Rocket Hunters

A pair of North American Mustangs from the 1st Scouting Force, 8th Air Force, with P-51D Chip flown by Merrill Dewey DuMont in the foreground, detects a German V-2 rocket launch site near the English Channel in the spring of 1945.

The V-2 units were mobile and could be deployed quickly in open countryside or city suburbs, they were all heavily defended and thus hazardous to attack.

The scouts would radio back information on the location, weather conditions and defences etc. in order to aid allied bombers in attacking these sites.

Happenstance other instances of Allied aircraft engaging launched V-2 rockets include the following:

Rocket Hunters by Heinz Krebs

Battle of the Asiago Plateau and the Piave River, July 1918

Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl’s promise of a two-pronged offensive flew in the face of warnings that Field Marshal Boroević (his new rank) had sent to the high command since the end of March. Karl and his chief of staff hoped to make Rome negotiate, and enlarge their spoils when Germany won the war. Boroević did not believe the Central Powers could win. Instead of wasting its strength on needless offensives, Austria should conserve it to deal with the turmoil that peace would unleash in the empire.

But Karl and the high command were adamant: there must be an offensive. Boroević prepared a plan to attack across the River Piave, towards Venice and Padua. Yet again, Conrad argued for an attack from the Asiago plateau: if successful, this would make the Piave line indefensible and force another Italian retreat. He urged the Emperor to attack on both sectors, and Karl gave way. Preparations began on 1 April with a view to attacking on 11 June.

Boroević had seen Cadorna make this very mistake time and again, attacking on too broad a front. He spoke up again: if they had to attack on both sectors, the high command should send reinforcements. In mid-May, he repeated his warning that it was irresponsible to attack without enough shells and with troops ill-equipped and famished. By way of reply, the high command told Boroević to confirm that he would be ready by 11 June. Not before the 25th, he replied. The date was set for 15 June.

On paper, the Austrian army looked strong enough. With Russia out of the war, most of the 53 divisions with a further ten in reserve could be kept in Italy, which was now the empire’s major front. However, the infantry divisions were down from 12,000 to 8,000 or even 5,000 men. New battalions were at roughly half strength. Some 200,000 Hungarian soldiers had deserted in the first three months of 1918. In the spring, Karl approved the call-up of the class of 1900; the new intake would be boys of 17, plus older men returning after convalescence. Cavalry divisions were even more depleted. The railways were dilapidated from over use, and motor vehicles lacked fuel.

The industrial capacity of the empire had never been strong; by 1917, output was declining under the double impact of battlefield casualties and the Allied blockade. In 1918, the decline became a slump. Production of artillery weapons and shells halved in the first half of the year, compared with 1917. Production of rifles fell by 80 per cent in the same period. Uniforms were tattered, there was no new underwear, and worn-out boots could not be replaced. Food shortages helped to trigger a general strike in January. The stoppages spread until 700,000 workers were crying for peace, justice and bread. Radical Socialists exploited the hardship caused by hunger, war taxes and inflation. (‘In Russia, the land, the factories and the mines are being given to the people.’) The mainstream Social Democrats, however, decided not to support the calls for revolution; instead they negotiated with the government. Even so, the army had to send forces from the front to ensure order. February brought the first significant mutiny, by naval crews in Montenegro. Food shortages and officers’ privileges were the trigger, and the unrest spread up the Adriatic coast. Hopes that cooperation with newly independent Ukraine would unlock huge imports of grain came to nothing. April brought food riots in Laibach and ‘mass rallies at which oaths for unity and independence were being sworn’. By now, seven divisions were deployed in the interior of the empire.

The army was not cushioned against the shortages. By 1918, it was getting only half the flour it needed. The daily rations of front-line troops in Italy were reduced in January to 300 grams of bread and 200 grams of meat. Even these statistics only tell half the story. A Czech NCO, Jan Triska of the 13th Artillery Regiment, recorded the real conditions. The rations had run out during the Caporetto offensive, and matters had grown much worse since then. The army was ordered to provision itself from the occupied territory. This was only possible for a month or two; in February, Boroević told the Army High Command that the situation was critical: the men had been hungry for four weeks, and were ‘no longer moved by incessant empty phrases that the hinterland is starving or that we must hold out’. They must be properly fed if they were to fight.

By late April, the men were starving. Bread and polenta were very scarce, and often mixed with sawdust or even sand. Meat practically disappeared. Soldiers stole the prime cuts from horses killed by enemy fire, and orders went out for carcasses to be delivered directly to the slaughterhouse. Triska’s battery horses were dying; only six of 36 were healthy. Even the coffee made of chicory was in short supply. ‘Salt was only a memory.’ The men were often given money instead of food, but there was nothing to spend it on. The men grew so weak during May that they could only walk with difficulty. Triska risked punishment by trading his service revolver and ammunition for horsemeat. He collected stems of grass to boil and eat, and picked mulberries when they could be found. Such was the condition of the men who were sent against the Italians in June.


With 23 undersized divisions on the Asiago plateau, another 15 on the line of the Piave and 22 more in reserve, the Habsburg force barely outnumbered the Italians, who had a clear advantage in firepower and in the air. The offensive would start on the Piave, where Boroević’s divisions would attack across the river. Conrad’s divisions were to follow up by striking from the north.

Addressing his officers, Boroević openly criticised the shortages of men and supplies. Due to Conrad’s stubbornness, he implied, the Piave line was short of ten divisions. After this rare indiscretion, the field marshal did his duty, ordering his battalion commanders to attack like a hurricane and not pause until they reached the River Adige. ‘For this, gentlemen, could well be the last battle. The fate of our monarchy and the survival of the empire depend on your victory and the sacrifice of your men.’ It has been claimed that, despite everything, Habsburg morale ran high in June. Certainly, there are reports of soldiers marching to the line with maps of Treviso in their pockets, gaily asking the bystanders how far it was to Rome. They would have taken heart from the order to plunder the Allied lines (no shortages there). Different testimony came from Pero Blašković, commanding a Bosnian battalion on the Piave. According to Blašković, a Habsburg loyalist to the bone, everyone without exception hoped the offensive would be postponed, for they were all aware of Karl’s muted search for a separate peace. It was this, more than hunger or lack of munitions, Blašković says, that took the men’s minds off victory, making them reflect that defeat would cost fewer lives, letting more of them get safely home in the end.

The bombardment began at 03:00 on 15 June. As at Caporetto, the Austrians aimed to incapacitate the enemy batteries with a pinpoint attack, including gas shells. However, their accuracy was poor, due to Allied control of the skies; many of the shells may have been time-expired, and the Italians had been supplied with superior British gas-masks. Too many Austrian guns were deployed in the Trentino, a secondary sector; some heavy batteries had no shells at all; and there was no element of surprise, for Diaz’s army had agents in the occupied territory, and deserters were talkative. The Austrian gunners only had the advantage on the Asiago plateau, where thick fog blanketed the preparations.

At 05:10, the guns lengthened their fire to strike the Italian rear lines and reserves. The pontoons were dragged out from behind the gravel islands near the river’s eastern shore. The enemy batteries were still silent; perhaps the gas shells had knocked them out? No such luck; the Italian guns opened up, pounding the Austrian jump-off positions. The Italian riverbank was still wreathed in gas fumes when the assault teams jumped ashore, quickly taking the Italian forward positions amid the chatter of machine guns.

The morning went well; the Austrians moved 100,000 men across the river under heavy rain. Watching the infantry pour over the pontoons, Jan Triska and his gunners wondered if this time they would reach Venice. Enlarging the bridgeheads proved more difficult. Progress was made on the Montello, where the four divisions pushed forward several kilometres, and around San Donà, near the sea. Elsewhere, the attackers were pinned down near the river. Further north, Conrad’s divisions attacked from Asiago towards Mount Grappa. Slight initial gains could not be held; the Italians had learned how to use the ‘elastic defence’, absorbing enemy thrusts in a deep system of trenches, then counter-attacking. By the end of the day, Blašković realised, ‘our paper house had been blown down’. The Emperor sent Boroević a desperate telegram: ‘Hold your positions, I implore you in the name of the monarchy!’ The answer was curt: ‘We shall do our best.’

Progress on the second day was no easier. Conrad was in retreat; his batteries – more than a third of all the Habsburg guns in Italy – were out of the fight. Boroević ordered his commanders to hunker down while forces were transferred from the north. Meanwhile the Piave rose again, washing away many of the pontoons. Supplying the bridgeheads across the torrent became even more dangerous. The Austrians were too close to exhaustion and their supplies too uncertain for a sustained battle to run in their favour. By the first afternoon, Major Blašković realised that the Austrian artillery, laying down a rolling barrage for the assault troops, were already husbanding their shells. If the under-used Italian units further north were to be redeployed around Montello, the Habsburg goose would soon be cooked. Overhead, the Caproni aeroplanes chased away the Habsburg planes and British Sopwith Camels proved their worth, bombing along the river. (‘In aviation, too, morale is very important,’ Blašković remarked sadly, ‘but technology is even more so.’) The pontoons and columns of men on the riverbank, waiting to cross, offered easy targets. While the Austrians ran out of shells, the Allied artillery and air bombardment were unrelenting. The fate of Jan Triska’s battery on the Piave was indicative: over the week of battle, it lost 58 men, half its strength.

Conrad’s divisions were too hard pressed to transfer men to the Piave. In fact, the opposite happened: the Italians transferred forces from the mountains to the river. When these reinforcements arrived, on 19 June, the Italians counter-attacked along the Piave. They failed to crack the bridgeheads, but the Austrian position was untenable. Pontoons that had survived the bombing were damaged by high water and debris. Blašković’s regiment (the 3rd Bosnia & Herzegovina Infantry) ran out of shells and bullets; the men fought on with bayonets and hand-grenades until a Hungarian regiment managed to bring up a few crates of ammunition from the river.

Boroević told the Emperor that if the Montello could be secured, it should be the springboard for a new offensive. Securing it would need at least three more divisions, including artillery. If the high command did not intend to renew the offensive from the Montello, it was pointless to retain the bridgeheads; they should be abandoned and all efforts dedicated to strengthening the defences east of the river. As Karl wondered what to do, the German high command stepped in, ordering a cessation of hostilities so that the Austrians could despatch their six strongest divisions to the Western Front. For Ludendorff’s spring offensives were running out of steam and 250,000 American troops were arriving every month. Karl consulted his commanders in the field, who echoed Boroević’s stark choice: either reinforce or withdraw. Then he consulted his chief of the general staff, General Arz von Straussenberg. A new offensive within a few weeks was, they agreed, not a realistic prospect. Their reserves were almost used up; even if enough divisions could be transferred to the Piave from elsewhere – and none could safely be spared from Ukraine or the Balkans – the Italians would match them. It would not be possible to recapture the zest of 15 June without a lengthy recovery.

Late on the 20th, Karl ordered the right bank of the Piave to be abandoned. General Goiginger, commanding the corps that had performed so well on the Montello, refused to obey. They had taken 12,000 prisoners and 84 guns; how could they retreat? Eventually he submitted, and the withdrawal began. Both sides were exhausted, and the manoeuvre was completed without much fighting. The Bosnians and Hungarians on the Montello worked their way back to the river. The last Austrians crossed on 23 June, ending the Battle of the Solstice. The Italians had lost around 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and more than 40,000 prisoners, against 118,000 Habsburg dead, wounded, sick, captured and missing. Early in July, Third Army units capped the achievement by seizing the swampy delta at the mouth of the Piave which the Austrians had held since Caporetto.

