Archive for the 'Phocas' Category

What did a cataphract look like?

CataphractThe backbone of the Byzantine army when it dominated the Mediterranean was the feared cataphract. But what exactly- as Joseph asks- was a cataphract? The short answer is the Byzantine version of the knight on horseback. The Roman term was clibanarii which somewhat hilariously translates as ‘furnace’- probably an apt description of what it felt like to wear the armor on a sunny day.

There were three protective layers to bake in. The first (peristhethidion) was a padded leather jacket with short sleeves (a pair of greaves covered the arms) and a padded skirt faced with mail or scales to protect the legs. Over that was the klivanion, a mailed covering of the chest and shoulders, complete with a metal helmet hung with mail to cover the face (excepting the eyes). The final layer was the epilorikion, a padded cotton or thickly-stitched silk surcoat which would identify rank or unit. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

The cataphract carried a small round shield and a relatively short spear (roughly 8 feet long). In addition to this they carried two swords- one slightly curved, the other straight and double-sided. Some also carried a short bow or various kinds of maces and axes.

For the Roman empire they were never more than a small, peripheral force. The late 4th century document Notitia Dignitatum which records the administrative organization of the imperial armies mentions that there were 9 units of heavily armored knights, which means that they made up roughly 15% of the field army.

They seem to have gradually faded from use (completely vanishing by the 7th century) until their sudden emergence as the preferred troops of the terrifying emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In fact, most of what we know about them comes from the military manual that the emperor himself wrote (Praecepta Militaria) around the year 965 AD. But their renaissance proved short. Nicephorus’ (eventual) successor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer seems not to have used them, largely replacing them with his newly created Varangian Guard. After the military disaster of Manzikert in 1071, the imperial armies were largely mercenary and far less formidable. With the brief exception of the army of Manuel Comnenus, the empire never fielded a significant land force again.

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Did Justinian help Islam to spread?

Jan 08 2011 Published by under Islam,Justin II,Justinian,Maurice,Phocas,Tiberius II

Matthew asks if Justinian unwittingly aided the spread of Islam by exhausting the resources of the empire with his conquest of Italy.

Byzantium was certainly weaker at Justinian’s death than it had been at the start of his reign, but that was not entirely his fault.  Invasions are expensive, but Justinian had good reason to think that on balance the empire would be enriched with the addition of Italy.  After all the capture of North Africa was lucrative enough to pay for itself within a few years, and it soon became the wealthiest province of the empire.

Italy turned out to be a different proposition- mostly because the emperor couldn’t bring himself to trust Belisarius or fund him appropriately.  This vacillation extended the length of the war but it wasn’t what doomed his conquests- given enough time Italy almost certainly would have become a productive imperial possession.  What destroyed the Justinianic renaissance was the plague which hit in 541 and killed a quarter of the Mediterranean population.  The empire was left reeling with longer boarders, fewer soldiers to patrol them, and fewer taxpayers to pay for it all.

Justinian was forced to depend on his shrinking gold reserves to defend the empire- reducing the ‘bread and circuses’ to buy off the barbarians on every side.  His successor Justin II didn’t understand the political realities of the weakened state and slammed on the spending brakes- causing the collapse of the careful alliances Justinian had built up and triggering waves of invasion.  The disasters unhinged his mind and he spent the rest of his reign being wheeled through the palace in a golden wagon biting anyone who was foolish enough to come within range.  He recovered enough to appoint Tiberius II as successor and (given the circumstances) surprisingly offered him the following bit of wisdom: ‘consult the experience rather than the example of your predecessor.’

Tiberius was more than happy to abandon any hint of austerity.  In a bid to be popular he managed to blow through 29,000 pounds of gold in four years, tactfully exiting the stage just in time to leave his successor with an empty treasury and several wars brewing.  There was little the new emperor Maurice could do other than to raise taxes and divert everything to the army.  He managed to settle most of the wars but his cost cutting made him so unpopular that he was easily overthrown by a soldier named Phocas who promised circuses and free food for everyone.  Of course there was no money to do that so he concentrated on killing everyone who looked at him sideways, using his free time to start a war with Persia- the one enemy that had miraculously been at peace with the empire.  Phocas was thankfully replaced by Heraclius and the new emperor managed to claw his way to victory against Persia after 17 years of a bruising war.

It was at this point with the empire exhausted, demoralized, religiously divided, and impoverished, that the first Muslim army arrived.

Persia and Byzantium were like prize fighters who had knocked each other out.  Just how fatigued they were can be seen by the speed with which they collapsed.  Within four years the last Persian Shah was dead and his kingdom conquered.  Byzantine Jerusalem barely resisted, Alexandria voluntarily opened its gates, and North Africa put up only a sporadic resistance.

So how much is Justinian to blame?  Certainly some- the conquests of Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain were a tremendous short-term drain of resources.  But even if he hadn’t gone west the plague would still have decimated Byzantium.  At his death the empire was stretched, but with capable leaders it could have been preserved.  Instead he was followed by the foolish (and insane) Justin II, the profligate Tiberius II, and the bloodthirsty Phocas.  If Heraclius had followed Maurice instead of Phocas, Byzantium and Persia would have been infinitely stronger.  The armies of Islam would have had to contend with the powerful buffer of Persia and if they had broken through they would have met Heraclius’ able grandson Constans II- who had the makings of a brilliant general.

Islam would have been contained within the Arabian peninsula, North Africa may have resembled Western Europe, and the world would be a much different place.  As it is Constans II was killed in his bath, Persia was submerged under a Muslim tide, and within half a century the Arabs were in Europe and poised to attack Constantinople by both land and sea.

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