Battle of Lalakaon

Battle of Lalakaon
Part of the Arab–Byzantine Wars

The Battle of Lalakaon, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes
DateSeptember 3, 863
LocationLalakaon River, Paphlagonia, Asia Minor
Result Decisive Byzantine victory
Emirate of Melitene Byzantine Empire
Commanders and leaders
Umar al-Aqta 
Karbeas  (?)
Michael III (?)

The Battle of Lalakaon (Greek: Μάχη τοῦ Λαλακάοντος) or the Battle of Poson (or Porson) (Greek: Μάχη τοῦ Πό(ρ)σωνος)[1] was fought in 863 between the Byzantine Empire and an invading Arab army in Paphlagonia (modern northern Turkey). The Byzantine army was led by Petronas, the uncle of Emperor Michael III (r. 842–867), although Arab sources also mention the presence of Emperor Michael himself, while the Arabs were led by the emir of Melitene (Malatya), Umar al-Aqta (r. 830s–863).

Umar al-Aqta was able to overcome the initial Byzantine resistance against his invasion and reach the shores of the Black Sea. The Byzantines then mobilized all their forces, and the Arab army was encircled near the River Lalakaon. The subsequent battle ended in a complete Byzantine victory and the death of the Emir on the field, and was followed by a successful Byzantine counteroffensive across the border. The Byzantine victories proved decisive: the main threats to the Byzantine borderlands were eliminated, and the era of Byzantine ascendancy in the East, which would culminate in the great conquests of the 10th century, had begun.

The Byzantine success had another corollary: deliverance from constant Arab pressure on the eastern frontier allowed the Byzantine government to concentrate on affairs in Europe, and, in particular, neighboring Bulgaria. The Bulgarians were pressured into accepting the Byzantine form of Christianity, thus beginning this nation's absorption into the Byzantine cultural sphere.

Background: Arab–Byzantine border wars

Following the rapid Muslim conquests of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire found itself confined to Asia Minor, the southern coasts of the Balkans, and parts of Italy. As Byzantium remained the Caliphate's major infidel enemy, Arab raids into Asia Minor continued throughout the 8th and 9th centuries. Over time, these expeditions, launched from bases in the Arab frontier zone on an almost annual basis, acquired a quasi-ritualized character as part of the Muslim jihad (holy war).[2]

During that period, the Byzantines were generally on the defensive,[3] and suffered some catastrophic defeats such as the razing of Amorium, the home city of the reigning Byzantine dynasty, in 838.[4] Nevertheless, with the waning of the Abbasid Caliphate's power after 842 and the rise of semi-independent emirates along the Byzantine eastern frontier, the Byzantines were increasingly able to assert their own power.[5]

In the 850s, the most persistent threats to the Empire were the emirate of Melitene (Malatya) under Umar al-Aqta, the emirate of Tarsus under Ali ibn Yahya ("Ali the Armenian"), the emirate of Qaliqala (Theodosiopolis, modern Erzurum) and the Paulicians of Tephrike under their leader Karbeas.[6][7] Melitene, in particular, was a major threat to Byzantium as its location on the western side of the Anti-Taurus range allowed direct access to the Anatolian plateau. An indication of the threat posed by these states came in 860, when their combined actions turned the year into a veritable annus horribilis for the Byzantines: Umar and Karbeas raided deep into Asia Minor and returned with much plunder; they were followed shortly after by another raid by the forces of Tarsus under Ali, while a naval attack from Syria sacked the major Byzantine naval base at Attaleia.[7][8]

Arab invasion of 863

Map of Byzantine Asia Minor and the Byzantine-Arab frontier region in the middle of the 9th century

In the summer of 863, Umar struck again, joining forces with the Abbasid general Ja'far ibn Dinar al-Khayyat (probably the governor of Tarsus) for a successful raid into Cappadocia. The Arabs crossed the Cilician Gates into Byzantine territory, plundering as they went, until they reached a place near Tyana.[5][9][10] There, the Tarsian army returned home, but Umar obtained Ja'far's leave to press on into Asia Minor. Umar's forces represented the bulk of his emirate's strength, but their size is unknown: the contemporary Muslim historian Ya'qubi claims that Umar had 8,000 men at his disposal, while the Byzantine historians Genesius and Theophanes Continuatus inflate the numbers of the Arab army to 40,000 men. The Byzantinist John Haldon considers the former number to be closer to reality, and estimates the size of the combined Arab force at 15,000–20,000 men.[9][11][12] It is likely that a Paulician contingent under Karbeas was present as well.[13][14]

