The Syrian Refugee who changed Western Civilization

While on holiday I was reading about the refugee crisis and decided to write this article. I thought you might enjoy…

The Syrian Refugee who changed Western Civilization

1300 years ago a boy was dragged from his home and taken to Europe. We should remember the vital role he played in world history.

Did you hear the story about the Syrian refugee? The one about the boy named Konon from a Christian family living near the border. As a small child he was forced to flee his home and migrate across Turkey to a Greek port. You can imagine where the story goes from there.

Leo III (from 'Rulers of the Byzantine Empire' published by KIBEA)

Leo III (from ‘Rulers of the Byzantine Empire’ published by KIBEA)

His family was given prime farming land by the European government. Then he was offered a lucrative career in the army. Finally aged just 32 he became the most powerful politician on the continent and emerged victorious from one of the most important battles in world history. You must have heard this story before?

These events took place between 685 and 718 AD. This period of history offers a strange reflection of our own time as if glimpsed in a fairground mirror. The Middle East was in ferment with war and political chaos everywhere. Refugees were arriving in Europe by the boatload and precious relics from the past were being smashed to pieces.

But the Arab peoples were not the ones suffering from the tumult. Instead they were the military superpower looking to extend their influence. A generation after the Prophet Muhammad passed away (c632) the Arabs had united under one government for the first time. A Caliphate. The model of Muslim government which IS wants to recreate today.

It was the European power that was collapsing into civil war and suffering fresh disasters every day. The Eastern Roman Empire (often called Byzantium) had been shocked by the arrival of the Arab armies. Shoddy military intelligence left them unprepared for the assault and the provinces of Egypt, Palestine and Syria slipped from their control in barely eight years.

The Caliphate of the 7th century was a largely tolerant place though. No strict codes of behavior or dress were handed down. If people were prepared to continue their lives as before then they would be left in peace.

Those who did flee to Europe were not housed in camps or left to wait on beaches. On the contrary the shell-shocked Romans needed every ounce of talent they could find. These people were given empty land to work or encouraged to work for the state. During a break in the fighting the Imperial government ordered troops to cross the Taurus Mountains (the border between the two Empires) into Syria to deport local Christians. These former Romans had remained to work the land within the Caliphate but were now moved ‘home’ at the point of a sword. One such family was that of young Konon.

Konon’s unique experience would take him far in the Roman world. The trauma of being uprooted and having to start a new life hundreds of miles away made him tough and flexible. Once fully grown he joined the army and was quickly promoted to become an officer with considerable responsibility.

The conflict he found himself in the middle of was a clash of civilizations. Instead of western powers dictating democratic solutions, it was the Arabs who were reshaping the world to their way of thinking. The Caliphate was on the warpath and had the Roman capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was in its sights. The anger and frustration which fuels IS-like organisations today was being felt on the European shore. The Romans had been successful for a millennium and now suddenly found themselves impotent in the face of Arab power.

By the summer of 717 their capital was surrounded by a huge army and fleet. If the city had been incorporated into the Caliphate then the future of Europe would have changed beyond all recognition. But it didn’t, thanks in large part to Konon.

He had grown up around the Arabs and may have spoken the language. He was a senior general by 717 and as they approached the city he was given the ultimate promotion, to Emperor, to deal with the crisis. Through skillful diplomacy and ruthless warfare the Syrian refugee, now known as Leo III, saved the Roman world.

This battle is largely forgotten today, yet we should remember its significance in shaping the modern world. Constantinople would not ultimately fall until 1453 leaving Western Europe to develop its unique culture. Only four decades after the Roman state finally disappeared Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World.

Perhaps we should also look differently at those desperate to reach Europe today. They may possess the talent and the perspective to shape the world of tomorrow.

Robin Pierson is the presenter of The History of Byzantium podcast. The story of the Eastern Roman Empire from 476-1453.

Categories: News | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “The Syrian Refugee who changed Western Civilization

  1. Patrick Barber

    Great article

    Patrick Barber (203) 859-0280


  2. Gavin

    Thank-you so much for writing this Robin. It is very timely, insightful and – as you say – relevant. I 100% agree that we should regard refugees to Europe from the Middle East (and elsewhere) as an asset, not as a problem. All societies, throughout history, have been strengthened and not weakened by mixing of peoples and cultural exchange. The USA is the obvious and great example.
    I’m not so sure about equating the motives of Muslims in the 7th and 8th centuries with those of groups like IS today. The latter profess to want a Caliphate but in reality I don’t think they understand much of what that means, or entails. Rather, they are reacting to collapse of political and social structures in their own countries, for which, rightly or wrongly, they blame “the west”. The Muslims of the 7th century must have had very different motives – they were triumphant and building a fresh and new world. I am not sufficiently educated to fully understand how they thought or where the motive for their expansionism came from.
    But one other big difference, that you point out in your article, between the Muslims of the 7th Century and IS-like terrorists groups – the former were tolerant. I lived and worked in the Middle East, so find life there endlessly fascinating.
    Great article. Very thought-provoking.
    When you finish your podcast, you should be offered a Professorship in History! You’re a natural scholar and teacher.

