Lars Brownworth answers your questions from the 12 Byzantine Rulers, Lost to the West and Norman Centuries projects.

What happened to Tancred’s other sons?

Nov 25 2013

flat,550x550,075,fTancred de Hauteville’s claim to fame is his remarkable fecundity.  He produced at least twelve sons, three of whom (William Iron-Arm, Robert Guiscard, and Roger the Great Count) would achieve nearly legendary status and go on to found the richest kingdom of the medieval Mediterranean world.  But what happened to the other nine?

All but three of them eventually made their way to southern Italy.  Since Tancred had two wives (Muriella and Fressenda), the family was effectively divided into two generations.  Tancred’s first wife (Muriella) gave birth to five sons: Serlo, Geoffrey, William, Drogo, and Humphrey, while his second wife bore the next seven: Robert, Mauger, William (the younger), Aubrey, Humbert, Tancred, and Roger.  The oldest boy Serlo (some sources call him the youngest) displayed the family penchant for fighting at an early age.  After killing his neighbor over an insult, he was exiled for three years, but by 1041 had rehabilitated his image enough to inherit his father’s entire estate.  This meant that the other boys had to seek elsewhere for their fortune, which started the exodus south.

Geoffrey left first with his half-brothers Mauger and William (the only two who seem to have gotten along with the older generation), and was present at the battle of Civitate where the Normans decisively defeated the Pope’s forces.  All three of them were rewarded for their part in the struggle.  Geoffrey was made Count of Apulia which he held until his death around 1071 (the same year his oldest full brother Robert Guiscard conquered Bari and evicted the Byzantines from Italy).  His younger son Ralph crossed over to England with the Conqueror and was present at the Battle of Hastings.  He would eventually settle in Wiltshire and found the English branch of the family.

Mauger got the old Byzantine Province of Foggia, but he didn’t enjoy it for long.  He died shortly after a campaign against the Byzantines and his property went to the younger William who already ruled the Principality of Salerno.  William proved quite successful- and by some accounts survived into the twelfth century- but his most important act was to invite his youngest brother Roger to Italy.

The most prestigious of the boys (after the Iron-Arm, Guiscard, and Great Count) were Drogo and Humphrey who both served as Count of Apulia and Calabria.  Drogo inherited the position from William-Iron-Arm, and when he in turn was assassinated, Humphrey took up the mantle, triumphantly leading the Normans in the battle of Civitate.   Humphrey did his best to contain the ambitions of his half-brother Guiscard, but when that proved impossible he entrusted his sons to him.  In the best Norman tradition Guiscard promptly confiscated the inheritances and left the boys to fend for themselves.

The last two brothers- Aubrey and Tancred- seem to have stayed in Normandy, perhaps inheriting what was left of the family estate.  As a fitting endnote, the oldest brother’s son (Serlo) made his fortune helping the youngest brother (his uncle Roger) conquer Sicily.  Young Serlo fought notably for at least twelve years before he fell in an ambush.  The place where he was killed- a large flat rock carved with a simple cross- was named after him for nearly nine centuries before a construction firm blew it up in the 1960’s.

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What did a cataphract look like?

Jul 11 2013

CataphractThe backbone of the Byzantine army when it dominated the Mediterranean was the feared cataphract. But what exactly- as Joseph asks- was a cataphract? The short answer is the Byzantine version of the knight on horseback. The Roman term was clibanarii which somewhat hilariously translates as ‘furnace’- probably an apt description of what it felt like to wear the armor on a sunny day.

There were three protective layers to bake in. The first (peristhethidion) was a padded leather jacket with short sleeves (a pair of greaves covered the arms) and a padded skirt faced with mail or scales to protect the legs. Over that was the klivanion, a mailed covering of the chest and shoulders, complete with a metal helmet hung with mail to cover the face (excepting the eyes). The final layer was the epilorikion, a padded cotton or thickly-stitched silk surcoat which would identify rank or unit. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

The cataphract carried a small round shield and a relatively short spear (roughly 8 feet long). In addition to this they carried two swords- one slightly curved, the other straight and double-sided. Some also carried a short bow or various kinds of maces and axes.

