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, December 1, 2022

"On Skirmishing" - Eastern Roman Cavalry Tactics


Late Roman cavalry

I found a great little 2009 article on Byzantine cavalry tactics. Sadly, the good old copy and paste method is blocked. Why??? Who knows? No one is going to pay for this material. So I will do a summary of part of it.

The internet has provided me so many odd tidbits of information on the Eastern Roman Army. For example, articles on hand grenades, heavy artillery, land mines and infantry squares. You can find these articles and others on the right side of this page under "Army".

The picture we get is of a highly sophisticated, trained and powerful Roman military machine.

It was not an accident that the Eastern Empire survived endless attacks from every possible direction by every barbarian tribe imaginable plus by the armies of the civilized Persian Empire. The Roman Army lost and regained ground constantly. But the bottom line is, because of the army and navy the Empire survived for centuries.

"On Skirmishing"

Mobile cavalry was vital in defending the huge eastern border. Strong points would be defended by the infantry.

The military treatise "On Skirmishing" was written during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and deals with tactics involved with border warfare.

In the words of the author "Our part by writing down these things just as our predecessors handed them on to us, as well from our own experience which goes back a long time." References are made about generations of military knowledge handed down.

The author says the strategy of many generations we perfected in the 10th Century:

  • "To the best of my knowledge, it was Bardas, the blessed Caesar, who brought this method to the summit of perfection. I do not want to enumerate all the ancient commanders but shall limit myself to those in our time whom everyone knows. When this method had completely vanished, it was Bardas who brought it back."

Roman Cavalry
Living history military re-enactment group The Ermine Street Guard at Kelmarsh Hall. Photo taken in Kelmarsh, Northamptonshire in July 2009.

The evolution of Roman strategy allowed them to defend the eastern frontier in the 7th and 8th centuries and then reach a point where they could reconquer lost provinces in the 10th century.

On Skirmishing exclusively deals with the eastern front and the non-stop fighting with the Arabs. Secondly, it directly addresses the general on how to face the enemy.

On Skirmishing can be divided into two parts: 

  1. Weaken the enemy as efficiently as possible. This is done by limiting forage, harassing any vulnerable detachments, utilizing favorable terrain, and constantly shadowing the enemy.
  2. Try to defeat the enemy as efficiently as possible once they are worn down. This would be done using a variety of ambushes, night attacks, blocking the enemy's retreat and striking when and where they least expect it.

Basically the plan allows the enemy to march into Roman lands while trying to gain military victories as efficiently as possible.

It is stressed that generals buy time so the Roman peasants could relocate to safer areas. 

Preserving the Roman economic base was vital to the long term health of Empire. The question is asked: "What can be done if the enemy launch a sudden concentrated attack . . .  before Imperial forces have been assembled?" In this case, the general is recommended to do the following:

  • "Dispatch the turmarch of that region, or other officers, with great speed to get ahead of the enemy and, as best they can, evacuate and find refuge for the inhabitants of the villages and their flocks . . . give the enemy the impression that he is getting ready for a battle right then (at night). By doing this he might succeed in forestalling their attack and preserve the region unharmed . . . He himself should advance with selected officers and good horsemen and give the enemy the impression that he has been making preparations to fight against them in order to launch an attack . . . if there is no river or rough ground along the road, he should still expose himself a bit and advance as though to fight . . . By such procedures he will save the villagers from impending assault and from captivity, and they shall keep their freedom. With great precision and foresight, let him make his appearance and charge against them with a few selected horsemen, as we have said. These will immediately turn tail and retreat to the strong places and fortresses and be preserved from harm."

A comparison should be made with the collapse of the Western Roman frontier in the 4th and 5th centuries and the successful defense of the Eastern Empire's frontier from the 7th to 10th centuries.

The Western Romans saw an economic collapse as various barbarian tribes moved in and laid waste to the countryside. The destruction of the economic base helped speed along the military collapse.

The Eastern Romans not only staved off destruction but were able to support themselves and regain the offensive and expand the Empire.

Europe around 800AD
The Eastern Romans had a long border 
to defend with the Caliphate.

