The city of Constantinople is best known for the ‘bookends’ of its founding as a capital for the newly-Christian Roman Empire, and its fall to the Muslim Ottomans over a millennium later. Following that would be its fall to the Fourth Crusade. With those two exceptions, the city never fell to enemy forces, mostly thanks to a very defensible position, and extensive fortifications.

This does not mean that this important city was never brought under siege apart from 1204 and 1453, and Sheppard discusses what might be the most serious of those other attempts to take the city. As is usual, there is a background to the campaign, though this one goes back to 626 and the first ever siege of Constantinople. This, and some other sieges are largely passed over, but the chapter as a whole is quite long, going fairly in-depth for a book of this size into the military history of the next ~100 years.

To a certain extent I was disturbed by how much space this was allowed to take, but it really is a very good ~20-page history of the fighting between Byzantium and the early Caliphate. It does dissolve into a flow of names on a couple occasions, but mostly it’s very effective at showing the amount and types of activity on the frontier during this time. There are constant raids into Anatolia, and fighting over Armenia, and its obvious that the Byzantine military is struggling to get any real grasp of the situation ever since the Battle of Yarmuk. This is something that gets assumed, or passed over in a lot of works touching on the period, so its very nice to have a lot of the action layed out and shown.

Sheppard also spares a few words for various Muslim commanders of this period. Their achievements rank in the first order of military command, but not only do they not get celebrated (or even reviled) in the West, but their names are nearly unknown. He posits ideological reasons for this, but I wonder if at least some of this comes from Islamic myth-making, which has done a good job of painting the entire early expansion of the Islamic world as being bigger than any one person, and more of an impersonal force (divinely-inspired or not); this would also tend to minimize the contributions of army commanders. It would be informative what Islamic scholarship makes of them, and how they were viewed historically. At any rate, learning more of Maslama b. ‘Abd al-Malik (the commander of the army at this siege) would be interesting, as he shows as a capable and accomplished commander.

Except, on this occasion. I’m seeing a TV-miniseries drama, where Emperor Leo III is sponsored onto the throne of Byzantium by the Muslims, and as he keeps promising al-Malik that he’ll be a good puppet king, and hand over the city just as soon as he convince the rest of the nobles that it’s the best idea. And then he turns around and tells the rest of the Byzantine government of course he’s not going to turn the city over to the infidel, he just needs their support to hold out a bit longer. And as the tension mounts, the audience is never quite sure who, if anyone, he’s telling the truth to.

But al-Malik believed him. Believed him enough to destroy his food stores when Leo III told him that it would convince the city that they were serious, and on the verge of storming the city. And he even agreed to let Leo send men out to to gather some of the food first, to distribute in the city.

I’d love to see that conversation.

As a whole, the book is very well produced, with color reproductions of art and coins throughout, along with some very good maps, and some good illustrations. Its a highly recommend addition to Osprey’s Campaign series that covers a siege that just does not get enough attention.