Byzantine army

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The Byzantine Army represented the bulk of the armed forces of the Byzantine Empire and was one of the two branches of the armed forces , the other being the Byzantine Navy . It was in the tradition of the Roman army and, due to the character of the empire as a continuation of the Roman empire, was strictly identical in nature to it. The military virtues of Rome, such as discipline and efficient organization, were widely honored by the Byzantine army and made it one of the most effective armed forces in Europe and Asia for much of its existence.


The Byzantine land forces were a continuation of the armies of Rome , which necessarily results from the fact that the Byzantine Empire was the surviving part of the Roman Empire. Correspondingly, the Eastern Roman army developed from the armies of the late Roman period and adapted over the centuries to the ever changing conditions of warfare as well as to the ever new enemies who ran against the imperial borders. Judging by the fact that Byzantium was at war almost constantly throughout its history, its army proved to be an astonishingly efficient armed force, at least until the disaster of the Fourth Crusade , which, despite its rather modest size, was through professionalism, discipline and clever tactics, but also through the use of diplomacy and statecraft was generally able to protect the empire well and also did well on the offensive. In the late period, on the other hand, the inner cohesion of the empire and its financial basis were shaken to such an extent that Byzantium could hardly defend itself on its own and could only offer tentative resistance until it was finally smashed by the rising Ottomans .

Foreign soldiers and mercenaries

Gold coin from Emperor Basil II , founder of the Varangian Guard

During the 1123 years of its history from the inauguration of Constantinople on May 11, 330 to the fall of the city on May 29, 1453, the imperial army used soldiers and troops of various origins. Often these soldiers supported the regular army units, sometimes they represented the main part of the armed forces. In good days the foreign fighters testified to the size and wealth of the empire, whose emperor could rally warriors from all parts of the world around his banner, in bad times however, they illustrated the creeping decline of the empire.

Foreign troops were in the late Roman era as foederati (Latin for "allies") known and maintained this designation in the eastern part of the empire to about the 9th century in gräzisierter form (Φοιδεράτοι or phoideratoi ), with the character of these units but since the 6 Century had greatly removed from its origins.

The foreign mercenaries were later called Hetaireiai (Εταιρείαι, companions ), and many of them found employment in the Imperial Guard. This was divided into the Great Companions (Μεγάλη Εταιρεία / Megale Hetaireia), the Middle Companions (Μέση Εταιρεία / Mese Hetaireia) and the little fellow (Μικρά Εταιρεία / Mikra Hetaireia), commanded by the corresponding Hetaireiarches . The division may have had religious reasons, e.g. B. could have been differentiated into Christian subjects, Christian strangers and non-Christian strangers.

In the time of the Comnenian dynasty , mercenary units could simply be classified and named according to their ethnicity, e.g. B. Inglinoi (English), Phragkoi (Franks), Scythikoi ( Scythians ), Latinkoi (Latins) etc. Even Ethiopians served in the army under Emperor Theophilos . Some mercenary troops, especially the Scythikoi, were often used as police forces, mainly in Constantinople itself.

The most famous Byzantine army unit was undoubtedly the Varangian Guard . It goes back to an army of 6,000 Russian or Warsaw mercenaries, which the Grand Duke Vladimir sent in 988 to the beleaguered young Emperor Basil II to help in the civil war . The convincing fighting power of the ax-wielding barbarian Northmen and their loyalty secured by high pay let them rise to the established elite troop, which soon took the rank of imperial bodyguard . This is illustrated by the rank of their commander, who carried the title Akolouthos (Ακόλουθος, henchman of the emperor). Originally the guards were mainly Varangians , but later many Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons also served in it. The guard stood out u. a. In 1122 in the battle of Beroia and in 1167 in the battle of Sirmium , in the latter the Hungarian army was completely dispersed. Presumably it was disbanded after the disaster of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, but it is said that the Guard was one of the few units that were able to successfully hold part of Constantinople against the conquerors.

The armies of the late antique-early Byzantine period

Just as the Byzantine Empire (Βασιλεία Ρωμαίων / Basileia Romaion ) was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire , its army also developed from the late Roman army : during the Principate, the imperial army consisted of around thirty legions stationed along the borders , plus the corresponding contingents of auxiliary troops ( auxilia ). Remnants of this old system persisted into the 7th century, but profound changes took place around 300 with the beginning of late antiquity . At that time, structures emerged that shaped the (Eastern) Roman army for the next three centuries.

The army reforms under Diocletian and Constantine

The origins of the eastern part of the empire go back to the system of tetrarchy (seldom also called Quadrumvirat ), which was introduced under Emperor Diocletian in 293. This system was short-lived, as rivalries between rulers erupted in continued civil wars after Diocletian's resignation in 305; but the underlying principle of multiple empire persisted in late Roman and Byzantine statecraft for a long time.

The reorganization of the Roman army carried out by Diocletian and, after him, Constantine the Great, lasted longer. In doing so, approaches from the time of the soldier emperors were used. The army was now systematically divided into two large parts: the limitanei (border troops) and the comitatenses (field troops, elite units). The cavalry was greatly upgraded, although the infantry continued to form a large part of the armed forces. This is illustrated by an army that Julian led into the field near Strasbourg in 357 and that allegedly consisted of 3,000 horsemen and 10,000 foot soldiers. The designation “Legion” for large infantry units was retained, and the tradition of the imperial troops was continued, but a legion was only 1,000 men strong instead of 5,000 to 6,000 as before. The importance of the cavalry for warfare grew more and more, especially when the mobility of the troops had to be increased after the beginning of the Great Migration in 375, and by the time of Justinian their share in the total strength had also increased. At the same time, this meant that the individual armies now only exceptionally comprised more than 30,000 men, since the supply of mounted units is always much more expensive than with foot soldiers. The introduction of the stirrup at the end of the 6th century, by the horsemen of the Avars to Europe was brought, and the breeding of more powerful horses races in Persia at the same time, favored the rise of heavily armed armored cavalry to the main weapon of the army.

