Constantinople and Her Navy

Perhaps no defensive structure summarizes the truth of siege warfare in the ancient and medieval world as clearly as the walls of Constantinople. The city lived under siege for almost all its life; its defences reflected the deepest character and history of the place, its mixture of confidence and fatalism, divine inspiration and practical skill, longevity and conservatism. Like the city itself, the walls were always there, and for anyone in the eastern Mediterranean, it was assumed they always would be. The structure of the defences was mature in the fifth century and changed little thereafter; the building techniques were conservative, harking back to practices of the Greeks and Romans. They had no particular reason to evolve because siege warfare itself remained static. The basic techniques and equipment – blockade, mining and escalade, the use of battering rams, catapults, towers, tunnels and ladders – these were largely unchanging for longer than anyone could recall. The advantage always lay with the defender; in the case of Constantinople its coastal position increased that weighting. None of the armies camped before the land walls had ever succeeded in effecting an entry through the multiple defensive layers, while the city always took prudent measures as a matter of state policy to keep its cisterns brimming and its granaries full. The Avars came with an impressive array of stone-throwing machinery but their looping trajectory made them far too puny to breach the walls. The Arabs froze to death in the cold. The Bulgar Khan Krum tried magic – he performed human sacrifices and sprinkled his troops with seawater. Even its enemies came to believe that Constantinople was under divine protection. Only the Byzantines themselves were ever successful in taking their own city from the land, and always by treachery: the messy final centuries of civil war produced a handful of instances where gates were flung open at night, usually with inside help.

There were just two places where the land wall could be considered potentially weak. In the central section the ground sloped down a long valley to the Lycus River and then up the other side. As the wall followed the downward slope, its towers no longer commanded the high ground and were effectively below the level occupied by a besieging army on the hill beyond. Furthermore the river itself, which was ducted into the city through a culvert, made it impossible to dig a deep moat at this point. Nearly all besieging armies had identified this area as vulnerable, and though none had succeeded, it provided attackers with a vestige of hope. A second anomaly in the defences existed at the northern end. The regular procession of the triple wall was suddenly interrupted as it approached the Golden Horn. The line took an abrupt right-angle turn outwards to include an extra bulge of land; for 400 yards, until it reached the water, the wall became a patchwork structure of different-shaped bastions and sectors, which, though stoutly built on a rocky outcrop, was largely only one line deep and for much of its length unmoated. This was a later addition undertaken to include the sacred shrine of the Virgin at Blachernae. Originally the church had been outside the walls. With a typical Byzantine logic it had been held initially that the protection of the Virgin was sufficient to safeguard the church. After the Avars nearly burned it in 626 – the shrine was saved by the Virgin herself – the line of the wall was altered to include the church, and the palace of Blachernae was also built in this small bight of land. Both these perceived weak spots had been keenly appraised by Mehmet when he reconnoitred in the summer of 1452. The right-angle turn where the two walls joined was to receive particular attention.

As they patched up their walls under Giustiniani’s direction and paraded the sacred icons on the ramparts, the people of the city could be pardoned for expressing confidence in their protective powers. Immutable, forbidding and indestructible, they had proved time and again that a small force could keep a huge army at bay until its willpower collapsed under the logistical burden of siege, or dysentery or the disaffection of the men. If the walls were decayed in places, they were still basically sound. Brocquière found even the vulnerable right angle to be protected by ‘a good and high wall’ when he came in the 1430s. The defenders however were unaware that they were preparing for conflict on the cusp of a technological revolution that would profoundly change the rules of siege warfare.

‘Navigantium fortitudo mihi soli inest’, is a remark made by Nicephorus II (as reported by Liutprand). Nicephorus could make this boast in truth, since the emperors of High Byzantium succeeded gradually in building up a fleet of such power as to check the depredations of Arab pirates almost completely in the eastern Mediterranean. During the latter part of the eleventh century, however, the Venetians and the Genoans gradually caught up with the Byzantine marine power and, despite the strenuous efforts of the Comnenian emperors to increase their naval forces, these represented the stronger force by the death of Manuel I, while the Byzantine naval presence after the death of Michael VIII was derisory and in time it vanished altogether, so that John VIII had to make his way to the Council of Ferrara-Florence by hired craft. The fleet of the naval era was divided into two main sections: the Imperial fleet and the fleet of the themes. The former was organized into two divisions, one for the personal use of the Emperor and Empress, and for the defence of the capital, the other for use on regular military expeditions and for policing the seas against pirates.

The fleet of the themes was kept up at the charge of various maritime themes, particularly those of the Greek islands (Aegea, Samos, Cephalonia), Greece and the Cibirriote theme in Asia Minor. The regular servicemen from these themes were paid in feudal land, as were the land forces in the army of the themes. An alteration was however made in the reign of Manuel I, whereby the monies expended by the themes on the upkeep of the fleet were diverted straight into the Imperial treasury, and the Emperor assumed the direct responsibility for the maintenance of the whole naval service. This was probably intended as an assurance for the better order of the ships, but, as might have been foreseen, it proved a disaster, as the money was repeatedly spent on wasteful civil-service projects, while the navy was starved of even necessary funds.

The fleet often employed foreign mercenaries, and Russian or Varangians who entered the Imperial service often began their time in the navy, this being a form of service which would have suited the temper of the Norse seamen. From what is recorded of Haraldr Siguroarson we may deduce that his first period of Varangian service will have been spent thus. The strategos of each maritime theme commanded his section of the thematic fleet, while the supreme commander was the commander of the Imperial fleet, who was titled in the High Byzantine era the Droungarios, and was of the rank of patrician. This official appears to have been known in the reign of Alexius I as the Grand Duke (Megas Doux), and his deputy as the Thalassokrator, while later still Pseudo-Codinus refers to an Admiral of the (by then insignificant) Fleet. These supreme commanders had other officers under them, and officers of the Hetairia were set to command the foreign naval mercenaries. In the tenth century 77 ships constituted the thematic fleet against 100 in the Imperial fleet, while the force manning the latter was 23,000-24,000 strong, against 17,500 in the former.