On the Byzantine side, Emperor Michael III had assembled his army to counter the Arab raid, and met them at a battle in an area called Marj al-Usquf ("Bishop's Meadow") by Arab sources, a highland near Malakopeia, north of Nazianzus.[13][15] The battle was bloody with many casualties on both sides; according to the Persian historian al-Tabari, only a thousand of Umar's army survived. Nevertheless, the Arabs managed to escape the Byzantines and continue their raid north into the Armeniac Theme, eventually reaching the Black Sea and sacking the port city of Amisos. The Byzantine historians report that Umar, enraged at the sea blocking his advance, ordered it to be lashed, but this is most likely inspired by the similar account of Xerxes during the Persian Wars.[15][16][17]


As soon as Michael learned of the fall of Amisos, he ordered a huge force to be assembled (al-Tabari gives its size at 50,000 men) under his uncle Petronas, the Domestic of the Schools, and Nasar, the stratēgos of the Bucellarian Theme. Al-Tabari records that the Emperor himself assumed command of these forces, but this is not supported by Byzantine sources. Given the bias against Michael by the historians writing during the Macedonian dynasty, this may be a deliberate omission.[13][18][19] The forces assembled came from all over the Byzantine Empire. Three separate armies were formed and converged on the Arabs: a northern Byzantine force composed of the forces from the Black Sea themes of the Armeniacs, Bucellarians, Koloneia and Paphlagonia; a southern force, probably the one that had already fought at the Bishop's Meadow and had kept shadowing the Arab army, composed from the Anatolic, Opsician and Cappadocian themes, as well as the kleisourai (frontier districts) of Seleukeia and Charsianon; and the western force, under Petronas himself, comprising the men of the Macedonian, Thracian and Thracesian themes and of the imperial tagmata from the capital.[16][20][21]

The coordination of all these forces was not easy, but the Byzantine armies, marching from three directions, were able to converge on the same day (September 2) and surround Umar's smaller army at a location called Poson (Πόσων) or Porson (Πόρσων) near the Lalakaon River.[14][22] The exact location of the river and the battle site have not been identified, but most scholars agree that they lay near the river Halys, some 130 kilometres (81 mi) southeast of Amisos.[13][16] With the approach of the Byzantine armies, the only open escape route left to the Emir and his men was dominated by a strategically located hill. During the night, both Arabs and Byzantines endeavoured to occupy it, but the Byzantines emerged victorious from the ensuing fight.[14][16][23] On the next day, September 3, Umar decided to throw his entire force towards the west, where Petronas was located, attempting to achieve a breakthrough. The Byzantines though stood firm, giving the other two Byzantine wings time to close in and attack the Arab army's exposed rear and flanks.[16][24][25] The rout was complete, as the larger part of the Arab army and Umar himself fell on the field. Casualties possibly included the Paulician leader Karbeas: although the latter's participation in the battle is uncertain, it is recorded that he died in that year.[22]

Only the Emir's son, at the head of a small force, managed to escape the battlefield, fleeing south towards the border area of Charsianon. He was, however, pursued by Machairas, the kleisourarchēs of Charsianon, and was defeated and captured with many of his men.[22][26]


The success of the Battle of Lalakaon and its follow-up operations enabled the Empire to focus its might against Bulgaria, leading to its successful Christianization. Depiction of the baptism of the Bulgarians from the Manasses Chronicle.