The limitanei were stationed near the borders and occupied the forts on the ( Limes ), if any. Their task was to fend off minor threats and to hold back the advance of strong enemy formations until the troops of the field or mobile army, which were usually in the rear, could advance and destroy them. The border troops were generally poorly equipped and poorly paid, while the well-trained soldiers of the mobile army enjoyed many privileges. The differences between limitanei and comitatenses, however, are likely to have been smaller than earlier research assumed.

The cavalry made up about a third of the late Roman units, but since the strength of cavalry units was always less than that of comparable infantry units, the actual number of cavalrymen only made up about a quarter of the soldiers; but they caused by far the greatest cost. About half of the riders were assigned to the heavy cavalry, which operated under different names, u. a. scutarii , promoti and stablesiani . Their armament mostly consisted of a spear or lance, plus a sword, and they were usually armored with chain mail. Some had bows, not for independent long-range attacks, but to aid the attack. In the field armies there were also the cataphracti or clibanarii (see above), heavy cavalry capable of shock attack, which made up about 15% of the riders. There were also mounted archers ( equites sagittarii ) and several types of light cavalry. Light infantry was particularly common among the limitanei , who had to do a lot of patrol duty. The infantry of the comitatenses resembled the traditional heavy legion infantry, armed with spears and swords and wearing chain mail, shields and helmets. However, they were no longer organized in the previous large units of the legions , but in smaller units of 1,000 to 1,200 men who had different names ( legio , auxilia or just numerus ). Each of these units was supported by associated departments of archers and skirmishers. If necessary, the heavy infantry could get rid of part of their armor, as happened according to Zosimos during the Gothic War in the 370s. Each comitatenses - Regiment was from a tribunus commanded and how comparable cavalry units also, with another a kind Brigade summarized by a comes was commanded. These brigades were presumably only tactical and strategic units, nothing has been handed down of an assigned staff. At the head of the individual army groups was a magister militum who was only subordinate to the emperor. Unlike in the west, the emperors in the east usually succeeded in keeping these powerful generals under control, because while there had been a supreme army master in Westrom since Stilicho who could give orders to the rest of the population and thus easily rise to the de facto ruler, such a facility was lacking in east current.

Little is known of the limitanei, however, because, unlike the field army, they received little attention in literary sources. The old legions, cohorts and alae of the cavalry were assigned to them, while at the same time new units were created (new legions, auxilia and vexillationes in the cavalry). Presumably the limitanei infantry was less heavily armed than the foot troops of the mobile army, but there is no conclusive evidence of this. They were usually paid less than the comitatenses and recruited close to the location, so they were probably of lower quality. On the other hand, they were constantly in the border area and thus at the enemy, which gave them more opportunity to gain combat experience, at least in terms of constant guerrilla warfare. On organized campaigns, during sieges and in major battles, this experience was probably less valuable; these tasks were largely reserved for the mobile army. It is noteworthy, however, that limitanei could also be integrated into the field army.

The imperial bodyguards of this time were known under the name Scholae , more precisely Schola Protectores Domestici or also as Obsequium (Latin for "obedience, allegiance"). They formed the personal bodyguard of the emperor and replaced the Praetorians dissolved by Constantine the Great in 312 . After this guard had become a pure parade troop, Emperor Leo I created the new unit of excubitores to replace it around 460 .

The legions of the late fourth century had little in common with those of earlier times, only the tradition of the units and the names remained. After the defeat of Adrianople in 378, the armor of the infantry was lighter again in order to increase mobility. From the 5th century onwards, the legions consisted to a not inconsiderable part, often entirely, of mounted troops and were much smaller than the traditional legion of earlier times. As already mentioned, their strength was usually around 1,000 men; the trace of the traditional legions of the imperial era, whose tradition they continued, is then finally lost around the year 600.

The army of Justinian and his successors

Even after the Western Roman army had effectively disbanded around 470, the tried and tested late antique army organization was retained in the east for about 150 years. In the late 5th century there were several revolts that tied up the military resources of the empire. Ostrom was therefore also anxious to keep his external enemies calm with monetary payments (which are not always, but often to be understood as tributes ). Unlike Westrom , East or Byzantium survived the turmoil of the 5th century surprisingly well, although it was of some importance that the great enemy of East, the New Persian Sassanid Empire (see Roman-Persian Wars ), mostly kept quiet between 387 and 502. In 468 they were strong enough to carry out a major campaign against the Vandal Empire, which, however, failed catastrophically.

During the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565), the Eastern Roman field army was further subdivided into smaller, but professional and well-equipped troops around 550 while retaining the older basic structures. In contrast to earlier times, the units of the foederati were no longer made up exclusively of barbarians from a tribal association, but included both barbarian volunteers and Roman soldiers. The army essentially consisted of mercenaries from all over the world, as usual it was divided into frontier and field troops; But there were also levies, and any attempt to evade military service incurred severe penalties. In principle, the soldier profession was now (like many others) hereditary. The border troops were dominated by numbers of 200 to 400 men, commanded by a tribunus ; they were scattered across the provinces and present in every city. The units of the field army consisted mainly of cavalrymen, mostly light foederati cavalry mixed with heavy cataphracti . After the experience with the Huns and Sassanids, mounted archers, equites sagittarii or hippo-toxotai , were increasingly used in the Eastern Roman army and apparently proved themselves very well in the campaigns in Africa and Italy.
A central component of the army under Justinian was the concept of the movable comitatus in contrast to the border troops. The generals also raised troops on their own account, which were then also loyal to them, which is why powerful generals were automatically viewed by the emperor as a threat - Belisarius in particular fell victim to this mistrust on the part of Justinian. Every general traditionally had a personal bodyguard, the bucellarii , which corresponded to the Praetorians of the ancient Roman generals, but sometimes mutinied as mercenaries.

