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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Strategikon of Maurikios, Part I

Beautiful Late Roman-Byzantine creation.
(Sara Parkes - Facebook)

The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire produced a large number of treatises on military science.

The Empire maintained its highly sophisticated military system from antiquity, which relied on discipline, training, knowledge of tactics and a well-organized support system. A crucial element in the maintenance and spreading of this military know-how, along with traditional histories, were the various treatises and practical manuals. These continued a tradition that stretched back to Xenophon and Aeneas the Tactician, and many Eastern Roman military manuals excerpt or adapt the works of ancient authors, especially Aelian and Onasander.

Byzantine manuals were first produced in the sixth century. They greatly proliferated in the tenth century, when the Byzantines embarked on their conquests in the East and the Balkans

The Strategikon attributed to the Emperor Maurice (r. 582–602) was compiled in the late sixth century. It is a large twelve-book compendium treating all aspects of contemporary land warfare. 

The author is especially concerned to clarify procedures for the deployment and tactics of cavalry, particularly in response to Avar victories in the 580s-590s. He favors indirect forms of combat - ambushes, ruses, nocturnal raids and skirmishing on difficult terrain - and he also exhibits a good understanding of military psychology and morale. 

Book XI offers an innovative analysis of the fighting methods, customs and habitat of the Empire's most significant enemies, as well as recommendations for campaigning north of the Danube against the Slavs, another strategic concern of the 590s. The Strategikon exercised a profound influence upon the subsequent Byzantine genre.

Emperor Maurice (r582 to 602 AD) by Emilian Stankev from "Rulers of the Byzantine Empire". The court of Maurice still used Latin as the official language.

A prominent general, Maurice fought with success against the Sasanian Empire. After he became Emperor, he brought the war with Sasanian Persia to a victorious conclusion. Under him the Empire's eastern border in the South Caucasus was vastly expanded and, for the first time in nearly two centuries, the Romans were no longer obliged to pay the Persians thousands of pounds of gold annually for peace.
Maurice campaigned extensively in the Balkans against the Avars – pushing them back across the Danube by 599. He also conducted campaigns across the Danube, the first Roman Emperor to do so in over two centuries. In the west, he established two large semi-autonomous provinces called exarchates, ruled by exarchs, or viceroys of the emperor. In Italy Maurice established the Exarchate of Italy in 584, the first real effort by the Empire to halt the advance of the Lombards. With the creation of the Exarchate of Africa in 590 he further solidified the power of Constantinople in the western Mediterranean.

The Strategikon of Maurikios
Excerpts from The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak

The Strategikon attributed to the emperor Maurikios (ca. 582–602) remained largely unknown until recent times. This fundamental field manual and military handbook, much copied, paraphrased, emulated by subsequent Byzantine military writers, and much used by warring emperors and their commanders over the centuries, was simply not available when the classics of ancient warfare were rediscovered and mined for useful ideas by Europe’s military innovators from the fifteenth century onward.

The author modestly claimed only a limited combat experience, but he was evidently a highly competent military officer. In the preface, he promises to write succinctly and simply, “with an eye more to practical utility than to fine words,” and keeps his promise. The work was written at the end of the sixth century or very soon thereafter—the modern editor of the text has convincingly shown that it was completed after 592 and before 610.

The Strategikon depicts an army radically different in structure from the classic Roman model, most obviously because of a fundamental shift from infantry to cavalry as the primary combat arm. That was no mere tactical change; it was caused by a veritable strategic revolution in the very purpose of waging war, which compelled the adoption of new operational methods and new tactics

It is interesting to note that there was no such radical change in the language of the army, which had been partly Latinspeaking even in the eastern half of the Roman empire. From the time of Justinian, there was instead a very gradual transition from Latin to Greek, though many of the Greek terms in the Strategikon are still Latin words with Greek endings added and pronounced in a Greek way. 

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract
The late Roman and Eastern Empires copied their main enemy: the Persian armored horse archer. These units provided the Romans with the mobility and firepower to be able to react rapidly in battle.

