Byzantine Military: Zoroastrians and Christians vs Islam - The Amorium  Campaign
Reconstruction of Amorion

Amorium was an Ancient Greek city, and later a city in the Roman Empire, about which little is known. Nikos Tsivikis described the uncertainty surrounding its origins: “We know little about the Hellenistic and Roman past of Amorium. Its mention in a second-century BC inscription from Pessinous and the existence of an excavated tumulus west of the city attest to some importance during Hellenistic times. The Roman town is equally unknown except occasional archaeological finds recycled in much later buildings. The fact that Amorium had its own mint in Roman times certainly points to a significant regional center. Its civic image, however, is still something that we can barely understand as very little evidence from the pre-Byzantine city survived the continuous reuse of material, and especially the systematic and intense rebuilding of the Byzantine Early Medieval and Middle Byzantine city. We do not know whether it was walled or whether there existed colonnaded streets, marble-clad monumental buildings, and agoras. Maybe by comparison with nearby Pessinous we can imagine that some urban monumental arrangement would have adorned also Roman Amorium. Still, Pessinous stands out in textual sources and earlier period archaeology as a much more important city up to the sixth century, being a major – almost international – cult center and certainly important for Rome itself. Except its status as a city, little is known about Amorium in relation to its standing in the imperial administration.”


The city was strategically located “to the west it opens to the road leading to Constantinople and to the east the road to the Konya plain and all the way to the Cilician Gates and to Syria. As one of the last major stations before the difficult lands” of the Anatolia plateau, it was extremely valuable as a stopping point on the route. This was true for both military and commercial journeys.

Amorium was of limited importance in the Early Byzantine Empire, the city of Amorium was seldom mentioned in narrative or historical sources. It seems after the Empire transformed from being the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean to being centered mostly on Anatolia, its importance was more clear in the sources. It became more important in the reorganized Byzantine provincial administration after the 7th/8th centuries. This meant Amorium was mentioned more regularly in the primary sources, clearly more frequently than many other Roman towns in Anatolia.

First it was fortified by the Emperor Zeno, but it really gained its importance after the rise of Islam and the loss of Egypt and the Levant. As early as 646 it was attacked by the Romans new enemy, the Caliphate, which was now the supreme superpower in the Mediterranean world. Amorion was even briefly occupied by the Muslims from 666-669. It became capital of the Anatolikon theme (military province) in the late 7th century. The city held out while the Arabs moved towards and unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople in 716-718.

Anatolia became a major battleground, and the target of nearly annual Arab raids and invasions. It was important as a staging post for both the Anatolikon theme and the tagmata. Amorium, however, was viciously destroyed by the Arabs in 838. It was the home city of the ruling Emperor Theophilos, which may have influenced it being the target. The city resisted, but was captured and destroyed. It was described in the The Fourty Martyrs of Amorium, which was a 9th century Eastern Roman source which detailed the martyring by the Arabs of forty Byzantine officials taken prisoner in 838:

“There is a great city in the Anatolikon region of the Roman domain, named as Amorium since the ancient times, renown and glorious and first among all the cities following the one Queen of the cities, immensely populous, empowered with a multitide of civic and military officials and a great quantity of weapons and armors; even more immense in Amorium is the number of siege machines coming in many different shapes and for many different uses and [equally immense is the number] of catapults; with these the city is defended and when under siege and threatened by enemies; and all these are contained inside the city. Since [Amorium] lies on its back in the middle of the flatlands without any natural protection other than its walls, offering itself easy to be stormed by those among the enemies wishing to annihilate it.”

“Ruins of Amorium (Amorion) in Afyon Province, Turkey
It was the capital of the Anatolikon theme starting in the 7th century until was destroyed by the Abbasid al-Mu’tasim in 838. Excavations on the upper and lower city have been going on since the 1980s.
Photos by Gabor Fodor” – from the Byzantine Legacy Facebook page

In 838 it was besieged by a massive Arab army of 80,000 in retaliation for a raid ordered by Theophilos, where Khurramite mercenaries slaughtered Arab citizens. Amorium was probably the second or third most important city in Byzantium at the time. The Arabs wanted revenge and had Amorium written on their shields. Theophilos sent envoys, but the Caliph Mu’tasim instead arrested them and forced them to watch. Amorium had powerful walls, and a wide moat to defend the city. However, there was a weakness. Torrential rains had weakened the walls in one area, and the walls were not properly repaired. They looked fine from the outside, but an Arab captive who had converted to Christianity escaped and told his compatriots of the weakness. The Arabs breached the wall with catapults but the Byzantines fought hard and held the breach for days. The commander Aetios offered surrender in exchange for the soldiers and citizens to leave the city, but the Caliph refused. Another commander Boiditzes tried on his own to treacherously conduct a deal, but as he did the city was stormed by the Arabs.