Setting traps for the enemy was discussed.
  • "Have him (an experienced commander) order a few of the men under him to dress like farmers, and mix in some real farmers and herdsmen with them. All of them ought to be unarmed and their heads uncovered. Some should be barefoot. All should be on horseback, carrying very short wooden staffs. Do all this to deceive the enemy and to give them the impression that these men are not from the army but just some farmers, of the sort called stewards . . . our men, then, who are disguised as farmers and peasant stewards, when the enemy have begun to follow them, should hurry to reach the site of the ambuscade. There the enemy who are following them, caught off their guard, will fall right into the ambush."
To a large degree On Skirmishing talks about avoiding major battles while protecting the local peasants and economy. Chewing up intruding enemy forces and pushing them back across the border was the goal. But larger battles were discussed.
  • "You should launch your attack from the rear with infantry units. Divide the remaining infantry into six divisions; station three off to the right side of the enemy, and three off to the left . . . leave open and unguarded the road, and that alone, which provides safe passage for the enemy toward their own land. After they have been vigorously assaulted and they discover the open road, beguiled by the idea of being saved, of fleeing the battle, and of getting back to their own land, they mount their horses and race along that road to escape, each man concerned about his own safety . . . He (the general) should occupy the mountain heights (on the enemy's path of retreat) and also secure the road passing through . . . hasten to seize the passes before they do and without delay launch your attack directly against them."
On Skirmishing advises exploiting the retreat of the enemy for maximum effect. The goal is to limit your losses while inflicting the maximum number of losses on your retreating foe.

If an enemy general refuses to fall for the Roman traps then it is advised to ignore the invaders and attack the enemy homeland.
  • "Therefore, General, when you are at a loss about how to injure the enemy with stratagems and ambushes, because they are very cautious and guard themselves carefully, or if, on the other hand, it is because your forces are not up to facing them openly in battle, then this is what you ought to do. Either you march quickly against the lands of the enemy, leaving the most responsible of the other generals behind, with though troops for skirmishing and for security of the themes . . . When the enemy hear of this, they will force their leader, even if he is unwilling, to get back and defend their own country."
It is important to note the context of the time when On Skirmishing was written.

The Romans had lost their richest provinces: Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria to the Arabs. This was a serious blow to the Empire in both manpower for the military and a loss of taxes to support the troops.

The Romans were permanently on the defensive against the now numerically superior Arabs.

To survive the Romans adopted guerilla warfare against the Arabs. They used small, well-led bands of men from local provinces to wear down the enemy. Speed and surprise was the rule of the day and swiftly moving light cavalry was of supreme importance.

After defeating several invading Arab armies the border began to stabilize. The Arabs were reduced to using raiding parties to gather loot. The Romans replied in kind.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Battle for Africa - The Defeat at Heliopolis


Roman Reenactors

The Beginning of the End 
for Roman Africa, Part II

What if . . . . ??????

In 425 BC the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote:  "Ah! the Generals! they are numerous, but not good for much!"

So true.

Most generals appear to be vaguely aware that it is best to point their army in the general direction of an enemy. Beyond that "generalship" is often seriously lacking. The bulk of generals are little more than career bureaucrats who specialize in shining chairs with their asses. Add or take away one or two key generals out of any war and results can change radically.

A good example, take out U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman from the American Civil War and the South might have remained an independent nation.

So the question is, what if the invading Muslim Arabs had faced a younger Emperor Heraclius who had just crushed the Persian Empire? Facing him personally in the field at the peak of his powers as a general would have changed Middle East history.  Or what if the great early Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had died of food poisoning years before the Arab invasions had started?

History could have been very different. As it was the other Eastern Roman Generals showed modest to little talent. 

After successfully conquering Syria between 634 and 638, the Arabs turned their attention to Egypt. The attack on Africa took the Romans by surprise. Heraclius’s generals had advised him that the Muslims would need a generation to digest Persia before undertaking another wholesale conquest. The increasingly frail Emperor was forced to depend on his generals, and the result was complete disaster.

