Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback


Alexius I Comnenus


Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.


Alexius I Comnenus was an unlikely savior. A member of the aristocratic ranks that the Macedonian dynasty had struggled so long to suppress, he seemed at first to be just another usurper in a long line of meddlesome nobles that had brought such ruin to imperial fortunes. It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control. Some of Constantinople’s older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun.

It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople.

The Normans were no ordinary wandering band of adventurers. The descendants of Vikings, these Northmen were the success story of the eleventh century. While their more famous brothers in Normandy had battered their way into Saxon England under the command of William the Conqueror, the southern Normans had batted aside a papal army, held the pope captive, and managed to expel the last vestiges of the Roman Empire from Italy. Led by the remarkable Robert Guiscard, they had invaded Sicily, capturing Palermo and thoroughly broken Saracen power over the island. Now, having run out of enemies at home, and with his appetite whetted for imperial blood, the irascible Guiscard turned his attention to the far more tempting prize of Byzantium.

Upon arriving before the walls of Durazzo, Guiscard cheerfully put the city under siege, but its citizens were well aware that Alexius was on his way and showed no inclination to surrender. After a few months of ineffectual assaults, Robert withdrew to a more defensible position. On October 18, the emperor arrived with his army. The force Alexius had managed to gather in such a short period of time was impressively large, but it suffered from what was by now the traditional Byzantine weakness. The core of the army as always was the elite Varangian Guard, but the rest was an undisciplined, ragtag collection of mercenaries whose loyalty—and courage—was at best suspect. The only consolation for Alexius was that the Varangians, at least, were eager for battle.

Fifteen years before, a Norman duke had burst into Anglo-Saxon England, killing the rightful king at Hastings and placing his heavy boot on the back of anyone with a drop of Saxon blood. Many of those who found life intolerable as second-class citizens in Norman England had eventually made their way to Constantinople, where they had enlisted with their Viking cousins in the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Now at last they were face-to-face with the foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions.

Swinging their terrible double-headed axes in wicked arcs, the Varangians waded into the Norman line, sending their blades crunching into any man or horse that got in their way. The Normans fell back in the face of such a ferocious assault, but Alexius’s Turkish mercenaries betrayed him, and he was unable to press the advantage. The moment the Norman cavalry wheeled around, the bulk of the imperial army scattered, and the exposed and hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were surrounded and butchered to a man. Alexius, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, kept fighting, but he knew the day was lost. Soon he fled to Bulgaria to rebuild his shattered forces.

The empire had proven as weak as Guiscard had hoped, and with the cream of the Byzantine army gone, there was seemingly nothing to fear from Alexius. By the spring of 1082, Durazzo had fallen along with most of northern Greece, and Guiscard could confidently boast to his men that by winter they would all be dining in the palaces of Constantinople. Unfortunately for the invader’s culinary plans, however, Alexius was far from finished. The ever-resourceful emperor knew he couldn’t hope to stand toe-to-toe with Norman arms, but there were other ways to wage war, and in his capable hands diplomacy would prove a sharper weapon than steel.

Guiscard had been all-conquering in southern Italy, but his meteoric career had left numerous enemies in its wake. Chief among them was the German emperor Henry IV, who held northern Italy in his grip and nervously watched the growth of Norman power in the south. When Alexius sent along a healthy amount of gold with the rather obvious suggestion that a Norman emperor might not be a good thing for either of them, Henry obligingly invaded Rome, forcing the panicked pope to beg Guiscard to return at once. Robert wavered, but more Byzantine gold had found its way into the pockets of the Italians chafing under Norman rule, and news soon arrived that southern Italy had risen in rebellion. Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Guiscard had no choice but to withdraw, leaving his son Bohemond to carry on the fight in his place.

Alexius immediately attacked, cobbling together no fewer than three mercenary armies, but each one met the same fate, and the emperor accomplished nothing more than further draining his treasury. Even without their charismatic leader, the Normans were clearly more than a match for his imperial forces, so Alexius began a search for allies to do the fighting for him. He found a ready one in Venice—that most Byzantine of sea republics—where the leadership was as alarmed as everyone else about the scope of Guiscard’s ambitions. In return for the help of its navy, Alexius reduced Venetian tariffs to unprecedented (and from native merchants’ perspectives rather dangerous) levels, and gave Venice a full colony in Constantinople with the freedom to trade in imperial waters. The concessions virtually drove Byzantine merchants from the sea, but that spring it must all have seemed worth it as the Venetian navy cut off Bohemond from supplies or reinforcements. By this time, the Normans were thoroughly exhausted. It had been nearly four years since they had landed in Byzantine territory, and though they had spectacularly demolished every army sent against them, they were no closer to conquering Constantinople than the day they arrived. Most of their officers were unimpressed by the son of Guiscard and wanted only to return home. Encouraged by Alexius’s shrewd bribes, they started to grumble, and when Bohemond returned to Italy to raise more money, his officers promptly surrendered.

The next year, in 1085, the seventy-year-old Robert Guiscard tried again, but he got no farther than the island of Cephalonia, where a fever accomplished what innumerable enemy swords couldn’t, and he died without accomplishing his great dream. The empire could breathe a sigh of relief and turn its eyes once more to lesser threats from the East.

The Muslim threat—much like the Norman one—had recently been tremendously diminished by a fortuitous death. At the start of Alexius’s reign, it had seemed that the Seljuk Turks would devour what was left of Asia Minor. In 1085, Antioch had fallen to their irresistible advance, and the next year Edessa and most of Syria as well. In 1087, the greatest shock came when Jerusalem was captured and the pilgrim routes to the Holy City were completely cut off by the rather fanatical new masters. Turning to the coast, the Muslims captured Ephesus in 1090 and spread out to the Greek islands. Chios, Rhodes, and Lesbos fell in quick succession. But just when it appeared as if Asia was lost, the sultan died and his kingdom splintered in the usual power grab.

With the Norman threat blunted and the Muslim enemy fragmented, the empire might never have a better opportunity to push back the Seljuk threat—and Alexius knew it. All the emperor needed was an army, but as the recent struggle with the Normans had shown, his own was woefully inadequate. Alexius would have to turn to allies to find the necessary steel to stiffen his forces, and, in 1095, he did just that. Taking pen in hand, he wrote a letter to the pope.

The decision to appeal to Rome was somewhat surprising in light of the excommunication of forty-one years before, but most of those involved in that unfortunate event were long dead, and tempers had cooled in the ensuing decades. The emperor and the pope might quibble occasionally about theological details, but they were members of the same faith, and it was as a fellow Christian that Alexius wrote Urban. As a gesture of goodwill to get things off on the right foot, the emperor reopened the Latin churches in Constantinople, and when his ambassadors reached Pope Urban II, they found the pontiff to be in a conciliatory mood. The appalling Turkish conquests had profoundly shocked him, and the sad plight of eastern Christians under Muslim rule could no longer be ignored. No record of the conversation that followed has survived, but by the time the pope made his way to France a few months later, a grand new vision had formed in his mind. Islam had declared a jihad to seize the holy places of Christendom and spread its faith into Europe; now it was time for a grand Christian counteroffensive. On November 18, the pope mounted a huge platform just outside the French city of Clermont and delivered one of the most fateful speeches in history.

The Saracens, he proclaimed, had come storming out of the deserts to steal Christian land and defile their churches, murdering Christian pilgrims and oppressing the faith. They had torn down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and forced innumerable believers to convert to Islam. The West could no longer in good conscience ignore the suffering—it was the sacred duty of every Christian to march to the aid of their eastern brothers. The Saracens had stolen the city of God and now righteous soldiers were needed to drive them out. All those who marched with a pure heart would have their sins absolved.

The moment the pope finished speaking, the crowd erupted. Medieval Europe was filled with violence, and most of those gathered were painfully aware of how much blood stained their hands. Now, suddenly, they were offered a chance to avoid the eternal damnation that in all likelihood awaited them by wielding their swords in God’s name. A bishop knelt down on the spot and pledged to take the cross, and within moments the papal officials had run out of material for those who wanted to sew crosses on their clothing as a sign of their intentions. France, Italy, and Germany were swept up in crusading fever as Urban traveled spreading the message, and peasants and knights alike flocked to his banner. So many responded that the pope had to begin encouraging some to stay home to take in the harvest and avert the danger of a famine. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined such a groundswell.

The sheer scale of the response electrified the pope, but it horrified Alexius. The last thing he needed was a shambling horde of western knights descending on his capital. What he really wanted were some mercenaries who recognized his authority, while the pope had given him what was sure to be an undisciplined rabble that listened little and demanded much.

And there were plenty of other reasons to mistrust the crusaders. Not only had the pope cleverly substituted Jerusalem for Constantinople as the object of the holy war, but he had also neglected to mention Alexius in any of his speeches, putting the Crusade firmly under his own control, and reinforcing the idea that the pope—not the emperor—was the supreme authority in Christendom. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “holy” war was an alien concept to the Byzantine mind. Killing, as Saint Basil of Caesarea had taught in the fourth century, was sometimes necessary but never praiseworthy, and certainly not grounds for remission of sins. The Eastern Church had held this line tenaciously throughout the centuries, even rejecting the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas’s attempt to have soldiers who died fighting Muslims declared martyrs. Wars could, of course, be just, but on the whole diplomacy was infinitely preferable. Above all, eastern clergy were not permitted to take up arms, and the strange sight of Norman clerics armed and even leading soldiers disconcerted the watching hosts.