For the Roman empire they were never more than a small, peripheral force. The late 4th century document Notitia Dignitatum which records the administrative organization of the imperial armies mentions that there were 9 units of heavily armored knights, which means that they made up roughly 15% of the field army.

They seem to have gradually faded from use (completely vanishing by the 7th century) until their sudden emergence as the preferred troops of the terrifying emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In fact, most of what we know about them comes from the military manual that the emperor himself wrote (Praecepta Militaria) around the year 965 AD. But their renaissance proved short. Nicephorus’ (eventual) successor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer seems not to have used them, largely replacing them with his newly created Varangian Guard. After the military disaster of Manzikert in 1071, the imperial armies were largely mercenary and far less formidable. With the brief exception of the army of Manuel Comnenus, the empire never fielded a significant land force again.

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What really killed Tsar Samuel?

May 17 2013

samoilThe Battle of Kleidon is usually seen as of those game-changing moments of the Middle Ages, when the terrible Basil the Bulgar-Slayer destroyed the First Bulgarian Empire in a haze of blood.  Byzantium and Bulgaria had been at war for the better part of four decades when the imperial forces of Basil II ambushed Tsar Samuel’s forces.  15,000 Bulgarians were captured and the rest were killed.  The Bulgar-Slayer ordered the survivors blinded, sparing 1 out of every 100 to guide the rest home.  According to tradition, Samuel had a heart attack when he saw his ruined army and died two days later.

It makes for a good story, but is is true?  Samuel’s coffin was opened up by team of Bulgarian scientists in 1969.  There was a severe wound to his left temple and jaw, and both of his forearms were broken (and had healed incorrectly).  They concluded that he died of these wounds.  But this doesn’t mean that we have to discount the traditional story.

Samuel was obviously not in good health.  In addition to his wounds, he was in his early 70’s- elderly by the standards of the day.  He probably couldn’t eat very well due to the injury to his lower jaw, and at least one of his arms was virtually unusable.  The news of his army’s defeat was a serious enough shock, but seeing the maimed survivors was in some ways worse.  His finances had already been stretched by the never-ending war, he now had the additional burden of caring for 15,000 disabled veterans while simultaneously funding the recruitment of a replacement army.  It’s not hard to conclude that this last trauma was too much for him.

So while we can’t say the legend of Samuel dying from shock is true, we can at least say it’s plausible.  Until we build a time machine, that’s about as certain as it will get.

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What happened to the Bulgar Slayer’s novel?

Mar 28 2013

Calling all writers of historical fiction…

The other day I dusted off my copy of Colleen McCullough’s magnificent The First Man in Rome, a novel of historical fiction about Julius Caesar’s rise to power.  That got me thinking- ‘considering that it lasted for a thousand years longer, where’s the historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire?’  Currently there isn’t a lot to choose from.  The best is Harry Turtledove’s (writing under the pseudonym Turteltaub) Justinian, a fictionalized account of Justinian II’s vengeful return to power.  Turtledove, who has a PHD in Byzantine studies, certainly picked an interesting subject- the late 7th century emperor was overthrown, had his nose cut off and was exiled to a distant part of the Black Sea.  Undeterred, he started off the 8th century by having an artificial nose made of gold, escaped his captors, and snuck back into Constantinople through an unguarded Aqueduct to claim the throne again.

Aside from a young adult fiction about Anna Comnena, the only other author currently fighting the good fight is George Leonardos who in 2004 started a series about the final dynasty of Byzantium.  That’s pretty slim pickings.  So let me offer some suggestions to anyone looking for a good story to write down.

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  His nickname was ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’, he made Byzantium the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean, and he won nearly every battle he fought.  And then he fell in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman who betrayed him, and he lost it all.  Modern connection: relatives of his still live in Greece where multiple streets and at least one battleship are named in his honor.

