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, May 7, 2021

Byzantine Land Mines

Now That is Going To Hurt

The "landmine" called a caltrop is an area denial weapon made up of two or more sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base. Historically, caltrops were part of defenses that served to slow the advance of troops, especially horseschariots, and war elephants and were particularly effective against the soft feet of camels.

In Roman Republic warfare the caltrop was being used against enemy war elephants as early as 279BC in the Battle of Asculum.

Archaeological excavations around Alesia show the use of caltrops by Caesar's legions. 

The late Roman writer Vegetius, referring in his work De re militari to scythed chariots, wrote:

The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a device composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright.

A Roman historian mentions their use against Persian cavalry in the 5th century. 

In the 6th century the Roman historian Procopius tells how the general Belisarius used caltrops to defend open gates during the siege of Rome.

As cavalry rose in importance the use of caltrops gained in importance to hamper an enemy cavalry attack or to restrict movement.

In an anonymous 6th century Roman treatise caltrops are presented as a full-fledged war stratagem.

He said the caltrops should be used to protect the Roman fortified camp. The caltrops would be laid along the ditch some 12.5 meters in length. The commander of each unit would be responsible to gather them for their re-use and to prevent them from injuring their own troops when they leave camp.

Rear guard soldiers were told to have a supply of caltrops available to delay or wound any enemy in pursuit.

In the Emperor Maurice's war manual the Strategikon, the caltrop is also shown to protect the camp as well as for use on the battlefield. A light wagon was assigned to Roman units with "caltrops tied together with light cords attached to an iron peg so they can be easily collected." If attacked from the rear the caltrops can be thrown from the wagon into the path of an enemy.

When part of the army is forced to leave the main force they are told to bring caltrops along.

Maurice called for a "minefield of calthrops" on the battlefield. Unobserved by the enemy, Roman troops were to spread calthrops along the entire field of battle 100 feet deep. In four or five places there would be 300 foot wide gaps that would allow Roman troops to go and return unhurt. These passages would be market with tree branches or piles of stone. If an enemy was enticed into this minefield they would be confused and more easily destroyed.

The Taktika of Emperor Leo VI written in the 9th and 10th centuries reaffirms the use of calthrops. Almost word for word Leo repeats Maurice's writings on calthrop use in camps or the battlefield.

Leo is original in urging calthrops be thrown on to the decks of enemy ships to hamper the movement of the crews.

In the 10th century work by Heron of Byzantium he suggested wooden soled shoes to protect the infantry and farm rakes to clear a path of calthrops.

In 1082 Emperor Alexios Komnenos used fields of calthrops against Norman cavalry in the Balkans - - - - but the Normans avoided the calthrops by flanking the Roman line.

From the Alexiad: "There he [Alexios I Komnenos] assembled his regiments and mercenaries again and started on his march against Bohemund, with a new device in his head for overcoming the Franks. For he prepared iron caltrops, and on the eve of the day on which he expected a battle, he had them spread over the intermediate part of the plain, where he guessed the Frankish cavalry would make their fiercest onslaught, thus aiming to break the first irresistible attack of the Latins by piercing the feet of their horses." 

But nothing lasts forever.

At the end the Empire's population was exhausted, their wealth was spent, their economy was shattered and perhaps worst of all they were mostly alienated from Western Europe who had come to their aid in the previous centuries. 

A few competent rulers in a row would have helped them more than caltrops or maybe just a few competent diplomats.