Justinian's generals were able to retake North Africa, Italy and southern Spain as long as there was peace on the Persian border. New magistri militum were appointed for these territories ; the command of the master of the Orient was divided and a separate magister militum per Armeniam was set up. There were now a total of eight regular army masters (as well as a few other magistri militum vacantes without their own army group). The number of limitanei at the Persian border was increased. However, the army proved to be too weak to defend the vast borders as soon as peace in the Orient was no longer guaranteed, and so Italy was largely lost to the Lombards soon after Justinian's death from 568 onwards .

The imperial infantry was still not insignificant, but the cavalry now dominated the action, not least because the main opponent of Eastern Rome was the Sassanid Empire , whose armies traditionally included strong cavalry formations. The seemingly endless war on the Persian border was mainly fought to protect strong belts of fortifications, guerrilla warfare and ambushes were the order of the day on both sides, but major field battles also took place. The professional soldiers were highly trained and favored advanced tactics in larger engagements. Like the Sassanids, the Eastern Roman cavalry had a hard time with the cavalry of the steppe nomads and copied some of their tactics, they knew the pretended retreat and placed great value on well-trained mounted archers. According to many modern researchers, about 300,000 men served in Justinian's army - as many as centuries before under Augustus. Over time, however, it became increasingly impossible to protect the empire, which was threatened on many fronts, with this army, and with the constant pressure on the Persian border, the Balkans in particular slipped more and more from the control of the empire. Justinian's army was still fully committed to the principles of the Diocletian-Constantinian order; but his successors found themselves increasingly compelled to carry out more far-reaching military reforms. As a result of this, the Eastern Roman army gradually lost its late antique character. It is noteworthy, however, that, as Theophylactus Simokates testifies, in the army the Latin language was still used in the 590s - even on the Persian front, Eastern Roman generals like Priskos still gave Latin speeches to the troops at that time (Th. Sim. 6,7 , 9).

Emperor Maurikios (582–602) was able to show perspectives for the future of the army and to stabilize the foreign policy situation in the short term with the Strategikon written under his rule (and allegedly by himself) . However, his fall delayed the implementation of the Strategikon , while the empire sank into chaos and anarchy. The local military governors in the west, the exarchs of Italy and Africa (the exarchates had been set up around 585), could not do much against the enemy, their troops were just strong enough for the defensive, but usually overwhelmed with an organized opponent. North Africa, with its wide plains, was relatively easy to control by the Eastern Roman cavalry; in densely populated Italy the situation was completely different. Local patricii tried here to keep the land under control from selected garrison towns; they had their seats in Rome , Naples and Rimini (a dux was in command here), but proved too weak to stop the Lombards, since Constantinople could hardly send troops. A fifth patrician controlled Sicily, which was relatively safe because of its island location. The cities of Italy also had local militias, and with the waning of imperial control they soon found themselves increasingly on their own two feet, especially Rome under the rule of the Pope .

With the simultaneous incursion of the Slavs , Avars, and Sassanids in the early 7th century, the Eastern Roman Empire was pushed to the brink of ruin and only the triple walls of Constantinople saved it from the worst. Through several campaigns in the enemy hinterland, Emperor Herakleios (610-641) was able to repel the Avars, force the Sassanid Persians to form an alliance with the Turks , and restore the status quo ante 628/30, although the two traditionally rival empires had exhausted themselves in this way that the Arabs advancing from 632 onwards had an easy time of it (see Islamic expansion ). At the same time, the Balkans fell victim to the advancing Slavs and Bulgarians , and East and Byzantium owed its survival to its toughness and the strength of the walls of the capital. The imperial armed forces succeeded in defending the strongly developed Danube line for some time. In the west, however, in the area of ​​today's Serbia and Bosnia, there was a gaping hole through which the Slavs flowed unhindered and gradually gained a foothold in the entire Balkans, so that the maintenance of the Danube defense finally became pointless.

With the loss of Egypt and Syria as well as a large part of the Balkans, the late antique-early Byzantine period ended, and the army that Diocletian and Constantine had created ended with it. Because Byzantium could no longer fall back on the resources of these richest of its provinces and now had to fight for bare survival. The defeated armies withdrew to Asia Minor and were reorganized, the office of magister militum disappeared, and Latin was also replaced as the language of command by Greek.

Armies of the Middle Byzantine period

The topic order

Main article: Subject (Byzantine administration)
The subjects in the 750s

With the Arab conquest , Byzantium was confronted with a completely new challenge; the loss of the Syrian and Egyptian provinces meant a considerable cut in financial strength and recruitment potential. However, the implementation of the reforms proposed in the Strategikon by Herakleios and his successors were able to arm Byzantium for the challenges of the Arab threat. Above all, the introduction of conscription was a measure of great importance that made a decisive contribution to stabilization. The army was strong enough to reasonably defend Asia Minor against the overpowering enemy, and with the help of the Greek fire the navy succeeded in time to stop the constant attacks from the sea. Even if Byzantine Asia Minor could be held by the army, that did not mean that the land was actually safe - the passes over the Taurus Mountains were in Arab hands and allowed for the annual invasion of hostile armies less eager to conquer than to loot. The imperial army was nowhere near strong enough to place these opponents in open battle, and a network of fortifications and local militias was relied on to restrict their freedom of movement and make it difficult to capture. From this tactic, too, the new army and administrative order of the topics arose .

