Sit back, relax and let E&M’s time machine take you back to 718. In a third installment of our famed series focusing on Europe’s evolution we take a look at events so distant that they pre-date the birth of logic and reason. Currently, Europe is a consensus-based democratic superpower, a neo-liberal champion and a stronghold of the educated, employed by friendly corporations. In contrast, back then populations were ignorant and enslaved by feudal rulers, fake news were abundant and politics were pestered by constant internal strife. One aspect of life, however, has remained largely unchanged – the constant onslaught of foreigners wanting to take advantage of the continent’s social benefit systems.

CHAPTER III: 718

The contenders

One sunny summer morning Leo III, an astute ex-general and current ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, was gargling his throat when he looked through the bathroom embrasure and saw a horde of oddly looking men advancing towards the walls of his city, Constantinople. “Funny” he thought “I think I have seen those clothes before. In the theater”.

It was not until about three hours later and after his intimate personal routine was over that he heard the city was being besieged by migrants. Leo III inquired about the number and purpose of the offensive. His advisers were not sure about the former as numerical skills were scarce, but the goal seemed to be clear – capture, taxation and death. Leo III frowned. He did not need that kind of trouble – he had just landed the throne tapping his adversaries’ remarkable dullness and was willing to relish his feats for a while. Of course, his empire was not a democracy or anything – if he did not deliver the plebs would not oust him. Nevertheless, the perspective of having to deal with an army dressed like clowns was rather unappealing.

Photo: Nikos Niotis (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC 2.0

On the opposing side, Umayyads did not even lift their finger if their calculations of the movements of celestial objects did not tell them to. The current campaign was largely a product of a casual spin of the abacus forecasting an easy victory over a pseudo empire in Europe. As far as they were concerned there was only one such empire – that of their arch enemies the Byzzies. They had been chaffing at its edges for years and even staged a failed siege of the capital, giving them a good chance to observe the lifestyles of the locals. These were unkempt, did not read or write, failed at mathematics and their only art was defecation. Europeans, in one word. Europeans were all like that, but this particular lot had the confidence of Roman successors, which they somehow had managed to pull off by raw power and treachery. The oracle was pretty clear – go, kick their asses and assume management of the city before it falls appart, twisted and corrupted by its ignorant dwellers.

As in every drama there was a third contender in the ensuing mishap: the Devil. One had repeatedly visited the Umayyad caliph dressed as a djinn and shown him a map of his empire evidencing a glaring gap – a nearly complete lack of significant European holdings. The only one conquered, Iberia, had been too easy as it had been vandalised by goths. The Hispanics living in the area were so emaciated that the whole affair had felt more like charity than conquest. “No empire can call itself great without putting its imprint on Rome, you realise that?” the Foul One was whispering in the caliph’s ear.

Of course, the Prince of Darkness also visited Constantinople where he had a hard time figuring out the convoluted composition of the ruling elite. So, he decided to usurp the throne and install one of his most cunning demons, Leontius. Aided by his knack for fancy dresses the latter made his way through the military ranks, siding with the Umayyads and giving them false hopes that he will hand them the keys as soon as they showed up at Constantinople’s gates.

Communication and logistical issues

Photo: gianky (Flickr); License: CC BY 2.0

To fulfil the prophecy, in the summer 717, the Umayyads dusted their military gear and set out to bust Constantinople once and for all. They had gathered a formidable army of lunatics craving for Holy War, who, however, were just cogs in a machine they did not understand. The Umayyad army progressed through the Byzantine countryside, where they were extremely nice to the villagers, giving them food and teaching them literature. At this rate, Leo III thought, they will poison the minds of the people, who might start demanding democracy.

At about the same time, the already worried Leo III received a letter from a man by the name of Mas something, who claimed to be the army’s general. The communication laid out the enemy’s intentions for Constantinople – complete surrender or invasion of a kind the world had never seen before. Leo III had not seriously thought that the Umayyads would go so far in delivering their promise to pay a visit.

“Send a Lucy. Tell that M guy to shove his offer deep“.

Lucy was a pre-Twitter messenger service used by ancient rulers to communicate with one another and the general populace. A rather primitive communication system, it featured physical delivery of texts by animated devices named Lucius. Unlike modern flagship phones, Lucies were dispensable as human life cost about a nickel…

Lucy was a pre-Twitter messenger service used by ancient rulers to communicate with one another and the general populace. A rather primitive communication system, it featured physical delivery of texts by animated devices named Lucius. Unlike modern flagship phones, Lucies were dispensable as human life cost about a nickel, although hidden costs, such as accommodation and transport made the service relatively expensive. Nevertheless, the high replaceability of Lucies came handy as they were amenable to considerable damage. In wartime for instance belligerent leaders might break the messenger’s skull just as a modern human would be tempted to break a smartphone into the floor if they did not like the message. And sometimes the device became the message – striving for dramatic effect, warlords would sometimes blind and maim the Lucies, or carve indecent letters on their foreheads, to make their demands clearer. To be selected as a Lucius, one also needed certain competencies, such as literacy, basic Latin and encryption skills. That made recruiting acceptable candidates a pain in the ass, as most of the population were dimwits and pagans. Not one or two wars commenced and ended badly as a result of tragic blunders by Lucies. Rulers were often pestered by bad service, forced to resend missiles repeatedly to get their message across.

