Archive for the 'Army' 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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Who were the Varangians?

Listener William asked who the Varangians were and why they figured so prominently in Byzantine military affairs. 

The Varangians were the elite forces of the Byzantine army- much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome or the Ottoman Janissaries.  They were originally made up exclusively of Vikings (which the empire had been hiring as mercenaries since the 9th century), but after the Norman Conquest of England a rush of exiled Anglo-Saxons were added to the mix.  By the 12th century there were so many English that it was commonly being referred to as the ‘Anglo-Varangian’ Guard.  As the empire declined, the Varangians also fell on hard times.  By the middle of the 14th century they had largely ceased to function and the last mention of them is in the first decade of the 15th century. 

They appeared relatively late in Byzantine history.  In 988, the emperor Basil II, facing a serious revolt, asked the Viking prince of Kiev for some help.  In exchange for an imperial bride, the prince sent along 6,000 warriors and Basil was so pleased by their effectiveness that he made them his permanent bodyguard.  Their oaths were to him personally- a fact that the court was uncomfortably aware of- and they were housed in the Bucoleon Palace where they could keep an eye on things.  Basil made sure they were given a generous salary and he called them ‘Varangians’- literally ‘men of the pledge’. 

Since they were professional fighters they were the most valuable troops in an army made up mostly of mercenaries or levies.  Usually taller and fiercer than their Mediterranean hosts/opponents, they also made good use as propaganda tools to overawe rebellious subjects or frighten opposing armies.  In times of peace they could act as a police force in Constantinople or for ceremonial functions.  In war they were usually held in reserve until the critical phase of the battle- then sent where the fighting was thickest.  Even the Byzantines seem to have been slightly terrified of their berserker rages. 

The opportunities for wealth ensured a steady stream of recruits, and few returned home empty-handed.  At the death of an emperor they had the curious right to raid the treasury and take away whatever they could carry unassisted.  Perhaps because of this they gained a reputation for fierce loyalty to the office- but not necessarily the occupant- of the throne. 

At times the temptations of power were too much to resist and they would lord it over the population of Constantinople- usually in the local wine shops.  Their drinking bouts were almost as legendary as their fighting skills and a visiting Danish king in the 11th century was embarrassed enough to publicly lecture them about their behavior. 

His words do not appear to have had the desired effect.  A century later some brave soul referred to the Varangians as the ‘Emperor’s wine-bags’.

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What if Urban had built his super cannon for the Byzantines?

Reader Patricia asks if the Byzantine defeat in 1453 can really be blamed on ‘modern weapons’ since the Byzantines also had access to them.  Was it really a matter of simply not having enough money to build them?

I think the Ottomans would have eventually been able to take the city in any case.  It was far too exposed, depopulated, completely cut off from friendly Christian powers, and vastly outnumbered.  But for all that, it still took 48 days of continuous bombardment.  Given the tensions within the Ottoman army and the loss of face associated with each unsuccessful day, would Mehmed have been able to maintain discipline and morale if he had to wait on traditional siege machines?  There were already serious challenges to his authority brewing by the time he broke in- and that was with the aid of ‘super’ weapons that could punch their way through walls. Constantine XI was fully capable of rallying his troops and did quite well with his limited forces.  It’s always dangerous to speculate but I think he could have held the city against one or two standard Ottoman attempts.

So firepower was clearly important, but as Patricia correctly pointed out, it wasn’t just a simple matter of technology.  The Byzantines actually did have a few guns- though they were smaller than the Ottoman’s and frequently damaged their own walls with the recoil.  What they really lacked was the infrastructure needed to sustain the technology.  Enough money couldn’t be scraped up to retain Urban much less pay for the powder, projectiles, and the specialists needed to fire and repair them.  The Ottomans could afford to fully integrate massive new cannons into their army; for the impoverished Byzantines- even if Urban had built his great gun for free- they had to remain a curiosity.

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How did the Byzantine army change over 1000 years?

Listener Detlef asked if I could give a brief overview of the Byzantine army and describe the changes it went through during the history of the empire.  The operative word here is brief but 1.) we’re talking about a millennium and 2.) I’m a former teacher.  I’ll try to be concise but you’ve been warned.

Nearly every emperor who reigned longer than a few years made some minor changes to the army and a few- Heraclius, Justinian, Basil II, etc- virtually remade it from the ground up.  Usually these significant changes were made in response to some crisis or catastrophe, and they give a nice ‘snapshot’ view of how Rome’s legions became the polyglot mercenaries of Constantinople.

