The Embarrassing Failed Invasion Of Crete By Constantine VII

Emperor Constantine VII of Constantinople (r. 913-959) had a bizarre reign. He ascended to the throne as a child, and after his marriage to Helen in 919, the emperor was quickly pushed to the sidelines by his in-laws. Constantine’s father-in-law usurped power as Emperor Romanos I (r. 920-944). During these decades of time when his authority was commandeered, Constantine VII kept his sanity by devoting himself to scholarly pursuits, writing several books on various subjects. Constantine, however, would not be relegated to the shadows forever. By 945, he was able to oust his in-laws and regain sole control of Constantinople and its empire. After reclaiming the throne, Constantine VII maintained much of the policies implemented by his father-in-law, Romanos I, including a heightened focus on waging war against the Muslim Mediterranean powers that threatened Constantinople.

One of the more ambitious missions that Constantine VII and his military leaders planned was an invasion of Crete, which had been taken over by Muslim forces around 826. For his invasion, Constantine mustered around 9,000 warriors to accompany a fleet crewed by about 20,000 marines. The man he put in command of this invasion force was a certain Constantine Gongylios, who led the troops out to sea in 949 to face off against the enemy at Crete. Unfortunately, the invasion would not go as planned.

To put it bluntly, Constantine Gongylios turned out to be a terrible commander and his campaign on Crete went abysmally. The 11th-century historian, John Skylitzes, sharply described the shortcomings of the general’s invasion:

“He got to the island but did nothing there worthy of a general. He failed both to make a secure encampment and also to post a guard and watch as protection against attacks by the barbarians; hence, he fell into very severe danger. The islanders noted the inexperience and carelessness of the general and, when the time was ripe, launched a sudden attack on the army. In this they were easily successful; many of the Romans were taken prisoner or put to the sword. The encampment itself was occupied while the Romans shamefully ran away” (Synopsis Historion, John Wortley translation pg. 237).

After the disastrous invasion of Crete in 949 failed, Emperor Constantine VII did not give up his ambition of retaking the island. Instead, he and his military officials began slowly putting together a new plan, organizing for more resources to be devoted to the project. Unfortunately for Constantine VII, he was not able to launch his second invasion of Crete before his death in 959. Yet, when his son, Romanos II, became the next emperor, the new ruler quickly put his father’s revamped plan into action. In the year 960, Emperor Romanos II sent Nicephorus Phocas with around 24,000 troops on 250 ships to attack Crete. The general arrived on the island on July 13, 960, and succeeded in conquering the cities of Crete by March 7, 961.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Image of an engagement between Byzantine and Rus ships from a 13th-century edition of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes, cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 130, Madrid National Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

 

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