These strange western knights were obviously not to be trusted, and some Byzantines suspected that the true object of the Crusade was not the liberation of Jerusalem at all, but the capture of Constantinople. Anyone who doubted that only needed to look at the nobles who were already on their way, for foremost among the crusading knights was Bohemond—the hated son of Robert Guiscard.

The first group of crusaders to arrive before the gates of the city didn’t improve Alexius’s opinion of them. After the pope had returned to Italy, other men had taken up the task of preaching the Crusade, fanning out to spread the word. One of them, a rather unpleasant monk named Peter the Hermit, traveled through northern France and Germany, preaching to the poor and offering the destitute peasants a chance to escape their crushing lives. After attracting a following of forty thousand men, women, and children who were too impatient to wait for the official start date, Peter led his shambling horde to Constantinople. When they reached Hungary, it became apparent that many had joined the Crusade for less than noble reasons, and neither Peter nor anyone else could control them. Looting their way through the countryside, they set fire to Belgrade and stormed the citadel of any town that didn’t turn over its supplies. At the city of Nish, the exasperated Byzantine governor sent out his troops to bring them into line, and in the skirmish ten thousand crusaders were killed. By the time Peter and his “People’s Crusade” reached Constantinople, they were looking less like an army than a rabble of hungry, tired brigands. Knowing that they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Turks, Alexius advised them to turn back, but they had come too far by now and were firmly convinced of their invulnerability. They were already becoming a headache—taking whatever they pleased and looting the suburbs of Constantinople—so with a final warning Alexius ferried them across to Asia Minor.

The People’s Crusade came to a predictably bad end. The crusaders spent most of the next three months committing atrocities against the local Greek population—apparently without noticing that they were fellow Christians—before blundering into a Turkish ambush. Peter the Hermit managed to survive and make his miserable way back to Constantinople, but the rest of his “army” wasn’t so lucky. The youngest and best-looking children were saved for the Turkish slave markets and the rest were wiped out.

The main crusading armies that arrived over the next nine months bore no resemblance to the pathetic rabble that Peter had led. Headed by the most powerful knights in western Europe, they were disciplined and strong, easily doubling the size of any army Alexius could muster. The logistics of feeding and handling such an enormous group were a nightmare, made especially difficult by the fact that neither they nor Alexius trusted the other an inch. Obviously, the emperor had to handle the situation with extreme care. Since these westerners valued oaths so highly, they must all be made to swear their allegiance to him, but it had to be done quickly. Arriving separately, they were small enough to be overawed by the majesty of the capital, but if they were allowed to join together, they would undoubtedly get it into their heads to attack the city. Constantinople had been a temptation to generations of would-be conquerors before them; why would crusaders prove any different?

The emperor was right to be alarmed. Constantinople was unlike any other city in the world, more splendid and intoxicating than any the westerners had ever seen. To a poor knight, the city was impossibly strange, dripping in gold and home to a population nearly twenty times that of Paris or London. The churches were filled with mysterious rites that seemed shockingly heretical, and the babble of dozens of exotic languages could be heard on streets choked with merchants and nobles dressed in bright silks and brilliant garments. The public monuments were impossibly large, the palaces unbearably magnificent, and the markets excessively expensive. Inevitably, there was a severe culture clash. The Byzantines the crusaders met treated them like barely civilized barbarians, resenting the swarms of “allies” who had looted their cities and stolen their crops, while the crusaders in response despised the “effeminate” Greeks arrayed in their flowing robes and surrounded by perfumed eunuchs who needed westerners to do their fighting for them. Annoyed by the cloying ceremony of the Byzantine court, most of the crusading princes at first treated the emperor with barely concealed contempt—one knight even went so far as to lounge impudently on the imperial throne when Alexius entered to meet with him. The emperor, however, was quite capable of holding his own. With a shrewd mixture of vague threats and luxurious gifts, he managed to procure an oath from each of them. Few arrived eager to pledge their loyalty, although some were compliant enough (Bohemond in particular was a little too willing to swear), but in the end virtually every leader agreed to return any conquered city to the empire. Only the distinguished Raymond of Toulouse stubbornly refused the exact wording, substituting instead the rather nebulous promise to “respect” the life and property of the emperor.

By the early months of 1097, the ordeal was over and the last of the crusaders had been ferried across the Bosporus and settled on the Asian shore. For Alexius, the feeling was one of extreme relief. The armies that had descended on his empire had been more of a threat than a help, and even if they were successful in Anatolia, they would most likely prove more dangerous than the currently disunited Turks. In any case, all that he could do now was wait and see what developed.

As soon as they landed, the crusaders headed for Nicaea, the ancient city that had witnessed the first great council of the church nearly eight centuries before. The Turkish sultan who had wiped out the People’s Crusade was more annoyed than alarmed, assuming that these recent arrivals were of the same caliber. Instead, he found an army of hardened knights mounted on their powerful horses, encased in thick armor that rendered them completely impervious to arrows. The Turkish army shattered before the first charge of the crusader heavy cavalry, and the stunned sultan hastily retreated.

The only thing that marred the victory for the crusaders was the fact that the garrison of Nicaea chose to surrender to the Byzantine commander—who promptly shut the gates and refused to let them enjoy the customary pillaging. Such behavior by the Byzantines was perfectly understandable since the population of Nicaea was predominantly Byzantine Christian, but to the crusaders it smacked of treachery. They began to wonder if the emperor might not be confused between his allies and his enemies—especially when the captured Turks were offered a choice between service under the imperial standards or safe conduct home. For the moment, the crusaders muted their criticism, but their suspicions didn’t bode well for future relations with Byzantium.

Alexius was more than happy to ignore western knighthood’s injured pride, because he was fairly certain that they stood no chance against the innumerable Muslim enemies arrayed against them. Against all expectations in Constantinople, however, the First Crusade turned out to be a rousing success. The Turkish sultan tried again to stop the crusaders, but after two crushing defeats, he ordered their path stripped of supplies and left them unmolested. After a horrendous march across the arid, burning heart of Asia Minor, the crusaders reached Antioch and managed to batter their way inside. No sooner had they captured the city, however, than a massive army under the Turkisn governor of Mosul appeared, and the crusaders—now desperately short of water—were forced to kill most of their horses for food. Alexius gathered his army to march to their defense but was met halfway by a fleeing crusader, who informed him that all hope was lost and that the city had most likely already fallen. Realizing that there was nothing to gain by sacrificing his army, Alexius turned around and returned to Constantinople.

The crusaders, however, hadn’t surrendered. Inspired by the miraculous discovery of a holy relic, they had flung themselves into a last-ditch offensive and managed to put the huge army to flight. Continuing their advance, they reached Jerusalem in midsummer, and on July 15, 1099, successfully stormed the Holy City. Many crusaders wept upon seeing the city that they had suffered so much to reach, but their entry into it unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of the last four years. Few of the inhabitants were spared—neither Orthodox, nor Muslims, nor Jews—and the hideously un-Christian bloodbath continued until early the next morning.

It was the work of several weeks to cleanse the city of the stench of rotting bodies, and by that time the crusaders had chosen a king. By the oaths they had all taken, they should have returned the city—along with everything else they had conquered—to the Byzantine Empire, but there was no longer any chance of that. As far as they were concerned, when Alexius had failed to relieve them in Antioch, he had revealed himself to be treacherous, releasing them from their vows. Bohemond had already seized Antioch, setting himself up as prince, and the rest of their conquests were now broken up into various crusader kingdoms. If the emperor wanted to press his claims to their lands, then he could do so in person with an army at his back.

Alexius was more than happy to let Palestine go. A few Christian buffer states in lands that had been lost for centuries might even be a good thing. But having his enemy Bohemond installed in Antioch was more than he could swallow. Long regarded as the second city of the empire and site of one of the great patriarchates of the church, Antioch had been lost to the Turks only fifteen years before. Its population was thoroughly Orthodox, its language was Greek, and its culture was Byzantine through and through. But even when Bohemond added insult to injury by tossing out the Greek patriarch and replacing him with a Latin one, there was little Alexius could do. The emperor had used the distraction of the Crusade to recover most of northwestern Asia Minor—including the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, and Philadelphia—but his armies were stretched out, and there was no hope of extending his reach into Syria.

The Wars of Basil II

The Byzantine Empire at the death of Basil II in 1025

Basil II (976-1025) is generally held to have been one of the most effective and competent rulers of the eastern Roman empire. His early years were not easy but, despite beginning his reign with a civil war and military defeat in the Balkans, he continued and consolidated the conquests of his immediate predecessors, re-establishing the Byzantine empire as the paramount power in the region. After a long and gruelling war against a revived Bulgarian state, under the Tsar Samuel, he was finally victorious, entirely incorporating Bulgaria and its vassals into the empire, giving them their own provincial administration and establishing them as regular imperial provinces. The Danube once more became the imperial frontier in the north; the emirate of Aleppo and its more easterly neighbours became client states of the empire in the east. Here, the dynamic military power of the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty, whose interests likewise lay in exercising some control over the Syrian emirates and cities, now became the main enemy.