The introduction of the subject order was often attributed to Emperor Herakleios in older research , but the exact point in time is uncertain and current research assumes a later point in time. The topics (θέματα) replaced the previous provinces and were administered by a strategist ( στρατηγός ) who had both military and civil authority. This system had already been used at times in late antiquity (see Exarchate ), but was now extended to the whole empire. The five original themes were all in Asia Minor and were created mainly to counter the attacks of the Arabs, who by then had already subjugated Syria and Egypt and who regularly invaded the empire's Asian minorities. It is very likely that they were initially the retreat areas of the defeated armies of the masters of the Orient (Greek Anatolé ), Armenia and Thrace as well as the guards ( obsequium ) and the fleet. The office of magister militum now disappeared, and the troops once commanded by the army masters probably took over the protection of the respective areas of Asia Minor. This system, born out of necessity, was put into order in the period that followed. Within each topic, able-bodied men were allocated land with the income from which they could feed their families and pay for their equipment (πρόνοια).

The five original topics in detail were:

  • Armeniakón (Αρμενιακόν), built around the former army of the magister militum per Armeniam and established under Justinian II at the latest. It comprised eastern Anatolia from Cappadocia to the Black Sea and the Euphrates .
  • Anatolikon (Ανατολικόν), created from the former army of the magister militum per Orientem . It included the Byzantine possessions in central and southeastern Anatolia.
  • Thracesian Theme (Θρακήσιον) to the former army of the magister militum per Thracias built. It comprised southwest Asia Minor around Ionia .
  • Opsikion (Οψίκιον), built around the obsequium , previously a comitatenses army to accompany the emperor. It included Bithynia and Paphlagonia .
  • Karabisiánon (Καραβησιάνων), the so-called sea theme or ship theme , which was entrusted with the maintenance of the fleet and the defense against Arab attacks. It was in Pamphylia and Rhodes .

The soldiers of the first four subjects served in the army, while the fifth subject Karabisianon made his men available to the fleet . The construction of warships was subsidized by the imperial treasury because of the high costs involved. Soon after the introduction of the thematic order in the east, the new system was extended to the western parts of the empire.

Subject division around 950

As a result of uprisings by renegade strategists, which were favored by the large expansion of the topics, the original five topics were broken down into smaller and smaller areas under the rule of Leon the Isaur , Theophilus and Leon the Wise and command over the units stationed in the topics was divided under different turmai . The emperors of the Macedonian dynasty continued this system, creating new themes rather than enlarging old ones in recaptured areas. At the time De Thematibus was created in the 10th century, Emperor Konstantin Porphyrogennetus had at least 28 themes.

Sicily had been completely conquered by the advancing Saracens in 905 at the beginning of the reign of Constantine VII , Cyprus was administered in a condominium with the Abbasid Caliphate , an amazingly civilized solution for the time until it was recaptured by Nikephoros Phocas in 965. Constantinople itself was under the authority of a eparchen , whose official title in the old days was praefectus urbi (city prefect), and the city was also protected by the imperial tagmata and various police forces.

Under the leadership of the local strategoi , the turmachai commanded two to four detachments of soldiers, called turmai , with the associated land. Among them were the drungaroi with subdivisions that bore the name droungoi , each about 1,000 strong. In the field, these units were further subdivided into so-called banda with a nominal strength of 300 men, but sometimes they also included much fewer men (up to 50). The purpose of these numerous subdivisions was again to make revolts more difficult within the military.

In terms of quality, the thematic units, which were mostly only deployed locally and consisted of semi-professional fighters, were inferior to the imperial elite regiments, both in terms of training and equipment. Their strength lay in their large number and their rapid availability and replaceability, so that threats could be countered quickly. In the event of a defeat, losses were easier to compensate, and the thematic units also had the advantage of local knowledge. The system worked particularly well against the recurring Arab and other raids, which were severely restricted in their freedom of movement by the large number of local militia units and which had to constantly expect to be cut off.

On the offensive, the thematic arrangement was not so successful, as the fortified farmers then had to abandon their farms and thus their livelihoods, which gave local landowners the opportunity to buy up fallow farms - the creeping decline that was bad for the Roman Republic a thousand years earlier was repeated. Byzantine field armies of this time consisted largely of grouped thematic units, reinforced by the Tagmata as the backbone and imperial bodyguard, and were able to develop considerable clout. This is especially true for the phase of the Byzantine Reconquista in the 10th and 11th centuries against disorganized Arab states, but the empire was dangerously overstretched and the catastrophe of the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was only made possible.

The following table shows the topic structure using the example of the topic Thracesian Theme , about 902 to 936.

Surname Subordinate soldiers Subordinate units Commanding officer
Themes 9,600 4 Merẽ Strategos
Turma, Meros 2,400 6 Drungi Towerch
Drungus 400 2 Banda Drungarios
Bandum 200 2 "Centuria" Comes
" Centurie " 100 10 "Contubernia" Hecatontarch
50 5 "Contubernia" Pentekontarch
" Contubernium " 10 1 "Vanguard" * + 1 "Rear Guard" * Dekarch
"Vanguard"* 5 n / A Pentarch
"Rearguard" * 4th n / A Tetrarch
  • Note: The terms are Latinized and the terms in quotation marks are transcriptions from the Roman legionary system or * direct translations.