The capital ships of the Byzantine fleet were the dromoi, which differed considerably in size, but were built on the same pattern, with a wooden castle (xylokastron) on the deck, and carrying various military engines. In the bows was a figurehead of gilt bronze, usually the shape of the head of a wild beast, the lion being a popular motif, in which were housed the siphon and pumping mechanism to spray out the Greek Fire, the terrible Byzantine secret weapon which burned alike on land and water. This substance was also carried in fragile bowls or spheres of glass, which could be hurled on to the enemy ships and which then set everything that the stuff touched ablaze. The rowers were arranged in two banks, with a normal complement of 25 to each row; there were also on average some 50 soldiers on each dromos. It is calculated that there will have been around 220 persons to the full complement on a capital ship, or even more, since the account of the Cretan expedition of 902 refers to 230 oarsmen and 70 others, or in all a crew of 300 on each dromos. The Chelandia were smaller vessels, one class of which were named Pamphyloi’, they were often manned by foreign mercenaries, and their complement would be 130-160 men. Finally there were the light supporting vessels, the so-called ousiai, on which Varangians were frequently employed; these were swift and easily manoeuvred ships, which were especially useful for coastguard duty or for chasing and overtaking pirate vessels. The Taktnkca speaks of 50-60 soldiers forming the complement of each of these ships, and their total crew will there- fore have been c. 110 strong. On formal expeditions two ousiai generally accompanied each major vessel.

The commander of each dromos bore the title of Kentarchos, while over each division of 3-5 capital ships there was placed a homes? though the titles komes and droungarios are later used without discrimination of the captains of single ships. The fleet had its banner, the sign being a cross surrounded by four fire-siphons.

It appears that admission to the Imperial fleet, and especially appointment to one of the ships based on the capital, or in the personal service of the Emperor and his court, was very much sought after by personnel in the other divisions of the Byzantine navy. As the pay was higher, and the serving personnel could more easily obtain high court distinctions in these ships, this is understandable, and it is very likely that it was necessary to purchase such appointments in the same way as ones in the land Hetairia. It is, however, even more difficult to calculate the naval rates of pay than those of the land forces, though some inkling may be derived from the above mentioned narratives of the two naval expeditions to Crete. The pay of the Russians and Varangians in the sea-forces will certainly have been far smaller than that of those in the Hetairia. If it is true, however, that the commanders of the coastal protection vessels were entitled to keep a considerable proportion of the goods confiscated from pirate vessels, then this could obviously make a very sizeable difference to their emoluments. It is noted in Haraldar saga Siguroarsonar that he was to pay the Emperor 100 marks for every pirate vessel that he was able to capture, but could keep the rest for himself and his men. This could obviously be a very valuable source of income.


Warfare Frankish Greece 1204-1380 I

Frankish Greece, 1204–61

The Fourth Crusade (1202-04), consisting of a land army composed of French and Italian troops and a powerful Venetian naval fleet, had originally been planned as an offensive against Egypt. Through a combination of greed, political intrigue and mutual distrust, the expedition ended up attacking the Greeks instead. After the Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, those members of the expedition who chose to stay in Greece undertook the conquest of what remained of the Byzantine empire. This resulted in the creation of several new Latin states around the Aegean. The Latin empire itself encompassed Thrace and the northern fringes of Asia Minor, while Macedonia and parts of Thessaly formed the kingdom of Thessaloniki. Further south, Byzantine Attica and Boeotia were turned into the Frankish duchy of Athens, and below it the principality of Achaia covered the Peloponnese. Meanwhile the Venetians established a number of important trading colonies around the Aegean, particularly at Modon, Coron, Constantinople and Crete. They also dominated numerous islands which lay either directly within the Venetian sphere of influence or were colonised by individual Venetian citizens. These included Corfu, Cephalonia and Euboea, as well as the Cyclades, which formed the duchy of the Archipelago under the Sañudo dukes of Naxos. Eventually other islands came to be controlled by rival powers, most notably the Genoese, who held Chios and several neighbouring trading posts between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, from 1306 onwards the Hospitallers subjugated Rhodes.

Leading Greeks who had fled from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade also created three new states situated on the fringes of the Byzantine world. The capital cities of these states lay at Trebizond along the Black Sea, at Nicaea in Asia Minor and at Arta in Epiros. All three of these territories, and in particular the latter two, saw themselves as the natural heirs to the Byzantine empire and consequently often clashed both with each other and with their unwelcome new Latin neighbours. To the north of Constantinople, the Franks were also threatened by the Bulgars, who had been opponents of the Byzantine empire before 1204 and now continued to launch frequent attacks into northern Greece in conjunction with an aggressive tribe of horsemen known as the Cumans.

This highly splintered political situation inevitably led to almost constant fighting in the Aegean region and ultimately resulted in the destruction of virtually all the Latin states which had been set up after 1204. The first to disappear was the ephemeral kingdom of Thessaly, whose conquest by the despots of Epiros was effectively completed with the fall of Thessaloniki in 1224. At this time the Epirote Greeks also made some significant advances against the duchy of Athens to their south. Meanwhile, the Greeks of Nicaea made good progress in the east. By the end of the 1220s the Franks had lost their possessions in Asia Minor and the Latin empire itself had been reduced to the area immediately around Constantinople, leaving the rulers of Nicaea and Epiros to fight it out for control of northern Greece. Indeed, as the Nicaean Greeks crossed the Sea of Marmara and began to advance westwards, those of Epiros became so alarmed that they formed an alliance with their former enemies, the Franks of Achaia. In 1259 this alliance was ended by the Nicaean ruler Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), who inflicted a crushing defeat on William II of Achaia (1246-78) at the battle of Pelagonia in southern Macedonia. As a result of this encounter Epirote power in northern Greece was weakened, and Prince William found himself in captivity until 1262, when Michael finally released him in exchange for the Achaian fortresses of Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia. These powerful castles were located in the south-eastern corner of the Peloponnese and provided Michael and his successors with a perfect bridgehead from which to reconquer Achaia from the Franks. This process continued sporadically until the 1420, when the last Latin remnants of the principality were swallowed up and incorporated into the Greek province of Mistra.

