Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest II

Offensive Strategy and Tactical Change

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.

As a result of the increasingly aggressive warfare carried on by the empire from the second quarter of the tenth century, particularly on the eastern front, the need to recruit more professional soldiers, and the need to operate effectively on campaigns which demanded more than the seasonally available forces provided by the traditional thematic armies, a number of important changes appeared in the tactical structure and in the arms and armour of Byzantine troops. A number of important technical treatises on strategy and tactics were written in the middle and later tenth century, and the narrative accounts of contemporaries, both Byzantines and Arabs, corroborate much of what they say. The changes can be enumerated briefly as follows: (1) the revival of a corps of disciplined, effective heavy infantry, able to stand firm in the line of battle, confront enemy infantry and cavalry, support their own cavalry, march long distances and function as garrison troops away from their home territory on a permanent basis; (2) the introduction of a corps of heavy cavalry armed with lances and maces, which could operate effectively alongside infantry, adding weight to the Byzantine attack and thus substantially enhancing the aggressive power of the Byzantine cavalry; (3) the development of field tactics in which these arms operate in a complementary way, offering the commanding officer a flexible yet hard-hitting force which could respond appropriately to a range of different situations.

Evidence for these changes comes partly from the contemporary sources, especially the military handbooks already referred to, but also from the startling successes marked up by Byzantine armies in the process of reconquest and expansion from the 950s onwards. In a tract known as the ‘Recapitulation of Tactics’, a new formation of infantry soldiers is described, consisting of troops wielding thick-stocked, long-necked javelins or pikes, probably similar in form to the Roman legionary pilum. Their task was to confront and beat back enemy heavy cavalry attacks. According to the ‘Recapitulation’ there should have been about 300 soldiers equipped in this manner, arrayed in the intervals between the infantry units making up the main battle line. They were deployed in either line or wedge formation to break up an enemy attack. In a treatise known as the ‘Military Precepts’ compiled some twenty years later, the tactic had evolved further, so that there were in each major infantry unit of 1,000 men 100 soldiers so equipped, integrated with 400 ordinary spearmen, 300 archers and 200 light infantry (with slings and javelins). Their task remained unchanged.

This important change in the role of infantry was reflected in the changed political and military situation of the tenth century. Whereas the sixth-century Strategikon presents its sections on infantry drill and formations after those (more detailed) dealing with cavalry, the tenth-century texts give infantry formations equal or even preferential treatment. Infantry had now become a key element of the army both numerically and tactically, outnumbering cavalry by 2:1 or more, in contrast to the normal situation in the preceding centuries. Contemporaries note the greatly improved discipline and training which such troops displayed. The importance of infantry is demonstrated in the fact that a special commander for the infantry division in each army was appointed, the hoplitarch (hoplitarches), in charge of training, discipline and fighting skill. The new tactics were embodied in a new formation, in which infantry and cavalry worked together, essentially a hollow square or rectangle, depending on the terrain, designed to cope with encircling movements from hostile cavalry, as a refuge for Byzantine mounted units when forced to retreat, and as a means of strengthening infantry cohesiveness and morale.

These new formations mark a real change in the role of infantry, no longer drawn up in a deep line with only a limited offensive role, but actively integrated into the offensive heavy cavalry tactics of the period. Infantry units now represented a sort of mobile marching-camp, with a traditionally rather unreliable force given new strength as a defensive field formation on the one hand, to provide security in defence and on the march, a mobile base and refuge for lighter troops and cavalry, and on the other as a formation which could be transformed into a solid attacking formation at a few simple commands. One important aspect of this change was a focus on the recruitment of good infantry from warlike peoples within the empire, especially Armenians. The demand for uniformity in tactical function and therefore equipment and weaponry meant that the Byzantine infantry of this period were more like their classical Roman predecessors than anything in the intervening period.