    • And give up podcasting? No way 🙂
      Thanks for the kind words. I really wrote the piece to draw peoples attention to Roman history rather than make a point about current politics…

  3. Klas

    If you are looking for others to maintain your freedom you will become a slave.

  4. G’day Robin. Hope you don’t mind I have shared this gem to another new group I started. Being administrator should help keep it relevant.

  5. Of course the Syrians we’re of similar racial & religious background to the Hellenes. We have only to look at the makeup of modern Hellenes with the centuries occupation under the Turks leaving it’s mark somewhat.

    What you have is an invasion sponsored by direct aid front companies of Intel groups: CIA, Mossad, Saudis, British M.I., etc. And by the constant destabilization of the near East by those same powers.

    I should leave a remark on the Orthodox prophecies regarding the situation. Racial, ethnic, religious, ideological warfare across Europe is one thing and predicted is the rise of a caliphate in portions of England & France for a time. The prophecies predict the total obliteration of Damascus. Of The Jews and Pope pushing for war(look for increased talk of Fatima from Americans and Roman Catholic sources). That war will spark either in the South (Syria) or North(Crimea/Donbass) and that a secret deal will be made 3 days before the strike with the Turks & Americans. And the Russians will kill 1 in 3 Turks, that 1 in 3 will be driven out of the land and that the remaining third will convert and join the polity of a resurrected Rome(Greece). That everything in Constantinople will be destroyed save the Hagia Sophia. That the Russians will March to Palestine at which point the Americans and all the armies battle it out right there. The European invaders of Russia are said to be destroyed or retreating back to deal with the conflicts in their own land and a Basileus or Tsar is appointed by God for this time…anyhow most of the readers and listeners probably don’t care for this and think them quite quaint. But as Rome here in this podcast is Orthodox thought I’d share my 2 cents and some of that info regarding modern events.

  6. The Great Anon

    The eastern roman empire was far different from how government is today. Things seem to have been incredibly centralized.

    There were no massive private corporations that extended beyond the city – at least none that Robin has ever mentioned. Keep in mind that whenever the govt hires people, it pays for them with taxes taken from the people that already live under that govt. The people that were already familiar with the land (as opposed to refugees who need time to familiarize themselves), and producing wealth. As a result, economic growth is reduced.

    This is no different in the 21st century as it would be in the 7th century. I can be almost certain that in order to settle so many refugees, some other people had to suffer. Roman identity is all fine and good, but I don’t think the various ethnic groups within the empire shared much solidarity with refugees at the time – though, it was pretty irrelevant anyway, since it all seemed to be planned from the top down.

    IMO, that sort of top down intervention is a backwards way of doing things. All it does is take money from one group and give it to another, and then an emperor gets assassinated because the wrong special interest group got angry. Never mind that the emperor often has to make vain populist decisions, just to keep people happy, at the detriment of the empire’s ability to thrive – which is why they keep hammering home ‘roman’ cultural ideas like ‘do your duty and just be a soldier’ or whatever, because such an environment requires that people only act as meat puppets (no wonder religious violence was so common! people needed a way to vent). So yeah – bottom up is much more productive.

    Yet, I’m glad Robin is claiming that he isn’t making a political statement – because the politics of the present are far more nuanced than any ancient comparison would do proper justice too. And yet, people will still use that statement he made for political reasons. Most people rely on pathos to remind them of what they already believe in, and remain willfully ignorant of other nuances. Nuances such as the difficulties associated with not sending refugees back home when wars are over – which itself can be complicated (how long should the ceasefire last and will the conflict renew?); this is why international policy typically advises that refugees reside in neighboring countries until a conflict dies down.

    Ultimately, you may, as a historical fluke, gain some ‘tough great man’, but I don’t think that can possibly apply to the present, due to the nature of first world politics. Actual toughness isn’t valued in politicians, and even presidents and prime ministers aren’t vested with the sort of powers that emperors had to get things done. On the other hand, the sort of power an emperor had could just as easily corrupt him (or her; in the case of the few females in charge in Byzantium).

    Anyway, end rant.

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