Roman to Byzantine Army Transition Part II


From the fourth through seventh centuries the Roman state ingested soldiers primarily in four ways: through native volunteers, through enforced hereditary service, by conscription, or by hire of foreign mercenaries. Native volunteers were the mainstay of the army and were generally sufficient to fill the requirements of the state. The hereditary obligation for sons to succeed their father in military service, introduced by Diocletian, was soon after abandoned for recruits to the comitatenses, but maintained among the limitanei. The era of Diocletian and Constantine witnessed annual conscription in the provinces in which state agents levied recruits based on regional resources as assessed in the minute reckoning imperial officials had made; villages and estates had either to furnish a set number of men based on their population and expected agricultural surplus or to buy out of their obligation. Slaves were not accepted. In the troubled years of the fifth century when the eastern army suffered from the aftermath of Adrianople and civil war, supplemental conscriptions fell upon elites who had to provide able-bodied men to serve or a cash payment of 30 solidi (the gold coin struck from 309 on at 72 to the pound)—a steep price, since a worker would have received around 12 solidi maximum annually. Unsurprisingly the draft was unpopular and seems to have been employed only in times of significant stress.

With the exception of the ranks of the limitanei, in which service was hereditary, the practice of conscription was generally abandoned. Justinian allowed slaves to join the army rather than resort to general forced levies, which were unpopular among elites and rustics alike.44 Limitanei did enroll in the regiments in which their fathers served until the end of their existence; there were incentives on both sides for the frontier guard to be maintained. For the state the provincial soldiery still served a useful role as garrisons and as logistics and police forces, even if those outside Syria and Mesopotamia rarely took part in campaigns. Soldiers still received payment, supplies, and certain tax and status privileges that somewhat offset the risks posed by service, which in places like Egypt was infrequent.

Although Justinian did eventually allow for slaves to be enrolled in the army (and these must have been provided as substitutions during episodic ad hoc conscriptions) volunteers usually staffed the mobile armies and imperial guards units. Justinian and his general Belisarios are good examples of this—both sought service as an escape from provincial obscurity. Volunteers continued to provide the manpower for the army through the reign of Phokas, though Maurice provided that sons of fallen soldiers would succeed their fathers in the comitatenses. This was a privilege rather than a burden that the soldiers welcomed—it assured their families salaries and support. When Heraclius found himself chronically short of manpower in the midst of the Persian War, he restored the old hereditary recruitment of all soldiers, something he managed to accomplish in a time of crisis.

Native recruits generally came from the rural, rough-and-ready regions of the empire. Illyricum (the modern eastern Adriatic coasts and mountains) provided an ample pool of military manpower. Countless troops and officers came from this and other regions south of the Danube from Diocletian’s time through the sixth century. Isauria, in the mountain lands of southeastern Anatolia, furnished large numbers of military men from the fifth century onwards, when the emperors were especially active in recruiting them to offset Germanic influence in the army. The rugged upland areas of Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, and Pontos also produced surplus men with martial prowess who helped to fill the legions.

Foreign recruits formed a major component of the army. Armenians provided excellent quality cavalrymen and infantry to both Rome and Sasanian Persia. Armenians dominated the imperial scholae after the fifth century. Hunnic horse archers provided a major tactical advantage for Byzantine armies of the sixth century—they were recruited in groups following a native leader and placed under Roman command. Iranian nomadic elements, such as Massagetae, also called “Huns,” and Alans in the sources formed another source of mercenary manpower. They fought as both cavalry and infantry. Three hundred “Hun” or Massagetae horse from Belisarios’s boukellarios proved decisive in the opening engagements of the battle of Ad Decimum (September 15, 533) when under the command of the Armenian adjutant John, they slaughtered the 2,000-man Vandal lancer vanguard and killed the king’s brother, Ammatas.46 Captured Sasanian Persian soldiers were brigaded into units that served among Byzantine forces, and some Persians or Armenian-Persians rose to high positions in the military command.

