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, November 1, 2014

Infantry vs. Cavalry : The Byzantine Infantry Square


Editor  -  Below is a wonderful 1988 article by Professor Eric McGeer on Eastern Roman military tactics.  It is refreshing to read material by true experts on a subject.

Eastern Roman military history had suffered from a near total lack of proper histories written by those who witnessed the events.  We historians have to fill in the lack of detailed information with what we know from similar events. In this case I can say that the Byzantine infantry units have not been given proper credit by historians.

Byzantine infantry have lived in the shadow of the Roman Legions. But the Byzantine Army stood centuries longer than the legions of Rome. They must have been doing something right.

Professor McGeer details how Byzantine units formed and maintained complex infantry squares against attacking Arab cavalry. This required a great deal of training for the officers so they would be able to organize multiple units to act together while under enemy fire. But also the average soldier and his unit would must have had considerable training to firmly hold their assigned position during the madness of battle.

For over 800 years the Byzantines had to face down an seemingly endless stream of fanatical Islamist armies bent on conquest. Simply they held their own and often defeated and drove back their enemies.  Winning is not an accident. The soldiers and their officers were trained well.


The Byzantines encountered many different nations on the battlefield during their long history. The surveys of foreign peoples in the military manuals amply illustrate the Byzantines' readiness not only to analyze the tactics and characteristics of their enemies, but also even to learn from them when necessary. Their recognition of the need to study and to adapt themselves to the unfamiliar methods of warfare practiced by their enemies pays witness to the intellectual and practical character of the Byzantine approach to war.

The recorded observation of enemy skills and tactics was a feature which the Byzantines added to the long tradition of military science inherited from classical Antiquity. The study of war was energetically renewed in tenth-century Byzantium, as the number of important manuscripts and texts dating from this period clearly demonstrates.

This renewal of military science was largely in response to the increasing danger from the Arabs, whom the Byzantines had come to consider their most formidable enemies. It is always a difficult problem to determine what relation there was between traditional theory and contemporary practice in the Byzantine military texts — to what extent did the tenth-century strategists combine theory with practice to create formations and tactics which would be effective against the Arabs?

The analysis of the battle formation and tactics prescribed for infantry in the Praecepta militaria (ca. 965) sheds interesting light on this question. The choice of this subject will provide the opportunity to examine the underestimated role and importance of infantry in Byzantine armies of the period, as well as to see how the author of the Praecepta relied on earlier sources and his own observations to develop a formation and set of tactics for Byzantine infantry facing Arab cavalry.

Dealing with Arab Cavalry
Starting in September, 629 AD the Eastern Roman Empire came in contact with an enemy like none they had faced before: rapidly moving fanatic Islamist armies from the deserts of Arabia.  
Unlike the slower moving conventional armies of the Persian Empire, the Arab cavalry forces were extremely nimble and moved swiftly over the harsh conditions of the Roman desert frontiers. The Byzantines had to develop new tactics to both hold off the aggressive Islamist armies and also try to retake lost territories. 

Other tenth-century treatises show that the Byzantines also used a square for the same purposes, but the Sylloge is the first text in which a square is prescribed as the standard battle formation for Byzantine infantry. According to this text, one employed the infantry square to act as a mobile base for cavalry, either to follow in support of a successful cavalry attack on the enemy or to offer an immediate place of refuge in case the cavalry met with defeat. The author of the Praecepta followed the Sylloge closely as the blueprint for the basic deployment and tactics for infantry supporting cavalry in battle, occasionally even quoting his main source.

But at the same time, it must be said that he read the Sylloge critically and realistically, leaving aside all of its painstaking calculations of the manpower in the infantry force or of the measurements of the infantry square. In selecting only material which he knew conformed with the types of soldier and equipment at his disposal, the author of the Praecepta sought to give an up-to-date account of the Byzantine army". The real departure from the Sylloge, however, begins with his systematic description of the infantry force and the situations which it might have to confront on the battlefield.

The first and second chapters of the Praecepta treat the numbers, equipment, deployment and tactics for the infantry force attending the cavalry. The infantry were divided into twelve ταξιαρχίαι of one thousand men each.

