Beyond the Golden Gate: The Byzantine Army at War

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With this article I have the honor to announce Mr. Nicholas Petrou, the new member of our school as historical researcher.

Relatively little has been discussed in relation to the Byzantine army. It is only recently that finds and historical academia have begun to put together a more coherent image of the Byzantine Army by analysing its tactics and formations.  This article will effectively outline the way the Byzantine army operated during its existence in brief and concise way.

Before I begin, it is important to analyse the context of the Byzantine Empire itself: indeed an ‘army’ is representative of the society it derives from and an army can provide context to social, economic and cultural structures. The word ‘Byzantine’ itself is inherently problematic. It was coined by the Historian Hieronymus Wolf in 1557, a century after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, which referenced the Ancient Greek town Byzantion that existed before and during the Roman Empire. The Byzantines simply referred to themselves as ‘Romaion’ (Romans) and this is important in understand how the the inhabitants of the Empire perceived themselves. The Byzantines didn’t simply view themselves as successors to the Roman Empire, they saw themselves as the Roman Empire manifested in the present and the direct manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth. Its introverted culture constantly analysed its own identity and this constant re-defining of identity was based on the celestial (its theological relation to God on earth), cultural and its past glories. From this, it justified itself as the synergy between Greco-Roman culture. With an abundance of economic wealth, one of the oldest surviving capital cities and a large standardised army, the Byzantine Empire can be regarded as the superpower of the medieval age.

It is also important to analyse the constant biases and prejudices that are attached to Byzantine sources. Byzantine sources followed the tradition of Greco-Roman Sources that held cultural and generalising connotations and this was not something exclusive to medieval times. There had always been an issue of biasness and source reliability in the Greco-Roman world. The ‘father of History’ Herodotus constantly makes generalising comments on ‘barbarian’ cultures (those who were considered non-Greek speaking/cultured) and places the value of his own culture as paramount. Indeed many Byzantine sources share similar features. For example, many Byzantine military manuals were prescriptive rather than descriptive.

This cultural biasness is also embodied by etymological generalisations. For example, in reference to the Vikings, there are constant problems made by Byzantine terminology. The word ‘Viking’ itself is a feminine Norse term which means ‘expedition’. This group was defined as Rus/ Rhos by the Byzantines, meaning ‘related to rowing’ but the terms was widely stretched to include a vast array of cultures which in appearance looked similar but in detail differed substantially. For example, this can be observed from linguistic, physical and cultural differences in Slavic, Rus Slavs and Scandinavians who formed the traders, explorers and warriors that came to Constantinople. Even the Thematic Emperor’s guards, the Varangians (meaning ‘sworn men’) consisted of a diverse group of Norsemen, Rus and Anglo-Saxons (which were grouped and separated from other Western Units in the Byzantine Empire). In this sense, these cultural definitions should be seen as generalisations, as the term ‘barbarian’ was in the Ancient Greco-Roman World, and should be taken for granted.

To gain an understanding of the Byzantine army and its constant changes in the Medieval Age, the Army will be split into Early, Thematic and Byzantine Armies. However there are similar overlaping themes. As with most medieval armies, the majority of Byzantine soldiers were seasonal fighters (with the exception of a few professional institutions such as the Athanatoi created by the Emperor John I Tzimiskes). However, unlike the armies of Western Europe, the Byzantine army was not dependant on feudal obligations to raise large amounts of manpower but was reliant on bureaucratic system and a stable system of pay by coin and land (which was known as the theme system). This, coinciding with adapting different methods of fighting, meant it could easily field a flexible and mobile army consisting of specialised elements.

Much of what we know of Byzantine warfare comes from the Byzantine military manuals- they provide us with a wealth of information on equipment, doctrines, tactics and deployment. However there is an inherit danger of readings these manuals as descriptive. Most of them, especially the Strategikon, were probably more prescriptive than descriptive in nature.