General George Maniaches.  This towering 11th century general was a throwback to the glory days of Byzantium.  He commanded an army which included the legendary Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm and the Viking beserker Harald Hardrada (who would later invade England in 1066 and bring to a close the age of Viking invasions).  The only thing he couldn’t control was his temper- when a rival seduced his wife and then got him fired, he had the man suffocated by smearing dung in his mouth, ears, and eyes; he then routed the imperial army but was killed in a fluke accident before he reached Constantinople.  His death sealed the decline of Byzantine power in Italy.  Modern connection: Sicily has several fortresses and a town named after him.

Praetorian Prefect Anthemius.  This well-connected 3rd century Consul served two playboy emperors but was the real power behind the throne.  Dedicated and hard working, he had to face the terrible Attila the Hun, and probably saved the east by deflecting him toward Rome.  Modern connection: The impressive walls he built (the so-called ‘Theodosian Land Walls’) are the most visible secular reminders of Constantinople at the height of its power, and are rightly regarded as the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built.  Though his ultimate fate is unknown, (sic transit gloria) for his efforts Anthemius has been called the ‘second founder of Constantinople’.

Princess Melissena.  Riches to Rags… to riches?  This mid-9th century princess was unbelievably well-connected, both to the hoi polloi of Byzantium and to foreign rulers like the Han Dynasty of China.  In her time she was the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.  Unfortunately for her, it all came crashing down.  Her grandfather abdicated, her father was castrated, and she was married off to a Viking member of the imperial guard.  She travelled throughout western Europe on her way to her husband’s home, making a big impression especially in the courts of France.  Modern Connection: She is possibly the inspiration for the Starbucks logo (http://bit.ly/db2pPa)

The list could go on for quite some time: Anthemius the architect of the Hagia Sophia, Basil the Macedonian- the ultimate rags to riches story, Empress Theophano- the femme fatale of Nicephorus Phocas, etc.  The beauty of all of these is that they lived during the Byzantine ‘dark age’ which means it would be easy to remain faithful to the source material while having plenty of room to maneuver.  Best of all, the main story arc is already written- all you have to do is provide the details.  Anyone out there brave enough to take up the gauntlet?

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What happened to Tancred’s other sons?

Mar 06 2013

If the Normans of the 11th century are to be believed, Tancred de Hauteville was a boar-slaying, righteously glorious knight who sired 12 sons and at least two daughters.  Most of those children headed south to make their fortunes in Italy, and their story is covered in the Norman Centuries podcast.  But what about those who remained in Normandy?  Listener Shane asks what we know about the 4 children who stayed behind.

Our three main primary sources for all things Hauteville are Geoffrey Malaterra’s The Deeds of Count Roger, William of Apulia’s The Deeds of Robert Guiscard, and Amatus of Montecassino’s History of the Normans.  All were composed between 1080 and 1099, and deal mainly with the Normans in Italy, which means that we know next to nothing about those who opted to stay at home.  (Despite later attempts to make the patriarch into a figure worthy of his son’s accomplishments, no one in Normandy at the time cared enough about an impoverished knight to record anything about him).  The only one who mentions the remaining sons at all is Malaterra, who simply lists the names Aubrey, Hubert, and Tancred jr, and then moves on.  Two daughters (Beatrix and Fressenda) are mentioned because of the husbands they married (Fresseda especially played an important part in early Norman politicking).  The only exception to this informational blackout, concerns the oldest brother Serlo.  Malaterra mentions that he ran afoul of the Duke (Robert the Devil- William the Conqueror’s father) for murdering a man.  In exile he occupied himself with the family business of piracy, raiding Normandy repeatedly.  After a suitably heroic display of valor against a local French champion (single combat naturally), Serlo wins over Duke Robert, who realizes the error of exiling such a knight.  Serlo pledges his loyalty and presumably settles down into a wealthy, well-respected life- the Norman equivalent of happily ever after.

Due to the paucity of source material, there really hasn’t been any historical writing on these sons of Tancred who stayed in Normandy.  (For that matter there hasn’t been much about any except Guiscard and Count Roger).  But if historical fiction is more to your taste, there is at least one option.  The Words of Bernfrieda: A Chronicle of Hauteville by Gabriella Brooke tells the story of a handmaiden of Tancred’s daughter Fressenda and the clash between the brothers Guiscard and Roger.  Since women are almost completely ignored in our primary sources, I think it’s fitting that in this case the two most famous siblings are footnotes in their sister’s story.