Basil became effective ruler only in 976, on the death from typhoid fever of John I. But he was still very young, and there were members of the aristocracy related to the previous emperors, Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, who felt that they had better claims to imperial power. Both Nikephoros and John had, in effect, seized the throne, and had been able to legitimate their position only through marriage to the widow of emperor Romanos II – father of Basil and his brother Constantine – who had died in 963. It was a leading member of one of these ambitious noble clans, Bardas Skleros, who rebelled against Basil II shortly after his succession in 976; and it was another leader of an even more prestigious family, Bardas Phokas, whom the emperor called to his assistance in 978. The rebellion was defeated and Skleros escaped to the Caliphate where he was imprisoned. On his release in 987, however, and with Arab support, he returned and raised an army once more. Bardas Phokas was sent against him, but betrayed the emperor, first coming to an agreement with Skleros, then imprisoning him and declaring against Basil II himself. The emperor called upon the Russian prince Vladimir for help, and an agreement was reached which involved both Vladimir’s acceptance of Christianity and his marriage to Basil’s sister Anna. Vladimir also sent Basil a stout body of Norse-Russian troops (known in the Byzantine sources as Varangians). With their help, Basil was able to defeat Phokas, who died after a second battle in 989. And although Skleros continued in rebellion for a while, a reconciliation was soon arranged and peace restored.

Basil’s early military ventures were largely unsuccessful (a factor which contributed to the desire in certain aristocratic quarters to replace him). In 986 he had marched against the reviving power of the Bulgarians, under their Tsar Samuel who, together with his brothers, had rebelled against Roman rule in Macedonia after the death of Tzimiskes, establishing a capital first at Prespa and later at Ohrid. Although taking up the older Bulgarian tradition, this was essentially a kingdom based in Macedonia, which now became the political centre of the new empire. From there he was able to extend his sway over the regions to the north and east, and by the mid-980s he controlled all the original Bulgarian state up to the Danube as well as the western Balkans, including much of Thessaly, Epiros and what is now Albania. He then began pushing directly into Byzantine Thrace, attacking Thessaloniki and other major centres in 985 and 986.

The young Basil had to take action before the empire’s Balkan provinces fell away. An expedition led by the emperor marched north against the region of Serdica, but failed to take the town and, on his return, his forces were badly mauled in the Balkan passes, losing the imperial baggage in the process. The ensuing civil wars took up the emperor’s attention for the next years, allowing the new Bulgarian power to extend and consolidate its hold. When next the emperor turned his attention to Tsar Samuel, he faced a very different problem indeed.

By 991, when Basil finally had the time to devote to the Balkan situation, Samuel’s power was well established. Basil began by trying to forge diplomatic alliances with some of the other Balkan powers, such as the princes of Serbia, for example. In 991 Basil campaigned briefly and successfully in Macedonia, but eastern politics then took up his attention until 1001. In the meantime, in 997, Samuel had suffered a major defeat at the hands of one of Basil’s generals, Nikephoros Ouranos, following a raid as far south as the Peloponnese. But it became clear that this would not affect his overall situation. Beginning in 1001, therefore, Basil began a series of regular, yearly campaigns that, with the strength of the well-disciplined Byzantine armies behind him, soon reduced Samuel’s power to a fraction of its former extent. Basil’s campaigns were well thought through. He first established a wedge of Byzantine-controlled territory stretching up from Thrace to the Balkan range and Pliska, thus cutting Samuel’s core Macedonian lands off from the old Bulgarian heartlands. In a series of pincer movements he then progressively isolated the Tsar’s forces, until by about 1007 the war had become a question of searching out and bringing Samuel’s remaining forces to battle. The end for Samuel came in 1014 when, at the battle of Kleidion, a narrow pass in the Belasica mountains which Samuel had fortified against Byzantine attack, his remaining forces were caught in a pincer movement and annihilated. Samuel died shortly after the battle, possibly from a cerebral haemorrhage or heart attack, and within four years the remainder of his empire had collapsed in civil war and been absorbed into the empire. The whole Balkan region up to the Danube was, for the first time since the sixth century, again in Roman hands, and was to stay in Roman hands until the rebellions of the later twelfth century.

The effectiveness and inventiveness of Roman generalship during this period is exemplified by a number of battles fought during the reign of Basil II. One of the best known is the battle of the Spercheios river, fought in 997. Tsar Samuel had marched into Thrace, where he was able to ambush and capture Ashot, the son of the Byzantine doux, or commander, of the region of Thessaloniki, Gregory Taronites. In a vain attempt to rescue his son, Gregory too was drawn into a trap and surrounded, and died trying to cut his way out. Samuel then marched across northern Greece and down as far as the Gulf of Corinth, from where he entered the Peloponnese and proceeded to ravage and harry the land. Samuel’s forces had managed to avoid the detachments placed to halt their advance into the Peloponnese and Greece, but on the march back towards his home territories he was forced to confront one of the empire’s most able commanders, the general Nikephoros Ouranos, a close friend of the emperor Basil and author of an important military handbook. Nikephoros, who held the post of supreme commander of all the western armies, set out from Thessaloniki with his forces and crossed the mountains of Olympos to Larissa, where he left his baggage before proceeding. From Larissa he set out with a select and lightly equipped force to try and intercept Samuel’s army. Moving by forced marches he crossed Thessaly and the plain of Farsala before arriving at the Apidanos river, which he crossed to reach the Spercheios, where his scouts had located the Bulgar encampment. Nikephoros pitched his camp on the bank opposite Samuel’s army, but this did not dishearten the Bulgars: not only were there no nearby fords, but the river was in full spate due to particularly heavy rains.

Nikephoros was not prepared to give up, however. Scouts were despatched up and down the river for a considerable distance in both directions and eventually a fordable stretch was found, sufficient to permit the select force under Nikephoros’s command to pass over. Marching along the bank of the river after nightfall, the troops were safely crossed over before dawn. Forming up on the opposite bank, they now marched back towards the Bulgar encampment and, just before dawn, fell on the imperfectly defended camp which Samuel had thought adequate. The Bulgar troops were caught completely unawares, and there was no organized resistance. The greater part of the Bulgar force perished or was captured. Samuel and his son Romanos, who had accompanied him, were both badly wounded and only escaped with their lives by hiding among the dead and injured until they could creep away. The Romans captured Samuel’s baggage train and all his booty, and returned to Thessaloniki with a substantial body of captives.

A similarly stubborn refusal to give up when faced with apparently insurmountable physical obstacles was demonstrated by Basil II himself and his officers in the campaign of 1014. In the years preceding, the Roman strategy of attrition had worn down Bulgar resistance to such an extent that Samuel could no longer go on the offensive, but was limited to trying to prevent Byzantine incursions into his core territory and to preserve what lands and resources were still in his power. The Tsar’s strategy was to attempt to prevent the damaging raids mounted by Basil each year into these Macedonian heartlands. Campaigning generally began in May, and the raids usually involved imperial units pushing up from Serres in the south, through the pass of Rupel and along the ‘long plain’ (Campulungu, or ‘Kimbalonga’ in its Greek form) formed by the Strymon valley itself. Following well-established Bulgar practice, Samuel blocked many of the passes off with timber palisades and ditches, including the important pass at Kleidion (near the modern village of Kljuc), regularly employed by the imperial armies as they marched into Macedonia, despatching at the same time a diversionary attack against Thessaloniki by another route. The latter move was defeated by the local commander in the region, Theophylaktos Botaneiates, whose troops cut the Bulgar force to pieces. The attempt to block the pass also failed.

Confronted by the high palisade erected by the Bulgars, the eastern Roman forces at first tried to storm the obstacle, but after sustaining disproportionate losses in the attempt, found that they would have to march a long way westwards or eastwards in order to circumvent the obstacle, which would have meant calling off the campaign for that year. One of Basil’s commanders, however, Niketas Xiphias, the commander of Philippoupolis, volunteered to lead a small force over the mountains in an attempt to find a way across and behind the enemy position. Basil’s forces maintained their position before the pass, launching a series of small-scale assaults to keep the Bulgars occupied, while Xiphias spent some time scouting the area on either side of the pass. Eventually he located a narrow and difficult track to the west of the pass, which led across mount Belasica, and at dawn on 29 July Xiphias’s small force fell on the rear lines of the Bulgar army with bloodcurdling yells. Order was never really established and, as panic gripped the Bulgar soldiers, the main imperial army under Basil, no longer faced by a determined and focused resistance from the palisade, were able to tear it down and begin the pursuit of their utterly disorganized foe. Many were killed, but the vast majority were surrounded and forced to surrender.

This was Samuel’s last remaining army of any consequence, and its destruction effectively ended serious resistance. According to a slightly later source, some 15,000 prisoners were taken in all, and of these, Basil is supposed to have blinded all but one in every hundred, whom he left with one eye each to guide the rest back to Samuel. Whether the tale is true is hard to know, although there is probably some element of truth to it. At any rate, Samuel had a seizure or stroke of some kind when he saw what had happened to his soldiers, and died. Within the next four years Basil and his generals completed the subjugation of Bulgaria, and the Danube became once again the effective frontier of the Roman empire.