The thematic system went through a creeping decline throughout the Middle Byzantine period, which was mainly triggered by increasing feudalization tendencies within the empire. Ambitious local large landowners, especially in border areas far from imperial control, took advantage of their power and began to expand their holdings at the expense of the military farmers, which in the long term weakened the armed forces. The regiments of free military farmers loyal to the emperor were replaced by more and more units made up of men who were dependent on the large landowners, and to an increasing extent mercenaries. To the same extent, the imperial central administration was replaced by local structures, which in turn weakened the control of Constantinople over large parts of the empire, and the latifundia owners were soon able to take on the emperor himself, which repeatedly provoked revolts and civil wars. Despite many attempts by the imperial central authority to counteract this tendency, it intensified more and more until the subject system was no longer subject to any ground. After the catastrophic defeat of Manzikert and the associated extensive loss of Asia Minor, the system of themes could no longer be maintained; in its place came the Pronoia system and the more centralized army of the Comnen period, in which feudalization spread even more widely in the realms to find its climax in exile after 1204.

The Imperial Tagmata

Main article: Tagma (unity)

The tagmata (τάγματα, "brigades") were the standing army of the empire and were usually stationed in or around Constantinople, in later times they sent detachments to the imperial borders. The remnants of Diocletian's army system became with the introduction of the thematic order to the first Tagmata, around the same time some of the Tagmata were transformed into social clubs for influential aristocrats in the capital, others were devoted to police or fire-fighting duties in Constantinople. For example, Justinian alleges that he took the joke of adding one of these units, the Scholae , to the list of active units for fun - and thus caused panic among the members of the upper class serving in it who had no desire after a real campaign, but preferred the security of Constantinople.

After the first uprisings of thematic units, the emperors quickly learned to appreciate the value of a loyal and professional core army, and the Tagmata were subordinated to their own authority and converted into elite units, they lasted until the end of the empire.

The four most famous Tagmata, in order of reputation, were:

  • Scholae (Σχολαί), “die Schuler”, the direct successors of the Imperial Bodyguard founded by Constantine
  • Excubiti or Excubitores (Εξκούβιτοι), "the guards", set up by Emperor Leo I.
  • Arithmos (Αριθμός), the "numbers", also called Vigla (Βίγλα), "the guard", probably founded in the late 5th or early 6th century
  • Hikanatoi (Ικανάτοι), "the able ones", established by Emperor Nikephorus II Phocas

All these guard regiments were cavalry units, each 1000 to 6000 men strong, a strength of 4000 may be taken as the standard. The Numeroi (Νούμεροι), “the bath house boys” (so called because of their stationing in the city), the Optimatoi (Οπτιμάτοι), “the best”, and the tagma ton Teikhon (Τειχών), “those of the walls”, were infantry -Tagma. The Vigla and the Numeroi provided regular police services in Constantinople, while the tagma ton Teikhon, as the name suggests, manned the Theodosian wall and was generally responsible for the defense of the capital.

These more or less long-lived and stable units were joined by a few with a shorter lifespan, often personal body regiments of various emperors. Michael II set up the Tessarakontarioi , a special marine infantry unit , and John I Tzimiskes created the Athanatoi (Αθάνατοι), "the immortals", whose name was undoubtedly inspired by the bodyguard of the Persian great king of classical antiquity.

The Tagmata regiments were commanded by a domestikos , with a topoteretes as deputy, except for the Vigla, which was commanded by a drungarios . The Domestikos ton Scholon , commander of the Scholae regiment, gained in importance over time until he was the highest-ranking officer at the end of the 10th century.

Besides the main purpose of suppressing potential rebellions, the Tagmata had other tasks. They were more mobile than the local themed units and formed the backbone of the army on larger undertakings. Like the thematic troops, the Tagmata soldiers mostly financed themselves from the land they had allocated. However, it was common practice for them to lease the corresponding piece of land so that they were not so dependent on what made them more agile than the local militia troops, who also defended their property and could not leave it alone.

The following table shows the internal structure of the Tagma Regiment Scholae for the period between 902 and 936.

Thematic equivalent Surname Subordinate soldiers Subordinate units Commanding officer
Themes Tagmata 4,000 2 Merẽ Domestikos
Turma, Meros - no information - 2,000 2 Drungi Topoteretae
Drungus Drungus 1,000 5 Banda Drungarios
Bandum Bandum 200 2 "Centuria" Comes
" Centurie " 100 10 "Contubernia" Hecatontarch
" Contubernium " 10 1 "Vanguard" * + 1 "Rear Guard" * Dekarch
"Vanguard"* 5 - no information - Pentarch
"Rearguard" * 4th - no information - Tetrarch
  • Note: At the Banda level, thematic and tagma units followed the same hierarchy, with the exception of the pentecontarches. Terms in quotation marks are translations from the Roman legion system or * direct translations.

Troop types

Kataphraktoi and Klibanophoroi

The word Kataphrakt (from the Greek κατάφρακτος, kataphraktos ) denoted heavy cavalry among the Greeks and later also among the Latin- speaking peoples. The original Kataphrakt was a heavily armed and armored cavalryman and was used and continuously developed from the days of Classical Antiquity to the High Middle Ages .

Initially the name referred only to the heavy tank for horse and rider, later it referred to the warrior himself. The Romans already used this type of weapon, especially on the border with Persia with its armies consisting mainly of cavalry. Little should change in this until the Arab conquest. The cataphracts had a reputation for being strong and disciplined and formed the backbone of the cavalry, often of the entire army , from the end of the Great Migration to the end of the Macedonian dynasty . With the introduction of the stirrup after the Great Migration, the character of the Kataphraktoi changed, and they now also had the ability to shock attack. Both horse and rider wore heavy armor protection and the riders were armed with bows, lances, clubs and swords. The armor typical of the heavy riders was often the Klibanion , and the horse armor pads were made of a similar material. Compared to the light cavalry, their speed was rather slow, but successful attacks were devastating, especially under the leadership of the general and later emperor Nikephoros Phokas .