 

  1. The Early Byzantine Army

Cavalry

At the time of Justinian, the ideal soldier was the double-armed cavalryman, equipped with iron armour, a spear or a long cavalry lance (kontos), a buckler strapped to the shoulder and a powerful composite bow. In this way, the cavalry was considered at the forefront of medieval warfare (a method adapted from the Parthians and later the Sassanid Persians). As the Kontos was 12 feet long, it is likely that the role of elite cavalrymen in the army had the diverse skill to use both weapons. This differed from Germanic units which had little experience in horse archery and preferred the kontos or a shorter spear.

From the last decades of the 6th Century and onwards, the heavy cavalry units, both Cursores (‘runners’ or ‘attackers’) and Defensores (‘defenders) were combined formations, consisting of both lancers and bowmen (as opposed to the previous period where each cavalryman ideally carried both lance and bow). Their main defensive weapon was a complete set of armour, covering their entire body from head to toe (or angle as mentioned in the Strategikon). The most common type of armour was scale and chain mail, but lamellar armour was increasingly used. To complete the armour, a sturd, tasselled helmet and a shield was prescribed. The men in the front ranks used kontarion as their main weapon whilst the rear ranks used composite bows (or javelins if they lacked proper training). The front cavalrymen were expected to ride horses with frontal armour, made of either iron or felt.

Infantry

Although the Strategikon describes infantrymen equipped like Late Roman heavy infantry, it is highly unlikely that most Early Byzantine heavy infantry wore metal armour. The chapters on heavy infantry in the Strategikon were copied from an earlier Late Roman military manuscripts and there is little reason to believe that the best heavy infantryman had more than a shield, cloth armour and perhaps a helmet for protection. His main offensive weapon was a spear, around six feet in length that could be thrust or cast. In the Strategikon, infantrymen were instructed to throw their spears when facing infantry and thrust their spears when facing cavalry. Behind the first ranks of spearmen, archers or javalinmen were drawn up to provide missile support.

 

Appearance

Uniforms were probably only used by the elite of the infantry. Most infantry units were therefore distinguishable by their shield patterns and standards. Cavalry units and the best infantry were issued uniforms and equipment from the Imperial Factories- elite cavalry units are described as wearing white uniforms on parade. Colours for other units included different shades of red, greyish white, light green and light blue.

Late Roman Infantry carried draco standards, while the cavalry units had either draco or vexillatio standards. By the time of Maurice, the swallow-tailed bandae flags replaced the draco and vexillatio. Like other pieces of equipment this was probably adopted from the Avars. The bandum was a simple square or a rectangular flag with two, three or four streamers, each measuring several meters in length. Units in the same division (mere) were to use the same or similar banner, and the cavalry unit’s pennons, the flammulae, were used to distinguish one unit from another (although they were probably stowed away before battle).

The general’s banner stood out in both shape and design and would have been of a different pattern than the other banners in the army.

 

Deployment

In the earliest of Byzantine Armies, the standard battle deployment was to form one or several battle lines- the troops in each line supporting the line in front of them. As in Late Roman armies, the infantry (or dismounted cavalrymen) occupied the centre while the cavalry were placed on the flanks. From the second part of the 6th Century onwards, the Byzantines could field all-cavalry campaign armies with any infantry acting only as a rear guard. In such armies, the centre of the second battleline would be made up of the elite and best equipped heavy cavalry, such as the Optimates. A battle deployment several lines deep may have been used in historical battles, but in battle accounts, the armies seem to have been drawn up in a single line with only one or two units held back as an emergency reserve.

Tactics

As Justinian’s campaign armies were almost always outnumbered, they often chose to let the enemy come to them. The infantry or dismounted cavalry centre was expected to hold the enemy charge, giving the cavalry on the flanks time to decimate the enemy ranks with bowfire before moving against their flanks. This was the tactic used by Belisarus at Dara aginst the Persians, by Narses at Taginae against the Goths and at Casilinus against the Franks

The Strategikon introduced cavalry maneuvers that called for heavy cavalry to be able to fight as both attacker and defender in close order formation. Whole units or even army wings would take on the role of attackers while their comrades acted as defenders. The attackers would break out of each unit from their positions on both wings, and then advance towards the enemy, either in close or open order formation. The defenders in the centre of the unit remained in place in close order formation, providing the attackers with a safe rallying point. If the enemy was defeated, the defenders would advance with the attackers. Should both the attackers and defenders be swept away in an enemy charge, the troops in the second line would act as a rallying point and turn back the enemy. In the prescribed deployment of a cavalry army, the best and most reliable troops, such as the Optimates and the general’s Bucellarii, were stationed at the centre of the second line, while regular regiments, such as the Vexillationes, Foederati and Illyrikiniani regiments were drawn up in the first line.

