Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Battle of Dara (530 AD)

Sassanian Persian Cataphract - Sassanid Immortal - Elite Cavalry

Background to War

The wars between the West and the Persian Empire went on for century after century with Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Byzantines and others either attacking Persia or defending themselves from Persia.  Sometimes these wars were minor border dust-ups of little importance.  But others were either full wars or fights to the death.

The Byzantine Empire was at war with the Sassanids from 507, supposedly because Kavadh I had tried to force the Iberians to become Zoroastrians. The Iberian king fled from Kavadh, but Kavadh tried to make peace with the Byzantines, and attempted to have Justin I adopt his son Khosrau. Justin and his nephew and heir, Justinian I, refused and sent his generals Sittas and Belisarius into Persia, where they were initially defeated.
Flavius Belisarius
Commander of the Roman Army

Justinian tried to negotiate but Kavadh instead sent 40,000 men towards Dara in 529. Belisarius was sent back to the region with Hermogenes as his co-commander and 25,000 men in 530; Kavadh replied with another 10,000 troops under the general Firouz, who set up camp about five kilometers away at Ammodius.

As historians we are blessed with the first person accounts of Procopius.  He was a prominent Roman scholar from Palestine. Procopius accompanied the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History. He is commonly held to be the last major historian of the ancient world.

I have left a great deal of the detail written by Procopius.  That kind of background is almost never available in ancient histories.

From Procopius:   After this the Emperor Justinian appointed Belisarius General of the East and bade him make an expedition against the Persians. And he collected a very formidable army and came to Daras. Hermogenes also came to him from the emperor to assist in setting the army in order, holding the office of magister; this man was formerly counsellor to Vitalianus at the time when he was at war with the Emperor Anastasius. The emperor also sent Rufinus as ambassador, commanding him to remain in Hierapolis on the Euphrates River until he himself should give the word. For already much was being said on both sides concerning peace.

Eastern Roman Troops.

BLOG NOTES:  The Romans were used to long, hard and almost always meaningless Persian border wars.  Being outnumbered 2 to 1 by the Persians, General Belisarius was not interested in a battle on wide open desert lands where there could be total defeat.  The Romans fortified their position with the walls of the fortress of Dara at their backs.  In the open and dry desert of Mesopotamia the Romans would have walled protection, food and water available.

Procopius says:   Suddenly, however, someone reported to Belisarius and Hermogenes that the Persians were expected to invade the land of the Romans, being eager to capture the city of Daras. And when they heard this, they prepared for the battle as follows. 

Not far from the gate which lies opposite the city of Nisibis, about a stone's throw away, they dug a deep trench with many passages across it. Now this trench was not dug in a straight line, but in the following manner. In the middle there was a rather short portion straight, and at either end of this there were dug two cross trenches at right angles to the first; and starting from the extremities of the two cross trenches, they continued two straight trenches in the original direction to a very great distance.
6th Century Byzantine Cavalry

Not long afterwards the Persians came with a great army, and all of them made camp in a place called Ammodios, at a distance of twenty stades from the city of Daras. Among the leaders of this army were Pityaxes and the one-eyed Baresmanas. But one general held command over them all, a Persian, whose title was "mirranes" (for thus the Persians designate this office), Perozes by name. This Perozes immediately sent to Belisarius bidding him make ready the bath: for he wished to bathe there on the following day. Accordingly the Romans made the most vigorous preparations for the encounter, with the expectation that they would fight on the succeeding day.

At sunrise, seeing the enemy advancing against them, they arrayed themselves as follows. The extremity of the left straight trench which joined the cross trench, as far as the hill which rises here, was held by Bouzes with a large force of horsemen and by Pharas the Erulian with three hundred of his nation. On the right of these, outside the trench, at the angle formed by the cross trench and the straight section which extended from that point, were Sunicas and Aigan, Massagetae by birth, with six hundred horsemen, in order that, if those under Bouzes and Pharas should be driven back, they might, by moving quickly on the flank, and getting in the rear of the enemy, be able easily to support the Romans at that point.

