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

Thursday, December 1, 2022

"On Skirmishing" - Eastern Roman Cavalry Tactics


Late Roman cavalry

I found a great little 2009 article on Byzantine cavalry tactics. Sadly, the good old copy and paste method is blocked. Why??? Who knows? No one is going to pay for this material. So I will do a summary of part of it.

The internet has provided me so many odd tidbits of information on the Eastern Roman Army. For example, articles on hand grenades, heavy artillery, land mines and infantry squares. You can find these articles and others on the right side of this page under "Army".

The picture we get is of a highly sophisticated, trained and powerful Roman military machine.

It was not an accident that the Eastern Empire survived endless attacks from every possible direction by every barbarian tribe imaginable plus by the armies of the civilized Persian Empire. The Roman Army lost and regained ground constantly. But the bottom line is, because of the army and navy the Empire survived for centuries.

"On Skirmishing"

Mobile cavalry was vital in defending the huge eastern border. Strong points would be defended by the infantry.

The military treatise "On Skirmishing" was written during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and deals with tactics involved with border warfare.

In the words of the author "Our part by writing down these things just as our predecessors handed them on to us, as well from our own experience which goes back a long time." References are made about generations of military knowledge handed down.

The author says the strategy of many generations we perfected in the 10th Century:

  • "To the best of my knowledge, it was Bardas, the blessed Caesar, who brought this method to the summit of perfection. I do not want to enumerate all the ancient commanders but shall limit myself to those in our time whom everyone knows. When this method had completely vanished, it was Bardas who brought it back."

Roman Cavalry
Living history military re-enactment group The Ermine Street Guard at Kelmarsh Hall. Photo taken in Kelmarsh, Northamptonshire in July 2009.

The evolution of Roman strategy allowed them to defend the eastern frontier in the 7th and 8th centuries and then reach a point where they could reconquer lost provinces in the 10th century.

On Skirmishing exclusively deals with the eastern front and the non-stop fighting with the Arabs. Secondly, it directly addresses the general on how to face the enemy.

On Skirmishing can be divided into two parts: 

  1. Weaken the enemy as efficiently as possible. This is done by limiting forage, harassing any vulnerable detachments, utilizing favorable terrain, and constantly shadowing the enemy.
  2. Try to defeat the enemy as efficiently as possible once they are worn down. This would be done using a variety of ambushes, night attacks, blocking the enemy's retreat and striking when and where they least expect it.

Basically the plan allows the enemy to march into Roman lands while trying to gain military victories as efficiently as possible.

It is stressed that generals buy time so the Roman peasants could relocate to safer areas. 

Preserving the Roman economic base was vital to the long term health of Empire. The question is asked: "What can be done if the enemy launch a sudden concentrated attack . . .  before Imperial forces have been assembled?" In this case, the general is recommended to do the following:

  • "Dispatch the turmarch of that region, or other officers, with great speed to get ahead of the enemy and, as best they can, evacuate and find refuge for the inhabitants of the villages and their flocks . . . give the enemy the impression that he is getting ready for a battle right then (at night). By doing this he might succeed in forestalling their attack and preserve the region unharmed . . . He himself should advance with selected officers and good horsemen and give the enemy the impression that he has been making preparations to fight against them in order to launch an attack . . . if there is no river or rough ground along the road, he should still expose himself a bit and advance as though to fight . . . By such procedures he will save the villagers from impending assault and from captivity, and they shall keep their freedom. With great precision and foresight, let him make his appearance and charge against them with a few selected horsemen, as we have said. These will immediately turn tail and retreat to the strong places and fortresses and be preserved from harm."

A comparison should be made with the collapse of the Western Roman frontier in the 4th and 5th centuries and the successful defense of the Eastern Empire's frontier from the 7th to 10th centuries.

The Western Romans saw an economic collapse as various barbarian tribes moved in and laid waste to the countryside. The destruction of the economic base helped speed along the military collapse.

The Eastern Romans not only staved off destruction but were able to support themselves and regain the offensive and expand the Empire.

Europe around 800AD
The Eastern Romans had a long border 
to defend with the Caliphate.

Setting traps for the enemy was discussed.
  • "Have him (an experienced commander) order a few of the men under him to dress like farmers, and mix in some real farmers and herdsmen with them. All of them ought to be unarmed and their heads uncovered. Some should be barefoot. All should be on horseback, carrying very short wooden staffs. Do all this to deceive the enemy and to give them the impression that these men are not from the army but just some farmers, of the sort called stewards . . . our men, then, who are disguised as farmers and peasant stewards, when the enemy have begun to follow them, should hurry to reach the site of the ambuscade. There the enemy who are following them, caught off their guard, will fall right into the ambush."
To a large degree On Skirmishing talks about avoiding major battles while protecting the local peasants and economy. Chewing up intruding enemy forces and pushing them back across the border was the goal. But larger battles were discussed.
  • "You should launch your attack from the rear with infantry units. Divide the remaining infantry into six divisions; station three off to the right side of the enemy, and three off to the left . . . leave open and unguarded the road, and that alone, which provides safe passage for the enemy toward their own land. After they have been vigorously assaulted and they discover the open road, beguiled by the idea of being saved, of fleeing the battle, and of getting back to their own land, they mount their horses and race along that road to escape, each man concerned about his own safety . . . He (the general) should occupy the mountain heights (on the enemy's path of retreat) and also secure the road passing through . . . hasten to seize the passes before they do and without delay launch your attack directly against them."
On Skirmishing advises exploiting the retreat of the enemy for maximum effect. The goal is to limit your losses while inflicting the maximum number of losses on your retreating foe.

If an enemy general refuses to fall for the Roman traps then it is advised to ignore the invaders and attack the enemy homeland.
  • "Therefore, General, when you are at a loss about how to injure the enemy with stratagems and ambushes, because they are very cautious and guard themselves carefully, or if, on the other hand, it is because your forces are not up to facing them openly in battle, then this is what you ought to do. Either you march quickly against the lands of the enemy, leaving the most responsible of the other generals behind, with though troops for skirmishing and for security of the themes . . . When the enemy hear of this, they will force their leader, even if he is unwilling, to get back and defend their own country."
It is important to note the context of the time when On Skirmishing was written.

The Romans had lost their richest provinces: Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria to the Arabs. This was a serious blow to the Empire in both manpower for the military and a loss of taxes to support the troops.

The Romans were permanently on the defensive against the now numerically superior Arabs.

To survive the Romans adopted guerilla warfare against the Arabs. They used small, well-led bands of men from local provinces to wear down the enemy. Speed and surprise was the rule of the day and swiftly moving light cavalry was of supreme importance.

After defeating several invading Arab armies the border began to stabilize. The Arabs were reduced to using raiding parties to gather loot. The Romans replied in kind.


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