The successes of the period from about 960 to 1025 are impressive, but they were by no means uniform. The imperial armies had achieved a powerful reputation, so much so that by the 1030s the mere threat of an imperial army marching into northern Syria was enough to keep the local Muslim emirs in check. Yet while these successes were the result of a combination of good organization and logistics, intelligent tactics, well-armed, trained and disciplined soldiers, and good morale, the key still remained the competence and effectiveness of the commanders. Even under Basil II incompetent officers led their troops to disaster, so it can reasonably be maintained that the dependence on the charisma and intelligence of its leaders was one of the most significant inbuilt weaknesses of the imperial military system at the tactical level. Combined with short-sighted strategic planning and internal political conflict, this was to lead during the middle of the eleventh century to serious problems and to the erosion of the effectiveness of the field armies as well as the provincial defences.




The army of Heraclius’ empire after demobilization in 629 and 630 was almost certainly smaller than that of Justinian’s reign, which the contemporary historian Agathias had speculated in estimating its strength at 150,000. The question is how much smaller were the total disposable Byzantine forces at the beginning of the 630s than they had been late in the reign of Justinian. Perhaps they were smaller by as much as one-third, although it is difficult to conceive how they could have been much less than two-thirds of the late Justinianic armies’ size, because of the remaining vast dimensions of the empire.

Heraclius’ armies on the eve of the Muslim conquests probably included approximately 10,000 to 20,000 elite mobile praesental expeditionary forces at and near Constantinople. Those troops were capable of fighting in pitched campaigns in the field. These were the best troops who could be sent against the Muslims, or against any other invader. Of varying but usually less reliable quality were other troops: 25,000 mostly mediocre soldiers in Egypt; 5-10,000 in Africa; 5-10,000 in what was left of Byzantine Italy; in the embattled Balkans under the magister militum per Thraciam a hypothetical 20,000, of whom probably an inadequate 8,000 to 10,000 or less were available for expeditionary campaigning elsewhere, 5,000 for fleet and island commands; under the magister militum per Armeniam hypothetically 12,000, but 5-8,000 or less could be spared from duties in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus; under the critical magister militum per Orientem there were hypothetically 20,000, of whom 1,000 to 2,000 remained in Isauria and Cilicia for constabulary service, 8,000 in upper Mesopotamia, primarily facing the Persians but also to ward off any Bedouin incursions, 10,000 in Syria, especially northern Syria, of whom surely only 5,000 or less, including friendly but irregular Arab hired guards remained in the three Palestinian provinces and Arabia. The exact military command structure for these troops is unclear and any clarification depends on elucidating how long the system of late Roman magistri militum (Masters of the Soldiers) survived. It appears that magistri militum still existed on the eve of the Muslim conquests, and more specifically, that the magister militum per Orientem or Master of the Soldiers in the East was the military commander who still commanded the Byzantine troops in Syria and Mesopotamia. In addition to these regular troops, although some were essentially performing routine garrison duty, were friendly Arabs, whose numbers could easily match or double or triple, for a very short and specific campaign only, those of the regular Byzantine forces in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. These are only estimates, not secure figures.

The figures for non-Arab Byzantine soldiers in the Byzantine Empire in c. AD 630 would make a total of 113,000 to 130,000 troops at the higher end of a likely range of figures, or 98,000 or even less at the lower end. Fifty thousand or less of these might have been available for all forms of deployment against Arabs. Protection of logistical lines and garrison duties probably reduced the maximum potential strength of a regular force to 20,000 or 30,000, in addition to friendly Arab contingents. However, it is possible that the financial strains at the end of the Persian wars led to an even sharper reduction in the total number of effectives, but this is very conjectural. These troops varied greatly in quality. In any case, these totals were insufficient for internal security purposes and for proper defense of the empire’s borders after 630. But the logistical problems of supporting even these inadequate numbers of soldiers were formidable.

The relevance of these broader figures for defenses against potential Muslim invasion requires closer scrutiny. Probably only small postings of local regular units existed at scattered points in the three Palestinian provinces, Palestine I, Palestine II, Palestine III, and in Arabia. The largest posting probably was at Caesarea, with maybe 200 or 300 mobile troops available. Small garrisons, composed of Byzantine but in effect long assimilated indigenous troops, many of whom probably carried on some other occupation as well, existed probably of 100 or less to 200 soldiers, at sites on both sides of the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley. The quality of these troops was mediocre but not impossibly bad. Some of them drilled at least occasionally. It was difficult to coordinate these scattered garrisons if some serious external threat appeared. These garrison troops were inexperienced at fighting any open warfare of maneuver and pitched combat. They were best suited for passive, low-intensity stationary guard duty, or for defending well-fortified fixed positions. Individual towns may have held a garrison of the size of a numerus, whose numbers likely totalled 100 to 500 soldiers.

The largest garrisons were not in any of the three Palestinian provinces, but in northern Syria and upper Mesopotamia, facing greater traditional threats to security, namely, the Persians. A substantial garrison existed at and near Antioch, probably 1,500 or less, and a much smaller but important garrison at Chalkis (Qinnasrin) possibly a few hundred. Troops covering the Mesopotamian frontier with Persia may have fluctuated but after demobilization in 629, in peacetime, probably counted several thousand good troops, with additional thousands of troops, and perhaps one thousand or more, established at key points, including Melitene, along or near the Armenian frontier. The exact strength of these units is uncertain, but the government probably maintained some strength there to insure enforcement of the peace terms of the recent peace treaty with Persia and the agreement of Arabissos of 629. The threat might come not only from the Persian government, which was weakened by internal strife, but also from dissident Persian forces, irregulars and stragglers, and Bedouin. Even the Byzantine government’s fiscal pressures and the knowledge that Persia was no longer a major threat could not have allowed Heraclius to denude that region of all troops. But some were probably scattered at Callinicum, others at Nisibis and Dara and Edessa, Zeugma, Hierapolis, and Berrhoia. Modest-sized detachments of 100 or so may well have been the emplacements of regular soldiers, supplemented at some sites with encampments of friendly Christian (usually nominally Monophysitic) Arabs.

Local Arab garrisons probably equaled or exceeded the numbers of regular Byzantine soldiers. Likewise there appear to have been modest (hundred or more soldiers) detachments stationed at a few strategic points across the legal border inside Persia, at least at Hit and Takrlt, on the upper Euphrates and Tigris Rivers respectively. Defenses of areas east of the Jordan and east of the Golan Heights were another matter. The Byzantine army appears to have allowed local sheikhs of a friendly sort to handle security patrols and the guarding of passage through desert and semi-desert peripheral territories.

The mobile effectives among the theoretical 25,000 troops in Egypt were probably small in number, a few thousand, widely scattered and difficult to collect to send to Syria/Palestine, of poor quality, and normally needed for internal security needs in Egypt and Cyrenaica. Even less available were troops stationed west of Egypt, in Numidia, and the Exarchate of Africa, which was exposed to grievous Berber raids. Likewise, the Byzantine government was not defending its Balkan regions well against Avars and Slavs and could temporarily divert Thracian troops, under the command of the magister militum per Thraciam, from there to Syria or Egypt only at the risk of experiencing the devastation of those regions and their populations.

The best Byzantine troops, those who were stationed at Constantinople, were located more than 1,600 kilometers from the areas of earliest Muslim penetration. It was possible to shift them to Syria, but it was expensive and time-consuming, requiring several months at least to remove the bulk of them there. Most Byzantine troops who were already stationed in Syria were located in the north, about 800 to 1,200 kilometers away from areas of the earliest major clashes. Time, organization, money, logistical planning, and the risks of offending local population were involved in any shifts. Except for emergency short-term needs, troops other than cavalry could not move much more than 25 to 30 kilometers per day, and even that speed presented problems for transportation of some of their equipment and supplies. After such a lengthy and exhausting trip, moreover, the troops and their animals required some rest and adjustment before being truly ready for serious operations and combat. A basic reality was the government’s inability to concentrate all or even most of its potentially available troops for open campaigning or to raise expeditionary armies much larger than 20,000 soldiers, including foot and horse.

The recruitment of additional soldiers required time, money, much training, and could disrupt existing rural social and economic structures. It was easier to raise contingents from the ranks of friendly Arab tribes, who were located more conveniently and who knew the terrain and fighting techniques of the Muslim invaders at least to some extent, than to recruit troops of Greek and Latin stock. Friendly Arab forces may have numbered two to five times the size of the available regular and garrison troops of “Byzantine” (Greek, Armenian, or Latin) stock; by this time very few Germanic recruits were available. Armenians could be and were recruited, but it was hazardous to rely too heavily on them, even though they shared a common Armenian heritage with Emperor Heraclius.

626 AD Avar Siege of Constantinople


Avar khagan Haganos laid siege to the city, an advance guard of some 30,000 men forced the Byzantine army guarding the wall to fall back to the protection of the Theodosian Walls.


