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, November 17, 2016

Roman Empire Military Organization (802 - 867 AD)

Byzantine Warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.

Defending an Empire

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. The Byzantine military has not been given proper credit by historians.

We have literally mountains of information in excruciating detail on the American Civil War and World War II.  But when it comes to the Eastern Empire documents on military units, fortifications, budgets and battles have vanished into the mists of time.

It is safe to say the the Eastern Roman military machine was not a haphazard or accidental creation. The Byzantines carried on the Roman tradition of a highly organized military. This can be seen in the structure and variety of full time professional units that were backed up by a large body of trained reserves. We see it also in command structure, military provinces (themes) and huge numbers of fortifications.

To run such an extensive military war machine required not only a well trained officer corps but also a large bureaucracy to direct supplies, recruits, hospitals and more.

Sadly we lack so much detail. But the article below by Professor J.B. Bury does a great deal to fill in the gaps. Bury shows a well oiled military machine at a time when western Europeans operated at the most primitive feudal levels.

By J.B. Bury
From: A History of the Eastern Roman Empire
from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I
(A.D. 802 - 867)  Published 1912

Under the Amorian dynasty considerable administrative changes were made in the organization of the military provinces into which the Empire was divided, in order to meet new conditions. In the Isaurian period there were five great Themes in Asia Minor, governed by stratégoi, in the following order of dignity and importance: the Anatolic, the Armeniac, the Thrakesian, the Opsikian, and the Bukellarian.

This system of “the Five Themes,” as they were called, lasted till the reign of Michael ., if not till that of Theophilus. But it is probable that before that time the penetration of the Moslems in the frontier regions had rendered it necessary to delimit from the Anatolic and Armeniac provinces districts which were known as kleisurarchies, and were under minor commanders, kleisurarchs, who could take measures for defending the country independently of the stratégoi. In this way the kleisurarchy of Seleucia, west of Cilicia, was cut ofi“ from the Anatolic Theme, and that of Charsianon from the Armeniacta Southern Cappadocia, which was constantly exposed to Saracen invasion through the Cilician gates, was also formed into a frontier province. We have no record of the times at which these changes were made, but we may suspect that they were of older date than the reign of Theophilus.

This energetic Emperor made considerable innovations in the thematic system throughout the Empire, and this side of his administration has not been observed or appreciated. In Asia Minor he created two new Themes, Paphlagonia and' Ghaldia. Paphlagonia seems to have been cut off from the Bukellarian province; probably it had a separate existence already, as a “ katepanate,” for the governor of the new Theme, while he was a stratégos, bore the special title of Icatepano, which looks like the continuation of an older arrangement.

Military Themes In Asia Minor
Military Themes were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas.

The rise of Paphlagonia in importance may be connected with the active Pontic policy of Theophilus. It is not without significance that Paphlagonian ships played a part in the expedition which he sent to Cherson, and we may conjecture with probability that the creation of the Theme of the Klimata on the north of the Euxine and that of Paphlagonia on the south were not isolated acts, but were part of the same general plan.

The institution of the Theme of Chaldia, which was cut off from the Armeniac Theme (probably A.D. 837), may also be considered as part of the general policy of strengthening Imperial control over the Black Sea and its coastlands, here threatened by the imminence of the Moslem power in Armenia. To the south of Chaldia was the duchy of Koloneia, also part of the Armeniac circumscrrption.” In the following reign (before AD. 863) both Koloneia and Gappadocia were elevated to the rank of Themes.

The Themes of Europe, which formed a class apart from those of Asia, seem at the end of the eighth century to have been four in number—Thrace, Macedonia, Hellas, and Sicily. There were also a number of provinces of inferior rank— Calabria, under its Dux; Dalmatia and Crete, under governors who had the title of oz'rchon; while Thessalonica with the adjacent region was still subject to the ancient Praetorian Prefect of Illyricum, an anomalous survival from the old system of Constantine. It was doubtless the Slavonic revolt in the reign of Nicephorus I. that led to the reorganization of the Helladic province, and the constitution of the Peloponnesus as a distinct Theme, so that Hellas henceforward meant Northern Greece.

The Mohammadan descent upon Crete doubtless led to the appointment of a stratégos instead of an archon of Crete, and the Bulgarian wars to the suppression of the Praetorian prefect by a stratégos of Thessalonica. The Theme of Kephalonia (with the Ionian Islands) seems to have existed at the beginning of the ninth century ; but the Saracen menace to the Hadriatic and the western coasts of Greece may account for the foundation of the Theme of Dyrrhachium, a city which probably enjoyed, like the com munities of the Dalmatian coast, a certain degree of local inde pendence. If so, we may compare the policy of Theophilus in instituting the stratégos of the Klimata with control over the magistrates of Cherson.

