Byzantium, the Underappreciated Empire II: The Byzantine Soldier

by northernbeholder

Before getting in to Byzantium’s use of its soldiers, we must first understand what those soldiers were.  A large factor in the Byzantine unwillingness to engage was the very value of the men it relied upon for its protection.

Byzantium maintained a professional standing army, like its Roman predecessor.  Unlike the typical Roman soldier, however, who served as heavy infantry, the Byzantine trooper was more often than not on horse.  Lavishly equipped with a heavy coat of chainmail, steel helm, shield, sword and lance, on a well-bred horse with its own leather head and chestguards, you could almost – if you squinted a bit – mistake the Byzantine soldier for a typical European knight of the early medieval era.

Right up until the Byzantine horseman whipped out his bow.

The Byzantine cavalry was not only trained in formation charges with lance and sword, but also expected to be thoroughly proficient with the use of the composite bow from horseback. They were drilled relentlessly in order to reproduce through training the same level of competence displayed by the nomadic steppe peoples (Huns, Avars, Mongols, et cetera) in horse archery, including the famous ‘Parthian Shot’ (so named because of Roman sources identifying the Parthians of modern-day Iran as the first to use it) which involved twisting in the saddle to fire backwards, accurately, while riding at full gallop.

The Byzantine soldier was also expected to show the same level of martial prowess on foot with sword, lance and bow, again while fighting and maneuvering in perfect formation.  He was also not at all exempt from the Roman legionaries’ burden of engineering work; Byzantine military camps were just as elaborate as those of the Romans, because they were Roman camps, right down to being constructed by the same men who would sleep in them.

With so many skills to master, it no longer seems surprising to learn that Byzantine boot camp tended to last an entire year before officers would deign to consider allowing recruits into action.  The results, however, speak for themselves:  Under the reign of Justinian I (527-565 AD) and the leadership of Belisarius, Byzantine armies re-took Italy, the North African coast, and southeastern Spain from the various Goth and Vandal tribes that had overrun the formerly Roman areas, while also maintaining the northern borders against raiding steppe peoples and the eastern fortifications (which stretched from Egypt through the Levant and Syria to the Caucasus) against Arab incursions and the looming threat of the Sassanid Persian Empire.

“But Beholder,” I hear you ask, “Didn’t you say the Byzantines didn’t use their soldiers? What’s up with this world conquest malarky?”

The reign of Justinian I was the Byzantine Empire at its height, which bodes poorly if you remember that they have 650-ish years to go.  The campaign to re-take what had once been the Western Roman Empire came to a premature halt when a plague swept through the East, which at the time mostly meant “Byzantium”.  The resulting devastating loss of manpower and disruption of the economy and trade networks meant that large overseas campaigns could no longer be supported, and the armies made their slow and reluctant withdrawal from the west (although they would cling tenaciously to southern Italy for some time, thanks to its proximity to Greece).  Then, in the 7th century, with everything on the mend, Byzantium engaged in one last, apocalyptic war with Sassanid Persia.  The Sassanids, successors to the Parthians, had been a thorn in first Rome and then Byzantium’s side for over four hundred years. They maintained an empire that stretched from modern-day Iraq and Iran in the west to the fringes of modern India in the east, and were the only other settled state in Byzantium’s vicinity.  The final war between the two powers ran from 602-628 AD and although it ultimately resulted in a Byzantine victory, utterly exhausted both states.

Then the Muslims came.

The disparate and feuding tribes of the Arabic Peninsula, given unity by the Koran, stormed forth upon the weakened empires in an irresistable tide.  The Sassanids were overwhelmed entirely by 651.  Byzantium was driven to the brink – at one point, thanks to an ill-timed Slavic invasion in the west, the Byzantine Empire literally extended no further than the walls of Constantinople itself – but ultimately prevailed, pushing back the over-extended Arab armies and reclaiming all of Anatolia (modern Turkey).  However, Syria, the Levant and Egypt, the richest parts of the Empire, were lost and beyond the weakened empire’s power to reclaim.

Coming into the 8th century, then, is a Byzantium that has lost its richest lands, and has a population that has been ravaged by a plague and two back-to-back apocalyptic wars. All hopes of re-conquering the West have been lost, and from now on, it will be a struggle merely to survive.  The Byzantine soldier has gone from a renewable resource to an endangered species.  Byzantium can no longer afford to maintain overwhelmingly large standing armies, so its men are often outnumbered.  It cannot suffer losses, because replacements take a year to train, and the rulers of Byzantium refuse to supply arms and basic training for local militias (who could then be fully trained later in a shorter time period) out of a crippling fear of armed revolt.  The Empire finds itself in a hideous catch-22:  The Byzantine soldier is so highly skilled, he is literally too valuable to risk losing in a fight.

Byzantium’s need to preserve its soldiers will lead to the development of a novel series of strategies and tactics, which in turn will leave the medieval kingdoms of western Europe deeply unimpressed during their co-operation (barely) in the First Crusade.  Next time, we will look at how the Byzantines didn’t fight, and the culture clash this caused with the knights of western Europe.