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; the new Israel that was God’s chosen people whose Emperor was his vice-regent on earth . Its introverted culture constantly analysed its own identity, due to both catastrophic and social, military and economic events 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 the old testament context of the new-Israel. With economic wealth due to functioning and constant bureaucracy compared to any other state, one of the oldest surviving capital cities and a relatively 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, with a few exceptions such as the Strategikon of Maurice and the Sylloge Tactorium in the 10th Century. Many others either model themselves on previous manuals or provide an academic framework which harkens back to classical antiquity, an issue many Roman military manuals faced during its existence in antiquity.
To gain an understanding of the Byzantine army is not a simple endeavour. Previous historians have categorised this based on three sections; Early (up to the time of Heraklius), Thematic (from Heraklius to the 900’s with the growth of the Tagmatas) and Late (a restructured army after the Battle of Manzikert) Byzantine Armies; however these are based on both major historical stereotypes and generalisations made by historians, whose information has simply been passed down from generation to generation. This, coinciding with inherent prejudices towards the Eastern Romans in the West, means these standard categories became predominant. This article will look to dissect and reconstruct those simple categories and look to provide a more in-depth detail as to why. What is evident though is the economic and social system the state utilised enabled it to field a flexible and mobile army which was skilled at adapting and surviving, despite the amount of loses the Byzantines often faced.
- The Early Byzantine Army
The early Byzantine Army would be relatively similar to that of the Western Roman Empire, with a few exceptions. Due to the size, wealth and composition of the Eastern Empire, it could afford to field fully professional field armies. At the time of Justinian’s re-conquests of Roman territories, it’s noted that several more field armies were mustered, while at the same time paying the Sassanid’s for an “eternal peace”. This testifies to the almost immeasurable wealth that the Empire held before the Justinian plague which wiped out a large portion of the population.
The Strategikon of Maurice is a military manual written in the late 6th Century, written in attribute to the Emperor mentioned. Unlike previous manuals, not only was it based on the military experience of soldiers, which the Emperor Maurice also would have experienced, but also provides a very detailed context on Byzantine equipment, strategy and geopolitics. It also expresses complex tactical formations that took the average soldier to get used to. It’s estimated that the average Roman infantryman in this period took up to 1-2 years to fully train and become competent at their jobs. This coincides, and determines, a lot of the strategy that the Strategikon emphasises, which is the idea of avoiding pitch battles, or wars of attrition altogether. To lose an army means losing valuable, trained and experienced soldiers; something the Empire couldn’t afford to lose and more often than not, being a centralised state, losing an battle with an entire army could mean the difference between having authority and completely losing it in a territory; as was seen at the Battle of Yarmuk, losing the battle against the Arabs had cost Heraklius all of Syria and Palestine, Egypt soon following. This also had a intricate relation to geo-politics; according to both the Strategikon and Eastern Roman thought, a pitch battle to completely annihilate an enemy was ill-advised. To do so would inevitably result in another tougher and more well-determined enemy superseding the previous one. This was evident much to the Byzantines displeasure. In the 600’s they waged a war of survival with the Sassanid Persians and saw them defeated completely, causing an almost internal collapse of the state following several civil wars; this had provided the opportunity for a more determined Arab army to conquer them and become the Empire’s new eternal enemy. Conquering Italy and eliminating the Ostrogoths had led to the stronger Lombards eventually taking over Northern Italy. Better the enemy you know; agreeing with them terms and paying them if you lose and, even better, paying your enemies off to fight each other. This mentality provides a general concept that the Byzantines adopt until the late 800’s when the Empire begins going on the offensive again and recapturing territories that had been lost for 200 years.
At the time of Justinian, the main type of 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. A cavalryman was expected to utilise the composite bow and switch to the lance at any given moment; something that would require discipline and competency in the middle of battle. It is what we might think of as “all purpose combat infantry” and it is here where Eastern Roman cavalry distinguishes itself as an elite diverse force that could adapt to changing circumstances.
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.
The Strategikon describes infantrymen equipped like Late Roman heavy infantry and that’s because they were; the Empire gave an allowance to soldiers to purchase their equipment. Wven the lowest infantry would have been equipped with mail, a shield and a helmet for protection. His main offensive weapon was a spear, around six feet in length. In the Strategikon, infantrymen were instructed to throw their spears when facing infantry and thrust their spears when facing cavalry. It’s often stereotyped that Justinian Era soldiers wore little armour however this is based on several misunderstandings, the main one being the illustrations of soldiers in pieces such as the depiction of Justinian in Ravenna. Obviously when not on campaign, soldiers and guardsmen would be dressed minimally with simple clothing. There’s a large amount of evidence to say that in battle, the typical Roman soldier was well armoured.