It is to be noted that the Theme of Thrace did not include the region in the immediate neighbourhood of Constantinople, cut off by the Long Wall of Anastasius, who had made special provisions for the government of this region. In the ninth century it was still a separate circum scription, probably under the military command of the Count of the Walls, and Arabic writers designate it by the curious name Talaya or Talia.

Balkan and Italian Military Themes of The Empire

There were considerable differences in the ranks and salaries of the stratégoi. In the first place, it is to be noticed that the governors of the Asiatic provinces, the admirals of the naval Themes, and the stratégoi of Thrace and Macedonia were paid by the treasury, while the governors of the European Themes paid themselves a fixed amount from the custom dues levied in their own provinces. Hence for administrative purposes Thrace and Macedonia are generally included among the Asiatic Themes. The rank of patrician was bestowed as a rule upon the Anatolic, Armeniac, and Thrakesian stratégoi, and these three received a salary of 40 lbs. of gold (£1728).

The pay of the other stratégoi and kleisurarchs ranged from 36 to 12 lbs, but their stipends were somewhat reduced in the course of the ninth century. We can easily calculate that the total cost of paying the governors of the eastern provinces (including Macedonia and Thrace) did not fall short of £15,000.

In these provinces there is reason to suppose that the number of troops, who were chiefly cavalry, was about 80,000. They were largely settled on military lands, and their pay was small. The recruit, who began service at a very early age, received one nomisma (12s.) in his first year, two in his second, and so on, till the maximum of twelve (£7 : 4s), or in some cases of eighteen (£10 : 16s.), was reached.

The army of the Theme was divided generally into two, sometimes three, turms or brigades; the turm into drungoi or battalions; and the battalion into banda or companies. The corresponding commanders were entitled turmarchs, drungaries, and counts. The number of men in the company, the sizes of the battalion and the brigade, varied widely in the different Themes. The original norm seems to have been a bandon of 200 men and a drungos of 5 banda.

It is very doubtful whether this uniform scheme still prevailed in the reign of Theophilus. It is certain that at a somewhat later period the bandon varied in size up to the maximum of 400, and the drungos oscillated between the limits of 1000 and 3000 men. Originally the turm was composed of 5 drungoi (5000 men), but this rule was also changed. The number of drungoi in the turm was reduced to three, so that the brigade which the turmarch commanded ranged from 3000 upwards.

The pay of the officers, according to one account, ranged from 3 lbs. to 1 1b., and perhaps the subalterns in the company (the kentarchs and pentekontarchs) are included; but the turmarchs in the larger themes probably received a higher salary than 3 lbs. If We assume that the average bandon was composed of 300 men and the average drungos of 1500, and further that the pay of the drungary was 3 lbs., that of the count 2 lbs. and that of the kentarch 1 1b., the total sum expended on these oflicers would have amounted to about £64,000. But these assumptions are highly uncertain. _ Our data for the pay of the common soldiers form a still vaguer basis for calculation; but we may conjecture, with every reserve, that the salaries of the armies of the Eastern Themes, including generals and oflicers, amounted to not less than £500,000.

The armies of the Themes formed only one branch of the military establishment. There were four other privileged and _ difl'erently organized cavalry regiments known as the Tagmata : 2 (1) the Schools, (2) the Excubitors, (3) the Arithmos or Vigla, and (4) the Hikanatoi. The first three were of ancient foundation ; the fourth was a new institution of Nicephorus I., who created a child, his grandson Nicetas (afterwards the Patriarch Ignatius), its first commander. The commanders of these troops were entitled Domestics, except that of the Arithmos, who was known as the Drungary of the Vigla or Watch.

The Varangian Guard
An elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries,
 whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine EmperorsThey are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus' provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard.

Some companies of these Tagmatic troops may have been stationed at Constantinople, where the Domestics usually resided, but the greater part of them were quartered in Thrace, Macedonia, and Bithynia. The question of their numbers is perplexing. We are variously told that in the ninth century they were each 6000 or 4000 strong, but in the tenth the numbers seem to have been considerably less, the strength of the principal Tagma, the Scholarians, amounting to no more than 1500 men. If we accept one of the larger figures for the reign of Theophilus, we must suppose that under one of his successors these troops were reduced in number.

