Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The undying empire

I've been reading Decker's "The Byzantine Art of War" and have been fascinated by the author's continuous notion that Byzantium was probably the only empire in history that had managed to absorb waves of incursions, attacks and occupations/losses of land but always managing to eventually survive. The empire would then gradually respond and fight back, even capturing long-lost lands. 

Vivid examples of such a historical recurrence of survival were the calculated Persian invasions of the early 7th century, the sweeping, surprising Arab conquests of the late 7th century, the Slav occupation of the Balkans during the 8th century, the Seljuk invasions of the 11th century, the treacherous Latin occupation of Constantinople of the early 13th century and finally the Ottoman expansion of the 14th-15th centuries. 

Apart from the last wave of attack, the Empire had managed to survive and respond against all of its former assailants for a great part of a millennium. In most cases successfully. 
The causes for such a persistence in surviving are numerous, including the highly evolved military structure of the Empire, heir to the known Roman military machine of the past, an intricate level of diplomatic abilities, a rich source of gold, geography and in some cases pure luck. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Article on Basil II

My latest article on Basil II's rapid campaign in the East, against Fatimid forces in 995 AD.

Read it in Medieval Warfare II.6.

This is just the introduction:

"The Fatimid light scouting cavalry detachment that had camped two miles west of the besieged city of Aleppo woke up in a perplexed state. The arid plain stretching in front of them had flooded with a myriad of mounted soldiers and an astonishing number of mules. To their unsettled dismay, the most keen-sighted of the scouts could vaguely distinguish the feared banners of the Roman army fluttering throughout this massed array of men and beasts. To his horror, one of the scouts even noticed the imperial banner signifying the presence of the Roman Basileus himself. How could this be? Their superiors had warned them to probably expect an insignificant relief force, if any, but surely not the whole of the Roman army led by the Emperor. To the frustration of the Fatimids, Basil II had achieved a magnificent if not unique feat in Byzantine military history, by appearing unexpectedly with an army of 40,000 men at the walls of besieged Aleppo."

Byzantine Firearms

When one thinks about Byzantine firearms one inevitably stumbles upon the famous "Greek fire" or "υγρόν πύρ", the ubiquitously mentioned used liquid used by the Byzantine from the mid-7th century. Its exact synthesis has been succcesfully kept as a secret throughout history though most modern historians tend to agree that it consisted of a mixture of sulphur, pine resin, naphtha and quicklime. It's liquid nature would allow it to be projected by highly pressurised siphons. Byzantines would take advantage of its abillity to burn even on the surface of water during naval battles, although images of hand-held siphons also exist, allowing for speculations of its use during sieges.

Despite the success of "Greek fire" in Byzantine history, the Empire was not able to take advantage of the introduction of gunpowder in military affairs. Coinciding with the complete degradation of the Byzantine military and political presence gunpowder firearms were hardly used by the Empire.

The first use of gunpowder artillery in the East was recorded in Hungary in 1354, in the Western Balkans in 1378 and in Serbia during hte 1380's. There is a questionable mention of Byzantine use of guns by John VII in 1390, against the fortress of the Golden Gate, held by John V. Issues of translation have allowed historians such as Bartusis to question the appearance of guns during this episode. According to Chalkokondyles, guns were used to defend Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1422. These guns were most probably obtained by the Venetians and Genoese since there is no evidence that the Byzantines manufactured any themselves.

Although the Ottoman guns played a significant role in undermining the Theodosian walls of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine themselves had some artillery that responded insufficiently against the Ottoman barrage. These included some large enough (firing 40 kg shot) that according to the eye-witnesses caused more damage to the walls than the enemy forces. Leonard of Chios mentions that at some point of the siege, Giustiniani asked the megas dux Loukas Notaras for the use of the public bombads of the city but was refused, indicating the presence of Byzantine guns during the siege.

Concerning hand-held firearms, there is no evidence of their use apart from a reference by the historian Doukas (writing in 1462) of Byzantines shooting lead balls, propelled by powder, 5 and 10 at a time as small as Pontic wallnuts.

The reasons for the lack of significant use of firearms in Byzantine history derive from the simlple fact of chronological coincidence of events: by the mid-14th century, the Empire was a sorry shadow of its glorious past, unable to keep up with new trends of technology due the lack of funds. Ironically, for an Empire that had always managed to adapt with the new political and fiscal realities of each period of its history, time and lack of funds did not allow Constantinople to fully utilise the lethal potential of gunpowder. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Published Articles

Two articles of interest in Medieval Warfare Magazine:
1) On the Catalan Company:

2) On the Siege of Bari:

Enjoy and don't forget to subscibe to the magazine..awesome work...