 

  1. The Thematic Byzantine Army

During the reign of Leo and that of his successor in the Syrian Dynasty, vast territories were lost By the Islamic and Bulgar conquests. A new organisation of provinces, probably found by Heraclius in 660 AD- 662 AD was employed. Anatolia, and later the Balkans and Greece, were divided into themes. The themata (roughly meaning provinces) was almost an entitiy in itself, with an army of soliders who received land grants as payment for their military service. During the reign of Constantine V (741- 775 AD), the Byzantine army was further strengthened by the introduction of the tagmata– an imperial force of professional soldiers based in and around Constantinople.

The themata became the backbone of the Byzantine Military. In Each theme, a strategos held command of the theme’s troops which consisted of both cavalry and infantry units. Through the hard and attritional struggles with Bulgars and Islam, the Byzantines devised a new way of dealing with intruding enemies: shadowing warfare- essentially guerrilla tactics. Avoiding most pitched battles, the themata soldiers would retreat to strongholds, then make hit-and-run attacks on an advancing army’s flanks and baggade train. The most famous such border warriors were the Akritai cavalrymen, described in the heroic poem Digenes Akrites.

In early themes, the strategos had the command in each theme. The theme was divided into turmai of up to 5,000 men, commanded by a Turmaches. Each turma was further sub-divided into druggoi of up to 1,000 men, commanded by Comites (counts).

From the mid-10th Century, theme armies became gradually smaller, and as a consequence, units decreased in size. In such smaller themes, a Doux, not a strategos held command. Druggoi, commanded by Drungarios, were now usually up to 400 men in size. Several in so called taxiarchia or chiliarchia of around 1000 men, which were commanded by a Taxiarches or Chiliarches. Two such units (2000 men) were collectively called turma, commanded by Turmaches. In the mid- 10 Century, Emperor Nikephorus II phokas added a fiscal dimension to the theme system- basically meaning that individuals with enough money could avoid military duty. As a result, each theme now had a small professional force in addition to its regular semi-professional units. Such professional provincial forces were called tagmata– however, these should not be confused with the ‘real’ Imperial Tagmata.

The Imperial Tagmata armies were based around Constantinople. In case of larger enemy incursions, one or more tagmata armies, led by a Domestikos or the Emperor himself, could rapidly support a themata army. This was founded by Constantine V to limit the power of themata Armies. For example, troops from the large Obsikion theme had rebelled five times since the creation of the theme. The tagmata he created consisted of six tagma (units), each with 2000-4000 men.

 

Thematic Byzantine Army at War

In a number of military treatises written in the 9th and 10th centuries, various emperors and generals emphasised the importance of thorough training and the issuing of good equipment. The best deal with the different enemies the Byzantines faced, specialised troop types and formations appeared. The theme system was generally effective and ensured troop morale was high. As many generals moved on to become emperors, the army had high priority and it showed on the battlefield.

The 10th Century marked the pinnacle of Byzantine military sophistication. The expected standard of drill and discipline in the 10th Century manuals were high; the importance of well-trained heavy infantry was repeatedly stressed. Unlike the 6th Century, heavy infantry were now seen as an indispensible part of any campaign army.

The Paecepta Militaria, attributed to Emperor Nikephorus II Phokas, described the role of both cavalry and infantry and detail. As in previous manuals, the main shock arm of the army was the heavy cavalry, but blocks of heavy infantry augmented by slingers, javalinen and archers were deemed essential as they provided the cavalry with an effective rearguard and a safe rallying point. As in the Strategikon, it also described the enemies of the Byzantines, their tactics and how to counter them.

In broad terms, the development during the Thematic period moved towards increasingly specialised and better equipped troops. Armies became more professional as the size of themata armies decreased.