In 639, less than a year after the complete fall of the Sassanid Persian Empire, an army of some 4,000 commanded by Amr ibn al-A'as, under orders of Omar, began the invasion of the Diocese of Egypt. That relatively tiny force marched from Syria through El-Arish, easily took Farama, and from there proceeded to Bilbeis, where they were delayed for a month. But having captured Bilbeis, the Arabs moved again.

Egypt Was Conquered by Persia
In the early 600s, centuries of Roman rule in Egypt, Palestine and Syria came to a violent end with Persian armies invading and the lands being absorbed into the Persian Empire. For over 10 years the locals looked to Persia for their economy, laws, religious freedom and security. Constantinople and ties to Rome faded in the minds of an entire generation.

 In the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt and a fleet from Constantinople arrived at Alexandria to garrison the country with Roman troops.

But Roman authority in Egypt had been undermined by the 10 year rule of Persia and the religious freedom that came with it.

When the Muslims crossed into Egypt the local Coptic population was not very interested in defending an Empire that was crushing their freedom.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

Another 12,000 Muslim reinforcements were marching into Egypt to join with the 4,000 already there under Amr.. The smaller Arab force, commanded by a charismatic and tactically brilliant commander went behind enemy lines, and caused chaos all out of proportion to their size. 

The Roman commander Theodore had built up a considerable army of perhaps 20,000 men around the fortress of Babylon. 

Theodore had the opportunity to attack the smaller Arab army before the new army arrived. Instead out of fear? or excessive caution? Theodore remained inactive at Babylon.

The second army dispatched by Omar arrived at Heliopolis and began to lay siege to it. Amr retraced his route across the Nile River, and united his forces with those of the second army. They began to prepare for movement towards Alexandria – but scouts reported that Theodore and the Roman Army were finally on the move.

Why Theodore waited for the two smaller Arab armies to unite into one large army of 15,000 is not known. Perhaps Theodore was shamed by his officers for inaction.

Perhaps the morale of Theodore's troops was undermined by the reports of Arab victories against both the Persians and Romans in Syria and Mesopotamia

Heliopolis was a major city of ancient Egypt. It was the capital of the 13th or Heliopolite Nome of Lower Egypt and a major religious center.

The major surviving remnant of Heliopolis is the obelisk of the Temple of Ra-Atum erected by Senusret I of Dynasty XII. It still stands in its original position, now within Al-Masalla in Al-Matariyyah, Cairo.

Heliopolis is the Latinized form of the Greek name Hēlioúpolis (Ἡλιούπολις), meaning "City of the Sun".

Click to enlarge
Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC

The Battle

So in July, 640 Theodore decided to march out of Babylon and take on the now united Arab force. He advanced across the plain to attack Heliopolis.

We do not know much about the Roman troops - how much cavalry, infantry or local militia for example.

What we do know is Amr fought a brilliant battle at Heliopolis. 

When the Roman Army began approaching, Amr divided his army into three separate units, with one detachment under the command of a trusted commander, Kharija. Under the cover of darkness this unit marched abruptly east to nearby hills, where they effectively hid. This unit was to remain there until the Romans had begun the battle, at which point they were to fall on the Roman flank or rear, whichever was more vulnerable. The second detachment Amr ordered to the south, which would be the direction the Romans would flee if the battle went badly.

The two Arab flanking parties had moved in the dark and were not seen by the Romans.

The two main armies met in desperate hand hand-to-hand combat. Once the Roman forces initiated contact with Amr's forces and commenced an attack, the detachment of Kharija attacked the Theodore's rear, which was completely unexpected by the Romans.

Theodore had not kept scouts out, or, if he had, he ignored their warning of the approaching Arab horsemen.

This attack from the rear created utter chaos among the Roman ranks. As Theodore's troops attempted to flee to the south, they were attacked by the third detachment, which had been placed there for just such a purpose. This completed the final break-down and defeat of the Roman army, which fled in all directions.

Theodore survived, but with only a tiny fragment of his army, while the remainder was killed or captured. Many survivors retreated to the Fortress of Babylon.


