Popular notions tend to group the later Eastern Roman realm, or more specifically the Byzantine Empire, as a strictly medieval entity that encompassed Greece, the surrounding Balkans, and the Anatolian landmass. But if we take the impartial route that is ‘bereft’ of prejudiced medieval European politics and chronicling, the Byzantine Empire was the continuation (and even represented endurance) of the Roman legacy, so much so that most of its citizens called their realm Basileia tôn Rhōmaiōn – the Roman Empire. To that end, the very term ‘Byzantine’ in spite of its popularity, is a misleading word. So without further ado, let us equitably delve into the ten fascinating things you should know about the early medieval (Eastern Roman) Byzantine army.
1) The overshadowing of the military by politics
As we mentioned before, the term ‘Byzantine’, as opposed to Eastern Roman, is rather a medieval invention that sort of takes an uncomplimentary route – partially based on the prejudices of medieval chroniclers. In fact, to that end, the word ‘Byzantine’ is rather deprecatory even in our modern world, with its association often made to “deviousness or underhand procedure” (Oxford Dictionary). In essence, such biased views were often concocted by the contemporaries of the Eastern Roman Empire, who perceived the political scope and ploys favored by the Romans as being overly complicated and labyrinthine.
However, as historian Ian Heath wrote (in Byzantine Armies 886-1118 AD) – in spite of such misunderstood labeling and anachronistic slanders, the Byzantine army of 10th century AD was possibly the “best-organized, best-trained, best-equipped and highest-paid in the known world”. Simply put, the Byzantine army from this particular epoch was the closest to a professional force that served any known medieval realm. And this ambit of professionalism was rather reinforced by the favorable economic might of the empire, strengthened by an organized military system (that was different from their ancient Roman predecessors) and well-defined logistical support.
2) The bandon
The military manual of Strategicon (Greek: Στρατηγικόν) written by Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice in the late 6th century dealt with the general military strategies, and the renowned Tactica military treatise written by or on behalf of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (circa early 10th century AD), drew heavily from this handbook. And both of these manuals talked about the basic military unit of bandon (or tagmata as mentioned in Strategicon), a word itself derived from the Germanic ‘banner’, thus alluding to the foreign influence in Byzantine army during the early medieval period.
Now it should be noted that the number of troops within each bandon varied in accordance with the available manpower, which took into account the injured and the invalidated. In any case, on the theoretical level, by Emperor Leo’s time, a bandon possibly accounted for 256 men for infantrymen (comprising sixteen lochaghiai) and 300 men for cavalry (comprising six allaghia of 50 men each) – and each one was commanded by a komes or count. Interestingly enough, the Byzantine army did make use of ‘mixed’ divisions of soldiers within each bandon, with ratios of 3:1 to 7:3 when it came to spearmen (skutatoi) and archers, thus suggesting advanced tactical deployments on the battlefields.
The banda (plural of bandon) was also used as the standard for determining bigger divisions, like moirai and turmai. To that end, a moira often contained variable numbers of banda, oscillating between 2 to 5 – possibly accounting for around 1,000 troops in the 10th century AD (as opposed to the norm of 2,000 men for each moirai in the 6th century AD). The turma, on the hand, comprised around three moirai, thus amounting to around 3,000 men.
3) The system of Themata
The Byzantine military from the 7th century to early 11th century AD was dependent on the Themata (or Themes) system, an administrative network of provincial armies that ironically preserved the Eastern Roman realm (more-or-less across Anatolia) and yet mirrored its ‘on the defensive’ state of affairs. Partly inspired by the provincial system set in place by Constantine the Great, the Themata – as we know today, was possibly established during the reign of Constans II, as opposed to the popular notion associated with Emperor Heraclius. In any case, the rise of this defensive force, initially based on the provinces of Anatolia, was probably fueled by the incursions of the Arabs on the eastern frontiers of the Empire.
Now each of these theme armies was commanded by a military governor known as the strategos (or general), who also boasted his personal retinue of heavily armed swordsmen known as the spatharioi (spatha or sword ‘bearers’). And on occasions, some of these retinues rose to hundreds of men, as was in the case of the Thema Thrakēsiōn, whose strategos had a retinue of two banda – approximately 600 men. The military governor was additionally assisted by other high-ranking officials who took the responsibilities of the province’s revenues, taxations, and most importantly payments for the provincial army.
However, the core member of the Themata pertained to the regular provincial troop, who usually belonged to the farmer-soldier background. These freemen were offered plots of agricultural land (often hereditary) in return for their mounted (in theory) military service, which sort of mirrored the feudal system followed in contemporary Europe. But the size of such plots tended to be smaller than the knightly holdings of western Europe – thus resulting in greater number of Themata troops albeit with relatively lower quality equipment and training. At the same time, it should be noted that not all such provincial troops of the Byzantine army were uniformly ‘poor’. In fact, as mentioned in Tactica, some of the Thema armies comprised rich landowners who could afford superior armor and weapons – and as such, they were considered as the first line of defense by the Emperor himself.
Furthermore, in spite of the non-uniformity of equipment showcased by different provincial troops, there was a minimum threshold of requirement expected from each farmer-soldier who held a land. For example, in the 9th century AD, the Byzantine administration passed a law that allowed poor Themata soldiers to band together to pay for a properly equipped mounted warrior. In rare cases (as legislated by Emperor Nikephoros II), some of the richer troops were obligated to furnish better equipment for their poorer military brethren. And during extreme situations, if the soldier couldn’t afford his arms and armaments – even after being offered aid from others, his land was promptly taken away. Consequently, he was drafted into the irregular divisions who were derogatorily called the ‘cattle-lifters’. So in essence, as opposed to 10th century feudal Europe’s wide gap between the early knightly class and the ‘rag-tag’ peasant infantry, the Byzantine army boasted a fairly consistent provincial military institution that was inclusive of variant soldier types – and the entire system was rather strengthened by an administrative network (though the scenario took a downturn by the second half of the 11th century).
4) Strength and Organization
The basic unit of each Thema army possibly harked back to the aforementioned banda (each bandon ranging from 200 to 400 men), though in terms of practicality the provincial soldiers were occasionally organized into the bigger turmai. Suffice it to say, the strength of each provincial army varied, dictated by the population of the said province. For example, the Anatolikon province could possibly furnish around 10,000 soldiers, while the Armeniakon province could account for 9,000 troops. The smaller provinces, like Thrace, could approximately provide 5,000 provincial soldiers. And the overall strength of the Byzantine Themata army possibly numbered between 70,000 to 90,000 men, in circa early 10th century AD.
Now as historian Ian Heath noted that some of the themes were further divided or even expanded, based on the political and military scenario of the period – which, in turn, had an effect on the manpower of the province. Moreover, the Byzantine realm also had the strategic frontier themes, known as kleisourai (or ‘mountain passes’) that were mostly created from the border districts. These particular provinces tended to maintain a more autonomous army linked by forts and castles, and the battle-hardened soldiers were commanded by the border nobles known as the akritai. On occasions, even the younger sons of the ‘interior’ Thema landowners joined the ranks of border armies, thus militarily reinforcing many strategic locations of the Eastern Roman Empire.
(End of Part I)
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