Very important events took place in the Balkan Peninsula after the death of Justinian, although unfortunately present knowledge of them is limited by the fragmentary material that appears in the sources. During Justinian’s reign the Slavs frequently attacked the provinces of the Balkan Peninsula, penetrating far into the south and threatening at times even the city of Thessalonica. These irruptions continued after Justinian’s death. There were then large numbers of Slavs remaining in the Byzantine provinces, and they gradually occupied the peninsula. They were aided in their aggression by the Avars, a people of Turkish origin living at that time in Pannonia. The Slavs and Avars menaced the capital and the shores of the Sea of Marmora and the Aegean, and penetrated into Greece as far as the Peloponnesus. The rumor of these invasions spread to Egypt, where John, bishop of Nikiu, wrote in the seventh century, during the reign of the Emperor Phocas: “It is recounted that the kings of this epoch had by means of the barbarians and the foreign nations and the Illyrians devastated Christian cities and carried off their inhabitants captive, and that no city escaped save Thessalonica only; for its walls were strong, and through the help of God the nations were unable to get possession of it.” A German scholar of the early nineteenth century held the theory, discussed at length later, that at the end of the sixth century the Greeks were completely destroyed by the Slavs. Studies of the problem of Slavic settlement in the Balkan Peninsula depend greatly upon the Acts of the martyr Demetrius, the protector of Thessalonica, one of the main Slavonic centers in the peninsula.

At the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century the persistent southward movement of the Slavs and Avars, which Byzantine troops were unable to stop, produced a profound ethnographic change in the peninsula, since it became occupied largely by Slavonic settlers. The writers of this period were, in general, poorly acquainted with the northern tribes and they confuse the Slavs and Avars because they attacked the Empire jointly.

The Avars were probably the amalgamated remnants of the Juan-juan with those of the White Huns after both were driven west by the Oak Turks. They conquered the Kutrigur and Utigur remnants of Attila’s Huns, now mixed with the Sabir and Onogur and calling themselves Bulgars, the Gepids and many of the Southern Slavs, incorporating them into their army and sending them to lead the attack! After their failed attack on Constantinople in 626, the Avars lost face and were deserted by many of their subjects The Bulgars revolted in 631, but some became allied again from 675 until eastern Avarria was attacked by Krum’s Bulgarian empire in 805. The Avars are described by Maurikios as dishonest, cunning and very experienced in military matters, preferring to win not so much by force as by deceit and surprise He says that unlike other nomads “they concern themselves with military organisation, and this makes them more powerful in pitched battles”, which suggests regular status. Maurikios says that they wore armour and most were double-armed with both lance and bow, the horses of the most important also being totally armoured There is no evidence for shields They often used more than three commands and separated them widely Their baggage consisted of tents and vast horse herds. They did not use wagon laagers.

While the Emperor was absent leading the army in distant campaigns, the capital became exposed to very serious danger. The Khagan of the Avars broke the agreement with the Emperor and in the year 626 advanced toward Constantinople with huge hordes of Avars and Slavs. He also formed an agreement with the Persians, who immediately sent part of their army to Chalcedon. The Avaro-Slavonic hordes besieged Constantinople to the extreme apprehension of the population, but the garrison of Constantinople was successful in repelling the attack and putting the enemy to flight.

The extent to which siege towers were employed remains unclear. They appear in several sixth-century accounts of siege machinery (for example, the Roman siege of Amida in 503, the Persian siege of Martyropolis in 530, and Belisarius’ siege of Rome). Twelve such towers are reported to have been constructed by the Avar besiegers of Constantinople in 626, and they appear again at the Avaro-Slav siege of Thessaloniki in the period 616-18.

As soon as the Persians heard of this repulse, they withdrew their army from Chalcedon and directed it to Syria. The Byzantine victory over the Avars before Constantinople in 626 was one of the main causes of the weakening of the wild Avar kingdom.

Military Administration – 7th Century Byzantine


Emperor Heraclius at the battle of Nineveh.

Before the reign of Heraclius (610-641), the army consisted of spear-armed infantry with a small but tactically dominant cavalry force. Maurice (582-602) tried to set up a territorial reserve of infantry archers, training once a week, but whether this got off the ground is unclear. The army then collapsed in the civil war and Sassanian invasion which followed Maurice’s death. During the struggle between Phocas and Heraclius, anti-Phocas forces in Alexandria included regular soldiers, mercenaries, sailors, urban volunteers and the Green Circus Faction. These Circus Faction’s were more than supporters’ clubs, acting like political gangs in the Empire’s main cities. Supporters of Phocas in Constantinople included militias based upon other Circus Factions, plus sailors of the Egyptian fleet who, however, soon deserted to Heraclius.


  1. Armoured infantryman:

The 7th century was another period from which few illustrations survive. The best-equipped infantry appear to have had short-sleeved mail hauberks and remarkably large shields, plus spears and swords. This man’s helmet is based upon one found in Central Europe which may be of Byzantine form. The addition of the mail aventail is hypothetical, reflecting a high degree of Turkish and specifically Avar influence. His sword is based upon an unusual Scandinavian form which is itself likely to reflect Byzantine origins.

  1. Armoured cavalryman:

This trooper has been given a plumed cap over his helmet, as worn by warriors from Iran and the Caucasus. This could be the explanation for the otherwise extraordinary outlines of many helmets seen in 7th-9th century Byzantine art. Turkish and Avar influences can be seen on the belt, sword and bowcase, as shown by surviving fragments and pictorial sources.

  1. Noble commander, late 7th century:

One remarkable and recently discovered fragment of wall painting sheds light on the costume of the 7th century Byzantine elite though not, unfortunately, on their military equipment. A long tunic with richly embroided claves and three-quarter sleeves was worn over a long-sleeved shirt, either with soft riding boots or, as here, with highly decorated shoes indicating high status. The practice of impaling the head and hands of a defeated rebel, presumably as a warning to others, seems to have been common in Byzantium at this time.

When he at last gained power Heraclius rebuilt an army out of this wreckage. He gathered scattered, leaderless but numerous troops, equipping the elite regiments and restructuring others. While working on existing foundations, Heraclius took his Avar foes as an ideal. His main problem remained a lack of horse archers, the cutting edge of a new army which took two years to organise and train. Heraclius then broke the tradition by leading this army into battle; moreover, he personally slew the Sassanian general Razates in single combat.

As a result of the Diocletianic-Constantinian reforms the Roman army was separated from the civil administration, so that governors of provinces no longer commanded a provincial army (though they were still responsible for raising funds to support the army). The army was divided into two parts: there were troops protecting the borders, the limitanei, under the command of duces, and there was a field army, the comitatenses, which was mobile, organised in divisions under the command of the magistri militum. In addition there were the palace troops, and the imperial bodyguard, whose titles changed throughout the fifth and sixth centuries. By the end of the ninth century, there had emerged a quite different system, with the army divided into divisions called themata (or themes), based in provinces also called themes, each under the command of a strategos, who was responsible for both the civil and military government of his theme. There is no general agreement about how quickly this change took place, nor why (whether it was the result of some planned reorganisation, or simply a fumbling reaction to the problems of the seventh and eighth centuries). There is, however, general dissent from the theory, which once commanded much support, associated with the name of the great Byzantinist George Ostrogorsky, who saw the thematic army as the result of a deliberate reorganisation of the army and the Empire by the emperor Heraclius. The result, supposedly, was a peasant army, based in the themes, in which land had been allotted to peasant families as smallholdings, in return for each family providing and equipping a soldier. This somewhat romantic idea of the middle Byzantine Empire resting on the popular support of a free peasantry has been generally abandoned. The transition is now thought to have been later than Heraclius’ reign, and probably a gradual change. The idea that the soldiers of the themes were supported by their families, who had received grants of land, seems to be a retrojection of the much later notion of pronoia, whereby soldiers did receive land in return for military service. But there is no evidence for the system of pronoia until the twelfth century, and those who received such grants of pronoia then were certainly not peasants.

Part of the problem is terminology. The word thema originally meant a military unit, and references to themata in the sources in the seventh century may refer to military units, rather than to the land where they were stationed. But even if it seems that the reference is to territory, since our sources are from the ninth century, by which time the thematic system was well established, we cannot be sure that such a reference is not an anachronism. As with the changes in civil adminstration already discussed, it is possible (indeed likely) that the two systems overlapped: for even though there are references to strategoi and themata in the seventh century, there is still mention of provinces (eparchiai) and governors, and use of such titles as magister militum well into the eighth century.