In the battle's aftermath, most of southern and central Egypt fell to Amr's forces. The defeat at Heliopolis was crucial, as it removed the last Roman force standing between the Islamic invaders and the heart of Egypt. However, not only did the Battle of Heliopolis leave Egypt practically defenseless.

The defeat encouraged the disaffected natives, most of whom were Monophysite Christians and had suffered on-and-off persecution at the hands of Constantinople, to rise up against their Roman oppressors.

Although the Eastern Empire was certainly by lineage the Roman Empire, its traditions, language, and ruling elite, by this time, were Greek. The Greeks of Egypt, whose numbers could scarcely equal a tenth of the native population, were overwhelmed by the universal defection of those same natives from obedience to the Roman Empire. As Bury wrote in the History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene:

”The Greeks had ever been hated, they were no longer feared: the magistrate fled from his tribunal, the bishop from his altar; and the distant garrisons were surprised or starved by the surrounding multitudes.”

Bishop John of Nikiu said, "And thereupon the Moslem made their entry into Nakius, and took possession, and finding no soldiers (to offer resistance), they proceeded to put to the sword all whom they found in the streets and in the churches, men, women, and infants, and they showed mercy to none. And after they had captured (this) city, they marched against other localities and sacked them and put all they found to the sword. And they came also to the city of Sa, and there they found Esqutaws and his people in a vineyard, and the Moslem seized them and put them to the sword.

Sir Walter Scott was correct when he said “the fate of Byzantine Africa was decided at the Battle of Heliopolis.” 

The permanent loss of the Egypt left the Roman Empire without an irreplaceable source of food and money.

Late Roman Reenactors
The East Roman Army was a direct continuation of the eastern portion of the Roman Army, from before the division of the empire. How the Eastern Roman soldiers dressed we know almost nothing.

During early Byzantine times, shields were recommended to be painted the same color in order to distinguish the troops. 

By the fifth century, soldiers were being paid in cash to purchase their own armor and equipmentThis meant that a high degree of uniformity in appearance must have been unlikely.

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 tunics worn by different men in the same unit could vary.
Photos from Magister Militum

The Beginning of the End 
for Roman Africa

(Heliopolis)    (Glubb, Great Arab Conquests)    (Heliopolis)

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Late Roman Army Archers


From The Barcarii Facebook page

The Late Roman army used archers or sagittarii extensively in the infantry and cavalry units and these ranged from light all the way up to heavy units, often mixed or intermingled with the main troops or raised as dedicated sagittarii units.
In terms of the equipment used by a sagittarius, the main bow is generally understood to be the composite bow, sometimes referred to as the Hunnic bow, which used asymmetric limbs. The lower limb was the shorter of the two. This composite bow was reinforced with bone or antler laths - 2 on each limb and 2 more in the central grip. Few remains have survived in the archaeological finds and what has is invariably the laths - the wood and other perishable remains having long since rotted away.

These bows were common in the eastern portions of the Roman Empire and had a long tradition in the Nomadic, Syrian, Arab and other cultures. In the west, which did not have a strong bow tradition, the self-bow or ‘arcubus ligneis’ predominated, examples of which survive in the Nydam finds.

These were long bows with asymmetric nocks, sometimes with horn or iron tips or cordage bound about the limb - but not always. These bows were used in the Late Roman army as mainly training bows for the recruits until they were competent enough to progress onto the main composite bow as describe by Vegetius (Book 1, 15).
In this context, it is worth noting that the only Imperial or State fabrica dedicated to the manufacture of bows was located in the west at Pavia, indicating that the eastern portions of the Empire were manufacturing composite bows using local craftsmen in sufficient numbers that the army suppliers could purchase them in volume out with a fabrica need.

The quiver is represented on a number of illustrations, mosaics, carvings and statuary, often in mythological contexts. It is usually a leather tube with perhaps a wooden core, with sometimes a fringed decoration and a cap to protect the arrows from the weather.

The Nydam finds contain a wooden tube made of maple grooved to allow straps or fabric to be wound around for carrying. The position of the quiver is a matter of some debate.