Uniforms were probably only used by the standard body of the army, having specific uniforms and standards for each unit. Most infantry units were 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.
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; however like the battle of Adrianople, troops could also just form in a wide line. A battle deployment several lines deep may have theoretically been used, 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.
This is an indication of what’s to come in terms of how the Eastern Roman Army developed; the role of the infantry was increasingly seen as one that was required to simply hold the line and provide a rallying point to the cavalry. When required, the infantry could advance and engage the enemy but in an increasing cavalry role, the cavalry did most of the muscle work. In such armies, nearly all cavalry mounted, the centre of the second battleline would be made up of the elite and best equipped heavy cavalry, such as the Optimates.
As Justinian’s campaign armies were almost always outnumbered, they often chose to let the enemy come to them; this referenced what was stated earlier, the Byzantines adopted the method of avoiding pitch battles/wars of attrition and chose to always fight the enemy on favourable terms. The infantry 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.
- The Command and Theme Systems
During the time of Heraklius, and then the later Isurian Dynasty under Leo III, the vast territories of the Empire were lost due to conquests by the Arabs in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, and the Balkans under the Bulgars. After losing Yarmuk, Heraklius chose to move his field armies behing the Taurus in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and settled them in specific commands corresponding with certain areas e.g. the Armeniacon, the Anatolikon etc. To do so was to preserve the Roman Empire in the East and made sure it did not collapse and it’s probable if Heraclius had used up these armies and lose, the Empire would have fallen to the Arabs.
The structure of the Byzantine army would drastically change from what it had been previously. Essentially, these field armies would settle in their corresponding areas, the soldiers be given land and be a permanent presence. Each command would have a professional body of cavalry soldiers who were paid full time as professionals. Infantry, on the other hand, would be semi-professional farmers who, on paper, were paid by the state, received extra pay when on campaign and a bonus with a new Emperor. However, this most likely was not the case. In reality, pay was both irregular and at times rare and soldiers would have probably have been paid on campaign; indeed generals often carried war chests full of coin to pay soldiers to prevent any risk of soldiers abandoning the campaign altogether. Also, though certain numbers are written on paper, this was probably not reflective on the ground. It’s been estimated the Empire could field 80,000 men in total on paper, however this is probably an optimistic number, a more realistic amount would be 30,000. This would be due to irrational pay and the state could not always guarantee that soldiers would join if called up, a portion of them going into hiding or avoiding service altogether. This means that during Arab raids, several thousand Arab troops would be shadowed by several hundred Romans at any given time.
The Strategikon was probably still used and adapted for this situation. The Byzantines did the most to avoid pitch battles at any cost. During a raid, men were gathered and shadowed the Arab army as it pillaged into Roman lands. It would constantly spy on the enemy and when the Arabs were comfortably travelling back to Caliphate lands, the Byzantines would strike the rear-guard and attempt to cause some damage. It needs to be understood that any real attempt to stop Arab incursions was simply not possible. All they Romans could do was shadow and harass the enemy and simply block off pathways; causing the Arabs to fall back comfortable they had acquired enough loot. When push came to shove, gone were the sophisticated tactics enjoyed during the Justinian period and in situations where pitch battles were a necessity, brute force was the norm. The state lacked the finance to provide the diverse training they had before, even for their professionally body of cavalry; to do more complicated tactics was considered a risk and therefore discouraged. It’s also probable that soldiers were taught “on the job” and trained on campaign rather than in peacetime when they would be farmers. As a result, there is a depreciation of the quality of infantry and it is often remarked in battles that infantry were susceptible to retreating. To see this as some sort of mistake is to misunderstand the role infantry played during this period. Like before, infantry was simply tasked with holding the line and providing a rallying point where cavalry could fall back. It was not paramount that infantry be provided extensive training and could learn the necessary drills when the opportunity came. After all, Arab raids were frequent and therefore a body of experienced soldiers could become apparent.
During this period, it’s often misunderstood that these sections for the field armies were themes, however this is simply not true because they’re never referred to as such. The first to mention the themes was Theophilus, who recorded the Emperor Nicephorus I (reigning 802-811) creating Themes which were designed to be self-sustaining semi-professional militias which were responsible for equipping their own soldiers. Beforehand, these sectors were simply referred to as commands under a general (a strategos) and the state was responsible for providing equipment and weapons (contrary to the Justinian period where soldiers were given an allowance). It’s from this point onwards that we can properly refer to these districts as themes and, from this point onwards, the districts ted to get divided up in smaller sections rather than consist of several “standing armies”. This decentralisation was successful in providing a stronger defence of the Empire’s borders both in Cappadocia and Thrace. Still, the tactics and structure stayed roughly the same until the late 800’s when the Empire begins going on the offensive once again.
