A cataphract cavalryman of the Sassanian army. The Byzantine army and most of its enemy nomad armies included this type of extra-heavy cavalrymen, “ancestors” of the Late Medieval European Knights (artwork & copyright: V. Vuksic).
By Periklis Deligiannis
Already from the Early Byzantine Period and during the Middle Period, the Byzantines faced several nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, Altaic and some Northern Iranian. In the European imperial borders they faced the Black Huns, some Late Sarmatian tribes (Proto-Serbians and Proto-Croats who were not Slavic yet, Alanic groups etc.), the Avars, some Late Hunnic tribes (Proto-Bulgarians, Kutrigours, Outigurs, Saragurs, Onogurs and others), the Pecheneges (“Patzinakes” according to the Byzantines), the Uzes (Uzoi), the Cumans (“Kipchak” in their own Turkic/Turkish language, and “Polovtsy” in the Eastern Slavic language) and others. In the same period, the Byzantines faced in Asia Minor the Seljuks and other Turcoman (Turkmen/Oguz) tribes. On the other hand, the Byzantine army consisted partly of many mercenaries, mainly horse-archers from almost all the above mentioned peoples with the addition of the Magyars (proto-Hungarians), the Kavars (proto-Hungarians also), the Khazars and the Alans.
The battle tactics of the nomadic peoples were very difficult to treat by the Byzantine or any other imperial army that attempted to confront them. The Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Chinese, Indians, Chorasmians (Central Asian Iranians) and other peoples with mainly agricultural economy, suffered devastating defeats by these demonic horsemen of the steppes. The superiority of the nomad fighting tactics, was due to the use of a compination of very fast horsemen (who were additionally keen archers) and heavily armored cavalry (sometimes protected by full body armor including their horses) equipped with a long lance (“kontos”). The nomads, while generally few in number, were excellent archers and horsemen, frugal and indomitable, with blazing maneuvering and masters of surprise. During the clashes and battles, the nomadic horse-archers “hammered” the enemy soldiers with a barrage of bowshots, while maintaining a safe distance. They attacked frontally with a sword (or an alpeen) only if they ascertained that the opposing army had been disorganized by their arrows. The nomads were masters of the ancient battle tactic of the steppe peoples, called the “feigned retreat” which they usually used when they faced a superior enemy. When applying the “feigned retreat”, they pretended that they were defeated and started to retreat disorderly, thus dragging the enemy army in a rapid march, which led to the disruption of its ranks. So the disorganized enemy became “easy prey” for the nomadic horsemen (horse-archers and cataphracts), who abruptly interrupted their retreat following the relevant orders (sign) of their commander, they made “about-face” with their horses and counterattacked, crashing the surprised enemy. The nomad feigned retreat could last for some minutes or continue for several days.
Often the nomad horse-archers, while galloping with their back towards the enemy, turned suddenly their torso by 180 degrees, and unleashed an “avalanche” of bowshots against their unsuspecting persecutors. This tactic was called the “Parthian arrow” by the Greeks and the Romans, but before the emergence of the Parthians, it was called the “Scythian arrow”, probably because the Scythians/Sakas were its instigators. The Scythians were probably also the instigators of the tactic of “feigned retreat”.
In the case of Asia Minor which incurred the invasions of the Seljuks and other Turkomans, when the Byzantine army repelled some of their groups, others appeared suddenly elsewhere in the peninsula destroying settlements, villages and towns, and capturing people. The Byzantines were unable to achieve an overwhelming victory over the Seljuks, who followed a typical nomadic strategy: when they faced superior forces, they escaped galloping to appear a little later in another part of the imperial territories. The researcher Robert Irwin makes the following apt remark for Turkish horsemen, which characterizes almost all the mounted warriors of the steppes: “(they acted) like flies: you can send them away, but you can not destroy them.” Especially nomadic horse-archers were galloping extremely fast, because they were not bearing any kind of armor, often neither helmet, while their small-stature horses were hardy due to continuing marches and clashes. The basic fighting tactic of the horse-archers was the following: they were galloping in circles around the enemy army, “pounding” him from a safe distance with a barrage of bowshots. This pounding brought great losses in troops who did not carry armor or helmet, but did no harm seriously soldiers with armor, like most of the Byzantines. But the arrow-pounding caused nervousness to the enemy, which either developed into panic, or induced the enemy to a misguided attack. When the nomad horse-archers were threatened, they were retreating galloping and arrow-pounding the enemy, using the tactic of the “Parthian/Scythian arrow”. But soon they regrouped and repeated their attack. They were often conducting this temporary retreat, in a crescent formation with its concave side facing to the enemy forces. Under this tactic, the center of the nomad crescent gave way steadily, and the “horns” of the crescent followed the retreat with the same speed, “hammering” with bowshots the rival army from a distance.
The Byzantine empire in 1025 AD
The Byzantine army was facing the nomadic attacks using formations reminiscent of a “moving fortress”. The Byzantine army attacked the nomadic cavalry using its armored cavalry lancers. The latter had to catch up the nomad riders and strike them down with their spears, a difficult task due to the speed of galloping of the steppe warriors. The Byzantine cavalry should not be involved in a simple exchange of bowshots with the nomads, because this practice would favor the latter, who were better archers.
Generally the most important for the Byzantine commanders who faced nomadic cavalry, was not to fall into the tactic trap of the nomad “feigned retreat”, which usually had disastrous results for the army who chased the steppe warriors. This is the reason why the chase of the nomadic cavalry which seemed to have been defeated, should be done with great alert and in particular without disorganizing the ranks of the Byzantine army. About the battle of Mantzikert (1071), the popular view that the Emperor Romanus IV fell into the Seljuk trap of feigned retreat from inexperience, is rather incorrect. Romanus knew very well the nomadic tactics of the Seljuks, confronting them for many years as a General and then as an Emperor. Political factors and conditions were mainly responsible for the disruption and final destruction of the Byzantine army in the battle of Mantzikert. These factors were not related to both the Emperor himself, or the notorious Andronikos Doukas’ “deliberate delay” (the commander of the Byzantine rearguard) during the battle, but they were related strongly to the aristocracy of Constantinople who “demanded” a great victory against the Seljuk Turks. Much of the Byzantine aristocracy considered Romanus a usurper. The Emperor faced especially the stubborn opposition and challenging of the Doukes (Dukes) faction (the former Byzantine Dynasty). Romanus would stabilize himself in the throne, if only he would achieve a rapid and overwhelming victory against the Turks. So he was obliged to order a risky pursuit of the Seljuk cavalry in the open field of Mantzikert, despite the great danger of the Seljuk “feigned retreat” (which finally shattered the Byzantine army). Moreover, Romanus could not maintain for a long time his army because of the large costs. Finally, the strongly multinational character of his army and its growing indiscipline, were constantly threatening its cohesion and did not allow the Emperor to delay the final encounter.