Conventional opinion usually states that quivers were carried hung from the belt whereas back-slung quivers are relegated to mythology and not actually worn as such in warfare. However, various manuscript illustrations and carvings do show back-slung quivers which hint at a more complex situation.

As always, in reality, the needs and demands of the moment will outweigh convention or training and it might be that in a main battle-line or siege quivers were hung from the belt to aid drawing while skirmishing or hunting or on an extended march, they were then slung across the back so as to not impede movement.

The advantages of sagittarii in a naval or riverine context do not need to be overlaboured here. As Vegetius makes clear in his section on naval warfare, missile weapons predominate over ramming prior to boarding.
The images below show a variety of Late Roman archers using the composite bow and self-bow after the Nydam model. The composite bows on show here lack the bone or antler laths and are therefore anachronistic as far as is known. It is possible that the ‘arcubus ligneis’ referred to by Vegetius is not actually a self-bow after the Celtic or Germannic models but instead a lesser composite by lacking the laths and hence merely a wooden bow as understood by the Romans.

Recruits therefore train on this model before progressing to the more powerful Hunnic version. This, however, is speculation. Such a bow would not survive in the archaeological finds and so remains unknown.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Byzantine Army: The Concise 10th -11th century AD Imperial Infantry and Cavalry Soldier


This article falls under the "You can find anything on the internet."  I love sharing information from experts.

by John Dandoulakis (BA War Studies, MA European and International Politics) (Illustration by: Greg Owen) 

After almost two decades of research on the subject of byzantine arms and armour, and military history, as well as experience with re-enactment and experimental archeology, this presentation marks the culmination and fulfilment of a long-due obligation. The thesis of this presentation aims to provide an archeology-based, evidence-based and profoundness-based answer to the evertroubling question of what a 10th-11th century (the high byzantine era) imperial soldier most probably appeared like. For the sake of this research, any reliance on iconographical sources (byzantine hagiography, miniature manuscripts and religious ivory carvings) was eliminated completely, and it is only cited and linked to when there exist one or more elements that can allude, even vaguely, to archeological evidence and/or written source descriptions. The latter have been treated as the main and primary gauge of this research, as well as the careful reading and translation of primary medieval Greek textual sources

In “Picture 1” the most standard and common panoply of a 10th -11th century AD byzantine medium-to-heavy infantry and cavalry soldier is presented. The “basicness” of this panoply is defined by the prescription, by Leo VI Wise’s Taktika (diataxis V-VI), that every soldier should - at the least - wear a chainmaille (lorikion alysideton). Sporting a gambeson (nevrikon) is only allowed for when the soldier could not afford a chainmaille, so it is not considered a standard practice or image for a byzantine soldier. 

1. The chiton (χιτών) meaning a tunic. A basic low-class to middle-class tunic to the length of the knee as a standard undergarment for the soldier of the medieval period. 

2. The kavvadion/nevrikon/bambakion (καββάδιον/νευρικόν/βαμβάκιον). A thick padded armour made by coarse linen and stuffed with raw wool and cotton. It was literally the byzantine version of a gambeson and very likely developed upon and from the roman subarmalis. In Leo VI Wise’s “Taktika” it is clearly defined that the nevrikon (or kavvadion in Nikephoros Phokas’ and Nikephoros Ouranos’ texts) could be worn either together with a lorikion or - if a lorikion was not available - the nevrikon could serve as the next best protection. In case of the former, however, when the lorikion and the nevrikon were worn at the same time, contextual research, the knowledge of general practice in medieval times and modern re-enactment experience indicate that the padded linen piece of armour, would be worn below (and not above) the metallic lorikion. This would serve both as an extra layer of protection and as a shock absorber. This is further supported by modern-day re-enactment experiments which have demonstrated that any type of padded armour, worn above the metallic armour, loses its protective function against heavy penetration attacks (i.e., a flying arrow or a heavy spear), while it has significantly higher chances to absorb some part of the penetration force, when worn below metallic armour parts. Moreover, primary written accounts from the byzantine era allude to the fact that the lorikion (chainmaille) was worn above any other protective gear and proved astonishingly effective, even against arrow fire. 