Imperial Rome depended mostly on massive, infantry-heavy legions to do their conquering for them, but by the third century the borders had stopped expanding and the empire shifted to defense in order to keep those pesky barbarian tribes out.  It had a hard time doing this because raids came from multiple fronts and the army could only be in one place at a time.  Diocletian solved this by reforming the traditional legions into two parts.  “Border” units were stationed in forts along the frontier at various choke points to stop or slow down invading forces while more sophisticated, mobile “field” units could be quickly shunted to trouble spots.  About a fourth of these field units were cavalry- somewhat of a novelty for the Romans- both heavily armed cataphracts and horse archers for supporting actions.  In total, Diocletian’s armies probably numbered about 300,000, spread out along the eastern and northern frontiers.

This basic system remained in place until the fifth century when Justinian reformed the field army.  The basic unit was reduced in size to make it more mobile and the army in general began to be much more diverse.  In addition to the native troops there were ‘Foederati’- usually barbarian cavalry commanded by a Roman general- and ‘Allies’- groups of Huns or Goths bound by a treaty with the empire to provide service.  Unlike the foederati, the allies were commanded by their own officers and fought in their own styles.  Justinian also reduced the overall size of the army to cut costs.  The total strength of the imperial forces at the end of his reign was probably around 150,000 men despite having more than doubled the empire’s land area.

In the 7th century pressure from the Persians and the Caliphate caused Justinian’s successors- probably Heraclius or his grandson Constans II- to drastically transform the military.  The field army was decreased to about 80,000 men (now called tagmata), and instead of border troops in forts, veterans were settled on frontier land.  This was called the ‘Theme’ system and it was remarkably successful.  The empire no longer had to bear the cost of border troops, but invading armies still had to contend with experienced, battle-hardened soldiers on the frontier.

The Theme system worked so well that the Macedonian emperors were able to go on the offensive and push back the Caliphate.  By Basil II’s death in 1025 the field army was probably around 250,000 men, and was far more effective than anything in Western Europe or the Muslim East.  Ironically this period also saw the decay of the Themes.  Wealthy aristocrats bought up land on the frontiers, and small farmers were increasingly forced out.  This process accelerated after Basil’s death and by the 11th century vast estates had replaced soldier communities, completely destroying the Theme system.

The empire filled in the gap by hiring mercenaries- an unhealthy habit that was for the moment backed up by the formidable imperial gold reserves.  Meanwhile, civil war and political instability destroyed the Bulgar-Slayer’s magnificent field army, reducing it to a collection of militias, personal entourages, and of course mercenaries.  By the time the capable Comneni emperors arrived in the 12th century the army was ruined, and they had to start over.  Over several decades they trained a professional, disciplined military roughly 40,000 strong, composed of native troops, levies from the various provinces, and foreign units like the Varangians.  It was highly centralized and performed well, but it depended on a competent and strong emperor.

Under the Angeli this type of leadership was conspicuously absent, and the new army was allowed to decay as the treasury was exhausted in lavish spending.  When soldiers were needed, mercenaries were brought in or expensive and humiliating truces were purchased.  The loss of Asia Minor led to a shortage of men and the Angeli dependence on mercenaries extended to the near suicidal action of disbanding the imperial navy and trusting naval defense to the Italian sea-Republics of Venice and Genoa.  The later Angeli desperately gave land grants in return for military service, but abuse of the practice led to feudalization.  Provinces started looking to local strongmen for protection and central authority collapsed.

After the 4th Crusade the empire had neither the population to furnish an army nor the money to buy mercenaries, so they relied largely on diplomacy (or a humiliating vassal status) to ward off the coup de grace.  When the final end came in 1453, the empire could only muster about 7,000 troops, and a large part of that was the equivalent of Constantinople’s police force.  It was a far cry from the 300,000 of a millennium before, but as they so superbly showed, heroism does not depend on numerical strength.

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What if Harold had won at Hastings?

Listener Steve asked “What do you think would have happened had Harold defeated William at Hastings?”

It’s always dangerous to start talking about how history would have been different if a certain key moment had gone differently, but it’s fun to speculate.  Harold would undoubtedly have emerged from Hastings with quite a formidable reputation, having held off two full-scale invasions and an earlier series of raids by the Welsh.  (King Alfred the Great- the only British sovereign to earn that title- had only managed to keep half his kingdom intact).  Normandy, by contrast would have been chaotic- assuming William didn’t survive the battle.  It’s amusing to wonder if a strong Harold would have returned the favor and intervened, but the Anglo-Saxons were never as offensively minded as the Normans.  It’s also unlikely that they would have invaded either Scotland or Ireland as the Normans did, perhaps at most settling for some sort of ‘over-king’ recognition by the various Scottish clans.  That being the case there would be no ‘Act of Union’, no Great Britain and of course no British Empire.  England, in fact, would probably have remained part of the northern sphere much like Iceland or Norway.  It did have established trading links with the Franks and Low Countries, but both culturally and linguistically it would have been more drawn to the Scandinavian orbit.

