Later Byzantine Armies


Varangian Guard 10th Century


From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

Although cavalry were of higher status in Byzantine armies, the infantry had specialist skills and weaponry and sophisticated training for their deployment. Tenth-century manuals describe the formation of an infantry square made up of spearmen backed by archers as the main component, but with aisles left for the cavalry to emerge. These gaps were covered by specialist javelinmen (recruited from Slavs) and slingers, all lightly equipped troops able to fill or vacate the gaps quickly, as the tactical situation demanded. Within the infantry formation were units of menaulatoi. They wielded a heavy throwing spear and were designated to repulse assaults by enemy kataphraktoi (cataphracts – armoured men on armoured horses) whose assault would be invulnerable to archery and might break the long spears of the square’s defensive wall of foot.

Byzantine infantry were not just a defensive asset. Against enemy infantry the tenth-century Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos advocated that the main body of spearmen and archers should receive the attack while the menaulatoi and javelin throwers advanced on the wings, curving inwards to maximize the number that could shoot and break up the enemy flanks. An artillery component 16 was provided by cheiromangana, catapults shooting giant arrows, and siphons, man-portable tubes for projecting incendiary Greek Fire.

The fundamental attitude of the Byzantine infantry was defensive. This was because their own cavalry force of cataphracts, armoured lancers and light scouts was used as the offensive force against their enemies and was expected to break their front. At the battle of Dorostolon in 971, the Byzantine infantry engaged in close combat over several days of fighting with the Rus. This Scandinavian-style foot had formed a long line of well-armed infantry with spear, axe and bow and were holding off the Byzantines with their rear protected by the fortress of Dorostolon. After days of grinding down the enemy, the decisive breakthrough came when the emperor himself led the Byzantine cataphracts, in a large wedge formation, to break the weakened Rus line.

From the 960s onwards, the empire’s armies contained many Norse and Rus mercenaries. Some of these were formed into the Varangian Guard, an armoured unit wielding two-handed axes. They provided both a cutting edge to the Byzantine infantry and a personal guard for the emperor. At Dyrrachium in 1081, Emperor Alexios Komnenos was fighting to repel an invasion of the south Italian Normans under the formidable Robert Guiscard. The Varangians formed the centre of the battle line, acting in concert with units of archers. ‘These (the archers) Alexios intended to send first against Guiscard, having instructed Nampites (the Varangian commander) to open his ranks quickly for them (by moving to right and left) whenever they wanted to advance out against the Normans; and to close ranks again and march forward in close order, when they had withdrawn’ (The Alexiad). This tactical deployment is an example of the sophisticated combination of missile and shock troops in Alexios’ army. The Varangians advanced successfully, their archers deterring Norman cavalry attacks and the axemen defeating the infantry opposed to them. Only when they had advanced too far were the Varangians surprised by an infantry flank attack and repulsed.

The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 438pp. ISBN-13: 978-0812216202.

Reviewed by Christopher Berg

An ailing economy handcuffed the Byzantine army and its eventual collapse restricted the army’s scope to merely defensive operations, thereby sealing the fate of the Byzantine Empire. In The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453, Mark Bartusis argues that the success or lack thereof of the Byzantine army had a direct causal relationship to the Byzantine Empire. “The successes and failures of the Byzantine army determined the size, longevity, and even the tone of life within the empire. And as an institution, it reflected the problems and possibilities inherent within Byzantine society.” (p. 8) Rather than a traditional military history, Bartusis examines the Byzantine army from an administrative and institutional standpoint drawing much of his evidence from memoirs, especially John VI Kantakouzenos, military manuals, and legal documents. The author’s linguistic dexterity was tested in this undertaking because most of the material was culled from Slavic, Latin, Greek, and Turkish sources.

The book is divided into two general parts. The first part (ch. 1-6) provides a chronological assessment of the declining Byzantine army and Empire, analyzing and synthesizing a broad corpus of secondary literature while alerting the reader to key concepts that will be addressed in the second part. The second part (ch. 7-14) attempts to dissect the Byzantine army by looking at each of its constituent parts and examining how the Byzantine army functioned and operated as a shadow of its former self.

