A battle between Byzantine and Arab cavalry, from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript (late 13th century, but representative enough of the late phase of the Middle Period). A bloody fighting is taking place with decapitations and troopers trampled by the horses. Byzantines and Muslims alike wear mostly scale armor
By Periklis Deligiannis
The Middle Byzantine Age (7th-12th c. AD) was decisive for the history of the Byzantine Empire. The loss of the Middle Eastern provinces and Egypt by the invading Arabs marks its beginnings, but the “hard core” of the Empire managed to halt the forces of the invaders at the eastern border of Asia Minor, and additionally the forces of the numerous Avaro-Slavic and Proto-Bulgarian (and other Later Hunnic nomad) raiders at the Balkan borders. The experienced Byzantine Army being after all the descedant of the Roman Imperial Army, went on dealing effectively with the pressure by the same enemies and also by the Lombards (Longobards) and the Franks in Italy and some new nomadic peoples on the borders of the Balkan peninsula (Byzantine Sicily and Northwest Africa (modern Maghreb) were finally conquered by the Arabs). Its strengthening during the reign of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas (963-969) led to a strong imperial counterattack on all fronts ending in major territorial recoveries of the “Byzantine Epic Era” (this term has been used by the modern historical research, to denote the period around 963-1025 AD).
However, the fatigue of the army because of the war effort, and especially its neglect due to a series of weak emperors and the civil strife during the fifty years which followed the brilliant reign of Basil II (976-1025) to the Battle of Manzikert (AD 1071) and after that, led to its rapid weakening. Finally, new dangerous enemies, the Seljuq Turks in Asia Minor and the Normans in Italy and the Balkan Peninsula, gave decisive blows to the Empire. The renowned Byzantine army never managed to recover from the disaster of Manzikert, despite the best efforts of some emperors and some temporary military successes. The parallel decline of the Thematic administrative and military organization of the state which declined after the battle of Manzikert and was eventually abolished, had an additional negative role in the weakening of the army. The imperial defense was further weakened, leading to the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.
There are several sources of the Middle Byzantine period which provide us a good enough overview of the battle tactics and the larger strategy of the Imperial army (and also of other information on its organization, military equipment and others), despite their several ambiguities. The main sources are the following military writings or textbooks of that era: the “Strategikon” of the late 6th or early 7th century (the quotations of which I will use as the major guide in this study), the “Tactica” of the Emperor Leo VI (886-912) around 900 AD, the “Sylloge Tacticon” (‘A Collection of Military Tactics’) being a newest essay rather of the same emperor written after 903 AD, the “Praecepta Militaria” of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas (after the mid-10th c.) and several others.
During the Middle Byzantine period, the cavalry remained the main Weapon of the Imperial army keeping the main role at the expense of infantry, which had a military role usually supportive to the former. The primacy of the cavalry at the expense of the infantry had been adopted by the ancestor Roman army of the Late Period (2nd-4th cent. AD), under the influence of its Iranian enemies: the Sarmatians (Roxolani, Iazygae, Alans and others), the Parthians and the Sassanid Persians. Those peoples had powerful cavalries which included Cataphracti cavalrymen (extra heavy armored), protected like their horses with nearly full-length metal armor made of scales or mail. Their main offensive weapon was the long cavalry lance (kontos in Sarmatian) having a length of around 3-4 m., and their secondary ones were the sword, the mace and the bow. The Romans and the East Goths (and later other Germanic peoples as well) soon adopted the Iranian cavalry warfare and its tactics, founding units of heavy armored cavalrymen (“Clibanarii” and “Cataphractarii” according to the ‘Latin’ military terms, but actually the first term is Irano-Greek and the second one is Greek) and horse-archers. Those methods of cavalry warfare were inherited to the Byzantine Army, and to the Western European armies. In Western Europe the Iranian-type cavalry warfare was spread through the Goths, the West Romans, the Alans and other Sarmatians, the Burgundians, the Lombards and others, thus bringing on the Dawn of Chivalry. Later the Franks and the Normans further developed the model of the heavy armored mounted lancer, evolving it to the final version of the legendary Medieval Knight.
The Middle Byzantine army used to line up for battle on two or more usually on three battle lines, consisting mainly of cavalry. The third line consisted of the reserve forces. The sides of the lines were protected from possible hostile flanking by special units which were taking positions at both ends of the array. This deployment allowed the imperial army to hammer the enemy with repeated attacks keeping always troops that they were not fatigued, until the critical phase of the battle. Another mission of the last battle line was its mode as rearguard, which would repel any enemy attempts of single or double envelopment and generally any encircling maneuvers. The rearguard could similarly repel possible enemy attacks from the rear, by an ambushing or isolated enemy unit or army. The distance between two battle lines had to be large enough in order for the individual army corpses and units of each line, to be able to perform maneuvers during the battle.
The order of battle of the Byzantine army in Manzikert, 1071 is an almost typical example of the deployment of the Imperial army in two battle lines with the front line consisted of a center (under the emperor), a right wing and a left one.
Each line consisted of a central body, a right wing and a left one. Each of those three formations had its own command. Among them there was an empty space, which was used for the safe passage of the fellow troopers of the front line in the event that they had to retreat in order to recover, or after a defeat. In this case, the retreating units were passing through the two gaps of the line behind them and took position behind it. Thereby, the men of that line entered the battle to replace the units that had retreated organized.
