3 Byzantine battle tactics

Byzantine battle tactics

The Byzantine army evolved from that of the late Roman Empire. The language of the army was still Latin (though later and especially after the 6th century Greek dominates, as Greek became the official language of the entire empire) but it became considerably more sophisticated in terms of strategy, tactics and organization. For example, the Byzantine army was the first army in the world to adopt combined arms task forces as part of its doctrine. Unlike the Roman legions, its strength was in its armoured cavalry Cataphracts, which evolved from the "Clibanarii" of the late empire. Infantry were still used but mainly in support roles and as a base of maneuver for the cavalry. Most of the foot-soldiers of the empire were the armoured infantry "Skutatoi" and later on, "Kontarioi" (plural of the singular "Kontarios"), with the remainder being the light infantry and archers of the "Psiloi". Byzantine soldiers were often depicted by Westerners as effeminate and reluctant to fight but this was a false image. The Byzantines valued intelligence and discipline in their soldiers far more than bravery or brawn. The "Ρωμαίοι στρατιώται" were a loyal force composed of citizens willing to fight to defend their homes and their state to the death, augmented by mercenaries. Infantry conscription was still practiced, as in the Roman army, with every citizen eligible to serve. The training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords. But as in the late Empire, archery was extensively practised.


Infantry types and equipment


The bulk of the Byzantine infantry were the "skoutatoi", named from the word "skouton", for their large oval or kite-shaped shield. Their armor and weapons included:
* "kremasmata": A skirt hanging below a soldier's cuirass to protect his legs.
* "κlivanion" (κλιβάνιον): the characteristic Byzantine lamellar cuirass, usually sleeveless. In addition, "pteruges" (leather hanging strips) were worn to protect shoulders and hips.
* "zaba" (ζάβα) or "lōrikion" (λωρίκιον): mail hauberks, usually reserved for the armoured cavalry cataphracts.
* "kavadion" (καβάδιον) or "vamvakion" (βαμβάκιον): A padded leather or cotton under-garment, worn under the cuirass.
* "epilōrikion" (επιλωρίκιον): A padded leather or cotton over-garment, worn over the cuirass.
* "spathion" (σπαθίον): The typical Roman spatha, a longsword (about 90 cm), double-edged and very heavy.
* "paramērion" (παραμήριον): a one-edged scimitar-like sword, girded at the waist.
* "kontarion" (κοντάριον): a long spear (about 2 to 3 m), the kontarion was used by the first ranks of each "chiliarchia" (battalion) in order to fend off enemy cavalry.
* Helmet: the helmet varied by region and time but was generally a simple, conical-shaped piece of steel, often with extra neck protection in the form of a mail or leather aventail.
* "skouton" (σκούτον): a large and oval (later kite-shaped) shield made of wood, covered by leather and reinforced with steel. Each unit had different shield decoration.Unarmoured light infantrymen, often armed with javelins, were known as in classical times as "peltastoi".

Toxotai and Psiloi

The standard light infantry of the empire, in each chiliarchia they made up the last three lines. These soldiers, highly trained in the art of bow were formidable archers. Most of the Imperial archers came from Asia Minor, especially the region around Trebizond on the Black sea, where they were raised, trained and equipped.

Their arms included:
* Composite bow
* Kavadion
* spathion or "tzikourion" (small axe) for self-defence.

Although military manuals prescribed the use of light armour for archers, cost and mobility considerations would have prohibited wide-scale implementation of this.


The Varangian Guard was a foreign mercenary force and the elite of the Byzantine infantry. It was composed principally of Vikings, Nordic, Slavic and Germanic peoples, after 1066 it was increasingly English in composition. The Varangians served as the bodyguard (escort) of the emperor since the time of Basil II, and were generally considered to be well-disciplined and loyal so long as funds remained to pay them. Although most of them brought their weapons with them when entering the Emperor's service, they did gradually adopt Byzantine military dress and equipment. Their most characteristic weapon was a heavy axe, hence their designation as "pelekyphoros phroura", the "axe-bearing guard".

