Mercenaries in the Late Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire, as viewed by the Sources

Foreign mercenaries made up a substantial part of the Byzantine armies long before the late thirteenth century. Despite the high cost of their maintenance, their constant readiness and mobility made the employment of mercenaries an attractive option. As long as they proved themselves a competent force on the battlefield and were well handled by the government, the sources do not doubt the expediency of employing them.

Usually, it is during periods of crisis similar to that of 1290-1305, when the reliability of mercenaries becomes a subject of debate. Taking into account the context and aims of their works, we discuss the views the main sources of the period under discussion, the historians George Pachymeres and Nikephoros Gregoras, and the philologist and political writer Thomas Magistros express about Andronikos II’s (1282-1328) policy of recruiting large groups of mercenaries and the role and effectiveness of the most important of them, the Cretans, the Alans and the Catalan Grand Company.


It has been argued that the extensive recruitment of foreign mercenaries in the eleventh century was not a mistake but the consequence of the emperors’ mistrust of native leading commanders and a response to a changing strategic context, when the empire moved from a defensive to an offensive strategy and full-time well-trained professionals were better suited for its implementation. Furthermore, at the end of the eleventh century Norman mercenaries had established a reputation in Byzantium as being the only warriors who were capable of taking on the Turks and winning and some of their leaders enjoyed great popularity. Similarly, the ultimate failure of the empire’s military revival in the twelfth century cannot be seen as a consequence of the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. Rather it was bad management that led to military failures.

It has been argued that after 1204 the army had been transformed into agglomerates of foreign mercenaries seeking temporary employment and that Andronikos II’s reliance on pre-organized bodies of mercenaries was disastrous, since groups of mercenaries whose business was war were a threat to any army and any state. These arguments do not take into account the increasing development of military professionalism in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Europe and that large groups of foreign mercenary soldiers, such as western European cavalrymen and Turkoman cavalry archers, covered tactical inefficiencies of the late Byzantine army. The sources often  stress the competence and effectiveness of foreign mercenaries. For instance, they praise the 800 Latin heavy cavalry soldiers who fought against the Seljuqs at the battle of Antioch-on-the-Maiander in 1211. In another example, in the battle of Pelagonia (1259) the Byzantines made excellent use of the Cuman and Turkish light cavalry mercenaries against the Frankish and German knights.

To be able to determine whether the most important sources associate the recruitment of large groups of mercenary soldiers with the political, military and financial difficulties the empire experienced during the period under discussion, it is necessary to discuss the wider political and military context of the last decade of the thirteenth century.


The Turkoman principalities were expanding at the expense of the Byzantines in Asia Minor, and the Byzantine government found it difficult to impose its authority over the population and armies of the Asian provinces. For instance, Pachymeres twice mentions that Paphlagonians joined the Turks in the late thirteenth century. Furthermore, powerful individuals, having gained the support of the local population, rebelled and established their own independent authority in Asia Minor. Such was the case of the
basilikos hippokomos Attaleiotes, who seized power in Magnesia.

In addition, during the 1290s it is possible to discern a conflict within the higher ranks of the aristocracy. It seems that the military leaders, even those who came from the inner circle of the imperial family, were not on good terms with the throne and with the heads of the civil bureaucracy. The limited available information prevents us from reaching safe conclusions about the reasons behind this conflict.

As a result of this conflict, prominent generals were sidelined. For instance, in 1293, Andronikos II had his brother, the porphyrogennetos Constantine, and the protostrator
Michael Strategopoulos, who were the heads of the Byzantine armies in Asia Minor, imprisoned. Gregoras remarks that this action weakened the Byzantine defence in Asia Minor and that during the first decade of the fourteenth century the leading Byzantine generals either were imprisoned or fell into disgrace.

The clash between military men and the bureaucratic elite is well reflected in the rebellion of Alexios Philanthropenos in Asia Minor in 1295. The army was dissatisfied with the policies of the ruling elite. According to Pachymeres, the soldiers believed that while they were fighting, the Constantinopolitan elite enjoyed the fruits of their struggle and a luxurious life, without satisfying the needs of the soldiers who were deprived of their necessities.

