Just as with the infantry, the cavalry of the enduring Roman Empire had three classes of troops whose equipment reflected the nature, proximity and duration of the contact they were expected to have with the enemy. The lightest cavalryman was the archer (1). While he was equipped with a sword, usually the slightly curved paramerion, and sometimes (although Leo advised against it) with a small buckler, his primary armament was his bow. His closest contact was only expected to be returning arrows, hence his protective gear was light. At the lowest end it comprised a heavy turban over a thick cap and a padded kavadion (coat) made of cotton wadding in a raw silk cover ‘as thick as may be stitched’, as Fokas puts it. The general’s detailed description tells us that that such coats must have been made in the same manner as a surviving civilian example with the skirt in three panels so that when mounted the front two covered the man’s thighs and the rear afforded some protection to the horse. The sleeves, although likely to be functional for general wear, had openings either at the elbows (according to Leo) or in the armpits (according to Nikeforos Fokas) through which the arms were placed to allow freedom of movement while in combat. The empty lower portion was fastened back to the shoulder to get it out of the way.

In a particularly well-supplied army, an archer might have a light helm with a padded neckguard, and a lamellar klivanion covering only his chest and back. The koursores were medium troops who had the most flexible and far-ranging role (2). They were expected to engage in hand-to-hand combat, but normally only with other medium to light cavalry or with small or disordered groups of infantry. Thus, they needed armour with a good level of protection, but not so heavy or cumbersome as to tire the horses during their often quite extended excursions. Over a padded zava, which could be either a coat or a pullover, the koursor would wear a lorikion koinon or alusidoton (mail shirt) or a lorikion foliddton (a shirt of scales). The mail hood had been in use in the Roman army since at least the beginning of the seventh century. Alternatively, the helm would have had an attached mail skirt to guard his neck, but padding or leather scales were less costly options. He carried a round shield of about 80cm in diameter as his first line of defence. His initial weapons were a 2.9m lance, which Leo suggests could be worn slung across the back if he were also carrying projectile weapons, a baldric-hung sword of either type, and probably a mace or two holstered on his saddle.

The kotafraktos (3) was the tank of his day. The sheer weight of kit carried by this man and his horse meant that they were only used over the shortest distances and against the hardest and most critical targets. The full range of components of his armour according to the rationalised scheme of Nikeforos Fokas, but here you can see the overall appearance of a fully equipped trooper with virtually all the hard gear hidden by his epilorikion, which was a padded coat of the same substance as the archer’s kavadion described above. All cavalry shields were round through most of this period, until an adoption of Western practice introduced kite shields to the heavy cavalry later in the twelfth century. On his person, the katafraktos carried one of each type of sword, spathion and paramerion, along with up to three maces, two holstered on his saddle and the third in the hand if he was not commencing the engagement armed with the kontarion lance.

July – August 1014

Two battles fought in the space of a few days in the summer of 1014 between the Byzantine emperor Basil II and the Tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire, Samuel, were won by the use of deception. The first, near the village of Kleidion (Klyuch in modern Bulgaria), resulted in a Byzantine victory; the second a few days later gave the Bulgarians revenge in the Battle of Strumitsa, thought to have been fought in the Kosturino gorge south of the town. In both cases surprise was the key that unlocked a military situation which otherwise seemed difficult to overcome, and in both cases concealment resulted in an annihilating victory.

War between the two empires had been persistent ever since the establishment of a Bulgarian Empire in the Balkan Peninsula in the seventh century. But under Byzantine emperor Basil II, who came to the throne in Constantinople in 976, the destruction of the Bulgarian state became a central ambition, even an obsession. By 1004, the eastern half of the Bulgarian Empire was lost to Byzantium. For the next decade, Basil campaigned in the Balkans each year, pillaging and burning the countryside and destroying one Bulgarian outpost after another. The Bulgarians’ strategy against their powerful neighbour was to rely on ambushes and raids, avoiding pitched battles, but in 1014 Samuel, whose empire was now confined to the mountains of Macedonia and Albania, decided to confront the next Byzantine invasion. Basil usually followed a route through the Kleidion Pass, which runs between the Belasitsa and Ograzhden mountains to the upper valley of the River Struma. Here Samuel set up palisades and earthworks to block Basil’s path.

The details of the battle that followed are only known in outline. The Bulgarians fielded perhaps 15–20,000; the size and composition of the Byzantine force is unknown, though it would have included armoured cavalry. Samuel sent south one of his commanders, Nestoritsa, to threaten the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki and compel Basil to turn back, but the Bulgarian raid was defeated by the governor of the city, Theophylactus Botanietes, a close companion of the emperor, who then brought his army to join Basil at Kleidion. Fruitless assaults on the wooden fortifications strung across the Struma Valley persuaded Basil to find an alternative. One of his generals, Nicephorus Xiphias, suggested a deception: while the army hammered away at the palisade, he would lead a force across the forested mountainside of Belasitsa to circle the Bulgarian army and attack it from the rear. The ruse worked. On 29 July, Basil attacked the Bulgarian defences while Xiphias, safely and secretly through the forest, attacked the enemy from the rear. The result was a devastating defeat for Samuel, who narrowly escaped with his life, fleeing on horseback to the castle at Strumitsa. Early Byzantine chronicles claimed that 14–15,000 were taken prisoner, but a late-medieval Bulgarian account suggests little more than half this figure.

The defeat was heavy but not, despite the later Byzantine accounts, comprehensive. Basil moved on to invest Strumitsa. Further south, he found that the road to Thessaloniki was also blocked by ramparts set up by his enemy. While he surrounded the town, Basil sent Botaniates to open the road, but this time the Bulgarians, by no means completely routed, deceived Basil. On his return from clearing the road, Botaniates and his army were ambushed in a gorge, probably at Kosturino, and slaughtered to a man by a hail of boulders and arrows. Botaniates himself is said to have been speared by Samuel’s son, Gavril Radomir. When Basil heard the news of the death of his favourite, he raised the siege on Strumitsa and returned towards Constantinople. At some time after the battle, Basil ordered the Bulgarian prisoners to be blinded and sent back to their tsar, a punishment, it was said, for the death of his beloved Botaniates. Out of every hundred men, one was blinded in only one eye, so that he could lead the others back to Bulgaria. The number mutilated was almost certainly smaller than the 15,000 claimed by Byzantine accounts, but the sorrowful trail of blinded men was too much for Samuel. When they arrived in early October, the shock is said to have killed the Bulgarian emperor, already lying ill in the city of Prespa. Samuel had an apoplectic fit, revived briefly and then died on 6 October 1014.

The two battles in and around the Struma Valley each showed the merit of concealment and strategem in different ways. Ambushes were common devices used by irregular forces to offset the numerical or tactical advantages enjoyed by a stronger and well-organized enemy. The use of mountainous terrain to conceal an outflanking movement was as old as Thermopylae and probably older. The outcome of the two battles was nevertheless not a draw. The death of Samuel provoked confusion and conflict among the surviving Bulgarian commanders and within four years the whole Bulgarian Empire was defeated and occupied by Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire now extended its authority throughout the Balkan Peninsula, reaching the highpoint of its medieval revival. Basil II earned the nickname by which history has remembered him, Boulgaroktonos – the ‘Bulgar-slayer’.


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