A single ταξιαρχία included four types of infantryman in the following quantities :
  • four hundred όπλΐται (heavy infantrymen, armed with spear and sword, and protected by corslet, cap and shield),
  • three hundred τοξόται (archers, « called ψιλοίby the ancients »),
  • two hundred άκοντισταίand σφενδοβολισταί(light spearmen and slingers),
  • and one hundred μοναυλάτοι (heavy infantrymen who carried an exceptionally thick and solid spear, the μοναύλιον).

The author informs us that the heavy infantrymen were to be picked out from both Byzantines and Armenians (who formed a particularly ferocious contingent in the armies of Nikephoros Phokas), while the lighter άκοντισταίwere supplied by « Russians » (or by other foreigners).
10th Century Byzantine
Varangian Guard

The following description of the infantry square will be understood more easily with reference to the accompanying diagram. The author first instructs that the infantry be deployed in a « double-ribbed » (τετράγωνοςδιττή « called a τετράπλευροςby the ancients »), with three ταξιαρχίαι on each of the four sides. What exactly he means by « double-ribbed » becomes clear when he presents the battle order of the infantrymen in each ταξιαρχία. 

They stood one hundred men broad and seven men deep, that is, two lines of όπλϊται in front of three lines of τοξόται, backed in turn by two lines of όπλϊται, thus creating what the author calls an αμφίστομοςπαρά ταξις « a double-faced formation ». Such a deployment ensured that the rear lines of όπλϊται could protect their comrades' backs by turning around to face any enemy who had managed to break into the square. 

Each line to face any enemy who had managed to break into the square. Each line of one hundred men was commanded by a έκατόνταρχοςstanding in the middle, while two πεντηκόνταρχοι stood on the right and left wings of the line.

Intervals (χωρία) were allowed between the ταξιαρχίαι to permit twelve to fifteen cavalrymen at a time to ride through into or out of the square.  Twelve such intervals could be created in the square, but if the enemy infantry far outnumbered the Byzantine, then the corners of the square could be closed off and only eight intervals would remain, two in each of the four sides of the square. It was the duty of the άκοντισταί standing behind the ταξιαρχίαι to which they belonged, to watch over the intervals and rush forward to block them off whenever the enemy attacked.

The square offered the Byzantines important advantages as a battle formation in enemy lands. Facing four ways, it could not be outflanked or attacked from behind, always an urgent consideration when dealing with the Arabs. In providing immediate refuge for defeated cavalry, it prevented mass and prolonged flight which was usually the makings of real disaster for an army far from home. 

Furthermore, the author tells us that during battle the wounded and the exhausted could find shelter inside the square, while extra infantrymen could be assigned to bring water to the combatants to relieve their thirst, or stones and arrows to the slingers and archers so as to avoid these soldiers having to leave their places in search of more ammunition. Many of these factors suggest strongly that the author was well aware of the psychological advantages inherent in such a formation, not least the enhanced sense of collective security among men who know that their sides and backs are protected, that they can be saved if wounded and relieved if overcome with thirst or exhaustion. 

It must not be over looked, either, that a square facing four ways prevents easy flight by its very shape. For men about to face an all-out cavalry charge on their position, the lack of alternatives was probably the only reason why many of them decided to stay and fight when they would much rather have run away. Deployed as we have seen them, how were the Byzantine infantry to join battle with the enemy ?

Arab Cavalry in World War I.

Infantry versus infantry encounters are treated very briefly. If the enemy were not very sophisticated and simply attacked in a broad line, the άκοντισταίand the μοναυλάτοι on the two flanks of the square not directly engaged were to pour out round the enemy's flanks in a semi-circular movement and crush their line between them. If the enemy infantry were also deployed in a square (as Leo tells us the Arabs often were), then the άκοντισταίand the μοναυλάτοι inside the Byzantine square were sent to the aid of their comrades on whichever side of the square the enemy had attacked. 

These very sparse directions indicate that the author considered a purely infantry battle to be very unlikely, and, as a result, was far more occupied with infantry versus cavalry confrontations —both how to resist enemy cavalry with his infantry and how to destroy enemy infantry with his own cavalry, spearheaded by the mighty κατάφρακτοι.