Part two is where Bartusis’ scholarship shines and deepens our understanding of the complexities of the period. The first four chapters consist of eloquent expositions of the compositional makeup of the Byzantine army with especially strong discussions of pronoairs, mercenaries, professional soldiers, and peasant/free soldiers and their relationship to the army and the continuation of the Empire. The subsequent chapters discuss how soldiers were paid, recruited, and mustered to service, and how campaigns were conducted and administered. Of particular interest to this reviewer were the two chapters devoted to the varieties of guards and their unique services. An intriguing look at guard service, especially palace guard service, is a highlight of the book but regrettably fails to include the critical study of the Varangians by Sigfus Blöndal.[1] Despite this shortcoming, Bartusis’ rigorous examination affirms many of Blöndal’s conclusions and suggests that the Varangians were indeed a powerful force in Byzantine society. The last section is an archaeological exploration of weapons and equipment followed by a concluding chapter that soundly reaffirms Bartusis’ conclusions and its corresponding evidence.

Bartusis has taken great care in constructing his arguments and organized it with the reader in mind. Each successive chapter builds upon the previous and flows unencumbered by superfluous details or digressions. One of the great strengths of this monograph is its unrelenting focus. Little will distract the reader from his task because of the forethought that went into its preparation. This format is welcome, in this reader’s opinion, because one could easily lose sight of important themes and debates in a quagmire of foreign place names, personalities, and other terms. Bartusis guides his readers effortlessly through a plethora of information with relative ease.

This book is a bold statement consolidating a large amount of disparate material into a readable whole. The original thinking that lay behind its creation and its careful production impressed this reader. Bartusis has made a respectable contribution to Byzantine, Balkan, and Ottoman studies. However, such contributions are rarely generated over night but rather assimilated over years of painstaking research and reflection. John W. Barker’s review in the American Historical Review is the sole review to notify prospective readers that the present volume was first conceived as a series of articles. A decade after the first article was published, Bartusis thought it prudent to consolidate his extensive research, accumulated knowledge, and findings into a single comprehensive volume to the benefit of his readers.

General themes Bartusis stresses are the gradual deterioration of the Byzantine economy and its negative impact upon the performance of the army. The critical point to remember, Bartusis emphasizes, is that a sluggish economy provided few viable options and because cash was scarce, creativity would have to be employed to entice men to serve in the army. One such program was pronoia. It helped to relieve the pressure exerted upon an insolvent treasury while supplying a meager force of men through land revenues and other entitlements to fight when called upon by the Emperor. Such a program was ingenious because it conscripted men willing to serve without having to add a further burden upon a treasury on the edge of collapse. Another consequence of a weak economy was the small size of the army. According to Bartusis’ figures, the army could not have been larger than a few thousand men when it defended Constantinople in 1453. Moreover, the Emperor was forced to rely even more upon mercenary forces, no matter how uncomfortable their stay within the Empire may become. Furthermore, the majority of these mercenaries did as much harm as good (the Catalans come to mind). No longer a homogenous construct, the Byzantine army transformed over the centuries into a melting pot of ethnicities whose loyalty remained only as long as gold filled their purses. No better example illustrates this point than the token force defending Constantinople against the Turks – the army was composed of more Latin mercenaries than Byzantine Greeks.

After 1204, competing rivals sought to control the city and fought to become the Imperial heir. John Vatatzes vanquished his opponents and consolidated power quickly. Vatatzes assimilated the Cumans and assuaged the hostile highlanders of Asia Minor transforming them into a buffer zone. These policies were continued and expanded under his successor Michael VIII (1289-82). Michael was a dynamic ruler known as a brilliant military organizer and a ‘master diplomat’: “It is testimony to Michael’s abilities that he could be warring on three fronts and still deal with unforeseen developments.” (p. 64 and 54) Byzantium’s geographical location was the bane of Michael’s reign because his mission was to restore the pre-1204 borders of the Empire but was constantly harassed by strategic incursions and threats along those borders. A brilliant military leader and diplomat Michael may have been, but his ill-fated decision to uproot and transplant Eastern peoples from Asia Minor to the Balkans was perhaps his greatest blunder. It can be argued that the long-term consequences of this action predetermined the future direction and eventual dissolution of the Empire in 1453.

