Later Byzantine Armies



Varangian Guard 10th Century



From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

Although cavalry were of higher status in Byzantine armies, the infantry had specialist skills and weaponry and sophisticated training for their deployment. Tenth-century manuals describe the formation of an infantry square made up of spearmen backed by archers as the main component, but with aisles left for the cavalry to emerge. These gaps were covered by specialist javelinmen (recruited from Slavs) and slingers, all lightly equipped troops able to fill or vacate the gaps quickly, as the tactical situation demanded. Within the infantry formation were units of menaulatoi. They wielded a heavy throwing spear and were designated to repulse assaults by enemy kataphraktoi (cataphracts – armoured men on armoured horses) whose assault would be invulnerable to archery and might break the long spears of the square’s defensive wall of foot.

Byzantine infantry were not just a defensive asset. Against enemy infantry the tenth-century Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos advocated that the main body of spearmen and archers should receive the attack while the menaulatoi and javelin throwers advanced on the wings, curving inwards to maximize the number that could shoot and break up the enemy flanks. An artillery component 16 was provided by cheiromangana, catapults shooting giant arrows, and siphons, man-portable tubes for projecting incendiary Greek Fire.

The fundamental attitude of the Byzantine infantry was defensive. This was because their own cavalry force of cataphracts, armoured lancers and light scouts was used as the offensive force against their enemies and was expected to break their front. At the battle of Dorostolon in 971, the Byzantine infantry engaged in close combat over several days of fighting with the Rus. This Scandinavian-style foot had formed a long line of well-armed infantry with spear, axe and bow and were holding off the Byzantines with their rear protected by the fortress of Dorostolon. After days of grinding down the enemy, the decisive breakthrough came when the emperor himself led the Byzantine cataphracts, in a large wedge formation, to break the weakened Rus line.

From the 960s onwards, the empire’s armies contained many Norse and Rus mercenaries. Some of these were formed into the Varangian Guard, an armoured unit wielding two-handed axes. They provided both a cutting edge to the Byzantine infantry and a personal guard for the emperor. At Dyrrachium in 1081, Emperor Alexios Komnenos was fighting to repel an invasion of the south Italian Normans under the formidable Robert Guiscard. The Varangians formed the centre of the battle line, acting in concert with units of archers. ‘These (the archers) Alexios intended to send first against Guiscard, having instructed Nampites (the Varangian commander) to open his ranks quickly for them (by moving to right and left) whenever they wanted to advance out against the Normans; and to close ranks again and march forward in close order, when they had withdrawn’ (The Alexiad). This tactical deployment is an example of the sophisticated combination of missile and shock troops in Alexios’ army. The Varangians advanced successfully, their archers deterring Norman cavalry attacks and the axemen defeating the infantry opposed to them. Only when they had advanced too far were the Varangians surprised by an infantry flank attack and repulsed.

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