Arab Conquest of Carthage (688–699)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Arab Muslims vs. Byzantine Empire
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): North Africa
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Arabs sought to conquer Byzantium and convert its peoples to Islam.
OUTCOME: The Arabs took Carthage, chased the Byzantines completely out of Africa, and began to menace the empire’s control of the sea.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown
After 25 years of war with the Persians the Byzantine Empirewas prostrate (see BYZANTINE-PERSIAN WAR [603–628]). Byzantine emperor Heraclius (c. 575–641) had lost some 200,000 men and had seen the almost unimaginable riches of the empire squandered or destroyed. As Heraclius and his people began the long task of recovery, a troublesome new foe appeared on the eastern horizon—Arab Muslims, devotees of the religion of Islam founded by Muhammad (570–632) who were determined to convert the world by conquest. They swept out of Arabia to strike the Persian and Byzantine Empires, both totally exhausted by their long war. In the BYZANTINE-MUSLIM WAR (633–642), after overwhelming Persia, the Muslims quickly conquered Byzantium’s eastern provinces, aided by the passive neutrality of the Syrians and the Egyptians. By the time Heraclius, infirm and unpopular, died of dropsy, all the empire east of Taurus
had been lost to the religious warriors, though the Anatolian and Thracian heartland survived. Heraclius’s successors were faced with defending the empire’s eastern boundaries against the Arab hordes, who
launched numerous raids into Anatolia. They were able to maintain a frontier generally along the Taurus Mountains, but in the southwest the Muslims invaded the Byzantine Empire’s North African lands in 688 (see BYZANTINE MUSLIM WAR [668–679]). Their advance was ultimately halted by the use of Greek Fire, a volatile combination most probably consisting of quicklime, naphtha, sulfur, and sea water. There followed decades of sporadic hit-and run warfare, during which both the Arabs and the Byzantines made raids on each other’s cities and territories. A more concentrated war broke out again in 698. Exploiting religious dissension between the empire’s provinces and Constantinople, which resulted in widespread
disunity, the Arabs assaulted and entirely destroyed the Byzantine-held city of Carthage. In 699 Arab forces
drove the Byzantines from Utica, northwest of Carthage The Arabs sacked Utica, and the Byzantines were thereby virtually eliminated from all of North Africa. This put the Arabs in a position to challenge seriously Byzantine control of the sea, which they began to do.
Further reading: Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610–1071 (New York: Random
House, 1967); Cyril A. Mongo, ed., The Oxford History of Byzantium (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Geoffrey Regan, First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2001).