The rejoicing was widespread and spontaneous. For many soldiers, the Battle of the Solstice cleansed the stain of Caporetto, and the name of the Piave has ever since evoked a glow of fulfilment, as smooth as the sound of its utterance, untouched by the horrors of the Isonzo front or the controversy that overshadowed Italy’s victory in November. Ferruccio Parri, a much-decorated veteran who became a leading antifascist, said at the end of his long life that the Battle of the Solstice was ‘the only proper national battle of which our country can truly be proud’.

For the Allies, two things were clear: the Italians were a fighting force again, and the Austro-Hungarian army was still dangerous: its morale had not collapsed and the soldiers were still loyal. The view inside Boroević’s army was different; to their eyes, the civilian system had let them down. They were still better soldiers than the Italians, but what could they do without food or munitions? The spectacle of his own men after the battle filled the genial Blašković with despair: ‘weary, dejected and starving, their tattered uniforms crusted with reddish dry clay. Their weapons alone gave them any likeness to soldiers, for otherwise they looked like beggars roaming from pillar to post.’ Gloom settled over the Austrian lines.

Renaissance Warfare I

As more centralized governments developed during the Later Middle Ages (1000-1500), significant changes took place in the way armies were raised. This included the more extensive use of mercenaries and led to the development of Europe’s professional armies.

While members of the nobility continued to fight primarily as the result of social and feudal obligations, other soldiers increasingly fought for pay. Although in theory some vassals in the later Middle Ages were obliged to serve their lord annually for up to 40 days in the field, if they had the financial ability they would often pay someone to serve in their stead. The limited service requirements of feudal obligations could also cause severe problems concerning a lord’s ability to sustain prolonged warfare. Once a vassal’s required service was over, he could theoretically withdraw if alternative arrangements had not been made. Thus, in addition to calling up their vassals, wealthier lords and kings often employed mercenaries. Successful use of mercenaries was usually dependent on their morale, as they were prone to flee when battles went poorly or pay was tardy. Finally, cities sometimes recruited armies from local populations or, if recruitment efforts were unsuccessful, raised armies through conscription.

Once an army was raised, the issue of logistics was paramount. Supply was so important that it often determined the makeup and size of armies. Among the most important members of an army’s leadership was the marshal, whose duties included marshaling, or gathering, the forces; organizing the army’s heavy weapons; and providing for the army’s constant provisioning. While all soldiers were responsible for providing their personal arms and armor, the leadership was obliged to provide weapons beyond the pocketbook of the common soldier, such as siege engines. Moreover, although soldiers would bring an initial supply of rations for themselves, the army’s leadership was responsible for plotting a route that allowed for resupply. This was done by maintaining supply chains, purchasing supplies from local populations, or, more often than not, foraging (plundering). Whatever the mean of provisioning, food and drink were a constant worry and often in short supply.

Medieval European armies were normally arranged in three sections (battles or battalions) that included a vanguard, a main body, and a rear guard. The vanguard was the forward division of the army, usually comprised of archers and other soldiers who wielded long-range weapons. Their purpose was to inflict as much damage as possible on an opposing army before the main bodies, composed of infantry and armored cavalry, clashed. The main body comprised the bulk of the army’s forces, and its performance was usually crucial to the army’s success. The rear guard was usually comprised of less heavily armored and more agile cavalry, often mounted sergeants who could move quickly around the battlefield and chase down fleeing enemy soldiers. It also guarded the main force’s rear as well as the army’s supplies and camp followers (noncombatants who accompanied the army). Each section deployed in either a linear or block formation depending on the situation on the battlefield. While a block formation could better withstand cavalry charges, a linear formation allowed nearly the entire army to take part in a battle.

The importance of the mounted knight in medieval armies was foundational to Europe’s social order. The prohibitive cost of proper arms, armor, and horses limited knighthood primarily to the landed feudal class. The typical knight was generally much more effective on the battlefield than the common infantryman, as he was not only better equipped but also better trained. Knights were usually placed in command of the cavalry (many of whom were less well-armed sergeants from lower social classes), which was used primarily to overrun enemy positions and break up enemy formations. If the cavalry charge was successful, infantry was positioned to exploit any break in the enemy line.

The infantry was composed of pikemen, archers, crossbowmen, swordsmen, and others who fought on foot and were usually joined by knights and other cavalry who had lost their horses. While some infantry were experienced warriors, many were poorly trained and only sporadically went into combat under the leadership of their local lords. Pikemen defended against enemy cavalry by pointing a concentrated number of pikes (long spears) in the direction of an onrushing cavalry charge, while archers could fill the sky with arrows to devastate the ranks of their approaching opponents. After several volleys, the archers could step aside to allow the cavalry and other infantry to engage their then weakened opponents. When the main bodies of two armies clashed on the battlefield, infantrymen armed with swords, battle-axes, and similar weapons provided screening for the cavalry and were essential for hand-to-hand combat. As the battlefield became chaotic, communication was usually limited to audible commands (sometimes produced by musical instruments), messengers, or visual signals that included the use of banners, standards, or flags.

The development of effective siege warfare was necessitated by the common use of defensive walls to protect medieval cities. Many cities also contained a keep, or elevated fortification, for additional protection in case the walls were breached by an enemy. Medieval strategists understood that the most effective way for an army to overcome defensive walls was simply to knock them down and rush through any openings. This was less risky than maneuvers that involved scaling ladders while fending off the attacks of defenders who benefited from their elevated position. Consequently, a variety of powerful siege engines that included the mangonel, the ballista, and the trebuchet were used to launch heavy projectiles at resisting cities and batter their defenses. Additionally, attacking armies used siege towers to position soldiers on a level equal to those defending a city wall, while forces on the ground would also employ battering rams to knock down gates or sappers to undermine walls.

Archers also played an important role in siege warfare. Talented marksmen could wreak havoc on the opposing armies of both sides. The skill and range of archers defending a city’s walls determined the placement of the attacking army’s camp, as it was important to make sure that the attackers were out of range of arrows. In the case of those who used the powerful English longbow rather than the more common short bow, archers had a much higher rate of fire and effective range, which made them especially valuable for use in siege warfare and by the vanguard on the battlefield.

Technological developments also aided armies defending cities or castles under siege. Concentric castles were developed during the period of the crusades, as were architectural improvements, such as the round tower, to make walls stronger and more defensible. Deeper wells allowed better access to water during lengthy sieges, and small openings in the wall for defending archers provided them protected positions. Attackers were also repelled from city walls with boiling oil or water as well as molten lead. Yet the most revolutionary changes in tactics, strategy, equipment, and organization emerged with the introduction of gunpowder to European battlefields in the fourteenth century. Powerful cannon tipped siege warfare in favor of the attacking army, while hand cannon and other firearms made the armor of knights obsolete. This led to the diminished importance of the mounted nobility, which contributed to the rise of full-time professional armies in the early modern period.

Renaissance Fortifications

The walls of Nicosia (1567) are a typical example of Italian Renaissance military architecture that survives to this day.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, fortifications had to be completely reconsidered as a result of developments in artillery. During the Middle Ages, well-stocked fortresses with a source of potable water stood a fairly good chance of resisting siege warfare. Such assaults usually began in the spring or early summer, and hostile troops returned home at the onset of cold weather if success did not appear imminent. Because repeated artillery bombardment of medieval structures often yielded rapid results, warfare continued year-round by the latter 15th century. Even though winter might be approaching, military commanders persisted in barrages of artillery as long as supplies were available for their troops, certain that they could break the siege in a few more days or weeks. A new type of defensive fortification was needed, and it was designed in Italy.

Early Renaissance

Medieval fortified structures consisted of high walls and towers with slot windows, constructed of brick or stone. These buildings were designed to withstand a long siege by hostile forces. The only ways to capture such a fortification were (1) to roll a wooden siege tower against the wall and climb over, but such towers were quite flammable and could be threatened by fiery objects catapulted over the wall; (2) to batter down part of the wall, under an assault of arrows, hot pitch, and other weapons hailing down from above; and (3) to tunnel under the foundation, a process that could take a very long time. Conventional towers and high walls were no match for artillery bombardment, which could be accomplished from a distance with no threat to the invading army. In addition, the walls and towers of medieval fortifications were not equipped for the placement and utilization of heavy defensive artillery. During the 15th century, European towns began to construct low, thick walls against their main defensive walls, permitting pieces of artillery to be rolled along the top and positioned as needed. The outer walls were often sloped outwardly or slightly rounded to deflect projectiles at unpredictable angles back toward the enemy. Bulwarks, usually U-shaped formations of earth, timber, and stone, were built to protect the main gate and to provide defensive artillery posts. In both central and northern Europe, many towns constructed gun towers whose sole purpose was the deployment of defensive artillery. These structures had guns at several levels, but usually lighter, lower caliber weapons than those used on the walls. Heavier weapons would have created unbearable noise and smoke in the small rooms in which they were discharged. In several conventional medieval towers, the roof was removed and a gun platform install.

Later Renaissance

Near the close of the 15th century, Italian architects and engineers invented a new type of defensive trace, improving upon the bulwark design. In the “Italian trace” [trace italienne -Star fort] triangle-shaped bastions with thick, outward-sloping sides were pointed out from the main defensive wall, with their top at the same level as the wall. At Civitavecchia, a port near Rome used by the papal navy, the city walls were fortified with bastions in 1520-the first example of bastions completely circling a defensive wall. Bastions solved several problems of the bulwark system, especially with bastions joined to the wall and not placed a short distance away, where troops could be cut off by enemy troops. The most important improvement was the elimination of the blind spot caused by round towers and bulwarks; gunners had a complete sweep of enemy soldiers in the ditches below. Development of the bastion design in Italy was a direct response to the 1494 invasion by the troops of Charles VIII and the superior artillery of France at that time, and to continued threats from the Turks. Bastion-dominated fortifications were constructed along the Mediterranean coast to create a line of defense against naval attacks. Several such fortifications were built in northern Europe, beginning with Antwerp in 1544. In some instances fortifications were not feasible, for reasons such as very hilly terrain or opposition from estate owners reluctant to lose property, and in some regions military threat was not extreme enough to warrant the effort of constructing new fortifications. In such cases, an existing fortress might be renovated and strengthened to create a citadel. Municipalities often opposed construction of citadels, which symbolized tyranny, because they were imposed on defeated cities by warlords. Citadels proved to be an effective means, however, for providing a protective enclosure during enemy attacks. By the mid-16th century, the expense of fortifications was exorbitant. Henry VIII, for example, was spending more than one-quarter of his entire income on such structures, and the kingdom of Naples was expending more than half.


After countless unsuccessful experiments, lethal accidents and ineffective trials, firearms research and techniques gradually improved, and chroniclers report many types of guns—mainly used in siege warfare—with numerous names such as veuglaire, pot-de-fer, bombard, vasii, petara and so on. In the second half of the 14th century, firearms became more efficient, and it seemed obvious that cannons were the weapons of the future. Venice successfully utilized cannons against Genoa in 1378. During the Hussite war from 1415 to 1436, the Czech Hussite rebels employed firearms in combination with a mobile tactic of armored carts (wagenburg) enabling them to defeat German knights. Firearms contributed to the end of the Hundred Years’ War and allowed the French king Charles VII to defeat the English in Auray in 1385, Rouen in 1418 and Orleans in 1429. Normandy was reconquered in 1449 and Guyenne in 1451. Finally, the battle of Chatillon in 1453 was won by the French artillery. This marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War; the English, divided by the Wars of the Roses, were driven out of France, keeping only Calais. The same year saw the Turks taking Constantinople, which provoked consternation, agitation and excitement in the whole Christian world.

