By the time of the rise of Islam in the early seventh century, the Romans possessed extensive military experience with the Arabs. Arab scouts and light troops had served as guides and auxiliaries almost from the beginning of Roman rule in the Near East. By the sixth century, the Roman system of paying subsidies to allied tribal confederations to maintain law and order along the frontier from the Red Sea to the Euphrates was integral to the governance of the eastern provinces. The powerful Christian tribal confederation of Ghassan, which included both settled and tribal elements, largely managed the eastern periphery of the empire, and despite the general hostility of Greek-speaking elites to their Arab allies, these clients were both effective and reliable. Ghassanid auxiliaries defeated their Persian-sponsored counterparts and provided valuable light cavalry raiders and skirmishers to the eastern field armies on campaign in Syria and Mesopotamia. At the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 the Ghassanids fought alongside their Roman masters and though many subsequently converted to Islam and remained in Syria, a sizable group migrated to Roman territory. The Muslim Arab victors at Yarmuk overran the whole of Syria, Mesopotamia, and eventually wrested Egypt, Libya and North Africa from Roman control. Muslim Arab attempts to conquer Constantinople and thereby destroy the remnants of the Roman Empire unfolded in the epochal sieges of the seventh and early eighth centuries in which the empire emerged battered but intact. With the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and shift of the locus of Muslim government to Mesopotamia, the threat to the existence of the Roman state diminished, and as the Abbasid caliphate unraveled politically, the Byzantines mounted a sustained counterattack to recover lost territories in the east.


Arab armies of the conquest were organized along tribal lines, though it is uncertain if these were grouped into units of 10–15 soldiers called ‘arifs known from just after the conquests. Muslim Arab armies were recruited mainly from Arabic-speaking family and tribal groupings. But soldiers were also raised from among Byzantine and Sasanian deserters, as well as non-Arab clients (mawali) dependent on regional Arab lords. Larger tribal groups fought under the banners of their tribal sheikhs in army groups of varying strength, usually numbering 2,000–4,000 men. On rare occasions, as at Yarmuk, combined commands could field as many as 30,000 or 40,000 soldiers. In 661, the Battle of Siffin was fought between the Syrian forces under Mu ‘awiya and the Iraqi Arabs led by the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, said to have comprised 150,000 and 130,000 men, respectively; these numbers are inconceivable and could probably safely each be reduced by a factor of ten. During the Umayyad era, when the Syrian army provided the main prop to the caliph’s authority, armies of 6,000 Syrian troops are commonly mentioned and these may represent standard field force groupings, not dissimilar in size and equipment from their Byzantine neighbors. In 838, the caliph al-Mu ‘tasim (d. 842) led an army of up to 80,000 men against Amorium, a number that represented a large force and among the largest the Byzantines ever confronted.

Methods of Warfare

Although the commonly held perception of early Muslim armies today is of swift-moving horsemen mounted on Arabian chargers, the armies of the conquest era were mainly infantry forces fighting as spearmen and archers. Arab archery was particularly deadly to both the Byzantine and Persian forces encountered during the first campaigns of the conquest. Early Muslim armies generally lacked heavy cavalry, and they eagerly accepted the Sasanian horse who deserted to their ranks following the initial encounters in Mesopotamia. Infantry continued to form an important part of Arab armies up to the end of their military encounters with the Byzantines. Nikephoros Phokas noted that the Arab raiders who penetrated the Byzantine borderlands included a mix of cavalry and infantry; like their Roman counterparts, the infantry formed a foulkon, a dense mass of infantry spearmen, and supported the cavalry who formed the major offensive wing of Arab armies. Regular Arab cavalry fought primarily as lancers, while missile support was provided by foot archers. The Arabs never mastered horseback archery and instead relied on Turkic troops to provide mobile fire. The light cavalry encountered by the Byzantines in their reconquest of northern Syria and Mesopotamia were Bedouin light horse riding swift Arabian mounts. Nikephoros advised to keep them at bay with archery rather than chase them, since even the best Byzantine horses, encumbered as they were with heavily equipped fighting men, would not be able to catch them and the danger of being cut off and overwhelmed was a persistent peril of pursuit. Well led and generally possessing superior numbers, training, and equipment, the Arab armies of the early medieval period repeatedly exposed Byzantine weaknesses. Decisive engagements nearly always ended with Arab victories; only when the empire recovered somewhat economically and demographically while the caliphate began to fragment did the initiative return to the Romans.

