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The Byzantine Army during the Middle Period

(7th-12th centuries)
In this assignment some basic information about the Byzantine Army of the
Middle Period is presented, but also some notes from the previous and the
next period. The assignment could be divided in two big chapters: the
evolution of the army from the 7th until the 12th centuries and the
information about the military gear.

Absolutely, the Byzantine Army did not came out of nowhere. As happened
with every sector of the Byzantine Empire during the Early Period, the army
was the evolution of the ancient Roman one. That is the reason why so many
Roman titles can be found in the of the Early Period.

It is worth noted that there was not a kind of reform in the Roman Empire,
from which the Byzantine emerged, but the division of these "two" empires is
made by historians for practical reasons. That is also why historians argue
about the existence of a date, by which the Roman Empire became
Byzantine, simply because there was not a certain event that provoked a
major change. Generally the term Roman Empire reffers to a pagan empire
which reached every edge of the known world, having as a center the city of
Rome, while the term Byzantine Empire reffers to an Orthodox Christian
empire who ruled the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, with the capital
of ancient Byzantion and a strong Greek character. Essentially, however, it
was the same state.

Even though the Byzantine army is the evolution of the Roman one, this does
not mean in the that in the 7th century there were legions similar with those
of the 1st century B.C.. As it is logical, several reforms were adopted
occasionally in the army, in order to increase its effectivity and during crucial
periods of financial decline the reforms mostly aimed to the decrease of
expenses, both in naval and land army. Consequently, significant changes are
noted throughout the centuries in the characteristics of the army. New teams
(for example Varagians fighting with axes), new technological achievements
(igro pir or Greek fire), new type of organization (the existence of heavy
cavalry and mercenaries after the 9th century), were some of the
characteristics adopted, changed and were abandoned every often.

Thus, we could summarize the most important phases of the Byzantine army:

1. reconquest and expansion under Justinian in the 6lh century;

2. contraction, localisation and a primarily defensive character in the 7th

and 8th centuries;

3. consolidation, recovery and a more offensive approach in the period

from the 9th to the early 11th century;

4. the breakdown and reform of the structures inherited from the late
ancient period during the 11th and 12th centuries, with a brief
expansion back into Asia Minor under the emperors Alexios I, John II
and Manuel until the 1170s;

5. and a final, slow decline as the empire shrank under the effects of,
first, the partition which followed the fourth crusade; second, the
growth of the power of Serbia in the 14th century; and third, of that of
the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries (Haldon, 2003:16-17).

Some characteristics of the army during the Middle

During the Middle Byzantine Period, the Empire faced a major crisis: Slavic
tribes had flouded the Balkans, reaching by thousands even Peloponnese. As
a result Byzantines lost almost every control in the Balkans, except from
small islets in the coastline and a stripe of land in eastern Thrace.

The Byzantine Empire just after the cathode of Slavs (6th-7th centuries)

Furthermore, after the collapse of the Persian Empire in the beggining of the
7th century, another great power emerged, which control in a small period of
time of southwestern Mediterranean (from Spain until the Middle East) -
Arabs. Arabic raids against the Byzantine Empire did not usually have a
specific target, and as a result all cities were facing the possibility of an
invasion (Lilie, 2011:260).

The response of the Byzantines in this total new situation should be

immediate, radical and especially effective. Thus, the reform of Themata was
adopted step-by-step after the death of Herakleios. The empire, or whatever
was left of it, was divided in small regions, each of them had autonomous
parts of the army, ready to fight back a possible attack, instead of having a
huge army, concetraded in the edges of the empire.

The organization of Themata in Asia Minor (middle 8th century)

The change of the military structure in this way showed the transformation of
the empire's policy in a more defensive one initially, aiming to the its
survival, and later on the reconquest of the lost territories in the Balkans,
which were controlled by the Slavic tribes. (Capodistrian University of Athens,

Some information about the structure of the themata would be the following:

"The new way of carrying out a war did not require big armies. It was based
on the defence of the land by small local military units, while also and on the
effective ruling of the provinces. This administration was responsible to
provide in time a shelter to the people in fortified positions or inaccessible
areas and prevent the enemy troops to spread over large areas, in order to
ensure the provisioning of the population. The previous type of
administration, having divided the military and political power proved to be
slow and not able to cope with the needs effectively, and thus we see in the
second half of the 7th century the emergence of new administrational
provinces, which initially reffered to the regions of Asia Minor, where the
parts of the Byzantine army were concetrated: these regions received the
name "themata" from the military units settled there" (Lilie, 2011:260-261)

To deal with the Arabs adopted by the Byzantines another tactic that proved
effective. The Arab army had absolute superiority in open field battles
scanning in this way in a short time, all the southern Mediterranean basin.
Thus, the Byzantines developed a system by which avoided open battles as
possible, keeping stable relationships and irritating the Arabs with a kind of
guerrilla war. In this way, significantly limited the damage caused by the
Arabs to the Byzantines. Furthermore, the thematic army seemed to be ideal
for this system.