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Secrets from the Stacks

Jan 03 2013

Today I happened upon a copy of the Synopsis of Histories, an 11th century chronicle by the monk John Skylitzes.  In it was the full inscription that the bishop of Melitene wrote on the sarcophagus of the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  (Usually only the final line is given- a reference to Phocas’ wife Theophano who betrayed him)  It’s quite a beautiful little poem, and judging from the end, was probably placed there several decades after the emperor’s grisly murder.

There is a nice symmetry to the poem.  It begins and ends with betrayal; in between it’s a kind of Byzantine Ozymandius- a wistful musing about greatness and the inevitable fate of man.  Most striking to me is when the tone changes to one of agonized pleading; begging the great emperor to either rise from the dead or make room in his grave.  It’s well worth the read.  I give it here in its entirety:

“Who once sliced men more sharply than the sword

Is the victim of a woman and a glaive.

Who once retained the whole world in his power

Now small, is housed in but a yard of earth.

Whom once it seemed by wild beasts was revered

His wife has slain as though he were a sheep.

Who chose to sleep but little in the night

Now sleeps the lasting slumber of the tomb.

A bitter sight; good ruler, rouse yourself!

Take footmen, horsemen, archers to the fight,

The regiments and units of your host

For Russians, fully armed, assail our ports,

The scythes are anxious to be slaughtering

While every people does your city harm

Who once was frightened by your graven face

Before the gates of your Byzantium.

Do not ignore these things; cast off the stone

Which now detains you here and stone the beasts,

Repel the gentiles; give us built in stone

A firm foundation, solid and secure.

Or if you would not leave your tomb a while,

At least cry out from earth against the foe

For that alone might scatter them in flight.

If not, make room for us there in your tomb

For death, as you well know, is safety and

Salvation for th’entire Christian folk,

Nicephorus, who vanquished all but Eve.”

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The Game of Names

Nov 17 2012

Ryan asks what the two “halves” of the Roman Empire (German and Byzantine)- thought of each other.  The word ‘dysfunctional’ about sums it up.  Their relationship over the six and a half centuries of their co-existence was perpetually stormy: two empires (neither of which controlled Rome) arguing over who was really ‘Roman’.  Generally speaking, the Byzantines considered Charlemagne and his successors to be jumped-up barbarians, uncouth boors pretending to be something that they were clearly not.  Constantinople tried its best to pretend that the Holy Roman Empire didn’t exist, and when power politics made that impossible, they reluctantly admitted that the German monarch was an ‘emperor’ (though not a Roman one).

The Franks for their part, acted like a younger sibling.  They viewed the ‘Greeks’ as soft, effeminate, easterners, unworthy of the name ‘Roman’, but were at the same time a bit insecure and jealous of the older empire’s greater legitimacy.  They at first stopped calling themselves Roman to appease Constantinople, and even when they resumed the claim, German monarchs would occasionally cross the border in southern Italy (where the two empires touched) to seek formal recognition of their titles, and ask for marriage alliances.  This finally paid off in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano married the German emperor Otto II.  Their son- Otto III- was therefore a union of both crowns and was probably the best hope for a reunification of the old Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, however, he died of a fever at age 21 and the empires resumed their antagonistic stances.

There was one more brief moment of cooperation.  During the reign of the pro-western Manuel Comnenus, the German emperor Conrad III led the (disastrous) 2nd Crusade through Constantinople.  The two became close friends, with Manuel personally nursing his brother-monarch back to health after an injury suffered during the campaign.  But when they exited the scene, relations quickly soured.  The terrifying Frederick Barbarossa (Conrad’s successor) threatened to sack Constantinople and throw its emperor into prison, and several of his successors invaded Byzantine territory.

