Archive for the 'Basil' 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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What really killed Tsar Samuel?

May 17 2013 Published by under Basil,Bulgar-Slayer,Samuel,Tsar

samoilThe Battle of Kleidon is usually seen as of those game-changing moments of the Middle Ages, when the terrible Basil the Bulgar-Slayer destroyed the First Bulgarian Empire in a haze of blood.  Byzantium and Bulgaria had been at war for the better part of four decades when the imperial forces of Basil II ambushed Tsar Samuel’s forces.  15,000 Bulgarians were captured and the rest were killed.  The Bulgar-Slayer ordered the survivors blinded, sparing 1 out of every 100 to guide the rest home.  According to tradition, Samuel had a heart attack when he saw his ruined army and died two days later.

It makes for a good story, but is is true?  Samuel’s coffin was opened up by team of Bulgarian scientists in 1969.  There was a severe wound to his left temple and jaw, and both of his forearms were broken (and had healed incorrectly).  They concluded that he died of these wounds.  But this doesn’t mean that we have to discount the traditional story.

Samuel was obviously not in good health.  In addition to his wounds, he was in his early 70’s- elderly by the standards of the day.  He probably couldn’t eat very well due to the injury to his lower jaw, and at least one of his arms was virtually unusable.  The news of his army’s defeat was a serious enough shock, but seeing the maimed survivors was in some ways worse.  His finances had already been stretched by the never-ending war, he now had the additional burden of caring for 15,000 disabled veterans while simultaneously funding the recruitment of a replacement army.  It’s not hard to conclude that this last trauma was too much for him.

So while we can’t say the legend of Samuel dying from shock is true, we can at least say it’s plausible.  Until we build a time machine, that’s about as certain as it will get.

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How did Byzantine fashion change over time?

Julian the Apostate and Constantine XI

Ryan asks how Byzantine fashion changed over time.

In the first few centuries after Constantine, the Byzantines held true to their roots, dressing in the standard Roman toga.  But by the time of Justinian that venerable cloth was reduced to ceremonial occasions.  Most Byzantines preferred more simple, flowing clothes like the tunic that the ancient Romans had worn under their togas.  For the poor, this held true for virtually the entire span of the empire.

servants carrying a noblewoman

The clothes servants are shown in during the 10th century could easily be the ones their ancestors were wearing eight centuries before.    The wealthy, however, could show a good deal more variety.    Over their tunics the fashionable would wear a ‘dalmatica’- a heavier, more ornate cloth often tapering to a point. Justinian’s is a royal purple color, clasped at the shoulder with a heavy pendant. Half a millennium later, the emperor Leo the Wise was depicted wearing something very similar and clasped at the same shoulder. (This was originally a military convention that left the right arm free for easy access to the sword)


Leo the Wise








The toga did survive, but in heavily modified form. The imperial loros was an ornamental, stylized version that would be worn around the neck of an emperor and folded over his arm. Here Romanus III is shown wearing it in the 11th century.

While not attending to state functions, emperors tended to dress in ‘simple’ tunics.  Here Basil the Macedonian meets his son Leo VI on the fateful hunting trip that would result in the former’s death.

Emperor Basil greets his son Leo

Even their shoes are relatively simple- the only distinction being their scarlet color which was reserved for the reigning emperors.  Footwear in general was in the sensible Roman style of straps over a thick leather sole.  (My high school self would also like to point out that the Ravenna mosaics show them wearing white socks with their sandals)

I was in good company

Throughout their history, the Byzantines tended to be more conservative with hemlines than their ancestors.  They wore layers of clothes, sleeves went to wrists, and garments usually went to the ankles.  Even the poor, who couldn’t afford (or want to get tangled in) robes that reached the floor, would wear leggings under their tunics.

But in other ways, the Byzantines were much more expressive.  Where the Romans had preferred simple white robes, the Byzantines were fascinated by patterns and incorporated them into virtually all their clothing.  Utilizing a special form of silk called ‘samite’ or occasionally gold fibers, they embroidered tunics, dalmaticas, and even leggings and boots.  Trade with the East brought in exotic colors and ornamentation- along with new styles to add to the mix.  The nobility in particular got increasingly flamboyant toward the end- here is a 14th century merchant named Theodore Metochites proudly displaying the cutting edge of fashionable head wear.

A century later the emperor John VIII brought the then current version on his tour of early Renaissance Italy.

