Meet the People: The Byzantine Military

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Byzantine Armed Resistance

Throughout its existence the Byzantine Empire faced constant military pressure on all sides, from such diverse and dangerous adversaries as the Sassanid Persians, the Arab Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphates, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the Bulgars, Normans, Franks, Russians and Serbians, as well as nomadic peoples such as the Avars and Pechenegs.

Byzantium did engage in expansionist wars of conquest of its own from  from time to time: Justinian's reconquest of Italy and North Africa or the much later wars of Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes on the eastern frontier for example, but in general Byzantine military doctrine was defensive in nature. It is testimony to the effectiveness of these tactics that Byzantium was able to ultimately prevail against the power of the Arab Caliphate: A state which far exceeded Byzantium in terms of wealth, population and land area.

It is difficult to make generalisations about Byzantium's military over the whole period of the Empire's existence.  This short essay will concentrate upon distinctive features of the Byzantine army from the late seventh century through to the end of the eleventh century although it will also deal briefly with the later developments.

The Thematic System

The seventh century Arab conquest of Egypt, North Africa, Palestine and Syria/Mesopotamia was a severe shock to the Byzantine-late Roman military system. The Arabs were inspired by their new-found faith (The Prophet Mohammed had only died recently, in 632) and were determined to pursue their fight for Islam across the entire Middle East and beyond. By way of contrast, after a gruelling though ultimately successful fight for survival against the Sassanid Persians, the Byzantine military was severely disrupted and not in a particularly good state for dealing with the Arabs. In 636 a large Byzantine army was destroyed by the Arabs at the River Yarmuk, in Syria, and by the early 640s the Byzantines had been pushed back into Asia Minor, beyond the Taurus and Anti-Taurus mountains.

Things were not looking good for the Empire. Byzantium had lost over half of its territory in less than thirty years, to an adversary which had also invaded and completely taken over the Sassanid Persian Empire.

Clearly radical defensive measures were called for - in particular the much reduced Empire could no longer afford the large late Roman army of paid professionals and mercenaries.  At some stage in the 650s or 660s a system of regional defence in depth was established, organised around territorial army units known as Thema

It is not clear whether the Thematic system was an organised development by central government or an ad-hoc response to events on the ground.  In any case the Thematic armies proved to be extremely resilient, providing the backbone of Byzantine resistance to Arab attack over the next three hundred years.

The professional status of Thematic soldiers is still controversial amongst Byzantinists. The traditional view is that Thematic soldiers were part-timers: although it appears that a supplemental salary was paid, a Thematic soldier may have derived most of his financial support from his own land holding. Members of his local community were also expected to contribute to the expense of his weapons and equipment. A small farmer and land holder in time of peace, the thematic soldier was expected to turn out armed and equipped for training and combat duty when required by his Strategos - a Thema's overall commander.

As time wore on, the military rank of Strategos was developed into a dual purpose office, incorporating civil as well military authority within each Thema. In this way the provincial government of Byzantium was "militarised": a sharp contrast to the civilian central government in Constantinople. Tension between civil and military elements within Byzantium's ruling class is a distinctive feature of Byzantine history, particularly in the turbulent eleventh century.

The regional basis of the Thematic system held certain advantages: resistance to attack could be organised quickly on a local level and soldiers were motivated by the fact they were often fighting for their own towns, farms and families. On the down side there were efficiency problems, soldier-farmers often became more farmer than soldier, and local loyalties sometimes took precedence over duty to the central government - several large scale rebellions were sustained by the efforts of thematic troops based in Asia Minor, often led by their Strategos.

The Tagmata

Although reliant upon thematic troops for regional defence, the Byzantine Emperor also managed to retain a central collection of professional army regiments, known collectively as the Tagmata.

The Tagmata had developed from Palace bodyguard units, maintained more for show than actual fighting and staffed largely by social climbers. The Emperor Justinian, for example, is reputed to have amused himself by including one of these regiments, the Scholai, in mock active deployment lists, thus causing a panic amongst their upper class gentlemen-soldiers, who had no desire to leave the safety of Constantinople for the discomfort and danger of an actual military campaign.

By the eighth century however, these 'toy soldier' units had evolved into an elite army corps. With substantial salaries paid in full by the Imperial government, the Tagma included crack cavalry and infantry regiments with a combined strength, by one estimate, of more than 20,000 men.

The Tagmata campaigned with the Emperor and formed the spearhead of Byzantine counter offensive action against invading armies worn down by the hit and run tactics of defending thematic soldiers.

The Empire's strategic and economic position gradually improved through the ninth and tenth centuries. Throughout this period the Tagmata were developed into a fully fledged professional army, which employed sophisticated infantry tactics combined with the shock effect of heavily armoured cavalry. A series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil Bulgaroctonos were able to undertake significant offensive campaigns and to turn the tables in particular against the Bulgars in the west and the Arab "raiding emirates" in the east. The pursuit of military glory consequently became an important component of Byzantine imperial propaganda.

The decline and destruction of the Byzantine Army

In many respects the Byzantine military system was a victim of its own success. By pushing back the border regions and reducing danger from constant hostile raiding parties, the successful campaigns of the ninth to early eleventh centuries reduced the need for local defence of the type supplied by Thematic troops. The Thematic armies grew steadily less efficient and came to be regarded as surplus to needs by the Byzantine government. In the meantime, the professional army was also run down - it apparently having no dangerous adversaries left to fight.

Unfortunately a new set of formidable enemies appeared towards the end of the eleventh century. In 1071 the Empire suffered a double blow: the Byzantine city of Bari, in south eastern Italy, fell to the Normans and the Emperor Romanos Diogenes suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks. The Byzantine army was still large, on paper at least, but inefficient and disaffected: within ten years most of Asia Minor had been over-run by the Turks and the Normans had established a beachhead in the Greece and the Balkans. The Emperors Alexios, John, and Manuel Komnenos, all able and determined men, were able to deal with both the Seljuk Turks and Normans through a mixture of diplomacy and military force. But the army they employed, increasingly made up of mercenaries and "barbarian" (ie non-Byzantine) soldiers, bore little relation to the old military establishment which had served the empire so well.

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