Infantry organization and formation

The primary Byzantine infantry formations were the "Chiliarchiai", from the Greek, "chilia" meaning thousand, because they had about 1000 fighting men. A Chiliarchy was generally made up of 650 skutatoi and 350 toxotai. The skutatoi formed a line of 15-20 ranks deep, in close order shoulder to shoulder. The first line was called the "kontarion", the first four lines were made up of skutatoi the remaining three of toxotai. Three or four Chiliarciai formed a "Tagma" (brigade) in the later empire (after 750) but Chiliarchy-sized units were used throughout the empire's life.

The Chiliarciai were deployed facing the enemy, with the cavalry on their wings. The infantry would counter march to make a refused center, while the cavalry would hold or advance to envelope or outflank the enemy. This was similar to the tactic Hannibal employed at Cannae.

The Chiliarciai were deployed not in classic checkered Quincunx pattern but in a long line with enveloping flanks. Each chiliarchy could assume different battle formations depending on the situation, the most common of these were:
* line formation or phalanx, usually 8 men deep, which was generally used against other infantry or to better repel a cavalry charge;
* wedge, used to break the enemy's lines;
* foulkon, similar to the Roman testudo, used to defend against heavy enemy missile fire
* parentaxis, with 4 ranks of armoured infantry in close order in the front, 4 ranks of armoured infantry in close orfer at the back and 4 ranks of archers in between.

Infantry tactics and strategies

Although the Byzantines developed highly sophisticated infantry tactics, the main work of battle was done by cavalry. The infantry still played an important role when the empire needed to demonstrate its strength. In fact many battles, throughout Byzantine history, began with a frontal assault by the skutatoi with support from the horse archer units known as "Hippo-toxotai" ("Equites Sagitarii").

During these assaults the infantry was deployed in the center, that consisted of two chiliarchiai in wedge formation to break enemy's line, flanked by two more chilarchiai in a "refused wing formation" to protect the center and envelop the enemy. This was the tactic used by Nicephorus Phocas against the Bulgars in 967.

Each charge was supported by toxotai that left the formation and preceded the skutatoi in order to provide missile fire.Often, while the infantry engaged their enemy counterparts, the Clibanophori would destroy the enemy's cavalry (this tactic was used mainly against Franks, Lombards or other Germanic tribes who deployed armoured cavalry).

Byzantine infantry were trained to operate with cavalry and to exploit any gaps created by the cavalry.

An effective but risky tactic was to send a chiliarchia to seize and defend a high position, such as the top of a hill as a diversion, while the Cataphracts or Klibanophoroi, supported by the reserve infantry, enveloped the enemy's flank.

The infantry was often placed in advanced positions in front of the cavalry. At the command "aperire spatia", the infantry would open a gap in their lines for the cavalry to charge through.


Cavalry types and equipment


The Imperial Cataphract was an armoured cavalry horse archer and lancer who symbolized the power of Constantinople in much the same way as the Legionary represented the might of Rome.

The Cataphract wore a conical-shaped casqued helmet, topped with a tuft of horsehair dyed in his unit's colour. Chain mail was used either to protect just the neck and sides of the head or as a full protective mask. He wore a long shirt of doubled layered chain or scale mail, which extended down to his upper legs. And over the chain mail he would also use a lamellar cuirass. Leather boots or greaves protected his lower legs, while gauntlets protected his hands. He carried a small, round shield, the "thyreos", bearing his unit's colours and insignia strapped to his left arm, leaving both hands free to use his weapons and control his horse. Over his mail shirt he wore a surcoat of light weight cotton and a heavy cloak both of which were also dyed in unit colours. The horses often wore mail armour and surcoats as well to protect their vulnerable heads, necks and chests.