Germanic-speaking peoples also provided excellent warriors for the Roman army up through the sixth century. Among these groups we find the east-Germanic Goths, who dominated the ranks of the eastern field army after Adrianople and were still found in Roman service in the sixth century. The east-Germanic Heruls feature prominently in Prokopios’s description of Belisarios’s campaigns; they are often seen undertaking special missions and were brave to the point of reckless. Their east-Germanic neighbors, the Gepids, formed another tribal confederation that emerged from the shadow of Attila’s Hunnic Empire in the fifth century and also provided troops until their defeat and destruction by the Lombards. The west-Germanic Lombards provided significant manpower in Italy—5,500 of them served the Romans during the 551–54 campaigns of Narses.

The loss of most of the Balkans in the seventh century to Slavs and Avars deprived the Romans of some of their finest soldiery. This recruiting ground was replaced mainly with Anatolian Greek-speakers from the rugged interior. Armenians became especially important; at the beginning of the seventh century, the emperor attempted to transfer 30,000 Armenian troops with their families to Thrace. The army that Heraclius reformed in 621–22 was largely from native Roman troops—since the emperor was in the midst of an empire-wide collection of loaned church plate to melt down to coin money, there was little cash to pay foreigners. It was at this moment when Haldon proposes that the emperor made military service once more hereditary, as it certainly was by the end of the century.


During the era of the Tetrarchy, soldiers’ pay was rendered largely in-kind. This was a result of the rampant inflation that plagued the empire in the third century. Since the time of Septimius Severus (193–211) the empire had levied a tax in-kind to support the troops, the anonna militaris and accompanying capitus to supply animal fodder. The state issued clothing, arms, and horses to soldiers. Pay was measured in annona, rations paid annually to rankers. Prior to Anastasios (491–518) each annona was reckoned at 4 solidi. Officers received multiple annona; the primicerius of the fourth-fifth century legions typically earned five annonae. During the reign of Diocletian annual pay in coin continued but was modest to say the least—perhaps 7,500 denarii a year plus donatives and special payments made on accession dates of the emperor and other imperial holidays. Fourth-century pay has been calculated as equivalent to about 12 solidi plus arms and equipment, but by the mid-fifth century had fallen to the equivalent of 9 solidi. To provide some frame of reference, a stone cutter in contemporary Egypt might earn something less than 12 solidi per year. Upon their accession and in anniversaries of their reign, emperors paid substantial bonuses called donatives; Julian paid 5 solidi and a pound of silver, a standard sum offered through the sixth century. Donatives paid every five years from the emperor’s accession were about five solidi for soldiers of the line. But over time, by reckoning arms issuances and equipment in annona, the state deeply cut soldiers’ pay while theoretically maintaining their ability to fight. One wonders how such issues worked, since a soldier could have hardly worn out a spear or sword in a normal year; possibly these allowances were convertible to food or fodder.

In the fifth century the cumbersome and easily abused in-kind system was replaced by payments in coin; the stability brought by the fourth-century creation of the gold solidus and economic recovery of the empire permitted a remonetization of military pay. Anastasios seems to have spread the five-year donatives out as annual payments and offered cash instead of supplying arms and equipment; prior to his reign soldiers in the field army received something like 9 solidi plus equipment. Under Anastasios field troops earned 20 solidi annually, an increase of as much as two-thirds; the raise was probably a response to a lack of recruits and the general poor condition of the soldiery. By the beginning of the reign of Justinian, soldiers in the comitatenses were then well paid when compared with the average worker.

Limitanei received far less, perhaps 5 solidi and an equipment allowance. Justinian’s pay scale for the African limitanei survives. The dux earned 1,582 solidi, the cavalry primicerius 33 solidi, infantry centurions 20 solidi, and their cavalry counterparts 16.5 solidi while infantry rankers earned 5 solidi and cavalry 9. It is probable that even this modest wage was eventually cut by Justinian and that the state paid frontier troops only annona payments in-kind in equipment and capitus issuance for their mounts. Allied units on the frontier, like the Ghassanid confederacy, received annona in cash and kind. But like their comrades in the mobile armies, limitanei received tax exemptions for certain family members and were exempt from corvée labor, among other burdens.