Two years after the battle of Pelagonia, the Nicaean Greeks also managed to recapture Constantinople, thereby wiping out the Latin empire. This made them masters of a newly recreated Byzantine empire stretching from western Asia Minor to Thessaly, and enabled Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II (1282-1328) to apply further pressure on the despotate of Epiros, the principality of Achaia and the duchy of Athens. While Franks in the Peloponnese struggled to contain attacks from Mistra, the 1270s witnessed the temporary conquest of Euboea by Licario of Karystos, a Veronese adventurer in Michael VII’s employ. Meanwhile, the duchy of Athens came under attack from the north, and in order to halt these advances and to strengthen his position in relation to other Greek lords in Epiros and Thessaly, Duke Gautier I of Athens (1308-11) eventually decided to seek external assistance. This led to the arrival of a ferocious band of Catalan mercenaries in central Greece. These soldiers of fortune had previously been used by Andronikos II to fight the Turks in Asia Minor, but after falling out with their former employer they had gradually moved west through the Byzantine empire, pillaging and looting as they went, before they eventually found themselves in the pay of Duke Gautier. However, after some initial successes an argument broke out between the duke and the volatile Catalans over pay, and as a result they took to the field against Gautier and his Achaian allies. This decisive encounter, traditionally known as the battle of Cephissus but actually fought at Halmyros (southern Thessaly), took place in March 1311 and led to the death of the unfortunate Gautier along with virtually all of his Athenian knights. In its wake Gautier’s lands were conquered by the Catalans, who then colonised and ruled the duchy of Athens until the late fourteenth century. During this period the Catalans acknowledged the overlordship of the kings of Aragon, who held the ducal title and ruled Athens through representatives whom they regularly sent out to Greece.

The dramatic advances made by the Greeks against the Latins had an important effect on the internal history of Achaia. Originally the Frankish rulers of this crusader state had recognised the Latin emperors as their overlords, but after Michael VIII recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and gained control over Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia the following year, it became essential for the Villehardouin princes of Achaia to find a powerful new suzerain who could aid them against the Greeks. During the 1260s, therefore, William II of Villehardouin (1246-78) allied himself with Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France and ruler of Naples (1266-85). As part of this alliance it was agreed that, if William did not produce a male heir, Achaia would eventually pass under Charles’s control, which was exactly what happened following William’s death in 1278. These events turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Peoloponnese, for on the one hand Charles and his Angevin descendants did provide sporadic military support for the Peloponnese (as William had hoped), but on the other relatively few of them ever visited the region, preferring instead to send royal representatives from Italy or to grant parts of Achaia to their own followers. Perhaps the most important such figure was the wealthy Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli, who acquired large parts of northern Morea, including the castellany of Athens, between the 1330s and 1350s. Toward the end of the fourteenth century Niccolo’s descendants also made significant advances against the Catalans of Athens, who were detested in France and Italy because of their close links with the Aragonese, arch-enemies of the Angevins and the Avignon papacy.

The fact that the Angevin rulers of Achaia resided in Naples rather than Greece gradually had the effect of weakening central authority in the Peloponnese, so that the region’s late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century history was reduced to a series of internal clashes between various local factions. In the north the Florentine lords of Corinth, allied with a new company of Navarrese mercenaries who had arrived in the 1380s, fought against the Catalans. In the south east the Greeks of Mistra continued to advance, whilst Achaia itself sporadically found itself disputed between rival Angevin claimants. As the Turkish threat grew, the Venetians and the Hospitallers also became more involved in the politics of Latin Greece, sometimes placing entire areas under their own protection. Indeed, from the 1390s onwards, local Christian squabbles became little more than an irrelevance as the Ottoman Turks began to overrun the entire region regardless of whether it was controlled by Greeks, Italians, Franks or Iberians. By 1460 the Byzantine empire had disappeared and most of the Greek mainland had been incorporated into the Ottoman empire. During the next two centuries all remaining Christian islands in the eastern Mediterranean also fell to the Turks.

During this period the military strength of the Latins and their opponents varied considerably. The relatively short life span of the kingdom of Thessaly and the Latin empire, for example, indicates that here western settlers found themselves under extreme pressure from the very beginning. It has been estimated that the total number of cavalry, including both knights and mounted sergeants, available to the first Latin emperor, Baldwin of Flanders (1204-5), only came to between 500 and 1000 horsemen. Contemporary accounts bear this out, for in late 1204 a mere 120 knights left Constantinople, crossed the Bosphorus and began to conquer as many lands as they could from the Greeks of Nicaea. Similarly, Baldwin’s successor Henry (1206-16) campaigned against the Bulgars with a total of 400 knights in 1206, and was accompanied by 260 knights when he advanced against the Nicaean Greeks in 1211.  Initially these figures do not seem small when compared with Greek forces, for the largest reliable total given for a contemporary Nicaean army is that of 2000 cavalry (including 800 Latin mercenaries) at the battle of Antioch on the Meander, an encounter with the Seljuk Turks which took place in 1211.  It should also be noted that the advances of 1204 and Henry’s campaign of 1211 both ended in Frankish success, suggesting that Latin and Nicaean forces were evenly balanced at this time, particularly when the Greeks were also struggling with their Seljuk neighbours to the east.

To some extent the same may have applied to the Cuman and Bulgar troops who threatened the northern border of the Latin empire and the kingdom of Thessaly. In 1208, for example, a mere 2000 Latins allegedly confronted 33,000 Bulgars in northern Greece, but the fact that this encounter ended in a Frankish victory certainly casts doubt on the latter figure and suggests that the Bulgars could not possibly have enjoyed such an overwhelming numerical superiority. Similarly, the combined armies of Nicaea and Bulgaria which reached the walls of Constantinople in 1235 must have been smaller than western sources imply, otherwise they would have annihilated the 140 Latin knights who emerged from the city and successfully drove them off under the leadership of John of Brienne. Here we are confronted with the usual problem of trying to establish accurate troop numbers from medieval chroniclers who tended to exaggerate (or simply invent) the size of hostile armies. Whilst the number of western knights mentioned by these sources appears to be realistic, they also fail to provide us with any detailed information about the quality and quantity of other troops such as sergeants, infantry and archers, even though these soldiers presumably made up the bulk of Latin armies. We can only assume that an apparently miraculous victory inflicted on tens of thousands of opponents by a few hundred western knights actually represented a more equally matched contest between a Frankish army which was really somewhat larger and a Greek, Bulgar or Cuman force which must have been considerably smaller.

