Every Game Of Thrones fan will remember the Battle of the Blackwater episode from season two. It’s one of the highlights of the award-winning show so far, and in my opinion, one of the greatest hours of TV ever produced. It’s certainly better than anything in the past two seasons. Not much can top the sight of hundreds of ships being consumed by vivid green wildfire, or Tyrion leading the charge to try and drive back the Baratheon forces which were threatening to overrun the city walls.
But how many of you know that this battle is partly based upon a real siege. A siege that was pivotal to the future of Europe and the world.
The Battle of the Blackwater is clearly partly based upon the 674-678AD Arab siege of Constantinople, when the Umayyad Caliphate sought to conquer the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was the largest city in the world at the time; the glittering jewel at the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire and the gateway to Europe. Conquering the city would have left the Balkans defenseless, and allowed the Arabs to begin rapidly expanding into Europe from the east. This article will exam this important battle.
Background to the Siege of Constantinople
Since the death of Mohamed in 630AD, the Arab armies had exploded out of Arabia and conquered most of the Middle-East, North Africa, and parts of Central Asia. The Persian Empire had been utterly destroyed, such was the ferocity and unexpected scale of the Arab assault. The Byzantine Empire had buckled under the onslaught, suffering a series of catastrophic defeats and losing much of their empire. By 672AD the empire had lost all it’s territory in the Levant, Armenia and much of its North African lands. Arab armies had also started raiding deep into Anatolia, with almost yearly incursions pushing further and further inland.
Arab fleets had also begun probing deeper into Byzantine waters, with a fleet in 670AD reaching as far as the Sea of Marmara. The Umayyad Caliphate were now within striking distance of the heart of Byzantium, and knew the time had come to try and take the capital. In 672AD the Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah sent three huge fleets to secure bases along the coast of Asia Minor leading to the sea of Marmara — the gateway to Constantinople. This was to prepare the way for a siege of the city by securing forward supply posts they could use as staging grounds for an assault on the capital. The island of Rhodes was one of the major strongholds they secured, as it’s strategically located at the start of the Aegeon sea. Armies also raided deep into Asia Minor during this two year period. Things were looking bleak for the Byzantine Empire.
The Start of the Siege
In 674AD a massive fleet set off to capture Constantinople, consisting of perhaps a many as 1,800 galleys. It was largely unopposed, and passed through the Hellespont before landing on the Thracian shore 7 miles from Constantinople in April 674AD. At the same time a huge army 80,00 strong marched across land to approach the city from Asia Minor. The Byzantine forces were heavily depleted and thinly spread after decades of warfare, with no more than 30,000 soldiers to defend the city. The much larger armies of the Caliphate had never tasted defeated, and were understandably confident of victory. It looked like the days of the Eastern Roman Empire were numbered, and the fate of Europe was hanging in the balance. If the Arabs succeeded in taking the city then the rest of the empire would have likely fallen, and they would have been able to conquer large areas of Europe.
The first battle took place a few miles from the city, with the Arab army fighting it’s way to the colossal outer walls of the city and trying to storm them. Fortunately for the Byzantines Constantinople was protected by the massive Theodosian walls, which were the most extensive fortifications in the world, stretching for 6.5km from the Bosphorus to the sea. The fortifications consisted of three walls, plus a moat, and were reinforced by 96 large towers. They had never been breached before, and the invading army was unsurprisingly repelled after fierce fighting. This set the stage for the next 5 months of fighting, before the Muslim fleet moved to Cyzicus for the winter.
The siege soon turned into a long drawn out event, with the Umayyad forces under the command of Muawiya sailing over to the city each spring to besiege it for six months. They couldn’t breach the seemingly impregnable walls, but they were able to strangle the city and starve it of supplies. If the siege carried on much longer the city would be forced to surrender. Emperor Constantine IV knew he had to do something clever and unexpected to defeat the besieging army and save his empire.
In the battle of the Blackwater we all remember how Tyrion won the battle by cunningly deploying a hidden chain under the river, then raising this to trap most of the Baratheon fleet. He then sent ships packed with wildfire to crash into the stranded fleet, causing most of the ships to be engulfed by a raging green inferno. What you might not be aware of is G R R Martin partly got the inspiration for this from the siege of Constantinople. The Byzantines had recently invented the amazingly flammable Greek fire, and were ready to unleash it on the unsuspecting besiegers. Greek fire was a liquid that was so flammable it stayed burning on contact with water, and was almost impossible to extinguish (its formula was eventually lost, and we still don’t know it’s exact composition). There was nothing else remotely like it at the time, and its effects were going to turn the tide of history.
In 677AD the Byzantine Emperor finally launched his navy equipped with their secret weapon against the massive Umayyad fleet in the sea of Marmara. The leading Greek ships were equipped with primitive flamethrowers that poured out the deadly Greek fire onto the Arab fleet. The timbers of the ships went up like matchsticks as the intense flames spread across the sea. Hundreds of ships were consumed by the raging inferno and the surface of the water turned into a huge bonfire. The Arab generals were taken completely by surprise, and could do nothing as their fleet was decimated and terror spread among their men. Like in the Battle of the Blackwater thousands of soldiers were burned to death or drowned trying to escape, their armour and weapons often dragging them down into the depths. It’s hard to imagine the horror they must have felt at seeing the very sea itself on fire.
The Umayyad fleet was completely crushed.
At the same time Greek fire was unleashing devastation at sea, the Byzantine army launched a surprise rear attack on the Umayyad army across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the straits. The Arab army was already panicked from what was happening at sea, and the attack quickly turned into a rout. Some sources say that up to 30,000 Arab soldiers were killed in the battle. You can see the similarities to the battle of the Blackwater when the Lannisters and Tyrells launched a surprise cavalry attack on the stranded Baratheon forces, while their navy is being consumed by wildfire.
The Byzantines had won one of the most decisive victories of the ancient world, and Constantinople and perhaps Europe had been saved from conquest.
Aftermath of the Battle
It’s not an exaggeration to say this was one of the most important battles in history. If Constantinople had fallen then it’s likely the Umayyad dynasty would have conquered the rest of the Byzantine Empire, and large parts of Europe would have become part of the rapidly expanding first Islamic Caliphate. Potentially the Arabs would have gone on to take over most of Europe and create the biggest empire the world had yet seen. History would have certainly taken a much different route if that had happened.
In reality the aftermath of the siege saw the Byzantine forces push the Uyameds out of Anatolia. The empire recovered and regained some of it’s former strength, while the Caliphate fractured into in-fighting and civil war. A peace treaty was signed between the two powers, and a buffer zone was established in eastern Anatolia, which become known as the house of war in Arabic. Although the peace didn’t last and there were further wars and invasions on both sides, this buffer zone lasted in some form for centuries between the two empires.
Having examined the first siege of Constantinople it’s clear to see that the Battle of the Backwater was partly based upon this pivotal moment in history. Wildfire is simply a green version of Greek fire, and the way it was used to destroy the Baratheon fleet is similar to how the Byzantine navy surprised and destroyed the Umayyad fleet using their secret weapon. Kings landing itself also shares some similarities with Constantinople, not least it’s geographic position and strategic importance.
So next time you watch Game of Thrones or read the books, think about how one of the most important sieges in history influenced it. And if you are lucky enough to find yourself walking along the shores of the Bosphorus in the stunning historical heart of Istanbul, imagine how different the world might be but for one invention.