On the other wing also they were arrayed in the same manner; for the extremity of the straight trench was held by a large force of horsemen, who were commanded by John, son of Nicetas, and by Cyril and Marcellus; with them also were Germanus and Dorotheus; while at the angle on the right six hundred horsemen took their stand, commanded by Simmas and Ascan, Massagetae, in order that, as has been said, in case the forces of John should by any chance be driven back, they might move out from there and attack the rear of the Persians.

Thus all along the trench stood the detachments of cavalry and the infantry. And behind these in the middle stood the forces of Belisarius and Hermogenes.

Thus the Romans arrayed themselves, amounting to five-and-twenty thousand; but the Persian army consisted of forty thousand horse and foot, and they all stood close together facing the front, so as to make the front of the phalanx as deep as possible. Then for a long time neither side began battle with the other, but the Persians seemed to be wondering at the good order of the Romans, and appeared at a loss what to do under the circumstances.

BLOG NOTES:  On the first day, there was no general engagement, but instead a series of challenge fights between champions of both sides.

Procopius says:   In the late afternoon a certain detachment of the horsemen who held the right wing, separating themselves from the rest of the army, came against the forces of Bouzes and Pharas. And the Romans retired a short distance to the rear. The Persians, however, did not pursue them, but remained there, fearing, I suppose, some move to surround them on the part of the enemy. Then the Romans who had turned to flight suddenly rushed upon them. And the Persians did not withstand their onset and rode back to the phalanx, and again the forces of Bouzes and Pharas stationed themselves in their own position.

In this skirmish seven of the Persians fell, and the Romans gained possession of their bodies; thereafter both armies remained quietly in position. But one Persian, a young man, riding up very close to the Roman army, began to challenge all of them, calling for whoever wished to do battle with him. And no one of the whole army dared face the danger, except a certain Andreas, one of the personal attendants of Bouzes, not a soldier nor one who had ever practised at all the business of war, but a trainer of youths in charge of a certain wrestling school in Byzantium.
Eastern Roman Infantry

Through this it came about that he was following the army, for he cared for the person of Bouzes in the bath; his birthplace was Byzantium. This man alone had the courage, without being ordered by Bouzes or anyone else, to go out of his own accord to meet the man in single combat. And he caught the barbarian while still considering how he should deliver his attack, and hit him with his spear on the right breast. And the Persian did not bear the blow delivered by a man of such exceptional strength, and fell from his horse to the earth. Then Andreas with a small knife slew him like a sacrificial animal as he lay on his back, and a mighty shout was raised both from the city wall and from the Roman army.

But the Persians were deeply vexed at the outcome and sent forth another horseman for the same purpose, a manly fellow and well favoured as to bodily size, but not a youth, for some of the hair on his head already shewed grey. This horseman came up along the hostile army, and, brandishing vehemently the whip with which he was accustomed to strike his horse, he summoned to battle whoever among the Romans was willing. And when no one went out against him, Andreas, without attracting the notice of anyone, once more came forth, although he had been forbidden to do so by Hermogenes.

So both rushed madly upon each other with their spears, and the weapons, driven against their corselets, were turned aside with mighty force, and the horses, striking together their heads, fell themselves and threw off their riders. And both the two men, falling very close to each other, made great haste to rise to their feet, but the Persian was not able to do this easily because his size was against him, while Andreas, anticipating him (for his practice in the wrestling school gave him this advantage), smote him as he was rising on his knee, and as he fell again to the ground dispatched him.

Then a roar went up from the wall and from the Roman army as great, if not greater, than before; and the Persians broke their phalanx and withdrew to Ammodios, while the Romans, raising the p├Žan, went inside the fortifications; for already it was growing dark. Thus both armies passed that night.
On the following day ten thousand soldiers arrived who had been summoned by the Persians from the city of Nisibis.

The Persian commander wrote, "I expect that on the morrow they will bring the Persians into Daras. But let the bath and lunch be in readiness for me within the fortifications." When Belisarius and his generals read this, they prepared themselves for the conflict.