Therefore, the conflict between members of the social elite, the emperor’s mistrust of native troops, and the failure to resist the Turkish advance in Asia Minor, explain the policy of Andronikos II to recruit large groups of mercenaries from outside the empire. The emperor mistrusted the native soldiery and doubted its effectiveness. Gregoras states that after the suppression of the rebellion of Philanthropenos, Andronikos II was
suspicious of every Roman and “day and night he was dreaming of overseas alliances“. Similarly, discussing the recruitment of the Alans (1301) Pachymeres blames the emperor for neglecting the native soldiers in favour of foreign mercenaries.

The heavy reliance on foreign troops, while native soldiery was neglected and most importantly, the failure to achieve any military success led authors of the period to question the military policies of Andronikos II and mainly his decision to recruit large groups of mercenaries.

Pachymeres possessed great secular knowledge and provides a reasoned and sophisticated analysis of past events. Pachymeres used economic reasoning to explain the Turkish advance in Asia Minor at the expense of the Byzantines. He paid significant attention on the tax collection and tax distribution. Pachymeres also used economic reasoning to interpret military developments, as well as the attitudes and motivation of the Byzantine soldiers. Throughout his account Pachymeres is critical of the financial policies of Michael VIII (1259-1282) and Andronikos II, both of whom he blames for mismanagement of resources.

Economic reasoning and criticism of imperial fiscal policy are apparent in Pachymeres’ account of the large groups of mercenaries hired by Andronikos II. Sometime before 1295, Andronikos II established in Asia Minor Cretan refugees, who provided the army with mercenaries to reinforce the local defences against the Turkoman principalities. Pachymeres is critical of the government’s decision to impose a 10% levy on the pronoiai
to fund the Cretans. He writes that because the pronoia holders had their grants reduced already, this levy burdened the heavily taxed paroikoi and not the pronoia holders.

In 1295, the Cretans played a leading role in the events surrounding Alexios Philanthropenos’ rebellion in Asia Minor. Pachymeres does not seem to be critical of the Cretans’ attitude, who despite initially being staunch supporters of Philanthropenos, captured and handed him to the imperial authorities after being promised immunity and rewards. Pachymeres seems to justify the attitude of the Cretans towards Philanthropenos, stating that the latter’s indecisiveness made them feel unsafe. He also shows an understanding of the precarious situation large groups of mercenaries find themselves in when they get involved in the internal conflicts of their paymasters away from their native land. In addition, the justification of the attitude of the Cretans is in agreement with Pachymeres’ criticism of imperial policies. He attributes Philanthropenos’ rebellion not to the plots and ambitions of the Cretans but to the dissatisfaction of the entire army. He states that the army was restless and willing to rebel, for the soldiers believed that while they were fighting, the Constantinopolitan elite enjoyed the fruits of their struggle and a luxurious life, without satisfying the needs of the soldiers who were deprived of their necessities. Consequently, Pachymeres does not see the Cretans as a disloyal band of mercenaries. For him the Cretans accepted the promises of the protovestiarites Livadarios and deserted Philanthropenos not because they were greedy mercenaries but because they feared that if Philanthropenos reached an agreement with the emperor, they would have found themselves in a rather difficult position. In conclusion, Pachymeres argues that the Cretans like the rest of the Byzantine army were dissatisfied with the imperial policies and he justifies their actions in the context of the failure of the central government to manage its resources and its army effectively.

In 1301, the emperor accepted the offer of the Alans tobe settled in Byzantium and enlist in the army because of the critical situation in Asia Minor. As is the case with the Cretans, Pachymeres’ analysis of the events following the employment of the Alans reflects his opposition to the financial and military policies of Andronikos II. He writes that Andronikos II had prepared supplies for the Alans through public contributions and provided them with horses and weapons, which he took away from native soldiers. He disagrees with the employment of the Alans at the expense of native troops. He argues that the emperor knew that “the Alans are a well behaved and obedient nation and also very warlike and bellicose. For this reason he neglected the Romans as having become effeminate and weakened both because of the circumstances and because of their malevolent attitudes and disposition“.