It was when the enemy had defeated or scattered the Byzantine cavalry and intended to follow up on their success with an assault on the remaining force that the Byzantine infantry came into their own. 

The Arab cavalry posed two problems which the infantry square was designed to counter The first problem was that of their light skirmishers (to whom our author refers as Άραβϊται), who were mounted on very swift horses and used their great speed to ride round the square in hopes of luring the Byzantines into breaking ranks, whereupon they would suddenly wheel about to catch them off guard. 

But if these skirmishers were left at a distance or ignored, their effectiveness was much reduced, since they would never dare close with a strongly defended infantry formation, nor could they surprise the Byzantines with attacks from the flanks or rear. For their part, the Byzantines had no hopes of coming to grips with the elusive Arab raiders and thus could only remain in formation, undeceived by their enemies' feigned attacks and withdrawals.

The Infantry Square
Above is a Turkish attack on an Austrian infantry square in 1788.
The infantry square can be traced to ancient times. The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation. In particular, a large infantry square was utilized by the Roman legions at the Battle of Carrhae against Persia, whose armies contained a large proportion of cavalry.
The formation was constituted as a hollow square. It was vital for squares to stand firm in the face of a cavalry charge, but they were not static formations. Astute commanders could, in suitable terrain, manoeuvre squares to mass archer fire on enemy formations.
Attacking cavalry would attempt to "break a square" by causing it to lose its cohesion, either by charging to induce poorly disciplined infantry to flee before making contact, or by causing casualties through close-range combat.
Combined attacks by infantry and cavalry would also have the same effect - the defending infantry unit would be placed in the difficult position of either forming square and being shot to pieces by archers of the attacking infantry, or being ridden down by the cavalry if it decided to remain in line while trading volleys with the attacking infantry.

A Byzantine Infantry Square

The second problem was posed by the more intimidating Arab regular cavalry, or even, as it appears, by their heavy cavalry, to whom the task fell to make a direct attack on the Byzantine infantry. As it became clear which side of the square the enemy planned to attack in strength, the Byzantines bolstered their lines accordingly. The two πεντηκόνταρχοι (one on the left wing of the line, the other on the right) in one of the two rear lines of όπλϊται led their fifty men forward through the intervals into the front lines of their ταξιαρχία, making them three deep in όπλϊται. 

At this point, the one hundred μοναυλάτοι in the ταξιαρχία also came forward through the intervals into the front lines, now four deep. This manoeuvre, taught to the soldiers in training, not only provided for the prompt  reinforcement of the front lines where necessary, but also served to deceive the enemy as to the real depth of the front lines which they were about to attack. As I interpret the Praecepta, it would appear that the όπλϊται and the μοναυλάτοι anchored the butt ends of their spears against the ground and aimed the points at an angle into the chests of the enemy warhorses, creating, in effect, a « chevaux de frise » four men deep. 

The exceptionally thick and solid μοναύλιον was designed to withstand the impact of an enemy armoured cavalry charge, for as the author says, « even if the three-deep spears of the όπλϊται are smashed by the enemy κατάφρακτοι, then the μοναυλάτοι, being firmly set, stand their ground bravely, receiving the charge of the κατάφρακτοι and turn them away »29. Once embroiled with the όπλϊται and μοναυλάτοι in front of them, the enemy cavalrymen were then set upon by the άκοντισταί who circled in from the flanks of the square not under attack. These light and thus more agile soldiers could take advantage of the restricted mobility of the enemy cavalrymen engaged at close quarters and pick them off one by one by striking them from behind 
or from their unprotected right sides. 

The Arab cavalry ran up against this thicket of spears after riding through a hail of arrows launched by the nine hundred archers stationed behind the spearmen on any one side of the square. If indeed the όπλΐται and the μοναυλάτοι were crouched over their fixed spears, the archers would have been able to shoot over their heads all the more easily, even to within very short range as the enemy drew near. 