The Cataphract's weapons included:

* Composite bow: Same as that carried by the Toxotai.
* "Kontarion": or lance, slightly shorter and less thick than that used by the skutatoi which could also be thrown like a javelin.
* "Spathion": Also identical to the infantry weapon.
* Dagger
* Battle axe: Usually strapped to the saddle as a backup weapon and tool.
* "Bambakion": Same as that of the infantry but with a leather corselet usually depicted as colour red.The lance was topped by a small flag or pennant of the same colour as helmet tuft, surcoat, shield and cloak. When not in use the lance was placed in a saddle boot, much like the carbine rifles of modern cavalrymen. The bow was slung from the saddle, from which also was hung its quiver of arrows. Byzantine saddles, which included stirrups (adopted from the Avars), were a vast improvement over earlier Roman and Greek cavalry, who had very basic saddles without stirrups or even no saddles at all. The Byzantine state also made horse breeding a priority for the Empire's security. If they could not breed enough high quality mounts, they would purchase them even from the other cultures.

Light Cavalry

The Byzantines fielded various types of light cavalry to complement their "Kataphraktos", in much the same way as the Romans employed auxiliary light infantry to augment their armoured infantry legionaries. Due to the empire's long experience, they were wary of relying too much upon foreign auxiliaries or mercenaries (with the notable exception of the Varangian Guard). Imperial armies usually comprised mainly citizens and loyal subjects. The decline of the Byzantine military during the 11th century is parallel to the decline of the peasant-soldier, which led to the increased use of unreliable mercenaries.

If the need for light cavalry became great enough, Constantinople would raise additional Toxotai, provide them with mounts and train them as Hippo-toxotai. When they did employ foreign light horsemen, the Byzantines preferred to recruit from steppe nomad tribes such as the Sarmatians, Scythians, Pechenegs, Khazars or Cumans. On occasion, they recruited from their enemies, such as the Bulgars, Avars, Magyars or Seljuk Turks. The Armenians were also noted for their light horsemen.

Light cavalry were primarily used for scouting, skirmishing and screening against enemy scouts and skirmishers. They were also useful for chasing enemy light cavalry, who were too fast for the Catphracts. Light cavalry were more specialized than the Cataphracts, being either archers and horse slingers ("psiloi hippeutes") or lancers and mounted Javelineers. The types of light cavalry used, their weapons, armour and equipment and their origins, varied depending upon the time and circumstances.

Cavalry organization and formations

The Byzantine cavalrymen and their horses were superbly trained and capable of performing complex maneuvres. While a proportion of the Cataphracts ("Kataphractos" or "Clibanophori") appear to have been lancers or archers only, most had bows and lances. Their main tactical units were the Numerus (Also called at times Arithmos or Banda) of 300-400 men. The equivalent to the old Roman Cohort or the modern Battalion, the Numeri were usually formed in lines 8 to 10 ranks deep, making them almost a mounted Phalanx. The Byzantines recognized that this formation was less flexible for cavalry than infantry but found the trade off to be acceptable in exchange for the greater physical and psychological advantages offered by depth.

When the Byzantines had to make a frontal assault against a strong infantry position, the wedge was their preferred formation for charges. The Cataphract Numerus formed a wedge of around 400 men in 8 to 10 progressively larger ranks. The first three ranks were armed with lances and bows, the remainder with lance and shield. The first rank consisted of 25 soldiers, the second of 30, the third of 35 and the remainder of 40, 50, 60 etc. adding ten men per rank. When charging the enemy, the first three ranks fired arrows to create a gap in the enemy's formation then at about 100 to 200 meters from the foe the first ranks shifted to their kontarion lances, charging the line at full speed followed by the remainder of the battalion. Often these charges ended with the enemy infantry routed, at this point infantry would advance to secure the area and allow the cavalry to briefly rest and reorganize.

Cavalry tactics and strategies

As with the infantry, the Cataphracts adapted their tactics and equipment in relation to which enemy they were fighting. In the standard deployment, four Numeri would be placed around the infantry lines. One on each flank with one on the right rear and another on the left rear. Thus the cavalry Numeri were not only the flank protection and envelopment elements but the main reserve and rear guard.