For Pachymeres that the emperor favoured the Alans and provided them with weapons and resources that previously belonged to native Roman soldiers, contributed to the defeat of the Byzantines at the battle of Bapheus (27 July 1302) at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The Byzantine army that fought at this battle was composed of 2,000 Roman and Alan soldiers under the command of the megas hetaireiarches Leo Mouzalon. Pachymeres remarks that although the native Roman soldiers were expected to fight wholeheartedly for the defence of their homes, they did not do so. They were demoralised and unwilling to fight because of the money and weapons that had been taken away from them to supply the Alan mercenaries. Remarkably, Pachymeres’ account of the battle of Bapheus does not portray the Alans as undisciplined and unmotivated troops interested only in plunder. He comments that the Alans proved themselves useful.

Pachymeres attributes the Byzantine defeat at Bapheus to mismanagement of resources and miscalculations of the government and not to the tactical inferiority of the Byzantine army on the battlefield. He implies that although the Alans were good soldiers, the favouritism the emperor had shown towards them at the expense of the native soldiers damaged the morale, motivation and coherence of the army.

Pachymeres’ critical view of Byzantine military policies during the period under discussion is also reflected in the unsuccessful campaign of Michael IX in Magnesia and the Hermos, which commenced three months before the battle of Bapheus, in April 1302. Pachymeres points out that the Alans, as well as the Roman soldiers were eager to fight. However, disagreements among the generals, and not the unwillingness or incompetence of the soldiers, led to the failure of the operation.


In 1302, Andronikos II hired the Catalan Grand Company, which was formed during the wars in Sicily between the Aragonese and the Angevins and was partly made up of Almogavars, Aragonese troops who had for years earned their living in the border warfare of the Reconquista in Spain. After the end of the war in Sicily, they sought employment in Byzantium.

Pachymeres blames the government for mismanaging the Catalans, as he does with the Cretans and the Alans. He argues that Andronikos II hired the Catalan Company out of desperation and without taking into serious consideration the state’s finances, which were insufficient to maintain such an expensive group of soldiers. More specifically, Pachymeres claims that after arriving in Constantinople Roger de Flor decided to invite more troops from abroad; because he did not have the means to transfer them to Byzantium he borrowed 20,000 nomismata from the Genoese. The emperor guaranteed the loan. Shortly afterwards, in order to produce the cash to afford the payment of the Catalans and to avert them from ravaging imperial territories, a special levy on grain was imposed, which was collected from the Balkan regions of the empire.Furthermore, the government confiscated one third of the pronoiai located in the western territories, discontinued the payment of the servants of the palace and devalued the currency. Pachymeres also indicates that the Catalans received privileges, which were uncommon for mercenary soldiers. Andronikos II granted the company’s leader, Roger de Flor, the title of megas doux and married him to one of his nieces. Pachymeres is also critical of the extraordinary authority the Catalans were invested with. He relates that Roger de Flor became the supreme commander of the Byzantine army (strategos autokrator) who arranged the military affairs of the empire and the salaries of the soldiers according to his wishes.

Pachymeres does not express any doubt about the military value and competence of the Catalan company. He portrays Roger de Flor as someone who had proven his bravery and “was minded towards military matters“. Pachymeres also comments that the rumour of the forthcoming Catalan attack was sufficient to make the Turks of Karaşi lift the siege
of Germe and flee without order. Nevertheless, he attacks the attitude of the Catalans. He blames them for being unwilling to fight and for staying inactive in Kyzikos, where they arrived in October 1303, with the excuse that they had not received their salaries. According to Pachymeres, their presence burdened the local population against whom the Catalans committed hideous crimes. He argues that although by the end of March 1304 they had received their salaries, the Catalans did not campaign. Instead, they were involved in fighting with the Alans. Being critical of the way the government handled its mercenaries and seeing financial profit as the main motivation of soldiers, Pachymeres points out that one of the causes of the conflict between the Catalan and the Alan mercenaries was the reaction of the latter to the much higher salaries the Catalans received.

Using economic reasoning to explain the attitude of soldiers, Pachymeres portrays greed and rapacity as the main incentives of the Catalans. For instance, he claims that at some point the Catalans requested to be paid not only their regular salaries but also for their “supposed previous activities,” as Pachymeres, writes. He sees this as an unfair demand because, as he writes, the Catalans asked to be paid for a period during which they did not fight. Pachymeres adds that when they received their payment the Catalans left Mytilene and instead of attacking the Turks they plundered Madytos.

