By Periklis Deligiannis
The best time of the year to unleash a campaign against the steppe peoples was February or March, when the nomad horses were not in a good physical condition, due to their stress from the winter weather.
When a Byzantine army defended the imperial territory against the nomad onslaught, it was better for its commander to cover its rear which could be rapidly overtaken by galloping enemy horse-archers, having in the back of the imperial army an impassable for horses geophysical obstacle (rugged terrain, river, marshes etc.). During the battle, the Byzantine frontline should be consisted of infantry spearmen (a sort of pikemen), who pointed their spearheads against the enemy horses. Usually the Byzantine infantrymen could confront the steppe warriors more effectively than the imperial cavalrymen, so the Byzantine infantry and cavalry should not in any way, be severed during the battle against them. The steppe horse-archers usually feared of the Middle Byzantine infantry archers, because their bows had usually a greater range of bowshot than their own nomadic. Both of them (Byzantines and nomads) used types of composite bows (mostly of Hunnic design) but the Middle Byzantine bows were more effective. The tactics of the combined military action of the imperial frontline (infantry spearmen) with the archers of the middle lines of the Byzantine order of battle (who hurled bowshots over the heads of their fellow spearmen), were almost impossible to be encountered by the nomad horse-archers. Generally, the nomads could hardly break a defensive formation of this type, even if they unleashed against it their cataphracts/heavy cavalry (which would be confronted immediately by the enemy heavy cavalry – Byzantine or any other imperial).
From the 6th century and on, the Byzantine Empire had to deal with the Slavic invasion of its territories. The Slavs were led initially by Altaic (mostly Turkic), Sarmatian and other steppe tribes which had been imposed to them as suzerains (sometimes without any Slavic reaction as it seems, due to the military benefits for the Slavs from their cooperation in raids with the powerful nomad cavalry). This is the reason why the Byzantine tactics against them, are dealt in this essay along with the imperial tactics against the Eurasian nomads.
By dispensation, the Rus Slavs (Russians) were not led by a nomad aristocracy, however their attacks against the Byzantine Empire were mainly seaborne, through the Black Sea. The Altaic Avars and Proto-Bulgars, and the Sarmatian Proto-Serbs (Servli, Sorbs), Chrovates (Proto-Croats) and Alans led numerous Slavic populations against the Empire. The Slavs were overwhelmingly more numerous than their nomad dominators, so in the case of the Proto-Bulgarians, Proto-Serbs and Proto-Croats, they “slavicized” them consolidating the modern Slavic nations of the Bulgarians, Serbs and Croats. On the hand, the Magyars of the Pannonian Steppes assimilated large numbers of Slavs. This is reason why the most typical Slavic anthropological type (the Eastern Baltic) is very common among modern Hungarians. But in this case, the nomadic Magyar language managed to “overthrow” the Slavic language of Eastern Pannonia and thus modern Hungarians do not speak a Slavic language.
Byzantine “Clibanophoroi” (cataphracts), second half of the 10th c. AD (, ).
The Slavs of this period (Middle Byzantine) fought mainly as light infantry with rudimentary organization. When they fought together with the nomads against the Byzantine army in open battle, they were not especially threatening and they were easily repulsed by the imperial cavalry or infantry. The Slavs became really threatening when they operated in a wooded, hilly and/or mountainous terrain. Then they used to harass the flankguards and the rearguard of the Byzantine troops with arrows, spears and other missiles, and they often set ambushes in mountain defiles. So the capture of defiles and passages by the imperial advance guards was necessary when the Byzantines marched against Slavs. The preferred time for Byzantine action against them was the winter, when the Slavic warriors could not operate effectively or ambush their enemy, because of their imprints in the snow. Additionally, the foliage of shrubs and trees – which they used as a cover – was meager. Also in winter, the imperial forces (especially the cavalry) could cross the marshes which usually protected the settlements of some Slavic tribes. The marshes were frozen during winter, changing to ice and allowing the passage of the horses, while the ice eliminated the risk of malaria for the Byzantines (a disease caused usually by the marshes). So the Slavs lost their defensive advantage and could not take cover to the reeds of the marshes. Finally, the Byzantine diplomacy made very effective use of the rudimentary state organization of the Slavs, and bribery was used to weaken them. The imperial officials used to bribe some Slavic tribesmen, ensuring their neutrality or turning them against other Slavic tribes. It was a standard practice of the Byzantine grand strategy against all enemies of the Empire, a legacy of the Roman grand strategy.
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