Warfare Frankish Greece 1204-1380 II

Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

It still appears that Latin armies in northern Greece were generally outnumbered, and certainly too thinly spread out to defend both this region and the frontier with Nicaea at the same time. When in 1205 Kalojan of Bulgaria (1197-1207) invaded Frankish territories and encouraged the Greek population of Thrace to rebel, the Latin emperor Baldwin had to persuade his brother Henry to abandon ‘all that he had conquered’ in Asia Minor to cross the Bosphoros and help to defend the empire’s European borders. Even these drastic measures failed to prevent Kalojan and his Greek allies from occupying virtually all of Thrace. Consequently, even if we dismiss Villehardouin’s exaggerated claim that there were an additional 14,000 Cumans alongside all the other troops in Kalojan’s army, we must surely agree with his general conclusion that the Latin emperor ‘could not raise enough troops to defend his territories’. These events also confirm that, apart from having to cope with their external enemies, Latin settlers were heavily outnumbered by a potentially hostile native population. Indeed, during Kalojan’s invasion some Franks continued to fear for their lives even after they had found shelter inside Tchorlu, a fortified city to the west of Constantinople, ‘because they doubted the people of the town’.

It was not the overwhelming superiority of any one opponent but the number of different enemies, the unreliability of the local people and the sheer size of the territories which needed to be defended that contributed to the early demise of the Latin states in northern Greece. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the crusader states set up in south-western Greece and on the Aegean islands survived much longer. The duchy of Athens, the principality of Achaia and the Venetian colonies were all smaller in size and were protected by seas, mountains or other natural features such as the isthmus of Corinth. Moreover, the further Latin conquerors travelled from Constantinople, the more they benefited from the increasing regionalism which had been apparent within the Byzantine empire since before the Fourth Crusade. When Boniface of Montferrat, the man who established the kingdom of Thessaly, undertook his conquest of northern Greece in 1204, he received a warm welcome from some locals who regarded Constantinople as a distant and corrupt absorber of taxes, and consequently felt that it was best simply to come to terms with the Latins. Similarly, when the Franks reached the Peloponnese local Greek lords (‘archons’) were often allowed to keep their incomes provided that they recognised their new Frankish masters. By contrast, the volatile political situation in Constantinople itself before and during the Fourth Crusade, followed by the flight of many leading Greeks to Nicaea or elsewhere, left little room for a quiet transition of power in northern Greece.

The relative stability which existed in south-western Greece during the first half of the thirteenth century ensured that the rulers of Achaia were more prosperous and enjoyed greater military power than their Latin neighbours in Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The total number of knights settled in the region has been estimated at between five and six hundred, and according to one rather romanticised source Prince Geoffrey II of Villehardouin (1228-46) kept eighty knights just at his own court. These figures are confirmed by the Chronicle of Morea, if we can believe its claim that, at the battle of Tagliacozzo (1268), Geoffrey’s successor William II (1246-78) fought alongside his overlord Charles of Anjou with 400 cavalry brought from Achaia. This implies that, even though it was smaller, the military strength of Achaia was almost equal to that of the original Latin empire, and that its rulers had enough resources to intervene in conflicts beyond the Peloponnese. Indeed, in 1236 Geoffrey II of Villehardouin sent help to Constantinople whilst it was being besieged by the Bulgarians and the Greeks of Nicaea. In 1249 Geoffrey’s brother William II joined Louis IX’s crusade against Egypt with a fleet of twenty-four Achaian ships. This episode took place at roughly the same time as the Latin empress of Constantinople made a desperate plea to Louis for 300 knights to help her and her husband defend their capital, and therefore highlights the contrast in military strength between the Franks of Achaia and those of northern Greece.

The military strength of the principality of Achaia should not be overestimated, however, for it still took the Villehardouins many decades to subjugate the Peloponnese fully, and they did not capture the impregnable Greek outpost of Monemvasia, situated in the south-east corner of the principality, until 1249. Moreover, the days of sending troops to foreign conflicts came to an end after the 12605, when Monemvasia, Mistra and Old Mania were returned to the Greeks and subsequently used by them to reconquer the entire Frankish Morea. It is difficult to calculate the number of troops involved in this conflict, but the fact that it took the Greeks until the early fifteenth century to recover all of the Peloponnese suggests that local armies were fairly equally balanced. It has been estimated that even during the reign of Michael VIII (1259-82), which marked the zenith of late Byzantine power, major Greek campaign armies never contained more than 10,000 soldiers, and that most were much smaller. Bearing in mind that there never seem to have been more than five or six hundred western knights settled in Achaia, it seems unlikely that local clashes between Latin forces and the Greeks of Mistra ever involved more than a few hundred horsemen. When the Chronicle of Morea claimed that in 1262 300 Franks defeated a Byzantine force of 15,000 men, it may have given a reasonably accurate estimate for the Frankish army but must surely have exaggerated the scale of the Greek expedition. The Franks must have been less outnumbered than this, but the fact that the Greeks probably had a slight rather than an overwhelming advantage meant that the conflict dragged on for many decades. As the Franks gradually retreated toward the north and west of the principality, the land which they conceded was often devastated by regular yet indecisive fighting.

The inability of any one ruler to deal a swift death blow to his opponents also seems to have characterised the fighting further north. During the first half of the thirteenth century the Greeks of Epiros quickly recaptured Thessaloniki and wiped out many Latin conquests which had been made in Thessaly, but they were unable to overrun the duchy of Athens. Epiros eventually became a frequent ally of the Latins against the Greeks of Nicaea, who were themselves only successful in weakening rather than destroying Epiros and Athens. The exact details of this fighting are either poorly recorded or heavily exaggerated. The papal correspondence of Honorius III (1216-27) and Gregory IX (1227-41) indicates that during the 1220s the Greeks of Epiros attacked Boudonitza and Salona on the northern fringes of the duchy of Athens, and that by 1235 they had even reached Thebes. No details are given regarding the strength and nature of the opposing forces, although the concern caused by these events at the papal court is probably in itself indicative of Epirote superiority on the battlefield. By the second half of the thirteenth century, it is clear that this of the fighting are still impossible to come by. Thus in 1292 the Chronicle of Morea stated that the Epirote city of loannina was besieged by a Byzantine (formerly Nicaean) force of 30,000 infantry and 14,000 cavalry, but that this entire expedition retreated in panic when Florent of Hainault, prince of Achaia (1289-97) and ally of Epiros, approached with an army which probably only contained four or five hundred men! Once again, the Byzantine figures should clearly be disregarded, for the number of western knights living in this region suggests that most clashes between Greeks and Latins cannot have involved more than a few hundred horsemen, and perhaps only a couple of thousand men in total. Indeed, it has been suggested that during the entire late Byzantine period most Greek campaigns ‘probably involved hundreds rather than thousands of troops’.