3. Leather boots. Knee-length leather boots are widely attested, both by Leo VI Wise and the later Nikephoros Phokas treatise as pedila (πέδιλα = a greek word that literally means “footwear” so it could in fact apply to any kind and size of leather shoe or boot), mouzakia (μουζάκια) or tzervoulia (τζερβούλια), but they also appear largely in miniatures and ivory carvings from the period (images 4, 5, 10, 11). 

4. The lorikion alysideton (λωρίκιον αλυσίδετον). Lorikion was the medieval Greek version of the latin word for body armour: lorica, and it was the chainmaille. The chainmaille is the most widely attested by archeological findings piece of byzantine armour and, as prescribed in “Taktika”, it was the most basic element of metallic protection for the imperial and thematic troops. It was worn above the kavvadion. However, unlike the kavvadion/bambakion, the lorikion is not mentioned in Nikephoros Phokas’ “Strategiki Ekthesis/Praecepta Militaria” and this has baffled researchers for a long time. Some scholars have suggested that Nikephoros’ treatise has to be taken plainly literally, however while the single use of the nevrikon/kavvadion is also mentioned and allowed by Leo’s “Taktika” as a last resort, the presence of the chainmaille is stressed upon as mandatory. Hence, it makes for a direct and unwarranted contradiction between the two works, which were written only a few decades apart. Besides, “Strategiki Ekthesis” also omits the mention of use of metallic helmets. That is also very problematic to be taken in literal terms, and should trigger any serious researcher to realise that something else is at hand with Nikephoros’ treatise. Because, while it is true that - in some cases - a large infantry scutum shield could substitute the role of metallic torso armour, how can anyone suggest that the infantry of the strongest and most advanced army of its time went to battle without any metallic headgear? This is certainly a very far stretched claim and by no means plausible or logical for a pre-gunpowder era army. The Macedonian era byzantine army was not large in numbers, far from it; however, it was perhaps the richest of its time and the richest the Byzantine Empire ever fielded. Soldiers without helmets can make for light reserve infantry; not for the cream of the crop of medieval warfare. It is therefore far more possible that the “Strategiki Ekthesis” which was written only a few decades later than “Taktika”, and is much shorter in length, is simply a supplementary and updated work, meant to emphasise on selected aspects, which were considered worth of highlight and clarification based on the increased military experience the byzantine army had acquired in the 10th century AD. Hence, such basic and fundamental armour elements as the chaimaille, that were already mentioned in Leo’s treatise, which must have already been a common read for every general of the period, was considered a standard and common knowledge and thus omitted for the sake of brevity. 

5. The epilorikon imation (επιλωρικόν ιμάτιον) meaning “over-the-lorikion cloth”. The epilorikon is mentioned very briefly in Leo’s Taktika (diataxis V-VI) and within one very specific context only: as a simple fabric cloth worn above the lorikion (hence why it’s is called “epi-lorikon”, meaning “over the lorikion”). It is highly likely that the epilorikon was in fact very rarely used in real practice, as it is certainly not considered mandatory in the treatises and it is completely absent from any surviving iconographical source. However, the epilorikon was definitely just a fabric surcoat; not a padded gambeson. 

6. The byzantine "phrygian" helmet. Based on 11th-12th c. findings at Branicevo and Pernik castles, but researchers soundly claim it must have existed since as early as 10th c. It also matches with pictorial evidence from the same period. 

7. The peritrachelion alysideton (περιτραχήλιον αλισύδετον), which accounts for a chainmaille aventail, is also mentioned in the treatises described to have inner padding of linen and wool (Taktika, diataxis V). 

8. The spathion (σπαθίον). The standard and most common byzantine sword, developed from the late roman spatha, with a typical globe-shaped pommel and short cross-guard. The design follows pictorial evidence from ivory carvings and iconography as well as archeological evidence, which confirm the former. Sylloge Tacticorum (diataxis XXXVIII) prescribes the length of the spathion at four spithamai. With one spithami being literally the span of an extended human hand from the thumb to the little finger, one spithami equals approx. 21-22cm. For reference, the Galovo sword is exactly 89cm long (89/4 = 22,25), hence the Sylloge text is also backed up by archeological evidence. 

