The Byzantine Army AD 565-ca.900
Less than thirty years after the death of emperor Justinian, when the emperor Tiberius II Constantinus succeeded to the throne in AD 578, the army was further reorganized.
One of the emperor's leading generals, who was later to become emperor himself, Maurice, issued the strategicon, a handbook of the workings of the army of the eastern empire.
The Byzantine army possessed not only the Roman traditions of strategy but also a complete system of tactics suited to the conflicts of the age.
Greek expressions, as well as some Germanic terms, are now in some cases beginning to take the place of the former Latin ones. Though Latin still remained the language of the army.
The mailed horse-archer still remained the great power of war, but a completely new system of units and names was introduced.
The forces were now organized in numeri, an expression for some units which appeared to have come into use as early as Diocletian or Constantine. The numeri, or war-bands (bandae), were not necessarily all of the same size. In fact the Byzantine army appeared to take great care not to have all its units of the same size, in order to confuse an opponent in battle as to where its strengths and weaknessses lay. (A system still used by Napoleon.)
A numerus which was between three or four hundred men strong and was commanded by a comes or tribunus. If several numeri could form a brigade (drungus) of two to three thousand men, which would be commanded by a dux. These brigades again could unite to form a division (turma) of up six to eight thousand men.
During peacetime these forces were not united into brigades and divisions, far more they were spread across the territories. It was only at the outbreak of war that the commander would weld them into a force.
Also part of the reorganization was the end of the comitatus system by which the soldiers owed their loyalty to their commander. Now the soldiers' loyalties lay with the emperor. This change was made easy by the fact that the German federates who had brought in such customs were now in the decline within the eastern army. As the amount of money available to the government declined so too did the number of German mercenaries decrease.
The remaining German mercenaries were to be found divided into foederati (federates), optimati (the best men picked from the federates), buccellarii (the emperor's bodyguard).
The optimati are of particular interest as they appear clearly to resemble the fore-runners of medieval knights. They were chosen bands of German volunteers, who appeared to be of such standing among their own people that they each brought with them one or two armati, who were their personal assistants, just as later squires attendend to their knights.
Around the end of the first war with the Saracens in the seventh century, during the reign of Constans II or his son Constantine IV, a new order was established. The military order was closely linked with the very land it protected.
The old boundaries of the provinces and their administration had been wiped out by the invasions of the Persians and the Saracens. The lands were ruled by the military commanders of the various forces. Hence the emperor (either Constans II or Constantine IV) divided the land into provinces, called themes, which took their names directly from the units that were based there. Themes with names like Buccellarion, Optimaton or Thrakesion (the Thracian units in Asia Minor (Turkey)) clearly revealing who was based there and in charge of the administration.
The names of the themes further reveal that the various units were not all based along the frontiers with the Saracen foe, but far more were spread out all over the Byzantine territories.
The commander of a frontier theme of course had greater forces at his disposal than one of his colleagues in an inland district.
Did the word 'theme' come to stand for both the province as well as the garrison within it, then the same was the case for the 'turma'. The turma, commanded by a turmarch, was merely smaller unit within a theme. Further there was also the clissura, commanded by a clissurarch, which was a small garrison protecting one or more fortified mountain passes.
The strength of the Byzantine army remained its heavy cavalry. The infantry was merely there to man the fortresses and to act as garrisons for important centres. Though some campaigns appear to have been done solely by the cavalry, the infantry did appear still to be a part of most, though it never really played a decisive role.
The heavy cavalryman wore a mail shirt reaching from the neck to the waist or thighs. A small steel helmet protected his head whilst gauntlets and steel shoes protected his hands and feet.
The horses of the officers and of the men in the front rank also were armoured with protection to their heads and chest.
Over their armour the riders would wear a linen cape or tunic to protect themselves against the sun or a heavy woolen cloak to protect against cold weather. These tunics, as well as the tufts on the helmets and any pennants on the lances would be of the same colour in each warband, creating a kind of uniform.
The weapons of the rider were a broadsword, a dagger, a bow and quiver, a long lance fitted with a leather strap towards it butt (to help keeping hold of it).
Some would further add to their weaponry by carrying an axe or a mace strapped to the saddle. Some of the young, inexperienced soldiers would still use the shield, but its use was frowned upon as it was seen to hinder the free use of the bow.