In that siege and seizure of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, cannon and gunpowder achieved spectacular success. To breach the city walls, the Turks utilized heavy cannons which, if we believe the chronicler Critobulos of Imbros, shot projectiles weighing about 500 kg. Even if this is exaggerated, big cannons certainly did exist by that time and were more common in the East than in the West, doubtless because the mighty potentates of the East could better afford them. Such monsters included the Ghent bombard, called “Dulle Griet”; the large cannon “Mons Berg” which is today in Edinburgh; and the Great Gun of Mohammed II, exhibited today in London. The latter, cast in 1464 by Sultan Munir Ali, weighed 18 tons and could shoot a 300 kg stone ball to a range of one kilometer.

A certain number of technical improvements took place in the 15th century. One major step was the amelioration of powder quality. Invented about 1425, corned powder involved mixing saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur into a soggy paste, then sieving and drying it, so that each individual grain or corn contained the same and correct proportion of ingredients. The process obviated the need for mixing in the field. It also resulted in more efficient combustion, thus improving safety, power, range and accuracy.

Another important step was the development of foundries, allowing cannons to be cast in one piece in iron and bronze (copper alloyed with tin). In spite of its expense, casting was the best method to produce practical and resilient weapons with lighter weight and higher muzzle velocity. In about 1460, guns were fitted with trunnions. These were cast on both sides of the barrel and made sufficiently strong to carry the weight and bear the shock of discharge, and permit the piece to rest on a two-wheeled wooden carriage. Trunnions and wheeled mounting not only made for easier transportation and better maneuverability but also allowed the gunners to raise and lower the barrels of their pieces.

One major improvement was the introduction in about 1418 of a very efficient projectile: the solid iron shot. Coming into use gradually, the solid iron cannonball could destroy medieval crenellation, ram castle-gates, and collapse towers and masonry walls. It broke through roofs, made its way through several stories and crushed to pieces all it fell upon. One single well-aimed projectile could mow down a whole row of soldiers or cut down a splendid armored knight.

About 1460, mortars were invented. A mortar is a specific kind of gun whose projectile is shot with a high, curved trajectory, between 45° and 75°, called plunging fire. Allowing gunners to lob projectiles over high walls and reach concealed objectives or targets protected behind fortifications, mortars were particularly useful in sieges. In the Middle Ages they were characterized by a short and fat bore and two big trunnions. They rested on massive timber-framed carriages without wheels, which helped them withstand the shock of firing; the recoil force was passed directly to the ground by means of the carriage. Owing to such ameliorations, artillery progressively gained dominance, particularly in siege warfare.

Individual guns, essentially scaled down artillery pieces fitted with handles for the firer, appeared after the middle of the 14th century. Various models of portable small arms were developed, such as the clopi or scopette, bombardelle, baton-de-feu, handgun, and firestick, to mention just a few.

In purely military terms, these early handguns were more of a hindrance than an asset on the battlefield, for they were expensive to produce, inaccurate, heavy, and time-consuming to load; during loading the firer was virtually defenseless. However, even as rudimentary weapons with poor range, they were effective in their way, as much for attackers as for soldiers defending a fortress.

The harquebus was a portable gun fitted with a hook that absorbed the recoil force when firing from a battlement. It was generally operated by two men, one aiming and the other igniting the propelling charge. This weapon evolved in the Renaissance to become the matchlock musket in which the fire mechanism consisted of a pivoting S-shaped arm. The upper part of the arm gripped a length of rope impregnated with a combustible substance and kept alight at one end, called the match. The lower end of the arm served as a trigger: When pressed it brought the glowing tip of the match into contact with a small quantity of gunpowder, which lay in a horizontal pan fixed beneath a small vent in the side of the barrel at its breech. When this priming ignited, its flash passed through the vent and ignited the main charge in the barrel, expelling the spherical lead bullet.

The wheel lock pistol was a small harquebus taking its name from the city Pistoia in Tuscany where the weapon was first built in the 15th century. The wheel lock system, working on the principle of a modern cigarette lighter, was reliable and easy to handle, especially for a combatant on horseback. But its mechanism was complicated and therefore expensive, and so its use was reserved for wealthy civilian hunters, rich soldiers and certain mounted troops.

Portable cannons, handguns, harquebuses and pistols were muzzle-loading and shot projectiles that could easily penetrate any armor. Because of the power of firearms, traditional Middle Age weaponry become obsolete; gradually, lances, shields and armor for both men and horses were abandoned.

The destructive power of gunpowder allowed the use of mines in siege warfare. The role of artillery and small firearms become progressively larger; the new weapons changed the nature of naval and siege warfare and transformed the physiognomy of the battlefield. This change was not a sudden revolution, however, but a slow process. Many years elapsed before firearms became widespread, and many traditional medieval weapons were still used in the 16th century.

One factor militating against artillery’s advancement in the 15th century was the amount of expensive material necessary to equip an army. Cannons and powder were very costly items and also demanded a retinue of expensive attendant specialists for design, transport and operation. Consequently firearms had to be produced in peacetime, and since the Middle Ages had rudimentary ideas of economics and fiscal science, only a few kings, dukes and high prelates possessed the financial resources to build, purchase, transport, maintain and use such expensive equipment in numbers that would have an appreciable impression in war.

Conflicts with firearms became an economic business involving qualified personnel backed up by traders, financiers and bankers as well as the creation of comprehensive industrial structures. The development of firearms meant the gradual end of feudalism. Firearms also brought about a change in the mentality of combat because they created a physical and mental distance between warriors. Traditional mounted knights, fighting each other at close range within the rules of a certain code, were progressively replaced by professional infantrymen who were anonymous targets for one another, while local rebellious castles collapsed under royal artillery’s fire. Expensive artillery helped to hasten the process by which central authority was restored.


The collapse of the monetary economy in Western Europe following the fall of Rome left just two areas where gold coin was still used in the 10th century: southern Italy and southern Spain (al-Andalus). Ready gold drew mercenaries to wars in those regions as carrion creatures draw near dead flesh. Also able to pay in coin for military specialists and hardened veterans was the Byzantine Empire, along with the Muslim states it opposed and fought for several centuries. The rise of mercenaries in Western Europe in the 11th century as a money economy resumed disturbed the social order and was received with wrath and dismay by the clergy and service nobility. Early forms of monetary service did not necessarily involve straight wages. They included fief money and scutage. But by the end of the 13th century paid military service was the norm in Europe. This meant that local bonds were forming in many places and a concomitant sense of “foreignness” attached to long-service soldiers. Mercenaries were valued for their military expertise but now feared and increasingly despised for their perceived moral indifference to the causes for which they fought. Ex-mercenary bands (routiers, Free Companies) were commonplace in France in the 12th century and a social and economic scourge wherever they moved during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Their main weapon was the crossbow, on land and at sea. In the galley wars of the Mediterranean many Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian crossbowmen hired out as specialist marine archers. Much of the Reconquista in Spain was fueled by the mercenary impulse and concomitant necessity for armies to live off the land. The hard methods and cruel attitudes learned by Iberians while fighting Moors were then applied in the Americas by quasi-mercenary conquistadores. Mercenaries- “condottieri,” or foreign “contractors”-also played a major part in the wars of the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

French “gen d’armes” and Swiss pikemen and halberdiers fought for Lorraine at Nancy (1477). By the start of the 15th century Swiss companies hired out with official Cantonal approval or as free bands who elected their officers and went to Italy to fight as condottieri. With the end of the wars of the Swiss Confederation against France and Burgundy, Swiss soldiers of fortune formed a company known as “das torechte Leben” (roughly, “the mad life”) and fought for pay under a Banner displaying a town idiot and a pig. Within four years of Nancy some 6,000 Swiss were hired by Louis XI. In 1497, Charles VIII (“The Affable”) of France engaged 100 Swiss halberdiers as his personal bodyguard (“Garde de Cent Suisses”). In either form, the Swiss became the major mercenary people of Europe into the 16th century. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisses” (“no money, no Swiss”) was a baleful maxim echoed by many sovereigns and generals. Mercenaries of all regional origins filled out the armies of Charles V, and those of his son, Philip II, as well as their enemies during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. By that time Swiss mercenaries who still used pikes (and many did) were largely employed to guard the artillery or trenches or supplies. Similarly, by the late 16th century German Landsknechte were still hired for battle as shock troops but they were considered undisciplined and perfectly useless in a siege.

In Poland in the 15th century most mercenaries were Bohemians who fought under the flag of St. George, which had a red cross on a white background. When Bohemian units found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield they usually agreed that one side would adopt a white cross on a red background while their countrymen on the other side used the standard red-on-white flag of St. George. In the Polish-Prussian and Teutonic Knights campaigns of the mid-15th century the Brethren-by this point too few to do all their own fighting-hired German, English, Scots, and Irish mercenaries to fill out their armies. During the “War of the Cities” (1454-1466) German mercenaries were critical to the victory of the Teutonic Knights at Chojnice (September 18, 1454). When the Order ran out of money, however, Bohemian soldiers-for-hire who held the key fortress and Teutonic capital of Marienburg for the Knights sold it to a besieging Polish army and departed, well paid and unscathed by even a token fight.


From the end of the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302), the Italians tried to decide for themselves what government they wanted, resulting in conflict between the Ghibellines-who supported Imperial rule-and the Guelfs-who supported papal rule. The Guelfs were successful in the first decade of the fourteenth century, ironically at much the same time the papacy moved to Avignon in 1308. Suddenly freed from either Imperial or papal influence, the large number of sovereign states in northern and central Italy began to try to exert control over their neighbors. Florence, Milan, and Venice, and to a lesser extent Lucca, Siena, Mantua, and Genoa, all profited from the early-fourteenth-century military situation by exerting their independence. But this independence came at a price. The inhabitants of the north Italian city-states had enough wealth to be able to pay for others to fight for them and they frequently employed soldiers, condottieri in their language (from the condotte, the contract hiring these soldiers) and mercenaries in ours. Indeed, the immense wealth of the Italian city-states in the late Middle Ages meant that the number of native soldiers was lower than elsewhere in Europe at the same time, but it meant the cost of waging war was much higher.

One might think that having to add the pay for condottieri to the normal costs of war would have limited the numbers of military conflicts in late medieval Italy. But that was not the case and, in what was an incredibly bellicose time, Italy was one of the most fought over regions in Europe. Most of these wars were small, with one city’s mercenary forces facing another’s, but they were very frequent. They gave employment to a large number of condottieri, who in turn fought the wars, which in turn employed the condottieri. An obvious self-perpetuating circle developed. It was fueled by a number of factors: the wealth of northern Italy; the greed of wealthier Italians to acquire more wealth by occupying neighboring cities and lands (or to keep these cities from competing by incorporating their economies); their unwillingness themselves to fight the wars; and the availability of a large number of men who were not only willing to do so, but who saw regular employment in their mercenary companies as a means to comfort, wealth, and often titles and offices. In 1416, one condottierie, Braccio da Montone, became lord of Perugia, while a short time later two others, condottieri sons of the condottiere Muccio Attendolo Sforza, Alessandro and Francesco, became the Master of Pesaro and Duke of Milan, respectively. Other condottieri became governors of Urbino, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara during the fifteenth century.