Friday, April 6, 2012


The term "Cataphract" was not exclusive to the Byzantines. Derived from the Greek "κατάφρακτοι" meaning "fully enclosed", the adjective was used to describe the heavily armoured cavalry of most armies in Anatolia and the Near East. The common feature of all was the fact that both rider and horse were covered and protected by scale armour, exposing the least possible amount of their bodies. In general, the role of the cataphract unit was to charge and smash into enemy lines taking advantage of the sheer mass and armour that would have inevitably instilled terror into the hearts of the defending infantry.      

The Byzantine cataphract originated from the late Roman heavy cavalry units which contained a significant amount of cataphracti covered in scale armour, carrying a long, heavy lance called a kontus with some also carrying a bow, possibly copying eastern examples of a more maneuverable cavalry. The first known cataphract  units in the Roman Army was the ala I Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractata which appeared in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD) but whose record and equipment vanished into the mist of historical obscurity. It has been calculated that by the late fourth/early fifth century heavy armoured cavalry made up approximately 15 per cent of the comitatenses or field army, in comparison with lancers and other heavy cavalry (61 per cent) and light cavalry (24 per cent). During the same period, the Notitia Dignitatum, a Roman document recording the administrative organisation of both western and eastern empires mentions 9 units of catafractarii. Parallel to these units there was also the mention of unit of clibanarii. These derived their name from  the Greek word "κλίβανος" meaning furnace, obvioulsy alluding to the heavy armour that effectively covered the soldier in his entirety.

Despite the presence of cataphract units throughout the early period of Byzantine hegemony, their actual period of glory was to coincide with the Byzantine military renaissance of the tenth century. By that time, the cavalry was divided into three arms: the archers, koursores and kataphraktoi. The archers were lighly armed and protected, being therefore the most maneuverable and agile of the cavalry units whereas the koursores were medium troops with the most flexible and far-ranging role, expected to engage in hand-to-hand combat but against other medium/light cavalry and small groups of infantry. The cataphract uit though was destined to fight against the hardest and most critical targets. A vast amount of information concerning the equipment and battle tactics of the cataphract units of the tenth century derives from the Praecepta Militaria written by the Emperor Nikephoros Phocas around 965 AD. The treatise's full Greek title is : "Στρατηγικὴ ἔκθεσις καὶ σύνταξις Νικηφόρου δεσπότου ". It's third chapter deals exclusively  with the cataphract unit.

The armour of the 10th century cataphract seems complex with layer upon layer of scale or mail protecting every apendage of the soldier. Timothy Dawson's illustrious book on the Byzantine Cavalryman of c.900-1204 vividly depicts the details of each layer of armour. In summary, each layer was as follows: the peristhethidion, a padded jacket with short sleeves, the podopsella or greaves, the kremasmata, a pair of padded skirts faced with mail, scales or inverted lamellae. Then came the klivanion, which protected the upper part of the body (chest,stomach, etc). The klivanion was followed by the manikellia or upper sleaves protecting the shoulders. Finally the metal armour would be complete with the addition of the helmet. A mail skirt would hang from the helm covering all the face apart from the eyes. all the body armour was enclosed in an epilorikion, a padded surcoat probably made of cotton wadding in a raw silk cover 'as thick as may be stitched'. Finally the horse would be equipped with an iron headpiece and its chest and neck protected by klivania of ox-hide lamellar, or coverings of laminated felt.

A cataphract reconstruction created by Timothy Dawson
Reconstructing a cataphract by Timothy Dawson

Representation of the lamellar uniform of the cataphracts, taken from a 14th century manuscript

The defensive weapon of the cavalry was originally the round shield "skoutaria" being either domed or conical with a 90 cm diameter. By the 12th century with Western influences permeating Byzantine weapons the kite shield was also adopted. As aggresive weapons, the cataphract would use a relatively short lance (2.5m), two types of sword-the straight, double-edged "spathion" and the slighly curved, single-edged "paramerion" and finally a variety of maces :"sideroravdion" or "spathoravdion".

Battle tactics
The main function of the cataprhact unit was not to battle against enemy cavalry units but to use their heavy armour and sheer mass to smash into infantry formations. Hence during battle the general would have the cataphracts wait until the right moment to charge into enemy infantry formations rose up. Once deployed they would form in a blunt wedge formation twelve ranks deep, as the one described by Nikephoros Phocas. According to the latter, the first four lines were armed with maces while the rest alternating swords and spears. The number of these heavy cavalry was restricted according to Phocas to a mere 500 individuals for the whole of the army.

Finally, the resurgence of the cataphract units during the early 10 century coincides with the transformation of the Byzantine defensive strategy of the previous two centuries to a more expansive and aggressive outlook that would focus on reclaiming the lost territories in the Balkans and the East.

REFERENCES: Two books were used for this post, the mostly general book by John Haldon "Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204" (UCL Press, 1999) that links a whole array of political, social, cultural and religious aspects to the development of the Byzantine military and Timothy Dawson's Osprey publication booklet on the Byzantine cavalry (900-1204) that contains a great amount of vivid descriptions and informative illustrations.