Whilst the Nicaean Greeks eventually succeeded in conquering Achaia, we have seen that it was the Catalans who finished off the Frankish duchy of Athens. The ruthlessness with which they did so suggests that they were unusually well-trained and aggressive soldiers. According to the chronicler Muntaner the Catalan company consisted of 2500 cavalry plus 4000 Almogavers (light infantry) and 1000 other footsoldiers These figures seem high, although the total of around 2500 horsemen was also given by another source. On the other hand, Muntaner claimed that, when they defeated Duke Gautier I of Athens in March 1311, the Catalans overcame a Frankish army containing 30,000 infantry, plus 700 knights of whom all but two were killed. Even if all the lords of Athens and Achaia had turned up, these are impossibly high totals and unfortunately cast doubt on the other troop numbers given by this chronicler. The decisiveness of the Frankish defeat does at least suggest that Gautier had underestimated both the fighting skill and the size of the Catalan foe, even if the total number of combatants involved in this encounter was greatly exaggerated.

The Catalans also participated in another form of warfare which affected much of the Aegean area during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: piracy and raiding. Even before they arrived in the duchy of Athens the Catalans had a terrible reputation for such activities in Byzantine Greece, where ‘there was not a town or city that was not looted and burnt’ by them. From the mid fourteenth century onwards the Turks became an even greater threat, causing so much destruction that by the 1380s some Aegean islands had been completely abandoned by their original inhabitants. Even as early as 1358 a document recording the transfer of Corinth castle to the Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli makes it clear that the Turks were having a devastating effect on the region: one of Niccolo’s primary duties was to persuade people to return to the area around Corinth, which had been overrun so many times by Greek, Catalan or Turkish raiders that superiority had largely disappeared in the face of Nicaean pressure, which forced Epiros to seek the friendship rather than the enmity of the Latins. Accurate details homelessness and starvation had forced entire communities to flee. In the thirteenth century there may not have been quite as much destruction, but piratical attacks, such as that carried out during the 1280s against Bartolomeo Ghisi, the Venetian lord of Tinos and Mikonos, nevertheless represented a common threat for the inhabitants of islands and coastal regions. There were also many clashes between Venetian and Genoese naval forces which had either been sent out by their respective cities or were operating independently in a semi-piratical manner. When the Venetians occupied Corfu and Crete in the years after the Fourth Crusade, they first had to get rid of Genoese privateers based on these islands.

The behaviour of the Catalans and the constant rivalry between Venice and Genoa also remind us that far from being united in their struggles against the Greeks or Turks, Latin settlers in the Aegean area were frequently embroiled in their own internal disputes. Warfare of this kind squandered precious resources and resulted in yet more suffering for those who already had to cope with the threat of piracy, looting and brigandage. Between 1255 and 1258, for example, Duke Guy de la Roche of Athens (1225-63), aided by his Venetian allies, fought a bitter civil war against William II of Villehardouin in a dispute over land on Euboea. William eventually won this conflict by systematically ravaging Guy’s lands until he surrendered; but, although this tactic worked, it must have caused untold suffering for the peasants and farmers who lived in the affected areas. Considering that most of these unfortunate rural inhabitants were Greek, it is hardly surprising to find that fighting also broke out occasionally between western newcomers and local natives, who sometimes had to put up with other forms of maltreatment such as unbearably high taxes. 36 Incidents of this kind must have been particularly unnerving as Latin settlers formed such a tiny section of the overall population. On Chios, for example, it has been estimated that there were 10,000 Greeks being ruled by a mere one to two thousand Genoese toward the end of the fourteenth century. Villehardouin claimed that, during the initial Frankish siege of Constantinople in 1203, the city’s inhabitants outnumbered their attackers by as much as two hundred to one, and that the crusaders were consequently reluctant to enter Constantinople even after they had seized the city walls. Such statistics help to explain why Latin conquerors in Achaia and elsewhere often tried to be as conciliatory as possible toward local Greek landholders.

One final form of combat which needs to be mentioned is that of naval warfare. Generally speaking, the Latins possessed far greater naval power than the Greeks; a factor which proved vital to the continued existence of some of the crusader states. In 1235 and 1236, when Constantinople was besieged by the combined forces of John Asen II of Bulgaria (1218-41) and John III Vatatzes of Nicaea (1222-54), the Venetians were able to break the naval blockades around the city and effectively save the Latin empire from destruction. Apart from the Italian city states, other Latin powers also had warships available to them. In 1236 many vessels from Achaia assisted in the relief of Constantinople and William II of Villehardouin later contributed a fleet of twenty-four ships to the crusade of St Louis. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Catalans also brought their own fleet to the Aegean, using it in countless raids along the coasts of northern Greece. In 1305, for instance, after the Catalans had fallen out with their former employer Andronikos II, they sent five galleys out from their temporary headquarters at Gallipoli to attack neighbouring Byzantine targets.

The financial, administrative and political problems of the late Byzantine state often prevented the Greeks from raising adequate naval forces to deal with such aggressors. During the 1280s, for example, Andronikos II reduced the size of the Byzantine fleet in order to cut costs. However, it would be misleading to assume that the Greeks were entirely overawed at sea, for at times, and in particular during the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), the Byzantine authorities were able to build up naval forces by relying on mercenaries. Thus in the 1270s Michael VIII employed the Latin pirate Giovanni de lo Cavo to act as his admiral in the Aegean. Latin seamen also did not have matters entirely their own way because of the growing threat of the Turks. Even the ruthless Catalans had to be aware of this danger, for during the winter of 1303-4 they sent their fleet to a secure winter anchorage at Chios ‘because the Turks, with barques, ravage all [the Aegean] islands’.

