the battle of the Byzantines against emir Ali. On the contrary, Lemerle, P., "L'histoire des Pauliciens d'Asie Mineure d'après les sources greques", Travaux et Mémoires 5 (1973), pp. 92-96, argues that neither Karbeas nor the Paulicians participated in the emir’s campaign in the summer of 863 and believes that, if the leader of the Paulicians did indeed die in 863, he died of natural cuases and not in battle.
14. This victory was considered to be the Byzantine’s revenge for the sack of Amorion in 838. Indicative is the impact of the victory as documented on the Byzantine hagiological texts, the epic poetry and the songs of the Constantinopolitan demes of that era.
15. In the battle that took place between October 18 and November 16 863, the Arab army was defeated, while Alī ibn Yahya lost his life.
16. If we accept the version offered by the Arab historian al-Tabari, emperor Michael III returned also with Petronas.
17. Χριστοφιλοπούλου, Αικ., Βυζαντινή Ιστορία 2: 610-867 (Θεσσαλονίκη2 1993), p. 217, mentions that he took the office of domestikos.