John Skylitzes, an Eastern Roman historian of the 11th century, describes how the Emperor was powerless to stop the Arabs as an “unrelenting and incessant siege was being prosecuted without interruption, Theophilos (who only just managed to get away from the disaster) arrived in Dorylaeon. There he stayed waiting to see what the outcome would be. He tried the temper of the amermoumnes (Caliph) to see whether he could dissuade him from continuing the siege.” The Emperor sent ambassadors with gifts, but they were imprisoned. The Caliph “heaped insults on the Emperor for his cowardice; he belittled and derided the embassy and clapped the ambassadors in irons…Now he intensified the siege…the beleaguered ones continued to ward off the attacks and all the efforts of the besiegers achieved nothing. The city would have escaped capture too had not one of those within betrayed and handed over his homeland on account of some quarrel or other. This man (his name was Boiditzes) was corrupted with gifts and had abjured the Christian faith.” He told the attackers of a weak point in the defenses, and the city fell.

Since Amorion “was taken under the rules of war; what account could suffice to declare the multitude of slain and of the prisoners?” Skylitzes says the Saracens were beside themselves with anger because so many of their illustrious soldiers had lost their lives during the siege; hence, they showed no mercy to those to whom they encountered. The men were slain, the women were led away captive with their children and youths; the finest of the buildings put to the flames. In a very short time that most distinguished of eastern cities had taken on the appearance of a deserted ruin.” To add insult and spectacle, the “Saracen ruler forced each of the ambassadors to inspect what had been there, as though he delighted and revelled in those deeds. Then he sent them back so they could announce the disaster to the Emperor…Theophilos was dumbfounded by the overwhelming magnitude of the disaster. He rejected all food and drink and almost took no nourishment, except water squeezed out from snow…” Theophilos fell ill and went back to Constantinople, and “assembled the senate and the rest of the eminent citizenry. In doleful tones he recited and lamented his woes, beseeching the assembled company graciously to honour his memory by keeping faith and dealing kindly with his wife and son, preserving the throne for them, unassailed by any conspiracy. The assembly was deeply touched by the Emperor’s pathetic words; groading, and wailing arose on all sides.” They swore to God to secure their rightful throne, and “shortly afterwards, completely consumed by his illness, the Emperor paid the debt which all must pay, having governed the Empire for twelve years and three months.” As Amorium smouldered in ruin, the Emperor whom had overseen the times of this tragedy suffered as well. A tragic ending to his life.

Amorium was destroyed in a way which it never recovered from. Soldiers defending a monastery were burned alive inside of it. For 5 days the city was destroyed. Much of the population was slaughtered. Those who were not were divided among the commanders as slaves, and marched back to the caliphate. Amorium as a city was then put to the torch, it’s large iron gate taken back to the Caliphs palace. The civil and military leaders of Amorium became the Caliph’s slaves. 30-70,000 Romans were dead or enslaved.


Amorion seems to have declined in overall importance despite being rebuilt, and eventually faded away after the fall of Roman Anatolia to the Turks. Today, it is an important Byzantine archaeological site. Nikos Tsivikis, one of the archaeologists wrote: “The city of Amorium, located in Phrygia in the Asia Minor highlands, has been under excavation and systematic research for almost three decades. A large number of scientific publications, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and a special series dedicated to Amorium, the Amorium Reports that number already five volumes, have seen the light as the main research products of this archaeological activity along with considerable amount of popularizing guide books. The impact of Amorium excavation has affected considerably the contemporary archaeological approach to Byzantine Early Medieval and Middle Byzantine cities.”

Archaeologists have found some of the dead from the brutal sacking in 838 still in place.

Tsivikis added that Amorion is immensely valuable to aid “our understanding of the period between the 7th and 11th c. AD, and the evolution of Byzantine urbanism with the formation of ‘new’ or renewed urban centers as provincial capitals, this largely being the essence of the new thematic system. This process is evident in the field, but also is elucidated in the historical sources.” Archaeologists have found evidence of this deserted ruin described by Skylitzes, with bodies and destruction widespread at the archeological site.

SOURCES: – blog of Nikos Tsivikis of the Amorium Urban Archaeology Project

A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057 by John Skylitzes (primary source). Translated into English by John Wortley.