The Byzantines moved quickly to take advantage of their victory: a Byzantine army invaded Arab-held Armenia, and sometime in October or November, defeated and killed the emir Ali ibn Yahya.[27][28] Thus, within a single campaigning season, the Byzantines had eliminated the three most dangerous opponents on their eastern border.[29] In retrospect, these successes proved decisive, as the battle permanently destroyed the power of Melitene. The Byzantine victory at Lalakaon altered the strategic balance in the region, and heralded the beginning of Byzantium's century-long offensive in the East.[3][28]

The importance of these victories did not go unnoticed at the time: the Byzantines hailed them as revenge for the sack of Amorium 25 years earlier, the victorious generals were granted a triumphal entry into Constantinople, and special celebrations and services were held.[1][27] Petronas was awarded the high court title of magistros, and the kleisoura of Charsianon was raised to a full theme.[27][29] On the Muslim side, al-Tabari reports that the news of the deaths of Umar and Ali—"strong defenders of Islam, men of great courage who elicited enormous praise among the frontier districts where they served"—provoked great outpouring of grief in Baghdad and other cities, culminating in riots and looting. As Tabari comments, however, while private donations and volunteers for the holy war began to flock to the border, "the central authorities [were not] prepared to send a military force against the Byzantines on their own account in those days" due to the ongoing internal turmoil in the Caliphate.[30]

The removal of the eastern threat and the rise of the Byzantines' confidence also opened up opportunities in the west, where the Bulgarian ruler Boris (r. 852–889) had been negotiating with the Pope and Louis the German (r. 817–876) for a possible conversion of himself and his pagan people to Christianity. This expansion of Rome's ecclesiastic influence up to Constantinople's very doorstep could not be tolerated by the Byzantine government. In 864, the victorious eastern armies were transferred to Europe and invaded Bulgaria, in a demonstration of military might that convinced Boris to accept Byzantine missionaries instead. Boris was baptized, taking the name Michael in honor of the Byzantine emperor, thus beginning the Christianization of Bulgaria and initiating the nation's absorption into the Byzantine-influenced, Eastern Orthodox world.[1][29][31]

Influence on heroic poetry

According to the French Byzantinist Henri Grégoire, the Byzantine success against the Arabs that culminated with the Battle of Lalakaon inspired the creation of one of the oldest surviving acritic (heroic) poems: the Song of Armouris. Grégoire claimed that the eponymous protagonist, the young Byzantine warrior Armouris, was actually inspired by Emperor Michael III.[32] A battle from the Byzantine heroic cycle around Digenis Akritas also strongly recalls the events of Lalakaon, as the eponymous hero surrounds an Arab army near Malakopeia.[33][34] Strong influences can be found in episodes in the Arab, and later Turkish, epic cycles around Battal Ghazi, as well as an episode in the One Thousand and One Nights.[35]


  1. 1 2 3 Jenkins 1987, p. 163.
  2. El-Cheikh 2004, pp. 83–84.
  3. 1 2 El-Cheikh 2004, p. 162.
  4. Treadgold 1997, p. 441.
  5. 1 2 Haldon 2001, p. 83.
  6. Treadgold 1997, p. 451.
  7. 1 2 Whittow 1996, p. 310.
  8. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 240–246.
  9. 1 2 Huxley 1975, p. 448.
  10. Vasiliev 1935, p. 249.
  11. Haldon 2001, pp. 83–84.
  12. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 249–250.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Kiapidou 2003, Chapter 1 Archived February 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine..
  14. 1 2 3 Jenkins 1987, p. 162.
  15. 1 2 Huxley 1975, pp. 448–449.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 Haldon 2001, p. 84.
  17. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 250–251.
  18. Huxley 1975, pp. 443–445, 449.
  19. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 251–252.
  20. Huxley 1975, p. 445.
  21. Vasiliev 1935, p. 253.
  22. 1 2 3 Kiapidou 2003, Chapter 2 Archived February 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine..
  23. Vasiliev 1935, p. 254.
  24. Jenkins 1987, pp. 162–163.
  25. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 254–255.
  26. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 255–256.
  27. 1 2 3 Kiapidou 2003, Chapter 3 Archived February 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine..
  28. 1 2 Whittow 1996, p. 311.
  29. 1 2 3 Treadgold 1997, p. 452.
  30. Saliba 1985, pp. 10–12.
  31. Whittow 1996, pp. 282–284.
  32. Beck 1971, p. 54.
  33. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 225–226 (Note #2).
  34. Huxley 1975, pp. 447–448.
  35. Vasiliev 1935, p. 21.


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