The Domestic of the Schools preceded in rank all other military commanders except the stratégos of the Anatolic Theme, and the importance of the post is shown by the circumstance that it was filled by such men as Manuel and Bardas. In later times it became still more important; in the tenth century, when a military expedition against the Saracens was not led by the Emperor in person, the Domestic of the Schools was ex oficio the Commander-in-Chief The Drungary of the Watch and his troops were distinguished from the other Tagmata by the duties they performed as sentinels in campaigns which were led by the Emperor in person. The Drungary was responsible for the safety of the camp, and carried the orders of the Emperor to the generals.

Besides the Thematic and the Tagmatic troops, there were the Numeri, a regiment of infantry commanded by a Domestic ; and the forces which were under the charge of the Count or Domestic of the Walls, whose duty seems to have been the defence of the Long Wall of Anastasius. These troops played little part in history. More important was the Imperial Guard or Hetaireia, which, recruited from barbarians, formed the garrison of the Palace, and attended the Emperor on campaigns.

The care which was spent on providing for the health and comfort of the soldiers is illustrated by the baths at Dorylaion, the first of the great military stations in Asia Minor. This bathing establishment impressed the imagination of oriental visitors, and it is thus described by an Arabic writer :

"Dorylaion possesses warm springs of fresh water: over which the Emperors have constructed vaulted buildings for bathing. There are seven basins, each of which can accommodate a thousand men. The water reaches the breast of a man of average height, and the overflow is discharged into a small lake."

In military campaigns, careful provision was made for the wounded. There was a special corps of oflicers called deputat0i, whose duty was to rescue wounded soldiers and take them to the rear, to be tended by the medical staff. They carried flasks of water, and had two ladders attached to the saddles of their horses on the left side, so that, having mounted a fallen soldier with the help of one ladder, the deputatos could himself mount instantly by the other and ride off.

It is interesting to observe that not only did the generals and superior officers make speeches to the soldiers, in old Hellenic fashion, before a battle, but there was a band of professional orators, called cantatores, whose duty was to stimu late the men by their eloquence during the action. Some of the combatants themselves, if they had the capacity, might be chosen for this purpose. A writer on the art of war suggests the appropriate chords which the cantatores might touch, and if we may infer their actual practice, the leading note was religious. “ We are fighting in God’s cause; the issue lies with him, and he will not favour the enemy because of their unbelief.”

Eastern Roman Dromon
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Eastern Roman Navy

Naval necessities imposed an increase of expenditure for the defence of the Empire in the ninth century. The navy, which had been efiiciently organized under the Heraclian dynasty and had performed memorable services against the attacks of the Omayyad Caliphs, had been degraded in import ance and suffered to decline by the policy of the Isaurian monarchs.

We may criticize their neglect of the naval arm, but we must remember that it was justified by immediate impunity, for it was correlated with the simultaneous decline in the naval power of the Saracens. The Abbasids who trans ferred the centre of the Caliphate from Syria to Mesopotamia undertook no serious maritime enterprises. The dangers of the future lay in the west and not in the east,—in the ambitions of the Mohammadan rulers of Africa and Spain, whose only way of aggression was by sea. Sicily was in peril throughout the eighth century, and Constantine V. was forced to reorganize her fleet ; accidents and internal divisions among the Saracens helped to save her till the reign of Michael II.

We shall see in another chapter how the Mohammadans then obtained a permanent footing in the island, the beginning of its complete conquest, and how they occupied Crete. These events necessitated a new maritime policy. To save Sicily, to recover Crete, were not the only problems. The Imperial possessions in South Italy were endangered ; Dalmatia, the Ionian islands, and the coasts of Greece were exposed to the African fleets. It was a matter of the first importance to preserve the control of the Hadriatic. The reorganization of the marine estab lishment was begun by the Amorian dynasty, though its effects were not fully realized till a later period.

The naval forces of the Empire consisted of the Imperial fleet, which was stationed at Constantinople and commanded by the Drungary of the Navy, and the Provincial fleets of the Kibyrrhaeot Theme, the Aegean, Hellas, Peloponnesus, and Kephalonia. The Imperial fleet must now have been increased in strength, and the most prominent admiral of the age, Ooryphas, may have done much to reorganize it. An armament of three hundred warships was sent against Egypt in AD. 853, and the size of this force may be held to mark the progress which had been made. Not long after the death of Michael III. four hundred vessels were operating off the coast of Apulia.