Venice and Genoa continued to be the greatest rivals among the northern Italian city-states. Both believed the Mediterranean to be theirs, and they refused to share it with anyone, including Naples and Aragon, nor, of course, with each other. This became a military issue at the end of the fifteenth century. The common practice was a monopoly trading contract. Venice’s monopoly with the crusader states ceased when the crusaders were forced from the Middle East in 1291, although they were able to sustain their trade with the victorious Muslim powers. And Venice’s contract with Constantinople was abandoned with the fall of the Latin Kingdom in 1261, only to be replaced by a similar contract with Genoa that would last till the city’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Frequently during the late Middle Ages, this rivalry turned to warfare, fought primarily on the sea, as was fitting for two naval powers. Venice almost always won these engagements, most notably the War of Chioggia (1376-1381), and there seems little doubt that such defeats led to a weakening of the political independence and economic strength of Genoa. Although Venice never actually conquered Genoa, nor does it appear that the Venetian rulers considered this to be in their city’s interest, other principalities did target the once powerful city-state. Florence held Genoa for a period of three years (1353-1356), and Naples, Aragon, and Milan vied for control in the fifteenth century. Seeking defensive assistance, the Republic of Genoa sought alliance with the Kingdom of France, and it is in this context that their most prominent military feature is set, the Genoese mercenary. During the Hundred Years War, Genoa supplied France with naval and, more famously, crossbowmen mercenaries, the latter ironically provided by a city whose experience in land warfare was rather thin.

Before the fifteenth century, the Republic of Venice had also rarely participated in land campaigns-except for leading the forces of the Second Crusade in their attack of Constantinople in 1204. Seeing the sea not only as a provider of economic security but also as defense for the city, Venetian doges and other city officials had rarely pursued campaigns against their neighbors. However, in 1404- 1405, a Venetian army, once again almost entirely mercenaries, attacked to the west and captured Vicenza, Verona, and Padua. In 1411-1412 and again in 1418-1420, they attacked to the northeast, against Hungary, and captured Dalmatia, Fruili, and Istria. So far it had been easy-simply pay for enough condottieri to fight the wars, and reap the profits of conquest. But in 1424 Venice ran into two Italian city-states that had the same military philosophy they did, and both were as wealthy: Milan and Florence. The result was thirty years of protracted warfare.

The strategy of all three of these city-states during this conflict was to employ more and more mercenaries. At the start, the Venetian army numbered 10,000-12,000; by 1432 this figure had grown to 18,000; and by 1439 it was 25,000, although it declined to 20,000 during the 1440s and 1450s. The other two city-states kept pace. At almost any time after 1430 more than 50,000 soldiers were fighting in northern Italy. The economy and society of the whole region were damaged, with little gain by any of the protagonists during the war. At its end, a negotiated settlement, Venice gained little, but it also lost very little. The city went back to war in 1478-1479, the Pazzi War, and again in 1482-1484, the War of Ferrara. The Florentines and Milanese participated in both as well.

After the acquisition of Vicenza, Verona, and Padua in 1405 Venice shared a land frontier with Milan. From that time forward Milan was the greatest threat to Venice and her allies, and to practically any other city-state, town, or village in northern Italy. Milan also shared a land frontier with Florence, and if Milanese armies were not fighting Venetian armies, they were fighting Florentine armies, sometimes taking on both at the same time.

Their animosity predates the later Middle Ages, but it intensified with the wealth and ability of both sides to hire condottieri. This led to wars with Florence in 1351-1354 and 1390-1402, and with Florence and Venice (in league together) in 1423-1454, 1478-1479, and 1482-1484. In those rare times when not at war with Florence or Venice, Milanese armies often turned on other neighboring towns, for example, capturing Pavia and Monza among other places.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Milan’s bellicosity is the rise to power of its condottiere ruler, Francesco Sforza, in 1450. Sforza had been one of Milan’s condottieri captains for a number of years, following in the footsteps of his father, Muccio, who had been in the city-state’s employ off and on since about 1400. Both had performed diligently, successfully, and, at least for condottieri, loyally, and they had become wealthy because of it. Francesco had even married the illegitimate daughter of the reigning Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. But during the most recent wars, after he had assumed the lordship of Pavia, and in the wake of Filippo’s death in 1447, the Milanese decided not to renew Francesco’s contract. In response, the condottiere used his army to besiege the city, which capitulated in less than a year. Within a very short time, Francesco Sforza had insinuated himself into all facets of Milanese rule; his brother even became the city’s archbishop in 1454, and his descendants continued to hold power in the sixteenth century.

Genoa, Venice, and Milan all fought extensively throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but Florence played the most active role in Italian warfare of the later Middle Ages. A republican city-state, although in the fifteenth century controlled almost exclusively by the Medici family, Florence had been deeply involved in the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts of the thirteenth century, serving as the center of the Guelf party. But though the Guelfs were successful this did not bring peace to Florence and when, in 1301, they split into two parties-the blacks and the whites-the fighting continued until 1307. Before this feud was even concluded, however, the Florentine army, numbering 7,000, mostly condottieri, attacked Pistoia, capturing the city in 1307. In 1315 in league with Naples, Florentine forces attempted to take Pisa, but were defeated. In 1325, they were again defeated while trying to take Pisa and Lucca. Between 1351 and 1354 they fought the Milanese. From 1376 to 1378 they fought against papal forces hired at and drawn from Rome in what was known as the War of the Eight Saints, but the Florentines lost more than they gained. Forming the League of Bologna with Bologna, Padua, Ferrara, and other northern Italian cities, they warred against Milan from 1390 to 1402. While they were initially successful against the Milanese, Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, was eventually able to bring Pisa, Lucca, and Venice onto his city’s side, and once again Florence was defeated. In 1406 Florence annexed Pisa without armed resistance. But war broke out with Milan again in 1423 lasting until 1454; Florence would ally with Venice in 1425, and with the papacy in 1440. Battles were lost on the Serchio in 1450 and at Imola in 1434, but won at Anghiara in 1440. Finally, after the Peace of Lodi was signed in 1454 ending the conflict, a league was formed between Florence, Venice, and Milan that lasted for 25 years. But, after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempted murder of his brother, Lorenzo-Pope Sixtus IV was complicit in the affair-war broke out in 1478 with the papacy and lasted until the death of Sixtus in 1484. In addition, interspersed with these external wars were numerous rebellions within Florence itself. In 1345 a revolt broke out at the announcement of the bankruptcy of the Bardi and Peruzzi banking firms; in 1368 the dyers revolted; in 1378 there was the Ciompi Revolt; and in 1382 the popolo grasso revolt. None of these were extensive or successful, but they did disrupt social, economic, and political life in the city until permanently put to rest by the rise to power of the Medicis.

Why Florence continued to wage so many wars in the face of so many defeats and revolts is simple to understand. Again one must see the role of the condottieri in Florentine military strategy; as long as the governors of the city-state were willing to pay for military activity and as long as there were soldiers willing to take this pay, wars would continue until the wealth of the town ran out. In Renaissance Florence this did not happen. Take, for example, the employment of perhaps the most famous condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood. Coming south in 1361, during one of the lulls in fighting in the Hundred Years War, the Englishman Hawkwood joined the White Company, a unit of condottieri already fighting in Italy. In 1364, while in the pay of Pisa, the White Company had its first encounter with Florence when, unable to effectively besiege the city, they sacked and pillaged its rich suburbs. In 1375, now under the leadership of Hawkwood, the White Company made an agreement with the Florentines not to attack them, only to discover later that year, now in the pay of the papacy, that they were required to fight in the Florentine-controlled Romagna. Hawkwood decided that he was not actually attacking Florence, and the White Company conquered Faenza in 1376 and Cesena in 1377. However, perhaps because the papacy ordered the massacres of the people of both towns, a short time later Hawkwood and his condottieri left their papal employment. They did not stay unemployed for long, however; Florence hired them almost immediately, and for the next seventeen years, John Hawkwood and the White Company fought diligently, although not always successfully, for the city. All of the company’s condottieri became quite wealthy, but Hawkwood especially prospered. He was granted three castles outside the city, a house in Florence, a life pension of 2,000 florins, a pension for his wife, Donnina Visconti, payable after his death, and dowries for his three daughters, above his contracted pay. Florentines, it seems, loved to lavish their wealth on those whom they employed to carry out their wars, whether they were successful or not.

In comparison to the north, the south of Italy was positively peaceful. Much of this came from the fact that there were only two powers in southern Italy. The Papal States, with Rome as their capital, did not have the prosperity of the northern city-states, and in fact for most of the later Middle Ages they were, essentially, bankrupt. But economic problems were not the only matter that disrupted Roman life. From 1308 to 1378 there was no pope in Rome and from then until 1417 the Roman pontiff was one of two (and sometimes three) popes sitting on the papal throne at the same time. But even after 1417 the papacy was weak, kept that way by a Roman populace not willing to see a theocracy return to power. Perhaps this is the reason why the Papal States suffered so many insurrections. In 1347 Cola di Rienzo defeated the Roman nobles and was named Tribune by the Roman people. He governed until those same people overthrew and executed him in 1354. In 1434 the Columna family established a republican government in the Papal States, forcing the ruling pope, Eugenius IV, to flee to Florence. He did not return and reestablish his government until 1343. Finally, in 1453, a plot to put another republican government in place was halted only by the general dislike for its leader, Stefano Porcaro, who was executed for treason.

One might think that such political and economic turmoil would not breed much military confidence, yet it did not seem to keep the governors of the Papal States from hiring mercenaries, making alliances with other Italian states, or pursuing an active military role, especially in the central parts of Italy. Usually small papal armies were pitted against much larger northern city-state forces, yet often these small numbers carried the day, perhaps not winning many battles, but often winning the wars, certainly as much because of the Papal States alliances as its military prowess. This meant that despite all the obvious upheaval in the Papal States during the later Middle Ages, at the beginning of the 1490s it was much larger and more powerful than it had ever been previously.

Bibliography Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984. France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. Lepage, Jean-Denis G. G. Medieval Armies and Weapons in Western Europe: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2005. Nicholson, Helen. Medieval Warfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Nicolle, David. French Medieval Armies, 1000-1300. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 1991.

Renaissance Warfare II

Warfare in Renaissance Italy

At the conclusion of the fifteenth century, Italy remained divided. There were four kingdoms: Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, and Naples; many republics such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Lucca, Siena, San Marino, Ragusa (in Dalmatia); small principalities, Piombino, Monaco; and the duchies of Savoy, Modena, Mantua, Milan, Ferrara, Massa, Carrara, and Urbino. Parts of Italy were under foreign rule. The Habsburgs controlled the Trentino, Upper Adige, Gorizia, and Trieste. Sardinia belonged to the kingdom of Aragon. Many Italian states, however, held territories outside of the peninsula. The duke of Savoy possessed the Italian region of Piedmont and the French-speaking Duchy of Savoy along with the counties of Geneva and Nice. Venice owned Crete, Cyprus, Dalmatia, and many Greek islands. The Banco di San Giorgio, the privately owned bank of the republic of Genoa, possessed the kingdom of Corsica. Italian princes also held titles and fiefdoms in neighboring states. Indeed, the duke of Savoy could also claim that he was heir and a descendant of the crusader kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem. All of this confusion often remained a source of contention in Italian politics.

The Muslims became the greatest threat to security when the Arabs occupied Sicily in the ninth century. Later Muslim attempts to conquer central Italy failed as a result of papal resistance. Although the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily removed the immediate threat. Muslim ships raided the Italian coast until the 1820s.

This conflict with Islam resulted in substantial Italian participation in the Cru- sades. The Crusader military orders such as the Templars and the Order of Saint John were populated by a great number of Italian knights. Italian merchants, too, established their own warehouses and agencies in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Thanks to the Crusades, Venice and Genoa increased their influence as well. They expanded their colonies, their revenues, and their importance to the Crusader kingdoms. Their wealth exceeded that of many European kingdoms.