The Byzantines usually preferred using the cavalry for flanking and envelopment attacks, instead of frontal assaults and almost always preceded and supported their charges with arrow fire. The front ranks of the numeri would draw bows and fire on the enemy's front ranks, then once the foe had been sufficiently weakened would draw their lances and charge. The back ranks would follow, drawing their bows and firing ahead as they rode. This combination of missile fire with shock action put their opponents at a grave disadvantage - If they closed ranks to better resist the charging lances, they would make themselves more vulnerable to the bows' fire, if they spread out to avoid the arrows the lancers would have a much easier job of breaking their thinned ranks. Many times the arrow fire and start of a charge were enough to cause the enemy to run without the need to close or melee.

A favorite tactic when confronted by a strong enemy cavalry force involved a feigned retreat and ambush. The Numeri on the flanks would charge at the enemy horsemen, then draw their bows turn around and fire as they withdrew (the "Parthian Shot"). If the enemy horse did not give chase, they would continue harassing them with arrows until they did. Meanwhile the Numeri on the left and right rear would be drawn up in their standard formation facing the flanks and ready to attack the pursuing enemy as they crossed their lines. The foes would be forced to stop and fight this unexpected threat but as they did the flanking Numeri would halt their retreat, turn around and charge at full speed into their former pursuers. The enemy, weakened, winded and caught in a vice between two mounted phalanxes would break with the Numeri they once pursued now chasing them. Then the rear Numeri, who had ambushed the enemy horse, would move up and attack the unprotected flanks in a double envelopment. This tactic is similar to what Julius Caesar did at Pharsalus in 48 BC when his allied cavalry acted as bait to lure the superior horse of Pompey into an ambush by the six elite cohorts of his reserve "Fourth line". The Arab and Mongol cavalries would also use variations of it later to great effect when confronted by larger and more heavily armed mounted foes.

When facing opponents such as the Vandals or the Avars with strong armoured cavalry, the cavalry were deployed behind the armoured infantry who were sent ahead to engage the enemy. The infantry would attempt to open a gap in the enemy formation for the cavalry to charge through.

Byzantine Art of War

Centuries of warfare enabled the Byzantines to write many treatises on the protocols of war which eventually contained strategies for dealing with traditional enemies of the state. These manuals enabled the wisdom of prior generations to find its way within newer generations of strategists.