The Strategikon of Maurikios is the most complete Byzantine field manual in spite of its brevity. To describe the training and tactics that could allow one man to defeat three . . .

. . . the aim in the Strategikon, whose primary type of soldier was neither an infantryman nor a cavalryman but rather both, and a bowman first of all. He therefore required training in both foot and mounted archery with powerful bows, in using the lance for thrusting and stabbing while mounted—with unit training for the charge—and in wielding the sword in close combat. The old term “mounted infantry” does not apply, because in most cases it was nothing more than infantry with cheap horses that could not fight on horseback, let alone with the bow; the even older term “dragoon” is suggestive insofar as the better class of dragoons were equipped with rifles for accuracy and range rather than muskets. Under the heading “The Training and Drilling of the Individual Soldier” we read: 

  • He should be trained to shoot [the bow] rapidly on foot, either in the Roman [thumb and forefinger] or the Persian [three middle finger] manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose [from the quiver] and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced while mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. 

The tactical effectiveness of bowmen is obviously a function of their rate of fire, accuracy, and lethality, but there is no homogeneous tradeoff between the three, because enemies will normally either withdraw beyond the useful range of accurate and lethal arrows, or else to the contrary seek to charge and overrun the bowmen, either way making the rate of fire the dominant variable. “He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run [galloping], to the front, the rear, the right, the left.”

According to Prokopios, that was an established skill for the Byzantine horsemen he saw in action not long before the Strategikon was written: 

  • They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight [the rearward “Parthian shot”]. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike having no power to check its force. 

Mounted and dismounted archery had its specific roles in every stage of battle, from initial sniping at long range to the rapid volleys of all-out engagements, to the pursuit of retreating enemies with forward bowshots, or defensively, to provide rearguard covering shots against advancing enemies.

6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry

By the sixth century, Byzantine archers were armed with the composite reflex bow, the most powerful personal weapon of antiquity. Well before the Strategikon was written, when the Byzantines were fighting the Goths in Italy in the mid-sixth century they were already doing so with the tactical edge of mounted archery. The Strategikon provides the specifics of the required training:

  • On horseback at a run (gallop) he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for the purpose, and then he should grab the [kontarion = lance] which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the [lance] in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted. 

Compound bows, held together by animal-bone glues and powered mostly by dried tendons, had to be protected from the rain by special cases, broad enough to hold the bow when already strung for battle and not just when unstrung.

In addition, the Strategikon recommends “an extra-large cloak or hooded mantle of felt... large enough to wear over... [body armor and] the bow” to protect it “in case it should rain or be damp from the dew.”

. . . when the Strategikon was written, the Byzantines believed in containing but not destroying their enemies—potentially tomorrow’s allies. Therefore for them the cavalry was the more important arm because its engagements did not have to be decisive, but could instead end with a quick withdrawal, or a cautious pursuit that would leave both sides not too badly damaged. Still, even at the height of the cavalry era there was a need for some infantry, both light and heavy. The Strategikon accordingly offers its advice for the training of both while admitting that the subject had long been neglected. 

Under the heading “Training of the Individual Heavy-Armed Infantryman” there are only a few words: 

  • They should be trained in single combat against each other, armed with shield and staff [a real shield and a simulated spear], also, in throwing the short javelin and the lead-pointed dart at a long distance. 

There was more on “Training of the Light-Armed Infantryman or Archer”: 

  • They should be trained in rapid shooting with a bow . . . in either the Roman or the Persian manner. They should be trained in shooting rapidly while carrying a shield, in throwing the small javelin a long distance, in using the sling, and in jumping and running. 

The equipment specified in the Strategikon for each type of infantry clarifies its character, with armored coats for at least the first two men in the file of heavy infantry, so that the front rank and the one behind it were both protected against enemy arrows, as well as cutting weapons, if not maces and such; helmets with cheek plates for all, greaves of iron or wood to protect the legs below the knees, and shields of unspecified type but of full size—elsewhere small shields or “targets” are mentioned. An exhaustive if not excessively insightful modern study contains a long list of different equipment types or perhaps of equipment names, and although there are illustrations, they are insecurely related to the names.

