Byzantine fresco depicting Joshua (from the Hosios Loukas monastery, 12th century AD) bearing a lamellar ‘clibanion’ (‘klibanion’) cuirass, and armed with a “kontarion” (spear) and a “spathion” (sword). The figure is sometimes considered as a model of the appearance and equipment of the Byzantine “skoutatoi” heavy infantrymen.
CONTINUED from PART I
By Periklis Deligiannis
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.
Over the centuries, the native Byzantine archers and horse-archers were gradually replaced by Altaic and Alanic mercenary horse-archers (the so-called “Prokoursatores“, see below) who additionally used their favorite nomad tactics of “feigned retreat” at the start of the battle. According to those tactics, they were pretending to have been defeated in the initial skirmishes with the enemy forces so that they could lure them in their pursuit. The ultimate goal of this nomadic vanguard was to disband the ranks of the advancing enemies because of the speed of the ‘chase’, so that they would be unorganized enough when they would face the attack of the Byzantine frontline armored cavalry. In this case, the imperial horse-archers were galloping through the interstices of the front line to the safety of the rear, while the marching enemy who had considerably lost his compact order, confronted the “catapultic” attack of the Bucellarii, Kavallarii or Cataphract cavalry.
Nikephoros Phokas established a powerful army which supported himself and the following warrior-emperors John I Tzimiskes and Basil II in order to achieve overwhelming victories on all fronts of the imperial borders. Phokas restored the full armour of the heavy cavalry founding anew Cataphract units (Cataphracti Clibanophori, earlier known as Clibanarii) such as those of the Late Roman Period. Most of them brought a metal mace (the “apelatikion“) which had the power to crash the enemy lances or spears. When attacking, they were organized into a wedge-shaped formation in which the first row included twenty Cataphracts (front length) and the subsequent rows were gradually increasing by four cavalrymen each one, “protruding” in pairs respectively to both ends of the front row. Therefore the second row included 24 Cataphracts, the third row 28 and so on. Therefore the twelfth and final row included 64 Cataphracts. This “wedge” (actually trapezoidal) formation included a total of ([20 + 64]/2)*12= 504 Cataphracts.
Indeed, Phocas in his “Praecepta Militaria” lists the figure of 500 Cataphracts as the ideal one of such a unit. However their intended minimum number was 380 Cataphracts, which corresponds to a “depth” of 10 rows. Only the lateral Cataphracts of the rear rows used to bear a lance (kontarion, a word derived from the Sarmatian kontos), while some in the center of the wedge formation were archers in approximately 30% of the total number, that is to say around 150 Cataphract horse-archers. The army of the “Byzantine Epic Era” (late 10th- early 11th c.) usually included a wedge formation of Cataphracti Clibanophori, who was arrayed at the center of the battle order and was targeting the enemy commander and his guard. Sometimes two more similar formations of Clibanophori were used for both wings of the battle order, in order to destroy the formations of the enemy wings. The ends of the base of the Cataphract “wedge” were protected on their left and their right by units of cuirassed Kavallarii (medium armored cavalry). The attack of the Cataphracti Clibanophori was always taking place in an average speed as a light gallop, in order not to disrupt their formation but also due to the weight of the armor of the horse and the rider. If they managed to defeat their opponents, those Cataphracts did not involve in their pursuit, leaving this task to the lightest fellow riders (mostly Kavallarii and horse-archers), in order to be ready to confront a new enemy attack and to give some time to their horses to breath. The possibility of a new enemy attack was high when the Byzantine army was facing Altaic nomads who were very likely to pretend that they were defeated (“feigned retreat” tactics).
The other Byzantine cavalrymen and horsemen of the era from Phokas’ reign and onwards, continued to consist of Thematic Kavallarii, elite Kavallarii of the Tagmata, mercenary horse-archers and others. The Kavallarii and the other heavy and medium cavalry of the era were lining up in five rows, of which the first two consisted of lancers, the next two of archers and the last one of lancers again. The aforementioned “Prokoursatores” were light horsemen fighting with spear or bow, supported by pedestrian archers; all of them were fighting in the free style of the skirmishers, starting the conflict before the onslaught of the Cataphracts. When the latter started their attack, the Prokoursatores were retreating behind them.
The usual Byzantine battle cry with which the attack was beginning, was the Latin phrase “Deus Nobiscum” (God with us!) cried by the officers and immediately answered by the troopers with the Greek cry “Kyrie Eleeson” (Lord have mercy!). This was a typical example of the dual Greek and Roman heritage of the Byzantine army.
A Cataphractos Clibanophoros of the second half of the 10th century is depicted in this fine plate from a Russian military book. The depicted rider is armed with lance (kontarion), mace (apelatikion) and bow, while his helmet has a metal visor. The other weapons used by those Cataphracts are also depicted. Note the lamellar armor of his horse, an old nomad element in the Roman and Byzantine cavalry.
An ornamented mace-head of a Byzantine “apelatikion”, highly effective due to its sharp pyramidal protrusions. Few armors could withstand its crushing blow (Photo Copyright: worldmuseumofman.org).