In response to the fiscal and military crisis sparked by the Persian War, in 616 Heraclius seems to have ended the cash allowances for uniforms and equipment, which amounted to reducing pay by one-half. The state returned to issuing clothing and equipment to the soldiery. Constans II (641–68) apparently cut this salary in half again and probably replaced the lost salary with grants in land from which soldiers could support themselves. Annual base pay for the rank and file was thus around 5 solidi during the Dark Ages. To put into perspective this abysmal remuneration, we should note that a carpenter in eighth-century Egypt might earn 16 solidi per year.

By the tenth century, the situation had improved and cash payments in gold had expanded. Officers in the tagma were well paid by contemporary standards. In the mid-ninth century average pay had doubled to about 10 nomismata (singular nomisma, the Greek term for solidus). A tagmatic commander earned 144 nomismata, a topoteretes 72 nomismata, a pentekontarchos 24 nomismata, and a ranker in the tagma 9 nomismata.

The health of state finances and the fineness of the nomisma declined sharply in the middle of the tenth century. Alexios I replaced the nomisma with the hyperpon (pl. hyperpyra) a coin inferior in fineness to the solidus/nomisma of the past. As most soldiers were by this time native and foreign mercenary professionals, they earned cash payments and donatives. The limited data suggest that soldiers in service in the late Byzantine period were well paid. In 1272 a soldier in Asia Minor earned 24–36 hyperpyra, well above the salaries of common workers, such as cooks or domestic servants (10 hyperpyra each) or doctors (16 hyperpyra). Even though the currency was further inflated by the fourteenth century, the 288 hyperpyra paid to a Catalan mercenary cavalryman even though he had to equip himself, was exorbitant.

Many of the soldiers of the Palaiologan allagia served on the basis of pronoia grants. The origin of these grants is obscure but, like the settlement of troops in the themes centuries earlier, they served to shift the burden of maintaining troops from the central government to the provinces. Pronoia grants included tax revenues or rents from dependent peasants—a system often likened to the “feudal” customs that supported the landed aristocracy of the West. Unlike the medieval western arrangements, however, the pronoia were at first held for the lifetime of the grantee; they became hereditary under Michael VIII. In contrast to the medieval west, the state remained the owner of the land and in control of the fiscal mechanisms by which the pronoia were administered.

Over the centuries the Byzantines showed a continuous tradition of army organization that evolved from the Roman imperial system but was adapted to the strategic and tactical realities with which the empire was confronted. Until the twelfth century, the organizational structure of the army was relatively conservative—were he to view the army of the eleventh century, the emperor Maurice from some five centuries prior would have recognized many units and their officer structure. There was, however, adaptation and reorganization in response to the defeats at the hands of the Arabs, but the seventh-century wars did not expose the system as completely broken and thus most structures continued, albeit in modified form. There was a generally deep command structure present in the organization, with officers down to the level of four or five soldiers which undoubtedly preserved discipline and offered considerable tactical flexibility.

On the whole the state managed the well-being of the soldiers reasonably well—service was often dreary, unpleasant, and dangerous. Only during times of severe crisis, such as the inflationary era arrested by Diocletian and Constantine, and the seventh-century military collapse faced by Heraclius, did the empire economize at the expense of its troops. Even during the worst of the crisis, cash payments were never halted, though they were apparently sometimes paid in copper and in arrears. Since the military was by far the largest governmental expense, it was frequently the only place that such economies could be enacted. However, once the crisis of the Dark Ages ended, pay rates climbed to an average well above those of most workers.

1 thought on “Roman to Byzantine Army Transition Part II

  1. Pingback: Roman to Byzantine Army Transition Part II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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