The first themes to emerge are the Opsikion, the Anatolikon, the Armeniakon and the Thrakesion, together with a fifth division, the fleet of the Karabisianoi, which included the islands of the Aegean and part of the south-west coast of Asia Minor. Later these themes were subdivided, but their original boundaries correspond to already existing provincial boundaries. A likely explanation of the origin of these themes, without any close reference to timescale, is as follows. After the defeat of the Byzantine army by the Arabs, the troops retreated over the Taurus Mountains into Anatolia. But the years following the defeat, as recounted above, saw continual raiding by Arab forces into Anatolia, leading finally in the 660s and 670s to a concerted attempt by the caliph Mu`awiya to advance across Asia Minor and take Constantinople. In this situation of prolonged threat, the Byzantine armies were stationed in Asia Minor among the provinces. They would have been provisioned in the traditional way, by a levy raised by the local governors from the civilian population of the provinces. The areas that came to be called the themes of the Armeniakon and the Anatolikon were the groups of provinces where the armies commanded by the magistri militum per Armeniam and per Orientem were stationed. The theme of the Thrakesion occupied the provinces in western Anatolia where the army of the magister militum per Thraciam was established, having been transferred from Thrace to resist the Arabs, perhaps at the same time as the army of the magister militum per Orientem withdrew into Asia Minor. The theme of the Opsikion were the armies of the magistri militum praesentales, some of whom had probably long been established in the area across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Their name derives from the Latin obsequium which formed part of the title of the officer who, during the reign of Heraclius, was appointed to command the praesental armies on the emperor’s behalf: he was the commander of the palatine corps of the domestici, called the comes domesticorum, but also the comes Obsequii. The Karabisianoi, the fleet, formed part of the old quaestura exercitus, probably based at Samos. It seems likely that all of this was established – that is, military units called themes stationed in the provinces of Asia Minor – by some time around about the middle of the seventh century. At what stage, and why, the civil administration declined, to be replaced by the military government of the strategoi, is much less clear. But presumably the overriding need to supply a standing army, combined with the final decline of the ancient economy based on the city, meant that the strategos, supported by the growing centralised administration emanating from the court, gradually assumed the functions of the old governing elite. The latter had itself lost much of its raison d’etre because of the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the civil administration.

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).

Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718


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Date: August 717–15 August 718.

Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul.

Forces Engaged:

Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian.

Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama.


Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious attempt to overpower the Byzantine Empire led to another seven centuries of Christian power in southeastern Europe.

Historical Setting

Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. In doing so, he occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries had controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. The Sea of Marmara is flanked northeast and southwest by the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two narrow straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. Unless one goes completely around the Black Sea, the passage from Europe into Asia Minor is across one of those straits. Therefore, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been an extremely strategic possession for both land and naval warfare, as well as overland and maritime trade. As Rome faded and Constantinople rose in power, it became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam in Arabia in the seventh century. Claiming his divinely inspired teachings, the Koran, to be the successor to the Bible and the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, he spread his faith by both proselytization and warfare. By coincidence (or divine intervention) Muhammad arrived on the scene just as the two Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He was therefore able to acquire massive territorial gains hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persians and Byzantines suffered major losses of real estate as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

Muhammad the Prophet had a public career of ten years (622–632), then died without publicly naming a successor. His close associate Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him but ruled only two years; upon his death Omar reigned as caliph (“deputy”), the religious and political head of Islam. For ten years Omar oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. It spread further still under the caliphate of Othman (644–656), ultimately stretching west to the Atlantic shore of North Africa as well as east to Armenia and Afghanistan. After he was assassinated Islam split into two major factions: the followers of Muhammad’s nephew Ali became the Shi’ites, while the supporters of the Syrian governor Muawiya started the Sunni faction. Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Muawiya’s goal was the downfall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, for reportedly whoever was involved in capture of the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. Intermittently between 674 and 678 Muslim forces attempted to capture the city, by both land and sea, but the double walls protecting it proved too formidable. Muawiya settled for a peace treaty with the Byzantine emperor, which provided for an annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople. For the next thirty years Muslim armies carried the faith as far as Spain and India, but the lure of Constantinople, the key to Europe, always beckoned. Caliph Walid (705–715) organized the forces necessary to seize the city, but died before the project began. Thus, his successor Suleiman sent men and ships to the Byzantine capital in 717.

The Byzantine Empire had suffered through a series of mediocre emperors since the last assault. Anastasius was now emperor. He came to the throne in 713 and was in the market for able soldiers to defend his realm. In his army served a general named Conon, better known as Leo the Isaurian. (He was probably from Syria rather than the Anatolian province of Isauria [modern Konia], however.) He had been a soldier since 705 and in 716 took command of the theme (district) of Anatolia. He harried the approaching Muslim army as it marched out of Syria toward Constantinople, then took the throne from Anastasius in March 717. Crowned Leo III, he immediately set about laying in as many provisions as he could for the siege he knew was coming, a daunting task for a city of perhaps half a million people. He also oversaw the repair and strengthening of the city’s two walls and the placement of weaponry to repel attacks from land or sea.

The Siege

Caliph Suleiman named Muslama as commander of his army, reportedly 80,000 men marching through Anatolia toward Constantinople. His plan was to invest the city from the western, landward side while a huge fleet blocked any supplies from reaching the city. That fleet numbered some 1,800 ships carrying a further 80,000 men under the command of a general named Suleiman, not to be confused with the caliph. The Muslim fleet was divided into two divisions: one to blockade the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) and keep any relief from coming to Constantinople from the Mediterranean, and one to hold the Bosphorus to the north, keeping out any relief from Black Sea ports. Muslama crossed the Hellespont in July 717, then divided his forces. He took command of the main body that began the siege, while sending a detachment to Adrianople to keep an eye on the Bulgars, who had been pillaging through southeastern Europe and had attacked Constantinople in 712.

Immediately upon his arrival Muslama threw an attack against the walls, but it was easily beaten back. That convinced him against undertaking a frontal assault, so he began digging trenches to prevent any breakout from the city. Most of the fighting, therefore, took place on the water. Admiral Suleiman left part of his navy at the Dardanelles, as ordered, but led the remainder northward to take up station on the Hellespont. As they approached Constantinople, however, the leading ships were caught in a swift and unfamiliar current that began to tangle them. Seizing his opportunity, Leo quickly lowered the chain that protected the Golden Horn (the upper harbor of the city) and dashed out into the Muslim fleet before they could form into line of battle. Using Greek fire, his ships quickly destroyed or captured a large number of vessels while the rest retreated. Suleiman feared sailing past the city now, for another such battle could destroy the rest of his fleet. Thus, the northern avenue for aid for a time was kept open.

The Muslim effort was off to a poor start, and soon bad news came from Damascus. Caliph Suleiman had died of a stomach ailment (probably from overeating) and Omar II, not known for his military acumen, had replaced him. For the next several months little happened except for bad luck. The winter of 717–718 was much colder than usual and snow lay on the ground for more than three months. For an army born and raised in Arabia and Egypt this was disconcerting at best, deadly at worst. Delays in the delivery of supplies from Egypt, coupled with the bad weather, meant the deaths of thousands of besieging soldiers.

The Muslims hoped to take the initiative in the spring of 718 with the arrival of a new fleet from Egypt bringing 50,000 reinforcements. The 400 ships of the fleet from Egypt slipped past the Byzantine fleet in the Golden Horn at night, thus avoiding a naval battle, and anchored at the Hellespont. That cut off the flow of supplies and would eventually have spelled the city’s doom, but Leo’s navy again saved the day. He was aided by the desertion of large numbers of crew members from the new Egyptian fleet, sailors who were Coptic Christians and had been pressed into Muslim service. Learning of the enemy fleet’s disposition, Leo launched a surprise attack in June that caught them completely unawares. The Greek fire (an unknown mixture of materials with many of the characteristics of napalm) once again caused both destruction and terror; the Christian crews deserted wholesale to the welcoming Byzantine forces. The northern blockading fleet was destroyed and Leo followed up his victory with an attack on Muslim forces on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, opposite the capital. That attack was so unexpected that Muslim soldiers and sailors were slaughtered by the thousands.

Leo at this point proved himself to be a diplomat as well as a general. He sent envoys to the Bulgars, who persuaded their King Tervel to attack the Muslim army from the west. In July Tervel’s soldiers drove back the Muslim holding force at Adrianople and attacked Muslama’s forces in the rear, defeating them and inflicting some 22,000 casualties. This new threat was reinforced by the rumor that a Frankish army was marching across Europe to assist their fellow Christians. The Muslims had not yet fought the Franks, but had heard tales of formidable military power. Caliph Omar decided it was time to bring the siege to a close. On 15 August 718 Muslama led the army away from Constantinople.


The defeat at Constantinople was the first disastrous loss the armies of Islam had suffered. There had been occasional defeats, but never a catastrophe such as this. Of the 210,000 Muslim soldiers and sailors who took part, it is reported that only 30,000 actually saw their homeland again. Of the more than 2,000 ships reported to have been involved, only five supposedly made it home.

Had Muslama’s armies captured the city, the route into eastern Europe would have been virtually unguarded. Little organized resistance could have been mounted against hordes of Muslim troops until they reached central Europe. Constantinople, the seat of political, religious, and economic power in the Christian East, probably would have become Islam’s capital as it did in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city in 1453. The Eastern Orthodox Church may have disappeared, with untold consequences in eastern Europe and Russia, although such did not happen in 1453. Sea power would have been completely in Muslim hands, for no European population at the time owned a significant navy. None would until the Vikings a century later. Even with the Frankish victory at Tours in France fifteen years afterward, Islam could well have become the dominant European, and therefore world, religion.

The Byzantine victory insulated Europe from Islam, but also from other outside influences. Hellenistic knowledge and culture survived and in many ways flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Europe entered the Dark Ages. Militarily Europe was strong, but cultural progress was at a crawl. Not until the Crusades and the resulting revival of trade with the East was the old knowledge rediscovered, and the Renaissance was the result. It is interesting to speculate what Europe may have been like had Constantinople fallen seven centuries before it did.