One such manual, the famous "Tactica" by Leo VI the Wise, provides instructions for dealing with various foes such as:
* The Lombards and the Franks (the latter name was used to designate West Europeans in general) were defined as armoured cavalry which in a direct charge, could devastate an opponent. It was therefore advised to avoid a pitched battle against them. However the textbook remarks that they fought with no discipline, little to no battle order and generally had few if any of their horsemen performing reconnaissance ahead of the army. They also failed to fortify their camps at night. :The Byzantine general was hence advised to best fight such an opponent in a series of ambushes and night attacks. If it came to battle he should pretend to flee, drawing the knights to charge his retreating army - only to run into an ambush. It was also suggested that the Byzantine general should prolong the campaign and lure the enemy into desolate areas where an army could not live off the land, thus causing the "Frankish" army with it's primitive logistics to fracture into many small foraging parties who could then be defeated in detail.
* The Magyars and Patzinaks where known to fight as bands of light horsemen, armed with bow, javelin and scimitar as well as being accomplished in ambush and the use of horsemen to scout ahead of the army. In battle they advanced in small scattered bands which would harass the frontline of the army, charging only if they discovered a weak point. :The general was counselled to deploy his infantry archers in the front line. Their larger bows had greater range than that of the horsemen and could so keep them at a distance. Once the Turks, harassed by the arrows of the Byzantine archers, tried to close into range of their bows, the Byzantine armoured cavalry would ride them down. Since nomads were known to employ the feigned flight stratagem the general was also cautioned against rash pursuit which could lead his army into ambushes. In a pitched battle he was advised to if possible anchor his position to rivers, ravines or marches so as to preclude sudden rear of flank attacks by the highly mobile nomads. Last, if undertaking offensive operations, he was urged to do so in late winter and early spring when the nomad's horses were at their worst form after many months of little grass to eat.
* The Slavonic Tribes, such as the "Serbians", "Slovenes" and "Croatians" still fought as foot soldiers. However, the craggy and mountainous terrain of the Balkans lent itself to ambushes by archers and spearmen from above, where an army could be confined in a steep valley.:Invasion into their territories was consequently discouraged, though if necessary, it was recommended that extensive scouting was to be undertaken in order to avoid ambushes; and that such forays were best undertaken in winter, where the snow could reveal the tribesmen tracks and frozen ice provide a secure path to otherwise difficult to reach marsh settlements. When hunting Slavonic raiding parties or meeting an army in the field, it was pointed out that the tribesmen fought with roundshields and little or no protective armour. Thus their infantry should be easily overpowered by a charge of armoured cavalry.
* The Saracens were judged as the most dangerous of all foes, as remarked by Leo VI: "Of all our foes, they have been the most judicious in adapting our practices and arts of war, and are thus the most dangerous." Where they had in earlier centuries been powered by religious fervour, by Leo VI's reign (886-912) they had adopted some of the weaponry and tactics of the Byzantine army. Saracen infantry on the other hand was deemed by Leo VI to be little more than a rabble who lightly armed, could not match the Byzantine infantry. While the Saracen cavalry was judged to be a fine force it lacked the discipline and organisation of the Byzantines, who with a combination of horse archer and armoured cavalry proved a deadly mix to the light Saracen cavalry.:Defeats beyond the mountain passes of the Taurus led the Saracens to concentrate on raiding and plundering expeditions instead of seeking permanent conquest. Forcing their way through a pass, their horsemen would charge into the lands at an incredible speed. :The Byzantine general was to immediately collect a force of cavalry from the nearest themes and to shadow the invading Saracen army. Such a force might have been too small to seriously challenge the invaders but it would deter detachments of plunderers from breaking away from the main army. Meanwhile the main Byzantine army was to be gathered from all around Asia Minor and to meet the invasion force on the battlefield. Another tactic was to cut off their retreat across the passes. Byzantine infantry was to reinforce the garrisons in the fortresses guarding the passes and the cavalry to pursue the invader, driving them up into the valley so as to press the enemy into narrow valleys with little to no room to manoeuver and from which they became easy prey to Byzantine archers. A third tactic was to launch a counter attack into Saracen territory as an invading Saracen force would often turn around to defend its borders should a message of an attack reach it.:It was later added, in Nicephorus Phocas's military manual, that should the Saracen force only be caught up to by the time it was retreating laden with plunder then that the army's infantry should set upon them at night from three sides, leaving the only escape the road back to their land. It was deemed most likely that the startled Saracens would in all speed retreat rather than stay and fight to defend their plunder.

ee also

*Byzantine army
*Byzantine navy
*Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy
*Byzantine military manuals
*Komnenian army


* R.E. Dupuy and T.N. Dupuy (2nd Revised Edition 1986). "The Encyclopedia Of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present."
*Haldon, John (2001), "The Byzantine Wars", Arcadia Publishing, ISBN 0752417959
*cite book | author=Oman, Charles | title=The History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages | publisher=Cornell University Press | year=Revised Edition, 1960 | id= ISBN 0801490626
*McGeer, Eric (1995), "Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century", Dumbarton Oaks Studies 33, Washington, D.C.
*Rance, Philip, 'The "Fulcum", the Late Roman and Byzantine Testudo: the Germanization of Roman Infantry Tactics?' in "Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies" 44.3 (2004) pp. 265-326: http://www.duke.edu/web/classics/grbs/FTexts/44/Rance2.pdf.
*Rance, Philip, "'Drungus", "DROUNGOS", "DROUNGISTI", a Gallicism and Continuity in Late Roman Cavalry Tactics, "Phoenix" 58 (2004) pp. 96-130.
*Rance, Philip, 'Narses and the Battle of Taginae (Busta Gallorum) 552: Procopius and sixth-century Warfare', "Historia" 54/4 (2005) pp. 424-72.
*cite book | author=Treadgold, Warren | title=Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081 | publisher=Stanford University Press | year=1995 | id= ISBN 0804724202
* Leo VI the Wise, "Tactica"
* Nicephorus Phocas, "Praecepta"
* Maurice, "Strategicon"
* [http://roman-empire.net/army/tactics.html www.roman-empire.net]

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