The Holy Roman Empire never succeeded in getting Constantinople to recognize it as an equal, but it did outlast it.  Though its power largely collapsed in the 13th century, the empire limped along until the 19th, finally being swept aside during the Napoleonic Wars.  Before it disappeared, however, it had one last parting shot at its (by now) long dead adversary.  In 1557, the German humanist Hieronymus Wolf published a history of the medieval Greek world.  Not wanting to refer to the impostors in Constantinople as ‘Roman’ (since the real Roman Empire was in Germany) he coined a new term for them.

“Byzantine”

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Who was George Maniaces?

Oct 30 2012

Maniaces attacking the Arabs at Telouch

Like Athena bursting full grown from the brow of Zeus, George Maniaces- a giant ‘nearly ten feet tall with a voice like thunder’- first appears in the year 1030, aged 33.

Virtually nothing is known about his youth, but he was a wealthy land-owner in what is today modern Turkey, and was therefore probably educated in Constantinople.  By 1030 he had risen to the rank of strategos or military governor of Telouch, a town just to the north of Aleppo.  This was a relatively unimportant position since the province was the smallest on the Upper Euphrates, but it was a point of entry for Muslims raiding from Syria.  In 1030 the Emperor Romanus III tried to put a stop to the raids, but was defeated near Telouch.  The victorious Muslims claimed to have captured the Emperor and ordered Maniaces to surrender the city.  He pretended to agree, sending them a generous portion of food and wine as a sign of his good intentions.  But this was merely a ruse.  He waited till the Muslims had indulged themselves, and then attacked when they were sleeping off the effects of the wine.  All of the loot lost in the previous battle was recovered along with a sizable amount of Arab treasure (280 supply camels were captured).  The ears and noses of the enemy dead were cut off and Maniaces immediately rode to the imperial camp where- in a brilliant PR move- he dumped the grisly trophies out in front of Romanus III.

He was promoted on the spot (as the new strategos of all the cities of the Euphrates), and began a grand offensive against the Muslim emirates of Syria.  He quickly displayed the gifts which would make him famous.  The major city of Edessa (modern Urfa) was attacked, and when it put up a stiff resistance, Maniaces bribed its governor into surrendering.  A relieving  Muslim army failed to evict him and three years later Maniaces was still able to send its annual tax of 50 pounds of gold to Romanus III.

While Maniaces was busy in the east, Italy was slipping out of the empire’s control.  Sicilian Arabs invaded Calabria in 1032 and by 1037 managed to kill the imperial governor of Italy.  Romanus III’s successor Michael IV ordered Maniaces to stabilize the situation and drive the Muslims from Sicily.  Maniaces brought a formidable mercenary army which included the Viking hero Harald Hardrada and the Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm (whose brothers Guiscard and Roger would later conquer the island and found the Norman Kingdom of Sicily).  He captured both Messina and Syracuse and was on the verge of restoring Sicily to Byzantium, but the temperamental aspects of his genius asserted themselves.  He managed to offend most of his Lombard and Norman mercenaries by skimping on their share of the loot, and -far more seriously- he publicly humiliated his admiral who happened to be the brother-in-law of the most powerful member of the imperial court.  In 1041 he was recalled on the charge of treason, but was saved by the death of the Emperor and the fact that all the gains in Sicily evaporated without him.

Unfortunately for Maniaces, he had powerful enemies.  Though he was quickly sent back to Italy- and promoted to catepan (governor) of all Italy- the imperial court was now against him.  This was mostly due an old rival- Romanus Sclerus- who owned several estates touching Maniaces’ property in Anatolia. There was no love lost between the two men (they had physically assaulted each other during a squabble over land) and Romanus was determined to undercut the general at every opportunity.  While Maniaces was away, Romanus seduced his wife and then ransacked his house, making no attempt to conceal his actions.  He then moved to the capital where he used his influence (his sister was the emperor’s mistress) to turn the court against Maniaces.  The tactic worked.  The emperor relieved Maniaces of command, and- in a move of stunning stupidity- chose Romanus Sclerus as the messenger to inform Maniaces of the development.