This summary of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century warfare around the Aegean makes it clear that there were many motives for the Latins who lived there to construct or occupy castles. Although exact troop numbers are almost impossible to establish, most of the Greek or Latin armies active in the region only contained between one and five hundred horsemen. Even when additional foot soldiers accompanied them, campaigns were rarely undertaken by more than one or two thousand men. Consequently the Latins who settled in Greece after the Fourth Crusade were not as heavily outnumbered by individual opponents as some of the contemporary chroniclers would lead us to believe. There were, however, ultimately too few Latins living in northern Greece to halt the combined attacks of many different Nicaean, Epirote, Cuman and Bulgarian armies. The fall of the duchy of Athens in 1311 suggests that Frankish settlement was so fragile that a single defeat in a pitched battle could seal the fate of an entire crusader state. Eventually the Franks proved equally incapable of halting the gradual loss of Achaia after the Greek acquisition of Mistra in 1262. In addition, the Aegean was almost constantly affected by some form of localised raiding, rebellion or piracy. While this did not necessarily threaten national security in the short term, it ultimately ground down the economic and military strength of states such as Achaia. In short, this was an extremely insecure world, and in order to protect themselves against it Latins needed fortifications to make up for their lack of troops and to defend their property against the constant threat of enemy attack





In 1162, the death of King Géza II (1141–62) presented the opportunity for Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80) to interfere in his neighbor’s realm. After a failed attempt to install an uncle of the reigning monarch, King Stephen III (1162–73), on the throne, the emperor reached a compromise whereby Géza’s youngest son Béla would live at the court in Constantinople and succeed Stephen as king. Béla married one of Manuel’s daughters, solidifying a Byzantine dynastic alliance. But Stephen continued to resist Byzantium in the Balkans, allying with the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick I Barbarossa (1155–90), Serbia, and the Russian principalities of Gallicia and Kiev. In violation of the treaty, Stephen designated his own son as his successor. In 1164, Stephen III and Duke Vladislav II of Bohemia marched to confront Manuel, who was stationed with his army on the Danube. Stephen agreed to cede to the empire the rich region of Syrmia, which was a family holding of Prince Béla, in exchange for the empire withdrawing its support for Stephen III’s uncle, also named Stephen, who had been fighting with Byzantine assistance to claim the throne. Later in the year, Stephen III seized Sirmium, a blatant act of war against the empire.

Manuel dislodged Frederick I Barbarossa from his Hungarian alliance, and pulled onto his side the Russian principality of Kiev, as well as Venice. Stephen’s forces busied themselves with the siege of Zeugminon (part of modern Belgrade, Serbia), which they seized by April 1165. Manuel led his forces northward in June 1165 and laid siege to Zeugminon. Manuel’s troops stormed the city on their third attempt and plundered the place mercilessly. In the meantime, Manuel’s general John Doukas had cut through Serbia and subdued the coastal cities and fortresses of Dalmatia, which Stephen III had also ceded as part of Béla’s holdings. In 1166 the Hungarians defeated Byzantine forces in Dalmatia and at Sirmium.

Manuel responded with the dispatch of his nephew, Andronikos Kontostephanos at the head of a strong Roman army, about one-third of which were mercenaries or allied foreigners. Roman scouts captured a Hungarian who revealed that the enemy force numbered 15,000 knights, bowmen, and light infantry. The Byzantine army was probably about equal in numerical strength. Kontostephanos drew up his marching order with Cuman and Turkish horse archers and a handful of western knights in the vanguard. Behind came three divisions of Byzantine regular cavalry and kataphraktoi, followed by units of allied Turkish and western mercenary cavalry. The last line comprised a mixed formation of Roman infantry and archers alongside a battalion of armored Turks, presumably also infantry.

Dénes, count of Bács, commanded the combined Hungarian-German force. Dénes drew up his mailed knights in the front, with infantry support to the rear. The historian Choniates noted that the Hungarian battle line was drawn up in a single, dense mass, in the shape of a tower; the cavalry fronted this deep formation. The Hungarian lancers presented an awesome sight—their horses wore frontlets and breastplates (these must have been padded or mail, since plate horse armor was uncommon in Europe prior to 1250) and carried riders mailed from head to foot. In short the Hungarian forces featured the best of modern western arms and equipment. They faced a lighter Byzantine force arrayed with the Turk and Cuman horse archers in the front of the formation. Behind, Andronikos divided his army into three divisions. On the left he stationed the regular Roman cavalry. In the center stood Andronikos, commanding elements of the Varangian Guard, Hetaireia imperial guard cavalry, Serbians, probably mailed cavalry, and Italian mercenary knights. The Roman right consisted of the third element of the line of march, with German mercenary knights and Turkish cavalry and Roman kataphraktoi cavalry. Behind the right and left wings of the army Andronikos stationed supporting troops, which presumably were mainly regular cavalry and infantry flank guards and outflankers who could also support the wings when pressured. That two of these supporting battalions were cavalry seems to be indicated by how the battle unfolded.

Andronikos opened the battle by sending ahead the Turk and Cuman horse archers and presumably the light infantry as well. They were instructed to send an arrow storm into the Hungarian cavalry and thus break up the formation. In the face of a Hungarian charge Andronikos instructed them to fan out to left and right and thus sweep to the side of the Byzantine force. The Byzantine left broke in the face of the Hungarian charge and fled toward the river Sava, but two battalions stood fast—these were likely the flank guards stationed behind the left wing. Dénes led a general charge into the Byzantine center, hoping to kill Andronikos; those in the center of the Roman formation sustained the heavy cavalry charge. The Byzantine right attacked the flank of the Hungarian cavalry formation, Andronikos’s men in the center of the line drew their iron maces and pressed forward for close combat, and the “routed” Byzantine left that had feigned flight returned to strike the Hungarian right flank. This envelopment broke the Hungarians, and thousands perished or were captured in the ensuing rout. Kinnamos reported that 2,000 cuirasses were taken from the dead, and countless shields, helmets, and swords came into Roman hands from the great number of fallen. The Battle of Sirmium was the greatest victory of Manuel’s reign; it demonstrated that tactical skill and great discipline were still to be found in the armies of the Komnenoi, as were commanders who were able to conceive and execute complicated battlefield maneuvers. As a result of Sirmium, Hungary became a client, and upon the death of Stephen III in 1172 Manuel easily installed his protégé Béla on the Hungarian throne, which remained at peace with the empire until 1180.