In order for the Byzantines to deal with the Arabs, they adopted a new
technique which proved to be very effective. The Arabic army was invicable in
open field battles, sweeping, because of this, the southern coastline of the
Mediterranean in a short period. Thus, Byzantines evolved a system, by which
they were trying to avoid open field battles as much as possible, keeping
stable positions and raiding against the Arabs. Based on this technique, the
losses of the Byzantines were greatly decreased. Moreover, the army of a
thema seemed to be the best for this (Lilie, 2011:260).

The details of the system are not known exactly. It has been supported, that
the every soldier, part of the province's army, had some hectares given for
him and his family. However, it is easy to understand that a person could not
be a soldier and a farmer in the same time, due to the difficulties of each
occupation, as many historians claim. Even if he did, he would be ineffective
in both.

The changing of the military policy in the next centuries

Between the 8th and the 10th centuries, the Byzantines organized a kind of
new reconquista, after Justinian's one, by subjucating the Balkan lands, which
were controlled by the Slavic tribes and Bulgarians. In the same time, the
reconquest of Crete took place (mid 10th century), in which the Arabs had
established a Chaliphate.
The themata of the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century

The administration of themata was slowly abandoned in the 10th century,

while many mercenaries, mostly Western Europeans, participated in the army.
In more details, the core of the Byzantine army was constisted by Western
cavalries. Their payroll, while was initially limited to money, then evolved,
placing many as economic land managers (collecting money from earth,
something like rent, an institution that has been known since the 9th century
as "charistikion" but on various monasteries and not with the army) and
finally attributed this land, based on the institution of the "Pronia", was
introduced by the Komnenian dynasty during the 11th and 12th century (Lilie,
2011: 268).

"The Byzantine army is now consisted not only by simple mercenaries, but
also with proniarii. This is how were called the soldiers, to whom the Emperor
ceded agricultural land or the right to collect taxes, in exchange for military
service. Proniarii were fighting on horses. The institution of pronia has some
similarities with feudalism, but in any case there should not be a
identification of these two systems. In the years of Komnenian dynasty the
army became the dominant class in the society, living at the expense of poor
people. This is why many civilians really wanted to join the army, while in
earlier times they were trying to avoid it." (Capodistrian University of Athens,

The presence of mercenaries and non-byzantine groups in general in the

army had been increased so much in the last centuries, thus essentially the
very same army. George Kedrinos, chronicler of the time, after the battle of
Madzikert says that the army at that time was a patchwork of Uguz, Bulgars,
Varagians and Western riders, not so eager to fight until the end, while the
Romans had become impoverished and inexperienced from military
experience, as opposed to the Turkic tribes, which were fighting effectively.
(Capodistrian University of Athens, 2007:52) The highlight of the use of
mercenaries in the Byzantine army met in the Late Byzantine period (1204-
1453) when the decadent Byzantine Empire hired the Catalan Company to
fighting on the eastern front. Eventually, the state was so weak to control
them, that Catalanians end up occupating parts of Central Greece and
establishing their own state.

The requirements of a Soldier - an Army: The case of Madzikert

However, the national heterogeneity of the Byzantine army shortly before the
Battle of Manzikert (1071) was not the most important reason for its defeat in
Asia Minor. This battle, having studied in depth, is an outstanding example
through which other factors that contribute to the outcome of that battle time
can be considered.