For Pachymeres, the conflicts between the Byzantine government and its foreign troops were civil wars. He states that when the Alans decided to depart and leave the empire (1303), the emperor sent the megas domestikos, Alexios Raoul to get back the weapons and horses the Alans had been provided with. The Alans resisted and as Pachymeres writes “a dispute and civil (emphylios) war broke out. Although the armies were of a different race, they were placed under a single authority, the imperial one. Therefore, this was a civil war.”

Pachymeres’ views about the Catalan Grand Company might have been affected by the significant differences between the Catalans and the other mercenaries employed by Andronikos II. The most obvious difference was the intense conflict between Byzantium and the Catalan Grand Company and the devastation the Catalans inflicted on the Byzantine state. Therefore, it was inevitable that they would be subjected to harsh criticism. Moreover, they were a self-interested company of mercenaries. Their aim was to seek maximum financial profit through war. They were not refugees like the Alans and the Cretans, who in return for land to settle provided the army with mercenary soldiers. Nor can the Catalan Grand Company be compared with the small groups of soldiers or individual mercenaries employed by Byzantium. It was difficult for a state like early fourteenth-century Byzantium, which experienced severe financial difficulties, internal conflicts and territorial reduction, to control a large mercenary company with its own internal organisational system and hierarchy, and whose soldiers were more loyal to their leaders than to their paymasters.


Gregoras provides a shorter account of the foreignmercenaries employed by Andronikos II than Pachymeres does and he depicts a more positive image of Andronikos II, whom he supported in the civil war of 1321-1328. Moreover, Gregoras’ approach to history differs from that of Pachymeres. Influenced by classical models he considers that although humans make conscious choices, often it is Fortune (Tyche) that determines outcomes. Thus, often he avoids discussing individual responsibility.

Consequently, Gregoras does not adopt Pachymeres’ economic analysis to explain the political and military developments of the period. Furthermore, he was writing in the mid-fourteenth century from a longer chronological distance than Pachymeres. In addition, Gregoras had firsthand experience of the various unreliable self-interested groups of foreign soldiers, mainly Turks, employed by both sides during the civil wars of the period 1321-1354. It is likely that this experience influenced his judgment of the Cretans, the Alans and the Catalans.

Avoiding criticising Andronikos II’s policies, Gregoras is critical of the Cretan mercenaries. He states that although they received great honours from Philanthropenos, “they did not wish to remain in the established situation, but [the Cretans] had thoughts of things that were much higher than their value and fortune.” He explains the attitude of the Cretans stating that long and continuous success leads mindless people to insolence. Nevertheless, Gregoras like Pachymeres observes that Philanthropenos’ hesitations made the Cretans feel unsafe and that they warned him that if he delayed to proclaim himself emperor, he would be betrayed. However, unlike Pachymeres, he is rather critical of the fact that the Cretan mercenaries captured Philanthropenos after receiving bribes and promises for great rewards. For Gregoras the Cretans were mainly motivated by greed and ambition and not by the threat of being isolated and abandoned by Philanthropenos. Gregoras does not adopt Pachymeres’ view that the entire army was eager to rebel. Therefore, by blaming the Cretans for the rebellion of Alexios Philanthropenos Gregoras avoids criticising Andronikos II.

Gregoras says little about the Alan mercenaries. He pays particular attention to the high cost of their employment and to the raids they carried out on Byzantine soil. This contrasts with Pachymeres who does not omit to state their depredations but emphasizes the state’s mishandling of the Alans. For Gregoras the Alans played a central role in
Michael IX’s failure in Magnesia. He presents them as undisciplined soldiers whose attitude demoralised the Byzantine camp. He also comments that by plundering Byzantine possessions the Alans facilitated the Turkish advance. As he writes, once the Turks attacked, the Alans did not fight but fled. Gregoras says nothing about the disagreements among the generals of Michael IX, which according to Pachymeres led to the failure of the particular operation. Nor does he say anything about the provision of the Alans with resources that had been taken away from the native soldiers. Consequently, Gregoras does not follow Pachymeres in criticising the way the government handled the Alans. Instead, he presents them as being incompetent and undisciplined soldiers. Thus, Gregoras does not blame the government for mishandling the Alans.