The campaigns of Manuel against Hungary that culminated in the Battle of Sirmium demonstrate that, when properly led, the Byzantine army remained the finest in eastern Europe, capable of defeating heavily armed and armored western knights. But these actions also show that the strategic situation of Byzantium had deteriorated significantly—with the coalescence of larger, more organized, and economically vibrant states on all sides, the empire faced extreme challenges to its territorial integrity. While Belisarios’s decisive victory over the Vandals a half millennium in the past had brought Africa under imperial control and established a peace that was largely maintained for a century, the “decisive” victory of Manuel at Sirmium delivered only twenty years of peace. In light of the capabilities of his enemies, it is small wonder that Manuel generally preferred attritive campaigns and small-war actions that wore down his foes and made enemy aggression too costly for them, rather than risking his limited forces in all-or-nothing engagements on the battlefield. In this sense, his failures are more telling than his numerous minor successes, since the emperor removed neither Sicily nor Hungary nor the Seljuks from their menacing positions along the frontiers. Instead, Manuel had to settle for a largely defensive posture in the territory he inherited from his father John.


The empire reached its largest medieval territorial extent under Basil II, who is considered by many to have been the greatest Byzantine emperor. While the view of Basil as a perfect sovereign who was wise in counsel and indomitable in war is largely a function of his effective propaganda, his campaigns against Bulgaria led to the annexation of vast territories in the Balkans and carried Byzantium to the apex of its medieval prestige and glory. He proved to be the bane of the Bulgars, in particular, and though the statement of the historian Skylitzes that he campaigned annually against them is exaggerated, Basil vigorously pursued their subjugation. Since the seventh century, when the Bulgars first settled between the Danube and the Balkan Mountains, the Byzantines and Bulgars had fought one another for control of the region. Severe clashes were interspersed with periods of simmering peace. In 708 Justinian II suffered defeat at Bulgar hands at the first Battle of Acheloos, but Bulgar allies played a critical role in staving off the Muslim attack on Constantinople in 717–18. Although imperial forces scored several important victories throughout the eighth century, the emperors could neither dislodge the Bulgars from their homeland, nor bring them under Byzantine political domination. In 811, the major expedition of the emperor Nikephoros I, the largest in centuries, met with disaster—the Bulgars destroyed the army, killed the emperor, and mortally wounded his heir. Though periodic conflicts followed, peaceful relations between the two powers dominated the ninth century, when the Byzantines were increasingly focused on the east and the Bulgars faced Frankish expansion and threats from the steppe.

Upon his ascent to the throne, the khan Simeon (893–927) pursued hostilities with Byzantium in the hopes of becoming emperor of a unified Byzantine-Bulgar realm. In 917, at the second Battle of Acheloos (Anchialos), Simeon’s forces ambushed and crushed the divided military command of Leo Phokas assisted by the fleet of Romanos Lekapenos. Simeon warred against the Romans for the rest of his reign and hostilities continued under his son and successor, Peter I (927–69), who suffered from the Byzantine-Kievan Rus’ alliance negotiated by Nikephoros Phokas. The invasion of Sviatoslav, prince of Kiev culminated in heavy Bulgar defeats in 968 and 969. Under John Tzimiskes, the Byzantines drove out their former Rus’ allies after their victory at the Battle of Dorostolon in the summer of 971. From this point on the Byzantines claimed rule over Bulgaria, but it would take decades of hard fighting for the empire to wear down their opponents and establish peace.

Following his suppression in 979 of the attempted usurpation of the Anatolian military magnate, Bardas Skleros, the young Basil II (he was just twenty-one at the time) sought to win his spurs against the Bulgars. Basil led a large imperial army northwest and struck Serdica (modern Sofia) and thus cut the Bulgar kingdom in half. The historian Leo the Deacon was present during the expedition in which Basil sieged Serdica for about three weeks but could accomplish nothing, allegedly due to the inexperience of his soldiers and the incompetence of the senior commanders. Clearly Basil was in large measure to blame—in all likelihood he excluded from the campaign seasoned veterans of the eastern wars who had fought for Tzimiskes a decade prior; perhaps these men had backed Bardas Skleros in his rebellion and consequently were stricken from the rolls. Whatever the case, as the army withdrew the Bulgars ambushed the Byzantines and routed them in a defile near present Ihtiman, in western Bulgaria. The imperial forces suffered heavy losses and withdrew. Little was accomplished in the war with the Bulgars since Basil, as a consequence of his internal military policies, faced renewed opposition from the Anatolian magnate families.

Only in 1001–5 could the emperor return to the theater. He made great gains, capturing Serdica in 1001 and besieging Vidin in the northwest of the kingdom at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. In subsequent years Basil methodically campaigned, reorganized the political landscape by establishing Byzantine administrators, and undermined Tsar Samuel (997–1014) by dislodging his followers. In 1005 the Byzantine diplomatic offensive yielded the greatest of the low-hanging fruit of Bulgaria with the handover of Dyrrachium on the Adriatic by the influential Chryselios family who had previously acknowledged the overlordship of Samuel. Basil’s efforts in 1001–5 returned to imperial control the major trans-Balkan road, the ancient Via Egnatia, and provided the Byzantines a coherent strategic front on Bulgaria’s southern flank.

No sources detail action between 1005 and 1014, but when we next see the emperor in action, in 1014 at Kleidion, Basil faced a Bulgar army that blocked the passage of his army as it marched from the valley of the Strymon River in eastern Thrace to the valley of the Axios (Vardar). Samuel’s men had built a series of ramparts that blocked the trunk road between lofty mountains that led from Thessaloniki to Niš. Basil’s troops repeatedly assaulted the Bulgar earthworks, but the enemy repulsed these attacks and hurled missiles at the Byzantines from above. Basil was about to give up and depart for Roman territory when Nikephoros Xiphias, Basil’s senior commander and active campaigner with the emperor since 1001, hatched a plan: Basil’s forces would continue to attack the Bulgar wooden palisades while he picked infantry and led these troops to the south. Xiphias’s men pushed through the heavily wooded mountains and, via unknown trackways made their way to the Bulgar rear. On July 29, Xiphias fell upon the Bulgars from the heights behind them. Samuel’s men broke and fled as the Byzantines dismantled the makeshift fortifications. A vast number of Bulgars, said by contemporary sources to number as many as 15,000, were taken prisoner. The historian Skylitzes states that the emperor blinded these men and sent them back to Samuel with one-eyed leaders for each hundred men. Blinding was a treatment reserved for rebellious subjects, and this incident, apocryphal or not, shows Basil’s determination to bring to heel the Bulgar state and reflects the view of the emperor and those who later retold the story: the lands from Thrace to the Danube belonged to the empire. Although the final annexation of Bulgaria came in 1018 only after four years’ hard campaigning, the incorporation of the Bulgar realm within Byzantium was given its final impetus by the victory at Kleidion.