9. The shield: aspis (ασπίς) also skoutarion (σκουτάριον). The design is based on manuscript miniatures and ivory carvings from the period. Therefore, the ratio of the shield’s size to the soldier’s body is not attempted to be realistic, due to the fact that the debate on the size of the byzantine teardrop shield has not been possible to settle. More specifically, Sylloge Tacticorum (diataxis XXXVIII) talks about “rectangular” or “triangular” shields, that have a “narrow corner” end at the bottom. It is assumed that this is an imprecise but close enough description of a kite or teardrop shield, which appears in imagery sources from the period. The anonymous author provides the length of those shields at 6 spithamai (= approx. 1,33 meters). Considering that 1,33 meters would essentially cover up 2/3 of an average adult male person’s body, this measurement is in fact double the size of shields that are found on ivory carvings and manuscript miniatures, where shields have a ratio of no more than 1/3 of the person’s body. Finally, Sylloge provides no measurements for the width of those shields, but one can safely assume that it had to - at least - cover the width of a soldier’s torso. 

10. Spear and spear-head. “Winged” type of spear-heads were found at the Serce Limani site dated in 11th century. Sylloge Tacticorum (diataxis XXXVIII) gives the length of the spear between eight and ten pechai (πήχαι) with one peches (πήχης) counting 46cm, meaning that a spear could be up to four-and-a-half meters long.

In “Picture 2” we have the heavier version of the byzantine infantry and cavalry soldier, which also matches that of the mounted “kataphraktoi”. The element that makes for this heavier armour is non-other than the inclusion of the klivanion (κλιβάνιον), which unlike the lorikion is prescribed as an additional and nonnecessary part of armour for the main bulk of the byzantine army (but necessary and of course defining for the “kataphraktoi” cavalry). 

1. The klivanion (κλιβάνιον). Based on reconstructions of lamellar armour found at Veliki Preslav and other byzantine sites dating from 10th up to 12th centuries. This particular binding of the lamellar torso is deemed to be the most historically accurate conjecture about the high byzantine period lamellar armour; for two main reasons. 

A) The lames are based on archeological evidence and the binding matches with pictorial sources from the period (iconography and ivory carvings) and b) it is, practically and realistically, the most viable possibility for this type of armour to allow its wearer to survive a fight, as modern experience from private experiments and the practice of reenactment sparring has proven. 

According to Leo VI Wise’s “Taktika” the klivanion was worn on top of both the kavvadion and the lorikion, as an extra and ultimate protection. Meaning it was not a necessary or mandatory part of the imperial or thematic soldier’s defensive gear, but it could be worn by the heaviest or elite troops and of course by higher officers. 

- Other byzantine armour elements not included in this presentation: 

It is well sourced and known that the byzantine offensive weaponry also included maces and axes, non-included in this illustration. 

Moreover, the treatises mention other intricate amour details such as iron protection for the lower arms (χειρόψελλα) and the legs (ποδόψελλα) as well as a very intriguing mention of “iron sandals with hobnails” (πέδιλα σιδηρά μετά καρφίων αυτών) by Leo's “Taktika”. However, we have no surviving archeological evidence for any of the above, and since iconographical sources provide us with anything but further proof for those armour elements, it was decided to omit them from this basic but concise presentation, which opted instead to present what we know that, for certain, existed and was in use during the period of interest. The kendouklon (κένδουκλον): The kendouklon is another element of equipment mentioned in the treatises that we opted to leave aside from our presentation. 

However, we can safely state that its description matches with that of a thick cloak made by raw wool, which was worn above the whole armour as an overcoat during marches or simply when the army was on standby for a battle. It is described as being wide (φαρδύ), worn above the whole armour and it was from the same material as the nevrikon, hence thick raw wool (Taktika, diataxis V). This description matches with the typical shepherd’s cloak that was widespread in the Balkans from medieval up to later modern times (images 1, 2, 3.

