Monday, January 4, 2021

Byzantine warriors of the 4th - 5th centuries BCE

The Byzantine army evolved from that of the late Roman Empire, but it became considerably more sophisticated in strategy, tactics and organization over time. The language of the army was still Latin, until the 6th century when Greek became the official language of the entire empire. Unlike the Roman legions, though, the Byzantines' strength was in its cavalry, especially the armored cataphracts, which evolved from the clibanarii of the late empire. 

The Romans introduced armored cavalry after clashing with cataphracts at the battles of Magnesia in 190 BCE against the Seleucids, Trigranocerta in 69 BCE against the Armenians, and the disastrous Carrhae in 53 BCE against the Parthians. Parthian cataphracts became a constant threat from the 1st - 2nd centuries CE then their threat was replaced by the cataphracts of the Sassanian Persians in the 3rd century CE.

Marc Antony and Cleopatra employed contarii (from the Greek kontarioi meaning lancers) in the 1st century BCE and, when Thracia became a Roman province in 45 CE, the Thracian aristocracy provided Rome with heavy armored lancers.  According to Josephus, cavalrymen with long spears were used by Flavian troops in 69 CE, too, although scholars have not been able to determine if Vespasian raised regular units of contarii.  However, by the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (98-138 CE) armored cavalrymen and, sometimes , completely armored horses, began to appear in allied cavalry recruited in the Eastern provinces. 

Contarii wielded the contus ( Greek kontos), using it two-handed.  The later Byzantine kontarion used by Byzantine cataphracts, from about 1100 CE onwards, was used single-handed couched under the armpit.

The kontarioi were supported by heavy infantry, the armored skutatoi (a name derived from the scutum, the classic rectangular Roman shield) and the psiloi, light infantry who usually acted as skirmishers and missile troops, including archers and slingers, and who fought irregularly in a loose formation and wore little armor.  The skutatoi were armed with the deadly, three metre-long kontarion, derived from the kontos lance favored by cataphracts. Some skutatoi were positioned on the front lines to repel cavalry, with their sword-armed counterparts behind them, ready for the melee that followed the initial charge. 

The Byzantines valued intelligence and discipline in their soldiers far more than bravery or brawn. The "RomaĆ­oi stratiĆ³tai" were a loyal force composed of citizens willing to fight to defend their homes and their state to the death, augmented by mercenaries. The training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close combat techniques with their swords, spears and axes, along with the extensive practice of archery. The Byzantine army's reliance on heavier cavalry, more archers and other missile troops, and fewer Foederati may have been contributing factors to the eastern empire's survival after the fall of the Western Empire in 476 CE. 

Bronze Byzantine Warrior of the 4th-5th century CE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Image: Illustration of Roman Heavy Cavalry by Andrey Negin for Osprey Publishing's title, "Roman Heavy Cavalry (1): Cataphractarii and Clibanarii, 1st century BCE-5th century CE.

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