Basil II alliance with Prince Vladimir I of Kiev in 988

Basil II, called “Bulgar-Slayer” (Bulgaroktonos), he reigned from 976-1025 as the greatest of the Macedonian emperors. This was not apparent at the beginning of his long reign. His first military expedition (in 986) against Samuel of Bulgaria, ended in total defeat at a narrow pass called Trajan’s Gate. This encouraged two rebellions, those of Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas.

The latter became the military aristocracy, the so-called dynatoi, of Asia Minor in the 10th century, powerful families that produced the likes of Bardas Skleros, Andronikos Doukas, and Bardas Phokas. The ability of these families to foment rebellion brought Basil II into armed conflict with them. After Basil II’s death in 1025, a struggle ensued between the military aristocracy and the civil aristocracy (which comprised the state bureaucracy).

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.

In 988, Basil was in desperate need of effective soldiers and was on the brink of losing his throne. Although of peerless lineage – he claimed descent from Constantine the Great – the thirty-year old Basil II was facing a massive revolt by Bardas Phokas, one of the empire’s most capable generals. Although he would eventually emerge as one of the empire’s most ferocious warriors, in 988 he was still new on the throne with an unreliable army and a skeptical court.

The rebel general marched through Asia Minor unopposed, sacking any town that displayed loyalty to the emperor. When he reached the shore of the Bosporus, the narrow strip of water that separates Asia from Europe, he had himself crowned emperor, complete with imitation diadem and the purple boots of the imperium. The population, sensing the way the wind was blowing, hurried to offer their congratulations and support. By one account, the rebel army was now twice the size it had been when it set out.

Basil, whose one previous military campaign had ended in an ambush, had only the few troops in Constantinople and a nearby field army of questionable loyalty. Things looked bleak, but the emperor kept his head. Even before the rebel army had reached the shore, his ambassadors were speeding towards Kiev. Prince Vladimir, was only too happy to receive them, and he made an audacious offer. In exchange for six thousand Viking recruits from Scandinavia, he wanted to marry Basil’s sister, Anna.

The ambassadors probably returned to Constantinople believing that they had failed. In the long history of the empire, a princess of the ruling dynasty had never been given to a barbarian. The proposition itself threw the court into an uproar. Not only was Vladimir a barbarian, but he was a staunch pagan to boot, who had slaughtered his own brother, raped his sister-in-law, and usurped the throne. He already had seven wives and over the years had collected some eight hundred concubines. Even in an emergency, he was not the type to be given a chaste Christian princess.

The court – and poor Basil’s sister – may have been outraged, but the emperor was determined to have the extra troops. He agreed to the deal, adding only the stipulation that Vladimir had to accept Christianity and give up some of his more scandalous behavior. Both sides were as good as their word. Vladimir was baptized, the protesting bride was shipped north, and six thousand hulking Vikings arrived at Constantinople.

Basil wasted no time. In 989 under the cover of darkness he slipped across the thin strip of water separating him from the rebel army, and landed a few hundred yards from the main enemy camp. At first light he charged, driving them toward the beaches.

The rebels didn’t stand a chance. Stumbling out of their tents half awake and undressed, they were confronted with a horde of screaming Vikings, swinging their massive battle-axes. So many were slaughtered that before long the Vikings were doing their work ankle-deep in gore. Those who managed to escape the carnage had the equally horrid fate of being burned alive. As they fled the ruins of their camp to the water’s edge, a squadron of imperial ships blanketed the beach with Greek Fire, immolating everyone. And although Skleros continued in rebellion for a while, a reconciliation was soon arranged and peace restored.

The victory both secured Basil on his throne, and convinced him – if there were any remaining doubts – that he had been right to sacrifice his sister. Another man would have thanked his mercenaries, paid them off, and dismissed them, but Basil had other ideas. The years of turmoil had convinced him of the necessity of overhauling the Byzantine army, and he intended to use these Vikings as a new core around which to build it.

Only with the help of 6,000 Varangians sent by Vladimir I of Kiev were the revolts suppressed. In return, Basil gave his sister Anna to Vladimir in marriage, requiring that he convert and be baptized, which he did. Basil II tried to curb the expansion of the landed estates of great landowners (including monasteries), the dynatoi, in an effort to preserve peasant land, especially military holdings. Among his decrees (the first in 996) was one forcing the great magnates to pay the unpaid taxes (allelengyon) of their poorer neighbors. Basil further reduced the power of the provincial armies, the themes (q. v.), which the military magnates controlled, by commuting army service into a money payment. The revenues he used to create a standing army, the elite forces of which were his Varangian Guard. With such troops, Basil II set out to subjugate the Bulgars while at the same time defending Antioch and Aleppo in Syria.

Basil II flanked by his royal guards.

Varangian Guard

The Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in the 10th to the 14th centuries, was one of the most famous mercenary corps of history and was certainly the most famous of all the Byzantine regiments. It is thought that the term “Varangian” comes from an archaic Norse word variously translated as “confidence,” “vow of fidelity,” or “ally,” and refers to a group of warriors and traders who had sworn allegiance to their leader and fellowship to each other. Interestingly, what is now the Baltic Sea was in earlier times known as the Varangian Sea.

The first clear glimpse of them comes in 988, when the Emperor Basil II (978–1025) asked Vladimir I of Kiev for military assistance to help defend his throne. Vladimir sent 6,000 warriors, known as “Rus,” to the Emperor. The word “Rus” may have come from an Old Norse term meaning “the men who row.” They were such excellent fighters that they soon became the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Under Basil II, the Byzantine Empire built up a largely mercenary army, generally abandoning the earlier system under which territorial forces defended the provinces and regulars from Constantinople reinforced them when needed. Because Basil II regarded mercenaries as politically more dependable than regular troops, his reliance on them would persist for a long time. The Varangian Guard greatly profited from his support and was paid very well indeed.

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.