Heavily armored riders were called klibanophoroi . These appeared for the first time in the early days of the empire and were reorganized as an elite troop from the Middle Byzantine period. Their mere presence on the battlefield decided many a battle in advance. Only very disciplined and well-managed infantry could withstand a massed attack by the Klibanophoroi. However, the cost factor for these highly armed and professional warriors was substantial.


Formation of the armies in the battle of Dara (530), where Belisarius also deployed various foreign troops, u. a. Huns .

The Byzantine cavalry had a reputation for being a disciplined and battle-tested force. As a rule they were armed with bows, lances and swords and were well suited for use in the steppes of Anatolia and northern Syria , where a large part of the campaigns had taken place since the Arab conquest . Most of them were not as heavily armed and armored as the Western knights and did not develop as much class consciousness, but were effective against the troops of the Arabs and Turkic peoples in the east and the Hungarians and Pechenegs in the west. Like these neighbors, Byzantium maintained detachments of mounted archers and always employed mercenaries who brought such skills with them, especially Turks , Huns and Pechenegs should be emphasized here.


The empire's military tradition dates back to the late Roman period and its infantry always included professional soldiers . The importance of the foot troops fluctuated during the history of the empire, under Basil II . B. Heavy infantry was an important part of the army. These troops were usually protected with chain mail or klibanion , wore teardrop-shaped Norman shields and were armed with swords, lances and axes. Under militarily competent emperors such as Basil II, Nikephoros Phokas or Johannes Tsimiskes , it was one of the best foot troops of that time. In the course of the history of the empire, however, the quality of the foot troops continued to decline, especially since most of the military resources were used to maintain the heavy cavalry.


The archers of Byzantium based themselves on the models of their eastern opponents, who often relied heavily on bows. Like these, they had access to the superior composite bow that made the Byzantine archers dangerous opponents. There were various forms, from the common psiloi to the well-known trapezoid archers from the Black Sea coast. In contrast to Western Europe, crossbows hardly played a role, although the Byzantines undoubtedly knew and used them.

Tactics, strategy and infrastructure

Since the Arab conquest, Byzantium was mostly inferior to its aggressive neighbors both in numbers and in the availability of strategic resources (food, weapons, equipment, etc.), and it was well aware of these disadvantages. The emperors and military leaders took this into account with appropriate tactics and strategies and also knew how to give their armed forces advantages through secondary factors. First of all, the superior administration and infrastructure should be mentioned, which allowed the scarce resources to be bundled. The way and road network of the empire z. B. was not nearly as good as that of the Roman Empire, but compared to the neighboring countries it was still well maintained and developed. The armed forces were also able to fall back on a close-knit network of fortifications and supply depots, which resulted from the constitution of the subject. The most important factor, however, was a discipline and strategy unattainable at the time, which gave the Byzantine armies advantages. This is reflected e.g. B. reflected in the fact that the armies adhered to fixed marching orders and understood how to set up fortified field and marching camps that were hardly inferior to the classical Roman models; they can be found in military treatises of the 10th and 11th centuries. Thus the imperial armies were able to exhaust the full range, especially of defensive warfare, and to force even a superior enemy to retreat with delay and delay tactics as well as ambushes and guerrilla warfare. A combination of attrition tactics and cutting off supply routes was often used; another popular calculation was to hold off the enemy until bad weather or an outbreak of epidemics forced them to retreat or enabled them to be destroyed. Decision battles were rare, as the Byzantine military leaders were reluctant to risk losing soldiers and equipment that were already in short supply. But when a battle was needed, everything was done to improve one's chances.

The Byzantine art of siege was not inferior to that of the Arabs and other contemporary peoples, and besides the usual siege weapons they were the only ones to have access to Greek fire . Although the Byzantine armies were mostly on the defensive, they too often had to take fortresses, especially during the reconquest phase in the 9th to 11th centuries. In the late Middle Ages, the art of siege, as well as the technique of war in general, fell into disrepair, as the empire was no longer able to defend itself. It is an irony of fate that the gun master, who supplied Mehmed II Fatih with the decisive weapon for overcoming the city walls of Constantinople, only a short time before with Constantine XI. Dragases had auditioned, but could not afford his services.

The army in the Comnen time

Construction and successes

Emperor John II Komnenus was famous for his skills as a military leader and carried out many successful sieges. Under his rule the empire recaptured numerous areas from the Turks

At the beginning of the Komnenen rule in 1081, the empire had been reduced to the smallest area in its history. Surrounded by enemies and financially ruined by a series of civil wars, the prospects were far from bright. Under these circumstances, together with the changes in Byzantine society, including the loss of Anatolia, the tried and tested system of themes could no longer be maintained. However, through a combination of determination, skill and years of campaigns, Alexios Komnenos managed to restore much of the power of the empire by building an army from scratch. It was characterized by professionalism and discipline and comprised such outstanding units as the aforementioned Varangian Guard and the Immortals (heavy cavalry), who were stationed in Constantinople, as well as numerous militia units from the province. The latter also included cataphracts from Macedonia , Thessaly and Thrace , as well as various regional units from areas of Asia Minor, such as the Black Sea coast.