It is also during the mid 700’s where we first get a mention of the tagmatas, a full body of professionally trained soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, stationed around the capital. This was first introduced by Constantine V (741- 775 AD) and tagmatas would often be created to provide a solid body of loyal troops to the current ruler (deviating from the questionable loyalties of the commands) and provide a rapid reaction force which could go on campaign. During the war with the Bulgars, it’s recorded that Constantine put them on ships and send them ahead of the army and into the Danube to dismount. As more Emperor’s came to power, more tagmatas would be created many sharing the same names as the previous guard units at the time of Justinian, indeed many could trace their lineages back to the legions. The issue is the tagmatas consisted of the best soldiers in the Empire, who were lavishly paid to ensure their loyalty, all of them coming from the most experience and talented soldiers in the commands and later themes. This, to an extent, succeeded in depriving the districts of valuable soldiers. However, with the introduction of the themes as self-sustaining military districts, it seems this satiated some of the impact.
On paper, the strategos had the command in each command and later 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). Common soldiers varied in equipment however most were probably equipped basically, wearing cloth or padding tunics. Cavalry, being able to afford more, may have been equipped with better armour and weapons the Empire could offer, including mail and scale armour.
From the mid-10th Century, there is a myth that as the tagmatas became larger, the theme armies became gradually smaller, and as a consequence, units decreased in size. This is also not true though may have had some validity to it. As Theme distrincts were split up more, it’s inevitable the command size would also decrease as well. Instead of a Strategos, a Doux held command. A Druggoi, commanded by Drungarios, were now usually up to 400 men in size. Several Taxiarches or Chiliarches commanded a taxiarchia or chiliarchia of around 1000 men. Like before, a small professional body were also in each theme, however these were made up of both infantry and cavalry. However, even with these aspects theme armies generally stayed the same size. There may be some validity to the myth due to a legal loophole that was developed as a result of Niceophoras I. The law was that if a family did not want a soldier to serve, they would have to pay the state of the cost of providing their equipment. As the Empire recovered during the 800’s and larger landowners became wealthier, this law was used a loophole to stop their sons from going to war. Nevertheless, the relative prosperity and lull for many themes as a result of both the collapse of the Caliphate and population growth meant themes could go at times without any need to defend raids as the Empire went on the offensive; the result being more inexperienced theme troops who were unable to counter Seljuk raids and eventually conquests by the 11th Century.
From the 10th Century, as the Empire becomes more offensive and conquers more land, there is a shift to more pitch battles. Infantry becomes more specialised, receive a greater standard of training and specialised formations begin to appear once again. Manuals written in the 9th and 10th Century such as the Sylloge Tactorium, the De velitatione bellica and the Praecepta militaria emphasise sophisticated units, tactics and well-trained heavy infantry who still had a similar role as before but were more capable of standing face-to-face with the enemy in a pitched battle due to a more professional force and the emphasis on drilling and discipline. The Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas is said to have trained his men tirelessly in drilling through the seasons to provide an effective force with high coherency and morale. As well as standard pitch-battle tactics, innovative tactics were developed by Nikephoros II Phokas, a good example being the army square. The army would assume a square with gaps between formations where cavalry could ride out. Specialised spearmen with two handed thick spears (Menaulatoi) would kneel and brace. Infantry would be in the front and bowmen supporting in the rear and the gaps in formations would enable skirmishers to fire on the advancing enemy. This would prove to be a moving fortress that would adapt to different battlefield conditions and not be surrounded. Still, the offensive and shock arm of the army was the cavalry, the most heavy and elite being cataphracts whose rider and horse were covered in heavy protection, either laminar and quilted armour. This unit of cavalry would charge at infantry at a trot which would eventually pick up momentum and smash any infantry formations; the objective to break through infantry like a tank at the opportune moment.
It’s at this time that we begin to get tagmatas consisting entirely of foreign troops such as the cumans (Turkic horse archers) and the famous Varagian guard (consisting of Scandinavians and later Anglo-Saxons and Germans), however it’s important to emphasise these were not considered mercenaries and were paid professionally by the state; therefore they should be seen as Byzantine regiments, as the Ghurkhas would be seen as part of the British Army today. Hiring foreign troops was an efficient way of enabling loyalty to the Emperor as the troops had no underlying inclination other than to their paymaster. Like later, these would often be used for specialised roles and as more tagmatas consisting of foreign troops were deployed, this began to determine how the Byzantine army operated, providing constraints as well as advantages.
Here is a general description of soldier’s roles and generally what they wore. It’s important to emphasise some of this dates from the 8th Century but the most detailed we have is from the 10th.
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.
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.
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.