The fall of the Crusader kingdoms, the Turkish conquests, and the fall of Constantinople by 1453 led to two significant consequences: the increasing influence of Byzantine and Greek culture in Italian society, and the growing Turkish threat to Italian territorial possessions in the Mediterranean. The conflict between Italians and Muslims was complex. For centuries Italians and Muslims were trading partners. So the wars between the Turks and Venetians therefore consisted of a combination of bloody campaigns, privateering, commerce, and maritime war lasting more than 350 years.

Despite a common enemy, common commercial and financial interests, a common language, and a common culture, Italian politics remained disparate and divisive. For much of the fifteenth century the states spent their time fighting each other over disputed territorial rights. Although they referred to themselves as Florentines, Lombards, Venetians, Genoese, or Neapolitans, when relating themselves to outsiders, such as Muslims, French, Germans, and other Europeans, they self- identified as “Italians.”

The Organization of Renaissance Armies

The lack of significant external threats led to the reduction in size of Italian armies. The cost of maintaining standing armies or employing their citizenry in permanent militias was too expensive and reduced the productivity of the population. Italian city-states, duchies, and principalities preferred to employ professional armies when needed, as they were extremely costly to hire. Larger states, such as the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States possessed a limited permanent force, but the remainder of the Italian states had little more than city guards, or small garrisons. Nevertheless, Italian Renaissance armies, when organized, were divided into infantry and cavalry. Artillery was in its infancy and remained a severely limited in application. Cavalry was composed of heavy or armored cavalry, genti d’arme (men at arms), and light cavalry. Since the Middle Ages, genti d’arme were divided into “lances” composed of a “lance chief”—or corporal—a rider, and a boy. They were mounted on a warhorse, a charger, and a jade respectively. The single knight with his squire was known as lancia spezzata— literally “brokenspear,” or anspessade.

Infantry was divided into banners. Every banner was composed of a captain, two corporals, two boys, ten crossbowmen, nine palvesai, soldiers carrying the great medieval Italian shields called palvesi, and a servant for the captain. Generally the ratio of cavalry to infantry was one to ten. There was no organized artillery by the end of the fifteenth century, as it was relatively new to European armies.

An Evolution in Military Affairs, or the So-Called “Military Revolution”

Artillery was in its infancy during the fifteenth century, but in the early days of the sixteenth century, a quick and impressive development began. The Battle of Ravenna in 1512 marked the first decisive employment of cannons as field artillery. Soon infantry and cavalry realized the power of artillery and proceeded to alter their tactics to avoid or at least to reduce the damage. Moreover, the increasing power of artillery demonstrated the weakness of medieval castles and led to a trans- formation of military architecture. The traditional castle wall was vertical and tall and could be smashed by cannon-fired balls. In response, the new Italian-styled fortress appeared. Its walls were lower and oblique instead of perpendicular to the ground. The walls resisted cannonballs better, as their energy could also be diverted by the obliquity of the wall itself. Then, the pentagonal design was determined as best for a fortress, and each angle of the pentagon was reinforced by another smaller pentagon, called a bastion. It appeared as the main defensive work and was protected by many external defensive works, intended to break and scatter the enemy’s attack. The fifteenth-century Florentine walls in Volterra have many bastion elements, but the first Italian-styled fortress was at Civitavecchia, the harbor for the papal fleet, forty miles north of Rome. It was erected by Giuliano da Sangallo in 1519, but recent studies suggest that Sangallo exploited an older draft by Michelangelo.

The classical scheme of the Italian-styled fortress often referred to as the trace italienne was established in the second half of the sixteenth century. Its elegant efficiency was recognized by all powers. European sovereigns called upon Italian military architects to build these new fortresses in their countries. Antwerp, Parma, Vienna, Györ, Karlovac, Ersekujvar, Breda, Ostend, S’Hertogenbosch, Lyon, Char- leville, La Valletta, and Amiens all exhibited the style and ability of Giuliano da Sangallo, Francesco Paciotti, Pompeo Targone, Gerolamo Martini, and many other military architects, who disseminated a style and a culture to the entire Continent. The pentagonal style was further developed by Vauban and soon reached America, too, where many fortresses and military buildings were built on a pentagonal scheme.

This evolution in military architecture—generally known as “the Military Revolution”—meant order and uniformity. A revolution also occurred in uniforms and weapons. Venetian infantrymen shipping on galleys for the 1571 naval campaign were all dressed in the same way; and papal troops shown in two 1583 frescoes are dressed in yellow and red, or in white and red, depending on the company to which they belonged. Likewise, papal admiral Marcantonio Colonna, in 1571, ordered his captains to provide all their soldiers with “merion in the modern style, great velveted flasks for the powder, as fine as possible, and all with well ammunitioned match arquebuses . . . ” Of course, uniformity remained a dream, especially when compared with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century styles, but it was a first step.

Although a revolution in artillery and fortifications remained a significant aspect of the military revolution, captains faced the problem of increasing firepower. The Swiss went to battle in squared formations, but it proved to be unsatisfactory against artillery. Similarly, portable weapons could not fire and be reloaded fast enough, and it soon became apparent that armies needed a mixture of pike and firearms. The increasing range and effectiveness of firearms made speed on the field more important. It was clear that the more a captain could have a fast fire–armed maneuvering mass, the better the result in battle. Machiavelli examined this issue; he was as bad a military theorist as he was a formidable political theorist. He suggested the use of two men on horseback: a rider and a scoppiettiere—a “hand- gunner”—on the same horse. It was the first kind of mounted infantry in the modern era. Giovanni de’Medici, the brave Florentine captain known as Giovanni of the Black Band, adopted this system. Another contemporary Florentine captain, Pietro Strozzi, who reduced the men on horseback to only one, developed the same system. He fought against Florence and Spain, then he passed to the French flag at the end of the Italian Wars. When in France, he organized a unit based upon his previous experience. It was composed of firearmed riders, considered mounted infantrymen, referred to as dragoons.

The Swiss

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano.

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.


For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai (1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten (1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful crossbows and longbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armor for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate armor presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy (1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armored horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.

A full suit of Italian plate armour circa 1450.

Renaissance armor was not just a means of protection, but also a work of art. Some armor, like the suit shown here, had simple borders cut into the metal. Other pieces displayed elaborate images of saints or ancient heroes. The most expensive armor included designs in silver or gold.

Development of Armor.

Arms and armor changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armor and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.

The most popular form of armor during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armorers began making plate armor out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armor protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armor expanded to cover more and more of the body.

By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of overlapping steel plates. A full suit of armor might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armor could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armor than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.

Armor changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armor would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armorers responded by making their armor harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armor, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armor became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armor had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

Tournaments called for special armor. Since participants did not have to carry the armor’s weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armor that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armor. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.

Most armor, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armor was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armor were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.

Development of Arms.

Renaissance weapons fell into three basic categories: edged weapons, staff weapons, and projectile weapons. Edged weapons included swords and daggers. Renaissance swords often had thin, stiff blades to pierce the gaps between the plates in a suit of armor. The blades were usually straight and had two sharpened edges, although some swords featured curved or single-edged blades. Large swords swung with two hands were common among foot soldiers in Germany and Switzerland.

A staff weapon, a pole with a steel head, was used to cut, stab, or strike an opponent. Heavily armored mounted knights favored the lance, a wooden shaft 10 to 12 feet long with a steel tip. Foot soldiers, especially in Switzerland, often used the halberd, a 5- to 7-foot shaft with a head that had both a cutting edge and a point for stabbing.

Projectile weapons were designed to hurl objects at great speeds. The simplest of these, the sling, threw stones or lead pellets. Most archers in the 1300s and 1400s used the longbow. Both it and the mechanical crossbow could shoot arrows capable of penetrating plate armor at certain ranges. In the 1500s, firearms gradually took the place of bows.

The first pistols, called “hand cannons,” appeared in the early 1300s. They were little more than a barrel with a handle, or stock. The barrel had a chamber, or breech, that held shot and powder. The soldier loaded powder into the open end of the barrel (the muzzle) and packed it tight with a rod. The bullet went in after the powder. The gunner touched a lighted fuse to a small hole in the barrel to ignite the powder and fire the shot.

Over the next few hundred years, various improvements made firearms more reliable and easier to fire. The most important development was the invention of firing mechanisms, known as locks, in the 1400s. The simplest kind was the matchlock. It had an arm that held the lighted fuse. Pulling a trigger turned the arm, touching the fuse to the powder. Even easier to use was the wheel lock, which removed the need for a fuse. It ignited the powder by striking a spark from a piece of iron pyrite when the trigger was pulled. A variation of this, the flintlock, relied on flint to produce a spark.

Heavy cannons, or artillery, appeared about the same time as firearms. Artillery pieces were loaded and fired in much the same way as firearms, but they fired much larger stones and iron balls. The biggest artillery pieces were used for castle sieges. The largest gun ever built could hurl a 300-pound stone ball up to two miles. However, siege cannons weighed thousands of pounds and could not be moved easily. By the late 1400s, field artillery had been developed that could be mounted on wheels and transported. Cannons also became common aboard ships. Like armor, many cannons were highly decorated with designs or the owners’ coats of arms.


The conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the founding of the Latin Empire split the remaining possessions of the Byzantines into two large states, Nikaia and Epiros, and some smaller states. Despite reduced resources, it was an effective army which rarely lost a battle, beating the Seljuqs at Antioch in 1211, the Latin Empire at Poimanenon in 1224 and the Achaian Franks at Pelagonia in 1259. Originally based only on the Anatolian provinces, it regained Thrace in 1235, Macedonia and Thessaloniki in 1246. The Varangians were now purely palace guards and no longer went to war, but the Vardariotai guards originally recruited from Magyar settlers in the Vardar valley did still take the field. The Latinikon were Frankish knights, now mainly recruited from Constantinople, the Latin Emperor being poor and Byzantine pay generous.

Tourkopouloi were Christianised Turks. The Skythikon had originally been recruited from Pechenegs, but were now usually Cumans. They were not used in a single body, but as detachments scattered through the army. They were supplemented from 1242 by a mass settlement of Cuman refugees fleeing from the Mongols. These were given lands in exchange for military service, but on one occasion deserted to the enemy on the field of battle. Native cavalry were now mostly reservists called stratiotai holding individual pronoiai, grants not of land but of its rents. They were thus neither localised soldier-farmers as in the old Thematic forces, nor feudal lords, but soldiers who collected their own pay and were called up by the central authorities for service anywhere in the empire. They were still armoured lancers, but had reverted to the skirmishing tactics of earlier days.

Until the accession of Theodoros II Laskaris they served only in Anatolia. Their quality was variable, those of the Paphlagonian theme for example being considered good and those of Macedonia bad. The illustrations in the Skylitzes manuscript of around the start of this period shows several bodies of lancers who lack armour. Infantry were now predominantly archers from the Anatolian themes. Peltastai are no longer mentioned, but some archers are depicted with spears and small shields. Camp servants were used to attack the unwalled town of Serres in 1246. Byzantine warships were now lighter and no longer mentioned using Greek Fire.

The restored Byzantine Empire in 1265.

When Pope Innocent III was informed of the sacking of Constantinople, he understood at once the damage that had been done. Furiously excommunicating everyone who had taken part, he wondered aloud how the dream of church unity could ever now occur. How could the Greeks, he wrote to his legates, ever forgive their Catholic brothers, whose swords still dripped with Christian blood, and who had betrayed and violated their holiest shrines? Eastern Christians, he concluded with good reason, now detested Latins more than dogs.