Byzantine Infantry

What is certain is that the function of the heavy infantry at the time and for centuries later, indeed until the introduction of firearms, was to seize and hold ground.

In the Strategikon, as in all other Byzantine texts, the light infantry is chiefly a missile force, equipped with quivers holding up to forty arrows for its composite reflex bows, though it is specified that for “men who might not have bows or are not experienced archers” small javelins, Slavic [light] spears, lead-pointed darts, and slings were to be provided.

There was also a more recondite and much misunderstood item of equipment, the solenarion, not a small crossbow with short arrows as was once believed, but rather “tubes” . . . wooden launch tubes for small arrows. . . short arrows that can fly farther than full-size arrows are inserted in a tube with a central slit; . . . these short arrows were useful for harassing volleys against the enemy when still out of range of full length arrows, which were of course more lethal because they could penetrate thick coverings and armor as the myas could not.

In the Strategikon the primary type of soldier is undoubtedly the mounted lancer-archer, and naturally there is more detail about its equipment. The author recommends hooded coats of sewn-on scale armor (lorica squamata), or interlinked lamellar armor, or chain mail (lorica hamata), down to the ankles . . .

There were also carrying cases for them covered in water-resistant leather, for armor was expensive and it would rust; it was further specified that light wicker cases for body armor should also be carried behind the saddle over the loins, because “in the case of a reversal, if the [servants] with the spare horses [and ancillary equipment] are missing for a day, the coats of armor will not be left unprotected and ruined.” 

Helmets, swords, iron breastplates, and head armor for horses are mentioned, but special attention is devoted to the primary weapon: “Bows suited to the strength of each man, and not above it, more in fact on the weaker side.”

The composite reflex bow was effective because it accumulated much energy but was equally resistant, so it was a good idea to choose a bow whose string could be pulled back quickly and confidently even on the thirtieth arrow, and not just the first. Cases wide enough for combatready strung bows are specified, as mentioned above, as are spare bowstrings in the soldier’s own saddlebag and not just in unit stores, quivers with rain covers for thirty or forty arrows—more were in unit stores— and small files and awls for field repairs.

The author specifies that cavalry lances with leather thongs and pennons, round neck pieces, breast and neck coverings, broad tunics, and tents (round leather yurts) are to be of the “Avar type.” The Byzantine mounted archers that featured so largely in Prokopios a half century before were patterned on the Huns, but by the time the Strategikon was written, the Byzantines had been repeatedly attacked by the Avars, the first of the Turkic mounted archers to reach the west, who had the same composite reflex bow as the Huns . . . 

. . . a most famous item of equipment first mentioned in the Strategikon: the skala. Literally “stair,” the term is used to mean “stirrup”—“attached to the saddles should be two iron [stirrups]”

When they first encountered them in the searing summer heat of Mesopotamia, the Romans mocked the Persian cavalry in plate armor as clibanarii, from cliba, “bread oven.” Yet they still imitated this heaviest form of armored cavalry, expensive and easily exhausted as it was (especially in hot weather), for the very good reason that in suitable terrain it could offer “escalation dominance” in short, sharp, charging actions.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry

There was also another category of heavy cavalry listed in the Notitia that was destined to endure much longer, the catafractarii (Greek kataphraktoi, from kataphrasso, “cover up”). They too were well protected to confront close combat, and they too were trained to charge with the lance, but originally at any rate they were not as heavily armored as the clibanarii. Instead of heavier plate or lamellar armor, they had sewn-on scale armor or chain mail coats as mentioned in the Strategikon, or body armor of boiled leather or thick, dense cloth— which, if tightly woven to begin with, could be sewn and knotted in multiple layers to function as a sort of proto-Kevlar.

Along with the light missile infantry and the ground-holding and ground-seizing heavy infantry, three other categories of soldiers are mentioned in the Strategikon. The first are the bucellarii, “biscuit-eaters,” named for the twice-baked dehydrated bread issued to ship crews and soldiers on campaign; originally they were raised and paid privately by field commanders as their personal guard and assault force, but evidently they evolved into a state-paid elite force, for we find that special attention is devoted to their appearance: 

  • It is not a bad idea for the [bucellarii] to make use of iron gauntlets and small tassels hanging from the back straps and the breast straps of their horses, as well as small pennons hanging from their own shoulders over coats of mail. For the more handsome the soldier is in his armament, the more confidence he gains in himself and the more fear he inspires in the enemy.

