Emperor Constantine VII stated “as the head is to the body, so is the army to the state”. That was indeed true for the Byzantine army, direct successor of the Roman legions. Just like the empire itself, the Byzantine army lasted for over a millennia, from the era of late antiquity all the way to the dawn of early modernity.
The Byzantine Emperors claimed for themselves the role of protectors of the Christians. They also laid claim on ruling the civilized world(Greek oikumene). Civilized world for the Byzantines was the Roman world during the time of the high empire or, in its most ambitious form, the Christian world. This ideology can be seen in the attempt by Justinian I to reconquer the West or the Komnenian emperors attempting to claim Antioch from the Crusaders. It can also be seen in the wars waged against Sassanid Persia in the name of defending persecuted Christians. While this universal ideology did guide Byzantine foreign (and thus military) policy, it was moderated by pragmatism and an understanding of the capabilities of the empire, so that the Byzantines would not overextend themselves.
Early Byzantine Army (284 — 641)
Until the later fourth century, Roman armies still consisted predominantly of infantry, with cavalry having a secondarily role, mainly used as scouts or deployed to the flank and rear guard. By the early fifth century though, under the influence of barbarian nomads who employed cavalry tactics (such as the Huns), the importance of (light) cavalry increased. The Byzantines also developed heavily armored cavalry to counter the Persian threat. In the sixth century, the balance of forces between the two arms changed as the Byzantines recruited large numbers of cavalry from among various barbarian and indigenous peoples.
During the time of Diocletian ( 284 — 305), the department of the sacrae largitiones distributed shirt, tunic, and cloak to the soldiers while boots were being provided by the local communities as tax in kind. The state owned and managed a system of imperial arms factories (fabricae). The workshops were under the supervision of the Master of Offices (magister officiorum). The workers were civilian but served under a military organization.
By the fifth century, soldiers were being paid in cash and so they purchased themselves their armor. A standard price for a gear was about six solidi. This meant that a high degree of uniformity in appearance must have been unlikely. A certain style must have predominated though, even if color and details varied according to one’s taste and wealth. The early Byzantine army also relied heavily on ‘barbarian’ mercenaries and as such there must have been cultural exchanges. In order to identify units on the field, shields and helmet plumes were of the same color.
Byzantine infantryman wore metal body armor and helmet. Iron mail or bronze scale was the most common body armor. It should be noted though that not everyone purchased such uniforms; some preferred a large shield, since it could offer sufficient protection, as not everyone was willing to spend their allowance on buying the armor.
Regarding Byzantine cavalry, the horses were provided by provincials as a levy and were drafted into the army. A smaller fraction was provided either by some of the horsemen themselves or by horses captured from the enemy. Many of the horses were coming from large stud farms, where they were breeding. As stated above, during Diocletian’s time, the state provided armor from factories (fabricae). By the fifth century though, this system was replaced by that of soldiers buying themselves their equipment from their allowances.
The basic dress was a loose-fitting long-sleeved tunic. Most tunics must have been made of undyed wool, linen or a mix of wool and linen. Soldiers that were wealthier purchased red dyed tunic as red was considered a military color. Less common colors were blue, yellow and green. As for legwear, it depended on the environment. In cold climate, long trousers or breeches were being worn. Knee high socks bound up with laces were also used. In warmer climate, soldiers wore lower leg coverings without trousers or breeches. To keep out wet and cold, soldiers had a thick wool cloak (sagum).
The most basic equipment was a wide leather belt that allowed soldiers to attach a purse or knife. The long sword (spatha) was worn on the left side. Most cavalrymen also carried a spear (hasta); this was the primary offensive weapon. This was supplemented by javelins. Of vital importance was the shield. As already stated, there was an attempt to impose uniformity in shields in order to allow the identification of fellow troops on the field. Cavalrymen wore armor and helmet too.
A special mention should be made to the cataphractarii and the clibanarii. While the above mentioned cavalrymen served the role of light cavalry, those two units were heavily armored and acted as shock troops. Those two names are used interchangeably in sources, so this has rather caused some confusion among modern writers with regards to their differences. Most likely their difference has to do with their origins rather than with their role. They were heavily armored and fought with long lances rather than short spears or javelin as the traditional cavalry.
Last but not least, the Byzantines made much use of horse archers, especially after the defeats they suffered under Attila and Hunnic hordes.
Middle Byzantine Army (641 — 1204)
Both Heraclius and Constans II, faced with Persian and then Arab onslaught, halved the military pay. In order for the army to function, the state had to once again be the one to provide arms and equipment. The question of the supply of the army has caused much debate due to the lack of evidence. It seems that there was a form of issuing based on a system of warehouses (apotheke) spread in the themes were being overseen by officials called kommerkiarioi. Soldiers were issued arms or, after the mid-seventh century, agricultural produce from lands assigned to them. The main arsenal was at Constantinople and was overseen by an official called archon.
By the 840s, cash payments resembled those of the sixth century and soldiers once again purchased themselves their equipment. Requisition remained though a part of the system for major campaigns. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, aside from their salaries, soldiers were being provided with cash allowance for food and personal equipment.
