Over the millennium of its existence, the Byzantines faced a vast array of peoples who threatened its territory and people. Several of these proved militarily superior and dealt heavy defeats on the empire. In the end, however, the Byzantines generally gained the upper hand, often through decades or even centuries of defense, stabilization, assimilation, and counterattack. The Byzantines learned a great deal from their enemies; indeed the ability to adapt to the challenges posed by opponents was one of the great pillars of Byzantine military success.
The Gothic tribal confederacies posed the most serious challenge to the late antique Roman state of any Germanic group. The Goths comprised coalitions of tribal groups, mostly from the east Germanic peoples who by the third century A.D. inhabited a vast swathe of territory from the Oder and Vistula rivers to the southern steppes of Russia, the Crimea, and the Carpathian basin. East Germanic peoples had posed a significant threat to the eastern provinces of the Roman state from the third century. In 267, Goths and Heruls burst through the Danubian defenses and ravaged Thrace and much of the Balkans, sacking Athens before the emperor Claudius Gothicus dealt them a stinging defeat in 269. Following their defeat by the Huns, large groups of Goths migrated south to the Danube where they were admitted as suppliants to Roman territory. Their provisioning was bungled due to corruption, and an underdeveloped transportation response led to starvation among the Goths and rebellion that culminated in the armed confrontation at Adrianople. At the end of the sixth century, after its recovery from the Goths, the empire had to concede the loss of most of Italy to the newly arrived Lombard confederation, whose grip on the peninsula spread throughout the seventh century. The Byzantines also entered sporadic conflicts with the Franks from the sixth century and even fought against Charlemagne (801–10) for control of the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts.
The Goths were organized in decimal units with major groupings of “hundreds” (hundafaþs) as were their Germanic relatives, the Anglo-Saxons and their Roman neighbors, whose centurions were well known to the eastern Goths. Gothic mercenaries served in the Roman army throughout the late third century, and by the time of the emperor Constantine, Gothic elements were settled in Transdanubia. By the fourth century Gothic military organization had evolved at least in part under the influence of Roman practice. Gothic tribal raiders crossed into Roman territory and proved a sufficient nuisance to attract the interest of Constantine, who waged multiple campaigns against them. By now the Goths probably included and coexisted alongside elements of several ethnic Iranians (Sarmatians), Slavs, Romano-Dacians, and Getae. The remains of a commonly articulated material culture from the second through fifth centuries (the Chernyakhov culture) indicate broad contact and exchanges; such adaptations were not always peaceful and the transferal of knowledge from one people to another certainly included warfare. According to Maurice, the “fair-haired races,” especially the Lombards, grouped themselves not into numerically ordered units but according to kin group.
Methods of Warfare
The Goths fought as both cavalry and infantry. Until the last few decades, historians have viewed the Goths as primarily a cavalry army and attributed to this their shattering victory over the infantry legions in 378 at Adrianople. Their numbers were probably never as numerous as some Roman authors would have us suppose—Heather estimates that in sixth century Italy and Gaul there were about 15,000 Gothic elite males.1 When the Gothic king Theodoric reigned over the united Gothic territories in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, his Gothic subjects numbered about 200,000 people. However, although we have few contemporary sources, the majority of Goths seem to have often fought as infantry spearmen and swordsmen. Certainly the Goths served in large numbers in the legions as infantry. At Adrianople the Goths had perhaps 5,000 cavalry and probably twice as many infantry. According to Vegetius, the Goths possessed numerous archers, who fought on foot. In the sixth century, Prokopios provided a clearer picture of the Gothic army, which fielded a large cavalry component who fought in massed formations as lancers, while the infantry seem to have been mainly skirmishers armed with javelins and archers. Other infantry fought as spearmen and swordsmen equipped with a spatha and carrying shields. Given the high casualty rate caused by Roman archery among the Goths, it is doubtful that they were more heavily armored than their Roman foes. In fact, the Goths closely resembled their late Roman counterparts.