Belisarius speaking to the troops:

"You know assuredly that the Persians are not altogether invincible, nor too strong to be killed, having taken their measure in the previous battle; and that, although superior to them in bravery and in strength of body, you were defeated only by reason of being rather heedless of your officers, no one can deny.

This thing you now have the opportunity to set right with no trouble. For while the adversities of fortune are by no means such as to be set right by an effort, reason may easily become for a man a physician for the ills caused by himself. If therefore you are willing to give heed to the orders given, you will straightway win for yourselves the superiority in battle. For the Persians come against us basing their confidence on nothing else than our disorder. But this time also they will be disappointed in this hope, and will depart just as in the previous encounter.

And as for the great numbers of the enemy, by which more than anything else they inspire fear, it is right for you to despise them. For their whole infantry is nothing more than a crowd of pitiable peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and to despoil the slain and in general to serve the soldiers. For this reason they have no weapons at all with which they might trouble their opponents, and they only hold before themselves those enormous shields in order that they may not possibly be hit by the enemy. Therefore if you shew yourselves brave men in this struggle, you will not only conquer the Persians for the present, but you will also punish them for their folly, so that they will never again make an expedition into the Roman territory."

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract

Sassanian Persian Cavalry
This video was made for a later period, but it shows the dress and armor.


Belisarius sent slingers, light archers and two bodies of Hun cavalry to harass the Persians.  He then positioned his infantry behind a ditch with his armored cavalry on each wing.  Behind the infantry were 1,200 Hun cavalry as a central reserve.  On the Roman left in the hills some 600 Hun cavalry were secretly positioned.

The Persian infantry approached in two dense lines with a number of war elephants in the rear.  The infantry was made up of mercenary slingers, archers, and javelin throwers backed by peasant levies.  The Immortals, the Persian heavy armored cavalry, were positioned on each wing backed by lighter cavalry units.
1)  The Persians attack both flanks of the Roman army with their cavalry.  On the Roman left the Persians made progress and crossed over the ditch.  At that point the 600 Hun cavalry that was hidden in the hills appears and takes the Persians in the flank and in the rear.  The Persians retreat and rally well to the rear of their lines.

2)  In the center the infantry of both armies spent their time indulging in intermittent exchanges of archery fire.
3)  On the Roman right the Persian Immortals and their auxiliaries drove the Roman right wing commanded by Count John all the way back to the city gates where he was able to rally his troops.

4)  Up near the gates of Dara, the Persian left now found itself separated from their infantry in the center.  Belisarius saw the gap and acted.  He summoned the 1,200 Hun cavalry reserve from the center and hurled them against the rear of the victorious Persian left wing.  He then launched his elite personal reserve against the Persian cavalry flank.  Attacked on three sides the Immortals broke and fled the battlefield.
Eastern Roman Infantry

5)  Belisarius left the chase of the crushed Persians to his original right wing cavalry which had now rallied.  Belisarius then led his bodyguard and the Huns against the unprotected left flank of the Persian infantry.  With no cavalry support, the entire Persian infantry center was reduced to a mass of fugitives, shattered beyond recall.

Some 8,000 Persians were left dead on the battlefield.

In this battle Belisarius demonstrated his great skill at tactics.

The battle of Dara illustrates the consequences of the failure of a double envelopment, the effects of a force attacking from a concealed position in an outflanking move, and the use of entrenchments to "refuse" part of the battle line.

By keeping the infantry out of the battle, Belisarius largely neutralized the overwhelming strength of the Persian center. 

Finally it illustrates the advantages in fighting from a strong defensive position.  Belisarius was able to hold the enemy infantry in place.  Then with his crack cavalry units he checked the Persian attacks and then repulsed and routed the two cavalry wings before turning on the infantry.