Most unfortunately, our author does not give any details as to how archers stood, how they were commanded, or what their rate of shot was expected to be in battle. But their close cooperation with spearmen in repulsing enemy cavalry must have been judged indispensable if one takes into account the vast number of arrows the army was instructed to have on hand. Each archer carried one hundred arrows himself and received fifty more from the store of arrows carried by the pack-animals in the army's baggage train. 

This plentiful supply was doubtless intended to guarantee that the archers would not run out of arrows during battle, and we have already seen that extra men were detailed to keep up a steady supply to them during the fighting. It seems clear enough from this evidence that the Byzantine generals wanted a constant and efficient performance from their archers to take a heavy toll on the enemy cavalrymen well before they reached the infantry lines. 

A Cavalry Charge
It took nerves of steel and discipline to stand shoulder to shoulder with your fellow soldiers and face a charge of enemy cavalry looking to chop you into small chunks. Your safety rested on all the other troops in your unit doing their job and holding firm. 
This video of a cavalry charge from "Kingdom of Heaven" gives you a flavor of what that must have been like.

Such, then, was the system developed and presented by the author of the Praecepta in order to satisfy the defensive requirements of Byzantine expeditionary armies. He adapted a simple, symmetrical formation outlined in an earlier source to the types of infantrymen in his army, and gave each type of infantrymen one specific task to perform in this defensive system. The formation and tactics which he developed were intended to solve two main difficulties for Byzantine infantry facing Arab cavalry — the swift attacks and counterattacks of the light skirmishers and the concentrated attacks of the regular or heavy cavalry. 

But as long as the Byzantine infantry could force the Arabs to fight on their terms, by making them attack from directly in front against a concentrated and reinforced defence, then the chances of success were probably very good. 

Later Byzantine strategists were not averse to making what changes were necessary to maintain the shifting balance between infantry and cavalry on the battlefield. Thirty years or so after the Praecepta was written, a second version of this work was written and included in the Tactica of Nikephoros Ouranos. 

Here we find a slight, but telling, adjustment in the system by which the Byzantine infantrymen deepened their lines before receiving the enemy charge. Instead of advancing one of the two rear lines of όπλΐται through the intervals into the front ranks; as we saw in the original Praecepta, the second version of this work by Nikephoros Ouranos (the victor at Spercheios in 996) instructs every second file of men in the ταξιαρχία to step sideways into the file beside it, thus making a file of men seven deep into a file of men fourteen deep. It will be observed from the diagram of this manoeuvre that the width of the ταξιαρχία is reduced by one file only. 

This adjustment was probably intended to secure two further advantages over the earlier system — that the Byzantine infantry could make their formation even deeper than before and that they could do so in less time. It is therefore tempting to conclude from this adjustment that as heavy cavalry came into greater use (as did the Byzantine κατάφρακτοι in the armies of Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes) the infantry were constantly obliged to find the means to stop them, resorting to deeper and deeper formations and to specialised soldiers such as the μοναυλάτοι, and that these countermeasures were periodically revised to keep pace with fresh developments. 

The close attention to infantry tactics in the military manuals consulted here reminds us that the Byzantines by no means neglected this component of their army in the middle period. The use of infantry was essentially defensive — in battle, on the march and in protecting encampments or fortresses — but was nevertheless indispensable in support of cavalry. In a broader context, the development of infantry tactics from the Sylloge to the Praecepta to the Tactica of Nikephoros Ouranos strengthens the argument that in this period the Byzantines did attempt to combine theory with practice and to pass their conclusions on for further thought. It is no coincidence that by the end of the tenth century their position along the Arab frontiers was much stronger than it had been one hundred years before. 

Eric McGeer 
Université de Montréal (Département d'Histoire) 


Arab cavalry charge in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.


Unknown said...

Very enlightening. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Mr. McGeer's article, just like his book "Sowing the Dragon's Teeth", shows that he is a top-notch Byzantine military historian. If you have not bought the above mentioned book, you really should if you want to learn more about the resurgence of Byzantine military prowess that took place in the tenth century. McGeer's description of a kataphraktoi charge is truly engaging. Get the book and you will see what I mean.

Gary said...

I am so behind in my reading it is insane, but this sounds like a good purchase. Thanks.