References: J. F. C. Fuller, Military History of the Western World, vol. 1 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954); Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 (London: Methuen, 1898); Warren T. Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, 284–1081 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

The Sixth-Century Army of Justinian

The sixth-century army of Justinian’s era, like its earlier counterparts, was an entirely professional force, but it no longer conformed to the patterns of the Roman army of Caesar or Augustus: overwhelmingly a force of heavy infantry, divided into legions composed of Roman citizens supported by non- Roman auxiliaries. The classic Roman legion of the early empire numbered about five thousand soldiers organized into ten cohorts, each commanded by a centurion, with more or less the same number of non- citizen auxiliary troopers organized in supporting infantry cohorts and cavalry alae (wings). The number of legions slowly increased from the time of Augustus until, in the Severan period in the early third century, it reached a grand total of thirty-three, implying a total paper strength, with an equal quantity of supporting auxiliaries, of around 350,000 men. More or less the entirety of this military establishment was distributed along the empire’s vast frontiers: in northern Britain, along broadly the rivers Rhine and Danube on the European continent, and in Mesopotamia and Armenia facing up to the Persians, while smaller forces patrolled the desert fringes of Egypt and the rest of North Africa as far west as modern Morocco. When larger forces were required for major campaigns, contingents were pulled together from all the legions within reach, but whole legions- each a small expeditionary force in its own right- were moved around the empire only occasionally. By the time of Justinian, the Roman army had changed out of all recognition under the pressure of two sequential periods of military crisis.

The nearest fully comprehensive listing of the Roman army’s order of battle to the time of Justinian is preserved in the eastern portions of the famous Notitia Dignitatum, dating to the 390s. Fifth-century legal materials dealing with military matters and some more episodic pictures of the East Roman army in action provided by fifth- and early sixth- century narrative sources make it clear, however, that the basic pattern of military organization did not alter in the intervening 130 years. Periods of heavy fighting could destroy individual units, and new threats demanded particular recruiting efforts. Sixteen regiments of heavy East Roman infantry were never reconstituted after their destruction at the battle of Hadrianople in August 378, and the Hunnic wars of the 440s both caused heavier casualties and occasioned major recruitment drives in Isauria (south- central Anatolia). But if individual units came and went, the over- all shape of East Roman military organization remained broadly stable. By the late fourth century and on into the mid- sixth, the old pattern of large legionary units stationed at intervals along the major frontier lines had given way to a more complex set of unit structures and dispositions. There were now three broad types of East Roman army grouping: in descending order by status, central (`praesental’) field armies, organized in two separate corps each with its own commanding general (Magister Militum Praesentalis); three regional field armies (one in Thrace, one in Illyricum, the third on the Persian front, each again with its own Magister Militum); and a whole series of frontier guard troops (limitanei) stationed in fortified posts on or close to the frontier line. The last were organized in more local, regional clusters each commanded by a dux (`duke’).

The number and type of military unit found within each grouping had also evolved. The word `legion’ survived in the title of many units, particularly of the limitanei, some of which were direct descendants of very old formations. Legio V Macedonica had originally been raised by Julius Caesar in 43 BC; it still existed in Egypt in the seventh century ad. Like all its late Roman peers, however, it had become a completely different type of unit, for which the standard term was now numerus in Latin, arithmos in Greek. No individual late Roman unit was anything like as large as the old legion of 5,000 men (about the size of a modern brigade). We don’t have exact information, but even the notional manpower of larger infantry formations was no more than 1,000 to 1,500 (much more like a regiment). There were also many more cavalry units in both the frontier limitanei and in the regional and praesental field armies than there used to be; these were smaller still, consisting of no more than 500 men.

The old binary divide between citizen legionaries and noncitizen auxiliaries, likewise, had been replaced by three main categories of soldiers, who received differing rates of pay and enjoyed varying grades of equipment. The highest- ranking palatini and second- ranked comitatenses were distributed across the central and regional field armies, while frontier forces were composed of limitanei and/ or ripenses. Differences in status materially affected military capacity. When a cavalry unit operating against desert raiders in Cyrenaica was downgraded from field army status (as comitatenses) to limitanei, it lost the right to the extra remounts and supplies, making it potentially much less effective against trouble- some desert raiders, much to the chagrin of Synesius of Cyrene. The men themselves presumably also didn’t much enjoy the resulting pay cut. But it is a mistake to write off the effectiveness of limitanei altogether. It used to be fashionable to envisage them as part- time soldier farmers who would have struggled to cope with anything more demanding than a little patrol- ling and the odd customs inspection. But while it is conceivable that their state of readiness and overall training may have varied substantially on different frontiers, the limitanei of the eastern and Danubean fronts were battle hardened. Warfare in the East largely took the form of extended sieges, and in this theatre the garrison forces of many of the major Roman fortresses were composed of limitanei. As such, they bore the brunt of much of the initial fighting in many campaigns. The same was also true of the Danubean front, where heavy fighting had been endemic throughout the fifth century. For really major campaigns, units of limitanei were sometimes also mobilized alongside designated field army formations.

Much of this reorganization can be traced back to the period of extended military and political instability known as the third-century crisis. The fundamental destabilizing factor here was the rise of Persia to superpower status under the Sassanian dynasty, which displaced its Arsacid rivals in the 220s and found new ways to unite the massive resources of what are now Iraq and Iran and turn them against Roman possessions in the East, with extremely negative effects upon the overall strategic position of the Roman Empire. The third- century Persian King of Kings Shapur I (ad 240/ 2- 270/ 2) set out the record of his achievements in a great rock inscription, the Res Gestae Divi Saporis.

I am the Mazda-worshipping divine Shapur, King of Kings . . . , of the race of the Gods, son of the Mazda- worshipping divine Ardashir, King of Kings. . . . When I was first established over the dominion of the nations, the Caesar Gordian from the whole of the Roman Empire . . . raised an army and marched . . . against us. A great battle took place between the two sides on the frontiers of Assyria at Meshike. Caesar Gordian was destroyed and the Roman army was annihilated. The Romans proclaimed Philip Caesar. And Caesar Philip came to sue for peace, and for their lives he paid a ransom of 500,000 denarii and became tributary to us. . . . And the Caesar lied again and did injustice to Armenia. We marched against the Roman Empire and annihilated a Roman army of 60,000 men at Barbalissos. The nation of Syria and whatever nations and plains that were above it, we set on first and devastated and laid waste. And in the campaign [we took] . . . thirty- seven cities with their surrounding territories. In the third contest . . . Caesar Valerian came upon us. There was with him a force of 70,000 men. . . . A great battle took place beyond Carrhae and Edessa between us and Caesar Valerian and we took him prisoner with our own hands, as well as all the other commanders of the army. . . . On this campaign, we also conquered . . . thirty- six cities with their surrounding territories.

It actually took the Roman Empire three political generations to recover from this cataclysm of humiliating defeats and restore balance to the eastern front and thereby to its own internal workings. The most immediate level of response, as you might expect, was a revolution in the empire’s overall military capacity. Some of this came in the form of new unit types. Persian elite forces of the third century AD characteristically took the form of heavily armed lancers-cataphracts-who were responsible for much of the carnage inflicted on the armies of Gordian, Philip, and Valerian. In response, Rome substantially increased the number of cavalry units at the disposal of its commanders and, in particular, created from scratch a number of heavily armoured cavalry units, the plate-mailed clibanarii. These units still formed part of the Eastern praesental field armies at the end of the fourth century.

For the most part, however, the response took the form of a huge expansion in the size of the traditional heavy infantry arm of the Roman military. Because the notional paper strength of the new unit types is far from certain, the exact scale of this expansion is impossible to calculate. But a whole range of evidence, from the size of extant barrack blocks to pieces of specific information, provides the basis for worthwhile calculation. From these materials, no serious student of the late Roman army thinks that its notional manpower strength increased by less than 50 per cent in the century after 230, and a pretty good argument can be made that it actually doubled in size. There could be no more eloquent testimony to the scale of the strategic problem posed by the emergence-better, perhaps, reemergence (Shapur’s great inscription was placed near the tombs of the great Achaemenid kings of antiquity, Darius and Xerxes)- of Persia as a rival superpower to Rome. As a result of this expansion, the Persian threat had been broadly contained by the turn of the fourth century. The first serious Roman victories came in the final decade of the third century, and while one side or the other often held a short-term advantage in subsequent years, the fourth century saw no repetition of the stunning victories recorded by Shapur I.

But the effects of increasing Persian power and of consequent Roman military expansion were felt not just on the battlefield. The rise of Persia to superpower status gave a new importance to the eastern front, which in the longer term destabilized existing political balances of command and control within the empire as a whole. Once Persian power became such a basic fact of life, it demanded imperial- level oversight be available more or less constantly for the eastern front, since only an emperor could safely command the kind of resources that war making in this theatre now required. In the Notitia Dignitatum, about 40 per cent of the entire Roman imperial army was positioned to deal with a potential Persian threat, and this was far too large a force to leave under the control of an unsupervised general, since few could resist the opportunity that such an army provided to bid for the imperial throne. Moreover, given the enormous size of the empire, stretching from Scotland to Iraq, and the catatonically slow speed of movement – Roman armies could move on average twenty kilometres a day for three to four days at a time before needing a rest day – this in turn meant, in practice, that an additional source of command and control had to be available for the empire’s other major European fronts, where a smaller but nonetheless significant increase in the level of threat posed by the new, largely Germanic- dominated confederations of the Rhine and Danube was another characteristic feature of the late imperial period.

