1. Historical context
During the reign of Romanos II (959-963) the Byzantine Empire continued to focus its foreign policy on the struggle against the Arabs on the eastern borders of Asia Minor, mainly in the areas of Mesopotamia and northern Syria. The commander in this war-front was Nikephoros Phokas, in the East. His main opponent was the Hamdanid Sayf ad-Dawlah who from his base at Aleppo in northern Syria was the main adversary of the Byzantine Empire since the time of Romanos I Lekapenos’ reign, constantly launching raids on Asia Minor. Apart from the eastern border, however, the struggle between the Arabs and the Byzantines was particularly strong throughout the Eastern Mediterranean: Arabs from Spain, using Crete as their base (they had captured the island in the mid-820s) launched raids on the coasts and islands of the Aegean, and controlled the trade sea routes to and from the East. Following his ascent to the throne, Romanos II wished to repeat his father’s, Constantine VII Porphyrogenetos (944-959), attempt who in 949 had organized a campaign to recapture the island. This campaign had been a total failure. In July of 960 Nikephoros Phokas, after assembling strong military forces, mainly drawn from the themes of Asia Minor, launched a new campaign against the Arabs of Crete. This had severe consequences on the region of Asia Minor, as it offered an opportunity to Sayf ad-Dawlah to launch a large raid on the interior of Asia Minor, aiming to sack fortresses and to capture prisoners by taking advantage of the absence of military forces in the area. The domestikos ton scholon of the West, Leo Phokas, undertook to confront the Arab threat; he was reassigned to Asia Minor by emperor Romanos II to cover the defensive vacuum in the eastern borders created by the absence of his brother Nikephoros.
2. The Battle of Andrasus
Romanos II’s move did not discourage Sayf ad-Dawlah; deeming that his opponent was in a difficult position due to the insufficiency of troops, late in the summer or early fall of 960 he launched a raid on Asia Minor aiming to capture the stronghold of Charsianon. His troops numbered 30,000 men,1 which gave him a clear numerical advantage. Leo Phokas, aware that his forces were outnumbered, avoided to face the emir in an open battle and pursued the usual military tactic in order to face the raids;2 he decided to advance to the rear of the enemy and block the narrow passes at Andrasus in Cilicia, which the Arabs would have to cross on their return journey. After capturing the castle of Charsianon, the Arab emir begun his return journey towards Cilicia, passing through the narrow way called Kylindros.3 The Byzantine forces awaited him there, lying in ambush on the heights flanking the pass. On November 8, 960 the expeditionary force of Sayf ad-Dawlah fell into the ambush of the Byzantines. The battle was particularly fierce and the troops of Leo Phokas won an overwhelming victory as a large part of Sayf ad-Dawlah’s forces were annihilated, while the rest were taken prisoners. The emir himself barely managed to escape (the Byzantine sources mention that he dispersed his precious spoils as he was fleeing to slow down his pursuers)4 and returned with very few men to Aleppo.
3. ConsequencesThis Byzantine victory at the Straights of Andrasus was very important for the developments on the war-front against the Arabs, in Asia Minor as well as in Crete. Sayf ad-Dawlah’s defeat allowed Nikephoros Phokas to continue his siege of Candia (modern Herakleion of Crete) untrammelled, as a possible victory of the Hamdanid emir would have probably forced the Byzantine general to abandon his campaign and return to Asia's Minor front. The heavy blow the Byzantines inflicted on the Emirate of Aleppo and on Sayf ad-Dawlah was to prove catalytic in the long-term border struggle between the two sides, as the state of the emir never managed to recover so as to continue its dangerous raids into Asia Minor. In fact this defeat marks the final decline of the Hamdanid dynasty, the main enemy of the empire in Asia Minor during Romanos’ reign. The Byzantine counteroffensive in the following years resulted in the temporary capture of Aleppo (February 962) and the collapse of Hamdanid power in 970, when the emirate becomes tribute to the Byzantine Empire.
1. Treadgold, W. Τ., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford 1997), p. 495.
2. This tactic is described in the military manual Περὶ Παραδρομῆς Πολέμου and it was also adopted by the Byzantines during the emir’s earlier raids into Asia Minor in 950 and 954. See Οικονομίδης, Ν., "Η ενοποίηση του ευρασιατικού χώρου", in Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους 8 (Αθήνα 1979), p. 110. Leo Phokas had implemented the same strategy on the western front, successfully repelling the raids of the Hungarians.
3. Treadgold, W. Τ., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford 1997), p. 495; Hild, F. - Restle, M., Tabula Imperii Byzantini 2: Kappadokien (Wien 1981), pp. 218-219.
4. Λέων Διάκονος, Ἱστορία, Hase, C. Β. (ed.), Leonis Diaconi Caloensis Historiae libri decem (Bonn 1828), 22, 23-23, 5: “καὶ κἂν καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ Χαμβδᾶν ἥλω μικροῦ πρὸς τῶν ῾Ρωμαίων δορυάλωτος· εἰ μή, τὴν ἄλλως ἀγχίνους ὢν κἀν τοῖς ἀπόροις ὀξὺς ἐννοῆσαι τὰ δέοντα, τὸ νὃν ἐπεφέρετο ἄργυρον καὶ χρυσὸν χύδην ἐπὶ τῆς ἀταρπιτοῦ διασπείρειν προσέταξεν· ᾧ καὶ περισπάσας τὴν τῶν ῾Ρωμαίων ὁρμὴν, ἀσχοληθέντων τῇ τοῦ χρυσοῦ συλλογῇ , μετ’ ὀλίγων ὑπασπιστῶν μόγις τὸν τοιοῦτον διαπέφυγε κίνδυνον”.