The Byzantine infantry was usually lining up behind the cavalry, or in other cases was making up the main body of the first, the second and/or the third battle line, the wings of which normally consisted of cavalry. In those cases, the latter acted as the side guards of the infantry. In general, the Byzantine heavy infantry normally had a subsidiary role waiting for the achievement of a crack on the enemy front line by the fellow cavalrymen, in order to attack and achieve together with the cavalry the destruction of the opponent battle order. When lined up at the front line, the infantry had usually defensive tasks against the enemy cavalry. However the tactical tasks of the Imperial infantrymen do not mean that they did not reach the fighting effectiveness of the cavalry. The battle tactics of the Middle period imposed those military roles to the heavy infantry. A characteristic of their quality is the fact that they were almost never keeping defensive positions against enemy infantry of at least equal number. Instead the cuirassed “skoutatoi”, “kontaratoi”, “spathiaratoi” and the other categories of close-combat infantry (see below), were marching against the enemy infantry seeking combat, being confident due to their strong armor, their combative value and their compact formations; elements that made them superior to their opponent pedestrians, Arab, Iranian, Turk, Slav or Longobard. The Crusader infantrymen seem to have been among the few that managed to deal with the Imperial infantry (it seems that the formidable Normans had a difficulty in fighting as pedestrians due to their armor). The tradition of the Roman legions was still maintained in the Byzantine infantry, despite the fact that during the Late Roman period the cavalry had evolved into the most important Weapon.
The Byzantine heavy and medium infantry types of the Middle period included mainly “Skoutatoi” heavy swordsmen/spearmen (meaning the ones bearing large shield, the well known “scutum” in Latin, although the mentioned shield was much different), “Thematikoi kontaratoi” (spearmen of the Themata), “Thematikoi spathiaratoi” (swordsmen of the Themata) and the Imperial Guard (Excubitores or Varangoi mercenaries). The light infantry included archers, javeliners and slingers. The “Strategikon” quotes that the Skoutatoi who were the main heavy infantry, were lined up to eight ranks (rows) when they were confronting cavalry and up to four ranks when they were attacking. Other sources report that the Skoutatoi usually lined up in a ‘depth’ of 16 ranks, but it seems that this only applied when they were deliberately forming gaps in their battle line for their comrade cavalrymen to pass through these after a defeat or tactical withdrawal. In this case, portions of the original eight rows of Skoutatoi were taking place behind other units of the same infantry, thus doubling the total number of rows.
When the skoutatoi were attacking, they hurled their spears to the enemy and then drew their swords with which they were engaging the enemy in a Mêlée combat. The last two ranks (in a line of 4 ranks/rows, used for an attack) specifically hurled the “marziobarboula” (a Greek word originating from the older Latin term “martiobarbuli”), i.e. sagittal missiles thrown in a free mode before hurling the spears. Although the Skoutatoi are usually considered as spearmen due to the long spear that they were bearing, they were actually fighting as swordsmen following exactly the warfare method of the Roman legionary ‘military ancestors’ of them, who were synchronizingly hurling their heavy spears (pilla) against the opponents and then were attacking them brandishing their heavy swords (gladia).
When the skoutatoi were in defense against an equestrian attack, their first two rows supported the “blind” edge of their spears in the ground and guided the spearhead on the enemies. The other rows hurled their own spears against them above the heads of the first two rows (especially when the enemy cavalry had approached too much). Then, especially the skoutatoi of the third and fourth ranks, were strengthening the defense of the first two ranks raising their shields in order to cover them, in a defensive formation very similar to the old Roman “turtle”. When facing at least an equal number of enemy infantry, the skoutatoi and the other heavy or medium imperial infantrymen were almost always unleashing attack. Usually an array of four or eight Skoutatoi rows was supported by one or two rows of archers respectively, who lined up behind the former and hurled arrows above their heads. As mentioned, other archers, javeliners and slingers consisted the light vanguard which started the conflict using skirmishes. Other detachments of lightly armed foot (always with a majority of archers) were taking positions on the lateral units of the battle array in order to impart flexibility in them.
The Byzantine army used to cross any hostile territory with exemplary precautions, using scouts, reconnaissance units, tested and trusted guides and detachments of vanguard, side guard and rearguard which maintained a considerable distance from the main body of the army and were always in alert. At this point, the Byzantines were wiser compared to the Romans who suffered several heavy defeats because of their negligence to use scouts and reconnaissance units, probably as a consequence of their excessive confidence in their military superiority (defeats in Lake Trasimene by Hannibal’s Carthaginians, in Teutoburg Forest by the Germanics where the guides of the Romans were not trustworthy, and others). The vanguard of the imperial army was normally composed of cavalry units, except the case of rough ground. In this case the vanguard consisted of infantry, which was marching ahead of the main army in a time “distance” of two or three days for safety. If the army had to pass through a narrow passage, its commander was sending reconnaissance units of light infantry which were checking the region and occupying the passage. If the area was mountainous, the reconnaissance troops were mainly archers. If it was forested, the javeliners were taking over that task.
SOURCES and MODERN BIBLIOGRAPHY
(1) Dennis G.T. (editor-transl.): THREE BYZANTINE MILITARY TREATISES, Corpus Historiae Byzantinae 25, Washington DC, 1985.
(2) MEDIEVAL HISTORY, vol. IV/1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1966.
(3) Heath Ian: ARMIES OF THE DARK AGES, AD 600-1066, W.R.G. edition, London 1980.
(4) Heath Ian and MacBride Angus: BYZANTINE ARMIES, 886-1118, Osprey publishing, Oxford, 1989.
(5) Haldon J. F.: WARFARE, STATE AND SOCIETY IN THE BYZANTINE WORLD, 565-1204, Routledge, London, 1999.
(6) McGeer E.: SOWING THE DRAGON’S TEETH- BYZANTINE WARFARE IN THE TENTH CENT., Dumbarton Oaks Studies XXXIII, Washington DC, 1995.
(7) Haldon J. F.: BYZANTIUM AT WAR, AD 600-1453, Osprey publishing, Oxford, 2002.
(8) Mitchell S.: ARMIES AND FRONTIERS IN ROMAN AND BYZANTINE ANATOLIA, B.A.R. International Series, vol. 156, Oxford, 1983.
THE BYZANTINE (EAST ROMAN) RHOMPHAIA