Gregoras’ account of the Catalan Grand Company differs from Pachymeres’ analysis. The devastation they caused does not prevent Gregoras from pointing out the military competence and professionalism of the Catalans. Gregoras continues by stating that since they were not provided with guides, the Catalans decided not to advance further and while the Romans and the Alans returned to their homes the Catalans having nowhere to go became a burden to the Roman cities. Claiming that they had not received their payment, they plundered Byzantine possessions. Like Pachymeres, Gregoras describes in a dramatic tone the sufferings inflicted on the Byzantines by the Catalans and he comments that the Catalans were inventive in finding ways to make the locals suffer. Moreover, without going into detail he follows Pachymeres’ criticism of the financial implications of the employmentof the Catalans pointing out that the expenses for their maintenance emptied the imperial treasury. Unlike Pachymeres, Gregoras attributes the failure of the employment of the Catalans to Divine intervention. He comments that those who believed that the Catalans would have succeeded in recovering Byzantine land, if they had not been stopped by imperial orders said so because they
were “people who could see only the current situation and were not able to conceive anything beyond it. For in reality, this was a Divine decision taken long ago; that the Roman affairs will reach the extreme of misfortunes“. This statement reflects Gregoras’ views about Fortune.

It was Fortune and Divine intervention that foiled the plans for the defence and recovery of Asia Minor and not the mistakes of the government, which Gregoras presents as
things “said by many” and not by him.

Thomas Magistros.jpg

The third author who is examined here is Thomas Magistros. He was a teacher and philologist and unlike Pachymeres and Gregoras, he did not compile a narrative history. Nevertheless in his treatises, On Kingship (Περί Βασιλείας) and On the State (Περὶ πολιτείας), which he compiled around 1304 he comments on the employment of mercenaries. Despite not being historical accounts his works provide useful information since they reflect contemporary realities and Magistros gives instructions in matters of civic conduct, education and war. Magistros argues that the state should maintain sea and land military forces made up of native soldiers. He is negative towards foreign mercenaries, commenting that since ancient times the Romans used to employ foreign troops believing they would strengthen their armies. However, they prove to be weaker than is generally believed. He adds that the foreign mercenaries are not loyal soldiers and although they swear allegiance to the Byzantines, in reality they remain loyal only as long as the Byzantines are victorious against their enemies. If, due to fortune, the enemy proves stronger than the Byzantines, the foreign mercenaries desert Byzantium and join the enemy making them stronger and more courageous against the Romans filling the Roman army with fear and cowardice. Instead, the army should rely on native troops who should be provided with pronoiai, which should be hereditary at least for one generation for families of soldiers killed on the battlefield.

Observing the strategic position of the empire in the early fourteenth century Magistros comments that being surrounded by so many enemies the emperor is forced to be warlike (philopolemos) if he wishes to enjoy peace. Therefore, the empire needs to be constantly prepared for war. However, Magistros does not believe that the employment of mercenaries satisfies the need of the Byzantine army to be constantly ready for war. Instead, he argues that the army should be composed of well-trained native soldiers and that all citizens should be trained in arms. Magistros is the only known late Byzantine author who makes such a suggestion.

Another reason why Magistros rejected the employment of foreign soldiers is his emphasis on the establishment of universal military service. It is likely, that from his point of view, it was impossible for the Byzantine government to establish universal military service and recruit expensive mercenaries at the same moment. Instead, all the resources of the state should be concentrated on the maintenance and training of native troops.

Magistros’ opposition to the recruitment of foreign mercenaries is also in agreement with his criticism of imperial taxation. The employment of large groups of mercenaries resulted in the imposition of heavy taxation and in his treatise On Kingship Magistros expressed strong ideas against tax increases reaching the point of objecting the need of tax collection.

Magistros disapproves foreign mercenaries mainly because they do not fit to his proposals about the fiscal and military organisation of the state. His conclusion that foreign mercenaries had always been disloyal and ineffective does not correspond to reality. Magistros generalises in order to emphasize his point.

The above discussion shows that each author followed a different approach towards mercenaries. Consequently, to understand attitudes towards foreign soldiers it is necessary to take into account the wider context of the sources.

(Source: “The employment of large groups of mercenaries in Byzantium in the period ca. 1290-1305 as viewed by the sources”, by  Savvas Kyriakidis)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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