Considering this: At a time when transportations were only by equines

(horses, donkeys, camels and others) the needs of the soldiers, and of the
animals themselves both in water and food, should have been huge. Lilie,
making some basic calculations for the needs of numerous Byzantine army at
Madzikert concludes that the barren environment of mountainous and
desolate Asia Minor could not bear such a campaign. One of the conclusions
is that "if we accept that the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert
numbered 60,000 men, including 15,000 cavalry, you need a total of 45,000
pack animals (including the reserve cavalry), which respectively have need
daily 900 hectares of pasture and 135,000 liters of water. " (Lilie, 2011:253-

So, we conclude that in many cases the campaigns were not based on the
strength of each army, but also in the capability of a specific area to bare the
needs of the army. Moreover, such campaigns weakened financially the
residents of those provinces, and after the advent both numerically large
armies and horses, entire districts were deserted by overgrazing.

The Byzantine Equipment

Both portable and heavy weapons of the Byzantine army were significant
compared to others of that time. The state was trying to keep the control of
the weapon production, through stringent government legislation, control and
supervision which applied concerning the weapons. The manufacture of
weapons was perimitted only in state-controlled or military workshops.
Gunsmiths (despotati or favrikisii) were known by the state, controlled by it,
and they were not allowed to reveal or sell anything to foreigners. Violators
were punished with physical or monetary penalties, and even death. The
appearance of weapons was simple, without ornaments and schemes.
However, after the 10th century, weapon manufacturers began to decorate
them with golden or silver jewels, while also with gemstones. There are quite
limited weapons decorated like this. Weapon were divided in portable
(defensive and offensive) and heavy (position weapons).

A. Portable weapons

The defensive ones were:

1. The shields, which were called scutaria and the soldiers scutarii. The
emperor Leon VI' mentioned two kind of shields: thireous and aspidikia.
2. The helmets, known as kasides or kasidia, based on their size, as well as
korythes which initially had a pointy edge, and later (6th century) a plume.
3. The breastplates, which were made of chain, or out of ox leather, known as
zaves or salves, or lorikia, or klivania.
4. The sleeves, which were called chiropsella or manikellia.
5. The greaves, known as podopsella or chalkotuvla.
6. Prometopia or Prometopidia, which were used for the protection of the
horses' forehead.
7. Peristernia, or peristithia, or stitharia for the protection of the horses' neck.
8. Katanotia, for the protection of the horses' bottom.

The offensive ones were:

1. The spears, which were called kontaria, or menaula, between 3,50-4,70

metres long.
2. Doridrepana, which were long spears, having a seckle on their edge, like a
3. The dropping spears, called riktaria, or riptaria 2,5 m. long (cavalries and
light spearmen had these ones)
4. Spathes or spathia (swords), hanged from the shoulder or the belt (scutarii
had these).
5. Martzovavula or pelekidia (small axes). All of the cavalries had them.
6. The bows, called toksa or toksaria, their arrows sagites and the archers
sagiatores and arkati. There were also small bows called solinaria. Tzagres
were big and very powerful bows, brought with the crusaders in the time of
the first Crusade in the 11th century.
7. Aggones, small spears used also for dropping. Their edges had two hooks
in order to rip enemies' flesh.
8. The slingshots, also brought by the Crusaders, and were called
9. The tubes, by which Greek Fire was thrown onto the enemies.

B. Heavy weapons

Heany weapons were war machines used either for the defending of walls or
for the demolishing of the enemy's ones. They were called maggana or
michanes and their operators kuratores ton magganon. There were different
types of war machines. The most important ones were: Battering rams,
petrovoli (rock-throughing machines), catapults, stairways, and hand-drills
(Papalopoulos, 1982).

By observing the changes, both in the structure and the equipment we realize
the impact of the events which accompanied the life of the Byzantine Empire.
In periods of economical crisis, big military campaigns were avoided,
expensive type of weapons were rarely bought, while the armies lacked of
normal salaries. The condition of the Byzantine army was worsened
irretirevably during the next centuries (13th-15th), when, the majority of the
troops were dismissed because of being mercenaries, and the state did not
have the financial capability to pay them. The same case occured concerning
the naval power of the empire. In the middle of the 15th century, the
Byzantine empire end up having only some hundreds of soldiers, who were
not even able to defend a province.

Capodistrian University of Athens, Medieval and Contemporary History, From the
foundation of Constantinople (330 A.D.) until the 18th century, Athens, 2007.
Haldon John, Essential Histories, Byzantium at War, AD 600 - 1453, Oxford, 2003
Lilie Ralph-Johannes, Introduction to Byzantine History, Athens, 2011.
Mavrikios, Stratigikon, Wien, 1981.
Papalopoulos Christos, The Byzantine Army, published in Stratiotiki Epitheorisi, 1982,
p. 174-177.