Another obvious change would be a linguistic one; the English language as we know it wouldn’t exist (about 60% is Latin or French based) and would be much closer to German .  Pre-Conquest England was also generally less efficient and more “democratic” as the King was technically elected by the Witan.  William greatly strengthened the monarchy and introduced both feudalism and the distinctive castles that still dot the countryside.  Given that the Norman kings were so firmly above the law, democracy may have emerged more quickly under Harold’s descendants- although that’s certainly highly debatable.

Finally, without the Norman Conquest, the English king would not have had a claim to the French throne and would presumably have avoided the hundred year’s war.  Without that great unifying struggle the French monarchy would have been weakened and may not have become a centralized state as quickly.  While probably not sharing Germany’s fate, France would certainly not have been the power it became by the 17th century.

One could go on and on like this, but the farther we get from the event, the less credible it is.  In Harold’s lifetime at least, the people of England would have been much happier if he had triumphed at Hastings.

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Why did the Byzantines mutilate so much?

Reader Karen asked why the emperors seemed so fond of mutilation.  Believe it or not this was actually seen as a more humane practice of dealing with potential usurpers than the standard treatment of execution.  By longstanding tradition only someone of unblemished physical appearance was fit to rule, so a little mutilation (usually blinding, cutting off the nose or splitting the tongue) was an easy way to remove a threat without killing anyone.  This held true till the reign of the monstrous Justinian II who was deposed in 695 and sent into exile without his nose.  The resourceful man had a gold replacement made and managed to storm Constantinople, taking terrible vengeance on the usurpers.  He was given the nickname “Rinotmetos” (the Slit-nosed) and since mutilation obviously hadn’t kept him from the throne, it thankfully fell out of favor.  The practice wasn’t completely abandoned, however.  Deposed rulers were still occasionally blinded and some emperors- Basil the Bulgar-Slayer comes to mind- mutilated on a mass scale as a way of intimidating their enemies.

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What were armies like during the Norman centuries?

Listener William asked what a Norman army looked like and what tactics it employed.

By today’s standards the Normans usually fielded small armies.  Roger de Hauteville crossed over to Sicily to begin his grand invasion with only 270 knights and managed to take Messina and Palermo with less than 500.  Over the next thirty years his army probably never exceeded 700 knights but was able to defeat Saracen armies more than 15 times its size.  When the Normans were threatened, however, they could turn out larger forces.  There were 3,000 knights and as many infantry present at Civitate and William the Conqueror’s army was most likely around 7,000 strong.  (I should mention that troop numbers are notoriously difficult to work out- medieval authors loved to inflate their figures)

The standard force was composed of two basic parts- lightly armed foot soldiers and heavy cavalry.  For the most part the infantry wore a mail hauberk and carried a lance or spear, while the knights had the addition of a sword.  This was the knight’s most treasured weapon and the symbol of his rank.  Unlike the lance which was frequently lost or broken in battle, the sword was more durable and was usually handed down from generation to generation.  It was often given a personal name and sometimes had religious inscriptions etched into the blade.  In addition to these, some Norman knights carried the massive axes of their Viking ancestors (hideous weapons that could lop off limbs with a single stroke) and the Bayeux Tapestry clearly depicts mounted warriors making use of the bow- though no Norman examples have survived.

These arms and armor were not substantially different than other armies of the time, but it was in strategy that the Normans really excelled.  They were extremely organized and disciplined- unlike many of their opponents- and capable of pulling off complex maneuvers.  Their cavalry operated in groups of 25 to 50 men known as conrois which could act independently or be combined into larger bands.  They were mobile killing machines and their charge was virtually unstoppable, but in the rare case when the cavalry assault proved ineffective (as at Hastings) they could also show a remarkable tactical flexibility.  In the case of Hastings they executed a series of feigned retreats that lured the English off their hill and then wheeled around to butcher them in small groups.  When necessary the knights would also dismount and fight as infantry or form a wedge that could break through even the most determined defenses.  Perhaps the main Norman attribute in battle, however, was a willingness to adapt.  The Great Count Roger effectively used sea transports to move his men around despite a complete unfamiliarity with ships and Robert Guiscard adopted Byzantine tactics to combat emperor Alexius Comnenus.  Within a generation of conquering southern Italy and Sicily Roger II commanded an army composed of Saracen infantry, Greek generals, and Norman cavalry that was one of the most powerful in Christendom.

In the end much of their success came down to two factors- charismatic leaders and a fair amount of luck.  They were gifted with a series of brilliant tacticians and dominating personalities- William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard, Roger de Hauteville and Roger II among others- who fully embraced Pliny’s famous maxim “Fortune favors the bold!”

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