A Macedonian division was maintained under John II , and new troops made up of imperial citizens were raised in the provinces. When Byzantine Asia Minor began to flourish under John and Manuel I , more soldiers came from the Asian parts of the empire Neocastra, Paphlagonia and even Seleucia in the southeast. Soldiers also had to be provided by defeated peoples, such as the Pechenegs (mounted archers) and the Serbs, who were also settled in Nicomedia as settlers . Troops from Reichsuntertanen were combined into regular units and stationed in Asia as well as in Europe. In addition, there were often aid contingents from Antioch , Serbia or Hungary, but even so the Byzantines made up about two thirds of the total strength of the army, while foreigners made up the remaining third. Infantry, cavalry and archers were grouped into groups that supported each other on the principle of linked arms.

This army of the Comnene emperors was a highly efficient and highly trained force that fought in Egypt, Hungary, Italy and even Palestine. However, the new armed force had a decisive disadvantage compared to the traditional Byzantine armies: it was designed according to the specifications of Western martial arts and no longer possessed the superior discipline which in earlier times had often given the imperial armies the decisive advantage. Without this factor, the Byzantine army was no longer superior to its opponents. Another weakness turned out to be the fact that their effective use, like so much in the empire of the Comnen dynasty, depended on the person of the ruler and his abilities who directed their use. Under strong emperors such as Alexeios, Johannes II. And Manuel (around 1081–1180) the army was able to protect the empire easily, so that trade, change and culture flourished. As will be seen later, the disappearance of the competent Komnenenkaiser was largely responsible for the fact that the efficiency of the army increasingly dwindled, which left the empire almost unprotected in a decisive phase. This ultimately gave the Byzantium of the Central Byzantine period the fatal blow.


This type of troop is closely related to the Comnen period and began to emerge in the 12th century, especially during the reign of Manuel I (1143–1180). These soldiers received a piece of land instead of pay, but were not fortified farmers as in the old thematic order of the Middle Byzantine period. The Pronoiai system developed into a kind of tax tenancy that collected the taxes from the citizens ( paroikoi ) living within the boundaries of the allocated area and kept part of it as payment. Sometimes the Pronoiai are compared to Western knights , who were also both warriors and sovereigns, and in fact at this time the feudalization tendencies within the empire also increased strongly under Western influence. In contrast to the knights, however, the owner of the land allocated to the Pronoiai was still the emperor. Pronoiai troops were usually cavalrymen and were much like Western knights in their armament and equipment, with lances, swords and armor for horse and rider. With the dwindling financial resources of the empire after 1204, the number of Pronoiai increased more and more, especially in the Nicaea Empire .

Decay among the Angeloi

Map of the Byzantine Empire under Manuel Komnenos, around 1180

When the emperor Andronikos I Komnenos died in 1185 , the dynasty of the Comnenes died with him, who had produced a number of capable military leaders as emperors over the course of a hundred years. They were inherited by the Angeloi , who are said to have been the most unsuccessful dynasty to ever hold the imperial throne.

The Byzantine army was heavily centralized at this time, the emperor gathered the forces and led them personally against the enemy. Generals were kept on a short leash, and the whole empire looked to Constantinople, from where the instructions and rewards came. With the Angeloi inaction and ineptitude, this quickly led to the collapse of the armed forces, both at sea and on land. Surrounded by an army of slaves, mistresses and salivators, the emperors left the administration of the empire to incompetent favorites, while they squandered the tax money from the provinces and the capital with expensive building projects and generous gifts to the churches and monasteries. Even the proverbial well-stocked treasury of Byzantium did not last long, and the officers became so careless that the empire was practically defenseless. Together, these factors created the financial ruin of the empire.

Byzantium's enemies lost no time and took advantage of the new situation. In the east the Turks invaded and devoured Byzantine Asia Minor, while in the west Serbs and Hungarians finally broke away from the empire, and in Bulgaria the overwhelming taxation by the imperial family led to the rebellion from which the Second Bulgarian Empire emerged and to protect Constantinople usurped important areas. The Angeloi tried diplomatic means to resolve the crisis, while the Bulgarians usurped important cities, and Byzantine authority had been severely weakened. The growing power vacuum accelerated the process of decay, and local aristocrats gained in importance in the province, which further weakened the influence of the central power. This, in turn, adversely affected the armed forces, which depended on the recruitment and leadership of the local nobles, and much of the empire began to slip out of control of the central authority in Constantinople.

Analysis of the military collapse

Structural weaknesses

In this situation of decline it became apparent that the disintegration of the traditional thematic order was one of the decisive factors for the decline. One of its advantages had been the numerical strength of the associations it allowed. It is estimated that a Byzantine field army under Manuel I. Komnenos comprised up to 40,000 soldiers, but there are indications that the thematic system allowed for much stronger armies and provided the empire with a large number of fighters. The armed forces of the Thrakesion theme alone z. B. are said to have been up to 10,000 men strong in the 10th century (see above). In addition, the thematic armed forces had been stationed in the provinces, and their greater independence from the high command allowed them to counter local threats more quickly. These factors combined gave a far greater depth of defense.

Another disadvantage was the overall lower quality of the individual soldiers as well as the fighting units themselves, this was mainly reflected in a decline in discipline. As efficient as the Komnenen Army might be in battle, it had lost the advantage of the superior discipline that had given the Byzantine field armies of earlier days many advantages over the medieval armies of their opponents. In addition there was the elimination of the infrastructure of the topics with its fortifications and camps, but also with the possibility of quickly compensating for losses.