The cavalry also evolved at this time. New formations of ‘super heavy’ cavalry appear, called klibanophoroi, heavy cavalry troopers armed from head to foot in lamellar, mail and quilting, whose horse was likewise protected – face, neck, flanks and forequarters were all to be covered with armour to prevent enemy missiles and blows from injuring the cavalryman’s mount. Very few in number (because they were so expensive to maintain) these became the elite strike force within each field army. Drawn up in a broad-nosed wedge, their primary function was to smash through the enemy heavy cavalry or infantry line, disrupt his formation, and open up the enemy battle order to allow the supporting horse to turn the enemy’s flanks. The ‘Military Precepts’ mentions a formation of just over 500 such troops for a large wedge, two-thirds of whom would be real klibanarioi/kataphraktoi, the rest equipped as lightly armed mounted archers.

Both Byzantine and Arab writers of the time comment on the impressive effects of this formation on their foes. One Arab writer notes that the horse-armour of the heavy cavalry mounts made them appear to be advancing without legs. Some of these changes were probably due to the general, later emperor, Nikephoros Phokas, who became commander-in-chief in the East in the 950s, and immediately embarked upon a programme of training and drilling the soldiers in an attempt to re-establish good discipline, fighting spirit and good battlefield skills. His success is evident in the effective warfare waged by Byzantine forces over the following fifty years or more.

A Feigned Retreat in 970

In the autumn of the year 965, shortly after the conquest by Byzantine armies of the islands of Crete and Cyprus, as well as the destruction of the Islamic power in Cilicia and its incorporation into the empire, Bulgarian envoys arrived at the court of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Their purpose was to request the payment of the ‘tribute’ (or ‘subsidy’ from the imperial perspective) paid by Constantinople to the Bulgar Tsar as part of the guarantee for the long-lasting peace which had been established after the death of Tsar Symeon in 927. But the situation of the empire had changed radically in the course of the preceding half century, and rather than pay, the emperor Nikephoros, outraged by the presumptive demand of the Bulgarian ruler, had the envoys beaten and sent home in disgrace. He despatched a small force to demolish a number of Bulgarian frontier posts, and then called in his allies to the north, the Kievan Rus’, to attack the Bulgars in the rear.

The steppe region stretching from the plain of Hungary eastwards through south Russia and north of the Caspian was the home of many nomadic peoples, mostly of Turkic stock. It was always a key principle of Byzantine diplomacy to keep these peoples well disposed towards the empire. Following the collapse of the Avar empire in the 630s, Constantinople had been able to establish good relations with the Chazars whose Khans, although converting to Judaism, remained a faithful ally of most Byzantine emperors. Chazar Khans often took up Byzantine invitations to attack the Bulgars from the North, for example, when war broke out in this region. And they served also to keep the imperial court informed of developments further east. The Chazar empire contracted during the later ninth century, as various peoples to the east were set in motion by the expansion of the Turkic Pechenegs. These newcomers clashed with both the Chazars and the Magyars, establishing themselves in the steppe region between the Danube and Don. Their value to the empire as a check on both the Rus’ and the Magyars was obvious, particularly in the wars of the later tenth century, but they were a dangerous and frequently unreliable ally. The Magyars (Hungarians) had been established to the north-west and west of the Chazars since the middle of the ninth century, settling in what is now Hungary by about 900 AD. Both Chazars and Magyars served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies, particularly against the Bulgars, although the establishment by the later tenth century of a christianized Hungarian kingdom on the central Danube posed a potential challenge to Byzantine power in the region, which became especially acute during later centuries. But the growing power of the Kiev Rus’ during the later ninth and tenth centuries introduced important changes to this situation and to Byzantine diplomacy.

The Rus’ were the product of an amalgamation of Scandinavian settlers and indigenous, largely Slavic peoples, based along the rivers of central and western Russia. Their dominance over the neighbouring steppe and forest peoples had made them an important political power. By the middle of the ninth century their longships were entering the Black Sea, and by the early tenth century they had established trading agreements – not without some serious fighting between the two parties – with the empire. An alliance had been established from the middle of the tenth century; and when Nikephoros II asked for their help in 966, the warlike and ambitious Prince Svyatoslav, who had already established a considerable reputation through his successful warfare with and defeat of the Chazars, was only too willing to agree. In 968 he arrived on the Danube and easily defeated the Bulgarian forces sent against him. In 969 he had to return to Kiev to repulse an attack from the Pechenegs, but he returned later in the year and quickly occupied most of northern and eastern Bulgaria, deposing the Tsar, Boris II, and incorporating Bulgaria into his own domain. (See Map 9)