These armoury and weaponry can not be precisely gauged as the Byzantine army was by no means as uniform as the old Roman army. Had once every soldier carried the same weapons and armour, the Byzantine army possessed a large mix of individually armed riders.
Like the equestrians of the old Roman republic, the cavalry men of the Byzantine army were of considerable social standing.
The emperor Leo VI pointed out that the men chosen for the cavalry should be robust, courageous and should possess sufficient means to be free from care for their homes and possessions in their absence.
Farms of cavalrymen were exempt from all taxation except land tax during the reign of Leo VI (and most likely under the rule of other emperors) in order to help in the management of the estates when the master was on campaign.
The large proportion of cavalrymen were hence small landowners and their officers were drawn from the Byzantine aristocracy.
As many of the men were of some standing, many brought with them servants boys and attendants who relieved the forces of many of their menial duties. However, these camp followers did indeed slow down the otherwise rapid moving cavalry units considerably.
The infantry in the time of Leo VI still consisted almost entirely of archers, just as it had done in the sixth century under Justinian.
The light archer is largely unprotected, wearing merely boots and tunic and no helmet.
The more heavily armed footsoldier, the so-called scutatus wore a pointed steel helmet and a mail shirt. Some of them may have also worn gauntlets and greaves to protect the hands and shins. The scutatus carried with him a large round shield, a lance, a sword and an axe with a blade at one side and a spike at the other. The shield and the colour of the the tuft on the helmet were of all the same colour for each war band.
Once more, just as with the cavalry, we most imagine the Byzantine infantry as a body varying largely in its equipment from each soldier to the other.
The infantry also went on campaign with a large baggage train, bringing with it, among vital supplies also picks and spades, for the Byzantine army carefully fortified its camps against suprises, just as the ancient Roman army had done. A unit of engineers always marched ahead with the vanguard helped the footsoldiers in the preparation of the camp for the night's stay.
Decline of the Byzantine Army AD 1071-1203
The great turning point for the Byzantine army was the battle of Manzikert in AD 1071 at which the main body of the army under command of emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was shattered by the Seljuk Turks under their Sultan Alp Arslan.
The disaster of Manzikert was followed by a mass invasion of Asia Minor (Turkey) by the Turks and a time of civil wars within the remaining Byzantine realm.
In this chaos the formidable old Byzantine army practically disappeared. Not only had Constantinople lost its army at Manzikert but with the invasion of Asia Minor it had lost its traditional recruiting grounds where to find the soldiers with whom to replace the lost regiments.
In AD 1078 emperor Michael VII Ducas collected the remaining soldiers from the former provinces of Asia Minor into a new body of cavalry - the so-called 'Immortals'. And even though he supplemented them with new recruits they numbered only ten thousand. They were the survivors of what had once been 21 themes, a force most likely well above 80'000 men.
In the face of such devastation Constantinople turned to recruiting of foreign mercenaries to help protect itself. Franks, Lombards, Russians, Patzinaks and Seljuk Turks were taken into service in the defence of what little territory remained Byzantine. Most favoured were the westerners as they were found less likely to rebel and because the sheer bravery the Frankish and Lombard warriors displayed in battle.
Though naturally the eastern horse-archers were still sought to provide their skill in ranged combat to the fierce charge of the western heavy cavalry.
Though if the troops were now largely foreign, the old tactics, the sophisticated Byzantine art of war survived in its commanders.
Even when parts of Asia Minor (Turkey) were reconquered, the military organisation of the 'themes' was not restored. Asia Minor had been so utterly devastated by the Turks, that the old recruiting grounds of the empire were barren ruins. And so the Byzantine army remained an improvised mix of various mercenary forces.
Under the emperors Alexius, John II and Manuel the Byzantine military though still managed to function quite well, despite these shortcomings. But with the death of Manuel Comnenus (AD 1180) the time of Byzantine military power faded away.
The next emperors possessed neither their predecessors' strength of leadership nor did they find the means by which to raise the money necessary to maintain an effective army.
Unpaid mercenaries make for a bad army. And so, when the Frankish knights forced their way into the city of Constantinople (AD 1203), most of the garrison - but for the Varangian Guard - refused to fight.