Andronikos II (1282-1328) inherited a shaky economy but continued Michael’s military policies. Seeking to cut costs, Andronikos reduced the size of the fleet and became embroiled in a dispute that exhausted the treasury and put Byzantium in an awkward position between Venice and Genoa until 1302. This diplomatic mis-step proved disastrous to the economy and Andronikos resorted to withholding salaries of state officials and soldiers and heavy taxation in Asia Minor upsetting powerful magnates. It was during this period that Andronikos recruited the Alans because of their unique horse-archer skills to augment a beleaguered army but failed to settle them permanently in Asia Minor. Roger de Flor’s Catalans were welcomed into the Empire in order to work alongside the Alans but only brought dissension and proved to be a greater threat because of their propensity for wanton destruction. Nowhere is it more clear how important the lack of a homogenous Greek Byzantine army was during these periods of crisis. Reliance upon foreign mercenaries was a two-edged sword. They showed time and again how fickle their loyalties were and how easily their bloodlust could be turned upon their benefactors. This led to the first of three civil wars (1321-57) which grew out of failed policies, the loss of Asia Minor, a growing population of displaced peoples and refugees, the Catalan debacle, and high taxes.

By the mid-fourteenth century, Byzantium had shrunk to the city of Constantinople and its surrounding hinterland, “owing its pathetic existence solely to the Sultan’s pleasure.” (p. 103) Power politics were again to exert a powerful presence and determine the health of the Byzantine Empire. The Turks toyed with the Byzantines forcing them to retreat behind the imposing Theodosian walls for protection. Meanwhile, the Turks began to focus their gaze intensely upon Byzantium and the Balkans. For decades the Byzantines were able to repulse the Ottomans but the ascension of Mehmet II brought about the fall of Constantinople in 55 days using the dreaded goliath of a cannon that was reported to be 25 feet in length and ejected 1,200lb. projectiles with ease. Its mere presence was enough to demoralize even the most hardened soldiers and the majority of those present defending Constantinople’s walls were Latin mercenaries. Small numbers of defenders, poor cooperation among the mercenaries, and limited resources brought about the fall of Constantinople. If the Ottomans did not possess gunpowder or the newest technological advancements in projectile warfare, it is reasonable to conclude, as Bartusis has, that the Empire may well have not fallen. This is a remarkable statement but one that speaks to the quality and character of the Byzantines. They were an ancient people who were the inheritors and guarantors of an accumulated knowledge and wisdom handed down from generation to generation since the time of Rome; their longevity, in spite of a lackluster field army, heavy reliance upon foreign mercenaries, enemies pressing from all directions, and a bankrupt economy, is an enduring monument to their adaptability. It shows just how tough it was to subdue and conquer a people who refused to accept defeat. Three successive Ottoman rulers could not do what Mehmet II did in 55 days! Cannon and gunpowder were the difference between victory and defeat. The Byzantines possessed an innate resilience and, perhaps, that was the key attribute that define the Byzantine army and Empire and their desire to endure.

As noted earlier, the fascinating study of Blöndal is absent from the discussion entirely and does not even merit a basic reference in the extensive bibliography. In fairness, Bartusis’ study does a fine job collating the source materials and presenting a clear picture of the various Palace guard corps serving the Emperor without the benefit of Blöndal’s analysis. For those unfamiliar with the palace guards who served the Emperor, this may seem an excessive criticism but this reader believes the omission of such a valuable study such as Blöndal’s is grave enough to merit attention. Perhaps, in Bartusis’ estimation, the palace guards were not as pivotal since they were not part of the army proper but their exalted station attests to their inestimable value in the eyes of the Emperors. Bartusis includes basic information concerning the largest and most feared contingent of palace guard – the Varangians. More than a palace guard, they were the Imperial bodyguard trusted and relied upon to execute orders in complete obedience. For this and other reasons, they were often charged with unsavory tasks, such as guarding high-profile prisoners, torturing those who defied the Emperor, and intimidating any who dare oppose the Emperor. It is probable that Bartusis underestimates their true value and the scope of their duties. Bartusis states the Varangians were a supplemental force; if Blöndal’s monograph had been consulted, Bartusis may have amended this erroneous statement.