That would have been just as true of other categories of troops, but it is revealing of their status that the point is made about the bucellarii specifically. The latter, incidentally, would soon evolve further into a territorial army corps that was in turn given a fixed military district, or theme, to both govern and defend, when that emergency response to defeat and retreat became an administrative system in the later seventh century.

The second category of troops mentioned as such or simply as “foreigners” were the federati, originally “treaty” (foedus) troops supplied to the empire as complete units under their own chiefs by tribes too poor to pay taxes, or too strong to be taxed; later they could simply be units serving under contract. Unlike today’s mercenaries provided by security contractors, who often cost much more than even well-paid soldiers, units of federati were much cheaper than an equivalent number of legionary troops, because the citizen-soldiers of the legions received good salaries, well-built barracks, careful medical care, and substantia retirement allowances.

Roughly half the army of the Principate was cheaper because it consisted of lower-pay, noncitizen auxiliary troops serving under Roman officers—they provided almost all the cavalry of what was still an infantry-centered army; but because they did not have expensive Roman officers, the federati were even cheaper. That is the reason, no doubt, why they continued to serve in the Byzantine forces till the end in one form or another, most often as more expendable light troops, as in the “javeliners, whether Rhos (early Russians) or any other foreigners” of the Praecepta Militaria, a tenth-century work.

Finally, the Strategikon refers to some kind of citizen militia, or at least to a general preparedness to serve in that capacity: 

  • All the younger Romans up to the age of forty must definitely be required to possess bow and quiver, whether they be expert archers or just average. They should posses two [spears] so as to have a spare at hand in case the first one misses. Unskilled men should use lighter bows. Given enough time, even those who do not know how to shoot will learn, for it is essential that they do. 

Given all the incursions that penetrated right through imperial territory to reach Constantinople itself, one can understand why the author of the Strategikon would favor universal military training, so that all of the able-bodied could help defend their own localities, supplementing professional imperial forces.

We hear, for example, of the valiant role of the population of Edessa (ùanlÕurfa, Urfa) in fighting off the Sasanian Persians in 544:

  • Now those who were of military age together with the soldiers were repelling the enemy most vigorously, and many of the rustics [akgroikon polloi] made a remarkable show of valorous deeds against the barbarians.

But Roman and Byzantine law prohibited private weapons, while organized militias were rarely sanctioned by the Byzantine authorities. That is not surprising. Their potential and episodic military contribution, in the event of enemy incursions that reached their particular part of the empire, was outweighed by their actual and continuing political threat to the imperial authorities in place, and indeed the stability of the empire. 

Late Roman cohort reenactment group
The Eastern Roman military machine was highly complex with many moving parts.  See these stories for more detail.
Byzantine Heavy Artillery
The Byzantine Infantry Square
Byzantine Militia
Byzantine Testudo and Shield Wall
Roman and Byzantine Marching Camps
Roman and Byzantine Military & General Medicine

(Military manuals)      (Grand strategy)


Anonymous said...

pretty scenefull this one
meticulous work doh !!!

Anonymous said...

The major distinction between regular and military timing would be the way that hours have been expressed. Regular time uses statistics 1 to 1-2 to recognize every one of the 2-4 hours each day. In armed forces time, the hours are numbered from 00 to 2-3. Underneath this method, midnight is 00, 1% is 01, inch p.m. is 13, etc.

Routine and army period condition moments and seconds in the exact same method. When switching from routine to www.militarytime.site and vice versa, the moments and moments do not change.

Standard timing demands using a.m. and p.m. to clearly identify the good time . Given that military time employs a one of a kind two-digit variety to identify every one of those 2-4 hours in a day, a.m. and p.m. are unnecessary.

This table summarizes the association between military and regular time.