The new masters of Constantinople, meanwhile, seemed determined to increase the native resentment. In a hastily cleaned Hagia Sophia, where a few days before a prostitute had been mockingly perched on the patriarchal throne, a Latin emperor was crowned, and the feudal arrangements of the West were forced on the corpse of the Byzantine Empire. The various nobles were rewarded with large estates, and a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms replaced the single authority of the emperor. A crusader knight seized Macedonia, calling himself the king of Thessaloniki, and another set himself up as the lord of Athens. Not even in its most advanced decay had the Byzantine state been as powerless as the Latin one that took its place.

Remarkably enough, given the deplorable state of the capital, the vast majority of Byzantines in the countryside were reasonably well off. As the central authority of the emperors had weakened in the years before the Fourth Crusade, the towns and villages of Byzantium had flourished. Merchants of the West, the East, and the Islamic world converged in fairs held throughout the empire, where they displayed exotic wares from as far away as Russia, India, China, and Africa. The urban population boomed, and since the corrupt and paralyzed imperial government was unable to collect taxes, the wealth stayed in private hands. Emperors could no longer afford their lavish building programs as the treasury dried up, but private citizens could, and the cities became showpieces for personal fortunes. A new spirit of humanism was in the air, along with an intellectual curiosity. Byzantine art, which had been stylized for centuries, became suddenly more lifelike; writers began to depart from the cluttered, archaic styles of antiquity; and individual patrons of the arts sponsored vibrant local styles in the frescoes and mosaics of their villas. The spirit of Byzantium was flowering even as imperial fortunes declined, and not even the terrible trauma of the Fourth Crusade could dampen it for long.

Despite the resilience of its culture and economy, the empire’s power seemed irretrievably lost. Alexius Murtzuphlus had tried to organize a counteroffensive with his fellow emperor-in-exile Alexius III, but his idiotic colleague had betrayed him, and the crusaders had flung Murtzuphlus to his death from the top of the Theodosian column. In remote Trebizond on the shores of the Black Sea, the grandsons of Andronicus the Terrible declared themselves the rightful emperors; while at Epirus, the great-grandson of Alexius Comnenus claimed the same thing. The most powerful and important fragment of the empire, however, was centered at Nicaea, where the patriarch crowned Alexius III’s son-in-law Theodore Lascaris as emperor.

As refugees and wealth poured into the Nicene haven of the Orthodox faith and Byzantine culture, the crusader’s Latin Empire of Constantinople grew progressively weaker. Within a year, a Bulgarian army had effectively broken its power, destroying its army, capturing the impotent emperor, and allowing Theodore Lascaris to reconquer most of northwestern Asia Minor. Instead of confronting the obvious danger of Nicaea, however, successive Latin emperors concentrated on extracting wealth from the citizens of Constantinople, abandoning themselves to the pleasures of palace life.

Only the threat of the Seljuk Turks at their rear prevented the Nicaean emperors from further exploiting Latin weakness; but in 1242, a terrifying Mongol horde suddenly appeared, and the situation dramatically changed. Smashing the Turkish army sent against him, the Mongol khan forced the Seljuk sultan to become his vassal and extracted a promise of an annual tribute of horses, hunting dogs, and gold. The Mongol horde seemed poised to descend on Nicaea next, but it unexpectedly withdrew the next year, leaving the Seljuks crippled in his wake. To the relieved Byzantines, it seemed as if God had delivered them from certain destruction, and perhaps even given them a powerful new ally. Nestorian Christians who had been expelled from the Byzantine Empire had reached Mongolia in the seventh century, and though the khans had yet to embrace a major religion, several high-ranking Mongols—including the daughter-in-law of Genghis Khan—were Christian. In any case, whether they were well disposed to Christianity or not, the Mongols’ timely attack finally left Nicaea free to pursue its dream of recapturing Constantinople.

Through careful diplomacy and military displays, Nicaea slowly built up the pressure on the tottering Latin Empire. By now the crusader kingdom had virtually shrunk down to Constantinople itself, and the capital lived under a perpetual shadow of gloom, with its deserted streets and dilapidated palaces. Its humiliated emperor Baldwin II was so impoverished that he’d been obliged to sell off the lead from the roof of the imperial palace—which was now in a tumbledown state of advanced decay—and in his desperate search for money had even begun to pawn the few relics that had survived the sack. By 1259, when a dashing young general named Michael Palaeologus was crowned in Nicaea, Baldwin was barely clinging on to power, and few doubted the general would recover the city. The only question was when.

Michael VIII Palaiologos

Nicaea was not without its own turmoil. The thirty-four-year-old Michael Palaeologus had come to power only after the regent was brutally hacked to death during the funeral service of his predecessor, but by the time Michael was crowned on Christmas day, his empire was infinitely more powerful and vibrant than its Latin counterpart. In the summer of 1261, Michael neutralized the threat of the Venetian navy by signing a treaty with their archrivals Genoa, and sent his Caesar, Alexius Strategopoulos, to see how strong Constantinople’s defenses were. When the Caesar arrived outside the city in July with eight hundred men, some farmers immediately informed him that the Latin garrison—along with the Venetian navy—was away attacking an island in the Bosporus. Hardly believing his luck, Strategopoulos hid until nightfall in a monastery near the Pege Gate, easily escaping detection by the laconic defenders. Upon discovering a small, unlocked postern gate nearby, the Caesar sent through a handful of men who quietly overpowered the guards and opened the main gate. On the morning of July 25, 1261, the Nicaean army poured into the city, shouting at the top of their lungs and beating their swords against their shields. Emperor Baldwin II was so terrified by the noise that he left the crown jewels behind, fleeing to the palace of the Bucoleon, where he was somehow able to find a Venetian ship and make good his escape. Within hours, it was all over. The Venetian quarter was burned to the ground, and the returning Venetian navy was too busy rescuing its loved ones to fight back.

For the Latins inside the city, there was no thought of resistance, only of panicked flight. Scattering in all directions, they hid in churches, disguised themselves as monks, and even leaped into the sewers to avoid detection. When they cautiously emerged, however, they found that there had been no massacre. The Byzantines had come home not to plunder but to live. The bedraggled Latins hurried quietly down to the harbors and boarded the returning Venetian ships, glad that Byzantines had shown more restraint in victory than their own crusading predecessors.

The incredible news reached Michael Palaeologus where he was asleep in his tent, nearly two hundred miles away. Refusing to believe that his forces had captured the city until he had seen Baldwin’s discarded scepter, Michael hurried to take possession of the capital that he had long dreamed of but never seen. On August 15, 1261, he solemnly entered through the Golden Gate and walked to the Hagia Sophia, where he was crowned as Michael VIII. After fifty-seven years in exile, the Byzantine Empire had come home.

The city that Michael VIII triumphantly entered was a pale shadow of its former self. Charred and blackened houses stood abandoned on every corner, still sagging and in ruin from the sack more than five decades before. Its churches were despoiled and dilapidated, its palaces decayed, and its treasures dispersed. The formidable Theodosian walls were badly in need of repair, the imperial harbor was completely unprotected, and the surrounding countryside was devastated. Its weary citizens had little hope for relief from a throne that had seen—from Irene in 780 to Alexius Murtzuphlus in 1204—half of its occupants overthrown. Worst of all, however, the old unity of the Byzantine world had vanished—the splinters of the empire in Trebizond and Epirus remained stubbornly independent, sapping the already diminished strength of Byzantium. The only hope of salvation seemed to be from the West, but the Fourth Crusade had severely ruptured western relations.

If anyone had a chance of repairing the damage, however, it was Michael VIII. Not yet forty, he was energetic and vibrant, hiding a fierce intelligence behind a convivial smile. Boasting an impressive imperial lineage of no fewer than eleven emperors and three dynasties among his ancestors, he was well connected, able, and smarter than anyone else around him. His first task was to restore the city’s shattered morale, and he did so with a whirlwind of construction, repairing walls and rebuilding churches. In the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia, the emperor commissioned a stunning mosaic of Christ flanked by Mary and John the Baptist—perhaps the finest piece of art that Byzantium ever produced. A massive chain was stretched across the imperial harbor to protect it from enemy vessels, and the moats around the land walls were cleared. Knowing the value of propaganda, the emperor designed a new flag and sent it fluttering from every parapet and tower in the city. Though the eagle had been the symbol of the Roman Empire since Gaius Marius had chosen it thirteen hundred years before, most banners before Michael bore either Constantine’s cross or the Chi-Rho—the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name. Now the emperor added a great golden eagle, double-headed with two crowns—one for the interim capital of Nicaea and one for Constantinople. Those who saw it could swell with pride and remind themselves that Byzantium had been a mighty empire embracing two continents, looking both east and west. Perhaps under the dashing Michael VIII it would be so again. The imperial enemies were scattered and disunited, and an immediate offensive just might catch them on their heels.

At the head of his small, battle-hardened army, Michael VIII had soon pushed back a marauding Bulgarian army and forced the Byzantine despot of Epirus to submit to the empire. By 1265, he had conquered most of the Peloponnese from its Latin overlords and even managed to clear the Turks out of the Meander valley. The next year, however, a new player appeared on the international stage, and everything was thrown into confusion.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily had dominated Italian politics for a long time, but by 1266 its energy was exhausted. Pope Urban IV, wanting a friendlier hand at its helm, invited Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis IX of France, to seize the kingdom. If the pope wanted a neutral power to his south, however, he could hardly have made a worse choice. Charles was cruel and grasping, and after beheading his sixteen-year-old opponent in a public square, he immediately began planning to enlarge his domains. His schemes were given an unexpected boost when Baldwin II, the exiled and rather pathetic Latin emperor of Constantinople, offered to give him the Peloponnese in exchange for help regaining the throne. The delighted Sicilian king immediately began levying heavy taxes to support the war effort and searching for allies, forming an anti-Byzantine league with Venice.

Knowing his small army and decrepit navy would stand no chance against his united enemies, Michael VIII turned to diplomacy, adroitly managing to keep them at bay. Venice was bought off with greater trading privileges within the empire, and a few letters hastily written to King Louis persuaded the French king to restrain his headstrong younger brother. For the moment, the voracious Charles was forced to sit on his hands, but the French king died in 1270, and Charles gleefully invaded. Sicilian arms were irresistible, but once again Michael VIII outthought his opponent. Writing to the pope, the emperor cleverly dangled the promise of a union of the churches before the pontiff’s eyes in exchange for bringing Charles to heel.

The ploy worked and Charles was recalled, but Michael was playing a dangerous game. He was well aware that his subjects would never accept domination by the hated Roman church, and he couldn’t keep stalling the pope indefinitely. For three years, the emperor smoothly dodged the papal representatives; but by 1274, Pope Gregory X got tired of waiting and sent an ultimatum to Constantinople—either implement the union immediately or face the consequences. There was little that Michael VIII could do. Asking only that eastern practices be left alone, he submitted his church to the authority of the pope.

The firestorm in Constantinople was both unsurprising and immediate. The patriarch angrily refused to ratify the hated document, and most of Michael’s subjects felt bitterly betrayed. The emperor had not only dangerously weakened his throne, but he had also handed the Orthodox powers of Serbia and Bulgaria the perfect bit of propaganda. Each could now invade imperial territory at will and claim to be fighting for tradition and truth. Any such invasion, Michael well knew, would receive dangerous support from his outraged subjects. But he had removed the justification of papal support from any future attack by Charles, and that for Michael VIII was worth the price of popular unrest. In any case, he didn’t intend to sit idly by while his enemies pounced. When Bulgaria invaded, trying to exploit the weakness, Michael simply invited the Mongol Golden Horde into Bulgaria. The Mongol advance crippled the kingdom, dealing Bulgaria a blow from which it never recovered.