On balance, however, Bartusis manages to offer a fairly accurate picture of the Varangians that can be pieced together from his text. The sources he does draw upon note that the Varangians wielded axes. Another source, Adam of Usk, noted this peculiar feature of men bearing axes as well in 1404, which leads one to the conclusion that the Varangians were still a functioning unit at the dawn of the fifteenth century, a conclusion not found in Blöndal’s (p. 275). Bartusis concludes that it is probable that the Varangians “had maintained their ethnic identity, their military role, and their reputation” leaving the reader with a one-dimensional view of the most feared palace guard (p. 276). An excellent opportunity was missed by Bartusis to explore the changing ethnic composition of the Varangians and his concluding statement that their ethnic composition remained intact is flawed. Furthermore, a discussion of Varangian service at strategic garrison locations throughout the Empire is missing and this may partly be due to the author’s ignorance further illustrating the necessity of Blöndal’s thoughtful study. However, the author admits that his study on garrisons is far from authoritative because of the scanty source materials. For this and the reasons discussed above, it would have behooved Bartusis to consult Blöndal’s groundbreaking study. It is unlikely that he is unaware of or unfamiliar with its publication because of the appeal of the topic.

Feudalism was a socio-military construct that governed day-to-day affairs in Western Europe but should not be, according to Bartusis, accepted as a thriving institution in Byzantium. The East-West feudal connection was first made by George Ostrogorsky in the 1950s and has not been seriously challenged for decades. Bartusis shatters Ostrogorsky’s romanticized vision of feudal ties between Western Europe and Byzantium while systematically presenting the fundamental differences between the Western fief and Byzantine pronoia. Pronoia shares “undeniable similarities” with the fief, its procurement and administration through the bonds of vassalage but there are more “substantial differences” that make pronoia antithetical and irreconcilable to the Western concept of feudalism (p. 182-3).

The first distinction is that the grant of pronoia came directly from the Emperor. Such a grant was purely a fiscal transaction and bore none of the personal touches found in the bequests of a fief in the feudal relationship. A personal relationship was entirely lacking from this arrangement. As Susan Reynolds has argued, the personal relationship between a lord and vassal was the key condition of that relationship.[2] Without it, feudalism could not function as it did. The second key distinction was that the land could not legally belong to the pronoair. The only rights the pronoair had regarding the land was to the income generated from it. A third distinction is that feudalism and fiefs were commonplace in Western Europe; in Byzantium, pronoia were limited and Bartusis notes that they are scarcely mentioned in the sources, giving more credence to the fact that this institution was selective in nature and not a significant part of the fabric of society. There are aspects concerning pronoia, however, open to speculation and debate because the sources do not tell the complete story and leave many details to the imagination thus allowing an ember of hope to burn for scholars who do not agree with Bartusis. A stronger connection can be made between the Turkish iqta and timar according to Bartusis and the similarity between these social constructs as “striking” (p. 185). Further research should illuminate our understanding of these social constructs and their development while deemphasizing the faulty link between Western feudalism, the fief, and Byzantine pronoia.

A bankrupt economy haunted Byzantium and its effects are best seen in the army. Unable to pay soldiers timely or outfit them appropriately, recruitment dwindled until the army had no other choice than to rely predominantly upon mercenaries. Directives issued by Michael and Andronikos accelerated the decay and helped bring about the future dismantling of the Empire. Their myopic visions may have addressed short-term problems but produced long-term consequences the Empire could not withstand. The Byzantines possessed strong character qualities and were adept diplomats but they could not continue unchecked forever and the Ottomans dealt the deathblow in quick order. Everett Wheeler’s thoughts are worth pondering as we conclude this discussion of Byzantium and its fall: what is most impressive is not the circumstances of Byzantium’s fall, but that they lasted as long as they did.


    [1] Sigfús Blöndal and Benedikt S Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium: an aspect of Byzantine military history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

    [2] Susan Reynolds. Fiefs and Vassals. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

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