Since after Adrianople the empire was too weak to destroy the Gothic confederacies, the Romans sought to neutralize them by treaty. The emperor Theodosius recruited numerous Goths into the Roman army, as an expedient means to replenish the devastated ranks of the eastern field forces, but also as a way to weaken the Goths, whose presence in the Balkans created a state of emergency. Theodosius recruited numerous Gothic federates who fought loyally for him and of whose lives the Roman high command was apparently none too careful—a contemporary panegyrist acclaims the emperor for using barbarian to fight barbarian, thus bleeding both of them. Nonetheless the Goths formed a sizable but not dominant portion of the eastern field army. By 400 A.D. the Gothic warlord Gainas dominated imperial politics in the capital of Constantinople, but his unpopular policies led to his downfall and a riot of citizens who trapped and massacred 7,000 of his Gothic troops. The Gainas affair marked the apogee of Gothic influence in the imperial center; the Romans countered Germanic elements in the army by recruiting Isaurian highlanders from Asia Minor. Finally, the last major elements not assimilated or settled within the Roman Balkans or Asia Minor were sent to Italy under Theodoric the Amal. Justinian renewed the Gothic conflict, invading Italy and conquering it. In 554 the Roman general defeated a Frankish-Alemanni force at Volturnus through his combined arms approach—horse archery again proved a major Roman tactical advantage over the Frankish infantry force. Though the Byzantines lost most of Italy to the Lombards in the later sixth and early seventh centuries, they created the exarchate of Ravenna with several dukes under its control to check the Lombard advance. The exarch held joint civil and military power and, as viceroy of the emperor, was free to respond to crisis without direct orders from Constantinople. These reorganizations helped the Byzantines maintain territory in portions of Italy until 1071.
The most sophisticated, rich, and militarily threatening power that the Romans faced in the early part of their existence was the empire of Sasanian Persia. Founded after victory in a civil war in 226 A.D., the Sasanian dynasty ruled territory stretching from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Their propaganda declared dynastic ties to the Achaemenid Persian Empire destroyed by Alexander the Great and consequently the rights to the former Persian territories of Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Mediterranean coast. While the Sasanians acted on these grand claims on only one occasion, during the mighty conflict that raged with Rome in 603–28, clashes over strategic borderlands and satellite peoples were frequent. The frequency and intensity of these conflicts rose from a simmer to a steady boil by the sixth century, culminating in the Persian conquest of most of the Roman east in the following century.
The Sasanian shah Kosrow I (531–79) reformed the Persian military and in doing so created several Roman-style structures. Kosrow divided the empire into four army districts in which he stationed army corps under the command of four spahbeds (field marshals). Along the border, the king established margraves, marzbans, who administered sensitive border districts and commanded the frontier forces stationed there. The Eran-ambaragbed, “minister of the magazines of empire,” was, like his Roman counterpart, the praetorian prefect, in charge of arming and equipping the troops. The general (gund-salar) led individual field armies on campaign; sometimes under the authority of the spahbed. By the sixth century the army was largely professionally recruited and paid; there was a professional infantry commander in charge of standing guard units, but in the sixth century the Persians apparently continued to rely on conscripts for a large portion of their rank-and-file infantry. Mailed cavalry units and the royal guard formed the crack troops of the empire; these were generally drawn from the Persian nobility or from aristocratic allied families, such as the Hephthalites and Armenians, with whom the Persians had close contacts.
Methods of Warfare
The proportion of infantry to cavalry in the Sasanian army is unknown, but the Persians relied to a large degree on heavy horsemen, who could both shoot the bow and strike with heavy lances. The Persians favored direct massed cavalry assaults to break up enemy formations; the shock of their horsemen proved decisive against the Romans on several occasions. Normally the Sasanians drew up their forces in three cavalry lines. The Sasanians occasionally employed elephants in combat, but though they made a great psychological impression, they were not an important part of their military. The left of the Persian line was traditionally manned by left-handed archers and lancers who could thus strike effectively across the face of the enemy formation (right-handed mounted archers especially had difficulty shooting to their right). The left of the host formed the defensive anchor, whose role was to avoid enemy flanking maneuvers and to support the offensive right of the formation, where were stationed the best noble cavalry. The Sasanian right typically tried to outflank the enemy left, though the heavily armed kataphracts, covered from head to toe in mail and bearing lances, could be used in frontal assaults on infantry and cavalry groups. Behind the center line of regular cavalry were stationed the infantry formation, which supported the cavalry and sheltered retreating horsemen in case their attacks failed. In addition to their archery and horsemanship, the Sasanians were outstanding siege engineers. From the fourth through seventh centuries they seized some of the best defended and most powerfully built Roman fortress cities.
The Sasanians and Byzantines knew one another well and there was considerable exchange of military knowledge and practice across the frontiers. Militarily, each side came to resemble the other. In early twentieth-century excavations at Dura Europus, a Roman frontier city on the middle Euphrates taken by Sasanian assault in the year 256 archaeologists discovered the remains of at least nineteen Romans and one Sasanian attacker. The Sasanian wore chain mail, carried a jade-hilted sword, and wore a pointed ridge-type helmet with a prominent center piece whose rivets joined the two lobes of the helmet together. Such gear was typical in Roman armies by the third century. In 533 at the battle of Dara, Belisarios countered Sasanian superiority by limiting their cavalry and playing to their psychological sense of superiority. In subsequent battles he used the Sasanians’ wariness of his stratagems to force their withdrawal by aggressive posturing. The Persians, used to the traps and feigned retreats of their nomad enemies, could be made too cautious by aggressive maneuvers. They could be thwarted by the commander’s well-chosen battlefield that cut off the Persians’ ability to place their weaker elements on protective rough ground. The poor soldiers among the Sasanians did not fight with spear and shield, but seem to have been mainly skirmishers and archers. They were therefore susceptible to Roman cavalry charges delivered over level ground. The Romans thus relied on strategems, strategic maneuver, tactical coordination, and discipline to defeat the Persians. When Roman commanders selected the battlefield, they were able to neutralize or defeat these stubborn eastern opponents.