Byzantine Adaptation

Given the asymetrical nature of the encounter between the Byzantines and Arabs after the initial clashes of the early and mid-seventh century, Byzantine commanders responded in the only way they could, via a strategy of defense coupled with limited, punitive raids to keep the enemy from settling in the strategic Anatolian highlands and to maintain the appearance of Byzantine power among the populations of the border lands. Imperial troops, seriously degraded through the loss of many men in the defeats in Syria and Egypt, underpaid, poorly equipped, and scattered throughout the provinces, were scarcely a match for caliphal field armies. The Byzantines often found themselves paying tribute to convince the Arabs not to attack them—a humiliating concession that drained both the fisc and morale. But the sieges of 674–78 and 717–18 revealed that without achieving naval dominance the Arabs had to conquer the Anatolian plateau if they were to achieve their objective of outright conquest of the Christian empire. Yet, due to their organization of the themes, whose armies could shadow and harass Muslim raiding columns and sometimes defeat them, the Romans made penetration of their territory hazardous. Stubborn Byzantine forces, although no match for grand caliphal campaign armies, often held their own against raiding columns and themselves raided exposed regions when Arab field forces were engaged elsewhere. By the tenth century, the centuries of incessant warfare had helped to create a warrior caste among the frontiersmen of the eastern marchlands who would remake the Byzantine army based on their experiences fighting the Arabs. Their combined arms approach and their use of psychological terror, scorched earth, and incremental advancement of imperial territory by sieges marked the apogee of the practice of Byzantine arms in the medieval east.


The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarios outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.


Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Varbica in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria. The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.


The Normans arrived in the Byzantine world not as enemies, but as valued mercenaries esteemed for their martial prowess. The settlement of Scandinavian raiders created the duchy of Normandy, when the region was ceded to their war leader Rollo (d. ca. 931) by the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (898–922). Rollo’s descendants mingled with the local French population to create the Normans, a people thoroughly Christian, doggedly militaristic, and unfailingly expansionistic. Norman soldiers entered Italy around the start of the eleventh century where they served as mercenaries for various Lombard princes. By the 1050s large numbers of “Franks,” as the Byzantines called them, had served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies from Syria to Bulgaria, and Normans served as part of the standing garrison of Asia Minor. In the 1040s the Normans began the conquest of south Italy, establishing several counties in the south and finally invading and conquering Sicily from the petty Muslim dynasts there by 1091. Since the late 1050s the Normans had challenged Roman interests in Italy and Robert Guiscard led a Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081. In the ensuing conflict the Normans defeated Alexios I Komnenos, who expelled them only with great difficulty. Two more major Norman invasions followed over the next century, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily remained a threat to imperial ambitions in the west and to the imperial core until the Hauteville Norman dynasty failed in 1194. By this time all hope for the Byzantine recovery of south Italy and Sicily had vanished, thanks to Norman power.


The Normans served under captains who rose to prominence due to birth or their fortunes in war. Minor nobility like Tancred of Hauteville, who founded the dynasty that would conquer much of Italy and Sicily, was a minor baron in Normandy and probably the descendant of Scandinavian settlers. The warriors who carved out territory within Byzantine Anatolia seem to have been either petty aristocrats or simply successful soldiers. One such Norman was Hervé Frankopoulos, who in 1057 led 300 Franks east in search of plunder and territory. After initial successes around Lake Van, he was delivered to the emperor and eventually pardoned. Thus, Norman companies were of no fixed numbers, and it seems that each baron recruited men according to his wealth and status. Norman lords in Italy raised the core of their army from men to whom they distributed lands and wealth in exchange for permanent military service. Lords were required to provide fixed numbers of troops, either knights or infantry sergeants. Other Normans served for pay and plunder, including conquered lands to be distributed after successful occupation of enemy territory. The Normans that the Byzantines encountered were a fluid group—some fought for the empire and then against it; their interests were pay and personal advancement rather than any particular ethnic allegiance. In this the Normans who warred against the Byzantines resembled the later free companies of the late medieval period—variable in numbers, generally following a capable, experienced, and charismatic commander, and exceptionally opportunistic. As a warlord’s success grew, so did his resources. Thus Robert Guiscard rose from the leader of a band of Norman robbers to be Count and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria; in 1084, following his defeat of Alexios at Dyrrachium, Guiscard marched on Rome with thousands of infantry and more than 2,000 knights, a far cry from the scores or hundreds with which he began his career.