This was actually the well-known tactical method of the Roman legions, which was ‘inherited’ to the Byzantine army, and according to which the three lines of legionaries (the hastati, the principes and the triarii) were continuously swapping positions during the battle in order for the two lines to recover from the conflict while the third line was fighting. This swapping was taking place also in the Byzantine army during the battle, under the cover of lightly armed forces as was happening in the Roman army (which was done under the cover of the light velites). The last battle line (second or third one) could reverse its front while the front line was battling the enemy, in order to face a hostile attack from the rear. This tactic enhanced the effectiveness of the Byzantine army because its order of battle was thus protected from all sides (taking also into account the autonomous command of the side wings), making it a real “moving fortress.” This tactic was very effective against the nomad riders, who by using the great speeds by which they were moving in the battlefield thanks to the galloping and the light weaponry of their horse-archers, they often succeeded in flanking the opponent army and attacking it from the rear, usually managing to destroy it (as it happened in the Battle of Manzikert, 1071 AD).
The Strategikon determines the proportion in which the forces of the army should be allocated to the various lines, wings and bodies of the battle array. The front line should contain at least 3/8 of the total army (37.5%), the middle line should contain 1/3 of it (33%), the lateral wings (left and right wings of the lines) at both ends of the battle order 1/5 of the army (20%) and the rear guard (the third line) 1/10 of it (10%). The lateral units/wings were able to act autonomously: their mission was to prevent flanking by the enemy army but also to carry out the same maneuver against him. The lateral bodies used to conduct flanking maneuvers when the Byzantine center was heavily engaging the enemy order of battle, thus “absorbing” its effort, or if the latter had advanced on the battlefield (especially after a feigned retreat of the Byzantine center) as much as to have been found on the same line with the Imperial flanking wings or behind them, giving them the opportunity to directly strike the enemy sides.
In several cases, the Byzantine commanders used to line up additional lateral cavalry units on the right and left edges of their battle order, in some distance from the two wings in order to achieve maximum protection against hostile envelopment. These bodies also attempted envelopment maneuvers against the enemy, especially the horsemen of the right edge, the characteristically called Hyperkerastae, meaning the ‘Outflankers’ in Greek. The Byzantine battle array, like the ancient Greek one, often tended to throw the weight of its attack (or the envelopment maneuver) on the left wing of the enemy. This trend pushed the Byzantine front to the right, thereby making vulnerable the left imperial wing. This is the reason why when the Hyperkerastae were conducting a flanking maneuver, the analogous cavalry unit of the left imperial edge was not doing the same on the left side, but only in exceptional circumstances.
A Varangian of the Byzantine Army. Although he is supposed to be a Varangian, his weaponry is almost typical of the ‘genuine’ Byzantine troops as well. Only his trousers are typical of the Rus and other Varangians (reenactment by the organization mpfilmcraft.com).
At the beginning of the period under review, the heavy Byzantine cavalry included units of Bucellarii and Kavallarii (Cavallarii) lancers and archers, “Illyricani” and Foederati spearman and archers, Germanic Optimates mercenary horsemen with the same equipment, and others. The ‘Illyricani’ and Optimates were military terms that came from the time of the Late Roman Empire. The term ‘Illyricani‘ (meaning the inhabitants of Illyricum and not the Illyrians) did not correspond to the Illyrian people of the West Balkan Peninsula, but to a military corps which centuries earlier was manned mostly by Illyrians. The reformed Byzantine army after the loss of the East (the Anatole) and Egypt to the reign of Nikephoros Phokas also included Thematic Kavallarii (cavalry of the Themata), elite Kavallarii of the Tagmata, and others. As we shall see below (Part II), Nikephoros Phocas (963-969) added to the Kavallarii and the other Byzantine cavalrymen, units of Kataphrakti Clibanophori, the use of which was thus restored after centuries of inactivity (the latter were the military ‘descendants’ of the Roman Clibanarii and Cataphractarii).
The center of the front line cavalry (in a battle order) generally had to have a width (“depth”) of eight rows, while the wings had to include four rows. If the cavalrymen belonged to elite units, a depth of five rows in the center was rather sufficed. The emperor Leo in his own “Tactica” (about 300 years after the aforementioned “Strategikon“) believes that the eight rows should be the minimum width (depth) of the center and that the ten rows should be a more appropriately arrangement, which ensured the center’s compact nature. However he reduces the number of rows if the line consists of elite cavalry, thinking that four rows would be enough in this case. Below I will refer to the numbers of rows of the imperial heavy cavalry from the reign of Nikephoros Phokas and later.
In the order of battle in front of the front line, units of archers and some javeliners and slingers (and a few light horse-archers) were lined up. Those units were usually starting the imperial attack with their missiles against the enemy army in order to cause confusion on its ranks, in order for the attack of the armored cavalry of the first line to follow. The lightly armed Byzantines were usually engaged in skirmishes with their enemy counterparts before the main combat, but when threatened by heavy enemy units conducting a frontal assault on them, they were fleeing behind the line of their fellow horsemen.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II
THE BYZANTINE (EAST ROMAN) RHOMPHAIA