Far more serious were Basil's relations with the western Arabs, who at that time possessed the greater part of Sicily and occupied some important points in southern Italy. The troubled affairs of Italy caused the intervention of the western Emperor, Louis II, who occupied the important city of Bari. It was with this ruler that Basil I formed an alliance for a combined attempt to drive the western Arabs out of Italy and Sicily. But this alliance did not succeed and was soon dissolved. After the death of Louis the population of Bari handed over their city to Byzantine officials.
Meanwhile the Arabs occupied the strategically important island of Malta, south of Sicily, and in the year 878 they took Syracuse by assault after a siege of nine months. An interesting description of the siege of Syracuse was written by an eyewitness, the monk Theodosius, who was living there at the time, and after the fall of the city was imprisoned by the Arabs in Palermo. He related that during the siege a famine raged in the city, and the inhabitants were forced to eat grass, skins of animals, ground bones mixed with water, and even corpses. This famine caused an epidemic which carried off an enormous part of the population. After the loss of Syracuse, among important points in Sicily the Byzantine Empire retained only the city of Tauromemium or Taormina on the eastern coast of the island. This loss was a turning point in Basil's external policy. His plans for a general attack on the Arabs were not to be realized. The occupation of Tarentum in southern Italy by Basil's troops and their successful advance into the interior of this country under the leadership of their general, Nicephorus Phocas, during the last years of Basil's reign might be considered as some consolation after the failure at Syracuse, however.
A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents
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