Charles of Anjou had been seriously checked, but he wasn’t beaten yet. If his grand alliance had foundered on Byzantine treachery, then it must be more solidly rebuilt. Venice was easily seduced. She was always looking to her own advantage, and the rights Michael VIII had granted to Genoa were cutting deeply into her profits. A victory for Charles would mean the banishment of the Genoese upstarts—an irresistible attraction for the Lion of Saint Mark’s. The only thing restraining Charles was papal displeasure, but the resourceful king overcame even this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Pope Gregory X died in 1276, and through steady interference and intimidation Charles managed to have a French cardinal elected pope who hated the Byzantines almost as much as he did. In 1281, the French pope sent a letter to the stunned Byzantine emperor informing him that he had been excommunicated on the grounds of his subjects’ continued resistance to Catholicism. The emperor could hardly believe the news. He had sacrificed his popularity and invited charges of impiety and betrayal for nothing. Now Venice and Sicily were firmly allied against him, and they would sail under the papal blessing. Not even the Fourth Crusade had such support.

Byzantium’s only advantage was Michael VIII. In a brilliant bit of truly “byzantine” diplomacy, Michael reached out to Peter III of Aragon, urging him to invade Sicily. Peter was related to the dynasty that Charles of Anjou had evicted from power and considered Sicily his birthright. And thanks to vicious taxation and a copious amount of Byzantine gold, anti-French feeling on the island was at a fever pitch. Now, suggested Michael VIII, would be the perfect time for the Spanish savior to arrive.

Unaware of the storm that was gathering, Charles of Anjou left Sicily for the mainland of Italy to put the finishing touches on his army. In his absence, the island exploded. The revolt known to posterity as the Sicilian Vespers started innocuously enough on the outskirts of Palermo. As the bells of the church of Santo Spirito rang to call the faithful to Vespers on Easter Monday of 1282, an inebriated French soldier tried to seduce a Sicilian girl. To the outraged onlookers, it was the last straw. These boorish French had lorded it over them for long enough, growing fat off Sicilian labor. The enraged mob killed the offending soldier and fanned out through the streets of Palermo, venting nearly two decades of frustration on anyone with a drop of French blood. When the sun rose on Tuesday morning, there wasn’t a Frenchman left alive, and the electrifying news of the revolt sped throughout the island. By May, French resistance had collapsed, and by the end of August Peter III had landed and taken possession of Palermo. Charles of Anjou furiously put several Sicilian ports under siege, but he had abused his former subjects for too long, and they preferred death to his return. Though he spent the rest of his life trying to recover the island, he was never successful, and in 1285 he died, a broken man.

Michael VIII never lived to see the death of his great enemy. With the threat of western aggression gone, the despot of Epirus was once again asserting his independence, and the emperor was determined to bring him into line. The fifty-eight-year-old emperor again led his troops toward battle, but he had gotten no farther than Thrace when he fell seriously ill. Thinking as always of his responsibilities, the dying emperor proclaimed his son Andronicus II to be his successor, and expired quietly in the first days of December.

He had been among Byzantium’s greatest emperors, restoring its capital and dominating the politics of the Mediterranean. Without him, the empire would certainly have fallen to Charles of Anjou—or any number of watching enemies—and the Byzantine light would have been extinguished, its immense learning dispersed among a West not yet ready to receive it. Instead, Michael VIII had deftly outmaneuvered his enemies, founding in the process the longest-lasting dynasty in the history of the Roman Empire. Nearly two hundred years later, a member of his family would still be sitting on the throne of Byzantium, fighting the same battle of survival—albeit with much longer odds. Michael had done what he could to repair the imperial wreckage. He left behind valuable tools to continue the recovery: a small but disciplined army, a reasonably full treasury, and a refurbished navy. But for the savior of the empire, no gratitude awaited. Excommunicated by the pope, he died a heretic to the Catholic West and a traitor to the Orthodox East. His son buried him without ceremony or consecration in a simple, unmarked grave. Michael VIII’s affronted subjects, however, would all too soon have reason to miss him. If Byzantium looked strong at his death, it was only because his brilliance had made it so. Without a strong army or reliable allies, its power was now purely diplomatic, and it needed hands as skillful as Michael’s to guide it. Unfortunately for the empire, however, few of Michael’s successors would prove worthy of him.

An Invention of No Ordinary Character

Richard J. Gatling was seeking business. In the meticulous penmanship of a man born to a land-owning Southern family, he began a letter to President Abraham Lincoln.

It was February 18, 1864, late in the American Civil War and an extraordinary period in the evolution of firearms: dawn in the age of the machine gun and yet a time when officers still roamed battlefields with swords. At forty-five, Gatling was a medical-school graduate who had never practiced medicine, opting instead to turn his stern father’s sideline as an inventor into a career. For twenty years he had mainly designed agricultural devices. Dr. Gatling, as he liked to be called, came from a North Carolina family that owned as many as twenty slaves. But he had moved north to Indiana for business and marriage, and when the war began in 1861 he did not align himself with the secessionists who formed the Confederacy. He knew men on both sides. Far from his place of birth and away from the battlefields, he had taken to viewing the contents of the caskets returning to the railroad depot in Indianapolis. Inside were the remains of Union soldiers, many felled by trauma but most by infection or disease. Seeing these gruesome sights, Gatling shifted attention from farm devices to firearms, and to the ambition of designing a rapid-fire weapon, a pursuit that since the fourteenth century had attracted and eluded gunsmiths around the world. “I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead,” he wrote. “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.”

Gatling did not fit any caricature of an arms profiteer. By the available accounts, he carried himself as a neat and finely dressed gentleman. He was kindhearted to his family and associates, soft-spoken at home, and self-conscious enough that he wore a beard to hide the smallpox scars that peppered his face. He made for a curious figure: an earnest and competitive showboat when promoting his weapon, but restrained and modest on the subject of himself. He was, his son-in-law said, “an exception to the rule that no man is great to his valet.” One interviewer noted that he professed to feel “that if he could invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men, the other ninety and nine could remain at home and be saved to the country.” He repeated this point throughout his life, explaining a sentiment that he insisted rose from seeing firsthand the ruined remains of young men lost in a fratricidal war. His records make clear that he was driven by profits. He never ceased claiming that compassion urged him on at the start.

Gatling was neither a military nor a social visionary. But he was a gifted tinkerer and an unrelenting salesman, and he found good help. His plans proceeded swiftly. Though there is no record of his having prior experience with weapon design, by late 1862, after viewing rival guns, drawing on his knowledge of agricultural machinery, and enlisting the mechanical assistance of Otis Frink, a local machinist, he had received a patent for a prototype he called the “battery gun.” “The object of this invention,” he told the U.S. Patent Office, “is to obtain a simple, compact, durable, and efficient firearm for war purposes, to be used either in attack or defence, one that is light when compared with ordinary field artillery, that is easily transported, that may be rapidly fired, and that can be operated by few men.”

Gatling’s battery gun, while imperfect in its early forms, was a breakthrough in a field that had frustrated everyone who had tried before. Since medieval times, the pursuit of a single weapon that could mass musket fire had confounded generations of military-minded gunsmiths and engineers. Gunsmiths had long ago learned to place barrels side by side on frames to create firearms capable of discharging projectiles in rapid succession. These unwieldy devices, known as volley guns, were capable in theory of blasting a hole in a line of advancing soldiers. They had limitations in practice, among them slow reload times and difficulties in adjusting fire toward moving targets and their flanks. Ammunition was a problem, too, as was the poor state of metallurgy, although this did not discourage everyone, and the lethal possibilities of a machine that could concentrate gunfire attracted would-be inventors of many stripes. One of the few highly detailed accounts of the early models suggests an inauspicious start. In 1835, Giuseppe Fieschi, a Corsican, rented an apartment on Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In a room overlooking the street he secretly constructed a frame of thick oak posts and attached twenty-five rifle barrels, all in a space of roughly a meter square. Each barrel was packed with multiple musket balls and a heavy charge of powder, then aligned to aim together at a point on the street below. Fieschi waited. On July 28, his intended victim appeared: King Louis-Philippe. Fieschi fired his makeshift device, and a volley flew from the apartment window and slammed into the king’s entourage. In the technical sense, the “infernal machine,” as his device came to be known in Europe, was both a success and a failure. It had a terrible effect. A piece of lead grazed Louis-Philippe’s skull, just above his face, and others cut down his company, killing eighteen people. But an examination of the gun later suggested that while it worked well enough as a tool for assassination or terror, it was hardly ready for the battlefield. Four barrels had failed to fire. Four others had ruptured. Two of these had exploded, scattering lead inside the assassin’s rented room and gravely injuring Fieschi, who was captured and saved from his injuries by the French authorities, to be executed later by guillotine.

Several hundred years of near stagnation in rapid-fire design, coupled with such mishaps, did not make machine guns an attractive idea to investors or customers alike. There was reason as well for potential purchasers to suspect nonsense in the claims of the movement’s dreamers, whose folly preceded Fieschi. In 1718, James Puckle, of London, had received an English patent for a rapid-fire flintlock that he proposed to manufacture in two forms: one for firing round balls at Christians, and another for firing square blocks at Muslims. The weapon, he wrote, was for “defending King George, Your country and Lawes, to defending yourselves and Protestant cause.” Puckle was nearly two centuries ahead of the machine-gun age. His proposal to subject Muslims to what he expected to be the crueler effects of square projectiles in some ways foreshadowed the punishing ways.

Battle of Assietta 1747

Piedmont proved to be an impenetrable barrier to every advance from the French side of the Alps. The first attempt, by way of the little-used Varaita valley, was checked by the entrenched position of the Piedmontese near Casteldelfino in October 1743. In the following year the French staff officer Pierre Bourcet (who was brought up in the Alps) accomplished a clever concentration of 33,700 French and Spanish troops in the Stura valley further to the south. This venture too came to an end in front of a Piedmontese strongpoint, in this case the pentagonal fortress of Cuneo. The place was held by 3,000 men under the command of a fine old Saxon soldier of fortune, Major-General Leutrum, and few sieges have ever undergone such varied and comprehensive misfortunes – disagreements in command, floods, and guerrillas roving around on the lines of communication. The French and Spanish raised the siege on the night of 21-22 October and marched back over the Alps, having fired away 43,000 rounds of shot and bombs, and having lost 15,000 men through enemy action, sickness and desertion.

One final attempt to pierce the Alps, by way of the Mont-Genevre route, was shattered on the ridge of the Colle dell’ Assietta on 19 July 1747.


In the spring of 1747, a new French army marched along the Mediterranean coast. Charles Emmanuel ordered his troops to hold Nice, but soon he knew that another French expeditionary force was approaching the Alps from the west. If they crossed the Alps, they could effectively threaten Turin. Charles Emmanuel had no troops to stem the invasion.

in June 1747 a French army under Marshal Belle-Isle advanced along the Mediterranean coast, the siege of Genoa was lifted.

Now the French and Spanish decided on a concerted attack on Savoy-Piedmont, hoping to knock it out of the war.  While the Spanish were advancing north along the Appeninnes, Marshal Belle-Isle attempted to advance through Stura Pass.  The marshal’s brother, the Chevalier Belle-Isle would advance on Turin from further north.  The French crossed Mont Genevre into Italy on July 15th and 16th and were faced with two valleys, both heading toward their object – Turin, the capital of Savoy.  The northern valley was protected by a fortress at Exilles.  The southern valley was protected by the Fenestrelle fortress.  Between these two valleys was the Colle della Assietta, a mountain with an elevation of around 8,000 feet.  Seeing that the enemy could pass along the ridge, and that a road over the ridge was the best connection between the fortresses of Exilles and Fenestrelle, on June 29th the King of Savoy had ordered that 3,000 workers start building a defensive line there.  Numerous obstacles, redoubts and an 18 foot high palisade, had been built on the slope.