Any gleeful excitement Sclerus had at his triumph was short-lived.  Maniaces reacted to the demand to turn over his forces by sealing Romanus’ eyes, ears, nose, and mouth shut with dung and then slowly torturing him to death.  He then declared himself emperor and marched on Constantinople.  In 1043 he reached Thessaloniki where he easily defeated the terrified imperial forces.  Unfortunately for his adherents, however, the victory was a pyrrhic one.  During the fighting he was struck with a chance blow and killed.  With him died Byzantium’s ablest general and one of its most enigmatic figures- along with any chance for the empire to hold on to Italy.

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How much influence did the Pope have in Byzantium?

Sep 21 2012

Jack asks how much influence the Pope had in Byzantium before the Great Schism and how that crisis affected the Empire.

Constantinople’s attitude towards Rome was always a complicated one.  On the one hand, the bishop of Rome had a uniquely respected place in the early church.  Peter, who had been entrusted with the ‘keys to the kingdom of heaven’ had founded its church, and as such it had far more prestige than the relatively late church of Constantinople.  The Pope was the ‘first among equals’, due a special reverence and respect.  On the other hand, however, Constantinople was the residence of the emperor- God’s regent on earth who looked after the physical well-being of the faithful in the same way the church looked after its soul.  They resented the increasingly authoritarian claims of the Roman church as it moved from ‘first among equals’ to simply ‘first’.  The Orthodox view was that each of the five major bishops of the Church (Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople) had an equal voice- Rome was in effect an elder statesman not a dictator.

As the East and West went their separate ways politically, the Pope became a useful tool for the Emperor to use if he disagreed with his Patriarch.  In the case of Leo the Wise, for instance, when his church rejected his bid for a fourth marriage, he referred the matter to the Pope, knowing that the pontiff would eagerly grant him a marriage in exchange for publicly ‘overruling’ the Patriarch.  This was a political gambit- nothing more.  But it does show that the Pope’s opinion still mattered- the ‘senior’ bishop of Christendom had weighed in and- over the Patriarch’s objection- Leo got his 4th marriage.

As for the Great Schism, 1054 is a nice, clean date for historians, but is relatively meaningless.  As Sir Steven Runciman wrote ‘a schism only exists when a majority of individuals believe it does.’  Clearly this wasn’t the case in the 11th century.  A hundred years after the ‘Schism’ the emperor Manuel Comnenus wrote to the Pope, offering to act as the ‘sword arm of the Church’ in the reconquest of Italy from the Normans.  The Pope accepted- hardly the actions of people who considered the other side heretical.  What really put the nail in the coffin of Church unity was the 4th Crusade.  After that tragedy, there was no real possibility of reunion.  As the Byzantines famously put it- ‘better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre.’  While the Orthodox church maintains even today that they will welcome the Pope back into his favored position if he admits his errors, practically speaking all papal influence on Byzantium ceased in 1204.

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Echoing Alexander

Aug 03 2012

Pavel asks if Heraclius ever fought a battle at Issus- the famous spot where Alexander the Great defeated a huge Persian army led by his rival Darius.

There must have been something about the place that attracted armies.  By the time Heraclius showed up in 622 A.D. Issus had seen two previous major, empire defining, winner-take-all clashes.  The first (and most famous) was in 333 BC when Alexander the Great met Darius and broke the back of Persian power.  The second was in 194 AD during the year of the 5 emperors when the armies of Septimius Severus defeated his main rival.  (A few days after the battle the victorious Severus mopped up the still defiant and relatively nearby Byzantium, where- anticipating Constantine by more than a century- he rebuilt it in his own honor)

Heraclius in a way combined his two predecessors- a Greek-speaking, Hellenized, Roman Emperor.  In the autumn of 622, he crossed the Aegean looking for the Persian army.  They met at the famous Issus, but unlike the previous two battles this one wasn’t decisive.  Neither army was really willing to come to grips and (despite an alleged prediction by Mohammed that it would result in a major Roman victory), it was more of a skirmish.  Heraclius spent the next several years trying to force a Persian engagement and nearly lost it all when he was ambushed crossing a river.  The tide turned in 624, but it wasn’t until December of 627- half a decade after the battle of Issus- that he was able to fight a decisive battle with the Persians.

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