Procopius says:   But up to midday neither side began battle. As soon, however, as the noon hour was passed, the barbarians began the fight, having postponed the engagement to this time of the day for the reason that they are accustomed to partake of food only towards late afternoon, while the Romans have their meal before noon; and for this reason they thought that the Romans would never hold out so well, if they assailed them while hungry.

At first, then, both sides discharged arrows against each other, and the missiles by their great number made, as it were, a vast cloud; and many men were falling on both sides, but the missiles of the barbarians flew much more thickly. For fresh men were always fighting in turn, affording to their enemy not the slightest opportunity to observe what was being done; but even so the Romans did not have the worst of it. For a steady wind blew from their side against the barbarians, and checked to a considerable degree the force of their arrows. Then, after both sides had exhausted all their missiles, they began to use their spears against each other, and the battle had come still more to close quarters.

On the Roman side the left wing was suffering especially. For the Cadiseni, who with Pityaxes were fighting at this point, rushing up suddenly in great numbers, routed their enemy, and crowding hard upon the fugitives, were killing many of them. When this was observed by the men under Sunicas and Aigan, they charged against them at full speed. But first the three hundred Eruli under Pharas from the high ground got in the rear of the enemy and made a wonderful display of valorous deeds against all of them and especially the Cadiseni.

And the Persians, seeing the forces of Sunicas too already coming up against them from the flank, turned to a hasty flight. And the rout became complete, for the Romans here joined forces with each other, and there was a great slaughter of the barbarians. On the Persian right wing not fewer than three thousand perished in this action, while the rest escaped with difficulty to the phalanx and were saved. And the Romans did not continue their pursuit, but both sides took their stand facing each other in line. Such was the course of these events.
Hun Warrior - Byzantine Ally.

But the mirranes stealthily sent to the left a large body of troops and with them all the so-called Immortals. And when these were noticed by Belisarius and Hermogenes, they ordered the six hundred men under Sunicas and Aigan to go to the angle on the right, where the troops of Simmas  and Ascan were stationed, and behind them they placed many of Belisarius men. So the Persians who held the left wing under the leadership of Baresmanas, together with the Immortals, charged on the run upon the Romans opposite them, who failed to withstand the attack and beat a hasty retreat.

Thereupon the Romans in the angle, and all who were behind them, advanced with great ardour against the pursuers. But inasmuch as they came upon the barbarians from the side, they cut their army into two parts, and the greater portion of them they had on their right, while some also who were left behind were placed on their left. Among these happened to be the standard bearer of Baresmanas, whom Sunicas charged and struck with his spear.

And already the Persians who were leading the pursuit perceived in what straits they were, and, wheeling about, they stopped the pursuit and went against their assailants, and thus became exposed to the enemy on both sides. For those in flight before them understood what was happening and turned back again. The Persians, on their part, with the detachment of the Immortals, seeing the standard inclined and lowered to the earth, rushed all together against the Romans at that point with Baresmanas. There the Romans held their ground. And first Sunicas killed Baresmanas and threw him from his horse to the ground.

As a result of this the barbarians were seized with great fear and thought no longer of resistance, but fled in utter confusion. And the Romans, having made a circle as it were around them, killed about five thousand. Thus both armies were all set in motion, the Persians in retreat, and the Romans in pursuit. In this part of the conflict all the foot-soldiers who were in the Persian army threw down their shields and were caught and wantonly killed by their enemy.

However, the pursuit was not continued by the Romans over a great distance. For Belisarius and Hermogenes refused absolutely to let them go farther, fearing lest the Persians through some necessity should turn about and rout them while pursuing recklessly, and it seemed to them sufficient to preserve the victory unmarred.

For on that day the Persians had been defeated in battle by the Romans, a thing which had not happened for a long time. Thus the two armies separated from each other. And the Persians were no longer willing to fight a pitched battle with the Romans. However, some sudden attacks were made on both sides, in which the Romans were not at a disadvantage. Such, then, was the fortune of the armies in Mesopotamia.
Procopius - The History of the Wars

Sassanian Immortal Troops

6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry

The Eastern Roman and Persian Empires about 500AD

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