Archive for the 'Roman history' 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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How not to inspire your troops

Jun 12 2012 Published by under east,Heraclius,Roman Army,Roman history

Pavel asked how far east a Roman army ever campaigned.

Heraclius invaded central Persia in the spring campaigning season of 624.  He reached as far east as Isfahan- then called Aspaban- farther east than any Roman army before (or after) would ever go.  There was nothing preventing him from continuing on, but by then there was little need to.  The Persians had seen their rash emperor nearly swallow Byzantium only to lose it all and more in the blink of an eye.  When Shar-baraz, Persia’s best general, refused to engage Heraclius in battle, Chosroes II ordered him to be arrested and executed.  Unfortunately for the paranoid Shah, Heraclius intercepted the letter bearing the command and- after adding a few names for good measure- passed it along to Shar-baraz.  The ill-advised Persian housecleaning was the last straw.  People and army rose up and Chosroes II was overthrown.

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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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Who was the last emperor to visit Rome?

Listener Allison asked which emperor had the distinction of being the last Roman sovereign to set foot in the ancient capital city.  It was the uninspiring John VIII who visited in 1423 to beg for help against the Ottoman Turks.  His stay in the Eternal City was quite a contrast from the previous imperial visit.  That had been in 663 when the emperor Constans II had visited for 12 days.  Despite a stay of less than two weeks, Constans managed to annoy the entire population by stripping everything of value (including the bronze from the roof of the Pantheon) to fund his war against the Arabs.  Rumor had it that his tax collectors were so severe that husbands were sold into slavery and wives were forced into prostitution to meet the sums demanded.  Fortunately for John VIII, seven centuries tend to dim those kind of memories.  He was given a warm welcome and Renaissance artists, taken by his exotic dress left several realistic portraits.  Thanks to that Roman trip, he remains the one Byzantine emperor to be realistically painted- a notoriety he certainly didn’t deserve!

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Who was the last Roman Consul?

Listener John asked when exactly the office of the Consul died out.  The Consulship was the highest office in Republican Rome, dating back to the hazy days in the sixth century BC when the last Etruscan King was expelled from the city.  The two elected Consuls held most of the powers of a king, and dates were calculated from the start of their terms.  With the rise of the empire, however, it became a largely symbolic office, and was mostly awarded by emperors to themselves.  Its prestige was further diminished when later rulers started conferring it on imperial children (Caligula didn’t help matters when he announced that he was nominating his horse) and by the time of Justinian in the sixth century it was allowed to lapse from its yearly appointment.  The last politician to hold it was a man with the impressive name of Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius in 541 (that’s a picture of him at the top).  He had the misfortune to be in Rome when Totilla and the Goths stormed it, and was forced to flee with his Consular robe into obscurity.  That wasn’t quite the end of the office, however.  It continued to exist as part of the coronation ceremony for another century.  The last recorded emperor to receive the dignity was Justinian II who combined the Consulate with the office of Emperor.  From then on the title seems to have been forgotten until the tenth century when the emperor Leo the Wise officially abolished it.

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