Late Byzantine Cavalry

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The Catalan Grand Company achieved significant success against the Turks. Gregoras comments that the Catalan company was a highly organized and very effective and disciplined military force. Their high level of professionalism and experience, and the good co- ordination between cavalry and infantry and the maintenance of discipline, a field in which the late Byzantines constantly failed, brought successful results. As Muntaner states, in 1304, at Philadelphia the Catalan cavalry attacked the horse archers of the principalities of Saruhan and Aydyn swiftly before the launch of their arrows could damage them. Once they brought the battle to close-quarters, the Almugavar infantry successfully supported the cavalry.

The effectiveness of the use of disciplined Latin troops against the Turks is reflected not only in the success of the `Italians’ of Theodore I and of the Catalans, but also in the success of the armies of Amadeo of Savoy and Marshal Boucicaut (1366 and 1399). Amadeo VI of Savoy, a cousin of John V, leading around 1500 mercenary soldiers, conducted a private crusade, seized Gallipoli from the Ottomans, with the help of the Genoese ruler of Lesvos and returned it to Byzantium. He also recovered for Byzantium Mesemvria and Sozopolis, which he seized from the Bulgarians. Marshal Boucicaut was sent to Byzantium by the French king Charles VI in 1399. He was a famous soldier, with great experience in the east and he had fought in the battle of Nikopolis (1396). In 1399, he arrived in Constantinople leading 400 men-atarms from, 400 armed attendants and a number of archers. His total force amounted to 1200 soldiers and was augmented along the way. In summer of 1399, Boucicaut and Manuel II launched a joint expedition on the fortresses of Black Sea close to Constantinople, which were held by the Ottomans and cleared Constantinople’s hinterland. They also launched an unsuccessful attack on Nikomedia. Realising the ephemeral character of these successes, Boucicaut advised Manuel to write to France and ask for aid.

However, the long-term employment and maintenance of large groups of high-quality Western European heavy cavalrymen to deal effectively with the Ottomans was something the Byzantines could not afford. In 1367, John V paid 15,000 hyperpyra to Amadeo as compensation for the wars he fought for Byzantium from money he had borrowed from the Genoese. Temporary employment of very competent mercenaries could lead to successes, but the Byzantine state did not have the resources to turn temporary victories into permanent gains. Byzantium could not afford the long-term employment of expensive mercenaries of high quality.

Furthermore, the Byzantines did not use extensively mobile light cavalry units such as mounted crossbowmen and the Tourkopouloi (Turcopoles as they are called by the western sources). The Tourkopouloi appear for the first time in Byzantium as part of the army of Alexios I Komnenos. They were the offspring of a Byzantine mother and a Turkish father.

The late Byzantine Tourkopouloi were the Christianised Turks, who had initially arrived in Constantinople in the retinue of the Seljuk Sultan Izz al-Din and some of them had decided to stay in Constantinople after the Sultan’s flight in 1264. For the last time they appear in 1305 battle of Apros where they deserted the Byzantines. Villehardouin states that the Latins of Constantinople employed Tourkopouloi who came from Syria to reinforce the army of the Latin empire. He adds that in 1207 Tourkopouloi and mounted crossbowmen were sent to scout around Stenimachos in Thrace. There is not any evidence that any of these soldiers were recruited by the Nicaean rulers.

The aforementioned battle of Pelekanos is the last attested large-scale encounter between the Byzantines and the Turkish cavalry archers in Asia Minor. After this battle, Kantakouzenos’ and Gregoras’ accounts mention numerous Turkish raids on Thrace and Macedonia. Usually, it is not specified whether these raiding parties were Ottoman or not. It is noticeable that, quite often the Byzantine sources mention the presence of large numbers of foot soldiers in the Turkish raiding armies. For instance, the army of Umur, the emir of Aydyn, which fought on Kantakouzenos’ side in the civil war of 1341-1347, was made up mainly of foot soldiers. Moreover, by 1400 major administrative developments had been completed in the Ottoman state by the establishment of the timar cavalry and janissary troops. The Timar created the obligation of its holder to serve wherever required, while the janissaries were a standing Ottoman army armed by the central government and one of their main tasks was the garrisoning of fortresses.

The Byzantine government after the middle fourteenth century could not afford similar developments. The reduction of the territory under imperial control resulted in the drastic shrinking of the necessary resources for the maintenance of an effective military force. Training and armament remained a privilege for the aristocracy and there was not any attempt to increase the army by systematically recruiting and training troops from the lower social classes. The Ottoman technological and administrative advantage in the fifteenth century is reflected in the account of Laonikos Chalkokondyles. He provides information on the training, recruitment, finance and role of the various types of troops of the Ottoman army. Chalkokondyles points out that semi-independent frontier lords, contributed decisively to the expansion of the Ottomans in the Balkans. They had under their command the so-called akyncy raiders. The akyncy and their leaders spearheaded the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans and created the infrastructure which ensured the permanent nature of the Ottoman conquest. Chalkokondyles calls them hippodromoi (fast horsemen) and remarks that they were maintained exclusively through the booty they captured. Manuel II, who was an eyewitness of the organisation and tactics of the Ottoman armies, stresses the quality of training of the Ottoman troops, stating that they could bear hardships for a long period of time and could remain in a hostile land far longer than other armies who would not have remained even in a territory which produces every kind of goods.

The development and superiority of the Ottoman army is reflected in the lack of effective resistance against the Ottoman raids in the Peloponnese in the fifteenth century. The inability of the Moreots to resist the Turks effectively was the result of the lack of strong centralised authority that would force the local lords to contribute to the defence of the Morea and of the technological superiority of the Ottomans who also had at their disposal far superior resources compared with the Byzantines. It is interesting that Chalkokondyles’ account of the raid Murad II led in 1446 in the Peloponnese focuses on the large amount of supplies of the Ottoman forces. He mentions the presence of a large market in the Ottoman camp where plenty of food supplies, fodder and horses were available and remarks that many of the powerful men who followed the Sultan on his campaigns were leading their own baggage trains. Similarly, Chalkokondyles points out the huge number of pack animals that were used to supply the Ottoman army in the siege of Constantinople in 1453.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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