We have some figures which may give us a general idea  of the cost of these naval expeditions. Attempts were made to recover Crete from the Saracens in AD. 902 and in A.D. 949, and the pay of officers and men for each of these expeditions, which were not on a large scale, amounted to over £140,000. This may enable us to form a rough estimate of the expenditure‘ incurred in sending armaments oversea in the ninth century. We may surmise, for instance, that not less than a quarter of a million (pounds sterling), equivalent in present value to a million and a quarter, was spent on the Egyptian expedition in the reign of Michael III.

Siege of Constantinople 717 AD

(pinterest.com)      (Byzantine Themes)      (Varangian Guard)

(hathitrust.org)      (Michael II)


Anonymous said...

as now things going on , it goes to worth shit that fight !!!!
1.200 years after as they fought to stop the flood of stone age barbarians , those stupid and some traitors ,today heirs of then, are working on to do, a massive pile of shit, for our common future ...
only for elusive power ...
sons of witiza most of them ...

Anonymous said...

At what point did the standing army disappear and the empire begin to depend solely on mercenaries?

Gary said...

The Empire never TOTALLY used mercenaries. There was always a standing army under the control of Constantinople. Certainly during the 1100s the Theme system that supplied troops had weakened requiring foreign troops to be used.

Partly that was financial in nature. Themes that paid taxes and provided troops were being over run by the Turks. The Empire was becoming more European based and less Asian.

Remember that the Roman Empire had almost always used foreign troops to fight along side regular troops. You can give the foreigners fancy names or call them "allies" but foreigners they are.

For example, in 629 AD the The Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in Palestine a majority of the Roman Army was made up of Christian Arab allies. We see this in countless battles for centuries.

Anonymous said...

auxiliaries always fight next to roman legions ,as arminius or the goths with mixed advantages and blunders ...

Anonymous said...

the gauls on horses , or the sarmatians on the bow and arrow , or the isaurians with slingshots ...
on many battles those mercenaries on byzantium army let the battle field , on others they fought till death as those from themata run ...
one must see as things go battle after battle ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gary!
Do you know why the theme system succeeded against the Arabs but failed against the Turks?

Anonymous said...

anatolia as been almost run over by alp arslan turks , so from that heart of byzantine empire , no more help can came to basileus ... so the themata system overrun ... the thrace , illyria or greece lands cannot hold the west and east , cause normans came also to face byzantium ... as turks in the east
as anatolia , and armenia lost ( safe those years from the cristian kingdoms in syria or palestine made a upturn in the byzantium losses ) the empire scarce human resources cannot hold longer ... only with frankish knights , varengians and italians foreign troops , and allied turks too they made a final stand in those last years and with treaties that let byzantiun as somehow under ottman fiefdom .
the problemn on themata was anatolia lost ... the wealth , men , and armies came from that region mostly...
manzikert if not final , made a blow on the system of themata that will not heal over ... the empire became stronger after some help from crusaders kingdoms , but those became a burden to as they carved up the empire on 1204 latin , and greek one
i`m not gary and thats what i think happen

Anonymous said...

Europe themata
Europe now , or since after 1945 ... as defense is been traded for social security cozy retirement ... rely on the USA armed forces ( almost full of rust belt volunteers ) for the themata of the EU ... now as they cannot hold all the lines ... lets wait ( sitting ) that europeans bring some positive and meanninfull role on they common defence ...
rah rah rah !!!!!!
won`t believe that
safe a few elite regiments , and the nuclear britain and france , europe forget to made effort on it ...
now they must came hurry on it , or lose all those confortable ways , that americans ( common american workers ) lost on those globalized years of china grow on USA wealth and spend ...
europe a playground for the riches of the world , or a safe haven for worthless Money grabers on social securities from fat , aloof europeans tax payers ...
thats as f*** europe and the us is

Unknown said...

Id say,about the early 11th century

Unknown said...

Different times,different emperors

Anonymous said...

"11th-century Byzantine emperors"

Alexios I Komnenos
Andronikos Doukas (co-emperor)

Basil II

Constantine Doukas (co-emperor)
Constantine IX Monomachos
Constantine X Doukas
Constantine VIII

Isaac I Komnenos

Konstantios Doukas

Leo Diogenes

Michael V Kalaphates
Michael VII Doukas
Michael IV the Paphlagonian
Michael VI Bringas

Nikephoros Diogenes
Nikephoros III Botaneiates

Romanos III Argyros
Romanos IV Diogenes

Theodora (11th century)

Zoë Porphyrogenita

there it goes ... i`ll bet you they got mercenaries on all on them , if only varangians

as you can see that worth nothing cause today situation on the region