Cavalry

Heavy Cavalry-Throughout this period, heavy cavalry formed the backbone of the Byzantine army. Themata Kavallaroi were generally less well-equipped and trained than their tagmata counterparts, but in some themes, heavy cavalry participated in campaigns frequently, and had years of experience in cavalry warfare. Tagamta cavalry wore chain or lamellar armour, wooden or iron greaves, mail hoods and iron helmets. Themata heavy cavalry probably had more modest protection. The main close combat weapon was the kontarion (which unlike it’s early counterpart measured 10-12 feet)- other weapons included long spathion straight sword and the sabre-like paramerion sword. From the rear ranks, archers equipped with comparatively short composite bows supported by their front rank comrades. Like their predecessors, Byzantine Kavallarioi were trained to fight as Cursores and Defensores.

Light Cavalry- Two types of light cavalry are described: hyperkerastai (acting as outflankers on the right flank and as guards on the left flank) and the prokousatores (scouts or forerunners). The prokousatores forerunners had few archers than regular kavallarioi.

The Kataphraktoi were a unique unit of extra-heavily armoured cavalry. They were drawn up in a new blunt-nosed wedge formation, especially designed to smash the enemy infantry line. The front and sides of the wedge formation was made up of cavalry clad in armour from head to toe. The majority of these cavalrymen were armed with siderorabdion– heavy all-rion maces, almost a metre in length, with a sharp three, four, or six cornered heads. The formation had a ‘soft’ centre, consisting of horse archers.

Infantry

Heavy infantry- The basic equipment of a themata Kontaratoi (‘spear bearers’) was his shield and his spear. Byzantine infantrymen were noted for their spears, 3 meters (9 feet) or more in length. Shields came in both regular and large sizes. In the early Thematic period, oval shields were used- from the mid-10th Century and onwards, almond-shaped, and later kite shields, became increasingly common. Body armour was fairly modest in nature, and consisted of a coat of coarse silk padded with cotton, ‘as thick as can be stitched’. Though fairly effective against missiles, it must have offered less protection against lance heads and concussive weapons. To complete their protective equipment, kontaratoi wore cloth wrappings around a felt hat, meaning they effectively wore turbans. Veteran kontaratoi probably had access to such prized pieces of equipment such as iron helmets and even lamellar armour or chain mail armour.

Light infantry- By the mid- 10 Century, each taxiarchia of heavy infantry spearmen (approx. 1000 men) had two light infantry attachments: 200 javalinmen, archers and slingers, and 100 menulatoi. Archers and slingers wore no armour, but were protected only a small circular shield strapped to their left arm. Javalinmen had a slightly higher degree of protection- they wore padded armour and carried medium sized shields.

The Menulatoi First described in the Tactica treatise by Emperor Leo VI, the Menulatoi were especially courageous spearmen equipped like heavy infantrymen though with smaller, round shields. Instead of the standard spear, the Menulatoi carried shorter, sturdier spears made from a single piece of cornel wood. Each Kontaratoi spearman unit had an attachment of Menulatoi who were used specifically as a countermeasure against enemy heavy cavalry charges. In case of a cavalry charge, the Menulatoi rushed forwards from their position behind the kontararoi. They then formed a line in front of the kontaratoi and lowered their spears to only a foot or two above ground, thus striking the unprotected bellies of the charging horses.

Appearance

From the early Thematic period onwards, the appearance of the Byzantine army changed markedly. In each theme, the imperial work shops were responsible for manufacturing arms and equipment for the troops, and as a result, a typical Byzantine force looked much more uniform than in the 6th and 7th Centuries. Shields, banners and uniforms of each unit were if not identical, then at least similar.

Theory and practice

Much of what the treatises describes (or prescribes) is echoed in accounts of battles in the Thematic period. Especially in the reigns of Nikephorus II Phokas and his successor John Tzimisces, heavy Byzantine cavalry supported by infantry were fielded in battles in both the East and West. From Arab historians, we have accounts of Byzantine extra-heavily armoured cavalry, ‘who advanced on horse which seemed to have no legs’, completely covered in iron.

By the time Basil II led his campaigns against the Bulgars, elite heavy infantry, most notably the Varagian guards, had become the army’s most important troops- the rugged Balkan terrain simply was not suitable for heavy cavalry.

