In the year 883, a general named Stypeiotes led an army deep into the Cilician region of Anatolia, where he intended to conquer the city of Tarsus and bring it back under the influence of Constantinople. Stypeiotes had only recently been given his command—Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886) had relieved a certain leader named Andrew the Scythian of his command because he neglected to besiege Tarsus following a victory over that city’s army. As such, when Stypeiotes took up his command, capturing the city of Tarsus was high on his list of objectives.
The campaign to take the city seemed quite simple at a first glance. Stypeiotes reportedly reached the vicinity of Tarsus without any issues. The odds were looking good; because of Andrew’s earlier victory against the Tarsians, Stypeiotes’ army far outnumbered the troops that were defending Tarsus. Therefore, he could likely storm the city without many casualties, and he would undoubtedly have an advantage if the Tarsians chose to meet him on an open battlefield.
Stypeiotes apparently let all of the favorable advantages affect his judgment. When he set up his camp at Chrysoboullon, a spot near Tarsus, he did not deem it necessary to have his troops build any kind of defenses, be it a primitive wooden palisade or a simple earthen rampart. Unfortunately for Stypeiotes, a new military leader named Yazman had arrived to lead the Tarsians in battle. This man of famed military skill had ended his service in Egypt to become the next emir of Tarsus (his predecessor was presumably killed in the battle against Andrew), and he arrived just in time to organize the city’s defenses against the army camped at Chrysoboullon. Even though his forces were heavily outnumbered, Yazman was still more than a match for Stypeiotes.
Assessing the situation, Yazman realized that he could neither withstand a siege nor win a conventional battle against Stypeiotes in the field. The solution was obvious to the emir—he would not let the city be besieged and he would not meet his opponents in the open battlefield. No, this situation called for something much more unorthodox and unconventional.
Despite there being a shortage of manpower in Tarsus, Yazman apparently was able to recruit from another source—the stables. The new emir had the Tarsians gather as many horses as they could find. When they had a sizable herd, Yazman brought all of the conscripted steeds along with his troops when he marched his forces against the enemy camp.
Yazman divided his army into several groups and situated the divisions so that his army loosely encircled the camp at Chrysoboullon. Each of the divisions had a large number of horses with them, as well as heaps of some interesting supplies. These extra materials were apparently dried pelts, or some other flammable substance, which they tied to the tails of every horse.
On the night of September 14, 883, the soldiers in Stypeiotes’ camp could only see the black void of night beyond the confines of their encampment. Yet, the soldiers who happened to be awake at that time of night watched in horror as the darkness was disturbed by the sudden appearance of fires in all directions, ringing around the outside of the camp. The encircling fires began racing toward the terrified observers, creating the noise of countless beating horse hooves. The volume of the stampede was accompanied by frantic neighing from frightened beasts, and worse yet, loud foreign battle cries and booming war drums triumphantly echoed from all around the camp.
At Yazman’s signal, the Tarsians had set fire to the materials attached to the tails of the horses and sent the worried creatures galloping toward Stypeiotes’ camp. Although the animal abuse was unfortunate, the ploy worked brilliantly. As there were no walls, trenches or ramparts around the encampment, there was nothing stopping the horses from continuing their fearful charge. Yazman and his army followed closely behind the horses, attacking the startled and disoriented soldiers in Chrysoboullon from all angles. In the night’s chaos, the much larger army of Constantinople was too shocked to mount a defense against the onslaught by Yazman’s smaller force. In the end, a massacre ensued, in which Stypeiotes and most of his army lost their lives.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (cropped and edited version of “fire-horse” by the user: Erkut2, [Public Domain] via pixabay.com).
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.