Throughout its existence, the empire confronted a vast array of steppe nomad military powers. The Byzantines fought major wars against the Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Khazars, Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Cumans and numerous minor conflicts with a host of other groups. Nomads were generally bent on plunder of imperial territory and rarely sought to settle on lands south of the Danube, only a small portion of which were suitable for the transient, cattle-herding life of pastoralists. However, both the Huns and Avars posed existential threats to the empire, as they sought to dominate the lands south of the Danube and to destroy the Roman power that contained them north of the river. Nomadic confederations formed under charismatic leadership or during periods of environmental or physical stress. Maurice stressed in the Strategikon that nomads typically fought in kin-based tribal or extended family groupings, and this contributed to the nature of their tactics.
Nomadic society was based on nuclear families and wider, extended kinship ties. Like other tribal societies, blood relation or imagined genealogical connections helped to smooth political dealings and allow for larger groupings or “super tribes” that made massive nomadic military enterprise possible. The Huns under Attila formed an effective monarchy and Maurice stressed that the Avars, unlike many nomads, possessed a kingship. Undoubtedly the power of the central figures within a hierarchy during the Hunnic and Avar episodes of Byzantine history bolstered the barbarians’ military effectiveness. After they settled north of the Danube in the late sixth century, the Avars conquered and coopted elements among the Bulgars, Slavs, and Hunnic and Germanic peoples in Transdanubia. The Byzantines portray a grim fate for those whom the Avars conquered, especially the Slavs who served as hard laborers and pressed soldiers during the siege of Constantinople in 626. According to Maurice, the Avars arranged themselves by tribe or kin group while on the march. Their social structure made them vulnerable to desertions and divisions within the ranks, which the Byzantines sought to exploit.
Methods of Warfare
Steppe nomads fought primarily as lightly armed horse archers. Speed and surprise were cornerstones of their strategic and tactical success. Their ability to swarm and the firepower they brought to bear could break up enemy formations and drive the enemy from the field. In the fourth century, when the Romans had little experience dealing with the tactical swarming attacks, war cries, strange appearance, and mobile horse archery of the Huns, these nomads struck terror into the hearts of many soldiers and won numerous victories across the length of the empire. In addition to horse archers, the Huns and Avars deployed heavier lancers who bore a resemblance to the Sasanian hybrid cavalry, armed with bow, sword, and lance. The Strategikon notes that the Avars carried a lance strapped on their back which freed them to operate their bows. In addition to the lance and bow, Avar warriors carried swords; they seem to have been more heavily armed than their Hun predecessors, as Maurice noted that they wore chain mail coats. The Avars wore long coats of mail or lamellar split at the crotch, with panels on each side to protect the leg. The famous Nagyszentmiklós Treasure includes a gold plate depicting what is probably an Avar or Bulgar warrior wearing such a coiffed mail coat, splinted greaves, helmet, and carrying a pennoned lance.
The Byzantines relied on diplomatic means to buy off and deflect Hun designs on imperial territory. The defensive posture of the empire throughout the fifth century precluded decisive confrontations against a superior enemy in the open field, and the massive defenses of Constantinople shielded the eastern territories from Hun penetration and conquest, though most of their European possessions were ravaged and slipped from Byzantine control. Although our sources provide no insight into the exact mechanisms of the adoption of steppe nomad tactics and equipment, the Byzantines recruited Hunnic horse archers into their armies and probably from these and deserters derived the knowledge of horseback archery. By the sixth century, the hybrid horse archer and lancer cavalry among the armies of Justinian were the most important tactical elements within the Roman army. The Byzantines adopted the stirrup from the Avars and this provided Roman cavalry with a more stable fighting platform. Maurice’s Strategikon notes that the thonged Avar lance and Avar-type tents and riding cloaks were also adopted directly from their steppe enemies. Lamellar cavalry armor also became more prominent in the panoply of Roman soldiers in the sixth and seventh centuries and this, too, indicates that the Byzantines borrowed extensively from nomads. The use of the feigned retreat, while known to classical armies, was a common steppe nomad tactic that the Byzantines perfected under steppe influence and employed throughout their history. The adoption of nomadic equipment, tactics, and strategy were among the most important adaptations of the Byzantine army and proved critical to the long-term survival of the empire.