The other key advantage of the old system was that it was inexpensive. It made it possible to arm and train a large number of men for relatively little money. The collapse of this system made armies more expensive in the long run, reducing the number of soldiers the Kaiser could keep under arms. These disadvantages had been largely offset by the wealth and diplomatic finesse of the Comnen emperors, together with their leadership qualities and their constant preoccupation with military problems. Without these advantages, however, the weaknesses of the new system became apparent, and when the Angeloi began to neglect the armed forces, it was not far to complete collapse. The peak and end of the decline of the Byzantine army was reached on April 13, 1204, when the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade stormed Constantinople and sacked it mercilessly. The Byzantine Empire fell, and with the loss of its main source of income, it would never fully recover.


So the problem is not to be found in the fact that the Komnen army was less effective than the themed armies before, its success rate in larger campaigns was about the same. The difficulties arose from their lower strength and greater centralization, which required a higher level of leadership and administrative competence than the older army order. This was not a problem under good commanders, but bad generals questioned the efficiency of the army. The greater flexibility and resilience of the themed army proved to be a structural advantage that the professional army of the Komnenen did not have.

For the reasons given above, one can conclude that the end of the thematic order did great damage to the empire. However, as explained above, the decline of the thematic system was not a decision that was taken lightly, rather it was justified by internal as well as external causes and could hardly be avoided by the development. Although it took centuries for it to become apparent, one of the strongest pillars of the Byzantine state had fallen away. Accordingly, it was not the armed forces themselves that were directly responsible for the decline of the empire, but the system with which they were equipped and managed. Without the strong state structures of administration and defense, which had enabled Byzantium to survive the storms of the Great Migration and the Arab storm, it could not hold its own in the long term. By concentrating responsibility on the emperor, too much depended on himself, which increased Byzantium's vulnerability and ultimately brought about its overthrow.

Armies of the exiled empires and the palaeologists

Map of the empire around 1270. After the catastrophe of 1204 and the sacking and occupation of Constantinople by the Crusaders , Byzantium lost its position as a great power and was not able to return to its old size

After the traumatic catastrophe of 1204 , the emperors of Nicaea tried to continue the system established by the Comnenes. Despite the military successes against other empires in exile and the Latin Empire , which was followed by the restoration of the Byzantine Empire of 1261 with the reconquest of Constantinople, the empire could never again dispose of the wealth, the lands and the necessary men that the Comnenes and their predecessors were entitled to Had stood at the commandments. Accordingly, the armed forces were consistently short of money and their military power was extremely limited. After the death of Michael VIII Palaiologos around 1282, mercenary companies such as the infamous Catalan Company , which could at best be viewed as unreliable, gained strong influence and formed a large part of the remaining armed forces.

When Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453, the Byzantine defenders numbered just 7,000 fighters, of whom 2,000 were foreign mercenaries . Against the army of 85,000 Ottomans who besieged the city, they had little chance of success. The defenders withstood the attacks of the Janissaries , and according to both sides, the attackers were on the verge of retreating when a Genoese commander, Giovanni Giustiniani , who was responsible for part of the defense with his men, was seriously wounded and his evacuation was pending the combat zone caused panic among the defenders. Many of the Italians who were paid by Giustani himself fled the battlefield when they saw their leader fall. Some historians, including the official Turkish version, report an unlocked gate in the Blachernenviertel , the Kerkoporta , through which the Ottomans invaded the city, but other reports suggest that this break-in could be sealed off. The remaining defenders were overwhelmed, and Emperor Constantine XI. Dragases himself and the rest of his men faced the invading enemies. When he saw that all was lost, he threw away the imperial insignia and plunged into the thick of the battle. Some claim that he was never seen again, others say that his body was identified with the help of the imperial purple boots. The fall of the capital also marked the end of the millennial Byzantium. With him the Byzantine army, the direct successor to the Roman armies, came to an end.

Byzantine military philosophy

Despite her importance as a defender of Orthodox Christianity against Muslims and Catholics, it should be noted that byzantium did not develop an ideology of holy war that could be compared to the crusade or jihad . To the Byzantines, who were often enough victims of these phenomena, they seemed like a blatant violation of the scriptures and like a cheap excuse for raids and destruction. Both the emperors themselves and the generals and soldiers generally viewed the war as a failure of governance and diplomacy that had to be avoided whenever possible - hardly surprising when like Byzantium one was constantly surrounded by enemies. Accordingly, the empire avoided wars whenever it could, preferring to pay tribute or resolve the problem diplomatically when appropriate. Only defensive wars or campaigns of revenge were considered fair, and the Byzantines assumed that God himself would protect them in the process. Only the wars of Herakleios against the Persians in the 7th century, parts of the defensive struggle against the Arabs and the campaigns of Nikephoros Phocas and his successors Johannes Tsimiskes and Basileios II received a religious coating that was comparable to the concept of a holy war.

Major battles of the Byzantine armies

This drawing by Gustave Doré shows the Turkish ambush at the Battle of Myriokephalon (1176)

Early Byzantine period

Middle Byzantine period

Late Byzantine period


  • Notitia Dignitatum , an early 5th century document describing the disposition of legions in the Western Roman and Eastern Roman Empires


Representations in German

  • Taxiarchis G. Kolias: Byzantine weapons. A contribution to Byzantine armory from the beginnings to the Latin conquest . Vienna 1988 (standard work on Byzantine armament).
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller: For God, Emperor and Roman Empire. The Byzantine Army in the 9th and 10th Centuries. Karfunkel Combat No. 4 (2008), pp. 34–41 (with extensive further references).
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller: Between Crusaders and Turks. A Brief Military History of Late Byzantium (1204–1453). Karfunkel-Combat No. 5 (2009), pp. 49-55 (with detailed further references).

Web links


  1. a b Warren Treadgold: Byzantium and Its Armies, 284-1081 . Stanford 1995