This was not what Western Europe expected Roman Emperors to look like, and such exotic dress made it that much easier to believe that they were never Roman to begin with.  A mere hundred years after the imperial visit a German historian coined the term ‘Byzantine’ to highlight their ‘non-Romaness’.  With that- as far as many westerners were concerned- the Eastern Romans were effectively cut out of history.

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Did the Armenians control Byzantium?

Dec 18 2010 Published by under Armenia,Armenians,Basil,Narses,Romanus Lecapenus

Hovig asks how influential the Armenians were in the Byzantine Empire.  The short answer is ‘very’.

Armenia provided some of Byzantium’s best soldiers (there were Armenian contingents fighting in Justinian’s armies), and some of its leading early generals (most famously Narses).  The Byzantines- like the Romans- were always a heterogeneous people.  What counted was not so much ethnic origin but culture.  They would look down their noses if you dressed like a provincial or spoke with an accent, but  inject a little schooling and your children could be mixing with the blue-bloods.  The fact that Justin was a poor, uneducated peasant from the Balkans didn’t stop later emperors from claiming to be descended from his nephew Justinian, and the only reason the pathetic Zoë was allowed to rule as empress was because she was directly related to Basil I- a rough ‘hick’ from the country who murdered his way to the throne.

But to the Byzantines, Armenia marked the limits of civilization (ie Hellenism).  There were parts of Armenia where Greek never displaced the native tongue, and it was the spot where classical Greco-Roman culture faded and Persian influences (and later Arab) began.  Christianity exerted a pull toward Constantinople, but the Armenians were always fiercely independent people.  They were so stubborn that one emperor (Maurice) got fed up with dealing with them and made an agreement with the Persian Shah to deport the entire population.  Fortunately for Armenia the Shah didn’t follow through, but imperial policy for the next several centuries concentrated on deporting Armenians as a way to control troublesome spots, repopulate others, or to bolster military numbers.  Courtesy of the imperial government Armenians were settled in Cyprus, Calabria, Sicily, Crete, North Africa, and Sparta.

In the 8th century, however, things began to change.  The Arab advance had pushed the imperial army out of Armenia and a stream of refugees had come with it.  An Armenian colony had already been founded in Pergamum and in 711 a member of the colony named Bardanes managed to overthrow the emperor and for two years reigned as the emperor Philippicus.

This first experiment in Armenian emperors was not successful (Philippicus was quickly overthrown and had to serve as his successor’s footstool in the Hippodrome), but it was soon followed by a better one.  The Bulgars were raiding Thrace, and to protect Constantinople’s flank the emperor Leo IV settled a few thousand Armenians right in their path.  So many were taken prisoner back to Macedonia that the Armenians remaining in Thrace were given the nickname ‘Macedonian’.  In 867 one of them- a man named Basil- made his way to Constantinople and killed off the reigning emperor (who was actually half-Armenian himself).   Basil founded a new dynasty (the so-called “Macedonian” Dynasty) which ruled for the next 190 years.  During that time Armenians dominated the government.  The important generals, administrators, governors, bureaucrats, and at least one major historian (Genesius) were all Armenian.  Even the usurper Romanus Lecapenus who briefly elbowed aside the legitimate ‘Macedonian’ emperor was an Armenian.  It was a period of brilliance in nearly every field, and it witnessed a renaissance of learning overseen by three of the most educated men Byzantium ever produced- the Patriarch Photius, John the Grammarian, and Leo the Philosopher- all Armenians.

Basil II- the last of the “Macedonian” emperors- did start an Armenian colony in Macedonia, but that turned out to be the apogee of both Armenian influence, and imperial strength.  46 years after Basil’s death a Turkish army engaged a Byzantine one in the little Armenian town of Manzikert and the disaster led to the permanent collapse of Byzantine power.

As a final postscript I should point out that terms like ‘Armenian’ and ‘Byzantine’ are a little anachronistic.  Today we tend to think in terms of nationalities or states- the term ‘Armenian’ for instance is tied both to ethnic origin and a citizen of the country of Armenia.  This was not the case a thousand years ago.  There was no Armenia, just a collection of princes, a population sharing common dialects, and vague, shifting borders.  As for the Byzantines, their identity was tied to culture, traditions, religion, and civilization.  In other words, if you crossed yourself from right to left, dipped your bread in olive oil, and knew your Homer, than you qualified as a Roman.

If you had walked into the court of Basil II and asked him what he was, he would have given you the same answer as every one of his predecessors since Augustus.  Roman.

Then knowing Basil, you’d have your eyes put out.

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