Historical accounts claim the messenger misspelled something to the effect that the letter was taken by the Umayyads as an invitation to fuck off. As opposed to Leo’s polite suggestion to meet up for tea and biscuits and discuss the matter as reasonable leaders of enlightened empires.

Leo III was unlucky in that respect. The Lucy he sent back did not reach the recipient as it was intended. Historical accounts claim the messenger misspelled something to the effect that the letter was taken by the Umayyads as an invitation to fuck off. As opposed to Leo’s polite suggestion to meet up for tea and biscuits and discuss the matter as reasonable leaders of enlightened empires.

The Umayyads also sinked into a slight debacle. It turned out that they had gone too far away from their basis in Syria without taking enough food. As a big army they soon succumbed to starvation and by the winter of 717/718 they had a huge issue. The first to go of course were the camels, but soon they were chewing on clothing, trees and plants. The soldiers picked the entire surroundings of the city clean and soon turned on each other as their brethren started to look more and more like roasted lamb. Luckily, the headquarters sent two new garrisons to check how the battle was going and bring fresh supplies of meat. But the Umayyad armies made a major mistake by not checking their maps and which territory they were crossing through. As it turned out it was the Bulgars they had the misfortune to disturb.

Savages from the North

Bulgars did not need much to go into battle – a wink, a funny look or an improper gesture and next thing you knew they were burning villages in your backyard.

Photo: Walt Jabsco (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Storm clouds were rapidly amassing over Constantinople when events took an unexpected turn. The Umayyad armies were suddenly stabbed in the back by Bulgars, belligerent horse lovers coming from the North. A mysterious people of Asiatic origins, Bulgars were known to eat, make love and talk to horses seven eleven. They had just established a state of their own, cutting off chunks of the empire’s northern reaches, much to the distaste of Constantinople. Communication with them was difficult as they had no language or culture and signs could be easily misinterpreted. Bulgars did not need much to go into battle – a wink, a funny look or an improper gesture and next thing you knew they were burning villages in your backyard. And they meant business – their army was efficient and relentless as a blunt but heavy knife. As savage as they were, however, Bulgars liked precious metals and anybody with a supply of those could count on their services. Byzantine emperors had had uneasy relationships with Bulgars in the past, not willing to surrender more territory, but also often using them as dog hounds when it came to obliterating enemies.

Culmination and aftermath

Seeing that things were not going well, Mephistopheles summoned Leontius and gave him an infernal gift: a dummy guide on how to construct and use a fire-breathing weapon nobody had seen before. The device sprayed fire that could burn on water which was a sight to behold in a time when most people were still living with their animals. The Umayyad fleet was most impressed by the incendiary weapon in the few moments before the fire swallowed it. On land, defeating the invaders was a piece of cake as they were already rarefied by famine and disease. Leo III, immaculately dressed in his pink robe, only visited the battlefield to take the sword of the army’s general who he personally invited for a holiday together after all that madness was over.

The Umayyad fleet was most impressed by the incendiary weapon in the few moments before the fire swallowed it.

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC 2.0

The consequences of the failed campaign were far-reaching. The Umayyads were ousted as they failed to deliver and their successors, the Abbasids, grew up and abandoned conquest altogether, focusing on expanding their knowledge. Consequently, they reached such scientific heights that they eventually conquered Europe through the back door – by infiltrating its genetic code and pumping in forbidden lore that would stay there for eternity.

Byzantium on the other hand entered a period of decline, one of the last offerings of the Evil One. The perennial crisis was so huge it would last for centuries, even after the underlying territory was renamed Greece.

As for Constantinople, nobody would dare to touch it for quite a while after the siege was over. It was not until a dark and mustached force sprung out of Asia’s underbelly that the city was finally conquered and disavowed by Europe.

End of chapter 717. On to chapter 35.

 

Cover Photo: studebaker2008 (Flickr); License: CC BY 2.0

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    Alex Neofitov is Bulgarian and is currently stationed in Poland. He did Politics & Security at University College London and specialized at Charles University in Prague for a year. He is an analyst with interests in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. A longtime fan of surrealist art, he tries hard to reveal the truly absurd aspects of everyday life in Europe.

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