Sources: 1) Λέοντος Αυτοκράτορος Τακτικά - Emperor Leo’s Taktika (written in 895-908 AD). 2) Νικηφόρου Δεσπότου Έκθεσις Στρατηγική – Despot Nikephoros’s Ekthesis Strategiki (latin: Praecepta Militaria) (written in ca. 965) 3) Sylloge Tacticorum additions to Taktika (written sometime in 10th century AD) Bibliography: 4) Piotr L. Grotowski, (2010), “Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saints – tradition and innovation in byzantine Iconography (843-1261)”, (Leiden/Boston, Brill) 5) Deyan Rabovyanov, “Early Medieval Sword Guards from Bulgaria”, Archeologia Bulgarica, XV, 2 (2011), 73-86 6) Eric McGeer, (2008), “Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth - Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century”, (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection) 7) Raffaele D’Amato, Dragana Lj. Spasić-Đurić, “The Phrygian helmet in Byzantium: archaeology and iconography in the light of recent finds from Braničevo”, AMM, 2018, XIV: 29-6

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Monday, June 27, 2022

Coptic Spell: For a Man to Obtain a Male Lover, Egypt

Orestes and Pylades
The relationship between these two men was celebrated by Greek scholars as a tale of the wonder of homoerotic romance.

One of the great problems in studying the history of sexuality in the past, as with other areas of human personal life, is that the vast majority of sources come from sources left by social elites. In many areas and periods only the elites could write, and even where a wider section of the population could write (as, probably, in classical Greece), the texts that have been preserved, usually by monastic copying and in monastic libraries for Greek texts, were works produced by the elites.

In Christian Egypt (or "Coptic Egypt") there seems to have been fairly widespread literacy - in both Greek and Coptic languages - and much popular material has survived on papyrus. The particular climate of Egypt has alone made this possible. We are in a position then to explore aspects of Christian society in Egypt which remain obscure elsewhere. 

One set of sources which has been made available to English readers are the various collection of ritual "spells". These texts, dating from the first to the eleventh century, show a religious life quite different from that of the elite theologians who were writing at the same time. See for these texts - Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, eds.,Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic texts of Ritual Power, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994)

One of the spells translated in this volume is for a man to obtain a male lover: evidence of a homosexual sub-culture, neither philosophic nor literary which we may believe existed at other times and places in the ancient world, but which has left little evidence.

Description: vellum, 8x10.5 cm, originally folded to 2.5x 1.3 cm (by the evidence of creases); perhaps 6th century

Bibliography: Paul C. Smither, "A Coptic Love Charm", Journal of Egyptian Archeology 25 (1939< 173-174

Translator: David Frankfurter

This text contains a same-sex love spell commissioned by one Papalo to "bind" another man, Phello (this name literally means "the old man" or "the monk"), by means of a variety of powerful utterances (especially ROUS). Besides extending the scope of erotic binding spells in late antiquity, this spell also employs formulae common to several Coptic texts of ritual power. The folds in the text and the description of the text's depositing (lines 6-7) imply that this spell was intended to be placed near the beloved man.

Spell 84: For a Man to Obtain a Male Lover  

6th Century


+CELTATALBABAL [.]KARASHNEIFE[.]NNAS'KNEKIE, by the power of Yao Sabaoth
(ring signs)

+++I adjure you by your powers and your amulets and
places where you dwell and your names, that just as I take you
a put you at the door and the pathway of Phello, son of Maure,
(so alos) you must take his heart and his mind; you must dominate
his entire body.
When he (tries to) stand, you must not allow him to stand
When he (tries to) sit, you must not allow him to sit
When he lies down to sleep, you must not allow him to sleep.
He must seek me from town to town, from city to city,
from field to filed, from region to region,
until he comes to me and subjects himself under my feet-
me, Papapolo son of Noe-
while his hand is full of all goodness,
until I satisfy with him the desire of my heart
and the demand of my soul,
with pleasant desire and love unending,
right now, right now, at once! Do my work


The reference to "his hand full of all goodness" may be connected with the Hebrew use of "hand" for "penis".