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

Friday, November 1, 2019

Uniforms of the Eastern Roman Army

From the Facebook page: Fectio
Fectio is the only Dutch Late Roman Re-enactment Society, founded on Saturday May 31st, 1997. Our main aim is education about the Late Roman army by show and tell, focusing on Late Roman society during the 4th to 5th century.

How Did The Eastern Army Dress?

The East Roman Army was a direct continuation of the eastern portion of the Roman Army, from before the division of the empire. The East Roman Army started with the same basic organization as the late Roman Army and its West Roman counterpart, but between the 5th and 7th centuries, the cavalry grew more important, the field armies took on more tasks, and the border armies were transformed into local militias.

How the Eastern Roman soldiers dressed we know almost nothing.

The surviving Byzantine frescos in churches and in important buildings give only a clue. These paintings were commissioned works of art. As such they would present an idealized view of politicians, saints or soldiers. The raw realistic view of war only came with the invention of modern photography.

Hollywood costume departments have poisoned our history.  The "classic" Roman uniform used in so many movies may have never existed. Instead the "uniforms" might have been mix of whatever happened to be available.

During the time of Diocletian ( 284 — 305), the department of the sacrae largitiones distributed shirt, tunic, and cloak to the soldiers while boots were being provided by the local communities as tax in kind. The state owned and managed a system of imperial arms factories (fabricae). The workshops were under the supervision of the Master of Offices (Magister Officiorum). The workers were civilian but served under a military organization.

During early Byzantine times, shields were recommended to be painted the same color in order to distinguish the troops. The term skoutarion was used for shields. Round shields could be domed or conical in section.

By the fifth century, soldiers were being paid in cash to purchase their own armor and equipment. A standard price for a gear was about six solidi. This meant that a high degree of uniformity in appearance must have been unlikely.

Shield insignia of regiments (see photo at the top of this page) under the command of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II of the East Roman army c. 395 AD. Page from the Notitia Dignitatum.

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

I think it is fair to say that Roman reenactors may have the dress of the troops down pretty well. But most of the reenactors look too formal, "too pretty" you might say. They want to look their best for the hobby. In real life the look of the troops would have been far rougher.

The Roman units may have looked somewhat ragtag. Armor was non-standard. A soldier might have brought his grandfather's old armor & sword. Also, uniforms themselves were not a concept at that time. So colors of the the tunics worn by different men in the same unit could vary.

I suspect that except for special units like bodyguards for the Consul or the Emperor, soldiers dress would've been rather drab and nondescript.

A Byzantine infantryman wore metal body armor and helmet. Iron mail or bronze scale was the most common body armor. But not everyone purchased such uniforms; some spent their allowance on a large shield, since it could offer sufficient protection. 

Soldiers were free to use armor handed down by family members, buy armor from soldiers who had completed their service or wear discontinued styles of armor if they preferred it to (or could not afford) the latest issue.

The basic dress was a loose-fitting long-sleeved tunic. Most tunics must have been made of undyed wool, linen or a mix of wool and linen. Soldiers that were wealthier purchased red dyed tunic as red was considered a military color. Less common colors were blue, yellow and green. 

As for legwear, it depended on the environment. In cold climate, long trousers or breeches were being worn. Knee high socks bound up with laces were also used. In warmer climate, soldiers wore lower leg coverings without trousers or breeches. To keep out wet and cold, soldiers had a thick wool cloak.

In the 600s both Heraclius and Constans II faced massive invasions by the Persians and then Arabs. The Emperors halved the military pay. In order for the army to function the state had to once again be the one to provide arms and equipment. What it looked like is unknown.

By the 840s there was a return to cash payments which resembled those of the sixth century. Soldiers once again purchased their own equipment. Requisition remained though a part of the system for major campaigns. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, aside from their salaries, soldiers were being provided with cash allowance for food and personal equipment.

From the seventh century on the influence of the steppe nomads began. The Eastern Romans adopted the lamellar armor that was crafted from leather, bone, or metal lamellae sewn together. From the tenth century onwards, this became the most frequently used type of armor in the army.

Many infantry soldiers also wore thick felt cap and turban. They also used leggings padded with wool. For footwear thigh boots were considered ideal for the infantry.

In the cavalry the lightest equipped were the horse archers. They were equipped with paramerion but the primary armament was the bow. They wore a padded coat made of cotton wadding (kavadion). Next were the koursores, medium troops with flexible role in combat. They had armor in order to have protection but not so heavy that it would be cumbersome to their flexibility. They wore mail shirt or shirt of scales.

Later years saw increased influence on military dress of the endless Arab and desert warfare on the eastern and southern fronts - no doubt with little uniformity in dress.

In the 12th to 15th centuries there was Turkish influence as well as input from the increasingly powerful Western European nations.

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Cavalry

Eastern Roman Guard

From the Facebook site: Vicus Ultimus

Eastern Roman Varangian Guard
A Hungarian reenactor's armor and comments
"The kit is mainly based on the Alexiad, most notably on the comments of Anna Komnena about the Varangian Guard. This character is of Scandinavian origin, in service of the Byzantine army, rather than the eastern rus contingent of 6000 warriors who formed the core of the Guard later in 988, if I recall correctly. Therefore I based most of the armour and clothing on the Gjermundbu, Birka and Valsgärde finds, with exception of the leather vest. It has a debated origin that byzantine troops used this type of vests along scale and lamellar armour. I refrained to acquire a lamellar armor as the Wisby find turned out to be a "hoax", well not a hoax, only it was originated centuries later. I also looked up on a large number of byzantine manuscripts about guardsmen, but they weren't really helpful aside from the clothing.
The kit is still incomplete, as I still miss a shield, a proper shoes (will be also based on Birka) and an authentic belt, but I'll have them as well soon enough..
A limb guards were based on the first misinterpreted Valsgärde find, it's not a complicated design, as you can see..
The gloves, well, those are of course a hoax as we don't have a find or manuscritp up to date about protective gloves from this era. But I'm not too keen to lose a finger or two, or my hand entirely, so I gotta wear something. 
Yeah, I too think the pale leather stands out, and I'm about to dye it darker if I'll have the time and proper materials for it.

Med-10th century Akritoi frontier officer based on church wall paintings. The Arab-desert influence is obvious.

A Byzantine kentekarkhes, or centurion. 13th century.

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

Byzantine fresco of Saint Mercurius with a sword and helmet, dated 1295, from OhridMacedonia.

Modern reconstruction of 15th century Byzantine archer based on contemporary icons of the Crucifixion. The helmet shows western (Italian) influence and it is based on findings from ”Chalcis Armory”. The double head eagle though is again unlikely as it was strictly an imperial family emblem and chroniclers talk about a double lion emblem. Armor courtesy of hellenicarmors.gr and boots courtesy living history association Koryvantes.
Byzantine Militia

Byzantine crossbowman 1453

(medium.com)   (East Roman Army)