This was not part of the emperor’s original plan at all. Nikephoros tried in vain to establish an alliance with the Bulgars, but late in 969 he was assassinated, leaving his successor, John I Tzimiskes, with the difficult task of removing this potentially far more dangerous foe. To add to his problems, some of the Bulgar nobility now saw a chance to recover their independence of the Byzantine state and its culture by working with the Rus’. Svyatoslav sent the new emperor an ultimatum to evacuate all the European provinces and confine the empire to Asia alone. Then, in the spring of 970 a large Rus’ force invaded Thrace, sacking the fortress of Philippoupolis (mod. Plovdiv) and moving on down the road to Constantinople. John was forced to take action.

The emperor was not able to march immediately against the Rus’, for the majority of the effective field units were still in the east, where they had been campaigning in the region of Antioch and beyond, consolidating Roman gains after the recent fall of that city to the forces of Nikephoros II. In response, however, John appointed Bardas Skleros, together with the patrikios Peter, both experienced commanders, to take command of a small force and reconnoitre the enemy dispositions in the occupied territories. Their mission was, in addition, to exercise the troops and to prevent, as far as they were able, enemy raiders committing widespread damage on imperial territory. They were also to send spies, disguised in Bulgarian and Rus’ costume, deep into enemy-held territory to learn as much as possible about Svyatoslav’s intentions and movements.

It was not long before the Rus’ leader was informed of the imperial army’s presence, and he despatched a considerable force, consisting of both Rus’ and Bulgar troops as well as a powerful detachment of Pechenegs, whom he had temporarily managed to bring onto his side with the promise of booty and pillage, to drive the Romans off. Bardas immediately collected an elite force of some 10-12,000, sending one of his officers ahead to keep an eye on the enemy army and find out how many they numbered and where they had encamped. On receipt of the information that the enemy force was quite close, in the region of Arkadioupolis (mod. Luleburgaz), Bardas divided his force into three: two divisions were concealed in the rough scrub and woodlands on either side of the track leading towards the enemy position; the remaining division he led himself, launching a furious surprise attack against the Pecheneg contingent in the enemy force. Although heavily outnumbered – Bardas can have had only 2,000-3,000 men with him – he was able to draw the enemy out of their encampment and feign a gradual withdrawal. The fortunes of the battle swung back and forth, and it seemed at times that the small Byzantine force must be overwhelmed. Yet their discipline and training told, and Skleros finally ordered the pre-arranged signal to be given for the whole force to fall back. At the same time, however, the two divisions which lay in ambush prepared themselves, and as their comrades drew level with them and then past them, they too launched themselves upon the unsuspecting enemy from both flanks and the rear. Within a few minutes the Pechenegs had received such a savage mauling that they turned and fled, while their allies, the Rus’ and Bulgars, who had been hastening to catch them up in their pursuit of the supposedly defeated Romans, were caught in the panic and suffered similarly heavy casualties as the rout became general. According to a contemporary, the Romans lost some 550 men and many wounded, as well as a large number of horses, which fell to the archery of the Pechenegs. The combined enemy force, however, lost very many thousands. The action won the emperor John valuable time and also provided him with essential information about the make-up, morale and fighting prowess of his enemy, information which he put to excellent use in his campaign the following year.

This brief encounter, although the sources offer few details of the order of battle of either side, gives some idea of the possibilities for a properly trained eastern Roman force, when well-led and prepared, to defeat an enemy vastly superior in numbers. There is no doubt that the troops Bardas Skleros had under his command were well-trained and disciplined, as their careful withdrawal and feigned retreat under very difficult conditions, heavily outnumbered and under constant fire from accurate enemy archery, demonstrates. The short battle admirably reflects the esprit de corps, training and morale of the armies of this period.

1 thought on “Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest II

  1. Pingback: Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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