To the south, the mountain descends 3,000 feet in around two miles.  To the north, it descends over 5,000 feet in around two miles to Exilles.  Terrain this difficult was greatly advantageous to the Allied defenders.  As an additional advantage, they might descend from the mountain into the rear of an enemy army in the valley.  The French received bad intelligence and believed that Colle della Assiatta was weakly defended. 

The Sardinian had fortified the area with 13 infantry battalions: 9 Sardinian, the remaining were Austrian and Swiss taken from the troops that had unsuccessfully besieged Genoa.

After a delay of several days due to bad weather, the French army advanced along the ridge on July 19, 1747 hoping to get behind the two valley fortresses.  If they could get behind the Exilles fortress and capture it, the road to Turin would be open.  Instead they would meet the enemy in difficult terrain and behind entrenchments.

That morning the Savoy army woke up early but found no enemy to their front.  Later in the day, however, the French emerged.  Rejecting advice to delay an attack in order to prepare scaling ladders, Belle Isle ordered an advance.  Separating into three columns, the French army of around 40,000 men moved on the enemy position, since reinforced (including a few Austrian troops) to a total of around 7,500 men in 13 battalions.

The French right column of 14 battalions under the command of Marshal Villemur swung wide to the right and around much of the enemy position to attack it on another section of the mountain.  The effort failed. 

The French left column of 9 battalions under General Mailly was to move through a ravine and attack the enemy position.

The French center column of 8 battalions under Marshal d’Arnaud was to attack the salient to their front.  At 4:30, the French attacked.

The French attacks were a disaster.  Belle-Isle was dead along with Marshal D’Arnault and many other high ranking officers.  Montcalm, a colonel who would become famous in Canada during the next war, was left wounded in a ditch overnight covered with bodies.  After five hours of battle, the French retreated.

What ensued in the late afternoon was celebrated as the most one-sided slaughter of the war. Neither the flanking columns moved decisively enough to influence events in. These, lashed by determined officers, the French struggled up the slope, disassembling the various man-made impediments as they proceeded, while withering musket fire from concealed and protected hideouts exacted the heavy toll. Four times the French fell back before the onslaught; each time they returned to the struggle. The living climbed over the piles of dead as they tried to surmount the palisades. Defenders rained bullets and rocks down on the relentless blood-drenched attackers. A retreat, more orderly than the butchery, ensured.

The French lost around 5,000 men in all.  Accounts give the losses of Savoy and its allies at just 219.  The Franco-Spanish attempt to crush Savoy was a failure, and the war settled down in Italy after the battle. 

The beaten French troops returned to France. Frederick II of Prussia, after hearing of news of the Sardinian defence at Assietta, declared that, if he had had such valorous troops, he could easily become King of Italy.

The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, or Aachen, ended the war the next year with Savoy gaining some territory.  The kingdom continued to survive and in the next century was prominent in efforts to unify Italy:  the King of Savoy would become King of Italy.

Battle of Assietta

Battle of Tagina

The strength of the Byzantine Empire lay in its disciplined heavy cavalry – the cataphracts. Both men and horses were trained to a high degree, and were capable of carrying out complex drills on the battlefield. As well as proficiency in the lance, cataphracts were adept in the use of their bows.


The Byzantine cataphract – from the Greek word for “covered” – was equipped with full metal-scale armor, which extended to the horse as well as the rider. The Parthians had been the first army to make use of cataphracts, and their Roman opponents were sufficiently impressed to create heavy cavalry units of their own. The Byzantines later made the cataphracts the major strike force within their army. Mounted on a powerful warhorse, the Byzantine cataphract bristled with weapons, which included a bow, lance, sword, and even a dagger. Besides body armor he wore an iron helmet and carried a shield, the latter strapped to the arm so he could use both hands to control his horse. The main cataphract tactic depended on shock action – a ferocious charge that could crash through virtually any enemy.

The strength of the sixth-century Byzantine army was undoubtedly its cavalry. The majority were equipped equally for shock action or for fighting from a distance. These horsemen wielded lance or bow as the situation demanded, but although the riders were heavily armoured, their horses do not seem to have been protected. The Strategikon emphasized the need for cavalry to charge in a disciplined manner, always maintain a reserve of fresh troops, and be careful not to be drawn into a rash pursuit. Bucellarii were normally cavalry, and by their nature horsemen were more suited than foot soldiers to the raids and ambushes which dominated the warfare of this period. The sixth-century cavalryman was far more likely to experience combat than his infantry counterpart. In a largescale action a well-balanced mix of horse and foot was still the ideal, but the Roman infantry of this period had a very poor reputation. In part this was a result of their inexperience, but they often seem to have lacked discipline and training. N ars’es used dismounted cavalrymen to provide a reliable centre to his infantry line at Taginae. At Dara Belisarius protected his foot behind specially prepared ditches. Roman infantry almost invariably fought in a defensive role, providing a solid base for the cavalry to rally behind. They did not advance to contact enemy foot, but relied on a barrage of missiles, javelins, and especially arrows, to win the combat. All units now included an element of archers and it was claimed that Roman bows shot more powerfully than their Persian counterparts. The front ranks of a formation wore armour and carried large round shields and long spears, but some of the ranks to the rear carried bows. Infantry formations might be as deep as sixteen ranks. Such deep formations made it difficult for soldiers to flee, but also reduced their practical contribution to the fighting, and were another indication of the unreliability of the Roman foot soldier. The Strategikon recorded drill commands given in Latin to an army that almost exclusively spoke Greek. There were other survivals of the traditional Roman military system, many of which would endure until the tenth century, but the aggressive, sword-armed legionary was now a distant memory.

In 541, the Byzantine hold on Italy was seriously threatened by Totila, the new Ostrogoth king. Raising the banner of rebellion, Totila advanced as far south as Naples before being stopped.

After he had taken Naples, Totila laid siege to Rome. Belisarius was sent back to Italy. Rome was taken by Totila in December 546. The Byzantine forces were left holding only four fortresses in Italy. Belisarius returned again to Constantinople and was replaced by Justinian’s Court Chamberlain, Narses, a man who conducted his generalship less with flamboyance than with the precision of a mathematician. In the meantime Totila had taken Sicily again and manned 300 ships to control the Adriatic. By the spring of 552 Narses had mobilized his forces fully, composed mainly of Barbarian contingents, Huns, Lombards, Persians and others. Finding his way south blocked by Teia and his Gothic warriors at Verona, he outflanked them by marching close to the Adriatic coast, reaching Ravenna safely. When Totila received the news in the vicinity of Rome, he took almost his entire army, crossed Tuscany, and established his base at the village of Taginae, the present day Tadino.

The Byzantine reconquest of Italy proved short-lived. In 568, the Lombards invaded Italy and forced the Byzantines into the southern part of the peninsula. However, southern Italy and Sicily remained Byzantine until the advent of the Normans. The Byzantine reconquest of Spain, completed in 554, was somewhat more successful. The empire held the southern third of the Iberian Peninsula until 616, when the Visigoths reclaimed their lost territories.


Byzantine Emperor Justinian had finally realized that he could not succeed in Italy without a major effort, in which an able general would have to be placed in command of adequate forces. Still jealous of Belisarius, he first selected his nephew Germanius, who had distinguished himself as a subordinate of Belisarius in Persia and who had recently won a substantial victory over the Slavs. Germanius, however, died near Sardica, so Justinian selected the aged eunuch Narses (478-573) for command in Italy. Narses refused to accept the post without adequate forces. When he marched north from Salona, later that year, he probably had a total force of 20,000-30,000 men. Arriving in Venetia, he discovered that a powerful Gothic-Frank army at least 50,- 000 strong, under the Goth leader Teias and the Frank King Theudibald, blocked the principal route to the Po Valley. Not wishing to engage such a formidable force and confident that the Franks would soon tire of their alliance with the Goths, as they had in the past, Narses cleverly skirted the lagoons along the Adriatic shore by using his vessels to leapfrog his army from point to point along the coast, some going by ship, some marching, in a manner similar to a modern truck and foot march. In this way he arrived at Ravenna without encountering any opposition. Near Ravenna he attacked and crushed a small Gothic force at Rimini.

Narses now began an advance on Rome. Crossing the Apennines with nearly 20,000 men, he was met by Totila, who probably did not have more than 15,000. In a narrow mountain valley suitable for the shock tactics of his heavy cavalry lancers, Totila had chosen a position which Narses could not bypass. Totila first tried to compensate for his weakness in numbers by attempting to seize a hill from which he could outflank the enemy position, but he was stopped by a unit of 50 Roman infantry.

The imperial general immediately deployed his army in a concave formation. He dismounted his Lombard and Heruli cavalry mercenaries, placing them as a phalanx in the center. His heavy Roman cavalry cataphracts were on each flank, reinforced with all his infantry-who were foot archers. On his left he sent out a mixed force of foot and horse archers to seize a dominant height.

Totila delayed while waiting for an additional 2,000 cavalry to join him, then, after attempts to draw out the Romans had failed, he launched an attack after the midday meal.

Totila’s army was in two lines: the heavy cavalry lancers in the front, with his archers and a line of spear and axe-wielding infantry behind. The Goths opened the battle with a determined cavalry charge. As they swept down the valley they first came under the fire of the advanced force on Narses’ left, then rode into the cross fire of the archers in his concave wings. Halted by the devastating fire, the attackers were then thrown back in confusion on the infantry advancing behind them. Efforts of the Gothic archers to support their cavalry were foiled by the more aggressive, more mobile imperial horse archers on the flanks. Covered by continued fire from the foot archers, these heavy cataphracts then swept into the milling mass of Goths in a double envelopment. More than 6,000 of them, including Totila, were killed. The remnants fled. Narses then continued on to Rome, which he captured after a brief siege.

Man traditionally identified as Narses, from the mosaic depicting Justinian and his entourage in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.



BORN 478

DIED 573


KEY BATTLES Taginae 552, Vesuvius 553, Volturnus 554

Born in Armenia, Narses was a court eunuch in the Byzantine imperial palace in Constantinople. In 532, when riots threatened Emperor Justinian, he was commander of the imperial guard, but this was a court rather than a military appointment. In 538 Narses was chosen to lead an army to reinforce Belisarius fighting the Ostrogoths in Italy. He had no military experience, but the ageing eunuch was intended to control Belisarius, whom Justinian distrusted, rather than to win battles.

Yet Narses was to turn into an outstanding battlefield leader. His first visit to Italy was short, his constant disagreements with Belisarius too disruptive of military operations. But in the 540s he was given a real command, in charge of an army of Heruli – Germanic troops – whom he soon led to an important victory over raiding Slavs and Huns in Thrace.

In 552 Narses led another army to Italy to fight the Ostrogoths once more. Unlike Belisarius he was given plenty of troops. Though a shrivelled 74-year-old, he provided them with inspiration and organization. At Taginae he defeated the Ostrogoth leader, Totila, retook Rome, and finally crushed the Gothic army at a second battle in the foothills of Vesuvius. Narses had regained Italy in a single lightning campaign. In 554 he won another great victory, defeating the Franks and Alamanni tribes at Volturnus. He was still defending Italy against Goths and Franks in 562, when old age ended his unlikely military career.