By the seventh century, on the influence of the steppe nomads, the Byzantines adopted the lamellar armor that was crafted from leather, bone, or metal lamellae sewn together. From the tenth century onwards, this became the most frequently used type of armor in Byzantium. The Byzantines wore a version of the ‘Pannonian’ hat that was a deep round-ended cylinder with closed end on the head. Many infantry soldiers also wore thick felt cap and turban. They also used leggings padded with wool, cotton or (more rarely) silk floss. For footwear, thigh boots were considered ideal for the infantry. As during early Byzantine times, shields were recommended to be painted the same color in order to distinguish the troops. The term skoutarion was used for shields. Round shields could be domed or conical in section.
Archery equipment was comprised of a composite recurve bow, arrows, quiver and darts. The Byzantine bow was 1m (3 ft) long when strung. Javelins were no longer than 2.35 m (7ft 9 in). As far as spears were concerned, there were three types. There were the small/peltast spears (kontarion mikron -2.5 m — 8ft ), the large/hoplite spear (4–5 m, 13ft — 16ft) and the menavlion, another type of short spear. Bladed weapons consisted of a long, heavy single-edged knife, straight, double edged sword (spathion) and slightly curved, single edged sword (paramerion). Foot soldiers also used axes.
With regards to the cavalry: the lightest equipped were the horse archers. They were equipped with paramerion but the primary armament was the bow. They wore a padded coat made of cotton wadding (kavadion). Next were the koursores, medium troops with flexible role in combat. They had armor in order to have protection but not so heavy that it would be cumbersome to their flexibility. They wore mail shirt or shirt of scales. They were equipped with round shield and 2.9 m lance. Finally, there were the kataphraktos, the heavily armored shock troops. They carried one spathion and one paramerion. They were also armed with a kontarion lance.
In the seventh century, infantry continued to play an important role in warfare. The Arabs though utilized a highly mobile mounted infantry which gave them an edge over the Byzantines. In order to respond to this threat from the Arab raiders, the Byzantine had to change their tactics and strategy. The contingents from the main field armies of the second half of the seventh and the eighth centuries were known as kaballarika themata (cavalry armies), which shows the emphasis the Byzantines now placed on mobility.
Until the middle of the tenth century, the Byzantines gave emphasis on avoiding pitched battles (in order to conserve manpower) and instead adopted a hit and run warfare. Only when the odds were in the Byzantines’ favor, would commanders attack. Military manuals detail how Byzantine commanders would make sure to get adequate water and forage for the horses while ensuring the security of the camp during the battle. They would also send scouts to make sure that enemy movements were known. Light troops and scouts would be deployed ahead of the main body for reconnaissance and finding out if there were any traps. Only then would the commander order an attack.
From the tenth century on, the Byzantines placed a renewed emphasis on the infantry. While until then the infantry had a secondary role compared to cavalry, there was now a revival of disciplined, effective line-of-battle infantry. There was also an introduction of a corps of heavily-armoured lancers to act in conjunction with the infantry. Infantry and cavalry forces were expected to maintain the line evenly and unbroken during their advance. The increased professionalization and specialization of the army during the second half of the tenth century and the eleventh century allowed the Byzantine to defeat numerous times their enemies on the battlefield and expand east and west.
The Byzantine placed a great emphasis on order, discipline and coherence. Byzantine units were organized into subdivisions placed under junior officers which made possible the coherent management of often very disparate forces. The Byzantines considered this organizational superiority to be a key in their military prowess and contrasted it with the emphasis Westerners placed on individual prowess. Anna Komnene made such a comparison of the Byzantines and the Western armies of the First Crusade.
Late Byzantine Army (1204 — 1453)
The late Byzantine state financed its military forces through a combination of grand of lands, tax exemptions, cash and rights to state revenues. A large part of the army was maintained through the use of pronoia grants, that is the granting of the state’s fiscal rights over an individual/group of individuals to soldiers. This was already used by the Komnenoi Emperors but became far more extensive after the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. The pronoia system provided the state with inexpensive soldiers and it increased their effectiveness as they could afford better equipment and would be eager to defend their means of income.
The weakness of Byzantium during this period meant that the Byzantines had to rely more on alliances. The Byzantines, having a long experience in diplomacy, were quite good at it. Michael VIII was able to persuade the Aragonese King Pedro III (1276–85) to intervene in Sicily against the French, who were planning an invasion of the Byzantine Balkans. He also married his daughter to the Mongol Nogai khan of the Golden Horde. In return, the Mongol khan provided the Byzantines in 1282 with 4,000 Mongols for an invasion of Serbia.
The late Byzantine army resembled in appearance and equipment the army of the previous period. The Byzantines also made heavy use of both Western and Turkish mercenaries, each of which brought their own style of appearance and equipment. This of course had an influence on the Byzantine soldiers; Byzantine cavalry, when afforded, resembled more the appearance of Western cavalry. Crossbow emerged as an important weapon, again as an influence of the West to Byzantium. Shields and spears remained though the main weapons, as in the previous period.