The Byzantines used to call generally “Franks“, “Celts”, “Latins” etc, various Western European peoples that they encountered at first in Italy and then in the Balkan Peninsula. Finally they encountered them as Crusaders in the walls of Constantinople in 1204, losing this decisive battle. But in 1261, the Byzantines managed to reclaim their capital.
At first the Byzantine Empire confronted in Italy the Franks (the “genuine” Franks of Gaul and Germany) and the Longobards (known later as Lombards), especially during the 6th-8th centuries AD. The fighting tactics and strategy of these Germanic peoples, which could not be compared with the ‘scientificity’ of the Byzantine/East Roman tactics, were characterized largely by the vehemence and fighting spirit of their barbarian ancestors, but also by the lack of efficient organization.
The Franks and the Longobards maintained several tactics of the outdated “heroic warfare” of their barbarian ancestors. But these anachronistic tactics severely weakened their undeniable martial abilities. Essentially only the charge of their heavy cavalry could seriously threaten the Byzantines, but if they managed to flank or cluster it, they could vanquish it. Owing to the same weaknesses, the Frank and Longobard cavalrymen and horsemen could easily fall into the tactical trap of the “feigned retreat” of the imperial mercenary nomad horsemen (Huns, Alans etc.). Additionally, the “genuine” Byzantine cavalrymen had adopted these nomadic tactics long ago. The Frank and Longobard cavalrymen could also be ‘drifted’ by their Byzantine opponents, in a rugged terrain where their horses were useless.
An ornamented Byzantine mace-head, highly effective due to its sharp pyramidal protrusions. Few armors could withstand its crushing blow (Copyright: worldmuseumofman.org)
The indiscipline character of the Frank and Longobard warriors, the volatility of their morale and the poor logistics of their armies, made the war of attrition the most appropriate method of dealing with them. The Byzantines used to decimate gradually the Frank and Longobard forces with sudden attacks and skirmishes, and to sever their communications and supply, avoiding to confront them in an open battle. Thus the operations of the Franks and Longobards against the imperial forces, were becoming ‘everlasting’ and grueling. Thus the Germanic warriors (in conjunction with their aformentioned defects) suffered from food shortage and devastated morale: hungry, decimated, and after many subsequent desertions, they eventually had no choice but to retreat. So the Byzantines were usually the winners with minimal losses. Also the cupidity of the Franco-Longobard commanders, made them prone to corruption by the imperial officers. Other major weakness of the Franks and Longobards was the deficient use of patrols, reconnaissance missions and night guards, and moreover their usual negligence of fortifying their camp. So they were exposed to ambushes and night attacks of the Byzantines in their camp.
Byzantine double armour (mail armor internally and nomadic lamellar cuirass externally), based on Byzantine manuscripts and other resources.
In the 11th century, the Byzantine empire faced the invasion of the warlike Normans in the Italian and Helladic imperial territories. The military situation had now changed decisively in favor of the Western Europeans and against the Byzantines. The Normans and generally the Later Franks of this period had significantly improved their tactics and had built up a powerful armored cavalry, particularly dreadful for the Byzantines and the Muslims. Instead, the imperial army was in a phase of decline after AD 1025, culminating in its overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Manzikert (1071). The old perception of the Byzantines about their unquestionable military superiority over the West Europeans, now gave its place to a feeling of military insufficiency comparing to the Normans and other Later Franks of the 11th century. This feeling resulted in subsequent exaggerated reports, according to which the charge of a Frankish (Western European) knight was so fierce and irresistible, that his lance could penetrate a city wall, or that the same knight had a military value of twenty Byzantine ‘knights’ (kataphraktoi in Greek).
Byzantine infantry advancing carefully in the woods, searching for the Normans ((reenactment by the Italian historical association I Cavalieri de li Terre Tarentine)
It has been suggested that the reported superiority of the Franco-Norman heavy cavalry was due largely to the use of the spur, who make the control of the horse considerably easier. The “Alexiad” of Anna Comnena, referring to the life of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenos (1081-1118), provides some insight into Byzantine tactics against the Normans. The main tactical objective of the Byzantines was to stem the fierce charge of the Norman cavalry against the imperial forces. Alexios and his officers have used various strategic inventions to break the ranks of the attacking Norman knights, as the spreading of dowels and nails in the field of their charge, or the array of supply carriages in the same field to form a “wooden wall”. At the same time, the Byzantine foot archers and the imperial mercenary Turkish horse-archers arrayed at a safe distance, targeted and killed the Norman horses. As Anna quotes, the Normans without their horses (injured or killed) were very vulnerable. This was because the spurs on their feet, their full-length mail armor and their heavy “almond-shaped” shields significantly impeded their movements. These imperial tactics caused confusion to the Norman order of battle, and were followed by the counterattack of the Byzantine heavy cavalry. However, the military experienced Normans usually surpassed those Byzantine tactics.
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