After a long period of experiment in the third century, punctuated by repeated usurpations as under supervised generals made successive bids for the purple, the result was a general tendency in the late imperial period- for as long as the Western Empire remained in existence- for political power to be divided between two or more emperors. The knock- on political effects of military reorganization also help explain the relatively complex structure of central and regional field armies. Logistics meant that regional commanders required sufficient forces to respond to most `normal’ levels of threat. It generally took at least a year to concentrate the necessary food supplies and animal fodder and then move the actual troops required for major campaigns, and this was obviously far too long a delay for most frontier problems. But since army commanders also had a long track record of usurpation, emperors wanted to make sure that individual generals did not have so many troops at their disposal that they could easily make a bid for the throne. The field army organization of the fourth to the sixth centuries can be seen as compromise. It redistributed elite portions of the army to allow for quicker, more effective responses to the new strategic demands of the late Roman period but tempered the potential political consequences by carefully dividing units, even of the central, praesental field army, between two separate commanders whose political influence could be counted on more or less to cancel each other out.

The same kind of balance is also visible in another military innovation which had become a characteristic feature of East Roman armies by the time of Justinian. It is not clear when exactly it emerged, but by the sixth century field army generals, the Magistri Militum, all seem to have had substantial forces of officers and soldiers- `guardsmen and spearmen’, as Procopius calls them-who were recruited by them personally and tended to follow their generals on campaign even to far-flung corners of the Mediterranean. Belisarius’s guards served with him in the East, in Africa, and in Italy, and when the commanding general in Armenia was assigned to the Balkans in preparation for an Italian campaign, his guards came with him. The normal term for these soldiers is bucellarii, and the institution clearly grew out of the tendency of the great and good, military and civilian, in the late Roman world to maintain personal armed retinues. The bucellarii of the sixth- century Roman military, however, were different. They were supported at least in part out of state funds (although rich generals, such as Belisarius became, might also employ some of their own money in recruiting and equipping their men, just like richer ships’ captains in Nelson’s navy), and they swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor as well as to their own general. The state funding increased their numbers- at one point Belisarius’s guards amounted to 7,000 men, but 500 to 1,500 seems much the more usual range- and rather than think of them as an expanded personal retinue, they are better understood as elite striking formations whose permanent attachment to successful generals (successful at least in the sense of having been promoted to Magister Militum) meant that they enjoyed higher levels of training and equipment. It is also clear that by the sixth century, bucellarii were being recruited from both outside `barbarians’ and the empire’s own citizens. Here, too, we see the desirability of heightened military effectiveness being balanced by the necessity of preventing individual generals from becoming politically dangerous.

If the size, geographic distribution, and command structure of Justinian’s army can be traced back to the military convulsions of the third century, its unit forms and tactical doctrines had their origins in a quite separate crisis. From the late fourth century, the rise of Hunnic power in eastern and central Europe generated an unprecedented level of threat liability for service- but with the added proviso that the foederatii could preserve their own existing communal and political structures and would always serve under their own leaders. The use of mercenary contingents from beyond the imperial frontier, hired in for particular campaigns, also remained a regular feature of the sixth- century East Roman army. Procopius records a whole range of such contingents, from groups as diverse as the Germanic- speaking Lombards of the Middle Danube to the Turkic- speaking Bulgars (whom he calls Massagetae) from north of the Black Sea. But the empire continued to maintain largely autonomous groups of foederatii on Roman soil, too, even after the departure of the Thracian Goths for Italy in 488, with Heruli in particular playing an important role in Justinian’s campaigns.

In the long term, however, the most important military response to the era of Hunnic domination was tactical. The Romans first met the Huns as small- scale cavalry raiders equipped with a more powerful version of the reflex bow, which had long been a characteristic weapon of Eurasian steppe nomads. This gave different Hunnic groups sufficient military edge rapidly to establish hegemony over large numbers of the semi- subdued, largely Germanic- speaking clients of Rome- Goths and others- who controlled the territories beyond the defended imperial frontier. As a result, the military problem posed by the Huns in the era of Attila evolved into a much more complex one, since the great Hunnic warlord disposed of the combined forces of both the Hunnic core of his empire and of a host of conquered subject peoples: other steppe nomads, such as the Alans, and the largely infantry forces of Germanic Goths, Gepids, Suevi, Sciri, and others. The range of weaponry that Attila could deploy was accordingly varied; it encompassed mounted archers to heavy, mailed shock cavalry equipped with lances to dense groupings of infantry.

The full story of all the experimentation which underlay the Roman adaptation to new patterns of warfare in the Hunnic era cannot be recovered, but its overall effect upon the sixth-century army emerges clearly from the battle narratives of Procopius’s histories and contemporary military manuals, above all the Strategicon of Maurice. As seen in action in these texts, the East Roman army of the sixth century was characterized by a much greater reliance upon its cavalry arm. Now often deployed in the front of the battle line instead of just as flank protection (as had still generally been the case in the fourth century), it comprised two distinct elements. Occupying the van were the lighter cavalry (koursoures in the terminology of the Strategicon) characteristically armed with Hunnic- type reflex bows, whose archaeological remains, in the form of bone stiffeners, start to appear in Roman military contexts in the early fifth century. The koursoures were the first to engage an enemy, using their projectile weaponry at least to inflict some initial losses on an enemy or, at best, to spread disorder in his tactical formations. If this initial assault was successful, the heavier shock cavalry- defensores- could then be deployed almost literally to ram home the advantage. They were armed not only with bows but with cavalry lances to break up an opposition line. Alternatively, if the koursoures ran into trouble, the heavy cavalry would cover their retreat. Procopius’s battle narratives indicate that the new elite cavalrymen of the sixth- century army tended to be concentrated in the bucellarii of the Magistri Militum, but regular field army cavalry units, and some of the foederatii too, were intensively trained in the new battlefield practices.

The bucellarii of field army generals also provided the key military structure of institutional continuity which allowed new weaponry and the tactics to exploit them fully first to be developed and then passed on across the generations. This is partly an argument from silence. There were no officer training schools or military academies in the later Roman Empire where they might have been able to develop new doctrines by discussion in the classroom, which is how modern armies operate. But it is a bit more than that, too. The bucellarii, the new elite arm of the Roman army of the sixth century, enjoyed the highest rates of pay and best equipment on offer from the state factories (not to mention any extras that their often rich commanders chose to provide), so that they could generally attract the best recruits. The officer cadres of the bucellarii were also a source of new field army generals. At least two of Justinian’s initial tranche of his own appointees to the rank of Magister Militum in command of key field army formations in the late 520s- not only Belisarius who will play such an important role in this book but Sittas as well- had served in his bucellarii when the future emperor first held the rank of Magister Militum Praesentalis in the early 520s; several of Belisarius’s household and underofficers from the original African campaign would find promotion to the rank of magister in turn as the reign progressed. Not only were the bucellarii a key element in their own right of the new model East Roman army of the sixth century; they also trans- mitted military expertise across the generations.

Even if the most striking feature of this military revolution was its transformation of the role and equipment of Roman cavalry, it did also affect the battlefield operations of the infantry. Both the lighter and heavier cavalry units were trained to operate in integrated fashion with the infantry, which remained the largest element in every Roman field army and whose tactics and equipment had also been revamped accordingly. The latest interpretation suggests that defensive armour was indeed lightened- as the military commentator Vegetius complained in the later fourth century- but to increase the infantry’s battlefield mobility so that it could work in more integrated fashion with the rapidly developing cavalry arm. The range of infantry equipment was also increased to include more bows and other projectile weaponry so that foot regiments could perform a wider variety of roles: everything from reinforcing and driving home a tactical advantage created by successful cavalry assault to providing a strong covering force should the horsemen be forced to retreat. Experience of combat in the Hunnic era eventually taught Roman commanders that it was no use operating the infantry in dense, relatively static formations, since Hunnic- style horse archery was likely to cause mayhem within the massed ranks before the heavy infantry’s brute force could be brought tellingly to bear at close quarters. The infantry had to become more mobile and less vulnerable to sustained missile and cavalry attack and, by the time of Justinian, had been reordered accordingly. By this stage, it even operated with portable anti-cavalry barricades-munitiones, as an early sixth-century commentator labels them- to help protect it from the unwelcome attention of horse archers.

Two strategic crises, therefore, shaped the armed forces available to the Emperor Justinian on his accession to the throne in 527. The old heavy infantry legions which had conquered an empire had been forced to adapt: numerically, to the threat posed by a newly united Persian superpower in the third century, and tactically, to the intrusion of large numbers of steppe nomads into eastern and central Europe in the later fourth and fifth. Such was the importance of war making in both practical and ideological terms to the overall functioning of the empire that a military revolution on this scale was bound to have equally profound effects on the workings of its internal structures.