Methods of Warfare

The bulk of the Norman fighting forces were infantry, but they formed a largely defensive force that operated in support of the cavalry. Norman infantry fought generally as spearmen—the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Normans on foot wearing the nasal helm and mail hauberks, but it is unlikely that the majority were so armed. Most were probably unarmored and relied on shields for protection like most of their counterparts throughout Europe. Light infantry archers fought with little or no armor, and missile troops played a role in their Balkan campaigns as well—the Byzantine commander George Palaiologos suffered an arrow wound to his head in battle at Dyrrachium in 1082, but generally the Byzantines relied on superior Turkish archery in order to unhorse the Normans and immobilize the knights. Norman knights wore heavy mail hauberks and mail chausses with in-pointed mail foot guards, which Anna Komnene noted slowed the Norman cavalry down when they were unhorsed. These mounted men carried lances and swords. The weight of their mail made them relatively safe from the archery of the day. Norman knights usually decided the course of battle; it was the shock cavalry charge delivered by the Norman knight that delivered victory in battle after battle. Unlike the Turks and Pechenegs with whom the empire regularly contended and whose weaponry was lighter and who relied on mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and feigned retreat, the Normans preferred close combat. They fought in dense, well-ordered ranks and exhibited exemplary discipline. In an era when infantry were generally of questionable quality, most foot soldiers throughout Europe and the Middle East could not stare down a Norman frontal cavalry charge. Norman horsemen punched holes in opposing formations and spread panic and disorder that their supporting troops exploited. By the end of the eleventh century, Norman prowess on the battlefield yielded them possessions from Syria to Scotland.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines avidly recruited Normans into their armies. Though critics have unfairly blamed the medieval Romans for not adapting their warfare in light of the new western techniques and technologies to which they were exposed, fully equipped and well-trained kataphraktoi could match the skill and shock power of the Norman knight. What the Byzantines of the Komnenoi era lacked were the disciplined heavy infantry of the Macedonian period and combined arms approach of mounted and dismounted archery that could blunt enemy attack and cover infantry and cavalry tactical operations. Alexios I relied on Turkish and steppe nomad auxiliaries and patchwork field armies assembled from mercenaries drawn from the empire’s neighbors. As with other intractable foes, the Byzantines relied on a combination of defense and offense—the Normans were contained in the Balkans allowing space for an imperial recovery and the time to muster new forces following the heavy defeat late in 1081 of the Roman army at Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. Alexios allied with southern Italian nobles and the German emperor Henry IV (1084–1105) who menaced the Norman flanks. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 removed the most serious threat to Byzantine rule since the seventh century, but Guiscard’s son, the redoubtable Bohemund, renewed war against the empire in 1107–8. Alexios had learned from his twenty years of dealing with the Norman adversary and returned to the traditional Byzantine strategies of defense, containment, and attrition. The Byzantines relied on their Venetian allies to provide naval squadrons on the Adriatic that interfered with Norman shipping and resupply, and Alexios’s forces blocked the passes around Dyrrachium; the emperor forbade his commanders to engage in a large-scale confrontation with the Normans. In the skirmishes and running battles against Norman scouting and foraging parties Byzantine archers shot the enemy mounts from beneath their riders and then cut down the beleaguered knights. Hunger, disease, and lack of money undid Bohemund, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and return to Italy. Thus the ages-old Byzantine principles of indirect warfare proved triumphant against a stubborn and superior enemy.


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