 

 

  1. The Late Byzantines

The battle of Manzikert in 1071, loses by Alexios Komnenos and the distintergration of the theme system due to large landowners becoming increasingly powerful, meant the Byzantine army began to slowly disintegrate. It could no longer provide the army with a body of trained and equipped semi-professional soldiers. During the ten years following Mazikert, a civil war rendered the Byzantine army useless and the victorious Turks quickly seized most of Asia Minor where they found their own empire with the impudent name of Rum (Rome). As most of the eastern themes had been lost, the Theme system was now finally shattered. Although the old Tagmata were reinforced with newly found regiments, the major part of the army was now drawn from allies and mercenaries.

The military successes of the 10th and early 11th centuries were followed by a period of complacency and eratic government. The army and navy were left to decline, and were subject to drastic reductions. From the middle of the 11th century, the Theme system was largely replaced by wholly professional regiments, and the number of mercenary units grew. As mentioned, both the standing and imperial forces were now called tagmata. Initially there were differences in quality and equipment between the two types of tagmata, but by the end of the Komnenian period they had largely become indistinguishable. Formally, the thematic names and titles of regiments and commanders remained unchanged until Manzikert, but both the size of units and their efficiency shrank.

In the late 11th Century, various emperors tried to re-establish a reasonably dependable military, Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes being the most successful. But his efforts failed to produce any long term results, and after the defeat at Manzikert and the civil wars that followed, the army become almost non-existent. When Alexios Komnenos assembled forces in Constantinople in 1081, a mere few hundred men was all that could be mustered. Needless to say, Alexios Komnenos had to start from scratch. He and his successors did manage to recreate some native Byzantine regiments (such as the Athnatoi), but as a whole, Komnenian Byzantine Emperors had to rely mostly on mercenary troops; European knights, Turkish horse archers, Slavic and Balkan warriors and horsemen all served under the Imperial banner. Most guard units were also made up of foreigners: Turcopoloi (descendants of settled Turks), Skythikoi (horse archers from various nomadic tribes), Latinikoi (Western knights) and Varangoi (increasingly consisting of mercenaries of from all over Europe).

Some of Alexios’s successors tried to revitalise the Byzantine army by reintroducing militia systems (such as the Pronoia system introduced b John II Komnenos) but neither proved very successful.

To some extent the Komnenian Byzantine armies used the tactics and deployment described in the great treatises of the 11th Century. Although the overall quality and skill had declined, the Byzantine army still managed to restore some of its previous glory. But as a large part of the army was made up of mercenaries, the hired unit’s individual type of tactics dictated the way they were used. The fighting style was no longer distinctly Byzantine but more a reflection of whatever mercenaries were employed at that particular time.

While European military technological advances had resulted in improved armour, better crossbows and bows, the Byzantines stubbornly held on to their tactics and armoury.

 

Bibliography

  1. Early Byzantine Armies
  • Macdowall, Simon: “Late Roman Infantryman/Cavalryman”. Osprey
  • Dennis, George T.: “Maurice’s Strategikon. The Strategikon, attributed to Emperor Maurice”.
  • Regan, Geoffrey: First Crusader- Byzantium’s Holy Wars. On Emperor Heraclius’ campaigns against the Persians”.
  • Procopius: “The Persian Wars”, “The Vandalic Wars”, “the Gothic Wars”.
  • Agathias: “The Histories”
  • Theophylacy Simocatta: “The History: The history of Byzantium in the late 6th Century”.

     2. Thematic Byzantine Armies

  • Blondal, Sigfus: “The Varangians of Byzantium”.
  • McGeer, Eric: Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth”.
  • Dennis, George: “Three Byzantine Military Treatises”.
  • Theophanes Continuatus Leo the Deacon and Johannes Skylitzrs (These are in German and are hard to come by!)

3. Late Byzantine Armies

  • Heath, Ian: “Armies and Enemies of the Crusade”.
  • Heath, Ian: “Byzantine Armies 1181-1461 AD”. Osprey
  • Nicolle, David: Hungary and the Fall of Eastern Europe. Osprey.
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